Jailed opposition politician Ilya Yashin speaks exclusively to the BBC
In his first interview since his arrest, Yashin told BBC Russian’s Ilya Barabanov how he’s coping with life behind bars, and shared thoughts about the war in Ukraine and his hopes for Russia.
Opposition politician Ilya Yashin chose not to leave Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, and he has continued to speak out openly against the war. He was detained by police in Moscow at the end of June and is now in pre-trial detention on charges of discrediting the Russian military. In his first interview since his arrest, Yashin told BBC Russian’s Ilya Barabanov how he’s coping with life behind bars, and shared thoughts about the war in Ukraine and his hopes for Russia. Because of legal restrictions both the questions and answers were submitted in writing.
From activist and local politician to ‘extremist’ and ‘foreign agent’
Although he’s only 39 – he spent his birthday in detention last month - Ilya Yashin is already a veteran of opposition politics in Russia.
He first came to prominence as a member of the youth wing of the opposition ‘Yabloko’ party and the ‘Oborona’ (Defence) youth civic movement. He was a close ally of Boris Nemtsov, the reformist ex-minister and later fierce critic of Vladimir Putin, who was assassinated in 2015. Together they created the ‘Solidarnost’ political movement. He also played a key role in PARNAS, the liberal opposition ‘People's Freedom Party.’
In 2017 Yashin turned to local politics, becoming head of the Council of Deputies of Moscow’s Krasnoselsky District. He resigned the chairmanship in 2021, handing over the Elena Kotenochkina, who fled Russia this year and is now on the international wanted list over her criticism of the war in Ukraine. He remains a member of the council.
In June 2021 Yashin was banned from running in upcoming legislative elections because of what the authorities said were "extremist activities". Since then he has actively developed a YouTube channel where he has been outspoken in his criticism of Vladimir Putin and the decision to invade Ukraine.
In the summer of 2022, after denouncing the war in interviews with YouTube journalist Yuri Dud’ and the news portal Meduza (both Dud’ and Meduza were included by the Russian authorities in the list of ‘foreign media agents’), he was arrested on suspicion of spreading ‘fake information’ about the Russian army.
Yashin told BBC Russian that a BBC video about the killings in Bucha, which he reposted on his YouTube Channel, was given as the formal reason for his arrest.
‘They tried to push me out’
BBC: At the beginning of June you said you were not going to leave Russia because it was important for you to remain with your audience. When we met in Istanbul at the end of May you told me the same thing. Now you have been arrested, and you can no longer talk directly to that audience. Do you still think that staying was the right decision?
Ilya Yashin: The fact that I was arrested did not come as a surprise. From the early days of the war, the authorities made it clear that there were only two alternatives for Vladimir Putin's opponents – emigration or prison. Yes, you can live and work abroad, but your voice will not have the same power. Fleeing abroad fits in all too easily with Putin's theory about the Western leanings of his critics. ‘Look’, he says. ‘they have fled to their owners’. And sadly, ordinary people nod in agreement - albeit reluctantly. For the authorities, the mass emigration of political opponents is a good solution. Many were given the opportunity to leave, many were simply pushed out.
They tried to push me out. The official who conducted my investigation almost openly said that their top priority was my emigration, not my arrest. But, ‘I didn’t get the hints’. In fact, I understood everything all too well, but I didn’t want to make concessions. I can be a problem for them even in prison. At the end of the day, it’s not so difficult to turn a judicial platform into a political one.
BBC: But if you are in jail, how can that help the struggle against Putin and his regime?
Ilya Yashin: I think it’s important that there are people in the opposition who are ready to resist. And it isn’t just me. Despite the obvious risks, a number of politicians and activists oppose the war while remaining in Russia. I am convinced that my arguments now sound more convincing, and my words carry more weight, because I have proved that I am ready to answer for those words.
To be fair, such a staunch position commands respect even on this side of the bars. I am pleasantly surprised by how often I hear words of support from ordinary policemen, guards and court workers. Often these people don’t agree with me, but my actions make them think. In Russia, courage is valued. I also want to reach out, to people who are usually sceptical about the opposition.
‘Putin has ceased to be a figure of compromise’
BBC: In your view, what should those who left and those who stayed behind try to do in order to change the situation in Russia somehow for the better? Do you believe change is possible while Vladimir Putin is still in power?
Ilya Yashin: If I didn’t believe in change, I would have given up on everything a long time ago and started doing something else. As a matter of fact, I have nothing but my faith and my inner conviction.
I think that our citizens, both here and outside the country, need to share a common goal: a free and peaceful Russia, open to the rest of the world. Our main weapon is the truth. You just need to learn how to get the message across. Get rid of snobbery, stop thinking that Russia is only inhabited by orcs, and by all means possible try to share with the people a point of view that is alternative to the propaganda of the Kremlin. If we win this fight for hearts and minds, then there will definitely be a chance to take the country back from Putin's gang.
BBC: The authorities have crushed the opposition, suppressed the media and shut down the last remnants of civil society. It makes talk about holding some kind of elections in Russia seem all the more strange. Under what circumstances do you think something could start to change in Russia?
Ilya Yashin: As I said, the most important thing is to deprive Putin of legitimacy, that is, of the feeling of mass support. Our common ground should rely on the understanding that the president has driven Russia into a dead end, doomed the country to poverty and taken away its future. National disappointment can lead to many scenarios. Whether it's socio-political protests backed by the police, or a "palace coup" staged by emboldened opponents inside the Kremlin. Indeed, with his current policy, Putin has created a number of problems for both the population and the elite. He has ceased to be a figure of compromise.
‘The main thing is that people stop dying’
BBC: In your opinion, can a defeat in the war make headway for political change in Russia? And is it permissible, in your opinion, for a citizen and a politician to wish for a military defeat of the current Russian government in the war with Ukraine?
Ilya Yashin: It is necessary to wish for an immediate and unconditional end to the war. The main thing is that people stop dying. But no matter how the hostilities end, propaganda will still interpret any result as Putin's outstanding success.
Some truly serious interaction between society and the authorities will begin when people start to feel the social and economic consequences of the war, which is inevitable. After all, even the effect of the annexation of Crimea dissipated rather quickly, and already in 2018, against the background of the pension reform, Putin's rating dipped noticeably. And this war is much less popular and understandable to society than the story of the Crimea. It will not be easy for Putin to deal with its consequences, especially considering that he is running out of carrots and only the sticks remain.
‘Let’s see who wins’
BBC: How do you keep up with what’s happening around the world, given that in a pre-trial detention centre you can only get information from Russian state television? Have you already managed to arrange the delivery of newspapers, books, letters from friends and supporters?
Ilya Yashin: For the first ten days, prisoners are kept in a TDF (Temporary Detention Facility – BBC), then they are transferred to a transit quarantine facility for a couple of weeks. Only after that will I ‘settle’ in one of the Moscow prisons and await trial. I hope I will be able to subscribe to newspapers. In the meantime, I receive information mainly from my lawyers. And every day in the cell they turn on the state radio, which pours out streams of such fierce propaganda that it simply hurts listening to it.
BBC: Your colleague, [Moscow municipal] deputy [Alexey] Gorinov was given seven years, [ex-director of Open Russia Andrei] Pivovarov four years, everyone has lost count of how long Navalny's sentence is now. And now you've been arrested. What would you like to say to those who continue to stay in Russia despite all this? Is this rational behaviour, or would it make sense for them to reassess their strategy?
Ilya Yashin: I will not give advice, because everyone understands the risks and everyone chooses how to behave. I am sure that the people you mentioned, who are all holding up with dignity, and defending their convictions even in prison, are of great benefit to Russia. They give an example of perseverance and courage to like-minded people – including me. They sow seeds of doubt in the minds of their opponents. At the same time, I am sympathetic to those who have left Russia in fear of arrest. Again, it’s a personal choice.
BBC: Most people are not inherently heroes, or ready to take risks, and are afraid of being in prison. Tell me, how did you stop being afraid? What advice would you give to people who want to do the right thing and not go against their conscience, but are afraid of being imprisoned?
Ilya Yashin: Only crazy people are not afraid of anything. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel any fear. Prison is prison. But if you want to get seriously involved in politics in Russia, you must be prepared to pay a serious price. At the same time, there are quite a few activities that are beneficial, but do not trigger an aggressive reaction from the state. For some it’s becoming a volunteer, for others, hosting refugees from Ukraine, getting involved in human rights work, or helping the independent media with money . . . The most important thing is be part of civil society and not to just sit on the sidelines.
BBC: Are there moments when you think that your life was spent in vain, that nothing in Russia will ever change and your work will not bring any results? How do you deal with this?
Ilya Yashin: Probably every person has periods of apathy when he wants to feel sorry for himself. But I really don’t like myself at such moments, so I don’t linger in this state for a long time. Generally speaking, I have a sense of purpose about my life; I see a lot of support from people, and I am highly motivated. It helps me to move forward. Well, it's too early to sum up my life. Let's see who wins.
‘Putin doesn't give a damn about Russia’
BBC: The current Russian government is very fond of talking about patriotism, and targets everyone who disagrees as an enemy of Russia and, usually, an agent of the West. Who, in your opinion, is a real Russian patriot, and is it possible to talk about some kind of patriotism now that Russia has unleashed a war of conquest?
Ilya Yashin: The charge against me says that by speaking out against the war, I harmed the interests of Russia. In reality, the opposite is true; I act out of patriotic considerations, because I see how the war undermines our economy, how a wall of isolation is being erected around our country, how human lives and destinies are being trampled on. I don't know how a patriot can remain silent seeing all this.
Putin, in my opinion, does not give a damn about Russia. He satisfies his ambitions, tries to prove to the world how tough he is. Yet, it seems he doesn’t even notice how his gargantuan ego is depriving our Motherland of a future.
BBC: In your opinion, could the West have somehow prevented this war if, for example, it had imposed tougher sanctions against the Kremlin back in 2014? Right now, there is a lot of talk about the collective responsibility of the Russian people. However, do you think that Western politicians share some responsibility in that they allowed the situation to escalate to such a degree? Or rather, do you think there was nothing they could do, and Vladimir Putin would have unleashed this massacre anyway?
Ilya Yashin: The problem with Western politicians is that overall they don’t share a common political language with Putin. In European culture, compromise, that is, the ability to yield to an opponent in the interest of voters, is perceived as the norm. For Putin, any concession is a weakness. They try to persuade him, appease him, and as a result, he only acts more aggressively. He has almost never been met with a hard rebuff. Except perhaps on the territory of Ukraine this year.
At the same time, I am convinced that no foreign politicians are capable of changing Putin’s line or our country as a whole. Only the Russian people can do this. This is the reason why I appeal to the citizens of Russia and not to the leaders of the West.
‘A battle with very high stakes’
BBC: With so many opposition leaders either in exile or in prison, people like Yevgeny Roizman, Lev Shlosberg and Grigory Yavlinsky are now some of the few opposition politicians still left in Russia. In your opinion, under the current conditions, is there a chance that the opposition could field a strong candidate in the 2024 presidential election? Someone you would be ready to support from behind bars, assuming that proceedings will drag on until then?
Ilya Yashin: It is obviously premature to talk about the presidential campaign right now. Not least because an independent candidate would immediately be caught in the crosshairs of the special services and would be unlikely to be left at large until 2024. Well, if he survives at all.
I have thoughts on how this campaign could be organised. Strong, unexpected figures might appear. Perhaps it’s worth studying the Belarusian experience more closely, where the opposition nominated several candidates at once, but their headquarters worked closely together.
At the same time, we have to understand that the electoral procedure planned for 2024 could hardly be called an ‘election’. It will be more of a battlefield, with very high stakes for all those taking part.
‘Russia should be happy’
BBC: Do you see Russia returning to a normal, democratic life anytime in the foreseeable future? Or is it no longer necessary to talk about this in 2022?
Ilya Yashin: I can't guess, and political forecasts have never been my forte. I can only say that I will do everything in my power to make Russia free and just, peaceful and civilised. A country one would like to live in and be proud of.
BBC: Where will Russia be in 10 years’ time and what place will Ilya Yashin have in this Russia?
Ilya Yashin: In 10 years, Russia should be happy. If that works out, then it doesn’t really matter what my role will be.
On 22nd July, after his arrest, Ilya Yashin’s name was added to the Russian Justice Ministry’s list of ‘foreign agents’.
Read this story in Russian here.