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‘I hope Russia will fight for me’ Libertarian activist Mikhail Svetov says he’s being politically persecuted with pedophilia allegations 

Source: Meduza
Kristina Kormilitsyna / Kommersant

On November 6, libertarian activist and politician Mikhail Svetov was named in a felony case involving supposedly lewd acts against a minor. Svetov is currently a witness in the investigation, but police have searched his home and officials interrogated him for 12 hours on Wednesday. In August 2019, moreover, Russia’s federal censor, Roskomnadzor, added Svetov’s Instagram page to its list of banned websites (without actually blocking it) because of several posts the agency deemed to be child pornography. Mikhail Svetov is perhaps the most prominent member of Russia’s unregistered Libertarian Party, and he's one of the main speakers and organizers responsible for this summer’s opposition protests in Moscow. He also has a YouTube channel with 164,000 subscribers, and he gives lectures around the country, often at events that are disrupted by local police. Meduza asked Svetov why he thinks he’s been named in the felony investigation.

The television station REN-TV was first to report the case. Did you already know about it then?

I check my inbox every evening, and the night before [the story was published] there was nothing about it. The next morning, I woke up to calls about the news that had been leaked to REN-TV. I didn’t know anything at that point. A few minutes later, journalists from REN-TV were already waiting for me in my lobby. 

You’ve said the case is a response to your success on the lecture circuit, but why don’t you think it’s related to your role in the summer protests? After all, they’ve already arrested you for organizing rallies.

I think it all had a cumulative effect, and the tour was the final straw. Libertarians have always been marginalized; they’ve tried to show that we’re a purely Moscow movement, saying our ideas supposedly appeal only to hipsters in the capital, while life for the rest of the country is totally different. And here I go and demonstrate clearly that the whole country is interested in my ideas. [The authorities] realized that they’d let something important slip through, and so now they’re harassing me.

Hundreds of people attended your lectures, but this was in regional cities where hundreds of thousands of people live. With this in mind, the turnout doesn’t look all that impressive. Why would the authorities be afraid?

It’s the rising [interest], not the numbers, that matters. A year and a half ago, packing a hall with 150 people in Moscow would have been a good turnout. Today in Ufa, I bring out 250 [people], and this is for a three-hour philosophical lecture! This isn’t a rock concert or a movie, but dense intellectual content. There are few people in the world who can claim such success, and I’ve managed it.

But what’s dangerous in these lectures?

I’m spreading ideas, proposing a vision of the future, and explaining in an accessible way to people that our country is poor for objective political reasons. And most importantly I’m fighting against not just the current authorities, but against the idea of power broadly. For them, this is the most frightening; this robs them of their future criminal prospects. You can deal with an oppositionist who just wants a seat on the inside, and you can go on robbing the country together. But I’m going to people and explaining a society that doesn’t let a strong nomenclature crystallize. They’re afraid of that more than anything. 

Could the investigation be linked somehow to the money-laundering case against Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK)? Outside Moscow, many libertarian activists often volunteer for Navalny’s offices.

I’ve never personally worked for FBK, and the only things that link us are our independence and love for Russia. From the current authorities’ point of view, this is the worst sin, which is why they harass all politically subjective and independent players. They cook up a different reason each time — so nobody messes with them going on and destroying Russia. 

The felony investigation in which you’ve been named as a witness most likely concerns a photo of Anastasia Starodubovskaya posted on your Instagram account. How old was she when you two were first acquainted?

We first started corresponding when she was definitely 16 years old. She’s spoken in great detail about our relationship. The Investigative Committee isn’t trying to establish the truth formally. The pressure right now is being focused directly at Nastya. [Investigators] are saying such disgusting things to her that I don’t even want to repeat them. I think she’ll write more about this herself.

If the persecution is political, as you say, then why are officials investigating these supposedly lewd acts against a minor, and not prosecuting you for repeated violations of Russia’s public-assembly statutes? 

[The authorities] are calculating that civil society will be less willing to come to my defense, if the charges are “dirty” instead of being openly political. Fortunately, it’s not working. It’s clear to everyone that the case is purely political.

During your interrogation, were there any questions about politics?

Yes, most of them were about politics. And they asked a lot of those questions to Nastya.

Aidar Gubaidulin, who faced felony charges over his participation in the summer’s opposition rallies, decided to flee Russia, to stay out of prison. Do you sympathize?

It’s understandable, but I didn’t return to Russia [Svetov worked in Japan until 2016] just to leave again. I’m going to keep fighting for Russia, and I hope Russia will keep fighting for me. 

How do you expect this case to end?

I’m afraid to guess where it’s all headed now. Political cases have lives of their own.

Interview by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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