RuNet Echo recently spoke to Anna Veduta, the global outreach director for Meduza and the former press secretary for Alexey Navalny, today the most prominent leader of the anti-Kremlin opposition. Veduta described her work for Russia’s anti-corruption crusader, her relocation to the United States, and her experience as a regional expert and feminist.
Thank you for taking the time to talk to RuNet Echo. Our readers will know you as the former press secretary of Alexey Navalny, who is perhaps Russia's most prominent politician today after Vladimir Putin. What have you been up to since then, and how has the Russian-language Internet played a role in your life since moving to the United States?
I moved to the States on August 6, 2014. It was the very day President Putin signed the decree on so-called “anti-sanctions”: legislation prohibiting the import of European and U.S. agricultural goods into Russia. And the first effect this has on me, and continues to happen today, is that people in Russia now ask each other to bring cheese and poultry when coming back from overseas. They want food, not souvenirs.
I expected my lifestyle and my interests to change a lot, when I moved to the U.S. to get a Master’s in International Affairs at Columbia University, but the RuNet never left my life. Once you're in it, it never lets you go.
I still closely follow current events in Russia, and I’m regularly asked to speak about Russia in the United States, where I’m seen as an expert on the region. Today, I work as the global outreach director for Meduza, one of the world’s largest media outlets covering Russia, where I’m responsible for the English version.
So, naturally, there’s no way I’d take my eyes off what’s happening in Russia or on the Russian Internet.
What would you say are the benefits of being engaged with Russia from abroad? How about the drawbacks?
The benefits are pretty obvious. With the West so obsessed with Russia these days, there’s a great need for additional expertise. And that, I think, is why people invite me to speak and to consult on Russia and U.S.-Russian relations. And I’m happy to help! It’s always nice to feel that your services are needed.
One drawback is the amount of disinformation out there. We’re all bored and bothered by the term by now, but “fake news” is unfortunately ubiquitous. And this has made it difficult to explain to people, as someone in the Russian media, that you’re not Kremlin propaganda or one of Moscow’s election-stealing hackers.
The very word “Russian” has become toxic in the U.S. today. It takes a lot of time and energy to get through to people now.
When Westerners talk about Russian politics, they usually divide it into The Establishment and The Anti-Kremlin Opposition. In your opinion, do these terms make sense? Or is there a better way to talk about Russian politics and social issues, so we see the picture the way most Russians do?
I wish I could say that you’re exaggerating the situation and tell you it’s more complicated, except it isn’t. I can’t speak for most Russians (I haven’t run sociological polls on this or anything), but I can tell you what I see: Russia’s political establishment isn’t homogenous.
Take the siloviki (security agency members) and the kadyrovtsy (Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov’s people). These groups are not united, and very often they’re direct, even hostile rivals. And this is one reason we see certain “fluctuations” in Russia’s so-called establishment, and in the various clans controlling the “Kremlin towers.”
I don’t mean to offer some kind of conspiracy theory, but it’s important to understand that there are various layers of “mystique” here.
As for the divisions you’ve laid out, I’d also describe it as a confrontation between the old world and the new world. Look at what happened with the March 26 protests and what’s followed. We saw a lot of young and vibrant people who very clearly do not care what the establishment has to tell them. Just watch the recent speech by a popular YouTube vlogger in the State Duma.
So, yes, they turn to the so-called anti-Kremlin opposition, also known as the “anti-system opposition.” And, yes, here we’re talking about my brilliant former boss, Alexey Navalny, whom I admire deeply.
Why do the young people turn to Navalny? Because he shares their open mind and he, too, realizes that we’re living in the 21st century, unlike the kleptocratic, feudalistic establishment that would rather dream about past Soviet glory. Navalny is tuned in, and he’s constantly learning. He’s showed his cards, and that kind of transparency is what people want. It’s that simple.
Young people don’t fall for the old propaganda; they simply don’t waste their time on it. Just look at the recent stunt by the Kremlin’s PR people, paying some second-rate pop star to strip down to a bikini and sing a song calling protesters “baby boys” and telling them to “stay out of politics.”
Generation X, the one that came before today’s youth, is still largely split on the establishment, and plenty of them are inclined to stick with the Kremlin and its “system.”
Millennials, meanwhile, are closer to the opposition, which I think means they’re simply reasonable and sick of being lied to and robbed. They root for human rights, democracy, and the freedom of the press. Technically speaking, there’s no “opposition” here — it’s a positive set of values.
Generation Z, however, is something incredible. When these people arrived, the Internet was already in place. They think, they analyze, and they draw conclusions in entirely new ways, even when compared to Millennials. The Kremlin establishment lost these people a long time ago, and they didn’t even notice it. Its control over television doesn’t matter here, because there is no TV in their world. But they still have to deal with the country’s struggling economy, its bad roads, corruption, awful healthcare, and generally dismal quality of education.
Why do you think young people in Russia growing up on the Internet have managed to break free from the influence of TV? In the U.S. today, many Americans seem to be under the impression that the Kremlin is able to brainwash whole electorates using the Internet and fake news. How has the Internet become a liability in Russia, with all the propaganda, trolls, fake news, and censorship? Why isn't the Kremlin winning online at home?
Because the Kremlin knows nothing about the Internet, and all its attempts to win over this audience are clumsy and unnatural.
In Russia, what are we talking about, when we discuss fake news and trolls? Trolls are commentators who are paid to promote the government’s agenda, and fake stories are lies crafted to resemble the truth by mixing falsehoods and half-truths. It takes some talent to pull this off and make it seem sexy. And yet this doesn’t happen in Russia. Why? Because the people responsible aren’t talented. They have no idea how the Internet works, or what makes things popular.
The problem is with the Kremlin’s state of mind. On the Web, you’ve got to be open minded, global, and ready to learn all the time. You’ve got to be comfortable always on the edge. It doesn’t work if you’re getting your news stories printed out in little red folders, thinking of the Web as a trashcan “invented by the CIA.”
This leads to shoddy work, and young people can easily spot the obvious fakes.
After a recent attempt to use online memes against Navalny, he was absolutely right when he laughed and said, “Guys, these memes are all so last year.” It was embarrassing!
Neither the outdated rhetoric of Soviet propaganda nor the scare tactics of the 1990s will work on a 21st-century audience. That’s why I tell Americans not to be afraid: Russia’s youth are a reason to be hopeful about Russia. They’re more like you [in the U.S.] than the Russian establishment!
Censorship really reared its head in 2011 and 2012, when a lot of people in the so-called “creative class” had to emigrate, as the Bolotnaya Square Case took off, and the Russian free press shut down.
But it’s 2017 now, and we’ve got free and independent media reporting on Russia, though a lot of it isn’t based in Russia anymore. I’m proud to represent Meduza today, but it’s definitely an obstacle to have a newsroom based in Riga, not Moscow. But we had to think outside the box, and this was the solution.
Internet users have learned to circumvent the government’s bans, and millennials and post-millennials have replaced the television with YouTube and Stream channels. And do you know why? It’s because there was nothing for them on TV. They looked, they shrugged, and then they created their own entertainment world.
Why did you leave Russia?
I left because I was admitted to Columbia University in New York City. In early 2012, when I’d just started working with Navalny, I was admitted to Oxford University in the UK, a few months after I graduated from Moscow State University. That time, I decided not to take the offer, and I kept my job. Alexey didn’t push me to make a decision at all — he was very supportive, and he advised me to take my time and think things through.
When I finally told him that I’d stay, he said he was happy, and he told me, “One day, you’ll go to Harvard.”
But I always thought life in New York sounded better, and when Columbia rolled around, I didn’t want to pass up the chance at a world-class education again. Navalny was under house arrest at the time, and he encouraged me (through a mediator) to go for it.
And here I am now, three years later.
Do you still consider yourself a member of the opposition, or are you more of an outside observer now?
Well I don’t work for Navalny anymore, but of course I still support him without hesitation. I’m an independent professional, but I also wouldn’t call myself an outside observer. Russia is my Motherland, and I care deeply about it and everything going on there.
So if, by “a member of the opposition,” you’re asking if I wish for a better, democratic future in a free and prosperous Russia, instead of a country hijacked by a gang of corrupt thugs, then yes I’m a member of the opposition.
Where do you go from here? What do you plan to do with all this experience and education?
I’m growing my role as a global informer and a goodwill ambassador for Russia, a beautiful country that we’d all like to see set free. It’s crucially important to me that my colleagues’ talented work reach audiences in the West, where there’s a serious lack of unbiased and reliable information about Russia. This is a global world and we need to be building bridges (though the illegal bridge Moscow is building over the Kerch Strait to Crimea is one too many).
I also want to promote a feminist agenda in Russia and work on projects against domestic violence. Last December, I came out about my own exposure to domestic violence, attracting almost half a million views on social media. This was ahead of Russian legislators’ decriminalization of domestic violence, when the issue needed more attention than ever.
But a lot of the feedback I got was far from supportive. People told me I had it coming, they insulted me, and so on. Even many of the people in Russia with whom I agree on anti-corruption and anti-Putin causes are not receptive to feminist issues, and it breaks my heart.
Of course, women’s issues are overlooked everywhere — how else can you explain the enormously high interest in the Women’s Marches in the U.S. this year? But Russia is a more patriarchal society, where it’s a great challenge just to get the ball rolling on basic issues.
And that just means the prospects for potential feminist breakthroughs in Russia are even bigger.