Elena Burtina, project coordinator helping stateless persons and the Committee’s analyst, on her experience with the Civic Assistance.
Historian Elena Burtina joined the Civic Assistance Committee in early 1995 and coordinated the Committee’s Counselling office for 17 years. Now she manages a project that aids stateless persons and prepares analytical data reports. In this interview, Elena Yurievna talks about her 20-year long story with non-governmental organisations, how they influenced her life and personality, and is sharing some case studies.
What brought you to the Civic Assistance?
It was the end of 1994 when the first Chechen war broke out. When Grozny was being bombed, the media started posting very dry brief news, i.e.“one deceased”, “two deceased”. I was outraged, our own air forces were bombing our own city, people were dying but no one cared even to say their names out loud as if they were tiny little insects. There was an active anti-war movement but I was a timid domestic person, I didn’t even think about protesting but I wanted to somehow express my views on what was happening. Since I was a historian I decided to collect data about the deceased. My husband was not very understanding about my plans to go to the Caucasus and so instead I chose to talk to refugees who came to Moscow, learn the names of the people who died, why they died, where they were buried and so on.
I prepared a questionnaire and went to the only organisation I knew — Memorial. I was somewhat acquainted with one person there, Arseny Roginsky, we had been introduced to each other at Mikhail Yakovlevich Gefter’s, a famous historian whose gatherings I used to attend in my young years. When Arseny Borisovich heard me ask about refugees he told me to go and see Svetlana Gannushkina who I didn’t know yet. Svetlana Alekseevna immediately invited me on a trip to Veliky Novgorod which had recently made a home for a temporary accommodation centre. Such centres had been organised by the FMS of Russia in several regions. The three of us went there; one of the founders and most active figures of the Committee, the now-deceased Aleksandra Lvovna Shaykevich, Svetlana Alekseevna, and me.
Svetlana Alekseevna suggested that I use this trip to collect data on those who died. I took up the task but my shyness made this mission unbearable. I remember standing a long time in front of each new room with refugees before getting my act together and knocking on the door. I was overwhelmed with how Svetlana Alekseevna and Aleksandra Lvovna worked. I couldn’t imagine that a non-profit organisation would be so effective. First, we met with the head of the migration services in Novgorod, which ended very well. I do not know about these days but back then people coming from Moscow to regional locations were considered authority. We always explained that we represented a social organisation but they still called us a “Committee from Moscow. This might be why the head of the migration services let us copy the telegram of the then Head of the FMS of Russia, Tatiana Mikhailovna Regent. This telegram instructed authorities not to register Chechens with standard forms used for refugees from Chechnya that would allow further aid. This was obviously discrimination on ethnic grounds. The telegram was issued for internal use and the head of the migration services in Novgorod was certainly put at risk by allowing us to see it. He might have been against such requirements. My brother was working at “Moscow news” which used to be very popular. He published this telegram which caused quite a scandal, and the ban to register Chechens in migration services was raised.
After the meeting with the head of the migration services Svetlana Alekseevna and Aleksandra Lvovna gathered all the Chechen refugees in the hall of the refugee centre and suggested filing a suit against the President of the Russian Federation and demanding compensation for the deceased and injured and for properties and possessions lost during the military actions. We gave out samples of legal claims. Back in those days, the Committee used every opportunity to promote this idea. And the campaign, in all fairness, produced certain results. Even though all the claims against the President of the Russian Federation were disallowed due to his immunity from prosecution, the necessity of financial aid rooted in the minds of society. The government ordered compensation for lost property and possessions. The amount of compensation was very questionable though. Still, the campaign forced the government to accept responsibility for the damages to the Chechen locals.
Elena Burtina is handling her appointment in the Civic Assistance
After the meeting, Svetlana Alekseevna left to speak with social organisations in Novgorod and to be a guest on a local radio show; Aleksandra Lvovna went around the rooms to listen to each family’s problems. Later we informed the head of the migration services of those problems, part of which were immediately resolved. We had some money with us. We discussed each family’s issues and decided on how and who should be helped and gave the money to those who needed it.
We spent just two days at the temporary accommodation centre and managed to do so much, as I see it. I felt inspired and joined the Committee. Back then we had neither an office nor salary. Once a week, on Wednesdays, we met with refugees in the building of the ‘Literature newspaper’, we set up tables and chairs in the hall and on staircases for the Committee members and our visitors. Everyone who helped out, including doctors and lawyers, was a volunteer. At first, I only collected data for my passionary, then I started giving out goods and meeting people. The first few years I did it part-time (I was still working in the Institute for World Literature). Then the Committee moved to the reception of the Moscow Helsinki Group on Rabochaya street (Taganka district) because the building of the literature newspaper was bought out by a bank who wasn’t interested in refugees. We made appointments twice a week. In 1998 the Moscow government offered us a place on Dolgorukovskaya, with discounted rent, that’s when we started working on, basically, a daily basis as professionals and it was impossible to do it part-time any longer.
More than 20 years have passed. You said that at first, you were quite a shy stay-at-homer. What’s changed for you in these 20 years that you’ve spent in the Committee?
Sure we’ve all changed. I personally have lost my shy way, thanks both to the Committee and my experience as a guide in the Historical Museum, which I acquired after graduating from MSU. During my first excursion in the St Basil’s Cathedral (part of the Historical Museum), I almost fainted. But as time passed this passed as well.
Here in the Committee we face a lot of different situations and helping people is impossible if you don’t try to figure out the legal base and legal practice. Such work encourages us to evolve by not only reading but studying the things other people ask us about. In our job, the price of a mistake is too high. It’s easy to give basic advice — it will be used and will probably lead to serious consequences.
I have an example. As I’ve said before, migration services used special documents to register Chechen refugees. Until the Committee appealed this practice in court, only those registered with such forms were compensated for loss of property and possessions. Many people who came to see us did not understand that we were neither a part of the migration services, nor a state office. Even these days some people still don’t understand that. They see someone sitting next to a computer in an office. Who we are, what we can and cannot do — it’s not clear right away. People sometimes don’t believe that we cannot do some things. They think, she says she cannot do this but she just doesn’t want to help’ The Soviet Union which didn’t have any real public organisations just seized to exist, and very few people understood what we did. Some visitors thought that they’d been registered with the migration services as they saw us type something into our computers and write something down into journals. As a result they failed to apply for compensation. Considering that all people see things differently it’s very important to clarify all details to our visitors, explain the status of our organisation and our capabilities, give only applicable advice and not be stingy with time and words.
Besides the need to grow, that comes with a job in the Committee, I’ve noticed something else about myself. A lot of different people come to us with their problems, usually quite severe, they expect us to do things that we can’t. Communication doesn’t always go smoothly. I used to lose my temper, get annoyed and I couldn’t always stay friendly. But at one point I noticed that I became kinder. It happened as I was coordinating a project that helped poor patients from Chechnya. It was one of our biggest humanitarian projects. We set it up together with Caritas France with funding from ECHO, The Humanitarian Aid department of the European Commission. Within the project we helped patients: bought medicine paid for medical tests, transferred people to Moscow for treatment, organised accommodation for patients and their relatives. Moscow wasn’t the only placed we helped people. We had units in Ingushetia and Chechnya. Every month we flew from Moscow to Caucasus to meet the whole project team. We discussed current issues, visited patients in refugee camps in Ingushetia, Chechen towns and villages and could see the horrific aftermath of the war with our own eyes. 8.5 thousand people received medical care through our project. Anyway, I’ve noticed that after delving into human misfortune I became softer, more understanding and sympathetic.
In Sharoy locality, Chechnya
Maybe working in the Committee does put us under some distress. For example, we had a few cases that I was emotionally involved in, I fought for people who, as it turned out, made up their stories. One Afghan with Russian citizenship shared with us the story of a young widow of his relative he took in. Her husband had been kidnapped, the Taliban threatened her because of her public activity, she had to flee Afghanistan, pregnant and already with a small child. The migration services granted her temporary asylum for a year but refused to prolong it. The young woman had documented proof of her situation, the so-called ‘night letters’ with threats from the Taliban, their usual means of intimidation. We helped her to appeal the refusal, with no luck. I was so worried about her but later found out that it had all been lies. When the young widow was denied prolongation, she went back to Afghanistan, safely stayed there for a while and came back to Russia to live with the man who took care of her and later became her new husband. Apparently, he followed an Afghan tradition when he married the widow of his relative, even though he already had a wife, a Russian citizen. The story with the Taliban was made up so that she could obtain legal status in Russia. Fortunately, such cases are rare but they did shake my general disposition to trust people.
Your job is difficult emotion-wise, a lot of responsibility, sympathy towards people with bad luck. How are you coping with that?
You know I cannot say that I’m coping with that. They talk a lot about emotional burnout among employees of non-profit organisations these days, About two-three years ago I burned out completely, to the ground. It wasn’t because I ran out of emotional strength, it happened for another reason.
We still occasionally get a lot of visitors but much fewer than when we were working in Taganskaya district or on Dolgorukovskaya street. But back then, as you arrived at the office on Rabochaya street you could see a bunch of people waiting near the building. I could feel fear sneaking in, the fear of not being able to handle everything. Nevertheless, our work brought satisfaction because we often managed to help people.
During the 90s we had additional support in the face of one of the founders of the Civic Assistance, Vyacheslav Igrunov, who was a member of the State Duma. We used his name to send hundreds of letters to different institutions and always received responses which were often positive since they were given to a deputy. Back then even the government was more favorable towards non-governmental organisations than today. That’s why the number of successful refugee rights’ and migrants’ cases was quite high. Since the 00s it has been going down and today it’s very close to zero.
In 2015 I refused to work with refugees because I realized that we couldn’t help them much. Together with my colleagues, we prepared a report, “Russia as a Country of Asylum” which stated that Russia was not fulfilling its responsibilities to admit refugees as defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention. That’s where I decided to draw the line. These days I’m handling stateless persons who can still be helped in some ways since there is no negative state narrative towards them as there is towards refugees. The official attitude towards refugees has never been positive but in the 90s the government just didn’t pay much attention to them. Problems of refugees and migrants didn’t carry that political significance that is now present as nationalism and migrant phobia have become state ideology. We’ve always worked with the government and in the 90s and early 00s, it was much easier to turn to them to solve certain situations and sometimes even issues in general. Svetlana Gannushkina and some of our lawyers took part in drafting laws,
Svetlana Alekseevna used to be a member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and a member of the FMS Russia panel before that. Therefore, we had means to communicate with the officials and influence them. Now, these means are almost gone. And when people come to see you and tell you about their misfortunes but you cannot do anything to help them — that’s what leads to burnout. Svetlana Alekseevna is saying that she cannot let herself burn out. So that means that I let myself do that. I am not proud of that. I’m just stating a fact. Still, I try to avoid communication with refugees. Of course, if there are no stateless persons waiting for me in line I invite someone from the refugee line to talk to me. But every time it’s a challenge. Because I have to tell them the truth. And the truth is that no matter how serious the grounds for asylum are they will never get it in Russia because the system of asylum in our country basically doesn’t exist.
You’ve told us how things used to be and how they are now. What about the future, what do you think?
I’m not full of hope. I’ve lost my original optimism which I deemed infinite. But my colleagues are probably feeling differently and I do not want to pass my mood on to them. I’m taking certain measures not to lie down on the bed and just stare in one spot. For example, recently I’ve been taking optimism pills by listening to one political expert, Ekaterina Shulman. In my opinion, this beautiful smart woman is “selling scientific optimism”. I think this optimism is almost as scientific as scientific communism. It is indeed scientific but it is coming from the presumption that studying the past allows to predict the future but I am not sure that is correct. Ekaterina is looking at major social processes and she concludes that these processes are universally going in a good direction everywhere, including Russia. This contradicts my life experience and those tragic lives that many people have. Nevertheless, I regularly listen to her to get a shot of some optimism, as if sort of reasonable.
Elena Burtina and Thierry Repentin, Minister Delegate for European Affairs of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, during the annual awards ceremony «Liberty, Equality, Fraternity» by The French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, 2013
Could you tell us more about working with stateless persons?
The collapse of the USSR was a grand historical moment which affected the lives of many people, very differently and often dramatically. As much of what happens here, it wasn’t a controlled process thought through by politicians, organised in a way that would minimise collateral problems for its citizens. As a result, during and after the collapse a lot of people on Russian territory found themselves without registration or a place to live and they couldn’t acquire Russian citizenship. Although the first edition of the Citizenship act of 1991 was quite liberal but the practical application, especially in Moscow, Moscow region and Krasnodar krai, was far from liberal. To apply for citizenship you needed to have registration, and for registration, you needed to have a place to live. Those who couldn’t get registration didn’t get citizenship. Besides, a lot of people with soviet passports couldn’t understand that they needed to acquire citizenship because in the USSR everyone became a citizen at birth. And until early 00s people could register, work, study, get married, receive pension and medical care with a soviet passport.
In 2002 a new law ‘On Citizenship’ was passed which was not liberal at all. In the same year another law came into force, the ‘Federal Law On the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens in the Russian Federation’ which made all these people illegal in an instant and did not provide any means of legalisation. Such mechanism was only introduced 10 years later, in 2012 when the ‘Law On Citizenship’ acquired chapter VIII.1. But this mechanism is complicated, it is of limited scope and limited validity and does not resolve issues of statelessness in the Russian Federation.
There are a lot of homeless, lonely, old, sick and poor people among those who lived to see today with soviet passports or have lost it and are living without any documents. It is difficult for them to even gather all the necessary papers: birth certificates, documents proving that they arrived before 2002 and have been living here since, documents proving that they do not have any other citizenship. A lot of people cannot deal with papers for different reasons, including financial and health issues. In addition to that, they run up against bureaucracy as they try to apply for citizenship. That’s why they need help and we try to help them, and we succeed in many cases.
How many stateless persons, or apatrides, are there in Russia? These people exist outside the law so there are no exact statistics, and estimations vary from 4 — 5 thousand according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs to half a million according to us.
Ex-USSR citizens and their children are the main stateless persons but there are others who found themselves in this situation under some turn of events. For example, a few years ago we were trying to help Tanya from Guinea-Bissau. Her parents were revolutionaries, when she was a child she was brought to Russia and left at an international boarding school in Ivanovo. As she was growing up in this boarding school her parents died, the embassy of Guinea-Bissau refused to issue a passport for her. How could she go back to Africa anyway when she didn’t know anything about it? She grew up in Russia and was a regular Russian girl with black skin. She left the boarding school with one document — an identification of a stateless person issued in the USSR. I’ve seen it only once in my life. Our legislation didn’t have and still doesn’t have any instruments to legalize such people. We worked for several years for Tanya to acquire her first temporary residence permit, then permanent residence permit and citizenship. And we succeeded.
The Civic Assistance now has many young employees, volunteers. As someone who has been with the Committee since 1995, can you give them some advice?
I’ve always thought that advice is given when advice is due. Not every advice that’s been asked for is taken in, and giving out unsolicited advice is useless. I’m always ready to share my opinion on a certain case. But advising the young on something? I’m no sage and no celebrity to hand out advice.
But you’ve been with the Committee for so long, you helped build up the “Civic Assistance”…
In fact, I might skip giving advice and point your attention towards certain peculiarities of working in a non-governmental organisation, something people could use to make their life within the Civic Assistance more interesting. The peculiarity is that each and everyone helps to build it, creates a field of work and contributes to the organisation’s growth. This is the beauty of working in non-profit. Everyone can create and influence something.
Interview by Daria Gordina, volunteer for the Civic Assistance Committee
Translated by Elena Fedyushkina