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The Real Russia. Today. An elderly gay couple is murdered and a town shrugs, Prigozhin's probable plane is tracked, and Khodorkovsky speaks to Meduza

Source: Meduza

Monday, February 4, 2019

This day in history (79 years ago): On February 4, 1940, Nikolai Yezhov was executed after falling out of favor with Joseph Stalin. Yezhov is considered to be one of the key figures responsible for the atrocities of the “Great Purge,” and the period of the most intense purge, 1937–1938, is known as “Yezhovshchina.”
  • A Russian town shrugs at the murder of an elderly gay couple
  • Repeated flights to Syria and Africa: Russian journalists track the private jet supposedly used by ‘Putin's chef’
  • Opposition leader Mikhail Khodorkovksy talks Putin, Navalny, Prigozhin, and more five years after his release from prison
  • Political expert Tatyana Stanovaya reviews the dangers of de-Putinization
  • Meduza's roundup of top news reported at major Russian media outlets

“A bit overboard” 🏳️‍🌈

In a special report for Novaya Gazeta, correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko traveled to the town of Ilsky in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai to learn about the murder of an elderly gay couple. She found a community where homophobia is so common and accepted that many locals don't even hide their relief to be rid of two men who enjoyed a loving relationship.

Read Meduza's summary of Kostyuchenko's report here.

M-vito veritas ✈️

In 2016, Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation identified a private jet likely used by catering mogul Evgeny Prigozhin and his family: a Raytheon Hawker 800XP with the tail number M-VITO, captured in a photograph shared on Instagram by Prigozhin’s daughter, Polina. The plane belongs to an offshore company registered in Seychelles whose owners are unknown, and Prigozhin’s family regularly appears in photos taken in the cabin of a similar-looking jet. Based on Navalny’s research, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta tracked M-VITO’s flights for the past couple of years for a new special report.

The M-VITO plane travels most often between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The aircraft’s second favorite destination is Beirut (48 times in two years). Novaya Gazeta speculates that this was merely the usual layover for trips that ended in Syria or Africa. The jet was also tracked over Syria (21 times) and Egypt (27 times), and repeatedly near or over Libya. According to Kenya’s news media, the plane has also visited Sudan and Chad.

Novaya Gazeta was unable to verify whether Prigozhin was aboard any of these flights. A source with access to registration records was able to confirm that the billionaire was present on just a single flight to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, while accompanied by two supposed mercenaries working for the “Wagner” private military company. The newspaper links Prigozhin’s possible trips to Africa with his reported business interests in the region (both mercenary work and mining operations).

Before publishing its article, Novaya Gazeta sent questions to the press office for Prigozhin’s company, Concord Catering. As it has in other cases, the company posted its responses on its Vkontakte page, stating that Prigozhin doesn’t own or use a plane with the tail number “M-VITO.” His spokespeople also deny the trip to Sudan, and refused to respond to questions about business interests in Africa.

“I want to feel like I’m in Russia”

Five years ago, on December 23, 2013, Vladimir Putin signed a decree exonerating Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who led the YUKOS oil company and was once the richest man in Russia. By that time, Khodorkovsky had spent more than 10 years in prison on charges of financial crimes. On the day of his release, Khodorkovsky left for Berlin, and he has not returned to Russia since. He has spent the last few years living in London with his family and staying involved in politics, education, and the media. Meduza special correspondent Ilya Zhegulev spoke with Khodorkovsky about what has changed in the five years he’s spent on the outside. He spoke about his successes, mistakes, friends, and enemies and about who is to blame for the murder of three Russian journalists killed in the Central African Republic.

Read Meduza's interview with Khodorkovsky here.

Stanovaya on the Putin regime's dangerous de-Putinization 😰

In an article for Carnegie Moscow Center, political expert Tatyana Stanovaya says Vladimir Putin has left Russia’s elites to fend for themselves as he wanders off to worry almost exclusively about geopolitics. Stanovaya argues that the current murder investigation against Senator Rauf Arashukov recalls the 2016 arrest of then Economic Development Minister Alexey Ulyukaev, but today’s case has more sweeping political repercussions and weakens multiple political institutions, structures, and key influence groups.

Unlike Ulyukaev, Arashukov was not a political significant figure or even a genuine politician. Stanovaya describes him as a typical senator who knew the rules of the game — a representative of the North Caucasus business class profiting off connections and trying to gain federal status to reduce his own risks. While Ulyukaev’s fate was largely the result of a personal feud with Rosneft head Igor Sechin, Arashukov’s case isn’t personal, but a “serious blow to many important parts of Russia’s system of rule,” Stanovaya argues.

The losers

Who loses in all this? Stanovaya has a long list. She says Gazprom and CEO Alexey Miller suffer enormous reputational damage, amid allegations that a subsidiary sold to criminals posing as consumers. Arashukov’s arrest coincides with the politicization of gas debts in Chechnya, which incidentally helps Ramzan Kadyrov, who was reportedly on bad terms with Arashukov and who benefits from doubts raised about Gazprom’s accounting.

The arrest is also a blow to Federal Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin, Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko, the ruling political party United Russia, and Karachay–Cherkessia head Rashid Temrezov, who might be forced to step down.

The winners

Stanovaya says the biggest winners in the Arashukov investigation are the Federal Security Service (FSB) and North Caucasian Federal District presidential envoy Anatoly Matovnikov, whose unique background as a former special forces commander in Ukraine and Syria and reputed ties to Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu make him a political figure with potential. Ahead of the arrest, Matovnikov worked closely with Kremlin official Dmitry Shalkov, who served as FSB deputy director until last year.

Stanovaya says the operation against Arashukov demonstrates cooperation between the Putin administration and the FSB, despite attempts by the president’s team to distance Russia’s security forces from political cases, especially against regional elites. This policy apparently doesn’t apply to the North Caucasus, where federal agents have pursued a “decriminalization” mission, most recently in a major purge in Dagestan.

The public theatrics that accompanied Arashukov’s arrest, Stanovaya says, mean that the FSB has acquired the “exclusive prerogative” to appeal directly to Russia’s elite and society, ignoring existing “political barriers.” The cooperation between Matovnikov and Shalkov also shows that the FSB can mobilize several layers of Russia’s “power vertical”: the presidential administration, the Federation Council leadership, Attorney General Yuri Chaika, and Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin.

The danger

Stanovaya warns that the FSB’s apparent willingness to damage the reputations of key institutions in pursuit of its own goals destabilizes the Putin regime as a whole, which is increasingly unguarded by Putin’s personal legitimacy.

Top stories from Russia’s news media

The Bell

  • 🎰 The creator of the online casino Azino777 is apparently a 33-year-old Russian man from Tatarstan named Albert Valiakhmetov. Police in Ukraine raided the office of the company “Royal Game” in 2018 and discovered Valiakhmetov’s role in Azino777. The Bell was able to identify him because officials failed to scrub his personal data from police records.


  • 🤝 Alexey Navalny’s press secretary denies that Navalny met with Putin-ally and catering mogul Evgeny Prigozhin. Navalny was in St. Petersburg over the weekend to open a new office. The anonymous Telegram channel Nezygar reported a rumor that Navalny met with Prigozhin at his hotel on February 2 — a claim Navalny attributes to either Acting Governor Alexander Beglov (to distract from the “Smart Vote” campaign) or Prigozhin (to distract from Lyubov Sobol’s investigation into mass food poisonings at kindergartens where Prigozhin’s companies supply food).


  • 👻 Russian actor Dmitry Lysenkov told a Latvian radio station that life in Russia’s regions “is a curse,” saying that “local tsars” rule the provinces outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, and that anyone with talent finds a way to leave the country. “This state doesn’t need intellect, but devotion and strength unburdened by intellect to perform national defense tasks,” Lysenkov complained. The actor is known for his roles in the film “Stalingrad” and the TV shows “Silver Spoon” and “House Arrest.” Alexey Navalny drew attention to Lysenkov’s interview.
  • 📣 On February 3, Dozhd reported from dozens of towns and cities that hosted environmentalist protests against overflowing local landfills. The biggest rally was in Arkhangelsk, where organizers claim that tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out.
  • 🛰️ On February 2, Russia’s Defense Ministry published a satellite photo of a rocket factory in Arizona where American officials will allegedly create new intermediate- and short-range missiles. According to Moscow, the U.S. military started preparing the facilities two years before Washington accused Russia of violating its obligations under the INF Treaty, which the U.S. formally suspended on February 1, 2019.


  • 🔗 The Russian government has endorsed legislation that would empower the state to centralize more control over Russia’s Internet connection, but Deputy Prime Minister Konstantin Chuychenko wants the bill amended to clarify the legal ambiguity around the “threats” facing the RuNet, as well as the conditions under which Russia’s authorities would move to centralize control over the Web. Lawmakers are also being asked to estimate how much this “Internet sovereignty” project will cost the government.
  • 💊 The All-Russia People's Front (ONF) says five regions in Russia are failing to procure a full quarter of the medicines needed for local hospitals and entitlements. ONF faults the Health Ministry’s new purchase regulations, arguing that bureaucracy and unrealistic maximum-bid rules on suppliers are working against patients. Federal officials say drug suppliers are colluding against the system.
  • 💊 Federal investigators searched the offices of St. Petersburg’s Health Committee on February 4. The raids are apparently related to an investigation into a local pharmacy chain, which allegedly sold expensive cancer medications at marked-up prices on the black market.


  • 🔗 Presidential Human Rights Council Chairman Mikhail Fedotov says the State Duma’s legislation banning “fake news” and “insults against state officials” could be rewritten almost completely in committee. He believes Russia’s experience with Communist censorship and the strength of the Constitution will guard against the most draconian aspects of the draft law.
  • ✊ In a report from Navalny’s speech in St. Petersburg, correspondent Venera Galeeva mockingly describes the opposition leader as a prophet and a preacher, while acknowledging the large crowd that turned out to hear him speak (after great difficulty finding a venue in town). Galeeva also questions Navalny’s plan to field his supporters as municipal deputy candidates, implying that they lack the authority to solve the local issues he hopes will fuel the movement.


  • ⚖️ A court in Vladimir has awarded survivor benefits to the widow of Andrey Pylenok, an officer killed in Syria in March 2018, after military officials refused to acknowledge that her husband died in combat. From November 2017 until his death, Pylenok served in Moscow’s special military operation in Syria. Veterans’ groups told Kommersant that problems involving survivor benefits exist in Russia, but disputes are usually resolved despite the military’s intransigence.
  • 👔 Deputy Prime Minister Konstantin Chuychenko says the government plans to continue its “control and supervision” reforms, trying to balance public-safety concerns and the need to cultivate better conditions for private enterprise. In a rather gruesome mixed metaphor, Chuychenko says the government will be introducing a new “regulatory guillotine” to transition state oversight “from therapy to surgery.”


  • 🚨 Rosbalt has more details about the kidnapping and apparent murder of Yury Vasilenko, the Ukrainian mobster middleman who had former State Duma deputy Denis Voronenkov and Ukrainian separatist Evgeny Zhilin killed. Vasilenko allegedly pocketed money meant for his own thugs, and paid the price.


  • 📱 At a “Digital Economy” government working group meeting on January 30, the FSB reportedly suggested basing Russia’s future 5G mobile communications infrastructure on Russian-made SIM cards and cryptography. The FSB apparently didn’t suggest mandatory domestic equipment, however, and there doesn’t appear to be any formal documentation for the proposal. Communications Ministry officials say 5G might even render most SIM cards obsolete.
  • 📈 Russia’s GDP growth unexpectedly accelerated from 1.6 percent to 2.3 percent in 2018 — the biggest economic leap in six years. Construction projects, mining, and military production fueled the growth, according to figures released by the Federal State Statistics Service.

Yours, Meduza