Olga Nikolaenko, a former Director of Center for Adaptation and Education of Refugee Children, on how to survive eviction if you are declared a foreign agent, and alternatives to child marriage as a way to quit smoking.
It’s September 2019, and my first time in New York. Looking out at the city from my friend’s Brooklyn apartment, I’m thinking that it is the only city I’ve been to that feels as vast as Moscow. And on the other end of a Skype call is my old acquaintance, Olga Nikolaenko, in her apartment in Moscow where weeks-long, mass protests for fair elections are taking place.
I know Olga from my time volunteering at the Moscow Center for Adaptation and Education of Refugee Children, where she was a director at the time. I started volunteering there right after the Center was declared a ‘foreign agent.’ I called Olga to talk about her path as an opposition activist and experience as director of the refugee center.
From philology to opposition
“Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, but a lot of books,” Olga Nikolaenko tells me matter-of-factly. She is just 28 but has a very mature, calm and reassuring presence. She describes how her bookish childhood led naturally to philology studies at the Russian University of Humanities, to prepare for the career of “reading books, writing about books, talking about books.” That career didn’t happen, but Olga, having served as a Director of the Center for Refugee Children and a volunteer coordinator at OVD-info, now has enough stories for her own book.
“Why didn’t my philology career happen?” Olga laughs. “2011 played an important role. That’s the year when I got involved in the protest movement completely by accident – like many others.”
Olga is referring to the Russian protest movement that began in Moscow in December 2011 following parliamentary elections, which many believed were flawed. Protesters denounced the elections and demanded Putin step down. Some believe that this was Russia’s largest protests since 1993. Despite more than 300 people being arrested, the protest sparked a fair-election and anti-Putin protest movement that continued across Russia’s major cities until 2013.
Olga’s account sheds some light on why those protests had such an impact on her and on millions of Russians:
“There was a bit higher than usual activity around those elections. There was Navalny, who called to vote for any party other than United Russia [Vladimir Putin’s party], and many people decided to be election observers. I wasn’t an observer, but I had some friends who were. The night after the elections I heard many first-hand accounts of some outrageous violations. Everybody kind of knew that votes are being stolen, but never before was it confirmed by so many personal accounts.
So, everybody went to the protest the next day. I wasn’t even going to go there - I had a seminar at my university. But that morning we found out that everybody had urgent matters to attend to, and the seminar was canceled. I met all the seminar participants, including our teacher at the protest afterward. My friend texted me and asked me to go with him, but not to express our discontent with the election, but to see our friends, to hang out.
<…> Towards the end of the protest, I was standing with my friend on the side of the crowd, saying hi to acquaintances. It was all very nice, until I turned my head and saw my friend wasn’t there. I thought he got lost in the crowd. In 20 minutes, I got a message saying ‘I’m being taken to Yakimanka police department.’ And I think from that moment something changed in my destiny. I got personally involved. I spent the night near the police department. Nobody knew what to do, complete panic. I met my friend’s relatives who also didn’t know anything. I remember we tried to pass him some pastries and then called and woke up a lawyer who agreed to come in the middle of the night. It was all crazy.”
Olga explains the impact that the incident had on her:
“Before I had some abstract notion that the system was unjust, but it was then that I encountered that unjust system. The next week I had to go to the next protest, and it was a conscious decision.”
Olga started to regularly participate in protests for fair elections and against politically motivated imprisonments. She worked as an observer during local and national elections. In 2012, she was arrested for the first time. Olga says that her arrest made her feel less scared: “it was unpleasant and disgusting, but it wasn’t scary.” Later, she became a volunteer at OVD-Info, an organization that provides information and legal help to people arrested at protests.
As such, the opposition movement became a general background of Olga’s life. But she was still a student, with an active university life where she helped to organize university events, seminars and workshops. It was this academic engagement that brought Olga to the attention of her university professors, who, noting her organizational talents, recommended her for the role of Director of the Center for Adaptation and Education for Refugee Children.
“I wasn’t an effective manager then”
The Center for Adaptation and Education started out as a small volunteer initiative at the Civic Assistance Committee, an organization that provides legal and social assistance to refugees and migrants in Moscow. The Center had just acquired its own space when Olga arrived as the newly installed Director. The staff populating this entirely unfurnished office comprised just a handful of volunteers serving maybe a dozen children.
“When I started working there, I was hoping to have a salary. But the funding didn’t come through and I ended up working without a one, but with a lot of financial responsibilities. I had to pay a salary to the administrator of the Center so I took on as many private lessons as I could to pay her salary and have some money myself.”
Funding for the organization was inconsistent. The Russian government doesn’t recognize most refugees and doesn’t fund refugee support projects. However, it recognizes and helps migrant workers, so the Center still received some funds from Russia’s federal government, the Administration of the President, and Moscow’s local government. Some funding also came from international organizations, including the UNHCR.
Taking on financial and administrative responsibilities that would stress even experienced professionals. “I wasn’t an effective manager,” Olga admits with a laugh. “I wasn’t good at asking for money. But my team and I went around and told everyone about the center.” Their improvised advocacy effort worked, and the Center started attracting volunteers and donations. Slowly but steadily, it grew from a small volunteer initiative to a strong and caring community.
The power of this community proved invaluable when the Center was evicted in April 2015, after the Center’s parent organization, the Civic Assistance Committee, was declared a foreign agent by Russia’s federal government.
Adopted in 2012, the “foreign agent” law, requires any political organization that receives funding from abroad to register as a foreign agent and disclose their status on all printed materials. Additionally, organizations deemed foreign agents are obliged to fill out extremely time-consuming bureaucratic forms requiring detailed information about their donors, effectively blocking important grassroots funding channels, such as donations submitted via mobile phones. The classification also compromises key relationships with Russian government agencies and partners, who tend to cancel funds out of a cautious desire to not appear connected to “foreign agents” – even though this is not required by law.
Soon after the Civic Assistant Committee was placed on the “foreign agent” list, Moscow’s Department of Property, which had provided the Center with its operations space, decided to cancel its contract with the Committee. The Center was evicted.
“When we were evicted, there was a big community of people who cared about the Center. Sometimes we had classes at volunteers’ apartments, sometimes in public libraries, even in cafes. It was very beautiful and inspiring, and all thanks to volunteers who were ready to search for venues, call, and commute to teach in remote locations.”
Despite its eviction, the Center continued to expand as a result of its members’ dedication, becoming an increasingly important part of life for refugee children and families, bringing Olga an increasingly diverse and unexpected set of challenges. One such challenge came from the mother of a 14-year-old girl from Tajikistan. She called Olga and said: “Olga, I decided to send my daughter back to Tajikistan and get her married as soon as possible. I found out she smokes.”
The mother explained that if her daughter is smoking, she must also be drinking. If she drinks, she also meets boys. And if she meets boys, she does “bad things.” The mother was also concerned for her younger daughters, who she thought were at risk of not getting married because of the actions of the eldest.
Olga explains: “She was still a part of traditional society, but living in Moscow. Because of the cultural shift she was experiencing, she didn’t have any reference points to know how bad some of her daughter’s actions were – all she saw was an unacceptable deviation from the patriarchal community norms. But I want to point out, the mother didn’t act on her first instinct – she called me. She felt the need for an alternative point of view. We had to figure out why it’s not necessary to marry the girl if she smokes. I listened, went to the suburbs where they lived, talked to the daughter, talked to the mother. Together we got to the bottom of it and figured out a way to deal with the situation without resorting to this emergency marriage.”
Olga's experience at the Children’s center was a “point of no return.” After her first encounter with unfairness and unaccountability of the Russian state during the December 2011 protests, her work with the Center continued to illustrate in stark terms how the state impacted individual lives. After these encounters, Olga felt that it was impossible to stop, because it would feel like abandoning the front lines. Olga went on to work as a volunteer manager with OVD-Info, and currently works as a civics teacher.
Refugee Children's Center website (now Kids Are Kids Integration Center) http://kidsarekids-center.com/ (rus)
Civic Assitance Committee https://refugee.ru/en/o-nas/ (eng)
Harvard Political Review explainer on Russian "foreign agents" law https://harvardpolitics.com/world/russias-foreign-agent-law-an-hpr-explainer/
OVD-info reports on freedom of assembly in Russia and political persecution https://ovdinfo.org/reports (rus and eng)