Russian imperialists in the sheepskin: are the oppositionists who they say they are?

Nemtsov picture at a missive protest in the streets of Moscow
Nemtsov picture at a missive protest in the streets of Moscow

In the wake of the stormy debate on the closure of the Russian opposition channel TV Rain (TV Dozhd) in Latvia, it has been questioned whether we really know who the Russian opposition is, what kind of people they are and what they think. According to political analysts and diplomats interviewed by, there is no need to label everyone the same. Still, there is also no need to rush to let in even more Russians, Jūratė Važauskaitė writing at news portal.

The news that TV Rain did not comply with Latvian law and lost its broadcasting rights caused a stormy reaction among the Russian opposition. Accusations against the Latvian authorities and claims that they were suppressing freedom of the press and pandering to Putin poured in. However, behind the scenes and between the lines, there was a far more critical message than what was said out loud.

What was not said in the outrageous closures was that TV Rain had simply failed to comply with Latvian law, had ignored warnings, and had failed to comply with rules that were acceptable to all and seemed to be understood by all. But this, according to political scientists, is a big problem because even Russians who fled Russia carry Russia everywhere and create a Russian world around them. Not the same as Putin sees, but also Russian: by bending the rules, by breaking the law, by thinking that you are bigger and more important than others, and therefore specific rules do not apply to you.

According to the experts, this is a problem for most of Russian society, just like the imperialism that is passed on in blood and does not disappear once you leave and go home. This attitude on the part of some Russians could become a significant problem for us, as the number of Russian citizens fleeing their homeland is growing daily. Meanwhile, a part of Lithuanian society is cautious and not necessarily friendly towards the growing number of Russians.

There are all kinds of “good and bad Russians”

Speaking about “good and bad Russians” and how they should be assessed, political scientist Tomas Janeliūnas, a lecturer at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, says that this is a broad topic that is worth thinking about.

“We can talk much about what kind of Russians there are, their views, and how liberal or nationalistic they are. I would not be in a hurry to put them all on shelves, to put labels on them. However, in this case, TV Rain (TV Dozhd) has really shown quite well that the liberalism of Russians, as they understand themselves, is not, in our eyes, in opposition to all the activities that the Putin regime is doing now. It is a good reminder.

There have been several occasions when Russian oppositionists, while opposing Putin, have at the same time said that Crimea should belong to Russia and that Russian nationalism is not a bad thing. Alexei Navalny himself has repeatedly made nationalist or imperialist statements. Russians come in all sorts of shapes, and liberal Russians can have a wide range of opinions. They may have a wide range of views that we wouldn’t like, or they may be nationalistic, even if they are against the Putin regime”, said T. Janeliūnas.

Russians have different habits and behaviour that we find unacceptable

He added that Russians do not think differently but have different habits, which are very visible. For example, Russian tourists try to speak Russian wherever they go, whether it is in Egypt or Germany.

“The unaccustomedness to Western democratic rules is often reflected in this behaviour, typical of many Russians, regardless of their political views. It comes from a habit that has been ingrained over several generations.

In Soviet times, and even later, bending the rules became a way of life. It is unusual for a Russian to obey the rules, and the laws, no matter where he is. “The representatives of TV Rain are apparently not used to following the rules and laws either”, the political scientist said, stressing that a very important question is whether Russians are willing to adapt and accept the rules when they live abroad.

According to him, one can forgive one or another misunderstanding. Still, if the behaviour is repeated and no effort is made to improve, then one can talk about the selfish idea that it is not you who has to change, but the rules have to be changed for you.

He added that society’s natural fear and reluctance to have more Russians living in Lithuania is justified.

“One only has to look around to see how much Russia has increased in our environment. This raises the question, what is happening? Is it the Belarusian and Ukrainian refugees, or is it some new wave of Russification that we have not noticed and now we do not know what to do? We are not prepared to say clearly and categorically that they must learn the language, and we cannot offer courses to thousands of people.

Psychological unpreparedness and maybe even shyness, not knowing how to deal with newcomers, may also explain why we do not want to face new challenges with additional emigrants from Russia, even if they are politically opposed to Putin,” said the political scientist.

Every person coming here needs to be checked

Political commentator Marius Laurinavičius, speaking about the problems of Russian emigrants abroad, says there is no need to be absolute – there are all kinds of Russians. However, he acknowledges that when thinking about admitting Russian citizens, the first thing that needs to be agreed upon is that they should be thoroughly vetted. Every single person who is allowed in.

“You cannot generalise because each person, including those already in Lithuania, has to be assessed separately. I had said from the very beginning, when there were no scandals and there was talk in Lithuania about the admission of IT workers from Russia, that we cannot reject those who are being persecuted. Still, at the same time, we have to look at who we let in.

Many, though not all, of the Russian opposition, are in opposition to Putin, not to the evil system itself, which is not only Putin but to the whole corruption, criminal system, and lawlessness. The TV Rain scandal has shown this because most of the television’s supporters refuse to accept that this television is obliged to abide by Latvian law. They do not understand and do not accept this.

This is a problem, and we should work seriously on it. In Lithuania, for example, Rasa Juknevičienė has said that TV Rain is, after all, the opposition to Putin, and we should think about what will happen after Putin. The problem is that if we ourselves do not force this Putinist opposition to abide by the rules, to abide by the law, to behave following civilised, Western norms, then everything that will happen after Putin will either be the same as it is or will be the same as it was after the fall of the Soviet Union.

This is the fault of the West. Because the West turned a blind eye to everything that Russia did wrong from the very beginning. Initially, it was the good Yeltsin, and then it was the good Putin against the bad oligarchs. Later, when they saw this one was not so good, they just decided to be friends to trade. This chain has led to where we are now”, the commentator said, stressing that the thinking is that if they are the opposition to Putin, we can allow them to break the laws and rules.

Imperial thinking is rampant in Russia

Laurinavich added that not all Russian oppositionists are imperial-minded. But imperial thinking itself is widespread in Russia, and some people think like that among the Russian opposition.

“The other problem is cultural because democracy is historically and culturally alien to them. Russia has never seen democracy, we have seen a little, and they have not tasted it at all. That is why there are a lot of problems with thinking. If I look at what a lot of the Russian opposition is now commenting on, they do not understand why there is a problem with TV Rain. They are talking about the freedom of the press being restricted. But there are laws.

If this had been done with another television station, one that was not opposed, everyone would have applauded, but now the same disregard for the law is already a restriction on freedom of the press. Many of them do not understand why they need to follow the rules. They need to be made to understand that they are guests here, they have been given asylum, and it is not up to them to decide how we should live. And they are trying to do this outside the Western rules”, Laurinavičius said, reflecting that in a broader sense, they are not creating Putin’s Russian world but still a Russian world where they are.

According to the commentator, we often do not understand where the dangers lie when it comes to Russians. Members of the Government do not understand this either because there has been talked of letting in ‘good Russians’.

“We give residence permits with a light hand, even in times of war, and we let them in. And unfortunately, they are creating a Russian world, maybe not Putin’s Russian world, but a Russian world inside our countries, rather than adapting themselves to a different order,” he said.

The reviewer believes that a society that is against letting Russians into Lithuania reacts naturally. It is an instinct of self-preservation.

“It is a natural reaction of self-preservation. Is it justified? Certainly, not all Russians are “like that”. I know some excellent Russians who are both democratic and European. But we have to look at each case individually”, said Mr Laurinavičius.

Russians are in Russia, in my mind

Remigijus Motuzas, the former Lithuanian ambassador to Russia, says that Russia’s opposition is fragmented and comprised of individuals. In the classical sense, according to the former diplomat, there is no opposition in Russia.

“These days, there are discussions about what happened in Riga. I remember when I was a diplomat in Moscow, and I was there immediately after the annexation of Crimea, I used to follow the rules on how to communicate with the media. I thought about what I was saying but made my point anyway. As far as Riga is concerned, I think they were warned and should have followed the rules. It is no secret that there is always a group of people who have their own interests”, the former ambassador to Moscow reflected.

He added that today we must be careful when issuing visas and work and residence permits.

“There is much less resistance to the war, to the regime in Russia than there was to the extended period when people can retire. There were huge protests in Russia when this decision was announced. This shows that if Russian society is in pain, it can take to the streets,” said Motuzas, who stressed the need to use the correct language when talking about the war on TV, to speak about it with sensitivity, because it is a painful subject for many.

Therefore, glorifying the Russian army or other things is not justified, no matter if it is an opposition channel.

The former ambassador recalled that he had experienced and heard many manifestations of Russian imperialism during his time in Moscow. It was repeated in official and private conversations that they are big and, together with China and the US, determine world politics and other things.

“That imperialism is there, and it has been there since the time of Peter the Great. Putin is trying to remind us to revive it. A few years ago, monuments to Stalin, emperors, and historical figures started erecting in large numbers. There is undoubtedly a need for that grandeur there, and perhaps that is what has put a damper on journalists based abroad. They apparently think that Latvia and other countries are temporary stops and that the final stop is Russia itself.

In one’s mind, one is in Russia and has grown up with that greatness. <…> Russia, the Russians should understand that there are democratic rules, that they must be respected. And there is still a feeling that you can get around, you can turn around because we are big, and so what,” said former ambassador to Moscow R. Motuzas.

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