Russian journalist and politician Aleksander Nevzorov is a frequent guest to Echo of Moscow radio station, co-hosts a television show on the independent Russian station TV-Dozhd, and has a column at snob.ru. He is one of the most prominent and controversial intellectuals in Russia today.
He was elected to the Duma four times, each time to a single-mandate constituency. As he has publicly admitted, for the whole period from 1993 until 2007, he showed up in the Duma only four times, and some media report that Nevzorov was famous for never having signed a single bill. In early 1990s he hosted the immensely popular television show, 600 seconds, on St. Petersburg’s Channel 5.
In 2012 Nevzorov was briefly included on Vladimir Putin’s official list of “trusted people” before the upcoming presidential elections in Russia. The head of Putin’s campaign, movie director Stanislav Govorukhin, demanded that Nevzorov be excluded from the list for his anti-Christian statements, but his name remained. On Dozhd, he has said that he sees no contradiction between his criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church and support for Vladimir Putin. Nevzorov has also called the annexation of Crimea a looting, but adds that he doesn’t see anything wrong with looting.
Karina Orlova recently spoke with Nevzorov for The American Interest.
Karina Orlova for TAI: The McCain Institute held a public debate in Washington last week on whether the new U.S. administration should reengage with Russia. How about the other side of the equation, from the Russian side: Do you think reengagement is possible while Vladimir Putin is in power?
Aleksander Nevzorov: I guess it’s not, and the reason is pretty simple. In the 1990s the United States was rescuing Russia from hunger and doing its best to not let the country slide into absolute chaos—and we do remember help coming from the Americans, all the “Bush legs,” all the technology transfers, the machines, the experts, the grants. And yet, from Russia’s perspective, there was no relationship to speak of. It was all consumerism. As we can clearly see now, all these efforts have not left a trace of any thankfulness—no memory of it is left in the Russian people’s heads. It’s similar to how nobody remembers the formidable support the Brits and the Americans lent to the Soviet people, with lend-lease during World War II. It’s as if all those hundreds of thousands of armored trucks, steel, explosives, engines, and planes never existed. It’s all been forgotten, and really, it’s even forbidden to recall it.
To justify its own problems, Russia has always needed a foreign enemy. Naturally, some Republic of Upper Volta or Niger can never be such an enemy due to its political insignificance. Russia always chooses America as its enemy because Russia thinks that the more significant its enemies are, the more significant it looks. I’m afraid that all the preceding experience of relations between Russia and the U.S. shows us that a real reset in relations is impossible. At a minimum, we haven’t seen any evidence of Russia appreciating or understanding the critical importance of such relations.
KO: In one of your recent columns you wrote that “the West likes a broken Russia better.” What exactly did you mean?
AN: What I was saying is that if Russia, with all its wild ambitions, its desire to have enemies on all sides, and its desire to dominate, had a well-run economy and functioning social system—in other words, had Russia been a successful state—it probably would pose a serious danger for the rest of the world. When Russia doesn’t have an economy, or a social system, or a true potential in the sciences, its wild ambitions are generally tolerable.
KO: These days in Washington, when experts talk about Russia, and especially when they discuss sanctions, they always repeat that the Putin regime is one thing and that the Russian people are another, and that one should not confuse the two.
AN: This is nonsense. Putin and Russia are synonymous with each other. Whatever they might say about him, Putin is 100 percent the people’s President, more so than any other Russian leader in the 20th and 21st centuries. He managed to invent a political cocktail that has left the majority completely satisfied with its living standards—dog-poor, miserable, and anxious. But because this majority of people was given the opportunity to feel themselves as being part of some grandiose global messianic plot, they are prepared to bear the misery, the poor education, the terrible healthcare, the crumbling roads and the corrupt officials. We have to admit that Russians—those whose existence revolves around their household needs—are completely satisfied with their lives; and that only a small part of the population, the intellectual Russians, are in a sharp opposition to Putin precisely because the Putin regime despises intellectual reflection. Putin made his choice: he has become the President of mob, the President of the mindless—a common enough political gambit. All the alternatives have become renegades that nobody needs.
KO: Here is another quotation of yours: “By ‘Putin’ one can surely mean ‘Russia.’ He represents the most monstrous but still absolutely natural features and views of Russians today. He is truly the flesh of their flesh—the most pleasing and suitable for them.” To me, this still suggests an unresolved question: Vladimir Putin and the Russian people—who came first?
AN: I think that the mob, who approximately share the same intellectual and aggression level, either reproduce or enthrone a leader who corresponds to their needs the most. Putin is completely Russia’s puppet.
KO: One of the hottest topics being debated regarding Russia today is when and how Putin’s regime will fall. The current conventional wisdom here in DC is that it will last for quite a long time. How do you see it, from inside Russia?
AN: Look, I’m just a natural scientist. I have had the opportunity to witness some curious reactions of political chemistry when different reagents are mixed together. I see all sorts of fun bubbles, heat, and explosions that result from the mixing of these reagents. But until the experiment has entered its final stage, I can’t say anything concrete. And in my opinion, it would be too glib to talk about either an impending failure or an endless existence of the Putin regime at this point. All I can observe is that this regime is completely being built out of mistakes, one mistake atop another, and on top of it all sits the most monstrous one. Nevertheless, they have managed to build their political edifice out of these mistakes, and it is both very durable and very tall.
KO: Is there any hope for the Russian opposition?
AN: No hope at all. The Russian opposition doesn’t exist. It is purely a legend, one being propagated by people who probably have some financial interest in being supported by the West. There is no real opposition in Russia. That is why, by the way, relative freedom of speech still exists in Russia. There are a number of reservations where all the dissidents are able to talk over with each other in a language they understand, where they can swear at the regime. Why do you think the government lets this happen? Because it has managed to figure out that all this talk is of no interest to anyone except a very small group of people. And not only is this group of people unable to lead any kind of revolution, they don’t have any effect on anything. That is why these renegades are given the opportunity to entertain themselves.
KO: Of all the Russian opposition figures, the two most invited to speak in Washington are Ilya Yashin from PARNAS and Mikhail Khodorkovsky (or any one of his Open Russia Foundation representatives). Do you think either of these two have a chance to become a leader if and when change comes to Russia?
AN: Yashin is a very smart and brave guy whom I sufficiently respect, but he doesn’t stand a chance. Politically, he is small-bore, and is always saying things that stand in sharp contrast to the Russian masses’ needs and moods. As for Khodorkovsky, he is, of course, an essential figure who unfortunately exists in an informational vacuum. I’m afraid he fell into his own trap. He began financing opposition forces, and those opposition forces began to create legends and myths as to their own significance in order to get more financing. These people delude him with their quasi-successes. He made this trap himself, at his own expense. He doesn’t have a real understanding of what’s going on in Russia, which I guess is one of his major flaws.
KO: And here I can’t help but recall Chancellor Angela Merkel’s words about Putin, when in May 2015, after a phone call with Russia’s President, she said to President Obama that Putin is living “in another world.” Most recently, last week, former Finance Minister of Russia, Alexey Kudrin, said that Russia’s leadership doesn’t understand the new reality the country lives in. And my question is, is one form of delusion any better than another?
AN: Well, better or worse is a philosophical question. What I mean to say is that the delusional world Khodorkovsky lives in can technically be fixed, if, one day, the trap that he has set for himself falls apart. Meanwhile, Putin will probably remain trapped until the end because he knows how easy it is to manage the Russian people by offering them illusions. And despite the fact that once you touch these illusions they fall apart, they are visibly present in Russia’s life. These are illusions of Russia’s greatness, illusions of Russia’s history, of its triumph, illusions of being a part of a great people that suffers precisely because it is great and guards some mysterious ideals and interests no one can articulate. And Putin is absolutely serious about these things. Indeed, he is Russia.
KO: But doesn’t Mikhail Khodorkovsky have the same imperial ambitions, given what he says and writes?
AN: When a big animal falls into a trap, it makes various noises, and not all of these noises are always made consciously. Had Khodorkovsky been connected to Russian reality a bit more, he would never have made some of those sounds.
KO: About reality, I would like to ask you, as a natural scientist: Do you think the Kremlin will manage to get out of the current financial crisis without setbacks for the regime, especially with presidential elections looming in 2018.
AN: It will not overcome the financial crisis, but neither there will be any losses for the regime. Because you should never forget about that unique skill of Russians: to be proud of their troubles and miseries. This resource has not yet been properly tapped, but it exists. For now, things look pretty safe, at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
KO: Do you think Vladimir Putin has left an option open for a new rokirovka? (A “castling”, a change of power with someone like Dmitry Medvedev.)
AN: Look, you should keep in mind that the Kremlin has a big problem: Each time it does something, it does it for the first time. In Russia most politicians are people who have no idea how to do politics, that’s why most of the things they do, they do impetuously, like they are spear-hunting. Why would they start this senseless war in Donbas that nobody needed? Believe me, the Kremlin curses itself for this affair. The war drains resources, it constantly ties Russia up in international intrigue, it creates terrorists and separatists, and arms them. And everybody understands this now, even in the Kremlin. But there is no way to stop it.
KO: So it turns out the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin don’t have any long-term strategy?
AN: You overestimate them. Where do you think a strategy would come from?
KO: Well, I personally think there is none. As I see it, Vladimir Putin sees one step ahead of him, and no more than that. But there are a lot of people among Western experts who think there is a strategy…
AN: No, it’s nonsense. There is no strategy. A strategy can only be rationally arrived at when some final goal is clear, or even when some mid-term goal is clear—when there is a desire to either make a society prosperous or to bankrupt it, to annex lands or to disengage from them. Then there can be a strategy. Russia, however, doesn’t have any strategy at all. And, again, it became very obvious with the Donbas example. Why did they go there, what for? Didn’t they realize that it wouldn’t bring anything but hardship? No, it’s just that they can only spear things. The decision is made, “let’s just do this—this is how things were done in the 19th century.” These people try to follow the very archaic and obscure methods of Nicholas, Alexander. There is no strategy, there isn’t even a sense of tactics.
KO: And what about ideology? Is there any ideology in the Kremlin? Because people in Washington endlessly debate whether Putin is all about money and corruption, or if there is something else driving him—at the very least, an idea of a Great Russia.
AN: Vladimir Putin might have an idea of “Great Russia,” but fortunately nobody else around him shares it. Perhaps he has this idea while others dissemble. In face-to-face conversations, people get embarrassed, laugh, become apologetic. They say, “You know, this is the way things are being done now. It’s by convention to be an Orthodox believer and a patriot, but actually it just makes me laugh. And when the national anthem is being sung, all I think about is my nice property in Monte Carlo.”
What saves Russia from imperial fascism and a really big war is that almost everyone in the Kremlin is a cheater and a hypocrite. If they were convinced, ideological people, the world would probably be in for a lot of turbulence.
KO: Vladimir Putin always poses as an Orthodox believer, has his photos taken in churches and on visits to sacred places. Does it come from his heart or is it just PR? And what influence does Tikhon Shevkunov (Putin’s personal confessor) have over the Russian President?
AN: Shevkunov’s influence is, I think, a myth, although the myth is possibly being used by the Kremlin to burnish the President’s religious bona fides. As to Putin’s godliness, I personally don’t think there are believers out there. I know exactly what Christianity is, unlike almost all of my opponents. [Aleksander Nevzorov attended seminary in Moscow but was expelled during his fourth year. —eds.] I know patristics, homiletics, the Bible, and Holy Tradition. And I know that godliness is first of all a particular manner of behavior. It’s a particular ability to act irrationally.
KO: Does the Russian Church have any negative effect on Russians nowadays, or does it just make money without inflicting any moral damage to its citizens?
AN: According to polls, just 4 percent of Russians support a ban on abortion. This number shows you the real number of truly religious people in Russia.
KO: I’d like to talk with you about propaganda. Putin replaced the First Deputy Chief of his Presidential Administration, Vyacheslav Volodin, with Sergey Kirienko. Should we expect a new approach in propaganda affairs?
AN: Volodin is a fabulous man, reasonably responsible and not stupid. But he absolutely couldn’t spin thin strands of intrigue, or play complicated intellectual games. Kirienko is an intellectual and I think that now he has the opportunity to entertain himself by further pitting people against each other, and completely destroying the few remaining sprouts of opposition in Russia. It will be Kirienko’s toy that he can do with as he pleases. I think he will completely cut loose.
KO: And finally, do you think the Kremlin really cares about the results of the U.S. presidential elections? Or are Russia’s attacks on Clinton’s campaign just being done out of spite?
AN: You know, for some reason Russian ideologists of fascism, the ideologists of Russian reaction, fell in love with Trump. Why did this happen? It’s unclear and irrational. They are probably irritated that Hillary is immaculately refined, that she is a woman, that her speech is sophisticated and contains all the elements of European culture. Of these two evils, Trump, who is absolutely foreign to them in the same way, is nevertheless more comprehensible. He is loutish, you expect him to start belching, farting, turning purple; you expect him to grab a secretary by her nether regions and laugh afterwards. One can easily image Trump with a thick Russian beard, wearing a fur hat, and chopping off the fingers of a sinner with an ax. In other words, Trump is more comprehensible to the reactionary mob, despite the fact that they don’t know him and don’t understand his politics. And so this is how it turned out that all the reactionaries vouch for Trump, and everyone who stands for European culture, for freedom, for science and for the truth stands for Clinton.
KO: And the Kremlin, are they sincerely for Trump?
AN: The Kremlin cannot do anything sincerely.