Pavel Chikov at the traditional torchlight processionA group of RCN students led by history teacher Erik Pedersen was granted the privilege to attend the annual Rafto Conference preceding the Rafto Prize 2014 Award Ceremony.  Dedicated to the global promotion of human rights, the Rafto Foundation acknowledged the efforts of Russian human rights organisation Agora. Chaired by lawyer Pavel Chikov, Agora now consists of 35 devoted lawyers, who on a daily basis deal with cases connected to the abuse of power by authorities across Russia. Their arguably best-known defendant is Pussy Riot, whose provocative ‘guerrilla’ performances challenged the government of President Putin. However, the Rafto Conference did not only focus on Agora, but also concentrated on the challenges for Russian civil society. Participants explored the restrictions put on freedom of speech and journalists. Olya Kurachyova a queer-activist, journalist and artist shed some light on the struggles of the LGBT community in Russia by revealing her personal stories. When the conference was drawing to a close, presenters shared some more positive thoughts, underscoring that Putin and Moscow are not solely representative of Russia and that human rights ideas are penetrating into society.

The conference was beautifully summed up by  Olya Kurachyova’s answer to a question “What would you say to Putin if you had a chance to meet him in person?” Without a second of hesitation, Olya  grasped a microphone and firmly proclaimed: “It’s okay to be queer.”

Justina Čižinauskaitė (Lithuania) – RCN 2016