Archive for March, 2010

The Moscow Bombings Don’t Matter

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

After Monday’s shock, Tuesday morning in Moscow dawned bright and tense. No one had yet claimed responsibility for the twin suicide blasts that killed 39 people and injured dozens more in the Moscow metro, and the headlines, especially in the Western press, teemed with preemptive analysis: Did the trail really lead, as the FSB alleged, to the restive Northern Caucasus? Would there be more attacks? And if so, would there be massive retaliation, or even war? Were the attacks bad for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: a critical blow to his steely appeal, and a political contract based on trading liberties for security? Or were they good for him, a pretext to tighten the screws at home? What if Putin used the attack as proof that his dauphin President Dmitry Medvedev had lost control of the situation, necessitating Putin’s triumphant return to the presidency in 2012?

These are, of course, important, rational questions. But they only matter if you view yesterday morning’s subway bombing as a big deal — and many political observers in Russia, from Kremlin insiders to linchpins of the opposition, do not. Was it gruesome and tragic and of earth-shifting significance to all those who lost friends and relatives? Absolutely. Was it a game changer in the grander scheme of things? Probably not.

“Is it a big deal?” asks Yulia Latynina, a veteran opposition Russian journalist who has long reported on the Caucasus. “No, it’s not. What was it that even happened? Russia has been exploding for 11 years, just not in Moscow.'”

In other words, when taken in the broader context of Russia and the slow-motion conflict in the Northern Caucasus — the 2004 explosion in the market in the southern Russian city of Samara (10 dead, 60 wounded), the two Russian passenger planes that simultaneously fell from the sky that same year (89 dead), the suicide bombing that nearly killed the Ingush president in June — the blasts in the Moscow subway by two female jihadis were just another parry, and not a very damaging one at that.

According to Irina Adrionova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, this blast was far less severe than Moscow’s last subway double-bombing, back in 2004. “Yesterday’s explosion took place when the train was already at the platform and had its doors open so the initial wave of the blast was more diffused than in 2004, when the train was in the tunnel,” Adrionova explained. “And, in 2004, we also faced a fire of the highest magnitude.”

Many observers — myself included — were struck by the orderliness of the emergency response. The Emergency Ministry instantly organized an information point for reporters and concerned relatives, posted frequently updated information on the victims’ whereabouts on its website, and recorded announcements listing hotline numbers, including one for psychological help, to be played in the metro. Digital billboards across the city flashed the numbers, too. By 5 p.m., just nine hours after the first blast, the metro was fully operational, in time for the evening rush hour. Even Medvedev and the normally floridly thuggish Putin were relatively measured in their responses.

“The main thing was that there was no panic this time,” Adrionova told me. And she’s right. Riding the metro all day, I was struck by the fatalistic calm of the passengers. When I boarded a train just outside the Red Square early Monday afternoon, body bags were just starting to emerge from Lubyanka station. And yet the passenger next to me was explaining the unbelievable complexities of his hairdo to his girlfriend as if nothing had happened.

The psychological aspect of March 29 is important, of course, but it’s mostly notable for its relative smallness. Much has been made of the fact that the first bomber set herself off just under Lubyanka, the KGB/FSB headquarters. But Russians have an ambivalent and uneasy relationship with the security forces, which means the message goes right over the heads of the masses. This attack, though it struck at the most mundane part of life, the morning commute, did not have the psychological force of Beslan or the 2002 Nord-Ost theater siege. “If you compare this to a [Shamil] Basayev attack, this did not have the same psychological trauma,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who heads a think tank with ties to Medvedev, referring to the Chechen warlord responsible for both the Beslan and Nord-Ost attacks.

“Unfortunately, in Russia, the attitude is that until it doesn’t affect me personally, I can feel safe,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst with Moscow’s Carnegie Center. “And ultimately, it was just 39 people in a city of 10 million.”

But will the March 29 Moscow subway attacks become a provocative dropping of the gauntlet? And how will the Kremlin respond? Only a day has passed and definitive forecasts would be foolhardy, but let’s look at the proposed scenarios.

First: Bombings in the heart of Russia become a pattern, and Moscow retaliates with brute force, launching another war in the Caucasus.

“I don’t think so,” says Grigory Shvedov of the Caucasian Knot, an information web portal about the region. “There are already around 80,000 troops and 50,000 officers in the region. What can they start there that’s new or supplementary? It’s hard to imagine. A third Chechen War,” he adds, “is not really likely.”*

Instead, observers from Pavlovsky to opposition figure and former parliament speaker Vladimir Ryzhkov think we are likely to see an increasing shift toward a softer, more political line in the Caucasus. The approach seemed to start with the January appointment of Alexander Khloponin as the Kremlin emissary responsible for restoring order there; his plan is more hearts-and-minds oriented than prior Kremlin strategies. “I’m a cautious optimist,” the normally dour Ryzhkov says of the prospect of seeing more of a “strategy of political process and dialogue” in the region.

As for a stepped-up campaign from the Caucasus militants, Latynina cautions that it’s important not to overestimate the abilities of this corps, who last attacked in November when they bombed the Nevsky Express train and whose Monday bombing was rather sloppy: One bomber got lost, they took too long to detonate their explosives, and one of the explosive belts didn’t even go off. “All that stuff you see in the movies — the fancy hotels, the fake passports — our terrorists aren’t capable of that,” Latynina says. “Our terrorists sit in three-star hotels with their own passports, unless they’re lucky and they can get the passport of a dead relative who was wanted for planting explosives. It’s James Bond, Caucasus style.”

Second: The attack is a big blow to Putin’s credibility as someone who can maintain order.

Nope. There have been no attacks for six years, and Putin is still, by far, the most popular figure in the country. Russians don’t trust their police, their parliament, or their judges, but they trust him — which is why, in the midst of flat-bottomed economic crisis, he still has an 80 percent approval rating.

The danger to Putin’s rule — and it is still his — is going to come not from security threats, but from the erosion of his subjects’ well-being. And let’s not forget that on March 20, the so-called “Day of Wrath,” organizers said they expected the number of protesters to double since the famous Kaliningrad protests that drew over 10,000 people in January. “Instead,” say Lipman, “the number of people at the protests shrunk by half.”

Third: Putin will use the bombing as a pretext to tighten the screws at home.

This is a reasonable expectation, given that this has been Putin’s preferred response to external threats, real or imagined. In 1999, a string of apartment bombings that left nearly 300 people dead became a pretext to employ extra-harsh methods in Chechnya, and to consolidate power at home. After the attack in Beslan in 2004, Putin announced that security would be improved if only we got rid of direct elections of governors and let him appoint them instead.

But the situation is markedly different today. Putin, with the help of Vladislav Surkov, the chief architect of the current political model, long ago solidified the so-called power vertical, and it is in no real danger. In the early and mid-2000s, says Ryzhkov, “the state was going on the offensive.” Today, it is secure — maybe even hubristic — which is why we didn’t see a screw-tightening after the war in Georgia in August 2008, or during the worst of the financial crisis.

Of course, one can never underestimate Putin’s predilection to screw-turning — he has already said he will seek out the suspected accomplices “at the bottom of the sewer” — but there just isn’t a need this time, which is probably why he and Medvedev made sure to look calm as well as strong.

Fourth: Putin will use this as a way to make Medvedev look weak so he can take back the presidency in 2012.

“Look at any polls about who’s more important, Medvedev or Putin,” says Lipman. “The Russian people — and I’m talking about the Russian people here, not the elites — the Russian people say Putin is.” (Forbes recently rated the most powerful people in the world: Putin was 3rd, Medvedev 43rd.)

“If they had open and free elections, and democratic observers came, Russian citizens would still elect Putin,” says Shvedov. “He doesn’t need to use the bombing [as a pretext] because he doesn’t have to lift a finger to win.”

On their own, then, and aside from the loss of life, the March 29 attacks are fairly meaningless. People avoided the metro for a day, maybe they’ll avoid it for another week, but, as one Monday evening commuter told me, life goes on. “Even if I stay home today, I’d have to go tomorrow or the day after,” he said. According to a recent poll, 62 percent of Russians said that they try to go on with their lives, avoiding contact with the government — which 85 percent of them know they can’t influence — as much as possible. Life in Russia is about that: the mundane, the life in front of one’s nose. So unless security once again becomes a daily issue, as it was in the first years of the Putin presidency, don’t expect the occasional, messy attack to make Russians rally for change. Russians are used to the random, horrific event and have set their standards accordingly.

“What else can we do?” shrugged another Monday commuter. “I could be walking and an icicle will hit me in the head. We’re all walking under God. When it’s our time, he won’t ask us.”

The Moscow Bombings Don’t Matter [Foreign Policy]

To Lubyanka Station

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

At 8 P.M. on Monday, twelve hours after the first of two suicide bombs ripped through a crowded subway car at Moscow’s Lubyanka metro station, Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev, materialized on the platform. He appeared just as a train—this one mostly empty—sped by. The site of the attack had been cleaned up, and the red line, which runs through Lubyanka, was reopened in time for the evening rush hour. Seven million people take the Moscow metro every day—it is one of the biggest and busiest subway systems in the world—but few Muscovites were braving the commute now. Most people on the platform were photographers or curious civilians fingering evidence of the blast: holes drilled into the columns and the ceiling by the screws and nails the suicide bomber had packed into an explosive belt. Shattered glass still sparkled on the rails. Someone spotted what looked like blood.

Suddenly, Medvedev stepped into our midst, with Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, by his side and surrounded by a scrum of security people and cameras. The President looked around, stony-faced, though it was unclear how much he could see.

That’s when a bearded man named Timofei Bogomiloff began to scream. “Dmitry Anatolyevich,” he said, addressing the President by his patronymic. “Dmitry Antaolyevich! This is your Golgotha! This is your Golgotha! And after that comes the Resurrection!”

Medvedev mumbled a quick “Da” and ducked back into the station’s main hall, where a weeping, boozy crowd had gathered with red carnations and candles to honor the twenty-four victims killed there that morning. (Twelve more died when a second bomb went off forty minutes later, at Park Kultury, four stations away on the red line.)

Back on the platform, Bogomiloff, who identified himself only as a “public philosopher,” told me, with mystical suspicion, “I am here to find out who is responsible.”

It was already evening, and no one had taken responsibility. There was talk of conspiracies as more questions bubbled up in the minds of the curious. Within four hours of the blasts, the authorities announced that they had established several things: Both suicide bombers were women. Their explosive belts had severed their torsos, and, according to a report from inside Russia’s security apparatus, the head of the Park Kultury bomber was in good enough condition to determine that she was from the North Caucasus—how, it wasn’t clear. The word was that the women had started their journey at the southernmost stop on the red line, accompanied by two Slavic-looking women and a man in a black baseball cap. The bombers had never ridden the metro before, and one had got lost on her way to Oktyabrskaya, the station nearest the Interior Ministry and, perhaps, her original target. By mid-afternoon, the signs seemed to point to the North Caucasus, and the volatile triad of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.

But the people milling about the newly reopened metro at Lubyanka, the square where Russia’s security forces—once known as the K.G.B., now the F.S.B.—are headquartered, were left with plenty of questions and theories. How did the government know the Chechens were involved? Why was the response to the crisis unusually swift and orderly—did they know an attack was coming? And if the response was so swift and orderly, why wasn’t the metro shut down after the first explosion? How did they know the second bomber had gotten lost? As news trickled out that the government had received a call on Sunday at 5:36 P.M. warning that Chechen women were planning to attack the subway, people asked why the police hadn’t prevented it? And why scrub down the stations so quickly? How, in the first hours of the attack, did the prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, know whom to charge with terrorism?

To Bogomiloff, the public philospher, the answers were obvious. “The government is to blame,” he said. “This is what happens when an empire falls apart: it’s unstable, there’s no control, and there’s a struggle for power.” The subway bombings, he explained, were “a sign of a serious battle of bulldogs under the rug. Did you see Medvedev’s face? He looked lost. Because there’s a big battle of political forces, and the ones who did this are the same forces that built the Gulag.” Bogomiloff was suggesting, in other words, that Medvedev’s faction had been one-upped by the siloviki, Putin and other graduates of the security forces, who, during Putin’s Presidency, had taken control of much of Russian politics and business.

“This doesn’t smell of the Caucasus,” added Bogomiloff’s friend, who wore a pristine white windbreaker and pristine white beard, and only gave his first name, Neil. “This an F.S.B. job.”
A young banker with alcohol on his breath approached me. He identified himself as Denis, and asked if I knew what the man in the white jacket—meaning Neil—did for a living. Neil, he said, must be in the F.S.B. himself, given his “intelligent” way of asking questions. Denis also thought the subway attack was an inside job, as did Ivan, a trembling seventeen-year-old who had been in Lubyanka station immediately after the blast and returned to the scene. Trembling, and averting his eyes, Ivan told me, “The government did all this.”

In 1999, a string of bombings brought down four Russian apartment buildings and killed nearly three hundred people. Those attacks were blamed on Chechens, but afterward a theory began to circulate that the F.S.B. had bombed the buildings in order to give Putin, then the President, an excuse to go hard in Chechnya and crack down at home. This theory gained new momentum after Alexander Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. agent who had espoused that view, was mysteriously poisoned in London in 2006.

Following Monday’s suicide bombings, many in the metro—and in the Russian blogosphere—speculated about whether the same forces were at work. Russia has seen an unprecedented wave of protests in the last three months; now, in the wake of the metro blasts, Medvedev told the F.S.B. to take control of the situation, to keep the country from becoming “destabilized.” But there are other conspiracy theories, too. There has long been talk that Medvedev is a placeholder for Putin, who is now Prime Minister but is mulling a Presidential run in 2012. What if Putin ordered this attack to make Russia seem unstable under Medvedev, as a pretext for taking back control?

It’s tempting to laugh at these theories, to dismiss them as Russia’s version of the 9/11 “Truthers,” but if you live in Moscow long enough the conspiracy bug is easy to catch. The Kremlin is a black box—Kremlin insiders notoriously do not talk to foreign journalists—and there’s not an independent press strong enough to serve as a corrective. (Under Putin’s stewardship, the press was brought under the firm control of the Kremlin, as Michael Specter wrote in 2007.) This produces the distinct—and quite accurate—impression that the state’s words and its actions exist on parallel planes, which do not intersect. And this makes Russians perpetually eager to find the false bottom in a situation—and the false bottom under that one, too. Conversations with Russians can spiral into an epistemological abyss, where nothing is provable except that everything is not what it seems. The bounteous archives documenting Stalin’s crimes? Forged. The Western media? A tool of the American government, meant to denigrate Russia. What’s interesting is that conspiratorial logic is not the domain of any one political camp or socioeconomic layer. It can strike any Russian at any time, and always with one, pointed question, usually asked with and eyebrow arched in understanding: Komu eto vygodno?—Who profits from this?

It was a question I heard on the metro platform. “Yeltsin did a good thing in letting the Soviet Union dissolve peacefully,” Bogomiloff said, his friend Neil nodding beside him. “Why won’t they let these regions out? It’s profitable to hold on to them.”

Hours after the blast, a cell phone scam emerged as thousands of text messages arrived saying the sender was stuck in the metro where everything was horrible—and would be lost unless the recipient added money to the sender’s account. With scams like that, at a moment like that, how was one to trust any information at all?

To Lubyanka Station [newyorker.com]

A Happy Defeat for the Kremlin

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

As polls in 76 of Russia’s 83 regions were beginning to close on March 14, Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the Russian parliament and the No. 2 member of the ruling United Russia party (Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is head honcho), opened an evening press conference. It seemed like it should be a grim night for the UR spokesman. The elections were the first since blatant fraud during the Oct. 11 regional vote triggered a major political crisis, causing even the token opposition to walk out of the federal parliament for a week and forcing President Dmitry Medvedev to address the deeply rotten resources-distribution trough that, in Russia, is usually referred to as the “electoral system.”

Worse for Gryzlov, this time the scam seemed to be failing. Despite continual reports of polling-place fraud, it seemed that months of sporadic but well-attended protests around the country had made a dent in United Russia’s hegemony. For the first time ever, the party failed to lock up results that once regularly topped the two-thirds mark. In Boris Yeltsin’s home region of Sverdlovsk, United Russia walked away with only 39 percent of the vote (the last time Sverdlovsk voted, in 2007, UR pulled in 59 percent). Irkutsk elected a Communist mayor with over 62 percent.

But Gryzlov looked rested, cheerful, as if he wasn’t standing in front of a crowd of reporters waiting to grill him on the upset. Most bizarrely, unlike the be-suited party notables flanking him on the dais, Gryzlov was wearing a thick sweater whose shade of opulent ivory implied visits to Courchevel and half-finished glasses of mulled wine.

Surprised, a reporter from a state wire asked Gryzlov if he thought wearing a sweater to an elections press conference was appropriate.

Gryzlov chuckled and said that it was, because this was in fact his lucky sweater. “I only wear this sweater on election day,” he explained. “It’s a tradition that began many years ago, and we always win.” The sweater, he added, “symbolizes our victory.”

Gryzlov’s sweater wasn’t just for show: Sunday’s elections were actually a major victory for his party. Yes, there were UR violations — tales of vodka drinking at the polling places in Tula, bused-in factory workers in Yekaterinburg — though, United Russia hastened to add, the opposition committed infractions, too. Yes, United Russia had suffered electoral setbacks, gaining its usual stratospheric figures only in the oil-and-gas-rich Arctic wasteland of Yamalo-Nenets autonomous okrug, with 65 percent of the vote. Yes, the Communists had doubled their showings in certain places, and yes, even Yabloko, the liberal party of the also-rans, had done well, garnering an unprecedented 11.4 percent of the vote in Tula.

But after October’s debacle, Sunday was exactly what United Russia needed: The elections got minimal press, the vote was relatively clean, and those who needed to be fed got their piece of the pie. The shrewd party decision to give up some local votes allows the Kremlin-engineered system of plunder to carry on with only very minor adjustments.

In understanding the Kremlin’s strategy over the last few months, it’s hard to overstate the impact of October. The vote-rigging was beyond blatant. There was compulsory voting, forgery and vote-buying, intimidation and physical violence, and carouseling (taking a bus of loyal voters around to various polling stations so they can vote more than once). And even though everyone, including employees of the Russian Central Election Commission, understands that the vote will always be doctored in United Russia’s favor, the unnecessary brazenness in the regional elections shocked even the loyal, token opposition, which lost way too many seats to stay quiet. Unexpectedly, they stormed out of the federal Duma and refused to come back until they met with the president. It took all the Kremlin’s men — and prizes — to bring them back again.

Since then, the climate has been risky for the Kremlin for other reasons, as the touted post-crisis recovery fails to materialize for most Russians. Unemployment continues to creep upwards (it is officially around 10 percent, but many think it is actually much higher), and 300 or so “mono-towns” — one-industry cities — are still bankrupt, hooked up to a tenuous trickle of Kremlin bailout.

In the meantime, the number of Russian billionaires has doubled, and Moscow-appointed governors have been pursuing unpopular policies like raising utility fees and import tariffs in a confused attempt to please the capital. And though Russians will rarely take to the streets over vague abstractions like “democracy,” you’d be surprised how many will show up when you take away their cars. When Kaliningrad raised car-import duties in January, for instance, an unprecedented 12,000 people turned out to demonstrate, and what started as a bread-and-butter protest quickly turned political as protesters began to demand Putin’s removal. (A follow-up protest planned for this weekend was canceled after the movement’s leader was convincingly threatened by the Russian government.)

Since then, dozens of protests have followed, drawing thousands in Arkhangelsk, Samara, Penza, Voronezh, and culminating in a protest in the far eastern region of Primorye, where 2,000 people — in a town of 15,000 — rallied for clean air on the eve of the election.

The Kremlin is careful about managing such things, as the social contract in Russia stipulates that the public must be fed if the top is to eat more. So the top responded, but not exactly in the way protesters had envisioned.

The process was on full display in Irkutsk. The region had a defunct paper mill that polluted Lake Baikal, the world’s largest freshwater lake. Putin allowed the mill, which was the town’s main employer, to be reopened and operated at a loss for the town’s benefit, which pleased some people and irked others. Along came a rogue UR candidate for mayor who ran against the plant — that is, against Putin. United Russia quickly disqualified him but allowed the Communist candidate to win without ramming another of its own candidates down Irkutsk’s throat.

In the end, everyone was happy. The opposition got to score a major victory against United Russia (the Communists seemed to gather the most “protest” anti-United Russia votes this election), United Russia bypassed the chance of a truly political protest, and yet nothing was really in danger. The day after the elections, a United Russia official announced his party would closely supervise the newly elected mayor: After all, they still have 33 of the 35 seats in the local parliament.

And the Russian public appears to be, if not happy, at least satisfied with Sunday’s elections. Mainstream press coverage has been minimal and largely positive, and the state prosecutor’s office quickly wrapped up any loose ends by announcing that any violations had had no impact on the election results. Two days later, the official opposition seems appeased as well. Now that everyone got their pieces of the pie, just as Medvedev suggested they should back in November, the days after the vote have passed quietly, a quiet that smacks of a deep and pleasant satisfaction.

Observers, on the other hand, noted that little had changed since the contentious fall vote. “It was the same as October, no better, no worse,” says Grigory Melkonyants, deputy director of Golos, an election-monitoring NGO. The only difference, he noted, was there were fewer observers and no elections in Moscow, where there is a high concentration of journalists and monitors and such fraud would have been easily noticed. “No journalist is going to go to God knows where, and the local press will only write good news, or write nothing at all,” he added. Expecting the expected, only the U.S. Embassy sent an observer.

Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, calls the elections “a manipulative succes.” “The parties don’t represent the people’s interest, but they have their own interests,” she says. The situation in October threatened the delicate system of Kremlin control by bringing the loyal opposition into conflict with the Kremlin itself, and “this was a self-correcting maneuver,” Lipman adds. “Apparently, it’s possible.” (On Tuesday, the Russian business daily Vedomosti confirmed that this had been the case. According to an unnamed Kremlin source, the Kremlin had purposely refrained from overinflating the vote in order to avoid a repeat of October.)

No wonder Gryzlov was the picture of contentment, delighted with the hat trick his bosses had pulled off. “This says something about the system, that it works well,” he told the journalists. “The opposition is important to us,” he added, as if describing the hired help. “Even losses are important.”

A Happy Defeat for the Kremlin [Foreign Policy]

High Note

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Alexei Semin lives in a billowing four-story red-brick “cottage,” which is locked into a gated community of other lower-upper-class cottages, about 20 kilometers due south of Moscow. It is a nice place to live and, when it snows, it is very quiet.

And that’s nice, because Alexei Semin builds stereos in his basement — by hand, from scratch — using antique vacuum tubes he finds scattered throughout the Internet tube sound aficionado universe.

He is part of the renaissance of tube sound, or sound systems based not around solid-state transistors – tiny, cheap, plastic things in your home stereo – but around vacuum tubes, known as “lamps” in Russian, because that’s what they look like.

Unlike transistor amplifiers, which replaced tubes commercially in the late 1960s, tube-based amps are bulky, fragile black holes of energy that are hard to build and are therefore very, very expensive.
Famed for their fidelity to the original recording – and, according to enthusiasts, for the warmth of their sound – the tube amplifiers have surprisingly low wattage. The amps on Semin’s sound systems max out at five watts, which doesn’t seem like much, but actually is.

“What do you want to hear?” Semin asks. “Katy Perry?”

He pops in the pink-flecked disc into a gutted CD changer that he has retooled and hooked up to the half-built stereo in his basement. Two simply curving wooden speakers with home-cooked, rice-paper drivers are each just under five feet tall and are just for vocals. In the background, partially finished transformers sit on workbenches. They are stuffed with condensers from 1955 and studded with even older vacuum tubes. (“This is the famous Hitachi 5Y3-GT,” Semin says, showing me a thumb-sized Japanese glass tube he bought online for $100. He also showed me an even smaller and more expensive GE tube from 1953, as well as crates with giant forearm-length tubes from the American military – spare parts from 1937.)

All this takes up a good quarter of the room, and it is only half the system, his largest and most expensive yet: Semin’s finger-in-the-wind estimate puts it at $150,000, not including labor, and he’s worked on it for four months. Tuning the thing may take up to another month. (When it’s finished, it will get a small metal plate that says “SALabs, Inc.,” which stands for Sound Analyzing, but it also conveniently coincidences with his initials.)

Semin turns a metal knob still dangling from a wire (he gets the metal from Germany and then polishes them into a sleek, matte-chrome knobs) to 1.1 watts. Katy Perry starts to strum her guitar at a decent volume.

“The idea is just to turn it on,” says Semin of the lack of displays and buttons and such. “You don’t have to do anything but adjust the volume.”

He turns it to 2.5 watts.

Katy Perry, pouting through an acoustic number — “you’re so gay and you don’t even like boys” — is approaching deafening.

At five watts, she gets there, but her throaty hatred is clear, pure – warm, even. No distortion, just Katy Perry ragging on some poor young man who wears scarves and likes his Hemingway.

Semin began playing with radio and acoustic constructions when he was 15 years old, a lonely army brat who grew up in 15 different places spanning the Soviet Union, from Sakhalin to Belarus. After graduating from the military academy, he followed his father into the GRU (the Soviet CIA-NSA amalgam) as a radio engineer.

“I never built anything for them,” he said when I asked him what he did for the GRU. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel but never elaborated what he did for the agency in the last decade of the Cold War.

After serving for 15 years, he quit the GRU in 1995. The pay was small, the country was in chaos, and, Semin says, “I don’t like doing what no one needs.”

So he got a job as a trade representative with Mars, just after the first Mars candy bar produced in Russia rolled off the conveyer belt. He worked at some of the big Western companies doing business in Russia – Bristol Meyers Squibb, Dannon – until January, when he finally quit, left his Moscow apartment to his daughter, and moved permanently into the suburban cottage to devote himself to his hobby, investing tens of thousands of dollars (his own) into stereo systems he makes no money on. His friends have encouraged him to go into business but the artist within him has so far resisted the idea.

His wife, the marketing director for Dannon, has been largely supportive, he says.

“It’s a good think my wife gets me,” he says. “What if she didn’t?”

“When you talk to someone, you hear the emotion in their voice,” Semin tells me as we sip coffee in his kitchen. He is a quiet, inconspicuous-looking man with a softly bulging belly and wire-rimmed glasses hovering on a small, bulbous nose. “In a normal recording” – say, Katy Perry – “these emotions are erased, leveled,” he goes on, sounding misty. “I once put on a recording from the furry years of God knows when, of Ella Fitzgerald performing live at the Savoy. You can hear her mastery of her voice, how the saxophone player gathers breath and passes it through the instrument, how the guests are moving their forks. When I heard it on a lamp system, I thought, ‘holy moly!’”

But to Semin, those furry years were the golden years of audio. “Humanity has been racing ahead, leaving everything – even the good things – behind,” he says. “Everything is premised that it needs to be made in huge volumes, and cheaply. And faster, faster, faster.” Without, that is, the care and patience required to assemble one of Semin’s elaborate constructions.

“There’s a nostalgic aspect to this movement,” says Jeff Snyder, the technical director of the Princeton University electronic music studios. “It recalls a time when technology was taken a little more seriously. And a lot of the nostalgia about old technology is because it is so well-made by today’s standards.”

A return to that quality is exactly what Semin is after. In fact, one of the reasons he won’t go into business is he doesn’t want quantity to overwhelm his quest for the sublime. “He is uncompromising, which is his advantage, but it’s hard to go into a business with this mindset,” says Dmitry Mozhaev, a friend who recently hooked up a set of SALabs amps that Semin had given him as a gift. “He sees it as an act of creation. He thinks least of business; he’s focused on achieving perfection.” (That said, Mozhaev says the quality of Semin’s system has “reawakened” his long-latent love of music.)

Semin also doesn’t have a regular output. He can make twenty systems a year, or he can make three. They can cost $20,000 or $40,000 or $150,000, depending on what the customer – or he – feels like. (And this is often right up the alley of an elite – and showy – clientele. A construction magnate put an SALabs system in his office, and when his equally wealthy friend saw it, he came to Semin asking for a system that was even better and more expensive than that guy’s.)

“The idea,” says Semin – and it’s always an idea, “is to never make anything twice. Stradivarius never made anything twice. If you put an assembly line of wood parts together that came out as a violin, that wouldn’t be Stradivarius.”

Only one store in Moscow has an SALabs system in stock. It’s small – six blocks — and not even for sale. It is the property of an unnamed businessman who allowed the store, Nota Plus, in Moscow’s historic center, to exhibit it while his apartment is renovated. It has Class A, single-ended triode amps, and each of the two channels has a six-watt power output. This one has an 8 ohm impedance, though Semin is flexible: his work has spanned the full gamut, from four to eight to 16. And like all of Semin’s uncompromising work, this system is a power suck. For optimal sound, the system needs 1 kilowatt hour.

Nota Plus estimates its value at around $25,000.

“It’s happened more than once that people have circled in front of the store windows saying, ‘I’m gonna buy it, I’m gonna buy it,’” says Mikhail Dimitreev, a sound specialist at Nota Plus. “But many of them aren’t satisfied with the price, and everyone wants a foreign brand because they think it’s better than a Russian product.”

The closest comparison, Dimitreev says, are Kondo systems, manufactured by hand in Japan and sold for astronomical prices.

Dimitreev, who has been working in sound engineering for forty years, says that he’s never heard anything like a Semin.

“I’ve never heard anything of better quality,” he says. “Our Kondo is Alexei.”

High Note [RUSSIA!]