The Real Russia. Today. Inside a lawmaker's mind, Moscow's latest Salisbury conspiracy theory, and how Russians really feel about the market economy
Wednesday, January 9, 2019
This day in history (58 years ago): On January 9, 1961, British officials charged five Soviet “illegal residents” with espionage, disrupting the so-called “Portland Spy Ring.” The group's mastermind, “Gordon Lonsdale,” was later sentenced to 25 years in prison, but he was returned to Moscow in 1964 in a spy swap. He died six years later at the age of 48, while picking mushrooms.
- The lawmaker behind some of Russia's latest draconian legislation offers his own questionable ideas about defamation and corruption
- The Russian Embassy’s (rather conspiratorial) theory of the Skripals’ poisoning
- Yulia Latynina dismisses terrorism rumors in Magnitogorsk
- Maria Zheleznova says Magnitogorsk shows how Russians' threat perception has changed since 1999
- A Moscow municipal deputy is attacked, continuing a trend that began last October
- Vladimir Pastukhov says Russian liberals need to get over themselves and build inroads to the elites, before it's too late
- Denis Volkov and Andrey Kolesnikov believe Russians have more faith in the market economy than polls let on
Andrey Klishas, the chairman of the Federation Council's Legislation Committee and the author of multiple controversial draft laws, has granted an interview to the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. What follows is a paraphrased summary of his comments, with fact-checked corrections highlighted and in parentheses.
The legislation banning online content that disrespects the authorities is my initiative, but it so happens that the Kremlin also supports it. It’s illegal to insult state officials in the street, so why should it be allowed on the Internet? The same restrictions exist in Germany and Belgium. (Germany does indeed ban “criminal defamation” of public officials, the head of state, and the state itself, including symbols of the state, imposing penalties as high as five years in prison. There is no special punishment for this activity when it’s online, however. Belgian law only imposes penalties on defamation of state officials when the offense is carried out in the victim’s presence — including over the telephone. Russia, moreover, already criminalizes insulting state officials in public, with a maximum punishment of one year of community service.)
The word “gosdura” (state-idiot) can only be used in a joke. Where there is humor, far more is permissible. “Reporting corruption does not qualify as disrespecting the authorities — that’s 100 percent the case.” Navalny is wrong: I’m not corrupt, and I’ve declared all my assets. And even if I left something out, “that isn’t corruption.” (Senator Klishas argues that state officials who fail to declare all their property aren’t guilty of corruption. “Corruption means breaking the law. It means receiving certain material benefits in exchange for actions that serve others’ interests,” he explained. Admittedly, this is exactly how anti-corruption legislation in Russia defines the concept. The same law, however, says that auditing income declarations and penalizing officials for inaccuracies is one of the government’s main measures to prevent corruption.) Navalny simply miscalculated the size of my estate in Switzerland.
Russia’s law on “foreign agents” doesn’t always work the right way, but abolishing it is unthinkable. We will not allow foreign organizations to replace our civil society.
Legislation on the isolation of the Russian Internet is needed in case the United States launches a cyberattack (though this attack hasn’t started yet). Don’t think there aren’t many countries around the world that wouldn’t cut off Russia’s Internet access on orders from the Americans. “And I’ve been told such capabilities do technically exist.”
The Russian Embassy to the United Kingdom has published a press release in response to local media reports about the lives of Sergei and Yulia Skripal since their poisoning. According to The Telegraph, the two Russians are no longer being held in isolation, but medical experts have continued to observe them closely.
The Russian Embassy pointed to a different detail of the Skripals’ case that has come to light in news reports. “To this day, the investigation has not permitted the public to know where S. and Y. Skripal were and what they did after they left home on the morning of March 4 and drove toward the laboratory at Porton Down with their telephones apparently turned off,” the press release claims. (Porton Down is a science park near Salisbury. The complex includes a British military laboratory whose research areas include chemical and biological weapons. Samples of Novichok that were found at the Skripals’ home were analyzed at Porton Down.)
British media outlets had already reported in the spring that the Skripals’ telephones were turned off for four hours on March 4. At around the same time, police forces used local sightings of the Skripals’ car to propose and publish the route they may have taken. The vehicle was sighted in the London Road neighborhood, which is located between Salisbury and Porton Down.
The embassy’s press release does not mention the fact that London Road is also the location of the cemetery where Sergei Skripal’s wife, Lyudmila, and his son, Alexander, are buried. The cemetery was closed for a month after the attack on the Skripals and tested for toxic substances. No traces of the chemical weapon Novichok that was allegedly deployed against the Skripals were found in the cemetery.
The official British investigation has proposed that while the Skripals were out driving that morning, their suspected attackers, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, approached their home and applied the toxic substance to their doorknob. British investigators have since named GRU agents Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga as the men behind the aliases Petrov and Boshirov. In contradiction to the Russian Embassy’s announcement, local police had previously reported that the Skripals returned to their home in Salisbury after driving through London Road and proceeded to eat lunch in a local restaurant, where traces of poison were later found. Shortly afterward, Yulia and Sergei Skripal were found on a nearby bench with symptoms of poisoning.
The Magnitogorsk conspiracy
In a YouTube video published on January 9, columnist Yulia Latynina dismisses rumors that the Magnitogorsk apartment building’s collapse was caused by a terrorist attack. Latynina believes that security officials circulated the false reports intentionally, in an effort to scare the public into supporting the allocation of more resources to their agencies. She argues that the city simply filled up with siloviki, following the deadly gas leak explosion on December 31, and officers then tried to capitalize on the tragedy by spreading “insider reports” that exaggerated their work and the threat of terrorism.
In an editorial for the newspaper Vedomosti, editor Maria Zheleznova says conspiracy theories about the Magnitogorsk explosion being a terrorist attack never gained widespread traction because — 20 years since the apartment bombings in 1999 — it has become easier in Russia to attribute such disasters to negligence and disorder than terrorist intent. In 2018 alone, Zheleznova points out, there were 13 such tragedies (including Magnitogorsk) that killed 20 people (not including Magnitogorsk). Most homes across the country are equipped with gas ovens, moreover, and Russians’ general ignorance about safety standards adds up to a “more stable” killer than any terrorist threat.
Early on January 9, Moscow Lomonosov District municipal deputy Kirill Chirkin was attacked in the street. The Communist Party politician says he believes he was targeted because of his public work. “When I fell into the snow, they said something like, ’Slow down, deputy Chirkin,’” the local lawmaker wrote on Facebook. “Ironically, they attacked me in the same place where I’ve tried to get more street lights installed. The fixtures are now there, but the cables haven’t been connected,” Chirkin added.
The Communist Party’s local newspaper reports that Chirkin has received multiple death threats lately. His work as a municipal deputy focuses on utilities and and construction work.
In September 2018, Izmailovo District municipal deputy Nadezhda Zagordan found a severed pig’s head stuck with a knife outside her door. That same month, someone smashed the rear window of opposition municipal deputy Vitaly Tretyukhin’s car and deposited another pig’s head.
In an op-ed for Republic, University College London research associate Vladimir Pastukhov argues that Russian liberals need to start winning over political elites before Vladimir Putin loses power, if they hope to wield any influence in the post-Putin era. Pastukhov says the “fundamental error” of Russian liberalism is the belief that all deviations in Russian history from liberal ideals are mere anomalies attributable to “subjective factors” like rulers’ evil intent. The more logical assumption, Pastukhov says, is that there is a deep and intrinsic connection between Russia’s “cultural code” and history, and the various Stalins and Putins are simply more inherent to the pattern.
Pastukhov says liberal oppositionists embrace a “dangerous myth” when they put their faith in a “normal Russia” outside history. He argues that liberals must acknowledge “unpleasant historical realities” before the Russian people’s “real liberation” is possible.
In Pastukhov’s world of hard-coded authoritarianism, what qualifies as “liberation”? He says chaos will follow the Putin era (not a “thaw” but a “flood,” as decades of conflicts between political elites kept in check by Putin are suddenly unleashed), and this will be the liberal opposition’s opportunity to ally with former pro-Putin elites for institutional reforms. If the liberals fail to build this bridge, Pastukhov warns, leftist populists could mobilize the masses against the elites for something like a repeat of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Pastukhov says Russian liberals need to start their outreach now by promoting a positive reform agenda that appeals to today’s pro-Putin elites. Officials won’t embrace these reforms while Putin is still in power, but the seeds for an alliance must be planted now, he says.
In an op-ed for Vedomosti, sociologist Denis Volkov and political expert Andrey Kolesnikov argue that Russians actually have more faith in private enterprise than polling indicates at first glance. Older Russians generally believe that their welfare depends on state institutions, for example, but they hope their children’s future lies more with the market economy.
Volkov and Kolesnikov say sociological surveys can be misleading because Russians have a peculiar understanding of private property itself, associating the term with personal belongings more than entrepreneurial rights or investments. (This is thanks in part to the legacy of the USSR, where apartments were considered private property.) When it comes to privatization, meanwhile, they think first of the dishonest redistribution of state assets in the early 1990s, not opportunities for small businesses.
When Russians say they want more government involvement in the economy, Volkov and Kolesnikov argue, it means different things to different people. For example, economically active Russians who support more state involvement are often advocating that the state fulfill its existing obligations to ensure market competition.
Volkov and Kolesnikov say deprivation and “failure to understand” how the economy actually works and what can actually improve the country’s socio-economic situation are what drive Russians’ mass support for more state involvement in the market. In surveys, the public says private enterprises are more efficient than the state, but Russians nevertheless endorse more state economic ownership because they believe it will lead to additional welfare assistance. The authorities encourage this perception with paternalistic social policies.