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Dissidents No More: Three Russians Who Have Given Up Activism

  • Dmitry Volchek

Yevgenia Debryanskaya (center) with fellow gay-rights activists Edvard Murzin _left) and Nikolai Alekseyev: "There was a time when we thought we could disband the army, ban the security services, open the borders, and legalize same-sex marriage."

Yevgenia Debryanskaya (center) with fellow gay-rights activists Edvard Murzin _left) and Nikolai Alekseyev: "There was a time when we thought we could disband the army, ban the security services, open the borders, and legalize same-sex marriage."

Since President Vladimir Putin came to power, hundreds of activists have been forced from politics or pushed to the margins as the Kremlin has tightened its grip on Russia. Some have seen their parties denied registration, some have been jailed -- and several have been killed. Others have withdrawn by choice: A number of activists who once flouted bans on protests, raided presidential offices, or founded opposition groups have left the country or retreated into their private lives.

RFE/RL spoke to three former activists who have chosen to fold up their banners. One is a cook in a New York City restaurant. One enjoys growing chili peppers and walking in the woods with his daughter. A third cares for her cats and dogs, loves music and travels extensively around her country, soaking up what she called the "sadness and anguish of Russia."

'Politics Didn't Interest Me Anymore'

Yevgenia Debryanskaya was once a prominent dissident. As the Soviet Union headed toward collapse, she organized numerous unsanctioned protests in Moscow. In the late 1980s, she founded the anticommunist Democratic Union party together with Valeria Novodvorskaya, an outspoken government opponent who died last year. Its members were ruthlessly repressed by the KGB. Shortly after the 1991 Soviet breakup, Debryanskaya went on to co-found the Libertarian Party, which called for the disbanding of the army and the legalization of same-sex marriage and marijuana. She was also a determined advocate of gay rights.

"We routinely took to the streets, I was arrested countless times. I was put behind bars, the fines were huge. Our best protest took place in the Moscow zoo under the slogan 'Free the animals, cage the communists.' It was great fun to take part in political rallies and play the revolutionary. I was young at the time.

"My political experience spans 20 years, from 1986 to 2006, but toward the end it was fizzling out. I didn't turn out to be an arrow shot at the target like Lerochka Novodvorskaya, who served the idea until her last breath. I did not become disillusioned, I just went through the natural process of growing up, and I got interested in things that I didn't care about before. I started withdrawing from politics in 2000, it didn't interest me anymore. I was ready to support my friends, of course, but this was no longer part of my life, I was focused on other things.

"Back in my youth I already loved classical music. Then I completely turned away from it, I listened to Uriah Heep and Deep Purple. Now I have simply returned to my roots. Music and concerts are my life. And traveling, mostly in Russia. I deeply love Russia and I prefer traveling in Russia, getting to know Russia means a lot to me.

"But I support in every way people who take part in protests and I will continue to support them. People often come to me for advice on different issues. My views haven't changed, they are still libertarian, rebellious. There was a time when we thought we could disband the army, ban the security services, open the borders, and legalize same-sex marriage. As it turned out, all of this was out of reach in our country. This is why I'm very sad, and life is sad.

"When I was young we drank a lot. I stopped drinking alcohol in 1993, although I know there are many reasons to drink heavily these days. People now drink out of desperation, because they lost their illusions. We managed to catch a little glimpse of freedom, this feeling that anything is possible. I don't want to emigrate, although my oldest son lives in Kenya and my grandchildren are forgetting how to speak Russian. I live in Russia and will stay here unless something happens that forces me to flee at breakneck speed. I love Russia's thick atmosphere of sadness, this melancholy hanging over the country. It's very close to me. It permeates literature, music, and song.

"Politics have now entirely left my life. I like taking walks, I have dogs and cats. I no longer read political news, I find it disheartening. But reading the news is not indispensable, after all. I simply walk in the streets, sit in cafes, and feel this heavy atmosphere, this sadness and anguish of Russia."

WATCH: Yevgenia Debryanskaya: The Life Of A Former Activist

'There's Nothing To Go Back To'

Mikhail Gangan took part in some the most brazen protests staged by the now-defunct National Bolshevik Party, founded by leftist firebrand Eduard Limonov. In October 2003, when he was just a teenager, Gangan pelted Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov with tomatoes to protest the Communists' participation in parliamentary elections. In May 2004, the day Vladimir Putin was sworn in for a second presidential term, Gangan and his friends broke onto the stage of the Bolshoi Theater during a performance. They unfurled banners with slogans criticizing Putin, lit torches, and handcuffed themselves to seats.

Mikhail Gangan

Mikhail Gangan

He then spent one year in jail for raiding the office of the presidential administration with a group of National Bolsheviks. Gangan helped organize a March of Dissent during the Russia-EU summit in Samara in May 2007 -- the year the National Bolshevik Party was banned. As the authorities cracked down on the organizers, Gangan fled to Ukraine, where he received political asylum. He left the country when Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych came to power and now lives in New York, where he now works as a cook.

"The protest that I remember the most vividly, in terms of consequences and police reaction, was the 2007 March of Dissent in Samara. I didn't end up attending the march, but organizing it was very exciting.

"Everything is different now. The police regime has strengthened in Russia, but the role of the opposition should not be overlooked. I believe that a lot more could have been done, the opposition should not have tried to iron out its conflict with the authorities, to negotiate with them. Now there is no potential to change the government through legal but radical means. No one is likely to try, and there's probably no point anymore. Would I be ready for radical action if I were still in Russia? Probably not.

"The outcome was predictable. It was clear that the authorities, after winning the standoff in 2011, would further consolidate their position. Who these authorities are, and who Putin is, is also clear. I think everyone already understood this perfectly well at the time. And the way he went on to behave was also predictable. For some reason, people thought that they could come to an agreement with him, that they would be granted concessions, they thought that holding a protest on Bolotnaya Square was a victory. Considering the number of political prisoners, it's hard to call it a victory.

"I started out as a member of the National Bolshevik Party, but Limonov's current stance bothers me. He says and writes that the ideals for which the National Bolshevik Party once fought have not changed. This is not true, of course. We fought for something completely different from what Limonov writes about. But I don't regret anything, I'm not ashamed of anything I did.

"Having been out of Russia for so long, I'm no longer involved in politics. I've lived in the United States for five years now. I've worked in many places. Now I'm a cook in a restaurant serving American food. New York is a wonderful place. I've been to other American cities, but I like New York best -- its life, its rhythm, its people. It's like a big train station, with the full range of colors and hues. The first two or three years in the United States were tough, but you get used to it and you start to like it.

"I don't plan to return. In my opinion, there is no opposition in Russia now. I can't tell how things will evolve. If I return, I will end up in prison. Many obstacles prevent me from returning to Russia. Even in Samara, in hometown, I have very few friends left. Everyone has gone to Moscow, St. Petersburg, or abroad. So there's nothing to go back to."

'People Have Stopped Believing Each Other'

Aleksei Dymovsky was a police major when he made headlines six years ago with an online video in which he denounced rampant corruption in the Russian police and appealed to Putin -- then prime minister -- to clean up the force. He was promptly fired and briefly detained on fraud charges that were later dropped. Dymovsky grew into a rising star of the opposition movement and was predicted to have a bright political career. Articles blasting the Kremlin's policies regularly appear on his website. Dymovsky himself, however, has all but disappeared from the public eye.

"I don't regret my appeal to Putin. Only weak people regret, and I believe I am a strong person. I have no desire to turn back the clock. I would do it all over again. Perhaps I would have smoothed out some rough edges if I had known what kind of backstage games are played in our country, how unprincipled the media are. I would obviously not have opened up in such a way, only to be presented to everyone as a fraudster, a liar, a sick person, backhanded and crooked.

"On the other hand, now I have time to raise my daughter. At age 5, she already takes icy showers in the morning, swims reasonably well, knows her mushrooms, takes walks in the forest, and sleeps outside by the fire with me.

"There have been many rumors that I live in Moscow, that I have a big jeep, a luxurious mansion, and millions of dollars paid by the CIA to bring down the Russian Interior Ministry. But I still live in Novorossiisk, in my own home. I've built a henhouse, I'll get hens tomorrow. I've also grown Caribbean peppers. I ordered the seeds from Chile and spent the whole summer growing them. I've achieved good results nurturing both peppers and the new generation.

"I've been told I'm a human rights activist. No, I'm a truth activist, I defend the truth. People have stopped believing each other, today they believe only in lies. Back then I delved into politics, I met personally with [Garry] Kasparov, with [Boris] Nemtsov's and [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky's aides, with theruling party] United Russia....

"Politics is dirty, full of lies and deceit! Truth and light must prevail. I recently studied the major religions, the Koran, the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita. None of these texts say we should lie. I spoke to many clerics, to a mullah, to a rabbi, and they all said we must tell the truth. But for some reason, everyone's lying."

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