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The Real Russia. Today. Russian hospitals temporarily halt abortions, a modern tale fit for Gogol, and Internet hurt feelings

Meduza

Monday, August 6, 2018

This day in history. On August 6, 1914, Austria declared war on Russia. Twenty-six years later, in 1940, during World War II, the USSR annexed Estonia.
  • Hospitals across Russia temporarily halt abortions as part of pro-life campaign spearheaded by prime minister's wife
  • When locals didn't fall to their knees to thank this official for a lamp, he flew into a rage and threatened to cut off the town
  • Russian-speaking virtual assistant from Yandex briefly rips into Vladimir Putin
  • Educators in Arkhangelsk get in trouble for reciting Gogol and Tolstoy to youngsters
  • Despite playing ball with authorities, Mail.ru says it opposes Russia's crackdown on ‘extremist’ likes and reposts
  • Court rejects lawsuit by company accidentally blocked in Russia's crackdown on Telegram
  • Award granted to Russian film crew murdered in Africa last month
  • Infamous Russian hacker goes free from jail
  • Russia's latest prison torture scandal hits in Kaliningrad
  • Jailed Moscow regional official will have to settle for his wife running for his seat
  • Forbes Russia staff goes on strike, after owner stops paying them
  • Here's what it's like to be approached by an FSB recruiter

Russia's silent abortion crackdown 🤰

Regional branches of Russia’s Health Ministry and maternity hospitals across the country have been enforcing temporary “moratoriums” on abortion services, as part of a campaign called “Give Me Life!” The project has been organized for the past several years by the Foundation for Social and Cultural Initiatives, whose president is none other than Svetlana Medvedeva, the wife of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The foundation told the newspaper Kommersant that its campaign is expressly “educational,” stressing that it doesn’t advocate the suspension of access to abortion, but many health officials seem to be unaware of this caveat.

A celebration fit for Gogol 💡

Oleg Dubov, the long-time head of the Tver region’s Oleninsky district, recently staged a grand opening ceremony for the launch of a lone street light in the town of Kholmets. He assembled a crowd, brought out balloons, and even held a ribbon cutting. When some in the audience started criticizing the event as a publicity stunt, however, Dubov turned on his people, lashing out with obscenities and accusing his constituents of trying to stage a drunken “mini-Maidan” revolution.

Hey Siri, why no thoughts on Putin? 📱

Alice, the Russian-speaking virtual assistant designed by Yandex, has been purged of her surprisingly prickly opinions about Vladimir Putin. Users recently discovered that Alice gave the following response when asked “why Putin lies”: “This question is easy to answer: he knows no other way — it’s a habit. He landed in the Kremlin by accident, and he became president by accident.”

When asked “why Putin is a thief,” Alice said, “According to rumors, Vladimir Putin’s wealth is at least $300 billion, but nobody knows for certain, of course. The fact that the newly elected president would steal was plainly evident from the incident with the unique ring Putin stole from an American businessman,” alluding to stories that Putin pocketed one of Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl rings in 2005. (Last year, Kraft asked Donald Trump to help him get back the ring.)

By the morning of August 6, however, Alice suddenly stopped answering questions about Putin. The virtual assistant now playfully evades these questions (telling users, “There’s no point in getting into this, trust me”) or she offers to perform an Internet search. When asked “Putin or Navalny?” Alice responds, “Generally speaking, I consider mentioning Navalny and Putin in the same paragraph, in the same context, to be an unscientific action.”

Yandex did not respond to Meduza’s calls about Alice’s unusual behavior. Russian Internet users have tried posing similar questions to Siri and Google Assistant, but to no avail.

Sensational censorship

💃 If you can't be famous, be infamous

Prosecutors in Arkhangelsk aren’t happy with a local college’s education outreach efforts to early grade schoolers. In April 2018, students from the Arkhangelsk Music College held a “master class” for youngsters where they read from Nikolai Gogol’s Nevsky Prospekt, Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, and Sergey Yesenin’s The Dark Man, and played clips from the American musical Chicago. City officials determined that this curriculum isn’t age-appropriate, also faulting the college for failing to identify the lesson correctly in promotional materials. The college administrator responsible for the class has been reprimanded.

😅 How dare you arrest our users whom we ratted out to you

Mail.ru, the parent company of Vkontakte (Russia’s most popular social network), has issued a public statement condemning the country’s growing propensity to press criminal charges against Internet users for reposting or even liking supposedly “extremist” content. The company is also calling on officials to amnesty everyone “unjustly convicted” and decriminalize this behavior, so more innocents aren’t prosecuted.

The vast majority of criminal cases against Russian social-media users are filed against users of Vkontakte, which surrenders virtually all personal data, whenever requested by law enforcement, according to human rights activists. In early July, Vladimir Makarov — the deputy director of the Interior Ministry’s anti-extremism police unit — spoke out against prosecuting people for “likes” online. The number of “extremism” prosecutions rose from 149 in 2011 to more than 600 in 2017.

In the past month, officials in Barnaul have charged three Internet users with extremism for sharing memes that mock the Russian Orthodox Church. One of the pictures featured a meme about Jon Snow’s resurrection on Game of Thrones.

What's the church say about “offensive speech”? On August 6, a spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church said that criminal punishment is unnecessary whenever a suspect confesses and repents speech that offends religious people. “We call on investigators, judges, and plaintiffs who consider themselves to be Orthodox believers to ensure that most, and preferably all, legal proceedings involving insults to religious people end in reconciliation between the parties,” the spokesman said.

⚖️ Collateral damage

A court in Moscow’s Tagansky district has rejected a lawsuit by a company accidentally blacklisted in the federal censor’s campaign against the instant messenger Telegram. “Live Photography” insists that it broke no laws and used no prohibited information, but nevertheless ended up on Roskomnadzor’s list of banned online resources. The Tagansky District Court says too bad.

Roskomnadzor has been trying (and mostly failing) to block Russians’ access to Telegram since April 2018, after the messenger refused to share decryption keys with Russian federal police. At one point, the agency was blocking upwards of 20 million IP addresses, but the current number of blocked IP addresses is below four million. According to the newspaper Vedomosti, the crackdown on IP addresses is Roskomnadzor’s own initiative, meaning that the agency isn’t acting on orders from the Attorney General’s Office. Roskomnadzor has said this version of events is “inaccurate.”

Russia's honored dead 🏆

The Sreda Foundation has awarded its “Editorial Board” prize to Orkhan Dzhemal, Alexander Rastorguyev, and Kirill Radchenko, who were killed in the Central African Republic on July 30, while filming a documentary about Russian mercenaries in the area. The group says the honor goes to the three reporters for their special contribution to Russian journalism, and for their courage and dedication to the profession.

The “Editorial Board” prize is awarded every month for excellence in Russian-language journalism. The jury includes Elmar Murtazaev, Elizaveta Osetinskaya, Kirill Rogov, Dmitry Butrin, Sergei Parkhomenko, Ella Paneyakh, and Yuri Saprykin.

Free to hack no more 👾

Vladimir Anikeev, the former leader of the hacktivist group “Anonymous International,” has gone free from jail. The group is known for hacking and leaking the private correspondence of several prominent state officials and business people, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s press secretary, pro-Kremlin TV pundit Dmitry Kiselyov, and Kremlin administrator Timur Prokopenko. According to Anikeev’s lawyer, his client is one of the first Russian prisoners to go free early, thanks to new legislation that recalculates how pretrial detention is counted toward inmates’ sentences.

Anikeev was sentenced to two years in prison in 2016. Last December, he asked for early parole, but his application was rejected. Under his original sentence, before the new law was enacted, he would have gone free on November 8, 2018.

So what’s the recalculation? Under the law, one day in pretrial detention is equal to one and a half days in a standard regime penal colony or a juvenile correctional facility. The exchange rate jumps to two days in a penal colony settlement. The old one-to-one coefficient still applies to convicts placed in high-security prisons. A day’s house arrest is equal to half a day in pretrial detention, making it equal to 0.75 days in a standard regime penal colony or juvenile center, or one full day in a penal colony settlement.

More prison torture, again 👊

Prison torture isn’t leaving Russia’s news headlines. Over the weekend, a court placed Davron Khakimov under arrest for allegedly beating an inmate on January 30 with his fists and legs, breaking 10 of the man’s ribs and puncturing one of his lungs. The deputy director of a prison in Kaliningrad, Khakimov is charged with abusing his authority and faces up to 10 years in prison, if convicted.

On July 20, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a 10-minute video showing 17 prison guards torturing inmate Evgeny Makarov. Since the video was released to the public, federal officials have arrested 12 of the guards who took part in the incident.

Evgeny Urlashov, the former mayor of Yaroslavl now imprisoned on controversial bribery charges, wrote in a letter published on August 3 by the local website 76.ru that torturing inmates is an everyday occurrence at prisons and jails across the country.

Well, at least they're letting his wife run for office 🗳️

Regional officials have refused to register Alexander Shestun, the jailed head of Moscow’s Serpukhovsky district, as a candidate for re-election. According to the chairman of the regional election board, Shestun violated regulations by financing his signatures-collection drive with money outside a formal election fund. Shestun’s wife will be running in his place.

On June 14, police arrested Alexander Shestun on charges that his business illegally acquired 10 hectares (about 25 acres) of local land from the state in 2010. In early July, Shestun complained in a letter to Central Election Commissioner Ella Pamfilova that pretrial detention staff were preventing him from filing the paperwork necessary to run in September’s district elections. Shestun says the detention center guards started treating him with respect, only after Pamfilova intervened on July 4, stating that they must provide him with the documents needed to register his candidacy.

Shestun says this is all the governor's persecution. In April 2018, Shestun addressed a video to Vladimir Putin, claiming that Governor Andrey Vorobyov was threatening to confiscate his home and put him in prison, if he didn’t resign. Vorobyov supposedly wants him out because Shestun opposes the transformation of the Serpukhovsky district into a municipal precinct and he objects to further waste shipments from the city to Serpukhov’s over-capacity “Lesnaya” landfill.

Pay up, Forbes 💰

The staff at Forbes Russia is refusing to produce content for the magazine’s September issue, until the owners pay their salaries, which were due a week ago. A source told the Telegram channel Open Media that Alexander Fedotov, the magazine’s owner, is trying to use the wage arrears to “purge” the newsroom of malcontent employees on behalf of the new chief editor, Andrey Zolotov, who has no experience working in business journalism.

In late July, the Forbes Russia editorial board appealed to state prosecutors about the disappearance of an article from their August issue about the family business of Ziyavudin and Magomed Magomedov. Afterwards, Fedotov promptly fired the magazine’s acting chief editor and put Zolotov in his place. The editorial board is calling on Forbes Media to reject Zolotov’s appointment.

ACMG acquired Forbes Russia from Axel Springer in 2015. After the ownership change, the outlet 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.

FSB flowers 🌹

Natalia Gryaznevich, the press secretary for the opposition movement Open Russia (founded and funded by the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky), says she was recently approached by a recruiter from Russia’s Federal Security Service. The man, who didn’t reveal his name, reportedly came to her door on August 3 with a bouquet of flowers.

“He was calm, he smiled, and he answered very gently and evasively, letting on that he knew more about me than I thought. He was constantly trying to give me the bouquet,” Gryaznevich wrote in a Facebook post on August 6. When they met up not long afterwards, the man claimed to work for the FSB, and invited her to serve as an informant for the agency. When Gryaznevich threatened to go public with the offer, she says the man hinted that such actions could “harm” her. “They might have dirt on you,” Gryaznevich warns her readers, “but don’t think that working for them will save you.”

What's this woman's backstory? Federal officials have questioned Gryaznevich in the past as part of the investigation into Yukos, Khodorkovsky’s old oil company. Two and a half years ago, police raided her home and confiscated all her electronics and documents. When Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003, Gryaznevich was in the ninth grade. Since last year, Russian police have raided the apartments of several Open Russia staff, including online chief editor Veronika Kutsyllo, MBKh Media staff writer Zoya Svetova, and the parents of chairman Alexander Solovyov.

Yours, Meduza