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Russia's descent into authoritarianism and what we can learn from it
"The opposition has collapsed": a Q&A with Sarah Hurst, author of The Russia Report.
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If you’re looking for a trustworthy English-language source for news about politics and society in Russia and the post-Soviet world, Sarah Hurst’s The Russia Report is a must-read.
Hurst, who is perhaps best know as “X Soviet” on Twitter, is based in the UK, but she spent many years living in Alaska and has US citizenship. Her superpower is that she’s proficient in both Russian and English as well as a student of geopolitics, so she’s able to interpret Russian-language tweets and contextualize them for a Western audience.
Hurst has been covering Russian politics since 2013. In May of last year she launched The Russia Report on Substack, and her weekly roundups of big stories from Putin’s sphere of influence quickly became one of my favorite publications on this platform.
I became familiar with Hurst’s work on Twitter, where her expertise in Russian politics produced keen insights on Trumpism.
I recently connected with Hurst to talk about Russia’s descent into authoritarianism, how that slide compares with the present moment in US politics, and the risks of covering Russian politics as a journalist who values democracy and truth.
A transcript of my conversation with Hurst, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.
Tell me how you got into covering Russia and why you go by “X Soviet” on Twitter.
The Twitter name represents the region that I’m covering. When I came up with that name, it was also anti-Soviet, because Putin is trying to bring back the Soviet Union. So it has two meanings. A lot of people think it means that I come from there, but I don’t. I'm British and also an American dual citizen. My mom's from New York originally. And she came over here. I have a degree in Russian — Russian and history. I graduated in 1995, so quite a long time ago. And I got inspired to study Russian by Gorbachev and all the reforms, the Berlin Wall coming down when I was 16. And since then things have gone in the opposite direction, where we're now in another cold war.
I've been writing about Russia on and off my whole career, but I lived in Alaska for 12 years. And while I was there, although I went over to Russia a couple of times, I tended to focus more on Alaska-related projects. I got kind of out of touch with Russian politics until I came back to the UK in 2013, and that was just before the annexation of Crimea and all that. And then I decided to fully cover it. It was so amazing that now with all the technology, you could just talk to people over in Russia and communicate with them directly. I realized that I could talk to them, while other people over here can’t do that because they don't speak Russian. So it was really fascinating to get to know activists who were protesting against Putin.
How do you find primary sources for the items you write up in your newsletter? Obviously the media environment in Russia is pretty restrictive, so I’d imagine it can be challenging to get people to talk to you, especially if they’re critical of Putin. And, related to that, do you have a significant readership in Russia, or are you mainly writing for people elsewhere in Europe and the US?
I think my readers are all over the world. Quite a few people who follow me on Twitter are in Russia. I get all my information from Twitter. A lot of it does come from media outlets. There’s actually quite a few surviving good media outlets in Russia. MediaZona, Novaya Gazeta, and others, and you can even get some interesting information from the state media, like TASS.
A lot of this stuff on Twitter is from individuals posting live videos or tweeting about what's going on, especially during big protests. And when Navalny had his regional offices all over Russia, that was particularly useful. He had people all over the country and they actually talked to me for interviews, and they would do live videos and write about if someone was arrested or if there was a protest. So actually there's been a lot of coverage, but it's definitely being cut down, and now I have to look a bit further because there's such a big crackdown.
So it is the case that in Russia, there’s still pretty much unrestricted use of Twitter?
Unlike in China, where they have the great firewall, where you just can't go on social media like Facebook and Twitter — in Russia, you can go on Twitter and Facebook, but there are so many laws prosecuting you for everything that you do, that you can always be arrested for anything you write. There’s a law against insulting the government, for example. There's laws on offending religious believers, or even swearing, or supporting an extremist organization — just so many different laws.
A lot of people don't want to take the risk and post anonymously. And there are only a relatively small number within Russia who are willing to speak freely in an interview. For example, Arshak Makichyan, the environmental activist, I was quite worried about him. I interviewed him and said, ‘you probably need to leave the country, because you're going to get arrested soon.’
Makichyan did actually go to Armenia for a while recently, and then he was at the COP 26 in Glasgow, and he was really outspoken there criticizing the Russian delegation. I think he might be going back to Russia after that.
I would assume that’s a quite risky move, to go back at this point.
Yeah. Anyone now doing opposition activities, they get into a lot of trouble. They can easily jailed for a few days, or it could be threats to their family, it could be horrible things done to them — their cars being set on fire — or it could be violent attacks by people who are sort of employed by the Kremlin. It could be a full-scale criminal case where you could be going to prison for years on some charge, like supporting an extremist organization — ‘we know that you supported Navalny, so you're going to go to prison for five years.’ And there's no legal recourse. I mean, once you're arrested, a lot of people are just put into prison to wait for their trial, which can be up to a year in prison or more just waiting. And then the trial isn't even real and you know it’s a foregone conclusion that you're going to be found guilty and sentenced.
I wanted to ask you about a couple things that are in the news right now. I know you’ve written a lot about the Covid pandemic in Russia. The data I’ve seen online indicates that new daily cases in Russia in recent days have been the highest they’ve ever been by a significant margin [note: new cases in Russia have trended down slightly in the days since this interview was conducted]. Obviously the US and UK have had struggles too, but Russia seems to be doing even worse. What’s your perspective on why Russia is having such a tough time with Covid?
First, I think Russia has about half the percentage of people vaccinated as America does. Russia is about 30 percent, which is quite low despite so much pushing to get people vaccinated and restrictions on those who refuse. You need QR codes as vaccine passports for loads of things, and they’re mandating vaccines for people in health care and things like that.
Second, we don't really know for sure how well Russia's vaccines work because the government lies so much. There's a lot of questions around the Sputnik vaccine and also about their manufacturing processes. There were some problems at the factories that the WHO pointed out. There are several other Russian vaccines which are even more dubious. There's a version of Sputnik called Sputnik Light, and there are several others with different names. There are four or five different ones now. That’s probably quite confusing as well to people, and that's probably undermined confidence, all this boasting, saying, ‘we've got so many vaccines’ and people not understanding what’s going on.
People are used to just being very, very cynical and doubting what the government says, understandably, and that has undermined confidence. I wouldn't want a Russian vaccine either. It’s probably more about that cynicism than the powerful anti-vax messages that you get in America, although there is some of the mainstream anti-vax beliefs in Russia as well.
So you think Covid being so bad in Russia is actually a consequence of people being rational, in that Russians have good reason to doubt what the government tells them?
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Here in the States, we think of Russia as being a big source of disinformation, at least in our domestic politics, so I was wondering if there are prominent anti-vaxxers in Russia trying to persuade people that the vaccines are bad, or that they don’t need them.
It would be useful to know if they brought in some Western vaccines whether there would be any more take-up, but no Western vaccines are authorized. So everything comes from the Kremlin and Russians have always been very skeptical and fatalistic. Just on principle, people don’t do what the government tells them to do. There are all kinds of strange health beliefs. ‘I just need to drink a couple of vodkas and I'll be fine.’ Just as a point of pride, some people when they’re driving pretend to have a seatbelt on, but it’s not fastened, because it’s clever to disobey the laws.
So it's slightly a different thing going on in Russia, because I'm not sure that they're subjected to so many anti-vax messages. Ironically, there's been this very powerful pushing of pro-vaccine messages from the government, whereas, as has been pointed out in the media, RT [Russia’s English-language news outlet] abroad has supported anti-vaxxers.
Would it be possible for you, if you were based in Moscow, to do the Russia Report as you’re doing it, or would that put you in danger?
I've always traveled to Russia a lot, but I stopped going in 2013, and I wouldn't want to go there now. I think I’d just get arrested or deported. There are some people working for the Moscow Times who do a pretty good job, but they’ve been there for quite a while. And then there's some international reporters with big news outlets like BBC, like Steve Rosenberg. But Sarah Rainsford, one of the BBC's leading Moscow correspondents, was deported recently. She had lived there for a really long time, years and years, and she was told she was a security threat. I doubt I would have the courage to do what I do within Russia. It’s much more convenient for me to be doing it here.
Obviously Russia has been able to strike at people based in the UK, for instance with the Skripal poisoning. Are you at all worried doing this type of work that even though you’re in the UK, you might rub powerful people in Russia the wrong way and become a target yourself?
Yeah. For instance, one time I got vertigo and my head was spinning. This was shortly after that poisoning, I thought, ‘Oh, is this Novichok?’ [Novichok is a group of nerve agents.] It’s possible they could do something. They haven't yet, but the Russian embassy did banter with me once about the Skripals because I wrote about how the Russian embassy was putting out a load of handwritten letters that they claimed were from British people, praising Putin and saying how dare they accuse Putin of doing these poisonings. They were obviously fake letters, but the Russian embassy on Twitter was inviting me to come in and have a look at them in person.
So yeah, you might feel safe completely safe one day, but then the next day they've done something. So you never know.
One story that’s getting play in the US right now is the possibility of another escalation of conflict in Ukraine. There are reports of Russian troop movements near the border. How concerned are you that an escalation of armed conflict there could happen, and what do you think Russia’s long game is in Ukraine?
Well, we've been in a long game, so I think we already know the answer, because it's already been seven years of war with Ukraine. People have completely forgotten that Ukrainians are in the trenches being killed every day fighting against the Russian-sponsored militants. So this actually is the long game. I don't think any of this is leading up to a big invasion of Ukraine, because that's just a silly idea for Putin. I think he loved putting loads of troops near the border to get everyone riled up. At the moment, the Belarus situation is much more concerning — the hybrid war, throwing migrants at the border of the EU — that’s more Putin’s style than a full scale invasion. He's always loved to deny involvement in the Ukraine war and call it a civil war.
That's been the idea, to just blame Ukraine for everything that's going on and have no official involvement. I'm expecting a continuation of that. The goal is to weaken Ukraine — psychologically, militarily, economically. Meanwhile, there's other stuff going on that people hardly pay attention to, like what's going on in Georgia where the Kremlin-backed people running the government put the ex-president in prison. The Kremlin is getting more control over Georgia and its other neighbors, like what's going on now in Azerbaijan.
So the long game, I would say, is this constant erosion, creating instability in the surrounding countries, which are pro-EU, trying to gain Kremlin influence and to weaken the EU in any way possible.
I want to close with a couple big picture questions. You mentioned you’re a dual citizen and I know you follow American politics closer than most people. There have obviously been a lot of comparisons over the past five years between Trump and Putin, and I’m wondering what lessons you think people who are fighting to preserve democracy here in the US can take from Russia’s slide into authoritarianism.
It's taught us that it's extremely difficult to stand up to authoritarianism, because really the opposition has collapsed in Russia. So there isn't a guidebook of how to deal with it, because Navalny’s strategy was to follow all the laws, no matter how absurd, and take the opportunity to participate in elections — even if they were rigged — and that didn't work. All you're doing is enabling the communists, because they were the only people left to vote for at that stage and even they were approved by the Kremlin.
But you might have had to do illegal things in order to win, such as in Ukraine where protesters were outside for months, camped outside, in their revolution in 2013 to 2014. They didn't go away. The protesters stayed on the streets for months during the winter. The Russians tend to march around for couple of hours, shouting ‘down with Putin, down with the czar,’ and then they go home.
So the fight is very tough and the Ukrainians are more of an example. They were able to bring down someone who was turning into a more authoritarian leader — Yanukovych, although he wasn't entrenched. Putin decided not to back him. I think that was a very deliberate thing on Putin's part because it gave him the opportunity, the excuse to take Crimea. Whereas when Putin does back someone, like Lukashenko, they stay in power.
So the lesson is, it's extremely tough. Don't compromise too much with the government. Don't just say, ‘OK, so they've got another step along. We'll accept this. We’ll be careful what we say in our news outlet or whatever. We'll try to toe the line.’ Because it's sort of like the slippery slope of the Jews going to the ghetto — ‘Oh, well, if we go into the ghetto, they'll stop.’ And then they just go further and further.
How’s Navalny doing in prison, and what’s the state of the Russian opposition now?
Dozhd TV, the independent TV station, just made a documentary where they
found some prisoners who had been with Navalny, who have now been released, who talked about the tactics used to psychologically pressure him. There was sleep deprivation and and all kinds of things. Now there are lots of videos coming out of torture in other Russian prisons by the guards and by inmates who helped the guards, and rape in Russian prisons.
It's not very pleasant. He's definitely very much captured by the Kremlin, and very quickly after that happened, his team sort of dissipated. They were deemed extremists, where anyone having anything to do with Navalny, anyone supporting Navalny, could go to prison. A lot of his top team members just left the country — some are in Georgia, some are in other countries, they’re not really saying where they are — and that was a bit embarrassing really. They were kind of expected to put up a bit more of a fight.
And so when they broadcast now from another country, their credibility is down. When they say, ‘You should carry on, you should carry on the fight’ — but yeah, they’re broadcasting from another country, right? As in Belarus, the opposition has very much collapsed completely. After the rigged election in Belarus in September, there was a bit of agitation from the communists about the way they were treated and how they lost some of their seats, but they were quite tame really. And you can't really expect the communists to be the opposition, because even if they came to power, they would be very repressive. So, yeah, it's bad — really bad. And it all happened this year, because Navalny was arrested when he came back in January, and then his top aides were put under house arrest. And then after that, they left the country.
So it's a new phase — yet another phase — where there are not many credible opposition figures, except for the individuals who come out on the streets sometimes and picket. The real threat to these regimes is not the activists, not the political people, but the mass economic deprivation where, for instance, you get people in Venezuela — you get a critical mass where suddenly everyone comes out because they're just so poor. You might get that at some point.
How likely do you think it is that Putin will still be in power in five years? Setting possible health problems aside, could there be some sort of uprising that removes him?
I don't think there's anything too seriously wrong with Putin's health, although people like to speculate, but he seems okay. If Putin died, I think there would be another person waiting in the wings who would be just like him, because he would be backed by the security services. It’s not one individual.
People focus on Putin the individual as if it’s Putin's regime, but it's really the security services’ regime. That’s a huge mass of people and a huge network, which is really the KGB. It didn't really ever go away. It's just under another name.
Still, it could be a bit unstable if something did suddenly happen to Putin. There's no obvious successor at all. He's not grooming any successor. And so it's quite possible that he could still be there in five years. He’s certainly managed to already change the constitution and annul his presidential terms, which ostensibly gives him the legal right to be in power until 2036.