Trade union and human rights activist Pavel Lisyansky explains why Russia's presence in the Donbas has proved a disaster for the labor movement, and why defending human and labor rights sometimes goes hand in hand
Before the 2014 war, Pavel Lisyansky, founder of the Eastern Human Rights Group, was a miner and trade union activist in the Donbas.If it were not for Russia’s aggression, he would still be working in the mines, he says. “This is my life,” is how he signed the photo from his personal archive accompanying this interview. Today, Pavel Lisyansky and his colleagues from the Eastern Human Rights Group (EHRG) founded in July 2014 in Debaltseve actively document and report on human rights violations in the Russian-occupied territories and help local residents facing lawlessness.
— Pavel, what did you do before you founded the Eastern Human Rights Group and why did you decide to dedicate yourself to defending human rights?
— One might say that I have always been involved in human rights advocacy. For example, at university I was the head of the student union, and I went through all the stages. At first, I was the head of the dormitory floor, then the dormitory, a little later I was elected head of the student council of my department, and then of the university. I graduated from the mining department of the Donbas Technical University in Alchevsk, where most students were children of workers, from simple families. In a first-year course, you might have 16-year-old high school graduates as well as 23-year-old miners, who decided to get a higher education. There was hazing on campus with gangs of local kids constantly terrorizing the students. So, I initiated the creation of student self-defense squads to protect students who came from other cities. Everything was official, and many students from the squads received awards from the university and the Ministry of Interior.
When I entered graduate school, I set up the first independent trade union of undergraduate and graduate students in the Luhansk region, and when I started working in the mine, I joined the ranks of an independent trade union of Ukrainian miners. In addition, I worked as a trade union organizer and managed to initiate the establishment of about 110 primary trade union organizations in the Donbas.
But with the outbreak of the war in 2014, human rights violations took on such a scale that I decided to go beyond the workplace. My colleagues and I created the Eastern Human Rights Group to tackle human rights violations and provide comprehensive legal support to people living in the eastern regions of Ukraine, mostly but not only for workers. We always paid particular attention to defending labor and human rights in detention facilities in the temporarily occupied territories. Without any help from the authorities, we were able to get five people released from jail.
— You write a lot about forced mobilization in the “DPR” and “LPR”, about filtration camps and deportations, but where does this information come from? After all, it is hardly reflected in official sources.
— You see, for eight and a half years we have actually worked as lawyers and defenders of civilians in Luhansk and Donetsk regions that are not under the control of the Ukrainian government. All our employees, that is about 35 lawyers and legal experts, are internally displaced people, we were all born and lived in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions up until 2014. My father and grandfather, as well as my great-grandfather were all miners. So, everyone in the working-class community of the Donbas knows me. Since our human rights organization was founded, we have rendered help to between fifty and seventy thousand people in this region.
“Although my political views are completely pro-Ukrainian, the main thing for me is the rule of law and the defense of human rights”
Last year, Ukrainian border guards fined residents of the “DPR” and “LPR” for traveling to Ukraine via the Russian Federation, and the fine was 1,500 hryvnias, which at the time was about 50 euros. We were the first human rights activists who started to deal with the issue, and then others joined in. In 2021 we filed 561 suits against the Ukrainian Border Guard Service to cancel the fines. We won all the suits; we protected people regardless of their political views. So, people trusted us and still do. When the “DPR” and “LPR” began mobilization, people approached us with this problem and started actively informing us about the developments.
To summarize, we get all the information from people. We are not a secret service; we can’t tap phones… When there’s a problem, people come to us, we interview them and publish reports based on their testimonies.
— How does your organization help those who are being forced into the army? Do you see any prospects for the development of a protest movement in the “DPR and “LPR”?
— From our publications you can see that we started reporting on forced mobilization back in 2021. In May 2021, the “LPR” and “DPR” began holding military training camps for reservists from among the workers. From the first days of the 2022 war, the workers’ families have been reporting to us that their men are being taken to the front. We even managed to get about ten of the conscripts out. But then that was it, the borders were closed.
The next stage was related to the protests of women whose husbands had been forcibly mobilized. When they saw the bodies of dead men starting to arrive in April 2022, there was panic. My colleague Vera Yastrebova coordinated the protests and helped the wives of the forcibly mobilized prepare collective petitions to the Russian authorities.
You know, these are not the first protests in the Russian-occupied territories. Any protest movement requires financial and informational support. In 2020 we presented a report on worker protests in the “People’s Republics”. Repeatedly we called on the Ukrainian government to support protests in this region, but we were not heard. Now the situation is the same. It is clear that the Russian special services will simply repress protests, and we will not see any mass mobilization amid political repression and arbitrary military rule. And occasional outbursts of discontent will remain no more than a fact for sociologists and political scientists.
Unfortunately, at the moment the best way for those threatened by forced conscription to protect themselves is to stay off the streets altogether, even though hiding from mobilization is illegal. The main thing is to avoid physical contact with the commandant’s and the military enlistment offices.
— You recently wrote about the mobilization of students into so-called construction brigades. Do you have any updates on that?
— In Russia, students are mobilized into construction brigades and sent to the Donbas. And students in the “LPR” and “DPR” are mobilized and sent to the front. In the first case, this is done by the United Russia party headquarters, whose work is supervised by Anna Kuznetsova, Deputy Chair of the State Duma. There are about a thousand such students, but there will be more. Mainly they are medical and construction students.
As for the students who were sent to the front, there are about 3000 of them, if we take the “People’s Republics” as a whole. Now the enrollment of first-year students into universities is disrupted by forced mobilization, because parents are afraid to let their children go.
You know, I am now acting as a lawyer for a forcibly mobilized computer science teacher from Donetsk. He was drafted by the “DPR” and sent to the front in Kharkiv, where he surrendered to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Now he is accused of treason on the part of Ukraine. I am trying to prove his innocence in court. Although my political views are completely pro-Ukrainian, the main thing for me is the rule of law and the defense of human rights. Everyone has the right to a defense, that is why I decided to help this man.
“In Russia, students are mobilized into construction brigades and sent to the Donbas. And students in the “DPR” and “LPR” are mobilized and sent to the front”
— A little more than a month ago there was a change of government in the “DPR” and “LPR”. What are the reasons for these reshuffles? What are their possible consequences?
— The transitional period in the “People’s Republics” is over. Initially this project was a temporary one, but since 2017 Russia has been actively integrating these territories. The Russian World Foundation [note: set up by Putin in 2007 to promote Russian culture abroad] helped to establish the Russia-Donbas Integration Committee project, which was led by Russian State Duma deputy Andrei Kozenko. The goal of the project was to bring the self-proclaimed republics closer to Russia, which would allow it to finally absorb these territories. Now look, the distribution of Russian passports, the introduction of the Russian educational system, the aggressive pro-Russian propaganda — all of this took place under the Committee.
Russia did not try to strengthen the “state” institutions of the “People’s Republics”, but only used them as a transitional stage to annex these territories. Now comes the time for annexation, thus the leadership of the “DPR” and “LPR” will be completely replaced. This is already happening bit by bit. I even know how the “LPR” leader Leonid Pasechnyk was cut down to size at a meeting when he said he didn’t want changes in the human resources policy. In other words, the officials sent from Russia are Kiriyenko’s people [note: Sergei Kiriyenko is first deputy chief of staff of the Russian Presidential Administration who used to be in charge of the Kremlin’s domestic policy], and their appointment indicates that these territories will be rapidly annexed.
— The east of Ukraine has traditionally been considered a stronghold of the labor movement, since that’s where the largest industrial enterprises are located. How has the situation of workers in the occupied territories changed? What are the possible consequences of downtime and the partial destruction of industrial enterprises? Also, are there any restrictions on trade union activity in Ukraine now?
— This is a sore subject for me. I remember how in the summer of 2008, when I worked at the Kosmonauts mine in Rovenky, I was a mine foreman and received 8000 hryvnias per month — it was 1000 dollars at that time, unbelievable money for a young apprentice. A worker in the mine could get up to 20,000 hryvnias. There were about 120 operational mines in the Donbas until 2014, now they are almost all destroyed. In 2020, the “People’s Republics” liquidated as many as 43 mines. People were simply thrown out into the street. In 2021, nine people died and twelve were injured in the Krasny Partizan mine because an elevator rope had worn out. This is downright horrifying. I devoted eight and a half years to the coal industry, I worked at the mine every summer since I was 15, I went all the way from apprentice miner to acting director of a mine. In 2009, I survived a rockslide. But I do not remember such lawlessness and disregard for the health and safety of workers.
Now the average salary of a worker in the “People’s Republics” is 200 dollars. This is five times less than before the occupation. Also, the social guarantees that used to exist are gone. For example, before, when the mines worked, the local population was supplied with free coal, but now the mines are closed, the villages are not gasified, people walk through closed mines in the summer and try to mine coal themselves, and many die. I have written and spoken about this situation many times. To summarize, we can say that the situation of workers in the “People’s Republics” is many times worse than it was under Ukrainian administration. I am ready to go into a public discussion with any “DPR” or “LPR” activist and prove that they have literally killed the labor movement in the Donbas.
“I am ready to go into a public discussion with any ‘DPR’ or ‘LPR’ activist and prove that they have literally killed the labor movement in the Donbas”
In Ukraine there seem to be no special restrictions on trade union activity: labor laws work, there are also trade unions, workers pay contributions to trade unions. I just think that many trade union organizers themselves have limited the scope of their activity, being engaged only in the distribution of humanitarian aid instead of defending labor rights. Unions are first and foremost champions of the labor movement, the guarantors of workers’ social and economic rights. These organizations are needed to ensure that workers receive their wages on time and that employers continually improve occupational health and safety in their enterprises.
Since the beginning of the war, lawmakers in Ukraine have passed laws that significantly worsen the rights of workers in Ukraine… And what about the trade unions? Well, the trade unions are silent. Well, of course they speak at various venues, but to no avail. Hence the question: Why do workers pay dues to the unions? I think that it is necessary to create new formats for the protection of labor rights, that’s exactly what I and my colleagues in the EHRG are doing, but we need to make this activity much more widespread.
The main problem for us is that the unions, among other things, lack legal literacy, which means that they need help in this area. We have decided to simply take over the defense of workers’ rights in court, while letting the unions continue to do important work in the workplaces. You may think I’m skeptical, but look — over the last few years, how many labor and socioeconomic guarantees have been taken away from the working class? So, as human rights activists, we are stepping up this work. In addition to this, we need to make sure that labor rights campaigns are conducted in a more up-to-date manner, including advocacy campaigns, labor rights conferences involving politicians and members of governments, workers’ petitions, etc.
— A number of representatives of the left movement in the West consider the war in Ukraine to be a clash of two imperialist forces, suggesting that solidarity should not be expressed with Ukraine as a state, but with the workers in Ukraine who are fighting simultaneously against the neoliberal course of their government and the imperialist ambitions of the United States and Russia. What would you say to supporters of such a viewpoint? Should the left support Ukraine? If yes, then how?
— I don’t share this view. Our Eastern Human Rights Group has conducted 27 analytical studies of the situation in eastern Ukraine, and I can prove to anyone that the war in Ukraine is the realization of Russia’s imperial ambitions. The most valuable thing for any state is people. And you can’t divide people into workers and nonworkers. Shouldn’t a worker’s wife, who doesn’t work anywhere at all, but is raising children, be supported? And a student who’s still studying? And the folks in the IT sector? I’m convinced that it’s necessary to support people who are facing these terrible conditions of survival because of Russia’s aggression. There are many national minorities living in Ukraine — Gagauzians, Moldovans, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, many of whom are not citizens of Ukraine. Should they not be supported? I think it is necessary to support people, the population of Ukraine, and these are all categories of citizens. Oligarchs and rich people don’t need support, the financial reserve allows them to simply leave, but it’s different with ordinary people.
Of course the left should support Ukraine, primarily by organizing anti-war actions and rallies. Because of imperial ambitions, ordinary people suffer. In the “DPR” and “LPR” there is a forced mobilization of workers, and in Russia there is also a hidden mobilization. On both sides of the front, men are dying, businesses are shutting down, the economy is shrinking, and people’s incomes are falling. War hinders everyone’s life, so the global left movement must do everything possible to stop this war, so that the civilian population will no longer suffer. Workers in many countries are now helping Ukraine with humanitarian aid, it goes through the trade unions, and this work must continue. But there should also be dialogue platforms for unions, worker representatives from warring countries, and mediators to do their best to resolve the military conflict.