The Real Russia. Today. Chelyabinsk smog protesters, Butina's ‘torture,’ and a Russian hacker goes consultant

Friday, December 14, 2018

This day in history. On December 14, 1939, the League of Nations expelled the Soviet Union from the organization for invading Finland.
  • Chelyabinsk locals declare boycott after state TV network covers up environmentalist protest at City Hall
  • Russia's prison population is now lower than at any point in modern history
  • Russian foreign minister says Maria Butina was ‘tortured’ into cooperating with U.S. law enforcement
  • Russian hacker who once tormented state officials says he's starting his own cybersecurity consultancy
  • Maxim Trudolyubov says Russia's Constitution is ‘camouflage’ for something sinister
  • Alexander Rubtsov says Russian officials views on science are stuck in Soviet rhetoric
  • Someone set fire to a hospital outside Moscow, hours after Navalny published an investigative report about corruption at the clinic

Have you been to Paris lately? 🏭

People living in Chelyabinsk have declared a boycott against the state television network Rossiya 1, following a recent broadcast of the debate show “60 Minutes,” where the hosts denied evidence of a protest against the city’s smog. According to a local environmentalist community on Vkontakte, Chelyabinsk residents are complaining on social media that the channel reports lies, vowing not to tuned in any longer.

On December 12, environmentalists assembled at Chelyabinsk City Hall to discuss the city’s ecological crisis with acting Mayor Vladimir Elistratov. According to various estimates, between 50 and 200 people entered the building, waiting roughly an hour to speak to Elistratov. Local news outlets reported that the activists “stormed” and “attacked” City Hall, but video footage from the protest suggests that the demonstrators mostly just stood around and argued with the mayor’s staff.

When the activists were finally granted an audience with Elistratov, they demanded that he declare a state of emergency. The mayor tried to comfort the crowd by explaining that Chelyabinsk isn’t the world’s worst polluted city. “Have you been to Paris lately? Do you have any idea what the ecology is like there? I’m asking because our situation isn’t the worst in the world,” Elistratov said.

Olga Skabeeva and Evgeny Popov, the hosts of Rossiya 1’s “60 Minutes” show, claimed that no one had protested at Chelyabinsk City Hall, showing the studio audience a live video feed from the courtyard in front of the mayor’s building — two hours after the confrontation between Elistratov and the environmentalists had ended. Skabeeva and Popov ripped into Nikita Isaev, the head of the “New Russia” movement, who was a guest on the show. When Isaev said protesters had “stormed” City Hall, the hosts pointed to the live video feed. Skabeeva didn’t mince words, accusing Isaev of “spreading nonsense” and calling him a “noisy liar.”

After the show aired in Chelyabinsk, local Internet users edited together footage of Skabeeva and Popov claiming that no one protested with footage from inside City Hall, showing the crowd confronting Mayor Elistratov.

In early December, officials in Chelyabinsk warned residents against unfavorable meteorological conditions caused by harmful emissions from local factories. That day, the city was engulfed in thick smog. On December 12, Russia’s Federal Supervisory Natural Resources Management Service ordered four factories to cease all emissions.

The Chelyabinsk region is one of the worst polluted areas in Russia, second only to the Sverdlovsk region, according to rankings by the “Green Patrol” environmentalist coalition.

G'bye Gulag 📉

The prison population in Russia is lower than at any point in modern history, according to new figures released by the Federal Penitentiary Service. There are currently 467,724 inmates in Russia today. For comparison, the prison population was 588,000 people in January 2013 and 497,000 in January 2018.

Russia partly owes its falling incarcerations to prison reforms adopted earlier this year that weigh days spent in pretrial detention as 1.5 days in a standard prison. According to estimates, the new policy instantly freed roughly 14,000 people and made early parole available to nearly 100,000 inmates.

Tortured souls 🕊️

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has commented on Maria Butina’s cooperation with American law enforcement, claiming that she was subjected to “a kind of torture.”

“I understand this woman. She finds herself in extreme conditions, and for months on end they’ve been subjecting her to a kind of torture: taking her for walks in the middle of the night, forcibly interrupting her sleep, throwing her in solitary confinement, and a whole lot more,” Lavrov explained on Friday, arguing that U.S. authorities did what was necessary to “break her” and force her to confess to crimes she did not commit. “But I repeat: this is her fate and her decision. We will do everything to ensure that our citizen’s rights are ensured so that she may return home as soon as possible.”

On December 13, Butina admitted to a single count of conspiracy to violate the law governing foreign agents operating in the U.S. She has also agreed to cooperate with American investigators, presumably by providing information about any efforts by Russian state officials to interfere in U.S. politics. Read Butina's plea agreement and statement of offense here. Her sentencing is expected on February 12, 2019.

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men 🥚

Vladimir Anikeev, the former leader of the hacktivist group “Anonymous International” (better known in Russia as “Shaltai Boltai” or “Humpty Dumpty”), has announced that he will form his own cybersecurity consultancy. He told the magazine RBC that he’s even considering keeping the “Shaltai Boltai / Anonymous International” brand name.

Anikeev went free from prison in August 2018 after serving two years for the felony crime of unauthorized data access. He spent less than two years behind bars thanks to Russia's new incarceration rules that weigh days spent in pretrial detention as 1.5 days in a standard prison.

Yury Namestnikov, Kaspersky Lab’s head of global research and analysis team, told RBC that former hackers often have problems transitioning to cybersecurity companies because the industry places “critical importance on reputation.”

Incidentally, Anikeev may have helped damage Kaspersky Lab’s reputation in Russia when he reportedly informed on Ruslan Stoyanov, the company’s former computer incidents investigation team leader, in late 2016. Stoyanov is now on trial for treason for allegedly passing secret FSB intelligence to an intermediary who handed the data over to the FBI. In October 2018, he was hospitalized after suffering a pulmonary embolism.


⚖️ Trudolyubov says Russia's Constitution is a disguise

In a new op-ed for Vedomosti, columnist Maxim Trudolyubov argues that Russia’s Constitution plays a special role for the Kremlin today, serving as a “sacral document” that offers the country superficial state stability, while the Putin regime constantly remakes the world around it with “new structures and executive powers.” Trudolyubov says the same stability-instability paradox is observable in Russian elections, where the democratic norm of predictable institutions and unpredictable results is flipped on its head in the form of ever-changing election procedures and always predictable election results.

The Kremlin uses the Constitution like a “camouflage net,” Trudolyubov says, arguing that Russia’s authorities try to hide what amounts to their rejection of the Enlightenment itself and its philosophy that states’ power rests with the people and laws, rather than a capricious sovereign. The freedom to rule unpredictably, however, is precisely what the Kremlin wants, and it disguises its authoritarian “actions” with “words” (like the Constitution and Russia's compliance with the European Court of Human Rights), Trudolyubov argues.

🔬 Rubtsov says Soviet science is no fit for postmodern Russia

In an op-ed for RBC, philosopher Alexander Rubtsov argues that Russian state officials have returned to Soviet rhetoric when they claim that rapid scientific mobilization could allow Russian technology to “catch up” to more advanced countries. Rubtsov attributes this flawed thinking to “tradition and bonds” replacing “modernization” as the government’s guiding star.

There are several problems with the USSR’s approach to science, Rubtsov says, namely that it relied on “exploitative forced mobilization” unsuited to the consumer products that drive today’s global economy. He argues that Soviet science is also a bad fit for contemporary Russian state officials because it was a “modern” endeavor based on practical results, not an “ideological and propagandistic postmodern” system. (Rubtsov illustrates this point by recalling that Lavrentiy Beria was ordered to develop an atomic bomb, not produce a top-cited article for a nuclear physics academic journal.)

In the end, Rubtsov warns, the government’s toxic fixation with state-driven “catch-up” mobilization and its unpragmatic pursuit of “indicators” has redirected spending to a pseudoscientific bureaucracy that drains the country’s already limited resources for science.

Burn baby burn 🔥

In the town of Yegoryevsk, outside Moscow, someone set fire to the front door of the Central District Hospital, hours after Alexey Navalny’s live YouTube channel aired an investigative report about the facility.

According to surveillance camera footage that has appeared online, a hooded individual placed two large bags at the foot of the hospital’s door and then set them ablaze, before running away. No one was injured in the incident, and police have charged the perpetrator with willful property damage.

The investigative report that aired several hours before the fire on Navalny LIVE was produced by the “Doctors Alliance” labor union. The report accuses the hospital of multiple code violations, and features patients complaining that they were charged for medications that should have been subsidized, and morticians claiming that the hospital’s morgue is controlled by a company owned by the doctors’ friends that overcharges customers for burial services.

Staff at Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation say a film crew from the state television network Rossiya is planning a major report from the hospital, where correspondents will try to refute the corruption allegations. According to Ruslan Shaveddinov, who works with Navalny, the hospital has registered phony patients and ordered expedited shipments of medications from neighboring clinics to feature for Rossiya’s cameras.

Yours, Meduza