Russia Behind Bars - Building a New Generation of Passionate Grassroots Activists

The Problem

Dmitry Medvedev, former President and current Prime Ministerof Russia, initiated many anti-corruption reforms of the justice system when he held office from 2008-2012. As recently as July of this year, however, Medvedev admitted publicly that corruption was one of Russia’s biggest problems and that he had not seen much progress in this sphere in the preceding two years. The corrupt and unprofessional tactics of the police and judges make the justice system difficult to navigate. These tactics pervade all stages of the law enforcement process, from arrest to trial. Property can be confiscated on shaky grounds. Investigators can fake evidence and provide their own ‘witnesses’. Similarly, existing detention legislation and conviction quotas have led to an acquittal rate of less that 1 percent in non-jury trials.

The Idea

Co-founded and led by Olga Romanova, a well-known journalist and now a key player in the Russian opposition, Russia Behind Bars is an informal organization that advocates for the rule of law in Russia. The founding members of the movement were all women, the wives of imprisoned men. The main activitiesof the organization include advocacy for justice system reform, awareness raising of corrupt and irregular practices, informal legal assistance and food donations to prisoners. The ultimate goal and intended impact of Russia Behind Bars is reform of law enforcement bodies, the judicial system and the prison system. With enough civil society and public pressure, members anticipate that the government will have no choice but to implement reforms. Expanding beyond its intitial members, Russia Behind Bars includes experienced lawyers, human rights defenders and prominent businessmen.

The power of the group lies in the support it provides. Not only do the ‘system veterans’ advise each other, but they also counsel the distressed citizens who contact them in search of help. Given members’ varying experiences and backgrounds, each word of advice is precious to newcomers. In addition, the attention Russia Behind Bars draws to the problems of the Russian judicial system through its vast network, which includes celebrities, journalists and opposition politicians, has a significant effect on corrupt officials. When placed under the magnifying glass of the media, judges and investigators must take extra care not to violate any laws.

Potential Impact

Russia Behind Bars has the potential to reduce corruption within the Russian justice system and increase democracy more broadly. Already, Russia Behind Bars has lifted the taboo on talking about prisoners and corruption. Many Russians believe that there is no smoke without fire; that innocent people are not imprisoned without reason. When someone is imprisoned, the misfortune is considered contagious and most family and friends choose to cut ties. Russia Behind Bars has made an effort to tell the stories of these people, who are often too ashamed to speak out without support. Romanova has made it ‘fashionable’ to talk about prisoner’srights and the release of political prisoners is already one of the demands of the growing Russian Opposition. Given the increasing momentum of the social movement and its focus on all layers of the problem, in five years time, Russia Behind Bars could potentially achieve reform of the Russian justice system.

Social Value

An important aspect of Russia Behind Bars is that it engages regular people and has contributed to the development of civil society in the country, where the environment for such organizations is quite hostile. The effort to engage the public and to help people help themselves not only ensures the sustainability of such a project, but also creates an example for others who would like to address various social issues in the country. In this sense, the issue of law and justice reform is an entry point for broader discussions and awareness raising concerning challenges to the strengthening of political freedoms and human rights in Russia. For many members of Russia Behind Bars, the group is also their first exposure to any form of activism, and hence plays an empowering role.

Similarly, the dynamic that has evolved within the movement, in which ‘veterans’ perform an informal mentoring role vis-a-vis newcomers, is a further positive aspect allowing a quick rate of expansion.


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