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The Real Russia. Today. An unthinkable new holiday comedy, more about Paul Whelan, and Russian journalism's latest #MeToo scandal

Meduza

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

This day in history (42 years ago): On January 8, 1977, three terrorist bombings ripped through Moscow, reportedly killing seven people and injuring 37. No one ever claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the Soviet authorities later responded by executing three members of an Armenian nationalist group. Some Soviet dissidents, including Andrey Sakharov, believed that the KGB staged the bombings.
  • A risky new film takes aim at the Siege of Leningrad
  • Andrey Arkhangelsky thinks Krasovsky’s new movie is a ‘rebellion’ by the Russian film industry
  • The Washington Post talks to Paul Whelan's Russian lawyer
  • Foreign Policy talks to Paul Whelan's brother
  • Russian media conglomerate co-founder takes leave of absence following rape and assault allegations
  • FBI arrests Russian national for illegal defense trade in Florida
  • Vladimir Frolov breaks down Russian diplomacy in 2018
  • Kimberly Marten says Putin has forced the military into bed with Prigozhin

Russia's unthinkable holiday comedy

Earlier this month, Russian filmmaker Alexey Krasovsky’s new movie, “Holiday,” premiered exclusively on YouTube. Paying for the experience is completely voluntary — willing audience members can make charitable donations. This is the first time a well-known Russian director (Krasovsky made the 2016 thrill “Collector” starring Konstantin Khabensky) has released his work like this. Krasovsky completed the motion picture on a shoestring budget, serving as his own screenplay writer and producer, without resorting to asking the state or major investors (who are nowhere to be found, anyway) for funding.

In less than a week, “Holiday” generated impressive YouTube traffic, attracting more than 620,000 views. It will be interesting to see if the movie is able to recoup its production costs through voluntary donations. This question, though, has more to do with the very idea of independent film production and distribution in Russia than the movie’s artistic merits. After everything that’s happened in the industry, it’s only become harder to assess something like “Holiday” for what it is: a film. In a review for Meduza, film critic Anton Dolin tries to put aside these political and societal hangups, looking at “Holiday” as a movie.

Arkhangelsky says “Holiday” is the Russian film industry's revolt

In an op-ed for Republic, journalist Andrey Arkhangelsky also reviews “Holiday,” focusing more on its contemporary political context than its artistic merits. Arkhangelsky describes the movie as the Russian film industry’s Freudian, “physiological protest” against the impossibility of being oneself and against censorship in general, arguing that “Holiday” was made because Russian filmmakers are sick of the creative constraints that accompany the government’s near monopoly on funding.

Arkhangelsky says Krasovsky’s decision to sidestep theaters and turn to alternative distribution methods should alert Russia’s contemporary “ideologues” that their system of “loyalty in exchange for financial stability” is losing its appeal. (He compares this to late Soviet authors going straight to samizdat, without bothering to try to publish their books officially.) The state’s monopoly, moreover, has led to monotony, and Russian films now generally feel like they’re “all made by the same director,” existing not just for revenue or entertainment, but also to cultivate the “military ethos” of self-sacrifice.

Arkhangelsky calls “Holiday” a “mix of psychoanalysis and theater skit,” speculating that Krasovsky made the movie just to free himself and the cast momentarily from all the taboos that have accumulated in Russia’s film industry. The movie isn’t about war or the siege, he says, but the hypocrisy required to survive in a totalitarian state, where the lies pile higher every day, and the truth becomes so abused that people can only express it in the form of cynicism. Arkhangelsky also argues that the grandmother character in the film — never seen, but frequently heard through the ceiling, banging out room service requests from the attic in her own vague code — symbolizes contemporary filmmakers’ struggle to understand the authorities' expectations. In the absence of clarity, Arkhangelsky says, Russian filmmakers exhaustingly need to be ready for anything.

The life and times of Paul Whelan

His lawyer

What kind of man is defending Paul Whelan, the accused spy with more citizenships than a triceratops has horns? In a new article for The Washington Post, Amie Ferris-Rotman spoke to his attorney, Vladimir Zherebenkov, “the go-to lawyer for Russian journalists seeking a sound bite of legalese.” He’s defended Americans before, even with some limited success, he’s happy to report, saying that Whelan sought him out. (In other words, the court apparently didn’t appoint Zherebenkov.) “The lawyer’s career suggests the more scandalous the charge, the more his interest in a case is piqued,” says Ferris-Rotman. Read the story here.

His brother

Back to the Sunshine State?

Vladivostok businessman Dmitry Makarenko owns six companies, including one currently constructing Kalina Mall, a large new shopping complex in the city. A man by the same name was arrested in the Northern Mariana Islands on December 29 and charged in the United States with money laundering and conspiracy to export defense articles without a license.

The Guam Daily Post reported that an indictment and an arrest warrant were issued against a Russian citizen named Dmitry Makarenko on June 15, 2017, in a Florida district court. Makarenko allegedly placed multiple orders for military-grade defense equipment such as ammunition primers, night vision devices, and thermal vision devices to be acquired by his co-defendant, Vladimir Nevidomy.

On January 5, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs affirmed that Makarenko had been arrested in the Saipan airport after landing there with his family, according to a detailed report by The Bell. The influential entrepreneur collaborates closely with his apparent father-in-law Valery Fintisov, who himself has business ties with Russia’s Minister for Development in the Far East Viktor Ishayev.

#MeToo continued

On January 3, Yekaterina Fedorova, a journalist for the Radio Europe/Radio Free Liberty project Sibir.Realii, alleged in a Facebook post that Aleksey Migunov physically and sexually assaulted her in her home on October 13, 2018. Migunov is a co-founder of PrimaMedia, a conglomerate of news agencies covering several eastern and southern Russian regions. He is currently on voluntary leave.

On January 6, Migunov responded to the allegations. He negated Fedorova’s version of events unequivocally, writing that “there was no violence and no rape whatsoever.” Migunov wrote that offering details regarding his account of that evening would be contrary to his upbringing but accused Fedorova of “manipulations of facts” and “numerous lies” stemming from personal conflicts of interest. He also reported receiving messages from men who had “paid their way out” after similar encounters with Fedorova, who mentioned one past instance of harassment in her own post.

On January 7, Migunov announced that he would temporarily step back from his work at PrimaMedia and several other organizations. He wrote that he is preparing to take legal action while attempting to restrict the impact of the allegations on his family. “Naturally,” he added, “measures concerning my legal rights are being prepared in relation to the media organizations and websites that have spread unsubstantiated and socially dangerous allegations.” Fedorova has also continued to report that she is facing online threats and grappling with psychological trauma.

Frolov's 2018 exegesis

In an long op-ed for Republic, columnist and former diplomat Vladimir Frolov summarizes Russia’s biggest foreign-policy outcomes in 2018, arguing that it was a year of “missed opportunities” for Moscow. He says Putin’s reelection in March theoretically opened the door to putting Russia back on track for modernization priorities, but the Kremlin decided against course-correction.

Frolov says “strategic procrastination” (“running in place”) characterized Russian foreign policy in 2018, but this doesn’t mean Moscow practice “diplomatic passivity”: Russia’s global presence continued to grow, thanks mainly to declining American influence and Moscow’s efforts to counter color revolutions in authoritarian states. Borrowing from the French scholar Marlene Laruelle, Frolov says Moscow pursued a dual strategy of isolation and (limited) 1970s-era Soviet interventionism, with help from some private actors.

To avoid “kinetic collisions” with the West, while still signaling that Russia remains a threat, Moscow successfully sustained its information war. Frolov says the diplomatic corps has successfully mobilized “active measures” that used to belong exclusively to the intelligence community. The “information conflict” has become so severe that cooperation with the West is now impossible until one narrative has triumphed and the other side has suffered geopolitical defeat.

There was a major shift in public sentiment in 2018, as Russians finally started to feel that Putin is neglecting domestic policy priorities. The foreign-policy elite is also increasingly concerned about Moscow’s “loss of strategic perspective,” given that the Kremlin’s stated goals (like international respect and great-power status) are largely abstract.

Country by country

Frolov also breaks down Russia’s major foreign relations with specific countries last year. Ukraine, he says, remained the biggest liability, thanks mainly to Western sanctions. The Kremlin hasn’t abandoned its ambitions of retaining control over Kyiv’s geopolitical orientation, and its hopes currently lie with Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Medvedchuk, though Moscow has never fully dismissed its military options.

In the United States, Donald Trump has not been the ally many Russians hoped, thanks largely to his weakness as a president. American political chaos has at least kept the West preoccupied, however. In Europe, the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has held relations hostage, and spy scandals (including the Salisbury attack) made matters even worse. In the Balkans, Russia continued to play spoiler to the European Union and NATO.

Military exercises with China mark the de facto formation of an alliance with Beijing meant to deter the U.S., Frolov says. Throughout Central Asia, however, Russia incurs the costs of protecting local regimes, while China reaps the economic dividends. Frolov says it’s unclear if Moscow will be able to regain its “equidistance” between Beijing and Washington, and Russia may have irreversibly become China’s junior partner internationally. Moscow does seem close to winning major diplomatic concessions from Japan, however (reduced cooperation with the U.S., dropped sanctions, greater economic cooperation), in exchange for a peace deal that returns some of the Kuril Islands.

In Syria, meanwhile, the large-scale war ended and Moscow and Tehran must now try to convert the military victory over the opposition into international recognition for a legitimized state where the Assad clan retains power. Here it’s the Americans’ turn to play spoiler, Frolov says, as the U.S. blocks Russian efforts in the U.N. to rebuild Syria, leaving Moscow alone in the shattered country.

Frolov says rising tensions with Belarus are the result of Moscow’s efforts to “de-personalize” Minsk’s pro-Russian orientation, so it survives the Lukashenko regime. In Armenia, Frolov says Russia’s acclimation to the 2018 color revolution was a “highly underappreciated story,” arguing that it is just “strategic procrastination” until a better option presents itself.

Marten says Putin is “mending fences” by throwing the military under Prigozhin's bus

In a policy memo for PONARS Eurasia, scholar Kimberly Marten argues that Vladimir Putin apparently brokered the intra-elite conflict between Evgeny Prigozhin and the Russian military by drawing (“or forcing”) the latter into the former’s “criminal orbit.” Marten says the slaughter of mercenaries from the allegedly Prigozhin-owned “Wagner” private military company in Syria at Deir-el-Zour in February 2018 “probably reflected infighting between Prigozhin and the uniformed Russian military,” insofar as the latter knew about the coming U.S. airstrike and did not order the PMC to withdraw. Marten speculates that this confrontation could be the culmination of jurisdictional disputes, retribution for bad services rendered by Prigozhin’s companies, or simple demands from the military for more of the spoils in Syria.

Instead of losing influence, however, Prigozhin has only expanded his mercenaries’ presence in Africa, following the Deir-el-Zour disaster. In Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Libya, the Russian military now has geopolitical obligations, like it or not.

Yours, Meduza