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In the intricate and often shadowy world of Russian politics, few stories are as compelling and revealing as that of Ilya Ponomarev, a former member of Russia’s Duma, and an ardent critic of the Kremlin, now living in exile.
His journey, marked by confrontation, exile, and unwavering opposition, offers a unique perspective on the dynamics of Russian politics and the formidable challenges faced by those who dare to oppose Vladimir Putin’s regime.
In 2014, during what was supposed to be a routine business trip to the United States, Ilya found himself barred from returning to Russia.
“I actually never did [leave Russia]. They just blocked me from coming back in August 2014,” Ponomarev recalls, painting a vivid picture of his unexpected transition from a government insider to an involuntary exile.
Stranded in America without resources, he made a strategic decision to move to Ukraine.
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This was more than a search for refuge; it was a deliberate choice to be at the forefront of the resistance against Putinism.
“Ukraine is not just my new home, but it is the leader of the resistance to the modern-day fascism – Putinism,” he states, underlining his commitment to supporting Ukraine in its struggle, saying “I am proud and honoured to be a part of this fight”.
Ilya Ponomarev’s political alignment has long been rooted in opposition to Putin’s regime.
“My party at a time was home to all true oppositionists,” Ponomarev explains, highlighting the party’s role as a haven for those who resisted the ruling government.
This clarification offers a glimpse into the complex and multi-layered landscape of Russian politics, where the true nature of allegiances often lies beneath the surface.
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President Zelensky is leading Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion
His involvement with the Left Front movement is particularly telling, positioning him squarely against Putin’s policies for many years.
This long-standing opposition underscores Ponomarev’s commitment to challenging the status quo and advocating for change within Russia’s political system.
Reflecting on the pre-2022 political landscape in Russia, Ponomarev acknowledges the missed opportunities and failures that plagued the opposition. “…1993, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2005, 2011 – these are just some of the missed opportunities to change the regime,” he notes, with regret.
The reasons for these failures were multifaceted: internal conflicts within the opposition, a lack of unity, and a pervasive fear of confronting the regime directly.
“Internal fights within the opposition, its fundamental weaknesses, and fears to put up a real fight allowed the ruthless and unprincipled regime to prevail, leading to the current horrible war in Ukraine”, reflects Ilya, offering a candid look at the opposition’s internal dynamics and the daunting task of challenging an entrenched authoritarian regime.
The challenges for the Russian opposition were not confined within the country’s borders. Establishing connections with democratic states and garnering international support were significant hurdles.
“Fear, dramatic disparity of resources…and lack of appealing vision – these are the main reasons for opposition’s failure,” Ponomarev explains.
This struggle on the international stage was symptomatic of the larger issues facing the opposition: a lack of resources, a compelling narrative, and the overwhelming influence of the Kremlin.
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Despite these challenges, Ponomarev holds a vision for Russia’s future beyond Putin’s reign, envisaging a Russia that embraces democratic principles and aligns itself with Western values, adding
“Obviously, not by occupying Ukraine, but by reforming itself into a modernised Western nation, which could be a key member of the broader Euroatlantic alliance”.
This optimism reflects his belief in Russia’s potential for transformation and progress.
As the world’s attention turned to the large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ponomarev’s story offers crucial context to understand the longstanding tensions and conflicts that have shaped the current political landscape.
His journey from a Duma member to an opposition leader in exile is not just a tale of personal transformation but a reflection of the broader struggle for freedom and democracy in the face of rising authoritarianism.
The invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was a pivotal moment for Ponomarev. It marked a shift in his role from a vocal critic to an active participant in the resistance.
“I was really busy finding a recruitment post to enlist in the army,” he recalls, detailing his immediate response to the unfolding crisis.
His determination to join the fight was not just symbolic; it was a practical step towards defending Ukraine and opposing Putin’s aggressive expansionism.
During this period, Ponomarev became deeply involved with the Freedom of Russia Legion, a unit within the Ukrainian composed of Russian citizens opposed to Putinism.
“It is very much like De Golle army during WWII, coupled with the Resistance Movement inside Russia,” he explains, drawing parallels to historical resistance movements.
This involvement reflects a tangible commitment to fighting the regime he opposes, not just through words but through direct action. Ponomarev adds, “[the Freedom of Russia Legion] is now the largest international regiment in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, on its way to grow into a brigade.
It is made up of Russian citizens, who want not to talk and dream about some uncertain future, but to actually fight Putinism”.
The Russian Parliament (Duma) in exile
Another significant development was the formation of the Congress of People’s Deputies, which Ponomarev describes as a “shadow Russian parliament.”
Its name, an allusion to Gorbachev’s parliament created during Perestroika, now represents 36 Russian regions and all political parties ever present in the Russian State Duma, according to Ponmarev.
He asserts, “It is not a political movement – it is a genuine legislative body, which has already drafted a new Constitution and is working on 18 basic most fundamental pieces of legislation for the future Russia”.
The Congress’s goal to work on ready to implement policies sets it aside as “the only part of Russian opposition which actually presents the nation with a vision of the future country”, presenting a tangible vision for Russia post-Putin.
Ponomarev’s reflections on the state of the Russian opposition after the invasion are candid and critical.
“There is no Russian opposition as the organised force at the moment,” he acknowledges, pointing out the fragmented nature of the resistance. Despite this fragmentation, he identifies the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Congress as key elements in uniting and mobilising the opposition.
“If you can name somebody “the opposition”, it would be the Legion, as the future Free Russia Armed Forces, and the Congress, as the future Free Russia Parliament.
“But we do everything possible to get others united in the spirit of openness, equality, and partnership to achieve the common goal – destroying Putinism.”
Internationally, Ponomarev’s efforts focus on garnering support and recognition for the Russian opposition. He actively engages in dialogues with various countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, the United States, Japan, and the UK.
His aim is to facilitate a broader understanding of the conflict and the role of the Russian opposition in shaping a post-Putin era.
“We need to end the war and restore the security in Europe,” he asserts, underlining the global stakes of the conflict and the necessity of international cooperation.
The escalating conflict in Ukraine has underscored a crucial need for unity and collaboration across Europe and the UK, as articulated by Ilya Ponomarev.
“We need to end the war and restore the security of Europe. It is impossible and unfair to expect Ukraine to accomplish this critical task alone,” he asserts, drawing a poignant historical parallel to underscore his point.
“As almighty Britain was unable to defeat Hitler alone, Ukraine needs loyal allies to defeat Putin. And not just in the military sense – it is time for Rammstein-2023, as 80 years ago Tehran-1943 started redesigning Germany and shaping security architecture in the continental Europe, the process which Yalta and Potsdam concluded shortly afterwards.”
His historical reference is not just a call for military action but a reminder of the transformative power of collective diplomatic and strategic efforts, as seen in the outcomes of the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences. Ponomarev’s words resonate with the urgency of the current crisis, emphasising the indispensable role of Europe and the UK in forging a unified response to not only end the war but also to lay the groundwork for a secure and stable European future.
Amidst the unfolding conflict, Ukraine emerges as a pivotal ally for Ponomarev and the Congress, yet he harbours no illusions about the challenges in forging this partnership.
Ponomarev acknowledges the deep-seated scepticism prevalent in Ukraine towards the Russian opposition. “What is the main obstacle – is a great scepticism in Ukraine towards Russian opposition.
Some statements by Navalny, Khodorkovsky, Maxim Kats created quite a controversy.
Sometimes it was just a misunderstanding, but quite often – genuine imperialism, which is usual among some Russians,” he notes, highlighting the complexities of overcoming historical mistrust and ideological differences. Ilya firmly believes that in these times of crisis, rhetoric alone is insufficient. Actions, not words, are what distinguish genuine agents of change from those pursuing self-interest.
“No more talking, even within an antiwar context, [it] is sufficient to receive recognition and support,” he asserts, emphasising the need for tangible efforts and demonstrable commitment in the fight against Putinism and in winning Ukraine’s trust and support.
Ilya Ponomarev’s reflections on the stance of some opposition members reveal a deep-seated frustration with what he perceives as a hypocritical approach. The reluctance of certain opposition figures to fully align with Rammstein coalition leaders, under the pretext of maintaining connections with Russians, evokes a sense of disappointment in him.
“Hypocritical position of some of the opposition members to stay aside Rammstein coalition leaders to ‘keep connected to Russians’ makes me sad. We are at war and need to show unity with our allies,” he states.
This critique underscores a broader call for unity and decisive action among the opposition. Ponomarev emphasises the urgent need for the Russian opposition to demonstrate a clear and unwavering stand.
“Our priority at the moment should be to show the Russian elites that the alternative to Putin has already arrived, and it is recognised by the international community,” he argues, asserting that it’s time for the opposition to decisively distance itself from Putin’s regime and visibly align with forces advocating for a free Russia.
In this context, the Congress of People’s Deputies emerges not just as a symbolic entity but as a potential next iteration of a Russian parliament, a body that could foster meaningful interparliamentary dialogue and represent a legitimate alternative to Putin’s State Duma.
Ponomarev envisions the Congress as a platform that can renew and reshape the political discourse, moving beyond mere words to concrete actions.
“The Congress of People’s Deputies could be the perfect platform to conduct the interparliamentary dialogue,” he suggests, highlighting its potential role in the international arena.
This idea extends a direct challenge to all Russians in opposition: where are their actions that go beyond rhetoric in support of Ukraine? Ponomarev’s call is for a shift from passive opposition to active, tangible support for Ukraine, demonstrating through deeds the commitment to a future that diverges fundamentally from Putin’s vision for Russia.
The implication is clear – for the opposition to be effective and credible, it must move beyond declarations and manifest its support for Ukraine in concrete, visible ways, leveraging platforms like the Congress of People’s Deputies to solidify and express this support.
With the struggles of exile and efforts of other Russian dissidents unconducive to cooperation, Ponomarev is aware of the momentous tasks still ahead, in reaching out to the Russian people: “Some 20% of the Russian population, which is currently no less than 30 million people, are standing firm and publicly on an anti-war position.
That’s our stronghold. But they are not organised, scared, and feel powerless. To change that, one should demonstrate the force and capability to influence the situation – and it could be done only with the armed resistance and the elites’ split”.
The post-invasion period of Ponomarev’s life is not only a continuation of his personal struggle against Putinism but also a reflection of the broader challenges faced by the Russian opposition in a time of war.
His involvement with the Freedom of Russia Legion and the Congress of People’s Deputies demonstrates a shift from political dissent to active resistance and legislative planning. His story underscores the complexities of opposing an authoritarian regime, the significance of building a united opposition, and the crucial role of international support in the struggle for freedom and democracy.
As the conflict in Ukraine continues, Ponomarev’s narrative serves as a critical reminder of the ongoing fight against authoritarianism and the importance of a vision for the future. His journey from a Duma member to an opposition leader in exile, now actively involved in the resistance, highlights the resilience and adaptability required to challenge entrenched power structures and envision a different, more democratic future for Russia.