Russian journalist Zoya Svetova perpetuates her family’s dissident past

This interview is part of our latest special report on women and leadership, which highlights the women who are making significant contributions to the great stories unfolding in the world today. The conversation has been edited and condensed.


Zoya Svetova, 62, a journalist, comes from a Muscovite family with a nearly century-long history of activism and government-imposed sanctions in Russia. She was awarded the Magnitsky Human Rights Prize in 2018, named after an apolitical Russian lawyer and tax adviser who died after being beaten in prison, and more recently received a Legion of Honour, France’s highest honor. . She was interviewed before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and again on March 2.

Your parents and grandparents were called “enemies of the people.” Your son, Tikhon Dzyadko, editor of TV Rain [Kanal Dozhd]the only independent television channel in Russia, has just left the country with his family, fearing imminent arrest. It was the same day Rain was banned from broadcasting – and the fifth anniversary of a 10-hour search of your apartment by Russian authorities. Is being “enemy of the people” a bit in your family’s tradition?

I recently wrote to the FSB [Russia’s Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet K.G.B.] seeking the files of my grandmother who served five years in a labor camp in Arkhangelsk in the far north of Russia because she was married to an “enemy of the people”, my grandfather Grigory Friedland, historian of the French Revolution at Moscow State University. He was arrested during the Stalinist purges and executed in 1937. She spent five years there and I want to read her file.

My mother, Zoya Krakhmalnikova, a Soviet 1980s dissident, also spent a year in prison and five in exile in Siberia, where my father, Feliks Svetov, joined her after serving a year in prison.

There is a continuum here. I am not yet worthy of such a title. [Laughs.] But we will see.

The French government awarded me an Order of the Legion of Honor. Vladimir Putin is also a member of this order, although he has the great honor and I am only a minor knight [knight]. I could wake up and find myself proclaimed an enemy of the people. It’s possible.

What was your parents’ alleged crime?

They were dissidents and religious activists. My mother collected religious texts. They wrote books that were produced in the West, in Germany. The KGB decided it was anti-Soviet propaganda. My mother’s books were about faith, belief. It is difficult to understand that this was about the same Orthodox faith now widely observed in Russia. Your readers will not understand. Even Russians can’t understand this — being imprisoned for such books.

Did your parents raise you as a dissident?

My parents never tried to direct my behavior. I just saw how they lived and followed their example. And when I got married, at 23, my husband Viktor Dzyadko — he died a year and a half ago — was part of the same crowd as my parents; same understandings, same principles. When it came to raising our four children, we did the same.

So when in February 2017 there was a 10 hour search of my apartment, the very one where I am sitting now, the whole family came out to support me. At the time, as a member of an official committee, Prison Watch, I regularly visited Russian prisons, including Lefortovo in Moscow where my mother had been imprisoned 40 years earlier. I did this for eight years, visiting Moscow prisons every week. And I think the FSB was very upset that I was telling the truth about the conditions. Those who carried out the search, they asked me directly: Why do you go to prisons to see terrorists and spies?

Why did you receive the Magnitsky Prize?

When I learned about the death of Sergei Magnitsky, I decided to go deeper into the story – I got a lot of details, wrote 20, 30 articles and was going to write a book. After Magnitsky’s death, my objective became: to save the sick. As members of Prison Watch, we filed official reports, but my articles in the New Times were most effective. The men who ran the prison subscribed to the magazine and asked: Please don’t write bad things about us. They didn’t want complications from bad publicity, and sometimes prisoners were released after my article.

But there are many successful people in Russia, including your own sons (Filipp Dzyadko, the eldest, is the founder of a popular educational website, Arzamas; Timofey writes for a business newspaper, RBK; Tikhon ran TV Rain). Doesn’t Putin’s system offer them ample opportunities for development?

It is an illusion. In prisons, I have seen dozens of businessmen on a fabricated deal. The country is run by a mafia – perhaps not directly in the American sense. You can live and thrive, but at some point you cross paths with someone and you’re gone. Take Magnitsky. He was a Hermitage Capital auditor, made a lot of money, was a patriot never involved in politics. But then he wrote to the tax authorities to expose the corruption – that was it, he was imprisoned, killed. In their cells, I saw former governors, mayors, prosecutors, state employees. Today you come with a search warrant. Tomorrow you yourself are searched, undressed, thrown into a cell.

A few weeks ago you said that your greatest fear was not for your own safety but for war – and that Western and European leaders had to find a key to Mr Putin to avoid it because that would be the worst thing that can happen to Russia, your family, Ukrainians and the world. Did you see this coming?

Even in my worst nightmares, I couldn’t imagine the Russian army attacking Ukrainian cities. It’s really scary. Moscow is full of the most alarming rumours: from the possible arrest of opponents and journalists to the proclamation of martial law on Friday when it will be impossible to leave the country. Every morning I expect a search in my apartment and I don’t always sleep at home.

Do you have any hope?

The anti-war mood in Russia is growing, that’s a fact. Here’s just one example: the online petition against the war got over a million signatures in seven days. It’s really a lot, and obviously it’s not just opposition voices. Every day, activists take to the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other major cities. In seven days of war, more than 6,000 people were arrested. For Russia, this is a lot.

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