Yevgeny Primakov joins Vladimir Legoida on Parsuna Show to discuss the origins and projects of the Russian Humanitarian Mission, his work as a member of parliament, and how faith found its way into his life.
Friends, good night. We continue with our Parsuna portrait series of our contemporaries, and tonight we are joined by Mr Yevgeny Primakov. Mr Primakov, thank you for finally making it to our show.
I spent a long time avoiding that pleasure (both laugh).
This armchair you're in elicits truth.
There's no avoiding it.
I always begin by speaking the truth.
Yes. You see, it's working already.
The armchair is on. So like I said, we're going to cover five topics, namely, faith, hope, tolerance, forgiveness, and love. This is the ending of the Optina monks prayer that goes as 'Lord, teach me to pray, have faith and hope, find tolerance, to forgive and to love'. There is also my favourite option where my guest asks me a question. I love it because most of my guests totally forget about it. Finally, there's one more tradition to mention: before we embark on our first topic, I will ask you to introduce yourself. Tell us an important thing that you think we need to know. Who are you?
There are so many things I do that it's difficult to say.
It can easily be about something else rather than what you do.
Not my projects?
No. Generally it's not about your projects. Although some believe that it's difficult to draw a line between what you are and what you do.
Well, in general, I'm an observer.
Let's put it that way.
I'm a journalist and a reporter, that kind of thing.
Is it all there is about you?
All of this means I observe. But we are surely going to discuss this when we talk about how my friends and I came together to set up a humanitarian organisation.
We did it because we were fed up with onlooking. But on the whole I'm an observer.
Do you remember when you first thought about becoming religious?
Yes, very clearly. It was when my granny died. When my father died, I was very young. I think I was...
You were five.
… five. I had turned five. But I was more or less a grown up when my granny died. Patriarch Pimen invited our family to come. My grandad and my aunt Nana went, but I didn't. They came back with an icon. It was the first time for me when I saw an icon up close and it really impressed me. It was, I think, a very conscious familiarisation with religious belief.
Do you remember now what icon that was?
Christ the Saviour.
Did it bring about change in you or was it simply an important episode of your life?
It was a personal experience that changed a lot of things. Honestly, I understand that I'm going to disappoint you despite this armchair of truth …
(Legoida laughs) We've not turned it up it to its full power.
So it was a personal experience.
You've been to hot spots. Did the subject of faith become more relevant there?
As relevant as it was to my colleagues and friends. I don't want to brandish such things, but we've been and worked in hotspots. I have a very good friend who is a cameraman. We've been together in unpleasant places. He's got a wonderful saying that came up repeatedly under difficult circumstances: 'If you feel the Lord grab under the arms and lift you up, don't flail your legs'.
(Legoida laughs). That's a good one.
True. I've felt that there's providence that will keep you safe and that will teach you, even if this teaching will be painful. So I believe that you shouldn't really flail your legs if you feel this.
But this feeling isn't evoked necessarily at hot spots?
No, not necessarily.
You can feel it actually everywhere?
Yes. It just becomes more clear when you're somewhere unpleasant.
Are able not to flail your legs when you feel the Lord grab you under the arms?
Often it is more like you realise you should not have kicked.
But when you realise it in time, do you still manage to avoid that? Or do you still feel like kicking?
It's hard for me to discuss this with you because you are far more versed in this than I am.
It only seems that way.
Still, we all insist all the time that we know better…
that we understand more …
It often happens that we understand after the fact that what we experienced once clicked with something that we experience later. You know what amazes me? That we are surprised to discover a logical connection between events and actions.
We find it amazing.
We are simply astonished that one thing should have certain repercussions years later. Most incredibly, you realise that there is a Being above who sees all of this with all these coincidences.
We are surprised to discover one small connection.
At the same time He has all these connections. That's incredible.
I keep saying that a Christian doesn't believe in randomness.
What we call random…
What we think of as random is simply something the significance of which we haven't yet figured out.
Its relevance was there from the start, we simply didn't see it.
Yeah, we didn't. Faith is one of those things that everyone understands what they mean but still, it's so hackneyed, that you've got to explain it through metaphor. Some say that faith is a way; others that it's loyalty; others still that it's freedom. Based on your experience, what words would you use?
You see, when you began explaining this, I just thought that you shouldn't define faith at all. Because everyone has their own definition.
That's absolutely true.
For me, faith is meaning, first and foremost. You understand that there's meaning, design, plan. That's what it means for me.
What's the most difficult thing in this relationship with faith that's been established when you saw that icon?
But what is humility?
We often disagree with what's happening around us. But...
You mean it's when we kick?
When we feel we've been offended or treated unjustly. It's hard to reconcile yourself with this, because there's little logical foundation for doing so. As a war reporter in my life before the past, as a UN humanitarian mission worker in my past life, I worked closely with refugees, and I saw terrible things happening to people. It wasn't always possible to find moral justification for this, and it was incredibly hard to reconcile with this.
So it's about that feeling some unjust things happening, right?
Towards someone else?
What if it's happening with you? Or you've never bothered thinking about it?
To tell you the truth, I haven't.
Going back to that metaphor, the Lord grabs you under the arms, but He actually never lets go.
True. There was that old joke…
That one about the footprints?
You see how good it is to talk to an erudite.
Who's heard the same jokes as you.
Yes, yes. (Legoida laughs.)
At the very least.
Well, maybe some people haven't heard it. So a person looks back and sees two pairs of footprints.
So it goes, yes.
He says to the angel: 'Look, you've been with me throughout my life. Here, look, your footprints go with mine. But I only saw my footprints during the most difficult moments of my life. Yours were not there.' The angel, — or the Lord Himself, replied that 'at that time, it was me carrying you'.
He carried him. This reminds me of that parable of a person complaining about his being a very heavy cross. You know that one? So the Lord tells him to choose whichever cross he wants. He takes him to a room where he spends a long time browsing before he picks a really small one. 'OK' the Lord says, 'that's exactly the one I gave you in the first place'.
Do you think it's true though? Does the Lord really only give you a cross that you can bear?
I honestly don't know. We read too much into what He does or does not. I'm an agnostic, I think. I believe I don't know what He thinks.
It rather means you're a believer…
Мы видим, мы видим какие-то, да. Yes, we see certain things...
… certain patterns, or we think we see them.
But that's it.
We read too much into this. We often think of God as of this powerful man who sees all the entire picture like you said. But it says in the Bible: 'My ways are not your ways'. It means there is no way we can imagine what He…
Abslolutely. When we interpret what He thinks or wants and actually say that it is so, we fall into a terrible temptation, because He now owes us to do what we think He must. We are almost ready to serve him with a bill. That's where we start begrudging Him, and asking why, why, why. Because.
We mustn't read into His actions.
There isn't always an explanation.
Hope is our next topic. The Russian Humanitarian Mission that you founded with your friends is a fruit of a dream or something? Or is there a different origin story there?
You know I've told that story many times but, sadly, not to you.
A couple of my friends and I, we were working at radio stations and news agencies in the Middle East. When you cover war, you start thinking about doing something to help rather than simply standing by and looking on. Of course, there's now stopping the terrible disaster that is war but maybe you can help that one person, you see? So we started doing this. One time it was about delivering bread, another about getting a lawyer to some mistreated people. Step by step it became more of a professional undertaking, as well it should because we see how our European colleagues go about it. We've heard many criticisms that Russians are too poor to be helping other nations. Well, forgive me, but is India rich enough? There are millions of Indians living in fridge cardboard boxes, while still some Indians manage to help. We've heard many criticisms that our Russian Humanitarian Mission is busy abroad, not in Russia. Well, that simply was our specific area back then. We've since started operation in Russia, too.
I, too, was going to mention that you're present in Russia.
We're operating in Russia, yes, we have certain projects. I hate that word, projects.
But that's about focus, you see. You wouldn't blame an NGO for focusing on saving older people rather than sick kids, right?
These are sick kids, how dare you not help them, that sort of thing. Then again you don't hear NGOs being blamed for saving kids and not numerous homeless people without shelter or food. That kind of accusation would just be preposterous. Everyone has their own specific focus.
Does doing this give you hope? Or is it not about hope?
At first, yes, it gave me hope. Now, it's not about hope at all. Let me tell you a little joke, which I think is great.
Let's hear it. We've no cap on jokes.
Great to hear that. So the son comes up to his father and says: ' Dad, what's life?' His old man replies with something like 'you see, son, life is like riding a bicycle, so you keep pedalling because when you stop, your bicycle falls over', or some banality like this. 'But', he continues, 'You gotta understand that all this time your bicycle is on fire, you're on fire, everything around is on fire, and you're in hell'.
'You see, son, you still gotta pedal'. Is there any hope in that? No hope at all.
I see. No hope at all, but it just has to be done.
Because of your personal conviction and for a sense of harmony, let's put it like this.
The symbol of the Russian Humanitarian Mission is a couple of fish, right?
It's ichthys, a Christian symbol?
Yes, a Chrstian symbol. Besides it looks funny.
Why did you choose it?
It's a mirrored version so that it looks like an infinity symbol. So these are two fishes combined into one pattern..
They also look like eyes.
So there can be many interpretations.
I've read much into your symbol.
There are many things that can be read there. We often joke that since the Russan coat of arms is a two-headed eagle that looks both east and west, our fishes should also look both east and west. As pun we sometimes call them zander and hereander.
(Legoida laughs.) Joking apart, you consciously chose an ancient Christian symbol. This is Christ's monogram, you can't have missed it.
Yes, of course I knew about this. First of all, we're operating in the Middle East where Chrstians will draw fish everywhere from a car to a house.
Yes, I see.
It's not a cross that they're drawing, but fish. But our symbol came about as not a result of that. It simply made sense given the cultural environment we would operate in. So it was natural for our fishes to pop up since they're related to Christianity. Funny enough, talking about our mission's founders, ok, I'm a quarter Georgian, and Georgians are Christians.
However, my good friend Artur Gabdurakhmanov is Tatar, as is my other good friend Aidar Aganin. But no one was offended. What's more, we called our enterprise the Russian Humanitarian Mission. Again, who cares.
You said your mission was active in Russia. I just wanted to ask you to see if it helps: can people who are or will be watching our programme assist the mission?
We have a donation campaign at rhm.agency plus there are volunteer projects. Because people are concerned about kids in Russia, what we do is we support a non-governmental orphanage under a church community in Kolomna that's constantly underfunded. Whatever we get in donations, we send there. Charities have this vicious habit of overloading kids with devices, toys or chocolate on holidays, I think. I call on everyone to avoid doing that, because if you swamp kids with, say, chocolate on a particular date you end up provoking malnutrition.
Those devices get broken or, sadly, more often they get resold. So it's better to ask what that orphanage actually needs. Maybe they need a washing machine. Or a sewing or cooking course — you see, kids very often haven't been taught self-reliance skills. These are things that prove more important. We also provide kids with school bags or textbooks for the new school year.
There is also a charity foundation called Protek active in Saratov Region, where healthcare is in seriously challenging shape. Through them we brought medicines worth 1.6 million roubles to two hospitals in the region. Besides, we buy books and textbooks for schools and village libraries.
That information is available on the website of the mission, right?
Yes, of course, you can read about it there.
People can also come to work as volunteers.
That they can, yes. Some times we need volunteer help to, say, pack things up.
We often need people to help with that. I'm not even talking about our international operations, it's all about Russia.
Let me now ask you about the international arena. As far as I understand you are a prominent of what's called 'active soft power' as foregn policy, aren't you? You're also not against soft power per se?
I think it all began with soft power, but the term has grown somewhat outdated.
Why? It's not soft? It's not power?
Not soft, and not power. It's just a well-thought-out humanitarian policy. It's difficult to squeeze everything into that term. After all, RT is also part of our soft power, right?
The Church has been called soft power too.
The Church is soft power too.
Or something in between.
Well it has a particular focus, true.
But I'm not after the right terminology. Do you think that soft power can truly be an effective instrument in the current challenging international situation?
I'm hundred percent convinced. There's simply no other way. I even can explain why I'm so certain.
Why? Because of the popular response to it?
I think that the way people, communities, NGOs and nation states treat one another is very different from what Brzezinski wrote in his Grand Chessboard. That chessboard has long been in 3D with so many sides to it. The game is on all the levels. This is not limited to international diplomacy per se. What was that great game about? The 17th international congress in Hague, the theme of a well-known song.
If we limit ourselves to traditional diplomacy, if even it is number one in our foregn policy, we will lose on all the other boards. We know that the Arab spring that saw regimes toppled in Libya and Egypt and so on began in Tunisia. Was it a result of diplomatic games of great powers? Not at all.
True. But someone said that even during the height of the Cold War that pitted regimes, nations and ideologies against each other, there was no animosity between individuals. The Soviet Union published the Amerika magazine, for example. Today, the animosity seems to be personal. Does it not complicate things? Or does it make what you're talking about more relevant?
It makes it more complicated and more relevant at the same time.
Do you agree that it has got more difficult on a personal level?
Without doubt so.
Without doubt. If in the past they believed that once the communists were done with, Russians who were actually suffering under the communists could become friends it's now aversion on a visceral level: Russians are nasty, you can't do business with them because they are a treacherous kind. So it makes sense to pressure Russians per se. That's what we're seeing. So with this in mind you can talk about civil liberties, democracy, elections, press, LGBT, but you've got to remember the highest value of all: peace. Keeping peace is paramount and there's no arguing against that stance. What is the Russian soldier doing in Syria? He's keeping the peace. What do we want to see in Ukraine first and foremost? Killings stopped, and peace restored. This is what we are about inherently: we want justice and peace. That's what we should be broadcasting abroad by any means available. Having said that, you have to understand that there is not defeatism in that approach like it was in the 1980s and the 1990s. No snivelling disarmament, as I call it. We have no trust in our opposite numbers.
Why would we have any trust in them? We've been there, it has proved a very slippery slope. So we've rearmed ourselves, and now that we have cutting-edge weaponry, we're not going to disarm. I believe that nuclear weapons are a primary guarantee of peace on Earth, however funny it sounds.
What else can it be, yes.
In this context, our humanitarian policy and our diplomacy must emphasise peace. There's no arguing against that stance. If you level accusations at Russia that it trumps minority rights, is a tyranny or some other nonsense, we will simply say that we want lasting universal peace and are ready to guarantee sovereignty for other nation states. So let them try to argue their way out of it.
What can they say in response? Peace is our strong suit.
Tolerance is our next topic. You just said that 'you formerly were this or that'. Today you're first of all a member of parliament.
I wouldn't be so sure.
(Laughs.) Not first of all? Anyway, you're an MP
OK, OK, I am.
There are different branches of power, but yours is I think the least comprehensible for the general public. Unpleasant as it is but for many people you're a useless bunch who vote the way they're told. Is it difficult for you to put up with this popular sentiment?
When I was personally discovering this new profession, it wasn't easy because I realized that whatever you do, no one will really be positive about you.
Well, some people might. But it is a sad decade-old tradition of our society that you will have piles of stones hurled at your back whatever you do. So what you have to do is to keep on pedalling like in that story.
Yes, that's an apt metaphor.
You just need to perform your official duty. I think that a member of parliament is a strange term. What I am is a hired representative of my constituency in a legislature. I would like that legislature to have more power, and the new amendments to the constitutions are going to make things better in that regard. That means that representatives like me will get wider powers to properly represent. I'm a hired employee of my constituency.
Do you tell your constituents that?
I keep emphasising that, yes.
Do people hear what you tell them?
I don't know. But people seem surprised. They think they got me elected to go to Moscow and idle my term away resting on a cloud, dangling my feet, and chewing roasted sunflower seeds. That's wrong. Although, let's be honest, it often happens. I was a stranger to my constituents in Saratov Region.
I came there and told my voters that I wasn't going to lie about being secretly born in Saratov or something.
Follow a fake biography.
I told them repeatedly that I was a stranger. But, I said, if you hire me I will work. Some believed that after the elections I would never be going back to my constituency. But I'm there all the time: during the week that MPs are supposed to return to their constituencies, the week before and the week after.
I've invited you many times only to hear that you were going to be away in Saratov during that time.
So my work there partly exculpates me for not being a native. Nothing extraordinary, though. What's really sad is that much of what I actually do should be done locally.
By local authorities.
Municipalities, the Governor, the mayor or the district head. The onus is on them to mend a kindergarten roof. But again, it's our decade-long awful tradition that you just have to come and fix everything.
Do you manage to mend roofs?
In some places, yes. It's not like I do it personally, though.
I get it, yeah.
What I do is sometimes I find funding, sometimes I succeed at convincing, sometimes I threaten people with legal problems. It's fifty-fifty, I'd say. But any broken roof is worth two of those fixed. Failures stick in public memory.
You said rather business-like that you're a representative. But have you gone a little bit native? You weren't born in Saratov, clearly, but do you now see it in a different light?
Is it more of a native place to you now?
What brought this about? Is it because you travel there every week of every month?
A sense of responsibility. Those people are my employees so I must work.
That attitude of a hired professional...
Look, it's not like that...
You can't really say you've grown affectionate about the plant simply because it has hired you.
I don't like emphasising this, but it's just how I was brought up. My grandfather used to say that the most important thing and place is where you are and what you do right now.
Right now, yes. It's ancient wisdom.
I have this job, so I must do it well. That's it.
You're talking about responsibility again. But you can't say you love your country because you primarily feel responsible for it, can you?
I believe that apart from the irrational love for your country, apart from that love itself, there is an alienable part of that love which is responsibility.
Well, but is there an irrational part to it?
I can easily tell you that.
Let me tell you a great story,
Last may I arrived in Saratov for a fiftieth time or something. I caught a taxi and was going to my place in the evening. I thought that Saratov was a really wonderful city. High on the bank of the Volga it stands with old mansions, cast iron wrought balconies and so on. The buildings slowly come apart, a terrible spectacle, but still. So I was very favorably disposed and told the cabbie that Saratov was a truly wonderful city. The cabbie said…
That it was truly wonderful. (Legoida laughs.)
Not really. So what I am upset about in Saratov is lack of love. It's a wonderful cty that deserves being loved. I don't want to go for sweeping accusations, but what it gets is a lack of love. It translates into indifference, including on the part of certain officials who embezzle funds and so on. People don't want their hometown to improve. They have no interest in seeing it improve. They don't love it. Again, not all of them. There are beautiful examples to the contrary: people opening up cozy cafes. Then again there is this Tom Sawyer Fest when they paint old ..
…and old wooden cottages, yes. It's an absolutely marvelous idea. Formally speaking, these are my political opponents. But it doesn't matter at all. Look how well they do things.
They paint well too.
They repair architraves too. Fantastic effort! Stuff like this happens, too. But it is an exception to the rule. On the whole, the city lacks love.
Love can't be local, can it? Or is it a sign of the times?
A sign of the times, I guess.
Does love overflow underpasses to burst into streets in Moscow?
Well, it has since Moscow became significantly more beautiful.
(Legoida laughs). Common knowledge, yeah.
You can see that Muscovites and migrants love that city. But their living conditions are markedly different.
Moscow is not just a different country, it's a different planet. This makes people in poorer regions understandably mad. By the way, I don't think we should be ashamed of the word 'poor'. I'm saying because when we talk of a region we might use a term 'subsidized'.
Let's face it, our region is poor. Moscow's luxury cause understandable resentment. Nobody cares that Moscow's budget is different. In Moscow, 10 or 12 million working people pay just enough income taxes for it to be big enough. Plus there levies, road tolls, property taxes and so on. What kind of income tax can properly increase living standards in the town of Rtishevo? It won't happen. From my experience I've singled out four indicators of town collapse. First, it's when the funeral house has got itself a very eye-catchy banner. Second, many bright fast loan advertisements. Third, shouty liquor store signs. Fourth, either deserted streets or older people coupled with moms with prams. But no men, men have gone to drive taxis or on shifts to larger cities such as Kazan, Moscow, St Peterbourgh, or Yekaterinburg. If you see these four signs at once, you realize, the town is in real trouble.
This is very observant.
It's a great problem.
The authorities must pay attention to this. Especially…
Jobs, the most important thing is jobs. You can make great playgrounds like we've been doing. Or you can equip schools with smartboards. But without jobs, it's nothing. Again, I'm not saying you shouldn't buy smartboards…
I see what you mean.
… or that you shouldn't repair schools. You really need to do the repairs because schools are coming apart. But nothing will save your town if there are no jobs. It's over.
Well, let us hope it's not.