A Human Rights Tour through Saint Petersburg

By Andrea Garcia Giribet

Last summer during the World Cup, a group of activists led an interesting alternative excursion for tourists: a human rights tour

Last summer, the 2018 FIFA World Cup took place in different cities in Russia. Millions of tourists travelled to the country to watch the games and support their countries. Amnesty International and local platforms Trava and Opened Map partnered to provide an alternative to the typical excursions for tourists: a human rights tour.

During the month of the World Cup, Amnesty International focused on sharing the main message of the Brave campaign, Be Bold, by promoting Team Brave, eleven human rights defenders from Russia. In the context of the football event, Amnesty wanted to bring attention to how the stories of human rights activists inspire just as much as the football victories.

The human rights tour was a specific initiative that had the goal of telling the “human rights history” of Russian cities through the city’s space, landmarks and tourists spots. Olga Polyakova, coordinator of the project, says they wanted to showcase “the state of human rights in Russia” and talk about the “human rights defenders who are trying to improve the situation of human rights for the better”.

Participants in the tour investigate in one of the stops of the tour Participants in the tour investigate in one of the stops of the tour
Participants take a close look at one of the stops of the tour © Gleb Paikachev

The tour took place in the historical district, the area most visited by tourists. “We wanted to bring attention to something beyond the sightseeing,” says Polyakova. “We started with the story of Vavilov, [a repressed scientist who was imprisoned as his research didn’t comply with the interests of the government], continued with World War II, and then the first human rights defenders,” she tells us, “in the place where Pavlenskii protested with burning tires, we discussed key actionists and peacekeepers”. These topics are still very relevant, as “academics involved in historical research can be repressed for investigating the history of the XX century if it doesn’t comply with the ‘interests of Russia’”, points out Polyakova. They finished every tour by talking about the future, and the current situation and state of each of the topics they covered, from peaceful assembly to freedom of expression.

The tour was interactive, and participants could ask questions and suggest things, and the tour evolved with these suggestions. “We printed a list of rights and freedoms […] so that participants could note which violations they heard about,” says Polyakova.

To prepare the tours, the organisers discussed the human rights issues that were visible in the city with different activists, focusing on the last century. “While we were mapping the city, it became obvious that you can tell a story of human rights violations or state repression literally near every house in the centre. I never thought about it before”, says Petr Voskresinskiy, guide and co-creator of the tour. Once they decided on the key topics, they put together a map and from it, traced a route that touched the largest variety of topics, including repression, freedom of expression and prisoners of conscience.

At the end of the tours, many of the participants were eager to know more and to learn about how to protect their rights. One participant said, “I realised how absurd the accusations of the state against human rights defenders and citizens are”. A teacher, says Voskresinskiy, asked to know more about the freedom of peaceful assembly, as “her pupils took part in recent peaceful protests against corruption and were arrested, and then they had problems with school administration”. The teacher had no idea what to do to help them, and the tour inspired her to learn more.

A guide gives an explanation of one of the locations A guide gives an explanation of one of the locations
A guide gives an explanation of one of the stops in the tour © Gleb Paikachev

By the end of the World Cup, three guides had conducted 25 tours for almost 200 participants. Polyakova recommends the experience to other activists, calling it a great human rights education tool: “it is immersion in the narrative, in the story” of human rights in the city. She says, “you can see that it gives people the desire to learn more and get involved in activism”.

Ivan Gutorov, guide and co-creator of the tour, says the tours are “a great introduction into human rights problems”. His advice to activists looking to follow their path is to “make such excursions by a team of several organisations, so as not to focus on one topic”. Ann Petukhova, third guide and co-creator, pointed out how “local human rights organisations were friendly to welcome the tour”, mentioning how these organisations “opened their doors to us and told us about their daily activities, sharing their experiences”.

Stasya Denisova, Amnesty International Regional Human Rights Education Co-ordinator for the Europe and Central Asia regions explains, “Human Rights Tours are a truly engaging methodology for raising awareness on human rights issues and getting out of our cosy bubble. Tourists both from abroad but also from many towns of Russia were attracted to see ‘alternative Saint Petersburg’ and ‘alternative Moscow’. It is quite possible to multiply this project – just think about learning objectives on human rights you want to teach, put them on the map of Kiev, Amsterdam or Rome, educate your guides and publish your offer on popular tourist websites. I would love to take this tour next time I go to… Warsaw or Chisinau”.

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