Activist, lawyer and Forbes 30 Under 30 star Anna Rivina reflects on women’s rights and her fight to get back home
When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February of last year, Russian human rights lawyer Anna Rivina anticipated the worst for Ukrainian women.
She quickly left Moscow for the Georgian capital Tbilisi to set up an international project aiming to tackle gender-based violence in war.
Rivina, best known as the founder of Russia’s most prominent domestic violence organisation, nasiliu.net (No to Violence), launched her new programme, Labrint, (‘maze’ in Russian) in July under the auspices of her existing eponymous Rivina Foundation, also based in Georgia.
“I have my expertise in gender-based violence and I understood that because of the [Russian invasion of Ukraine], there would be an increase in gender-based violence,” she told openDemocracy.
But her work has attracted Russia’s attention. On 10 February this year, the country’s Ministry of Justice added Rivina to the ‘foreign agent’ list, which has primarily targeted free expression and civic activism in Russia.
According to Russian law, a foreign agent is a person, entity, or media outlet receiving support from foreign states, or engaging in political activities in Russia while “under foreign influence”.
Four days later, without explanation, she was refused entry back into Georgia, where she had been living for nearly a year, after a visit to Armenia. Rivina said she had tried to enter Georgia as an Israeli citizen (she has dual citizenship). Both Russians and Israelis have the right to enter Georgia visa-free for 360 days.
“In Russia, a lot of people try to make me feel ashamed because of my foreign agent status,” said Rivina. No to Violence had already been named a ‘foreign agent’ in 2020. “In Georgia, I have the same challenge. But I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Indeed, the need for Rivina’s work is clear. In June 2022, the month before Labrint was set up, the United Nations said it had received 124 reports of conflict-related sexual violence in Ukraine, though the real number of cases is likely to be far higher.
Georgia denies entry to Kremlin critics
Georgia has denied entry to several other Kremlin critics, Russian human rights defenders and journalists over the last year without explanation. Rivina wants to “fix this” by filing a complaint through her lawyers to the Georgian Ministry of Interior Affairs. She plans to take her case to a local court – and, if necessary, the European Court of Human Rights.
As a lawyer, Rivina does what she knows best: fighting for human rights. She recognises and uses the privilege that dual citizenship, and money to buy a plane ticket, give her over other Russian human rights defenders labelled ‘foreign agents’ and under threat of deportation from Georgia.
Without Schengen visas to the European Union, tens of thousands of Russians moved to Georgia and Armenia, both former Soviet countries, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.
Rivina believes that taking legal action will help highlight the situation for others refused entry to Georgia. “I have some influence. People know me and there’s media coverage because of my situation,” she explained.
Rivina, now 32, was included in the Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ list in 2020. She was also featured on the cover of Time magazine in 2021, where she spoke about the increase in domestic violence cases in Russia under Covid-19 restrictions.
Expansion of ‘foreign agents’ laws
Since 2012, when the first ‘foreign agents’ law was adopted in Russia, a total of 65 human rights non-profits (both foreign and local) and 276 people have been added to various ‘foreign agents’ registers. Russian authorities have used the law as a legal pretext to close down human rights groups such as Memorial International, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022.
It’s not a sign of quality, it’s discrimination.
The law has been expanding its remit ever since. The most recent revision occurred in December 2022. It broadened the definition of a foreign agent to almost any person or group, regardless of nationality or location, who engages in activism or expresses opinions against the Russian government. Popular Russian singer Zemfira was declared a ‘foreign agent’ on 10 February on the grounds that she had criticised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at her concerts.
“Each year, when [the Duma, Russia’s lower chamber] adds new drafts or amendments to the law, they’re cutting more and more of our rights,” Rivina said.
According to Rivina, there’s a saying in some progressive, human rights circles in Russia that the label of ‘foreign agent’ is a badge of honour, showing that the human rights defender is making an impact.
But Rivina disagrees. “It’s not a sign of quality. It’s discrimination,” she said.
Rivina had married her husband less than a week before receiving her ‘foreign agent’ status this month. Now the refusal of Georgian authorities to let her re-enter the country has kept them apart. “We didn’t even have time for a honeymoon,” she said. Rivina hasn’t seen him or their two cats in Tbilisi for three weeks.
The ‘foreign agent’ label also affects access to her bank accounts in Georgia and Russia. And if she wanted to go back to teaching at a Russian university, she’d find herself prohibited from doing so.
Now, Rivina worries most about her parents, her No to Violence colleagues, and her flat in Moscow.
“We know cases where people from the prosecutor’s office can [raid] the home and try to find something – not because there’s something to be found, but just to scare people,” she said.
The long list of human rights restrictions and violations that come with the label reminds her of her Jewish roots.
“History has shown us that it’s easy to [randomly] decide one day that [a group of people] are less human than they were yesterday,” Rivina explained. “It’s the same story for ‘foreign agents’.”
Georgia’s parliament is also in the process of reviewing its own Kremlin-style ‘foreign agent’ bill, introduced by the ruling Georgian Dream party. More than 280 Georgian civil society and media organisations have written in a joint statement that the law would cause “immeasurable harm”.
If adopted, the legislation would require NGOs and media outlets that receive more than 20% of their revenue from abroad to register as ‘foreign agents’ or face fines of up to 25,000 Georgian lari (roughly £7,814).
The UK is in the process of passing its own version of this law, the National Security Bill, which would criminalise journalists who share restricted information if they receive money from overseas governments.
“Georgia tries to show that it has chosen the European vision, but you can’t be an EU member with this kind of reaction to people who are against [Russia’s invasion],” Rivina said, adding that Tbilisi is in any case filled with Ukrainian flags and anti-Russian graffiti.
The European Council refused to grant Georgia EU candidacy status in June, while granting the status to Ukraine and Moldova, over its concerns for Georgia’s tendency to side with Russia on human rights.
‘I will survive’
Soon after No to Violence was declared a ‘foreign agent’ group in 2020, Rivina visited Sochi, a resort city in southern Russia. While there, she says, she woke one day at 5am and went to the Black Sea, where she cried for hours while listening to a song by Russian pop artist Monetochka, called ‘I Will Survive’.
Rivina and her team paid 900,000 Russian rubles (roughly £9,941) in fines, a significant sum for an organisation that relies entirely on donations to operate.
If the ‘foreign agent’ status comes with a lot of stigma, so does addressing gender-based violence in Russia. It’s a country where the saying goes: “If he beats you, he loves you.” In 2017, Russian leader Vladimir Putin signed a law that decriminalised some forms of domestic violence. First-time offenders in some cases now only face administrative fines of 5,000 to 30,000 rubles (roughly £55 to £330).
Rivina founded No to Violence in 2015, when she was 25, in response to an article by a Russian journalist about her own experience of domestic violence. Rivina says she realised that gender-based abuse could happen to anyone, including herself, but that there was no information or resource available to help in Russia. For the first few years, she ran the project almost entirely on her own.
Before No to Violence established its first office in Moscow in 2019, survivors of abuse would show up to Rivina’s apartment to receive free consultations from Rivina herself, as well as psychologists, lawyers, and other specialists.
In January 2023 alone, 575 people approached No to Violence for help, according to the group’s Instagram page. Thirteen survivors of abuse, including two children, were hosted in hotels through No to Violence’s emergency accommodation programme.
Rivina admits that her own mental health is “not as good as it could be”. She compares her state of mind to the video game character Mario: constantly running, hiding and jumping over obstacles. At the same time, she can’t stop thinking about Russia’s war in Ukraine, where her grandparents came from.
“My problems are so tiny compared to people in Ukraine right now,” she said.
Despite the many hats she wears, work doesn’t feel like work for Rivina. “I just do what I really believe in. I think things can change because of that,” she said. “I have so many people who tell me they need this voice so much.”
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