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The Real Russia. Today. Forbes Russia ditches its chief editor, Babchenko's ‘killer’ speaks, and state companies drop millions on VIP tickets


Monday, June 11, 2018

  • Russian cinema figures use a film festival to advocate for Serebrennikov and Sentsov
  • Up to 3,000 protesters turn out in Moscow on Sunday
  • Forbes Russia fires its chief editor amid censorship concerns
  • The man supposedly hired to kill Arkady Babchenko grants an interview
  • Two Russians jailed in the Buenos Aires embassy drug scandal say they've been framed by a Russian diplomat
  • Russian state companies spent millions of dollars on VIP FIFA World Cup tickets
  • Moscow warns that Syrian rebels are getting American help to frame Assad for “another chemical weapons attack”
  • Russia's Gulag history museums run into some real estate and archival problems

What you missed over the weekend ⛱

🎬 A film festival turns into a public appeal for Serebrennikov and Sentsov

This year’s “Kinotavr” Sochi Open Russian Film Festival featured an appeal from main competition jury chairman Alexey Popogrebsky and debut competition jury chairman Andrey Plakhov in support of Russian stage director Kirill Serebrennikov (who’s currently charged with embezzlement) and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov (who is now imprisoned for alleged terrorism).

“We believe both cases against the Russian and Ukrainian directors are purely political. [...] We join those in Russia, Ukraine, and around the world who are fighting for freedom for Serebrennikov and Sentsov,” Plakhov said. Sentsov also won public statements of support from the film critic Viktor Matizen, producer Evgeny Gindilis, and composer Igor Vdovin.

Who are these guys again? Oleg Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea. There has been an international campaign to lobby for his release. Read Meduza’s summary of why his case matters here. He has been on a hunger strike for Ukrainian political prisoners since May 14. Kirill Serebrennikov is currently under house arrest as police investigate him for embezzlement. He denies the charges. Serebrennikov was arrested on set while filming “Leto” (Summer), a movie about the Soviet rock icons Viktor Tsoi and Mike Naumenko. The film was screened last at Kinotavr.

✊ Low turnout at Moscow's latest opposition rally

Moscow’s democratic opposition turned out between 1,700 and 3,000 demonstrators on Sunday for a protest against police repression. Organizers obtained a permit for 10,000 people, albeit at a location several miles from the city’s busier center. Police detained three demonstrators during the rally, reportedly for “unacceptable statements” about Vladimir Putin. One of the people detained was the activist Darya Polyudova, who previously spent 18 months in prison for organizing a “pro-federalization” march in the Kuban.

📰 Forbes Russia loses another chief editor

Forbes Russia chief editor Nikolai Uskov lost his job over the weekend. Representatives for the ACMG media holding company, which owns the outlet, say Uskov was fired for supposedly sloppy work and violations of his contract’s non-compete clause.

Ukskov says he refused a six-figure severance package so he can challenge his dismissal in court, arguing that he was let go illegally. Uskov told the newsletter The Bell that Forbes Russia owner Alexander Fedotov regularly pressured the newsroom to pull or plant certain news stories. Uskov first took the job in early 2016, not long after ACMG acquired the outlet from Axel Springer. After the ownership change, Forbes Russia refused to publish information about VTB Bank president Andrey Kostin’s income in its 2016 rankings of the highest-paid Russian executives. A year later, it stopped publishing these rankings altogether.

Arkady Babchenko's “killer” speaks 🃏

Alexey Tsymbalyuk, the Ukrainian veteran who was allegedly hired to murder Arkady Babchenko, has granted an interview to the BBC’s Russian-language service, revealing that he and Boris German (the man arrested for working as a Russian agent) were first acquainted in 2015, when he supplied Ukrainian volunteers with various gun accessories.

Tsymbalyuk says German invited him to lunch in early April, when he supposedly told him about a group of people who needed to be killed “by autumn.” The group mostly comprised Russians who German allegedly said were guilty of interfering in Ukraine and elsewhere. German never produced a full list, but Tsymbalyuk says he mentioned the name of journalist Arkady Babchenko. German supposedly talked about 30 people at first, and then 60 people. He apparently never mentioned who was behind the plot, but Tsymbalyuk says he's certain that Russia is responsible. He also says he’s disinclined to believe German’s claims that he was actually working with Ukrainian counterintelligence.

Tsymbalyuk says he never received a hit list with 47 names (leaked by the Ukrainian media and verified by Ukraine’s National Security Agency), speculating that investigators got it “from German’s correspondence with the [murder plot’s] organizer.” The Ukrainian veteran says he only knew the names of the next two targets.

Immediately after German approached him about the job, Tsymbalyuk says he reported the criminal plot to Ukrainian national security agents, who recruited him for a special operation that ended with the staging of Babchenko’s murder on May 29. Tsymbalyuk says he actually went to Babchenko’s apartment on the day of the hoax, and waited around for “10-15 seconds,” in case he was being followed. He says he even teased Babchenko, wishing him good health.

Boris German, now jailed and awaiting trial, has confessed to hiring a Ukrainian war veteran to kill Arkady Babchenko, but he insists that he was cooperating with Ukrainian counterintelligence against an old acquaintance in Russia supposedly working for a “private Putin foundation” to sow unrest in Ukraine. Prosecutors have said German’s testimony contradicts the case evidence, but they’re looking into his claims.

Argentina locked up the wrong Russians? 👮

The two Russians now in an Argentinian prison on charges of running a cocaine smuggling operation through Russia’s embassy in Buenos Aires are asking Moscow for help, saying they were framed by Oleg Vorobyev, the embassy’s first secretary, who’s been named as a witness in their case. The suspects, Ivan Bliznyuk and Alexander Chikalo, say Vorobyev was responsible for security when 389 kilos (857 pounds) of cocaine was discovered at the embassy’s compound in February 2018. The cargo was reportedly bound for Moscow.

Officials in Russia have arrested three suspected smugglers, and German police arrested the businessman Andrey Kovalchuk, who allegedly masterminded the drug operation. Russian investigators have not named Bliznyuk and Chikalo as suspects in the case.

Very VIP ️⚽️

Russian state companies coughed up almost 200 million rubles ($3.2 million) for VIP tickets to games at this summer’s FIFA World Cup, according to the magazine RBC, which analyzed records from 13 state procurement contracts.

Enterprises under the VTB umbrella accounted for more than half of all spending. Most of the tickets were purchased in so-called “hospitality packages” that include box seats, restaurant and bar service, parking, souvenirs, and personal hostess services. The other big spenders were Sberbank, Zarubezhneft, the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (VGTRK), and Russia’s Foreign Ministry. The FIFA World Cup begins on June 14 and ends on July 15.

Another Syrian special op in the works, says Russia 📺

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov told reporters on Monday that the Free Syrian Army is planning to frame the Assad government for another chemical weapons attack in Deir ez-Zor, supposedly with help from U.S. special forces. The rebels allegedly filmed themselves moving “cylinders filled with chlorine” into a town outside Deir ez-Zor, and Western media outlets will later share this footage as evidence of new war crimes by the Syrian government, serving as justification for another round of airstrikes and a ground offensive by insurgents against government forces on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.

Finding a place for Gulag history today 🌆

The Gulag History Museum in Yoshkar-Ola, the capital of Russia’s Mari El Republic, might be evicted from the building it’s occupied for the past eight years. Local officials cite safety concerns and legal issues with the organization’s expired lease, but the pressure to leave suspiciously follows the museum’s recent discovery of human remains nearby that experts say could belong to a mass grave of maybe 200 people executed by the Soviet authorities.

If the museum is able to find and identify the remains of these Soviet Gulag victims, state officials could be compelled to allocate resources to their reburial and rehabilitation. The museum’s director, Nikolai Arakcheyev, also speculates that the city would prefer to kick out his organization and rent to a business for a profit. Arakcheyev says it’s important for the museum to remain in the House of the Merchant Bulygin because it was the site of executions by Soviet police officials.

At the urging of Mikhail Fedotov, the chairman for Russia’s Presidential Human Rights Council, Yoshkar-Ola Mayor Alexander Evstifeyev reconvened a commission on rehabilitating repression victims. The commission met on June 8 and briefly visited the city’s Gulag History Museum, getting a tour from Arakcheyev himself. The results of an expert study ordered by the commission could determine what happens next.

📎 Uncertainty about the survival of important Gulag records

Last week, the newspaper Kommersant reported that the director of Russia’s Gulag History Museum appealed in a letter to Mikhail Fedotov about an apparently confidential interdepartmental memo ordering the destruction of all registration cards issued to convicts in the Soviet prison system who were 80 years old by February 2014. Deputy Interior Minister Igor Zubov later denied the existence of such a policy, but there have been two cases (both in the Magadan region) where researchers requested access to registration card archives and were told that the records had been destroyed.

Yours, Meduza