Bill Bowring answers our 10 questions

14 February 2023

by Bill Bowring

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?

First, I would quite like you to name such a state. Are you thinking of Switzerland? Or post-WWII Germany? Certainly not the UK under present management. Gorbachev had the idea of a turn to a common European home from 1986 onwards, but by 1991 he and the CPSU leadership were easily displaced following the August putsch.

Yeltsin was a Soviet boss, and the 1990s were the period of “prikvatisatsia” on which people look back with horror, in which, advised by US advisers like Jeffrey Sachs, Yeltsin permitted the oligarchs to steal wholesale from the Russian people.

The 1993 Constitution, which contains European human rights standards, and has lasted 20 years remarkably intact, was born out of the bloodshed of the shelling of parliament. Russia’s accession to the Council of Europe in 1996 and ratification of the ECHR in 1998, took place against the backdrop of the First Chechen War, the massacre at Shamashki, and the promotion of Putin to take Yeltsin’s place in 2000. Did anyone want to create such a state? I repeat, it would be a really good idea for the UK.

2) How would you characterise the different roles of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin in these years?

Gorbachev, despite his close relationship with Thatcher, was determined to save the USSR, and there was blood on his hands in Tbilisi, Vilnius etc. He knew exactly what was going on in the putsch, though neither he nor his law-school friend and last speaker of the Supreme Soviet Anatoly Lukyanov were in Moscow. Gorbachev faded into insignificance while Lukyanov spent a year in SIZO and then returned to politics.

Yeltsin was a much bigger figure than Gorbachev or Putin, and despite his CPSU career was far more of a democrat than either. But he presided over chaos, bloodshed, and destitution. Nonetheless, he deserves his Presidential Library, huge statue, and Café 1991, in Yekaterinburg.

Putin is a weak, usually dithering, gangster and thief on a grand scale, who rose with the help of Yeltsin and Berezovsky, to save Yeltsin from the consequences of his and his family’s corruption. He is an imperialist, who condemns Lenin as a paid German agent who destroyed the Russian Empire, and by his principles of self-determination and federativism laid an atomic bomb under the USSR and created a fictitious nation, Ukraine, to be Russia’s nemesis. He fought a bloody colonial war in Chechnya, nothing to do with NATO, invaded Georgia and imposed Russian rule in 2008, illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, and used the same methods in Syria as he had in Chechnya, to keep Assad in power so as to protect Russia’s Eastern Mediterranean naval base. Same methods now in Ukraine.

3) What has been the role of the FSB in post-Soviet Russia?

Soldatov correctly characterises the FSB as the “new nobility”. Even in the USSR the KGB was under the control of the CPSU. Putin, who carried out torture, kidnapping and murder for the KGB in the GDR for 5 years, has dressed the FSB (and SVR) in black, with far greater resources than the KGB ever had. He murders with impunity not just in Britain but elsewhere. Russia now suffers from a secret police kleptocracy.

4) To what extent does Russia’s ‘imperial’ past explain its failure to become a democracy?

In a very similar way to Britain. Both Britain and Russia suffer from “post-imperial psychosis”. This lies behind both the delusions of Brexit, with Johnson as the (unfunny) joke Churchill, believing that the white settler dominions will save England; and the threat posed by the imperialist Putin to Poland, the Baltics, Finland – the former territories of the Russian Empire.

5) What is the main reason Russia invaded Ukraine again on 24 February 2022?

The main reason was that given by Putin in his speech of 21 February 2022, and his long essay previously, to right the crimes of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in creating the artificial Ukraine, which has no right to exist. That is why on the pretext of “denazification and demilitarisation” he is quite prepared to turn the cities of Ukraine into ruins, and to punish its civilian populations through indiscriminate slaughter and destruction of infrastructure. Also, he did not realise that the results of the illegal annexation of Crimes, and support for the Donbas separatists, has been to turn Ukraine into a nation, with a professional army, not to be rolled over, as Georgia was, in a few days.

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?

No-one can predict the outcome. Even the murderer Prigozhin says that to defeat Ukraine will take years. Ukrainians will not give up their motherland or any part of it so as to make peace.  There would anyway be no peace. The Poles know very well that Putin’s next step, if he succeeds in Ukraine, will be their country. 

If Russia is defeated, it will break up, and there will be enormous bloodshed. Putin and indeed the Russian population see this as the greatest nightmare. The fact that it is kids from the ethnic republics who are being sent to die in Ukraine, as well as murderers and rapists in Wagner, and Kadyrov’s private army, and no kids of the Moscow, StPB and Yekaterinburg white populations, simply makes this more likely.

Nuremburg was made possible by the unconditional surrender of the Nazis, and the fact that the government of West Germany was the Control Commission. This is why any war crimes tribunal will otherwise be purely performative.

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?

For the same reason that from 2012 the Foreign Agents Laws etc have made civil society practically impossible. It is so disgraceful that the Strasbourg Court failed to decide the case until very recently. My parents-in-law, living outside Moscow, among the six million or so Muscovites who hate and despise the regime, used to listen to Radio Ekho Moskvy, watch TV Dozhd, and read Novaya Gazeta etc – all closed. They cannot get visas to come to Britain, and know that if they arrive without visas, they will be sent to Rwanda or indefinitely detained, by our democratic, rule of law, human rights loving, government.

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?

All three and others may very well die in custody. Heroic lawyers like my colleague Alexander Pikhovkin are fighting their cases in the courts, against all the odds, and at huge risk. Some civil society activists are still in Russia.

9) Russia has left the Council of Europe. Is there a chance Russia will return to this international body in the future?

Russia was actually expelled, effective on 20 September 2022. Britain, with which Russia has so much in common (see above) will soon leave voluntarily. Joining in 1996 was an unexpected and extraordinary achievement by Yeltsin. Putin is time-limited (mortal), may be ousted in a coup or assassinated by young anarchists, but what comes after him could be much worse.

10) In terms of human rights, how much worse can things get in Russia? How do you see the future of Russia?

No sensible person ever makes predictions for Russia. I am as you know a Russophile and optimist, and hope to be granted honorary citizenship by a future president. But this is probably a vain hope. I still love the country and its diverse people, and its gorgeous language.

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