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War in Ukraine: ‘Russia is run by a mafia’

Zoya Svetova62, a journalist, is part of a Moscow family with a history of almost a century of activism and punishment imposed by the government in Russia.

She was honored in 2018 with the Magnitsky Prize for Human Rights, named after an apolitical Russian lawyer and tax consultant who died after being beaten in prison, and more recently received the Legion of Honour, France’s highest award. She was interviewed before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and again on March 2.

-His parents and grandparents were called “enemies of the people”. His son, Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of TV Rain (Kanal Dozhd), the only independent TV channel in Russia, has just left the country with his family fearing imminent arrest. That was the same day Rain was ordered off the air, and on the fifth anniversary of a 10-hour search of his apartment by Russian authorities. Is being “enemies of the people” part of your family tradition in any way?

Zoya Svetova, 62, Russian journalist and winner of the 2018 Magnitsky Prize for Human Rights. Photo: via The New York Times.

-I recently wrote to the FSB (Federal Security Service of Russia, the successor to the Soviet KGB) requesting the records of my grandmother, who served five years in a forced labor camp in Arkhangelsk, in the far north of Russia, because she was married. with an “enemy of the people,” my grandfather Grigory Friedland, a historian of the French Revolution at Moscow State University. He was arrested during the Stalinist purges and executed in 1937. She spent five years there and I want to read her file.

My mother, Zoya Krakhmalnikova, a dissident from the Soviet 1980s, also spent a year in jail and five in exile in Siberia, where my father, Feliks Svetov, joined her after serving a year in jail.

There is a continuum here. I am not yet worthy of such a title. (Laughter.) But we’ll see.

The French government gave me an order of the Legion of Honor. Vladimir Putin is also a member of this order, although he has the great honor and I am only a small knight (gentleman). I could wake up to find myself declared an enemy of the people. That’s possible.

-What was the alleged crime of your parents?

-They were dissidents and religious activists. My mother collected religious texts. They wrote books that were produced in the West, in Germany. The KGB decided that it was anti-Soviet propaganda. My mother’s books were about faith, belief. It is difficult to understand that this was the same Orthodox faith that is now widely observed in Russia. Your readers will not understand. Even the Russians cannot understand this: to be imprisoned for such books.

The mood against the war in Russia is growing, that's a fact, says Svetova.  Photo: AFP

The mood against the war in Russia is growing, that’s a fact, says Svetova. Photo: AFP

-Did your parents raise you as a dissident?

-My parents never tried to control my behavior. I just saw how they lived and followed their example. And when I got married, at 23, my husband Viktor Dzyadko — he died a year and a half ago — was part of the same crowd as my parents; same interpretations, same principles. When it came to raising our four children, we did the same thing.

So when in February 2017 there was a 10-hour break-in at my apartment, the same one I’m sitting in now, the whole family came to support me. At that time, as a member of an official committee, Prison Watch, I regularly visited Russian prisons, including Lefortovo in Moscow, where my mother had been incarcerated 40 years earlier. I did this for eight years, visiting Moscow prisons every week. And I think the FSB did not like very much that he told the truth about the conditions. Those who conducted the search asked me directly: Why do you go to prisons to see terrorists and spies?

-Why did you receive the Magnitsky Prize?

-When I found out about the death of Sergei Magnitsky, I decided to go deeper into the story: I got a lot of details, I wrote 20, 30 articles and I was going to write a book. After Magnitsky’s death, my goal became to save the sick. As a member of Prison Watch, we filed official reports, but my New Times articles were more effective. The men who ran the prison subscribed to the magazine and asked: ‘Please don’t write bad things about us.’ They didn’t want complications from bad publicity, and sometimes prisoners were released after my article.

-But there are many successful people in Russia, including his own children (Filipp Dzyadko, the eldest, is the founder of a popular educational website, Arzamas; Timofey writes for a business newspaper, RBK; Tikhon directed TV Rain). Doesn’t Putin’s system give them ample opportunities for development?

-It is an illusion. In prisons I saw dozens of businessmen in a fabricated case. The country is run by a mob, perhaps not directly in the American sense. You can live and thrive, but at a certain point you cross someone’s path and walk away. Take Magnitsky. He was an auditor for Hermitage Capital, he made a lot of money, he was a patriot who never got involved in politics. But then he wrote to the tax authorities exposing the corruption, that was it, they put him in jail, they killed him. In his cells I saw former governors, mayors, prosecutors, state employees. You’re here today with a search warrant. Tomorrow you yourself will be searched, stripped naked, thrown into a cell.

Moscow, plagued by alarming rumors

-A few weeks ago, you said that your greatest fear was not for your own security but for the war, and that Western and European leaders had to find a key for Putin to avoid it because it would be the worst thing that could happen to Russia, your family, Ukrainians and the world. Did you see this coming?

-Even in my worst nightmares, I could not imagine the Russian army attacking Ukrainian cities. It’s really scary. Moscow is plagued by the most alarming rumors: from the possible arrest of opponents and journalists to the proclamation of martial law on Friday when it will be impossible to leave the country. Every morning I wait for a record in my apartment and I don’t always sleep at home.

-Do you have any hope?

-The mood against the war in Russia is growing, that’s a fact. Here’s just one example: The online anti-war petition garnered more than a million signatures in seven days. That’s really a lot, and obviously these aren’t just opposition voices. Every day, activists take to the streets of Moscow, Saint Petersburg and other big cities. During seven days of war, more than 6,000 people were arrested. For Russia it is a lot.

c.2022 The New York Times Company

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