Russian Journalist Oleg Kashin On Putin And A Boycott of Sochi Olympics
Oleg Kashin, formerly a special correspondent and blogger for the Russian daily newspaper and media company Kommersant, is well known for his bold reporting on Russian politics and business. Kashin was nearly beaten to death in 2010 over his political reporting. Kashin now travels to Russia frequently and occasionally writes on Russian affairs, but resides in Switzerland with his wife. Kashin was a Paul Klebnikov Civil Society Fellow at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute in 2012.
Domi: Oleg, in your role as a journalist in Russia, you reported on the politics of the new opposition, when you were nearly beaten to death in 2010. Your experiences of opposing Putin’s politics were told through the documentary film “Putin’s Kiss,” about the Nashi youth movement, which was pro-Putin (see trailer below). How did your life change after the release of the film?
Kashin: The film was not screened in Russia and only those who already knew about me and my work watched it on the Internet, so I can tell you with certainty that it didn’t affect my fate in any way. The Nashi Movement portrayed in the film, no longer exists—it was dissolved. The film’s heroine, Masha Drokova, now works for a hi-tech company owned by a Russian businessman in Singapore. The other members of the movement and the people associated with it have moved on to work for private companies or political institutions—including the opposition—and try to forget their participation in it. The attack on me has not been investigated and, most likely, will not be investigated. I no longer have any doubt about this.
Domi: Oleg, what are you doing now and why are you living in Switzerland?
Kashin: I’m in Russia at least once a month. When Alexey Navalny (a leading opposition leader to Putin) received his verdict on the Kirovles charges in Kirov, I was sitting in the courtroom. A few days ago, I returned from Kaliningrad, and next week I’ll return to Moscow. Whenever my presence in Russia is necessary for either business or personal matters, I am in Russia. My wife works in Switzerland and there’s no political intrigue involved.
Domi: Since Putin entered public life more than a decade ago, hundreds of journalists have been murdered. To date, very few, if any, of those who have been murdered have had the circumstances of their deaths investigated, solved and prosecuted. Do you think the dangerous environment for journalists in Russia is a contributing factor in the government’s ability to control the public discourse in Russia?
Kashin: It goes without saying that it is a very advantageous situation for the government, when, upon going to bed, no one knows whether they will live through the next day. The coercive atmosphere that has existed since 2000 (when Putin entered public life) has been cultivated by the Russian government—this is easy to determine from the public appearances of Vladimir Putin and his colleagues, and from the general tone of public discourse. It wasn’t like this before in Russia, but now it’s considered the norm to physically threaten your opponent for anything deemed inappropriate by a representative of “the powers that be.” That’s what the new anti-LGBT laws are geared toward.
Out of principle, I don’t place journalists in a separate category in terms of risk susceptibility. Today, the risk of being killed, beaten or imprisoned is evenly distributed among all Russian citizens, including regime loyalists. No one is immune to death by violence, brutality, or imprisonment in Russia today.
Domi: Since the New Russia opposition seemed to come out onto the streets in demanding increased accountability and less corruption by the political class last year, there seems to have been an orchestrated crackdown, including arrests, prosecution and imprisonment of members of the Pussy Riot rock and roll band, for example, and Alexey Navalny, who was prosecuted and found guilty of embezzlement. Why is the government, and the authorities, cracking down now? With the Olympics in Sochi only six months away, are these the actions of a government that feels that it must exert control of the population? To what end?
Kashin: I believe that no one in Russia today can answer this question. It is widely accepted that the government is using these laws as an attempt to distract the public from what’s truly important—problems with the economy and the social sphere. I don’t believe this. More likely, the government is trying to construct a new nation, guided by totalitarian instincts and a blind deference to power. In their time, the communists tried to create a “new man,” now Putin is creating his. It is much easier to manipulate and control this type of changed society. I really hope that Westerners won’t equate these politics with the interests of Russian citizens. Russian citizens don’t differ in any way from the citizens of any Eastern European state; they have the same interests, needs and values. I hope that Putin won’t succeed in breaking the Russian citizens, and democracy will manage to prevail in Russia.
Domi: Russian gay men have often been beaten, tortured and some have been murdered by right-wing vigilantes. Knowing this, do you believe the Russian government officials who have said they will arrest gay athletes during the Sochi Olympic Games who might violate the propaganda law? How would you expect Russians officials to react if gay athletes demonstrated by waving a gay flag after they medalled?
Kashin: It’s understood that they won’t dare arrest anyone, but they will be seriously embarrassed—Russian officials are very sensitive to foreign criticism. So, I really hope that the actions you mentioned will be as prevalent as possible during the Olympics, to make it as difficult as we can for the government to hide them from the public on Russian television.
Domi: Do you think Putin and members of the Russian governments at different levels are surprised by the sharp reaction of Westerners to the Russian anti-gay laws? It also seems there is confusion within the Russian government about whether they would enforce the propaganda laws. Do you think Putin will crack down further on gays in Russia? Some commentators have suggested that Putin might sign a new law that would authorize government officials to remove children from same sex couples.
Kashin: I, too, believe that the law to remove children from same-sex couples will be enacted, and there will be more laws of this sort enacted. Putin understands that the West does not like it, but continues to act in this direction. I am convinced that the answer must be sought in the emotional, not the rational realm. For example, it is necessary to assume that Putin, being a very rich man, has dreamed of becoming a part of the international financial elite for many years—to sail the Mediterranean Sea and throw lavish parties in his castle on Cote d’Azur. In recent years, he realized that his dreams will never come true, because his prosperity is tied only to his power. So, he is engaged in revenge against the West, which has never accepted him into its elite circles.
Domi: Because the International Olympic Committee has asked the Russian government to clarify the propaganda law, do you think the Russians are concerned about being humiliated by the gay controversy? How could the Russian government be pressured to review and reverse their anti-gay laws? Do you think critics of Russian LGBT law who compare Sochi 2014 to Berlin 1936 are effective, or not?
Kashin: Any comparison in modern politics to Hitler and Nazi Germany is in poor taste–it’s Godwin’s law. I don’t think these particular comparisons will have any effect. Calls for boycott probably won’t affect Putin either—he’s a businessman, he knows the language of money and realizes that the probability of a boycott of the Olympic Games is very low, the Olympics is a business, and it’s very unlikely that a company like Coca-Cola (which, as we know, is continuing its active business in Russia) is ready to give up their profits for the sake of abstract humanitarian interest. So I do not believe in such tactics.
Domi: If the West were to begin a boycott of corporations sponsoring the Olympics, pressuring them to withdraw money and sponsorship of the Games, how do you think such demonstrations to stand up for LGBT human rights would be received in Russia? What do you think of the Stoli vodka boycott?
Kashin: It depends on how massive the boycott. So far we’ve seen the experience of Stolichnaya vodka (which has no relation to Russia)—by all accounts, it really shook up the owners of the company, so it’s the right tactic.
Domi: How are Russians reacting to their critics and about talk of these boycotts?
Kashin: So far, Russians aren’t noticing any active calls for boycott. The only name being discussed on the social networks has been Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor who called for a Sochi boycott. In general, there isn’t much enthusiasm about the Olympics in Russia; many are certain that for one reason or another, they will be cancelled, and even malevolently await bad news—for instance, news that the stadiums haven’t been built yet, and that there won’t be anywhere to hold the Olympics, is very popular. So, if the boycott becomes massive, I think it will find supporters even in Russia.
Domi: Do you think that the West’s strong reaction and condemnation of Putin and to the Russian anti-LGBT laws will result in a further crackdown in Russia toward the gay community there?
Kashin: It depends of the quality and strength of the reaction. So far, there has only been only one effective decision that really affected Russia, which was the Magnitsky Act [passed by the U.S. Congress that denies visas to and freezes the assets of those in the Russian ruling elite implicated in Sergei Magnitsky’s murder and other human rights violations and corruption within Russia]. Putin isn’t afraid of “hard talks” or “angry statements.” But Putin is afraid of losing the possibility to spend [his] money abroad. In reaction to the Magnitsky Act, Russia responded by prohibiting the adoption of Russian children to the U.S. [We will see] maybe later in the Western reaction to new [Russian] laws [on gays].
This interview first appeared on thenewcivilrightsmovement.com and was reposted with the permission of the author and publication.
Translation of the original Russian into English was contributed by Masha Udensiva-Brenner.
Images of Mr. Kashin via Facebook