Foto: from personal archive
In her book, which was banned from stores before the Russian parliamentary elections, long-time Kremlin correspondent Yelena Tregubova speaks openly about what goes on behind the scenes in of her country’s political system.
In your book from the end of last year, you very openly describe politics in the Kremlin without sparing anyone, especially Putin. What sort of response did you receive after this book was published?
First of all, directly after the book was published on November 1st, I was let go from the newspaper “Kommersant.” Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said that I had signed my resignation with this book. I was told, “While Lesin is Press Minister, you won’t find work here in journalism.” We’ll see. For the time being, my colleagues have not demonstrated complete loyalty to Lesin as I have been invited to work for “Novaya Gazeta” and other newspapers, mainly dissident publications.
As far as the Kremlin is concerned – I was told that those people who are mentioned in the book were very nervous. The funniest thing is that it is always unpleasant to read about oneself, but when someone else gets it and the truth is told, that is nice. Leonid Parfyonov, whose interview with me was taken of the air – thus creating a huge scandal about the Kremlin’s censoring of the program Namedni – told me that the very same Lesin admitted to him, “Everything that is written about me in that book is true from beginning to end. How in hell did she manage to remember all that? From that, I conclude that what is written about everyone else is also true.”
But what sort of reaction did you get from, for example, Voloshin, Chubais, Nemtsov or any other of the main protagonists?
I think that Aleksandr Voloshin read the book. I’ve gathered this from the fact that he does not call me anymore.
I really like Anatoly Chubais’ reaction. He told my colleagues that he couldn’t understand if he was considered a “digger” or a “mutant”, but he thought the book was very respectable. While writing this book, I tried not to slander anyone, but to write honestly how I saw these people in this or that life situation. That is why Chubais’ figure came out so convoluted. I wrote that I really respected this person and viewed him as a sort of Messiah who really wanted to reform the state. But, after that, I understood that even he had, unfortunately, been infected with the disease of power, fallen for Vladimir Putin and, along with that, renounced his liberal ideas.
I believe that the parties on the right acted very dishonestly and stupidly during the pre-election campaign. They had an agreement with the Kremlin. They criticized Putin, but only up to a certain point, just as much as they were allowed to. They did not defend Mikhail Khodorkovsky like they could have. That was not just a betrayal in front of their voters, but a technical pre-election mistake because this was one of those rare moments in politics when honesty would have been profitable. As a result, they did not get into the Duma because the voters did not think that they would defend liberal interests and freedoms.
When you were let go from your job, what were you told in explanation? And why didn’t NTV broadcast the piece about your book? Was there an order from above in both of these instances?
I don’t know the circumstances that induced my former editor-in-chief to fire me because he didn’t even call me. I was sent a telegram containing threats that I would be fired if I did not submit some sort of documentation about my delinquency even though we had agreed that I was on a “creative leave of absence.”
As for the piece that was not aired on NTV, I only know the official version. NTV General Director Nikolai Senkevich only forbade it after the show had been aired in the Russian Far East. It turned out that, with this jest, our censors spat on those people – they are just simple cattle who can be shown anything, but that most certainly cannot be shown in Moscow. I don’t know what led Senkevich to take this show off the air. Maybe a call came from the Kremlin as has often been the case recently. I know that this arrangement with the telephone – when the Kremlin Press Secretary Alexei Gromov calls and, in either Putin’s or his own name, asks that this or that story be taken out – has been renewed at all of Moscow’s newspapers. In practice, there is no longer any editor-in-chief who could refuse to do so.
In your book, you write that, after Putin came to power, the press was deprived of oxygen. Has this suffocation continued or is there nothing left to strangle?
The fact that my book was actually published, that it has already sold 140,000 copies, that I am still free and still live in Moscow, that I haven’t been deported, proves that the dictatorship has still not yet reached its apogee. However, the tendency is already clear. The Soviet practice of censorship, when any editor-in-chief can be called by the Press Minister or Putin’s press secretary and asked to take out this or that piece of material or censor it as requested by the Kremlin, has been brought back to life. At any moment, they can revoke the accreditation of any unwanted journalist that refuses to praise Putin and to kiss him all over. The scariest thing is that many journalists have already gotten used to this and do not resist. That is why the purpose of my book was precisely to arouse my colleagues.
Honestly, after reading this book, I am amazed that you still have not been deported.
I think that until the presidential election, when Putin will be re-elected as President, I am not in danger. What will happen after that, how I will ensure my family’s safety after the election, I still don’t know. I have spoken with my friends in the business world and with people in the power structures about whether it is worth it for me to hire a bodyguard. But they tell me that if there is an election, they will get me anyway. That was demonstrated by Deputy Sergei Yushenkov’s murder – he had immunity and a bodyguard, but he was shot anyway. You see, if people begin to use methods of repression, if the state starts down this path, there are no guarantees that it will end. Here, I make no distinction between criminals and our so-called judicial system, which has become an instrument of repression that can be used against unwanted politicians and unwanted businessmen, as is currently the case with Khodorkovsky. If Yushenkov was shot and Khodorkovsky imprisoned, there is no guarantee that Tregubova will be left in peace. At the same time, I thought – if I had stayed quiet and had not written this book, I would be in even greater danger. Moreover, what is the point in staying quiet and getting used to things when you are being kept from working in your profession, because political journalism is essentially forbidden here. The journalists now working in the Kremlin are essential making the Kremlin’s image and that is no longer journalism. I don’t want to return to the time our parents lived through, when one could speak in the kitchen, but no one could say anything loudly. That would be a betrayal of my mother and my father who lived their whole lives under that terrible regime.
To what extent are people now able to receive objective information about the political processes in the country?
Society’s more active members can always get this type of information from the Internet. The world has changed and communist regimes, as they once were, are no longer possible. All sources of information can no longer be cut off. At the same time, a large portion of society is gripped by an aggressive sense of apathy. Over the past few years, these people have been overfed on propaganda. All these years, the TV news has been like it was in the Brezhnev era – everything about Him and then only the weather. Last night, for example, the main story was Irina Khakamada’s courageous announcement that she wants to tell people the truth about what happened in Dubrovka, the truth about this act of terrorism, when the Special Forces, on Putin’s order, used force and poisoned many of the hostages taken at the Nord-Ost show with gas. That was the main event of the day; but, when I turned on the news, I didn’t hear a word about this. Instead, about five of Putin’s boring meetings where shown with him smiling, shaking hands, presenting something and making belligerent statements etc. That is our reality. Of course, people are already tired of this and no longer watch TV. People simply say, “Go away. We will vote for who we have to, like in Soviet times with the support of 99.9%, just leave us alone.” The worst thing isn’t that it is difficult to uncover the truth. The worst thing is that people no longer want to know anything. That is why I wrote my book in this pseudo-yellow style. I tried to break through that incredibly intelligent way of speaking that journalists use to address people so that I could be heard by those who, in a political sense, have been conquered several times over and are completely apathetic. They are no longer interested in anything and they do not believe anyone. That is why they read detective novels like Marinina’s. That is why I decided to write in such an easy style, but only to tell people important things. Like how we are standing on the edge of authoritarianism and how those democratic achievements and freedoms gained during the Boris Yeltsin ear are being revoked.
You had the chance to work both during the Yeltsin era and under Putin and have had the chance to compare. What are the main differences?
First of all, their personalities are completely different. Yeltsin was a charismatic and very open person and a talented public politician. His tragedy is that the reforms were not finished, but what he did for the state was invaluable.
Just before the New Year, I went into a church. And what do you think the priest was talking about? That those freedoms that Yeltsin gave to the people, including religious people, are threatened. In the regions, for example, citing different pretexts, the churches of many different confessions are being closed. When that is done on the premise that NATO should not be allowed to move east, as our Patriarch once stated, then that is a persecution of Christians. Understand, it isn’t just some accredited journalist who feels that the situation is becoming worse.
In his time, Yelstin couldn’t touch the journalists, let alone close a publication. Why is Putin so terribly afraid of a free press?! Of course, it is tied to his profession; he was raised that way. To any KGB operative any independent journalist is the enemy’s mouthpiece spreading western propaganda. Yes, Putin has somehow distorted his profession, but obviously there is a problem with personality. The man simply does not believe in himself as a public politician. He understands that, when compared to Yeltsin, he appears an untalented politician. He is cold, he can’t sympathize, let alone speak to a large auditorium. When he sits in front of you, face to face, he is trying to recruit you. He reflects your gestures and gives the impression that he is exactly the same as you are, that he really understands you, that he is smart and educated. But when you leave the room, you understand that it was just a vision, a fog that has now dispersed. Yes, he was taught that – to win people over and to leave a good impression. But, as a politician, he does not exist. There is no such politician, Putin. He truly understands how he was able to win the presidential elections: thanks to the war in Chechnya, thanks to his militaristic announcements, thanks to complete censorship of the television. Apparently, this example has so imbedded itself in his head that he no longer believes that he could win the election another time if there was a free press.
All of the changes that have taken place since the President changed, were they the work of the administration or just one person?
In my opinion, the bureaucrats, who are not personalities, very quickly understood the vibes coming from Putin and he didn’t even have to explain anything. That it came from Putin – to clamp down on the press, apply repressive methods against possible virtual opponents like Khodorkovsky – I have no doubt. The myth about the “Good Czar” and the “Bad Boyars” must be forgotten. Putin does not have any of the excuses that Yeltsin had. People said about Yeltsin that he was sick, that he drank too much and that is why he didn’t know what those around him were doing. Excuse me, Putin is a young, healthy, capable man with complete understanding. Moreover, he doesn’t drink. What excuses can he make about what is going on in the country? I am completely certain that he knows what is going on with the press 100%. I am also sure that it all comes from him.
In your book, you brush over the issue of Russia’s incomprehensible foreign policy. Specifically, the fact that Russia cares more about its relations with states under questionable regimes than about its relations with the democratic West. Did you ever figure out why this is?
It is clear that all post-Soviet diplomacy has been founded on the very same principles that guided Soviet diplomacy – by blackmailing the western countries through friendship with terrorist states, which are treated like boils by the civilized world. The West was always told, “Look, if you speak to us badly, if you don’t give us money, then how will you influence North Korea or Iraq?”
As far as the changes that have occurred in Putin’s foreign policy in the last few years, when he began actively to make friends with the US, I believe that this change is not very deep. Our foreign policy is still led by the very same people as before. I am afraid that it was just Putin’s very pragmatic and cynical decision. That is, it is currently profitable to him. It was helpful that the US turned a blind-eye to the completely illegal war in Chechnya, to the fact that our state has practically liquidated the free press and that political repression has been renewed and political refugees have appeared. Putin has gained all of this in exchange for refusing to support the terrorists during the campaign in Iraq and actively supporting the US. If, after a year, disagreements appear, if the West again remembers Chechnya, if it tries to tell Putin that he has been elected President of a country where there isn’t one TV channel independent from the government, that this is not democracy, I am afraid that Putin will forget about friendship with the West. He will assume an aggressive defensive position, like there was during the Soviet period, and this aggression will be demonstrated in exactly the same way.
In the Kremlin, for example, foreign affairs is still being handled by the same man, Sergei Prihodka, who was there under Yeltsin and during whose time there where those impolite campaigns against the Baltic States, including against Latvia. I remember when, in 1997 and 1998, there was all that blackmailing, pressure and propaganda, it was all so abhorrent to us journalists at the newspaper “Ruskiy telegraf” that we, in protest against it, went to the nearest stores and started to buy Latvian sprotes and we were really pleased about that. That, of course, was just one funny episode that unfortunately did not make it into my book and which I now truly regret because those human moments are the best description of how difficult it can be to break a propaganda campaign.
You said that, at the first offense, Putin could assume an aggressive defensive position like in Soviet times. How should the West react to this? Should the West respond to these offenses or simply wait until the Russians get over their own problems themselves?
Wait until Putin becomes the second Sadam Hussein?! There are two options. The West waited quite a long time until the Bolsheviks, who grabbed power, got over their own problems themselves. That led to an almost century-long dictatorship that was accompanied by political murders and a criminal regime here. This sort of regime began by threatening the states surrounding it and, afterwards, the entire civilized world. What do you do when you have a boil? Wait until it takes over your whole leg and, in the end, you have to amputate it, or break it open and smear it with antibiotic cream? Hushing up the problem will only increase it. Now the West, like an ostrich with its head in the sand, does not react to obvious violations of human rights in Russia – maybe it won’t affect us. My friends, it will and how, with an even more serious consequences than in the previous century. This is a great power with atomic weapons. A state, which is not democratic and where completely unscrupulous people come to power who, in the Duma, can say the phrase “Russia for the Russians,” is very dangerous because someone sitting at the launch controls could hit the button simply by accident.
Are many people upset about the type of democracy that is developing in Russia?
What is democracy? Democracy is considered the rule of the majority as determined in a free election. Can the Duma elections that just took place or the upcoming Presidential election be considered free? I think not because the main instrument for turning society into zombies is television. All television rests under total state control. Complete television censorship. Anyone who criticizes Putin will not get enough time on television, not even for money. Can we talk about democracy here?
Are people upset about this? Many are upset. After my book was published, I received many phone calls from businessmen who said, “We completely support you, but we won’t say that publicly.” When we spoke about their plans, they said that they were not heroes like Misha Khodorkovsky and that is why they are involved in capital flight. They are ready for the fact that Khodorkovsky, unfortunately, will not be the last. Just when they begin to “feel the heat,” they are ready to flee the country. These are businessmen whose companies make up a serious percentage of the country’s domestic product. That means that there will be huge capital flight. That represents a huge lack of confidence in the state on the part of businessmen. That means that Putin should forget about investment if even our homegrown businessmen are getting ready to bolt. What sort of idiot Western businessman would invest in this country in such a situation? Businessmen currently find themselves with a very unpleasant sense of anticipation – who will be next.
Will the Presidential campaign take place according to the same scenario as the parliamentary elections?
Of course. Nothing will change. Putin is already on all the TV channels, on every news show three or four times. I spoke with the people who are now creating Irina Khakamada’s pre-election campaign. Even for money they couldn’t get Khakamada’s letter criticizing Putin, where she talks about the horrible act of terrorism at Dubrovka, into the newspapers as an ad. Only two papers were brave enough to publish this letter and only for money as an ad. The newspapers are simply afraid of the Kremlin. It is complete censorship.
Before the Duma elections, many politicians remembered about Latvia and the Russian-speakers. Latvia received many critical and even impolite words. What can we expect from this pre-election campaign?
It would have been better if they had thought about the rights of Armenians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis and other people with so-called Caucasian faces in Moscow. A week before the parliamentary elections, people with black hair and dark skin were expelled from here en-mass with repressive methods. People who are here working in legal businesses were completely dumbfounded. Members of the militia simply tore up their registration cards right before their eyes and ordered them to leave the city within 24 hours. Instead of thinking about the gruesome human rights violations in Chechnya and about the national problems in our own country, we are always peeking over into other people’s gardens and searching for foreign enemies. Now I am ashamed to look at the Duma that my people have elected. There are such people as Rogozin, people who have openly made anti-Semitic remarks. At the same time, individual politicians, when speaking about Khodorkovsky, say “So they sent a Jew up river, let him sit.” See, that is my country.
In the presidential elections, Putin is now in the same campaign as Zhironovsky’s bodyguard, Oleg Malishkin, and Sergei Mironov, who are taking part in the election but have invited everyone to vote for Putin – it is all pretty comical and not very serious.
You continue to discuss Putin and Kremlin politics on a polite basis that, as far as they are concerned, has expired. These people haven’t been interested in niceties for a long time. Right after he came to power, Putin got rid of his enemies, like Vladimir Gusinsky, the media magnate who supported his competitors. After that, he got even with the person who created him, Boris Berezovsky, his friend. But now only hypothetically possible competitors or their sponsors in some election far in the future are being jailed. It is like a textbook, the same exact path that Stalin followed when he created his dictatorship. If these people haven’t bothered about politeness in four years, then why should we think that they would be concerned that Putin is being opposed by clowns and not real candidates. These people are interested in effectiveness. They went and tore of all their heads, they went and swept away all their competitors.
Yes, and in relation to this, the fact that Irina Khakamada has announced her candidacy and has begun to criticize Putin, in the final result, unfortunately, will be favorable for Putin. He will be able to say that there was one serious opponent. He will show the West, “See, we had a free election, there was a representative of the democratic opposition. Yes, she didn’t win, but we didn’t kill her or imprison her. She could campaign freely.” It will all be an illusion of democracy.
But what is Khakamada’s role? Is she taking part in the election at the request of the Kremlin or is it on her own initiative?
As we know, Khakamada has been publicly supported by one of Khodorkovsky’s closest associates, Leonid Nevzlin, who is free only because he stayed in Israel and asked for Israeli citizenship. He has already announced that he will sponsor her campaign. It now isn’t important if the Kremlin asked Khakamada to take part in these elections – what is important is what will happen after the elections. What is important is how the Western nations will view them. Will it continue to seem if everything is okay with democracy in Russia? Will they remain quiet when all independent mass media outlets have been liquidated? That the presidential elections are just a show with predetermined results, no one can have any doubt.
Putin has said several times that he will not seek a third term as President. Do you believe this or do you think that, after innumerable requests by his colleagues, he will stay in office after 2008?
We already have the example of the states in Central Asia, where people have become President for life. It is possible that Putin will take a liking to this option. You see, in a country where the higher chamber has been liquidated, where the Duma is formed thanks to censorship and propaganda and is completely subservient to the President and where there is no freedom of expression, what else can keep Putin from staying one more term in office? I don’t see any obstacles. Maybe his conscience will wake him up, or democratic principles? We must hope that this will happen.
Putin has incredible power in his hands. In your opinion, how will he use this power and how will this influence the development of democracy in Russia?
It is already completely clear how he will use this power. He has chosen Stalin’s path – getting even with his enemies, then his allies and then with all possible competitors. This is happening through the use of repressive methods. Political murders have begun again in the country. In the past two years, two leaders from opposition political parties have been killed. Vladimir Golovlyov and Yushenkov were killed one after the other. These were people who led the party “Liberal Russia,” the one party that was in serious opposition to Putin. How will events develop in the future, I’m scared to think about it.