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“The Next Step Is the Kremlin”: Why Moscow Protests Have Putin’s Government Worried

StoryAugust 12, 2019
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Up to 60,000 protesters gathered Saturday in Moscow in the largest demonstration Russia has witnessed in years. Although the protest was officially authorized, dozens of protesters were arrested in the capital, and dozens more were also arrested in demonstrations across the country. Saturday’s protest was organized to denounce the recent barring of opposition candidates from running in an upcoming election for Moscow City Council. We speak with Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at The New School. She is the co-author of “In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We turn now to Russia, where up to 60,000 protesters gathered Saturday in the capital Moscow in the largest demonstration Russia has witnessed for years. Although the protest was officially authorized, dozens of protesters were arrested. Dozens more were also arrested in protests in cities around Russia. Saturday’s protest was organized to denounce the recent barring of opposition candidates from running in an upcoming election for the Moscow City Council. This is protester Alexander Kostyuk, who was detained earlier this month.

ALEXANDER KOSTYUK: [translated] I wanted to read out to the citizens the 31st clause in the Constitution, to remind them that we have the right to gather peacefully and unarmed. At that moment, five law enforcement officers jumped on me from the back. One of them took the Constitution and a backpack from me. Four of them forced me to the ground and started to beat me up. They hit me around the head with truncheons and their fists.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the protests, we’re joined 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. She is also the author of The Lost Khrushchev: Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind. She is the great-granddaughter of the former Soviet Union premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Nina Khrushcheva, we welcome you to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what’s happening right now in Russia?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: Something that we didn’t expect to escalate so quickly, because I got to Moscow at the end of May. I went to the first protest against detention of a journalist, investigative journalist, anti-corruption investigative journalist, Ivan Golunov, at the beginning of June. And there were less than thousands of us. I mean, there were quite a bit of information about this. We actually protested the Moscow MVD headquarters, sort of the internal police headquarters. But it didn’t — we didn’t believe that the next step would be just such a small thing as a Moscow city government election, the independent candidates, would really bring the political crisis.

And it’s not just a Moscow political crisis that is taking place now in Russia; it’s a Russian political crisis, because suddenly something that seemed to be such uneventful event, uneventful thing as the Moscow city election, became the event that suddenly the whole Russian police and all the branches of the Russian police — and there are very many, and you see it in the footage. There’s this people who are called cosmonauts — they are in those black helmets — and the Russian guards and so on and so forth.

So, suddenly, the Kremlin took over, because for the Kremlin, the way I understand it, the way I see it, from a few thousand to the 60,000 that took place just this Saturday, people who came out for the Kremlin, this is — if you allow the opposition to take over, as they think, the Moscow city government, the next step with the Kremlin. And since Putin, at least for the last decade, has run Russia as this besieged fortress — and it’s not just against the West, besieged fortress, but also from people that question his regime — then becomes a very scary proposition. So, suddenly, from a very small event of local elections, it became an anti-Putin demonstration, at least the way they are framed. And so, of course, no surprise, police got in.

And now it’s the power ministries that are basically running the show and saying, you know, “All these democracy games, they’re ridiculous. Look what happens.” And they’re looking at Hong Kong, because we have 60,000, and Hong Kong had 200,000, many more than 200,000. So, they’re looking at Hong Kong, and I think they really decided that nobody is going to pass through this, and they’re going to stand firm, and all this democratic games essentially over, as I’m sure they feel.

And I think kind of the difficult part for all of us — and I’m going to Moscow in a few weeks, too, because I’m basically missing this great awakening of a new — sort the new dissidentship that we’re experiencing. I think the big question for us is how this regime is going to essentially become more Stalinesque than it already has been.

AMY GOODMAN: You have written — I mean, you have waited for this moment for so long. Can you talk about what this moment is, why it’s so important? You’re a fierce Putin critic. And why this rage of the country is now being expressed towards him?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: I think kind of it’s a remarkable consequence of the comfort, in many ways, comfort that Putin brought to the country in the last 20 years, because Russians have lived better than they’ve ever lived before, under any regime. I mean the mass of Russians. And so, in many ways — and we witnessed it in 2011, when, in 2011, 2010, actually, Putin announced that he’s going to be president again, and people went out and said, “No. Wait a minute. I have my cappuccino. I want to choose my president. And you’re not my choice.”

And so, now we’re just experiencing the next step of it, because, for example, one of the results of the 2012 protests were then the government decided, “We’re going to make life even more comfortable.” If you travel to Moscow — and, you know, probably one should before the borders get closed — it is an incredibly comfortable city. It’s more European than Europe. It’s like the Saint Petersburg of the 17th century, more European than Europe. It is. And so they made it so people wouldn’t protest. They made this humongous sidewalk, so we just leisurely walk around. And suddenly, instead of that, people went to the streets.

So, I think, in many ways, for me — and I’ve expected it for at least 10 years — for me, the moment is that it’s a great anatomy of how power exhausts itself. It thinks that it does better because it makes people comfortable. But ultimately, when you make people more comfortable, people actually ask for the change of power, because, in many ways, in many places — and I did travel across Russia two years ago — in many places, it’s not that they dislike Putin particularly. They’re just incredibly tired of him. And after 20 years, that’s something happened to Brezhnev, something happened to Stalin, to the less degree. And I think, in this sense, that Kremlin power has exhausted its potential.

AMY GOODMAN: And who are the leaders of this movement?

NINA KHRUSHCHEVA: And I think that’s the remarkable part, is that it doesn’t have the leaders. I mean, it’s Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption lawyer, who has been leading Russian opposition for many years now, for some years. He’s been prearrested, as I call it. He’s prearrested every time when the demonstration takes place.

But I think what’s important now, and that reminds me of 1991 more than of anything when the Soviets went to the street and said, “We don’t want to be controlled by the Soviet Kremlin, by the hard-line Kremlin anymore,” people go to the street because they’re fed up. They are tired. They want to have more dignity. They want to have a say in those comfortable cities that Putin made or Putin’s people made. They want to have a say in what kind of politics they have. And so, this is — and that’s why I call it dissidentship, sort of the open dissidentship, rather than opposition, because it’s not an opposition movement. It’s a movement of people who are tired of the same system and want its renewal.

AMY GOODMAN: Nina Khrushcheva, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of international affairs at The New School here in New York.

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