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Masha Gessen on the Role of Anti-Putin Candidates in the Russian Election & Calls for a Voter Boycott

Web ExclusiveMarch 19, 2018
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Watch an exclusive excerpt from our February interview with Masha Gessen, the award-winning Russian-American journalist and staff writer at The New Yorker, in which she discusses the pending Russian presidential election. Her recent book, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” won National Book Award in 2017. Her new book, “Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia,” comes out on March 20.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Masha Gessen is our guest, the award-winning Russian-American journalist, staff writer at The New Yorker, her recent book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. She won the National Book Award in 2017. Her latest book, Never Remember: Searching for Stalin’s Gulags in Putin’s Russia, goes on sale March 20th.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Masha.

MASHA GESSEN: Thank you. Thank you. It’s good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about—well, you just wrote this piece, “The Curious Case of the Television Star Running Against Vladimir Putin.” She just came to New York.

MASHA GESSEN: So, she’s an interesting character. And she’s certainly livened up the Russian media sphere. She is a television star. She’s also the daughter of Putin’s first political employer and really his political mentor.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about Ksenia Sobchak.

MASHA GESSEN: Ksenia Sobchak. And Putin’s political mentor was Anatoly Sobchak, the first post-Soviet mayor of St. Petersburg. Putin worked as his deputy, amassed a small fortune at the time embezzling $100,000 seemed like a big deal. The city council of St. Petersburg conducted an investigation, concluded that Putin was implicated in embezzling $100,000, and asked the mayor to prosecute him. Because he was a city official, the mayor had to order the prosecution. The mayor, Sobchak, responded by disbanding the city council. And then, after he lost office, Putin protected him.

But then Sobchak died mysteriously in 2000. There are people, including, from what I can tell, Sobchak’s widow—so this woman’s mother—who believe that Putin had something to do with his death.

But this young woman seems to be positioning herself to suggest to Putin that he has an exit ramp. He can anoint her his successor in another six years. And she will keep him safe from prosecution the way that her father kept him safe from prosecution and the way that he kept her father safe from prosecution. So, it’s this very convoluted family story.

But on another level, she’s also bringing up a lot of issues that it would not be—no other person in Russia would be allowed to bring up in the public sphere. She’s talking about political prisoners. She’s talking about LGBT rights and the anti-gay campaign. And it’s quite remarkable. And so, you know, in my book, she gets credit for that.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Ksenia Sobchak during an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

KSENIA SOBCHAK: And I also have a message for America I want to share now. My message is that the position that Russia should be kept out is a bad message, because when you try to destabilize situation in such a big country with nuclear weapon, it won’t do any good for anyone, nor for Russians, nor for Americans. The good way—and my new policy will be about this, my international policy—is to keep the Russian in, is to do so that Russia would become, in all the institutions, a big part and play a major role.

AMY GOODMAN: So that’s the Putin opposition presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, speaking to Christiane Amanpour. Masha Gessen?

MASHA GESSEN: Well, I respectfully disagree with Ksenia Sobchak. I think that—I think that a friendly relationship with Russia, cooperation with Russia, contaminates this country. I mean, not that we’re faced with that problem, not that like the sort of better relations with Russia have been the result of Trump politics, contrary to his promises.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you recently had Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying something very unusual, very cryptic, right after the indictments came down, and the reporters were saying, “Why aren’t you tougher on Russia? Why haven’t you applied sanctions?” She said, “We’re tougher than Obama ever was.” In fact, I think she said something like, “And we just did something a few days ago that we’re not going to reveal yet.”

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah, I mean, considering Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ and her boss’s track record, that could mean absolutely nothing, or it could mean something, or she might be referring to something that happened, but her interpretation is completely wild and off the record. And basically, she hasn’t told us anything, so let’s wait until there’s information.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let me turn to another opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny, who was detained and released just today, as we’re doing this interview, on Thursday, after police opened—

MASHA GESSEN: You can say that most days.

AMY GOODMAN: —after police opened a case against him for organizing, quote, “illegal protests.” He’s been repeatedly jailed for organizing massive anti-corruption protests, and has also advocated for a boycott of the Russian presidential election next month. He was banned from running in the election himself. This is Navalny being arrested at a protest in Moscow on January 28th. So, Masha Gessen, talk about who Alexei Navalny is.

MASHA GESSEN: So, Alexei Navalny is and started out as an anti-corruption activist, who wrote a very compelling blog about corruption and figured out ways to use open sources to document Russian official corruption. And that got a lot of traction. He amassed a huge following and basically turned his anti-corruption blog into a large and very credible investigative organization that focuses on corruption. He himself has called repeatedly for anti-corruption protests, and hundreds of thousands of Russians come out for these protests. And that ability to bring people out into the streets is what really terrifies the Kremlin.

The Kremlin has tried to use trumped-up charges against him. They have been afraid to jail him, because the one time that he was sentenced to five years in jail, in July 2013, about 7,000 to 10,000 Muscovites came out into the street without a permit. Seven to 10,000 people risking arrest in central Moscow was something that impressed the state enough that they immediately released Navalny, even though he had already been sentenced to jail time, which tells us volumes, you know, about sort of the state of law and order in the United States, but—I mean, in Russia, sorry. But they’ve taken his brother hostage. He’s been in jail now for, I guess, three years and has more than a year to go. They were hoping that Navalny would stop his activities because his brother is held in a prison colony. He hasn’t. He’s extraordinarily brave.

But I think it’s a little bit of a mistake to call him an opposition politician, because what the state has actually managed to do, quite effectively, is to stop him from being an opposition politician, right? When he calls for people to come out and protest, and they do, they come out individually, and they go back home, right? There’s no collective action. There’s no politics in the sense of people acting together. And if he were allowed to actually create a presidential campaign, that’s when he would enter politics. That’s when he would turn that incredible ability, to call on people to participate, into an actual political organization, which is, of course, exactly why he is not being allowed to run for president.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of calling for a boycott? Will that have any effect?

MASHA GESSEN: I mean, Ksenia Sobchak has effectively split the opposition, or the people who would oppose Putin. There are a large number of people who believe that the only opportunity they have to express their opinion is to go to the polls, and so they will go and vote for Sobchak. And then there’s a large number of people who believe that the election is such a corrupt performance that by going there and taking any part, even if it’s just to take your bulletin and mark it up in a way that makes it unusable, is, in some way, participating in the travesty of the election.

And, you know, both arguments are perfectly valid. I think that it is true that people have no instruments for influencing the Kremlin. And so, going to the polls and casting a protest vote is such an instrument. And yet, when they go to the polls, they bolster the legitimacy of this fake election.

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