This is an open letter from the former activists of the Youth Human Rights Movement, namely Olga Aksarina, Darina Zabludovskaya, Elizaveta Markova, Ramila Gubaydullina, Yulia Arkhipova, and Anastasia Sultanova. Elizaveta Vereshchagina joins us in paragraph 1 of our requirements. We write the letter to draw attention of the human rights community to the various abuses and violations that, in our opinion, have prevailed within the YHRM for the past 12 years at least, and to call for changes.
We have repeatedly raised the issues discussed in this letter with the members and honorary members of the YHRM, as well as with other representatives of the human rights community. As of today, we do not have any confirmations that anything has or is going to be changed upon those requests. Moreover, in December 2019 a friendly media undertook preparation of a material on what had been happening in the YHRM. Unfortunately, in August 2020 we received the news that the author was no longer ready to continue her investigation. Therefore, we decided to share our own findings in an open letter and to post it on the blog.
What is YHRM?
The Youth Human Rights Movement (YHRM) was founded in 1998 as a community of young human rights defenders, mainly from the CIS countries. In 2009, the YHRM received participatory status at the Council of Europe. By 2020, the movement numbered about a hundred active participants in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. There are many well-known human rights defenders among the movement’s honorary members.
Up until 2019, the president of the YHRM was Andrey Yurov, a human rights defender and former member of the Russian Presidential Council for Human Rights (2012–2019). People got into the movement through his trainings organized by the International School of Human Rights and Civil Action. Inside the YHRM, there was a so-called “core” of the movement consisting of people personally loyal to Andrey Yurov. They were responsible for project management, resource allocation, etc. At different times there were different people, but invariably for 10 years or more those included Elena (Alyona) Obyezdchikova, Maria Gordeeva, Lyudmila Dronova (Lada Burdacheva), Dmitry Makarov, Vitus Media, Anastasia Nikitina, Victoria Gromova, and Konstantin Baranov.
Information about the violations involving Yurov also went public in February 2020 after the post of Anna Dobrovolskaya, who had been a part of the YHRM “core” until 2017 and in 2018 become the executive director of the Memorial Human Rights Center. Anna wrote that “Andrey Yurov had many sexual relationships with both people from the team and with the participants of his seminars, there were cases of physical violence, what can be called harassment and involuntary sexual contact.”
A few days after Anna's post, Yurov gave an interview in which he confirmed that the violence had taken place but, according to him, those were few isolated cases. He also stated that he was mentally ill.
Abuses within the YHRM. The Activists’ Investigation
We have conducted our investigation of the harassment and improper use of the organization's resources.
For years, the Youth Human Rights Movement was building partnerships with prominent human rights organizations. For these ends, depending on the situation, the representatives of the YHRM “core” used several organizations, which we are going to call “avatars”. The most well-known include:
• Human Rights House — Voronezh;
• International School of Human Rights and Civic Actions, as well as its projects: Moscow and St. Petersburg Open Schools of Human Rights;
• Joint Public Observation Group;
• Interregional Human Rights Group — Chernozemye;
• Northwest Civic Academy.
Since about 2000, a total of several million euros have been allocated for the YHRM projects and projects of “avatar” organizations. We believe that the representatives of the YHRM “core” used those grants in a way that was not declared to donors and partners. A non-transparent system was created by the “core” for redistributing the money between themselves and their projects. To perform the paid functions declared in grants, volunteer activists were invited, either without any payment, or receiving official payment, most of which was then taken back by the “core” representatives. This is confirmed by the cases of Ramila Gubaidullina, Anastasia Sultanova, Elizaveta Vereshchagina and other activists who have suffered underpayment for years. To partner organizations, volunteers were presented as project employees receiving honoraria.
In other words, the activists did the work on a volunteer or less than a half-paid basis, and the YHRM “core” took the funds allocated for them and transferred the money to a “blend pool”. According to our information, funds from the “pool” were spent, among other things, on long-term and short-term rent of apartments in different cities, in which Andrey Yurov held personal meetings, on his gifts to female activists and his flights to them.
Where did the volunteers come from? Education was one of the key YHRM activities. All of the YHRM projects included, in one form or another, “unique educational techniques”: a series of lengthy trainings, without which further participation in any of the YHRM projects was impossible. Annually, according to various estimates, from 200 to 1000 people passed through such educational events (Moscow and St. Petersburg Open Schools of Human Rights, Northwest Civic Academy). The participants were invited join one of the YHRM teams.
Many activists note that they often received negative motivation from the YHRM “core” members: accusations of “commercialism” and insufficient desire to serve the “great mission”, lack of education, incompetence, lack of initiative (or, conversely, in showing initiative without the permission of the “elders”), etc. Small financial incentives (2–3 thousand rubles / 21–28 EUR) were positioned as gestures of trust to volunteers from the “core”. Elizaveta Markova, who spent five years in the movement, wrote about this atmosphere in detail.
Very young, even teenage, women usually became volunteers of the YHRM. They responded to Andrey Yurov's invitations to communicate and sympathized with the team and the ideas of the movement. Thanks to his charisma, Yurov eased imposed himself on them as an authority. Unfortunately, he used it to surround himself with young mistresses. In addition to direct sexual contacts (in recent years, Yurov had hidden at least seven simultaneous relationships with young women from his teams in different cities; several of them are ready to confirm this publicly), there were also cases of abuse against girls: beatings, throwing heavy objects, tearing clothes, coercion to have sex, unwanted obsessive touching of the members of teams who were not in a “relationship” with Yurov.
When interviewing the women, it also turned out that he resorted to psychological pressure: Yurov made them feel responsible for his “suicidal thoughts” and threatened that “everything will collapse if you leave.” Thus Yurov motivated the activists to continue personal relations with him and to work in his projects for free (“I need like-minded people, not employees”). He demanded strict secrecy from his “chosen ones”, threatening them with the condemnation from the human rights community, the attention of the FSB, jealousy and hatred from other team members, etc. As a rule, several women worked together in the same teams, either guessing about each other's statuses but too scared to discuss the issue thanks to Yurov’s threats, or not knowing that he had any other relationships at all.
All this together led to the fact that a corporate culture of suppressing financial abuse, harassment, psychological and sexual violence has developed in the YHRM.
Why is it important now?
Formally, Andrey Yurov has retired, and the YHRM has announced its self-dissolution. However, Yurov himself still appears in his personal office in the Voronezh Human Rights House. The representatives of the YHRM “core” continue to actively involve young people, including women, in their events and projects.
Elena (Alyona) Obyezdchikova, the mother of Andrey Yurov's child, continues to run the Human Rights House. Right now the Voronezh Human Rights House “is looking for new employees” in a situation where those already hired receive minimum wages (less than 200 EUR per month).
Dmitry Makarov, who co-chaired the YHRM coordination council until its dissolution, has been the co-chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group since the death of the prominent human rights activist Lyudmila Alekseeva.
Maria Gordeeva and Lyudmila Dronova (Lada Burdacheva), who were in charge of administering Moscow and St. Petersburg Open Schools of Human Rights, continue to organize trainings under such brands as the Human Rights Laboratory and the Northwest Civic Academy.
In a word, people who have been building their work upon traumatic practices, covering various types of violence, and committing financial misconduct for years continue their work in the field of human rights. Some of them, after the public discussion of issues in question has evolved, exert psychological pressure on the activists in private messages.
To the best of our knowledge, since 2018, several representatives of the human rights community have tried to influence the situation non-publicly and to persuade the listed people from the YHRM “core” to adopt mechanisms to reduce the risks of repetition of traumatic situations. Unfortunately, we do not know if anything has been really done in this direction.
How we see the resolution of the situation
1. The YHRM and “avatar” organizations, as well as legal entities founded by the people named, shall completely cease their activities and be liquidated. Their developments may be transferred to other organizations and activists for further autonomous development of projects in areas those organizations and activists consider important.
2. Russian and foreign human rights and other non-profit organizations, as well as donors, terminate indefinitely all types of partnership and cooperation with projects and individuals in question, including their employment.
3. We are creating an initiative group, to which we invite the honorary members of the YHRM and the interested representatives of the human rights community. The purpose of the group is to develop, as well as to find funds for, a rehabilitation program for the victims of the YHRM misconduct, including compensation of the payment for psychotherapists, career counselors, and assistance in finding a job. We also ask the victims we do not know about to contact us ([email protected]).
4. Part of the initiative group will develop a draft code of conduct, which will include mechanisms to prevent harassment, abuse in labor relations, and interaction between employees and volunteers. We encourage every non-profit organization to adopt their own code of ethics, based on our project if they wish.