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The Real Russia. Today. A history of anti-queer persecution in the USSR, fact-checking top sources of migration to Russia, and OCCRP uncovers $4.6 billion in shady transactions

Source: Meduza

Monday, March 4, 2019

This day in history: A year ago today, on March 4, 2018, former MI6 spy Sergey Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury, England, causing a diplomatic crisis that continues to this day.
  • A history of anti-queer persecution in the USSR
  • Is Ukraine still the top source of migration into Russia, or has Tajikistan overtaken it?
  • Burst water line destroys suspect ballots outside Moscow, just days after Meduza reports evidence of mass voter fraud
  • Columnist Anton Orekh says there are better ways to reproach Maria Baronova for joining RT
  • Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya says the annexation of Crimea swallowed Putin and cut him off from the Russian people
  • Columnist Oleg Kashin says Moscow's handling of the Salisbury attack is rooted in a mentality born in the 1990s
  • OCCRP uncovers $4.6 billion funneled from shady enterprises in Russia to the West through Troika Dialog
  • Top news reported at The Bell, Novaya Gazeta, Mediazona, TJournal, BBC Russian Service, and Kommersant

Less equal than others 🏳️‍🌈

Illustration by Rita Cherepanova for Takie Dela

Present-day homophobic rhetoric notwithstanding, traditions of aggressive intolerance toward homosexuality in Russia have their roots not in the distant past but rather in the Stalinist era. From time to time, Meduza requests permission to translate outstanding Russian-language stories from around the Web. This piece by Nina Freiman was originally published on Takie Dela.

Read it here: “A history of anti-queer persecution in the USSR

Fact-checking migration trends 📈

The claim:

These quotations all appeared in Russian media reports on a set of preliminary data released by the Russian Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat). The dataset described various aspects of Russia’s demographics in 2018. News reports pointed to the fact that the highest net influx of new residents — that is, the difference between the number of people from a given country entering and leaving Russia — now belongs to Tajikistan rather than Ukraine for the first time in several years. Olga Chudinovskikh, who leads a population economics laboratory at Moscow State University, told RBC that the recent decrease in the flow of migrants to Russia from Ukraine has stemmed from “the exhaustion of the flow of refugees” from the country’s southeast as well as a new preference among Ukrainians to migrate to Europe.

Does that mean more people move to Russia from Tajikistan than from Ukraine?

No. Ukraine remains the leading source of people who move to Russia, but that number has nonetheless decreased (137,700 in 2018 as opposed to 150,100 in 2017). At the same time, the number of Ukrainian citizens leaving Russia has increased from 102,400 to 122,900. In sum, the net influx of migrants from Ukraine to Russia in 2018 was 14,800, far less than the previous year’s figure of 47,600.

Meanwhile, 67,900 people moved from Tajikistan to Russia in 2018, and the net migration influx from that country was 31,000. 72,000 migrated to Russia from Kazakhstan for a net influx of 26,500. Therefore, even though the net influx of migrants from those countries was relatively large, fewer people moved into Russia from either of them than from Ukraine.

All in all, Rosstat reported, every member of the Commonwealth of Independent States saw its net influx of migrants to Russia decrease with the exceptions of Turkmenistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. The overall decrease in Russia’s net migration influx has caused the country’s population to decrease overall for the first time in 10 years.

Terrible timing 🗳️

Central Election Commission inspectors have determined that a burst water line on February 18 destroyed nearly all the ballot documentation in the city of Roshal, outside Moscow. According to the news agency Zakon, law enforcement officials seized the remaining voter records for just two polling stations: 2677 and 2678 — the same two polling stations where election monitors observed mass ballot stuffing when votes were counted during last September’s gubernatorial election.

Four days before Roshal's county election commission building flooded, Meduza published a special report about voter fraud in the city during the Moscow region’s gubernatorial election on September 9, 2018.

According to a review of camera footage from Election Day, the official tallies reported at all eight polling stations in Roshal (not just stations 2677 and 2678) indicated turnout several times higher than the actual number of voters who came to cast their ballots.

Opinion and analysis

👎 Orekh wants to judge Baronova's lack of qualifications, not her life choices

In an op-ed for Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s MBKh Media, columnist Anton Orekh comments on former “Open Russia” coordinator Maria Baronova’s decision to take a job at Russia Today. Orekh pushes back against the moral outrage from Baronova’s critics, arguing that it’s unfair to judge people for trying to do good, even when people agree to collaborate with the Putin regime. Orekh says other public figures like Chulpan Khamatova, Anna Federmesser, and Anton Dolin have faced similar unjust criticism.

Orekh stops short of endorsing Baronova’s new gig at RT, however, questioning her qualifications as the project manager of a new charity campaign. “She’s reckless, impulsive, and she thinks the most important thing is to get into a fight where you’ll be seen. And then she’ll get bored with this project, God forbid, and she’ll throw herself at the next thing with the same excitement,” Orekh warns. “But people aren’t toys and they’re not lab rats.”

🍴 Stanovaya says “Crimea swallowed Putin”

In an op-ed for Republic, political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya says the annexation of Crimea rescued Vladimir Putin from unpopularity while severing the social contract that tethered the president to his constituency for the first 14 years of his rule. The Crimean “political trap” cost Putin his sensitivity to Russia’s “social mood,” Stanovaya argues, saying that the Kremlin perceived it as a blank check to pursue the president’s wildest geopolitical ambitions.

This is a theme Stanovaya has visited repeatedly in articles over the past year: Vladimir Putin turning from domestic issues to “go to war,” while entrusting vital internal matters to the Kremlin’s young technocrats. In this shift, she says, the authorities have ditched their social contract with the Russian people and thrown in with a new class of “heroes” decorated by the state for their service to a secretive, exclusive “sacred geopolitical game.”

Stanovaya believes that the annexation of Crimea deprived Vladimir Putin of “empathy” for his subjects, leading the president to delegate almost all domestic policy to four “key centers of power”: his administration’s “curators” (elections), the Central Bank (stability of the banking system and ruble), the Finance Ministry (the budget), and the Federal Security Service (national security). Stanovaya describes the government’s decision to raise Russia’s retirement age as the most glaring example of a major policy the old Putin would have blocked. Not only does pension reform make the president seem weak and incapable of independent action, she argues, but the flurry of anti-corruption investigations in business and politics no longer looks like a tough leader cleaning house; the public increasingly views criminal charges brought by Rosneft, the FSB, and others as a fight over “narrow corporate interests” that has little to do with them. Putin’s apparent absence in this space, moreover, increases the perception of domestic chaos, Stanovaya says.

🔪 Kashin says Stalin never would have put “Petrov” and “Boshirov” on television

In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin argues that the Kremlin has essentially admitted that Russia engages in extrajudicial assassinations, such as the attempted murder of the Skripals in Salisbury, England. Kashin says the political culture justifying this kind of behavior formed in the 1990s, when Russians were so desperate for an empowering national mythology that they embraced memoirists like Pavel Sudoplatov, who wrote about Soviet special operations, depicting a state “that maybe failed to pay enough attention to moral issues, but at least it proved itself” when it came to the art of killing enemies of the state. The Soviet authorities never came so close to admitting their role in such attacks, but 1990s-era bravado fuels Russia’s post-Soviet identity, which is why today’s Kremlin (staffed with officials whose formative years came after the USSR’s collapse) operates by a different, “guerrilla” logic, Kashin says.

OCCRP's latest: the “Troika Laundromat” 🤝

“It is estimated that $4.6 billion was sent to Europe and the U.S. from a Russian-operated network of 70 offshore companies with accounts in Lithuania,” says The Guardian, summarizing the latest investigative report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The study focuses on leaked information about millions of dollars from offshore entities funneled through the investment bank Troika Dialog,

Top stories from Russia’s news media

The Bell

  • 💱 OCCRP’s “Troika Laundromat” report says money reached Troika Dialog from offshore companies subject to at least three different criminal allegations in Russia: (1) the Magnitsky case ($130 million from six offshores involved in moving 5.4 billion rubles, or $82.1 million, in bogus tax rebates), (2) embezzlement at Sheremetyevo Airport ($27 million from two companies that resold jet fuel through shell companies), and (3) the “Reinsurers Case” ($17 million from companies tied to insurance scammer Sergey Tikhomirov). Researchers also detected several apparently fake money orders and at least one fictitious corporate director (an Armenian day laborer in Moscow unknowingly registered as the head of one of Troika’s offshores). Troika Dialog CEO Ruben Vardanian says the firm complies with all transparency requirements in place, and Carnegie Moscow Center scholar Andrey Movchan confirms that the financial transactions uncovered by OCCRP could be ordinary business practices, and don't necessarily constitute money laundering.

Novaya Gazeta

  • 🗳️ Federal investigators have elected not to launch a criminal case against apparent vote-rigging in the city of Balashikha during the most recent Moscow gubernatorial election. Novaya Gazeta claims that more than 300 “carousel” voters deliberately cast multiple ballots with assistance from more than 200 election commission members and monitors. Nearly 79 percent of voters in Balashikha supported incumbent Governor Andrey Vorobyov — his best result anywhere in the Moscow region. Last December, Vladimir Putin told the Presidential Human Rights Council that he would instruct Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin to analyze the surveillance footage from Balashikha’s polling stations. Novaya Gazeta says there is a “tacit agreement” among investigators to ignore the president’s orders.


  • 👮 Nikita Sologub reports on multiple torture allegations against police in Anapa. The abuse ranges from electric shock and suffocation to rape. Eight officers have been accused, so far, but just one has lost his job (possibly for unrelated reasons) and one has been demoted. Courts and review boards have repeatedly refused to investigate the allegations (for example, according to one commission, an arrested suspect who says he suffered anal tearing in police interrogation possibly sustained the injury from a particularly violent bowel movement). One criminal case was launched in late 2017, but none of the officers is named as a suspect. One victim’s lawyer speculates that judges are reluctant to move against law enforcement officers, preferring to “stall for time,” in the hope that “higher up” officials will tell them what to do.


  • 📽️ Michael Idov’s new feature film, The Humorist, about a comedian’s struggle against Soviet censorship in the mid-1980s, bombed at the box office on its opening weekend. Produced on a budget of 100 million rubles ($1.5 million), the movie earned just 9 million rubles ($136,980) between Friday and Sunday. The Humorist failed to draw crowds, despite “hipster publicity” from rapper “Face,” journalist Yuri Dud, and comedian Danila Poperechny. On Facebook, Idov said his picture only needs to earn 20 million rubles ($304,200) to pay back production loans. Ticket sales and digital distribution will cover this debt, he says. The rest of the movie’s budget came from foundations in Europe and Russia that intentionally finance “high-quality low-grossing films.”

BBC Russian Service

  • 🤯 Economic Development Minister Maxim Oreshkin has caused a small stir by saying that he would welcome — in theory, at least — the chance to serve as president. Russian government officials are not in the habit of acknowledging the possibility that someone other than Vladimir Putin could serve as Russia’s president, and Oreshkin later walked back the statement, saying that he’s as far from the presidency as the Earth is from the Moon. The BBC recalls how other top officials have responded when asked about presidential ambitions: Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (he doesn’t see himself in this capacity), Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin (not interested), business commissioner Boris Titov (he actually talked up Putin’s re-election when he was running against him), Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu (“I have no ambitions, only dreams”), State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin (“no Putin, no Russia”), Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov (he’s not fit to serve as even the weakest government minister), and so on.


  • 🤳 Psychologists at the Moscow Higher School of Economics have completed a study that undermines popular ideas about the supposedly hedonistic and inattentive “Generation Z.” Researchers found some new habits influenced by new digital technologies, but these trends cut across age groups. Sadly for the “iGen,” exports also found no evidence that today’s youngsters are uniquely able to “multitask.”

Yours, Meduza