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The Real Russia. Today. New info about a Panama-Papers figure, Russia's paranormal troops, and Russia Today's domestic expansion

Meduza

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

This day in history: three years ago, on April 3, 2016, after more than a year of analysis, the first news stories were published in what is known as the “Panama Papers” (millions of leaked documents detailing financial and attorney–client information for more than 210,000 offshore entities).
  • New report asserts that a Russian businessman mentioned in the Panama Papers is helping Putin associates get around U.S. sanctions
  • According to magazine operated by Russia's Defense Ministry, Moscow trains paranormal soldiers
  • Joint Russia-U.S. project plans to land a spacecraft on Venus for the first time since 1985
  • Columnist Oleg Kashin says Russia Today has set its sights on Russia's domestic media
  • Columnist Andrey Sinitsyn says Russian officials view an open society as a threat to ‘rent collection’
  • Chechen government issues 35 million-ruble contract for weeding and mowing Kadyrov’s lawn
  • Ingush opposition leaders searched and jailed after popular protests
  • Hundreds of anarchist activists reportedly searched in connection with October explosion
  • Mock Putin grave installed near St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg
  • Russia's Internal Affairs Ministry proposes refusing reentry to migrants who don't pay for their own deportation
  • Social media content from Ivan Kurilla, Alexander Baunov, Ivan Davydov, Maxim Olenichev, and Polina Kolozaridi

With friends like these 🤝

The scientist and businessman Alexander Plekhov was mentioned in the Panama Papers in connection with offshore accounts belonging to Sergey Roldugin, a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now, the investigative outlet Proekt has learned that Plekhov’s companies are also closely tied with a business owned by another friend of Putin’s, Yury Kovalchuk. Proekt found that Plekhov may be helping Kovalchuk avoid the effects of international sanctions.

Read Meduza's story here: “New report asserts that a Russian businessman mentioned in the Panama Papers is helping Putin associates get around U.S. sanctions”

Muzhiki who stare at goats 🧠

The February edition of Armeisky Sbornik (Army Collection), the Russian Defense Ministry’s official magazine, features a strange article titled “Super Soldier for the Wars of the Future” that describes the military’s work with “combat psychics.” The magazine RBC noticed the text, which says the Russian military supposedly uses paranormal tactics to help soldiers learn foreign languages, treat wounded troops in battle, detect ambushes, hideouts, and weapons caches, crash computer programs, burn crystals, eavesdrop on conversations, and disrupt telecommunications, including television and radio waves. Russia also apparently has specialists who use telepathy to question prisoners and give orders to dolphins.

Read Meduza's story here: “According to magazine operated by Russia's Defense Ministry, Moscow trains paranormal soldiers”

Still pals in space 🌌

Russia and the United States have set out scientific objectives for their joint mission “Venera-D,” which is scheduled to begin at the end of the 2020s. Ludmila Zasova, the manager of the project’s bilateral work group and a lead contributor at the Russian Space Research Institute, explained that Russia will produce an orbiter and a lander, while NASA will contribute a long-lived surface station. The Russian spacecraft will enable offloading, after which it will continue to work for two to three hours, and the American station will be fully functional on the surface of the planet for up to 60 Earth days.

Read Meduza's story here: “Joint Russia-U.S. project plans to land a spacecraft on Venus for the first time since 1985”

Kashin: Russia Today has turned its empire inward 📰

In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Oleg Kashin says Russia Today’s decision to hire former Open Russia activist Maria Baronova and former Znak.com columnist Ekaterina Vinokurova is just the “tip of the iceberg” of everything the network is doing to promote itself on social networks, to try to “expand” into Russia's domestic media. “Something strange is going on with RT right now,” Kashin says, arguing that the media empire has suddenly decided to make a concerted effort to win a bigger audience at home, even though it’s claim to fame is being Russia’s only “global brand,” albeit a notorious one.

Kashin recycles some ideas he floated in an op-ed last month about Radio Svoboda, where he discussed the commanding heights of Russia’s media industry, arguing that creeping state control and expectations of editorial loyalty have driven independent journalists to more peripheral outlets. He tells a similar story here, saying that the disappearance of respectable media jobs in Russia has created an opportunity for RT.

Kashin identifies two tiers of bad journalism in Russia today: the bottom rung is home to loyalist low-budget online media outlets like Prigozhin’s websites and Vzglyad, which operate below outlets that have fallen from grace since their heyday like Lenta.ru, Gazeta.ru, and RBC, which he calls “mass graves for failed journalists.” RT is now bringing its massive resources to this market, and employing an awkward social-media strategy that is roughly a decade behind the times, Kashin says.

In the end, Kashin thinks RT isn’t so bad. With its stupid pranks and charity side projects, it’s still a step up from the media gutter, he argues, saying that the watershed moment will come when a universally respected independent journalist from Meduza, Mediazona, BBC, or Dozhd takes a position at RT. In the not-too-distant future (when these independent outlets are gone, Kashin says), RT won’t even seem like such a bad job.

Sinitsyn: The Kremlin wants rents, not an open society 🗜️

In an op-ed for Republic, columnist Andrey Sinitsyn argues that the Russian authorities oppose the free exchange of information because it cultivates a more developed, open society that would demand more power-sharing and thus threaten their access to rents on the economy. Sinitsyn is responding to draft legislation adopted in the State Duma that introduces penalties on the unauthorized distribution of foreign periodicals. While it’s formally just a “technical change,” insofar as it specifies fines for actions that are already illegal, the general political context justifies a public panic, Sinitsyn says.

News briefs 📰

  • 💰 The government of Chechnya has posted a landscaping contract for the residence of its leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, on its official purchases website. MBK Media first reported on the deal. The contract offers a price of 34.88 million rubles ($534,620) for mowing the lawn, weeding, and sweeping areas inaccessible to machines between now and the end of the year. A December 2018 contract for cleaning Kadyrov’s official residence itself included 51.1 million rubles ($783,604) in compensation.
  • 👮 On April 3, Ruslan Mutsolgov told Znak.com that law enforcement agencies in Ingushetia had begun searching the homes of the republic’s opposition leaders. Mutsolgov leads the local branch of the opposition Yabloko party. Later in the day, Kavkazsky Uzel reported that Malsag Uzhakhov, the chair of the republic’s Council of Teips, had been given 10 days of jail time along with Musa Malsagov and Akhmed Barakhoyev, two members of the Ingush Committee for National Unity. Barakh Chemurziev, the leader of the Opora Ingushetii movement, received 10 days of administrative arrest, according to Mediazona. Read the full story here.
  • 💣 On October 31, 2018, a 17-year-old technical student triggered an explosive device in the local Federal Security Service (FSB) building in Arkhangelsk, Russia. According to Znak.com, more than two hundred official searches targeting anarchist circles have recently taken place around the country in connection with the case, which is being investigated as a terrorist attack. On April 2, additional searches were reported in Chelyabinsk, bringing the overall number of searches in the Urals to about 10. The searches have reportedly focused members of a group chat that the attacker used to announce his intentions in advance of the explosion.
  • ⚰️ A gravestone inscribed with Vladimir Putin’s name and portrait above the words “He betrayed the Russian people” has appeared on a lawn near St. Petersburg’s historic St. Isaac’s Cathedral. Similar graves had previously appeared in Naberezhnye Chelny as an act of protest against the Russian government’s attempts to isolate Russian Internet traffic. Read the full story here.
  • 🛂 Russia’s Internal Affairs Ministry has prepared a bill that, if passed, would introduce stricter requirements for migrants who are deported from Russia to reimburse the costs of their own deportation. Current Russian law turns to deportees first to request reimbursement but does not officially penalize them for refusing and allows for a string of other funding sources. The new bill would prohibit migrants from reentering Russia until they pay for their own removal from the country.

The peanut gallery 🥜

Ivan Kurilla, historian at European University at St. Petersburg (April 3)

Alexander Baunov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center (April 1)

Ukrainian voters demand breakthroughs: Three years ago, Ukrainian voters dreamed that Nadiya Savchenko would return to the country and sweep out the corrupt politicians and oligarchs. A year ago, voters pinned their hopes on musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, and finally they settled on actor Volodymyr Zelensky. Baunov says Ukrainians expect to “break through to the future” by “smashing norms,” taking “exotic” routes, and embracing “anomalies.” Baunov says regular turnover of the national political leadership is a sought-after, elusive norm in Russia, but it doesn’t satisfy Ukrainians. If Russians finally got it, too, would they also grow dissatisfied? Maybe, says Baunov.

Ivan Davydov, columnist (April 2)

How to spot a future RT employee: There’s one sign that an aspiring public intellectual will sooner or later be consumed by Russia’s state propaganda system, Davydov says. It’s not “is Crimea Russia's or Ukraine's?” He says this is a “stupid question,” since the Putin regime annexed the peninsula illegally and presently controls it, leaving the territory’s future uncertain. The key sign, Davydov says, is how individuals feel about the annexation itself, explaining that “hysterical patriots” welcomed the decision, despite anticipating all the harm it would inflict on Russia.

Maxim Olenichev, a lawyer at the “Team 29” human rights center (April 1)

Environmentalists for the win: On April 1, a district court in the Kemerovo region effectively stopped the state from seizing land near the Belovo Reservoir, where developers wanted to create an open-pit coal mine. Olenichev says Team 29’s work in the “Ekozashchita” (Ecological Defense) campaign led to the first court ruling in Russia that blocks a state effort to build a new open-pit coal mine. The appellate hearing included testimony from more than 160 local stakeholders, Olenichev says, congratulating local residents, activists, journalists, and even the region’s legal process, which ultimately convinced regional subsoil management officials to cancel their land-seizure order.

Polina Kolozaridi, lecturer at Higher School of Economics (April 1)

The Internet isn’t just media: Sharing her interview with Markku Kangaspuro’s Russian Media Lab, Kolozaridi says she embraces the “unpopular view” that the Internet isn’t just “content,” “space,” or “social networks,” arguing that it’s also “infrastructure” and e-commerce. “What does freedom of speech have to do with your ATM?” she asks. In the interview itself, Kolozaridi also points out that her hometown of Tomsk has an “incredibly interesting history of local networks.”

Yours, Meduza