Moscow, 26 April 2012
The United Nations Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Ms. Farida Shaheed, thanks the Government of the Russian Federation for inviting her to conduct a country mission from 16 to 26 April. Ms. Shaheed visited Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Barnaul (Altai Krai) and Kazan (Tatarstan). She met with senior Government officials at the federal and regional levels working in the areas of culture, education and regional development, as well as members of legislative bodies interested in those issues. She also met with artists, directors of cultural and educative institutions, representatives of civil society and of indigenous peoples including from regions other than those she visited, representatives of religious communities and United Nations agencies. She held thorough discussions with all these interlocutors, in particular, on the right of all persons to participate in cultural life, including the right to artistic freedom and the right to manifest one’s own cultural identity; as well as the right to enjoy and access cultural heritage. A particular focus was on the enjoyment of cultural rights by specific categories of the population, such as children, persons with disabilities, women, indigenous peoples and minorities. The Special Rapporteur expresses her gratitude to all those who have given her the benefit of their time and expertise and also for the warm hospitality and courtesy extended.
The desire of the multi-ethnic peoples of the Russian Federation to participate in cultural life is vivid, and the Special Rapporteur was pleased to learn about a number of important initiatives to safeguard cultural heritage and positive steps to increase access to cultural life, not only in Moscow and St Petersburg, but also in other towns and villages. Innovative initiatives include the “bibliobus” mobile libraries, opening museums at night and contests to promote participation in creative activities. She appreciates that access to museums and other cultural institutions is being enhanced through reduced entry fees for certain categories of the population, as well as free access on particular days. At least in some places, children and youth have free access to cultural or sports clubs in their own neighbourhoods as part of their everyday life. The Special Rapporteur also commends the authorities for their efforts to ensure a high rate of internet connections in the country, including and most notably in educational institutions.
Substantial progress has been achieved towards the enjoyment of greater artistic freedom, freedoms of expression, religion and participation in cultural life since the end of the Soviet system. . However, a widely-shared assessment of the interlocutors met by the Special Rapporteur is that while many new opportunities have indeed opened up, State support for cultural activities and infrastructure such as houses of culture, libraries and museums throughout the country, especially in the most remote areas, has decreased. The participation of private actors in cultural life is certainly most welcome; however it is important to avoid an over-commercialization of the cultural sector. The Special Rapporteur encourages all relevant actors to continue debating these issues to achieve a good balance between the public and the private sectors in the area of culture.
There is an urgent need to respond to the desire of all persons to access, participate in and contribute to cultural life without discrimination and to promote everyone’s right to access and enjoy cultural heritage.
The Special Rapporteur was informed about innovative initiatives, particularly in Moscow, to safeguard the city landscape. She welcomes the Moscow authorities’ willingness to engage in dialogues with civil society groups on issues relating to the preservation of cultural heritage. Indeed, implementing the right of access to cultural heritage as a human right frequently requires developing policies and mechanisms that enable the participation of concerned communities in decision-making. In this regard, much more needs to be done. The Special Rapporteur welcomes the decision not to build the controversial Gazprom tower in Saint Petersburg in response to strong public opposition. However, she stresses the need to establish proper channels on a permanent basis to enable local communities to voice their concerns as well as suggestions on matters relating to their environment and cultural heritage. Mechanisms are needed to ensure people’s participation in decision making relating to the identification, interpretation and stewardship of cultural heritage which plays an important part in self-identification processes and sense of community belonging. These participatory mechanisms are needed regardless of whether the heritage in question is listed as World Heritage by UNESCO or not, and also in the Federation’s subjects where important cultural heritage of indigenous peoples is located. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur wishes to relay the concerns voiced by interlocutors regarding the planned building of a gas pipeline over the Ukok Plateau in the Altai Republic, which is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is alleged that such construction would seriously damage the sacred site of the local indigenous peoples, who were excluded from the decision-making process. On that particular issue, the Special Rapporteur recommends that consultations be conducted urgently, using mechanisms and processes fully agreed to by the local indigenous peoples.
In 2010, the Russian Federation adopted a law to transfer property rights or to grant free usage to religious organizations of buildings and artefacts of religious significance, which had been nationalized during the soviet years. Numerous transfers have been made, in particular to the Russian Orthodox Church. In the view of the Special Rapporteur, the restitution of cultural heritage, whether movable or immovable, is a complex and multi-facetted issue requiring careful consideration. Care should be taken, for example, to ensure that restitution does not hinder the right of individuals to access cultural heritage. In addition, there is a need to ensure that institutions of culture such as museums, schools of art, theatres and archives that are located in religious buildings, are provided appropriate alternative housing before any transfer actually takes place. The Special Rapporteur encourages the authorities to resolve these issues through open dialogue and debate including all stakeholders. Finally, she recommends that the authorities address the issue of land of indigenous peoples that was nationalized during the soviet times.
An important aspect of the right to cultural heritage is the right to access history, one’s own and that of others. The Special Rapporteur was interested to hear about several initiatives: the establishment of commissions comprising historians from the Russian Federation and some foreign countries to write common textbooks on shared elements of history; governmental programmes encouraging school children to research their own past, including through interviewing their community elders (for example in Altai Krai); and accommodation by some municipal museums of the contributions and personal testimonials [histories] of local communities (for example at the Sviyazhsk historical, cultural and landscape complex in Tatarstan). She recommends that people’s participation in documenting cultural heritage be undertaken in a more systematic manner.
At the same time, the Special Rapporteur is of the view that the authorities should encourage children to discover the history of their own people in a multifaceted way, and not only in relation to specific themes such as World War II. She is perturbed that extra-curricular activities around the history of World War II are associated with military clubs in schools and patriotic camps for youth. More generally, the Special Rapporteur is worried by alleged attempts to regulate historical interpretations, including through overly restricted access to archives. She is also concerned by the establishment, in 2009, of a Presidential Commission on Attempts to Falsify History in a Manner that Damages Russian Interests.
The recognition by the Russian Federation of its multi-ethnic and multi-confessional character is reflected in important constitutional provisions, including in the area of education and language. However, the Special Rapporteur is concerned at the uneven application of these provisions and that many minorities lack support from the federal and regional authorities in this regard. In particular, the production and publication of textbooks in minority or indigenous languages proves to be difficult, unless assistance can be garnered from neighbouring countries or regions using the same language.
The visibility and participation of diverse communities is supported through houses of friendship, ethnic theatres and various festivals The Special Rapporteur notes new programmes to promote tolerance, in particular the initiative of Saint Petersburg. However, the Special Rapporteur encourages the city authorities to adopt a more proactive policy towards minorities and especially the Roma community, which remains highly stigmatized and isolated. More generally, she recommends that measures be taken at the federal and regional levels to ensure a higher visibility of the history and contribution of all the peoples of the Russian Federation, including minorities, migrants, indigenous and small indigenous peoples.
The Special Rapporteur is aware that a pilot project to teach the basics of religious culture and secular ethics is under way, in which parents select whether their children will study one of the four main religions, or world religions, or secular ethics. The Special Rapporteur is concerned that this approach may lead to divisiveness amongst children, as also noted by civil society groups and some public officials and bodies. The Special Rapporteur recommends that serious attention be given to alternative educational proposals promoting inter-faith understanding favoured by some senior religious leaders, for example in Tatarstan.
Artistic life is vibrant in Russian society. The Special Rapporteur is disturbed, however, by reports she received of social art activists being harassed by the police, and of people being prosecuted and convicted with criminal offences for provocative artistic expressions, in particular when these relate to the Russian Orthodox Church. In this regard, the Special Rapporteur stresses that art often is provocative. Furthermore, fulfilling the right to participate in cultural life requires that people enjoy the freedoms necessary to create and contribute to cultural meanings and manifestations in a continuously developing manner. This includes the right to discuss and challenge religious symbols as well as dominant values, including through the medium of artistic expression.
The Special Rapporteur also notes that the right to participate includes the right not to participate in customs, practices and religions. She learnt with concern that some women have been forced or are under extreme pressure to wear a headscarf, for example in Chechnya.
The identity of individuals is always multi-facetted and includes gender identity. The Special Rapporteur was informed that it is increasingly difficult for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people to use safe cultural spaces such as film festivals and other events to explore and express that part of their identity. She is concerned that the 2012 Law adopted by the city of St. Petersburg, prohibiting propaganda of homosexuality to minors, may be used to prevent the participation of persons in such cultural events. Given the steps taken by the St. Petersburg authorities to promote tolerance amongst its population, the Special Rapporteur hopes that this issue can be resolved through dialogue and finds it encouraging that, in some instances, films on LGBT issues have been shown without any impediment from the authorities.
The Special Rapporteur welcomes the increased attention given in the Russian Federation to the rights of persons with disabilities, including children. She particularly welcomes the on-going process for the ratification of the United Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, as well as measures adopted to facilitate access to cultural events and facilities, and the very active engagement of civil society groups on this issue. A number of programmes are supported by the Government, such as the Mimic and Gesture Theatre in Moscow, which unfortunately remains unique in the entire Federation. The Special Rapporteur also commends the authorities of Altai Krai for their activities in this area including the pedagogical lyceum for children with disabilities in Barnaul, which offers a wide range of educational and cultural activities. She was also impressed by the City rehabilitation center for children with disabilities she visited in Kazan.
Of course, much still needs to be done. The Special Rapporteur encourages the authorities, at all levels, to hear and respond to the requests of civil society organizations, to further implement the cultural rights of persons with disabilities, including children. Such requests relate, in particular, to the training of sign language interpreters, subtitles on television, specialized teachers for schools, increasing support for cultural activities in rehabilitation centers for children with disabilities, and developing pro-active programmes to eliminate stereotypes and stigmatization of persons with disabilities. She also conveys to the authorities the serious concerns expressed by many parents regarding the new “inclusive education” programme, which, they believe, requires more progressive and preparatory steps before being implemented.
The Special Rapporteur wishes to conclude by stressing that she has been impressed, throughout her mission, by the energy and commitment of people met, whether civil society or governmental.