(applause) – We often hear that
Russians don’t want freedom. That they aren’t ready for it. That they’ve never had it, and wouldn’t know how to use it. That all they need is a strong hand and a stern whip. The people who push these stereotypes prefer to forget the inconvenient facts. Like the fact that Russia
introduced universal suffrage before Britain, or Germany, or America, and they certainly like to forget that when the Russian
people could actually choose in a more or less free election, between dictatorship and democracy, they always chose democracy. In 1906 when the Constitutional Democrats trounced autocratic parties
in the first Duma election, in 1917 in the Constituent Assembly vote, when Bolshevik usurpers lost to proponents of a parliamentary republic. In 1991, when pro-democracy
leader Boris Yeltsin defeated the Communist Party in a presidential election by 57% to 17. That year, it took Russians
more than the ballot box to gain their freedom. Two months after the
election in August, 1991, hardliners in the Kremlin
attempted a coup d’etat to try to restore the old ways. The leaders of that coup had everything, or at least they seemed to. They had control of the government and party apparatus, the army, the police, and the KGB’s overwhelming
machine of repression. They had television channels, and newspapers, and radio stations. And they had tanks, which
they sent into Moscow. Russian citizens, Muscovites,
who refused to accept that coup were not armed with
anything, except their dignity and their determination
to defend their freedom. And so they went into the
streets in the tens and the hundreds of thousands and
stood in front of the tanks. And the tanks stopped and turned away. This was my first
conscious political memory. I was 10 at the time, too
young to join my father on the barricades by the Moscow
White House, but certainly old enough to understand the
lesson of what was happening. That however strong the dictatorship, when the people are prepared
to stand up for their freedom, all that strength becomes meaningless. It was a powerful lesson and it will stay with me for as long as I live. Today, as we enter the 19th
year of another Kremlin dictatorship, the deck is
once again firmly stacked in its favor, or at least it seems to be. The regime employs the
full might of the state to bear down on its opponents. The police, the courts,
and the prosecutors use bogus charges to put
opposition activists behind bars. According to the Memorial
Human Rights Center, there are more than 100 political
prisoners in Russia today, a number comparable with
the late Soviet period. Here are just some of them:
Oleg Sentsov, a Crimean film director who protested
against the annexation; Darya Polyudova, an activist
from Southern Russia, who called for more
autonomy for her region; Dmitri Buchenkov, who was not even present at the opposition rally for
which he is being tried; Oleg Navalny, the brother of
anti-corruption campaigner, Alexei Navalny; and Alexei
Pichugin, the remaining hostage of the Yukos case,
who’s now, after 14 years, Russia’s longest-serving
political prisoner. State television rails
against Kremlin opponents, denouncing us as traitors
and foreign agents. Elections have long turned
into a largely meaningless ritual, with opposition
candidates often disqualified from the ballot, and with voting marred by intimidation and fraud. For more than a decade
now, the Russian Parliament has been devoid of any real opposition. In the unforgettable
words of its own speaker, “It is not a place for discussion.” This artificially-created
image of unanimity has been used by the Kremlin to claim near-universal public support in Russia for Vladimir Putin and his policies. 86%, they tell us. Too often, this is being
repeated by Western commentators. But it is not true. A
government that is founded on genuine support does not
need to jail its opponents, falsify its elections,
or censor its television. The true worth of this fake
unanimity was shown when Vladimir Putin launched
his war on Ukraine, and tens of thousands of people
marched through the streets of Moscow in protest,
despite the pressure, despite the intimidation,
despite the hysterical propaganda. The long line of Moscovites
who came to say “no” to Mr. Putin’s war, stretched for
miles down the Boulevard Ring, from Pushkin Square to Sakharov Avenue. And when those of us in front
had reached the endpoint, people were still lining up to go through metal detectors at the beginning. That march was led by Boris Nemtsov, the leader of Russia’s
pro-democracy opposition, who dedicated his life to
the struggle for a freer, more democratic, and
a more hopeful Russia. A former Deputy Prime Minister,
a one-time heir apparent to the Russian presidency,
Nemtsov could have easily settled for a comfortable existence
under the present regime, or at least for safety in exile. But he loved Russia too
much to watch its future being destroyed by
authoritarians and kleptocrats. And so he chose to stay,
and he chose to fight. And in the end, he gave
his life to that fight. On February 27, 2015, Boris
Nemtsov was killed by five bullets in the back,
as he was walking home over the Bolshoy Moskvoretsky bridge, just 200 yards from the Kremlin Wall. When all else fails, when
the threats and the smears don’t work, they use bullets
as the final argument. But we will not be afraid. We know that there are
many people in Russia today who reject the corruption,
authoritarianism, and aggression that have become the hallmarks
of the present regime. I meet these people as
I go across the country as part of my work with Open Russia, a political movement we founded
three years ago this week, that seeks to restore the rule of law, democratic elections, and
accountable government to Russia. Our work is mainly with the
young people, the new generation of democratic activists,
through our educational and training programs,
through our media start-ups, through our projects aimed at encouraging political participation
and civic engagement. We want to empower them and help them become active and informed citizens. And we want to help them gain
the experience they will need when they face the task
of building a new Russia on the ruins of yet another
authoritarian system. As part of this experience
building, we put forward candidates in last year’s
parliamentary election, not to win, because that was
not possible, but to learn, how to campaign, how to walk door-to-door, how to organize local activists, speak at rallies and publish newspapers. Like the famed Soviet
pianist Rudolf Kehrer, who spent 13 years in internal exile, practicing on a pretend
keyboard he carved out of a plank of wood so that
his fingers wouldn’t forget. We are helping these activists
to prepare for the time when they will be doing the real
thing, and they are the wiser for it. Many of them have come under pressure, some losing their jobs,
others being targeted by police raids and criminal prosecution, for they will not back down. We will not back down. We will continue our work, whatever the obstacles they put in our way. I can certainly speak to these obstacles from personal experience. Twice, in the past two years;
in May of 2015 and then again in February of this
year, both times in Moscow, I experienced symptoms of severe poisoning that left me in a coma
and on life support. Both times, doctors told my wife that the chance to survive was about 5%. It was certainly intended to kill. The message was clear enough,
but so is my response. Now for the second time,
you will not see us run. You will not see us hide. You will not see us give up. As Boris Nemtsov always said, this is our country, we
have to fight for it. Of our friends in the West,
we ask only one thing: please stay true to your values. We are not asking for your support. It is our task to change Russia
and we will do it ourselves. The only thing we ask from you
is that you stop supporting Mr. Putin by treating him
as a respectable partner on the world stage and by
allowing his cronies to use your countries as havens for
their looted wealth. And please stop falling
for that line that Russians are somehow uniquely unsuited
or not ready for freedom. We are suited. We are ready. And we will get there, just like you. Over these past few months, in the spring, and then again over the summer,
tens of thousands of people went to the streets across
Russia, to voice their protest at the endemic corruption, at
the lack of accountability, and at the sheer arrogance of the
same small group of people that has now held power
for nearly two decades. These protests took place in
more than 200 cities and towns, large and small, across 11 time zones, from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad. And the vast majority of those
who came were young people, university and high school students, many in their late teens and early 20s. They are literally the future of Russia. They are also people who
are certainly raised, and in many cases, born
under Vladimir Putin, who have no other political memories, who have watched the same face on their television screens
for their entire lives. And they’re increasingly saying, “Enough.” And there’s not that much Mr. Putin will be able to do about that. For now, he’s doing the
usual, sending his riot police and his national guard
to attack and disperse and arrest his own citizens. But they’re not afraid,
and they will be back because we know that in the end, however strong the
pressure, when enough people are willing to stand up, they succeed. And then the tanks stop and turn away. (applause)


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