Irina Yasina’s voice sounded firm and confident as she spoke to a victim of injustice at a meeting of Russia Behind Bars, an organization of civil society advocates and lawyers, in Moscow in late September. On the panel, Svetlana Belevitina, the sobbing mother of a murdered teen-age girl, managed to tell her story through her tears: “My daughter’s murderer can come out of jail any day, unpunished,” she said. It was Yasina who brought the heartbroken mother to the meeting, to help build a bridge between the victim and civil society.
At first glance, nobody would ever guess that Yasina’s body is paralyzed up to her neck. Delicate makeup, beautiful hair, stylish clothes, hands crossed over a leather purse that matched the color of her shoes — the moderator seemed a picture of health. “Calm down, give us details of the case, cover concrete issues. We need you to be heard, we need proper coverage of your case in the press,” Yasina advised the crying mother in a firm voice. The woman needed Yasina’s strength of mind. And Russia needs the wisdom for which Yasina has become famous, in a country swamped in turmoil and bad news: few intellectuals, it seems, have the discipline to sit down and think ahead about the country.
For over a decade Yasina has been teaching hundreds of regional journalists and provincial university students to think, to analyze historical events, to speak their minds. She calls her seminar initiative “I think.” But the authorities have attempted to stop her from thinking and mentoring young people. Last May, the Russian ministry of justice included Liberal Mission, the foundation sponsoring her courses, in a register of so-called “foreign agent” nongovernmental groups. Then, authorities changed their minds and took the group off the list. “Now, when we are not labeled as foreign agents, I can once again teach my students; it makes me terribly happy,” Yasina told me recently. Yasina’s father, the former minister of economy, Yevgeny Yasin, founded Liberal Mission back in 1999. That was the year when Yasina’s whole world collapsed.
At age 35, she tripped, feeling exhausted. Doctors diagnosed her with multiple sclerosis. Yasina’s entire body would eventually grow paralyzed, but at that time, nobody knew how her illness would progress. More dark news followed: Yasina lost her job, a high position in the management of the Central Bank, and her beloved husband left her for a younger and healthier woman. Her autobiographical book, History of an Illness: An attempt at happiness, recounts how she cried for the first six months — but almost never since then. “I learned to answer the key question. It was not a question ‘Why me?’ but a question, ‘Why was I given all of this?’” Yasina told me on the sunny veranda of her country house on the outskirts of Moscow.
For somebody who has been locked in a numb body, Yasina lives a very active life, more eventful than those of many Moscow middle class ladies. This month, I ran into her at several public meetings, both in Russia and in Ukraine. In Odessa, she was laughing over sharp jokes her friends made at a reception at the Odessens Club — an event organized by a famous comedian, Mikhail Zhvanetsky. She also met and discussed politics with Maria Gaidar, (also known as Masha), a Russian politician who recently joined Odessa’s governor, the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, to implement a medical reform plan in the vibrant Ukrainian city on the Black Sea. “If I were healthier, I would have been doing what Masha is doing here in Ukraine,” Yasina admitted to me.
Maria Gaidar later told me that she “admired Yasina’s strength of will,” a key survival quality for every Russian woman. Women occupy very few leadership positions in Russia, but even after she lost her ability to walk, Yasina served from 2000 to 2006 as vice chair of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia foundation, under intense pressure from authorities. Many healthy women would have quit as soon as the Kremlin arrested Khodorkovsky and his colleagues, but not Yasina. She stood by her friends and defended their rights. What motivates her? “Since early age my driving slogan was ‘live not to shame your family name,’” she told me, with a broad smile.
In the summer of 2006, U.S. president George W. Bush held a meeting with Russian civil society leaders and Yasina was seated next to him. The president asked her about her diagnosis and, on hearing that it was multiple sclerosis, immediately cheered, as Yasina recalled, and said, “That is not too bad, your mind will stay bright till the very end.”
Later, working at Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s Council for Civil Society Institutions and Human Rights, Yasina raised issues of volunteer groups, rights and conditions for people with disabilities, and of the Russian elite not doing enough for charity projects. “I would like to suggest that we do something about instilling a sense of responsibility in the elite, because it is horrifying to see people walking around in an impoverished country wearing million-dollar watches,” Yasina once said at a meeting with President Medvedev. The recent scandal around President Vladimir Putin’s press spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, wearing a $620,000 watch illustrated how callous and out of touch the Russian elite had become — how little they cared about how others viewed their wealth, even during a time of economic crisis.
Putin’s Russia has not changed much for the better since the days when Yasina’s voice could be heard in the Kremlin. Most kids in wheelchairs still cannot go to mainstream schools, and not many Russian cities have a friendly environment for people with disabilities.
Yasina was proud that during her tenure on the council people with disabilities were given coverage on television. With an eye to mechanisms and systematic solutions, she pushed the state to build a wheel-chair lift for a Moscow fifth grader — a small victory that led to a broader discussion of access to education and state policy for people with disabilities.
She drew inspiration from the late Yegor Gaidar, the Russian reformer and prime minister. “Once I came to Gaidar’s house, he was sitting in the shade on his balcony, thinking,” Yasina recalled. “When I asked him what he was working on, he told me he was thinking of Cuba after Castro, a decade before Cuba’s first signs of opening. I advise everybody to try and see a bigger picture,” Yasina said.
It is that sense of perspective, and her strength of will and thought, that help her to carry on. A few years ago, her old friend Olga Romanova lived for a time at Yasina’s country house, surrounded by a beautiful garden. There, Romanova typed Yasina’s book for her, and the two talked a lot about life. “Sometimes I feel as if my friend is as big as Mother Teresa,” Romanova, a prominent opposition activist and human rights defender, told me this week. “Not once I saw her shed a tear about herself — she tied up a knot on her own fate.”
Despite her own stoicism, Yasina understands well enough the suffering others feel unable to endure. As well as a human rights defender and an academic, Yasina is a columnist, engaging readers on acute but rarely discussed issues. In her latest piece published in gazeta.ru, an online newspaper, Yasina invited her readers to think about how patients suffering from severe pain could end their lives with dignity. It was a critical subject: this year more than a dozen cancer patients, unable to obtain painkillers, committed suicide in Russia. Yasina admitted that she was a supporter of euthanasia. “Nobody allows a thought, that a person can get tired of life, deadly tired of not seeing any perspectives,” she said in her article.
As for Yasina, her mind is occupied with a long view of history, and with ways for Russia to work on its conscience after Putin. “To confess is a good word, though in Russia not many like to confess, and say sorry for concrete actions. But sober minded, thoughtful people think about the reasons — I go back far in history, thinking why Orthodox Russians killed priests after the revolution. We need to analyze the core of where it all rots from,” Yasina said. “People need to admit that it was all their fault — I speak with colleagues from Konrad Adenauer Foundation, experienced in work with historical guilt, and organize a joint round table, begin a discussion here in Moscow. Somebody needs to think about that now.”