From the editor
In a year when it looks like the Kremlin has eliminated most of Russia’s remaining opposition, one way or another, it takes enormous courage to be an outspoken activist. Arshak Makichyan continues his struggle to make the country better, however. The 27-year-old from Moscow has given up a promising career as a violinist to dedicate his life to politics in an unfree society. He became known internationally for his weekly solo Fridays for Future protests in Pushkin Square, demanding action on climate change, and recently announced that he wanted to run for the Duma. Arshak told me in fluent English in a Zoom call why he is so determined to keep going.
Arshak Makichyan believes activism can change Russia. Photo: Alice Milchin
Most people in Russia are trying to survive and don’t pay attention to issues such as climate change, but “we need people who do understand what’s happening in the world,” Arshak says. “The situation in Russia is terrible,” he says of the political repressions, rising Covid cases and climate change effects that include record high temperatures, devastating floods and wildfires across the country. “It’s a complex crisis,” he continues. “We need to change things systematically.”
Arshak has just suffered a setback to his plans after the Yabloko party reneged on a promise to nominate him and other well-known activists, including former members of Alexei Navalny’s team, as candidates for the Duma. A self-nominated candidate must gather the signatures of at least 3 percent of voters in their constituency to get on the ballot for the election that will be held from September 17 to 19. Arshak says this will be impossible without funds and volunteers, so he will instead help other independent candidates such as feminist Alena Popova, who is campaigning against Russia’s legal tolerance of domestic violence.
Another cause Arshak supports is LGBT rights. In a post on Instagram on July 6 titled “Instead of repressions, a rainbow,” accompanied by a picture of himself with a rainbow painted across the sky, he wrote that some people had tried to talk him out of opposing Russia’s ban on “gay propaganda” because it “isn’t popular”. “I talk to an enormous number of people, many of whom can’t allow themselves to talk about love. Who can’t post a photograph of themselves with their favourite person. And if they can, they’ll definitely get a ton of hate and threats,” he wrote. “It’s frightening and difficult to talk about love, but we won’t achieve anything without it. Love is stronger than fear!”
Arshak thinks Yabloko distanced itself from him and others because they were too radical and had received threats. Former party leader Grigory Yavlinsky said in a recent interview with Dozhd TV that people who support Navalny “shouldn’t vote for us”, and repeatedly declined to say whether he considers Navalny a political prisoner. Arshak has already spent time in jail himself for his solo pickets, but he doesn’t think that jail is the worst thing that can happen to opposition activists in Russia: “A lot of my friends are fleeing,” he says, mentioning the case of former MP Dmitri Gudkov, who left after being threatened. “It’s really scary to live in Russia. But it’s our country, it’s not just Putin’s country.”
The Kremlin wants to divide the opposition and persuade them not to participate in elections, Arshak says. “If every Russian votes it will be obvious that there’s falsification,” he tells me. “It’s a difficult game. We shouldn’t be playing by their rules. The government party is very unpopular in Russia, their ratings are very low – they are afraid of us. It’s not about this election, it’s not about me. It’s about change that we want in Russia because life in Russia is unbearable.”
Arshak graduated from the Moscow Conservatory but now doesn’t play his violin because he would need to practice all day and he thinks politics is more important. He earns a living as a social media manager for an NGO, which gives him time for activism. His family are afraid for him, but he is undeterred. He says that jail is boring and conditions are awful, but if you are arrested “you have a lot of time to think.” He wants the international community to find ways to push for democracy in Russia. “We need more pressure on Putin and the regime, and less on the people. It’s not our fault that Putin’s doing terrible things.”
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My latest on the Biden team's foolish Russian game plans: https://dianefrancis.substack.com/p/biden-blinks