What Russians Want Obama to Know

A day before the American president was scheduled to meet with opposition and civil society groups in Russia, NEWSWEEK spoke with human-rights activists, politicians, and experts about what they expect from the summit.

Karina Maskalenko, a lawyer for jailed billionaire Mikhail Khordorkovsky and assassinated journalist Anna Politkovskaya's family, at the European Court of Human Rights:
"The independence of the entire court system in Russia is currently being tested by two major trials: the Yukos [petroleum company] case and the Khordorkovsky case. Russian President [Dmitry] Medvedev created a challenge for himself by admitting that Russia is rotten with state corruption. Does the president, a lawyer, really think that for an innocent person to be pardoned, he or she should first admit guilt? That is nothing but pure legal nihilism. We want President Obama to know the truth about Russia just as much as we want to know the truth about America's violations in its prisons. Let us be open and honest with each other, rather than turning our backs on our problems."

Ivan Bunin, director of the Center of Political Technologies:
"I would like to see President Obama reset relations with Russia, a move that would significantly strengthen Russian President Medvedev's position. President Obama's decision to criticize Putin gives us hope that his visit will change the political climate. ... Finally, we'd like to hear the words of respect. This is what Russia has been asking from the West during the whole of Putin's term."

Vyacheslav Izmailov, a senior correspondent of Novaya Gazeta (one of a handful of independent Russian newspapers), who has lost six colleagues to contract murders:
"For over a decade we have been under attack for criticizing state corruption. Our friends and colleagues have been shot and poisoned for their investigative reporting about the Kremlin, FSB[intelligence service], and other sensitive subjects. But this year our newspaper had a chance to interview both President Obama and President Medvedev. This is a big change. It means we are out of the dark. Still, that does not mean that Obama has taken us under his wing. We must fight for our democracy on our own. We simply hope that Obama reminds us all of the real values of a democracy."

Garry Kasparov, chess champion and political opposition leader:
"This is a unique event. The fact that political players like me, [reformer] Boris Nemtsov, and [member of the opposition] Elena Lukyanova will have a chance to meet with President Obama means it is possible to reset relations. Obama cannot change our reality in two days, but we at least expect him to stop treating us with double standards. Russia has an authoritarian regime; Obama's and Putin's values cannot have common ground. I will tell President Obama about Russia's dozens of political prisoners—opposition activists, scientists, and businessmen. We will judge him by whether or not he has a clear plan for Russia. But we wish to highlight that Russia deserves democracy."

Gennady Gudkov, a Duma deputy:
"President Obama has already made even the most angry anti-American politicians in the Russian Parliament soften up, just because he is a younger, more professional, intelligent, and sensible leader than Bush. Most Russian politicians have great expectations that his visit will put an end to the Cold War mentality in Russian politics."

Lev Ponomarev, director of the Russian Organization For Human Rights, who has been beaten, arrested, and harassed for his work:
"Our situation in Russia now is even worse than it was in Brezhnev's times. At least back in the 1970s, if a person was killed in prison, they investigated. Now we have thousands of innocent people killed or raped after being thrown in jail. There are even special 'torture zones' feared among inmates. Russian human-rights activists have three minutes to report to President Obama about human-rights violations in our country. We are therefore focusing on Mikhail Khodorkovsky and [his business partner] Platon Lebedev, the current political trial, which is so politically sensitive that the Kremlin canceled a hearing today. But there is one tomorrow; we invite both President Obama and President Medvedev to attend it."

Masha Gaidar, a liberal vice governor of the Kirov region:
"We are honored to see that President Obama and his family flew across the ocean all the way to Russia to inspire us. We are touched by such support."