Atamanshchina in the Donbass Both an Opportunity and a Threat to Kyiv

July 21, 2016
SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE - MARCH 07: Cossacks stand guard at the entrance to the Crimean Parliament building on March 7, 2014 in Simferopol, Ukraine. raine and join Russia. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

A Baker’s Dozen of Neglected Russian Stories – No. 41

Staunton, VA, June 22, 2016 – The flood of news stories from a country as large, diverse and strange as the Russian Federation often appears to be is far too large for anyone to keep up with. But there needs to be a way to mark those which can’t be discussed in detail but which are too indicative of broader developments to ignore.

Consequently, Windows on Eurasia presents a selection of 13 of these other and typically neglected stories at the end of each week. This is the 41st such compilation. It is only suggestive and far from complete – indeed, once again, one could have put out such a listing every day — but perhaps one or more of these stories will prove of broader interest.
1. Doping Scandal Emblematic of Putin System. As is invariably the case, the Putin regime and its defenders have denied and then sought to limit the scope of the state-sponsored doping system that the Kremlin leader put in place in order to win at Sochi and elsewhere. But in reality, such behavior is emblematic of Vladimir Putin’s approach to all things – engage in criminal acts to advance his own agenda and then deny and obfuscate in order to avoid being held responsible, according to Russian opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky.
2. How Bad is the Russian Economy Doing? Even Some Siloviki Are Out of Work. The Russian economy is in increasingly dire straights. The real incomes of Russians have fallen for the 20th month in a row, capital flight is slowing only because there is so little easily exportable capital left, and Russians are cutting back on their purchases in all spheres. But there are two more serious indicators of how bad things are: Putin is going after the shadow or “garage” economy in the hopes of finding more tax money and some siloviki, the last line of defense of the Putin system, are now losing their jobs.
3. Is Pokemon the Devil, a CIA Agent or Vladimir Putin Himself? The Pokemon Go craze has become the latest occasion for the manifestation of conspiracy theories among Russians. Some see Pokemon as the devil, others insist he is a CIA plot against Russia, and still others say that Pokemon is Putin or Putin is Pokemon. One of the most interesting aspects of these discussions is in the Russian Orthodox Church where some commentators have suggested that the search for Pokemon will lead young Russians back into churches where they can be evangelized.
4. Russian Orthodox Church Backs Ivan the Terrible Statue But Opposes One of Jesus Christ. In perhaps the clearest indication ever of what the Moscow Patriarchate is about, its hierarchs say they approve plans to put up a statue of Ivan the Terrible in Orel but are completely opposed to putting up one of Jesus Christ in St. Petersburg. That apparently paradoxical attitude is reflected in other things as well: the church has eliminated references to the GULAG at its Solovetsky Islands museum even though that is where the Soviet prison camp system got its start, and some commentators are complaining that the church has been covering up research on the murder of the Imperial Family as well. Meanwhile, anti-religious activists say more Russians would declare themselves to be atheists if the state weren’t supporting the Orthodox church, and a priest has declared that the Orthodox clergy now suffer from all the shortcomings of Russian society, including an untrammeled desire to make money.
5. Three Moves on the Nationalities Front. Chuvash activists want to set up permanent representations abroad so that their republic can interact with other countries. Sakha residents says they want the president they elected in the 1990s to be returned to office one way or another. And Eurasianist Aleksandr Dugin proposes cutting up Karelia in pieces to undercut the nationalist movement there.
6. When Even Siberia Isn’t Far Enough Away. Russian officials first said that they would send to Siberia the recent FSB grads who blew their cover by being photographed at a graduation ceremony that got out of hand. But they decided that that wasn’t far enough, and this week these officials indicated that the offending officers will now spend their time in the farthest reaches of the Russian Far East. But that may not be all bad, they could find, as one survey suggests that the happiest village in Russia – on the Kamchatka peninsula bordering the Pacific – is one of the happiest villages in the country.
7. Troubles on Russia’s Railroads. Russia’s rail lines have suffered from all kinds of problems. But there were two new ones reported this past week: In the Urals region, commuters seized a train in order to get to work and on the Trans-Siberian, a woman was beheaded by a passing train as she and her partner were having open-air sex.
8. The Chess Player Vanishes … and Putin Gets Taller. In Soviet times, as David King documented in his 1997 book, The Commissar Vanishes, those political figures who got in trouble were whited out of pictures on a regular basis. Now the Putin regime has extended this tactic to others: it has now eliminated all references and pictures of opposition leader and chess champion Gary Kasparov from a new book about Russian chess. Russian photoshop experts are also turning their efforts to make Putin look taller, adjusting pictures to make him look as tall as the US secretary of state. And Moscow continues to manufacture fake pictures to try to suggest that someone other than the Kremlin was responsible for the downing of the Malaysian airliner.
9. What Chinese-Russian Cooperation Really Looks Like – Beijing Builds Its Half of a Bridge, Moscow Doesn’t. A perfect symbol of Chinese-Russian cooperation is provided by a half-built bridge between the two countries. As a picture of the site shows, China has finished its half of the bridge, but the Russians have done nothing but create a tent city on the Russian side of the border.
10. Slouching toward Totalitarian Democracy. Few Russians care about the Duma elections, polls show, because they don’t think the outcome, which is probably already known, matters, and incumbent Duma deputies encourage this attitude saying that the main thing for Russians is not the right to choose their leaders but to have their problems solved. Meanwhile, Russian commentators are pushing for a purely majoritarian approach to rule: they say that Moscow should be concerned about the majority not the majority and that the EU should change its approach to human rights by stop focusing on the status of minorities and show more concern for the rights of majorities.
11. Moscow Asks Russians to Drop Facebook Accounts But Fewer than 5,000 Have. The Russian authorities have asked Russians to cancel their Facebook accounts so that they will not be infected with any ideas from that form of social media, but so far fewer than 5,000 have done so.
12. All Russians are Equal but Some are More Equal than Others. When Russians were evacuated from Turkey after the failed coup there, some stranded Russians reported that Russian carriers had given preference to Muscovites over people from the regions, something that will do nothing to make the residents of the capital, already despised by many in what Muscovites call “the provinces” like them any better.
13. This Week’s Marie Antoinette Moment: Russian Complains Terrorists in Nice Kept Her from Seeing Fireworks. Competition for the most outrageous thing a Russian has said in the past week keeps heating up. This week’s winner is the wealthy Russian woman who was visiting Nice and complained that the terrorist attack there had gotten in the way of her being able to enjoy a fireworks display.
And six more from countries near Russia:

14. Putin Cult and Putin Problems Even More Obvious in Crimea than in Chechnya. Billboards and other advertisements of the Kremlin leader are even more prominent in Russian-occupied Crimea than they are in Chechnya, journalists say. But so too are the shortcomings of the Putin system: in Crimea now, some pensioners are being given toilet paper in lieu of cash for their monthly stipends.

15. Donbass Occupiers Haven’t Gained Support – In Fact, They Appear to Be Losing It. At the start of the pro-Moscow invasion in 2014, just under one in five of the residents of Ukraine’s Donbass supported the new rulers. The share now is no greater and is likely less as reports come in of residents protesting against the DNR and LNR powers that be.

16. Moscow Hopes to Put Gagauz and Bulgarians in Play Inside Ukraine. Russian officials appear to be behind efforts to mobilize the microscopically small Gagauz and Bulgarian minorities inside Ukraine to put pressure on Kyiv to agree to give them and other territorial autonomy, the latest example of Moscow’s attempt to use the principle of national self-determination against a state that has achieved it for itself.
17. Uzbekistan Losing Battle Against Desertification. Water shortages are leading to the spread of desert conditions over ever more of Uzbekistan, something Tashkent now seems powerless to block let alone reverse.
18. Kyrgyz Language at Risk Because Dictionaries aren’t Keeping Up. Because Bishkek has not published new dictionaries of the national language on a regular basis, experts say, the language is becoming degraded as a result of the untrammeled entrance of various terms from other languages.
19. Ukrainian Archives have Data on Two Million People Soviets Persecuted. If the Ukrainian archives are completely opened, that action almost certainly will spark a new wave of anti-Moscow feeling given that there are files on two million Ukrainians who were subject to repression by the Soviet regime.
Atamanshchina in the Donbass Both an Opportunity and a Threat to Kyiv
Staunton, VA, July 21, 2016 – Three reports on July 21 – that people in the Donbass are protesting pro-Moscow forces there, that desertions among those forces are increasing, and that their members are even shooting at one another – provide fresh support for the proposition that the pro-Moscow forces there are a new version of “the atamanshchina.”

(For a discussion of the origins of this term and its application to the situation in portions of Ukraine today not controlled by Kyiv, see Atamanshchina Spreading among Pro-Moscow Forces in Ukraine’s Donbass“.)
To the extent that what is occurring in the Donbass has some characteristics of the earlier atamanshchina, that offers both real opportunities and real dangers to the Ukrainian government now and in the future, opportunities and dangers that Ukrainians and those supporting them against Russian aggression need to keep in mind.
On the one hand, Ukrainians are undoubtedly pleased to see these latest indications of problems within the pro-Moscow controlled regions of the Donbass, be encouraged that the rule of these brigands and criminals will soon collapse, and to think that this will open the way to the restoration of Ukrainian control there.
But on the other hand, there are three reasons why Ukrainians should be worried about these developments, reasons that have their roots not only in the nature of the atamanshchina style of rule but also in the ways in which such behavior can be exploited by Moscow and will cast a shadow on Ukraine even after these areas are restored to Ukrainian control.
First, the disintegration of the DNR and LNR authorities, something that could lead to a full-scale collapse of this Kremlin project, could become the occasion for Moscow to launch a new military campaign. Nothing would do more to restore unit cohesion and discipline in these entities than a major Russian military campaign.
Consequently, Ukrainians and their supporters should keep in mind that what looks positive now may be the cause of a far more serious “negative” in the future.
Second, if Russia’s goal is to spread chaos into Ukraine and thus make Kyiv less able to carry out needed reforms and less attractive as a partner for the West, chaos of the kind now in evidence in the Donbass is a useful tactic – or at least something Moscow can exploit to promote similar chaos elsewhere in Ukraine.
During the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks often used temporary alliances with those in the atamanschina to do just that, something that disordered the situation in areas of Moscow control to be sure but that sowed dissension and confusion in the ranks of the political opponents of the Soviet state.
And third, this kind of atamanshchina is something extremely difficult to stamp out. After the Bolsheviks defeated the main anti-Bolshevik forces by the early1920s, they had to spend many years to wipe out the attitudes and organizations that gave rise to atamanshchina earlier – and they were prepared to use far more brutal means than any contemporary state likely could.
That means that Ukraine must be prepared to deal with the results of this phenomenon in the Donbass when it recovers that area or even if it does not. Failure to do so and especially failure to think about this challenge as seems to be the case in Kyiv now will mean that “the rule of the atamans” will again cast a dark shadow on that country.