It Was a Good Week in the Supah Powah, or, The Return of the Green Lanterns (OVD Info)

‘In 2016, Donald Trump rode a wave of popular discontent to the White House on the promise that he would “make America great again.” As Russia’s presidential election, scheduled for March 2018, draws nearer, President Vladimir Putin may try a similar tactic — by contending that he has already restored Russia’s greatness.’

Blogger Norwegian Forester

The authorities have been using every trick in the book to counteract the plans of Alexei Navalny’s supporters to hold events against corruption on March 26 in scores of cities. Authorities have been refusing to authorize the protests under different pretexts. Rally organizers in different regions have been arrested on trumped-up changes, summoned to the police, fined for inviting people to rallies on the social networks, and written up for holding meetings with activists. Volunteers have been detained for handing out stickers.

More Navalny

At the same time as he has been getting ready for the anti-corruption protests, Navalny has been opening election campaign headquarters in different cities. These events have also been subject violent attacks. In Barnaul, Navalny was doused with Brilliant Green antiseptic (zelyonka). In Petersburg, the door of his headquarters was set on fire. In Volgograd, Navalny was dragged by his feet and nearly beaten.

Alexei Navalny

In Bryansk Region, a schoolboy was sent to the police for setting up Navalny support groups on the social networks: the police demanded he delete the accounts. In Krasnoyarsk University, a lecturer was fired for showing Navalny’s exposé of PM Dmitry Medvedev, Don’t Call Him Dimon. In Orenburg, a coordinator of the Spring youth movement was summoned to the rector, who asked him questions about Navalny. In Moscow, famous blogger Norwegian Forester was detained for going onto Red Square, his face painted green, in support of Navalny.

Not Only Navalny: Crackdowns on Freedom of Assembly

Long-haul truckers have planned a nationwide strike for March 27. Around twelve people were detained during a meeting of truckers in Vladivostok. Police claimed they had received intelligence on a meeting of mafia leaders. In Krasnodar Territory, an activist got three days of arrest in jail for handing out leaflets about the upcoming strike.

Krasnodar farmers have planned a tractor convoy for March 28. However, organizer Alexei Volchenko was arrested for twelve days for, allegedly, not making alimony payments. Another tractor convoy participant, Oleg Petrov, had his internal passport confiscated by police.

Judge Vladimir Vasyukov

In Petersburg, Dzherzhinsky District Court Judge Vladimir Vasyukov during the past week imposed fines of 10,000 rubles [approx. 160 euros] each on three women, involved in a feminist protest on International Women’s Day, March 8, 10,000 rubles [approx. 160 euros], elderly activist Igor “Stepanych” Andreyev, accused of walking along a building during a solo picket, and activist Varvara Mikhaylova for picketing outside the Segezha Men’s Penal Colony in Russian Karelia in support of civic activist Ildar Dadin, who was recently released.

Varvara Mikhaylova. Photo courtesy of David Frenkel

In Murmansk, the authorities refused to authorize three marches against inflated utilities rates, food prices, and public transportation costs, while Moscow authorities refused to authorize a protest rally against the planned massive demolition of five-storey Soviet-era apartment buildings. In addition, Moscow police demanded a party at Teatr.doc be cancelled.

Moscow City Court ruled that meetings of lawmakers with their constituents should be regarded as the equivalent of protest rallies.

The Constitutional Court ruled the police can detain a solo picketer only if it is impossible to ensure security. The very next day, two solo picketers bearing placards on which Vyacheslav Makarov, speaker of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, was depicted as a demon were detained by police.

Criminal Prosecutions and Other Forms of Coercion

Sergei Mokhnatkin, whose spine was broken in prison, was sentenced to two years in a maximum security penal colony for, allegedly, striking a Federal Penitentiary Service officer.

Sergei Mokhnatkin

As for talk of a new Thaw, two Ufa residents, accused of involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, had their suspended sentences changed to four years in a penal colony.

In Stavropol, Kirill Bobro, head of the local branch of Youth Yabloko, was jailed for two months, accused of narcotics possession. Bobro himself claims police planted the drugs on him.

Kirill Bobro

A graduate student at Moscow State University was detained and beaten for flying a Ukrainian flag from the window of his dormitory. In addition, he was forced to sign a paper stating he agreed to be an FSB informant. Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbalyuk was detained while trying to interview the graduate student.

What to Read

LGBT activist Dmitry Samoilenko describes how he has been persecuted in Kamchatka for a brochure about the history of gender identity in the Far North. Activist Rafis Kashapov, an activist with the Tatar Social Center, who was convicted for posts on the social networks, sent us a letter about life in a prison hospital.

Rafis Kashapov

The Week Ahead (March 26—April 1)

Closing arguments are scheduled for March 27 in the trial of Bolotnaya Square defendant Maxim Panfilov, who has been declared mentally incompetent. Prosecutors will apparently ask the judge to sentence him to compulsory hospitalization.

On March 29, an appeals court is expected to hear the appeal against the verdict of Alexander Belov (Potkin), co-chair of the Russians Ethnopolitical Movement.

Thanks for Your Attention

We continue to raise money for our monitoring group, which collects information on political persecution and takes calls about detentions at protest rallies. Thanks to all of you who have already supported us. You can now make monthly donations to OVD Info here.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Hysterical Russophobia”

Nikolai Davydov, successful Russian immigrant Silicon Valley businessman whose life has (not) been ruined by “hysterical Russophobia.” Image courtesy of RBC

Yet another victim of the “hysterical Russophobia” sweeping the US and Europe has been identified.

“The subjects of the new issue of RBC Magazine aren’t afraid of risks: they conceive their own projects and invest in unusual sectors of business. Nikolai Davydov, RBC’s Investor of the Year, left for the US with $100 in his pocket, but now he lives in a house on the California coastline.”

If “hysterical Russophobia” were a real thing, instead of a talking point for crypto-Putinists and just plain Russians who don’t know how to explain to their non-Russian neighbors why their homeland has become so “odd” in the past several years, you would have heard about Russian immigrants to the EU and US suffering the same main violence and putrid discrimination that Muslim, Asian, and African immigrants and asylum seekers suffer there, not to mention the relentless violence and staggering discrimination suffered by such absolutely 100% native Americans as Aboriginal Americans (i.e., Native Americans), African Americans, and Hispanic Americans in a land their peoples have been inhabiting from several centuries to several thousands of years.

But no, you never hear of such violence and discrimination against Russian immigrants, and the fact there is no such violence and discrimination against Russians (at least, not enough to show up on anyone’s radars) is a good thing, of course.

It does, however make you wonder what exactly this “hysterical Russophobia” is that has so many tongues wagging, but has absolutely no negative effect on the ability of actual, individual Russians to lead happy, productive, and violence- and discrimination-free lives in the countries where they have chosen to settle.

That’s an easy riddle to solve, however. “Hysterical Russophobia” is a non-phenomenon invented by a motley coalition of people with various political axes to grind, including sections of the mostly hilarious current western left, who for some reason have not heard the news about what has been happening in the Socialist Motherland the last twenty-five years or so or feign not to have heard it. They’re still defending Russia long after it became the world center of the blackest social and political reaction. That is, they’re defending a corrupt, oligarchic capitalist tyranny.

Why actual Russian immigrants might feel defensive about the old homeland is understandable, but they should figure out what’s worth defending and what’s not. The Putin regime, for example, literally has no redeeming features whatsoever, as a perusal of this blog, for example, and its predecessor, Chtodelat News, should persuade you, although there are thousands and millions of more credible sources of information out there that are even more persuasive than my occassional, half-baked efforts to knock some sense into your heads.

People who nevertheless hotly defend the Putin regime, wherever they’re from, immediately strike me as suspicious or hopelessly naive. And I’m not alone.

“10,000 articles in the left press about anti-Russian hysteria. They would have more impact if they ever acknowledged that this fucking bastard Putin is building a worldwide ultraright movement. Diana Johnstone told Counterpunch readers that Marine Le Pen was on the left, so you can understand how this sort of Red-Brown thing has been gestating for quite some time.” (Louis Proyect, as quoted by Raiko Aasa yesterday on Facebook)

And here is “hysterical Russophobia” at its most sinister!

‘Delfinov and Vrubel are part of a growing community of Russian artists, poets, writers and intellectuals who have turned Berlin into one of the most vibrant outposts of Slavic culture, a kind of Moscow-on-Spree that is light years away from the repressive world of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Delfinov, who moved to Berlin in 2001, says the influx has accelerated in the past five years, a period when Russians’ hopes of democratic change evaporated. Many of them quit the country after Putin returned in 2012 for a third term as president and veered sharply to the right, espousing a new nationalist rhetoric, clamping down on dissent and annexing Crimea. Official figures show there are now 22,000 Russian expats living in Berlin, up 6 per cent on 2015. “They are people who saw no future for themselves in Russia,” says Delfinov. “Middle-class people who just wanted to breathe.”’

Well, you’ve probably guessed I’m just being facetious.

I think it’s great that Russians can go anywhere and make new, happy, productive lives for themselves. It should be that way for everyone, of course. No one is illegal, and all that.

Yet, at the same time, the Russian government has been working overtime over the last year to exacerbate the Syrian refugee crisis. But you’d be hard pressed to hear any of the nattily dressed émigrés, described in the Financial Times article, quoted above, or their countrymen saying anything whatsoever about that nasty business and their country’s role in it. Mum’s the word, I’ve got my life to live, and all that.

However, a fair number of Russians, in my experience (and not only mine), have had lots to say, paradoxically, about Germany and other European countries being “overrun” by refugees from Syria and other war zones. It turns out these “black” unfortunates, who come from completely other galaxies, apparently, don’t have the same right so seek a safe place to live and work in Berlin, Paris, London et al., as the now-“white” (as opposed to White) Russians do.

Isn’t that funny? TRR

“I Saw the Light”: Why Ryazan Truckers Are Striking on March 27

“I Peeled Myself from the TV and Saw the Light”: Why Ryazan Truckers Are Planning to Join the Nationwide Strike
Yekaterina Vulikh
7X7
March 22, 2017

In early March, a video was published in which Sergei Ovchinnikov, an activist and long-haul trucker with the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR), announced a nationwide strike that would kick off in fifty regions of the country on March 27. As Ovchinnikov said, the strike would continue until the government sat down at the negotiating table or most goods had disappeared from store shelves.

The truckers’ demands:

1. The Plato road tolls payment system should be abolished or reorganized for transit transport and turned over to the state.
2. The transport tax should be cancelled. (There is already a fuel excise tax for this purpose.)
3. Work and rest schedules of drivers should adapted to real conditions in Russia.
4. The government should resign, and no confidence in the president expressed.
5. Weigh stations should be made to do their job properly.
6. Carriers should be given grounds for how the fuel excise tax is calculated.

7X7‘s correspondent went on a run with Alexei Borisov, coordinator of the OPR’s Ryazan branch, to check the validity of these demands.

“I Didn’t Want to be Father Frost Anymore”
“I have an old Kamaz. It rattles and growls, and the wind blows in through the door. It runs slow. Do you have motion sickness? It can give you motion sickness,” Alexei warns before our trip.

How do I know whether I have motion sickness? I don’t ride the big rigs every day. Honestly, I’ve never ridden in a big rig. I’ll be happy if I can climb into the cab.

Before the trip, Alexei and I agree we’ll address each with the informal “thou” (ty). It’s extremely hard to maintain etiquette when you’re bouncing over bumps in the road and your teeth are chattering from night frosts. Also, Alexei repeats to me several times that he is a carrier, not a long-haul trucker. There is a difference.

Alexei Borisov

9:00 p.m. We leave Ryazan headed for Moscow. Twenty tons of reinforced concrete slabs rumble on the nearly 14-meter-long trailer behind us. It’s dark and drizzling. The cab is hot and drafty at the same time. I hadn’t imagined the romance of the open road like this. I should have listened to an experienced wheelman earlier, instead of singer Tatyana Ovsiyenko’s tender voice.

Tatyana Ovsiyenko, “Long-Haul Trucker” (1993)

We have left the remains of Ryazan’s pavement behind and are traveling down a good road illuminated here and there. Round midnight, the trees, ravines, and hoses on the roadsides merge into one continuous blur, and my eyes close.

“Did you get in some good sleep before the trip?”

“No, I had a lot of things to do.”

“How’s that?”

“As long as I’m talking, I’m fine. But I usually stop in a side lane and doze for fifteen minutes or so. It helps.”

“How much?”

“Another half an hour.”

So we talk about roads and school pranks, fuel prices and children, the remnants of green zones and the nuances of professions.

Alexei is a “hereditary” driver, as they say. His favorite pastime in childhood was riding the bus his father drove. Immediately after graduation, he got a job as a vehicle mechanic in Motor Convoy No. 1310, and then a job as a bus driver. He finished his studies to be licensed to drive articulated buses and, at the same time, trailer trucks.

“I transferred to Motor Convoy No. 1417, which services the passenger route between Ryazan and Moscow. They had just purchased Setra buses. Compared to our ancient Russian buses, they were simply a dream. And I was entrusted with one of these buses. I would sign off on the manifest and I go off on my route in a white shirt and blazer. It was great, but after a while they cracked down on us. They made our work conditions harsher in the stupidest way, and in some cases they would just take the piss out of us,” recounts Alexei, irritated.

That was about six years ago. The stewardesses on the long-distrance buses (not to be confused with airplane stewardesses) were forbidden to relax after they handed out food and drinks. They had to keep serving passengers for the entire trip, and smile to them even if they were drunk. Drivers were forbidden from getting free rides to work on buses from their own motor convoy. The next-to-last straw was the Father Frost suit Alexei was obliged to wear over the New Year’s holidays. (The stewardesses were dressed, respectively, as Snow Maidens). The last straw was a fine for stretching his arms over the steering wheel for a couple of seconds. His back had gone to sleep, and he needed to move around a little. An observer saw him do this.

“I couldn’t stand it and I quit. Some might find it stupid. For example, a friend of mine still works there. After every new twist on the part of management, he would sigh and say, ‘They know better. If we’re not dealt with strictly, we’ll lose all fear.’ Why should I fear anyone? I was a responsible employee. I never argued with the passengers. I don’t drink. I don’t even smoke,” Alexei tells me buoyantly, meaning we’re going straight through without stopping.

12:00 p.m., Moscow Region. Through the murky window I notice road workers and convenient multi-level parking lots. A lot of new buildings are going up at a fair distance from the Moscow Ring Road, not as in Ryazan, where they are built right next to the the roads. Speaking of the roads: they exist, and they’re very good.

The big rig alternates between buzzing and barely dragging along, and calming down and cruising more briskly.

“My Kamaz truck is a bit old, and the trip is rough on it. On the other hand, it’s easier to maintain. Spare parts for foreign-made trucks cost so much the guys have to take out loans. The transport tax on them is higher. On the other hand, old trucks like mine won’t be allowed into cities. Right now, this truck feeds a family with two children. I haven’t thought about what I’ll do next.”

We turn off the Ring Road and drive into a pitch-dark neighborhood. The road has been paved with concrete slabs, but none too smoothly. Here and there, we bump along as if we are driving up steps. There is a shaft of light ahead and the outlines of high-rises.

02:05 a.m. A construction site in Mitino, our destination.

According to Alexei, we must “now unload quickly and hightail it back,” to make it through Moscow during permitted hours. He disappears behind mountains of slabs, bricks, and god knows what else.

Another multi-ton rig is already waiting to unload.

My legs numb, I clamber out of the cab. There is frost. The puddles no longer chomp underfoot, but crackle. After stretching my legs and strolling round the half-deserted construction site, I climb back into the cab and look for the thermos.

Alexei comes back in a very bad mood.

“They’ll unload that rig over there now, and then the crane will be busy. They won’t get to us till morning, so we’re hardly going to get through Moscow before the Ring Road has been closed to trucks. There’s the option of bypassing the city on the A107, but that’s an extra 100 kilometers. So this run will be a loss for me. Or . . . We’ll wait and see. I’m going to pull down the bunk for your now. Do you want the sleeping bag?

Oh, what a sinner I am. Remembering all the unprintable expressions I know, I climb up on the bunk located behind the seats. At first, I “modestly” cover myself with my down jacket, but within five minutes I realize my ear, back, and feet are freezing, and I give up, asking Alexei whether I can have the sleeping bag after all. I warm up instantly and doze off. Through my drowsiness I can hear the rumble of a construction crane, the occasional shouts of workers, and the roar of caged packages of bricks being loaded.

Alexei settles down on the seats to sleep.

Marriage, the Photo Shoot, and the Big Bosses
05:50 a.m. Nearly sea-like pitching wakes me up. They’ve finally begun unloading our Kamaz. Nearby, a scandal is brewing.

It turrns out one of the slabs is defective. The first “big boss” flatly refuses to sign for it. The second boss, who is even bigger and more important, orders it removed from the trailer and tossed “in that pile way over there.” He says the supplier has already sent them several defective slabs, but it’s not a disaster and not a rarity. It’s just that building material has to go back to the supplier on one of their own trucks. We still cannot head home, because Alexei has to sign several papers, and they won’t be available until eight o’clock. Eight o’clock! Apparently, we’ll have to hang around in some dump until 10 p.m.

For a while, I take pictures of the old Kamaz, the beautiful sunrise, and landscapes near and far. That is when I am detained until they “discover the purpose of the photo shoot.”

“Why are you shooting the construction site?” asks a heavyset guard.

“No reason,” I reply sincerely, “I’m shooting the truck.”

“You infiltrated the construction site in this truck?”

“Excuse me, what did I do? I infiltrated the site like a spy, and now I’m openly snapping pictures?”

I laugh, but just in case I hide my camera behind my back.

I’m asked to report to the boss, and then to another boss. The biggest security boss is surprised when I tell him the Plato toll rates have not been decreased, but are scheduled to go up. He clicks his tongue in sympathy, but still asks me to delete the shots where it is clear what residential complex this is.

“The tenants walk around shooting, and then they discuss the whats and wherefores on the internet. They complain regulations have been broken here. You can’t shoot here. It’s forbidden.”

“What regulations have been broken? Let’s talk about it.”

The boss politely but silently escorts me to the truck.

“What now?” I hopelessly ask my traveling companion.

“What now? We’re out of here!”

And yes, we’re driving on the Moscow Ring Road. It’s 7:40 a.m.

“We Wanted to Explain It All to Putin”
“We’re going to be fined,” I predict.

“What’s the difference? Either we pay the fine or we fuel up for a 100-kilometer bypass. Or we wait until nightfall. You want to do that?”

I don’t want to do that at all. I ask Alexei how he get involved in the OPR and became a coordinator for them.

“It all kicked off in late 2015, when the authorities informed us Plato would be introduced. Working and surviving got noticeably tougher then: the dollar went up, and prices skyrocketed. Fuel and spare parts were suddenly like gold. But instead of instituting preferential terms of some kind for carriers, they hit us with Plato. [The system’s name in Russian, Platon, is, technically, an abbreviation for “payment for tons,” but what comes to any Russian speaker’s mind when they hear the name Platon is not freight haulage tolls, but the great ancient Greek philosopher. Hence, throughout the numerous articles on the struggle of Russian truckers to band together and defeat what they regard as a death blow to independent trucking I have posted on this website, I have consistently translated the term as “Plato,” because, in part, this is the only way to convey the boundless cynicism of the Kremlin insiders and cronies who christened their system for fleecing hard-working men and women with the name of a brave man who willingly accepted death rather than betray his convictions. — TRR.] It was then that many headed to Moscow to seek the truth. We weren’t thinking about politics. We just wanted to explain to Putin we couldn’t work this way. Everyone would go bankrupt. We sincerely thought he didn’t know anything, and we would tell him how things were, and he would get to the bottom of it. Now it sounds funny, but that’s what believed then. Reporters and volunteers, friends and families, sympathizers and fence-straddlers came to our strike camp in Khimki, but no one in the government bothered to talk with us. Most of the media either said nothing about our protest or cooked the facts. I spent four and half months in that camp. I figured out a lot of things. I peeled myself from the TV and saw the light. I met outstanding people. The camp broke up on May 1, 2016, but on April 30 we held a founding congress and the Association of Russian Carriers (OPR) was established.

“Maybe It’s Better Not to Make Them Angry?”
11:10 a.m. We are leaving the Moscow Ring Road behind.

I silently rejoice in the fact that no one stopped us and fined us. True, along the way, we encounteredd several Plato system monitoring detectors, but more about that a bit later.

The conversation turns to profits and expenses. From everything Alexei tells me, it emerges that the better your rig, the more you earn, and the more you have to give back.

“I’ll get 15,000 rubles [approx 240 euros] for this run. That’s not a lot: it should be at least 18,000. Out of that money, I’ll spend 7,500 rubles on diesel fuel. An excise tax of 6,500 rubles has been added to the price of each liter. Plus, wear and tear on the tires costs another 1,000 rubles. So I end up making 6,500 rubles. It would be a good thing if I set aside some of this money for changing tires. I buy the cheapest tires I can find, Chinese-made, but even for them I’ll have to pay more than 250,000 rubles [approx. 4,000 euros] to ‘reshoe’ the tractor and trailer. I should also set aside money to pay the transport tax. I pay around 13,000 rubles, but my truck is low-powered. The rate for multi-ton tractors with 400 to 500 horsepower engines is around 40,000 rubles [approx. 645 euros]. Next comes the annual insurance payment. That’s 10 to 12 thousand rubles. Then there are the annual payments individual entrepreneurs make to the pension fund (23,400 rubles) and for the obligatory medical insurance policy (4,590 rubles). So when you set aside money for this and that, it means you haven’t earned anything. If you don’t set aside money, you’ll have to take out a loan to make all the insurance and tax payments. Finally, you have to rely only on luck in this job, because you might have to send your rig in for repairs for an indefinite period. You might be ill, and a client might not pay you.

The average price of the tachograph truck drivers are now required to install is 60,000 rubles. We have driven 380 kilometers on a federal highway, so the Plato system toll should amount to 580 rubles. From April 15, the rate will climb to 3.06 rubles a kilometer, so the same run would cost 1,163 rubles in tolls. [Fontanka.ru reported earlier today, March 24, 2017, that Prime Minister Medvedev, after meeting with a group of unidentified truckers, had agreed to reduce the planned per kilometer tariff to 1.91 rubles. When I pointed this development out to a civic activist working closely with the OPR, he told me, “That circus won’t stop the guys. They weren’t involved in the negotiations.”— TRR.]  According to Alexei, it is seemingly not that much, but if you add each payment to all the previous payments, you wind up with a whopping sum of money. Alexei says many carriers resort to the help of logistics companies, who also have to be paid for their services.

“Can you earn more?”

“You can. You can get three or four orders a week, but then your expenses go up, too, on fuel and depreciation. You can take orders that have to be unloaded in Moscow itself. But to get into the city you have to buy a pass. If I’m not mistaken, the starting price for it is 35,000 rubles a month.”

That’s  probably what matters most. Carriers cannot count on earning a stable living. You can’t guess how many runs you’ll get, but you have to pay all the bills.

Alexei’s Kamaz truck

“Is everyone used to Plato?”

“Almost no one pays,” says Alexei, noticeably coming to life. “They dupe the system as they’re able by paying much less than the mileage they’ve traveled, and many drivers don’t pay at all. It’s a sort of tiny rebellion. But that’s for the time being, because the bugs haven’t been worked out of the system. We’ve been promised a crackdown in April such that we’ll paying out more than we earn. And those aren’t empty threats,” Alexei says confidently.

“How can you not pay the road toll if those detectors, which are equipped with video cameras, are out there?”

“Well, they don’t see our license numbers,” my companion utters mysteriously. I realize he won’t say anything more on the subject.

We pull into roadside cafes, simply stopping to down the tea in our thermos. Then we head to Kolomna for loading, but that job has nothing to do with the earnings from today’s run. They’re just old obligations. The road drones continuously in my head, and my legs and back seemingly no longer belong to me.

4:00 p.m. Ryazan, Village of Yuzhny.

Alexei drives the big rig into a parking lot (another expense), located in a field next to a cemetery. He tidies up his “work area.” The last thing he does is turn off the radio, which broadcast the strike notice and the strikers’ demands the whole time we were on the road. Drivers reacted in different ways.  Someone confidently said, “The Rotenbergs won’t stop here. They’ll push through a systematic increase in tolls for travel on federal highways, just as they have made a tradition of increasing rates for utilities and housing maintenance.” Others were blatantly afraid and suggested not angering them: otherwise, they would stop employing the truckers. Still others awkwardly feigned they had no idea what was going on.

“How many Ryazan trucks will go on strike?” I ask finally.

“I’m hoping around twenty, but it’s better not to guess beforehand.”

Alexei closes the tractor’s doors and checks to make sure they’re shut.

“Do you believe in change?”

“If I didn’t believe in it, I would pay my rates and keep my mouth shut.”

“Aren’t you afraid?”

“I’m tired,” he replies, partly closing his eyes. “I’m tired in general and tired of being afraid.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Uvarova for the heads-up. All photos courtesy of Yekaterina Vulikh and 7X7. See the original article in Russian for many more photos from Ms. Vulikh’s road trip with Mr. Borisov

The Standard Narrative

Is this the “real” Russia?

“I watched as the people of Chelyabinsk began to search for an identity—a Russian identity that would give them pride. Vladimir Putin’s unexpected ascent to power in 2000 was, for many, a godsend.”

How does the beloved Anne Garrels, formerly foreign correspondent of the dismal, faux-liberal but also mysteriously beloved NPR, know all this?

She claims she knows this because she made repeated visits to Chelyabinsk, in Putin’s nonexistent “heartland,” over twenty years.

I gather she’s now even published a book about this fairy kingdom to great acclaim.

The problem is that the story she pretends to have dug up has been the standard narrative for western journalists and academics pretending to cover or study the “real Russia” for a long while now.

The problem with the standard narrative is it’s not true, although it was partly spun from a combination of half-truths, outright but persuasive sounding lies, and thoroughly unexamined “facts.” It was cooked up, back in the day, by a masterful Kremlin spin doctors like Gleb Pavlovsky or Vladislav Surkov or a whole team of such spin doctors.

Over the last eighteen years it has been drilled into the heads of “ordinary Russians” and the legions of pollsters, academics, and journalists who have feigned to be studying what “ordinary Russians are thinking.” All of the above-named parties, including some “ordinary Russians,” have then gone on to brainwashing each other with the narrative in a completely closed feedback loop.

Or is this the “real” Russia?

However, the Putinist standard narrative was never true even when easy oil money made it seem partly true, and it’s even less true now when that money has dried up, and the Russian economy has been driven into the dirt by crisis, mismanagement, cosmic-scale corruption, and sanctions.

Yet the less true the standard narrative becomes, the more determined the western media and the west’s dubious posse of “Russia hands” (who don’t live in Chelyabinsk but always somehow know what’s best for the people of Chelyabinsk: twenty more years of Putin’s “heartlandism,” apparently) have been to pound the narrative into our ignorant little readerly, viewerly, and listenerly heads.

It’s no wonder the odious phrase “the Russians”—as in “the Russians think this” and “the Russians do that”—has come into vogue again. As if 143 or 144 million people all think and do the same thing, as if the eighteen years of Putin’s faux “heartlandism” hasn’t, in fact, been one long “cold civil war,” as a friend of mine aptly put it many years ago.

That’s a really complicated story to report. Most western reporters aren’t up to the job for various reasons, so they have just rung the changes on the standard narrative, “heartlandism,” and Putin’s amazing “popularity” (measured by pollsters whose methods should not be trusted, and whose results should not be taken at face value in conditions where polling cannot by definition produce objective feedback, if it ever could), and have called it a day.

Since editors and newscast producers are usually none the wiser and have lots of other stories to shepherd, they have let the journalists and their sources in the world of Russian handdom spread the Putinist standard narrative up and down and round the west, so that schoolkids and soccer mums in Melbourne, Grimsby, and Cuyahoga County, if pressed, could regurgitate it almost as convincingly as Garrels does, in the “Comment Is Free” piece for the “liberal” Guardian readership, quoted above.

If there’s anything worth preserving about political and social liberalism, it’s the desire to reject canned truths and dogmas and find out what’s really been going down somewhere.

“Real Russians” are upset “the west’ has swallowed the standard narrative hook, line and sinker.

Instead, nearly the entire western press corps and a good portion of its academic experts on Russia have bought the whole bill of goods, freeing the Russian elite from any responsibility for its cynical, destructive, dysfunctional and dangerous governance of the world’s largest country.

Amid the fake moral panic over “hysterical Russophobia” this has always been the real story: how the western political, media, and academic elites have mostly been letting the heartlandist-in-chief get away with it, in effect, aiding and abetting him and his old friends in the Ozero Dacha Co-op, serving as cashiers to him and the Laundromat, helping him amass his supplies of real and symbolic capital.

This shell game will all come to a screeching halt one day, however, and all the backstocks of bestsellers like Garrels’s will have to be pulped because they won’t be worth the paper they were printed on. TRR

All photos by the Russian Reader

Three Years Later: Suicide by Crimea

Suicide by Crimea
Nikolay Klimenyuk
oDR
March 17, 2017

As long as Russia maintains its grip on the Ukrainian peninsula, significant changes for the better at home are impossible.

In the three years that have passed since the annexation of Crimea, a consensus has taken shape in Russia. Everything having to do with the Ukrainian peninsula is Russia’s internal affair, and far from the most important one.

The “accession” of Crimea has even quite succesfully happened in the heads of the regime’s opponents. In November 2016, while arguing on Facebook with Crimean Tatar journalist Ayder Muzhdabaev, Mikhail Khodorkovsky expressed a stance then supported by many publicly prominent liberals, including activists and intellectuals. Russian society, he argued, wants to deal with other problems. The opposition’s biggest task is regime change, but returning Crimea to Ukrainian jurisdiction by democratic means would be impossible because public opinion would be opposed. Crimea is not mentioned at all in Alexei Navalny’s 2018 presidential campaign platform.

Russian media outlets generally considered “liberal” (these media usually eschew the word “opposition”) havealso swallowed the annexation and most of the rhetoric surrounding it without a peep. TV Rain, RBC (even before its top editors were replaced), and the online Meduza, which operates out of Latvia and is not not subject to Russian laws, have all long routinely called and depicted Crimea as part of Russia. The standard explanation—it is required by Russian law, and insubordination is fraught with penalties—sounds like an excuse. The law does not require that questions about Crimea be included in a quiz on knowledge of Russian cities (which was amended after public criticism) or that reporters term the annexation a “reunification” (Meduza edited the latter term to “absorption.”)

At the same time, Russian reporters usually have no problem demonstratively violating Ukrainian laws (which require them to enter the occupied territory through the checkpoint at Perekop) and flying to Crimea from Russia (as Deutsche Welle reporter Yuri Resheto did), because it’s cheaper, faster, and simpler, and because Ukraine’s rules are cumbersome, inconvenient, and nonbinding.

After that, you can write critical reports on human rights violations in Crimea till the cows come home, but it won’t change what matters. The voluntary observance of inconvenient Ukrainian rules is tantamount to acknowledging Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea, and hardly anyone in Russia wants to do that.

In fact, the seizure of Crimea has been the cause of many pressing problems in Russia that have been on the Russian opposition’s agenda. It has laid bare peculiarities of Russian society that existed longer before the attack on Ukraine.

For example, not only did the extent of imperialist moods become clear but also Crimea’s place in how Russians see themselves as a society and a nation. The imperial myth, still alive and well in Russia, was concocted during Catherine the Great’s reign. From the moment they were implemented, Peter the Great’s reforms had provoked a mixed response. They smacked of “sycophancy,” and modeling the country on Holland seemed somehow petty.

Catherine, on the contrary, conceived a great European power, rooted in antiquity, Byzantine’s direct heir, the Third Rome, a Europe larger than Europe itself. Her ambitious Southern Project, which involved defeating Turkey, uniting all the Orthodox countries in a single empire, and installing her grandson the Grand Duke Constantine on the throne in Constantinople, was brought low by political reality. The only one of her great fantasies she made come true was seizing the Crimean Khanate, in 1783.

The conquest was extremely atypical of Russia. A troublesome neighbor was not subjugated. Rather, the annexed lands were completely reimagined and rewritten. The rewriting was attended by the first mass expulsion of the Crimean Tatars. They did not fit at all into the pictures of the radiant past that Grigory Potemkin was painting in reality on the annexed lands. Crimea was resettled with Plato and Aristotle’s Orthodox descendants: Pontic Greeks, Great Russians, and Little Russians (i.e., Ukrainians). Naturally, all these particulars have been forgotten long since. What has not been forgotten is Crimea’s central place in the self-consciousness of a “great European nation,” as manifest, for example, in the absurd, endlessly repeated expression, “Crimea has always been Russian.”

The saying perfectly illustrates the peculiarities of historical memory in Russia. Crimea’s current “Russianness” is the outcome of over two hundred years of the uninterrupted genocide and displacement of the “non-Russian popuation,” which culminated during the Second World War. After the two Soviet deportations of 1941 and 1944 (ethnic Germans, Greeks, Bulgarians, Italians, Armenians, Karaites, and Crimean Tatatrs were deported), losses during battles, and the Nazi extermination of Jews and Crimeans, only a third of Crimea’s pre-war inhabitants were left. It was resettled with people from Russia and Ukraine, especially by military officers and veterans of the Party and the secret services.

Naturally, few people in Russia today regard Crimea as a conquered and ravaged country, in which a full-fledged state existed until relatively recently, an indigenous culture was long maintained, and Russians were never the ethnic majority even during the lifetimes of the present elder generation.

Regarding Crimea as a territory, not a society, and treating Crimeans as an annoying inconvenience, was a habit in Catherine’s times and has survived into the present. The formal excuse for the Russian incursion was the “defense of Crimea’s Russophone population,” and yet the “Crimea is ours” attitude of Russians to the peninsula’s residents has been quite skeptical from the get-go. They imagine the main business of Crimeans is leaching off tourists, and the only thing that attracts them about Russia is high wages.

Moreover, this opinion is common across the entire political spectrum. Sergei Parkhomenko, a liberal journalist and public figure, expressed it in a very telling way.

“If first you take five days to explain to the population of Crimea that if they return to Ukraine’s jurisdiction, their wages and pensions will be increased, and they’ll also be permitted to build even more chicken coops for holidaymakers in the coastal zone, and only then you ask them to vote in a referendum, 95% will vote for going back. […]  These people have proved they could not care less what country they belong to. And if there is anyone for whom I now feel not an ounce of sympathy as I read about how they are being fooled, robbed, milked, and put under the rule of gangsters pretending to be officials and bosses, it is the population of Crimea.”

The massive support of Russians for the annexation has much more serious and immediate consequences than a display of deeply rooted chauvinism. Having signed off on “Crimea is ours,” Russians have deemed their own power above the law and sanctioned its use in violating all laws and treaties for the sake of higher interests or “justice.” The Russian authorities had behaved this same way previously, but now they have obtained the relevant mandate from society. Quite naturally, the crackdown following the seizure of Crimea has been chockablock with spectacular acts of lawlessness.

One such act was the demolition of commercial kiosks and pavilions in Moscow, which happened despite legalized property rights and court rulings. There was nothing accidental about the fact the Moscow authorities justified their actions by citing the law adopted for settling real estate disputes in Crimea. And the twenty-year-sentence handed down to Oleg Sentsov set a new ceiling for verdicts in political trials. Before Crimea, activists would get a dvushechka (two years) for especially vigorous protests. After Crimea, the Russian authorities have been sentencing people for reposts on VK and holding solo pickets.

Actually, any regime that tasks itself with establishing the rule of law in Russia will first have to annul this “mandate to lawlessness.” The Russian opposition’s attitude to Crimea shows the rule of law is not among its priorities at all. Bewitched by the figure of Putin, the opposition does not regard regime change as a product of the rule of law. The fact that it cannot offer a realistic scenario for regime change is not a problem in itself. Russia’s currrent regime does not presuppose a peaceful change of power. Systemic change might happen as it did in the Soviet Union, at the behest of the bigwigs and under the impact of external circumstances: the state of the economy, public sentiment, foreign policy factors.

The opposition’s most serious problem is that it doesn’t have a meaningful outline of what would come next.

If we believe the alternative to Putin is neither Navalny, Khodorkovsky nor anyone else, but a democratic state based on the rule of law, there are two obstacles in our way: Crimea and Chechnya. The opposition has no vision of how to establish control over Chechnya and incorporate it into Russia’s legal system, but it is possible in theory, at least. There is no such possibility with Crimea. It is impossible to hope for international recognition of the peninsula as part of Russia, and if we keep regarding it as part of Russia, it will thus remain a legal anomaly. Moreover, no rule rule of law is even formally possible without observance of international law.

When discussing Crimea, the Russian opposition evinces a notion of democracy that differs little from Putin’s, although it is consonant with the rhetoric of Donald Trump and the European populists: that democracy is rule based on majority support and not burdened by the observance of laws, procedures, and international obligations. Khodorkovsky, for example, considers “democratic procedure” not the restoration of law, but the adoption of a decision on Crimea based on the opinion of the majority, which, allegedly, is against giving Crimea back to Ukraine. Navalny has suggested holding a new, “normal” referendum.

Yet what the majority really thinks, whether there is such a thing as public opinion on any issue and how to measure it, obviously means nothing at all either to Khodorkovsky, Navalny or many other members of the opposition. By the same token, since Putin is supported by the majority of the Russian population, there is nothing for the opposition to do at all. All these contradictions can be eliminated only by unconditionally recognizing both the illegality of Crimea’s annexation and the total impossibility of keeping it in the Russian Federation on any grounds.

With Crimea in tow, Russia has no positive alternative to the current regime. And as long as the Russian opposition is concerned only about regime change and avoids discussing Crimea, the only thing it can offer is a Putinist Russia sans Putin. Whoever ends up in his place, however, the changes won’t be too noticeable.

Nikolay Klimenyuk writes about politics and culture in Germany and Russia. He was an editor at Forbes Russia, Bolshoi Gorod, and other periodicals. He has lived in Berlin since 2014 and writes for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other German mass media. Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

They Also Lie About How Much They Pay Us

“Loans, whatever your credit history, paid in cash in 30 minutes.” Flyer photographed in central Petersburg, 15 May 2017. Photo by TRR

Russian Public TV: Average Wage in Pskov Region Two Times Lower than Official Figures
Pskovskaya Guberniya Online
March 15, 2017

An SMS poll conducted by Russian Public Television (OTR) has shown that the average monthly wage in Pskov Region is two times lower than the official figures, amounting to 9,950 rubles [approx. 160 euros]. These figures were published by OTR’s news service on the basis of information sent by viewers. OTR viewers reported their minimum and maximum monthly wages: they amounted to 6,500 rubles and 15,000 rubles, respectively. According to Rosstat, the average monthly wage in Pskov Region amounts to 22,264 rubles [approx. 358 euros].

The poll showed that the average monthly wage in Russia is 15,158 rubles [approx. 244 euros], which is also two times less than the official figures. Rosstat reported that the average monthly wage this year has amounted to 36,746 rubles [approx. 590 euros]. According to Rosstat, the poorest region is Dagestan. The average monthly wage in the country’s wealthiest regions—Murmansk, St. Petersburg, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District, Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District, Sakhalin, Kamchatka, Moscow, and Moscow Region—is over 40,000 rubles per month [approx. 640 euros].

According to OTR’s survey, only viewers in Moscow, Moscow Region, Buryatia, Ingushetia, the Maritime District, and Belgorod Region make over 30,000 rubles a month. Viewers in Kabardino-Balkaria, Kursk Region, Orenburg Region, Pskov Region, Saratov Region, and Tver Region make less than 10,000 rubles a month. The lowest monthly wage was discovered in Novgorod Region. A postman there makes 2,800 rubles a month [approx. 45 euros].

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. See “Russia’s Economic Performance: Fudging the Stats” (February 16, 2017) and “Alexei Gaskarov: A 25,000 Ruble Minimum Monthly Wage Is a Good Idea” (February 9, 2017) for more perspectives on these issues.

Alexander Morozov: The So-Called Partners

The So-Called Partners: How the Kremlin Corrupted an Unimaginable Number of People in the West
Alexander Morozov
Colta.ru
March 14, 2017

Vladimir Putin and Michael Flynn at TV channel Russia Today’s birthday party, December 2015

Before Crimea, everyone “cooperated” with the Russians. Until mid 2016, there was confusion about this past. The sanctions did not almost nothing to change this mode of cooperation.

But since the elections in the US, quite significant changes have been occurring that are hard to describe accurately and identify. Outwardly, this is encapsulated in the fact that people accused of communicating with the Russians have been losing their posts, and all this comes amidst public scandals. It’s not that people cooperated maliciously, but they were involved in what Russian gangsters call zaskhvar, “getting dirty.”

No one doubted Flynn’s loyalty, but he resigned due to “contacts.” The deputy speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas, Mindaugas Bastys, resigned the other day. He resigned because the Lithuanian secret services refused him access to secret information, although the list of Russians with whom he palled around at different times doesn’t contain anyone special: employees of Russian state corporations in Lithuania, crooked local Russian businessmen, and so on. Recently, the mailbox of an adventurer who has worked for the Kremlin in four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary), and the Balkans to boot, was hacked. It transpired that Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev had discussed or conducted ops of some kind during the elections in Bosnia and Poland.

Malofeev is, seemingly, an extreme example of frankly subversive actions in other countries. Perusing the correspondence and knowing the atmosphere of Russian affairs in Europe, you realize that Malofeev’s strategy and tactics differ not a whit from the actions of dozens and hundreds of similar actors operating outside the Russian Federation. Before Crimea, all of this resembled benign “promotion” of their interests on the part of all those who cooperated with such people. But now retrospection kicks ins. What trouble have those who were involved in the Petersburg Dialogue, the Valdai Club, the Dialogue of Civilizations, and the dozens and hundreds of programs where the Russians either footed the bill, generated incentives or simply provided a one-time service got themselves into? I was told by people from compatriots organizations (who fairly early pulled out of Russian World’s programs) that initially they were fooled by Nikita Mikhalkov’s early cultural projects outside Russia. They sincerely supported his appeal to the descendants of the post-revolutionary emigration. Around 2008, however, they sensed they were getting sucked into a system of ideological support for the Kremlin. Many even continued to travel to Moscow to the compatriots congresses, but inwardly they already felt like observers. They had already decided then that this was a new “Comintern,” and it would be wrong to accept grants from it. But others happily kept on taking the grants and sailed off with the Kremlin for Crimea.

* * *

But all these political, humanitarian and media contacts pale next to the vastness of business collaborations. Millions of people worldwide were involved in Russian money for over a decade. After all, so-called capital flight occurred on a massive scale. This capital was then partly reinvested in Russia through offshores, and partly spent on buying various kinds infrastructure outside of Russia (firms, shares in businesses, real estate, yachts, etc.). This entire giant machine for circulating the Putin corporate state’s money was serviced by millions of people as counterparties, including lawyers, dealmakers of various shapes and sizes, politicians, MPs, movie stars, cultural figures, translators, and so on.

The outcome, when Crimea happened, was a huge spontaneous lobby. This doesn’t mean all these people had literally been bought off, to describe the process in terms of the battle against corruption. People simply “cooperated” and received various bonuses from this cooperation. It is not a matter of recruitment, but a psychological phenomenon. Any of us, having once received money from a rich childhood friend, even if we are critical towards him, would still remain publicly loyal to him. Would you want to shout to the heavens about the atrocities of a man thanks to whom, say, you had earned enough money to buy a new house? You would just keep your lips sealed.

* * *

In other words, for around ten years, beginning approximately in 2004, after the takeover of Yukos, the Russian economy “warmed up” foreign strata whose scale is hard to evaluate. It was not a matter of corruption in the narrow sense of the word. Of course, on their part it was regarded as economic cooperation with a peculiar type of “eastern” economy that involved “pats on the back,” kickbacks, exchanges of various bonuses and preferences, trips to the banya, hunting for wild sheep from helicopters, and so on. But it was not criminal. On their part, it was indulged as a “peculiarity.” Russia is hardly the only economy marked by these ways. It was a partnership in the primary sense. The world’s major companies opened offices and production facilities in Russia. Until recently, it was a privileged economy, included in the BRICS grouping.

Crimea turned all the fruits of this decade-long warming-up into a problem. It is obvious Putin used Crimea to implement an instantaneous mobilization amongst those involved in the partnership. He confronted all the partners with the need to define themselves. Putin’s use of the word “partners,” which he pronounces ironically, has often been thought to relate to the diplomatic lexicon. But in fact Putin has in mind other partners, the millions of people who have received big bonuses for dealing with Russian contracts, Russian money, and various undertakings with Russians for a decade.

* * *

Now these partners have big problems, and we must sadly note that the problems are not due to Crimea as such nor to the regime of sanctions and countersanctions, nor to the ambivalence of having been involved in toxic projects with Russians in the past.  The problems lies entirely in the fact that Putin does not want to stop.

This entire massive milieu would sigh in relief if it found out that Putin had “transferred the title to himself” (i.e., focused on Crimea) and called it a day.

But the extreme ambiguity has been maintained and even intensified from 2014 to 2017. It was not Putin who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, but folks mobilized by Malofeev. It was not Putin who murdered Nemtsov, but Chechen security officials. It was not Putin who hacked the Democratic Party’s servers, but volunteer hackers, who maybe were Russians or maybe not, but they used Russian servers. The attempted coup in Montenegro was not orchestrated by Putin, but by persons unknown. It was not Putin who plotted to destroy Ukraine as a country and establish Novorossiya, but, say, Sergei Glazyev. The pro-Russian rallies in European countries were organized not by Putin, but by a guy named Usovsky, who raised money for the purpose from patriotic Russian businessmen. And so on.

The list now grows with every passing day. Yet the Kremlin doesn’t really distance itself from any of it with a vigor that would be comprehensible to its so-called partners. The Kremlin has not conducted an investigation of any of these events, but has played an ambiguous game that can be clearly read as “covering up” all of “its own” people.

So the ten-year economic warming-up has been transformed before our very eyes into “inducement to conspiracy.” Everyone is now looking back and asking themselves, “Who was it we ‘partnered’ with? Maybe it was Russian intelligence? Or, from the get-go, was it just bait to get us involved in an unscrupulous lobbying scheme?”

* * *

There is tremendously frightening novelty at play here. Everything happening before our eyes with the State Department and pro-Russian politicians in Europe lays bare a complex problem. The boundaries between lobbying, partnership, espionage, propaganda, and corruption have been eroded.

A situation is generated in which it it impossible to tell benign partnership from complicity in a politics that erodes the limits of the permissible. Just yesterday you were a Christian Democrat building a partnership with the Russian Federation, but today you are just a silent accomplice in eroding the norms of Europe’s political culture. You are not just tight-lipped, refusing to evaluate the Kremlin’s actions. On the contrary. “Maintaining fidelity,” so to speak, to the fruits of your past partnership with the Kremlin, you even raise a skeptical voice. “What’s so criminal about Putin’s policies?” And others do the same. “The sanctions have been been ineffective. Frankly, Crimea has always been Russian.”

And if you were somehow able to take in at a glance the entire so-called Kremlin propaganda machine abroad as a combination of the work of Moscow news agencies and little-visited European websites run by left- and right-wing critics of American hegemony who for that reason sympathize with Putin, it would be utterly impossible to get a glimpse of the giant roots the Kremlin has put down in the western economy. It is beyond estimation, just like the transformation or, rather, the corruption not only of its own native population but also huge circles in the west, a task the Kremlin has accomplished in ten years.

Three years ago, I imagined Putin was putting together a kind of right-wing Comintern, and I wrote about it. Now it is often dubbed the “black Comintern.” I think, however, the situation is more complicated and a lot worse. The “Putinist Comintern” is the fairly insignificant and well-visible tip of a much larger process taking place on other floors of European life, where people who are not involved in either ultra-rightist or ultra-leftist politics remain silent about the Kremlin’s actions. Condemning it, they remain loyal nevertheless. They considerately wait for Putin to return to European norms of partnership. These people cannot see and do not want to see that the ambiguity fostered by the Kremlin in the matter of responsibility for murders, paramilitary detachments, mercenaries, and destabilization of small countries is not a temporary phenomenon. It has been conceived that way. And it will continue that way in the future.

Alexander Morozov is a Russian journalist and political analyst. Translated by the Russian Reader