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Putin’s Nemesis Dmitry Gudkov Dishes on His Achilles’ Heel

Dmitry Gudkov, the young opposition Duma deputy who’s been denounced as a traitor, says the Panama Papers hit the Russian strongman’s weak spot—and there’s more to come.

As one of Russian parliament’s only real opposition deputies, Dmitry Gudkov knows something about unorthodox politics.

But America’s presidential election has him intrigued. “It seems very strange,” he tells me over lunch at The Smith near Lincoln Center, a few hours before catching a flight home to Moscow. “There is a possibility to have a rivalry between Sanders and Trump because Hillary can be under investigation. She can be accused before the election and if that happens, she will be forced to drop out. Maybe Biden will run.”

Gudkov liked Marco Rubio. As for the The Donald, “he is clearly not an idiot. He was a successful businessman. But he resembles Zhirinovsky,” the ultranationalist leader of Russia’s perfectly misnamed Liberal Democratic Party as well as the deputy speaker of Gudkov’s own institution, the State Duma. “Zhirinovsky had the same success in the ’90s, when his party was No. 1 in the parliament, and was he very inspiring and unusual and charismatic. Even now, he’s around 70, but he’s still charismatic.”

This is magnanimous praise indeed for a man who wants Russian tanks to roll into Kiev and does not believe the Baltic states exist, and who called for Gudkov’s arrest on charges of treason. His crime, according to Zhirinovsky, was attending a conference in the U.S. Senate three years ago, put on by the human rights monitor Freedom House, the conservative think tank Foreign Policy Initiative, and the Institute of Modern Russia, the research organization where I was at the time a senior fellow.

Gudkov’s presence, as a sitting Duma deputy criticizing Russia from the halls of not just any foreign government but this one in particular, was inciting. But then he used the occasion to declare that the 2011 parliamentary elections, the proximate cause for the largest civil demonstrations in Moscow since the collapse of communism, “totally forged,” and called on the U.S. government to disseminate information about Russian officials’ tucked-away foreign assets. Doing so, Gudkov says, perhaps not entirely without a soupçon of irony, would “help Putin” in the latter’s avowed quest to return offshore Russian wealth to the Motherland.

The Putinists didn’t quite see it that way. Gudkov was denounced as a traitor. A letter signed by all parties in the Duma called for an investigation into his activities, stating menacingly: “We believe that Gudkov’s statements are effectively tantamount to calls for illegal acts that violate the sovereignty of the Russian state.”

That he’s still alive and not in jail or under house arrest is something of a marvel. At 36, Gudkov is a bit of a pastiche pol, half establishment, half dissident. Tall, good-looking, and a semi-professional basketball player, he is the son of Gennady Gudkov, a former KGB officer turned parliamentarian who was expelled from the Duma in 2012, to cries of “Judas!” and “Go fuck yourself” from his fellow deputies, for participating in anti-Putin demonstrations and castigating his former colleagues in the Russian security services as compromised hirelings of a criminal regime.

In 2011, Gudkov fils joined the Coordinating Council of the Opposition, an unofficial or “non-systemic” political organization, and later was outspoken in his criticism of the controversial law banning American adoption of Russian orphans, which was Moscow’s retaliation for the passage of the Magnitsky Act, a law that purports to penalize crooked Russian officials by barring them from entering the United States and freezing any assets they might keep here.

After his Senate appearance in 2013, Gudkov spent the remainder of his time on the East Coast performing a followup heresy. He met with Russian adoptees and their families, finding, contra the febrile propaganda emanating from state media organs preceding and following the Kremlin’s enactment of what the opposition dubbed “Herod’s Law,” that the kids weren’t just all right, they were thriving and much better off in homes in New Jersey than in state orphanages in Novosibirsk. He returned to Russia and relayed his findings. He was subsequently expelled from his party, A Just Russia, but retained his Duma seat as an independent.

Gudkov is running for re-election in September and was in the United States again to figure out new ways to win enough votes to stay in the job. One of these is canvassing the Russian diaspora in New York and Washington, D.C. “We have 225 single mandate districts. I’m going to run in Moscow, the northwestern part. All Russians living in New York and D.C. can vote in this district. There are 20,000 voters in D.C. and 3,000 in New York.”

If he can get 5,000 to 10,000 of that number, Gudkov figures, he’ll have enough of an overseas contingent to beat whomever the ruling United Russia party puts up against him this year. But that’s not going to be easy, as diaspora voter turnout in those cities in 2011 was a minuscule 2,500. So Gudkov is, in effect, running for office in two countries that are arguably embroiled in a resurgent cold war with each other.

Not that he’s faced any hassle from state structures—at least not yet. Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, told Gudkov that any Russian passport-holder can vote in September. And Gudkov’s chief of staff, Maksim Kats, a municipal deputy in Moscow and a savvy PR professional, is taking lessons from the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign, which has made ample use of online activism to drum up support and a volunteer base.

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Kats visited a Sanders call center to see how it was mobilizing young voters. “Our Internet platform is even better than what Bernie has,” Gudkov says. By his own estimation, it’s also all he has.

Seventy percent of the Russian population is what he has termed “TV citizens,” those who get their information, such as it is, from state-controlled media. These TV citizens willfully allow themselves to be brainwashed into thinking that, say, the Panama Papers have only exposed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko or the king of Saudi Arabia or David Cameron’s family—or, better yet, that the U.S. State Department orchestrated the release to embarrass Putin, as the Russian president and WikiLeaks have now both alleged. The remaining 30 percent of the population consists of what Gudkov calls “Internet citizens,” for whom there is “no doubt that all of this money belongs to Putin or his inner circle.”

And this is the regime’s Achilles’ heel, Gudkov says, because Putin “is concerned about his own money.” It scarcely matters that the amount uncovered by the Panama Papers, all linked to the Russian president’s longtime cronies and thought to be held in their name on his behalf, was a measly $2 billion, “money for tips,” as Gudkov puts it. No, what matters is that this disclosure sent a signal to the Kremlin that if “they continue to escalate, there will be more consequences. When these things are revealed, they can be investigated by security services in the United States or other countries.” Putin is really only terrified only of having his personal fortune frozen or confiscated.

Is it awkward, inhabiting both the parallel polis and the official one? “On the one hand, I’m in the opposition,” he answers. “On the other hand, I’m in the Duma—and I have good relations with many MPs from other parties. These MPs vote—their votes are decided in the Kremlin. But at the same time, they support what I do. For instance, when I introduced the bill to return direct mayoral elections, a lot of United Russia members came to me and said they support the bill, but they couldn’t vote for it.”

Most deputies, Gudkov maintains, are “victims of the regime. Most of them represent business structures or interests of enterprises. Most of them are entrepreneurs.” He believes the only way for Russian entrepreneurs to indemnify themselves from having their money taken away or their business raided by a rival faction is to run for office. This is especially true in the Russian regions. “If you’re not in state parliament or politics, your business can be taken over by the siloviki [strongmen] or the FSB,” the Federal Security Service, one of the successor agencies of the KGB, he says.

I reply that being in parliament may be a necessary deterrent against expropriation, but it’s not really a sufficient one. After all, Gudkov’s friend and Duma colleague, Ilya Ponomarev, had his parliamentary immunity taken away for being the only deputy in Russia to vote against the annexation of Crimea. Gudkov abstained from that rubber-stamp decision, but he distinguished himself in a related manner: by being one of three deputies to vote against stripping Ponomarev’s legal protection as an elected representative.

Ponomarev, a member of A Just Russia, Gudkov’s former party, now inhabits a political Twilight Zone himself. In 2015, he was placed under arrest in absentia for allegedly embezzling $750,000 from the Skolkovo Foundation, a state-funded group meant to build the Russian equivalent of Silicon Valley outside Moscow. Few think the charges are anything other than politically motivated.

(Ponomarev now lives in Kiev full time but, as it happens, was also in Manhattan this week, and we had dinner a day before I interviewed Gudkov. He told me that he cannot lawfully enter Russia but can and has introduced or voted on new legislation. Like Gudkov, he plans to run for re-election in September, as part of the Yabloko party ticket. “I will even vote for Dmitry here as a Russian passport-holder,” Ponomarev said, flashing a mischievous smile. “You can quote me on that.”)

Gudkov believes, perhaps too optimistically, that there are plenty of progressive democrats in the Russian government, even in the Kremlin, and that eventually they will form a phalanx against the strongmen when there is a “split” brought about by economic calamity. When will that long-awaited and serially deferred moment arrive? I inquire. He says it will take three years, which is when he believes capital reserves will be exhausted. “Now this crisis has seriously hit only the middle class. But in one year, in two years, it could hit all of the rest of the people. You can believe in propaganda when you have something to eat in your refrigerator. But once the fridge is empty, you can’t believe in propaganda.”

U.S. and E.U. sanctions aren’t so material to the coming implosion, he suggests, because Putin has created such a toxic investment climate that if even sanctions were lifted tomorrow, few outsiders would risk doing business as before in Russia. “The capital flight was $200 billion for two years. And this year it’s going to be more than $50 or even $60 billion. Direct investment has decreased from $70 billion per year to $1.7 billion. Even if sanctions are lifted, nobody will invest money in our country because you cannot feel safe. Your business can be taken over or totally destroyed.”

Putin may be aware of an inevitable reckoning, which is why he just announced the creation of a National Guard—in effect, a praetorian military service to protect his regime from enemies within. These soldiers will be granted “special means” to “intercept mass disorders or other unlawful actions interfering with traffic, the work of communications and organizations.” Shoot-to-kill orders.

“It’s the most controversial issue,” Gudkov says. “I’m not sure that the guards will be ready to kill people. To shoot. Historically, the security services are always neutral when something happens because they never take—they take no risk. It’s a mentality. The mentality of law enforcement.”

Except that recent experience shows that the security services can also inherit the state, as they did after Boris Yeltsin’s presidency and as Gudkov’s own father more or less conceded in fulminating against his erstwhile comrades in 2012. Doesn’t Gudkov believe that some form of truth and reconciliation, or lustration of the ruling elites, will be necessary if and when regime change occurs to avoid the same pitfalls of the post-Soviet transition?

“Putin has a chance to agree with the moderate opposition to get immunity for himself in exchange for democratic reforms,” Gudkov says. But will he ever consent to this? “I don’t know. Nobody knows. The future is unpredictable.”