Lyubov Sobol is one of the most persecuted politicians in Russia. She is a defendant in a few criminal cases: she had allegedly organized an extremist community and made defamatory statements about businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. Sobol had been arrested in absentia and put on the wanted list by the Interior Ministry. The Ministry of Justice put her on the “foreign agents” list; she is even listed as a terrorist and an extremist. In 2021, after a conviction for violating COVID quarantine rules, Lubov Sobol had left the country. She remains an active politician, she runs her own media projects and works as a producer for Alexei Navalny's YouTube channels. The online magazine 7x7 has talked to Lyubov Sobol about her current situation: what can a Russian politician in exile do for their country, why Russians do not protest against regime, and how much influence can the media have on Russian people while the war is raging?
How is it to be a Russian politician in exile
- You have been in exile since 2021. Do you remember what your last day in Russia was like?
- I don't remember it. I don't consider myself in emigration at all: when I was leaving Russia, I felt like someone who was swapping a more dangerous job for a less dangerous one, and I feel the same now. Although it is probably naive of me to feel completely secure when you are one of the Kremlin’s worst enemies, as well as an enemy of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin's so-called chef. That's why I don't consider myself a political emigrant. With all my thoughts, soul, and heart I’m still in Russia. I’m not involved in European politics and not interested in it at all. I am a Russian politician, and all my thoughts, whether I’m at work or home, are focused on Russia.
- Don't you think that the Navalny team’s leaving Russia was a defeat: the headquarters have been shut down, people persecuted, Navalny put to jail, his supporters left?
- A defeat? In some big, global sense, of course, I’d like to go back to Russia and as soon as possible. Everyone is exhausted and understands that it’s not only an economic stagnation that this regime inflicted on the country. There is a full-scale war going on. For Alexei Navalny every day in jail is a torture and serious isolation. And there are many other tragic events happening because of Putin's regime.
Of course, I want Putin to be gone as soon as possible. And I guess, yes, the civil society is partly responsible for what is happening. On the other hand, it's hard to fight your jailers from inside the concentration camp.
With my hand on my heart, I can say that throughout my adult life I’ve been doing everything I could to defeat this regime.
- Only six months after Navalny's supporters left the war broke out. And once again, politicians, activists, and public figures started emigrating from Russia. This has started another debate whether is it possible to remain a politician if you live abroad. Do you think you can make difference in the Russian political life from outside the country?
- I had two options: either to leave or to stay, but then I would’ve had to isolate myself from any outside contacts. Like stayed Liliya Chanysheva, the former leader of the Navalny's team* in Ufa [she has been in jail since November 2021, accused of organizing an extremist group]. I wouldn’t have been able to work from inside of the Russian prison.
Of course, there are certain problems in living away. For example, you have to put a lot of effort trying to keep up with the Russian agenda. In Russia you go to the store and see how the prices for potatoes or bread have risen. When you are outside the country, you have to find the right statistics to keep track of Russian realities. On the other hand, there are some positive moments: in Russia every day we had to hide studio cameras in a fake ceiling or a fake tube or take them with us so we wouldn’t lose them. And every morning you would wake up wondering whether they were coming with a search warrant or not. Since Alexei Navalny's return to Russia, not a single day had passed without someone to check on me or take me somewhere. I was dealing with law-enforcement people every day; they were trying to wear me down. Now I don't have to wonder what court they are taking me to or what kind of status they are going to stick on me.
How the media influence people and help them not to be scared
- You actively use the Internet to promote your ideas and attract supporters, while the Russian authorities are trying to stop this. For example, the Russian laws allowed Yevgeny Prigozhin to remove Yandex links to your investigation into mass poisoning in Moscow kindergartens. How can Russian politics survive against censorship? What if the Russian authorities block YouTube?
- Obviously, if YouTube is blocked, we will be in a new reality. Right now, it's a great platform to connect with the mass audience. Then we'd have to find new ways to reach Russians. To do it quickly would be hard. On the other hand, according to a Russian saying, water will always find a hole.
Yes, at the beginning of the war it seemed that YouTube was about to be blocked, but apparently it wasn’t to Putin’s benefit. If it had been otherwise, he would have done it quickly. Putin doesn't want to anger people who are indifferent to politics or to signal to the elites that they should be worried about something. Their whole narrative that Peskov [Dmitry Peskov, press secretary of the Russian president] has been voicing since the beginning of the war in Ukraine says: Ukraine is in trouble, while with Russia everything is stable and supposedly nothing [bad] is happening there. They keep prices down using administrative mechanisms, the same with keeping the dollar and euro exchange rates against the ruble down, and they choose not to block YouTube so that ordinary Russians wouldn’t feel the effects of war.
- What supports you in your fight against censorship?
- Knowing that I don’t do my work in vain. Yes, Russia is not democratic now, but I see that Russians want their country to be democratic. I disagree that, as [businessman] Oleg Tinkov wrote, the doors should be shut on Russia because it’s a lost nation. No, I see that Russians do want democracy, and I see how hard to do this from within the country and without any resources.
- In 2021, we at 7x7 regularly reported from the rallies in support of Navalny. With each rally, there were fewer people on the streets. This year, on February 24, people all over the country came out protesting. But then, again, there were fewer and fewer of them. Today, protests are isolated and rare. Very few people continue to speak out against what is happening, and it feels like that all of Russia is sinking into darkness. What do you think about this?
- We see in these administrative and criminal cases disproportionate brutality, inhumane cruelty. A member of a Moscow municipal council was sentenced to seven years in prison for his pacifist statements – it is absolutely horrible.
I was surprised and impressed by a study conducted by Novaya Gazeta-Europe. It shows that over the last ten years, 60 thousand administrative cases have been opened under "protest" laws, and more than 20% of them - 16 thousand cases - were opened over the first two months of the war. These people took to the streets of their home towns, they were pushed into police vans, dragged to police stations, tried in court. But you and I have not seen this, because Putin is in virtually total control of information in those regions - I do not need to tell you how it works.
A survey conducted [by GroupM Accelerate Research international advertising group] in March and April of this year shows a drop from 33% to 23% among Russians who trust television propaganda. Of course, 23% is also a pretty big number. Those people believe Putin's lies and they are typically quite aggressive on social media. This is a substantial part of society; however they don’t constitute a majority, which is encouraging and gives us some hope.
For 22 years Putin has had all state institutions, the justice system, the law enforcement agencies, the entire parliament and most of the media under his complete control. Before the war there were an opposition TV channel, Dozhd, Echo of Moscow [a radio station], and Novaya Gazeta [a newspaper], but the war started and they were all shut down. The fact that the state channels have lost a third of their audience just in one month of the war is the result of both our work and the work of the independent media. I see a stunning surge of our audience. On our YouTube channel alone, without other social networks, we had over 26 million unique viewers in the first two months of the war, most of them in Russia. A huge audience came to us, not to the state channels, looking for answers to their questions. Earlier, these people stayed away from politics, but now politics has affected them.
- Is it possible that in the next few years we will see mass public protests in Russia?
- I have already said that Russians in many ways understand everything and they keep protesting but not in critical numbers. Putin is doing everything possible to nip protests in the bud. If someone with strong organizational skills calls people to take to the streets and he is in Russia at that moment, he will be taken to jail the very same day. This is why it is impossible today to imagine millions taking to the streets.
The regime is clever in its terror tactics. It intensifies repressions to the point where the society gets scared. It's obvious that just like they have no clemency for the Ukrainians, they would feel no sorry for the Russians: they simply don’t care about the people. That is why repressions are implemented selectively, but mercilessly, their goal is to intimidate people. And unfortunately, it works. I think that the turning point will come when at some point people stop being afraid.
On the other hand, Putin still has legitimacy: many people consider him a legitimate president, including those who do not agree with him. Russian people are unaware that most of them want to live in a normal country, where you do not get a mop stick shoved up your anus and you don’t get bludgeoned for a peaceful protest. In 2020, Belarusians got that sense of unity. They realized they weren’t alone criticizing Lukashenko in their kitchens, but that the whole country didn't want him. Then Lukashenko's legitimacy disappeared, and it was only with Putin's support that he managed to stay in power. Sooner or later, people will wake up and realize that the king is naked. The society is getting really desperate.
- So the refrigerator will eventually prevail over the television?
- There are many factors here. The TV isn’t winning even right now; only 23% trust it. What is winning is fear, repressions, and people's apathy and lack of confidence in their own abilities. They believe that they are in the minority and cannot change anything. This is the worst thing.
There are not so many fierce Putin supporters, fewer than the people who can become part of civil society.
Whether to vote or not in the next elections and what should be the future of the political elites in Russia
- Russian will be voting in regional elections in September 2022. Does it make any sense taking part in them, given that the words "No War" end a political career instantly?
- Citizens should use every opportunity to make difference. I have always run, not for a seat in a legislative body, not for a badge on my jacket, not for bureaucratic perks like riding a free vehicle for personal use, but for promoting democracy in Russia. Are elections the only available mechanism today? Obviously not. But if it might work somewhere, might change something, then why not?
- So the Smart Voting system will be in work this year?
- Let's see what form it will take. It is difficult to answer this question at the moment.
- What should happen so that you would be able to participate in elections in Russia?
- Of course, the end to the Putin regime. This is the main condition. It is clear that Putin will never let anyone popular run against him, because he is afraid of losing. Putin believes that Russians want democracy more than all of us put together. He is afraid of democracy. He believes there is democracy in Russia, which is why he's been playing a democrat for 22 years, not canceling elections.
- The end of Putin's regime, what that would be in fact?
- Of course it is Putin suffering a defeat, and of course it is his resignation. Everyone is frantically reading stories with headlines about Putin's cancer, but I think what is much more important is his political death, not biological. As long as Putin is on top of this system, there will be no change - no fair elections, no reforms the country needs so badly.
The next person taking over after him will have to switch to Western-style rhetoric. He will have to get sanctions lifted, to improve Russian people’s income, and show rapid economic growth. For us, the civil society, the most important thing is not to get fooled and to demand real reforms. This depends on two agencies: the civil society, which will have to maintain control of the situation, and the leaders of the civilized world who care for democracy. Unfortunately, right now the civil society does not always believe in its own abilities, while the leaders of the civilized world are concerned mostly about saving Putin's face and finding for him a platform for negotiations. Instead of facing the truth: it is impossible to negotiate with him.
- According to Ekaterina Shulman, even with normal electoral laws and an independent court, conservative and revanchist politicians will remain on the top in many regions. Won't this lead to a new failure of democratic reforms?
- I don't think that we have a conservative majority. If you look at the statistics, you can see that from a number of data, including [Russian’s] stand on religion. It takes reforms to get on the rails of democratic change. The main reform that Boris Yeltsin did not do was reforming the KGB. Since the Soviet period, we have only changed the name from KGB to FSB, but there are the same buildings, the same people or their children, the same structure, the same methods of work.
Working systematically and reforming institutions, I am sure that necessary reforms can be done in a short period of time. It will not take generations - two or three electoral cycles with a strong political elite committed to the idea of democratic change.
- There are about 1.4 million officials in Russia. Where can we get that many people for the new democratic elite?
- This is an argument of the same kind as "If not Putin, then who?" Why do we have to think that way? There are plenty of people in business, academia, in the legal profession – they can replace the current judges, policemen, and so on. People will apply for positions and the best of the best will win - not the most loyal, but the most intelligent and qualified.
- Do we need lustration?
- Obviously, the people who are in charge today should be excluded from the process of democratic reforms in Russia. Solovyov and Simonyan would be the first to run over, claiming that it was Putin who had forced them and blackmailed them; they would make up any kind of story just to stay close to the feeding trough.
We shouldn't fall for those tricks, even though people often tend to forgive anything.