On May 15, Zhanna Nemtsova spoke at the Democracy Summit in Copenhagen at the invitation of the Alliance of Democracies Foundation. Here is her speech in full:
I am a citizen of Russia, a country that has launched a full-scale criminal war against Ukraine. I’ve been thinking about the reason for the Russian aggression which started in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.
The short answer is complacency. First and foremost the complacency of millions of Russian citizens disengaged from politics and focused on their private lives. They allowed Putin to keep a grip on power; they allowed him to kill and torture his political opponents and people he viewed as traitors. They praised the unlawful annexation of Crimea in great numbers. They support the war in Ukraine in great numbers.
The complacency was also noticeable beyond Russia. Too many across the world were either deceived or afraid of provoking a nuclear power.
Symbolic references to the values of freedom and human rights were still present in multiple political speeches as a rhetorical tool, but the gap between words and real action has widened dramatically over the years.
In this context, it is worth remembering who first brought the concept of ‘values’ to the political discourse and when. It was 66 years ago when US President Eisenhower referred to them in a speech four years after Stalin’s death.
In Russia, disregard for human rights and the widespread perception that they are something of lesser importance than the market economy and technological modernization, is the fundamental reason for the rise of Putinism. The feudal system, endemic corruption and medieval aggression can easily thrive in modern settings, even with smartphones and hipster cafes serving vegan food. This is best described in the novel ‘Day of the Oprichnik’ by Vladimir Sorokin, Russia’s living genius.
Through my work as the leader of the Nemtsov Foundation, I am promoting this simple thought. We should practice what we preach; otherwise, dictators like Putin and many other authoritarians are taking advantage and people in democratic countries are losing trust in their respective governments and governing systems.
As a Foundation, we are focused mainly on education in humanities and support for the free press, the two areas that contribute to what my father called Enlightenment. Russia is also a hostile power because of its historical path of development. The era of Enlightenment, a period in history that led to the creation of what we know as European values, almost bypassed the Russian Empire.
One might think of it as a low priority for now, and I’d partly agree. However, in the long run, only democratic education, both for a new generation of leaders as well as citizens, can guarantee the sustainability of democratic institutions. And this, in turn, can ensure peace. So we should start thinking about it and taking the first steps now.
Bringing about change and fighting for the values of freedom are closely tied with courage. Boris Nemtsov made the ultimate sacrifice for his principled position. I once asked my grandma, my father’s mother, who is still alive at 95, if his sacrifice was in vain. She gave it some thought and then said — if he had not been my son, I would not have believed it was in vain.
The Nemtsov Foundation awards a Prize for Courage annually; last year the recipient was the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Fifteen months ago in the first days of the invasion, Ukrainians were appalled by the complacency of Russians who didn’t take to the streets en masse on the 24th of February 2022 and later. Since then, voicing anti-war positions has been criminalized in Russia and hundreds of criminal cases have been initiated, including against ordinary people.
Individual protest, which requires more courage than participating in a group protest, is not seen, and the destinies of those unknown people with no connections or public record are left in obscurity. But they exist, and they are sentenced to long prison terms.
I want to read the quotes of final words presented in court by two political prisoners. I want their voices to be heard here.
Nikita Tushkanov, a 28-year-old teacher from Komi, an Eastern region of Russia sentenced to 5.5 years in prison for posting criticism of the invasion
“Only the dead and injured know the truth about war! War is a crime, and its initiation is a crime for which there is no justification. The Anschluss of Austria took place in the same way as the so-called reunification with Crimea. My state led by President Putin unleashed a war in Ukraine in 2014, and in February 2022, it unleashed a full-scale war and, at the same time, involved the whole world, unleashing a third world war. It was my state that doomed tens of thousands of people to death and doomed millions to suffering.”
Mikhail Simonov, a 63-year-old waiter in the restaurant of a long-distance train was sentenced to 7 years in prison for posting anti-war messages on social media
“I have always believed and still believe that human life is of unconditional value that should become a priority, although in our country they do not think so. I will give a small example from childhood, which I have always remembered. My mother was still a little girl in besieged Leningrad. She told me how she carried her parents who had already died, on a sled along the frozen Neva river, in order to bury them, how she later survived the terrible Great Patriotic World War, and hoped that this was the last war. Such words are still spinning in my head – from a song, or something – “my dear, if there were no war.” Mom said so too.
What is happening in the world that people are dying, a large number of people? And human life should be a priority.
Thank you very much for your time and attention.