Alexander Skobov: “The Imperial Essence of the Russian State Must Disappear”

On April 3, 66-year-old former Soviet political prisoner Alexander Skobov was arrested in St Petersburg. Charged with “apology for terrorism”, he faces up to seven years in prison. Condemning Russia’s imperialist war, Skobov spoke out in favor of the destruction of the Crimean bridge, the Black Sea fleet, military airfields, etc. Desk Russie publishes one of Skobov’s last interviews before his arrest, preceded by a biographical note on this emblematic figure of Russian intellectual resistance.

Who is Alexander Skobov?

A young left-wing activist, Skobov was first arrested in 1978 for distributing leaflets calling for “the overthrow of the tyranny of Soviet officials and the struggle for genuine, humane socialism.” These calls earned him a three-year stay in a psychiatric hospital, followed by a shorter one four years later. In 1988, Skobov joined the first opposition party, the Democratic Union (founded by Valeria Novodvorskaya).

In the post-Soviet period, Skobov was a school history teacher and wrote a textbook. He actively protested against the two Chechen wars and took part in anti-Putin rallies.

In 2014, he was attacked near his apartment building, hit on the head and stabbed several times. Since the annexation of Crimea, he has regularly advocated a strong response to the aggressor. In articles published on websites such as Grani.ru and Kasparov.ru, he has called for the “dismantling of Nazi Russia.”

Despite the threats against him, he refused to leave Russia. This is how he explained his position: “Why do I think it’s right not to leave, thus clearly exposing myself to the risk of repression and arrest? I want my voice to join the collective voice of Russian political emigration, convincing Western public opinion and the elites of the need to increase military aid to Ukraine. The fact that I’m staying in Russia gives my words a little more weight. […] And if I’m arrested, it will give even more weight to my words.”

Skobov is a member of the Free Russia Forum, a biennial conference organized by and for Russian opposition. It is held twice a year in Vilnius. 

Interview

How does today’s repression compare with your experience of Soviet punitive psychiatry?

In the 1970s and later, psychotropic drugs were no longer systematically used to “cure” dissidents. I was lucky. Most of the doctors I met tried to avoid playing the role of executioner. When I was in hospital, the Soviet regime was already tired and lazy. Today’s executioners are much more active. The regime can only move in one direction: toward more and more atrocities. And it is happily adopting Soviet practices.

By staying in Russia, are you not afraid of taking part in the work of the Free Russia Forum, which has been declared an “undesirable” organization?

I’m a member of the Forum’s board, I speak out, I take part in drafting statements and official appeals, some of which I wrote myself. My participation in the Forum is real, and I’m not going to stop. Forum members have different opinions and points of view; it’s not a single political party. Here’s why I treasure my membership of the Forum: it’s the only organization that, since the annexation of Crimea, has unequivocally sided with Ukraine, the victim of aggression. Today, the Forum categorically rejects pseudo-peaceful calls to freeze the conflict. I see in these calls direct complicity with the aggressor. We are in favor of Ukraine’s victory, the liberation of all Russian-occupied territories, the restoration of the 1991 borders, reparations for the aggression and the trial of the members of Russia’s military and political leadership who started the war. We’re trying to help the Ukrainian army, the training of Russian volunteers who are fighting as part of the Ukrainian army, and we’re calling on everyone to help us.

Is it scary to stay in Russia?

Life in general is a scary thing. I’m afraid of what my country is doing in Ukraine, of what Islamic terrorists are doing in Israel. It’s all very frightening. Indeed, anyone who disagrees with Putin’s Nazi regime is taking a risk if they stay in Russia. Even if he keeps a low profile. Even if they keep a low profile. But as the regime has become totalitarian, it is not content with silence but demands approval for its crimes. Even the strategy of avoidance can be dangerous.

In your opinion, how many opponents of war and dictatorship are there in Russia?

Around 14-15%. Some of them have already emigrated. About the same number actively support dictatorship and war. And in between, the masses, who always follow whoever is strongest at the time. People can justify war in different ways, and they’re not necessarily happy about it. At some point, part of that mass might hesitate, simply wondering whether all this has gone on too long and whether we’re paying too high a price for it. But that’s far from the case at the moment. This mass hasn’t really felt the war yet, the war hasn’t bitten them hard.

Is this a Russian peculiarity, or would any other country behave in the same way in such circumstances?

I think that now, we are the ones being particularly nasty. The same could be said of the Germans during Hitler’s dictatorship, because they willingly abandoned their conscience. Fascism is the human desire to throw off the cultural and civilizational limits developed over centuries, and plunge into savagery. In a normal society, from industrial society onward, and even more so in post-industrial society, people reject violence and cruelty; they have already developed an internal barrier. Only in a society poisoned by Nazi ideology war does not raise any questions.

The preconditions were created in the 1990s. Reforms failed, leading to massive disillusionment in society with the ideals that had inspired the democratic movement of perestroika. Society felt cheated. It was therefore prepared to accept ideas that rejected these values. But if the new Putin elite hadn’t taken it upon themselves to take advantage of this unease by gradually infusing this ideology into the consciousness of Russians, it wouldn’t have come to this. “A strong president” is just one component of this ideology. We started from the idea that the law is a deception, that legality is a deception, that the strongest is always right, that either you are the hunter or you are the prey, and Russia does not want to be the prey, let’s show that we are the strongest. All this has been gradually instilled into society through a very complex system: the media, culture, TV series that cultivate violence. The whole process has gradually weakened people’s immunity. In twenty years, we’ve killed it off.

And when did you realize this?

It became clear to me that Putin was a monster as early as 1999, when he was appointed prime minister. When he spoke about the second Chechen war, there was a specific message: “Guys, we didn’t come to negotiate. We have come to dictate our terms to you; we are your masters, not your partners.” These notes were totally transparent in his speeches. Everyone remembers his emblematic phrase, “shoot the terrorists in the toilets“, but he made other statements in that spirit. And I realized that a mortal enemy of the principles of law and humanism had come to power.

I see all the signs of fascism in Russia today. The setting up of mass political mobilization mechanisms, the total control of the education system and culture, the transformation of all this into an instrument of ideological education and loyalty training. These are the hallmarks of a totalitarian state.

What do you think is Putin’s ultimate foreign policy objective?

Putin and his entourage may not have been like this at the start, but they’ve become real maniacs about this idea: to crush the West as some kind of historical misunderstanding, to throw it off the ship of modernity, to do away with the “false ideas” of humanism and liberalism. They’ve already accelerated their machine so that it can’t stop.

Is it even possible to crush the West?

Why should it be impossible? The barbarians crushed Rome, didn’t they? If the West continues to behave with such cowardice and short-sightedness, Putin will succeed. Despite Macron’s statements [on the possibility of sending troops to Ukraine], the West shows no willingness to move from words to deeds. And Putin, like a great St Petersburg gangster of the 1990s, is sending out the message: until you prove them with deeds, I won’t care about your words. Sooner or later, if the West simply wants to survive on a civilizational level, it will have to demonstrate that it is ready to confront Putin’s Russia with its strength. I think a tactical nuclear strike by Russia is entirely possible. And Putin will observe whether he gets a reaction or not. If the reaction is robust, I don’t think he’ll embark on an all-out nuclear war that would destroy the entire northern hemisphere.

Are you optimistic about the future?

I believe in progress. That’s my religion. I don’t believe in God, in any god. I adhere to this ideology, which is called the religion of reason and progress, formed during the Enlightenment. I can’t say when this victory will be achieved. For this to change, Putin’s regime must be overthrown. This is an absolutely necessary condition. The second condition is that the structure of the state needs to be completely reformed. The Russian empire must be destroyed, its parts must become more independent. I do not prejudge the forms this will take. Perhaps it will simply be a break-up into dozens of independent political entities. Perhaps most of the Federation’s current subjects will remain united. Perhaps there will be two or three large entities. It’s impossible to predict. But the imperial essence of the Russian state must be broken. The imperial identity, that feeling of belonging to a huge state stronger than all the others, must disappear. We are not the ones who will bring down the empire, the local ruling elites will. When they do, a new identity will begin to form within the population. On the other hand, if the imperial subconscious persists, it will continue to reproduce aggressive authoritarian regimes.

Translated into English by Desk Russie. Read the original interview.

Our home brewed posts.

Former Soviet dissident and political prisoner. After his release in 1987, he taught history at school and was involved in the activities of various opposition associations. A man of the left, he is an influential blogger and a regular columnist for the websites grani.ru and kasparov.ru.

See also

Yulia Sineokaya: “We are Engaged in a Critical Analysis of the Catastrophe”

The Russian philosopher, in exile in Paris, speaks in this interview about the state of science in Russia, odious figures like Zinoviev and Dugin, and the role of philosophy in our world.

Giorgi Gakharia: “This law Serves Russian Interests”

The former Prime Minister of Georgia explains in this interview what are the challenges of the law on foreign agents which has caused a real uproar within Georgian society.

Most read

Russian Expansionism: Enduring Goals and Recurring Methods

Russia's messianic, expansionist and militarist propensity is inseparable from the autocratic matrix of Russian power.

Toward a Putinization of France? 

This essay deals with both history and current events. The author demonstrates how Putin’s regime and its ideologues...