Always Open for You

always for you

It is important, I guess, to make note of the Putin regime’s now innumerable crimes at home and abroad, although it is practically pointless.

At home, in Russia, the progressive intelligentsia is more interested in debating meaningless “issues” like the virtues or, alternately, the vices of Greta Thunberg than it is in doing much of anything about the regime that has happily trampled all of its real and imagined opponents and enemies scot-free for twenty years while also destroying the rule of law, the welfare state, the education system, medical care, the environment, etc., and, just for fun, has also brutally put down a rebellion in Russia’s hinterlands (Chechnya), invaded three countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Syria), assassinated numerous “enemies” on foreign soil, and recklessly meddled in the domestic affairs and elections of numerous other countries all over the world.

But who cares? My experience of writing about these things for twelve years is that most people (including most people in Russia itself, bizarrely) are keen to give the Putin regime a free pass whenever possible, meaning it has only gained more confidence in the “justice” of its perverted cause over the years.

What is this cause? Ensuring that Putin and his circle remain in power in perpetuity and thus, in control, of the country’s vast wealth, which they dispense of as if it were their personal property.

Public indifference has been most depressingly on display when it comes to Russia’s decisive and murderous military intervention, launched four years ago, in defense of Bashar Assad’s criminal regime in Syria.

Frankly, I have no clue why Russians would need unfettered access to the World Wide Web when they signally have failed to make any noise or, as far as I can tell, even find out anything about their government’s baleful role in the world today.

In fact, if they think about it at all, I imagine they kind of like it. It makes them feel important. [TRR]

Thanks to Harald Etzbach and Boycott Russia Today for the heads-up. Thanks also to Sheen Gleeson for her abiding support. Photo by the Russian Reader

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Putin Begins Installing Equipment To Cut Russia’s Access To World Wide Web
Zak Doffman
Forbes
September 24, 2019

Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Russian Internet (Runet) [sic] into law to protect the country’s communications infrastructure in case it was disconnected from the World Wide Web—or so he said. Critics argued it was opening a door to a Chinese-style firewall disconnecting Russia from the outside world.

Now, Alexander Zharov, the head of the federal communications regulator Roskomnadzor, has confirmed to reporters that “equipment is being installed on the networks of major telecom operators,” and Runet [sic] would begin testing by early October. Such testing, reporters were told, is known as “combat mode.”

When the legislation was introduced there was some debate as to whether it would work in practice. The government claimed its objective was to deal with “threats to the stable, safe and integral operation of the Russian Internet on Russian territory,” by centralizing “the general communications network.” This would work by deploying an alternative domain name system (DNS) for Russia to steer its web traffic away from international servers. ISPs are mandated to comply.

The Moscow Times reported at the time that “Russia carried out drills in mid-2014 to test the country’s response to the possibility of its internet being disconnected from the web—the secret tests reportedly showed that isolating the Russian internet is possible, but that ‘everything’ would go back online within 30 minutes.”

As for this “combat testing,” Zharov has assured [sic] that everything would be done “carefully,” according to local media reports, explaining that “we will first conduct a technical check—affects traffic, does not affect traffic, do all services work.” The plan is for all of this testing to be completed by the end of October.

Although the regulator has been keen to emphasize that Runet [sic] is only for deployment when the system is perceived to be “in danger,” there is a clear question as to where and how such a decision would be taken. Such threats have been classified as “impacts to the integrity of networks, the stability of networks, natural or man-made impacts, or security threats,” all pretty wide-ranging classifiers.

Russia’s recent moves to shut down cellular data traffic to stymie anti-Putin protesters and government warnings that social media access may be curtailed have not brought much confidence to its tech-savvy citizens.

Runet [sic] is due to go live in November. According to Freedom On The Net, “Russian internet freedom has declined for the sixth year in a row, following government efforts to block the popular messaging app Telegram and numerous legislative proposals aimed at restricting online anonymity and increasing censorship.”

And there are no signs of that getting any better any time soon.

NB. “Runet” is a term that has long been used to denote the Russian or Russian-language segment of the Internet. Why Mr. Doffman thought it was something that would go online only in November or was “signed into law” is beyond me. But then I also do not understand why a respectable magazine like Forbes would not only fail to fact-check his article but also neglect to proofread it. I had to do the proofreading for them. [TRR]

More and More Russians

hongkong.jpgAccording to organizers, at least 1.7 million people attended a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong today, August 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of HKFP

More and more Russians seem to be breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line. Increasingly, they just do what they deem important, and the authorities deal with the consequences. We are all much more used to the reverse relationship, which is why Russia’s new situation is hard to grasp. People in Russia are only now learning to peer into themselves, not into their television sets, searching for clues to what will happen next.

This does not mean that the Kremlin has suddenly become more transparent or less authoritarian. It only means that Russian society has started to realize that it may, in fact, be an originator of political and societal change, not just on the receiving end.

For how long this new situation—or an impression of it—will last is unclear. The Kremlin is at war and wants everyone in Russia to be at war too. Russians seem to be drifting away from this belligerence. The question is whose pull, the Kremlin’s or Russian society’s, is stronger. I am afraid the Kremlin’s is stronger but will be happy to be mistaken.
—Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ask Not What Will the Kremlin Do Next,” The Russia File, 16 August 2019

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What does the phrase “more and more Russians” mean, in the essay quoted above? How does Maxim Trudolyubov know they are doing anything at all, much more “breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line” and doing “what they deem important” (whatever that means)?

If its organizers are to be believed, a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong was attended by 1.7 million people today, August 18. According to Worldometers, Hong Kong’s population, as of today, was almost 7.5 million people, meaning that nearly 23% of Hong Kong’s residents marched today in support of the city’s autonomy and democratic rights.

In Moscow, “up to 60,000 people” attended an “authorized” pro-democracy rally on August 10. It was, apparently, the biggest opposition rally in Russia since the fair election protests of 2011–2012.

World Population Review estimates Moscow’s population as slightly over 12 million people.

If the figures for the August 10 rally and Moscow’s population are to be credited, then, 0.005% of the city’s populace came out for an “authorized” rally—meaning an event where they had much less reason to fear a police crackdown than at the “unauthorized” rallies at which riot police and Russian National Guardsmen detained thousands of protests over the last month or so.

When you are trying to get your collective point across to an authoritarian government, the numbers do matter, just as they matter in non-authoritarian countries.

As I have argued in many different ways many different times, the Russian opposition, especially its self-declared leaders in Moscow, is woefully bad at two things: mobilizing ordinary pro-democratic Russians to make their numbers know to the regime, and meaningfully allying itself with the grassroots pro-democracy movement beyond Moscow.

In fact, at the very same time as a tiny minority of brave, smart Muscovites have been doing battle with the Moscow City Elections Commission and the security forces to defend their constitutional right to vote and run for office, an even tinier and, perhaps, braver minority of Petersburgers have been fighting to get a small slate of independent candidates onto the ballot for elections to the city’s municipal district councils, chronically underfunded entities with almost no power to do anything more than making cosmetic improvements to the neighborhoods they represent. Just as in Moscow, the would-be candidates themselves have been harassed, beaten, and arrested, along with some of their supporters.

Typically, when the Petersburg pro-democratic opposition held an authorized rally on August 3, only two thousand people showed up. Sadly and hilariously, Deutsche Welle described it as an “event in support of candidates not allowed to run in the elections to the Moscow City Duma.” In reality, Petersburgers rallied in support of their own beleaguered opposition candidates, in solidarity with Muscovites, and against the upcoming pro forma election of acting Governor Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin’s third satrap in the city, on September 8.

But the real story was too complicated for Deutsche Welle. It was, apparently, too gnarly for the vast majority of Petersburgers as well. World Population Review estimates Petersburg’s population as nearly 5.5 million. (I suspect it is actually much higher than this, but that is another conversation.) So, proportionately, even fewer people in Russia’s “cultural capital” are worried about their rapidly vanishing constitutionally guaranteed rights than their comrades in Moscow and their Chinese frenemies in Hong Kong: 0.0003%, to be exact.

In the face of these real numbers, which he signally fails to mention, Trudolyubov cites public opinion polls, notoriously unreliable indicators in a highly manipulated authoritarian society like Russia, and his own vague “impressions.”

He also makes an assertion that is debatable and a promise he probably has no intention of keeping, to wit:

“Russian society is turning into a much more active player in Russia’s public life. Importantly, it is not limited to the political protests that have been taking place in Moscow for the past several weeks. The protests are just the most visible part of the change. There is exciting new art, there is a new wave of independent journalism, there is an entire universe of YouTube and other social media channels that are completely free of both pro-Kremlin and strictly oppositional politics (all of those trends deserve a special take, which we will provide).”

I will have been reporting on these “other Russias,” as I have dubbed them, for twelve years come this October. I know them as well any “outsider” can know them. I will keep writing about them and translating dispatches from these other Russias as long as I am able.

Despite my interest in the other Russias and Russians, however, and my endless admiration for the sheer courage, tenacity, and intelligence of many of the real-life heroines and heroes who have made appearances on this website over the years, I knew the fair elections movement of 2011–2012 was a non-starter almost as soon as it kicked off, even though it was a nationwide grassroots movement, unlike the 2019 fair elections movement, which has been practically limited to Moscow.

I knew that for two reasons. First, the numbers of anti-Putinists showing their faces in public at protest rallies, “authorized” and “unauthorized,” were also minuscule as percentages of the general populace. Second, the “movement” was managed lackadaisically, with huge gaps between “authorized” rallies.

In Moscow, at least, there does seem to be a greater sense of urgency and intensity this time around, but the numbers of people showing up for rallies have been halved. Paradoxically, however, those people have been more willing to face police crackdowns, but I am not sure this is necessarily a good thing, politically and strategically.

Like Trudolyubov, I am happy to be mistaken. Unlike Trudolyubov, I have no sense that Russian society has become a bigger player than it was seven years ago. There was also a lot of new art, independent journalism, and social media savvy on the margins then as now.

The sad truth is that, unlike countries and territories populated by people of color, such as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, Russia gets way more credit for every tiny gesture towards democracy, autonomy, and independence made by its supposedly “white” people, even though Russian society punches way below its weight when it comes to every possible measure of official and popular support for democracy, minorities, civil and human rights, progressive environmental policies, engaged art, cutting-edge education, grassroots-driven urban planning, you name it.

What Russia does have a lot of is flag twirlers who have ensconced themselves in plum jobs at western news outlets and think thanks, places where, correspondingly, you will not find a lot of people of color and people from the formerly colonized parts of the world. So, even though the Kremlin has made xenophobia, anti-Americanism, rampant homophobia, Islamophobic, anti-westernism, anti-liberalism, Russian Orthodox obscurantism, and aggressive covert and overt interventions into the affairs of other countries planks in its unwritten ideological platform, and Russia’s opposition has said almost nothing about any of it, much less organized protests against, say, the Kremlin’s criminal military involvement in the brutal ongoing murder of Syria’s pro-democracy movement, the so-called west, at least as represented by places like the Kennan Institute and media organizations like the BBC, has way more time and sympathy for all things Russian than it has for anything happening in countries and places dominated by people of color.

It would be strange of me, of all people, to argue for less interest in grassroots politics and culture in Russia, but a genuine curiosity should also involve being able to tell the fibbers and crypto-nationalists from the truth-tellers and democrats. // TRR

Thanks to the fabulous Mark Teeter for the heads-up. I am nearly certain he would have a different take on Trudolyubov’s essay, but in my Facebook newsfeed it ended up cheek by jowl with an article about today’s truly massive protests in Hong Kong.

When We Were Ten

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Leonid Volkov
Facebook
August 10, 2019

I was ten years old but I remember August 1991 well. And I remember how many people asked, after that unique celebration of unity and freedom, what would have happened had the coup emerged victorious.

Russia 2019 is the answer to this question. It is a country in which the coup has emerged victorious, [a country ruled by] a dozen paranoid old men, their hands trembling in fear.

Yes, the new coup has lasted longer than three days, but not much longer. The first chords of Swan Lake have already sounded.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of 123RF

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A friend of mine asked me the other day what I thought about the new fair elections protests in Moscow. First, I feel solidarity with the protesters. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to translate and edit eleven posts (so far) about the protests and their ugly aftermath.

But I don’t understand the point made by Alexei Navalny’s comrade Leonid Volkov, an otherwise sensible person, in the Facebook post, as quoted above.

I could very well be wrong, and, actually, I do hope I am wrong, but I see very little difference between the mostly lacksadaisical fair elections protests of 2011–2012 and the relatively fierce but tiny fair elections protests of 2019.

The numbers are, in fact, the main problem. Despite the strange argument made by a talking head from the Carnegie Center Moscow, as quoted in the Moscow Times, that fifty thousand is a number of protesters the Russian authorities cannot ignore, there is no question of their ignoring anything. The Putin regime did not ignore the protests of 2011–2012. It waited until Putin had secured a new term as president before cracking down hard on protesters and quickly adopting a whole raft of laws designed to make public protests and dissent much more dangerous.

In 2019, the crackdown has begun almost immediately, but there is no sign the regime will cave and force the Moscow City Elections Commission to reinstate the candidates it barred in July from running in the September elections to the Moscow City Duma, much less collapse altogether.

Since it is the world’s largest country, it seems funny to say it, but Russia is one of the most insular, isolated places on earth. International news is a genre that barely exists in the country’s mainstream or alternative press nor does it usually make much of an impression on the chatocrats who set the tone in Russia’s remarkably hysterical, dispiriting, troll-infested social media.

It also does not help that places mainly or completely populated by what many Russian liberals regard as subhumans almost never figure in the news in Russia at all. Otherwise, political and media activists like Volkov would think twice before seeing the demise of Putin’s twenty-year-old “putsch” in yet another series of relatively minuscule gatherings of righteous Muscovites brandishing clever placards and getting their pictures taken for Instagram.

If there were real international news in the Russian press, the Russian fair elections movement and its would-be leaders and strategists, like Volkov, would think about the recent, incomparably more numerous, and demonstrably more effective protests in Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, for example. When half a million people protest against the powers that be on an island populated by 3.5 million people, the authorities really cannot ignore them, just as Beijing could not pretend all was well in Hong Kong, a city of 7.3 million people, when two million people there took to the streets to protest the former enclave’s shrinking autonomy and the PRC’s attacks on its laws and democratic institutions.

Puerto Rican officials have already seen the writing on the wall and surrendered to the demands of the fierce, fearless, relentless protest movement there. The Hong Kong protest movement faces a much stronger enemy, of course, but I think there is a far greater chance we will witness democracy emerging all over China in our lifetimes than we will see the reemergence of democracy in Russia.

Despite the fact the Russian intelligentsia likes to hypnotize itself with dubious theories about history and regime change—namely, that great historical turnabouts have always been powered by tiny but energetic minorities—real democratic change in Russia will only happen when many more people join a movement that, in fact, exists only as a notion, not as a real grassroots movement.

A real grassroots movement, after all, would be capable of mobilizing considerably more than fifty thousand people in a city of twelve million people.

The second big problem with the Russian protest non-movement is that, like many of the Russians who make usually brief appearances in its ranks, it is wildly impatient. Liberal, educated Russians regard themselves as the most “European” and “western” people on the planet, hindered from realizing their true destiny as saviors and leading lights of the nonexistent west only by a thousand years of unrelenting, savage tyranny, an endless dark stormy night punctuated only here and there by occasional, short-lived bursts of sunlight.

Since they are essentially not practically “Europeans” and “westerners” (unlike most actual Europeans and westerners, who, in their view, have given up the west’s civilizing mission by letting their countries be overrun by Puerto Ricans, Chinese, and Muslims, among other miserables), many Russians think they deserve to live in a democratic country right now without doing most if any of the things other societies do to establish and fortify democracy and the rule of law at home.

The flip side of this blatantly anti-western “westernism” is that droves (or, at least, very large dribbles) of Russians have been leaving or semi-leaving Russia in recent years, knowing nothing can change for the better under Putin and despairing that the post-Putin era will not dawn anytime soon. Like most of the really important things going in Russia, this story has been underreported, although anyone who has hundreds of Russian acquaintances or who lives in one of the handful of cities on earth that liberal Russians consider civilized (Berlin, Paris, and New York, e.g.) will know what I mean.

In yet another “only in Russia” twist, many people in this new wave of émigrés and exiles are not battle-hardened veterans of the amorphous protest non-movement, but the most politically apathetic people you could ever hope to meet.

This is not to say there are not lots of good eggs among them. Likewise, this blog’s mission has been to reiterate constantly the well-missed point that there are other Russians besides Putin and other Russias besides “Putin’s Russia,” whatever that is. But since I am not a politician and, thus, a sophist, like Leonid Volkov and his friend Alexei Navalny (the first, a well-informed commentator whose reflections I have shared on several occasions with my reader; the second, a smart cookie who might also be nearly the only person in the ragtag Russian opposition who really understands politics and has an inkling of how to build grassroots political movements), I am under no obligation to paint a pretty picture of “democracy in Russia” when what is called for is a horrorshow.

Lastly, fifty thousand people protested in downtown Moscow for the right to vote for their own candidates to a Russian regional parliament in a country where all that parliaments, city councils, municipal district councils, and village councils ever do is rubber-stamp the executive branch’s decisions. At exactly the same time, Russian warplanes were trying hard to finish off the last stronghold of a genuinely popular revolution in what they hoped would be the final chapter in a four-year-long military intervention in a majority Muslim country. And yet Putin’s criminal entanglement of his country’s well-equipped armed forces in Syria has been so uninteresting to liberal Russians that they have never protested in numbers greater than three or four at a time, and you can count those times on one hand.

The irony of this non-coincidence will be lost on Leonid Volkov and his comrades in the Russian protest non-movement, a non-movement that imitates the civil disobedience of the Indian independence movement and the US civil rights movement, for example, while blithely ignoring their superior political, strategic, and organizational aspects. Like the overall ignorance among Russians about today’s protest movements and popular revolutions in Syria, Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico, this might be because they were movements led and sustained by people of color. // TRR

Spikery, or, How to Give Aid and Comfort to Fascist War Criminals While Making Lots of Money

It’s funny the things you find in your email inbox in the morning. This morning, as usual, I found mailers from many of the Russian and English-language online newspapers I read, including Petersburg’s humble but always revealing business daily Delovoi Peterburg.

Today’s big news was that police had searched the head office of Bukvoyed, one of Russia’s largest bookstore chains.

Founded in 2000, Bukvoyed (“Bookworm”) has 140 stores around the country.

A source at Bukvoyed told Delovoi Peterburg the search had nothing to do with the company per se but with one of its business partners.

If you have been monitoring the fortunes of Russian business under the Putinist tyranny, a crony state-capitalist regime, run by “former” KGB officers as if it was the Soprano mob, only a million times nastier, you would know it has not been easy to do business of any kind in Russia during the last twenty years. The country’s current prime minister and ex-president, Dmitry Medvedev, once famously said the regime’s vast police and security apparatus, known collectively as the siloviki, needed to stop “nightmaring” (koshmarit) business.

He also famously said, when he was president, that his country was plagued by “legal nihilism.”

Although he was right on both counts, Medvedev did nothing about it. Since the brief, supposedly more “liberal” period when he was freer to speak his mind because, technically, he was the most powerful man in Russia, the nightmaring of business (and nearly everyone else who makes themselves a target by doing anything more ambitious than hiding their light in a bushel) has only got worse, and legal nihilism, along with anti-Americanism, homophobia, xenophobia, and neo-imperialism, has become even more entrenched as part of the Kremlin’s unwritten ideology and, thus, a guidepost for how Russia’s police, security agencies, prosecutors, and judges deal with “criminals.” 

As Denis Sokolov recently argued in Republic, the siloviki have established a system of “police feudalism” in Russia under which the FSB, the Russian Investigative Committee, the Interior Ministry, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, the Russian National Guard, the tax police, and other state security agencies have divided the country into fiefs, bits of “turf” where they are almost entirely free to shake down, rob, nightmare, and legally nihilize whomever and whatever they want under a set of unwritten rules outsiders can only guess at.

After reading about Bukvoyed’s legal-nihilistic woes, then, I was startled by the banner ad I found at the bottom of the page.

mooks“Synergy Global Forum, October 4–5, 2019, Gazprom Arena, Saint Petersburg. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Grant Cardone. Michael Porter. Randi Zuckerberg. Ichak Adize.” Ad courtesy of Delovoi Peterburg

Referred to, hilariously, as “spikery” (“speakers”) on the Russian version of the Synergy Global Forum’s website, these five greater and lesser lights of global capitalism have been, no doubt, promised or paid extraordinarily hefty fees to keynote this hootenanny in the belly of the crony state-capitalist beast.

Formerly known as the Zenit Arena (after the city’s Russian premier league football team, FC Zenit, owned by state-controlled Gazprom), even the venue itself, the Gazprom Arena, is a monument to the mammoth crookedness, thuggery, violence, and corruption replicated all over the world’s biggest country every day for the last twenty years by the Kremlin’s minions.

But you would never know that by reading the cheery boilerplate on the Synergy Global Forum’s website.

Gazprom Arena is the most visited indoor stadium in Eastern Europe, second only to the famous Wembley in London. The main feature of the project — a sliding roof, which allows you to carry out activities in a comfortable environment at any time of the year and in all weather conditions. Large capacity, modern technical equipment, and two-tier parking make Gazprom Arena one of the best venues for major festivals, exhibitions, and business conferences.

More important, however, is the ostensible point of all this spikery, other than making lots of money for everyone involved.

Synergy Global Forum has been held since 2015. The first Forum gathered 6,000 participants and became the largest business event in the country. Two years later, we broke this record and entered Guinness World Records — 25,000 entrepreneurs and top managers participated at SGF in Olympiyskiy in 2017. This year we set a new big goal — to gather 50,000 participants from all over the world at SGF 2019 in St. Petersburg. Synergy Global Forum not only gives you an applied knowledge, but also motivates and inspires to global achievements, gives the belief that any ambitious goal is achievable. What goals do you set for yourself?

Aside from being one big [sic], this sampling of spikery reveals that the apocryphal gospel of Dale Carnegie and other “good capitalist” snake oil salesmen is alive and well and making waves in a place like Russia, where it could not be more out of place.

I don’t mean that Russia and Russians are “culturally” or “civilizationally” incompatible with self-improvement, the power of positive thinking, and other tenets of American capitalist self-hypnosis. If you had spent most of your adult life in Russia, as I have, you would know the opposite is the case.

Unfortunately. Because what Russia needs more than anything right now is not more navel-gazing and better business practices, but regime change and the rule of law. Since I’m a democratic socialist, not a Marxist-Leninist, and, I hope, a realist, these things cannot come about other than through a revolution in which Russia’s aspiring middle classes, at whom snake-oil festivals like the Synergy Global Forum are targeted, join forces with the grassroots, who have been nightmared and legally nihilized in their own way under Putin.

One of the first things a new bourgeois-proletariat Russian coalition government would have to do, aside from prosecuting and imprisoning tens of thousands of siloviki and banning them from politics and the civil service for life, would be to disentangle the country from its current incredibly destructive armed and unarmed interventions in conflicts in other countries, starting with Ukraine and Syria.

What does the Synergy Global Forum and its sponsor, Synergy Business School have to do with such seemingly distant and terribly messy international politics? Well, this:

The school has branches in 26 Russian cities, as well as a unique campus in Dubai, which is home base for an international MBA program for students from the UAE, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

So, in fact, Synergy Business School is in the business of equipping people from some of the world’s most powerful and aggressive theocratic, monarchist, and crony state-capitalist tyrannies with MBAs while claiming its core values are “openness to newness, commitment to development, and intelligence.”

You can say I’m a dreamer but I am nearly sure SBS’s core values are completely at odds with the neo-imperialism, neo-colonialism, militarism, hostility to civil and human rights, and fascism of the current regimes in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

I write this not because I believe in building a “better” capitalism (I don’t), but because I am nearly sure one party to this mass chicanery, including the invited spikery, does believe it is possible to do just that and thus “peacefully” transform these countries into slightly quirky versions of Australia and Canada. (For the record, I don’t for a minute believe these supposedly democratic countries have no problems of their own with human rights, etc.)

That is not going to happen if only because, at another level, carefully hidden from the incurious eyes of the people who go to such events, their real purpose is to whitewash these regimes, make them more attractive to foreign investors, and expand their international networks of shills and useful idiots.

I learned this valuable lesson about Putinist Russia by carefully following the amazing career of Vladimir Yakunin, another “former” KGB officer and fellow Ozero Dacha Co-op member who could write a textbook about how to co-opt distinguished foreign academics, decision-makers, and journalists into, mostly unwittingly, toeing the Putinist line.

It comes down to this. Why are Arnold Schwarznegger, Randi Zuckerberg, and their fellow 2019 Synergy Global Forum spikery so willing to help whitewash a gang of fascist war criminals who are also at war with their own people?

Since there is no good answer to this question, they should be arrested upon their return from the forum and charged with colluding with hostile foreign powers.

If you don’t understand what I mean by “fascist war criminals,” please read the article below. // TRR

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Russia and Assad are butchering Syrian civilians again. No one seems to mind
Terry Glavin
National Post
July 24, 2019

Maybe it’s because of the guilty anti-interventionist conscience of the world’s comfortable liberal democracies, or because it’s now an article of respectable faith in the NATO capitals that Syrian lives simply aren’t worth the bother. Maybe it’s just that we’ve all become so accustomed to reports of slaughter and barbarism in Syria that it barely warrants public attention at all.

Whatever the reason, or excuse, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is finally having his way in the Syrian governorate of Idlib, and the world barely notices.

It’s been nearly a year since Lavrov expressed his desire that the “abscess” of Syrian resistance in Idlib, a sprawling province that borders Turkey in Syria’s northwest, be “liquidated.” It’s been nearly a month since 11 humanitarian organizations came together with the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs to warn that “Idlib is on the brink of a humanitarian nightmare unlike anything we have seen this century.”

We’ve reached that brink now. Just this week, 66 civilians have been killed and more than 100 non-combatants wounded, the UN reports, in a series of bombing runs carried out across Idlib. The worst massacre was an airstrike Monday on a public market in the village of Maarat al-Numan. At least 39 people were killed, among them eight women and five children.

Since the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s barrel bombers and Russia’s fighter-bombers began their recent offensive in Idlib on April 29, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has tallied 2,641 casualties. The UN counts 400 civilian deaths, but there is no accurate count of the dead and injured in Syria anymore. The wounded lie dying in the rubble of bombed buildings. At least 25 hospitals and clinics in Idlib have been destroyed since April 29, bringing the number of health centers deliberately targeted since 2011 to about 570. More than 800 health workers have been killed.

Three years ago, when the UN and monitoring agencies stopped counting, the Syrian dead were numbered at 500,000. In the face of these most recent war crimes and atrocities, the UN’s humanitarian affairs office has been reduced to begging Assad and Lavrov to ease up to allow humanitarian aid into Idlib’s besieged districts, and pleading with Russia and Turkey to uphold the terms of a year-old memorandum of understanding that was supposed to demilitarize Idlib. Fat chance of that.

The Kremlin-Ankara pact arose from negotiations that began in the months following the 2016 fall of Aleppo, where thousands of Syrian civilians were slaughtered by Vladimir Putin’s air force in the course of the Kremlin’s commitment to Assad to help bomb the Syrian resistance into submission. Joining with Russia and Iran, Turkish strongman Recip Erdoğan entered into a series of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, that eventually led to an agreement to establish Idlib as a jointly-patrolled “deconfliction zone.”

A series of these de-escalation agreements have each in their turn become death traps. In Homs, in Ghouta, in Quneitra, the pattern has repeated itself. Weakened by starvation sieges, and bloodied by Russian fighter jets, Assad’s barrel bombs, ground assaults by Iran’s Hezbollah units and multiple chemical attacks — sarin, chlorine, napalm — Syria’s various and fractious resistance outfits have surrendered several cities and towns on the promise of safe passage with their families to one or another de-escalation area. Convoys of buses carry them across the countryside. They settle in, and then they come under attack again.

Until April 29, Idlib was the last of these demilitarized zones, and by then the population had doubled to three million people. Among Idlib’s recent arrivals were civilians fleeing the Syrian carnage who had not been able to join the six million Syrians who have managed to escape the country altogether. But the newcomers also include members of various armed opposition groups, and the Assad regime has deftly manipulated its “de-escalation” and safe-passage arrangements to pit those groups against one another.

More than a dozen safe-passage agreements struck prior to the Kremlin-Ankara arrangement amount to what democratic opposition leaders have called ethnic cleansing and “compulsory deportation.” Most of the opposition groups that submitted to them have ended up in Idlib. Among them: Islamic State fighters from Yarmouk, and the jihadist fronts Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Fatah from districts around Aleppo and Damascus.

What this has meant for Idlib is that the mainline opposition in the Turkish-backed and formerly American-supported Syrian Interim Government has been losing its hold on the governorate, and its democratically elected local councils have come under increasing pressure from the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham jihadist coalition. And now that Assad’s Syrian Arab Army has been moving in from the south, and Russian and regime bombs are falling from the skies, tens of thousands of civilians are on the move again.

More than 300,000 people are on the roads, most of them headed towards Turkey, but Turkey has already taken in half of Syria’s six million refugees and the Turkish border is now closed to them. More than 1,000 Turkish troops are patrolling Idlib’s northern countryside as part of the Astana accord, and they won’t let the Syrian civilians pass. Humanitarian groups report that hundreds of Syrian refugees have been picked up in Istanbul in recent weeks and deported back to Syria.

“Yet again innocent civilians are paying the price for the political failure to stop the violence and do what is demanded under international law — to protect all civilians,” is the way UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock puts it. “Our worst fears are materializing.”

No help is coming from Europe. The European Union has made its peace with Ankara — Erdoğan prevents Syrian refugees from sneaking into Greece or Bulgaria or setting out in leaky rafts into the Mediterranean, and Europe looks the other way while Erdoğan deports Syrian refugees back to the slaughterhouse of Idlib.

Neither is any help coming from the United States, where the Kremlin-friendly Trump administration is balking at the idea of imposing sanctions on Turkey for buying into Russia’s S-400 missile system, and is otherwise continuing the Obama administration’s policy of thinking about mass murderer Assad as somebody else’s problem.

And then there’s Canada, where we’re all supposed to congratulate ourselves for having high-graded the best and brightest Syrians from the UN’s refugee camps, and we expect the Syrian refugees we’ve taken in to be grateful and to forgive us all for standing around and gawping while their country was turned into blood, fire, and rubble.

Whatever our reasons, or excuses, Idlib is being liquidated, a humanitarian nightmare is unfolding in Syria again, and hardly anybody notices.

Putin’s Spectacles of Strength and Security at Home and Abroad

op31-Russia-in-SyriaRamped-up attacks in northwestern Syria by Damascus and its ally Russia have claimed the lives of hundreds since late April. Photo courtesy of AFP and the National

At home and abroad, Russia is using chaos to create spectacles of strength and security
Faisal Al Yafai
The National
July 30, 2019

In two incidents, in the space of one week, the Kremlin has twice sought confrontation where none was needed.

On Tuesday last week, Russia’s fighter jets violated South Korean airspace for several minutes, resulting in a major diplomatic incident as Korean jets fired more than 300 warning shots.

Then, over the weekend in Moscow, thousands of protesters gathered for the second week in a row, sparked by a crude and unnecessary attempt by the municipality to bar independent candidates from the city’s council elections.

Police responded forcefully to the protests, arresting thousands, including Russia’s most high-profile opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned before being taken to hospital for exposure to an unidentified chemical.

Both situations could have been avoided. Neither were accidents, either. The Kremlin is actively creating confrontations at home and abroad, hoping to find a role in solving the chaos it is sowing.

This was especially clear in the protests.

The spark for the demonstrations came from an unlikely source: a decision by the country’s electoral commission to not allow a series of independent opposition candidates to stand in September’s Moscow city elections. Independent registrations for the elections require several thousand signatures, a usually insurmountable obstacle. But, when two dozen opposition candidates managed it, the electoral commission simply refused to register them.

These elections, it should be noted, are not for the city’s mayoralty, an important position. Instead, they are for seats on the city council, a much smaller prize.

But, even on something that barely matters, the Kremlin is determined to show its power, and show it in a way that demonstrates overt and public contempt for the election process. It is that sense, that Russia’s government is willing to publicly violate the rules, which pushed so many to protest.

That desire to flex the country’s muscles was also on show last week.

In a murky incident, Russian planes flew without warning through airspace where Seoul requires foreign aircraft to provide air identification, and then further violated the country’s air space. South Korean jets tracked the military aircraft and a volley of warning shots were fired.

On the surface, it seems bizarre to provoke South Korea, a country with which Russia has maintained good relations. However, the East China Sea is heavily contested. It was only last month, after all, that Russian and US warships almost collided in the waters below where the incident took place.

Under Vladimir Putin’s two decades of leadership, the role of the Russian state has shrunk. Although he often harks back to the glory days of the Soviet Union, in fact, the Russian state today does substantially less for citizens than its predecessor. Most housing is owned by private companies and landlords.* The idea that the state would provide the “flat, car and dacha” of Soviet lore is long gone.

Instead, Mr. Putin offers security and spectacle. He creates an idea of a world in turmoil, which only his government is able to defend ordinary Russians from, and offers visible displays of the protection he provides.

The intervention in Syria amply demonstrates this. First, the necessity of intervention, of Russia’s forces fighting beyond their country’s borders to stop a threat to the homeland. Second, the spectacle of a train full of tanks and guns looted from the Syrian battlefield touring the length and breadth of Russia, often accompanied by Soviet war songs.

There is no room for subtlety, either. The train departed from Moscow on a military holiday and returned on May 8, Victory Day in Russia, which commemorates the end of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany.

Mr. Putin behaves similarly on a personal level. On the same day as the street protests in Moscow, he was filmed descending in a two-man submarine to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland. In doing so, he projected himself as a strongman politician, able to control the unstable forces of the world by pure brawn and daring.

The Putin state needs these spectacles and this chaos, whether on Russia’s streets or beyond them. They demonstrate to a watching world a Russia that is more than a regional power, one that is a global player, able to cause global incidents from Salisbury through Syria, and on to South Korea. They also demonstrate to the Russian public that only the state can keep them safe.

With a weakened economy, poor relations with the West, and a war in Syria that drags on without end, the Kremlin is setting up clashes to create a place for itself at home and abroad.

Yet there is a danger in manufacturing conflicts because they can easily escalate out of hand. Even small skirmishes have the potential to expand unpredictably.

There was, for example, no guarantee that the South Korean incident would have ended peacefully. One miscalculation by either side in the skies above the Korean Peninsula, and there could have been serious consequences.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Mr. Navalny has been taken ill and his doctors believe he could have been poisoned. What started as a minor attempt to exclude candidates from a meaningless election has escalated first into the biggest street protests the Russian capital had seen in years, and the world watching to see whether an opposition politician had been brazenly poisoned in custody.

That is the problem with chaos: once unleashed, it is difficult for anyone, even the Russian state, to bring under control.

* This is the only false note in an otherwise powerful, impeccable analysis. Given the extraordinarily high number of Russians who own their own flats and dachas, legacies of the post-perestroika giveaway privatization of the country’s housing stock and the late-Soviet period, respectively, it seems dubious to claim, as Mr. Yafai does here, that landlords and private companies own most of the housing in Russia. Maybe this would prove true if we looked carefully at ownership statistics, but I am nearly certain Mr. Yafai has not done that. // TRR

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UN reports 400,000 Syrians displaced since Idlib offensive started in April
Deutsche Welle
July 26, 2019

The UN says there has been a “dramatic escalation” in violence since Syrian forces started an operation to retake Idlib province. Human rights chief Michelle Bachelet regretted “international indifference.”

More than 400,000 people have been displaced in northwestern Syria since the start of a government offensive to retake the region in late April, the United Nations said Friday.

David Swanson from the UN’s humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) said more than 2,700 people have died during the “dramatic escalation” in violence in Idlib province.

Russia has been helping government forces loyal to President Bashar Assad with airstrikes, despite an international truce.

UN reports persistent pattern against civilians

UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet criticized “international indifference” at the number of civilians dying in attacks on schools, hospitals, and other civilian targets.

“These are civilian objects, and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident,” she said.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had registered 39 attacks on health facilities and at least 50 attacks on schools. More than 740 civilians have been killed in those strikes, it added.

Intentional attacks are war crimes

“Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes, and those who have ordered them or carried them out are criminally responsible for their actions,” Bachelet said.

Forces loyal to Assad have retaken around two-thirds of Syria’s territory.

The country’s civil war has claimed the lives of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011.

Olga Romanova: How “Law Enforcement” Works in Russia

calvey
Michael Calvey in court. Photo by Maxim Shemetov. Courtesy of Reuters and Republic

“We Give You Serebrennikov and You Give us Calvey”: How Law Enforcement Works
Olga Romanova
Republic
May 13, 2019

“Who would make the decision about your arrest?”

“My colleagues would betray me, but they would vet it with my bosses.”

“What about Vasya [a big businessman]?”

“Cops, the economic security squad. It’s enough for the word to come down from the district office to grab him. Vasya is a respected person. He’s a thief.”

“And me?”

“You’re an enemy of the state. If the neighborhood cops can decide to arrest Vasya, the Secret Chamber, so to speak, would have to give the orders to arrest you. The decision to arrest you would be made by no one lower ranked than Bortnikov’s deputy, although you’re naked and barefoot, and no one would ask the prosecutor’s office or the Investigative Committee to go after you. It’s creepy and pointless.”

This should give you an idea of the conversations I have with my acquaintances in the security forces nowadays. It helps to do business with people who know the score. None of them is surprised when you ask them who would arrest someone, how they would do it, and when they would do it. Everything would have been planned long ago, and there are no illusions. If a person has to be placed under arrest and charged, it is going to happen. If they do not need to be indicted, they can be kept in custody for a while. No one remembers, even for appearance’s sake, that there are courts in Russia, and courts decide whether to remand someone in custody after hearing arguments by all the interested parties. Everyone knows the decisions are not made in court.

Who Makes the Decisions?
Who made the decision to arrest Kirill Serebrennikov? Who decided to let him go for the time being? Who arrested Michael Calvey and the employees of Baring Vostok? Who let them out of jail? Why? Who made the decision to arrest Mikhail Abyzov?

There is no one with whom you can talk about these cases.

This is not quite true. My sources in all the law enforcement and security agencies, who can be frank with me as long as they remain anonymous, talk to me about these cases, too, but they look really worried when they do.

Rank-and-file law enforcement officers are confused. They do not understand why someone decided to back off the Serebrennikov case so abruptly and quickly. The train was rushing the director and filmmaker towards a sentence of the four years or so in the camps when a powerful hand jerked hard on the brakes. The passengers jumped off the train, of course, for they didn’t want to keep traveling in that direction, but the trainmaster, driver, and conductors were completely at a loss.

What should they do with the next train and its contingent of VIP passengers? Should they railroad them, as they were ordered to do, or should they avoid hurrying the case? After the emergency brake has been pulled, everyone emerges with injuries and bumps. Some of the crew were counting on promotions after they had wrapped up such a big case. Other members of the crew were acting on orders from a celestial. He will not forgive them because now they know there are tougher celestials in the system. He cannot forgive the people involved in the case for knowing that fact nor can he forgive the other celestials for intervening. The passengers could not care less. Either they get to where they are going or they do not get there, but the crew is always aboard the train.

True, a smart alec from the Investigative Committee told me something interesting about the procedural aspect.

“Why is everyone so angry? The Serebrennikov case was sent back to the prosecutor’s office, so what? You saw that the court ordered a forensic examination. The first forensic examination was really crooked. The judge in the trial of Serebrennikov’s accountant, Nina Maslyaeva,  wondered why everyone was so glad. Serebrennikov’s case would now be sent back to the prosecutor’s office because his circumstances are the same as Maslyaeva’s. You are mixing up cause and effect. The judge in the Maslyaeva case cannot reach a verdict because he understands the outcome of the forensic examination, which was the same as in the Serebrennikov case, will now be different, and Maslayeva will have to be re-indicted in the light of the new forensic examination in the Serebrennikov case.”

Translated into ordinary language, he means the case can still go any which way. Procedurally, all the cards are still on the table, and the haggling could continue. Things could go one way or the other. The powers that be could change their minds and send Serebrennikov to prison, but they could also let him go. They could arrest him again and send him down. The statute of limitations is a flexible thing.

Somewhere above the clouds, the thunder gods fight over the case. Invisible to the world, they communicate with ordinary people by making motions to conduct additional forensic examinations. Ordinary people make of it what they will. Police investigators are also part of the rank and file, part and parcel of Russia’s unwashed masses.

In ordinary times, this is not what happens to ordinary defendants in ordinary cases. Everyone would have gone down five years each per capita, and no would have batted an eye. In this case, the decisions are obviously political. Look who made the decision! Who telephoned whom? What levers did they use? Who or what did they offer in exchange? Freebies are for freaks, after all. We will return to this subsequently when we discuss other factors.

If the boring procedural hypothesis made by my anonymous source at the Investigative Committee is right, events should unfold as follows. The authorities will get the results of the new forensic examination in the Serebrennikov case. If the total damages are less than was claimed earlier (or, say, there were, miraculously, no damages at all), the charges against Serebrennikov and the other defendants will be dropped right in the courtroom. If, on the contrary, the sum of the damages is more or less hefty, a million rubles, at least, the defendants will be found guilty and sentenced to prison. Then you can appeal the verdict wherever you like.

No one would ask why a particular ruling was made. No one would ask what happened. Why are some people treated one way, while others are treated another way? The foot soldiers of law enforcement know the score. But when they do not know the score, they know it is better not to ask whether a mistake has been made but to follow orders.

How Things Go Down
The Calvey case bears a strong resemblance to the case against Vladimir Yevtushenkov. Yevtushenkov failed to take the hints. He was told directly what to do but refused to hand over his business. Then he was arrested and given a good talking. He and his captors came to an understanding. He was released and his business confiscated. Unlike Yevtushenkov, however, Calvey is as poor as a church mouse. Compared with Yevtushenkov, that is. Calvey does not own a Bashneft, after all.

The foot soldiers in the security forces have not been particularly surprised about how the Calvey case has unfolded. They expected something of the sort. They expected him to “cash out,” as they call it, and they believe he has, in fact, cashed out. They are uninterested in what this meant. It is not their war, and the spoils are not theirs to claim.

We should look at this more closely.

My source, whom I  trust, albeit warily, explains the obvious to me.

“All cases are business as usual except the cases in which there a phone call,” he says.

I have two questions for him right off the bat. What does he mean by “business as usual”? Who usually makes the  “phone call”?

He explains that people who follow high-profile cases and comment on them fail to take one important factor into account in their arguments. The high-profile cases are handled by another agency as it were. They involve the same players: the prosecutor’s offices, the courts, the remand prisons, and the Investigative Committee. All of them realize, however, when they are handling a special case involving the interests of high-ranking officials and elite businessmen. In these cases, they need to keep close track of which way the wind blows.

The bulk of cases are “mundane.” There is a huge number of such cases, and they can drag on forever. Take, for example, the Baltstroy case, the case of police anti-corruption investigator Boris Kolesnikov, and the case of ex-deputy culture minister Grigory Pirumov, cases that everyone has forgotten, and the Oboronservis case, the cases of the banks implicated in the so-called Russian Laundromat, and the case of Alexander Grigoriev, the man, allegedly, behind the Laundromat, who was mixed up with Putin’s cousin Igor Putin. New indictments in these cases are made all the time. More and more defendants are convicted in these cases and sent down. It never stops, but public interest in these cases is almost nil.

There are cases that collapse, however. Why does this happen?

Why was the case of ex-economics minister Alexei Ulyukayev not reviewed on appeal? Why was his prison sentence not reduced by four years during the sentencing appeal hearing? Does anyone know why? Perhaps the political spin doctors get it, but Russia’s law enforcers do not have a clue. What they understand is when an order comes down to reduce a sentence and when it does not. They leave the blabbing to the spin doctors.

Alexei Fedyarov is a former prosecutor from Chuvashia. Nowadays, he is the head of our legal department at Russia Behind Bars. He gave me permission to quote him.

“It happens. A case is going fine. In the morning, you have a meeting with your superiors. They tell you everything is great, keep pushing, you’ve got the bastards. I was handling a case against the management of the Khimprom factory in Novocheboksarsk. At briefings, I was told my group and I were doing a great job. We had done the initial investigation beautifully and now it was time to detain the suspects, remand them in custody, and put them away. I went to my office, where the city prosecutor was waiting for me. He asked me to hand over the case file. I gave him the case file and he told me it was over, I should forget it. He was personally going to deliver the case file to the head prosecutor of the republic and that would be the end of it.  There would be no supporting documentation or anything. The case really did disappear, although an hour before I had been told to push it.

“During that hour, the head prosecutor of the republic had got a message from the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office. A call from a deputy prosecutor general was enough for them to take the whole thing back, despite the fact it was a big, interesting case involving illegal wiretapping throughout the company and even the local police department and the tax police office. We had found tons of recorded conversations: they recorded everything. They were trying to protect themselves and investigate other people.”

Sources of the “Telephone Call”
How does the “telephone call” work?

The “telephone call” is a conventional name for the outcome of lengthy negotiations. We see only the reflection of this process: Calvey’s arrest, his transfer to house arrest, Serebrennikov’s arrest and his release on his own recognizance, Abyzov’s arrest.

I am going to quote my anonymous source verbatim. In this instance, the way he says what he says is as important as what he says.

“Anyone can hit the brakes. It could be Bortnikov. It could be Chaika. But it is the outcome of agreements among people, not an arbitrary decision. They do not do things that way. Maybe new factors have been brought into play, but there has to be someone who wants to negotiate on behalf of the accused person, who appeals on his behalf. He would be told, ‘Okay, fine. But you have to give us such-and-such in exchange.” Then it is a matter of talking with Lebedev [Chief Justice of the Russian Supreme Court] and everything is put into reverse. It could be like, ‘We’ll give up Serebrennikov if you take the heat off Calvey.’ You see, the siloviki are not all on the same side. There is no longer one side. Not even everyone in the FSB or its departments is on the same side. The Constitutional Department fights with the Anti-Terrorism Department. It’s the same thing in the prosecutor’s office and the Investigative Committee. In the Investigative Committee, there is the group loyal to Bastrykin and then they are the boys from the North Caucasus. There are also the guys from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, who are filthy rich but live orderly lives and are also capable of getting things done.

“Anything goes at this level. Why are you inclined to exaggerate how this works? Number One basically does not care about this stuff.”

I should try and explain.

The Investigative Committee and Prosecutor General’s Office are still at serious loggerheads. The conflict has even intensified. It is a personal conflict and a clash of business interests and a fight over resources. The amount of resources has not grown. On the contrary, there are palpably fewer resources. Relations between the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor General’s Office are currently not just strained, they are intolerably strained.

In court, they take the same side, but those are the rules of the game. If a case has gone to trial, you cannot come out against your colleagues: you would be digging yourself a hole. As a prosecutor, you did not reverse the indictment. You were involved in prolonging the suspect’s custody in remand prison, and you seconded all the motions made by the case investigator. The case investigator, of course, always plays along with the prosecutor. In criminal trials, they are the prosecution.

Even the “groundlings” find it easier to make a deal. The big bosses may be at war with each other, but down on the ground, the workhorses plow away and know the score. There is no love lost for Bastrykin among Investigative Committee officers just as prosecutors are not fond of Chaika. But it is like this everywhere: people like their bosses only when they are standing right in front of them. There is a certain difference, however. Chaika and his deputies at the Prosecutor General’s Office are all former case investigators. They have paid their dues. Bastrykin does not have this background: he is not a criminologist. Their workhorses thus complain about different things. Bastrykin’s underlings complain about incompetence, while prosecutors grouse about their bosses’ passion for business.

The Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor’s Office have an innate tendency to divide up into clans, which are defined geographically: there are Circassian clans, Bashkir clans, etc. They are local fraternities of sorts, and they do not go away when someone moves and transfers to a new job. The clans are often at odds with each other. This is something you must always factor in when dealing with Russian law enforcers.

Internal disunity has also been increasing day by day in the conglomerate known as the FSB. Even mid-level officers have trouble getting along. For example, M Directorate, which oversees the Interior Ministry, the Federal Penitentiary Service, and so on, is often combined, in many regions, with the Economic Security Department, and there is a big problem with compatibility in terms of the cases they pursue. But there is also K Directorate, aka the 8th Directorate, which oversees banks and the financial system. Regarded as “blue bloods,” they are strongly disliked by other FSB officers.

“A guy from K Directorate worked out at the World Class gym where I worked out. His driver took him to work in a Maybach. Now he has transferred his membership to the gym in Zhukovka. A membership there costs 600,000 rubles a year [approx. $9,500] and the swimming pool is filled with mineral water. ‘My clients work out there,’ he said to me, ‘so I moved my membership there,'” an athlete and retired FSB veteran told me.

The FSB’s Constitutional and Anti-Terrorism Departments are a whole other story. They oversee everyone who has any dealings with the opposition and they inspire no confidence whatsoever. For example, I am flattered Kirill Serebrennikov and I are overseen by the same FSB officers. But we are overseen by officers from the Constitutional Department, while the Anti-Terrorism Department are working-class blokes who specialize in completely different cases. They were merged into a single directorate in which the Anti-Terrorism Department, supposedly, is subordinated to the Constitutional Department. Naturally, they cannot stand each other.

What about the top bosses? They are busy with other things, which is why they are in charge. They are busy with politicking and intrigues. These quiet squabbles surface as cases like the recent arrest of Colonel Kirill Cherkalin from K Directorate. Did he really take a bribe? Maybe he did: anything is possible. It is more likely, however, he was arrested as part of a war for turf, turf that has been shrinking exponentially with every passing day. Fattened cows no longer graze on this turf: there are basically no cows left to milk. The entire herd has been devoured.

What to Expect
I will quote in full the monologue my anonymous source delivered when I asked him about the future. I do no think there is any need to decode it.

“The turbulence will increase. Until all the issues with Russia’s natural gas and its transit through Ukraine are settled, Number One won’t have time for things happening here. They have been outsourced to our guys. They have been told to go and bite everyone’s heads off. They have temporary permission to do it.

“But there are few fat cats. All the money has been sent abroad. Everyone is living on loans. All of Rublyovka is up to their ears in loans. There will be searches in some people’s homes, and some folks will be ripped to shreds. There will be a lot of this kind of stuff this year. The government will be purged, too. People love this sort of thing.

“Abyzov made no impression on anyone. No one understood what it was about. The only thing people will remember is that he offered to pay a billion rubles in bail. No one will forget him and the billion rubles.

“Circumstances are such that even the system’s insiders cannot make any forecasts. The settings are changing constantly. There is no stable paradigm.

“It is like with water. At room temperature, we understand how it acts. You can stick your finger in it and blow on it. But now it is being warmed. It has not boiled yet and vaporized, but you do not know what to do with it and how it will act next.

“The tax police are busy with major shakedowns. They are kicking everyone’s ass. When we ask them why they are doing it, they reply, ‘Crimea is ours, and our job is to get people to make additional payments.’ But additional payments and penalties are different things, especially penalties meant to wipe people out. They are going after people’s last rubles.

“I have a friend who works as a business court judge on tax cases. Whereas earlier, when she would be asked why she reduced a claim from one hundred million rubles to ten million, she could have an off-the-record chat with the head judge of the court and explain she was doing it so the person could keep their business, such chats are not kosher nowadays.

“Hard times are coming. The Syrian project fell through, and Russia failed to get control of the pipeline going through Turkey. Nothing that was planned in Syria has worked out, and both the South Stream and Nord Stream projects fell through [sic]. Nor will they replace the Ukrainian transit, although that was the goal. But it impossible to exit Syria, and now they have butted their noses in Venezuela. Their luck has been bad. People’s nerves are on edge up top.

“Number One is interested only in oil and gas, and so other parties have got involved in the game. If it were up to Number One, he would crush everyone and no one would breathe another word. He probably decided the lower ranks should take care of this stuff themselves. The very top bosses are not concerned with these matters at all right now. The lower ranks are running things and a huge amount of haggling has been happening.  We are witnessing a classic turf war.”

Welcome to the magical world of turbulence in a pot of boiling water.

Olga Romanova is the director of Russia Behind Bars, a charitable foundation that aids Russian convicts and their families, people who have been victimized by the Russian justice system. Translated by the Russian Reader