Evgeny Chichvarkin knows what it’s like to be on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin. As a young man in Russia in the 90s, he made a splash in the cellphone business and for that, he says, he was effectively kicked out of the country.
“The KGB people, the FSB now, they decide to control different parts of the business and they want to have a share of success,” Chichvarkin told Fox News.
He fled to London in 2008 and reinvented himself just as dramatically. Chichvarkin opened what he strived to make “the best wine merchant in the world”. He called it hedonism, then opened Hide, a restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef.
The flamboyant survivor has a thirst for life and the here and now but a keen interest in the future of his homeland. He is one of the benefactors of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Chichvarkin paid for much of Navalny’s stay in Germany, where he was treated for poisoning with a Soviet-era nerve agent, which Navalny attributes to the Russian president and which the Kremlin denies. The Russian government is in fact disputing that poisoning occurred and has not even opened an investigation into what made Navalny sick.
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Meanwhile, Navalny languishes in a penal colony for what the European Court of Human Rights has called a fabricated fraud case. Chichvarkin calls what his friend is subjected to as “moral terrorism”.
And as he writes, after weeks of improbably upbeat and humorous messages from prison, Navalny is now seeking medical help. He says he’s in pain, wants to see a doctor he trusts, and says deliberate sleep deprivation is torture.
His wife, Yulia, appealed directly to Putin in an Instagram post asking him to stop “the violence and revenge against a person unfolding right in front of our eyes.”
For Chichvarkin, the Navalny saga has some notable results. It shook the Kremlin cage. Navalny won hearts and minds. But repression by Russian security forces, including widespread house arrests of activists who took to the streets last winter, prevented the crusade against corruption and outrage over the treatment of a figure in the popular opposition to turn into a revolution.
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“We are not Ukrainians,” says Chichvarkin. “If this happened in Ukraine, the next day millions of people would be on the streets of Kiev. Or if it happened in Paris. Unfortunately, hundreds of years of slavery, real slavery, it affects the mentality in a way quite dramatic. ”
Chichvarkin talks a lot about what he sees as the devastating impact of Russia’s freedom deficit.
“Unfortunately, freedom and Russia are … berries of different realms.” (It’s a Russian expression for “apples and oranges”.)
He said there had been no “proper” period of freedom in Russia.
“There was very little time with Yeltsin, but a lot of people understand him more as chaos than freedom. There has to be two or three generations of appropriate freedom for people to understand freedom. It’s like you and your fathers and grandfathers were born in prison … if you were born in North Korea or Cuba, you don’t know what freedom is. You don’t have the knowledge. “
Still, Chichvarkin is convinced that Navalny is currently Russia’s most popular political figure.
“If elections are held tomorrow, he will win against Putin. If he is killed and elections are held tomorrow, Yulia will win against Putin,” Chichvarkin said, referring to Navalny and his wife, whose stoicism throughout their ordeal won great sympathy and support in Russia.
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And Chichvarkin is convinced that if Navalny is not killed or physically tortured in prison, he will go through his ordeal. Chichvarkin uses these phrases to describe his friend: “Alpha male. Leader. A good leader. He knows 100% what he wants and he doesn’t see walls on the way.”
The problem is, despite calls from around the world for Navalny’s release, Chichvarkin believes his friend will be locked up for a long time.
Asked what the best way forward for Western countries and in particular the United States to get with Russia on issues like Navalny’s freedom, Chichvarkin replies that one thing would work: “The only sanction is a warrant. stop against [Putin] directly. The other sanctions don’t work. ”
He also said cutting Russia off SWIFT (the messaging system that global financial institutions depend on) might do the trick.
“Or blackmail,” he said, without specifying what that might imply.
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But aside from these draconian measures, Chichvarkin sees a future of Moscow’s continued denial of actions such as the poisoning of Navalny, a behavioral legacy he sees as routed in the past.
“The Soviets do not believe in the truth at all. Even the truth does not harm their position, they will always lie. Even the Chinese North Korean or Cuban authorities always lie. They cannot speak the truth. That is the truth. Soviet socialist mentality, “Chichvarkin said.
He believes that despite the denials of ownership, Navalny’s talk on “Putin’s Palace,” the billion dollars plus the Black Sea spread has stirred the Russian president. He thinks Putin is losing absolute control over his own reactions to things. His response to President Joe Biden’s comments that Putin was a killer, Chichvarkin says, was “hysterical.” Putin challenged Biden to a live television debate after the comments, a sort of 21st century duel.
“He tried to be passive aggressive but it’s not very passive,” Chichvarkin said.
Still, he thinks it bodes danger for Russia and while he’s disappointed that protests in support of Navalny haven’t been bigger, the last thing he wants to see is bloodshed in the streets, if that happened. He fears that this will be the case if the protests resume and gain in intensity. In this regard, Chichvarkin is pessimistic. He once told a reporter that he would only return to Russia if Putin was executed on a pitchfork. Asked about this comment, he replies, “I don’t think I’ll be back at all to be honest.”
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When asked if it’s because he isn’t planning a change in his life, he replies, “I’ll probably be too tired or too old.”
To imagine Chichvarkin tired or old is not easy. Imagining Navalny’s movement dissipating into a whisper is a stretch too. But for Navalny, his fate is in the hands of hostile forces and his allies have demanded that his cause return whenever foreign leaders meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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