Read Excerpts From Navalny’s Interview With The Times
In an interview with The New York Times, the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny discusses life in Penal Colony No. 2 in Pokrov, Russia …
In an interview with The New York Times, the Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny discusses life in Penal Colony No. 2 in Pokrov, Russia, where he is being held; President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia; international sanctions imposed on Russia; the upcoming elections for the Duma, Russia’s lower house of Parliament; his poisoning with the chemical weapon Novichok; being tailed by the Federal Security Service, or the F.S.B., the successor agency to the K.G.B.; and a host of other issues. These excerpts have been edited for space and clarity.
How have you been treated in prison?
Before, my zone was famous for fearsome beatings of inmates. Now, nobody is beaten, or at least I haven’t heard about it. But as they say, “At first you work for your reputation, and then your reputation works for you.” And that is true of this prison. People who have the poor fortune of being told they will serve in Pokrov arrive noticeably subdued and afraid. The zone specializes in psychological violence.
This is far and away more sophisticated. They won’t beat you — quite the opposite, with continual provocation, they will put you in a position where you have to beat up somebody else, hit somebody, threaten somebody. And then the deed is done — there are video cameras everywhere, and the administration with great pleasure will open a new criminal case against you on charges of assault, adding a few years to your sentence. To not succumb to provocation, this is the most important thing to learn here.
The first few months, I was really good at this, and now things became calmer. I just decided this would become an excellent Christian practice. We continually talk about loving thine enemy, but really, just try to understand and forgive people you literally couldn’t stand at all just a little while ago. But I’m trying.
What is the likelihood you will be killed in prison?
In interviews, at points like this, there’s usually a remark in parentheses (laughter). You cannot see me right now, but I assure you, I’m laughing.
For many years, I was forced to make excuses in response to questions like: “Why haven’t you been killed yet?” and “Why haven’t you been jailed?” Now that I have both these boxes checked (the one about murder with a side note: “Well, almost”), I’m asked to gauge the probability of my own death while in prison.
Well, the answer, obviously, can be taken from a joke: 50 percent. I’ll either be killed or not be killed.
Let’s not forget that we clearly have to deal with a person who has lost his mind, Putin. A pathological liar with megalomania and persecutory delusion. Twenty-two years in power would do that to anyone, and what we’re witnessing is a classic situation of a half-mad czar.
As we now know, F.S.B. killers started following me on my trips around the country literally the day after I made public my plans to run for president. Was this a clever move? Seriously, to order your security services to kill your political opponent with a chemical weapon? A less-than-stellar idea. But Putin did that because he’s possessed by his own fears and ideas.
What do you think of Western policies of putting sanctions on Russia for its repression of the opposition?
“There’s no need to apply sanctions on Russia. Sanctions, far harsher than now, should be applied on those who rob Russia, make her people poorer and deprive them of a future. This should be called a “packet of sanctions in support of the Russian people, against corruption, lies and tyranny.”
Let’s say this clearly: For now, all sanctions were tailored to avoid almost all significant participants in Putin’s gangster gang. Do you want evidence? Name one real evildoer who suffered. The airplanes, the yachts, the billions in Western banks — everything is in its place.
The leaders of the West, and in the first place President Biden, should show real decisiveness in the fight against corruption. In the first place, stop calling Putin’s oligarchs businessmen. Any Putin bandit or Mafiosi calling himself a “businessman” is almost immediately seen as “almost one of our guys,” a person you can do business with.
It’s interesting that legislatures understand this. Declarations of the leaders and participants of the anti-corruption caucus, recently formed in the U.S. Congress, are really on point. Deputies of the European Parliament are firm in placing sanctions on oligarchs. But the executive branches on both sides of the ocean struggle with an army of lawyers, lobbyists, and bankers fighting for the right of owners of dirty and bloody money to remain unpunished.
This is why I call for personal targeting of oligarchs and evildoers. Such actions of the West will be fully supported by Russian society and be cause for jubilation. In the eyes of an ordinary person, specifically these measures will show that the West is not hypocritical — they are not all just the same — and finally somebody has stood up for the ordinary person’s interests.
Does the threat of additional Western sanctions help protect you in prison?
It’s hard to say. On the one hand, with real incomes of the population already falling for seven years in a row, Putin is sincerely worried that new sectoral sanctions will crash Russia’s economy. On the other hand, the attitude “I don’t give in to pressure” has long ago turned into his trademark, irrational struggle. If they demand something from me, I’ll do the opposite, even if to the detriment of my own interests. As they say in Russia, “I’ll get frostbite on my ears to spite my mom.”
National elections are coming next month. Can you beat Putin? Is political change possible through the Russian electoral system, or will it have to await Mr. Putin’s death or retirement?
The answer to the question — “Can you beat Putin?” — we are receiving right now. The Duma campaign is underway, and the only news is about banning candidates.
First, they took out everybody who worked in our organization, declaring them extremist. Then, everybody who supported us in any way. Then, even “systemic opposition,” who could win with our support. And now they are banning mediocre candidates, fearful that our “smart voting” (the voting strategy where we call on voters for consolidated support for the second-strongest candidate on the ballot, who has the most chances of beating the government candidate) will bring even them to victory.
So, I answer firmly and without a drop of doubt: Yes. If we could participate in elections, even without money or information resources, we would defeat Putin’s party, United Russia, right now. At the federal and regional elections. In large cities we wouldn’t even have to try very hard.
We are offering people an alternative right now. Our program is better, and we have a vision for the future of Russia while Putin does not.
Putin is not eternal, physically or politically. What is important is this: The Putin regime is an historical accident, not an inevitability. It was the choice of the corrupt Yeltsin family. Sooner or later, this mistake will be fixed and Russia will move on to a democratic, European path of development. Simply because that is what the people want.
Should Russians vote in the parliamentary election next month?
Yes, we call for participation in elections even if they increasingly look like a joke. Three-day voting, excluding candidates, banishing observers. We call on all to participate for one reason: Our strategy of “smart voting” works even in these conditions.
Not everywhere — in parts of the country where results are just rewritten, nothing works. But it certainly works in large cities. We tested the strategy for several years, in Moscow, in St. Petersburg, in Siberian cities. It was a success everywhere. For the first time in 20 years, we can defeat pro-government candidates in single-mandate districts. Yes, now we are not talking about electing good candidates — all the good ones are banned — but we can elect not those the Kremlin planned on. The key word is “elect” — the voters, not Putin, make the candidates members of Parliament.
The approach diminishes the Putin majority, cuts into the monopoly of United Russia and makes the political system more complex.
And, most importantly, thanks to “smart voting” the will of the citizens again gains value.
You have built your movement to a great extent on fighting corruption. Has prison changed your political views?
The fight against corruption is our specialty. I still consider corruption a main problem of Russia, corroding the country, depriving people of a future and hindering any reform. It is the basis of the current government.
My country could right now become a rich, successful state moving along the European path of development. We are specific, like any nation, but we are Europe. We are the West. The basic political structure should be parliamentary democracy, and fair elections, independent courts and full freedom for the media should be sacred concepts in the new Russia.
The main goal of the new government should be raising incomes of the people. Russians are too poor. These are poor citizens of a rich country.
Poverty in particular worries Russians more than anything. Here in prison, I was convinced of this again. My prison is just 100 kilometers from Moscow, but still the feeling hangs in the air: penury, the absence of a future. Poor inmates share one cigarette between two of them. Poor prison employees with miserable salaries. Nurses in the prison hospital have such low salaries they are embarrassed to speak of them.
And most important — a sort of melancholy and very clear understanding nothing will change. An understanding that, unfortunately, leads not to protest or demand for a better life, but indifference and obedience. But experience shows obedience can easily shift to anger.
New global challenges are telling us that Russia should become a leader in the fight against climate change. It is our historical mission to preserve the Siberian forests and fresh water, important for survival of the whole planet.
We live in a unique time. Serious local and regional conflicts exist, but not world war. We have no enemies seeking such a war. We reap fantastic profits from raw materials exports. We must seize this chance, so the history of the first half of the 21st century becomes a period of progress and prosperity for the citizens of Russia, and not years of degradation and misery, as now.
Translated by Oleg Matsnev and Andrew E. Kramer.