The Real Russia. Today. Meduza looks at the post-presidential life of Mikhail Gorbachev, columnists parse modern-day Soviet nostalgia, and Russia targets the ‘BBC’
Friday, December 21, 2018 (Meduza's daily newsletter will return on Wednesday, December 26.)
This day in history. On December 21, 1991, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan agreed to the Alma-Ata Protocols, joining the Commonwealth of Independent States. (The protocol allowed Russia to assume the Soviet Union's U.N. membership, including its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.)
- Meduza takes a long, hard look at the post-presidential life of Mikhail Gorbachev
- Vladimir Ruvinsky and Oleg Kashin parse Russians' spiking Soviet nostalgia
- Russia opens investigation against BBC in retaliation for British regulators' case against RT
- Russian state television gets YouTube to block Navalny's broadcast of Putin's press conference because the video includes a question from one of its reporters
- Russia's Attorney General says it's never been asked to investigate an infamous mercenary group, but oh it has
27 years ago this Christmas, Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president and handed over Moscow's nuclear codes to Boris Yeltsin 🎄
For a century, the leaders of the Soviet and Russian governments either died without leaving their posts or left power for a quiet, private retirement. The only exception to that rule has been the final general secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party and the first president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. After witnessing the collapse of the country he led and handing over power to one of his political opponents, Gorbachev used his status as one of the most popular politicians in the world to make his own living and fundraise extensively for research and service projects. In the process, he also made multiple attempts to regain political authority in his homeland. On the 27th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Meduza correspondent Ilya Zhegulev reports on how the former Soviet leader has spent his time in retirement.
Read Meduza's report here: “Crucify me right here: The post-presidential life of Mikhail Gorbachev”
Opinions about Soviet nostalgia
What does Russians’ rising nostalgia for the USSR mean? In an editorial for Vedomosti, editor Vladimir Ruvinsky argues that a new poll by the Levada Center doesn’t mean what many Westerners fear when they hear that Russians are pining for the good old Soviet days. According to Ruvinsky, the fact that 66 percent of Russians now say they regret the collapse of the USSR (the highest number in 14 years) is actually an expression of popular discontent with the Kremlin’s current socio-economic policy — a “veiled reproach” against pension reform, falling wages, and more.
Ruvinsky says Soviet nostalgia’s imperial underpinnings (the importance of regaining “great power” status) have faded since the annexation of Crimea, and the USSR’s symbolic significance in Russia today is based more on economic security and stability. In any event, Ruvinsky says, the question about Soviet nostalgia addresses the trending mythologies Russians embrace about the USSR — not the Soviet Union’s “real history.”
In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin echoes many of Vladimir Ruvinsky’s arguments about Soviet nostalgia, saying that today’s phenomenon isn’t “real Soviet revanchism,” but a popular longing for some selective mix of the social and cultural trappings of the post-Stalinist USSR. Kashin argues that “the birthplace of Soviet nostalgia is Russia’s post-Soviet 1990s,” explaining that the Yeltsin administration was built on a rejection of Russia’s Soviet past, and nearly all his rivals embraced a degree of Soviet nostalgia. In the early 2000s, the Putin regime used “the nostalgia game” to win over citizens who had no other reason to feel represented by the Kremlin’s “capitalist and imperialist” agenda. The Putin administration tried using Russia’s imperialist legacy to fill the country’s post-Soviet voids, but these efforts failed.
Kashin believes the Soviet authorities went through roughly the same experience with Russia’s tsarist history. “At historically difficult moments, [regimes] stop resisting mass nostalgia, they stop the violence against history, and [...] they temporarily bring back the symbolic features of the destroyed past,” Kashin says, arguing that Stalin practiced political expediency, deception, and hypocrisy when he revived cultural and social institutions from the imperial past to rally the country during the Second World War.
So what happens next? According to Kashin, the first order of business for Vladimir Putin’s eventual successor — no matter how loyal — will be another rejection of Russia’s Soviet legacy. The “real revanchism” that fueled Soviet nostalgia in the 1990s, Kashin says, has given way to “new interests.” In the next few years, expect Lenin’s burial, an end to “Irony of Fate” New Year’s television broadcasts, and the beginning of polls measuring Russians’ nostalgia levels for the Putin era.
A day after Britain’s broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, accused the Russian state news network RT of violating British rules on impartiality, Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, retaliated by opening an investigation into the television station BBC World News and the BBC’s website, reviewing the outlets for general compliance with Russian laws. Roskomnadzor openly says its actions are a response to Ofcom’s case against RT.
On December 20, Ofcom announced that RT “broke broadcasting rules by failing to preserve due impartiality in seven news and current affairs programs over a six-week period, identifying two broadcasts of “Sputnik,” two broadcasts of “News,” and three episodes of the “debate” show “Crosstalk.” Ofcom says RT now has the opportunity to “make representations” to the agency, before it decides how to proceed. Penalties could range from a fine to the revocation of RT’s British broadcasting license.
Since 2011, when RT started broadcasting in Great Britain, RT has violated the country’s broadcasting rules on 15 occasions.
The Russian state-owned television network Pervyi Kanal got YouTube to block Alexey Navalny’s archived live broadcast of Vladimir Putin’s end-of-the-year press conference, which aired on Navalny Live! on December 20 with simultaneous commentary from policy experts on Navalny’s team. The Russian broadcaster reportedly argued that it owns the exclusive rights to the face and voice of anchor Marina Kim, who appeared briefly in the broadcast, when she asked President Putin a question during the four-hour event. (Her question occurs at 3 hours, 21 minutes, 55 seconds into Navalny's broadcast.)
“I think YouTube will unblock everything, of course. We officially paid for the broadcasting rights, after all,” Navalny explained on Telegram, adding, “But it’s still amusing that they’re so nervous about a simple broadcast with commentary and they’re inventing ways to ban everything.”
Pervyi Kanal later announced that it quickly withdrew its complaint against Navalny Live! explaining to the website TJournal that the contractor it pays to monitor YouTube for pirated feeds overzealously filed claims against several legitimate YouTube broadcasts of Putin's December 20 press conference. The network says major outlets like Dozhd, Komsomolskaya Pravda, Life, Sputnik, Rossiya 24, TASS, RIA Novosti, and RT were also affected, as well (though only Navalny's channel reported any blocked content). According to Pervyi Kanal, Navalny's archived broadcast was inaccessible in Russia for just two hours on Friday morning.
“The Attorney General’s Office has received no official requests to review the actions of enterprises like the ‘Wagner’ private military company. If we receive such appeals, we will consider them according to established procedures, in strict accordance with the law,” said Alexander Kurennoi, the spokesman for the Attorney General's Office.
This was the agency’s response to a statement by Vladimir Putin during his December 20 end-of-year press conference, when the president said the Attorney General’s Office “should make a legal assessment [...] if this ‘Wagner’ group has violated anything.”
The Attorney General’s Office has received at least one formal request to investigate the Wagner PMC. In August 2016, the magazine RBC published an investigative report by Ilya Rozhdestvensky about the Wagner PMC’s operations. Now a journalist at the website Proekt, Rozhdestvensky told Meduza that at least one man formally appealed to the Attorney General’s Office after the article was published. In the letter (a copy of which Meduza has obtained), the man says the RBC report describes illegal mercenary activity, and asks the agency to investigate the claims in the text and prosecute the author for making false allegations, if the information proves to be inaccurate.
Two official stamps on the document (one on August 31, 2016, and another on September 6, 2016) prove that it reached the Attorney General’s Office. On October 12, 2016, the appeal was referred to the Moscow District Attorney’s Office.
In December that year, RBC was notified that the four journalists responsible for its Wagner report — Ilya Rozhdestvensky, Polina Rusyaeva, Anton Baev, and Elizaveta Surnacheva — were the subjects of an Interior Ministry hate speech review. An officer from the ministry’s Anti-Extremism Center came to the RBC newsroom, produced a copy of the report sent to the Attorney General’s Office, and asked Rozhdestvensky, Rusyaeva, and Baev (Surnacheva no longer worked at RBC by this time) to submit written explanations for their actions. “Just write why you wrote this article,” the officer instructed them.
“And that was it. I don’t know the results of the inspection, but it’s been two years now, and nobody has bothered us again since then,” Rozhdestvensky told Meduza.