20 years under Putin: a timeline

Caterina Innocente speaks with Boris Nemtsov, a leading member of the Russian opposition, about the latest governmental reshuffle, the dangers of Putinism, and the importance of the Cardin List



Caterina Innocente: What are your thoughts on the Saturday, Sept. 24 political reshuffle, in which Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced he will seek the presidency in the upcoming March elections? Also, what would your comment be on Kudrin being fired earlier today, Sept. 26?

Boris Nemtsov: As a matter of form, this political reshuffle translated into a humiliation for the people of Russia, given that Putin and Medvedev didn’t even attempt to make it look like people had the right to hold their own opinion, the right to make their own choices. And in terms of its substance, the scenario translates not only into a usurpation, but also into a failure to transfer power. It is becoming obvious that Putin is choosing Lukashenko's path [Alexander Lukashenko is the Belarusian dictator. — Ed.] The consequences for the country will be quite serious: emigration of businesspeople and of people with higher education; capital flight; further enrichment of those who are close to the Kremlin; and further infrastructure collapse.

Alexei Kudrin being fired is a very bad sign. Kudrin was one of the few who could prevent — and had prevented — the collapse of the financial system.

C.I.: There is another disturbing development: The President signed a decree expelling Mikhail Prokhorov from the Commission for the Modernization and Technological Development of the Russian Economy.

B.N.: The main lesson to be learned from the recent weeks' events is: if you want to be in Putin’s paradigm, you have to be a puppet, 100 percent. The regime no longer permits any kind of independence, no matter how minimal. The second thing Prokhorov's story proves is that it is impossible to change the system from the inside. In fact, Prokhorov never said he was with the opposition. He said, we shall do things little by little ... a touch of polish here, a bit of modernization there ... . But the regime has already proven itself to be so rigid that to reform it from within would simply be impossible.

C.I.: You often describe yourself as a passionarii. This term took on a political life of its own (after the ethnologist Lev Gumilev’s failed theory of passionate ethnogenesis). Today, passionarii are defined as people who are enterprising, active, willing to risk everything and put their needs second to the achievement of a particular goal. Were you always like that? Is that part of your character?

B.N.: No, this wasn’t part of my character. I became this way when I switched to the opposition.

C.I.: Tell me, Boris, is it worth sacrificing your life for a nation that is so totally apathetic — that either doesn't know whether it wants a change, or if it does, sure is keeping it a secret?

B.N.: Well, Cat, we have different types of people here. There are people who are cynical and absolutely passive; people who don’t care for change. It is not worth going to jail for those types of people. On the other hand, there are also people like me who believe that being a slave and a puppet is a disaster... yet, we are unwilling to emigrate.

C.I.: And what percentage of people are like you?

B.N.: There is a very small percentage of people like me, because in principle there is a very small percentage of passionates [people who are willing to put a cause before their own personal well-being] in any country. But I think there are a lot of people [in Russia] for whom freedom and dignity are important. I think there are 30 million such people — about 20 percent of the population. And by the way, these are non-speculative figures derived from polls conducted by Levada and others. Twenty percent of citizens share the same value system on such topics as “when freedom is more important than bread” and “European elections,” etc. This is mainly true in big cities among well-educated, well-established people age 30 and above.

C.I.: In order to change Russia, what percentage of the population should be politically galvanized and desirous of change?

B.N.: Fifty percent.

Twenty percent is not an insignificant number — 30 million people is a lot, isn’t it? But in Russia, it is not enough to launch modernization and political reform. And Putin is skillfully cultivating a slave-like serf mentality among the masses, cleverly implanting vile cynicism and paternalism. He skillfully explains to people, “Sit quietly. I’m the smartest among you. I know how to help you. And the main thing is, do not interfere.” This is a catastrophic scenario for the country. Instead of promoting initiative and giving people the opportunity for self-realization, he has wrapped everything in barbed wire.