NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Michael Posner got up at 4 a.m. in Moscow, bound for this Volga River city where he began filling a yellow spiral notebook with stories of newspapers silenced, human rights advocates threatened and political parties repressed as the United States prepares for a new chapter in its relations with Russia.
Call it reset 2.0.
Posner, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, describes the task as moving decisively to another level in an area where the United States has not made visible progress.
On a trip to Russia that began Monday and ended Saturday, Posner visited Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod and Kazan, asking activists and opposition politicians what the United States could or should be doing to better support their efforts. He listened, took notes, asked questions and answered even more.
The reset refers to the Obama administration’s policy of improving relations that had badly deteriorated, and Russia hands generally consider it a success. A nuclear arms reduction treaty has been signed, Russia permits military supplies bound for Afghanistan to cross its territory, and it has backed the United States on Iran and abstained on the U.N. authorization of force in Libya. Progress has been made toward Russian membership in the World Trade Organization.
Inside the country, however, democratic institutions are stunted, demonstrators supporting freedom of assembly are beaten and arrested, and the law is often used to punish enemies rather than protect individuals.
“In this area where we haven’t gotten progress over several years,” Posner said, “we have a particular challenge.”
That leaves the Obama administration vulnerable going into the 2012 election campaign, said Matthew Rojansky, deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“We’ve seen already the attack is going to be on human rights issues,” he said by telephone from Washington. “Republicans are saying, ‘Russia is a bad country. Why are you working with them?’ ”
So, even as the United States continues operating along the more successful circuits of the reset — including cooperating on counterterrorism — it will also venture more assertively into human rights, a course that has less chance of success, he said.
“It’s reset 2.0,” Rojansky said. “The core of the software remains, but you get additional features.”
Thursday found Posner and Thomas O. Melia, deputy assistant secretary in the bureau, in Nizhny Novgorod, a city of 1.2 million about 250 miles east of Moscow. Uncomplaining about a minibus that lurched at stoplights and bucked over potholes and disregarding a serious lack of sleep, they started their interviews over coffee in a cozy cafe.
“Keep meeting us like this,” said Stanislav Dmitrievsky, who investigates killings and disappearances in Chechnya and was convicted of extremism in 2006. “The authorities can keep talking about us as a marginal group, but you’re giving them a very important signal.”
Dmitrievsky was prosecuted for publishing a letter from a Chechen separatist but says the real reason was that his organization, the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, investigates mass murders and other abuses by Russian soldiers. He got a suspended sentence of two years only because European and American supporters fought hard for him, he said. The U.S.-financed National Endowment for Democracy “stayed with me through it all,” he said.
Although Dmitrievsky avoided jail, his organization was outlawed and now operates officially from Finland.
“I’m head of a Finnish NGO,” he said, laughing. “The legal entity has emigrated, but the person has remained.”
Now, he’s working on identifying the chain of command in the Russian military responsible for the deaths of civilians in a Chechen village in February 2000.
“We want to show who is responsible for what,” he said. “If we manage to get at least several orders for arrest, we will be satisfied.”
Dmitrievsky pushed for the United States to take action against individuals rather than issuing ineffective broadsides, praising the Magnitsky list, an effort by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) to ban visas for Russian officials connected to the death in pretrial detention of Sergei L. Magnitsky, a whistleblowing lawyer.
“This is effective,” Dmitrievsky said. “They steal their money here but prefer to spend and keep it somewhere else in the free world.”
Emily Navruzova, the young and energetic editor of the Nizhny Novgorod edition of Novaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper, said that the authorities have intimidated journalists and that most people are afraid to say publicly what they think.
“When we got a new mayor, I tried to get some comment about him,” she said. “Only one person dared to say anything, and she was drunk. She called me back early in the morning and begged me not to quote her.”
The day was only beginning. Down the street they went to the Committee Against Torture (name names instead of issuing reports) and met the head of the Public Monitoring Commission of Prisons (we have no money to travel to prisons) and the leader of the Intersoyuz migrant rights group (help us be heard). The local television station recorded a long interview, and Posner talked to students at the Higher School of Economics.
“Is it good that we have a president like Mr. Putin?” asked Irina Tolkocheva, a 19-year-old management student.
“That’s for Russians to decide,” Posner replied.
“What can be done about corruption?” asked her friend, Julia Kovalyova, also a management student.
“It’s up to you and everyone in this room to get involved and say this is the kind of country we want,” he said.
“We’re going to tackle these issues with all of our energy,” he said later, as the van lurched onward and he reflected on what he had heard. “We’re going to sustain them and get results.”
The last stop was the Sakharov museum, through a dark and littered courtyard to the small apartment at 214 Gagarin Ave. where Andrei Sakharov, the hero of Soviet science turned dissident, lived in internal exile from 1980 to 1986, constantly watched by the KGB.
Posner began his career working for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and had organized international petitions on Sakharov’s behalf. Eventually they met in 1987, when Posner visited Moscow on an American Bar Association trip.
He never forgot the man or the moment. Sakharov gave him letters to take to family members in the United States. At the airport, the KGB opened his suitcase and dumped out the contents, spilling the letters on the floor.
“They took them all,” he said, his face looking stricken, still.
Soon it was time to get back into the van. At 9:20 p.m., the little group boarded the overnight train to Kazan. At 6:15 a.m. they would arrive and begin another day.