18A so-called Cossack lashes protesters with a plaited whip (nagaika) at the He’s No Tsar to Us opposition protest rally at Pushkin Square in Moscow on May 5, 2018. Photo by Ilya Varlamov

Сossacks Were Not Part of the Plan: Men with Whips Take Offense at the Opposition
Alexander Chernykh
May 8, 2017

The Presidential Human Rights Council (PHRC) plans to find out who the Cossacks were who scuffled with supporters of Alexei Navalny during the unauthorized protest rally on May 5 in Moscow. Meanwhile, the Moscow mayor’s office and the Central Cossack Host claimed they had nothing to do with the Cossacks who attempted to disperse opposition protesters. Kommersant was able to talk with Cossack Vasily Yashchikov, who admitted he was involved in the tussle, but claimed it was provoked by Mr. Navalny’s followers. Human rights defenders reported more than a dozen victims of the Cossacks have filed complaints.

The PHRC plans to ask law enforcement agencies to find out how the massive brawl erupted during the unauthorized protest rally on May 5 in Moscow. PHRC chair Mikhail Fedotov said “circumstances were exacerbated” when Cossacks and activists of the National Liberation Front (NOD) appeared at the opposition rally.

“It led to scenes of violence. We must understand why they were they and who these people were,” said Mr. Fedotov.

“Our main conclusion has not changed: the best means of counteracting unauthorized protest rallies is authorizing them,” he added.

On May 5, unauthorized protest rallies, entitled He’s No Tsar to Us, called for by Alexei Navalny, took place in a number of Russian cities. In Moscow, organizers had applied for a permit to march down Tverskaya Street, but the mayor’s officers suggested moving the march to Sakharov Avenue. Mr. Navalny still called on his supporters to gather at Pushkin Square, where they first engaged in a brawl with NOD activists and persons unknown dressed in Cossack uniforms. Numerous protesters were subsequently detained by regular police. Approximately 700 people were detained in total.

The appearance on Pushkin Square of Cossacks armed with whips has provoked a broad response in Russia and abroad. The Guardian wrote at length about the incident, reminding its readers that Cossacks would be employed as security guards during the upcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The Bell discovered a Central Cossack Host patch on the uniform of one of the Cossacks photographed during the brawl. According to the Bell, which cites documents from the Moscow mayor’s office, the Central Cossack Host was paid a total of ₽15.9 million for “providing security during large-scale events.”

However, Vladimir Chernikov, head of the Moscow Department of Regional Security, stressed, during an interview with Kommersant FM, that on May 5 “no Cossacks or any other organization were part of the plan and the means of providing security.”

Chernikov said police and the Russian National Guard acted impeccably. Spokesmen for the Central Cossack Host also said they had not dispatched any Cossacks to guard Pushkin Square, and that the Cossacks who, wearing their patches, did go to the square, had “voiced their civic stance.”

Bloggers have published information about the Cossacks they have been able to identify from photos and video footage of the rally. One video depicts a bearded man who grabs a placard, bearing the slogan “Open your eyes, you’re the tsar’s slave!”, from a young oppositionist before arguing with Open Russia coordinator Andrei Pivovarov. The Telegram channel BewareOfThem reported the man was Vasily Yashchikov, member of the Union of Donbass Volunteers. Mr. Yashchikov has confirmed to Kommersant he was, in fact, at the rally and was involved in the brawl with opposition protesters. Yet, he claimed, most of the Cossacks at Pushkin Square had nothing to do with the Central Cossack Host, as claimed by the Bell. According to Mr. Yashchikov, the brawlers mainly consisted of nonregistered (i.e., unaffiliated with the Russian government) Cossacks from two grassroots organizations, the First Hundred and the Crimean Regiment. Moreover, they allegedly showed up at the rally independently of one another.

“The rally was discussed in Cossack groups, and someone suggested we go and talk to people,” Mr. Yashchikov told Kommersant. “We have nearly a hundred people in the  Hundred, but only fifteen decided to go. At the square, we met Cossacks from the Crimean Regiment, which is actually not Crimean, but from the Moscow Region. But our organizations are not friendly, so we were there separately.”

He admitted there were several people from the Central Cossack Host at Pushkin Square, but his group did not interact with them, either.

KMO_165050_00034_1_t218_200833So-called Cossacks at the He’s No Tsar to Us opposition rally at Pushkin Square, Moscow, May 5, 2018. Photo by Alexander Miridonov. Courtesy of Kommersant

According to Mr. Yashchikov, the Cossacks came to Pushkin Square to talk with Mr. Navalny’s supporters, but had no intention of being involved in dispersing the rally.

“There were one and half thousand people there [the Moscow police counted the same number of protesters—Kommersant]. There were thirty-five of us at most, and we had only two whips. You could not have paid us to wade into that crowd,” claimed Mr. Yashchikov.

Mr. Yashchikov claimed he managed to have a friendly chat with Mr. Navalny, but opposition protesters were aggressive, he alleged.

“Someone picked on us, asking why we had come there, that it was their city. Another person tried to knock my cap off, while they swore at other Cossacks and blasphemed the Orthodox faith,” Mr. Yashchikov complained. “Well, we couldn’t take it anymore.”

People who attended the rally have denied his claims.

“The Cossacks acted cohesively, like a single team,” said Darya, who was at the rally [Kommersant has not published her surname, as she is a minor]. “They formed a chain and started pushing us towards the riot police, apparently, to make their job easier. The Cossacks kicked me, while they encircled my boyfriend and beat him. They retreated only when they realized they were being film and photographed.”

Darya planned to file a complaint with the police charging the Cossacks with causing her bodily harm. Currently, human rights defenders from Agora, Zona Prava, and Public Verdict have documented more than fifteen assault complaints filed against the Cossacks.

Oppositionists have claimed the police mainly detained protesters, allegedly paying almost no attention to the Cossacks and NOD activists. Kirill Grigoriev, an Open Russia activist detained at the rally, recounted that, at the police station where he was taken after he was detained, he pretended to be a NOD member, and he was released by police without their filing an incident report.

“When we arrived at the Alexeyevsky Police Precinct, a policeman immediately asked who of us was from NOD. I jokingly pointed at myself. He took me into a hallway and asked me to write down the surnames of other members of the organization,” said Mr. Grigoriev.

He wrote down the surnames of ten people, after which everyone on the list was given back their internal Russian passports and released.


Cossacks Confront Navalny Supporters for First Time
Regime Prepares for Fresh Protests, Including Non-Political Ones, Analysts Argue 
Yelena Mukhametshina and Alexei Nikolsky
May 6, 2018

He’s No Tsar to Us, the unauthorized protest rally in Moscow held by Alexei Navalny’s supporters, differed from previous such rallies. On Tverskaya Street, provocateurs demanded journalists surrender their cameras. By 2:00 p.m., the monument to Pushkin was surrounded by activists of the National Liberation Front (NOD). When protesters chanted, “Down with the tsar!” they yelled “Maidan shall not pass!” in reply. Behind the monument were groups of Cossacks, who had never attended such rallies. In addition, for the first time, the police warned people they intended to use riot control weapons and physical force, and indeed the actions of the security forces were unprecedentedly rough. The riot police (OMON) detained protesters by the hundreds, and Cossacks lashed them with plaited whips.

The Moscow police counted 1,500 protesters at the rally, while organizers failed to provide their own count of the number of attendees. Navalny said the nationwide rallies were a success. His close associate Leonid Volkov argued that “in terms of numbers, content, and fighting spirit, records were broken,” also noting the police’s unprecedented brutality. According to OVD Info, around 700 people were detained in Moscow, and nearly 1,600 people in 27 cities nationwide. Citing the PHRC, TASS reported that 658 people were detained in Moscow.


“He’s No Tsar to Us, May 5: A Map of Arrests. 1,597 people were detained during protest rallies on May 5, 2018, in 27 Russian cities, according to OVD Info. According to human right activists, during nationwide anti-corruption protests on March 26, 2017, more than 1,500 people were detained. Source: OVD Info.” Courtesy of Vedomosti

PHRC member Maxim Shevchenko demanded the council be urgently convoked due to “the regime’s use of Black Hundreds and fascist militants.” According to a police spokesman, the appearance at the rally of “members of different social groups” was not engineered by the police, while the warning that police would use special riot control weapons was, apparently, dictated by the choice of tactics and the desire to avoid the adverse consequences of the use of tear gas.

According to NOD’s leader, MP Yevgeny Fyodorov, 1,000 members of the movement were involved in Saturday’s rally.

“We wanted to meet and discuss the fact the president must be able to implement his reforms. Because we have been talking about de-offshorization and withdrawing from a unipolar world for five years running, but things have not budged an inch,” said Fyodorov.

NOD did not vet their actions with the Kremlin, the leadership of the State Duma or the Moscow mayor’s office, Fyodorov assured reporters.

On Sunday, the Telegram channel Miracles of OSINT reported that, in 2016–2018, the Central Cossack Host, whose members were at the rally, received three contracts worth nearly ₽16 million from the Moscow Department for Ethnic Policy for training in the enforcement of order at public events. As Vedomosti has learned, according to the government procurement website, the Central Cossack Host received eleven contracts, worth nearly ₽38 million, from the Moscow mayor’s office over the same period.

Gleb Kuznetsov, head of the Social Research Expert Institute (EISI), which has ties to the Kremlin, argued there was no brutality at the rally.

“In Paris, the scale of protests is currently an order of magnitude higher, but no one speaks about their particular brutality. In Russia, so far the confrontation has been cute, moderate, and provincial. The only strange thing is that, in Russia, people who are involved in such protests, which are aimed at maximum mutual violence, are regarded as children. But this is not so. Everything conformed to the rules of the game, common to the whole world. If you jump a policeman, don’t be surprised if he responds with his truncheon,” said Kuznetsov.*

The Russian government has allied itself with the Cossacks and NOD, which are essentially illegal armed formations, argued Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Moscow Carnegie Center.

“This does not bode well. Apparently, in the future, such formations will be used to crack down on protests,” said Kolesnikov.

The authorities are preparing for the eventuality there will be more protests. Even now the occasions for them have become more diverse, and they are spreading geographically, noted Kolesnikov.

Grassroots activism has been growing, and the authorities have realized this, political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov concurred. They are always nervous before inaugurations. In 2012, there was fear of a virtual Maidan, while now the example of Armenia is fresh in everyone’s minds, he said.

“The security services had to flex their muscles before the new cabinet was appointed. Although, in view of the upcoming FIFA World Cup, law enforcement hung the regime out to dry contentwise,” said Vinogradov.

* In September 2017, the Bell reported that state corporations Rosatom and RusHydro were financing EISI to the tune of ₽400 million each, and it could not be ruled out that the so-called social research institute was receiving subsidies from other state companies.

Translated by the Russian Reader

A Brief Note on Comments

Since I just received a comment on my previous post in which the commenter, who, by the looks of it, was otherwise completely illiterate, identified me as a “lover of Putin,” I thought I should explain my policy on comments.

I am not interested in debating out-and-out deadbeats and people otherwise hostile to my work on this website, which consists, broadly speakly, in giving the Russian grassroots a voice in English, highlighting important stories ignored by the press in Russia and abroad, and creating a coherent narrative and, thus, an archive on issues such as immigration, poverty, housing, labor rights and trade unionism, free speech and assembly, the economy, nationalism, environmentalism, healthcare, and grassroots resistance to the current regime through my own translations of texts from blogs and social media, as well as articles published in the quality independent liberal, anti-authoritarian, and regional press (e.g., Novaya Gazeta, Mediazona, OVD Info, Takie Dela, RBC, Vedomosti,, 7X7,, etc.).

I also occasionally permit myself to comment on these issues in editorial posts and wander off into subjects near and dear to my heart, such as Russian underground art and music, architecture and urban planning, Russian poetry, Soviet cinema, and Petersburg’s history and “psychogeography.”

Since the Russian Reader is produced by me alone in my free time and receives no funding from any outside sources whatsoever, I think I can allow myself to pursue this perhaps bewildering agenda as I see fit. The growing numbers of readers over the past five years confirm what I do here is interesting and useful to a fair number of people all over the world.

However, I do not believe in free speech to the extent of letting my website be trolled by angry illiterates who cannot be bothered to read carefully what I have written or translated. I have no compunction about identifying their comments as spam and trashing them immediately.

On the other hand, I happily approve comments that question the texts on this website if they are written in polite, literate English and evince no hostility towards me personally. TRR

P.S. As regards the hostile anonymous entity who slandered me by calling me a “lover of Putin,” you would know, entity, if you actually knew anything about the subject and the lay of the land, which you obviously do not, that the Carnegie Moscow Center is not an “American think thank,” but a Russian think thank funded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. If you actually followed their work closely, as I have followed it, you would know their researchers and fellows sometimes take stances and publish articles on the center’s website that are anything but pro-American and might even be interpreted as pro-Putin, for example, this article, published in March 2017, arguing that western sanctions against the Putin regime have been helping Putin rather than harming him.

On the other hand, they are equally capable of publishing an article like this one, criticizing the Russian judiciary. It was written by Olga Romanova, a fierce Russian judicial and penitentiary reforms activist now in exile in the west. So, the Carnegie Moscow Center is a quite broad church, indeed.

But it is not an American church, and it is no more capable than Russia’s infamous troika of pollsters of overcoming the prejudices and faulty methodological assumptions that skew their polls and thus of finding out “what Russians really think.” When the Carnegie Moscow Center has engaged in “public opinion” research, which it has done on several occasions, it has been just as complicit in perpetuating one of the biggest cons in recent history as the troika itself has been.

Photo by the Russian Reader

No Canaries in the Coal Mine: The Demise of RBC


Vasily Gatov
Canary in a Coal Mine: RBC and the Public Interest in the Counterintelligence State
Carnegie Moscow Center
May 14, 2016

Authoritarian regimes have seemingly learned how not to stifle freedom of speech completely, using censorship or administrative strictures to send signals about the acceptability or unacceptability of criticism on specific topics. In the peculiar circumstances of the counterintelligence state, however, an interest in how the state functions can itself be regarded as dissent.  

Over the past few years, it has become popular among political scientists, analysts, and the military to dub any complicated and complex process “hybrid.” Complex military operations are now “hybrid wars,” electoral authoritarian countries, “hybrid regimes,” and mass media distributed on multiple platforms, “hybrid media organizations.”

The news for Friday, May 13, fully reflected the clash between different hybrids in the Russian public space. The dismissal of the top editors at RBC, a hybrid mass media organization that had become the main public affairs outlet under a hybrid regime engaged in a hybrid war with the western world, was a practical manifestation of the strange realm that has taken shape in our country and a continuation of its logical evolution or degradation.

Common Sense as a Measurement
RBC’s top editors, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, Roman Badanin, and Maxim Solyus, who left the company “by mutual agreement,” had done the impossible in the space of two years. Along with the team they assembled, they turned an important, major media outlet with serious image problems into an exemplar of high-quality, ethically motivated, high-impact journalism.

Moreover, writers and editors with different views peacefully coexisted at RBC. I never once heard the term “liberal terrorism,” which conservatives and patriots love to mention, applied to RBC. High-quality editorial work means just this: maintaining high standards in news production while fulfilling one’s mission to the community by supporting investigative reporting and representing a spectrum of opinions through individualized public affairs, op-ed journalism and personalized, presenter-driven TV programs.

It is difficult to maintain academic objectivity when the latest round of “personnel changes” has put an end to yet another media outlet that was faithful to its professional mission. It is difficult but necessary: the emotional or partisan mode of reacting inevitably exaggerates the weight of momentary, politically motivated explanations of events. Yes, the easiest way of interpreting the firing of RBC’s editors (and, apparently, the exodus of its editorial staff) is as the consequence of their having published articles and investigative reports that directly violated Putin’s strictures on the privacy of his family life. However, this explanation, even if the editors themselves proudly accept it, is neither exhaustive nor sufficient for understanding the full complexity of hybridity.

Over the past sixteen years, journalists and their workplaces, media outlets, have been the key enemy of the system of political power emerging in Russia: not only “opposition” and “liberal” journalists but basically all journalists who approached their work with at least a minimum of regard for professional and ethical standards. Media organizations are the only segment of business (and politics) towards which the Putin administration has applied, with varying intensity, a scorched earth policy from day one to the present day.

Since the days when Walter Lippman wrote his treatise Public Opinion, the bible of ethical journalism, we know that the basis of the journalist’s profession is serving the public interest through the opportunities provided to journalists by the specific status accorded to them by law. In all societies, except totalitarian dictatorships, the public interest is always diverse and multifaceted. Some people need confirmation that the course set by their leaders is the right one. Others find it vital to take a critical, analytical approach to current policy. Still others want the salacious details and shabbiness that enables them to affirm their overall contempt for the authorities. And this is not the full range of interests. The public interest and the work of media to satisfy it are, in a way, a means of measuring reality against common sense. It is this simple principle that explains the presence of freedom of speech and self-expression among the basic civil and political rights.

The greater the discrepancies between political and economic reality and common sense, the more critically and meticulously journalists and the media should treat such aberrations. This is a means of subjecting societies (true, only democratic societies) to self-reflection and self-cleansing. (I have in mind the term “self-questioning,” which is hard to translate into Russian). Although, in recent decades, even authoritarian regimes have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors not to stifle free speech entirely. The growing criticality of the media has become a signal to them that they need to correct, mitigate or change policy; it has been a kind of canary in a coal mine. In turn, as Haifeng Huang, a professor at University of California, Merced, has argued in his paper “Propaganda as Signaling,” authoritarian regimes make vigorous use of censorship or administrative strictures (such as firing editors) as a tool to signal society about the acceptability or unacceptability of criticism on certain topics.

It is now utterly clear the Russian regime that took shape between 1999 and 2015 has no need of any “canaries.” Vladimir Putin, who, ironically, was speaking at the anniversary of VGTRK (All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company) literally when the news of the firing of RBC’s editors was reported, expressed his basic expectations for the media. He spoke of the media’s role of “communicating our […] work” several times. Moreover, the current Russian state has nothing to signal anymore. It really is tired of the fact that journalists have the desire to explore and investigate something other than the alleged treason of opposition figures.

Independence Is Worse than Opposition
The fate of RBC (as well as all the other onshore Russian media that have attempted to have an editorial policy independent of the need to “communicate our work”) was preordained not in 2011, when Vladimir Putin, concerned about the weakness of his handpicked successor, decided to return to the presidency, nor even in 2002, when the Law on Media, which until then had been preserved in its original 1991 redaction, was opened up for amendments on direct orders from the president.

The expulsion of dissent in any shape and size from the public mind was preordained when Vladimir Putin was appointed head of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) [in 1998] and the restoration of Andropov’s counterintelligence state was launched. The difference is that dissent, in this concept of the state, does not consist in criticizing the regime’s political practices, as Soviet dissidents did. Dissent now consists in the selfsame public interest in why and how the state functions, as described above. Dissent now consists in shaping an interest in the personal lives and personal businesses of state officials, including those of the head of state.

Robert Pringle, a professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the CIA’s principal specialists on the late Soviet Union, described this model in two significant articles (Robert W. Pringle, “Andropov’s Counterintelligence State,” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 13.2 (2000): 193–203; Robert W. Pringle, “Putin: The New Andropov?” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 14.4 (2001): 545–558). Andropov was himself an ascetic and an opponent of corruption, but he consistently and quite harshly took on anyone who had the courage to focus on the late Soviet regime’s corruption and moral decay.

Yuri Andropov’s construction of the counterintelligence state between 1967 and 1984 was dictated by the need for total control over all “mass information processes.” The KGB’s Fifth Directorate saw no difference between a single copy of a seditious text and an attempt to mimeograph a dubious work. Both were regarded as unambiguous challenges to the CPSU’s monopoly on power. Perhaps what lay at the heart of the counterintelligence state was the animal fear experienced by Andropov in Budapest in 1956, when the future KGB chief and Soviet leader watched from the Soviet Embassy as the Rákosi regime collapsed.

Reinforced by the Arab Spring, “orange revolutions” took the place of Budapest 1956 in Putin’s worldview, while dissidents were replaced by journalists, who did not swear allegiance to the regime and did not take its money. (The Fifth Directorate saw the former as voluntary assistants, and the latter as paid agents, who could always be blackmailed by producing signed receipts for their “fees.”). Even the political opposition, whose size and and impact, except for the brief period from 2011 to 2012, the Kremlin has always understood and monitored, has not been such an unambiguous, despised target as independent, mission-driven journalism.

The mystical “Revision Number Six” (2000) describes journalists and the media as equal, if not greater, enemies of a regime that would turn Putin into the permanent and irremovable “leader of the country, thus enabling a long-term policy for consolidating and strengthening the state.” Among the possible secret areas of operations to be pursued by the Russian Presidential Administration, “Revision Number Six” lists not only gathering information on all journalists who cover Russian domestic and foreign policy but also subjecting them and the media to direct and indirect pressure, including forcing bankruptcies, generating organizational difficulties, and issuing threats to owners unable to control the editorial process.

Step by step, consistently and steadily, the Putin administration has squashed all more or less large-circulation, mass-audience media, not even because they were in opposition to it, but because they were independent of the Kremlin’s direct and indirect guidance on what could and could not be brought up for public discussion. Alternatives remain, of course, from Vedomosti to Slon, from TV Rain to Meduza. But looking back at yesterday, literally and figuratively, we can say with certainty that journalism, as an organized process based on editorial independence and a sense of public mission, is politically doomed in today’s Russia.

The regime’s hybridity is rapidly short-circuiting, a process described by Hannah Arendt.

“Totalitarian propaganda can outrageously insult common sense only where common sense has lost its validity. Before the alternative of facing the anarchic growth and total arbitrariness of decay or bowing down before the most rigid, fantastically fictitious consistency of an ideology, the masses probably will always choose the latter and be ready to pay for it with individual sacrifices—and this not because they are stupid or wicked, but because in the general disaster this escape grants them a minimum of self-respect.”*

Until yesterday, RBC’s editorials boldly and recklessly challenged (at least, outwardly) this circle of silence and emptiness around common sense. RBC’s investigative reports, analytical articles, and expert publications were the quintessence of common sense, not acts of information warfare or the intrusion of a “flu-stricken nose” into healthy public space. They manifested the quixotic desire to be the agent of public, civic interest in how the state is organized, and why and where it must change.

It is really pointless for the counterintelligence state to fight suspicion and thievery, official lawlessness and the use of power for personal gain, not because it does not want to improve, but because when someone points out where things must be improved, the counterintelligence state regards it as an act of aggression, as something more dangerous than current shortcomings.

Vasily Gatov is a Visiting Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy. Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of TænketankenThanks to Comrade MT for the heads-up

* Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Cleveland & New York: Meridian Books, 1962), page 352