'The more frightening my future, the broader the smile with which I look at it'
Three years ago today Yegor Zhukov delivered a pre-sentencing statement in his political trial that was the equal of great and brave dissident speeches in history. He was just 21.
In the end, Your Honour, the more frightening my future, the broader the smile with which I look at it
Yegor Zhukov was born in 1998, which makes him one of the youngest speakers I’ve featured on Speakola. He’s also one of the bravest. During the 2019 Moscow municipal elections, Zhukov used his YouTube channel to criticise corrupt municipal officials and police actions during rallies.
There’s a pattern in Russia of what happens when journalists speak truth against the Putin regime. Zhukov was arrested and as a young influencer, he must have feared the worst.
Nevertheless, he stood up at his trial and delivered one of the most electrifying pre-trial speeches in modern history. It’s almost the speech you expect in a movie, given by the hero, who’s willing to sacrifice it all for a better tomorrow.
Given what Putin has done in 2022, it’s worth honouring a young Russian who was brave enough to call out the oppression and corruption of Putin’s Russia.
Zukhov opens his speech with a statement of intention, he’s going to explain why he recorded the things he recorded. But first he wants to talk about values.
The Russian state claims to be the world’s last protector of traditional values. We are told that the state devotes a lot of resources to protecting the institution of the family, and to patriotism. We are also told that the most important traditional value is the Christian faith. Your Honour, I think this may actually be a good thing. The Christian ethic includes two values that I consider central for myself. First, responsibility. Christianity is based on the story of a person who dared to take up the burden of the world. It’s the story of a person who accepted responsibility in the greatest possible sense of that word. In essence, the central concept of the Christian religion is the concept of individual responsibility.
The second value is love. ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ is the most important sentence of the Christian faith. Love is trust, empathy, humanity, mutual aid, and care. A society built on such love is a strong society—probably the strongest of all possible societies.
He then discusses the hypocrisy of a Russian state that claims to be a defender of these values, while in reality diminishing individual responsibility and love and connectivity in communities.
What are the words that a responsible individual repeats to himself throughout his life? I think these words are ‘Remember that your path will be difficult, at times unbearably so. All your loved ones will die. All your plans will go awry. You will be betrayed and abandoned. And you cannot escape death. Life is suffering. Accept it. But once you accept it, once you accept the inevitability of suffering, you must still accept your cross and follow your dream, because otherwise things will only get worse. Be an example, be someone on whom others can depend. Do not obey despots, fight for the freedom of body and soul, and build a country in which your children can be happy.’
Zukhov then says that rather than Russians supporting one another, the financial elites in Russia are exploiting the rest of society to enrich themselves.
Our society, as currently constituted, suppresses any possibility of human development. [Fewer than] ten per cent of Russians possess ninety per cent of the country’s wealth. Some of these wealthy individuals are, of course, perfectly decent citizens, but most of this wealth is accumulated not through honest labor that benefits humanity but, plainly, through corruption.
An impenetrable barrier divides our society in two. All the money is concentrated at the top and no one up there is going to let it go. All that’s left at the bottom—and this is no exaggeration—is despair. Knowing that they have nothing to hope for, that, no matter how hard they try, they cannot bring happiness to themselves or their families, Russian men take their aggression out on their wives, or drink themselves to death, or hang themselves. Russia has the world’s [second] highest rate of suicide among men. As a result, a third of all Russian families are single mothers with their kids. I would like to know: Is this how we are protecting the institution of the family?
Zukhov then gets onto the subject of love. He says that love needs connectivity and trust to flourish. He then notes that there can be no connectivity, because any recourse to collective action is quashed:
It doesn’t matter what you do—whether you are helping prison inmates, speaking up for human rights, fighting for the environment—sooner or later you’ll either be branded a ‘foreign agent’ or just locked up. The state’s message is clear: ‘Go back to your burrow and don’t take part in common action. If we see more than two people together in the street, we’ll jail you for protesting. If you work together on social issues, we’ll assign you the status of a “foreign agent.” ’ Where can trust come from in a country like this—and where can love grow? I’m speaking not of romantic love but of the love of humanity.
This is amazing stuff from a person who was 21 at the time of the speech. He talks about atomisation and dehumanisation. He asks Russians to consider who they have become:
We have become a nation that has unlearned responsibility. We have become a nation that has unlearned love. More than two hundred years ago, Alexander Radishchev [widely regarded as the first Russian political writer], as he travelled from St. Petersburg to Moscow, wrote, ‘I gazed around myself, and my soul was wounded by human suffering. I then looked inside myself, and saw that man’s troubles come from man himself.’ Where are these kinds of people today? Where are the people whose hearts ache this much for what is happening in our country? Why are hardly any people like this left?
Having argued persuasively that Russian society respects none of the traditional values it ascribes to itself, Zhukov goes on a tear about one institution the Russian state does respect:
It turns out that the only traditional institution that the Russian state truly respects and protects is the institution of autocracy. Autocracy aims to destroy anyone who actually wants to work for the benefit of the homeland, who isn’t scared to love and take on responsibility. As a result, our long-suffering citizens have had to learn that initiative will be punished, that the boss is always right just because he is the boss, that happiness may be within reach—but not for them. And having learned this, they gradually started to disappear. According to the state statistical authority, Russians are slowly vanishing, at the rate of four hundred thousand people a year. [Deaths exceeded births by nearly two hundred thousand in the first six months of 2019.] You can’t see the people behind the statistics. But try to see them! These are the people who are drinking themselves to death from helplessness, the people freezing to death in unheated hospitals, the people murdered by others, and those who kill themselves. These are people. People like you and me.
Zhukov brings it home by returning to his opening themes of responsibility and love. Then, like so many great orators for social change before him, he argues for non violence.
Violence breeds impunity, which breeds irresponsibility. By the same token, violence does not bear love.
And, again like many great speeches, he ends with a message of hope.
Still, despite all obstacles, I have no doubt that my wish will come true. I am looking ahead, beyond the horizon of years, and I see a Russia full of responsible, loving people. It will be a truly happy place. I want everyone to imagine Russia like this. And I hope this image can lead you in your work, as it has led me in mine.
His last words of the statement are again a common refrain in great speeches of this type — I am willing to suffer and pay a personal price for a better society.
In conclusion, I would like to state that if the court decides that these words are spoken by a truly dangerous criminal, the next few years of my life will be marked by deprivation and adversity. But I look at the people [who have been jailed in the latest wave of activist arrests] and I see smiles on their faces. Two people I met briefly during pretrial detention, Lyosha Minyaylo and Danya Konon, never complained. I will try to follow their example. I will endeavor to take joy in having this chance—the chance to be tested in the name of values I hold dear. In the end, Your Honour, the more frightening my future, the broader the smile with which I look at it. Thank you.
There was widespread support for Zhukov both at home and internationally. He was sentenced after this speech to a three year probation, and a ban from posting on YouTube or using the internet in those three years, which was more lenient than many people expected. It’s possible the groundswell of public support for him helped his cause.
You can tell from the style and the language of the speech that he has charismatic talents,like many of the greatest dissidents. He said during the trial, ‘“I don’t know if I will be free, but Russia definitely will.’ He also said that he’d like to be president one day. I’m sure this annoyed Putin a great deal.
In August of 2020, he was beaten up outside his home. His injuries weren’t serious.
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Here was a farewell speech I delivered for my friend Sam Pang when he finished on our radio show back in 2008. He’s gone on to great things, and finished on another radio show this week. Sign up to my personal newsletter for these more personal stories.