A voice from Russia: an interview with a Russian activist against Putin’s regime
On February 24, we witnessed the Russian invasion of Ukraine and, along with it, the return of warfare in Europe, the exodus of a population under the bombs. Vladimir Putin has imposed himself on Ukraine and some other States with a political abrasiveness never seen before. After the European sanctions, the withdrawal of Western multinationals from the country and the censorship imposed by the Kremlin, we unveil an isolated Russia, locked in its own autocracy. It has been a month since the conflict started and we are still wondering what being a Russian citizen means today. An answer to this question is even more crucial considering the protests taking place in Russia these weeks: the government action has rarely been thwarted with such a widespread dissent. We sought the answer beyond the Iron Curtain – which is getting more and more impenetrable – dividing Russian citizens from the West, and we succeeded in interviewing a young political activist who has been taking to the streets against Vladimir Putin’s regime for the past few years and who, today, is feeling more frightened than ever. Currently, our witness is still in Russia and together with her we have recollected the liberticidal parable of Putin’s government up until today. We cannot do anything but thank her for her words and for the courage she has shown sharing her perspective with us at this tough moment, since in Russia political dissent is repressed through imprisonment and social exclusion. In order to encourage the spreading of her words we have decided to write the interview both in English and in Italian.
1. When have you started showing interest in politics? What do you think of Putin?
I think that the first time I thought about Putin as a bad president was in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, because it was something I did not support at the time and which I do not support now. Honestly, the fact that Russia was taking a part of the land of another country seemed very controversial to me. Many people in Russia supported that decision because they believed that after the collapse of the Soviet Union Crimea had been given to Ukraine for no reason. I think it was unfair and that we should have given it back. However, in the case of Crimea the situation was a bit different because in that region there have always been many Russians and Russian-speakers. There was not a conflict: Crimean people simply voted in favour when they held the referendum on the annexation. Later on, I witnessed what happened to Navalny and his brother, for example Navalny’s poisoning and his subsequent imprisonment. In spite of this, I would say that I started to be interested in politics from the Crimean annexation.
Let’s talk about Navalny: what do you think of him?
Navalny was probably the last political opponent in Russia: he was the only option to Putin. Although he was not the candidate most people would vote, everyone was shocked by his poisoning and his arrest. I think it was the beginning of the end: even though we witnessed crimes against other political opponents – for example Khodorkovsky’s exile – what happened to Navalny was much more shocking. At that point I realised we were going down quite fast. Probably the current situation is the continuation of what happened then and I am afraid it may get worse.
2. Political opposition in Russia: how is it? What does it mean to you?
Last year I took part in a protest in St. Petersburg and it was massive: thousands of people were demonstrating for Navalny. The protest was organised by the members of Navalny’s NGO (FBK, Anti-Corruption Foundation) and the participants were informed via Telegram and Instagram. That was the first protest in support of Navalny: it was January 23 (2021, editor’s note). At the time there were many friends who shared my same political view, so we formed a group of six people for the demonstration. Unfortunately two of them were arrested as soon as they got out of the taxi. The “official” reason of their capture was that they were not wearing surgical masks in the vehicle, but the truth was that the police knew the demonstrators would meet in some specific points of the city. Consequently, only four of us took part in the protest. The whole centre of St. Petersburg was full of policemen who beat and arrested many ordinary people. Nevertheless, we managed to march through the main streets of the city. I admit I was very scared, but I felt safer inside the crowd: it was something that I had never experienced before. A second protest took place the following week, but I was too frightened to participate again. However, a friend of mine decided to go and he told me the behaviour of the police had been worse than in the first demonstration. This is a crucial point for the opposition movement: people do not protest anymore because they are too scared of the possible consequences. As a matter of fact, if you get arrested in Russia you will probably spend (at least) two weeks in jail, living in very bad conditions and eating terrible food, without any type of juridical help. Moreover, if you are a student you can get expelled from your school or university.
Do you know anyone who took part in the last protests?
Well, I think that none of my friends participated this time, including me. Since the beginning of the war police have been occupying the city centre and its main streets. If you show a symbol of peace, if you stand alone in the street as a sign of protest, or even if you simply state “no to war”, you can get arrested.
3. How is the framing of the special operations (military activities) in Russia? Did you expect these operations to begin? Why?
Actually I think no one was ready for it or expected it at all because last year there was a similar situation when the Russian army stationed itself on the border of Ukraine. The USA and the European countries were expecting Russia to attack, but nothing happened. With the current war Russia is just trying to frighten the West and to show its military power. On February 24 (2022, Putin’s speech declaring war, editor’s note) I woke up and when I read the news I was speechless because I realised that my country was the aggressor. I heard the news from some Russian independent media – also called “foreign agents” – which are damaging for the government but really useful for Russians since they provide impartial information.
Many of my friends – also politicians – would not expect Putin to actually attack. Unfortunately, many Russian citizens are now supporting him because on the national television they are shown that the members of Ukranian government are neonazis and that we need to save Ukranians from them.
I have no idea of the reason for which they believe that. A good example is my grandmother: she lives in a village in the north of Russia and her only access to information is a television. When I tried to tell her that many young Russians and Ukrainians were dying because of the war, she told me: “Well, this is war: what do you expect?”. I could not see her point: I think the amount of people supporting the conflict is ridiculous.
How do you keep in contact with your friends in Ukraine?
When the war started I posted some stories on Instagram about Putin and I texted one of my friends in Kiev to know what the situation was like. I apologized for my country and I told him I did not support this war and that I would try to help him. In response he told me that he knew it was not my fault: he is absolutely aware of the situation and he is not blaming me as a Russian. We were friends before this conflict and we will still be friends when it ends. However, he seemed very scared and he said they were trying to survive. He did not join the army and I think he is likely to be hiding now because he might be afraid of fighting against Russians. In the photos he sent me I could see that he was sitting in a small basement with some other guys who also looked quite young – about 25 years old, the same as him.
4. How do you judge the Western reaction? How have the sanctions imposed by the West impacted your life?
Last weekend I met my friends – who are all against war of course – and we talked about the overall situation and particularly about sanctions. Basically, we believe that sanctions do not work. They never work: let’s think about countries like Iran or North Korea. The worse thing is that sanctions do not play in favour of ordinary people in these countries. The European countries, the USA and Canada have already promulgated a huge list of sanctions against Russian authorities and Russian oligarchs but we are still in war, so they clearly have not helped. I am not able to give a definite opinion because on one hand sanctions are the most obvious thing to think of in this kind of situation, but on the other hand they do not work in authoritarian States, since their leaders do not care about ordinary people.
As for the impact of these sanctions on my life, I can say that we all already feel it. First of all, we do not have access to currency: we cannot have any other currency apart from the ruble, or exchange it for euros/dollars. Also, inflation is on the rise: it is expected to be 20% this year, which is even worse than in 1998, the year of the Russian crisis. Additionally, we can see it from the increase in prices, mainly in the pharmaceutical sector: I have already bought a stock of pills and other medicines meant to last for at least half a year. Then, we have problems with sugar and other kinds of basic needs in stores and supermarkets – where the situation is expected to get even worse. We expect a default of Russian economy in April. We are not allowed to go to Europe and many people are fleeing to countries like Georgia, Armenia and Turkey because life is quite cheap there and also because Europe closed its borders. Since yesterday (March 9, 2022, editor’s note) it has become impossible to get a Schengen visa in Russia and I was supposed to get it in March for Estonia, so now I cannot go to Europe and I am likely not to have this possibility for many years. We also have other issues linked to business and banks, and clearly to brands and big firms: obviously I can live without McDonald’s, Coca Cola, etc. but it is funny to see Russian patriots’ reactions – blaming and insulting US and European brands. The problem is that these people do not realise that this is a huge amount of jobs lost and employees fired, which consists in hundreds of billions of taxes in the Russian budget. For example, a hamburger in a Russian McDonald’s used to be very cheap (less than 1€, around 30 cents): poor people could afford it and get a full meal for a very low price, while now they no longer have it. The same is for clothes (H&M, etc.): we can continue this list of brands, which are not necessary for ordinary people, but for some others they were their only option, and I think this is really sad.
5. Do you think that Western powers showed a lack of solidarity towards Russian people (for example: Western sanctions are supposed to be against the government, but they actually affect the whole population)?
I would like to add one thing about the sanctions. You said that sanctions are supposed to put pressure on Putin’s regime, but the real effect is very different: due to the fact that the majority of Russians support this “special operation”, they are starting to think that the purpose of these sanctions is to hurt the whole population. In their opinion Putin is the only one who can save us from the “cruel West”: he’s like our “father”, the only one who is truly trying and willing to help us.
It sounds like Stalin…
Yes! Sometimes we joke about it, saying that we are back in the Thirties. Anyways, this widespread feeling of “unconditional trust” in Putin makes his regime even stronger. The sanctions imposed by the West are not reaching the goal of weakening the regime.
Regarding the question about solidarity towards Russians, I know many European political leaders said that there should not be any type of discrimination against Russians, neither online nor in European countries: they understood that this war is not Russians’ fault, but Putin’s. I feel thankful towards those leaders for their declarations. As I just said, I know sanctions are the only option that could be able to affect the regime, but the truth is that they are not working. I do not know whether the European leaders could do anything different in this case, and personally I do not expect any other action to be taken by the West. Also – even though I do not support this war – as a Russian I understand and I accept the fact that some people blame me for what is happening.
One of the main goals of the West is to make Russia go bankrupt, leaving Putin with no money to support the war effort. Moreover, the EU is providing Ukraine with weapons. Is it a right decision? How do you feel about it?
Well, of course I have contrasting thoughts relating to it. On one hand, I support the decision of the EU to provide Ukraine with weapons because I am firmly convinced that Russia is in the wrong. Nevertheless, I realise that my brother and my cousin could join the Army anytime. They could be sent to Ukraine to fight and they could be killed by a shot fired from those weapons. You can understand my mixed feelings about it. There are many young Russians who have been killed out there: we can talk about Putin as much as we like, but the crucial point is that people of our age are dying at the front.
The University of Trento has suspended every type of collaboration with Russian institutions and Russian people. How do you see it?
I think that all sanctions which are not connected with the Russian government are unnecessary. Banning the Russian academia and Russian scientists from the collaboration with other countries is a mistake. Russia had just started cooperating with foreign universities: it was a huge improvement in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Russian students could develop new views of the world, of politics, of life: it was a great opportunity for us. However, if the West is going to cut these links, nobody will get any particular advantages. Many friends of mine – scientists who work in the academia – are very qualified people: why should they be excluded from international collaboration? This measure will not affect Putin and the conflict. In my opinion, this is a stupid, unfair and ineffective decision.
6. How do you see the future of your generation? And what about yours?
The question is really difficult. My generation was born after the collapse of the Soviet Union and we grew up in a – more or less – free society. Before 2012 I thought we were living in a context of freedom, which – even though it was obviously rather different from the Western idea of freedom – made me have great hopes for the future, also fueled by the the progressive internationalisation of the country. Then, from 2012 – after Putin came back from his exchange with Medvedev – all power got centralised in Moscow. Now there is no freedom of speech at all, everything seems to be prohibited. I would like to add one more thing in order to make you understand the level of propaganda in Russia: I am currently teaching English to some kids and one of them told me about a movie he had watched at school. The aim of the movie was to show all the “good” reasons which led to the conflict, presenting the invasion of Ukraine as something not only positive, but also necessary. Luckily the kid realised that the ideas and the images shown in the movie were propaganda. This made me very happy: it is important that kids – at least in big cities – understand what is going on; the majority of them know that this aggression is not legitimate. This gives me hope. When our country will get rid of all those managers and authorities who came from the USSR and only speak the “language of power”, something will change. I really hope that in ten or twenty years the generation that is witnessing this war will try to build a better Russian State.
Before the interview, you told us you were thinking of leaving Russia. The message you have just given us is hopeful, but we understand your fear and desire to leave. How do you find a balance between these two options?
Some friends of mine are leaving Russia. Unfortunately, I cannot do so because I have to take care of my grandmother, who is very old. I will definitely stay here to help her. At the same time, I have no intention of leaving the country without my mother, who has my same political view and does not support the “special operation”. So, all in all, I am not leaving the country now, but I will probably consider this possibility in the future. Here in Russia it is increasingly difficult to speak, to work, to read the media that we want, to listen to our favourite music. We cannot even say the word “war”: this “crime” is punishable by imprisonment.
7. Would you like to say something?
I would just want the people in the West to know that a large number of Russian people are against this war. We are feeling really bad and ashamed and we realise that for many years we are going to be blamed for this, we will have the responsibility for not stopping this conflict. I have read many comments on the Internet from Ukrainian people, who are stating that Russians are not doing anything to stop Putin, but I would want you to understand that it is really impossible. If you try to resist it you go to jail, that is all. I know that the price of freedom can be very high and that in the 20th century many people fighting for their ideals went to jail, but things are different now. We live in a different time and it is very difficult for us here. You (Europeans, editor’s note) – I am not blaming you for this – have no idea of what we are going through here. You do not know how harsh it is, how we cannot speak openly about what we think not only for the jail itself, but also because we have such great cruelty of police in prisons, it is impossible to explain. I really want you not to blame us for not resisting Putin, because we could not. Maybe some decades before we could have done so, if we knew what he would do, but in this day and time we cannot react. However, it does not mean we are not with Ukrainians: our thoughts, prayers and hearts are with them. You know, Russia and Ukraine are very close countries, we have so many families and friends living in both countries. Even the people in favour of this war cannot fully support it. After some time, after all this propaganda falls down, they will understand that they were wrong. I am sure about it. I also want to thank everyone supporting Russian people on the Internet, we can read it. Tomorrow (March 11, 2022, editor’s note) Instagram is going to be banned, so it is going to be more difficult to do so, but I really do thank everybody understanding this is not our fault: thank you for your support.