Interview with a Russian Dissident

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The elections in Russia are over, and to no one’s surprise Vladimir Putin has won another six-year term as president. I recently sat down in Moscow with Valya, a young activist, member of the LGBT community, and NGO worker. Over a glass of mulled wine we discussed the election and life in Putin’s Russia.

The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity. An audio recording of this interview is available upon request.

Travelingi (T): Thank you for sitting down with me. For my readers…

Valya (V): [laughter]

T: My five readers…basically my mom, my sister…

V: [laughter]

T: Could you define yourself politically?

V: For some period of time, I was liberal, but then I became more connected with leftists. But really I don’t like them a lot because feminism is not so important among leftists.

T: Here in Russia?

V: Russia, but globally, I am not so sure.

T: So would you define yourself as a socialist?

V: Maybe left of socialist.

T: So you’re radical left and a feminist.

V: I define myself more through feminism.

T: How did your political views evolve, and what were the major influences that contributed to your political identity?

V: I think through my personal experience. Everything started when I fell in love with a girl, and a lot of problems in my life appeared. Before, I did not know about these problems. I did not think about if my family was homophobic or not before.

T: So being a gay woman –

V: Bisexual.

T: OK. So being a bisexual woman in Russia led you down the road to feminism?

V: Yes, I started to read a lot about this stuff because I couldn’t accept myself for some period of time. I believed that I was a pervert, and that I had to do something to change it; to stop being a homosexual.

T: Did you feel pressure from society?

V: I felt pressure from society, but at that moment I felt more pressure from myself. But I feel that the pressure from myself was produced from society.

T: Let’s talk a little bit about the elections. Did you vote in recent presidential elections?

V: No

T: Why not?

V: So I voted once, and after it, I felt upset and frustrated because I thought my voice could do something. But it, certainly, did not. It was 2012, and I took part in the protests.

T: But what do you feel you would have accomplished by not voting?

V: Well, now, I am in a relationship with a guy who is black, and we can only have sex in my house when my mom is gone. [laughter]

T: My blog is finally going to get some readers! Please keep going. [laughter]

V: This is sincere. I’m really scared to introduce him to my mom but not because something would happen, but because I don’t want to see with my eyes that she is really xenophobic and fucking racist. And so we can have sex only on Sunday.

T: The Lord’s Day!

V: Yeah! So on Saturday (before the election), I met with one of my friends. And she is Antifa. Very strong one.

T: Antifa in Russia?

V: Yeah, Antifa in Russia.

T: Where are they? Do they protest?

V: They were persecuted a lot after the protests in 2012.

T: We Americans are late to Antifa. They only came about after the election of Donald Trump.

V: I think maybe they came to Russia in 2012. So after this persecution, most of them had to lie low. And even now, I know a case last year when they (authorities) found an Antifa guy who took part in those protests…And so she asked me if I would vote. And I had to choose between voting and having sex with my boyfriend. So, I’m sorry, I chose sex.

T: You seem to have a strong apathy to voting. Is that what you’re basically trying to say?

V: I think my work, for example, does more than me going to vote.

T: If you did vote, who would you have voted for?

V: I would have just spoiled the ballot.

T: So there is no politician in Russia, either as a candidate or otherwise, who represents you?

V: No.

T: Do you consider elections to be free and fair here in Russia?

V: Of course not. But I understand that a lot of people in Russia like Putin. This is true.

T: Do you think that if the elections had been free and fair that Putin –

V: They were not fair during the process, but the results I think were.

T: Let’s talk a little bit about Navalny. In the West, he is considered the main opposition candidate.

V: In his past, he was anti-immigration; he’s a nationalist. When he debated with Sobchak – Sobchak is very infamous for her last career as a reality TV show host – he told her that she couldn’t deny her past. And Sobchak said to him, you can’t either. We have some kind of Russian pride march –

T: Like an ethnic Russian pride march? A white pride march?

V: Yeah. And he said that they have a right to exist.

T: Do you think that Navalny would have been the leading opposition candidate if he could have run? In the West, he is really trumped as a threat to the Putin. Does he really have that kind of support?

V: I’m not so sure. I think that most of his admirers aren’t even 18 years old. [laughter] They can’t vote.

T: Do you consider Putin a dictator?

V: Yeah, of course. I think this is our psychological legacy; we like to be ruled by someone. He is a great kind of dictator. I think that he is a very macho one. I know only two presidents who have taken off their shirts: him and Sarkozy.

T: You know Sarkozy is under arrest now.

V: Yeah, but I don’t think that –

T: Well, they both took their shirts off so maybe there is a correlation there.

V&T: [laughter]

T: Do you feel state oppression in your everyday life?

V: Personally, yes. So I feel oppressed when, for example, I can’t write freely in Russian social media.

T: So its self-censorship, essentially?

V: Yes, so then I will use Facebook when I want to write something. I’m not so scared to write something on Facebook.

T: Is it society that you are afraid of?

V: No it’s more about government. I spent a lot of time with Antifa. I don’t know maybe I’ve become paranoid about all this. I don’t want to be prosecuted for some stupid stuff.

T: Do you feel that you have access to opposition information?

V: Yes. It’s not so hard. We know some media which we can trust… Dozhd, Medusa, Novaya Gazeta, Radio Svoboda

T: Has the state been persecuting the LGBT community?

V: I think there was some period of time when the LGBT community was persecuted. I have not heard a lot of cases now, but it is more that the LGBT community is not so open because it is not safe to be open.

T: Is it not safe because of the laws or because of society?

V: First because of the society. You could be fired, for example. And because of the government too. We have this law against homosexual propaganda. For example, if you are an openly gay teacher, you can be fired because of this law.

T: Are there any Russian government institutions that you still have confidence in?

V: I think that the decisions of the Constitutional Court are not so bad.

T: You feel that they still retain at least partial independence?

V: Yes, at least, maybe a little.

T: Does that extend to any of the lower courts?

V: Yes, maybe the Supreme Court. The court applied a decision of the European Human Rights court, and this decision changed the Russian code of laws.

At this point, the interview goes a bit off the rails. Let’s just say we explored some daddy issues, how Navalny could have used sex to keep people away from the polls, and where the US likes to stick its nose.

T: let’s go out on this: do you think that the Western media gets a lot wrong about Russia?

V: If they believe that Navalny is something positive for Russia, they are really wrong.

T: Thank you very much for your time. I think this will be very interesting to the five people who read this blog.

V&T: [laughter]

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