23 June 2022
Dmitry Kolezev interviews Lev Ponomarev for Republic [an extract]
Human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, designated in Russia as a foreign agent and who left the country after the outbreak of war, has announced the creation of an online movement ‘Peace. Progress. Human Rights.’ This was the title of Andrei Sakharov’s 1975 Nobel lecture. Ponomarev, a former associate of Andrei Sakharov, believes that in current conditions Russian civil society must return to Sakharov’s ideas and find in them support to ‘re-establish’ Russia. Ponomarev, who is 80, expects to be able to return to a changed country, but for now proposes that opponents of the war should unite around Sakharov’s slogans, support each other, educate each other, and go to the polls. Republic talked to the human rights activist about how Sakharov’s ideas can help modern Russia.
You announced the creation of a new online movement. What does it plan to do, what would it look like and what is it at the moment?
The impetus for the creation of this project was the collection of signatures on my anti-war petition. It was signed by 1,250,000 people. It was the first time that a petition gathered so many signatures in today’s Russia. It showed there are many people opposed to the ‘special military operation’ (we use this term so as not to create problems for people who remain in Russia). Our movement is more of an association for those people not ready to take to the streets. Yes, people are still going out to protest, I did so myself before I left, the authorities put pressure on me because of it. But there are dozens of anti-war organizations that are organizing street protests (like Vesna, for example, and others).
At the same time, there are millions, I think 10-20 million people who condemn this war, who are very unhappy because of what is happening, but are not ready to go out onto the streets. They feel lonely. There are examples of families where some members support the war and others do not. Recently a young girl came to see me, from a family of professionals, her parents are by no means officials and were doing volunteer work, but they support the ‘special operation.’ It was totally unexpected, as if they had gone mad! The girl said: ‘I just can’t live with them. And so that people like her aren’t lonely, an online movement has to be created for them.’
It is not yet clear whether people will be afraid to identify themselves with this movement. I will now check this out in practice. I myself left Russia, lived in Tbilisi for a month and a half, and now I’m in Paris. There are many people around me who have also left Russia, they are all in touch with Russia. They can help build the infrastructure of the network, and that’s what I’m working on now.
We set up a Telegram channel ‘Peace, Progress, and Human Rights,’ and this is central. We have a Telegram-bot to which you can send information. We receive feedback and we can see that there is interest. And at the same time it’s clear only the most active people write to our bot.
Opponents of the war can be divided into several groups. There are people who suffer in silence – they need to be shown that they are not alone. There are people who want to unite and do something – they have to be given that opportunity. And there are people who take to the streets – I think they are great and I support them, but our movement is not aimed at them. There are other movements that deal with them.
I have to say I was extremely unhappy with Garry Kasparov’s (Kasparov is on the foreign agents registry. -Republic) speech at a recent event in Vilnius. He almost literally said that those who are abroad are ‘good Russians,’ and those who stay in Russia are bad. I can’t imagine how he could even think such a thing. I haven’t heard any comments in support of this speech, even from Kasparov’s friends. But the speech created a big splash and people read it and discuss it. It turns out, in Kasparov’s terminology, that in my work I am focussing on ‘bad Russians’ – those who do not support the war, but remain in Russia.
But what, specifically, should participants in this movement do, apart from simply knowing that they’re not alone?
There’s plenty that can be done. For example, in the lead-up to the municipal elections. People involved in those elections can publically announce that they’re members of this movement. At this point, it’s important to say that we don’t keep any lists. People have the right to self-identify, to say, “I am a member of this movement.” We aren’t about to vet them. All you have to do is say that you support the ideas of peace, progress, and human rights and read Sakharov’s lecture – which is, you might say, our program.
Many people say that FSB agents will inevitably start to infiltrate us. So let them. They’ll be outnumbered hundreds of times by the right kind of people. We won’t get enough agents joining to discredit the organization.
And so, let’s say that candidates in the Moscow municipal elections say that they are members of this movement. Will this get them more votes? I don’t know, but I think it might. And if there are a few candidates like that? Then we can form something like a bloc, where there’s some healthy competition among the candidates.
Another example. In any town or city, large or small, people are taking an interest in eco issues. But there’s a rift in the eco movement now, too, like the ones we’re seeing in families. If people interested in eco issues start to feel united, that will give them strength. The same thing applies to charities.
You said that you were gauging whether people are afraid to identify themselves as members of this movement. What are the preliminary results?
The Telegram bot showed right away that many people are willing to identify themselves. There’s also the Intelligentsia Congress, which I’ve been running since 2014. At the moment, I’m gathering signatures there, and I have several dozen names; soon they’ll be made public. The famous signatories won’t be the ones building this movement, but they might become symbols of it. These people could become a sort of ‘collective Sakharov’. They’ll declare their support for his ideas.
You say that 10-20 million people don’t support this war. Is the number really that low? I would hope that it was bigger.
That’s the bare minimum; I based this number on the idea that at least one tenth of the people who oppose this war will have signed the petition. I don’t want to gamble on the numbers. But I also hope that no less than 50% of Russians oppose the war.
You said that your movement isn’t geared towards protests in the streets. But on the whole, do you find such protests to be effective? I spoke with Marina Litvinovich, who said that she doesn’t see the point in them these days – the idea being that they only increase the number of political prisoners without making any discernable impact on the authorities.
I’m friends with Marina, but the truth is more important. I believe that this assessment is incorrect. I think that young people who are only just getting into politics and who find themselves disgusted with this war have the right to take a risk and take to the streets. I will never campaign against people taking to the streets, though I also won’t campaign for them to do so.
What does “effective” mean in this context? The very act of going out to protest demonstrates that there are people who are not afraid, and that has an effect of its own. Other people see these heroes, remember them. I’m certain that, in the future, the people out protesting today will go on to hold public positions and build a new Russia.
How can we make it so that progress works in favour of humanity and humanistic ideals, and not against them?
In this regard, the third point is important – human rights. The struggle for human rights began about a hundred years ago, but this issue really took shape in 1947, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. It was adopted because it was clear that only in this way could a third world war be prevented. After two world wars that claimed tens of millions of lives in highly developed Europe, this was a very real threat. The idea that human rights could prevent world wars was put forward.
At the same time, the concept evolved that the rights of every person should be protected, which in turn led to the protection of collective human rights and of the international interests of different countries. Thus, the protection of individual human rights helps to prevent conflicts between countries. And today, thanks to the concept of human rights, Europe, in which tens of millions of people died in wars, is united, borders in it have ceased to matter. It no longer matters where the border between Germany, France and Poland lies. There will be no more war over these borders.
The question arises : how do we ensure the protection of human rights? We have to fight for them. It’s like a religion. You have to believe in them. Respect for human rights is first and foremost about democracy. Everyone has his own opinion and has the right to vote for it.
Sakharov stressed that political human rights should take precedence over social rights. After all, the USSR boasted that social rights were protected in it, and they were supposedly more important for the ordinary individual. But why did the USSR collapse? By the end of the 1980s, everyone understood that Western countries ate better and dressed better, and social protection eventually turned out to be better than in the USSR.
Democracy does not allow crazy people to come to power. A madman can come to power, but in one term he will not have time to deploy such propaganda that will confound everyone. There are a small number of people who are resentful of life and who believe it doesn’t matter a bit: let everyone die. Dictators rely on people like that, they account for about 10% of the population. But if such a dictator is elected, the other citizens will not allow him to work for more than one term. This was demonstrated by Trump’s fall from favour.
In short, peace, progress and human rights are linked. And peace will be preserved if human rights are respected.
But in our time, human rights are turning into an excuse for war. This claim can be made both with regard to Russia, which allegedly protects the rights of the Russian population in the Donbas, and to the United States, which protects human rights in different countries of the world, sometimes going as far as military intervention.
I agree, a lot of injustices are being committed. By the way, when the United States attacked Iraq, it was I who collected the signatures of human rights activists condemning this war. Although then, as now, most human rights organisations received grants from abroad.
The U.S. made a colossal mistake, but it was corrected by millions of people taking to the streets. And America reflected on that. There was also the experience of trying to forcibly impose democracy in North Africa, which was also unsuccessful. But a democratic country, having had such an experience, analyses it and draws conclusions. But a despotic country is not aware of its mistakes.
Suppose Putin was fed the lie that Russians are being persecuted in Ukraine and must be rescued. First, if he hadn’t been a despot, if he had only two terms to spare, he would have been more careful. He would have clarified what was really going on there. In all democracies, there is a restriction that the head of state works no more than two terms.
In any country, if you let even an infinitely good man rule for twenty years, he will almost certainly become a despot. And it will almost certainly be possible to say about such a country that it became a fascist state. As they describe Russia now. If it had not been for his twenty years, there would have been no fascism in Russia. When Russians are accused of being fascists, I reply that I’m sorry, but even your country could become fascist. But it didn’t, because you have elections.
Do you agree with the view that a fascist regime has been established in Russia?
There is a movement towards fascism by the regime. This has not yet reached complete fascism, if only because some human rights organizations, including mine, are working there. For the present, there is a large grey area.
But in Ukraine the fascism on the Russian side has manifested itself completely. Murdered and raped people, children. And this is reliably proven, no matter what the propagandists say. Such an atmosphere was created there, that people’s beastliness was able to manifest itself. The beast inside people was set free.
Fascism has also manifested itself in penal colonies. We do a lot of work on this issue. We succeeded in getting a criminal investigation opened about acts of violence in penal colony No. 19 in Angarsk, where mass riots were suppressed. A thousand people were detained there as witnesses and it was suggested to them that they should make accusations against a certain group of people. It was rumoured that about 100 people were raped there. I didn’t believe this at first, but we got a criminal investigation opened and 30 people have already been recognized as victims of rape.
So fascism is penetrating into various parts and cells of our society. And if it takes root there, it expands and grows further.
Sakharov, in his Nobel prize acceptance speech, talked about the polarization of the world: there are capitalist and socialist countries, between which there are contradictions. Today the socialist countries no longer exist, but the division of the world remains. In your view, by what criteria does this division take place today?
Countries can be divided into despotic and democratic countries. In the former, it’s accepted that despots can come to power. I am not afraid to say that it is a division between good and evil.
In every human being there is good and evil. When conditions are created in which evil can come out, it comes out – from everyone. I believe that human civilization as a whole is evolving toward good. People used to eat each other, and perhaps the greatest achievement of human civilization is that we no longer eat each other. There is progress.
There is a struggle between good and evil. Human civilization has largely followed the line of good, it understands that in that way it saves itself. Civilization as a huge organism realized that it will save itself if it follows the path of good, that is, democratization. But since in every human being there is good and evil, this struggle will always go on.
So those who favour despotism are on the side of evil, and those who favour democracy on the side of good?
Yes, and the criterion is simple – the existence of elections. No one should remain in power for more than ten years. Otherwise he can create a huge propaganda machine that zombifies people. Orwell understood this, we see it now. For the time being we still have the chance to resist, but it may come about that that will no longer be the case.
“Navalny and Kara-Murza will go down in history as heroes.”
I notice you don’t use the words ‘left’ or ‘emigrated,’ but ‘moved away.’ Which implies temporariness, and a rather short-term one at that.
I hope that even I, at my age, will have the opportunity to return to Russia and contribute to its transformation.
Why did you decide to leave?
I was squeezed out, and quite specifically. I’ve been taken to court several times, I called on people to go out on the streets. The immediate reason for my departure was the following. I was travelling in the metro when two people came up to me and said: “You’re wanted by the federal police.” Which kind of implies they want to prosecute me for a criminal offence. They showed me a picture of me on their phone. It really was me. Although I still don’t know whether there is any criminal case against me. They took me and for several hours I was sitting in the police station in the metro. I called a lawyer. Then they took me to Taganka, to the prosecutor’s office in Moscow, in the comfort of a car with flashing lights. One of the police officers goes into the prosecutor’s office and brings an official out to me. I’ve never seen before that an official of the prosecutor’s office ‘goes out to a client.’ The official said I should report to the prosecutor’s office in a few days. I showed up, but I never understood what it was happening. But it became clear that the clouds were gathering over me.
Then on Monday I got a phone call via Telegram from a man who identified himself as a supporter of mine from the Investigative Committee and told me I was going to be arrested on Thursday. He said he could give me evidence of this on some disc. A confused conversation began about how I had to buy some disc, put it in a certain place and then something would be recorded on it, and I would collect it. I thought that this was clearly some kind of provocation – they wanted to plant something on me. I couldn’t do anything as stupid as that. But there seemed to be some elements of truth in this story.
In general, we discussed it all together, my colleagues and I, and decided it was better for me to leave the country. It’s me who seems to be their target, not my organizations. I am running the Foundation for Protection of Prisoners’ Rights, which deals with torture. I don’t think this work bothers the authorities much at the moment, but they are very sensitive about my anti-war activities, including my petition. In consultation with my colleagues, I decided I should leave.
If I hadn’t left, what would have happened next? I would have been remanded in custody, the office would have been searched, they would have seized our equipment and the work of the organization would have been paralyzed. So I left.
What do you think of people like Vladimir Kara-Murza and Aleksei Navalny, who were well aware that they would be put in prison when they returned to Russia from abroad, and yet they still came back? Many people think of them as heroes, but sometimes you meet the opinion that they would be have been more useful if they were at liberty, even if that meant being in exile, and there is no sense in being in prison.
Each person decides his own fate, so to those who give such advice I’d like to say: none of your damn business. Navalny and Kara-Murza are heroes and will go down in Russian history as heroes.
I had some disagreements with Aleksei, but lately they had been smoothed out. I don’t agree with Yavlinsky’s position, which is that Navalny is a nationalist. I think that Navalny has changed a very great deal. In the past he told me that only Russian nationalists had a political future in Russia, and our ways parted. But he’s different now. And even if he had remained a nationalist, he is still a hero. First of all, because he came back, knowing he was going to be put in prison. Secondly, because even in the hands of the people who tried to kill him, he mocks the regime and Putin, writing very brave letters from prison.
Vladimir Kara-Murza is also a hero. Many tried to persuade him not to go back, the Kremlin had a lot of grudges against him because of his international activities. Let’s hopoe to God they both survive and will have great political futures.
This translation will be completed in due course