In 1999, Lyubov Sobol was a serious eleven-year-old with aspirations to be a Sherlock Holmes-style private detective. That same year, Vladimir Putin, a small-time FSB agent and mid-level cabinet member for former Leningrad mayor Anatoly Sobchak, was abruptly placed into the national spotlight by then-president Boris Yeltsin. Never in her wildest dreams could young Lyubov have imagined that 20 years later, she would be facing off against now-President Putin and working on the front lines to investigate and expose the corruption of the most powerful people in Russia.
For the last twelve years, Sobol has been a lawyer and political activist with the Anti-Corruption Foundation of Russia (FKB), the country’s most prominent pro-democracy movement. She works closely with the group’s founder, Alexei Navalny, to push for the democratization of Russia and advocate against Putin's policies through on-the-ground and digital outreach. She is currently at Stanford as a visiting scholar with the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL).
As the war in Ukraine continues and free speech and other rights within Russia are further curtailed, many activists, Sobol included, have had to adapt or leave the country. To help contextualize the work she and other activists are currently doing, she explains where the roots of the democracy movement in modern Russia began, and the place she hopes it will take on the global stage in the future.
Let’s start with a broad look at opposition movements and their place in modern Russia. What role have opposition movements played in Russian society since the end of the Soviet Era in the late 1980s and early 1990s?
After the attempt by the Communist Party of Russia to forcibly seize political control in the 1991 August Coup, the course towards democratic reforms was supported by the majority of the Russian population. However, the democratic politicians were divided, and they had little to no experience with public political activity or organizing participation in elections. They failed to offer a clear, intelligible plan for reforming the country and get it across to voters.
With the exception of certain leaders like Foreign Minister A. Kozyrev, human rights ombudsman S. Kovalev, and Deputy Prime Minister B. Nemtsov, truly democratic politicians were not widely represented in power at this time, and did not have a significant influence on state policy. Many of the politicians in power used pro-democracy ideals and the language of human rights as a mask to further their own, more selfish interests. Then with the economic crash in 1998, radical rhetoric and a revitalized communist party began to regain support.
Ultimately, a strong democratic party never emerged in Russia and deeply rooted democratic institutions were not built. The corruption and false promises corroded trust in democracy and undermined many Russian’s belief in liberalism. When Putin came to power in the late 90s, he took advantage of the chaos and further crushed many of the structures of the state. By the 2000s, he had tightened control over the legislature and elections and removed almost all competition from within the power system.
Today, few opposition forces survive. The leading figure is Alexei Navalny, and the goal of his movement has been to promote the idea of democratic change and the change of Putin's regime as essential prerequisite for other structural reforms in Russia. His followers were refused the right to register as an official political party under false, far-fetched pretexts, and the organization was declared by the state as an extremist organization and subjected to countless, baseless criminal charges. Like most opposition politicians, Navalny is now in prison. But these attacks only show how in the last 10 years, he has truly become a viable competitor that Vladimir Putin’s regime fears.
You work with the Anti-Corruption Foundation (Фонд борьбы с коррупцией), which was founded by Alexei Navalny in 2011. What has your network’s approach been to combatting corruption and systemic issues in Russia?
Our team investigates corruption crimes and collects legal evidence that we send to various law enforcement agencies as part of our efforts to bring those responsible to justice. At the same time, we focus public attention on these problems, demonstrating the negative impact that corruption and criminal activity has on all spheres of life. It’s important for people to understand that corruption is a foundational element of the system Vladimir Putin and his cronies built. Without removing him and his supporters from power, it will not be possible for serious reforms or deep democratization of state mechanisms to take place.
We’ve actively worked to propose anti-corruption bills and support those who are trying to ratify international standards like article 20 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), which criminalizes illicit enrichment. Representatives of our team have participated in elections and conducted dozens of election campaigns throughout the country at all levels of government, from municipal and regional to the presidential elections in the Russian Federation. Our team also worked with authoritative Russian economists and experts such as Sergei Guriev and Sergei Aleksashenko to develop projects for economic and political reforms.
We’ve won several elections in both city and regional parliaments, and have also developed and successfully applied the Smart Voting project to help coordinate voting in support of promising opponents of Putin's United Russia party. But all this being said, we’ve faced strong opposition from the authorities, the police, and the FSB with each victory.
How have you and other activists had to adapt since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the further crackdowns in Russia against opposition voices and protests?
Repressions against our team began even before the attack on Ukraine. In the fall of 2020, the FSB tried to kill Alexei Navalny by poisoning him with the military-grade nerve agent Novichok. After an investigation into this poisoning and his return to Russia, he was imprisoned. Our group, the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FKB) was declared an extremist group and a foreign agent by the Kremlin and liquidated. In practice, this means we are banned from participating in political work like elections and protests. This has essentially created a ban on any political opposition activity in Russia.
Under such conditions, most of our team has evacuated to neighboring countries and continues to work from exile. We still influence the minds and moods in Russia through our internet media resources, which have an audience of millions. Conducting one-time protests is currently impossible in the country due to the introduction of repressive laws, but we continue to encourage our supporters to participate in elections under the Smart Voting strategy. We stand up for increasing the number of our supporters and for the trust of the people, while increasing the political costs for Putin, reducing his personal rating, and diminishing the standing of the United Russia party.
What can supporters of democracy across the world do to help the work you and other activists from Russia are doing?
After the attack on Ukraine, the best thing the rest of the world can do is to help Ukraine to get everything it needs to win this war. Ukraine's victory is Putin's loss.
The war unleashed by Putin is criminal not only in relation to Ukraine and Ukrainians, but also to Russia. It contradicts Russia’s national interests and literally destroys its future. Putin and his regime are a common enemy for Russians, Ukrainians, and the entire democratic world.
But the war is not only on the battlefields and in the Ukrainian cities. This war has an economic front, and Western countries need to intensify their efforts to deprive the Kremlin of its resources to continue the war. There also needs to be much tougher personal sanctions against Putin’s officials and propagandists.
Despite what the propaganda tries to portray, Russia is not homogenous and support for Putin is far from being ironclad. Putin has not won the entire information war for Russian’s attitudes. That’s why we at FKB consider it our duty to continue countering false information and tell Russians the truth about the war and Putin’s crimes.
We want the democratic community to understand how important this work is for victory in the war and the post-war reconstruction of Russia. While the physical fighting might be localized to Eastern Europe, the war will have far-reaching consequences across the globe. Its outcome will determine the vector of development for the entire world: either towards democracy or to totalitarianism. That’s why victory on the side of justice and rights in this war is important not only for the people of Ukraine and Russia, but for everyone, everywhere.
In a talk dated May 31, 2019, UC Santa Cruz scholars Muriam Haleh Davis and Thomas Serres