‘A little human rights buggy’ The rise of ‘OVD-Info,’ Russia’s lifeline for arrested protesters
On December 5, 2011, Russians demonstrated against vote rigging in the State Duma elections. Throughout the winter, Moscow witnessed the largest protests of the Putin era, as tens of thousands of people turned out to chant slogans and listen to speeches criticizing the political system’s lack of power turnover between the country’s different factions. Before dawn on December 6, activists had formed what would become OVD-Info — an independent human rights media project that helps the victims of political persecution. OVD-Info makes it easy for anyone to find out who’s been arrested at a rally, the police station where they’ve been booked, and whether they need any assistance or legal aid. Detainees can call the project’s hotline and get psychological or legal counseling. OVD-Info has been a vital resource for activists during the summer of 2019, as Moscow’s City Duma elections have sparked another round of major protests. Meduza looks back at the project’s origins, and explains how OVD-Info became full-time work for the activists who run it.
On December 5, 2011, journalist Grigory Okhotin and programmer Daniil Beilinson attended a rally in Moscow at Chistye Prudy in support of fair elections. When officers started arresting demonstrators, it occurred to Beilinson that most of the people being dragged into police vans were probably new to this whole experience. The same was likely true for their friends and relatives, who wouldn’t know what to do or where to look for them.
Okhotin and Beilinson weren’t arrested, but after the protest they met again at a Moscow police station (an “OVD,” or Internal Affairs Department), where they searched together for friends now in custody. The two men then decided to go from station to station, collecting what information they could, which they shared on Facebook. That night, the first “OVD list” came together. It was 253 names long. The list was also published on the website Bolshoi Gorod (Big City) under the headline “Arrests in Moscow.” Okhotin says he started getting phone calls and written messages, after that.
The next day, on December 6, when police arrested more than 600 people at Triumfalnaya Square, Okhotin and Beilinson first got to thinking about building a system to carry on their work. Without any experience in this field or known precedents, however, they weren’t sure how to organize the project. A few days later, on December 10, they launched their first website and hotline, publishing breaking news briefs and stories about arrested demonstrators. “It was then that we thought up many of the things now at OVD-Info,” Daniil Beilinson recalls. “We decided that we should collect evidence and document all the facts.”
Eight years later, OVD-Info has become a vital resource in Russia for persecuted activists in need of legal aid.
The turning point
On December 5, 2011, Okhotin and Beilinson relied on only each other when searching for detainees and compiling arrest lists, but more than a dozen like-minded volunteers soon joined in. For the first 18 months, it was this small group of dedicated individuals who sustained OVD-Info. In 2013, the “Memorial” human rights center became the project’s general partner.
“My mom worked at Memorial, and Grisha’s dad worked there. [Nikita Okhotin is one of Memorial’s co-founders, and Beilinson’s mother was one of the group’s oral historians in the 1990s.] We’ve known these people since we were kids, and as soon as we got to a situation where we needed help to keep growing, we realized that working with Memorial would be the most comfortable,” Beilinson says.
Today, OVD-Info exists thanks to donations from individuals and organizations.
In 2018, the project received financial support from Memorial and the “Civicus” international nonprofit group, as well as grants from the nongovernmental “International Partnership for Human Rights.” Donations from organizations provide roughly 70 percent of OVD-Info’s budget. According to its most recent annual report, the project raised more than 19.8 million rubles (almost $300,000) in 2018, including 5.8 million rubles ($87,815) in crowdfunding.
The “turning point” for OVD-Info, its founders say, was the May 6, 2012, Bolotnaya Square rally in Moscow. “Our telephone number was everywhere by then, and we started operating like an organization everybody knew: if you’re arrested, you call here,” Beilinson says. The police arrested more than 400 people that day, and OVD-Info volunteers documented and reported every case, collecting the information through friends in Moscow’s activist circles. This is when human rights organizations started reaching out to OVD-Info, offering to provide legal assistance to detainees. The project subsequently became a media resource that transmitted important data about arrests, while simultaneously coordinating legal assistance between organizations and individual lawyers.
After the May 6 Bolotnaya Square demonstration, OVD-Info decided to assemble a large group of volunteers to staff the project’s hotline (before this, all calls were forwarded to the personal phone number of one of three people on duty). To this day, OVD-Info still relies on its hotline for most of its information about arrests and detainees.
OVD-Info now monitors arrests professionally, around the clock, 365 days a year, employing about 30 full-time staff members who work on legal assistance, monitoring, media, IT, crowdfunding, and volunteer coordination. The project is structured horizontally (without a director), while major issues are decided at meetings between 8–10 different coordinators and by a management board made up of just six people.
“In 2018, we averaged 14 calls and 10 news briefs a day,” the project’s website states. “Behind every news brief and every feature story, the state is pressuring someone.”
“The legal side of things isn’t our top priority anymore”
Alla Frolova coordinates OVD-Info’s legal-assistance efforts. In 2011 and 2012, before joining the project in 2015, she organized protests and helped friends who were arrested by the police. “I went to demonstrations, worked as an aide for a Communist Party State Duma deputy, and I had a nice little ID card,” Frolova told Meduza. “I’d go to the police station to rescue my friends, and the little badge helped me. In 2015, I started working remotely with OVD-Info, feeding them information directly from the police stations.” She recalls how she met with attorneys and urged them to assist the project: “They helped out, and I began to understand whom I could rely on. There weren’t a lot of them, but I knew that going in.”
In late 2016, Frolova left her day job as a coordinator at a general education project, and came to work full-time at OVD-Info, which then independently started offering legal assistance to detainees.
When Frolova’s daughter was 17, she wanted to attend an unpermitted demonstration, and she asked her mother if she could go. The problem was that her daughter would have been taken to a juvenile holding center, if she’d been arrested, and Alla would have had to come get her. “We had a pretty extraordinary conversation, where I told my daughter, ‘If they take you away, I’ll save you, of course, but you need to understand that we’ll both be abandoning all of Moscow, while I’m doing this.’ In the end, my daughter decided not to go.”
“We’re up against an enormous police car — a locomotive, a tank,” Alla Frolova says. “And all we’ve got is a little human rights bicycle-buggy.”
OVD-Info has never employed its own lawyers. Frolova and an attorney who joined the project around the same time are responsible for coordinating all legal support. The people who help rescue protesters from police stations and defend them in court are from an external pool of volunteers and lawyers working pro bono. To ensure that the work isn’t too inconvenient, Frolova is in regular contact with everyone to determine the best logistics and timing. “For work on demonstrations, some people specially come [into the city] from their summer cottages and start preparing,” she says. “Some got very worried that they were on vacation during the last protest [on July 27, 2019], and now they’re coming in and writing: ‘I’m ready to be of service.’ This is their contribution to everything that’s happening.”
When arrest counts spike at protests, OVD-Info turns to other organizations for additional support: Memorial, the “Agora” human rights center, Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, the “Public Verdict” Foundation, and the Moscow Helsinki Group.
The first time OVD-Info had to offer legal assistance to large masses of demonstrators was on March 26, 2017, when anti-corruption activists staged protests and pickets in 97 cities across the country, demanding Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s resignation. Police arrested several hundred people in Moscow, where the rally did not have a permit from local officials.
Alla Frolova says OVD-Info’s team worked 48 hours straight without a break. A lot didn’t work out, she recalls. “I’d answer the phone and talk for about 30 seconds, but in that time I had another nine missed calls,” says Frolova, who had to release her personal phone number to the public, in order to process all the appeals from arrested protesters. “It was physically impossible to handle all of it.”
After the mass arrests on March 26, OVD-Info launched a hotline for lawyers, and the project’s volunteers started directing detainees in need of legal assistance to this number. After spending a month in the courts, the team realized that it needed to organize this phase of the work, too, to help detainees effectively.
“We learned how many people should be brought to court to avoid assembly-line rulings, and we learned when to come to court, how to do it, and how to work with minors,” Frolova explains. On the basis of this experience, OVD-Info started publishing instructions for human rights activists and people who decide to defend themselves. The project also created its “‘Forbidden’ Territory” protest map, where staff analyzed Russia’s new legislation on public assemblies and marked all the prohibitions on an interactive map, so activists in every major city can determine the local boundaries of lawful demonstrations.
Police arrested many minors at Russia’s March 26 protests, and OVD-Info wasn’t able to record every detention. “I spent half the night listening to mothers say, ‘My boy is missing! Help me!’” Frolova remembers. She says the hardest thing was talking to the parents of arrested teenagers, and these phone calls convinced her that the organization should be teaching people not to panic. Today, she says, the “communication-psychological” aspect of OVD-Info’s work is even more important than the legal assistance it mobilizes.
“The legal aspect is significant, but it’s not the top priority,” Frolova explains. “No matter how diligent we are with all the paperwork, the court rulings are always 99-percent predictable. And to reassure someone when you hear, ‘Save me! Help me! I’ve been arrested!’ you need them to get a grip and understand that they’re being heard and that people want to help.” This is the only way to get people to compose themselves, so they can actually follow the instructions laid out by human rights advocates.
Today, Frolova says her main role at OVD-Info is talking to detainees and calming them down. Throughout her time at the project, she says she’s advised roughly 10,000 people.
Journalism, as a rule, doesn’t help
“The hardest thing is that people are really emotional when they call in,” says Alexandra Baeva, a volunteer at OVD-Info who works on the legal-assistance hotline. “There are those who wind up in a police van and know what to do, and there are those who don’t. For example, a mother is out and about with her son in Moscow, and suddenly the police drag him away right before her eyes. She’s in pieces when she calls us, and we have to be like psychologists.”
Baeva joined OVD-Info in 2019, after working as a journalist for several years, during which time she also wrote texts for OVD-Info. “I eventually found out that it wasn’t really for me,” she says, explaining why she became a regular volunteer. “Journalism, as a rule, doesn’t help. I didn’t feel any release when I was writing stories about the latest arrests, and I realized that I want to help.” So Baeva filled out a volunteer questionnaire and joined the team.
Alexandra Baeva has been to police stations many times, but always as a public advocate: “I’m very tiny, and I look more like a kid,” she says. “The riot cops usually leave me alone at protests. On June 12 , a police officer even came up to me and said, ‘Be careful.’”
As was the case eight years ago, volunteers remain OVD-Info’s main resource. When the staff is overwhelmed, assignments are sent to a group chat, where available volunteers can claim them.
Volunteers' main task is being involved in the process: “It’s emotionally and psychologically draining. During demonstrations, panicked people in critical situations are calling for five hours straight, and it’s our job to calm them down,” says Leonid Drabkin, one of OVD-Info’s coordinators.
Drabkin joined the project more than a year ago as a volunteer. He learned about what OVD-Info does when his friends convinced him to serve as a volunteer during anti-corruption protests on June 27, 2017. At the time, he was working as an analyst at a pharmaceutical company, and had no ties whatsoever to human rights advocacy. After the June 27 demonstrations, however, he got involved in a hurry. “I quickly understood that this is for me,” Drabkin says. “I was a hotline operator, and I took calls from people who’d been arrested — the most common volunteer task.”
After a year of volunteer work, Drabkin decided that he wanted to “do more for our civil society,” instead of spending his time on things he doesn’t believe in.
Before the July 27 protests, OVD-Info had about 300 volunteers, but every new round of demonstrations and mass arrests brings in more applicants, the project’s staff say. Some volunteers live abroad and help remotely, and everyone assists to the best of their abilities, with varying degrees of regularity.
“It’s the creative, cleverest youths, whom the authorities themselves are pushing to start looking around,” says Alla Frolova, describing the people who volunteer at OVD-Info. She believes Russia’s political repressions and illegal arrests are forcing young people to “wake up.”
“In court, I recommend attorneys to young people who’ve been arrested, but they refuse, saying they didn’t do anything — they just came to a rally — and they’ll prove it,” Frolova says. “And they walk out of the hearing, saying, ‘No, I’m not going to court again. We don’t have a justice system.’”
According to OVD-Info’s records, the Moscow Tver District Court heard roughly 700 cases in the first three months after the protest on March 26, 2017. In all these hearings, just one case was dismissed: misdemeanor charges against Alec Luhn, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian.
“We believe that information protects”
During major rallies, OVD-Info kicks into overdrive, and most of the project’s staff gather in one place to work together, trading roles as needed.
Employees and volunteers “on the frontline” are in direct contact with detainees through OVD-Info’s hotline and Telegram bot. Having learned when arrests will peak during a protest, the team mobilizes its resources in advance. When arrests spike, there are typically about 30 people working the hotline. These volunteers conduct initial consultations with callers and collect their data. When people have questions about legal issues, they’re transferred to a lawyer.
The second stage of OVD-Info’s workflow is analytics. After collecting detainees’ information, it’s made available electronically. Other staff members publish lists and figures. “We believe that information protects,” says Leonid Drabkin. “The more we report, the safer people are.”
In addition to collecting and publishing information, OVD-Info provides direct legal assistance to some detainees, and the project also sends lawyers to police stations, trying to cover as much ground as possible.
When there are major demonstrations, OVD-Info gets to work several hours before protests are officially scheduled to begin, and staff remain on the job until the next morning. The team takes a one-hour break when rallies end, and then a new shift clocks in. “For most people, the demonstration is over that same day, but for us it’s only the beginning,” says Drabkin. The morning after a large protest, he opens OVD-Info’s headquarters at 8 a.m. and “restarts the whole machine.”
“We contact all the detainees, find out how they’re doing, and provide them with assistance in court,” Drabkin says. “And our attorneys, public advocates, and lawyers go from police station to police station. At the start of the week, our main task is to help those who were arrested. We know that everything’s only beginning at this stage, hearings are underway, appeals are moving along, and we try to bring every case to the European Court of Human Rights.”
Even on ordinary days, not in the aftermath of sweeping arrests at large demonstrations, OVD-Info’s operations continue uninterrupted (albeit without the same intensity). “These things happen regularly in this country, except [on days when there aren’t big protests] people are arrested individually, instead of in crowds,” Drabkin explains. “Our main message is that this stuff happens every day, and people need to know about it.”