Archive for July, 2010

Real Housewives of Moscow

Monday, July 26th, 2010

A strange thing happened in late June, when the big Russian Internal Ministry bosses disclosed their earnings and those of their family members, thanks to President Dmitry Medvedev’s new anti-corruption measures. The surprise didn’t come from the men: The head-honcho cops were the fat cats everyone assumed them to be, declaring incomes that strangely exceeded that of the president. And the ranks of the obscure upper-middle management fittingly declared modest incomes, usually topping at out around $50,000. A Russian-made car here, a modest apartment there.

But the wifely half of the family disclosures was far more revelatory. There was, for example, the amazing financial statement of the spouse of Viktor Smirnov, the deputy director of the Russian Internal Ministry’s Center to Ensure Operation Performance to Combat Extremism. In 2009, a year in which the Russian economy struggled to get back on its feet after the financial crisis turned it virtually inside-out, Mrs. Smirnov made $500,000. She also owns two plots of land, each about 40 acres. She has shares in two apartments as well as in a housing complex, plus a Subaru Outback, an industrial truck, and a BMW 3-Series, which can retail for over $60,000. What does Mr. Smirnov own? One-quarter of one apartment.

Others wives flourished, too, like the Chechen one who owns 10 hectares of land, two apartments, a summer cottage, a pig farm, two cattle barns, and one slaughterhouse. Her husband, the deputy head of the Chechen Internal Ministry, owns exactly one trundly Russian-made hatchback.

What’s happening here is, of course, quite clear: corruption, pure and simple—the very sort Medvedev is making a show of rooting out by requiring his employees to declare their incomes. If, in a superficial stab at transparency, you are forced to disclose your assets, how do you, as a government employee making a pittance, conceal all the “left”—or dirty—money you made by using your uniform to squeeze it out of people? Register it in the wife’s name. The wives aren’t limited in their salaries the way the men are. So technically, they can have all the goodies that come from the extortion or embezzlement of their husbands.

But while using your wife as an offshore bank account is a simple—and universal—trick to slick your way through disclosure on a loophole, there are also broader consequences for millions of Russian working women. Most of them are not the wives of crooked cops or officials who use their government positions to loot the Russian state. Most of them, in fact, are the sole bread-winners in their families, despite the country’s macho fantasies of itself. Most Russian women still work and, with male life expectancy at 62, provide much of the household income into their senior citizenship. Their struggles are nowhere reflected in the mirror held up by Mrs. Smirnov. And yet she’s the cultural icon they’re stuck with.

According to a poll conducted after the disclosures, no one is falling for the spousal Internal Ministry accounting trick. Asked “Why do you think that many wives of high-ranking civil servants have incomes that exceed their husbands’ by several factors?” a full 84 percent of Russians responded that it was because “the resources of power”—connections, access, etc.—of these civil servants “is used by members of their family to conduct private business and increase the family income.” In a country so rife with corruption that Transparency International ranked it on par with Zimbabwe, Russians are surely right not to buy the fictions of the high-rolling wives of modest civil servants.

To understand the way that corruption has undercut professional Russian women, one must understand a radical shift of the last 20 years. Many of the Internal Ministry wives grew up in the Soviet system and can remember when there were few housewives supported by their husbands’ earnings. In those days, the Soviet woman was supposed to shed the shackles of labor division based on bourgeois notions of gender, to be a “mother-comrade.” She was expected to go to college, have a career, bear and rear children, and, oh yes, also keep house. Granted, this did not stamp out the strong paternalistic strains in Russian culture, nor did all women do this with joy (many complained that it took away their femininity), but it gave the country several generations of female scientists, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. (Two of my great-grandmothers, for example, were physicians; one was a professor of chemistry. They were all superb cooks.)

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, followed immediately by the sudden onset of no-holds-barred capitalism. It came as a huge psychological shock. Money seemed to fall out of the sky—or off the carcass of the collapsed state. Making money in the lawless, gangland 1990s became a mostly male sphere. As their husbands’ wealth ballooned, many wives—even the doctors and the professors among them—decided they’d rather stay at home than work long hours for tiny Soviet-era salaries. Eventually, the goal for many women became to find a man, any man, to support you instead of working. Naturally, the old paternalism blossomed under this old-fashioned arrangement, especially since most men and most women came to agree that the man was supposed to be not only the family bread-winner, but also the uncontested family boss.

Enter Elena Baturina, a plain, tow-headed bureaucrat in the Moscow city government in the 1980s. She worked for a man named Yuri Luzhkov, a big gun on the Moscow city council. By the post-Soviet mid-1990s, Luzhkov became mayor, and he ruled the city like a latter-day Boss Tweed. Baturina, 27 years his junior, became his wife. As Luzhkov developed and oversaw the extremely corrupt process of privatizing Moscow property, most of which had belonged to the Soviet state, Baturina simultaneously amassed a fortune in Moscow real estate. Did she make this money because she had inside information and access through her husband? Was she stashing the cut Luzhkov pocketed from the buyer? It was unclear, and Luzhkov and Baturina sued anyone who tried to find out—and won every single time.

When Luzhkov finally disclosed his earnings for 2009, he revealed that Baturina brought home more than $200 million—1,100 times more than her husband the mayor made. And that was just the cash. Baturina is, by far, Russia’s richest woman—its only female billionaire—as well as its biggest farce. She is the lens through which the recent Interior Ministry disclosures were derisively viewed. She has become the embodiment of the rich, corrupt woman, whose husband’s fortune is registered under her name.

The problem for other Russian women is that with the image of the mother-comrade gone, these two images have replaced it: The corrupt businesswoman a la Baturina, or the lux dame who expresses her femininity by not working. Both are entirely reliant on their husbands’ support. Neither is a selling point for women more generally. Or a role model.

Real Housewives of Moscow [Slate’s Double X]

Medvedev pardoned petty criminals along with spies

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

MOSCOW — At midnight last Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree pardoning four Russians jailed for years because of their contacts with the West. The group was swiftly flown to Vienna and exchanged for 10 spies arrested in the United States just days earlier.

In far less dramatic fashion, and with none of the Cold War intrigue, Medvedev also pardoned 16 other people that night, most of them obscure petty criminals or corrupt local officials.

One was the director of a machine-tool plant who was removed from his post in May for failing to pay his employees. Another was a 25-year-old doing time for theft. Another was the deputy head of a committee overseeing local federal property who received six years of probation on July 8, 2004, for fraud and abuse of power — a sentence that ran out just as Medvedev signed his pardon.

This group had little in common with the Russian intelligence officers accused of selling state secrets to the CIA, and that might have been the point. Pardoning the seemingly random convicts along with the higher-profile group seemed to be an important tactical maneuver by the Kremlin to play down the spy incident and deflect accusations that the law was being applied selectively.

“This was the president showing that he is ready to pardon not only under extraordinary circumstances but is also willing to exercise his constitutional power,” said Alexey Makarkin, a political analyst with the Center for Political Technologies. “It was designed to show that any Russian can count on this option, not just a person for whom the U.S. asks.”

More complex cases were also in the mix, but none had anything to do with espionage. Sergey Ananyev of Smolensk, for instance, was hastily sentenced in 2003 to 15 years in jail for murder. He maintained his innocence after a trial that he was not allowed to attend. Last July, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in Ananyev’s favor and awarded him 2,000 euros.

Then there is the case of Ivan Vinogradov, a former paratrooper who was held in Butyrka, one of Moscow’s most notorious prisons, for shooting a police officer who wouldn’t accept a $2,000 bribe.

One day in October 2001, when his mother came to visit, Vinogradov approached a guard at the entrance to the visitors’ room, handed him a false ID and, wishing him a good day, walked out. He was caught three months later after a shootout with police and a foiled suicide attempt.

“They combined the cases in order to demonstrate that this is a normal pardon,” said Sergei Markov, a member of the lower house who chairs the parliament’s council on global politics. “They didn’t want to make this into a special case.”

According to Article 71 of the Russian constitution, the president has the power to grant pardons to citizens who appeal to him for clemency. During Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, a panel of rights activists and independent lawyers recommended cases for pardons or commutation of death sentences (Russia now has a moratorium on the death penalty). By the time he stepped down in 1999, Yeltsin had pardoned about 50,000 people.

Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s successor, briefly continued the practice but disbanded the panel in 2001 to stanch the torrent of pardons.

Today, pardons are granted to prisoners who have admitted guilt, served most of their sentence, exhibited good behavior or are somehow exceptional — a mother of many children, say, or a veteran (such as Vinogradov, who served in Afghanistan).

The prisoners appeal to the president through a regional committee, which passes its candidates for clemency up to the Kremlin. There, presidential advisers examine the materials and make nonbinding recommendations to the president.

“This is done on a regular basis,” said Lev Ponomaryov, a human rights activist with the Moscow Helsinki Group. “It is a necessary and important practice.”

Medvedev pardoned petty criminals, corrupt officials along with spies [WP]

Russian Spy Games

Friday, July 9th, 2010

Sam—and let’s just call him Sam—is an American journalist. Last fall, he arrived in Moscow, wide-eyed and overwhelmed by the city’s tantric energy. He moved into his new apartment complex, which houses various Western press outlets and is owned, like all such buildings, by the UPDK, the branch of the Russian foreign ministry that oversees diplomatic housing.

Soon after his arrival, Sam was sitting in a Moscow café when he realized that his briefcase, which had been sitting on the floor between his feet, the shoulder strap wrapped around his ankle, was gone. He panicked. That briefcase had his iPod, his press badge, his digital recorder, and some Russian homework.

The next day, he received a call from a friendly woman who said her father had found Sam’s briefcase and would Sam mind picking it up? With chocolates and flowers in hand, Sam met the man, and got his briefcase back, but his iPod and recorder were missing.

He thought nothing of it, until he had dinner later with an American diplomat who was not surprised by his story. “Oh, yeah,” the diplomat said, in Sam’s recounting, “It’s your turn. That’s the FSB”—the security service that succeeded the KGB. “They do that to new diplomats and new journalists when they first get to Moscow. They just want to let you know they’re around.” And that’s when Sam realized that something had been a bit weird: The man had called Sam’s landline, which was not listed on any document in the briefcase.

There are lots of strange stories like Sam’s floating around Western diplomatic and journalistic circles in Moscow, and the recent flameup over Anna “Bond Girl” Chapman made me think of them; how Russians spy on Westerners, not abroad, but at home. It is not unusual to come home to find the furniture subtly—but noticeably—rearranged. Sometimes, a piece of furniture is missing, but reappears hours later. Sometimes, the diplomat or journalist comes home to find the computer turned on, with files and email opened. Or teams of dubious tech specialists arrive, unannounced, to fix unbroken wiring.

One evening, a British friend of mine, a journalist, came home to her new apartment to find a gun lying on the floor outside her door, carefully aimed at her apartment. Terrified, and not wanting to add her own fingerprints, she left it untouched in the hallway. When she left for work the following morning, the gun was gone.

When another British journalist, who had just arrived in Moscow, began publishing stories on subjects unpopular with the government, such as how much money Putin had stashed away, things started to get a little weird. His children’s toys were rearranged, their windows were opened. Alarm clocks went off at ungodly hours. He wondered if he was just being paranoid. But when the British ambassador got involved and lodged an official complaint, the antics suddenly stopped. (When I called the journalist, he told me: “I just can’t be on this line. It just sort of encourages them.”)

Why rearrange furniture? Why leave windows open and ostentatiously read email? It seems that the point is to make you paranoid, upset your balance, and, most importantly, remind you that you are a guest of the Russian state. The gun in the hallway is a message, pointing in one direction: Your welcome can be repealed at any moment, just like that.Another Western journalist friend of mine is convinced that Russian agents broke into his apartment after he wrote an article the FSB didn’t like. His passport disappeared just before a planned trip to a restive region in southern Russia, and he was forced to call off his travels. Days later, he found the passport—in plain sight, sticking out between books on his bookshelf. Had he misplaced it? Perhaps. Had the agents actually broken into his apartment, taken the passport, and then returned it in an odd and highly visible spot? Also possible.

Given the recent thaw in Russian-American relations, things do seem to have cooled a bit. And the U.S. government is at pains to downplay any espionage incidents, if they speak of them at all. “My impression is that there is not as much of that as there was before,” says an embassy spokesman. “But historically this is a matter on which we push the mute button. It’s tradition. We don’t want to let them know it bothers us.”

And though we journalists can be a little self-important, we are not the only ones under surveillance. One American businessman I spoke to decided he wanted to sell the dining room table in a new UPDK building he had just moved into. When he started to take it apart, he found a microphone the size of a pencil eraser drilled into its framework. Diplomats, too, live in UPDK buildings but sometimes the agents’ methods are much more extreme.

Last year, a video of Kyle Hatcher, who worked in the U.S. embassy as the liaison to a Russian religious and human-rights group, popped up online. It seemed to have come from the FSB, though no one could definitively prove it. On the tape, Hatcher was seen making phone calls, apparently to Russian prostitutes, checking a hotel room for bugs and, it seemed, having sex with a hooker. The tape, however, was shoddily shot and spliced together, and the American ambassador complained that the whole thing was a smear.

But perhaps the most troubling detail of the Hatcher campaign was that someone had collected these video materials before Hatcher even began to work for the American embassy.

What this suggests, of course, is that someone in Russia is playing a longer game, gathering incriminating details on anyone of potential interest, hoarding these nuggets of weakness (be they related to money or drugs or sex) only to use them years later when the target has gained strategic importance.

Spy games infect people with paranoia for a simple reason: you never know when someone is watching.

Russian Spy Games [The Daily Beast]

From Russia with Gloves

Monday, July 5th, 2010

On a windy May evening, seven perfectly respectable, well-paid professionals —including two women—trudged up three flights of dusty concrete stairs in an abandoned Moscow factory and strapped on boxing gloves. For the next hour and 15 minutes they twisted and ducked, jabbed and cut, and sweated through their T-shirts as their hair turned to wet spaghetti. “I’ll quit drinking, I’ll quit smoking! I promise,” one moaned, slinking, paunch first, out of the room and past the boxing club’s owner, his wife.

“Get back in,” she snarled. “Stop whining.”

Her husband obliged, and Elena Molova went back to monitoring the class from the studio’s doorway. It was the second day of operations at her October Boxing Club, a high-end boxing studio located on a thin island in the middle of the Moscow River and named for the now defunct, Soviet-era Red October Chocolate Factory next door. Tan, thin, and leathery—with a bob of peroxide blonde hair and vertiginous platform shoes—Molova is around 50 years old and has no prior boxing experience. (Her previous career? “Let’s just say…construction,” she demurred.)

About a year ago, in the throes of a financial meltdown that hit Russia especially hard—and hit its construction industry even harder—Molova sensed a trend wafting from the West. It started about a decade ago when Gleason’s, the hallowed Brooklyn training ground for boxers, started admitting the occasional neophyte. The trend moved across the East River to Wall Street, where overpaid and overfed bankers, traders, and analysts began gathering in places such as the financial district’s Trinity Boxing Club to release their competitiveness and, in some cases, vanquish their inner nerd. These soft-pawed bankers trained and competed in charity smackdowns that, during the good times, brought in as much as $100,000 a night. The trend quickly leapfrogged the Atlantic. From London, a city crawling with Russian expatriates, the hop to Moscow—where the sport remains popular from its 1930s proletarian heyday—was inevitable.

In a strange riposte to boxing’s hardscrabble roots here, four gentrified clubs have opened in Moscow in the last eight months. All claim they are open to everyone, but they’re actually targeting one particular demographic: men under 50 from the higher rungs of corporate management. “Our clients have achieved a certain stature in life—they know what they want,” says Evgeny Tresko, a former boxer and the owner and manager of the Put’ Boksera (Way of the Boxer) Club. “These are not people with too much time on their hands who just want a dumb fight. Of course, a couple of those types have shown up here. But they were intimidated by the prices and left.”

As aspiring oligarchs seek out ways of differentiating themselves from other bourgeoise strivers, belonging to an exclusive club where only the wealthy can afford to pummel each other makes sense. “This is the most expensive equipment that exists in 2010,” boasts one thirtysomething fighter at October, invoking the standard Russian metric for quality. The club is stocked with Johnson weights and Title gloves and punching bags. Says the fighter: “It’s what Mike Tyson uses.”

When it comes to price, this is not your mother’s Russia—and that’s the point. Way of the Boxer’s one-on-one sessions can top $100 per class. And with membership at $2,000 per year, October’s denizens are not your average street brawlers, either. Tatyana Arno, a TV personality, is a regular; so is Andrey Boltenko, the artistic director of Channel One, the main state-owned TV network. Filipp Yalovega, a Moscow hedge fund tycoon, usually rolls up on his Augusta motorcycle.

October is a favorite of Deutsche Bank (DB) employees as well as their counterparts at Merrill Lynch (MER) who work across the water. “The English and American guys just spar politely and break it up,” says Eugenia Kuyda, Molova’s daughter and a fighter herself. “The Russians—once you get gloves on them, you can’t tear them apart. They are vicious.”

That may be good news. Moscow’s boxing club owners will tell you that the point of boxing is unprecedented fitness, but the real inspiration is reviving a masculine ideal that some feel is lacking in modern, corporate Russia. The empowerment of these wimpy, corporate technocrats is a challenge, and boxing appears to be a distinctly Russian solution. “It gives a man what he needs to be a man: to stand up for himself,” says Tresko, hitting a common refrain. Behind the spread collars, lavish lunches, and hired women—so the theory goes—are fragile eggheads who studied hard, played chess, and paid for it in schoolyard gut punches. “What happens when a boy is attacked?” asks Kabi Korreia, a trainer at October club and a native of Guinea-Bissau who grew up in Russia. “He needs to fight back. It’s wired into his nature.”

In its first month in business, October Boxing Club has garnered about 50 regular clients. Molova is looking to eventually quadruple the number, launch a second gym, and, with the help of Moscow’s government, open a children’s boxing clinic in the fall.

“What’s most important about boxing is it allows a man to not feel like a girl in a step aerobics class,” Molova says amid the din of Russian gangster rap. “Boxing allows them to engage their masculine emotions. It’s a way to prove himself, and it’s nice to see men being men.”

To that end, once they enter the gym, the nouveau riche suits are reduced to average citizens. “These are slightly spoiled people,” Korreia says. “But here, when you walk in with your white collar, your status means nothing.” This is not the first place Korreia has worked with doughy elites. Once, he personally trained a banker pushing 50. In two months, the client dropped 26 pounds and quit smoking. “I trained him like an animal,” he says proudly.

As if on cue, three men walked in, one fat, one in a trench coat, one nondescript, all of them slightly menacing looking. They glanced around and watched the sparring a bit. Molova marched over to Yuri Koptsev, a bistro owner and former boxer who helps run the gym. “Who are these men?” she demanded. “Are they yours?” They were. Mr. Trench Coat, it turned out, was the deputy media director in the office of the all-powerful Moscow mayor. He was interested in taking classes.

With the more democratic fitness chains in Moscow offering more affordable boxing sessions, office drones all over the city just might start following the suits into the ring. By that point, though, the elites will have moved on to something different and more expensive. In modern, white-collar Russia, catharsis is important, but status is everything.

From Russia with Gloves [BBW]