Boris Akunin Interviews Alexei Navalny

The following is an exclusive translation of an interview by Boris Akunin (Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili) of Alexei Navalny was published on his LiveJournal page.

Conversation with a Politician

First Part: Taking the bull by the horns

Aleksei Navalny is the most exciting political figure of recent times. More specifically, he is the only authentic politician in Russia today. Nevertheless, many view him differently, some admire him, and others hate him. Some are very critical, while others are perplexed. My opinion of Aleksei Navalny  has evolved in a typical manner. At first, I thought he was simply wonderful, because he has this great story- A young lawyer goes out on his own, and while keeping within the law defies corruption, leaving the huge system cowering, with its tail between its legs

A huge turning point for me however, was his taking part in the “Russian March”. Is this guy a nationalist? Or an unprincipled populist? Perhaps he’s simply soft in the head? If that’s true, any increase in his popularity could be dangerous.  I look at this young politician thinking that, just like Bulgakov’s Sharik, “this owl must be explained”.

During the preparations for the meeting we got to know each other and I suggested that we have a public conversation. We would write to each other- a method of communication with much history, and I had experience of it also as roughly three years ago I tried to “explain” Mikhail Khodorkovsky. And here is our conversation. Read it and make up your own mind. It’s divided into three parts, what has been, what will be and what soothes the heart. As I’m truly interested in your opinions and reactions I will answer all your commentaries.

G.Ch- Aleksei Anatolevich, many of my circle- and many more outside of it- have mixed feelings about you.

They can’t figure out your allegiances and decide for themselves how to relate to you, “warmly approve and support” or “stop-before-its-too-late”.  To put it more objectively, who are you for supporters of democratic ideologies- a temporary ally together against a common enemy (the lawless authorities) or someone more promising?

The main reason for the mistrust relating to your adherence to the idea of Russian nationalism, is that to the Russian democratic intelligentsia it is firmly associated with conservative, right-wing groups such as the Black Hundreds. I know that you repeatedly try to explain your position on this. It’s not been enough. Let’s try again.

Let’s begin with a “childish” question. If I correctly understand it, you are a supporter of the idea of a “nationalist Russian government”. What does that mean in terms of the federation, where hundreds of different nationalities live, and where in the big cities, the “local” population are barely in the majority? Should all half-Russians, or those not of Russian ethnicity consider themselves in your Russia as second-class humans?

Alexei Navalny: Grigory Shalvovich, I honestly did not expect such questions from you, or from the democratic intelligentsia of your circle. The democratic intelligentsia should read about this in the papers, and if they are even a little bit interested in my activities, they should have a basic understanding of my political allegiances. They should know about the party “Yabloko”, about the movement “Democratic Alternative”, about current events.

Your question is not childish, but shameful. You work, you work, and then the democratic intelligentsia is interested in whether I consider some people as second-class citizens. There is no such thing as second-class people. If someone thinks there is, then he is a dangerous lunatic, who needs to be re-educated, cured or isolated from society. There can be no limits to citizenship based on ethnic principles.By the way, I’m “half-Russian” as I’m half Ukrainian, and I do not wish to feel a bit like a second-rate person.

G.Ch-  Well then, what’s this “Russian nationalist government”? Or you don’t identify yourself with the slogan of the “Russian March”, in which you participated?

A.N– I have never put forward that slogan, but I support it without a doubt in the same way as Khodrokovsky’s interpretation: It is an alternative to the attempts to build a 19th century empire from Russia. Such a joke is simply not viable in today’s world.

The source of power in a nationalist government is the nation, the citizens of the country and not a class-based elite, who advance the slogan of global domination, and under this banner, pillage the population on their march towards the Indian Ocean.

We need a government to ensure a comfortable and dignified life for citizens, to protect their individual and collective interests. A nation-state is the European route to the development of Russia, our sweet and comfortable, though also strong and dependable European home. The main “nationalist” treaty, which I have signed, is available here. ( The manifesto for the advancement of the nation. I stand by every word.

Poll # 1808072 Navalny on the national question
Open to: All , detailed results viewable to: All , participants: 7319Как вам это объяснение? How do you find his position?

View Answers View Answers

His position is understandable and acceptable in principle
3754 (51.5%) 3754 (51.5%)
His position is understandable, but unacceptable
416 (5.7%) 416 (5.7%)
I cannot decide. His explanation is not enough
3121 (42.8%) 3121 (42.8%)

G.Ch. – Well, I’m not ready to sign up to every word in the document. For example, the idea of ​​the right of every citizen to own a gun seems to me overly romantic considering our situation. I have some issues with some of the provisions of the manifesto, but okay, as there should be, there is room for discussion of these differences.

I grasped the main thesis with which I will not argue: “The unity of the country, its power and prosperity will be strengthened only if we can ensure equality before the law for all citizens, regardless of their ethnic origin, social status and area of ​​residence.”

So, let’s turn to the next “painful” issue, which is your attitude toward the disintegration of the Soviet Union.  Here we will focus on the notorious “imperial syndrome.” As a child I was taught not to ask another questions that I am not prepared to answer myself, so let me begin with presenting my case.

I don’t miss the Soviet Union as a nuclear superpower and didn’t care for covering “one-sixth of the earth”. I have no nostalgia for the military-bureaucratic empire. However, as regards cultural and economic power, I consider myself quite the imperialist. I would really like that our culture, economic power and enviable living conditions prompted our neighbours to voluntarily seek concord and union with us. I’m all for the restoration (and if works out to expand beyond previous limits) of the sphere of Russia’s cultural and economic influence. But not under duress, not under the threat of weapons or cutting off of gas, but out of love (culture) and by calculation (the economy).

And what’s your opinion? Do you miss the Soviet Union? Do you stigmatize the villains of the Bialowieza Forest?

A.N. – Everyone wants to see his country bigger, richer, stronger.  I also want this, I think it’s alright.

As for the USSR, I born in 1976 and though I remember our Soviet life, it is associated for me with the milk queue, where it seems I stood the whole time.  And this is despite the fact that I lived in the military cities, where the supply was better than in the rest of the country.

Do not confuse the Soviet Union and representation of it, made up from the happiest moments of your childhood or youth, as well as the show of Leonid Parfenov, “The Other Day. Our time”, added to the songs of Alla Pugacheva.

The greatness of the Soviet Union was based on the self-denial and heroism of its citizens living in poverty. We built the spacecraft and swapped stories  of stores where they have forty varieties of sausage and no queues. As is now clear, there are countries where all there is are missiles and sausage. It wasn’t villains of the Bialowieza Forest who broke up the USSR, but the Communist Party, the State Planning Commission and the roguish Soviet nomenklatura.  These rogues signed legal agreements on the end of the empire, which by that time did not exist de facto.

This is a historical fact. Another fact is that the core and foundation of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union was our country – Russia. The Russian state remains economically and militarily dominant in the in the region.  Our objective is to preserve and enhance. You do not need to understand the dominance of the region only in a military sense, in the modern world it’s largely a matter of economic development. There is no strong economy and no modern army.
We see that our former neighbours in the USSR have reoriented themselves towards China, this is for economic reasons.

We do not need to specifically plan for some kind of expansion, the task itself is to become strong and rich, and then the neighbours will be in the area of ​​our control, from which they cannot move. With regard to cultural influence, it is of course also linked to the economy, but this matter is more subtle and irrational. If we talk about the state strategy in which we can effectively promote simple things, the main subject of our concern is the Russian language. While in neighbouring countries many people remain fluent in Russian, we still have the tools of cultural influence. Unfortunately, the situation is changing as in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus there millions of young people for whom, it’s either Russian, or German.

This is a case where “tomorrow will be too late”. The number of native speakers is declining naturally.  Investing in language programs will be a useful investment as it will return to us a greater advantage.

Poll #1808073 Is Russia an empire?

What should Russia be?

I want Russia to be the formidable power that the USSR was.
462 (6.6%)
I want Russia to be an economic and cultural centre, which inspires sympathy and not fear.
3753 (54.0%)
Let Russia be a welcoming “country for the people”, without imperial priorities.
2735 (39.4%)

G.Ch.- There is another “eternal” question, which stubbornly stays current, and in general it’s easy to see why.( In fact, it’s about the priority of social-governmental structure: Is the person there for the state or the state for the person?)   I mean the relation to the figure of the iron statesman and merciless pragmatist Joseph Stalin. For me he is the most frightening chapter in Russian political history. What is he for you?

A.N. – Hitler and Stalin are the two main butchers of Russians. Stalin executed, starved and tortured my fellow countrymen; personally it’s very clear to me.  However, I’m against the idea that it’s an “eternal” question and I don’t see any point in all this “de-Stalinisation”. I don’t understand, what it means in the format of governmental politics.

If you want “de-Stalinisation” go ahead and read your school child “The Gulag Archipelago”, then go read the article “Stalin’s repressions”. You’ll have the story there, short, understandable, objective and with links. It’s necessary to independently answer the calls of time, and not live through endless political allusions.  The “Stalin Question” is one of historical science and not current politics. «

G.Ch. – I don’t agree. The ghost of the “efficient manager” needs to be staked through the heart and buried very deep.  Otherwise, he will climb out of the grave again and again. But this is a theme for a separate large discussion. Now, I want to put another question to you, which again connects history and political topicality.

I know that you are a believer, though you don’t overstress your religiosity and don’t try to convert it into political capital. The question is not about belief which is a personal matter for all, but about churches. What role do you see for the Orthodox Church in modern Russian society? Are you satisfied with the modern-day relations of the authorities and the patriarchy? What kind of relations should there be in Russia between the state and the church?

A.N. – There is no need to stake anybody, and for that matter, it’s impossible to stake a ghost. The myth, that Stalin brought order through an iron fist is just that, a myth. To dethrone him, somebody else must bring order without any iron fist, simply through the law. Its entirely possible and successfully happens in many countries. Its necessary for the head of the government to put moral and ethical directions in place and to fulfil his functions and not to work just to have millionaires as neighbours in the Dacha cooperative.

As for the church and religion, to my shame, I am a typical post-Soviet believer. I observe fasts, am baptised, but go to church rarely. When my friends mock me as I order “Vegetable salad- I’m fasting”, they demand that I explain to them exactly what each fast is for, then they pretty quickly try to pin me down and tease me as “a fake”. It’s true that I’m not as familiar with these matters as I’d like, though I am working on it. I do not think my religion can be converted into political capital. It would look ridiculous. I neither hide it nor emphasize it, it is what it is.

I believe, I like to be a Christian and an Orthodox Christian; I like to feel part of something bigger. I like the fact that there is a special ethics and self-restraint. At the same time, it doesn’t bother me that I exist in a predominantly atheistic environment.  Twenty-five  years ago, before the birth of my child, I myself was such an ardent atheist that I was ready to grab the beard of the Pope.

It’s normal that there are religious people, and it is normal that there are those who scoff at piety. Religious jokes in “The Simpsons” or “South Park” are absolutely beautiful, and do not offend me at all.

When we talk about the role of the Orthodox Church, we should highlight a few axioms.

We live in a secular state. Religion is separated from the state. No one shall be discriminated against because of their religion. Orthodoxy is the main religion in Russia and we should not deceive ourselves, looking for a position of absolute equality. The special role of the Orthodox Church is understandable and reasonable. More than 80% of citizens consider themselves Orthodox (even if they do not go to church). Christmas is a national holiday. It is clear that the attempt to give the Buddhists as much attention as Orthodox Christians is doomed to failure. If the Buddhists so wish, their religion and the clergy can play a special role in the places of traditional residence of Buddhists – Kalmykia and Buryatia. It’s also great, that in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan they have weekends associated with Islamic holidays. But we must not deny the obvious. The religion of Russia is Orthodox Christianity. I will repeat though, that no discrimination can be assumed. Limitation of other faiths or atheists must unavoidably be prosecuted.

The topic of “a fusion” of the patriarchy and power is painful. The position of the Orthodox Church is that all power is from God, and that they will support any power. One must deal with this philosophy. I do not see any original recipes for this, only the law. Their relations should be formalized. If someone wants to support the Orthodox Church in their quotas for cigarettes, the secular authorities should influence this official in the established manner. His “counterparty” in the Orthodox Church can occupy himself with the Church, discussing whether it is permissible or not.

A few days ago I read an interesting article in “Vedomosti” where they described the experience of the peaceful withdrawal of dictators from power. It is curious that almost everywhere the chief mediator between the dictator and the protesters was the Church. Is it possible now for us? I doubt it. But I would really to see the Orthodox Church would occupy this position in society. I would like to see all those in conflict seek and receive its mediation.

Poll #1808074 Is conversation about Stalin current or historical?

Is it necessary to continue trying to dethrone Stalinism?

Enough about Stalin, about him all is clear.
1141 (18.7%)
Stalinism has not been dethroned forever, and this is dangerous.
1631 (26.7%)
In creating a successful government the question will resolve itself.
3330 (54.6%)

Poll #1808075 Church and Religion

How did you consider the role of the Orthodox Church in today’s Russia?

The role of the church in society is positive.
610 (5.8%)
The role of the church in society is negative.
2239 (21.4%)
The role of the church in society  is insignificant
1394 (13.3%)
The church shouldn’t play any role in society.
1945 (18.6%)
The church should occupy a position in society,  independent from the authorities.
3987 (38.1%)
The church should reconcile its position in society with the authorities.
96 (0.9%)
The authorities should reconcile their policies with the church.
192 (1.8%)

(More than one answer is possible)

G.Ch. – We will consider this part of the conversation as a warm-up for the most interesting: what awaits our country and all of us in the coming year. It’s all to come in the next portion.