Piglet

piglet“Should we go and search someone’s home, Piglet?” Cartoon by Sergey Elkin

New Wave of Police Searches Targets Allies of Opposition Leader Navalny Across Russia
Moscow Times
October 15, 2019

Police searched the homes of opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s supporters in at least 12 Russian cities overnight following mass raids last month, the police-monitoring website OVD Info reported Tuesday.

News of the latest wave of early-morning home searches came from cities including Yekaterinburg, Krasnodar in the south, and Arkhangelsk in the north. Police carried out more than 200 raids against Navalny allies across Russia last month as part of a criminal money-laundering investigation into his Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).

“This is a new wave of searches concerning the case of alleged money laundering by FBK employees,” the foundation’s director Ivan Zhdanov told Russia’s Ekho Moskvy radio station.

Russia’s Investigative Committee later confirmed it carried out searches across 30 Russian regions as part of its money-laundering investigation into the FBK.

The Justice Ministry blacklisted FBK last week under Russia’s 2012 “foreign agent” law that imposes crippling auditing and reporting requirements on groups listed. Navalny and his allies maintain that they receive funding solely through Russian donations, but the ministry said that the FBK had received donations from the US and Spain.

Navalny has called that move and others, including the jailing of several protesters, part of a coordinated and trumped-up campaign to stifle the anti-Kremlin opposition’s activities.

On Tuesday, investigators said they had seized documents and other items during their searches. Several of Navalny’s supporters had been taken in for questioning, they said.

The FBK’s video investigations accusing officials of corruption have riled Russia’s elite. The authorities froze bank accounts associated with Navalny in August as part of the money-laundering investigation that he says is trumped up.

Navalny and his allies led political protests this summer over a local election in Moscow that grew into the biggest sustained protest movement in the Russian capital in years, peaking at around 60,000 people before appearing to lose steam.

Outlandish

lakhtaEven with my camera’s lens maxed out, it was not to hard for me to guess who was cleaning the glass (or whatever they were doing) high up in the air on the sides of Gazprom’s almost-finished Lakhta Center skyscraper in Petersburg. They were certainly not ethnic Russians or “people of Slavic appearance,” as they say back in the Motherland. They were almost certainly underpaid, disenfranchised and nearly universally despised migrant workers from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Lakhta, Petersburg, November 11, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

It’s a brilliant plan. The Kremlin now wants to raid neighboring countries and steal their “Russian-speaking” populace (i.e., the non-ethnic Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, etc., who live in Central Asia) to address Russia’s “population decline.”

That is, it is done with importing swarthy Muslims by the trainload and planeload so it can make them to do all the country’s menial labor while underpaying and shaking them down at the same time. Now it just wants to destabilize and impoverish their countries even further by robbing them of five to ten million people.

In recent years, self-declared progressive Russian scholars have nearly made a cottage industry of applying postcolonial theory to post-Soviet Russia. These scholars have focused almost entirely on how the Satanic West has “colonized” their country in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

How the Russian metropole colonized and occupied other countries during the tsarist and Soviet period is of no interest to them whatsoever, nor are post-Soviet Russia’s attempts at recolonization and neo-imperialism through migrant labor, military aggression, and the creation of post-Soviet counterparts to the EU and NATO.

No, it’s all about how the big bad West has woefully mistreated the world’s largest, richest country. {TRR}

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Kremlin Seeks Russian-Speaking Migrants to Offset Population Decline
Moscow Times
March 14, 2019

The Kremlin plans to attract up to 10 million Russian-speaking migrants in the next six years to reverse the country’s population decline, the business daily Kommersant reported on Thursday.

Russia’s population declined to 146.8 million in 2018, official data released on Thursday estimates, its first decrease in 10 years. Migration has been unable to offset natural population losses for the first time since 2008.

President Vladimir Putin has prioritized migration policy by signing a plan of action for 2019–2025 and adding migration to the remit of his constitutional rights office.

The plan involves granting citizenship to anywhere from 5 to 10 million migrants, Kommersant reported, citing unnamed sources involved in carrying out Putin’s migration policy plan.

The Kremlin lists Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Moldova and other post-Soviet states with Russian-speaking populations as so-called “donor countries” where new Russian citizens could be recruited, the paper writes.

Russia needs up to 300,000 additional people per year in order to reach net-zero population growth, Kommersant’s sources are quoted as saying.

Several bills designed to ease citizenship and immigration rules are also in the pipeline, some of which could be considered this May, Kommersant reported.

The 1600th: Futurama

This is my 1600th entry since I started translating and writing articles about modern Russian politics, society, economics, art and culture, history, social movements, grassroots endeavors, and everyday life on this website nearly ten years ago.

My first post, dated October 23, 2007, was a translation of an excerpt from Viktor Mazin and Pavel Pepperstein’s fantastic 2005 book The Interpretation of Dreams. Provocative and surprising as ever, Mr. Pepperstein argued that

[o]nly the interim between Soviet socialism and capitalism was ecological. It was a time of crisis: the factories stood idle, and the air became cleaner. It is a pity, but those days (the nineties) came to an end, and now (under cover of patriotic speeches) our country is becoming a colony of international capitalism. They try and persuade us this is success, but it is not true. We should (my dreams tell me, and I believe them) put our beautiful country to a different use, for example, by turning it into a colossal nature and culture reserve. (After all, our country, like Brazil, produces the most valuable thing on Earth: oxygen.) We should close the borders to foreigners (but let anyone leave as they like), carry out a program of deindustrialization, and limit the birth rate.

Shortly thereafter, I was offered the job of editing another website, Chtodelat News, where I volunteered for nearly five years, publishing 740 posts and slowly figuring out what I wanted to say with this hybrid of translation,  editorializing, and media collage, and how I could say it.

After the long stint at Chtodelat News, I revived the Russian Reader, trying to make it as pluralistic, polyphonic and, occasionally, as paradoxical as I could, while also fulfilling the brief I have tried to keep to the fore from the very beginning: covering stories about Russia which no other Anglophone media would bother with (although they thus miss tiny but vital chunks of the big picture) and giving my readers access to Russian voices they would not otherwise hear.

I had meant to celebrate my 1500th post on this beat, but that make-believe anniversary came and went without my noticing it. It was all for the best, however, since now nearly ten years have passed since I set out on this unpredictable journey.

Like the very first post on this blog, my 1600th post is a glimpse into Russia’s possible futures, as imagined by Grey Dolphin (aka Vladimir Gel’man), his fellow scribbler Grim Reminder (yours truly), Russian rappers GROT, and my friends at the Moscow Times. TRR

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Russia: It Can’t Be Improved So Destroy It, or It Can’t Be Destroyed So Improve It?
Grey Dolphin
September 27, 2017

Grey Dolphin

The discussions about Russia’s prospects, currently underway among the conscious segment of Russian society, despite their public nature, in many respects resemble similar debates about the Soviet Union’s destiny, held in the kitchens of members of the intelligentsia and among politicized émigrés during the so-called stagnation. Relatively speaking, it was a debate between two parties. One party, the moderate optimists, grounded their expectations on hopes the country’s leadership would change course for one reason or another (or would itself change), and there would be a chance to change the Soviet Union for the better. (There were different opinions about what “better” meant and how to achieve it.) The other party, which included both moderate and radical pessimists, argued it was no longer possible or fundamentally impossible to improve the Soviet Union, and changes should be directed towards its total elimination. Time seemed to be on the side of the optimists, whose chances at success appeared realistic at perestroika’s outset, but in fact it was working inexorably on behalf of the pessimists. By the time the optimists seemingly got their chance, opportunities to improve the Soviet Union had largely been frittered away. History does not tolerate the subjunctive mood, and we do not know what turn events could have taken had perestroika been launched ten or fifteen years earlier. Those ten or fifteen years, however, passed only in conversations around kitchen tables, while the country’s leaders strove to prevent any change whatsoever. When the changes kicked off, the energies of both parties—the supporters of improving the Soviet Union, and the supporters of destroying the Soviet Union—had not exactly been exhaused in vain, but they had not been used very effectively.

Despite all the political and economic differences between the early 1970s and the late 2010s, the current conjuncture in Russia is not so remote from what it was then in the Soviet Union. Moderate optimists have proposed seemingly reasonable projects for improvements to the authorities and the public, but they themselves do not believe they can be realized “in this lifetime.” The moderate pessimists, if they had believed earlier in the possibility of improvement, have lost faith, while the radical pessimists never believed in improvements as a matter of principle. The optimists are waiting to see whether they will get the chance to improve at least something (and if so, when), while the pessimists are ready at a moment’s notice to exclaim, “Lord, let it burn!” For better or worse, however, so far there are no obvious “arsonists” in the vicinity who could and would want to demolish the current Russian political and economic order nor have any appeared on the distant horizon. Once again, as during the stagnation, time inexorably works on behalf of the pessimists. Sooner or later, yet another former optimist or, on the contrary, a person not involved in these debates will say something like, “Today’s Russia cannot be improved. It can only be destroyed.” (Essentially, this was what happened in the Soviet Union towards the end of perestroika. Of course, there were a different set of causes and other mechanisms in play then. What I have in mind is the rationale of transformation itself.) If and when the number of people supporting the verdict “destroy” reaches a critical mass, then the first of the questions posed in my post’s title will irreversibly be answered in the affirmative, occluding the second question altogether. The more news about events in Russia transpires every day, the more inevitable this outcome seems.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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GROT, “Fire”
If God wants to punish a man, He strips him of his reason.
I often think the whole country has been punished.
As in a fantasy story, I can see a light glowing over people’s heads.
This is not a sign of holiness.
It is a sign of moral decay,
Decay of beliefs, principles, and ideas.
The nostrils are already used to the rotting smell,
And there are cadaver spots on the faces of children and adults.
Self-destruction at the mental level,
The nation jumps into the abyss with a cry of “Keep off me!”
We will soon go extinct like the mammoths.
Young mothers with Jaguars and Parliaments.
People will have coming to them the trouble they stir up
Everyone will be punished according to their whims.

Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.

An ancient serpent lashes the sky with a crimson tongue,
Its breath ripples over the television networks.
Through TV screens it animates the golem and generates ghosts.
In the skulls of those who ate their souls
And vomited them out indifferently with counterfeit vodka
In the snow in winter or summer in the dust.
Two abused dudes filmed it on a mobile.
Look online, search for the tags “degenerates,” “masturbate,”
“Suck,” “come,” “sex with babies.”
I’m waiting for the last fire, but you better run.
Nothing can be fixed here now. Lord, let it burn!

Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.

Source: rap-text.ru

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Russia could ban Facebook next year if it fails to comply with a 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian citizens’ personal data on local servers, the state media censor said on Tuesday.

The U.S. social network would follow in the footsteps of LinkedIn, the social platform for professionals that was banned in Russia last year after a September 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian users’ personal data on localized servers.

The head of Russia’s state media watchdog Roskomnadzor warned that “there are no exceptions” to compliance with the data storage law seen by some observers as unenforceable.

“We will either ensure that the law is implemented, or the company will cease to work in Russia,” Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency.

He said the watchdog is aware of Facebook’s popularity, with an estimated 14.4 million monthly and 6 million daily users in Russia as of last year.

“On the other hand, we understand that this is not a unique service. There are other social networks.”

Twitter, Zharov said, has agreed to transfer by mid-2018 its Russian users’ data to Russian servers.

“We have no plans to investigate Facebook in that regard until the end of 2017,” he added. “We will think about it in 2018. Maybe we will investigate.”

[…]

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Grim Reminder

There are no technical or legal justifications for banning Facebook in 2018, only political considerations. The principal political consideration would be the need to find ways of “celebrating” Putin’s auto-reinstallation as president for “another six-year term” (i.e., for life).

As a tyrant who brooks no opposition to his illegimate rule, Putin would have to celebrate his hollow victory by instituting a series of crackdowns against his foes, as he did after formally returning to the presidency in 2012.

One of these crackdowns could involve banning Facebook in Russia, as is strongly suggested by the article I have quoted, above.

But that would be the least of everyone’s worries once Putin essentially crowned himself tsar as a gift to himself for his stunningly bad performance as the country’s leader for eighteen years.

Since his entire reign has orbited not around solving the country’s problems, but around imbricating himself and his clique of “former” KGB officers into every corporate and institutional nook and cranny in Russia (and beyond) while stealing everything he can get his hands on and rewarding his satraps with the booty “for a job well done,” he has not had much time to solve any real problems.

Hence the constant need to designate enemies and cripple, vanquish, jail, disappear or murder them, be they Facebook, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Boris Nemtsov.

Anyone who does not explicitly support Putin—and by definition only members of his clique really support him, in the sense that members of a mafia clan are loyal to their boss—is de facto opposed to him.

This might be especially true during the upcoming election, because, I would imagine, the majority of Russian voters are, at very least, quite weary of Putin and his oppositionless electoral “victories” by now and would be inclined to stay home on election day, even if they are not willing to march in the streets. (That might require too much effort.)

But a low turnout would still be a slap in the face to a man whose whole schtick the last eighteen years or so has been his alleged “wild” popularity, a schtick supported by the mainstream Russian press, corrupt Russian pollsters, foreign media covering Russia, and “Russia experts,” most of whom have no other gauge for measuring or probing “Russian public opinion,” so they rely on rigged, astronomically high popularity ratings.

If something around ten percent of voters in the two capitals (Moscow and Petersburg) and the non-ethnic regions showed up on polling day, the myth of Putin’s popularity would be dealt a near-fatal blow.

Putin would take his humiliation out on his treacherous non-constituency by unleashing a panoply of crackdowns, adopting a whole new raft of repressive laws at lightning speed, as happened in the wake of his 2012 re-election, and, perhaps, arresting a prominent figure from the opposition, such as Alexei Navalny, sending him down for hard time. Or worse.

Author photos courtesy of cetacea.ru and the Russian Reader

“Extremism” Ruling Against Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Popular Will?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Was it the “popular will” that 500 hectares of land be reclaimed in the Neva Bay right off Petersburg’s Vasiliyevsky Island and developed into densely built high-rise estates, causing untold amounts of environmental and aesthetic damage? No, it wasn’t. In fact, locals were bitterly opposed to the project and they mounted a loud resistance back in the day. But their will was roundly ignored by Petersburg city hall and developers. Under the present authoritarian regime, “popular will” is a friendly phantom, at best, an irritant, at worst. Photo by the Russian Reader

The Russian Supreme Court has gone ahead and banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered their property confiscated. This is a colossal insult to hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Russian citizens. A huge new underground has been generated. Massive crackdowns for their faith, new political prisoners, and mass immigration are around the corner. The Russian authorities and Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who is personally responsible for this operation, have curious ideas about the joy of Easter.
—Nikolay Mitrokhin, Facebook, April 21, 2017

Perhaps this is what is most disheartening about the recent legal battle. The state may be the central actor, but its actions reflect the popular will of Russians who, by and large, have decided that Witnesses have no place in their society.
—Emily Baran, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Ban Spells End for Russia’s Religious Diversity,” Moscow Times, April 24, 2017

When did Russians decide this? Did they hold a referendum recently? Are most Russians even aware of how the Justice Ministry has used the Russian Supreme Court to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists,” allegedly, at the insistence of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill? I very much doubt it.

Professor Baran only mentions actions by state or quasi-state actors, such as the central press in Soviet and post-Soviet times. Yet they were and have been somehow acting on behalf of the “popular will,” a symbiosis she makes no real attempt to prove in her op-ed piece for the Moscow Times, as quoted above.

As for real popular sentiment, I imagine there are as many Americans as Russians who have reflexively negative attitudes toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just think of all the jokes about JWs you have heard in your lifetime that cast them in a negative or ridiculous light, or how many times you have seen their likenesses figuring as the villains on TV medical dramas who refuse proper care for desperately sick children? Then why aren’t they banned in the US? At worst, the American “popular will” sees them as outsiders and obscurantists, at best, as an annoyance.

I can imagine that tenure-track professors in the US have a hard time understanding how disempowered and disconnected the grassroots are in a country that now has the world’s largest income inequality gap, and a long, brutal history of minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, getting hammered by the powers that be while putative “majority” either did not mind, looked the other way or did not even notice.

But does Tennessee, where Professor Baran teaches, have an utterly different history when it comes to protecting the rights of its minorities?

The Russian Supreme Court’s decision to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses extremist is completely despicable in every possible way, but Russians who bother to care about minorities and “minority” interests (like the environment, civil and social rights, corruption, labor rights, migrant rights, and historical preservation and sound urban planning) are often too few and far between to fight every battle and put out every fire. And many of those fighters are themselves currently under the state’s gun. The same Justice Ministry that has gone after Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses like a pit bull has also been branding NGOs, research institutes, and grassroots organizations “foreign agents” like it was at a fire sale.

That is no excuse for the judicial execution the Russian state has just performed on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it was a decision made at the top by the political, ecclesiastical and judicial elites, including the ROC’s Patriarch Kirill. It was not the state’s response to a nonexistent, utterly imaginary “popular will.” {TRR}

Uneven and Combined Development

On this bright Saturday evening, when the sun has finally come out in the former capital of All the Russias after a week of nonstop rain, I want to offer you two tales of two completely different modern Russias, situated unhappily side by side, but God only knows for how long and at what cost.

Both stories have their fictional and literary precedents, as is often the case in this overly verbalized country.

The hero of the first tale, Valery Slesarev, will remind you of the characters and real-life heroes and victims in nineteenth-century writer and human rights activist Vladimir Korolenko’s fictional sketches and muckracking newspaper articles, while the nearly unbelievable promises and high-powered wheeler dealers in the second tale will conjure up Ilf and Petrov’s world of con men and grifters during the NEP period. TRR

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Smack Them Upside the Head
Tired of waiting for a promised natural gas tie-in pipeline from local authorities, the Yegorevsk Urban District in the Moscow Region asked Obama for gas
Ekaterina Fomina
Novaya Gazeta
June 5, 2016


Valery Slesarev. Photo by Ekaterina Fomina

After collecting 531 signatures in support of his effort, pensioner Valery Slesarev called the US Embassy and asked a specific question.

“How can I get a hold of Barack Obama?”

The embassy promised him to call him back and make an appointment.

Lots of people in Yegorevsk know Valery Slesarev. First, he has tuned and fixed TV sets his whole life, and that is deemed a vital service. Second, he has an artificial skull.

As a child, Slesarev was involved in Pavel Popovich’s Young Cosmonauts Club. One of the activities at the club was parachute jumping from towers. During one such jump, the carabiner from a pull rope slammed Slesarev hard in the head. A year later, a tumor was discovered in his brain, and it was decided to operate. Popovich himself got involved by asking for help from America, where an artificial bone was grown personally for the sixteen-year-old boy. The doctors told his mother he would not survive, but the bone up and took hold.

As the years passed, it transpired that, along with the bone, the doctors had implanted something Soviet people were not supposed to have: a faith in justice and the strength to fight for it.

Initially, the life of the young cosmonaut with the artificial skull rolled down different tracks than it might have, like in a small town in West Virginia: steady, nothing out of the ordinary.

“Maybe the Lord in fact saved me then. Eighty percent of my group at the Young Cosmonauts Club died in Afghanistan. We were all combat ready, you see, and those boys were sent straight to the front,” he says today.

Slesarev studied to be a radio technician, but went to work as a TV repairman. The celestial expanses no longer appealed to him, and he had enough to do down on earth as it was. He drove from village to village fixing TV sets and occasionally chopping firewood for old women.

In the nineties, the business where Slesarev worked fell apart, and he started a small business of his own, a tire repair shop. He called it Autocupola, and indeed the blue, two-storey building housing his shop is crowned by conical metal cupolas. The cupolas, he explains, are in honor of his artificial skull. He is proud of the black swans, carved from tires, out in front of the shop and a gingerbread boy with a painted mug.

Slesarev lives in amazing house, also topped with cupolas, only they are in the shape of little bulbs. The local council has even hung a sign on the house designating it a cultural landmark.

For a time, then, Slesarev was an amusing local landmark. In 2005, however, the Moscow Region began installing natural gas mains in the villages of Yegorevsk. The mains were quickly installed in all public buildings, but ordinary people, those selfsame old women for whose sake the whole program was undertaken, were left without gas. Slesarev says he simply could not look at old women swinging wood mauls anymore. Thus began his fight.

Vladychino
Only twenty-eight people are officially registered in Vladychino, a village in the Yegorevsk Urban District, but around a hundred people live there permanently, most of them people the natives have contemptuously dubbed “summerfolk.” Slesarev is one of the summerfolk too. He has land there, inherited from forebear, and his grandmother’s house, which he has managed to restore and preserve. The entire village stopped by to admire it.

As in the neighboring villages, people in Vladychino buy natural gas in cylinders. A fifty-liter cylinder, which costs a thousand rubles to refill, lasts a month. Arranging privately to have a gas line connected to your house costs at least 500,000 rubles [approx. 7,000 euros].

A spontaneous assembly of local residents has been taking place on the bench in front of Slesarev’s house. You might say he mobilized them.

Grandma Valentina, Grandpa Nikolai, Kolya, who has no front teeth and wears a leather jacket, Nikolai Alexandrovich, and Tatyana have formed a semi-circle. They occasionally get sidetracked and swat a mosquito. It is the height of the season.

“Please forgive my appearance. I came from the garden,” says Tatyana, apologizing as it were for her apron.

“TV Rain came to film, and we all dressed like peasants,” says Valentina, dangling her rubber-slippered feet by way of proof.

“Why are we appealing to Obama? We hope that, if not Obama, some other president will respond,” says Valentina.

“I’ll tell you why,” says Nikolai Alexandrovich, who steps forward, dressed in builder’s overalls. “He is a winner of the Nobel Peace Price, and he is on his way out of office in any case. Let him do one good deed at the end of his term by getting gas installed for us.”

The locals gossip. The village of Rakhmanovo got gas when an MP from the Moscow Regional Duma and a member of the Yegorevsk Board of Deputies moved there. Actually, according to the paperwork, gas lines have been laid to Vladychino and all the other villages too: 300 million rubles [approx. 4 million euros at current exchange rates] from the regional budget was spent on the program. A presidential commission even came looking for the gas, but they did not find it.  To be hooked up to gas lines under the regional program, a village must have no less than one hundred residents, so Vladychino was lumped together with neighboring Parykino. Now, according to the schedule for gasification, Vladychino and Parykino should get gas lines no later than 2018. But no one believes it will happen, because dates for gasification of the villages have been postponed annually since 2005. Last year, the residents of Vladychino wrote a letter to Putin, but half has many people signed it as did the letter to the US president.

“He’s not going to help. His term is never going to end. He’s president for life,” says Nikolai Alexandrovich.

“God willing he will be president for life!” responds Valentina. “He lifted the country up! As for gas, well, we need it. Maybe he just has not been told about us. Our board of deputies should be the ones helping us, but they don’t do anything for us. This year, they didn’t even spray the bushes for ticks.”

“This writing to Obama thing is all a joke, a way of getting us riled up and forcing us to think,” explained Nikolai Alexandrovich. “But what do you think? Is America Russia’s enemy? I knew you’d say that! I’m not going to try and educate you or persuade you. Who is threatened by Russia? The Americans, however, are already in Estonia. Those are facts, Katya, facts!”

By local standards, Nikolai Alexandrovich is also one of the summerfolk, although he has lived in Vladychino for four years, since retiring. He worked for twenty-six years in security at the Kremlin. Nowadays, he is an elder at Nativity of Christ Church.

“They’ll never unleash a war on us, but they are trying to squeeze us economically on the sly,” concluded Kolya, who worked as a plumber at Slavyanka, Ltd., during the heyday of Yevgenia Vasilyeva, but has now retired.

“That is war,” continues Nikolai Alexandrovich. “Was it necessary to drop the bombs on Japan? This is a continuation, just as today’s Russia is a continuation of Soviet life in many ways. Your colleagues from TV Rain were spooked. They were worried lest we go to jail for what we said. We won’t go to jail: we speak the truth!”

“The mosquitoes have already devoured us,” a bored Valentina chips in.

“It’s time for me to milk the cows,” says Kolya.

“Why was she caterwauling yesterday from lunchtime on? She was probably thirsty?”

“She has been yelling because of the bull. I haven’t been putting the pull in with her. He’s been laid low. I called the vet, and he told me over the phone to give the bull vodka. I gave him vodka. Then he told me to give it sunflower oil. I did it: same damn nonsense! Now he tells me to go and buy lactic acid.”


Slesarev outside his Autocupola tire repair shop. Photo by Ekaterina Fomina

“Sufferings, Trials, and Humiliations”
Since 2005, when Valery Slesarev began his fight to have the villages gasified, he has kept a list entitled “My Sufferings, Trials, and Humiliations.” It includes such entries as “Arrest, searches of homes and shops. Bombing of Autocupola. Arson at Autocupola.”

In 2010, unknown men in masks armed with crowbars broke into his tire shop. They methodically and cold-bloodedly beat up Slesarev and his daughter. A criminal case was opened, of course, but to no avail. The police wrote off the incident as a “workplace fight.”

Slesarev wrote to Vladimir Zhirinovsky that he was being prevented from doing business. Zhirinovsky promised to look into the case. Apparently, he is still looking.

Moscow Region Governor Boris Gromov once visited Yegorevsk. Slesarev was going to the meeting when he was pulled over by traffic cops, allegedly, for driving with dirty license plates. He spent the whole day in the detention center and was released without having to pay any fines.

Governors have come and gone, but the story has not changed. Slesarev had to fight his way into a meeting with current Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov at the House of Culture. In the auditorium, he was surrounded by police officers in plain clothes.

“When I stood up to ask a question, they made me sit down. They actually grabbed me by the pants and pulled me down, and everyone was laughing,” Slesarev recalls.

Governor Vorobyov noticed the strange man and asked to speak with him personally after the meeting. As Slesarev tells it now, the governor was so outraged that he promised to dismiss the head of the district the very next day. And he did, in fact, dismiss him. Only, at the next elections, Mikhail Lavrov, ex-head of the district, was elected chair of the Yegorevsk Board of Deputies, a position he occupies to this day.

“Vorobyov left, and the bathhouse we guys in the village had built for the gals burnt down. There was a criminal investigation, of course. But they didn’t catch anyone.”

“The Gas Has Come”
This time, it was the head of the Yegorevsk District and his deputies who were meeting with constituents. Slesarev did not know about the meeting, and so we arrive in the village of Yurtsovo a bit late: the event has ended. But we do find Nina Morsh, head of Yurtsovo Area, surrounded by female assistants, next to the Soviet war memorial. Slesarev knows everyone by sight, all the more so because Morsh was previously head of the Yurtsovo Rural Settlement. But late last year, all the municipalities were abolished when when the Yegorevsky District was redesignated as an urban district. The now-abolished Yurtsovo Rural Settlement included thirty-eight villages. Last year, only four of them had gas mains.

Morsh’s assistants immediately cut us off.

“You’re a little late. The head of the district was at the meeting, and he answered everyone’s questions. Residents who wanted to ask questions got definitive answers. You can ask them yourselves.”

Dressed in a suit with a rose on the chest, Morsh drags me along with her.

“Since 2005, a lot of work has been done on gasification,” she tells me, as if she were reading a report. “First, the central village of Yurtsovo and the main municipal institutions, then, in 2010, the entire residential sector.”

She speaks of natural gas affectionately.

“The gas has come,” she says.

The gas has come to Pochinki, Barsuki, Leonovo, and Polbino. And so it will arrive in Vladychino and Parykino, too, Morsh reassures me. The design plans and specifications are already being drafted.

“You cannot jump higher than the budget lets you,” says Morsh by way of explaining why gasification has taken so long. “This has been explained repeatedly to that man, who doesn’t even live in our area. Whatever emotions he may or may not be experiencing, the program has been well implemented. Just look at our governor.”

It is clear as day the village needs gas, but people have been living without it, getting by with cylinders. Some people even stoke wood stoves. Ninety-year-old Grandma Panya, another resident of Vladychino, signed the petition to Obama, but she is afraid of gas.

“That one woman of ours in Moscow, the one who left to be with her lover, was home alone once, but forget to turn off the gas. She died from carbon monoxide poisoning!”

If it had not been for Slesarev, no one would have the heard the voice of the people of Yegorevsk. But that is how his brain operates under his American skull. If the law says people are supposed to have gas piped into their homes, then that is the way it should be, even it means his having to fight hopelessly for it on his lonesome. Slesarev has lived his whole life this way.

Translated by the Russian Reader

___________________

Will Russia Be First to Build Elon Musk’s Hyperloop?
Peter Hobson
The Moscow Times
July 6, 2016

In mid June, Shervin Pishevar, co-founder of Hyperloop One, sat under the high, decorated ceiling of a palace in St. Petersburg.

Men in suits lined the large, rectangular table.

“Eighteen heads of sovereign [wealth] funds and President [Vladimir] Putin. $10 trillion in the room,” Pishevar wrote alongside a photo posted on Facebook. “Then Putin called on me.”

So Pishevar, a burly, bearded Silicon Valley entrepreneur, began to speak. He talked about the Hyperloop trains his company plans to build: Transportation pods levitated by magnets inside an airless tube that could travel at speeds 300 kilometers per hour faster than a passenger aircraft, thanks to the low air resistance. Pods that could whisk goods through Russia from China to Europe in the space of hours, or turn St. Petersburg into a suburb of Moscow.

Putin listened attentively. Then, according to Pishevar, he said, “Hyperloop will fundamentally change the global economy.”

By the time Pishevar left Russia, Hyperloop One had signed its first deal with a foreign government, a partnership with Moscow’s City Hall. It had also been asked by Russia’s transport minister to design a 70-kilometer Hyperloop track in the Russian Far East.

With that kind of support, perhaps the first Hyperloop won’t be built in California, but in Russia.

Dreaming of Innovation

At first sight, all that seems strange. Russia, after all, is suffering its deepest economic crisis for nearly two decades. Much of its infrastructure is hopelessly backward. It is a country in which passengers in slippers shuffle between bunk beds in overnight trains that travel at average speeds of just over 50 kilometers an hour. Freight trains, meanwhile, move at a little over 10 kilometers per hour.

But there are a few things working in Hyperloop’s favor.

First, innovation has once again become a buzzword in government. Officials are, at least in theory, keen to diversify away from the oil and gas industry on which the country currently relies. And they are paranoid that Russia could fall so far behind the technological innovation happening elsewhere that it will never catch up.

That fear has sprouted strategic plans for major infrastructure investment and research into the technology of the future. These plans think big: On the agenda are things like quantum computing, neural interfaces and teleportation. Hyperloop, with its science-fiction-movie tube trains, fits perfectly into that vision.

From Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1.5 Hours

Source: Hyperloop One. View in higher resolution here.

Second, Hyperloop has a powerful Russian investor lobbying its interests, a Dagestani tycoon called Ziyavudin Magomedov.

Tall, handsome and worth $900 million, Magomedov is a true techie. According to Forbes, for his 47th birthday party last year, he hosted a robot-themed ball and gifted each guest a book about Elon Musk, the billionaire inventor who in 2013 launched the Hyperloop concept.

Like Putin, he is emphatically excited about the idea.

“It will kill truck and air transportation at a minimum,” he told Forbes.

Magomedov is also supremely well connected. His investment company, Summa Group, spans businesses from real estate to logistics and has handled orders from state companies worth billions of dollars. He has advised the president and allegedly paid for Putin’s press secretary to honeymoon last year on a super yacht in the Mediterranean. One of Russia’s deputy prime minsters, Arkady Dvorkovich, is an old university friend and, conveniently, oversees the country’s policy on transport, innovation and industry policy, though the two deny any favoritism.

Magomedov invested in Hyperloop One through his $300 million venture capital fund, Caspian VC Partners, and set about bringing it to Russia. Bill Shor, the Russian-speaking American who runs Caspian for him, describes him as “very hands on.”

Magomedov has played the role of Hyperloop One’s deal broker. His Summa Group was a co-signatory on the agreement between Hyperloop One and the Moscow Government, which will create a working group aimed at fitting Hyperloop technology into Moscow’s transport system.

He likely also played a major role in pushing for a Hyperloop to span the 70 kilometers between the Chinese industrial center of Jilin and Zarubino, south of Russia’s Vladivostok, where Summa is investing in port facilities.

Both projects have been billed as revolutionary. In heavily congested Moscow, which is currently ploughing huge sums into expanding its transport infrastructure, Hyperloop One says its technology could potentially “give capital region commuters weeks of their lives back.”

The link with Jilin, meanwhile, would carry 10 million tons of cargo a year, zipping containers to port in minutes, says Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov. He wants Hyperloop One to present a design for the track at an investment forum in Vladivostok in September.

Tapping Into China

The third thing playing in Hyperloop’s favor in Russia is that it could unlock vast amounts of Chinese investment.

The Jilin-Zarubino spur is just the beginning. In the longer term, Hyperloop could create “the heart of the transport infrastructure for the Eurasian landmass,” says Shor. The technology will likely be used for freight before it begins to transport passengers. And the route between China and Europe is one of the world’s busiest trade arteries.

The distance between China’s eastern edge and Central Europe is some 7,000 kilometers. Freight currently navigates that distance by train in around three weeks and by sea in roughly two months. In theory, a Hyperloop could span it in six hours.

Beijing has committed tens of billions of dollars to its “One Belt-One Road” plan to create new infrastructure between it and Europe. Russian authorities have their eyes on some of that money.

“It’s like a tube with an air-hockey table. It’s just a low-pressure tube, with a pod in it that runs on air bearings […] I swear it’s not that hard,” said Elon Musk in 2015. Photo: Patricj T. Fallon / Reuters

Sokolov says he will discuss the Jilin Hyperloop with China’s transport minister at a meeting in August and hopes “we’ll take the next step [in this project] together with our Chinese partners.”

Also, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), a $10 billion state-backed investment vehicle, invested in Hyperloop One earlier this year. The amount was “very modest,” according to its chief, Kirill Dmitriev. But the RDIF also happens to run a joint investment fund with China worth $2 billion.

China is already helping to pay for a planned trans-Siberian high-speed rail line that could cost more than $200 billion. Hyperloop’s advocates say their technology be cheaper. According to Sokolov, the Jilin-Zarubino line will cost around 30 billion rubles ($450 million)—almost one-third less than a high-speed rail equivalent.

“We must be serious about this idea,” he insists.

Where’s the Money?

But for all the enthusiasm, few in Russia are prepared to put down real investment just yet.

Hyperloop One is working “very closely” with the Transport Ministry, as well as local governments and “some of the largest Russian corporates,” says Shor. These reportedly include Russian Railways and Gazprom, two giant state corporations. But these partners are contributing expertise and access, not money. All the cash is coming from Hyperloop One and Magomedov’s Summa, which Shor says has “invested quite a bit of resources, financial and otherwise.”

Even Putin, who in St. Petersburg promised support to Hyperloop One, wasn’t talking about financial support, his spokesman later clarified.

The problem is that while the Hyperloop concept is compelling, no one has yet worked out how to build one. Russia seems content to wait for the technology to prove itself with other people’s money.

The Local Contender

It might come as a surprise to discover that one of those working on the technology is Russian. Indeed, it turns out that Russian scientists were on to Hyperloop long before Elon Musk.

A century ago, before it was derailed by World War I, scientists in Siberia began working on a similar scheme, says Sokolov. Now, at St. Petersburg’s University of Transport and Communications, the project has been reborn.

Anatoly Zaitsev is an engineer who was briefly transport minister in the 1990s. At his lab on the Baltic coast, his team of around 20 people have equipment that can levitate transport containers. He says he could “absolutely” build a levitation track to Moscow, 650 kilometers away, if you give him $12-13 billion—significantly less than the cost of high-speed rail.

The only part of Musk’s plan Zaitsev says he hasn’t figured out is how to put his levitating pods in a tube. But that’s the simple part, he insists, “like dressing [the train] in a dinner jacket.”

Zaitsev thinks his technology is more developed than that of his rivals, whose plans remain mostly on paper. Both Shor and Sokolov praise his work. But despite that, Zaitsev is largely ignored by the ministers and local governments now courting Hyperloop One.

The reason why ultimately comes down to money. Hyperloop One has raised more than $100 million to fund research, pilot projects and investor outreach.

Another California company, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, is also rubbing shoulders with big investors. One of its executives has said it is talking with a Russian private investor and is looking at Hyperloop projects in Russia. Its chief, Dirk Ahlborn, also met Putin in St. Petersburg in June.

Elon Musk proposed the Hyperloop concept in 2013 as a mode of transportation between Los Angeles and San Francisco, California.

These companies can fund relentless global expansion, and they benefit from Silicon Valley’s sheen of success. Russian officials can engage with them at no cost to themselves. No wonder, Zaitsev laughs, that “when a foreigner shows up in Russia at the invitation of a resident billionaire, the music and dances start.”

“The Americans are better at getting money,” he says. “I tip my hat to Musk and his followers who so boldly and aggressively offer the world unfinished technology.” By contrast, Zaitsev has enough money to keep his lab operational, and not much more. If Hyperloop is eventually built, it is unlikely to be Russian-made.

Revolution?

But if Hyperloop really is the future of transport, and Putin jumps on board early, it could be a visionary move.

“Russia has a very good chance [of being the first place to develop Hyperloop],” says Shor. If the government acts quickly on regulation, he says it could happen in the next few years. That could put the country at the forefront of a transport revolution.

On the other hand, the whole thing could be a pipe dream. No one knows if the technology can be made cheaply enough to implement.

Russia, meanwhile, still lacks both money and many basics of a modern transport system, says Mikhail Blinkin, head of the transport institute at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics and an advisor to the Transport Ministry.

Fifteen years discussing high-speed rail has led to a single line between Moscow and St. Petersburg that travels less than 200 kilometers per hour. The country has only 5,000 kilometers of modern expressways, says Blinkin—less than tiny South Korea and not even enough to span Russia from east to west.

The government should focus more on practical improvements to the transport infrastructure and less on visions of Hyperloop tubes criss-crossing the country, says Blinkin. Otherwise, he adds, the officials cheerleading Hyperloop are just the latest versions of Marie Antoinette, the aristocrat who saw French peasants without bread, and supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.”

The 501st: Russian Death

russian death
“Russian Death”

‘Sociologist Denis Volkov from Moscow’s independent Levada Center pollster, on the other hand, says the bill is unlikely to make Russians more wary about what they post on the Internet. “Most people are not aware of these laws,” he says.’

Ha-ha. It’s good that reporters are forced to turn to “sociologists” and “pollsters” for quotable quotes, and that the Putinist state decided at some point long ago it would pollocratize everyone and their cousin into submission, because otherwise the “independent” Levada Center would have had to pull up stakes long ago and move to Nevada to start calling odds on the trifecta at Santa Anita racetrack.

I have already seen the chilling effect that the bill and the generally malignant, soul-destroying climate of the last year or so have had on what people talk about politically (or not) in daily life, much more dare to post on the Internet, e.g., Russia’s role in Syria, which absolutely no one I know has discussed, publicly or otherwise, under any circumstances for a very, very long time now. And that is just the top of the list.

A fair number of Russians, young and old, know very well how to read signals coming from on high and when to keep their mouths shut. Or how to substitute abstract, self-important chatter or furious trivial pursuits for meaningful conversations about what is happening in their country and what to do about it. Now is one of those times, and it is absolutely depressing.

All it will take is a few more “light touches,” and the country will essentially be dead, that is, waiting for its Supreme Leader to kick the bucket (when? twenty years from now?) so it can rejoin the rest of the world and resume building “democracy,” “capitalism” or whatever it has been pretending to do the last twenty-five years.

Photo courtesy of the Facebook page of Russkaia smert’ (Russian Death)