Sergei Lukashevsky: 'Russia has descended into patriotic hysteria' (Deutsche Welle)

posted 15 Mar 2015, 15:02 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 15 Mar 2015, 15:06 ]
6 March 2015

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group 

Interview by Nikita Djolkver for Deutsche Welle

A memorial service for Boris Nemtsov, who was shot in central Moscow, was held on the 3rd March. Sergei Lukashevsky, director of the Centre, estimated that around 10 000 Moscow residents came to pay their respects to the Opposition leader. After the funeral, Lukashevsky flew to Berlin, where he spoke at a public event organised by the German branch of Amnesty International and the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum. He then gave an interview to Deutsche Welle about the possible consequences of Nemtsov’s murder and the reasons behind the growing atmosphere of intolerance towards dissidents in Russia.

DW: Mr Lukashevsky, in your opinion what consequences will the murder of Boris Nemtsov have for the opposition in Russia and for NGOs critical of the authorities?

Sergei Lukashevsky: Boris was a very important mediator, someone who brought everyone together, and a peacekeeper at the heart of this community. He knew how to smooth out the disputes and differences that unfortunately arise. He will be deeply missed.

DW: There are two mutually exclusive predictions. Some say that the murder of Nemtsov will be a uniting and rallying force for the opposition, while others believe that dissidents will now be ‘ground into the dust’. What do you think?

SL: I think that neither is completely correct. The murder of Nemtsov was decidedly a very scary and resonant moment. But that is not to say that there is now no more potential for opposition activity in Moscow. As for unity, there was a period during the protest movement when groups from opposite ends of the political spectrum, with at times irreconcilable ideologies, came together. However, I feel that this period has probably now passed. This type of unity is no longer possible. I think that there are difficult times ahead for us all, but I don't believe that the opposition will disappear.

DW: Many in Moscow and in Berlin, including, for example, deputies of the Bundestag, are saying that the murder of Nemtsov is a reflection of the atmosphere of hate prevalent in Russia, being further incited by myths of 'national traitors' and the 'fifth column.' Is the government guilty of nurturing this atmosphere in Russia or are its roots to be found in Russian society itself?

SL: These two claims are not mutually exclusive. In Russian society there is certainly fertile ground for everything that is now happening in the country's political life. In the 90s, when society was facing some very serious social problems and many people were forced to survive on very little, when conversations about democracy and freedom twisted into conversations about corruption and electoral fraud, many unfortunately ended up with only an abstract understanding of the ideas and values that we at the Sakharov Centre are trying to uphold.

DW: But is this really the only reason…

SL: Besides this, society didn’t have a positive image of itself. What was Russia? Were we trying to build a new Russia? It wasn’t successful. Shall we turn to our history? Alas, we did not find a way to talk about Russian history so that it provided some kind of positive foothold for society. It was important and necessary to talk about political repression, about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and other such topics.

A formula needed to be found, which would allow Russians to find some kind of support in their history. And it is the liberal section of society, the liberal intellectuals, who are to blame and should be held accountable for the fact that this foothold was never found. As a result, people started to look for support in what was familiar and understandable to them. A strong leader and a history of wartime victories were familiar and understandable ideas.

Civil society did not address the day-to-day problems that have always worried Russians - medical care, wages, unemployment. It is only very recently that attention has begun to be paid to such topics, rather than only focusing on issues related to civil and political rights. This led people to look to the government to provide answers. And thanks to high oil prices, the government was able to safeguard an increase in the standard of living.

DW: In a publication for Open Russia you lament the 'atomisation,' 'amoralism,' and 'cynicism,' found in Russian society, the 'self-serving interests' of the majority. Yet could this perhaps be a peculiarity of Russians, which owes itself to their custom to be guided by the state? So if the authorities were to tell them to 'be democratic,' they would become democratic.

SL: If the state had in the 90s embarked on carefully planned educational and cultural policies, then without question the situation today would be very different. In the article for Open Russia above all I wrote about the inattentiveness of people to what is going on around them. It is terribly sad to see this in today’s society. And yet in the final years of the nineties, grassroots-type organisations started to appear; numerous civic initiatives and civil society projects aimed at helping the disabled, the aged, and ill and orphaned children.

At the very moment that all this was starting to grow and develop, the political atmosphere took shape and freedom of speech saw greater restrictions. The country simply descended into patriotic hysteria. It pains me to think that the developing grassroots movement of real civil activism will perish as a result of this.

DW: But perhaps Nemtsov’s murder will be a breakthrough in this situation?

SL: No

DW: And what is needed to make society come to its senses, snap out of this indifference and really consider what is happening?

SL: I’m afraid that the vast majority in society will only snap out of it and really take stock of the situation if a serious crisis hits. Yes, experts, economists and social scientists can see the stagnation of today’s society, that it is not developing, that the economy was heading for collapse before the sanctions and that it is already in crisis; that all these problems are systemic in our society. However, as there is no real freedom of speech, there is no real social dialogue and so these issues go unnoticed. Everything happens off-screen.

People watch television and they see the horrors happening in East Ukraine. Against the backdrop of this newsreel, this stream of terrifying images, people think that their lives are not so bad. So let the rouble collapse, at least they will not have to hide in bomb shelters. The authorities, it is said, will save us from what is happening to our neighbours. At the same time, people don’t consider why it is so terrible there, who is in fact guilty, who has the most responsibility and who is less responsible; who is sending troops and arms.

Original source: Deutsche Welle, 6.03.2015

Translated by Holly Jones