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The Real Russia. Today. Russia's rental friendship business, conflict at a feminist cafe, and challenging Dmitri Trenin

Source: Meduza

Friday, March 8, 2019

This day in history: 51 years ago today, on March 8, 1968, the Soviet diesel-electric powered submarine K-129 sank and was never fully recovered. Six years later, the U.S. Navy managed to resurface part of the vessel in secret, but its 16,000-foot depth made it impossible to pull up more.
  • An inside look at Russia’s rental friendship industry
  • Pro-Putin activists storm a feminist cafe ahead of International Women's Day and catch a face full of mace
  • Russian federal agents arrest former geological company executive who was fired for inappropriate behavior on ‘Twitch’
  • Historian Ivan Kurilla pushes back against Dmitri Trenin's new think piece
  • Journalist Mikhail Shevchuk thinks Medvedev is finally coming around on Ukraine and gas shipments
  • Lawyer Alexey Dobrynin says OCCRP, not Troika Dialog, could be the one hit with criminal charges
  • Activist Mikhail Konev blames ‘the liberal clique’ for Russia's new Internet laws

You've got a friend in me 👬

In the early 2010s, posts advertising so-called “friends for hire” began appearing on Russian-language websites. They allowed Internet users to pay an hourly fee for an apparently ordinary person to listen to them, give them emotional support, or simply chat for a while as though they really were an understanding longtime friend. This service, at least in its online iteration, was apparently invented in Japan, where even a husband or a daughter can be rented online. There are similar services available in Western countries as well. Journalist Anna Chesova explored Russia’s paid friendship industry from every possible angle exclusively for Meduza.

Read the story here: “An inside look at Russia’s rental friendship industry”

Say cheese 💐

This Thursday, on the eve of International Women’s Day, members of the pro-Putin organization “Set” (Network) barged into a feminist cafe in St. Petersburg, filming themselves handing out flowers and shouting holiday chants, while ignoring repeated demands that they leave.

The activists came to the “Simone” cafe with armfuls of tulips, deliberately arriving at an hour when the establishment is closed to men, declaring that they’d come to honor International Women’s Day, a holiday in Russia that’s treated much like Valentine’s Day in the United States, with much of the same misogynist baggage. As the activists were leaving, celebrating their great victory over feminism, one of the women in the cafe spoiled the party by spraying mace in the cameraman’s face. Spokesmen for Set say he suffered an eye burn, as a result.

  • A coffee shop and coworking space, the Simone cafe opened in St. Petersburg last month on the premises of the feminist project “Eve’s Ribs.” Between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., the cafe is closed to men. Conservative State Duma deputy Vitaly Milonov has also tried to enter the cafe during these hours, and at least one blogger has filed a police report against the cafe, arguing that its gender police is discriminatory.

He's doing his twitching behind bars tonight 👮

Ruslan Gorring, the former deputy director of the Russian state-owned geological holding Rosgeo, was detained by federal agents at a Moscow airport on March 8, according to the television network REN TV. Gorring apparently planned to fly to Sochi, buying tickets on three different flights, in an apparent effort to evade the authorities. When he finally tried to board the third plane, FSB agents were waiting for him.

Sources told REN TV that Gorring was detained for brokering a bribe, though the Telegram channel Baza claims the charges are actually large-scale fraud. Gorring’s father, a former state attorney in Krasnodar, previously told the website Fontanka that his son had been named as the sole witness in a bribery investigation.

  • Earlier this year, Gorring lost his job after the public learned of footage he shared on the streaming platform Twitch, where he engaged in a range of inappropriate behavior and disclosed that his supervisor was meeting with billionaire Leonid Mikhelson.

Women's humor to the rescue? 🎭

In an interview with Anna Mongait, television star and producer Natalya Eprikyan talks about her career as a comedic actress on the show “Comedy Woman.” Eprikyan argues that “women’s humor” isn’t necessarily distinct from men’s humor, insofar as both are rooted in self-deprecation. She adds, however, that outward appearance is especially important for women, which leads to competition that good women’s comedy is able to overcome.

As the show has been on the air, Eprikyan says the subject matter has evolved beyond domestic issues, and she confesses to being too much of a cynic in her personal life to be comfortable with “ordinary” men. Nevertheless, she highlights the usefulness of “comedy cliches” on television, including humor that relies on ethnic stereotypes. Whether you’re joking about “greedy Jews,” “catcalling Armenians,” or feminists, Eprikyan says, the key is not to get offended.

Opinion and analysis

🌐 Kurilla has had enough of Trenin's geopolitics

Last month, Moscow Carnegie Center director Dmitri Trenin wrote a long think piece about the consequences of Russia’s hard-line foreign-policy turn over the past five years, and the country’s need for more strategic, less tactical policymaking. In Trenin’s view, Russia’s place in the world is often paradoxical, simultaneously isolated and globally significant. In this context, Trenin broke down the goals, means, and principles Moscow should pursue in its periphery, where it aspires to a restored sphere of influence.

In an op-ed for Republic, European University at St. Petersburg historian Ivan Kurilla savages Trenin’s article, arguing that he ignores major questions about Russia’s political leadership, relies on several outdated concepts to understand foreign policy, and forgets almost entirely about international institutions.

What’s left unsaid? According to Kurilla, Trenin doesn’t make it clear if his policy advice is for the existing Putin regime or for whatever comes next. This is key, Kurilla says, because any new leadership will have more room to maneuver, as it will carry less blame for Moscow’s recent diplomatic mistakes. Understanding what options this would open up, Kurilla says, begins with an analysis of Russia’s past mistakes (not Trenin's vague talk of “incongruent values”).

Kurilla also says Trenin’s article is built on several outdated ideas, such as the claim that Russians prioritize sovereignty over economic well being — as if the two were mutually exclusive. Despite calling for a broader public discussion about Russia’s global strategy, Trenin explains that foreign policy is determined by small groups of “deciders.” Kurilla says this is an oversimplification of the world, arguing that major foreign-policy issues are hotly debated at home in Western democracies.

According to Kurilla, Trenin completely ignores international institutions and organizations in his assessment of Russia in the world, treating “Great Power” isolation as if it exists in a vacuum independent from the “complex interdependence systems” that entangle all countries.

Finally, he faults Trenin for claiming that fundamentally different political values separate Russia from Europe, arguing that the Putin’s regime has justified its authoritarian values as a temporary measure during Russia’s post-Soviet “transformative period.” In other words, Moscow’s values could realign with Europe’s, if Russia ever emerges from its time of troubles.

🕊️ Shevchuk thinks Medvedev is getting wise to Ukraine

In an article for Republic, journalist Mikhail Shevchuk says Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev appears to have adopted a “more sober” view than President Putin of Russia’s future energy relationship with Ukraine. Shevchuk says the mood in Moscow has shifted dramatically from four years ago, when the likes of Gazprom CEO Alexey Miller and Energy Minister Alexander Novak vowed categorically not to extend the gas transit deal with Kyiv. While construction of the alternative NordStream 2 and TurkStream pipelines could very well finish by 2020 (when the existing Russian-Ukrainian transit deal expires), Shevchuk warns that these projects’ are stalled in regulatory and diplomatic uncertainty, once they make landfall. (For example, TurkStream’s route after Turkey is mired in unresolved discussions with the EU about a Balkan Gas Hub intended to “diversify” and “secure” Europe’s gas supply.)

After meeting with Angela Merkel last December, Putin apparently softened his position by suggesting that European demand is high enough to sustain continued shipments through Ukraine, but Shevchuk goes a step further, saying that Russia could be stuck with Ukraine as its primary gas shipping route, even after 2019.

💱 Dobrynin thinks it's the OCCRP that could end up on trial

In an op-ed for Snob, lawyer Alexey Dobrynin argues that the recent “Troika Laundromat” investigative research by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) is “curious and noisy,” but not damning or particularly revelatory. A partner and the head of criminal law practice at the firm “Pen & Paper,” Dobrynin says the evidence of billions of dollars funneled through offshore companies created by the investment bank Troika Dialog is insufficient to bring criminal charges against anyone, except maybe the OCCRP journalists responsible for publishing the story, if Russian officials decide that it constitutes a knowingly false criminal accusation.

Why does Dobrynin think the “Troika Laundromat” story is nothing? He argues that most of the transactions identified by OCCRP took place more than a decade ago, before the Financial Action Task Force (an intergovernmental organization that combats money laundering) updated its oversight standards in 2012, requiring more transparency in cross-border transfers and introducing stiffer measures taken to establish beneficial ownership by certain clients. In other words, he says, the banking industry’s oversight mechanisms are constantly changing, and OCCRP’s report ostensibly holds banks and businesses to standards that didn’t yet exist.

Not convinced by Dobrynin's truth bombs? Read more about OCCRP’s report here and how it could indicate the flow of some very dirty money.

🔗 Konev defends Russia's two latest draconian Internet laws

In an op-ed for Snob, political activist Mikhail Konev says two controversial laws recently passed by the State Duma aren’t as bad as many say, and he accuses critics of wasting time on populist personal attacks when they should have been monitoring the amendment process.

A former campaign adviser to liberal “spoiler” candidates like Ksenia Sobchak and Anton Krasovsky, Konev endorses the coming ban on Internet “fake news,” arguing that it could prevent episodes like the Kemerovo body-count panic. He even supports the prohibition of online insults against state officials because the law technically also applies to insults against “society,” which he proposes could encourage “mutual respect” between the authorities and their constituents. In other words, Konev thinks the law could be used to prosecute state officials for gaffes where they insult the public.

Konev says both of these laws are “essentially good by design with inevitably bad and dangerous consequences.” While defending the early draft legislation, he faults the “liberal clique” for failing to “focus their attention on the consequences of the law’s adoption.” Konev singles out anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny as someone who released videos complaining about the private wealth of the law’s co-authors, rather than “demanding from the Supreme Court” a clear explanation of the rules and regulations that will determine how police and judges enforce these laws. Konev implies that the law’s critics also could have prevented the even more draconian amendments added to the legislation in its second reading, if they’d more closely monitored the Interior Ministry, the Attorney General’s office, Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, and others.

Yours, Meduza