The Akunin-Navalny interviews (part I)

Just before the last Moscow demonstration on December 24, two of the protest movement’s most popular leaders — writer Boris Akunin and politician-blogger Aleksey Navalny — got together for a fascinating public conversation. The three-part interview, published on Akunin’s blog, is arguably the fullest profile of Russia’s leading opposition politician and covers many of the more uncomfortable aspects of Navalny’s politics. ODR is pleased to present the full English translation of the interviews.

Aleksey Navalny is the most striking political figure to have emerged in Russia in recent years. I would indeed go so far as to say that he is the only genuine politician in Russia today. He provokes a wide range of reactions – enthusiastic, hostile, critical, perplexed.

The evolution of my own views on Navalny is quite typical. At first I had no reservations about approving of him, because his story was so good: a young lawyer who singlehandedly, and using purely legal means, challenged a monstrously corrupt system, and forced it to back off with its tail between its legs. I was then terribly disappointed and alarmed when Navalny took part in a ‘Russian March’. Aha! So was he a nationalist? Or an unscrupulous populist?  Or simply muddle-headed? In which case his ever growing popularity could make him dangerous.

So I kept watching this young politician and thinking that we should try to get to the bottom of this phenomenon.

We met during the preparations for a protest rally, and I suggested we have a public conversation, in the form of a written exchange, something I had tried before: three years ago I attempted to ‘get to the bottom of’ Mikhail Khodorkovsky in much the same way.

So here is our conversation. Read it, and make up your own mind.

I present it in three parts: the past, the future and what will put your mind at rest.   

Grigory Chkhartishvili, a.k.a Boris Akunin

Part 1: The Bull by the Horns

G.Ch. Aleksey, very many people, both in my circle and in a much wider circle of people with similar views, have a rather ambivalent attitude towards you. They simply cannot fathom your political outlook and work out what to make of you, whether you are someone to ‘heartily approve of and support’ or ‘stop before it’s too late’. To put it dispassionately: what do you represent for democratically minded people – a temporary ally in the fight against a common enemy (criminal authoritarianism) or a possible long term collaborator?

Akunin

Novelist Boris Akunin was one of the main speakers at the mass opposition rally held on 24 December on Moscow's Sakharov Prospekt. 'We proposed modest proposals under which we would agree to this leadership for some more time, Akunin said to the crowd. 'But the man who wants to become president responded by insulting us!'. The crowd reacted to Akunin's words by chanting 'Russia without Putin'.

The main reason for this mistrust is your allegiance to the idea of Russian nationalism, which is associated in the minds of the democratic intelligentsia with the black-hundredists of a century ago. I know that you have attempted to explain this many times, but so far without success. So let’s try once more.

Let’s start with an ‘infantile’ question. If I have understood it correctly, you believe in the idea of a ‘national Russian state’. What does this mean in the context of a federation whose population represents more than a hundred ethnicities, and where people of mixed race are almost in the majority in the larger cities? Should ethnic non-Russians and half-Russians feel like second class human beings in your Russia?

A.N. Grigory, with respect I honestly didn’t expect such questions either from you or from your democratic intellectual circle. The democratic intelligentsia surely read the papers, and if they are in the least interested in my activities then they should have some basic idea of my political opinions. They should know about my past with the liberal ‘Yabloko’ party, the ‘Democratic Alternative’ movement and current affairs in general.  

And your question isn’t infantile, it’s insulting. You work and work, and then the ‘democratic intelligentsia’ decide to ask whether you consider anyone to be a second class human being. There’s no such thing as a second class human being, and anyone who thinks there is, is a dangerous lunatic who should be re-educated, treated or isolated from human society. As a matter of principle there can be no question of discrimination against people on ethnic grounds.

By the way, I’m a ‘half-Russian’ myself – I’m half-Ukrainian – and have no desire whatsoever to feel like a second class human being.

G.Ch. In that case, what is a ‘national Russian state’? Or do you distance yourself from that slogan of the ‘Russian March’ in which you took part?    

A.N. I have never used that slogan, but I certainly agree with Khodorkovsky’s interpretation of it as an alternative to attempts to recreate Russia in the likeness of a 19th century empire. In the modern world that is simply not viable.

The source of power in a national state is the nation, the citizens of a country, and not an elite whose slogans speak of taking over half the world and global domination, and use this as an excuse to fleece a population which is marching towards the Indian Ocean.    

We need a state in order to provide a comfortable and decent life for the citizens of that state, to defend their interests, both individual and collective.  A national state is the European way for Russia to develop - our snug and cosy, but at the same time strong and secure, little European home.                    

Take the main ‘nationalist’ text that I signed. It’s the manifesto of the NAROD (‘the people’ – trans) movement. And I still agree with every word of it.

G.Ch. Well, I am not prepared to agree with every word of it. For example, the idea of every citizen’s right to possess a gun seems in our situation a little over-romantic. I have questions about other parts of the Manifesto as well, but there’s nothing that couldn’t be sorted out in the course of a normal working discussion. I identified its main thesis, with which I am in full agreement: ’Our country’s unity, power and prosperity will only be enhanced if we can ensure equality before the law for all its citizens, whatever their ethnic origins, social status and place of residence.’

‘I do not miss the Soviet Union as a nuclear superpower and a territory covering one sixth of the earth’s land mass; I have no nostalgia about that military-bureaucratic empire. However I have to admit to being an imperialist in a cultural-economic sense. I would like it very much if the attraction of our culture, the might of our economy and our enviable standard of living awoke in our neighbours a desire to join in a voluntary commonwealth and union with us.’

Boris Akunin

Fine, I’ll go on to the next sensitive issue: your views on the collapse of the USSR. I assume you will want to talk about the notorious ‘imperial syndrome’.

I was taught as a child not to ask anyone a question I would not be willing to answer myself, so I’ll start by setting out my own position on the subject.

I do not miss the Soviet Union as a nuclear superpower and a territory covering one sixth of the earth’s land mass; I have no nostalgia about that military-bureaucratic empire. However I have to admit to being an imperialist in a cultural-economic sense. I would like it very much if the attraction of our culture, the might of our economy and our enviable standard of living awoke in our neighbours a desire to join in a voluntary commonwealth and union with us. I am in favour of the restoration (and if possible the extension beyond its former limits) of Russia’s sphere of cultural and economic influence. Not by force, not by threat of arms or of the gas being turned off, but out of love (in the case of culture) and calculation (in the case of the economy).

But what would you say? Are you sorry that the USSR is no longer in existence?

Navalny_meeting

Navalny positions himself on the more radical side of the protest movement. Speaking at the event on December, he shouted 'we have enough people here to take the Kremlin!'. While he added almost immediately 'we are peaceful people and we won't do that — yet', his words were interpreted by some as an open call for for revolution. 

A.N. Everybody wants their country to be bigger, richer, stronger. That’s perfectly normal, and it’s what I want as well.

As far as the USSR is concerned, I was born in 1976 and although I remember life in Soviet times pretty well, I associate it with forever standing in a queue to buy milk, despite the fact that I lived in military bases, where the shortages were not as bad as in the rest of the country.

We shouldn’t confuse the USSR with our own conception of the USSR, consisting of happy childhood/teenage moments and Leonid Parfyonov’s TV shows, against a soundtrack of Alla Pugachova songs. 

The might of the Soviet Union was based on the self sacrifice and courage of its people, who lived in poverty. We built space rockets and told each other tall tales of shops with forty kinds of sausage and no queues.

As we now know, other countries had both rockets and sausage.

The USSR was destroyed not by external forces, but by the Communist Party, the State Planning Committee and the Soviet political elite. It was representatives of this dodgy elite that signed a legal agreement about the end of an empire that had de facto already ceased to exist. 

That is historical fact. Another fact is that the core and foundation of the Russian Empire and the USSR was our country – Russia. And Russia remains, both economically and militarily, the dominant state in the region. Our task is to preserve and build on that.

We should not understand dominance in the region in purely military terms; in the modern world it is primarily a question of economic development. You can’t have a modern army without a strong economy.

We see our former Soviet neighbours re-orienteering themselves towards China, a process driven by economic factors.

We should not be deliberately making plans for any expansion; our task is to become strong and rich ourselves, and then our neighbours will also be part of our zone of influence; they won’t have any option.

As regards cultural influence, that too is linked to economic factors, but it is a question of a more subtle and irrational kind. If we are talking about a national strategy which allows us to effectively promote only the most basic things, then our main object of concern is the Russian language.  While there are people still alive in neighbouring countries who speak fluent Russian, we have instruments of cultural influence. Unfortunately this situation is changing; in Central Asian countries and the Caucasus region there are millions of young people alive now who are no more likely to speak Russian than they are German.  

This is a case of ‘tomorrow will be too late’ – the number of Russian speakers will drop through natural causes. We should be putting resources into appropriate projects; this would a useful investment which would more than pay for itself in the future.

G.Ch. There is another ‘perennial’ question which never loses its relevance, for fairly obvious reasons. (It effectively comes down to the priorities for any governmental structure: what comes first – the state or the individual?)

What I am talking about is attitudes towards that steely exponent of the strong state and ruthless pragmatist Joseph Stalin. For me he represents the most terrible chapter in Russian political history. And for you?  

A.N. Hitler and Stalin were the two main butchers of the Russian people. Stalin slaughtered, tortured and starved my fellow-Russians to death, for me that all goes without saying.

‘Hitler and Stalin were the two main butchers of the Russian people. Stalin slaughtered, tortured and starved my fellow-Russians to death, for me that all goes without saying.

The ‘Stalin question’ is a question of historical scholarship, and not current politics.’ 

Alexei Navalny

However, I don’t regard this as a ‘perennial’ question and I don’t see the point of all this ‘de-stalinisation’ and so on. I have no idea what this means in terms of our national politics. If you want ‘de-stalinisation’,  give your child ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ to read, and if he or she can’t be bothered to read that, let them read the article on ‘Stalinist Repression’ in Wikipedia, where they can find everything succinctly, in plain language, objectively and with footnotes.

We need to find answers to the challenges of our time ourselves, and not live off endless political allusions.

The ‘Stalin question’ is a question of historical scholarship, and not current politics. 

G.Ch. I don’t agree. The ghost of the ‘effective manager’ under whose rule ‘our country was a great power’ needs to be buried at a great depth, with a wooden stake through its heart. Otherwise it will rise from the grave again and again. But this is a subject for a separate discussion. For the moment I want to ask you another question that combines history and current politics.

I know that you are a religious believer, although you don’t advertise your faith or try to make political capital of it. My question isn’t about belief, which is a private matter, but about the church. How do you see the role of the Orthodox church in Russian society today? Are you happy about the ‘coalescence’ of the Patriarchate with the government? And what sort of relationship do you think there should be between church and state in Russia in general? 

 A.N. We don’t need to stake anyone, and in any case you can’t stake a ghost  - that’s the whole point about ghosts. The Stalin myth is a myth about iron rule by an iron hand. To debunk it, someone else has to establish order without any iron hand, in other words by simple force of law.

We should not be deliberately making plans for any expansion; our task is to become strong and rich ourselves, and then our neighbours will also be part of our zone of influence; they won’t have any option.’

Alexei Navalny

This is perfectly possible and works perfectly well in many countries. The head of state just has to establish moral and ethical benchmarks and carry out his statutory functions, instead of spending his time earning billions for his neighbours in his dacha cooperative.              

As for the church and religion: I’m ashamed to say that I’m a typical post-soviet believer – I observe the fasts, I cross myself when I pass a church, but I don’t actually go to church very often. When my friends make fun of me for ordering a vegetable salad ‘because it’s a fast day’, and cross-examine me about  the meaning of this or that fast, I soon find myself out of my depth, and they mock me as a ‘sham orthodox, who doesn’t know a thing about his religion’. It’s true, I don’t know as much about my religion as I would like to, but I’m working on it. 

I don’t think I could make political capital out of my religious faith – it would just look silly. I don’t advertise my belief and I don’t hide it either; it’s just there, that’s all.

I am a believer; I like being a Christian and a member of the Orthodox Church, I like to feel part of something large and universal. I like the fact that there is a distinctive ethos and certain asceticism. But at the same time I am quite happy to live in a predominantly atheist milieu. Up to the age of 25 or so, when I became a father, I was such a rabid atheist that I was ready to grab any priest by the beard.   

It’s normal for there to be religious people, and it’s normal for some people to laugh at religiosity. The jokes about religiosity in ‘The Simpsons’ and ‘South Park’ are great and don’t offend me in the least.

When we talk about the Russian Orthodox Church, we need to take several points as axiomatic:

We live in a secular society. Church and state are separate.

No one should be subject to discrimination on religious grounds.

Orthodoxy is the principal religion of Russia, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves by trying to insist on absolute equality. The Russian Orthodox Church’s special role is understandable and reasonable.

Over 80% of Russian citizens consider themselves to be Orthodox (even if they do not go to church). Christmas is a public holiday. It is clear that any attempt to pay as much attention to Russia’s Buddhists as to Orthodox believers is doomed to failure.

If Buddhists wish it, their religion and priests can have a special role to play in traditionally Buddhist areas such as Kalmykia or Buryatia. And it’s fine if Tatarstan and Bashkiria have public holidays linked to Islamic festivals.

We should not, however, deny the obvious fact that the religion of Russia is Orthodox Christianity. This does not, I repeat, imply any discrimination against anyone else. Any limitation on the rights of members of other confessions, or of atheists, should be punishable by law.

The subject of the ‘coalescence’ of the Patriarchate and the government is a sensitive one. The position of the Orthodox Church on this is that all power comes from God, so they will support whoever is in power. You have to be philosophical about this.

I don’t see the need for any special formula here, just the law. This relationship should be formalised. If someone decides to support the Church through a quota on the shipment of cigarettes, the secular authorities should punish the official in question using the normal judicial procedures. And the Church itself should deal with his ‘business partner’ within its ranks as it sees fit.

A few days ago I read an intriguing article in the ‘Vedomosti’ newspaper, on the subject of the peaceful removal of dictators from power. Interestingly, in almost all cases the church acted as main intermediary between the dictator and protesting citizens.  Would this be possible here? It’s very unlikely.   

 But I would like to see the Orthodox Church occupying a position in society where the parties in any conflict would seek and accept its mediation.

G.Ch. Let’s see this part of our conversation as a warm-up for the most interesting part: what awaits our country and us in this new year. That follows in Part Two.

Part II can be found here

Part III can be found here

About the authors

Boris Akunin is Russian detective fiction writer of world reknown. He is also an essayist, literary translator and democratic activist.

Alexei Navalny is a political and social activist best known for his struggle with Russia’s heavy corruption.

Read On

Books by Boris Akunin (in English translation)

The Winter Queen, 2003

The Turkish Gambit, 2005

Murder on the Leviathan, 2004

Special Assignments, 2007

The State Counsellor, 2009

The Coronation, 2009

The Death of Achilles, 2005

She Lover of Death, 2009

He Lover of Death, 2010

The Diamond Chariot, 2011

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Boris Akunin, blog (in Russian)