Staunton, VA, March 24, 2017 – 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 75th 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. ‘Putin is the Bin Laden of Today.’ In the wak of the murder of a former Duma deputy in Kyiv who was a declared enemy of the Kremlin leader, independent Russian commentators have placed the blame for this latest outrage squarely on Vladimmir Putin. Igor Eidman, for example, said that “Putin is the bin Laden of today,” “the number one terrorist in the world”; and Viktor Shenderovich has described the Putin regime as a band of murders unrestrained by the norms of morality. But some Putin supporters argue that Putin hasn’t been “bloody enough” and should use his power more often to do away with the enemies of Russia. In other Putin-related stories this week, it was reported that more than 200 million rubles has disappeared from a construction site of one of his palaces, Vladislav Surkov published a novel on how the Putin era will end, some continued the push to make Putin tsar or at least president for life, Putin named to his national security advisory team a man who believes that a secretive world government is conspiring against Russia, and rumors swirled that Putin will restore Soviet-style exit visa requirements after he is reelected president. But Putin’s biggest public statement this week concerned his plans to boost life expectancy among Russians from 72 to 79, a plan that likely overstates where Russia is now given that it is ranked 129th in the world in terms of life expectancy. Nonetheless Russian officials can be counted on to say that he has achieved his goals: Last year, Rosstat was able to announce the cut in mortality rates Putin had promised by simply not counting deaths by accidents at all.
2. Trump Says Putin is ‘One Tough Cookie.’ US President Donald Trump offered his own description of Vladimir Putin: He said that the Kremlin leader is “one tough cookie”. Russia media translated it as “a tough nut”. Meanwhile, Russian citizens continue to appeal to Trump to help them either directly or via his influence on Putin.
3. Russian Economy Deteriorating So Putin Takes Steps So No One Will Know. Russia’s economic performance in February was worse on almost all measures than at any point since the 1990s, but Vladimir Putin has found a solution: he is handing over the state statistical committee Rosstat, which has never been reliable in its reporting, to the ministry of economic development which is even less committed to being constrained by the facts (. So even though the impoverishment of Russians is likely to continue, for those who rely on official statistics alone, life will truly be happier and more joyous. In many ways, there are in reality two Russias now: the top one or two percent who have never suffered very much and are now doing better than they have since 2008, and the other 98 percent whose real incomes are falling and who face higher than average inflation for the services they can’t do without and an increasingly intrusive state when they try to help themselves by gathering mushrooms or fishing. Highlighting their plight is the reemergence in Russia of something rarely seen there at any point in the past: cattle rustling as people seek to get enough meat to eat by theft if necessary.
4. Russian Schools Now at Level They Were in Nazi-Occupied Territories, Shvydkoy Says. Mikhail Shvydkov, Putin’s coordinator for relations with social groups, says that Russian schools have deteriorated to the point that they are no better than were schools in German-occupied portions of the USSR during World War II. Another expert said that the level of innovation in Russia has fallen since Soviet times by 500 to 700 percent. Those are truly damning conclusions about a country that earned so much from the oil boom a decade ago. But for average Russians, they may not be as meaningful as some other social indicators this past week. Among the most prominent were reports that vodka prices have risen significantly, that pollution in major cities is so bad in Moscow that it is powering an increase in premature deaths, that the housing market in Moscow has collapsed even as the khrushchoby are being torn down, that suicides are up 60 percent from last year across the country, and that those whose residences are not connected to gas are unlikely to be at any point in the future. Other indicators of social problems now or in the future are that the country’s nationality agency says it lacks the money needed to do the monitoring in the regions it was organized to do and so will rely on local officials (another guarantee of accuracy), polls showing that Muscovites don’t think they benefited from the annexation of Crimea, and reports that Muslims who now have their own cemeteries and stores are organizing Muslim-only taxi services in the Russian capital.
5. Are Plastic Demonstrators the Future of Protests in Russia? Now that the Russian constitutional court has said that police can disband demonstrations in the name of protecting public health, one group of protesters has come up with a new strategy: instead of using people, they are using plastic models, who or which presumably cannot be infected. But that is just the tip of the iceberg of a mounting number of public protests and sources of protest of various kinds now to be found throughout the Russian Federation, including plans for a meeting against Medvedev that the authorities have threatened to suppress, increasing complaints that counter-sanctions introduced by Vladimir Putin hurt Russians more than they hurt foreign countries, 3,000 people in Makhachkala have now been put on extremist lists, 17 percent of Russians tell pollsters that they don’t consider themselves patriots, Russians are increasingly being forced to take loans to buy food and then not paying them back, Russians are seeing their personal data stolen online up more than 80 percent over the past year alone, taxes on longhaul truckers are slated to go up 25 percent in mid-April, the restrictions imposed in St. Petersburg on local deputies meeting with their constituents have now been extended to Moscow city, cartoons about the regime paying for people to demonstrate on its behalf have gone viral online, and speculation is rife that Russian universities could become the next hotspots in demonstrations in that country. But despite all these problems, some analysts say that Russians are unlikely to protest about anything other than their own immediate problems because they lack the empathy to be concerned about broader issues that affect others more than themselves.
6. Russians Want to Celebrate Memory of Paul I and Pobedonostev. In yet another indication of the increasingly archaic quality of Russian public life, Russians now want to celebrate two of the most infamous reactionaries in Russian history, Paul I who was assassinated by his entourage for his sometimes strange behavior and Konstantin Pobedonostev, the notorious advisor to the last several tsars. Meanwhile, the monuments wars continued even though the culture ministry said that the Russian state has better things to do than administer cathedrals. Other developments on this front include: a historian has said that if Russians knew the truth about Lenin, there soon wouldn’t be any Lenin memorials in Russia, attacks on the Yeltsin Center increased in intenstity, Dagestanis want to erect a monument to journalists who have been murdered there, Circassian activists want the Russian state to help erect a monument to the victims of the Caucasian wars of the 18th and 19th centuries, LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky wants Volgograd to become Stalingrad once again, the Moscow city government has refused to rename the Lenin subway station for Andrey Rublyov, Moscow officials have announced a timetable for the construction of a monument to Boris Nemtsov which means that it will not be completed until after the Russian presidential elections, and the FSB is constructing a monument to officers of the Soviet security services who lost their lives in the defense of the country.
7. Moscow Stripped of Right to Host League of Champions Competition in 2018. The international body that governs the League of Champions football competition has stripped Moscow of the right to host the 2018 final, another step toward Russia’s losing the World Cup in the same year. Nonetheless, Moscow continues to put a brave face on its chances to host the World Cup and this week officials talked about denying entry to the Ukrainian team now that Kyiv has blocked Russia’s representative from taking part in the Eurovision competition. Two other developments suggest Russia won’t be ready for the World Cup no matter what: officials say Russian roads are so bad that they won’t be able to carry visitors to competition sites if Moscow does retain the right to host the competition, and Moscow is planning to open a series of sobering up stations, infamous in Soviet times, to deal with unruly fans. Meanwhile, yet another Russian source on the doping scandal has fled to the West out of fear for his life.
8. Putin Regime Bans Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Russian justice ministry has closed down all Jehovah’s Witness organizations as extremist threats, a step that their leaders say puts Russia today on track to be like Nazi Germany where Jehovah’s Witnesses were among the first to be confined to German concentration camps.
9. Pace Putin, Medvedev Says He hasn’t Been Ill. Vladimir Putin recently said that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev hadn’t appeared in public because he was ill, but that illness apparently was completely political: Medvedev has now declared that he wasn’t ill at all. Meanwhile, Navalny’s investigation into Medvedev’s corrupt practices has led some KPRF Duma deputies to demand an investigation, but the Kremlin remains opposed to that step lest it lead to others.
10. Refitting of Russia’s Only Aircraft Carrier May Take Three to Five Years. The Russian navy says that the necessary refitting of that country’s only aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov, will take three to five years and cost billions of rubles, thus likely leaving Moscow without that means of projecting power by sea for the intervening period.
11. ‘Russians have Become Like Sicilians,’ But When Abroad, They Mustn’t Act like Russians. A commentator has suggested that Russians because they are impoverished and dependent on criminal bosses have become like the Sicilians. And the Russian Foreign Ministry has issued an advisory suggesting that when Russians travel abroad, they should restrain some of their typical activities lest they spark anger there, a call that has outraged some Russians and amused others.
12. Russia’s ‘Hurrah’ Comes from Mongol. Many Russian economic and political terms have Mongol origins, but one word Russians likely think doesn’t in fact does: “ura” or in English “hurrah.” The term was first used, historians say, by Mongol horsemen on their way to occupying the region that later became Russia.
13. Few Peoples Joined Russia Voluntarily. Moscow has always promoted the idea that the peoples of the Russian Empire, the USSR, and now the Russian Federation joined the Russian state “voluntarily.” But a survey of the periphery of Russia today finds that very few joined on that basis. Most were forced to do so at gunpoint or under threat of Muscovite military action.
And six more from countries in Russia’s neighborhood:
1. New Push for Intermarium Alliance Against Russia. The former presidents of the countries from the Baltic to the Black Sea are calling for this group of countries to form an alliance to defend themselves against the Russian threat and to put themselves in a better business to negotiate with the West as well.
2. Russia’s War Against Ukraine Continues to Claim Victims. Russian aggression in Ukraine continues with more Ukrainian soldiers and civilians killed and wounded every week. But Kyiv officials say that Moscow does not have sufficient forces to attack along the entire border at any one time and thus is forced to carefully husband its resources for more narrow efforts to destabilize Ukraine. In a related development, Moscow after announcing that it was recognizing the passports of its puppet DNR and LNR statelets in Ukraine reduced the significance of that move by saying that its migration regulations applying to Ukrainians would also apply to DNR and LNR “citizens”.
3. Ukraine has Surpassed Russia on Quality of Life Survey. An international survey finds that Ukrainians have on average a better quality of life than do Russians, and a second one finds that Uzbeks are happier than Russians again on average.
4. Uzbeks have Displaced Russians as Second Largest Nationality in Kyrgyzstan. In many places in Central Asia, the departure of ethnic Russians over the last two decades means that the Russians are no longer the second largest nationality. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, for example, the Uzbeks are now number two.
5. Belarusian Protesters Warn Lukashenka Regime Loyalists: ‘Shoulderboards Won’t Save You.’ Graffiti that has appeared in Minsk warns the Belarusian force structures that their status as officers will not save them if the revolution happens, a message intended to make the officers think twice about continuing to defend Lukashenka but one that may cause the officers they have nothing to lose by fighting to the end.
6. Russia Behind Most Disappearances in Crimea, Rights Activists Say. Russian forces directly or indirectly are behind almost all the disappearances in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Such disappearances are a tactic the Russian forces are using to drive out those they don’t approve of. Another strategy is to boost representatives of the smallest nationalities in order to appear tolerant even as they oppress larger ones like the Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians.
The previous issue of A Baker’s Dozen, no. 74, can be found here.