In this exclusive interview, well-known Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, who was nearly beaten to death in 2010, talks with The New Civil Rights Movement about Vladimir Putin, Russian politics and Russian attitudes toward gays
Oleg Kashin, formerly a special correspondent and blogger for the Russian daily newspaper and media company, Kommersant, is well known for his bold reporting on Russian politics and business. Kashin was nearly beaten to death in 2010 over his political reporting. Kashin now travels to Russia frequently and occasionally writes on Russian affairs, but resides in Switzerland with his wife. Kashin was a Paul Klebnikov Civil Society Fellow at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute in 2012.
This is part one of a two-part interview conducted August 13-15, 2013.
Domi: Oleg, in your role as a journalist in Russia, you reported on the politics of the new opposition, when you were nearly beaten to death in 2010. Your experiences of opposing Putin’s politics were told through the documentary film “Putin’s Kiss,” about the Nashi youth movement, which was pro-Putin (see trailer below). How did your life change after the release of the film?
Kashin: The film was not screened in Russia and only those who already knew about me and my work watched it on the Internet, so I can tell you with certainty that it didn’t affect my fate in any way. The Nashi Movement portrayed in the film, no longer exists—it was dissolved. The film’s heroine, Masha Drokova, now works for a hi-tech company owned by a Russian businessman in Singapore. The other members of the movement and the people associated with it have moved on to work for private companies or political institutions—including the opposition—and try to forget their participation in it. The attack on me has not been investigated and, most likely, will not be investigated. I no longer have any doubt about this.
Domi: Oleg, what are you doing now and why are you living in Switzerland?
Kashin: I’m in Russia at least once a month. When Alexey Navalny (a leading opposition leader to Putin) received his verdict on the Kirovles charges in Kirov, I was sitting in the courtroom. A few days ago, I returned from Kaliningrad, and next week I’ll return to Moscow. Whenever my presence in Russia is necessary for either business or personal matters, I am in Russia. My wife works in Switzerland and there’s no political intrigue involved.
Domi: Since Putin entered public life more than a decade ago, hundreds of journalists have been murdered. To date, very few, if any of those who have were murdered, have had the circumstances of their deaths investigated, solved and prosecuted. Do you think the dangerous environment for journalists in Russia is a contributing factor in the government’s ability to control the public discourse in Russia?
Kashin: It goes without saying that it is a very advantageous situation for the government, when, upon going to bed, no one knows whether they will live through the next day. The coercive atmosphere that has existed since 2000, (when Putin entered public life,) has been cultivated by the Russian government—this is easy to determine from the public appearances of Vladimir Putin and his colleagues, and from the general tone of public discourse. It wasn’t like this before in Russia, but now it’s considered the norm to physically threaten your opponent for anything deemed inappropriate by a representative of “the powers that be.” That’s what the new anti-LGBT laws are geared toward.
Out of principle, I don’t place journalists in a separate category in terms of risk susceptibility. Today, the risk of being killed, beaten or imprisoned is evenly distributed among all Russian citizens, including regime loyalists. No one is immune to death by violence, brutality, or imprisonment in Russia today.
Domi: Since the New Russia opposition seemed to come out onto the streets in demanding increased accountability and less corruption by the political class last year, there seems to have been an orchestrated crackdown, including arrests, prosecution and imprisonment of members of the Pussy Riot rock and roll band, for example and Alexey Navalny, who was prosecuted and found guilty of embezzlement. Why is the government, and the authorities cracking down now? With the Olympics in Sochi only six months away, are these the actions of a government that feels that it must exert control of the population? To what end?
Kashin: I believe that no one in Russia today can answer this question. It is widely accepted that the government is using these laws as an attempt to distract the public from what’s truly important—problems with the economy and the social sphere. I don’t believe this. More likely, the government is trying to construct a new nation, guided by totalitarian instincts and a blind deference to power. In their time, the communists tried to create a “new man,” now Putin is creating his. It is much easier to manipulate and control this type of changed society. I really hope that Westerners won’t equate these politics with the interests of Russian citizens. Russian citizens don’t differ in any way from the citizens of any Eastern European state, they have the same interests, needs and values. I hope that Putin won’t succeed in breaking the Russian citizens, and democracy will manage to prevail in Russia.
Domi: So in this politically charged environment, Russian LGBT groups are indeed being targeted by Putin’s government. The first anti-homosexual propaganda laws were adopted in regional cities, and then by the St. Petersburg City Council 2011 and later in the Duma led by United Russia(Putin’s party) politicians who passed a federal propaganda law in 2012. How do Russians feel about the propaganda law and homosexuals in general? Is there a generational distinction–are young people more accepting of the LGBT community? Can you comment on the role and influence of the Russian Orthodox Church with respect to attitudes toward homosexuals?
Kashin: The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia is fantastically exaggerated. Go to any Russian church from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok—it is always empty except on two days of the year, Easter and Christmas. From a population of 140 million, the number of active Orthodox is estimated to be tens of thousands, at best. Church influence is a myth proliferated and profited from by the Russian government and the Patriarch Kirill, who have successfully turned the church into a political arm of the Kremlin. As for the Russians’ attitude to the problems of LGBT people—as far as I can judge (I travel a lot around Russia and talk to many people), homophobia is certainly a presence in everyday life.
Part two of our exclusive interview with Oleg Kashin will be published on Sunday, August 18.
Translation of the original Russian into English was contributed by Masha Udensiva-Brenner, Columbia University, Harriman Institute
Images of Mr. Kashin via Facebook
Tanya L. Domi is the Deputy Editor of the New Civil Rights Movement. She is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and teaches human rights in East Central Europe and former Yugoslavia. Prior to teaching at Columbia, Domi was a nationally recognized LGBT civil rights activist who worked for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force during the campaign to lift the military ban in the early 1990s. Domi has also worked internationally in a dozen countries on issues related to democratic transitional development, including political and media development, human rights and gender issues. She is chair of the board of directors for GetEQUAL. Domi is currently writing a book about the emerging LGBT human rights movement in the Western Balkans.
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