‘Compromises won’t save you’ Zhanna Nemtsova on the degradation of freedoms in Russia and awarding Zelensky the Boris Nemtsov Prize
On June 12, the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom awarded its annual prize to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. All of the award’s past recipients have been Russian opposition politicians and activists. In 2021, for example, it was awarded to Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny shortly after the Russian authorities imprisoned him. To find out more about the decision to honor Zelensky, and how Russia’s war against Ukraine has impacted the Nemtsov Foundation’s work, Meduza sat down with the foundation’s co-founder, Zhanna Nemtsova.
Please note. The following translation has been edited and abridged for length and clarity. You can read the full Q&A in Russian here.
In recent months, Volodymyr Zelensky has been awarded (or at least nominated for) a number of prizes. Was Zelensky the only option for this year's Boris Nemtsov Prize winner?
We had options, the shortlist had other contenders [from Ukraine] — Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschnko, Okean Elzy frontman Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, BoomBox frontman Andriy Khlyvnyuk, and Ukrainian paramedic Yuliia Paievska, who is known as Taira. We had a choice — it wasn’t a vote for the president of Russia, where there really is no alternative. This is the consolidated opinion of the foundation’s founders and board.
Volodymyr Zelensky showed incredible courage. We don’t give the award for the past or the future. We award it for what the person has done here and now, this year. And here and now Volodymyr Zelensky remained in Kyiv and decided to defend his homeland together with his people. He showed courage. His words about needing ammunition and not evacuation are a quintessential [example] of his incredible courage.
Most importantly, no one expected this from him. Somehow everyone didn’t take Zelensky very seriously. I think even Vladimir Putin was, to put it mildly, surprised that Zelensky turned out to be a courageous person. Right now, he’s the leader of the free world.
We award the prize for courage in upholding democratic values. The vast majority of Zelensky’s actions testify to this. Zelensky risked his life to defend his homeland and that’s why he received the prize. The fact that he continues to stay in the country, that he speaks out all over the world, that from the very first days [of the war] he has been trying to form an anti-Putin coalition — this is [all] very important. The war between Russia and Ukraine isn't a war of civilizations, it’s a war of regimes. The [question] is who will win: the European, democratic path of development or the authoritarian one.
One of the foundation’s goals is to encourage Russian-EU dialogue. In previous years the prize was awarded to Russian activists, politicians, and public figures — is this a coincidence or was this supposed to be the case?
The fact is that Ukraine’s victory [in this war] is the defeat of Putin’s authoritarian regime. It’s a victory for the values of humanism. This is how I feel about it, so I wish Ukraine victory. Our charter for the prize does not state that we only award it to Russian citizens. We wouldn’t be able to do this in general, because it doesn’t comply with German law [Editor’s note: the Boris Nemtsov Foundation is registered in Germany].
Of course, ending the war against Ukraine will be an important basis and condition for improving relations between Russia and the European Union. In general, all of the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia since 2014 are connected to the war with Ukraine. Halting military aggression against Ukraine will lead to the normalization of relations between the European Union and Russia.
If you look at all the [past] nominations carefully, there are Ukrainian citizens among the nominees, such as Nadezhda Savchenko in 2016. This isn’t a national prize, it’s a prize for courage. Of course the person who exhibits [this courage] — the public figure, journalist, or politician — should have something to do with Russia. And Volodymyr Zelensky is highly relevant to Russia.
During the award ceremony for the Nemtsov Prize in 2017, human rights activist Zoya Svetova said that freedom of speech in Russia is shrinking every day. Five years later, do you think this “shrinking” has reached its conclusion? What is happening in Russia in terms of freedoms and democratic movements?
It seems to me there is no opposition movement as such. It was crushed, and the final blow was dealt to it after Alexey Navalny’s imprisonment. Now, there really isn’t some kind of political movement. There’s no space for politics at all, because this would mean space for discussion, for parties to compete in elections. [Instead] we have bureaucrats, Putin’s elite, Putin’s functionaries, and Putin sitting at the top of this pyramid. And [then] we have fighters [battling this regime]. This is what Russian politics looks like now, if you can call it politics. This, of course, isn’t politics.
There are different people who criticize the authorities and condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — this could be people who engage or are trying to engage in politics and public activities, journalists, writers, and so on. There are silent people who are afraid of everything. And there are those who work for Putin. That’s it.
In fact, we don’t fully know the mood in our society. I agree with those researchers and experts who say that there is less and less information coming in and less and less data to analyze [about public opinion]. I tend to think — and this is what my father said — that this is Putin’s war, not Russia’s war. Yes, of course, when people are asked if they support [the war], they say they support it, and don’t go into much detail about what [exactly] they support. Because they don’t want to confront reality, they don’t want to understand what’s really happening. Because it’s scary. They don’t want to feel like they’re not [part of] the majority.
In Russia, people had very little involvement in politics and didn’t really follow it. And now this is very strongly felt. This was encouraged by the Putin regime from the very beginning of his reign. There was a social contract that “you don’t interfere in politics — you go about your private life and you see that the standard of living is improving,” because the commodity markets were favorable. People really began to live better compared to the 1990s. Later, when all the [opposition] movements were born, our authorities tried to marginalize them. Engaging in political activities among the broad masses was perceived as marginal.
Therefore, it seems to me that we have reached a state where society is passive, apolitical, and to some extent infantile. [Our society] is afraid to say: “What are we doing? What have we done?”. Even if we aren’t talking about a large-scale tragedy, when we make a [small] mistake it’s difficult for us to admit it and apologize. When the scale of the tragedy is gigantic, when thousands of people are dying, including civilians, it's difficult to say, even to yourself, that you feel a certain responsibility.
More than three months have passed since the beginning of the war. How has this time been for you?
On the morning of February 24, I was in Nizhny Novgorod. My husband called me at 6:00 a.m. and woke me up. He said: “The war has begun. Leave.” I think I was in shock, like everyone else. I thought the war [was inevitable], but nevertheless, when you’re told that missile strikes were launched at Ukrainian territory, it’s still a shock. I left Russia that same day.
I can’t say that I have a feeling of guilt, because I didn’t make the decision to start the war. Even when I worked at RBC, I was a staunch opponent of the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. I spoke about this [publicly]. I even faced conflicts at work because I was in the minority. Throughout these years, I have always been in solidarity with Ukraine.
But perhaps I do feel a bit of guilt, and a sense of responsibility — a desire to do something within my power to help Ukrainians. This is what we [the Nemtsov Foundation] are doing. We’ve launched several scholarships for Ukrainian students who want to study at universities in Prague. I’m [also] trying to privately help Ukrainians. But I can’t completely shake the feeling of guilt.
My relationships with Ukrainians have taken different turns. There are people who, understandably, want nothing to do with Russians, no matter what stance they take. I can understand them, but it’s hard. I didn’t expect that it would fall to me to be a citizen of an aggressor that attacks a neighboring country and wages a bloody war. Moreover, one that’s completely senseless.
Russia’s war against Ukraine and the resulting sanctions have seriously affected charitable work in Russia. Donations dried up and people were forced to cut their costs. How is the Nemtsov Foundation doing?
Russia’s charity sector has grown a lot in recent years, this is true. [But] there are hardly any socio-political foundations in Russia. In this sense, our foundation stands apart.
A very large number of people have now gone abroad and they don’t know what and how to organize here, they don’t know who to talk to, they don’t have the necessary connections that we have, for example, with academic circles in Czechia. And this is where the Nemtsov Foundation is needed.
From the very beginning we were registered outside of Russia. Now it’s impossible to make any [money] transfers to Russia. And even when it was possible, we never did this because it was dangerous: anyone who received a transfer from the Nemtsov Foundation could be labeled a “foreign agent.”
Due to the fact that we mainly work outside of Russia, we haven’t been significantly affected, but due to the global crisis there’s more work to do. As of this interview, the Nemtsov Foundation hasn’t been declared an “undesirable organization,” which means we can continue to work with Russian citizens. I don’t know if we’ll be declared an “undesirable organization” in the future. In any case, I consider this an illegal mechanism [used to] pressure civil society organizations.
You said that there’s more work. Have there also been more opportunities? Have more people offered to help?
People who, for example, left Russia a longtime ago and who didn’t really follow Russia or want to do anything have now changed their minds. They’ve become more active. I don’t know how long this will last, but nevertheless, I see that more people are no longer indifferent to what their country is doing in a neighboring state and what is happening inside the country itself.
To quote my father, I believe our work is “not a sprint, but a marathon.” I won’t set myself impossible tasks for the sake of populism or count on a lightning-fast effect from some programs. [What we want to achieve] is methodical and long, it’s rather boring work that requires a lot of effort.
The question of whether there will be change in Russia or not can’t be analyzed from a rational point of view. It’s a matter of faith. I believe that positive changes are possible in Russia, so this is what I work for. Perhaps I’m wrong. For me this is a matter of faith, because if I thought that nothing good was possible in Russia, then I’d have to shut down the foundation.
Are you worried about Russia blacklisting the foundation as a “foreign agent” or an “undesirable organization” (especially after awarding Zelensky the Nemtsov Prize)?
If we’re declared an “undesirable organization” people who live in Russia won’t be able to work with us and participate in our programs. This [would be] very bad. This is, in fact, the point of this legislation — to cut us off from Russians who are in Russia, and cut Russians off from us.
As for who is the winner of the Nemtsov Prize, if the foundation’s board and its founders decide that it should be Volodymyr Zelensky, then I think he should win the award. There can be no other choice, regardless of the risks of being declared an [“undesirable organization”] or something along those lines.
These three months have revealed an interesting pattern, which was clear to me but not to others: that compromises won’t save you. We know examples of people who tried to make all sorts of compromises and still received “foreign agent” status and got blocked. It doesn’t save everyone. I would have been ashamed if I had blocked the foundation’s decision [to give the award to Zelensky] just to avoid [getting blacklisted].