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Nina Khrushcheva on Moscow Protests, Nuclear Tensions & How U.S. Media Creates Animosity Toward Russia

Web ExclusiveAugust 12, 2019
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New School professor Nina Khrushcheva talks about this weekend’s mass protests in Moscow and the failings of the U.S. media when it comes to covering Russia. She also discusses the increasing nuclear tensions between the United States and Russia. The U.S. recently pulled out of the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Last week, seven Russians, mostly nuclear scientists, died in an explosion in the White Sea during a suspected test of a nuclear-powered cruise missile. The blast caused a radiation spike in the surrounding area.

Click here to watch Part 1 of our conversation.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. This weekend in Russia, tens of thousands of people marched. In fact, in Moscow alone, 60,000 people took to the streets. It was the largest single demonstration Russia has seen in years.

We’re joined right now by Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School, co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones, also the author of The Lost Khrushchev: Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.

Professor Khrushcheva, if you can talk about the significance of these mass protests at this time? And in Part 1, we talked about what’s happening in the streets. How has Putin — has what Putin, how he has responded, surprised you in any way?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: It did in a sense that Putin is concerned about his legacy. One of the reasons he came back in 2012 as president is because he didn’t think that Russia was strong enough after he kind of made it better during very disarrayed and chaotic years of Boris Yeltsin in the '90s. So he didn't feel that Russia was strong enough. I mean, he also suffered from this typical Russian disease that presidents cannot — I mean, leaders cannot leave; they only die in office, most of the time. But he wanted to make sure that that transition to the strong Russia is sustainable.

And, in fact, as all autocrats, unfortunately, he shot himself in the foot, because he stayed on for too long. Nobody buys the — because one of the things that he did, for example, during the protest that I was, my last protest on the 27th of July, which probably had about 20 people in the streets — it was unsanctioned, so it was even braver of people to go on and protest, and there was very brutal dispersement. There was, I think, over 1,000 people, almost 1,500 people were arrested at the time. So, what did he do? In those days, he went and dived in a sarcophag of some sort, sort of to show that he’s the man of all trades, sort of the jack of all trades, the James Bond of contemporary Russia. What did he do last Saturday, which was yesterday? He went to Crimea, and he drove with the bikers — they’re all in leather, half-naked — kind of in the most ridiculous way possible, to once again show strength. In all these things, they outlived its significance. They really — I mean, he’s essentially a laughingstock.

And I think that’s the scary part for Putin, which, on one hand, as I said, it doesn’t surprise me, his response, because, you know, what do autocrats respond with? They respond with force. On the other hand, he’s concerned about his legacy. So, if you’re concerned about your legacy, you don’t want to become Stalin. You really don’t want to have a KGB running your operation.

AMY GOODMAN: Though he comes out of KGB.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: What comes out of KGB running, right, the FSB, the security.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, he comes out of.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: He comes out of KGB, but he was always sort of saying, “Well, I’m larger than that. I am a man of history. I understand why Peter the Great was great,” and so on. So, that’s his legacy. And it’s being really very much tarnished. But I think, at this point, he reached the — he reached the level of power or level of kind of time of staying in power that, in fact, the legacy of his own safety is more important than the legacy of Russia. And that’s how he undermines his existence.

So, it didn’t surprise me, but I wouldn’t expect it to get any less, because for them now, for the security forces, it’s a personal fight. It’s a fight of power that Russia has to be all the besieged fortress from outside and inside, and that’s why they claim that it’s the Western plot once again. Once again, nobody’s buying it anymore. So I think it’s a great predicament for him, because nobody’s buying that argument, and also there’s really no systemic way of dealing with what’s happening in the streets right now. Everybody’s trying to blame each other. Moscow mayor is now — is guilty, because he didn’t — he let it get out of control. The security force is saying, “We’re going to help you undo it,” and we basically suppress every single — every sort of very 1984ish — we’re going to suppress every single person who comes out to the street. But in the meantime, when they’re basically trying to fight it off, without having a strategy of how to deal with it, there is much more separation going on between what the state wants and what the people want.

And I don’t think it’s a really good recipe for Putin’s continued time in office. And he officially has to be in office until 2024. Probably, if he can, he’d like to stay longer, because he can’t leave in a normal way. So, I think Russia in very much the crossroads right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what happened to Alexei Navalny, and who he is, his imprisonment, then his doctor claiming he was somehow poisoned?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: And that’s — I mean, Alexei Navalny, I probably don’t need to explain your viewers, because he has been around for a long, long time. He has been arrested many times. He has been accused of embezzling from some wood-chopping enterprises or from beauty — a beauty factory or some — I don’t remember. There’s all this absolutely ridiculous accusations. And so, now he has this channel, the YouTube channel, which is very popular, called Navalny Live. And they’ve been raided every time that they try to transmit the protests. He’s an opposition lawyer, has put out numerous documentaries that are very popular. He hasn’t touched Putin. I mean, he has touched Putin many times, but he hasn’t done documentaries on Putin, per se.

His one of the best-known documentaries was about Dmitry Medvedev. You probably don’t remember who he was. I would like to remind everybody. He was a kind of chair-warming president for Putin from 2008 to 2012. And he seemed like — and at least Medvedev was perceived as a less corrupt, less hard-liner, much more modern, modernizing force. I mean, he was so modernizing that he squished Russian 11 time zones to nine time zones, so Russia is modern. When Putin came back, he expanded again to 11 time zones, because size matters. So, Navalny did this film about the collection of Medvedev’s watches, and millions and millions watch it and kind of got really angry about what the power has and does.

So, he is a important opposition figure. He’s called the “systemic opposition,” or, actually, nonsystemic opposition at this time. But he’s not really a leader of the opposition, because, as I said, I think it’s more of a dissident movement. He’s the most important figure of it. He makes people — because he’s so not afraid, he makes people more courageous, but not necessarily leading with some specific offering.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened to him in jail?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: In jail, yes. So, now he was arrested, and he’s been arrested all the time. And apparently he had got — the story is that he may have got poisoning, or he got some sort of a allergic reaction to something. But with the poisoning stories that come out of Russia, probably likely.

And I think it brings me to my earlier point about the security forces. I think they’re really playing dirty at this point. And they actually feel justified, because the more people come to the street, the more — like in Hong Kong, the argument is that we’re protecting the national sovereignty. We are protecting Russia from disintegration. We’re protecting Russia from all these influences that really should not be seen on the Russian soil.

So, the story, once again, is still out. We don’t know exactly what happened to him. But I worry about him more than I’ve ever done before, because, before, they always stopped short from — and I hate saying that, but from really doing much more harm to him than they have done, that have done so far, but it is possible that they will say, “Well, he’s an enemy,” and therefore, as an enemy, you know, as a non — what was it? — non-ememy combatant, he’s going to be liquidated.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Khrushcheva, I wanted to ask you about something that’s been happening at the same time. Questions are mounting over last Thursday’s explosion in the White Sea off the northern coast of Russia, which killed at least seven people, it’s believed mostly nuclear scientists. The blast caused a radiation spike in the surrounding area, and U.S. experts suspect it was caused during a test of a nuclear-powered cruise missile. This coming as concerns are growing over the renewed nuclear arms race between U.S. and Russia following President Trump’s withdrawal from the landmark INF Treaty. That’s the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Earlier this month, Russia responded by calling the INF Treaty “formally dead.” So, what do you know of what’s happened? There are a lot of people in the United States who are watching the TV series Chernobyl right now, so it’s sort of bringing it back into the present, the horror of what took place then. What do you understand? And where is this place? And what is it?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, I’m not a military expert, by no means. It is on the White Sea. It’s on the north of Russia. It’s very close to Norway. It’s very close to Sweden. It’s very close to Scandinavia. And it’s also very close to the places where one of the original protests took place. I mean, the early protest took place about the garbage site. So, I mean, there is a big story. That’s how protest — protest movement began. So, interesting there that somehow it became, once again, the center of everybody’s attention, this place.

One of the reasons that everybody worries so much, because the information is very scarce. We don’t know exactly what happened. We know that some people were — some people were killed. They died in the explosion. There was also information on the city site that the radiation went up, and then suddenly that information disappeared, so which — if something like that happens, you really know that there is a problem. So, there is a problem.

And it is understood that probably the thing that blew up is that — when Putin was showing his cartoons last year in the State of the Nation address to kind of scare the United States about the nuclear
missile carrier, Burevestnik, which I think is called the — some sort of a bird. I don’t know exactly the translation of it. And it is suspected that maybe when there was a test of this particular apparatus, it did blow up. And with the Chernobyl, of course, so fresh on everybody’s mind, because in Russia the spikes on a book that it was based on — unfortunately, Hollywood decided not to give credit to this wonderful writer, Svetlana Alexievich. It was based on her book, The Chernobyl Prayer.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, they decided not to give credit?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: They just didn’t — she was not credited in the — you know, because America is always very concerned about other people intellectual rights, but — about its own intellectual rights, but not necessarily a woman who sits in Minsk. Anyway — 

AMY GOODMAN: So it was based on her book.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: It was based — I think, out of seven characters, five characters came out of her book. I mean, it’s now being resolved, but originally just shows you that, you know, the United States also could be somewhat hypocritical in many ways. So, and in Russia, the book purchases was spiked, I think 10 times, and everybody was reading that. So it’s not only in the United States where this story is being watched and understood very much in this Chernobyl shadow, but it’s also in Russia, as well, and that kind of secrecy, that we don’t know what’s happening. So, on one hand, Putin brags to the West about that thing that they’re developing; on the other hand, the test goes bad, and we know nothing, nothing about it.

What I learned last night is that apparently the navigation stopped around that area. So, if the navigation stops around that area, that suggests that that amount of radiation that they posted and then took out actually is there. And so, we just see how it develops. And I’m quite surprised that we haven’t heard much from the Scandinavian countries yet, because they should be the one really beating the alarm very, very heavily.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, just the significance of President Trump pulling out of the INF Treaty, what this means?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, I think when Putin was showing those cartoons, it was the response to the Americans saying, “We are going to pull out.” And so, Putin was saying, “Fine. You’re going to pull out? We’re going to develop those things, and you know, you should be scared.” I mean, I think the significance is there just because Russia needs to be,
as Reagan would say, trust — verified. I wouldn’t even trust. They would just verify all the time.

But at the same time, the United States is also not a country nowadays that can be trusted, as well, and taken seriously. I think we’re in a perfect storm right now, when Russia is incompetent, but also flexing its muscle more than ever before, and America is incompetent and flexing its power of superiority more than ever before. So I think the significance is there. And it is really too bad that neither side, even if they talk about these things, neither side can either be trusted or even be expected to be coherent in this kind of conversation. So, this is one of those rare moments that you would — some would miss Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and their conversation in Reykjavík and other places, where they could in fact implement some — I mean, sign something that would be then implemented for a long time.

So I think we’re in a big trouble in many ways, and Putin is in a horrible trouble because of the nuclear — of the military promise that didn’t materialize, the protests in Moscow. And I would imagine that the two events together, that probably would make the KGB, the — whatever, the security forces to be even more suppressive, precisely because they want to take away attention from other problems that blow up all over Russia nowadays.

AMY GOODMAN: And how would you assess the Putin-Trump relationship? It’s very hard for people to figure out in this country. You have Trump showing so much deference to Putin. And also the media coverage? I mean, we’re speaking to you after the Mueller report. What your assessment is of the United States media and how it has covered Russia and the investigation into Trump? Which, really, in the Mueller report, you know, he was exonerated in one case of collusion with Russia and interfering with the 2016 election. When it came to obstruction of justice, that’s another issue.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, and I think one of the problem, from my point of view, the problem with the media report, not Democracy Now!, being independent, but it’s — they really made it into the entertainment show. And I think one of the things that feeds Trump, and we know that it feeds Trump, the more coverage he gets. It doesn’t matter. I mean, the more you get, the more horrible you get, it’s almost like in a survivor show, is that, “Oh, I’m eating cockroaches. Look at me.” So, he does this thing, and it’s his shtick. And the media really falls for that. I mean, everybody covers it, wall to wall, blanket.

You know, Joe Scarborough yesterday said that when Epstein died, it must have been Russia. So this really doesn’t help the conversation, because it also gives the Russians or gives Putin the ammunition to say, “They’re unfair to us. I mean, look at this. We cannot take it seriously, because it’s a circus all the way, 24/7.” So, I think that that was really — was instead of understanding and even understand the Russian intentions, which would have been much more helpful, instead of saying, “Well, Russia is always the Boris and Natasha story all over again. We’re not going to, you know, even find out what happened — I mean, how it happened and why.” Instead, it was all “Look at the Russkies.” So I think that really did a huge disservice to the case. It gave Russians — there’s an excuse of being Russia and saying, “Well, you know, they’re not fair to us anyway, so we’re going to do whatever it is, because they interfere in the world all the time. But, look, when we try to make sure that our interests are met, that we are criminals.” And, you know, Putin has a point in this.

I think Trump’s — I mean, I work on dictatorships and dictators, their personalities. I think the interesting thing about Trump is that he likes power. I mean, he’s very obvious about this things. I mean, he likes power. And Putin does exude power. He’s, you know, completely — you don’t see what he thinks. You know, George Bush, of course, looked into his eyes and saw his soul, but only George Bush. Nobody else has seen that. So, Trump is attracted to people like that. And for many sort of these dictatorial formulas, even in Europe, around the world, Putin is a great example. I mean, look at Erdogan in Turkey, or look at Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Look at Matteo Salvini in Italy, and so on and so forth. So, Trump —

AMY GOODMAN: Duterte in the Philippines.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Right, exactly. So, Trump is really not that original, but he’s of that type. And so, kind of the autocrats of the world unite in some ways. And I think, for Putin, when Trump promised this great relationship, you know, which Russian president would never agree to have a good relationship with America? Suddenly Russia is not maligned, which it always does, I mean, whether fairly or not fairly. So, of course, he would pick it up and say, “Well, Trump loves me, and so I’m going to, you know, try to make this relationship work.”

But I think instead of understanding there are a lot of intricacies and relationships, so we can have — I’m very grateful for you to have this longish conversation, because usually when I’m on another program, it would be two minutes, goodbye. So you say Putin is horrible and that we end with that. So, I think the fact that the intricacies were lost in this kind of conversation really damaged any possibility to have understanding, but also, at least not on Putin-Trump level, but even on lower levels, to have better conversation than that. I mean, I know the conversations took place. But, ultimately, can they be implemented politically? That’s a question, because the media created — not without Russian help, mind you — great animosity, that it’s very difficult to talk about Russia without even sounding — you say “Russia,” basically, it’s a crime right there.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, where you see all of this headed? I mean, you have been an observer. Your own family background is the great-granddaughter of Khrushchev. What do you see happening, possibly? You’ll be headed back to Russia.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, I’d like to say that we’ll prevail. But —

AMY GOODMAN: And what would that look like?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: That looks like that there would be some concessions, some conversation with power, some possibility for these independent candidates to get into Moscow city power. I don’t see how it’s going to happen, because I don’t think there’s anybody — I mean, Moscow government, clearly, they are no longer in charge of the situation. So, even if they are going to get into the Moscow city government, it wouldn’t matter anymore, because now it is a federal case, so to speak. So it is a national — it is a national issue.

And I don’t see Putin, the way he has become, the ossified great leader who’s sitting there, and his view of the world is that the West does it, and they’re out to get us and whatnot, how is that going to — how he’s going to refrain from that. And there is no political strategist around him who’s either clever enough to get to him and say, “We need to undo this somehow,” and the way they don’t even see, because I actually think that they stepped over the line.

So, the only way I see for him — and I hope I’m wrong — is to keep pressing and pressing and pressing and pressing. So all those wonderful things that they did in the last seven years, create cities that are comfortable for living, they are going to stamp on those. They’re going to break their own benches. They’re going to collapse their own white sidewalks, close the restaurants and whatnot, because, ultimately, when you cross that line, the only thing you get to is to 1984, which then, again, would become very, very dangerous for Putin in power.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s 1984?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: 1984, George Orwell’s —

AMY GOODMAN: The book.

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: George Orwell’s novel. I mean, we keep sort of coming back to this, is that they are at that stage. But once you become total oppression, then the total dissidentship also a very big threat.

So, I would imagine the last four year — the next four years or five years of Putin’s governance is going to be very, very unpleasant and very stressful. And I don’t see — and I can be entirely wrong — I don’t see people going back into their homes, unless they’re really incredibly, incredibly scared. But I was with the young people there. I’m older. Nobody — police was not interested in me, but they were really picking all these very young people around me, immediately, even if they didn’t have any slogans. I actually had slogan: “Putin is a thief.” But nobody had any slogans, the young people, and they would pick them up anyway, because they want to scare them for the future, for the future generation.

A predicament, because Putin has no Crimea to annex anymore, to say, “Well, look at us. We’re all powerful and wonderful.” Nobody buys the Western threat, because we know that the West was not really planning those protests. So, I think — I think it’s going to be much more of a separation between the public and the Kremlin, which is new, because, before, the Kremlin, until very recently, it was listening very carefully to what the public wants. But I think we stepped over that particular rubicon.

AMY GOODMAN: And can I ask you one last question? Russia’s relationship with China, where is that going? And is that significant here? You have President Trump saying we will have no treaty with Russia without China?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Well, I think it is very significant, because we know, at the beginning of June, Xi Jinping, the president, went to Russia, went to the Bolshoi, because, you know, that’s what you do when you come to Russia. He was in Saint Petersburg Economic Forum, and they were signing all sorts of things like there is no tomorrow, basically saying, “Well, we are going to be friends.”

The interesting thing, that when they both spoke, Putin and Xi Jinping, they spoke about absolutely different things. So, Xi Jinping was saying, “We’re still part — we’re part of the world. We want to look into, you know, the world, the global affairs.” And Putin was saying, “We are going to be China and Russia together.” So, in some ways, they were talking parallel directions.

What I’ve seen — and I actually, in my book, I have the whole chapter on Russia-China relations, and, you know, I traveled across the Amur River to China — I saw no love lost between the two countries. I mean, Putin and Xi Jinping may be acting as if they’re speaking against the Western dominance together, but I think Xi Jinping is using Russia, because, you know, especially with trade wars with China, Russia is a good place for them to trade with. And for Putin, China is this economic giant, or at least, you know, used to be — we don’t know how long it will last — this economic giant that is going to pick up all the Russian slack, but Russia will provide the political stance against the West.

Once again, it is — I think it’s like with Mao Zedong and Stalin. It’s a very flawed relationship. They’re really not strategic enough, and they are not forward-looking enough, because if the only reason they are together is to stick it to the West, it’s just not going to last long, because they have more problems between each other, ultimately, that certainly Russia has, or should have, with the West, because, essentially, it is a Western country that keeps saying, “No, no, we are not,” and we’re just going to act exactly against the West because that’s the only way we can get noticed and feel important about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Nina Khrushcheva, we want to thank you so much for being with us, professor of international affairs at The New School.


AMY GOODMAN: She is the co-author of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones. She’s also the author of The Lost Khrushchev: Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.

To see Part 1 of our conversation, go to I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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