One Righteous Man

mokhnatkinSergei Mokhnatkin. Courtesy of the Moscow Times

Since it is my practice report all real Russian opposition to the Kremlin’s war crimes against the Syrian popular revolution, however rare and nearly invisible though it may have been over the past four years, I have to report the comments of the renowned Russian ex-political prisoner Sergei Mokhnatkin, a man who was put through the wringer by Putin’s fascist gangster clique for having the temerity to defend a woman being beaten by a riot policeman in Moscow.

If you are interested in the extraordinarily frightening details of Mr. Mokhnatkin’s case, his time in Russian prisons, and his equally extraordinary courage and fighting spirit, look him up on the internet. (His name can also be written as Sergey Mohnatkin, as on his Facebook page.)

Mr. Mokhnatkin writes, “I will go on smacking down anyone who directly or indirectly supports Russia’s bullying of Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria (the real Syria, of course, not the Syria of Assad, who is more of a cannibal than Kim Jong-un and Putin himself). I could not care less about how the people and governments in these countries view this bullying. The bully must be destroyed and punished regardless of what they think. The lack of a firm stance on this issue on the part of the [Russian] opposition and [Russian] human rights activists allows the bully to behave like a rogue at home and abroad. It encourages Putin, and he takes advantage of it. The current priority is defending these countries. If we succeed in doing this, it won’t take long to scratch Putin off and discard him.”

Hallelujah!

___________________________________________________

Sergey Evgenevich Mohnatkin
Facebook
July 3, 2019
Мочил и буду мочить всех, кто прямо или косвенно поддерживает агрессии России против Грузии, Украины и Сирии (естественно подлинной, а не асадовской, людоеда почище Ким Чен Ына или самого Путина. Мне наплевать как народы и правительства этих стран воспринимают эти агрессии. Агрессор должен быть уничтожен и наказан не зависимо от их мнения. Отсутствие жёсткой позиции по этому вопросу у оппозиции и правозащитников и позволяет агрессору творить беспредел не только внутри страны но и за рубежом. Это поощрение Путину, и он им пользуется. Сегодня первая задача-защитить эти страны. Удастся сделать это, и Путина сколупнуть будет не долго.

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“I Felt Like Going Up to Him and Spitting in His Face”

“I Felt Like Going Up to Him and Spitting in His Face”
Yevgeny Karasyuk
Republic
July 2, 2019

Torrential rains began falling in the western part of the Irkutsk Region early last week. When they were over, there was no doubt the bad weather had caused local rivers to rise, producing a major flood involving human casualties and large-scale damage.

The flood, which affected over ninety towns and destroyed at least a thousand homes, has been declared the most powerful in the region in the one hundred some years since the weather there has been systematically observed and recorded.

The flood put a crimp in President Putin’s schedule, probably even as he was attending the G20 summit in Japan, which wrapped up on Saturday.

He visited the flooded region the same day, but he had no intention of staying there for long. He never left the airport in Bratsk, a city that had also suffered from the flood, but which had not been inundated as disastrously as other cities and towns.

Putin’s visit to Bratsk on his way home to Moscow from Osaka was a logistical opportunity he could not pass up, of course. The Russian regime’s personification has long ago reached the point the populace regards the president as morally responsible for any high-profile disaster anywhere in the country.

Going where disaster has struck is thus a matter of political instinct. The president last showed his trust in it only six months ago in Magnitogorsk. The critics can accuse Putin of arriving at the sites of tragedies after they are over and visiting fake patients with arms demonstratively in slings, but he knows what he is doing.

He still finds the strength to board a plane so that, a few hours later, he can appear, stern-faced, before the cameras and issue orders at emergency meetings of local and federal officials. This is exactly what the president did late at night in Bratsk.

The speed with which Putin arrives at the epicenter of events, like the amount of time he spends there, matches the alacrity with which Russia’s press reports the news.

“Putin instructed the head of the Emergencies Ministry to fly immediately to Kemerovo.”

“Putin was informed about the tragedy in Magnitogorsk immediately.”

“Putin demanded that immediately, as of today, compensation be paid to the victims [i.e., the residents of the affected districts in the Irkutsk Region] and that an action plan for rebuilding housing and doing it as quickly as possible be outlined without delay.”

All the fuss testifies not to the might of the so-called power vertical Putin has fashioned but, on the contrary, to its weakness. It produces nothing remotely resembling independence, flexibility, and responsibility on the part of local authorities, especially when it comes to the safety of ordinary Russians. Putin continues to run our vast country manually, but the outcome of his administration is quite deplorable, as we can see.

irkutsk.jpegA satellite image, provided by Roskosmos, shows the parts of the Irkutsk Region affected by the flooding. Courtesy of Republic

It does not matter a whit where and when the president arrives, and how long he stays there because it happens after the fact. Russian authorities usually do nothing at the most crucial moments. In a country run by the security services [siloviki], a country where there are more experts in security than anywhere else, a country with a whole emergencies ministry, it can easily happen that you would not be warned of impending disaster.

According to the Emergencies Ministry, four out of ten Russians are still not covered by the early warning system. Its absence goes a long way toward explaining the disaster in Krymsk in July 2012 in which entire houses and their sleeping owners were swept away by flood waters in the middle of the night. While Moscow was fiddling around with modernization and digitalization, towns in Krasnodar Territory did not have radio transmitters at their disposal to sound warning signals and inform residents of the approaching flood.

Seven years have passed since the disaster in Krymsk, and what happened there has happened again in Eastern Siberia. Residents of the town of Tulun, in the Irkutsk Region, have claimed they were not warned about the impending flood, and so they did not have time to gather their belongings and flee their homes. Local officials, however, assured Putin everyone had been warned.

“I watched our mayor giving his report to Putin and I felt like going up to him and spitting in his face,” a local woman who could not contain her emotions told journalists.

Officials now say they knew nothing. Irkutsk Region Governor Sergei Levchenko said regional authorities were not informed of the dangerous rise in the levels of water in local rivers, while the Emergencies Ministry has claimed the opposite.

Officials argue nature is capable of catching anyone by surprise, including the Russian state. At Irkutsk State University, scientists said global climate change had caused the flooding. Arctic and subtropical air masses had mixed with humid air from the Pacific Ocean, something quite rare for the region, to produce the atmospheric anomaly that led to the disaster.

In fact, all that is required in such circumstances is that officials pretend they sympathize with the populace in its plight and are ready to help. But the authorities, disinclined by habit from bowing to public pressure, could not make such a sacrifice.

“What do you want me to say? Do you want me to complain? I can complain to you, too,” Alexander Uss, head of Krasnoyarsk Territory, retorted to local residents upset by their governor’s passivity.

Krasnoyarsk Territory was next in the flood’s path after the Irkutsk Region, but the floodwaters have begun to subside.

You can relax. Putin will not be paying you a visit.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Russian Import Substitution Blues

cherry coke 2018“Try Ripe Cherry Coca-Cola.” Billboard, Petersburg, July 28, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

The Consequences of Countersanctions: Food Import Embargo Makes Russian Producers More Inefficient
Vladimir Ruvinsky
Vedomosti
June 25, 2019

Vladimir Putin has extended Russia’s food embargo until the end of 2020, but the policy’s positive effect has dried up. Instead, it has been making Russian producers less efficient and driving up prices. The Kremlin imagined an embargo would be a good response to western sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, but Russian consumers have had to foot the bill.

Putin’s ban has been in effect since August 2014. It prohibits the import of meat, fish, and dairy products from the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia, and Norway. During his televised “direct line” to the nation the other day, Putin explained that, over the past five years, the sanctions those countries imposed on Russia had led to the loss of $50 billion for the Russian economy since 2014. The west, however, had lost more. According to Putin, the EU had lost $140 billion, while the US had lost $17 billion. Apparently, Russians should take heart knowing they have not been the main losers in the sanctions war.

First, however, the economies of the EU and the US are many times bigger than Russia’s, so, in fact, Russia has lost the most. Second, the losses do not boil down to simple arithmetics. Third, the subject of countersanctions has not really been discussed. Natalya Volchkova, director of applied research at the Center for Economic and Financial Research (CEFIR), has calculated the protectionist policy costs every Russian 2,000 rubles a year: this is the sum total of what we overpay for products in the fourteen categories affected by the countersanctions. She argues that, out of this sum, 1,250 rubles go to Russian producers and 500 rubles go to companies importing food from countries not covered by countersanctions, while the toll on the Russian economy’s efficiency amounts to 250 rubles per person per year.

Full import substitution has not been achieved: suppliers from the sanctioned countries have been replaced by suppliers who work with other countries, who often charge more for their goods. Restricting competition was meant to give Russian agriculture a leg up, and some domestic producers have, in fact, increased output. According to Rosstat, retail food imports decreased from 34% in 2014 to 24% in 2018. Since 2016, however, the dropoff in imports has trailed off. Volchkova complains that most Russian import-substituted goods have increased in price. They are produced by businesses that had been loss-making. This is the source of the overall inefficiency.

Natalya Orlova, the chief economist at Alfa Bank, divides countersanctions into two phases. When they are implemented they have a positive effect, but over time the risks of negative consequences increase.  The only good option on the horizon is the lifting of the sanctions. When it might happen is not clear, says Orlova: it is currently not on the agenda. When it does happen, however, it will be bad news for Russian producers. Countersanctions have helped major players increase their shares of the domestic market. They have become more visible in such cushy conditions but less competitive as well. The longer the conditions are maintained, the less ready the Russian agro-industry will be to face the harsh competition. When the walls come tumbling down, we will see again that European producers are more sophisticated technologically.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Syria Is Only Three Syllables

It is pointless to say anything more about the near-total non-reaction of Russians to their government’s ruthless, quasi-genocidal bombing campaign against civilians in Syria, but I will say one last thing before giving up the subject entirely on this blog. It is important for eyewitnesses to important historical events to write down what they saw, heard, and read. Otherwise, decades from now, posterity might be reading about a nonexistent “Russian anti-war movement” during the Putin era.

Anything is possible in our fallen world.

Like Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Central Asians, Syrians are viewed as civilizational subhumans by Russians, as “natural-born terrorists” who deserve to be destroyed, as they would put it in the blunt lingo of Russian TV propagandists.

Educated Russians feel solidarity only towards a very limited segment of other Russians and northern Europeans, and even then only under extraordinarily limited circumstances, as witnessed by the self-love and virtue-flagging festival currently underway on the Runet.

The whole point of it is not to save the life of an investigative journalist framed by the police on drugs charges but to show to themselves (and the world) they can “fight back” against their corrupt government, that they are not as bad as they imagine themselves to be and, in fact, really are.

Indeed, Russians can fight back, as has been proven hundreds of times during the last twenty years. But this has been proven not by today’s virtue-flaggers, but by other Russians, Russians who have been fighting for their lives, livelihoods, natural and urban environments, workplaces, you name it. They live in the twenty-first century, too, and so they also have made use of the internet as needed for their campaigns, but their campaigns have had real objectives, and the militants in these campaigns have often been less bashful in their methods.

Look up, for example, anything you can find about the grassroots movement against plans to mine copper and nickel in Voronezh Region, which reached a crescendo four or five years ago. One of the leaders of that protest was an “ordinary” woman who worked at the local produce market. She virtually commanded battalions of other locals, including local Cossacks, in a knock-down, drag-out fight against mining companies and police.

Not surprisingly, these skirmishes have generally garnered much less attention in Russian society at large, the Russian press, and the international press.

It has been easier for all those groups to imagine the Russian provinces as “Putin’s base,” as a wasteland filled with aggressive vatniki, as they are derogatorily called. (The reference is to the humble gray quilted jacket favored, allegedly, by regime-loving proles in Russia’s regions.)

I have spent at least a third of my time on this blog and its predecessor trying to show this is not the case. It is a thankless and nearly pointless business, however, because it is not trendy to care about hicks in the sticks anymore anywhere, so almost no one reads these dispatches.

Putin’s real power bases are and always have Moscow and Petersburg, but you would never know that from the cool spin residents of the “capitals” put on every gesture in the direction of protest they make, even when they are not really protesting anything at all. If anyone has benefited from Putin’s promises of stability and prosperity, it is them, not the hicks in the sticks. But none of this has led to a “bourgeois revolution,” as some were expecting. Quite the opposite has happened.

Of course, there are activists and grassroots politicians in the capitals who are every bit as smart, fierce, and savvy as their counterparts in the provinces, but they do not outnumber them, despite what certain large-scale, protests in the recent past might have suggested.

So, what is up now? Sooner or later, every ambitious Russian with a social media profile and any sights on the west realizes it is not great to look like too much of a conformist. It is okay for Putin to kill Syrian babies by the truckload. Or, rather, it is not okay, but you are only asking for trouble if you protest something a) no one else is protesting, and b) that looks to be really important to the powers that be, so important they would squash you like you a fly if you made a peep about it.

The grassroots “Free Golunov!” campaign is perfect for anyone who wants to pad out their protest resume because a) everyone is protesting it, and b) the real powers that be probably do not care so much about prosecuting Golunov to the full extent of their lawlessness.

At his next public appearance, Putin could well be asked about the case by reporters. If he is asked, I would not be surprised if he said it was a bloody mess that shows how much work needs to be done before Russian law enforcement has been thoroughly purged of corruption.

Heads would then roll, and Golunov would be released as a gesture to the Russian moral one percent’s “yearning for justice.”

People with shaky protest resumes—meaning nearly every member of the intelligentsia in the capitals and major cities—want to jump on a bandwagon that has half a chance of making it to its destination, not light out for the territory with no chance of winning.

On the other hand, the Kremlin could neutralize these virtue-flaggers for good by throwing the book at Golunov, despite the overwhelming evidence he is innocent, and sending him down for fifteen years.

In reality, this sort of thing happens all the time. It happens routinely to “politicals” and ordinary blokes, to businessmen and Central Asian migrant workers, etc. But no one bothers to go ballistic when these people are framed by the wildly unscrupulous Russian police and security services because a) everyone leads really busy lives, and b) these victims of Russian legal nihilism do not have reporters and editors going to bat for them and publishing their names in big letters on the front pages of their newspapers.

What will “rank-and-file” protesters do if, despite their extraordinary efforts, Golunov is sent to prison for a crime he did not do? What will become of their “movement”? Will they up their game? Will they embrace more radical methods to free their beloved here.

Their movement will evaporate in seconds. We will never hear or see any political statements from most of these people ever again because if they can live peaceably with everything done by the Putin regime at home and abroad in their name over the last twenty years except this one thing, they can go on swallowing or, really, ignoring a double and even triple portion of the more of the same until Putin finally keels over thirty or so years from now.

Or they will leave the country. It is not as if they actually give a flying fuck about it. If they did, I would have written a very different outburst than this one. I would have written it a long time ago, in fact. || THE RUSSIAN READER

idlibThe bombing of Idlib is stirring memories of Guernica, as portrayed by Picasso. Photo by Abdulaziz Ketaz. Courtesy of AFP, Getty Images, and the Sunday Times

Syria: Russians refine slaughter in Idlib
Observers say Moscow is using the Syrian province as a kind of Guernica, while casting innocent victims as terrorists
Louise Callaghan
The Sunday Times
June 9, 2019

The fighter jet screamed over the town at about 8.30am, while the family was still asleep in the cool morning air. Mahmoud Ali Alsheikh, his wife and their three children were shaken awake by the first bomb.

Ahmad, the youngest, was 10 months old. His father held him as the second bomb exploded further down their street. His mother, Fatma, 29, held her hands over his ears. Nour and Salah, 8 and 7, crouched next to them.

The next bomb hit the house. Shrapnel ripped into Ahmad’s stomach, killing him. “I was trying to protect him,” said his father, a sweet-maker.

Ahmad was just one victim of Russia’s bombing campaign in Idlib, a rural province in northern Syria where a renewed assault by pro-regime forces has killed at least 347 civilians since the end of April, according to local doctors with the aid group Uossm. Twenty-five medical facilities have been bombed, many of them far from the front lines.

It is a horrifying escalation in a conflict in which Moscow and Damascus have an overwhelming military advantage as the eight-year-old civil war winds down. Analysts suspect that Russia, which has bragged about testing more than 200 new weapons in Syria, is cynically using Idlib to refine the bombing techniques it has developed during the conflict.

“Idlib for the Russians now could be what Guernica was for the Germans ahead of the Second World War. It’s a conflict in which they tested all of their techniques, rolled out their new doctrine,” said James Le Mesurier, a former British Army officer who founded the organization that trains and supports the White Helmets rescue group.

The Nazis’ use of the Spanish town of Guernica for bombing practice in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War allowed them to break new ground in the mass killing of civilians from the air and refine techniques that would later become invaluable to their war machine. The aftermath of the bombing was immortalized in a painting by Pablo Picasso.

For Russia, disinformation techniques have become as vital as military tactics. Moscow and the Syrian regime portray Idlib as a terrorist haven under the control of hardline groups — justifying the bombing campaign on the grounds that they are fighting jihadists.

Russia has put great effort into an online campaign portraying Idlib as a vipers’ nest of terrorists. The truth is more complicated. While groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly an al-Qaeda offshoot, control large swathes of the province, some key towns are held by more moderate rebels.

A rebel counter-attack last week took back several villages from pro-regime forces. But the rebels have no air power.

Mixed in among them — and vulnerable to Russia’s supremacy in the air — are tens of thousands of terrified civilians: both locals and others from across the country who were bused to Idlib when their homes were retaken by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

After ousting rebel forces in much of the country, the regime is now renewing the attack on Idlib, which it has pledged to claw back at all costs.

A ceasefire, negotiated last year in Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort, is in tatters after an assault by pro-regime forces targeted civilian and rebel targets alike with cluster bombs and barrel bombs. Videos appear to show incendiary weapons being used.

Diplomats say that, for the moment, an all-out military assault on Idlib is unlikely. The aim of the bombing campaign is to wear away at the ceasefire, grind down the rebels and force Turkey — which maintains military observation points in Idlib and backs some opposition groups — to agree to a handover of the province to the regime.

“A full-on assault is not imminent. But I do think the option will be kept on the table so that people can use that as a way of increasing influence,” said a senior western diplomat working on Syria.

Turkey, which is one of the guarantors of the ceasefire, has been outwardly maintaining a balanced relationship with Moscow, even as it reportedly funnels weapons to opposition groups in Idlib.

The Turkish border with Idlib is closed to the tens of thousands of civilians who have fled to it in search of safety. Last week residents told The Sunday Times that entire villages in Idlib’s interior were deserted, and displaced people were camping out in olive groves near the border without food or water.

Among them were the surviving members of Ahmad’s family.

“I don’t know what will happen but I hope the regime won’t advance because they will kill and arrest everyone,” said his father, who was badly injured in the airstrike that killed the baby. “The Assad regime is targeting our town all the time.”

He said his home town, Kafranbel — which used to be famous for its figs and is about 30 miles from the Turkish border — is not controlled by jihadists but by remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

Other locals and analysts confirmed this. But for Russia and the Syrian regime, rebels, jihadists and civilians alike are regarded as terrorists.

“Since the beginning, the Russians, Iran, Assad regime and Hezbollah are saying that,” he said. “Because their military policy is burning and killing everyone who lives in the opposition areas.”

Using Russian state-funded broadcasters and websites, Moscow has muddied the waters of the Syrian conflict by attempting to push the narrative that anyone who is against Assad is a terrorist, and that no news from opposition-held areas can be trusted.

Its disinformation campaign particularly targets the White Helmets, portraying its members as jihadists who stage their work. Slick video content, purporting to show the White Helmets faking chemical attacks by the regime, is often presented as impartial news and shared across the world.

Last month a Syrian government television channel took this technique a step further in a “fake news” comedy sketch that lampooned the White Helmets. A glamorous actress portrayed a crying woman as “White Helmets” staged a fake rescue mission. She later apologized for causing offense but made clear she still believed that attacks and rescues were often faked by the White Helmets.

Impartial observers, who credit the White Helmets with saving many lives and drawing attention to the regime’s atrocities, say there has been no proof that they have faked anything.

Additional reporting: Mahmoud al-Basha

Thanks to Pete Klosterman and the Facebook public group Free Syria for the heads-up. {TRR}

The Russian Pollocracy Unmasked

DSCN1730.JPGWhen will pollsters, politicians, researchers, and reporters stop milking the dead plastic cow of Russian “public opinion”? Photo by the Russian Reader

VTsIOM Records Another Dip in Putin’s Confidence Rating
But If Respondents Are Asked about the President Directly, a Majority Say They Trust Him
Yelena Mukhametshina
Vedomosti
May 31, 2019

Russians’ confidence in Vladimir Putin continues to plunge. According to VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Foundation), during the week of May 20–26, 30.5% of people polled expressed their confidence in the president. This was Putin’s worst showing since 2006. (Earlier polling data is not available on VTsIOM’s website.) The previous all-time low, 31.7%, was recorded a week ago.

VTsIOM asked an open-ended question (see the inset, below, for the exact wording), meaning respondents were free to identify the politicians they trusted.

This was VTsIOM director Valery Fyodorov’s explanation for the discrepancy between the level of confidence in Putin and the president’s electability rating.

VTsiOM also published responses to closed-ended questions for the first time, meaning questions about the confidence of respondents in specific politicians. Putin’s confidence rating was 72.3% when the question was put this way to respondents. VTsIOM also quizzed them about their attitude to the prime minister and party leaders, but confidence in them was considerably lower.

FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) also asks respondents specifically about confidence in Putin. Last week, 62% of people they polled said they either “absolutely” or “more or less” trusted the president.

What VTsIOM Asks
The open-ended question was worded as follows: “We all trust some people while not trusting others. If we talk about politicians, whom do you trust to make important government decisions? Whom would you not trust?”

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, said on Thursday, May 30, that the Kremlin had taken note of VTsIOM’s poll showing a decline in confidence in Putin. He asked the pollsters to explain the discrepancy between the confidence rating and the electability rating, which has been growing.

For example, according to FOM, the president’s electability rating has increased by five percentage points since March. Last week, it was 50%. This week, it dipped to 48%.

“We expect an analysis on the part of Russia’s esteemed specialists on how these figures correlate. How can the confidence rating fall when the electability rating increases? It’s a complex analysis. We hope to see this analysis sooner or later,” Peskov said.

On May 24, VTsIOM published polling data on confidence in politicians. 31.7% of respondents said they trusted Putin to make important government decisions. It was the lowest figure since 2006. However, Russians [sic] still trust the president more than any other Russian politician.

“The open-ended question about trust is sensitive to the public’s moods and emotions. When the mood is sour, as it is now, many respondents refuse to answer, choosing ‘no answer’ or ‘I don’t know,’ etc. VTsIOM does not publish the numbers of people who respond this way, but around thirty percent of people polled give these answers in similar polls done by the Levada Center,” said Dmitry Badovsky, director of the ISEPR Foundation.

As for VTsIOM’s first closed-ended poll on confidence in specific politicians, it would be interesting if the pollsters had included in the list all the politicians people ordinarily name in VTsIOM’s customary open-ended poll, including Putin, Sergei Shoigu, Sergei Lavrov, Pavel Grudinin, and Alexei Navalny, argued Badovsky.

He would not rule out the possibility that VTsIOM would do this in its next round of polls.

“It would be impractical to get rid of the open-ended question about trust. It has been asked for many years, since 2006. Such long-term data sets are rather important in research and analyzing the situation,” argued Badovsky.

“Fluctuations in the president’s ratings have been much discussed over the past year. It’s just that it rarely gets on the agenda, but when it does, there is a conflict. It’s hard to deny negative trends, but it’s considered indecent to acknowledge them,” said political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov ironically.

“However, there have been few instances when the publication of ratings was suspended. If I’m not mistaken, it happened to Medvedev’s electability ratings when he was president. Declining to publish ratings is tantamount to acknowledging you are powerless to reverse the trend. Yes, the ratings have dropped, but not so critically as to warrant panicking,” Vinogradov argued.

It would make more sense to natter on about the subject until society and the media switch their focus to some other problem, he added.

We asked Fyodorov whether the pollsters would now publish responses to both questions about confidence.

“We shall see how society reacts and decide accordingly. Maybe we will publish both polls. Or one poll. Maybe at the same time or maybe at different times. We haven’t discussed it yet,” he replied.

He did, however, promise to keep publishing results of the open-ended survey about trust.

Translated by the Russian Reader

DSCN1893Russian “public opinion” polls are “udderly” useless. Photo by the Russian Reader

In October 2013, during the height of the Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise crisis, Shaun Walker wrote this in the Guardian:

In the queue outside the [detention center in Murmansk where the Greenpeace activists were held], there is little sympathy for Greenpeace among relatives of other detainees, as they wait to deliver packages. “We have a saying in Russia: you shouldn’t go into someone else’s house and try to live by your own rules,” said one middle-aged woman who had bought a parcel of food for her 33-year-old daughter, who had been inside for five months on charges she did not want to reveal. She had been waiting in freezing temperatures since 4am to ensure she was among the lucky few who got to deliver her package.

Another man, waiting to deliver a package to his brother, suggested the Greenpeace activists were paid by western oil corporations to undermine Russia and should be “shot, or at least sent to a camp”. The opinions reflect surveys which show that the majority of Russians support the piracy charges.

Walker’s take on Russian “public opinion” struck me as so wildly wrong that, a few days later, I wrote and published my first attack on what I would subsequently dub the “pollocracy.”

For some reason, as the country sinks deeper into the Putinist fascist night, this “saying” becomes more and more popular. I’ve personally heard and read it something like six hundred thousand times over the past few years, but it’s hard to remember anyone ever saying such a thing in the nineties. It’s just remarkable how people participate so willingly in their own enslavement and extinction, and with the help of such “sayings.” Yes, “folk wisdom” really does consist in repeating over and over again what some fat cats with soccer teams in England, kids in Swiss schools, and mansions on the Riviera want you to think.

On the other hand, reporters like Shaun Walker wouldn’t have to look that hard for Russians who don’t think this way, even in Murmansk. And it’s pointless, as he does here, and as avid Russian watchers both inside and outside the country love to do, to cite a “public opinion” poll that, allegedly, shows the majority of Russians don’t support the arrested Greenpeace activists. Aside from any other number of methodological and philosophical issues with such polls more generally, not only in Russia, “public opinion” is a nearly meaningless concept in a country lacking all the things that make it a somewhat more meaningful concept in other countries, things like free elections, broadly based political parties, non-astroturfed grassroots groups, much stronger and more militant independent trade unions and, most important, freedom from constant terrorization and brainwashing, in the not-so-distant past and now again, over the past fourteen years, by officialdom, whether in the form of bureaucrats, police or state media.

Why does “the majority” not support the arrested Greenpeace activists? Because they (or, rather, a good number of the people who answered this dubious poll) thought that this was the response expected from them. Why did they think that? Because state and loyalist media have portrayed Greenpeace as the second coming of Al Qaeda, willing dupes of the CIA, and any other baleful thing you can think of. You don’t even have to believe this stuff. You just know that if some “polling organization” calls you up out of the blue, there are strong cues out there in the big media world to which you have access telling you how to respond to such questions. So what’s the point of thinking something different out loud? But then Shaun Walker, hundreds of other reporters, “political analysts,” “sociologists” and so on cite this “public opinion” as if it weren’t obtained under duress. It’s a vicious circle.

I knew I was probably not alone in my profound distrust of attempts to depict Russian “public opinion” so facilely. Actually, my friend the reporter Sergey Chernov had been making similar arguments in our endless conversations about politics then. It was Chernov who hit on what I think is still the consummate formula for how the pollocracy works in Russia: “Levada—TV—Levada,” ad infinitum. A vicious circle, indeed.

But I wanted to see whether other Russian reporters and political scientists had reached similar conclusions. Although, as I discovered, they were few and far between, there were other Russians besides Chernov who had noticed that the leaders of their country, where nearly all elections were faked and had just protested this sad circumstance in large numbers for several months, were positively and paradoxically bonkers about “public opinion” polls.

Since 2013, I have enthusiastically translated and published their articles on the subject while also wearing out my already thin welcome by insisting on this website and other venues that Russian “public opinion” polls are worthless as measures of what real Russians really think and should be shunned by conscientious reporters and researchers.

Worse, Russian “public opinion” poll are barefaced attempts to mold public opinion by persuading the 99.99999% of Russians who are not asked what they think about anything that everyone (except them, perhaps) is gaga about Putin, crazy about Stalin, bonkers about the occupation of Crimea, etc.

Events of recent weeks have brought into sudden, sharp focus the dubiousness of public opinion polls in Russia, whose elites and security service have been rapidly descending into neo-totalitarianism while society at large seems, at very least, to have quite a lot of the democratic fight left in it, especially when it comes to NIMBY-style battles over parks and waste landfills.

This emerged forcefully in Yekaterinburg, where the powers that be unexpectedly suggested polls and plebiscites as a way out of the conflict between rank-and-file residents defending a city park and the Russian Orthodox Church, who planned to build a church in the park.

Now it transpires (see the article, above) that one of Russia’s troika of “trusted” (official or quasi-official) pollsters, VTsIOM, has been engaging in double-entry bookkeeping, so to speak, when it comes to gauging the public’s trust in Russia’s would-be president for life.

For reasons that are not clear, it asks the victims of its survey open-ended and closed-ended questions about their confidence in Putin’s leadership, questions that produce wildly different outcomes.

What does it all mean? I would hope it means that people who are serious about reporting and explaining the complexities of the Russian elite’s police tactics and the political resistances mounted (or not mounted) by the Russian grassroots will forever forswear the nasty handiwork of Russia’s troika of public opinion manipulators.

The article in Vedomosti, which I have translated, above, shows, without really trying, that the troika of pollsters (Levada Center, FOM, and VTsIOM) cannot be trusted if only because they are mixed up with the Kremlin in a shady game to persuade perfectly intelligent, well-educated, thoughtful people they know what they think only when Putin, Levada or the TV set tells them what to think.

And yes, even when a Russian “public opinion” poll seemingly goes the opposition’s way, as it has in this case, it is still worthless. {THE RUSSIAN READER}

The Network Trials: Pinning the “Code” on the Defendants

filinkov-boyarshinovPetersburg Network Trial Defendants Viktor Filinkov and Yuli Boyarshinov. Photo by Alexander Koryakov. Courtesy of Kommersant

Prosecution Tries to Pin “Code” on Network Defendants
Anna Pushkarskaya
Kommersant
May 21, 2019

The Volga District Military Court rejected the defense’s motion to send the Penza segment of the so-called Network case back to prosecutors. The prosecution has alleged the defendants established the Network (an organization now officially banned in the Russian Federation), a “terrorist community” of anarchists, in order to overthrow the regime.

Today in Penza the prosecution will begin presenting its case against the seven defendants.

This stage of the trial has been completed in Petersburg, where Viktor Filinkov and Yuli Boyarshinov are on trial for their alleged involvement in the community. Their defense attorneys have moved to disallow key pieces of evidence in the prosecution’s case and summon Penza FSB investigator Valery Tokarev and Petersburg FSB field officer Konstantin Bondarev to the stand. The two FSB officers have been accused by the defendants of torturing them with electrical shocks. The Moscow District Military Court, which is hearing the case in Petersburg, postponed its consideration of these motions until June 4.

The trial in Penza began later than the trial in Petersburg. During the second hearing in Penza, on May 15, after the indictment was read aloud, the defense moved to send the case back to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation. It argued the case had been carelessly patched together, and some of the evidence had been obtained under pain of torture. It was nearly impossible to mount a coherent defense against such an “absurd, vague, and inconsistent” indictment, they said.

Prosecutor Sergei Semerenko argued the trial should proceed, although he refused to rule out the possibility the indictment would ultimately be withdrawn and resubmitted on less serious charges.

The judges reacted to this turn of event unexpectedly. They withdrew to chambers and never returned to the courtroom. A court clerk eventually told the lawyers, waiting for a ruling on their motion, the hearing was adjourned, after which armed guards led the defendants away.

The next day it transpired the trial would resume on May 21.

In the Penza trial, Dmitry Pchelintsev and Ilya Shakursky have been charged with running the Network terrorist community. They face twenty years in prison if convicted. Arman Sagynbayev, Vasily Kuksov, Andrei Chernov, Mikhail Kulkov, and Maxim Ivankin have been charged with involvement in the alleged community. They face ten years in prison if convicted.

A number of the defendants have also been indicted on other charges, including weapons possession and drug trafficking.

In Petersburg, Viktor Filinkov and Yuli Boyarshinov also face charges of involvement in the alleged community. Boyarshinov has also been charged with possession of gunpowder.

Filinkov has claimed he was tortured and denies his guilt. Boyarshinov has complained of torture-like conditions in remand prison but has confessed his guilt.

The subject of torture also came during when a witness in the trial, Igor Shishkin, was questioned. Mr. Shishkin has already been convicted on charges of involvement with the alleged Network as part of a plea agreement with investigators. Members of the Petersburg Public Monitoring Commission found the most serious injuries on his body after he was initially detained and questioned by the FSB in January 2018.

When Mr. Shishkin was asked whether unacceptably violent methods had been used on him and whether had testified voluntarily, he smiled and replied, “The military investigator carried out a brilliant investigation: nothing of the sort was found.”

The Moscow Military District Court finished its examination of the evidence in Petersburg on May 17 after holding a video conference with witnesses in Penza, including the defendants on trial there. All the witnesses testified they had not seen Viktor Filinkov at training sessions in the woods.

However, Mr. Pchelinitsev and Mr. Sagynbayev testified they had not been questioned about the Petersburg case. The transcript of this interrogation had been copied from testimony they gave to FSB investigator Valery Tokarev in Penza while they were tortured. They later withdrew their testimony.

Mr. Filinkov, who worked as a programmer before his arrest, also claimed investigators had falsely interpreted physical evidence seized during searches and reached the wrong conclusions during their investigation.

In particular, he claimed he had not “zigzagged” around Petersburg on the day before his arrest before discarding the hard drives FSB field agents later found in a trash bin. The images and photos on the drives, which had been entered into evidence, were of the kind one would find in the possession of any punk. They had been produced by his wife Alexandra Askyonova as a teenager.

Ms. Aksyonova was granted political asylum in Finland last week.

Mr. Filinkov made a point of noting that Petersburg field officer Konstantin Bondarev, who had compiled the case file on him, should be charged with torture.

Ultimately, the court agreed to summon Mr. Tokarev and Mr. Bondarev to the witness stand, but so far they have failed to appear at the hearings.

The key evidence of the alleged anarchist community’s terrorist inclinations are two documents, seized from two of the Penza defendants: the so-called Code, which outlines the Network’s alleged goals and organizational structure, and the minutes of an interregional “congress” held in a Petersburg flat in 2017, featuring responses from the movement’s alleged cells to socio-political issues.

The FSB has claimed the cells were armed units. The minutes contain neither the names nor the pseudonyms of the respondents.

When Vladimir Putin discussed the Network case with the Presidential Human Rights Council, he referred to a report drafted for him; the report claimed that “founding and programmatic documents had been seized from the terrorist community.”

However, the defendants and witnesses have denied the existence of the documents, claiming they only held discussions during their meetings but did not ratify or sign documents.

Mr. Shishkin, who made a plea agreement with investigators, corroborated this.

Prosecutor Ekaterina Kachurina asked him, “Why did you become interested in anarchist ideology?”

“And why did you become a prosecutor?” he replied, explaining anarchism was interesting to him.

Mr. Pchelintsev said there had been no “congress,” only “a seminar by consensus.”

Vitaly Cherkasov, Mr. Filinikov’s defense attorney, said in court there was every reason to believe “an unlimited number of Petersburg and Penza FSB officials had illegal access over a lengthy period of time” to the hard drive and laptop on which the files containing the “Code” and the “Minutes” had, allegedly, been discovered, due to improprieties in the secure storage and unsealing of the physical evidence.

Mr. Boyarshinov’s assistant defense attorney, Olga Krivonos, moved to have the court declare the documents inadmissible as evidence, along with the FSB’s linguistic forensic investigation, which concluded the “Code” was a “set of instructions outlining the basic organizational principles of a network of combat units capable of resisting the current powers that be.”

The court has adjourned until June 4.

Translated by the Russian Reader. You can read more about the Network case and stories related to the case here.

Marrying the Mob

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On Facebook, I regularly push stories about Syria and, especially, Russia’s criminally disastrous involvement there. Unfortunately, it has had no visible effect on any of my Russian Facebook friends with one exception.

I should thank Allah for that many “converts.”

In international politics, marriages of convenience among dictators and wannabe dictators always lead to mayhem and unintended fallout for the innocent bystanders in their immediate vicinity.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Trump and his campaign really did not collude with Putin and other Russian government officials to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if that were the case, Trump’s overweening admiration for Putin’s style of bad governance has still had catastrophic effects on the country he is supposed to be leading

For someone like me who is all too familiar with the bag of tricks known, maybe somewhat inaccurately, as Putinism, it has been obvious Trump wants to steer the US in a quasi-Putinist direction.

While the republic, its states, and the other branches of government can mount a mighty resistance by virtue of the power vested in them, Trump can still cause lots of damage as an “imperial” president, even if he is booted out of the White House two years from now.

Likewise, Russians can imagine there is a far cry between living in a country whose cities are besieged and bombed by the country’s dictator, and what Putin has been doing in Syria. What he has been doing, they might imagine, mostly stays in Syria, except for Russian servicemen killed in action there, whose names and numbers are kept secret from the Russian public.

In reality, it is clear that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist turn in Ukraine, Syria, etc., has made the regime far more belligerent to dissidents, outliers, weirdos, “extremists,” and “terrorists” at home.

Over the last five years, more and more Russians have fallen prey to their homegrown police and security services either for what amount to thought crimes (e.g., reposting an anti-Putinist meme on the social network VK or organizing nonexistent “terrorist communities”) or what the Russian constitution does not recognize as a crime at all, such as practicing one’s religion (e.g., Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do)

Putin has adopted an Assadist mindset, therefore. He, his cronies, and the ever-expanding Russian security services, whose mission is making the paranoia of their superiors come true by meeting quotas of harassed, interrogated, arrested, tortured, jailed and convicted “extremists” per quarter, have come to imagine the only way to avoid the mess in which Assad found himself is to hammer anyone in Russia who sticks their necks out too far, whether intentionally or not, that everyone else will get the clue dissent and even plain difference come with a heavy price tag and reduce theirs to an invisible minimum.

Things were not exactly peachy during the first years of the Putin regime, but they became a hell of a lot worse after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine and went flying off to Syria to save Assad’s bacon from the fire of popular revolution.

As long as Russia remains entrenched in those places, there can be no question of progress on the home front, especially when the vast majority of Russians pretend very hard not to know anything about Syria and their country’s involvement there, and have grown accustomed to the Ukrainian muddle, meaning they mostly avoid thinking about what has really been happening in Eastern Ukraine, too. {TRR}

Thanks to the fabulous Sheen Gleeson for the first link. Photo by the Russian Reader