Interview with Nikolay Artemenko

This is an article in our series of interviews with liberal and democratic youth organisations. Other interviews can be found here.

Nikolay Artemenko is the Federal Coordinator of Vremya, a Russian youth movement that started in St Petersburg, and now has local branches in 19 different russian cities. He has been active in both youth and regular politics for a number of years, has run for various political offices, and coordinated Kseniya Sobchak’s presidential campaign in St Petersburg. Recently Nikolay told me about the website, which Vremya has created to show how the Russian government has steadily curtailed the civil rights of Russian citizens. I thought it was a good opportunity to interview Nikolay about the website, and about Vremya in general.

Can you tell me a little about how Vremya operates? How is it structured? What kind of people are active in it? And what kind of projects does it work on?

Vremya is not only a Movement or structure, but a philosophy. We are creating a youth democratic ecosystem in which critically-minded young people across the country can find an outlet for their energy. Hundreds of young people pass through our Movement. They gain experience in social and political life, make new friends, come up with cool ideas and bring them to life. We are a kind of liberal political accelerator, a springboard that gives young people the opportunity to change the country. We are working on projects aimed at democratic change in our country. Our activists participate in elections of all levels, take part in the work of the municipal government, write bills, but also participate in street activity, organising rallies and protests. Recently, the Russian authorities have  tightened legislation on rallies and have arrested activists more frequently. In order to protect our newer members, we now focus on online projects in our work. Notably, we have a project to ease the visa regime for people under 25 traveling between Russia and Europe:

Vremya activists protesting for the release of actor Pavel Ustinov, who was arrested during a protest in 2019. The poster on the right reads: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act” G. Orwell.

Last summer, we conducted a very vibrant and provocative election campaign in St. Petersburg. We put up ten young women as candidates for municipal elections in one of the central districts of the city. We made a bet on the young electorate, conducted a cheeky campaign: instead of the traditional election videos where the candidate talks about the program, we recorded a music video in the style of Benny Benassi. We decided to break the pattern, in order to draw attention from people who otherwise would have never been interested in politics. And we did it. Thanks in part to our campaign, interest in municipal elections has increased dramatically, and in our constituency, one of our candidates won the election.

Vremya’s canidates for the St. Petersburg local elections

What are the fundamental values that Vremya tries to uphold, and how does the organisation work to uphold these?

Liberty. Equality. Adequacy. As I assume that the first two values need little explanation, I will focus on adequacy.

In recent years, the opposition in Russia has become too marginalized, it has become too parochial, only focusing on itself. We want to break this system. We strive for our movement to go beyond the established “circle of interests”, we want to involve new faces in this process, therefore it is very important for us to save face. The adequacy of a person is measured by his attitude to what is happening. We do not welcome the frenzied and blind hatred of the ruling regime, we want to be constructive and to achieve results. We believe that if a person can adequately and fairly assess the situation in the country, then they are the person with whom it is much easier and more interesting to change our country for the better.

How hard is it to run an organisation like Vremya in Russia? Have you had many issues with the authorities?

Difficult. But not because you are under strong pressure from the authorities, but because you often do not receive enough of a response from citizens themselves. To put it in one word, people respond with indifference. In Russia, unlike Europe, to be interested in politics means to be seen to belong to a group of marginals and urban madmen. This is very bad, because if you don’t give a damn about what is happening in the country, you don’t give a damn about yourself, your future and your children, who have to live in this country. Therefore, with the help of education, we try to convey to young people why it is important to participate in the socio-political process, not to be afraid to speak, not to be silent, to fight and not to allow the government to violate your rights. This is the most difficult thing in Russia today.

What gave you the idea to create

The idea came to us because of the famous metaphor about two frogs. The one where one frog is put in a pot with hot water, and the second in a pot with cold water that is slowly heated to boiling point. The first frog immediately jumps out, scalding its legs, but it survives. The second one does not notice how the temperature gradually rises and is boiled alive. Russian society is the second frog. We do not notice how the Russian state is very slowly and professionally raising the temperature in the pot, boiling us alive. Laws, restrictions, the isolation of the country – all this is happening so gradually that people simply don’t notice how, from a more or less free country, we have turned into a clot of aggression and hatred, closed to the whole world, in which the human rights are violated, in which citizens are basically imprisoned, where there is no freedom of expression, and people are killed for their political opinions. With this project, we show on a timeline how our country has changed in just 10 years, and show what could come next if nothing is done.

Did making this website teach you anything new about what has happened in Russia in the last 10 years? If not, which developments do you find the most striking?

In fact, in the process of working on the site, we discovered a lot of what we might have missed earlier. Even for us, some things were a revelation. Working on the website taught us to think differently: it is important to explain the causes of problems to people, and not blindly fight with their consequences. We often forget about it, but it’s true.

How have people responded to the website?

The reaction was and remains very good. On the launch day, more than 20 thousand people visited the site. The site is constantly accessed by both those who are involved in politics, and just people who want to delve into the political history of the last decade. This site is essentially an encyclopedia of Russia’s political life over the past 10 years. On it, you can interactively track how each event caused subsequent events, what have been the consequences, as well as see statistics on how poverty and petrol prices have risen, how many other countries have forgiven Russia billions of dollars in debts and much more.

Merchandise from Vremya’s

Do you have any plans to use the website in the future?

This project is constantly being updated, new events appear on the timeline. We are also supplementing it with a video sequence, in which we want to feature the most significant events on the timeline, and include interviews with ordinary people, whose lives have been affected by these laws.

Do you have any other projects planned?

We always have a lot of plans! One of the most striking is our protest merchandise store, in which we sell clothes with bold and brave prints that we design and manufacture ourselves. Our latest collection of clothes is devoted to the topic of domestic violence (a topic that is very relevant in modern Russian society). By the way, we deliver our products anywhere in the world. Follow our projects on social media ( Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, VKontakte) and on our official website!

Krijn van Eeden is editor of Libel. He grew up in the Netherlands, but moved out of the country at the age of 18. Currently, he is studying for an MA in Philosophy at the University of Frankfurt, Germany. Before that he lived in London, where he did his BA and subsequently worked for the Liberal Democrats.

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