Maria Keznutsova is 24 years old and already lives as an exile. From Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, this Russian activist works as a spokesperson for OVD Info, a human rights organization that has become the loudspeaker against the repression of the Kremlin and that has acquired special relevance after denouncing the abuses committed against Russian citizens since the invasion of Ukraine began. The portal was born from the work of several activists, who decided to denounce the acts of police brutality during the protests for alleged electoral fraud at the end of 2011. Keznutsova explains that the organization is constituted as an independent media project, which also provides legal assistance to the arrested. OVD Info operates with the help of independent donors and receives support from the European Commission and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
The activist exposes daily the situation of the more than 15,100 citizens who have been arrested for demonstrating against the war in the streets of her country. She recognizes that only from the outside can one speak of what the war in Ukraine has meant in Russia and the abuses of the Vladimir Putin regime. While she narrates the details of the arrests and the work of OVD Info, María deals with a diagnosis of depression, a product of her departure from Russia about a year ago and the impact that the war has generated on her. The fear of being arrested by the authorities of her country for carrying out her work keeps her away every day from the possibility of returning to her native Novokuznetsk (a city located in the Siberian district), but she is convinced that now there is no to shut up
Ask. Why is there such persecution by the State Forces against those who demonstrate?
Answer. Basically, we are in a dictatorship. Everything you say can be a problem, everything is prohibited. Even the word “war” is criminalized. If they realize that you say it once it is already an administrative fault, and if you repeat it it becomes a criminal case that could carry up to five years in prison. References to the Russian military can end in 15-year sentences. We already know about seven such cases. One of them is the Ukrainian journalist Dimitriv Gordon.
P. What have been the worst cases of police brutality in Russia?
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R. There are many cases where the police abuse their power and beat up citizens. I was recently surprised by one in Vladivostok. A young woman said that she was put on a police bus and then an officer came in to assault her. He called her a “bitch”, hit her on the head and began to choke her. Then other police officers entered the bus and her attacker left. The woman entered the hospital with a possible concussion. In the organization we made a statement on the case, the name of the victim is Anastasia Kotlyar. Also, we had a case with one of the attorneys who works with us. He was handcuffed in St. Petersburg and threatened with criminal prosecution for doing his job. They began to accuse him of “defending the Nazis.”
P. The information they offer about these arbitrariness circulates mainly through social networks. How do you combat the blockade in Russia with these platforms? Instagram and Facebook are already banned.
R. Now we are very active on Telegram and Twitter, and from there we share information all the time. We have received support from the platforms and we already have the verification stamp on our networks. We are a source of information about what happens in the country for the world. In any case, within Russia many people use social platforms through different VPNs (virtual private networks) that allow them to access. As soon as the blocks grow, people start creating more VPNs to be able to continue browsing. We also have a Russian social network called VKontakte (VK). Even though that platform supports Putin, there have already been anti-war posts from many people there. People fight censorship however they can.
P. A large part of your team works remotely. How do you operate to obtain information on arrests and provide legal assistance to affected citizens?
R. We have a line open 24 hours for people who need it to report their case. Then, our team on the ground verifies the information provided by the person. It is very difficult to follow up on all the cases due to the number of arrests that have taken place, but we try to ensure that, as far as possible, our lawyers can go to the detention centers quickly to provide legal assistance to those affected.
P. Since when have you had to go into exile?
R. She had long been involved with organizations that opposed the regime. In 2017 she participated in the campaign [presidencial] of Alexei Navalni and then I worked in opposition human rights organizations like Open Russia, which is considered an undesirable movement. Last year my boss in that organization ended up in prison for leading the movement. I was in Georgia when he was arrested and I knew he couldn’t come back. She could be prosecuted as a witness in the case or simply end up arrested for working for the organization. The police contacted me here to return to Russia to testify, and I decided not to. I know that as soon as I set foot in a Russian airport I could end up in prison. I’ve made up my mind that I may never be able to return.
P. What do your family and friends tell you about life in Russia now?
R. Many of my friends have left. Those who remain tell me that there are not enough products in the supermarkets. I’ve seen videos of crowded people fighting to buy a packet of sugar. There are also no medications. I have a friend who has a father with diabetes and she told me that she was looking for insulin for a week in Moscow and could not find it. It is also very difficult to find pads. I’ve been told that a package is costing about 30 euros, and I’m talking about Moscow. It seems a joke, but it is not. My friends have had to use other types of things during their periods.
P. What does your family think of what you do?
R. My family is somewhat apolitical and they don’t talk much about it. The Russians are not rich and spend much of their time trying to survive. My grandmother is old and my mother has to take care of her. They know something is wrong, but they have to get on with their lives. Anyway, they are very worried about me. My mom always tells me that she shouldn’t show my face or share my name publicly, but I don’t care. I know that there are people who will help me and tell me what happened if something happens to me.
P. What do you think is coming for your future and that of your country?
R. My life is stuck in this war. I work more than 15 hours a day so that what is happening in Russia is known. I do it to imagine that a change is possible, but I don’t know what will happen next. Even if the war is over there is no guarantee that Putin will not attack another country. He lives in his own reality, one that has nothing to do with ours. So it is very difficult to make predictions. The war took us all by surprise.
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