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The Real Russia. Today. New details about Chechnya's LGBTQ ‘genocide,’ pissed off in Perm, and Russia's Africa blame game continues

Source: Meduza

Monday, January 14, 2019

This day in history (31 years ago): On January 14, 1988, Georgy Malenkov died in Moscow at the age of 86. Malenkov briefly succeeded Joseph Stalin as the absolute leader of the Soviet Union, but he was forced to resign less than two years later. After failing to mount a coup against Nikita Khrushchev in 1957, he was exiled and lived out the remainder of his life in obscurity. Actor Jeffrey Tambor portrayed him in the 2017 black comedy “The Death of Stalin.”
  • New details emerge about what one source calls an anti-LGBTQ ‘genocide’
  • How Perm residents are fighting back against a deeply unpopular project
  • A new quiz from Meduza based on the last Soviet population census
  • Oleg Kashin says the WWII/Jewish controversy surrounding Dmitry Bykov demonstrates Russia's real free-speech problem
  • Vedomosti criticizes Russia's Investigative Committee for ignoring Khodorkovsky's new research
  • Prigozhin's ‘media factory’ counterattacks Khodorkovsky
  • The Bell unearths new details about Russia's first unmasked ‘civilian instructor’ in CAR
  • Russia plans to spend millions to replace LinkedIn
  • RFE/RL learns that MIT scrubbed Viktor Vekselberg from its board
  • Draft draconian Internet legislation suffers more setbacks
  • ‘Mammoth rushers’ seek riches in Russia's remote Sakha-Yakutia region
  • Russians want Medvedev and his cabinet out
  • Person of interest in Voronenkov murder shot and kidnapped in Moscow

Chechnya's “genocide”

On Friday, January 11, Novaya Gazeta reported that persecution of individuals thought to be LGBTQ has drastically increased since late December in the Russian republic of Chechnya. Since then, Meduza has received additional information from the Russian LGBT Network, online groups for LGBTQ residents of the Caucasus, and a young man who has demonstrated close ties with the LGBTQ community in the North Caucasus. This report describes what makes this moment different from the attacks on LGBTQ people that have been ongoing for years both in Chechnya and in Russia more broadly.

Read Meduza's special report here: “New details emerge about what one source calls an anti-LGBTQ ‘genocide’”

Pissed off in Perm

Maxim Reshetnikov, the regional governor of Perm Krai, promised Russian President Vladimir Putin that he would tear down a railroad in the region’s administrative center, also called Perm. Reshetnikov was up for election at the time. Putin approved the plan to install an “urban space” in the railroad’s current location, and information about the project appeared on the Kremlin’s website. However, local residents who rely on the railroad to move between the city's center and its outskirts have expressed their opposition to the plan. They have circulated petitions and organized protests in hopes of keeping the railroad in place. Yekaterina Makarova, a journalist with the local news source Zvezda (The Star), reports for Meduza on the ongoing conflict.

What are the highlights of this story?

  • The railroad runs along the Kama River and is popular with locals who live in dachas or on the outskirts of town
  • Perm’s new governor promised Vladimir Putin he would “develop an urban space” and destroy the railroad. The Russian president approved his plan.
  • City residents began protesting and writing letters in opposition to the project. Scholars warned local authorities that removing the rail line could be dangerous.
  • Local factories made heavy use of the railroad. So far, they have no idea what they would do without it.

Read our special report here: “How Perm residents are fighting back against a deeply unpopular project”

Some light entertainment, perhaps? Take our new quiz.

Thirty years ago this January, the USSR held what would be its last ever population census. Meduza studied this Soviet artifact and compared it to the most recent Russian census (conducted in 2010). The result of our heroic labor is this quiz, where you must guess which statistics describe the late Soviet Union and which describe the Russian Federation of nine years ago. Sounds pretty easy? Let's see about that. Take our new quiz here.

Snowflake nation

In a new op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin responds to the controversy surrounding writer Dmitry Bykov, who said at a forum last month that the Russian intelligentsia would have rallied behind the Nazis, if Hitler hadn’t advocated anti-Semitism. Kashin rejects Bykov’s claim (arguing that prominent Soviet intelligentsia members like composer Boris Mokrousov were vocally anti-Semitic), but he says the backlash to Bykov’s remarks (specifically the “flashmob” campaign to report the writer to the authorities for the felony offense of “rehabilitating Nazism”) demonstrates the decline of free speech in Russia. “It’s what people are afraid to do or say, not the number of formal bans or police on the streets, that determines the degree of a society’s freedom or lack of freedom,” Kashin writes, no doubt thinking of his own experience with offending readers.

Kashin also compares the mythology of the “Great Patriotic War” in modern-day Russia to images of Muhammad in Muslim countries, saying that Russian society now tolerates deviations from traditional narratives about as well as many Arab countries allow caricatures of the Prophet. Today’s ideas about World War II, however, are tailored specifically to the Putin regime, and Kashin expects the mythology to shift, when the Kremlin changes hands, opening the door to currently “marginalized” narratives like “Westernized history” (emphasizing the Holocaust and the USSR’s allies), “Ultra-Stalinism” (focusing on the contributions of the NKVD and secret police), and “the Eastern-European version” (which argues that Soviet peoples, after enduring Collectivization, had the moral right to collaborate with the Nazis).

Russia's Africa blame game

In an editorial for Vedomosti, Pavel Aptekar and Maria Zheleznova respond to recent allegations by Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Dossier Center that persons affiliated with catering tycoon and reported mercenary-owner Evgeny Prigozhin were involved in the July 2018 murder of three Russian journalists in Africa. The editors argue that the research by Dossier Center is limited and requires verification by the proper authorities. Unfortunately, Aptekar and Zheleznova say, Russia’s Federal Investigative Committee immediately signaled its “unwavering preference” for explanations of the killings that blame Khodorkovsky’s team for mismanaging the journalists’ expedition in the first place. This calls into question the state’s objectivity, Vedomosti claims.

Prigozhin's counterattack

On January 11, Federal News Agency — Prigozhin’s alleged “media factory” — fired back at Dossier Center’s investigation, leaking what it claims are internal communications showing that Khodorkovsky was supposedly involved more directly with the expedition than he has indicated publicly. The messages also supposedly show that the three journalists’ fixer — a man named “Martin” who was recommended by Federal News Agency reporter Kirill Romanovsky — is a real identity and the man was allegedly vetted by foreign correspondents, including Elena Servettaz. (Servettaz refused to comment on these claims, when contacted by Meduza.) Other supposed text messages and Telegram chats make it seem that Khodorkovsky has deliberately avoided paying proper compensation to the families of the journalists killed in July. After Federal News Agency’s reports, Khodorkovsky mocked the media outlet on Twitter as fake news.

Finally a face to put on Russia's “civilian instructors”

In a report for The Bell, Irina Pankratova reviews what is known about Alexander Sotov, the first of Russia’s reported 170 “civilian instructors” currently training local military forces in the Central African Republic. Sotov was identified last week in research shared with journalists that was conducted by Dossier Center. According to that information, Sotov is officially employed as an “instructor in surveillance, recruitment, and covert intelligence work” for the company “M-Finance,” which has apparent ties to Evgeny Prigozhin, a catering mogul with close connections to Vladimir Putin and Russia’s unofficial mercenary industry. Sotov’s official supervisor is Valery Zakharov, a national security adviser to CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. Sotov used a phony American passport to register his local cell phone, records show that his personal identification number matches the format used for members of the “Wagner” private military company, and his name appears on a list released by Ukraine purportedly identifying Russian mercenaries active in CAR.

Call records reportedly show that Sotov and Zakharov spoke more than 100 times on the phone between July and August, before and after the murder of three Russian journalists in CAR.

So what did The Bell learn about this man? Alexander Sotov never graduated from college, and he’s bounced between several professions. The Bell reports that he worked for a security company with alleged mafia ties, after spending several years as a St. Petersburg police officer, when he may have first met Zakharov. In 2007, he co-founded and managed a nonprofit organization which he registered as an arbitration court. That business folded when Russia later reformed its legal system, and he still owes 100,000 rubles (about $1,500) in fines and unpaid fees. In 2016, Sotov tried to establish himself in Russia’s leasing industry, but the venture failed the next year. It was around this time that he apparently relocated to the Central African Republic as a newly minted civilian instructor.

Russian tech

Move over, LinkedIn

The Russian government is reportedly planning to dump 360 million rubles ($5.4 million) into the work-focused networking service “Work in Russia” (, hoping to transform it into the “Russian analogue of LinkedIn,” according to the magazine RBC. The federal funding will be paid out over the next three years. Alexey Zakharov, the president and founder of rival professional network “SuperJob,” told RBC that has been a “complete failure” since Russia’s Federal Labor Agency launched it a decade ago.

  • What happened to LinkedIn in Russia? The authorities blocked it in 2016 after the service refused to comply with government orders to store Russians’ user data on servers located inside Russia.

Viktor, do svidaniya

In an article for RFE/RL, journalist Mike Eckel reports that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “quietly scrubbed [Viktor] Vekselberg from its board in 2018,” after the U.S. Treasury Department listed the billionaire as one of the Kremlin’s “oligarchs,” lumping him in with those who advanced Moscow’s “malign activities.” Eckel says MIT’s actions reveal the school’s effort to evade “legal problems raised by continuing to do business with someone on the U.S. blacklist.”

What happens to all the money Vekselberg donated? A spokeswoman says money given before the blacklisting won’t be returned. The fate of Vekselberg’s scholarship programs remains unknown. MIT is also continuing its collaboration with the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology, for now. Read Eckel’s report here.

Crackdown delayed

Legislation drafted by senators Andrey Klishas and Lyudmila Bokova and State Duma deputy Dmitry Vyatkin suffered another setback on January 14, when the Attorney General’s Legal Department announced that it is withholding its support for two key bills: a law that would ban the online publication of information that threatens people’s lives and a law that would prohibit Internet users from insulting state officials. According to the department’s deputy director, Ekaterina Artamonova, the absence of preliminary “linguistic expertise” and details about criteria for blocking websites extrajudicially risks “unreasonable restrictions on citizens’ constitutional rights to distribute information freely.”

Russia’s Communications Ministry, Justice Ministry, and federal censor Roskomnadzor have also declined to endorse the legislation.

  • On January 11, the television network Dozhd reported that the State Duma steering committee responsible for green-lighting three bills drafted by Senator Klishas and the other lawmakers (on Russia’s “sovereign Internet,” banning unverified information, and prohibiting the insults described above) is indefinitely delaying its consideration of this legislation. The law that would prohibit Internet users from insulting state officials already has the approval of the Duma’s Safety Committee, but the legislation can’t go to the floor for a vote without a nod from the Information Policy Committee, chaired by deputy Leonid Levin. A source in the ruling political party United Russia told Dozhd that lawmakers decided to put Klishas’s bills on hold after the senator told Novaya Gazeta that using the term “Gosdura” (State Idiot) wouldn’t necessarily qualify as illegal under his law.

Elephants schmelephants

Want to watch a three-minute report about how “mammoth rushers” in Russia's remote Sakha-Yakutia region are risking their lives (and possibly the local ecosystem) to unearth ancient tusks, primarily for Chinese consumers who’ve lost their access to elephant ivory? RFE/RL has a new video about this growing industry. Find it here.

Medvedev's numbers are bleak

A new poll by the Levada Center shows that 53 percent of the country would like to see President Putin fire both Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and his cabinet. Russians’ main grievances include the government’s failure to manage rising prices and falling wages (57 percent), failures to provide jobs (46 percent), and a lack of concern for the social safety net (43 percent). In November 2016, just 33 percent of Russians said they favored the government’s resignation.

Marina Krasilnikova, a sociologist at the Levada Center, told Vedomosti that she attributes the rising animosity to the recent decision to raise Russia’s retirement age. On Twitter, Carnegie Moscow Center senior fellow Andrei Kolesnikov cautioned against “simplifications” of the polling data, arguing, “This is not about Medvedev and his team — this is about the system’s management as a whole.”


On the evening of January 10, a man was shot and kidnapped outside the Moscow café Bazilik near Prospekt Mira. Interfax and other sources have reported that the man was Yury Vasilenko, a person of interest in the murder of former Duma deputy Denis Voronenkov. Vasilenko has both Russian and Ukrainian citizenship and is described by multiple sources as a major figure in organized crime.

Moscow investigators have opened a criminal case and are searching for the men involved in the kidnapping. RBC and Interfax reported that several men were engaged in a conflict outside the café when one of them was shot and forced into the trunk of a Mitsubishi Pajero. When the kidnapped man was identified as Vasilenko, his apartment was searched. Authorities found a pistol and ammunition along with other materials relevant to the case, said Yulia Ivanova, the head of Moscow’s Investigative Committee.

  • Denis Voronenkov was killed in Kyiv on March 23, 2017. His murderer, Pavel Parshov, was wounded by Voronenkov’s bodyguard and later died of his wounds, but other figures involved in the case are still at large.

Yours, Meduza