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The Edge Of A 'New Catastrophe': The Fears Of A Russian Opposition Leader

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This next story is a cautionary about the perils of crossing Russian President Vladimir Putin. Four years ago, Russians took to the streets to protest Putin's rule. Among the leaders of those protests was a man named Gennady Gudkov. Since then, he's lost everything - his business, he seat in Russia's parliament and the hope he once nurtured for the future of his country. He told his story to NPR's Mary Louise Kelly in Moscow.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Gennady Gudkov is a big bear of a man - 60 years old, a household name here in Russia. These days he keeps an office down a quiet side street. We're in central Moscow. It's a pretty, yellow stucco building tucked away behind a big vine-covered wrought-iron fence and gate. It's a far cry from the thirteenth floor of the Duma. That's where Gudkov's office used to be. Gudkov was first elected to parliament in 2001 not long after Putin rose to power.

GENNADY GUDKOV: When Putin became head of state, we had hopes, and we hoped that Putin will develop the country, will build the new political system.

KELLY: Instead, Gudkov says he watched as Putin set about weakening parliament, weakening the courts. Gudkov took to delivering speeches calling for limits on presidential power and calling on Russians to rally against Putin. The result was predictable. Gudkov was accused of improper business dealings.

GUDKOV: There was plan to arrest me, and I was warned from the Kremlin. And I was asked to leave the country.

KELLY: Now, here's where things get interesting. Gudkov and Putin share a history. They are both professionally trained KGB spies. Gudkov served as an officer of Russian intelligence for two decades before he ever ran for elected office. He says in the fall of 2012, his old network lit up.

GUDKOV: I was several times warned by my colleagues from KGB, and they explained me that Kremlin is very irritated by me. I understood it, and I was warned but was my choice.

KELLY: His choice, but Gudkov says he was still stunned by how quickly the Kremlin moved to crush him by kicking him out of the Duma and destroying his business.

GUDKOV: My family owned the company Oskord, the biggest security company of Russian Federation. It was ruined during two months. We built this company for 20 years, and two months was enough to ruin it completely.

KELLY: Gudkov has denied wrongdoing. He's never been convicted of any crime. Today he's banned from giving TV interviews in Russia. He's banned from state-owned radio. Foreign interviews aren't a problem, he says, but he is monitored around the clock.

GUDKOV: My telephone's under technical control. My email - not only mine but my wife, my sons'...

KELLY: His sons', including 36-year-old Dmitry, who has followed in his father's footsteps. He's a member of parliament, known for his opposition to Putin.

Do you worry about him?

GUDKOV: Of course. Every day his position is very dangerous because he's the only real oppositional deputy in state Duma but nothing to do because he has his own ideas and views.

KELLY: He's his father's son, it sounds like.

GUDKOV: His father's - yes, his father's son (laughter).

KELLY: I ask Gudkov, given his sons, his three grandchildren, is he optimistic about the future of his country?

GUDKOV: I am afraid we will repeat the destiny of Russia in 1917.

KELLY: 1917 - the Russian Revolution.

GUDKOV: Very bloody civil war and repressions. And it was a very traumatic in our history. I'm afraid we are (speaking Russian), on the edge of some new catastrophe, social and political catastrophe. I'm afraid.

KELLY: As we chat, Gudkov sips tea from a beautiful silver cup, handmade. It depicts a Pushkin fairytale about a fisherman and a golden fish. Gudkov says he admired the cup in a shop window for years, finally bought it for himself - a present to celebrate the fourth time he was elected to the Duma. It's one of the few objects he managed to salvage from his old life.

Given all he's lost, does he have regrets? Gennady Gudkov nods. I couldn't change my country, he says. I had hoped it would be possible. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.