Archive for the ‘The New Yorker’ Category

The Price of Opposition in Russia

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

At around 7 A.M. on Monday morning, someone rang the door at the Moscow flat of opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Navalny and his wife were sound asleep: it was a long holiday weekend celebrating the day, in 1990, when Russia declared its independence from the Soviet Union. So Navalny and his wife kept sleeping, but the doorbell kept ringing. Finally, Julia (his wife) got up to check who was there. She looked through the peephole and saw seven men in uniform. “I thought it was either an arrest or a search, so I turned off the lights—as one does in such situations—and called my lawyer,” Navalny told me later. Then he went to shave, “because you never know when your next shave will be if they arrest you.”

Julia intercepted him in the bathroom with a game-changer: the people outside the door had started an electric saw. “She said, ‘You should probably open the door,’” Navalny recalled.

Seven officers from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation piled into the apartment while two of their colleagues, armed with machine guns, blocked the door to the building outside. (It would take Navalny’s lawyer two hours—and going on Moscow’s most prominent radio station to say he was being blocked from seeing his client—to get into the apartment, something the Investigative Committee quickly denied.)

Upstairs, the investigators read out a search warrant: Navalny was being investigated as a witness in the case that had been opened after the violent clashes between police on protesters on May 6th. He was not a suspect in the case, nor was he charged with anything, which made the aggressive thoroughness of the ensuing search seem rather disproportionate. The investigators took anything electronic or telephonic: every laptop, desktop, iPhone, iPad, e-book, flash drive, D.V.D. player, D.V.D., disk, camera, memory card, and hard drive in the house. They checked the kids’ room and confiscated their laptop and camera. “I said, ‘Why don’t you look at the pictures on the camera? You’ll see they were just taking pictures of each other,’” Navalny said. It didn’t help. They took the kids’ camera, too. And the ten thousand rubles (three hundred dollars) they found.

Investigators also visited the apartment of Julia’s parents, who were not at home and were not even witnesses in the case. Her eighty-five-year-old grandmother was at home, however, but was physically unable to get to the door when the saw started up. “It was a very tense situation,” said Navalny (his wife was on the phone with her grandmother). “We were afraid she would die of the stress.”

After a thirteen-hour search, the apartment looked like a hurricane had hit.

Meanwhile, investigators had also arrived at the apartments of other opposition leaders, including leftist Sergei Udaltsov (scion of a long line of Soviet statesmen), veteran opposition politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, and Kseniya Sobchak. Sobchak is a television celebrity who was once Russia’s scandalous “it” girl (its Paris Hilton, if you will), and she went over to the side of the opposition when a wave of protests broke out following the contested December parliamentary election. Since then, she’s dropped one boyfriend—a well-liked functionary in the mayor of Moscow’s culture office—for a more fashionable one: a young, but seasoned, opposition activist named Ilya Yashin … whom they found in Sobchak’s bed. Sobchak, still half-asleep and thinking she was opening the door for her cleaning lady, didn’t even think to check the peephole and so found herself, in only her négligée, facing ten investigators from the committee. (The flat of Yashin’s parents, where Yashin still technically lives, was searched that morning, too. Among the confiscated items: Mrs. Yashin’s recipe book.)

Sobchak fared worse than the Navalnys. Her lawyer was unable to get inside for four hours, and only knew of the proceedings because Sobchak had managed to squirrel a phone away somewhere and send a desperate text to her assistant. “It was ridiculous,” she told me later. “I felt like a spy.” The search went on for nine hours, and, at first, the investigators wouldn’t let Sobchak get dressed. They also wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom alone. “They didn’t have a woman to go with me to the bathroom,” she told the Echo Moskvy radio station. “I had to do it in front of a man in a mask and with a machine gun.”

It’s worth noting here that Sobchak isn’t just your average opposition activist, or even your average Russian starlet. Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, the first mayor of post-Soviet St. Petersburg, was Vladimir Putin’s close friend and mentor. Sobchak is even rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter. (Sobchak says that the rumors are false.) Her going over to the opposition, though she carefully avoided direct criticism of her family’s friend, was the ultimate betrayal, and the search—pointless and humiliating—was a clear reprisal. Sobchak told me that she tried to go see Putin in early December in order to explain her reasons, but he wouldn’t see her. Most recently, when the independent television channel Dozhd TV—where Sobchak has a popular interview show—tried to accredit her for the massive St. Petersburg Economic Forum, in June, she was the only member of the Dozhd crew who was turned down. When pressed, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, is said to have replied that the name “Sobchak” is never to be uttered to him again. (Sobchak wouldn’t comment on this, and Peskov didn’t answer his phone.)

This is also probably why the investigative officer in charge of the group explained to Sobchak that none of this would have happened had she not gotten tangled up with the wrong people; she should have, he said, married “a dependable Chekist”—that is, agent of the secret police—and stayed home and had his babies.

Investigators took not only all of Sobchak’s electronics, but they also opened her safe where they found over a million euros, four hundred and eighty thousand dollars, and about that many rubles. (Sobchak explained the stash on Twitter: “My annual income is over 2 million. If I don’t trust the banks, I don’t have the right to keep money at home?”) The tax bureau has now opened an audit and the Investigative Committee is working out why the money was split up in several different envelopes—the preferred method of handing out cash in Russia. “Some people keep their money in envelopes, some people rubber band it, some people keep it jars, some people make little airplanes out of it,” Sobchak says. “I personally think envelopes are the most convenient way of storing money at home. Why am I obligated to explain this to the whole country?” (Photos of the money, neatly fanned out and next to a ruler for scale—that is, official photographs from the investigation—made it onto the tabloid just hours after investigators left Sobchak’s apartment.)

Investigators also seized her passport, effectively banning her from leaving the country for any reason. So far, both of her petitions—to get back her money and her passport—have been rebuffed. Once a glamorous socialite, now Sobchak says she is broke and has had to borrow money from her mother. “At least they didn’t plant drugs on me,” she says. “I guess I should be thankful for that.”

Like Sobchak, Yashin, Navalny, and the others whose homes were searched on Monday morning were all handed a summons to appear at the offices of the Investigative Committee at 11 A.M. on Tuesday, which was conveniently just an hour before the start of that days’ anti-Putin rally where all of them were supposed to speak. They all showed up, and dutifully answered the same fifty-six questions about who organized the May 6th violence, how it was planned, and who financed it. Sobchak’s interrogators made her read aloud the statement she had prepared with her lawyer—she’d hoped to save time and make it to the rally—frequently asking her to slow down, rewind, and repeat.

“The whole point was to just keep me there the whole day, to keep me from going to the protest,” Navalny said of his time with his interrogators. He had very little to tell them since he’s now been jailed twice for his protest activity, and questioned extensively both times. “They asked, ‘Tell me about your work history since 2005,’” he said. “It was just a million pointless questions. Four hours of them, then a break, then more pointless questions. When they found out that the rally was over, they suddenly lost interest.” Then they took him along while they searched the office of his anti-corruption organization, RosPil. (Navalny was asked to come back again on Wednesday. When he did, he was asked for a handwriting sample, which he refused, citing the fact that he is just a witness in the case.)

The Investigative Committee has thrown over a hundred investigators on the highly-publicized case—twelve comparatively nameless people have already been arrested. According to Navalny, not many of the investigators seem to understand what exactly it is that they’re doing. “I can’t recall criminal investigations like this in Moscow, except for Nord-Ost,” he said, referring to the time, in 2002, when terrorists took hundreds of people hostage inside a Moscow theatre. “And all because one police officer got a black eye on May 6th, for which he was rewarded with an apartment.” (Actually, over a dozen policemen were wounded that day; several have in fact been given apartments for their troubles.)

Why is the state doing this? Yashin has said that he thinks they are ginning up a criminal case against opposition leaders like him. More likely, it is a case of an overzealous machine seeking to please its master. If one reads the tea leaves—and that’s often all one can do in Russia—it is clear that Putin has had enough of the protests. Go out and protest for fair elections, but the elections are now over, and he won. Now it’s time to go home. But people don’t seem interested in that, and both protests, on May 6th and on June 12th, drew tens of thousands of people. (In fact, many of those I spoke to at the protest on Tuesday said that they had planned on skipping the rally but changed their minds when they heard about the searches.)

How to deal with them? Putin is no Assad, and at least so far he has shied away from a real crackdown. But he’s clearly unhappy with the situation and wants it to go away. In a country where the law is not a framework of protections and guarantees but rather an instrument used selectively for taking someone out, it helps when your friends or loyal minions are behind the controls of the legal system. Putin’s friend and classmate Alexander Bastrykin, for example, happens to be the head of the Investigative Committee, the same ostensibly independent government organization that harassed Navalny’s grandmother-in-law and chaperoned Sobchak to the bathroom. (A few hours ago, Bastrykin apologized to the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta for the harsh tone he took with Sergei Sokolov, one of the paper’s reporters. Sokolov had said that Bastrykin invited him on a drive, and then drove him out to the forest, where he proceeded to yell at and threaten him, which Bastrykin denied.) United Russia, the ruling party created to support Putin a decade ago, is doing its part in the Russian parliament: last week, they rammed through a law drastically upping fines and ordering restrictions on protesters and those found violating the peace. The Federation Council—the Russian equivalent of the Senate—was in such a rush to please that it passed the law all of twenty minutes after receiving it from the lower house.

And yet, thankfully, none of these zealous cogs seem ready to go all the way; they seem to pause at the critical moment. Protesters arrested over the weekend in St. Petersburg, for instance, were not charged under the new law. And so far, Monday’s searches yielded little more than rattled nerves. Which is not to say that psychological warfare waged by a state against its own citizens is something to discount.

Navalny called me on Wednesday, just after he finished observing the Investigative Committee turn his office inside-out. He was his standard cheery, sarcastic self: the image he cultivates is of a fighter for truth who fears nothing. And yet even he was unsettled by Monday’s experience—despite having fought state abuses for a decade and having dealt with various reprisals, including a flimsy criminal case and two jail terms. “It’s very unpleasant,” he said, hinting obliquely that his wife’s nerves didn’t fare as well as his own. “Even if you’re ready for it, even if you know it’s coming, you can never be one hundred percent ready. It’s very stupid and infuriating because you know it’s stupid and yet you can’t do anything to stop it.”

Sobchak, on the other hand, is new to the game. She has been involved in Russian politics for only six months, and even if she saw it from backstage as the daughter of Putin’s mentor, she has yet to develop Navalny’s thick skin, the kind you need if you are going to become an enemy of the state. On Tuesday, the day after a humiliating and financially ruinous nine-hour search—and after six hours of questioning—she gave an interview to Echo Moskvy. “You know, it’s a nasty feeling when a strong person like me—and I’m a fighter—when you suddenly sit down and realize that your hands are shaking,” she said. “Yesterday, my hands were shaking because it’s the feeling that you can’t do anything, that these people who are walking around your apartment, that they can do whatever they want.”

The Price of Opposition in Russia [TNY]

“Boris Gudnov” in St. Petersburg

Monday, June 4th, 2012

A few hours before curtain call last Friday at St. Petersburg’s famous Mariinsky Theatre, a Moscow photographer named Rustem Adagamov posted an entry on his blog that caused a sensation. Adagamov had been sitting in on the dress rehearsal of the Mariinsky’s new production of the classic Russian opera “Boris Godunov,” and the pictures he took shot through the Russian blogosphere: they showed riot police on stage beating protestors; the words “The people want change!” grafittied onto a wall that looks much like the inside of the Russian parliament; and chorus singers who appeared to have waltzed in from the Occupy camps that were pitched around Moscow in the past couple of weeks.

The Mariinsky, whose conductor and artistic director, Valery Gergiev, is close with Vladimir Putin, seemed to have become the latest unexpected staging ground of the anti-Kremlin protests that have seized Moscow since the disputed parliamentary elections in early December. Liberal bloggers expressed elation and surprise, and the production quickly became the talk of both cities. “All of Petersburg is waiting!” wrote one commenter on Adagamov’s blog. “We’re waiting for it as if it were a miracle!” And many Muscovites wrung their hands, wishing they could flock to the Mariinsky to see the sadistic behavior of the riot police they had witnessed on their streets enacted on the stage of one of the most famous theatres in the world.

Intrigued by Adagamov’s photographs and the voluptuous praise for the production, I jumped on a plane the next morning to catch the second day of the première. Turns out, I could’ve saved myself the trouble.

Written between 1868 and 1873, Modest Mussorgsky’s opera is based on a long poem by Alexander Pushkin about Boris Godunov, who ruled first as regent for Ivan the Terrible’s mentally retarded son Fyodor, and then as Tsar, from 1598 to 1605. Because Godunov was not from Ivan the Terrible’s Rurik dynasty, his hold on power was tenuous. It didn’t help that he was suspected of having murdered his rival for the throne, Ivan the Terrible’s other son and potential heir, the seven-year-old Dmitri. On top of this, his reign coincided with an economic and national-security crisis, to which Godunov responded by tightening the screws. Eventually, a young man claiming to be the slain prince Dmitri led a rebellion of the poor, hungry, and disaffected. With the sudden death of Godunov, in 1605, Moscow was opened to the “false Dmitri.”

The opera, which hews fairly closely to the facts of this historical saga, would seem to provide a rich vein of symbolism: four hundred and seven years later, Russia again faces economic trouble, social unrest, and a ruler whose legitimacy is being vigorously questioned. Indeed, the winter’s protests, which the “Godunov” production is clearly referring to, quickly turned on Putin himself: in March he was elected to his third presidential term, never having gone away when his second term ended in 2008. (Putin seemed very much the regent for the weak and comical figure of Dmitry Medvedev.) In fact, the opera, which premièred at the Mariinsky a hundred and thirty-eight years ago, was always seen as a political opera. Royal censors first banned, then heavily edited it, in part because of an imperial edict banning the portrayal of the Tsar onstage.

And yet, this production of “Boris Godunov” fell absolutely flat. The director, Graham Vick, who is British, tried so hard to squeeze the opera into the outlines of today’s political situation that he lost the plot entirely. There were certainly political parallels he could have played with: Able but vaguely illegitimate ruler? Check. Popular unrest? Sure. But who, for example, is the haunted Boris Godunov supposed to be? If he’s Putin, then whom did Putin kill to get the throne? And why is he kicking a huge gilded Soviet crest lying on the ground at the beginning of the opera? Is it because it’s actually Boris Yeltsin, who toppled the Soviet Union? Whom did he kill? Who is this false Dmitri? The anti-Putin protests have yet to find a real leader. And yes, it could have been powerful to watch riot police in their trademark blue fatigues bringing down a shower of nightsticks on singing protesters. But why are these protesters begging for bread, when the core of the Moscow protesters are white collar and upper-middle-class? And why did even the gratuitous violence of the police, which should have rung so true, feel so emotionally empty?

First, the production was hobbled from the get-go by the hype surrounding it, which was mostly generated by those involved with the Moscow protest movement, who are eager to see signs that their rebellion is echoing anywhere outside their relatively small circle. But it also seemed to me that Vick, as a foreigner, simply didn’t understand the nuanced political situation he was trying to stage. (He declined to talk to me for this piece.) I often find this explanation odious, but in this case it seems particularly apt: a lefty baby-boomer—he was described in the playbill as “a socialist, a philosophical communist”—he arrived in Russia amid unprecedented social unrest and projected onto the situation the clichés he has likely heard in the West, clichés culminating in the image of Putin as the slayer of children. The Moscow protests, viewed from abroad, have often been erroneously compared to Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring. Vick seemed to fall prey to similarly pat—and therefore misleading—stereotypes. A particularly cloying touch was the out-of-nowhere parade of fur-clad wives of state dignitaries sashaying haughtily past the protesters.

In the ruckus surrounding the Mariinsky production of “Boris Godunov,” Russians seem to have forgotten that the subject of protest has been taken on by some of the most prominent Moscow theatres for years. Many provocative productions have been staged by a young, punkish director named Kirill Serebrennikov. His latest, a production of “The Golden Cockerel,” at the Bolshoi, mocks a king’s coronation (which for a while become the byword for Putin’s recent inauguration), as well as the now annual and highly ridiculous Victory Day parade that clogs Moscow every May 9th with tanks and intercontinental ballistic missiles in a feeble show of aggressive insecurity.

I recently saw Serebrennikov’s production of Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera” at the Moscow Art Theater, which was founded by Stanislavski and Chekhov shortly before the Revolution. There, in the final act, hungry and wretched crowds gather, and the London police worry that these malcontents will sully the Queen’s upcoming coronation. The Queen, they tell the ringleaders, wants to roll through empty streets. The line instantly generated applause: On May 7th, the day Putin became President for a third time, his black limousine rolled through streets so deserted that some commentators said it looked like a neutron bomb had gone off in Moscow. All the streets even remotely near his route had been cordoned off, and people trying to get close were instantly arrested.

But here’s the rub: Serebrennikov staged “Threepenny Opera,” a Marxist critique of the corruption of Western Europe (it premiéred in 1927), in 2009, when protests and coronation-inaugurations were the last thing on anyone’s mind. Back then, Muscovites talked about modernizing a stagnating state—and about Apple products. It was a subtle, masterfully clairvoyant touch. (A bum holding a sign that says, “We demand a fair coronation!” seems to be a later addition for the new production; “We demand fair elections!” has been a rallying cry for the protests. Even this, however, was so subtle as to be a satisfying surprise when you spotted the sign in the thicket of them on the stage.)

Serebrennikov’s approach is also more powerful because it is in the best Russian traditions of political satire and subtle mockery of the powerful—summed up by a phrase which translates to English as “middle finger in the pocket,” the rough equivalent of flipping people the bird as soon as they turn their back. It’s a satire that’s masked by necessity, but it’s also one that Russian audiences, steeped in the satirical literary canon, will recognize immediately.

In a recent interview with Moscow’s Rain TV, Serebrennikov said that he couldn’t avoid talking about politics because that was all anyone was talking about. Perhaps because he is so attuned to the atmosphere of political obsession among the cultural élites of Moscow, Serbrennikov knew that he didn’t have to march riot police onstage or have anyone beaten for the audience to pick up on his planted references. He knew that they wouldn’t miss his furtive wink, the middle finger in his pocket.

“Boris Gudnov” in St. Petersburg [TNY]

Russia’s Syrian Excuse

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Shortly after the world found out about the massacre in Houla, Syria, in which more than a hundred civilians, including dozens of children, were killed, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, met in Moscow with his British counterpart, William Hague. At the press conference afterward, the two spoke of a “constructive” meeting, but everything about the event indicated otherwise. According to reporters there, the atmosphere was tense, and Lavrov, the tanned and smarmy face of Russian diplomacy, was in fine form. He spoke, on one hand, of avoiding “all-out civil war and collapse” in Syria, but he also talked of shadowy foreign (read: American) interference. He also dropped some characteristically colorful quotes: “It takes two to dance—though this seems less like a tango and more like a disco where several dozens are taking part.”

More than anything, though, Lavrov insisted on towing the Syrian government line, suggesting that who had killed all those women and children was far from clear, since some died by artillery—which only the Syrian government has—and others execution-style. Who could have done that? “We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent citizens,” Lavrov said, contradicting the accounts of witnesses who blamed government forces and paramilitaries. He added, “Guilt must be decided objectively.”

Insisting on “objectivity” has become a favorite Kremlin weapon against outside criticism. Blaming the West, pointing out its flaws (the famous tactic known as “whataboutism”), searching for elaborate cabals behind even the fairly obvious—all of these are tried-and-true tactics, but, in recent years, “objectivity” has joined them. Russia Today, the Kremlin-financed English-language news channel, for example, operates under the slogan “Question more.” It is an admirable motto for any news organization, but in this case it is a bit like Fox’s claim of being “fair and balanced.” Consider an infamous advertising campaign that RT ran in the U.S. and England, in 2009, superimposing symbols that were seemingly diametrically opposed to each other, and then asking a rhetorical question that equated them. One blurred together the faces of Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?”

It’s a clever device, substituting counteritutiveness for objectivity, and it’s something one encounters a lot in conversations in Russia, a hairy land of slippery facts where Occam’s Razor doesn’t stand a chance. What happens if you turn X upside-down, and discover it’s actually a Q? The problem, of course, is that Q may not really be the answer, and that you end up in a small epistemological hell. But it certainly makes for good rhetorical theatre.

More often than not, however, it’s used, especially in the hands of Kremlin officials and the state press, as Russia’s answer to Western moralizing. When an international crisis strikes, leaning on “objectivity” allows Russia to present itself as the parent in a room of screaming, disoriented children. In fairness, Russia has had some wins; the Russian government appealed to objectivity of evidence in the runup to the Iraq War, and they were right: perhaps the Americans should have paused and taken a couple of deep breaths. “I like being counterintuitive,” Russia Today host Peter Lavelle told me a couple years ago. “Being mainstream has been very dangerous for the West.”

For the sake of objectivity, however, we can’t lose sight of the fact none of this is being done for the sake of objectivity. One of the favorite refrains of Russia Today and other Kremlin apologists is that journalists, as fallible human beings, cannot be truly objective, and that objectivity itself is an artificial construct. (How’s that for objectivity?)

This posture is a defense tactic, the Kremlin’s way of adapting to a new post-Cold War geopolitical reality. “Whataboutism” was a popular tactic even back in Soviet days, for example, but objectivity wasn’t. It’s new. Why? Because “there was no pretense of cooperation,” Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, says. “We were usually fighting each other in these proxy wars, in Nicaragua, for example. Before, it was a struggle of good and evil, whereas now it’s become a very nebulous thing. It’s no longer a cold war because we don’t have clear ideological markers that separate us”—both countries are, on paper, free-market democracies—“but we”—the Russians—“think that you’re using human rights to achieve your own geopolitical aims.” And so we appeal to objectivity, if there even is such a thing.

And so, when it comes to Syria, much as when it came to Libya, the answer is, Let’s all calm down and recognize that there are no saints here—and therefore no villains. “We need to choose—if the priority is to stop the violence, as everyone says, then we need to pressure the regime and the opposition and get them to stop shooting at each other and sit down at the negotiating table,” Lavrov said on Monday.

But this is a stalling technique, and stalling in such times can be quite dangerous. “The longer the Russians insist on waiting, the more likely it is that the Syrian opposition becomes the very radicals the Russians are warning against,” one Western diplomat told me this winter, a sentiment echoed in today’s statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Pointing to its notion of objectivity, Russia has stuck firmly to the Annan plan, which calls for observers and negotiations, for government troops to pull back, and for rebels to lay down their arms. But it has clearly become moot if—it was ever really workable. “It’s a very convenient position,” Georgy Mirsky, a Middle East expert at the Institute of International Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Science, says.

And what, objectively, is Russia’s interest here? According to Mirsky, the issue isn’t the Russian Navy port at Tartus, or even the arms sales to Assad—which, by the way, have not stopped—or even Russian Orthodox support of Syrian Christians. The issue is an appearance of strength and independence. “If Putin shows weakness on Syria, it will look like what happened with Libya,” Mirsky says, referring to last spring, when the Russians abstained from the Security Council vote authorizing intervention, rather than vetoing it. “And what it looked like at home was that [then President Dmitry] Medvedev surrendered Qaddafi. The Russian people didn’t know who or what Qaddafi was, but as soon as the American bombing started, given the anti-Americanism that exists in our country, Qaddafi became our man. And Medvedev surrendered him to the West.”

Putin, Mirsky argues, doesn’t need this. The current stance allows Russia to project an image of real concern for everyone’s human rights and safety, but if things—the Annan plan, the Assad regime—fall apart, objectivity becomes convenient in that it also absolves the Russians of any responsibility. The Annan plan didn’t work out? Too bad, that. Assad was toppled by an armed uprising? Well, we tried. For Putin, Mirsky says, “it’s better for Assad to hold on to the end, even if he loses. Because at least it will be clear that our government doesn’t follow the Western marching orders, that we are a sovereign superpower whose opinion is listened to, that Putin won’t follow American commands to follow the policies that America needs.” Meanwhile, objectively, the killing continues.

Russia’s Syrian Excuse [TNY]

The Boy on the Bicycle

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Over the past couple of days, I’ve been asked many times, by people from around the world, how I came to take a photo of the boy on a bike with training wheels, facing a row of Russian riot police. That story is simple: it was a complete accident. What is harder to explain is how the image fits into the larger picture of what has been happening in Russia in the past few days.

On Sunday, May 6th, about seventy thousand Muscovites—as well as some people who came from other parts of Russia—gathered to peacefully protest Vladimir Putin’s third presidential inauguration, scheduled for the next day. They marched down a wide avenue, carrying funny signs and chanting “Russia without Putin!” They marched until they got to Bolotnaya Square, the site of two other unprecedentedly huge anti-Kremlin rallies this winter. But the police, apparently going back on agreements with the protest’s organizers, stood in such a way as to make entry into the square very difficult, and then cut the electricity to the stage. A sit-in started, someone pushed someone, and the scene became very violent very quickly. Protesters hurled bottles and chunks of cement, police threw tear gas. Smoke bombs flew back and forth. Riot police—dubbed “cosmonauts,” for their shiny round black helmets—descended into the churning, angry crowd in a V formation to pluck out young men to beat and drag away. Over four hundred people were arrested that day, and at least a hundred of them were later slapped with draft cards.

I watched this for about three hours, occasionally getting caught in a terrifying crush and once catching a chunk of concrete to the leg. I watched the plainclothes cops videotape the proceedings. I watched riot police approach terrified bystanders—women and middle-aged men who had come to the rally but had not signed up for this—pull them off the fences, and force them into the scuffle. “I don’t want to go in there!” a woman yelled. “I’m scared!” I saw people keel over, wheezing and coughing from the tear gas, as I pulled my sweatshirt over my nose and mouth. Very scary angry young men, either anarchists or nationalists or provocateurs, who looked very different from the mass of middle-class protestors, threw themselves into the battle. I saw someone hoist a police helmet on the tip of a red flag while four others bobbed in the water of the canal behind us. I saw a burly riot cop stumble out of the scuffle, fluorescent red blood streaming down his face. I saw bloodstains on the ground, and yellow port-a-potties go down, spilling their contents, turning into makeshift barricades. I saw row upon row of internal-security troops blocking the bridge leading to the Kremlin, as if Moscow were preparing for a foreign invasion. I saw two rows of riot police press in on the stragglers from two sides, and I saw the panic in the faces of those around me.

I took ham-fisted pictures of all of this with my iPhone and tried to upload them to my Twitter feed, which in these situations is especially convenient: a notebook and a newswire in one. Then I, too, got squeezed out of the square. I was shaken, exhausted, and strangely hungry, and walked with a friend to get something to eat and catch our breaths. We headed up to another small bridge over the canal, where some protesters had gathered. Everyone was riled up, and no one really wanted to go home.

This is where I took the picture. There was a phalanx of riot police on this bridge, too, blocking another route to the Kremlin. In front of them stood a young brunette in a short red dress and wedge platform shoes. She was waving the orange flag of the opposition Solidarity movement, and, judging by the expression on her face, she thought she was Moscow’s Lady Liberty—the icon of the protest. I thought she was, too. It was just so Russian: a woman in heels, even during a violent protest, self-consciously, calculatingly, making herself into a consumable, sexy image while those around her talked about fair elections and Putin’s villainy.

I was wrong. My friend, Olaf Koens, a Dutch reporter, had the better eye. (He does some television work.) But after hours of documenting the violence, his iPhone was dead. He smacked my arm and said, “Look! Look! There’s the picture!” I saw a small boy on what looked like a tricycle moving through a scrum of people raining abuse on the police. Then he just stopped. I had followed him, my phone still in hand, and, when he stopped, I kneeled down and snapped the picture. I posted the picture on Twitter, misspelling Tiananmen, and went to get something to eat.

The picture went viral, though I was too distracted by the protests to really notice at first: they continued, uninterrupted, for another three days. After Bolotnaya, the protesters fanned out into the surrounding streets, and the police followed, chasing them into cafés and metro stations. Two of my friends, Russian journalists, were arrested. One of them was hit in the head with a truncheon. The following day, people wearing white ribbons (the symbol of the protest) were pulled off the streets, as were those who didn’t know what the white ribbons meant. A café where the opposition likes to drink was raided.

Soon, the protest morphed into something opposition politician Alexey Navalny called the “people’s strolls”: on the night of May 7th, I was with him as hundreds of people trailed after him through the streets of Moscow. Improvising on the spot, they kept going until five in the morning, passing cars honking their support, passengers hanging out their windows and flashing peace signs. It was an exercise in escaping the baffled riot police. “How can I turn them around?” I heard one officer say into his walkie-talkie. “It’s just me and five warriors here!”

Over the next two days, scores more were detained by the police only to be quickly let go: the jails were already too full after the events of May 6th. And yet the protests kept going, moving around the city, from square to square, even as Navalny and the other opposition leader, the radical leftist Sergei Udaltsov, were arrested. “I was born and raised here,” a thirty-five-year-old man told me. “And now they’re going to arrest me for strolling through my own city? Now I’m going to come every night.” At each gathering, the faces were different. Twitter and Facebook were used to marshal reinforcements. I slept only infrequently, for a couple hours in the early morning, periodically marvelling at the blooming bruise where the concrete had hit my thigh.

I never did find out who that little boy is, or how his parents let him wheel that close to the police. Instead, I’ve found myself observing the evolution of the protests. After running from the police all over town on Wednesday, about seven hundred people gathered by the statue of Abai Kunanbaev, the Kazakh poet-philosopher and new symbol of the roving protests, in Chistye Prudy. (The movement is now using the hash tag #occupyabai.)

Chistye Prudy was the site of the gathering, on December 5th, a day after a disputed parliamentary election, that launched the protest movement, a wave of discontent among the middle class to which the Kremlin has responded by alternately ignoring it and issuing threatening statements. (A couple of days ago, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, allegedly told a parliament deputy that the protesters deserved to have “their livers smeared on the pavement” for each injured cop.)

And yet, there was no anger here. People sang songs and socialized. A trio of drummers showed up. A young man handed out McDonald’s burgers, saying, “Who wants a State Department burger?” (Putin and his allies have portrayed the opposition as American pawns.) So many of those present had been arrested, some more than once, that it became almost unfashionable not to have been arrested. The police with their herd of personnel carriers stood ready in the streets, but the order to move in never came. They hung around blasting music from their cars and eating sunflower seeds, or catcalling to passing girls from the protest. It was a party, and it looked a lot like Union Square on a Saturday night. No one knew where it was going, or how it would all end, but most people I spoke to predicted that blood would be a factor in that end. They seemed calm about that prospect.

The Boy on the Bicycle [TNY]

Putin’s Inauguration: Satire and Violence

Monday, May 7th, 2012

For a man so allegedly beloved by his people as Vladimir Putin believes himself to be—he cried at his victory rally in March, which he then ascribed to the wind—it was a strange sight to see his black cortege speed through the deserted streets of Moscow on the way to his third Presidential inauguration. No parade wave from the new President; he sat behind the most tinted of windows. Not a soul cheered from the sidewalks as Putin and a phalanx of security sped to the Kremlin; they had all been cleared and the streets and metros cordoned off. The people may have elected him, but this was not an event for the people.

Even the Queen of England, elected by no one, I thought, waves to her subjects.

I sat watching Putin’s frigid Presidential ritual with Sasha and Masha, the two “Persidents” of Ruissia, a farcical country whose borders happen to coincide coincide with Russia’s. They are the authors of the KermlinRussia twitter account, which started as a biting parody of the twitter feed of the now departed Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev. It has become a wildly popular satire of Russia’s bizarre, “Sopranos”-like political system and economy. If Russia had a Stephen Colbert, it would be Sasha and Masha. (I profiled the anonymous duo, and you can catch a glimpse of them in David Remnick’s recent account of Russia twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

“Where are the citizens who elected him?” I wondered aloud.

Were there citizens who elected him?” Sasha said, looking up from his iPhone, where he’d been checking responses to their most recent tweet. “I think the citizens of Moscow would kill him.”

“I can only imagine what they’d write on their posters if they were allowed out,” Masha added.

Even with fraud, Moscow delivered one of the lowest shares of votes for the new-old President: forty-five per cent. His total nationally was sixty-four.

Putin’s cortege swung off the embankment off the Moscow River and up past the ice-cream cones of St. Basil’s Cathedral. We remembered the legend of its construction: a Russian architect had built it for Ivan the Terrible, to mark the capture of the Tatar cities of Kazan and Astrakhan. Ivan loved the unusual construction, and asked the architect, “Think you can build another?” When the architect answered in the affirmative, Ivan blinded him.

“That’s what happened with Putin and Medvedev,” Masha explained, referring to their swapping the roles of President and Prime Minister after Medvedev had served one term as President. “Putin said, ‘Think you can get elected again?’ Medvedev gave the wrong answer.”

By this point, Putin’s limousine was already inside the Kremlin gates. It rolled over the cobblestones past the lush Kremlin gardens, blooming with the fragile blossoms of spring. Putin was mounting the stairs, draped in red carpet.

“Oh, I see the swelling has gone down,” Masha said, alluding to Putin’s alleged—but very obvious—plastic surgery, which had appeared late last year.

Putin was announced, and two guards in full 19th-century regalia pulled open a set of massive doors to let the President-elect into the hall. (“Why don’t they just slam him with the door?” Masha wondered.)

To say that the Andreev Hall, the site where Putin was about to swear his oath to protect the Russian constitution, was gilded would be like calling Times Square “well-lit.”

“My god, it is so tacky!” Sasha moaned. “Why did they decorate it like that?”

“Well, that’s certainly not Italian,” Masha said, referring to the Renaissance Italian artisans who built the Kremlin walls.

The camera panned across the crowd applauding as Putin strode into the hall: the invited political, economic, and artistic élite, some guests from “the people,” all aged, all loyal, all of distinctly Soviet—or Botoxed—aspect: the modern nomenklatura.

There’s the electorate!” Masha said.

Sasha shook his head.

“They’re so ugly,” he sighed.

The camera caught sight of Lyudmila Putina, Putin’s wife, who disappeared from public view around the time rumors surfaced that Putin had taken up with the young rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. (Rumors also place Putina in a convent near Pskov.) Putina blinked rapidly and seemed unsteady on her feet. She did not look well. Kabaeva was in the crowd, too, and someone posted a picture of her at the event on Twitter.

“Let’s repost it and write ‘The first lady,’ ” Sasha suggested.

“No, no,” Masha said, knowingly shaking her black bob. “Second lady.”

Up it went.

“Really, though, Medvedev is the first lady,” he said. “He goes to all the social functions, he does the children’s charities.”

On the screen, Medvedev was intoning something about the duties he dutifully, perfectly carried out. He seemed to be giving a wedding toast or a bar-mitzvah speech.

“Oh, the pathos,” Masha rolled her eyes. “Stanislavski is spinning in his grave listening to you, comrade.” The camera panned to Silvio Berlusconi, also in the audience: “Where’s Qaddafi?” they tweeted.

Putin stepped up to the dais, rolling like a tough guy. The camera showed his hand, with wedding ring, on the red leather-bound copy of the constitution. He promised to uphold the freedoms of the Russian people, the country’s security and sovereignty.

“Your sovereignty from the constitution,” Masha said. She added, flatly, “Looks like there’s no wind in the Andreev Hall of the Kremlin.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s not crying!”

We laughed, they tweeted it, but the mood was quickly souring. The day before, Moscow was convulsed with violence as riot police clashed with opposition protesters. Four hundred people were arrested. Scores were injured. The police snatched some of them from cafés and metro stations. Young men of military age were specifically targeted, and then slapped with draft cards. Today, as we sat in a sunny Moscow café, laughing at the pomp and the circumstance, reports were coming in over Twitter of more people being arrested all over the city. There was supposed to be a flashmob of people wearing white—symbol of the winter’s peaceful anti-Kremlin protests—and the order had come down to arrest people walking the streets with white ribbons. People were snapped off of park benches, as they strolled Moscow’s romantic boulevards. Riot police stormed a café, Jean-Jacques, known as a hub of opposition social life. They grabbed people sipping coffee outside, turned over tables, and shattered dishes. Then they occupied it, and the pub next door. Immediately, a picture juxtaposing today’s image with a photograph of Wermacht enjoying a Parisian café in June 1941 made the rounds online. “This,” one blogger declared, “is war.”

And, increasingly, it’s begun to feel like one. But if satire is perfect for ribbing the stagnant, silly regime of a leader who dives for urns and rides around with Orthodox Christian motorcycle gangs, it can feel a little out of place in a war, and, especially, in a siege.

Putin was walking back out the hall now, passing hundreds of his clapping guests. They were reaching out to shake his hand, to touch him. If he felt any pleasure at their adoration, he didn’t betray it.

Masha quietly scrolled through her phone. Sasha looked out the window.

“It’s so sad,” he said. “All of this.”

Putin’s Inauguration: Satire and Violence [TNY]

The Borscht Belt

Monday, April 16th, 2012

According to Maksim Syrnikov, who has spent the past two decades studying traditional Russian cuisine, there is a reason that there is no agreement on the ingredients of a solyanka, a classic and very controversial Russian dish. Solyanka is generally understood to contain cabbage and maybe some meat, but even that’s in dispute: Is the cabbage soured in brine, or braised? Can you make solyanka with fish? And what is a solyanka, anyway? Is it a casserole, as Muscovites claim, or, as Petersburgers argue, a soup?

Apparently, it can be all of the above. Moreover, it is unclear whether the dish’s name comes from the word sol, meaning “salt,” or whether it has a different etymology. “Back in the day—say, for a holiday—everyone in the village would bring out whatever they had in the house, put it all in one big pan, and then bake it in the oven,” Syrnikov says, explaining an- other theory. “Which is why some people think the dish was originally known as selyanka, not solyanka, from the word selo”—which means village. Syrnikov—whose preferred version of solyanka comprises layers of shredded, smoked, and boiled beef alternating with braised sour cabbage, all doused in beef stock—is a short, plump man in his forties with the ruddy face of a benevolent village matron. When he cooks, he wears a chef ’s apron stretched around his belly, and his hair, long and graying, is messily bundled into a ponytail. He is extremely polite, which, for a moment or two, makes you forget that he is almost always correcting you. When he makes a point, his voice rises and breaks in excitement. Syrnikov is an exacting researcher: if he wants to discover how whitebait was fished in the northwestern Belozero region for centuries, he spends days out in the boats with the local fishermen. He was appalled when the editors of one of his cookbooks, unable to find whitebait in Moscow, substituted dried Chinese anchovies in a photograph, and he is still deeply embarrassed about it.

As a self-appointed guardian of authentic Russian fare, Syrnikov has a problem: Russians don’t hold Russian food in particularly high esteem. When they eat out, they favor more exotic cuisines, like Italian or Japanese. The tendency to find foreign food more desirable is a prejudice that goes back centuries—to a time when the Russian aristocracy spoke French, not Russian—and it was exacerbated by the humiliating end of the Cold War and Russia’s subsequent opening to the West. Russian food is pooh-poohed as unhealthy and unsophisticated.

Among the many things that annoy Syrnikov is the fact that a good number of the despised Russian dishes aren’t even Russian. “I did an informal survey of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and asked them, ‘Name some traditional Russian dishes,’” Syrnikov told me. “What they named was horrible: borscht, which is Ukrainian, and potatoes, which are an American plant. In the middle of the eighteenth century, there were riots, because people didn’t want to grow potatoes.” He insists that real Russian food contained no potatoes, no tomatoes, few beets, and little meat. Instead, there were a lot of grains, fish, and dairy, as well as honey, cucumbers, turnips, cabbage, apples, and the produce of Russia’s vast forests—mushrooms and berries. Because of the climate, little of this was eaten fresh; it was salted, pickled, or dried for the long winter. Most of Russia ate this way until the twentieth century.

By exploring the Russian food that existed before potatoes, Syrnikov hopes to help Russians reacquaint themselves with the country’s agrarian roots, torn up during seven decades of Soviet rule, and to convince them that their national cuisine can be just as flavorful as anything they might find in a sushi bar. He spends his time travelling through the countryside in search of old recipes, trying them himself, and blogging about his experiences. He has written four books, including an encyclopedia of Russian cuisine and a cookbook that ties food to the fasts and feasts of the Russian Orthodox calendar. He makes frequent television appearances and conducts master classes all over the country, instructing everyone from restaurant chefs to hobby cooks in the ways of the Russian peasant kitchen. Often, he is brought in as a consultant on projects to make a restaurant authentically Russian. Recently, he hatched a plan for a user-generated database of folk recipes. “My idea is to send out a call across all of Russia,” he told me. “If you have a grandmother who makes shanishki”— disk-shaped pastries—“that aren’t made in any other village, but your grandmother still knows how to make them, go immediately, and take a picture of them, write down the recipe. To me, it’s absolutely obvious that, if we don’t wake up and find out from these old women and set it down on paper, in twenty years we won’t have anyone to ask. Russian culture will lose a very significant part of itself.”

A traditional Russian kitchen starts with a pech, a huge brick oven with many winding vents designed to retain the heat from a wood fire. A pech was once the centerpiece of traditional peasant homes: it took up about a quarter of the available living space. It heated and ventilated the house; it dried food; children and the elderly slept on ledges built into it. When the oven cooled, it even served as a bath: family members climbed inside and doused themselves with buckets of water heated in the oven. From a culinary point of view, it was also ideal for the peasant cook: stoke the oven with a cord of wood in the morning, put in an iron pot of solyanka, and, while you worked in the field, the slowly decreasing temperature of the oven would take care of the rest—a pre-modern Crock-Pot. This is why the central Russian method of preparing food is tomlenie, which is loosely translated as braising.

On a bright, chilly day last August, Syrnikov was working at a pech that he had helped construct, in the kitchen of a restaurant called Golden Rus, in Chelyabinsk, an industrial city just east of the Ural Mountains. Golden Rus is part of an entertainment complex called Galactica, whose owners had decided to rebrand the restaurant as a bastion of pure Russian fare. Syrnikov had been brought in as a consultant after a partner in the Galactica venture picked up his book “Real Russian Food.” Now Syrnikov, who lives in St. Petersburg, was finishing a two- week stint at Galactica, helping in the preparation of a trial banquet. The menu consisted of twenty-nine dishes, most of them unknown to the average Russian.

The process of turning Galactica into a showcase for Russian cuisine, however, had been complicated by the fact that a pech is hard to come by these days. In the Soviet era, the stove’s immense size proved ill suited to urban life styles and to communal apartments. A pech also consumes a great deal of wood, and Russia’s forests have thinned significantly. Moreover, a true pechnik, or oven builder, is hard to find: what was once a common trade is now a rare hobby. The man hired by Galactica did not have the expertise to include a heat-conserving labyrinth of vents, and he built the chimney toward the front of the oven, rather than over the fire. This arrangement used less wood and kept heat in longer, but all the food came out tasting smoked. Still, the oven’s three little compartments provided enough room for a frequent rotation of pans and traditional cast-iron pots—fat-bellied, with narrow bottoms—and its warm roof, about a foot below the kitchen’s ceiling, became a favorite for the three young chefs in the kitchen: Anatoly, with his blond mullet; Serezha, who had two gold incisors and a Russian Navy tattoo on his hand; and quiet, lanky Sasha. They worked twenty-four-hour shifts, sometimes consecutively. Periodically, one of them would climb down from the top of the pech, ruffling his hair and rubbing his eyes.

On the morning of the banquet, Aleksander Ladeischikov, the tanned and dandyish co-owner of Galactica, visited the kitchen. Syrnikov had just lifted a suckling pig, milk-white and puckered, from a vat of marinade: a bottle of vodka, water, and lemon. (Lemons, he explained, came to ancient Russia by way of Byzantium.) “He didn’t have a very long life,” Syrnikov said, laughing as he rubbed the piglet with paprika, salt, sage, and sugar. Ladeischikov gave a rueful smile. “Oh, I can’t even look at it!” he said. “And then I’ll have to eat this poor child!”

Ladeischikov walked proprietarily through the kitchen in white boat shoes and a white Yachting Class Club T-shirt stretched tight under a seersucker blazer. He peered inside the oven and smiled at everyone encouragingly. Then he noticed some cigarette butts in a makeshift trash can. “Who’s been smoking in here?” he asked, and looked at the three young cooks. “Guys, guys, let’s get this straight right now: we’re not going to smoke in the kitchen. Clear?” The boys shuffled their feet and carried on mincing and stirring. Ladeischikov’s upbeat charm returned. “I have some friends, who are also chefs, who want to come see what you’re doing here,” he announced. “I told them they could come watch.”

After Ladeischikov left, Syrnikov called to the head chef, a wry, wiry woman in her forties named Rita, and asked for some buckwheat kasha—a kind of porridge. It would be mixed with chopped hard-boiled eggs as stuffing for the pig. Meanwhile, Anatoly and Serezha were preparing another kasha, made with semolina, known as Guryevskaya kasha. It was named for Count Dmitry Guryev, the Russian Minister of Finance during the Napoleonic Wars, who is said to have purchased the serf who invented the dish and installed him as the head chef at his own residence. Guryevskaya kasha consists of layers of semolina porridge alternating with layers of the chewy, caramelized film that forms on the surface of milk as it bakes in the oven. It is baked, then topped with nuts, dried fruit, and macedoine—a light syrup with skinned grapes that is a French import—and finally sprinkled with sugar and brûléed.

In the pech, a black iron pot bristled with fish tails. It would eventually become an ukha, a clear fish soup customarily made with three types of fish. In a different compartment were the tel’noe, a kind of fish cake made with cubes of salmon and perch, and mixed with raw egg and chopped onions. The patties had been arranged in a cast-iron skillet and covered with a mixture of sour cream and rassol, or pickle juice, a common way to add flavor in a climate where not many flavorful things grow. Soon, three small, fat carp would join them. In the neighboring compartment, a goose and a duck, their wings wrapped in foil, were turning a deep Cognac color.

Tucked in the back, near the coals, was a pan of grechniki, a buckwheat cake that is cut into squares—like brownies—and served with shchi, Russia’s traditional cabbage soup. Syrnikov considers shchi the most Russian food of all. Cabbage was a vital source of nutrients in a harsh climate that could support few fruits or vegetables. It was gathered in the fall, soured in brine, and stowed away for the winter in ice cellars. Shchi is made by chopping this soured cabbage, putting it into a cast-iron pot, and leaving it in the oven for hours. This breaks down the sugars in the cabbage, resulting in a sweet-and-sour taste similar to that of sauerkraut. A stock—fish, meat, or mushroom—is added after the cabbage has braised for a day.

Sutochnye shchi, or day-old shchi, gets its name from this process and can be found on the menu of almost every Russian restaurant in Moscow. These days, it is usually made more quickly, with sour cabbage tossed into the soup at the last minute to boil, but Syrnikov had braised his cabbage the day before. Shchi is very filling, and was central to the Russian peasant diet. Furthermore, the long cooking time became a characteristic aspect of the nineteenth-century culture of the traktir, the roadside inns that crop up so often in the writings of Chekhov and Gogol. When a coach driver stopped at an inn, he would have with him a pot of braised sour cabbage prepared in the pech of a previous inn. This would be mixed with a stock prepared at the new inn, and, while the driver ate and slept, a new batch of cabbage wilted in the pech for the next leg of the journey.

Syrnikov did not have a hungry childhood, but his parents did. His mother was born in Leningrad in December, 1941, at the start of the Germans’ siege of the city, in which more than half a million residents died of starvation and disease. “Throughout my childhood, they told me about what they ate during the siege,” Syrnikov recalled one day, as we sat in an upscale Italian restaurant in Chelyabinsk. “They told me how they boiled carpenter’s glue, and how the food warehouses burned down during the first days of the siege. My grandmother would go to the spot where they had stood—many people went and dug the earth where the sugar silo was. And then they would bring this earth home, wash it, and make syrup out of it.”

Before Syrnikov’s mother’s family came to the city, they lived in the countryside by Lake Seliger, between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Peasants for generations, they lost their land in the forced collectivization of the nineteen-twenties and thirties, when the Soviet Union’s plans for colossal communal farms obliterated existing agricultural communities and led to food shortages that claimed millions of lives. The field where Syrnikov’s great-grandfather grew rye is now abandoned, but Syrnikov, who has built a dacha nearby, takes walks here with his six-year-old son. His father’s side of the family, meanwhile, included a long line of cheese-makers, from whom his last name derives (syr is Russian for “cheese”). His paternal grandfather was arrested in the thirties and shuttled around the Gulag for nearly twenty years. Syrnikov is bitterly conscious of the miseries endured by the Russian people in the twentieth century. “My great-grandfather had eight children, and I am the only great-grandchild,” he says. “Can you imagine?”

Perhaps because of an acute sense of what his family lost to the Soviet regime, Syrnikov has made it his life’s work to reclaim the past. He refers to regions and cities by their pre-Revolutionary names, and to tsars as gosudar’, or lord. He is extremely devout, observing most Orthodox fasts and ignoring secular holidays. Nonetheless, his upbringing was in some ways typically Soviet. He served in the Soviet Navy in the early nineteen-eighties—Navy Day is the only secular holiday he acknowledges—and at university he studied the quintessentially Soviet subject of “culturology,” which attempted to examine the basis of culture scientifically. But by the time Syrnikov graduated, in 1991, the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and in the economic chaos that ensued he worked various odd jobs to support himself.

Syrnikov began to travel around the country, sleeping on boats or in tents, exploring what remained of Russia’s peasant culture. There wasn’t much. Thanks to decades of inefficient collective farming, vital expertise had been lost, and Russian agriculture has not yet fully recovered. The culinary traditions of the peasants had likewise fallen into obscurity, as had the intricate fusion of Russian and French cuisines favored by the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. In their place, the country’s diet was dominated by the bible of the Soviet kitchen, “The Book on Delicious and Healthy Food,” which was published in 1939. Through countless editions in the following decades, it helped Soviet cooks adapt to the growing dearth of the most basic produce. But it is also the source of the bland, greasy things that are commonly thought of as Russian food.

These days, few Russians have eaten the simple foods with folksy names that were once staples of the Russian table, such as kulebyaka (a huge pastry stuffed with fish, mushrooms, rice, and crêpes) and mazyunya (a fudgelike mixture of turnip flour and autumnal spices). Yet Syrnikov found that old women in the remote corners of the empire still remembered such things. Their mothers had made these dishes before the Revolution and had managed to pass on the recipes.

Syrnikov fleshed out his discoveries by hunting down pre-Revolutionary texts, accumulating an impressive library of culinary literature. (The oldest item in his collection is a Russian cookbook from 1790.) He also looked for clues in the Russian literary canon. In Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” Chichikov eats nyanya, which, Gogol notes, is a “famous dish, served with shchi, consists of a lamb’s stomach stuffed with buckwheat, brain and legs.” Syrnikov decided to re-create the dish, which he calls Russian haggis. He procured and cleaned a lamb’s stomach (“Not a very pleasant or easy task”), and then stuffed it with lamb shank and liver, fried onions, hard-boiled eggs, and buckwheat kasha. He sewed up the stomach with white thread, and, after it was baked and photographed for his blog and his books, ate it with shchi, just like Chichikov.

“Who, other than me, is making nyanya in Russia right now?” Syrnikov says. The same can be said of other literary dishes. He soaks and preserves cloudberries, an orange raspberry that grows in the north of the country and is a peasant delicacy that Pushkin is reputed to have asked for on his deathbed. He has re-created the recipe for sayki, buns made from a dense wheat dough which, in Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from the House of the Dead,” are handed out to prisoners.

The result of Syrnikov’s twenty-four years of investigation is outlined in his lushly illustrated books. They read like the description of an utterly foreign cuisine. This is because, while Syrnikov was recovering techniques and flavors from before the Revolution, the rest of the country was being propelled into the globalized world of the twenty-first century. The new urban élite has the leisure to think about food, and is able to travel widely. In response to this, restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg have begun to focus more on the quality of the food they serve. In big cities, you don’t have to be an oligarch to get a grass-fed steak or chicken sous vide or an Old-Fashioned. Farmers’ markets are suddenly in vogue, and, last August, a food festival in Moscow attracted thirteen thousand people, despite the twenty-dollar admission fee and the fact that it was peak vacation time, which meant that the city was largely empty.

The festival’s organizer, Aleksei Zimin, edits a food magazine and owns a restaurant—Ragout—that wouldn’t be out of place in the West Village. He praises Syrnikov for restoring regional differences in a country that experienced decades of upheaval. For the most part, though, he sees Syrnikov’s project as quirky and anachronistic. “For me, food is alive—it’s what is here, now,” Zimin says. “Syrnikov is an archivist. There are people who spend years searching for something that was lost, like the fountain of youth, thinking that if they find it they will find some kind of truth in life.”

Others contend that the food in Syrnikov’s cookbooks is simply impractical for a modern life style. “You have to feed people according to contemporary standards of nutrition, and Russian food doesn’t meet these standards,” says Victor Michaelson, who leads the Slow Food movement in Russia, and describes himself as Syrnikov’s “antagonist.” “First of all, Russia was an agrarian country, where most people lived in villages. This means work outside, which, given the difficulty of the labor and the harshness of the climate, burned a colossal amount of calories and demanded a solid, peasant figure. But life has changed. Modern life means a low weight, fewer calories. Eating like a Russian peasant is no good for an urban life style. It’s good for an archeological restaurant.” Michaelson, whose slim figure presents an obvious contrast to Syrnikov’s, paused and added, “If you need proof, look at Maksim, and look at me.”

The first time I met Syrnikov, in Moscow, Russian television crew was about to film him as he made samogon— Russian moonshine. He had arrived that morning from St. Petersburg, carrying a twenty-litre jug of malted rye and a metal box—a still that his friend, an engineer at a dairy factory, had welded for him. “I don’t like store-bought vodka,” Syrnikov said, pausing to clarify that, while it is illegal to sell moonshine in Russia, it is perfectly legal to make it. He usually makes samogon from rye, the grain that grows best in Russia, but sometimes he experiments with things like rowanberries—hard, red berries common in the country’s forests. After the first frost, he gathers thirty or forty kilos of them, naturally frozen on the trees. After pressing out the juice, he ferments it for two months, and then distills it. “And what you get is a completely unique beverage,” Syrnikov says. “Unfortunately, it’s hard to make a lot of it. Maybe about two litres of this heavenly drink.”

The Russian fondness for drink was noted early. Travelling through Muscovy in 1476, the Venetian diplomat Ambrosio Contarini wrote, “They are great drunkards and are exceedingly boastful of it, disdaining those who do not drink.” Contarini, however, did not mention vodka. At the time, distilled spirits were a rarity still being introduced by Hanseatic traders through the Baltic. Contarini reported that Russians drank a much milder beverage: “They have no wines, but use a drink from honey which they make with hop leaves.” Syrnikov occasionally makes this drink, known in English as mead and in Russian as myod (which is also the word for “honey”), flavoring a mixture of boiled honey, water, and yeast with hops and homemade cherry juice. The result is bitter, tart, and only mildly alcoholic.

Distilled liquor was initially tightly regulated in Russia. It is said that the first Moscow tavern allowed to serve it was exclusively reserved for the oprichniki, Ivan the Terrible’s secret police. But eventually it was made all over the country, in a process much like the one that Syrnikov was going to show the TV crew. For a long time, vodka was similar to whiskey: it tasted and smelled strongly of the grains used to make it, and was called “bread wine.” Until the twentieth century, only bread wine infused with herbs or berries was called vodka. The crystalline, nuance-less spirit that we now know as vodka emerged in the late nineteenth century, when the monarchy monopolized alcohol production and marketed the move as a health initiative that removed the impurities in homemade bread wine. Instead of making alcohol through fermentation, distillers used a new industrial method of synthesizing pure alcohol. To meet the centuries-old standard of forty per cent ethanol content, distillers simply diluted pure alcohol with water. The vodka historian Boris Rodionov compares the technique to making coffee by dissolving a caffeine tablet in water. “It will pick you up, clear your head, no question,” he said. “But the aroma, the taste, the things that make coffee have been stripped away.”

Preparing for the TV crew, Syrnikov put the metal tank filled with the malt on the stove and screwed on a metal cylinder containing the cooling coil. Then he attached two pieces of green hose, one to supply cold water to the coil, which would cause the evaporating samogon to condense, and one to flush the water back out. But there was a problem. A third tube, through which the samogon was to flow into a waiting bottle, was missing, as was the rubber seal needed to keep the hot malt from bubbling up into the cooling chamber. Without these parts, the whole process could go wrong. That morning, Syrnikov had searched nearby gas stations and car-repair shops for a piece of hose to use instead, to no avail. He decided to risk it.

When the television crew arrived, Syrnikov put on a traditional embroidered linen peasant shirt that he tends to wear on such occasions, and explained the intricacies of preparing malt and distilling it into samogon. First, he had soaked the grains of rye in warm water, drying them when they showed signs of sprouting, and then heating them until they did. Sprouting increases the sugar content of the grain, and more sugar means more alcohol. When the sprout was nearly the length of the grain, Syrnikov had rubbed handfuls of the rye between his palms to remove the chaff and the sprouts. Then he dried it, milled it, mixed it with yeast and water, and added some dried peas, which speed up fermentation because they have colonies of yeast on their surface. In about five days, Syrnikov had twenty litres of cloudy braga, or malt—enough to distill about two litres of samogon.

This malting technique is centuries old and subject to all sorts of variants. As Syrnikov poured the milky malt into the metal hulk of the still, he told the story of an old man he’d seen one spring in a village in the Vologda region, in the northwest, once the heartland of ancient, pre-imperial Russia. “ This grandfather makes it the way they made it two hundred years ago in that village,” Syrnikov said. “In spring, snow melts and you get a big puddle. So he takes a bucket of rye and tosses it in the puddle and leaves it. In two or three days, the rye sprouts. And when it sprouts he scoops it back out with the bucket and dries it in his oven.”

Behind Syrnikov, the still sat awkwardly on the stove. It wasn’t heating up fast enough. After a discussion of whether to turn on a second burner, Syrnikov decided to leave things as they were. He talked about a recent expedition to Belozero to fish for whitebait. The small fish were a crucial part of the Russian peasant diet during Church fasts. In the nineteenth century, the region had been a major exporter of whitebait to Britain. An hour passed. The crew was getting impatient. The cameraman mentioned how eager he was to have a taste. Suddenly, the room began to smell of bread. Someone noticed the first clear drops of samogon.

“A tear!” the crew’s driver said.

“The tear of a newborn!” Syrnikov said.

Then he realized that the reason for the smell of bread was that the still was leaking, just as he had feared. Panic set in. Someone tried to wrap the leaking tube in a towel. Syrnikov yelled for some rye flour and water to spackle the leak. (Because the malt was rye-based, this solution, he explained, would not ruin the taste.) The television reporter suggested putting an empty drawer under the bottle that awaited the samogon, in order to catch any liquid that went astray. The driver demanded a nail or a key to bend the spout down into the bottle, or else a wire or thread for the distillate to trickle down. In the end, the still was spackled, the spout bent. A glass bottle stood propped up on the empty desk drawer, ready to catch the samogon. “It’s not very pretty, is it?” Syrnikov said, sighing.

Once the leak was fixed, the samogon started flowing. When there was enough for a degustation, as Syrnikov called it, everyone tried a shot. It was still warm, and smelled of freshly risen dough. It had the alcoholic burn of strong vodka but none of the smoothness. This drink, with its distinct flavors of grain, cannot be mixed with cranberry juice, and it would make for a rather strange Martini, which is perhaps the point: samogon is specific and Russian, entirely different from the chameleon export that the West has come to know as vodka.

In the end, Syrnikov made around two litres of samogon, and we drank it all that night. They say that, unlike vodka, samogon doesn’t give you a headache the next morning. It’s not true.

Around noon on the day of the banquet, a Galactica administrator, a tall, middle-aged woman of distinctly Soviet aspect, sternly paced the kitchen, cross-examining the staff on their preparations. Then she came across a glass of toplennoe moloko, milk that has sat in a hot pech for several hours until it is the color of crème brûlée and has the faintest suggestion of caramel. She drank it down in a few long gulps. “Oh, that is so good,” she said, closing her eyes and wiping off the milk mustache with the back of her wrist. “That’s the taste of childhood.”

By the time Ladeischikov’s guests— two local chefs—arrived, activity in the kitchen had reached a frenzied pitch. One guest, a chef named Aleksander Kotenko, watched Syrnikov fashion a pastry in the shape of a giant horseshoe. The dough was made of butter, sour cream, and flour, and Syrnikov rolled it up with a filling of crushed walnuts, confectioner’s sugar, and honey from a local apiary.

“So,” Kotenko said in a tight, sibilant voice. “Is this going to be like a strudel?”

“No, not really a strudel, because strudel is made with a totally different type of dough,” Syrnikov said politely, as his big hands mashed the nuts into the honey. “And the filling is apples and raisins, if you’re talking about a classic Austrian strudel.”

Kotenko helped Syrnikov hoist the pastry onto a pan, and asked what kinds of crockery the ovens required. Did they have thermometers?

Syrnikov kept working, answering Kotenko’s barrage of questions as economically as possible. He reached into a pot and took out a section of risen dough. Part of it would be used to make garlic knots to accompany the borscht, the soup that Syrnikov regards as a Ukrainian interloper. (“They insisted I make it,” he said, sighing.) The rest he rolled out for a giant vatrushka, an open-faced pastry topped with farmer’s cheese mixed with egg, sugar, and raisins—my childhood favorite.

Sensing that he was in the way, Kotenko went to examine the pech. “Everyone’s going to be walking around covered in soot!” he exclaimed. Embroidered on his chef ’s whites was the legend “Mr. X,” the name of the restaurant-cabaret where he worked. The bottom of the “X” was a stockinged pair of women’s legs. “We serve all kinds of food,” he said. “Dorado, tiger shrimp, pizza for the kids, Bolognese, carbonara.” He cooks a few Russian dishes, too. “We also have a Guryevskaya kasha,” Kotenko said. “But, having seen how they make it here, I understood that it’s quite different from how I make it.” Unable to bake milk, Kontenko substitutes thick cream for the caramelized milk film, which, in Syrnikov’s version, gives the kasha a smoky flavor. “It’s the difference between making kebabs on a grill and making them in a frying pan,” Kotenko said. “As different as heaven and earth.” The heat in Mr. X’s conventional ovens isn’t the same—it’s not as dry. “My kasha came out kind of liquidy,” he said. He wondered again about the soot.

Hearing this, Syrnikov bellowed from across the kitchen. “All over the world, Chinese chefs make Peking duck in wood ovens!” he said. “All over the world, Italian chefs make pizza in wood ovens!” “And only Russians look at Russian ovens with horror: ‘Oh, how can we work with this! Oh, the soot!’ ”

Kotenko quickly conceded the point. But he had another question for Syrnikov: “Can you bake croissants in these ovens?”

By three o’clock, the kitchen had begun to send the dishes up to a dining room hung with disco balls. Syrnikov, Anatoly, Serezha, and Sasha started arranging the food on a long table covered with a mauve tablecloth. In one corner stood black cast-iron pots containing two types of shchi (one with meat, the other with mushrooms); the ukha, with its three kinds of fish; and the borscht. Stretching into the distance were the solyanki (one with fish—the Moscow version—and one with meat), the tel’noe, and the carp. There was buzhenina (garlicky roast pork, served cold with horseradish), a beef-and-liver stew, braised chicken hearts and kidneys, and quail, wrapped in bacon and baked in a rye crust. Beyond that were the goose, the duck, the suckling pig, and a sturgeon, which had been baked in a sea of pickle juice, a halo of a lemon slice gilding its head. At the end of the table were the pastry and the grain dishes: the Guryevskaya kasha, the kulebyaka, the vatrushka, the horseshoe pastry, and a kurnik, a gloriously golden dome of pastry stuffed with layers of chicken, mushrooms, rice, eggs, and crêpes. Syrnikov had topped it with a little dough chicken, in honor of its name, which means henhouse.

The staff milled about the table, craning their necks to see the dishes, afraid to touch anything.

“Can we start?” someone asked, after Syrnikov had explained what everything was.

“Yes, yes, of course!” he said.

Everyone swarmed the borscht. Second most popular were the goose and the pig. And the horseshoe pastry was gone in an instant; Russians are among the world’s biggest consumers of sugar.

Music from “The Godfather” played overhead. People ate quietly. Syrnikov disappeared into the kitchen with the three young chefs. “This can all be made at home,” one man said to no one in particular. “I don’t see what the big deal is.” It was Vladimir Maximov, the deputy head of the district. He was eating borscht. “Russian food is really bland,” he noted. “I like Georgian food better.” He said that he couldn’t see much difference between this food and food that wasn’t prepared in a proper Russian oven.

Ladeischikov and Sergei Efimenko, the partner in the project who had introduced Galactica’s owners to Syrnikov’s work, toasted with shot after shot of vodka. Ladeischikov was happy. He liked the duck, and was chewing on one of the ribs of the suckling pig, which had tugged at his emotions earlier that morning. His wife liked the Guryevskaya kasha—which came out sweet and subtle and creamy—and talked about their recent cruise in the Mediterranean and her daughter’s private school, in Geneva.

“She’s fluent in English,” Ladeischikov bragged.

Some dishes flopped: the quail tasted strange, tinny. The duck, which had earlier been deemed undercooked and returned to the oven, had ended up dry. The goose was better, but less succulent than the one Syrnikov had made the day before. The kurnik, despite its festive exterior, was dull. But the kulebyaka was a magical fluff of dough, full of the taste of salmon, mushrooms, and rice. The kalitki—little boats of rye dough stuffed with mashed potato and cream—were buttery, cheesy, chewy. The flavors of the solyanki (the smoky meat, the velvety fish) sparkled against the backdrop of the braised sour cabbage. The vatrushka, thick with sweetened farmer’s cheese, was the best I’d ever eaten. And the shchi, their smoky sweetness cut by a subtle tartness, were a revelation.

“They need to put thermometers in the ovens,” Kotenko said, as he enjoyed a bowl of borscht.

“We can do that,” Ladeischikov said. “Not an issue.” He asked for Kotenko’s opinion of the meal.

“The goose was undercooked,” Kotenko said. “The solyanka was good, but so unusual! The Guryevskaya kasha is good, but some soot from the logs must have gotten in, because there’s something crunchy in there.”

Efimenko called for silence and offered yet another toast. His face had reddened.

“To Russian cuisine!” he said. “The best cuisine in the world!”

“To our native cuisine,” Kotenko said. “The one we don’t even know!”

The Borscht Belt [TNY]

Prokhorov’s Smile, Putin’s Tears

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

The polling stations had closed in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave sitting atop Poland. The Russian Far East was already tabulating its results in the day’s Presidential election. There were not going to be any surprises: Vladimir Putin, who swapped out of the Presidency for four years after serving eight, was expected to coast into office on a comfortable landslide. Even before anything was counted, tens of thousands of Putin supporters—real or alleged—were descending to the Manezh Square, at the foot of the Kremlin walls, for a massive, and heavily armored, victory rally. And yet, things felt vague and tense at the election-day headquarters of oligarch and newly minted presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, at a club that was once known as “Progressive Daddy.”

Prokhorov, whom I profiled in The New Yorker, had announced his candidacy less than three months before the presidential elections. He had a lot going against him, and time was the least of it: he was perceived by many in his target electorate to be a Kremlin plant designed to appease them. And yet, people inside his campaign worried about what would happen to him once the election, which he would certainly lose, was over. Would Prokhorov be allowed to build a political party, as he said he wanted to, or—now that his campaign had become more vehement in its criticism of Putin and his system—would his business interests come under attack, or worse?

As waiters ferried wine and grilled vegetables and salmon—Prokhorov is known for his fondness for good, healthy food—Anton Krasovsky, a television journalist who became Prokhorov’s campaign chair, sat on a modern gray couch. Wearing a black suit and a skinny black tie, huffing on thin menthols, he was a picture straight out of “Mad Men.” Krasovsky was frustrated, and showered hard-to-translate curses on everything around him, especially the gathering pro-Putin rally. “I drove past those fucking bitches,” he said. “Fucking fuckwits.”

When the first results started to trickle in—with Putin vaulting easily over the sixty per cent mark—Krasosvky got up to address the a group of journalists. “According to our own exit polls we have twenty-five per cent in Moscow, twenty per cent in St. Petersburg,” he said, gallantly perched on a stool on the stage. “We’re second place in cities with populations of over a million, and according to VTsIOM”—a pollster linked to the Kremlin—”we are in third place nationally.”

“These are incredible results,” Alexander Lyubimov, a famous Soviet-era journalist, who is Prokhorov’s friend and an adviser to his campaign, told me. We were waiting for Prokhorov’s arrival, and for Putin to take the stage at Manezh. “This is an incredible result. We started from scratch three months ago. We didn’t have the advantages of the others,” he said, alluding to Putin’s use of his office, and state television, as an unofficial agitprop machine. Lyubimov said that Prokhorov’s bounce in the polls showed that he was “the only candidate offering a future, a clear and understandable vision of how to move forward.” He shrugged at the suggestion that voters turned to Prokhorov at least in part because many educated, affluent, and urban Russians, whose resentment of Putin has reached a fever pitch, had few other choices; over the past decade, Putin has very carefully cleared the political field of any real opponents. “I don’t know about that,” Lyubimov said. A third-place finish, he said, was important because it would open the door for Prokhorov to build a political party with the same kind of liberal platform on which he ran. “How can you do something like that if you’re half-legitimate?” Lyubimov said. “Tonight finally put an end to all those questions. Tonight has made him a real, legitimate politician.”

Behind him, on a giant plasma screen, Putin strode onto a floodlit stage with the current President, Dmitry Medvedev, by his side. The camera panned across the crowd, an unbelievable sea of flags and people—many shipped in by state enterprises from across the country—fanning across the square and stretching all the way up Tverskaya, the city’s main drag.

“Today is a very good day,” Medvedev said. His face strained between happiness and extreme discomfort. “Thank you for supporting our candidate, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” he said of the man who had plucked a second term—one Medvedev very much wanted—from his plate. “Our candidate is in a comfortable lead, and I have no doubt that he will win. And we need this victory. Our country needs this victory, each one of us needs this victory, and we will not give this victory to anyone!”

Standing next to him in the kind of dark, hooded down jacket his more terrifying supporters usually sport, the candidate seemed out of sorts. His face, which seems to have recently undergone a tightening and a refilling, quaked. He touched his fist to a quivering lip. The camera caught a suspicious glistening on his cheek: a tear? “They were real,” Putin clarified later. “From the wind.” Judge for yourself:

When Putin finally spoke, he was defiant: “We won!” he thundered. “We’ve really showed that no one can impose anything on us! No one and nothing!” It was a swipe at the winter’s protests demanding fair elections, a movement Putin chose to portray as a fifth column and a Western ploy to destroy Russia, rather than engage in any kind of political discourse with those of his citizens who were not satisfied with the status quo.

The press at Prokhorov’s headquarters had barely pulled their eyes from the amazing sight on the screen—Putin hunts and Putin dives, but Putin does not cry—when Prokhorov himself loped into the room. This candidate had just done a circuit on a couple of state television channels and was now ready to talk to the press. He was in his standard good spirits and he opened the floor to questions. No speech, no preamble.

“There’s a difference between fair and unfair elections, and legitimate and illegitimate elections,” he said, when asked if, in light of extensive reports of fraud, he was prepared to recognize these elections as legitimate. “From the very beginning, they were not fair, but I knew that they would be that way when I started.” Prokhorov was a system player; he was not prepared to dismiss today’s vote as illegitmate.

The scene at Manezh—the flags, the heavy troop presence, the crying candidate—”surprised me a little,” Prokhorov said. “It gives the impression of a civil war. We all live in the same country and we need to learn to reach compromises with each other. I think it’s a little much.”

He would not accept a position in the government, he said, were he offered one. His goal, Prokhorov said, was to build a party, which his result—about ten or eleven per cent, as it then stood—gave him the go-ahead to do. He spoke of his hope that Putin would see the light and pursue a true modernizing agenda. “We desperately lack competition,” Prokhorov said. “And if we don’t get some soon, we have some hard times ahead.”

But it’s not like Prokhorov to leave things on such a sour note, even if the mood around him plummeted quickly into despair. “We’ll be seeing a lot of each other,” he said, wrapping up the press conference, and flashing a sly and sporty half-smile. “Everything’s just getting started.”

Prokhorov’s Smile, Putin’s Tears [TNY]

A Fraud Ring and the “Russian Mindset”

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

A couple of days ago, thirty-six Soviet immigrants were arrested in New York for plotting to bilk health-insurance companies out of a quarter of a billion dollars. The plot, according to a story in the Times, involved ten doctors, nine clinics, and a hundred and five corporations: “The ring sought reimbursement for so many excessive and unnecessary medical treatments that it had to set up three separate billing processing companies just to handle the paperwork.” What’s remarkable here is just how unremarkable the story is, coming, as it does, out of Brighton Beach.

Brighton Beach is famous not only for its gauche cabarets and Russian delicacies and grumbling, highly-inflected Russian of the provinces, but for its improbable concentration of insurance fraud. As the Times puts it, “Brighton Beach has one of the highest rates of health care fraud in the nation, according to federal statistics. In fact, an analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that regulates those two programs, shows that more health care providers in the Brighton Beach ZIP code are currently barred from the programs for malfeasance than in almost any other ZIP code in the United States.”

The article then goes into an intricate dance, dipping into a “Russian mind-set” that might draw Soviet immigrants to fraud—that’s from an unnamed law-enforcement official—and the to-be-sure-not-all-Soviet-immigrants-involved-in-health-care-are-criminals reminder:

Still, some experts in law enforcement and academia believe that the cumbersome Soviet system, with its thicket of strictures that governed almost every aspect of life, effectively helped to groom a generation of post-Soviet criminals in the United States.

“Obviously, particularly in Soviet times, but even nowadays, Russia still has a large amount of red tape and bureaucratic systems that are parasitic and hostile, almost designed to make you pay bribes,” said Prof. Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime at New York University. “So from cradle to grave, they have been used to that.”

It’s not so much that “systems” in Russia are designed to make you pay bribes, it’s that they’re often designed on the back of an envelope—that is, not designed or thought-through at all. The effect—sometimes intended, usually not—is to make de facto criminals out of basically everybody. In contemporary Russia, you’ll meet many pristinely-educated, well-traveled, white-collar business people who will tell you, absolutely sincerely, that they’d prefer to have “white”—that is, clean—businesses, but that the laws are so contradictory that they would go bust abiding by them all. These people are not guys in tracksuits named Fat Misha. They wear nice suits and speak foreign languages and have great table manners. Their wives like diamond stud earrings and subtle lip gloss. They’re contractors and distributors and partners with big Western firms. And, for the most part, they’re not crooks by intent but because there are simply very few ways to make money legally.

Many, if not most, of the guys rounded up in this week’s operation, I assume, came to the U.S. before making money was even a legal option for them. They came from the Soviet Union, where commerce was illegal. Back there, back then, they could have been black marketeers and speculators. Or they could have been drones working boring Soviet jobs, making salaries that could buy them nothing because the economy was too inefficient—and state spending priorities were too rocket-oriented—to give them anything to buy. So everything, from clothes to canned goods to shampoo, had to be gotten by hook, crook, personal connection, or by buying them off a black marketeer. So it was not that “you’re looked upon as a patsy” if you were not “scamming the government,” as that unnamed officer told the Times, it’s that you’d die of hunger if you expected to get your food just by walking into a store with some money. (Plus, there was probably a line out the door and down the block.)

“These people deserve all the opprobrium in the world, but context is important. These are traumatized people, taking actions for which they remain fully responsible, but not because they’re evil—because you, too, might quite possibly act that way if you’d spent a lifetime living in the nightmare place where they lived,” Boris Fishman, a former fact-checker at The New Yorker who’s finishing a novel about a failed journalist who starts forging Holocaust-restitution claims, told me. (Boris is also a fellow Soviet immigrant.) “Even in these cynical souls it goes back to their inability to imagine a system where you get enough by acting fairly.”

The other thing about the “Russian mind-set” is that it goes back to pre-Soviet times, too. There’s a Russian saying, born of a history full of hard rulers and stupid laws spinning in distant corners of a very big and hard-to-regulate space: “The severity of the law is mitigated by its lack of enforcement.” So whereas someone of the “American mind-set” expects to be caught for breaking the law, someone of the “Russian mind-set” doesn’t. That’s a gross oversimplification, but it gets you close to the cultural context.

I was seven when my family came over from the Soviet Union. My parents largely avoided—and sneered at—the immigrant milieus like those of Brighton Beach. They were educated Muscovites; they did not party at Russian restaurants. They took us, their children, to the opera and the ballet. But being poor immigrants, and ballet tickets being ballet tickets, we often found ourselves sitting in the nosebleed sections only to scamper down to the parterre when the lights went out. (These shows were full of other Soviet immigrants, and so you’d find yourself clawing for velvet seats in the dark with someone just like you.) If you can do it and no one will catch you—hey, it’s dark!—why not? Though I should say that the greatest obstacle to moving down to the more expensive seats was the vehement resistance of my annoyingly law-abiding little sister—also a Soviet immigrant.

A Fraud Ring and the “Russian Mindset” [TNY]

The Master and Mikhail

Monday, February 27th, 2012

On December 24, 2011, Mikhail Prokhorov—banking and mining billionaire, N.B.A. team owner, international playboy, and Russia’s third-richest man—set out to be among the people. A crowd of about eighty thousand had come out to Moscow’s Sakharov Avenue to demand free elections and to lambaste Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. It was a bitterly cold, gray day, but Prokhorov wore just a pair of light-washed jeans, a brown leather jacket, and leather gloves the size of skillets. Moving slowly among the protesters, Prokhorov chatted with friends and staffers, and pointed to the building where, in 1989, he began his finance career as a lowly data clerk at the Soviet International Bank for Economic Cooperation.

Prokhorov is running for President in an election that takes place on March 4th. Putin will surely win, and Gennady Zyuganov, a Communist, will likely come in second. The urban professionals who made up the core of the Moscow protests have come to despise Putin, and they generally dislike Communists. But they also don’t have much love for Prokhorov. To most of them, he is a Kremlin stooge, taking orders from Putin, his ostensible opponent. According to this theory, which Prokhorov denies, his campaign is roughly equivalent to what would happen if Barack Obama persuaded T. Boone Pickens to run as an independent, in order to siphon votes from the actual Republican nominee.

As Prokhorov moved down Sakharov Avenue, rubberneckers and picture-takers eagerly elbowed their friends and pointed in disbelief at the oligarch. Prokhorov is six feet eight, and is not hard to locate in a crowd. Nearby, radical young Communists heckled, “One billionaire—a million hungry!”

“Come closer!” Prokhorov shouted back at them. “I can’t hear you!”

Soon, he was so mobbed by the well-wishers, the critical, and the curious that he could no longer move. (“I can’t believe he’s not wearing a hat!” one woman, a retired librarian, said. “He’s going to get sick!”) He listened to people’s grievances and nodded, accepted flyers and business cards, and gave snappy replies to questions; he even managed a couple of media interviews via cell phones passed to him across the cluster of heads buzzing around his torso.

“Can you please tell me, is it possible to earn a billion honestly?” an elderly man asked, echoing the sentiment, common in Russia, that the oligarchs earned their fortunes through deceit and government connections.

“I think you can,” Prokhorov replied, his face radiating self-regard. “At the very least, I haven’t broken any laws.”

Someone else asked if he was a Putin patsy.

“I am not a Putin supporter,” Prokhorov said. “I have my own views.”

What was his election platform?

“Maximum freedom.”

This is Prokhorov’s second foray into politics, and he has admitted that he consulted with the Kremlin before embarking on the first. Did he get Kremlin approval to run this time, too?

“I think that, for any person, it’s very important to be able to come to agreements,” he said, adding that not all Kremlin employees are evil.

What of the fraudulent December 4th parliamentary vote in which Putin’s United Russia Party narrowly held on to power, setting off a wave of protests?

“If I become President, I will dissolve this Duma”—the Russian parliament—“and have new elections.”

What about the story, reported in the Russian press, that Putin called him and asked him to run as a decoy?

“I like these tall tales.”

Will he ultimately give his support to Putin?

“I’m not going to give anything to anyone.”

Nearby, a group of young protesters—members of a Web forum called the Leprosarium—jumped up and down, shouting, “Fuck, you’re tall! Fuck, you’re tall!” Prokhorov ignored them, and went off to attend a ceremony that officially opened his campaign office. The protest organizers had not invited him to speak.

The last time a Russian oligarch entered politics, he did not fare well. About a decade ago, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon and the richest man in Russia at the time, started working to get his allies into the Duma, angering Putin. In October, 2003, masked commandos stormed his private jet and arrested him. His assets were parcelled out to Putin’s friends, and he was sentenced to nine years in jail. In December, 2010, he was given another, fourteen-year sentence. The harshness of the punishment sent a clear message to Russia’s magnates: stay out of politics.

During Putin’s rule, his éminence grise, Vladislav Surkov, built a system of what he has called “managed” democracy. Elections were rigged, and it seemed that Surkov allowed parties to exist only if they served a specific purpose or demographic. The statist, conservative United Russia supported Putin. The three opposition parties—the Communists, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and the left-leaning Just Russia Party—have opaque funding and generally toe the Kremlin line. (They are justly called “the loyal opposition.”)

In early 2011, Surkov began working to create a new party for Russia’s urban middle class, which had become increasingly hostile to the government’s corruption and ineptitude. Rather than permit them to organize organically, however, Surkov resuscitated a moribund liberal party called Right Cause.

The project’s curators approached at least three members of the Kremlin élite, with no success. Then, on May 16th, Prokhorov announced that he would lead the Party. He insists that the Kremlin didn’t ask him to do so: he heard about Right Cause’s search in the papers, and some friends suggested that he get involved. After contacting the Party, Prokhorov says that he then approached the Kremlin and was given approval. He told me directly that he sought the counsel of the President, Dmitry Medvedev, and the Prime Minister before making his announcement. Why, I asked, did he need to talk this over with them? “If you are the head of a big company, you cannot be involved in politics,” he explained. But, unlike Khodorkovsky, he added, he had relinquished control of his business before taking up politics.

Whether the Kremlin had requested, or merely blessed, Prokhorov’s campaign was an important distinction. If Prokhorov was to lead a party for the urban middle class, he had to be independent. But, from the beginning, few people believed that he was. He had funded various Kremlin initiatives, like a summer training camp for several of Surkov’s pro-Kremlin youth groups. As a publicity stunt, he once spent a night in a tent at the camp. Worse, he completely avoided criticizing Putin after taking over the Party. And so the urban élite dismissed Right Cause as a “Kremlin project.”

Surkov seemed to do everything in his power to help Right Cause succeed, thereby sending another signal about its lack of independence. In early summer, Prokhorov appeared on all the federal television channels, which blacklist genuine opponents. During one appearance, he demonstrated his basketball skills by sinking a three-point shot. Moscow was blanketed with tangerine-colored posters featuring Prokhorov’s face, staring heavy-lidded at the city.

In August, Surkov began phoning Prokhorov to suggest people who would and wouldn’t work for Right Cause. Prokhorov told me that he promised he would take the Kremlin’s ideas into account, but he clearly chafed at the interference. Prokhorov had recently tapped Evgeny Roizman, a controversial anti-drug activist from Yekaterinburg, to join the Party. In early September, Surkov pressured Prokhorov to remove Roizman from the Party roster. When Prokhorov refused, Surkov organized a coup within Right Cause and had him voted out of power.

On September 15th, Prokhorov gathered a swarm of puzzled journalists and supporters at the Russian Academy of Sciences, the place where he had planned to hold a Party congress. When he rose to speak, everyone was sure that the public tension with Surkov in recent days was part of an elaborately staged show of independence. But Prokhorov delivered an uncharacteristically emotional speech about Surkov. “There is a puppeteer in this country who privatized the political system, who has misinformed the Russian leadership about what is going on in the political system, who pressures the media, plants candidates, and manipulates citizens’ opinions,” he said. “This puppeteer is named Vladislav Surkov.” He then called for Surkov’s dismissal. This was real. The project had clearly jumped the rails.

When I first met with Prokhorov, five days after the implosion of Right Cause, he was not his usual swaggering self. He looked pale, and he drooped over a white leather armchair in the rotunda of his Moscow office. A glass skylight flooded the room with the late-September sun. His desk was immaculate: a few stacks of paper and a tray of dried fruit. There was no computer in sight. Bookshelves were littered with mementos, statuettes, and a smattering of books. Tucked behind them was an old picture of him with Putin, who comes up to Prokhorov’s chest.

“No, no, I’m not wilting,” Prokhorov said, when I remarked on his posture. “I’m just catching up on sleep. I’m sleeping seven hours a night now! Before, it was four or five.”

There were less than three months until the parliamentary elections, and liberals were intrigued by his unexpected show of independence. But Prokhorov had exited Right Cause at the very moment that he had become appealing. He seemed to relish the irony of his situation, as well as the skepticism he had encountered. “If one of my friends or colleagues did this, I would think exactly the same thing,” he told me. “I’d have no illusions.”

His independent stance also carried a potentially steep cost. When Prokhorov assailed Surkov at the Party convention, everyone in the auditorium was stunned. Such a confrontation was unprecedented, and it was not expected to go unpunished. This may be why Prokhorov was at pains to downplay the incident. “I don’t really like to discuss what happened between two people,” he demurred, before conceding that the clash had made public a growing rift between the modernizing and the conservative forces in the Russian élite. “He’s inhibiting development,” Prokhorov finally blurted out. “That’s the essence of the conflict.”

Five days after we talked, Prokhorov was unexpectedly excluded from a Presidential commission on technological modernization. A month later, Putin’s office postponed the London I.P.O. of his gold-mining company, Polyus Gold. “It’s just an administrative delay,” Christophe Charlier, the deputy C.E.O. of Onexim, Prokhorov’s holding company, said. He added quietly, “In Russia, because of lack of transparency, people don’t believe in coincidences.”

Prokhorov’s parents, Dmitry and Tamara, were members of the Soviet upper middle class. Tamara was a materials engineer at the Institute for Chemical Machine-Building; Dmitry was trained as a lawyer. When Prokhorov was born, in May, 1965, Dmitry was handling international relations for the Soviet Committee of Physical Culture and Sport. As Prokhorov now puts it, his father “spoke for the red Soviet machine that beat everyone in sports.” Athletes often visited their small Moscow apartment. “There were sports in my life from childhood,” Prokhorov says. Like many Russian men of his generation, he spent most of his time outside “in the yard,” where he learned the ways of the patsan, or guy code. (This is the code that Prokhorov upheld in sticking by Roizman—loyalty—and the code he broke in going against Surkov.)

Prokhorov was, until the eighth grade, a middling student. “Boys in the Soviet Union got to work on their brains later; it’s a common story,” Prokhorov explains. Reading also came to him in adolescence, though he says it is something he quickly outgrew. “I just don’t like literature, because all of the experiences in it are redundant to me,” he says, adding that he has read mostly “specialized literature,” like books on chess tactics. “I have it all in my real life,” he goes on. “Literature I just don’t get at all. I’ve come to the conclusion that if someone has real-life experience, then he can’t, by definition, like literature.”

Eventually, Prokhorov’s parents stopped chasing him out of the kitchen when friends gathered in the evening and discussed politics. Prokhorov remembers a wide range of topics, from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to Western culture and the ineffectiveness of a planned economy. “We weren’t discussing any plot against the state,” Prokhorov says. “We discussed mundane things.”

His need to clarify that his family wasn’t plotting against Brezhnev points to a key tenet of the Prokhorovs. Dmitry may have been discussing Solzhenitsyn in the kitchen, but during the day he worked in a highly sensitive branch of the Soviet apparatus: athletics were an important propaganda tool at home and abroad. He was allowed to travel, a rarity in those days. “He knew the Western world very well, and he would tell me about it, except very carefully, so that I didn’t give voice to these thoughts in school,” Prokhorov says, outlining a common Soviet public-private split. “At work, everyone was a strict Communist, but in the kitchen everyone was a dissident.”

“Our parents were thoroughly Soviet people,” says Prokhorov’s bookish older sister, Irina. She runs his philanthropic organizations, an erudite literary magazine, and a publishing house, and lives in a wing of his mansion west of Moscow. “They never fought against the Soviet state.” Dmitry and Tamara came of age during Stalin’s rule and knew better.

Prokhorov credits his mother with providing him with his cool temperament. “I’m a boa constrictor,” he says. “Calm, good mood. That’s like my mom. She could listen to people for a long time, and I can also listen.”

Prokhorov first made money as an undergraduate at the Moscow Finance Institute, which was a five-minute walk from home. He has developed a lofty mythology to explain his choice of profession. “Since childhood, money had a way of finding me,” he says. “I always found something in the sandbox. We’d be at the beach, and I’d find money. Money just found me on its own. I didn’t do anything for it.” This power is gone now, says Prokhorov, who is the thirty-second-richest person in the world. “I guess I don’t really need it.”

In 1983, after his first year at the institute, he did a two-year stint in the Army. “You had to fight at the very beginning, because that was part of the survival,” Prokhorov recalls. “People were always wanting to test you: are you real or not real? After a couple months, they understood that I was real, and no one bothered me anymore.”

Afterward, he returned to school and got to work. He organized his Army buddies into brigades that unloaded freight cars—potatoes, frozen beef, cement—and they earned in a day what a professor might make in a month. He handed over most of his money to his family.

In 1988, just before Prokhorov’s last year of college, Russians were allowed to own businesses for the first time in sixty years. He and another classmate rented a section of a laundromat near the institute and set up an operation for stonewashing jeans. The business was extremely successful, and soon all his friends—and their friends—were working for him. “I remember the last time I really got any pleasure out of money was when I bought a car, and I understood that I could take a girl to a café,” Prokhorov recalls.

At about this time, both of his parents died of heart disease. Prokhorov remained in their flat, which he shared with his niece and Irina, who had divorced her husband several years earlier. He became the breadwinner of the family. According to Olga Romanova, an opposition activist who was friendly with Prokhorov in college, this explains why he has never married. “This is his family; he doesn’t need another one,” Romanova says of Irina and her daughter.

In college, Prokhorov met Alexander Khloponin, who became his best friend. “Khloponin was the ringleader,” Romanova says. “Misha was the pensive serpent sitting next to the leader.” Khloponin introduced Prokhorov to Vladimir Potanin, who became Prokhorov’s business partner.

When he met Potanin, Prokhorov was working at the ailing International Bank for Economic Cooperation, where he had been assigned after college and where he’d quickly earned a series of promotions. In 1992, as Russia went through its first painful year as a fledgling market economy, Prokhorov and Potanin started their own bank, which they called MFK. That year, the management of the International Bank—whose fold Prokhorov had just left—sent a letter to its clients, encouraging them to transfer their holdings to MFK. Within six months, Potanin and Prokhorov had three hundred million dollars in assets. All the old debt was left at the International Bank.

The following year, Potanin and Prokhorov formed the United Export-Import Bank, or Uneximbank, for short. They divided their labor according to their talents. “He didn’t like to dig through the technical stuff, and I loved it,” Prokhorov says. “And he loved buttonholing people, being involved in politics, lobbying.” (Potanin declined to discuss Prokhorov for this article. Khloponin, who went into business with the two, is now the Kremlin-appointed chief of the restive North Caucasus region.)

Uneximbank soon became the authorized bank for a number of state organizations, including the Finance Ministry, the federal tax service, the state arms-export agency, and the city of Moscow. At the end of 1994, the second year of the bank’s existence, it had 2.1 billion dollars in assets, nearly seven times more than it did at the beginning of the year.

The partners’ next coup came in 1995. A resurgent Communist Party threatened to take down an enfeebled Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 Presidential election. Potanin masterminded a plan wherein he and the other oligarchs offered loans to the government, which couldn’t pay wages and pensions, and they asked for shares in state enterprises as collateral. After selecting the companies they wanted, Potanin, Prokhorov, and their compatriots bid on how much money they would lend the government for those shares. Should the government default on its loans, which was all but assured, Uneximbank and the others could sell the shares. When the government failed to repay the loans, the bankers kept the shares. Potanin and Prokhorov walked away with Norilsk Nickel, which was Russia’s largest platinum and nickel producer. At the time, Norilsk had revenues of three and a half billion dollars. Potanin and Prokhorov had given the government a loan of a hundred and seventy million dollars.

The loans-for-shares transactions, which made billionaires of Potanin and Prokhorov, remain highly controversial, and helped draw a connection in the Russian imagination between the crook, the businessman, and the Kremlin official. When asked recently on national television whether he had ever participated in corrupt dealings, Prokhorov shrugged and replied, “Yes, of course I participated in them. What, don’t I live in this country?”

In 2001, Prokhorov took over the management of Norilsk. He improved productivity, diversified the company, and, in the six years that he was in charge, Norilsk’s value increased elevenfold, owing in large part to a global commodities boom. He set up the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation, run by Irina, which brought arts and culture to the icebound miners. He also took control of one of Norilsk’s less valuable but, to Prokhorov, more interesting projects: Moscow’s CSKA basketball team. Prokhorov gave the team a healthy budget, which allowed it to recruit top talent. The team won the European championships twice in three seasons.

In January, 2007, Prokhorov and twenty-five others—some of them young Russian women—were arrested at Courchevel, a French ski resort where Prokhorov has “a small house” and spends the Orthodox Christmas holiday. Prokhorov was detained for three days—which he spent shadowboxing and stretching in his cell—on suspicion of making prostitutes available to his guests. When I asked him about it, Prokhorov laughed off the incident and said that everything written about it was “absolute rubbish.” One of the people he uses to book hotels and cars for his guests happened to have gone through customs with a binder containing pictures of twenty girls. “Girls travel with me, and he had pictures of them in his bag—you know, to meet them at the airport,” Prokhorov explains. The French police got a different impression: that this man was a pimp. In general, Prokhorov is unapologetic about his predilections. (“How will I become president without a first lady?” he recently wrote on his Facebook page. “Let me tell you a secret: I had my first lady when I was seventeen.”) He can often be spotted at Moscow’s poshest clubs, surrounded by herds of young women from the city’s modelling agencies. Because neither he nor his friends are married, he says that, in Courchevel, “we didn’t even violate anyone’s moral code.”

Nevertheless, the arrests became an international incident. Potanin was scandalized, and Prokhorov was soon pushed out of Norilsk. In the spring of 2008, Prokhorov swapped his stake for a fourteen-per-cent share in Rusal, the world’s largest producer of aluminum, and more than seven billion dollars. Five months later, Lehman Brothers collapsed, sinking world markets and commodity prices. Prokhorov, whose assets were now mostly in cash, was affected far less than any of his peers. The French, in the meantime, apologized and awarded Prokhorov a Légion d’Honneur.

For a while, he was the richest man in Russia. He signed on to reënergize and fund the Russian Biathlon Union. He bought the New Jersey Nets and made plans to move the team to Brooklyn. (His wedding present to the Nets forward Kris Humphries and Kim Kardashian was a pair of his-and-hers Russian fur hats.) He created a glossy media empire. He began investing in high-tech and nanotechnology projects, which were being pushed by the Kremlin in its drive to diversify the Russian economy. One of these ventures is a Russian-made hybrid vehicle whose name, to the Russian ear, sounds like “Fuck-Mobile.” Putin gave it a spin last spring and praised it as “a totally new product” with an “attention-grabbing” name.

When I met with Prokhorov last October, he had just got back from windsurfing at his private resort in Turkey, and celebrating the season-closing bacchanal at Ibiza. He had doubled his daily exercise regimen, from two hours to four. “Basically, everything’s great,” he said, beaming. He gulped down a large teacup of an orange vitamin broth. The rumor around Moscow was that he and Surkov had made up and the two of them had drunk on it. Prokhorov denied this, but in November Surkov told a Moscow newspaper that he had no issues with Prokhorov.

On December 4th, Russia held its parliamentary elections, and Putin’s increasingly unpopular United Russia edged back into power. To many, this seemed a less than credible result, and video evidence of egregious voting violations circulated on the Web. People took to the streets, and the police cracked down, arresting a thousand protesters in two days. On December 8th, Prokhorov published a blog post in which he declared, “Like it or not, Putin is for now the only politician who can somehow manage to control the machine of state.”

On December 10th, an estimated fifty thousand people gathered in Moscow’s Bolotnaya, or Swampy, Square. Thousands of others protested in more than eighty cities across the country. Crowds of expats gathered at Russian embassies around the world. Russia hadn’t seen anything like this since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite official warnings of violence, the protest had the feel of a block party. Muscovites, who can seem like the rudest people on the planet, smiled and struck up conversations with strangers. The President, however, was silent, and so was Putin.

Two days later, Prokhorov held a surprise press conference in the center of Moscow. “Honestly, I’m not sure what you’re expecting of me, but I’ll try not to disappoint you,” he said, smiling. “This is probably the most serious decision of my life. I’m going to participate in the Presidential elections.” This time, he said that he would do it as an independent. The people in the room gasped, and the old question arose immediately: was this another Kremlin project? That night, the main national channel broadcast a long, glowing report of his candidacy. Shots of the press conference were interspersed with footage of grinning protesters at Bolotnaya.

Whatever credibility Prokhorov had built up by turning on Surkov in the fall quickly dissipated, in part because of the fawning coverage on state television. To make matters worse, an article in the magazine New Times declared that, on the evening before the protest in Bolotnaya Square, Prokhorov had taken a call from Putin and then told the friends he was with that the President had asked him to run. The story was based on anonymous sources, and Prokhorov immediately denied it. He says that Putin and Medvedev found out about his intentions from the press conference. His spokeswoman adds that the New Times account was “total fiction.” Nevertheless, given Prokhorov’s past, and the nature of Russian politics, the damage was done.

When I met Prokhorov two weeks after he had announced his candidacy, he had just spent two hours in the cold at the protest on Sakharov Avenue, and another two organizing the drive to gain the two million signatures necessary to register for the Presidential election. He had clearly enjoyed himself.

He had an elaborate, and decidedly wobbly, story about his decision to run. For two months, he said, he had been building a national support network. Two days before the big protests, Prokhorov says he “quietly submitted” his application to the Central Election Commission. “I won’t hide the fact that I have a friend, and I asked him not to leak anything,” Prokhorov told me, declining to name this apparently influential person. His blog post, in which he appeared to endorse Putin, was, he said, a red herring.

A few weeks later, his election prospects, though not his credibility, were given an assist when the Central Election Commission disqualified Grigory Yavlinsky, the traditional liberal candidate: nearly a quarter of his petition signatures were deemed fakes. Prokhorov, who had gathered two and a half million signatures in a mere two weeks—one of which was a national holiday—remained on the ballot.

Regardless of its origins, Prokhorov’s second political intervention seemed more promising than his first. In his parliamentary campaign, he had avoided even the slightest criticism of Putin. This time, he has attacked the Prime Minister, however mildly. “I have my own economic views,” he said, on NTV, shortly after his announcement. Putin’s economic program, he said, is “leading to economic catastrophe.”

Perhaps most promising for Prokhorov, Surkov was promoted out of his position three days after the protest on Sakharov Avenue. Instead of curating internal politics, he will now oversee the state’s modernization push. In a farewell interview, he scoffed, “I am too odious for this brave new world.”

Running for President is not a bad deal for Prokhorov, whose name is still associated with Courchevel. (A popular joke has him choosing his first lady, his second lady, his third lady, “and some whores.”) Sated and successful in business, he gets to try something new. “The fact that I’m useful to the government is obvious,” he said in a television appearance. “But why don’t we use the government, too?” Meanwhile, he seems to have grown even smoother as a candidate. He jokes with the press; he laughs. He has even got better at answering the same question—is he a “Kremlin project”?—over and over. “There’s nothing I can tell you that will convince you,” he’s said. “The only way is to keep working, calmly, and prove it with action.”

Prokhorov seems to relish the role of being the one man who’s allowed to speak truth to power. His platform, which he published in January, is full of commonsense proposals, like shortening the Presidential term of office from six years to four, and limiting the number of terms a President can serve. He proposes to force the government to sell its controlling stakes in media organizations. He wants to eliminate the Draconian registration procedures that Surkov invented to keep opposition parties out of the Duma. He has detailed economic proposals designed to boost competition and remove the state’s influence from the economy. Prokhorov’s first campaign promise was to free Khodorkovsky. He has also become bolder. When asked in a recent television interview about that infamous online comment that only Putin could run the current Russian state, he stuck by it. “But I don’t want to live in a country like that,” he added.

“I’m playing a long-term game,” he said on the evening of December 24th, after the protest. It was already dark, and a butler brought in tea and a tray of sweets. Prokhorov seemed energized by what he had seen that afternoon, and spoke of building a political party after the election. “The only thing is if people don’t support me at all,” he said of the coming election. “In that case, you can’t fool yourself. You have to tell yourself, ‘Apparently you have no political talent and you should do something else.’ I’ve only done things at which I’m at least somewhat better than others. The Presidential elections are a great test.”

On February 4th, with a month left before the election, some hundred thousand Muscovites came out for the largest protest to date, a march down Yakimanka Street to Bolotnaya Square. The temperature was ten degrees below zero. Prokhorov had been gaining in the polls, with twenty per cent of the protesters supporting him. But his national share of the vote was still only about five per cent.

This time, Prokhorov was seasonably dressed, in ski pants and heavy-duty boots. A blue down jacket filled out his svelte frame, and a white fleece hat with a red zigzag on the forehead made him easy to spot in the crowd. Roizman, on whose behalf Prokhorov had abandoned Right Cause, was there with a delegation from the Ural Mountains. (He is now an adviser to Prokhorov’s campaign.) So was Prokhorov’s sister, Irina. She wore a leopard-print fur hat and clung to his arm in the crush of supporters wearing white scarves that said “Prokhorov.” They were a diverse but largely middle-class crowd, and they didn’t care whether Prokhorov had negotiated his run with Putin. “I agree with his platform, that’s it,” a middle-aged small-business owner from the Ivanovo region told me as we walked. Others said that it would be a good thing if Prokhorov were indeed a “Kremlin project”: at least he’d be able to get things done.

The tightly packed cluster around Prokhorov moved aimlessly through the larger crowd until Prokhorov took control.

“Right!” he called out over everyone’s heads. “We’re moving to the right!”



“Right!” his supporters echoed.

“Curb!” he called, stepping up over a pile of dirty snow.



Soon, the pack started chanting behind him: “Prokhorov for President! Prokhorov for President!”

“What are they saying?” he asked Irina.

He craned his head to catch what she whispered in his ear. Then he looked up and smiled.

The Master and Mikhail [TNY]

Moscow’s Big White Circle

Sunday, February 26th, 2012

Because standing and listening to political speeches in the cold can be a little tedious the fourth time around, the organizing committee behind this winter’s opposition protests in Moscow decided on something a little different for their last protest before the March 4th Presidential elections: a big white circle. (I wrote about the elections, and Mikhail Prokhorov, the oligarch, Nets owner, and opposition contender—and occasional rapper—in this week’s New Yorker.)

The conceit is simple: come out to the Garden Ring, which girds the center of Moscow in ten miles of multi-lane highway, and hold hands. Oh, and wear your white ribbons, which have been the symbol of the protests. There is no permit to get, nothing to discuss with the authorities.

The result was stupendous. I got in a cab and did the full loop and filmed the denser sections, in three parts (the first is above): some stretches, especially in the north, were quite patchy. I also didn’t quite catch the clumps of pro-Putin kids holding red hearts reading “Putin Loves Everyone.” But if you watch the video, you’ll get the general idea. As you can see, traffic, despite the weekend, has slowed to a crawl. Cars are honking. Some have tied white ribbons to their windshield wipers and let them run: a robot-like answer to the grinning, waving people on the sidewalks.

You can also see that Moscow, especially in a coat of gray winter slush, is not the friendliest of cities—something anyone who’s been here can attest to—which made it that much more moving to see it as it was today, encircled with a ten-mile smile.

Moscow’s Big White Circle[TNY]

Prokhorov Raps

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

And here is Russian oligarch and presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov rapping. A couple of weeks ago, Prokhorov, whom I wrote about for The New Yorker this week, appeared on “Projector Paris Hilton,” a comedy show on state television that allows itself some mild political satire. The show’s hosts handed Prokhorov a sheet of paper and asked him to rap along about his signature technology product, the ѿ-Mobile. Pronounced “yo-Mobilie,” it sounds roughly like the shorthand for Fuck Mobile to a Russian ear. It also makes for a fun, if corny, conceit for some stiff-jointed rapping.

Prokhorov Raps [TNY]

Protest and Pretend in Moscow

Saturday, February 4th, 2012

Today’s opposition protest in Moscow drew more people than any of the protests that followed December’s rigged parliamentary vote. But not all of the protests since then have been anti-Kremlin. One of the many methods that the Kremlin has used in response to this unprecedented wave of civic bonhomie is to herd its own rallies. It’s a method the Kremlin has fallen back on for years: Pro-government youth groups, for example, regularly bus tens of thousands of kids into Moscow from the provinces for such events. Many of them can be spotted wandering the streets afterwards in their official T-shirts, swinging Zara bags: a free trip to the capital, with some pocket money to boot.

On December 6th, two days after the disputed elections brought thousands of angry Muscovites into the streets, these youth groups staged a massive counter-rally. They had pins and scarves and jackets and giant drums, which they pounded as the police surgically snatched nearly six hundred opposition protesters from the crowd and sent them off to jail. (They also had aggressive soccer hooligans keeping order, another hallmark of such gatherings.)
Four days later, on December 10th, a historically huge crowd of fifty thousand had come out to Bolotnaya Square to demand fair elections.

Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party—whose questionable victory was the reason for the ruckus—said it would bring out just as many people for a rally by the Kremlin walls two days later. But only two thousand people came out, if that. It was a thin crowd, which made for a strange counterpoint to one of the speakers, who went on about looking out from the stage and seeing a sea of United Russia supporters. Who were these supporters? One Russian journalist, armed with a camera, decided to find out by asking them why they came. Most turned away or ignored him. One of them, a migrant worker from Central Asia, could barely string together a sentence in Russian. (Many in the crowd that day, it turned out, were migrants—and not Russian citizens.)

There was a similar sham rally a few days ago, in Yekaterinburg, in the Ural Mountains. This one, though, was in support of Putin’s candidacy for the Presidency and of the working class, which dominates the region. Many of the workers who attended the rally had been bused in from neighboring cities, industrial centers where life, even in Putin’s gilded era, is still not very pleasant. Several colleagues who went out there for the rally told me that people were very angry at Putin—the word “lynch” was used—but went to the rally in Yekaterinburg because their employers required them to, and because there was free vodka. This didn’t seem to add much to their mood, though: A video, which quickly went viral, showed a Duma deputy—formerly a worker from a nearby city—screaming “Urals! Russia! Putin!” He heard crickets in response. The protest, by the way, scraped together about ten thousand people, and police fined the organizers for having more people than the permit for the gathering allowed—an especially fine touch.

Today was the crowning moment of the Kremlin’s effort. As a hundred and twenty thousand opposition protesters marched through subzero temperatures—negative ten degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact—to Bolotnaya Square, buses across town brought in pro-Putin protesters to Poklonnaya Gora, the plaza commemorating Russia’s victory in the Second World War. The official police estimates of the size of each crowd were not believable. They put the pro-Putin number at a hundred and thirty-eight thousand, and fourteen-thousand five hundred at Bolotnaya. I was at the opposition rally, where there were clearly many, many more people than fourteen-thousand five hundred people. A smiling police officer confirmed this, adding that there were “significantly fewer people” at the pro-Putin rally. He seemed to be gloating.

I did, however, send my friend Albina Kirillova, a director with the hip opposition Rain TV channel, to Poklonnaya Gora. I asked her to capture the spirit of the pro-Putin rally, to find out if people were genuinely supporting Putin, if they had been bused in, or if they had been required to come by their employers, as has been frequently reported. Here’s what she found:

There were, as expected, people who had been paid to come; people who came out because of a work-place “initiative”; people who were less than fluent in Russian; and people who were less than sober. But there were also a lot of people who actually support Putin, either because they see no alternative to him, or because they really do like him. And they should, without a doubt, be able to gather and voice these feelings, just like the opposition.

But here’s the thing: when these protests are fake, when they aim to merely usurp and simulate popular sentiment in a controlled and controllable way, when the point is simply to mimic what the other side is doing, it’s downright destructive. People took to the streets in December and today because they’re tired of pretending that fake elections are real, that fake press is real, that fake protests are real expressions of anything. Responding with more of the same undermines the sand castle of Russia’s political system even further. It also just looks ridiculous.

Here’s another thing: these fake protests are expensive. Two days ago, the Russian franchise of Anonymous hacked the e-mail of youth minister Vasily Yakimenko. He is in charge of those Kremlin youth groups, and in charge of their fake protests. That protest with the pins and the scarves and the jackets and the drums? It cost the Russian federal budget—and the Russian taxpayer—nearly two hundred thousand dollars. Judging by the traffic the buses created near Poklonnaya Gora, Saturday’s protest probably cost even more, but the Russian taxpayer—a hundred and twenty thousand of whom were protesting exactly this kind of nonsense on Bolotnaya—will never know exactly how much. And what happens if more and more Russians start protesting as the Russian winter turns to spring, and—as is likely to happen—when Putin wins the Presidency in less than honest elections? Throwing money at things has been Putin’s preferred method for dealing with just about any problem, but this may be one of those times where this method doesn’t work.

And one more thing about today’s pro-Putin protest: Putin didn’t even show up. Instead, he commented on the show of support at Poklonnaya Gora and the fine for too many people showing up. “I’m positive that the organizers didn’t expect such a response,” Putin said. And he offered to pay the fine himself.

Protest and Pretend in Moscow [TNY]

Putin: A Used President?

Sunday, December 25th, 2011

guess you can say that it started with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s live question-and-answer session last Friday. This is a once-a-year extravaganza that lasts for hours and is Putin’s favorite—that is, utterly scripted—way to communicate with his subjects. He leans back in an Aeron chair, cocks one arm over its back, and confidently rains down figures and percentages and questionable numbers like heavenly manna. He solves housing shortages for Second World War veterans with a swift, manly snarl. He jokes, he zings—he is, in short, in his element. This year, however, Putin’s telethon came amid growing protests by the country’s middle class, which has had enough, over the crude, ham-fisted falsifications of the December 4th parliamentary vote. This year, he was nervous, and, despite his vocal unwillingness to discuss this wrinkle in the system, he had to keep coming back to the topic. When all else failed, he tried to ease off the theme by making a joke about the white ribbons protesters have been pinning to their chests. “To be perfectly honest,” he said,

When I saw something on some people’s chests, I’ll be honest—it’s not quite appropriate— but in any case, I thought that this was part of an anti-AIDS campaign, that these were, pardon me, condoms.

Within minutes, the Russian-language Internet was overflowing with condom jokes, including a picture of a condom folded up like an activist ribbon, and a Christmas card from Putin, an unfurled condom hanging from his lapel. A joke started to make the rounds: a guy and a girl are getting hot and heavy, and, at the critical moment, she says, “Do you have a white ribbon?”

Russians have a long tradition of biting, bitter humor, a necessary steam valve when you live in a reality that could easily be mistaken for a joke. These days, with all the steam the system has built up over a decade of High Putinism suddenly billowing forth, humor has been front and center. KermlinRussia, a popular Twitter parody of Dmitry Medvedev’s Twitter feed, has been especially active of late. “Putin,” one of the recent condom-themed tweets went, “is a used president.” (He had been President before, and intends to be so again.)

Saturday, up to a hundred and twenty thousand people came out to demand electoral reform—a record for the infamously indifferent Putin generation. Partly because the last massive protest, two weeks ago, was so peaceful, and because Muscovites are getting the hang of this, Saturday’s protest was, more than anything, a festival of such classically wry Russian witticisms. Below, some of my favorites.

(Photographs: Max Avdeev)

(Photographs, above and top: Julia Ioffe)

Putin: A Used President? [TNY]

Snow Revolution

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

It’s hard to say how many people came out to Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square today. Was it eighty-five thousand, like the protest’s organizers said? Was it twenty-five thousand, like the police said? Was it fifty thousand—the Russian media’s estimates? Whatever it was, it was definitely more than the thirty-five thousand that had R.S.V.P.’d on Facebook. The square was packed, a small pedestrian bridge studded with artificial trees hung with locks left there by lovers was packed to the point that police warned it would collapse into the river below. There were still more people on the other side. There were people in the trees. “Young man, come on down!” someone yelled. “We have a banana for you!”

The Russian word for a protest is miting—meeting—and, for once, this was the more apt word for it. There was speechifying and chanting—“Putin, resign!”—and demands for new elections, but the sound equipment didn’t have the juice to reach all those ears. And yet, people stayed, and instead of listening, they talked to each other. I chatted with a group of young Russians—who worked in finance, marketing, insurance, engineering—about who in the political landscape reflected their views. No one, it turned out, because most Russian political parties, to their minds, are fakes. A young man, a consultant, sidled up. “Excuse me, I heard you talking,” he said, the snow falling on his tweed and leather cap, “and I just want to say that today’s parties are marionettes because they know that it is more effective for them to deal with [Vladislav] Surkov”—the Kremlin’s Karl Rove—“than with the people.”

“You say [old-school liberal] Yabloko is a party of the system, but I have to disagree with you,” said yet another young man who happened to be squeezing past us. And off they went.

Throughout the gray afternoon, as the snow turned to hail and back to snow, people talked politics, and talked about them intelligently, with nuance, with substance, with facts and figures and names. It was a far cry from the conventional wisdom, often Kremlin-sponsored, of Russians’ apathy and disgust for politics. Today, it turned out that no one’s been apathetic, that everyone has been reading and watching and following. Today was just the first time that all of these people came out and discovered each other’s existence.

And for all the talk in recent days, mostly from pro-Kremlin forces, of bloodshed and chaos and violence, the protest felt more like a holiday. Women tied white ribbons—the protest’s symbol—in their hair; people carried balloons and flowers. (Some were even spotted on the dashboards of police cars in the area.) People laughed, they smiled at each other, they were polite and didn’t push and when this correspondent tried to move through the crowd, they were beyond accommodating. “The press!” one man said. “We’d carry you on our shoulders!” There were no injuries, no arrests, no disorder. Even the march of several thousand people from the protest’s old venue (on Revolution Square) was peaceful, and orderly. The police didn’t harass, they didn’t yell. They too were polite. Some smiled at the protestors, others looked shocked. They didn’t act, as they did on Tuesday, as if the protestors were their enemies. (Their work got a special report on state television, which, after ignoring the growing protests for days, finally showed the crowds, though without really saying what they were there for. State-controlled NTV finally acknowledged the protests, too—by showing live footage.)

At Monday’s protests, the organizers and the participants surprised themselves when six thousand people came out. Today, it wasn’t so much the numbers that shocked, or even the fact that thousands of people in cities all over Russia came out and voiced their anger over rudely falsified elections. It was the discovery, after a decade spent living in an atomized society, believing the worst about themselves and each other, that Russians weren’t so bad after all.

“You guys are so great!” said Petr Shkumatov from the stage. He is one of the coördinators of the Blue Buckets movement, which you can read about in David Remnick’s dispatch from Moscow, out this week in the magazine. As he spoke, he filmed the crowd with his phone. “Really! You guys are so great! Thank you so much for not staying home on your couches and drinking beer! Thank you for coming out, and showing them that you are not cattle. Thank you for coming out! You are all so wonderful!”

Photograph by Alexander Zemlianichenko, Jr/AP Photo.

Snow Revolution [TNY]

“Tomorrow, They’ll Shoot Us”

Friday, December 9th, 2011

According to a page on Facebook created for the event, some thirty-five thousand people are supposed to gather tomorrow afternoon on Moscow’s Bolotnaya (Swampy) Square to demand a re-do of Sunday’s crooked parliamentary elections and the release of people arrested in the three days of protests that followed.

If even half that number shows up tomorrow, it will be unprecedented for a regime that has become expert in disenfranchising, disincentivizing, and marginalizing anyone who disagrees with it—all without spilling much blood at home or jailing more than the occasional example victim. All it took, really, was distracting people with the trappings of Western prosperity: sushi bars, vacations abroad, cars, iPhones, and a semblance, however thin, of normalcy.

The events of the last few days have been utterly astonishing and radically different from anything Putin’s Russia has seen before: thousands of young, educated, middle class Russians who have something to lose have come out into the streets simply out of a feeling of being utterly fed up, in spite of that prosperity—and, quite probably, because of it. People who have either never cared about politics, or have been afraid to dabble in it; people who have businesses or who cannot be seen publicly engaging in opposition politics; and even people who had been complicit in cynically, opportunistically spreading the United Russia gospel—all feverishly discussing the protest, putting up white ribbons (the protest’s new symbol), and rallying their friends and family to come on Saturday. Tomorrow, we can expect to see not only the obvious faces—civil-society activists, liberally inclined journalists—but investment bankers and even bureaucrats. The spirit of the last week has been surprising and moving in a way that an objective reporter should not admit to being moved by. But even without rooting for either side, and with the full understanding that these protests may easily come to naught, one can’t help but marvel at the spontaneous, utterly organic outburst of civic feeling, and the fact that, for lack of a better term, a point of no return has very clearly been passed.

And, by the looks of things, the Kremlin is either in denial, scared, or both. Thursday, Vladimir Putin dismissed the protests, saying that they had been instigated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this after days of him and President Dmitry Medvedev pooh-poohing allegations of widespread, well-documented ballot stuffing and vote rigging. (The country’s top election official, who openly agitates for Putin and the United Russia Party, said the series of videos of electoral fraud circulating on the Internet were filmed in residential apartments fixed up to look like polling stations.)

Behind the scenes, there’s been a massive Kremlin effort to lean on the media. The liberal television project and Medvedev darling, TV Rain, has come under bureaucratic pressure for broadcasting Monday and Tuesday’s protests. (Worst of all, Medvedev unfollowed the channel on Twitter.) The F.S.B. has been pushing Pavel Durov, founder of VKontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook and most popular social network, to block opposition sites. He refused, and today was summoned to the prosecutor general’s office. (In retaliation—and in another sign of who is manning the opposition’s barricades—opposition-minded computer whizzes have started hacking and shutting down loyalist sites, like the Web page of United Russia’s Duma faction.)

Further down the power hierarchy, the Moscow city government has spent days maneuvering to move the protest away from the symbolic Revolution Square, near the Kremlin ramparts and the site of massive protests on the eve of the collapse of the U.S.S.R. First, there was urgent plumbing work and excavation that needed to be done on the day of the protest. In the face of a public outcry, the mayor’s office backed down. The next day, there were reports of an ice theatre—“a little mouse, a frog, a little rabbit”—opening up, conveniently, on the square, also on the day of the protest. Finally, the mayor’s office thought of a better way. It offered the diffuse group of organizers the chance to move the protest to Swampy Square, and to allow all thirty thousand people to show up. This had the effect of instantly splintering the opposition, which descended into bickering and trading accusations of treason, collaborationism, and self-defeating idiocy. (The rift has been mostly patched up, with most everyone agreeing to compromise.)

All the government’s resources have kicked into panic mode, it seems. The police have leaked reports saying that the protests will be scoured for those dodging Russia’s military draft. Those arrested will also be drafted. Suddenly, Saturday has been made into a mandatory, full day of school for Moscow high schoolers. To ensure attendance, students will be given an important Russian test. (This after reports that students were forced to populate pro-United Russia protests on Tuesday instead of going to school.) Most bizarrely, the health minister has warned people to stay home lest they go to the demonstration and catch the flu.

There have also been more insidious forces at work. Twitter—the site of most of the discussion and planning—has been full of pro-Kremlin users conjuring up the spectre of bloodshed and civil war. An exceptionally well-produced YouTube clip has been released, explaining how (lots of dollars) and why (lots of oil) America goaded a vocal Libyan minority into provoking violence and imposing their views on a satisfied majority. This, tellingly, has been the exact language that United Russia officials have used publicly, as well as in conversation with me: Most people are satisfied; this is just a vicious and vocal minority that seeks to, yes, provoke bloodshed and, yes, impose its views on everyone else.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin seems to be the side threatening and provoking. Today, a memo detailing the ways to get a rise out of the opposition—to push them into the line of riot police, to push them out of public view—surfaced online. Putin’s press secretary promised organizers that anyone who showed up to Revolutionary Square, instead of Swampy Square, would be beaten so badly that their kidneys would fly off. Medvedev’s representative suggested that organizers would be held responsible for any bloodshed—you know, should there be any. Today, Kirill Schitov, a young parliamentarian in the Moscow city Duma and the man connected to this summer’s “Tear It Up for Putin” campaign, warned people reading his Twitter feed, “To those who have something to lose, do not give in to provocation and do not go to Revolutionary Square. Think.”

Perhaps because this is a generation that has not been inculcated with the fear of Homo sovieticus, and perhaps because they are, on the whole, very young—and the young, as we know, are always invincible—few seem to be falling for the bait. If anything, these attempts to stanch and divert the tide of anger, rather than doing the more difficult work of dealing with it head on, has served to galvanize—to say nothing of humoring—the people who are coming out of the woodwork and into the street tomorrow. And by all accounts, there will be a lot of them.

Photograph by Dmitry Lovetsky/AP Photo.

“Tomorrow, They’ll Shoot Us” [TNY]

Putin’s Big Mistake?

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Well, they’ve finally done it. Last night, after some six thousand people came out in central Moscow to protest suspected fraud in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, authorities rounded up three hundred people. Among them was Alexey Navalny, a popular anti-corruption activist and blogger. (I profiled Navalny for The New Yorker in April, and wrote about the alleged election fraud on Monday.).

The problem for Putin’s government is that, unlike the other two hundred and ninety-nine or so people arrested, Navalny is as close to a real celebrity as the Russian opposition has. He is also the one coherent, galvanizing, and viable figure among them. Despite his flirtations with nationalists, he is a brilliant political tactician and ad man: within three months of his coining the meme “party of crooks and thieves” to describe the ruling United Russia, one third of Russians polled said they identified United Russia as crooks and, yes, thieves.

No one among the opposition has been able to pull off the kinds of carefully calibrated victories Navalny can, and he has never been shy about his desire for power, which is why the Kremlin has been warily dismissive of him. Last week, when I asked Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, about Navalny as a possible pretender to the presidential throne, Peskov took the standard, vaguely neo-Soviet line: invoking spies and illicit cash. “I have a strong suspicion that he is earning money,” Peskov said. “It’s not about politics, it’s about money. I know for sure that a group of very talented lawyers are working behind him”—last winter, Navalny took up a collection to hire young lawyers to help him challenge corrupt state companies in court—“and supplying him with information and instruction. I know for sure that these specialists are working not only in this country but in some other countries, also. So, he has nothing to do with politics. It’s business. It’s like advertising on the Internet: another way of doing business.”

But if the Kremlin’s goal was to discredit Navalny and hobble his meteoric rise, they’ve done the opposite. Last night, hundreds of people protested through the night in front of one of the police precincts where, it was rumored, he was being held—trying to force the police to let his lawyer in to see him. At four A.M., nearly four thousand people were watching a live-stream video from the protest, which a supporter was beaming from the police station. In the meantime, Navalny tweeted cheery pictures from the police van and the holding pen, at least until his phone died or the police took it away. A video appeared of him in his cell, penning an official complaint—his favorite tactic.

All day Tuesday, when his tweets went silent, Russian Twitter was filled with conversations about Navalny’s whereabouts: Where was he being held? Where was his court hearing? No one, not even Navalny’s lawyer, seemed to know. Others wondered if he had been harmed, or worse. When he finally appeared in court, a picture was tweeted out with the message, “he’s alive!” This only fueled the euphoric panic that has filled the city in the last few days, and added to the (very accurate) sense that the state was cracking down and reverting to its old ways when faced with something new. Tuesday morning, armored vehicles rolled into Moscow, and the Interior Ministry confirmed that it had dispatched fifty thousand additional cops and eleven thousand five hundred Interior Ministry troops to provide “additional security” until the ballot count was completed.

Tonight, United Russia and the opposition are staging competing protests (the site of the latter has already been equipped with water cannons), and Russians (and Twitter) wait for Navalny’s verdict at the hands of a judge famous for jailing other opposition figures. Navalny’s cellmate, another young opposition politician named Ilya Yashin, was given fifteen days in prison, and Navalny could stand to get the same.

But even if the judge avoids adding fuel to the fire and delivers the verdict after Tuesday night’s protests have ended—or even if she lets him go—the damage has already been done. As Alexei Venediktov, the head of the Echo Moskvy radio station put it, arresting Navalny was “a political mistake: jailing Navalny transforms him from an online leader into an offline one.” Serving time in jail and publicly suffering at the hands of an unpopular state is any opposition leader’s dream, Venediktov wrote. “Historically, such political mistakes prove costly to those who commit them. Not right away, but inevitably. Alas.”

UPDATE: At around 7 P.M., Navalny was given the maximum sentence: fifteen days for defying a government official. He plans to appeal the verdict.

Putin’s Big Mistake? [TNY]

Russian Elections: Faking It

Monday, December 5th, 2011

Things at polling station #2390, an old school in Yasenevo, a sleepy bedroom community bristling with high rises on the far southwestern fringe of Moscow, finally got interesting long after the ladies in aprons folded up the snack bar and the voters had wandered home through the rain and the dark. That was when five members of the local election commission—all teachers and administrators at the school—began to count the ballots cast that day in the country’s parliamentary elections.

It had been a tense couple of months going into the vote. The ruling United Russia party, created in 2001 to support Vladimir Putin, who was then the President and is now Prime Minister, had been steadily, swiftly sinking in the polls; Putin, despite his high approval ratings, was being publicly booed. After he and Dmitry Medvedev announced, in September, that they would trade places, giving the Presidency back to Putin, people seemed to be in a sour mood—a mood to protest and do what Russians, especially the educated and cosmopolitan among them, never do: vote. In response, the Kremlin appeared to panic, and cracked down, harassing election monitors. On election day itself, there were denial-of-service attacks on prominent media outlets and on LiveJournal, the country’s most important blogging platform.

With that behind them, and the voters gone, Yasenevo’s electoral commissioners and observers—representatives sent by the various parties to monitor the vote, as well as this correspondent—got to work.

First, the commissioners counted and recounted the unused ballots and wrapped them up in brown paper. And that’s when all friendliness and camaraderie between the commission and the observers went out the door, and all the tension of the election season bubbled out. One of the commissioners at precinct #2390, Valentina Remezova, a blonde woman in her fifties, was offended by the very idea of observers: she clasped her hands to her chest and exclaimed, “I don’t understand this. I feel like I’ve committed a crime!” It was something she would repeat later, with tears in her voice, when the observers and I tried to get close to the table where the paper ballots were dumped from the white plastic ballot boxes. “Where does this distrust come from?” she said. “You’re making me feel like a criminal. All day you’ve been doing this!”

“Why are you taking this so personally?” said Julia Dobrokhotova, an observer from the liberal Yabloko party, who lives next door to the school (she is also a friend of mine). “We’re just here to see that everything is done properly. It has nothing to do with you!”

I tried to photograph the proceedings—something that, by Russian law, I am allowed to do. “You cannot photograph here,” said Alexei Kachubei, a slight man with a slight lisp, and the head of the election commission as well as the school principal. When Dobrokhotova pointed out that I was, in fact, allowed to, he said that I couldn’t photograph faces. Next he said I could photograph but not make a video recording. Then I couldn’t photograph at all; I had to stand twenty meters from the table, which would have put me outside the room. He called in one of the policemen overseeing the elections, a young man with a bleary, red face and dim eyes.

“You cannot photograph the ballots,” he told me when I explained that I had abided by the commission head’s request not to photograph faces. “They are a state secret.”

This unleashed an argument among the observers, at which point another commission member, a man in jeans and a gray sweater with friendly snowflakes stretched across his belly, decided to put an end to the argument.

“You shut up,” he barked. “Yabloko was created with American money!”

When I asked him for his name, he snorted. “Not likely! Especially to an American.” (I was born in Russia, but am an American citizen.) Then he covered the official (and stamped) name tag was wearing. Later, it disappeared altogether. He was, it turns out, a veteran of the Russian foreign-intelligence service.

“This is why you left Russia,” another fifty-something commission member said. “Because we do things by the rules and you people don’t like that.” She was writing down the details of my passport and Foreign Ministry press-accreditation card out at a desk in the hallway—a good way to remove me from the ballot-counting room.

When I was in the room, though, and even when confined to a desk, I could see the neat stacks of ballots, perfectly and evenly folded, that slipped out from between the sea of ballots spilling out of each box as it was cracked open. (I presume this is why no photographs were wanted.) Despite my frantic pointing, observers missed the first batch, quickly spread around by the commission members’ able hands, but they appeared, unmistakably and suspiciously neat, in each subsequent ballot box.

“Stop! Stop!” Dobrokhotova yelled. “Stop counting! These are stuffed!”

The one person able to stop the flurry of hands smoothing out the pile was a bewigged and less than lucid seventy-one-year-old Yevgenia Leneva, a commission and Communist Party member. Leneva grabbed the perfect pack and yelled, “Look at this stack!” As the observers and the commission screamed at each other, she carefully unfolded the ballots, and said, “They’re all for United Russia! Of course! Who else stuffs the ballot boxes?”

Kachubei, the commission chair, grabbed part of the stack out of her hand. The young policeman took care of the rest: as Leneva screeched, he attacked, wrenching the ballots out of her hand, and leaving a long bruise on her papery arm. When the deputy head of the local police precinct arrived (he had been called to deal with me, not voter fraud), Leneva made sure to complain about her bruised arm. The colonel was unmoved—hadn’t Leneva overstepped her authority?—and one of the women on the commission made sure to chime in, “Oh, come on. You told us yesterday your arm hurt!”

In the end, Yasenevo’s election precinct #2390 voted roughly the way Russia did: seven hundred and twenty-one ballots, or fifty-one per cent, for United Russia, the rest scattered among the Communists, the left-leaning Just Cause Party, and the nationalist L.D.P.R. United Russia’s national average was forty-nine per cent, which, while still a plurality and largely in line with national polls, was a far cry from the two-thirds of the vote they got in the last parliamentary elections, in 2007. It was also far higher than what the party managed in many regions, including the Moscow region: thirty-three per cent. And if you could somehow subtract the violations and antics and perfect ballot stacks I saw in Yasenevo, the numbers would doubtless be lower.

What was notable, however, was the level of anger in the Yasenevo election commission—the sneering, the barking; the scoffing, yelling, and smirking. I left the precinct with shaking hands. Julia Dobrokhotova, my friend and the mother of two small children, was forced to wait until two in the morning to file her report. She told me she spent the next day crying.

Dobrokhotova recounted her conversations with the commission after I left. There was the tall young man from the municipal government who had seated Dobrokhotova behind a tall plant when the voting started that morning and hissed at her not to move. (She later wondered if that was when ballot boxes had been stuffed.) In the early morning hours, after the ballots had been counted and the yelling had died down, he gave Dobrokhotova a surprising appraisal of his country. “He told me that Russia has only ever been good at two things: fighting off invaders and surviving famine,” Dobrokhotova recalled. “Nothing else.” The tubby police boss? “He said to me, ‘Julia, why are you so upset? This is a slave-owning society, and it’s like that in most countries in the world, except for two or three. It’s not our fate to be one of them.’ ” The man in the snowflake sweater told her that she should reconsider sending her children to the school, as he could make their lives miserable. And the shrill women? “They said, ‘Julia, what’s the alternative? Man the barricades?’ ”

The next night, Dobrokhotova’s brother, Roman, did just that. The head of a tiny political youth movement, “We,” he was one of the organizers of a protest in central Moscow, which, to everyone’s surprise, drew some six thousand people—almost all of them young, educated, and angry. They saw a different generation—that of the election commission in Yasenevo—lying to them and manipulating their elections and treating them like fools. Something about this election, the cynicism and ham-fistedness with which it was carried out, the euphoria when, despite the apparent fraud, United Russia failed to get even fifty per cent, made the barricades an attractive option for a cohort that has long been written off as politically inactive.

Opposition protests in Moscow rarely draw more than a couple hundred people, most of them elderly Soviet dissidents, their dreams dashed and irrelevant. Monday night, a large, wooded square in central Moscow—Chistye Prudy—was too small to hold the young, energetic crowd. They hung on fences; they lined the streets and blocked traffic. And when the riot police attacked, they weren’t scared: They were fed up. Or, as a thirty-five-year-old voter at Yasenevo’s polling station #2390 told me after he cast his ballot for Just Russia, the first time he had been to the polls since the nineteen-nineties, “Maybe people once believed that you can’t do everything right away, that you need more time to develop democracy, to pass reforms. But how much time do you need? A hundred years?”

Russian Elections: Faking It [TNY]

What’s Russian for “Homosexual Propaganda”?

Thursday, November 17th, 2011

In a near unanimous vote on Wednesday, the St. Petersburg city parliament passed the first draft of a law that would ban what the Russian press has labeled “homosexual propaganda.” Actually, and if we’re to be precise, the law would fine people for “public actions, aimed at propagandizing sodomy”—literally, “man-laying” in Russian—“lesbianism, bisexuality, [and] transgenderness among minors.” Violators would be subject to fines ranging from three thousand rubles (about $100), for individuals, to fifty-thousand rubles ($1,600), for organizations. The fines and language are the same for those propagandizing pedophilia, more or less inserting an equal sign between the two.

The sponsor of the bill—it still has to go through two more votes to become law—is Vitaly Milonov, from the ruling United Party. He explained the legislation by saying, “children have to be protected from destructive information.” What that meant was subject to interpretation. According to Milonov, this information could be found in sex-education classes where such values were “advertised,” as well as in the works of that gay cabal—show business. This was not in any way meant to be an intrusion into the personal lives of Petersburgers, Milonov added, but what could he do when his city is drowning under “a wave popularizing sexual perversion”?

Milonov’s colleagues chimed in, lumping sexual assault of a child in with consensual gay sex. “Children maimed by pedophiles jump out of windows, they take their own lives. Pedophilia is an attempt on a child’s life!” one of them said, adding that spreading such propaganda should be a criminal offense. Another deputy, Elena Babich, from the nationalist-crazypants Liberal Democratic party, agreed that the proposed penalties were too light. “What is a three-thousand ruble fine to a pedophile when they are supported by an international community?” (Did she mean show business?)

The legislation, which was rushed through the local parliament, is not unique. A similar law was passed this summer in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, where legislators expressed concern about the effect of gays on the city’s already low birthrates, and in the Ryazan region. But those were the provinces.

St. Petersburg, long Russia’s window to Europe and its bastion of high culture, is both a strange and logical place to pass such a law. For one thing, it was the first place with an L.G.B.T. organization: Kryl’ya (or “wings”) was founded in October 1991, having fought for its creation in the Soviet courts at a time when homosexuality was still criminalized and punishable by five years of hard labor. (That provision, the notorious Article 121, was repealed two years later, in 1993.) Moscow used to have a mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, who denounced homosexuality as “satanic.” St. Petersburg, in contrast, was in some ways the center of organized gay life in Russia: the Russian branch of the I.L.G.A., the international L.G.B.T. rights organization is run out of St. Petersburg; pride parades, long the subject of violent battles with the Moscow authorities (who won’t allow them), have passed through this city peacefully, until this year. Imagine passing an anti-gay law in San Francisco.

“They upset me more as Petersburgers,” said Igor Kochetkov, of the LGBT Network, one of several gay-rights groups based in the city. “St. Petersburg has always been a European city, a city that’s very different from the rest of Russia, where the level of civilization, of intellect, of simple common sense is much higher.” Kochetkov added, “It’s no secret that life in Russia is difficult, and there are a lot of poorly educated, frightened, phobia-stricken people who are ready to be against anyone who doesn’t look like them, who lives better than them.”

Despite the elitist strain in that comment, there is also much truth in it. I witnessed a flamboyantly racist Russian March earlier this month, with blue-collar youngsters shouting “Fuck the Jews!” and “Allah is a fag!” Playing to a very low common denominator, especially when Europe’s economic crisis threatens to spill over to Russia, is a very dangerous game. “We’re not just fighting for our rights,” Kochetkov said, of the picket gay-rights groups had set up outside the city duma. “We’re trying to save Russia from fascism.” And there is a bit of truth in that, as well.

The passage of the draft legislation shows that attacking the supposed enemies of “family values” can be an easy pleaser come election time everywhere. Russia has only eighteen days to go until the parliamentary elections. The results will doubtless be adjusted to keep an increasingly unpopular United Russia in power. That adjustment will have to be biggest of all in hyper-educated, cosmopolitan St. Petersburg, where United Russia has one of its lowest poll numbers in the country. Rallying the party’s naturally conservative, less affluent, less educated base against a horde of pernicious, perverted, effete homosexuals and/or pedophiles—they too are portrayed as foreigners, planted and financed by the West—is an easy, if unsavory, last-ditch play.

And yet, under the seriousness of fomenting hatred and inscribing discrimination into the legal code, there has also been a streak of irony and humor in the response to this development. It’s especially fitting in a country where public displays of machismo can often bleed into the homoerotic. How, for example, will this law affect the annual celebration of Paratrooper Day, when, all over the country, thousands of former paratroopers get drunk, strip to their skivvies, and frolic in city fountains, splashing and wetly embracing? Is that homosexual propaganda? And, as a Russian friend pointed out to me, what about the ruling tandem? When Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin go bike riding together, when they have intimate public breakfasts, when they are forced to deny that they’re married, when they play badminton, when they ski and drink cocoa and fish, often in matching outfits and in the total absence of women, what about that?

What’s Russian for “Homosexual Propaganda”? [TNY]