11 February 2023
From Yury Vadimovich Samodurov: I am a Muscovite, with higher education, a graduate of the Russian State Geological Exploration University in 1978. Married in 1978, I have no chlidren. Since 1987 I have been a civil society activist. A pensioner (under the previous law on pensionable age) since I turned 60, I am now 71. My email: email@example.com
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?
There probably was a real opportunity to create a democratic state based on the rule of law and protection of human rights in Russia. But we cannot say for sure. In the eyes of the great majority of the Russian public, this goal was ‘forgotten’ with the start of the Yeltsin-Gaidar economic reforms, and was ‘transformed’ into the goal of enriching a small layer of people at the expense of vouchers, a sharp impoverishment of the majority of citizens and their transition towards the task of physical survival.
2) How would you characterise the different roles of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin in these years?
Gorbachev did begin the restructuring of the USSR into a more modern state, in what seemed to be in the direction of what Sakharov called the convergence of the socialist and capitalist systems. But apart from introducing ‘glasnost’ and the gradual abolition of censorship in the media, he achieved little. His great merit was the holding of limited, semi-free elections to the First Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR (with the participation of a huge number of civil society activists in campaigning for candidates), the holding of the Congress itself, and also the abolition of religious censorship and of the ban on the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church. For Muslims and Jews the situation was more complicated.
Yeltsin was expelled by Gorbachev from the Politburo and it seems to me that in what followed Yeltsin mainly sought to get revenge and to get the upper hand over Gorbachev at any cost. Yeltsin used every possible opportunity to publicly criticize Gorbachev for his slowness and indecision and for the compromises he made with the majority of members of the Central Committee and Politburo, appealing to civil society activists and the general public in his criticism of the Communists.
On 1 February, Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin’s birthday, I wrote what I have thought about him for a long time on my Facebook page:
“In my opinion, Yeltsin was ambitious and power-hungry to the core. In order to get the upper hand over Khasbulatov he issued Decree No. 1400 and dispersed the Supreme Soviet, and in order to defeat Gorbachev and enter the Kremlin, he signed the Belovezha Accords. But much worse than that, he did not realize he was destroying the idea of social justice strongly held by several generations of people – that everything they own has to be earned by them and created by honest labour. The fact that Yeltsin allowed and permitted the exchangeable vouchers and ‘loans-for-shares’ laid the foundations for the ‘Big Grab’ of the oligarchic economy and the anti-democratic regime, which, to maintain and protect, he finally summoned and entrusted to the KGB in the person of Putin.
P.S. I took part in defending the White House during the attempted putsch by Makashov and others, spending three nights under its walls with my friends. I remember the commander of our ‘group of ten’ – the geologist, Gera Riele.”
In my opinion, when Yeltsin appointed Putin, a former KGB officer, as chair of the KGB and then declared him his successor as president, he instructed him to preserve the division of state property carried out during Yeltsin’s time in office and maintain the system of running the country in the interests of the oligarchy and the state bureaucracy.
Putin coped well with this task, but in recent years he has moved on to setting and implementing a number of his own ‘additional’ tasks – destroying the more or less free press, opposition organizations and parties, and so on. Putin finished this ‘trend’ by violating the Belovezha Accords, signed by Yeltsin, with the annexation of Crimea, and in February 2022 he started an aggressive war against Ukraine and effectively ‘froze’ relations with the West at the level of Soviet times …
3) What has been the role of the FSB in post-Soviet Russia?
Protection of the existing state and political regimes.
4) To what extent does Russia’s ‘imperial’ past explain its failure to become a democracy?
Russia’s inability to become a democracy is explained, in my opinion, both by its undemocratic state and social structure over many centuries, and by the coming to power after Gorbachev of Yeltsin and Putin and the people they appointed to the highest state positions. Putin and his clique ensured – and continue to ensure – the predominance of their supporters in the legislative and executive authorities and in the Interior Ministry and the FSB. Another, no less important factor in Russia’s undemocratic system is the difficult economic situation of the majority of the Russian population (something I remember a little bit myself since the late 1950s). A natural critical attitude towards the government and the desire of most people to participate in politics was badly undermined and practically killed off during the economic reforms of Yeltsin and Gaidar by the need to simply survive, and during the Putin era by the state propaganda and persecution of political activists.
5) What is the main reason Russia invaded Ukraine again on 24 February 2022?
This was the result of some conflicts, about which I know nothing, within Putin’s entourage and in Putin’sown mind. Putin apparently wished, and hoped, to consolidate Russian society and strengthen his political power by means of the war.
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?
I don’t know what the outcome of Russia’s war with Ukraine will be. I hope (what else is there to hope for?) that Ukraine will liberate its territories and that Putin will leave power in the next two or three years. Whether the regime in our country will become more repressive, even much more repressive, or less repressive after Putin’s departure I don’t know. Both are possible.
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?
Putin’s regime has closed down the organizations you mentioned because their activities are not in harmony with its existence. What is left of civil society in Russia are unorganized citizens who as a matter of principle refuse to accept Putin’s regime. There are quite a few of them, but I don’t know how many, and we can’t organize for a number of reasons. Perhaps what lies ahead of us is a new stage of a narrow dissident movement …
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?
If Navalny is not killed in prison, he will be released during the new perestroika. I don’t know whether he will play any significant political role after his release, but it is clear he will try to do so. And it is clear he is not Sakharov.
It was 35 years ago on 11 February 1987 that Gorbachev released 144 ‘prisoners of conscience.’ I hope that the new perestroika, if and when it happens, will free all current prisoners of conscience in Russia. Probably they are no fewer in number.
9) Russia has left the Council of Europe. Is there a chance Russia will return to this international body in the future?
Yes, Russia has a chance to return to the Council of Europe after the liberation of the occupied territories of Ukraine, when, and on condition that, the political regime in Russia returns to the ‘Gorbachev’ and ‘Sakharov path of development.
10) In terms of human rights, how much worse can things get in Russia? How do you see the future of Russia?
In the future, I mean the next two, three, five,10 years (I am not looking further), things in Russia may be worse or better than they are now.
Translated by Simon Cosgrove