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Yevgenia Albats is a Russian journalist, and editor-in-chief and CEO of the popular Russian independent magazine The New Times. The magazine has now been blocked by government censors for reporting on the war in Ukraine. Until last week, when the station was taken off the air, Albats was also host of a long-running radio show on Ekho Moskvy. The author of The State Within a State: The KGB and its Hold on Russia–Past, Present, and Future, she is a member of the Persuasion board of advisors.
In this week’s conversation, Yevgenia Albats and Yascha Mounk discuss the quickly-evolving nature of the Putin dictatorship, how ordinary Russians view the invasion, and the fate of the free Russian press in the face of a new wave of repression.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: These are dark days in the world, but also dark days in Russia. Can you describe to us what the last few weeks have been like within Russia?
Yevgenia Albats: You know, it is partially a personal story. Two weeks ago, if you were to ask me, “How can I introduce you?” I would tell you: “I am editor-in-chief of the digital only, political website The New Times. I am a talk show host at the free-wheeling Ekho Moskvy broadcaster. Each Monday, I have my show; it's very popular, with 1 million listeners each day. On top of that, each Tuesday, I run my YouTube channel and do all kinds of political stuff there. I'm a political animal and all things political, that's what I love.”
On February 24, Putin started the war against neighboring Ukraine. And so, two days later, we were told by the Russian Ministry of Truth (that's how we call the agency that oversees communications) what kind of words we can use. And we were told that we cannot say “war,” “invasion” and “offense,” with respect to the events in Ukraine. We can say it is a “special operation” of Russian troops to “demilitarize” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
Because, of course, we said that this is a war, and Russian troops invaded Ukraine from three sides, The New Times was blocked two days into the war. Now one can read whatever we do only through VPN. So we work for those who are capable of doing this. It’s not nice, but of course, everything compared to what is happening in Ukraine is just peanuts.
So, on Monday [following the invasion] I had my show at Ekho Moskvy: I had a reporter from Kiev who was reporting about what was going on, and a military analyst, and a political scientist. It was okay; I did my show. It was pretty well received. But it turned out it was my last show, because the following Thursday afternoon Ekho Moskvy was cut off the air.
You know, we find ourselves in a purely Orwellian world. It’s like 1984: lies are truth, war is peace. And that's exactly how we're supposed to operate in this country. And along with Ekho Moskvy another 16 different independent media—from the internet-based channel TV Rain, to the paper Znak, which comes out in the Ural mountains—shut down. Some publications just decided to stop putting their stuff out, out of the fear that they were going to get arrested. Others were shut down. And as if that was not enough, last Friday the Russian State Duma—which is a body of yes-men who pretend that they are a parliament, like the Reichstag in the times before Hitler dissolved the Reichstag—passed three repressive laws, in accordance with which you can get 15 years in jail for publishing what they call “fake news.”
What does it mean, “fake news”? Any information about the special operation in Ukraine, other than that provided by the Minister of Defense of the Russian Federation, is considered fake news. If you call for sanctions against the Russian Federation—when you say that sanctions should be imposed because Russia is an aggressor—you can get five years in jail. There is another law against discrediting the Russian army. If you say that Russian missiles destroyed the center of Kharkiv and civilian buildings, and civilians were killed, this is “discrediting” the Russian army.
When these laws were passed, and President Putin signed them into law the next day, then almost all reporters, and editors, and political scientists, and economists ran to the airports and left the country. There are so very few of us left here. It's even scary; you call somebody, for example, a guy who covered the Second War in Chechnya, and he tells you, “Genia, listen, I'm not in Russia.” And then you call a political economist, a great guy, and he says “now I'm in Istanbul.”
Your audience probably doesn’t know that after the 1917 revolution, a lot of intellectuals found themselves in Constantinople. And there is now a joke that there is a repetition of what happened back in 1917. I wouldn't go that far. But it's true that Istanbul is stuffed with Russian intellectuals and reporters and editors, with artists and filmmakers, and with talk show hosts and TV personalities. Some people fly to Tel Aviv. Business people fly to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The entirety of Europe is closed to us. And beginning last week, all Russian airlines stopped international flights, because the majority of their planes are leased, and leasing companies called those planes back, so they no longer fly. One of my reporters wrote to me; she's from Saint Petersburg. She wrote: “I'm urgently getting married, because I don't want to go into exile alone.”
So to cut a long story short, I feel…it's very ambiguous. Because on the one hand, I feel awful. I'm a citizen of the Russian Federation. And I always thought that being a political journalist, I have to have the same sort of constraints, in the same settings, as people I write for. I could have applied for Israeli citizenship because I'm Jewish, or Spanish or Portuguese citizenship, because centuries ago, my ancestors went from Morocco and they were kicked out from Spain and Portugal. It never even occurred to me to do that. I thought: “I have to be just a Russian citizen, as the readers are for whom I write.”
I feel so ashamed [of] my country, which went through the awful realities of the World War II—my country, which lost 27 million people to Nazi occupation and the war. My dad fought at the front in World War II. And you know where? In Nikolaev. Yes. It is like a joke of history. My dad was parachuted onto the territory of Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Of course, he was Jewish, but according to his cover story, he was Georgian. His real name was Mark Albats. His safe house, where he had his radio transmitter, was in the city of Nikolaev. It’s Mykolaiv in Ukrainian, Nikolaev in Russian. It's the same city which is under attack as we speak. Back then, in 1941, Nikolaev was occupied by Romanian troops who were allied to Nazi Germany, and my dad was fighting Germans who were at war with the Soviet Union. Now—just think about this—the German government is providing Ukrainians with anti-tank missiles in order to fight Russian tanks, and they are doing this exactly in Nikolaev. This twist of history is just unbelievable.
I feel angry and ashamed of what my country did. At the same time, I constantly watch whatever I can find on the internet because, of course, the Russian propaganda machine doesn't show anything. And I see all these awful scenes of destroyed Kharkiv. And Vinnytsia which is destroyed—my people were from the shtetele not far from Vinnytsia. Nikolaev is under attack. And now, you know, they're moving towards Odessa. It's just impossible even to think about, because I traveled so many times around Ukraine. I know it. I love it. I always felt very secure there. People there speak the same language I speak. 95% of people who resided in Kharkiv are Russian speakers. 95%. Kharkiv is destroyed. The center of Kharkiv is totally destroyed.
Mounk: In 2015, Russia was already a dictatorship. But, as you're describing, there were certain freedoms that people had; there was your ability to broadcast, and so on.
Tell us a little bit about how that change of life is taking place: What it felt like to live under Putin four or five years ago, and what it might look like at the end of this war. One of the questions that I'm asking myself is: is what we're seeing a shift from a dictatorship to a totalitarian regime?
Albats: You know, many times I've taught on regimes and predominantly authoritarian regimes. I should say that totalitarian regimes were frequent in the 20th century. And they are pretty easy to describe. These are total regimes. They are one-party-system regimes, where bureaucrats control all spheres of society, everything: the economy, ideology, judiciary, private life. Public life really doesn't exist. So it is just one big state, which takes over everything. Civil society doesn't exist. In a totalitarian regime, the party serves as a form of government. It was true for Germany with the Nazi party. It was true for the Soviet Union with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was the form of government. It wasn't a party; it was a vertical structure that controlled this vast country of 300 million people. It is true for the current China. It is true for the current North Korea, with its Juche party.
What's important to understand is that totalitarian regimes are built on ideology. In the Soviet Union, of course, that was the ideology of the communist state. There was this idea that regular, ordinary folks controlled the state. Of course, they didn't. But this kind of idea was extremely attractive. And that's what allowed the Soviet Union to attract and to control half of the world that the United States didn't during the Cold War.
Now, when it comes to authoritarian regimes, the most important part of the authoritarian regime is that they usually don't obey any ideology. Putin and his people don't have an ideology: They can be democrats yesterday, they can turn into imperial nationalists today, they can become fascists tomorrow. It's a pure corporate regime, the way Benito Mussolini described it back in the early 1920s: “Everything inside the state, no one against the state, no one outside the state.”
So there is a corporate state, which is comprised of the graduates of the Soviet Union’s most repressive institution, the KGB. Their institutional and organizational culture is built on violence. However, unlike in the totalitarian states, where violence is an instrument of control and also of rule, authoritarian regimes tend to avoid wholescale repressions. Anything can happen, of course—you remember that in Uruguay, when the military junta was running the country for a decade or so, I believe every 50th Uruguayan was in jail. But usually, authoritarian regimes can be harsh or they can be mild.
The Russian [version of] authoritarianism is extremely corrupted. You look at what's happening in Ukraine. Putin invested billions and billions in the army during the last years, when there were all these windfall profits that were coming out of huge oil prices. They assumed, as far as we understand, that they were going to take control over the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, in three days. And we see now pictures from Ukraine; we see that, apparently, Russian troops have problems with logistics, they have problems with delivering gas, they have problems with [rations]. Already, I spoke to some analysts and I asked, “how could it be that way? Why is it so bad?” And the answer is because billions of dollars were stolen, because each and every general, or each and every member of Putin's closest entourage has immense villas, immense yachts, and not just one, but several. These are people—unlike, by the way, Soviets—whose life was based on making money inside Russia, but spending this money outside of Russia in the luxuries of Europe and the United States.
Mounk: You have a sort of soft dictatorship in some countries, in which you can't criticize the government directly in too extreme a way. State television is basically under control of the state and emits propaganda. There's a pretense of elections, but they're not truly free and fair so everybody knows who the winner is going to be. But, you can have opposition spaces where people express their opinion, to some extent; you can have a small intellectual magazine, with critiques of the government, nobody particularly cares about. And you can certainly go about your life as an ordinary citizen saying, “I don't care about politics,” and pretty much do what you want and be left alone.
It seems to me Russia is no longer that, because they are closing down your YouTube channel and your show, because there is now a demand for proactive forms of agreement with the government, and because of the much more extreme pressure on ordinary citizens that seems to be taking place in the last few weeks.
On the other hand, we have this model of a totalitarian regime, where you have to be in active agreement with the government, where you have to prove your loyalty in a productive way, where there’s no such thing as an apolitical choral society or an apolitical chess club. They all have to be active subsidiaries of the regime and it's all subsumed to an overarching ideology, as was the case in the Soviet Union and as was the case in the Third Reich.
But you're saying Russia isn't exactly becoming that, because it doesn't have enough of an ideology for that. It's not the right model. So how do we understand what Russia is, or will be in the next few months? Where does it fall on the scale?
Albats: Okay, I will say it directly: a corporate state that is fascist. Yes, it is. It's definitely not Nazi Germany, because it's not based on the idea of destruction of one religion in total—killing all Jews and all Roma, and all people who don't fit into being “proper Aryans.” But I would say that if we’re looking for a comparison, Spain under Franco, Portugal under Salazar—I would say that they are the closest models.
But keep in mind, Yascha, that until two weeks ago, my Ekho Moskvy did exist. There were few of us liberal voices, but we were out there. And no one could tell me, “Yevgenia, please don't say this.” No way. That was the rule of the game—that we could say whatever we considered right to do. No one could tell me what to publish in The New Times. However, there were other publications and pretty good newspapers who were allowed to talk about corruption, and who could publish stories about the Chechen dictator, the madman Kadyrov—but they were not allowed to say anything bad about Putin, the FSB (his Chekists), and his closest entourage. So, in that way, the situation in Russia politically was gradually going from bad to worse. And the reason why so many people emigrated last Friday was precisely that the kind of laws that were passed—this military censorship—made it impossible for the majority of the outlets to cover the war as it should be covered.
Now, when I come out on my website or my YouTube channel, I cannot say “war.” I say “special operation,” or I say, “military conflict.” I cannot say “atrocities,” which Russian troops do commit in Ukraine. For that I will have to leave the country, most likely. You speak and you constantly tell yourself “you cannot say this, and you cannot say this,” not because they are going to close you. It's no longer the question of your existence as a publication; it’s the question of your personal freedom.
Mounk: What do you think is the view of most Russians on the war? Is the propaganda from the state so effective that most Russians believe the Kremlin's version of events?
Albats: Of course, that’s the $64,000 question. Because you ask yourself: What was the point, for Putin and his people, of closing all the independent media? If Putin is so popular, if his propaganda machine is so effective, if two-thirds of the population support the war (as state-owned pollsters claim) then why create so many problems for yourself by closing everything down? After all, I thought, “Wait a second, you guys in the Kremlin, you need to listen to something, to hear something, to know.” In the Soviet Union, they had the problem of what we call information asymmetry. In strict authoritarian regimes, polls and sociology don’t really exist, because people are afraid to say what they really think. I will give you an example: I have a twin. We grew up in the same family. We’re very close. If a pollster called and asked me “if elections are going to be held next Sunday, who are you going to vote for?” I’d say [jailed opposition leader Alexei] Navalny, of course. He's my friend. My twin, who has pretty much the same ideas as I do, would say Putin. Why? Because she's afraid. And that's why it's impossible, really, to talk about public opinion in this type of issue.
Now, there is just one pollster—Levada Center—which is independent, and which was pronounced a “foreign agent.” It is not allowed to conduct polls during elections and during the situation right now. But, right after the beginning of the war, they came out with a brief telephone-based poll. (So God knows what kind of sample they have, and how random the sample is.) But anyway, they try to do their best. Their outcome was that about 45% were in favor of the war, and 40% against. My gut tells me—also, judging by the vindictiveness of the Kremlin with respect to the media—that probably the number is most likely 50/50.
In fact, when Putin invaded Georgia back in 2008, when there was this war against Georgia, the Russian liberal media won the information war. It was commonly accepted that we managed to tell the real story to the Russian public. If Putin’s good at anything, he’s very good at learning lessons. So that's why I don't believe that two-thirds of Russians [support the war], as state pollsters—and there are just two of them—claim. And by the way, they even arrived at the same numbers. It’s just statistically impossible. For two different pollsters to come up with the same numbers—just impossible.
Mounk: The sanctions that are now in place on Russia will obviously have a deep and immediate effect on the affluence of Russia. What effect do you think that is going to have on Putin's popularity, but also on the stability of his regime?
Albats: These types of regimes are not affected by popular uprisings, because usually popular uprisings do not happen. Or, even if they happen, they are suppressed. That's exactly what we see: Russians are going on the streets, in fifty-plus cities across the country, to protest against the war on a daily basis. Almost 15,000 people have already been arrested and put in jail for anti-war protests—and even the wording, “anti-war,” is forbidden now. Because that's what counts as “discrediting” the Russian military.
So the question, I think, is when the split of the elites is going to happen. As I said earlier, elites in Russia got accustomed to making their profits in Russia, out of oil and gas rents—it's a rental-based economy—and out of bribes. They made money inside Russia, but many of them live in Europe. All of a sudden, they lost the possibility to live in Europe. Now, all these nice times have come to an end. On top of that, they lost billions. According to some estimates, Russian billionaires collectively lost $34 billion. And that's the very beginning.
However, it's not just about billionaires. It's about the upper middle class, Putin's main support group, the FSB, secret police people, siloviki. They also became very rich, and these guys got accustomed to it. Because they robbed businesses on a daily basis, they created millions—and they invested those millions in different offshores, in different blue chips (in your country, by the way, too). And all of a sudden, they lost their access to their money: to their savings, to their investments and crypto exchanges. They no longer can transfer more than $10,000 a month from the Moscow-based account to the foreign account, and they don't have access to their offshores. Russian blue chips, you know, became paper, worth less than paper. And we're talking about thousands and thousands of people in their late 30s, early 40s. They got accustomed to going to Dubai, and to Abu Dhabi, once every two months. Many of them even have their property there. They got accustomed to going skiing in Russian Sochi—a very expensive ski resort. They got accustomed to going to the Riviera whenever they could. And now all this lifestyle went down the toilet.
So I think that the regime is getting to be very unstable. Of course, the other side of instability will be increased repressions, obviously. Because they understand what's going to happen as well as I do. There are 17 million Russians that live below the poverty line. And, of course, the devaluation of the Russian ruble is about 40% already. It will get worse. A lot of people will become very poor. Those who are more or less okay now will become poor. Those who are poor will become beggars. It's all true.
However, the ability of the repressive apparatus to suppress any dissent is pretty good. They're pretty effective. And most important is that when you have these state propaganda machines, it's difficult for people to create associations with each other. That's exactly what the Soviets did. As a result, people in Kursk [south of Moscow], say, would not realize that their life is as bad as that in Tver [north of Moscow]—that it’s not because the local guys are so bad, but because the guy who's sitting in the Kremlin put their savings, and their life, into the war in Ukraine.
Mounk: I've been thinking for the last few days about an interesting divergence between the life of Vladimir Putin and the lives of the people around him. Putin has a lot of corrupt wealth that he, I'm sure, has parked in various vehicles, but his life isn't immediately changing. He hasn't been traveling out of Russia very much. He continues to live in the Kremlin. He continues to be at the head of the state apparatus. Even though he may on paper have lost some of his wealth, his day-to-day experience is the same now as it would have been a month or so ago.
Whereas for the most powerful players around him, life has changed quickly and drastically in the ways you talk about. I wonder whether that's one of the ways in which he might start to miscalculate the interests and the experience of people in his closest circle. I guess that raises the question of what a split in the regime would look like, what form would it take? And is there any hope to be had from it?
Albats: I wish I could read the crystal ball. I'm not good at that, at all. We know how the regime changed in countries like Brazil, Argentina—in Latin American countries with a similar type of regime. And we know that in some countries, they went from one military junta to another like in Brazil, or an ongoing coup d'etat like in Bolivia, where it became a national sporting event: Each year, there was a coup. But we also know the example of Uruguay, when the military junta was in power for 10-plus years; they changed the constitution, I believe, seven times, and then it just came to an end, and Uruguay got back to more or less democratic governments. In Argentina, between two Peróns, there was this awful 10 years when 20,000 young people disappeared. But gradually, through different economic crises, Argentina managed somehow to get to a more democratic way of governance. So, I really don't want to make predictions.
I can tell you one thing. Just keep in mind that these last thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were not in vain. And those people who are in power now, they have children. Russia is run by billionaires. And these billionaires have children who got accustomed to being the children of billionaires: They went to boarding schools in the States, or in Switzerland, or in the United Kingdom, and then they went to different good universities. And what's more important, they don't want to live in the golden cage. Our guys at the top of the power structure, they're already old enough that they have grandchildren. And those grandchildren, they just don't understand what their Grandpa is doing right now. They probably never lived in Russia, or they just used to come to see Daddy or Grandpa for Russian Christmas.
Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, did her best to escape and lived in the United States. Both Khrushchev’s children lived in the United States. His niece lives in New York City right now. Gorbachev’s daughter lives outside Russia and his grandchildren live outside Russia. They have not been back in the last five years—that's what Gorbachev told me himself. Brezhnev’s grandchild lives in the United States. Yeltsin's daughter and grandchildren live outside Russia. That is all to say that the Russian elite are talking about their great patriotism, but they are extremely unpatriotic. They love this country to death, but to our death. Not to their death. They prefer to love Russia from afar.
I don't believe that they are prepared to lock themselves inside Putin's Kremlin or inside Putin's Moscow, without the possibility of flying to Spain just because there is some nice exhibition coming out. Or without the possibility to spend some time on the Riviera because they like this film festival. Or because some of them just enjoy going to the casino in Monaco, because the Russian aristocracy in the czarist times used to go to Monaco to spend whatever proceeds they got from the peasants. You know, [the wives of these governing billionaires] no longer have Prada in Moscow. Prada walked away. How can you live in a city that doesn't have Prada? All these luxury brands, they just walked away. Yascha, there are certain things that don't happen: Wives of Russian billionaires cannot live without Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and you name it. No, they're going to torture their husbands, but they will make them bring back all this luxury glossy life that existed in Moscow before recent events.
Mounk: I never thought of Prada and Chanel leaving Moscow as the most effective weapon against the regime.
What do you hope for from governments in the West? And what do you hope for from me, or from listeners to this podcast? What should we do—and what shouldn't we do—to maximize the chance, as slim as it might be, that Russians will once again be able to live in a free country?
Albats: I would say that the most important thing now is to help ordinary Ukrainians. These are people that suffer. And I think that it is just human to help them. I like that some people rented their apartments without any intention of living there, but just to help people who had to leave their places, the two million Ukrainian refugees. By the way, look at the numbers. Putin says that he came to Ukraine in order to “defend” Russian speakers in Ukraine. Because, you know, [putatively] Russian speakers in the east are suffering under Ukrainian nationalism. Now, of the 2 million refugees from Ukraine, 53,000 went to Russia. 53,000. What is it? It is less than 5%. And all others went to Europe. So, once again, I think that it's essential that the West, the collective West, helps Ukraine to sustain its statehood.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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