Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, right, during a session of Russia’s Supreme Court at which he was appealing his detention before his second trial in 2009–2010, Moscow, April 2011. He was pardoned by President Putin and released in December 2013.

Alexander Natruskin/Reuters

Former Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, right, during a session of Russia’s Supreme Court at which he was appealing his detention before his second trial in 2009–2010, Moscow, April 2011. He was pardoned by President Putin and released in December 2013.

In August the Russian supermodel Natalia Vodianova wrote a bitter post on her Facebook page. The previous day, her twenty-seven-year-old sister Oksana, who has autism and cerebral palsy, was taking a customary walk with her caretaker in Nizhny Novgorod, where she lives. They stopped at a café in a park and ordered a chocolate bar for Oksana. Then the owner of the café told them to “get out of here,” Vodianova wrote. “You are scaring the customers.” The caretaker asked to be allowed to stay until Oksana finished her chocolate bar. The café’s security guards intervened, threatening to call a psychiatric ambulance or to lock Oksana in the cellar. The caretaker called Vodianova’s mother at work, and she rushed over to take the young woman away.

Before she left, Vodianova’s mother told the café owner that she would report him to the authorities. But by the time Oksana, her mother, and her caretaker reached the park entrance, a group of policemen was waiting for them. The mother was detained and taken to the police station, where she was told that she would be charged with hooliganism, which in Russian law is defined as a “crude disturbance of the social order.”

Vodianova, who has been on the covers of many of the world’s glossy magazines, is adored in Russia. She came from a working-class family in Nizhny Novgorod, a large industrial city on the Volga, became a model as a teenager, then moved to Paris, and soon married the English aristocrat Justin Portman (divorcing him in 2011). She now is the head of a charity for children with physical and mental disabilities and other challenges, including economic ones. Her organization, the Naked Heart Foundation, runs camps and builds playgrounds.

Vodianova’s post went viral. First, people on Facebook called for a boycott of the café. Then the Nizhny Novgorod prosecutor’s office ordered an “inspection” of the café, usually prosecutor-speak for a shakedown. Then the Investigative Committee, a federal agency, announced that it would charge the café owner with the crime of “demeaning human dignity on the basis of belonging to a particular social group, committed publicly with the application or the threat of violence.” Vodianova protested that the café staff ought to be educated, not punished, but she could not control what happened next. Within two days of the incident, the café lost its lease and shut down. Criminal charges against one of its staff members were dropped only in mid-September, after Vodianova’s mother petitioned the court to dismiss the case.

Human Rights in Russia: Citizens and the State from Perestroika to Putin was completed a year and a half before the incident in the Nizhny Novgorod café, but the story illustrates the workings of authority in Russia. Mary McAuley begins her inquiry in the late 1980s, a time of much hopeful discussion on the ways Russia might change. And yet Oksana, as a person with visible disabilities, is as likely to face discrimination and violence today as someone would have been in 1988, when she was born. Her rights to dignity, freedom, and accommodation may be protected by a number of laws, from the constitution to local legislation on public spaces, but these provisions are habitually ignored by both private citizens and the state. The protections against discrimination and arbitrary police action aren’t enforced, and the only real way to get recourse is to appeal to a powerful person.

In Oksana’s case, her world-famous sister has considerable influence. But this is double-edged: the supermodel may be able to set the state’s machinery in motion, but she cannot stop or direct it. The institutions of the Russian state carry out almost exclusively repressive and violent functions: shut down the café, detain the cook. This may be somebody’s idea of justice, but it has nothing to do with protecting human dignity and human rights.

McAuley, a political scientist who studied Russian affairs and then ran the Ford Foundation office in Moscow for seven years, sets out to understand why, after a quarter-century of human rights talk and work by talented and increasingly skilled activists, the basic model for addressing rights violations remains unchanged: problems are solved by involving someone more powerful. Toward the end of the book, McAuley quotes Liudmila Alekseeva, a former dissident and now, at age eighty-eight, Russia’s oldest and best-known human rights activist:

When I am approached on behalf of someone who, say, has been remanded in custody on no grounds whatsoever, or something of that sort, I turn to Lukin [then the federal human rights ombudsman]. He can respond twice as effectively as I can and get something done….

A man was dying in a remand prison, and he got him transferred to an ordinary hospital, not even a prison hospital. How did Lukin manage this? He did not fill in a form, which stated that this, and then this should be done. He rang Ivan Ivanovich, and Ivan Ivano-​vich rang Ivan Petrovich, and so on, and finally the poor man was transferred. We achieve the observance of human rights more often by using non-legal than by legal means. That’s the kind of country we are.

Another statement makes the point more strongly. This one comes from a declaration drafted by representatives of civil society organizations at a congress in 2010 and contains a devastating description of Russia’s civic wasteland:


Afraid of its own citizens, the ruling Russian bureaucracy has [leveled] the political field, and then begun to tackle public organizations, accusing them of drawing on “Western money,” while producing harsher laws which restrict the freedom of association. Episodic interaction with chosen representatives of civil society has a single purpose—to keep public organizations out of politics. At the same time arbitrary actions against such organizations are increasing; repression and the murder of rights activists, of journalists and environmentalists have become [routine].

I have had to correct the poor translation with the words in brackets. But what makes this text particularly futile is that it was addressed to then president Dmitry Medvedev—on the assumption that only he could remedy the situation, and in the desperate hope that he would want to do so. He did not. When he handed the presidency back to Vladimir Putin in 2012, the attacks on civil society in Russia intensified. Russia’s puppet parliament, the Duma, adopted a series of Kremlin-backed laws that severely limited the right to public assembly, restricted freedom of speech (notably, but not exclusively, banning the so-called “propaganda of homosexuality”), and, as McAuley points out, restricted the activities of nongovernmental organizations that receive funds from abroad. Since she finished her book, another law, on so-called undesirable organizations, has given the authorities full discretion to shut down any NGO. There are no reliable statistics on how many organizations have been shut down as a result of these laws, directly or indirectly; but most Russian civil society organizations either are engaged in a battle to protect themselves from the repressive machine or have closed.

As a participant in the post-Soviet Russian human rights movement from its inception, McAuley attended many of the gatherings from which it emerged. She relies heavily on these meetings to tell her story, and this device proves both powerful and limiting. She brings to an English-speaking audience voices that have not often been heard, and in writing about a quarter-century of such meetings she sets down a unique record of concern about rights, but the cast of characters grows too large and unwieldy and the extended quotes begin to run together. A built-in handicap of speech directed primarily at colleagues is that it generally lacks perspective and analysis beyond its immediate context. But the most striking quality of the meetings McAuley describes, starting with the early 1990s, is that no one seems to be talking directly to anyone at all. This was true of the first fully democratically elected body of lawmakers in Soviet Russia, the 1990 Leningrad legislature:

Under the Soviet system such meetings were rituals to demonstrate unanimous support for government policy from a united people. Now perhaps the only function they could serve was to allow individuals to voice their concerns, and complaints. This was something new, but it stood in the way of, rather than encouraging, effective collective decision making. A basic issue remained unresolved. What was the relationship between the discussion and policy making?… To whom then were they speaking? And to what purpose? Within six months many were dismayed, and electors disillusioned.

The tone was much the same two years later, at the Russian Congress of Deputies, the first post-Soviet gathering of a federal elected body, although one elected according to a convoluted set of rules that guaranteed representation for institutions rather than citizens:

Very few of the deputies could be called parliamentarians, hardly surprisingly. Most did not hold positions they could argue out; they had individual or institutional interests to defend; some were anxious, at all costs, to make a name for themselves; many were confused and concerned by the collapse of the Union, the economic chaos, and rising prices, but had not the slightest idea of what should be done.

Many of the early pro-democracy politicians left electoral politics shortly afterward and found work outside government. But the failure then and since to clearly define what was wrong and what should be done remained unchanged. In 1998, activists from across the country gathered in St. Petersburg for a conference held under the auspices of a newly formed human rights commission appointed by President Boris Yeltsin:


Oleg Mironov, the new [human rights] ombudsman, followed with a short statement describing his task as being one of restoring rights, improving Russian legislation in accordance with international standards, and raising legal consciousness. No one paid any further attention to him—but then there was hardly any attempt by anyone, over the next day and a half, to respond to points raised by a previous speaker. Most had come with their prepared texts; their task was to present them.

What can groups of people who are engaged in not listening to one another accomplish together? Not much, as it quickly turned out. Neither the parliament nor any of the specially convened representative gatherings, for example, could agree on a draft of a new constitution. This was true in most post-Soviet countries, which for years made do with amending and supplementing their inherited laws. But by 1993 the Russian parliament could not agree on such measures either, and the federal government was in gridlock. In the autumn of that year Yeltsin announced that the parliament was dissolved, but it refused to accept his order and barricaded itself in its building. Street fighting ensued, culminating with the shelling of the parliament building by troops under Yeltsin’s command. In December a constitution written hastily behind closed doors was presented to the public and passed with 58 percent of the popular vote. It stated that human rights and freedoms were “the supreme value” and held the state responsible for protecting them. McAuley comments that, as had always happened in Russia, rights were given, not won, and they were handed down not only without a fight but also without much discussion.

Human rights organizations such as the Moscow Helsinki Group and others now saw it as their duty to hold the state to its obligations to protect political rights and freedoms. This strategy had its roots in the dissident movement. One of the earliest activists, Alexander Esenin-Volpin, circulated the slogan “Observe your own laws.” The Soviet constitution, on paper, included guarantees of such rights as freedom of assembly. The focus in the new constitution on the rights of the individual and, more pointedly, on individual cases of abuse was also a legacy of the dissident movement—in no small part because Soviet-era activists could not realistically accomplish anything more than draw attention to specific cases. McAuley suggests that this emphasis, which has remained dominant to this day, came at the expense of working to form a broader-based movement, protecting socioeconomic rights, or striving by civic groups to accumulate political power.

But the story told by McAuley shows just how brief was the opportunity for achieving public support and gaining political power. The period of great hopes inspired by perestroika culminated with the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Twenty-two months later, Yeltsin’s troops were already shelling the parliament. One year after that the federal military was bombing Chechnya. A year and a half later Yeltsin won a rigged reelection.

By this time, not only the former dissidents but all the politicians who had asserted the primacy of individual rights and freedoms had been purged from positions of influence if not from politics altogether. Still, marginalized and often besieged, human rights organizations around the country continued to acquire experience and, at the end of the 1990s, a new generation emerged of well-educated managers who generally improved the management of their organizations.

In 2000 Yeltsin’s chosen successor, former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin, set about making order out of what he saw as chaos. Any field of activity in which a variety of people had official authority appeared messy to him. If the constitution made the state responsible for protecting human rights, shouldn’t such protection then be entrusted to a single federal agency? He set his government the task of consolidating and nationalizing the human rights movement.

Liudmila Alekseeva, a leading human rights activist and founding member of Moscow Helsinki Group, with President Putin at Novo-Ogaryovo, his official residence outside Moscow, January 2014

Yuri Kochetkov/epa/Corbis

Liudmila Alekseeva, a leading human rights activist and founding member of Moscow Helsinki Group, with President Putin at Novo-Ogaryovo, his official residence outside Moscow, January 2014

McAuley devotes considerable space to describing the Civic Forum, an organization whose first meeting was arranged by the new administration and was attended by hundreds of human rights activists from across the country. At least two former dissidents, Andrei Sakharov’s widow Yelena Bonner and Alexander Podrabinek, the author of a book on punitive psychiatry, spoke out against any joint action with the Civic Forum or any other government-sponsored organization. Most of those present, though, were grateful for the invitation, in no small part because they thought the forum was an opportunity to deliver a petition, an appeal, or a letter to someone in power. Many were disappointed. The supposedly responsible ministers and their deputies generally failed to show up for their scheduled meetings with activists. Still, for a small group of important organizers, the forum was the scene of a hidden battle to protect tens of thousands of Russian human rights organizations from being taken over by the government.

One behind-the-scenes struggle concerned the Russian national anthem. Putin, who had been running the country for just over a year, had already presided over the restoration of the Stalin-era national anthem, with slightly altered lyrics. Most of the former dissidents and those who worked closely with them had decided to boycott the playing of a song that had been commissioned by the instigator of the Great Terror. For them, nothing could be more demeaning than to hear the Stalin anthem played at a national gathering of human rights defenders. Yet as a gathering organized and financed by the federal government, the Civic Forum might be expected to open with the national anthem. “The organizing committee decided that Liudmila Alekseeva”—then a seventy-four-year-old veteran of the dissident movement—“should chair the opening plenary session, at which Putin would speak first,” McAuley writes. “How embarrassing it would be, she pointed out, if she did not stand when the president did. The idea of the hymn died a quiet death.” No song was played. It was a victory, a very minor one, for the human rights organizations.

The incident of the anthem is a good example of the kind of tactics that work when dealing with the Kremlin: it is not negotiation, cooperation, or good arguments that are effective, but blackmail. This was the technique organizers used to stave off a government takeover: several important dissidents threatened to disgrace the Civic Forum by walking out if the topic of consolidating the organizations into some sort of government-controlled body was raised. The tactic succeeded: a government takeover of much of civil society was not engineered for another four years.

In 2005 the government created the Public Chamber, an umbrella group for administering rights and freedoms. A number of prominent human rights activists accepted the invitation to join. Many of them have since left in protest, only to be replaced by new members: for every activist who is no longer willing to compromise with the government, it seems, there is always one who will choose collaboration over being marginalized. The chamber serves as an effective barrier against the defense of human rights: it keeps organizations that are not officially recognized from directly addressing the government and from getting public attention, and it makes sure that any important issues get hopelessly bogged down in hearings and resolutions that never get public attention. Starting from the late Soviet period, the work of human rights activists has thus come full circle. Formal mechanisms do not work, and the only hope in any individual case is to get help from someone who has influence with the relevant authorities.

By the time McAuley gets to this point in her story, she has described many inspiring activists and their ambitious efforts. Why has all their work over all these years come to nothing? McAuley observes that for all the talk—and feel—of momentous change, the institutions of Russian society have changed little in the last quarter-century. When she tries to explain why in her concluding chapter, the book’s main limitation becomes evident. A much deeper sense of Russian society and power is needed to explain what has gone wrong with human rights throughout the country.

Why couldn’t Russians arrive at a common understanding of an oppressive system? McAuley describes well the phenomenon of speaking into the void, of presenting for the sake of presenting, Party-congress-style. The legacy of Party congresses since Lenin’s time is part of the explanation, but it seems more important to note what has happened to the public sphere in Russia. It began to acquire some shape and customs in the 1990s but it has been subjected to systematic pressure and outright attack ever since Putin came to power fifteen years ago. McAuley barely mentions the media, whether the press, television, or the Internet, and when she does, she makes them sound like a monolith, and an autonomous one at that. Independent television and newspapers in Russia have been waging a losing battle for survival for most of the period covered by the book. And in the absence of a functioning and accessible media, how could activists and politicians be expected to carry on critical open discussion? In fact, the state has effectively and consistently used television, the main source of information, to misinform the public.

Perhaps, McAuley suggests, the problem is also the constitution. Not only did it suddenly confer rights that the population had neither fought for nor even discussed; but the country lacked the legal mechanisms for enforcing them. McAuley reminds us that the bloody history of the Russian constitution has been forgotten in and outside the country. But here again some central facts don’t get sufficient attention. Among Putin’s earliest and least noted actions was his decision to put an end to judicial reforms that would have established independent courts. Within a few years, the courts were brought back under the full control of the executive branch, ensuring that they would not stand up for individuals against the state.

Are the Western funders of human rights organizations also to blame? Public and private money coming from the West had an important part in supporting human rights organizations during the 1990s and the years that followed. McAuley is particularly insightful about the corrupting influence of such support. Western foundations brought their own concerns to bear on young Russian organizations. They often exerted pressure on grantees to report successes even when there weren’t any. They relied on consultants who knew nothing about Russia. They did much to ensure the survival of some organizations while others declined.

In making her case against such Western influence, though, McAuley tends to understate the genuine importance of the funds provided by the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose jailing in 2003 cut off a lifeline for hundreds of Russian NGOs. She also overstates the importance of Western organizations in determining the policies of human rights organizations. She claims, inaccurately, that they all but created feminist and LGBT groups in Russia. In fact, before any Western money became available, gay rights organizations emerged through their own efforts in cities from Barnaul in the east to Leningrad in the west.

Were all the factors McAuley discusses really as disastrous as she claims—the institutional inertia, the absence of public discussion, the hastily drafted constitution, and the overzealous Western funders? Possibly. But what if none of these factors was as powerful as she believes? Is it possible that if Boris Yeltsin had not picked a KGB colonel to be his successor, if Russia’s second post-Soviet president were not a committed enemy of rights and freedoms, then the difficulties McAuley describes would have turned out to be just growing pains? Is it possible that activists and politicians would have learned to talk to one another, that the judiciary would have become an independent enforcer of rights guaranteed by the constitution, and the influence of Western funders would have been balanced by Russian ones? We cannot know, but the actions of Putin and his many allies have been visible and vicious.

What we do know, from this book and from the news coming from Russia in the last few years, is that an era has ended there, and ended badly. McAuley’s book is just one of a couple of recent attempts to make sense of what has happened in the last quarter-century by telling the story from beginning to end. Another is The Red Web by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan (2015), a study of the many restrictions on the Internet in Russia, a book that covers the same time period as McAuley’s and also relies heavily on recollections of ineffectual meetings among a variety of activists. So far, these two books, written by people closely observing a failure of public responsibility, read like blind men’s attempts to describe an elephant by feeling only one small part of the animal. Other accounts are sure to appear in the next few years. Eventually, perhaps, a picture of the latest Russian tragedy will emerge.