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The Real Russia. Today. Pussy Riot's Pyotr Verzilov is hospitalized and his friends fear poison, Putin urges the Novichok suspects to grant interviews, and officials don't want a space-hole witch-hunt


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

This day in history. On September 12, 1949, Irina Rodnina was born in Moscow. A three-time Olympic gold medalist in figure skating, Rodnina later entered politics and now serves as a member of Russia's State Duma. During the 2014 Winter Olympics, she inspired the “My account was hacked” Internet meme, after claiming that she wasn't responsible for a racist tweet about U.S. President Barack Obama.
  • Pussy Riot member Pyotr Verzilov is hospitalized in critical condition and friends fear he was poisoned
  • Both Putin and Sergey Skripal's niece claim to know the men identified by British officials, and they say they're ordinary civilians
  • Here's how United Russia maintains control over regional legislatures while underperforming in elections
  • Russian officials condemn a report claiming that a Roscosmos source says Moscow might blame Americans for the space-station hole
  • Journalists publish drone footage of the mansions owned by relatives of the police general who just challenged Alexey Navalny to a ‘duel’

“First it was his vision, then his speech, and then his legs” 😷

Pyotr Verzilov, a member of Pussy Riot and one of the publishers of the independent news website Mediazona, was hospitalized in critical condition late on September 11. His partner, Veronika Nikulshina, told Meduza that he’s started losing his sight, speech, and mobility.

The symptoms

Pyotr Verzilov is currently receiving treatment at the toxicology wing of Moscow’s Bakhrushin City Clinical Hospital. Verzilov’s friends told Meduza that his mother came to the hospital on the evening of September 12, but staff wouldn’t let her see her son, and even refused to describe his condition or inform her about his preliminary diagnosis. “[At the hospital] they said they don’t have the right to disclose any information… They sent her away and were rude. They said they can’t admit her. They kept pointing at this sheet of paper, saying that they can’t disclose [any information] until the patient signs a release himself, but he’s unconscious,” Verzilov’s friend told Meduza.

According to Nikulshina, Verzilov started feeling unwell shortly after a court hearing on Tuesday. At six in the evening, he laid down to rest. Two hours later, when Nikulshina got home, Verzilov “woke up and said he was starting to lose his sight.” “Between eight and ten, his condition got exponentially worse. First it was his vision, then his ability to speak, and then his ability to walk,” she told Meduza.

“When the paramedics arrived, he answered all their questions, saying, ‘No, I didn’t eat anything. No, I didn’t take anything.’ He was getting worse even faster, and then he started convulsing. On the way [to the hospital], in the ambulance, he was already babbling. [...] He fell into such a half-asleep, half-unconscious state that he stopped responding to me and didn’t even recognize me anymore,” Veronika Nikulshina told Meduza.

Nikulshina says the doctors’ original analysis “didn’t turn up anything bad,” but around 1 a.m. they suddenly moved Verzilov to the hospital’s toxicology wing. Staff refused to tell her if he’d been diagnosed with “poisoning,” explaining that her status as his common-law wife “doesn’t entitle her to any rights.” “The doctor only said that his condition was serious, but his behavior was improving and he’d started responding to his own name,” Nikulshina said.

Who is this guy?

Pyotr Verzilov became a public figure in Russia in the late 2000s as a member of the “Voina” artist-activist group, where he performed demonstrations with his then wife, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. In 2012, Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich became international celebrities when they were tried and convicted of “premeditated hooliganism performed by an organized group of people motivated by religious hatred or hostility.” During the trial, Verzilov presented himself as Pussy Riot’s “producer.” In this role, he helped generate global media attention for the group, recruiting dozens of world-famous musicians to pledge their support to Pussy Riot. In 2014, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina established the news website Mediazona, with Verzilov as its publisher.

On July 15, 2018, Verzilov, Nikulshina, and two other activists raided the soccer field during the World Cup final game, interrupting play. The four were dressed as police cadets, and the demonstration was carried out as an action by Pussy Riot. Their punishment was 15 days in jail.

Everybody suddenly knows Britain's Novichok suspects 🤷

Viktoria Skripal, the limelight-hungry niece of Salisbury’s poisoned double agent, is in Russia’s headlines again, this time claiming that she knows “through her sources” that the spy suspects identified by British officials are in fact “ordinary people.” Alexander Petrov’s work, she insists, “isn’t even tied to the civil service.”

Skripal also says the photo circulated by English police doesn’t bear any resemblance to the real Petrov. (British authorities have stated that they believe the names on their suspects’ identification documents were pseudonyms for military intelligence agents.) Viktoria says the real Petrov wasn’t even in Britain when the Novichok attack took place, and she claims both Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, as well as their families, “are shocked” by the allegations against them.

Since the nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, Viktoria Skripal has appeared repeatedly on Russian television, and she apparently has an “exclusive contract” with Pervyi Kanal, which she later denied, despite producing evidence of the arrangement in an interview. She has claimed on TV that she doesn’t believe Sergey and Yulia Skripal were targeted in a nerve-agent attack, saying that it was most likely food poisoning from bad fish. On September 9, Viktoria Skripal lost a bid for a seat on Yaroslavl’s regional legislative assembly.

Hours before Viktoria Skripal’s revelations, Vladimir Putin said Russian officials have located the two suspects, and he says they’re both civilians. Speaking on the phone to a correspondent from the television network Rossiya 24, Petrov reportedly agreed to be interviewed by the station some time next week. The news outlet identifies him as an employee at a pharmaceutical company in Tomsk.

Did United Russia blow the September 9 elections? No.

It depends on how you look at it. Yes, United Russia failed to win 50 percent on party lists in 11 out of 16 races for regional legislative assemblies. But it lost in only three regions, narrowly and always to the Communists:

  • Irkutsk — United Russia: 27.8 percent; Russia’s Communist Party: 34 percent
  • Ulyanovsk — United Russia: 33.9 percent; Russia’s Communist Party: 36.2 percent
  • Khakassia — United Russia: 25.5 percent; Russia’s Communist Party: 31 percent

It’s important to evaluate these results in the context of the party’s past performance in these areas. From this perspective, United Russia’s failure is clear: in September 2013, the party won 42.3 percent in Irkutsk, 57.6 percent in Ulyanovsk, and 46.8 percent in Khakassia. It’s no coincidence that Andrey Turchak, the acting secretary of United Russia’s General Council, said after the elections that the party needs to make certain “personnel and organizational” decisions.

At the same time, United Russia won overwhelming majorities in five regions. For example, in Kalmykia the party took home 68 percent of the vote, and in Kemerovo it won 64 percent. In three regions, United Russia won about 40 percent, meaning that generally speaking, in at least half of Sunday’s races, the party performed relatively well.

Okay, but United Russia failed to grab a majority of the legislative assembly seats in 11 regions! Doesn't this mean the local opposition can combine forces and mount a challenge?

No. Elections by party lists determine only half the seats on regional legislative assemblies in Russia. The other half of the seats go to the winners of single-mandate contests, where specific individuals (including independents) can stand for office. As a rule, United Russia gets the seats it needs for majorities on legislative assemblies because its members also win single-mandate races. For instance, the party won 28 percent of the party-list vote in the Zabaykalsky Krai (while LDPR and the Communists took 24 percent, each), but United Russia now controls 21 of the legislative assembly’s 50 seats, because its candidates won 13 single-mandate races.

It’s also important to remember that the opposition mounted by Russia’s “opposition parties” is fundamentally nominal. After the 2011 parliamentary elections, for example, United Russia lost its majority in the State Duma, and Communists and Just Russia deputies attended mass protests — but none of that stopped the parliament from passing draconian laws and earning a reputation as a “mad printer.” The situation is no better outside Moscow.

United Russia can win control over regional legislatures without even fielding its own candidates. In the Baltiysky District’s 2015 elections, for example, not one United Russia candidate won a single-mandate race, but it later turned out that many of the winners in fact “sympathize” with the party, effectively granting it a majority on the district council.

But United Russia lost to the Communists in three regions, so at least the party can’t dictate policy in those places?

In at least two of those three regions, United Russia is still in control — thanks again to seats won in single-mandate contests. In the Ulyanovsk region, United Russia candidates won 16 seats and the Communists took just 14. The remaining spots went to LDPR and the Communists of Russia Party (not to be confused with Russia’s Communist Party), which typically vote with United Russia. In Khakassia’s legislative assembly, United Russia will also have the biggest faction.

The only region in the whole country where Communists managed to win more seats than United Russia was in Irkutsk, where the Communist Party took 18 seats — one more than United Russia. For an extra advantage, the Communists have also formed a coalition with Civic Platform, which won three seats in single-mandate contests. In other words, this is the region to watch, as it will test the policy-making of Russia’s “political opposition.” One of the first initiatives the new ruling coalition has proposed, moreover, is the return of direct mayoral elections in Irkutsk.

In space, no one can hear your politics 🚀

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov is furious about a story published by the newspaper Kommersant citing an unnamed source at Roscosmos who claims the Russian space agency now suspects American astronauts aboard the International Space Station of sabotaging a module last month, supposedly in order to expedite the return of an ailing colleague.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable to cast aspersions on either our cosmonauts or the American astronauts,” Borisov told reporters on Wednesday. “A commission is underway, and it is by no means possible to pass such verdicts until the investigation is complete. We must wait for the final results of this work, before understanding the nature of this hole. It’s entirely possible that it could have been caused by a manufacturing defect. You can invent as many scenarios as you like.”

Borisov stressed that the ISS crew responded to the discovery of the hole swiftly and professionally, telling journalists that outer space is no place for political disagreements. “Right now, before the investigation is done, throwing out labels and going on some witch hunt is, to put it mildly, short-sighted and dangerous.”

A day earlier, on September 11, Roscosmos general director Dmitry Rogozin noted that the situation surrounding the hole discovered on August 30 was more complicated than originally thought. On Wednesday, however, responding to the story in Kommersant, Rogozin wrote on Facebook: “Spreading guesswork and rumors about what happened aboard the ISS doesn’t help the work being done by Roscosmos experts and is aimed at undermining camaraderie among the space station’s crew. Before the Roscosmos special commission’s work is done, any claims based on ‘sources’ are unacceptable.”

  • On August 30, Houston and Moscow noticed a drop in pressure aboard the ISS. Crew members later discovered the hole and German astronaut Alexander Gerst was kind enough to cork it with his finger, while his colleagues rigged a less-flesh-based plug made of rubber and vacuum-proof sealant. Russia’s national space agency says it’s still investigating whether the hole was drilled deliberately or in error, on the ground or in orbit.

The National Guard's duel guy has some wealthy kids 💰

The independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta has published drone surveillance footage of two mansions in Barvikha (a wealthy town outside Moscow) owned by the son and son-in-law of Viktor Zolotov, the head of Russia’s National Guard. According to the newspaper, Roman Zolotov’s 9,690-square-foot property and 7,535-square-foot home are worth roughly 700 million rubles ($10.1 million), while Yuri Chechikhin’s 129,170-square-foot property is worth an estimated 800 million rubles ($11.6 million).

In April 2016, the magazine RBC also wrote about the mansions owned by Zolotov’s close relatives, though it put the value of these homes several hundred million rubles lower. In the spring of 2016, Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation published an investigation about the Zolotov family’s private wealth, but these two Barvikha mansions didn’t factor in.

On September 11, Viktor Zolotov released a YouTube video where he challenges Navalny to a fist fight, in retaliation for recent corruption allegations by Navalny’s team of researchers.

Yours, Meduza