Note: Vera Kichanova has never been a NED grantee; she was honored by NED with its 2013 Democracy Award for her commitment to democratic values.
Grassroots politics are always challenging in countries that crackdown on civil society, and this is particularly so in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where peaceful demonstrators are hauled off to prison and organizations that receive outside support are smeared as “foreign agents.”
“There were many thousands of people who were going out in the streets, many of them for the first time, to show that they want the political system to be more liberal, to be more democratic,” she said after she was honored with the 2013 Democracy Award by NED. “They all hoped that the changes would come quickly. But actually after that, we had a crackdown on Russian civil society and so many of those people are discouraged. But while they are discouraged, it doesn’t mean that they are giving up because we are continuing our fight, our struggle.”
Vera is a part of a new generation of Russians who are challenging the system from within. After multiple arrests for participating in street protests, Vera Kichanova sought a seat last year on a northwest Moscow district legislative council as part of a coalition of independent and opposition activists called Our City.
In the 2012 municipal elections, Vera and her fellow activists were not regarded as serious competitors. Campaigning door to door, she promised to design a website giving constituents easier access to their deputies and the district’s spending records. Vera also spread the word through her popular blog and won the seat, along with 70 other young activists in the Our City campaign. She was just 20 years old.
Her success during the elections was highlighted by both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. And now, as an elected member of the municipal council, she fights for increased transparency by local authorities. Vera deals with neighborhood issues, helping to improve the daily lives of people.
But she has by no means abandoned the struggle to bring about large-scale political change. She sees change taking place incrementally, as she and her fellow young activists take advantage of any available opportunities. She says that she and other young deputies are only beginning to learn political skills that are needed to eventually gain higher office.
Vera, who started writing professionally for publications in Moscow when she was 14 years old, continues to compose bold and insightful analyses on complex local and national political issues for Slon (slon.ru), an independent news outlet in Russia. Previously, she has worked for the independent publication Novaya Gazeta, known for its investigative reporting and heroic journalists, including Anna Politkovskaya, who have been murdered in the line of duty. As a journalism student in the same department where Anna studied, Vera was arrested at a Kremlin-organized event where pro-government youth were instructed to smile and clap for the visiting President.
When the National Endowment for Democracy presented Vera with the 2013 Democracy Award in July for her commitment to democratization efforts in Russia, she turned to the audience and said, “This is not my award.”Vera has become “a minor celebrity among youthful protesters” after being taken into police custody at least six times for her peaceful protesting and democratic activism, according to the Wall Street Journal.
In a passionate speech, she expressed solidarity with political prisoners—specifically citing the 27 people on trial for the Bolotnaya case—and dedicated the award to “the generation of young Russians who keep fighting, who keep protesting, who keep going out in the streets and who keep participating in local activities and local elections.”