Interview with Russia anti-corruption activist Nikita Kulachenkov

WikiTribune spoke with Russian dissident Nikita Kulachenkov on June 12. Kulachenkov is a leading member of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF) and a colleague of the organization’s director, Alexei Navalny.


The Anti-Corruption Foundation became a political force in Russia in part due to social media content detailing how Russian politicians and oligarchs have enriched themselves using public money. A 50-minute YouTube video titled “Don’t Call Him ‘Dimon’” has garnered over 27 million views.

Он вам не Димон

Секретные дворцы, виноградники и яхты Дмитрия Медведева – С гордостью представляем вам самое большое на сегодняшний день расследование Фонда борьбы с коррупцией. Мы нашли и документально описали коррупционную империю премьер-министра, состоящую из сети благотворительных организаций, оформленных на его доверенных лиц.

Navalny and the ACF organized several demonstrations, with as many as 120,000 people protesting corruption and the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In 2017, a government election commission barred Navalny from running for president in the 2018 elections because of a conviction on embezzlement-related charges. Navalny believes the initial charges and subsequent decision were politically motivated.

Kulachenkov also faced charges he believes were politically motivated. In 2015, Russian police accused him of minor theft of a piece of street art. The poster was valued at 2 euros and the artist did not object to it being taken from the public square, according to Euro News. Fair Trials International, a humanitarian NGO, said that Kulachenkov would likely not have received a free trial, which led the activist to seek and receive asylum in Lithuania.

WikiTribune spoke with Kulachenkov about the future of the Anti-Corruption Foundation and the state of the pro-democracy movement in Russia.

Say what people need to know



WikiTribune: Why do you think corruption is such a powerful issue in Russia, compared with issues such as the economy or human rights?

Nikita Kulachenkov: Well, this is more of a philosophical question. First, “corruption” has a tradition from the Czar years, who were definitely not operating in transparency in the 19th century. … But there are a number of factors. We are close to Asia where the “informal” relations matter.

We also have a president who enjoys (corruption). Putin is interested in corruption because this is how he can push any government official. Most of them, 95% of them, have some kind of violation, so he can intimidate them.

WT: Do Russians care about corruption as much as they did when your first video, “Don’t Call Him Dimon” came out?

NK: We definitely touched a number of young people because of the “Don’t Call Dimon” video. In terms of the general public, most Russians think that everything is fine. If you ask any taxi driver in any town in Russia, “What is the most luxurious house in the region?” He’ll say, “This is the mayor’s house.” The mayor will be driving a Bentley and doesn’t have any kind of comparable official income.

So every Russian person knows that the government officials are corrupt. However, on TV … you’ll hear propaganda that is trying to persuade people that it’s fine: “We are fine. It works the same way in the United States or in Europe. Everybody’s corrupt, other countries are corrupt as well. It’s just the way it works.”

So (Russians) know that corruption is wrong, but I can’t say that many Russian people care about it. They just think it’s normal.

But if you switch the propaganda off it’s gonna change really, really fast.

WT: What does the average Russian think of Navalny and him being blocked from running for president?

NK: I can base my answer on the polls we did during the election campaign. … It is hard to get reliable social data in Russia because many people are just afraid to answer (surveys). But the results showed that many Russians just haven’t heard about Alexei.

His name was [mentioned] on TV this year, but it was for the first time in 10 years. And they did not say his last name. It’s just not allowed on Russia TV to pronounce his name. The TV host may say “some other person” or a “well known criminal” or something like that, but they can’t pronounce his last name.

This is why the average Russian has heard of him, but they don’t know the exact details. So Alexei does have a negative rating, definitely, but only because he’s promoted as a criminal or some kind of “bad guy.”

But this year and last year, the numbers have changed. I don’t remember exactly, but we started from 2% who were ready to vote for (Navalny) and we ended at something like 5%. This doesn’t sound very good. But most people, especially on the telephone, are really afraid to answer (these questions).

So that’s 5% who weren’t afraid to answer. Many people might say, “Yeah sure, I vote Putin.” Then they hang on the telephone and say, “Putin go to hell.” So you can’t have that kind of substantive opinion here. So I don’t think (5%) is bad.

(A Levada Center poll reported 6% of Russians supported Navalny in 2013. Four percent said they would definitely vote for him in 2017. Source comes from Russia Beyond. Help find the original Levada Center poll and insert the link here.) 

WT: What do you think of the sanctions put on Russian businessmen, politicians and oligarchs? Are they an effective way to undermine Putin’s government?

NK: Yeah, I still believe that it’s the effective way. I generally appreciate the fact that United States government sanctions some of the people around Putin. … If they sanctioned all of them, then they would unite around Putin. But by sanctioning only some of them, the others will be afraid that they will be sanctioned as well, so they will keep a low profile. We have seen that already. …

The story about Roman Abramovich, who obtained an Israel passport after being rejected to visiting UK and Switzerland, that’s good. That makes pain. It doesn’t mean it’s gonna change a lot in the next two years, but many [oligarchs] will think before following the Kremlin’s ideas next time.

WT: Do Russian citizens care about these sanctions against specific oligarchs? Do Russians know about these sanctions for the most part?

NK: State TV tries to explain the economic downturn as the result of sanctions. … it’s like: “Your milk is now more expensive because Obama did that.” Literally, I heard this a few years ago.

When the oligarchs were sanctioned, this was a bit more complicated for the propaganda. Because you can’t say that the guy who is sailing on the yachts worth hundreds of millions of dollars is now suffering. That struck Russian citizens, because most Russian citizens do not have a yacht and they are not billionaires. …

But some support this (argument), or at least they care. For those working in (Oleg Deripaska’s) companies, they do care because they might lose their jobs, or their salaries may be reduced because nobody’s buying aluminum from his company.

Well, Russian states would have to cope with that and support Deripaska in some form, so they’re gonna do that.

WT: Since Russian state TV is so widespread and powerful, the Anti-Corruption Foundation uses the internet. Is there a free internet in Russia right now? Has internet access affected your distribution activities?

NK: I would say that compared to China, the internet in Russia is more or less fine. They are trying to control it. By them I mean Kremlin. … They enacted a number of laws to a desperate attempt to delete some information or try to prevent it from spreading. They also control the social networks. That’s important because we can’t promote our investigations in these social networks (Slate).

I also noticed that the Russian government postponed projects to bring broadband connections in every small Russian towns and villages. … They know that when they give the internet to the public, the public starts reading something (instead) of watching TV. Not as fast as we would like. … The joke about that is “when an elderly person dies in Russia the TV has one less viewer. And when a person is born, YouTube has one plus viewer.” It’s definitely going in the right direction.

(Help find sources on Russia slowing down development of broadband infrastructure.) 

WT: What tools do you use to reach your audience using the internet?

NK: We started with a blog, then a website. Sure, we had Twitter and Facebook accounts, where we posted and retweeted information that we published. But I can’t say we had a major platform until last year when we published footage before “Don’t Call Him Dimon” on YouTube and we got something like 6 million views. We thought, “Oh my God, we’ve been missing something.” So, now YouTube is our major platform, and it’s not controlled the way the Russian government would like it to be controlled. We also use Telegram. Alexei has his own channel in Telegram, too.

But, YouTube is the main platform.

WT: When you’re using these platforms, do you feel like you’re connected to the movement even though you’re out of Russia?

NK: Well, I’m not understanding what is happening in Russia. I haven’t been there for four years. When I was teaching, before I left, I remember the first months of the annexation of Crimea in 2014 people were afraid to joke about the government.

It was like in the Soviet years, you were not able to joke about Brezhnev in the audience in the universities. You were able to do (jokes) five years ago in Russia. You can’t do that now, as I understand it.

I can’t be sure because I’m not there. In terms of the public mood, what’s happening on the streets, in the towns around Moscow, I’m losing the pulse.

I lost some opportunities to investigate something in Russia, but I also got a lot of new opportunities investigating something in the Western countries in Europe. It wasn’t possible for me to come to Italy for two days from Russia. Well, it’s possible but I’d have to spend much more time and money to come here rather than now because I’m staying in Vilinius. …

WT: When people talk about Russia and the U.S., Syria always comes up. Has the issue of Syria and Russian foreign policy in general affected your push for democracy?

NK: I can’t say that the situation in Syria affects us. We published a few videos that were related to Syria, on how it’s a waste of money or something like that.

I think most of the Russians just don’t care about the things happening in Syria. It’s not like Afghanistan where in every town someone was killed in action.

And it’s not covered on the TV anyhow. The casualties are not covered. They only say, “We are fighting the terrorists … so we are protecting our interests in Syria.” I don’t think that touches the Russian public.

WT: What do you think of the theory about Putin, that he’s trying to destroy the European Union and Western unity? Do you think this theory has any merit?

NK: This is the general idea. In addition to the well known situations when Russian money flows to the political parties in Europe, like the far-right political parties, Putin is trying to separate the unity of European countries … they are stronger together, and one country can’t influence that much.

(Putin) should be really good at this because this is what he was taught in the high school of KGB: to separate people to prevent any kind of civil movements. This is what the KGB was doing in the Soviet years with the Soviet citizens. … So he continues to do that, and from what we can see, he is pretty successful.

WT: What would you tell U.S. and European audiences about the pro-democracy movement in Russia that you feel like isn’t being represented in the news cycle?

NK: The general Russian person understands that the democratic countries, the countries that have (more) freedoms than Russia, are also more developed. It’s pretty obvious.

People also understand that capitalism won, so (Russia) should be a democracy and capitalist. However … people are afraid … Not that many people will fight for the democracy, they think, “Well, let’s wait for a few hundred years and maybe democracy will come.”

From another standpoint, look at the younger generation who are not using the TV at all [and] don’t remember the Soviet years. … this is where we have a chance. We believe that these (young) people – unless they all leave Russia – will be ready to fight for democracy. Not fight in terms of revolution, but they will demand it. So there are lots of young Russians, younger than me, I’m 36, who understand that the so-called Western values are the right direction for the country. And it’s also the direction to prosperity.

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