Spooky Knowledge and the Russian Police State

gabyshevOpposition shaman Alexander Gabyshev was detained while walking to Moscow to exorcise Vladimir Putin. Photo courtesy of yakutia.info

Superstitious Democracy
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
September 20, 2019

The arrest and possible criminal prosecution of self-declared shaman Alexander Gabyshev, who was en route to Moscow to exorcise Vladimir Putin, whom the shaman had dubbed a demon, is less a consequence of Gabyshev’s involvement in protest rallies and more the outcome of a serious attitude toward superstitions and occult practices on the part of high government officials and the security forces.

On Thursday, Gabyshev’s traveling companions reported that security services officers, armed with machine guns and billy clubs, had raided their tent camp on the border between Buryatia and Irkutsk region, where the shaman was spending the night. The siloviki detained Gabyshev and spirited him away on a police bus that took off towards Ulan-Ude.

In the afternoon, the Buryatia Interior Ministry reported, without naming a name [sic], that Gabyshev had been detained by order of a police investigator on suspicion of his having committed a crime in Yakutia, and he would be extradited to Yakutsk. According to sources cited by news agencies and TV Rain, Gabyshev could be charged with extremism.

Gabyshev’s trek to Moscow had already been marred by the arrest of his traveling companions, which partly sparked the unrest in Ulan-Ude that led to a protest rally at which protesters demanded a recount of the recent mayoral election in the city and generated a tactical alliance between shamanists and the Communists.

In our age of smartphones and supercomputers, the attempt to exorcise demons from the Kremlin seems like a joke, just like the possible charge of extremism against Gabyshev: it transpires that occult rituals are regarded as real threats to the Russian state.

We should not be surprised by this, however. Many of our fellow Russians have lost faith in the rational foundations of the world order and the state system. The paucity of scientific explanations in Russian society has been compensated by superstitions and conspiracy theories, which are broadcast by national TV channels, among others.

But that is only half the problem. Such explanations of reality and occult methods are widespread among the highest ranks of the security services, that is, among people who have the ear of the country’s leaders. Cheka officers were intensely interested in occultism in the 1920s and 1930s, an interest shared, later, by the NKVD and the Nazi secret services.

In post-Soviet Russia, arcane practices were promoted by the late General Georgy Rogozin, who served as deputy chief of the president’s security service.

“There are powerful techniques that reveal psychotronics. This is the science of controlling the brain. […] In order to see the trajectory of a person’s life, their ups and downs, it is enough to know when they were born,” Rogozin told Komsomolskaya Pravda in an interview.

In December 2006, General Boris Ratnikov of the Federal Protective Service (FSO) told Rossiiskaya Gazeta that the secret services had tapped into the subconscious of US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and detected a “pathological hatred of Slavs” and dreams of controlling Russia. In 2015, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev reproduced this as Albright’s “statement” that Siberia and the Far East did not belong to Russia.

We can only guess what threats the current security forces were able to “scan” (concoct, that is) in Gabyshev’s subconscious.

Translated by the Russian Reader

How the Cheka Became the FSB

Мonument to Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky on Shpalernaya Street, near the Smolny, Petersburg city hall. Photo courtesy of yakaev.livejournal.com

How the Cheka Became the FSB
The notion of the Cheka’s superiority is one hundred years old
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
December 20, 2017

On December 20, 1917, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage (VChK) aka the Cheka was established. Its successors will mark its centenary today. Numerous reforms of the secret services and the transition from socialism to capitalism have had little impact on how the leaders and officers of the secret services view their mission and social standing. The notion of Chekism, the superiority of state and official necessity to the law and justice, have proven tenacious. But if they were previously justified by the interests of the Party, they are nowadays often used to achieve personal ends.

Initially, the Cheka’s powers were insignificant. They were supposed to conduct preliminary investigations of crimes and refer the cases to tribunals. Soon, however, the Chekists were endowed with the right to carry out extrajudicial actions.

As Cheka deputy chair Martin Lācis said in 1919, “The Cheka is not a court, but the Party’s combat unit. It destroys [criminals] without trial or isolates [them] from society by imprisoning [them] in concentration camps. Word and law are identical.”

But we should not exaggerate the degree to which the Chekists were independent. As follows from a 1919 Central Committee decree, “The Chekas [sic] have been established, exist, and function only as direct agencies of the Party, guided by its directives and under its oversight.”

After the Russian Civil War, the commissars of justice, first Dmitry Kursky and later Nikolai Krylenko, spoke of the need to limit the powers of the Cheka. (In 1921, it was renamed the Joint State Political Directorate or OGPU.)

Dzerzhinsky insisted, however, that “our right to shoot [people] is our reserve. On the ground, we must conspire with court chairmen.”

The interests of state and revolution were placed above the rights of Soviet citizens to freedom of opinion and protection from illegal prosecution. Specific notions of revolutionary duty and the good of the revolution generated numerous provocations and trumped-up cases against “socially dangerous elements.” The Chekists honed the techniques of mass arrests and falsified cases during the trials of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The scope of the work done by the secret services gradually expanded. In April 1930, the OGPU established the Gulag (Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps) and was given control of the militia (i.e., the Soviet regular police). In July 1934, the OGPU was transfigured into the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs or NKVD, which was given control of the archives and civil registry offices. In 1936, Genrikh Yagoda, a career Cheka officer, was replaced as the People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs by Nikolai Yezhov, a Stalin appointee and Party functionary who would play a key role in carrying out the Great Terror of 1937–1938.

Yagoda_kanal_Moskva_Volga

Yagoda (middle) inspecting the construction of the Moscow-Volga canal. Behind him is Nikita Khrushchev. Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Chekists competed in their cruelty to detainees and demanded that quotas on executions and arrests be raised. Moscow’s directives were magnified by initiative from the regions.

“The Central Committeee has explained that the use of physical coercion in the practice of the NKVD has been allowed since 1937 at the behest of the Central Committee. […] The method of physical coercion was contaminated by the scoundrels Zakovsky, Litvin, Uspensky, and others. […] But this in no way discredits the method itself, since it is applied correctly in practice,” Joseph Stalin noted in a signed coded telegram, dated January 1939. So when Laventri Beria replaced Yezhov, the overall crackdown abated, but not cruelty to defendants.

In February 1941, the NKVD was divided into two people’s commissariats, the NKVD per se and the People’s Commissariat for State Security. Led by Vsevolod Merkulov, it took over foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, and protection of high-ranking officials. The NKVD remained in charge of interior troops, border troops, and prisoner escort troops, as well as the concentration camps and the militia. The organizational reforms were kept up even during the Second World War. In July 1941, the two people’s commissariats were merged, but in April 1943 they were divided once again.

The powers of the security forces were considerably limited after the death of Stalin and execution of Beria in 1953. In 1954, the Ministry of State Security or MGB was replaced by the Committee for State Security or KGB, formally overseen by the USSR Council of Ministers. In the reality, the security services were subordinated to the Politburo, but they were stripped of their control of Interior Ministry troops, the penal enforcement agencies, the state archives, and the civil registry offices. During the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods, crackdowns were selective and isolated, but this had no impact on the confidence of Chekists in their own rightness in the battle against dissidents and the prevention of potential “anti-Soviets.” The KGB was still the “armed detachment of the Party” that the VChK had been under Felix Dzerzhinsky.

In the early post-Soviet years, the secret services underwent a number of large-scale reorganizations. The KGB was initially renamed the RSFSR Federal Security Agency, and then the Russian Security Ministry, and an attempt was made to merge it with the Ministry of the Interior or MVD. (The Constitutional Court overruled Boris Yeltsin’s decree to this effect in January 1992.) It was then split up into a foreign intelligence service, a border guards service, a counterintelligence service, a government information service, and a bodyguard service. More important, however, were not these structural changes, but their implication that the lack of oversight over the secret services had been called into question, as well as their alleged right to intervene extrajudicially in the lives of people and the life of society. Numerous documents, demonstrating the lawlessness and tyranny of the Chekists during the Soviet years, were declassified.

However, after a cohort of former secret service officers came to power, the circumstances changed radically, and the new leaders of the secret services have once again claimed exclusivity. Former Federal Security Service (FSB) director Nikolai Patrushev’s statement about a “new gentry,” uttered long ago, in 2000, was implemented with extreme alacrity. Former FSB officers have taken up key posts in many sectors of the government and economy. The FSB has regained control of the border guards and FAPSI (Federal Agency for Goverment Communications and Information), has stripped juries of the right to hear terrorism and espionage cases, and forced the adoption of new, expanded interpretations of laws governing the violation of state secrets. Today’s Chekists have learned to protect state interests in a way that bolsters their own standing and material well-being. They will mark their professional holiday today with complete confidence in the future.

Translated by the Russian Reader

P.S. If you liked this article and found it informative and thought provoking, please share it with friends and colleagues on social networks. Robust readership numbers are the only feedback I get for a job I do in my spare time for free.

Kremlinsplaining and Its Discontents

755094446431775

Vladimir Putin Explains How to Debate the 1917 Revolution
Delovoi Peterburg
November 3, 2017

Discussion of the 1917 Revolution should be based on facts and documents, President Vladimir Putin emphasized in his greeting to participants of international events occasioned by the Russian Revolution’s centenary.

“The turbulent, dramatic events of 1917 are an inalienable, complicated part of our history. The revolution had a tremendous impact on the evolution of Russia and the world, and it largely defined the political, economic, and social picture of the twentieth centure,” noted the president, as quoted by TASS.

The president also said the interest of public figures, scholars, and the media in a deep and comprehensive interpretation of the era was legitimate.

“Yet I am convinced that even the most heated polemics must be based on facts and docoments, on an objective and respectful attitude to the past. I hope that your meetings, which shall bring together people from many countries, will contribute to this constructive discussion,” Putin said.

Earlier, Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation) reported it would be holding various events commemorating the centenary of the October Revolution at Russian Culture Houses in over eighty countries.

“Russian Culture Houses in more than 80 countries [will] host exhibitions, science conferences [sic] and seminars, which aim on delivering an objective approach to historical events to foreign audience,” the agency said.

__________________________

Attack of the Bio Samples
How Conspiracy Theories Flourish
Vladimir Ruvinsky
Vedomosti
October 31, 2017

Vladimir Putin’s story about the collecting of “bio samples” in Russia by persons unknown for unknown purposes has stirred up Russians. It is a telltale case of a double distortion and an example of society’s sensitivity to conspiracy theories, which flourish in an impoverished informational environment.

The president made his remarks at a meeting of the Human Rights Council. They were seemingly spontaneous. Council member Igor Borisov had complained to the president that, according to his information, certain people were using video surveillance systems in Russia to gather images of Russians for unknown purposes. That was nothing, responded Putin. Bio samples from different ethnic groups and regions were also being “deliberately and professionally” collected nationwide. The question was why.

The story took on even more dramatic overtones when the president’s press secretary tried to explain it.

According to Dmitry Peskov, “Certain emissaries conduct such work: employees of nongovernmental organizations and other entities.”

The Russian secret services had reported them to the president, Peskov claimed.

But you did not need the secret services to tell you this. The notion of “bio samples” is broad, including, for example, blood tests, which have been done in Russia for approximately 150 years, and performed by Russians and foreigners alike. Obviously, Putin had in mind genetic samples. Methods for rapidly deciphering DNA sequences were discovered in 1977. DNA became a research subject at approximately the same time in the Soviet Union, and nowadays genetic research is carried out worldwide. Genes and genetics are global phenomena, and the DNA of all human beings is 99% identical.

There are two main areas of research. Medical genetics, in which individual samples from sick and healthy people are studied to determine, in particular, predispositions to certain diseases, and population genetics, which studies samples from different ethnic groups in order to reconstruct the history of peoples [sic], notes biologist Mikhail Gelfand. Research objectives can overlap. Apparently, Putin had population genetics in mind, but data has long been collected in Russia for both medical genetic and population genetic research. This work has been done by pharmaceutical companies (as part of clinical trials), medical centers (as part of genetic counseling), and researchers (as part of their search for the genes that trigger diseases).

Russia has been actively involved in international genome projects. In 2015, the results of a multi-year study of the gene pool of Slavic and Baltic peoples were published. The study was done by Russian and international geneticists, and one question they explored was who the Slavs were. In the same year, the Genome Russian Project, supported by Putin, was launched. Its aim is to create an open-accesss database containing anonymous genetic information about 3,000 men and women, the indigenous people of Russia’s various regions. The project has been coordinated by an American, Stephen O’Brien. There have been no reports the secret service has any gripes with the project.

Perhaps it is a commercial conflict. Valery Ilyinsky, director of the company Genotek, told RIA Novosti that two research centers in Moscow and Petersburg had been collecting bio samples from different Russian ethnic groups and sending them to colleagues in the US for research studies, but these studies could have bee done in Russia as well.

In the absence of a foreword such as I have just provided (I wonder how much the president was told), what Putin said sounded ominous, of course. Ignorance generates feelings of fears and danger. It is one step from there to conspiracy theories about genetic weapons and a future biological war that would threaten to destroy Russians. (According to Gelfand, even theoretically, it would be possible to devise a genetic weapon only against an ethnic group that had been living in isolation for a thousand years, which does not apply to Russians.) Of course it was wrong to claim that Russians were being targeted for biological war, stipulated Federation Council member Franz Klintsevich, but one must be ready.

This was not the first time the president has been sold a pack of imaginary threats. In 2007, FSB director Nikolai Patrushev reported to Putin that bio samples were being sent from Russia to the US. They were being used, allegedly, in a program for developing a “genetic bioweapon” targeting Russians. Patrushev claimed the weapon would be capable of damaging the health of ethnic Russians to point of killing them or rendering them infertile (as reported by Kommersant). Consequently, the Russian customs service banned the export of all bio samples, including hair, blood, and clinical analyses, which threatened the lives of thousands of Russians, who needed to be paired with bone marrow donors in German clinics. The ban was lifted after public protests, but the notion has proven tenacious.

__________________________

Central Bank Says Russians Mistrust Low Inflation Figures
Yevgeny Kalyukov
RBC
October 31, 2017

A survey conducted by the Central Bank of the Russian Federation has shown that most Russians had noticed a price rise for goods that, according to official statistics, had become cheaper.

Most Russians do not believe Russia’s inflation rate has slowed to 3% per annum, according to the Central Bank’s report. Commissioned by the bank, the survey showed 56% of Russians were certain that by the end of 2017 the total rise in consumer prices would be “considerably higher than 4%,” and 75% of respondents claimed that over the previous twelve months prices had risen no more slowly or even more quickly than earlier.

“People are not yet ready to believe inflation really has slowed to such a low level. A considerable role in this discrepancy has also been played by the volatility of prices for individual goods and services,” the Central Bank report says.

Zoya Kuzmina, head of the review group in the monetary policy department at the Central Bank, noted that Russians’ subjective perception of changes in prices of goods they purchase regularly was at odds with official statistics.

“In reality, sugar prices have decreased nearly by 50% on the year. Fruits and vegetables have also become cheaper, while prices for tea and coffee have increased somewhat (by around 2%). But respondents said prices for all these goods had increased,” Kuzmina explained.

According to Kuzmina, the survey’s outcome confirmed Russians “would need a little more time to get used to low inflation.”

According to the Central Bank’s reports, inFom’s October 2017 assessment of Russians’ inflationary expectations for the next twelve months had risen to 9.9%. The Central Bank, however, was confident that conditions for decreasing the populace’s inflationary expectations would emerge as inflation became entrenched at around 4%.

In early August 2017, Alexander Morozov, director of the Central Bank’s research and forecasting department, advised Russians to think less about rapid price growth, since it was just such sentiments that facilitated increased inflation.

Earlier, Central Bank chair Elvira Nabiullina warned that excessively low inflation could generate new difficulties for Russia’s “emerging economy.”

See my previous posts on the subject of official economic statistics in Russia:

Articles translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of Yekaterina Kuzmina/RBC. The emphasis in the translations is mine.

 

Who Whom

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
“DANGER ZONE,” Petrograd, December 15, 2015. Photo by the Russian Reader

Leonid Volkov
December 29, 2015
Facebook

According to the official (i.e., government) investigation, driver Ruslan Muhudinov ordered the killing of Boris Nemtsov.

Meaning that Ramzan Kadyrov has not been hurt in any way. Not only did he not surrender [State Duma deputy] Adam Delimkhanov and [Federation council member] Suleiman Geremeyev, he did not even surrender Ruslan Geremeyev.

This is just by way of understanding the hierarchy of the people in power in Russia.

The political wrangling went on for ten months. In March, Putin “went to ground” for a couple of weeks when the siloviki were demanding he surrender Kadyrov. It was clear he would not give up Kadyrov. Then for several months they demanded Geremeyev and his high-ranking relatives, but ultimately they did not get him, either.

This is what it basically comes down to.

The toughest guy in the real table of ranks in Russia is Ramzan Kadyrov.

The second rank includes Vladimir Putin, the selfsame Chechen elite, and members of the State Duma and Federation Council.

The third rank includes Bastrykin, Patrushev, Bortnikov, Chaika, and Geremeyev, whose degree of untouchability is the same. Any of them can steal anything and kill anyone, and he will get off scot-free.

The fourth rank includes any general in the Investigative Committee and Federal Security Service (FSB), and somewhere in there as well is Ruslan Muhudinov, driver of the deputy commander of the North Battalion [i.e., Ruslan Geremeyev].

Leonid Volkov is a project manager for opposition politician and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. Translated by the Russian Reader

__________

Zhanna Nemstova
Moving Backwards: Russia’s Moral Decay
December 28, 2015
The Moscow Times

The Public Opinion Foundation conducted a survey this month asking Russians two questions: “What was the main event of the year in Russia?” and “What was the main global event of the year?” 

Noteworthy is that fully 40% of the respondents had trouble answering either question. And the most brutal political murder in modern Russia – the assassination of my father – did not even figure in the responses. State-controlled television hardly mentions it, with the exception of the first few days after the killing, when commentators spoke of him in contemptuous tones.

But the problem is not only the silence of the Kremlin’s official propaganda. The problem is the condition of Russian society. A Levada Center survey conducted in March of this year found that one-third of all Russians are indifferent to my father’s murder. That is a moral numbness best conveyed by the popular Russian sentiments of “It does not concern me” and “That does not affect me.” The well-known military journalist Arkady Babchenko refers to that type of thinking by his countrymen as “infantilism.” Perhaps he is right. 

This attitude finds expression not only in widespread apathy, but also in people’s inability to recognize even obvious causal relationships. It is understandable why some people cannot see the medium-term and long-term negative consequences of the annexation of Crimea, but it was not so difficult to predict that consumer prices would rise as a result of Moscow’s food embargo and the hefty tolls imposed on trucks traveling on federal highways. 

The political system that President Vladimir Putin has built robs the Russian people of the ability to think, analyze, ask questions, formulate positions or remember the past. It offers no stimulus for that: Putin’s Russia has no need of people who think for themselves. It has reduced competition to a minimum in all areas, including the political field. And it is not always the smartest that succeed in this system

It is a sad and potentially dangerous situation when the political playing field lies decimated and debates and discussions have been replaced with sometimes violent pressure from the authorities. That has also compromised the quality of the opposition itself and made it a truly heroic feat to even take part in the opposition movement in Russia. There are no democratic institutions and the activists are fighting for survival. Under such conditions, opposition figures have no chance to become public figures and the public has no way of knowing who is who.

People have short memories, and that makes life easier for Putin and his inner circle, who are constantly confusing their facts. First they claim there are no Russian soldiers in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and then they admit to their presence. First they promise not to raise taxes and fees, and then they impose new tariffs on long-haul truckers. Forgetfulness is a handy human tendency, and the Kremlin’s television propaganda exploits it to the fullest. 

This explains why leaders have no personal reputations and remain unaccountable before the public. Perhaps the social apathy and the public’s lack of interest in politics is a defense mechanism, people’s way of responding to the flood of lies and aggression from the authorities. Nobody can figure out where the truth lies, and so it is best not to even go looking for it

All politics in Russia are situational and as volatile as oil prices. Even loyal politicians and officials do not always manage to fall into line exactly as they should. For example, it is amusing to see how famed film director and die-hard Putin fan Nikita Mikhalkov gets outraged over the way his own patriotic show on state-controlled television is subjected to censorship. 

The authorities and the ruling elite are out for their own survival. That end justifies all means, including the tactic of keeping military tensions high at all times. As a result, Russia is increasingly moving away from humanistic values and toward a confrontational relationship with the world. But perhaps that is not putting it strongly enough: maybe Russia is moving toward total apathy. However, war is becoming the context for all other issues in life. 

Russian journalists often ask me why I fight for a fair and impartial investigation into my father’s murder. For me, the very wording of that question is sickening because it shows that medieval values now reign supreme in Russia: nobody understands that it is not just I who needs such an investigation, but all Russians if this country is to ever move forward

We must wage a long and grueling fight for human rights. If we simply give up that struggle and accept the fact that, in Russia, someone can just go and kill a prominent public figure, a statesman and leader of the opposition with absolute impunity, then we must also come to terms with the fact that the same thing could one day happen to any of us. 

Today’s opposition members are now at greater risk than ever before. I see the condescending attitude shown toward the small handful of people who continue to struggle for democracy in Russia. I have grown accustomed to the eternal question: “What do they offer?” But just imagine if one day even that small group would no longer exist. Who, then, would conduct anti-corruption investigations, participate in even nominal elections, initiate investigations into wrongdoings by Duma deputies or provide support for political prisoners? No one, that’s who

My father long experienced that condescending attitude from others who behaved as if they were looking down on him from on high. And now he has been murdered – for his views, for daring to express his position, for his unwillingness to be indifferent or apathetic. And suddenly, his absence is sorely felt. 

Putin’s Russia has not brought a revival of spiritual values, as state-controlled TV tries to convince us. It has caused Russia’s moral decay. And as long as Russians approach every problem through the filter of whether it will affect them personally, this country can move in only one direction – backward.

Zhanna Nemtsova is a Deutsche Welle reporter and the founder of Boris Nemtsov Foundation For Freedom.