Natalia Arno

President of Free Russia Foundation

The year we started our journey for a Free Russia

It’s a tradition to sum up the results of a year before the New Year celebration. For us, at Free Russia Foundation, it’s been a very eventful and challenging year – the startup year for our organization.

In 2015 we’ve identified what our mission and goals are, what projects we are going to implement and why an organization like ours is needed. The answer to the question why is very simple and obvious – we want our country back; we want a free Russia.  For the entire year we were working hard to make our dream closer to reality.

However, 2015 hasn’t been an easy year for us – Russians who love our country and who witness the dangerous direction Russia is moving; Russians who are smart, talented, creative and open-minded, but who are not welcomed in our own homeland for being different or for having opposite views; Russians who want to be proud of our country, its rich history and culture, but who are ashamed for the actions of the current Russian regime.

We lived this year on the pulse of the events in our country.  But for rare exceptions, the news from our homeland in 2015 were depressing and sad. Let’s recall some of the most important developments of the past year.

Each January 1 for us now is the day when the cruelest anti-orphan law came into effect.  We feel pain of people like Katrina Morriss and her family whose Lera-Natasha stayed in the orphanage and was deprived of having a family and a normal life. We feel pain for 200 other families who couldn’t meet their almost adopted children. For three years since the adoption of that infamous law, we help the Morriss family to send gifts to their daughter. The first route was the longest and had quite a few legs: San Diego – Sacramento – Warsaw – Moscow – St. Petersburg. We thank all our friends who agreed to be mules and made it possible  to deliver those gifts to the orphanage three years in a row.

We started 2015 by assisting the legal team of Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian female pilot and MP and now political prisoner.  Throughout this year we’ve held many meetings and briefings, wrote a lot of emails, posts and tweets, participated in several global campaigns, organized several petitions, affidavits and events on the Savchenko’s case. From January to March we were worried about her health while she was on a long hunger strike, and we are worried about her health now that she has resumed it. All our big activities to help Nadia were important, but some simple things were important, too. We are especially happy to facilitate the letter exchange between her and a 9-year old Ukrainian-American girl. For this girl, for all Ukrainians and for pro-democracy Russians, Nadia is a symbol of heroism and hope for the better future. And we are sure for Nadia that this little girl’s words were a source for endurance and a reason to keep fighting. They were for us, too.

On February 27 we all were shot with six bullets near the Kremlin. Boris Nemtsov was murdered there that night. All of us were wounded. We and our like-minded fellow Russians and allies went to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities, and to the streets of New York, San Francisco, Warsaw, Berlin and other world cities, to show that we are not afraid and that we are more determined than ever to fight for a free Russia. Nemtsov believed in it, and so we do.

In 2015 we were still in shock by what Putin’s Russia had unleashed in Ukraine. We contributed to telling the truth about it by assisting Ukrainian filmmakers to present their documentary, “Brothers in Arms,” about the events in Eastern Ukraine; we translated into English the report “Putin. War” based on materials from Boris Nemtsov. The report proved Russia’s military involvement into the events in Eastern Ukraine. We made a series of presentations of the report and facilitated its translation into other languages.

We believe that the truth will eventually win. It’s our best and most efficient weapon. Especially in this global information war that Russia is conducting on such a large scale. We assist Nemtsov’s colleague, Leonid Martynyuk, to revive the Youtube channel they created together – Lies of Putin’s Regime. Our first joint video is devoted to the economic deadlock in Russia as a result of Putin’s fifteen-year-rule. We are working on other reports and research papers, which will show the need of the political and economic reforms in Russia. Prior to Putin’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly we reminded the world that #PutinKills and is responsible for Kursk, Beslan and Nord-Ost tragedies, the MH17 air crash, deaths of many Ukrainian and Russian soldiers and political murders.

The latest victim of Putin’s propaganda war is Vlad Kolesnikov, a teenager, who firmly disapproved of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and who “didn’t want to fight against his own brothers.” On December 25 he committed suicide – for his views and beliefs he was under huge pressure from Russian police, official media, pro-Kremlin supporters and his own family. Zhanna Nemtsova said that her father was murdered because of the atmosphere of hatred and aggression unleashed and encouraged by Putin’s regime. This atmosphere killed Vlad, too. And all of us are guilty: Putin’s backers – for hounding him to his death, and us, pro-democracy Russians, for not helping him in time.

In May the Russian Parliament adopted another draconian law – on “undesirable” organizations – worsening the already-difficult life for Russian civil society organizations. Like many other institutions, our Free Russia Foundation condemned the adoption of such a law. It’s another reason for all pro-democracy Russians abroad to become more active and to bear a moral responsibility for our homeland. We have left Russia for many reasons, often for safety or freedom motives, but we should stay connected. We can do many things working together  – help those who stayed in Russia and keep fighting morally, intellectually, financially and technologically. At the very least many of us can still vote and all of us can donate to those candidates who embody democratic values.

In December, the State Duma passed a new law on the priority of the Constitutional Court’s decisions over those made by international institutions. Though over years Russia has consistently neglected international laws and procedures, this act to isolate itself from international law is very dangerous for its own citizens. It will impact those Russians who are trying to seek justice in the European Court of Human Rights. It will also damage Russia’s reputation and investment attractiveness and further deteriorate the situation with human rights inside Russia.

2015 is marked with more pressure on the Russian pro-democracy opposition, civil society and independent media. There were new repressive laws, new arrests including on the Bolotnaya Case and under the law on protests, more people left Russia including Evgeniya Chirikova, Vera Kichanova, Konstantin Sonin and many others. Among a few positive things we can note a miracle recovery of Vladimir Kara-Murza who was poisoned for his political activity. We also support the unification of pro-democracy political forces, that they formed the Democratic Coalition and are ready to participate in the parliamentary elections in 2016.

Throughout 2015 we served as a bridge between Russian political and civic activists and their Western peers, policy-makers and experts.  We organized high-level presentations with some of the best experts from Russia in such areas as the economy, energy, political and geopolitical viewpoints, the nexus of terrorism in the region, and the rule of law. When needed we assisted not only our Russian colleagues, but also our Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Georgian, Lithuanian and Polish partners. It’s another very powerful weapon we have in our arsenal that the Kremlin can’t overcome – solidarity. We believe in our cause and we help each other. One of our strategies for the next year is building more partnerships and coalitions. We are grateful to all our current partners and we are looking forward to having more allies.

So, dear friends and supporters, happy upcoming 2016! Let’s make it a better year! We are fighting for the right cause and may the force be with us!

Stay with us in 2016