This is what it’s like to cast the only vote in the Russian Duma against the annexation of Crimea. In the first days and weeks after the vote, you start to feel alienated by your fellow lawmakers, according to Ilya Ponomarev, the only Russian lawmaker who did such a thing. He said some of his friends and allies in his own voting bloc didn’t return his calls, wouldn’t acknowledge him, or take his meetings. “It was very alienating,” he said.
The next phase is when they prepare the charges against you. For Ponomarev this happened when he was on a business trip to California this summer. It was August. “Kremlin liaisons to the Duma started calling me,” he said. “They asked if I am returning. I said, ‘Of course I am returning.’ I had my tickets for Aug. 30.” But he also got the sense the something was in the offing. By Aug. 20, Ponomarev said he learned that all of his Russian assets were frozen. “All my credit cards were not working, I only had $21 in my pocket,” he said. “This was another message.”
And then Ponomarev found himself facing charges for improperly taking money out of the Skolkovo Foundation, a fund for high tech start ups with which he works closely. “The charges are totally fabricated,” he said. “This is about my vote on Crimea.”
Ponomarev says he intends to one day return to Russia, but he doesn’t know when that day will be. So he is stuck in America, making a little scratch doing some research for a high tech company he declined to name.
“These legal charges that exist right now, they will be over within eight months; that’s when the investigation will be over,” he told The Daily Beast. “By May, I am pretty sure they will try to invent something else. But this particular thing will be over. I really hope next year I can go back. I am doing everything to be able to return, but it could be a long time.”
At this point in the profile, it’s supposed to emerge that Ponomarev is the kind of well-meaning liberal Americans like to imagine their dissidents to be. But Ponomarev did not grow up memorizing the Federalist Papers and he is not particularly loved by others in Russia’s opposition. Ponomarev even has a soft spot for Bolshevism, which is strange because he has spent most of his professional life as an entrepreneur.
Over cut melon and coffee at Washington’s swank Mayflower Hotel, Ponomarev described himself at one point as a libertarian communist. And his unlikely biography supports this enigmatic label. In the 1990s Ponomarev was a very young businessman and software engineer who helped build up Yukos, a massive Russian oil concern that is today defunct. By 2002, he was still a technology entrepreneur, but he also became the chief information officer for Russia’s Communist Party, a post he held until 2007.
In recent years, Ponomarev has emerged as a voice of opposition against Vladimir Putin. He was one of the opposition leaders who rose up against Putin’s power grab in 2012 when he ran again for the presidency. But his opposition credentials have been questioned in part because he was allowed to remain in Russia after so many other opponents of Putin were jailed or exiled.
Former ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul said he has never had reason to believe he was not a sincere advocate for his stated political positions. “I deeply respect anybody who would have the courage to make the vote he made on Crimea,” McFaul said. “That vote was consistent with his leadership of the opposition that I saw when I was ambassador.”
In the interview, Ponomarev reserved some of his harshest words for Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation. Since Russia’s assault on Ukraine, The Nation and vanden Heuvel have pressed for the United States and the west to stay out of the dispute between Ukraine and the more powerful Russia.
“I want to meet with them,” Ponomarev said, pointing out that he is a reader of The Nation and often agrees with its articles. But he said they are now perceived to be pro-Putin. “If you value your reputation, your message is not getting across. If a regular person was reading this, they would not understand all your considerations, it would be seen in a black and white way that you are supporting Putin,” he said. “No leftists should support Putin, why do you? Putin is an enemy of your values.”
Ponomarev had similar criticism of Edward Snowden, perhaps the most famous American today living in Moscow. He praised Snowden for having the “balls” to expose the crimes of the NSA. But he also asserted that Snowden today is under the control of the FSB, a charge disputed by Snowden’s supporters who claim he is happy and fulfilled in his new life in Moscow. “We host this person in a country that does the opposite of everything he fights for,” he said. “If I were Snowden I would think, ‘Who am I aligning my name with?’ It ruins his reputation.”
When the topic turned to Russia Today or RT, the Russian funded news channel that employs former 9-11 truthers and other assorted cranks, he stopped sounding like a leftist altogether. “Russia Today it is the reincarnation of the international,” he said. “They are trying to unite the radical leftists and the radical rightists. I am sorry the leftists legitimize it. No leftist should ever appear on RT, leftists watch this bloody channel and they become infected with Putin propaganda.”
Towards the end of the interview, Ponomarev returned to the topic of Vanden Heuvel and her magazine. Perhaps searching for a frame of reference the magazine’s editors would appreciate, he paraphrased a founding father of the Russian revolution, V.I. Lenin. “We should not be aligned with any imperialist state, neither ours nor others. We should opt to turn imperialist war into civil war for the workers,” he said repurposing Lenin’s advice for revolutionaries from a century ago.
He then waited a beat and deadpanned: “Yes I am an admirer of Lenin.”