YEKATERINBURG—In Russia, Yevgeny Roizman is something of an endangered species. With popular opposition leaders often forced into exile or locked behind bars, the career politician is one of very few career politicians left on the front lines, willing to fight against the Kremlin’s all-consuming corruption despite the risks that entails.
Throughout his decades-long career, Roizman—who has served as a Duma member in Russia’s parliament and then as mayor of the Ural region’s capital city of Yekaterinburg—has been regarded as one of those rare Russian politicians who does not take bribes and makes time to listen to the concerns of everyday citizens. Many activists in Russia’s scattered opposition divisions hope that Roizman will emerge as a unifying opposition candidate against Vladimir Putin in Russia’s 2024 presidential elections.
While on a walk to his downtown office without bodyguards, Roizman smiled and shook hands with pedestrians who came up to him. He sat down for an interview with The Daily Beast just days after an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) revealed that Russia is a world leader in tax evasion, with dozens of rich technocrats and Putin-connected oligarchs hiding their money in offshore companies.
Roizman said he felt “deeply disgusted,” as he was looking through the names listed in the “Pandora Papers.” Those named include Vladimir Putin’s long-time friend Sergei Chemizov, Putin’s “close” friend Svetlana Krivonogikh, and Channel One’s executive Konstantin Ernst, who also has strong ties to Putin.
“You would neither find my name on these lists, nor Aleksei Navalny’s,” Roizman told The Daily Beast at his office on Tuesday. “These crooks are like mice sneaking around, hustling to hide their wealth in some secret holes. It’s time they understand there are limits to what they can physically devour in their lifetime.”
There is no Putin portrait on the walls of his office at the Roizman Foundation, which raises millions of dollars for Russians with terminal illnesses all over the country. Instead, his office is decorated with oil paintings by local artists from the Ural region.
Roizman does not hide his anti-Putin views, a dangerous move these days. He openly supports Navalny and accuses the Kremlin of political assassinations. One of Roizman’s close friends and political partners, Boris Nemtsov, was assassinated in 2015. “The powers that be murdered Nemtsov, a young and strong politician, out of fear,” he says.
Roizman participated in street protests against the arrests of opposition activists in Feb. 2014 and in March, he protested against Russian media censorship and the annexation of Crimea. Today, his popularity appears to be skyrocketing.
“Not so long before his murder, Nemtsov came to Yekaterinburg to support me, to protest and distribute fliers,” Roizman said. “That is a debt I owe him.”
Many of Russia’s public supporters of Navalny are attacked, forced out of the country or arrested. Independent media groups and political analysts often land on black lists, with authorities designating them as “foreign agents.” Will Roizman be the next jailed politician?
“Believe me, I am aware of all the risks I am taking but I cannot leave the country, since that would be seen as my fearful escape,” he said. “I totally understand why Navalny returned to Russia, not many do. He and his wife, Yulia, sat down, looked into each other’s eyes and made that decision for the sake of the giant number of Navalny supporters.”
A well-known Moscow liberal politician and close Navalny ally, Ilya Yashin, believes that Roizman is now the opposition’s front man and only hope. “But we cannot name him our single candidate [yet]. That would immediately turn him into a target,” Yashin told The Daily Beast in a phone interview on Tuesday.
Every week, Roizman receives people from across the Ural region, who complain to him about Russia’s most acute issues: poverty, drug addiction, the health system, criminal prosecutions and unemployment. The flow of visitors didn’t stop on Tuesday. “Not only does he see the country, he feels that this country is not helpless, that it can and wants to help itself,” novelist Dmitry Bykov, the literary voice of liberal Russians, told The Daily Beast.
Roizman has a colorful history. He was kicked out of school in grade six and when he was 19 a Soviet court sentenced him for robbery and fraud. After two years in prison, he decided to “radically” change his life, after which he finished school and graduated from Ural State University. Beyond his political background, he is also an avid art collector, having founded two museums in Yekaterinburg.
Roizman’s recipe for Russian authorities is simple: Face the issues, admit the truth, and reform the country. He calls for public officials to meet with ordinary people, listen to their troubles, and address them.
“After I set the example in Yekaterinburg, no public official can avoid receiving people,” Roizman says. “But once you start looking for solutions, you realize you cannot do anything without changing the entire political system. For that we need three things: honest elections, a free media and independent courts.”
For now, the prospect of running in Russia’s next elections makes the ex-mayor shake his head in disbelief. “I am 60 years old,” he told The Daily Beast. “I wish Russia’s next president would be either a woman or a man younger than 45.”
But Roizman’s age hasn’t stopped his supporters from getting excited about the idea that he could lead Russia into a new direction.
“Neither Lech Walesa, nor Vaclav Havel or Svetlana Tikhonovskaya were ready to become politicians, but life made them step forward,” said Yashin, referring to some of Europe’s most famous dissidents turned political leaders. “We hope Roizman and more candidates begin to think about the presidential elections now. Otherwise, the opposition is in trouble.”