2019, so far Meduza reviews Russia's biggest news stories over the first six months of the year
We’re now halfway through the year, which is a good excuse to pause and take stock of the major news stories in Russia so far in 2019. Over the past six months, Meduza has reported on hundreds of current events, but some incidents and trends resonate and rise above the rest. What follows is hardly an exhaustive list of all the important things that have happened this year in Russia. This roundup is intended to highlight not just the biggest stories covered here at Meduza, but also the recurrent themes in the national news cycle.
In the courtroom
“Spies and traitors”
Over the years, Meduza has reported regularly on various treason and espionage cases. In September 2018, for example, we looked at the past 20 years of such prosecutions, and in February 2016 Meduza asked, “Why are Russian police prosecuting more people for treason?” While many internationally have probably heard of the “Russian foreign agent” Maria Butina, the following individuals have also attracted the media’s attention in Russia.
On June 19, forty-two-year-old flight-simulation developer Oleg Tishchenko was sentenced in the United States. About eight years earlier, he’d purchased instruction manuals for the American F-16 fighter jet model on eBay. In 2016, the U.S. government brought criminal charges, and in early 2019, Tishchenko was extradited after he flew to Georgia for a dance festival. The game developer, who was tried in Utah, could have faced more than 10 years in prison for conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, violating the Arms Export Control Act, and smuggling. Some of the charges against him were dropped, however, and the court counted the year he had spent in jail since his capture in Georgia toward his one-year sentence. Then he went home, where Meduza spoke to him.
A 75-year-old engineering researcher, Viktor Kudryavtsev was just 74 years young when federal agents arrested him in July 2018 on treason charges. The FSB is still investigating him for leaking supposedly classified information about the development of Russia’s hypersonic weapons to a Belgian institute. Despite a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that Kudryavtsev should be hospitalized immediately for examination and treatment, he’s still whiling away the hours at a remand prison. Most recently, in June 2019, he was denied house arrest because of a “suspicious” spam email.
Sergey Mikhailov and Ruslan Stoyanov
In late February, the two men were convicted of committing treason reportedly for selling confidential case files to the FBI from a felony investigation in 2013 against Pavel Vrublevsky, the former head of the payment services company Chronopay. A military court in Moscow sentenced former Federal Security Service Information Security Center agent Sergey Mikhailov and former Kaspersky Lab cybersecurity expert Ruslan Stoyanov to 22 years and 14 years in prison, respectively. The case was closed to the public, but the details of the supposed “FBI conspiracy” were first reported by the newspaper Kommersant in early October 2018.
Human rights activists
Anastasia Shevchenko now has two unpleasant distinctions. On January 21, she became the first person in Russia to be arrested for the felony offense of working for an illegal “undesirable organization,” which could land her in prison for up to six years. Ten days later, Shevchenko became the first person facing these charges to lose a child, when her 17-year-old daughter, Alina, succumbed to complications resulting from bronchitis, dying after a long battle with lung problems.
Oyub Titiev was released on parole in mid-June 2019, after being sentenced to four years in prison in March 2019 on drug charges he says are fabricated. Titiev leads the Chechen branch of the human rights organization “Memorial.” Supporters have argued from the beginning that the case against him was politically motivated. Meduza special correspondent Sasha Sulim spoke with Titiev shortly after his release. Roughly a week earlier, we reviewed eight criminal cases in Russia where police have used a felony drug statute to prosecute troublesome activists and journalists.
The issue of unfair limits on women’s right to self-defense is gaining prominent in Russia. In fact, in a recent interview with Meduza, political scientist Valery Solovey even speculated that public pressure might prompt reforms to the country’s laws on domestic violence. Activists owe any possible momentum to several ongoing criminal cases.
The Khachaturyan sisters
In late June 2019, state investigators finalized their murder charges against Maria, Angelina, and Krestina Khachaturyan — the three young women who admit to killing their abusive father in self-defense, in late July 2018. Each of the sisters faces up to 20 years in prison. Following the investigators’ decision to move forward with felony charges, public supporters have rallied to the women’s defense, inspired in part by the demonstrations that accompanied the movement to free journalist Ivan Golunov.
A 19-year-old woman in Moscow named Darya Ageniy has launched a campaign on social media in support of victims of sexual violence. She says she survived an attack last summer in the city of Tuapse, where an intoxicated local man tried to rape her. In self-defense, Darya stabbed the man with a pencil sharpening knife, leading to an investigation in which she is a suspect. If convicted, she faces time in prison. Online, Ageniy is now devoted to the difficult mission of educating women about the limits on legal self-defense in Russia.
On January 3, 2019, Yekaterina Fedorova, a journalist for the Radio Europe/Radio Free Liberty project Sibir.Realii, alleged in a Facebook post that Aleksey Migunov physically and sexually assaulted her in her home in October 2018. Specifically, Fedorova accused Migunov of beating, biting, and raping her in her apartment. Migunov later filed a defamation lawsuit against Fedorova, and she announced on May 30 that a court had ruled against her. Afterwards, her supporters on social media ridiculed Migunov’s efforts to use monetary gain to restore the “honor” they believe he has permanently lost.
“Nastya Rybka” (Anastasia Vashukevich)
Halfway through 2019, the “Nastya Rybka case” seems like a distant memory, and it’s easy to forget that it was only January when Thai police dumped her in Moscow, where she was promptly arrested at the airport. For a hot minute, it seemed Vashukevich and her companion, Alexander Kirillov, would face up to six years in prison on prostitution charges, but then the case went away as quickly as it had come. In the middle of this drama, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny revealed recordings of telephone calls (see below for Meduza’s report from Lake Baikal) apparently involving oligarch Oleg Deripaska and some of Deripaska's associates. P.S. Vashukevich and Kirillov are the “sex trainers” who claimed to have “RussiaGate” dirt on Deripaska.
Chechnya’s “gay purge”
In early January, Novaya Gazeta reported that the persecution of individuals thought to be LGBTQ had drastically increased since late December 2018 in Chechnya. Meduza later received additional information from the Russian LGBT Network, online groups for LGBTQ residents of the Caucasus, and a young man who has demonstrated close ties with the LGBTQ community in the North Caucasus, indicating that the attacks on LGBTQ people that have been ongoing for years both in Chechnya and in Russia more broadly. More recently, RFE/RL reported that a gay man tortured in Chechnya says a man missing in an open murder case was actually imprisoned with him in Grozny.
Stories from Russia’s LGBTQ community
Yan is a video producer from Berezniki, a mid-sized city in Russia’s Perm Krai. Although he was assigned female at birth and given the name Yana, Yan knew from the time he was a young child that he identified as male. As early as his high school years, Yan also realized that he wanted to pursue sex reassignment surgery. He began preparing for that process in 2015. Meduza spoke to Yan about his experience of sex transition in Russia, and the many obstacles and physical changes that can accompany that journey.
In a special report for Novaya Gazeta, correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko traveled to the town of Ilsky in Russia’s Krasnodar Krai to learn about the murder of an elderly gay couple. She found a community where homophobia is so common and accepted that many locals don't even hide their relief to be rid of two men who enjoyed a loving relationship.
Present-day homophobic rhetoric notwithstanding, traditions of aggressive intolerance toward homosexuality in Russia have their roots not in the distant past but rather in the Stalinist era. In March 2019, Meduza translated a story by Nina Freiman (originally published at Takie Dela) about the history of anti-queer persecution in the USSR.
A rape and kidnapping case sparked major anti-migrant protests in Yakutia in mid-March. The atmosphere became so hostile that hundreds of Kyrgyz workers temporarily stayed home, rather than risk appearing in public. Local officials met directly with angry residents in Yakutsk, voicing their support for the public, while blaming “external provocations” for the unrest. In late March, in an apparent concession to protesters, the governor banned migrant workers from a range of different industries, but the executive order doesn’t affect migrants from Kyrgyzstan, who were the target of the demonstrations.
The construction of a bottling facility in the Lake Baikal area was suspended earlier this year, and the project’s Chinese investors might lose their lease on land that’s now home to a half-finished factory. Locals initially welcomed the bottling plant, but later grew to hate it, thanks largely to anti-Chinese sentiment. The facility has become a hostage of local politics, as well, where the Communist Party and United Russia are fighting a surprisingly lively battle. Oligarch Oleg Deripaska also has a dog in the fight.
On June 13, there was mass violence in the town of Chemodanovka, outside Penza. Allegations that members of the local Roma community raped a woman led to a brawl between more than 150 people. One man died, and another five were hospitalized with stab wounds. The next evening, hundreds of people in town blocked the M5 Ural Highway, demanding that state officials respond to the situation. Meduza correspondent Ekaterina Drankina traveled to the town to learn more about what happened and how Russian society has been pitted against the Roma community since the 1990s.
The Magnitogorsk apartment building explosion
In the early morning hours on December 31, 2018, a gas line exploded in a 10-story apartment complex in the city of Magnitogorsk, almost completely destroying one section of the building, and killing 39 people. Hours after the explosion, Meduza special correspondent Evgeny Berg traveled to Magnitogorsk to visit the blast site and the headquarters established in town to provide aid to victims. Following the tragedy, several journalists cited rumors that the building collapse was an act of terrorism, not the result of a gas leak, as officially reported. We spoke to one reporter who believed the terrorism claims, and we also pointed out the problems with this version of events.
Chechnya’s boundary conflicts
In late June, long-time Ingush leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov announced his resignation, following months of protests against an unpopular deal with Chechnya to modify the boundaries of the two contiguous republics. The agreement itself was signed in September 2018, leading to unprecedented street demonstrations and a showdown between the Ingush and Russian high courts. The deal’s opponents lost the legal battle, and local state officials maintain that protesters are being “provoked externally,” but the movement hasn’t stopped. In April 2019, journalist Vladimir Sevrinovsky spoke to protesters in Magas and Nazran.
On Chechnya’s eastern boundary, there are also disputed areas. In early June 2019, Dagestanis in one borderland town actually knocked down Chechen street signs, lashing out at a perceived “attack on Dagestan’s territorial interests.” Well aware of events in Ingushetia, some locals in Dagestan are worried about a land-hungry Grozny.
For several days in mid-May, Russia’s news media swung its attention to Yekaterinburg, where the construction of a new cathedral was about to swallow up some of the city’s last remaining public space. A surprisingly strong protest movement erupted overnight, and national news outlets covered the story with the devotion and grit usually reserved for events in Moscow. Journalists identified the strong men called out to scare off the demonstrators, unearthed a larger development project connected to the cathedral, and reported for days from on the ground in Yekaterinburg. In the end, following President Putin’s public intervention, city officials ditched the controversial construction site.
Journalists in police crosshairs
Meduza readers will likely remember this one. On June 6, police in Moscow arrested Ivan Golunov, one of our investigative reporters, on suspicion of possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. The charges were obviously bogus from the start, but for five days it seemed Golunov would face up to two decades behind bars. And then, on June 11, Russia’s Interior Ministry suddenly closed the case against Golunov, freeing him from house arrest. Because we are confident that Ivan was targeted due to his investigative journalism, Meduza opened access to all his work under the Creative Commons CC BY 4.0 license. P.S. The story that likely got Golunov arrested in the first place will be published very soon.
Alexander “StalinGulag” Gorbunov
After police raided his parents’ home in Dagestan, Alexander Gorbunov confirmed publicly that he is the author of StalinGulag, one of the most popular Telegram channels in Russia. Nine months earlier, the website RBC first outed him as the man behind the channel, which is often highly critical of the state authorities.
In early May, another Telegram figure fell afoul of the police. On May 8, police arrested Mikhail Kumbrov, the producer of the Telegram news channel Mash, on charges of document forgery. Kumbrov allegedly used phony documents to try to obtain a recording of the final communications between dispatchers at Sheremetyevo Airport and the pilots of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 who made a deadly emergency landing on May 5. A day after Kumbrov’s arrest, police raided Mash’s newsroom, seizing all its computer equipment and interrogating several staff members for about six hours.
Following recent legislative reforms, Russian law enforcement has pivoted away from “extremism” charges, when dealing with various “thought criminals.” Svetlana Prokopyeva was one of the first journalists to experience the country’s new policing prerogatives: In February 2019, officials searched her home and Ekho Moskvy’s Perm newsroom, after Prokopyeva argued on the radio that the Russian state itself was partly to blame for a suicide bomber attack on the FSB’s Arkhangelsk branch headquarters in October 2018.
On June 17, a court in St. Petersburg freed Kaliningrad journalist Igor Rudnikov, after more than 18 months in pretrial detention. Rudnikov was accused of extorting a $50,000 bribe from Investigative Committee General Viktor Ledenev. He argues that the case against him was fabricated, but the court didn’t go so far as to recognize that claim. Instead, it reclassified the charges from extortion to vigilantism, and counted the time he had already spent in jail toward the fulfillment of his shortened sentence.
First, it was former opposition activist Maria Baronova, and then it was former independent journalist Ekaterina Vinokurova. In February and May, RT (formerly Russia Today) poached two figures from the Moscow clique, prompting a wave of public disappointment and sometimes abuse aimed at the two women who “changed sides.” Though both Baronova and Vinokurova have for years expressed views that align with much of RT’s world reporting, the personnel additions nevertheless had many observers wondering what the foreign-focused network’s domestic expansion means for Russian journalism, in an era when much of the independent press has been forced abroad.
Kommersant’s politics desk
On May 20, Kommersant forced out two journalists, special correspondent Ivan Safronov and editor Maxim Ivanov, reportedly at the insistence of the newspaper’s owner, Alisher Usmanov (whose spokespeople say he “played no role and found out about their dismissal from media reports,” arguing that Usmanov “does not interfere in the newspaper's editorial policy”). The dismissals were the result of an article published on April 18 about Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko potentially stepping down to lead Russia’s Pension Fund, clearing the way for current Foreign Intelligence Service Director Sergey Naryshkin. After Safronov and Ivanov were dismissed, Kommersant’s entire politics desk resigned in protest, plunging the outlet into a crisis.
At the outset of 2019, who would have guessed that an HBO show other than “Game of Thrones” would galvanize Russian viewers most of all? The network’s “Chernobyl” miniseries accomplished just that, winning rave reviews from most critics, with the notable exceptions of nuclear-power advocates and state-media pundits. Meduza watched the show closely, comparing its characters to their real-life counterparts and asking Russian filmmakers to explain why the same program hasn’t been made domestically. We also reported the stories of two eyewitnesses who experienced the nuclear disaster firsthand.
A musical crackdown
In late 2018, police pressure led to the cancellation of more than 40 popular music concerts across the country. A handful of acts appeared to be targeted disproportionately, especially the pop groups IC3PEAK and Friendzone, along with the rappers Husky and Eldzhey. Despite signals from the Kremlin that rap is not Russia’s enemy, the authorities’ hostility toward certain musicians and performers has continued. In early May 2019, National Guard troops beat up 30 people at Moscow’s Hip-Hop Mayday festival, after a small number of audience members threw tiling. An agency spokesman later said the police response was “appropriate for the situation.” Three weeks later, Moscow’s Labor and Social Welfare Department sent a memo to various district governments and social welfare agencies recommending that they warn adoptive parents and guardians about the dangers of listening to the teen pop duo Friendzone, despite findings by Russia’s federal censor that the group is harmless.
Too hot for TV
In early February, the chief editor behind the television game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” accused “What? Where? When?” veteran contestant Alexander Drouz of trying to cheat his way to a large cash prize. The allegations sent shock-waves through Russia’s enormously serious quiz-show community. Two months later, Russia’s song-competition reality show world was rocked by its own scandal, when the daughter of two celebrities used SMS bots to steal victory on the show “The Voice Kids.”
In mid-April, the Russian government adopted legislation designed to “ensure the safe and sustainable functioning” of Internet service in Russia. Lawmakers say the law will defend the country against foreign aggression, serving as insurance, in case Russia’s global Internet access is shut off from abroad. The legislation effectively lays out how Russia’s Internet infrastructure would work in isolation from the outside world. Critics, including thousands of protesters who turned out in Moscow in March, say the new law will give the authorities the power to cut off Russians’ digital access to the outside world. Meduza studied the legislation, reported from the protests, and profiled “Roskomsvoboda,” the civic advocacy group that’s become Russia’s primary Internet-freedom watchdog.
Fake news and insulting state officials
No, Donald Trump does not own exclusive rights on the concept of “fake news.” The dissemination of “unreliable news stories” is now illegal in Russia, and the prohibition has already led to some particularly ludicrous police cases. The same goes for new penalties on “disrespect toward the government,” which has made anti-Putin graffiti risky, despite the president’s insistence that citizens have the right to criticize the authorities. Meduza explained how these new forms of censorship are supposed to work, examined the ethical mess that’s followed, and published an essay written by anti-corruption activist Leonid Volkov from a Moscow jail cell about these tools of political repression.
The Moscow City Duma race
In this September’s elections for the Moscow City Duma, the race for the 43rd District’s seat has been the most closely watched. The central urban district has a history of offering opposition candidates a strong starting position. The main contest here was expected to be between Nyuta Federmesser, a widely recognized advocate for palliative care and the founder of the hospice aid foundation “Vera,” and Lyubov Sobol, an attorney for Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. On June 15, however, Federmesser suddenly dropped out of the race. Immediately afterwards, two new figures announced their candidacy: former soccer player and Russian national team member Dmitry Bulykin and actor Andrey Sokolov. In late May, Sobol encountered another problem, this time at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, where her appearance on a talk show run by journalism students was reportedly canceled two days before it was supposed to happen.
Russian citizenship for the Donbas
In late April, Vladimir Putin signed an order allowing for an expedited citizenship process for residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (the DPR and LPR), which form Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. Experts estimate that the new policy could cost Moscow at least 100 billion rubles ($1.6 billion) in additional annual social-security payments, though the Kremlin disputes this number. In May, Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova traveled to Luhansk and the Rostov region to learn more about the “mad dash” for Russian citizenship and why people in Ukraine’s Donbas want it so badly.
You might be forgiven for forgetting that it was nearly impossible earlier this year in Russia to ignore news stories about Evgeny “Putin’s Chef” Prigozhin. The catering magnate made headlines for contaminated school lunches, private plane flights to Syria and Africa, and his news agency’s alleged involvement in the July 2018 murder of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic. Political strategists tied to Prigozhin also reportedly exerted influence on St. Petersburg’s upcoming gubernatorial election and Madagascar’s 2018 presidential elections.
Vladimir Putin’s two most public appearances
In late February, in a speech similar to the State of the Union, the president made his annual address to Russia’s Federal Assembly. It lasted 88 minutes. Four months later, Putin spent four hours on live national television, fielding an array of questions submitted from constituents around the country. As always, both these events were carefully choreographed to project the Kremlin’s strength and resolve. Though the president’s rhetoric has grown stale over almost 20 years in power, Meduza published “in a nutshell” summaries of both Putin appearances.