Yesterday, Vladimir Putin met with the participants and organizers of charity event for sick children. The event included various famous members of the Russian artist and intellectual community. The most animated guest at the table was Yuri Shevchuk, lead singer of the rock band DDT and well-known liberal activist. Just a few months ago, Shevchuk made headlines for a viciously-worded speech against Putin. Last night, he repeated many of his criticisms of the Prime Minister, but this time he was sitting three seats away from the man.
What follows is a full translation of the public conversation between Vladimir Putin and Yuri Shevchuk. For the original Russian transcript, see here.
Putin: We can discuss any topic related to today’s theme. It’s up to you.
Shevchuk: Vladimir Vladimirovich, may I?
Shevchuk: It’s just that the day before yesterday, one of your aides called me (I think — I don’t remember his name), and he requested that I not ask you any tough questions — political and so on…
Putin: Excuse me, but what’s your name? [А как Вас зовут, извините?]
Shevchuk: Yura Shevchuk, musician.
Putin: Yura, that call was a provocation.
Shevchuk: A provocation, well alright.
Putin: My aid could not have called you for this purpose.
Shevchuk: Well, not your aid, some kind of wacko, yes.
[Someone at the table says, "Oh, it's already getting interesting!"]
Shevchuk: I have questions. To put it honestly, I want to use this chance to offer an overdue thanks to everyone who gathered here today because what you see before you today could be the dawning of a real civil society — the one about which we’ve been dreaming.
What do I want to say? I have a few questions. First: freedom. The freedom of speech, for instance. The freedom of the press and the freedom of information — because what’s going on today in the country? This country that’s been class-based for a thousand years? We have princes and boyars with migalki, and we have an oppressed people. The divide is enormous. You know all this.
On the other hand, the only way out from this is that we all become equal under the law — both the boyar and the oppressed public. We need to make it so that miners don’t go into the slaughterhouse like StrafBat soldiers. So that everything is humane and the character of the country is free and self-respecting. And then we can boost patriotism. Because you don’t create patriotism with banners, even though we have a lot of these, I see. And I’m not alone among the intelligentsia [who thinks this] — or the poindexters, let’s say — we see many.
We see these banners and their superficial appearance. It’s an attempt at building patriotism — some kind of conscience for the country — by way of anthems and marches, and so on. We’re past all that now. [We need] only civil society and equality under the law for everyone — absolutely for everyone, for you and for me — and then something will begin. We’ll both build hospitals and help children … and beggars, cripples, and the elderly. Everything will flow from our souls sincerely and honestly.
But to do this, we need the freedom of speech — something we don’t have now. We’ve got partial newspapers and half-television [полторы газеты и полтелевидения]. And moreover, what we see on the tube isn’t even polemics: it’s the same marches and anthems.
In fact, protests among the electorate are growing. You also know this. Many are unhappy with the current situation. What do you think will happen? Do you have plans for a real, serious, sincere, and honest liberalization? For a real democratization of the country? So that NGOs don’t suffocate and we stopped fearing the police on the street? Because the police now serve the leadership and they serve their own pockets, but they don’t serve the people.
In general, we have a lot of repressive organs. So I sincerely offer this final question: on May 31st, there will be a “March of the Dissidents” in Petersburg. Will it be allowed?
Putin: That’s everything?
Shevchuk: For now, yes. I can give you something some other guys and I thought up. Well, we didn’t think it up, but we collected certain facts about what’s happening in the country, from our perspective.
Putin: Okay, thank you. I will certainly take a look. To begin with, I want to say that, without natural democratic development, our country would have no future.
Shevchuk: Of course, no future.
Putin: This is an obvious fact. Because only in a free society can a person realize his potential. And in realizing himself, he develops the country, develops its sciences, and its industry — to the very highest standard. Without this, the consequences set in: stagnation occurs. This is an obvious fact and everyone understands it. So this is my first point.
Second, you have to act within the confines of the law, you’re absolutely right. At the moment, we’re faced with things that demand a professional approach. You mentioned the miners.
Putin: I can tell you that I take everything that’s happening with them very close to heart.
Shevchuk: Me too.
Putin: But a professional approach demands measured analysis of both the legal and economic situations.
Putin: So why is this happening in mining? What’s one of the reasons? They tell me that one of the reasons is that the fixed component [постоянная составляющая] of the salaries in some mines (like in Raspadskii, for example) is 45-46%. And the rest is like a bonus. And for this bonus, people have to do things that violate safety regulations.
Shevchuk: I’ve also heard about this.
Putin: It was my decision — and I gave the appropriate instructions to make this so — that this figure be at least 70%. But, Yura, I want to tell you that this concerns metallurgical coal. So now begins the professional part. There is also power plant coal, where the level of profitability is much lower. And this is all a matter of taxes, this fixed component. If we raise them carelessly, we might find ourselves in a situation where all the mines producing power plant coal simply shut down because they become unprofitable. If you’re lobbying for a market economy, these businesses will just shut down in market conditions. And as I understand it, you’re a supporter of market economics, and not a command economy! They would close down. This is just one point.
Now, you say that the police serve only the bosses. There are all kinds of people in the police force. There, you’ll find a microcosm of our whole society. So that’s a piece of the country — these people aren’t from Mars. These individuals faithfully and justly serve their people. And they risk more than their health. They risk their very lives in the line of fire. With their own cars, these same “cops” — who live off bribes and make their money illegitimately, yes there are such policemen — but there are also the kind that protect children with their own body, put their vehicles in harm’s way, and sometimes die. There are policemen like this, too. Therefore, to tar and feather them all seems to me unjust.
Shevchuk: I’m not smearing them!
Putin: You’re not smearing them, but you said that “the cops” serve the leadership and not the people.
Shevchuk: Fundamentally, yes. I attend the Dissidents’ Marches, where there are 500 people and 2,500 riot control troops. Did we kill or stab somebody?
Putin: Now I gave you my attention and didn’t interrupt. Otherwise, this won’t be a discussion but a madhouse!
I think it is unfair to put everyone under the same header. Though, sure, there are plenty of problems. Our society is such that, as soon as someone gets a little authority, any kind of stick in his hands, he immediately starts swinging it around, trying to make some money off it somehow. And this is characteristic not just of the police, but of any sphere where you find such authority and can profit from these crazy rents.
Regarding the Dissidents’ Marches, there are express rules that specify that local authorities will regulate such activities. In addition to these people who attend either pro- or anti-government marches, there are other people about whose rights we should not forget.
If you decide to hold a Dissidents’ March — I apologize for being harsh now — let’s imagine it might interfere with some hospital and the sick children there. What local official is going to grant you permission to march there? It’s entirely right that they forbid you [from such marches]!
Shevchuk: May I respond?
Putin: No! But now, as just an example, say you want to hold the march where people want to get to their dachas on a Friday. Or on a Sunday, when everyone is returning from their dachas. Yes [sarcastically], they cuss you out so terribly about this! And the local authorities, of course, are all in cahoots.
But this certainly doesn’t mean that the state should hide behind these things I’ve just mentioned and make it impossible to express free speech. This is just a question that must be decided with the [local] authorities.
I hope that in Petersburg it will be done exactly like that, rationally, allowing citizens their right to express their disagreement with the policies of the authorities about this or that issue. But I also hope that the people who participate in this march don’t interfere with others who don’t want to demonstrate, who just want to get home on time, to their families, to their children, and so on. It has to work out [for everyone].
Now, I want you to understand. To me, and I’m sure to other representatives of the government, this doesn’t interfere — on the contrary, it helps.
Shevchuk: Of course.
Putin: If I see that people aren’t just going out on the street “to make a scene” and self-promote, and that they’re saying something real and concrete, pointing out certain weaknesses to which the authorities need to pay better attention — then what’s bad there? Thank you, it needs to be said!
Putin: That is how I relate to this issue.
Shevchuk: But, you see, local officials here just close off all the squares with any roundabouts on the day. There’s a great deal of hypocrisy here.
Putin: Here I agree with you.
Shevchuk: I want to tell you that last year people fought to save the architectural center of Petersburg. How they put the screws to us, you can’t even imagine. But still we fought for the city, the same city where you were born, this wonderful pearl of the world. But it didn’t matter what we did, what obstacles we put in the way [of wrecking crews]. And the people are only enraged because of this. Why do this? You carry a lot of weight with these people. You’ve got to use it somehow.
Putin: [My 'weight' is] 76 kilograms.
[Here they're interrupted and the conversation between Putin and Shevchuk stops for awhile.]
Shevchuk: I’d like to propose a small toast, and [then] let’s get to work… May I make a toast? I would like to toast our children. What kind of country are they going to live in — a country that’s bleak, corrupt, totalitarian, authoritarian, with only one party, one anthem, one thought…
Putin: But there should certainly be just one anthem.
Shevchuk: Or in a bright, democratic country, where everyone is truly equal before the law? That’s all that’s needed. Though, unfortunately, we don’t have it right now. I wish very much that our children lived and were healthy in such a country. That’s the toast.
[Someone at the table says, "But it's only water! What kind of drink is that for a toast?!"]
Putin: The drink suits the toast. [Laughter]
Shevchuk: By the way, I want to say that it would be all the better if children choose a sober lifestyle.
Putin: Correct. And as far as ‘the one anthem’ is concerned, Yura, you’re clearly exaggerating. Regarding ‘one anthem,’ this is a Freudian slip, as they say in such cases. In the early 2000s, you know, when we began to look at the Constitution, and the charters of the subjects of the Federation and of our republics — there was democracy. There was everything: sovereignty, our own border, and property. The only thing there wasn’t was a technical definition of what constituted a subject of the Russian Federation.
So I fully stand by what I said. They should always be joined together: both democracy and legality. Legality is impossible without democracy, and democracy is impossible without the observance of laws. It seems to me that this is the obvious truth.
Shevchuk: The country is ignorant, no one knows this.
Putin: Many people know this.
Shevchuk: You have to inculcate this understanding, [and do] exactly what we’re doing now.
Putin: If we’re again in the company of such respected people as the people gathered here today, we’ll talk about this more often, and greater and greater numbers of people will know about this.