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The Real Russia. Today. Continued ethnic tension in Yakutia, another gubernatorial shakeup, and life in the Soviet drunk tanks

Source: Meduza

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

This day in history: 86 years ago, on March 20, 1933, the Soviet authorities approved a plan to build a subway system in Moscow comprising 10 separate lines stretching 80.3 kilometers (almost 50 miles). Today, the Metro has 16 lines and covers 437 kilometers (272 miles).
  • Police in Yakutia detain several people for acts against migrant workers, following a rape case that has put the region on edge
  • Why is the Kremlin replacing multiple regional governors right before Russia’s fall elections?
  • Russian journalists find 50,000 court rulings between 2017 and 2018 that mostly duplicate previous convictions
  • Police are reportedly investigating several news websites that criticized Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin
  • Leader of Russia’s notorious Tambov gang sentenced to 24 years total for murder and organizing a criminal group
  • Journal entries from life in the USSR’s drunk tanks
  • Columnist Oleg Kashin thinks potential cuts to RFE/RL's budget might improve its standing with ‘ordinary Russians’

A good time to play hooky

Police in Yakutsk detained the organizer of an unscheduled protest on March 17 against migrant workers, after he used instant messengers to invite others to join his demonstration. A court later fined the man 20,000 rubles ($310) for organizing and staging the event without advance notice. Police also detained a group of men who tried to intimidate local vegetable vendors. “The young men approached kiosks operated by ethnic Kyrgyz persons and encouraged them to shut down their businesses,” the city’s chief of police told reporters.

Read Meduza's update on the situation here: “Police in Yakutia detain several people for acts against migrant workers, following a rape case that has put the region on edge”

Time's up, guv

On March 19 and 20, three Russian regional leaders all handed in their resignations. Even more regional government heads are expected to join their colleagues from Chelyabinsk Oblast, Kalmykia, and the Altai Republic and resign in the coming weeks. Russian political experts argue that this series of resignations stems from high disapproval ratings among certain regional governors and conflicts in the Russian provinces that may cause difficulties for the Kremlin in September’s nationwide elections.

Read Meduza's report here: “Why is the Kremlin replacing multiple regional governors right before Russia’s fall elections?”

Courtroom copypasta ⚖️

In a new report, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta studied 780,000 verdicts issued by Russian courts between 2017 and 2018, and found that 50,000 of these rulings were at least 80-percent copied from decisions previously issued by the same judges. Mostly copied verdicts are most common in rulings against defendants convicted of illegally acquiring and possessing narcotics. Of 136,000 such convictions, Novaya Gazeta’s study found nearly 25,500 verdicts (19 percent) that were largely copied from previous rulings. In terms of percentage, the most common copied verdicts were discovered in unpaid alimony cases (28.9 percent of 370 rulings) and draft dodging (26 percent of 294 rulings).

Read Meduza's summary of the study here: “Russian journalists find 50,000 court rulings between 2017 and 2018 that mostly duplicate previous convictions”

There Rogozin gozin again 🚀

Police in Moscow have reportedly opened a criminal investigation in response to defamation charges filed by Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, against Internet publications that have criticized his job performance. Sources in law enforcement told the newspaper Kommersant that Rogozin singled out the websites Rospres.org and Kompromatural.ru.

According to Kommersant, Rogozin originally complained to the Attorney General’s Office. Deputy Attorney General Viktor Grin then referred the matter to a preliminary investigative unit in the Interior Ministry, which decided in late February to launch a formal criminal inquiry. The case is now reportedly being investigated by a special group led by Police Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Milovanov. Sources told Kommersant that officials have already established that the offending websites use equipment and domain names located in the United States and the Netherlands.

The Internet resources named in Rogozin’s complaint published several stories last December that sharply criticized him. For example, one website published an article saying that he spent stolen federal subsidies on a PR campaign to whitewash his own personal reputation, allegedly bribing Lenta.ru majority shareholder Alexander Mamut and chief editor Vladimir Todorov to redact an article about Roscosmos. The Lenta.ru article in question, which accused Roscosmos of wasteful spending and low salaries, was quickly deleted and then republished only 2.5 months later with whole paragraphs removed.

  • Rogozin is the first Russian space agency chief to resort to a police report against hostile journalists. Late last year, the agency’s spokesman, Vladimir Ustimenko, said in an interview that Roscosmos is being targeted in an “information attack” designed to keep Russia from “regaining its leadership in space by depicting the agency as a “state corporation bloated on federal money.” Rogozin later endorsed these remarks, blaming the attack on industry competitors and unprofessional reporters.

12 more years ⚖️

A St. Petersburg court has sentenced Vladimir Barsukov, born Vladimir Kumarin, to 12 years in a high-security prison for founding a criminal society. Barsukov is known as a leader of the so-called Tambov gang, which rose to be one of the most notorious criminal organizations in Russia beginning in the late 1990s. The gang leader had previously been sentenced to 23 years for murder and will spend a total of 24 years behind bars. His accomplice Vyacheslav Drokov received an identical sentence for founding a criminal society and will spend 21 years in a prison colony overall. The sentences come amid an effort on the part of the Putin administration and the State Duma to make holding leadership positions in criminal groups a crime in its own right even for non-founders.

Beware the naked man 🥴

Russian senators are entertaining the idea of resurrecting the country’s vytrezviteli (sobering-up centers, or drunk tanks) and empowering the police to lock up people caught intoxicated in public. Under the new proposal, those who spend a night in the tank would be forced to pay for their stay, though lawmakers have yet to draft a mechanism for extracting these payments. Russia’s first “haven for the inebriated” appeared in 1902, but drunk tanks weren’t common until the Soviet era, when the standard procedure involved a medical exam, a cold shower, and a few hours of sleep in a shared room, for which residents were charged a fee. Police guards often allowed violence, and anti-government demonstrators were sometimes locked up here during the USSR’s “Era of Stagnation,” from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s. As the Federation Council moves forward with its initiative, Meduza translates journal entries published by the project Prozhito, written by people who had brushes with the drunk tanks of the Soviet Union.

Read Meduza's translation here: “Journal entries from life in the USSR’s drunk tanks”

Kashin thinks Trump's cutbacks might just save Radio Liberty ✂️

In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin marvels that RFE/RL might finally become more palatable to “average contemporary Russian readers” thanks to budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration that would eliminate the broadcaster’s Georgian, Tatar-Bashkir, and North Caucasus language services.

Kashin offers a mix of praise and criticism for Radio Liberty, arguing that the outlet has benefited from the demise of Russia’s own free press, and is now one of only a handful of publications where the country’s independent journalists can still find a job. He describes this labor environment as an “ecosystem” distinct from a market, explaining that independent journalism isn’t an exclusively trade-based enterprise where reporters write the stories demanded by their employers. Throughout the past 20 years, creeping state control and expectations of editorial loyalty have driven independent journalists from the media’s commanding heights to more peripheral outlets, reshaping the industry’s landscape and revitalizing foreign publications like RFE/RL. All this is generally good news for the U.S. project, which gets better, more desperate talent than it would attract, if Russia’s homegrown media better accommodated independent reporters.

But Kashin has a problem with Radio Liberty, and he channels Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn when explaining it, arguing that RFE/RL’s smaller language services are vestiges of Dwight Eisenhower's commitment to “captive nations,” which calls for amplifying the voices of oppressed peoples within the borders of what was the USSR. For Kashin, this means “grotesque stories” about invented nations (like Cossackia) and sympathetic coverage of radicals and separatists in modern-day Russia’s ethnic enclaves.

This supposed dark side of Radio Svoboda means that first-class journalists like Ivan Tolstoy, Dmitry Volchek, and Andrey Shary have to endure “coexistence” with “nasty” reporting that turns off most Russians. In this sense, Kashin suggests that RFE/RL reporters have to stomach “adjacency” with objectionable content, not unlike the regime-loyal staff who accept jobs at state-run publications.

Yours, Meduza