Ilya Krasilshchik: "Russia is engaged in state terror."
Ilya Krasilshchik, former editor-in-chief of Afisha, co-founder of Meduza, and head of Yandex.Market. Today he is an émigré and founder of the Support Service project. He is certain that even those Russians who believed the propaganda are not asleep. They sense: something is wrong. Ilya Krasilshchik told Witnesses about "Wagner's sledgehammer" — a symbol of degradation, about resistance at the edge of the abyss.
Tell us about yourself
— My name is Ilya Krasilshchik. I was born and grew up in Moscow. I was editor-in-chief of Afisha magazine when I was young, then I was the publisher of Meduza, we founded it in Riga. I lived there for four years, then I left. I decided that I would never have anything to do with journalism again, because I can't do it anymore. I went to Yandex and created a service called Yandex Shop. It was really something completely unrelated to journalism. I did it for three years, until November 2021, and then I reflected and reflected and reflected, and then the war started. Then it turned out that it's not so bad to be a journalist, because you can at least do something at the same time and not feel completely powerless. At least you can talk about it. And I started, along with my friend and colleague Sasha Polivan, to first broadcast with Ukrainians on Instagram, then to record all sorts of stories of Ukrainians on Instagram, too, and it all went viral. As a result, we turned it all into a project called "Customer Service," which officially launched on June 1 last year, which was the 22nd. In reality, it was just my Instagram and Telegram, which renamed itself. And now we have a big team. We don't just tell, we also help people. We have a 24-hour chat help line, a secure one, where people text us with any war-related questions. As a result, we have some kind of gigantic team. 50 people in 17 countries, including Ukraine.
Your first thoughts and feelings on February 24?
— I have no trouble remembering the thoughts and feelings of February 24, they sticked very well deposited in my mind, probably for life. I remember falling asleep. I had a psychotherapist the day before, with whom we discussed that there probably wouldn't be a war after all. We parted ways on that. I lived in Moscow on Pokrovka Street and I met my then girlfriend and now wife Sonya. We were walking on Pokrovka Street and there was a bloody sunset. It was on February 23. There were some fireworks and a police car was going by. And it all looked so threatening, I even took a picture.
We fall asleep, I wake up at 8 am, take my phone in my hands, I see pushes from "Meduza", open the phone, I see the smoke over Kiev. I'm honestly getting nervous again now. I remember this feeling: I look at my apartment, and I understand that it's all different now. First of all, I was feeling scared because I felt like the world was broken. You don't understand what it is yet, but you understand that everything is different. I look at my house, I realize that this house is no longer a safe place. I said: "Sonia, wake up, the war has begun." Then we turned on Dozhd, started watching Zelensky, who was addressing the Russians, then Putin started, and I started yelling, "Turn it off now!" I couldn't just see that face, that voice, that filthiness to absorb.
Do you consider Russia a terrorist state? Why?
— Russia is engaged in state terror. Thank God this is a far cry from the terror that this state was already engaged in. However, "Thank God it's not something yet," we have been saying for twenty years. Undoubtedly, Russia is arranging terrorism in Ukraine. How many strikes have there been already? I don't even care anymore, random strikes, special strikes. What difference does it make! This is terror. It can be an accidental terror, it makes absolutely no difference to me. Leaving people without lights, and rejoicing on TV that they have no light, and hitting their houses, and officially saying that all the goals of the strike have been achieved — this is pure terrorism, this is state terrorism. Accordingly, Russia is a terrorist state.
What were your feelings when you learned about the missile hitting a residential building in Dnipro?
— It's hard for me to feel anything about it anymore. I mean, I've seen so much horror this year. After Mariupol I edited and reread so many texts about what was happening there. And about the hit on Yelenivka, or when they hit Vinnitsa, I've seen so much of that already, that to me it's another crime.
Why did spontaneous memorials to those killed in Dnieper start to appear in Russia?
— People are hooked, because taking just some house is not really the same thing as, by the Mall. And it's not the same as Mariupol. Mariupol was a long lasting horror firstly, and secondly objectively Mariupol took place at a time when everybody was in a terrible panic in general. It was February-March, some completely different, in fact, public situation, it seems to me. Now it is suddenly such a simple blow, a very powerful rocket at home, with the simultaneous destruction of a huge number of lives, it is all visible.
And I think it's responding now, because, really, I think the bombing of houses will remain in the public memory as a terrorist attack. It really is a terrorist attack, there is no other name for it than the subway explosions, that's how people perceive it.
I think it is very important to notice how many people in Russia are actively opposing this horror by taking risks. That is, I think I hope that history will remember not only the horror that Russia perpetrated but also the anti-war movement, a gigantic one at that time, which was against it. I think I have a feeling that these people, if not millions, then hundreds of thousands. I think there are tens of millions who are against it, but there are hundreds of thousands who are actively against it. With all the writing, with all the graffiti, with all the burning of military recruitment centers, with all the derailing of trains, with all the spontaneous memorials, with all the volunteerism. I think everyone chooses what they are really prepared to do. Everybody has a different threshold of fear, everybody has a different level of danger that they can afford, but I see the number of people, I don't know what number, but I see a lot of them who are against it. And at that point I don't feel shame, but some kind of pride in people.
Why do people in Russia believe lies and propaganda?
— People believe what they want to believe. That's the way it works. It's very hard for people to change their minds. If a person has made up their mind about something, it's very hard to change their mind. People want to believe in their own safety. People want to believe in common sense, oddly enough. Common sense, that their world is in some kind of logic. People have a very hard time believing that their country has criminally invaded another country. People don't want to experience what I experienced on the morning of the 24th when my world collapsed. People want their home, their peace. And what kind of peace can there be when you have repression and we're bombing another state for no reason? Terrible sanctions are being imposed against us. If you have decided that it is your state that has gone mad, what conclusions should you draw from that next? You know how the state deals with traitors, because anyone who disagrees, they are traitors. And at the same time, you see what's happening in Ukraine. It's much easier to decide that it's the scary West you've never seen before, the horrible America you've never been to, the Nazis in Ukraine you've never seen, and the traitors in the country you've seen, but of course the scary West bought them. It doesn't matter how crazy it sounds, or not crazy. It doesn't matter how crazy the constructions on state television are put up. What matters is that people believe what they want to believe. I can't say that I'm the kind of person who's totally resistant to propaganda, it's never happened to me, but it happens to them. Because, I can actually give an example from my life, just not as direct. An example of a different kind of propaganda, not state propaganda. I was a victim, for example, of a characteristic story about Chechnya. Not that the leaders of Chechnya were holy men. But, my childhood feeling, this feeling that there are terrible people living there, it's a terrible thing. And war, of course, is very scary, but in my childhood there was no such thing as why did we invade Chechnya? That's pure propaganda in general. That's on the one hand.
On the other hand, when I was growing up, I mean that if you want to believe in something, you will believe in it. I had a belief that you can live in Moscow, that you can live safely in Moscow, and we will survive all that somehow, but, yes, we will. Although there was an absolute feeling, which I said publicly too, that it would get worse. It was obvious that we were going to hell. But, if you admit that your world is going to collapse anyway, and we're rolling in hell, then you need to take some action. You have to give up a good job, and for me I was comfortable believing that we were going to get through this. And what's more, there was a possibility that we would get through it, it seemed to me. But, now, in hindsight, it's clear that this was all going to war.
Many people said — I'll leave when I feel physically threatened. Everyone had a red line, everyone was talking about physical danger. And a lot of people left, and a lot of people didn't leave. And that's the red line that people walked. The physical danger objectively exists, it's called mobilisation, it definitely exists. Next, people start making up explanations for themselves why it's not. And it's an adaptation to a changing world. Similarly, people who have chosen, in fact, most likely unconsciously, for themselves a position on the side of propaganda, they will adapt to this gradually deteriorating world, to the danger, which, in fact, will also appear for them. It can be of all sorts, from not being allowed to speak at all, just an opinion about the war, that we're fighting the wrong war, for example, to, I don't know, the danger on the street, when hundreds of thousands of people who know how to kill will go back without legs, embittered and destitute. Because, the state, I'm sure, will cheat everyone with the money. And anyway, it's not the kind of money that will last long enough to live on, even if they give it to you. In short, it's all a matter of people making up a comfortable world for themselves. This means that when they are offered another alternative to a comfortable world, they will quietly choose it, most of them. Charged Z-activists are not many. Usually, it's Oscar Kuchera, I think it's this: I've been told. You choose to be comfortable with your life. In reality, people just choose to be internally safe.
What needs to happen for people in Russia to wake up?
— I can tell you what I at least somewhat believe, but that's just my layman's reflections. I don't think until there's some kind of split at the top, some kind of conspiracy or something like that, nothing is going to happen. I don't think people can wake up, they have nothing to wake up about now. I'm sure it's their choice. It's not that they're put to sleep, it's their choice. Because if they chose something else, that's scary. There are times when you persist in saying something, but you have a feeling in your head that something is wrong. But, you're going to keep saying it anyway. At some point, it happens at work, you do something, but you have a feeling that something is wrong, but you don't pay attention to it. And then at some point you stop, you think, okay, stop. I'm sure people have something in there that's cringing, that there's something wrong. But, they need that faith. They'll need that faith for a very long time, most likely for the rest of their lives, because if at some point it turns out that it was all horrible, what are they going to do with that information? And we had nothing to do with it, we didn't know. Actually, all the stories of all the terrible things that people found out about are about people not waking up. What, did people wake up after the twentieth convention or something? I'm sure no one there woke up. Did all the Germans wake up after the surrender of Germany? Nobody there woke up! In the seventies this process began, it came from people who were born around the time of the war, and so they didn't have the problem of their own responsibility. Although, they felt it, like the Germans, but they were not present for these horrors. Nobody wakes up, there is no such thing.
A cult of violence is taking shape in Russia, symbolized by Wagner's sledgehammer. Where did this come from?
— There is degradation, because degradation is socially approved. There is always a direction in which people move, feed off each other. You were given a vector, and you begin to move there. If you are given a vector from above called modernisation, no matter how deceptive it may be, everyone begins to practice — here we have made a startup, we will go there, we will go here, and it becomes socially approved. It's a self-generating system. When you've been given a vector - we kill, kill, kill, kill, then it will be a vector of degradation, society will gradually move there. Because it is not socially approved to move in the other direction, and it is approved to move in this direction. At that point, those people who are willing to do that show up. You've been shown that a sledgehammer is OK, next will be a sledgehammer. Next you'll be shown something else, and it will be OK, and naturally, it will be worse and worse, because the sledgehammer was already there, and then there will be someone who wants to stand out even more. There's a certain kind of, you could say, careerism, you could say vanity. That's the direction it's headed now, toward horror. Someone will be found who will cut off the head not with a sledgehammer, but with a chainsaw. Then there will be a chainsaw. Someone will say, look, it was a maniac, but now we will send a maniacs to kill Ukrainians, we will infiltrate them into Ukraine and they will kill everyone. I am, of course, now completely making it up, I hope. So until this is stopped, it will move in this direction.
What are you most afraid of?
— All this year there is a feeling that I am running somewhere. I am running against the backdrop of a black, terrible abyss, which is absolutely destructive, just such a black hole, into which I am very afraid to fall. What does this black hole mean? It's a real awareness of what's going on. I understand it all with my mind, but I don't feel it. The real realisation that I can't go back to my country, and I may never be able to go back, the real realisation of the horror that is happening, the realisation of myself in it. I feel the real destruction of my world. I can describe everything, but I'm very afraid of suddenly stopping and falling there, because I'm afraid that it will destroy me, that I will come out of there a completely different person, or not come out at all. It's a psychological thing that will eat me up, this horror. Exactly, not in the sense of what happens, but in the sense that it becomes my consciousness. And all year long I've been running in order to feel stronger than this abyss, which in fact, is almost impossible, but it's possible to convince myself. And so, I start a new project, I renovate the apartment in Tbilisi that I bought, I get all the documents that I can get, I get cards in all the banks that I could get in, I give money to charity. I do a lot of things, like a little piggy Naf-Naf building a house of stone. I hope it's stone, but I don't think it is. I kind of build-build-build-build, both in life and in work, just to feel like I'm holding my world above this black abyss. And my biggest fear is that I'm about to stop and it's going to catch up with me. It's like you're driving a car and there's a storm behind you. If you stop, it's going to hit you. And that's what I'm most afraid of.
Would you like to go back to Russia?
— I have very bad feelings about it. In many ways it's just a defensive reaction, of course. Because I don't believe that you can live 34 years in Russia and be born in it and leave, and not feel anything at all. I'm sure it's a defensive reaction, but right now I don't feel anything. I don't want to go there. I have tremendous resentment in that sense, disappointment, and that includes resentment toward myself, disappointment in myself. I'm very angry.
At this point, to be honest, I'm not sure that I would want, at the end of the day, to have anything to do with this after this war, and God willing, it will be over. I don't know if I can, because all my work, everything that matters to me, is connected to Russia. My reputation, everything is built on that. I worked for three years in grocery delivery, and I was uncomfortable because after all, my job, it's somehow, maybe it's made up, but it somehow has to work for the future of my country.
I feel responsible for the war, but I'm not sure I would want to continue to have anything to do with Russia. Unfortunately, I don't know what I would like to have anything to do with. Honestly, I think it's a feeling that's not for life, it's so local. That if suddenly something happens to Russia and I'm lucky enough to be called to some piece — "finally we can change the country," I'm sure I'll say, — yes, I'm going! But, right now I have sympathy in my heart for people, but for the country I have only anger.