Site Archive‎ > ‎Interviews‎ > ‎

Aleksei Simonov on freedom of speech, human rights, and the situation in Russia today

Just after New Year, Rights in Russia had the opportunity to ask Aleksei Simonov, president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and a member of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, to share his perceptions of current developments in Russia.

Rights in Russia Aleksei Kirillovich, what is your view of the events that are taking place in Russia today?

Aleksei Simonov Russia has frozen stock still in bewilderment at herself. What has happened in Russia can be compared to the well-known joke about the centipede. The centipede was asked: “Tell us please, how does it happen that straight after the 17th leg, you put down your 26nd? And after that, your 33rd?” And the centipede froze because she had never thought about this. For her it was a natural thing to do. She thought to herself: “How do I do that?” And she wasn’t able to move any more. There is a feeling that Russia, like the centipede, in the weeks before New Year froze stock still in bewilderment at herself. She didn’t expect that she could do anything like that. She simply did not expect what happened first of all on 10 December, and then on 24 December. She honestly had not thought she was capable of anything like it.

RiR And not only in Russia. People outside Russia have also been amazed.

AS But you asked me about Russia. And the fact is that this bewilderment has been felt both by those who have been the 'victims' of what’s been happening, and by those who have been its cause and source. In other words, those who did this and those who watched what was happening were bewildered in equal measure (and those who watched also experienced a certain horror). Because the question is, what will happen next? 

The 24 December rally and its significance
I was at the rally on 24 December from beginning to end (on 10 December I was unwell). Here is one observation I made. Among the speakers were those who know how to work with a microphone. And there were those who don’t know how to do this. And among those who don’t were most of the new potential leaders of the movement, including Aleksei Navalny. So while he certainly has a strong following, and there is more than enough populism in what he says, the manner of his speech showed that he still lacks experience. 

RiR You have in mind when he kept on asking the crowd, ‘Yes or No?’ 

AS Yes, that’s right. He hasn’t yet fully grasped the art of communicating with a rally. Of course he will get the hang of it, he’s a capable young man. But it hasn’t happened yet. 

RiR Would you say the rally on 24 December was the peak of the movement, or is it just one further step in the development of something bigger? 

AS That’s the big question. And I don’t know the answer. I can only say that the rally at Sakharov Prospect was a step up from the one at Bolotnaya Square. The rally at Sakharov Prospect was a wonderful event. 

I do genuinely believe that this is a decisive moment of change in our society. While the country has frozen stock still in bewilderment at itself, at the same time, within, forces and tendencies have been gathering and taking form. And now there arises a very dangerous moment. Government, the authorities, are much better organized. And the absence of conflict at the rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Prospect is in fact no less the achievement of the authorities, than of the demonstrators themselves. It was probably at least 50-50 in terms of the input from the demonstrators and the authorities. 

There is a definite sense that what is happening is in part being organized, controlled and managed from above. Let me give you one example. The day after the rally on Bolotnaya Square I was on radio Echo Moskvy, and Aleksei Venediktov who is chief editor at the station told me he had gone to see Vladimir Kolokoltsev, head of the Moscow police. Venediktov went to have a drink with him to celebrate the end of the rally at Bolotnaya. And Kolokoltsev said there had been no command to ‘attack’ – just the opposite: he was told he would answer for any problems with his epaulettes, and most importantly with his vacation. Any scandal – no vacation. 

In other words, in my view, this is a very new situation in terms of the starting positions of the key players. And it is certainly a novel situation that for the first time key roles are being played by the main newsmakers, I have in mind the Internet news sites of Novaya gazeta, Echo of Moscow radio station, and so on. These are all media resources that are bringing people together that have never been there before. And those who run these media have great power and influence, they can play the role of puppet masters. And like real puppet masters, they keep out of the limelight. These are all factors at play. I certainly have no clear idea of how it will all turn out. 

I do think that what is very important now is the extent to which society will allow itself to relax over the New Year holidays. For me the euphoria ended straight after 24 December. But I was very pleased with the rally. I think it was a big success.  

The 'Council of Wise Persons'
I’d like to tell you about the Council of Wise Persons. This is a rather unusual body – not really a body, a group of people – that was initiated in the first place by Mikhail Kasyanov, one of the leaders of the Party of People’s Freedom (PARNAS). There are 12 members of this Council, and they include senior human rights defenders and others – including Sergei Kovalev, Ludmila Alekseeva, Dmitry Zimin, Yury Ryzhov, Tamara Morshchakova and myself. What these people have in common is that they all have what you could say is a relatively clean reputation and a number of ideas that have never been put into practice. The Council of Wise Persons meets once a month, sometimes twice a month, to discuss the current situation.

Out of these meetings came the idea for the Round Table that first met after the 10 December rally on Bolotnaya Square. The declaration setting up this Round Table was signed by the members of this Council of Wise Persons. After this, we invited another 60 people to join us. The Round Table has the potential to become the most useful instrument for negotiations between society and government. There are well-known historical parallels for this kind of Round Table. There was a Polish Round Table, a Czech Round Table. Round Tables for discussions with the authorities have existed in various forms in various historical periods. In our case, the call to set up a Round Table was issued between the two rallies, and was confirmed at the second rally on Sakharov Prospect on 24 December. 

After this we met on 26 December. I must say I was very disappointed with the outcome. Why? Because we have helped to call into life some kind of movement in Russia, and the nature of this movement is not completely clear yet to any of us. Therefore we need to let it develop as far as it can by itself. But the discussion at the Round Table was mostly focused on the question of how to steer and control the movement. 

The question is: do we, the older generation, have any right to force our own subjective evaluations of these events on to others? There is nothing especially clever or new that we old ones can think up. The most we can do is to give advice, to give some impulse that will assist in holding negotiations in the future. But how exactly all this will be organized and who will take part we cannot say. We should limit ourselves to contributing our own evaluative judgments about what is happening. 

I must say I have a real distaste for the kind of politics that take place ‘behind the scenes’. I don’t like it. It happens very often that people try to pull me  ‘behind the scenes’. They try to get me involved in organizing, shaping events. But I am convinced that if they have to be organized, to be shaped, then it is not by us. We can evaluate what is happening, comment on events. Popularize what is happening, if you like, argue about what is happening. You can do many things. But do not try to organize or shape them. This is not our role. It is not my generation that will live in the future Russia. It is for a younger generation of Russians to decide. We should not get involved in that way. 

It’s my view that none of us understand what is happening in our country at the moment. What has happened has exceeded all our expectations. And since we did not foresee this, is it perhaps not time for us to step aside? We can give advice, make suggestions, at certain points when we consider it necessary. After all we are called a Council of Wise Persons and perhaps we could invite others to join us, people who have influence at the current time. Perhaps new names should appear on this Council? 

You know, when a demonstration – a march – is permitted by the authorities, the veterans go in the front ranks with their medals. If it is not sanctioned by the authorities, then young people ready for a fight take the leading role. And the veterans go to the back of the march out of harm’s way. We must not think that we have already been so successful, and that the authorities have already given in to all our demands, so that we can now walk in the front ranks with our medals. It is not the time for that. It is not our time now. What we can do, I hope, is to make a contribution from time to time through our ‘wise thoughts’. And this can be quite useful. This Council of Wise Persons has existed now for a year and a half and we have published a number of papers. I think they have contributed to moving the situation forwards.  

The Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights
RiR Would it be true to say that in some ways there is a similarity in membership between the Council of Wise Persons you have described and the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human rights? 

AS No, that is not the case. There are only three of us on both bodies – Ludmila Alekseeva, Tamara Morshchakova and I. But I must say that the Presidential Council has become very radicalized recently. Have you observed recent steps taken by the Presidential Council? Mikhail Fedotov our chair has been doing great work. As I understand it, he takes the view that since after March he will no longer be in the Council, he has decided to allow us to show our radical temperament. He has given us our heads, so to speak. The first time this happened was with the case of Sergei Magnitsky. The second time was with the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. In both cases we did what was right. 

RiR Did the Presidential Council also issue a statement calling for the resignation of Vladimir Churov from the Central Elections Commission? 

AS Yes, that was the most recent. But more than that, and you can read it in black and white, we recommended that the President appoint Dmitry Oreshkin in Churov’s place. That was also very good. 

RiR How do the authorities, how does the president, react to these steps? 

AS We don’t know. You have to understand that it is not we who have changed the situation and made these things possible. Although the authorities should always have been more responsive to public opinion, this has only started to happen now thanks to the demonstrations. The Presidential Council must use its influence by-passing, so to speak, the President. 

For the time being the Presidential Council is the only organization able to meet with the siloviki (that is, top officials from the military, FSB and law enforcement). The real siloviki. We are able to meet them face to face. We met and talked face to face with the investigators in the Magnitsky case, with head of the Investigative Committee Aleksandr Bastrykin. And that’s how we talked with the investigators in the Khodorkovsky case. 

And they don’t know what to think. We are the Presidential Council. Are we expressing the opinion of the Presidential Council or the opinion of the President? They cannot ask us about that directly. So they have to guess. And how can they guess? They need some other pieces of information, of evidence, input from other people. But these inputs may be unreliable and inaccurate. So they lose their self-confidence, they lose their sense that they know what is really going on and who has the real power and influence and who does not. What if those in power have actually changed their views? What if the authorities no longer see things in the same way? The people sitting in front of them are people who talk with the President – members of the Presidential Council. 

In a number of cases we have learnt to use what in one sense is our weakness – the fact that we rarely meet with the President – as a strength. After all if we don’t manage to meet with the President as often as we would like, then we can say what we think about events when we meet with those who are playing a direct role in these affairs. In this way we have now changed the Presidential Council from what, one could say, used to be a somewhat amorphous mass into a real body that can act effectively. Unfortunately, this has happened when the days of the Presidential Council are numbered and everyone has been radicalized. Because in March it will all be over: not a single one of us, at least none of those whom I respect and who are my friends, will remain when Putin becomes President. 

RiR And there is no doubt about who will be the next president? 

AS I have no doubt about it. Though it would be very good if this prize did not fall to him like a ripe fruit from a tree into his lap. It would be better if he had to scrabble for it, seize hold of it, fight for it, get his teeth into it. In a word, it would be better if he had to go to a second round in the elections. This would be very positive and it may be the best we can hope for, since as a matter of fact no alternative leader has arisen on the scene as yet. 

Politics in Russia today
RIR To what extent do events nowadays remind you of the late 1980s and early 1990s? People are saying there has not been such a feeling in Russian society since then. Are you an optimist? 

AS While I am active in public life, I am an optimist. 

RiR How would you characterize the political situation at the moment in the country? Are there real grounds for optimism?

AS In general, political power is weakened because of its finances. Those in power depend not only on their ambitions, but on their money. And their money and ambitions pull them in different directions. Their money pulls them abroad, while their ambitions keep them here. So there is a gulf between the two, and this means that the authorities do not have a single, united motivation. And this weakens them and means that they may have to negotiate. 

I think it is very interesting what will happen now following the move of Vladislav Surkov from the Presidential Administration to the Council of Ministers. This means that Putin has rejected him. This means that he has at last disavowed someone who played such a huge part in creating the current system. This means that it’s possible the authorities will also give up Vladimir Churov, head of the Central Elections Commission, if they come under pressure. 

RiR Would it be right to see the roots of what is happening today in the Yeltsin years? At that time huge economic changes took place, and people as a result began to live in a different way. People live and think quite differently today from how they did 20 years ago. But isn’t there a sense in which politicians who have been in power post-Yeltsin think and live in accordance with the old ways? Society has changed, but the mind-set of those in power has not. Hence the conflict between what could be said to be an old state and a new society.

AS Nowadays there is a huge gulf between those who have most wealth in society and those who have least. This came about in the Yeltsin years. On the one hand everything was privatized, and on the other hand people became aware of the inequalities that resulted. It was not just that people became impoverished. They had been poor before. What happened was that they lost their sense of privileges they had had as ‘the People’ – privileges that they had always been told about by the Soviet rulers. Under the new regime, those in power ceased paying homage to the notion of the People as the source of popular wisdom and of courage. People were told instead that they counted for nothing. And as a result individuals lost the sense of value they had had from belonging to a group – ‘the People’. It may be strange to young people today, but one of the feelings innate in a Soviet person was of being a member of a herd. And this has gone. There is no herd. There are other kinds of community to be sure. But there is no herd. And the sense of belonging to a herd, and all the rules of behaviour that went with it are gone too.

RiR You mean ‘herd’ in a negative sense?

AS Yes, of course. But whether negative or not, each individual as a member of the herd had a sense of collective belonging. Now people have been left alone. They have had to fight with all the problems that life throws at them on their own. And people were not used to this. They hoped that there would still be a socialized state that would look after them. And the state itself did not want to let the people go. But that’s just how it turned out. It turned out that those who represented the state were too busy getting things for themselves to look after all the others.

And this gulf in society between the haves and the have-nots grew until in the end we got where we are today. Nowadays the difference in wealth between the richest and the poorest is measured by a factor of many hundreds. And no state can survive this. Therefore everyone is afraid of a cataclysm. Because no one knows how people will behave in this new situation. And that is why in such a situation the state will always play the same cards that it always has in the past: patriotism, nationalism, and so on. These are what it will cling to in its effort to survive.

RiR Do you see a middle class in Russia? Some commentators argue that the recent developments have been precisely because of the rise of a middle class?

AS You know I honestly didn’t believe this. But the rally on 24 December showed me that this middle class actually does exist. Perhaps not even so much the rally as the fact that people gave money to finance the rallies. This report by Olga Romanova on her fundraising – I believe she raised about 3.5 million roubles of which more than one million remain for the next rally (I can’t vouch for the exact figures). This is a direct manifestation of the presence of the middle class in Russia. This has nothing to do with the oligarchs. It has nothing to do with Prokhorov. He was merely a guest at the rally.

Freedom of speech
RiR On the one hand there have suddenly been great changes in society. There are great changes in people’s attitudes and views, there is a new sense of freedom. A lot of discussions are going on. But on the other hand, from the point of view of freedom of expression, we see events that seem to show that older trends are still continuing. For example, the December that saw the huge rallies also saw the killing of the journalist Khadzhimurad Kamalov in Dagestan and the sackings of Maksim Kovalsky and Andrei Galiyev at Kommersant Vlast. Don’t these events indicate that in some respects nothing has changed? 

AS Clearly these events are quite different in nature, they are quite distinct. They are certainly not cause and effect. They are simply happening at the same time and have little to do with each other. They are a result of the very contradictory and complex political climate in the country. 

RiR In the recent events it seems that one of the real genies that has got out of the bottle is the Internet and the freedom of expression associated with it. What do you think the authorities would like to do with this genie, this new freedom? Do they want to put it back in the bottle? Would they be able to put this freedom back in the bottle? 

AS Wanting to do something and being able to do so are two quite different things. Probably at present they are not able to, and I would say they probably never will be able to. But I think the desire is certainly there. For the time being with regard to the Internet they can only use this freedom of speech themselves, and anonymously. All they can do is express their points of view anonymously. 

RiR One final question. The symbol of the Glasnost Foundation is the Tortoise moving slowly towards freedom of speech. In the near future do you think your Tortoise will run a little faster?

AS No, I do not think it will move any faster. For the time being the authorities are in a quandary. They have lost their tempo, they have lost the initiative, and they are not sure what to do. For that reason the number of tortoises has suddenly increased. But the tortoise is by nature a slow creature. Today there are more of them, yes, but they have not got any quicker. They are moving at the same slow pace. What we see happening is that those who had quite forgotten their Tortoise-nature have suddenly acquired a shell and remembered who they are. They have begun to move forwards, but slowly as always, always slowly, towards freedom of speech.

2 January 2012

Aleksei Simonov lives in Moscow and is president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation, a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, and a member of the Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights