I Am Ingush

elizaveta_alexandrova-zorinaElizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina. Courtesy of Ponedelnik

I Am Ingush
Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina
Radio Svoboda
September 24, 2019

In Russia, there is a political crackdown in full swing that almost no one talks about—not because it is happening somewhere other than Moscow, but because it is happening in the North Caucasus. Popular protests in Ingushetia forced Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the head of the republic to resign, triggered a wave of criminal prosecutions, and still have the republic agitated. In the rest of Russia, people say it is a Caucasian affair, something in which they should avoid getting involved. And yet many Ingush believe the events in Magas in spring 2019 were the starting point for all the recent protest campaigns, from Shiyes to Moscow. At the very least, the protests in Ingushetia were the largest in Russia since the fair elections rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue in 2011–2012.

The arrests and prosecution of protesters in Moscow have been dubbed a “new” Bolotnaya Square case. Russian and international journalists alike have written a great deal about the case, and each of the defendants has been lavished with attention by human rights defenders. There are long queues of people waiting to take turns in solo pickets, and flash mobs are held in solidarity with Konstantin Kotov. Actors have rallied around Pavel Ustinov, while teachers produced an appeal in support of Yegor Zhukov. The clergy, the Union of Cinematographers, and PEN Moscow have sent official letters on behalf of the defendants, while Stephen Fry, Herta Müller, and a whole host of foreign politicians and cultural figures signed an open letter. Only Mediazona and OVD Info have been covering the events in Ingushetia, however, while the only aspect of the protests there and the fallout from them that has been discussed on the Runet is the fact that certain Ingush police officers went over to the protesters and have subsequently been criminally prosecuted for their actions.

In point of fact, Ingushetia’s version of the Bolotnaya Square case is quite as massive as the real thing. Criminal charges have been filed against thirty-three people, most of whom have been in remand prison for many months. Another forty people are under investigation. The investigators reportedly have an extended list of 150 people they would like to charge: Ingushetia is a small place, and it is hard to keep such things secret for long. We should also add to this catalog a reporter who covered the protests. Apparently, the police planted heroin on him and then tortured him to try and force him to testify.

Before the arrests kicked off, 317 people were convicted under the administrative law on “unauthorized” protest rallies and fined between 10,000 and 20,000 rubles [approx. 150 to 300 dollars]. That is a lot of money for people in Ingushetia, where a quarter of the able-bodied population earns less than 10,000 rubles a month.

Around a hundred grassroots activists have been harassed—police have searched their homes, interrogated them, and detained them—and some have lost their jobs. Even the new law about “fake” news has been employed: Murad Daskiyev, an Ingush elder, was fined for the fact that, in his appeal to Ingush lawmakers, he wrote about the possible elimination of the republic due to another redrawing of its borders with neighboring republics, despite the fact the many people there actually do see the constant “pruning” of Ingushetia as just that: an attempt to get rid of Ingushetia.

Ingush activists told me it was strange I had come. They said no one in Moscow was interested in what was happening in Ingushetia. As they put it, people in Moscow think the “wogs” were trying to divvy something up, but the conflict does not concern them. In their coverage of the protests in Magas, national Russian media managed to shift the emphasis from anger at the authorities to the supposedly ethnic conflict between Chechens and Ingush. This can not just be put down to the skill of the propagandists.

In August, during the so-called indefinite picket—which began as a way to support demands to release the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, but later encompassed the Crimean Tatars, historian Yuri Dmitriev, the New Greatness case, the Network case, and the Moscow case—I stood holding a placard decrying the crackdown in Ingushetia. A poster calling for a one-to-one prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine usually elicited a positive reaction from passersby, while a placard that read “No to the war with Ukraine!” generated lots of arguments. When they saw me holding up placards about the Crimean Tatars and the Ukrainian sailors, people were sometimes ready to attack. But the placard about Ingushetia could just as well have been invisible. Only once did some policemen lazily inquire about what was happening in Ingushetia because they didn’t know. And one passerby, a woman, asked her husband what was written on my placard.

“Something about Ingushetia,” he replied.

“Oh, Ingushetia,” she said.

On the contrary, people in Ingushetia follow the news from Moscow closely. They post articles and photographs on social media and discuss the arrests of protesters. I was constantly asked about what was happening in Moscow and what would happen to the protesters arrested there on criminal charges. I was ashamed of the fact I was surprised by their attention to the Moscow case.

In Moscow, you strike up the most pleasant acquaintances in paddy wagons and police stations during protest rallies because the most interesting, best-educated, and most concerned people end up there. It’s the same way in Ingushetia: the republic’s finest people are behind bars and on the lists of police investigators.

Six people, whom the authorities have identified as “leaders” of the protests, have been charged under an article of the Russian criminal code that stipulates a maximum sentence of ten years in prison for “organizing violence that threatens the life or health of public officials in the performance of their duties.” Since they have no criminal records, they could be sentenced to a “mere” five or six years in prison.

Barakh Chemurziyev worked for ten years in the department of economics at the University of Economics and Finance in St. Petersburg. He researched corruption and embezzlement of government funds by officials in the Yevkurov administration. Chair of the Ingush branch of the Red Cross, Musa Masalgov has devoted thirty years of his life to charity work. Malsag Uzhakhov, 67, is chair of the Council of Teips of the Ingush People, while Ahmed Barakhoyev, 65, is an Ingush elder and member of the Ingush National Unity Committee. Ismail Nalgiyev, a blogger and grassroots activists, held solo pickets in solidarity with his arrested countrymen, later joining their ranks himself. Zarifa Sautiyeva is a researcher and deputy director of Memorial, a museum complex dealing with the deportation of the Ingush in 1944.

Another activist, Akhmet Pogorov, former head of the Ingushetia Interior Ministry and anti-corruption researcher, is on the federal wanted list. In their last video, posted on YouTube, he and Chemurziyev outlined one of the corruption schemes used by the Yevkurov administration. A month later, they found themselves among the “organizers of the riots.”

When people post the names of the protesters arrested in Moscow, they express outrage over the fact that an actor, a “harmless” programmer, and a 26-year-old man with kids could have been singled out by the authorities. When journalists are targeted, they call it an attack on free speech. But is no one outraged by the arrest of a museum curator? Of two old, sick men who could die in remand prison? (Barakhoyev and Masalgov’s chronic illnesses have worsened since they were arrested and jailed.) Is a deliberate crackdown on public figures and civic activists not an attack on political freedoms?

In Moscow, the slogan “Stop feeding the Caucasus!” has been popular. The Ingush told me it would be great if people called for an end to feeding the elites in the Caucasus. They added I should be sure to write that the protests in Magas were not only about land but also about official lawlessness and corruption in the republic. In Moscow, the ostensible trigger for the protests was the disqualification of independent candidates who wanted to stand in elections to the Moscow City Duma, but people actually protested corruption and the endless reign of the current regime. Similarly, in Ingushetia, outrage over the transfer of land to Chechnya mushroomed into an anti-corruption movement.

Corruption in Ingushetia starts at the very top. Everyone knows there that the federal authorities take a five to ten percent kickback from subsidies to the region. The looting continues when the money trickles down to the local authorities. And there is rampant bribery everywhere: people pay bribes to get good marks on school exams, medical care, and jobs.

Here is a typical story, one of hundreds. In 2013, the largest flour mill in Russia was built in Karabulak with five billion rubles from Rosselkhozbank, money referred to as “private investments.” A portrait of Putin was draped on the building, a grand opening was held, and press releases were sent to the national media. The mill was supposed to employ 1,500 people, but since it opened, the mill has only employed security guards. So there the mill stands, a monument to corruption in Russia. A grain farmer I know complained he had to take his crop straight from the field to the distilleries, where he sold it for seven or so rubles a bushel since there was no place to store and process it.

Ingushetia has the highest unemployment rate in Russia, and finding work there is not only difficult but also expensive. They say a posting in the Emergencies Ministry costs 350,000 rubles [approx. 5,000 euros], while a nurse’s job runs you around 50,000 rubles. 64,000 people were on the books as employees of state enterprises, when in fact they did not work for them and did not even know they worked for them. Besides, the population of Ingushetia is only around half a million people.

Ingushetia is one of the five poorest regions in Russia. It suffers from poverty and ruin, lawless security forces and high officials who pilfer the budget with impunity. It was no wonder protesters chanted slogans against corruption, against Yevkurov and his administration, from the outset of the protests. Nor was it any wonder Yevkurov practically issued an order in public when he said the protesters should be put in prison.

One of Yevkurov’s ministers, now an adviser to the new head of the republic, who celebrated the Eid in a most unexpected way—with vodka and women in the courtyard of his own hotel—explained to me why people protested.

“They’re a bunch of crooks who were paid.”

“Who paid them?”

“The west, maybe?” Who else pays people in Russia to protest? Who doesn’t like the fact that Putin has made Russia strong? So they’re the ones who pay.”

Ingushetia is like Moscow, only worse. Yevkurov ordered a crackdown on the protesters because he was sick and tired of anti-corruption slogans and accusations he had looted Ingushetia. And then there is the Kremlin, which sends a signal to the entire country that any opposition movement will face a brutal crackdown. Consequently, thirty-three people await their sentences. And sentenced they will be, not least because, for some inexplicable reason, the Russian public, opposition activists, and foreign correspondents could not care less about them.

All anyone does nowadays is talk about the defendants in the Moscow case, throwing in a few other political prisoners for good measure. People say they did nothing wrong, that the charges against them are trumped-up, that the authorities ordered law enforcement to put them away. But what about the Ingush case? Is it not a frame-up? Did the accused do something wrong?

You often hear that people only defend their own kind: journalists defend other journalists, actors intercede on the behalf of other actors, lecturers at the Higher School of Economics show their solidarity with a student at the Higher School of Economics. The authorities threatened to frame Ingush journalist Rashid Maysigov on drug charges, and then they did it. They also tortured him with electrical shocks to force him to testify. I have not seen a single newspaper with the front-page headline “I Am/We Are Rashid Maysigov.” When it came to Maysigov, journalistic solidarity broke down for some reason. Nor will the folks who adorn their social media account profile pictures with slogans like “I Am Yegor Zhukov,” “I Am Ivan Golunov”  or “I Am Konstantin Kotov” ever write “I Am Zafira Sautiyeva” or “I Am Musa Masalgov.” What is wrong with Sautiyeva and Masalgov? Are they the wrong sort of people? Are they from the wrong ethnic group?

I like the slogan used by the solo picketers outside the presidential administration building in Moscow; “I Am/We Are the Whole Country.” I like the fact that the placards are inscribed with the names of people who are being persecuted right now for protesting peacefully or literally for no reason at all. But the names Sautiyeva, Masalgov, Barakhoyev, Uzhakhov, Nalgiyev, Chemurziyev, Pogorov, Maysigov, Katsiyev, Pliyev, Dzeytov, Dugiyev, Myakiyev, Gagiyev, Vishegurov, Bapkhoyev, Badiyev, Oziyev, Ozdoyev, Oskanov, Dzyazikov, Tomov, Azhigov, Muzhakhoyev, Khamkhoyev, and Aushev are not on these placards.

Are you certain you are the whole country? Have you forgotten anyone?

Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina is a Moscow writer and journalist. Thanks to Jenya Kulakova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

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The Real State of Russia Today

fullsizeoutput_215fRussia is a great place for pipelines, dirt, weeds, and skyscrapers, but it is hell on its people. Photo by the Russian Reader

Natalia Vvedenskaya
Facebook
September 17, 2019

Some of my friends say the regime will collapse soon, while others argue it is only picking up a head of steam. It occurred to me yesterday that we mistakenly use the word “regime” when talking about the processes taking place in our midst. A regime can last a very long time, and crackdowns, no matter how ridiculous or chaotic, are not symptoms of its demise.

Since ancient times, the state has had only two fundamental functions: defending borders and administering justice (making laws). Everything else—medical care, education, pensions, and bike lanes—is a recent superstructure. Political regimes can be different, from totalitarian to democratic, and they can forego treating people when they are ill, teaching them, and paying them pensions while still maintaining stability. But it must perform the basic functions; otherwise, it stops being a state.

In Russia, on the contrary, one of these foundations has been completely destroyed over the past decades. I am not talking about crackdowns. There has never been any justice either for so-called dissidents or people who randomly fall victim to the state apparatus. People understood this in the Soviet Union, and they understand it now: you fight the law, and the law whacks you upside the head. The majority of Russians do not dispute the state’s right to crack down on the opposition or meddle in the affairs of other countries.

I am talking, instead, about ordinary life and everyday justice, about what we find in the Code of Hammurabi, the Law of the Twelve Tables, and Yaroslav’s Law—about the promises the state makes to citizens, about the fact that you cannot just be beaten, robbed, and wrongfully accused for no reason at all.

And what about Russia? What should we think when, for example, as a friend told me, a youth gang orders food deliveries and then beats up and robs the delivery people, and they have been running this scam for nearly a year, but the police simply refuse to do anything about it? When a person cannot find protection from his bully of neighbor, who shoots at his windows? When you go to court because traffic cops confiscated your driving license for no reason and then solicited a bribe to give it back to you, and the trial drags on for a year and a half? When you even win the case but the time you spent on it was worth much more in monetary terms than the bribe itself?

I made a point of giving more or less innocuous examples. Any of us knows several such stories. What is the point of doing public opinion polls and asking people whether they trust Putin? Ask people whether they trust the Russian courts and Russian law enforcement agencies. Their answer will show you the depths of the disaster. The Russian state has forfeited its basic function, and so we are slowly returning to the state of nature. Scattered tribes roam the landscape, and whether you are safe or not depends on the biceps of your fellow tribesmen. Strong communities can defend their members, while loners and weaklings die off.

The current outrage at the prison sentence handed down to an actor is not about crackdowns, but about the degradation of the state’s basic functions. This protest will only grow because the state has been vanishing before our eyes. All that remains are armed men who have monopolized power. What will be next? No one knows.

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Andrey Tchabovsky
Facebook
September 17, 2019

Our Motherland

We returned from a conference in Kyzyl (Tuva).

Two Germans, a respected professor, and his wife and colleague, had supplied the event with its international credentials. For over twenty years, they have invested both their money and their labor in research in Tuva. They had become fans of the place. They had made friends. They were friends to numerous local zoologists and zoologists from other parts of Russia. The professor is an honorary member of the Russian Theriological Society, an affiliate of the Russian Academy of Sciences. For the conference, they minted very nice commemorative medals, paying for them with their own money, to present to their respected Russian colleagues.

Local officials of the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education did not let them into the conference at the university and deleted their papers from the conference program. They were not even allowed into the building, all because of Kotyukov’s decree about interactions with foreign scientists. It is clear the decree can and should be roundly ignored regardless of whether it is legitimate or not. It is equally clear that many people will not ignore it because of the stupid need to stay on the safe side and, so, the decree will do what it was meant to do.

It is an utterly shameful disgrace.

Thanks to Natalia Vvedenskaya for her permission to translate and publish her remarks. Thanks to Victoria Andreyeva for bringing Andrey Tchabovsky’s remarks to my attention. Translated by the Russian Reader

Spikery, or, How to Give Aid and Comfort to Fascist War Criminals While Making Lots of Money

It’s funny the things you find in your email inbox in the morning. This morning, as usual, I found mailers from many of the Russian and English-language online newspapers I read, including Petersburg’s humble but always revealing business daily Delovoi Peterburg.

Today’s big news was that police had searched the head office of Bukvoyed, one of Russia’s largest bookstore chains.

Founded in 2000, Bukvoyed (“Bookworm”) has 140 stores around the country.

A source at Bukvoyed told Delovoi Peterburg the search had nothing to do with the company per se but with one of its business partners.

If you have been monitoring the fortunes of Russian business under the Putinist tyranny, a crony state-capitalist regime, run by “former” KGB officers as if it was the Soprano mob, only a million times nastier, you would know it has not been easy to do business of any kind in Russia during the last twenty years. The country’s current prime minister and ex-president, Dmitry Medvedev, once famously said the regime’s vast police and security apparatus, known collectively as the siloviki, needed to stop “nightmaring” (koshmarit) business.

He also famously said, when he was president, that his country was plagued by “legal nihilism.”

Although he was right on both counts, Medvedev did nothing about it. Since the brief, supposedly more “liberal” period when he was freer to speak his mind because, technically, he was the most powerful man in Russia, the nightmaring of business (and nearly everyone else who makes themselves a target by doing anything more ambitious than hiding their light in a bushel) has only got worse, and legal nihilism, along with anti-Americanism, homophobia, xenophobia, and neo-imperialism, has become even more entrenched as part of the Kremlin’s unwritten ideology and, thus, a guidepost for how Russia’s police, security agencies, prosecutors, and judges deal with “criminals.” 

As Denis Sokolov recently argued in Republic, the siloviki have established a system of “police feudalism” in Russia under which the FSB, the Russian Investigative Committee, the Interior Ministry, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, the Russian National Guard, the tax police, and other state security agencies have divided the country into fiefs, bits of “turf” where they are almost entirely free to shake down, rob, nightmare, and legally nihilize whomever and whatever they want under a set of unwritten rules outsiders can only guess at.

After reading about Bukvoyed’s legal-nihilistic woes, then, I was startled by the banner ad I found at the bottom of the page.

mooks“Synergy Global Forum, October 4–5, 2019, Gazprom Arena, Saint Petersburg. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Grant Cardone. Michael Porter. Randi Zuckerberg. Ichak Adize.” Ad courtesy of Delovoi Peterburg

Referred to, hilariously, as “spikery” (“speakers”) on the Russian version of the Synergy Global Forum’s website, these five greater and lesser lights of global capitalism have been, no doubt, promised or paid extraordinarily hefty fees to keynote this hootenanny in the belly of the crony state-capitalist beast.

Formerly known as the Zenit Arena (after the city’s Russian premier league football team, FC Zenit, owned by state-controlled Gazprom), even the venue itself, the Gazprom Arena, is a monument to the mammoth crookedness, thuggery, violence, and corruption replicated all over the world’s biggest country every day for the last twenty years by the Kremlin’s minions.

But you would never know that by reading the cheery boilerplate on the Synergy Global Forum’s website.

Gazprom Arena is the most visited indoor stadium in Eastern Europe, second only to the famous Wembley in London. The main feature of the project — a sliding roof, which allows you to carry out activities in a comfortable environment at any time of the year and in all weather conditions. Large capacity, modern technical equipment, and two-tier parking make Gazprom Arena one of the best venues for major festivals, exhibitions, and business conferences.

More important, however, is the ostensible point of all this spikery, other than making lots of money for everyone involved.

Synergy Global Forum has been held since 2015. The first Forum gathered 6,000 participants and became the largest business event in the country. Two years later, we broke this record and entered Guinness World Records — 25,000 entrepreneurs and top managers participated at SGF in Olympiyskiy in 2017. This year we set a new big goal — to gather 50,000 participants from all over the world at SGF 2019 in St. Petersburg. Synergy Global Forum not only gives you an applied knowledge, but also motivates and inspires to global achievements, gives the belief that any ambitious goal is achievable. What goals do you set for yourself?

Aside from being one big [sic], this sampling of spikery reveals that the apocryphal gospel of Dale Carnegie and other “good capitalist” snake oil salesmen is alive and well and making waves in a place like Russia, where it could not be more out of place.

I don’t mean that Russia and Russians are “culturally” or “civilizationally” incompatible with self-improvement, the power of positive thinking, and other tenets of American capitalist self-hypnosis. If you had spent most of your adult life in Russia, as I have, you would know the opposite is the case.

Unfortunately. Because what Russia needs more than anything right now is not more navel-gazing and better business practices, but regime change and the rule of law. Since I’m a democratic socialist, not a Marxist-Leninist, and, I hope, a realist, these things cannot come about other than through a revolution in which Russia’s aspiring middle classes, at whom snake-oil festivals like the Synergy Global Forum are targeted, join forces with the grassroots, who have been nightmared and legally nihilized in their own way under Putin.

One of the first things a new bourgeois-proletariat Russian coalition government would have to do, aside from prosecuting and imprisoning tens of thousands of siloviki and banning them from politics and the civil service for life, would be to disentangle the country from its current incredibly destructive armed and unarmed interventions in conflicts in other countries, starting with Ukraine and Syria.

What does the Synergy Global Forum and its sponsor, Synergy Business School have to do with such seemingly distant and terribly messy international politics? Well, this:

The school has branches in 26 Russian cities, as well as a unique campus in Dubai, which is home base for an international MBA program for students from the UAE, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

So, in fact, Synergy Business School is in the business of equipping people from some of the world’s most powerful and aggressive theocratic, monarchist, and crony state-capitalist tyrannies with MBAs while claiming its core values are “openness to newness, commitment to development, and intelligence.”

You can say I’m a dreamer but I am nearly sure SBS’s core values are completely at odds with the neo-imperialism, neo-colonialism, militarism, hostility to civil and human rights, and fascism of the current regimes in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

I write this not because I believe in building a “better” capitalism (I don’t), but because I am nearly sure one party to this mass chicanery, including the invited spikery, does believe it is possible to do just that and thus “peacefully” transform these countries into slightly quirky versions of Australia and Canada. (For the record, I don’t for a minute believe these supposedly democratic countries have no problems of their own with human rights, etc.)

That is not going to happen if only because, at another level, carefully hidden from the incurious eyes of the people who go to such events, their real purpose is to whitewash these regimes, make them more attractive to foreign investors, and expand their international networks of shills and useful idiots.

I learned this valuable lesson about Putinist Russia by carefully following the amazing career of Vladimir Yakunin, another “former” KGB officer and fellow Ozero Dacha Co-op member who could write a textbook about how to co-opt distinguished foreign academics, decision-makers, and journalists into, mostly unwittingly, toeing the Putinist line.

It comes down to this. Why are Arnold Schwarznegger, Randi Zuckerberg, and their fellow 2019 Synergy Global Forum spikery so willing to help whitewash a gang of fascist war criminals who are also at war with their own people?

Since there is no good answer to this question, they should be arrested upon their return from the forum and charged with colluding with hostile foreign powers.

If you don’t understand what I mean by “fascist war criminals,” please read the article below. // TRR

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Russia and Assad are butchering Syrian civilians again. No one seems to mind
Terry Glavin
National Post
July 24, 2019

Maybe it’s because of the guilty anti-interventionist conscience of the world’s comfortable liberal democracies, or because it’s now an article of respectable faith in the NATO capitals that Syrian lives simply aren’t worth the bother. Maybe it’s just that we’ve all become so accustomed to reports of slaughter and barbarism in Syria that it barely warrants public attention at all.

Whatever the reason, or excuse, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is finally having his way in the Syrian governorate of Idlib, and the world barely notices.

It’s been nearly a year since Lavrov expressed his desire that the “abscess” of Syrian resistance in Idlib, a sprawling province that borders Turkey in Syria’s northwest, be “liquidated.” It’s been nearly a month since 11 humanitarian organizations came together with the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs to warn that “Idlib is on the brink of a humanitarian nightmare unlike anything we have seen this century.”

We’ve reached that brink now. Just this week, 66 civilians have been killed and more than 100 non-combatants wounded, the UN reports, in a series of bombing runs carried out across Idlib. The worst massacre was an airstrike Monday on a public market in the village of Maarat al-Numan. At least 39 people were killed, among them eight women and five children.

Since the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s barrel bombers and Russia’s fighter-bombers began their recent offensive in Idlib on April 29, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has tallied 2,641 casualties. The UN counts 400 civilian deaths, but there is no accurate count of the dead and injured in Syria anymore. The wounded lie dying in the rubble of bombed buildings. At least 25 hospitals and clinics in Idlib have been destroyed since April 29, bringing the number of health centers deliberately targeted since 2011 to about 570. More than 800 health workers have been killed.

Three years ago, when the UN and monitoring agencies stopped counting, the Syrian dead were numbered at 500,000. In the face of these most recent war crimes and atrocities, the UN’s humanitarian affairs office has been reduced to begging Assad and Lavrov to ease up to allow humanitarian aid into Idlib’s besieged districts, and pleading with Russia and Turkey to uphold the terms of a year-old memorandum of understanding that was supposed to demilitarize Idlib. Fat chance of that.

The Kremlin-Ankara pact arose from negotiations that began in the months following the 2016 fall of Aleppo, where thousands of Syrian civilians were slaughtered by Vladimir Putin’s air force in the course of the Kremlin’s commitment to Assad to help bomb the Syrian resistance into submission. Joining with Russia and Iran, Turkish strongman Recip Erdoğan entered into a series of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, that eventually led to an agreement to establish Idlib as a jointly-patrolled “deconfliction zone.”

A series of these de-escalation agreements have each in their turn become death traps. In Homs, in Ghouta, in Quneitra, the pattern has repeated itself. Weakened by starvation sieges, and bloodied by Russian fighter jets, Assad’s barrel bombs, ground assaults by Iran’s Hezbollah units and multiple chemical attacks — sarin, chlorine, napalm — Syria’s various and fractious resistance outfits have surrendered several cities and towns on the promise of safe passage with their families to one or another de-escalation area. Convoys of buses carry them across the countryside. They settle in, and then they come under attack again.

Until April 29, Idlib was the last of these demilitarized zones, and by then the population had doubled to three million people. Among Idlib’s recent arrivals were civilians fleeing the Syrian carnage who had not been able to join the six million Syrians who have managed to escape the country altogether. But the newcomers also include members of various armed opposition groups, and the Assad regime has deftly manipulated its “de-escalation” and safe-passage arrangements to pit those groups against one another.

More than a dozen safe-passage agreements struck prior to the Kremlin-Ankara arrangement amount to what democratic opposition leaders have called ethnic cleansing and “compulsory deportation.” Most of the opposition groups that submitted to them have ended up in Idlib. Among them: Islamic State fighters from Yarmouk, and the jihadist fronts Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Fatah from districts around Aleppo and Damascus.

What this has meant for Idlib is that the mainline opposition in the Turkish-backed and formerly American-supported Syrian Interim Government has been losing its hold on the governorate, and its democratically elected local councils have come under increasing pressure from the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham jihadist coalition. And now that Assad’s Syrian Arab Army has been moving in from the south, and Russian and regime bombs are falling from the skies, tens of thousands of civilians are on the move again.

More than 300,000 people are on the roads, most of them headed towards Turkey, but Turkey has already taken in half of Syria’s six million refugees and the Turkish border is now closed to them. More than 1,000 Turkish troops are patrolling Idlib’s northern countryside as part of the Astana accord, and they won’t let the Syrian civilians pass. Humanitarian groups report that hundreds of Syrian refugees have been picked up in Istanbul in recent weeks and deported back to Syria.

“Yet again innocent civilians are paying the price for the political failure to stop the violence and do what is demanded under international law — to protect all civilians,” is the way UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock puts it. “Our worst fears are materializing.”

No help is coming from Europe. The European Union has made its peace with Ankara — Erdoğan prevents Syrian refugees from sneaking into Greece or Bulgaria or setting out in leaky rafts into the Mediterranean, and Europe looks the other way while Erdoğan deports Syrian refugees back to the slaughterhouse of Idlib.

Neither is any help coming from the United States, where the Kremlin-friendly Trump administration is balking at the idea of imposing sanctions on Turkey for buying into Russia’s S-400 missile system, and is otherwise continuing the Obama administration’s policy of thinking about mass murderer Assad as somebody else’s problem.

And then there’s Canada, where we’re all supposed to congratulate ourselves for having high-graded the best and brightest Syrians from the UN’s refugee camps, and we expect the Syrian refugees we’ve taken in to be grateful and to forgive us all for standing around and gawping while their country was turned into blood, fire, and rubble.

Whatever our reasons, or excuses, Idlib is being liquidated, a humanitarian nightmare is unfolding in Syria again, and hardly anybody notices.

Darya Apahonchich: Relaxation for Men

darja-1Darya Apahonchich is one of the artists exhibited at the 2019 Festival of Political Photography at the Finnish Museum of Photography. Photo by Liisa Takala. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Relaxation for Men
Darya Apahonchich wanted to make prostitution visible so she photographed men
Jussi Lehmusvesi
Helsingin Sanomat
March 13, 2019

A good three years ago, Petersburg teacher Darya Apahonchich was walking to work when she noticed letters painted on the sidewalk.

ОТДЫХ

Freely translated, the word means “relaxation, rest.” Apahonchich knew it was one of the most common phrases in Russia for advertising prostitution.

Apahonchich was intrigued. On previous walks to work, she had noticed that ads for brothels had spread everywhere, including walls, light poles, and transformer boxes, and now they seemed to have flooded the streets, too. There was also something irritating about the word отдых.

Relaxation.

Or the slightly longer version:

Relaxation for men.

Apahonchich had an idea. She was also a professional artist and had worked in several groups that produced political art. She asked male acquaintances to think about how they really relaxed. Then she took the men to the sex ads and asked them to assume the poses they had chosen for relaxing.

The photographs were produced in the middle of sidewalks as passersby watched.

“I wasn’t trying to take smooth, finished art photos but snapshots,” she said. “People’s reactions were supportive or, more often, indifferent. Petersburg is a big city, after all, and people are not easily surprised.”

After the photoshoot, she posted the photos on social media and waited for a reaction.

Things kicked off after a while.

Apahonchich’s photos attracted attention on social media. The photographer was asked for interviews by more traditional media.

She was more delighted by offers from complete strangers, men who wanted to be involved in the project.

“They said they wanted to relax and asked whether they could help me,” Apahonich says.

Despite what you might imagine, there was nothing suggestive about the men’s requests. They genuinely wanted to be involved in doing something good.

The photographer accepted the offers and new photos were produced.

“It started out just as a fun thing but gradually turned into something more serious,” she says.

darja-2Two young men relaxing. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

The success of Apahonchich’s photos could be explained by their skewed perspective. We have seen plenty of pictures of people victimized by prostitution at exhibitions but the gaze in her photos is focused on men.

This also has its own meaning for her.

“When people talk about prostitution, they usually talk about women, but I hope to make something invisible visible in the images I produce,” Apahonchich says.

It is a reasonable aspiration in the sense that men are active in the sex trade as middlemen, customers and, sometimes, vendors, too.

“Of course, men see my pictures differently. Some see them only as humorous. In the best case, I make the men looking at the photos reflect on their own position on the matter.”

The artist also has a personal reason for approaching the subject seriously.

Apahonchich walks around the Finnish Museum of Photography at the Cable Factory looking at the works of her colleagues in the Festival of Political Photography, which presents the work of twenty artists from around the world in a show entitled Potentiality.

In Apahonchich’s own images, men relax alongside “Relaxation for men” ads. One reads the newspaper, another plays on the train tracks, a third does yoga, and a fourth plays the balalaika.

A fifth man fishes.

According to the artist, the men who wanted into the project hardly represent the majority opinion regarding prostitution.

“Russia is still a conservative country and we have a different notion of women’s rights than in Scandinavia. It is common for men not to see any problem with prostitution. Many of them think it’s quite acceptable if, say, they have problems with their marriages.”

It is illegal in Russia to advertise sex services but, according to Apahonchich, Russian cities are in no hurry to get rid of the ads. She argues that the economic interests of the powers that be are often linked to human trafficking.

“It’s about money,” she says. “In Russia, the media have written about the links between corruption and prostitution. The police, for example, visit brothels regularly. They even have their own term for their visits. They are called ‘Saturday specials.'”

Her drastic claim is supported by a longitudinal interview study in which researchers mapped the experiences of sex workers with police in Petersburg and Orenburg. The study found that over a third of the sex workers had been abused by police.

The study was done in 2014, but researchers have obtained similar outcomes in more recent studies.

Estimates of the total number of people involved in sex work in Russia are as high as three million.

“I don’t approve of the word ‘sex worker,'” says Apahonchich. “In my opinion, it is not work but exploitation. I am talking about women who are involved in prostitution. Of course, there are differences in how people view the matter. If someone wants to call themselves a sex worker, I accept their choice, of course, but I don’t think of it that way.”

She also finds it misleading to talk about “sex.”

“Many girls go into prostitution at the age of thirteen or even younger. I think it is a question of rape culture more than of sex.”

darja-3Man and pillow. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Apahonchich has a personal reason for regarding prostitution negatively. She earns her daily bready by teaching Russian to women who have come from Syria and Afghanistan, for example. She is painfully aware her students are at high risk of being marginalized and forced into prostitution.

“Since they come to Russia as refugees and immigrants, they are on really shaky ground. They are often undocumented and cannot defend themselves,” Apahonchich says, looking anxious.

She is clearly concerned about her students.

She has not shown her photographs in class.

“I try to keep politics to a minimum,” she says. “A large number of my students are from quite conservative regions and I don’t want to scare them. Also, some of the students’ husbands have a negative attitude to their going to school, so in this sense, too, caution is important.”

“So, I concentrate on teaching the language and I answer their questions.”

There is one subject, however, that Apahonchich plans to raise in class.

She wants to teach the women how to talk to the police.

darja-4A man relaxes by meditating. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Relaxation for men. Although sex advertising has been moving to the Internet in Russia, the letters on the cobblestones still entice men into becoming customers.

Apahonchich’s own attitude to the advertisements has changed as she has photographed them.

“In the past, I would complain about them and think about all the young women they concealed. But after shooting them I saw them as locations and advertisements.  I would think that one was in a good spot for marketing or this one had really different colors, that I had no photos with yellow lettering in them. Or this image was in a good place for setting up and shooting.”

Another thing has changed. The photographer now knows what to say to men who fiercely defend prostitution.

“I ask them whether they would be willing to do the same job themselves or let their children do it. Since they don’t want it for their own children, why would they wish it on others?”

darja-5.JPGThe ads encouraging relaxation are also in English. Photo by Darya Apahonchich. Courtesy of Helsingin Sanomat

Apahonchich recounts how one of the men in the photos heard a child ask his parents what the ad meant as the model sat waiting on the pavement.

It was no easy task for the parents to explain what the words meant.

Nor was it easy to tell the child why a price had been placed under a woman’s name.

Translated from the Finnish by the Russian Reader

 

Olga Romanova: How “Law Enforcement” Works in Russia

calvey
Michael Calvey in court. Photo by Maxim Shemetov. Courtesy of Reuters and Republic

“We Give You Serebrennikov and You Give us Calvey”: How Law Enforcement Works
Olga Romanova
Republic
May 13, 2019

“Who would make the decision about your arrest?”

“My colleagues would betray me, but they would vet it with my bosses.”

“What about Vasya [a big businessman]?”

“Cops, the economic security squad. It’s enough for the word to come down from the district office to grab him. Vasya is a respected person. He’s a thief.”

“And me?”

“You’re an enemy of the state. If the neighborhood cops can decide to arrest Vasya, the Secret Chamber, so to speak, would have to give the orders to arrest you. The decision to arrest you would be made by no one lower ranked than Bortnikov’s deputy, although you’re naked and barefoot, and no one would ask the prosecutor’s office or the Investigative Committee to go after you. It’s creepy and pointless.”

This should give you an idea of the conversations I have with my acquaintances in the security forces nowadays. It helps to do business with people who know the score. None of them is surprised when you ask them who would arrest someone, how they would do it, and when they would do it. Everything would have been planned long ago, and there are no illusions. If a person has to be placed under arrest and charged, it is going to happen. If they do not need to be indicted, they can be kept in custody for a while. No one remembers, even for appearance’s sake, that there are courts in Russia, and courts decide whether to remand someone in custody after hearing arguments by all the interested parties. Everyone knows the decisions are not made in court.

Who Makes the Decisions?
Who made the decision to arrest Kirill Serebrennikov? Who decided to let him go for the time being? Who arrested Michael Calvey and the employees of Baring Vostok? Who let them out of jail? Why? Who made the decision to arrest Mikhail Abyzov?

There is no one with whom you can talk about these cases.

This is not quite true. My sources in all the law enforcement and security agencies, who can be frank with me as long as they remain anonymous, talk to me about these cases, too, but they look really worried when they do.

Rank-and-file law enforcement officers are confused. They do not understand why someone decided to back off the Serebrennikov case so abruptly and quickly. The train was rushing the director and filmmaker towards a sentence of the four years or so in the camps when a powerful hand jerked hard on the brakes. The passengers jumped off the train, of course, for they didn’t want to keep traveling in that direction, but the trainmaster, driver, and conductors were completely at a loss.

What should they do with the next train and its contingent of VIP passengers? Should they railroad them, as they were ordered to do, or should they avoid hurrying the case? After the emergency brake has been pulled, everyone emerges with injuries and bumps. Some of the crew were counting on promotions after they had wrapped up such a big case. Other members of the crew were acting on orders from a celestial. He will not forgive them because now they know there are tougher celestials in the system. He cannot forgive the people involved in the case for knowing that fact nor can he forgive the other celestials for intervening. The passengers could not care less. Either they get to where they are going or they do not get there, but the crew is always aboard the train.

True, a smart alec from the Investigative Committee told me something interesting about the procedural aspect.

“Why is everyone so angry? The Serebrennikov case was sent back to the prosecutor’s office, so what? You saw that the court ordered a forensic examination. The first forensic examination was really crooked. The judge in the trial of Serebrennikov’s accountant, Nina Maslyaeva,  wondered why everyone was so glad. Serebrennikov’s case would now be sent back to the prosecutor’s office because his circumstances are the same as Maslyaeva’s. You are mixing up cause and effect. The judge in the Maslyaeva case cannot reach a verdict because he understands the outcome of the forensic examination, which was the same as in the Serebrennikov case, will now be different, and Maslayeva will have to be re-indicted in the light of the new forensic examination in the Serebrennikov case.”

Translated into ordinary language, he means the case can still go any which way. Procedurally, all the cards are still on the table, and the haggling could continue. Things could go one way or the other. The powers that be could change their minds and send Serebrennikov to prison, but they could also let him go. They could arrest him again and send him down. The statute of limitations is a flexible thing.

Somewhere above the clouds, the thunder gods fight over the case. Invisible to the world, they communicate with ordinary people by making motions to conduct additional forensic examinations. Ordinary people make of it what they will. Police investigators are also part of the rank and file, part and parcel of Russia’s unwashed masses.

In ordinary times, this is not what happens to ordinary defendants in ordinary cases. Everyone would have gone down five years each per capita, and no would have batted an eye. In this case, the decisions are obviously political. Look who made the decision! Who telephoned whom? What levers did they use? Who or what did they offer in exchange? Freebies are for freaks, after all. We will return to this subsequently when we discuss other factors.

If the boring procedural hypothesis made by my anonymous source at the Investigative Committee is right, events should unfold as follows. The authorities will get the results of the new forensic examination in the Serebrennikov case. If the total damages are less than was claimed earlier (or, say, there were, miraculously, no damages at all), the charges against Serebrennikov and the other defendants will be dropped right in the courtroom. If, on the contrary, the sum of the damages is more or less hefty, a million rubles, at least, the defendants will be found guilty and sentenced to prison. Then you can appeal the verdict wherever you like.

No one would ask why a particular ruling was made. No one would ask what happened. Why are some people treated one way, while others are treated another way? The foot soldiers of law enforcement know the score. But when they do not know the score, they know it is better not to ask whether a mistake has been made but to follow orders.

How Things Go Down
The Calvey case bears a strong resemblance to the case against Vladimir Yevtushenkov. Yevtushenkov failed to take the hints. He was told directly what to do but refused to hand over his business. Then he was arrested and given a good talking. He and his captors came to an understanding. He was released and his business confiscated. Unlike Yevtushenkov, however, Calvey is as poor as a church mouse. Compared with Yevtushenkov, that is. Calvey does not own a Bashneft, after all.

The foot soldiers in the security forces have not been particularly surprised about how the Calvey case has unfolded. They expected something of the sort. They expected him to “cash out,” as they call it, and they believe he has, in fact, cashed out. They are uninterested in what this meant. It is not their war, and the spoils are not theirs to claim.

We should look at this more closely.

My source, whom I  trust, albeit warily, explains the obvious to me.

“All cases are business as usual except the cases in which there a phone call,” he says.

I have two questions for him right off the bat. What does he mean by “business as usual”? Who usually makes the  “phone call”?

He explains that people who follow high-profile cases and comment on them fail to take one important factor into account in their arguments. The high-profile cases are handled by another agency as it were. They involve the same players: the prosecutor’s offices, the courts, the remand prisons, and the Investigative Committee. All of them realize, however, when they are handling a special case involving the interests of high-ranking officials and elite businessmen. In these cases, they need to keep close track of which way the wind blows.

The bulk of cases are “mundane.” There is a huge number of such cases, and they can drag on forever. Take, for example, the Baltstroy case, the case of police anti-corruption investigator Boris Kolesnikov, and the case of ex-deputy culture minister Grigory Pirumov, cases that everyone has forgotten, and the Oboronservis case, the cases of the banks implicated in the so-called Russian Laundromat, and the case of Alexander Grigoriev, the man, allegedly, behind the Laundromat, who was mixed up with Putin’s cousin Igor Putin. New indictments in these cases are made all the time. More and more defendants are convicted in these cases and sent down. It never stops, but public interest in these cases is almost nil.

There are cases that collapse, however. Why does this happen?

Why was the case of ex-economics minister Alexei Ulyukayev not reviewed on appeal? Why was his prison sentence not reduced by four years during the sentencing appeal hearing? Does anyone know why? Perhaps the political spin doctors get it, but Russia’s law enforcers do not have a clue. What they understand is when an order comes down to reduce a sentence and when it does not. They leave the blabbing to the spin doctors.

Alexei Fedyarov is a former prosecutor from Chuvashia. Nowadays, he is the head of our legal department at Russia Behind Bars. He gave me permission to quote him.

“It happens. A case is going fine. In the morning, you have a meeting with your superiors. They tell you everything is great, keep pushing, you’ve got the bastards. I was handling a case against the management of the Khimprom factory in Novocheboksarsk. At briefings, I was told my group and I were doing a great job. We had done the initial investigation beautifully and now it was time to detain the suspects, remand them in custody, and put them away. I went to my office, where the city prosecutor was waiting for me. He asked me to hand over the case file. I gave him the case file and he told me it was over, I should forget it. He was personally going to deliver the case file to the head prosecutor of the republic and that would be the end of it.  There would be no supporting documentation or anything. The case really did disappear, although an hour before I had been told to push it.

“During that hour, the head prosecutor of the republic had got a message from the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office. A call from a deputy prosecutor general was enough for them to take the whole thing back, despite the fact it was a big, interesting case involving illegal wiretapping throughout the company and even the local police department and the tax police office. We had found tons of recorded conversations: they recorded everything. They were trying to protect themselves and investigate other people.”

Sources of the “Telephone Call”
How does the “telephone call” work?

The “telephone call” is a conventional name for the outcome of lengthy negotiations. We see only the reflection of this process: Calvey’s arrest, his transfer to house arrest, Serebrennikov’s arrest and his release on his own recognizance, Abyzov’s arrest.

I am going to quote my anonymous source verbatim. In this instance, the way he says what he says is as important as what he says.

“Anyone can hit the brakes. It could be Bortnikov. It could be Chaika. But it is the outcome of agreements among people, not an arbitrary decision. They do not do things that way. Maybe new factors have been brought into play, but there has to be someone who wants to negotiate on behalf of the accused person, who appeals on his behalf. He would be told, ‘Okay, fine. But you have to give us such-and-such in exchange.” Then it is a matter of talking with Lebedev [Chief Justice of the Russian Supreme Court] and everything is put into reverse. It could be like, ‘We’ll give up Serebrennikov if you take the heat off Calvey.’ You see, the siloviki are not all on the same side. There is no longer one side. Not even everyone in the FSB or its departments is on the same side. The Constitutional Department fights with the Anti-Terrorism Department. It’s the same thing in the prosecutor’s office and the Investigative Committee. In the Investigative Committee, there is the group loyal to Bastrykin and then they are the boys from the North Caucasus. There are also the guys from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, who are filthy rich but live orderly lives and are also capable of getting things done.

“Anything goes at this level. Why are you inclined to exaggerate how this works? Number One basically does not care about this stuff.”

I should try and explain.

The Investigative Committee and Prosecutor General’s Office are still at serious loggerheads. The conflict has even intensified. It is a personal conflict and a clash of business interests and a fight over resources. The amount of resources has not grown. On the contrary, there are palpably fewer resources. Relations between the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor General’s Office are currently not just strained, they are intolerably strained.

In court, they take the same side, but those are the rules of the game. If a case has gone to trial, you cannot come out against your colleagues: you would be digging yourself a hole. As a prosecutor, you did not reverse the indictment. You were involved in prolonging the suspect’s custody in remand prison, and you seconded all the motions made by the case investigator. The case investigator, of course, always plays along with the prosecutor. In criminal trials, they are the prosecution.

Even the “groundlings” find it easier to make a deal. The big bosses may be at war with each other, but down on the ground, the workhorses plow away and know the score. There is no love lost for Bastrykin among Investigative Committee officers just as prosecutors are not fond of Chaika. But it is like this everywhere: people like their bosses only when they are standing right in front of them. There is a certain difference, however. Chaika and his deputies at the Prosecutor General’s Office are all former case investigators. They have paid their dues. Bastrykin does not have this background: he is not a criminologist. Their workhorses thus complain about different things. Bastrykin’s underlings complain about incompetence, while prosecutors grouse about their bosses’ passion for business.

The Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor’s Office have an innate tendency to divide up into clans, which are defined geographically: there are Circassian clans, Bashkir clans, etc. They are local fraternities of sorts, and they do not go away when someone moves and transfers to a new job. The clans are often at odds with each other. This is something you must always factor in when dealing with Russian law enforcers.

Internal disunity has also been increasing day by day in the conglomerate known as the FSB. Even mid-level officers have trouble getting along. For example, M Directorate, which oversees the Interior Ministry, the Federal Penitentiary Service, and so on, is often combined, in many regions, with the Economic Security Department, and there is a big problem with compatibility in terms of the cases they pursue. But there is also K Directorate, aka the 8th Directorate, which oversees banks and the financial system. Regarded as “blue bloods,” they are strongly disliked by other FSB officers.

“A guy from K Directorate worked out at the World Class gym where I worked out. His driver took him to work in a Maybach. Now he has transferred his membership to the gym in Zhukovka. A membership there costs 600,000 rubles a year [approx. $9,500] and the swimming pool is filled with mineral water. ‘My clients work out there,’ he said to me, ‘so I moved my membership there,'” an athlete and retired FSB veteran told me.

The FSB’s Constitutional and Anti-Terrorism Departments are a whole other story. They oversee everyone who has any dealings with the opposition and they inspire no confidence whatsoever. For example, I am flattered Kirill Serebrennikov and I are overseen by the same FSB officers. But we are overseen by officers from the Constitutional Department, while the Anti-Terrorism Department are working-class blokes who specialize in completely different cases. They were merged into a single directorate in which the Anti-Terrorism Department, supposedly, is subordinated to the Constitutional Department. Naturally, they cannot stand each other.

What about the top bosses? They are busy with other things, which is why they are in charge. They are busy with politicking and intrigues. These quiet squabbles surface as cases like the recent arrest of Colonel Kirill Cherkalin from K Directorate. Did he really take a bribe? Maybe he did: anything is possible. It is more likely, however, he was arrested as part of a war for turf, turf that has been shrinking exponentially with every passing day. Fattened cows no longer graze on this turf: there are basically no cows left to milk. The entire herd has been devoured.

What to Expect
I will quote in full the monologue my anonymous source delivered when I asked him about the future. I do no think there is any need to decode it.

“The turbulence will increase. Until all the issues with Russia’s natural gas and its transit through Ukraine are settled, Number One won’t have time for things happening here. They have been outsourced to our guys. They have been told to go and bite everyone’s heads off. They have temporary permission to do it.

“But there are few fat cats. All the money has been sent abroad. Everyone is living on loans. All of Rublyovka is up to their ears in loans. There will be searches in some people’s homes, and some folks will be ripped to shreds. There will be a lot of this kind of stuff this year. The government will be purged, too. People love this sort of thing.

“Abyzov made no impression on anyone. No one understood what it was about. The only thing people will remember is that he offered to pay a billion rubles in bail. No one will forget him and the billion rubles.

“Circumstances are such that even the system’s insiders cannot make any forecasts. The settings are changing constantly. There is no stable paradigm.

“It is like with water. At room temperature, we understand how it acts. You can stick your finger in it and blow on it. But now it is being warmed. It has not boiled yet and vaporized, but you do not know what to do with it and how it will act next.

“The tax police are busy with major shakedowns. They are kicking everyone’s ass. When we ask them why they are doing it, they reply, ‘Crimea is ours, and our job is to get people to make additional payments.’ But additional payments and penalties are different things, especially penalties meant to wipe people out. They are going after people’s last rubles.

“I have a friend who works as a business court judge on tax cases. Whereas earlier, when she would be asked why she reduced a claim from one hundred million rubles to ten million, she could have an off-the-record chat with the head judge of the court and explain she was doing it so the person could keep their business, such chats are not kosher nowadays.

“Hard times are coming. The Syrian project fell through, and Russia failed to get control of the pipeline going through Turkey. Nothing that was planned in Syria has worked out, and both the South Stream and Nord Stream projects fell through [sic]. Nor will they replace the Ukrainian transit, although that was the goal. But it impossible to exit Syria, and now they have butted their noses in Venezuela. Their luck has been bad. People’s nerves are on edge up top.

“Number One is interested only in oil and gas, and so other parties have got involved in the game. If it were up to Number One, he would crush everyone and no one would breathe another word. He probably decided the lower ranks should take care of this stuff themselves. The very top bosses are not concerned with these matters at all right now. The lower ranks are running things and a huge amount of haggling has been happening.  We are witnessing a classic turf war.”

Welcome to the magical world of turbulence in a pot of boiling water.

Olga Romanova is the director of Russia Behind Bars, a charitable foundation that aids Russian convicts and their families, people who have been victimized by the Russian justice system. Translated by the Russian Reader

Ivan Davydov: The New Greatness Trial

new greatness.jpegDmitry Poletayev, Vyacheslav Kryukov, Ruslan Kostylenkov, and Pyotr Karamzin, defendants in the New Greatness trial, during a court hearing. Photo by Pyotr Kassin. Courtesy of Kommersant and Republic

Russia’s Most Important Trial: The New Greatness Case as a Model of Relations between State and Society
Ivan Davydov
Republic
July 11, 2019

The term “hybrid war” has been in vogue for a while. The folks on Russian TV, who long ago unlearned how to do anything good or, maybe, never knew how to do anything good constantly mention the “hybrid war against Russia.” The term is infectious. At any rate, I have the sense you could not coin a better phrase for describing the Russian state’s attitude toward Russian society.

The Russian state has been waging a hybrid war against Russian society, and it has also been a guerrilla war. It is as if the state has been hiding on the edge of the woods, lying in ambush, sometimes leaving the woods on forays to do something nasty, like hitting someone over the head with a billy club, fining someone, passing a law that defies common sense and threatens the populace or just blurting out something terrifying and stupid. Then it goes to ground in the woods again. The sound of steady chomping is audible and, occasionally, peals of happy laughter.

Russian society sometimes tries to fight back, of course. Actually, society exists only when it tries to fight back. When there is no fightback, there is no society, only confused, atomized individuals whom the “guerrillas,” happily chomping their food in the woods, consider food. Society rarely tries to fight back, and it scores victories even more rarely. This summer, it managed to drag reporter Ivan Golunov out of jail before the guerrillas could chew him up. I cannot recall any other victories.

Although I am mistaken. Last summer, for example, society secured house arrest for the two teenaged girls, Maria Dubovik and Anna Pavlikova, accused in the New Greatness case. They were nearly killed in remand prison, but they were finally released. There was a tidal wave of articles in the press, an angry buzz on the social networks, and a March of Mothers that the authorities decided not to disperse.

It is not clear why: the riot cops would have made short work of the mothers. The tough guys who constitute the rank and file of the OMON would have enjoyed beating up women armed with stuffed animals.

Even Margarita Simonyan emerged from the woods to shout something about the “serious people” in the Kremlin who cut short their summer holidays to make the right decisions. Then it was back to the woods, whence the steady sound of chomping and slurping could be heard.

I still cannot get used to the fact that we in Russia consider house arrest for the victims of police lawlessness a victory for our side and incredibly good luck. I mean to say I understand why people think this way, but I cannot get used to it.

And now all of them—Maria Dubovik, Anna Pavlikova, Vyacheslav Kryukov, Ruslan Kostylenkov, Sergei Gavrilov, Pyotr Karamzin, Maxim Roshchin, and Dmitry Poletayev—are on trial.

Pavel Rebrovsky and Rustam Rustamov have already been convicted. They made a deal with investigators and prosecutors before the case went to trial. They were sentenced to two and a half years in prison and two years probation, respectively.

It is not as if there is no buzz in society about the case, but it amounts to background noise at most. Our society is short of breath: it has enough air in its lungs to make one attempt at resistance. Meanwhile, amazing things have been happening at the trial.

Courtroom Miracles
In brief, the story is that young people who were not entirely happy with their lives shared their thoughts in chat rooms. (By the way, have you ever seen young people who were completely satisfied with their lives? Didn’t you feel like going out of your way to avoid them?)

A nice man emerged in their midst. He suggested they organize a group to fight for everything good and oppose everything bad. They met in real life a couple of times. Prompted by the nice man, they drafted a charter for their movement. The nice man, it transpired, was a police provocateur, and the members of the so-called New Greatness movement were detained by police, not without a certain amount of pomp and ceremony, right before the 2016 presidential election.

And how could the security services get by without pomp and fanfare? They had apprehended dangerous criminals and exposed an entire group of “extremists.” If you believe the case investigators, New Greatness were planning “mandatory participation in popular uprisings, revolutionary actions, [and] clashes with authorities of the current Russian regime.”

Can you imagine someone using the phrase “voluntary participation in popular uprisings”? Security services officers who specialize in such matters have decided to destroy the lives of these unfortunate young people. In fact, they have already destroyed them. But these same security services officers have a slippery grasp of Russian and are not terribly worried whether what they write makes any sense. The takeaway message is that the New Greatness kids have to be sent to prison whatever the cost and the words used to do it play an auxiliary role.

The goings-on at their trial leave no one in doubt that this is the point. None of the defendants has pleaded guilty. Pavel Rebrovsky testified against his friends as part of the pretrial deal he made with prosecutors. In court, he testified he had been promised probation, and so he had agreed to say what state investigators wanted him to say, not tell the court what had actually happened.

“You call me. Do you have Whatsapp? I’ll send you the testimony you need to give in court,” Investigator Anton Malyugin had said to Rebrovsky to encourage him.

I don’t know how to judge Rebrovsky’s actions. It is easy to feign you are an honorable person when you are not locked up in remand prison. Rebrovsky was locked up in remand prison. Nevertheless, the investigator pulled the simplest trick in the book on him. Rebrovsky was sentenced to actual prison time, not probation, but he had the guts to tell the truth in court.

Except the court does not want the truth. Prosecutor Alexandra Andreyeva petitioned the court to examine the witness again, and Judge Alexander Maslov granted her motion. Investigators now have the time they need to explain clearly to the defenseless Rebrovsky how wrong he was to do what he did and what happens to people who pull what he pulled so everything goes smoothly the second time around.

It is vital we know the names of all these people. They should become household names. We should not think of them as generic investigators, judges, and prosecutors, but as Case Investigator Anton Malyugin, Judge Alexander Maslov, and Prosecutor Alexandra Andreyeva, who pulled out all the stops to send these young people down on trumped-up charges.

Rustam Rustamov, whose testimony is also vital to the investigation’s case, mysteriously vanished the day he was scheduled to testify in court. He was in the court building, but he did not appear in court. Apparently, the prosecution decided not to risk putting him on the stand. There are also ways of making a person on probation realize that the desire to tell the truth can be quite costly. It is better to coach the witness properly. There is no hurry.

The Russian State’s Self-Defense
The whole story is quite pointed. The case has been cobbled together haphazardly. This was already clear last year, but now it has become completely obvious. No one plans to retreat, however. When the Russian state’s guerrillas come out of the woods, they always bag their prey. Otherwise, their prey might get funny ideas.

This is a story about decay, you see. It is not that Russia’s law enforcement agencies have nothing else to do. Unfortunately, there are real criminals aplenty. Nor have the Kremlin’s military adventures abroad been a panacea for terrorists. But it has been harder and harder for Russia’s law enforcers to find the time to deal with real criminals and real terrorists.

Recently, a friend’s elderly mother was taken to the cleaners by scammers. When he went to the police, they worked hard to persuade him there was no point even trying to investigate the crime. Everyone remembers the case of the serial poisoner in Moscow, who was released by police after he was detained by passersby. He was apprehended again only when a scandal erupted, the press got involved, and the big bosses voiced their outrage.

Who has the time to work on silly cases like that if you have been ordered to take down a reporter who has been snooping around? And why should you bother when you can “solve” a terrible crime you concocted in the first place and you also had the good sense to detain your homemade “extremists” right before an election?

All you have to do is remove one rotten log from this house for the whole thing to come tumbling down immediately. The Golunov case, which cost several police commanders their jobs, was an excellent illustration of this fact.

By the way, there are no suspects in the new Golunov case, which has been entrusted to the Russian Investigative Committee. The drugs planted themselves on the reporter. They were treacherous drugs. No wonder they say drugs are bad.

The investigators, the judge, and the prosecutor handling the New Greatness case understand this perfectly well. They will use all the means at their disposal to put away the defendants, most of whom have been locked up in remand prison for over a year. As they themselves like to say, it is a matter of honor or, simply put, a matter of self-defense. The investigators, the judge, and the prosecutor are defending themselves: if the case comes unglued, a scandal would be inevitable, and a scandal could cost them their cushy jobs. It would also do irreparable damage to the system, to the fabled woods, because the more such unhappy endings there are, the less comfortable it will be for the guerrillas to chow down in the woods.

This is a curious aspect of what I have been describing. When the current Russian authorities engage in obvious wrongdoing, they do not experience discomfort. Of course, they don’t: when they defend themselves in this way they only aggravate the injustice. The lives of villagers who are raped and pillaged by brigands hiding in a forest mean nothing to the brigands, naturally. What the big men of the woods do not like is noise. The sound of their own slurping is music to their ears. If a hullabaloo arises, they could lose the little things that make life in the woods so pleasant.

So, I would like to write that the New Greatness case is the most important criminal case in Russia at the moment. The lawlessness and injustice evinced by the Russian authorities have been obvious and flagrant. But there is also the Network case, whose takeaway message is that the FSB can torture anyone it does not like, and it is nearly legal for them to do it.

There is also the case of the Khachaturian sisters, in which the lesson is that “traditional values” are interpreted in Russia in a way that can tear society apart.

There is also the war on environmentalists who have been trying to prevent the opening of a giant landfill for garbage from Moscow near the town of Shies in Arkhangelsk Region.

And there is the case of Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopieva.

Finally, there is a mountain of smaller cases, which are no less terrifying even though they have generated less buzz or no buzz at all.

The menu of the forest brothers is too extensive, while Russian society is short of breath, as I wrote earlier. All arguments about Russia’s future boil down to a simple question: are their appetites hearty enough to eat all of us? None of them have complained about a lack of appetite so far.

And yet it would be unfair not to mention Anna Narinskaya, Tatyana Lazareva, and the other women involved in March of Mothers, who have been forcing their way into the courtroom and supplying accounts of what has been going on there. This is no easy task: the Lyublino District Court simply lacks room, but the judge has refused to have the trial moved to another court.

Then there are the musicians (Alexei Kortnev, Boris Grebenshchikov, Andrei Makarevich, Roma Zver, Pyotr Nalich, Vasya Oblomov, Maxim Leonidov, and MANIZHA) who recorded a video with Lazareva in which they performed an old song by the group Chizh & Co. about the “commissar contagion” as a way to draw attention to the case.

Finally, there is the website Mediazona, which has scrupulously chronicled the deeds of Russia’s law enforcers. It has also attempted to make the investigators, the prosecutor, and the judge in the New Greatness case household names.

It says a lot about Russia that a news website wholly devoted to covering the lawlessness of so-called law enforcers can function here and enjoy well-deserved popularity. Thank you, colleagues.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Immigration Blues

Immigrant hopefuls would be deemed eligible and competitive based on the points they accrue through a set of criteria, including educational specialty or degree, age, English proficiency, and a high-salaried job offer. They would need to show that they “like our way of life,” a senior official said, and that they are capable of “patriotic assimilation.” They could demonstrate that quality by passing a civics test much like the kind someone might encounter at a U.S. college.

I never had to take a civics test at a US college. The only civics test I have taken was the highly politicized test on Russian history and Russian laws I took last summer, along with a Russian language test, as part of the application to extend my Russian residence permit another five years.

It was a bloody joke, explicitly designed to show I “liked [their] way of life,” which they do not like themselves.

So, for example, I had to choose from among four possible answers when asked whether the “RF” (“Russian Federation”) was: 1) a totalitarian country, 2) an authoritarian country, 3) a hybrid country or a 4) a democratic country.

russian state

The right answer, obviously, was No. 4. I had enough Russian Bizarro world street smarts to choose it, although it was right only on the exam. In real life outside the exam, meaning on the ground, the RF is a No. 2 that badly wants to go No. 1.

If you imagine the test’s authors laughed their heads off when they drafted questions like this, you would probably be right.

When I was getting my other papers ready at Petersburg’s shiny new Amalgamated Documents Center (where Russians themselves can apply for foreign travel passports and lots of other precious papers, seals, stamps, permissions, visas, etc.), an employee suggested to me that, if I paid twice as much for the test, I would not have to take it for real. The fee would be considered a fee for an exam prep course I would not really take, either. On the appointed day, I would report at a certain time to a certain room to pick up a certificate showing I had passed the test with flying colors, although I would have done no such thing in reality.

I decided to take the test for real. I studied for it by taking sample tests I found on the web.

In the event, I passed the Russian civics exam with flying colors the hard way: by studying for it for most of a day and then taking it the next day.

A few months later, the FSB raided the language text and civics exam prep center at the Amalgamated Documents Center, claiming, probably on good grounds, the test center was helping applicants scam the government, which was footing the bill.

But the Russian government generated the problem in the first place by insisting immigrants take a hokey exam that, I am sure, most government officials would not be able to pass, much less rank-and-file Russians.

How odd the US government, currently headed by an avowed Putinist, would suddenly propose setting up the same hurdles to legal immigration to the US (“United States”). {TRR}

NB. The illustration, above, is a screenshot of the question on a sample test found on the internet. But the same multiple-choice question, with the same set of four possible answers, was on the real exam I did take as part of my application.