Interviewed by Dylan Rogers.
Shortly after Russia went to the polls this September, I sat down with opposition leader Lyubov Sobol (GS’20).
At 34 Sobol occupies an idiosyncratic place in Russia’s pro-democracy movement. She has been with the now-imprisoned Alexei Navalny from the start, joining his anti-corruption campaign in 2011. Since then she has run for office three times, and in 2019 led one of post-Soviet Russia’s most sustained protest movements after being barred from contesting a local council election. Second only to Navalny among opposition leaders, Sobol has long been considered her friend and mentor’s foil, recognised for her meticulous fact-checking – and a relentless optimism in the face of overwhelming odds.
We talked Putin, Russian revolutions, and where she finds her belief in a democratic future.
Russia’s recent elections returned another parliamentary supermajority for Putin’s party, United Russia. The Kremlin has suggested these elections were open and honest – and show the Russian people still support President Putin. Do you agree with that assessment?
I completely disagree. I think it is a myth that the majority of Russians still support Putin.
These elections were far from honest or transparent. They took three days, and we can prove numerous examples of fraud or other violations. To call elections fair or honest we need to see all the legal rights of independent candidates recognised, and their admittance into the electoral process. What needs to be granted, too, is the access of all independent candidates to the media, including the TV channels. To put it mildly, none of these conditions were met.
As for a pro-Putin majority, why do I say that it is a myth? Nobody knows the exact number of people who would be ready to vote for Putin. Russia is authoritarian in its governance, meaning it makes no sense to trust any polls that are conducted. Yet we can see from the actions of the Kremlin itself that it does not believe in its own success. If Putin was confident in his success, then Alexei Navalny would have made it onto the list of approved candidates in the 2018 presidential election. Navalny wouldn’t be imprisoned like he is now.
“I think it is a myth that the majority of Russians still support Putin.”
I have never been part of the election process. My name has never made it onto a ballot. They are afraid to let me compete, whether in the regional elections of 2019, or in this year’s State Duma elections. The last time we made it into the process was in 2013, quite a long time ago. Back then Navalny took part in elections for the Moscow mayoralty and came third. It was only because of falsifications that there was no second round. Since then Navalny’s name has become even more popular and his approval ratings are even higher.
I am pretty sure that the majority does not support Putin, but I shy away from saying that it supports us. All I will say is that we will only find out the real state of affairs under an honest, transparent, and open election process.
Is it fair, then, to call what happened this September in Russia an “election” at all?
Probably not. Putin will not abandon the concept, or the word, “election”. It is important for him to be thought of as a democratic leader, so this word is still used in Russia, but its connotations are completely different to when it is used in a normal, civilised state.
With that I wonder if we could step away from current affairs for a minute. Before you even finished law school, you took a job with Alexei Navalny, investigating corruption in public procurement. What drove you to join his anti-corruption campaign and the pro-democracy movement more broadly?
That was back in 2011, when Navalny was not seen as a federal level politician but as a lawyer with his own opinion who openly expressed it in his blog. I loved his principles, and the opinions he expressed in his blog. I loved that he was a practicing lawyer who used his knowledge to fight against corruption in many state companies, including Transneft and Gazprom.
“I made a decision about dedicating my life to serve society.”
I wanted to work with such a person, to contribute my knowledge for the good of people. I don’t want to diminish the role of corporate lawyers, who work full time in an office, but I don’t see myself working as a full time employee, just reshuffling the papers.
That was back in 2011. Back then, I made a decision about dedicating my life to serve society, to use some high flown vocabulary. Since then, I have never regretted my decision to join Navalny’s team. Despite everything that has happened, if I had the chance to go back in time, I would make the same decision.
You mention the attraction of taking on corrupt state-run companies. Is corruption an inalienable part of the Russian political system as it exists today?
Absolutely. We cannot deny that corruption exists in different forms in different countries. There are always politicians, judges, and policemen who will take bribes.
But in Russia corruption is systemic and hierarchical in character. Of course, the crown of the system is Putin and his immediate associates. This corrupt system was built by Putin, for Putin, and it will only be destroyed once Putin leaves power.
I was intrigued by the fact that as well as this work we’ve discussed, investigating corruption, you have also run three times for elected office. Indeed in 2019 you spent more than 30 days on hunger strike in protest against the Moscow Election Commission’s decision to omit you from a local council ballot. Do you believe that change in Russia must ultimately come from inside the system?
I think that we have to take a multi-vector approach. I think that the Russian people have to fight for their future themselves, and not expect that somebody else will fight for their rights. I have always been a passionate person: I think that we are responsible for our lives, for what is happening for us, and we shouldn’t wait for some good guy to bring us his mercy.
“I do not want to wait for Putin to change his mind or leave power on his own. I want to fight for that now.”
But I also support the movement of foreign countries sanctioning Putin and Putin’s oligarchs. I think it is beneficial not only to punish the people who take the money of the Russian people offshore, but I also think it is a benefit to the countries that adopt these sanction lists, because Putin exports corruption precisely to those countries.
Putin tries to buy politicians – international and global leaders – and he influences election processes, in the US, for example. Putin started the war in the Ukraine. So I believe that the position of global leaders should be stricter: they should not let Putin hide his stolen money in their countries.
Let me tell you a joke. If you search “Putin” on Google in Russia, a list of suggestions comes up. The second one is “age”. Maybe people are waiting for Putin to leave power…naturally, shall we say.
I do not think that we need to wait for Putin to leave for this reason, because I think that time is quickly passing by in the years of our lives and that of our country. I believe that our country can live honourably and normally, I believe we can enter partnerships with European and other foreign countries.
I do not want to wait for Putin to change his mind or leave power on his own. I want to fight for that now.
You argue that the Russian people should stand up for themselves, but Russia’s opposition movement is facing increasing repression. You yourself have been under house arrest for much of this year for your leading role in the protests that rocked Russia this January. Amid this climate of growing oppression, are you optimistic for the opposition movement’s future?
In the short term, no. In the long term, yes, of course. I think Putin’s position is highly unstable. He is a weak person, a weak leader, who realises that people do not love him the way they used to. His candidacy for the presidency is becoming more and more undesirable. His position cannot remain like this forever.
The legitimacy of Putin’s presidency is seeping through his fingers with every month, with every year that passes. With every election he survives, his repression gets worse and worse, and his tricks start to look almost amusing to the Russian people. Take, for example, his half-naked photos. Putin used to have topless photos published to portray himself as a macho man, but now all of his manly trips to the Taiga forest with Defence Minister Shoygu look almost comical to the Russian public.
“If I enumerated now the arsenal that Putin has arrayed against us I think anyone would be shocked.”
The same goes for him starting the war in Ukraine in 2014. In the short term it brought him more support, but now the situation in the Ukraine no longer reinforces his approval ratings. The truth is that Putin’s propaganda always relies on the same tired template, claiming that the Russian people live poorly because of the West, because of the USA, because other countries are in the way. This is less and less believable, and people are bored of it.
It is true that repression is increasing at the moment, to an extent that would be unthinkable in any civilised country. If I enumerated now the arsenal that Putin has arrayed against us I think anyone would be shocked. But again I would like to stress that this is only happening because Putin feels weak. He knows he is weak, and we, the Russian democratic opposition, are closer to our goals than we were a few years ago.
Your friend and colleague Alexei Navalny has now been imprisoned for over 8 months. Are you in touch with him? Does he share your optimism for the future of your country?
Efforts have been made to isolate Navalny from Russian society as much as possible. Still, we keep in touch through his lawyers, who have access to him, although their access is not unobstructed.
I think that Navalny can rightly be called an optimist. I haven’t seen any change in his mindset since his imprisonment. He is not broken. He is not depressed. He doesn’t have a single doubt about our ultimate victory.
“I know the course of history. I know how history works. I think it is impossible to return Russia to the medieval ages now.”
But I wouldn’t necessarily call him an optimist. In Russia an optimist is a naïve fool who is happy about everything. We soberly evaluate the risks we face and the opportunities we have before us.
I believe that we are right and that victory will ultimately be ours. I say that very confidently because I know the course of history. I know how history works. I think it is impossible to return Russia to the medieval ages now.
Putin can’t keep the whole country in fear forever. It just won’t work in the long term. It’s impossible. No leader has ever stayed in power without any legitimacy and without what is most important: the support of the people. We can see that with Putin, the support of the people is ebbing away ever faster.
So you suggest that power is seeping away from Putin and cite the force of history in support. It is often said, looking at the sweep of Russia’s past, that when change comes to Russia, it comes quickly. 1917 and 1991 are often given as examples. For your dream of “victory” to be realised, will there have to be another Russian revolution?
It depends how we define revolution. I believe that the change we seek can occur peacefully. I believe we can avoid shedding blood.
However, I think that the responsibility for defining how change will occur lies with Putin and his immediate circle. In the past few years we have seen that all cases of violence have been provoked by Putin.
We believe in democratic principles. We believe in the supremacy of law, and the peaceful transition of power. This is why we try to take part in “elections”, because we think that elections are the only civilised tool to help change Russia’s political elites, allowing a transition to occur.
I think that by banning politicians from elections, by making the courts subordinate to his will, Putin is running himself into the ground.
At the Geneva Summit you said that the “world community” could help the pro-democracy movement achieve its goals. You have mentioned that states can impose sanctions on Putin and his allies. Is there anything that ordinary citizens outside Russia can do?
As for common citizens of other states, I think the only thing they can do is avoid voting for politicians that take part in dirty Putin’s politics, not support the forces that support Putin, and place civilised, rational pressure on politicians who want their share of dirty Putin’s money.
It is clear to me what journalists and politicians can do. As for citizens of other countries, I don’t think they can influence the situation first hand, but they can do so through their elected representatives, provided they choose the ones that will not support Putin’s politics or take part in his dirty affairs.
“We shouldn’t be afraid of Putin. Everybody seems obsessed with the idea that Putin is strong, powerful, or influential. But this is far from true.”
On the other hand, we cannot support those politicians who speak of the necessity of maintaining a dialogue with Putin. All the beautiful stories about speaking to Putin come from a complete misunderstanding of the man, and they are often told by those who are already bought by him, or are looking to protect their own, mostly commercial, interests.
Putin is a person who uses chemical weapons. He is a person who kills people in neighbouring countries – I mean Ukraine – where thousands of people have been killed by a war he started in 2014.
Any dialogue is perceived by Putin as weakness. He thinks that if somebody starts negotiating with him, they are someone who can be tricked, or even used.
On that point and to conclude our conversation, is there anything else our readers should know?
There is one thing. We shouldn’t be afraid of Putin. Everybody seems obsessed with the idea that Putin is strong, powerful, or influential. But this is far from true.
Putin needs Europe much more than Europe needs him. In fact I think he is afraid. That’s why I mentioned sanctions against him and his immediate circle. I think that his regime might fall after his immediate circle stops being confident in the fact that they can always get their money and their families out of Russia safely.
To Putin, public opinion matters. Not that of China, but that of Europe, and the United States. We saw that recently, in the press coverage of US Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland’s visit to Russia. If you look at the Russian media coverage, you will see that they documented her every sneeze, her every movement, showing how important such visits are for Putin.
It is important for Putin to maintain the appearance of a democratic leader. He is therefore dependent on Europe and the US, and Europe and the US have to understand that. Of course, Europe depends on Russian gas to some extent, and Putin uses that to his political advantage. But when they make decisions I think civilised countries should recall their values and not enter into deals with a dictator.
So I want to encourage resilience in the diplomats and politicians who work with Russia in sticking to their principles and not accepting cash from Putin or his representatives, because this money is covered in blood. That’s all.
That’s all. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with me.
Thank you very much for having me and giving me this platform to convey my thoughts to such a broad and important audience.