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“Nothing shameful about repenting for the sins of your homeland,” Russian exiled journalist.

Roman Popkov is a Russian opposition journalist who spent two years as a political prisoner of Vladimir Putin’s regime, having been repeatedly detained by Russian security forces for covering protests

Jun. 18, 2022

Roman Popkov is a Russian opposition journalist who spent two years as a political prisoner of Vladimir Putin’s regime, having been repeatedly detained by Russian security forces for covering protests and taking part in them. Persecution by the Russian authorities forced him to leave Russia for Ukraine, where he has been working for the last year.

[Klitina] Please tell us about yourself, your career, and about journalists in Russia. Is it at all possible to work there as an independent journalist?

[Popkov] I began my career as an opposition politician and activist, and later became a journalist. When Vladimir Putin came to power in May 2000, I was still a young student, and young people like me understood the negative vector of development, and that our country was going in the wrong direction. Putin, a KGB officer, (the main security agency of the Soviet Union), who didn’t hide the fact that the values ​​of democracy and a democratic society mean nothing to him. It was a sinister time.

We tried to fight, we had leftist political views. I was active politically and I ended up in jail. It was 2006, I spent two years and three months in Butyrka prison (one of the most famous and oldest prisons in Russia).

My arrest was not even connected with a protest rally but with the street war imposed on us by pro-Kremlin youth organizations. The Russian authorities were very frightened at that time [2004-05] by the Orange Revolution taking place in Ukraine. They were terrified of the Maidan scenario, and tried to neutralize us. During one of the fights, we fought back to defend ourselves, but at the demand of state investigators, we became the attackers, villains. And under the article of law on hooliganism, I spent two years in prison. Opposition human rights activists recognized me as a political prisoner. My wife and I, there were six of us in total…

[Klitina] Did your wife end up in jail as well?

[Popkov] Yes, there were five men and one woman, Olena. She was in the women’s prison in Pechatniki, and we were in Butyrka, a gloomy fortress from the time of Catherine the Great. My wife and I saw each other during court hearings. We held hands through the cage – a romantic story, and then I got out of jail and got into journalism.

In Russia, with the beginning of the active phase of the war with Ukraine you can go to prison for using the word “war” or “peace,” – so Russian journalism is over. Of course, some editorial offices in exile will be working through VPN, but I believe that independent journalism in Russia has no future on this frozen ground.

[Klitina] You were imprisoned for opposition activities and probably already attracted the attention of the Russian FSB (Federal Security Service). Did you feel any pressure? You didn’t give up, and after your time in prison you began in journalism, covered protests, and were arrested again. How do the security forces deal with the opposition? Have you faced pressure from the security services?

[Popkov] Yes, they detained me when I was taking part in protests, and even when I was there as a journalist, they simply caught everyone in droves. I was arrested for 15 days, not even in Russia but in Belarus, when I was covering mass protests there. In 2020 there were protests against the Lukashenko regime – that’s when I got to stay in Okrestino prison for 15 days.

There has been constant pressure since the 2000s in Russia: people were invited for interviews, and interrogation was carried out in the FSB, and then more and more in the Ministry of Internal Affairs under the counter-extremism program. Extremism in Russia is everything that is against Putin and the Kremlin.

When we were younger and did not understand the intricacies of protecting human rights – we were twisted by the FSB just as they wanted during those interrogations – intimidated and threatened. Now we are adults and it is not so scary, but you’re there constantly under pressure in Russia. When I come to Kyiv, I find myself breathing easier and with a straight back.

George Orwell’s utopia has already been introduced in Russia, with video cameras and facial recognition systems everywhere. Russian authorities used the COVID 19 epidemic in their own interests to introduce all these technologies. The tapping of phones and hacking messengers became our daily reality.

[Klitina] You have been in Ukraine for a year. How has the war changed your life, and what do you think about it? Did you cover the military events that took place in Ukraine as a journalist?

[Popkov] Yes, I came to Ukraine last August, and like all of us in Kyiv, one “beautiful” morning, I felt the windows shake from missile strikes in Brovary and Boryspil. That morning I met my Ukrainian friend at an assembly point. We discussed the action plan in the event of war in advance.

I spent several weeks with friends – they are activists close to the Azov movement. Not the Azov Regiment in Mariupol, but the general Azov movement led by Andriy Biletsky. I traveled, observed the war, and wrote military reports for the Belsat website in Warsaw – this is my new job.

On February 24, on the first day of war, something broke inside me. On February 23, I still had hopes that Russia could be saved in its current form as a state and put on the right path in some way. I lost all these hopes after February 24.

Sadly, but we haven’t seen absolute mass outrage at war in Russian society.

Thousands of people who protested against the war have been arrested, but these are the same tens of thousands who came out to protest for other reasons – the arrest of Navalny, the rigged election, and so on. It is an active minority that is fighting against the regime. It is expected that these people were crushed, dispersed. However, the majority of Russian society “swallowed it all”.

I don’t think that opinion polls that show support for the hostilities in Ukraine – 80% of Russia’s population – are valid, of course. Here we must understand that opinion polls in a totalitarian state are dubious. When you get a call on your landline, ask: – What do you think about a special military operation in Ukraine? People are trying to answer “correctly”, everyone is frightened.

However, the fears of Russian society’ and passive support are what depresses and demotivates me. We can only hope for some heroically active minority that continues to fight against Putin’s regime in Russia.

[Klitina] We have a trend in Ukrainian society that there are no “good Russians”, and everyone is collectively responsible. Just as a journalist you probably saw that the issue of Ukrainian citizenship for Nevzorov or visit of Marina Ovsyannikova (Russian opposition journalists), there were negative comments in social networks. What do you think of this? What are your feelings? Should all Russians be responsible for what is happening?

[Popkov] I don’t want to advise Ukrainians on how to behave. I’m not the one who should be giving advice. I understand the feelings and expressions very well. If I were Ukrainian, my views would probably be quite radical.

Even as a Russian, I can, in fact, say that collective responsibility does exist. There is nothing terrible or good in this – it’s a historical fact. There was collective responsibility with the example of fascist Germany and its allies in the 1940s.

Many Russian intellectuals try to maintain a sophisticated viewpoint that there is no collective responsibility, there is collective guilt, or vice versa.  However, if 140 million people have failed to save their own country from the horrific step taken on February 24 there must be some sort of accountability. I’m not saying they should be bombed in their apartments, but there should be some responsibility.

Nobody knows when Russia will enter a stage of social transformation and when this will happen. We must reach our future through a particular kind of repentance.

It is inevitable. There is nothing shameful about repenting for the sins of your homeland. If you love your motherland, you are also responsible. To love your country within the realm of ballet, theater, Yuri Gagarin – then I see as my country, while the war is not my country – that does not work. There must be a holistic approach. We need to share some positive things and hang our heads in shame for our country. The Germans have gone through this and regard themselves to be a member of the European family. And if they hadn’t gone through it, things would probably be much worse.

[Klitina] You visited Bucha [Kyiv Region]. How is this even possible? How did the Russian army get to committing such atrocities? It is a shock for Ukrainians.

[Popkov] It is a shock for the whole planet, at least for the civilized part. It also surprised me. When Bucha was liberated, I visited it on a press tour, and we saw all these burned bodies…

Honestly, I didn’t assume that Russian soldiers would behave this way. Of course, looking back, everyone is great at explaining why this happened, but this was an absolute shock at the beginning.

I was anticipating terror, of course. There were days in late February when it was unclear whether Kyiv would be captured by Russian troops, and many Ukrainian friends said – “Roman, you need to leave, because Russians will kill you, because you’re a traitor to them. I decided to share my fate with Kyiv, my favorite city and so I stayed. ”

I expected targeted, selective terror against activists, journalists, and emigrants, Russian and Belarusian “traitors,” but what they did to ordinary people is horrible.

It is the result of many years of adverse selection in the Russian security forces. You should have heard the noise when the police torture people in Russia. How police torture people in prisons, when mops are put inside, and people are raped. Have you seen these materials?

[Klitina] Yes, I’ve seen them.

[Popkov] How the Russian security service kills political opponents – with poison, in a socially dangerous way, without thinking that there could be collateral damage. Not to mention that, in reality killing a person is bad, but when they kill people like that, with weapons of mass destruction, this is totally crazy.

For some reason, everyone believes that the police and FSB are bad, and the army is something else. Why should the army be something else? In a sense, the military is even lower in social terms because the police and the FSB have some education.

The Russian army has been recruiting contractors for years, people from the sticks with a low level of education and basic intelligence. They joined the went to the army because there they would earn 40,000 rubles, which is more than 20,000 rubles somewhere at the car service in Ivanovo (Russian village).

That is one of the reasons. I also think soldiers were angry, because the commanders told them that they would be greeted with flowers [in Ukraine], and they were used to the fact that everyone should love them. About this word “Russophobia” – from an old dictionary going back to the old days. For them Russophobia is a lack of love. Russian soldiers believe that should all be loved by locals, and if nobody throws flowers when they arrive then these are Russophobes. If they are Russophobes, then we will behave like that.

It is also a question  of responsibility and it has been discussed a lot in Ukraine. The Russian public will need to be told about these guys from the Pskov Division that carried out the atrocities in Bucha. Putin did not order them to shoot local on the streets, and I don’t even think that the commander of the division gave them such an order. It looks like spontaneous violence.

As one of my Ukrainian friends said – I thought this was what it was like in 19th century Russia, but then we had the 16th-17th centuries, when there were drunken palace guards, torn nostrils, people sewn into bearskins. The degradation of Russia has been going on for 20 years.

That is my pain as a citizen: a country that could, possessing such financial resources thanks to a very favorable foreign economic situation, become a giant new Emirates or Poland in terms of living standards and social development – invent a cure for cancer, explore space, scientific work.

Instead, the result of 20 years is an army that does not know how to fight and even kills peaceful cities.

[Klitina] What is the project you are currently working on?

[Popkov] This is an activist-volunteer project with other Russian emigrants. We believe that we must continue to fight against the war and the Putin regime.

The main burden was, of course, taken by the Armed forces of Ukraine, and the stakes are very high in this fight. This is a fight for the future of Ukraine and even more than that.

I believe this is a battle for the future of all Western civilization as we understand it. If we do not stop Russia here, this darkness will go further.

The Russian authorities will invent protection of the Russian-speaking population in Latvia, in Finland and so on.

[Klitina] Thanks for the interview. Good luck with your project.