By Konstanze Kobel-Höller and Linus Höller
Dimitri Androssow, 31, is a party executive of the Russian liberal opposition party PARNAS, for which he ran as a candidate for the Duma, Russia’s parliament. Among other activism, he has worked with famous dissident Alexei Navalny on his presidential election campaign.
Androssow studied German, English and international relations in Moscow, Budapest and Würzburg.
In 2014, when Russia invaded Ukraine for the first time, Androssow was a fellow in the German Bundestag, the country’s parliament. Until 2021, he worked for the OSCE in Prague. Currently, he works as a teacher in Moscow.
Androssow has been an outspoken critic of Putin’s rule, in particular in response to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24. For his activities, he has been targeted by Russian authorities and has been arrested and sentenced to jail time.
This interview was originally conducted in German and has been translated. It has also been edited for clarity. Click here for the German version of this article/Hier clicken, um diesen Artikel auf Deutsch zu lesen.
Why were you arrested?
On the 24th of February, I immediately went on social media and called on Russians not to stay quiet in light of the war in Ukraine, but to protest on the streets. In the evening, I went to the protest in Moscow with three of my party colleagues. One of them was immediately arrested, I was still able to free myself from their grip. Two days later, on Saturday, they came home to me and knocked on my door. But you don’t have to open. They tried everything – woke my neighbors, even turned off the electricity. On Sunday, I left my apartment and they immediately arrested me in the subway, because I was on the “wanted” list.
What happened then?
They brought me to the police station overnight, it wasn’t very pleasant in the cell. On the next day, we went to the so-called court, where I told the judge that he is now committing a crime. To my surprise, I only got seven instead of 10 days of prison time. It’s even possible to get up to 30 days if they deem it a repeat offense. I was already arrested in November but because that process is still ongoing due to our appeal, this was handled as a first case. After another night in the police station, we took a 14-hour car ride to the prison. The police were simply overstretched trying to bring all the arrested people to prisons.
How was it there?
In the cell, it was roughly 30 square meters big, there were 14 people – more than half of them political prisoners, a couple of activists. Interestingly, it was cell number five, which is where Navalny was in the past. The seven days were okay because you could talk to like-minded people and discuss what you could or wanted to do after. We heard only little from the outside world and Ukraine and we were forced to listen to Russian radio that the guards turned on and off. There, the news didn’t talk about Ukraine at all, but they did indeed talk about the consequences: Which companies are leaving and how the Ruble continues falling and falling. And we also learned through the radio that now you could get three to 15 years of prison time if you posted content that doesn’t align with the official information, if you call the “operation” against Ukraine a war, for instance.
But that’s what you do?
Yes, I can’t simply stay silent.
Why do you campaign for Ukraine?
I am convinced: Putin is waging this war not just against Ukraine, but also against my country, Russia. It’s my country, not Putin’s country. Thousands of soldiers have fallen already, it is ruining the economy – all that is the true catastrophe. You saw, how the regime got worse and now, after 22 years of Putin’s time, hatred broke out and he has let out his aggressions on the neighboring country. It’s not enough for him to have killed oppositionals or have put them into prison. He is doing this because of his imperialism: A humiliated Russia must prove its position in Europe and that doesn’t work without war. For many people in the West, it was unexpected that he attacked Ukraine. For me, it wasn’t. I have written about it for long enough that a large war would be the logical consequence of his regime and its hatred against the West and Ukraine, which he has spread for decades throughout the country with the help of his propaganda. One of the propaganda’s high points was the cult of May 9 with its crazy, aggressive militarism which was always directed against the West. All that couldn’t stay just word but had to end up in a large war. The groundwork for that was laid by Putin’s propaganda for years.
Why do people not understand this?
It’s pure propaganda. The people don’t know the reality and often, they are simply scared to get to know the truth.
Do you know anybody in Ukraine personally?
Yes, quite a few. I was in Ukraine for the first time in 2014 and fell in love with the country. I went there specifically to support the people on Euromaidan and see everything with my own eyes and I found a lot of friends there. One friend is now fighting with a weapon in Kyiv, another, a father of two kids, is also participating. We try to support each other somehow. And in general, many Russians have friends and family in Ukraine. Myself, I originally come from the border region but I notice that my family there is not as informed as I am.
How is the opposition organized?
I’m always cautious when it comes to historical parallels, but how might you imagine political opposition in Hitler’s Germany or in Stalin’s Russia? There are no free elections, no free media anymore, not a single oppositional in parliament and they try, that we simply shut up and don’t do anything anymore. We are still here, but we also can’t go out on the street and put car tires on fire there. It doesn’t make sense unless a critical mass goes out onto the street like in 2011. Now we’ve landed in a pure dictatorship, everyone is trying to survive. For now, we are still active as a political party but if the regime wants to, they could shut us down as soon as tomorrow. We will try, as much as possible, to educate people and reach democratically-minded citizens in the large cities. We consider ourselves the only opposition completely independent from the Kremlin and will continue meeting for as long as we are not prohibited and dissolved.
Are protests growing or decreasing in size?
Because there are no free media, I don’t know the current situation at all but I know that every day, some people go. The police work in a way that they always arrest or chase the activists. For instance, I was warned by phone today not to participate in a protest. So far, more than 15,000 people have been arrested throughout Russia. We should also think rationally. We don’t need to all end up in prison. We must understand when we can go and protest. Currently, people are too scared and frustrated to do anything. But I think that the moment will come when people have enough and then it is up to us. And if it is all of us at once, then the regime won’t be capable of arresting everyone.
Do Russians know of the war and if yes, are they even interested?
Most of them know about the “operation,” as the law dictates I ought to call the war now. But they think that the Russians are freeing areas, Ukrainians, from the evil fascists. And not all go on the channels, where Russian soldiers report that there are no fascists there, that civilians are being shot at and that they want to be brought back home. The average Russian says that we are doing good there – and after all, the U.S. is also engaging in wars. Well, the propaganda has done its job. A Russian mother who learned of the death of her son in Ukraine riled against the brutes that killed her son and that there must be revenge. There is no understanding that a brutal war was started by the Russians, not even by the mothers. But I think that is still going to change. I generally have a positive disposition in that regard. But all in all, nobody wants the war. But – the people in Nazi Germany also didn’t want war, that’s not an argument. As long as Russians don’t understand that the war isn’t just, the attitude isn’t going to change. When they finally see the truth, it is going to be a very sober day. Now, we are seeing the first consequences at ATMs, McDonald’s is leaving, VW is closing and paying less.
Who is on Putin’s side, who less so?
The academic middle class in the large cities is not his target audience that he tries to reach. Especially the lower class and the elderly support him. People over the age of 40 often haven’t been abroad and it is often difficult to make this personal for them. Many also can’t speak any foreign languages and get their information exclusively from Russian sources. Or they know that it’s all propaganda and lost trust in all media more broadly – that’s also a crime of Putin’s: That even the people who are against Putin think that they have no friends abroad. They just don’t believe that someone can have their own opinion without it coming from a propagandist.
Is it possible to connect that to their level of education?
That’s difficult to say. A colleague from the party with his own company is studying business at a university in Stockholm and he says that almost everyone there supports Putin. They think as imperialists – even though they’ve seen the world. The people who found his domestic policies bad now find his foreign policy good.
How can one still stay independently informed in Russia?
Telegram channels are the first source; whoever can speak foreign languages also uses international Websites; for example, BBC or ZDF [German television]. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are blocked, then you use VPNs. But one has to know how that works and it’s illegal to use them, it’s punished. Because officially, an image is conveyed that it’s pretty quiet and the Russian military is exterminating Nazis. But the images that you get from other, freer sources are terrible and horrible – and most people don’t know that.
Is it true that police on the streets check phones for social media postings?
Yes, it’s really crazy. It can just happen. The police stop people and order them to show their phones. Surely, they are looking for forbidden things or for pieces of information about the operation in Ukraine that show a picture of the war.
What’s the impact of Western sanctions and the departure of Western companies, also on public opinion?
So far, it mostly impacts normal people like me. For example, I can no longer reload my ticket for public transport online but have to go to the post office instead and do it with cash. The prices are already rising. For instance, buckwheat, which is very popular in Russia, is already three times as expensive as it was before the war. And I think that it will become more extreme. Many Russians live in very simple circumstances. The sanctions are absolutely necessary and I am also okay with it that they also hit people like me. I don’t know what else has to happen for people to go out onto the streets [and protest], maybe when they have to give up their work. Still, I think it would be important that sanctions primarily affect Putin’s inner circle. As a party, we have been advocating for that for years. Britain does that very well. Germany is more reluctant in that regard. European-minded individuals are leaving the country, retreating into private circles or waiting for an opportunity to protest – currently, that is very dangerous. The mood is depressing right now.
What’s up with the “Z” sign?
It’s simply unbearable. By now, it’s on all the buses and even on private cars and everywhere. One man, who painted “Z = 卐” was even punished for it. You know the consequences if you were to try to fight it. Moscow is a city with surveillance cameras at every corner, following the Chinese example. If they want to, they will see and find everything that they need. The Z symbol to me seems like a swastika. Putin calls Ukraine fascist – I call Putin and his people fascists. He even uses the same excuses as Hitler.
What should the West do?
Close the airspace. This is the war of European civilization against barbarism. If Ukraine falls, Europe will fall, I am sure of it. And the fewer victims, the better. Of course, there are weapons deliveries, but I agree with Zenelsky and Co. that this would be the most important thing now. Ukraine has proven that they have a good army, but the Russians are simply bombing the civilian population. And if human lives are the most important thing, then the West must do everything to protect them. Putin is also threatening to blow up nuclear fuel in Chernobyl. He is a madman. I hope that he doesn’t start a nuclear war. But I think he would absolutely be willing to use a tactical nuke if his political survival depends on it.
Are you concerned about a possible general mobilization?
I think that could happen if the war continues for longer. Ukraine says there are already over 13,000 dead Russian soldiers, the investigative platform Bellingcat speaks of 5,000. But they appear to be planning a mobilization. In one region, a conscription office has already been attacked with Molotov cocktails. And Putin has admitted by now that conscripts are being used. Aside from the economic situation, this might lead to a lot of discontent if there were to be a draft for normal men above age 18.
Are you concerned about the use of mercenaries from Arab countries?
That’s already the case, he has already deployed the infamous Wagner group and also some from Syria. And in central Africa, they are buying militias. That’s such a crime: He is collecting the scum from all over the earth so that they can kill Russians and Ukrainians.
Are there really many Russians leaving the country as refugees?
Many friends and acquaintances have moved away and they certainly didn’t leave as tourists. I know that from my own circle. It’s not easy to get to Europe, the most likely is Helsinki or Istanbul. Many are now vacationing in Arab countries, that’s possible without visas – because the political climate in Russia is so unbearable to watch what’s happening. It’s just difficult to stay in the country at such a moment. There are also people who are being threatened. For example, one man hung a Ukrainian flag in Moscow and was then picked up by the domestic secret service FSB and tortured. He ended up fleeing with his wife and child to Kyrgyzstan, they just couldn’t live here normally anymore. And especially political activists and journalists. It just looks like a pure dictatorship. But Russians have been emigrating for a while. For example, a friend whom I campaigned with back in 2016, is in California now and works for Google. But I don’t judge the people who leave.
Are you considering it?
Of course one thinks about it, I even have a visa. But for me as a politician, that isn’t necessarily an option – I do everything in my power to show that there are still people here that fight for a democratic Russia. I do what I think is right and necessary. Necessary for my conscience and so, I think, also for my country. We are currently living through a change in eras in which it takes more bravery than ever, not to stay silent. I simply try to work and not to think about the fact that I could be arrested again at any time – otherwise, you’d go crazy.
What is your response to the discrimination against Russians in the West who don’t clearly position themselves against Putin?
With my fundamental conviction as a liberal, I can’t force anybody to make a statement. But personally, I think that Russians, no matter where they live, should take responsibility and that their conscience cannot stay silent. I think it would be important that Russians position themselves clearly against the war and state the facts – especially since they’re already living in the free West. I don’t think that the family in Russia would be at risk – only the family of political activists can be imprisoned. I myself protested in front of the Russian embassy in Germany in 2014 and my family did not have any problems.
How did Putin’s style of government change over the years and what does that mean for the opposition?
For the first four years after 2000 there were economic reforms, they were very good and necessary. The prime minister was the later PARNAS-cofounder Mikhail Kasyanov, who instituted the reforms: The pension fund, the land reform, lower taxes. That brought the economic upturn of the mid-2000s. At the time, Putin positioned himself as someone who would continue Yeltsin’s politics and transform Russia into a democracy. He said there was no other option and didn’t exclude that Russia might even become a NATO member.
In 2003, he rigged the elections for the first time to prevent the opposition from getting into parliament again. Using salami tactics, he co-opted the media; he started with the larger outlets, only the ones with small followings remained. Then, more and more, there was repression in the country and huge corruption. But in the 2000s, they still allowed all demonstrations.
In the years of Medvedev, it seemed like there would be a little bit of liberalism. 2011/12 there were the largest demonstrations. Our mistake was that we didn’t bring it to an end at the time. The people flagged. With the inauguration of Putin in 2012 there was the largest rally, back then I was arrested for the first time – it cost me 500 Rubles in fines. Today, I would pay 20,000 Rubles, that’s how the situation has changed. Medvedev attacked Georgia as a first attempt to express the imperialist thoughts. And then, in 2014, came Ukraine with Crimea and the Donbas. That was a turning point. The aim was to do anything to ensure that the European integration of Ukraine would not succeed because it would threaten Putin’s power in Russia. But with the annexation of Crimea, Putin also called into question our own integrity. According to our constitution, we are a federal state, but everything is decided in Moscow. It’s an imperial house that can easily be blown up. That’s why I say that this war is directed against Russia because in the end, our territorial integrity is being threatened. There are several regions that would like to be more independent from Moscow.
In my view, Putin is paranoid. He sees the U.S. as being behind our movements, that we are being paid for our protests. Navalny and Boris Nemzov were strong people at the time. Nemzov was murdered in 2015 – and then I decided to join his party. The laws for repression kept increasing. It was quite clear that it would have to end in dictatorship. Then came the attack with chemical weapons on Navalny. With that, all the important people in the country were exterminated and Putin had nothing left to do.
What’s the current situation?
Sadly, we have left the path of reforms from the 90s and placed our fate in the hand of a Soviet secret service operative. The hell in 2020 in Belarus showed us for the first time, what these Soviet dictators are capable of doing. But Ukraine has democratic experiences, has passed through three revolutions. Russia doesn’t have that and that’s why the Russians don’t believe in their own powers. I was impressed when I visited Ukraine. They look the same as us, they speak Russian as well – but they can speak completely freely. Here, in Russia, it’s absolutely “graveyard.” The propaganda calls this “stability.” But I think that we also deserve democracy. It’s worth fighting for that, even if it poses a risk to one’s life.
Would you offer up your life for it?
I’m currently reading Remarque, “The Night in Lisbon,” and near the beginning, there is a sentence that somehow fits quite well: “as long as there are barbarians alive like the Smile, it would be a crime to kill myself, to waste a life that could be spent fighting them.” Well, we’re not talking about suicide, but the rest fits.
So what does the future have in store?
What Lukashenko did in 2020 in Minsk, Putin is doing in Russia now. Yes, it is becoming more and more difficult but we know that we are doing the right thing. It’s a huge crime against our nation. The climax of what Putin has been doing for all these years: Closing the media, falsifying elections, invading Georgia and Ukraine and now this big war. I think Putin sees this war as the only limitation for him to stay in power until 2036. He is presenting himself as Russia’s savior from the evil West. The next “election” is in 2024 and he seems to have wanted to improve his ratings once more with this – which, at first, seems to have succeeded. But he doesn’t seem to have expected it to take this long. And Putin doesn’t have unlimited resources. The army and police are the only pillars he bases his power on. And he can’t back off. But change in Russia always happened when wars were lost – the government had to go.
So is the war in Ukraine an opportunity for Russia?
Well. One can see chances in every disaster. But these lives won’t be brought back and the reputation of our country will be damaged for years to come. I don’t think that a democratic government would be able to fix that quickly. We say it’s the people in charge that have to get out of the way. Putin hasn’t been focused on the country for a long time, he’s turned the foreign policy into domestic policy. When people start being aware of the Ukrainian disaster, he will lose his reputation as the savior of Russia from the evil West.
What’s the long-term prognosis?
It’s a disaster that the Russians’ political passiveness has caused this. The responsibility of the Russians is huge now. We are liable to Ukraine, we are liable to the West. And there’s only one way out: A free, democratic Russia. Putin says, Russia isn’t Europe, that we’re our own “civilization,” so to speak. But most Russians see themselves as Europeans. It would be nice if the democratization of Russia could happen from the inside out.
How much harder did life in Russia get over the past years?
It’s hard to say whether it’s because of the regime or because of COVID. The regime, for instance, shut down many educational programs, they canceled language tests for study abroad programs. When I came to Moscow for the first time in 2008, it was a European city with great prospects. Now, you wouldn’t think that anymore. Even the wealth of entertainment is gone because of the repressions and sanctions. The regime oppresses and cultivates fears. People would rather stay home. The only independent sources of information have already been closed.
How much support does Putin have among the people?
Nobody would voluntarily go to a rally for Putin. They left politics to the Kremlin and just try to make their private lives as good as possible. But after the war, that’s no longer possible. Then, the Russians will be made partly responsible – rightly so – for the crimes. The Russians acquiesced to the war and to Putin and their responsibility is huge. After all, the war there has been going on since 2014 and the Ukrainians have been suffering for eight years. Since then, there are more Ukrainian soldiers dying every month than there were German soldiers killed in Afghanistan in all time, which was 59. There’s passivity and people don’t think that they themselves can change something. The question is when that will change and what they will have to sacrifice for it. Maybe their work.
Are you scared?
Of course, one is scared but when you put fear and conscience on a scale, the fear is clearly less than the conscience and responsibility. Staying silent simply isn’t an option. If they want to arrest me now, they will. At home, I spend every day waiting for a knock on the door. Encryption with emails is irrelevant at this point. It’s not painful to be arrested – as long as you’re not tortured, of course. Freedom lives within me, it’s not the surrounding circumstances. Being imprisoned for your convictions is not as terrible as seeing the largest crime of the worldly dimension right before your eyes and your own country being responsible for it.
This story was initially published in abridged form with: