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Direct speech

"For me, Khodorkovsky is a completely biblical character." Journalist Elena Servettaz on the Magnitsky Act, years of emigration and anti-Semitism in Europe

Elena Servettaz, a graduate of the journalism department of Moscow State University and the Paris Press Institute, interviewed presidents and prime ministers, Hollywood actors, rock stars, oligarchs and political prisoners.

She is the author of the book "Why Europe Needs a Magnitsky Act: Should the EU Follow the US?" is a unique collection of essays about the Magnitsky case written by famous politicians, human rights activists, journalists and public figures from the USA, Canada, Russia, Belarus and European countries.

Now Elena lives in Geneva with her husband and five children and produces exclusive materials on international politics for - the international division of the public Swiss broadcasting company SRG SSR, and also hosts the “High Foreheads” program every Saturday on the “Zhivoy Gvozd” YouTube channel.

Photo: Alexandrine Portrait

Svetlana Kolchik talked with Elena about working with Mikhail Khodorkovsky, true French values and the problem of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Khodorkovsky and Woody Allen

- Which person has made the most vivid impression on you over your many years of experience in international journalism?

- U.S. Senator John McCain. I flew to see him in Washington in the spring of 2013, the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. I needed to talk to the senator about human rights problems in Russia and the Magnitsky law. I was then struck by how aware this man was of the Russian agenda, despite the fact that America was experiencing its own tragedy at that moment.

John McCain remembered all the details of the Bolotnaya case, remembered the names of all the activists, understood what they stood for at the “March of Millions” and which forces participated. And it was felt that McCain really lived with these problems. This amazed me.

I was also impressed by the American director Woody Allen. We met with him in Paris, right after the premiere of his film “A Rainy Day in New York”. Typically, celebrity interview slots are allocated for a maximum of 15-20 minutes. But when the PR woman said that our time was up, Woody Allen suddenly said: “No, wait.” And Woody and I talked for a long, long time - we got hooked on the Jewish theme, oddly enough.

Elena Servettaz with Woody Allen

But that wasn't the most interesting thing. I was still breastfeeding then. I came out of the interview and saw that my silk dress was completely soaked and my milk was gushing out. But I was so immersed in the conversation that I didn’t notice anything. Woody Allen turned out to be so tactful that he didn’t even bat an eyelid. And it was precisely at that time that accusations of some kind of sexual harassment were pouring in on him.

But Lech Walesa (former President of Poland and one of the founders of the Solidarity movement - editor's note) was very disappointing during a personal meeting. He seemed very pompous and arrogant to me. “Never meet your heroes” - this is exactly the case.

- You were the first journalist to whom former “Putin’s banker” Sergei Pugachev gave an interview not so long ago at his home in Nice. What shocked you during this conversation?

- When Sergei Pugachev said that Nord-Ost (on October 23, 2002, a group of armed terrorists took hostage more than 900 spectators and participants of the musical "Nord-Ost" in one of the Moscow theatres, at least 170 people died - editor's note) - it was a contractual story between Putin and the Chechens. I scold myself for not asking about the details. What does contractual history mean, how is this possible, why has no one ever talked about this anywhere?!

For me, Nord-Ost is a painful topic: my cousin and her future husband were among the hostages there. Fortunately, they survived, but then it took a long time to recover their health after gas poisoning.

My editor gave me the task of doing an interview with the Swiss public, lasting a maximum of 10 minutes. I couldn’t delve too deeply into issues on the Russian agenda. But I still couldn't forgive myself. As a result, I persuaded the editors to increase the running time by 150%. This interview was published on English and Russian YouTube and broke all historical records for visits.

- You worked with Khodorkovsky for a long time and know him well. Do you think he has forgiven Putin?

- I wouldn’t want to answer this question for him. MBK is a very methodical person and clearly says everything he thinks about - look at his blogs. On his YouTube I only watch him, everything else is just that, background music, which sometimes even gets in the way.

For me, MBK is completely like a biblical character, with supernatural powers.

It seems to me that people have already forgotten - especially those who criticise him - that Mikhail Khodorkovsky served time in prison - think about it! - 10 years. A prophet returned from the ruins who has the strength to create, even if he is now in exile.

This year, by the way, marks exactly 10 years since his release. It seems to me that, despite the horror around us, he has something to be proud of. Although pride is not the lot of prophets.

Elena Servettaz with Mikhail Khodorkovsky

-Are you still in touch?

- Yes, of course, we communicate.

- If the regime changed in Russia, do you think he would want to return?

- He has already spoken about this himself many times: if he returns, it will definitely not be as a president, not as a politician. As a manager. It seems to me that MBK is a supporter of the complete reconstruction of the country, and for this it will be necessary to reform absolutely everything: the archaic model of governance, the archaic economy, which will be left to the Russians after the departure (death or overthrow) of Putin. This will take decades. MBK has experience that would be useful in Russia. Not many oppositionists have it.

The Magnitsky Act and collective responsibility

- How do you feel about the idea of collective guilt and collective responsibility?

- Carefully. If the guilt is collective, then who is responsible? Who exactly should be punished, who should be taken to The Hague, tried in a military tribunal?

When I was recently researching an article on war crimes, one of the lawyers at the International Criminal Court in The Hague told me that it is important to always break the chain. For example, there was a missile strike in Mariupol. Children died. Who launched this rocket? Who gave the order? And so you gradually reach the very top in the investigation.

But collectively blaming all Russians for the fact that the war happened is pointless.

Elena Servettaz with Bill Browder and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State David Cramer at the presentation of her book in Washington

- For a long time you collaborated with the organisation “True Russia”, which helps victims of the war in Ukraine.Its council includes such charismatic personalities as Boris Akunin, Leonid Parfyonov, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Mikhail Baryshnikov. The question may be a little naive: why don’t Russian people listen to them? Why do so many people still, if not support, then at least justify this war?

- I don’t know whether those who support the war hear the people mentioned. Don't forget that in Russia most people are cut off from normal communications.

- Not cut off. The Internet works in Russia. There is a VPN. If desired, you can find absolutely any information.

- Well, maybe for you and for me these people are practically celestials, but in Russia propaganda has done a very great job.

I’m not surprised when people write to me in the comments: “Who is Baryshnikov anyway?!” or “Who is Pugacheva?!” They all “work for American and British intelligence.”

Many, on the contrary, enjoy this permissiveness, the opportunity to once again “kick” famous, talented people.

- As far as I know, this organisation has recently been helping Russians who fled political persecution?

- I no longer work with "True Russia", but when I am asked to help, I help pro bono. Yes, there are several such projects there. By the way, like the “Ark” project.

But first of all, “True Russia”, of course, helps refugees from Ukraine. Moreover, unlike many other funds, everything they manage to collect goes to help. Nobody gets paid there. Their task is to collect funds and immediately redirect them correctly. They are not self publicists. They help silently, but systematically. This is cool.

- Why did you become interested in the Magnitsky case at one time?

- I got involved in this topic when Sergei Magnitsky was no longer alive. First, I did an interview for Radio France Internationale with Bill Browder (Bill Browder is the founder of the Hermitage Capital fund, which invested in the Russian economy for many years, but curtailed its activities after the Magnitsky case and criminal charges against him. Since then, Browder has lobbied for The United States and other countries to adopt the Magnitsky Act, which bans high-ranking Russian officials from entering Western countries and also freezes their assets abroad - editor's note). Then in London I met Sergei’s colleagues - Volodya Pastukhov (one of the initiators of the investigation into the theft of budget funds - editor’s note), Sergei Magnitsky’s wife, Natasha, his son Nikita and mother, Natalya Nikolaevna. The case became overgrown with accusations.

You remember how Sergei was tried posthumously. As a result, I found myself so immersed in this story that it would not let me go. It was also important for me to find out why European parliamentarians were also so involved in this story, although Russia was far from them and for many it was more profitable at that time to be friends with Putin.

These, by the way, were the first, loud and painful sanctions for the Russian leadership,even before Crimea.

First, President Barack Obama signed the American Magnitsky Act, then European laws were passed, then the global Magnitsky Act was adopted. Thanks to this law, people who violate human rights can be sanctioned in any country.

Elena Servettaz with Vladimir Kara-Murza at the presentation of her book in the European Parliament

- For what reasons did you leave Russia at one time?

- For personal reasons. My first husband was a French aerospace engineer. He then worked in Russia. The first year after the wedding we lived in Moscow, then his contract ended and he had to return. If his contract had been extended, I would still have lived in Russia.

-Have you had any thoughts of returning?

- No. And I was lucky that I managed to take my mother out of Moscow. But it would never occur to me to judge people who go there, or those who cannot leave Russia. It's too easy to say: if you stayed, it means you support the regime. But it is not always the case.

- How do you feel about all the new sanctions that are being introduced against Russian citizens, for example, the ban on cars with Russian licence plates entering EU territory?

- I understand that it is one thing to talk about the need for sanctions against Russia, and another to experience them yourself. Recently, for example, I asked the former President of Estonia a question about the concept of “good Russians” - and I received an unequivocal answer.

I asked why people who are against the war and never supported Putin should suffer from sanctions, and he said: “The Ukrainians didn’t ask for Russian missiles to fall on them. Why do they have to die? Therefore, I care little about how Russian citizens are now suffering from sanctions. My concern is that Russian soldiers are committing war crimes in Ukraine.”

Residents of the Baltic countries, who suffered first from the Soviet, then from the German, then again from the Soviet occupation, have this position on this issue. And you won't convince them. Their logic can be understood.

Antisemitism and European values

- Were you able to become French?

- Yes. I consider myself French. My husband always says that I don’t think and live like a Russian, and why do I devote so much time to Russia?

I have already lived most of my adult life in France. This country has given me a lot, I am in its debt. But identity is not a matter of passport. It really is a way of thinking.

My core values now are all from the French world. And my children - some of them were born in France (and some in Switzerland) - have very French values too. Although I granted Russian citizenship to all my children, I didn’t want to ask for a visa every time I needed to visit relatives. Although I haven’t been able to come to Russia for a long time. “Not recommended” precisely because of the Magnitsky Act, by the way. But I’m not eager.

Elena Servettaz with Marina Litvinenko at the presentation of Elena Servettaz's book in the British Parliament

- What values of the French world are closest to you?

- Liberté, égalité, fraternité - no matter how pretentious it may sound. In our family, these things remain in the foreground. I look at our children - they have a heightened sense of justice. You cannot joke about religion, sexuality, gender or appearance in front of them. They watch with horror when, for example, some countries ban abortion. And they know that they can come out and openly say that they are against something and that it can be changed. They can quarrel among themselves if someone misunderstands the issues of new ethics or the goals of the BML (Black Lives Matter) movement.

- In recent years you have been living in Switzerland. Where do you feel more comfortable?

- While I lived in Paris, I constantly compared France to Russia. And in this case, France seems to be an ultra-modern world. And when you move to Switzerland, you understand that in fact France is already a backward world, which has begun to decay and collapse, where there are too many shortcomings and many mistakes. Which are deliberately committed precisely for the sake of politics. The health and education systems have been particularly hard hit.

If you want to teach your child well in France, then most likely it is better to send him to a private school. In Switzerland, on the contrary, the coolest schools are public ones. Moreover, in Switzerland, unlike France, only 20% of students receive a matriculation certificate. And in France they pull everyone out.

Thus, in Switzerland, 80% of students will go to specialised colleges rather than universities. But this does not mean that the standard of living of a bus driver or plumber will be worse than that of a graduate of the prestigious Lausanne school. This thought makes life easier for children, and they have less uncertainty about the future.

- You hear from many people that there are too many rules and frameworks in Swiss society.

- We live in the French part, in Geneva. This is a more relaxed and international Switzerland. But my office is in Bern, and it really is like another country. When I worked at the Figaro newspaper in Paris, my colleagues and I used to kiss each other on the cheek in the morning, go out for coffee together, and have a cocktail on Friday evening. Ordinary Parisian life.

I remember how in Bern I once greeted a colleague by kissing him on both cheeks in the French style. The colleague was shocked and did not know how to interpret my gesture.

- How to adapt faster after moving to a new country? Your know-how?

- The minimum is to learn the language. And also, it seems to me, you need to go with such an attitude that you are leaving forever.

Don’t think that something will change at home tomorrow - let’s say Putin dies and you will return to the Beautiful Russia of the Future. It seems to me that in my lifetime, at least, I will not see this.

In Paris I had many acquaintances who were descendants of white emigrants. They spoke in that old Russian language, which no one speaks anymore - except that you find it in Bunin's novels. And they all lived as if they had never left, and Tsarist Russia was still in the yard. At home they made Easter cakes, went to the Church of Constantinople, prayed in the old way, and in the summer they sent their children to the Russian-language Christian camps “Vitiaz” and ACER-MJO. Many people believed all their lives that tomorrow they would pack their bags and return home. But that never happened.

- You call yourself an anti-feminist - why?

- When my husband hears this, he starts laughing loudly. He says: “You are the most feminist of all feminists! Your anti-feminism is really just the high point of feminism.”

This is not true, of course, but I am really against any militant feminism. I don’t like it when once a year a crowd of angry women gathers in Geneva with their fists raised - they say, we need to show our strength, we will answer them all and fight for our rights. For me, “fighting” in this form makes no sense. If I want equality with men, I don’t need to shout about it at every corner and use feminism. I'll just take action.

Let's say I want to learn how to drive a boat as well as a man. So I go and learn to do it. Or I want to be the editor-in-chief of some media. Okay, then I do everything to achieve this. But in general, I believe that in my rights I am not only equal, but even superior to many men.

Now I would really like to take a course for “negotiators”. Those, you know, who negotiate with terrorists for the release of hostages. I know that I’m too emotional, maybe, by the way, it’s a feminine trait. I would like to learn to control this trait in myself coldly, like men. Here, yes, I am not equal with them.

- Do you support the idea of early (at 9-10 years old) sex education in European schools?

- In general, yes. I barely caught the Soviet Union, but we, of course, did not have any sex education at school. And at the same time, there were girls who became pregnant at the age of 15, and they were expelled from school for this, crazy. Why not let a person finish his studies?!

And we must not forget that a 10-year-old child in 1993 and in 2023 are two completely different people. Many girls now start menstruating as early as 10 years old. What if no one has explained this to them in advance? And if these are children of migrants who have recently arrived in Europe? Moreover, did you come from countries where it is not customary to talk about these topics?

Therefore, such classes are important. And even if my 5-year-old daughter suddenly asks me where babies come from, I will calmly explain everything to her too - without the birds and the bees. It’s another matter when mothers in Europe give 12-year-old girls birth control pills “just in case,” although they understand that the child is unlikely to have sex right now. This is difficult for me to understand.

- Is there any information that you are trying to protect your children from?

- I try to avoid all questions related to suicide and voluntary death in the presence of children. It scares me. This is a painful topic for me.

- How do you feel about the ban in France on wearing any religious paraphernalia in school?

- In France, the church is separated from the state. This 1905 law applies to absolutely everyone. There is no national religion, there is no Russian Orthodox Church that would sit next to the presidential administration and sprinkle water on the production of the French military industry. This is not anti-religious behaviour - religion simply should not have anything to do with the state. That is why you cannot come to a public school with a cross, a kippah, or a hijab.

At school they only teach you republican values, not religious ones. I think this is correct. If you want to go to school with a cross around your neck, a kippah or a hijab, go to a private Catholic, Jewish or Islamic school.

- Is it true that the problem of anti-Semitism is relevant in France?

- After the 2015 terrorist attacks (the attack on the editorial office of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and the murders in a Parisian kosher supermarket - editor's note), a large number of Jews emigrated from France to Israel.

Unfortunately, when I go to France, I actually have to hide the Jewish jewellery that I always wear around my neck. In Switzerland I don't need to do this. And there, like in many places in France, there are no people with machine guns standing outside the synagogues, guarding the parishioners. Although following the events in Israel the situation has changed.

Elena Servettaz with cartoonist Georges Wolinski, 2015. Wolinski was soon to die in a terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, the motive for the terrorists were the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad on the pages of the weekly

- How long have you been practising Judaism?

- I learned about my Jewish roots as a teenager - my parents hid them from me as a child. I wanted to catch up, connect with this part of my roots, explore this identity.

Ten years ago, after four years of very intensive, strict training, I made the transition - giyur - accepted Judaism. Because the Jewish roots in my family were on my father’s side, not my mother’s.

For many years now I have been eating only kosher food, going to synagogue on Saturdays, and we celebrate all Jewish holidays. And after Charlie Hebdo, after the terrorist attack in a kosher store, after I saw people walking around the centre of Paris with signs saying “Death to the Jews!”, my Judaism became even more important to me.

My rabbi, for example, did not recommend that children wear a kippah on the street in Paris. Unfortunately, in France, when a person wearing a kippah was attacked, it was not customary to immediately talk about anti-Semitism: the attacker was often presented simply as a desequilibré - translated this means “unbalanced,” even a little crazy person.

But this is anti-Semitism. You cannot change concepts to please the left-leaning public. In general, anti-Semitism in Europe has different roots, and not only because of the large number of migrants from Muslim countries.

- Has your sense of self changed against the backdrop of the war in Israel?

- “I started having nightmares that I needed to hide the children in the bunker. I was recently in Brussels and, seeing demonstrations in support of Palestine, I also immediately took off my jewellery with Hebrew lettering.

My husband, a Sephardic Jew, lived in Tunisia among unfriendly people until he was 11 years old . His family saw Torahs being burned in the streets there. He believes that Judaism should not be displayed in public, that it is dangerous, it is better to hide it, practise it at home, with family. Now I understand that, alas, he was right.

Despite the war, despite the terrible barbaric murders of children, pregnant women in Israel, and the elderly, I console myself today with the fact that the Jewish spirit cannot be killed. Jewish unshakable spirit, wise and strong. This will allow us today, as then, to survive this misfortune and to stand unshakably in the face of all challenges and obstacles.

- Do you give yourself information detox days - without reading the news?

We have an agreement in our family that at dinner there are no phones and the TV must be turned off. And, of course, on Shabbat I try not to read the news. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out. And if I can somehow psychologically abstract myself from military reports, then as soon as I see news about children being deported or killed in a rocket explosion, I can’t stop thinking about it for days.

For example, I remember the names and ages of the children who died during the shelling of Odessa. I don't know what to do with this pain. No psychologist has yet given me the tools.

By: Svetlana Kolchik

Cover photo: Katerina Simas