"Darkness is not forever"

By Andrew Blackman - June 4, 2024 The Independent Barents Observer
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It is soon three years since Ivan Pavlov could walk the streets of his native St.Petersburg. In early September 2021, he left Russia following mounting repression from Putin’s security services.

The 53-year old lawyer has for nearly three decades ardently worked for rule of law and democratic development in Russia. He has defended several of Russia’s most prominent regime critics and prisoners of conscious, among them Aleksei Navalny and Ivan Safronov.

Pavlov and his team are advocates of another Russia — a country based on democratic rule and the independence of the judiciary. For the illegitimate regime of Vladimir Putin, their work for a ruled-based state is seen as a serious threat.

In late April 2021, Pavlov was detained by the FSB, put in house arrest and barred from communicating with the surrounding world. Shortly later, the Russian General Prosecutor declared Team 29, Pavlov’s association of independent lawyers, a so-called ‘undesirable organisation.’ The status includes risks of criminal prosecution for any of the organisation’s associates.

“Lawyers’ work has become very risky in Russia. Especially if you work on anti-war and human rights cases. It was risky before, but now the risks have increased, highly increased,” Ivan Pavlov says in an interview with the Barents Observer.

Lawyers’ work has become very risky in Russia”

 

Russian lawyer in exile Ivan Pavlov. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

 

Putin’s war

The lawyer says he quickly understood that Putin was steering towards war.

“Throughout all of 2021, they were preparing for war. They destroyed the independent groups that were free content makers. Many of them were declared foreign agents, undesirable organisations or charged with criminal offence.”

The Kremlin wanted Pavlov out of the country. But the human rights lawyer might be no less of a threat to the dictatorship from his exile in the EU.

From aboard, Pavlov and his team continues to fight for a new future for their homeland. Many of the lawyers that used to be part of the Team 29 have joined Pavlov in exile and today provide indispensable support for colleagues still in Russia.

According to Pavlov, there are about 150 lawyers today working on anti-war and human rights cases in Russia. Many of them work in the quiet.

“The most important thing we do is to support the people who are still inside Russia. They are our sources. There is a whole system of resistance,” he explains.

 There is a whole system of resistance”

“There is a small internal circle, that still works inside Russia. They are completely at high risk. And there is an external circle. It’s we, who are already in exile, who live under quite safe conditions. And we have to support the ones inside. Because they are our eyes, our legs. They go to the court, they are witnesses of what’s happening.”

“And we of course care about their security. We care about them,” he underlines.

Criminal regime 

Russia is increasingly a criminal and violent society. But it is not lawlessness that is the greatest threat to Putin and his regime. It rather freedom of expression, argues Ivan Pavlov.

“In today’s Russia, the most dangerous crimes for regime is not murder, it’s not robbery, it’s not something brutal. It’s about freedom of expression. It’s about words. It’s about speech. And everybody who uses freedom of speech, who uses freedom of expression for the purposes that are not in line with the regime, they are criminals for regime.”

In today’s Russia, the most dangerous crime for regime is freedom of expression”

 

Are you still threatened by the regime?

“I’m here, I’m a realist. I understand that there is no safe place for people like me.”

“We have experience, and we are quite successful in our work. For example, today we not only work with the cases that already happened, like somebody sitting in custody or jail and we defend them. Not only like that. Now we make analytic work before the cases are initiated. And we evacuate people before they are arrested. And the regime understands this. Of course we feel some threat. But I think that if we want to feel completely safe, we have to stop our work. Today, so many of Russia’s best people, like best lawyers, best journalists, are in exile.”

 

How important are independent Russian media in exile? Do you think they have a big audience inside Russia?

“I think that their audience is increasing. Because now there is a growing demand in Russia. Before the war started, many Russians simply ignored the possibility to read independent sources. Because back then it was quite safe situation. But now they understand that they can have problems. And they have to be constantly on the pulse about what’s happened in the regime. And the independent sources provide reliable information about their personal security. For example information about how to cross the border. How to prepare to cross the border. Or what to do with their accounts in Facebook when an organisation is declared undesirable. Because now it’s dangerous to distribute such information.”

 

Over the years, Pavlov and his colleagues have worked on dozens of cases in the European Court of Human Rights. After Russia in 2022 ceased to be party to the European Convention on Human Rights, the European Court has continued to handle applications against Russia submitted before the 16th of September 2022.

As of September 2022, a total of 17,450 applications against Russia were pending.

 

Why is the European Court of Human Right important also after Russia’s withdrawal?

“I think that I today urge all my young colleagues to continue to work. Even if you work on a case, and know that decisions are predictable. It matters. Because it creates evidence of your work, creates a trace of your work, keeps it in the case, in the material. And somebody will, ultimately, reconsider the case, and this person should see your position, see what you’ve done. Because your client should ultimately be rehabilitated.”

“So why does the European Court continue to handle cases after Russia exited the Court? Because, guys, darkness is not forever. We are optimists. We know that it’s not something that will continue too long.”

Darkness is not forever”

Pavlov underlines that he believes in change and that he some day will return to Russia.

“I’m a supporter of humanitarian progress. Each new generation becomes wiser than the previous. And better. Putin is not forever. Putin will leave. We have to be prepared to the window of opportunity. Because sometimes we lose this opportunity. And we have to be ready for this.”

“I will be first in the line, in the check-in, on first flight to Russia, when I can freely continue my work inside Russia. I miss it very much. I hope, I believe that I will return soon.”

Putin is not forever”

 

Do you think there is a chance that Putin one day will end up in the Hague?

“You know, maybe not. Maybe he will die before that. And even if something happens in Russia, that provides a possibility to sue him, I would sue him firstly inside Russia. Because it’s an international scale [of his crimes]. He is a criminal before the Russian people. And first of all, he has to stand trial in a Russian legal system. And after that, we will send him [to the Hague]

 

How important is a trial against Putin and his regime for the future of Russia? Do you need such a process in order to move on towards a new and better Russia?

“I think that it’s very important for the Russian people. Because when the situation was changed in the 90s, the new Russian authorities didn’t finish this process. And they lost this possibility to renovate the society. It was a mistake. We have to learn from our mistakes, and not make the same mistake again.”

“I’m pretty sure that my colleagues who will live in the beginning of a new Russia, a new and beautiful Russia, they will not make the same mistake. Because all the people that represent the regime should at least be removed from the political processes. And if they have made a crime, they have to respond like a criminal.”

 

Do you think such a process is possible?

“I think yes. We are the same as Europeans. At least the people, who are now in exile and continue to work for the Russian audience, they believe that this is possible. And we already have many programs, and we have created new legislation for new Russia. It’s a process that already is going on.”

We are the same as Europeans

Pavlov argues that lessons must be learned from mistakes made in the 1990s. The main problem back then was that there were no trials against crimes committed in the Soviet period.

“The first mistake was that the new government pardoned previous crimes. Simply pardoned them. And actually, it wasn’t really a new government, but rather a part of the previous. We didn’t sue previous crimes, and I think that was the biggest mistake.”

“And when they came to power, they started to steal from different sources. And also that was a problem for the country.”

But unlike Boris Yeltsin and his government, the people of current Russia has experienced real freedom.

“Now, when we already know how to be free, know our mistakes, we can amend our historical experience. And we are no longer very poor.”

 

Ivan Pavlov. Photo: Thomas Nilsen

 

The Nikitin case

In the 1990s, Ivan Pavlov worked together with legendary lawyers Yuri Shmidt, Henry Reznik and Sergei Kotelnikov on the Aleksandr Nikitin case. The defence of the former naval officer and nuclear safety inspector that had cooperated with Norwegian environmental organisation Bellona on a report on nuclear contamination in the Arctic ended with a historical victory a short three days before Vladimir Putin was appointed President of Russia.

Nikitin, who was charged with high treason, in December 1999 walked out of the St.Petersburg City Court as a free man. It was a major blow to the FSB and General Prosecutor Aleksandr Gutsan, the man that today serves as Putin’s special envoy to Northwest Russia.

Since then, no-one charged with espionage has won a case in Russian courts.

 

Putin’s lawyers

Whereas there was community of independent lawyers in Russia in the 1990s, the lawyers of today’s Russia are less liberal than in the Soviet Union, Ivan Pavlov argues.

“After 2005, they became less and less liberal. And now they are much more conservative than in the Soviet time.”

He says there actually are not so many ‘real lawyers’ in today’s Russia and that they “work only in the courtroom” and “never speak about their cases outside.”

Meanwhile, Pavlov and his team works not only in the court rooms, but also in the wider public.

“How can I keep silence if I know that a law doesn’t work in a courtroom? We always try to do something outside of the courtroom. To push the judge to make sure that the law will work. To push the judge to follow the law. We use publicity. We appeal to the society, to journalists, to mass media. Explain them what happened. What kind of injustice we see in the courtroom.”

After 2018, the publicity approach no longer worked in the Russian legal system, Pavlov explains. He and his people then applied a new strategy.

“When we understood that publicity no longer worked like before, we just added irony. In order to make them look stupid. To make them look absurd. And then it became more effective. Because they don’t like to look stupid. They don’t like to appear absurd in public. And this approach still works. Because they don’t care if they look brutal. Brutal for them is fine. But not stupid.”

Although the situation in the current lawyers’ community looks dire, Pavlov is optimistic about the future.

“If they managed to develop a group of fantastic lawyers in the 1990s, it should be possible to develop a group of fantastic lawyers in Russia in a very short time after Putin,” he says.

 

What can Europe do to support the Russian opposition working in exile? What can Europe do to support your work, and the exiled journalists?

“We don’t ask for support. We just ask for no resistance. Because sometimes we face real problems that block our activities. European banks close our accounts. European governments sometimes just refuse to give us visas for residence permit. That’s the biggest problem.”

“We will continue our work. We are part of the resistance. And we have proven it. If you don’t want to support us, just don’t resist us. That’s what we ask.”