Presenter Vladimir Solovyov, a leading Kremlin surrogate does not like the city of Yekaterinburg in the Urals– Russia's fourth largest city. On his program "Solovyov Live" he referred to city as a center of "vile liberal scum" One response in Yekaterinburg was the free distribution of "vile liberal scum" t-shirts.
"Vile liberal" T-shirt; top reads: "City of Goblins" — an appellation which Solovyov gave Yekaterinburg in 2019
In the first of two Special Dispatches on the rancor towards Yekaterinburg by hard line Kremlin supporters, MEMRI presents an interview with the embattled Yekaterinburg City Duma deputy Aleksey Kholodarev.
On June 2, 2022 the Leninsky District Court of Yekaterinburg fined Kholodarev 40,000 rubles for discrediting the Russian Federation's armed forces. Kholodarev, who foresaw the decision back in May plans to appeal this decision.
Due to his opposition to the war in Ukraine Kholodarev was expelled from the Just Russia party on whose ticket he was elected. Under Russian law, while he was expelled from the party, he cannot be expelled from the Duma unless he is convicted of a criminal felony, and therefore the authorities have launched a harassment campaign against him.
Back in May, when a court date was announced, the Yekaterinburg outlet Its My City interviewed Kholodarev on a podcast, which it republished. In the interview, with Sonya Glukhova Kholodarev, the owner of an IT company, explains why he took a stand despite his realization that it would have consequences.
The interview follows below:
Alexey Kholodarev (Source: Fedpress.ru)
Alexey, tell us why did you decide to become a deputy and what political views did you adhere to?
My attention was drawn to politics in 2003-2004, when I was working in Moscow. Back then the first “YUKOS” cases happen. At that time, I started discussing with my friends that something was not right. My circle was telling me, “No, everything is right, they (businessmen Khodorkovsky and Lebedev - ed.) are selling out their motherland.” I was replying, “Well, yes, things are clear, however where are the proper courts? Where are all the procedures that are seemingly declared?” Back then I was convinced by my circle that this is how it should be. [At that time] I was working in an international company with a lot of employees from Russia and neighboring countries, and they were all older than me. So I put this question behind me.
Then the year 2008 happened, i.e. the well-known events, the so called “castling” [referring to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev exchanging places with Vladimir Putin] and it became more difficult for me to remain silent. Back then I was already working in Yekaterinburg, we were participating in the first rallies. In 2011, our photos with [opposition] placards were published. Back then, not many people were coming [to rallies] at all, on some days there were only seven people. And in 2013, my good university chum, Ilya Lobov came to me and suggested, “Alexei, let’s channel your energy into peaceful activities.”
Were you actions not peaceful before that?
Before that, everything was somehow ad hoc. There (during the protests – ed.) we were all on our own, but then Ilya said, “There is [this party], “A Just Russia,” I’m running for elections to become deputy, come with us. I replied to him, “Yes, I’ve heard. Go and get elected.” It was back in February of 2013, I guess.
Why did you react in such a way? Why didn’t you want to join any party?
Even back then it was obvious to me that A Just Russia [hereafter - JR] was sort of a spoiler-party. Upon their formation, they absorbed a lot of parties. This is still happening today (referring to the merger of JR with the “For Truth” and “Patriots of Russia” parties that occurred in 2021 – ed.). I told him this openly, “How is your party different from the ruling party?” We parted ways.
Then a couple of months later he came back and said, “Well, listen, I just need some help. Help me with technical things, you have a suitable mindset for it, while I’ll be streamlining the propaganda processes. There is also a good cause: we have an idea for a fair housing and utilities system, and we will make you curator of the campaign in our district. I went there and listened, everything seemed logical. They wanted to help people recalculate the utilities receipts, to establish boundaries of housing zones, to create housing councils, to manage all these tasks via the management company, to create a Homeowners Association, if necessary.
Back then we organized a pretty good campaign, because we were able to get everything in order. We counted all the houses and mapped them all. We visited every house along with drawn maps depicting boundaries of yards and reports from housing management companies. And if there was no report, we urged the residents to ask for one.
And that's how you became involved with Just Russia, isn’t it?
For many years we were cooperating with them very closely. Thus, I was offered to run in the elections. I was able to get elected several times in local elections, and I was elected to the City Duma in 2018.
Yekaterinburg City Duma (Source: Egd.ru)
Let’s move on to recent events. I’m talking about what’s been going on since February 24. On the very day when all these events started, how did you feel, what was the first thing you did?
Until February 24, I was assuring everyone that this wouldn’t happen. When, on February 24, I witnessed all of this, at first I did not believe it and paused for a while. I stated my position after my fellow party members begun publishing posts along the lines of “Why I voted for granting the president the right to deploy troops outside Russian territory.”
Such posts put me a bit on edge, because I know these people, they seem to be rational, I’ve talked to them for so many years, and then, out of the blue, they propagate this information to the masses. For me it made no sense, literally at the same moment I started writing personal messages to them. Then I realized that this is their position, and many people share it.
So they replied to you directly and personally that it was in fact their position, no one asked them, no one pressured them?
Naturally there were different messages from them (he smiles - ed.). But the key thought of one person was, “We understand what country we are living in, why take any action against it. After that I immediately wrote my post, in which I made my position quite clear. Naturally, I received horrendous hatred [in return].
Was the hatred coming from peers, subscribers or bots? What was it like in general?
Back then, contacts listed as friends of mine in social networks were messaging me about my position. I decided to unfriend some of these people on social networks, to avoid exacerbating the situation. It’s obvious that the goal of propaganda is to divide us, to demonstrate that there are very few people who say anything against it [the war].
However, a lot of citizens wrote me words of support back then, exactly on February 24. These were the same people who were shocked that this happened at all.
Later I got a phone call from a man in the party apparatus, he tried to convey his position to me, quite discretely.
What was the nature of this call? Did they call you and say, “What are you writing?”
Yes, there was a request along the lines of, “I give you 24 hours to change your position to which I replied that I’m 45 years old and have already taken shape as a person. I can change my position on something, if I am proven wrong. However, there was no proof, they just tossed me the usual propaganda video that served as a justification for the unfolding events. I couldn’t put two and two together to make five, as they tried to convince me, I kept coming up all the time with four.
How did events develop after February 24? Did you continue to speak out publicly about your negative attitude [towards the war]? What kind of response did you receive? Did you feel any pressure?
There was no pressure. The responses were different, naturally, most of them were words of encouragement. But this is, probably, attributed to my social circle. Colleagues at work, in the Duma, made no comments, which was understandable. Well, it’s quite normal, I believe that we had established a working relationship with them.
Regarding the party line… Yeah, I got a call from the head of the regional branch a few days later, he said, “You know, there are sentiments [within the party] to exclude you from it, but I will definitely do everything in my power to prevent this from happening.” As it later turned out, he made the call after personally facilitating the decision to expel me, and the [corresponding] documents had already been signed. Let it remain on his conscience.
When did you generally decide to speak out publicly about this issue? I’m talking not about simply adhering to your stance, without advertising it, but to continue to speak about it publicly, despite the fact that you had already received calls with such warnings?
As far as I can remember, I didn’t keep quiet in 2014 too. It’s just that back then, as it seems, all these events didn’t cause such a public outcry, although I believe that precisely these events became the main reason for all that we see today. And back then everyone should’ve reacted, as we do today. More people should’ve been concerned, as well as our various so-called, “Western partners.”
In this case, I was answering people openly, if they approached me with any obvious questions or provocations. The last time it happened, was during this buildup of hysteria with the “pobedobesue” [i.e. Victory Day celebrations] and all our May holidays. I was seeing these “Z” letters posted everywhere. We don’t actually have as many of these Z’s in Yekaterinburg as in some other places. And I am happy about that. Be that as it may such [pro-war] events are being held, it’s clear who holds them, it’s clear how they are financed.
It always stressed me out, and directly antagonized me angry, because my parents were every bit as convinced that everything going on was correct. They're ardent Putin’s supporters. It upsets me a lot. Young people, I see them being drugged, and the means are quite clear, all this is delusional.
And then I received several offers in a row to “take part in such-and-such event.” The last offer to come, was about a rally on May 2, the day of commemorating the Odessa events. Naturally, it was a tragedy, and it’s clear that the initial reaction is to support it. I continue reading, “And so we should support the actions of Vladimir Putin in his special military operation.” That is, the first paragraph spoke of a tragedy, and in the second paragraph said we must support the one to blame for this tragedy. I responded personally to people in detail, and also posted a public response, without mentioning the time and date of the event.
Weren’t you afraid to continue to speak out publicly against it in such a way, given the risks of losing your profession. Perhaps you feared for your family and friends?
There were threats coming, it’s true, “We reported [your actions] to such and such.” Then I was summoned to the police at the 12th Precinct, located at 76 Frunze Street. Two protocols were drawn up under the article [protecting] our military. That's it.
I would be quite a human emotion to be very scared to say anything openly after the pressure and messages from people and colleagues.
Well, somebody has to talk about it. I just analyzed my social circle. I have a lot of people who support me, a huge number of people who are in favor of (Alexey's position - ed.).
Not publicly, but they support it. Each of them probably has his own reasons for keeping silent. Many of our businesses are dependent on state budget. That means that tomorrow the authorities may turn off the [budgetary] “faucet”, and that's it. Many have big businesses that can be put through the wringer and taken away, and I was once in such a position. Now I have a small business. I develop information systems and deal with automation processes at commercial enterprises. So what can be taken away from me? I don't really understand that. The main thing for someone to be vocal
Meanwhile, you also transferred some of your business to Georgia. Did you decide to do this precisely due to fear, or is this a development strategy?
So far I hadn’t moved the business to Georgia. I, in fact, was there, we opened accounts in the country, considered options for relocation, and dealt with all the issues, we could. We needed it in the first place, because we were immediately faced the problem of inability to conduct settlements for the services we were using. Unfortunately, we don’t yet see Russian services on the horizon [that could substitute for foreign ones], no matter how much they tell us the opposite.
In addition, the difference in the USD exchange rate played a certain role, as we strived to get more money from our European customers, (I’m talking about rubles, as the payment in USD remained the same. That was the purpose of the trip, i.e., to get prepared. I’m not managing a construction company; I cannot take the business out of the country. I can relocate some of my people out of the country and sign contracts there.
It seems to me, especially against the backdrop of unfolding events with [the oligarch critical of the special operation] Oleg Tinkov (he had to sell his share in Tinkoff Group, - ed.). A tough situation is developing for business, when speaking out against the war means certain risks for the company.
Well, it’s not like I’m screeching this indiscriminately. I was provoked, I responded. I had a specific idea: to protect as many people as possible before our great holidays, so that they won’t get soiled in all this ideology. We saw the events held in our city (in honor of Victory Day – ed.), and they went normally, there was no obvious support for what is happening in Ukraine. Maybe the fact that I spoke out on the issue influenced this, too.
In your opinion, what are the sentiments in the city towards all the events [in Ukraine]? It’s very hard to tell what people think when you're walking down the street and see the letter “Z” painted all over the university building. For some reason one gets the idea that everyone probably supports these events.
The purpose of all our state propaganda is to show that no one opposes the war. And those few, who are against it, are losers. There are very few of them, and no one supports them. I in fact believe that is completely untrue. We had an interesting discussion this morning with members of the City Council, who tried to convince me that I was wrong. Finally, we agreed that there is still a part of the city’s residents, who, even in the Council’s opinion, are unequivocally against the developments in Ukraine and they have the right of representation in the City Duma.
We agreed that indeed that the passions in the city should be reduced by all means. That makes me very happy. “Reducing” means, I guess, reducing the harsh propaganda at every street corner. It also, probably means reducing the amount of unparliamentary expressions on my part. Well, I agree with them in this regard. It can be done.
In general, during the meeting with the deputies, talks focused on the phrase, “Give up your mandate, please, you’re embarrassing us. That was the theme of the meeting, so to speak.
There were also threats, “We don't have only the police, but also other agencies, which we can influence.” Perhaps there is some sort of corruption in this. I am, in fact, completely calm about it. In the end we decided that we would talk about it, if, for example, we will see some documents from the prosecutor's office.
Tell us about your expulsion from the party. How it all happened? As I gathered, the decision to expel you was made as early as February 26th, just two days after your first statement.
True, back in March I was asked if I was going to leave the party. I said that I would not leave the party on my own accord, because when I joined it, I knew where I was going. And I was doing concrete positive things in order to implement some of my projects. Naturally, one could argue that part of my work dumped on the current government. There is probably some truth to this as well. However, this was my stance.
Officially no one said anything to me (about the expulsion - ed). People wrote to me and said that they were collecting signatures opposing my expulsion from the party.
Who was collecting them?
I’d rather not say. There were such attempts in Moscow. For me it came sort of as incomprehensible action, because I don’t consider myself a very important figure in the party.
I found out about my expulsion by chance from a comrade who had been to a meeting at the local party branch, to which, as usual, they had forgotten to invite me. He told that he had overheard that I had been expelled. I called Andrei Kuznetsov (Chairman of the regional branch of “A Just Russia” – ed.), and he said, “Well, yes. It happened a long time ago.” I replied, “Well, then give at least the decision.” And they answered to me, “You have to get it at the party’s office in Moscow.”
That's how you knew you had been expelled, isn’t it?
Yes, I got the info through third hands. When I got my hands on this decision, I published it, as it clearly reads “inform Kholodarev,” the date was February 26. Well, this is actually a normal thing for our regional branch. Maybe it’s just a mess in the papers, I don’t know.
It sounds very strange, to be honest. Even stranger, if that’s the normal practice.
Well, you see, my expulsion happened on February 26. And February 27 was a Monday. This [public announcement of the corresponding decision] would’ve come as negative publicity for the party. The party has already lost a lot of normal, sane people lately. The party is constantly devouring, like a cannibal, some small parties and takes, it seems to me, all the worst from them, “spitting out” everything that has a sound kernel in it. Unfortunately, this is the case for “A Just Russia.”
This is very sad. But you still hold the office in our city council. Give me more details about that. Is there a possible situation where you can be expelled? As I understand it, there is none, but you can correct me.
It’s possible provided there will be some sort of presentation from the prosecutor’s office, provided there will be some kind of criminal case. They can expel me, according to our laws. But just to expel me with just 35 mandates… no, they cannot do such a thing. They didn’t elect me. We can vote for the motion that we [the City Duma] are dissatisfied with the mayor, or with the City Duma Speaker, but not to exclude each other mandates.
I was just explaining it to people today, “Well, guys, listen if there are 5% of those who think differently [regarding the war] that is 1/20, and the Yekaterinburg Duma consists of 36 deputies, so there should be at least two deputies representing this 5%. And they should always be there, as they should represent the interests of the people. Why does everyone suddenly have to be for one line?”
However, I didn’t stand up against JR, it was “A Just Russia,” who slightly changed its course. Let me recall that back in 2016 we ran in the elections under the slogan, “Do or leave.” And the party had a tough stance against the government; it advocated the government's resignation. That was until Sergei Mikhailovich (Mironov, Chairman of the JR – ed.) was summoned to the Presidential Administration and corrected. After that, the election campaign came to an abrupt halt, and the party lost about half its votes.
We have already mentioned that two protocols were drawn up against you for discrediting the Russian Armed Forces. Tell us more about what exact actions these protocols covered, when are the trials scheduled, and what is your defense strategy?
The first protocol was drawn up for publishing of the post of February 24, on the day that what cannot be named [i.e. the war] started. The second one is from April, 26. Actually I do not even know what it is for. It’s not clear which of my postss fell under the illegal activities, but nevertheless it was drawn up. There are two posts, while there are no dates for the court’s hearings. It will be clear what will happen and when, when the hearings will be scheduled. They have, I believe, three months to appoint it.
Then there will be a time for an appeal (in two instances), it’s clear that we’ll go to the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] in the end. Well, the fines will definitely have to be paid when the court imposes them. In my opinion a fine of 50,000 rubles is a very small price to pay for the fact that hundreds of thousands, even millions (as I judge from the page views counter), have learned the position of one of the City Duma deputies, which doesn’t coincide with the general line of the party on "what cannot be named" [the war]).
How do you feel in general about the law on fake [news], on discrediting the Armed Forces?
You see, many of our laws are actually normal. Maybe they need some minor adjustments and amendments. The fact is that we do not have normal functioning courts, capable of handing down independent decisions, starting with the drawing up of a protocol [the courts don’t draw up protocols, the author claims that courts accept police protocols, without questioning or assessing the information contained in them].
When you approach [those who drew up the protocol], they state, “I'm sorry, I have nothing to do with this, the protocol was sent to us by the higher authorities. I go even higher, they say, “We got the protocol from the main office, we have to register it.” The same is true for the courts, I believe. All the decisions have already been passed, and there is no court, no independent branches of power.
Consequently, whatever laws we pass, they will all have the same result (with minor alterations).
Of course we will object, as I have a lawyer. I will tell you later, when a court date is set , what will be our defense strategy. Naturally, we will argue that there were no fake information and insults to the Armed Forces [in my posts]. On the contrary, I am in favor of saving our guys, who are not at all to blame (both conscripts and contract servicemen). We see who is dying in Ukraine.
These are people, who have been driven to the limit [of poverty] first in all the villages, and who later got some ray of hope that cannot be achieved in any other circumstance, i.e. [it was said to them] that one only need take up arms and go to defend something. Their minds must have been obscured by these prospects. These people, too, must be protected and rescued, in addition to the civilians and servicemen fighting on the side of Ukraine. This madness must be stopped.
You believe that quite a few people support your stance and generally share such views. Why then do so few people speak out openly and publicly about it? What exactly are they afraid of? It’s hard to argue, judging by your example that nothing terrible will happen, but you’ve demonstrated that it can be dealt with, something can be done about it. Including the measures that may arise.
Lately I’m recalling my trip to Munich, to the Dachau concentration camp. During the tour, the story was told of how everything came to be so that a horrible concentration camp, where people were burned in ovens, appeared in the city, while 20 meters away from the camp’s fence there were houses of ordinary citizens, Germans. Some of them worked in the concentration camp as ordinary employees, washing clothes, and some of them didn't work there at all. They thought it was normal. And so it was in all of Germany.
I understand that fear played a key role back then, “We are already occupied by that power. And if we are occupied, if we are already in a concentration camp, who is going to actively speak out here?” I know so many people who are catastrophically afraid to like my post. A person might like my post, but then she receives a call from her husband, who tells her, “Urgently remove this ‘like’ because…” I find it funny when I hear such stories. But this is fear. Everything is based on fear.
Probably a lot of citizens don't fully understand how all these new laws work. I’ve heard numerous stories that it’s scary to even like a post, because someone might see it and something will happen to that person. But let's also talk about public figures. Why are they unable to express themselves in the same way, why can't they declare their position publicly? When you surf the Internet, you rather might see an example of the opposite behavior. The voices of people opposing the war are almost inaudible. Mostly those, who have fled to another country speak out, because they can safely share those thoughts.
Yes, you are right. The majority of those who accuse, shout, and speak out are people who are already reside outside the Russian Federation. But there are people here, who openly speak out. For instance, I am not some revolutionary, who is ready to lead some sort of uprising. I don’t pursue such a course, but nevertheless, I want to change something, so I am speaking out. This is my personal opinion, and I find support from the people around me, which grows every day.
Of course, I want everyone, who supports me, to take to the streets and make their stance public. For example, I was hanging out with my friends the other day; they themselves are wondering, “what thing has to happen for us to be willing to go? Do we have to stand at the edge of the precipice, look into it, and only then will we do something. And what exactly will we do? Thus, they come to the conclusion, “If they declare a mobilization, we will take to the streets.” Here is the casus belli.
These are people, who wouldn’t go anywhere at all for sure. They have a red line. Perhaps, many share the same feeling, i.e. that the whole thing can be endured, after all food stamps were endured. In addition, I believe that our people will cope with the food stamps and will be able to cope with a lot. But somewhere there is still that line, [that when crossed], one needs to change something.
I don’t like this “we’ll endure and cope” kind of talk at all. It’s just that why choose this moto, when you can choose something else?
Well, this is the key point In fact, for a long time, for 15 years exactly we weren’t choosing anything. And this is something that needs to be restored, the voting right, a normal voting right. I believe that’s one of the basic things that we need to restore when this is all over.
Would you mind giving some advice to those who listen to this podcast on what to do in the current situation, how to act, what decision to make?
Personally I made a decision long ago, at the very beginning of the war, when it became clear that to speak out was really dangerous. [I decided] that first of all I have to convince my inner circle of my stance, to prove calmly, repeatedly, thousands of times, that I was right. That’s probably the way to make a difference. I know a lot of young people, who are against the war. When you talk to them about their parents, their environment, their school, it turns out that things are complicated there, “You know, my parents and I have disagreements, we don’t even speak with each other,” say some young people.
Everyone needs to overcome this problem, because its roots go back to the Soviet era. People were comfortable to live in those days, and now an external enemy emerged again, thus we all rallied around our next czar We must change that in our country.
The title of our podcast is “Do Not Live the Lies.” Can you tell us, for your part, how not to live the lies in Russia? And in general, is it possible not to live the lies now?
This is a difficult question right now. Of course, one shouldn’t follow lies. I’ve been thinking about this topic from the perspective of my deputy activities. I hold the office of the Deputy Chairman of the City Duma Budget Committee, and I’m constantly looking at where we can get some [funding]. We can’t directly affect revenues, but I monitor how we acquire them.
I have a very painful issue that I raise at various meetings. It’s the personal income tax. This is the tax that the local budget, our city. A large, substantial part of the [city] budget comes from that tax (if you count region’s own revenues) [and not the transfers from higher budgets (from regional too)].
Every entrepreneur who pays people a gray salary is robbing his city. And, unfortunately, there are such entrepreneurs (some of them have quite large companies). One can open workers’ reviews of large employers and read that some have white wages, while others pay gray wages.
What do gray wages mean? First, the worker becomes dependent, he can be loaded onto a bus and taken to vote and so on [the interviewee refers to so called “voters’ merry-go-round” when “correct” voters are ferried en masse to certain poll stations].
In addition, gray wages mean gray cash, which is always followed by criminal activity, which, in turn, is connected with arms and drugs, and as we witnessed, - to wars. Because sooner or later such business starts to splice itself to power.
This is what needs to be eradicated at all levels, from small business to upper business. This is my advice to all entrepreneurs. This [the income tax] is the income of our city, this is the safety of our streets, and therefore the more we receive, we receive a [matching] ruble from the federal budget. And that's a very good thing, we can do something about it. Maybe one day we will allow ourselves to build a subway, like Tatarstan, which regularly opens new stations [which is a whole republic though, not just a city]. We’ve already filled with earth a couple of tracks under construction at the Koltsovsky Trakt. If we had 100 billion rubles, we could have a subway line, probably not t only one.
Then, what in general does “not living the lies” mean to you?
To love one’s family, to respect the elderly, that is to live a life not following the lies.