Feckless Lowlifes and Incompetent Bounders

american sect

Mark Schrad’s new article in Foreign Policy is yet another attempt to absolve the Putin regime of its crimes and make it seem like a harmless posse of bumbling, extemporizing clowns.

What observers like Schrad fail to realize is that the Putin regime is organized in its own peculiar way in order to achieve objectives that themselves are peculiar or, rather, not political in the usual sense of the world.

From Putin on down, the regime’s satraps and foot soldiers see themselves as an indefinitely massive police force for guarding Russia’s wealth and sovereignty as they have come to define them and thus, their own roles, over the last twenty years.

This ostensibly noble mission does not preclude its adepts from engaging in highway robbery and rampant corruption. Rather than preventing them from amassing vast personal fortunes, the mission implicitly encourages them to do so. Better that Russia’s vast wealth should be located safe and sound in their “patriotic” hands rather than the hands of the opposition, who are by definite treacherous. God forbid that foreigners should get their hands on much of it, either.

Generally speaking, the Putin regime of self-consciously bad cops on a noble mission has been wildly successful at defining and achieving most of its objectives, even if its victims (the Russian people) and outside observers have often been baffled.

It is thus another matter altogether whether Plan Putin is ultimately good for Russia and Russians themselves, not to mention other countries that have had the misfortune of ending up in its cross-hairs as friend, foe, neighbor or “partner.”

Returning to Schrad’s article, no one in their right mind has ever seriously claimed Putin is “the all-seeing, all-knowing puppet master of U.S. politics.” But nor has there been such a deliberate, massive attempt by a foreign government to subvert US domestic politics since the Cold War, and I would suspect the same thing could be said about many of the other countries where Putinist Russia has been fighting hot wars and hybrid wars during its twenty years of high-minded bad governance and “wholly understandable” revanchism.

I have never understood why this circumstance, whose existence has been proven beyond a doubt by mountains of direct and indirect evidence, should drive so many otherwise intelligent, knowledgeable people into fits of denial and hysteria. These same people are able to acknowledge the existence of any number of large-scale, well-organized, murderous criminal conspiracies and terrorist groups in our fallen world, from Mexican drug cartels to the Islamic State, but they think, apparently that the segment of Russian society obsessed with absolute power, who have been ringing the changes on abject, outright tyranny and ruthless imperialism for a thousand years, are suddenly incapable of anything more than petty crime and feckless corruption on tiny scale that hardly bears nothing..

In reality, the Putin regime has only been doing to US politics what it has done to Russian politics and civil society for the last twenty years, but when it comes to the US its means are, obviously, much more limited and its aims, correspondingly, more modest.

Finally, there can be no question of Putin’s associating himself personally with operations like this. When the situation requires it, he is capable of admitting mistakes and exposing himself to a bit of criticism, but like any chief of an utterly corrupt police force, he always makes sure to have his underlings do all the dirty work and take the rap when it goes south. Whether it is practically true or not, he has to be seen by his inferiors and his target audiences, including the Russian public and US leftist academics and journalists, to be above the fray.

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The foggy notion that the Kremlin’s efforts to subvert the 2016 US presidential election is actually nonsense, a fiction, a comedy of errors staged by low-level hustlers and bumblers who could not have wanted anything of the sort, much less accomplished it, now passes as common knowledge among the growing camp of Trump-Russian collusion denialists and so-called Russophiles in the west, who have managed to pull off their own hustle by roundly and pointedly ignoring nearly all the numerous developments in Russia itself during the same period, reactionary policy outbursts and crackdowns on any number of real and imaginary dissidents and political opponents that would tend to reinforce the baleful analyses of the so-called Russophobes.

These circumstances point to the fact that the Putin regime, which by definition could only consist of hustlers, bounders, and thugs, with a smattering of well-spoken “liberal economists” to balance the books as best they can and make the regime look respectable at international gatherings like Davos, has been playing a long game aimed a establishing a new-model police state.

Ever since the events that exploded around the moving of the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn in 2007, the Kremlin’s long game has had a “foreign policy” aspect as well.

Masha Gessen has been pushing the new spiel (“It was all a crazy, meaningless mix-up”) harder than her earlier writings would have lead us to expect. Currently a staff writer at the New Yorker and nearly everyone’s darling the world over, she routinely gets away with writing things lesser lights would have trouble getting past their editors’ desks. In the past several years, she has made a huge effort to persuade the entire Anglophone world that she knows more about Russia, Russian politics, and Putin than anyone else, but at least half the time her analyses are so wide of the mark you wonder whether she really knows all that much about Russian politics.

For a very long time, especially since she spent two or three years “leaving Russia” (due to entirely legitimate concerns for her family’s safety and happiness given her status and that of her partner as LGBTQI) in an astonishingly public way, granting several dozen interviews and writing just as many as first-person accounts of her plight in the process (a plight much more for Russian lesbians with families who have neither her means or her connections), she has mostly been involved in promoting the Masha Gessen brand, not doing real reporting.

The point of her latest shout-out to her devoted fans in the New Yorker is to reinforce the now-fashionable notion that the Kremlin had nothing whatsoever to do with Trump’s election to the US presidency and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

In this case, Gessen has pretended to read Mueller’s report so her readers need not bother to read it. Happily, she has reached all the conclusions the denialists and Russophiles want everyone to reach, also without reading either the report or the whole icebergs of great journalism out there that might persuade them otherwise.

No, argue Gessen and the denialists, the whole affair was a lot of fuss about nothing, dust kicked into everyone eyes by a surprisingly large number of invariably mendacious lowlifes whose actions and statements have signified absolutely nothing at the end of the day.

I have been waiting patiently for someone with more clout and cultural capital than I have to call Gessen on the carpet, especially since she has been rapidly encroaching on Leonid Bershidsky’s slippery beat.

Like Gessen, Leonid Bershidsky is a former big-time Russian journalist and editor who loudly went into exile in the west several years ago, allegedly, because it was impossible to do real journalism at home anymore.

Bershidsky, like Gessen, is an extremely smart cookie and a good writer. He scored a prominent gig writing op-ed pieces for Bloomberg, mostly but not exclusively on Russian affairs.

During his tenure at Bloomberg, Bershidsky has managed to defend the Putin regime’s supposedly benign or not altogether malign intentions at least as often as he has attacked its follies and failures, producing a bewildering picture of the Russian political elite and its actually wildly damaging effects on the country and world for anyone who has had the misfortune to read his column regularly.

That is, Bershidsky, for reasons that are not clear to me, has because a part-time mouthpiece for the Putin regime. He also doubles, confusingly, as its part-time trenchant critic.

For reasons that are just as unclear to me, Gessen has been trying, on occasion, to squeeze herself into the odd niche Bershidsky has carved out.

As the Mueller investigation has dragged on, and the press and public have paid more mind to it, Gessen has more and more often adopted the contrarian position that the subversion and collusion were manifestations of hysteria, of the US’s complexes about itself, not the consequences of a treacherous presidential campaign and a Russian “active measures” operation that produced more outcomes and wildly contradictory aftereffects than anyone involved in “masterminding” them had ever bargained for. {TRR}

Photograph by the Russian Reader

Crossing Jordan: Day Three of the Network Trial

Jordan and Maidan: The Network Trial, Day Three
Sergei Kagermazov
OVD Info
April 11, 2019

ovd1Yuli Boyarshinov in court. Photo by David Frenkel. Courtesy of OVD Info

The left-wing radical community Network existed, but its young anarchists were training to fend off attacks by ultra-rightists when and if a coup like the one that took place in Ukraine kicked off in Russia. In any case, this was the takeaway message of the testimony given by defendant Yuli Boyarshinov. Echo of Moscow in Petersburg correspondent Sergei Kagermazov describes day three of the Network trial for OVD Info.

The Guerrilla School
The courtroom at the 224th Garrison Military Court in Petersburg is unable to accommodate everyone. Some members of the public are left standing on the far side of the metal detector. The bailiffs claim there is no room and do not let people into the hallway even.

Later, it transpires that several university students who had not heard of the case wormed their way into the courtroom. Someone asked them to attend the hearing, and so reporters from Novaya Gazeta, TASS, and Rosbalt are unable to get into the courtroom. Subsequently, one of the students was identified as a member of the local branch of United Russia’s Young Guard (Molodaya gvardiya). Fontanka.ru would write that the FSB were behind the restricted access to the courtroom.

The highlight of day three of the trial is defendant Yuli Boyarshinov’s testimony. He pleaded guilty and moved to have his case tried separately under a special procedure involving elimination of the evidence phase, but the court denied his motion.

According to Boyarshinov, he knew he was an antifascist approximately since 2009. Six years later, he met another person accused [and convicted] in the case, Igor Shishkin. Shiskin also pleaded guilty, made a deal with case investigators, and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

“Around 2015 or 2016, I came to think a violent coup was possible in Russia. On the internet, I learned about radical right-wing groups planing something like what happened in Ukraine in 2014,” says Boyarshinov, who speaks as if he were reading the case file aloud.

People ordinarily do no talk like this.

Boyarshinov insists he was interested only in self-defense in the event radical nationalists emerged in Russia. He learned to handle weapons at the Guerrilla Club, a place in Petersburg affiliated with the DOSAAF [Voluntary Society for Assisting the Army, Air Force and Navy]. Other suspects in the Network case, whom Boyarshinov identified as Yegor and Polina, also took instruction there. Boyarshinov cannot recall their surnames. The young people purchased mock-ups of Kalashnikov rifles and practiced with them. However,  their only goal was self-defense. Boyarshinov emphasizes the young people were not planning any attacks.

It was also then the suspect [sic] met Alexandra Aksyonova, who introduced herself as Olya. Aksyonova is the wife of another defendant in the case, Viktor Filinkov, who is being tried together with Boyarshinov. The young woman is currently in Finland, where her application for political asylum is under review. NTV has reported Aksyonova was one of the leaders of the Network and alleged she had ties with Ukrainian nationalists.

As for the Guerrilla Club, it was also a place where future Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic volunteer fighters trained, as well as the Swedes responsible for the bomb attacks in Gothenburg in 2016 and 2017. But none of these people had yet piqued the FSB’s curiosity. When Filinkov asks whether Boyarshinov knew numerous nationalists trained at the Guerrilla Club, Judge Roman Muranov disallows the question as having no bearing on the case.

Jordan 1
Boyarshinov also testifies that, in the early summer of 2016, he was invited to a meeting in the Priozersk District of Leningrad Region. The meeting was attended by Yegor, Polina, and Shishkin, as well as Anton and Pasha, Network members from Penza (the men’s real names were Maxim Ivankin and Dmitry Pchelintsev, who are two more defendants in the case), and two other people. Since the Petersburgers did not know the people from Penza, they also used pseudonyms. Boyarshinov introduced himself as Yura, Yegor as Matvei, and Shishkin as Maxim.

At the meeting, the young men from Penza showed the others a document they called “The Code.” It was a draft project for a community called the Network. Boyarshinov says “The Code”{ ran to around fifteen pages, but only a couple of pages were read aloud to him. The case file contains a document resembling “The Code,” but that is the problem: it only resembles it. Boyarshinov was able to read the entire text of “The Code” only during the pretrial investigation. The young men from Penza said [at the meeting in the Priozersk District] they wanted to encourage the cooperation of different groups involved in self-defense.

ovd2Yuli Boyarshinov in court. Photo by David Frenkel. Courtesy of OVD Info

“So, formally, I joined the Network community,” Boyarshinov admits.

Due to security considerations, it was decided to identify the Petersburg group as “Jordan 1.”

Subsequently, members of the Network would choose different specialties for themselves. Since he had studied demolition and explosives at the Guerrilla Club, Boyarshinov became the group’s sapper.

Another meeting was held in western or northwestern Moscow Region in the woods. Six people attended, including members from Moscow. A third meeting took place in the winter of 2016 at Shishkin’s mother’s dacha. There were also several meetings in the autumn of 2016.

It was at one of these meetings that Boyarshinov met Filinkov. After Boyarshinov has testified, the people in the courtroom learn that, according to the case file, the FSB was already staking out both defendants at the time.

In February 2017, another meeting was held in a rented flat in Petersburg. Shishkin did not come to the meeting, but Filinkov, the Muscovites, and Pchelintsev and Ivankin were present. It was at this meeting that what the FSB identifies as “the minutes” was left behind, finding its way into the case file.

“I cannot corroborate what is described in the minutes of the meeting: I did not take notes. But the description seems more or less accurate,” says Boyarshinov.

When he read the minutes of the meeting, he realized the Network had decided not just to learn self-defense, but to try and destroy the regime.

“I don’t believe in violence, in violence against state authorities. I am sorry I was in such a community,” Boyarshinov repents.

Boyarshinov was detained by police. He claims to have found the smoke powder [with which police apprehended him] on the the roof of a building, since he worked as an industrial climber. He found the powder interesting, since he was studying demolition and explosives. When it was reported Pchelintsev had been detained, Boyarshinov decided to throw the powder away. He left his house and was caught by police.

“Russia’s Falling Apart, We Have to Leave”
The next to testify is Stepan Prokofiev, in whose flat Filinkov lived while he was looking for a place to rent. Prokofiev’s flat was searched by the FSB after they detained Filinkov.

The defendant [Filinkov] immediately points out Prokofiev might commit perjury and slander him.

“The FSB coerced the witness,” argues Filinkov.

[On the day of the search at his flat], Prokofiev was awoken, forced to lie face down on the floor, and handcuffed. He would spend the night at a police station. When Filinkov’s defense attorney, Vitaly Cherkasov, asks whether police explained to him why spent the night at a police station, Judge Muranov disallows the question as having no bearing on the case.

ovd3At the courthouse: members of the public holding pieces of paper inscribed with the message “NTV lies.” Photo by David Frenkel. Courtesy of OVD Info

“Filinkov went to Ukraine to see his wife. When he got back, he told me he had met someone who had fought in Donbas while he was in Kyiv. Filinkov told me a couple of times that Russia was falling apart and we had to leave. He said it would happen after the [March 2018 Russian] presidential election. He would talk about leaving for Georgia or Ukraine after this happened, because it was cheaper to live there,” Prokofiev recounts.

Filinkov counters that he never mentioned talking with anyone who fought in Donbas.

Prosecutor Yekaterina Kachurina is more interested in two guns that were legally registered in Filinkov’s wife’s name. However, it follows from the testimonies of Filinkov and the witness that, for the time being, there is nothing for the prosecution to get its hooks into.  The papers for the guns were in order, and the guns were kept in a safe.

The day ends with an attack by an NTV crew on the attorneys and parents of the defendants. However, members of the pubic cover the lens of NTV’s camera with pieces of paer inscribed with the message “NTV lies” and rattle the young woman holding the microphone by peppering her with absurd questions. Meanwhile, the defense attorneys are able to escape, while the parents get into taxis and quickly quite the scene.

_____________________________________________________________________

Vitaly Cherkasov
Facebook
April 10, 2019

Today, defendant Yuli Boyarshinov, while generally admitting his guilt, did not corroborate the prosecution’s position.

The prosecution has insisted that the members of the Network terrorist community, via “direct involvement in training sessions” that took place in St. Petersburg, Leningrad Region, and Penza Region, mastered “tactical methods of seizing buildings, facilities, and individuals” in order to “forcibly capture and eliminate” state authorities and “change the constitutional order.”

When examined in court, Boyarshinov corroborated the testimony he had given during the pretrial investigation: the goal of the training sessions was to master the skills of self-defense against ultra-nationalists. Defense, not offense!

[…]

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He Admitted His Guilt But Did Nothing Wrong: Yuli Boyarshinov’s Testimony at Network Trial Gives Prosecution’s Case No Trump Cards
Тatyana Likhanova
Novaya Gazeta in Petersburg
April 11, 2019

The authorities decided to restrict access to the trial of the so-called terrorist community Network, which is an organization now officially banned in Russia.

The high-profile case is being heard by a circuit panel of judges from the Moscow District Military Court at the Garrison Military Court in Petersburg. The hearings have been held in a cramped courtroom with two rows of benches accommodating ten people each. It is thus out of wildly out proportion with the heightened attention paid to the case by the public and the media.

On Tuesday, journalists from several periodicals appealed to the Moscow District Military Court to provide them with normal working conditions. On Wednesday morning, the approaches to the courtroom were occupied by groups of students from the Chemical and Pharmaceutical University and Herzen University’s law school.

The former said they had been sent there by a university official responsible for military training and patriotic education, while the latter claimed they had come to witness a high-profile case they had long been following, although they could not answer a single question about what was at stake in the case.

Among those crowded around the door to the courtroom was a young man bearing a resemblance to Vlad Girmanov, secretary of the military and patriotic club at the Pharmaceutical University, as well as people who had picketed the Petersburg office of [Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption crusader] Alexei Navalny.

nip1Yuli Boyarshinov arriving at the courthouse. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya in Petersburg

The influx of “extras” was an excuse to limit the access of the press and the public to the trial. The bailiffs refused to let correspondents from Deutsche Welle, TASS, Fontanka.ru. Bumaga, Rosbalt, and other media outlets into the courthouse to cover the trial, as well as Petersburg Public Monitoring Commission member Yekaterina Kosarevskaya. Complaints were filed with the head of the St. Petersburg bailiff service and the chairs of the Petersburg Garrison Military Court and the Moscow District Military Court. They were asked to verify the legality of the actions taken by the bailiffs and secure a courtroom large enough to accommodate everyone interested in witnessing this high-profile case. According to Fontanka.ru, the order to restrict access to the courtroom was made by FSB officers, who thus bypassed the top officials in the Petersburg judicial system.

The hearing opened with testimony by Yuli Boyarshinov, who has pleaded guilty. He said he had been an antifascist since 2009. In the winter of 2015–2016, he concluded that riots involving violence by nationalist groups (“along the lines of the events in Ukraine in 2014”) were possible in Russia. In order to acquire self-defense skills, Boyarshinov attended a month-long course at the Guerrilla Tactical and Firearms Training Center. (Its website says it is affiliated with the DOSAAF [Voluntary Society for Assisting the Army, Air Force and Navy] and “teaches civilians survival skills in local armed conflicts, social unrest, and martial law.”) The course included instruction in handling firearms, surviving in the woods, first aid, radio communication, and mines and explosives.

Boyarshinov attended the classes with his friend Yegor and a young woman identified as Polina. In addition to lectures, training sessions were held at a shooting range near the village of Olgino, during which Boyarshinov used a mock-up of a Kalashnikov assault rifle he acquired. Alexandra Askyonova, co-defendant Viktor Filinkov’s future wife, also went to the shooting range.

In the summer of 2016, Boyarshinov was invited to a meeting with “guys from Penza who were also interested in self-defense.” The meeting took place in the woods of Leningrad Region.

“We made bonfires, discussed different social problems and issues of self-defense, and trained with dummy weapons,” he said.

The attendees used fictitious names because they did not yet trust each other. One of the four attendees would later be identified as Dmitry Pchelintsev, another as Maxim Ivankin.

According to Boyarshinov, the Penza attendees talked about a project provisionally entitled the Network, designed to unite different groups for self-defense classes.

They presented their vision of the organization in a manifest of sorts, entitled “The Network Code,” one or two pages of which were read aloud.

Boyarshinov claimed he did not take what he heard seriously, and when someone later sent him the entire text of “The Code,” he did not bother to read it from cover to cover. He read the full text, nearly twenty pages, only when he was recently reviewing the criminal investigation case file. He was unable to corroborate whether what he read was identical to what had been sent to him earlier, but he said it seemed similar.

The document also outlines possible areas for studying self-defense skills: tactician, medic, signalman, and other roles, with no reference to specific people.

“These areas correspond to the disciplines I studied during the course at the Guerrilla Center,” Boyarshinov noted.

nip2Yuli Boyarshinov’s father Nikolai in the courtroom. Photo by Elena Lukyanova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta in Petersburg

The second meeting that summer took place in the Moscow Region. Several young people from the capital joined the attendees of the first meeting. Boyarshinov remembered only that one of them was named Lev. There were more conversations around campfires and training sessions with dummy weapons.

In the winter of 2016–2017, the group traveled to Igor Shishkin’s mother’s dacha, spending their time in much the same way.

Boyarshinov stressed they worked only on fending off attacks during all the meetings and training sessions: they never practiced raids and assaults. Political issues were not discussed, and there was no talk of drilling for terrorist-like crimes.

Shishkin, who made a deal with case investigators, also noted the absence of violent actions during the training when he described the trip to his mother’s dacha in his testimony.

Boyarshinov corroborated that Filinkov did not attend the first two meetings. Aksyonova introduced Boyarshinov to Filinkov in the autumn of 2016. Filinkov took part in a couple of training sessions at the firing range near Olgino. One dealt with first aid and evacuating the wounded, while the second focused on fending off attacks of VIPs [sic] by employing the methods of private security companies. No knives or firearms were used during the training sessions, only dummy machine guns.

As for the group’s allegedly strict conspiratorial methods, among which case investigators identified the use of messengers and encrypted correspondence, Boyarshinov explained they had been his usual means of communication in the years prior to his involvement with the group.

The third meeting with the young men from Penza and several Muscovites took place in a rented flat in Petersburg in February and March 2017. In the case file, this meeting has been identified as a “national congress of the Network terrorist community.”

Boyarshinov, on the contrary, described a two- or three-day meeting, involving approximately a dozen people. They discussed a little of everything, from music to social, environmental and antifascist events. Filinkov was in attendance, but Boyarshinov could not remember him giving a report, showing any initiative or shouldering any responsibilities for further action.

Boyarshinov could not say who organized the meeting and who kept the minutes of the meeting. (A printed file entitled “Minutes of the Congress” was entered into physical evidence.) He could not corroborate whether Filinkov was present the entire time or whether he came and went, since he had himself had come to and gone from the meeting. As far as he could remember, “The Network Code” was also discussed.

However, some of those present said the group should prepare vigorously to fend off potential violent actions when circumstances in Russia deteriorated, while others had advocated “provoking actions themselves,” Boyarshinov recalled uncertainly.

Only after carefully reading the redaction of “The Network Code” provided to him by case investigators did Boyarshinov discover “it had been proposed to establish combat cells and target the authorities.”

“I have never espoused terrorism and I am sorry I wound up in this community,” he added.

However, Boyarshinov was unable to clarify who he believed had authored the document, how its contents were regarded by any of his current co-defendants, and whether it had been backed by someone specifically.

UPDATE
The next day, April 11, the hearing started nearly two hours late. (Allegedly, the armed escort bringing the defendants to court had got stuck in traffic, although it takes fifteen minutes to drive from the remand prison to the courthouse.)

The hearing was brief. The court heard the testimony of the two janitors who had served as official witnesses during the search of Filinkov’s place of residence. The presiding judge then announced the trial was adjourned until May 14.

One explanation for such a long adjournment is the reluctance of Petersburg investigators to wind the case up before the scandal surrounding the lead investigator in the main part of the Network case, Valery Tokarev, a senior investigator in the FSB’s Penza Region office, has been cleared up.

The previous day’s evening news broadcast on state TV channel Russia 24 featured a segment on fugitive businessman Alexei Shmatko.

Shmatko, who complained he was tortured by Tokarev, has been granted political asylum in Great Britain. (The segment starts at the fifty-minute mark.)

This was not the first time the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company had discussed the vicissitudes of this Penza businessman’s career. Shmatko had been on federal business ombudsman Boris Titov’s list of fugitive Russian businessmen who had voiced a desire to return home. But Tokarev’s name had never been mentioned on the air before. (Although Shmatko claims he had mentioned it during previous TV interviews.)

This time round, the presenter on state television was insistent, encouraging the businessman to dot his i’s and cross his t’s. Who had bribed him? What was the reason?

“He subjected me to torture,” Shmatko said, specifying his charges against Tokarev, “and accepted a bribe from me to release me from remand prison.”

Shmatko complained he had informed the Russian Investigative Committee about this incident in a written statement, but they “had not batted an eye.” He also assured the news presenter he was willing to return to Russia if his case were transferred to the feds, investigated thoroughly, and Senior Investigator Tokarev were arrested.

If this happened, Shmatko would return to Russia for Tokarev’s trial and testify against him.

The interview with Shmatko was chockablock with quotations from the President’s Address to the Federal Assembly on the need to criminalize illegal investigations and punish those responsible for launching them.

On April 10, Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, speaking in the Federation Council, reported the number of corrupt FSB officers who had been outed had more than doubled. He also drew attention to “egregious cases of cruelty toward inmates.”

Three defendants in the Network case in Penza—Dmitry Pchelintsev, Ilya Shakursky, and Arman Sagynbayev—complained they had been tortured with electric shocks in an attempt to force them to incriminate themselves and others, including the Petersburg defendants.

Translated by the Russian Reader. You can find links to my previous coverage of the Network case here.

Alexander Podrabinek: Murder in Tyumen

“Russian counter-terrorism police say they prevented an imminent Islamic State attack in the Siberian city of Tyumen, as two armed terror suspects were eliminated in an intense raid with heavy gunfire and explosions. The militants, who were holed up in a private home, refused to lay down their arms and opened fire at the law enforcement on Friday. ‘They were neutralized during a gunfight,’ the National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAC) said. There were no casualties among civilians and security personnel as a result of the exchange of fire. The terrorists were planning an attack in [a] public place in the city and the decision to launch an operation was made swiftly, the NAC said. Numerous unconfirmed videos on social media appeared to show the nighttime operation in full swing, with heavy gunfire, a building on fire, and a score of police cars and military vehicles amassed in the streets.” Published on April 12, 2019, by user AS2017

Murder in Tyumen
Alexander Podrabinek
Grani.ru
April 14, 2019

The killing of two suspected terrorists in Tyumen has been spun as a showcase counter-terrorist operation. It went off without a hitch, that is, you do not count the spontaneous undertaking by curious locals who attempted to livestream it on the internet. On the other hand, Tyumen Regional Governor Alexander Moor had lots of nasty things to say about local video bloggers, commentators, and social media users.

On Friday, security forces cordoned off the area around Amur Street in Tyumen. They claimed two Islamic State terrorists had holed themselves up in a private house in the street. The cordoned-off area was declared a counter-terrorist operation zone, and approximately one hundred local residents were forcibly evacuated from the area. I think it superfluous to ask whether the suspected terrorists noticed the evacuation or not. If the terrorists had been real terrorists and the operation itself risky, not a staged textbook operation, the security forces would have tried to use the element of surprise. But no, all possible eyewitnesses were first removed from nearby houses, and only then did the security force go after the “terrorists.”

tyumen“Counter-terrorism operation” in Tyumen. Photo by Maxim Slutsky. Courtesy of TASS

The two people who had been designated terrorists were killed, of course. Half of their one-storey wooden house was burnt to the ground. This makes sense: the fire destroyed inconvenient evidence. The Russian Investigative Committee reported that two machine guns, two explosive devices, and religious pamphlets were found in the house, along with twenty-first-century weaponry in the shape of electronic devices. In short, they predictably found the usual kit of the modern “terrorist.”

Surprisingly, the fire did not damage the damning evidence. The explosive devices did not explode, the religious pamphlets were not reduced to ashes, the smartphones did not melt. If we recall that in many other cases the Russian security forces planted weapons and narcotics on “suspects,” nothing surprising happened. The “clues” the investigators need will be entered into physical evidence, while the stuff it does not need will not be registered anywhere.

We might learn the identities of the dead men in the coming days. Someone must have known them, and someone will tell us about them. The security forces identify them as “terrorists,” but the charges filed are not for terrorism, but conspiracy to murder and attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. This is odd, as is the fact that the FSB carried out the counter-terrorist operation, while the Investigative Committee has headed the investigation.

The Investigative Committee and FSB claim the “terrorists” were Islamic State members who were planning massacres in public places. They have not made any details of the case public, much less the overall circumstances. We are asked to take their word on it, although after the “bags of sugar” in Ryazan, Alexander Litvinenko’s murder, the attempted assassination of the Skripals, and many other exploits, the security forces cannot imagine the public will trust them.

The Tyumen “terrorists” have been accused of conspiracy to commit a crime (Russian Federal Criminal Code Article 30), but they were unable to commit any crimes because their lives were taken. Along with their lives, they were deprived of the chance to defend themselves and attempt to prove their innocence in court.

Is it possible they were real terrorists and eliminating them was necessary to ensure the safety of others? Of course, it is possible. On the other hand, are we not aware of numerous instances when the security forces provoked crimes only to kill the “suspects” while covering their tracks—their own tracks more than the tracks of the “criminals”? I have in mind not only the crimes of the NKVD but also the events of the past two decades, especially in Dagestan and the rest of the North Caucasus?

One of the most telling examples of this kind was the so-called Nord-Ost hostage crisis at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow in 2002. While freeing the hostages, the security forces killed all thirty-six terrorists. Most of them were killed by being shot in the back of the head while lying unconscious, knocked out by the poisonous gas the special forces released in the theater’s auditorium. They thus got rid of the defendants and the need for a trial, a trial during which parts of the story that shed an unflattering light on the regime could have come out.

Heir of the old Soviet ways, the current regime has aspired to conduct all cases and campaigns against people who have opposed it under arms and people who have fought it with words and people who have been the accidental victims of deliberate provocations by the security services in secret. Reporters are not allowed into counter-terrorist operation zones, inconvenient eyewitnesses are rubbed out, defense attorneys are made to sign nondisclosure agreements, and court trials are held in closed chambers.

Consequently, we have no reliable means of judging whether a particular individual has committed a crime or not. We are well aware, however, that despotism and lawlessness are fond of silence but no friends of publicity. We have been through this before. So, every time a clandestine operation is carried out, every time “criminals” and witnesses are eliminated, and every time a trial is heard in closed chambers, we have every reason to suspect the security forces of provocation, dishonesty, and fraud.

Thanks to Nastia Nek for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

De-Escalation

idlibSmoke rises after an airstrike hits a city center in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province on March 13, 2019. Photo by Ahmet Rehhal. Courtesy of Anadolu Agency and the Middle East Monitor

Commander of Russian Airborne Forces Lands in Syria: Andrei Serdyukov Takes Charge of Russian Forces in Republic 
Ivan Safronov
Kommersant
April 12, 2019

Kommersant has learned that Lieutenant General Andrei Serdyukov, commander of Russian Airborne Forces, has taken charge of Russian troops in Syria. He replaces Lieutenant General Sergei Surovikin, commander-in-chief of Russian Aerospace Forces, who commanded the Russian military in the republic the last several months.

As we have learned, Serdyukov’s priority will be coordinating joint patrols by Russian military police and Turkish servicemen in the Idlib de-escalation zone, in which over 35,000 insurgents are amassed and over thirty facilities containing chemicals [sic] are located.

Several high-ranking military and diplomatic sources told Kommersant about Serdyukov’s appointment. They said he had taken up his new duties on April 10, replacing Suvorikin who, according to our sources, would again focus on his immediate responsibilities (commanding Russian Aerospace Forces) after returning from his latest Syrian deployment.

Yesterday, the Russian Defense Ministry refrained from official comments on the shuffle.

Our sources explained Suvorikin had spent over a year in total commanding Russian forces in Syria, longer than any of the other high-ranking officers who have occupied the post. While the Syrian campaign was underway, he was promoted from the post of commander of the Eastern Military District to the post of commander-in-chief of Russian Aerospace Forces (see our November 1, 2017, issue), but even after his promotion, he was rotated in and out of Syria to command not only the Russian air force but also regular combat troops and special ops units.

In keeping with the practice of rotating senior command personnel, Serdyukov could have been sent to Syria as early as September 2017. (Our sources said his combat experience in Chechnya and the operation to annex Crimea were significant advantages.) However, shortly before this was to take place, Serdyukov’s official vehicle, while returning from exercises in Murmansk Region, brushed against a car in the oncoming lane at full speed. Serdykov’s car flipped over several times and slid into a ditch. In hospital, he was diagnosed with head and back injuries, including a closed vertebrae fracture.

The general underwent a long convalescence during which there was no question of deploying him to a combat zone. Ultimately, Lieutenant General Alexander Zhuravlov, current commander of the Western Military District, was dispatched to Syria instead.

Serdyukov has now been deployed to Syria to perform a specific mission, said one of our sources. He will focus on accelerating the Russian-Turkish agreement to organize joint patrols in the demilitarized and deescalation zones in Idlib Province. Ankara and Moscow reached the agreement in 2018. They had originally planned to launch joint patrols of Russian military policemen and Turkish servicemen on October 15. However, as one of our sources noted, the Turkish side took responsibility for withdrawing insurgents and heavy weapons from the Idlib de-escalation zone into the demilitarized zone. The plans were thwarted, however. Due to an intensification of attacks by insurgents (especially those controlled by the Al-Nusra Front, an organization banned in the Russian Federation [sic]), the joint patrols did not begin on schedule, while insurgents remained in the demilitarized zone along with their heavy weapons.

The highest level of military diplomacy was put into motion to remedy the situation. Thus, in February 2019, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar signed a supplementary memorandum outlining the actions to be taken by Russian and Turkish troops during their joint patrols. According to our sources, on March 8, Turkish troops began patrolling the demilitarized zone as situated between the Turkish observation posts at Barkum, Tel Tukan, and Surman. As of March 17, their patrols were extended to areas west of Aleppo and north of Hama and the mountains of Latakia. As of yesterday, according to our sources, a coordinated patrol by joint convoys of Russian and Turkish servicemen should have begun patrolling the contact line between the warring parties in the area between the Turkish posts at Barkum and Surman.

If these maneuvers are deemed successful, the two countries will commence joint patrols in the northeastern part of the de-escalation zone after April 20.

“We are counting on being able to launch coordinated patrols in the form of joint convoys inside the demilitarized zone in May,” our source in the Russian army added.

He said the de-escalation zone was divided into parts: into a withdrawal zone 3,300 kilometers square in area, containing 511 towns and villages, and over two million people, and a demilitarized zone as such. According to our source, the demilitarized zone had an area of 3,100 square kilometers and a total of 341 towns and villages, with an approximate population of 1,690,000 people.

Our source said the situation was exacerbated by several factors simultaneously. Aside from civilians in Idlib Province, there were over 35,000 armed insurgents. There were around 8,900 militants on the western front, and almost 15,000 on the southern front. They regularly carried out raids. The last raid took place in the wee hours of April 10, when the militants shelled the towns of Tall Al-Maktal (Idlib Province), Safsafa (Latakia Province), and Hamdaniya (Hama Province).

However, according to the Russian military, the Idlib de-escalation zone contains over thirty sites where chemicals are stored [sic]. Serdyukov would also have to try and solve this problem in cooperation with the Turkish military command, our source added. He specified that an invasion of Idlib by Russian ground forces was out of the question.

Translated by the Russian Reader

______________________________________

The Takeaway

Why would I translate and publish this dry-as-dust article from Kommersant about the new commander of Russian forces in Syria and how he will be handling joint patrols with the Turks in the Idlib demilitarized zone?

1. Whenever the Russian press has anything to say about Russia’s decisive, murderous adventure in Syria, it says it in this utterly depersonalized way, as if the real subject were an upcoming corporate merger.

2. Nevertheless, the only people who ever emerge as full-blown human beings in these scanty reports are members of the Russian high military command. Notice how General Serdyukov, the new Russian commander in Syria, has been given the loving touch by Kommersant.

3. Although I would argue that Russia’s successive invasions of Ukraine and Syria have had extraordinarily bad consequences for Russians back at home, especially the working class and the political opposition, you will search high and wide for meaningful discussions of Russia’s role in Syria in Russia’s opposition press and burgeoning social media.

4. The charitable way of putting this is that Syria is a taboo subject for Russians. I’ve already written about the uncharitable way of putting this so many times I’ve lost count, but it has no visible effect on anyone.

Most Russians are convinced Syria doesn’t matter to them. In fact, Putin’s Syrian campaign has probably destroyed the last chances they had at living in a more or less prosperous, democratic country in our lifetime.

5. It’s a timely reminder that the holy blessed “anti-imperialist” martyr Julian Assange has been supporting this regime of fascist Starship Troopers for years. This is not even a secret. If you demand Assange’s release while claiming solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, I think you should have your head examined.

6. But I wouldn’t insist on it, unlike the Putin regime’s satraps, who have increasingly resorted in recent years to compulsory psychiatric hospitalization of their opponents, evoking some of the darkest pages of Soviet history. {TRR}

P.S. My comrade Dick Gregory, who has published the blog News of the Revolution in Syria since 2012, posting a total of 4,036 entries during that time, had these important corrections to make to my remarks and, especially, Kommersant‘s exercise in pro-Putin and pro-Assad propaganda.

Obviously, there are a number of untruths [in the article], from the joint patrols, which they announced a couple of weeks ago and turned out to be entirely separate patrols, through the non-existent Al Nusra Front to the nonexistent chemical weapons in Idlib.

A piece in the Syrian Observer got me thinking. I actually tweeted the portion where the Syrian opposition spokesman was saying it was important for rebel groups not to fight each other; but I began to think Russia is not trying to start an offensive in Idlib, but wants to leave enough confusion about its activities, and to massively retaliate against civilians when there is any action by the rebels, in order to protect Assad against the possibility of the rebels launching an offensive, so Assad can be kept in power despite Russia having no real plan to restabilize the regime.

Al Nusra doesn’t exist, as it was shut down in 2016 by its former leadership as part of the break with Al Qaeda, and an attempt to broaden the appeal of that brand of Islamic jihadism. So, partly the Russians are just being as lazy as many westerners by continuing to use the old name. But the Russian bombing campaign in support of Assad, always presented as combating the threat from terrorists, was initially very largely directed at specifically FSA groups (to which the US may well have given them the coordinates,, supposedly so then they wouldn’t bomb them). That’s why the surviving rebel groups in Idlib are largely Islamist, because the Russians bombed out of existence the specifically secular ones.

Buggered

rossiya This bankrupt agribusiness was called Rossiya (“Russia”). Photo courtesy of Maxim Kemmerling/Kommersant and Republic

“The Data Leaves Us at a Loss”: A Few Figures That Might Surprise the Kremlin
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
April 4, 2019

“Why on shoes? Why a third? Where did they get these figures?”

Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s press secretary, responded with questions to journalists who questioned him yesterday about Rosstat’s depressing report for 2018.

According to Rosstat’s study, in which sixty thousand Russian households were surveyed, every fifth Russian skimps on fruits and vegetables. Every other Russian family cannot afford to travel anywhere when they have a week’s vacation, while every fourth family does not have enough money to invite people over to celebrate birthdays and the New Year’s holiday.

And, indeed, the report does conclude that 35% of Russians are unable to purchase each family member two pairs of seasonally appropriate footwear.

“I would be grateful to Rosstat if they clarified these figures. The data leaves us at a loss,” Peskov added.

Meanwhile, there are other figures—lots of figures—that would probably also bedevil the Kremlin if they were aired in public. Let us recall a few of them.

Nutrition
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor concluded that 63% of deaths in Russia were associated with bad food and poor nutrition. According to official figures, Russians spend approximately 35% of their household budgets on food, while independent researchers put that figure at over fifty percent. However, the average Russian household skimps on all purchases and tries to do without everything it can, claim the researchers behind Romir’s Coffee with Milk Index, which charts the quantities of chocolate, coffee, milk, and bottled water purchased by Russians. Researchers at RANEPA recently described the diets of Russians as unhealthy, unbalanced, and lacking in energy.

Health
According to a report by RANEPA’s Institute for Social Analysis and Forecasting, 22% of Russians who live in straitened circumstances face the stark choice of whether to buy the bare minimum of the cheapest produce or the cheapest drugs, drugs they need to survive. It is typical of Russians, not only those below the poverty line, to postpone going to the doctor, if it involves costs, noted researchers at the Institute for Health Economics at the Higher School of Economics.

Education
According to the pollsters at VTsIOM, fifty percent of Russian parents experience serious financial difficulties when getting their children ready for the first day of the school year. Over the past five years, the average sum of money Russians claim to spend getting children ready for school has increased by sixty percent, rising from 13,600 rubles to 21,100 rubles.

Housing
According to the Construction Ministry, the Russian populace’s debts for utilities and housing maintenance bills have grown by five and a half times since 2015. The ministry reported that, as of the end of last year, the total amount of this debt was 1.2 trillion rubles [approx. 16.34 billion euros]. The rates for water, electricity, gas, and other utilities and services increase rhythmically year after year, and yet the real incomes of Russians have continued to fall five years in a row.

Transportation
Forty percent of Russian car owners “try not to use their own vehicles, taking public transport instead.” Another 22% of car owners follow their lead, but do it less frequently. VTsIOM has explained the outcome of its January opinion poll by citing the concern of Russians for the environment while failing to note that the price of petrol has skyrocketed in recent years. Last year, a liter of AI-95 rose in price three times faster than inflation. The government has resorted to artificial, decidedly non-market measures to depress prices, and yet petrol in Russia is now twice as expensive as it was when the decade kicked off.

Only twelve percent of Russians believe that, when it describes the economy and the social sector, the Russian regime always or mostly tells the truth. The Levada Center has done polls on the same subject since 2010. Russian society’s confidence in what the country’s leaders and senior officials say has never been as low as it is now.

By voicing surprise at Russia’s poverty, at least on paper, the Kremlin is, apparently, determined to convince people it inhabits a parallel reality in which Russia makes one breakthrough after another, and the rank and file enjoy “stability” by way of spiting the country’s numerous enemies. Peskov seemed genuinely puzzled by Rosstat’s claim that Russian families have trouble buying shoes, but he probably had not yet read the government’s report on the increase in mortality rates in every third region of Russia. Clearly, something is wrong with the figures. In short, we expect a reaction.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Bugger

victimA photo showing evidence of the outrageous crime against the Russian state and Russian society committed in Yaroslavl the other day. Fortunately, nearly all mentions of it have been forcibly deleted from local media. However, some traces of the sickening crime are still faintly visible in the photo, alas. Courtesy of Kirill Poputnikov and Yarkub 

Russian Law on Offending Authorities Enforced for First Time
Ksenia Boletskaya, Elizaveta Yefimovich and Alexei Nikolsky
Vedomosti
April 2, 2019

Over the past several days, officials of Russian federal media watchdog Roskomnadzor and the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Yaroslavl have ordered local media outlets and Telegram channels to delete news about a inscription concerning Putin that was written on the local Interior Ministry headquarters building, 76.ru editor Olga Prokhorova wrote on Facebook and Yarkub wrote on its Telegram channel. Prokhorova claims other Yaroslavl media outlets have been contacted by officials about the report, and many of them have deleted it.

Yarkub reported on the morning of April 1 that police were looking for the person who scrawled “Putin ****r” [presumably, “Putin is a bugger”] on the columns of the local police headquarters building. The inscription consisted of exactly two words, so one could not conclude definitively that it was directed at the Russian president, who has the same surname. 76.ru did not quote the graffiti even in partially concealed form, but both media outlets published photographs of it. The second word in the inscription [i.e., “bugger”] was blanked out in the photos.

Vedomosti examined a copy of Roskomnadzor’s letter to Yarkub. Roskomnadzor did not explain why the news report should be deleted. Roskomnadzor wrote to other Yaroslavl media outlets that the news report violated the new law on offending the authorities. (The website TJournal has published an excerpt from the letter.)

The amendments restricting the dissemination of published matter that voices blatant disrespect for society and the state went  into effect on Friday, March 29. According to the amended law, websites are obliged to delete such matter at Roskomnadzor’s orders or face blockage. They can also be forced to pay fines starting at 30,000 rubles.

According to the new law, only the prosecutor general and his deputies can decide whether a piece of published matter offends the authorities and society, and Roskomndazor can send websites orders to remove the matter only when instructed by the prosecutor general’s office.

Roskomnadzor’s only telephone in Yaroslavl, as listed on its website, was turned off today.

A source at the prosecutor general’s office told Vedomosti the office had not sent Roskomnadzor any instructions concerning news of the inscription in Yaroslavl.

“We have had nothing to do with this,” he said.

Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky categorically refused to discuss the actions of the agency’s officials in Yaroslavl. After the new law went into force, Roskomnadzor’s local offices had been carrying out preventive work with media outlets, he said. Roskomnadzor officials had thus been trying to quickly stop the dissemination of illegal information without charging media outlets with violating the new law.

When asked whether Roskomnadzor had received instructions from the prosecutor general and his deputies about news of the inscription in Yaroslavl, Ampelonsky avoided answering the question directly.

“We can neither confirm nor deny it,” he said.

Prokhorova argues incredible pressure has been put on local Yaroslavl media.

“Our nerves are frazzled, and we have been left with a nasty taste in our mouths,” she wrote.

Yarkub’s editors claim the incident was an attempt at censorship.

In the letters they sent, Roskomnadzor’s local Yaroslavl officers did not threaten to block media outlets that did not delete the news report. But the letters and telephone calls did their work, and many local media outlets, including newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets in Yaroslavl, the website of radio station Echo of Moscow in Yaroslavl, the website of Yaroslavl TV Channel One, deleted the news report. Our source at Moskovsky Komsomolets in Yaroslavl initially told us the report about the inscription had not been deleted. Subsequently, he explained the report had been deleted at the behest of the newspaper’s Moscow editors. However, the Moscow editors claimed to know nothing about the news report’s removal.

Editors at Echo of Moscow in Yaroslavl radio station told us the news report had been deleted after several conversations with Roskomnadzor officials, but refused to say more. The official requests were recommendations, we were told by a source at the radio station who asked not to be named. Initially, Roskomnadzor asked the radio station to soften the news due to the fact that the main surname [sic] was in it. After some discussion, the editors decided to remove the report from the station’s website altogether, because “an act of hooliganism had ruffled feathers where it counted,” our source told us.

Georgy Ivanov, Kommersant Publishing House’s principal attorney, said the offensive remarks must be voiced in a blatant manner. In the news reports, the inscription has been blurred or blotted out, however. Legally, only the prosecutor general’s office can decide whether published matter is offensive or not, while Roskomnadzor’s function in these cases is more technical, he said. Roskomnadzor has been engaged in constant discussion with the media on implementing laws, but editors are not always able to interpret the agency’s communications with them, to decide whether they are recommendations or orders, and it is thus no wonder regional media perceive their interventions as coercion. Ivanov argues the Russian media had numerous worries about the new regulations on offending the authorities and fake news, and these fears had come true.

“We criticized the proposed regulations primarily because of how law enforcers and regulators act in the regions,” said Vladimir Sungorkin, director general of the popular national newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda. “In Moscow, we can still foster the illusion laws are enforced as written, but out in the sticks the security forces cannot be bothered with the fine points. They often get carried away.”

Sungorkin is certain that incidents in which local officials use the law about offending the authorities and fake news to twist the media’s arm will proliferate.

“It is a birthday gift to the security services in the regions,” he said.

Translated by the Russian Reader