Transcript of the first debate in the Russian presidential election, 2018


Transcript of the first debate in the Russian presidential election, 2018

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



I commend the document below for the perusal, and hopefully the close attention, of all those who could be interested in hearing the political views of seven of the eight candidates for President in the current electoral campaign that ends on 18 March. Given the nearly hysterical focus of US media on things Russian these days, it may be useful to hear what the Russians actually say for themselves and in particular what they think and say about foreign affairs which were the topic for this first of several televised debates.

These seven represent a very broad cross section of thinking of Russians from the political class straight down to your Everyman.  They are invaluable as evidence on the degree of freedom of speech in the Russian Federation today. In an analytical article which I will publish in the coming two days, I will attempt to provide the context for their respective parties and positions. Here I invite the reader to draw his or her own conclusions without direction from an intermediary.

The eighth candidate who was not present or represented in the debates was the incumbent president, who made his campaign speech today by way of his Address to the Federal Assembly, the joint session of Russia’s bicameral legislature.  That was a two-hour political statement that truly stands apart. It will be receiving enormous media attention, as it justly deserves, for being as significant as Vladimir Putin’s February 2007 speech in Munich that shook up the American political establishment by its boldness and open challenge to American global hegemony.  The speech today was a declaration of Russia’s full strategic parity with the United States. At worst it will set off all the alarm bells in Washington. At best, it will have a sobering effect on the world, precipitate new arms control negotiations covering a very widely expanded range of offensive and defensive weapons systems.  It may also powerfully reinforce the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in that it opened a Russian nuclear umbrella over all those countries that enter into “partnership” with the Russian Federation.  I will develop these and other analytical points in a separate article on Putin’s speech in the coming day or two.

I took down the transcript below directly from one of the several postings of the debates: I estimate that I wrote down about 80% of the statements made by the participants which I then translated from Russian into English. I believe that I captured the most essential remarks even if I have left out the cross banter that violated the rules of the debate hosts and some of the slang used by one or another candidate.


The debate was hosted by Pervy Kanal, one of the two leading  Russian state television channels with national coverage.  The moderator is one of that channel’s better known talk show presenters who is associated with the daytime talk show Time will Tell.  With his broad experience keeping boisterous and often rude Russian talk show guests in check, he was well prepared for some of the uncivil behavior of the candidates, in particular Ksenia Sobchak and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Indeed as Russian speakers will be aware, other tapes of the debates which somehow made it to the internet include some fairly ugly exchange of compliments between those two which were excised from the final version broadcast by the Pervy Kanal.  In fact, most Russian talk shows go out taped rather than live precisely to prevent abuse of air time by unruly Russians.

The single biggest disruption to the proceedings appearing in the final broadcast version was the objection stated loudly by Sobchak but backed up by others that the format of the show and more particularly the broadcast time were chosen in such a way as to minimize the impact of the participants, meaning their interaction with one another, and the available audience. Indeed, the debate was taped the night of the 27th and broadcast at 8am Moscow time on the 28th. 

In her complaint, Sobchak is only partly justified.  The presenter insisted that 8 am is considered Prime Time morning on Russian television and advertisers pay accordingly.  The bigger issue is that the vast country with 11 time zones presents necessary choices if a show goes out nationally “live.”  Namely, 8am Moscow is 3pm in Vladivostok, in the Far East.  If it were broadcast at 8pm Moscow, then it will show at 3am in Vladivostok.  Of course, these shows are then available on the internet where they will capture millions of additional viewers at whatever hour is convenient to them.

The format issue is also a legitimate matter of concern.  Each contestant has the microphone 3 times. The order of speaking was determined alphabetically by surnames. The first time at the microphone was given to them to make an opening statement of two minutes duration.  Second, to respond to a specific question pitched to them by the presenter during 2 minutes 15 seconds.  And third, to make a closing statement of two minutes. 


As will be clear from the transcript, several but not all of the participants used their second or third opportunity to speak so as to respond to (meaning attack) the positions of other candidates. In this sense only was it a debate.

Finally, by way of introduction, please note the following party affiliations of the 7 participants in the debate:


 Sergei Baburin,  Russian All-People’s Union

Pavel Grudinin, Communist Party

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, LDPR party (nationalist)

Ksenia Sobchak (Civic Iniative party, liberal)

Maxim Suraikin, Communists of Russia (Stalinist)

Valery Solovey (representing candidate Boris Titov),  Party of Growth

Grigory Yavlinsky,  Yabloko party (liberal).



Transcript of the debate broadcast on Pervy Kanal morning of 28 February



Opening statements:


  1. Baburin – I voted against break up of the Soviet Union. The question of our further existence is here and now. We must restore the Union to be strong and successful. We must correct the crime of 1992. Eurasian integration as path to bringing back together a single country.
  2. A strong foreign policy is possible only if we have a strong State. I just got back from Krasnodar. No one had questions there about foreign policy. They had questions such as how will we combat poverty. How do we ensure free education, free medical care?  How do we ensure that young specialists get decent housing, a decent first job? How to ensure that on your television channel we are not collecting money for sick kids, but that this money is paid by the government.  All of these questions come down to one:  what is a strong state?  A strong state is when debates on Pervy Kanal are shown at an hour when the audience is at home to watch. To ensure that everyone is able to watch – and not taped like now for 8am showing.  And if you start talking about domestic issues on your channel that is also a sign of a strong state.  A strong state has a strong press and media.   Before we change our foreign policy we have to ensure that we are a country to be reckoned with. We have to work on our domestic policy. The question today is whether we continue with the policies of the past 18 years or change over to policies building a strong state. We in our party want to ensure that it is good to live here not for oligarchs and officials but for the simple people. That will give us a strong foreign policy.
  3. Zhirinovsky – I want to say that I and others of us are not satisfied with the format. These are not debates, they are like a school lesson. Each of us will have a say and then we are shown out the door.  Now, as for foreign policy:  The people standing here around me don’t have a clue. They are not specialists. They are good people, but that’s it. They never were engaged in this.  I have been involved in international relations for 50 years.   The threats we face are from the Near East.  But Yavlinsky says we should get out of there. Sobchak says we should get out. These people pursue an anti-state line. For this we shot people  in Moscow at the outbreak of WWII. Now with NATO approaching, the Middle East in turmoil : we are in a situation where war can break out at any moment.

We need to put order in our Western borders.  All these Communists here tonight, they were all for the Soviet Union, but not for the Russian people. There were big mistakes in foreign policy. Now we have done the right thing getting into Syria, but there are those here tonight who are impeding us in pursuing our correct foreign policy.   The main task of the President of Russia is foreign policy and rightly so.


  1. Sobchak – the main problem with our foreign policy is our domestic policy. My main question about foreign policy is why we lead in trade only in arms and hydrocarbons. Why do we pursue hybrid wars which we do not acknowledge. Why do our soldiers die in Syria? Why doesn’t Putin show his respect for us by taking part in debates. Why is it Pervy Kanal  is taping these debates, which violates our rights? Why doesn’t Pervy Kanal respect the voters? Why are you showing this at 8am, when people are going to work or taking kids to school?  I demand that these debates take place in prime time when the maximum number of people can see us.  I think everyone here agrees with this, right? [everyone agrees]    I call upon Pervy Kanal to show these debates Live and at 8 pm.  And I want to debate not with these people here today who are very convenient to Putin, but with Putin himself. I want to understand why Russia pursues an aggressive foreign policy. Why do we forget we are a European country. We must return to good neighborly relations and friendship with the European countries, to civilized society.


ANSWER of the presenter:   the show is in Live tape format.  You have to consider the scale of our country and time zones.  We are showing this in what is called Morning Prime Time. This is what is known in the trade and advertisers pay accordingly.  The taped show is broadcast without any cuts.


  1. Suraikin- In the 90s we were told to love America and the West.  What happened? We saw Iraq, Libya and now Syria. They have moved their forces to our borders. They don’t attack us only because we have nuclear weapons.  And here we have a 5th   Look at Titov – going to London where he has his buddies and kids. Ksenia is constantly in Washington holding negotiations.  Grudinin has children and property in Europe and bank accounts there.  What will happen if these people become President? What does it mean to have your kids and property in NATO countries!   Only real Communists, only a return to the Soviet system can guaranty the future of our country.  We can ensure Soviet industry, a Soviet army and a powerful foreign policy. We have no alternative to Stalinism.
  2. Solovey (Titov rep) –    Foreign policy should be a path to prosperity.  We need to increase the number of our friends and partisans, and win over some of our detractors and adversaries. We should avoid unnecessary conflicts at the perimeter of the Russian Federation. We should defend the interests of our economy and our business.  Only a country with a strong economy and healthy society can have a strong foreign policy.  No one wants to introduce sanctions against China. Why? Because they have a strong economy and everyone wants to cultivate good neighborly relations with it.  Russia should follow the same path.  The goal of our foreign policy should be to maintain good relations with all for purpose of developing our economy.
  3. Yavlinsky – All policies, including foreign policy, should be directed at raising the living standards in our country. That is the first goal of foreign policy.  The second goal is peace, stability and security. Russia is a country which should take part in all major world decisions.  It is a great problem of our foreign policy today that we were thrown out of the G8.   The fourth goal is to become an attractive country. Attractive by its culture, people, history, quality of life   – to attract investments.  I will do everything to ensure our people can travel the world without visas, so that in every country of the world RF citizens will feel protected.  And the main thing – that Russians will not give up their lives for unnecessary, foreign interests.


Direct questions to each:

  1. Baburin – Q -what is wrong with our current foreign policy? Answer: it is not sufficiently consistent.  The same Neo-Liberals who destroyed the country in the 90s have now clustered and attack our government policies for being patriotic.  We need to create a country without poor, without thieves in government. We need to get rid of oligarchs. Then we will have a worthy foreign policy.
  2. Grudinin – Q -what do you think about plans to reform the UN and in particular the UN Security Council?   How should Russia relate to BRICS, the G-20, the Shanghai  Treaty Organization?   Answer: As I said, the world only respects the strong.  These platforms – Shanghai, BRICS, etc. have not met our expectations. Other members of these groups have much faster growing GDP than we do. Only when we address our domestic requirements can we be more weighty on the international arena.   Our people think not as you show on Pervy Kanal – they have other concerns: how to feed their kids.  Money is going to oligarchs which should go to the state so it has the means to finance programs.  It is not right to hear constantly there is no money for this and that.
  3. Zhirinovsky Q- how do you plan to respond to the attacks of the West on Russia?  Answer: These attacks are not something new. They have been going on for a thousand years.  We are the biggest country in the world. Europe is small. They look to move East. Germans even have the expression Drang nach Osten. They have been saying this for hundreds of years.  For these reasons, we need a strong army. You say we should be friends.  With whom are we supposed to be friends?  With the NATO forces in the Baltics who are just 5 minutes flying time from St P and 7 minutes to Moscow? They are a real enemy. They have military plans to destroy our country. And you are just talking about Schengen and the economy.  What good is your economy if they strike tomorrow or the day after tomorrow. If we have a strong army then we can resolve our domestic problems.  And you, who would capitulate, you say let’s fix up everything domestically and then people will respect us.

But they need our resources, our territory.  So many need drinking water.  Everyone looks at Russia and wishes we did not exist.  You cannot understand this. You are just blind. Go abroad. You who have property and accounts abroad. They will try to exert influence through you.  Yavlinsky of Yabloko is tied to Germany. Where did Sobchak go? To America. Why?  To get advice? To get money?  Their blessing?  Titov is wandering around England.  We have to purge the country of this 5th Column.

  1. Q – As a possible future president what do you think about relations with the Shanghai Treaty Organization and ASEAN? Answer: Our hopes for the Shanghai Treaty Organization have not been justified. We thought we would work with Kirghizia, Turkmenistan…But there the main role is played by China. China has its own bilateral relations. To compete against China, the world’s second largest economy is not possible. Russia doesn’t play the role there that it hoped to play. The same is true of ASEAN. There is nothing wrong that we cooperate with these countries, But we should cooperate with both Asia and Europe.  We should return to those principles which were said by Putin himself back in 2002 – have an association with NATO. We should not fear NATO will attack us. We should cooperate. We should work out a road map on how we will enter all these institutions of security, and European security institutions. Why not? These are the priorities we should set in Russia.

What have we achieved in ASEAN – signed papers upon papers.  Cooperation with Europe is held back by one thing – that our Minister of Foreign Affairs uses four letter words.  That people from the LDPR party, Slutsky, pinches the ass of a young female journalist.   With people like this representing us in the international arena, it is clear why relations are what they are.

  1. Q -How do we follow the policy you suggest and not find ourselves in isolation?  Answer:  Our 5th column speaks of our being isolated.  But the Soviet Union had more allies and covered more of the world than the USA and Western Europe, which were busy exploiting the Third World. First we have to restore socialism in our own country. We have to nationalize all extractive industries, drivers of the economy , metallurgical industry.. This will double the federal budget and enable us to double pensions, double the military spending.  Then we start with Belarus and others including Ukraine will rejoin us, followed by dozens of other countries joining us in a great political and military bloc which will isolate our enemies.
  2. Solovey (Titov)   Q – First we get strong and then we have a strong foreign policy. How much time do we need for our development to get strong?  Twenty years? And what about international relations in the meantime?  Answer:  to realize the program of growth we need 10 to 12 years.  While we are concentrated on our internal affairs, there will be many who want to help and invest in our country. Not just to buy our raw materials but to produce here a lot of things.  We can be friends with those who are not our enemies, meaning most everyone.  We should pull out of Donbas. That is enough.


  1. Yavlinsky – Q – How do we deal with the Euro-Atlantic world, with NATO?  Answer:   In order to behave like a super power, you have to be one.  Today Russia’s share of the world economy is only 2%  In these conditions the country cannot carry on an effective foreign policy.  Foreign policy is a great art.  I don’t see it.  In the last few years Russia wrote off debts of 165 billion dollars. 9 trillion rubles were forgiven other countries.  For this money, we could have built thousands of schools etc. this is a huge sum. Three trillion is the whole defense budget for a year. Same for education and for medicine.  This is the current foreign policy that has led to sanctions.   A situation where any small country like Albania can declare sanctions on Russia – that is a disaster of foreign policy.


Closing remarks from each

  1. Baburin – the NeoLiberals capitulated in the 90s. and here they are again.  We have the right to consider ourselves a great power. Because that is defined not only by an Army, by an economy, but is determined by the spirit of the nation. And Russians will never capitulate however much our Liberals try to achieve that. What is Russia’s Choice? You have to love kids. Look after the family. Defend the motherland. And forever keep pure your immortal soul.

Yes, fraternity of the peoples. But the backbone of our country is the Russian people with its Orthodox faith.

  1. Grudinin – Of course this is not a debate. It is separate slogans and appearances. Each says his own thing. Everyone understands that only when we are strong will everyone want to be our friend. You cannot force people.  The Soviet Union will be created only when we have a just society, when you ensure that life here for pensioners, children, workers , peasants  is so good that outsiders want to get in.  So far we have created a society to which no one wants to come, because  our courts have no justice, our officials steal,   our mass media lie,   where oligarchs set the policies for the whole country. For this reason we have to concentrate on domestic policy.

Then we can introduce labor visas for migrants to make a work force available when we need it. We need to have salaries we can be proud of.  We want a Russia to which people come for medical treatment, as was the case before, not where our people including Pervy Kanal sends children abroad for treatment.  Where you go into a pharmacy and buy medicine without having to think how you are going to live till your next pension payment..  If we do this then we will be a strong power with which everyone will have to reckon.   But at present, what we are doing at the state level is selling our fighter aircraft abroad and taking back palm oil. And after that our dairy farmers don’t know where to sell their milk.

We are following a policy which made our country weak.

Russia has no friends, Russia has interests.  Our number one interest is to have a prosperous population.


  1. Everyone here is saying the same thing: first a rich country, first focus on domestic issues. They don’t understand anything. We hear about the Russian Choice (Baburin). What is that? We have hundreds of other nationalities.  Baburin only thinks about Russians. Then tomorrow we will have a civil war here.  Grudinin is just the same: what is your wealth, it is expensive Moscow suburban land. 100 km away there is poverty, and you are renting out your land, you are doing nothing. And this young lady [барышня – Sobchak] – for 10 years you were doing those television reality programs, complete debauchery. Here she is talking about who pinched whom some time ago [Slutsky]. You should be in an insane asylum Sobchak, not here.  Then Yavlinski says we forgave 160 billion dollars.  That wasn’t money, Yavlinsky. It was help to our friends, it was arms.  And our storehouses are full of arms.  We can give away another 100 billion, and another 100 billion. This brought us no harm There was a privatization program – 500 days. It was a deception. You cannot achieve it in 5000 days.  Privatization in general was criminal.  We should have developed our powerful state sector.  Then we have Titov who is strolling around somewhere.  And our candidate who wants to restore Stalinism. No we won’t go back to the stone age. But we will help you and your Communist forces get rid of the Fifth Column, so that Sobchak wouldn’t be here, Yavlinsky wouldn’t be here. And Grudinin and Baburin.  Russians?  Yes.  But just remember that in 1991 I stood alone on Manezh square but you in the Supreme Soviet betrayed everyone.
  2. Dear television viewers, I want to say one thing. Just look at the faces of those who surround me here in the studio. None believes they will win the election. This is just a crowd scene of old clowns and others sent here with the objective of your seeing them in a broadcast, if you succeed in watching while preparing to take the kids to school or going to work and say:  No, there is only one President in our country, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.  That is why this was all set up.  Don’t listen to what they are saying about Neo-Liberals, about the 90s. For the last 18 years our country has been run by one person.  And what has happened in our foreign policy in these 18 years:  they have succeeded in our waging two hybrid wars, one in Ukraine and the other in Syria. Our soldiers are dying there but for what. What goal are we pursuing in our war in Syria?  What goal are we pursuing when we have quarreled with our most fraternal people, with Ukraine? What is the objective in these wars? Why are our Russian people dying there?  Give these questions to Vladimir Putin, who is not here today.  Not the Liberals of the 90s, but he has been ruling our country for 18 years.  What has happened in our foreign policy that our only friends are North Korea, Venezuela, Afghanistan? There are our friends.  Instead of European countries, instead of the USA, with which we had good relations till not long ago. Now we are conducting a policy of isolationism. Now they threaten us, saying we live in a circle of enemies. That is not so. Now our task is to return to normal, civilized relations, that we remember that we are a European country and our place by right is within European civilization


  1. Suraikin – What do we hear from the “democrats” – the same that we heard at the end of the 80s from Gorbachev and others.. You are forgetting how the countries of Europe came down on us at the end of the 80s.  the countries of the Baltics  do not extract one kilogram of metal but in the 90s took number one position as biggest merchants of metals because for 20 years they robbed our country.  Of course now they don’t like that Russia has risen. But look at our major metallurgical and energy industries. What are they doing – wealth sitting in offshore companies. And the western companies. Where is the profit going? To the West. And the profit from these companies which were built thanks to the labor of the Soviet Union for us, for the future generations….These companies, Lipetsk LPK…they have hundreds of billions of dollars of profits, stolen profits and they go to the West.  In the 90s foreigners bought into our military industrial complex and destroyed it.  We were never in isolation.  How they have loved us… as slaves.  But we are not slaves. That is why our grandfathers fought. This is why we should go to the elections and elect real Communists, make our socialist choice. We will restore industry, socialist economy and  great power. Military-political bloc. We must restore the Soviet Union. We can start with the union with Belarus…
  2. Solovey (Titov). Dear television viewers, as you have seen there are two ways to discuss foreign policy – one is hysterical, the other is realistic is based on fact.  Facts are that we are a European state.  Secondly, national pride: return of Crimea was an act of national reconfirmation. That is unconditionally true. But you cannot take pride only in that if you have poor education, poor medicine, and a weak economy.

Thirdly, armed forces.  You cannot spend a third of the national budget on the armed forces. If you want to have strong armed forces, you must have a strong economy. 

Fact number four: from where do we get modern technology? We have bought it from the West. Asia could not and cannot provide this to us.  Moreover, where did we get long term credits for industrial development? From the West.  From all of this it follows that Russia is interested in restoring good relations with the West. This does not exclude good relations with the East. We must develop relations with all of Asia later.

This is what Titov has been saying constantly: if you don’t have a strong economy and developed social sphere no one will take you into account. This is an unconditional medical fact.

Happily Stalin is left in the past, but our discussion today is about the future. keep that in mind.


  1. Yavlinsky – Most important is to name 5, 6, 7 concrete steps for our foreign policy to work for the prosperity of our citizens, and its future, its development and decent living.

First, end the bloodshed in Donbas

Second, settle the problem of the status of Crimea

Remove troops from Syria as quickly as possible

Remove Russia from its isolation

             Achieve peace with our neighbors and firstly with Ukraine

Achieve an end to sanctions

Achieve mutually beneficial trade and economic relations with Europe and the whole world

Strictly observe the international obligations we assumed

Stop lying endlessly about our situation in foreign policy, as well as in all else

Stop looking at the world as an adversary.

Seek mutually advantageous cooperation with all.

Peace, respect for our fellow citizens, professional foreign policy –  this is what is of vital importance for our country. This assumes the election of a different policy.  The present policies unfortunately are leading Russia to a dangerous boundary which is ruinous

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

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 Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see