Russia Update: Bloggers Get Stalin Billboard Removed in Dagestan

May 8, 2015
Stalin on billboard in Makhachkala celebrating Victory Day May 9. Photo via Caucasian Knot

The Russian spaceship Progress, which had fallen out of orbit last week, burned up in the earth’s atmosphere above the Pacific Ocean.

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.


Russia This Week:

What Happened to the Slow-Moving Coup?
Can We Be Satisfied with the Theory That Kadyrov Killed Nemtsov?
All the Strange Things Going On in Moscow
Remembering Boris Nemtsov, Insider and Outsider (1959-2015)

Special features:

With Cash and Conspiracy Theories, Russian Orthodox Philanthropist Malofeyev is Useful to the Kremlin
Alexey Navalny On the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Theories about Possible Perpetrators of the Murder of Boris Nemtsov
Novaya Gazeta Releases Sensational Kremlin Memo

Please help The Interpreter to continue providing this valuable information service by making a donation towards our costs‏.

Looks Like Russia Broke Its Promise To Rid Syria of Chemical Weapons

A major headline out of Syria today:

Reuters reports that Syria has lied about it’s chemical weapons program — and by extension, Syria’s key ally, Russia, lied about successfully removing all chemical weapons from the war-torn country:

Samples taken by experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition and Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in December and January tested positive for chemical precursors needed to make the toxic agents, the sources told Reuters on the condition of anonymity because the information is confidential.

“This is a pretty strong indication they have been lying about what they did with sarin,” one diplomatic source said. “They have so far been unable to give a satisfactory explanation about this finding.”

The finding of VX and sarin supports assertions by Western governments that Assad withheld some of his stockpile, or did not disclose the full extent of Syria’s chemical capability or arsenal to the OPCW, according to diplomats and analysts.

OPCW inspectors have been to Syria eight times to verify the accuracy of the details of the chemical weapons programme provided in an initial report, but keep returning with more questions than answers, the diplomats said.

After the August 2013 Sarin gas attack against the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus which killed more than 1400 people, most of them civilians,  the Syrian government made an agreement with the United States and Russia to work with Moscow to destroy its chemical weapons. At the time, Ali Haidar, Syria’s minister of national reconciliation, thanked Russia for negotiating the deal which staved off U.S. airstrikes against the Assad regime. Haidar said:

“We welcome these agreements,” Haidar said. “On one hand, it helps the Syrians emerge from the crisis and on the other it has allowed for averting war against Syria.”

“It’s a victory for Syria that was achieved thanks to our Russian friends,” Haidar said.

Furthermore, the Assad regime has conducted regular chlorine attacks against both civilians and militants — a new attack was reported just yesterday.

Also the focus on chemical weapons was always confusing and hypocritical in the eyes of many Syria watchers, since the vast majority of the civilians killed in this conflict have been killed by conventional weapons belonging to the Assad regime.

Many estimate that more than 300,000 people have been killed in the course of the war in Syria. The Violations Documentation Center in Syria, arguably the most thorough and transparent organization which is documenting this crisis, has confirmed the deaths of more than 116,000 people, more than 83,000 of which are civilians, but acknowledges that the true death toll is much higher. Yesterday alone the Local Coordination Committees of Syria reported that 30 people were killed, 3 of whom were children — a typical day. Many of the civilians killed die at the hands of bombs, often improvised “barrel bombs,” dropped by Assad’s airforce — which uses aircraft which are purchased,  maintained, and armed by Russia.

In other words, the discovery of Sarin in Syria might prove that Russia continues to cover for Assad who continues to lie to the international community, but the focus on chemical weapons unjustly ignored the worst crimes committed by the Assad regime and, by extension, Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia.

James Miller

Did Pro-Kremlin Protesters Project Videos of Russian Tanks Onto the White House?

RFE/RL reports that a group of pro-Kremlin activists have posted a video to Youtube which appears to show a video projection of Russian tanks onto the White House facade:

The video was uploaded to YouTube on May 6 by a film production group called Set, or “Network,” and had garnered more than 750,000 views on the site as of May 8.

It is prefaced with a text stating that U.S. President Barack Obama “has forbidden many world leaders” from visiting Moscow for the city’s Victory Day parade on May 9 — a clear reference to the fact that Western heads of state are skipping Russia’s commemorations of the defeat of Nazi Germany in light of the Kremlin’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula last year and its backing for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

“If Barack doesn’t go to Moscow[‘s] Victory Day Parade, the Parade will go to Barack!” the text accompanying the video reads.

The earliest tweet we could find that features the video:

James Miller
Yevgeniya Vasilyeva, Defendant in Long-Running Oboronservis Corruption Case, Sentenced to 5 Years

A long-running Defense Ministry corruption case has finally reached closure today.

Yevgeniya Vasilyeva, the former head of Department of Property Relations of the Defense Ministry arrested in 2012, has been sentenced to five years of prison, TASS reported.

Photo by TASS

Vasilyeva, who was in charge of real restate affairs for the ministry, pleaded guilty to 12 offenses, including scams related to residence assignments to military personnel and their families and stolen property. She is regarded as having received a relatively milder sentence as her term will be served under standard regimen conditions rather than strict regimen, and some charges against her that might have drawn a longer sentence were dropped.

As we have reported in the past, the case, known as Oboroservis for the name of the Defense Ministry’s holding company also involved former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, amnestied last year and was part of an effort to address corruption inside the Russian military which itself enabled corruption.

Vasilyeva was widely reported as Serdyukov’s mistress, and as we reported, the case tied to the Magnitsky List as well. She was charged with more than $100 million in stolen funds.

A piece by our editor-in-chief, Michael Weiss, from  the Atlantic in 2013 gives a flavor of the case and explains why it has gripped the Russian media for years:

The Serdyukov downfall, which has been covered extensively in the
Russian and international press, broke in November when Yevgeniya
Vasilyeva, the Defense
Minister’s blonde and pouty 33-year old mistress, was charged with
fraud related to more than $100 million in stolen funds from
Oboronservis, the
ministry-owned military real estate company owned of which Vasilyeva
was a director and Serdyukov the chairman up until a year ago. Russia’s
Committee, which is tantamount to the Federal Bureau of
Investigation, alleges that Vasilyeva liquidated state assets at
drop-down prices in order to pay
kickbacks to government officials. It certainly didn’t help that
when police raided her 13-room apartment in downtown Moscow, they
discovered Serdyukov
there, dressed in his bathrobe. Over $1 million in jewelry, cash,
antiques and 19th-century artwork confiscated from the Ministry’s museum
were recovered.
Vasilyeva is now under house arrest, yet may have had the conditions
of her confinement lessened, said now to include occasional visits by
Serdyukov. (The
Russian press has made the most of its fallen cabinet official’s clear
tastes, nicknaming the women he surrounded himself with the “Amazons.”)

Mikhail Fedotov, head of the Presidential Council for Development of Civil Society and Human Rights said the sentence was important for society (translation by The Interpreter):

“The fact that the sentence was carried out, I think is important for our society. For such a high-profile case. The case was heard for a very long time, the case was investigated for a very long time, and finally here’s the sentence.”

Vladimir Markin, spokesman for the Investigative Committee, had a wry tweet:

Translation: A real possibility for realizing creative potential has appeared in the chanson genre.

His comment was likely a reference to the epic nature of the case. A notice on the Investigative Committee’s web site stated (translation by The Interpreter):

a search conducted at Vasilyeva’s residence, 3.5 million rubles in cash
($68,756) and also 1,200 items of jewelry made from precious stones and
metals as well as wrist watches of famous world brands valued at more
than 127 million rubles (about $2.5 million) were found.

Sinelshchikov, a deputy of the State Duma from the Communist Party of
the Russian Federation and a member of the Duma committee on legislation commented:

“A real deprivation of freedom, of course, is
sufficient (for what Vasilyeva has done). Well, five or eight years,
perhaps it’s not fundamental.”

He said if he were prosecutor, he
might have given her a heavier sentence.

“But the main thing is that it
is a real sentence. We will be glad that still and all, justice has
triumphed. And five years is a real sentence — it’s not small.”

reaction stems from a widespread conviction that such high officials
with connections to top ministers will never have to face real
prosecution for their crimes. Even so, many believe she will be out within a year or two when she
is eligible for parole.

The prosecutor originally called for a
suspended sentence for Vasilyeva, which led to public outrage. Mikhail
Yemelyanov, deputy head of the Just Russia faction in the Duma

“The fact that Vasilyeva got a real sentence and not a
suspended sentence is the consequence of the great public outrage after
hte prosecutor asked for 8 years’ suspended.”

But it was not
enough for some. Magomed Vakhayev, a deputy from Chechnya who is the
first deputy of the State Duma committee on security and
anti-corruption, said:

“I believe that this is in general not a
review of the facts. If we were told before that she had embezzled more
than 3 billion rubles and such property was confiscated from her, then
such a soft sentence…I believe that this is simply and entirely a case
of sending her for resort treatment.”

“There are guards there,
she will quietly sit a year or two and then return. That’s it. Is that
really combating corruption?” he asked. “I consider that the sentence
is too light,” he added.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Putin Fires 22 Generals and Lieutenants, Mainly in Emergencies Ministry

President Vladimir Putin has fired some two dozen generals, reported, citing a government portal.

In a decree dated April 6 but only published on the web site today, Putin releases from duty 22 lieutenants and generals from the Interior Ministry; the Ministry for Civil  Defense,  Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters (the Emergencies Ministry); and the Federal Narcotics Service including Lt. Gen. Sergei Lavrov, head of the Federal Narcotics Service for Kuban and Maj. Gen. Andrei Pilipchuk, head of the press liaison for the Interior Ministry.

Others include Gen. Vladimir Padalko, first deputy commander of forces of the Central Region of the Interior Ministry and Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zhukovsky, minister of interior for the Republic of Komi, said

As we can see from the list, none of the officials dismissed were from the Defense Ministry; rather, they are from other ministries which in Russia have military rankings.

Maj. Gen. Yerem Arutyunov, deputy head of the Far East regional center for the Emergency Ministry; Lt. Oleg Blokhin, deputy head of the North Caucuasus Regional Center for the Emergencies Ministry; Maj. Gen. Aleksandr Gavrilov, first deputy head of the Emergencies Ministry Main Department for Moscow; Maj. Gen. Igor Gorbatenko, first deputy head of the North West Regional Center of the Emergencies Ministry; and Maj. Gen. Valery Piyavin, deputy head of the Main Department of the Interior Ministry for Samara Region and head of the main investigative department were also among those dismissed.

One logical reason for the dismissals might be that these officials were serving in the region where wildfires recently killed at least 30 people, destroyed dozens of towns and left thousands of people homeless.

But the wildfires did not start until April 12, and the decree was signed April 6. Furthermore, even if the document was changed before publication, only some of those dismissed were from these affected areas, including Maj. Gen. Aleksandr Yeremeyev, deputy head of the Siberian Regional Center for the Emergencies Ministry; Lt. Sergei Zheltov, deputy head of the Far East Regional Center for the Emergencies Ministry and Lt. Viktor Panchenkov, first deputy director of the Siberian Regional Center for the Emergencies Ministry.

Some of those dismissed were well known, such as Maj.-Gen. Andrei Pilipchuk, who handled public affairs for the Interior Ministry and whose pictures is still on the ministry’s home page. But many others are not known.

Since most of those dismissed were in the Emergencies Ministry, Putin may have been displeased in general with the response to recent emergencies in Russia, from the collapse of buildings to the sinking of a ferry, in which 56 fishermen died, to the wildfires in the Trans-Baikal and decided to do a shake-up. As with a past major purge of personnel with military rank, many were deputies or first deputies, not the heads of the regional departments.

Putin also made some new appointments in some critical areas:

Lt.Dmitry Dyomin, deputy head of Main Department of Interior Ministry for Krasnodar Territory; Lt. Igor Kutrovsky, head of the Center for High-Risk Rescue Operations of the Emergencies Ministry and Maj. Gen. Sergei Lyashenko, head of the Department for Information Technologies, Communications and Information Protection of the Interior Ministry.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Khodorkovsky’s Open Russia to Release Film on Ramzan Kadyrov; Dubs Him Putin’s ‘Vassal’

Open Russia, the movement founded by businessman and former political prisoner Mikhail Khodorkovsky is releasing a film about Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov titled The Family which exposes his violent methods and close ties to President Vladimir Putin, reported.

A trailer on the site indicates that the film includes interviews with
victims of torture in Kadyrov’s prisons, wives of men who have disappeared, and Russian liberals such as talk show host
Kseniya Sobchak who has been subjected to threats for her criticism of
Kadyrov. Kadyrov is dubbed Putin’s “vassal.”

This week Khodorkovsky gave an interview to the news
site Meduza,
a company run by Russian emigre editors and journalists
fired from their jobs under pressure from the state censor.

compared Chechnya to a “territorially isolated ethic criminal gang” and
the regime there with the Oprichina, the fierce secret police from the
times of Ivan the Terrible.

In a statement on the Chechen
government’s web site
, Garisolt Batayev, head of the Public Chamber of
Chechnya said Khodorkovsky’s statements incited distrust in the
government and divided Russian society.

compared Chechnya to a “territorially isolated ethic criminal gang” and
the regime there with the Oprichina, the fierce secret police from the
times of Ivan the Terrible.

In a statement on the Chechen
government’s web site
, Garisolt Batayev, head of the Public Chamber of
Chechnya said Khodorkovsky’s statements incited distrust in the
government and divided Russian society.

(Note: The Interpreter is a project of the Institute for Modern Russia founded by Pavel Khodorkovsky, the son of Mikhail Khodorkovsky.)

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Three Suspected Islamist Militants Killed by Law-Enforcers in Dagestan

A counter-terrorism operation (CTO) was declared this week in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, and ultimately three suspected militants were killed by law-enforcers, Caucasian Knot reports.

They were identified as Zaur Begov, Abumuslim Gasanov and Mirzabek Idrisov. A multi-story building was blocked by police yesterday May 7 after they received a tip that members of the Makhachkala Group of armed insurgents were inside. Gasanov and Idrisov had been on a federal wanted persons list, a law-enforcement source told Caucasian Knot.

Streets were blocked off during the operation but were then opened within the same day, residents say. The Interior Ministry of Dagestan and the Anti-Terrorism Committee responsible for monitoring terrorism have not committed on the killings.

Patimat, the pregnant wife of Zaur Begov, and their children were inside
the house when police surrounded it. After some negotiations, Patimat
was allowed to come out of the building with the children. She is now
being held by police and the children are with her grandparents. published photos of the shoot-out in which some stories of the building could be seen with smoke.

11212274_924970960900034_1202937382_n-1. also published a video showing automatic gunfire coming out of the building, and pictures of the dead suspects.

In the last year, Russian law-enforcement and special forces have killed more than 300 suspected Islamist militants.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

Bloggers Get Billboard with Stalin’s Portrait Removed in Dagestan; Red Paint Splashed on Stalin in Lipetsk

Billboards with Stalin’s picture appeared in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan in the North Caucasus in connection with the May 9 Victory Day celebration, but irate bloggers were able to get them removed, Caucasian Knot reported.

A source in the city administration told Caucasian Knot that the decision to remove the billboards was caused by blog posts, although no official appeals were made to city authorities.

The billboards first appeared on April 27, then were removed April 29, says Caucasian Knot, citing an eyewitness.

As the source in the administration said:

“As far as I know, there were no official appeals or indignations of residents regarding the fact that these billboards were put up. On the contrary, there were people who then asked, why were they removed? I suppose that they were removed due to discontent in the blogosphere, discussions on social networks that became too stormy on this topic.”

Some readers felt that it was in insult to the “punished peoples,” such as the Chechens and others were who were deported under Stalin in the 1940s, to portray his face again in celebration of Victory Day. Others said the war would not been won without him.

Authorities rejected a proposal to put up a monument of Stalin because of the controversies. Memorial Society, the human rights and historicial research groups has reported that there were 54 residents of Dagestan executed by Stalin for whom information was able to be gathered.

Meanwhile in Lipetsk, evidently no memory of “punished peoples” was found and a bust of the Generalissimo as he was known was installed on Kuznechnaya Street near the Regional Committee of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), reported.


Nikolai Razvorotnev, a deputy of the State Duma, said all the proper permissions were obtained from the city to place the monument. But as reported, permission had originally been given for a bust inside the KPRF building, not  outdoors.

The communists said they were prepared to maintain round-the-clock guard duty near the monument to make sure it is not removed.

No sooner was the monument installed than people began snapping pictures of it and soon young people were taking selfies with it, reported. Some passing automobile drivers honked. Razvorotnev said he was confident flowers would be placed at the monument on Victory Day.

It wasn’t long before the monument got some red paint splashed on it, however.

Translation: That’s it for Stalin in Lipetsk.

Translation: Stalin and Putin are our leaders.

Translation: an automobile is driving around Moscow with portraits of Putin and Stalin.

It also has a sign saying “I buy organs of Ukropy” or “dillweeds,” which is the pejorative term for Ukrainians.

Translation: Stalin wishes Sevastopol a happy May 9.
Progress Spacecraft Disintegrates in Earth’s Atmosphere and Disappears

The errant Russian spacecraft Progress, which went out of orbit last week and failed to get to the International Space Station with a load of supplies, was expected to enter the atmosphere early this morning in China, reported.

But in reality, the spaceship just disintegrated and disappeared, reported.

Roskosmos, the Russian space agency reported that the Progress M-27M
burned up in the atmosphere over the central part of the Atlantic Pacific Ocean,
RIA Novosti reported. had earlier received information from Prof. Andrei Nazarenko, a staff member of the Kosmonit Science and Technology Center, who got the time of entry of the atmosphere from NORAD — 3:08 Moscow time — and calculated the possible crash coordinates as 50 N, 121 E, about 140 km from the Russian border in China.

Roskosmos, the Russian space agency, came closer by predicting the ship would disintegrate this morning:

Translation: More accurate forecast for TGK Progress M-27M: shift will cease existence 8 May approximately between 01:13 and 04:51 Moscow time.

— Catherine A. Fitzpatrick