Nadezhda Mityushkina receives 2018 Boris Nemtsov Prize
Boris Nemtsov, murdered in 2015, was a symbol of hope in Russia. The prize named in his memory was awarded for the third time this year. This shows that there are still courageous freedom activists left in Russia.
“What's the nerd in the grey tee doing among all these freedom fighters?”
A slim young man is standing on stage, throwing the question into the room. His face is boyish; he is barely twenty years old. The audience is rapt as he recounts what he came up against over the course of the last few months: in his native Russia, he was up against a massive threat. Vandals threw a brick through his window; the missile only barely missed his head. When he participated in a protest, police charged into the crowd and dragged him across the wet asphalt. Egor Cherniuk, the young man on stage, was working as the campaign manager for Alexei Navalny's bid for the presidency. He is one of those young Russians who, in spite of all attempts to intimidate them, continue to stand up for the dream of a free and democratic Russia. And this is why the "nerd in the grey tee" is standing on stage among all those freedom fighters now — at the 2018 Boris Nemtsov award giving ceremony in Bonn.
Cherniuk is one of five finalists for the award, which the Boris Nemtsov Foundation, assisted by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, awarded on 20 June 2018. The date marks the third time the prize is being awarded. In her welcoming address, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the board of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and of the board of trustees of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, emphasises the importance of creating a space for exchange and dialog. “The football world cup is providing a stage for the Kremlin, but we here in Bonn have a stage of our own. It may be slightly smaller, but there are people standing on it who stand up for their values with passion and with all their heart and soul.”
Alexei Navalny among the nominees
Along with Cherniuk, Alexei Navalny himself was one of this year's nominees. He was unable to come to Bonn in person but sent his chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, to attend. He called to mind the wave of indignation that swept Russia in 2010 when Boris Nemtsov was arrested during a peaceful rally in the streets of Moscow. The public was shocked. Just the full-time employees of the Navalny campaign have spent a total of more than 5000 days in custody so far — arrests have become so common they barely even make the news anymore. Even so, Navalny is optimistic: his experience on the campaign trail has taught him that people are longing for change.
“The football world cup is providing a stage for the Kremlin, but we here in Bonn have a stage of our own. It may be slightly smaller, but there are people standing on it who stand up for their values with passion and with all their heart and soul.”
Facing up to the past as a part of being a society
The courage to embrace change can be felt on the political level, but also beyond; it is also perceptibly present in civil society. Yuri Dmitriev and Oyub Titiev exemplify this trend. Dmitriev has been conducting research on the crimes of Stalinism in his native Karelia since the 1990s. His work is at odds with the vested interest of officialdom with regard to Russian historiography. He kept being threatened and was eventually arrested on farcical charges. The fourth nominee, Oyub Titiev, who used to investigate human rights violations in Chechnya and to manage the Chechnyan office of MEMORIAL, has a similar story to tell. Since January of this year he has been in custody awaiting trial for alleged possession of drugs.
Heart and backbone of the liberal opposition
In view of these moving pieces of testimony, the board of trustees of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation cannot have had an easy time picking a winner. At long last they settled on the fifth finalist, the only woman among the nominees: Nadezhda Mityushkina. The human rights activist was a close confidant of Nemtsov and one of the key figures of his Solidarnost movement. Ever since his murder, she has been taking care of his legacy and has been holding — together with other volunteers — regular protest vigils in the heart of Moscow, on what activists have taken to call the “Nemtsov Bridge”. In her laudation, Gyde Jensen, the chair of the committee of human rights and humanitarian aid of the Bundestag, described Mityushkina as “quiet fighter who does not take centre stage but who serves as the heart and the backbone of the liberal opposition.” The example set by her and by so many others demonstrates that “while Putin is Russia, Russia is much, much more than Putin”. Jensen promised that she would work to raise awareness of these activists, giving faces to their struggle, in her capacity as a member of the Bundestag and as the chair of one of its committees.
The shirt of “human dignity” — much more important than any suit
Nadezhda Mityushkina dedicated her award to her allies, who keep showing up at the unofficial Nemtsov memorial in Moscow, keeping his legacy alive. Visibly moved, she thus confirmed her reputation: she really is an unassuming, quiet fighter who does not take centre stage but who nonetheless plays an essential role in the liberal opposition. There are many Nadezhdas in Russia and in the world and we should work to raise awareness for them. Or, as Alexander Cherkasov puts it, speaking on behalf of the imprisoned Titiev: “Human rights activists do not need any dress code; one cannot tell them from their suit or their tie, but they all wear the shirt of human dignity.” And in this sense the “nerd in the grey tee” fits in very well with the 2018 Boris Nemtsov award ceremony.
Julia Ebenauer is the expert on East and Southeast Europe in the Regional Division in the Head Office of Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Postdam.