A Very Likely Candidate An exclusive interview with one of the leaders of the Russian opposition, Sergey Gulyaev By Grigory Pasko, journalist One of the organizers of the recent March of Those Who Disagree in St. Petersburg was a former deputy in the Legislative Assembly of Russia’s “northern capital”, Sergey Gulyaev. This was already the third march with his participation and under his organization. The most recent march ended with Sergey’s arm being broken by the gallant defenders of law and order. And based on the results of the first march, an administrative case has been opened in relation to Gulyaev, which in today’s Russia within the framework of the new law on counteracting extremism may very possibly be recategorized as a criminal offence at any moment.
Photo of Sergey Gulyaev being interviewed by Grigory Pasko
Recently, «Kommersant» wrote about how the leaders of the opposition movement “The Other Russia” are conducting negotiations on nominating for the post of president of the country with former head of the Central Bank Viktor Gerashchenko and former deputy of the Petersburg Legislative Assembly Sergey Gulyaev. The newspaper also cites the opinion of the well-known Russian political scientist Stanislav Belkovsky in this regard: “By summer, there will be three of them [candidates for president – Author’s note] – Kasyanov, whom the Peoples’-Democratic Union (NDS) will advance and who will be supported by several movements, the most famous of these – Eduard Limonov’s Natsbols [National Bolsheviks], a prominent representative of the nomenklatura of the 1980s-1990s and, very likely, one of the politicians who is already found within the framework of ‘The Other Russia’, for example Sergey Gulyaev”. Now, it just so happens that Sergey Gulyaev and I have known each other for nearly a quarter century – we studied together in the Lvov Higher Military-Political School. And we stayed in touch since then too, even though fate had thrown us to opposite ends of the earth – him to Afghanistan, and me to the Pacific Ocean. So I’m sure the reader will understand why this interview has a much more personal tone to it than might be appropriate for such a prominent figure. Sergey, why are you a “former” deputy? Why are you in the opposition? I’m “former” because in January of this year, the Petersburg electoral commission refused to register candidates for the Legislative Assembly of St. Petersburg who had been advanced by the regional branch of the “Yabloko” party. I was on that list. What is noteworthy is that they tried to make a deal with us: It was proposed to us that we abandon our initiative to hold a referendum on the construction of the “Gazprom-city” office building in St. Petersburg in exchange for registration. The “Yabloko” leadership didn’t agree to this. I said at the time that you mustn’t play by their rules with sleazy people. What have you done that the power is so dead set against you? Together with colleagues from “Yabloko”, I spoke out against the mass violations of the rights and liberties of the citizens of Petersburg with respect to intensive property development, the demolition of buildings in the historical part of the city, against transferring 180 hectares of land to Chinese investors for the construction in Petersburg of a Chinese city, against the reclamation of new territories on Vasilievsky Island, against the construction of the insane 400 meter tower “Gazprom-city” at the expense of the city budget at a cost of 2.5 billion dollars. We came out against the reappointment of Valentina Matvienko for a second gubernatorial [term], and we paid a price for that – by being removed from the elections. Why aren’t there people like you in the opposition – people who’ve been through the Afghan war, through Chechnya? They’re there. But they don’t run around advertising themselves. Many of those who share my views are now settled comfortably in the mainstream. That’s a lot safer than doing open battle with the power. They’ve had enough of war already. Some, it is true, are just sitting and waiting until the situation changes by itself. It won’t change by itself. We need to help it change. Your foray into power didn’t turn you into just another government bureaucrat. I think I can guess why, but the blog’s readers may be interested in hearing it for themselves. Because I’m not a “bird from their nest”. They’ll tell you themselves – they’re all part of an “in-crowd”. They’ve got a regular mutual-support fraternity there. Of course, that doesn’t keep them from stabbing each other in the back. You know, sometimes I’d look at them and just feel sorry for them. It won’t be the avenging sword of the law that will punish them, it will be life itself. Here, for example, a well-known governor… It seems he’s got everything he could ask for – prestigea, glory, he’s one of the insiders. But his personal life is an absolute zero. His son’s a drug addict. So what good are all those lies and machinations to him? Only to ensure that he remains part of the in-crowd? Having been at all sorts of meetings, I’ve observed an almost ritualistic picture: when officials who are part of the in-crowd greet each other, they always kiss. Like under Brezhnev. You can compare them with dogs, who sniff each other when they meet. That’s their way to signal that they all belong to the same in-crowd. And I’m not one of them. That’s why you didn’t go on any ski junkets to Courchavel, but stayed around and met with citizens and tried to help your constituents? Among other reasons. True, I give myself only modest marks for success as a deputy. Because you need to fight not with individual persons, but with the whole system. The people in power today are thieves and corruptioneers. A kleptocratic power with a notorious vertical. That said, none of our democratic amendments passed in the legislative assembly. So you took to the streets, so to speak, to the barricades. And got bashed on the head with a truncheon for your troubles… Not just the head. The last time they injured my arm. Before that, at the previous march of those who disagree, they whacked me so hard on the body that my mobile phone was smashed into smithereens. I was laughing in order not to show that I was afraid of them. And that it hurt. Do you have a team of like-minded people? Who are these people? There is a team. These are the people who help me with elections to the legislative assembly, my friends. These are the people whom I defended and whom I helped solve their problems when I was a deputy. There are many of them. They are the so-called middle class, representatives of small business. They are all kinds of different people, and not only from Petersburg.
Photo of Sergey Gulyaev at the St. Petersburg March of Those Who Disagree from the personal archive of Sergey Gulyaev
In one of the interviews you talked about the panicked fear of Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko in the face of any alternative thinking in the city. But the same thing could surely be said about Putin, too? Do you really believe that the power is afraid? Or are you oppositionists just pacifying yourselves with illusions relative to the power’s fear? Oh, the power is definitely afraid, no doubt about that. Yes, today the power has cultivated defenders for itself – the OMON, who are already defending not so much the power as their own shadow business. For example, providing a “roof” for prostitution, the drugs trade. And they say about the opposition that it’s been bought by Berezovsky That’s sheer psychosis! Our slogans are plain and easy to understand: “Out with Matvienko!”, “Putin. Skis. Magadan.” [Translation: Give the man a pair of skis and drop him off in a far corner of the country that was once known as “the heart of the GULag”.] And the power fears these slogans, because they’re truthful. We’re witnessing the psychosis of the power. The march of those who disagree showed this, it showed the power that the opposition is ready for decisive measures. And the power got nervous. People wrote, called, and told me after the first march that they were ashamed they had sat the first one out at home. They asked when the next march would take place, so they could come out and be counted. And when will the next march take place? On the day of the city, 27 May. We will organize an alternative carnival. We have an opposition council, which includes representatives of many movements and organizations. Are you ready to be arrested? Kasparov was summoned to the FSB for interrogation. Kasyanov got subpoenaed. In relation to me, they opened a case as far back as the first march. They could accuse me of organizing mass disorders. I’m constantly being watched, they wiretap my telephones 24 hours a day. I try not to give them any cause. But there is heightened attention towards me. I know you’ve got three children. And I know what it’s like when children grow up without a father. …And you also know that it’s better to sit in your enemies’ captivity than to ever be ashamed to look your son in the eye. My Ivan is a year and a half old. He has to live in a normal country. Sometimes I think: surely he’s not going to have to live in a country where he’ll always have to be afraid, instead of living a normal human life? Many solve the problem radically – they leave the country. For example to Canada. I’ve seen such families there. I’ve got friends who left and are living in Canada. Emma with a programmer husband and two children. A family – they’re young, smart, happy people… And they left. They didn’t see any future in their own country. Emma also used to say: I don’t want my child to have to fight in Chechnya. She understood that under such a power, there would be a war found for him too. Our country is losing people like these. Millions are leaving. Not to mention the millions who are dying for various reasons, including social ones. You once had this fanciful thought that all those thieving governors, all those representatives of the corrupt power, would be unwelcome in the West, that Western leaders would refuse to shake hands with them. And yet, Western leaders continue to meet with them… But notice that they don’t kiss each other! New leaders are coming in the Western countries. Merkel has come, so has Sarkozy, tomorrow Bush will be gone, and Blair too. So the world is changing. Even if Putin stays around for a third term, still there will already be a totally different attitude towards him. Of course the leaders of Western countries are pragmatists, and are guided by the interests of their countries first of all. But only for the time being. Including for as long as we here remain silent, until we start to say openly and directly to everyone that our power – is thieves, murderers, and corruptioneers. What do you think of Khodorkovsky? Khodorkovsky refused to strike a deal with the power. Yes, he differed from the oligarchs in that he was engaged in socially useful projects, instead of buying up yachts and palaces for himself, he supported a children’s home. He was developing computerization in the country… Not within the framework of some national PR-project, but for real. And his «Open Russia» project? I myself received training at «Open Russia» seminars. I think that Khodorkovsky will remain behind bars until there’s a regime change in the country. I, of course, wish him health and endurance. And patience. Who is going to come to replace Putin? I will [Sergey smiles as he says this – Author’s note]. Not now, of course, but later. I think that the opposition will get stronger and stronger and in the end will develop a unified tactic. Why do such disparate people gather together? Because we want to live in another country. And because many Russians support us. What is your attitude to the construction of the North European Gas Pipeline along the bed of the Baltic Sea? This is folly. There’s no sense in this construction along the seabed specifically. This is the manifestation of somebody’s complexes, it’s a policy of isolationism. We’ve already alienated all of our neighbors. And here’s yet another round of confrontation with the countries of the Baltic region. What’s keeping you busy these days? Right now I’m founding the People’s Liberation Movement. The main plank in my program is to gather together the people and peoples of Russia under slogans of freedom (including freedom of the press), equal rights (including at elections), and rallying the friends of our people. A good neighbour is closer than kin. It’s the 21st century, and here we are, living according to some chekist paradigm that had been discarded in the previous century, in the 1960s. No, we’re building a Russia of decency and integrity. “The Other Russia” – a country that deals fairly, is open, alive, and growing. Best of luck!