Evgeny Chichvarkin knows what it’s like to be on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin. As a young man in Russia in those go-go 90s, he made a mint in the cellphone business and for that, he says, effectively got run out of the country.
“People from KGB, FSB now, they decide to control different parts of business and they want to have a share of success,” Chichvarkin tells Fox News.
He fled to London in 2008 and reinvented himself in equally spectacular fashion. Chichvarkin opened what he strove to make “the world’s best wine store.” He called it Hedonism and then opened Hide, a restaurant with a Michelin-starred chef.
The flamboyant survivor has a lust for life and the here and now but a keen interest in the future of his native country. He’s one of oppostion leader Alexei Navalny’s benefactors.
Chichvarkin paid for much of Navalny’s stay in Germany, where he was treated for poisoning with a Soviet-era nerve agent, something Navalny blames on the Russian president and which the Kremlin denies. The Russian government in fact questions a poisoning happened at all and has not even opened an investigation into what made Navalny ill.
Meanwhile, Navalny languishes in a penal colony for what the European Court of Human Rights has called a trumped-up fraud case. Chichvarkin calls what his friend is subjected to as “moral terrorism.”
And at the time of his writing, after weeks of improbably upbeat and humorous posts from prison, Navalny is now begging for medical help. He says he is in pain, wants to see a doctor he trusts, and says the deliberate sleep deprivation is torture.
His wife, Yulia, has appealed directly to Putin in an Instagram post asking him to stop the “violence and revenge against a person happening right before our eyes.”
For Chichvarkin, the Navalny saga has a few notable results. It has rattled the Kremlin’s cage. Navalny has won hearts and minds. But the repression of Russia’s security forces including the widespread house arrests of activists who came out onto the streets last winter has kept the crusade against corruption and the outrage over the treatment of a popular opposition figure from turning into a revolution.
“We are not Ukrainians,” Chichvarkin says. “If that happened in Ukraine, the next day millions would be in Kiev’sstreets. Or if it happened in Paris. Unfortunately, hundreds of years of slavery, real slavery, it effects the mentality quite dramatically.”
Chichvarkin talks a lot about what he sees as the devastating impact of the freedom deficit in Russia.
“Unfortunately freedom and Russia are … berries from different fields.” (That’s a Russian expression for “apples and oranges.”)
He said there has been no “proper” period of freedom in Russia.
“There was a very short time with Yeltsin but a lot of people understand it more like chaos than freedom. There have to be two or three generations of proper freedom for people to understand freedom. It is like if you and your fathers and grandfathers were born in prison … if you were born in North Korea or Cuba you don’t know what the freedom is. You don’t have the knowledge.”
Yet Chichvarkin is convinced that Navalny is the most popular political figure in Russia at the moment.
“If an election will be held tomorrow, he will win against Putin. If he will be killed and an election will be tomorrow, Yulia will win against Putin,” Chichvarkin says referring to Navalny and his wife, whose stoicism throughout their ordeal has won her great sympathy and support in Russia.
And Chichvarkin is convinced that if Navalny is not killed or physically tortured in prison, he will get through his ordeal. Chichvarkin uses these phrases to describe his friend: “Alpha male. Leader. Proper leader. He 100% knows what he wants and he doesn’t see the walls on the way.”
The problem is that despite calls from around the world for Navalny’s release, Chichvarkin believes his friend will be locked up for a long time.
When asked what the best course of action for western countries and particularly the United States should be to achieve results with Russia on issues like Navalny’s freedom, Chichvarkin replies only one thing would work: “The only sanction is an arrest warrant on [Putin] directly. Other sanctions don’t work.”
He also said that cutting Russia off from SWIFT (the messaging system that global financial institutions depend on) might do the trick.
“Or blackmail,” he says, without elaborating on what that might involve.
But short of such draconian measures, Chichvarkin sees a future of continued denials from Moscow about actions such as the poisoning of Navalny, a behavioral legacy he sees as routed in the past.
“Soviet people don’t believe in truth at all. Even truth doesn’t damage their position they will always lie. Even Chinese authorities North Korean or Cuban they always lie. They cannot pronounce the truth. It’s the Soviet socialist mentality,” Chichvarkin says.
He believes despite denials of ownership, Navalny’s exposé on “Putin’s Palace,” the billion dollar plus Black Sea spread has rankled the Russian president. He believes Putin is losing his trademark steely control of his own reactions to things. His response to President Joe Biden’s comments about Putin being a killer, Chichvarkin says, was “hysterical.” Putin challenged Biden to a live debate on TV after those comments, a sort of 21st century duel.
“He tried to be passive agressive but that’s not very passive,” Chichvarkin said.
Still, he thinks this bodes danger for Russia and while he was disappointed that the demonstrations in support of Navalny hadn’t been bigger, the last thing he wants to see is bloodshed on the streets, if it would come to that. He fears it could if demonstrations restarted and gained more steam. In that regard, Chichvarkin is pessimistic. He once told a reporter he’d only return to Russia if Putin was carried out on a pitchfork. When asked about that comment, he replies, “I don’t think that I will come back at all to be honest.”
When queried if that’s because he doesn’t predict change in his lifetime, he replies, “Probably I will be too tired or too old.”
Picturing Chichvarkin as tired or old isn’t easy. Imagining Navalny’s movement fading to a whisper is also a stretch. But for Navalny, his fate is in the hands of hostile forces and his allies have asked for his cause to come up in every encounter foreign leaders have with Russian President Vladimir Putin.