The Crackdown on NGOs
Read more about the government crackdown and watch undercover video shot inside the Russian Supreme Court when Chelysheva's human rights group was ordered to shut down.
In March, Oksana Chelysheva, a leader of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS), traveled to New York to meet with famed Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel. During a private lunch with Wiesel and other human rights activists, Chelysheva described the bleak environment for human rights organizations in Russia. The meeting with Wiesel was an honor for Chelysheva, who said that she had high hopes his attention to her group might help draw wider international attention and support. But Chelysheva was also aware that for now she would be heading back to Russia alone to fight for her organization's survival.
On a cold, wintry day in January, I met Chelysheva for the first time after traveling to Nizhny Novgorod, a city eight hours outside of Moscow where her organization is based. The group runs a news service out of Chechnya and had recently been labeled a terrorist group for its work documenting abuses in the province. Chelysheva was a close friend of Anna Politkovskaya and told me that they had been about to share with her their database on torture in Chechnya.
Chelysheva lives in an apartment block outside the center of town with her teenage daughter, her mother and her father. She works long hours at the RCFS, logging up to seven days a week. In her warm apartment, she made me coffee and told me about her friendship with Politkovskaya and her feelings of shock and outrage over her death. She says that although she had known Politkovskaya for years, they had only recently become close, bonded by their work in Chechnya and their roles as single mothers.
Nizhny Novgorod was famous both for being the location of famed Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov's exile and the place where much Soviet-era military equipment was developed. For many years, the city was completely closed to foreigners. Chelysheva says that it's fitting that her organization is based there, as it, too, has become a dissident voice in Russia.
These days Chelysheva has a lot on her mind. The Russian government has labeled her co-worker a terrorist, and her organization is under direct attack. The pressure is unrelenting, and Chelysheva says that the stress is starting to get to her. Worst of all, she says, is the effect government repression is having on her daughter. Their phone lines are often tapped, and Chelysheva says that she has received threatening phone calls. Her daughter recently asked some close family friends why her mother is being punished if she is doing good work. "The problem is, I don't know the answer to that," Chelysheva told me.
But Chelysheva says that, although her group has been targeted, most Russians don't want to know about the atrocities happening in Chechnya. "They know something horrible is going on there, but they don't want to know, because if they knew the details, they would have to make their choice to get involved or not, to be responsible," she said.
Leaders like Chelysheva see their work as a true continuation of Politkovskaya's and view her death as a motivation to continue exposing what is happening in Chechnya, no matter what the risks.
And she is pessimistic about the future of Russia. "We are already in our past," she said. "It's not just the time of the Soviet Union. It's not just the Communist Party who is in charge now. People who are in power now, they belong to this military clique. What they are trying to protect is their own self-interest. Right now, we are living in an almost authoritarian state that is run by this military clique."
Leaders like Chelysheva see their work as a true continuation of Politkovskaya's and view her death as a motivation to continue exposing what is happening in Chechnya, no matter what the risks. Despite the possibility of asylum in another country, Chelysheva says she's not ready to abandon Russia. Already, she and her colleagues have managed to save their office equipment from being seized by the government by selling it off to each other. They have also reregistered their group in Europe under a new name and will continue to operate in Chechnya and Nizhny Novgorod. "There is too much work to be done," she said.