Soldatov: Since Putin rose to power in 2000, it has become much more difficult to get people to talk, which is a vital part of reporting. Almost all Russian officials, diplomats and politicians are discouraged from speaking to journalists. It is a problem that affects all journalists, even those who are pro-Kremlin. The goal of the Kremlin is that of making the job performed by journalists superfluous. They don't have any interest in the continued existence of any form of journalism.
ZEIT ONLINE: If you want to report a critical story in Russia and get it published, what do you have to do these days?
Soldatov: So far, we have always managed to find a solution to this significant problem. When we reported about surveillance technology ahead of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, we published the story in the British daily The Guardian. Once the story appears in a foreign outlet, the hope is that the Russian media will pick it up and that it will reach the Russian populace by way of this detour. Now we publish our books in the United States, first in English and then they are translated back to Russian by Russian publishers.
ZEIT ONLINE: You mean that, despite everything, it is possible to achieve something in Russia?
Soldatov: We don't live in North Korea. There are gaps in the Putin system. And these gaps are used to spread the truth. Just think of the Russian trolls that spread untruths on the internet. That story was broken and reported in Russia by Russian journalists.
ZEIT ONLINE: But the troll factories are still in operation, pumping huge amounts of false information into social networks.
Soldatov: But at least we know about it. Spreading distrust or fake news, it should be noted, is easier than controlling journalists or the population. To spread disinformation, all you need is paid or dedicated trolls. This type of influence started in Russia back in 2006. Since then, political trolling has become a tradition. There were many years of testing before the concept was applied overseas.
ZEIT ONLINE: What effect will censorship and fake news have on the presidential elections in March?
Soldatov: You can be sure that we won't get a surprising result. Around 80 percent of the population is said to trust Putin.
ZEIT ONLINE: Do you trust such numbers?
Soldatov: We don't have any polling institutes or regional media outlets that can carry out such surveys in an independent and representative manner. Usually, surveys are carried out on the phone and the first question that people have to answer is what their name is. The second question is what they think of Putin. Imagine living in a country where fear is a part of daily life. Dangers are constantly in the news. And then you are asked to give your name and say what you think of Putin.
But even if 80 percent isn't accurate, I can't deny that Putin is well-liked – extremely well-liked outside of the large cities. Many Russians are supportive of his renewed candidacy. What we don't know for sure is for how long the Moscow elite will remain behind Putin.
ZEIT ONLINE: In 2011, thousands took to the streets of Moscow to demonstrate against Putin. What has remained of those protests?
Soldatov: The situation back then was a different one because there was a clear conflict within the elites at the time. There were people who sincerely believed in Dmitry Medvedev. He may not have stood for a new idea – his ideology was similar to Putinism – but he was a different person. And because he and his people promised to give key positions in government to younger generation, many chose to back him. The new elite generation of the time knew that there would be no opportunities under Putin, who chose to rely on his friends and confidants from the very beginning of the millennium. So they backed Medvedev.
ZEIT ONLINE: But those who joined the demonstrations did so for other reasons.
Soldatov: Those are two different things: the normal people on the streets who hoped for real democratic change; and the people close to power who wanted to let Putin fall. Today, there is no new Medvedev, nor is there any crisis within the Kremlin elites.
ZEIT ONLINE: Because there is nobody who could take over from Putin?
Soldatov: Putin has taken the necessary precautions. For more than 15 years, his message has been: You can't trust anybody except Vladimir Putin. To demonstrate as much, the Kremlin doesn't even conceal the fact that all institutions in Russia are corrupt, that parliament and many politicians, bureaucrats and journalists are corrupt. Once this distrust has spread throughout the country, the only thing left to people is the desire for a strong leader. And in Russia, that's Putin. This was his approach from the very beginning, according to which he restructured society and the state.
ZEIT ONLINE: You mean the vertical power structures that Putin has introduced.
Soldatov: Yes. If you meet a normal Russian these days and ask him if he has grown tired of Putin after all these years, he is likely to answer: Who else can do it? We don't have anyone else. Everything leads straight up to him. Plus, about a year and a half ago, he began carrying out selective repressions.
ZEIT ONLINE: What does that mean?
Soldatov: That select governors, high-ranking officials and ministers are in prison now. Even some people from the FSB have ended up behind bars.
ZEIT ONLINE: They were all opposed to Putin?
Soldatov: Not necessarily. The intention of selective repressions is that of cowing everybody. The message is: Even if we only lock up a few, nobody can feel safe. Everybody has to be afraid of being the next one to end up in prison. Putinism works through fear that spreads to everyone.
ZEIT ONLINE: Can a society function like that?
Soldatov: On the long term, this policy of intimidation is a pretty stupid idea. After all, the people are afraid more than anything and think only of their safety. As a result, things like doing the best job possible at work or doing something useful fall to the wayside. Take, for example, a minister who is responsible for the country's economy. If the first thing he must consider is his own personal safety, it's hard to imagine he will develop sensible reforms for the country.
On the short term, though, the policy of selective repression helps Putin. And it is effective. Not even a thousand people have been put in jail, but everyone has become submissive and scared. No one knows who will be next, which is why all those who are still free show extreme loyalty. They're afraid of Putin, and as such they represent no threat to his position of power.
ZEIT ONLINE: Why don't you feel intimidated?
Soldatov: Years ago, when we wanted to write a book about the FSB, everyone told us: Listen, that's not possible, don’t even think about it. And then we wrote and published it – first in the United States. One year later, it was translated into Russian and became a best-seller in Russia. The censorship is permeable. That's why I keep going.