Zhanna Nemtsova: "There is no such thing that every Russian wakes up in the morning and thinks: ‘Oh, it's so great that Crimea is ours’… Everyone thinks about how to get by"
Daughter of Russia's murdered opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, Deutsche Welle journalist Zhanna Nemtsova sat down with UNIAN to talk about the time she interviewed her father, explain what "Putinism" is holding on to these days, and reveal her life pursuit.
In May 2015, you did not intend to leave Russia, claiming that "this is my country, why should I leave? Putin is not the whole of Russia," but a month later, in early June, you fled following threats. What were those threats that had forced you to leave the country so hastily?
Everything was even more dramatic than you’re describing. On May 26, 2015, I learned that Vladimir Kara-Murza [a Russian journalist and vocal critic of Putin’s government] was poisoned. He was in serious condition and could die. This is our closest family friend, my father's ally. This situation has become for me that last straw, along with threats against myself. What were the threats? Violent ones, what else could they be... I take threats seriously, I think that this is not some ordinary people who make them.
My father’s assassination, poisoning Kara-Murza ... I realized that my safety is not guaranteed, and I don’t want to die. First, why should I die? Secondly, I must finish what I've been doing. And this requires health and freedom. Therefore, I decided to leave.
It was a decision made within 10 minutes, and now I still think it was the right one. Yes, I am such a person who can make some decisions quickly, but this does not mean that they are not well-founded. It's just that for a while I reflect on various arguments, and then I make a decision, which some see as unexpected.
There’s one more thing. I believe that I couldn’t have been able to keep my job on RBC [news agency] because of my principled position on the investigation [of Boris Nemtsov’s murder]. And I need to make money because I want to develop professionally. To my great luck, I managed to do so with DW.
By the way, talking about you working at RBC… How did you like interviewing your father that one time?
Initially, the topic was beyond our conflict of interest. That is, I did not say, "Dad, you’ve just released a report ‘Putin. Results’. I want to ask you about the main points, what should we do with Putin ...” [laughs].
We discussed Margaret Thatcher’s visit to in Nizhniy Novgorod. My father, indeed, was one of the few Russian politicians who communicated with her a lot. I don’t mean every day, but he and his mother would come over to her house, he attended her jubilee in London. Thatcher even wrote about him in her book. And so, in 1993 she went to Nizhniy Novgorod, not to Moscow or Petersburg. It was when my father was the governor of the Nizhniy Novgorod region.
I don’t know if it was another such case in the world practice where a daughter interviewed her father, but that's how it went down with us. The most difficult part was figuring out a way to address him: either it’s "Dad” and “ty” [a colloquial form of “you” in Russian] or "Boris Yefimovich" and “vy” [a formal “you” in Russian]. Using "vy" would be insane, while "ty" was somehow weird. In the end, I came up with an idea not to address him at all. I introduced him as a co-chairman of the RPR-Parnas party, and then I just asked questions like: "Well, Margaret Thatcher came to Nizhniy Novgorod..." Unfortunately, the full version of that interview is not available today, only small fragments can be found on YouTube.
I saw one passage where your father quotes Thatcher, who compared Brits with Russians and claimed that the British had already overcome their Imperial complex, although not the easy way. In your opinion, what should happen for Russia to finally overcome its imperial complex?
You know, I, like many other Russians, believe that in the 21st century the territory and its size do not have the value and competitive advantage it had several centuries ago. The main struggle is unfolding for human capital, not for territory. The competition is ongoing around human capital, ideas, decisions, technologies, and I don’t quite understand why in such conditions would anyone need to fight for territory.
For example, capitalization of Apple exceeds that of the entire Russian stock market, which is inherently a resource market (this is oil, steel companies, and several banks). That is, today we have a different situation from that when Thatcher was prime minister. There was a bit different time back then, and the world has since changed very much, I believe.
And this imperial complex will be overcome because progress can’t be stopped, it is quite obvious.
Will you dare predict how long it will take?
I will not make such predictions. Freedom of speech is important so that these things could be discussed on television (people are very influenced by the media, especially major TV channels).
I am sure that public opinion in Russia is quite simple to reverse, provided there are free nationwide media. But I do not believe that people are thinking about these things constantly, that this is their priority. This is an abstraction, while people, in fact, are concerned about other things: how to make money and support their family. And there is no such thing that every Russian wakes up in the morning and thinks, “Oh, it's so great that Crimea is ours". No one wakes up with this thought, everyone thinks about how to get by.
What good things have happened in Russia over the past year, in your opinion?
Eldar Dadin was released, as well as the prisoners of the "Bolotna case" Ivan Nepomnyashchikh and Sergei Udaltsov. Although, of course, there is still over a hundred political prisoners in Russia. In recent years their number has more than doubled. The emergence of young people on the streets protesting against Putinism – this is good. The film [by opposition’s Aleksey Navalny alleging corruption schemes involving PM Medvedev] "He is not Dimon" is also good. The internet is still free, and it's pretty good. [Ilya] Yashin won the election, he is now chairman of the municipal assembly in Moscow’s Krasnoselsky district...
In 1994, the then-president of Russia Boris Yeltsin gave your father his photo signed "To my successor." What happened to it?
It seems to me that my father had hidden it somewhere, and we just can’t find it [laughs]. We keep such family memorabilia thinking that they just can’t be lost. But [they] still are, sometimes.
Why do you think Yeltsin’s actual real successor was a completely different person?
As you know, we in Russia had oligarchs in power. The oligarchs controlled the media: Channel 1 – [Boris] Berezovsky, NTV – Vladimir Gusinsky. These are the country’s key TV channels. My father, being the first vice-premier of the Russian government, fought with the oligarchs. He did not let Berezovsky acquire Gazprom for a penny, he did not let Berezovsky and Gusinsky get their hands on a telecom giant Svyazinvest...
The oligarchs really took offense at him, so they organized this campaign to discredit him. There came reports how he met Heydar Aliyev ‘sporting white pants’, or contacted girls from escort services… some nonsense. That is, there was essentially nothing [factual], but it all strongly affected his image. A rating is a very emotional thing. It's bad for a politician to look frivolous. Besides, Berezovsky had a huge influence on Yeltsin's family, and so it all happened that way.
But my father was not a careerist, he was a principled politician, and this does not always open the way to the presidency.
In 2011, your father said that Putin was "mentally ill". What do you think?
My father was a very expressive person and could say just about anything. I do not know if he's right or not. Time will tell.
I don’t know Vladimir Putin personally, while some of his individual features are not interesting to me. I would say that this is a very powerful man. For him, power is everything, and he wants to retain power in Russia at any cost. To some extent he succeeds. According to the latest rating by Forbes, Putin is the most influential person in the world.
Boris Nemtsov believed that "Putinism is based on expensive oil and censorship. Remove one thing and the next day we will live in another country." Today, oil prices are extremely unstable. In your opinion, what is "Putinism" holding on to?
You know, I would add to this list the security forces, on which our president relies. And, of course, censorship is very important. As for oil prices ... You know, Putin has this one thing (and I don’t tell me I’m praising him in any way right now because it's a fact): a sound macroeconomic policy has been implemented, and he has smart people working in the economic block, and in this he is very different from the former president of Venezuela Hugo Chavez and the current one, Maduro. Putin’s head of the Central Bank is Nabiullina, who became the year’s best central bank governor in 2015, according to Euromoney magazine - that is, according to the results of her work during the crisis period. There is the head of the Ministry of Finance, Anton Siluanov, and there is also the head of the Ministry of Economic Development, Maxim Oreshkin. These people do everything so that boat does not go down.
The thing is that when oil prices drop, in order to balance the budget you just need to let go of the ruble exchange rate, depreciate currency and cut budget expenditures, and that’s what has been done.
Of course, the crisis hit the country hard, prices went up, there was currency depreciation, while real wages were falling, but Putin does not freeze prices, Putin does not ban the dollar flow, Putin has free exchange rates, free capital flow. Russia’s economic bloc is working, and this allows the regime to hold on. And, by the way, I believe there are no fools among those working on propaganda issues.
In the spring of next year, presidential elections will be held in Russia. Who would you like to see the country’s next president?
I do not like personifications. We must understand that in our country there are so many problems that it will be quite difficult for the president who will come after Putin. This will be a kamikaze.
Ideally, this should be a person who respects the Constitution, of which he is the guarantor. And a person who will engage in economic development and at the same time remain a humanist. A person, for whom every human life would be important, and who would make decisions guided by this idea.
Is Navalny such a person?
I don’t know.
You said about him: "We are not in a situation to choose. Objectively, Navalny today is the uncontested opposition leader and he is a brave man."
Indeed, Navalny is a brave man. I now want to compare Russia with Ukraine. You have a more democratic country; there are quite a lot of independent deputies in the Verkhovna Rada, while there is none in Russia. But what have your independent deputies done to shift the situation? How much public support do they enjoy? Have these new people become real players, who are seriously taken into account by the authorities? It seems to me that they haven’t, although I may be wrong.
We have a difficult situation – Navalny’s access [to the public] is restricted in general. There was that one time when someone splashed some toxic liquid hitting his eyes. He was on the verge of losing 80% of sight on one eye. His brother Oleg Navalny is in prison. At the same time, Navalny continues his election campaign and takes up a huge risk, traveling around the country and organizing rallies.
It's good that we have such people, and it's not just Navalny. Ilya Yashin became a municipal deputy representing Moscow’s Krasnoselsky district. For the first time ever he took a position that gives him at least some powers. Ilya Azar, a Russian journalist, has also become a municipal deputy. They are fighters and they are very brave. Had Yashin and Navalny been MPs, they could have done much.
In general, I’ve been told a lot that safety’s in numbers, but I disagree. My father in 2013 was elected to the regional parliament in Yaroslavl. Out of fifty deputies, he was the only one in opposition but this did not prevent him from having a deputy governor of the Yaroslavl region, Alexander Lenin, fired, as the latter was engaged in illegal enrichment schemes in the process of procuring meds for cancer patients.
I believe that a single person can change a lot. Indeed, this requires strength, courage, and leaving one’s comfort zone...
Talking about Navalny’s presidency, it’s too early to say. Let Navalny first become president, and then we will discuss what he’ll be doing.
You have once mentioned that you could return to Russia if the rule of law prevailed. Say, if Navalny were president, would they return?
How could Navalny become president? Will he win in fair elections? Well, this will already be a sign that the rule of law has been established.
If Navalny becomes president, I'll buy a ticket to fly to Russia the next day. First of all, I will seek an objective and comprehensive investigation into my father’s murder. We’ll see if I consider staying there for good.
Your mother claims that you resemble your father. Do you find such resemblance in yourself?
I am absolutely sure that my father was a much more talented and versatile person than I. He began his professional career as a physicist. He was a talented physicist, and this is not me who claims it but other physicists who worked with him. Father was the author of more than sixty scientific works; he defended his thesis at 25. [Soviet theoretical physicist, Nobel Prize winner Vitaliy] Ginzburg would invite him to attend his seminars...
At the same time, he is an outstanding politician, very brave, perfectly educated, able to communicate with different people. I don’t have such a set of qualities. I would like to be as versatile as my father. I'm trying to work on it. In terms of physical appearance, I think I look like him.
My father used to refer to me as a "self-propelled" person; in other words, independent. I am difficult to control, I make decisions myself, and in this regard I partly walk in my father’s steps. My father never worked as a journalist, he only interviewed [a Soviet dissident, scholar and human rights activist Andrey] Sakharov, and that's it.
By the way, speaking about interviews. You once said that the interview should be "unbiased, objective, and interesting." Do you always follow your own recommendations if you speak about Russia?
I believe I do. We have a very difficult, unhealthy situation in our country - an authoritarian regime, where the opposition is under enormous pressure. Of course, I have certain ideological and political views. I adhere to democratic, liberal views, and I don’t hide this. A journalist has the right to certain personal views, but it is necessary to do your job unbiased, regardless of personal sympathy. Naturally, it's a quite difficult task to interview someone unbiased and still ask sharp questions. But if you can’t work this way, then it’s not a job for you. I do it this way, and everyone already knows about it.
You can see my interviews with Garry Kasparov, Mikhail Kasyanov, Dmitry Gudkov. This is me listing all well-known leaders of the Russian opposition. I also interviewed Alexei Navalny.
And to make the interview interesting, first of all, you need to come well-prepared. Your interlocutor should be interesting to you. I devote a lot of time preparing, I read a lot, I can be briefed by people aware of the situation. When I recently visited [Ukraine], I interviewed [Lviv Mayor] Andriy Sadovyi, and I had also prepared seriously, spoken with other reporters.
By the way, although I am a German journalist, I am still a Russian citizen. My country acts very cruelly and unfairly towards your country. Of course, I am not to answer for that, the decision is made by the Russian government, which I don’t support (I never voted for Putin). I bear no responsibility but, nevertheless, I feel some kind of guilt... and it's difficult for me to ask unpleasant questions to Ukrainian politicians. This is a psychological issue but we must do journalism in line with existing standards.
Sometimes it happens so that journalists' interview offers get turned down. You once said that, for example, ex-head of the Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin rejected your interview offer. Why do you think he did that?
This is a question to be better addressed to him, not me. When I sent the request for an interview, they told me: "Dr. Yakunin has no time." I took this as a refusal. Apparently, he considered that he did not need it. I wanted to talk to him about his work here in Germany (a little more than a year ago he pompously launched his research institute here called "Dialogue of Civilizations").
Whose refusal concerned you most?
At the moment, I am deeply concerned about the reluctance of Georgian Prime Minister Kvirikashvili to give an interview. I asked him about it during an International Security Conference in Germany, but then I was told that the prime minister did not have time. Then I tried to learn about the opportunity to talk in Georgia but I was told that it was unlikely to work out. And now, on September 27, he is coming to Berlin to meet with Angela Merkel. I will try again to agree on an interview ...
I don’t want to talk about the refusals, which don’t matter for me now, but doing an interview with Kvirikashvili would be important for me. After Saakashvili changed the Constitution, all the power in Georgia, at least formally, now belongs to the prime minister.
I also tried to get an interview with First Vice President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Mehriban Aliyeva. It did not work out either, they did not want to talk with me. I don’t want to seek political motives in these refusals. I, myself, sometimes, refuse to be interviewed.
Whom and why?
It sometimes happens that I refuse simply because I have no time, and I also refuse in principle to propaganda TV channels. For example, I refused an interview with Ren-TV and Russia-1. I refuse for two reasons. First, it’s when I have no confidence in them. If this is not a live broadcast, I realize that my words will not be used in the wrong context. Secondly, I refuse, if the topic doesn’t fit me.
Returning to the topic of your relationship with your father, was his praise of your act valuable to you?
Yes, that’s because my father never flattered me, he objectively told me everything as it was. In general parents are, fortunately, no flatterers (this affects people very negatively). I was praised for a reason, not because I'm their daughter, but for something really important. Although I do know that my father praised my act behind my back.
[Russian star singer of the 1980s] Viktor Tsoy's son once said: "When everyone is interested in you as a son of Viktor Tsoy, it's hard to understand who you really are." Is this feeling familiar to you?
Yes, I once experienced such feelings. My father was a star, and a lot of people wanted to interview me. One time they asked me, what a governor should do. I answered: "He should resign" [laughs]. It seemed to me that had my father resigned, he could’ve spent more time with us. Now it seems to me that I said everything right back then, because the main virtue of a politician is to resign in time and not to annoy anyone.
When I was about 7, I said the following: "That’s it, I’m not giving any more interviews to any publications". Has UNIAN already been out there back then? ...
UNIAN has been working since 1993...
Well, it appears it was already around. So, I said that I would not give any more interviews until I achieved something myself, and did not agree to any. Probably, seven or eight years later, I gave a short interview.
It is absolutely comfortable for me to be perceived as Nemtsov’s daughter. I have an absolutely positive attitude to it, I feel proud. Together with the colleagues, I established the Nemtsov Foundation.
If we talk about the reasons for creating this Foundation, what is the share of a tribute to your father, and what share is your personal ambition?
It’s a 100% tribute to him, no personal ambitions here. I never wanted to engage in civic activities. Ask me about this three years ago, I would say I wanted to be a journalist at RBC or somewhere else.
When your father gets killed, it's very difficult to think about personal ambitions. You have to be some kind of a monster… This Foundation is a matter of heritage. My father is gone, but there is this Foundation. Perhaps he would have done something differently but I can’t ask him about it.
It was always important for my father to show the other side of Russia and to promote liberal ideas. Moreover, he was also thinking about creating a fund. In fact, I realized something he was mulling in case he had to leave Russia. When serious threats came that he could be arrested and imprisoned, he considered leaving the country.
Our Foundation is a small organization. It’s only two people working there including myself. 90% of the Foundation’s work is coming up with ideas of projects, searching the funds for them, writing grant applications and letters - quite a routine job. What kind of ambitions are you taking about? What can I gain, in what sense? I set up the Nemtsov Foundation in legal terms, but there is no such thing that I tell someone to do something. I will tell you more: I really like that many people are doing something as volunteers within the framework of the Foundation. My father’s name gives an opportunity to attract plenty of good people. I'm not playing the first violin there.
At the moment, can you say that the Foundation is your life pursuit?
Yes, of course, this is my life pursuit, although I also do journalism with great pleasure… I want the foundation to live throughout my whole life and remain there after I pass. There is nothing more important for me at the moment.
You once said that the Foundation’s mission is to promote rights and freedoms in Russia. Could you explain how this works given that the Foundation operates in Germany?
I do not believe that borders matter in any way.
The Nemtsov Foundation can’t operate in Russia today, unfortunately. As soon as it can, it will - in the sense that the Foundation will be registered in Russia - I guarantee it to you.
I should note that the Foundation is not entitled to engage in political activities as this is prohibited by German law. Today we have our annual Boris Nemtsov Prize for courage in upholding democratic values in Russia. The award is EUR 10,000. Of course, it’s not a very large amount to make changes happen, but still…. Last year it was presented to Lev Shlosberg, he is now a deputy of the Pskov parliament. This is the man who was the first to report in his newspaper about the presence of Russia’s regular troops in Ukraine; it was he who reported the funeral of the Pskov-based paratroopers who were killed in action in eastern Ukraine. The article was quoted very widely, then he was heavily beaten and expelled from the Pskov parliament. But he managed to get re-elected last year. A great fellow, indeed. Such people need to be supported. If they are no such people, nothing will change.
This year, the winner of the award was Eldar Dadin, an opponent of the war with Ukraine, which received a real term for solitary pickets. He was released ahead of schedule.
Every year on October 9-10 (October 9 is my Father's Birthday) we hold the Boris Nemtsov Forum. The latest one was dedicated to the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union, and this year we will talk about the future. After all, "Putinism" will eventually come to an end. We invite many young people, including from Russia, to talk about their future. In the meantime, everyone rests on Putin's election and that’s it. Nothing is being discussed beyond that point.
We are involved in supporting political refugees and political prisoners. We signed off a memorandum with the Karlov University (the Czech Republic) on the creation of the Boris Nemtsov Center in Prague, and all my efforts are now directed on launching this project. It's quite a lot for such a small organization.
My father considered enlightenment one of the most significant tasks. In conditions when the mainstream media are shut down, the fact that you are speaking to a single person out of a thousand is also very important. The Foundation tries to fulfill this function to the best of its ability.
On October 9 this year, Boris Nemtsov would have turned 58. Is there anyone in Russia who, in your opinion, is currently speculating on your father's memory?
The more they talk about my father, the more he is remembered. I welcome this. I do not want to be anyone’s censor or judge.
I mean some specific people who during his lifetime were at different "poles" with him, and now, after his death, show their loyalty...
There are such cases, including, with a quite sincere attitude. People can reconsider certain things, in particular, because of tragic events, and this is true, too. I know such examples ... They may have had disagreements, arguments and things like that, or some mean comments in the media, but these people have done things that changed my attitude to them for the better. And they did those things remaining low-profile.
You wrote a book titled "Wake up Russia", dedicated to your father...
I'm by no means a great writer and I will never become one. This did not help me to find peace of mind, but I don’t regret writing this book, it was important for me. I want to write another book, a deeper one. Of course, it will also be dedicated to my father.
Will this be your memories of him?
May I refrain from answering this one at the moment? There are several options that are now being discussed. I just can’t even talk about it simply because I haven’t even started writing. In December, there will be a pause in my work, so then I'll return to it again.
The case of Boris Nemtsov’s murder was discussed in the U.S. Congress. Do you see any point in this? How much could it help to find truth?
Everything will help. Doing nothing won’t help definitely. For example, a special rapporteur was appointed at PACE in the case of my father’s murder. Within two years they will prepare an extensive report on both the circumstances of the murder, quality of the investigation, and quality of trial. Then a resolution will be adopted, and this is important, too.
It is important that this case remain on the agenda. Research efforts are needed even if they are of an advisory nature. Besides the fact that all these international institutions might shed light on some circumstances that we are not yet aware of (I’m really hopeful for the PACE report), it is also an absolutely legal pressure on Russian authorities.
See, they wanted it to be this way: "We take him down and forget about it."
No, that’s not how it’s going to be.
You can’t just kill political opponents. Russian authorities, or any other authorities who resort to such things, should get it clear. And we are also doing this because we want to say no to political assassinations in Russia!
That's why all of us are doing this – myself, lawyers, PACE legal experts, attorneys… Vadim Prokhorov was in America recently… That’s all that you’re talking about. There is nothing unimportant, every step is important. And since I’m a consistent supporter of the theory that safety’s not always in numbers, I think that all this must be done.