I desperately want to believe that the Russian military simply sucks – not that Russian soldiers purposefully destroy hospitals and kindergartens. If they do that intentionally, my worldview, which has been quite shaken recently, will be destroyed completely, Russian dissident Nikolay Artemenko says in an interview.
It was a beautiful Sunday, March 2022. I was walking with my friend through Tallinn's Old Town. We were heading towards the capital's hipster Mecca Balti Jaama Turg to grab some street food and enjoy the spring sun rays. We are two Estonian Russian-speaking millennials with careers in the public sector and background in political science. My friend forbids me talking about the war in Ukraine: "You have already cried today after scrolling through social media for hours. Please take some time to enjoy this beautiful weather." I tried to listen to her but without much success.
Nevertheless, holding my on-the-go cappuccino tight and walking with my caring friend through Town Hall Square, out of nowhere I notice a familiar face with startling blue eyes and nerdy glasses nearby and scream in Russian: "Privet! Do you remember me?" It was Nikolay, and he luckily remembered me well.
"Privet! Of course, I do remember you. I got out of jail in St Petersburg a couple of weeks ago for protesting the war and now I am here in Tallinn. I am returning from a protest in front of the Russian embassy here. By the way, do you know if there is any way I can help Ukrainian refugees here?"
Nikolay is also a young millennial from St Petersburg. Several years ago, he came to Estonia for a visit, and we added each other on Facebook. Nikolay expressed his disapproval of Putin's regime, and his ambition was to change Russian politics and governance for the best, at least on the local government level. Years have passed, I saw Nikolay doing his best at competing at the local elections and trying to navigate his relationship with other democratic forces in his country. I felt proud of him, following his social media updates, but since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, I had so many questions that I wanted to ask him and millions of other Russian people. So, I invited Nikolay for a good glass of local beer at the Põhjala Tap Room on Tuesday. Nikolay gladly accepted the invitation: "I have noticed that nobody goes out here during the weekdays, everybody is drinking only on weekends. I miss a bit of big city energy here and the opportunity to get drunk with a friend in the middle of the week (he laughs), especially in the light of current events."
Nikolay seemed to be very fond of the place. On the way there we had been passing through Tööstuse street in Kalamaja and I mentioned to Nikolay that this is now one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Tallinn. Nikolay raised his eyebrows: "But these are baraks, just wooden houses, we are getting rid of them in Russia!" he laughed. I explained to him the concept of "milieu value" and why we love our neighborhoods here in Estonia. Nikolay liked Noblessner a lot better. "It would be nice to smoke shisha on the balcony here" – he said.
We took our first sips of beer, and I could not hold back my questions anymore:
You have been to Russian jail. How did it happen? Was it as terrible in jail as we have read on the Internet?
It was the very first day of war. As soon as I learned of it, I printed an anti-war poster and went towards the square but did not even make it to my destination before I was detained by the police. It was very bizarre, we were riding to the police station, and one of the policemen had been watching Max Kaz (Russian blogger, political activist - ed.) all the way. He was watching it to understand what was going on, not to make fun of it.
I spent two weeks in jail with 400 other detained protestors. The jail staff was very respectful and kind to us. They allowed us to make calls and gave us things we asked for. When I was released, I thanked a policeman for showing humanity towards us.
Do you believe the results of the opinion polls, which state that over 70 percent of the Russian population support the war?
Yes and no. I am sure that the majority of Russians support Putin. However, many Russians are brainwashed and do not even realize what is happening in Ukraine. People do not know how to critically analyze information. They allow propaganda to feed them all sorts of bullshit. When they hear it first, they might not even believe it. But after numerous repetitions, people start to believe almost anything. Especially since 70 percent of Russians do not have a travel passport and most who do usually go to Turkey or Egypt for vacation. Europe is way too expensive for most Russians.
Have you ever asked yourself why the Russian military attacks civilian objects in Ukraine like hospitals and apartment buildings? They are targeting civilians, it is genocide, isn't it?
I'm not entirely sure they did it on purpose, and you know why: there are so many production industries in Russia that genuinely suck, with insane levels of corruption. When your country's economy and industrial processes are so terrible, how can you expect the military to be on top of their game?
I do not know for sure. I desperately want to believe that the Russian military simply sucks - not that Russian soldiers purposefully destroy hospitals and kindergartens. If they do that intentionally, my worldview, which has been quite shaken recently, will be destroyed completely. It will not be the same for me ever after.
I will not dare exclude anything. I still believe in humanity and that children's lives are the most precious thing in the world, and that throwing bombs at hospitals or kindergartens is beyond all limits of morality, it's hell. People, who do such things or give orders to commit those crimes are not worthy of being referred to as "humans".
Do you ever think why Ukrainians are capable of Maidan (Ukrainian protests during 2013-14) and Russians are not, even in the most critical situation in the history of their country?
Because small and medium businesses in Russia are almost non-existent for the size of the population. The majority of Russians are employed in the public sector. Their incomes and stability depend on the persistence of the current system. So far, Russians had very little reason to fight for (from their perspective). The Bolotnaya demonstrations in 2011 came as a very important moment in the modern history of Russia, where we could have turned the tables, but we lost it unfortunately.
You have been in opposition for years. Why are the opposition forces in Russia so bad at working together?
Everyone wants to have all the spotlight. Navalny and his team included. Navalny has been doing amazing investigations exposing corrupt elites in Russia. He is a great journalist and his team are top professionals too. However, I believe that Navalny would be a bad president for Russia, his strive for power and the character of his political ambition are autocratic. He will have difficulties letting go of power.
Another story that I have from my own experience about why opposition sucks in Russia. It happened during the 2019 local elections. My movement Vremya came up with an original campaign idea: we set up ten women candidates in the central district of St Petersburg. The campaign was geared toward provocation, sometimes it was even sexist. Our goal was to attract attention to the local elections in St Pete. We did not even hope to win seats in the city council in this district because the competition there was too fierce. We put our money in this campaign and started to do door-to-door campaigning when Max Kaz (who was at this point member of Yabloko), Moscow's popular political activist and blogger, let us know that he also wants to nominate his female candidates in the same district, so we have to dial back our numbers or move to another district. We were outraged. How in the world could some Moscow politician tell us what to do in our own city? Especially after we already started with our campaign. Eventually, we both ran in the same district and one of the girls on my team won a place at the city council! Despite all the odds and our pessimistic predictions. However, when I think about it, if we had resolved our issue with Kaz's team, our results could have been even better. In a way, our teams cancelled each other's votes. This was super frustrating.
I have heard some opinions that it would be better for everyone, including Russians if the Russian Federation would disintegrate. Russians are too obsessed with the idea of restoring the empire. There is no other cure for that. And the best start would be returning Crimea to Ukraine.
(Nikolay takes a moment to think) Honestly, I do not see Crimea returning to Ukraine. People there are very loyal to Russia. I am sure that if there would be some new referendum organized with supervision from Europe or whatever, the people of Crimea would most probably vote for staying in Russia. I also think that the leader who will come after Putin, hopefully a true democrat, will not risk the public support of Russians on this matter. What I see as a compromise in the case of Crimea is to give some control over to Ukraine as well, create an island of friendship between our countries, give all its residents a Ukrainian citizenship in addition to Russia's. Overall, I don't think Russia has to disintegrate to become peaceful and democratic. Giving power back to the people and providing Russians with honest elections will be enough. Like for now, the governors of cities are appointed by president. The head of the cities have no accountability to their residents, it's crazy. What would be their motivation to do something for the people and not to please the president's administration? This must change.
We talked for a while more about the opposition in Russia, people who have left Russia because of sanctions, Putin's regime oppressions and war and people who have stayed. My last question to Nikolay was about his future, if he has plans.
"I do not have any certain plans for now. The war must end, and Putin must go. After that, we Russians will help Ukrainians rebuild their cities. Then we will build a peaceful democratic Russia which will be good for everyone: its people and the nations around it.
Editor: Marcus Turovski