Valerie Zen is an opponent of Putin who lives in Moscow, who has been involved in several campaigns in Russia (she doesn’t like to describe herself as an activist) and is active on social media speaking up against the Russian regime. In this interview she tells me (Rachael Horwitz) about her thoughts on the current situation in Russia including political prisoners, the annexation of Crimea, environmental protests and the domestic violence law.
Tell me a bit about yourself and how you got into activism/politics;
I don’t really think activism is the right word to describe what I do. I don’t normally picket 24/7 or go to any rally for whatever reason. Moreover, 7 years ago, I used to be totally ignorant of what occurred within the country. My exposure to politics started back in 2012 when Putin was re-elected for his 3rd presidential term, which I found quite weird. That was absolutely against the constitution and mounted the public’s frustration, followed by massive protest. Unfortunately, that peaceful protest was suppressed and some people who went out ended up in jail. That was absolutely unfair.
Two years later the annexation of Crimea happened. That step was surprisingly welcomed and approved by the vast majorly of Russians. I couldn’t really stand all the propaganda and brainwashing, that turned many smart people into militant chauvinists, claiming that the West and Ukraine are two most dangerous enemies that must be destroyed ASAP. I guess, the annexation turned out to be a turning point that eventually shaped my views, making me step into what most people would call activism. However, I do not see myself as a protester in a common sense of this word. I just express my attitude.
That’s it. However, never would I share the view that “protest must exist just for the sake of protest”. I just don’t get it. At any rate there is a big difference between the civil position you take and being a constant member of some protest movement.
1. What groups/campaigns are you involved with at the moment?
I never belonged to any political party or group. When it comes to my views I am more centrist. Frankly speaking, I believe both ultra current left and right ideas have gone too far and stopped being commonsensical. Extremes can never be about common sense. So I am now leaning towards some golden middle and stick to what I find right and appropriate. Campaigns-wise, I basically support all Russian and Ukrainian political prisoners and all Ukrainians who are forcefully kept in Russian jails. I know for sure that almost anyone in modern Russia can end up behind bars just if you start openly expressing your political views. You are never safe since you don’t share pro-Kremlin views. No matter whether you are an LGBT activist or an ultra-right guy, the fact remains: if you dare to speak something against the current regime, you are in jeopardy.
2. What are the main issues facing the opposition in Russia at the moment?
There are so many of them. If I were to make up my own top 3, I think it would be
1. counter-corruption campaigns
2. invasions in Ukraine and Syria
3. political prisoners and human rights campaigns
I do this for one simple reason. People’s lives is the key thing. So, over 13,000 Ukrainians have been killed in the course of the military aggression. Unprecedented corruption leads to catastrophes that could take people’s lives. There have already been some tragic examples. Conditions in Russian prisons are dire and it gets ever worse. Many prisoners are being subjected to tortures, many die in jails, as it is next to impossible to survive in these conditions.
4. It was widely predicted censorship, for example on social media, and repression would get worse after the election. Has anything changed in this respect?
It has, we have a new law on social media censorship, which was adopted this winter. From now on any criticism of pro-Kremlin agenda would be considered as slander or insult. If a person, who posts a publication or even a comment, is found guilty, he or she could be either fined or put in jail for 30 days. Moreover, starting from recent years some special cyber-crews operate on the internet.
They are aimed at monitoring protest-publications on social media and detecting people with opposition views. If they spot something they think could insult the authorities, they immediately inform law enforcement. Then an administrative case is started. In most cases a person is found guilty. This is how it functions. I guess this is one more step toward censorship toughening and autocracy consolidating. They want to shut the mouth of anyone who has the guts to publicly disagree with the current policies.
Is there much environmental activism taking place in Russia at the moment? Parts of Siberia are badly affected by climate change. Is there a discussion about this among the Russian opposition?
Just a few years back environmental protests were not that common. Today the situation has dramatically changed and I could say eco-campaigns are now gathering pace all over the country. It all started last year from “landfill issues”, when people walked out to protest against huge landfills placed next to their cities or towns. Locals say they just cannot breathe normally, the air becomes extremely polluted. Activists stand tall, do whatever possible to fix these issues. It is hard, as any protest in Russia, including social issues, is seen as a direct threat to the regime. I know, those activists are blackmailed, intimidated and arrested. They do not feel safe. On the other hand most of them do not tend to politicize their protest, the only thing they care about is having their own issue settled. Currently we have a major campaign going on in Shies, Archangelsk region. It has been over 3 months since people have started fighting with a local administration that transports over 2 million tons of rubbish, making the lives of people look like a nightmare. None of us have any idea whether it would be a happy ending story, all we know is that people do their best to protect their town and are not going to give up.
Rubbish protests have become quite a common phenomenon here in the past few years. The bad thing about this is lack of consolidation. People are more focused on their own problems and most of them tend to turn a blind eye to other pressing issues.
5. What are workplace conditions like there? Is there any way for trade unions to organise independently? Have there been any important strikes recently?
I am not really into trade-union issues. Guess it is not that commonplace in the country. I assume it doesn’t really work because people here are struggling, so jobs are hard to find, especially in smaller cities in depressed regions. So this all makes people happy whatever job they land. They‘d rather tolerate poor work conditions and ridiculously small pay rather than start trade unions.
There is constant fear of being fired and finding no alternative. As sometimes there really is no alternative.
6. Can you explain about the case of the Katchaturian sisters? (Two sisters who have been accused of killing their abusive father in a high profile and divisive case in Russia). Do you think anything will change as a result of this case and the public campaign to free them?
I’ve always been against domestic violence and sex abuse. This problem is still relevant for our country, and I believe any woman must have a right to self-defense if she falls victim and gets raped. When it comes to the Katchaturian case, I really think we all need to scrutinize this. I see a public campaign in support of these girls. In any case that’s good, as this case could bring awareness of how domestic violence is common in Russia.
The worst thing about this is that domestic violence was decriminalized, so if a woman decides to defend herself, she would most likely face criminal charges.
Here is just another story;
Kristina Shidujova from Gelendjik is facing an accusation of manslaughter and facing 15 years of imprisonments because she accidentally killed her husband, trying to protect herself, when he harassed her. That’s undoubtedly a case of self-defense and this young woman must be acquitted. I am afraid nothing can save her from jail. As long as we have domestic violence which is not prosecuted, we will have many cases like this.
7. How do you find the attitudes on the western left (or in the West in general) towards the situation in Russia? What can we do to offer solidarity?
I think the West is now being either too naive or just too corrupt. I didn’t really expect the Russian delegation to be so warmly welcomed back to PACE (Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe) this week. I have no idea where it stems from. But it feels like the ideology of tolerance that prevails in Europe nowadays has gone too far. While in my opinion there is no need to be tolerant to criminals, no need to let criminals get away with their crimes, no point in trying to understand their motives and thoughts. This is not about pacifying, this is more about collaboration.
I think the West is just not really able to realize the extent of the threat, coming from the RF and I am afraid it could have serious consequences.