How a liberal bastion is persevering in an increasingly illiberal Moscow

The Andrei Sakharov Center, one of the last safe spaces for Russia's liberal community, has been fined and fined again for its purported 'political activity.' But celebrity support and crowdsourcing have kept it alive.

Zurab Dzhavakhadze/ITAR-TA­SS/
A charity event in support of 'May 6 prisoners' takes place at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Public Center in Moscow in June 2014.

When former Russian deputy prime minister and liberal reformer Boris Nemtsov was gunned down by still-unknown assailants a year ago, no one had any doubt about where to hold his funeral: at the Andrei Sakharov Center.

One of the last Moscow landmarks that Russia's beleaguered liberals can call their own, the museum and meeting space hosted the hundreds of Mr. Nemtsov's grief-stricken mourners.

Indeed, the center is determined to keep its doors open as practically the last place in the city that caters to the liberal community, particularly its motley, on-the-outs fringe groups. Gay rights activists, prison reform advocates, human rights crusaders, and Kremlin opponents hold freewheeling political seminars and meetings there. Its small exhibition hall frequently hosts displays of anti-religious or Kremlin-critical art that might not find another venue in these tense times.

"Lately this place has become a different planet [from Russia], a place where tough issues can be freely discussed, talented people speak and perform, where I can feel totally at home," says Olga Mazurova, a doctor. "It's like a temple of freedom."

And as the Kremlin has moved in recent years to stifle institutions like the Sakharov Center – primarily using a law that requires foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations to register as "foreign agents," a term that connotes "spy" in Russian – Moscow's few liberals are digging in their heels to save a threatened symbol of everything they stand for.

Via a series of special concerts and poetry readings in the hall, staged by sympathetic Russian celebrities, the community is quietly offering whatever they can spare in the donation box to help the center pay off escalating fines and ensure its survival for a few more months.

"Wouldn't it be strange if the institution that bears the name of Andrei Sakharov approved of the neo-imperialist and totalitarian drift in this country?" says poet and songstress Natella Boltyanskaya. "The fact that the state machine is putting pressure on the center, trying to strangle it with these escalating fines, proves that its work is worthy. So, it remains for us, those who don't 100 percent approve of everything this state is doing, to help the Sakharov Center survive."

A liberal center

The Andrei Sakharov Center, named after the great Soviet-era dissident, was opened in 1996, its prestigious premises on Moscow's Yauza embankment granted to it on generous terms by the city's mayor. In those days the government was eager to associate itself with the name Sakharov and the liberal, pro-Western values he represented. The center, whose museum is dedicated to exposing the horrors of communism, symbolized Russia's radical break with the Soviet past and its aspiration to join the global mainstream.

"The existence of the Sakharov Center, for me, is solid evidence that our country can move in the direction of the civilized world," says Dr. Mazurova.

Mr. Putin has been more ambivalent. He has leaned heavily on widespread public nostalgia for the USSR, praising Soviet achievements, bringing back the old anthem, and reviving military parades. But he also has authorized a monument to the victims of Stalinist terror and, just last week, slammed Bolshevik revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin for "planting an atom bomb under a house called Russia."

The Sakharov Center has been funded by a wide array of international donors over the years. Until two years ago, it also received occasional grants from the Kremlin's own presidential fund for civil society promotion.

So the center was not at the top of the list when the wave of state inspections of NGOs with any amount of foreign funding began in earnest in 2013 to determine whether their activities were "political" and thus obliged them to don the self-incriminating "foreign agent" label. Though the law severely narrowed the field for human rights champions, anti-corruption activists, and election monitors, the Sakharov Center was safe at first. Indeed, after checks were carried out by the prosecutor's office and the Justice Ministry in mid-2014, the center was given a clean bill of health.

"We did understand that this law might be applied to us, but these two inspections didn't find anything," says Sakharov director Sergei Lukashevsky. "A lot of other organizations were being ordered to register, but we weren't."

Political activity?

That changed abruptly late in the year, when a series of unplanned checks were launched in response to an anonymous "complaint." Things that had been said by participants in seminars or meetings, even years before, were cited as proof that the center's activities were aimed at influencing Russian politics.

"We were just the organizers of these events. We provided the premises for free discussions to take place. We did not endorse any particular opinion," says Mr. Lukashevsky. "Under our own written rules we cannot have relations with any political party or take part in elections. That is how we understand 'political activity.' It seems that our authorities have an infinitely more flexible definition."

The first fine of 300,000 rubles [about $7,000 at the time] was apparently levied because the center had failed to realize that it was in breach of the law and needed to register, Mr. Lukashevsky says.

It's not clear why the Kremlin changed its mind. But some experts argue that crackdowns on domestic dissent in Russia, historically, track closely with deteriorating international relations. In late 2014 Russia was at loggerheads with the West over the Ukrainian crisis and reeling under freshly imposed US and European sanctions.

"When relations with the West are bad, our authorities react by tightening the screws on people" whom the Kremlin sees as agents of Western influence, says Nikolai Petrov, a professor at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. "It's almost a rule of thumb."

'Carry on and hope for better days'

Since grant money cannot be re-purposed to pay fines, the center had a serious problem. If the full amount was not paid within two months, the government could move to shut it down under the law. They decided to try crowdfunding. "That worked, and we paid off the first fine," says Lukashevsky.

But then they were hit with a second fine of 400,000 rubles. Two months ago, they were informed that since they failed to show up at their appeals court hearing – which Lukashevsky swears they were never told about – they had to pay or be shut down.

That's when they decided to hold a string of charity concerts, with the center as the beneficiary. Several liberal-minded Russian celebrities stepped up to offer their services gratis, including Russian rock legend Andrei Makarevich, satirist Viktor Shenderovich, and Ms. Boltyanskaya.

With a series of filled-to-capacity concerts in its roughly 200-seat hall over the past couple months, the center paid off that latest fine.

It also decided to add a small note at the bottom of its official website acknowledging that it has been declared a "foreign agent" under Russian law, about as deep a concession as they are prepared to make to over what they consider to be an officially-contrived poison pill, says Lukashevsky. The note goes on to say: "we shall continue to appeal against this decision in the courts."

"We do not know whether this will mollify our authorities or not," adds Lukashevsky. "Another fine could be levied against us on any day. What can we do but carry on and hope for better days?"

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