“I Will Return to a Different Russia”: Interview with Lev Ponomarev
The below is a Kennan Institute Long Read.
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Right after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Lev Ponomarev, the leader of the movement For Human Rights and one of the country’s best-known human rights defenders, began collecting signatures under an anti-war petition. Within days he had over a million—1,300,000, to be precise. He submitted them to the Russian Presidential Administration as proof of Russian citizens’ anti-war sentiment. A few weeks later, he was forced to flee abroad. Roman Super met with the legendary human rights defender to find out how the Presidential Administration responded to the petition and what it was like to become a political refugee at 81.
I understand that you are not in Russia now.
I’m not. I am in Paris.
I left against my will. Several developments contributed to that. Last year, on February 25, the day after the war began, I published a petition on Change.org—a strong-worded anti-war petition. Pretty quickly, it got 1,300,000 signatures. I have to say, this was unprecedented. It showed that lots and lots of people are against this war. In fact, there are many more such people in Russia than just this million, [because] who [in Russia] even knows about this website, Change.org? I believe that these signatures proved that tens of millions of Russians were against the war from the start. Before the war, I staged one-man protests, got detained, put on trial. These things, several of them, added up... they tried to poison us with gas at our offices...
I would have thought you would have gotten used to things like this over the years of working as a human rights defender in Russia.
We had, but typically, horrible things happened to us over time. This time, we got everything dropped on us practically all at once… After I started collecting the signatures, police stopped me on the [Moscow] metro. “Are you Lev Ponomarev? You are on the federal wanted list.” Federal [wanted] list always means a criminal case. They detained me at the metro, kept me at the metro police office. I called a lawyer, and we both spent five hours there. They released me in the end, took me to the prosecutor’s office, the prosecutor came out and handed me a piece of paper stating that I had to appear at the prosecutor’s office because I hadn’t mentioned on that Change.org website that I was a foreign agent.
Were you supposed to?
I don’t think so.
So there was no federal warrant at all, they just said it for the effect, back at the metro station.
I have no idea. But they were clearly sending a message. On Monday, I get a call from someone via Telegram, no caller ID: “I am your supporter in the Investigative Committee. A criminal case [against you] has already been set up.” That also looked fishy. Then my daughter gets a call from a former Russian political heavy-weight, who tells her: “Your father will be arrested on Thursday.” They may have been trying to push me out of the country. But it could be that a real arrest was, in fact, looming. I thought about it and decided that I should just get out. What’s the point of me playing the hero? I have a couple of years left to live, possibly less than that if I’m in jail. That’s number one. Number two is that if I hadn’t left, they wouldn’t have stopped with me. They would have gone after my colleagues, human rights defenders who, unlike me, don’t deal with politics. I am, basically, on my own in these anti-war activities. My human rights organization is fighting torture in [Russian] penal colonies. That work should continue.
Did you go to France because you had a long-term connection with the country?
My daughter is here, in Paris.
Did you get an asylum or some [special] status?
I travelled via Tbilisi, packed my bag within 24 hours, did not have any visa. I spent about six weeks in Georgia, and now France has granted me political asylum.
What happened to those signatures that you collected in this amazing way within a week? Did you just bring them over to the Presidential Administration’s public reception office, as people normally do?
Yes, I’ve gone through this procedure many times before. I brought the signatures to the [reception] window. There were already some provocateurs waiting for me there, some “journalists” from NTV. Some woman attacked me hysterically, waved her hands. They tried to block me and get in the way, but there was no direct confrontation. My papers were accepted without a problem, everything got submitted to the Presidential Administration, per official rules and regulations. But the [official] response was, of course, ridiculous.
What did they say?
“All the questions raised in your application have been addressed by the president of the Russian Federation in his public statements.” And they attached a link to some speech by Putin. That’s it.
Nice jobs they have over there at the public reception office of the Presidential Administration. They can always blame the boss.
By the way, when [Boris] Yeltsin was the president, the public reception office of the Presidential Administration worked more or less fine.
You are a physicist, with a doctorate in physics and mathematics, you are a scientist. How did you end up in human rights to begin with?
I was an anti-communist since the 10th grade. Which means that I had this gene in me since childhood that pushed me toward public life. [But] I saw that [in the Soviet Union] one could make a career in public life only within the totalitarian system: Komsomol, Communist Party [and so on]. I quickly understood that I needed to stay away from that. But there was another gene that pushed me toward science. I chose to follow that path. I graduated from the [Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology], became a theoretical physicist with a focus on nuclear physics, the physics of elementary particles.
By the time [Mikhail] Gorbachev came to office, I was already part of the dissident circles. I realized under Gorbachev that my time was coming. When he released [Andrei] Sakharov [from exile], a motor got going inside me. I realized that we need to actively change the country, but [that we need to] do it gradually, rather than in a revolutionary way. And the first thing to do was to set the record straight about millions of people killed [by the Soviet regime]. This is how I took my first step towards human rights advocacy. I found like-minded people. I met [Yuri] Samodurov at a protest and joined the group, where we wrote our first public appeal and started disseminating it. We named this group Memorial, and later, gradually, it evolved into the all-Russian Memorial movement.
So you are one of Memorial’s founders.
You are a  Nobel Peace Prize laureate, then.
Many people congratulated me on the Nobel Prize. But [seriously], what Nobel Prize? I wasn’t at the award ceremony.
Did you know [Andrei] Sakharov in person?
Of course, I did. I invited him to Memorial.
Did he impress you in personal interactions?
He did. My human rights and political activities in general brought me in touch with some of the most interesting people. I would have never met them in person otherwise. At various get-togethers at [people’s] apartments, one could easily get to know people like [the singer-songwriter Bulat] Okudzhava, [the poet Yevgeny] Yevtushenko....
Memorial drew these people into its circle?
To a large extent yes. Back then, Sakharov, Yeltsin and many other stars were part of Memorial’s activist group. The only person who refused to join was [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn. He wrote us a letter saying that he had been building a Memorial with his whole life, without any activist groups.
He felt that he had a monopoly on the topic of the repressed….
He had that in him, for sure. It hinted at his authoritarian nature. It would manifest itself more than once later on.
As someone who knew Sakharov personally, what do you think he would be doing and saying today, when his country is waging a war against a fraternal nation?
Obviously, he would have been doing what I am doing.
But he would have ended up in prison long ago, he wouldn’t have left.
At his age.... I think they wouldn’t have put him in jail either. They would have pushed him [out of the country], like me. Do you know how old I am?
Seventy-five or 76?
Eighty-one. This is a problematic age for [Russian] authorities. Imagine the scandal if they put an old man in jail and he dies there a week later. In cases like this, they push people out [of the country]. They would have tried to push Sakharov out too. They are really good at that.
Let’s get back to 1994, because I think that is another important benchmark for you after Memorial. It was back then that you became the head of the Democratic Russia party, together with Gleb Yakunin and Galina Starovoitova, correct?
Yes, but before that, all the democratic candidates got together and formed a bloc named Democratic Russia. It became a real opponent to the Communist Party. Our candidate was elected the chairman of the Supreme Soviet! It was Boris Yeltsin. By 1994, our movement became a party. [Galina] Starovoitova, Gleb Yakunin and I gave it the same name, Democratic Russia. It officially existed for a few years, then we transferred the party leadership to Galina Starovoitova, who remained a member of parliament until she was murdered, while I already wasn’t [an MP], and neither was Gleb.
Starovoitova had always been a fierce proponent of lustrations. Do you think that lustrations would have changed the course of Russian history?
They could not have happened. And I did not support Starovoitova in this. It was necessary to talk about it, it was necessary to talk about such an intention, but it could only have been done if democrats had in fact headed the government, if the president had been a [true] democrat. When the president is a former member not just of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but of the party leadership, when he is surrounded by the communist bureaucracy….Look, 80 percent of the staff there were former communists. We would have had to lustrate them all.
You mean that if lustrations that Starovoitova proposed did take place, Yeltsin would have had to lustrate himself first and foremost?
Certainly. Note that the dissidents of the Soviet period did not go into politics either.
Well, some did.
[Sergei] Kovalev did. Sakharov convinced him. But those were exceptions. There were no anti-communists there. Simply zero!
Ok, I get it, communists couldn’t be lustrated because there would have been no competent personnel left. Why didn’t Yeltsin lustrate the KGB though? They now rule the country. Why did Yeltsin fail to anticipate this?
Yeltsin couldn’t stand the KGB. They spied on him, they harassed him in all kinds of ways. He disbanded the Fifth KGB directorate, declared it anti-constitutional. But he could not disband the security services altogether. He understood clearly that it shouldn’t be done. Security services have to exist in some form.
Under a different leadership, for example, with different personnel.
He put his man in charge of the KGB of the USSR at the time, but there was no one [to do] a personnel purge. There was simply no competency [in this regard]. Eastern Europeans had competency. Yeltsin didn’t. Again, the absence of competent personnel was a huge problem. I’ll give you an example. A mayoral election was coming up in Ryazan in the early ‘90s. The second secretary of the [communist] party was nominated. I called [my contacts in Ryazan] and asked, “why do you need the second party secretary [to run]? Why aren’t you running for the position yourselves?” They said, “Lev, we won’t manage on our own.” The opposition, the democrats, people from outside the [communist] apparatus had no idea how to manage even a mayor’s office. They couldn’t even manage a factory. Communists did all of that. Winds of change, of course, lifted them up, and we did implement this peaceful revolution together, but we ended up with a conservative climate anyway.
To what period in the history of Soviet Russia would you compare Putinism-2023?
Early ‘80s. There were a lot of similar things then. Apart from the war, of course. I can’t compare this war to anything. The thing is, the early ‘80s were a very tough time. Many people were jailed, Gleb Yakunin was jailed, [Oleg] Orlov was too. It was exactly at that time. One could not say a word [of dissent] out loud.
Do you believe in a [repeat of] the late ‘80s? Do you believe in Gorbachev 2.0?
I believe in the future, in democratic Russia. But when will that happen? I can’t offer you a timeline. The West should give more [military] equipment, so that Ukraine wins faster. I believe that it will win and that Russian troops will retreat to the borders that will acceptable to Ukrainians. But what then? Then I am concerned about Russia. Today Russia is a repressive country, a fascist country. What it is doing in Ukraine is called fascism. Definitively so. Many say: Ukraine will win, and to hell with Russia, let whatever happens there happen. But “whatever” is the prolongation of the disaster, from which not only Russia, but its neighbors and the entire world will suffer again. I hope that Russia deserves a different fate. Germany was a fascist country with horrible repressions. At the time of Hitlerism, there was no mass resistance within [Germany]. But when Germany was occupied, when Germans understood what needs to be done for them not to go to jail, under Western pressure they started to talk about democracy.
Are you saying that Russia needs occupation?
It’s absolutely clear that Russia will not change if it continues on the same path. Russia can’t be occupied for a variety of reasons, I don’t even want to talk about it.
What could take the place of occupation?
I call it a humanitarian occupation. The West needs to know in advance that withdrawal of troops is half the work. The other half is—to use Putin’s terminology—denazification of Russia itself. In my view, this can all be done consecutively: friends, we are not lifting the economic sanctions, we are calling the country’s leadership to the military court, but defendants have an option. If you start fulfilling our demands, we will gradually lift the sanctions, both general and individual, from you, you, and you personally. And from your relatives. And more importantly, we will start dropping the charges against you. In other words, the court will pardon you in exchange for you having done exactly that. Except for the cases where you have personally taken part in crimes, such as shooting executions and plundering.
Could people who are issuing criminal orders be pardoned then?
I think so, yes. If these people take real steps towards democracy. Lots of people will disagree with me. Many think that [the responsible] people must be shot. But I believe that democracy ought to be re-established in Russia step by step. Otherwise, the country is doomed to a perpetual cataclysm.
What happened with the Russian [Presidential] Council for [the Development of Civil Society and] Human Rights? The last we heard of it, all the more or less reasonable people, like [filmmaker Alexander] Sokurov and [journalist Nikolai] Svanidze, left it.
They were asked to leave, most likely.
How efficient was this council?
It was efficient in Yeltsin’s times. Under Putin, it remained somewhat efficient. [The efficiency] was there, even if it was limited. This was the only place where the president was occasionally told the truth to his face, and he sat there and listened.
Were these frank conversations, not staged ones?
They were not staged, definitely.
Ok, so it was possible to speak the truth to the president’s face, but did anything happen with that truth afterwards?
This truth was of a lot of use, in select cases. It was useful to numerous people. Sometimes lives were at stake and were saved.
Was it of any use at the legislative level?
To be honest, I don’t know about the legislative level. There were some initiatives, but I don’t think they became law.
So it was, as usual, about solving problems in a “manual mode.” What’s going to happen with this council now? Telling the truth is now prohibited, it [leads to] a criminal charge right away.
By and large, yes. Saying anything is impossible anymore. De facto, this council no longer exists.
You predicted this war in January 2014, do you remember?
Remind me of the context?
You tried to facilitate dialogue between the U.S. embassy [in Moscow] and the Russian Presidential Administration. You said publicly that there would be an escalation of conflict and that conflict would turn into war. Gorbachev backed your words then.
Right, I did write about that. All my efforts were in vain then.
And in 2022, as you predicted, a big war did break out.
It did. Back then [in 2014], I was convinced that a conversation had to start immediately, and that it had to be a conversation with Russia’s strongest opponent, the United States. But this [initiative] went unnoticed. I’m surprised that you remember it at all.
Have you figured out how much time you’ve spent in total in detention, under arrest over the years of your work as a human rights advocate in Russia?
I was arrested five or six times.
So you spent a couple of months behind bars.
It’s not that much in light of what’s happening now. Once I was in jail for 21 days. It was quite recently, in 2019, I think. The day Lyudmila Alexeyeva died, I asked to be released to attend her funeral.
Did they let you?
They didn’t, jerks.
In 2014, your NGO For Human Rights was put on the registry of foreign agents....
Everyone was put [on that registry], there are very many organizations there.
And then, if I understand correctly, you miraculously disappeared from the registry. You didn’t just disappear, but until late 2018, [your organization] lived off of Putin’s Civic Ombudsman of Russia grant. This sounds like an absolute oxymoron today. What was this “thaw” about?
It was not a thaw. It was my personal paradox. After we became foreign agents, we did stop taking money from abroad. Back then, it was possible to submit a statement to that effect. We did, and we got taken off the foreign agent registry! Today, no one gets taken off it for any reason, but back then, it was possible.
And how did you end up with Putin’s money?
There was a Civic Chamber of Russia. The Civic Chamber was [involved in] presidential grants. My colleagues petitioned on my behalf with this chamber; [lawyer] Henri Reznik petitioned for me.
Petitioned as in asked for a grant on your behalf?
Yes, they asked for me to be given the grant. I wrote an application and gave it to Henri Reznik. I also wrote a letter to Putin, where I explained in simple terms that now all human rights organizations were becoming foreign agents, but if you give them money in Russia, they won’t need to take foreign funds at all. [Vladimir] Lukin took this letter to Putin. Putin read it and said that he agreed.
For some time, dozens of NGOs received money in Russia. I did too.
But later they stopped and became foreign agents and undesirable organizations again.
You created Memorial, you were a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of Russia, you were one of the founders of the [Russian] human rights movement, you created the For Human Rights organization. And now you have been pushed out of the country and are living in Paris, where you have just received the status of a refugee. Martial law has basically cancelled human rights in Russia. You have been labelled a foreign agent. Do you feel bitter and defeated? Everything you’ve lived for has been destroyed, possibly forever.
I told you already: some gene has been moving me forward since my childhood. I was born to fight for a righteous cause. Life offered me a chance to fight. It would be good to get some results too, of course, but that is, apparently, of secondary importance to me. Did I do everything wrong? [If so], it would mean that I wasted my life. But I couldn’t help doing it. There is also Russia’s historical destiny, and it’s stronger than me. It doesn’t depend just on me. There is a saying: “the mole of history digs slowly.” I am convinced that we have done a lot for the democratic future of Russia. Democratic institutions came into existence in Russia for the first time. It turned out that they could, in fact, come into existence! Or take the constitution, for instance. Its first two chapters, which Putin hasn’t gotten his hands on yet, are among the best in the world.
Who cares about the constitution now…
War cancels everything. But it will not always be the case. Don’t downplay the role of the constitution.
[Do you think that] your work has created a template that will help restore the country to normal life faster after the war?
I did what I could, and I continue doing it.
Would you like to return to Russia?
To the Russia that exists now, definitely not. What would I do there? I will return to a different Russia.
This interview originally appeared in Russian on Иными словами, a Kennan Institute blog. It has been edited lightly for style and clarity.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more