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The Real Russia. Today. When children become their parents' caretakers, OCCRP ‘Troika Laundromat’ fallout, and secret polling about Navalny's labor union

Source: Meduza

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

This day in history: Joseph Stalin died 66 years ago today, on March 5, 1953. Thirteen years earlier on this day, Stalin and the other Politburo members signed a mass execution order facilitating what would become known as the Katyn massacre.
  • Special report: When children become caregivers
  • Google Maps ‘corrects’ bug that marked Crimea as Ukrainian for Russian users
  • On Monday, OCCRP published its latest investigation into Russia's offshore money schemes. Here's what happened next.
  • Moscow police detain man who interrupts Stalin memorial by shouting ‘Burn in hell!’ at his monument outside the Kremlin
  • State pollster asks Russians about new opposition labor union, but keeps the results a secret
  • Russian poet is off the hook for saying Hitler would have won over more in the USSR if he'd dropped the Antisemitism
  • Russian YouTube channel creates homemade copies of iconic Hollywood and TV trailers
  • Columnist Oleg Kashin thinks leak-based journalism opens the door to manipulation and attacks on hapless middlemen
  • Columnist Andrey Sinitsyn says Russia's mafia state is dragging the country back into a command economy
  • Top news reported at Mediazona, Coda, and Fontanka

Before their time

Kristina Brazhnikova for Meduza

When a parent contracts a serious physical or mental illness, the responsibility of caring for that parent can fall to a teenager or even a young child. Such cases are especially common when children are raised by one parent or another older relative. In the United States, there are more than one million child caregivers. In Russia, their number is unknown: no organization or government agency collects statistics on the issue, and families with child caregivers receive aid from just a few charities and nonprofits. The government tends to approach these cases by pulling families apart: adults are institutionalized or hospitalized while children are sent to an orphanage. But that isn’t always the case. Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova reached out to children in Russia and Kazakhstan who were forced to grow up before their time when their relatives needed them.

Read Meduza's story here: “When children become caregivers”

The Crimea crisis is solved* 🗺️

Google Maps says it’s “corrected an error that caused a small number of Russian iOS users to see incorrect information.” The announcement follows complaints from federal lawmakers that Google Maps recently started marking the Crimean peninsula as Ukrainian territory for some users in Russia. In a press statement, Google explained that it complies with local laws regarding the depiction of international borders, while making “every effort to show disputed regions objectively.”

This January, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said the depiction of Crimea as Ukrainian soil is unconstitutional, and demanded a meeting with representatives from Google. The company later acknowledged the error. In February, lawmakers threatened a more forceful response, if Google failed to correct the mistake before April.

  • Last month, Russian lawmakers also complained that Apple Maps marked Sevastopol as part of Ukraine. Google started showing Crimea as Russian territory to Russian users in 2014, shortly after Moscow annexed the peninsula, following a secessionist referendum.

Fallout from OCCRP's latest 💱

On March 4, Meduza published an investigative report by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) about an offshore empire that belongs to Ruben Vardianian, the former director of the investment bank Troika Dialog. Based on the same research, other major news outlets including The Guardian and Suddeutsche Zeitung published similar reports on Monday. The next day, across Europe, figures and institutions named in OCCRP’s materials found themselves under scrutiny. Meduza summarizes the immediate fallout from the “Troika Laundromat” investigation.

Prince Charles

“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, explaining how money from different sources (many of which were not directly tied to criminal enterprises) was funneled through Troika Dialog to various recipients.

Some of the money from this mixed pot of riches found its way to nonprofits operated by Prince Charles. Between 2009 and 2011, for example, the British Virgin Islands shell company Quantus transferred more than $200,000 to the Lithuanian bank account of the Prince’s Charities Foundation. According to the BBC, the money was donated for the restoration of a historical estate in southern Scotland.

The Austrian bank

OCCRP’s investigation identifies dozens of offshore ownership structures created by Troika Dialog. According to banking records, these enterprises funneled money from firms that are implicated in criminal cases involving billions of rubles allegedly laundered, cashed out, or otherwise unlawfully removed from Russia. According to OCCRP, some of the funds that passed through Troika Dialog’s offshore empire were the illegal tax refunds identified by Hermitage Capital lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, who died in jail in 2009 after police responded to his discovery by charging him with tax evasion.

In Austria, Hermitage Fund subsequently accused Raiffeisen Bank International’s predecessor of “ignoring suspicions” that should have led it to alert the authorities to money laundering, prompting a 15-percent decline in Raiffeisen’s stocks. According to Bloomberg, a probe by Austrian financial regulators in 2010 found no evidence that Raiffeisen was involved in money laundering, but Bill Browder says Hermitage Fund’s filing contains new information.

The Kremlin

Much of the money that flowed through Troika Dialog’s offshore network reached influential figures in Russia, including several state corporation executives, governors’ relatives, and the cellist Sergey Roldulgin, one of Vladimir Putin’s close personal friends. Between 2007 and 2010, companies with ties to Roldugin received $69 million from Troika Dialog’s offshores.

On March 5, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists that the allegations against Roldugin are a matter for financial regulators, not the president. “Financial agencies have all the necessary authority to evaluate the credibility or inaccuracy of such reports,” Peskov said.

The Russian bank

In 2011, Troika Dialog was sold to Sberbank, the biggest financial institution in Russia, half of which belongs to the Russian government. Sberbank’s securities are traded on the London Stock Exchange. After the publication of OCCRP’s latest research, Transparency International asked British regulators to review the conditions surrounding Sberbank’s absorption of Troika Dialog.

Spokespeople for Sberbank say the company has no connection to the information contained in the “Troika Laundromat” materials. “The facts stated in the article had no connection and have no connection to Sberbank,” a representative told the magazine RBC. “The mentioned transactions were carried out from the accounts of companies that never entered the scope of Sberbank’s acquisition of Troika Dialog. Sberbank institutions did not participate in those transactions.”

The perfect thing to mark Stalin's death anniversary 🌹

Police in Moscow detained a man at a memorial event honoring Joseph Stalin on March 5, when as many as 500 Communist Party activists came to lay flowers at the late Soviet dictator’s monument outside the Kremlin’s walls. Today marks the 66th anniversary of Stalin's death.

One of the men in the crowd on Tuesday didn’t come to pay his respects, however, flinging his carnations at the monument and shouting, “Burn in hell, Executioner of the People and Murderer of Women and Children!”

Under Stalin’s rule, the USSR carried out mass political repressions that put millions of Soviet citizens in labor camps and executed hundreds of thousands of people by firing squad.

Mum's the word 📞

Last month, government pollsters surveyed Russians about a labor union project recently announced by opposition politician Alexey Navalny, but the data was never published, two sources told Vedomosti. According to the newspaper, the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) conducted a poll based on three question groups: public sector wages and President Putin’s promises to raise them, labor unions generally, and Navalny’s activism and new labor union project. VTsIOM published its results on March 1, withholding all data about Navalny.

Vedomosti’s sources say survey respondents were asked if they’d heard of Navalny’s project, what they think of it, if they consider such a labor union to be necessary, if they believe the union can achieve its goals, if they’d consider joining, and whether they think Navalny is trying to raise salaries or his own popularity rating.

VTsIOM director Valery Federov refused to comment on Vedomosti’s report.

  • On January 24, Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation announced plans to launch the “Navalny Labor Union,” which will advocate for public sector wage increases promised by Vladimir Putin’s “May Orders.”

Hitler's one mistake 🙈

Anti-extremism police have determined that poet and writer Dmitry Bykov was within his civic rights last December, when he gave a lecture in St. Petersburg claiming that Adolf Hitler would have won over more Soviet anti-Communists, if the Nazi leader hadn’t sought the extermination of Jews and Roma.

Experts hired by the Interior Ministry say Bykov’s remarks do not constitute “obvious disrespect for society” or “profanity against Russia’s military glory.” Bykov is also off the hook for “rehabilitating Nazism,” disappointing critics who were convinced that the public intellectual had finally crossed a line.

In January, Bykov told the radio station Ekho Moskvy that he wasn't personally endorsing Nazism without Antisemitism, explaining that he believes the ideology would merely have appealed to more of Moscow's opponents in the 1930s and 1940s if Hitler's racism hadn't focused on Jewish and Roma minorities.

Ignore the blackface 🎬

For the past six months, a little-known YouTube channel called Studio 188 has been publishing homemade, low-budget versions of major Hollywood trailers and television intros. Relying on household items like socks, sausages, and cellophane, and sometimes an application of face paint that would get them fired from American network TV, the small team of Russian creators has reimagined some of the most famous teasers to grace the Internet. Despite Studio 188’s makeshift production and costume design, its source material is always crystal clear.

Read Meduza's report here: “Russian YouTube channel creates homemade copies of iconic Hollywood and TV trailers”

Opinion and analysis

📰 Kashin says beware of data leaks that serve up only middle-managers

In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin returns to an idea he raised when police issued an arrest warrant for Roman Rubanov: major corruption scandals in Russia typically ignore the worst of the worst, focusing on middling figures like Dmitry Medvedev. Kashin says the new OCCRP “Troika Dialog” report partly targeting CEO Ruben Vardanian is another example of pursuing a lesser official because of the limits of available information about more serious criminals.

Kashin insists that he’s not defending Vardanian, speculating that the investment banker must have known about the millions of dollars flowing to Sergey Roldugin and “Magnitsky list” suspects. Kashin guesses that Vardanian was involved in the money-laundering scheme either to exploit his good reputation in the industry, or to compromise him ethically, thereby rendering him a more reliable partner for the authorities.

Either way, Kashin thinks it’s dangerous to run with investigative reports that depict low-ranking officials as corruption leaders. He points out that data leaks fuel this kind of reporting, and leaks are always “planted stories,” “manipulation,” and “in the end evil.” Whatever the merits of OCCRP’s work, Kashin warns, the rise of kompromat in global journalism is potentially dangerous for the profession.

⚖️ Sinitsyn says the Kremlin's economic takeover is improvised and ill-fated

In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Andrey Sinitsyn says Russia’s “mafia state” is gradually, albeit without any conscious strategy, crowding out private enterprise and putting the country on track for a managed economy that’s even less efficient than the Soviet command economy. The main motivation for Sinitsyn’s article is the case against American investment manager Michael Calvey, whose arrest he calls a “model” for future asset seizures.

Sinitsyn says sociologists often say Russians’ pessimism about their economic future stems from uncertainty. The despair is also rooted in certainty, he says, arguing that private enterprise is unwanted in Russia. Vladimir Putin’s faith in law enforcement and his willingness to treat assets seized by the siloviki as the normal policing of economic crimes — rather than as commercial disputes resolved by illegal means — leaves business owners vulnerable and hopeless.

As Russia slips back into a state-controlled economy (this time in the grips of a mafia state), Sinitsyn says the new “Gulag” is the fallout from the commercialization of law enforcement and the havoc it wreaks on Russia’s assets.

Top stories from Russia’s news media



    • 💄 Tatyana Firsova reports on prostitution in Russia and Germany, finding that legalization doesn’t necessarily protect sex workers, if subsequent regulations force prostitutes back underground. In Russia, sex work is only a misdemeanor, but violence against prostitutes often goes unpunished, and record-keeping procedures shame sex workers and their relatives. Because of Russia’s high corruption levels, legalizing the profession could actually expose prostitutes to more rent-seeking state officials, forcing them to pay bribes to an array of regulators, instead of the small fines they currently pay police, when caught. Human right advocates say the road forward will need to circumnavigate this “corruption trap.”


    • 💰 Russia apparently has a third woman billionaire: an elderly widow living in St. Petersburg named Valentina Dublennikova who doesn’t know that she is listed as the main founder of a major investment firm and as the owner of a vast real estate empire. The business in question reportedly owns land across the city, which it leases to companies tied to Gazprom.

    Yours, Meduza