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Yuliya Bashinova and Veniamin Dmitroshkin

“We were travelling to Freedom”



Once and for all, Yuliya Bashinova and her husband Veniamin Dmitroshkin made up their mind about moving to Lithuania after her shopping in Avoska store in Moscow, where people were celebrating “Crimea is Ours”, while queuing in a line. It was spring 2014, streets decorated with flags to mark the annexation of Crimea. “As short ago as in 2013, villagers could afford buying a car, - tells Yuliya. – They couldn’t anymore in 2014-15; yet, they were happy that Crimea was ours”.

These developments caused a feeling that nothing is changeable, shared the interviewees. They had tried changing a lot. Apart from their human rights activities and journalism, attending street actions, advocacy and awareness-raising, they have made some personal decisions. Having realised the traumatising and vicious nature of institutional care, they adopted two kids. One at first, Sasha. Later, they became aware that he had a brother, Platon. “They treat children as deadheads. Orphanage is a factory of disabilities. Kids can hardly think or speak after an institution. Someone steals their government-provided money and flats”, - explains Veniamin.

Together with Sasha and Platon, they participated in 2012 protests against Dima Yakovlev Law that banned adoption of Russian kids by foreigners. Their daughter Nima was born after a while. All five of them moved to Vilnius. “We travelled to freedom”, - says Yuliya. Veniamin’s guess is that “if Putin stands against a court in The Hague, it will be cheaper for us to take a flight there from Lithuania”. Sharing their moods, Yuliya’s mom and sister with a family relocated to Lithuania, too.

Looking “non-Russian”

Born in Ulan-Ude and raised in Irkutsk, Yuliya is semi-Buryat by her ethnic origin. In the age of 16, she moved to Moscow, the capital of her multi-ethnic country, together with parents. Seen as a half-breed by Buryats, she immediately fell within ‘non-Russian’ category in Moscow. Policemen would often check her documents in metro; however, their priorities switched to Tajiks and Uzbeks later.

Veniamin moved to Moscow from Murmansk for his studies. In 1999, the life in the capital forced him to learn how to speak and dress so that muscovites do not consider him as one of the guest workers intruding their city.

“Once, I spent three hours at a police station, resulting in being late to my dad’s wedding party. So offended as he was, daddy was not tolerant to my explanations, - Yuliya is telling about one of the detentions caused by her ‘non-Russian’ face. – Later, I met a human rights defender who worked with German Galdetsky. German’s mother is a Lithuanian. Living in Moscow, he is a frequent guest in Lithuania. When he was 19, he fended off policemen trying to rape a girl whom he knew. His subsequent observations revealed that such stories are many, with police officers detaining and taking away a random girl for unclear purposes. I have experienced it, too; not raping, but extorting money, or just detaining to improve their statistics. Being so active in his investigations, German received a shot from a pneumatic weapon in his head, almost causing a death. He is still struggling to recover”.

Being so active in his investigations, German received a shot from a pneumatic weapon in his head, almost causing a death. He is still struggling to recover

Impressed by Galdetsky story, Yuliya decided she had to oppose this evil. “I found out that policemen have no right to detain someone and demand documents for no reason. If you are bleeding, they can ask you what happened. If they have APB for you, they can detain you, but they must tell its number. They can also do it, if they have evidence that you stay in Moscow longer than 90 days without a registration. They cannot know it, though, unless they question your neighbours and consult the migration office”.

Yuliya says that police officers have started to cover up with fake campaigns, such as Interception or Illegal Migrant, to justify their unlawful detentions. “Sometimes they refer to the Moscow City Passport Regulations, non-existent since 1991. I didn’t know it until short time ago, though”.

Together with her colleagues from the International Human Rights Movement, Yuliya established a programme for dealing with police and civil education. They created a leaflet instructing detainees on their rights. In 2007, they succeeded in implementing a fake advertisement campaign in subway: “The inspiration came from huge stickers placed in metro trains, saying ‘the Metro offers policemen jobs’. I used Photoshop to produce a same-design sticker, explaining rights of detainees. Early in the morning, we placed them right on the top of the previous ones. They stayed in the trains for years”.

With colleagues, they produced and wore badges “Yes, I am an interloper”. “It was a challenge, since it could have provoked an assault or an extra-detention. Yet, we realised we need to get out of our ghetto feeling, - goes on Yuliya. – We knew the law better than policemen. They would ask for documents, and we would ask for theirs. Later on, we started interfering when they detained migrants from Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. Now, police officers are obliged to wear 5-digit ID badge. This was a top achievement of our campaign. Yet, things are becoming worse, again. Back in Moscow, I saw police stopping migrants again. Because we are all out of Moscow or even Russia”.

Veniamin stressed just 10 people sufficed to make difference in Moscow after consistent every-day effort against police’s illegal actions during three years: “We would interfere in any situation, regardless of where we would be going”.

Lithuanian language Tibetan style

After strong requests of a private pre-school, he had to leave it because of hyperactivity. As a result, the family decided to open their own kinder-garden

To prevent Tibetan language from disappearing, Yuliya and Veniamin started learning it. In Lithuania, they found out it had been the same story, with local language banned under Czar to destroy the Lithuanian identity. Rather than applying for an asylum, Bashinovs launched a business in Lithuania. At the office of Snow Lion, their company, they placed a flag of Tibet with two snow lions, the Sun and three yellow borders around a square, the fourth absent to symbolise Tibet’s openness to the world. Their son Sasha appeared to be problematic; after strong requests of a private pre-school, he had to leave it because of hyperactivity. As a result, the family decided to open their own kinder-garden. They had to meet a lot of requirements to get their license; notably, they never had to pay bribes, something they find impossible in Russia.

As Bashinova and Dmitroshkin are generating new business ideas, they have to prove the Lithuanian Migration Department that they are real rather than fake.

Lithuania had passed a ‘Three Lithuanians’ Law right before their arrival. A requirement to hire three local citizens in their firm was a blow against their business plan; yet, they met it honestly. Our interviewees told us export of corruption to Lithuania would be unacceptable for them under any circumstances.

Their kinder-garden became unprofitable as Vilnius addressed the issue of pre-school care shortage at the municipal level. As Bashinova and Dmitroshkin are generating new business ideas, they have to prove the Lithuanian Migration Department that they are real rather than fake. Yuliya says her sister with a husband are in the same situation. They have opened a Buryat kitchen restaurant “Buryats in Vilnius”, offering Buryat Buuzas and poppy flour cakes. “Almost completely obliterated as an ethnicity, Buryats in Russia only have their kitchen left. I think Lithuanians should be cautious vis-à-vis Russian nationalism”, - our collocutors say.

Big Game

“Quite often, our Lithuanian friends don’t get the problem of Russian nationalism in Russia,” – says Yuliya, moving to her story about the Big Game of Northern Brotherhood nationalists, which has once shocked them and caused long-time tensions. “They had seven or nine levels. If you are at level 1, for example, you have to distribute Northern Brotherhood flyers in your district. At level 2, to place a juice package on or under a car and take a picture, imitating mine planting. After level 5 or 6, the public part of the game is over”, - started Veniamin.

To get to the top, you need to kill either an antifascist, or a human rights defender, or a lawyer undertaking anti-fascist cases, or a judge sentencing some nationalists.

Yuliya goes on to tell about the top level: “To get to the top, you need to kill either an antifascist, or a human rights defender, or a lawyer undertaking anti-fascist cases, or a judge sentencing some nationalists. A mere being a part of the anti-fascist subculture was enough to be bagged in 2009. They would be apprehended at street actions and face trials for violence against public officers. Stas Markelov was a lawyer in Moscow, who would undertake all antifascists’ cases. A former left activist, he cut his hair, put on a suit and became a lawyer. Apart from defending antifascists in courts, he was ready to come to police in the middle of the night to get them off there. He had once said that he was tired of coming across his friends’ names in police chronicles. He said they would get us all, unless we join forces and fight back. He was killed on 19 January 2009”.

The ostentatious murder took place in the centre of Moscow. Together with Markelov, they killed Anastasiya Baburova, an investigative journalist of Novaya Gazeta, who was with him. In her work, Baburova focused on neo-Nazi activities. “Our analysis showed he was a target of the game. His killing was not a part of the Big Game, but he had been included in it as a target. He was 34, younger than we are now,” - tell Yuliya and Veniamin. – Perpetrators were imprisoned, but not all of them. Novaya Gazeta investigations and our own analysis were leading to the presidential administration and, in particular, to Surkov’s right-hand man, Nikita Ivanov. Pocket nationalists were just a tool of Kremlin”.

People smiling

They say they have never experienced a single case of nationalism in Lithuania. Yuliya says she had been horror struck by multiple smiles she received during first 1.5 months of her stay. According to Veniamin, people in Lithuania are so not prone to conflict that you cannot even have a scrap with an alcoholic or a homeless person on a street. He thinks people could be slightly more assertive here. Kids are too calm, even depressed, he thinks. Veniamin feels pity that refugees from Syria leave Lithuania, failing to integrate; they could help to bring some fresh blood to parenting.

Yuliya says she had been horror struck by multiple smiles she received during first 1.5 months of her stay. According to Veniamin, people in Lithuania are so not prone to conflict that you cannot even have a scrap with an alcoholic or a homeless person on a street.

Rather than trying to earn more, Lithuanian companies offer their clients opportunities to save money, leaving Veniamin surprised. Opening a café or a shop is a lifetime investment; therefore, owners do not seek immediate returns, in a sharp contrast to Russia, where investors try to recover their money as soon as possible, cautious of possible change of regulations. Veniamin describes a typical Russian’s wealth as ‘palaces on piles’. Abundance of garbage dumps is another characteristic of Russia. You cannot explain a Russian that he should pay for waste management, says Veniamin; as a result, garbage is everywhere, including public transport stops, along fences, motors ways and railroads.

Veniamin notes the openness of Lithuanian public authorities as opposed to Russian ones, accessible only by a letter.

St. Valentine loves everyone

Yuliya and Veniamin met each other on Valentine’s Day in 2007 near the Drug Control Office, during a picket for legalisation of substitution therapy for drug addicts. “Rather than controlling the drug circulation, this federal institution was running it. At a certain point, they started banning everything. The biggest problem was that they began to fight against the healthcare system. There was a case against veterinarians applying painkillers that were considered narcotic drugs. Another case was against chemists selling ethyl oxide. Later, they prosecuted pastry-cooks for using confectionary poppy seeds. Some people are still imprisoned,” – tells Veniamin.

Bashinova says that treatment of drug addicts had been a taboo in Russia for a long time. They were doomed to either a mental hospital, or a grave. “Russia had no substitution therapy whatsoever. Even Belarus had it. We wanted it. On Valentine’s Day, we created a poster saying ‘They loved, too’. Drug addicts are people. They love. It is their day, too. It is a point of living,” – explains Yuliya.

15 to 20 people showed up to the picket. The Young Guard (the youth organisation of the ruling party – Int.) came to defeat them. “They thought we would be speaking for cannabis legalisation or something like this. In their view, we are ‘drugsters’, too. They didn’t get our message on that day. Something about love and substitution therapy… With their pattern failed, they stood for a while with their tricolour and left having done nothing”, - remembers Veniamin.

‘And later, we were blocked’

Yuliya started as a journalist. She studied at Journalism Faculty of the Moscow State University. Her parents were human rights defenders and had their journal for which she wrote stories. Covering mostly human rights, she would also test herself in cooperation with other media. “And then I met guys from the Human Rights Movement. I realised I had been looking for them, - admits she. – I had always enjoyed movies and TV shows covering people taking to the streets and making difference. It was non-existent in Russia, though, and I didn’t know how to do it. Having met these guys, I realised I could learn from them. They were running good seminars focusing on advocacy and human rights. Enthusiastic, I joined the Moscow branch”.

Migration was not a major issue yet, but the inherent racism was there, targeting people from other regions of Russia with an appearance of a non-Russian muscovite.

These were ‘vegetarian’ times, says Yuliya: “It was safe and soft. It was fun, actually. We mostly focused on education. In early 2000s, situation started to change. I joined in 2006, when ‘Russian Marches’ were beginning in Moscow. Seeing them in a so multicultural and multi-ethnic city embarrassed me. It was a revelation that someone could run a ‘Russian March’ and say that people like me are not welcome here. That we are Asian intruders. Migration was not a major issue yet, but the inherent racism was there, targeting people from other regions of Russia with an appearance of a non-Russian muscovite. As a journalist, I joined an emerging Left Anti-Fascist Front. Not a leftist myself, I did not realise then what it was. I learnt later about a wide spectrum of left-wingers. I came to their meeting and heard what they wanted, so I joined immediately”.

“They were going to hinder the second Russian March,” – interrupts her Veniamin.

“I left my role of a journalist at this meeting. In general, I stayed a journalist, - explains Yuliya. – It was an insider-driven civil journalism, a specific kind of journalism. Clearly, it was not free of bias”.

I started a career at a commercial unit of Moscow Times, dealing with papers and calls, calls and papers. Human rights had disappointed me.The demotivation came from a lack of result, with Nazis still walking around and killings of antifascists having started some time later.

Yuliya quitted her journalism studies on her 5th year because of her father’s disease and eventual death. “After this, the activism absorbed my life. After some attempts to graduate, I realised a one-week advanced training course gives me more than 5 or 6 years of formal journalism studies,” – summarises she.

Human rights activities brought disappointment: “I burnt out and left all three organisations where I had been working. I started a career at a commercial unit of Moscow Times, dealing with papers and calls, calls and papers. Human rights had disappointed me.The demotivation came from a lack of result, with Nazis still walking around and killings of antifascists having started some time later. The list of murders was growing. After 18 months of work at Moscow Times, I received a proposal to cooperate with Grani.ru. I realised I needed it for my development. Working there was actually my dream, since I had been reading Grani on a daily basis. And later, we were blocked”.

Grani.ru was included in a list of banned websites on 13 March 2014 for ‘calls to illegal activities and participation in mass events in violation of established procedures’.

One day, she gave me a piece of fluoroplastic, - she tells, laughing. – It is the most romantic gift I have ever received

A chemist and technologist by education, Veniamin became interested in street civil activism in 2006, after the murder of Anna Politkovskaya: “I found out a possibility and a need to speak up publicly”. He joined Free Radicals movement, first; it was only after a while when Veniamin met Yuliya. During our interview, Yuliya kept saying she was surprised by not meeting him earlier: “We shared so many priorities, such as cannabis legalisation, opposing unmotivated prohibitions, supporting freedom of assembly and a voluntary military service”, - lists Veniamin.

“I did not make it to the commemoration of Politkovskaya, though. I was busy irradiating fluoroplastic in Obninsk,” – added Veniamin unexpectedly.

Yuliya says she does not remember anymore what fluoroplastic is. Yet, she remembers that Veniamin was very much into it during their first meeting. “One day, she gave me a piece of fluoroplastic, - she tells, laughing. – It is the most romantic gift I have ever received”. “It is milk-white, - explains Veniamin, – before irradiation. Irradiated, it becomes yellowish and somewhat transparent”.