In the hour-long interview over black tea, he spoke about his decision to leave Russia, the corruption charges against him, his vote for the annexation of Crimea, and life in Ukraine. He dodged questions about his current employment. Below are some excerpts, lightly edited for content and clarity.
Washington Post: Do you feel that you are in danger?
Denis Voronenkov: For our personal safety, we can’t let them know where we are. It’s a totally amoral system, and in its anger it may go to extreme measures. There has been a demonization of us. It’s hard to say what will happen. The system has lost its mind. They say we are traitors in Russia. And I say, ‘Who did we betray?’ I gave testimony against the citizen of another country who was president, who fled his country, created a bloodbath, betrayed his country. Nobody can say what a Russian patriot is in Russia these days. The whole system is built for one man’s survival, to maintain his power.
WaPo: Why did you leave Russia?
DV: I had romantic ideas before getting involved in politics, and I became deeply disappointed seeing it from the inside. And the impossibility of affecting the system presented a choice: You either need to merge with the system, or you need to make a decision, make a grand gesture, and leave to live in another country. A country which, in my opinion, is not going through the best of times, meaning Ukraine, it's hard here, there are a lot of problems here, but it's a country that made the right choice, and as Lenin said, 'There's a light at the end of the tunnel.'
WaPo: But you did quite well for yourself in that system, and you didn't leave until you were under investigation for corruption.
DV: I've spoken at length about this. I'm a person who didn't sell anything, left everything behind, we took one suitcase with our things, the kids and left. It was still calm, when there was still nothing going on. I didn't ever disperse any budgetary funds, no contracts. I never stole a kopeck. What they accuse me of, there wasn't even any financial damage. I don't even want to comment about it. We just understood that we will not be allowed to live in this system.
In Russia, they've put the whole country through prison. Prison, as you know, doesn't reform anyone. It holds people in fear. And most of the hysteria in Russia about us is about how they couldn't catch me. I happened to be smarter. I left.
WaPo: Why Ukraine? It seems like there are countries that would be less controversial and certainly farther from Russia.
DV: We had considered other options in Europe. But there's a single mentality because we all lived for a long time in the same country. For me, it was a more comfortable place, a place I could move and work abroad at 45 years old. Otherwise, there's no difference.
Maria Maksakova, interjecting: I disagree categorically.
DV: It's the same language.
MM: The languages are different.
MM: The character is totally different.
DV: If it had been something different for me, I would have chosen another country.
[Later, he added that he had connections in Kiev.] There are a lot of people here who I served in the military with. They are now in leadership positions. People I have known for 25 years. We have remained friends, and I am reconnecting with some of them. [He declined to say who.]
WaPo: What do you think about criticism of your coming here and accusations of hypocrisy over your statements against Russia?
DV: Sure there are nationalists here who are unhappy. But that's the same everywhere. What are we going to do, judge Ukraine because of them? In Russia, there are a lot more sick people than here. We are trying to focus on sane people.
WaPo: You voted for the annexation of Crimea, aren't people here right to be angry about that?
DV: A lot of people ask me this. Our votes didn't have any role. Our votes didn't mean anything. You need to question what those 2 million people were doing in Crimea. Why didn't they resist? Where were the armed forces of Ukraine? But to blame everything on those deputies forced to vote is incorrect. Yes, okay, it was an important vote. Of course we knew about it. We already told everyone, it was a mistake. But in Russia, as opposed to Ukraine, there is no way you would be forgiven for voting as you felt. The repressive system would begin working against you in an instant.
WaPo: When do you think you can go back to Russia?
DV: Not while Putin is still in charge. Only when he is gone.
WaPo: What are you going to do here?
MM: I am going to be a soloist in a state orchestra, we are planning to organize a tour of concerts in cities around Ukraine, and I'll be learning authentic Ukrainian folk songs for that.
DV: Everything is going okay. I am making contacts, negotiating. That's all I want to say about my work.