CEU Alumna Marina Agaltsova Part of Nobel Peace Prize-Winning Human Rights Center

Marina Agaltsova completed CEU’s LLM program in Human Rights Law in 2009, after which she practiced law in Russia, litigating cases concerning enforced disappearances, unlawful killings by officials, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly. She has developed a particularly keen interest in free speech law.

The connections Agaltsova developed at CEU also gave her the opportunity to work with the human rights center Memorial for nearly six years, until its forced liquidation by Russian authorities in the spring of 2022. The center was a leading human rights organization in Russia that, among other issues, focused on the human rights of political dissidents.

Agaltsova acted as a senior lawyer and was responsible for litigation before national courts and the European Court of Human Rights. Memorial was one of two organizations to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. To mark this outstanding achievement, we spoke with Agaltsova about her work with Memorial and the current situation in Russia. This is an edited interview conducted by CEU on October 27.

Do you think the winning of the Nobel Prize by Memorial will have any effect on public opinion in Russia?

That is a difficult question, because when I tell someone, our organization has won a Nobel Prize, for ordinary people that means something really good and has a positive connotation. At the same time, I don’t think it will have any effect on the authorities, they are not going to change their opinion on Memorial which they have banned on a systemic basis, at least that’s what we hear from the General Prosecutor’s Office.

What does the liquidation of Memorial signal about human rights in Russia?

We cannot know for sure. As far as I understand these liquidation proceedings were conceived one year prior to it actually happening. They were withholding the claims for a year or so, making sure it did not go to the courts, although they had already prepared the documentation we believe somewhere in 2020. But we know that after the liquidation the situation of human rights in Russia really worsened.

However, I cannot really tell you for sure that this was definitely a direct consequence of the liquidation, but what I can say is that since 2012, the situation for human rights organizations in Russia has gradually worsened. And by 2021 they made life extremely difficult for such organizations. Now for example, they want to prohibit even mentioning LGBTQ people in a positive context at all because they believe this is the propaganda of untraditional sexual relations. If the law passes, the only way one could mention LGBTQ issues publicly, is if it is in a negative sense, for everything else a prison term could become inevitable.   

What is the current situation with the media in Russia?

There is no independent Russian media that has stayed in Russia at least nothing on a mass scale. There is a sort of exception called Redakcia (Редакция) who are still here, but they chose a strategy to cover the war in a unique way and to only mention things that are uncontested. All other foreign and domestic outlets, like the BBC, Dozhd (Rain) or Novaya Gazeta have all left, were shut down or blocked by the Russian authorities when the war started.

So, it is a relatively new development that the media landscape has become so barren and one sided. It is reminiscent of the “good Soviet times”. You can obtain alternative news from abroad, but you have to make an extra effort to do so like installing VPN or like in the case of Meduza which is a telegram channel to which you can subscribe to and is not blocked, but being a telegram channel, can only share a limited amount of news.  

How has your CEU education shaped your career?

I have to say it had a rather dramatic effect on my career as it gave it a direction. During my time at CEU, I studied human rights and this is the trajectory I am now pursuing. But without CEU, I believe it would have been very difficult for me to actually get into this sphere, because where I am from there weren’t that many NGOs concerned with international human rights which is the field I wished to work in. However, CEU gave me the education and the connections and thanks to the university and my instructors there, I found my first job in international human rights in Moscow.

If it had not been for CEU, I don’t think I would have found this job and would have, due to financial necessity, gone to work in the business sector instead. Furthermore, the knowledge I gained at CEU really paved my way. For example, my understanding of the European Convention on Human rights, without which it would have been very hard to find work in the area in which I am in now. And it was a bright spot in my CV due to the simple fact that there are not many universities that give international degrees on human rights in Europe. So, when I applied to Memorial this part of my education was a huge asset. Another crucial but sometimes overlooked factor was the strengthening of my English skills during my studies, which is also indispensable in my line of work. To sum up, my portfolio was immensely improved and complemented thanks to my studies at CEU.

What advice would you give to a newcomer of a human rights organization today?

My advice would be to enjoy the easy times while you can because at a certain point tough times will ultimately follow. When I started working with Memorial in 2016, it was a relatively easy job meaning there was not that much pressure. Of course, we had clients and cases and we were going to the courts regularly and everyone was asking me how is it that you work for a human rights organization and it does not exhaust you emotionally and mentally. And I said, I don’t know, somehow it works for me. But when the situation worsened, starting with Memorial’s liquidation and then the war coupled with war crimes and scenes of destruction and death, as a human rights lawyer it’s really difficult to go through and stay mentally stable during these times. Now when I look back at 2016, I think, “Oh, those were easy times”. Enjoy these so called easier times because at some point destiny will test you during much tougher times.