Note from LeftEast Editors: We are delighted to present the English translation of September.media’s interview with Mikhail Lobanov, published in the original Russian on July 28th. The interview is about Lobanov’s “foreign agent” status and dismissal from university, the ways of anti-war political organising among the left in Russia and beyond, and finally, Mikhail’s plans for his political assignment abroad upon which he embarked a fortnight ago.
S: Why did you and Sasha [Zapolskaya – sociologist, Mikhail Lobanov’s wife, ed. note] decide to leave now? Was the official branding of you as a “foreign agent” and your subsequent dismissal the last straw, after which it was impossible to stay? Or were there any other signals making clear that it would be too dangerous for you and Sasha to stay in Russia?
ML: Signals have been coming continuously for the last six months, starting in December when the police searched my house and beat me. But yes, indeed, my “foreign agent” status brought the realisation that I wouldn’t be able to work in any school, to lead maths student circles – it’s actually a ban on my being in the profession. And the way the dismissal took place at Moscow State University, the unprecedented pressure exerted on the university and its leadership, also made it clear that I would most likely not be allowed to work anywhere at all. It became clear that the only thing I could count on in Russia now was to live my life while waiting for the final step in the arsenal of the security forces: fabrication of a criminal case and imprisonment in a pre-trial detention centre or under house arrest. And that the time left until that moment, even if it does not happen in the next few days, but in a couple of months, I will be forced to spend looking for work, which will be skilfully cut off by the same methods, and I will not be able to engage in any creative activity during this period.
And a pre-trial detention centre and a criminal case is an exclusion from politics for many months, if not for several years. Yes, we had a plan in case I would suddenly find myself in a pre-trial detention centre or in prison, but that was not really an option we wanted to follow. We wanted to continue our activities as long as possible, as long as there was an opportunity, taking into account all the risks. Now that opportunity is gone. So we went with the main scenario, which is a long-term political assignment abroad.
S: You mentioned the unprecedented pressure on your faculty colleagues. What was it expressed in? Were they themselves threatened with dismissal?
ML: The pressure was on the rector [Viktor Sadovnichy], on the university administration as a whole. And then the rector spent a week of his time, a week of the work of several vice-rectors who put pressure on the faculty to force me to resign of my own accord or to force the faculty (of Mechanics and Mathematics) to take responsibility for my dismissal. Sadovnichy is a federal-level political figure. Of course, now he does not have the same weight as in the late 90s, at the peak of his popularity and his political career, but nevertheless, he cannot be given an ultimatum by some colonel of the police, and it is obvious that the list of those who can really scare him is not that large. And the rector is apparently frightened, and has taken the threat seriously.
The faculty and departmental leadership, on the other hand, have shown unprecedented shop-floor solidarity. Politically, we may have different positions with many of the faculty administration, but they all believe that it is absolutely unacceptable to dismiss a person from the faculty for his political views, for his statements, for his activities outside the university, and that the faculty should not be involved in this process in any way. The faculty has been subjected to waves of pressure from time to time during the last year; it has fought them off, even gotten used to them. But now the only thing the faculty leadership could do was to try to inform the rector that I should not be fired, that there are ways out of this situation that are in accordance with the law, on the one hand, and the interests of MSU in terms of preserving its reputation, on the other. But the pressure was so strong that Sadovnichy decided to carry out the dismissal over the head of the faculty, at his own level. At the same time, he himself did not want to sign the dismissal order and delegated the authority to one of his vice-rectors.
S: If we talk about all the searches, beatings, detentions, it is clear that you and Sasha were also under incredible pressure, and you lived under constant stress. What helped you to withstand it all this time?
ML: People’s support, of course. On the one hand, it’s really scary, unpleasant, sometimes painful, but on the other hand, as soon as each next wave of pressure started, we felt tremendous support from the people around us, from our relatives, from our loved ones, from our like-minded people, from our comrades with whom we have been fighting together for many years, and from all kinds of people from all sides, from Russia, from outside Russia, from foreign trade unions, from Russian trade union initiatives. And naturally, this is important for anyone, it helps them to get over the troubles that happen to them and move on. It helped us too, and that’s why I again say thank you to everyone who did something with their efforts, kind words, specific offers of help, reposts, likes or any other gestures. It was important to us, it will continue to be important. During this year I have felt that in fact the solidarity of ordinary people, our comrades, our colleagues, is stronger than any repression. It helps, if not to overcome them, then at least to survive them and not to fall apart.
S: Let’s now talk about VyDvizhenie, the political project of which you and Sasha Zamyatin became the faces. As an outside observer, it seems to me that VyDvizhenie’s activities are primarily related to specific projects – elections or activist schools. Was the choice in favour of a non-permanent project structure a conscious choice on your part? And is it not the case that in between waves of activity you lose those who mobilised for previous projects?
ML: It was indeed largely a conscious choice in favour of project structure. But I certainly don’t mean to suggest that only associations and initiatives of this type should exist in Russia now. There are groups with permanent membership and organisational structure. But it seemed to us that for the purposes we had set for ourselves in our long-term political strategy, project activity was more suitable. We were among the few people with left-democratic views in Russia who decided to seriously try to use elections, an institution that the left is critical of in one way or another. Nevertheless, we realised that it offered great opportunities to build teams, to bring people together, to promote an agenda.
That is, if we don’t fetishize elections and representative democracy, but treat them as a given that can and should be used in the interests of the movement, then we can work with them. And elections are a project thing. And there is a certain plus in the fact that it is a story with clear start and finish, that produces a measurable, tangible result either in the form of victory, or in the form of a good result, or, on the contrary, in its absence. When there is a final, clear, tangible goal, it is easier to involve new people and unite them. The next question is how to make the team that was formed at the first election flow into the next project and the one after that, so that these projects are not just about elections. It seems to us that we have managed to find this mechanism. A very significant percentage of those people who joined the team in 2021 continued to work on our next projects or created their own projects with which we are in direct contact. Such as the podcast “This is the Basis”, almost all of whose active participants were part of the 2021 campaign. Or the Cipollino Library: some of the organisers of this interesting open space-based project were also involved in the 2021 campaign. There is no need to list them all, but so many other initiatives have indeed grown out of the 2021 campaign.
The project approach we have chosen is certainly not the only possible one. The situation is such that you have to try different ways. If you have your vision, try to realise it, let’s take different paths in this forest we do not fully know. Not arguing about being right, but being in contact with those who have taken a different path, exchanging information and experience. And someone – maybe more than one – will find a path along which we will arrive at the world we dream of.
S: Now it seems that elections have lost their relevance because of the unprecedented reaction of the regime in recent history, which is trying to crush all remnants of self-organisation. And there is a feeling that your political project has shifted more to educational and media activism. Is that true, or do you think that elections in the future will still play a role?
ML: What will happen next, how the inevitable transformation of the regime will take place, and whether there will be elections that will be important in that transformation is impossible to say now. There are a number of scenarios we are thinking about in which elections will matter. And so we continue to keep the electoral pathway as the focus of our attention. But that doesn’t mean we have to get involved in every election right now. For example, this spring we did not see a single region where there were candidates close to us and where there was a request from them to roll out our platform and start working on an election campaign. In the Moscow mayoral election, we had an understanding of how to develop the campaign, but the authorities poured concrete on the whole process, made deals with the parliamentary parties, and in the end there was nothing to work with. It is obvious that if there had been at least one candidate who commanded the respect of the politically active environment in Moscow, s/he would have become a point of consolidation, and we would have joined in and helped to build the electoral machine.
So, yes, we are now focusing on projects such as the VyDvizhenie school. These are not just educational projects, they are part of a long-term strategy. We don’t just hold lectures for a few hundred people to pass their leisure time by learning some interesting facts. In our political strategy, activism and political struggle are inextricably linked to modern academic research and worldviews. It can’t be otherwise, and when we say that we gather interesting professors and we ourselves understand some things we are interested in and are ready to help others understand, it means that there will be next steps of transition from this interest to direct practical collective action.
S: Going back to your long-term political assignment abroad, are you going to pursue professional activities within it or will you focus entirely on the political project?
ML: I have a need for mathematical creativity, I have a need for teaching, and I really hope that the world and Russia will change, and I will be able to return to Moscow University and teach there. But in order to make this possible, it is necessary to engage in politics first. So now I will be concentrating on politics first and foremost, in the hope that one day we’ll get closer to a situation where I can return to teaching.
S: You were one of the few public anti-war politicians who stayed in Russia to the last. And, as you said, your departure meant that there were no more opportunities for you to participate that didn’t lead you to the SIZO, to prison. Do you think there is still such an opportunity in principle, for other anti-war activists and movements, to stay in Russia and fight?
ML: The answer is unequivocally yes. We see that there is such an opportunity, and tens of thousands of people take advantage of it. For a year, I was the focus of attention of people who, on a professional basis, for money and professional advancement, sought to destroy political life in the country. We lasted a year, and during that year we did, in my opinion, a lot. Others are still out of sight of these people and continue their activities. This, it seems to me, is a perfectly acceptable tactic: as long as there is an opportunity, then act inside Russia. If you have attracted attention, if there is a real danger that cannot be ignored, then you can change direction, and others will continue. This is the only way I see.
S: There is a discourse, you probably know it yourself: “Well, another anti-war politician has been jailed or expelled from the country. So there is no point in doing anything political while in Russia. It seems to me that this is a fairly widespread belief. How do you feel about it?
ML: Of course, when we discussed leaving, we also kept it in mind. We understood that if I ended up in prison, it would demoralise some of the active people: “Here’s another political prisoner. He resisted, didn’t leave, and now he’s in prison. Now we will have to give him some kind of solidarity campaign, gather a support group and so on”. This is not a situation in which the imprisonment of another politician can change anything. But my forced political assignment abroad should be looked at differently. In our case, it definitely made sense. We made a platform, participated quite successfully in municipal elections, created the VyDvizhenie school, and some other projects. It all mattered, because people inside Russia felt that life went on, that our forces had not scattered. Maybe some of us had to leave, but we are in touch, we feel one and we continue to move forward. No Putin, no Kremlin, with their military adventures and the horrors they inflict upon the population, will break us. One day the moment will come when we will change everything.
S: Speaking about your statement before your departure, do I understand correctly that you are going to unite the left-wing anti-war opposition that is now in exile in order to form some kind of positive agenda and set of demands? How do you imagine the structure of this association? A forum, a platform, a political party, something else?
ML: What we are envisaging is not a unification of the left political opposition that has left, that is, it’s not a unification of people who have been involved in politics or individual small left groups. Such an attempt is not going to give us a qualitative breakthrough. We are seeking to create a new organisational structure so that thousands or even tens of thousands of people who are close to us in their views find a place in it. In my article you referred to, I said that such a structure does not arise because there is a problem of non-representation in public politics due to a certain historical inertia within Russian society as a whole, and especially in its most active part, which has been rapidly turning left in recent years. And in these conditions, the responsibility for offering solutions to this problem lies with the numerous Russian leftist politicians and public intellectuals. Because it is they who can create focal points around which crystallisation will begin and the process of self-organisation will manifest itself in a structure. This is what I mean. And the second direction of the work we envisage is negotiations with foreign progressive political forces on the left part of the political spectrum, with the aim of forming a certain package of positive proposals directed to ordinary people in Russia, in Ukraine and in other countries.
This is some kind of positive way out of the current catastrophe, so that people feel that not everything is decided at the top. That the elites in the West are not thinking only about how they can make a deal either with a handful of people in the Kremlin or with another handful of the very rich, powerful and violent people who can replace them. And for there to be forces in the world that would offer a way out at the international level in the interests of all, not of the very rich and very famous, but of ordinary people who wonder what will happen next, who are frightened by the fact that they want to divide Russia into parts, that we will all pay reparations for decades, and so on and so forth. It is necessary that some things that concern both Russians and Ukrainians should be voiced and guaranteed from such an international platform. Such dialogue at the international level should not only be about arms supplies, because this way we will not be able to build a world without war and dictatorship.
S: The question was more about how you see it organisationally. Or will the concrete realisation depend on the circumstances?
ML: In the beginning, it will be a set of specific projects, which can initially be done only by a few dozen people with certain skills, specific activities, in some – for hundreds and thousands of participants at once. When we have the developments, we will launch them, try to achieve them, and if some of them take off, it will become a concrete foundation on which to build a more massive structure. Nowadays people are afraid of the word “party”, so we will consider it a movement. The movement is organised after all.
S: So it’s a “VyDvizhenie” only on an international scale, right?
ML: “VyDvizhenie” solves other tasks, as I have already suggested, project-specific, concrete, , long-term and within Russia. We’ll be going in a different direction right now, one that cannot be realised inside Russia, so this is not a transfer of the project from there. It is clear that strategically these are overlapping initiatives, but there is no direct connection between them. Part of our team that left Russia will participate in the activities developing abroad, but no more than that.
S: You also mention the need to form a mass political force. But how can this mass political force be created in the conditions of mass depoliticisation, which has been cultivated by Putin’s regime for the entire duration of its existence?
ML: The depoliticisation factor is really important, but we have a noticeable percentage of politically active people in society. I’m not even talking now about those tens of millions who are not represented, but who feel a general dissatisfaction with their lives, with the current situation, and who don’t see how it can be influenced. At the first stage, we are talking about uniting a noticeable number of already politicised people who have expressed a demand for participation. They had to leave, but they have not broken their ties with Russia and are following what is happening there, they are experiencing this tragedy, the biggest common tragedy in the lives of our generations, and they want to do something. There are a lot of them. The people who left were mostly middle-aged or even young people. These are statistically the most politicised ages in Russia, even before the war. Among those who left, the percentage of the politicised is even slightly higher than the average in these age groups. Accordingly, we will be looking for formulas in which they can show their political participation together with other people, drawing on their views, their ideas, offering reinforcement.
S: So first we are talking about the possibility of political participation for those who are already politicised and active, and then as the next stage we plan to reach a more mass audience in Russia?
ML: Yes, because what happens both outside and inside Russia is that the political call first ignites those who are closer. A certain team emerges, and then, when everything has worked, we can start mobilizing people with no experience of participation. They see that something is already happening, that there are people who are serious, that they see hope, that it makes sense. I’ve seen this repeatedly, at many different levels, from the university level to the level of federal election campaigns. If people see that work is already being done, and those who are doing it believe in what they’re doing, it’s much easier for them to connect and embed.
S: If we talk about the second part of your project now, about cooperation with foreign political organisations, which forces are you planning to cooperate with? And will you limit yourself to Europe only, or do you plan to make connections with leftists from other parts of the world?
ML: We will be in contact with all forces that are ideologically close to us, especially those who, like us, aim to talk not only about armaments, but about the world after the war and the changes it needs. There are such people and organisations in many countries, from Spain and France to Brazil.
S: Various decolonial movements within Russia itself are now gaining popularity. How do you feel about this?
ML: Certainly the people of Russia need more cultural and administrative independence. But at the same time, talk of decolonisation is increasingly being used by the authorities to establish public fear of any change – “it’s better to leave things as they are, because the situation can only change for the worse”. This message needs to be countered.
S: You write that it is necessary to form a set of proposals and guarantees for ordinary people in Russia and Ukraine, to show a way out of the war that is attractive to all peoples affected by it. How do you yourself see the image of this future? What is this vision based on?
ML: First of all, it’s not ordinary Russians who should pay for the destruction and grief brought about by this war unleashed by the Kremlin, but those very rich people, those very rich corporations who have been the main beneficiaries of the regime all these years and on whom it has primarily relied. Many of them have Russian citizenship and are under Russian jurisdiction. Many of them have jurisdiction and citizenship of other countries. People and corporations who have made very large profits over the last 20-30 years from unfair privatisation in Russia and Ukraine, from exploitation of people in Russia and Ukraine. They bought state companies and sold them for profit, paid taxes at unfairly low rates and took capital offshore. This should be some sort of worldwide tax after proper calculations and computations. The money received should be used to rebuild the infrastructure of Ukraine, the infrastructure of the part of Russia that is also being destroyed, and to rebuild the social sphere of both countries that has suffered over the past 30 years. This can and should be the solution. So that in any country big businessmen, oligarchs and officials understand that the next time they decide to start a war, it will not be their poorer fellow citizens who will pay for it, but they will simply agree and go to some islands, to their mansions and villas. And that they will pay for it themselves – with what they have appropriated for themselves. This will be a good deterrent, an excellent precedent, in addition to allowing the restoration of infrastructure. Of course, no one can bring back the dead people, but we need to think about the hundreds of millions who live and will continue to live on this land.
S: Our last question overlaps with your answer to the previous one. How do you see the restoration of relations between Russia and Ukraine after what the Russian state has done to Ukraine? You mentioned programmes that have made it possible to at least repair infrastructural damage, perhaps help with reducing environmental damage. But what remains is a lot of mangled fates and immeasurable pain.
ML: This is a hard thing, it will not happen quickly. I think one of the ways to do it is to gradually – I hope it will happen – realise that the problems and processes that have been going on in Russia for the last 30 years have largely affected Ukraine as well. That the problems that people experienced both before and during the war in both countries have a common nature and cause. And Putin’s regime and the war unleashed by him have the same nature, that low and unfair wages in Ukraine for the last 30 years are the result of the same processes that led to a huge social stratification in Ukraine and Russia. And that people in Russia and in Ukraine all these 30 years have been falling victim to the same trends, which were the consequence of our countries becoming sanctuaries of practices called neoliberal. I am referring to management practices based on the penetration of market instruments where they should not penetrate, where they bring real destruction, widespread market penetration, widespread precariousness of the majority of workers. Our problems prior to 24 February stem from this very thing. And 24 February itself was the result of exactly the same processes.
Yes, the residents of Ukraine suffered doubly in this situation. First, like the residents of Russia, they suffered from the processes related to privatisation and the unfair structure of the economy, and then they suffered from Putin’s regime and the military destruction it inflicted upon them. In Russia there was only the first part, the war has not come here much yet. But if this understanding emerges, if such an optic, a left-democratic view of the world gains popularity, it will contribute to the fact that the further, the more people in our countries will see and feel that the problem is not that something is wrong with Russians, that the problem is in the world economic system, which gives rise to such regimes. And it is not only in Russia, but in dozens of other countries. And understanding this, I hope, will help us find a rapprochement and move forward together.