Quarant’anni di impegno per affermare i diritti umani, schiacciati oggi come ieri ij tutto il mondo, e in particolare nella Russia capitalistico-stalinista di Vladimir Putin. I successi, ma anche gli scacchi e le delusioni, di un attivista che ha fatto della battaglia in difesa dell’uomo e dello Stato di diritto le sue ragioni di vita. Un olandese che ha ottenuto la cittadinnza onoraria della Lituania. Robert van Voren si racconta e traccia un bilancio per i suoi lettori di Libertates
40 years in human rights – still in the desert
When Moses led the Jews out of Israel he was told to keep them in the desert for forty years before reaching the Promised Land. The reason was clear and simple: it takes generations to rid themselves of slavery and to become free human beings. While roaming the desert for four decades, encountering hardship after hardship, the old generations died and by the time Moses was able to lead his people into the Promised Land only young and untainted followers remained.
2017 is for me a special year: it is forty years ago that I started my work as a human rights activist, at the age of 17, a decision that determined the course of my life and changed my perceptions forever. In 1977, I decided it was time to become active on behalf of political prisoners in the USSR. My first case was that of Sergei Adamovich Kovalyov, and I remember going from door to door in my neighborhood in Rotterdam collecting signatures under a petition to Leonid Brezhnev, demanding his release. Many of those who dared to sign only put an “X” under the petition, afraid that one day invading Soviet troops would find them and hold them accountable.
Soon I set up a European defense committee for Aleksandr Podrabinek, who has just been arrested and sentenced to his first term of imprisonment, and at the same time the then famous Soviet dissident and political prisoner Vladimir Bukovsky took me under his wings. The result is that now, forty years later, I am still engaged in defending political prisoners in the core of the USSR, Russia (which eagerly would reestablish the very same USSR, by the way), and fighting the return of the use of psychiatry for political prisoners in Russia and several other former Soviet republics.
While looking back I wonder how much has changed. Did we achieve anything, or were these years – decades – a matter of lost energy and commitment, and are we back to square one?
From the very start, my interest was particularly focused on political prisoners who wound up in psychiatric hospitals. This practice was successfully ended at the end of the Soviet period, although I wonder whether the “old fox” Eduard Shevardnadze did actually more to end this practice than we with our years of campaigning. Subsequently, I became fully engaged in the quest to reform mental health care services in the former Soviet Union. Gradually the work of my organization, the Global Initiative on Psychiatry (GIP), expanded into Central and Eastern Europe, and later also to African countries, Sri Lanka and Indochina. Literally hundreds of first class professionals joined our work, provided expertise, worked on hundreds and hundreds of projects, supported patients, their relatives, and reform-minded professionals, and everywhere we battled the old system of incarcerating persons with mental illness in big and inhumane institutions.
These projects, big and small, and the acquaintance of so many amazing people who dedicated time and energy to the common goal made time fly, and forty years passed in no time. Only looking in the mirror convinces me that I am no longer the long-haired human rights activist of the 1980s dressed in a black fur coat or a squatter jacket, which earned me the name of being a right-wing leftist radical.
Much remains to be done. So much that one would almost become depressed, if not for the fact that still people join our ranks, new generations, who believe in the same things and are willing to dedicate their time and energy. In many of the countries where we worked or continue the work the situation is fundamentally different, and surely better, even though most of our – probably too optimistic -goals were not reached.
The situation is more sad when it comes to the core of my first focus of attention, the USSR or, as it is now called, Russia. I deliberately link the two – USSR and Russia – because over the last decade, at least, the USSR has been revamped by a faithful heir to Yuri Andropov, the KGB Chief of 1967-1982, who used to be my main adversary (without him knowing it, of course). Under Andropov’s faithful pupil, Vladimir Putin, Russia has slid back into the old Soviet mold, has become a somewhat Chinese version of the USSR, where you can do business and be a raw capitalist as long as you keep your mouth shut and don’t become part of the “fifth column” and an “enemy of the people”. Putin has combined the worst of capitalism with the worst of Stalinism, and has cleverly used all the capacity of the FSB to subvert Western democracy. He also re-introduced the use of psychiatry for political purposes, even though it has not (yet) become a systemic means of repression as it was in the USSR.
When looking back forty years I am afraid the situation is much more dangerous than it was when I started to become a human rights activist. Indeed, I very much fear the future, but not for myself. I fear the future of my kids and loved-ones, I fear the future of the countries that I came to love, former Soviet republics that manage to rid themselves of Russian domination and in more or much lesser forms shook off the shackles of Sovietism.
During these forty years I emigrated to the former USSR, emotionally and gradually also physically, and I became part of the region that I now call my home. However, that also has its consequences. When President Adamkus honored me with Lithuanian citizenship in 2003, I full well understood that that citizenship gave me rights, but also duties. This includes putting the finger on painful spots, such as the dark pages of the Holocaust, but also defending the country against the inextinguishable desire of some Russians to consider Lithuania “ours” – that is: part of the Russian Empire. The same commitment I feel to other countries in the region that I call my own, and with the sameobligations – to support, to defend, to criticize, and to help changepost-Soviet society into something that we tend to call a civil society based on the rule of law.
Forty years passed by in no time, it is amazing. But there is no time to sit back and relax. Putin in Russia, Trump in the United States, the possibility of Le Pen in France and Wilders in The Netherlands, this is enough to stimulate a dead corpse into action. When thinking of the dangers ahead I feel the same energy I had forty years ago, when I was only at the beginning of a long and winding road without yet knowing the ultimate direction.
di Robert van Voren