The following interview is part of the European Studies Council’s Spotlight of Scholars in European, Russian or Eurasian Studies.
Leonid Volkov is a Russian politician of the Russia’s Future Party. Leonid was campaign manager and chief of staff for Alexei Navalny’s 2013 mayoral campaign for Moscow, as well as Alexei Navalny’s attempt to get registered for the 2018 presidential election. Currently, Leonid oversees all regional political operations of the Russia’s Future Party over Russia’s 11-time zones. Leonid has over 20 years of experience as an IT professional, running and consulting several of Russia’s largest software firms. Together with Fyodor Krasheninnikov he published three editions of “The Cloud Democracy,” a book on how modern technology could re-shape and re-define democracy and elections. Leonid is also founder of the Internet Protection Society, a NGO focused on internet freedom and digital rights in Russia.
Could you tell me a bit about what your current work involves?
I do a lot of things, but the most important of them is being involved with Alexei Navalny as his Chief of Staff. Alexei Navalny is the leader of Russian Opposition and 2010 Yale World Fellow. I help him and his political operations. As his Chief of Staff, and occasionally campaign manager, I run and manage the network of regional campaign offices. We have about 45 regional offices all over Russia, with over 100 employees, and this whole network reports to me. I also run some of my own back projects, the most important being the Internet Protection Society, a digital rights NGO, because Russia has issues of internet freedom, freedom of speech on the internet, persecution for retweets, reposts and likes. So, we try to bring the attention of people towards issues of internet freedom.
And what brings you to Yale?
The Yale World Fellow program, which lasts a semester. Yale brings 16 fantastic people from various backgrounds to this University for four months, basically to get immersed into Yale as a community, so to do a lot of networking, and some events. I am organizing several events on campus and giving talks myself, bringing in my friends, and participating in events held by other world fellows.
I read that you have twenty years of prior experience in IT. How does your extensive experience in IT align with your political goals?
Its true, my Ph.D. was in computer science. I started to work at a local software company in my hometown of Yekaterinburg, when I was 17 years old, after my first year of university. So indeed, I have 20 years of experience in IT, from junior software developer to project manager for very large projects. This helps a lot, because you can’t do politics now without vast knowledge and expertise in IT, especially in a country like a Russia and a regime like the Russian one, because you don’t have any access to television, radio, newspapers. Any mainstream media, we are completely banned from any possibility to use them. So, it is essential to employ internet, messengers, modern communication to reach out, spread the word, to organize our volunteers and supporters. And this includes a lot of information technology.
So, you’ve kind of already touched on this a bit but to what extent does internet censorship remain an issue in Russia and through your work with the Internet Protection Society have you figured out any creative ways to overcome it?
It’s not correct to say that internet censorship remains a big issue, it’s an issue of constantly growing importance. Before 2011, the internet was completely free in Russia, there were no restrictions. Then, on December 4, 2011, the ruling party, Putin’s Party, United Russia, won a parliamentary election, by completely rigging them. And this was after the start of the YouTube era. It was not the first election in Russia’s history, but the first that was really filmed and streamed on YouTube. Enormous amounts of YouTube videos proving the fact that ballots were rigged flooded YouTube and forced hundreds of thousands of people to turn out on the streets to protest. Starting from that point in time, President Putin and his party started to realize that internet, free media and the distribution of uncensored videos and ideas, is a major threat—as always, free speech is a major threat for authoritarian regimes. Ironically, this government, which has been elected through a very rigged election, spent all its five years inventing a huge number of laws intended to impose internet censorship in Russia. And these have been successfully introduced. Starting from approximately 2014, people have been constantly prosecuted for posting some types of content on the internet, organizing rallies on the internet. I myself have spent 95 days in jail during Alexei Navalny’s presidential campaign, for technically doing nothing but [retweeting] some videos asking people to turn out to protest rallies. And there are of course also more serious issues. There is an infamous article, Article 282 of the Russian penal code, which is called “Inclination of Hatred” and pretty much everything counts, like if you say on the internet that Putin is bad. The most dramatic example was two bloggers were both indicted under this article, one for saying that Russia should bomb Syria, and the other for saying that Russia shouldn’t bomb Syria. These trials were held around the same time, in parallel, both of them were indicted for inclination of hatred, according to Article 282, and both got sentenced.
The Internet Protection Society has done a great job bringing these issues to the public attention, and creating public awareness of the fact that Russia has actually turned into a country where the internet is not free, where it is censored, where it is dangerous to express your mind on the internet. This makes it part of the ongoing political agenda. We were the first to organize a large protest rally against internet censorship, to politicize these issues. We co-organized probably the largest rally in Moscow this year in April 2018, which was a protest rally against the prohibition of Telegram messenger in Russia. And I would say while we are very far from winning this battle, this strategy of making these issues a part of the political agenda has already brought us some success. Namely and most importantly, now this very Article 282 is being brought to a reconsideration and it will probably be decriminalized. So now there are other 760 people in Russia indicted under this article, serving their prison term. After this is decriminalized, they all will be released and there will be no further prosecutions. That’s really important.
In terms of your work for the Future Party, what would you say are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced, particularly as campaign manager for Navalny’s 2013 campaign and his more recent attempt to get registered for the 2018 Presidential Election?
First of all, the Future Party, or the Navalny campaign, these are different names for the same thing, for the resistance, for the Russian Opposition. It’s the Anti-Corruption Foundation, or the Navalny Team, or the Future Party, it’s the same entity, the same people. Alexei Navalny, his team and his regional network, when its necessary to get registered for an election, we call ourselves the Future Party, when its necessary to organize an anti-corruption investigation, it’s called the Anti-Corruption Foundation and so on. It’s the same entity and doesn’t represent my different capacities.
The biggest challenge, of course, always, is to resist the propaganda, the lies, and the disinformation. Even now in 2018, the vast majority of Russian voters rely on television. They follow the agenda, the propaganda of what they see on television. And to break through this wall of lies, this is the main obstacle, the main challenge for us always. To do this, we develop our tools, our IT tools, our YouTube channel, our applications, to spread the word and counter the Kremlin’s agenda.
And what made you to want to get involved in politics in Russia?
Oh, it was mostly a coincidence. It all started ten years ago in 2008. I was senior vice president of the largest software company in my home city, supervising 1500 people and being responsible for 100-million-dollar turnover. I was doing a high profile senior IT job, but I was still following local politics and was kind of unhappy about what was going on in my home city. I was blogging about it on Live Journal, if you remember such a platform, it was very popular in Russia ten years ago. I was blogging on Live Journal, discussing what life was like in my home city and what should be done better and one of my friends commented saying ‘well, in half a year from now there is an election in the City Council, so why don’t you participate.’ And I decided, well, why don’t I participate, and so it all started.
Did you ever expect that you would become involved in this major opposition movement?
Of course not. This never has become a conscious decision. It’s been a series of events which have brought me where I am, it’s never been a strategy. It wasn’t like I calculated ten years ago that starting with this local municipal election in Yekaterinburg, I will end up being number two in the Russian Opposition movement. And also, that’s because no one actually wants to get where I am now because it includes all these arrests, being detained, always being under pressure from the government, and taking all these risks. But I am still happy that this is where I am, because I feel that I am doing something important for my country and its people.
For some background, could you share some information about the difficulties the Russian opposition faced in the run up to the 2018 Presidential Election, and what are the next steps now?
Well, the main challenge is that Russia is a non-free country. This contributes to negative selection. In this country [United States], if I am a successful businessman, or a public organizer, or active with some non-governmental organization, I would probably consider running for an office or participating in an election because it may well make things better. In Russia, if you want to say publicly that you don’t support Putin, you want to oppose him and challenge him, well this will result only in you having severe problems. If you have some business, if you have some enterprise, inspections will start, guys from the pest control or police or tax administration or security inspection will be after you and will prevent your business from running. You’ll face all kinds of problems. People normally don’t get involved in opposition politics. And this is the first problem, you don’t have a lot of people to choose from. Second, you face everyday pressure; so, the government uses all of its propaganda machine to lie about you. They call you an American agent, who wants to ruin the country, and say that you went to Yale to learn how to put together a Molotov cocktail and organize a revolution. And like I said, even now, 70 or 80 percent of the Russian population does not have other sources of information. They use the internet, but for political news they rely on the television. And the television tells them that ‘well Alexei Navalny went to Yale in 2010, and now Leonid Volkov is at Yale in 2018, in order to get educated on how to create disorder and revolution. It doesn’t matter for them what is the truth, they invent their own reality. Now this is probably more understandable for the American audience as well, it’s not something the American media is also facing. But we’ve lived in this reality for at least ten years.
So, what are the next steps for the opposition?
In a nutshell, the strategy for the opposition is to invest in further growth. Before the 2018 presidential campaign attempt, we only had one office in Moscow and one group of people in Moscow, and probably 20,000 registered supporters. After this campaign, we have 45 regional offices, and over 200,000 registered voters. Our movement has used this opportunity, this campaign, although Alexei was not admitted to run, for a ten-fold growth. And this is the strategy, to use any opportunity to put the Kremlin and President Putin under stress and make it more complicated for them. Everyone under stress makes mistakes.
Coming back to Yale. How do you transition from this life in active politics in Russia to campus life here?
Well, first of all, I’m not transitioning completely, because I still have my job as boss of the Internet Protection Society, and Chief of Staff for Alexei. Of course, I delegate a lot of operational things, but still, I mean today I woke up at 4 a.m. to participate in a couple of conference calls with Moscow. And I do that pretty much every day. Due to the time difference, I wake up early and tend to my Russian business, make my conference calls, have discussions, and so on, and then go to the University to participate in the World Fellows Program activities. Of course, I don’t do as much in Russia as I used to do in the last year and a half. But this has been one of the reasons to come here. The Navalny presidential campaign included a year and a half of hands on operational routine. I was managing the peak amount of staff members, there were 350 staff members in 85 locations. [The work] included making hundreds of emails and calls and making small operational decisions daily. It was very hands on. If you do it for a year and a half, of course, regretfully, but unavoidably, you tend to lose sight of the bigger picture. Your horizon moves to a couple of weeks and months. The idea of being a little bit away from all this means being able to exhale, relax, and regain the vision of the bigger picture. I feel that my semester here at Yale will help me to do so.
And what specifically have you been up to in terms of programming?
We have two or three weekly events, for all World Fellows, which I participate in. I also do weekly meetings with my student liaisons, whom Yale kindly arranges for us. It’s a fantastic group of young undergraduate students. We’re working on a project together, which I won’t reveal yet, but it’s a really interesting project. Working on this project with my student liaisons is probably the most enjoyable part of all my activities here. And also, there are a number of events that I am bringing to Yale as a World Fellow, which include my talk on October 22. On November 5, I’m bringing in Alisa Ganieva, who is one of the best known young Russian writers and she teaches creative writing at the University of Iowa as well. And she is a young, Russian, Muslim writer, which is important. Eighty percent of Russia’s population is Christian, 20 percent is Muslim, so she brings a very interesting perspective. In her writing she explores a different part of Russian culture and we’re going to have a very interesting discussion with her about Russia’s Muslim regions, which have always been facing conflict and struggle over the last 30 years. I hope this will be a very interesting event. On November 12, I’m bringing in Arkady Ostrovsky, who is the editor of the Economist for Russia and Eastern Europe. He is an enormously bright and educated expert on politics, information warfare, and Russian intelligence operations and all that stuff, which is, unfortunately now, very interesting for everyone. We’re going to have a panel discussion on Russian meddling and so on. I’m trying to bring in my friends here to enrich the Yale discourse on Russia, and of course I am also attending the events other World Fellows are organizing. Each of the World Fellows has a fantastic background and has a lot to share.
And what about future plans? Do you plan to go back to Russia after this semester and become heavily involved with daily operations again?
After this semester, I’ll definitely be involved in daily operations again, partly because I keep doing this even now. Technically, if I go back to Russia now, I will be facing 60 days of detention in jail for the last rallies I organized before leaving the country, which I don’t really want to do. This will expire in May, so I will probably spend several months in Europe, and will go back to Russia after May 2019. But this is subject to change, maybe my lawyers will figure out how to get me back earlier. But the general idea is that of course I am going back, that’s my life, that’s my work, that’s where I’ve invested the ten last years of my professional career, so I’m going to keep going.
Interviewed by Zainab Hamid, Timothy Dwight College, Class of 2019.