A version of this interview originally appeared in Newsweek Polska. Text and interview translated by Piotr Milo Milewski.
There are paramilitary militias, Goebbels-style propaganda and armaments. There is one leader and one party. Russia is becoming a fascist country—at least that’s what Boris Nemtsov told me a few hours before he was gunned down on Friday in central Moscow. His death came just two days before he was to speak at a major anti-government rally.
Nobody knows who committed this horrific murder, but it is likely the result of a witch-hunt perpetrated by the Russian media and Kremlin leaders. At a so-called Anti-Maidan rally two weeks ago, pro-Putin thugs wearing paramilitary uniforms declared that they would extinguish any anti-government protests with blood. They started with Nemtsov.
Newsweek: The opposition takes to the streets, but the regime holds on tight as ever. Is Russia going to change?
Boris Nemtsov: For now, we’re drowning. Everyone. Due to the policy of Vladimir Putin, a country with unparalleled potential is sinking, an economy which accumulated untold currency reserves is collapsing. We used to have $500 billion of savings! For the first time in our history we had a chance to make a great developmental leap. No Russian leader ever had such a comfortable situation. And today we are in a slump. What do we have? Double-digit inflation, devaluation of the ruble, flight of capital—$150 billion is already gone!
The West, the U.S. and Europe are moving forward, and what is our government doing? It comes up with some desperate ideas, wants to regulate prices, subsidizes state-owned companies to let its people on the boards earn even more. And worst of all, this government wades into a costly, fratricidal war in Ukraine and into pointless confrontation with the West. We all feel the effects of this insane policy. We can’t remain indifferent. That’s why we take to the streets. This is the protest against a collective suicide of Russia. And it is not instigated by the opposition, it’s supported by all the Russians.
Newsweek: Apparently not by all of them. Even if tens of thousands were to march in Moscow, it would still be nothing compared with the 80 percent of Russians who support Putin.
Nemtsov: I have no doubt that the struggle for the revival of Russians will be tough. People see what this crazy politics led to, they see widespread corruption, they have firsthand experience with the inadequacy of the state. But they still believe in the leader because for the past several years, the leader was doing one thing very well: He was brainwashing the Russians. He implanted them with a virus of inferiority complex towards the West, the belief that the only thing we can do to amaze the world is use force, violence and aggression.
[Putin] programmed my countrymen to hate strangers. He persuaded them that we need to rebuild the former Soviet order, and that the position of Russia in the world depends entirely on how much the world is afraid of us. He managed to do all these things with Goebbels-style propaganda. If we are talking about the responsibility for spilling both Russian and Ukrainian blood, it lies not only with Putin, but also with such gentlemen as Konstantin Ernst [director general of Channel One] or Dmitry Kiselyov [head of the new, Russian-government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya]. They operate in accordance with the simple principles of Joseph Goebbels: Play on the emotions; the bigger the lie, the better; lies should be repeated many times. This propaganda is directed to the simple men; there is no room for any questions, nuances. Unfortunately, it works. The hysteria reached unprecedented levels, hence the high level of support for Putin. Therefore, we need to work as quickly as possible to show the Russians that there is an alternative, that Putin’s policy leads to degradation and a suicide of the state. There is less and less time to wake up.
Nemtsov: Because Russia quickly turns into a fascist state. We already have the propaganda modeled after Nazi Germany. We also have a nucleus of assault brigades, such as the SA. What else would you call this Anti-Maidan thing, this pseudo-civic initiative, which two weeks ago gathered to torpedo the anniversary of the revolution on the Maidan. Tens of thousands of mercenaries, thugs and all kinds of suspicious individuals were brought to Moscow. They tried to intimidate us. With portraits of Putin they swore that they would fight and even kill any rebels. As in Hitler’s Germany. And that’s just the beginning.
Newsweek: But it was the Russian authorities that warned against fascism in Ukraine.
Nemtsov: Someone once said that the future fascists will be ardent anti-fascists. Fascism in Ukraine? Nonsense! Let’s look at Russia. We have one party built on the cult of a leader, plus some irrelevant satellite parties. Every few years there is a pathetic parody of an election. We have a chauvinistic and aggressive foreign policy, a reheating of imperial complexes, the militarization of society. These are the characteristics of a fascist regime, aren’t they? But Putin is not a fascist. He just cynically uses some elements of the past, mixes them with others—for example with Soviet traditions—and the hybrid is born, the contemporary hybrid fascism. It’s like the war in Ukraine. The war is going on, Russian soldiers are there, but the Kremlin denies it and pretends [the government] has nothing to do with these tanks and regiments in Donetsk. The same is true of fascism—it exists in Russia, but the authorities say that we are fighting the fascism in Ukraine. If we do not stop this madness, the consequences for all of us will be devastating.
Newsweek: Putin is shifting his position on Ukraine every five minutes, but he’s not proclaiming fascist ideas...
Nemtsov: Really? But he simply despises the whole world order! He openly says that the West is worse than us, evil, weak. He says that Ukrainians are unable to build the state and only he, Putin, can help them. He talks about the need to rebuild the world order, about the Russia birthright to its own sphere of influence, about the necessity of protecting the Russian minorities abroad. The Kremlin uses minorities, language and cultural issues to blow up the neighboring countries from the inside. And this is the most horrible thing: People who control the Kremlin are convinced that they have a recipe for happiness for this enormous country. They gathered a handful of slogans and ideas from the most authoritarian regimes of the past and integrated them into the present world order. They mixed it all up and they see themselves as geniuses.
Newsweek: Many Russian citizens feel that the government is creating order and stabilization, because there is the leader and there is structure. And the opposition? Who is the leader? You or Alexei Navalny, who is sitting in jail?
Nemtsov: I am one of the leaders of the United Democratic opposition. In our ranks there are many bold and charismatic people, representing different views and political options. But we share a desire for change, and a need for the restoration of democracy and for the removal of these mad men from power. Yes, sometimes the government runs over us like a bulldozer. Alexei Navalny is now locked in prison [for handing out leaflets in the Moscow subway] in order to isolate him from the protests. But the Ukrainian Maidan hasn’t had a single leader either, and those who were considered to be the leaders argued all the time. Personalities are not important. The most important thing is the idea of great change and renewal of Russia.
Newsweek: Being the opposition, you don’t have the media, so you don’t have as large a voice. You took to the streets, and you were shown as the fifth column of the enemies of Russia and equated to U.S. agents and troublemakers. Putin says there will be no Russian Maidan. How do you want to win?
Nemtsov: We are realists. It is true that the government branded us as enemies a long time ago. Therefore for many Russians we are enemies, traitors. Even in my wildest dreams I would not try to organize the Maidan in Moscow. Putin is not Yanukovych. For years he was preparing himself for the fight with his own nation, if the nation would try to fight him. He has a powerful security apparatus, and now he has these fanatical militants. Each major protest can be easily drowned in blood. Despite this, we will try.
Newsweek: The Russians are not Ukrainians; it seems that they are much further from this breaking point.
Nemtsov: Therefore, first we need to focus on those who are already convinced. Marches are intended to enable us to count ourselves, to let us see that we are not some fringe group, but a real force. Taking to the streets in today’s Russia requires great courage. A brave man, an active man counts more than the one who out of convenience or fear doesn’t do anything. This is just the beginning. And then maybe we will be able to put our people into Moscow municipal government. In the capital, we have more citizens who are open-minded, who are contesting the authorities. Even getting a couple of the City Council seats would be a success, a breach in the monolith of power.
Newsweek: These are quite minimalist goals, and you yourself said that time is short.
Nemtsov: Time is now running faster. The economic crisis will accelerate the political processes in Russia. Many Russians support Putin, because in the last few years he improved their living standards. But the Russians are not stupid, as it is often believed in the West. Large numbers of pensioners, workers and officials would never believe in the imperial propaganda, would not let Putin to deceive them, if it wasn’t for the better living they suddenly had. They are not thinking how all this prosperity came to be. And even if they knew that their standard of living increased due to high oil prices, they thought it was good. They weren’t thinking that their lives would be even better if oil reserves were well managed and invested, not stolen. Now, when it turns out that pension or salary is not enough to make ends meet, people will start to wake up.
Newsweek: And stop blaming the West for the deterioration of their living standards?
Nemtsov: Yes, for now they blame the West, they complain about the sanctions, but they are beginning to understand that the real reasons are different than those given by the government. The West acts reasonably and fairly gently. It must restrain Russian aggression in Ukraine. The crisis in Russia is not the result of sanctions, but the result of Putin’s insanity. He immediately began to introduce the so-called counter-sanctions. And who was punished by them? Us, the Russians. Not only that, he also proved that his great country can’t produce basic things. Putin himself shows that the emperor has no clothes. But I know that he will not depart from this path. He won’t leave the Ukraine alone. He will be risking further sanctions. He will spend more billions on the army, the police and his bodies. And on the containment of inflation, because he understands that rising prices will anger the people.
Newsweek: The economic crisis in Germany elevated Hitler to power, but Putin already has the power.
Nemtsov: So he can only lose it. For this to come true, you need an alternative vision, a different idea of Russia. Our idea is the one of a democratic and open Russia. A country which is not applying bandit methods to its own citizens and neighbors. But, as I mentioned, Russian fascism is a hybrid. And hybrids are extremely resistant.