The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The new face of Russia’s opposition

In March 2012, Vera Kichanova ran and won a seat as a municipal deputy in Moscow’s Yuzhnoye Tushino district. She is the first libertarian elected official in Russia, and, at age 22, one of the youngest. Kichanova studied journalism at Moscow State University, and is active participant of civil protests in Russia in recent years. She visited Washington to accept the National Endowment for Democracy’s 2013 Democracy Award alongside other young activists from Zimbabwe, Cuba and Pakistan. She talked to me on Thursday, shortly after Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to prison. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

S: What do you think about Alexei Navalny’s conviction and sentencing? [Navalny was released from prison pending his appeal this morning]

Vera: From the very beginning of the trial there were discussions about whether [Navalny] will be arrested or whether he won’t, but a month ago, [we thought] even if he is sentenced the sentence will be suspended. During the last month the atmosphere became darker and darker, and about a week ago everybody including Alexei himself, including me and many other people were nearly sure the sentence will be real, and that he would go to prison. It’s very depressing and discouraging news. I’ve been reading online broadcasting from the court through the night and it impressed me how brave he is, Alexei Navalny, how he continued encouraging everybody around him, all the other people were almost crying. He’s written text in his blog the day before he left, the main idea of that post was that now that they are arresting the leaders everybody must be a leader, every moment everybody must make important decisions. He asked people not to give up.

S: When did you decide to run [for municipal deputy in Moscow]?

Vera: I started campaigning in 2011. It was a period of massive protests, of hopes, which started after the election of Parliament, which thousands of people found to be a fraud, and so they went out in the streets. There were big demonstrations and somehow we got for a short time a kind of liberalization, and there was the time when we really hoped we will change everything quickly, that by March we will be ready [to take leadership] positions through the election, so I started campaigning because all these ideas were very popular, and the ideas of democratization, the idea of fair election, the idea of competition in politics. It was quite easy for the one who supported those ideas to win the votes of the people.

S: How old were you when you decided to run, and in what setting were you exposed to those ideas [that prompted you to do so]?

Vera: I’m 22 [now], I’ve always participated not in politics but everything that’s happening around me, school councils and local activities, many student activities, finally I found out that politics is everywhere, that politics influences every field—student activities and local activities included. Five years ago I read about a rally [in the newspapers] that was dismissed and hundreds of people were arrested, and I thought that I would be participate in the next one. I went out and I was arrested as well, and that’s how it started. As for the election, I had a friend that already was a deputy, he was from the opposition group, and his example and experienced encouraged me to run. Also the Libertarian party, which I am a member of, supported that idea, we felt that we must participate in the elections to get that experience working as a team working with ordinary people, not only those participating in demonstrations, but also talking to the voters and discussing some everyday problems.

S: How has your opinion of the experience changed since you’ve been in office?

Vera: It’s quite frustrating because you cannot do any real things nearly at all.

S: Your position has limited authority?

Vera: Yes, Moscow is divided into more than 150 small areas, they’re not all small, in my area there are 100,000 people , it’s like a small town, but the councils they are run every area has its own council, there are 10-20 deputies, there are 12 in my council, and their authority is limited because we are elected officials, but the real authority is in the hands of the ones who are appointed by the administration, so the people cannot influence on their decisions, and we discuss very few items. At the same time as there are twelve of us, and only two of which are from the opposition, so we cannot really influence voting. The only thing we can do is make the work of this council more transparent by inviting press, inviting some local activists, describing what’s happening in the council on our blogs.

S: Do you think you’ll run again?

Vera: I think it’s not time now to decide because it depends on many things, one thing I know for sure, I’m not going to run alone anymore, because I see that…we had the opportunity to make a team—I mean my fellow Libertarians who helped me campaign—but I was the only one who came and I think the next time we have to have several candidates so if we want we will be able to change the solutions while voting in the council?

S: In what ways is your age, which is relatively young compared to some of your colleagues, an advantage and in what ways is it a disadvantage?

Vera: It’s an advantage [laughs] because it makes a kind of publicity, in Moscow many people know that in my area there is the youngest deputy, it helped me when I was campaigning because my opponents didn’t regard me seriously. But it’s a disadvantage at the same time because they still do not regard me seriously.

S: You have 21,000 followers on Twitter, when did you start using Twitter?

Vera: I started using Twitter five years ago, when I started participating in rallies because it was useful to report. If you’re on the square among the crowd many people are interested in what’s happening, if you’re detained you can write where the police are taking you and what help you need—it’s commonly used in Russian opposition, and then not only the rallies of course, just when you’re writing about something that attracts public attention. I remember a story when Michal arvosky was saying his last words before the sentence and there were too many people who came to support him and there was a special room for the journalists and I remember that I was tweeting, I was the only one who was reporting instantly from there and the journalists let me in the press room because they saw many media were citing me and they found it important for me to be there.

S: What do you think about Twitter? You described how you use it and I can tell you believe it’s useful, but is there anything else you think about how it fits into the picture of the movement you belong to?

Vera: It is an item of my academic interests because I finished university this year and I wrote my final paper about the role of the new media and especially Twitter. For example, now when we’re speaking, I was reading Twitter before we met, and people are discussing the protests in Moscow, people against Navalny’s sentence are planning some unsanctioned demonstrations in front of the Kremlin, I don’t know how many people will be there, I’m sure there will be several thousand, but this can be possible only because of Twitter. At the same time there is another side of this, there are some bad things when you’re active in social media it gives you the wrong impression that you’re doing something important. Sometimes a person will click a “Like” button instead of take real action. People in Russia are more active in social media than in real life.