Olga Golovanova '10 fights for democracy in Russia

Alumna has decided to move back to the land of her birth to be on the front lines

Olga Golovanova '10, center, with leading activists for democracy in Russia Alexey Navalny and Yevgenia Chirikova .

Russian political activist Olga Golovanova ’10 is fed up with the corrupt electoral system in her home country, and she has taken to the streets—and the Internet—to do something about it.

In a timely talk, two days after Vladimir Putin’s victory in last Sunday’s Russian presidential elections, Golovanova described many ways in which Putin and his supporters prevent the opposition from having a voice. She also described what Russians, herself included, are doing to combat unfair and illegal practices by a corrupt government.

Golovanova  spoke  to an audience of about 50 in the Rapaporte Treasure Hall. The talk was the opening event of Brandeis’ annual Russian Culture Week, sponsored by the university’s Russian Club, Russian Studies Program and Brandeis Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry.

Golovanova said that Putin’s supporters rig votes through such practices as “ballot stuffing,” which involves people filling out numerous ballots for Putin and adding them to ballot boxes, and paying busloads of people, in an arrangement called a “carousel,” to travel from district to district and vote for Putin in each one. As a result, Golovanova said, Putin’s United Russia party apparently won as much as 146 percent of the vote in last December’s parliamentary election.

After that election, Golovanova said, “people took to the streets” in the largest numbers since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1993. Over time, the protests grew in size from a few hundred people to hundreds of thousands. This was largely due to the efforts of a handful of activists, many of whom Golovanova knew personally, since they had worked with her mother, a journalist in Moscow, and began their activist careers several years ago drawing picket signs in her living room. People were excited to rally around this cause because of its unifying nature, she said. Indeed, the emerging leaders of this movement included such a diverse cast of lawyers, bloggers, television personalities, journalists, members of the government and even stay-at-home moms.

The day after the December 4 parliamentary election, many protesters were arrested in Moscow and began to use one of their only means of free communication, Twitter, to tweet about the poor conditions in which they were being held.  From her computer in New York, Golovanova was able to organize people via Twitter to bring food or water to those who had been arrested.

“That was kind of a turning point for me,” she said. “I realized I can sit in New York and still make a difference.”

But on December 24, she reached a bigger turning point when she flew to Moscow to take part in another protest and found herself looking out over the sea of 150,000 people chanting, “Freedom to Russia!” At that awe-inspiring moment, she decided that she to move back to Russia later this year so that she can be on the front lines of the movement.

In the meantime, Golovanova has helped to establish an international community of independent monitors of absentee voting, which she said is important because election officials are behind most of the fraud. Responsible for organizing monitors for the 18 voting locations in the United States, she reported that, to the best of her knowledge, not one fraudulent vote was cast in this country in the presidential election. Far less support for Putin was tallied in the United States than in Russia.

Currently, Golovanova is very involved in the international organization Fair Vote for Russia, where she is helping to organize a protest in New York March 10. She also co-founded a fundraising project called Wake Up Russia, which targets Russian donors abroad to raise money to support the protests.

Golovanova said that even without carousels and ballot stuffing, Putin likely would have won the election. She said she believes the contest was generally free of fraudulent voting, but that does not make the election fair “when you have no free media, no free TV channels, when you can buy people to go to your rallies, where most of the people are threatened if they don’t vote for you.”

In an interview after her talk, she explained that teachers making the equivalent of only a few hundred dollars per month would be told by their employers to vote for Putin, which they do, just as they would accept bribes from students in exchange for high exam grades. “A lot of these people don’t see an alternative. They’d like to make a difference, but what’s more important to them is to put food on their table for their children.”

Despite the definitive results of this past election, protests continue in Moscow and around the world.

For the first time, Golovanova said in her talk, Putin is winning by a smaller margin. Also for the first time, the younger and older generations are coming out in numbers to vote. People are starting to realize that they do have the power to effect change, she said.

“Absolutely everybody [came out to vote], whether they’re rich, … poor, … educated, … not educated, they’re fed up,” she said, and this is scaring the Russian government, as demonstrated by soldiers outnumbering demonstrators at the most recent protests.

Golovanova concluded her talk by explaining why she is absolutely sure Putin will not last a full six-year term in office. Putin’s hold on the government, she said, is based on power, money, and fear. As people continue to show through large, sustained protests that they are no longer afraid, she said, his wealthy supporters will begin to see him as more of a liability than an asset and will stop investing in him. This, she said, would empower the electorate to take away Putin's political power.

Golovanova said she believes Putin will fall nonviolently as factual information about his regime spreads and unhappiness in the general population deepens.

Heller student and Russian Club member Julia Rabkin ’11 M.S. ’12, who helped organize the event, said that reining in government corruption will improve the lives of the Russian people dramatically.  According to Golovanova, currently government officials are enriching themselves while infrastructure remains poor and the health care system is corrupt. Women in both Golovanova’s and Rabkin’s extended families needed to pay $40,000 bribes to secure a doctor and a low-quality hospital room when they were having children.

“This is a basic human rights issue, and the Russians deserve these human rights,” Rabkin said. “I’m really proud of the fact that they are fighting for it, and I think it’s important for people to learn about it.”

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