Russia is not known for its optimists or its libertarians, but Vera Kichanova hopes to change that.
Kichanova is a libertarian activist and journalist in a country that despises both, and she has the arrest records to prove it. Only 22, Kichanova has been detained at least five times. With an eclectic mix of brightly colored clothes, a purse full of political pins, and thick-rimmed glasses, she fits the role of a youth in revolt. Yet this advocate of Russia's most unlikely cause is also an elected official, representing the Yuzhnoye Tushino District of Moscow. She was elected to the municipal council during a surge of opposition activity in 2012.
In July Kichanova came to Washington, D.C., to receive a Democracy Award for her efforts to promote freedom. I had the opportunity to speak with her about the work she does and the risks she faces.
Reason: How did you first become interested in libertarianism?
Kichanova: I was dating a boy who was libertarian. He advised me to read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and I got interested and read some books by the Austrian School. I knew there was a group of people who called themselves the Libertarian Party of Russia. They were not a party yet. They were academic people who met each other in Liberty School, organized by Cato in Georgia, and I joined them.
Reason: What's the state of libertarianism in Russia right now? What kind of organizations are growing around it?
Kichanova: The academic group has grown into a real party. When I joined it, we had our first party congress with less than 20 people participating. At the third one, there were more than 100. Now, there about 500 members of the party. I am sure that there are more. The main problem is that a libertarian is a person who would not join any party—he hates any collectivism and thinks that joining a party is not for him. He is an individualist. The libertarian movement in Russia consists of two wings, the academic wing and the activist wing. The academic has existed longer, because there were several think-tanks and websites that united people with these views. But, we were the first to realize it was time to put our views in practice, and we spent a lot effort persuading those individuals. When we are separate, it is easier to take our liberties and prevent us from doing anything in politics.
Reason: Do the laws allow forming a political party? Is the Libertarian Party official?
Kichanova: We are now in the process of registering it. The law about parties was liberalized last year. Before, you had to gather 15,000 activists to build a party and now it's 500. We had a congress in March, and in September we are hoping to get the official document. From then on, our activists, which we have in more than 50 regions, will be able to participate in some local elections.
Reason: Are there other parties that are forming because of the liberalized laws?
Kichanova: There are many of them, but most of them – frankly speaking – have no ideology. After massive protests of the last year, many people became involved in politics. Most of them, if they're opposition parties, have very populist platforms. It's impossible to argue with them on issues like economics, health care, military force, or freedom of speech, because Russian politics is mostly not about ideology. The most radical people on either the right wing or left wing, like we are, or the radical communists, are trying to speak more about ideology.
Reason: Are there any groups with which you can build political alliances? Can you work with the Liberal Democratic Party or A Just Russia Party?
Kichanova: We have to work together with other groups because the Russian opposition movement is so varied. If you search for some photos from our biggest rallies, you can see some red flags of nationalists, some orange flags, and our flags with an eagle. There are several demands that all opposition supports, but the parties you mentioned, which have been in parliament for many years, are not regarded as the real opposition, so neither we nor anyone else that participated in the Bolotnaya Square protests collaborate with them.
Reason: What makes a Russian individual a libertarian?
Kichanova: I've discussed this question with Kahka Bendukidze, the Georgian economist who was the leader of their famous reforms. He said that Russians are actually latent libertarians. I think that Russians have less respect for government than people from Western countries, because of our history. We have had very few national leaders who were legitimate. For example, if you are trying to advocate for libertarianism in the European Union, and you tell them that the government is taking their money, but they are building roads or spending it on something the people like. In Russia, nobody can see what the government is spending our money on. We see that they are stealing our money, because it is getting more exposure. Today, Alexei Navalny was sentenced. He was uncovering very serious corruption cases. In Russia, anybody can see the bad influence of government.