I dreamt that all wars had ended and a united humankind was amicably celebrating good’s victory over human nature’s age-old curse.
Since my dream took place in Petersburg, the warships had been turned in recreational vessels, equipped with swimming pools, gyms, spas, dance halls, hotels, bars, restaurants, etc.
The towering masts were outfitted with convenient spots for those wishing to photograph the city’s river embankments from above. The deck was dotted with deck chairs, and the holds, instead of rockets and shells, housed barrels containing every variety of alcohol from around the globe!
I remember strolling around one of these ships, shooting a reportage about the triumphantly heavenly lives of its inhabitants, but I was not able to finish the dream. As always in the morning, the cat’s meowing and the children waking up on time woke me up. Otherwise, I would have been late for my next photo shoot.
I never would have thought that I would speak out in defense of the Soviet Union. But now I am forced to do it.
I grew up in a small village in the middle of Russia. The adults in my life did not read samizdat and tamizdat, nor did they oppose the system — they just lived their lives. But from their conversations, loose talk, and slips of tongue, I was able to draw conclusions. I realized that I didn’t have to unconditionally believe the agitprop posters and the folks on the TV. Life was more complicated and, apparently, worse than the picture that the big bosses were trying to foist on us.
And yet there were certain things I took for granted. I knew that my country had clear, intelligible notions of good and evil, of how everything should work, and I considered them correct. Socialism had to emerged victorious. We didn’t seem to be doing everything right, but we knew what we were supposed to being doing.
To a large extent, of course, this belief was also based on a complete ignorance of how people actually lived outside the socialist bloc. There were simply no people in our midst who had seen it and could tell us about it. In our village, perhaps the only person who had visited this capitalist hell was my grandfather. He was in Vienna when the war ended. But he died before I was born, and besides, as my elders told me, he was a taciturn person and did not like to reminisce about his life.
I knew — just like Leonid Brezhnev, the guy on TV, who had fought in a real war — that it was wrong to even hint at using nuclear weapons. Nuclear war was terrible and the end of everything.
I also knew that we would never attack anyone. The Soviet Union had a militarist bent, and a sense of the coming war’s inevitability filtered into my childish mind. But there was only one possible scenario: the enemy would come to us, maybe even occupy our country, but then we would throw them out, win the war, and clean up the motherland. There was no other way. We wouldn’t attack first.
The Soviet Union, by the way, was bashful about its wars. It concealed its involvement in conflicts abroad. Only the Afghan War broke through the curtain of lies. I don’t know whether it was because of the magnitude, or because the giant was on its last legs and had even forgotten how to tell a fib.
Modern Russia is not shy. Go to the Main Cathedral of the Russian Armed Forces in Patriot Park. It is worthwhile and instructive. There are mosaics depicting Russian soldiers and heroes — the heroes of the Battle of Kulikovo, the Patriotic War of 1812, the Great Patriotic War … and a huge panel depicting the heroes of the wars that the Soviet Union waged after the Second World War. The figures in the foreground are easily identifiable as “Afghans,” but the picture’s authors quite clearly hint that it’s not just about veterans of the war in Afghanistan.
Soviet ideology was putrid and phony, but there was also a real humanism in it that filtered through the rot and falsity.
Modern Russia doesn’t even have this going for it.
Source: Ivan Davydov, “An apology for the Union: which USSR Vladimir Putin is resurrecting,” Republic, 21 July 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader
Justice Ministry Explains It Designated Republic a ‘Foreign Agent’ Because Foreign Embassies Subscribed to the Publication • Novaya Gazeta • 20 January 2022
The Russian Justice Ministry has explained that it placed the news and commentary website Republic on its register of media “foreign agents” because foreign embassies and Russian branches of foreign organizations had paid for subscriptions to the publication’s paywalled articles. The news was broken by Republic editor-in-chief Dmitry Kolezev on his Telegram channel.
The ministry claims that the publication received funds from the “Embassy of the Swiss Conference” [sic], as well as from the foreign missions of Finland, France, Lithuania and Kazakhstan in Russia. In addition, according to the excerpted statement, the Wall Street Journal, the Russian office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, and the Kazakh firm Eurasia Metals Company had transferred money to Republic‘s account.
“As we guessed, the formal reason was that foreign legal entities such as the embassies of France and Kazakhstan, the Wall Street Journal, etc., had paid for subscriptions in the amount of 14,800 rubles [approx. 170 euros] per year. Over two years, the Justice Ministry found a total of 178,500 rubles [approx. 2,000 euros] worth of such ‘foreign financing’ — we calculated that it was about 0.18% of our overall turnover,” Kolezev wrote.
On 15 October 2021, the Justice Ministry added Moscow Digital Media (Republic) to its register of Russian media outlets functioning as “foreign agents.” Kolezev toldNovaya, then, that Republic was funded exclusively by subscribers, and that its founding organization did not have any sources of external financing.
Full disclosure: I’ve subscribed to Republic for several years running. And, on many occasions, I have translated and published their articles here, especially ones by their perpetually clear-eyed and sardonic editor and commentator Ivan Davydov. I translated this article too. If you want this “media outlet functioning as a foreign agent” to keep on chugging, share my posts on social media and make a donation via PayPal or Ko-Fi. ||| TRR
Russia for the Rueful: A Map of Fear | Ivan Davydov | Republic | 7 December 2021
Once upon a time, an influential, respected person and I came up with a project meant to illustrate the absurdity of the Russian Criminal Code’s infamous Article 282, the one about “inciting hatred and enmity.” Oh, what a long time ago it was. Back then, there were simply no other articles in the Criminal Code that covered thought crimes. Can you imagine?
The idea was simple: gather quotes from classic Russian literature that were obvious violations of Article 282, make a website, and send an angry letter to the authorities. How long must this go on? we would write. Enough is enough! Ban books that sow hatred!
Actually, that’s why we focused on the Russian classics. It would have been easy to find the same kind of incitement in Homer, but uniformed readers might not react to his name. But they had definitely heard the surname Pushkin.
When everything was almost ready, however, my senior colleague (a wise person) said, “You know, let’s not do this. After all, they might just up and ban these books. But we have to go on living. How will we live with ourselves then?”
I recalled this story while reading the amazing news about the Investigative Committee’s war on Russian rap. First, an alarming dispatch appeared on the newswires: the head of the Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, after receiving an appeal from a “pressure group of patriots,” had ordered an inquiry into the new albums by Oxxxymiron and Noize MC. The pressure had informed the general that the rappers had whitewashed Nazism and promoted extremism.
It was a news item like any other. There is no other kind of news nowadays in Russia, nor can there be any other kind of news.
But then there was more news: the text of the letter by the “patriots” turned up on the LiveJournal blog of a moderately successful online humorist. The country’s chief investigator was not bothered, it transpired, by passages such as the following: “To tell the truth, the faces of Russian law enforcement chiefs are really not always so elegant, and when they start talking, they sometimes seem like aggressive morons, thus generating depression and suicidal moods [among the populace]. It’s also good that they’ve stopped showing the MP Irina Yarovaya on TV. Something needs to be done in this case, because our enemies exploit this weakness.” Famous for his habit of viewing publications on the internet through a magnifying glass, Bastyrkin failed to notice the ridicule.
Alexander Bastyrkin, checking whether the internet is whitewashing Nazism. Photo: Russian Investigative Committee
The author of the “letter” has now been making the rounds of the media, trying to prove that he had been joking. But it doesn’t matter: Veterans of Russia, which is a real (not fictional) pressure group, said that they would write an actual denunciation against the rappers.
It’s basic knowledge that you don’t kid around with policemen, judges, and border guards. Lately, everyone has been recalling what they did during the “snow revolution” protests, ten years ago, so I’ll indulge in remembering what I did too. In the spring of 2012 (not the winter of 2011), I was tried and fined for being involved in an “unauthorized” protest in which I was not involved. At the trial, I decided to take issue with the arrest report, according to which it had taken the paddy wagon ten minutes to transport me from the Nikitsky Gate (in the very center of Moscow) to a police station in the suburbs.
I contacted experts, who calculated that the unfortunate PAZ bus would have had to race at a speed of 600 kilometers per hour. I presented my thoughts to the judge.
The stern lady looked up at me with tired eyes. “Are you questioning the capabilities of the domestic automotive industry?” she asked. I resigned myself to my fate. Plus the fines were humane back then, nothing like the current ones.
But the list of those who cannot be trifled with is outdated. On Monday, the supremely pro-Kremlin polling agency VTSIOM published data on what things Russians now consider it impossible to laugh at.
Many of our fellow Russians are sure that they have a sense of humor. Overall, forty percent of the respondents said they had a sense of humor, and more than half of the young people surveyed said the same thing. And yet, Russians laugh at the jokes of the Ural Dumplings and love KVN, which makes one wonder about their assessments of their own sense of humor. But let’s get to the point.
In first place on the list of forbidden topics are jokes about the “health characteristics of other people,” and this is probably a good thing. It gets more interesting from there. Eighty percent of those surveyed believe that it is impossible to joke about the [Russian Orthodox] Church. Sixty-nine percent do not see anything funny about “the ethnic traditions and peculiarities of different peoples.” The same number are convinced that there is also little funny about the history of Russia, the USSR and the Russian Empire. (Here, by the way, I agree: there is little that is funny about Russian history.) This includes the sixty-three percent who are against jokes about “historical figures who are not living now.” Fifty-three percent would not touch “the army and the armed forces.” And fifty-one percent consider President Putin off limits (or untouchable?). Reverence for government in general is so strong that forty-five percent are afraid to joke about “other heads of state.”
The list is quite revealing. But it has nothing at all to do with a special species of hypocrisy peculiar to our population. It has to do with the state’s attempts to train the populace like animals. After all, the list perfectly correlates with the news about the campaign that the state has been waging against thought criminals. The feelings of religious believers are fragile, and the more that official spokesmen of traditional confessions talk about love and mercy, the higher are the chances that they would tear you apart for making an innocent joke. Or their particularly zealous adherents would do this: it makes no difference to the targets of their outrage. There has been a lull in the “buttocks war,” but the echoes of this war are still capable of scaring people.
Why people would steer clear of “ethnic traditions” also needs no explanation, nor is it an example of their outstanding political correctness. They understand that some traditions have their own specifics. Some peoples have a tradition of taking offense and demanding an apology on camera after having conversation with the offender that is fraught with bodily injuries of varying severity.
Nor is our reverent love of history love at all. “Whoever remembers old things, pluck out his eyes,” says the proverb. “Or maybe give him five years for whitewashing Nazism,” the Investigative Committee would add. We now have our own favorite stories on this score. The stories about the Investigative Committee and Alexander Bastrykin’s personal campaign against “Hitler’s accomplices” are well known to everyone. In the Chelyabinsk region, a homeless man who decided to dry his socks at the Eternal Flame was charged with whitewashing Nazism. What can we say about smart people who risk talking about the past? Yes, it’s better not to say anything—you’ll be safer. And if you think that all this concerns only the Second World War, then you’re thinking wrong. In Novosibirsk, investigators had a strict conversation with a scholar who dared to speak about Alexander Nevsky without sufficient respect. In St. Petersburg, the probe into the blogger who hung his own portrait in the Hermitage’s Gallery of Heroes of 1812 so that he could take selfies has not yet been completed. And so on.
The fact that the Russian President rounds out the list of topics forbidden for humor is a direct rebuke to Federation Council member Andrei Klishas. The law he wrote on mandatory respect for the authorities is not really working. (Although the police on the ground have been trying: they have been catching jokers on VKontakte and rolling out gigantic fines for them.) The Investigative Committee should probably take a closer look and figure out whether there has been any sabotage on Klishas’s part. Times are turbulent: there’s a hybrid war underway, and the enemy can entrench itself even at the Federation Council. You can’t let your guard down for a minute.
A Map of Fear
I don’t know what the pollsters at VTsIOM hoped to achieve when they did their survey. But they have produced a perfect map of fear. The state has been trying to intimidate its subjects, and, as we can see, its efforts have not been in vain. Although we should note that the Church, the “traditions of certain peoples,” and their own history frighten Russians more than the authorities, which is evidence that the state cannot finish the job even in this case. They cannot pull off everything: the police-state vertical has not yet been built. But I have to give them credit: they keep on working, they don’t give up.
What can I say. Let’s remember that laughter is the most effective cure for fear. By setting traps for pranksters, the country’s current proprietors do not demonstrate their own strength. They only point up their own weak spots. By intimidating us and nurturing our fears, they demonstrate their own fear. It’s good to see this. Although this is cold consolation for someone who has been imprisoned for making a joke.
But to avoid succumbing to excessive pessimism (and thus delighting government officials), let’s recall these lines of verse by Nikolai Karamzin, the founding father of Russian historiography:
He who, bored, summons the Muses And the gentle Graces, their attendants, With poems and prose amuses Himself, strangers, and dependents, And laughs in all sincerity (Laughing is really not a sin!) At everything that makes him grin Will get along with the world in amity, And won’t cut short his days With sharp blades or poisons…
We should make it clear that we are talking about a terrible state criminal: “The 48-year-old Ovchinnikov was detained on April 7. Law enforcement agencies believe that in August 2020 he posted ‘comments justifying terrorism’ on the RT News in Russian community page on VKontakte.”
First, let us note the uncharacteristic humanity exhibited by the investigators in the case. They could have tried to get Ovchinnikov remanded in custody for such actions, but no, they reined themselves in and only sought house arrest for the perp. Second, this really is good news. The court refused to put Citizen Ovchinnikov under house arrest, deigning instead only to slightly complicate his life. Staying at home at night is much better than staying at home all the time. And sitting around with no internet is incomparably better than sitting in jail.
The court did not make a cannibalistic ruling at all – another reason to rejoice!
When hearing such news, it is customary to joke, “It’s the Thaw all over again.” And also to say (just as jocularly), “Another victory for civil society!” But in this particular case, the second joke is not particularly appropriate. Civil society was not interested in Ovchinnikov’s plight, and no one made any effort to fight for his freedom.
This does not mean that the criminal will escape punishment: the investigators are working, and the court is waiting. There is a good possibility that for his terrible acts (“committed using the media or electronic or information and telecommunications networks, including the internet”), Ovchinnikov could face a heavy fine measuring in the millions of rubles (it’s the going thing nowadays: the big bosses would do not agree to less — times are difficult, the state coffers are empty, people are the new petroleum) or even a stint in prison.
The price of meekness
To be honest, I don’t know what kind of comment Citizen Ovchinnikov left on “RT’s official page.” It is quite possible that it was something stupid. And this is a telling aspect of the story: as part of my job, I have to keep track of trending news via feeds from the wire services. A few years ago, Ovchinnikov would have been a star. All the sane outlets would have written indignantly that a person was being tried for a social media comment. The insane outlets would have written something like, “A dangerous accomplice of terrorists was neutralized by valiant law enforcement officers in the president’s hometown.” We would know, perhaps, not only what exactly Alexander Ovchinnikov did to upset Margarita Simonyan’s underlings, but also all the details of his biography.
Nowadays, however, Ovchinnikov’s case is routine. There are dozens of such cases underway, and you can’t keep track of all of them. A story like this would only arouse interest if a more or less well-known person was under attack. Or the context would matter. We shouldn’t forget that among the criminal cases opened in the wake of January’s pro-Navalny protests, there are two that directly involve social network posts – the so-called Sanitary Case* and the “Involving Minors in Unauthorized Protests” Case. People will be put on trial, and they will be sentenced to prison, fines or probation.
The lack of public interest is understandable and even, perhaps, excusable. But it says a lot about how the Russian state and Russian society have mutated. Everyone regards cases like Ovchinnikov’s as commonplace. Meanwhile, the powers that be have usurped the right to punish people for their words, including words that are obviously insignificant. (Terrorism, of course, is a disgusting thing, but it is unlikely that a comment, even on the page of a propaganda TV channel, will somehow contribute particularly strongly to the success of world terrorism, and I assure you that those who are eager to jail people for social media comments also get this.) The authorities have come up with a lot of different reasons to punish people for their words. Thousands of specialists are busy searching for the wrong words, lives are broken, and careers are made.
But for us civilians it has also become commonplace. We have got used to it, recognized the right of the authorities to do as they like, and stopped being particularly indignant.
When the state is focused on lawlessness, norms are shaped not by deliberately repressive laws, but by our willingness to put up with how they are applied.
Norms and savagery
Fining or jailing people for the comments they make on social networks is savage, after all. Savage but normal. In a short while we’ll be telling ourselves that it’s always been like this. For the time being, however, searching the homes of opposition activists’ parents who have nothing to do with their children’s activism, interrogating journalists and political activists in the middle of the night, and torturing detainees after peaceful protests do not seem to be the norm. But it’s a matter of time — that is, a matter of habit. None of these things have sparked outsized outrage, so they too will become the norm.
But I have a sense that harsh crackdowns on peaceful protests have almost become the norm. What is surprising is when the security forces behave like human beings, as was the case during the Khabarovsk protests, for example. You mean the police didn’t break up the demo? What do you mean, they didn’t beat you? Was something the matter?
I remember how I was struck by a news item reported by state-controlled wire services after the first rally in support of Sergei Furgal: a little girl was lost in the crowd, and the National Guard helped her find her parents. The cops did their jobs, for a change, and that was amazing. The normal performance of their duties by the security forces looked like something completely crazy. Going back to the beginning of our conversation, we are now surprised when a court makes an utterly meaningless ruling that is not at all cannibalistic. It’s the Thaw all over again!
The norm looks wild, and wildness is the norm. So, perhaps, it is possible to describe where the Putinist state has arrived in its political devolution over the past few years. This is its supreme accomplishment.
If we follow the dictionary definitions, we should conclude there has been no state in Russia for some time. This is a different, new growth, and it is most likely malignant.
But this only works in one case – if society capitulates. A creepy monster like ours can only flourish in the ruins of society.
P.S. A trenchant critic might object: as if “they” do not have such a thing — putting people on trial for their words, and persecute for comments. Yes, it happens, of course, it happens. The most democratic of the democratic countries are not averse to biting off a little piece of their people’s freedoms, while grassroots activists, militants guided by the loftiest ideals, are happy to trample on other people’s freedom, and new centers of power, like the social networks, do not want to lag behind.
Recently, Facebook blocked a page run by a group of Moscow amateur historians who posted a text about the capital’s Khokhlovka district for a month for “hate speech.” Try to guess why. [Because “Khokhlovka” sounds similar to “khokhly,” a derogatory term for Ukrainians — TRR.]
Yes, in some sense, the Motherland, having made it a matter of policy to distance itself from the wider world, is following a global trend, however strange that may sound. Well, so much the worse for “them.” And for us. It is thus all the more important to remember how valuable freedom is.
“Horses, men and nonsense”: song and dance as matters of state
Ivan Davydov Republic
April 4, 2021
I must admit that I am quite unfamiliar with the work of Dima Bilan. You could even say that I’m not familiar with his work at all. It’s probably nothing to brag about, but it is what it is. I am truly grateful to Dima Bilan, however. It was he who jumped out of the piano with a violin (possibly on skates) and gifted Russia a few years of not having to discuss the “Russophobic conspiracy” at the Eurovision Song Contest.
Or maybe it was not Bilan who jumped out of the piano. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of Eurovision either, and I could have mixed up the details. But Bilan definitely won the 2008 contest in Belgrade, after which Russians calmed down a little, putting up with Eurovision for the next two or even three years.
Eurovision does strange things to people. Once a year, even people with decent taste who listen to normal music in real life, and not what Russia (like all the other participating countries) sends to the contest, suddenly start following the antics of comically dressed people, counting up the points and muttering to themselves, “Ukraine… The hell with them… What can you expect from them? But the Armenians?! How could the Armenians not vote for us?”
Then, for another week, the results of the competition are discussed not only on TV talk shows, but even in serious publications, not to mention social media.
Before Bilan’s victory, Russians every year rediscovered Europe’s alleged dislike of Russia: they would suffer fits of outrage and curse a blue streak, wasting time and fraying their nerves. Bilan broke the goddamn chain: Russians calmed down and, for a few years, reconciled themselves to the musical freak show. At first, they were proud of Bilan’s victory and, the following year, of the incredible show (costing many billions of rubles) that Moscow put on. Then… Well, to me, an inattentive observer, it at least seemed that the controversy around the contest had subsided, and only sincere fans of bad music were still getting worked up about it.
Now the contest has not even started, and yet passions are already boiling. The singer Manizha, who will represent Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest this year, has been threatened. The lyrics of her song have been analyzed by members of the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, at their sittings, and spokesmen for the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian Muslim leaders have weighed and judged the song before TV viewers have even voted. Hired and voluntary Twitter campaigners against “Ukrainian fascism” have forgotten their vocation, denouncing Manizha without mincing their words. I won’t even quote them: there is not a word in what they’ve written that is not punishable under the Russian Criminal Code. (By the way, have you noticed that professional Russian fighters against “fascism” are mostly brownshirts and smell accordingly?)
Interestingly, drift of the polemics has changed. Previously, people looked for a conspiracy after the contest was over, and they looked for it outside Russia. Now we have achieved total clarity about the conspiracy “from without”: all high-ranking officials talk about the “hybrid war” against Russia every day in unison, and to prove its existence, they no longer need to refer to the results of the Eurovision Song Contest. Now they are hunting for internal enemies, and prior to any international vote.
Manizha, “Russian Woman,” Russia’s entry for the 2021 Eurovision Song Contest
I know the work of the singer Manizha a little better than I know the work of Dima Bilan, because I listened to the song about Russian women that is going to the contest. But I don’t want to pretend to be a music critic. I’m not going to discuss the song’s merits of the composition. Instead, I intend to talk about the reaction of high-ranking Russian officials.
I wasn’t joking about the discussion in the Federation Council. Elena Afanasyeva, a member of the Federation Council’s international affairs committee (Eurovision is an international event, after all!) subjected Manizha to a withering critique: “The song has no meaning. It is a random set of phrases by an immature thirty-year-old girl with unresolved personal problems who doesn’t know what she wants. Excuse me, what does this have to do with Russian women? The style of the performance, African-American dances, a costume similar to that of an American prison inmate. Aggressiveness, senselessness, a negative image of the Russian family.”
That is, the song smacks of a provocation: it is an obvious machination on the part of Russia’s internal enemies.
Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the Federation Council, supported her colleague: “I recommend anyone who is not familiar with the lyrics of the song [to read them]. It’s about horses and men, and is basically nonsense. I don’t understand at all what it means.”
The speaker also demanded an inquiry to find out who had selected the song for the competition and how it was selected.
High-ranking Russian women have thus taken offense at the song “Russian Woman.” By the way, there is no mention of “horses” in the song, but it is quite clear why Matviyenko thought of them. They come from Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Borodino”:
The ground shook like our breasts,
Horses and men mingled in the battle,
And the volleys of a thousand guns
Merged into a long-drawn-out howl.
So, even oblique associations put the speaker on the warpath.
Konstantin Ernst (after all, the song was chosen on Channel One) was forced to explain that the audience had voted: nothing could be done, it was will of the people. Ernst’s strategy is clear: we remember how in 2014, on the eve of the occupation of Crimea and the war against Ukraine, he managed to sell the world the image of a kind-hearted and open-minded Russia by putting on a show at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Sochi. A song about the plight of a woman crushed by the patriarchal world, performed in Russian and English by an ethnic minority singer, is a similar move (and alas, it is possible that it is also being made on the eve of a new war). It is quite consistent with European trends, and could work. But it’s not a matter of trends. Europe is the same, but Russia has changed.
No black jack
The overripe Putinism of 2021 is not remotely the equivalent of the Putinism of 2014. Today’s Russia not only aspires to total control over anything its citizens do, but has been trying to exercise this control in practice. And so a pleasant freak show has been turned into a national affair in which the fatherland’s prestige is at stake. What we need now, supposedly, are not pop songs, but a solemn oratorio about the Russian nation’s acts of valor during the Second World War.
I would, by the way, send Dmitry Rogozin to the contest. He could handle the mission: it is not too late to dial everything back. It’s a shame to waste such an enormous talent.
The Eurovision Song Contest scandal has become a purely political story, another example of what the Russian state has been turning into. And yes, of course, the desire to interfere in cultural life is very important here, because the Russian state, which claims to be total, considers culture to be its exclusive bailiwick. This was the case back in the twentieth century, and the current proprietors of the state are in awe of Soviet best practices. We ordinary people hear a song that we like, dislike, or could not care less about, but they think about ideology, influencing opinion, and the blow to Russia’s image. And they see nothing else.
Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press secretary, thus sounded surprisingly reasonable when he commented on Matviyenko’s initiative: “We are talking about a show business competition at which different images are presented: there is a bearded woman performing, there are singers in chicken outfits… We do not consider it possible to comment on this or to intervene in any way.”
But let’s not forget that Peskov’s immediate superior once bluntly said that Peskov often “talks rubbish,” and his comments do not necessarily reflect the innermost thoughts of the best friend of singers and composers. The president met with young cultural figures not so long ago. Although they did not discuss Manizha, of course, the context was still legible. One of people at the meeting, the pianist Oleg Akkuratov, voiced a sore point to the supreme leader: “There is another problem. I really love songs in Russian, which are in short supply right now: at all competitions, including children’s ones, a lot of songs are sung in English. But I think that’s wrong. We need to encourage love for the Motherland, love for our country, love for our native tongue, because I think this is important for all of us. Maybe what we are missing is a Russian-language song contest? We have not, of course, completely lost our love for Soviet poetry, especially Russian poetry. But what we hear today is not meant for our ears, and especially not for children, because it is, of course, horrible.”
“I will immediately start with what I think is a large-scale and important idea – a Russian-language song contest: we will definitely think about it. I ask my colleagues in the Government and in the Administration to submit relevant proposals,” Putin replied.
Let’s have our own patriotic “Eurovision” without bearded women! Belarus, I am sure, will support us, and if we are lucky, Kazakhstan will close ranks with us, too.
Поле поле поле
Я ж мала
Поле поле поле
Как пройти по полю из огня
Как пройти по полю если ты одна?
Ждать ли чьей-то ручечки, ручки?
Кто подаст мне ручку девочки?
Из покон веков
С ночи до утра
Ждем мы корабля
Ждем мы корабля
С ночи до утра
Ждем мы корабля
Ждем бы корабля
А что ждать?
Встала и пошла.
Every Russian Woman
Needs to know
You’re strong enough, you’re gonna break the wall
Шо там хорохорится?
Ждешь своего юнца?
Тебе уж за 30
Ало? Где же дети?
Ты в целом красива
Но вот бы похудеть бы
Росла без отца
Делай то, что не хочешь
Ты точно не хочешь?
Мы с вами не стадо
Вороны пщ-щ-щ пыщ-щ-щ
Теперь зарубите себе на носу
Я вас не виню
А себя я чертовски люблю
Все по кругу борются
Да не молятся
Сын без отца
Дочь без отца
Но сломанной Family
Не сломать меня
You gonna break the wall
Every Russian Woman
Needs to know
You’re strong enough, you’re gonna break the wall
Every Russian Woman
Needs to know
You’re strong enough, you’re gonna break the wallHey, Russian woman
Don’t be afraid, girl
You’re strong enough
You’re strong enough
Don’t be afraid
Don’t be afraid
Don’t be afraid
Don’t be afraid
Все по кругу борются
Да не молятся
Сын без отца
Дочь без отца
Но сломанной Family
Не сломать меня
Fields, fields, fields
I’m so small
Fields, fields, fields
I’m too small
How do you cross a field through the fire?
How do you cross the field if you’re alone?
Should I wait for a helpful hand?
Who will stretch out for me, girls?
For ages now
From night till dawn
From the deepest of the night
We are waiting for a ship
A Sailing ship
Waiting very much
From night till dawn
Waiting for a ship
Waiting for a ship
But what’s the wait?
Stand up, let’s go!
Every Russian Woman needs to know
You’re strong enough, you’re gonna break the wall
Every Russian Woman needs to know
You’re strong enough, you’re gonna break the wall
What’s the rattling about?
Are you waiting for your prince?
Hello? Where are your kids?
You are cute overall
But should lose some weight
Wear something longer
Wear something shorter
Oh you grew up without a father?
You should do what you don’t want to
You sure you’d don’t want to?
Don’t want to?
Listen up, really!
We’re not a flock
Hey, crows, shoo!
Leave me alone (give me a break)
Now learn it by heart:
I don’t blame you a bit
But damn do I like myself
They just fight, always fight
Go round and round to just fight
But never pray
Boy without a father
Girl with no dad
But this broken family
Can’t break me
Every Russian Woman needs to know
You’re strong enough, you’re gonna break the wall
Every Russian Woman needs to know
You’re strong enough, you’re gonna break the wall
Hey, Russian woman
Don’t be afraid, girl
You’re strong enough
You’re strong enough
Don’t be afraid
Don’t be afraid
Don’t be afraid
Don’t be afraid
They are fighting, they are fighting
Everyone around is fighting
Yes, they don’t pray
Son without father
Daughter without father
But a broken family
Does not break me
How many Belaruses would fit into Mother Russia? Eighty-three! And yet, as Ivan Davydov argues, the current Russian regime is a “failed police state,” unlike the Belarusian regime. Neither fish nor fowl (although most certainly foul), Putin and his vassals have tanked their country’s economy while also signally failing to save people’s lives, nor have they been able to conjure away the coronavirus pandemic (rhetorically, if not in reality) as successfully as their frenemy the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
A Poor Excuse for a Belarus: The Collapse of Vladimir Putin’s Police State Ivan Davydov Republic
May 14, 2020
For more than a month now, I have been locked up like all law–abiding Russians, making only occasional trips out of the house on urgent business. I watch the world mostly from my balcony, and my world has narrowed to the size of this selfsame park.
Going to parks has been prohibited in Moscow by a special decree of the city’s all-powerful mayor. In parks, the coronavirus is particularly brutal, tracking down rare passersby, lonely morning jogging enthusiasts, and mothers with children, attacking and devouring them. On construction sites, on the contrary, the virus is weak and cowardly: it is afraid of construction workers, whom it does not touch.
Parks are a different matter.
The irresponsible residents of my neighborhood would still go to the park. Not in droves, as was the case before, no. They would go in small groups, as families, apparently. Joggers occasionally popped up, and bicyclists flashed by. Children made their way to the playgrounds (which were also closed, of course). In other words, they violated the mayor’s wise orders.
To put a stop to this unbridled lawlessness, police patrols would come to the park. The guardians of law and order would park their car on a hillock and stand around smoking and watching people walking. Once, when it was particularly cold, wet snow was pouring down, and only a lone madman was sitting on a bench, they went up to the madman and forced him to sign some papers.
And once they went down to the park and fed the ducks, pointedly ignoring the people walking around, before returning to their car. Oh yes, and a couple of times they shouted into a megaphone about the fact that going to parks was temporarily prohibited, and that citizens should look out for themselves and their loved ones.
I will explain later what this pastoral sketch was all about, but in the meantime let us look through the window at our neighbor to the west. It is a fascinating story.
A Wonderful Neighbor
While the rest of the world has been in quarantine, Alexander Lukashenko has gained fame as a maestro of fiery speeches and colorful aphorisms. He has suggested treating the coronavirus with vodka, a bath, and field work. He has advised Belarusians who have lost their jobs to find a job and get to work. (It’s brilliant, really, and simple, like all brilliant solutions.) He advised overly light-minded men to be patient and not to mix with other men’s women for a while. Lukashenko is a president with real gusto, not a president who talks about ancient battles with the Polovtsy from his bunker.
To the frenzied delight of Russian jingoists, Lukashenko held a parade on May 9 [Victory Day], attracting crowds of people, including the elderly. And the very elderly—veterans, in fact. But that was only half the trouble. He also said that after the parade, the statistics on the incidence of pneumonia had gone down. He confessed (he’s an honest man) that he had feared an increase in the incidence of pneumonia, but it didn’t happen. “Well, what did we end up with? There has been a significant reduction in pneumonia in Minsk: it dropped by half yesterday. And I made the sign of the cross yesterday: God grant that we will continue giving hell to pneumonia like this.” Fresh air, he said, helps a lot.
And if Lukashenko had wanted, he could have said that people who died from the coronavirus had begun resurrecting after the parade. (As of May 12, according to the official statistics, 142 people in Belarus had died from the coronavirus.) Why? Because he can, that’s why. He can stamp out any protest. He can ignore the reports from the doctors.
It’s not even the Swedish model. The Swedish model, whose success is a matter of debate (a debate we will have later) stipulates that big public events not be held, and citizens behave responsibly. The Belarusian model assumes that there are no citizens. There is a populace that absolutely obeys the decisions of the supreme leader. Happily for us, the new virus is not the medieval black death: clearly, the country will not die off if you purposely avoid imposing a quarantine in order to save the economy. The Belarusian president made his choice by deliberately deciding to sacrifice a certain (non-essential) number of inhabitants, who cannot be saved by vodka or field work.
And after Vladimir Putin announced a “phased exit” from the semi-imposed non-quarantine, Lukashenko condescendingly praised his junior comrade, saying that Russia had followed the Belarusian path.
The Russian Miracle
But in fact, Russia has its own special path. The “non-working weeks” battered the economy considerably, but it is questionable whether they were able to protect residents. When the quarantine was imposed, there were very few cases. When the government started lifting the quarantine, Russia shot up to second place worldwide in the number of infected people.
On May 12, Anna Popova, the head of [Russian federal consumer watchdog] Rospotrebnadzor, said that 28.4% of people identified in Russia as infected with the coronavirus were hospitalized. At the time, the total number of people identified as infected was around 230,000; a simple mathematical calculation gives us approximately 65,000 people in hospitals. (In fact, the real figure is another ten thousand less, since we are not taking into account the people who have recovered). But the next day, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said at a cabinet meeting that there were more than 100,000 Russians hospitalized with the coronavirus. You would agree that all this makes it seem that our government is surprisingly footless and fancy-free with statistics, even with their own official statistics, with statistics intended for the public.
On May 13, the Moscow Health Department reported that 60% of those who died with a diagnosed coronavirus had not been included in the coronavirus fatality statistics for capital, because they had died from “obvious alternative causes.” The governor of Petersburg also reported that there had been a spike in the incidence of pneumonia in the city: the indicators were “five and a half times higher than the average.” Since the first of March, 694 residents of Petersburg have died from pneumonia, and 63 from the coronavirus.
Perhaps this is the reason for the Russian miracle of rather low mortality rates from the coronavirus infection. Especially if you remember that Russia is not only made up of capital districts and metropolitan areas, that in the regions, as a rule, all or almost all media outlets are controlled by the local administrations, and it is even easier for them to turn statistics from an enemy into an ally.
And why did the head honcho announce the end of the “non-working weeks”? Well, it’s not so hard to turn a terrible virus into a non-scary one. It’s like with elections: what matters is not what really happened, but who counts the votes and how they count them.
Amulets for MPs
But what’s really going on? In fact, our high officials are afraid, and they are trying to protect themselves by turning the nightmare into a joke and not standing on ceremony with the public. Saving your own life is more important than standing on ceremony.
On May 13, Igor Molyakov, an MP from A Just Russia, asked State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin why some of their colleagues were coming to sessions of parliament not wearing their MP pins, as required by law, but wearing quite different pins featuring a white cross on a black background. Molyakov added that he was a dog breeder himself and would like to know whether it would be possible for him to wear the pin of his kennel club instead of the Russian tricolor on his lapel.
Volodin’s answer, I hope, will go down in the annals: “Let’s ask the people who are wearing these pins, but as far as my colleagues have told me, they are special devices for repelling the virus.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day soon, MPs ran naked around the State Duma building on Okhotny Ryad banging on pots: this method of fighting pestilence has been described by anthropologists. And we can only pray that no one tells them that fresh human flesh, for example, staves off the virus. They would believe them.
Dmitry Peskov, the president’s press Secretary, has fallen ill. And now he remembers regretfully the “virus blocker” that he wore and then stopped wearing after he was mocked in the press.
Here it is important to understand that the people wearing the miracle badges and warding off the virus with life-giving white crosses are the same people who explain why “phasing out restrictions” at the peak of the epidemic is justified, and make decisions that affect our lives.
Of course, they themselves get sick and get infected, but let’s not forget that we will be treated in slightly different hospitals, if push comes to shove.
It’s hard to stop. For dessert we have another intellectual delicacy, this time from Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov. He has explained why masks cannot be distributed for free in the city during the mandatory mask regime: “Yesterday, we adopted a resolution not to give out free masks, but to hand out money. There are a lot of people in our city, both visitors and non-visitors, and people from other regions. How should we should distribute these masks? We should make you show your passport and ask where you are registered.”
The virus, you understand, asks to see people’s residence permits and attacks only native Petersburgers. It presents no danger to out-of-towners and migrant workers, nor can they themselves infect anyone. Governor Beglov is in charge of Russia’s second largest city, the home to millions of people and a “pneumonia outbreak” that, of course, has nothing to do with the coronavirus.
By the way, Beglov’s “money” amounts to 800 rubles [approx. 10 euros] for pensioners and members of large families to buy masks.
A Failed Police State
But let’s go back to my park. I started with it to illustrate the fact that the police state in Russia has failed. There has been a lot of overkill, and people all over Russia have been pretty annoyed, but the police have been unable to ensure compliance with the imposed restrictions. They are good at breaking up peaceful protest rallies, but bad at everything else.
The government had a choice. It could have engaged the citizenry in dialogue, rejected intimidation in favor of education, sought compromises where possible, and, of course, provided direct financial assistance to those forced to stay at home. It could have made Russia’s citizens its allies instead of making them the targets of an incoherent police dragnet. To do this, however, it would have had to see the populace as citizens, but we have a big problem with this sort of thing in Russia.
The government could have done it, but it was impossible—forbidden—for the government to do it.
The reason they terminated the “non-working weeks” is that they simply could not enforce the lockdown measures. And they decided to rescue the economy since they had been unable to save people. But there was a tiny twist: they did this only after after the economy had been dealt a serious blow.
The Russian state makes war on Russian citizens as if they were the main threat when, in fact, there are no real threats to it, but it simply vanishes when there is a real threat. This is exactly what Putin has built over the last twenty years. This is the whole “Russian federal system”—terrifying, unsinkable, tending to totalitarianism. It’s a poor excuse for a Belarus. It’s a slightly rotten Belarus.
Take care of yourselves and help each other. No one else is going to help us.
“Release political prisoners! They should not be in prison!” Muscovites rally in support of political prisoners on Sakharov Avenue on September 29, 2019. Photo by Pyotr Kassin for Kommersant. Courtesy of MBKh Media
While you more or less grasp the sheer abnormality of the current Russian regime and even are aware of the nitty-gritty when it comes to certain things, you gradually learn to put up with a lot. You get used to it, you develop defensive skills. Constantly experiencing righteous anger is hard on the psyche. Nor does it happen on schedule, three times a day for twenty minutes, after meals, by way of clearing your conscience.
For example, you’re walking in downtown Moscow and you think, What the hell, it really has become nicer. Of course, you recall the savage corruption of the powers that be, and the trick they pulled with the elections last summer, and their persecution of ordinary people, but it has become prettier. There are the cozy shops and cafes, the lovely food courts, the new subway stations, and the Moscow Central Circle. Comfort and convenience trump righteous anger, and you catch yourself thinking, Well, they steal, naturally (I’m curious, by the way: is the word “naturally” accidental here or not? Probably not anymore), but they could just steal outright. Instead, they make improvements, and those improvements benefit more people than just them.
And it’s not that you forgive them for theft, election fraud, and last summer’s police dragnet against random passersby, but all of it recedes to the edge of consciousness, turning into cute, almost ordinary naughtiness.
I walk down the street, noting that Moscow has become prettier by any reckoning, and now, maybe, I’ll go into a cozy little cafe and have a cup of coffee. And almost certainly at the same time somewhere agents of the state will be torturing an ordinary person. This awareness pierces the brain like a nail—there’s no escaping it, it is painful and shameful. It’s a strange thing: I am not torturing anyone myself, but I’m ashamed for some reason. Or, rather, for some reason it’s me who is ashamed.
The same goes for awareness of the existence of political prisoners in Russia. More than two hundred people are in prison only because they allowed themselves to think something about the current Russian government that the current Russian government didn’t like. This is according to Memorial, which has been designated a “foreign agent,” so you can believe its figures. More than two hundred people are being punished for incorrect thoughts, and it’s impossible to reconcile yourself with this fact in any way.
Neither the prettified streets of the big cities, nor the funky art exhibitions, nor the generous handouts the president has promised the disadvantaged and veterans can absolve the state of its guilt. This just should not be happening, but that’s the way it is.
A recent survey by the Levada Center provides some comfort. I am not the only one in Russia who is so knowledgeable: there are a fair number of us. By the way, the Levada Center has been designated a “foreign agent,” so you can trust their findings. “Foreign agent,” after all, is something like a mark of quality, a certificate of non-complicity in the state’s lies.
When asked whether there were currently political prisoners in Russia, 23% of respondents answered yes, while another 40% answered that yes, there probably were political prisoners. Thus, a sizeable majority of people (63%) either know for certain or are reasonably sure that people are jailed in this country for thinking the wrong thoughts. The number of informed Russians has been growing. The poll was conducted in December 2019; in December 2018, 50% of those polled were aware of political prisoners. Analysts attribute this growth to the efforts of Moscow city hall, the noisy scandal over last autumn’s elections, and the protests ignited by the so-called Moscow Case.
I saw a happy tweet on Twitter from an opposition activist: “Hooray! Two thirds of Russians are aware of political prisoners! This is the result of our work! But we need more people to know.” I saw the tweet, but I immediately lost the link and forgot who wrote it. I wondered, however, whether there was much reason for celebration.
Two thirds of Russians are aware there are political prisoners in Russia, but this has not generated much of a furor. Even when the Moscow Case was in full swing, only a few hundred people in Moscow—a drop in the ocean—came out to picket in support of political prisoners. Thirty thousand people or so attended an “authorized” protest rally: this is nothing in a city of twelve million people. And in comparison with the number of people who are supposedly aware, it’s also nothing.
This means, apparently, that the vast majority of Russians consider the presence of political prisoners in the country to be the norm. I hope that, at least, they consider it an abnormal norm—that is, more or less the way I view corruption in Moscow. They see it as something unpleasant, of course, but not particularly terrible, as something they can live with.
Speaking of which, last summer the Levada Center published the results of a survey on the use of torture by the security forces. The numbers were absolutely terrible: 10% of Russians had experienced torture. This is not two hundred some people we’re talking about, but millions of people. 60% of those polled considered torture unacceptable, which is also seemingly a cause for joy. But that means that 40% either think torture is justified or haven’t formed an opinion on the subject: they are not moved by this sad, literally painful topic.
What’s the point in guessing, though? 30% of respondents stated outright that they considered torture justified in “exceptional cases.” I’ve never understood where the instinct for self-preservation goes in such cases. How can you be sure it won’t be you who turns out to be such an “exceptional case” for a tipsy policeman one day?
I don’t like it when folks chew out the “Russian people.” People in Russia are normal, on the whole, no worse than other people. Especially since I’m one of those people. There is no excuse for looking down on “the people.” It’s stupid and silly.
However, I see no particular cause for optimism when it comes to the polling data on awareness of political prisoners in our country. It points to a serious societal disease, and most important, it is completely unclear what the cure for it is.
But for starters, of course, all political prisoners must be released.
Thanks to Julia Murashova for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader
Vyacheslav Volodin, Dmitry Medvedev, and Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the State Council, June 26, 2019. Photo by Dmitry Astakhov. Courtesy of Sputnik, Reuters, and Republic
What Russia Cannot Imagine
Ivan Davydov Republic
July 18, 2019
Any periodical would love to get their hands on a star author. Who even thought a few days ago that something called the Parliament Gazette was published in Russia? Yet State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has just published an article there entitled “The Living, Evolving Constitution.” Everyone who follows politics has read it and many have ventured to summarize it. Volodin praises the Russian Constitution and its spirit while arguing certain things in it should be amended.
This is not the first time Volodin has done this. Last year marked the Constitution’s twenty-fifth birthday. The speaker hinted that it was obsolete in parts. Valery Zorkin, Chief Justice of the Russian Constitutional Court, voiced similar thoughts, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev weighed in with a programmatic article entitled “The Constitution at Twenty-Five: Balancing Freedom and Responsibility.”
The little booklet keeps them up at night. They sense it is at odds with reality. They are eager to amend it.
Medvedev wrote about the possibility of amending the Constitution. The amendments were needed in order to “update the status of the authorities.” Don’t ask me what that means: the prime minister himself would probably not be able to tell you.
Zorkin spoke of “pinpoint” amendments aimed at restoring the balance between the executive and legislative branches. Nineteen years into Putin’s reign, the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court suddenly noticed the executive branch had brought the legislative branch to heel.
Volodin’s article has the same bent.
“In my analysis of the Constitution, I pay special mind to the lack of a needed balance in how the legislative and executive branches function. Discrete, pinpoint constitutional innovations might really be necessary in this case,” he writes.
Actually, the speaker has only one proposal: the Duma should have more levers for controlling what the government does.
“It is advisable to further elaborate the rules concerning the government’s accountability to parliament on issues raised by the State Duma, including the evaluation of the performance of specific ministers. It would also be a good thing (this is only my opinion) to further weigh the question of the State Duma’s involvement in selecting ministers in the Russian federal government,” he writes.
“People with the educations of quartermasters and policemen and the convictions of rioters are deciding the country’s fate,” he said.
His words have lost none of their timeliness, to the woe of our poor fatherland.
No, the man at the podium is Vyacheslav Volodin, a well-educated intellectual whose mind is on a par with the pillars of the Renaissance. He wrote his dissertation about dispending feed to livestock, but his arguments about balancing the branches of government are no worse than what you would hear from a political scientist, although, of course, the irrepressible lover of bad jokes inside all of us would note the parallels between cattle and politicians.
Volodin is at the podium, so we must read between the lines. He could not care less about achieving a “higher quality of interaction and coherence in the government’s work.” The speaker has a different goal, one that is easily discerned.
The Eternal Present
Like everyone else who has spoken about possible amendments to the Constitution, the speaker is looking to the future. He is looking towards 2024 when the regime will have to figure out how to maintain Putin’s grip on supreme power. It would be unseemly just to reelect him one more time. You do not expect any of the folks occupying important government posts to worry about decency, but the issue does indeed bother them.
Political junkies are regularly excited by rumors of transition scenarios, some of them quite intricate. People in the know, citing anonymous but terribly reliable sources, suddenly claim that a State Council will be established.
They must have seen Ilya Repin’s famous monumental painting, which made an impression on them.
Ilya Repin, Ceremonial Sitting of the State Council on 7 May 1901 Marking the Centenary of its Foundation, 1903. Oil on canvas, 4.4 m by 8.77 m. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Or they let slip that Russia and Belarus will finally be totally unified.
But the State Council—not the meaningless, powerless State Council that has convened since 2000, but a genuine, proper State Council that would replace all other executive authorities—still convenes only in Repin’s painting, while the would-be tsar of Belarus his own plans and his own heir. He even took him on a pilgrimage to Valaam to show him off to our would-be tsar and thus quash any funny ideas in the latter’s head.
And then Bloomberg, a source at we cannot sneeze, writes that the Kremlin is planning large-scale electoral reforms. Supposedly, in the 2021 parliamentary elections, 75% of MPs will be elected not via party lists but in single-mandate constituencies. United Russia’s candidates will run as independents. (We have heard this before.) The regime will have total control of parliament. (As if it does not have it now.). Putin will again lead the ruling party and be appointed the prime minister. The powers of the presidency will be curtailed. It will not matter who is elected to this clownish post because Russia will be run by the prime minister.
We have been through this before. There was no need to amend the Consitution. The regime did as it liked anyway.
Rumors spread by an international news agency are one thing, but rumors backed by a programmatic article written by the Speaker of the Duma are another. The picture comes into focus. The regime has come up with a plan, apparently. We can thus say with some accuracy what the future holds for us.
The future will be the same as the present, despite certain formal shakeups that have no bearing on the real lives of ordinary Russians and leave the regime’s domestic and foreign policies intact. The regime will undergo fundamental changes, as it were, but the same people will be in power.
What future lies in store for us? No future at all, a future as dull as the eyes of Russia’s leader.
The Ruling Dynasty’s Motto
On the one hand, all of this stuff is interesting, as it were. You feel like Sherlock Holmes, perusing a boring article with a magnifying glass and figuring out what it has to do with keeping Putin in power. You imagine how the Russian state machine will function after it undergoes a minor facelift. The prime minister will control both the parliament and the government while the president visits summer camps and publishes articles in small-circulation newspapers about what the world will be like in a hundred years. Medvedev would be great for the job, and this would solve the problem of finding another heir.
On the other hand, haven’t we been through this already?
The takeaway message is that none of these schemes accounts for regime change. Our powers that be can draw whatever blueprints they like showing one set of cogs engaging another set of cogs, setting into motion our mighty state, which churns smoke like the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and terrifies the rest of the world with its smell if not its military might.
What they cannot imagine is completely different people at the helm. This is what cannot be imagined in Russia at all.
Neither Volodin, his ghostwriters, and his commentators can entertain the thought power could change hands. Political power in modern Russia has nothing to do with procedures and institutions. You can dream up whatever procedures you like and mold institutions by the bucketful from dung and twigs. Political power in today’s Russia is about people, the small group of people, whose names we all know, led by Vladimir Putin.
Any imitation of change is permissible so long as it makes real change impossible. This is the perfect way of summing up Volodin’s article and political reforms in Russia, although “reforms” should be encased in quotation marks, which are the most important signifiers in Russian political discourse.
“Changing to prevent change” would be an excellent motto for the current ruling dynasty, a dynasty consisting of one man whom he and his entourage inexplicably imagine is immortal.
Moscow as a Mirror
Even yesterday’s loyal supporters see clearly what pass this dynasty has brought us to. They have no plans of winding up their act and exiting the stage.
The independent candidates are young people who can sometimes seem too radical and sometimes seem a bit ridiculous, for idealists always seem a bit ridiculous. Oddly, however, they are open to dialogue. They are keen to accomplish something real in politics and bring about gradual changes in public life.
I wanted to write “perestroika” instead of “changes,” but the word has too much baggage, so the heck with it.
The people who run Moscow, just like the people who run Russia, cannot get their heads around a simple truth. The country’s only real defense, its only chance at survival (and this applies to everyone, including the political bosses) are these slightly ridiculous idealists, who are willing to pull up their sleeves, work, and talk to people. They could try and clean up all the messes the people who run things have made.
But the powers that be toss them out of legal politics like naughty puppies in a sneering show of force that demonstrates they do not understand that destroying room for legal politics is a road to ruin. They do not realize that in this serial’s next episode it will not be ridiculous idealists who take to the streets, playing volleyball at “unauthorized” protest rallies and waiting for the green light to cross the street during banned protest marches, but starved pragmatists whose program will consist of smashing windows and crushing skulls.
All of the tricky plans for keeping Putin in power will come to naught. There will be no Putin, and there will be no power. Maybe there will be an endless remake of the Donetsk People’s Republic, but there is no certainty even that much will happen.
However, by way of toning things down a bit and leaving my readers with a smile on their face, I will close by quoting from Medvedev’s article about the Russian Constitution, which I mentioned earlier.
“While recognizing and protecting human rights, the Russian Constitution limits the claims made on the defense of these rights by not recognizing as rights those that are at odds with Russian society’s traditional values. The idea of human rights is thus given a new interpretation in relation to other constitutions, marking out a particular, original, nonstandard approach to the way human rights are regarded.”
Dmitry 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.
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.
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.
Protest rally in Abakan against plans to raise the retirement age. Photo by Alexander Kryazhev. Courtesy of RIA Novosti and Republic
The Russian Protest Federation: How Moscow Has Stopped Shaping the Political Agenda. Will Ordinary Russians Realize Pension Reform and Geopolitical Triumphs Are Linked?
Ivan Davydov Republic
September 27, 2018
The people who took to the streets long ago on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square and Sakharov Avenue deserve the credit for the reinstatement of gubernatorial elections in Russia. It was a time that would be unimaginable now. There was no war with Ukraine. Crimea had not been annexed. No one had given Syria a second thought. It still makes you wonder why the Kremlin took fright then, albeit briefly. Instead of guessing, we should note it was the capital that led the national protest movement then, confirming yet again the centripetal nature of life in Russia. Over a 100,000 people attended the first two protest rallies in Moscow, on December 10, 2011, and February 4, 2012. Petersburg took second place, sending 25,000 people onto the streets for its February 2012 rally, but no one other city was even close. Protests took place in dozens of cities, including all the major ones, but the best the regions achieved was something on the order of 5,000 people in attendance. In most places, the average crowd numbered around a thousand people.
The opposition failed just like the regime. It transpired the national agenda and the agenda of Muscovites were the same thing. The farther you went from Moscow, the less people were worried about the issues exercising newspaper reporters. Least of all were they worried about their own real problems, about local issues, and thus there was no chance of changing things in Russia.
But the credit for transforming gubernatorial elections into something really resembling elections, albeit quite remotely, must go to the regions. The takeaway message is that the regime’s electoral fiasco in the regions on September 9 is a nationally significant event. The rank-and-file voters there, who cast their ballots for sham candidates from parties other than United Russia as a way of registering their disgust with the local political bosses, have turned circumstances inside out. The regions are now dictating their agenda to Moscow, as governors who seemed invulnerable only recently look shaky, and even Putin himself has been forced to break a sweat.
As befits a myth, the Moscow myth that, putting it as succinctly as possible, Moscow is not the real Russia, is not true at all. But, like any good myth with life in it, it is based on real things. As I write this column, water is gurgling in the radiators of the standard Moscow high-rise where I live, because the heating season has kicked off. It is ten degrees Celsius outside, and Moscow’s tender inhabitants would freeze otherwise. Meanwhile, all the news agencies are reporting as their top news item that a place in the queue to buy the new iPhone at Moscow stores will set you back 130,000 rubles [approx. 1,700 euros]. That is expensive, of course, but you would let yourself be seen as an outdated loser at your own peril.
Muscovites protest often, although in fewer numbers than during the fair elections movement. To outsiders, however, protesting Muscovites almost always look like whimsical people who are too well off for their own good. Everyone knows Moscow has wide pavements, new subway stations, the Moscow Central Ring, and perpetual jam festivals and nonstop carnivals on Nikolskaya Street. People who live in places where even today anti-tank trenches pass for roads, and the mayor nicked the benches from the only pedestrian street (urbanism is ubiquitous nowadays, no longer a Moscow specialty) and hauled them to his summer cottage, find it really hard to take seriously people who are up in arms over a new parks whose birches were imported from Germany, and holiday lighting whose cost is roughly the same as the annual budget of an entire provice somewhere outside the Black Earth Region. The residents of “construction trailer accretions” (you will remember that during one of President Putin’s Direct Lines, the residents of a “construction trailer accretion” in Nyagan came on the air to complain) find it hard to understood people protesting so-called renovation, as in Moscow, that is, people who protest the demolition of their old residential buildings and being resettled in new buildings. For that is how it appears when geographical distance obscures the particulars.
The regime has skillfully manipulated this gap. Remember the role played by the “real guys” from the Uralvagonzavod factory during the fair elections movement, or the out-of-towners bussed into the capital for pro-Putin rallies on Poklonnaya Hill and Luzhniki Stadium. But the gap functions as yet another airbag for the Kremlin even when it makes no special effort to manipulate it. Moscow is part of Russia when we are talking about national issues and the fact those issues are debated in Moscow as well, but since any sane non-resident of Moscow believes Moscow is no part of Russia, the big issues end up being issues that exercise Muscovites, but do not interest people beyond Moscow.
The Main Political Issue
Alexei Navalny has bridged the gap slightly. His attempt to set up regional presidential campaign offices seemed absurd since everyone, including Navalny, realized he would not be allowed on the ballot and there would be no reason to campaign. He ran a campaign anyway, and his campaign offices turned into local pockets of resistance, into needles that hit a nerve with the regime while simulatneously stitching Russia together and removing Moscow’s monopoly on national politics. His campaign offices are manned by bold young people willing to take risks and good at organizing protest rallies. Of course, even now more people in Moscow attend Navalny’s protest rallies than in other cities, but people have still been taking to the streets in dozens of cities for the first time since the fair elections protests of 2011–2012. Navalny’s campaign offices splice issues that the locals get with national issues, thus producing the fabric of real politics. When I discussed the subject of this column with the editors of Republic, one of them joked Navalny was a “franchise.” The joke has a point, but the point is not offensive.
It was Vladimir Putin, however, who really turned the tide or, rather, the federal authorities, of which Putin is the living embodiment. The pension reform has made it abundantly clear the Russian authoritarian state no longer intends to be paternalist. The state has suddenly discovered what people actually liked about it was the paternalism. Or they put up with the paternalism. It is hard to say what word would be more precise. But they did not put up with it due to its victories on the geopolitical front.
The pension reform has erased the line between the big issues, debated by well-fed people in Moscow, and the real issues that constitute the lives of real people. This is quite natural, since being able to claim Russia’s miserly pensions a bit earlier in life is more important in places where life is harder. Moscow is definitely not the worse place in Russia to live. Despite the myth, Moscow is no heaven on earth, either, but the central heating has already been turned on, for example.
So, even a dull, boring, well-rehearsed formality like gubernatorial elections has become an effective tool of protest. The regime made a single mistake, a mistake to which no one would have paid attention to a year ago. (Since when has vote rigging seriously outraged people in Russia? Since days of yore? Since 2011?) The mistake set off a chain reaction. The new single nationwide election day had been a boon to the Kremlin, its young technocrats, and its not-so-young handpicked “businesslike” governors. If the elections had not taken place simultaneously everywhere, and the fiasco in the Maritime Territory had occurred at the outset of the elections season, it is not clear how powerful a victory the no-name candidates from the loyal opposition would have scored.
Maybe Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky would have had to disband their parties for fear of reprisals from the regime, since, the way they have long seen things, there is nothing more terrifying than success, and nothing more dangerous than real politics.
A Moscow municipal district council member from the opposition can easily make a coherent, meaningful speech about how the war in Syria has impacted the clumsiness of Mayor Sobyanin’s hired hands, relaying the tile in some unhappy, quiet alley for the third time in a single year. The council member’s speech would elicit laughter, and the laughter would be appropriate. But amidst the customary laughter we need to be able to discern the main question of a reemergent Russian politics.
The issue is this. Will ordinary Russians understand—and, if so, how quickly—that the pension reform (the first but not the last gift to the common folk from their beloved leaders) is part and parcel of the mighty Putin’s geopolitical triumphs, their inevitable consequence, rather than a betrayal and a rupture of the social compact, as certain confused patriotic columnists have been writing lately?
Ultimately, it is a matter of survival for Russia and for Putin. One of the two must survive. As in the films about the immortal Highlander, only one will be left standing at the end of the day.
Ivan Davydov is a liberal columnist. Translated by the Russian Reader