20 years under Putin: a timeline

On July 23rd, at the XIX International AIDS Conference of 2012 in Washington, DC, the Institute of Modern Russia showcased a series of black and white photographs portraying HIV/AIDS and TB-afflicted patients, taken in various parts of Russia by a renowned New York–based photographer, Misha Friedman. The exhibition, titled "Putin’s Russia: Life with HIV/AIDS and TB", was followed by a panel discussion organized by the Institute. IMR Director, Lidiya Dukhovich, provides her perspective on Putin and his government's role in the rapidly spreading HIV / AIDS and TB epidemic in Russia.



We at the Institute, along with those at many other human rights organizations, are distraught at the unfortunate state of events surrounding the aforementioned illnesses in Russia. Afflicted individuals are deprived of adequate treatment and the conditions in which they live out their last days in are practically uninhabitable. By funding this exhibition, which is part of our HIV / AIDS and TB: IMR Against Social Indifference project, we hope to raise awareness of Russia’s indifference towards the ill, imprisoned and the helpless.

In addition to raising awareness about this terrible situation, this IMR project honors Vasily Aleksanyan, a Russian lawyer, businessman, and a former Executive Vice President of Yukos oil company. Accused of money laundering and embezzlement, the young lawyer was thrown into a Moscow prison, tortured, and denied medical treatment by authorities who sought to pressure him into providing false testimony against Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Last Monday, as part of its HIV/AIDS and TB: IMR Against Social Indifference project, IMR dedicated a page of its website to Aleksanyan's memory, describing his battle with the injustices perpetrated against him.

Misha Friedman's exhibition opening was followed by a panel discussion on Putin's role in the declining standard of living in Russia. The panel participants, Anya Sarang, the President of the Andrey Rylkov Foundation for Health and Social Justice in Moscow; Alexandra Volgina, the director of E.V.A.; photographer Misha Friedman; and myself, responded to questions of internationally-minded journalists.

Among many interesting questions posed to the panel by the press, two seemed especially relevant because of the ideas and discussion they invoked. The first asked: “Why is Putin to blame when it’s Russia’s society that is judging these plighted individuals?”

The Institute's goal is not to make a scapegoat of Putin, or anyone else, but to hold responsible parties accountable for the consequences of their actions. The reality of the situation is that societal ideas and perspectives propagated by political actors ultimately trickle down to its citizens. This phenomenon happens on a more immediate and effective scale in an authoritarian state, such as Russia. In Russia, public opinion is directly influenced by the government through its regulation of the media and censorship of free speech.

If the government behaves in a manner that exhibits vast disregard for a certain group of individuals, then society will eventually succumb to this train of thought and, consequently, begin to consider these individuals subhuman.

Putin and his administration hide neither their contempt nor their lack of sympathy for these individuals, which then demonstrates to the Russian public that this position is acceptable, if not encouraged. Granted, the Russian people have a reputation for apathy towards the defenseless – be it affliction with disease, unjust prison sentences or unfair treatment. Unfortunately, this uncivilized mentality is only exacerbated by Putin and his government.


New York-based photographer Misha Friedman has presented IMR with a valuable resource in the photographs he took starting in 2008, documenting the lives and inadequate treatment of HIV / AIDS and TB patients in the Caucasus, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. In the autumn of 2011, with IMR’s support, Friedman expanded his project, visiting and photographing TB hospitals in St. Petersburg and Togliatti, Russia.


The second question touched upon a subject matter of a larger scale, “What could the international community do to help combat the atrocities taking place in Russia?”

The reason the Russian government behaves so recklessly is simply because there is no system to implement measures of accountability and standards for its behavior. As has been mentioned previously, no one supervises or holds them responsible for the consequences that arise from actions or omissions resulting in death, unjust imprisonment and suffering. Thus, Putin and his administration are free to behave like a spoiled child, knowing that there is no one to reprimand them. Indeed, international organizations may wag a finger at Russia or give Putin a light slap on the wrist, yet no real punishment is implemented.

Ideally the international community could start by creating an independent committee that would research, investigate and report on the real figures and abuses in Russia, an undertaking that is much easier said than done. Although at first glance such a committee might seem invasive, Russia’s current government cannot be trusted to provide accurate figures or comprehensive reports regarding the actual state of any controversial situation.

It is unfortunate that Putin’s administration concerns itself solely with short-sighted goals that focus on acquiring more wealth for the government rather than implementing plans to improve the nation. Perhaps one day his administration will understand that a real and much more permanent sense of wealth is actually built from the ground up when a higher standard of living for its people and a lasting prosperity for its economy are achieved. Encouraging investment and academia to prosper, rather than thwarting all the attempts to bring about a positive change made by entrepreneurs and intellectuals, would benefit Russia in the long-term, solidifying its great potential instead of destroying it.