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The Real Russia. Today. Russian Telegram channels buzz about Paul Whelan, ‘Znak.com’ defends its reporting in Magnitogorsk, and Dmitry Kiselyov debases himself

Meduza

Friday, January 4, 2019

This day in history (76 years ago): On January 4, 1943, Time named Joseph Stalin “Man of the Year.” “All that Hitler could give, he took — for a second time,” the magazine wrote. Stalin was also 1939's “Man of the Year.”
  • Anonymous Telegram channels speculate about Paul Whelan's work as a management recruiter
  • Kirill Rogov and Sam Greene trade observations about the Rosbalt report that Whelan was caught “red-handed” with classified intelligence
  • Znak.com defends its reporting on alleged counter-terrorist operations in Magnitogorsk
  • Alexey Venediktov has his own questions about Magnitogorsk
  • Historian Ilya Gerasimov worries that Alexey Navalny isn't ready to take on tomorrow's Bolsheviks
  • Trash collection in places across Russia has mysteriously stopped
  • State television pundit Dmitry Kiselyov debases himself to promote his upcoming Crimea rap festival

An unlikely American/British/Canadian spy

Telegram rumblings

The anonymous Telegram channel Nezygar has written several times about Paul Whelan this week, reporting that he worked for the American management consulting company Kelly Services until 2017 (before joining BorgWarner). According to its website, Kelly Services has a head office in Moscow and 12 branches throughout Russia. Nezygar says Russian intelligence agencies are now likely reviewing corporate records to study recruitment efforts during Whelan’s years with the company.

According to another Telegram channel reposted by Nezygar, Kelly Services recruiters focus on students at top Russian universities. The company’s “strategic partners” allegedly include St. Petersburg State University and its elite Higher School of Management. By cooperating with Kelly Services, the Telegram channels claim, top students are able to continue their education at U.S. schools.

He's not the right stuff

According to The New York Times, “a quick survey of Mr. Whelan’s Russian social media contacts, about 70 in all, indicated that most seemed to be men with some sort of connection to academies run by the Russian Navy, the Defense Ministry, or the Civil Aviation Authority.”

At the same time, former U.S. intelligence officials told the newspaper the same thing they told The Washington Post in an earlier article: they don’t think he’s a spy. The ex-officials did say, however, that Whelan’s arrest isn’t likely Moscow’s ploy to swap him for Maria Butina, given that Butina’s cooperation with American investigators means she will likely be sent home in the coming months.

Caught red-handed for the cameras, or not

On Facebook, Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy senior researcher Kirill Rogov mocked Thursday’s report in Rosbalt, whose anonymous intelligence source claims that Whelan was caught “red-handed” with a thumb drive containing classified information. The only explanation for arresting Whelan with physical evidence like this, Rogov says, is that Russian officials needed a visual stunt suited to television cameras. (Incidentally, just two hours after Rogov’s Facebook post, political analyst and scholar Sam Greene observed on Twitter that “Russian media aren’t really running” with the story of Whelan’s arrest.)

Defending the rumors about Magnitogorsk's “terrorists”

In an editorial published on January 3, the website Znak.com defended its reporting on the alleged involvement of terrorists in the deadly Magnitogorsk apartment explosion. “The city is heartbroken and alarmed by law enforcement agencies’ silence,” the website writes. “There is still no final official explanation for the explosion and collapse, and no statements whatsoever from the Federal Investigative Committee about the minibus explosion and the three casualties.”

Znak.com acknowledges that the reported ties between the building collapse and destroyed minibus are based on anonymous insiders, but it says it trusts its own sources (in the Chelyabinsk area and at the Federal Security Service in Moscow) and considers the connection to be “one of the possible scenarios.”

What are the unconfirmed rumors about Magnitogorsk’s counter-terrorism crackdown? A gas services worker from the Chelyabinsk area told Znak.com that the concentrations of gas needed to cause an explosion powerful enough to destroy the apartment building in Magnitogorsk would have been enormous, suggesting that the blast was actually intentional. A day before the explosion, a Central Asian man allegedly started renting the apartment where the explosion supposedly originated.

Police are reportedly investigating a man who left the apartment building shortly before the explosion. Sources say he is suspected of extremist activity. Police also allegedly detained a homeless man who unwittingly defused a cell-phone bomb planted inside a trash can outside a nearby shopping mall. Not far from the same mall, police reportedly fired on a minibus, killing three men and detonating their explosive cargo. A fourth suspect supposedly escaped, though it’s not clear if he was a passenger on the minibus or the man who rented the exploded apartment on Karl Marx Prospect. Hours later, he was reportedly killed when officers tried to detain him.

Lingering unanswered questions

Znak.com says law enforcement agencies have refused to give convincing answers to the following questions:

  • Who were the men who died in the minibus? What were their ages and occupations? If they’re just ordinary civilians, do their families need assistance?
  • Where and when was the fourth “gang member” neutralized?
  • Why were half the streets in Magnitogorsk blocked on the night of January 2, while police searched apartments on Lenin Street?
  • Was the apartment complex collapse caused by a gas-line explosion or a bomb?

Ekho Moskvy chief editor Alexey Venediktov similarly offered the following list of “unanswered questions” in a blog post on January 4:

  • Was there a shootout at the exploded minibus?
  • Were there nighttime raids on neighboring apartments, where residents were ordered not to leave their homes?
  • Are there really 100 federal investigators currently deployed in Magnitogorsk?
  • Has the Federal Security Service really redeployed staff from Moscow and other regions to Magnitogorsk?
  • Are investigators still considering terrorism as a possible cause for the building’s collapse?
Update: On January 4, Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee published a brief press release saying that officials found no bomb fragments in the collapsed apartment building’s wreckage, but the agency added — without clarification — that it’s still considering “all possible explanations for the explosion.”

Has Navalny planned for Bolshevism 2.0?

In an op-ed for Republic, historian Ilya Gerasimov says Alexey Navalny has managed to return the democratic opposition to Russian politics by seizing a political agenda the Kremlin can’t hijack without damaging itself: anti-corruption activism. The flaw in this approach, Gerasimov argues, is that Navalny and his team will have to improvise dangerously, once the Putin regime ends, exposing Russia to a leadership vacuum where something like Bolshevik radicalism “looks like conservative wisdom.”

Gerasimov says progressives in the early 20th century were able to liberalize aspects of life in Russia thanks to tactics not unlike Navalny’s today, but they were totally unprepared for the country becoming a failed state and never adapted to these conditions. Gerasimov acknowledges the challenges involved here, arguing that intersectional, “atomized” identities make it difficult to find “unifying social narratives,” which is why strongmen like Stalin and Putin have won out in the past, terrorizing the country into obedience, instead of winning the “marketplace of ideas.”

Where have Russia's garbage men gone?

Something strange is happening with Russia’s trash collection, writes photoblogger Ilya Varlamov. It could simply be the result of too many garbage men on New Year’s vacation, or maybe it’s the fallout from reforms to consolidate trash-collection contractors. In any event, Varlamov reports, garbage is piling into mountains around seemingly abandoned dumpsters around the country. And he’s got the photos to prove it. View them here at his website.

Rap is now dead

Do you enjoy cringing? If so, you’re invited to watch a new “rap” performance by the state television pundit Dmitry Kiselyov, who made a guest appearance on one of his network’s comedy shows this Thursday to promote his upcoming rap festival in Crimea.

In early December 2018, Kiselyov spent nearly 15 minutes of his prime-time news show defending rappers from a nationwide police crackdown, going so far as to recite some poetry by Vladimir Mayakovsky, whom he credits with inspiring Russia’s rap tradition (contrary to popular belief that the genre was imported “from Black America”). Dressed as “MC Kiselyov,” he rapped about “scolding America,” “sticking a gas pipeline on [Western] sanctions,” and mocked Theresa May and Angela Merkel for frowning more, thanks to Russia’s self-assertive foreign policy.

Here’s a taste of Kiselyov’s lyrical genius (it rhymes in Russian): “I’m 64, bro. I get out of bed at five. Rossiya on the TV screen and the Moskva river beyond my window. I throw on my white trainers, my favorite hoodie, jump in a cab, and bam I’m at the station.”

Yours, Meduza