Anastasia Burakova

Photo: private

“The biggest challenge is the inability to stop the criminal war in Ukraine and to halt Putin, who is dragging Russia into an abyss.”

Anastasia Burakova is a human rights lawyer, former coordinator of the Open Russia Human Rights Team and co-founder of the United Democrats project, which supported independent candidates in local elections in Russian regions. In November 2021, she left Russia due to politically motivated persecution and moved to Ukraine. In March 2022, she founded The Ark project, which helps Russian expatriates persecuted for their anti-war positions and supports anti-war and media projects.

For many years, you advocated for freedom of speech and assembly as a lawyer within Russia. In this role, you defended opposition politicians and journalists in court. What drove you to do this?

Like many people of my age, I entered politics in 2011 during the wave of mass protests against election falsification. Apathy and non-participation are the most widespread problems in Russian society, and it’s a deliberate policy of the Kremlin to foster this apathy. Participation in political life was constantly marginalized by propaganda, officials, with the main narrative being: “don’t get involved here, there are special people for this, they know better, it’s none of your business.” Those who didn’t give up over the years, despite the pressure, needed protection and support. I can’t say that working as a lawyer in an authoritarian country without an independent judiciary is an easy task. Apart from pressure, propaganda attacks, and stigmatizing statuses like “foreign agents” and “undesirables,” there’s also professional burnout – when you take on a case, you realize that the chance to win a politically motivated case is minimal.

But going to court offers an opportunity to obtain documents and make them public, a chance to reveal the true face of the system. Hard-won court victories also empower us: for instance, we managed to defend the right to freedom of assembly for participants of the May Day demonstration in St. Petersburg after a brutal crackdown on an approved column, win a defamation case against the Ministry of Internal Affairs by opposition politician Andrey Pivovarov and the independent media “Novye Izvestia,” obtain the full text of the court’s sentence concerning the owner of the PMC Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, shedding light on his criminal background, and strive to initiate criminal cases against election falsifiers in the Russian Caucasus, among other things.

You had to leave Russia in 2021. Looking back at your professional journey, how did the country and opposition activities evolve in the years leading up to the full-scale invasion? How did this impact your life and work?

The window of opportunity for political and human rights activities was shrinking every year: the courts were increasingly biased, the laws that were passed increasingly restricted constitutional rights, and the threshold for participating in elections became stricter. But as long as there was even a small window of opportunity, we tried to do everything in our power: defend people’s rights, engage people in politics and public activities through municipal elections, and overcome the international isolation imposed on civil society by the Kremlin. In 2021, a large-scale attack began on civil society structures: political movements, human rights organizations, independent media, and historical memory researchers. Thousands of people were either expelled from Russia or arrested. At that time, we thought that the Kremlin was preparing for an election cycle. It turned out they were preparing for a bloody criminal war, and the preparations for the invasion inside Russia had begun in advance. The loud voices that would have opposed Putin’s aggression were preemptively silenced.

What constitutes Russian opposition in exile for you today? Where does it take place and what does it deal with?

Contrary to the Kremlin’s narrative about the emigrants and people inside the country as two separate monolithic groups, I don’t see it this way. Many activists, human rights defenders, journalists, as well as people not involved in political activities but who spoke out against the war, were forced to leave due to threats of long prison terms for anti-war actions and statements. However, there are many brave people who, in the face of strict censorship, unconstitutional laws, continue to fight in Russia. In Kovcheg (the Ark), we try not to lose touch with people inside the country: our audience is about half a million, and about 40% of them are in Russia.

We help like-minded people inside the country as much as we can, supporting anti-war initiatives both abroad and domestically. For years, the Kremlin has built a wall between the global democratic community and Russian civil society through foreign agent laws, undesirable organizations, and discrediting international contacts. Now more than ever, it’s crucial to stand shoulder to shoulder with the entire democratic world to stop the mad dictator in the Kremlin who kills people in Ukraine every day, jails dissidents in Russia, and poses a threat to the entire continent.

What role do the countries of exile, for example Georgia, play? What is the relationship between the exiles and the local societies?

In the countries surrounding Russia, like Georgia and Armenia, the largest community of anti-war Russians has formed – more than in any European country. These are several thousand people who work every day against Kremlin propaganda, help Ukrainian refugees, assist the network of activists inside Russia, spread the truth about war crimes and the war, teach how to communicate with people influenced by propaganda, investigate Putin’s influence networks in Europe and other countries, and much more. Those who oppose the war and Putin’s criminal regime are aware of the Kremlin’s pressure on these countries and know the pain and suffering that Putin’s policies have brought. Russians help collect humanitarian aid for the residents of the occupation lines in Georgia and publicly oppose the Kremlin’s imperialist policy towards neighboring countries.

With your organization Kovcheg, you support political refugees, but also people in Russia. What are the biggest challenges in your work? What situations do the people you help find themselves in?

The biggest challenge is the inability to stop the criminal war in Ukraine and to halt Putin, who is dragging Russia into an abyss. We try to make every effort, but we don’t see the main result. However, thanks to Kovcheg, more and more people, hundreds of thousands of Russians, are finding the strength to get back on their feet, to act, to become part of the anti-war, civil movement, to meet like-minded people, and to become part of the global democratic community. Beyond humanitarian aspects, Kovcheg pays great attention to community-building, integration into the international community – through joint events, learning foreign languages, and supporting Russian anti-war initiatives – now numbering over 270. We also try to debunk the narrative that the Kremlin has been instilling in Russians for years, “no Putin – no Russia”: within the “By the First Flight” platform, we are preparing a new generation of people who can build a democratic Russia that respects international law and its citizens. We are developing roadmaps of reforms to show Russians what a normal Russia can look like.

What role does the war against Ukraine play for the opposition in exile? Is it possible to talk about Russia without talking about this war?

I can’t imagine how one can abstract from the war and talk about Putin’s Russia without this context. Every day in Ukraine, people are killed by Russian missiles and by the actions of the military in occupied territories. The Kremlin threatens neighboring countries with nuclear weapons. Russia’s economy has been reoriented towards military tracks, and the standard of living of the population is declining. Putin is driving socially vulnerable layers of the population into the war, and propaganda is creating a pervasive atmosphere of hatred in society. All these are interconnected processes. And this war will have repercussions on the future of Russia and the whole of Europe for decades to come.

Most Russian opposition activists have been forced to leave the country, are held in Russian prisons or affected by massive repression. What influence does the opposition have in exile? How strong are the ties between those that have left the country and those that are still facing daily repression?

Emigration is a forced measure. Each person makes the decision individually; many brave people who stood against Putin’s regime are now imprisoned in Russia: Vladimir Kara-Murza, Andrey Pivovarov, Ilya Yashin, Alexey Navalny, Alexey Gorinov, and many others. Of course, outside of Russia, we are all significantly weaker and can hardly be considered full-fledged actors: participation in elections is inaccessible, and the use of logos of most organizations or donations to them can lead to criminal prosecution. Essentially, from other countries, we can counteract propaganda, spread the truth about the criminal regime, work together with Western partners, rescue those persecuted for their stance, and assist the victims of the war in Ukraine. We can speak without fearing that we’ll be searched the next day. It’s not full-fledged political participation, but in totalitarian regimes, the window of opportunity is always small.

When you think of a future Russia in 10 years, what does it look like? What needs to happen in politics and society to make this possible?

Currently, the planning horizon has shrunk to months or even weeks. It’s unlikely that any Russian can think 10 years ahead. However, totalitarian regimes collapse unexpectedly, and we must be prepared for that moment. In Kovcheg, we launched the “By the First Flight” project where we educate about democratic institutions, acquaint with global experiences, and develop reform roadmaps with experts and participants. Currently, over 1,500 people in the project want to participate in building a new, democratic, and neighbor-safe Russia. We need more such people to replace those integrated into the current system and not end up with the “old Soviet nomenklatura” who discarded their party membership cards and started talking about democracy and the free market, as happened in the 1990s. During the absence of political competition, ideologically-driven individuals couldn’t develop in this direction, and their places were taken by personnel loyal to Putin’s regime.