This article is the transcript of a live ‘interview’ show done regularly by journalist Gregg Stebben and Ilya Ponomarev, the only member of the Russian Parliament to vote against Putin in the annexation of Crimea and now a Russian dissident and Ukraine supporter. Please excuse any transcript errors in this article.
Ilya: Hello guys. Happy New Year.
Gregg: Happy New Year
Ilya: Glad to see everyone.
Gregg: Well, I don’t know if you got to hear my joke. Should I repeat it? My Russian joke.
Ilya: Oh, that’s, intriguing.
Gregg: Okay. Well, this is actually from our audience member Agneshka. It goes like this. A Russian goes to a pharmacy and asks for as many antidepressants as possible. The pharmacist of course asks, do you have a prescription?
Gregg: And the Russian replies, what? Isn’t a Russian passport? Enough? So, she sent me another Russian joke as well. These, I take it actually. I mean, in all seriousness, if Russians are telling themselves these kinds of jokes, I take this as a positive sign.
Ilya: Oh, Russians always tell each other jokes. About us Russians and about all others.
Ilya: we have so many of them. You know, that’s the usual way how our people react to problems. Mm-hmm, and, and I can tell you in Ukraine it’s now tenfold. You know, a lot.
Gregg: He jokes about Russians.
Ilya: Even about Ukrainians. Yes. But about Russians for sure…
Gregg: Yeah. Well, I actually want to talk about the perception of Russians…
Gregg: About themselves, what’s going on there, and something you posted on Telegram. But before we go there, let’s do the obvious thing and get an update from you on what’s happening with the Congress and what you see is coming next.
Ilya: not so much to tell because, there were holidays and most of the parliaments and governments, were on vacation…
Ilya: And that includes, the Ukrainian government and, Polish governments, which are currently kinda our hottest context, with whom we are cooperating the most. But, we are planning to restart activities, next week. And, we have several very high-level meetings in Poland plants and, in Ukraine as well.
Ilya: So, we think that before the end of January, we’ll hear some news, and also we have just started, preparation for the new Congress, the second one, which is to take place in February and, we mainly spend this time, end of the year, to, work on the legislation and, our official deadline for submitting…
Ilya: amendments, to the submitted laws, would be 10th of January. but, two very important laws, the draft of the constitution and, the draft of freedom of speech, mass media law was already submitted, and by the end of January there would be a face-to-face meeting of, the working groups which are, working on these particular pieces of legislation so that they could be voted on, during the converse.
Gregg: You know, it’s interesting. I’m obviously in the US we have a lot of people here from Canada. We have people from England here and from other parts of Western Europe. One of the things that have interested me about your work on Congress and in our conversations here, is how highly ranked the subject of free speech becomes like you just mentioned Congress in free speech.
Gregg: Mm-hmm and I think when you’re in the West, you either forget or perhaps don’t really understand how important that is, and what it’s like to live somewhere where there is no free speech. Can you talk about that a bit?
Ilya: You know? Yeah. there are probably two things, to say here separately. one story indeed.
Ilya: What, what you just said, to live with free speech or without free speech, and how this free speech is being protected by the legislation? But, in the West, I mean in, not in the West in general, but in the section West, in, in the UK and in the US. where there is precedent law, a lot of being judged by common sense, and you kind of, you can tell, whether the guy is influencing the freedom of speech or whether he is not.
Ilya: So whether the government is, is messing, with the media or, it’s not in, the countries where, there is continental legislation, continental law, you have to write very thoroughly all the mechanisms, to protect freedom of speech, and even minor loopholes can grow into a significant problem…
Ilya: and, in Russia, ironically, there’s a law on, freedom of speech, on, so the main fundamental law, which, regulates media was one of the most well-written laws, during the whole period of reforms after pre-historical, and I myself in, state Duma, half of my term, I was in the committee for, information policies.
Ilya: And that included, the internet, telecommunications, and mass media. Hmm. And I personally was guarding this law against any malicious amendments, which were numerous because obviously all the deputies, they always thought that they understand everything about mass media. Mm-hmm. , so they, they, they could sort, like, pretend okay, like technical standards, or I don’t know innovation.
Ilya: So that’s, we don’t know much about. But in mass media, everybody believes that they know everything. Yes. And that’s why a lot of people were submitting all the time, a lot of stupid amendments, but which were at the same time, very populist and could have easily, passed, the voting if they would have been, introduced to the floor during the planner sessions.
Ilya: So, to protect, to protect this legislation was, was pretty hard. Anyway, what we needed to do now is, we, we took that old law which was quite well written, but still nail down all the loopholes and make it protected on the constitutional level that, it would be very hard to make these bad amendments, which would restrict, the freedom of speech.
Ilya: Also, The thing which we are trying, to do very innovatively, and I, never heard about any example like this in any other country in the world, is that we want to basically make all the mass media in the country, following the model, how to say CBS in the United States, or BBC in Great Britain, was created.
Ilya: So the model of the public financing, what we’re basically trying to do is we’re trying to create a publicly sponsored foundation, which has been financed through a special tax. the foundation of freedom of speech, where all the media that exists in the country can draw money from, based on how many viewers they have or how many readers they have…
Ilya: So automatically that it’s not regulated by any commission or whatever, just automatically, you know, the more, the more viewers, the more popular you are, the more money you get, and that this money would be sufficient for the media to exist and that would provide them independence, from different oligarchs or from the state.
Ilya: Obviously they can do, paid services, paid subscriptions, whatever, no problem. But still, they have a sort of guaranteed minim which would guarantee their independence, from the money bags and that’s the fundamental innovation that we are trying to bring.
Gregg: I’m gonna have to think about that as a member of the media myself.
Gregg: you know, maybe that’s for another conversation cause it’s a very interesting idea. what I wanna ask you now,
Ilya: We have, for example, YouTube. That’s exactly how the thing works. Yeah. If, you are on the platform, you are after a certain threshold. If you are above the threshold. You start getting, money proportionally to the number of views you have.
Ilya: And, that does not depend on what you are speaking about. So there is nobody who is deciding whether to give you money or not. It’s an automatic procedure, and that’s exactly the mechanism that we are trying to use. But to all of the media, printed media, television stations, radio, whatever…
Ilya: So that’s not restrictive. You can always create something more, right? There is more money and sell advertisement and, and whatever, but still, you know, if you do nothing, you still can exist with, this amount of financing that has been brought by the state.
Gregg: Oh, so you’re institutionalizing a market model that’s already proven to work?
Gregg: Yeah. So you said about the freedom of speech laws in Russia that during the reforms they were well written and that there was a lot of work, including on your part as a member of the state doom to protect those rights of the citizens. So I guess my question as an outsider is how the hell did Russia end up where it is today?
Gregg: Were the laws changed or are the laws just being ignored?
Ilya: no actually, the fundamental problem is that the Russian Federation was created by a bunch of new liberal dogmatics, and they felt like the free market would put everything in place, and it was the same approach to mass media. What was very well written in the law is that there is a boundary between the editorial board and the owner, but still the owner controls the media through the financial infusion.
Ilya: And what was an idea of the creators of the law from the very beginning is that because there is a competition between those, financials comebacks, that they can never get in accord with each other. And that’s why it would be a pluralism of speech, and there would be a diversity of opinions on the market.
Ilya: And for example, if we look at, what we have, in Ukraine. Yeah, because in Ukraine, the state is weak, and the oligarchs are strong. They’re competing and fighting with each other. That’s why there is a whole spectrum of different media because everything in media has been sponsored by a different oligarch, which never gets in agreement with each other and kind.
Ilya: Everything is fine. But in Russia, the state started to control the oligarchs’ guards, and after that, they didn’t need to control the media. They controlled the financial backs. And the rest fell in place automatically when something, was said wrongly by certain media. The debates were happening not between the state and the media.
Ilya: The debates were not happening between the state and the media, The debates were happening between the state and the controlling oligarchs’. And because for all guards, these media were basically, you know, tools of political influence from the very beginning. So firstly, they started to. Those media in their own political, agenda. Mm-hmm. . And after, these even political agendas were, eliminated by Putin so that nobody, could, interfere with his own agenda.
Ilya: But then it was a kind of social obligation. All the oligarchs that were receiving a lot of, state funds there, whatever, they were obliged to finance the media. So in formality, we have, a whole panel of different independent media competing which are being controlled by different oligarchs.
Gregg: Competing? Competing?
Ilya: Yeah competing. And some of them, are even sustainable businesses, those who are not in politics. Yes. But all the oligarchs’ represent one corporation. That’s why their competition is the competition between two different political programs, which speak exactly the same language.
Gregg: Mm-hmm… Mm-hmm.
Ilya: And that’s why there is no, freedom of speech, whatsoever in the country. And that’s exactly why we try to target, this financial independence and, because, to our opinion, that’s the key thing to achieving the independence of the media is to give them financial independence.
Ilya: And secondly, where we have a lot of debates on the, on the media side, is what to do with this existing media. Because with the state media, it’s kind of the simplest thing, although already so we can just like remove, their management, put to jail, put them to jail because they supported the war and justify their atrocities.
Ilya: some of them could be just restricted whatsoever, you know, so clean them up. They will be nice. You can even privatize them after that, you know, so to, to foster the competition, whatever. The overwhelming majority of Russian media, which are the most notorious, you know, Putin propaganda tools, they are formally private.
Ilya: the first channel of Russian TV, NTV, I can name a lot of others. The main national newspapers, and the main national radio channels, all of them, are private, but they are controlled by somebody next to Putin. So we have to do a very painful process of nationalizing them because there is no way how you can change the management.
Ilya: Yes, because they’re private. Yes. So you have to nationalize them first. But then privatize them and do it quite quickly because, we don’t want to, create, a state monopoly on the media the other way around. And, we even put in this, carbon stone that, the state should not control more than one media in the country.
Gregg: So we do a show on beams on Wednesdays called Tyranny Today, and yesterday we had a conversation about how this, how the Russian invasion has changed the country of Ukraine and, really the spirit of the Ukrainian people. And you even talk about this in your book, but it made me think, and this is really relative to a conversation about media as well, do you think that this invasion by Russia has changed the Russian people, or are they just digging in and kind of…
Gregg: isolating. I think there’s a term called individual isolation or something like that. Are they just kind of hunkering down and hoping it’ll go away and repelling any change because they don’t want to know what’s going on that their country is responsible for?
Ilya: you know, for Ukrainians, the change is fundamental and, it is, qualitative change.
Ilya: For Russians, the change is very incremental and, quantitative. Mm-hmm. , because, these changes that had happened in, in Russia, they were happening, during a very long period of time, and it’s a very gradual process of tightening the screws and brainwashing people and justifying the unjustifiable and pushing them in a certain, in a certain direction.
Ilya: Yes. So, if we compare Russians of today with the Russians, of uh oh, okay say 10 years ago, you will see a dramatic change. I will see, probably a larger change that happened, uh in the Ukrainian society, but in the Ukrainian society, it was happening in jumps, and in Russia, it was a very, very, very gradual process.
Gregg: But changing for the, for the Russian, I’m not sure if you’re suggesting they changed in a way that’s better for them as individuals. Or to create more as Agneshka, helps me with the right terminology. Did they change by coming, becoming increasingly isolated, or more and more of what is called internal immigration?
Gregg: Because I’m imagining. Go ahead, I’m sorry.
Ilya: No, I just would say that Agneshka’s story is absolutely right. Absolutely right. I think that’s, it’s actually interesting how these things, change because. in general, this viewing of internal immigration is very typical of Soviet society. It’s, it’s another side of alienation, or of an individual from, the state, and from society.
Ilya: Because a society, in general, has been seen by an individual as an oppressive, entity. And that’s why the individual learns to distrust everyone to be one person in public and, another person in, his, private life. But, during the annexation of crime, that triggered, a certain wave…
Ilya: of, national pride and, the restoration of a certain injustice among Russians because, most of the Russians felt that, it, it was not fair that, Crimea stayed with Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union because, they, they, they felt like, it winds up, being in, Ukraine by accident, by logistics reasons.
Ilya: and, that, nobody envisions that will become two separate countries. And if now we are two separate countries, let’s, discuss this issue and revisit, the transfer of Crimea. Transferal of Crimea, into Ukraine. But, okay. What happened? Happened, in 2014? Yes, it was an outburst of joy.
Ilya: but then when the joy ended, and nothing else changed in the country, it was, triggering, sorry, a lot of hopes and, many people started to say that maybe we are coming back to the best, days of the Soviet Union when the government did care about people and it would be more social justice and then whatever, but nothing happened.
Ilya: It, was even worse. And then the sanctions and, and the downfall in the economy and in general, there’s no progress, in the society. So it’s like people started to get tired. And then the pension reform hit, which many people felt like they were betrayed by Putin because he directly promised that nothing like this, would ever happen.
Ilya: But it happened. and then this war and this war, people are saying, okay, so we, we have no influence. We have no say. it’s not our war. And so that’s basically the state of society at the moment.
Gregg: So you wrote on Telegram yesterday. I think there is already a split in the elites in Russia, but they will only begin to stir in the end game when everything starts to collapse when the people rise up.
Gregg: There will be a revolt from below and a bayonet in the ass. Our legion will become this bayonet. We must be in Moscow at the right time and take control of the situation. And of course, at this moment dissatisfied Muscovites will join us and will understand that they are no longer one-on-one with the riot police.
Gregg: Did you say this yesterday, because, from your perspective, this is getting close to becoming a reality?
Ilya: Yes. I think it’s getting closer and closer. And obviously, it all very much depends on the situation in Ukraine and the field of war. that’s the key factor, for the changes in Russia. but yeah, the main problem is exactly what we just discussed this line issue, and right now it’s safer…
Ilya: for whatever individual, whether it’s representative of the elites or whether it’s, is representative of, the very bottom of the society, it’s safer to sit in the shell. and pretend like nothing is going on, around him. And, what we need to do is we need to crush those cells. We need to yes, play into people that, it’s not safe at all, that, it is actually threatening for their…
Ilya: Future for their property, for their life, for their families, to sit in, in those shells. and, that can happen in the moment of military defeat. And, that’s why I was saying that I think that the actual reaction uprising, both of the elites and of, the ordinary people, will happen, when it would be very close to the…
Gregg: Of course. Well, I’m not gonna say, of course. I’m gonna ask it as a question how the elites’ uprising is going to be very different from how your typical Russian citizens uprising. Do you think that the elites will take to the streets or their uprising will happen more in back rooms and in bank accounts and things like that?
Ilya: Oh, we need the uprising, to remove Putin.
Ilya: Mm-hmm. , we need, we need, shuffles at the top. Yes. We need, the destabilization of the political system. We need that those rats would try to, escape that. They would try to find their way out, and there is no way out with, this heritage, of, Putin’s regime. So they need to drop it. And, that’s the process that we need to, start happening.
Ilya: And for the ordinary people, yeah, obviously it’s, coming to the streets, but, it’s, it’s linked processes. you know, people at the top, would start doing things when they would be threatened by the people on the streets. And people on the streets will be coming to the streets when they see that the oppression is not that, dangerous because those at the top are in disarray.
Gregg: Yeah. I wanna ask you one last thing before I let you go because it’s never occurred to me before until today. But you know, there are appeasers who say, you know, Ukraine should just give Crimea back to Russia, and then Putin will go away. And of course, why are people not understanding that if you give someone like Putin something he just wants more?
Gregg: Right. It’s a, it’s a bully syndrome. It’s a mafia syndrome, and I never realized until today that that also applies on an individual level in Russia that the Russian people have been giving Putin things, whether they realized it or not. And so as a bully, he just wants more and more and more.
Gregg: So the individual Russian is very much analogous to the Ukrainian nation in that if they don’t hold on to what they got and fight for it, they’re just gonna lose more and more. Is that a fair statement?
Ilya: it is very much a fair statement and, as actually as you said, something occurred to you today.
Ilya: I would say something else occurred to me also today when I, was on my TV channel talking to one of my guests. and the guy said that Putin before was fed with, different privileges and, then money. right now he started to be fed with, human blood literally, because, he understands that to sustain the current situation in the field of war…
Ilya: every day between 500 to 1,000 Russians perish. So he says, okay, well, the toll is, 15 to 30,000 a month. Russians, I can afford it. that’s the price for me staying in power. I can afford it. And, that’s exactly what’s happening right now.
Gregg: So he’s a vampire.
Ilya: Yeah, exactly.
Gregg: Hmm. Well, on that happy note…
Gregg: I’m gonna let you go. I hope we’ll see you next week. I’m gonna cut you off here and let you get onto your next thing. I’ve got a couple of things I’m gonna say. Thank you again for being here.
Ilya: Thank you very much guys, and again, Happy New Year.