Skip to main content

The Real Russia. Today. Zakharchenko is killed, old graves heat a new controversy, and Putin's popularity rebounds

Source: Meduza

Friday, August 31, 2018 (Meduza's newsletter will return on Tuesday, September 4. Happy Labor Day, Americans!)

This day in history. On August 31, 1998, the Communist-led State Duma voted to reject Boris Yeltsin's nomination of Victor Chernomyrdin for prime minister. Yeltsin would try and fail a second time, before settling on Evgeny Primakov, who would serve until Sergey Stepashin, paving the way for a little known politician named Vladimir Putin.
  • A separatist leader in eastern Ukraine has been assassinated, and here's what we know, so far
  • A mass grave from the Soviet era resurfaces as a modern-day Russian political scandal
  • Russian investigators collecting evidence about the murder of three Russian journalists leave Africa after just three days
  • Vladimir Putin’s approval rating is rising again
  • More than a dozen candidates and activists declare a hunger strike against Russia's ruling political party
  • Russian police decide to hospitalize a transgender criminal suspect after the jails refused to admit him

A rebel assassinated ☠️

Alexander Zakharchenko, the head of eastern Ukraine’s self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR), was killed in a cafe bombing in downtown Donetsk on Friday, August 31. The blast injured several people, including DNR Finance Minister Alexander Timofeyev. According to the newspaper Vedomosti, the “Separ” (Separatist) cafe belongs to Zakharchenko’s chief of security. Zakharchenko’s home is just around the corner from the establishment.

The separatist authorities in Donetsk are officially calling Zakharchenko’s assassination a “terrorist attack.” The news agency Interfax reports that local police immediately apprehended several people identified as “Ukrainian saboteurs and others connected to them” who were apparently discovered in a car on Bogdan Khmelnitsky Avenue, not far from the blast site. Sources told the tabloid Life that one of Zakharchenko’s guards is also suspected of involvement in the bombing, but he managed to evade police.

Russian state officials are blaming the Ukrainian government for Zakharchenko’s murder. “There is every reason to suspect that the Kyiv regime is behind his killing. More than once, it’s used similar methods to eliminate dissidents and critics,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. Leonid Kalashnikov, the chairman of the State Duma’s CIS Affairs Committee, attributed the bombing to parties interested in weakening the DNR: “in other words, the current authorities in Kyiv and no one else.”

Officials in Kyiv have denied any role in the bombing. Igor Guskov, a top official at Ukraine’s National Security Service, said his office has reason to believe Zakharchenko’s murder was the result of internal conflict over the redistribution of assets squeezed from struggling businesses, but he also speculated that Russian special forces may have finally decided to “eliminate this rather odious figure, who, according to our information, was hindering the Russians.”

Alexander Zakharchenko was a top official in the DNR since its inception in April 2014: first as the deputy interior minister, then as Donetsk’s military commandant, and then as the chairman of the DNR’s Council of Ministers. He became head of the “republic” in November 2014, when separatists held elections that went unrecognized by the outside world. In Ukraine, Zakharchenko was wanted by police on charges of forming a terrorist organization. Both the United States and European Union imposed sanctions against him.

In recent years, several top DNR officials who took up arms early in the war have met violent ends. In October 2016, an elevator bomb killed Arsen Pavlov (better known by his nom de guerre, “Motorola”), and in February 2017 Mikhail Tolstykh (“Givi”) died in an explosion while sitting in his office. On both occasions, the DNR blamed “Ukrainian saboteurs” and Kyiv denied any involvement.

Vladimir Putin has expressed his condolences. “Mr. Zakharchenko was a true popular leader, a brave and resolute person, and a patriot of the Donbass,” the president's statement reads. “In a difficult time for his native land, he stood up for its defense and took on great personal responsibility.” Putin says the rebel leader's “vile murder” further demonstrates that “those who choose terror, violence, and intimidation” are standing in the way of a peace settlement in eastern Ukraine. “They are making a dangerous bet on the destabilization of the situation and hoping to force the people of the Donbass to their knees.” Russia's Federal Investigative Committee also says it's opened a criminal case in response to the bombing.

Unburying the dead 💀

Who’s buried in the Sandarmokh forest north of Petrozavodsk? In 1997, an excavation crew led by Memorial’s Yuri Dmitriev discovered evidence that it’s the final resting grounds of an estimated 7,500 political prisoners executed by the Soviet police in 1937. A memorial stone surrounded by flowers and wreaths now marks the spot. Lately, however, Dmitriev has been on trial for child abuse, and the Russian Military Historical Society has decided that at least some of the bodies buried at Sandarmokh belong to Red Army soldiers gunned down by the Finns in the 1939-1940 “Winter War.” In late August, the society even sent a team to dig up more remains, searching for proof of buried Soviet soldiers.

Journalist Georgy Chentemirov visited Sandarmokh and found that the situation is as messy as the bags of bones carted away for forensic analysis on August 29. (Read his full report, in Russian, here.) The dig went ahead, despite protests from relatives who believe their family members were murdered 81 years ago by NKVD agents in this forest. Accompanied by his wife and two children, one local man even confronted the excavation crew’s spokesman and said he has archival documents showing that his grandfather was executed at Sandarmokh. The historical society representative said the documents were likely forged.

The Russian Military Historical Society excavates bodies from the Sandarmokh forest, August 29, 2018
Georgy Chentemirov

So what did the new crew find?

The Russian Military Historical Society says it found the remains of five people it believes to be Soviet soldiers. Journalists weren’t allowed into the expedition camp (some Defense Ministry search personnel apparently joined the excavation team, which was used to justify a cordon), but participants say the bodies belong to executed young men wearing thin English overcoats that the Finns allegedly distributed to their prisoners. The team says it shared a scrap from one recovered overcoat with the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, which will run its own forensics on the cloth.

Is anyone buying this?

Alexander Osiev, one historian who previously criticized the “buried soldiers” theory, is now singing a different tune, pointing to the overcoat remnants and arguing that the forest is in fact too small to contain all 7,500 Gulag prisoners supposedly dumped here. Vyacheslav Kashtanov, a local official who joined Yuri Dmitriev’s original dig, says they found nothing in 1997 to indicate the presence of soldiers, but he believes the new excavation crew has uncovered soldiers’ remains. He thinks the men were killed in battle, however — not executed.

But not everyone thinks the recovered coats prove anything. Sergey Koltyrin, the director of a local history museum, says any clothes would be deteriorated beyond recognition by this point, and he’s convinced that the Finns would have gone public with information about the NKVD mass grave, if they’d stumbled into the Sandarmokh forest during the Winter War.

Three days in Africa 🕵️

One day for each victim — that’s how long Russian officials spent on the ground in the Central African Republic investigating recent murders of three Russian journalists. A spokesman for the agency told reporters on Friday that the team got in and got out with copies of evidence collected by local police and after interviewing some witnesses. Russian investigators will review the materials back home and decide if another trip is necessary. On July 30, reporter Orkhan Dzhemal, director Alexander Rastorguyev, and cameraman Kirill Radchenko were murdered in the Central African Republic, while filming a documentary about Russian mercenaries’ alleged activities in the country.

So what happened in Africa?

Nobody is sure why the journalists were murdered, but evidence of the expedition’s shoddy planning has already led Mikhail Khodorkovsky to pull his funding from the Investigations Management Center, which organized the trip. The center’s chief editor, Andrey Konyakhin, has also resigned, saying that the group is now “no more.” Explaining his decision to end his investment in the center, Khodorkovsky partially blamed the organization’s production crew for the deaths of Dzhemal, Rastorguyev, and Radchenko, highlighting the disastrously bad selection of a local fixer. In late August, correspondence between the journalists and their editors leaked online, leading to criticism that the expedition was poorly planned.

Rising again 📈

Vladimir Putin’s approval rating is rising again, according to a study conducted by the independent Levada Center in late August. The president’s score rose to 70 percent in the past week, after dipping to 67 percent in July. (In May, Putin’s job approval rating was 79 percent.) Pollsters from the Levada Center told the newspaper Kommersant that the president’s August 29 national address about pension reform had a minimal effect on their survey results, given that only a small number of respondents were contacted after the speech.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s popularity, on the other hand, continues to decline. In August 2018, his approval rating slipped to 28 percent — down 20 points, compared to a year ago. Medvedev’s “anti-rating” is now at an all-time high of 71 percent.

Russia’s two major state-run polling agencies have also reported a small rebound in Putin's numbers. A survey by VTSiOM shows the president’s approval rating rising from 62.8 percent on August 5 to 64 percent on August 19. The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) found that the percentage of Russians who say they’d vote for Putin again was up two points in the past two weeks.

In June, amid rising gasoline prices and after Russia’s federal government unveiled a plan to raise the country’s retirement age, FOM reported that Putin’s reelection rating fell from 62 percent to 54 percent between June 10 and 17 — his lowest score since 2013.

Another hunger strike 🍽️

More than a dozen people have declared a hunger strike in the town of Volno-Nadezhdinskoye, where local candidates from the Communist Party, LDPR, and Just Russia, as well as a few independents, saying that United Russia has been bribing voters ahead of the September 9 regional elections. Twenty candidates are competing for seats on Nadezhdinsky’s district council. A public statement from the group says the protest currently has 18 participants, including both candidates and “concerned citizens.” The hunger strikers have reportedly appealed to Russia’s Central Election Commission and the Attorney General’s Office.

Is this the start of Russian Revolution 2.0?

Hunger strikes are one of the most common forms of civil disobedience in Russia. Political prisoners often declare them almost as soon as they’re behind bars (leftist activist Sergey Udaltsov was recently hospitalized because of his hunger strike, the same goes for Alexander Shestun, the jailed head of the Moscow region's Serpukhovsky district, and Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov has subsisted on only doctor-prescribed chemical cocktails since mid-Mid). Construction workers at Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome have repeatedly stopped eating in protest against wage arrears, and so on. Not unprecedented but no doubt worrying to Russia’s powers that be, United Russia’s political dominance seems to be wavering after forcing through draft legislation that will raise the country’s retirement age. It’s even trying some nifty PR tricks in particularly troubled spots (though Volno-Nadezhdinskoye isn’t on the list). Read about that here.

LGBT jailing logistics 🏳️‍🌈

Russian pretrial detention officials didn’t know quite what to do with Nazar Gulevich, a transgender man charged with fraud. A previous contestant on a “psychic challenge” television show, Gulevich was arrested on August 25 for alleged equity theft. Police records indicate that he is still in process of transitioning physically from a woman to a man. Arresting officers first brought Gulevich to a women’s jail, which then rejected him after discovering that he is a transgender man. Guards at the men’s pretrial detention facility also refused to take him, however, and Gulevich was ultimately delivered to the hospital at Moscow’s Matrosskaya Tishina prison, where both men and women are permitted.

How does Russia typically treat transgender people?

The “T” in LGBT have it especially rough everywhere throughout the world. Meduza has reported extensively on the lives of Russia’s transgender community. Read Polina Surnina’s interview from December 2017 with a transgender woman who lost her career after coming out. In May 2016, Daniil Turovsky profiled several trans people living in Russia, cataloging how they’re routinely denied jobs, medical aid, public transportation, and basic safety protections.

Yours, Meduza