12 February 2023
by Martin Dewhirst
Rights in Russia is asking a number of human rights activists, commentators and experts ten questions. You can read their answers here.
1) Was there a real opportunity in the 1990s to create a democratic state based on the rule of law and the protection of human rights in Russia? If so, what went wrong?
Until mid-2000 I mistakenly thought there was. But once Putin had persuaded Gusinsky and then Berezovsky to leave Russia, I started to have doubts, gradually went back to the coup and counter-coup in August 1991 and suspected that Yeltsin’s takeover from Gorbachev had been and was being promoted by factions in the KGB, which in due course selected Yeltsin’s successor.
2) How would you characterise the different roles of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin in these years?
Gorbachev – very positive; Yeltsin – negative; Putin – very negative.
3) What has been the role of the FSB in post-Soviet Russia?
I consider Russia still to be a neo-Soviet, not a post-Soviet, state. (Ukraine has been genuinely post-Soviet for years – hence, partly, the Russian invasions of 2014 and 2022.) Yeltsin was and Putin is a very successful, unrepentant homo sovieticus, apparently feeling no remorse for voluntarily having served in the CPSU/KGB.
4) To what extent does Russia’s ‘imperial’ past explain its failure to become a democracy?
To a large extent, as made clear by the neo-Soviet policies adopted towards several parts of the former USSR.
5) What is the main reason Russia invaded Ukraine again on 24 February 2022?
I think a major reason is Putin’s desperate attempt not to go down in history as an outstanding ‘loser’ – the ruler of Russia who ‘lost’ Ukraine for ever.
6) What do you predict will be the outcome of the war? What will be the consequences if Russia is able to make further territorial gains as a result of the war? What will be the consequences for the Putin regime if Russia is defeated in the war? What are the chances of bringing those responsible for war crimes to justice?
Unless Putin/Russia loses the war, a regime similar to the present one will continue indefinitely (with a Ukrainian partisan/guerrilla war also continuing indefinitely). If Putin/Russia does lose this war, I am reasonably hopeful that the changes will be at least as encouraging as those that took place after the death of Stalin.
7) Why has the Putin regime closed down Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Sakharov Centre? What is left of civil society in Russia today?
This is a desperate attempt – rather like the notorious ‘Doctors’ Plot’ in 1952 – to intimidate and silence as many as possible of the European- or Western-minded people in Russia. It’s rather successful.
8) What do you think will happen to Aleksei Navalny in the future? And other political prisoners and prisoners of conscience such as Ilya Yashin and Dmitry Talantov?
I am particularly worried about the prospects for Navalny.
9) Russia has left the Council of Europe. Is there a chance Russia will return to this international body in the future?
Yes, there is a chance, but only if Putin is not replaced by someone similar. The thousands of Westerners who collaborated with Yeltsin and Putin are even more to blame than the average Russian for, i.a., the ongoing war and the tens of thousands of deaths of Ukrainians and Russians.
This is not just a Russian problem.
10) In terms of human rights, how much worse can things get in Russia? How do you see the future of Russia?
The longer the current war goes on, the worse the human rights situation in Russia will get.