The White House is convinced, or has convinced itself, that Russia is a normal country that can be dealt with through normal diplomatic means, a nation we can “get along with.” Every once in a while we are reminded that this is a fantasy.

Yesterday at the White House a small group of protesters gathered to remind us of the real Russia:

Participants in the protest against Russian human rights abuses at the White House yesterday. (by Ksenia Semenova)

I spoke with Natalia Pelevine, organizer of the demonstrations known as the Strategy 31 protests for the article of the Russian constitution guaranteeing the right to peaceful assembly. She is in her 30s, of Russia and Polish descent. Born in Moscow, she moved to England as a child and now lives in New York. She has quite a pedigree in the Russian human rights movement. Her great-grandfather, a priest, was an organizer of an anti-Communist uprising in midwestern Soviet Russia in 1932. The uprising by about 60,000 people was ultimately crushed. Pelevine’s great-grandfather was arrested and, after spending six months in jail, killed. He was recently canonized.

Peveline wrote the controversial play “In Your Hands.” The play, based on the events of the Moscow theater siege of 2002, was first staged in London in October 2006 at the New End Theater, once a morgue where Karl Marx’s body was stored before burial. The Russian version of “In Your Hands,” directed by Skanderbek Tulparov, had its premiere at the Russian Dramatic Theatre in April 2008 and was banned after its opening-night performance.

Pelevine told me that the March 31 protest is not an isolated event but part of a series of protests that began more than two years ago “as a way to reclaim the right for the freedom of assembly in Russia.” Opposition leaders started the movement. She explains, “Over the past six years most of the oppositional protests were brutally suppressed; people were beaten and arrested; so, on the 31st of each month [in months with 31 days], the opposition started coming together on Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow in support of the freedom of assembly. We decided to show our solidarity with the Russian opposition by doing rallies on the same dates in New York and now D.C.”

Pelevine is under no illusions about the potential for human rights progress. She says, “It would be very difficult to improve the situation with the human rights in Russia while Vladimir Putin is in power, because even as prime minister and not the president, he still calls the shot on all major issues.” She explains, “The violation of human rights starts with him. There is no doubt that it is on his decision that [former oil billionaire] Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his sworn enemy, was given another term in jail on the case international experts called absurd. Moreover, the ability to know what is going inside Russia is limited.” She added, “ With the lack of free media, transparency and tight Kremlin control over most aspects of life, human rights stand little chance in Russia.”

I asked her whether Russia’s continued occupation of Georgia has emboldened Putin at home. She replied, “Yes, the situation with Georgia and what is going on within Russia are two sides of the same coin. Overpowering the neighbor country that is looking to the West and is adopting its ways, and going after the opposition, is part of Kremlin policy; this is natural to them, it’s their core.”

As for the U.S. government, Pelevine would like to see it be more outspoken. She says that “it would be great to see more firm reaction to arrests such as yesterday’s [200 people were arrested],” and to injustices such as the Khodorkovsky verdict. “It would be helpful if sanctions are applied to specific government officials connected to misuse of law,” she said. These officials care about things like their personal travel and “having property in Miami,” She doesn’t minimize the difficulty of dealing with Putin, but she argues that “attention needs to be paid to the very worrying political process in Russia.” And some energy independence would help, too. She notes that “oil prices are high, and Putin is grinning.”

Then there are the upcoming Olympics in Sochi; Pelevine says that “if nothing changes in the next year, I would like to see, and will be working on this myself with our new Committee for Democratic Russia, boycotts of the sponsors and rallies explaining that attending a Gaddafi wannabe’s [Putin’s] biggest party is not right.”

For now, the task for human rights advocates should be to raise awareness of the nature of the Russian government, and most important, to influence administration policy. Having rediscovered human rights rhetoric, isn’t it time our policy reflected our values?