20 years under Putin: a timeline

On August 8, prominent Russian author and human rights activist Alexander Podrabinek turns 60. This week, he spoke with IMR Advisor Olga Khvostunova about the reasons for the revival of the Soviet repressive system, the mistakes of the opposition, and Russian society’s democratic potential.



You have been engaged in civic and political activities for more than 30 years and participated in the transformation of the country. How do you assess the current political situation? Does it remind you of the Soviet regime?
The situation is really lamentable. The authorities are trying to bring the country back to the familiar path of Soviet authoritarianism. Within such a regime, dull and talentless people can take high-profile positions and rule the country. It’s not a new situation—Russia has been suffering through variations of it for centuries.

Perhaps this political model fits Russia?
I don’t think so. According to various surveys, the electoral base of the pro-democracy forces in Russia ranges from 25 to 40 percent of the population. This means that these people could potentially vote for democrats, if democratic parties and candidates seemed plausible enough. In other words, there is a demand for the democratic model in Russia. All of its attributes—the parliamentary system, civic freedoms, an independent judiciary, economic prosperity—attract quite a lot of people in Russia.

What is the problem then?
It’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, there is the regime’s propaganda and its repressive machine. The authorities destroyed the free press and real political competition and created conditions in which an independent party cannot overcome the election “filters.” On the other hand, it seems to me that the political opposition is not sufficiently active in putting up a struggle. The opposition needs to be in constant confrontation with the authorities, opposing all their anti-democratic initiatives. At the peak of the protest movement, about 100,000 people were going to the street protests in Moscow, which is only 1 percent of the city’s population. I think our politicians from the liberal camp need to think over the reasons why they were so few.

“If ten beggars form an alliance, they will not become rich. The same principle works for political parties.”

How does the opposition’s lack of effort manifest itself?
There are things that the opposition should not do. For example, there is an idea of an anti-Putin political union—an alliance of democrats, communists, socialists, nationalists. But this alliance repels many people who profess liberal ideas and adhere to democratic principles. Another factor is the inconsistency of the relationship between the liberal opposition and the authorities. Overtures to the authorities create a feeling in the public that the opposition is engaged in politicking. Therefore, it needs to manifest its dedication to principles by asserting its political line. Today, the opposition does not have an attractive image or an adequate reputation that could attract new supporters. Moreover, the opposition is negligent in addressing this issue, which, in my opinion, is a big strategic mistake. It needs to rely not on political alliances, but on the public—its own voters and supporters.

The opposition is often accused of the fact that its leaders cannot agree among themselves because they are allegedly too preoccupied with their personal agendas, not the public’s interest. Is this problem real?
This problem does exist, but it has been given too much significance. Ambitions collide in any political environment—that is normal. But the idea that a coalition always helps in a political struggle has no basis. If ten beggars form an alliance, they will not become rich. The same principle works for political parties. Therefore, above all, the democratic parties need to increase their influence by gaining popular support, not by forming coalitions.


Alexander Podrabinek (right) and Vladimir Kara-Murza (left) at an election rally for presidential candidate Vladimir Bukovsky (center). Moscow, 2007.


Isn’t forming a coalition a logical move in the rigid political environment created by the current regime?
In authoritarian countries, even under more severe political conditions, the opposition has found a way to fight and to attract supporters from the public. Remember the Polish Solidarity in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Despite all the restrictions, the Polish opposition found a way to organize its own press and radio. In Russia, there are even more opportunities now—there is the Internet. Of course, the opposition can always blame the authorities for its failures, but that is not constructive. The opposition should pay attention to its own actions.

Putin actually uses this argument when he says that the opposition should be “irreproachable.” Another argument that the regime uses is the alleged lack of an alternative to Putin. In 2007, you supported Vladimir Bukovsky when he ran for president of Russia. Do you think he could be an “irreproachable” alternative?
Bukovsky is a legendary man, very charismatic, rational, and wise. He knows how Western democracy works and, at the same time, understands well what is going on in our country. He has a name and an irreproachable reputation—something that neither Yeltsin nor Putin had. In my opinion, there could not be a better president of the transitional period in Russia than Vladimir Bukovsky. Of course, he should have returned to politics earlier—in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But had he been registered as a presidential candidate and received access to the media, there is no doubt that he could have won the election.

Are there any other candidates who could satisfy this demand for a good reputation?
You know, there are 138 million people living in Russia, and many of them are quite worthy to become president. But ideal candidates do not exist. Of course, Bukovsky is a unique person, but a presidential candidate does not necessarily have to be a unique person. At the end of the day, we are not looking for a Czar; we are electing a president for just six years. We need a person who can stop Russia on its path to authoritarianism and bring it back to a democratic path. If there were free elections in Russia, a worthy candidate would soon show up. Even now, there are reasonable, qualified people who know politics and understand how a democratic country should be structured. I mean Boris Nemtsov, Andrei Illarionov, Vladimir Ryzhkov, Mikhail Kasyanov.

What about Alexei Navalny?
Navalny is not an ideal person for the role of a candidate from the liberal and democratic opposition. His critics justly point to the fact that he was once close to the nationalist movement, that he engages in populist rhetoric, and that he behaves like a chieftain—and not all people like that. Many thinking people within the intelligentsia don’t want to play these games. Despite that, I think that Navalny and perhaps Sergei Mitrokhin may not stand shoulder to shoulder with me, but at least we are on the same side of the fence. Navalny opposes the current authorities, and his main advantage is that even if he gains power, he will not usurp it and will not abolish free elections.

What is your assessment of Navalny’s chances in the upcoming mayoral election in Moscow? Recent polls show that up to 50 percent of Muscovites are ready to vote for the Kremlin-backed candidate, Sergei Sobyanin.
I am not sure that I believe those polls, especially since they are conducted by VTsIOM—a polling agency that was taken over by the Kremlin a long time ago. Navalny does have a chance of winning. But more importantly, this election campaign has three distinctions from all other campaigns that have taken place in the last 10 to 13 years. First, we have a candidate who is truly an opposition figure. Second, there is a network of independent poll monitors who will oversee all the polling places in Moscow. This will give us a chance to know the real numbers by the end of Election Day. And third, today, the public is ready to go into the streets and to defend its rights if they are violated.


Alexander Podrabinek during his exile in Yakutia, 1979.


Some sources indicate that the authorities have been sending signals to Navalny encouraging him to leave the country. When you were a dissident in the USSR, Soviet authorities delivered an ultimatum to you: either you leave the country or you end up in jail. Why did you refuse to leave?
Yes, in 1977 I was detained and brought to the KGB headquarters, where they told me that I had to leave the USSR within 20 days and go to Israel. They threatened that if I refused to go, they would jail both my brother and me. But I said no. I thought that people who engage in public activities undertake serious obligations and responsibility to the public. Once I stepped onto this path, I felt that I could not run away at the first real threat. Besides, 1977 was a year of great losses for the dissident movement: many people were arrested; others left the country for fear of repressions; some left after they were released from camps, prisons, and psychiatric hospitals.

Were you arrested for writing a book?
Yes, my first prison term was the result of my work on a book titled Punitive Medicine. It was about the political abuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. In essence, it was a large-scale journalistic investigation based on numerous documents, including classified ones; the evidence of many witnesses; and my conversations with victims of the abuse. The book was published in the United States (in Russian) and in Canada (in English). In 1977, Amnesty International presented it at a psychiatrists’ convention in Honolulu. Anyway, the book started living its own life, and I started living mine. First, I spent a year in prison, then went to serve my five-year term in exile, where I continued my dissident activities. Mainly, I was writing articles. And then I was convicted again, for the second time, for continuing work on my book (I was editing it for the English edition). I received three and a half years in the camps and served the full sentence.

“Navalny and Mitrokhin may not stand shoulder to shoulder with me, but at least were are on the same side of the fence.”

In your opinion, in the context of today’s absurd legislative initiatives that are being introduced by some members of the State Duma, is it possible that punitive psychiatry will return?
It is quite possible. For now, the system of political abuse of psychiatry has been suspended, but it would not be hard to bring it back to life. Today, cases of psychiatry abuse do take place, but usually this system is used not for political purposes, but, say, to take away someone’s business or apartment, or to settle accounts.

Why was the repressive machine not fully dismantled after the Soviet Union collapsed? Why is it being revived today?
Existentially speaking, a lot of things in Russia are being done based on chance. We often lack thoroughness in our work. In 1991, thoroughness was needed, but the democratic forces for some reason assumed that it was not necessary to crush all that was left of the Soviet regime—they thought that some things could stay. They did not destroy the state security agencies, and after a while, the latter came alive again. The second reason is a lack of forcefulness from those democrats who came to power at the time. In the early 1990s, the new Russia was ruled by people from the former Communist nomenklatura, led by Boris Yeltsin. Democrats who found their way into this circle soon left it, because they felt that they did not belong there. They should have formed a political opposition then, but instead they decided that everything was good as it was. As a result, the authorities started to slowly slide back to the Soviet path, and there was no democratic opposition at the time to resist it.

Many analysts point out that a drop in oil prices could cause Russia’s economic collapse, which, in turn, would accelerate the fall of the current regime. Do you agree?
I do not think that this regime is based on the favorable economic situation. In the 1930s, millions of people in Russia were dying of hunger, but that did not shake Stalin’s regime. Of course, economic collapse would accelerate regime change, but it is not clear what kind of change that would be. In my opinion, the state of the public mind is the most important factor. Do Russian citizens consider themselves to be slaves or servants of the regime, or are they aware of their civic dignity and are they demanding freedoms? The viability of the regime depends on how long society will let the authorities manipulate it.