20 May 2022
Lev Ponomarev in conversation with Aleksei Voloshin
In the closing days of April, one of the founders of Memorial and the For Human Rights movement, Lev Ponomarev, left Russia. Now, he has announced a new movement, Peace, Progress and Human Rights. Our correspondent met him in Tbilisi to discuss emigration, a new Change.Org anti-war petition, the collapse of the USSR, the impending right-wing revenge and a bright future for Russia.
Lev Aleksandrovich, our meeting takes place in Tbilisi. Can you tell us about how you felt leaving Russia?
Concerned. Not for myself, but for the organisations I left behind. I manage them and I am involved in human rights and anti-war activities. I left because I realised that I needed to save them. Because it is a rare thing for an organisation to be embedded in Russian reality. Russian reality revolves around officials (including the ombudsman) you can work with. This is something that many radicalised people, including human rights activists, do not understand. We have to use any means possible in order to protect our citizens’ rights.
Was there a sense that you had lost when you left the country?
Of course. The situation is becoming worse and worse, however a human rights defender must always protect the people who come to them. As they say, you don’t get to choose your homeland. Yes, we are losing now. In essence, a fascist government has been established in our country. It’s the war that makes it fascist, and the camps where prisoners are raped. But we are helping people. We aren’t overthrowing the regime – however much we would like to – but we are helping.
What are your plans now?
I’m concentrating on the anti-war campaign. I am the author of a petition against this war which has been signed by more than 1,200,000 people. It is amazing how it has spread. It demonstrates that the anti-war sentiment in Russia is considerable, even if it would seem to many that we have lost. This petition shows us that we need to establish a large-scale public human rights movement. Those who have signed the petition have already spoken out against the war, however I am concerned that this is not just a one-off occurrence. These people hold the same views as I do. When the war ends, the country will go through as difficult a time as we are already experiencing now. The economy will collapse and there will be a question over which direction the country will head in.
I have experience, therefore I want to create a serious civil movement. We tried to think of the shortest name possible and realised it should be called The Sakharov Movement or Peace, Progress and Human Rights – the title of Sakharov’s Nobel lecture.
It is clear that this will be a networking movement. 30,000 of the million petition signatories provided return addresses and we have begun to engage with them. This is a complex job and one which requires sophisticated IT support, however when I arrived in Tbilisi, I realised I was in luck. I see people in Tbilisi who have emigrated from various regions across Russia. They are dynamic and see a future for the country. I realised that we need to unite with them so that they could set up groups in Russia from here. That’s why we have set up the first group initiative for the movement here in Tbilisi.
People ask me why I am setting up another association aboard. But this is not a foreign organisation – it is Russian. It’s just that these people live close together here and that it’s easier to come to agreements.
Do you have any idea how many of those who signed the petition are willing to keep working with you? It’s frightening to speak out at the moment.
That’s exactly why we’re going to start very gradually in Russia. You can still say you’re against the war, even if you can’t say the word ‘war’. We’ll say we’re against the special operation. When you create such a broad movement as this you need to understand that there will be some compromise involved. The main thing is to know that we have a shared ideology.
We’re doing this in large part for the future, because in future, things will be something like this: Putin will be gone, and the country will be left in a really bad situation. There will be two camps: one liberal and another made up of serious hard-liners. Take, for example, Girkin. He’s opposed to Putin and has expressed very strong opposition to him. And he actually would build a full-blown totalitarian Russia. I don’t think Putin would open fire on people at rallies in Russia, but Girkin would.
Like I said, we have a support base of 1.2 million people. But this isn’t an easy task. We’ll need to rely on people who are active, and to engage those who aren’t in dialogue and stay in touch with them so that they don’t feel they’re on their own. They might not do anything at all but, when the time comes and a million people are needed to go out and protest in Moscow, we’d want them to do just that. I know that this sounds a bit fantastical but if I had no experience of creating such organisations, I wouldn’t be doing it. Perhaps I need to do it, because if I wasn’t around, then no one else would. It’s a good thing I’m here! Memorial is quite a large movement – I was one of a dozen individuals who set it up. We created a democratic movement in the Soviet Union for the very first time. Then there was Democratic Russia, a political organisation that enabled us to win the first elections in Russia and begin the country’s transition towards democracy. We were the biggest nationwide party. So, in a way, there is this experience. And I will try to repeat it.
Putin is currently being compared to Hitler, but there’s a sense that a real Hitler might only come along in a few years, on a wave of revanchism. Just as Hitler called the Peace of Versailles humiliating in his time, so might Putin’s successor call peace between Russia and Ukraine humiliating. You spoke about this, too. How likely would you say it is that such a political force might emerge?
I’d say there’s a 100% likelihood, and I’ve said it before. It’s the worst thing that could happen because these people might turn Russia into North Korea. The majority of them are people who have been involved in the conflict since 2014. They learned to shoot and kill people, and they’ll be joined by soldiers who are about to return from Ukraine. This is a huge problem we need to prepare for.
What should be done with the soldiers about to return from Ukraine? Many of them are young lads, for whom this will have been a formative experience. At best, they’ll only suffer psychological damage, and at worst, they’ll become actual sadists! How can they be socialised after that?
I don’t want to get carried away here, but the government must take responsibility for their rehabilitation, if they are traumatised. The majority of them need psychological support. A veterans’ association should be formed, but then, veterans shouldn’t be living with thoughts of revenge. They need some kind of outreach, to be sensitised to our values. I can’t tell you how this would work, but I know that it’s essential. Anyway, many of them will fall in with these right-wing radicals, and that actually needs to be tackled at the political level.
Many people, when they left Russia, were afraid that there would be widespread repression. But so far the scale has not reached the level of, say, the 1930s. Will it ever reach that level?
I don’t think so. At least, they won’t be jailing hundreds of thousands of people. Under the new law, 207.3, on discrediting the army, they can imprison as many people as they want. Lots of laws of that kind have been adopted since 2014. For example, the law on treason. The wording: in a conversation with a foreigner, a person harmed Russia’s security. This is absolutely anything whatsoever. There are many such laws and they could already have been used to imprison people en masse.
First of all, it’s not only the Chekists in power. And even there are differences among the Chekists. And there are people who come from our democratic past. Secondly, the thirties also took some time to develop. This all requires certain processes. We have not followed to the end this road to mass repressions yet and I hope that it will not. Because in one way or another the war will come tp an end.
Do you think it will stop soon?
Yes. There are too many casualties on both sides. Russia is almost ready for negotiations, Zelensky wants them too. But the trend is important here. The trend is towards Russia losing and Ukraine winning. That is why the Ukrainian public can forget about how much it costs to win, it can get used to the war. It can decide that no matter how many casualties, they will fight to the end. That, too, is a radical ideology. But I have hope in Zelensky. He’s very sensible, he’s doing the right thing. It seems to me that the main thing is to stop the killing in such numbers as are being killed now.
At the end of 1991, you voted for ratification of the Belovezhsky Agreements. Nowadays nowhere else in the world are there so many territorial conflicts as on the territory of the former USSR. This includes the north of Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh, the east of Ukraine and Transnistria. What do you think, was there any scenario in which the Soviet Union disintegrated but there would have been no conflicting territorial claims among its successor states?
– Yes, there was such a possibility. I can tell you that Democratic Russia had a plan, rather like the CIS. And Gorbachev and Yeltsin even almost developed such a plan. But in 1991, the Chekists carried out a putsch and prevented it from happening. There was an opportunity for liberal Russia to negotiate with each republic as part of a confederation. There would have been closer relations with some member states, less close relations with others, but it would have been a natural step at that time. But the siloviki did not let this happen.
But even in this confederation, Russia would have been to a degree ‘on top’ of the others …
In an economic sense, yes. But nevertheless for us it was important that each republic should benefit from the arrangement. And it was possible at that time. But the most important thing was that we succeeded in keeping the post-Yugoslavia model from being repeated in the Soviet Union. And this, I believe, was the success of our movement. I was in parliament at the time, all the issues were discussed there, and we were doing our best to convince Yeltsin that all the republics should remain within the administrative borders they had had in Soviet times, no matter how unfair that was. Of course, Crimea was unfairly Ukrainian. Or northern Kazakhstan. It was absolutely Russian. And it’s unfair that it belongs to Kazakhstan, but it should have been left that way.
Remember how Yeltsin said, Take as much sovereignty as you want.’ And that applied not only to former Soviet republics. When the threat of disintegration arose for Russia and Tatarstan began to put forward its demands, he wanted to compromise. This kept Tatarstan inside the country. Although it’s rather difficult to imagine Tatarstan leaving Russia. There would have been war then. In Tartarstan there were nationalists who wanted to secede from Russia, they hoped that Turkey would help them.
So at that time we prevented a Yugoslav scenario coming about, when there would have been a sea of blood. The only exception was that we failed to persuade Yeltsin to reach an agreement with Dudaev.
And what should the agreement with Dudaev have been like?
I know for sure that Dudaev was ready for the Tatarstan version. He resisted for a long time and wanted Chechnya to leave the Russian Federation. It was easier for him to leave than Tatarstan, Chechnya is on the border. Then I would rather have preferred Chechnya to leave the Russian Federation. I did not see a significant problem in this. There were problems with the Russians, but there were such problems in all the former USSR republics. It was unfair for the Russians, but inevitable with the collapse of the empire. And Dudaev, I know for sure, made himself a new suit to meet with Yeltsin. Galina Starovoitova, Gavriil Popov, Marshal Evgeny Shaposhnikov and I wrote a letter to Yeltsin, and there was a feeling that they would meet. But at the last moment Yeltsin was convinced that it was impossible for the “great” Yeltsin to meet with the “scoundrel” Dudayev. The meeting was cancelled and, in fact, that’s what made the conflict.
Do you plan to return to Russia?
Yes, of course. But I don’t need to rush. There were several situations in Russia. For example, the police came up to me at the subway station and said: Lev Aleksandrovich, you are on the federal wanted list. And they showed me my portrait on a smartphone. Then there were calls allegedly from a sympathiser. He warned that there would be arrests, and I was one of those who would be imprisoned. Then they did something nasty to me almost every day. Either they would pour some stinking liquid on me, or they would put some threatening graffiti at the entrance to my apartment building. Together with the other employees, we discussed things and I realised that it was better for me to leave so we could continue the investigation of torture.
Do you reflect often on the past now? Do you think you did everything possible to prevent what is happening now?
You know, I am a rare example…I think that some mistakes were made, but I don’t reflect on the past in the way of thinking ‘how is it, the country is following this path, I’m to blame for this.’ Russia is going through a difficult path of historical transformation. I don’t know who this phrase belongs to, but “the mole of history digs slowly.” That is why, of course, I am upset: we made a breakthrough in democracy, I participated in it, and before my eyes it all falls apart.
You could say that it is my fault that Putin came to power. Because I am a representative of the democratic wing, and the Union of Right Forces, my friends, decided that they would vote for Putin. But I have an excuse. At that meeting of the coordinating council of democratic forces, when Anatoly Chubais heatedly declared: “We must support Volodya, I just met with him, he will support democracy!” I said to his face and to everyone else: “Remember this day. You will remember this day. You will remember this day, because it will be the most shameful in your life.”