The Real Russia. Today. China’s dystopian police state, hero award for Salisbury suspect allegedly includes Ukraine angle, and the Kremlin's media secret weapon
Monday, October 1, 2018
This day in history. On October 1, 1992, Russia started handing out privatization vouchers, ostensibly to give all 150 million citizens a small share of the national wealth.
- Meduza visits China’s dystopian police state, where at least 10 million people effectively live inside a giant internment camp
- One of the Salisbury suspects was allegedly awarded a hero medal for helping Ukraine's deposed president escape to Russia
- Russian prima ballerina Diana Vishneva says social media is ruining the next generation of dancers
- Michael Idov speaks to Republic about career change, journalism, psychology, and more
- Oleg Kashin on the Kremlin media 's secret weapon
- Leonid Volkov attends a Vladimir Pozner event in New Haven
- Ivan Davydov on the Far East's democratic crisis
On September 9, Human Rights Watch published a report detailing the persecution of the Muslim population in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The report describes widespread arrests of Uyghur people in the region by the Chinese authorities, who place those arrested in prisons and so-called reeducation camps. Millions of people in the region have fallen under the constant watch of a state-run video surveillance system, and their social status and even their overall path in life depend on points acquired in a “social credit” system. According to Human Rights Watch, repressions on this scale have been unheard of in China since the Cultural Revolution. According to The New York Times, U.S. President Donald Trump is considering introducing sanctions against China as a form of retaliation, but the situation in Xinjiang has generally gone almost entirely undiscussed, perhaps because tourists and journalists only rarely reach the area. Here, Meduza is publishing reporting by a Russian-speaking journalist and traveler who managed to enter Xinjiang during the summer and observe how the new technologies in use there facilitate total surveillance, segregation, and discrimination.
The Dossier Center has published an investigative report on the website MBKh Media claiming that Anatoly Chepiga — the supposed real name of Salisbury poisoning suspect “Ruslan Boshirov” — received his Hero of the Russian Federation award for his part in rescuing deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from Ukraine in February 2014. Chepiga allegedly received the honor alongside “Putin’s former personal bodyguard,” Alexey Dyumin, who was recently appointed to serve as governor of the Tula region. Several other members of that special forces group went on to form the “backbone” of the private military company Wagner, according to Dossier Center reporter Sergey Kanev, who also told Hromadske that “everyone says Dyumin is Putin’s successor.”
Founded by the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Dossier Center isn’t revealing its sources, and Kanev’s article only mentions an anonymous former colonel at the Military Diplomatic Academy (also known as the “GRU Conservatory”) who claims that “Boshirov” was one of many cadets registered at civilian dormitories, after the academy’s own dorm addresses became known to the public. The Dossier Center says it has the records of 123 GRU officers who studied at the “Conservatory” between 2009 and 2015, possibly including the real identity of Alexander Petrov, the other Salisbury suspect.
Meanwhile, Novaya Gazeta interviewed three fellow soldiers in Chepiga’s old Spetznaz detachment, one of whom said he recognized “Ruslan Boshirov” in the televised interview on RT. “The Boshirov who spoke to [RT chief editor Margarita] Simonyan isn’t Boshirov but Anatoly Chepiga. He’s changed his looks, but Boshirov’s voice is Tolya’s voice,” said a man who served with Chepiga in the early 2000s outside Khabarovsk. The other two veterans said they weren’t sure if Boshirov and Chepiga are the same person, admitting that they hadn’t seen him in more than 12 years.
One of the men claimed that Chepiga partly owed the meteoric rise of his career to an influential “bigwig” relative in Khabarovsk. The man says Chepiga also seemed to have enjoyed criminal connections that earned him respect from higher-ranking officers, including Colonel Vitaly Bernikov, who served as one of Vladimir Putin’s presidential proxies in February 2004 and is now retired.
Novaya Gazeta’s three sources name three “key special operations in Crimea in February 2014” that were bloodless successes that could have warranted the Hero of the Russian Federation award:
- Seizing Crimea’s Council of Ministers building
- Seizing the Sevastopol International Airport
- Disarming the Ukrainian Army’s marine corps brigade in Feodosia
“One of ballet's biggest stars has warned that the development of young ballerinas is being jeopardized by viral videos of hyper-elastic dancers performing incredible tricks. Russian prima ballerina Diana Vishneva told AFP that the popular clips on Instagram and YouTube set false expectations that could hamper and even harm young dancers,” say Rana Moussaoui and Fiachra Gibbons in a new report. Read it here at Yahoo News.
Journalist, screenwriter, filmmaker 📺
Michael Idov, the former journalist turned author and screenwriter, is making another professional leap, and his directorial debut, “The Humorist,” will hit theaters before next spring. The movie got an early showing at a film festival in Omsk last month, and Idov recently sat down with the website Republic to discuss his move from journalism to entertainment, summarizing his days at GQ Russia in the midst and aftermath of Moscow’s December 2011 democracy protests, his migration to writing for television, and now his transition to cinema. In the Republic interview, Idov rehashes many of the themes he’s explored in past writings, namely his book, “Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin's Moscow,” and a long-read feature story for The New York Times, “My Accidental Career as a Russian Screenwriter.”
The (paywalled) interview is medium-length, and here are some of the main takeaways:
- Nostalgia is normal. And don’t call it nostalgia. Asked about his work on a new music video for Monetochka (for a song satirizing the myth of Russia’s “troubled 1990s”) and the television series “The Optimists,” Idov says there’s nothing unique about returning to the past in entertainment, noting that the American 1980s glamorized the 1950s in films like “Back to the Future” and “Grease.” Idov also argues that filmmakers still generally avoid the modern era because he believes they’re still not sure how to depict today’s smartphone-dominated “screen life” (though Idov’s TV show “Londongrad” heavily features smartphone use). He also rejects claims that nostalgia fuels his work, saying that “The Optimists” is “at its core” imbued with hatred for the Soviet Union. The Monetochka video, meanwhile, is modeled on the 1997 film “Brother,” but Idov says he intentionally revealed at the end of the video that it was set in the modern day.
- Russian entertainment had advanced, but remained a step behind. Idov says Russia is caught in a game of technological catch-up, when it comes to “glamor” in entertainment. Just as Russia’s film and TV’s reached the production values associated with Hollywood, American entertainment “had already moved on to the next phase.”
- Russians are more European than Americans when it comes to journalism and cinema. Idov says Russian journalism and Russian filmmaking have more in common with European traditions than the American style. He highlights Europe's “cult of the public intellectual,” where newspapers turn to trusted columnists and thinkers for opinions about everything under the sun. Idov also says Russians and Europeans like the “question and answer” approach to interviews, which is ironically how the Republic interview is structured. When it comes to filmmaking, Idov says Americans don’t typically fund their movies through various state foundations, preferring to trust in the invisible hand. “When it comes to culture, I’m nearly a Republican,” Idov explains, “in the sense that I believe a little more than many of my colleagues in the market.” (Idov defends Russian, Czech, Latvian, and EU state funding for “The Humorist” on the grounds that the money was offered without creative conditions on transparent terms.)
- Russians are more like Americans when it comes to national consciousness. Both Americans and Russians have a complicated cultural relationship with Europe and make the mistake of thinking of Western Europe as a single entity. Both Russians and Americans think in similar ways about the world: “There is my country and there is the rest of the world, whose component parts have more in common with each other than with my country.”
- The 2011 protests needed a leader, but it wasn’t all for nothing. Idov says the December 2011 protest movement collapsed because it was leaderless and lacked concrete goals, arguing that Russian opposition culture has transformed since then from an outgrowth of the Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street demonstrations into a force nearly synonymous with Alexey Navalny’s name. Idov seems to believe this gives today’s opposition greater potential to effect political change, though he credits the 2011 protests with prompting the hardliner backlash that culminated in the annexation of Crimea. In other words, the protests “succeeded” in exposing how the Russian state operates, he suggests.
📰 Kashin on the Kremlin media 's secret weapon
In a new op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin argues that “infoshum” (information noise) has become the Russian news media’s defining genre, and a potentially powerful tool for influencing public opinion. Kashin believes that Sergey Dorenko’s radio station Govorit Moskva has replaced Izvestia (following Aram Gabrelyanov’s exit) as the premier outlet “licensed” to flood the Russian media with infoshumy.
But what is infoshum? Kashin says it’s not fake news and it’s not “post-truth,” separating the term from other concepts that might be more familiar to Russia watchers and media analysts. “Information noise” is the promulgation of unassailable, ultimately trivial facts deceptively packaged as meaningful news — a coordinated clickbait that draws on the buffoonery of outspoken state officials (for example, spokespeople joking about the West, senators mocking foreign adversaries, or the latest draconian legislation proposed in the State Duma).
Kashin points out that even a massively popular media outlet like Komsomolskaya Pravda struggles to get its infoshumy trending in the Russia media, despite its access to newsmakers who regularly provide the same zany comments that “go viral” when reported by Govorit Moskva. This, Kashin argues, is evidence that the radio station has assumed a “special role” in Russia’s “parastate media structure.” The authorities “are clearly learning to manipulate” the public through infoshumy, Kashin told Meduza directly. “Just in case.”
🛃 Volkov on Russia's export-version Pozner
Russian talk show icon Vladimir Pozner is not pleased with the review he got from Leonid Volkov, Alexey Navalny’s “right-hand man.” The two crossed paths last week in Connecticut at Yale University, where Pozner gave a talk, titled “How the United States Created Vladimir Putin.” Volkov wrote a scathing summary of Pozner’s remarks, mocking the event as an “export version” of Pervyi Kanal, Russian state television’s flagship station. Volkov also accused Pozner of conflating Putin and the Russian state, defending Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, and denying Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
In a special text published on his website, the 84-year-old dissected and flatly denied each of Volkov’s allegations (saying he has no “export version”; he says he uses “Putin” as a synecdoche; he only said that perceived existential threats drive states to abandon international law, and there may have been interference but there’s no hard evidence). Pozner also suggested that Volkov’s grasp of English is too weak to have understood all the nuances of his remarks, adding that the activist’s insulting behavior on Facebook is a “disservice” to his “chief,” Alexey Navalny, whom Pozner debated on the Dozhd TV network in early 2016.
🗳️ Davydov on the Far East's democratic crisis
In an op-ed for The New Times, journalist Ivan Davydov argues that the unexpected breakdown of managed democracy in Russia’s Far East has driven the Kremlin to retreat to its two favorite gubernatorial personnel practices: (1) reshuffle the governors who have managed to avoid major corruption scandals, and (2) appoint intelligence community veterans who have earned Vladimir Putin’s personal trust as bodyguards (such as Alexey Dyumen in Tula and Sergey Morozov in Astrakhan, not to mention Evgeny Zinichev, who lasted just three months as Kaliningrad governor in mid-2016). Summarizing the incompetence of many of these appointees, Davydov says Russia’s “new situation demands politicians” battle-hardened by competition, which is precisely what the Kremlin can’t stomach, however badly it’s needed.