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Tanya Lokshina
Image: DW/Geert Groot Koerkamp

Against all odds

Geert Groot Koerkamp, Moscow
June 12, 2013

Human rights work in Russia has become difficult, even dangerous - that's the word from activists who have risked their lives countless times to record abuses. Tanya Lokshina is one who doesn't consider giving up.


At first glance, Tanya Lokshina may not be the kind of person you would expect to travel to some of Russia's most dangerous areas on a regular basis. But the small, frail-looking woman with longish, red-dyed hair has been doing exactly that for the past 15 years.

Lokshina works as a researcher for Human Rights Watch. And she, like her colleagues, must deal with ever increasing pressure on non-governmental organizations and attempts by the government to brand human rights groups as "foreign agents." Last autumn, when she was pregnant with her first child, she even received threats to her own safety.

"The threats were immensely cynical," she recalls. "When it was all happening I remember thinking rather clearly: 'No such thing was possible even a couple of years ago.' A certain borderline was crossed. Because, frankly, blackmailing a pregnant woman with the safety of her as-yet unborn child is as low as it can possibly get."

The people who threatened her were remarkably well informed, she says.

"They knew so much personal information, including my immediate travel plans, my residential address - which was not in the phonebook - my husband's travel plans, as well as some very private details relevant to my pregnancy. So we are pretty certain that state officials had to be involved."

Sucked into human rights work

Lokshina started working with human rights in Russia in 1998. She had just arrived from the United States, where she had lived with her parents since 1990 and received her education as a journalist. From the US, she worked as a freelance correspondent for several Russian media before deciding to return to her home country, where she had been offered a job at a media outlet.

But upon her return, the 1998 economic crisis struck in full force, and with no job and no money she found herself stuck in Moscow. That's when she heard that the Moscow Helsinki Group urgently needed a staff member with a good command of English. She got the job.

"And then, even though for the first couple of years I was really thinking about getting back to journalism, I just got sucked in," she says. "The issues in which I had to work were extremely fascinating. It was also about dealing with people and helping people."

Almost from the start, Lokshina's attention was drawn to the northern Caucasus. There a new war had broken out just three years after the previous one, which had killed tens of thousands of civilians and reduced the Chechen capital, Grozny, to rubble.

"That's when I got very passionate about my work," she says. "Just being able to document those horrid abuses in Chechnya, being able to interview victims and witnesses, to give a voice to the victims, to help them in that way, to help them tell their stories. It was really very meaningful."

Time and time again, Lokshina travelled to the region, visiting volatile areas like Chechnya and Dagestan as well as South Ossetia, where Russian and Georgian troops did battle in 2008. It was hazardous work that was underlined by the tragic deaths of courageous colleagues and friends, like Natalya Estemirova, who worked in Grozny for the human rights group Memorial. She was murdered in 2009 by unknown assailants.

A sea of ruins in Grozny, 2000
Human rights work in Chechnya was harrowing in the 1990s, but there was safety elsewhere in RussiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"It was very dangerous, very difficult. The environment was very hostile. You were risking your life on a daily basis, that's for sure," says Lokshina.

But in the end there was always the possibility to board a plane back to Moscow and get out of the danger zone.

Today, that feeling has gone.

"The contemporary reality for human rights defenders across the country is so unbearable that there is barely a difference between different regions," says Lokshina. "The situation is hostile everywhere. In the past there were certain things you would see in, say, Chechnya, but would not expect to see anywhere else. Now it's getting different."

A Russian man lights a candle in front of a portrait of Natalia Estemirova in St. Petersburg, July 2009 (Photo: Yelena Ignatieva)
Lokshina was shattered when her friend and colleague Natalia Estemirova was murderedImage: picture-alliance/dpa

As an example, she recounts a recent trip she made to Siberia for research on palliative care. On the third day of her visit she was summoned to the local department of health, where surprisingly hostile officials fired questions at her about who financed her trip and invited her to the region.

"In the years that I worked in the northern Caucasus, I had been detained a couple of times. And sometimes law enforcement officials had been extremely nasty to me, asking me very aggressive questions, threatening me," says Lokshina. "But this is totally not something you would expect in a quiet town in Siberia when the topic of your research is palliative care."

A debt to others

Arguably, Lokshina's work as a human rights researcher has never been more difficult than it is today. Does she never think of quitting?

"Sometimes you do feel low," she admits. "Sometimes you're just utterly depressed by the hostile climate, by the grim reality of things, by the never-ending stream of abuses and by the fact, most importantly, that there is very little you can do. But then, in this line of work you really have to remain hopeful, you really have to remain optimistic."

There's more to it than that, she adds.

"Several of my friends and colleagues lost their lives in recent years trying to make Russia a better place, and I think that those of us who are still here, we sort of owe it to them to do our best to continue, against all odds."

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