Mikhail Sokolov: Have you noticed that they’re still trying to work out some kind of [national] ideology? There’s this “Shoigu Law”, which really threatens anyone engaged in research relating to the Second World War that doesn’t fit in with their view of it – that’s a form of ideological activity.
Yuri Felshtinsky: Yes. Though I don’t think it’s dangerous, because I think it’s all rather absurd. For example, I never believed – and this goes back to the discussions there have always been among the émigré community, at least since the years when I first came over here in 1978, that there would be fascism in the Soviet Union or Russia. I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. I never believed that there would be nationalism in the Soviet Union, or now in Russia. Because Russia really is a multi-ethnic state. And the numbers of Russians, who have never been counted, and especially of pure ethnic Russians, whom it is absolutely certain that no one has ever counted, are not critical enough for Russia to have a hard-line national government. And Russians themselves probably see one another as people who are soft rather than hard-line, more disorganized than organized, more slovenly than focused on certain ideas and rules. Russia is an enormous state. For all the attempts to remake it and build a centralized “vertical of power”, you and I know that the power ends at the Ring Road. And in fact there are many who would seriously assert that it ends at the walls of the Kremlin. Beyond the walls of the Kremlin, none of that centralization and “vertical of power” works any more.
Mikhail Sokolov: So you mean that in the coming decade Russia is doomed to give the world yet another negative lesson of the kind it gave in the past: we’ve had Communism and Stalinism, and now Russia is to be run by the secret police, or corporations composed of Putin’s managers?
Yuri Felshtinsky: In your question I hear a note of sad reproach, but in fact one can take a slightly different view of the way the world sees Russia. It’s really a matter of comparisons. The West and the whole of the rest of the world have to compare Russia’s present leadership with, for example, Stalin and Khrushchev. Of Stalin, of course, the less said the better.. Khrushchev beat his shoe on the podium. Brezhnev – also the less said the better. Now and then Yeltsin was drunk in public. Listen, against that background, Medvedev is quite simply the flower of the Russian intelligentsia. And against that background even Putin, on the whole, is a young progressive politician who knows how to smile, talk, behave himself more or less, not always, not everywhere, we know about all the blunders he committed as leader of the country: like when he joked about the sinking of the “Kursk” submarine, or when he told a journalist to go and get circumcised, and when he talked about flushing the Chechens down the toilet.
We know about all that, the list is too long to enumerate. But even so, if we compare this with Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, then sorry, it’s not surprising that the Western community thought Putin was the best Russian president it had ever had to deal with. On this level Medvedev is even better, because they don’t even have to deal with him, because they know that he doesn’t decide important policy matters in the country. So in that sense what awaits the West is not such a bad option.
The West takes a cautiously sceptical view of Russia. Russia is like the classroom bully. Between ourselves, no one ever expects anything good of Russia. Everyone expects something bad. When bad things happen, like the war in Chechnya or the war in Georgia, everyone says: “Yes, well, of course, what else can you expect of them? And when bad things don’t happen, they put a tick in the checkbox: “Listen, it could have happened and it didn’t.” In other words, Russia is treated like this naughty boy who is a member of the family but whom no one can do anything with, he’s just there.
And (this is a serious point, by the way) they all understand that that Russia is there, that it was there in the past and that it will go on being there in the future. Russia will be there both as a participant in all the political dialogues [with the West] and as a very important economic partner, especially for Europe. So we all have to live with Russia. And it is absolutely the task of everyone to make life easier for ourselves, to make this life together with Russia as easy and painless as possible.
Mikhail Sokolov: So is Russia continuing to travel along the path laid out by Putin – anti-Westernism, “soft” dictatorship, and so on, or not?
Yuri Felshtinsky: You know, I can’t really call what’s happening in Russia today anti-Westernism, or even soft dictatorship. The people in the government are mostly those who worked for the KGB all their lives, or sometimes for other law enforcement agencies. In addition to the fact that all these people were born and lived in the Soviet era and were trained in the Soviet system, these people have passed through the school of the law enforcement agencies.
I don’t mean to offend the former or current leaders of the KGB, but you and I both know how the selection process for this organization, especially the KGB, worked. In other words, let’s put it this way: there are no good people there. I can’t emphasize this enough. A good person did not go to work for the KGB. I know it from Sasha Litvinenko. I always said to Sasha Litvinenko: “Sasha, you know, there are two people in your organization. One needs to be rewarded, and the other needs to be punished.” He would say: “Who are they?” “The person who should be rewarded is whoever chose you to work in the FSB and the KGB. Because it’s incredible, I mean, you’re a typical KGB officer. And the person who ought to be punished is whoever let slip the moment when you decided to defect from the KGB, because it’s extremely dangerous for the KGB to have you as an enemy.” And as an enemy of the FSB Litvinenko was indeed very dangerous, and so they killed him. They couldn’t find any other way of fighting him, they had to kill him.
To return to our topic: a good person did not go to work for the KGB, so by definition absolutely all the people who served in the KGB were bad people. That may be a naive thing to say.
Mikhail Sokolov: Not very scientific.
Yuri Felshtinsky: No, but it’s true. In everyday terms, you and I and all of us know that all those people are bad people. So what can one expect of the political system of our country, whether present or future, when it’s overwhelmingly led by these same bad people? Of course, nothing good can be expected of it. The fact that from time to time we encounter some anti-Western statements, for example, or some minor wars such as the one in Georgia –it’s all the result of the fact that these people run Russia today. They can’t act any differently, it’s just the way they’re made.
Yuri Felshtinsky: Where I see the main problem, of course, is that the government hoodwinks the people and the people go along with it. In other words, the people have no objection in principle to such an approach. I personally don’t like it, but on the other hand I find myself imagining someone who fell asleep in 1988, say, during perestroika, waking up in 2001 or 2008, under Putin, anyway. And this person had slept through the whole of the Yeltsin era, slept and didn’t even know that the Yeltsin era had ever existed. Imagine newsreels where someone just took a pair of scissors and cut out all the Yeltsin-era material from 1990 to 2000. And actually, let’s be honest, the picture we see today is absolutely wonderful, if we compare it with the Soviet era, or the period of 1988-89-90. There’s no Communist Party, or at least, the CP exists only as one of numerous political parties. There’s no ideology. There’s a market economy, there’s freedom to travel abroad. The elections can’t really be called elections, of course, but that’s only if we compare them with elections in France, or America, or Britain. And if we compare them with the elections there were in the Soviet Union, the elections in Russia nowadays are simply beyond one’s wildest dreams. Both at a local and at a national level.
There is absolutely no freedom of speech, of course, let’s be frank about that. Nevertheless, there is a sort of opposition press, there’s Novaya Gazeta, there are some journalists, there’s Latynina. Yes, journalist are killed from time to time. But even so, we’re not talking about the millions of people who lost their lives in the purges of the Stalin era – we can speak, we can have different opinions, these statistics are always sad, and some of the people who’ve been killed were my very close friends, Anya Politkovskaya, for example (that was a personal loss) but we are nevertheless talking about 200-300 journalists being killed, not about total political control.
And while there is absolutely no question that some politicians have been murdered, there is no global political terror of the kind there was in the former Soviet Union.
So you know, it all depends on how we compare those different eras. And perhaps we really need to agree that yes, Russia is not capable – at this point in history, at least. and we’re not talking about 10-30 or even 50 years – Russia is not capable of becoming some European, civilized, democratic country, it’s not ready to become that yet.
Russia is still trying to find its place in history and its path in history. Another thing is that, as history shows, Russians must constantly pay for this quest. Russia’s search for its path in history is an expensive venture in the world of today. Of course, I would prefer it if Russia and the Russian people, or the Russians, would calm down and realize that they don’t have a path of their own in history.
Mikhail Sokolov: A special one.
Yuri Felshtinsky: They have no special path.