In an interview with Kyiv Post, Ilya Ponomarev says there is no organized political opposition in Russia. But he notes that resistance to Putin’s war against Ukraine can be seen in the growing number of saboteur attacks on railroads and army enlistment centers across Russia. And he desribes a project launched in Kyiv targeting Russian public opinion.
Ilya Ponomarev is a Russian politician, former member of the Russian Parliament, and the only Duma member to vote against Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. He is a democratic anti-Putin activist and an active opponent of Putin’s war with Ukraine. Ilya Ponomarev has been based in Kyiv since 2016. The interview was conducted by Aleksandra Klitina
[Klitina] Good afternoon! Tell us about the current state of Russia’s democratic opposition.
[Ponomarev] The answer is simple – there is no opposition in Russia. An opposition is an organized political force, and there is no organized political force in Russia. Some people are opposition-minded. There are people who are dissidents and political activists and are against Putin and want political change, but they’re disorganized.
[Klitina] But these people are actively suggesting projects, and you are active in your position. What are the main challenges to opposing Putin’s war in Ukraine?
[Ponomarev] There are no achievements to talk about. The only achievement required here is to stop the war. All the rest is a process.
We can see how significant resistance in Russia is growing every day: people are attacking army enlistment offices, for example. Police cars are set on fire and attacked by partisans on railroads. The resistance is growing, and the number of such cases is growing every day.
A Telegram channel called Rospartisan covers all these events, and we have more and more and more news on it about such things every day. That’s a positive sign. It means that the demand for changes is there. Some people decide to take individual but direct action. Now it’s a question of how to frame all this it into a political movement.
It is not about leaders. It’s about the idea, the vision of future Russia, and what we want to achieve. One of the main reasons why the Russian opposition does not exist is because nobody has a vision of a coherent and attractive future. Dreams are what drive people. There is no dream.
The Bolsheviks had a dream in 1917. It did not turn out so well, but the dream was beautiful, that is why they succeeded. The Russian Provisional Government didn’t have a vision. That is why they didn’t manage. Only powerful dreams and ideas drive society.
Putin is a very conservative person who appeals in part to the past. He invokes Soviet history and the Tsarist autocracy, and this has a certain appeal for society. Putin has some ideas about organizing people but, at the same time, he has an anti-dream.
Putin says: I’m the only person who can protect you from regressing to the 1990s. There is nothing worse for a Russian person than 1990. Putin says “all that chaos then, connected to reforms – and the opposition guys want to return to that, to the 1990s. I’m against it, which is why you’d better stick with me. I’m not perfect, and I may be a thief, but at the same time, I provide protection from that chaos.” That is what the Russian people appreciate.
[Klitina] What is your assessment of the level of opposition in Russia to its war against Ukraine?
The scale of the resistance is pretty small because it’s only emerging. I prefer to measure it not by the number of people but the number of protests and cases and their spread on Russian territory. The most positive thing is that it’s happening everywhere: someone set fire to army enlistment offices in Moscow and there are other cases in Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Siberia, and Murmansk. It’s happening everywhere, and that’s why nobody can say that it’s the work of Ukrainian intelligence or Ukrainian saboteurs. No, it’s not the case. Ukrainians could carry out some acts of sabotage on the border, but they are not doing this in Vladivostok – obviously, it was Russians who did this.
The size of the potential base is very significant. If we look into official numbers in opinion polls, the data confirms that 25-30% of Russians are against the war. Those figures mean that even the Kremlin admits that between 25 and 30 million people in Russia oppose the war. It means that more people are against the war in Russia than in Ukraine. Just imagine this number!
We have a lot of parallels with the situation of World War II and Nazi Germany. Because of what the Kremlin is doing right now. It is a fascist regime. The Kremlin uses the same propaganda methods, the same methods of managing people, and the same objective with regard to Ukraine. At the same time, the percentage of anti-war supporters in Russia is much more significant than it was in Germany in the 1940s.
[Klitina] Does the Russian opposition have any emerging leaders? Maybe someone could propose this dream to the Russian people?
[Ponomarev] Yes. It’s me!
[Klitina] Great! If democratic elections were held in Russia, would you consider taking part?
[Ponomarev] I can’t say because there are no democratic elections at the moment or prospects that the system will move towards democratic elections. With a high level of certainty, I can say that there’s no chance that the government in Russia will change through democratic procedures. If the situation will turn out differently, of course, I will participate.
My objective is to create a democratic system and get to the point when democratic elections will appear. I cannot say if I will run in the elections because if a person runs, it means that this person is not satisfied with the situation in the country.
Maybe by that time, I will be satisfied with the situation in my country and let Khodorkovsky or Navalny carry on. Now I’m dissatisfied with the situation in my country. That’s why I am very active in Russian political life right now.
[Klitina] What awaits Russia after the end of this war, in your opinion?
[Ponomarev] It’s a difficult question. The country may follow two different paths. There is a path where the situation can worsen because of what Putin’s propaganda has done so far making heroes of people like Strelkov (Igor Girkin, Russian military commander during Russian occupation of Crimea and Donbas in 2014) and others, but these people are also anti-Putin. Many people believe that they are pro-Putin, but they are anti-Putin and criticize Putin for being a crook and not imperialist enough. They are more dedicated imperialists. Putin is imperialist because he is a crook, and they are imperialist because it’s their core belief.
[Klitina] How has Russia’s war against Ukraine affected your life, and what projects are you currently working on?
[Ponomarev] The war changed everything in my life. I was thinking, okay, Putin will be there for another 10 years, so I was using this time to enjoy a bourgeois lifestyle. I was doing business, running my investment company operating between the US and Ukraine. I liked that.
Everything is ruined now because my investment targets were in Eastern Europe and primarily in Ukraine. Of course, the targets are there, but nobody wants to invest in Ukraine because of the war. Everyone will wait till the war is over. I had several Ukrainian investors and partners who are obviously out of business.
On the first day of the Russian attack, when there was the threat of the Russian military coming to capture Kyiv, I joined the territorial defense. I was not involved in active fighting. It didn’t get to that point, but yes, that’s what we were prepared to do.
After that we cooperated with my friends in the Ukrainian government. I created a media holding called “Utro Fevralya” (February morning). The aim of the project is to communicate with Russians in Russia. Many Russian opposition journalists left the country, and they are broadcasting something. Usually, the audience is made up of Russians that have already also left the country. But some broadcasters also have an audience in Russia, but it’s still on the margins.
We created a media resource that works from within Ukraine in the Russian language and talks with Russians in Russia. That makes the project valuable – to deliver the truth about what is going on in Ukraine to Russians. We are trying to establish a project that will become as important for Russians as the Telegram channel NEXTA has been for Belarus. The aim is to act not only as an information source but also to become an organizing force.
[Klitina] Thank you for this interview.
[Ponomarev] Thank you.