A top Russian dissident on why Putin’s honeymoon with Trump won’t last

Time is of the essence.
Time is of the essence.
Image: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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Grigory Chkhartishvili is one of Russia’s most popular novelists. Published under the pen name Boris Akunin, his books—many of which trace the adventures of a 19th-century sleuth— have sold over 30 million copies worldwide.

But Chkhartishvili is also a scholar and historian, having authored the multi-volume History of the Russian State. And in recent years, he has emerged as one of the leading members of the opposition to Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

As a 2012 New Yorker profile reports, Chkhartishvili became a driving force in the Bolotnaya protests in Moscow in 2011 and 2012, in which tens of thousands turned out to demonstrate against allegedly rigged election results that had returned Putin to power. In 2014, the deteriorating political climate in Russia prompted Chkhartishvili to move to the UK.

Now, as Americans and people around the world struggle with the prospect of authoritarian regimes, dissidents like Chkhartishvili are uniquely qualified to help design a strategy for resistance. In a recent interview, he spoke with Anastasia Edel, a Russian-American writer, about how modern dictators consolidate power, what artists should do in times of national duress, and why Putin’s honeymoon with US president Donald Trump is unlikely to last.

Quartz: In the past 100 years, Russia has experienced several dramatic transitions between democracy and dictatorship. Do you see any parallels between Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia?

GC: Not yet, luckily. What I see is a successful attempt on Donald’s Trump part to imitate Vladimir’s Putin tactical move undertaken in 2012, when the Russian dictator, seeing his unpopularity among the middle class, decided to position himself as “a president of simple people,” changed his rhetoric, made an appeal to “collective mass subconscious”—and it worked.

How does Russian liberal opposition view American elections? Do they feel betrayed [by US voters]? Do they even care?

Oh yes, we do care very much. I do not know about betrayal; it’s not as if American democracy owed us something. But a world in which dictators feel safer and freer, not having to fear sanctions and repercussions for their deeds, is a gloomy perspective.

Trump loves Putin. Will we see them ruling the world together?

I am very skeptical of any possibility of a “Trump-Putin duumvirate.” Trump might want to use Russia in his confrontation with Iran and China, but Putin would be extremely unwilling to spoil relations with his closest neighbors. I think it’s more likely that their honeymoon won’t last. 

US intelligence believes Russia interfered in 2016 presidential campaign to benefit Trump. Do you think Russia actually influenced the outcomes of the American elections?  

I wouldn’t exaggerate the importance of the “Russian trace” in Trump’s victory. Of course Putin wanted Trump to win—for the obvious reason that America under this administration would be less of a problem to the world’s aggressive regimes, Russia included. It’s quite probable that Putin’s notorious cyber thugs actually did implement some of their habitual hacking-spying tricks during the election campaign. But I doubt that it could have significantly influenced the polls. Let us not be carried away by conspiracy theories. What happened in America is part of a bigger process, which still has to be understood and analyzed.

There seems to be a reactionary trend across the Western world—the rise of ultra-right in Europe, Brexit, Trumpism. Has liberal democracy reached a dead end?

No, it’s not a dead end, but it is a challenge that must be faced and a test that must be passed. In the three decades after the Cold War, the world has made a giant leap toward unity, toward accepting joint responsibility for mankind’s present and future. It seems that the progress was too swift. Mass consciousness failed to catch up with this tempo—hence phenomena like Brexit or Trumpism. A certain retreat to “my house, my fortressism” looks inevitable. Let’s hope that it won’t be too big and lengthy.

What should Americans watch out for—how does a modern dictator take away freedom?

In Russia, their first move was to subjugate all the important media. When they achieved that, the rest was easy. No matter how loudly you protest, without independent media, you are mute.

So, please learn this sad lesson: Stand for the freedom of press. Every lost battle there is going to cost dearly. 

What can the US opposition do to avoid being marginalized?

Learn to speak with people who have a different background, who have been less lucky, who have been dissatisfied—in Americans’ case, those who voted for Trump. Don’t shame them or call them names, as we did to those who supported Putin. Try to explain, try to communicate in a language that would be understandable to them. Their dissatisfaction with the previous state of affairs is real; their problems are real, too. Understanding and communicating is the key.

How can people resist authoritarianism when traditional safeguards of democracy fail?

Don’t underestimate the importance of mass protest. Go out into the streets, make yourself heard. We in Russia did that too, but it was too late by then. If tens of thousands of Muscovites had staged huge manifestations in defense of freedom not in 2011, but in 2001, when the independent TV was crushed, we would live in a different Russia today.

You lived through Soviet totalitarianism, a brief period of democracy, and Putin’s rule. Why does democracy fail?

Democracy in post-perestroika Russia failed because most of us, those who supported it, were too immersed in our personal quests—for material success, for professional achievement, for self-realization. In the 1990s, people in my milieu thought that going into politics or engaging in public activity was awfully kitschy. We all had been so nauseated by communism that any idea of collective action gave us creeps. After a long period of totalitarian rule, the possibilities and options that opened before our eyes were too inviting. And many of us did succeed on a personal level, but we lost the country. With Putin, the KGB party (no matter what it calls itself) came into power.

Your books are household names in Russia; you’re widely read and loved there. Yet in 2014, you moved to Europe. Why did you choose exile?

I left because I was disgusted by the public elation that accompanied Russia’ annexation of Crimea in 2014. First I decided that I would keep visiting Russia to check if this madness was subsiding. But each time I came, I felt worse. So I decided that I needed to distance myself from it all, if I want to continue loving my country. It’s a bit like a marriage that has gone sour. There is a period when it is advisable to live independently and exchange letters. That’s what we do.

What is your relationship with Russia now?

I write my “letters” to Russia—books. And I receive answers, via Facebook or comments on my blog. It’s hate mail, mostly. Like, Stop reviling our great Motherland, you bloody Russophobe. So, I guess, the separation is likely to continue for a while longer.

What is the role of the artist in times of trouble? Must the Poet resist the Tsar?

The formula “Poet and Tsar” dates back to the times when Nicolas I became the personal censor of Alexander Pushkin. So it is a symbol of very particular relation between power and art, combining privilege and dependence. Following this tradition, a lot of Russian celebrities appeal to the dictator today—some shyly, others happily. It’s very much in the mood of the epoch to address public letters to Putin, to ask him for clemency, support, justice, etc.

This is something that makes me sick. I think that the Poet should tell the Tsar to leave him alone. Better still, not tell him anything. Artists shouldn’t speak to tsars, they should speak to the public—or to God, if you are a believer.