Archive for the ‘The New Yorker’ Category

Vladimir Putin and the Guy Code

Sunday, November 6th, 2011

Buried in the Russian news cycle last week was a little ditty about a man named Vladimir Putin and an organization called the Federation Fund. Vladimir Putin, we know. We came to know the Federation Fund, as I blogged about this summer, suddenly, last December, when, with almost no one having heard of it before, it staged a giant gala featuring Hollywood A-listers of yore, and Putin’s rendition of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill,” in English.

The Fund was ostensibly raising money for children with cancer, but it turned out that it had only been registered ten days before the event, and, worse, that the money might not have actually made it to those sick children. “I know people are ready to do a lot for their own gain,” the mother of one sick girl wrote in an open letter published in the Russian press. (Sharon Stone had visited the child in the hospital and given her a necklace.) “But really, are they willing to do it with the help of sick children?” The answer, apparently, was a resounding yes. As I wrote in July, just seven months later—and despite a media scandal—the Federation Fund held another fundraiser, in a spectacularly prominent venue with an even splashier lineup: Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Isabella Rossellini, and “Sex and the City” ’s Mr. Big, to name a few.
The man behind the fund, Vladimir Kiselev, was said to be an old friend of Putin’s from the freewheeling St. Petersburg of the nineteen-nineties. This was something that Kiselev denied—but Putin, through a representative, didn’t. Only a connection of this kind could explain why events as contentious and controversial as the Fund’s fundraisers were allowed to operate in such open extravagance: Putin, it’s well known, is very, very loyal. The man’s loyalty to his friends is often described as that of a patzan, a bro, a dude, a—pardon me—homie. Fans of “Jersey Shore” will recognize his code as “guy code”: loyalty to your guys above all. And Kiselev, it seems, is such a guy.

The latest Federation Fund event has been taking place for three weeks in Kaliningrad, that little Russian island in the middle of Europe. This time, it looked like a Russian version of a DARE convention. It included anti-drug messages, a bike race, a regatta, concerts, and, finally, an appearance by Vladimir Putin.

“If, as a result of these actions, even one person doesn’t get hooked on the needle, or finds the strength within himself to say no to drugs, that’s already a victory,” Putin told the screaming, photo-flashing masses. “This really is a tragedy,” he went on. “But those who found themselves in a tragic situation need to know that those close to them—their families, their government—are not indifferent to their fate.”
The event reflects one of Putin’s main obsessions: “a healthy way of life,” which means no drinking, no drugs, and celebration of sports and exercise. (Putin once showed up on a Russian music channel for the finale of a televised hip-hop battle—a “Battle for Respect”—and extolled these virtues.)

This is, of course, a worthwhile message. Russia has a colossal drug problem—and by drugs, we’re often talking cheap, home-cooked, flesh-eating substances. Given that drugs are said to kill some hundred and twenty thousand people a year according to the official statistics, and given that Russia’s population is already shrinking, the government is not, in fact, indifferent. (At the higher echelons, this means waging a propaganda war on the evils of drugs; lower down, it means ordinary cops moonlighting as narcobarons and cashing in on the flow.)

And so Putin enlisted his buddy, a buddy who had been flagrantly and publicly embarrassing—a particularly emphasized no-no among Putin buddies. It seemed to observers that, having tested Putin’s patronage and his patience, he was now giving something back. Either that, or Putin is simply ignoring the bad press and getting behind his buddy—as he also likes to do—and gracing his project with his presence, and his loyalty. (This, of course, is my interpretation, but when I called Kiselev to get his interpretation, he didn’t pick up the phone.)

The event was all over the official press: in the Russian government newspaper, on the page of the ruling United Russia party, and, most significantly, on the television news. There was footage of Putin thanking an unnamed group of people. “I congratulate them from my heart for being able to organize such events,” he said.

Because this, too, is part of “guy code.” One can be loyal to one’s boys publicly, but, in private, one must make them pay for their mistakes. Thus Putin never fires anyone, he simply promotes them out of the way. And yesterday’s event was nothing if not about “guy code.” Back in the spring, Putin took part in an anti-drug event called “No to drugs! No to anabolics!” There he uttered a phrase that would not only stick but would become the title of the event in Kaliningrad and soon pop up on billboards all over Russia. He said: “Dudes! You don’t need this!”

Vladimir Putin and the Guy Code [TNY]

At the Bolshoi Gala

Monday, October 31st, 2011

On Friday night, anyone who was anyone was in only one place in Moscow: at the grand reopening of the Bolshoi Theatre, closed in 2005 for a renovation that cost nearly three quarters of a billion dollars. President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife were there; the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was there; former Bolshoi divas and primas were there; students of the ballet academy, waifish and tired, were there; so was pretty much every cabinet minister, including the recently fired finance minister, Alexei Kudrin. Someone even reported spotting Raisa Gorbachev, who has been dead for twelve years. The one notable absentee was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who, in a fine counterpoint to the orgy of high culture across town, spent the evening explaining how bureaucrats fond of taking bribes should be “punched in the face.”

For those who scored an elaborately designed invitation to the inaugural gala performance, there was a red carpet and a brass band and tuxes and mandatory floor-length gowns. For crowds of the less privileged, there was the cold, jumbotrons, and the refurbished theatre’s brilliantly lit, iconic façade. The latter would become a trope in a two-hour variety show, a greatest-hits parade of the Bolshoi’s past productions. During the scene changes, a screen would glow with elaborate graphics—some 3-D, some more like an etch-a-sketch—showing how the theatre has changed during six years of renovation, with thousands of workers and engineers rebuilding its crumbling foundation, fixing the massive cracks running up the walls, enlarging the orchestra pit, removing the cement the Soviets had poured under it, creating a cutting-edge hydraulics system to switch up the stage, reupholstering the seats (now bigger than before) with lush Italian fabrics, and restoring the touches, lopped off in Soviet years, that gave the grand hall its grand acoustics. Artisans applied eleven pounds of gold leaf to the newly ornate interior, using a mixture of whale grease, rotten egg whites, and clay, then vodka, then brushes of squirrel tail.

And, despite the predictable delays (the theatre was to reopen in 2008), cost overruns, and allegations of graft; despite the naysayers (Bolshoi principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze denounced the renovations as “plastic” and resembling “a hotel in Turkey”); despite finishing touches that included a bit or two of duct tape, everything looked as deeply and imperially posh as it was supposed to. All hammers and all sickles had been removed. The bicephalous eagle, which appears on the arms of both the Russian Empire and Federation, easily skipping over those awkward seventy years of Communist rule, had come to roost on curtains and mouldings, in gold. Clearly, no cost had been spared—Kudrin, the former finance minister, told a reporter that it was money well spent—and it looked really, really good. As for the naysayers, Tsiskaridze was simply not invited.

“Our country is very big, of course,” Medvedev said when he opened the show. “At the same time, the number of symbols that unite everybody, those national treasures, the so-called national brands, are limited. Bolshoi is one of our greatest national brands.” That word—“brand”—came up a few more times in his speech, and it struck a tinny, mercenary cord in such a lofty venue: Was this all a marketing campaign?

Part of the confusion is that Russians think of something else when they hear the word “brand”: to them it means “symbol,” where to a Western ear it is tied to an object for sale. In passing through the Russian cultural prism, the Anglicism—pronounced “brehnd”—has come to mean simply something that makes us look good, something that we’re good at. Nesting dolls are a brand, Russian literature is a brand, the Bolshoi is a brand. And in an era where post-Cold War inferiority complexes are still circling under the surface of modern Russian life, brands—things that we’re good at besides all the bad things you know us for—are important in helping Russians square their shoulders at home and hike up their chins abroad, while playing with the international majors. The symbols are also key when there is little left to unite the country other than the shared sacrifice of the Second World War and a growing tide of nationalism.

I caught Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister, leaving the theatre after the performance—resplendent in a tux, his hair festively shellacked. Mutko oversees another empire of Russian symbolism: shaped by the vaguely fascistic aims of the Stalin era and the intensely political competition of Cold War Olympics, Russian sports remains a key touchstone of Russian identity. National pride is still measured in gold medals; when the Russian national team flopped badly in Vancouver in 2010, it was a painful blow to the country’s psyche. (Part of the reason, it turned out, was that, on Mutko’s watch, millions were plundered from the sports budget and athletes were largely left to fend for themselves.) Aside from that, though, Mutko has also been one of the key figures in an effort to make Russia an athletic powerhouse again (though Vladimir Putin is the inspiration behind the operation). The results include winning bids to host the Winter Olympics, in 2014, and the World Cup, in 2018.

Mutko, in other words, knows a thing or two about Russia’s national brands. I asked him about the Bolshoi. “It is one of the symbols of Russia,” he said. “And now we’ve opened it after a long break, and now any person, not just a Russian but any person who visits Moscow, will seek this place out. It’s pride, it’s culture, it’s the country. It’s one of the symbols of the country.”

And so, when the gala commenced after Medvedev’s speech, the hit parade included the other great brands of Russia: Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Glinka, Shostakovich, and, of course, “Swan Lake.” There was even a little piece, “Dance of the Ushers,” by one of the more recently exported Bolshoi brands, dancer and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. (Joan Acocella wrote a Profile of him for The New Yorker.) Ratmansky’s brand had to be exported, however, because he spun it in a more radical direction than the Bolshoi was willing to go. And that is the question for the Bolshoi now: Will it simply stick to the repertory staples, or will it push the brand forward to something more modern and forward looking? Will the symbol, in other words, grow and evolve and breathe in a place as gilded and damasked as the new Bolshoi?

At the Bolshoi Gala: [TNY]

Taking Out Tymoshenko

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

When the former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko was found guilty of abusing her power in negotiating a gas deal with Russia in 2009 and sentenced to seven years in jail in a Kiev courtroom on Tuesday, things got kind of crazy. One of her supporters tried to shout down the judge. Outside, people threw plastic chairs. The feminists took their shirts off. Europeans expressed their dismay at what they saw as a politically motivated trial and threatened to scuttle Ukraine’s pending free-trade agreement with Europe. Russian observers began to compare Tymoshenko to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed oil tycoon and opposition cause célèbre, and Tymoshenko herself compared her ordeal to the 1937 purges.

What’s going on? Rather simple, really. Tymoshenko lost the presidential election in 2010 to Victor Yanukovich, the current president and, according to most observers, the one who is tossing Tymoshenko into jail. That makes the most sense, given that, after the elections, Tymoshenko remained powerful and popular, which is not hard to do given the President’s doltish, apparatchik’s demeanor. Being in the opposition and fighting her way back to power is, according to her former advisers, her most natural, strongest state. When she was prime minister, on and off after the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, she became a controversial, polarizing figure. In the opposition, she becomes a magnetic force, a figure for whom people will throw chairs and camp out in the center of Kiev, someone they’ll stand up and strip for. It’s too dangerous to have someone like this roving around, so she was taken out.

In Byzantium, which is where ancient Kiev and, later, Moscow got their religion and founding mythologies, this was known as political mutilation. Since an emperor was supposed to be the earthly manifestation of God, and God is perfection, so, too, an emperor must be perfect. Thus, when an emperor was overthrown—as became increasingly common in Byzantium—he was then physically mangled: castrated, blinded, or had his nose sliced off. This prevented him from being taken seriously as a man, leading troops into battle, or being the incarnation of the divine, respectively. It was in other words, insurance against having to face the same rival again.

In contemporary Kiev, we see a similar dynamic. Yanukovich and Tymoshenko first met as rivals in 2004, when Yanukovich won a fraudulent election against Tymoshenko’s mentor, Victor Yuschenko. Yuschenko and Tymoshenko brought Kiev out into the streets, into the Maidan—or Independence—Square, where tens of thousands camped out and rallied for weeks until the election was overturned and Yuschenko was swept into power, with Tymoshenko as his prime minister. On the Maidan, Tymoshenko was transformed from a brunette, Russian-speaking gas-industry power player into her current guise of blond, braided, Ukranian-speaking Joan of Arc. She became a hero with her own base of support, which allowed her to eventually cannibalize Yuschenko. Then, in 2010, with Yuschenko out of the way, she took on Yanukovich in the presidential elections, and came very close to beating him. When she didn’t, she went back into the opposition, where she became an even stronger, better politician than she was when she was trying to govern. She again became the heroine at the gates of the stodgy, ineffective, and corrupt establishment. The fact that she has been accused of being one of the most corrupt players in that establishment—she’s been arrested twice before—quickly fell into the recesses of the public consciousness.

A third battle was unthinkable, and Tymoshenko simply had to be neutralized. And since one couldn’t feasibly blind her or cut off her nose (not that that would produce any real effect), she was charged with overstepping her duties as prime minister when she negotiated a gas deal with Russia, in 2009, that ended the two countries’ crippling gas wars. It is a strange charge that has puzzled international legal experts—and her negotiating partner, Vladimir Putin. “To be honest, I can’t quite understand why she got those seven years,” he said to reporters while on a trip to Beijing.

It’s funny to hear Putin say that, because he has been a master at neutralizing powerful enemies, including Boris Berezovsky, the man who made him king, or Khodorkovsky, who dared to impede his consolidation of power and, allegedly, wealth. But Khodorkovsky never went away. Prison was his makeover, from detested robber baron to beloved martyr. And Tymoshenko, it seems, is following the same route because in taking her down, Yanukovich played right to her strengths. “She likes to live in crisis,” Taras Berezovets, Tymoshenko’s campaign adviser, told me when we met in Kiev during the 2010 campaign. “It gives her more energy, and she makes mistakes in calm situations. In crisis, she is like a string. She makes fewer mistakes.” Another strength? “She is a P.R. maven in her soul,” according to Berezovets. Instead of mutilating her and removing her from the game—the conviction was supposed to keep her out of the next round of parliamentary elections—the trial has been her comeback tour, elevating her to international prominence once again, as Ukraine’s martyr. She has become not an embodiment of the divine, but of Ukraine’s victimization at the hands of the Russians: there’s a thread of commentary that sees in Yanukovich’s actions the “Putinization”—that is, Russianization, colonization—of Ukraine.

Moreover, Yanukovich doesn’t seem to have Putin’s solid-steel spine. He has already started backtracking, saying, “This is not a final decision…. Ahead lies the appeals court, and it will without a doubt make a decision within the bounds of the law, but the decision will have great significance.” When that decision comes, given the international pressure, it will no doubt leave Tymoshenko not just unharmed but strengthened, and within striking distance at Yanukovich—for a third time.

Taking Out Tymoshenko [TNY]

Russia’s Cruellest Month

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Every August, Russians wait for history, and they are rarely disappointed. On August 31, 1996, Russia wrapped up its disastrous first war against the breakaway Chechen Republic. The ceasefire wouldn’t last long, because exactly three years later, on August 31, 1999, a bomb ripped through a Moscow shopping mall, killing one and injuring forty. It would be the first of five bombings—and hundreds of casualties—and it would trigger the second, still somewhat unfinished war in the region. On August 17, 1998, the Russian government devalued the ruble and defaulted on its debt, ushering in a long and painful economic crisis. On August 12, 2000, the Kursk nuclear submarine sank in the Barents Sea. While Moscow tried to cover up the disaster, everyone on board died. (“It sank,” Vladimir Putin said when Larry King asked him what happened.) On August 8, 2008, Russia went to war with Georgia, an unthinkable scenario given the twentieth-century love affair between the two Soviet republics. Last August, much of Russia’s forests caught fire, and a thick blanket of pungent smoke covered Moscow for days, which, along with the anomalous heat, killed off many of the city’s elderly. Something catastrophic happens almost every year. It’s no wonder that Wikipedia has an entry for Russia’s August Curse. October and February, the months of the Revolutions, were once the notorious months, but, in post-Soviet Russia, August has trumped them all.

So far this year, August has been mercifully disaster-free. Instead, Russians are left to ponder the biggest August event of them all, the very event that launched the Curse twenty years ago: the attempted coup d’etat by hardliner Communists on August 19, 1991. On that day, a gang led by the head of the K.G.B., the Soviet defense minister, and the Russian Vice-President Gennady Yanaev formed an Emergency Committee and trapped Mikhail Gorbachev, the General Secretary of the Communist Party and leader of the Soviet Union, at his residence in the Crimea. (August is also the time when Russians, perhaps not coincidentally, go on vacation.) Fearing that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse (it was) and that Boris Yeltsin, the new Russian President, was pushing the process along (he was), the K.G.B. cut off all communication to the dacha, ordered two hundred and fifty thousand pairs of handcuffs to deal with the mounting protests in Moscow, and sent tanks and special forces into the city. The attempted coup failed peacefully, and that was the first nail in the coffin of the U.S.S.R. Four months later, on Christmas Day, the Soviet flag was lowered at the Kremlin and the Russian tricolor went up in its place.

It was a momentous day, a triumph of freedom over totalitarianism, of peaceful protest over tanks and guns, of American values over the latent evil of the Soviet system. Yeltsin was the hero, the knight who mounted a tank and called on his people to resist the reactionary forces of Communism. In the coup’s aftermath, Yeltsin scored a nearly sixty-per-cent approval rating, a number registered by the new science of polling Russians’ opinions. And the victory, people felt, belonged to them: fifty-seven per cent of respondents said that “the people’s resistance” was the primary reason for the failure of the coup.

It’s been downhill from there. Poor Yeltsin’s approval rating never got above a third, and he ended his presidency, in December, 1999, with ninety per cent of his countrymen disapproving of him. By 1994, only seven per cent would see the events of August, 1991, as the victory of democracy, while fifty-three per cent would see it as “just another struggle for power among the higher echelons of the state”—which is how Russians have viewed any goings on behind the walls of the Kremlin. Just three years after the failed coup delivered the mortal wound to the Soviet behemoth, twenty-seven per cent of Russians would see it as “a tragic event, which had fatal consequences for the country and the people.” Today, that number stands at thirty-nine per cent. Half of today’s Russians think that, starting on that day, the country began its inexorable course in the wrong direction.

Hard to blame them, really: since that fateful day, Russia has spent twenty years trying to chart a course out of a past that didn’t bode too well for its future. It hasn’t helped, of course, that the country decided not to deal with its past at all, thereby allowing certain abuses and mistakes to repeat themselves in ever more absurd reincarnations. It has gone through several severe economic crises—the last of which hit about two weeks too late, on September 15, 2008. These have repeatedly wiped out the savings of millions, a phenomenon from which Russians have learned one lesson: spend, spend, spend. Living conditions deteriorated, birth rates plummeted, able-bodied men dropped like flies. Russia went through a period of the rapacious capitalism of pyramid schemes and robber-baron oligarchy, and it went through a wildly corrupt process of privatizing Soviet property. This cleaved society into a Bolshevik caricature of capitalism: extreme Porsches and extreme poverty.

Politically, the country zigged and zagged—from too many parties, in the early nineties, to one meaningless party today—but the vector has generally steered Russia toward the centralization of power in the hands of one strong leader: Vladimir Putin. How did this happen? Despite the myriad mistakes of the first post-Soviet decade, that period did see the beginnings of a free and vibrant media, and some real, contentious politicking. To eliminate this, Putin surgically marginalized any opposition and created his own nomenklatura. For the rest, he wove a useful myth of “stability,” that special brand of happiness that only he—and stratospheric oil prices—could provide. Not surprisingly, the dark image of the nineties came from Putin’s spinmeisters, who have produced a catchy, oft-repeated meme: “likhie devyanostye.” It’s a phrase that means “the carefree nineties,” but to a Russian it evokes chaos, violence, self-destruction, and lawlessness. It is, in other words, the total opposite of Putin.

And that’s where the psychological part of the history comes in. Putin, who had his K.G.B. career broken off in full bloom by the events of August, 1991, still has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being one of the soldiers who lost the Cold War, and his eleven-year reign has had a strong element of Soviet kitsch: he restored the Soviet national anthem, promoted Stalin as “an effective manager,” and repeatedly bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century. Increasingly, his party, United Russia, has come to resemble the party he served as a young man and the party that tried to take back the reins in August, 1991: the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

If you are a Russian under twenty years old, Putin has been your leader for over half of your life. When a man like that rules your country and its media and its textbooks for most of the time you’ve been alive, you’re bound not to know much about the event that was both the worst and best thing that ever happened to him.

And so it is. According to a state-owned pollster, if you are a Russian between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, fifty-five per cent of you will draw an utter blank when asked to evaluate the significance of August 19, 1991. Seven per cent of you will say that Gorbachev was one of those who defended Russia from the putsch, which isn’t quite true, but it doesn’t really matter since sixty-eight per cent won’t be able to name a single name, which makes saying “Gorbachev” not half bad.

And if you’re an older Russian, say, thirty-five and up, you’ll be pretty evenly split among three camps: the ones who see August, 1991, as a tragedy; the ones who see it as “just another struggle for power among the higher echelons of the state”; and the ones who can say nothing at all. Which, if you’ve lived through twenty Augusts in the new Russia, is not half bad either.

Russia’s Cruellest Month [TNY]

Russia and Georgia, Three Years Later

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Monday marked the anniversary of the day that Russia and Georgia went to war, distracting the world from the Beijing Olympics for five spectacularly confusing days. And yet, three years later, little is clear about how the war got started, how it played out, what legacy it left behind, or even what to call it. And so the two sides spent the third anniversary clawing for control of the conflict’s narrative.

Russian state television offered a characteristically unsubtle take, showing a memorial service in the South Ossetian city of Tskhinval. Weeping Ossetians sent white balloons to the heavens and lit candles spelling out “we remember” on the pavement, as the reporter’s voice explained that this was the mourning of “the victims of Georgian aggression.” “They were killed simply because the President of Georgia said so,” the correspondent said. He wondered when these “criminals would get their just desserts.”

But things, of course, were not that simple. Tskhinval is the Russified, post-war version of the city’s original name, Tskhinvali. It was in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, a disputed region in north-central Georgia where the Ossetian minority lived among ethnic Georgians, that the war began. Georgians started shelling the city close to midnight on August 7, 2008, according to an E.U. report issued a year later. The city came under heavy fire, from both Georgian and Russian forces, and much of it was levelled. In that first spat of combat, two Russian peacekeepers were killed. As Tskhinvali passed from Russian to Georgian to Russian control, the body count fluctuated: the Russians cried genocide, saying that some two thousand South Ossetians had been killed by the retreating Georgians; the Georgians said it was more like two hundred, and that it was Georgians who were chased out of the region by Ossetian militiamen; the Europeans said it was something closer to eight hundred. (The European report also dismissed Russian allegations of genocide, and Human Rights Watch said the death toll had been greatly exaggerated.)

At the time, a chorus of American voices—led by George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, and Joe Biden—condemned Moscow for its aggression. “My friends, we have reached a crisis, the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War,” McCain said at a campaign stop in Aspen that August. “This is an act of aggression.” But whose aggression, exactly? Georgia had been provoked—Russia had long been stoking the fires in the region, nursing the separatist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and, in the run-up to the war, was handing out Russian passports to residents there. But Georgia, perhaps expecting support from Washington, did shoot first.

The war wrapped up with a ceasefire agreement on August 12, 2008, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia became independent states. Georgia had lost about a quarter of its territory and suffered a humiliating military defeat: Russian tanks were bearing down on the capital, Tbilisi, when France was finally able to separate the two brawlers.

But when Nicolas Sarkozy brokered an end to the fighting, it was exactly that: a cessation of armed conflict. Three years after the guns-down order, little has been resolved, and the area has returned to its familiar state of frozen conflict. South Ossetia and Abkhazia may be formally independent, but so far they have only been recognized Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and, apparently, the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. They are also full of Russian troops, and yesterday Russian President Dmitry Medvedev introduced legislation allowing “unified” military bases in the region—that is, Russian-run.

Russia and Georgia, meanwhile, are still not on speaking terms. Georgian wine, once a great delicacy here, is still banned in Russia; refugee camps still stretch to the horizon in patches of Georgian countryside; and though direct flights between the two capitals have recently been restored, it is still difficult—procedurally and psychologically—to get a visa from one to the other. (If the hefty price tag won’t get you, the harassment on arriving from such a flight in Moscow might.) Russia refuses to acknowledge Saakashvili’s existences and has repeatedly and openly stated that it will not have anything to do with a Georgia run by him. For his part, Saakashvili—mercurial, charismatic, Western-educated—has used Georgia’s underdog status to his fullest advantage, making sure that Russia’s reputation abroad remains that of a villain and doing everything in his power to slow Russia’s long-overdue accession to the W.T.O. He also continues to stoke fear of Russia at home. Last spring, a Georgian television station aired a twenty-minute breaking-news broadcast: Russia, it said, was invading again. Russia had not invaded, however. The footage was from 2008, and Joe Biden had to get on the phone and box Saakashvili’s ears for the stunt.

It is not surprising, then, that the two countries, once culturally enamored of one another, are still fighting over who started it, and why. In a post commemorating the war’s anniversary, the blogger Sukhumi, named for the capital of the now independent Abkhazia, published a long post rebutting eight myths of the war. “Myth No. 3,” he writes, “Russia started the war in order to defend its peacekeepers.” (Other myths he disproves: “Russia started the war to end the genocide of Ossetians”; “Russia started the war to defend its citizens”; “Georgian troops fled shamefully.”)

The mainstream Russian media is happy to let bloggers on both sides pore over the details. It’s focussed on broader messages: Georgian aggression, Ossetian genocide, Russia as the only moral force in the region. On Monday, Russian television showed Medvedev awarding Russia’s highest military honor to the special forces that beat back the Georgians, and Russian papers wrote about the war’s military heroes and Russia “drawing a red line” in defense of its citizens.

Hoping to rile up a population whose doubts about the official line seem to be increasing, the Kremlin has been dishing out some of its finest quotes since Putin talked of stringing Saakashvili up by his nether-regions. Late last week, President Dmitry Medvedev gave an interview to three Russian news outlets to mark the war’s anniversary. While talking about “diplomatic efforts, negotiations, and the willingness to listen to one another,” Medvedev made sure to speculate as to what was going through Saakashvili’s “inflamed brain” in the summer of 2008, and to suggest that it was time to get the man “tried in front of an international tribunal for unleashing the war in Tskhinvali.” Medvedev continued: “Hundreds of our citizens were killed on his orders, including Russian peacekeepers. I will never forgive him for that, and I will not speak to him.” He added that Saakashvili “winks” at him in the couloirs of world power. Medvedev, true to his word, said he ignores these advances.

Medvedev spoke also of the “elderly” U.S. senators who, on July 29th, unanimously adopted a resolution calling on Russian troops to leave Abkhazia and South Ossetia and to give those regions back to Georgia. Capitol Hill tends to get its information on the region from Georgia, and, perhaps in recognition of this, Medvedev said, of Congress, “This is a foreign parliament. I don’t care about it.”

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also used the anniversary of the war as an occasion for name-calling, declaring Saakashvili “a pathological case, an anomaly among the Georgian people.” (Anomaly or not, the majority of them support him.) He went on to call the Georgian President ill-mannered. Saakashvili’s press service said such comments “cynically justify the ethnic cleansing that the Russian Federation carried out against the Georgian Nation.” And Saakashvili, more politician than diplomat, said, in an interview on Moscow’s Ekho Moskvy radio station, that the war between Russia and Georgia “is not over from the Russian side because I can practically say that Russia doesn’t recognize the peace agreement and officially wants to overthrow our government.”

Well, there’s always next year.

Russia and Georgia, Three Years Later [TNY]

Taking It Off for Putin

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Last week, a video appeared on YouTube featuring a Russian college student named Diana. Dressed in a fitted blazer, leggings, and six-inch heels, Diana teeters along Moscow’s sun-filled streets while talking on her iPhone and carrying a bag from the Apple store. In her hip Moscow accent, she says,

I’ve lost my mind for a person who has changed the life of our country. He’s a good politician and a fabulous man.

He is Vladimir Putin.

The camera lingers on an ornate Orthodox cross resting on Diana’s tan, youthful cleavage as her narration lays out her political platform:

He is beloved by millions; he is trusted. But there’s a pack of people who smear him. Perhaps they do it out of fear, perhaps out of personal weakness, because they will never be in his position.

At the end of the video, Diana writes, “Porvu za Putina”— “I’ll tear it up for Putin”—in red lipstick on a white tank top. Then she puts the tank top on, reaches for the collar, and tears it off.

Diana belongs to Putin’s Army, a group of “beautiful, smart young women” holding a contest called “I’ll Tear It Up for Putin”: Post a video of yourself ripping something for Putin, and you might win the iPad in Diana’s shopping bag.

The basic definition of the verb “porvat’” is “to tear,” but in Russian slang it means to retaliate, to be extremely, violently defensive of someone or something. As in, “If you hurt Putin, I’ll tear you to shreds.” But, like so many turns of phrase associated with High Putinism, porvat’ ultimately traces its roots back to fenya, the argot of the Russian prison system. In prison, porvat’ would sound more like a threat: I’ll tear you a new one.

The video, which has been viewed more than a million times, went viral after Kirill Schitov, a twenty-six-year-old Moscow city councilman affiliated with the youth wing of Putin’s United Russia Party, posted it on Live Journal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform. Schitov wrote that he stumbled upon the video on YouTube, and he told me he doesn’t know who is behind the video, or behind Putin’s Army. But as he wrote on his blog, he likes the ideas it expresses: a strong Russia and the telling coincidence that “cute, successful girls” are largely absent from the ranks of the opposition.

Diana’s video comes after a calendar given to Putin on his birthday last fall by journalism students from Moscow State University who stripped down to lacy, elaborate underpants and uttered phrases like “Vladimir Vladimirovich”—Putin—“how about a third go?” (Putin, who was barred from a third presidential term in 2008, is now considering coming back for another stint as president, this time for twelve years.) At the time, Vladimir Tabak, the calendar’s creator, told me it was a spontaneous show of emotion by the students of Russia’s most prestigious journalism school. The calendar spawned a Putin party at a Moscow nightclub, complete with topless dancers, on International Women’s Day. And, as with the “Tear It Up” campaign video, the calendar first appeared on the blog of a loyal functionary; this time it was that of Alexander Yarosh, of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi.

Expressions of sex in the public domain have been a hallmark of the Putin era. Western visitors are often shocked—many of the men pleasantly so—by how Russian women parade their highest heels and deepest decolletage, even on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. Putin has long been rumored to have left his wife for a young gymnast, and last month he hired a personal photographer whose body has attracted more attention than her rather mediocre body of work.

Putin is a master of bread and circuses, as is his close friend Silvio Berlusconi, known for appointing showgirls to cabinet positions and for turning Italian television into a soft-core smorgasbord. (The Thank God There’s Silvio campaign, which Ariel Levy described in a piece in May, looks like elementary-school stuff compared to Putin’s Army.) In Russia, these top-heavy campaigns are less obviously top-down, and are made to look like they come from a grassroots base. Today, for instance, a copycat group called “I Really Do Like Putin” is holding a bikini carwash in Putin’s honor, just, you know, to support him.

Putin’s Army, on the other hand, has more ambitious goals: “Putin for President!” Confusingly, the comely soldiers in his Army are calling on sympathetic ladies to do something for Putin, or, as they say, “for your president”—who, at the moment, at least officially, is Dmitry Medvedev.

Taking It Off for Putin [TNY]

Dead Souls

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Chris Noth—the American actor known to the average Russian as Mr. Big from “Sex and the City”—came to Moscow last weekend thinking he was going to a fundraiser for a children’s hospital. Instead, he landed in the middle of one of the bigger, stranger scandals in recent memory.

“No, tell me what happened?” Noth said when he was asked if he knew what had happened with last year’s gala for the charity.

What happened was this: On December 10, 2010, Vladimir Putin mounted the stage at the Ice Palace in St. Petersburg and said, “Like the vast majority people, I do not know how to sing or play an instrument, but I enjoy doing it. So you’ll just have to bear it.” Then he picked a few notes on the grand piano, and burst into a rendition of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill”—in English. It was amazing. And the celebrities in the audience—Sharon Stone, Gerard Depardieu, Kevin Costner, Mickey Rourke—thought so, too. Stone sang along and flashed the peace sign. Goldie Hawn clapped her hands. Costner stood. Monica Bellucci looked dumbfounded.

The event had been organized by the Federation Fund, a charity for children with cancer. And yet, despite the big Hollywood names in attendance—not to mention Putin himself—almost no one had ever heard of the Federation Fund. It was all rather strange.

So Russian reporters started raking the muck. What they found was that apparently the Fund wasn’t even an officially registered entity at the moment of Putin’s performance; it became an official legal entity only eighteen days later, on December 28th. Moreover, the Fund seemed to be linked to a man named Vladimir Vladimirovich Kiselev. In fact, it was hard to understand Kiselev’s exact relationship to the Fund. On one hand, he insisted that he is only a board member of the Fund; on the other, he insisted that he covered most of the expenses on his own, “out of my nightstand.” How, exactly, did that work?

And who, the Russian press wondered, was this guy? It was said he was an old friend of Putin’s from his St. Petersburg days, but Kiselev assiduously denied that the two even knew each other. At the same time, Putin’s press secretary confirmed their acquaintance. “Of course they know each other,” he said. What, observers thought, was going on? An old profile from the St. Petersburg press began to circulate. It suggested that Kiselev, once the drummer in a popular “official” Soviet rock group, was intimately connected not only to Putin but also to the world of organized crime. Kiselev denies this. He was, however, a wheeler and dealer in St. Petersburg in the nineties. He worked on the 1996 reëlection campaign of Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, the leading reformer of the day and a mentor to Putin; Dmitry Medvedev; and Alexei Kudrin, the current finance minister. Who was in charge of that campaign? Putin. In the early part of that decade, Kiselev organized the White Nights Festival, and he turned for help to Sobchak’s wife, the politician and scholar Lyudmila Narusova. “Very quickly, I became convinced of his adventuristic character, and stopped associating with him,” she told the business daily Vedomosti. She did so just in time. “Twentieth Trust,” another fund that was a White Nights sponsor, was later the subject of a criminal investigation for allegedly using state funds to sponsor the festival and buy Spanish real estate. The investigation was dropped in 2000, when Putin became President.

Then, on March 3rd of this year, a woman named Olga Kuznetsova wrote an open letter, republished by several Russian press outlets. Her daughter Liza was severely ill and had been visited in St. Petersburg’s Hospital No. 31 by Sharon Stone, who gave the girl her necklace. And yet, Kuznetsova claimed, no money had reached Liza, or the hospital. She wondered where the money had gone, and what had been the purpose of December’s fanfare. “I know people are ready to do a lot for their own gain,” she wrote. “But really, are they willing to do it with the help of sick children?”

Anatoly Ryvkin, the head physician of Hospital No. 31, explained this as a simple misunderstanding born of a mother’s acute psychological anguish. “Liza was not promised anything; this was just meeting the stars,” Ryvkin explained. “But she got much more attention than any of the other children, and someone whose child is so seriously ill, you grab on to any hope you can.” He added that the hospital did, in fact, receive $4.5 million worth of equipment over time.

But there was confusion as to the timing: When, exactly, did that money get there? Ryvkin couldn’t say, nor could the Fund. Did it come before or after Kuznetsova’s letter and the massive scandal it kicked up, all the way up to Putin’s office? He announced, through his press secretary, that it would be taken care of—and the money appeared. Was that cause-and-effect or coincidence, or had the money already been en route? And, though Hospital No. 31 says it did get equipment, it had to buy it through government tenders, which, as I’ve written about in the magazine, have become a major vehicle of corruption, especially in the purchase of medical equipment. Was that the case here? Unclear.

And was that all of the money raised? Kiselev claimed that no money was raised at all, but, according to a guest at the December event, it cost a million dollars to sit next to a celebrity. Was there money at stake, or not? And what was Kiselev aiming for, exactly?

This summer, just when the scandal—and the confusion—died down and the news cycle flowed on, strange billboards started popping up on Moscow streets: the Federation Fund was having another charity concert, in July. This time the lineup was no less impressive: the city was filled with the giant smiling faces of Dustin Hoffman, Sophia Loren, Larry King, Steven Seagal, Isabella Rossellini, Andrea Bocelli, Francis Ford Coppola, and, most surprising, Woody Allen. Did they know about the uproar over the previous event? Did they care?

Covering six stories on the Garden Ring was the face of a lovely brunette. “Elena Sever,” the billboard explained, “Patroness of the Fund.” Who was she?

Kevin Costner was coming back. Had he not been informed of the scandal?

Was Putin coming again?

The Russian press got to work, as did the rumor mill. The billboards, it turned out, had been donated by the City of Moscow, which had just banned advertisements that covered city buildings. Elena Sever, it was said, was an actress and the wife of Fund head Kiselev, who was supposedly raising her profile and grooming her for a show-business career. (Kiselev will not confirm or deny this.) Despite the lavish advertising campaign, there were no tickets to the event, and to attend guests had to contribute a hundred thousand dollars of medical equipment to hospitals. Did they? Kiselev wouldn’t say. And yet, according to the New York Times, only two of the hospitals listed on Federation’s Web site said they knew of the Fund. The phone number listed on the billboards didn’t work. There was no venue announced. Larry King cancelled. Dustin Hoffman cancelled. The by-now notoriously vile-tongued Vladimir Kiselev hung up the phone on one Russian journalist, and, asked by another about the rumored cancellations, said, “They’re all participating unless they get diarrhea.” (When I called him for comment, he said, “How do I know you’re a journalist? What if you’re a spy?” Then he hung up.)

Hearing about all this on a warm July evening overlooking the smoggy distances of Moscow, Chris Noth became visibly concerned.

“What?” he said. “Really?”

Another journalist agreed that there were an unusual number of rumors about the Fund.

“Is that, like, a Moscow tradition?” Noth laughed.

Then he came back with a Russian woman in a long green skirt: Anna Zaytseva, a Moscow-based Hollywood agent.

“I brought her over because of what you said,” Noth explained, “because it didn’t sound right. So I said, ‘Hey, what’s that about? I hadn’t heard about that.’ I like to get you guys straight.”

“I was just telling Chris about the situation with the press because it was a kind of misunderstanding,” Zaytseva said. “The truth is this foundation doesn’t give money for kids for surgeries or whatever, they are buying equipment for the hospitals, and they think it’s more important, not because they don’t want to support kids but they can save more lives if they’re buying expensive equipment—like, really expensive.”

Zaytseva also offered a classically Russian response to another reporter’s question about the Fund’s lack of transparency, and the confusion and rumors this created. “They don’t understand—why should they be transparent if they don’t gain money from people?” she said. “They are taking sponsors’ money, and they are transparent with the sponsors.”

And, in fact, amid the soggy hors d’oeuvres, each of the tables had a wire-bound packet of documents and spreadsheets to prove the Fund’s legitimacy. The packet also included two thank-you letters from hospitals that had received help from the Fund, one in St. Petersburg, one in Moscow. The letters were written days before the event and were identically worded. (“These are standard texts,” explained Ryvkin, the head of Moscow’s Hospital No. 31. “If your colleagues didn’t create this scandal, maybe the letter could have been written in more human, less officious language. I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire.”) And, of course, there were pictures of Putin and Sharon Stone holding hands.

I won’t go into the concert itself except to say that it was a comedy of cliché and error, that many of the tables were empty, that some were filled with the elderly parents of Interior Ministry employees, that Woody Allen performed with his band without saying a word, that someone spotted Taiwanchik, a notorious figure from the world of organized crime, that Jeremy Irons looked like an early-eighteenth-century baron just come from the hunt, that he hadn’t heard of the rumors and was not pleased when he did hear, that Isabella Rosellini had only read of it in an English-language newspaper delivered that morning to her hotel but was unfazed by it, that experiencing the slick and withering rage of Kiselev backstage was an utter contrast to the clammy sap of the show just behind us. “Everything that you write, I couldn’t give less of a crap,” he said. “You can write whatever you want, and I will continue to do whatever I think is necessary. This, this is paper. And you know what happens to paper.”

The veil of rumor and Kiselev’s refusal to clarify anything for the press, however, had the feel of a different set of papers. It all felt like a remixed version of “Dead Souls”: an unknown man appears in town and tosses around striking amounts of cash. Most of the locals are impressed, but some question his motives—rightly, but without any real understanding of what he is doing. Rumors, crazy rumors, inaccurate rumors, swirl, the façade crumbles, he is shamed, and, with the jig up, he gives up his scheme to trade one intangible thing (dead souls) for another (social standing), and slinks away.

A couple of days before the concert, I spoke to Kiselev’s former colleague. They were both involved, although Kiselev’s role is unclear, in bringing Madonna’s scandalous 2006 tour to Moscow. (In the show, she is crucified, something the Russian Orthodox Church didn’t much like.) “When I first met Kiselev, he instantly started sticking photos of him with Putin in my face,” the former colleague told me. “But people who really know Putin, they aren’t concert organizers. They got pieces of Gazprom, of Russian Railways. They are private, quiet people. They don’t stick photos in your face.”

This description echoed what Ivan Makushok, another one of Kiselev’s former colleagues, told Vedomosti. The two had crossed paths in the office of Pavel Borodin, the head of the Office of the Presidential Administration under Yeltsin. “A person with cosmic projects would come to Borodin,” Makushok said of Kiselev. “He would drop lots and lots of names right away. He behaved, I think, very riskily, like in that joke: Someone asks Rockefeller, ‘Will you marry your daughter to Ivanov the welder?’ He says no. ‘And how about to Ivanov the millionaire?’ ‘I’ll think about it.’ So then they go to the bankers and ask, ‘Will you give a million to Rockefeller’s son-in-law?’ ”

Kiselev was not actually doing the work of planning Madonna’s concert, said Mikhail Shurygin, the president of NCA, which did the lion’s share of the organization for the event. “It was an undeniably negative experience, and I thank God I am not in any way involved in Kiselev’s current projects,” Shurygin told me. (At the gala last weekend, I asked Kiselev about the Madonna concert, but he told me that he would only answer questions about the events of that day, July 9th.)

Despite his lack of involvement, the former colleague said, Kiselev muscled his way in, claiming credit and connections in high places. “He got his way by bluffing,” the former colleague said. “He would storm in and demand this and that, and if he was denied he’d scream, ‘Do you know who I am?! I am friends with Vladimir Vladimirovich!’ ” (And Putin’s presence at the 2010 gala helped.) “Of course, no one would call to verify that,” the colleague continued. “Can you imagine calling Putin and asking, hey, is this guy really friends with you? And he got even the seasoned, older bureaucrats this way. They’d call saying, ‘This guy says he’s friends with Putin—what if he is?’ ”

That is, Kiselev lives by exploiting another key element of Putin’s power vertical: information only goes one way—down. There really is no way to send a real question back up to the top. What if you’re wrong, and what if your head rolls for that? And once one bluff goes off, the rest is inertia. This is why Kiselev has been so hateful of the Russian press: they raise questions about his past, and about his motives. “I’m being polite with you because you are foreign,” Kiselev said backstage, his light blue eyes sparkling with bile. “If you were Russian journalists, I’d tell you to go four-letters yourself.”

Before the concert started, as Zaytseva talked, a light rain began to fall. Mr. Big surveyed the group of journalists arrayed before him. “You’re The New Yorker, and you’re—?”

“The New York Times.”

“Oh, shit.”

Dead Souls [TNY]


Monday, June 20th, 2011

Last summer, I reported from Seliger, the summer camp of the Russian nationalist youth group Nashi. Weeks of lakeside lectures, campfires, and visits to “breeding tents” mold the adolescent party faithful into year-round enforcers, debaters, and organizers of all manner of political activities. Last month, Nashi gathered fifty thousand young people at an anti-corruption rally in the capital.

Even if Nashi buses in young people from sleepy, blighted corners of the country and promises them a fun day in the capital, no opposition rally in the age of Putin has attracted even five thousand protesters, let alone fifty thousand. Nor do the many, fractious Russian opposition groups have a steady flow of capital from Mikhail Prokhorov and other businessmen trying to curry favor with the Kremlin. But, just the Tea Party has incorporated the methods of the community organizer Saul Alinsky, the Russian left now has its own summer camp: Anti-Seliger. The opposition camp may not be on an idyllic lake near Putin’s summer home, but it is nonetheless in a resonant site: the forest of Khimki, just north of Moscow.

In Soviet days, the Khimki forest was a federally protected reserve celebrated as Moscow’s “green lung.” In 2004, plans were unveiled for a new highway linking Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was a necessary improvement—one does not really exist now, which would be analogous to having no interstate between New York and Washington—but the planned road would cut right through the Khimki forest, instead of taking a shorter route around it. Ever since the plans were announced, Khimki has become a byword for protests and vicious retribution, such as the reprisal against the local journalist and Khimki activist Mikhail Beketov, who, as a result of a savage beating, has lost a leg, several fingers, part of his skull, and the ability to speak. In 2009 Vladimir Putin revoked federal protection for the Khimki forest, designating it an area fit for transport and industrial development. It later emerged that Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s childhood friend and judo partner, was building the road.

“People are either getting their heads beaten in or arrested, so I’m impressed that people came,” Yevgenia Chirikova told a gaggle of reporters gathered under Khimki’s birches on Saturday afternoon.

Chirikova, a local businesswoman who has been the Jane Jacobs of Khimki to Putin’s Robert Moses, has emerged as one of the most effective civic organizers in Russia. She has drawn international attention to the cause (Bono has been brought into the fray) and has had a temporary victory: last August, President Dmitry Medvedev put a halt to the razing of the forest. A few months later, however, a Kremlin-appointed expert panel ruled that there was no better alternative, and construction is underway again.

“We have eleven alternative plans,” Chirikova said at the press conference at Anti-Seliger. “Including one option that is shorter, cheaper, and cuts out the need for a bridge, which is a rather expensive luxury in Russia.” She added, “Lots of my friends have left Russia, and I could leave, too, but I don’t want to do it. I like it here! And I believe that, with a bit of time, life in Russia will be no worse than in other countries.”

Behind Chirikova, on the stage, a band was playing. People lolled around on the grass near their tents. Others clustered around the employees of the anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, whom I profiled in April. (The anti-corruption rally in the capital was Nashi’s attempt to co-opt his campaign.) Another group was following Navalny himself, who had come to offer support for Chirikova and the project.

“I’ve been communicating with thousands of people through my blog, but I’ve never seen them,” Navalny explained later. “It feels like old friends you haven’t seen for years, so people just want to come and say hi. It’s natural.” The old friends, however, quickly proved trying. “Why don’t we talk after my lecture,” Navalny said rather curtly to one supporter, “instead of asking the same question over and over again?”

Navalny was the biggest star at Anti-Seliger, but the camp on Saturday was a who’s who of the Russian opposition. Elena Panfilova, the gregarious, silver-tongued head of the Russian wing of Transparency International, was there with a plastic bag of apricots, as was Anton Nossik, a pioneer of the Russian Web and a trustee of Navalny’s project RosPil, which monitors abuse in government requests for tender. Roman Dobrokhotov, a young journalist and activist, pestered Navalny on his politics during the question period. Alexander Belov, the leader of DPNI, a banned nationalist party, got a shout-out in Navalny’s answer. Sergei Kalenik, the young man behind the Super Putin comic strip, came with his fiancée. Yabloko, which, until it was squeezed out by Putin’s power vertical, represented Russian liberals in parliament, provided the food: canned meat stew over kasha, cooked in olive-green vats of massive mobile army field stoves from Brezhnev’s day. Sergei Udaltsov, the leader of Left Front, was there, as were representatives from the National Bolshevik Party (which is headed by the writer and perpetual provocateur Eduard Limonov), the Sakharov movement, and the increasingly popular Federation of Russian Automobile Owners (FAR).

“Of course, as drivers, we say, ‘I wish they’d build the road already!’ ” FAR leader Sergei Kanaev told me, squinting in the late afternoon sun. “But this is an opportunity to put our civil society on display, to come together. The Kremlin is only happy when fight each other,” he said. “This is not an anti-road gathering; it’s anti-Seliger.”

Kanaev was absolutely right: no one could confuse this event, which attracted three thousand Russians over the course of four days, with Seliger. Last year, Medvedev helicoptered into Seliger as a surprise and danced in the rain. Anti-Seliger’s surprise guest was Sergei Mironov, the deposed speaker of the rubber-stamp Russian Senate and until recently the head of A Just Russia, an “opposition” party created by the Kremlin. There was no rain, and Mironov did not dance. Instead, he stopped a bulldozer pushing around tree trunks without a permit, and, in his stroll through the forest, took a picture of the stump of a recently cut hundred-and-fifty-year-old tree. Nashi, he said on his way out of the campsite, is “a modern version of the Red Guards”—the youth groups that did the dirty work of the Chinese Cultural Revolution—“with all the consequences that implies.” Quite a platitude from a man whose job is to criticize the Kremlin, which gives him that job.

And where Seliger had intensive techno-pop aerobics workouts, Anti-Seliger had Pavel Boloyangov, a world champion mixed-martial-arts fighter, who gave a master class in self-defense—a necessary skill for activists and journalists whose colleagues have been beaten or killed for their work. In a clearing surrounded by a few dozen onlookers and about as many photographers, Boloyangov demonstrated how to wrestle out of a headlock, how to deliver an effective crotch hit. His sparring partner was none other than Navalny, who is now being investigated on federal charges, and is the subject of constant speculation: is he next?

Anti-Seliger may have been chaotic, but it was cheerful—and constructive for a movement that, as Chirikova puts it, is like an infant who has nearly been strangled in its cradle. Still, as I stood in Khimki forest recording Boloyangov and Navalny’s tussle, I felt like I might be creating some dark souvenir for the future.

Anti-Seliger [TNY]

The Royal Wedding, Moscow Style

Friday, April 29th, 2011

About two score Muscovites gathered to watch the wedding of Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and William, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, and Baron Carrickfergus, in the sun-flooded bar of the Strelka Institute, a design school and hipster hangout in a wing of what used to be the Red October Chocolate Factory. Half of them were British expats, dressed in their lacy Sunday best. If they couldn’t be home to watch the historic event, this place was perhaps as good as they could get in Moscow: dominating the view from Strelka, just across the water, is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the garish Easter cake of white marble and gold domes where Nicholas II and his family were canonized in August, 2000. Nicholas, once Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias (and now Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer), was the first cousin of King George V, who was also a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II (and great-great-grandfather to Prince William), and cousin to Tsarina Alexandra Fedorovna (née Princess Alix of Hesse), who was also the cousin of Nicholas. (The three sovereign cousins looked more like twins and, perhaps ironically, perhaps predictably, were not all on the same side in the First World War.) William is basically family here.

This was not, however, on the minds of the Brits who came to celebrate. They had received an invitation from Natalie Horsting, the petite British chef who runs Strelka’s kitchen. Missing home, Horsting whipped up an English menu—roast rib of beef and tiered dessert stands of tea sandwiches, scones, and clotted cream—and invited fellow expatriates to celebrate. “The food is brilliant,” said Martyn Andrews. He was from Liverpool, and draped in a Union Jack.

Kate Partridge, of London, was there to watch “a bit of our heritage and our history unfolding, really, and we can watch it even though we’re two thousand miles away from home.”

“I’d watch it even if I was on the moon,” Andrews said.

The two were waving the flags provided by Horsting, seemingly devoid of the conflicted feelings of some of their more egalitarian-minded countrymen. (“For the last thirty years, the monarchy has gotten such bad press,” Andrews complained.) Perhaps fittingly, Andrews and Partridge both work for Russia Today, an English-language cable channel founded by the Kremlin in 2005 to improve its image abroad.

Behind them sat a group of five young women, classmates from the Moscow Architectural Institute. They sat peeking over the high-backed wooden booth, the festive, edgy bows in their hair bobbing as they watched the wedding on the big screen and gossiped, expertly, among themselves.

“What kind of wave is that?” said Anna Khodina, imitating Kate’s gestures, which she thought overly floppy. “She’s supposed to wave like this.” Khodina did the classic stiff-wristed parade wave.

“Maybe it’s a protest,” said Alice Starobina. “Like her car.”

“What does it mean that he’s putting on his gloves?”

“It means, that’s it. He’s holstered.”

“Don’t they have noisemakers?”

“Yeah, sure, they tie cans to the back of the carriage.”


“Wait, where are they going? They have to kiss now.”

“No, they kiss in the palace. In front of the public.”

“Didn’t they say her dress was Alexander McQueen?” said Khodina. “Isn’t it by the creative director of Alexander McQueen?”

“I think it’s some secret royal atelier.”

“She looks good in this role, a convincing Duchess.”

“Oh my god, what’s on their heads?” (This, on seeing the cavalry ride off with their tassled helmets.)

The girls, who want to found their own design studio (Palip Bureau), bemoaned the lack of such national traditions in Russia. “We use to have all this here, but it was cut off in 1914,” says Natasha Ermolenko, by which she meant 1917. Now, when the children of heads of state get married, they do so in strict secrecy. “I don’t even know what Putin’s second daughter looks like.” No one at the table seemed to know what the first one looked like, either.

It was hard to pinpoint what the women liked so much about the royal wedding. Mostly, it came down to the fact that it wasn’t a Russian wedding, which involves touring all the historical monuments of Moscow in one long and drunken photo session, and, at the reception, screaming “Bitter! Bitter!” to make the newlyweds kiss, and counting loudly, in unison, the seconds they keep their lips locked. “If you compare the Russian wedding style to the English wedding style, I think the English style wins,” said Starobina. “Russian weddings are a bit, how shall I say it, are a bit tasteless. They’re very loud, raucous, and this is, well, very traditional.”

Meanwhile, on the pedestrian bridge linking Strelka to the Cathedral, Moscow wedding season had clearly begun. Wedding parties swilling champagne from clear plastic cups roamed the bridge, as the brides posed for pictures by the monument. I counted six.

The Royal Wedding, Moscow Style [TNY]

Net Impact

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Late on a snowy evening, Alexey Navalny, a lawyer and blogger known for his crusade against the corruption that pervades Russian business and government, sat in a radio studio in Moscow. Tall and blond, Navalny, who is thirty-four years old, cuts a striking figure, and in the past three years he has established himself as a kind of Russian Julian Assange or Lincoln Steffens. On his blog, he has uncovered criminal self-dealing in major Russian oil companies, banks, and government ministries, an activity he calls “poking them with a sharp stick.” Three months ago, he launched another site, RosPil, dedicated to exposing state corruption, where he invites readers to scrutinize public documents for evidence of malfeasance and post their findings. Since the site went up, government contracts worth nearly seven million dollars have been annulled after being found suspect by Navalny and his army. Most remarkably, Navalny has undertaken all this in a country where a number of reporters and lawyers investigating such matters have been beaten or murdered.

By now, Russia’s reputation for corruption is a cliché, but it is impossible to overstate how it defines public life at every level, all the way to the Kremlin. Russia is one of the few countries in the world to slip steadily in Transparency International’s annual rankings. Out of a hundred and seventy-eight countries surveyed in 2010, Russia ranks a hundred and fifty-fourth, a spot it shares with Cambodia, Guinea-Bissau, and the Central African Republic. Corruption has reached such extremes that businesses involved in preparing the Black Sea resort of Sochi for the Winter Olympics of 2014 report having to pay kickbacks of more than fifty per cent. The Russian edition of Esquire recently calculated that one road in Sochi cost so much that it could just as well have been paved with, say, nine inches of foie gras or three and a half inches of Louis Vuitton handbags. In October, President Dmitry Medvedev announced that a trillion rubles—thirty-three billion dollars—disappears annually on government contracts. This is three per cent of the country’s G.D.P.

In the studio, Navalny sat next to Evgeny Fedorov, a doughy, bespectacled member of the Duma and a fairly high-ranking member of United Russia, the political party led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, which today dominates Russia. Fedorov had been invited on the air to debate an assertion that Navalny had made in the same studio two weeks earlier. When asked by a radio host what he thought of United Russia, Navalny had said, “I think very poorly of United Russia. United Russia is the party of corruption, the party of crooks and thieves. And it is the duty of every patriot and citizen of our country to make sure that this party is destroyed.” United Russia announced its intention to file suit against Navalny for slander. Unfazed, Navalny responded with a poll on his blog asking readers whether they agreed with his assertion that United Russia was in fact a party of crooks and thieves. (Of forty thousand respondents, 96.6 per cent agreed with Navalny.) Then he announced a contest to design a poster using the “crooks and thieves” line as a slogan.

Sitting beside Navalny in the studio, Fedorov fumbled nervously with a stack of colored folders and a thicket of scribbled notes. Without looking at him, Navalny drew a sheet of paper from a slim file in front of him and began to read through a list of members of United Russia’s leadership council. He pointed out that one of them, the former governor of oil-rich Bashkortostan, had unified the region’s oil industry and installed his son as the chairman of the resultant conglomerate. Navalny then noted that the governor of the Krasnodar region, where Sochi is, had a twenty-two-year-old niece who had somehow come to own a major stake in a multimillion-dollar pipe factory, a poultry plant, and a number of other businesses. The governor of the Sverdlovsk region (Boris Yeltsin’s birthplace), Navalny said, has an eighteen-year-old daughter who owns a plywood mill and a dozen other local businesses. “How does all this wonderful entrepreneurial talent appear only in the children of United Russia members?” he asked. “What business schools did they attend?”

Fedorov dismissed this as meaningless invective. (All the officials have denied any wrongdoing.) He accused Navalny of terrorism and of working to undermine the country, implying that he was receiving financing either from the C.I.A. or from the U.S. State Department, if not both.

“Honestly, what you’ve just said is shocking,” Navalny said, perfectly deadpan. “I thought that, since you brought so many documents with you, you’d be able to raise substantive objections about the facts of corruption in United Russia, which, I think, are totally obvious.”

Fedorov also wanted to contest Navalny’s assertion, taken from the official property declarations posted on the Russian parliament’s Web site, that Fedorov, a career civil servant, is the owner of five apartments, a house, a summer cottage, and two cars, one of which is a Mercedes. The house is a wreck, Fedorov protested, flashing pictures to the host, and he owns only four apartments. As for Navalny’s assertion that United Russia provides political cover for the corrupt officials in its ranks, Fedorov had a simple bit of advice: “It’s pointless to discuss each of these examples on its own. There is a clear procedure. In instances where the law is broken, the procedure works,” he said. “Write to us. The President even said so himself: ‘Give us the facts!’ ”

“But I’ve been writing for many years,” Navalny burst out. “That’s the whole point!”

Three centuries ago, when Peter the Great was trying to turn feudal, agrarian Russia into a modern state, he encountered a major source of friction inside the system. “Corruption affected not only the finances of the state but its basic efficiency,” Robert Massie wrote in his biography of the Tsar. “Bribery and embezzlement were traditional in Russian public life, and public service was routinely looked upon as a means of gaining private profit. This practice was so accepted that Russian officials were paid little or no salary; it was taken for granted that they would make their living by accepting bribes.”

Despite the wild fluctuations of Russian history since the early eighteenth century, not much has changed in this regard. Almost anyone can be bribed—sometimes with horrific consequences. In August, 2004, two passenger planes fell out of the sky within three minutes of each other, killing eighty-nine people. It turned out that they were downed by two female suicide bombers who had bribed an airport security officer with five thousand rubles—around a hundred and seventy dollars—to let them onto the planes. Government officials don’t just accept bribes but actively solicit them: businesses have become used to approaches by officials who hint that a certain sum will prevent “problems.” It has not gone unnoticed that many civil servants live in luxury that doesn’t square with their modest official salaries. United Russia’s own survey of people who wanted to join the party showed that almost sixty per cent said they were motivated by a desire to solve personal problems, and nearly half were drawn by the opportunity to earn money on the side.

In recent years, Medvedev, eager to lure foreign investors back to Russia, has declared war on corruption. Nonetheless, according to the Interior Ministry’s Department of Economic Security, the size of the average bribe has quadrupled since Medvedev’s election, and many state projects are now undertaken simply to create a pool of money that can then be siphoned off by interested parties. Elena Panfilova, the head of Transparency International’s Russian operation, told me that there are two reasons for this: first, as the government fights corruption, bribery becomes more risky, and so the price goes up. “Second, is what is called the Last Day of Pompeii syndrome,” she said. “Everything’s about to collapse, so grab everything you possibly can.” This has led to such scenes as police pursuing the car of a federal official, who began to toss a million rubles out of the window for fear that the cops would catch him with the bribe money and arrest him.

Fighting corruption in Russia is a dangerous business. “Alexey is causing tangible harm to corrupt, criminal, crooked officials who are not used to people standing in their way,” the Internet entrepreneur and opposition blogger Anton Nossik said. “It’s more dangerous here now than it used to be. Corporations are clearly not into killing—they use P.R. and the courts—but some small official in the provinces whom Alexey deprived of his million dollars could easily send someone after him.” Such things have happened before. A lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky uncovered a scheme by which a group of Interior Ministry officers allegedly stole two hundred and thirty million dollars from the state. In 2008, those same officers had him arrested as he was seeing his children off to school. For nearly a year, Magnitsky was kept in Moscow jails, in conditions so filthy that his health rapidly deteriorated. Denied treatment, he died handcuffed and screaming in pain. He was thirty-seven. There is also the recent case of Mikhail Beketov, a journalist who published exposés of corruption and abuse of authority in the Moscow region and was beaten so badly that he is now crippled and unable to speak.

Navalny and his supporters are keenly aware of such brutal reprisals. “I have a lot of respect for what he’s doing, but I think they’ll arrest him,” I was told by a high-ranking employee at a state corporation that Navalny is investigating. “He’s taunting really big people and he’s doing it in an open way and showing them that he’s not afraid. In this country, people like that get crushed.” When I asked Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila, if she was afraid for her son, she melted into tears before I even got the question out. “I have forgotten what normal sleep is,” she said. “I believe in what he’s doing, he’s doing the right thing, but I’m not ready. I’m not ready for my son to become a martyr.”

Lyudmila and her husband, Anatoly, own a wicker factory, which they founded in the mid-nineties, southwest of Moscow. I met her in her office there, and she showed me a black-and-white photograph of two young parents holding a crying baby. “Here he is, with his mouth open, like always,” she said.

Alexey was born in June, 1976, near Moscow, in Butyn, a military town closed to the public. His father was a Red Army communications officer. Lyudmila was a young economist and a loyal Communist. Navalny’s paternal grandmother was a Ukrainian peasant, and Alexey spent the first nine summers of his life at her cottage, in the countryside just outside Chernobyl. In late April, 1986, when Navalny was ten, his uncle called Lyudmila, and told her she shouldn’t send Alexey that summer: there had been an explosion at Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant. As the Soviet government downplayed the disaster, Navalny’s entire paternal family was evacuated and resettled. Many of them suffer from thyroid and liver problems to this day. “Alexey doesn’t talk about it much, but Chernobyl had a very big influence on him,” Lyudmila says.

Navalny grew up in a series of military towns in the Moscow region. He was a capable but unexceptional student with a habit of telling his teachers what he thought of them. In 1993, he entered Peoples’ Friendship University, in Moscow, famous for educating students from the Soviet Union’s Third World allies, and decided to study law. He recalls finding his college education uninspiring and corrupt: slipping a fifty-dollar bill into your exam booklets insured a passing grade. He graduated in 1998.

While he was still in school, he went to work at a Moscow real-estate company. “Working there taught me how things are done on the inside, how intermediary companies are built, how money is shuttled around,” Navalny says. At the same time, he obtained a master’s in finance, and, in 2001, he quit real estate to be a full-time stock trader. He also married a young economist named Yulia Abrosinova, whom he met when they were both vacationing in Turkey.

In 1999, in the fading days of Boris Yeltsin’s Presidency, Navalny joined Yabloko (meaning “apple”), a party that had represented the liberals in government since soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. After Putin came to power, in 2000, Yabloko was increasingly marginalized. Navalny quickly became frustrated with the party dynamic and, as Sergei Mitrokhin, the current party head and Navalny’s political mentor, puts it, “made his presence known.” According to Navalny, “There was constant antagonism between the normal people in the party and some kind of hellish, insane, crazy mass of the leftovers and bread crusts of the democracy movement of the eighties.”

In 2005, Navalny teamed up with Maria Gaidar, the daughter of a legendary Yeltsin-era economic reformer, to create a movement called Da! (Yes!). Da! set out to engage an emerging generation of Russians who were too young to have experienced the end of Communism and had come of age in a wealthier, more apathetic time. Its aims were diffuse, but the movement spread to many Russian cities. One key component was the hosting of debates. “The idea was that, because there are no free debates and no free media, we decided we’re just going to rent a bar, invite two people, and they’re going to debate,” Navalny explains. “To our surprise, it was a super-popular project. The limiting factor was the size of the space.” Gaidar has described it as “an alternative way to socialize,” and this proved to be one of the project’s biggest legacies. Young Russians met older, more established politicians and journalists. The debates—witty, raucous, bawdy—gave a community of politically engaged Russians a chance to form the kinds of rivalries and allegiances that the Putin administration was working to dissolve. They ended when neo-Nazis and soccer hooligans started showing up and brawling. (Navalny was arrested for roughing up one of the intruders.)

By then, though, Navalny was deep in conflict with Yabloko’s leadership. The party had been excluded from the government in 2007, when it lost its last four seats in the Duma. After this disaster, Navalny publicly pushed for the ouster of Grigory Yavlinsky, a founder of the party and hero of the democracy movement in the nineteen-eighties. Navalny recalls being summoned to a meeting called by the party’s federal council (of which he was a member) to discuss his “membership in the party.” The stated reason was Navalny’s espousal of nationalist views. He had been photographed attending planning meetings for the Russian March, a hardline nationalist march that has coursed through Moscow, sometimes violently, every November since 2005, chanting such slogans as “Russia for Russians!” Liberal parties had reacted to the Russian March with horror, branding it a neo-Nazi parade. Navalny argued that the event attracted more “normal” participants than “sieg heilers,” and that liberals were making themselves irrelevant by failing to address an upswell of nationalism in a constructive way. At the meeting with Yabloko’s leadership, Navalny delivered a sarcastic speech, at the end of which he jumped up and yelled “Glory to Russia!” and stormed out of the room. The whole council, except for one member, voted for his expulsion.

Navalny works in a somewhat spartan office in downtown Moscow, where he runs a small corporate law firm. In the dead of the Russian winter, the radiators don’t always work, and Navalny’s secretary, delivering his tea, shivered in a puffy jacket.

Navalny has four employees and hires additional attorneys as needed. He claims that he takes on just enough work to pay salaries and to feed his family, devoting the rest of his efforts to anti-corruption initiatives. As his fame has grown, so have his fees. “For Moscow, they’re well above average,” he says. Navalny works at a doughnut-shaped conference table, behind drifts of paper and a laptop bristling with memory sticks. Propped up against one wall is a dry-erase board. When Navalny describes corruption, he covers the board in arrows and circles, explaining merrily as he draws, as if he were telling an amusing anecdote. He anthropomorphizes delinquent companies as “guys” and dismisses complex chains of shell companies as “utter trash” and “total hell.” At times he seems almost delighted at the sheer absurdity of it all.

Navalny’s campaign against corporate corruption began in late 2007, when he decided to acquire some stock in Russia’s big state companies. He figured that companies like Gazprom (the state gas monopoly), Rosneft (the state oil concern), and Transneft (the government’s oil-transport monopoly) should be safe and profitable investments. He was also curious to see what went on inside these notoriously opaque institutions. So he bought a few shares in each company, as well as in a couple of state-owned banks. All told, he spent about forty thousand dollars.

He quickly noticed that the companies, despite surging commodity prices and prime access to Russia’s vast natural resources, paid surprisingly small dividends. Then he learned, from a newspaper article, that Transneft had donated three hundred million dollars to charity in 2007 alone. The sum was more than ten per cent of its profits that year and more than it spent on maintaining its entire network of pipes, but Transneft did not disclose where the cash went. “No one had seen any traces of this charity,” Navalny told me. “I spoke to many managers and employees of the biggest charity organizations, and they said they’d never seen this money.” As the owner of two shares of Transneft, he wrote to the company’s president. “Please provide me with a list of organizations that received financial support in 2007,” he wrote, noting that “philanthropy is not one of the goals and objectives of the company.”

Transneft declined the request for information, so Navalny went to the Interior Ministry’s Economic Security Division and asked them to open a criminal investigation. This is how the investigation proceeded: A detective asked Transneft to give testimony regarding the charges. They didn’t, so he closed the case. (The state prosecutor’s office overruled this decision, and reopened the case.) Then the detective went to Transneft, but was unable to question anyone. He closed the case. (The prosecutor’s office overruled this, too.) Then the detective stopped doing anything at all. When Navalny appealed to the court, the detective claimed to have lost the case materials. (The court recognized Navalny’s claim of negligent inaction.)

The progress of the investigation was perhaps unsurprising. Transneft is one of the biggest companies in Russia, and transports ninety-three per cent of the country’s oil. More important, it is owned by the Kremlin, and the energy minister is the chairman of the board. “I can understand this cop,” Dmitry Volov, a soft-spoken young lawyer who takes all Navalny’s various cases to court, told me. “He’s some average detective in the Interior Ministry. Yesterday, he had an apartment robbery. This morning, he had a drunken brawl. And this afternoon he gets an allegation of a theft of seven billion rubles from Transneft. So he starts getting nervous. But, most likely, the case comes with a note from his superiors, saying, ‘Vasya, don’t make too much of a fuss. We’ll cover you on this. Just don’t make any sudden moves.’ ”

Nearly three years later, Transneft has refused to provide Navalny with the documents he requested, challenging his claim to be a shareholder of the company. The corporation also stalled in court, waiting for the result of an appeal by Rosneft to Russia’s Constitutional Court, arguing that a law giving broad access to shareholders is unconstitutional. In February, the Constitutional Court, to everyone’s surprise, rejected Rosneft’s reasoning, and a Moscow arbitration court ruled that Navalny was indeed a shareholder and that Transneft had to provide the documents he requested. Transneft is appealing the decision.

In the meantime, the press has tried to figure out where the three hundred million dollars could have gone. A report in Vedomosti, the Russian business daily, alleges that Transneft funnelled the money to two organizations: the Assistance Fund and the Kremlin-9 Fund. It was unclear what exactly the Assistance Fund did, as there were a hundred and forty-four establishments with the same generic name. The Kremlin-9 Fund, on the other hand, officially supports the Federal Protective Service (the Russian analogue of the Secret Service). When I asked the fund’s president what his organization does, he said, “Go look it up on the Internet,” adding “I’m not a pedagogue!” With some coaxing, he managed, “We help veterans and current employees. There are lots of unpredictable situations in life.” When I asked if their funding came from Transneft, he told me it was “an accounting secret.” When I asked a Transneft representative where the charity money went, he responded, angrily, “We don’t like to publicize such things. We don’t do charity for the P.R.” And he compared Navalny to Goebbels.

Navalny discovered similarly odd arrangements at other government companies in which he owned stock. Gazprom turned out to be buying gas from a small independent gas company, Novatek, through an intermediary, Transinvestgas. A police investigation discovered that only a few days before Gazprom bought the gas from Transinvestgas it had turned down an opportunity to buy exactly the same gas directly from Novatek for seventy per cent less. Transinvestgas then channelled at least ten million dollars of the difference in price to a consulting company, which, the police found, had been registered using two stolen passports.

One of Navalny’s favorite cases involves V.T.B., a major Russian bank, eighty-five per cent of which is owned by the government. (Russia’s finance minister is chairman of the board of directors.) Navalny discovered that V.T.B. purchased thirty oil-drilling rigs from a Chinese company. But, instead of buying them directly, it purchased them at a fifty-per-cent markup through an obscure intermediary, registered in Cyprus, which kept the difference—a hundred and fifty million dollars. Navalny’s face hovers between laughter and incredulity as he describes the setup. “I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I’ve been able to find almost all the documents,” he told me, digging around in his stacks of paper. The difficulty for V.T.B., he claimed, was that there were problems leasing the drilling installations. “You can’t hide drill rigs,” he said. “You can’t sink them, you can’t toss them out. It’s four and a half thousand train cars of equipment.” Navalny found out that the rigs were being stored in Yamal, a remote northern region. He went to see the rigs for himself and took a cameraman to film what he saw. “It’s literally a boundless snowy field which is sown with thousands of tons of metal,” he said.

Both cases are pending; Gazprom denies Navalny’s charges, and V.T.B. declined to comment. The investigations, meanwhile, have progressed slowly. The detective assigned to the Gazprom case has repeatedly summoned people to his office for questioning, only to reschedule their appointments when they arrive.

Navalny’s latest project is the Web site RosPil. Navalny often claims, with some irony, that RosPil is really just doing Medvedev’s work. The site would not be possible without Medvedev’s initiative, two years ago, to post online all government requests for tender—the documents whereby government entities announce their need for goods or services to potential bidders. Almost immediately, reports of strange deals started surfacing in the press. One regional governor arranged to buy thirty gold-and-diamond wristwatches; a spokesman explained that they were gifts to honor local teachers, but the deal was abruptly cancelled when the press got wind of it. The Interior Ministry ordered a hand-carved bed made of rare wood, gilded. St. Petersburg authorities ordered two million rubles’ worth of mink for seven hundred patients in a psychiatric institution. Medvedev’s own Presidential Administration was found to have ordered ten million dollars’ worth of BMWs; a representative explained that “we are not rich enough to buy cheap things.”

The idea for RosPil came about when Navalny was tipped off that the Ministry of Health and Social Development was inviting bids to build a two-million-dollar network to connect doctors and patients. Whoever won the contract would have all of sixteen days to develop the site. Navalny wrote that “without a doubt” the site had already been designed for a much lower sum, leaving an ample margin for kickbacks. He asked his readers to send official complaints to the Federal Anti-Monopoly Agency, and nearly two thousand of them did, crippling the agency, which is obliged by law to respond to each complaint. The Health Ministry annulled the contract. Meanwhile, Navalny’s readers had found two more Ministry projects involving big sums of money for technology systems to be built in an impossibly short amount of time. Navalny blogged about them, and these, too, were quickly cancelled. At the same time, Navalny was waging a relentless smear campaign against the official who granted the contracts, whom he dubbed Mr. Unibrow. After the third deal was annulled, Mr. Unibrow resigned. “The time that passed between my first post and his resignation is a week,” Navalny told me, beaming.

The success of the Unibrow campaign brought a cascade of e-mail, all with links to similar contracts. But, Navalny explains, “I can’t, by myself, replace the Anti-Monopoly Agency and the state prosecutor’s office. And so the idea was born to make a site where people could do it themselves.” Any visitor to the site can submit a government request for tender to public scrutiny, and, if it is deemed suspicious enough, it is posted to the main page, where registered members discuss the merits of the complaint. An expert associated with the site evaluates whether the price, the parameters, and the schedule are reasonable; if not, Navalny trumpets the alleged fraud on his blog, often causing the agency responsible to be buried in hostile correspondence. In effect, RosPil is an attempt to crowdsource Navalny’s work, which, given the dangers inherent in such work, seems wise. RosPil spreads the risk involved in exposing corruption, and provides a kind of insurance: if anything happens to Navalny, RosPil can continue to function, and may embarrass the government into reforming itself.

One recent evening, as Navalny negotiated rush-hour traffic, he got a call from his younger brother, Oleg. Oleg was calling about a suspicious government contract that Navalny had blogged about that morning. The Ministry of Industry and Natural Resources of the Chelyabinsk region, in the Ural Mountains, was inviting bids for the “improvement, development, and expansion” of a software system. It was willing to pay twenty-five million rubles, or more than eight hundred thousand dollars. Oleg had found a programmer who could do the job for a million rubles, or thirty-five thousand dollars. “Yes!” Navalny exclaimed. Then, more calmly, “Good. O.K. Bid on it. And if they say no, then we’ll really destroy them.”

Navalny sifted through documents that said the work involved an obscure software system called Magellan, and that one of the goals of the “improvement” was to “eliminate routine work.” In his post, he tore into the dry documents with sarcastic glee. His tone has become his trademark and conveys a shared assumption with his readers: this is how things are done in Russia.

“These boys want to eliminate routine,” Navalny wrote. “This is, no doubt, a good goal. But exactly what part of the Chelyabinsk Ministry of Industry will be rid of routine by the expensive Magellan system?” He went on, “And here, by the way, is our hero, Valery Valentinovich Prudskoy, the minister of industry and natural resources, and the organizer of this request for tender.” Navalny added a picture of a grim-looking bureaucrat. “From Valery Valentinovich’s face, we can see that he desperately wants to eliminate routine.” Navalny had some questions for Valery Valentinovich. Why invent a new system for document processing when this is one of the most widely developed types of software products? “How much did Magellan cost if its improvement costs nearly a million dollars?” Navalny asked. “We really hope that, as a result of this post, V. V. Prudskoy will curb his appetites, will postpone the purchase of yet another apartment, and that the contract will be concluded based on the market price and the size of the project.” Instead, the ministry annulled the request for tender.

In February, Navalny announced that he was seeking contributions for RosPil. Within a week, he had collected more than a hundred and twenty thousand dollars. “People donating money is extremely significant, given Russians’ cynicism,” Aleh Tsyvinski, a Yale economist who has become a sort of mentor to Navalny, says. “Russia is a rich country, and people are now thinking about things other than basic necessities. Writing to Navalny is, in some ways, a way of exercising power. He is tapping into a huge demand for a grassroots movement.”

Since RosPil started, it has registered more than a thousand users and five hundred experts. According to a tally maintained on the site, the project has caused requests for tender worth 188.4 million rubles, or $6.6 million, to be annulled. The projects have ranged from strange data systems for the Russian military to a new, overpriced Web site for the Bolshoi Theatre. Most recently, Navalny highlighted the request for an Audi 8L, armored to the hubcaps, for the finance minister of the Russian Republic of Dagestan, at a cost of three hundred thousand dollars. “I’m positive that the presidents of many of the world’s countries get around in more modest cars,” Navalny wrote. Five hours after the post went up, the request was cancelled.

“Navalny is making stealing just as dangerous as it is now safe,” Anton Nossik, who is involved with the project, says. “He’s changing the public’s and the bureaucrats’ perception of the risks.”

Navalny has also managed to turn mere supporters into fellow-fighters. “Alexey gives people an opportunity to become civic activists without joining an N.G.O. or a political party,” Elena Panfilova told me. “He is galvanizing the grass roots, and he can change Russia.” On a recent Friday night, I watched Navalny debate the dean of an élite Moscow university closely tied to Medvedev. Hundreds of students pushed to get into a room crowded with photographers and TV cameramen. The debate itself was an esoteric affair, dealing with the legal details of legislation on government requests for tenders, and it went on for four hours. And yet almost no one left. The night seemed to upend the common assumption that young Russians are apathetic.

It was also evidence of Navalny’s growing star power. Last fall, when Moscow was waiting for the Kremlin to appoint its new mayor, Russia’s leading newspaper, Kommersant, held an informal online election for the post. Navalny won in a landslide, with forty-five per cent of the vote. (Second place went to “no one,” with fourteen per cent.) “This is a huge responsibility for me,” Navalny told me. He makes no secret of his political ambitions. “Without any doubt, I am striving for power,” he has said publicly. “He’s a natural-born politician,” Masha Lipman, a prominent Russian political analyst, says. “If Russia were a country with an open-field political competition, he’d be assured of a brilliant political career. He might even become a Presidential candidate.”

Part of Navalny’s appeal is his rejection of Russian liberalism, which he sees as being hopelessly out of touch with a country that is fundamentally conservative. His nationalism is unapologetic and even shocking. In a series of humorous videos on YouTube, he can be seen advocating the repatriation of illegals (while footage scrolls of people of Asian appearance moving swiftly through an airport) and the use of pistols against lawless undesirables. But he is adamant that he’s a pragmatist, not an ideologue. “There’s a huge number of questions that we should be discussing, and not handing over to the nationalists,” he says. Migration, for example, is a major issue in Russia, which has the most immigrants in the world after the U.S. Current estimates range from seven million to twelve million, many of them from the North Caucasus or former Soviet republics like Tajikistan. Most of them are undocumented. This, Navalny argues, keeps migrant laborers in the shadows and without basic rights, and is also a major source of friction. When Moscow exploded in ethnic riots in December, a poll showed that more than sixty per cent of Russians felt suspicious of or irritated by people of non-slavic nationality. “When we make these questions taboo and don’t discuss them, we hand over this extremely important agenda to the radicals,” Navalny says.

Vladimir Milov, another young opposition politician, told me that, while Navalny would make a fine Presidential candidate, the ingrained mistrust that Russians have of politics would make the transition difficult. “The big challenge ahead for him is that, as soon as he steps into big politics, he will lose the people who thought they were just writing letters.” Still, Navalny has always tried to remind his supporters and volunteers that what they’re doing is inherently political. Nossik says that Navalny “is the first person in the Russian opposition in a very long time who understands opposition not as a process of creating an alternative political nomenklatura but as one of real action.”

One evening, Navalny drove me to his apartment in one of Moscow’s far-flung bedroom communities. Even with light traffic, it’s an hour from the city center. His wife, Yulia, was waiting for us with dinner. We sat in the small but tastefully remodelled kitchen, eating a shrimp salad and a cheese platter. Navalny’s children—a blond, lanky nine-year-old daughter named Dasha and a toddler son named Zahar with hair the color of corn silk—periodically ran in, demanding helpings of shrimp.

Yulia trained in international economics, but seems to relish the role of a politician’s wife. “I support him. I read his blog. I read everything that’s written about him,” she told me. “He is doing something he loves, and it’s good for the country. I know that sounds pompous.” She spoke with evident pride, albeit in a sardonic style that echoes Navalny’s: she said she would be subject to undue pressure if she answered my questions in front of him. “He’s going to wink, and mouth the answers.”

Yulia supports her husband’s decision to keep guns in the house, shares his stance on nationalism, and, like him, has never considered leaving Russia, unlike an increasing number of Russians their age. Navalny recently held a six-month fellowship at Yale, but, despite his mother’s pleas, the Navalnys were determined to return to Moscow. Dasha loved American schools, and Zahar still speaks in a jumble of English and Russian, but Navalny had bought round-trip tickets. “I hate to say it,” he explained, “but, after the novelty wore off, I had this cliché moment of a Russian émigré abroad: I really missed black bread. I know it’s stupid, but I really missed it.”

Navalny took classes at the Yale business school, worked with law professors, and learned about the American political system. “I didn’t completely decipher it, but it’s still really interesting to see how these small groups are created and then begin to influence politics,” he said. “The Tea Party, for example. It’s an incredible thing: some old ladies got together and are now hammering at Obama from all sides.” He wanted to organize a similar movement in Russia.

At Yale, he maintained his blog and published his most startling leak to date—a dossier relating to the construction of Transneft’s East Siberia–Pacific Ocean pipeline, alleging graft on a colossal scale. Navalny estimated that as much as four billion dollars were being siphoned off, and the documents ignited a media storm in Russia. The Kremlin reacted with characteristic disdain—Putin took the opportunity to publicly praise Transneft a few days later—and Transneft’s president called Navalny “a village idiot.” A month later came a development that Navalny interprets as official retaliation: the prosecutor’s office in Kirov was reported to be investigating claims that Navalny had pressured a local official to sell timber on unfavorable terms. “I won’t say I’m not concerned at all,” he told me. “I could get seven years.”

Neither Navalny’s home nor his office seems especially well protected, and when Navalny files a suit he frequently uses his home address. As I rode the metro back from his apartment, I wondered about the risks he was taking. When we first met, at a sushi restaurant near his office, he spoke about what he sees as the cowardice of liberal Russian businessmen—his natural constituency—who are too scared to stand up to government corruption. “I don’t understand this position,” he said. “First of all, it’s boring. Second of all, forgive me if this sounds pompous, but it’s better to die standing up than live on your knees.” He was similarly dismissive of the people who think that he or anyone else is fighting a well-oiled, repressive machine. “I disagree, because the people who work in business at a high enough level can tell you that there’s no machine at all,” he says. “It’s all a fiction. That is, they can destroy a single person, like Magnitsky or me or Khodorkovsky. But, if they try to do anything systemically against a huge number of people, there’s no machine. It’s a ragtag group of crooks unified under the portrait of Putin. There’s no super-repressive regime. There are no mythical Cheka agents that we need to be scared of. It’s just a bunch of crooks.” When things happened to opponents of the system, he said, it was because they showed up individually. “But if tomorrow ten businessmen spoke up directly and openly we’d live in a different country,” he said. “Starting tomorrow.”

Net Impact [TNY]

Russia’s Black Swan

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Whatever happens at the Oscars next Sunday, it is likely to bring on yet another wave of “Black Swan” mania. Meanwhile, in Russia, all eyes are on another ballerina horror show. This one involves a real Black Swan—the prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who is famous for her long-limbed renditions of Odette and Odile in “Swan Lake.” She is also a notorious Moscow socialite—appearing frequently in the Russian tabloids for things like allegedly stealing a friend’s lover and starring in a Snickers commercial, in which she tells a group of basketball players to “kiss my tutu.” She didn’t help matters when, last month, she published naked photos of herself on her blog.
Earlier this month, Volochkova cut her ties with the country’s ruling party, United Russia, which had enlisted her as a celebrity spokesperson. She announced her decision in a radio interview—seemingly on a whim—and referred to the party of Vladimir Putin as “that fucking party” and “that shit into which I was careless enough to step.” United Russia posted a short statement on its Web site: “Women, like children, are inclined to changes in mood. In this sense, Anastasia Volochkova is a real woman.” Then, on February 11th, when Volochkova was on tour with her new show, “Applause,” in the southern city of Togliatti—Russia’s Detroit—a television segment celebrating her thirty-fifth birthday was scheduled to air during a popular talk show. She wrote on her blog: “At the very end of the show [in Togliatti], right before I entered the stage for the final number, my director told me that the show ‘Let Them Talk,’ dedicated to my birthday, had been taken off the air.” Volochkova blamed a man named Vladislav Surkov.
The channel on which the television program was scheduled to run, Channel 1, is the country’s main station, and is majority-owned by the Kremlin, and overseen by Vladislav Surkov. Officially, Surkov is the Russian President’s first deputy chief of staff. Unofficially, he is United Russia’s chief ideologist, its Karl Rove, its Grey Cardinal. Volochkova had been looking forward to watching the program—she had asked friends to tape it because she would be on stage in Togliatti when it aired. She found out backstage that the special had only aired in the Russian Far East and Kazakhstan before the switch was made.
“Of course, I was extremely upset,” Volochkova recalled on a recent wintry afternoon, in her office up the street from the Kremlin. Heavily made up, with tattooed eyebrows, she was sipping a cup of rum-spiked tea. Her bedazzled gold phone kept interrupting her with the chorus from Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Swans adorned her bejeweled velvet backpack, as they do nearly every accessory she has. The last number of her performance in Togliatti was a song, “Applause,” written for her by one of her show-business friends. “I performed this song in one breath, trying not to show my audience that something was not right,” she recounted. “But at the end I started weeping, because I was extremely upset with what had occurred.” She went on, now angrily, “I don’t know what will become of me later. Because if this is the first step of this vengeance, then I don’t know what form the future steps will take.”
Volochkova, the daughter of a Leningrad table-tennis champion, became a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi Theatre at the age of twenty-two, in 1998. She excelled at her Swan Lake roles, but then, in 2003, the theatre fired her. Volochkova’s version is that it was because of the influence of a former boyfriend of hers, a powerful billionaire. The Bolshoi’s version is that Volochkova had simply gotten fat. The resulting public squabble—which included a New York Times reporter showing up at a Moscow restaurant to weigh and measure her, as well as a lawsuit, which she won—still brings her to tears. “Over the course of seven years, wherever I went, people would say, ‘Well you know, Anastasia, we thought you were so big and fat,’” she said in a recent interview. (The lesson learned? “I will fuck the shit out of the entire world. In a good way.”)
Volochkova joined United Russia in 2003, shortly before her problems with the Bolshoi began, but the party did not come to her rescue. Then, two years later, according to Volochkova, they set her up. She has two versions of how this happened, but the basic facts are the same: she joined other Russian artists in signing a public letter supporting the conviction, for tax evasion, of the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky—a charge most of the world saw as politically motivated. (Volochkova’s defense of this act sounds a bit like that of a teenager caught smoking pot: she didn’t know the letter referred to Khodorkovsky; the letter was brought to her by a cool and important person; all of her artist friends were doing it.) In 2009, Volochkova ran for mayor of the Russian town Sochi, which is scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The United Russia party kicked her off the ballot on a technicality. Since then, she says, she has had trouble getting bookings in the region.
In Volochkova’s account, the last straw in her troubled relationship with the Party came in January, when she published the naked photos. They showed her lollygagging on a beach in the Maldives, with what looks like an arrow of strategically placed pebbles running down to her nether regions. During her birthday show, Elena Drapeko, a Soviet actress and parliament member, lay into Volochkova for the photos, and advised that, at her age, it was better to be “wise, rather than luxurious.” The fact that Drapeko was from a different party didn’t tame Volochkova’s wrath. Why, Volochkova wondered, were people focussing on this instead of building art schools? “But when I put up my beach shots on my own blog—not the Party Web site—they suddenly remember that Volochkova is a United Russia member,” she told an interviewer at the time. After all, she added, “I showed them my breasts, not my member!”
To Volochkova and her fans, the cancellation of her birthday broadcast was reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union when official Party artists were showered with privilege while the blacklisted foundered, were arrested, or, like Joseph Brodsky, were forced into exile. “I was convinced that I live in a free country, and I thought that the leaders of the party were sane people, that they wouldn’t start battling me, a woman,” Volochkova said. “And for what? Just because I decided to stay out of politics?”
The day after her tearful performance in Togliatti, Volochkova went hunting with the locals of the nearby city of Samara. They hunted groundhogs, the plural accusative for which, in Russian, is “surkov.” “It turns out the groundhog is a cowardly animal,” Volochkova wrote on her blog. “It spends all its time hiding in its den and won’t go more than five yards from it.” As a result, Volochkova wrote, “during my hunting trip, not one groundhog was hurt.”

Russia’s Black Swan [TNY]

A Bombing at the Airport

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

When Robert Shlegel, a twenty-six-year-old member of the Russian Duma, the parliament, saw the news of an explosion at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, he heard some other reports as well. “Tomorrow, I am going to introduce legislation cracking down on illegal taxis,” he told me, standing in the middle of the airport in a trim tweed overcoat, an iPad under his arm. “There were rumors going around on Twitter that taxis were charging twenty thousand rubles”—six hundred and sixty-nine dollars—“to take people from the airport.” (It’s about an hour to the center of town.) This kind of profiteering was especially galling to Shlegel because the same kind of racket goes down every time there’s a tragedy in Moscow, and no one seems to learn from it: “It happened in December”—when an apocalyptic layer of ice covered the capital and halted air travel at peak holiday time—“it happened in March”—when two young women detonated themselves in the Moscow metro, killing forty people—“it happens all the time, and no one does anything about it. In every civilized country, there are official airport taxis and they have official rates,” Shlegel said.

It soon became clear, however, that gypsy cabs were the least of Shlegel’s, or anyone’s, worries. Thirty-five bodies still lay in the greeting area outside the international arrivals gate, now festooned with hanging debris and police tape. The injured, a hundred and eighty of them, were on their way to various Moscow hospitals, some with shrapnel wounds, others with traumatic amputations. Worried parents stood waiting to meet their children, returning—they hoped—from trips abroad, as bands of camera crews and journalists roved the scene. One illegal taxi driver, a stunned thirty-year-old named Artem Zhilenkov, became their main catch. Dressed in a Russian Olympic-team track suit flecked with blood, hair, and unidentifiable bits of human flesh, he recounted to a pushy press scrum how he saw a man walk into the center of the crowd and explode.

And yet the airport was kept open and operating, even though the acrid smoke had barely dissipated. (Not to mention that terrorist attacks in Moscow tend to happen in pairs.) Planes kept landing, planes kept taking off, and people kept arriving to get on those planes. By 8:30 that evening—just four hours after the blast—the police decided to screen every single person entering the airport, and that’s when all those people discovered that Domodedovo really is Russia’s biggest and busiest airport: there was only one revolving door, and one metal detector for all of them.

Shlegel, the young Duma deputy, watched the resultant bottleneck, as it swayed and pushed and spilled back out onto the curb, his face registering utter disbelief. People shoved in twos and threes through the metal detector as the narrow plastic rectangle flashed an error message and beeped in uninterrupted desperation. A cop tried to send one man back through, but there was already a throng behind him, pushing him into the departure hall. A plaid suitcase crowdsurfed toward the baggage scanner. A large lady in a large fur coat exploded through the clog, wondering aloud if there was really a god. The metal detector, which was not attached to the floor, began to wobble and dance. A fistfight broke out.

Shlegel took some videos with his iPhone:
Domodedovo security line

Then Shlegel grabbed a policeman—an officer of decent rank —and asked him to set up a new entrance. The policeman escorted Shlegel to Entrance No. 1 to show him that it was already working. There was only a thin stream of people here, so Shlegel asked the cop to go and tell all those people cramming themselves through Entrance No. 2 to come to Entrance No. 1 instead. The cop ducked away, slipping his arm out of Shlegel’s grasp.

Shelgel spun around, his fair face reddening. “This horrible,” he said. “I mean, this is just fucking—Oh, sorry! I mean, this is outrageous! Why isn’t there anyone handling this? Where are the police? Where is the airport administration? Why isn’t there any announcement about the other door?” An idea came to him: maybe he could have someone make an announcement. But how? “I don’t even know whom to call,” he wondered out loud, striding quickly, somewhere, all the while. (It was then he reconsidered his legislative project: “The airport’s entire staff should be fired,” he said. “Maybe I should propose that instead.”)

“Where is Information?” he asked two cops who seemed to just be standing around. They smirked and pointed past Shlegel: it was right behind him.

Shlegel nearly ran up to the Information booth, and pleaded with a heavyset woman behind the counter to make an announcement that there was another entrance open.

“That entrance is open,” she said, peering at him skeptically over her glasses and pointing to Entrance No. 1.

“Yes, I know, I used it myself,” Shlegel said, attempting to explain that he wanted an announcement that Entrance No. 1 was open in order to alleviate the congestion at Entrance No. 2.

“I can’t make an announcement!” the woman said. “The announcer has to make the announcement. See, she’s making an announcement now and I can’t interrupt her.”

Shlegel would run into this problem again when he encountered the only megaphone in the airport. The megaphone was attached to a cop, and the cop told Shlegel he could not leave his post, which was in a deserted wing of the airport. Behind him, in the corner, stood a metal detector, complete with an operator, lonely and useless.

“Look! That’s a working metal detector! Why is it just standing there? It’s on wheels—why can’t they move it over to the other entrance?” Shlegel asked. The cop shrugged.

Shlegel speed walked back to Entrance No. 2, where things were not looking any better. The metal detector was still wobbling under the weight of the crowd. Now desperate, he tried to tell people himself. “There’s another entrance,” he said approaching the crush of passengers, laughing uncomfortably. “It’s open.”

“This is useless, I think,” he said after a minute of blank stares.

Nearby, a group of young men and women held up pieces of printer paper with the words “I’ll give you a free ride to the Metro” scrawled on them in ballpoint pen. They were activists from Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group, whom Shlegel had mobilized—along with the group’s “Gazelle” vans. (Shlegel is himself a Nashi commissar, and it was his activism in the group that catapulted him into the Duma.) No one seemed to be taking them up on their offer.

Shlegel called a few people to complain, but he seemed defeated and frustrated in his unexpressive way. “I’ll tell you a funny story,” he said. To get to Domodedovo that evening, Shlegel decided to take the Aeroexpress, the express train running from the city center. Aeroexpress had announced that it would be running for free for the rest of the evening. And yet people stood there buying tickets. The command had simply not trickled down. “So I went up to the cashier, and told her what had been announced and showed her my Duma card,” Shlegel said. “She took my card, went with it somewhere, and all of a sudden I hear an announcement that the train is free.”

Shlegel laughed, and I laughed, too, but he quickly cut me off. “It’s not funny,” he said, suddenly self-conscious. For him, an official from the ruling party, a very visible member of the Nashi movement and the Russian blogosphere, to be suddenly useless in a moment of chaos and national need—I could see why the moment would lack the tragicomic luster of so many things in Russia. Trained as an activist, a doer, Shlegel stood face to face with a stupid, inefficient, dangerous situation: the airport was still running when it should have been shut down; the one metal detector to screen the incoming crowd was clearly useless and was rarely used in normal circumstances; the authorities, now highly competent at clearing and cordoning off scenes of a terrorist attack, were still bad at directing the rest and worse at prevention. Shlegel, like all other Russians—officials or civilians—operate in a vertical in an easily paralyzed system where everyone is waiting for a command from the next level up. But, as WikiLeaks showed, a good half of even the all-powerful Vladmir Putin’s commands went unimplemented. If that was the case, what could a twenty-six-year-old member of a rubber-stamp parliament do but let the situation spin itself out?

A Bombing at the Airport [TNY]

Race Riots in Russia

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Wednesday was shaping up to be a day of excitement in Moscow. But the verdict expected in the second trial of the jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky (whom David Remnick writes about in the current issue) was postponed; an unceremonious note taped to the courthouse door announced the delay. Meanwhile, across the ice-clogged Moscow River, a gathering army of police was bracing for a race riot, the second in four days.

Tensions have been running high here ever since the night of December 6th, when a soccer fan named Egor Sviridov was killed, allegedly by a group of eight men from the Caucasus, a region between the Black and Caspian Seas whose residents are stereotyped much like Italian-Americans once were in the United States: as dark-haired, swarthy, passionate southerners with a taste for organized crime. Their complexions are why Russians call them “black,” or, worse, “blackasses.” When the Soviet Union collapsed, many Caucasians—but also ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and others—began migrating to Moscow, increasingly the center of commerce and opportunity. The day after the killing, rumors began to circulate that other Caucasians had bribed officials to release the presumptive perpetrators from jail. Sviridov’s fellow soccer fans, enraged at the corrupt police and the alleged Caucasian killers, rioted and closed off one of Moscow’s biggest thoroughfares. The police arrested no one.

Then, on Saturday, seven thousand “real guys”—a combination of soccer hooligans, nationalists, and run-of-the-mill hoodlums—gathered, ostensibly to protest the murder of Sviridov. (Spartak, the team that Sviridov rooted for, announced its refusal to participate, whereas nationalist groups eagerly stepped in to help organize.) The mob screamed, “Russia for Russians!,” spray-painted swastikas and phrases like “Yids, get out of Russia!” and threw flares, bottles, and metal guardrails. Anyone on the streets who didn’t look Slavic got attacked. Then some of the thugs descended into the Metro, and, screaming “white car!” dragged Caucasians and Central Asians from the trains and beat them unconscious as policemen looked on helplessly. (Trains eventually started passing through the overtaken stations without opening their doors. Watch the horrifying footage.) One person was killed, and dozens were wounded.

Saturday’s pogrom was such a jaw-slackening display that the Russian President appeared on national TV and declare that “such actions threaten the stability of the state.” For the next few days, the number of hate crimes spiked, there was talk that migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia would stage a retaliatory riot Wednesday night on Kievskaya Square—right by my apartment, as it happens. Special forces and armored personnel carriers started gathering in the fifteen-degree cold on Tuesday.

On Wednesday evening, there were already three thousand special forces, Interior Ministry soldiers in green camouflage, and plainclothes officers. Generals in lamb-wool hats directed troops armed with helmets, clubs, and riot shields. Buses idled, waiting to transport would-be marauders. Kiosks and flower shops around the square shut down; most of their shopkeepers are “blacks.”

About a thousand Russian teenagers turned out to face off against a handful of Caucasian kids. Many of the Russians who gathered were girls decked out in their cutest pink pants and Uggs. If it weren’t for the special forces and the teens’ shouts of “Russia for Russians!” it could have been a Justin Bieber concert.

It was hard to take the protest seriously, especially when the kids shouting “Moscow for Muscovites!” turned out to be from outside the city. But this, the festive farce that followed Saturday’s tragedy, had unsettling moments. Like Saturday’s rioters, some of the Russian youths wore ski masks or surgical masks and, when asked, said they were here to “kill khachi,” or some other Russian equivalent of the N-word. One especially youthful-looking boy named Nikita (who said he was seventeen) said he was here to get the “blacks” because “they cut our guys and fuck our women.” A fourteen-year-old named Lesha, who also came to do his part in driving non-Russians from Russia, explained that he heard similar sentiments at home. “My dad supports me in everything,” he said.

The disturbances were not limited to Kievskaya; more than thirteen hundred people were detained in clashes around the city. Police also seized a nice stash of pistols, crowbars, hammers, and even an axe. Moscow went to bed with nary a word from its officials. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was silent, and President Dmitry Medvedev said on Twitter: “The police behaved professionally. They deserve a rest. And you should rest, too. Good night.”

As for why this happened, there is, as always, the shadow of the Soviet Union. The vast multi-ethnic empire both emphasized and glossed over ethnic differences, without much discussion. Surveys indicate that about half of Moscow’s population is sympathetic with the calls for “Moscow for Muscovites.” “Moscow’s never been very hospitable to newcomers,” says Alexandr Verkhovsky, who runs the Sova Center, which tracks xenophobia in Russia.

A million young Russian men have rotated through the Caucasus during their compulsory military service, either in the wars in Chechnya or in the current counterinsurgency. When they return home, they often enter law enforcement and are expected to protect people who look like the ones they had just fought. “These were not citizens of your country but your enemy on the battlefield,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Which may explain why much of Russia’s law enforcement sympathizes with the rioters. And, as Charles Clover of the Financial Times explained, Russia has the largest and most violent population of skinheads in Europe, and law enforcement, for fear of their strength, has taken to co-opting these extremists, protecting them, even giving them financial support.

Oleg Kashin, a journalist who covered youth movements for the Russian daily Kommersant, told me, “These nationalistic organizations are shot through with police and are well-controlled by the FSB,” the successor to the KGB. Kashin spoke from his hospital bed where he was recovering from a savage beating for which some have—implausibly—blamed soccer hooligans. “When something of this size is planned, the Interior Ministry knows in advance exactly when and where it will happen. There are enough rats in these organizations.”

They didn’t even need that: in the leadup to the recent violence, all the information they needed was widely available on the Internet. “The police reacted improperly on Saturday,” says Verkhovsky, the xenophobia expert. Had they blocked off the square where the riots took place, had they sent out enough people and rounded up instigators, the situation, Verkhovsky says, would have been like Wednesday night: a few sporadic fights and a lot of teenagers looking for a rush of adrenaline.

After a week of silence, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin finally addressed the issue this afternoon in a televised question-and-answer marathon with the Russian public. He said that Russia has always been a multi-ethnic state and this kind of violence was out of line. “We are all children of one motherland,” he said sternly. But he did quibble with those who blamed law enforcement. If they criticize the hard work of the police—whom a full sixty per cent of the Russian population don’t trust—he suggested that “liberals shave their little beards, put on helmets and get out into the square to fight the radicals.” In other words, if you don’t understand the seriousness of the task before us, keep your mouth shut.

Race Riots in Russia [TNY]

Putin and the King

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Last night, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin put in his second appearance on “Larry King Live,” via satellite link from Moscow. Going back and watching the first one, shot in the New York studio in September 2000, is a bit like beholding the youthfulness of an early episode of “Seinfeld” or “The Sopranos.” It had only been a few months—one summer—since Putin had been inaugurated as Russia’s second president, and few people knew who he was or what to expect from him. It seemed he didn’t, either. The presidency was not something he had wanted back then, and, like everything at Larry’s table, it showed. Putin was quiet, slim, hesitant. He had not mastered the politician’s art of eye contact; he looked down and sideways, like the skittish K.G.B. guy he was. “Are you enjoying it?” Larry King asked, speaking of his new role. Putin took a breath, raised his eyebrows and said, “Somewhat.”
More than ten years later, Putin is a different man (and the show is a different show; this would be King’s final softball interview with a world leader before ending his run this month). Power, it turned out, suits Putin. His face may be wider and his hairline that much closer to the horizon, but he relishes the camera’s attention. Gone are the clipped phrases (like the infamous “It sank,” his comment, on his first King appearance, on the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster, in which a hundred and eighteen people had been killed), gone is the floridly boring bureaucratese; gone is the shyness, the evasiveness, even the aggression of the middle years of his presidency. He has learned how to answer only his own questions while pretending that he is giving it to you—or Larry—straight.
This is the Putin Moscow has seen in public appearances lately. Now that he’s created a legend of stability, order, and a country brought to heel (legend because, in addition to pervasive corruption and criminality, the WikiLeaks cables observed that many of his edicts are lost in the bureaucratic wilderness), now that state TV trumpets his triumphs, he is a man who feels totally at ease in a medium he has mastered (in part by muzzling it). He banters and jokes, he fires off some viciously funny barbs. Speaking of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s assertion, in an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, that democracy in Russia had disappeared, Putin laughed and said: “I know Mr. Gates. I met him several times. I believe he’s a very nice person and he is not a bad expert, too.” Then he noted that Gates was once the head of the C.I.A. “Now, if he’s the best expert in democracy in the United States of America, then I congratulate you with that.” Putin seems to like being thought of as Batman.
That brings us to the man described, in the WikiLeaks cables, as Putin’s “Robin.” For the last two years, Russia’s putative president, and the man Obama has to deal with, has been Dmitry Medvedev, while Putin has been in the supposedly lesser role of prime minister. Medvedev, the young tech geek, has been trotted out as an investor-friendly dressing for Russia’s West-facing window. Everyone at home—and, as it turns out, in diplomatic circles—knows that Putin is the man in charge. When Larry King asked him if he would, as widely speculated, retake de jure control of the country in 2012, Putin gave a suitably non-committal answer. Sources in Moscow say that Putin has yet to decide himself, but by recording the Larry King interview on the same day that Medvedev gave a bland and ineffective state of the union to a sleepy room of graying bureaucrats, by addressing himself to “the American people,” and suggesting that they could expect a tougher, less reset-happy Russia, Putin seemed to signal something, not least to himself.
One of the diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks show a Putin who “resents or resists” his workload as prime minister. “Putin did not like coming to the Russian White House [where the prime minister’s office is located], where he was confronted with stacks of papers on issues of minuscule importance, on which he did not want to expend his energy,” the cable said. In a top-down system, this has created a bottleneck as people wait for a signal from above. But Putin, who often works from home, is not interested. He is, it seems, in early retirement, and bored. He gets all the actual work of running the country – a nasty by-product of paranoia and centralization – without the pomp and circumstance, and eagerly awaited appearances on foreign TV, of the presidency.
Perhaps to alleviate the boredom, Putin has been waging a P.R. campaign all summer. He piloted a waterbombing plane to put out raging forest fires, then installed Web cameras to monitor the rebuilding effort; he drove along a new stretch of highway in the Russian Far East in a Russian-made automobile (which promptly broke down) and in a Formula 1 car at a hundred and fifty miles per hour; he rode with a pack of Ukrainian bikers. “He has acquired a fine sense of what works,” his former chief of staff Alexander Voloshin told me. The Larry King appearance was another way for Putin to stay in the public eye, but on an international level.
And, despite a literal synchronous translation that sounded like a Google Translate filter superimposed on the Prime Minister’s mouth (“one gender marriages will not give you offsprings”), Putin spoke firmly and directly about NATO, Iran, and Afghanistan; Obama and Bush; his daughters’ privacy (“to put them through the public lighter is not what I think is right”); Russia’s controversial bid to host the World Cup in 2018 (which Russia just won); and, strangely, about Larry himself.
PUTIN: Can I ask you one question?
KING: Sure.
PUTIN: I don’t know why, but the king leaves the scene the U.S. stage.
KING: I sometimes don’t know why myself.
PUTIN: In the U.S. mass media there are many talented and interesting people, but still there is just one king there. I don’t ask why he is leaving, but still what do you think? When shall we have a right to cry out, “Long live the king”? When will there be another man who is as popular in the whole world as you happen to be?
KING: Thank you, thank you, I have no answer. Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia. Tomorrow night, the former heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson.
It was an awkward bit of projection, a strange way of saying that he, Putin, misses his throne.

Putin and the King [TNY]

The Future of Chatroulette

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

The first obituary for Chatroulette, a Web site that randomly pairs strangers for video chats, came in June, when Salon proclaimed, “you can’t build an empire on dicks.” Chatroulette’s combination of randomness, anonymity, and video was irresistible to men who were dying to shed their pants—and they were driving other people away. At one point, one in ten Chatroulette encounters was not safe for work. Andrey Ternovskiy, the site’s eighteen-year-old founder, was reported to be doing battle with this relentless horde of flashers; there was even talk of his having developed penis-detection algorithms to thwart them. Which is why, last week, Gawker used the headline “R.I.P. Chatroulette”: “The defections have been fairly steady since last winter, as you can see from the rough traffic statistics from Quantcast and Compete,” two Web analytics companies. Quantcast estimates that U.S. traffic to Chatroulette is only a quarter of what it was at the height of its faddish popularity.

Ternovskiy, who keeps a low profile online and in the press, insists that his site’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. “Gawker is like an annoying fly,” he told me on Tuesday evening, in the same Moscow café where we first met, on a similarly chilly, drizzly night in March, while I was reporting on Ternovskiy and Chatroulette for The New Yorker. He had spent several months in the United States—he was wearing the tech-geek uniform of T-shirt, jeans, and a waterproof fleece jacket—and was back in Russia temporarily to file his application for an O1 “special persons” visa. Sure, users left Chatroulette with the fading hype, but Ternovskiy says his site still has five hundred thousand daily users, according to Google Analytics, down from a high of two million—the same rate of decline as estimated by Quantcast. Still, he said, “How can you be dead when your revenue has doubled?”

The answer was lazy, simple, and ingenious—in other words, pure Ternovskiy. He started redirecting pantless visitors to an adult Web site owned by Penthouse*, and their computers would forever be blocked from Chatroulette. At first, Ternovskiy and his colleagues were banning a hundred thousand users a day, but now, he says, the flasher rate is down to one in two hundred—and the adult Web site pays for the referrals, giving Ternovskiy’s company, at least for the time being, a healthy revenue stream.

Ternovskiy’s crusade against lewd behavior on Chatroulette began in early September, shortly before he had to return to Moscow,. He had frittered away the summer, riding his bike around San Francisco, travelling to New York, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., and alienating everyone he knew in the technology business, including potential investors. “I threw them out right away,” he said. It’s not something he regrets, he says, since he did not expect Chatroulette would grow and was afraid he’d get squeezed out of his own company. In Silicon Valley, Ternovskiy said, “They look at any new thing and say, ‘This is the new Facebook!’ or, ‘This is the new Google!’ That, or, ‘It’s dead.’ ” His only regret is his tactics. “I told a lot of people exactly what I thought of them right to their face,” which Ternovskiy called a Russian trait. “I’ve definitely become more Americanized since then.”

Instead of improving Chatroulette, Ternovskiy tinkered with some new ideas—a site using crowdsourcing “so that lots of people all build one thing” and another one called Pagedice that uses similar principles as Chatroulette to randomly display the most popular pages on the Web. He got Kirill Gura, an eighteen-year-old Russian immigrant whom Ternovskiy had befriended online, to join him in Palo Alto. When Ternovskiy realized he had a lot to get done before returning to Moscow, they worked round the clock, sleeping in shifts in the one bed in Ternovskiy’s apartment. “I had to sleep a lot to keep Kirill motivated,” Ternovskiy says, barely able to suppress a laugh.

“I’m lazy,” he told me. “But I am not worried about my future. I know what it will look like. It will be disorganized, things won’t always work. I will always radically change my direction, which will give me momentum to do something until I get bored of it. I’ll never build the perfect company, like Apple. Whatever I build will be this half-broken thing, Russian-style.”

On September 6th, Ternovskiy took off for Moscow with only his iPad, his laptop, and some underwear in a backpack, leaving important passwords and financial data necessary for his visa application back in his California apartment. As a result his stay in Russia—and the visa process—have dragged on. “I’m in exile here,” he said as we walked out into the rainy night. “But if people insist that I live in America”—something that he says he wants to do, but that his parents sometimes push too hard for—“I’ll come back and live here just to spite them.”

Andrey Ternovskiy on the Future of Chatroulette [TNY]

Garage Mechanics

Monday, September 27th, 2010

On a windy, sun-soaked afternoon in June, Dasha Zhukova stood on the terrace of the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, an arts venue she founded in Moscow two years ago. Such are the demands on her time that it was the first opportunity she’d had to see the terrace. Wearing a diaphanous summer dress and teetering on high-heeled sandals, she surveyed the wicker couches and the white linen umbrellas flapping in the breeze. Zhukova shivered and folded her arms. Next to her stood Roxane Chatounovski, a stocky woman in her thirties with several large tattoos; she runs the Garage, and was eager to show her boss the work completed in her absence. “There’s a feeling that the sea is over there,” Chatounovski said, with a gesture that vaguely implied the breeze and the umbrellas. The comment hung unpromisingly in the air: Moscow is four hundred miles from the sea. But Zhukova seemed not to hear. She had just flown in from Art Basel, in Switzerland, an art fair that she doesn’t particularly like but, as a collector, attends religiously. Her time was limited.

In the Western press, Zhukova is best known as the girlfriend of Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil billionaire, who is the world’s fiftieth-richest man, according to Forbes, and has extremely close ties to the Kremlin leadership. But in Russia Zhukova, who is twenty-nine, has cultivated a role of her own. She founded the Garage as a kind of Russian Kunsthalle, a space that hosts temporary exhibits rather than having a permanent collection of its own. The Garage has introduced important contemporary art— by artists like Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Takashi Murakami—to a Russian audience that still associates the term “contemporary” with Picasso. It quickly became clear that Zhukova had hit on something bigger than even she ex- pected. Last fall, during the Moscow Bi- ennale, the Garage brought in a hundred thousand visitors in a month.

“So what’s going on with the event?” she asked, taking a seat at one of the heavy wooden tables on the terrace. Delicately tanned, big-eyed, and full-lipped, Zhukova usually wears an entirely neutral ex- pression reminiscent of an empty tide pool. She says little, letting her lieutenant, a Russian woman named Marina Barber, explain her intentions. When she does speak, it is often in a volley of questions which can seem at odds with her general passivity. She began to grill Chatounovski on arrangements for the private opening, that evening, of three new exhibits. There was a show by AES+F, an important quartet of established Russian artists; a version of a Los Angeles performance piece by Francesco Vezzoli, in which Lady Gaga played a Damien Hirst piano; and a retrospective, imported from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, of semi- nal performance art. There was also a Mark Rothko exhibit, which had opened in the spring—the first time that Rothko had been shown in Moscow.

“How many are confirmed?” Zhukova asked.

Four hundred, all with a plus-one.

“Food?” Perplexed, Chatounovski reminded Zhukova that she had said no food for the event’s after-party, and Barber as- sured her that a formal meal at the opening would be out of place.

Zhukova interrupted. There were too many other things she wanted to know about. She wanted to see the press list, to check on the photographer, to examine the P.R. bill. Then there were the shows themselves, which she had not yet seen. Were they even ready? Chatounovski said they were, but, when she began to describe her impressions, Zhukova cut her off.

“Did we have time to buy beanbags?” she said. In Zhukova’s conception, beanbag chairs would enable visitors to lounge in front of the AES+F exhibit.

“We’re buying them, we’re buying them,” Chatounovski said, but it quicklybecame clear that there was a problem.

“There aren’t any,” Barber said quietly.

“What do you mean, there aren’t any?” Zhukova asked. Chatounovski and Barber steeled themselves for what they knew would follow. They tried to suggest benches, but Zhukova was adamant: “The main thing is that it’s soft.” She had another idea.

“What about the IKEA here in Moscow?” she asked.

Barber said that they were already looking in three IKEAs.

“And in the store there’s not a single beanbag?”


Zhukova is the quintessential creature of a new cultural moment. Russian oligarchs are notorious for the manner in which they have spent—and, for that matter, acquired—their fortunes, but, as the country’s economy has matured, the big spenders have, too. Serious philanthropy and arts patronage are on the rise, and it is often women who preside over the building of family legacies. Zhukova’s perspective is naturally international, and she combines energetic socializing with worthy cultural aspirations. Even her look epitomizes a shift in which mere consumption is becoming something subtler and more coded. She is glamorous but discreetly so, a world away from the stereotype of the fur-draped Russian wife— equal parts Donatella Versace and Madame de Pompadour—that circulated in the nineties. Some of these women have approached arts patronage in a perfunctory way, organizing fund-raisers and tossing money around at auctions. But a few, like Zhukova, are transforming the profile of Russia in the art world while also giving Russians new access to the latest currents of the avant-garde. Sometimes this lofty task means thinking of banalities like beanbags and canapés. When I spoke to Zhukova on the terrace, her manicured fingers discovered a forgotten price tag under a placemat. She tore it off and immediately began checking the rest. Her face, hidden behind dinner-plate-size sunglasses streaked with gold, barely rippled.

The Garage is, in fact, a garage. Or, to be precise, it is a former bus depot designed by the Constructivist architects Konstantin Melnikov and Vladimir Shukhov, in 1926. The building, with a distinctive red brick façade, has become an architectural landmark that, through a series of ownership transfers, ended up in the hands of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which wanted to make it into a “tolerance museum.” But there was a fire in 2001, and the depot was gutted and sat vacant until Zhukova discovered it, in 2007.

“It was just this beautiful big building, and they said, ‘We really want to do something cultural here,’” Zhukova explained, as we sat on the terrace. “And I said, ‘Great, well, I have some ideas— give it to me, and I’ll do something cultural.’ ” It may have helped that Abramovich was the chairman of the federation’s board and a major donor. (Zhukova’s mother is Jewish, and her father is “very Christian”; Zhukova, who says she’s “studied a lot of Biblical subjects,” now identifies herself as Jewish.)

Zhukova threw herself into renovating the space. It was difficult and expensive to restore. “The size, the wiring that was here, or the lack thereof. There was nothing—electricity, water, even the basics,” Zhukova said, sipping what she called her “fake coffee,” an herbal energy concoction recommended by her nutri- tionist, which her driver had just fetched from her car. “I think in the span of a year we learned more about consistency of floors, ventilation—I mean, things that I never thought I’d have to learn.”

A year and nearly fifteen million dollars later—in June, 2008—the Garage opened its doors, for a dinner for mem- bers of Zhukova’s set: a beau monde extending from European aristocracy to Jeff Koons. Amy Winehouse entertained the crowd, for a fee of reportedly well over a million dollars. (Zhukova says that the figure was substantially lower.) That September, the Garage opened to the public, with a show by Ilya Kabakov. Known as the godfather of Russian contemporary art, Kabakov had spent the previous twenty years in exile in the United States, and the opening of the Garage was his exuberant homecoming.

Since then, Zhukova has overseen a burgeoning education program, with free lectures, children’s workshops, film screenings, and master classes. She is particularly eager not just to import high-profile shows but also to foster the emergence of a homegrown Moscow art scene. Thus a recent exhibit—“Futurology/Russian Utopias,” which ran simultaneously with the Rothko—encouraged local artists to explore the strong utopian strands in Russian culture. “I guess it’s the mission for the Garage,” Zhukova told me. “It’s to integrate Russian contemporary culture with the international. I definitely see the Garage as an institution that can implement social change in the country. I think we can’t just be bringing things in.”

Zhukova balances her work at the Garage with a number of roles that are, at least potentially, highly demanding. She founded a fashion label and has been appointed editor-in-chief of the edgy, eccentric British fashion magazine Pop. (The magazine’s most recent issue has Britney Spears on its cover, designed in lurid Technicolor by Murakami.) She spends most of her time in London, where she lives with Abramovich and their nine-month-old son. Periodically, she flies to Los Angeles, where she grew up, and Moscow, where she was born and spent her childhood. Because she is so rarely in one place for long, she tends to bookend projects. When choosing art for the Garage, for example, she spots something she likes and then seeks advice from a circle of art-world acquaintances, most notably the American dealer Larry Gagosian, who first nurtured her interest in art. (One of his former curators now works for her.) Zhukova’s connections and wealth enable her to obtain art works that are rarely loaned—like the fragile Rothkos, and works from the collection of the French billionaire François Pinault. She is also able to get them into Russia, past a notoriously unpredictable bureaucracy. Once the art makes it through customs, the Garage’s staff takes charge of installation.

At the final stage, Zhukova moves in and gives the whole project what one might think of as the Dasha aesthetic, generally achieved by a relentless focus on particulars. After surveying the terrace, Zhukova set out to see what her exhibits actually looked like. Surrounded by a cloud of whirring cameras that she made a point of graciously ignoring, she walked through the galleries with Klaus Biesenbach, a MOMA curator who had brought the performance-art show to Moscow. Biesenbach, a German in his forties with close-cropped white hair, talked excitedly, his accented English rising in a series of interrogative loops. He led Zhukova into a darkened rectangular room. Its walls were filled with texts stapled under photographs and with screens showing videos of performance pieces, such as the scratched midriff of a woman slowly spinning a hula hoop made of barbed wire. Biesenbach explained the significance of each piece to Zhukova, taking care to distinguish the merely “brilliant” from the “masterpiece.”

He led Zhukova to a small video screen showing an off-white glob with people wriggling around in it like apple worms. “This is something that I am going to do at MOMA in winter,” he said. But there was a problem: the piece had an audio component, and the speaker wasn’t working. Zhukova, monosyllabically appreciative up to now, saw the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. “But there’s no way to turn it up right now?” she said. Biesenbach went on to explain the significance of the work, which drew its inspiration from the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich.
“It’s a Caspar David Friedrich iceberg made out of chalk?” he said, scanning Zhukova’s face for comprehension. “And there are nine little caves? And inside these caves there are trained opera singers, and the trained opera singers sing? The melodies of arias, but they sing political speeches.”

“Right,” Zhukova said. “Well, let’s see what we can do about the speaker.”

After the tour of the MOMA exhibit, Zhukova led Biesenbach around the AES+F one. He praised the show and discussed its installation. Zhukova wanted his opinion on something else.

“We got some beanbags,” she said. “Or do you think that’s too casual?”

Daria Zhukova was born in Moscow in 1981, into a well-connected family of scientists, writers, and linguists. “It was the usual, normal Moscow intelligentsia,” her mother, Elena, a molecular biologist, said. Elena met Dasha’s father, Alexander, when the two were students in Moscow. They married, had Dasha, and divorced three years later. In the late nineteen-eighties, after Mikhail Gorbachev relaxed the strictures on private enterprise, Alexander formed an energy trading company, which became one of the industry’s most important. Dasha, meanwhile, had an unremarkable Soviet childhood until 1991, when Elena Zhukova left the country to do research in Houston, taking her ten-year-old daughter with her. Two months later, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Elena decided to stay in the United States.

Alexander’s growing wealth back in Russia helped ease the stresses of immigration. In Texas, Dasha was sent to private school, and her English became so good that she nearly forgot her Russian. She skied, played tennis, acted. Later, she moved with her mother to Los Angeles, eventually enrolling at U.C. Santa Barbara, where she majored in Russian literature. Katia McClain, one of her professors, remembers her as a thoughtful student. “Most significant, she was unassuming,” McClain said. “She gave no indication that she came from a very wealthy family.” Zhukova also took premed classes—she wanted to be a pediatrician—but struggled with organic chemistry.

By the time Zhukova graduated, in 2003, she had lost interest in medical school and began to develop an interest in alternative medicine. Elena remembers this as a not especially happy period. “She searched to find herself for a long time,” she recalls. “It was a tumultuous process, and she found her way by trial and error.” By way of salvation, her father invited her to move to London, where he was living. Alexander Zhukov was by then a very wealthy man—with a villa in Sardinia, a jet, and a portfolio of London property. Though most of his money comes from Russian oil, his career has been varied. In 2001, he spent six months in an Italian jail, on suspicion of supplying arms to Serbian forces during the civil war; no charges were filed and he was released.

Zhukova enrolled in London’s College of Naturopathic Medicine, and moved into a penthouse next door to her father’s, in a gated community in Kensington, which had emerged as a glittering enclave of Russian wealth. Zhukova’s life, previously merely privileged, became truly glamorous. She partied with members of the Royal Family and the children of other tycoons. She and a childhood friend back in Los Angeles, Christina Tang, launched a clothing line, calling it Kova & T, for their last names. “The idea came about, honestly, because we wanted a clean pair of jeans at a time when all the jeans were being bedazzled,” Zhukova told me. “You know, why can’t anyone just make them without all the stuff on it?” She shuttled between London and Los Angeles, learning about fabric and distribution and sales. The brand did well—attracting notice for Catwoman-style leggings, which enjoyed a vogue among young Holly- wood celebrities—though Zhukova is no longer directly involved in designing for it.

Zhukova’s life might easily have continued in this vein, but in 2005, after breaking up with her longtime boyfriend, the tennis star Marat Safin, she met Roman Abramovich, on a trip to Russia. At the time, Abramovich was the richest man in Russia. He had got his start while in the Soviet Army, in the mid-eighties, reportedly selling stolen fuel at a markup to officers, before graduating to sell perfume, deodorant, and tights on the black market. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he moved into the newly privatized oil industry, buying at cheap domestic prices and selling abroad. In 1995, in partnership with the oligarch Boris Berezovsky, he began his acquisition of an oil company called Sibneft. The deal was typical of the era: the company had been created by a Kremlin order and handed over to the duo for a farcically low price. At Sibneft, Abramovich ran the business while Berezovsky tirelessly curried favor with President Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle. When Yeltsin positioned Vladimir Putin to be his successor, in 1999, he did so at Berezovsky’s suggestion, but Putin quickly proved determined to curtail the political power of the oligarchs and made an example of his erstwhile supporter. Berezovsky was forced into exile, in London, and had to sell his share of Sibneft to Abramovich. At the age of thirty-five, Abramovich gained control of one of the biggest oil companies in the world.

Abramovich sold the company, for thirteen billion dollars, in 2005, not long before meeting Zhukova. He was married then, to his second wife, Irina, a former flight attendant whom he had wed in 1991. (The couple had five children.) Soon after meeting Abramovich, Zhukova flew to Barcelona to watch a soccer match with him. Afterward, she was reportedly seen being hustled into a car by his bodyguards and taken to a hotel. The relationship developed behind a wall of spokesmen’s denials—she was “a family friend,” they said—as Zhukova, fourteen years younger than Abramovich, popped up with him in cities across the world and sat in his box at soccer games. (Abramovich, a soccer fanatic, purchased Chelsea Football Club in 2003, for two hundred and fifty million dollars.) By October, 2006, Irina was reported to have hired divorce lawyers known in London as Jaws and Mr. Payout. Abramovich’s representatives tried to keep the story a secret, which made the British tabloids all the more determined to play it up. For a while, it seemed that Irina might receive five billion dollars, the biggest settlement in history, but she settled, in a Russian court, for around three hundred million.

Since the relationship’s inauspicious beginnings, the pair has kept a low profile. Abramovich, notoriously press-shy, has found a good partner in Zhukova. She will not discuss how they met, or even whether they are married. In public, the couple barely interact, floating past each other without words or eye contact. Her press corps rivals his in obstructiveness and obfuscation. She gives few interviews, and, when she does, her answers are studies in evasion. When I asked her about her recent art acquisitions—since becoming involved with Zhukova, Abramovich is said to have spent record amounts on paintings by Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon—her airy Southern California drawl turned to lead. “I don’t really talk about the collecting,” she said, and then, as if by way of explanation, added, “It’s something that’s quite personal and doesn’t involve just me.” It’s tempting to suppose that such vagueness betrays a neophyte’s lack of confidence, and a wariness about being portrayed as a rich dilettante. But Zhukova’s almost virtuosic uncommunicativeness seems to apply to all areas of her life, and her infinite unquotability has earned her a kind of fame among journalists. At a fashion show, a reporter for Women ’s Wear Daily asked her what she thought of the clothes. Zhukova responded, “I liked them, but that’s off the record.”

“If you want to understand the oligarchs, you really need to think in terms of Napoleonic France,” Irina Prokhorova said, as she sat in a large, sunny office overlooking one of Moscow’s tree-lined boulevards. Prokhorova, a publisher and an academic with a strong grounding in cultural history, is the elder sister of Mikhail Prokhorov, who made a fortune in nickel mining and is now, according to Forbes, Russia’s second-richest man. (Outside Russia, Prokhorov is best known for his recent purchase of the New Jersey Nets.) Irina runs a philanthropic foundation that she started with her brother.

The thing about Napoleon’s reign, Prokhorova explained, was the social vacuum: the blood aristocracy was gone, leaving the country without a natural élite. The epoch’s extravagance was the expression of the desire of a new self-made class to define itself. “These were talented people who rose because of the Revolution, who didn’t have any birthright, nothing. And in this way this glamour, this opulent beauty, this interest in style, was absolutely a product of the Revolution,” Prokhorova said. “The glamour of the Russian nineteen-nineties was the same thing.” In post-Soviet Russia, when the entire economy was transferred from the state to private hands, unimaginable wealth could be made with almost surreal speed. But, after seven decades of poverty and Communism, there was no template for how to spend it. “A lot of talented people from different circumstances rose to prominence, and the only way they could present and legitimatize themselves was to find their own style,” she said. From this came all the clichés of Russian wealth: the baroque excess and theatrical pursuit of luxury.

David Hoffman, who was a reporter in Moscow at the time and later consolidated his impressions in a book, “The Oligarchs,” suggests that the model was not Napoleonic but American. “They came from nothing,” he told me. “They learned their behavior from reading Theodore Dreiser’s ‘The Financier.’ They learned how rich men behave by emulating Western experiences.” The American example may be the key to understanding what happened next: slowly, Russians started to emulate Carnegie and the Rockefellers, who made their money in dirty, unglamorous ways and, in later decades, put it into cultural, scientific, and educational causes. In Russia, as usual, this process has been telescoped. Here, the generation giving back is the generation that first made the money.

Philanthropy in modern Russia started informally, with oligarchs handing out money in their blighted industrial bases. A decade later, the approach has become more systematic, although most oligarchs’ foundations are not endowed, and are instead funded year to year or project to project. But there are a few prominent exceptions. The Prokhorov foundation tries to bring culture to dilapidated industrial towns across Russia. Vladimir Potanin, once Prokhorov’s partner, has become the first Russian oligarch to announce that he is leaving his billions not to his children but to charity. Abramovich, too, has put much of his money into philanthropy; when, in 1999, he was elected governor of the desolate and impoverished Chukotka region, in the Arctic northeast, he began pouring nearly two billion dollars into the region’s infrastructure and economy. He even hired mountain climbers to scale the walls of the gray buildings and paint them in bright, colored patterns that would set them apart from the eternal gray of the landscape.

By the middle of the past decade, oligarchs had also emerged on the world art scene, collecting at record prices. Inevitably, collecting and curating art has also become a fashionable way of obtaining cultural legitimacy. “When Dasha came on the scene, we just thought, Here’s another socialite who decided to do art,” Marat Guelman, a Russian gallerist, told me. “But, when Roman started buying art, people started believing in her, because he is a systematic person. When he starts something, he carries through. She, too, has shown a tremendous focus.” According to Prokhorova, the huge public response to Zhukova’s Garage is not a surprise: innovations in the arts have been severely underfunded for the past two decades—“Everything is needed everywhere”—so that even small investments can have a dramatic impact.

A few days after meeting Zhukova, I visited the art collector Maria Baibakova. She was showing a group of trustees from Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art around her family’s extensive collection, housed in her father’s home in Rublevka, Moscow’s version of Beverly Hills. The daughter of Oleg Baybakov, who serves as Mikhail Prokhorov’s lieutenant and has branched into real estate and development, Masha, as she is known, is in many ways Dasha Zhukova’s direct counterpart. Born in Moscow in 1985, she moved with her mother to America, while her father made his fortune back in Russia. But, unlike Zhukova, she has cultivated expertise in contemporary art. She graduated summa cum laude from Barnard, with a degree in art history, before doing a master’s, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, in London. She spent her college years in New York interning at Sotheby’s and at galleries in Chelsea.

If anyone is to become Russia’s Peggy Guggenheim, it is Baibakova. In 2008, when Zhukova opened the Garage, Baibakova launched a nonprofit gallery, in the old Red October Chocolate Factory, in the center of Moscow. Unlike the Garage, which seeks to introduce a Russian audience to blue-chip contemporary art, Baibakova’s project is more narrowly focussed on emerging artists. Her target audience already knows Damien Hirst and so is ready for Cyprien Gaillard and Thomas Hirschhorn. As one observer of the Russian art scene put it, “Masha can bring in Sterling Ruby because they’ve already seen Koons at the Garage.”

Baibakova’s focus is less mainstream than Zhukova’s Garage, and doesn’t have its rarefied hipness, just as her personality lacks Zhukova’s impenetrable, flattering-mirror sheen. Baibakova is loud, confident, warm. She Tweets. She speaks quickly but eloquently; she is blunt, and does something Zhukova never does in public—complain about Russia. “Here, I am constantly reinventing the wheel,” she groaned over a bottle of Coke, in a basement café near a new exhibition space where she had to move her gallery after Red October raised the rent. (That space has since closed as well.) She began to tell me about her various difficulties—visits from corrupt fire inspectors, the broken mail system, the country’s ingrained sexism, and logjams with bogus bureaucracy. “I had to solve this with vodka because I don’t have the budget or the money for bribes!”

Baibakova’s management style, too, is the opposite of Zhukova’s. Unlike Zhukova, who employs a small army of gallerists and curators, Baibakova works with only a skeleton crew, doing much of the work herself. Partly this is because she doesn’t have Zhukova’s resources: Baibakova’s father is wealthy, but he is not an Abramovich, either in riches or in stature. But Baibakova, who is twenty-five, has still managed to become a serious force on the international art scene. The Guggenheim has hinted that it wants her on its board, and the magazine ARTnews recently included her and her father on a list of the world’s most active and influential art collectors. The only other Russian on the list was Abramovich.

As the well-heeled MOCA trustees milled around the family’s back yard, admiring the food (cooked by Masha’s grandmother) and the art, conversation turned to a comparison of Masha and Dasha. Masha they loved. She knew her art and spoke their open, American language. But they had doubts about Dasha. One curator, asked if she was seen as a serious connoisseur or as a big spender, said, “She’s seen as the wife of a big spender. Artists trust people who trust their instincts, not someone who calls Larry”— Gagosian—“to ask them if it’s right or not. Masha, on the other hand, knows what she’s doing.” Surprisingly, despite Zhukova’s help in organizing a benefit gala for MOCA that raised more than four million dollars for the museum, another member of the delegation asked what she “brought to the table.” Money? “Nope,” he said. “Not even.”

Few people are so dismissive, however. In running the Garage, Zhukova has shown considerable acumen. “Instead of steering it herself, she hires professionals,” Marat Guelman said. Zhukova, recognizing her lack of time and expertise, finds talent and gives the people she picks considerable autonomy. In this, she closely resembles Abramovich. Alexander Voloshin, who was Putin’s first chief of staff, told me, “Abramovich understands people well. He’s not a super-manager. He has one big asset, which is that he is a good judge of character, and he picked people who are capable of managing.”

Even Zhukova’s baffling blankness— her absolute reserve and her apparent fear of saying anything remotely opinionated—usually works in her favor. An older generation of curators and artists, who could easily feel threatened by a rich and influential young woman, unanimously praise her good manners, her modesty, her tact. Others suspect that the impassive exterior masks the will of one who knows how to manipulate people in order to get what she wants, the sort of woman for whom billionaires leave their wives and families. “Dasha is one of the hardest people to read that I’ve ever met,” the art-world observer told me. “It’s not because she’s not smart or passionate about what she’s doing. She’s just the ideal model. She hides her emotions, her passions, though you know it’s there because you see the projects she puts together.” Ultimately, perhaps, Zhukova doesn’t speak much because she understands that her money and connections speak for themselves.

The night of the Garage opening, hundreds of guests wandered through the exhibits. They lounged on the gray velvet couches in the café, and spilled onto the crowded terrace. The beanbags had not arrived, a setback that Zhukova bore with resignation. She had put on a navy wool blazer and a pleated pink miniskirt. There were streaks of blush on her cheeks. She seemed worn down but talked gamely with her guests. She listened to the wife of a flamboyant Russian designer chatter about their daughter’s schooling abroad. She hugged one of the Old Guard curators who had helped her organize the inaugural Garage exhibit. Periodically, she collapsed onto the gray couches, looking like a sullen child, and searched her purse for a pack of cigarettes. (Abramovich dis- approves of the habit, and Zhukova denies that she smokes.) She was tired of having a reporter follow her around all day. “Do you always have to have that tape recorder out?” she asked. She developed a makeshift way of going off the record, covering her mouth and whispering to her friends. Masha Baibakova arrived and bouncily congratulated her on the opening. Zhukova said something cool and polite but didn’t get up.

On the terrace, under the umbrellas, artists wearing big necklaces and strange eyeglasses mingled with bored-looking, stick-thin women. Inside, others filed past the AES+F exhibit. Titled “The Feast of Trimalchio,” it was a display of photographs and animations inspired by Petronius’ “Satyricon,” in which Trimalchio, a self-made man, hosts an obscenely lavish dinner party. As he becomes increasingly drunk, he tells his guests—the nouveaux riches of Nero’s Rome—about a grandiose tomb he has planned for himself and then gets to act out his funeral. The AES+F prints were a burlesque of fashion photography, crowded with absurdly dressed models twisted into exaggerated poses of domination and servitude. The notes accompanying the exhibit claimed that it would “envelop visitors in a temporary hotel paradise, where they can enjoy the excesses of wealth, luxury and gluttony.” In a context in which so many of the guests inhabit “a temporary hotel paradise” as a matter of course, the exhibit took on an eeriness that may not have been entirely unintentional.

On the terrace, the canapés had run out, and people stood tightly packed, swirling their drinks and nibbling on bread sticks that grew out of vases like post-apocalyptic cacti. Waiters jostled through the crowd and converged on a particular table, putting down place settings, bottles of wine, and plates of food. People stared at the table. Eventually, surrounded by a gaggle of friends, Abramovich strode onto the terrace, dressed in jeans and a navy blazer with an open-collared white shirt. He looked around. The table was ready. He sat down, and his friends did, too, oblivious of the casual, democratic ethos of the evening. As the crowd looked on, they laughed, and poured wine for one an- other, forked cheese and cured meats onto one another’s plates.

At one point in the evening, I came across Abramovich as he wandered into the room with the MOMA exhibit. He walked slowly around, chewing on gum and staring blankly at the works. When I approached him and mentioned that I was writing about Zhukova, she leaped up from a nearby sofa and sprinted over on six-inch Louboutin heels. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” she said to Abramovich, in Russian, and, grabbing him by the arm, led him quickly across the room and out the door.

Garage Mechanics [TNY]

Russia’s Nationalist Summer Camp

Monday, August 16th, 2010


Shortly after 7 A.M. on a recent summer morning, the Russian national anthem wafted through the crisp air above Seliger, a system of lakes two hundred miles north of Moscow. Two swelling bars in, a light rain began to fall. Tents, clustered like mushrooms under the conifers, stirred, and dazed campers, three and a half thousand of them, crawled out of their sleeping bags. By the time they reached the gray plastic outdoor sinks to brush their teeth, the public-address system had moved on from the national hymn and through songs from Soviet cartoons to end at Bananarama’s version of “Venus.”

Seliger is a strange place, built on the model of Soviet summer camps like Artek, which were both rewards for party loyalty and sites of Communist indoctrination. It is run by Nashi, an organization created in 2005, after pro-Western “color revolutions” swept former Soviet republics and terrified the Kremlin, to provide political “training” for Russian youth. The camp, like other Nashi projects, is funded by the state, and Russian businesses cover the rest. (Nashi’s founder, Vasily Yakemenko, once stated bluntly that, with the Kremlin at its back, demanding corporate sponsorship was easy.)
Which is why sponsors’ banners littered the trees, including one from Russian Technologies, the state weapons exporter, saluting the campers with this lyrical neo-Soviet greeting:


But the most visible sponsor this year was the nickel magnate, playboy, and New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who reportedly contributed $1.5 million to underwrite the camp. Prokhorov visited Seliger for a couple days and even slept in a tent as his bodyguards roved around the camp. He gave a nearly three-hour talk, fielding questions like “How do you start a business?” and “Do you like blondes or brunettes?”

Corporate sponsorship was why, in addition to the banners, the trees were festooned with plasma screens showing Russian music videos. It is also why there is brand new gym equipment on the beach, and why the morning announcements, which begin promptly at 9 A.M., come from a fully equipped concert stage bracketed by giant portraits of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has a summer home nearby.


Harder to explain was why, on this particular morning, a troupe of breakdancers led the aerobics session to the tune of James Brown’s “Get Up,” making the campers resemble those Filipino inmates made to reprise the choreography from “Thriller.”

Strangest of all, organizers welcomed nine hundred foreign students to this year’s Innovation Forum, a ten-day session meant to invoke the Kremlin’s newest five-year plan. It was an odd graft onto a summer camp usually devoted to rabid Kremlin propaganda, complete with “breeding tents” for producing Slavic babies and, in 2007, a “Red Light District,” where organizers Photoshopped the heads of opposition leaders onto the bodies of centerfolds. Despite their difficulties obtaining Russian visas, this international youth contingent, which allegedly included three Americans (who were nowhere to seen), seemed to signal that this summer would be different, that it would be in keeping with the Kremlin’s new foreign policy of moderation, coöperation, modernization. Politics were largely absent. The Nashi commissars—hard-nosed political leaders of the movement—had set up camp on the edge of the lake, and kept their presence, and their flags, to a minimum. Even the Georgian flag was flying, despite tensions with Russia, although no one had seen any of the Georgians.

If it weren’t for the odd, utopian quotes from Medvedev and Putin…


…or for titles in the camp library (“Dmitry Medvedev’s War and Peace”; “Stalin—Victor”); or for the lecture by a Moscow professor who fretted over the decline of “Russianness” around the world and about how much uglier women in New York were, compared to his Russian travelling companions; or for the rehearsal, complete with a helicopter landing, for the visit from President Medvedev (who, when he did arrive, danced in the rain with the kids, like the tech geek that he is), Seliger seemed no different from any other summer camp.

There was the requisite inappropriate sexual activity, cool kids and uncool kids, the boys (in this case, Chechens) who kept to themselves. There was even a ridiculous fashion trend—butt pads, Styrofoam squares that strap onto one’s rear end to make sitting an option any time, anywhere—and other youthful hijinks. Dima, twenty, and Oleg, twenty-four, who studied math and physics in Moscow, decided to take the innovation part of Seliger at face value. “What is innovation?” Oleg asked rhetorically. “Innovation is improving life at Seliger!” To cook, he explained, campers had to use heavy black kettles suspended from wires strung between the tree trunks.


His solution, however, “is compact, it doesn’t burn or degrade in the heat, and it is disposable,” Oleg explained before placing a tied-off, water-filled condom directly into the campfire.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “we ran out of banana-flavored condoms, so today’s porridge will be plain.”
Once the foreigners went home, however, it was as if their ten-day visit, full of global cheer and moderation, had never happened. Or, worse, had been a front. Posters went up with “LIAR” painted in red letters across the faces of Kremlin critics. A picture of Lyudmila Alexeeva, the eighty-three-year-old human rights activist and head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, showed her wearing a a Wehrmacht cap. A “Fifth Column” prize was announced, for “liars, falsifiers, and those who blacken our homeland’s reputation.” For the first time, Seliger had become a model not of brainwashing but of compartmentalization. Which is a fitting reflection of today’s Russian state, reaching out to the world with one hand and, with the other, appeasing those who seek protection under a shell of intolerance and paranoia. It’s a good thing, however, that the international campers went home before the propaganda offensive began, because those two thoughts cannot ultimately coexist in one young brain—or in a government.

Russia’s Nationalist Summer Camp [TNY]

Russia on Fire

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

The smoke is gone for now, but the peat bogs are still boiling, and the forests are burning. As of Thursday morning, 484,000 acres of forest were burning, 17,000 more than the day before. Fifty people have reportedly died in the fires—this on top of the unknown number of deaths from temperatures higher than anything ever recorded in Western Russia. More than two thousand homes have been destroyed. All around the capital, twelve thousand peat bogs are slowly simmering, sending toxic clouds of carbon-rich smoke into the city. Alexander Chuchalin, the chief pulmonologist of Russia (who knew they had such a thing?), said that the air in the capital has gotten so bad that it was like all Muscovites had become chain smokers overnight. Current levels of carbon monoxide, he said, “damage an average of 20 percent of red blood cells in a human body, which equals to the effect of two packs of cigarettes smoked within three or four hours,” he told a news conference.

Dr. Chuchalin made this statement last Wednesday, a day that smelled vaguely of barbecue. This week, just after midnight Tuesday, the mesquite smell returned. By 4 A.M., Moscow was enveloped in a heavy fog, one that didn’t lift. By Wednesday afternoon, visibility had dropped to a hundred yards. The smoke had penetrated the city’s deepest Metro stations, which had been used as bomb shelters during the Second World War. A fine grit coated parked cars. Chests rasped, eyes watered. But Muscovites who ventured out into the thick pewter cloud soldiered on without masks. “No, we are Russians,” a nurse told my friend Miriam Elder, reporting for GlobalPost. “We believe in luck.”

Elder travelled to one of the worst-hit areas, eighty-some miles southeast of Moscow, near Ryazan. “With three colleagues, I left Moscow at 7 a.m. and got to the hospital in Moscow at 7 p.m. Twelve hours and not one moving fire truck, army truck, official emergencies ministry vehicle.” (Elder could have used help herself; she sank into a boiling sandpit, getting second-degree burns on the soles of her feet.)

This scene is playing out all over the Russian countryside, which, as always, is suffering far more than Moscow. Villagers received no fire warnings. When the fires started approaching, some had trouble reaching the local authorities. Others begged for buses to help evacuate their villages, were told to fend for themselves. Fire trucks didn’t come, either, and then their homes, made of wood, were gone in minutes. The forestry minister, meanwhile, is on his August vacation, and has no plans to cut it short.

The government’s response has been a disaster, and the people are blaming their local officials—but not the very top. When a mob of irate women descended on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they weren’t mad at him; they were demanding that he, as one woman put it, “string [local officials] up by the balls.”

A strong argument could be made for calling this disaster Putin’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, then-President Putin, in consultation with the Russian timber industry, “reformed” forestry regulations, eliminating positions for rangers, making each of the remaining ones responsible for more territory, increasing paperwork so they spent hardly any time outdoors monitoring the forests—and, on the off chance that they did spot a small fire while on patrol, making it a punishable offense (a misuse of state funds) to put it out. The organization charged with extinguishing fires was the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which responded speedily and capably to the Moscow Metro bombings in March, but a 2005 reform instituted by Putin left regional emergency outfits severely underfunded.

Except for the minority who read news in papers or online, Russians would never know that shoddy, nonsensical, industry-friendly deregulation was responsible for this natural disaster as much as the weather. Instead, the vast majority get their news from television, which has been broadcasting pictures of Putin, sleeves rolled up, touring the destruction. In a particularly fine touch, the main Russian television channel broadcast a “phone call” from Putin, ostensibly on his cell phone in the middle of a pristine birch grove, to President Dmitry Medvedev, back in his ornate Kremlin office. The message was clear: Putin was in charge, and this reassured the people who had lost homes to the fires he helped cause. “Putin said they’ll build us all new houses, so it will probably happen,” one villager told the Independent.

Putin, of course, is invoking the old archetype of the Tsar-Batyushka: the benevolent King and Father, who can magically help his subjects. It is the same role Putin plays once a year on a carefully scripted call-in television show, when supplicants call in and ask for apartments or better pensions. It is also a moment in which the Janus-faced tsar’s cruelty and greed, his indifference to his subjects, are forgotten, mostly because there is no other option. There were no other emergency valves en route to this fiery disaster—no forest rangers, fire trucks, and, of course, no insurance—and a tidy, if tiny, cash payout from Putin ex machina must still come with a huge surge of relief, gratitude, and, worse, fealty.

When the debate about places like Russia touches on democracy and the free press, one side of the conversation tends to stress a culture’s own rules: Who are we to tell them how to live? That is a fair point, and maybe democracy is not the answer here. But the unaccountable, reckless, and deeply rooted political system in Russia today—a system that can trace itself back past the days of the tsars, to the tatars, to the Mongols—is not a good one, especially not for subjects who console themselves with conspiracy theories, or the hope of a benevolent whim, or, as the nurse said, luck.

In the meantime, the fires continue to burn and, as I write this, the smell of burning wood drifts slowly back into the city.

Russia on Fire [The New Yorker]