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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Been Wronged? Call Legal Hot Line

In two separate incidents reported to a hot line for complaints about corrupt government employees, callers alleged that police officials had unlawfully evicted them, changed their locks and moved into their apartments.

"When we went to check one out last week, we found the policeman living there among the woman's things," said Svetlana Chuvilova, 32, director of the call-in service opened by the Moscow Helsinki Group, a non profit legal defense organization, on Sept. 15. "One room had been cleared. Who knows where the stuff went? The woman and her two children were left to live on the streets."

Staffed by 30 lawyers and telephone operators, the service offers free legal advice on how to deal with corrupt bureaucrats. In the first two weeks since its opening, the hot line has received more than 200 calls. The staff are all volunteers, themselves fed up with civil servants abusing their powers.

"People cannot afford legal advice, but they still need it," said lawyer Alexei Buryak, 31. "I need to work for free now, in order to make our world more civilized."

More than three-fourths of the calls so far have been serious enough to require face-to-face meetings with lawyers. One caller from the town of Korolyov, just north of Moscow, set up an appointment to meet one of the lawyers for assistance in filling out an official complaint form. In 1995, he was ousted from his home and land after the city authorized his property to be bulldozed without consulting him.

"Most people know they are victims of a corrupt decision, but they don't feel powerful enough to complain, and don't know how," said telephone operator, Yelena Beryezena, 60. She is often moved to tears by the tales of lives ruined by crooked bureaucrats.

Many callers said they were being denied unemployment benefits because their former employers refused to take their names off of the work registers because they did not want the firm's government subsidies or tax benefits to be reduced. Other frequent complaints were from Russian "refugees" stuck in former Soviet republics, such as Kazakhstan, who were refused local passports but denied residency in Russia. "After two days of answering these phones, I realized I had in front of me a very complete picture of the country's sickness," Beryezena said.

A few weeks ago, a woman caller screamed and wailed about what she called "the government theft of her children" more than 10 years ago. She told Beryezena she had been to the police, but they just threatened to send her to a mental institution. "She was definitely crazy. If I hadn't counseled her and calmed her down, she could have gone out and done something crazy, hurt someone else's child or God knows what," Beryezena said.

Another caller asked Beryezena for help in getting her son out of a cult, into which he had already sunk his savings and salary for three years.

Moscow lawyer Georgy Zubovksy received perhaps the most unusual complaint so far. A woman claimed that famous 20th-century painter Andrei Plastov had secretly watched her in a banya and then painted her naked image in his 1956 work "In the Old Village." She felt she was owed monetary compensation. "Thankfully, she dropped the subject when I told her the painter died over 20 years ago," Zubovsky said.

After a few months, the lawyers will draft a report analyzing the frequencies and types of complaints received. In the meantime, they hope the existence of the hot line will prompt people to speak out. "Imagine if everyone suddenly stood up and officially complained about corruption," Beryezena said. "Perhaps something might actually change."

The hot line for complaints about bureaucrats can be reached at 207-0769.