27 February 2023
by Tatyana Shchur
- 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?
In the 1990s there was a real opportunity in Russia to create a democratic state based on the rule of law and the protection of human rights. Russia’s tragedy, however, is that no opinion shaper like Vaclav Havel emerged and no one like Vladimir Bukovksky became the nation’s leader and moral guide. But the opportunity was there. People who stood alongside Yelena Bonner on the rostrum in Lubyanka Square recollect (“They’re listening to you. What you say will become reality!”) that she didn’t give the order expected of her: to smash the Lubyanka. She said she “didn’t want bloodshed”. Perhaps this was actually the tipping point. In the same way, no leader was found who would take responsibility “for the bloodshed”, primarily their own, outside Okrestina in Belarus, where male and female participants in the Belarus protests were tortured and abused.
And of course, the resistance of the “old world” that was trying to save itself and the lack of clear prospects for the people: what would the advent of this new world bring? What if they were suddenly forced to work? People were afraid things might get worse…
- How would you characterise the different roles of Gorbachev, Yeltsin and Putin in these years?
Society had, if not hatred for the authorities, then a very sceptical attitude towards them. The never-ending “gun-carriage races” (the successive deaths of very elderly state leaders) was received in ironic anticipation of who would be next. No one expected any changes for the better. And when Gorbachev was imposed on the country (and no one saw the coming to power of yet another General Secretary as anything but his being imposed), the people regarded it sceptically. Perhaps in the big cities some had hope but in the provinces, where I lived among ordinary workers and officials, no one expected anything good of the authorities. And all those campaigns for firms to have a three-shift system, the anti-alcohol policy, the hushing up of the Chernobyl disaster, the attitude to Sakharov (“Take your papers, Andrei Dmitrievich!”), the phrase-mongering through which meaning could barely be discerned, socialist choice… it all went down extremely negatively. And the State Committee for the State of Emergency was generally seen as a joint “project” by Gorbachev and co. But, as they say, something went wrong… Nowadays, amid the general air of deference to Gorbachev on the part of the “progressive intelligentsia”, all this has been forgotten. As has the highly negative attitude towards Gorbachev’s wife… In other words, yet another myth has come into being that can no longer be destroyed. Nor is it clear whether it would be worth doing so. An undoubted positive of his time in office was the fact that he lacked the nerve and determination to drown resistance in blood. He let the country slip through his fingers. And that’s a blessing.
Now the people did see Yeltsin as a more progressive leader with his criticism of the authorities and his aura of being hounded. Muscovites remember him as the idol of rallies attended by thousands. His romantic image as a warrior against the State Committee for the State of Emergency, the leader of the 1991 defence of the “White House”. His cowardice, however, his communist district-committee narrow-mindedness led to the selling out of everything progressive that came in his wake. And, of course, that same cowardice led to him handing the country over to Putin.
And Putin from the start was a mixture of a street hoodlum and the Cheka, an inferiority complex multiplied by megalomania. Utter immorality, cynicism and cruelty. Plus Hitler as a role model. Hence the focus on all that is worst and ignoble in the people. The delusions of seemingly enlightened persons who say that Putin wasn’t the same in 2000 but was then “corrupted” are astonishing, when he has remained the murderer, liar and manipulator that he always was. It’s just that he imagined he was great because public opinion made him so, including the infamous West.
- What has been the role of the FSB in post-Soviet Russia?
The special services are the basis of the regime. They have been given absolute authority over the economy and politics. And even over the authorities themselves as well. But they too are “not perfect”. Corruption determines a lot there too.
- To what extent does Russia’s ‘imperial’ past explain its failure to become a democracy?
There is a saying, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. When the people are destitute and there’s nothing to take pride in, when “imported” is a synonym for quality, when the homeland has nothing other than mythical rockets and the ballet (as in the famous Soviet song by Yuri Vizbor: “But we are making rockets and we’ve dammed the Yenisei, And we’re leading the whole planet when it comes to the ballet.”)… Then all that is left is to take pride in the fact that the country has trampled other territories and peoples under foot. It has been inculcated in Russians (like Germans in the 1930s) that they are better than everyone else by dint of belonging to “a great country”. Moreover, this greatness largely relates to the possession of a big territory. However, by virtue of Russia’s multinational character, imperial motives are not pivotal, they are sort of undermined from within. While it is rather faith in a good tsar that is a pivotal motive. As Nekrasov has it: “The nobleman is coming, And the nobleman will decide.” An addiction to serfdom that is both a barrier to developing democracy and a hope of “top-down democracy”. Depending on how “the nobleman will decide”. This is, incidentally, a shout-out to the first question, “Could democracy have won in the 1990s?”
- What is the main reason Russia invaded Ukraine again on 24 February 2022?
Hatred of those signs of real freedom that frightened Putin to death during the series of Maidan protests in Ukraine. Fear for his power and lifestyle. And the realisation that there would be no obstruction from the mighty of this world, that is Ukraine’s Western partners, who were really the partners of the Putin regime and supported and sustained it.
- 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 haven’t the slightest doubt in Ukraine’s absolute victory. Russia will make no “territorial gains”. If the West refuses to help Ukraine, which would be yet another betrayal of freedom and democracy (just as allowing Russia to invade Ukraine in both 2014 and 2022 was a betrayal), then, if the West surrenders Ukraine, Ukraine will not take it lying down and will fight to the last scrap of earth, the last drop of blood. I believe this and without the least shadow of a doubt.
In the event of a Russian defeat, the Putin regime will collapse as long as the policy of the Western countries targets its destruction rather than its preservation. The same is also true of war criminals. Ukraine will fight to achieve fair recompense for war crimes and compensation for the destruction of the country. It will find it extremely hard to do this on its own, however.
- 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?
In 1998 I was there to hear Yuri Yarim-Agaev’s speech at the Warsaw Forum on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. He said at the time that had Russia had been a civil society, the president would have been Vladimir Bukovsky who was also in the auditorium at the time. Many years have gone by since then but I agree with this dissident and wise man. Of course, by the law of large numbers, there were and are pockets of civil society but they are so tiny that they didn’t and don’t determine the climate.
As for Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group and the Sakharov Centre, these organizations have different reputations and significance, their internal composition is not the same, there are internal and external contradictions. Their closure is logical. Support for them in society was negligible. They had withdrawn into themselves, their projects differed in scale, some more useful, others less relevant… But as life has shown, their importance for specific individuals wasn’t great, alas. That is why it was possible for the authorities to close them down without serious consequences, no matter how impossible this seemed to those who supported these organisations. Their closure is just Putin spitting once again in the face of society, asserting his own impunity, dancing on the body of a fallen lion.
- 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?
After the collapse of the Putin regime, political prisoners, who will not be forgotten, will be released. There may be attempts to make Navalny president if no one better, less abhorrent can be found. I have no faith in Yashin. Like Navalny, he’s put forward nothing but statements. There’s less hype about Talantov. It would be good not to forget him, like the many others Navalny has set up, leading them behind bars and ruining their lives. Conspiracy theories about Navalny abound. I personally think it’s a poorly calculated project (by the Kremlin, the FSB, the West, I’m not going to say who exactly.) Somewhere, something went wrong. Perhaps, like Putin, he imagined himself a great man, thanks to the efforts of his PR team. But it’s very obvious to anyone who’s not a zombie that he is trying to catch the right wave. Or people are trying to create one for him. Time will tell.
- Russia has left the Council of Europe. Is there a chance Russia will return to this international body in the future?
There is a chance but not any time soon.
- In terms of human rights, how much worse can things get in Russia? How do you see the future of Russia?
Things will get worse in the immediate future. Perhaps not going as far as firing squads in the squares, but for a while the screws will be tightened.
I have neither the strength nor the desire to think and worry about Russia right now. All my thoughts, feelings and emotions are with Ukraine, its future, its people who are being killed. With my friends and relatives and anyone who is suffering there from the actions of this Russia of mine.
Translated by Melanie Moore