This is a report about Oksana Chelysheva’s work in Chechnya from Frontline World.
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
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.
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.