In the last five months, three prominent Russians dissidents belonging to the same political party have either been murdered, hospitalized with kidney failure, or interrogated after a surprise home invasion by the state security services. It may all be a very Russian coincidence, of course, but Ilya Yashin seems to be tempting another.
Yashin, one of Russia’s leading opposition figures, came to Washington, D.C., last week to promote a much-touted report documenting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which may have been the reason for his colleague and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov’s assassination in February, just meters away from the Kremlin.
Within hours of Yashin's arrival, one of his colleagues fell gravely ill with a suspected case of poisoning. And all this comes when Russian President Vladimir Putin has issued an Executive Order classifying the deaths of Russian soldiers killed in “special operations”: read, yes, Ukraine. “We want to build the country that Nemtsov was fighting for, that he was killed for,” the 33-year-old activist told me in between meetings promoting “Putin.War,” an investigative report begun by Nemtsov, offering evidence of the names of Russian soldiers killed in action in the Donbas and, it is speculated, may have provoked his assassination in February.
The English translation of the report has been made available by the Free Russia Foundation, a new organization consisting of leading liberal-democratic figures from civil society, media and politics.
The report made headlines with allegations that at least 220 Russian soldiers have been killed in action in Ukraine, contradicting the Kremlin’s denial of a Russian presence in the war-torn East. In Yashin’s view, the timing of Putin’s order to conceal the deaths of military personnel is no coincidence.
“Putin had two main goals in invading Crimea and then the East,” Yashin says. “He wanted to get his approval rating back up after it dropped in 2012, which he was able to do using imperialist rhetoric. And he wanted to use Donbas as leverage against Ukraine and the international community.”
While the report asserts that the pretext of the Ukraine campaign is fundamentally immoral, it also provides a devastating assessment of the financial and personal costs borne by the Russian people. “Putin.War” estimates that the incursion has cost $1 billion in military spending, 2 trillion rubles in salary cuts and 750 billion rubles in savings because of sanctions and international isolation. “This is hurting people in their pockets. They need to understand that this was Putin’s choice, that he is the reason that life is getting worse.” The regime has also failed to uphold its basic obligations to the soldiers sent to fight and die in Ukraine: The report contains evidence that the families of soldiers killed in the campaign have been alternately cheated out of compensation and paid to remain silent.
These conclusions will not be heard in Russia itself. Independent media has been decimated at the same time as state propaganda becomes more pervasive and censorship increasingly sophisticated. “Putin’s only motivations are money and power,” Yashin says. “He wants to rule like Stalin, but live like [prominent oligarch Roman] Abramovich.” While the level of repression inside Russia has not reached Stalinist levels, the surge in politically-targeted assassinations and prosecutions of opposition figures such as Alexey Navalny has made dissent increasingly dangerous. A new law has been passed that gives the government new powers to shut down NGOs deemed “undesirable.” Lawmakers have already targeted the Russian chapters of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the landmark Russian rights group Memorial.
Russia’s liberal opposition has suffered from popular perceptions of metropolitan elitism, incapable of appealing to, or understanding, the country beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg. Putin has successfully cast himself as “Father of the Nation,” while portraying the opposition as, at best, latter-day Narodniks disconnected from the needs of the people; and at worst, CIA operatives bent on undermining Russia. So, although over 400,000 Russians have read “Putin.War” online, Yashin knows that this is preaching to the choir: These are the people who already seek out independent media at all costs. The people that he really wants to reach are those who have never been given any choice but to believe the propaganda.
“We’re using our network of volunteers to take our message to the factories, squares, the shops,” explains Yashin. “We have to speak to people in person and tell them what this war is doing to them.” Activists like Kara-Murza spend much of their time plodding across vast swathes of the countryside to spread this message, and make the broader case for peaceful political change.
Yashin demurred on providing a concrete estimate of the size of this volunteer network, but insists that the group is growing in spite of increased repression. “Many people have been scared because of the crackdown,” he says. “But many others are tired of being scared all the time. And they are the ones who are volunteering—the ones who are saying, ‘We don’t want to live like this anymore.’”
Yashin’s party, RPR-PARNAS, recently forged a coalition with Russia’s top opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s Party of Progress and other opposition leaders ahead of the December 2016 parliamentary elections. (In one of the quirks of Russia’s pseudo-democracy, the party was de-registered in 2007, but allowed to re-register in 2012 after the European Court of Human Rights indicated that the dissolution was unlawful.) Other leading figures participating in the coalition include former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and veteran opposition leader Vladimir Ryzhkov.
Given the collection of divergent viewpoints and egos, it will be a considerable achievement if the alliance holds together. “Boris used to joke, ‘Competition within the democratic movement is competition for a spot in prison,’” Yashin said, laughing. “We can only be strong if we work together.” Ironically, it was the devastating loss of Nemtsov that finally brought the fractious opposition together.
The coalition also wants to see the people responsible for Nemtsov’s death brought to justice. “They caught his killer,” Yashin says, referring to Zaur Dadayev, the man charged with Nemtsov’s murder. Referring to Dadayev’s close links to Chechen strongman and Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov, Yashin insists that “…the chain of responsibility doesn’t end with Dadayev. He is part of the Chechen security network. They wouldn’t have done this without Kadyrov’s order. Kadyrov should be treated as a suspect.”
Putin publicly expressed his support for Kadyrov only days after Nemtsov was killed, which Yashin suggests was a signal to investigators to keep their hands off. The coalition members are considering taking the case to regional and international bodies for further investigation and redress—an issue they will explore in detail at their party congress this summer.
When I asked Yashin if he fears for his safety, he waved the question away, saying, “I can’t think about it, or I’d go crazy.” At the same time, he noted ominously that Kara-Murza’s mysterious illness struck exactly three months after Nemtsov’s murder on February 27. Another of their party colleagues, Nataliya Pelevina, recently had her apartment raided by Russian authorities and was interrogated by the FBI-like Investigative Committee. “We’re all taking risks, calculated risks. They search my flat, they search my parents flat; I’ve been arrested hundreds of times in the past 15 years. But we deal with these risks because we are patriots.”
Yashin and his colleagues are standing up to a ruthless security service backed by almost limitless financial resources. They are battling to reform a country in which the cowboy capitalism of the 1990s made “liberal democracy” an epithet, and where Putin’s approval rating stands at 86 percent. The outlook for change is hardly rosy. Yet in Yashin’s view, they hold a crucial advantage over the regime: “We’re not liars. Gorky said, ‘Lies are the religion of slaves and masters. Truth is the god of the free.’ That’s why we will win in the end.”