“Like a bad dream” – Russian human rights activists are holding out in the Moscow skyscraper

The air for Russia’s human rights activists is getting thinner and thinner – and this small place is almost a symbol of it: the internationally renowned Sakharov archive, recently crammed into a two-room apartment on the sixth floor of a Moscow skyscraper. Boxes with letters, documents and photos are stacked in the hallway, books, framed pictures in the rooms, and furniture that has been dismantled in between. Just a few weeks ago, all of this was open to the public as a museum in the neighboring apartment – the former home of the famous Soviet civil rights activist Andrei Sakharov.

Russian human rights activists are holding out in the Sakharov archive in the Moscow skyscraper

However, in January the Moscow city authorities announced that they would withdraw all the premises that had previously been made available to the Sakharov Center, which had already been branded as “foreign agents”. Exhibitions, readings and all the critical public relations for which the center was valued are no longer possible. “Under the current circumstances, we cannot continue the work of the center without endangering those who work there,” said Sergey Lukashewski, who now lives in Germany, in a recent interview with “3sat Kulturzeit”.

At least the valuable and extensive legacy of Sakharov, who would be 101 years old today, and his wife Jelena Bonner, who also died, should be saved. And so the remaining employees quickly shipped all the materials to the small neighboring apartment, which is the only property that does not belong to the city of Moscow, but to them.

Russian archivist: “No more surprises, but still a little shock every time”

So now the archivists are here – sort of in the middle of a big junk room. “You can’t find anything anymore,” Ekaterina Schichanowitsch sighs and rummages through a box of documents. The 66-year-old has been employed here since the archive was founded in the mid-1990s. She has already experienced the place under Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin, witnessed her country opening up to the West – and now its renewed isolation. Schichanowitsch wears a blue flowered dress and with her delicate stature she sometimes literally disappears in the ceiling-high towers of boxes.

“What’s happening to us right now is ultimately just a result of what’s happening right now across the country,” she says. Her voice is quiet, she seems melancholy. At least since the start of the war of aggression against Ukraine ordered by Kremlin chief Vladimir Putin more than a year ago, the Russian authorities have been cracking down on independent organizations, members of the opposition and any critical minds. The human rights organization Memorial, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, is even banned in Russia. “It really isn’t a surprise anymore. But still a little shock every time,” says Schichanowitsch.

In the room next door, a small loudspeaker is playing softly, Schichanowitsch’s colleague Andrei Bachmin has turned on baroque music. Bakhmin and the volunteer student Nikita Solotaryov scan documents. Archivists around the world have made it their job to digitize their materials. Here, however, it is also a race against time if state sanctions should also hit this place.

Like a bad dream”

Bachmin doesn’t exactly know how many documents they have in front of them. In any case, there are more than 190 boxes, he says. At some point they stopped counting how many of them they had already transferred to their digital archive. Instead, Bakhmin and Zolotarev just keep scanning, page after page, hour after hour. These are chaotic times in Russia, in many ways.

The Sakharov Centre, which among other things organized exhibitions, and the Archive are legally two separate organisations. Bachmin therefore hopes that the archive – also because it does not explicitly appear politically – will be spared official restrictions. “But of course there is a risk.” Is he afraid? “No,” says the 51-year-old without thinking twice. “If you’re scared, you can go straight to bed and pull the covers over your head.”

However, there is currently no plan to find new rooms on your own to exhibit the archive materials again. According to Bachmin, a pure museum program would not be in the spirit of the physicist Sakharov, who first became famous as the inventor of the Soviet hydrogen bomb and later as one of the most passionate advocates of human and civil rights in the country.

For years, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was banished to the city of Gorki (now Nizhny Novgorod) as a dissident. “The legacy of Sakharov means first and foremost openness and freedom of expression,” says Bachmin. “And Sakharov himself would by no means only do museum work these days, but would also be isolated.”

Despite everything: He remains optimistic, says the archivist. “It is obvious that Sakharov’s ideas cannot be simply abolished and banned. It will take some time and then it will all be over like a bad dream.” But when will those better times come? “That is hard to say. But certainly not in the coming years. I think it will take decades.”

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