12 May 2022
Lev Ponomarev in conversation with Irina Snegovskaya. An extract from ‘У людей слишком тонкая кожа, спасающая человека от зверя,’ Cherta, 12 May 2022.
Lev Ponomarev is one of the most prominent Russian human rights defenders. He participated in the foundation of Memorial, was a deputy in the first assembly of the State Duma and co-authored the legislation that formed the basis of the Constitution in 1993. He has spoken out against cases of persecution and defended Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of Hizb ut-Tahrir and the defendants in the cases of Network and New Greatness (all banned organisations recognised as terrorist or extremist in the Russian Federation). Ponomarev was the first to be included in the list of individual and media “foreign agents”. He has witnessed modern Russia’s path from the birth of democracy to its collapse in 2022. At the age of 80, he was forced to leave the country, fearing criminal prosecution. In an interview with Cherta, Lev Ponomarev discussed what will happen to human rights and protests in Russia now, about how easily people turn savage and how civil society has changed over the past 30 years.
We are talking to you in Tbilisi. When the war had just started, could you imagine that you would have to leave Russia?
Of course not. I understood that the probability of war was very high, but it was terrifying to imagine that there would be such a level of aggression and violence. Even before the war, I prepared a petition, tried to get it published, but even Novaya gazeta told me: “There isn’t going to be a war.” I eventually published a petition on the day the war started — which turned out to be timely. I did not expect that such a number of people would respond [by May 11, more than 1.2 million people had signed the petition — Cherta]. Of course, everyone was stunned [by the outbreak of war], everyone was still in shock. It was impossible to imagine that Russia had become a fascist state, and that we are now seen as a fascist state in the eyes of the whole world. It’s awful.
When did you finally decide to leave Russia?
Two weeks ago, when they began to put pressure on me from all sides. Two cops came up to me in the metro and said: “You are wanted by the authorities.” I was surprised, they showed me a smartphone with my portrait. Then they arrested me. At the police station they told me: “Lev Aleksandrovich, the metro police have no complaints against you.” I said: “Who is the complaint from?” They replied: “We don’t know for sure, we just had an order to detain you and conduct a search.”
We waited for four hours, then a car came and for some reason brought me to the Moscow prosecutor’s office. One police officer stayed with me and the lawyer in the car, the second went to the building and returned with the prosecutor. In general, it does not happen that the prosecutor himself comes out to you on the street! In the end, he handed over a piece of paper that said I had to appear at the prosecutor’s office by such and such a date and released me. Perhaps they called someone during the day – hopefully not Putin – and said: “No, we’re not taking him in yet.” It could also have been a provocation to force me to leave.
Before that, I had been under pressure from all sides for several days: they would pour some stinking liquid on me, and I would have to throw out my clothes, or something else. At some point, a well-wisher suddenly appeared, allegedly from the Investigative Committee, and wrote that he knew about materials being prepared against me and that he could transfer them to me on a disk, but he was afraid. He wrote to me on Telegram, and his messages very suddenly disappeared, they were deleted.
We held a meeting in my organisation to decide what to do. It’s not that I was very afraid, especially given my age — I knew they wouldn’t have me in jail for long. I realised that the claims were against me, not my organisation. I left, and I think that was the right thing to do.
Many journalists and human-rights activists are staying in Russia anyway, despite threats of criminal prosecution. You’ve been under close scrutiny for years. Why is all of this happening now?
Because I made a petition. The scrutiny was definitely there — I was the first ‘media foreign agent’, the first individual, even though I’m not a journalist. It’s a ludicrous story. They didn’t know what to do with me — the petition had already been published. Their claim: I didn’t mention in the petition that it came from a ‘foreign agent’; But to fine a criminal like me 10,000 rubles for that is ridiculous. The authorities were going to frame it as a ‘fake news’. Now that I’ve left the country, they’re going around to my colleagues and asking where I am. They say that I have been put on a national wanted list. It’s silly, they know where I live: I was detained near my apartment and tried for picketing. This looks more like pressure, or like they changed their minds: they wanted to put me in jail, but they thought better of it.
Will you be able to continue your human rights work from abroad?
I run two human rights organizations (the Foundationin Defence of Prisoners’ Rights and Hotline, a regional civil society organization promoting human rights – Cherta) and I will continue this work. The Foundation in Defence of Prisoners’ Rights is funded by the UN Committee on Torture, and we are truly able to combat torture. We’re now fighting what is perhaps the largest-scale violence in the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), in the Angarsk colony. About 100 people have been raped there, and there are already 30 people who have been established as victims. But that’s just the victims — the perpetrators still need to be punished. We have investigations and identification of suspects going on all the time. Two people from the leadership of the remand prison were taken into custody — they’ve already been found guilty. I’ve been investigating torture and penal colonies for 20 years, and nothing like this has ever happened. By the way, the criminal case was initiated with substantial support from Tatyana Moskalkova, the Ombudsman of Russia. She is a government official, and many human rights activists are very sceptical as to whether she can do anything. But without her, the case would likely not have been initiated.
What is the future of human rights in Russia?
Human rights work is a very broad concept. There’s me, working on torture and even making progress. The war continues, even despite accusations of fascism. The issues of drugs, harassment of women, beatings — these all remain, and they must be fought against. One way or another, the fight will go on.
It’s a different matter that human rights activists automatically became participants in the democratic peace movement, it couldn’t have been any other way. Unless there’s a crisis in which the system collapses, human rights activists will be driven out of Russia. We’re all foreign agents as it is, but gradually everything will become stricter. Instead of human rights activists, Russia will have state-controlled organizations, like in Soviet times. I always give the example of the Soviet trade unions. They dealt with vouchers and pioneer camps, but no union ever set the task of going on strike, fighting for workers’ rights. To this day, we still don’t have unions.
There will be organizations that help treat people. Human rights work is special — when an organization or a person fight against the state, to prevent any lawlessness on the part of the state. This is likely to be stopped if the state becomes totalitarian, which it already is now, in part. But I think that after the war there will be a major crisis and that we’ll be able to return to a normal democratic state, one in which human rights will be protected.
Militarism, Z-activism and so on are exploding in Russia right now. How does that make you feel?
Ashamed, that this is happening in my country. Forget the letter Z, what really matters is that large numbers of people are dying every day. And it’s apparent that the opponents of the war are not strong enough.
What was the point of this war, anyway?
The totalitarian state was being built quite successfully and there was little resistance. Some say that Putin needed the war to strengthen his influence, but his influence was already strong enough. The barbarism associated with the killings was an irrational choice by the president. I don’t know why. I think he’s not well in his head. And since the dictatorship is built very rigidly, especially in the power structures, no one could oppose him. This step was very risky, many say that the intelligence gave him wrong information – told him that he would enter Ukraine, and everyone would come out to welcome him with Russian flags.
That it would be a small victorious war.
Yes. But I don’t believe that Putin has such bad information that he had no other sources to check whether this was true. The very idea of war excited him, it was his personal choice – he wanted to fight. As I see it, Putin is an absolute evil, worse than many tyrants. The Soviet Union had Stalin and Lenin. They were building a “better future” for humanity. The idea was clear, the goal. The ideology was to move forward. There were sacrifices, but, bear with it, we’ll build communism. These were people for whom human life had no value at all, but what they valued was the movement forward.
Here there is no movement forward. They [the country’s leadership] came up with an obvious lie. What is peculiar about Putin is that he lies without blushing, with pleasure. When he says that the Nazis seized the Crimea, it’s hard to believe it. Every even slightly educated person understands that this is not true. And then there’s the foreign minister, an educated man, saying absolutely terrifying things, that the nationalists took over Ukraine, and that Zelensky is a Jew, and the most virulent anti-Semites are Jews. This is ridiculous, this is the level of domestic talk by uneducated people. I think they’ve all gone a bit crazy, Putin and everybody else. It’s terrifying because they can do anything at all. The biggest danger right now is the use of the nuclear bomb.
Do you think this threat is real?
Quite a few people, analysts, say it’s possible. It’s monstrous. I’ve posted a new petition calling for this not to happen. This war will run out of steam because Putin will not back down. But the main problem is that Putin could use a tactical nuclear weapon.
What happens if Putin presses the red button?
It all depends on the strength of the nuclear weapon. Some of are small, they have about the same power as the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs. Everything will be scorched on a small territory, 10 by 10 kilometers, but everything living will be destroyed. In addition, there will be the consequences of radiation.
In a sense this will be the beginning of World War III, because the West will have to respond. We don’t know how it will respond. In Ukraine, they don’t use their own weapons, they haven’t introduced their troops, but in this case, of course, they won’t stand on ceremony.
In Russia they still keep talking about mobilization, do you think it’s possible?
It is possible, but it will be devastating for Putin. Many reasonable people write that it makes no sense to draft people who can’t shoot – they’ll just become cannon fodder. This will destabilize the situation in the country: more and more corpses, people will refuse to go [to war] – they would rather be prosecuted, but not killed. Our people know how to think when they have a choice. How do you send them to face bullets? It’s not that easy. So mobilization, of course, is an unpleasant and terrible thing, but it will destabilize the situation and lead to a speedy end to the war. But the most terrible thing, I repeat, is nuclear weapons.
So popular indignation is a question of time?
Yes, and time is short: everything will happen by the end of summer. But there is also another question: let’s say, Putin somehow or other will no longer be there: he will be pushed aside, or he himself…To whom will power pass? It is clear, that there will be two camps – one democratic, consisting of people who opposed the war. And the other, consisting of radicals who also criticise Putin, call him a weakling, say that he did not take into account this, that and another, lost everything. And they will try to establish an even harsher tyranny in Russia than there is now.
I don’t think that someday Putin will order to protestors to be shot, but the radicals will shoot. And they will seize power with weapons in their hands. Their actual leader, Strelkov-Girkin, is the man who started the events in the Donbass in 2014. These radicals, disillusioned with Putin’s politics in the Donbass, have returned to Russia and are waiting their moment. It is very serious, and that is why I am working to build a democratic movement in Russia.
Such a scenario implies almost a civil war.
With a high probability. Our opposition will always be peaceful, we never were in favour of an armed struggle. And for their part, it’s like in 1917, when the Bolsheviks won. We need the police to be on our side, no matter how hard it is to imagine.
If Putin gave the order to attack Ukraine, the massacre in the cities, the killing of innocent civilians, the looting, all of these are the actions of concrete Russian soldiers, Putin does not have any relation to it. Where does this level of aggression come from?
When a person finds themselves in conditions, in which he can revert to being a beast – he will turn into one. Here he was sent to fight, but he doesn’t want to. He goes to war and is terribly afraid something will happen. His friend is killed – one, two. He rages, and when he gets to Bucha, he commits atrocities there. He is a beast, and not human, all values are forgotten. We can use the Second World War as an example: when the Soviet troops entered Germany as victors, there was monstrous violence. These were the Soviet soldiers, whom we are proud of.
Threats of a large-scale world war, an economic crisis, do not seem to scare them much, even the sanctions are explained by the machinations of “external enemies”. What needs to happen to get people to take to the streets?
All that is sure to happen, namely that people in megacities will begin to live worse. Political indignation, which can change the political situation in the country, should take place in those cities with millions of inhabitants – Moscow, St Petersburg, maybe, would be enough, as it was at the beginning of the 1990s. I am in this sense living history, one of the organisers of the peaceful revolution in 1990-1991. I led rallies. You can’t say that it was us who organised these rallies, people took out onto the streets. People took to the streets themselves; they were fed up. When you can’t find anything in the shops, when you need to buy your children milk and there isn’t any – these things get on your nerves. Then people become very politicised. Our task was to direct this annoyance in a peaceful direction, and we succeeded. I created and was one of the leaders of the Democratic Russia movement.
You are a child of war. How did a country that won the Second World War with a horrendous death toll become an occupier of foreign territory? Do we really have no historical memory?
We are not the only country where things happen this way. In 1930s Germany, everything was also not bad: a country of great culture, science, art. Suddenly a man comes to power, propaganda starts, and people lose the thin skin of humanism, fall under the influence of ideas that awaken the beast in man.
Physiologically, nothing has happened to people for thousands of years, but they are changing: they fight less, rape each other less, humanisation is taking place. We ourselves believe that a person is worthy of the title “human”, if they have empathy, humanism. Presently, the skin we have that stops us becoming beasts is too thin. There is evil in every person, and the struggle between good and evil will always take place both within the individual and within humanity.
After two world wars and the deaths of tens of millions of people, everyone thought: how can we prevent a third world war? From this came the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, democratic principles for governing countries were developed, and the conclusion that no individual should be in power for several terms of office. As a rule, no more than ten years.
Which era does Russia most resemble since 24th February?
There is more freedom now [than in the Soviet years] – this is indisputable. Even the pre-Gorbachev, late Brezhnev period was tougher, in the early 1980s any dissident could be imprisoned. But there wasn’t so much violence then. Of course, it is bad that people were imprisoned, but in some ways they even served their sentences better than they do now: political prisoners were kept in separate prisons and they could communicate with each other.
Now there is a lot more violence in prisons, and this applies not only to political prisoners. Money and corruption play a huge role. Although they say that we have a dictatorship, the system of administering punishment is not managed in any way, everything is built on graft: every prison has its own boss, he makes something, steals, rapes people. Not all of them are like this, but there are dozens of prisons for torturing people, which did not exist in Soviet times.
The state in those days supported all kinds of revolutions, but these were local occurrences that were distant from our country. Domestically, the situation was more or less benign. True, in any totalitarian state it always feels cosy, because everything is suppressed and everyone is friends with each other. But for the person in the street in Soviet times, life was more comfortable: he did not need to rush anywhere, his salary was assured, and there was no great gap between rich and poor.
Democracy is more nerve-wracking. Take any country with a stable democracy: there is always a struggle for something and all the time there is a feeling that now everything will come to an end. But this is the hallmark of life: life is always a movement, some kind of struggle. It is no coincidence that the Soviet system of government ended its own existence – it was a road to nowhere. After all, now at least there is a way out [from the country], but then there was none, and people were rotting in the Soviet Union.
Now there are more than a hundred ‘foreign agents’. But you were the first ‘media foreign agent’. Why?
I wasn’t really surprised, I knew why. I worked on human rights, but our work was a little different. The classic human rights defence is to advise people, write applications to the courts, the ECtHR and everything else. And I worked on public campaigns and major cases, so they liquidated my movement For Human Rights.
I began to be thoroughly persecuted when I was a defender in the Network case (this group has been designated as a terrorist organisation in Russia – Cherta). The defendants in the case were tortured, and I was arguing that there had been torture. I took the parents of these children to the Human Rights Ombudsman, to the Presidential Human Rights Council, and said that it was necessary to acquit the defendants, since torture had been used. This increased the significance of these cases. Torture was eventually proven, and during the trial, the people said that they had been tortured.
Then I defended Jehovah’s Witnesses (this organisation is designated as extremist in Russia and banned – Cherta). He drew the attention of the Human Rights Council to these cases and at a meeting with the president he was informed about what was happening, he said:’That’s impossible.’ As you see, this may not mean anything – literally two months later, the first Jehovah’s Witness was imprisoned. I proved that there was torture with electric shocks – and the had been involved at all stages.
The biggest conflict I had arose when I began to defend Hizb ut-Tahrir (in Russia recognized as a terrorist organization and banned – Cherta). It is a Muslim party, its aim is the formation of a world caliphate in a peaceful way. Hundreds of people have been convicted, but it has never been proven that anyone from Hizb ut-Tahrir has ever participated in or prepared a terrorist act. They were simply included unlawfully in the list of terrorists by decision of the Supreme Court.
The party began to come to power legally in Uzbekistan. They began to be persecuted there, and they fled to Russia. In order to extradite them [back to Uzbekistan], they were designated a ‘terrorist organization’. In 2003, after the organisation had been designated as terrorist, the security forces couldn’t at first decide on sentencing them to long terms of imprisonment. They said, “Well, yes, they are terrorists, well, let’s give them a year, after all, they should be tried for specific crimes.”
Gradually, the security forces, as they tried to imprison more of them, thought: if they are terrorists, then they should be imprisoned as terrorists, even though there is no evidence. Most recently, people connected with Hizb ut-Tahrir have been getting sentences of more than twenty years [on charges of terrorism]. It seems incredible.
I did a lot of work on Hizb ut-Tahrir and was one of their main defenders. And so the FSB decided to ‘deal with me’ first at the Supreme Court, where they liquidated our movement For Human Rights, which had organized these big campaigns. Almost automatically all human rights defenders have become ‘foreign agents’ because they receive money from abroad for their work on human rights. My two organizations have long been branded with this status. Sooner or later, everything in Russia will be totally destroyed, but while the Foundation in Defence of Prisoners’ Rights is working, we continue to collect donations, this covers about a quarter of our costs.
How has being labeled a ‘foreign agent’ impacted you?
We [human rights defenders] all run organizations that are considered to be “foreign agents”. We are used to it: a routine has been in place since 2014 – whereby we report to the Ministry of Justice once a quarter. It’s difficult, but it’s doable. Every year we have accounting audits, we get by. People come to us for help, they know that if there is an instance of torture, then they need to go to us or the Committee against Torture, for example. When people get hurt, they don’t care if you’re a foreign agent or not. But the very fact that millions of people who don’t know me, think of me as a foreign agent feels somehow ugly, unpleasant. Almost like I’m a traitor.
Let’s talk about the Chechen war. Many contemporary Russian phrases emerged from the Chechen campaigns. For example, ‘counter-terrorist special operation’ instead of ‘war’, ‘the terrorist has been liquidated’ instead of ‘a person has been killed’, ‘mopping up’ instead of ‘mass murder.’ What else did the war in Chechnya ‘give’ to society?
I can say what it didn’t give – there is no strong movement of soldiers’ mothers. The soldiers’ mothers’ movements during the Chechen wars arose, albeit quite gradually. The first Chechen war lasted less than two years – this is a long period of time, the mothers quickly consolidated, and got their children out. The war in Ukraine has only been going on for two months, although I think even now mothers are coming together. But then it was easier to unite in committees – there was democracy. They wrote about it, talked about it, despite the fact that the war was going on. Society, at that time, was not in such a vice. We took part in protests both in the first and second Chechen Wars, we had a permanent active picket line: every Thursday on Pushkin Square 20-30 people stood with banners.
And nobody was arrested?
Nobody. They stood there every week. They tried to prevent us from doing it, but we would complain and win the right to stand there. The second Chechen war took place under Putin, but he had not yet fully come to power, or had time to take everything into his own hands. Now civil society is trampled on. Foreigners ask me: why don’t people go out into the street? They think Russians should be ashamed for not protesting against the war. And I say: there is no such tradition. In a democratic country, a tradition will have been established for decades or centuries whereby people take to the streets for just about any reason. This tradition is very important. When a lot of people do this, the authorities scratch their heads and think “what do we need to do”. We do not have such a tradition, it appeared in the 90s. There were rallies with a million people. I led a rally, which was attended by 700,000 or maybe a million people. But this could not continue, and gradually faded away under Yeltsin.
Is it true that Russian democracy lasted from 1990 to 1993?
From 1989 to 1991 we had a peaceful democratic revolution. The August coup attempt and its defeat was the end, we had won. We were democrats, people who stood for democratic values. I was in parliament, I wrote new legislation, all this formed the basis of the new Constitution. This was all very necessary and useful.
There were two factions in the Supreme Soviet of Russia – Democratic Russia and the Communists. The speaker was chosen by literally three or four votes. Under strong pressure, including mine, they voted for Yeltsin. It seemed that the Democrats had won. But if you look at the composition of Democratic Russia, 80% were former or current communists. It was a temporary step, and even liberal-minded communists understood that there was no other option, something had to change. We understood that we needed a strong ally, without Yeltsin we would not have won.
When economic hardship began to bite, and life got harder for people, the Communists began to change position and revert to type. That’s how 1993 happened – it was a genuine attempt at a coup d’état, the aim being to remove Yeltsin. But Yeltsin gained the upper hand, and the coup was unsuccessful. There’s been a lot of talk about the shelling of parliament, but they were the first to take up arms, you know. It was a real armed coup. I took people to the streets to oppose the coup, and we won.
You might think it was a crisis in which the Communists were narrowly defeated, but who was it that won in 1993? The LDPR, who also supported the Communists and actually took part in the coup d’état. The Democrats, meanwhile, got just 21% of the vote, and that’s despite the fact that Yeltsin was president and it was in his gift – he could have fed in some propaganda. But the elections in 1993 were democratic, and we were able to keep Yeltsin as president. Beyond that, events unfolded naturally enough in a fight between the Communists and the Democrats. That fight raged with mixed success.
I’ll say one thing for certain right now: there will be no major changes in the country so long as people protesting on the streets of Moscow are outnumbered by the police. We’re working on this currently with the creation of the Sakharov democratic mass movement ‘Peace, Progress, and Human Rights’.
What kind of movement is it?
We’re giving the movement the name Sakharov because I’m quite sure that Sakharov would have shared our views and protested against the special military operation. We’re forming a democratic movement whose members all condemn the war. We intend to collaborate with our counterparts in Russia: Vesna, Yabloko, and so on. 1.2 million people have now signed a petition I started, and in a way, you could call them associate members of the democratic movement.
We put an update on Change.org inviting anyone who signed the petition to get in touch. Around 40-50k people responded and made contact with us. We asked the respondents if they were prepared to do some organisational work and we connected them to other groups in the regions, like human rights defenders. We introduce activists to one another in each region, and they then form organising committees.
What will organising committees in towns be doing?
The most important thing at the moment is to connect people. I think that by the time we assemble everyone, the war will be over. But after that, there’ll be a new problem: how to build a new Russia. At that point, the movement will come in very useful. What will its objectives be? Elections, maybe, or protesting against the far right, perhaps. We’ll have a whole load of people, ready to work together, who share democratic, Western values, to which Putin is opposed. But the concept of ‘Western values’ is nonsense, really, as these are universal values.
Aren’t you afraid that they might come for people from the organising committees as they do for “forming terrorist cells”?
I don’t think so, no. For now, it’s all still building. Then later on, it will all be online. How can you call people online terrorists? If they write something [incriminating] down, well, then they’ll come. But if you’re just organising, I’m not so sure. Of course, there are some risks, but what can you do? I mean, you have to do something. It’s that or protest on the street, but I think that’s best avoided – they’ll pick everyone up, and there’ll be no one active left.
What would have to happen for you to come back to Russia?
I’d have to know for sure that they wouldn’t lock me up. If I find an opportunity to ask someone at a high level to confirm that I won’t be locked up, then of course I’ll return. When there are genuine changes, I’ll certainly come back.