Skip to main content

The Real Russia. Today. The life and transition of a Russian trans man, a polar-bear invasion, and the two Maria Butinas

Source: Meduza

Monday, February 11, 2019

This day in history (one year ago): On February 11, 2018, Saratov Airlines Flight 703 crashed shortly after take-off from Moscow Domodedovo Airport, killing all 71 people on board.
  • Three years in the life and transition of a Russian trans man
  • Polar bears unable to reach the ocean have invaded two Russian villages
  • Two very different reports about the evidence (or lack thereof) against Maria Butina
  • Economist Dmitry Travin thins Putin's “Belarus option” is his best
  • Meduza's roundup of top news reported at Novaya Gazeta, Mediazona, Rosbalt, The Bell, BBC Russian Service, Govorit Moskva, and Kommersant

When grandma started saying “him” 🏳️‍🌈

Stanislav Dolzhnitsky

Yan is a video producer from Berezniki, a mid-sized city in Russia’s Perm Krai (he asked that his surname be omitted from this piece). Although he was assigned female at birth and given the name Yana, Yan knew from the time he was a young child that he identified as male. As early as his high school years, Yan also realized that he wanted to pursue sex reassignment surgery. He began preparing for that process in 2015. That same year, the journalist Stanislav Dolzhnitsky began working with him: Dolzhnitsky wanted to depict the experience of sex transition in Russia along with the many obstacles and physical changes that can accompany that journey. Dolzhnitsky asked Yan to tell his story in this Meduza exclusive.

Read the full report: “Three years in the life and transition of a Russian trans man”

A bear invasion 🐻

Novaya Zemlya, a Russian archipelago north of the country’s mainland, has been in a state of emergency since February 9 due to a polar bear invasion. Fifty-two bears have been sighted near the village of Belushya Guba; some of them exhibited aggressive behavior and attempted to enter businesses or residential buildings. Local residents have observed that the bears are drawn to landfills and trash cans, where they search for food. Russia’s regulatory agency for natural resources, Rosprirodnadzor, has forbidden residents of Novaya Zemlya to shoot even “the most aggressive specimens.” Special patrols have been organized in the archipelago’s two villages to scare away bears using light and sound effects along with dogs and automobiles. Meduza asked Nadezhda Volf, a resident of Belushya Guba, to describe how her village has coped with the presence of their new neighbors in the past few months.

Read the full story: “Polar bears unable to reach the ocean have invaded two Russian villages”

The case against Maria Butina

A calculating annexation-supporter

Mark Follman says the NRA welcomed Butina “even as she worked to arm anti-American thugs” in Crimea. His February 7 article in Mother Jones describes how she “actively supported Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military takeover of Crimea,” as she was courting influential American conservatives, “rais[ing] additional questions about why the NRA [...] spent years getting close with a Russian national who was doing work hostile to US national security interests.”

🕊️ An idealist gun nut who only wanted peace

James Bamford says the U.S. government’s case against Butina is “extremely flimsy and appears to have been driven largely by a desire for publicity” and “an uncritical media willing to buy into the idea of a Russian agent infiltrating conservative political circles.” Bamford characterizes Butina as a “naïve” “idealist,” pointing out that she deliberately passed up an opportunity to build ties to Trump campaign adviser and former Pentagon spokesman J.D. Gordon. (P.S. Think Progress investigative reporter Casey Michel faults Bamford’s article for “weird framing,” arguing that it “glosses over the massive money laundering allegations surrounding Torshin” and the “adhocratic nature of Russian interference efforts.”)

Travin thinks a union state with Belarus isn't so far-fetched 🤝

In an op-ed for Republic, economist Dmitry Travin argues that Putin’s simplest means to remaining in power past 2024 would be to take a leadership role in a newly strengthened union state between Russia and Belarus. Travin says this tactic would best maintain Putin’s broad public support and sustain his “authority among the masses” — the two key conditions the president needs for “comfortable” rule.

Travin outright dismisses the idea that Putin, in his advanced age, would entrust the presidency to another placeholder figure like Dmitry Medvedev. The economist is also skeptical about the other suspected ways Putin might try to remain in power: namely (1) transforming Russia into a parliamentary republic (this would make Putin too vulnerable to United Russia’s popularity levels and expose him to potentially mutinous party leaders, and (2) extending presidential terms (Travin is convinced that this would necessitate mass voter fraud, repressions, and thereby make Putin too dependent on his security forces).

Travin warns that prominent representatives of the security agencies might decide to replace Putin with someone younger who could repair relations with the West and reopen doors to offshore wealth havens. (Currently, Putin’s only defense against these elites is to keep the siloviki divided and balanced against each other.)

Top stories from Russia’s news media

Novaya Gazeta

  • ✊ A report from the “Mothers’ Rage March” in Moscow on Sunday features several quotes from angry mothers, including many whose children are currently jailed in high-profile criminal prosecutions like the controversial “New Greatness” case (young people accused of plotting a government overthrow) and “Network” case (left wing activists charged with plotting terrorist attacks). The gist: though these demonstrators turned out to support oppositionist Anastasia Shevchenko after house arrest prevented her from spending more time with her dying daughter, “mothers’ rage” could mobilize a social movement broader than the narrow confines of Russia’s traditional liberal enclave.
  • 👮 Seven detectives in Moscow’s Main Investigations Directorate have resigned collectively in what Irek Murtazin says is an effort to push back publicly against an inquiry into their “fabricated criminal charges” against a Russian national guardsman. The case concerns a deadly shootout in November 2017 at a restaurant in the “Moscow City” business center at a birthday party for the mafia-connected businessman Dmitry Pavlov. The billionaire Gavril Yushvaev (who owns part of the building) attended the party, and his bodyguards apparently instigated the gunfire, but detectives later shifted their focus to the men wounded and killed. The Moscow district attorney’s office then intervened, removing the chief investigator and transferring the case to the Investigative Committee’s federal headquarters. Murtazin says the new collective resignation letter is a protest against this.
  • ⚖️ The trial against Mikhail Benyash is underway this week in Krasnodar. The lawyer was arrested last September with a colleague just before a local protest against pension reform. Police say Benyash bit them and deliberately injured himself in order to file a false brutality report, though Benyash and his colleague say he was detained against his will and beaten up by officials. Ahead of the trial, both sides are circling their wagons: dozens of police officers have given nearly identical testimony, and 379 lawyers from dozens of regions across the country have demanded an investigation into the violence against Benyash, whose case is being billed as a test of “lawyers’ rights” in Russia.


  • ⚖️ Nikolai Mamchur, the former deputy director of Yakutia’s Interior Ministry, has been sentenced to five years in prison for sexually assaulting a staff member. In April 2016, Mamchur attacked and tried to rape a woman working night duty. After she reported the incident and the local media learned of the allegations, Mamchur resigned and tried to kill himself. In June 2016, he was placed under house arrest. Mamchur denies the sexual-assault charges.
  • 👮 In June 2016, police in the East Siberian city of Ulan-Ude tortured a 17-year-old boy to death while trying to force him to confess to leading a local crime syndicate that likely never existed. A murder case against the officers was later downgraded to abuse-of-authority charges, and all but one of the officials remain on active duty. The trial has dragged on for years, though lawyers for the family of the victim, Nikita Kobelev, hope that the officers’ refusal to confess will result in longer prison sentences. The police have changed their testimonies several times, and they might try to blame Kobelev’s death on the two SWAT team members who assisted in his arrest. According to Mediazona’s report, the chief inspector fabricated evidence that Kobelev led a local gang (the officer likely hoped to stage a high-profile arrest that would please his superiors).


  • 👮 A Moscow court has sentenced former anti-corruption police colonel Anton Irkhin to 2.5 years in prison and fined him 300,000 rubles ($4,565) for soliciting a $1-million bribe from local restaurant owner Rasim Mustafaev in September 2014. One source told Rosbalt that Irkhin negotiated the price with Mustafaev through a lawyer named Ilgar Gasnov, agreeing to use the money to pay off investigators working a fraud case against Mustafaev. After a quarter of the money was transferred, the charges against Mustafaev were dropped thanks to a general amnesty for economic crimes, and the restaurateur refused to pay the rest of the bribe. In 2018, the FSB learned about the scheme and launched an investigation, finding that Irkhin deceived Mustafaev and Gasnov into agreeing to the bribe, knowing in advance that the businessman would be amnestied. According to Rosbalt, Irkhin is “well acquainted” with Dmitry Zakharchenko (another former Moscow police colonel now on trial for large-scale bribery).

The Bell

  • 👟 Reebok’s chief marketing specialist in Russia, Alexander Golofast, admits that the company’s new ad campaign “Ni v kakie ramki” (Out of Control) was rushed to market without focus-group tests. He also told The Bell that he hired Zalina Marshenkulova, whose cunnilingus joke caused widespread public outrage and ridicule, to create advertisements that added some edginess and humor to Reebok’s global “Be More Human” campaign, which focuses on “strong women.” When Marshenkulova said involving her Telegram channel Zhenskaya Vlast (Woman Power) would require working with its publisher, the media company “Mamikhlapinatana,” Reebok decided to sign a turnkey contract with the firm.
  • 🍽️ Deputy Prime Minister Konstantin Chuychenko is poised to gain sweeping new oversight powers in Dmitry Medvedev’s cabinet, multiple sources told The Bell. The reforms are expected to reduce the autonomy of the government’s career experts, while consolidating them into “mega-departments” that nominally report to various deputy prime ministers. Under this plan, however, supervisory authority would rest with Chuychenko, potentially “paralyzing” the government.

BBC Russian Service

  • 💌 The BBC spoke to a handful of political analysts about Kremlin adviser Vladislav Surkov’s surprise column on February 11 in the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, where the president’s former domestic policy manager lavishes praise on “the Putin state,” insisting that it represents a new kind of government that will flourish in Russia for another century (as the democratic West finds itself at an ideological crossroads). Experts told the BBC that Surkov’s audience is likely Vladimir Putin himself, and the message is probably that the president should defend Russia’s status quo, presumably by remaining in power beyond his current term, which ends in 2024. (Unlike the West’s “Deep State,” Surkov explains, Russia has a “Deep People” whom Putin understands better than any sociological poll — a handy superpower, given recent indications that Putin's ratings are slipping.) Maybe Surkov is offering himself as a savior in this dilemma, or maybe he’s just trying to distance himself from the magazine Foreign Policy, which recently named him one of the world’s top “global thinkers.”
  • 🚢 Vladimir Gorbenko, the captain of a Crimean vessel captured by Ukrainian border patrol in March 2018, has reappeared in Crimea, apparently fleeing criminal charges in Kherson, where officials still consider him a Ukrainian citizen. Gorbenko had been released on his own recognizance to stay with relatives in Melitopol, while prosecutors gathered evidence to charge him with illegal fishing and illegally entering and exiting “occupied territory” in Crimea. In Kyiv’s eyes, Gorbenko has apparently committed this latter offense once again: Ukrainian officials insist that there is no way he could have legally entered Crimea. Gorbenko says he entered the peninsula at the Chaplynka checkpoint using his Russian passport. In interviews with Russian journalists, he did not explain why he declined to notify his lawyer and relatives that he was leaving.

Govorit Moskva

  • 👟 Dan Sarro, head of corporate communications at Reebok, says the company’s chief marketing specialist in Russia, Alexander Golofast, never informed global headquarters about Zalina Marshenkulova’s cunnilingus-themed advertisement. Sarro says Golofast no longer works at Reebok. Golofast previously told Dozhd that he was stepping down in protest against the company’s decision to pull the advertisement and shame its creators.


  • 💌 Kommersant also asked some experts to weigh in on Surkov’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta column. The newspaper points out (somewhat dismissively) that this article isn’t Surkov’s first policy essay. During Putin’s second term as president, Surkov promoted concepts of “sovereign democracy” and Russia’s “special path.” Center for Political Technologies scholar Alexey Makarkin says Surkov is trying to deal himself back into big-league politics, having grown tired of his Ukraine assignment. Political expert Abbas Gallyamov says Surkov’s text has a contemporary flavor but the substance dates back 15 years, when the oil boom fueled optimism about Russian exceptionalism.
  • 🔗 Russian lawmakers might be busy fine-tuning legislation to isolate the RuNet, but the Communications Ministry has proposed a 73-billion-ruble ($1.1 billion) infrastructure project to expand LTE Internet access to more than 100,000 “publicly significant facilities,” including election commissions, fire stations, National Guard divisions, and more by the end of 2021. The government plans to work with Tele2 and Rostelecom initially, before contracting other telecoms.

Yours, Meduza