HLSAE Featured Alumnus - June 2023

Interview with Grigory Vaypan LL.M.’13:
"A lawyer is someone who speaks out to the public about the abuses carried out by the government."

Dear Alumni and Alumnae,

The summer edition of our "Featured Alumnus/a" Newsletter features human rights lawyer Grigory Vaypan LL.M.'13, who talks about the motivation that led him to specialise in human rights law and shares his unique insights into the role that human rights lawyers play in Russia today. 


Interviewers: Could you briefly introduce yourself – where do you come from and how/why did you choose to become a lawyer?

G. Vaypan: I am a Russian human rights lawyer. I received my law degree from Moscow State University, followed by an LL.M. from Harvard Law School and a Ph.D. in International Law from Saint Petersburg State University.

I have been practicing human rights law in Russia for the past 10 years. Currently, I work as a Senior Lawyer at Memorial, Russia’s oldest human rights group and laureate of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.

Becoming a lawyer was not really a conscious choice for me, but rather something that came from my family: my father is a lawyer, my grandfather was a lawyer, and even my great-grandfather received his law degree from the same Moscow State University in the late 1920s. I was very young when I started law school – only 16 – and did not realize law would eventually become my passion.

After turning 18, I became eligible to work as an election observer and witnessed massive electoral fraud. The police kicked me out of the polling station after I complained to the election commission. I challenged the election results in court but lost the trial as the witnesses (members of the election commission) lied and the court did not undertake a meaningful inquiry. It was a dramatic experience for me as a young law student because it showed the distance between the law in the books and reality. By the age of 19, I knew that things were not right in my country and its legal system. That really angered me and motivated me to work in the public interest.

Interviewers: How did you decide to apply to Harvard Law School (HLS)? What was the road to Harvard like for you?

G. VaypanThe idea to apply to HLS was planted in my head by a Ukrainian friend who got admitted to the LL.M. program 2 years earlier. His going there made me realize that there are educational opportunities outside Russia that I should explore. Russian legal education is very conservative, being mostly about learning and memorizing laws. Participating in the Jessup Moot Court Competition three years in a row exposed me to alternative ways of developing legal skills.

I applied to the Harvard LL.M. program together with my girlfriend and future wife Aleksandra Ivlieva, and we were both admitted. I am sure that everyone instantly remembers the moment when they learned about their admission to HLS. For us, that moment coincided with us winning the Jessup Competition World Championship 11 days later, thereby making March 2012 one of the best months of my life.

Interviewers: What was your experience at HLS like? What would you say were the main takeaways from your studies in Cambridge?

G. VaypanPeople go to the Harvard LL.M. program for different reasons. For me, it was not that much about learning new areas of law or taking classes that would pave the way to the Bar – but rather a way to reimagine the law, the legal thinking, and the role of a lawyer and the legal profession. I took classes about alternative ways of thinking about the law and practicing law – such as Critical Legal Studies with Professors David Kennedy and Duncan Kennedy. I learned about the rich intellectual heritage of imagining the law in the Western world and in the US.

My time at Harvard was also an inspiration for my future human rights work in Russia. I knew from early on that I would return to Russia, not stay in the US. In the First Amendment class focusing on freedom of speech and freedom of religion, I was inspired by the role that lawyers performed in the US by advancing social justice, civil rights, and the rule of law. Their example encouraged me to act as a lawyer in the public interest of my country.

Interviewers: Were there any particular circumstances in Russia that motivated you to specialize in human rights law?

G. Vaypan: I wanted to build a program or project focusing on strategic human rights litigation in Russia. By the time I graduated from Harvard Law School, I knew the Russian legal and judicial system quite well and realized that the potential of the Russian Constitutional Court was greatly underexploited. Under Russian law, the Court has wide-ranging powers: not only to strike down unconstitutional laws, but also to provide constitution-conforming interpretation of existing laws. I saw an opportunity to use those very wide powers for the purposes of strategic litigation to challenge laws and practices aimed at destroying democracy and rule of law in Russia, as well as harming human rights.

I did not realize at the time that 2012-2013 was in many ways a defining time for the rule of law in Russia. There were large-scale protests against unfair elections and Putin’s grip on power in early 2012. Those protests were in turn followed by a very strong government reaction. Russia’s worst repressive laws started popping up in 2012. This includes the notorious Foreign Agents Law, but also laws against freedom of assembly in public spaces and other similar laws.

I was 23, had just received the best possible legal education, and was very motivated to fight in Russian courts. Working at the Institute of Law and Public Policy, a Moscow NGO, me and my colleagues started a strategic litigation program focusing on the Russian Constitutional Court and to a lesser extent on the European Court of Human Rights.

At that moment I and my fellow colleagues saw the worrying trends, but it was still a different environment. We thought that there were judicial avenues that could be used to stop that slide into authoritarianism and dictatorship. We even believed that we could contribute to promoting human rights in other fields, such as social rights, property rights, and environmental rights. Looking back at that time from today’s perspective, I realize that the space for meaningful human rights work in Russia has been rapidly shrinking since then.

Interviewers: What has been your professional trajectory after the HLS? What do you currently do professionally, and where are you based?

G. Vaypan: I worked at the Institute of Law and Public Policy for almost seven years. My time there ended around the same time when President Putin introduced numerous so-called constitutional amendments in early 2020 – essentially aimed at securing his lifetime presidency and further undermining the separation of powers and rule of law in Russia. The timing was a coincidence, but in many ways a very symbolic ending to that constitutional justice project that we pursued – the mandate of the Russian Constitutional Court has been severely curtailed since.

2020 was a turning moment for me. I spent a few months as a fellow in Washington D.C. at the Kennan Institute – a premier think tank that focuses on Russia and especially on Russian law and policy. Thereafter, I returned to Russia and joined Memorial – Russia’s oldest human rights group with a mission to ensure that Russia confronts the crimes and human rights abuses committed by its government over the past century, including the Soviet era. Memorial’s activities have been twofold: on the one hand, seeking to address the Soviet legacy of terror and totalitarianism, and on the other hand focusing on the abuses by the current regime. At Memorial, I focus on transitional justice – a set of mechanisms addressing grave violations of human rights by the Soviet regime. I also do some legal and policy research in an effort to reimagine a comprehensive post-Soviet legislative transitional justice legal framework, as it has to do with Russia’s current war of aggression against Ukraine.

An important reason why the war in Ukraine has become possible is that Russia has never dealt with its totalitarian past. Almost nothing has been done to confront the crimes of the Soviet era – no investigations, nobody brought to justice, no official database of people who suffered under the Soviet totalitarian regime, although we estimate the number of such victims to be at least 12 million. The victims have not been compensated in any meaningful way and most importantly: nothing has been done to avoid these abuses happening again – the structures of the Soviet regime have not been dismantled, and the people and the institutions have remained the same. Putin himself started his career at the KGB and participated in the persecution of Soviet dissidents. The challenge has been and remains to come up with a transitional justice agenda for Russia. So since 2020, I have been less of a litigator and more of a researcher.

Interviewers: Could you talk about the circumstances that led you to leave Russia?

G. Vaypan: Memorial has been increasingly targeted by the Russian government. In 2021, the authorities filed for Memorial’s forced dissolution, which was the most important trial of that year in Russia. I was on Memorial’s legal defense team. The attempt of the authorities to dismantle Memorial began just a few months before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The authorities wanted to cleanse Russian public space from any narratives contradicting the ones that the authorities wished to put forward – including alternative views about Russian history, Russia’s troubled legacy, the crimes committed by the Russian Soviet government, and Russia’s historic and current acts of aggression against its neighboring countries.

After Memorial was dissolved, it became increasingly risky to operate in Russia, although Memorial has continued its activities both inside and outside Russia. I still have numerous colleagues working in Russia, carrying out research in the state archives and continuously educating the Russian public. My intention was to stay for as long as I could. After the Ukrainian war started, I was openly against it and we organized petitions by the Russian civil society against the invasion, showing that it was contrary to international law, as has also been found by both the UN General Assembly and the International Court of Justice. I also participated in legal cases concerning anti-war protests and speech. By fall 2022, it had become increasingly difficult to remain in Russia, as the assaults on Memorial and its staff continued; Memorial was deprived of its premises and a criminal case was opened without naming the suspects. It was about the same time when the Kennan Institute where I was a fellow was declared an undesirable organization, making it illegal to collaborate with it in any way.

In that environment, I took up a position as a visiting researcher at the University of Helsinki for three months. Thereafter, I got a fellowship at the Centre for European Policy Analysis in Washington DC where I am currently based.

Due to my continued association with Memorial, I still carry out legal work related to Russia. For example, I am one of the signatories of the recently published Brussels Declaration by 26 Russian lawyers and human rights defenders supporting Ukraine’s appeal for the creation of an international tribunal for the crime of aggression committed by top Russian government officials. Memorial has also reincorporated outside of Russia; there is now an important Memorial diaspora outside of Russia that continues carrying out Memorial’s mission.

Interviewers: As Russia has gradually devolved into an authoritarian regime since you started your legal career, how do you see the role of organizations like Memorial and other human rights groups in Russia today? Is there any tangible impact such organizations can still have?

G. Vaypan: When it comes to lawyers, there are two important reasons why, even in a context as dire as we now have in Russia, it still makes sense to practice public interest law. The first reason is that the defendants need us to stand in their defense.

Secondly, aside from that human dimension, every time we make a filing, and every time we speak in court, we are making a public statement addressing not so much the Russian judges, but the Russian and international public. By raising our voices, we support activists who are still on the ground in Russia and we say out loud that their prosecution is unconstitutional, contrary to human rights, and contrary to international law.

The crackdown on human rights in Russia has been an important prelude to the war in Ukraine, and still continues and keeps the war going today. Russians who speak up and protest against the war are prosecuted under the new laws enacted in Russia since the spring of 2022. Many people in Russia believe that during wartime, the government is constitutionally empowered to restrict free speech and freedom of assembly and association, but in reality, these new laws are at odds with the Russian Constitution and with the international treaties that Russia has acceded to. It is important to explain to the Russian people that what the activists are doing is not only morally right but also legally right.

In this context, the role of a lawyer is in many ways comparable to that of an educator. For example, we draw parallels between the laws that were enacted in Russia in spring 2022 and the Soviet laws that were used to prosecute Soviet dissidents. The current antiwar speech laws seem to be directly taken from the Soviet playbook. If we compare the law against discrediting the Russian army, for instance -the law that more than 6000 Russians have already been prosecuted under- with the so-called anti-Soviet propaganda law that existed in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, we will see that at a conceptual level, those are the same laws. The wording is so similar that we can safely say that the worst Soviet laws have come back into existence. From a legal standpoint, it is crucial to remind both Russian and international audiences that those Soviet laws were recognized as contrary to the rule of law and contrary to human rights in the early 1990s by the Russian government itself.

So just to reiterate, there is a humanitarian aspect to being a lawyer in an autocracy and in wartime, and that is to defend people in court who need the help of a lawyer. There is also an educational and publicity aspect to it: a lawyer is someone who speaks out publicly about the abuses carried out by the government. In the current Russian context, statements by Russian human rights lawyers are part of a broader antiwar movement. Whether that movement succeeds or not does not depend on lawyers only, but our work is an important contribution to the anti-war movement.

Interviewers: Looking back at your professional trajectory thus far, would you be able to share an actual success story that you are proud of, a case that you brought to court that was solved in your favor, and where the judgment was adhered to by the authorities?

G. Vaypan: My favorite case is the “Children of the Gulag” case. It concerns Soviet-era deportees whose children -now elderly people in their 70s or 80s- claim reparation for the harm caused to their families during the Soviet times. The plaintiffs were born in the Gulag- that is, in forced labor camps or in the so-called special settlements, or in internal exile to parents who had been deported or sent to prison by the Soviet government as part of large-scale persecution campaigns. They were deported from major Soviet cities or in some cases, like, for example, people of German ethnicity, from agricultural areas of European Russia. The descendants of these deportees still have not been able to return to those places, nor to recover the homes that were taken away from their parents and grandparents decades ago.

A Russian law adopted in 1991 proclaims that these people are entitled to compensation and to housing in places where their families used to live before the deportation. However, such compensation has never been administered by the Russian state.

We at the Institute of Law and Public Policy brought the case before the Constitutional Court and won in 2019. In its ruling, the Court ordered the government to fast-track the compensation scheme, which comes to show that as recently as 2019, there were still openings for meaningful legal action in Russia. Sadly, the Constitutional Court ruling still awaits implementation because the matter is up before the Russian Parliament and they are reluctant to approve funding to compensate the children of the “enemies of the people”.

Nonetheless, I consider this case a success story- not only because we secured a favorable judgment from Russia's top court, but also because we gave voice to people who felt forgotten by everyone for decades. We built an advocacy campaign around this case that saw more than 100,000 people sign our petition addressed to the Russian Parliament, including more than 100 prominent Russian intellectuals. Two UN Special Rapporteurs- Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing and Special Rapporteur on Transitional Justice- also sent a communication to the Russian authorities.

All of a sudden, the children of the Gulag -many of whom still live in exile in the former camps they were born at- felt the support of fellow Russians for the first time in their lives. Even though the enforcement of the Court ruling is still pending, this case shows that many people in Russia support the idea of justice for victims of Soviet rule. This is a good start when we think of postwar Russia because we will need to have a conversation about transitional justice- not only as regards the victims of the current crimes and abuses by the Russian government, but also about the Soviet legacy that has not really been addressed so far.

Interviewers: How has the nature of your work changed since the onset of the war in Ukraine? You have been involved in some cases related to Article 20.3.3 which imposes liability for discreditation of the Russian army. Are there any other laws of similar nature that are hotly debated and litigated in Russia right now?

G. Vaypan There is a notorious sister law to article 20.3.3, which provides for criminal liability for “spreading misinformation about the Russian army”. It carries a heavier sentence than article 20.3.3, meaning that any talk about war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the Russian armed forces in Ukraine carries the risk of lengthy prison time.

By way of example of my current work, I am involved in the case of a Moscow municipal councilor, Alexei Gorinov, who spoke out against the war at a local council session in Moscow three weeks into the war. He specifically mentioned that Ukrainian children were dying every day because of the war, which was completely true and substantiated by official data compiled by the United Nations. Nonetheless, Mr. Gorinov was prosecuted under that unconstitutional law and sentenced to almost seven years in jail just for those statements. We are currently working to appeal that conviction and I am certain that this case, along with many other cases of prosecution of war dissenters, will end up before both the Russian Constitutional Court and international justice mechanisms. So our legal work is not limited to domestic courts, we also utilize available international legal mechanisms. In the case of Alexei Gorinov, for example, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has already issued an opinion finding that his detention was arbitrary and contrary to international law and demanded that Alexei Gorinov be immediately released.

Interviewers: How would you currently define the mission of your professional life?

G. VaypanMy mission as a lawyer is to make sure that my country, Russia, ceases to be a threat to international peace and security, both in the short term and in the longer run. The war will inevitably end one day and a long and painful process of confronting Russia's troubled past is awaiting us, the Russian society. It’s a process that will no doubt take decades, but if I, as a lawyer, can contribute to Russia's transition to a rule-of-law country, then I will feel I have succeeded professionally.

Interviewers: Aside from being a lawyer, what is your greatest passion?

G. Vaypan: It is really hard to answer this question at a time of war and at a time when I am outside of my country. We all live in a crisis mode now and I can hardly think about anything other than work or the news from the frontline. So instead of talking about “passions”, I rather think about things that keep me going.

One such thing is biking. Washington DC is a very bikeable city and I ride the bike some 8 km to the office every day. This is something I could not have imagined in Moscow, which is too large for any kind of bike commute. Apart from being a great daily exercise, riding a bike gives me time to refresh and reflect.

  Additional resources:
  1. More about the Children of the GULAG Case: Born in Soviet Exile, They Might Die in a Russian One - The New York Times (nytimes.com)
  2. Memorial: Memorial Society official website

This interview was conducted by: 

Heleri Tammiste LL.M. '09
Senior Associate

Tallinn, Estonia

Heleri Tamiste

Alvyda Ušinskaitė LL.M. '13
Senior Legal Counsel

European Investment Fund,

Alvyda Usinskaite