Despite difficulties put in their way by the Russian security services, Gennady Shevelev and M. M. Bogoslovsky of IHEU member organization the Russian Humanist Society attended and spoke at a recent conference in St Petersburg organized by the Council of Europe.
The improbable almost happened: Russian Humanist Society’s (RHS) members finally managed to get the word of secular humanists directly to the ears of the Russian authorities although, judging from everything, it does not want to hear us and shuts itself off from us in every possible way. We were aided by an organized event and… by Europe.
In the middle of May 2007 Roy Brown, the immediate past President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), of which the RHS is a member, turned to our organization with a request to recommend some of its members as IHEU representatives at an International Parliamentary Conference concerning issues of all-European cooperation called “Intercultural and Interreligious Dialogue”. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Interparliamentary Assembly of the CIS Countries were the organizers of the conference, which was held on 1 June at the Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg.
The President of the RHS passed this request to the St. Petersburg branch. The branch’s proposal of the candidacy of M. M. Bogoslovsky and the author of these lines was approved by the IHEU and reported to the Council of Europe, which passed an official request to the secretariat of the conference. We were issued invitations on the basis of it and, moreover, M. M. was included on the list of speakers at a meeting of section N? 2, “The Religious Dimension of Interfaith Dialogue”. At the time we were warned that in view of the great number of announced speakers each would be granted no more than 7-10 minutes. Inasmuch as M. M. ended up last on the list of speakers we were afraid that the two hours devoted to the section’s work would be exhausted by the previous speakers and he simply would not manage to speak. Therefore we prepared and duplicated a written press release* to pass out to the participants and the accredited representatives of the mass media.
Arriving at the Palace on 1 June I asked the information service located in the vestibule where to find the representatives of the mass media. They suggested going to the press center located on the second floor. While looking for it I only saw one journalist representing either the newspaper or the radio named “Voice of Russia” and gave him the press release. Reading the name of the organization which we represent the man asked:
– Where is it?
– It includes the humanist organizations of many countries of the world, including Europe. Its headquarters is in London, – I replied.
– What is the address?
– Its website is https://humanists.international. You can find the street name and house number there, if needed.
– But do you know them?
– I don’t remember them.
– Possibly you’ve never been there?
– I have not.
– How can you represent an organization where you yourself have never been and do not even know the address?
Having said this, my interlocutor quickly broke away and soon brought a man in a black suit to whom he had already managed to give the text of the press release. The latter suggested that I follow him, promising to show me the ITAR-TASS press center located in another place. The chief of the center was not there and they suggested that I wait. At the same time men in similar black suits showed up already two and one of them plunged into reading the release. Soon a third man approached and was introduced as Colonel such-and-such.
– Colonel? Why a colonel? – I was taken aback.
– I am a colonel of the FPS, the Federal Protective Service. And you are?
– I am a representative of the International Humanist and Ethical Union at the conference being held here.
– I have never heard anything about this organization. How did you end up here?
– I came by official invitation. I want to ask the press center to help distribute a press release.
They demanded my passport and began to study it carefully and make notes from it. I understood that all the people around me were FPS officers. The person studying the release finished reading it and told the colonel that in his opinion this text could not be distributed since it contained criticism of leading figures of the government. I thought that they would arrest me or expel me from the Palace but this did not happen. The chief of the press center who had been summoned found out what I was asking for and said that she would accept the press release only with the permission of the leader of section N 2, S. Ye. Shcheblygin, a member of the Federation Council.
The time came to begin the plenary session and, having received my passport back, I took my place in the big hall known for being where four pre-revolutionary State Dumas had met, in honor of which it was called the Duma hall.
Looking over the room I tried to find my colleague M. M. but did not find him. Then I saw an acquaintance from St. Petersburg State University who is also a member of the Federation Council. Making my way to him, I asked whether he knew S. Ye. Shcheblygin. “Of course, I know him”, was the reply. “There, he’s sitting not far away”. I showed him the text of the press release and asked whether, in his opinion, S. Ye. would permit this document to be distributed at the conference. Looking quickly at the text and seeing that it was written in the name of secular humanists, he said:
– I think that S. Ye. will definitely refuse. Judge for yourself, will he begin to help atheists if in no more than two days he goes to Mount Athos in Greece to deliver to Russia the skull and bones of the latest saint for worship?
It became clear that it was useless to approach S. Ye. And then I remembered how in 2000 I had met with my deputy from the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly and he had helped me duplicate an anti-clerical text “Will science and faith join in prayerful ecstasy?” which the members of the St. Petersburg branch of the RHS distributed to participants of the then pro-religious conference “Science and faith”. That deputy was called S. M. Mironov. Then he rose to Chairman of the Federation Council and the Council of the Interparliamentary Assembly of CIS countries and now filled the role of the moderator of a plenary session of the conference. “What if I shall turn to him?”, I thought and asked an acquaintance how it would be best to do this. “Send him the text through his assistant”, he advised. During the break I managed to meet B., the assistant, and asked that the release be passed to S. M. and requested that it be distributed at the conference. After about 10 minutes B. returned and pronounced without stopping, “We won’t distribute this text”. Whether this was the reply of S. M. or only the personal opinion of B. remained unknown.
Having understood that there was no hope of any help I delivered copies of the press release to a correspondent of the newspaper “Rossiya”, State Duma Deputy Ye. G. Drapeko, and Metropolitan Kirill. I put the rest of the copies on a table labeled “Information”, where there were similar materials obviously left by other participants of the conference.
At the meeting of session N 2 its participants (I counted 28) met after a delay and S. Ye. Shcheblygin warned that everyone who had signed up could only speak if they observed the seven-minute time limit. But the first person spoke almost twice as long and the others did not limit themselves very much.
When M. M. Bogoslovsky waited till his turn the time for the session’s work had already been exceeded and the concluding plenary session approached. Therefore they gave him only of three minutes and he had time to quickly read only the first and last paragraphs of our press release. Nevertheless, the speech by a representative of secular humanists at this parliamentary conference where our participation was clearly not expected took place. In the concluding speech S. Ye. Shcheblygin had to say that there was occasion to hear alternative points of view at the session to which the co-chairman of the section from the Council of Europe quietly noted that at European conferences it is normal to give the floor to people with different opinions.
When my colleague and I left the Palace our press releases were no longer on the information table. It is good if they reached participants of the conference and were not requisitioned by hyper vigilant guards.
There were pleasant moments at the conference. State Duma Deputy Ye. G. Drapeko and Professor M. I. Odintsov, Chief of the Department for Protection of the Freedom of Conscience of the staff of Ombudsman for Human Rights in the RF, expressed complete solidarity with us. We agreed to cooperate.
Translated by Gary Goldberg