Yuri Shchekochikhin to Vladimir Putin, March 25, 2002

shchekochikhinYuri Shchekochikhin (June 9, 1950–July 3, 2003)

Oleg Pshenichny
Facebook
June 19, 2018

A letter from Yuri Shchekochikhin to Vladimir Putin. Thanks to Dmitry Nosachev for the heads-up.

I heard with my own ears how arrogantly young journalists then spoke of him. They claimed he was paranoid. They claimed he was obsessed with the mafia and the KGB’s machinations. They all but called him a clown. I won’t point fingers. There is no need.

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March 25, 2002

To: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, President of the Russian Federation

Dear Vladimir Vladimirovich,

I was extremely surprised that, at a time when the whole world has been busy fighting terrorism, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has been busy with little old me, thus violating Article [98] of the Russian Federal Constitution, which guarantees the immunity of State Duma members.

You will remember the Three Whales Scandal, I hope. It was a big surprise to me that, after the hearing of the State Duma’s Security Committee and my article in Novaya Gazeta on the subject, Pavel Zaytsev, the special investigator who had been handling this criminal case, was summoned for questioning by the FSB—not to find out the truth about how the mafia was organized, but only because of me, deputy chair of the State Duma’s Security Committee and a member of its Commission on Combating High-Level Corruption in Government.

I would not have attached much importance to the incident were it not for one circumstance.

Several years ago, Vyacheslav Zharko, a junior field agent in the St. Petersburg Tax Police, gave me documents showing that ships were entering the Russian Navy’s bases in Lebyazhy and Lomonosov[] without being inspected by customs and border control.

There were several signatures on the documents authorizing this financial escapade, including that of the then Deputy Prime Minister [Oleg] Soskovets and yours, Vladimir Vladimirovich.

[Mikhail] Katyshev, who at the time was the First Deputy Prosecutor General, gave orders to open a criminal case and set up an operational investigative group in the Prosecutor General’s Office after reading the documents submitted by Zharko.

It was this criminal case that led to the arrest of Dmitry Rozhdestvensky, head of Russian Video. Unfortunately, however, due to political motives, the investigative team, led by [Vladimir] Lyseiko, dealt only with the embezzlement of funds by Media Most, “forgetting” about the evidence relating to Russian Video’s Marine Department.

During the investigation of this criminal case, I had to fly to St. Petersburg on several occasions to arrange for Zharko’s protection and security, since his life was in real danger. [Georgy] Poltavchenko, then head of the St. Petersburg Tax Police, and [Viktor] Cherkesov, then head of the FSB’s Petersburg office, were simply afraid to help the young field agent in investigating the high-profile criminal case. I was quite surprised it was Zharko who was summoned from St. Petersburg to handle the arrest of [Vladimir] Gusinsky.

I don’t want to bother you with the details of the criminal case, although I imagine you are familiar with them. It is a different matter that concerns me. In December 2001, Zharko, who had transferred from the Tax Police to the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) of the Russian Defense Ministry, was detained at Sheremetyevo 1 Airport on trumped-up charges of using a counterfeit passport and illegally crossing the border, put under arrest at the behest of the Deputy Prosecutor General, and remanded in custody to Lefortovo Prison. The arrest, especially an arrest sanctioned by such a top-ranking official, on charges of committing a crime that carries a punishment of up to two years in prison, and the subsequent change in his pretrial status, as ordered by Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov, would seem incredible were it not for one circumstance. While Zharko was jailed in Lefortovo Remand Prison, FSB field agents tried to “crack” [kololi] him (I use the word “crack” deliberately) while figuring out whether he had in his possession documents bearing your signature and relating to the criminal case. What especially angered me was that the officers attempted to force Zharko to confess that he and I were mixed up with Boris Berezovsky. During their conversations, it was said that I received $50,000 a month from Berezovsky, part of which I gave to Zharko, who in turn gave some to Mikhail Katyshev.

Vladimir Vladimorovich, I have spoken with Berezovsky once and only once in my life. It was in the State Duma building. It just happened.

Most important, however, I don’t like it that I, deputy chair of a State Duma committee, have been targeted by the FSB. I don’t like it that my phones have been bugged and that someone has been trying hard to find means to discredit me.

Vladimir Vladimirovich, I don’t think this letter will end up in your hands. I once sent you a letter about Mr. [Nazir] Khapsirokov, one of the most notorious characters investigated by the Commission on Combating Corruption, during the last sitting of the State Duma. It was when he was appointed deputy head of your administration. In that letter, I wrote to you that you wanted to put together a team while a pack of dogs was circling you. After receiving a reply from a clerk in your administration, I realized the pack had encircled you once and for all, and that it was stronger than the team. Therefore, I am sending a copy this letter to the chair of the State Duma and the head of the Yabloko Party faction in the State Duma, of which I am a member.

Respectfully,

Yuri P. Shchekochikin
Deputy Chair, State Duma Security Committee
Member, State Duma Commission on Combating High-Level Corruption in Government
Member, State Duma (Yabloko Party Faction)

It is widely believed Mr. Shchekochikhin was poisoned to death. Thanks to Sergey Abashin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Pinterest

La Belle Vie

Стадион_Mordovia_arenaMordovia Arena in Saransk, one of the venues of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Miracles of OSINT
Telegram
June 6, 2018

You would like to attend World Cup matches, but you have no money? Take a cue from Russian officials and employees of Russian state-owned companies. You will be footing the bill for their tickets.

The Mordovia Mortgage Corporation, a state-owned company, has spent 750,000 rubles [approx. 10,000 euros] on 100 tickets for the matches taking place in Saransk. What about helping people in the queue to improve their living conditions? Are you kidding? What about the epic battle between Peru and Denmark?

The Russian Foreign Ministry’s Main Office for Servicing the Diplomatic Corps has purchased 58 tickets for a total of 1.3 million rubles [approx. 18,000 euros], including 18 tickets to the semifinals. Do you know who the Foreign Ministry purchased the tickets for, according to the Public Procurement Website? For the Moscow Country Club, run by the ministry.

The Sports Training Center in Kratovo, in Moscow Region, decided not to limit themselves to a single city. They have spent 260,000 rubles [approx. 3,500 euros] on tickets to matches in Moscow, Kazan, and St. Petersburg. They have bought from two to four tickets to every match, so they probably won’t be doling them out to talented kiddies, but to the folks who run the center, all the more so because the training center in Kratovo specializes in training the Russian national badminton squad.

But you watch the matches on TV and be glad that, while foreigners are flooding Russia, the local authorities won’t turn off your hot water.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Popular” (Who Will Foot the Bill for the 2018 FIFA World Cup?)

zenit arena-3The Zenit Arena in Petersburg is the most expensive football stadium in history. And one of the ugliest. Photo by the Russian Reader

Mega events like the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Football Cup are held in Russia not for compelling or eve merely sound economic reasons, but to satisfy the destructive, overwhelming vanity of the country’s president for life and his clique of gangster-cum-satraps.

Do you think ordinary Russians are unaware of this? If they are aware of it, maybe the current Russian regime isn’t nearly as “popular” as the press and Russia’s troika of loyalist pollsters (Levada, FOM, VTsIOM) would have us believe?

Why would a regime so remarkably bad at the basics of governance be “popular”? Because Russians are less intelligent than other people?

Or is it because the current regime has treated them from day one like inhabitants of foreign country it has recently occupied by brute fore? // TRR

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The initial plan had been that as of 2019 each region would be responsible for its own arenas. But local authorities estimate that this would create costs of 200 million to 500 million rubles (€2.6 -6.5 million/$3.2-8 million) — a tremendous financial burden for seven of the cities hosting World Cup matches.

Several do not even have teams that play in Russia’s top football division. The most successful squads in Volgograd, Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod and Samara play in the country’s second tier. This season, home games in those regions drew just 1,000 to 5,000 spectators. Saransk’s team plays in the third division; Sochi does not even have a professional squad. So generating sufficient money through ticket sales will prove challenging at best.

And even the more-elite clubs Yekaterinburg and Rostov, which respectively attract some 4,500 and 9,000 fans per match, will struggle to generate enough income to cover the hefty running costs of their huge football stadiums.

Kemerovo

_100582490_kemslogansreutThe placards read, “How many victims really?”, “Who is really guilty?” and “What’s the cost of you turning a blind eye?” Photo courtesy of BBC and Reuters

Darya Apahonchich
Facebook
March 25, 2018

The fire in Kemerovo. The official death toll is currently thirty-seven people. It is a two minutes’ walk from my old school. Maybe my acquaintances, people with whom I went to school or grew up, were there. The authorities have been lying about the number of dead, because the golden rule in Kuzbass is bad news must be kept to a minimum. The authorities will now play for time, but they are not about to tell the whole truth about what happened. The governor, who has become fused to his post, holding power longer than Putin, did not even put in an appearance at the emergency command center.

I scroll through my news feed and all I can feel is horror and anger. Children, adults, and animals from the petting zoo perished because someone permitted such a dangerous building to be erected, become someone permitted it to be operated without a proper firefighting system, because “It’ll do as it is,” because someone wanted to skimp on teaching employees what to do in an emergency, because, because, because.

Ten years ago or so, I worked at a kindergarten. Smoke appeared in the building during nap time. We evacuated two hundred sleepy children. It was winter. We donned their winter clothes over their pajamas and made a run for it. No one was injured, and the building was quickly aired out.

It transpired it was not the first time the kindergarten had problems with smokiness, because the Russian government had obliged all kindergartens to install new defective fuse boxes, due to the system of kickbacks prevailing in public procurements. The fuse boxes smoked like dragons, but everyone kept mum, because there was nothing one could do about it.

So now I read about Kemerovo and recognize my homeland, where human life has no worth, and anger leaves us speechless.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Russia Set to Fall Further Behind US in Terms of Living Standards

DSCN2995“Change Yourself for the Better.” If you read the following article, about the OECD’s forecast for economic growth in Russia, between the lines, you will discover a takeaway message that has been apparent to numerous observers for a long time. Until Russia does away with official kleptocracy, rampant corruption, outrageously bad governance, and the shock-and-awe policing of politics and business by the siloviki—i.e., unless it renounces Putinism and all its ways—there is little chance the living standards of ordinary Russians will improve much in the next forty years. Photo by the Russian Reader

Russia Set to Fall Further Behind US in Terms of Living Standards
OECD’s Experts Have Predicted the Futures of the World’s Major Economies
Tatyana Lomskaya
Vedomosti
March 7, 2018

Russia is one of the few member states and parters of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in which real per capita GDP will fall by 2060 relative to the benchmark, the United States, according to an OECD reported entitled “Long-Term Prospects: Scenarios for the World Economy, 2060.” Vedomosti has had access to the eport. A source at the OECD confirmed its authenticity while noting it was a preliminary draft.

In the absence of reforms, Russia’s per capita GDP will grow only 0.7% in the next twelve years, predict OECD economists. The stumbling block is low workforce productivity. In recent years, it has not increased at all, and it will accelerate to a mere 0.5% in the period 2018–2030. Another brake on economic growth is poor demography: the economically active and able-bodied segment of the populace has been declining. By way of comparison, due to its positive demographic circumstances, Turkey’s standard of living will increase considerably by 2060 to about three fourths of the figures for the US, write the report’s authors.  In Russia, it will increase to 40% of the benchmark before decreasing slightly.

It is hard not concur with the diagnosis, notes Alexander Isakov, VTB Capital’s chief economist for Russia. Demography and workforce productivity are the biggest constraints on economic growth in Russia.

In his March 1, 2018, address to the Federal Assembly, President Putin promised to increase per capita GDP by 50% by 2025. He said = Russia must firmly gain a foothold among the world’s top five economies by then. Putin meant GDP at purchasing power parity (PPP), Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin explained on the TV program Pozner. According to the IMF, Russia is now in sixth place in terms of GDP (PPP), four percent points behind Germany. The goal is to “bypass Germany,” explained the minister.

The goal can be brought within reach by applying active budgetary (e.g., tax cuts and increases in oil and gas costs) and monetary (e.g., lending) stimuli, says Kirill Tremasov, director of the analytics department at Locko Invest, but this is fraught with great risks.

Without reforms, Russian and the other BRICS countries will slow the growth of the world’s real GDP for forty years beginning in 2019, warn the report’s authors. To accelerate growth, they must increase workforce productivity by reforming governance, increasing the duration of schooling, and reducing trade tariffs.

If during the period 2020–2060, the BRICS countries develop the rule of law (which the World Bank evaluates on a scale from minus two to plus two), increase schooling to the median level of the OECD countries, and decrease trade tariffs to OECD median levels by 2030, the growth of per capita GDP will be 25% to 40% higher than in the baseline scenario. A key factor is governance reforms: combating corruption, improving law enforcement and the judiciary, increasing the efficiency of the civil service, and involving ordinary citizens more actively in politics.

The report notes this is especially important for Russia. Among the BRICS countries, Russia has the worst score for rule of law (-0.8) and the best score for average length of schooling (10.8 years). The Russian civil service has been adapted to the current political system, which assumes maximum centralization and the absence of political competition. Tremasov is skeptical: it is impossible and pointless to reform the civil service without democratizing the political system.

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“How Living Standards Will Change: The OECD’s Baseline Scenario. Real Per Capita GDP at Purchasing Power Parity in 2010 Prices (US=100).” The blue horizontal lines represent predicted outcomes for 2018; the red lines, predicted figures for 2060. The countries included in the survey, as  listed from top to bottom, are Brazil, Russia, Turkey, Poland, Italy, France, Great Britain, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, and Ireland. Source: Preliminary Calculations from the OECD. Courtesy of Vedomosti

In his May 2012 decrees, Putin charged the government with increasing workforce productivity by one and a half times by 2018, but it had increased only by 3.8% as of 2016. Minister Oreshkin listed the obstacles: underinvestment, insufficiently developed infrastructure, and a lack of resources to upgrade productive assets.

Managers do not have a “culture of constantly improving efficiency and productivity,” he complained.

Workforce productivity is indeed the main obstacle to economic growth, but an increase of investments is needed in order to increase it, notes Natalya Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank. In 2017, about 50% of the increased investments in Russia were due to the extractive resources sector, although the bulk of GDP is generated in other sectors, says Orlova. Investments in agriculture grew by a mere 1.3%, fell in manufacturing and construction, and the commercial sector crashed altogther, falling 9.7%. Investment growth has been hindered by economic and geopolitical uncertainty, and the government has an ever harder time of reducing that uncertaintlywith sanctions in place, notes Orlova. Business, on the contrary, needs guarantees the rules of the game will not change for a long time.

Growth in productivity is impossible without increased competition, Tremasov points out. It is competition that compels companies to introduce new technology, reduce costs, and improve management. The more intense the competition in a sector, the higher the productivity, he notes, citing the retail trade and metallurgy as examples. Therefore, the main means of increasing economic efficiency is reducing the state’s share in the economy, argues Tremasov, as well as attracting foreign investors, reforming the judiciary, and reining in the security services [siloviki].

Measures to improve the country’s demographic circumstances will bear fruit in twenty-five years, when the corresponding generation enters the labor market, notes Isakov. The authorities should thus concentrate on increasing productivity.  If the market functions smoothly, the difference in productivity between companies in the same industry decreases, he argues, because they borrow technology and methods from each other, while inefficient companies are forced out of the market. In Russia, on the contrary, differences in productivity within industries are some of the highest in the world, due in part to gray sector employment practices, Isakov concludes.

Economic growth could take off if reforms are implemented, argues Orlova. The Russian economy is currently so inefficient that the jumpstart supplied by reforms would be huge.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“Rate This Translation”

I didn’t ask for the wildly inaccurate translation, screenshotted below. It just showed up on my Facebook newsfeed from RBC as is, yet inadvertently hinting at the real state of affairs in the Kingdom of Denmark.

I wonder how Google Pixel Buds are going to do anything but confuse the hell out of the people who wear them if their translations are similarly brilliant.

Believe me, only trained, experienced human interpreters and translators are capable of making sense out of nonsense.

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This Is Russia

DSCN0810

“This is Russia. This is the Russia that Americans are so scared of.”

In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galeria Shopping Center, located in downtown Petersburg. It’s gigantic, covering the land once occupied by five or six graceful tenement buildings and a cultural center and cinema. They were demolished in the mid 1990s, not to make way for the shopping mall, but so a new train station could be built there, jeek by jowl with the existing Moscow Station, because federal and regional officials wanted to build a high-speed train line between Petersburg and Moscow. Millions of dollars were allocated for the project, but ultimately, the train line was never built nor was the new station erected. No one knows what happened to the millions of dollars allocated for the project. They simply vanished into thin air.

The site of the former-future high-speed train station sat vacant for many years behind a tall, ugly construction-site fence. No one could figure out what do to with all that wasteland, which was in the very heart of the city, not in some forgotten outskirts. However, before the money had vanished, and the project was abandoned, construction workers had managed not only to demolish all the tenement buildings on the site but had also dug a foundation pit. Over the long years, this pit filled up with water. Some time after Google Maps had become all the rage, I took a look at our neighborhood via satellite, as it were, and discovered to my great surprise it now had a small lake in it. It was the foundation pit of the former-future high-speed train station, filled to the brim with water.

Good times came to Petersburg in the 2000s, when the country was flush with cash, generated by high oil prices, a flat tax rate of 13%, and runaway corruption. It was then the city’s mothers and fathers (I’m not being ironic: most of Petersburg’s “revival” was presided over by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Youth League functionary who had converted to the gospel of what she herself called “aggressive development”) decided that Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful, haunting, enchanting cities, should be extensively redeveloped, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a mecca of consumerism that would give pride of place to cars and new highways, since cars had become the new status symbol among the city’s rich and poor alike. They also decided that, since other big cities in the world had lots of high-rise buildings, their city, which did not have almost any high-rise buildings, should have lots of them, too.

Basically, they decided to demolish as much of the inner and outer city as they could get away with—and they could get away with a lot, because they had nearly unlimited political power and lots of the country’s money at their disposal—and redevelop it with high-rise apartment buildings, superhighways, big box stores, and shopping and entertainment centers, each one uglier and bigger than the last. Thanks to their efforts, in a mere fifteen years or so they have gone a long way toward turning a Unesco World Heritage Site into an impossible, unsightly mess.

But let’s get back to our miniature inner-city lake. Finally, developers came up with a plan to convert the site into a giant shopping mall. Even better, the architects who designed the mall were clearly inspired by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect and a leading Nazi Party member, to turn a rather oversized mall into a celebration of kitsch faux-neoclassicism, precisely the sort of thing Speer had championed in his projects. This, indeed, was a bit ironic, because Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, had survived a 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. Considered the longest and most destructive siege in history, it killed at least 800,000 civilians, that is, it killed the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the people who now enjoy visiting this mall, with its distinctly neo-fascist aesthetic.

Along the sides of the street running down towards the photographer from the Albert Speer Memorial Shopping Center, you see lots of shiny new, fairly expensive cars, parked bumper to bumper. In fact, the Albert Speer has a huge underground car park where you can park your car relatively inexpensively (our neighbor lady, a sensible woman, does it), but most Petersburg car owners actually think parking their cars wherever they want—especially either right next to their residential buildings or, worse, in the tiny, labyrinthine, incredibly charming inner courtyards of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings—is their legal right. It isn’t, but they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. I know they think this way because many Petersburg car owners have told me so.

To my mind, the precipitous rise in personal car ownership in Petersburg has done more to degrade the city’s beauty than all the underinspired colossal high-rises put together, because the city was purposely designed by its original builders, beginning with Peter the Great, to have a good number of intersecting and radiating, awe-inspiring, long and clear sightlines or “perspectives.” Hence, many of the city’s longest avenues are called “prospects,” such as Nevsky Prospect (the title of one of Nikolai Gogol’s best stories) and Moskovsky Prospect. Nowadays, however, you gaze down these “perspectives” only to see traffic jams and hectares of other visual pollution in the shape of signs, billboards, banners, and marquees. It’s not a pretty sight.

On the right of the picture, somewhere near the middle, you should be able to spot a small shop sign with the letters “AM” emblazoned on it. It’s one of the dozens of liquor stores that have popped up in our neighborhood after the Kremlin introduced its countersanctions against US and EU sanctions, which were instituted in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The US and EU sanctions targeted individuals and companies closely allied with the regime. Putin’s countersanctions, in a manner that has come to seem typical of how the Russian president for life’s mind works, were targeted against Russian consumers by banning the import of most western produce into the country. An exception was made for western alcoholic beverages, especially wines and beers, and this meant it was suddenly profitable again to get into the liquor business. The upshot has been that you can exit our house, walk in any direction, even putting on a blindfold if you like, and you will find yourself in a liquor store in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

Last summer, I tried painting a little verbal and photographic sketch of the effect this massive re-alcoholization has had on our neighborhood, along with other, mostly negative trends in the use and abuse of commercial space in the city.

Finally, there is one other thing you should know about all those new, mostly oversized cars parked on the street. Since the average monthly salary in Russia barely crawls above 600 or 700 euros a month, even in a seemingly wealthy city like Petersburg, most of those gas-guzzling, air-polluting status symbols were bought with borrowed money.

Just the other day, in fact, I translated and posted a tiny article, originally published in the business daily Kommersant, about how people in the Voronezh Region currently owed banks approximately two billion euros in outstanding loans. In 2015, the region’s estimated population was around 2,300,000, so, theoretically, each resident of Voronezh Region now owes the banks 870 euros, which I am sure is more than most people there earn in two or three months. Of course, not every single resident of Voronezh Region has taken out a loan, so the real damage incurred by real individual borrowers is a lot worse.

I could be wrong, but I think what I have just written gives you a rough idea of how you go about reading photographs of today’s Russian cities, their visible aspect in general, turning a snapshot into something meaningful, rather than assuming its meaning is obvious, right there on the surface. You don’t just tweet a photo of a new football stadium or fancy restaurant or street jammed with expensive cars and make that stand for progress, when progress, whether political, economic or social, really has not occurred yet in Russia, despite all the money that has been sloshing around here the last fifteen years. Instead, you talk about the real economic, political, and social relations, which are often quite oppressive, murky, and criminal, that have produced the visible reality you want to highlight.

Doing anything less is tantamount to engaging in boosterism, whataboutism, Russian Worldism, and crypto-Putinism, but certainly not in journalism. That so many journalists, western and Russian, have abandoned real journalism for one or all of the isms I have listed is the really scary thing. TRR

Photograph by the Russian Reader