Nastiness Is a Warm Gun: The Kremlin’s Cowboys

bd1bf37b99A Miratorg worker tending calves. Courtesy of Readovka

Business Russian Style, or, What is Miratorg, and What Do You Eat with It?
Dmitry Zhuravsky
Readovka
April 30, 2019

How Did a Company Importing Meat from Brazil End Up Getting Most of Russia’s Agricultural Subsidies? 
Miratorg’s own website identifies it as the largest agribusiness investor in Russia. The company is owned the Linnik twins, Viktor and Alexander. Viktor serves as the company’s president. It was Viktor Linnik who, last week, proposed tightening controls on the luggage of people entering Russia and increasing penalties for the illegal import of meat-based products. Today, he encouraged Russians to stop thinking about Parmesan cheese and start thinking more about the country’s growth. To rub it in, he dubbed everyone disgruntled with such proposals “blowhards.”

We should point out right off the bat that the fact Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s wife’s maiden name is Linnik is only a funny coincidence, one which the Linnik twins have never tired of mentioning when they are interviewed by journalists.

The facts back this up. Blood relatives of the Russian state’s second most important person could not have established a giant agribusiness company that keeps all its accounts and founding capital outside Russia.

One hundred percent of Miratorg’s shares are owned by Cypriot offshore companies: 99.99% by Agromir, Ltd. (despite its Russian acronym, the company is registered in Nicosia), and 0.01% by Saudeid Enterprises, Ltd. (also registered in Nicosia).

Nevertheless, Miratorg is on the Russian federal list of so-called backbone companies and, since 2015, due to Russia’s self-imposed ban on meat and produce imports, it has been dubbed a strategic company. These regalia allow the Cypriot-based company to obtain loans from Vnesheconombank at discounted rates, which means it borrows part of its operating capital by drawing on the future pensions of Russians. (We published a detailed analysis of this scheme in a previous article.) It also means Miratorg can apply to the government for subsidies to pay back these selfsame loans.

A Success Story
Considering Viktor Linnik’s current circumstances, Miratorg’s origins appear laughable. The company was initially established to import meat from Holland and Brazil to Russia. To make the job easier, two years after the company was founded, in 1997, Miratorg opened a subsidiary in the Kaliningrad Sea Fishing Port, through which it imported meat to mainland Russia. Miratorg did business this way for nearly ten years. In 2005, it purchased a stake in two BelgoFrance-owned pig farms in Belgorod Region. The import company was transformed into a full-fledged agribusiness.

Kaliningrad Sea Fishing Port. Courtesy of Readovka

Miratorg went on to co-found a farm in Kaliningrad Region. A little later, it moved into Bryansk Region, which has become the company’s second home.

It was also in 2005 Miratorg was chosen to be involved in the National Priority Projects, a program for growing “human capital,” announced by Vladimir Putin on September 5, 2005. Until Dmitry Medvedev was elected president, the program, which included promoting the agricultural sector as one of its priorities, was overseen by the current Russian prime minister. Since 2008, when Medvedev was inaugurated president, the agricultural growth program has had its own line item in the federal budget.

Current Realities
Miratorg is currently Russia’s largest meat producer. According to Kontr.Focus.ru, an online service for assisting in doing due diligence on potential clients and business partners, Miratorg, Ltd., has founded thirty-six subsidiaries in eight regions of Russia. In 2017, the company produced 415,000 tons of pork, 114,000 tons of poultry, and 82,000 tons of beef.

Russia’s regions regard Miratorg as a valuable investor whom nearly any governor would be glad to welcome into his neighborhood. According to Miratorg’s website, the company has made a total of 200 billion rubles in investments. The advent of an agricultural market player of this caliber in a region means a guaranteed inflow of money from the federal budget in the form of subsidies from the government’s agricultural sector growth program and  Miratorg’s own investments.

On paper, Miratorg is a real find for regions heavily dependent on federal government subsidies. Aside from the federal agricultural subsidies it brings with it, Miratorg contributes to regional budgets through the land it leases. Its farms provide jobs while they are being builty and after they are brought on line. In addition, it pays taxes in the regions. The company is not a burden but a blessing, or so it would seem.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Miratorg President Viktor Linnik. Courtesy of Readovka

Taking advantage of its status, Miratorg moves confidently around Russia. In the regions, it has become accustomed to acting suddenly and brazenly. The company often receives land under indefinite gratuitous bailments by order of the federal government, whose decrees are personally signed by Prime Minister Medvedev.

Miratorg usually acts in full compliance with the law, although the effects of how it does business trip up regional governments. After three years, the land it leases free of charge is transferred from regional ownership to Miratorg’s ownership.

Last summer, the Bryansk Commercial Court adjudicated a conflict between the Bryansk Meat Company (Miratorg’s local subsidiary) and the Bryansk Regional Government. Miratorg tried to prove that members of a district council had violated the law by refusing to sell them land they had been leasing. According to law, a company that has leased agricultural land for three years has the right to purchase it and continuing farming it. Only two conditions must be met for the deal to go through: the relevant regulatory authorities must have no objections, and the land must be used for its original purpose.

The Bryansk Meat Company had complied with these terms, but local councilors had not signed off on the deal. Originally, they had agree to lease the land to the investor. Later, Miratorg’s subsidiary decided to trick the council and buy the land. Consequently, the local council was not paid the rent promised to it and did not profit from Miratorg’s presence in the district.

Instead of a lease, the local council was offered a one-time payment, which is transferred to the council’s accounts when the investor buys the land. Bryansk Meat Company’s farm occupies thirteen parcels of land totaling 7,398,700 square meters. Under the terms of the sale of the parcels to Miratorg, the average assessed value of one square meter of land is a mere 1.6 rubles. It is a great deal for Miratorg, but not for Bryansk Region.

We found reports of similar law suits ongoing between Miratorg and local governments in other regions of Russia.

Nastiness Is a Warm Gun
Since 2009, Miratorg has also confidently been colonizing Kursk Region. Its investments there began with the Pristen District, but currently the company operates in thirteen districts in the region. Its facilities in Kursk Region include the Pristen Pig Farm, Blagodatnoye Agricultural Enterprise, Renaissance Farm, Fatezh Lamb, and Miratorg Kursk, Ltd. According to Miratorg’s figures, it invested 17 billion rubles on its agribusiness facilities in Kursk Region between 2009 and 2017. In the Pristen District, it built two pig-breeding facilities with three sites each, while in the Oboyan District it built two pedigree breeding units.

Currently, Miratorg is building what will be Europe’s largest refrigerated slaughterhouse with a capacity to process 4.5 million head of hogs or 400,000 tons of meat in slaughter weight. Miratorg has also been building seven pig farms in two other districts in the region.

3fe1ac38af.jpgA billboard showing Miratorg’s assets in Kursk Region. Courtesy of Readovka

Why has Miratorg invested so much in Kursk Region? For the same reason it has invested heavily in Smolensk, Bryansk, Kaluga, Kaliningrad, and other regions in Russia. The Russian federal budget supports domestic industrial agricultural enterprises with subsidies. Some of the federal government’s assistance is earmarked for the largest players in agribusiness, the strategic, “backbone” companies we mentioned earlier. Some of the assistance is filtered through regional government budgets, where it is meant to boost small companies and support local producers. When Miratorg sets up a subsidiary in a region, it automatically grabs the lion’s share of federal subsidies for itself.

In Russia, there are no limits on the subsidies a particular agricultural holding company can receive. By using the subsidiaries it has established in the regions, a national agribusiness company can qualify for regional subsidies. For example, in 2016, the Bryansk Meat Company was awarded 98% of all subsidies earmarked in the federal budget for promoting agriculture in Bryansk Region.

At the same time, Miratorg has been officially designated as a strategic, “backbone” enterprise. Accordingly, the company and its subsidiaries also receive subsidies for pursuing particular projects. Since 2014, Vnesheconombank has lent Miratorg $871.5 million to expand meat production. Thanks to sleights of hand such as this on, in 2016, Bryansk Meat Company left not only farms in Bryansk high and dry in terms of financing but also farmers nationwide by hogging 90% of all subsidies earmarked for agriculture. The total amount of subsidized loans was 33.6 billion rubles, and this financing was obtained by a single Miratorg subsidiary for a single year.

The company has been feeding off this program since it was founded in 2005. Miratorg has received hundred of billions of rubles in subsidies over this period.

The more subsidiaries it gets, the more lines of credit Miratorg can receive. The story  of its rise to the top bears a strong resemblance to the way Yevgeny Prigozhin built his school cafeteria catering monopoly in Moscow. There is one signal difference, however: whereas Concord Catering’s contract implies that Prigozhin’s food production facility does the work for which it was contracted and pays back its debts out of the profit generated by the facility, some of Miratorg’s loan agreements contain an interesting loophole. It can fulfill its obligations to Vnesheconombank one of two ways, either the way Concord Catering does it, by paying back its debts out of its profits, or by selling off its founding shares in its subsidiaries to pay off its loans. Meaning, hypothetically, Miratorg can rid itself of some of its subsidiaries.

Where Do Miratorg’s Profits Go?
Considering the billions in government subsidies it receives annually, Miratorg and its owners do not even have to run a good business to live high on the hog. According to open sources, Miratorg’s profits shrunk fivefold in 2016, amounting to a mere five billion rubles, despite the fact the company received several tens of billions of rubles in subsidies from the Russian federal government.

Nevertheless, Miratorg is the main supplier of meat for huge fast food chains such as McDonalds and Burger King. It has also launched its own cafes and supermarket chain. Miratorg’s profits, which are incomparable to the subsidies paid to the company, end up not in Russian bank accounts, but in offshore accounts in Cyprus.

d79d3fe745.jpgA  Miratorg supermarket, newly opened somewhere in Russia. Courtesy of Readovka

Miratorg’s operations do not resemble an attempt to promote Russian agriculture, but rather a scheme for spiriting federal money out of the country. Given Miratorg is the industry leader in terms of land assets and government support, it should also have come to monopolize supermarket shelves. Its status as a strategic enterprise and the subsidies it receives simply oblige it to aspire to this end. The government’s plan was to have Miratorg replace all the imported meat banned from supermarkets with domestically produced meat.

Instead, Miratorg annually receives several hundreds of billions in subsidies allocated by the government to support the country’s agriculture. Miratorg spends the money to purchase land, which it uses, along with shares from its regional subsidiaries, as collateral to obtain more loans.

Ultimately, instead of building a successful business and resurrecting Russian domestic agriculture according to the government’s plan, Miratorg merely filches money from the federal budget. As long as it keeps feeding the “Cypriot butchers,” real hardworking Russian farmers will have to get by without substantial assistance. Eventually, the whirligig of subsidies could lead to the complete collapse of Russian agriculture as such.

Thanks to Anna Klimenko for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Sergei Vilkov: Everything You Thought You Knew About the Russian Working Class Was Wrong

kalashnikov workersWorkers of the Kalashnikov plant in Izhevsk, Russia, on September, 20, 2016. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov (Getty Images). Courtesy of Fortune

The Heroes of the Day: What We Know about the Russian Working Class
How the Proletariat Stopped Fearing TV and Came to Dislike It
Sergei Vilkov
News.ru
April 30, 2019

It has been a tradition on the eve of May Day to recall the working class, which in Russia has seemingly been usurped by televised images of the “patriots” and regular blokes who work at the Uralvagonzavod plant in Nizhny Tagil.

Actually, Russia’s workers are a genuine black hole to sociologists. No one had seriously researched their circumstances, sentiments, and views for thirty years.

The first tentative attempts to research today’s Russian industrial laborers have produced a portrait that many had not expected. It transpires that today’s proletarians, at least, the most politically and civically dynamic among them, almost never watch television. They have a sober take on politics. They are immune to state propaganda. They have a relatively relaxed attitude toward migrant workers.

They regard themselves as outside observers in the debates between the regime and the opposition, not finding their own interests reflected in them. They are more likely to feel trampled upon by plant management than by a new law passed in the State Duma.

It is the factory where they fight their battles, which are usually invisible to official statisticians. Most important, according to researchers, they have more in common with early twentieth century social democrats than with current parties who try and speak on behalf of workers. However, the new research leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. News.ru took a look at it.

They Got What They Fought For
According to official data, 26 million people in Russia or over 36% of the able-boded population are employed in industry, transport, agriculture, fishing, and several similar sectors. These figures do not include, for example, the large numbers of people employed in commerce and services. Overall, however, sociologists estimate that workers make up 40% of Russia’s population. They identify them as the largest group in society.

These people dwell on the dark side of Russia’s moon, as it were. It would be hard to say when someone last tried to examine them through an academic lens. However, understanding the nature of Russian society and its largest segments is, perhaps, the most ambitious humanities research project in the country today.

In government reports, Russia’s workers are imagined as a passive, homogeneous milieu that positively exudes tranquility. In 2017, Rosstat, the state statistics service, recorded only one strike, while in the preceding years their official number oscillated between two and five strikes annually.

By comparison, in 2005, according to official data, there were 2,600 strikes in Russia. And yet the following year, Rosstat claimed the number of strikes had decreased by a factor of 325. Since then, according to official statistics, it has remained consistently scanty, despite the economic crises of 2008 and 2014.

However, the Center for Social and Labor Rights, which has monitored the situation on its own, claims there were an average of 240 labor protests between 2008 and 2014. In 2016, when the political opposition was quiet, there were twice as many labor protests, while in the first six months of 2018, the last period for which it has data, the center recorded 122 strikes and acts of civil disobedience. Nearly half of these incidents led to workers downing tools.

Since 2014, a year dominated by an apparent “patriotic” consensus in politics, the number of strikes has increased abruptly due to an upsurge of resistance in provincial cities, including district seats. The largest number of walkouts and protests occurred in industry, especially the machine building and metalworking sectors, which have accounted for 28% of the overall number of strikes. The transport sector has accounted for the same percentage of strikes and protests, despite the fact they have mainly been carried out by employees of private transport companies based in the cities. The construction industry has accounted for 19% of strikes and protests during the period.

The main cause of protests and strikes remains unpaid back wages, which accounted for 60% of incidents. Demands to raise pay were factors in 19–20% of incidents.

The Center for Social and Labor Rights noticed a curious thing. In 2018, the number of spontaneous, unorganized protests by workers rose abruptly by 22%. Trade unions were involved in a mere 17% of all strikes and protests. The experts claim this was partly due to the fact that the Russian hinterlands, where there have been no real trade unions for the last one hundred years, have taken the lead in labor activism, along with sectors dominated by precarious employment.

Shop Floor Intellectuals
Someone has been organizing these strikes and protests, however. It is evident there is a core of energetic progressive activists among Russia’s workers.

On April 22, Alexander Zhelenin gave a lecture at a round table held in the offices of Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Zhelenin is a well-known expert on workplace conflicts, and part of his talk dealt with a research study on the Russian proletariat. In July and September 2018, he and his fellow researchers did a small-scale qualitative sociological research study in Kaluga and Omsk that focused on the self-identification and sociopolitical views of workers.

A total of twenty-three people were interviewed. The small sample was offset by a thorough probing, through in-depth interviews, of the respondents’ attitudes and views, which are never revealed by run-of-the-mill public opinion polls. The workers interviewed by the sociologists were somehow connected to independent trade unions, which had, apparently, supported the research study. However, in the main, the interviewees were not politically engaged: only one of them was a member of a political organization.

We should also not forget it is usually the most energetic people who agree to be interviewed for ordinary official public opinion polls, which affects their outcomes.

In Kaluga, the respondents worked in the food industry and the new auto assembly plants, while in Omsk, they were employed at old Soviet military-industrial complex plants. They ranged in age from twenty to fifty, and included women and men. They were quite well-paid technicians who were proud of their contributions to society. On the other hand, they had a constant sense of their status as subordinates. They tended to strongly associate themselves with their workplaces. Family “labor dynasties” were a possible factor in their outlooks.

Most of the workers interviewed at the auto plants had been abroad one or more times, and this partly had to do with Volkswagen’s work exchange programs. One of the things they had learned on these trips was independent trade unions were ordinary, valuable organizations.

On the contrary, a foreign-travel passport was a rarity among the workers of the old defense plants, and yet both groups of workers tended to spend their holidays on the Black Sea coast. Some respondents in Omsk said they had never seen the sea or had seen it in early childhood.

Mortgages were the main financial obstacles to holidays away from home. Financially, the skilled workers felt they were members of the so-called middle class. In terms of standards of living in their regions, however, they noticed the gap between the more affluent segment of the populace and themselves. Thus, they had a keen sense of the difference in life chances for their children and the children of rich families, talking about it with great indignation.

Pavel Kudyukin, ex-minister of labor and employment and a lecturer in public administration at the Higher School of Economics, commented on the growing social segregation in Russia.

“It comes to the fore when talk turns to children’s futures. It is an aspect that will become more acute, because we are moving from segregation to social apartheid. I think it will facilitate [grassroots] civic activism,” he said.

The authors of the report did not hide their amazement at the fact that the respondents were quite well-educated, intelligent people. Nearly a third of them had a higher education or an uncompleted university degree. Many of them pointed out it was ordinary to find university-educated workers on the shop floor.

Tellingly, a man from Kaluga, identified as Anatoly, who did not finish his university degree, and whose outward appearance (a bespectacled intellectual), cultivated manner of speaking, and hobbies (music and organizing non-profit music festivals) gave the researchers the impression he was a local intellectual, although he said he had been employed as a skilled laborer for over eleven years. Like some other respondents, Anatoly noted he had become a laborer because life had worked out that way and he had to earn money. Industry was the only place where it was possible to earn a more or less decent wage, the study noted.

They Have Their Own Values
And yet 74% of of the respondents unambiguously identified themselves as workers, stressing their difference from other groups in society and their direct involvement in production. The remaining 26% preferred to call themselves “employees” and supported the notion of so-called social partnerships with management. However, despite their decent standard of life, it followed from the interviews that the workers believed they occupied one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. This had to do with their palpably subordinate positions at work and the lack of prestige in their occupations. This circumstance was painfully apparent in the tension between blue-collar and white-collar workers at one plant, a tension exacerbated by the arrogance of the latter towards the former.

The workers were very annoyed by the fact that, as Sergei, a grinder who was involved in the Omsk focus group, said, “In terms of wages and education, the blue-collar workers often outperform the office workers, but the latter still treat them as inferiors.”

In Omsk, for example, the wages of workers fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000 rubles a month, but workers at some defense plants could earn up to 70,000 or 80,000 rubles a month. However, according to the same interviewee, the well-paid jobs were “inherited.”

Besides, he said, to earn such a wage, one virtually had to live at the factory, working twelve hours a day and enjoying only one day off a week, something not all workers would do. Meanwhile, office workers at the same plant could earn only 20,000 rubles a month, but they treated the workers “as if they were above [them],” said Sergei.

“A really interesting thing is the split in self-identification as workers and members of the middle class,” said Kudyukin. “It clearly manifests the pressure exerted in society by hegemonic views. It is like what Marx wrote: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.’ Since the notion of the middle class is constantly in the air, people give no thought to the fact that it’s a sociological fiction. People realize they are workers. They work on an assembly line or operate a machine. Yet in terms of income they identify themselves as middle class in the sense that they are neither rich nor poor. Maybe this has to do with the notion that the middle class is formally defined by income.”

“Russia is a quite highly stratified country, and it is constantly becoming more stratified,” explained Gregory Yudin, a professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “It’s not a matter of income gaps, but of what these people say: the sense of symbolic superiority in cases where there is no income gap. When this sense takes root at a particular factory, what happens is quite predictable. In this sense, Marx was more or less right.”

Speaking about their place in production, the workers voiced the opinion their plants could run without managers, but without them the shop floors would grind to a halt. However, they sensed the arrogant attitude towards manual labor that had emerged in other parts of society. They realized that, from this perspective, their status was not considered prestigious at all. The factory laborers responded by opposing the values of their milieu to “other” values, saying that nowadays the chic thing to do was to steal and mooch, to make lots of money for doing nothing.

“I think this is an ordinary means of compensation, a psychological defense mechanism. We are considered impoverished in some way, whereas in fact we are the salt of the earth, and everything would grind to a halt without us. Their sentiments are quite justified. Despite the importance of managerial work, if you got rid of the management staff, the shop floor would function all the same. But if the workers suddenly disappeared, the plant would shut down,” said Kudyukin.

The research study showed the respondents perceived Russian politics as an established system that ignored their interests. This applied not only to the government but also to the opposition. Nearly half of the respondents consciously refrained from voting. By comparison, during the last presidential election, in March 2018, the Central Electoral Commission reported that 32.5% of registered voters did not vote.

Some of the respondents voted for the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation), A Just Russia, and LDPR [Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party], although they noted these parties were entangled in establishment and supported workers’ interests more in words than in actual deeds. They were not a serious opposition.

What they had to say on the matter was telling.

“I have little trust in politicos and parties. I have more faith in the people here, the people with whom I work, the people I know. Here, at the local level, there are decent people among the members of different [political] movements. But the leadership is usually a bloody shambles,” said Sergei, 35, a grinder at the Aggregate Plant in Omsk.

“There are currently no parties that would defend workers’ interests. We need to create such a party,” said Sergei, who works at the Volkswagen plant in Kaluga.

Volodya, who also works at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was likewise certain such parties did not exist.

“All of them are against us [workers]. They represent business and big money, even the CPRF and A Just Russia. Those parties just use the ‘movements’ to score political points. They have great jobs. United Russia try and pass bad laws. They have the majority in the Duma, so [the three other parties represented there] can pretend to oppose them, since the bad laws will be passed all the same,” he said.

He quoted Mark Twain.

“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”

The federal government was a source of considerable irritation to the workers, especially in connection with the pension reform.

Roman, a 45-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was the only respondent in either city who said he had always voted for Putin and United Russia, but since the pension reform had passed, he was severely disenchanted and was more inclined to vote for the CPRF.

Vladislav, a 28-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, had a confession to make despite the fact he had never voted.

“I was never opposed to Putin. But I did not believe to the last that he would say yes to this cannibalistic reform,” he said.

“Their statements jibe with what we see in other studies,” said Yudin. “People are depoliticized, yes. They distrust the system profoundly. This distrust grew even deeper last year. It’s a typical Russian scenario, and I am not entirely certain it has something specifically to do with workers. It typifies many segments of the populace. People who espouse this worldview serve as the base for different populist projects.”

Researchers describe their views as a contradictory mix of spontaneous anarchism and paternalistic expectations from the state. They would like to see the state solving society’s problems and intervening in the economy to raise wages, create jobs, and distribute incomes more fairly.

Igor, a worker from Omsk, had a typical view of the matter.

“The government should definitely solve these issues if workers have hired them to serve the people. When are they going to handle all of this if they work six and seven days a week? They just don’t have the time to deal with their own improvement [sic],” he said.

However, their political beliefs were more leftist and democratic than conservative and reactionary, even when it came to ethnic, religious and gender issues.

“The workers with whom we spoke, irrespective of whether they believed in God, wanted to lived in a secular state, while hoping the Russian Orthodox Church would be behave more modestly when it came to secular issues and would be less politicized. The views of workers on gender roles, the place of women in families, society, and the state were generally quite democratic. In terms of their worldviews, the workers had more in common with classic leftists than with a good number of current leftist parties and movements in Russia,” write the study’s authors.

Cool Heads
The researchers claim the workers they surveyed were clearly not victims of government propaganda. Their attitude towards Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria was generally very restrained, if not sharply negative. Many of them argued that Russia’s foreign policy, as defined by the country’s leadership, had nothing to with their interests and was even capable of harming them. They also had a skeptical attitude to the promotion of great-power patriotism, seeing it as a means of distracting working people from real problems. But while they openly voiced their attitudes to foreign policy, the workers were cautious about discussing it, emphasizing a lack of information on the subject.

Many of them said society was not told everything.

To the surprise of the sociologists, most of the interviewees (78%) identified the internet as their main source of information, despite the fact they were asked about this part of their lives in a way that mentioned television and newspapers first, while the internet was among the information sources listed last.

By comparison, in March 2018, Levada Center published a poll claiming 85% of Russians got most of their information by watching television; moreover, 72% of respondents preferred watching state-controlled Channel One. On the contrary, only five of the workers (22% of the focus group) watched news and political programs on television. They regarded what they saw on television quite skeptically, trying to detect the influence of certain third-party interests.

They had a rather low opinion of the state of the nation.

“Lately, I’ve been ashamed of my people,” said Roman, a worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga.

Another worker, Vladimir, countered Roman.

“To stop feeling ashamed of your nation, just don’t identify yourself with it. Russia, the people, and the nation are illusions that have been pounded into our heads. There is just the earth and the people who live on it. The people who lived before us dreamed up border: here is Russia, there is Ukraine, here is America. In fact, we are all people. If you look at things from this standpoint, everything falls into place. For example, I don’t acknowledge the existence of national Olympic squads. My world is the people I know. When they say, “Our guys are playing football,” I think of “our guys” as my neighbors, workmates, family members, and the clerks at the shop. I could not care less what is going on in Syria and Donbas,” said Vladimir.

The researchers got rather unexpected and ambivalent results when they asked the workers about their attitudes towards migrant workers. In July 2018, Levada Center reported that 67% of Russians regarded them negatively. It is such sentiments that currently fuel nationalism and xenophobia. Among the workers in the survey, however, the intensity of these sentiments was considerably lower.

The different focus groups were split in their opinions of migrant laborers.

“Why hide it? I have a positive attitude toward them, because they are former brothers [within the Soviet Union]. We have the same troubles as they do. They get paid under the table, and so do we. And sometimes they are not paid at all,” said Mikhail, a 55-year-old freight handler.

“I tend to believe we need to create jobs for our own people first, and only then can we create jobs for migrants. As a worker, I consider them competitors, but as a human being I have no problems with them. On the other hand, how do we employ Russians if no Russians want to work as janitors?” said Svyatoslav, a truck driver at the Volkswagen plant.

Ultimately, 45% of the respondents took anti-migrant worker stances. In Omsk, the breakdown between migrantophobes and internationalists was six to four. In Kaluga, on the other hand, where the focus groups and in-depth interviews were dominated by workers from modern, foreign-owned production facilities, there were seven internationalists, as opposed to three migrantophobes.

The study’s authors argue the discrepancies are due to the different types of industry in the two cities, contrasting the workers from the old Soviet defense plants with the employees of foreign companies. However, we would be remiss not to note the relatively low level of nationalism in all the groups surveyed.

“In our view, this is because the workers have closer and more frequent contacts with migrant workers, and thus have more personal experience with them, something that always shatters stereotypes. It is yet another testimony to the fact that the dominant media coverage in Russia has less impact on the views of workers,” argue the study’s authors.

As for attitudes towards religion, twelve of the twenty-three respondents identified themselves as believers, while eleven identified themselves as atheists or agnostics. Two of the respondents regarded themselves as deeply religious Russian Orthodox believers. However, all the respondents said they wanted to live in a secular country in which the Russian Orthodox Church should have a smaller role in secular issues and politics.

The views of the workers on gender relations and the place of women at home and in society were quite democratic. According to the researchers, nearly all the men agreed women had the right to pursue any career or calling. They would not stop their own wives from getting involving in public life and politics or pursuing a career.

However, they regarded female politicians in the State Duma quite skeptically, since they did not see them as politicians who hailed from the grassroots. The respondents named German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović as positive examples of women involved in politics.

At the same time, both of the experts we interviewed, Pavel Kudyukin and Gregory Yudin, agreed the research study had serious methodological flaws. Besides, it gave its readers no sense of the particular life experiences that had prompted the workers to embrace particular outlooks.

Thanks to Alexander Zamyatin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Syrian Breakthrough

kuzminNikolai Kuzmin during his solo picket outside the exhibition The Syrian Breakthrough, in Pskov. His placard reads, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.” Photo by Lyudmila Savitskaya. Courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Yabloko Activist Detained in Pskov at “Syrian Breakthrough” Exhibition
Lyudmila Savitskaya
Radio Svoboda
April 26, 2019

In Pskov, police have detained local Yabloko Party activist Nikolai Kuzmin, who held a solo picket outside an exhibition of military equipment entitled The Syrian Breakthrough. Kuzmin stood behind servicemen queued at the city’s train station to see the exhibition.

He held a placard that read, “Spend budget money on our own schools and hospitals, not on someone else’s war.”

Commenting on his actions, Kuzmin claimed over 25,000 schools had been closed in Russia over the past twenty years. The activist argued that, outside Moscow and Petersburg, it was nearly impossible to get an ambulance, and half of the men in Pskov Region did not live to retirement age.

“As in a dystopia, however, instead of being productive and saving the lives of Russians, we have raised war into a cult that we worship. Lacking reasons to feel proud, we are administered daily injections of patriotism. But patriotism does not mean fighting wars in someone else’s countries. It means building things in your own country and having a critical attitude toward the mania for military victory,” Kuzmin added.

Kuzmin’s picket lasted around ten minutes. During this time, members of the pro-regime organization Team 2018 managed to have their picture taken with him. Kuzmin was then surrounded by military police who asked him to leave. Kuzmin responded by asking them to identify themselves [as required by Russian laws regulating the police] and explain their grounds for wanting to remove him from a public event.

The military policemen were unable to fulfill Kuzmin’s request, so Sergei Surin, head of the Interior Ministry Directorate for Pskov [i.e., the local police chief] came to their aid. He personally detained Kuzmin while repeatedly refusing to explain the grounds for the arrest to Kuzmin and comment on it to reporters who were present.

Lev Schlosberg, leader of the Yabloko Party in Pskov, demanded Kuzmin’s immediate release and the removal from Pskov of The Syrian Breakthrough, which he dubbed a “propaganda scrap heap.”

“Russia must cease military operations in Syria, while government funds should be spent on peaceful goals that further the interests of Russia’s citizens,” Schlosberg said.

In February 2019, the Russian Defense Ministry launched a train containing weapons seized, it claimed, by Russian servicemen during combat in Syria. The train departed Moscow on an itinerary of sixty cities and towns. When it reaches Vladivostok, the train will head back to Moscow. It is scheduled to arrive there on the eve of Victory Day, May 9.

Thanks to Nikolai Boyarshinov for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

“Lie Still, Bitch!”

ammosov-1Anton Ammosov. Courtesy of OVD Info

Beaten, Sacked and Threatened with Torture: The Story of a Man Detained for Posting Comments about the FSB
OVD Info
April 24, 2019

In November 2018, libertarian Anton Ammosov was detained in Yakutsk by FSB officers. The officers beat him in their car and threatened to torture him. Then his home was searched, he was sacked from his job, and his home was searched a second time. Ammosov had warranted this treatment only because he had commented on news stories about the Network case and the suicide bombing at FSB headquarters in Arkhangelsk in October 2018. Ammosov told OVD Info about what happened to him and how his life changed with the FSB’s advent.

I was then still employed as a systems administrator at the Ammosov Northeastern Federal University. My boss telephoned me on the evening of November 20, 2018. He told me I had to go to the personnel department at eight the following morning and bring my [internal] passport with me. I was really surprised, because the personnel department opened at nine. But my boss insisted I had to be there by eight and the matter was urgent.

The next day I arrived at the university at the scheduled time. I was seen by the deputy head of the personnel department. I wondered why he was personally handling the matter. He took my passport and left the office for five minutes. He said he had to make photocopies. He told me some rubbish about problems with the database. I realized he was doing what the FSB told him to do. I heard him talking to someone on the phone, but I did not put two and two together. I spent ten to fifteen minutes in the personnel department.

I went outside, planning to walk to the building where I worked. I had walked only a few meters when I heard a van’s side door opening. Armed, masked men threw me down on the snow.

“Lie still, bitch!” they screamed.

They beat me, cuffed my hands behind my back, and pulled my cap down to my nose. I could not see a thing. I was dragged into the van, which immediately took off.

I was placed in the front row of seats with my knees on the floor. My scarf and the cap pulled down over my face suffocated me. I was beaten on the back, kidneys, and buttocks. I was hit in the head several times, but when I screamed I was officially disabled and had glaucoma, they stopped hitting me in the head.

When I asked why I had been detained, the masked men responded by beating me harder. One of them either sat on my back or pressed it with his knee. He twisted my fingers, trying to unblock my phone, but there was no fingerprint sensor on my smartphone. The man twisted my little fingers. He said he would break them if I did not tell him the password to my telephone. Then he said they would take me straight to the right place for such things and torture me with electrical shocks by hooking me up to a generator. One of the FSB guys quoted what I had written in the comments section of the regional news website ykt.ru.

I had written there that FSB officers were cooking up criminal cases and torturing people with generators. I had written about the Network case. I wrote about the young man who had blown himself up in Arkhangelsk. There was also a news item about the FSB’s having detained someone for a post on the social network VK, and I had published an unflattering comment about them.

We drove for twenty minutes. They beat me the entire way, threatening to torture me with electrical shocks.

ammosov-2FSB headquarters in Yakutsk. Courtesy of Google Maps and OVD Info

The car stopped. They pulled me roughly to my feet and dragged me somewhere. Along the way, they constantly dropped me on the marble floor. I hit my knees on the floor several times. They also made a point of slamming my whole body against door jambs and columns. They joked about how clumsy they were. Every time they dropped me on the floor they told me to get up. When I was unable to get up on my own, they would jerk me to my feet by pulling me up by both arms. The handcuffs dug into my wrists.

I was taken into a room. I could see only the floor and my feet: the caps was pulled over my face the whole time. They stood me beside the wall while they rifled my backpack. They took the cap off and asked about the medications in my backpack. It was then I saw them: five men in sand-colored uniforms and balaclavas. They were strapping and tall, with blue eyes, meaning they were not locals. Apparently, locals are not hired by the FSB in the ethnic republics.

I was asked about the medicine before they pulled the cap back over my eyes. They said they were going to eat meat and when they returned, they would torture by shocking me using a generator. I was really afraid. I did not understand what was happening. I had not yet been told why I was detained.

An FSB field officer wearing no mask came in a while later. I gathered he was an investigator. He asked me about the password to my phone. I was standing next to the wall, the cap pulled over my eyes. I said nothing. I refused to speak to him. He said he would call in the boys in masks. They would “do their number” on me and I would talk whether I wanted or not. It was thus in my interests to give him the password; otherwise, I would  be tortured badly. I cracked and told him the password. The field officer was happy.

My hat was removed and I was sat down in a chair.

“What is happening? Why have you detained me?” I asked him.

“You know why,” the field officer replied. He said they had been watching me for a long time. They had a case file on me. He was glad to meet me in person.

I found out why I had been detained only a few hours earlier.

A major entered the office. He said someone had posted a picture containing threats against the FSB in the comments section of the website ykt.ru. They thought I had done it. I replied I had not done it. There were 20,000 students and 6,000 staff member at the university, and they all had the same IP address. I got the impression the major did not understood much about this stuff. He said the FSB surveilled WhatsApp and Telegram and read everything.

Interrogation
When they unblocked my phone, they asked me what I thought about anarchism, whether I knew Mikhail Zhlobitsky, what I thought about him, and what my political views were. They asked about Telegram and what I had been doing on the chat group Rebel Talk, whether I had been looking for allies there. They asked me what I thought about Putin, Russia, and Navalny.

I had joined the chat group out of curiosity for a day or two. I had learned about it in the news reports about the bombing in Arkhangelsk. I was on it for a while, wrote a bit, left the group, and forgot about. I did not write anything worth mentioning in the chat group.

During the interrogation. I realized I was on lists of theirs. I could have got on the lists due to the speech I gave at an anti-corruption rally in Yakutsk in June 2017.

I was in the FSB office for around eight hours. It was a room three meters by four meters, and it was not heated. I was handcuffed to the chair. I was not provided with legal counsel.

They threatened to shoot me, saying traitors like me should be executed. They were surprised by my ethnicity. They said I was the first Yakut they had detained on such charges. They threatened to leave me in the FSB’s remand prison. The field officer told me he had murdered many people. He asked me to give him an excuse to beat the crap out of me or cripple me.

ammosov-3Remand Prison No. 1 in Yakutia. FSB officers threatened to send Anton Ammosov there. Courtesy of Google Maps and OVD Info 

The masked mem threatened me when they did not like my answers to questions. They had to tell me what they wanted to hear from me. They told me my home would be searched. They would be looking for a bomb or part for making a bomb.

At around five in the evening, I was taken to another office, which had windows. I realized it was evening, because it was dark outside. The state-provided attorney came. I told him I had been beaten and threatened. He could not have cared less. He made no mention of my complaints in the papers that were drawn up. He signed them and left.

I spent approximately twelve hours at FSB headquarters, until nine in the evening. I was not fed, given anything to drink or allowed to make a phone call the entire time.  My wife had no idea what had become of me.

My wife thought I had been hit by a car or died. She called all the morgues. All my relatives searched for me, because I had never disappeared before. My wife was getting ready to go to the police when the FSB agents brought me home. My wife wept when she saw us.

They showed us a document claiming the search was conducted due to my comments on the website. They did not let us photograph the search warrant, which had been issued by a court only at five in the afternoon te same day, meaning after they detained me.

The search took two hours. They confiscated two desktop computers, my work laptop, flash drives, hard drives, a router, and telephones. They told me to buy a new telephone and SIM card right away and report to FSB headquarters at one o’clock the next day.

I was told they wanted to charge me with vindicating terrorism because I had written “Well done, kid” under a news report about the bombing in Arkhangelsk.

They found out about the comment because of what I told them during the interrogation. I had thought the whole affair had kicked off due to the remark, but it later transpired they did not know about it.

My posts on Telegram and comments to news reports were sent off for a forensic examination by linguists.

I fell asleep that day only towards morning. I did not eat at all for the next three days: I had no appetite. I went to FSB headquarters as if I were going to work. I was summoned nearly every day.

They asked me again about my political views and what anarchism was. I replied I did not support anarchism. I identified myself as a libertarian, but not a radical one. I believed the state was a necessity, but not a state like the one we had in Russia.

I was also asked about Navalny. I said I supported him.

The Beating
Because I was summoned to the FSB, I was not able to have my injuries from the beating medically certified. I made it to the emergency room only on November 23. The medics refused to document my injuries when I told him FSB officers had beaten me. They kicked me out of the emergency room, telling me they did not need any trouble. They suggested I go to the medical examiner’s office.

When I came to the medical examiner’s office, they initially agreed to document my injuries, but when they found out who had injured me, they kicked me out of the surgery and demanded a reference from the Russian Investigative Committee.

The lawyer whom my mom helped me find after what happened at the FSB suggested I go to an outpatient clinic and have my injuries documented there, but without telling them who injured me. Otherwise, they would turn me down, too. That was just what I did.

The GP, a woman, documented I had been beaten all over, suffering soft-tissue bruises on the back, the buttocks, and both knee joints. It was not certain whether my kidneys had been injured. An eye doctor prescribed drops. In the summer of 2018, I had glaucoma implant surgery. After I was beaten in the van, not allowed to put drops in my eyes at the FSB, and stood hunched over, which I am definitely not supposed to do, I had poor vision in my sick eye.

Sacking
A few days later. I learned that. on November 21, the day I was detained, FSB officers had come to my workplace at the university around two in the afternoon. They confiscated my two desktop computers and all the laptops in the office, despite the fact they were not mine. They also took three printers, one of which was out of order, routers, flash drives, and notebooks.

The videotape from university surveillance cameras showing the FSB abducting me also vanished from the university.

On December 29, university rector Yevgenia Isayevnva Mikhaylova summoned me to her office.

She asked what happened, why security services officers had come after me, and inquired about my political views. She then said I should write a resignation letter. I told here I did not want to do it. She replied it was people like me who undermined the university’s image. She disparaged Navalny every which way to Sunday. She said Putin was the best president and he should reign forever.

That is verbatim.

After I refused to resign voluntarily, Mikhaylova said she had to react to events so the FSB would see she had punished me. She suggested I quit for a while. Then she would rehire me and transfer me to a new department. I would not have minded such a transfer, by the way, but I did not trust her, of course.

ammosov-4Ammosov Northeastern Federal University. Courtesy of Google Maps and OVD Info 

When I came back to work after the New Year holidays, I learned by chance a few days later that I had been sacked in late December. A colleague had access to the university’s 1C Database. It said there I had turned in my resignation letter on December 29, that is, the day after my meeting with the rector. But that was not true.

The folks in the personnel department twisted every which way in the wind. They said I had been sacked in order to transfer me to another position. They suggested I sign a resignation letter and backdate it. I refused to do this. But then the head of the personnel department told me the FSB had called. She thought it had been a signal to sack me. It was clear, however, she had not made to decision to sack me. The rector had told her to do it.

When I told the FSB officer handling my case I was being sacked, he said he would phone the university and find out what the problem was. Subsequently, I was transferred to another department.

There I was assigned work that did not fit my specialization: I was supposed to do paperwork. I was transferred to a job I was unable to do. I was put in the coldest corner of the room and given an old computer.

I resigned two weeks later. I realized that was the whole point. Subsequently, I got a job at a technical creativity center, where I now teach robotics to children. After the new year, the FSB ceased summoning me to interrogations.

The Second Search
At six in the morning on April 2, regular police and Investigative Committee officers rang our doorbell, demanding we open it. The security forces offices showed us a search warrant issued by the Basmanny District Court in Moscow. The search’s ostensible purpose was to confiscate electronic devices that could contain correspondence with Zhlobitsky. I was an official witness in the case.

I was told I had been corresponding with Zhlobitsky on VK under the pseudonym Pyotr Vasilyev or Vasily Petrov. However, I had not been registered on VK for many years. The accusation was thus utter rubbish.

During the search, the authorities confiscated two desktop computers, a flash drive, a hard drive, and two telephones. I was then taken to the Investigative Committee for an interrogation. I was again questioned about Zhlobitsky.

A few days later, I got another phone call from the FSB field agent. He chewed me out. He said I had concealed the Investigative Committee’s visit from him. He told me I had not been sincere with the FSB. He threatened to put me on a list of politically unreliable citizens. I would be banned from employment in the state sector and sacked from my current job.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Court-Martial Putin!”

citizen putin van

“Citizen Putin! Don’t reduce Russia to Syria: don’t run for president anymore. We are going to have deal with fixing the consequences of your rule for years as it is.” Dmitry Skurikhin embossed this slogan on his van in early 2015—presciently, before the Kremlin sent its military to defend the Assad regime later the same year. Photo courtesy of Novy Krasnosel

Yevgenia Litvinova
Facebook
April 25, 2019

[The following was dispatched by Open Russia.]

In Petersburg, an Open Russia activist was detained at a courthouse and taken to a police station for wearing a patch on his jacket that read “Court-Martial Putin.”

Businessman and civic activist Dmitry Skurikhin was detained at the St. Petersburg City Court. He was at the courthouse to attend a hearing appealing a three-day jail sentence for his involvement in the Angry Mothers March.

Police detained Skurikhin because of the phrase “Court-martial Putin,” embroidered on his blazer. Bailiffs stopped him at the entrance to the court and hit the alarm button, summoning a squad of armed policemen to the courthouse. Skurikhin was taken to the 29th Police Precinct, where police attempted to make him explain his “unauthorized picket” at the courthouse.

After discussing the matter with the police, Skurikhin was released. He went to the courthouse, where he was allowed inside without hindrance. But the hearing in his case, scheduled for one o’clock, had already adjourned. The case had been heard in his absence. Skurikhin has filed a complaint with the court’s chairman on this point.

A businessman from Leningrad Region and father of five children, Skurikhin has gained notoriety for the political posters he puts up in one of his stores, posters inspired by current events. Local police have tried on several occasions to fine Skurikhin for the alleged misdemeanor of “placing announcements in an inappropriate place.” Skurikhin has, however, been acquitted by courts on each occasion.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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.

_______________________________________________

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.

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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.