Tab meets: the journos taking on Vladimir Putin
The Tab met the foreign correspondents invited to debate at the Union. Here’s what they had to say about Putin, kidnapping and flexible, Russian gymnasts.
On Thursday night, the Union held one of its most successful debates to date, having to use overflow rooms to accommodate the hundreds of students who came to see ‘This House Believes that Putin is a Threat to Global Security’ proposed and opposed by six speakers.
The Tab, alongside CamFM, gained an exclusive interview with the proposition team: Luke Harding, a Guardian foreign correspondent expelled from Russia in 2011; Oliver Bullough, a Reuters/freelance journalist and Orwell Prize nominee, and Simon Ostrovsky, a Soviet-born reporter for VICE News who was kidnapped by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine earlier this year.
Tab: If you had the chance to meet Vladimir Putin what would you say to him?
LH: I’d like to ask what was going through his mind when he sent FSB agents into my flat and messed with my home to intimidate me and my family. I won’t ever forgive that.
SO: I’d ask him to release the KGB file on my dad. He was a Soviet dissident.
OB: I want to know if he really believes what he’s saying… and also why his own daughters don’t live in Russia.
Tab: What do you guys think about Putin’s recent divorce and young gymnast lover?
OB: I believe the quote they keep circulating in Russian newspapers is ‘she has incredible natural flexibility’ (all laugh). I actually met Lyudmila Putina, in 2003 or ’05, — I don’t have any strong feelings for her, except anger at having had to wait in the cold for 2 hours to hear her tell us at length about their dog’s new litter — Cornie, [the dog’s called] Cornie.
SO: That litter was in the news for about 3 months, wasn’t it?
OB: It was! They just wouldn’t let it go. “Gerhard Schröder, thanks for the oil pipeline, have a puppy!” and “Here, Hugo Chavez, have a puppy!” I never understood it.
Tab: What do you think about Putin’s online status as a gay icon?
OB: I think he should embrace it. I dont think its very likely but I could see Putin up on stage, dancing to Elton John, belting out Candle in the Wind — i think it’d be a good look, an interesting way of re-inventing himself.
Tab: Simon, you’ve experienced first-hand the violence being caused by rebels energised by Putin’s regime. But you’re back in Eastern Ukraine despite being kidnapped, held and beaten several months ago — do you feel safe now since they released you?
SO: I don’t think anyone’s completely safe in Ukraine, especially Eastern Ukraine. It just really depends on who you run into and if they’re in a good or bad mood that day. There’s no sort of overriding command structure that could protect any kind of decision that anyone makes, say even at the highest level they say journalists can’t be touched, that’s just not something they can be sure to enforce. I’m as safe as any other journalist in Ukraine.
Tab: In the Western media, Putin is often equated with Russia as “the enemy”. Whilst, for many Russians, it is the West who is “the enemy”. You’ve spent years criticising the regime… do you think that you’re doing the Russian people a favour by undermining their regime, and also by setting yourself up in league with their “enemy”?
LH: The thing is, I don’t think Russians are inherently anti-western. I think that if you turned on your TV and from morning to evening to night it’s all about these American conspiracies involving an encirclement of Neo-Nazis, then obviously this kind of seeps in. Putin’s regime has been fantastically good at using TV — but Putin is not Russia. These imperalist, neo-Fascist politics are not Russia. There’s a democratic Russia, there’s a wonderful Russia, there’s a Russia of art and literature and culture… I definitely consider myself a Russophile, I love Russia.
Tab: What is there to love in Russia?
LH: How long have you got? Life is so vivid, you know, you say freedom in Cambridge and you sound like some sort of weirdo neo-Con, you say freedom in Moscow and people understand, because there is no freedom.