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The Real Russia. Today. Looking back at the 1988 Arzamas train disaster, Sentsov's mom turns to Putin, and Nigerians want out of Moscow

Source: Meduza

Friday, July 13, 2018

This day in history. On July 13, 1990, the Russian Republican Bank of the State Bank of the USSR was transformed into the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. It was initially accountable to the RSFSR's Supreme Soviet. Today, the bank is headed by Elvira Nabiullina, whom Forbes currently ranks as the 49th most powerful woman in the world (one spot higher than Beyoncé).
  • Meduza takes a long, close look at an explosion that rocked a Soviet city in 1988 and still fuels lots of conspiracy theories
  • Oleg Sentsov's mother asks Putin to pardon her son
  • A Moscow court fines two theater actors who handed out leaflets in support of Oleg Sentsov
  • Crimea’s Supreme Court sentences another ‘Ukrainian saboteur’ suspect to eight years in prison
  • Russia's federal censor tells telecoms that using Telegram poses certain ‘reputational risks’
  • Moscow officials will open dozens of polling stations outside the city for the September 9 mayoral election
  • Dozens of defrauded Nigerians descend on their embassy in Moscow, desperate to return home
  • New HIV infections spiked more than 20 percent in Moscow last year
  • Yandex is cooking up its own smartphone
  • Flooded locals outside Chita roleplay Gandalf the Gray to keep their mayor from helping himself

Daniil Turovsky's latest historical deep dive 💥

On June 4, 1988, not far from the railway station in the city of Arzamas, a train car carrying munitions from a nearby weapons factory suddenly exploded. The blast damaged buildings for two kilometers (1.2 miles), completely destroying many homes. According to official reports, 91 people died, 744 were injured, and hundreds of families were left without roofs over their heads. The government investigated the incident for several years, but many victims and local authorities to this day still believe the state is hiding the truth from the public. Meduza special correspondent Daniil Turovsky went to Arzamas and met with victims and emergency responders to learn more about what happened 30 years ago.

Ukrainian political prisoners

✉️ Sentsov's mom turns to Putin

It’s Oleg Sentsov’s 42nd birthday, and his mother has written a public appeal to Vladimir Putin, asking the Russian president to pardon her son. “It’s hard for me to judge my own son’s degree of guilt, but I know him as a peaceful citizen and a man devoted to his profession, filmmaking. I won’t convince you of Oleg’s innocence, though I believe in it myself. I’ll simply say that he didn’t kill anyone. He’s already served four years in prison. His children are waiting for him, and his youngest son suffers from autism. They’re worse off without him. They will never be happy without a father,” Lyudmila Sentsova wrote in a letter published on Ekho Moskvy.

Sentsov is 61 days into a hunger strike, demanding the release of 64 Ukrainian political prisoners now incarcerated across Russia. The filmmaker is serving a 20-year sentence for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in Crimea.

📣 Fined for passing out Sentsov leaflets

A district court in Moscow has fined the Theater.doc actors Maria Chuprinskaya and Grigory Gandlevsky 20,000 rubles ($320) for handing out leaflets in support of the jailed Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, finding them guilty of violating Russia’s strict rules on staging public demonstrations. During the hearing on Friday, bailiffs detained the controversial filmmaker Beata Bubenec, who came to the courthouse with accreditation from the U.S.-government-funded news outlet Radio Liberty. She was later charged with disobeying police orders.

Why is Beata Bubenec so controversial? Read about her Donbass war documentary here, and her work with Ksenia Sobchak here.

On June 18, officers detained the activist Natalia Savoskina in central Moscow, where she was handing out leaflets to foreigners about Oleg Sentsov’s ongoing hunger strike. Chuprinskaya and Gandlevsky were also detained, along with Alisa Safina. Several days later, police again detained Chuprinskaya and several Theater.doc actors, without any explanation.

⚖️ Another “terrorist” gets eight years

Crimea’s Supreme Court has sentenced “Ukrainian saboteur” suspect Evgeny Panov to eight years in prison for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks in the contested peninsula. Panov has already been in jail for two years. Prosecutors wanted him locked up for 10.5 years.

There are several other suspects in Russia’s case against the “Ukrainian saboteurs,” including Andrey Zakhtei, who was sentenced to 6.5 years in prison this February. Panov and Zakhtei both confessed after being arrested, but later recanted their testimonies, saying they’d been tortured into incriminating themselves.

Russia's censor worries about your reputation 😟

Russia’s federal censor, Roskomnadzor, has reportedly distributed a letter to telecommunications companies, warning that using the instant messenger Telegram to provide “information and help services” could pose “reputational and other risks.”

On July 12, the Telegram channel Esher II posted a copy of the letter, signed by Oleg Ivanov, Roskomnadzor’s deputy director. Filipp Kulin, the author of Esher II, told Meduza that he received the PDF from a contact at a Russian telecoms company.

In the letter, Ivanov states that a Russian court ruled in April “to limit the functioning” of Telegram, requiring not only Roskomnadzor but “other legal entities” to assist in the effort.

Russia’s federal censor has reportedly been arguing behind the scenes with Apple and Google about the meaning of the term “other legal entities.” Russian officials have ordered the Internet giants to remove Telegram from their mobile app stores, but both companies have refused, insisting that Russia’s legal system issue a direct ruling that names their businesses explicitly, according to Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov.

Down and out in Moscow

🗳️ Sobyanin wants your turnout, vacationers

Going to be away in the countryside during Moscow’s September 9 mayoral election? Never fear! You can still participate in the voting process, as city officials — reportedly eager this year to mobilize high turnout — are organizing 183 polling stations in the greater Moscow region, according to the magazine RBC. Voting booths will be available at dozens of railway stations, sanatoriums, hospitals, and bus stations. The capital’s authorities are also setting up polling stations in Kaluga, Vladimir, and Tula.

💸 Defrauded Nigerians

More than 70 Nigerian citizens gathered at their country’s embassy in Moscow on Friday to complain that they were deceived into attending the World Cup on the promise that they could work while in Russia. The leader of a volunteer group told the magazine RBC that the first Nigerian tourists started reporting scammers as early as two weeks ago. They were reportedly sold “fan IDs” for $300 and round-trip tickets, and told they could earn money while in Moscow. When they arrived in the Russian capital, however, they learned that their documents don’t allow them to work, and the scammers quickly canceled their return tickets.

On Thursday, a false rumor started spreading among the Nigerians in Moscow that Turkish Airlines had arranged a flight to take them home, but they were turned away at Sheremetyevo Airport, and police vans delivered them to the Nigerian embassy. More than 70 stranded tourists gathered at the embassy on Friday, and another several hundred are spread across the country.

The newspaper Kommersant previously reported that foreigners have tried to use “soccer fan passports” to find work or even apply for asylum in Russia. People from African countries have apparently been especially eager to use Russia’s simplified visa process during the World Cup.

Russia's HIV epidemic 😷

The number of new HIV infections is still rising rapidly in Moscow. According to data just released by Russia’s Health Ministry, the capital recorded 20.4 percent more HIV cases in 2017. The worst increase occurred in the Tambov region, where recorded HIV infections jumped 65.9 percent. Overall, from 2016 to 2017, the number of new recorded HIV cases across Russia dropped insignificantly from 86,900 to 85,800, says the Health Ministry.

According to the UN, Russia has experienced one of the world’s worst HIV outbreaks in recent years. The total number of people currently infected with HIV in Russia is believed to be roughly one million. Russia’s Federal AIDS Research Center says the Health Ministry’s figures are too low, arguing that the number of new HIV infections in 2017 was actually 104,400.

Can you hear me now? 📱

The Russian tech company Yandex is reportedly planning to release its own smartphone, according to records posted on the Eurasian Economic Commission’s website. The phone’s listed manufacturer is the Swiss-registered joint stock company Yandex Services AG. So far, the company is refusing to comment on the reports. On July 10, Yandex started selling its first hardware gadget: the “Yandex Station,” a Russian-speaking smart speaker similar to the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod. You can buy one for 9,990 rubles (about $160).

You — shall not — pass! 🧙

Locals in the flooded town of Biofabrika, outside Chita, blocked a convoy of dump trucks delivering soil to city council chairman, Anatoly Mikhalev. Residents told reporters from the local TV station ZabTV that they waited four days for help from the government, received no assistance, and then learned that Mikhalev was getting deliveries to fill in his property. “Why is the road impassable on the next street, but the road to his home is so much better? All of Chita is flooded! And he’s filling in his own land,” one angry resident told the camera crew.

On July 8, rivers in the Zabaykalsky Krai started spilling their banks, due to heavy rains. Flooding has damaged hundreds of apartment complexes and spread to six towns throughout the region. More than a thousand rescue workers are now on the scene, where local officials have declared an emergency.

Yours, Meduza