23 February 2023
an interview with Vyacheslav Bakhmin, dissident, human rights activist, chair of the Sakharov Centre, co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Human rights activist Vyacheslav Bakhmin was the first person we spoke to after the war started. We thought it wise to repeat the conversation a year later, to discuss what has happened and try to formulate some predictions. The quiet confidence of our interlocutor that internal work will bear fruit, that it’s never too late for this work, that this work alone can underpin future reforms, has not changed over the course of the year — although the situation within the country is worse even than the late years of the Soviet Union.
— Vyacheslav, in the year since the war has started, have you been tempted to stop calling Russia your country?
— No, this country is truly mine. It’s very important to differentiate between the country and the government, the president. The country is a much broader concept than some temporary government. The lifecycle of a country is much longer than the lifecycle of any government. Only timeservers focus on the government in this way, people who care about living well here and now. Those who think about their future and their children’s futures, who think about the country’s development — I mean true patriots — should think about things in terms of different categories.
— Are things worse now than they were towards the end of the Soviet Union?
— In many respects, yes. The degree of lawlessness is incomparably worse; there’s no semblance even of a desire to follow the law. It’s as if the whole country got its licence to torture and murder. It’s like everyone’s 007. Compared to that, the Soviet Union almost looks like a state governed by rule of law. The courts were submissive, but at least they respected logic, and verdicts needed to be based on the letter of the law. Now, reputation couldn’t matter any less. Anyone can do anything at all — it doesn’t get worse than this.
— One year ago, you said that the most important thing for every citizen was to form an individual worldview. Do you think that’s happening?
— It’s tough to say. A person must prove to themselves that they’re a subject and not an object that can be manipulated. It’s a slow and painful process, more painful than it was 50 years ago. And to get it started, you need triggers. War, revolution, and other cataclysms force you to focus on how you view the world. The discrepancy between what’s inside and some elements of reality becomes painful, and you wonder if maybe your explanation of reality is inadequate. You wonder what kind of world you live in. Is it the one that you see through the window, or one you’ve artificially created? It’s likely that much of the population wouldn’t be amenable to this process. In addition to the triggers, you need the desire, and everything is done to keep that from appearing. Being part of the majority is always more pleasant than suffering as part of a discriminated minority. On the other hand, the trigger is definitely there.
There’s good and bad in everyone. Cultivating the good in ourselves and others, and discouraging the bad, is a normal task. When this is done, a human remains a human. Now the entire institutionalized external environment stimulates the bad in man, and the results are visible. The influence of propaganda is very powerful. But at the same time, the government itself is also working to make people feel pain. There is a certain balance between the painfulness of the process and the power of the trigger: at some point the pain becomes the normal price to pay for figuring out what’s going on, what we should do for ourselves and our families. These questions are relevant right now, but few have the courage to start addressing them in a mature manner.
– What do you do once your worldview has taken shape?
– That’s the next fork. Several paths lead away from it. You can devote yourself to there being fewer idiots like you, that is, engage in some kind of enlightenment. The second path: once you’ve seen the shortcomings of this world, you can change it, improve it. The third path is for those who want to change something but lack the powers and resources. This is the path of searching for like-minded people, activism, political and public activity. Finally, you can look at the world and say: “Now I understand everything”—and rest from your righteous labors in shaping your worldview. Become a conscious observer of this world.
– A year ago you said you were staying in Russia, since it was a lot harder to change life in the country from abroad. But over the last year the situation has changed greatly.
– Yes, the opportunities for doing anything effective and useful inside the country have narrowed precipitously, there are almost none left, especially for human rights organisations. We see what’s happened to Memorial, the Moscow Helsinki Group, the Sakharov Centre, and smaller organisations. The entire public space has been crisscrossed with red lines, so wherever you go you’re bound to run into that line. It’s simpler to sit on the couch and wait for changes in the situation. Optimists believe that in five years we’ll be able to do what we were doing before. I’m not so sure of that. Right now certain things are done more effectively from abroad.
For me, leaving is still not an option. I have both personal reasons for this and reasons of principle. I don’t want to surrender my country to them. We reasoned this same way back in the Soviet era, and now this reasoning is exceedingly relevant. I want to stay here and try to do what I can. That’s not much, unfortunately, but each person can support the good against the bad. As before, I’m loyal to the simple principle, “Do what you should (and can), and what will be will be.” Believe that even your (your colleagues’, neighbors’, spiritually close people’s) minimal efforts are changing something. Maybe they’re keeping evil from being more evil than it is, and maybe they’re even putting up some kind of barrier to this evil.
I’m chair of the Sakharov Centre and co-chair of the Moscow Helsinki Group. Right now, my colleagues and I are trying to preserve these organisations somehow. I doubt we will succeed, but these very efforts influence public opinion and the information sphere. Support of independent organisations is the contribution that can still be made, even if the field is narrowing. We cannot hold major events. The legislation has become firmly repressive, but there is the online world. It’s still possible to show that not everyone thinks the way the regime wants. In 1968, seven people came out on Red Square, and that had a tremendous effect. It turned out the Soviet people were not one. Right now the fact that no ‘united people’ exists is even more obvious. Every day we see manifestations of this dissent.
I’m continuing to work with independent organisations as an expert and consultant. Everyone understands my position full well, and this, too, I hope, is playing its role.
– We are talking about influencing the worldview of individuals. What about impacting the situation as a whole?
– First of all, this is a struggle for people’s souls, just like Dostoyevsky wrote. I understood a long time ago that you cannot change the situation if people’s souls remain the same, just as they couldn’t chance the situation in the 1990s. Even if things change on the surface, in three or five years, everything will roll back. Propaganda and populism will start working and you will lose the population again. Thirty years ago people did not understand what was going on at all, they did not care in general – they lived their own lives, they were taken up with their own concerns and problems. The struggle for power was not a pressing agenda for them, and it still isn’t. The inertia of a big country is powerful force. The struggle for souls is far more important than any political struggle. And any political struggle is a struggle for influence over the electorate. But how can you influence the electorate if you preach something that is alien and incomprehensible to them?
– You have said: “If freedom is not hard-won and people don’t fight for it, it is worth nothing. Given today, taken away tomorrow.” Does freedom, in your view, necessarily connected with hard work?
– Yes. “Only those are worthy of life and freedom who go to battle for them every day” is a trivial truth, but it is true. If you get something for nothing, you don’t appreciate it. And if you earned it through hard work and suffering, let someone try to take it away from you.
– You and your comrades in the dissident movement worked and suffered. I have huge sympathy for you. I think it must be very hard to see what you have been working on for so many years, and what seems to have been successful, rolled back.
– There weren’t many of us. If there were millions of us, the situation would have been different. And then, you can’t go in the same river twice. We have not returned to the Soviet period. The situation is different, and the way out of it will be different. Over the past 50 years, the entire world has changed, and an individual’s ability to influence the situation as a whole has greatly increased.
– In 1991, you entered politics, working at the Foreign Ministry, and stayed there for five years. Then you left. Were you disappointed?
– Yes, I was a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official. [Vyacheslav Bakhmin was head of the Department of Humanitarian and Cultural Cooperation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after August 1991, then he was a member of the Foreign Ministry board and deputy head of the Russian delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights. In 1992, Bakhmin was promoted to the rank of Envoy Extraordinary II class. – Reforum] But I was one of the 3,000 ministry staff. I had 50 people reporting to me, of whom about 30 were great guys who, when they saw the window of opportunity, started talking and behaving differently. But the rest of them didn’t. There were 15-20 people in the Duma who had some connections with the dissidents’ movement, but this was the Duma, not the executive branch, which determines much more. I was the only dissident in the executive branch. I joined the Foreign Ministry by chance, and I managed to stay there for less than five years. The window was closed.
– So the problem was there weren’t enough of you in politics?
– No. As I said, people in general didn’t care about what was going on – that was the problem. The exception were some members of the intelligentsia who felt the air of freedom and began to hope for a bright and different future. But in 1993, their hopes ended and the middle class was the hardest hit as a result of the reforms. Natalia Zubarevich is right: the class of the poor lives miserably under any regime, while the middle class is on a constant pendulum. Let’s say the typical reader of Solzhenitsyn would have been a member of the intelligentsia, a senior researcher. Someone who had a deal of self-respect and had the love and respect of his family. A year or two passed, and no one needed him or his institute.
– It turns out it is not the number of people with consciences in power that resolves the problem.
– Only temporarily. At first everything will be fine, and then the government will demand from them things that are not compatible with the humanitarian worldview – either do it or leave, do not interfere with the development of the country. Politics is not done with kid gloves. Either you have power, and therefore the power to really influence something, or you keep your gloves on, but have no power, and you go around saying: here they stole this, there they did that wrong. This is a normal choice, everyone has a function.
Many people say, ‘We will come to power and do what we are doing now, only with influence and leverage.’ But the very road to power, the influence of power, when you get that power and influence, turns them off engaging in politics. It is one thing when you have a public interest and fight for it (as people engaged in human rights, charities, and environmental organizations do as well). It’s another thing when it’s a matter of gaining and keeping power. The public interest recedes into the background. Any power is associated with populism, any populism is associated with lies. No politics can be human rights-oriented. Human rights and politics are opposites.
– Sergei Davidis, for example, does not agree with you.
– I know, and he is not the only one. But if at the stage of the struggle for power it is still possible to combine human rights and politics, when you achieve power there are other tasks – the security of the country, the protection of the state. And here the individual is already a means, not an end. The countries that most fully respect human rights, for example, are the ones where there are no problems with terrorism. Compare Luxembourg and Germany or the States – the difference is clear. The commander-in-chief can be a good person and care for the soldiers, but when war begins, the soldiers become a means for him, a way to defend a city or at least a hill. If he thinks otherwise, thinking about specific people, he is professionally unsuitable, and must be removed. To balance this contradiction, states have independent media and human rights organizations. Such a counterbalance allows the country and its citizens to exist normally. If the balance shifts, those in power are replaced. I don’t want to be a politician, I want to be a counterbalance, to be where the individual is more important than the state.
Everyone who comes to power and stays there deteriorates, turns into monsters of varying degrees. Ella Panfilova was a very dear lady. Sergei Lavrov was a wonderful man, a lover of bardic song and kayaking. We see what happened to them. This is why it is important to change the people who are in power before they become spoiled.
– How should the window of opportunity be used if (when) it opens?
– The window of opportunity should be used to build a piecemeal view of the world for the majority of the population. If it is not punishable, as it is now, then it can be effective to actively travel around the country, to educate people and to expose them to the new ideas, especially if the media is involved.
– You’ve been engaged in human rights work since 1968. Does the perspective that you have today help you?
– Of course it does. When you have the opportunity to feel like an actor with agency, it’s very inspiring. But as soon as you think that they can do absolutely anything at all to you, that you’re being manipulated, it’s very frustrating. A person has a sense of dignity inside, and the desire to keep it. In order to have that feeling – it won’t appear out of nothing – one has to work on oneself.
– Katerina Gordeeva has a great question: “Where shall we meet in a year’s time?”
– The answer depends on the degree of optimism of the person you are asking. An optimist will say we’ll meet in a different, free country. A pessimist, “God forbid it will be in the next life.” I am an optimist, but if someone asks me what will happen in a year’s time, I usually answer: the same as now. In 90 percent of cases I am right. The special military operation will go on, they will liberate something, they will lose something, they will bomb some people, some will be rescued, there will be even fewer independent civil society organizations working on matters of public concern. I hope I shall be in Russia. We can meet for tea in my Moscow kitchen.