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 Kakha 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.
Reason: Have you found a receptive audience when you advocate for libertarianism?
Kichanova: It depends with whom we are talking. We are trying to the appropriate approach to every audience. For example, if we are discussing army reform, we invite draftees and soldiers' mothers. If we have an event devoted to freedom of speech, we invite journalists. The problem is that several years ago, even the word "libertarian" was very unfamiliar for Russians in politics. Our main achievement is that we made it familiar. Now, we have to take another step, because most people think libertarianism is anarchy for rich people, that we advocate for the rights of big business, that we stand for some oligarchs. We keep explaining that we protect the rights of every single person, that liberty is not about wealth but the ability to use your own property and labor no matter how much you have.
Reason: What do Russians think of capitalism?
Kichanova: Their idea of capitalism was compromised in the '90s during the market reforms after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The majority of people were very unhappy about how the reforms were enacted. These reforms were in favor of oligarchs The most difficult task for us is to explain that oligarchy is not about the free market, but about government invasion of the market.
Reason: You have mentioned your admiration for the reforms in Georgia, and in other interviews, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. What is that appeals to you about these?
Kichanova: Their examples show us that there is a possibility to change regimes without blood or civil war. Everyone that is advocating for Putin's regime are saying that all of the protests will lead to blood in the streets and the death of many people. Today's most important event – Navalny's sentencing – is unfortunate, but the good thing is that people went out into the streets without any permission. I think it's strange and absurd that we ask the government's permission to protest. You have to get an official paper from the city administration if you are organizing a rally. Today, people asked for no permission. I think that's the way it should have happened years ago. Then, we would not have Navalny sentenced, Pussy Riot sentenced, and many restrictive laws.
Reason: What is censorship in the media like?
Kichanova: We have some free media in Russia, but if you remember the stories of Putin's crusade against free media, the first thing he did when he came to power was to close NTV. It was the most popular TV station in the '90s. There were big protests. I did not participate myself, but my father took me to put down my signature. I was nine. It was my first civil action. They said NTV was closed for economic reasons, and that's what they're doing now. There is no direct censorship, but the journalists who criticize the government too much, it becomes more and more difficult for them to find jobs. Everyone knows, though it's not open, that the owners of the media get some orders from the presidential administration.
It's not an everyday practice, but there is a growing list of media closed and journalists fired. Several of them have emigrated, like Oleg Kashin, who was dangerously beaten three years ago. We still have free media, but they are online. So the citizens of big cities can read them and get information from the internet, but the majority of Russians get news from TV, where there is massive propaganda. There are regions where there are only government media and no private media at all. When some new authoritarian laws are passed, they show propaganda to prepare the public opinion. But, since they passed the so-called "anti-gay law," we cannot write about gays and lesbians in a positive way, or else it's considered propaganda to harm children. There are very big fines. So, a week before that, they show films that say there is a big, dangerous gay lobby all around the world corrupting traditional values.
Reason: I read an article that said you were arrested once and detained fives times for your activism. Have you been arrested since you got elected?
Reason: Is that because you are not doing as much activism?
Kichanova: I work at Slon.ru, which is one of the free media, I usually go the rallies as a journalist, so I have a press card.
Reason: When you were speaking with Andrei Illarionov, Putin's former chief economic adviser, he said that working in Russian politics can be very dangerous. Do you think that's accurate? If so, how do you feel about working in a dangerous job?
Kichanova: There was a rally last year the day before the inauguration of Putin. After that, 27 people were detained and accused of spreading mass riots. They weren't all detained on the same day. They were absolutely random people, not leaders, not even participants in some party, just ordinary citizens. So, it was done to make everybody understand that anyone can put in jail for just peaceful activism. It put everyone in fear, because you never know who is next. They did it every Wednesday for two months. You're just opening your twitter feed, and one of your friends is typing that the investigators are calling into their home and want search your house. So, one more person you know will go to jail.
Reason: What can you accomplish as a member of the municipal council?
Kichanova: I can do almost nothing, because the governing system of Moscow is very centralized. We deputies are elected, but do not have real authority. All of the main decisions, including the spending of peoples' money, are made by those appointed by the city administration. We have a network of independent deputies and we have very different political views, but we have one thing in common. We want the system to be decentralized. We want more authority to be given to the elected people. So, the main thing I can do is make the work of this council more transparent, like by writing blogs and inviting journalists to council meetings.