Welcome to our column, Russia Update, where we will be closely following day-to-day developments in Russia, including the Russian government’s foreign and domestic policies.
The previous issue is here.
Recent Analysis and Translations:
– Aurangzeb, Putin, Realism and a Lesson from History
– – Why the World Should Care About the Assassination of Boris Nemtsov
– How Boris Nemtsov Was Murdered: Investigation by Novaya Gazeta
– – How Stalin Returned to Russian Contemporary Life – Meduza
Early this morning US and Russian media reported that even after months of study, Washington, DC medical examiners were unable to determine the cause of the death of Mikhail Lesin, the Russian billionaire, former aide to President Vladimir Putin and state media executive.
Lesin was found dead on November 5, 2015 at the age of 59 at the Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, DC. He was the former press minister, founder of RT and head of Gazprom Media, the gas monopoly’s company that holds a number of properties including Ekho Moskvy, the “last independent radio station”. Before his death, he had left this position citing “family reasons.”
But this afternoon, the Washington Post reported that medical examiners were saying that Lesin died of “blunt force trauma to the head.”
A former aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin who was found dead in a Dupont Circle hotel room in November died of blunt force trauma to the head, the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office said on Thursday.
Mikhail Lesin, 59, also suffered injuries to his neck, body and upper and lower extremities, the medical examiner said in a statement. The manner of death is undetermined, according to the statement.
Dustin Sternbeck, the D.C. police department’s chief spokesman, said the case remains an active investigation. He would not say if the medical examiner’s ruling means a crime may have been committed. “We’re not willing to close off anything at this point,” he said.
Many Russians — who have been discussing another suspicious death of an official all day — believe Lesin was murdered.
Saratov was the mayor of Sevastopol who was reported to die on the operating table in Moscow. Maj. Gen. Shushukin was said to lead Russia’s paratroopers in the takeover of Crimea and reportedly died of a heart attack. Igor Sergun was head of Russia’s military intelligence who was said to die in a clinic but rumors included his death in Lebanon while involved in trying to convince Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad to step down.
Miloslav Ransdorf was a pro-Russian deputy from the Communist Party of Czech Republic and Moravia in the European Parliament who was reported to have died of diabetes in Prague. Anatoly Khrulev is the head of the general staff of Abkhazia.
Translation: They killed him, that means Lesin is one of us!
Translation: Litvinenko-Perepelichny-Berezovsky-Lesin. Who else? “Whoever doesn’t understand, will.”
Dzyadko, a journalist at TV Rain, was referencing the cases of former spy Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with polonium “probably” with the involvement of Putin, as the London High Court Found; the death of Alexander Perepilichny, a Russian businessman a key witness in the Magnitsky case found dead after jogging in London; and Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who is believed to have committed suicide.
He also recites a tag line popularized by Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, said to be the title of an upcoming film about him, often stated when he issues veiled threats to the Russian opposition.
There has been various hypotheses put forward about Lesin’s death, including that Russian intelligence agents murdered him because he was about to cooperate with the FBI in exchange for clemency in some criminal cases involving property he had purchases, or conversely, that FBI agents killed him.
In 2014, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi called for the Attorney General of the US to investigate Lesin for buying $28 million worth of properties in California.
Family members have said Lesin died of a heart attack. The traumas found on his body suggest that he met a violent end although a conclusive statement has not been made by DC authorities.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
The former head of Gokhran, the state depository of precious metals and stones of the Finance Ministry, was reported to have died last Saturday, March 4, Interfax reported.
Vladimir Rybkin was found dead near the building at No. 25 Zubovsky Boulevard. LifeNews reported that a police source told them Rybkin suffered trauma “characteristic of falling from a height” and that he only had his passport with him.
The story of his death is the most read story at LifeNews today and a number of Russians are making cynical posts on social media indicating they don’t believe the official reason for his death.
“Falls from great heights” both literally and figuratively have been common in Soviet and Russian history; for example, Nikolai Kruchina, the official responsible for the Communist Party’s properties, jumped from a window of the Kremlin as the August 1991 coup failed.
Translation: In connection with dizzyness from success, the former head of Gokhan V. Rybkin fell out of a window. Be careful, comrades.
The bound phrase “dizzyness from success” is a catch phrase in Russian history that was the title of an infamous article by Joseph Stalin on March 2, 1920, about the collectivization of farms. In it, he said that socialism ‘could now be considered guaranteed” but there were some “overzealous” types who “poured water on the mills of our enemies” with their “excesses” — a reference to the mass murder of wealthier farmers known as kulaks and others who resisted expropriation of their property.
Translation: What did that Rybkin do to dickhead. Why did he so brutally break him.
The reference is to Putin, and the word is taken from the vulgar Ukrainian term used in protests against the war.
Translation: The former head of RF Gokhran, the institution that counts the gold reserves of the country, V. Rybkin, threw himself out of a window. He smoked too much!
Translation: Rybkin, the “keeper of the Party’s gold” fell out of the window in Moscow.
Rybkin’s death was avidly discussed on VKontakte, Russia’s most popular social network.
One user said “It looks like he stole too much” and another said “everything is repeating in a circle and soon there will be the GKChP.”
The GKChP was the State Committee for the Emergency Situation, also known as the August 1991 coup plotters.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
As we reported, a group of 4 Russian and 2 European journalists accompanied by 2 Russian human rights defenders were attacked by a gang of Chechen men near the Chechen border yesterday and severely beaten. They then torched their car, and later vandalized the office of the Joint Mobile Group, a project of lawyers from various Russian human rights organizations concerned to defend the rights of Chechens.
The local driver of the journalists’ minibus, who has not been named, suffered a broken arm and leg in the attack, Mediazone reported in a liveblog of details as they unfolded yesterday.
Aleksandrina Yelagina, a journalist from New Times, was among those injured.
У Александрина Елагина диагностировали сегодня повреждение кости ноги. А у госпитализированного вчера водителя автобуса сегодня установили переломы ноги…
Translation: Aleksandrina Yelagina was diagnosed today with a damaged leg bone. And the driver hospitalized yesterday has been diagnosed today with leg and arm fractures, according to his own account.
Mukharbek Dekazhev, speaker of the Ingushetia parliament, said the attack wouldn’t have occurred if the journalists had informed the authorities about their itinerary and taken a government escort. He also said the attack was planned by people who knew who the victims were and that they had no security escort. “They chose an unpopulated area where they could realize their criminal intent,” he said.
Since the attack, the group has accepted government protection.
Journalists are divided on the issue of whether they should have armed protection on such trips in the North Caucasus because they can attract more violence instead of less. They also tend not to accept government minders who not only intimidate the people they are interviewing but can censor their material.
Interestingly, the Ingush authorities at least condemned the attack and conceded that the perpetrators acted with criminal intent to stop the journalists from reporting. By contrast, Chechen authorities first denied that any attack took place, then blamed the attack on the human rights activists themselves, claiming they staged it for publicity. The Chechen government spokesman said earlier today that the verbal attacks by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov should not be linked to yesterday’s attack.
Translation: The victims and witnesses in the case of the attack on the human rights activists and journalists have been taken under government protection by the Interior Ministry.
Kadyrov himself has not made any reference to the attack, but has posted a picture of himself cradling a baby lion on his Instagram account, along with a re-post of a clip from Chechnya’s Committee on Tourism saying, “Chechnya is open to all those who come in peace.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry gave a measured response, TASS reported:
As with any lawless action regarding citizens, we condemn the attack on representatives of the civic organization and journalists and express our sympathy to the victims. We hope that the perpetrators will be found and will bear the relevant punishment.
State Duma deputy Dmitry Gudkov filed an inquiry about the attack to Vladimir Kolokoltsev, head of the Interior Ministry, and complained about the article of the criminal code under which Ingushetia’s branch of the Investigative Committee had opened the case — “hooliganism”. This is a milder offense than “assault with bodily damage” or “obstruction of the lawful professional activity of a journalist” — the article under which opposition activist Leonid Volkov is currently on trial in a case likely contrived to discourage his participation in elections.
Gudkov pointed out that the attackers demonstrated that they acted with intent and knowledge of the identities of the victims so a more serious charges are warranted..
Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Commission for Human Rights, also addressed an appeal to Prosecutor General Yury Chaika.
Russian journalists and cultural figures have responded with a number of acts of solidarity.
Mikhail Mordasov, a prominent photographer, has announced a fund-raising drive to restore the journalists’ equipment which was smashed.
A number of activists have gone to picket the presidential administration in protest against the attack.
Translation: St. Petersburg journalists have come out to support their colleagues injured in Ingushetia @ars_ves reports. The action will be at Malaya Konyushennaya at 18:00.
Translation: Denis Sinyakov at a solo picket at the Presidential Administration.
Sinyakov was himself jailed for 3 months for photographing the protest of environmentalists protesting against Russian drilling in the Arctic.
Mariya Alekhina is a member of Pussy Riot who also served more than 2 years in labor camp for “hooliganism” aggravated by “insult of the feelings of religious believers.”
This tweet illustrates a phenomenon that has been creeping up on the Russian liberal community: whereas once various famous figures and colleagues in the field would come to the defense of those imprisoned or beaten, with more and harsher punishments and more people leaving for exile, those protesting tend to be others who themselves had fallen victim to the regime.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
Translation: I’ve left the Investigative Committee. I am a suspect under the new Art. 138-1. My telephone is confiscated, call on 89167307722 for now.
Art. 138 deals with “violation of the confidentiality of correspondence, telephone conversations, postal, telegraph and other communications of citizens” and “unlawful use of special technological means intended for clandestine receipt of information.”
The reason for the charges is not known, but one supporter surmised it was part of the general crackdown before the fall parliamentary elections:
Translation: The election campaign has begun, I think all the candidates and those related will be jailed or not allowed to be in the elections.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
“It was absolutely terrible. I thought I would die. I thought that I would like to send greetings to my wife one last time.”
“They tried to drag me out of the bus while they beat me with sticks and stuck us with all sorts of sharp objects. I fought against them as best I could. I thought: If they pull me out of the bus, then I’m dead.”
“I have no doubt. They shouted at us that we were traitors. They showed they knew well who we were and what our names were. This was a purposeful attack to stop us.”
He said they had not yet safely left Ingushetia, and feared an additional attack. “There is impunity here. I think how terrible it must be for the people living here,” he added.
Windstad also gave an interview to Timur Rahmatulin, a member of the Committee to Prevent Torture in English, in which he described the attackers as shouting “Journalists are pederasts!” and refused to desist, even when he tried to speak Chechen and Russian with them.
The Norwegian Foreign Ministry said they had demanded an explanation from Russia for the incident, FlashNord reported.
Norwegian officials said they had contacted their citizens and are providing diplomatic assistance. They advised Norwegians refrain from all but the most necessary travel to Ingushetia and Chechnya as well as other North Caucasus republics.
One of the two refugees was Apti Nazhuyev who was deported from Norway in 2011, and in June 2013 he was found beaten to death in a river in Chechnya. He had previously fought with Chechen rebels until 2001. The Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Russian Memorial Human Rights Center had called on Norway not to send back the Chechens as they faced likely arrest and torture. But the Norwegian Immigration Appeals Board said it was not appropriate to grant the Chechens asylum on the basis of what was known about them in 2011.
Windstad said the masked assailants numbering between 15-20 were traveling in three cars. As they approached the Chechen border, they raced up behind the journalists’ minibus and began breaking the windows and windshield. They dragged the travelers out of the minibus and began beating them with clubs and sticks.
The journalists were taken to a hospital in Sunzha in Ingushetia.
The masked men also took their cameras and cell phones so it has been hard for then to contact people, he said.
— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick