The Moscow News Site That “Provides Daily Therapy for Living in Russia”
The news last Monday: a prosecutor in Chechnya demanded four years behind bars for the human-rights activist Oyub Titiev, on trumped-up drug charges; in Tatarstan, an activist was detained for creating a false gravestone for President Vladimir Putin (with 2019 as his death year); in Moscow, a court ordered the continued pre-trial detention of ten young people arrested a year ago for participating in a fictional opposition organization created by the secret police; also in Moscow, four of the twenty-eight people who had been detained during a weekend protest against restricting access to the Internet said that they had been beaten by police. These and similar headlines made up the home page of OVDInfo.org, an online publication produced in Moscow.
Grigory Okhotin, the thirty-six-year-old co-founder of OVDInfo, told me that he doesn’t actually think of the site as a publication. The articles have headlines and bylines, and the site has an attractive block layout, but, according to Okhotin, OVDInfo is not exactly designed for reading. “I can’t imagine anyone who reads us every day,” he said. “I certainly don’t. That could drive a person crazy.”
OVDInfo started a bit over seven years ago. I witnessed part of what I would later realize was its birth. On December 5, 2011, the day after a parliamentary election, mass protests broke out in Moscow. For years, no demonstration had drawn more than a few hundred people, but that day about ten thousand showed up. Following a rally, a large number of the protesters started off on an improvised march to the federal-election headquarters. Hundreds of people were detained. Okhotin had gone to the protest as a reporter. He and a couple of friends narrowly escaped being loaded onto prisoner transports, and eventually made their way to my kitchen. (I lived nearby.)
Over dinner, they started trying to figure out where the police had taken people: this was the first time in many years that a large number of people had protested and been arrested, and no one seemed to know how the process would work. They got some leads and left to visit police precincts. At that point, it had been three hours since the protesters had been detained—the legal limit for holding someone without booking. “I thought I’d wave my press I.D. and they’d let people out,” Okhotin said. That’s not what happened. But, at the first precinct Okhotin visited, he ran into a former schoolmate, Daniel Beilinson, and together the two men made a tour of Moscow police precincts that night. “We didn’t get anybody out, but we managed to compile the statistics: thirty-two precincts, more than three hundred people detained.” They published the number of people detained, a few names, and the addresses where they were being held, on the site of Bolshoy Gorod (“Big City”), a city magazine.
The following evening, there was another protest. More than six hundred people were detained. This time, people were calling Okhotin or using Facebook Messenger to tell him where they were being taken and who else was with them in the prisoner transport. His cell phone had become a hotline. Over the next few days, Beilinson, who is an activist and a software engineer, launched a Web site that would help them systematize information on arrests. They called it OVDInfo—OVD is the acronym for the Russian term for “police precinct.” As the protests continued through the winter and spring, Okhotin and Beilinson started connecting protesters with defense attorneys. Most of the cases involved fines, and a few resulted in ten or fifteen days’ administrative arrest. That changed when the crackdown began in May, 2012: suddenly, several dozen people were looking at the possibility of years behind bars. By this time, OVDInfo.org was a Web site that had ten people working on it. “They just came out of thin air,” Okhotin said.
They got some funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, which is largely funded by Congress, and then George Soros’s Open Society Foundation: about thirty thousand dollars for six months. They were now able to pay participants about five hundred dollars a month, “enough to use public transportation, have coffee during work meetings and a beer in the evening—and nothing else,” in Okhotin’s estimation. Then Russia passed a law restricting foreign funding for non-governmental organizations, and another allowing the summary closure of “undesirable organizations,” and foundation funding dried up. OVDInfo started raising money directly from readers. Demand seemed to grow in direct proportion to the rise of political persecution: with every passing year, OVDInfo doubled its number of readers. The site now has twenty-eight full-time staff and several hundred volunteers who help document arrests during large protests. In addition to the hotline—what used to be Okhotin’s cell phone—is a bot: people text or call in information and the bot processes it, with one or more humans monitoring it in real time.
I met with Okhotin in Berlin, where he now lives, though not, as one might have assumed, because he fears persecution in Russia. The reason is a certain kind of exhaustion. The work is hard. “News reporters throw up after their shift,” he said—hours on end of taking down testimony about arrests, police violence, torture, and injustice will do that. Being away from Moscow helps, because, outside of work, Okhotin is surrounded by people who live in a different reality. The majority of OVDInfo staff work out of Moscow most of the time, though the organization has started a program that will allow some staff members to work out of a European city outside of Russia for a month. OVDInfo will pay for the airfare and an apartment rental, and will arrange for the person to work out of a partner’s office. It’s a mental-health break. “I want us to be the best place anyone’s ever worked,” Okhotin said. “It’s certainly the best place I have ever worked.”
Last year, OVDInfo did away with what had been a vertical structure, with Okhotin, Daniel Beilinson, and his older brother Boris Beilinson at the helm. Now the organization is divided into seven editorial “cubes” that have equal say at weekly planning meetings. Okhotin said that it makes the decision-making process slower, but better. “Also, from the outside, you can’t tell whom to attack,” he added.
In Moscow, OVDInfo works out of a small office in the center of town. The largest room, which contains a few desks and a conference table for editorial meetings and drinking tea, features a giant, wall-size whiteboard. It is filled with indecipherable notes, many of them smudged, but in the center, in red marker, shines a highly legible reminder that the “Donate.OVDInfo.Org” button must be visible on every page of the site. The office is on the top floor of a building owned by the Memorial Historical Society, which is probably Russia’s oldest activist organization. The stairway is decorated with hanging portraits of Soviet political prisoners and Memorial activists. This is OVDInfo’s heritage: Okhotin’s parents, a linguist and a Pushkin scholar, became political activists in the nineteen-eighties, during perestroika. The Beilinson brothers’ mother was an editor of The Chronicles of Current Events, an underground newspaper devoted to documenting political persecution. Chronicles was a monstrously labor-intensive and dangerous enterprise: it could take months or years to put an article together, a year or two to complete an issue, and the editorial staff were always either getting arrested or getting forced into exile. The editors, reporters, typists, and underground distributors put in the time and took the risk, driven by the belief that facts could bring down a lying regime—or, at least, that they would survive when the regime was gone.
Boris Beilinson, who is thirty-two, brushed off my attempt to draw a parallel between his work and his mother’s. “I don’t think of myself as a dissident or a human-rights activist,” he said. “This is just our way of supporting the opposition. The thing is to know where a person [who has been arrested] is. When no one knows where a person is, anything can happen to them.”
“We help people who are in trouble right now,” Okhotin said. “But in the process we are also describing the system. This insane, terrifying regime becomes an object that we have described empirically. It’s like we provide daily therapy for living in Russia.” He added, “We say that information will set you free, or that information will help you, but that’s all theory.” The practice is measured in daily individual donations, and the number of phone calls OVDInfo gets every time there is a large-scale protest in Russia: between two and three thousand.