Tatyana Dorutina joined politics in her forties, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. Together with MP Galina Starovoytova, they established the League of Women Voters in spring 1997 in Saint Petersburg to train women parliamentary candidates and election observers.
The League office became a focal point for civil activists from many parties and groups, says Dorutina. It was there that she met Marina Salye, the author of the well-known report on corrupted deals of Vladimir Putin, the-then Russian president-to-be. She helped her in creation of Russia’s first liberal party, the Free Democratic Party of Russia (SvDPR).
Galina Starovoytova was shot dead at the entrance hall of her apartment block in autumn 1998. Salye moved to a rural area in 2001. She had openly stated in run-up to elections that people should not vote for Putin. “We held the last SvDPR congress in 2000, after the election of Putin as the president. We celebrated the 10 years anniversary of the party. Salye said at this congress: the politics is over. I objected: Marina Yevgenyevna, Putin will stay for four years, and then people will elect someone else. She said: no, the politics is gone,” – remembers Dorutina. 15 years later, Tatyana moved to Lithuania herself, cautious of criminal prosecution following the recognition of the League as a foreign agent and discovering illegal software during an inspection. She had to liquidate the organisation, as founders saw no opportunity to continue working under this label. Tatyana emphasises that the ‘foreign agent’ phrase has strong negative connotation in Russian.
First introduction to politics
In Soviet times, Tatyana Dorutina worked in R&D. Her thesis work laid foundation for a small industry. “I was active in many sports. We would go canoeing or skiing, play Ping-Pong, or skating. The Soviet time was interesting in a way, since people had a lot of energy that they could not use anywhere, - remembers Tatyana. – You finish work at 5 or 6 sharp, and you have a lot of time left for you. I even attended knitting courses. I was not involved in public life. One day, my life turned around: I met Marina Salye and became active in politics. I quitted my scientific work”.
It was the beginning of Gorbachev’s Perestroika. “Petersburg began to boil up in 1989, with lots of perestroika groups emerging, people joining ‘battle groups’, and I moved to the Popular Front,” – tells Tatyana. Dorutina says that Salye inspired her to contribute to the first political party: “We met many western partners and learnt about electoral techniques. We used whatever was available for the first elections; our posters were hand-made. You might find it strange, but multiplying equipment was banned under Soviet times, so it was not available. It was still punishable by court in 1989”.
Tatyana and her supporters were the originators of the Democratic Party, only to leave it later and establish the pro-liberal Free Democratic Party: “We created the Charter and the platform. No one knew what politics and political parties are about”.
Salye was running training courses around the country where the Free Democratic Party had branches: in Arkhangelsk, Omsk, Barnaul, Yekaterinburg, Chelyabinsk, Petersburg, and Leningradskaya Oblast (the region around Saint Petersburg, transl.). The seminars focused on the history of Russian liberalism and awareness raising about political organisation and party activities. “It nothing new now. It was different then, after 70 years of life under just one party and very low culture of discussion. People were often very categorical”, - notes Tatyana.
The National Democratic Institute, US, organised workshops focusing on elections. “The only thing many people in Russia know about the American aid was the ‘American cookies’. People tend to forget or ignore that, for many of us, it was first introduction to politics”.
With her colleagues, Tatyana started establishing the women’s political community in Petersburg in 1995. In the beginning, the Independent Women’s Coalition emerged. “I was not a supporter of this brand. Yet, we used it in the beginning. In all 16 districts, we ran candidates’ meetings with voters during the elections to the State Duma”. These were first face-to-face debates. Dorutina remembers that the electoral commissions could not even shape their own opinion about these initiatives.
The League of Women Voters
In 1997, Tatyana established a smaller organisation, the League of Women Voters, in Saint Petersburg. “It was the first organisation in Russia to aim at training women candidates for elections, educating women, defending women’s and all voters’ rights, and observing elections.
These were mostly women over 40 who were joining the League: “As a rule, women become interested in politics and public life when the marriage and children care stages are over. When the children are grown-up and the women maybe divorced or they just want some new activities and have more freedom in their choice”.
As a network project, the League of Women Voters had branches in more than 20 cities of Russia. For the majority of members, this was the first experience of public activism.
This was time when women were new in politics. Therefore, their political platform was very simple to define: we stand for all good things! “Statistically, when women constitute more than 30 per cent of members in representative bodies, they start addressing children’s rights; with a level over 40 per cent they speak up for women’s rights. Russia has very poor indicators on domestic violence, gender equality, and participation in political parties and legislatures, - says Dorutina. – The attitude to women is becoming increasingly patriarchal, with the Russian Orthodox Church keen to introduce family values of 19th century”.
Tatyana says that some women politicians are gender-sensitive, while others are just party members that do not promote gender approaches neither by voting nor in person. “We have some women MPs in Russia, but they are the worst threat for women, such as Mizulina or Yarovaya. They promote sexism, the secondary role of women and their only role in giving birth and cooking shchi”.
According to Dorutina, the League board did not differentiate members by political views: “We had pro-communist and pro-liberal members. The central task was to promote voters’ participation and monitoring the elections. However, when the violations of human rights started in Russia in 2000s, the organisation leaned to liberals”. She claims to have personally led about a thousand workshops for poll-watchers from different parties, ranging from communists to liberals. The League coached up to 300 women candidates per elections at the best of times, says Dorutina. “Out of 25 city councillors elected at local elections in Vyborg in late 90-ies, 8 women were from the League of Women Voters,” – remembers Tatyana.
The power environment changed significantly at next elections, says Dorutina: “Women started receiving threats from local men: businessmen, bandits and local executives. They needed these seats for their cronies. They wanted to get rid of the incumbents, either men or women. Many women councillors refused running for next elections, even in Vyborg where the League was strong. They said: we are too afraid to stand in elections! One of men candidates was even thrown through a window”.
Dorutina says that only NGOs addressed the gender equality issue in 90ies in Russia: “We were telling what gender is, raising awareness on gender equality and gender budgeting”. Men were active in attending these lectures, too. “The women’s community in Russia was quite strong! We were closely connected to each other and well consolidated”, - says Dorutina.
Jokes about Putin
The League of Women Voters had its own same-name newspaper, which was closed in 2012. Dorutina says this newspaper is a good example of how NGOs were being defeated: “At first, we had circulations of hundreds of thousands. Published one per two weeks, then once per month, with shrinking editions, the last issue had just 3.000 copies. The League would distribute it around to administrations of cities and districts. At some point, they banned us from leaving our newspapers there. We were bold; the newspaper included a regular column called Jokes about Putin. In the end, inspection came to us. They found nothing against us, though. I told them they should not come back without a proper search warrant and should not summon me without a notice. They left, only to attack our publishing house. They spent a year agitating them; however, inspections revealed no violations. You cannot openly prosecute someone just because they publish jokes about Putin”.
Tatyana summarises that she has gone through the entire process, with the government cooperating with NGOs in the beginning, losing interest later and, in the end, persecuting them.
‘The hotbed of revolution’
The League of Women Voters was constantly at the heart of events, Dorutina says. It was mostly because it provided many communities with a meeting space. “We hosted gatherings of political parties to discuss actions. In early 2000s, we worked with youth, ranging from Limonov’s organisation to the United Russia”.
A year before the Sochi Olympics, campaign against the so-called foreign agents was launched. To avoid the foreign agent label, the League applied for self-liquidation. The organisation had received support from many foreign donors, such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the embassies of Canada and USA, Adenauer Foundation, etc. The League board decided to stop receiving foreign aid; nevertheless, it did not help, and endless inspections started. “The only advantage of all these inspections was that the prosecutor’s office announced us as foreign agents by their own decision, thus releasing us of paying a fine. Many organisations were punished by fines at those times,” – says Tatyana.
One morning, Dorutina received a call from a neighbouring organisation of the League. Her neighbours warned her: “Tatyana Sergeyevna, please don’t come to work. There is a car with some men waiting; they have asked about you”. The unknown persons watched the office for several days.
As the organisation was under liquidation, it ran no projects; yet, members still attended meetings. “We came together one evening. The office was full of people and banners for fair elections, flags of NGOs and many countries. All of a sudden, a joint inspection came from the prosecutor’s office, police, fireguards, tax authorities, with two attesting witnesses. The prosecutor, a young boy, with his eyes nearly falling out of his head, exclaimed: “This is a real hotbed of revolution!”
After this visit, the organisation received multiple summons to the prosecutor’s office, demanding documents, even on Easter: “I said, c’mon, the godless, it’s Easter today. They said, make sure to bring documents to avoid a fine”, - remembers Tatyana. In the end, police officers came and broke accountant’s door. They identified an illegal accounting programme on her computer. “The software was actually legal. They launched a prosecution against an indefinite range of persons”. Lawyers explained that this concept could easily lead to the prosecution of the head of the organisation.
Friends recommended Tatyana to leave. “It took me two days to pack my staff and leave. I am staying on a temporary residence permit in Lithuania now. I am not applying for political asylum, since I don’t want to lose my connections with my friends and family in Russia. I continue cooperation with my Russian colleagues; I meet them on regular basis at workshops and trainings. We need to educate young people on developments in the country, so that they are prepared for the change when it occurs”.
Tatyana notes that Putin is 17 years in power, longer than Brezhnev was; a whole new generation grew up knowing no other rulers.
“If I were 45 now, I would run for the presidency”
Despite the lack of power rotation and dangerous political stagnation, Tatyana would not mind participating in politics at the highest level: “If I were 45, I would be running for the presidency”. Dorutina says that she has fully participated in elections only once, running for Saint Petersburg legislature in 1998. “18 candidates were running in my district. I reached the run-off. Starovoytova endorsed me. These were exciting elections, with the opposition winning many seats. Then, they killed Starovoytova. I was about to win against the United Russia leader, but they rigged the elections”.
When crackdown on fundamental rights started, Dorutina says, speaking about gender equality became pointless in Russia. “The first need is to reintroduce the right to life, information, and the freedom of assembly and movement. As fundamental human rights are under massive attack in Russia, women’s rights are not seen as an issue”.