De-Escalation

idlibSmoke rises after an airstrike hits a city center in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province on March 13, 2019. Photo by Ahmet Rehhal. Courtesy of Anadolu Agency and the Middle East Monitor

Commander of Russian Airborne Forces Lands in Syria: Andrei Serdyukov Takes Charge of Russian Forces in Republic 
Ivan Safronov
Kommersant
April 12, 2019

Kommersant has learned that Lieutenant General Andrei Serdyukov, commander of Russian Airborne Forces, has taken charge of Russian troops in Syria. He replaces Lieutenant General Sergei Surovikin, commander-in-chief of Russian Aerospace Forces, who commanded the Russian military in the republic the last several months.

As we have learned, Serdyukov’s priority will be coordinating joint patrols by Russian military police and Turkish servicemen in the Idlib de-escalation zone, in which over 35,000 insurgents are amassed and over thirty facilities containing chemicals [sic] are located.

Several high-ranking military and diplomatic sources told Kommersant about Serdyukov’s appointment. They said he had taken up his new duties on April 10, replacing Suvorikin who, according to our sources, would again focus on his immediate responsibilities (commanding Russian Aerospace Forces) after returning from his latest Syrian deployment.

Yesterday, the Russian Defense Ministry refrained from official comments on the shuffle.

Our sources explained Suvorikin had spent over a year in total commanding Russian forces in Syria, longer than any of the other high-ranking officers who have occupied the post. While the Syrian campaign was underway, he was promoted from the post of commander of the Eastern Military District to the post of commander-in-chief of Russian Aerospace Forces (see our November 1, 2017, issue), but even after his promotion, he was rotated in and out of Syria to command not only the Russian air force but also regular combat troops and special ops units.

In keeping with the practice of rotating senior command personnel, Serdyukov could have been sent to Syria as early as September 2017. (Our sources said his combat experience in Chechnya and the operation to annex Crimea were significant advantages.) However, shortly before this was to take place, Serdyukov’s official vehicle, while returning from exercises in Murmansk Region, brushed against a car in the oncoming lane at full speed. Serdykov’s car flipped over several times and slid into a ditch. In hospital, he was diagnosed with head and back injuries, including a closed vertebrae fracture.

The general underwent a long convalescence during which there was no question of deploying him to a combat zone. Ultimately, Lieutenant General Alexander Zhuravlov, current commander of the Western Military District, was dispatched to Syria instead.

Serdyukov has now been deployed to Syria to perform a specific mission, said one of our sources. He will focus on accelerating the Russian-Turkish agreement to organize joint patrols in the demilitarized and deescalation zones in Idlib Province. Ankara and Moscow reached the agreement in 2018. They had originally planned to launch joint patrols of Russian military policemen and Turkish servicemen on October 15. However, as one of our sources noted, the Turkish side took responsibility for withdrawing insurgents and heavy weapons from the Idlib de-escalation zone into the demilitarized zone. The plans were thwarted, however. Due to an intensification of attacks by insurgents (especially those controlled by the Al-Nusra Front, an organization banned in the Russian Federation [sic]), the joint patrols did not begin on schedule, while insurgents remained in the demilitarized zone along with their heavy weapons.

The highest level of military diplomacy was put into motion to remedy the situation. Thus, in February 2019, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar signed a supplementary memorandum outlining the actions to be taken by Russian and Turkish troops during their joint patrols. According to our sources, on March 8, Turkish troops began patrolling the demilitarized zone as situated between the Turkish observation posts at Barkum, Tel Tukan, and Surman. As of March 17, their patrols were extended to areas west of Aleppo and north of Hama and the mountains of Latakia. As of yesterday, according to our sources, a coordinated patrol by joint convoys of Russian and Turkish servicemen should have begun patrolling the contact line between the warring parties in the area between the Turkish posts at Barkum and Surman.

If these maneuvers are deemed successful, the two countries will commence joint patrols in the northeastern part of the de-escalation zone after April 20.

“We are counting on being able to launch coordinated patrols in the form of joint convoys inside the demilitarized zone in May,” our source in the Russian army added.

He said the de-escalation zone was divided into parts: into a withdrawal zone 3,300 kilometers square in area, containing 511 towns and villages, and over two million people, and a demilitarized zone as such. According to our source, the demilitarized zone had an area of 3,100 square kilometers and a total of 341 towns and villages, with an approximate population of 1,690,000 people.

Our source said the situation was exacerbated by several factors simultaneously. Aside from civilians in Idlib Province, there were over 35,000 armed insurgents. There were around 8,900 militants on the western front, and almost 15,000 on the southern front. They regularly carried out raids. The last raid took place in the wee hours of April 10, when the militants shelled the towns of Tall Al-Maktal (Idlib Province), Safsafa (Latakia Province), and Hamdaniya (Hama Province).

However, according to the Russian military, the Idlib de-escalation zone contains over thirty sites where chemicals are stored [sic]. Serdyukov would also have to try and solve this problem in cooperation with the Turkish military command, our source added. He specified that an invasion of Idlib by Russian ground forces was out of the question.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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The Takeaway

Why would I translate and publish this dry-as-dust article from Kommersant about the new commander of Russian forces in Syria and how he will be handling joint patrols with the Turks in the Idlib demilitarized zone?

1. Whenever the Russian press has anything to say about Russia’s decisive, murderous adventure in Syria, it says it in this utterly depersonalized way, as if the real subject were an upcoming corporate merger.

2. Nevertheless, the only people who ever emerge as full-blown human beings in these scanty reports are members of the Russian high military command. Notice how General Serdyukov, the new Russian commander in Syria, has been given the loving touch by Kommersant.

3. Although I would argue that Russia’s successive invasions of Ukraine and Syria have had extraordinarily bad consequences for Russians back at home, especially the working class and the political opposition, you will search high and wide for meaningful discussions of Russia’s role in Syria in Russia’s opposition press and burgeoning social media.

4. The charitable way of putting this is that Syria is a taboo subject for Russians. I’ve already written about the uncharitable way of putting this so many times I’ve lost count, but it has no visible effect on anyone.

Most Russians are convinced Syria doesn’t matter to them. In fact, Putin’s Syrian campaign has probably destroyed the last chances they had at living in a more or less prosperous, democratic country in our lifetime.

5. It’s a timely reminder that the holy blessed “anti-imperialist” martyr Julian Assange has been supporting this regime of fascist Starship Troopers for years. This is not even a secret. If you demand Assange’s release while claiming solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, I think you should have your head examined.

6. But I wouldn’t insist on it, unlike the Putin regime’s satraps, who have increasingly resorted in recent years to compulsory psychiatric hospitalization of their opponents, evoking some of the darkest pages of Soviet history. {TRR}

P.S. My comrade Dick Gregory, who has published the blog News of the Revolution in Syria since 2012, posting a total of 4,036 entries during that time, had these important corrections to make to my remarks and, especially, Kommersant‘s exercise in pro-Putin and pro-Assad propaganda.

Obviously, there are a number of untruths [in the article], from the joint patrols, which they announced a couple of weeks ago and turned out to be entirely separate patrols, through the non-existent Al Nusra Front to the nonexistent chemical weapons in Idlib.

A piece in the Syrian Observer got me thinking. I actually tweeted the portion where the Syrian opposition spokesman was saying it was important for rebel groups not to fight each other; but I began to think Russia is not trying to start an offensive in Idlib, but wants to leave enough confusion about its activities, and to massively retaliate against civilians when there is any action by the rebels, in order to protect Assad against the possibility of the rebels launching an offensive, so Assad can be kept in power despite Russia having no real plan to restabilize the regime.

Al Nusra doesn’t exist, as it was shut down in 2016 by its former leadership as part of the break with Al Qaeda, and an attempt to broaden the appeal of that brand of Islamic jihadism. So, partly the Russians are just being as lazy as many westerners by continuing to use the old name. But the Russian bombing campaign in support of Assad, always presented as combating the threat from terrorists, was initially very largely directed at specifically FSA groups (to which the US may well have given them the coordinates,, supposedly so then they wouldn’t bomb them). That’s why the surviving rebel groups in Idlib are largely Islamist, because the Russians bombed out of existence the specifically secular ones.

Andrei Kolesnikov: Hooked on Militarism?

new hope“New Hope. All drug addicts quit using. Some manage to do it while alive.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Where Militaristic Infantilism Leads
Society’s Losing Its Fear of War Is More Dangerous Than What Happens in the Absence of an Anti-War Movement
Andrei Kolesnikov
Vedomosti
November 28, 2018

The “polite people” in the Russian military have taken to ramming ships, shedding their politesse. A military coming out has happened. Either so-called hybrid war has become more hybridized in terms of the variety of its methods or it has become more like good old-fashioned war, involving actual armed clashes. Politically, Russia has become not merely toxic but hypertoxic. A premonition of war prevails among more timid folks, although the footage of the ramming at sea, as painless and triumphal as a military parade on Red Square or a football match (“Crush him!”), still make military operations appear unscary and toylike. We will carry the day in any case, sans victims and blood (ours, that is), as in a cartoon by Putin.

This militaristic infantilism—the loss of the fear of war, the loss of the idea that war is terrible—is the worst outcome of our country’s daily intoxication with the thought of its own greatness for several years running. The army is greatly respected nowadays. People need to trust someone, and the armed forces have bypassed another institution, the presidency, in trustworthiness ratings.

Does this mean Russians are ready for a real war? To put it more plainly, are Russian parents willing to let their eighteen-year-old boys be called up to fight Ukrainian boys just like them? Does anyone understand what they would be fighting for? Is it really all about cementing the nation, “Crimea is ours!” and the personal ambitions of several high-ranking figures in the Russian establishment?

Since 2012, Russia’s collective identity has been built on negative foundations, on awakened resentment, which had been dozing, but had no thought of waking up. The plan has worked quite well. This resentment, however, is verbal and fictitous. Public opinion supported “coal miners” and “tractor drivers” verbally. In Syria, the official army and private military companies fought, or so Russians imagined, at their own risk. The proxy war with the US has gone very far at times, but in the summer of 2018 it did not stop the majority of Russians from abruptly improving their attitude [sic] to the States and the west in general.

But suddenly there is the threat of a real war. On the other side of the border, in the country [i.e., Ukraine] that the Russian imperialist mind never really considered sovereign, a mobilization is underway and martial law has been declared. Is this reality capable of changing popular opinion and rousing Russian civil society, which has a lot going for it except an anti-war movement? No, because so far the war has not been regarded as real.

Identification with the military is the last bullet in the Russian regime’s gun, but it is a blank or, rather, a prop. Exploiting what Russians regard as sacred—i.e., privatization of the memory of the Great Patriotic War [WWII] by a particular group—is a tool that is still in play, but militarism as such has lost its power to mobilize and consolidate Russians. If “German POWs” are marched around Novgorod on January 20, 2019, in an absurd attempt to reenact the NKVD’s Operation Grand Waltz, and on January 29, a military parade is held in St. Petersburg to mark the latest anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad, it will not raise Putin’s approval rating from 66% to 80%. Those days are gone. So, the props have been dropped in favor of direct action in the Kerch Strait, but its power to mobilize people is not at all obvious.

You can cynically throw the ashes of those who perished in the Siege of Leningrad to stoke the furnace of fading ratings as much as you want. You can march people dressed up as German POWs round Novgorod as much as you like. When, however, pollsters ask Russians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four what countries they regard as role models, they list Germany, China, and the US. This is not because young Russians are unpatriotic, but because not everything comes to down to the top brass feeding on the poisonous corpse of the Stalinist past. The present day, progress, and visions for the future matter, too.

Can we do it again? We cannot. Nor is there any reason to do it. Infantilized by the regime, Russian society’s maturation will be measured by the numbers of people who are convinced that we cannot and should not do it again.

Andrei Kolesnikov is program director at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Translated by the Russian Reader

Lilia Shevtsova: Gutting Russia

1535459018_stena-1The Wall, one of the Russian National Guard’s new toys for crushing popular unrest. Photo courtesy of Voennoe obozrenie

Lilia Shevtsova
Facebook
September 27, 2018

Gutting the State
“They are crazy!” we wail as we gaze at the regime’s latest stunts.

“What stupidity!” the commentators exclaim in horror as they compile the Kremlin’s list of shame: raising the retirement age; a high-ranking silovik threatening to kill Navalny in a duel; the fiasco of the so-called Salisbury tourists; vote rigging in the Maritime Territory; the Russian fighter plane shot down by the Syrians with our own rocket; the hole in our spaceship, patched up with epoxy; threats to ban use of the US dollar in Russia; more lies about Malaysian Airlines Flight 17; and Navalny’s latest arrest.

The regime’s attempts to rectify its blunders only exacerbate the circumstances, turning them into farces. Did annulling the election in Vladivostok restore people’s faith in elections? Were the elections in Vladimir Region and Khabarovsk Territory not turned into farces when the winners did their level best not to win? And what about the televised interview with the Salisbury tourists? What should we make of attempts to blame Israel for downing the Russian warplane, and the Americans for punching a hole in the Soyuz capsule? The latest act of shooting ourselves in the foot was supplying the Syrians with a S-300 surface-to-air missile system, which is a threat to Israel and, of course, the US. (The Israelis will most certainly respond.)

If we regard all these topsy-turvy achievements as the outcomes of stupidity, the hope emerges that we can fix the stupidity by purging the ranks of officialdom, which is exactly what the Kremlin, in fact, sunk its teeth into today. Actually, what we regard as failure and stupidity have long become the new normal. What we see are the outcomes of a monopoly on political power, which has turned its own replication into an end in itself, and of a negative selection of members of the political elite based on the loyalty principle. In short, a duelist in charge of the Russian National Guard, and poisoners disguised as tourists are the new Russian normal. They are logical and inevitable consequences.

The wailing about a crisis at the top is, therefore, groundless. Russia skipped over the crisis stage. A crisis is a natural turn of events that compels society to look for new solutions and new people to implement them. When this does not happen, society and its superstructures rot. This stinky viscous goo is our current location. Decay prevents collapse: what is rotting cannot collapse. But decay also prevents our country from finding the strength to change.

The ruling class can seemingly take it easy, for the system somehow hobbles along. There are no large-scale protests, and the protests that do occur can either be ignored or quashed, especially since the National Guard has special new crowd-control armored vehicles at its disposal like the Shield, the Storm, the Wall, and so on.

In reality, things have taken a serious turn for Russia. By seeking to ensure its endlessness, the regime has been destroying the Russian state. That is a whole other ballgame. We have reached the point at which the ruling class has been rocking the pillars of statehood, destroying its own guarantee of survival in the bargain.

By outsourcing violence to volunteer oprichniki, the regime has deprived the state of one of its vital attributes: a monopoly on violence. By making Russia a global scarecrow, the regime has undermined the country’s international status and the external habitat in which it dwells. By rejecting strategic planning in favor of tactical maneuvers, the regime has stripped the country of the capacity for progress. By making the Russian state a tool of clan domination, the regime has destabilized the country, since society has been forced to defend its own interests by protesting on the streets.

Finally, by destroying institutions and making the rules of the game relative (there is more than one way to “get things done: in Russia), the regime has plunged the country into a state of lawlessness. When lawlessness ensues, no one is safe from it.

Do the guys in the Kremlin not realize how things will end? Apparently, they do understand, but they are incapable of stopping.

The autocracy survived in 1991 by scrapping the Soviet state. The autocracy has now been trying to survive by turning the post-Soviet Russian state into a lip-synched song about superpowerdom.

Lilia Shevtsova is a well-known Russian political scientist. Translated by the Russian Reader

Militarism Is Fascism

Vadim F. Lurie
Facebook
March 19, 2018

An endless stream of Muscovites and out-of-town visitors headed to the concert marking the anniversary of Crimea’s “annexation.” And only the lonely voice of a man, heard by a few and jotted on a piece of paper on Tverskaya, quietly resisted the general hysteria.

Photograph by Vadim F. Lurie. Thanks for his kind permission to reproduce it here and translate his annotation. Translated by the Russian Reader

On the Warpath

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Andrey Kalikh
Facebook
September 19, 2017

They are f***ed in the head. They are flying in droves over our house. They are launching rockets at random. They are Soviet rockets and they might fall on somebody. The wife urgently wants us to insure the house and wonders whether insurance would cover a chopper crashing in the garden.

Rusty jet engines are now roaring at the long-mothballed airfield in Siversky.

The roar of explosions is audible forty kilometers from the Luga Firing Range.

The apotheosis happened on the afternoon of the fifteenth, when Pavel Antonov and I were having a round table on Skype with European prosecutors. (A little cheeky, of course.) Suddenly, the house shook with a roar, black shadows flashed on the ground, and a multi-gunned monster flew out of the Mshinsk Marshes. Our sons counted twenty-four fully-equipped battle helicopters.

You in the west are quite right to be tense. But hang on. This country will destroy itself. That is how it has always been.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of the author

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One Solution: Demolition

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Sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov putting the final touches on his monument to weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov. Photo courtesy of Valery Sharifulin/TASS

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
September 19, 2017

Everything about the new monument in Moscow is disgusting. Once again, it is huge, and it shows us a non-military man holding a rifle. As an obvious symbol of militarism, it looks savage in the downtown of a major city. And then there is the very man the monument commemorates, who besides giving his surname to a lucrative arms brands apparently did nothing else for his country, let alone for a city in which he never lived.

Debates are underway about what to do with monuments when the context in which we view them has changed. Should we demolish them? We are not obliged to destroy them: we could move them to places where their symbolic baggage vanishes. Or would it be better to recode monuments where they stand by building something around them and thus imparting a new meaning to them? In my opinion, we have no choice in this case. There is no way to remedy this abomination. It can only be demolished.

Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in St. Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Moscow To Unveil Statue Of AK-47 Inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov
Tom Balmforth
RFE/RL
September 18, 2017

75AC53AB-0E8F-47DE-BC13-452E78BD5FBF_w1023_r1_sThe 7.5-meter tall statue to Mikhail Kalashnikov, which stands on a northern intersection of the Garden Ring around central Moscow.

MOSCOW — After several false starts and some grumbling from locals, a prominent statue of a gun-toting Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of one of the world’s most ubiquitous weapons of war, is set to be unveiled in an official ceremony in the Russian capital on September 19.

The 7.5-meter metal likeness — still covered in plastic — features Kalashnikov cradling his eponymous AK-47 assault rifle and looking west down the Garden Ring that loops around central Moscow.

The statue was hoisted onto its plinth over the weekend beside a new business center.

A second metalwork sculpture, of St. George slaying a dragon with a spear tipped with a rifle sight with AK-47 written on it, stands nearby.

The Kalashnikov statues’ sculptor, Salavat Shcherbakov, is also the artist behind a towering 17-meter statue of Prince Vladimir the Great that was erected — amid controversy — outside the Kremlin in November at a ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin.

A4E87823-7F31-405E-A58C-7FE440CBDC33_w650_r0_sRussian sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov presents a model for a monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, Russian designer of the AK-47 assault rifle, at his workshop in Moscow on November 10, 2016.

Shcherbakov told TASS news agency that the rifle was added to his original plan for the Kalashnikov statue because people might not recognize him without his signature contribution to the Soviet Army.

“So we dared to include the rifle after all,” Shcherbakov said.

Other prominent statues in the vicinity include statues to poets Alexander Pushkin and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky presented plans to Putin for the Kalashnikov statue in September 2016 during a tour of the Kalashnikov arms manufacturer, headquartered in Izhevsk, the capital of the republic of Udmurtia.

The project was backed by the Russian Military-Historic Society, which is chaired by Medinsky and Rostec, the state weapons and technology conglomerate run by powerful Putin ally Sergei Chemezov.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Medinsky, Chemezov, and Kalashnikov’s daughter, Yelena Kalashnikova, were expected to attend the unveiling ceremony on September 19.

The statue was originally meant to be unveiled on January 21, marking the day in 1948 when Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov signed a decree ordering the construction of an experimental batch of Kalashnikov rifles.

But the ceremony was moved because of inclement weather to May 8, ahead of Victory Day, and then to September 19, Gunmaker Day.

Not everyone is on board with the project.

7926FEAF-D770-479A-84A0-0FB57CC87D96_w650_r0_sMikhail Kalashnikov with one of his fabled assault rifles in 2006.

Veronika Dolina, a local resident, posted a photograph of an apparent protester at the still-shrouded Kalashnikov statue holding a sign that said, “No to weapons, no to war.” She wrote: “Man at Kalashnikov pedestal. Humble hero, no posing.”

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“No to weapons, no to war.” Photo courtesy of Veronika Dolina/Facebook

Resident Natalya Seina told 360, a local media outlet, “This is not artistic, to put it mildly. This is trash. It’s loathsome.” She also noted how Kalashnikov had lived his life in Izhevsk, not Moscow, unlike playwright Anton Chekhov and poet Aleksandr Pleshchev. “These are probably more worthy people than the creator of a rifle.”

There are estimated to be as many as 200 million Kalashnikov rifles around the world —prompting one expert to label it “the Coca-Cola of small arms” — and they are manufactured in dozens of countries.

Mikhail Kalashnikov died in 2013 at the age of 94.

Defenders of the Fatherland: Yunarmiya and the Personality Cult

Russia Has Surpassed the Soviet Union: I Would Only Learn German Because Putin Spoke It
Liana Turpakova
Vechorka
February 24, 2017

Russian TV channels were dominated by the February 23 holiday yesterday. The topic of war and patriotism was off the scale at a concert held to mark the holiday, as broacast on Channel One.

Yunarmiya performing during Defender of the Fatherland Day concert, 23 February 2017, Moscow. Still from youtube.com
I watched Flight Crew, but switched to NTV during the advertising breaks. NTV was showing a film about a cop. The ad breaks on RTR and NTV would coinicide sometimes, and I would switch to Channel One. I switched one too many times and ended up watching a performance by the Katyusha Children’s Center for Aesthetics and Beauty and the patriotic organization Yunarmiya (“Youth Army”). I never did figure which was which. They are like the Young Pioneers, apparently. The kids were reciting poems with feeling and a sense of meaning, and pausing at all the right spots,  adoration beaming from their faces.

One girl recited a poem in the style of Mayakovsky, which ended as follows: “And though I were an old man getting on in years, really, in fact, basically, I would learn to speak German only because Putin had spoken it.”

The audience applauded, of course, and the camera switched to a shot of VVP and Defense Minister Shoigu, seated in the first row. They didn’t smile, but looked on seriously. Shoigu said something to Putin.

I was a Young Pioneer during the Brezhnev era. We recited lots of poems with a patriotic filling, and if they mentioned the names of Soviet leaders, those leaders were dead. I am talking about Lenin. At the time, there were no panegyric verses about the then-General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Words of gratitude were spoken, and there were slogans, but children, at least at my school, did not memorize anything of the sort. Odes to the living leader of the country were composed and declaimed only under Stalin. The parallels are obvious. And they say that insanity flourished in the Soviet Union.

I’ll take another potshot at this ecstatic orgy. How do you like the idea of building a mock-up of the Reichstag, in Patriot Park in Kubinka, for the Yunarmiya kids to storm? As Shoigu noted, they would thus have “a specific location to storm, not just any old place.” We’re talking about the same Yunarmiya kids who performed the doggerel about Putin. I am sure they fought it amongst themselves over how who would get to recite the punchline about the country’s biggest VIP. It was the girl who gets straight A’s at school and whose comportment is impeccable.

The Reichstag in Berlin. Photo courtesy of dw.com

I’m not against promoting love for one’s country. But this business about German and Putin is clearly overkill. By the way, it used to be a joke. Now it’s a patriotic poem. The times have changed.

Holiday Concert in Celebration of Defender of the Fatherland Day, 23 February 2017, in its entirety. Originally broadcast on Channel One in Russia

Translated by the Russian Reader

Priorities

“Not Gonna Get Us,” t-shirt in souvenir shop and news stand at Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport, October 23, 2016. Photograph by the Russian Reader

Budget Expenditures on Security Forces to Grow to Two Trillion Rubles by 2019
Vladimir Dergachov and Elizaveta Antonova
RBC
October 23, 2016

The authorities have decided not to save money on the security forces, despite the difficult economic situation in the country. The draft budget shows that annual spending on national security will grow to 2 trillion rubles by 2019.

The government has inserted an increase in expenditures from 1.94 trillion rubles to 2 trillion rubles [approx. 30 billion euros] by 2019 under the line item “National Security and Law Enforcement.” These figures are contained in the draft budget for 2017-2019, as submitted by the Finance Ministry. (RBC has the relevant memorandum in its possession.) These expenditures also include the secret part of the budget, which this year grew to 22.3%.

Total budgetary provisions for national security are supposed to reach 1.943 trillion rubles in 2016. Over the next three years, a spending increase in this sector has been laid into the budget. In 2017, 1.967 trillion rubles will be spent on the security forces; in 2018, 1.994 trillion rubles; and in 2019, 2.006 trillion rubles. That is, spending on national security will increase by 63 billion rubles [approx. 933 million euros] over three years.

The “National Security and Law Enforcement” section of the budget has fourteen subsections, including prosecution and investigation authorities (the Prosecutor General’s Office and Russian Investigative Committee, the Justice Ministry, the Interior Ministry, security, border guards, Interior Ministry Troops, drug police, and the penal system). The section also includes spending on emergency situations, migration policy, civil defense, and specialized applied research.

A government spokesperson forwarded RBC’s questions about spending on law enforcement to the law enforcement agencies.

RBC found out which ministries would benefit from the allocation of funds after the latest reforms in the law enforcement sector.

How Creation of the National Guard Impacted the Budget

In early April 2016, President Vladimir Putin abolished the Federal Drug Control Service (FSKN) and Federal Migration Service (FMS) as free-standing entities, incorporating them into the Interior Ministry. The Interior Ministry, in turn, lost part of its powers. Its internal troops and special forces units were turned into a new security agency, the National Guard of Russia. The National Guard acquired, in particular, the OMON (Special Purpose Militia Detachment or riot cops), the SOBR (Special Rapid Deployment Unit), the Licensing and Permit Center, and the Extra-Departmental Security Service.

As a result, the line item for spending on drug control agencies has been eliminated. (The subsection contains dashes after 2016, in which 27.3 billion rubles were allocated.)

The draft budget also incorporates a spending decrease in the line item entitled “Police Agencies,” from 683.4 billion rubles in 2016 to 625 billion rubles in 2019. (Hereinafter, expenditures are given for the period from 2016 to 2019.)

Spending on the line item “Internal Troops” will nearly double due to the formation of the National Guard: from 114.6 billion rubles to 206.6 billion rubles.

When asked about the growth in spending on this line item, National Guard spokesman Yevgeny Kubyshkin suggested that RBC readdress their question to the government officials who drafted the document.

Among other significant changes in spending due to agency and ministerial shake-ups is the more than tenfold reduction on “Migration Policy,” from 33.7 billion rubles to 285.5 million rubles. This line item incorporates spending on the Federal Migration Service, which has been merged with the Interior Ministry.

The Russian Interior Ministry’s press office confirmed to RBC that appropriations were reallocated when the budget for 2017-2019 was drafted. Monies were reallocated to pay for the Interior Ministry units transferred to the National Guard. Sources at the ministry also confirmed that spending on the abolished FMS and FSKN had been accounted for in the ministry’s budget.

“Thus, the parameters of the draft federal budget of the Russian Interior Ministry for 2017-2019, excluding pension funds, are 695.1 billion rubles in 2017; 691.9 billion rubles in 2018,; and 689.7 billion rubles in 2019. This testifies to the fact that federal financing of the Russian Interior Ministry will remain nearly at the levels of 2015-2016,” a source at the ministry told RBC.

Prosecutors Get More, Security Officers Less

The line item for “Prosecuting and Investigative Authorities” stands out among the expenditures, with an increase from 86 billion rubles to 94.8 billion rubles.

The growth of spending on prosecutors and investigators is due to the fact that, as of January 1, 2017, military investigators will be merged with the Investigative Committee and will be financed out of their budget, Investigative Committee spokeswoman Svetlana Petrenko explained to RBC. RBC is waiting for a response to its questions from the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Spending on the line item for the “Penal System” will be slashed from 196.3 billion rubles to 176.8 billion rubles. Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) spokeswoman Kristina Belousova declined to comment.

The subsection “Security Agencies” (which includes the FSB) will be also be cut, from 306.4 billion rubles to 292 billion rubles. RBC’s request for information from the FSB’s Public Relations Office went unanswered.

The line items for “Justice Authorities” and “Border Guards” have been marked for slight decreases in spending. Over the three years, spending on the Justice Ministry will decrease from 43.4 billion rubles to 42.6 million rubles, while the border guards’ budget will be reduced from 124.2 billion rubles to 119 billion rubles. The Justice Ministry promised it would answer RBC’s inquiries at a later date.

According to the government’s draft budget, spending on “Protecting the Populace from Emergency Situations” will be reduced from 81.2 billion rubles to 70.1 billion rubles. On the other hand, spending on “Fire Safety” will be increased from 109.9 billion rubles to 119.4 billion rubles. RBC has sent an inquiry to the Emergency Situations Ministry and is still waiting for a reply.

“Non-Transparent” Expenditures Grow by Two and a Half Times

However, expenditures on “Other National Security and Law Enforcement Issues” will grow by two and a half times, from 108.4 billion rubles in 2016 to 237 billion rubles in 2019. According to the budget classification codes, this subsection includes expenditures having to do with the “leadership, management, and provision of support for activities such as the development of overall policy, plans, programs, and budgets, as well as other undertakings in the field of national security and law enforcement not covered by other subsections in this section.”

The Russian budget already contains a voluminous secret section, and line items like “Other Expenses” make expenditures even less transparent, Vasily Zatsepin, head of the military economy lab at the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, told RBC. According to Zatsepin, this subsection could contain anything whatsoever, for example, “financial assistance to certain districts in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions [of Ukraine].”

However, the subsection “Applied Research in the Field of National Security and Law Enforcement” will be slashed from 27.5 billion rubles to 22.3 billion rubles, respectively.

Security Priorities

The government memo makes clear that overall allocations for the entire national security section of the budget amount to 2.3% of GDP. Their share of total federal spending is 11.8%.

Although spending in this category in terms of GDP will drop from 2.3% to 2% by 2019, spending on national security in terms of overall spending will increase over the next three years, from 11.8% in 2016, to 12.2% in 2017, to 12.5% percent in 2018, and to 12.6% in 2019. This is more than combined spending on education, health care, culture, sports, media, and environmental protection.

The regime’s priority is to redistribute the budget toward foreign policy and the deep state, as well as social welfare payments to the populace to maintain stability, Nikolay Mironov, head of the Center for Economic and Political Reform told RBC.

“Everything else is overlooked, although education, health care, and the national economy, whose line items have been cut, are strategic areas. Investment in them does not pay off in the current year, but always pays off later,” argued Mironov.

Translated by the
Russian Reader

Nikolay Mitrokhin: The Church Militant, The Radio Complicit

Father Vsevolod Chaplin. Photo courtesy of Realnoye Vremya and Anna Artemieva (novayagazeta.ru)
Father Vsevolod Chaplin, the Russian Orthodox priest who recently argued on Russian radio station Echo of Moscow that it was sometimes necessary and possible to “destroy” whole groups of people as “internal enemies.” Photo courtesy of Realnoye Vremya and Anna Artemieva (novayagazeta.ru)

“For the Church, Violence Is the Norm”
Valentin Baryshnikov
Radio Svoboda
August 16, 2016

Father Vsevolod Chaplin, long-time head of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Synodal Department for Cooperation between Church and Society, made an appearance on Echo of Moscow radio in which he shocked many people by saying that some people “can and should be killed.”

Here is an excerpt of Father Chaplain’s appearance on Echo, which began with a discussion of erecting a monument to Ivan the Terrible in Oryol.

Presenter: Yes, but with that rationale you can also justify Stalin, for example. Sure, there were excesses, but he was an effective manager, they say.

Vsevolod Chaplin: He did a lot. Listen, at the end of the day what is wrong with destroying a certain number of internal enemies?

Presenter: “Destroying” people, that is what is wrong.

Vsevolod Chaplin: What is wrong with that?

Presenter: You cannot kill people!

Vsevolod Chaplin: Why not? Some people can and should be killed. That is for sure.

Presenter: “Some people”? Which ones are those?

Vsevolod Chaplin: So it is no accident that criminals are destroyed, and no accident—

Presenter:  I would remind you the death penalty has been abolished in Russia.*

Vsevolod Chaplin: I am not sure that was the right decision. Look, even God, if we read the Old Testament, if we read the Apocalypse, that is, the New Testament, directly sanctioned and sanctions in the future the destruction of a huge number of people for the edification of others.  For the edification of societies, it is sometimes necessary to destroy a certain number of people who deserve to be destroyed.

* In fact, capital punishment has not been abolished in the Russian Federation. President Yeltsin placed a moratorium on the death penalty in 1996 so that Russia could meet the requirements for joining the Council of Europe. The moratorium has remained in effect since then, but the death penalty is still listed in the law books as a legal punishment for certain crimes. TRR

When asked whether Chaplin’s statement was his personal opinion or a reflection of conversations within the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), Nikolay Mitrokhin, a sociologist of religion and author of the book The Russian Orthodox Church: Its Current State and Challenges, confidently replied that church insiders think this way.

Nikolay Mitrokhin: The majority of rank-and-file clergy and the bishops are quite militantly minded. They do not rule out violence. Violence is the norm in ecclesiastical practice. Bishops hit priests who do something wrong on the altar. Its is a popular subject of stories told within the Church. In turn, priests are capable of hitting sacristans and subdeacons. The Church is now also the leading social institution that has come out against so-called juvenile justice, in other words, against bans on beating children. So for the Church, violence is the norm.  The Church supports militarist rhetoric. The Church supports the numerous military-patriotic clubs operating under its auspices. If you chat with a rank-and-file priest, he will surely talk like Chaplin or worse. It is another question whether it was worth putting Chaplin on the radio and giving his cannibalistic ideas a platform.  However, that is the stance of Echo of Moscow, which has given various kinds of fascists the chance to speak out on its airwaves. Let us not forget that several right-wing radicals have their own programs on the station.  So it all fits, in the first place, not only the mindset of the ROC but also the mindset of Echo of Moscow.

Echo of Moscow actually plans not to publish the transcript of this speech and, as far as I can tell, will not be inviting Father Chaplin on the air again.

With Chaplin’s appearance, they have reached a point where a lot of people have wondered whether the prosecutor’s office is asleep at the wheel and whether they should not file a complaint against Echo of Moscow radio station. In this case, they face quite specific criminal charges. But the reason they invited Chaplin to appear on the air is itself quite obvious. Yet again they had to rile up the liberal public with harsh statements so that a discussion would emerge around them. They are not shy about inviting someone who on several occasions has voiced his tough and, quite frankly, fascist stance. So I think this was a big mistake on the part of Echo of Moscow, which is no less liable for the statements than the person who made them.

When Chaplin says this, when priests en masse within the ROC hold such positions, does this somehow link up in their minds, if I can put it is this way, with the concept of Jesus Christ, who spoke of love and non-violence?

As we know, there is no Christ in the ROC. There is Orthodoxy in the ROC, but there is no Christ in the Church in the sense in which the idea of Christ was shaped by the Russian intelligentsia in the early twentieth century. For centuries, the phrase that Jesus is love just did not make sense. It was not a subject the clergy considered. From that point of view, it is not clear why it should be considered now. The concepts that the liberal intelligentsia have been attempting to discuss are all seemingly variations on western Christianity, so-called post-Holocaust thought, which has nothing to do with what the majority of the ROC’s ordinary parishioners think and believe. They see Orthodoxy as the national religion, which provides them with spiritual strength to oppose the “godless” west, and so on.  So Chaplin, who was driven from his post in the Church, deliberately shocked the audience by divulging what the conservative half of his brain thinks. The audience talked about it. Basically, though, any average Russian priest, whomever you approach, thinks exactly the same thing.

Does it come from the Church? Or does the Church trail behind its flock?

It comes from the Church, of course. Within the Church there has long existed a concept, which has been its main content, that has to do with Russian nationalism and militarism. The vast majority of the clergy espouse these ideas and communicate them to parishioners in one form or another. It is another matter to what extent the Church’s leadership controls all of this. To what extent are the clergy permitted to speak out or keep quiet about political issues? This is something that the Church’s leadership monitors. When it wanted the ROC to have a fairly decent image in Ukraine, priests were told they should not travel to Ukraine and help the separatists. A couple of people who violated the ban were banned from the ministry. The Russian clergy immediately began speaking carefully about Ukraine. The clergy can keep thinking as aggressively as it likes. The question is the things it will say in ordinary life. This is something that can be regulated both by society and the state.

Let us come back later to the question of regulation on the part of society and the sate. Let’s talk about the situation within the Church. Are there priests who follow the idea that God is love?

This is a concept common among a very narrow segment of Moscow and Petersburg intelligentsia, among university-educated intellectuals in the broad sense. The majority of clergymen have no secular education whatsoever (I mean higher education), and they have had a very average secondary education. Many of them either do not know about this concept or regard it as a bit of intellectualizing. There are individual priests (among the ROC’s 20,000 priests you might find several hundred, at best) who espouse this concept. But they are outside the mainstream of the Church and do not constitute a respected or influential minority.

Are they persecuted within the Church?

No, but these ideas are so remote from what priests really do it is impossible to say they in any way define the life of the Church. Especially because ideas of this sort are clearly articulated only by individual priests, priests who are closely associated, again, with liberal circles. One level down, in the provinces, a priest can very well tell his parishioners that Christ is love while running a military-patriotic club. It all gels perfectly in their minds depending on their personal views and the last book they read ten years ago. Nothing contradicts anything else. That is why priests with distinctly liberal views who are willing to say that God is love amount to a dozen. They are known to journalists, who turn to them all the time. Beyond the confines of this narrow circle, such concepts are not particularly popular, and they are not subjects of conversation.

The real life of the clergy and the real ideas in their minds are so diverse, so not amenable to systematization, that we can speak of a society, an ideology, that is in fact unknown to us. We can speak of their militarism. But for some priests this militarism is clearly defined—they wear camouflage all the time except during services—while other priests have these ideas in their heads, but they do not express them too publicly, because they think they should say something else to their parishes. In addition, there are the changes that come with age. When they are young, people’s blood runs hotter. As they age, they become smarter, but in old age, on the contrary, they lose their heads, senility sets in, and they can say things that completely contradict what they had said fifteen or twenty years earlier. For example, Father Dmitry Dudko became a communist in old age, although his whole life he was a harsh anti-communist. It is a dynamic environment of generally anti-liberal ideas, but certain noble notions can be found in what they think or say.

What about the natural objection that, in the twentieth century, a huge number of Russian Orthodox priests were murdered by the Bolsheviks on the same grounds that Father Chaplin cited? Does this objection just have no effect on these people? Do they not feel they are the successors to those priests, to the church that was destroyed by this massive crackdown?

They feel like this when it suits them. When they have to argue with the former collective farm chair and current local council head that the church needs paint, they remember the new martyrs. Generally, a person who is willing to remember the new martyrs was probably a Party or Communist Youth League member or even a political officer in the Soviet Army (that is a quite common case) or a local university graduate who wrote pro-Soviet articles. The fact is that there are very few people directly associated with the new martyrs in Russia, and there are fewer of them as the years go by. The bulk of the Church consists of former Soviet people who until 1991 believed in socialist ideas of some kind, were card-carrying Party members, were involved in political organizations, and did not give a second thought to anything religious. Ideas about the regime’s responsibility, ideas about the memory of the mass repressions, all had some importance in the late 1980s, but then quickly came to naught. In this case, what is urgent for the ROC is the question of so-called post-Holocaust thought that the intelligentsia has proposed, meaning the awareness of guilt and the needlessness of so many victims, but the Church has consistently rejected all this now. It believes you can kill, but you have to pick the right group to kill, as Chaplin said. This is the basis of the current ROC’s ideology.

Nikolay Mitrokhin is a research fellow at the Research Centre for East European Studies at the University of Bremen. He is the author of important books on the current state of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalist movements in the postwar Soviet Union. Read his previous reflection on the fascization of the Russian Orthodox Church, “Right-Wing Saints.” Translated by the Russian Reader

Petersburg’s Naval Disgrace

Putin and Petersburg’s Naval Disgrace
Dmitry Gubin
LiveJournal
August 1, 2016

Navy Day in Petersburg is not a holiday for adults, because the fleet is tiny, but there are tons of adults.

So Navy Day is really meant for two tiny groups of people: the demobbed navy vets who are already blotto by morning and stumble around town hanging onto a buddy and a flag, dressed in striped sailor’s shirts and pants bursting at the seams in the chest and the ass—and children.

Children gaze at the ships anchored in the Neva, tug on their parents as they queue to go on board, and in the evening wait for the fireworks to start.

“Pa, are the fireworks going to start soon?”

All the news agencies had reported the fireworks in Petersburg were supposed to start at 10:00 p.m. on July 31, 2016.

Since the city on the footloose Neva is the only tourist mecca in all of Russia, and tourists do not know Navy Day is meant only for children and demobbed sailors, the Neva’s embankments were threatening to collapse under the weight of the bodies yesterday evening at ten o’clock, as were the bridges. There were so many boats, craft, and ships on the Neva it looked less like a navy-style broth with dumplings, and more like a rich Marseilles bouillabaisse. The street vendors were doing a land office business in peddling patriotism, and sailor hats for the kiddies were selling like hotcakes. Flags and smartphones were raised in the air.

There were no fireworks at 10 p.m., however.

I am practically no longer a child, I am not a tourist, and I am certainly not a demobbed sailor. It was just that yesterday somewhere between ten o’clock and ten-thirty in the evening was my only chance to hop on my bike and have a gander at the ships standing at anchor. I jumped on my bike and took off.

I biked past the triple-parked cars on the Palace, Admiralty, and English Embankments, past the tense, frozen crowd glued to the granite parapet, past the nervously grumbling mob (“Pa, when’s it going be?!”), and realized that since the fireworks had not happened at 10 p.m, as had been promised, they were not going to happen at 10:30 p.m., either.

Because there is only one man who makes time stand still in this country.

We are the kind of country where even commitments to children mean nothing. Children in Russia, even as we swear by their future, exist only to be raised and overworked for the glory of the state, meaning so that all the Shuvalovs, Naryshkins, and Yakunins, all the tsar’s intimates, can own villas. We are the kind of country where military honor consists not in doing one’s duty but in sucking up to the supreme commander, who, I happened to know, had come to Petersburg for the celebrations and was probably late, as was his wont. He has long been late to everything.

When I biked away from the embankments, the fireworks still had not happened.

Children were crying, while the adults were poking at websites on their smartphones and swearing under their breath.

When I was already far from the big water and the ships, the salvos from the toy cannons finally thundered. The walls trembled, the skies lit up, the shots echoed off the walls, and the car alarms barked and growled. The time was approximately 10:51 p.m.

The tsar must have arrived in the end, and our brave admirals pressed their lips to his lips, or to what they took to be his lips as they shut their eyes in servile delight.

I was ashamed I felt not the slightest shame for the admirals, Putin or the adults telling their kids sorry lies as an excuse. Basically, I have not given a rat’s ass about any of them for a long while, just as someone could care less about a summer cottage standing on a crooked foundation, which is pointless to patch up because it will fall apart anyway.

Although behind me was a wondrous performance, a piece of contemporary art: the multi-figure personification of Russia’s modern disgrace, a state of affairs in which no one gives a fuck about children, and everyone is on their knees before the tsar, for he is the only person whom our gallant admirals genuinely fear.

Russia, blah, is a great country. Our navy is invincible. Dostoevsky, the tears of a child.

I am sympathetic to the senseless, drunken demobbed sailors, who have only one chance a year to prove they are men.

It is better to get stinking drunk and tear the sailor’s shirt on your chest, since drunkards are exempt from shame.

Ugh.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of Dmitry Gubin and Washington Monthly/iStock.

This post is dedicated to my Russian dog, who was awoken at eleven o’clock at night by the shelling from the Neva, as described, above, by Mr. Gubin, and got so scared he wet the bed.

I could not sleep, either, and it occurred to me as I lay there waiting for the fireworks to end that there was a connection between the fun a few kilometers away and the siege of Aleppo. I am probably slightly off my hinges, but I have always taken such celebrations as a reminder to the folks on the home front that its “boys” are quite capable of doing to them what they do so casually to the swarthy types in Aleppo, Grozny, Fallujah, etc. That is, should the folks on the home front suddenly withdraw their loyalty or, rather, cheerful passivity towards the status quo and attempt to dethrone the tsar and his henchmen.