Sandarmokh: Rewriting History with Shovels

content_IMG_9455“Alternative” excavations at Sandarmokh. Photo by Irina Tumakova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

Sifting through History: The “Alternative” Excavations at Sandarmokh Are Meant to Shift the Public’s Attention from Great Terror Victims to WWII Casualties
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
August 20, 2019

The ongoing excavations by the Russian Military History Society (RVIO) at the Sandarmokh site in [Russian] Karelia, where political prisoners were shot during the Great Terror, reflects the desire of Russian officials to switch the public’s attention to the Second World War.

In August, RVIO employees and a Defense Ministry search battalion resumed digging at Sandarmokh. Karelian Culture Minister Alexei Lesonen said the objective was to “separate artifacts having to do with different layers of history and different circumstances.”

It is a matter of words matching deeds. In 1997, local historian Yuri Dmitriev discovered the mass graves of people shot by the NKVD in 1937–1938. Thanks to Dmitriev’s efforts, Sandarmokh became a symbol of the Great Terror.

International Memorial Society board member Sergei Krivenko puts a number on it: archival documents have confirmed that over 6,100 people were shot and buried at Sandarmokh during the Great Terror.

In keeping with the Kremlin’s policy of “inculcating pride in the past,” the authorities have attempted, in recent years, to diminish Sandarmokh’s status as a memorial site. The authorities have tried to discredit Dmitriev and, by his extension, his work by charging him in a notorious “pedophilia” case [in which two men have already been convicted and sentenced, including Sergei Koltyrin, former director of the Medvezhyegorsk Museum and an ally of Dmitriev’s]. They have claimed Memorial’s figures for the number of victims are inflated. They have pushed an alternate account that the Finnish Army shot and buried Soviet POWS at Sandarmokh between 1941 and 1944.

The RVIO’s August–September 2018 expedition turned up the remains of five people. Historian Sergei Verigin said they corroborated the hypothesis about Soviet POWS because the executed people had not been stripped before they were shot and foreign-made shell casings were found next to them. This proves nothing, however. The NKVD used foreign-made weapons when it executed its prisoners [22,000 Polish officers and members of the Polish intelligentsia] at Katyn, nor have the RVIO established when exactly the people whose remains they found were killed.

The Karelian Culture Ministry has asked the RVIO to keep digging. Officials there are convinced that “speculation about events in Sandarmokh […] reinforces in the public’s mind a baseless sense of guilt towards the alleged [Great Terror] victims […] becoming a consolidating factor for anti-government forces in Russia.”

The RVIO did not respond to our request to comment on the claim that the people shot and buried at Sandarmokh were “alleged victims.” They keep digging In early August, the remains of five more people were found.

Memorial has demanded an end to the excavations, fearing the mass graves will be disturbed. Archaeologists have also sounded a warning because the traces of dwelling sites used by prehistoric people have been found at Sandarmokh as well and they could be damaged.

The problem, however, is not that artifacts could get mixed up. The problem is there is no comparison between the maximum possible number of Soviet POWs executed and buried at Sandarmokh, as estimated by the Karelian Culture Ministry, and the confirmed numbers of victims of Stalin’s terror campaign who are buried there: 500 versus over 6,100.

The digs at Sandarmokh are a clumsy attempt by Russian officials to alter the meaning of the memorial site and rewrite the past with shovels. More importantly, officials want to juggle the numbers of victims and thus gaslight the Russian public.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Without Fathers, a video made by Anna Artemieva and Gleb Limansky, and published by Novaya Gazeta on August 7, 2017. The annotation reads, “The orphans of Sandarmokh remember their executed relatives. Historian Yuri Dmitriev did not attend memorial day ceremonies there for the first time in twenty years. He is on trial, charged with ‘manufacturing child pornography.'” 

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More and More Russians

hongkong.jpgAccording to organizers, at least 1.7 million people attended a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong today, August 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of HKFP

More and more Russians seem to be breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line. Increasingly, they just do what they deem important, and the authorities deal with the consequences. We are all much more used to the reverse relationship, which is why Russia’s new situation is hard to grasp. People in Russia are only now learning to peer into themselves, not into their television sets, searching for clues to what will happen next.

This does not mean that the Kremlin has suddenly become more transparent or less authoritarian. It only means that Russian society has started to realize that it may, in fact, be an originator of political and societal change, not just on the receiving end.

For how long this new situation—or an impression of it—will last is unclear. The Kremlin is at war and wants everyone in Russia to be at war too. Russians seem to be drifting away from this belligerence. The question is whose pull, the Kremlin’s or Russian society’s, is stronger. I am afraid the Kremlin’s is stronger but will be happy to be mistaken.
—Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ask Not What Will the Kremlin Do Next,” The Russia File, 16 August 2019

_____________________________________

What does the phrase “more and more Russians” mean, in the essay quoted above? How does Maxim Trudolyubov know they are doing anything at all, much more “breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line” and doing “what they deem important” (whatever that means)?

If its organizers are to be believed, a pro-democracy in Hong Kong was attended by 1.7 million people. According to Worldometers, Hong Kong’s population, as of today, was almost 7.5 million people, meaning that nearly 23% of Hong Kong’s residents marched today in support of the city’s autonomy and democratic rights.

Meanwhile, back in the capital of the Motherland, Moscow, “up to 60,000 people” attended an “authorized” pro-democracy rally on August 10. It was, apparently, the biggest opposition rally in Russia since the fair election protests of 2011–2012.

World Population Review estimates Moscow’s population as slightly over 12 million people.

If the figures for the August 10 rally and Moscow’s population are to be credited, then, 0.005% of the city’s populace came out for an “authorized” rally—meaning an event where they had much less reason to fear a police crackdown than at the “unauthorized” rallies at which riot police and Russian National Guardsmen detained thousands of protests over the last month or so.

When you are trying to get your collective point across to an authoritarian government, the numbers do matter, just as they matter in non-authoritarian countries.

As I have argued in many different ways many different times, the Russian opposition, especially its self-declared leaders in Moscow, is woefully bad at two things: mobilizing ordinary pro-democratic Russians to make their numbers know to the regime, and meaningfully allying itself with the grassroots pro-democracy movement beyond Moscow.

In fact, at the very same time as a tiny minority of brave, smart Muscovites have been doing battle with the Moscow City Elections Commission and the security forces to defend their constitutional right to vote and run for office, an even tinier and, perhaps, braver minority of Petersburgers have been fighting to get a small slate of independent candidates onto the ballot for elections to the city’s municipal district councils, chronically underfunded entities with almost no power to do anything more than making cosmetic improvements to the neighborhoods they represent. Just as in Moscow, the would-be candidates themselves have been harassed, beaten, and arrested, along with some of their supporters.

Typically, when the Petersburg pro-democratic opposition held an authorized rally on August 3, only two thousand people showed up. Sadly and hilariously, Deutsche Welle described it as an “event in support of candidates not allowed to run in the elections to the Moscow City Duma.” In reality, Petersburgers rallied in support of their own beleaguered opposition candidates, in solidarity with Muscovites, and against the upcoming pro forma election of acting Governor Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin’s third satrap in the city, on September 8.

But the real story was too complicated for Deutsche Welle. It was, apparently, too gnarly for the vast majority of Petersburgers as well. World Population Review estimates Petersburg’s population as nearly 5.5 million. (I suspect it is actually much higher than this, but that is another conversation.) So, proportionately, even fewer people in Russia’s “cultural capital” are worried about their rapidly vanishing constitutionally guaranteed rights than their comrades in Moscow and their Chinese frenemies in Hong Kong: 0.0003%, to be exact.

In the face of these real numbers, which he signally fails to mention, Trudolyubov cites public opinion polls, notoriously unreliable indicators in a highly manipulated authoritarian society like Russia, and his own vague “impressions.”

He also makes an assertion that is debatable and a promise he probably has no intention of keeping, to wit:

“Russian society is turning into a much more active player in Russia’s public life. Importantly, it is not limited to the political protests that have been taking place in Moscow for the past several weeks. The protests are just the most visible part of the change. There is exciting new art, there is a new wave of independent journalism, there is an entire universe of YouTube and other social media channels that are completely free of both pro-Kremlin and strictly oppositional politics (all of those trends deserve a special take, which we will provide).”

I will have been reporting on these “other Russias,” as I have dubbed them, for twelve years come this October. I know them as well any “outsider” can know them. I will keep writing about them and translating dispatches from these other Russias as long as I am able.

Despite my interest in the other Russias and Russians, however, and my endless admiration for the sheer courage, tenacity, and intelligence of many of the real-life heroines and heroes who have made appearances on this website over the years, I knew the fair elections movement of 2011–2012 was a non-starter almost as soon as it kicked off, even though it was a nationwide grassroots movement, unlike the 2019 fair elections movement, which has been practically limited to Moscow.

I knew that for two reasons. First, the numbers of anti-Putinists showing their faces in public at protest rallies, “authorized” and “unauthorized,” were also minuscule as percentages of the general populace. Second, the “movement” was managed lackadaisically, with huge gaps between “authorized” rallies.

In Moscow, at least, there does seem to be a greater sense of urgency and intensity this time around, but the numbers of people showing up for rallies have been halved. Paradoxically, however, those people have been more willing to face police crackdowns, but I am not sure this is necessarily a good thing, politically and strategically.

Like Trudolyubov, I am happy to be mistaken. Unlike Trudolyubov, I have no sense that Russian society has become a bigger player than it was seven years ago. There was also a lot of new art, independent journalism, and social media savvy on the margins then as now.

The sad truth is that, unlike countries and territories populated by people of color, such as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, Russia gets way more credit for every tiny gesture towards democracy, autonomy, and independence made by its supposedly “white” people, even though Russian society punches way below its weight when it comes to every possible measure of official and popular support for democracy, minorities, civil and human rights, progressive environmental policies, engaged art, cutting-edge education, grassroots-driven urban planning, you name it.

What Russia does have a lot of is flag twirlers who have ensconced themselves in plum jobs at western news outlets and think thanks, places where, correspondingly, you will not find a lot of people of color and people from the formerly colonized parts of the world. So, even though the Kremlin has made xenophobia, anti-Americanism, rampant homophobia, Islamophobic, anti-westernism, anti-liberalism, Russian Orthodox obscurantism, and aggressive covert and overt interventions into the affairs of other countries planks in its unwritten ideological platform, and Russia’s opposition has said almost nothing about any of it, much less organized protests against, say, the Kremlin’s criminal military involvement in the brutal ongoing murder of Syria’s pro-democracy movement, the so-called west, at least as represented by places like the Kennan Institute and media organizations like the BBC, has way more time and sympathy for all things Russian than it has for anything happening in countries and places dominated by people of color.

It would be strange of me, of all people, to argue for less interest in grassroots politics and culture in Russia, but a genuine curiosity should also involve being able to tell the fibbers and crypto-nationalists from the truth-tellers and democrats. // TRR

Thanks to the fabulous Mark Teeter for the heads-up. I am nearly certain he would have a different take on Trudolyubov’s essay, but in my Facebook newsfeed it ended up cheek by jowl with an article about today’s truly massive protests in Hong Kong.

Inland Empire: Life in Russia Without Visa and Mastercard

buyerThis woman is happy she doesn’t live in Russia, where Visa and Mastercard may soon be banned. Courtesy of Fluencia

Inland Empire: How Will Russians Live Without Visa and Mastercard?
Sergei Khestanov
Republic
July 12, 2019

The new attack by Russian lawmakers on the international payment systems Visa and Mastercard may come to a head, successfully or unsuccessfully, this summer. For the law bill’s sponsors success would mean the near-total financial isolation of Russians from the rest of the world. All that would remain would be to adopt restrictions on foreign currency.

Going Our Own Way
There had long been talk of the need to talk of a completely autonomous domestic payments system, but the events of 2014 and, especially, the imposition of sanctions visibly accelerated the process.

In fact, in the spring of 2014, MPs in the Russian State Duma drafted amendments to the law “On the National Payment System” that would have forced Mastercard and Visa, which had been obliged to observe the sanctions against a number of Russian banks, to deposit amounts of money equal to their two-day turnover in special accounts at the Russian Central Bank. Visa said it would stop doing business in Russia. Negotiations with the Russian government and Central Bank followed this announcement. The draft law was considerably softened. The amount of the obligatory deposit was removed from the bill, and it was decided that international payment systems would operate in Russia through specially established local subsidiaries.

After Mir bank cards were launched, they were quite unpopular among Russians for a long time. Russians preferred time-tested foreign bank cards. Besides, initially there were purely technical problems with Mir that caused their cards to be rejected, but after the Russian Central Bank issued stern warnings, banks updated the software of their ATMs and payment terminals, more or less solving the glitches.

Another problem is that Russian cards are nearly useless abroad since they are accepted almost nowhere. However, given the small percentage of Russians who travel abroad, this is not such a huge problem.

The breakthrough in promoting the domestic cards came in 2018. On July 1, 2018, the electronic wage payments of all state-sector workers were transferred by law to Russian bank cards. By January 1, 2019, they had taken a big bite out of the share of the Russian market controlled by their famous competitors. According to the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, during the period from January 1, 2018, to January 1, 2019, the share of actively used Visa cards among the Russian populace fell from 45% to 39.5%, while Mastercard’s share fell from 42% to 36%. The reduction in the international payment systems’ share of the Russian market happened as Mir doubled its share of active card users, which rose from 12.5% to 24.5%.

This is not surprising. The traditional Russian principle of pushing certain things, ironically dubbed the “voluntary compulsory” method, is rather effective. Outcomes are achieved quickly, making such methods of promotion quite popular. We should say, in all fairness, that this happens not only in Russia.

Such aggressiveness has a price, however. Compulsory promotion of goods and services reduces competition, since the advantages of using a particular service or buying a certain product derive from the market’s absence. Over time, products and services pushed in this way lag behind their absent competitors in terms of their quality.

Striking examples of diminishing quality in a market in which competition was restricted were the Soviet automobile and electronics industries. The latter lagged behind the world especially disastrously. Remember the old joke, “Soviet handheld calculators are the biggest handheld calculators in the worlds”?

Rejecting the Outside World
But degradation as a consequence of pushing goods and services through non-market methods is only half the trouble. It is much more dangerous to ban and expel foreign products and services from the domestic market. The new regulations described in the draft law “On the National Payment System” could force international payment systems out of Russia since they would be unable to comply with the regulations. Once they leave, Russian bank cards would not be accepted for payment abroad, and cards issued by foreign banks would not be valid in Russia.

Mir cardholders who never travel abroad would not even notice this nastiness. Everyone else would soon voluntarily be forced to join them. Give the Russian state’s high and growing share in the Russian economy, the regulations would not provoke fatal disaffection with the leadership.

Russia’s policy of self-isolation was adopted long ago, and a large segment of the populace has no real objections to it, while people who use their bank cards within Russia mostly do not care what system processes their transactions. What matters is that everything works fine and does not cost too much. Mir’s reliability is now on a par with the international payment system, and so are its rates. Besides, if push came to shove, the Russian Central Bank and the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service could force it to reduce its rates.

There are no rational reasons for establishing a homegrown system when the duopoly of Visa and Mastercard serve the Russian market just fine. China’s UnionPay and Japan’s JBC have been processed by certain Russian banks, but they have never played a significant role. You cannot make money in a highly competitive, mature market, long dominated by world leaders like Visa and Mastercard, unless you employ non-market methods of competition. The market simply does not need new players.

The reason for the persistent promotion of Mir card is not commercial. It is an insurance policy of sorts, one that will have claims made on it if real, harsh Iranian-style sanctions are imposed on Russia. If you regarded this scenario as a serious possibility you would have cause to establish a national system, especially because Chinese banks (on whom great hopes were placed in 2014) have essentially supported US sanctions. In these circumstances, it is better to have a stunted system in terms of its international access than to witness a sudden collapse of cashless payments if harsh sanctions are imposed.

However, this non-competitive idea immediately inspires people who are willing to make money by destroying their competitors.

If regulations pushing the international payment systems out of the Russian market were adopted, it would deprive Russians of the ability to pay for things abroad without cash, and the logical next step of banning or restricting the export of foreign currency from the country would be easy as pie. Simultaneously, Russians would find it much harder to purchase foreign goods in foreign online shops, something that would be incredibly difficult without access to international payment systems.

A side effect of the ban would be the promotion of Russian-registered joint ventures for selling Chinese goods to Russians.  This would have a positive effect on the receipt of VAT from these purchases. VAT matters since VAT revenues constitute up to a third of Russian federal revenues, making them comparable to Russia’s export revenues.

The natural consequence of depriving Russians of access to foreign online shops would be a rise in prices. At first, the government would profit slightly because VAT revenues would grow—until people stopped buying things.

The policy of isolating the Russian economy from the world economy in terms of Russian nationals being unable to spend money outside Russia has been reasserted, and yet another step on the long road of restrictions and bans may soon be taken. The tendency towards restrictions on foreign currency has once again been confirmed. We might recall the recent discussion about restricting unqualified investors from opening foreign currency accounts.

The hope remains, of course, that, as in 2014, the international payment systems would reach an agreement with the Russian government, Russian MPs would be reined in, and cardholders would not feel the pain. Unlike 2014, however, the Russian Central Bank has supported the bill.

Sergei Khestanov is a macroeconomics adviser to the director of Open Broker and associate professor of financial markets and financial engineering at RANEPA. Translated by the Russian Reader

Drive Like Jehu

Wonders of OSINT
June 17, 2019

Penza Region Governor Ivan Belozertsev has claimed CIA agents were behind a deadly brawl between Roma and ethnic Russians in a town with the beautiful name of Chemodanovka (“Suitcaseville”).

photo_2019-06-17_12-57-54

This is the state-owned Mercedes, equipped with a flashing light, in which Russian patriot Belozertsev travels around his native land. Someone writing on a forum for motorists described his driving style.

“Yesterday, a Mercedes with a flashing light (license plate P 058 PP58) passed me on the Tambov Highway. He definitely could not care less about obeying the traffic signs.”

What do you expect? When US intelligence agents are all around, you have to drive like Jehu to shake their tail.

Photo courtesy of Wonders of OSINT. Translated by the Russian Reader

Xenophobia. Interrogation. Deportation

[This is a message from the American Civil Liberties Union I found in my mailbox this morning. Why have I reproduced it here? Because the best way to take the wind out of the sails of Putin and his Herrenvolk back in the Motherland is to demonstratively reject and dismantle all the quasi-fascist and nationalist practices that the so-called western democracies have been indulging in more and more often in recent years. By rejecting them, we also encourage the brave folk in Russia who are fighting the same evils. TRR.]

ACLU

Last week President Trump tweeted plans to unleash a wave of ICE raids across the country to conduct mass arrests and deportations. Whether or not the raids occur, he’s playing games with millions of people’s lives and stoking fear and uncertainty in our communities.

ICE has already been out of control under his administration, and one reason why is because of controversial 287(g) agreements that give local law enforcement the authority to racially profile, detain, and deport members of their communities. Your state or local police could be doing ICE’s dirty work as we speak.

287(g) agreements expire on June 30 and have to be affirmatively renewed. That means we have a chance to squash them before the month’s end. Tell Congress to eliminate 287(g) agreements in one fell swoop by passing the PROTECT Immigration Act right now.

Under 287(g) agreements, police get federal ICE authority that can lead them to racially profile people who look or sound “like immigrants” and interrogate them about their immigration status. They also use ICE’s database to deport people who come into contact with local police for minor non-immigration offenses. And they can hold people for up to 48 hours on ICE detainers, even if all charges have been dropped.

To date, local police have helped deport over 12,000 immigrants in the Trump years alone – but we can fight back. If passed, the PROTECT Immigration Act would eliminate 287(g) agreements altogether.

Sign the petition demanding that Congress pass the PROTECT Immigration Act and restore trust and inclusivity in our communities.

It’s not easy going up against Trump’s deportation machine. But if enough of us speak out, then we can put an end to this administration’s anti-immigrant agenda, one abusive policy at a time.

gutenheimflugThis is just one of several dozen racist European parliamentary election posters I found less than a month ago near the commuter train station in Buch, Berlin’s northernmost district. All of them were in support of the neo-Nazi Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NDP). A local friend of mine said the fact the posters were still up a week after the elections could have been interpreted as a violation of election law on the part of local authorities. In any case, the sheer profusion of Islamophobic and racist hate speech near its train station is at odds with Buch’s status as a place chockablock with cutting-edge medical research clinics and life sciences labs. If you were, say, a scientist from India who had come to Berlin at the invitation of Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine and you saw what I saw in Buch, the center’s home, would you accept a job offer to work there, knowing your new neighbors and the local officials were cool with neo-Nazi propaganda gracing their town’s streets? As it was, despite their efforts to make Buch look like Neo-Naziland (they scared me away for good, that’s for sure), the NDP won no seats in the elections and were relegated to the “Others” category in the final tallies. But their “more respectable” friends in the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), who would also no doubt wish that all immigrants of a certain type would have a “good flight home,” received over four million votes on May 26, 2019, meaning they would have six seats in the new parliament, up one from the previous sitting. Photograph by the Russian Reader

 

Techwear for War Criminals

Timati’s new clothing collection includes a T-shirt with a target emblazoned on the front and the word “Syria” embossed on the back. Photos courtesy of Buro 24/7 and YZ

Timati Shows Collection Designed in Collaboration with Russian Army Brand : Check Out the T-Shirts with “Syria” Logos
Buro 24/7
May 27, 2019

Today, in the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Building on the Frunze Embankment in Moscow, Timati showed the clothing collection his brand Black Star Wear designed in collaboration with Russian Army brand clothing. It includes cargo shorts, sweatshirts, jackets, and everything captured by the concise Anglicism techwear. The Russian rapper worked on the collection for over six months. The undershirts and T-shirts embossed with the logo “Syria” are of particular note.

timati-5Timati speaking to state TV at the premiere showing of his new clothing collection. Courtesy of Buro 24/7

“This is quite a historic event. Right now I’m at one of the most secret facilities, the Russian Federal Defense Ministry. And I want to announce that right here in the Defense Ministry, as part of the collaboration between the Russian Army brand and Black Star, the collection will be shown,” Timati wrote on his Instagram page on May 21.

Ekaterina Korotkova, director general of Voentorg, also confirmed the brands’ plans.

Black Star Wear and Russian Army’s “Syria” T-shirt can be ordered in advance for 2,900 rubles (approx. 40 euros) at blackstarwear.ru. Courtesy of YR

“Yes, Russian Army brand and Black Star really do have such a collection. It will be premiered at a show in the Main Building of the Defense Ministry on May 27, just as Timati announced,” TASS quoted her as saying.

Thanks to YR for the heads-up and images. Translated by the Russian Reader.