Voice in the Wilderness

The Last Russian Reformer: Meet the Millennial Speaking Truth in Putin’s Parliament

A young Russian MP is one of the only independent voices left to openly oppose the Kremlin’s party line.

Alexander Zemlianichenko

Recently, Russia’s parliament voted on two important bills that will help determine the country’s future. The first proposed to restrict foreign funding for Russian media. The second wanted to enable Russia’s constitutional court to overrule judgments by the European Court of Human Rights and other international courts.

Independent observers are worried that these amendments threaten to take Russia even further away from European values and back to a repressive, Soviet-style legal system. But the parliament, or Duma, was almost unanimous in its support of the bills: out of 450 Duma deputies, only one man spoke out publicly against the legislation.

Apparently, 35-year-old Dmitry Gudkov—one of the Duma’s youngest and best educated MPs—is the only independent politician left in the Russian parliament.

His opinions are brave, firm, and well articulated, but hugely unpopular. Gudkov calls Russia’s involvement in Ukraine and Syria “disgraceful adventures” and says the amendments considered by the Duma will be “destructive for the Russian economy,” especially for its foreign investment, which has already shrunk by 12 percent this year.

“No investor would come to this country, which does not respect international laws and conventions,” he told The Daily Beast last week. “Russia is at the doorstep of a deep crisis. The 24 rockets shot from the Caspian Sea at Syria were worth millions of dollars—a sum equal to an annual budget of a provincial Russian city.”

Gudkov’s forthrightness may leave him isolated, even among the Duma’s opposition wing, but he remains exceedingly optimistic and courageous.

In less than a year, Russia will hold its legislative elections and Gudkov is steadfast in his hope that other MPs will soon emerge as true opponents to the ruling majority. “In fact, I have quite a few supporters inside the parliament walls, aware and concerned of the consequence for Russia’s future,” the deputy told The Daily Beast. “There are several more deputies who respect me, share my liberal views, even in the United Russia party; and although all of them are reluctant to speak their views publicly, each of Russia’s true liberals are working on pushing for reforms from within the state system.”

The reluctance of other politicians to speak their minds could be explained by the real danger that comes with opposing the Kremlin’s official line—particularly after opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was gunned down last February, right outside the Kremlin’s walls.

Going against the majority involves serious risk in today’s Russia. Black sheep are immediately spotted and condemned, in the manner of medieval inquisition, as unpatriotic—or worse, as “a traitor” or “betrayer.”

Earlier this month tens of thousands of Russian nationalists, many in black balaclavas, were joined by several MPs. As if to symbolize their growing power, the annual nationalist march took place on Moscow’s central Tverskaya Avenue this year and not in the city’s outskirts, as in previous years. Carrying “Russian revenge” banners, icons and communist flags, the nationalists demanded that President Vladimir Putin receive the “authority to cleanse traitors in the government.”

Gudkov insisted that the real traitors were corrupt bureaucrats stealing billions on bribes and kickbacks from the Russian people and producing laws to damage the investment climate in Russia. “These ‘patriots’ milk Russia dry to establish their children’s luxury, many abroad, take their families, their money abroad, and they claim they love the motherland? All intelligent and true patriots understand the truth about this shaking majority,” said Gudkov, a severe critic and investigator of state corruption, and of mayors, governors and other bureaucrats who establish a luxurious life both in Russia and outside of its borders.

A journalist and diplomat by training, Gudkov realized what the current proposed amendments could mean for Russia’s future: “Any first-year student of a Russian law school would tell you they are ridiculously illegitimate.”

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If he ever has a chance to sit down and speak with Putin, Gudkov knows exactly what he will say. “I would explain the necessity of reforms; that Russia’s younger generation thinks we should be with the EU; that to attract investments, we should create institutions; and that he, Putin, has a historical chance to reform Russia radically, that a new leader would never dare to risk.”

Still, standing alone against of hundreds of deputies, Gudkov was realistic about his chances. “There is a Politburo of Putin’s closest men, who influence the president’s decisions and essentially the Duma’s initiatives,” the MP admitted. But he’s counting on a few liberal advisers in the Kremlin—including the former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, who is Putin’s adviser on Russia’s true economic situation.

“I hope that one day soon the president will hear from one of them, that Russia needs a new party of liberals,” Gudkov said. “This conversation might have already happened.”