In this interview, ICNC speaks with Oleg Kozlovsky, organizer and Russian pro-democracy activist who has been involved with the youth movement Oborona, and the Solidarity Democratic Movement. Basic democratic freedoms like freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and an independent judiciary have suffered in Russia in recent years and many people, particularly the youth, have started to mobilize one another to demand a stronger democratic system free of corruption and intimidation. Oleg has been one of the leaders in this growing pro-democracy movement, training young people in nonviolent methods of resistance. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars recently awarded Oleg the Ion Ratiu Democracy Award for his ideas and accomplishments in working on behalf of democracy.Interview:
Oleg Kozlovsky (OK): I’m Oleg Kozlovsky, I work and I’m active in the Russian pro-democracy movement, I’m one of the leaders of the solidarity democratic movement in Russia and I’ve also been very active in youth movements like Oborona for the last five years.
What inspired you to start these movements?
OK: We were very much inspired by the Orange Revolution that happened in Ukraine of course. Because in 2004 when it all happened in Ukraine we had already realized that what we had in Russia had nothing to do with democracy and we wanted something different. But frankly we didn’t believe that we could change anything. For some who participated in pro-democracy movements at that time it was either a way to have a clear conscious and say, well I tried to do something but I failed, and for others it was a way to start their political careers. And we also believed that the youth can play an active role in bringing about this change. Because before that nobody really believed that the youth can be something truly independent. Everybody saw young people as somebody to distribute leaflets or to fill empty spaces at congresses.
What does it mean to advance democracy in Russia?
OK: Well we mean some very specific institutions like freedom of speech, free and fair elections, the right to disagree with the government and to be free from oppression because this is also a big problem. So this is in fact a very basic set of institutions that should be in place for every democratic country and that Russia lacked and unfortunately still lacks.
How did you attract young people to join Oborona?
OK: I think the main feature of Oborona especially in its first year was that we were very different from everything that young people and just people in general in Russia had seen. Because we were very blunt we did not try to cover our messages in some nice innocent form of shell. We were calling and spade a spade and naming names we were calling who we thought was responsible. We were one of the first groups to mention Putin’s name, the Russian president, as the person responsible for disintegration of democracy in the country and it appealed to many people because many were tired of this double speak of the so-called opposition, who on the one hand called themselves opposition, but they would never criticize certain things like the president and the most important parts of his court. They would criticize certain ministers or certain governors but never anything high like that and Oborona was able to grow from just a few dozen in Moscow to a few dozen groups in different cities in Russia.
What tactics did you use to get your message across?
OK: We were very active in using the internet, one because it’s the only open active uncensored media in Russia. Two, it is especially popular amongst the youth and active youth and active youth in particular, so it was quite natural to use blogs especially Live Journal which was especially popular in Russia. The second was to use street protests and different street activity, including stickers, and distributing leaflets. In our protests we often used humor. We were mocking officials because we were staging dramatizations of different problems.
How did you train activists in these tactics?
OK: Firstly we had the website where we posted different books, manuals, and guides that people could download and read, not just activists, anybody. And it included some books on nonviolence, on nonviolent conflict in general, and also some books on activism and so forth but we also had specific problems for our activists. One of them included inviting experts to our headquarters when we had them but then we got evicted so that program stopped. And we were inviting experts in different issues like working with the media, campaign organizing, and different, broader issues like democracy or the judiciary system and some more specific like how to organize a nonviolent protest that’s been banned by authorities.
Another tactic that we used was organizing something like city quests or urban quests, as we call it, where we have several teams of activists, and we also invite people from other organizations because we want to develop the whole community not just our group, and they have different tasks like you have to find a place when you don’t know the address but you do know some other things about that place, or you have to get to that area that is guarded by the police. So this is somewhat on the edge, but of course it is always nonviolent and in the end the groups usually have some tasks like hanging a banner on a bridge, so something very practical. And it’s also fun for activists to participate in this. But we want people to learn to act in unexpected situations and to solve unexpected problems because it usually happens in nonviolent protests when something takes place that you’d never predict. And one of the examples was at our first game, one of the tasks for the teams was to get to an area of a hospital that was surrounded by a fence and to find a bag with a banner in a certain building of the hospital. And in fact you could enter and freely leave the hospital, it wasn’t guarded, but all the groups found their own way in. One group found a tree then they climbed onto the tree and then jumped over the fence the other group found a way to get under closed gates while they could just enter through the open gates, and it was quite funny for us to watch it because I was outside monitoring how everything was going, but it also meant that people had to find a solution to a problem that they didn’t know how to solve. Most of them had never been in such situations had, never experienced that. The found the solution it wasn’t the perfect one but it worked.
Which of your campaigns were most successful?
OK: As we can see Russia is still not a democratic country so we still have a lot to do. I think one of the important things that Oberona did was a campaign against censorship on television in 2007. The campaign was called “Stop Lying,” and one of its messages to the youth was also to stop watching TV because TV propaganda was really brainwashing people. And it’s not just Oborona, of course, but now it became almost common knowledge for most of the, so called, "advanced" youth in big cities not to watch television. And TV is not considered a reliable source of information by a whole lot of people. So many more people not trust the internet more, or don’t trust anything but try to take information from different sources. And I think Oborona contributed a lot to this.
What was your most memorable arrest?
OK: In May 2008 - it was just one day before the inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev - and we planned a protest for that day, in Moscow, and the protest was banned by the authorities as usual, unfortunately. So it never took place. There were lots of police everywhere and I never made it to the sight of the protest. Some plain clothes people arrested me a few hundred meters from that place. But then I was accused of participating in the protest that, in reality. never took place. And I was sentenced to 13 days in jail for disobeying police orders. although there were neither police nor orders. There were just some people in plain clothes that silently grabbed me and dragged me away. And I declared a hunger strike and I refused to eat for 12 days from the second day when I was convicted. Then they put me into a separate facility where they usually hold criminals, but I was the only person on the whole floor, so they probably considered me to be a trouble maker even among the arrested. And they even tried to hide me from my lawyer and my family who were looking for me in different places. But what was memorable about that arrest, in addition to those circumstances, was that later I managed to not only prove my innocence, but to also win compensation from the Russian government for an illegal arrest. Although the compensation was quite funny. It was like 300 dollars for 13 days in jail, but I think it was very important, symbolically, because I think they had to admit that this was a lie, that the court ruling was illegal, and that what they did was illegal when they held me in the jail so it was an interesting story for me.
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