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The oracles of Moscow Meduza’s guide to the world's most beloved Russia experts

Источник: Meduza
Photo: Kostis Ntantamis / NurPhoto / Corbis / Vida Press

There aren’t many Russian experts known throughout the world, and many of the same voices appear over and over in the international media. None of the people in this group is politically neutral—every one of these individuals has a position of some kind, when it comes to the Kremlin—and most of them are strongly critical of Vladimir Putin. Meduza has compiled a shortlist of the most popular experts working on Russia today, weighing their individual strengths and weaknesses.

Photo: Aleksandr Scherbak / Kommersant

Sergei Aleksashenko

Former deputy chairman of Russia's Central Bank, former member of Aeroflot’s board of directors, and former director of macroeconomic research at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

What he’s known for

Aleksashenko is a prolific columnist, writing for major newspapers and running a popular LiveJournal blog. On both platforms, he reacts to the latest economic and political news, in essence explaining what mistakes the Russian government is making, calling out the authorities on various lies, and criticizing Vladimir Putin. The media loves to introduce him as a former deputy chairman of Russia’s Central Bank, each time conveying the idea that he’s someone who can “analyze the system from within.” In reality, Aleksashenko left the Central Bank 17 years ago, which makes him more of a liberal scholar today than a government insider.

Where he lives

Outside Russia.

In his own words

“It’s clear where we need to start: with the recognition that the economic crisis of 2013, like the economic crisis of 1990, cannot be overcome with economic decisions alone… Can our president grasp this? I don’t know. I’m not too optimistic, looking at determination and ferocity with which he battles dissent and political opponents. But if he doesn’t recognize this, he’ll go down in history books not as the man who raised Russia from its knees but as the politician who drove our country to the margins of civilization.”


Photo: Anton Belitsky / PhotoXPress

Stanislav Belkovsky

Political expert.

What he’s known for

For several years, he was an advisor to oligarch Boris Berezovsky (who apparently bought the newspaper Kommersant on his advice). In 2003, Belkovsky published a report titled State and Oligarchy, which said in part that Russia’s oligarchs were planning a coup. Shortly thereafter, the Russian authorities began their long persecution of the country’s biggest businessman, Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Journalists still argue today about the role of Belkovsky’s report in prompting this crackdown. (Belkovsky denies any connection.)

In the West, Belkovsky is known as a political expert, but in Russia he’s considered more of a flamboyant publicist. His writing overflows with strangely artistic, often very eloquent, prose. It’s also worth noting that Belkovsky proposed a new constitution for Russia in 2005, according to which the president would become an “uncrowned monarch” who could be reelected as many times as he wanted.

Where he lives

In Russia.

In his own words

“I don’t know what Mr. Khodorkovsky is planning, and I’m not sure I have any advice to offer that would interest him even slightly. But if my expert opinion interests him at all, I’ll do my best to explain what a progressive society is, what questionable characters, what villains, scoundrels, and bastards, compose it. And I’ll tell him not to invest his money in it, whatever he does. And I’ll be proud to save Khodorkovsky some money, if I get the chance. And I won’t expect a dime for the trouble.”


Photo: Sergey Fadeichev / TASS / Scanpix

Leonid Bershidsky

Journalist, Bloomberg columnist.

What he’s known for

Bershidsky is a particularly industrious journalist with a quality education in business, who’s played a role in launching several impressive Russian media projects. He was the first chief editor of the newspaper Vedomosti, organized the launch of SmartMoney Rossiya magazine (which survived three years), resurrected the legendary Soviet magazine Ogonek (not entirely successfully), and founded the online business news site Slon. He’s also worked as a managing director at KIT Finance bank (which nearly went bankrupt thanks to the 2008 financial crisis), and as editorial director for the Russian publishing giant Eksmo.

Bershidsky has been successful, it seems, wherever he goes, and in 2014 he emigrated to Germany with a clear conscience, where he now writes a column for Bloomberg. Bershidsky is considered someone who fiercely hates Russian journalists, whom he accuses of being perennially below global standards. At one point, Bershidsky even said he would no longer read the Russian news media (though it’s hard to know if he kept this promise), and he’s also vowed to speak only English on Facebook (but he still breaks into Russian periodically).

Where he lives

In Germany.

In his own words

“In the ‘battle between good and neutrality’ [a reference to the slogan of Alexey Navalny’s blog], I’m for neutrality. This is because good instantly turns into evil, either the moment it’s victorious or the moment it’s defeated. Good is only good while its stance in battle is, well, neutral.”


Photo: Tina Norris / REX / Vida Press

Masha Gessen

Journalist, former director of RFE/RL’s Russian-language service.

What she’s known for

Gessen is possibly the most prominent American journalist with Russian roots. She’s an editor with an astounding and diverse résumé: She worked for Bolshoi Gorod, then the glossy magazine Gala, next was deputy editor at Snob (where her staff’s salaries used to arouse the admiration and hatred of other Russian journalists), then chief editor of Vokrug Sveta, and finally worked briefly as director of RFE/RL’s Russian-language service.

Gessen has left almost every one of her jobs in a scandal, but perhaps her most dramatic exit was from Vokrug Sveta, where she refused a request to send a correspondent to cover an expedition (to which Vladimir Putin was a party) to rescue Siberian cranes. Afterwards, Putin called her to the Kremlin and tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade her to remain at Vokrug Sveta. Gessen later wrote a widely read column about her meeting with Putin. The author of biographies about Putin and genius-mathematician-turned-shut-in Grigori Perelman, Gessen is also the world’s preeminent expert on LGBT issues in Russia.

Where she lives

In the United States.

In her own words

“Not so long ago, I said ‘This is my house, and I’m not going anywhere. Let Putin leave.’ I can work in Russia, and probably I would have kept working there, but I have three kids. It’s one thing to raise them in a place that’s difficult or dangerous to live. It might even be enriching for them. But it’s something entirely different to raise children in a completely hopeless place. I lost all hope [in Russia], and it came time to get them out of there.”


Photo: Tatiana Tcherkezyan / Meduza

Sergei Guriev

Economics scholar.

What he’s known for

Guriev, who now lectures in Paris, is an economist of international renown. Guriev’s thoughtful and prudent work has made his name synonymous with the best of what Russian economics has to offer. He was a supporter of Dmitry Medevedev’s push for “modernization,” and a few years later, in 2013, Guriev helped opposition leader Alexey Navalny write the economic platform of his Moscow mayoral campaign.

Guriev’s main theory (a seditious one, in Russia today) is that economic prosperity is impossible without political reforms. He emigrated from Russia to escape persecution by the authorities, which his support for Navalny helped trigger. Unlike many others, Guriev understands how the government and the biggest state-owned companies operate, if only because he has served as a member of Sberbank's supervisory board, was selected for the "cadre reserves" of United Russia (the country's ruling political party), and worked in several capacities on behalf of the government.

Where he lives

In France.

In his own words

"Over the past 15 years, you can find Putin advocating just about anything in his speeches. He’s for the fight against corruption, and he’s against it. He’s for friendship with the West, and he’s against it. When it comes to migrant-worker policy, Putin has said Russia needs more immigration, and he’s said it needs less. He’s supported the introduction of residence permits, and he’s opposed it. What makes a person isn’t what he says, but what he does. And Medvedev, Putin, and Navalny differ dramatically here.”


Photo: Mikhail Metzel / TASS / Corbis / Vida Press

Andrey Illarionov

Economist, oppositionist, and former economic policy advisor to Putin.

What he’s known for

Illarionov is probably Russia’s grumpiest economics expert. He once worked at the height of Russian officialdom as an advisor to Putin, only to leave this post in protest against the prosecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his company Yukos. Over the past decade, he’s criticized nearly everyone in power, not to mention anyone cooperating with the state, so stubbornly that he’s managed to make enemies even within the opposition. Sometimes it seems Illarionov doesn’t even care whom he’s bashing: Russia’s Central Bank, he’s said, is incompetent, Putin is “stoned out of his mind,” and Obama is “exceptionally inept.”

Illarionov claims expertise on a wide range of issues, including subjects that have nothing to do with economics. For instance, he says he knows precisely who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, he adopts a radically oppositionist point of view about almost everything, and nearly all his predictions about the future are pessimistic (he expects a default in Ukraine and mass repressions in Russia). Russian newspapers now turn to Illarionov only as a last resort for expert commentary. They’re bored of him.

Where he lives

Outside Russia.

In his own words

“A quick comparison of Hitler’s actions up to September 1939 (before the Nazi invasion of Poland) and Putin’s actions up to April 2014 (before the third stage of the “Russian Spring” operation) shows that, although there are a lot of similarities between the goals of Hitler and Putin [...], the methods they use to achieve these goals differ in many ways.”


Photo: Maxim Nikitin / TASS / Vida Press

Garry Kasparov

Former chess champion of the world, opposition politician.

What he’s known for

In 2005, when he announced he was leaving competitive chess to enter politics, it seemed a bright new future lay ahead for Kasparov. Instead, he’s become one of the symbols of Russia’s hopeless “nonsystemic opposition”—the street protesters who have spent years talking about the need to unite, only to get bogged down in arguments about who will lead the coalition.

Kasparov tried to form a coalition with former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and writer Eduard Limonov, but it collapsed. He led an oppositionist committee in 2008 to ensure free and fair presidential elections and to prevent the appointment of a chosen Kremlin successor, but the committee never even fielded a candidate to oppose Dmitry Medvedev. In 2007, Kasparov was jailed for five days after being arrested at an unsanctioned rally, and he called it quits with politics.

For a while after his brush with prison, Kasparov sponsored particular opposition groups, but in 2013 he left Russia forever, claiming he would continue the battle against Putin “in the international arena.” His main tool for fighting the Putin regime remains his English-language Twitter account, as the Russian-language news site Kasparov.ru is now blocked inside Russia.

Where he lives

Outside Russia. In 2014, he received Croatian citizenship.

In his own words

“It's not enough to acknowledge Putin is a dictator and that his invasion of Ukraine threatens the whole world order. Must unite with action. Action strong enough to deter Putin & save lives. Arm Ukraine, provide sufficient econ aid, keep stepping up sanctions (SWIFT ban, etc).”


Photo: Pavel Smolyak / PhotoXPress

Oleg Kashin

Journalist.

What he’s known for

A former sailor and Internet star of LiveJournal, Kashin moved to Moscow from Kaliningrad, and became Russia’s leading reporter in the 2000s and one of the most famous correspondents to write for Kommersant newspaper. In November 2010, he was the victim of a brutal attack by unknown men, who nearly beat him to death. After the attack, Kashin quit journalism. Turning away from reporting, he’s focused instead of writing opinion columns and science fiction novels.

Kashin’s political views are erratic: he’s supported Putin, backed Navalny, participated in the 2011-2012 “Snow Revolution” protests, and expressed sympathy for Russian nationalists—always with sincerity and conviction. Whatever Kashin writes, his main goal, it seems, is to be disliked by both the people in his stories and the people reading them. In this work, Kashin is a master.

Throughout the 2000s, Kashin also succeeded in being the ideal journalist of the Web 2.0 era: he was a reporter who spent at least half his time turning his own name into a brand. Nobody knows how much this brand is worth, however. Kashin’s new eponymous website, Kashin.guru, hasn’t exactly shot to the top of the charts online.

Where he lives

In Switzerland.

In his own words

“Of all the Russian-language songs there are, there are maybe five versions of the national anthem that can be played in both a public square and at an official ceremony, but all these versions (in terms of the song’s mythology, its meaning for the nation, or its lyrics and its music, and so on) fall short of La Marseillaise, or the German anthem, the Polish anthem, or even the Ukrainian anthem. What this means is Russia has no potential national anthem and maybe it has no future, either. And we’re helpless to do anything about it.”


Photo: : Alexander Natruskin / RIA Novosti / Scanpix

Sergei Markov

Kremlin political expert.

What he’s known for

Markov is a political analyst desperately in love with Vladimir Putin, and like many Russian public figures, Markov wasn’t always as staunchly anti-American as he is today. In the 1990s, he worked for US National Democratic Institute, which the Kremlin now considers the main sponsor of Russia’s “fifth column.” Between 1999 and 2008, Markov held an international conference in Crimea that welcomed, among others, representatives from the Russian opposition.

Putin’s arrival changed Markov, leading him at one point to say the president as an individual “is more important for society than the state’s institutions.” Markov has been a member of the Public Chamber (a Kremlin advisory council), a member of the parliament, and Putin's proxy in the 2012 presidential debates. His current titles are too many to list.

Despite this pedigree, it’s hard to judge the value of his political insights today. Markov has become one of foreign journalists’ go-to interpreters of Kremlin policy, but it’s unclear how well informed he really is.

Where he lives

In Russia.

In his own words

"I would say Putin is the world's Person of the Year [2014], not just Russia's. He stood up to pressure from the world's superpower, and in this sense he’s the most power living political leader on the planet."


Photo: Vladimir Smirnov / TASS / Corbis / Vida Press

Gleb Pavlovsky

Political expert.

What he’s known for

Pavlovsky is possibly Russia’s chief political expert. In a political spin doctor’s sense, he’s one of the “authors” who invented Vladimir Putin. A dissident in the late Soviet period, Pavlovsky even spent some time in prison. When Communism collapsed, he created the Foundation for Effective Politics, and in 1996 he helped elect Boris Yeltsin win a very questionable presidential election. In the late 1990s, Pavlovsky worked directly in the Kremlin, where it’s believed he influenced Yeltsin’s decision to make Putin his successor.

In the 2000s, many in the opposition viewed Pavlovsky, now working inside the Kremlin as a presidential aide advisor, as the Devil incarnate, criticizing him constantly for measures like Russia’s abolition of gubernatorial elections. In 2011, the Kremlin fired Pavlovsky, supposedly because he supported a second term for Dmitry Medvedev (instead of Putin’s return to the presidency). Within a matter of weeks, the Kremlin’s spin doctor transformed into an oppositionist, carefully but emphatically criticizing Putin from a liberal perspective. The public was so dumbfounded that it quickly forgot about Pavlovsky’s past.

Where he lives

In Russia.

In his own words

“Putin really is so ingrained in this system that removing him won’t be simple. And unfortunately he can’t offer the system a future of any kind. He’s at war with the future—with the future tense in any form.”


Photo: Jörg Carstensen / dpa / Corbis / Vida Press

Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Former head of the oil company Yukos, and former inmate at prison colonies in Krasnokamensk and Segezha.

What he’s known for

In the 1990s, Khodorkovsky built Yukos, which became the biggest private company in Russia. In the 2000s, Khodorkovsky became Vladimir Putin’s personal enemy, and later spent ten years in prison on clearly trumped-up charges (along with dozens of others prosecuted with him). Throughout his years behind bars, Khodorkovsky grew into the Russian opposition’s great hope, leading people to believe a “new era for Russia” would blossom “the moment Khodorkovsky is freed.”

In 2013, when hopes had nearly vanished and everyone was waiting for a third trial against Yukos, Putin unexpectedly pardoned Khodorkovsky, who settled in Switzerland, having promised not to meddle in politics. But Khodorkovsky hadn’t been entirely honest with Putin, and the freed oligarch immediately began commenting about the actions of the Russian authorities, speaking publicly before demonstrators in Kiev, meeting with European state officials, and forging relationships with Russia’s opposition. He soon released his own media outlet, Open Russia, and started supporting several citizen initiatives.

The public, still stunned by Khodorkovsky’s release, hasn’t taken too kindly to his actions as a free man. Khodorkovsky, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to care. He spends his days learning the ropes of online social media, and pondering what he’d do “as Russian prime minister” (for example, he says he’d not return Crimea to Ukraine).

Where he lives

In Switzerland.

In his own words

“Putin will go, and after his exit Russia has a future. Our job is to start making that future today!”