Editor's Note: The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the participants only.
Can you please give us a glimpse into your life under constant surveillance by Russian intelligence?
I'm trying not to think about this; otherwise I'd be too paranoid. As for the surveillance, it's pretty amusing, as at the end of a day there's nothing that I say in private that can be kept private. ...
I remember I was having a meeting in a cafe in central Moscow with Dmitry Gudkov, a member of the opposition in the Duma until 2016. The waiter came in and brought us coffee and put sugar on the table. I saw Dmitry's face turn pale and his voice grew insistent: "Please take it away," he ordered. The waiter seemed befuddled: "What's wrong with the sugar?" But Gudkov kept demanding that the waiter remove it from the table. "They usually put a tiny microphone in powdery sugar like this," he explained to me later.
In another case, I was in Nizhny Novgorod where I was making my documentary about Boris Nemtsov. I sat down with my cameraman to have lunch. A few minutes later, three masked men ran in and started throwing eggs at us. Surprisingly to some but not to us, they knew where we were and exactly what we were doing. The same day, in the same evening, when I was waiting for a train back to Moscow, I was met by picketing members of a pro-Kremlin group. When I got back to Moscow a crew from the pro-Kremlin NTV television channel was right there and got in my face. They knew which carriage I was in.
Are you afraid for your life?
You're asking this to somebody who's nearly been killed twice in the last three years. [Sighs]. I'm a normal human being, and fear is normal. My family, my wife and children are not in Russia. They live in the United States. ...
So far, I've been lucky. … Alas, so many of my colleagues and independent journalists weren't so fortunate — they lost their lives.
In March, I interviewed Boris Vishnevsky, one of your colleagues in the Russian opposition and a member of the parliament in St. Petersburg. When asked about Alexei Navalny, the presumed leader of the Russian opposition, he said Navalny is viewed as such only in the large Russian cities, not in the provinces. Do you agree? Is not having a single leader a good thing or a bad thing?
The most prominent and effective voice, and the strongest leader in the Russian opposition to Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime, was the former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov. There are still strong and prominent leaders in the Russian opposition today. In fact, there are many of them.
One of the wildly promulgated myths of the Kremlin propaganda machine is that, apart from Putin, there are no other (potential) leaders in Russia. How insulting it is to say so in a country with a population of 140 million, in a country which has so many talented and intelligent people.
Even today, when we live under oppression, there are many prominent and intrepid figures within the Russian opposition, such as Alexei Navalny, as well as Mikhail Khodorkovsky (after serving a six-year prison sentence, the former oil tycoon now lives in Switzerland) and Yevgeny Roizman, who was elected as the mayor of Yekaterinburg, the fourth-largest city in Russia. Because the Kremlin couldn't defeat him, the election results were annulled. He just recently vacated the office. Another bright name (in the opposition) is Lev Shlosberg, a very active and prominent political figure in the parliament of the Pskov region. He was the first to provide definite proof of the presence of regular Russian troops in the Donbas region in Ukraine in 2014. His newspaper Pskovskaya Gubernia published photographs of unmarked and anonymous graves of paratroopers from Pskov who'd been sent to Eastern Ukraine and killed. He discovered that the bodies were secretly brought back in unmarked body bags and buried like street dogs in unmarked graves with only identification numbers instead of their names. The Russian Defense Ministry has denied the fact. The newspaper paid a heavy price for the revelation, and Shlosberg was savagely beaten and stripped of his parliamentary seat. However, the people of Pskov have entrusted him again with a mandate in the regional parliament.
And then we have Dmitry Gudkov, a member of the Duma, who was planning to vie for the Moscow mayor's office but was impeded by the Kremlin because they knew he was going to collect many local votes. Another bright name in the opposition is Galina Shirshina, who was elected mayor of Petrozavodsk, a city in western Russia. There are many more names on the list.
Russian opposition to Putin seems uncoordinated and very "colorful." Both are signs of weakness. Do you agree? What needs to be done to bring the opposition together as a single powerful voice and force?
I don't think it would be right if the democratic opposition was to copy the kind of a single authoritarian leader (as we have now in the) regime in the Kremlin. Our goal is not to replace Putin with Navalny or Khodorkovsky or with anybody else. To say it illustratively, we don't strive to replace a bad czar with a good czar. We don't want any czar in Russia in our vision — that is, a modern and democratic country. As Khodorkovsky pointed out via Skype at the night session of the Riga Conference 2018 that we attended, as the opposition, we want an efficient parliamentary system functioning in the country. Russian history has proved that if there's even such a good-hearted person such as the late Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president of Russia, things don't necessarily end up well for Russia and its people, because the system itself is wrong. What we need is a pluralistic government, a strong parliamentary system and many strong leaders throughout the country.
We don't strive to replace a bad czar with a good czar. We don't want any czar in Russia in our vision.
Note that most members of the opposition aren't from Moscow. They come from St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Pskov and Karelia. We've opened 30 regional branches of political opposition across the country. Our key principle is to be visible everywhere. For too long, everything has been focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg, the two largest cities.
Your chances in the provinces are slim as no business leader will support an opposition party for the simple reason that their business would be shut down by the authorities ...
That is absolutely true. Yet despite this, and despite the prevailing censorship, and despite the fact that elections in Russia are manipulated and controlled by the authorities, there have been a very few genuine cases where the opposition was allowed on the ballot and received significant support. The example of the aforementioned Yevgeny Roizman, who was directly elected as the mayor of Yekaterinburg in 2013, beating a candidate from United Russia, and Galina Shirshina, a member of Yabloko (an opposition party chaired by the Yeltsin-era economist Grigory Yavlinsky that's usually allowed to participate in Russian elections) who won the mayor's office in Petrozavodsk, prove my claim. And then we have the example of Nemtsov, who in 2013 ran successfully for a seat in the regional parliament in Yaroslavl, doing so despite the avalanche of blackmail and smear against him by the state propaganda machine. If he hadn't been killed in 2015, he would very likely have been elected to the Duma.
The Kremlin is able to maintain the image of Putin's ostensible popularity of 85 percent or so only through preventing his opponents from running in elections. It's easy to win when your opponents aren't even in the race.
Russia holds more regional elections next year. Do you believe it will be an easy grab for Putin's United Russia? Particularly in the wake of the unpopular pension reform that dragged Putin's support ratings to record lows?
Let's look at what happened during the last two weeks in Russia's gubernatorial elections in Primorsky Krai in the Far East, the Vladimir region, Khakassia and the Khabarovsk region. In each of them, the candidates put on the ballot by Putin's United Russia lost in the second round. In Primorsky Krai we saw a massive vote rigging that was so obvious that the electoral authority was forced to rerun the primary.
What is pretty amusing to me is that, for many years now, the Kremlin has learned to completely control the election process, from top to bottom. Yet with every tool in its hands to win, the Kremlin-supported candidates are starting to lose. We see a completely new situation in which, even with carefully chosen names on the ballots, United Russia fails to win. Furthermore, people are ready to vote for anybody, even a clown on the ballot, just not for the Putin party candidates. Vishnevsky, whom you mentioned earlier, recently wrote an article in which he found the trend similar to what was happening in the elections in the early 1990s. The people voted for anybody except the Communists, and now they feel the same way about the Putin candidates. It's a bad omen for Putin and his party, and let's see how it plays out in the regional elections next year.
Can you tell me something about relations between Open Russia and the other opposition parties? Do you have many branches in the regions?
Open Russia isn't a political party but a broad movement encompassing a spectrum of people representing different political views. At this point we don't plan to participate in the elections as a party. For now, we seek to cooperate with the other democratic parties out there preaching the tenets of democracy, human rights and freedom.
As of today, we have branches in over 30 regions of the Russian Federation, from Kaliningrad in the west to Vladivostok in the east.
Although we're often unable to participate in the elections, we see every election for our people and especially the youth as a training ground. Since 2015, we've put together lists of our candidates for every tier election across Russia while building a political campaign infrastructure — that is, hiring campaign managers, volunteers and so on. The bottom line is that even if you can't participate and/or win, you can still learn. Young people will need this experience when the Putin regime is gone.
Do you have a timeline for this?
I'm a historian by education, and one thing that Russian history definitely shows is that major political changes in our country can start quickly, suddenly and unexpectedly. As a historian, I don't think that Vladimir Lenin knew what was to unravel in Russia in the coming weeks after he gave his famous speech in Zurich in January 1917 to the young Social Democrats of Switzerland. He admitted to the audience then: "My generation won't live long enough to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution." Yet the revolution swept everything aside in just six weeks! Isn't it amazing? Like you, I'm old enough to remember August 1991 when one of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century collapsed in just three days. If anybody had said in early August that year that the Soviet regime would be gone by the end of the month, nobody would have believed it.
The task of Open Russia is to prepare for a change that will happen sooner or later.
One thing that Russian history definitely shows is that major political changes in our country can start quickly, suddenly and unexpectedly.
Yet you have to agree that the arrival of ultranationalists, anti-globalists and the political novices in Europe and the United States plays into the hands of Putin who, pointing to them, can justly say: "Hey guys, either we enjoy the stability that Russia has or subject ourselves to shake-ups and the unpredictability that the West is going through?" What would be your response to this?
I don't see these as very relevant. The task of political change in Russia is in the interest of Russian citizens and can't be achieved by any international actors.
The only thing we're asking the West to do is to stay firm on the principles it preaches. We ask them not to make any cynical deals with the corrupt and authoritarian regime in the Kremlin, which so many Western leaders have embraced, alas.
It's heartening to know that some countries, such as Lithuania for example, have got even tougher on the regime over the last couple of years. Your country was the second in the European Union to pass the so-called Magnitsky Act (introducing targeted individual sanctions against the people in Putin's close-knit circle), and it was the first to implement the act in practice.
The Magnitsky legislation is the best example of a principled approach to politics.
In your speech at the recent Riga Conference 2018 you debunked quite a few of what you call "myths" about Russia. Specifically, you said that the Russians, contrary to popular belief, "don't crave the strong hand of a ruler" and that Russia doesn't want "to subjugate nations" to its will. This has to be music to Putin's ears! What makes you think so?
As I said, Russia is a country of 140 million people and has a spectrum of different views reflected by the many layers within its society.
It's very insulting for us Russians to hear people in the West equate us as a whole nation with the small clique of crooks, kleptocrats and criminals in the Kremlin, all of them coalesced around Putin.
Russia is much bigger and better than the current regime. Of course, there are people here who crave for a "strong hand" and who want to subjugate other countries. But note, there are many people in the West who vote for pro-fascist, right-wing parties today. Does it mean that those countries, and those societies, too, are not democratic already? No, it doesn't. So again, please don't equate the Russians and Russia with the Kremlin. Given a chance, the Russian people opt for democracy. In illustrating that, I can go as far back in our history as the elections to the State Duma in 1906, when the Constitutional Democrats won, or the election to the Constituent Assembly in November 1917, which was held a couple of weeks after the Bolsheviks seized power when they lost it to a party that advocated for democratic parliamentary rule. And then there's June 1991, when the democratic opposition candidate Boris Yeltsin defeated Nikolai Ryzhkov, the candidate of the ruling Communist Party, with 57 percent supporting Yeltsin and a mere 17 percent voting for his opponent.
Let everyone remember that, each time, when the Kremlin sends troops or tanks to foreign soil, there are always Russians who are prepared to stand up and say: "I don't support it!" Sometimes there are just seven people, such as in Red Square in Moscow in August 1968, when a few came to protest against the invasion in Czechoslovakia. And sometimes it's half a million people, such as in January 1991 in Manezhnaya Square where the crowd turned up to protest against the bloody events in Vilnius, Lithuania. And recently, in September 2014, tens of thousands led by Boris Nemtsov hit the streets of Moscow to protest against Russia's aggression in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, you have to agree that the annexation of Crimea has skyrocketed Putin's ratings. Do you believe that with his support declining, a result partly of the unpopular pension reform, the Kremlin could resort to a new military action to ratchet them up?
I really don't pay attention to any polls or their results. We don't know what the majority of the Russian people think about Putin and his policies, as in a country under authoritarian regime no one is willing to speak his or her mind. Can you imagine an ordinary Russian family speaking openly to a pollster about Putin, his party or his ruling? I can't. The Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu boasted 99.9 percent support just two weeks before he was overthrown. So public opinion in an authoritarian regime is absolutely meaningless. The real picture can be — and is — stunningly different from the one the Kremlin wants us to believe.