‘Now there is a permanent ban on saying the truth’

Sergey Vlasov, a Moscow deputy, on the war

Sergey Vlasov is a municipal deputy representing the district of Pechatniki in Moscow since 2017. He was one of more than two hundred Russian deputies that signed an anti-war petition to the authorities since the beginning of the war. There are around sixty thousand deputies of differing ranks across Russia, so Sergey Vlasov is part of only a small resistance. He spoke to the Breaker about Putin’s regime, and the effects of war for Russian people, which also offers a rare and exclusive perspective from within Moscow.

I first contacted you through your telegram channel where you post content which does not line up with the mainstream narrative that Russia is propagating. What was the purpose of setting up this channel?

My purpose is to say the truth. When I decided to become a deputy, I did so without the ambition to make a great political career for myself, I decided to say the truth, in my district, my hometown, my home city Moscow and my homeland Russia, to say honestly what happened, to act honestly to prevent bad situations for Russia, like the bad situation we see now. I call war – war, I can’t call it a ‘special military operation’.

I think [I] have threat of some kind of punishment looming over [me], repression from authorities from the loyal followers of Kadyrov. Of course I am afraid of this, but to keep quiet is more dangerous for us.

Sergey Vlasov attending and speaking at a rally. Photo courtesy of Sergey Vlasov

What is the general feeling about the conflict in Moscow? Has it changed over the course of the month at all?

As of a month ago, we’ve had a serious division in society. There are those who support the war, and those who don’t. We see this division not only amongst the common people but also in the political activists, where people know that everything that Putin and United Russia [party] does is bad for Russia, and everyone knew it a year, 5 years ago, [and] some people who say that he had to invade Ukraine, that there is no choice for Putin. And that is awful, of course, [to see] the people who I struggled with for many years shoulder to shoulder, being supportive of Putin’s decision.

So there is still current support for Putin?

Of course, now there’s a new thesis, people say that the war is awful, the war caused much grievance to Russia, in terms of sanctions, in terms of many soldiers killed, but that is the price to end the war with a Russian victory, end with total takeover of Ukraine. Now these horrible things that happened, they are the reason to go on and continue the war effort. This is an awful explanation, but that is their reasoning. The war is bad, but Russia’s condition is worse than that now so we must end the conflict with Putin’s victory.

Now there’s a new thesis, people say that the war is awful, the war caused much grievance to Russia, in terms of sanctions, in terms of many soldiers killed, but that is the price to end the war with a Russian victory.

So what is Putin’s main narrative now on how they’re going to win the war?

Many people see the end goal of war with the invasion of other Russian-speaking regions, of Ukraine, of Kharkov, Mariupol, of course, Donetsk and Luhansk, and other cities where people are ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking. But maybe they don’t realise how the cities are destroyed now, they think it’s the Ukrainian nationalists who are destroying those cities, and they think those citizens agree with that assessment, and will support the Russian invasion eventually.

Do you think that Russia assumed they would have taken over Ukraine by now, and the fact that its been much harder is a surprise?

I see that they know now that the special military operation will not succeed. And they will not be able to take Ukraine. They see with what effort the Ukrainian people struggle and fight against invasion, how many weapons and arms were given by the west and now the propaganda is trying to prepare our people that not all of Ukraine will be taken, but only the eastern part that as Putin thinks is Russian, and that will be a success.

Do you think there’s a real threat of nuclear war?

I think the threat isn’t real. Because many people are on the button, not only Putin, not only the ministry of defence, and director of general staff. They’re not the only ones on the button. It’s about 9 men in total who must make that decision to push the button to start a nuclear war. But we can’t discount the idea that Putin will do it. He’s insane. Really. And the people around him are brainwashed and insane too.

We heard his press secretary Peskov say that if there is even the slightest threat to us we will do anything we want. Including using nuclear weaponry. So that is their awful logic, their horrible logic, that we can use anything we want anytime we want. That is horrible, I don’t know if they’re being serious or trying to scare everyone. I think tactical weapons might be used but the probability of that is low.

How are the sanctions affecting average Russians?

Now we see the panic creeping in. People are bulk buying, trying to stock up on sugar, buckwheat, other non-perishable foodstuff that will keep for a long time. Sugar they need to make alcoholic beverages, if there will be a problem with accessibility of alcohol, and as something that can be used instead of money, bartering in exchange for something else.

We see that many companies which have staff offices abroad have either left Russia, or paused their operating, they are waiting to see what happens, maybe for another month, before they leave Russia permanently.

[But] some people who don’t shop at import clothes stores, who don’t eat at McDonald’s, don’t use international products, and there are a lot of people like that in Russia, they say that nothing much will change, apart from prices rising for food. And some people I know, not common people, smart people, intelligent people say that the sanctions are not forever, the companies will return once the invasion stops, of course with the victory of Putin. But the panic buying of food, of sugar, shows us that people are preparing for the worst.

There is a lot of censorship currently in Russia, if anything doesn’t line up with the government narrative, is the freedom of press under attack?

Of course its an attack on the freedom of press. We’ve seen these attacks before, even before Putin became president in 2012, and when he became president in 2000, when NTV was closed, TV6 was closed etc. But in the last 10 years, we see every year, and every month, there’s more and more repression of the independent media.

Now there is a permanent ban on saying the truth.

And now when the war began, we have a real war situation in Russia, this is not recognised officially but it is there. When the war began there was a signal from the Kremlin to the media to keep quiet and to only tell the official Russian information. And many media outlets were banned, there is a real and perhaps permanent attack on the freedom of speech. Its not as it was before the 24th of February. Now there is a permanent ban on saying the truth.

Is there a risk of Russia becoming completely isolated from the world?

I think of course Russia will be isolated. How much and how long this isolation will last depends on the outcome of the war, and when Putin will go. If there will be an arrest of Putin, or he will go and hide somewhere and power in Russia will come to somebody else. That is a situation which we cannot prognose now. If Putin is arrested, if the 5 political parties which voted for the war will be recognised as extremists, if the people who are in charge now judges, military officials, civil protection generals, and of course the federal security office, directors, will be prohibited to go on with their work in the government, the state, there will be a chance to not be isolated anymore.  This will be a change to make Russia free and democratic, there will be a chance for all of us.

But we can expect the more realistic scenario where Putin is in charge, where Russia is isolated for years, and where the little freedom we had will be banned for everybody, as it was in the Soviet Union but with a worse economic situation, because we don’t have any internal production of basic goods.

Have you seen the new flag that anti-war activists have been using, removing the red stripe from the Russian flag, and leaving it a white-blue-white tricolour?

The blue-white-blue flag that has become a symbol of the democratic and anti-war movement within Russia. Image courtesy: Fem_antiwar_resistance

Yes, I’ve seen that. There are two approaches to this new symbol of protest Russia. The first approach is that we must erase the red colour, to erase the blood, to erase our history with blood. And especially the bloody history of bloody Putin. The second approach is that this is our freedom flag. This is a flag that marks the beginning of democratic Russia, removed from Putin’s army, from him and his dictator’s regime. I like the white-blue-white flag as a symbol of protest, but I don’t know if it will be a good choice in the free Russia.

Is the Dyadya Vanya (Uncle Vanya) restaurant instead of McDonald’s real? I am seeing a lot of slightly changed western brands popping up in Russia to replace the ones that have pulled out.

Yes, I think all those new brands are real. Ikea became Idea, with the same logo. We live now in a new legislation reality. In a new law regime. A new regime of law which is not connected with international law. And we, Russia, can just steal everything it wants.

Do you think the relationship between Russian and Ukrainian people can be restored?

I’m Russian, I have no relatives in Ukraine. I have very few people I know in Ukraine actually, who I can call friends. Generally I think the relationship between Russian people and Ukrainian people is destroyed. For people of our generation. Everybody understand that there is no war between people of Russia and people of Ukraine, this is the war of Putin and the nationalist that are only in his head. But sadly the adult generations of our countries are not friends any longer. That is a really big tragedy for us. But for our children, I don’t think that’s the case. I think they are not guilty or responsible for the happenings, so I believe the next generations can be friends. One day. I hope that the new Russia and our children will be friends again.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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