9 September 2022
Leonid Gozman in conversation with Vera Chelishcheva
A difficult conversation through prison bars with Leonid Gozman—about his first experience of imprisonment, about his country, and about his decision to leave
Today a politician, Free University professor, Novaya Gazeta author, and, naturally, foreign agent, is serving 15 days in jail for comparing the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany (since last year, equating the two has been prohibited in Russia). Leonid Gozman is in Special Detention Centre No. 2 (Mnevniki). Novaya Gazeta passed on its questions to the prisoner through his lawyer, Mikhail Biriukov.
– Leonid Yakovlevich, this is apparently your first jail term for an administrative offence, right?
– Yes, I’ve been arrested many times, but this is the first time I’ve actually been put in jail.
– We know what a remand centre means, as we do a prison colony (famous prisoners regularly talk about their daily life, take Navalny’s posts alone), but how do prisoners live in a temporary detention centre? What is the daily life like, the schedule? The rules?
– Many worthy people have passed through a temporary detention centre. I’m not sure I have anything new to say. But I’ll try.
The guards are well behaved. Definitely with me, but with the others, too, I think. They all know me, but there’s no kind of hostility, rather sympathy and respect.
Daily life isn’t a pleasure, but there’s nothing particularly to be afraid of. The routine is unobtrusive, they accept packages, and for politicals like me there are also packages passed on by volunteers from OVD-Info. And people say we have no civil society!
There’s a toilet in the cell—a hole in the floor—but with a drain and behind a partition. A daily hour-long walk in the yard, approximately 20 by 4 meters, grated overhead—a checkered sky! People go from cell to cell, which makes it like a single entity here, a peasant commune. By the way, in Italian, the Russian word for cell, camera, means “room.” We’re in Italy!
– No visits there?
One visit every 15 days. You can have a watch, but not on a metal strap. No computers or dictaphones. No mirror. You can meet with your lawyer every day. Basically, it won’t kill you.
I would repeat what Sinyavsky said when his wife came to see him in prison for the first time: “Mashka, it’s so interesting here!” Yes, it’s interesting. If you look around, of course, and not just at yourself.
True, my situation is complicated by the fact that they picked me up virtually as I was walking out of the hospital, where I had to spend more than a week after a sudden, serious, and, as the doctors say, dangerous attack.
I now have a bag of medications I have to take at certain times, plus a strict diet, and so on. The guard doesn’t prevent anything, but the conditions for rehabilitation aren’t the best.
It’s interesting that I see the fear of getting sick, which many zeks have written about, in young guys, too. Prison is for the healthy!
– What have you been doing these two weeks?
– Like everyone, I have lots of unfulfilled ideas. I want to write a book about the psychology of politics. For many years I lectured on that at MGU [Moscow State University], where I was myself a student —I was driven out for unreliability. Then at the European University and then at the Shaninka [Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences]. Now I’m at the Free University. But I am yet to write the book, and I want to do that.
I also want to put together a short book, “Excerpts from Correspondence with My Enemies” and a collection of I hope humorous political stories I’ve accumulated over the last few years.
But that’s if I’m in for a long time. Right now I’m trying to finish up some things that I think are very important. Over the last 12-18 months I’ve interviewed several dozen direct participants in the Gaidar reforms, as well as some who weren’t part of that team but who knew what was going on and supported the reforms.
My goal is to understand what mistakes were made during the reforms and what else should and could have been done. And whether we bear responsibility—unfortunately, we do!—for the present-day nightmare.
I think this is important both for us and for those who are going to have to restore the country when all this comes to an end one way or another. I’m just afraid I can’t do this properly without a computer. But I’ll do what I can.
I’m also keeping a diary. The prison diary genre is becoming more and more popular. I’m not writing about what they feed us—which is, by the way, edible, considering it’s on 296 roubles and 10 kopeks a day (those 10 kopeks, in my opinion, are evidence of our state’s fantastic humanism)—but about more serious things. When (if) I get out, I’ll publish it.
– What books are you reading?
– I have all kinds of light reading. But for serious reading, I have a book by my deceased friend Samuil Lurie, Broken Arshin, a fantastic level of literature, Dürrenmatt, Dmitry Travin’s magnificent How the State Gets Rich, and, most important, Yakov Gordin’s brilliant Russian Duel, inscribed to me.
You won’t believe, it, but there’s almost no time to read!
– You had just landed in jail when Gorbachev died. Who was he for you?
– He gave me, all of us, freedom. I’m forever grateful to him. By the way, exercising my freedom is why I’m here. Anyone in his place, coming to power, would have had to do something. The system was collapsing.
He could follow the path of his predecessors, Stalin and Andropov, but he also could follow the path to freedom. I don’t think he wanted to go as far as he did, but he made his choice. Of blessed memory!
– How can you keep track of what is happening in the country and the world from inside the detention centre?
– Alas, only through my lawyer, Mikhail Biriukov. I can’t access the Internet through my toothbrush, and I have no other devices.
– Today you and your wife officially stand charged in a criminal case for ‘failure to inform in time about your second citizenship.’ In July you were ‘mistakenly’ put on the federal wanted list and detained for a couple of hours. And now these 15 days in jail. Is there any clear understanding of what they want from you?
– What you mean is what they want from all of us. I mean, they have everything under control, and they’re putting more and more people in jail.
It seems to me that this is a result of their insecurity, their fear. They know we are right, and they can’t give us a substantive answer.
Naturally, they are afraid that the truth will become clear to more and more people.
And they also need everyone – not just those they put in jail – to be scared and keep their mouths shut. They are afraid people will realize their policies just don’t make sense. That they are violating human laws and God’s commandments, and this is not in anyone’s interests.
I don’t understand what exactly they want from me. Their hatred of me (and they have long hated me) is irrational. After all I’m not involved in elections, either directly or indirectly, I do not organize anything, I am not calling on anyone to do anything. I cannot hinder the authorities doing what they do. I just say what I think. But it’s no longer just words. Thoughts have also become a crime. In the charges against me there was a very funny moment. They wrote that I am guilty, you see, of having an ironic attitude toward the law forbidding the equating of Stalin with Hitler. But it’s not just this law to which I relate with irony!
I am told that they want me to leave. If that’s the case, then why give the maximum penalty for words [which] everyone else has said: Astafiev, Solzhenitsyn? They could have fined me! And even in a situation where I […] have a diagnosis that does not allow, according to a government decree, for someone to be put behind bars. They don’t care about that either.
So maybe they don’t want me to leave, they just want revenge. They are trembling, they are offended!
– You left the country for a while this year after the start of the special operation. Do you regret coming back? Did you really hope to change something?
– No, of course […] I’m not as idiotic as you might think, based on the fact that I returned after being declared a foreign agent.
The motivation for returning was selfish. There was a feeling that not to go back, to stay in Europe, meant doing something against yourself, to submit to them. And you want to live by your own rules, not the rules they impose on us.
The risks were obvious; it was clear that once you crossed the border, you are completely in their power. But you have to follow your principles, your understanding of what is right, even when you have to pay for it. In general, it was a matter of preserving one’s sense of dignity.
So I don’t regret it for a second! My wife and I may have been unwise, but we did the right thing.
– And some people abroad say that people like you should leave the country, because those who don’t leave ‘support the regime.’
– Let them go to hell, those who say that. If I supported the regime, I wouldn’t be a foreign agent, and I wouldn’t be in jail. In fact, people at liberty don’t give advice to those in prison, I mean HERE. You can and should help. You don’t have to give advice!
– Are you ready to leave the country now if at the end of your 15-day term in jail you are released from custody and not arrested for some other criminal offence, as happened to Kara-Murza and Yashin?
– For me, the main question is whether they’ll let me out of custody, or will we get the same tragic charade that happened to the others who were detained – another 15 days, then another 15, then a charge of extremism, fake news, and so on. Alas, what will happen is unpredictable. So I try to plan my life behind bars not just until 13 September, when this jail term expires, but for a long time to come.
But if they let me go, I’m afraid to disappoint you – yes, I’m ready to leave. At my age (Leonid Gozman is 72 years old. – Novaya gazeta) I cannot survive prison, and then get out and continue the fight. In other words, I would have a choice – either to leave the country or inevitably die in prison.
True, from Europe my voice will hardly be heard. But from the other world, still less.
My wife and I have nothing to reproach ourselves for. We held on as long as we could. So if they give me a choice, I will prefer to leave rather than to die in prison. I’ll go. But they won’t be in power forever. I’ll be back!
But if they put me in prison for real, I’ll try to bear it with dignity.
– What do your loved ones say?
– Thank God, my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren understand my situation completely. And my wife is behaving heroically, even though it is certainly more difficult for her than for me. Without her I wouldn’t have been able to hold out against them for so long.