Into the Future

An interview with Anna POLITKOVSKAYA (2005)

Index on Censorship took advantage of the presence of Russian — and other one-time Soviet citizens — at the Edinburgh Festival to canvass their views on the future of Russia.

Anna Politkovskaya, journalist

Time is against us. The Central Asian states were once Soviet, but now, when they dislike Russia’s policy they turn to China, which is an economic powerhouse, lying nearby and ready to re-claim territory it considers its own. Our influence will decline if we do not pursue an intelligent, flexible policy. And we don’t. We have world-class experts in this field, but they are not consulted. We live in a tsardom, where the tsar decides all. And his advisors are not expert, they are just people he trusts. In 100 years, there will be a new economic balance. The yuan will be the main global currency; the dollar will struggle to keep up; and the rouble will be an ‘also ran’.

Russia will be smaller in 100 years but that is no tragedy. The USSR could not cope with all its territory and several republics suffered as a result. If government policy toward the Far East and the Caucasus were intelligent, we might avoid a break-up, but it is once again pursuing a ‘Soviet’ tack that says: “We are the boss and the colonies must toe the line”. But the colonies don’t want to toe the line. They see no reason.

Suppressing the North Caucasus leads nowhere. It didn’t work in the Baltic states or in western Ukraine, which never accepted Moscow rule in Soviet times and recently rejected a pro-Moscow line in Kiev. The North Caucasus is asking, ‘Who needs Moscow?’ because they could easily have a relationship with other countries, like Turkey. We need to stop talking like a big brother and show Chechnya that being close to Stavropol [Russian region on the northern slopes of the Caucasus] is economically beneficial. Now they just see that economic advantage carries a high price in terms of blood and human life.

The more established the Russian Orthodox Church has become, the less spiritual it is. It is the fashion now for students to become Muslim, and if the Church does not change, or find a common language with the Vatican, it will continue to lose ground to Islam, which is younger and more dynamic. Drink and drugs are destroying Russia, but the Church has never seriously addressed them. Islam immediately puts people in a position where they can say, “I don’t drink and I don’t take drugs,” and that will continue to attract followers.

The richest New Russians have dipped into the state’s wealth: they are not like Rockefeller, arriving in New York with a dollar in his pocket. In Russia, someone can enter the Kremlin and make a killing, siphoning off national resources. We have no philanthropists and Khodorkovsky’s imprisonment is a warning to others. He set up the Open Russia Foundation and financed opposition parties, environmental organisations and human rights. Vladimir Putin has said that Russia will not allow foreigners to finance our civil society, but now we have no domestic investors to do it, which is a tragedy. If we continue like this, 100 years from now there will be no civil society in Russia.

Tragically, our most active democrats are on the Left. I cannot bring myself to vote Communist because the distance between their progressive and repressive instincts is too short, but Putin’s regime is a great recruiting ground for the Left, particularly among the young.

The media will share the fate of the rest of the country. My newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, will do all it can to stay open, but there are no grounds for optimism. Two years ago, we had points of contact with Putin; now there are none. He said, “We will fight our enemies,” so it’s either him or us. ‘Us’ meaning the ‘voice of protest’.

The Union of Writers consists of people who show they are writers by chumming up to the Kremlin. As an organisation that receives perks from the government it is an absolute non-starter, a relic of the USSR. If Russia develops democratically, there will be no Writers’ Union in the future, just a professional trade union for writers. Traditionally, we have needed film directors, artists and writers to tell people what a great country they live in. But that has nothing to do with writing or intellectual endeavour, or with the effort to depict life as it is.

I love my country, but I don’t want it to have a ‘Special Way’. I want it to be just like other countries where there is democracy and the police protect people from criminals instead of oppressing them. I want us to be like everyone else. People who talk about a ‘Special Way’ usually want to oppress somebody.

I hope there will be no registration system in the future (the system under which the USSR controlled its citizens by registering them in a particular place). In a country the size of Russia you can’t hope to keep track of everyone. Registration is just a system for extorting bribes and without it a person becomes a nobody: no education, no medical help, no pension. It has brought us so much suffering that if we develop into a democracy, I cannot imagine it surviving.

Index on Censorship, Winter 2005

Interview conducted and translated by Marjorie Farquharson

(Others then interviewed by Marjorie included Russian writers from Ukraine, Russia and Latvia: Andrei Kurkov, Ilya Krzhizhanovsky, Alexander Garros and Alexei Yevdokimov)

Less than a year later, Marjorie wrote an obituary of Anna Politkovskaya,
shot dead in Moscow on 7 October 2006.