Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

The Bizarre End to Vladimir Putin’s Bizarre Marriage

Thursday, June 6th, 2013

This is how it happens: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila go out for a quiet evening at the ballet and, in an interview with a camera crew in a hallway with fake plants, announce that they have gotten a divorce, a month shy of their thirtieth anniversary.

And yet, it’s the happiest we’ve seen Lyudmila in years. In part, that’s because we haven’t seen much of her in years. She was conspicuously absent from this year’s official Easter service, prompting jokes that Putin had made the mayor of Moscow his wife. There were rumors that she had been locked into a convent in the western Russian city of Pskov, there were rumors that she was drugged, rumors that she was dead—which, when you saw her stand swaying and blankly blinking through Putin’s third inauguration last year, were more than believable.

For many years, it was an open secret in Moscow that Putin had taken up with former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. A few years ago, she had a son—which she recently claimed was her nephew—and there were reports in January that she’d had a baby daughter, presumably with Putin. Then, of course, there were the rumors that Putin had moved on from Kabaeva to a former basketball star. Putin’s athleticism, it seemed, knew no bounds.

It did not appear to have been a happy marriage. There were stories from Dresden, where Putin had been stationed as a middling KGB agent during the ’80s, of abuse and philandering. When Putin was named Yeltsin’s successor in January 1999, Lyudmila was said to have cried through the night. Her fears seem to have been realized today when Lyudmila said that one of the reasons for the divorce was that “Vladimir Vladimirovich was always working” and that “we hardly ever see each other.”

An odd moment in the announcement came when Putin mentioned his confirmed children, two adult daughters whom we’ve never really seen, though there were reports in 2010 that one of them was marrying the son of a South Korean admiral. (You’ll notice that this very article is riddled with the words “rumors” and “reports,” which is indicative of how different a role—from our American expectations—the first family plays in Russia.) Putin volunteered that his children “got their education in Russia and live in Russia permanently.” It was a strange statement for the president of a country, unless that country is Russia, where children of the elites tend to live in Europe. Their fathers’ occupation—plundering the country—is a dangerous one, and tends to make Russia poor and thus not a great place to live for anyone. And it’s just more convenient to have your wife and kids living near your money, safely stashed in a Western bank.

Which brings me to my last point. By Russian law, half the wealth accrued in a marriage goes to the wife in a divorce. Vladimir Putin, by most accounts, er, rumors, is one of the wealthiest men in the world. But there are a couple sticking points here. A Kremlin pool reporter once told me that Russian oligarchs are not truly oligarchs, “they merely work as oligarchs.” Meaning, they are human offshores for Putin’s wealth. (They also pay dividends, but in a “Sopranos”-style fashion, buying him yachts and chipping in for his billion-dollar beach house. Rumoredly.)

Officially, of course, Putin made just $177,000 last year. And Lyudmila Putin, as the old Russian saying goes, will never see that money just like she’ll never see her own ears.

The Bizarre End to Vladimir Putin’s Bizarre Marriage [TNR]

The Cold War Heats Up in Syria

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

The violence in Syria has descended into sectarian warfare, attracting Islamic extremists from all over the world. Tensions with Turkey have escalated as the conflict claims Turkish lives and threatens to spill across its border. The West, wringing its hands over whether and how to intervene, has offered a diplomatic solution, but one that requires an impossible, simultaneous laying down of arms. Russia, in the meantime, continues to send its navy to putter around menacingly at the Syrian port of Tartus, where it has a small base; it also continues to sell arms to Assad’s regime, despite U.S. objections. Nevertheless, Russia has expressed its hope and willingness to see the diplomatic solution put to work to avert a potential years-long civil war.

Sound familiar? That was June 2012, just under a year ago. Arguably, the only thing that’s changed in Syria since then is the scale: more casualties, more extremists, more violence, more spillover. What hasn’t changed is the rest of the world’s approach to the mess. Obama continues to waffle and stall, the Europeans continue to push for at least arming the rebels, and the Russians continue to hold the stay-out-of-it line, while doing little to hide the fact that their ships are massing in Tartus and that they’re shipping weapons to Assad.

What’s Russia’s endgame? That hasn’t changed much either: stall, maintain the status quo as long as possible. It is for this reason that Russian ships continue to cruise around in Tartus and that Moscow keeps sending arms to Damascus. The Russian ships and the anti-aircraft missiles won’t be used against the rebels—who have no planes or ships—but, rather, are Russia’s way of maintaining equilibrium. If the Saudis and Qataris arm the rebels, Russia will arm Assad. If the West makes moves to intervene, Russia ships and anti-aircraft supplies will have made the moves exponentially more risky. But the reality, as familiar as it is, is evolving, and it’s making it increasingly difficult for Russia to tread water. “Russia would prefer a status quo, yes, but everyone here understands that a status quo no longer exists,” says Fyodr Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “It’s a slowly disintegrating situation. The erosion of the regime is acknowledged by all, but what is the time horizon? How long will it take till it finally crumbles? Russia can wait, but the U.S. can’t.”

Russia is willing to wait in part because it has, and has always had, a fundamentally different conception of the conflict. “For Americans to understand the Russian position, you have to understand that the American, Western position is not totally right,” says Maxim Yusin, the deputy foreign affairs editor of the main Russian daily, Kommersant. “The Russian position is less emotional and more pragmatic. Russia doesn’t believe at face value all these emotional declarations that a bloody dictator is stifling freedom and democracy.” Since the conflict began, Russia has been pointing out that if Assad goes, those that replace him may not necessarily be liberal, Western-minded democrats. And what follows the end of this war may not necessarily be peace. Because, in Moscow’s view, what’s happening in Syria is a fundamentally local, religious fight, but one, as Yusin puts it, “to which we’ve all become prisoner.”

“Moscow understands that something has to be done because the war has been going on for two years and it has to stop,” he explains. “But if Assad’s opponents win, there will be a bloodbath. Shiites and Alawites will be slaughtered.” Moreover, he adds, echoing the official Russian position, that the successors to Assad will likely be the ones flying the black flag of jihad and sponsoring terrorism outside Syria’s borders. Lukyanov points out that Syria has long been home to those displaced by the upheavals in the Caucasus, which has become a hotbed of terrorism and Islamist insurrection. “Getting rid of a dictatorial but secular regime, and replacing it with an Islamist regime creates yet another support network for the terrorists in our backyard,” Lukyanov explains. Yusin makes a starker analogy. “Assad does not want to target America, but these guys do,” he says. “These are thousands of potential Tsarnaevs, and France and Britain want to arm them!”

One argument the Russians make officially is that all of this posturing, all of this standing behind Assad and sending ribboned delegations to show the Kremlin’s support, is not so much about Assad, but about principle. Assad won an election, and now the West and its Arab allies have decided to topple him — as the Kremlin sees it, in order to weaken Iran, Syria’s main ally. (American meddling has ramifications at home, too: Less than a year after Tahrir Square, Moscow exploded in anti-Putin protests with Western leaders, like Hillary Clinton, egging them on—at least that’s how the Kremlin saw it.) And if Syria goes, what happens to Iran, and, by extension, Russian influence in the region? They lost Saddam, they lost Qaddafi; now Assad, too?

This is the crux of the issue. Moscow may not have a long term plan—in fact, while it knows that the peace conference it’s co-sponsoring with the U.S. will inevitably fail, it continues to push the idea anyway—but fighting the fight, acknowledging the proxy war aloud is, in some ways, all that matters. “The issue isn’t a love for Assad, or our port at Tartus, or even the arms sales,” says Georgy Mirsky, a venerable Russian scholar of the Middle East. “These things matter, of course, but they are not the main thing. We can live without Syria, we can live without Assad, but to allow someone to say that Moscow is dancing to Washington’s tune would be unacceptable. Unacceptable.” This, Mirsky says, is a holdover from the Soviet days, which, at the Russian Foreign Ministry, have never quite receded. “Soviet rule has been gone for twenty years, but the Soviet mentality remains, especially at the very top,” Mirsky explains. “There is a very strong suspicion that you can’t trust the Americans in any way because they’ll take every opportunity to do something nasty to us. So the instinct is that if the Americans are against someone in the Third World, then we have to be for this person. And vice-versa. This all comes from the Soviet mentality.” This would explain why Mirsky once heard a Russian diplomat say, “I would rather have a nuclear Iran than a pro-American Iran.”

The problem with this approach, if you’re America, is that there isn’t much you can do with a fluid, roving check-mate. There is even less you can do when your ostensible partners in bringing the two sides together project onto you their worst fears and suspicions, and when everything is done not to win, but to prolong a status quo that no longer exists.

The Cold War Heats Up in Syria [TNR]

The Spy Who Shot Himself in the Foot

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

While Moscow slept, and Washington slept, a man named, as far as we know, Ryan Christopher Fogle, who had been, as far as we know, a third secretary in the political section at the American embassy in Moscow, was tackled by guys from the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB), pinned to the ground and handcuffed. He was wearing an awkward wig that shone blonde in the night time footage, with a gray baseball cap perched atop it. His clothes—a blue checked shirt and a pair of jeans—made him look like a delinquent frat boy being hustled away from a rowdy costume house party in a police cruiser, not the CIA case officer the Russian authorities said he was. Fogle, they said, had tried to flip an FSB agent by offering him $100,000 in crisp 500 Euro notes. Also recovered at the scene: a brown wig, four pairs of sunglasses, a Moscow street atlas, a flashlight, a Swiss Army knife, a cell phone that seems to have been on this earth for at least a decade, and a compass. There was also a letter, “from someone who is very impressed with your professionalism,” instructing the recipient to set up a Gmail account at a café with wifi in order to get in touch with the Agency. It was signed, “Your friends.”

It was a strange scene, and it got even stranger when Fogle, whose arrest was filmed by the FSB, was hustled, handcuffed, into the agency’s notorious Lubyanka headquarters and berated, on camera, by an FSB officer with a blurry face and an impeccable American accent. Fogle, he said, had phoned the FSB agent at around 11pm last night and asked to meet with him. When the FSB agent declined, Fogle insisted and got his meeting. This agent, the berating officer gently explained, “is responsible for [redacted], and is involved in fighting terrorism in the North Caucasus.” He is, the officer noted, “a well-trained warrior.” “At first, we didn’t believe that this could have happened, because you know perfectly well that, recently, the FSB is actively aiding the investigation into the explosions in Boston, as well as other information that is potentially threatening to the safety of the United States of America,” the officer went on, his voice rising steadily as he began to circle around Fogle, bobbing from the waist as he became more and more angry at the thought of all of Fogle’s iniquity. There was the FBI visit to Moscow, the productive meeting between Obama and Putin. “And, with this as a backdrop, when relations between the two countries are being strengthened, an American diplomat commits a state crime against the Russian Federation. We think that, when two presidents are working hard to strengthen ties, when they are trying to improve the climate of mutual understanding, this citizen, in the name of the government of the U.S., commits the most serious of crimes here, in Moscow!”

Fogle, who seems to have no trouble understanding the Russian official’s accusations of harshing the geopolitical mellow, sits in his chair looking like a kid who’s been in trouble before and knows exactly how this is going to go. He has clearly been trained for such an eventuality. He seems to know that soon, the Russians will release him back to the U.S. Embassy, he’ll be PNG’d and expelled from the country, and, after a brief shitstorm, all will go back to its old ways. And that’s exactly what happened.

But the whole incident is a strange one. First of all, wigs and a compass? Really? Did he not graduate up to the Groucho Marx glasses? “Yeah, the Agency has a tendency to do that,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer in Europe and the Middle East. The problem, he says, is that when you don’t have a “tech” present to help you compile your disguise, “you usually come out looking like a gay mad scientist.” “I know everyone gets a kick out of the wigs and thinks that went out with the Cold War, but it didn’t!” says Peter Earnest, former CIA operations officer and executive director of the Spy Museum in Washington. “Sometimes, light diguise works really well if you’re meeting someone at night and you don’t want a casual observer to recognize you.” Earnest points out that all the “fancy” hi-tech stuff is great, but is easily hacked into. “Osama bin Laden cut off all electornic communications,” Earnest points out. “He was using medieval methods—a courier!” As for the Gmail account Fogle was encouraging his target to open? “That’s not surprising,” says Gerecht. This, apparently, was a “cold pitch”—trying to flip someone unprimed—and the procedures, Gerecht says, “are fairly standard.”

Surprised? Well, given the other espionage techniques that the Russians and Americans have used on each other in the past, you shouldn’t be. “Oh, you should talk to [former Moscow CIA station chief] Burt Gerber,” one espionage specialist exuberantly suggested. “He invented the pop-up kit!” The pop-up kit, if you must know, is what the Agency used in Moscow at the height of the Cold War: because all cars coming out of the U.S. embassy were tailed by the KGB, the American spook would have a driver who would make a sharp turn, the spy would jump out and disappear into a crowd, and a contraption in the shape of a human would pop up in the passenger’s seat. Then, there was the “spy rock,” in 2006. The Russians alleged that the British were using a rock to spy on them. It was all very funny until last year, when the Brits confirmed that, yes, in fact the rock had been spying on the Russians. (Actually, it was being used to send and transmit data, which is notoriously difficult to do when spying on the cunning Russians. “The rock was a real improvement over what we had before,” says Robert Jervis, an expert in the field and a professor at Columbia.) The Russians are not too shabby when it comes to Keystone Cops maneuvers, either. In the summer of 2010, ten Russian “sleeper” agents were busted by the FBI. Among their techniques: using WiFi in cafes, swapping orange bags in public places, and burying money in a field. Anna Chapman, the most infamous of the so-called “Illegals,” purchased a temporary cell phone and registered it to the following address: “99 Fake St.”

What’s most amazing is that, by all accounts, Moscow is a terribly difficult place to work if you’re a spy. “Every case officer had a half life in Moscow because the place was bugged up the wazoo,” says Gerecht. “They could sniff out who you were pretty fast.” And yet, our spies are using blonde wigs straight from a Halloween store, printed instructions, and compasses. No one had an explanation for why, but at least, Gerecht assured me, we’re not using this in Islamabad and Sana’a. (Says Earnest: “It would not surprise me.”)

What is it we’re looking for in Moscow? During the Cold War, some 40 percent of the CIA was dedicated to spying on the Soviet Union. One old hand described meeting a woman whose full-time job at the Agency was tracking the canned-goods industry in the USSR. Since the end of the Cold War over two decades ago, counter-terrorism has become the priority, and Russia has become, for the most part, just another country. These days, we’re mostly concerned with Russia’s still well-stocked nuclear arsenal and their counterterrorism operations in the volatile North Caucasus. And, there’s the “defensive” target, explains Jervis. “If we can penetrate the FSB, we can learn a lot about what they’re trying to find out about us,” he says. (That’s right. We’re spying on them to see what they’ve spied on us, and they’re spying on us to see what we’ve spied on them.) In this case, the Russians seemed to be accusing Fogle of going rogue in the international Boston investigation. Unclear if that’s true, mostly because the video and the FSB officer’s lecture were featured prominently on Russian state TV, and most such spy scandals are handled quietly. Most likely, Fogle was caught red-handed—or blonde-wigged—and the increasingly powerful, increasingly visible hardline faction of the Russian government was just flexing its muscles, and showing that, though it’s cooperating with the Americans, it’s still stronger and wilier than the Yanks. One Russia analyst jokingly speculated that Fogle was a double agent working for the FSB, sent in to make the CIA look bad. “I’m only half-joking,” he added.

The Spy Who Shot Himself in the Foot [TNR]

Foreigners in Their Own Land

Monday, May 6th, 2013

Monday’s rally in Moscow started with a moment of silence to commemorate the event, exactly one year ago, that sowed the seed of the protest movement’s demise.

Last year, on May 6, the day before Vladimir Putin was inaugurated president of the Russian Federation for the third time, tens of thousands of people marched peacefully down a wide Moscow avenue to Bolotnaya Square, an act that itself commemorated the first mass protest against Putin’s government on December 10, 2011. It was a heady time: People were angry and fed up with the government’s increasingly ham-fisted lies, and they were giddy at the discovery that there were tens of thousands of people in an atomized, sprawling city who were just like them, a fact that the Russian media had done its best to keep from anyone.

But then—either because of a planning glitch, or, more likely, a police provocation—the May 6 protest devolved into chaos. Police and protestors clashed violently in the square, and the violence spread throughout the city as the protestors scattered, and police pincered them out of subways and cafes. It was a violent, horrifying day, made all the more so by the unexpectedness of the conflagration.

In the following year, the protest movement sank into a kind of aimless despair as the state systematically arrested 28 people it deemed had disturbed the peace. One, Maria Baronova, a young mother, faces two years in prison for a YouTube video showing her encouraging protesters. One young man faces a lengthy jail term for exhorting people to violence, even though he has a debilitating stutter. Others face years in prison for hitting police officers, when they were the ones injured. The dragnet even caught an old woman, a pensioner. (There were, of course, no investigations into possible police brutality; all the injured special ops fighters who suffered bruises and bloody noses were rewarded with free apartments.)

Monday’s rally was nominally to show support for these people, the so-called Prisoners of Bolotnaya, whom the government has clearly made an example of: You want to protest, be prepared for the consequences. But in reality, today’s protest was a sort of test for signs of life. Did anything remain of that thrilling, optimistic protest movement of yesteryear?

The answer? A definitive, depressing maybe. As usual, more people came than the pessimistic projections predicted: anywhere from 8,000 (police estimate) to 30,000 (organizers). By all accounts, the hopelessness was dissipated a bit by anger, but the aimlessness of it all was still there. “It was a lot of people,” tweeted Moscow Guardian correspondent Miriam Elder. “And they know what they want. But they—and the opposition leaders—still dunno how to get there…” This was reflected in the tired, usual-suspects line-up of speakers, and their staid, regurgitated speechifying. It was made all the more pathetic by the weak sound system: A mishap earlier in the day had killed a volunteer setting up the equipment, and speeches had to be delivered from the side of a truck rigged up as a stage. Sometimes, it reverted into farce, as when opposition journalist Oleg Kashin went dada and sang, a capella, a song called “It’s All Going According to Plan.” Some invoked the Stalinist purges of 1937—a common, if slightly inappropriate trope of late. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin and an opposition veteran, declared, “No more resolutions! This time, we have demands!” It was a cringeworthy, unwittingly Monty Python-esque moment, and it reflected the impotence of the large, angry crowd. It was the age-old Russian dilemma, incarnate: What is to be done?

Elder told me that everyone she spoke to came to the rally “because we couldn’t not come.” She said it reminded her of the people who vote for Putin “because there’s no one else to vote for.” “It’s all so passive,” she noted. I would argue that the passiveness is the impotence of defeat, when, as the Russian saying goes, your hands fall to your sides because you just don’t see what can be done. Because if the government ignores you and doesn’t give an inch—the best the Kremlin could do today was simply to say that Putin is “aware” of everything going on; aware, and nothing but—there’s not much you can do. And if it pushes and intimidates, it makes sense to do what many Muscovites do: retreat into your vacations to Goa and your Apple products, into a cozy cocoon of friends and family, hidden from the brutality outside. Or you could do what an unverifiable number of Russians are doing: leaving. But it’s a hard decision to make. “I have no other country, I have nowhere to retreat,” boomed opposition politician Alexey Navalny, the one rousing speaker today. It was a heartbreaking expression of what I’ve seen in many of my liberal Moscow friends: They are being slowly squeezed out of their country, being made to feel like foreigners in their own land.

After the live streams from Bolotnaya ended, I spent the afternoon watching videos from the fallout of last year’s May 6 violence: a peaceful, many-days-long sit-in at the statue of Abai Kunanbaev, a Kazakh poet, on one of Moscow’s old tree-lined boulevards. It was a wonderful, happy spring, the days sunny and long, full of hope and silliness, and people played guitars and sang old Polish Solidarity songs about toppling walls with their shoulders. A year later, it’s hard to watch. There is no one at the fountain today, and it’s not just because it’s unseasonably cold in Moscow.

Foreigners in Their Own Land [TNR]

We Told You So: How Russia responded to the Boston bombings

Sunday, April 21st, 2013

Shortly after Barack Obama finished his press conference after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dramatic apprehension last night, a Russian newspaper reported that the president did not mention the “Russian footprint” in his address. There was almost a note of relief in the report, which came after a day spent by Russian and Chechen officials (though Chechen officials are also Russian officials) batting that footprint away from their doorstep, or denying that one even exists. “We don’t know the Tsarnaevs,” Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, said. “They never lived in Chechnya, they lived and studied in America.” In this, Kadyrov found himself in strange company, with people among the liberal opposition who also wondered what Russian footprint anyone was even talking about. “Chechnya?” one Russian journalist told me. “They’re Americans, they’ve been in America since childhood!”

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said that the Russian president had been appraised of the situation as it unfolded, struck a slightly different note, however, and it was one of “we told you so.” “Putin has repeatedly said there is no such thing as our terrorists and somebody else’s,” Peskov said. “One must not differentiate between them, deal with some and condemn others. They all deserve the same approach, the same rejection.” This was a reference to America’s vocal defense of the Chechen separatists in the 1990s, as well as to the rebels in Libya and Syria—where fighters from the North Caucasus often turn up. To Putin, the Taliban and the Chechen separatists, the Salafis and Wahabis, Hamas and the Free Syrian Army are all one. It is why he can be friendly both with Bibi Netanyahu and with Bashar al-Assad: He feels their pain, he fights their fight at home. In fact, his presidency was baptized by the fire of domestic terrorism and war against an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. His subjects and his capital have been attacked many times, most recently in March 2010, when two young women from Dagestan blew themselves up in the Moscow metro during the morning rush hour.

Putin has spoken gruffly and scatalogically about terrorists, and he has no patience for them. “We will pursue the terrorists everywhere,” he said back in 1999, when he was just a pale and unassuming former KGB officer beginning the Second Chechen War. “If they’re in the airport, we’ll get them in the airport. That means, you’ll have to excuse me, if we find them in the toilet, we’ll whack them in the outhouse.” One Russian political analyst said, “Russia has long warned the Americans that flirting with various separatist and terrorist organizations of the North Caucasus would not lead to anything good.”

The we-told-you-so resonated with Russians, albeit in different ways. A graphic that went viral on the Russian-language internet showed that now infamous black-and-white photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with the following text, printed in big block letters: “Welcome! Sochi 2014.” Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics next year in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is perilously close to the still smoldering Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus. (The decision to have the Olympics there was, at the time, criticized for this lack of foresight.) Others, among them the nationalist guerilla new-media entity known as Sputnik & Pogrom sent out this graphic into the Internet ether. “Enjoy the freedom fighters, America,” it says. “Chechens are no rebels, Chechens are terrorists.” (Sputnik & Pogrom later released a more helpful graphic, to set Chechens—“Mostly Muslim, gave the world [terrorist Shamil] Basaev and Tsarnaev”—apart from Russians—“Mostly Christian or atheist, gave the world Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.” “Know the difference,” it declares.)

There has, however, been a lot of interest both in the suspect’s family—the Russian press was the first to track down Antsor Tsarnaev, the father—and in the Hollywood-style chase, even on the state-controlled channels. The crowds in Boston cheering their police force made for an especially odd piece of theater. Russians look with suspicion on their law enforcement agencies—deservedly so—and they usually deal with Chechens in a way that doesn’t resemble a classic action flick. The Russians usually storm the place in a take-no-prisoners way, intentionally and unintentionally kill a bunch of people, and retire back to their mysterious caverns, leaving the public to ponder what the hell just happened.

But as much as Russians have distanced themselves from the attack, or have scolded the politically correct Americans for dealing with the bad guys with kid gloves, this has been an odd moment of bonding for the two countries at a time when Russian-American relations are at yet another low point. I never thought I’d agree with Alexei Pushkov on something—he is the foaming-at-the-mouth anti-American head of the Duma’s foreign policy committee and a frequent and virulent commenter on state TV—but I do now. In a statement, he said that he sees no reason for the Russians and Americans to fight over the Tsarnaev brothers. “American citizens are members of Al Qaeda, they fight in Pakistan, they fight in Afghanistan against NATO and against other Americans,” he said. “And therefore, if some citizens of Russia—and we still have to clear up if they’re citizens of Russia, or not—participate in some kind of global terrorist activity, I don’t see any reason for this to cause a crisis of [Russian-American] political ties.”

What he means is, Russians don’t see terrorists as having national identities, really. Their only identity is terrorist, their only allegiance—terror. “The U.S. actively supported Al Qaeda in the struggle against the USSR, and then bin Laden began to kill Americans; it supported terrorists in Libya, and then they killed the American ambassador; it supported Chechen separatism, and now these terrorists are beginning to blow up Americans,” Sergei Markov, another loyalist hawk, pointed out. “I will not be surprised if these terrorists arrived in the U.S. on the basis of some program of assistance to Chechen political refugees ‘from Russian repression.’” The Russians feel that they know this like no one else in the world, and terrorism is a real and smarting wound in Putin’s worldview. This is why Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush on 9/11, and why he offered, in the wake of the Boston bombing on Monday, to aid Obama in the investigation. It’s also probably why the two got on the phone last night, and why Putin’s spokesman said the countries’ intelligence services will be in touch. Putin understands the terror of terrorism, he feels Obama’s pain. After all, his own presidency was born of it.

We Told You So: How Russia responded to the Boston bombings [TNR]

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List

Monday, April 15th, 2013

On Friday, the State Department, in conjunction with the Treasury Department, published a list of 18 people who are believed, “based on credible information,” to be in some way responsible for the gruesome death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009. (Over the weekend, Moscow responded with its own list, which includes David Addington, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Bush administration lawyer John Yoo.) Why the U.S. government cares enough about the death of a Russian corporate lawyer to publicly forbid these people from entering the U.S., and from owning any real estate or holding any bank accounts here, boils down to the lobbying efforts of one man, Bill Browder.

Browder, whose grandfather Earl was the head of Communist Party USA, rescinded his American citizenship, moved to Britain and then to Moscow, where, in the gangland economy of the 1990s, he made a fortune. When Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Browder became his vocal champion, cheering when oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003. (The move killed all political aspirations in the business community.) In 2005, Browder was shut out of Russia for reasons that still remain unclear, though some observers speculate that it was because he violated the core economic principle of Putin’s Russia and refused to share his profits with Putin.

Shortly afterwards, his lawyer, Magnitsky, began to uncover where Browder’s wealth was going. With the cooperation of the Russian Interior Ministry, tax inspectors, and courts, an organized crime ring was able to reappropriate $230 million dollars. Soon, people like Interior Ministry officials Artem Kuznetsov and Pavel Karpov were living outsize lives, driving luxury vehicles and buying upscale real estate in Moscow, despite their meager official salaries of about $2,000 a month. So were the judges, like Olga Stepanova, who had approved a complex set of transfers of money to various shell companies.

Now, all those inspectors and interior ministry officials and judges find themselves on the list, as do the heads of prisons where Magnitsky spent the last year of his life—after Magnitsky uncovered the scheme, Interior Ministry inspectors had him thrown him in jail. There, screaming with pain, he died, at 37, of untreated pancreatitis. Dmitry Komnov, the head of Butyrka prison, where Magnitsky died handcuffed to a bed, battered, and in a pool of his own urine, is said to have ignored nearly 100 complaints from the prisoner. The judges who prolonged his arrest, as well as the prosecutors who pushed to prolong it, are also on the list.

Almost as soon as Magnitsky died, Browder launched an intensive PR campaign knowing that, despite their officious outrage, the Russian authorities would do nothing. Browder compiled a slick series of videos in English called “The Untouchables,” which detailed how Kuznetsov and Stepanova and Karpov stole his money and killed his lawyer.

Karpov, of course, sued Browder for libel. And here’s where it gets complicated: We don’t know for sure whether Karpov or Kuznetsov or Stepanova did any of the things outlined in “The Untouchables.” The Russian government is made up of many, many vicious men, but Browder is not the most trustworthy—or disinterested—person on the planet. None of his accusations have been proven in a court of a law, and these people, who probably own nothing in the U.S.—Russians prefer to keep their assets in Europe or Cyprus—have become international pariahs. That said, even if they did steal the money and kill Magnitsky, which is highly likely, there is no court in all of Russia which would consider the case, let alone find them guilty. The only person to be tried in all of this, tellingly, is Magnitsky.

The Magnitsky list raises all kinds of questions. Is it America’s place to dispense justice for crimes—alleged crimes—committed elsewhere? Can we publicly shame people who have not been convicted of anything and have no right to appeal the decision? Are these people scapegoats for a Congress that wanted to show itself a defender of human rights? Moreover, why are Congress and the State and Treasury departments all doing such heavy lifting—and further angering Moscow, whose cooperation we need on North Korea, Syria, and Iran—to avenge Browder, who pointedly rescinded his American citizenship and has no plans to ever get it back?

On a purely intellectual level, I think that we should not be wrapped up in this—which has been Obama’s position. But on a gut level, having spent three years in Russia and observing how brutal and cynical and just gut-wrenchingly awful the Russian police and courts are, the list feels like a form of justice. These 18 people, though unconvicted, have become scapegoats for all the evil that the Russian government does to its people. Is it imperfect? Yes. Is it dubious and is it strange that the U.S. is getting involved? Oh, yes.

But, on a purely visceral level, it feels good to say this: The Russian system feels perfectly fine making scapegoats out of dozens of people caught up in the violence of the May 6 protests, violence that the government itself orchestrated in order to sacrifice some scapegoats, terrify the others, and stamp out burgeoning opposition to Putin. (A Russian journalist told me the prosecutors involved in these cases speak openly of the cases’ fabricated, political nature.) The system also feels fine committing all kinds of more minute but equally horrible, demeaning, violent acts on its citizens, day in, day out. So why should America open its banks and its borders to the system’s enforcers?

The problem is, we’re playing by Russia’s rules. And we, thank god, have different rules. May it be ever so.

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List [TNR]

Gun Shy

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

For a guy whose professional life involves talking to people about firearms, Wayne LaPierre doesn’t seem especially enthusiastic about either people or firearms. “I knew of no gun interest that he had,” says former National Rifle Association (NRA) chief Warren Cassidy, LaPierre’s boss for a decade. If LaPierre were ever to join one of his colleagues’ hunting trips, says John Aquilino, who used to run the group’s media relations, “I would run like hell.”

Not that LaPierre appeared hungry for company. “Is he a guy who exchanges slaps on the back or glasses of beer?” asks Joseph Tartaro, head of the Second Amendment Foundation, who has worked with LaPierre for 35 years. “No, I don’t think he’s that kind of person.” “He is a shy, wonkish person,” says Richard Feldman, a longtime fellow gun lobbyist. In a memoir, Feldman described his first impression of LaPierre: “This guy doesn’t have what the human resources gurus call ‘people skills.’”

A characterological profile like that doesn’t comport at all with the LaPierre we’ve seen on TV screens since the Newtown tragedy—the from-my-cold-dead-hands gun defender who blames movies and video games, rather than weapons that can shoot dozens of rounds a minute, for all the mass murders that have taken place in the last year. Which leads one to wonder why he’d even want to lead the NRA at all, or why the NRA feels he’s the best man for the on-camera job.

A studious kid from Roanoke, Virginia, LaPierre joined the NRA almost immediately after leaving a political science Ph.D. program at Boston University. Even though he’d gone from academic to operative, he couldn’t shake his campus intellectual vibe. Aquilino remembers once seeing a trail of notebooks and folders in the lobby of the NRA’s old headquarters. “Wayne walked by, didn’t he?” he recalls asking. “He literally had a stream of papers and books and notes that led all the way out to where he got into the cab and headed off to Capitol Hill.”

What LaPierre lacked in professional polish he more than made up for in intensity of belief—something that stood out in lobbying, a calling dominated by schmoozers. But the NRA wasn’t just any lobby. Arriving a year after the so-called Revolt at Cincinnati, when young radicals took over what had been a sleepy sporting organization, LaPierre moved up quickly by taking the most hard-line positions in the room. He fought to undo the biggest federal gun law, pioneered the tactic of shifting the focus away from firearms to a dysfunctional criminal justice system, and thrived as NRA moderates lost internal power struggles.

“It takes a certain amount of chutzpah,” Cassidy told me, “to be a lobbyist and walk into an office where Teddy Kennedy’s in there and he’s had two brothers assassinated, and you’re going to talk pro-gun?” But in 1986, LaPierre had done just that, helping to craft a rollback of a 1968 federal gun control law. The Senate had already passed its version of the bill, and the House debate seemed to be going the NRA’s way when Speaker Tip O’Neill called for a two-week Easter recess. When the House reconvened, an amendment banning new automatic weapons had been added.

Furious NRA ultras wanted to kill the entire bill. But LaPierre called his boss, Warren Cassidy, from Capitol Hill, ready to cut a deal. “I believed in giving an apple to gain the orchard, and he agreed,” Cassidy recalls.

Once the bill passed, however, Cassidy found himself vilified by the NRA rank-and-file, and LaPierre let his shyness kick in at the most useful moment. “I was a little unhappy that Wayne didn’t stand up, accept the fact that he had recommended it to me, … and say that he supported it,” says Cassidy. “There was almost dead silence from him.”

The lesson for LaPierre was that the other side didn’t want apples. They wanted to burn down the orchard. Less than a decade after the deal came the Brady Bill, and now, after Sandy Hook, the NRA again feels besieged. LaPierre’s former colleagues describe a man driven to distraction by what he sees as liberals’ bait-and-switchery in their quest to ban all guns.

At a hunting and conservation gala in Nevada last month, LaPierre talked not about sportsmanship but about Barack Obama’s use of the word “absolutism” in his inaugural address. “Obama wants to turn the idea of ‘absolutism’ into a dirty word, just another word for extremism,” LaPierre said, registering the same note of barely controlled rage he’d hit at his post-Newtown press conference. Over the years, LaPierre has laid out his strident views in half a dozen books, including one treatise about the United Nations’ plot to take away Americans’ guns.

In the meantime, the conservative landscape around the NRA’s circled wagons has been changing. Groups like March for Life and the National Organization for Marriage have hired media-friendly leadership. But if the increasingly powerful political wing of the NRA has no taste for compromise, it has even less for media likability. So LaPierre, his old shyness sublimated into rage, snarls at the cameras on behalf of his organization. “Let me say it this way,” says Feldman. “If it had been me holding the news conference [after Newtown], I’m certain I would’ve used a woman and I would’ve found an educator.” Aquilino puts it differently: “I wanted to bitch slap his advisers,” he says.

But Aquilino and Feldman are moderate dinosaurs compared with LaPierre, and it’s no coincidence that they were forced out with the other moderates decades ago. They may not like his media strategy, but it’s hard to argue with his record. Since 1991, membership has increased by nearly 70 percent. “Usually, his addresses are rather enthusiastically received,” Tartaro says. “Both in substance and defiant style.” In the NRA, he explains, this has helped create “a cult of personality” around LaPierre.

The problem for the organization, though, is that the base can only do so much. Given that half of gun owners don’t think the NRA fully represents their views, that more people dislike the organization’s leadership, and that gun control has become increasingly popular, the NRA might soon need new friends. At which point it might be useful to have a people person at the helm.

Gun Shy [TNR]

Russia’s Past Is Ever Present

Friday, February 8th, 2013

The ban on “homosexual propaganda among minors” has yet to become law in Russia—only its first draft has passed the lower chamber of the Russian parliament—but it has already become the most discussed subject in the Russian press and has claimed its first victims. A loyalist Russian television host was fired from the channel he co-founded after coming out on the air in protest, and beatings of gay men have spiked, including a chilling and well-planned attack on a gay club in Moscow. The European Union’s foreign policy chief has spoken out against the ban, and at least two European cities have taken action, with Venice and Milan canceling their sister-city status with St. Petersburg. Russia has retaliated by saying that same-sex European couples will be banned from adopting Russian orphans. Even Madonna was a victim: This fall she was sued for propagating the gay gospel during her August concert in St. Petersburg.

It is not totally clear what the term “homosexual propaganda” even means, but when the law passes the upper chamber and is signed by Vladimir Putin—and it is only a question of when—it will allow authorities to fine any such propagators. Much has been written, correctly, about the law’s violation of human rights—”I am a human being, just like Putin,” said the fired TV host, Anton Krasovsky—as well as its shocking backwardness.

But the proposed ban is troubling for other reasons. The law would be yet another signpost on Russia’s descent into a harsher, more authoritarian version of Putinism; one more turn of the screws in response last year’s pro-democracy—and anti-Putin—protests. The president is showing that he is not only not going anywhere, but that he will impose his vision of Russia on all Russians, whether they like it or not. That vision is not, as many think, the neo-Soviet one—though there are elements of it in Putin’s foreign policy—but the imperial one. Putin’s favorite character from Russian history is not Stalin, but Pyotr Stolypin, a brute reformer who served under Nicholas II. Putin is also said to see his greatest achievement as the reuniting of the Russian Orthodox Church, which split shortly after the Russian Revolution into a domestic and Western one. He has overseen a renaissance of orthodoxy and has ushered the church into the halls of power, to the point where it is now widely seen as a Kremlin affiliate. These days, hardly a policy move happens without the church stating its position on it.

A certain yearning for the rosy, simpler, but likely fictional past has crept into Russian life in the last few years. Yesterday’s kitsch—samovars, Cossaks—is today’s holy relic. This pattern was aptly spied and satired by Vladimir Sorokin in his 2006 novel, The Day of the Oprichnik. (The oprichnik was a member of Ivan the Terrible’s secret police.) It imagined a dystopia in which Russia had built a great wall separating itself from the heathen West and turned inward, ruled with an iron fist by a nameless tsar. His rule ushered in an era of Disneyland Russia, with people dressing and eating and speaking like they would have in the 16th century, while driving futuristic cars and doing futuristic drugs. Alas, Sorokin was not far off the mark, and the warped Russian traditionalism he imagined is, in many ways, becoming a reality.

All of this smacks of the Russian Empire’s “God, Tsar, and Country.” That motto was the expression, in many ways, of a wish for homogeneity in a sprawling empire encompassing hundreds of ethnic groups and languages, and coincided with a push for the Russification of non-Russian minorities, most notably the Jews. It would happen again in Soviet times with Central Asian Muslims.

The imposition of Russian traditionalism, in other words, is not a coincidence, nor is the attendant rise in violent Russian nationalism. (Some of the first to rally for the gay propaganda law were the Russian nationalists, who came out with ludicrous signs, like “the place of a rooster”—a highly derogatory prison slang for a “bottom”—”is in the hen house.”) These crypto-fascist yearnings for a simpler, more noble past seems to coincide with a preoccupation with pedophilia, to which the new law equates homosexuality. I can’t help but recall an evening I spent several years ago in Santiago de Chile with affluent Catholics from prominent local families. I was in town to do a story on the hunt for Paul Schaefer, a Nazi medic who escaped to Chile and set up a sprawling farm on which he tortured Chilean dissidents—he was a sort of subcontractor for Pinochet—and systematically abused children. The Chileans at the table couldn’t stop talking about the children, while pooh-poohing the scores of “disappeared” dissidents.

The perception of homosexuality in Russia is that it’s both a perversion of nature and a fashion import from the corrupt West: something into which a man can slip if he’s had a bit too much vodka—by all accounts a common occurrence in Russia—and as a posture one adopts to be cool. Thus, the “propaganda” ban. Homosexuality is seen as an aggressive ad campaign that, traditionalists fear, will persuade impressionable young minds that being gay not only isn’t abnormal and abhorrent, but stylish and hip. The idea that homosexuality is a natural and innate phenomenon, needless to say, has not gained traction here outside of small circles among the educated. Even there, it’s rare.

Ironically, the very propaganda that the Russian law would seek to root is all over state television, in weekend variety shows featuring local pop stars. The men who perform fall into two categories: manly brute and the sensitive, sensuous lover. Both are ideals of manhood in Russia, but the problem is that the men in the latter category are almost uniformly—and very quietly—gay. That Philipp Kirkorov, Russia’s pop king, is gay is an open secret, and, for all the church’s apparent stodginess, he rented out a church to baptize the daughter he had with a surrogate mom. The child’s godfather was Andrey Malakhov, Russia’s most popular talk show host, who is also known to be gay. As is Valentin Yudashkin, Russia’s premier clothing designer, who, well, is incongruously married. Millions of women across the country watch these men, and countless others like them, every day on their televisions and sigh, wishing their men were more like them. This is the less educated, less affluent part of Russian society most vehemently opposed to homosexuality—”the light blue ones,” as they call them, or the “homosexualists”—but the ones whose hearts race the fastest when they watch ballroom dancing and ballet (both, of course, are very popular).

It’s one thing to have these contradictory forces tugging at the nation’s subconscious, and another to make them law. Putin is not just imposing a traditionalist view of Russia onto the country. He is sending signals to the police and the army and everyone else, that crimes aren’t crimes if they’re committed against gay people. He had sent this signal earlier by loosing the security forces on the opposition, jailing and harassing anyone who participated in the violent protests on the eve of Putin’s May inauguration. One of these activists recently committed suicide in Holland when the Dutch refused him amnesty. Another was abducted from the front stoop of the U.N. office in Kiev, where he was seeking refugee status, and brought back, blindfolded and bound, to Moscow. Many more are in jail or, like Maria Baronova, are awaiting trial. It is in this context that the law must be viewed: In practice, Russia, true to its traditional desire to homogenize and its obsession with unity, is signaling which of its minorities are no longer welcome—ostensibly for the good of the majority.

When the law was introduced in the Russian Parliament, the country’s cultural leaders debated its significance. One Russian journal, echoing the “It Gets Better” project, asked them what advice they had for young gay Russians. “Guys, get out of Russia as fast as you can,” wrote Kirill Serebrennikov, a prominent theater director. “You are not destined to be happy here.” But fellow director Vladimir Mirzoev disagreed, pointing out that for a country in which traditional homogeneity is but a dream, this is not a viable strategy. “This is not a solution for our society,” he said. “Not every ‘inconvenient’ minority can leave Russia, because it is of these minorities that it is made.”

Russia’s Past Is Ever Present [TNR]

Gerard Depardieu’s Russian Citizenship Is a Passport to a Westerner’s Playground

Tuesday, January 8th, 2013

After hugging it out with his new—and, by comparison, petite and fragile-looking—president, Vladimir Putin, in Sochi on Saturday night, French actor Gérard Depardieu flew, inexplicably, to the Russian republic of Mordovia. He was greeted by local officials and feted by residents with bliny, a traditional song-and-dance show, where Depardieu, clad in an embroidered peasant’s tunic, grinned and held up his new, Bordeaux-colored Russian passport. Later, at a midnight Christmas service—Russian Orthodox Christmas is on January 7—he was handed a religious icon, keys to a new condo, and two kittens.

Days earlier, Putin, by presidential fiat, had extended Russian citizenship to Depardieu, who recently declared that he would abandon his native France, allegedly because of high taxes: Russia’s flat 13 percent tax rate looked a lot better than Francois Hollande’s now defunct proposal to raise taxes to 75 percent for those making over 1 million euros. (Depardieu has since denied this, saying that if he “had wanted to escape the tax man… I would’ve done it a long time ago.”)

The inaugural trip to Mordovia, observers noted, was a strange choice given what the republic is generally known for: penal colonies. The Mordovian economy subsists almost entirely on these alone; roads are merely strings connecting the colonies, some of which date back to Stalin. Most visitors to Mordovia are likely to see not yodeling singers in colorful frocks, but a depressed region where the free population seems split into two camps: the prison guards, and the day drinkers.

I have no doubt that Depardieu didn’t see and will not see this side of Mordovia, nor will he have met with the region’s most famous inmate, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, of the band Pussy Riot. (“It’s very beautiful here,” Depardieu said during his visit. “The people who live here are beautiful and spiritual.”) Nor will Depardieu see Russia as it exists for 99.9 percent of his now fellow countrymen. As Putin’s pet, he will be shielded from the collapsing infrastructure and a ramshackle poverty inexplicable for a country that pumps more oil than Saudi Arabia. He will never have to go to a poorly trained, overworked, and underpaid Russian doctor who would likely misdiagnose him anyway. He will never get caught in the teeth of the corrupt justice system; he won’t be extorted for bribes, whether or not he runs afoul of the law. Depardieu, who announced that he wants to move to a Russian village and learn Russian, will live a charmed life that will have very little to do with Russia itself.

Of course, this can be said of any wealthy Russian, or any celebrity anywhere in the world. The difference here is the orientalism of such Western men—and they are always, always men—who decamp to Russia and praise the place for its freedom and simplicity. The women, they say, are more beautiful and better (read: more sparsely) dressed, more deferential to men (especially men with money), and always aim to please, sexually. Without examining why Russian women might be like this, Western expats use these qualities as evidence for a quietly long-held view that feminism is the crude weapon of the ugly Western woman. The whirl-a-gig unpredictability of the place rarely stops being fun because it’s never entirely real. In these men’s eyes, it is not lawlessness; it is freedom from annoying rules.

In my years living in Moscow, I have come across many such Western men. In Moscow, their wealth gives them the kind of reality-bending leverage that it couldn’t in New York, London, or Paris. In Moscow, their wealth—and, in Depardieu’s case, fame—made them brilliant and sexually attractive, especially to the leggy, barely legal girls from the provinces; in those Western cities, their money merely made them rich. In Moscow, these men live above reality and above the law, above even the informal gang codes of the Russian elite: A Russian businessman who crosses the authorities risks his freedom or his life, but a Western businessman? He could get his visa revoked, and lose a bit of money. A flesh wound, really.

And yet, Russians encourage this. Despite a rise of anti-American, anti-Western sentiment in the last year, Russians still revere the Westerner. They solicit his expertise and even grovel in front of him, while periodically stopping to beat their chests with a thin and tinny pride; they want, in some dark, self-annihilating way, to be the Westerner, to dismiss the part of themselves that is not European as somehow shameful and backwards, while still insisting on Russia’s spiritual superiority. Goods and foods are labeled “European”—that is, elite. But Russia also claims some responsibility for elite European culture. At one investment forum I attended, Putin went on a long tirade about how Russia was an inherently and quintessentially European country, that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were European writers—without whom, paradoxically, Europe would lack all culture.

It is a strange psychological dance—with roots in the holy foolery of Byzantine culture—and it is at play here: Russia welcomes and pampers the Westerner, it shields him from its cruder realities and lavishes on him its choicest sweetmeats and maidens. And, all the while, it mocks him as inferior in spirit, and holds up his rare defection as an example of all that is wrong with the craven, godless West.

Gerard Depardieu’s Russian Citizenship Is a Passport to a Westerner’s Playground [TNR]

Kremlin Tightens Screws, Unwittingly Loosens Bolts

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

In the run-up to Russia’s March presidential election, Vladimir Putin didn’t even bother showing up to the debates with his nominal rivals. (Instead, he sent surrogates: a movie director to one, and a nameless graduate student to another; Obama may have slept through the first debate, but at least he showed up.) In recent weeks, however, Russians have had a vigorous debate season to match America’s own. And though Russia’s televised debates aren’t intended to select the next president, they’ve evidently managed to make the current occupant of the Kremlin very uncomfortable.

The debaters belong to the fractious, motley cloud that is the Russian opposition, and the idea was, in part, an answer to the Kremlin’s standard line in pooh-poohing the protest movement: you guys are so disorganized, who do we even talk to? This past summer, an activist from Yekaterinburg named Leonid Volkov teamed up with opposition leader Alexey Navalny to give shape and momentum to the previously disorganized movement, settling on a plan to form what they called the Opposition Coordination Council, an umbrella opposition organization which would have 45 seats with reserved blocs for the various opposition political factions: the leftists, the liberals, the nationalists, and the apolitical cultural figures. The candidates, who had to pay a $300 fee to register, would then duke it out in a March-madness style debate tournament on the opposition television station Dozhd (“Rain”). Then, on October 20, voters would go to the polls and elect the council.

The debates began about three weeks ago, as the two hundred candidates introduced themselves to the public and squared off against one another on late-night TV. This was an entirely new phenomenon for Russians, who hadn’t seen debates like this ever since Putin came to power. But it wasn’t like Russians were really watching; the debates were shown after midnight on a channel that has relatively little reach. And when, on October 14, the opposition was blown out in various nation-wide elections for real-life mayorships and other municipal posts – Putin’s United Russia, though weakened, trounced all such challengers – these doubts weighed even heavier. Was this all just an onanistic pageant for the insular Moscow chattering class?

But then the Kremlin weighed in. On Wednesday, it arrested leftist leader and Council candidate Sergei Udaltsov after a lengthy search of his apartment. Udaltsov had been caught on camera meeting with some Georgians and for that he is now, strangely, being charged with “organizing mass disorder.” Then the State Prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation into the planning committee of the Coordination Council for alleged fraud. The issue was that not all those who had tried to register as candidates were allowed to participate in the debates: an imprisoned neo–Nazi was turned away, as were some provocateurs from a famous pyramid scheme (called MMM), which has been around since the 1990s and which the government seems unable or unwilling to shut down. Ironically, it was the latter who cried fraud. Their registration fees ($300 x 53 rejected registrants) were not returned, though Volkov had published a plea on the Council’s site, asking for information on where to return the money. (They had been traceless deposits, rather than bank transfers.)

By cracking down three days before these elections, the Kremlin has displayed its usual cruelty; but, in trying to crush the opposition movement, it has also stupidly managed to grant it wider legitimacy. Yesterday’s actions have become a rallying cry to get people to an opposition protest planned for Saturday, a loud reminder to those who once came to this winter’s protests and have since been lulled into boredom and complacency: this is what we’re up against. Udaltsov, despite his widely mocked aviators and pompous airs, despite his tactical bone-headedness and general irrelevance among the opposition, is being transformed into a martyr. And suddenly, the Council elections this weekend seem very important. The Kremlin will no doubt continue to publicly claim that the casting of some 120,000 votes in an unofficial election is meaningless in a country of 140 million, but its actions show that they are not. If they were truly meaningless, they wouldn’t have bothered. “Now everyone who has a different opinion of the country’s situation is targeted,” said Communist leader (and Udaltsov ally) Gennady Zyuganov. “And there is only one goal: to suffocate completely any seeds of protest.” But instead of suffocating protests, the Kremlin has stoked them.

And the larger problem, of course, is that the Kremlin’s crackdown perpetuates the notion that politics in Russia is inevitably a zero-sum game. The more the Kremlin shows that it is not interested in dialogue or even the slightest compromise, the less the opposition will want only to topple, rather than change, the current order. And, given enough time, the reformers will fall away and the real, start-over revolutionaries will take their place. This is Russia, after all, a fact the Kremlin constantly forgets.

Kremlin Tightens Screws, Unwittingly Loosens Bolts [TNR]

Is Pussy Riot Breaking Up?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Something’s rotten in the state of Pussy Riot. Yes, there was some good news today: Ekaterina Samutsevich, the oldest and quietest member of the jailed trio, was released from jail today after her sentence was reduced to probation. When the appellate judge read out the changed verdict, Samutsevich whooped and her two bandmates, who will now depart to do two years of hard time in a distant penal colony, hugged her. They were all smiles and cheers. But don’t let that fool you. Pussy Riot isn’t well.

For one thing, the appeal was only heard today because it was postponed last week when Samutsevich suddenly asked for a new lawyer for herself. Before, during and after their August trial, the three young women were being represented by three lawyers who were more political activists than classic attorneys: they seemed to have given up before the trial had even begun. Instead of lawyering, they tweeted. Instead of trying to force the court, which wouldn’t allow a single defense witness, back into the strictures of legal procedure, they went for theatrics. At one point, for example, lawyer Violetta Volkova—Samutsevich’s original lawyer—had worked herself into such a tizzy that she stormed out of the courtroom without asking the judge’s permission, forcing the court to call her an ambulance.

But it’s hard to really blame Volkova and her colleagues: It’s not like the court was letting the lawyers do much of anything anyway. The verdict was known before it was read, and before the trial started.

Moreover, Samutsevich’s sudden change of heart was not so sudden: It was the result of a slow drip of pressure from the state. One evening after yet another marathon trial day, Samutsevich’s father, a soft-spoken, unhappy-looking man with gray hair and old glasses, told me that before the trial started, his daughter was being visited by a man from the civic committee that oversees the prison system. The man, thought by the other committee members to be a government mole, would visit Samutsevich and tell her that Volkova did not have her interests at heart, and that she should consider getting another lawyer.

Samutsevich resisted, and stayed with the Pussy Riot team. But the Samutsevich family has long been a weak link in Pussy Riot’s effort to maintain solidarity. Samutsevich’s father actually testified for the plaintiffs in the original trial. When he was first questioned in the case, an investigator apparently hinted that he could help his daughter, and, as a result of his affidavit, the plaintiff decided to call him as a witness—which came as a shock to Mr. Samutsevich. Taking the stand, he hinted that one of the other defendants, Nadia Tolokonnikova, was responsible for corrupting his daughter. He said that after his daughter started hanging out with Tolokonnikova she became “zombified” and that she stopped sharing her inner world with him; he no longer recognized his grown child.

In the two months since the Pussy Riot conviction, other cracks have started to show. Tolokonnikova lashed out at Peter Verzilov, her (now platonic) husband and co-founder of Pussy Riot, for trying to cash in on the group’s (now international) fame. (A heart-rending episode of the documentary “Srok” showed Verzilov touring the United States with the couple’s young daughter, Hera. As Verzilov sails through the media appearances and awards ceremonies, Hera is left largely unattended. In one scene, she looks out the hotel room window and searches for an explanation for why “Petya” is still not home.)

And, now that Samutsevich is out, Pussy Riot’s supporters–including the many opposition journalists they expended energy courting– have turned against the group’s original lawyers. Samustevich’s new lawyer, a pretty, middle-aged corporate blonde who cuts a striking comparison with the obese and histrionic Volkova, is praised as a hero. If only Pussy Riot had employed her all along, the thinking goes, this never would have happened.

This is, at best, a collective delusion, a desperate and groundless gasp of retrospective regret. The fact is that legal redemption has never really been possible for Pussy Riot. Consider this: at the appellate hearing, Samutsevich’s lawyer made the case that her client had not actually participated in the “hooliganism” of which the three Pussy Riot members were convicted in August. She had been pounced on by security guards and thus prevented from getting to the altar to kick and punch in a manner provocative to God. The implication, therefore, is that there was a crime committed—something that the original defense team never conceded—and that Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were guilty of it. Samutsevich’s new lawyer did a good job, narrowly defined: she got her client off. But she also broke up the group’s unity and blocked off the one path to redemption that the group actually had: ignoring the court’s proceedings and denying its legitimacy. As prominent Russian journalist (and close friend) Tikhon Dzyadko noted in a Facebook post after Samutsevich walked out of the courtroom and into a throng of cameras, “There is no independent judicial system in Russia, especially in such cases. Therefore, today’s court decision can be said to be about anything except about the actual issue before the court. And that means that it doesn’t matter which lawyer did the defending.”

Samustevich’s release, in other words, was a simple application of a classic technique: divide and conquer. The state has not had a change of heart—over the weekend, Putin told a reporter for state-owned television that the girls “got what they wanted”—and Samutsevich is no more innocent or guilty than Tolokonnikova or Maria Alekhina, the third and most vocal defendant. They were all wearing balaclavas when they performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and the plaintiffs in no way proved—or really tried to—that the identity of the women in the balaclavas was the same as that of those sitting in the courtroom “fish tank.” Nor did they try to link those specific women in the “fish tank” to any of the unrepeatable things said on that altar that had so offended God and “the entire Christian world.” If the state has made it look like Pussy Riot is breaking apart, it’s not because the judicial system has revealed any nuances in how the group functioned. It merely found the group’s weakest link, loosened it, and popped it right out, breaking the chain and trying to catalyze its collapse and decline.

In a surprise twist, and perhaps reacting to the outside pressure to splinter, the group seems to be pulling back together and at least temporarily putting aside their differences. There were the hugs in the fish tank, then, for the rest of the evening, Verzilov drove Samutsevich around to various television appearances. (Her first, tellingly, was on CNN.) One can peer into the near future and see a Samutsevich media and legal blitz–she’s planning on taking her case to the European Court of Human Rights – in part on behalf of her jailed bandmates.

Or not. The Kremlin tried to accomplish something clever today, and, at least temporarily, achieved the opposite. But perhaps it’s just a hiccup: what fame started, fame will finish.

Is Pussy Riot Breaking Up? [TNR]

What I Will (and Won’t) Miss About Living in Moscow

Monday, September 24th, 2012

On September 24, 2012, I will leave Moscow after three years of living here, a few weeks shy of the day, thirty years ago, that I was born here. In between, I managed to have half a childhood here, a whole life in America, and a fellowship that brought me to Moscow, on September 12, 2009, for nine months. Instead, I stayed for three years. I never expected to stay that long, and I never expected that these years would make me a real, live journalist. (Medicine was always the completely unrealistic back-up plan.) I never expected to interview the kinds of people I did, I never expected to be able to speak real, educated adult Russian well enough to go on local television, I never expected to see the kinds of things I did, I never expected to write this much, and I certainly never expected that it would be so hard to leave. I never expected to fall in love.

After a fourteen-hour journey via Zurich, I will land at Dulles International Airport, and I will begin my life in Washington, D.C. I will get a new beat and new colleagues. I will make new friends. Perhaps I will come back to Moscow for the occasional story, but my life will be in the Chesapeake basin. And, after months of heartache, Moscow will slowly become a bright blur, fodder for dinner party conversation, or a handshake to inaugurate me into the secret society of all the other American journalists who have come through this place and come away transformed. It will become yet another factoid about me.

But folded deep into those anecdotes will be the fact that this foreign city is also my native city, a place where I feel both completely at home and completely alien, a place I’ve loved and hated for so long. Buried in there will be all the details I will forget with delight and remember with longing. And before my memory irons them out, I want to make note of them.

When I leave Moscow, I won’t miss the traffic and the pollution and the boom-town prices, but I’ll miss that a gypsy cab for $6 still gets you just about anywhere.

I’ll miss the beautifully Soviet metro stations—the stained glass, the marble, the utopian, gilt mosaics. I’ll miss the fact that you rarely have to wait more than a minute for a train. I won’t miss stepping inside at nine in the morning past a cloud of peregar, the smell of metabolized alcohol.

I won’t miss how much Russians drink, but I will miss drinking with Russians.

I won’t miss the late-night debates in which you find yourself falling down an epistemological black hole. Down there, nothing is provable and nothing is knowable, except for your sparring partner’s increasingly bizarre pronouncements. In Moscow, I have debated the following topics: whether or not the archived kill-lists with Stalin’s signature are forgeries; the allegation that I am naïve for thinking that American traffic cops generally don’t take bribes; that I am a C.I.A. spy; and the reason America is a more successful country than Somalia (hint: it wasn’t founded by black people). I’ve also been asked to prove how smoking causes lung cancer.

I won’t miss the casual racism and the relax-I-was-just-joking anti-Semitism. I will miss the fact that just about everyone can do a killer Georgian accent and knows a truly wonderful Jewish joke.

I will also miss the fact that, with the anti-Kremlin protests of the last few months, there is still a place in the world where you can debate the things the West has long ago stopped talking about and long ago started taking for granted; that, here, you have conversations full of big words and basic concepts like “freedom” and whether government officials can have fully private lives.

I won’t miss the fact that abstraction can get boring.

I won’t miss the casual misogyny, but I will miss the fact that it makes for excellent copy, as it did when Bolshoi prima Anastasia Volochkova quit the ruling United Russia party and the party responded as follows: “Women, like children, are susceptible to changes in mood. In this sense, Anastasia Volochkova is a real woman.” (As one American friend here once noted, “It’s like ‘Mad Men,’ but with worse clothes.”)

I won’t miss living in a city where virtually everyone is white and wearing an Orthodox Christian cross, where the only places of worship you see are the onion domes of Orthodox churches, and where the Church and the state are in such close cooperation. The medieval beauty of the architecture wears thin when there’s nothing to contrast it to, and when you know of the abuses happening under its aegis. A monopoly is a monopoly is a monopoly.

I won’t miss the fact that Jewish culture and Jewish people have largely disappeared from this city, and that another monopoly—Chabad—has become the only way to be Jewish here.

I will miss the fact that, when you go to someone’s birthday party, you have to bring them a gift or flowers. It gets expensive, but the moment when you hand it over is so nice. And when it’s your birthday, you may have to pay for the food and the booze, but you can barely get the flowers home, to say nothing of the gifts.

I won’t miss the fact that there is no trust in the Russian system: not in institutions, not in people. I will miss the strength of the bonds it breeds when you find that trust.

I will miss the fact that Russians are not afraid of what we in America nervously call “the L-word,” or the messes it can get you into.

I won’t miss the fact that seemingly every educated, professional woman my age happens to also be a single mom. I will miss the fact that kids are a natural part of everyone’s life here, rather than a special, perfectly-planned project.

I won’t miss the fact that nothing is planned here, that everything on every level is slapdash and knee jerk, that everything happens, as the Russians say, “from the cunt.” I will miss the fact that this means you don’t have to plan with whom you’ll have dinner two weeks from now, and that your social life can be spontaneous, organic, and sincere.

I will miss the strange and colorful expressions. (And that, as they say, is “speaking truth to the uterus.”)

I won’t miss the fact that there is only a handful of decent bars and restaurants in this city of 15 million. I will miss that this means that most of them are like Cheers, and that you are guaranteed to bump into half your friends on any given night. It also makes you a better cook.

I will miss ordering water in a restaurant and having the waiter ask you if you want it “room temperature, or cold?” with a look on their faces that suggests that opening the latter door will lead you to a desolate place of upper respiratory demise (see below).

I will miss the way that Russian journalists will readily drink beer with you till 3 am on a school night. I won’t miss thinking about what it does for their product, or mine.

I will miss the addiction to social networks and text messages like “Look at my FB page!” I won’t miss the loss of productivity. Actually, I will.

I thought I wouldn’t miss the ubiquity of emoticons – especially, the ones with no eyes – but I was wrong.))))

I will miss the heels, but not the painful fact of wearing them on a long Moscow trek.

I won’t miss the bad lip jobs and the bad Botox jobs, the obvious hair extensions, the mullets that have slowly been beaten back into neck bangs, the range of men’s footwear, which ranges from pointy to cheese-grate, the male purses, the men’s jeans that are tight and loose in absolutely paradoxical places, respectively. I will miss the people watching. A friend visiting from New York confirmed: Moscow beats the Big Apple with its manicured hands tied behind its back.

I will miss the amazing medical theories I’ve heard here. Pimples? Try massaging your face with semen. Migraine? Must’ve eaten too much mayonnaise. Gynecological cancer? Too much lady-stress. I won’t, however, miss the fact that I’m afraid to go to the doctor’s office here. (Once, my friends’ six-year-old daughter broke her arm and, when the doctor saw the x-ray, he did a double take, pulled a medical reference book off the shelf, and started feverishly reading it. A friend of a friend was mistakenly told he was HIV-positive, and lived with this diagnosis for about a week.)

I will miss the fact that you can get antibiotics and just about anything else over the counter. I won’t miss people breathing down your neck in the pharmacy line, asking why you picked out such expensive medicine. (There is no word in Russian for “privacy.”)

I won’t miss needing my passport for everything, including returning a pair of flip-flops to the store. I will miss bank tellers looking at my American passport and asking me where the Russian is.

I won’t miss the fact that in Russia, the absence of the rule of law is sublimated into the tyranny of the procedural guideline and the dictatorship of the technicality. Without the right notarized slip of paper, the saying goes, “you’re a doodie.”

I won’t miss the fact that no one ever seems to have any change, especially cashiers. I love that it’s made me good at arithmetic again.

I won’t miss the aggression and rudeness in every interaction. I will miss the creative sarcasm it engenders in all participants.

I will miss the twisted, clever Russian sense of humor.

I will miss the laser precision with which Russians answer questions. “Isn’t there a café here somewhere?” “Yes.” “…and where is it?” “Second floor.”

I will miss the long and freezing Russian winters and the heat-generating habits they inspire. I will especially miss the warm, short Moscow summers, when it gets dark close to midnight and the whole city seems to live in outdoor cafes.

I will miss how tough Moscow makes you, and how miserable, and the way it teaches you to hunt out and savor the good. I will miss the dizzying happiness born of those moments. In three years, I’ve never seen anyone crying in the street.

What I Will (and Won’t) Miss About Living in Moscow [TNR]

Russia Tries to Kill U.S. Democracy Promotion Once and For All

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

MOSCOW—When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived for the APEC summit in Vladivostok on September 8, there was one item on the agenda she was not expecting. Sitting down with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the two discussed missile defense and Syria, talked about Iran’s quest to get a nuclear weapon. And then Lavrov dropped the bomb: USAID was to cease all operations inside the Russian Federation starting October 1. Four days later, the Russian Foreign Ministry delivered the news in writing.

USAID, the government development agency started by John F. Kennedy in 1961, first opened its operations in Russia right after the end of the Cold War. The goal was to help Russia transition from a command economy to a market one. Since then, the agency has helped Russians draft land and tax reform, has tried to jump-start the small business sector through micro loans and has addressed public health issues like Russia’s mammoth AIDS and tuberculosis problems.

Mostly, of course, it finances civil society and democracy initiatives. Today’s USAID office is a shadow of its former self, with a budget of under $50 million, a drop fom $207 million in 1995, but it still finances large chunks of the operating budgets of a number of prominent Russian organizations like the storied human rights and historical “memory” group Memorial, the Russian branch of Transparency International, and the election monitoring NGO “Golos”. These organizations, not coincidentally, are an irritant for the Kremlin, which is often the target of their criticism.

There has long been talk in Moscow of shutting down USAID, but it’s impossible to appreciate today’s news without first considering the backdrop of continuing anti-government protests and the Kremlin’s increasingly harsh way of dealing with them. The foundation for this move was laid back in May when the Russian parliament passed a law that required such groups—which participate in the political life of the country and get foreign financing—to register as “foreign agents.” The new measure goes one step further and threatens to shut the spigot off altogether.

Lilia Shibanova, head of Golos, sees something even more sinister in this. Golos and its army of fastidious election monitors are a favorite of the American government and of the U.S. ambassador to Russia. But to Putin, they are spoilers; the Kremlin likes its elections engineered just so. Last fall, a week before the December parliamentary elections, Putin took a shot across the bow at Golos, saying: “The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money—so called ‘grantees’—whom they instruct…in order to influence the result of the election in our country.” He added, “Judas is not the most respected biblical character among our people.” Shortly thereafter, Golos offices were raided.

Shibanova sees today’s news as the next act of the crackdown. “If what I’m hearing is true, that the deadline is October 1, then it seems that the government is in a rush to close us down in time for the regional elections, which are October 14,” she said. “The timing seems very suspicious to me.”

The U.S. government, for its part, insists that this doesn’t spell the end of their support for civil rights in Russia. “We haven’t changed our policy,” said one senior government official, and echoed State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland’s statement that State “remains committed to supporting, democracy human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.” In December of last year, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and floated the administration’s idea of creating a $50 million fund to sponsor democracy development in Russia. This could take on new urgency given today’s news and the State Department’s defiant pledge to continue in this line of work, be it through USAID or some other vehicle.

“This is not anything new,” says Elena Panfilova, director of Transparency International Russia. “In 2005, when they found the rock”—a British spy camera that looked like a rock—“they went after foreign funding. A lot of our donors left us then, but we made it out alive.” Panfilova says she and her employees simply found other work and contributed parts of their salaries to the project. And while finding domestic sponsors becomes increasingly unlikely in a context such as this, Panfilova remains hopeful. “We’ll figure it out,” she said. “We’re not stupid.”

Russia Tries to Kill U.S. Democracy Promotion Once and For All [TNR]

Russia’s Wild Fantasies of an All-Powerful State Department

Monday, September 17th, 2012

When journalist Arkady Mamontov aired his television exposé on Pussy Riot last week, the central question was who was behind their riotous performance? Mamontov’s investigation yielded two culprits: oligarch-in-exile Boris Berezovsky, and “some Americans” who hired Pussy Riot and choreographed their act in order to corrupt the souls of Russian youth. Mamontov didn’t need to spell out who those Americans were; everyone watching got the message anyway. It was the State Department.

If you were to believe the official Russian press, it is not Vladimir Putin running the country, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Russian public has been lead to believe that penny-pinching Foggy Bottom is a sleek and furtive machine with money to burn, one that can topple leaders on a whim and choreograph elaborate street protests at a far remove.

The State Department’s plots against Russia were initially unveiled by none other than Putin himself, who, in December, accused Clinton of “giving the signal” to Russia’s opposition to go out and protest after last year’s parliamentary election. Then there was talk that the State Department paid tens of thousands of Muscovites to come out and rail against the Kremlin. (In case you were wondering about the true origins of America’s national debt.) Then newly-appointed Ambassador Michael McFaul arrived, and he was accused in state media of having been sent by the State Department to foment revolution in Russia via his Twitter account. State television has aired chilling documentaries about how the State Department was behind everything from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the economic chaos of the 1990s, because its ultimate goal is “to bring Russia to its knees.” One such expose even accused the State Department of deviously luring people to opposition protests with—wait for it—cookies.

To anyone who knows anything about how Foggy Bottom actually works, its Bondian image in Russia is nothing short of hilarious. “The conspiracy theories are all 100 percent correct,” quipped a Hill staffer who works on foreign policy. “The Russians cracked the code on this one. The State Department really is the center of a conspiracy so vast that it boggles the imagination.” People inside the State Department hardly recognize the organization that the Russian government describes. “The Russians see the State Department as this pseudo-mystical, omniscient, omnipotent organization,” explained one State Department employee in Moscow. “Little do they know that we live from budget to budget, and that, at times, we’re even worried about our salaries!”

Whence comes this ill-fitting lionization of a rather unwieldy, bureaucratic ministry? Aside from the obvious propaganda benefit of having an external enemy, a large part of it is rooted in the Russian proclivity to see puppeteers and conspiracies everywhere. In Russia, as in many societies with closed systems of government, nothing is as it seems, even when the counter-intuitive becomes the counter-factual. Archives filled with documents proving mass repressions in the 1930s? Forged. People coming out to demand democratic freedoms on their own? Please. (A couple years ago, a Russian opposition leader went on the television show of Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Kremlin English-language channel Russia Today. He happened to mention that he didn’t think that the State Department engineered the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. In fact, he called it “insanity” and “propaganda.” She shot back sarcastically: “So you really believe that they did this themselves? Thought all this stuff up on their own?”)

In part, it comes from the fact that Russians, just like Americans, think that the rest of the world is just like them. In Russia, one man decides everything — including who gets to edit a small scientific journal. It’s hard for Russians to understand, for example, that America does not have a monolithic political system—or even a monolithic foreign ministry—and that President Obama, for example, can’t just tell Congress to go and do something, the way Putin can with his parliament. And because there’s been no real change at the top for over a decade, it’s hard for Russians to grasp that the foreign policy of Obama may differ substantively from that of George W. Bush, and that the appearance of change is not a canard. “Russian public opinion is given to seeing the world not as diverse but as a whole,” says Sergei Markov, a pro-Putin hawk and former parliamentarian. “In the Russian mass consciousness, the American side is a very strong power, so there must be a secret room where people engineer these things.”

Moreover, the man who does decide everything in Russia has a background—however spotty and apparently second-rate—in espionage and subterfuge: He served as a KGB officer in Dresden. Today, he is surrounded by foreign policy advisors who, according to several sources who have sat in on such meetings, are a fairly paranoid bunch. “Even during the reset, the bureaucracies of the two countries have never gotten along well,” says Cliff Kupchan, who heads up the Russia division in the Eurasia Group. “Even when the top gets along well, as they have during Obama era, it’s hard to penetrate down into the ranks, especially when many are products of the Cold War.”

And, to be fair to the Russians, the State Department has expressed a clear interest in democracy promotion around the world. In Russia, those efforts are mostly conducted through USAID and NDI, as well as by grants to local NGOs. These efforts, of course, are officially unwelcome and seen not as a strain of quixotic American idealism, but as meddling. In fact, there was talk recently of the Russian government shutting down USAID on its turf. “Of course, no one pays them to organize protests, but they pay them for years to promote ‘democratic values,’” explains Markov, who, ironically, spent a decade working for NDI in Moscow. “I think the State Department itself participates very little in what is happening on the ground, but they are happy that these protests are happening, no doubt.” (“Many Russians really think NDI can cause color revolutions,” says Kupchan. “Empirically, I don’t think that’s the case. They have a lot of very young people running around in these countries.”)

And yet, it’s hard for American officials not to see a bit of humor in it, like the old joke about a Jewish man reading an anti-Semitic paper because it’s brimming with good news: Jews have all the money, Jews have all the power. Says the Hill staffer: “They still believe in American power and American influence, probably more than Americans do. It’s probably the last place in the world where people still think we can engineer anything effectively. It’s very refreshing.”

Russia’s Wild Fantasies of an All-Powerful State Department [TNR]

The Blunt Weapon of Russian Law is Turned Against One of its Makers

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Today, the Russian parliament voted 291 to 150 to strip one Gennady Gudkov of his seat. Gudkov, a former KGB man and businessman, has served in the Duma, the Russian parliament, for eleven years, most of them in the leftist Just Russia party. (The biography on his website notes, oddly, that he was “the first deputy elected in the third millennium.”) The ostensible cause was that Gudkov “combined a deputy’s role with an entrepreneur’s”—that is to say, he continued to run his private security business while voting on laws and otherwise involving himself in the strange workings of the Duma.

Some sort of punishment would undoubtedly have been deserved—if only Gudkov’s “combining” had been proven in court, or if every other parliamentarian weren’t doing the exact same thing. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the evergreen clown of the pseudo-nationalist LDPR faction, for example, has a vodka factory that makes Zhirinovsky Vodka. Another deputy, a young man from the United Russia faction, is the CEO of a company called “Konsalting Menedzhment Strategia.” According to a list compiled by Gudkov’s son Dmitry (also a deputy from the same party), his colleagues in the Duma own scores of business, hundreds of shares in companies, acres of posh real estate, and drive quite incredible cars. (One drives a Bentley, for example; the husband of another drives a Lamborghini Diablo. Indeed, the parking lot in front of the Duma building is a thicket of luxury vehicles, all this despite the parliamentarians’ officially low salaries.)

None of this is anything new. Russian bureaucrats are the country’s new elite. A study done by a Moscow real estate company found that most of the apartments on the “elite” market (apartments for $1.5 to 2 million) sell to bureaucrats. Their wives and children are usually the heads of large and lucrative businesses, and their automotive choices rarely jive with the incomes listed on their official declarations. Everyone in Russia knows that in Russia politics is almost explicitly about proximity to cash flows and the size of the bucket you get. This is why, when the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times recently reported on potential insider trading by which Putin ally Igor Shuvalov (then deputy prime minister) shuffled about a billion dollars to himself and his friends, no one so much as batted an eye, not even Shuvalov. A case that, in the West, would have churned up a media sensation and a drawn out legal battle here didn’t even ripple the water.

And this is the problem with the Gudkov case. Yes, Gudkov had a nice business—I would know: I’ve been to the well-appointed 18th century mansion that serves as its central office—but the fact that his business was first shut down (the Interior Ministry revoked its license that had allowed it to operate) and that he was shorn of his status clearly has nothing to do with the business. It has everything to do with the fact that Gudkov, a good old boy, went over to the wrong side: When mass political protests began after December’s disputed parliamentary elections, Gudkov became a very visible and very vocal leader of the opposition, both in parliament and on the streets. The issue is not that he is a businessman, but that he is a traitor. This is why, when Gudkov finished his farewell speech to his colleagues shortly before the vote, one United Russia deputy shouted “Judas!” (His fellow traitor, television celebrity and daughter of Putin’s mentor Ksenia Sobchak, was subjected to a humiliating nine-hour search of her home in June after joining the opposition. The investigators took nearly $2 million from her safe—and if she ever sees the money again, I will quit this profession.)

When I asked high-ranking United Russia deputy Andrey Isaev about the Gudkov case, he told me it was done with the Duma’s prestige in mind. “I think it was absolutely the right decision and if we hadn’t made it, millions of citizens would have decided that being in the Duma is a lucky break,” Isaev told me. “They’ll think that deputies can do whatever, violate whatever laws. Today’s decision showed that that’s not the case.”

Actually, Duma deputies enjoy legal immunity—the criminal investigation against Gudkov that the government’s Investigative Committee is now considering would never have been possible had he not been forced to relinquish his seat in parliament. But that’s not even the point. The point is that, if the Duma has little legitimacy after the widely and loudly falsified December parliamentary elections and the mass protests it sparked, it has even less legitimacy now. (After the vote, Russian-language Twitter buzzed with the anger of those who had voted for Gudkov and his party and December, and now felt cheated and silenced.) The case becomes yet another reason for Russians to come to the very reasonable conclusion that the law and the Russian judicial system are its enemies. As Alexander Kliment of the Eurasia Group once wisely pointed out to me, the law in Russia does not exist as a neutral framework of guarantees and protections designed to level the playing field. In Russia, the law doesn’t exist until it is needed to take out an opponent, or a traitor. In Russia, the law is a weapon.

Gudkov and anyone watching the fast unraveling of his career—first the business, then the Duma seat—knew that once the system aims itself at you, there is no chance you’ll escape whole. The outcome of this case was obvious months ago, when government inquiries into Gudkov’s business first appeared this summer. Perhaps this is why Gudkov’s speech in parliament focused on an unspecified future in which he could claim vindication—and why he answered the heckle “Judas!” with a full-throated “Go fuck yourself!”

The Blunt Weapon of Russian Law is Turned Against One of its Makers [TNR]

How to Tell If You’re an American Spy in Russia: Ask Hillary Clinton

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

On July 26, the heads of two of the most famous human rights groups in Russia sent President Barack Obama an open letter with a pressing issue: were they, or were they not his spies?

It was a strange move, but also quite a clever one. In May, in the last week of its session, the Russian parliament kicked into overdrive and passed a raft of measures widely seen as trying to pull the rug out from under the increasingly vocal and increasingly numerous opposition. One of the new laws required that Russian NGOs that received money from abroad and did political work inside Russia register as “foreign agents.” It would also require them to add this label to all their publications, and to subject themselves to strict government oversight. Because it’s hard for Russian human rights groups to get money at home, they often turn to Europe and the U.S.; now the money would come with a tag that would make them even more alien and suspect at a time when the government has stepped up its anti-Western rhetoric. It would also make money even harder to get. This left the human rights community—as well as those groups that monitor elections, corruption, and police brutality—in a bind: Take the money and face domestic harassment and public hostility, or tighten their belts even further.

But then Lev Ponomarev, of “For Human Rights,” had an idea. “The law was sloppily written,” he explained. “It uses the word ‘agent,’ but doesn’t define it.” But the civil code already has a definition, and for someone to be classified an agent, there has to be a contract with the principal on behalf of whom the agent is working. Because Ponomarev’s organization takes money from three American funds—MacArthur, Soros, and the National Endowment for Democracy—he decided to ask his supposed principal whether or not they had this contract.

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded. “I would like to thank you for your letter. President Obama asked me to answer you,” she wrote in a letter that was posted, in Russian, on the website of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization in Russia, and a co-signer on the July letter. “Every American administration has always supported the important work of your organization in defending human rights in Russia,” Clinton went on:

In response to your specific question as to whether non-governmental organizations receiving American grants are ‘agents’ of the American government, allow me to categorically state that not only do we not impose goals on your organizations and do not control their activities, but we have no desire to do so. The priorities and activities of non-governmental organizations that receive support from the United States, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and For Human Rights, are determined by their leadership, by their staff and activists, not by their donors.

The fairly quick and positive response was likely the doing of the American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, who has known Ponomarev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, for over twenty years. He was an Oxford graduate student in Moscow when the Soviet Union started to crumble, and befriended a lot of the players on both sides of the barricades. He is also extremely close with the president, on whom he prevailed, early in his term, to give Russian-American relations far more ram space than most anyone expected, or thought they deserved. Though Alexeyeva and Ponomarev both deny that they asked McFaul to lobby Clinton and Obama, and McFaul wouldn’t comment, it’s telling that, right after the NGO law was passed, McFaul hosted a dinner for Alexeyeva’s eighty-fifth birthday at his residence in Moscow, and then released the pictures online. It was clearly an act of defiance by a diplomat for whom democracy promotion and human rights have been his life’s work.

The other issue, of course, is whether Clinton’s answer will be of any use in convincing the Russians. When I spoke to Alexeyeva, she recalled how, in the spring of 1977, a Jewish human rights activist named Anatoly Sharansky (he would later become Israeli politician Natan Sharansky) was accused by Soviet authorities of spying for the U.S. and tossed in jail. In June, Jimmy Carter, who had come under pressure from Jewish organizations, went on television to announce that Sharanasky was not a spy for the United States. “It didn’t help Sharansky, but it swayed international opinion that the accusation was false,” Alexeyeva explained.

“It’s not very convincing for our enemies, but I don’t care, because if they wrote this law like this, show me the evidence that I’m an agent,” Ponomarev told me. (In fact, a parliamentarian from the ruling United Russia party called Clinton’s “a love letter.”) “And if I’m a secret agent, then let the FSB do its work and unveil me as a secret agent.”

There was another aspect that particularly tickled Ponomarev: the international scandal aspect. Come fall, the law will go into effect and Ponomarev’s “For Human Rights” will have to register as a foreign agent. “They’ll say, ‘Where do you get your money from? Whose agent are you?’ and I’ll say, ‘America,’” Ponomarev says. “I register as an agent, and Obama says, ‘Hey, that’s not my agent!’ That’s a little awkward, don’t you think?”

How to Tell If You’re an American Spy in Russia: Ask Hillary Clinton [TNR]

Pussy Riot? More Like Pussy War

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

MOSCOW—Yesterday afternoon, two women—a mother and her 38-year-old daughter—were found stabbed to death in the southeastern city of Kazan. By the time the news reached Moscow this morning, it arrived with a new bit of information: someone had scrawled “Free Pussy Riot” on the hallway wall. In blood.

It’s not clear who did this—or, more significantly, why—but two weeks after the three young women of Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in jail for singing a “punk prayer” in the main church of the capital, the story continues to roil Russian society. And “pussy” continues to appear in Russian headlines.

On the morning the sentence was to be handed down, members of the topless feminist group FEMEN in Kiev, Ukraine took a chainsaw to a giant wooden cross commemorating the victims of Stalin’s repressions. Soon, copycats were popping up across Russia. The latest cross was felled by Pussy Riots supporters in the subarctic city of Arkhangelsk. This prompted outrage from the Orthodox community, with the Church’s sharp-tongued spokesman Vsevolod Chaplin darkly prophesying that “those who fell crosses today may move on to murder in the future.”

Sure enough, four days later, two women turned up dead with “Free Pussy Riot” scrawled on the wall, as Kremlin loyalists trilled their I-told-you-so’s. (“If you still think that breaking the norms of behavior in a church doesn’t change anything, I recommend you read the latest news,” one of them tweeted.) As if this weren’t enough, shortly after the double-murder swamped the headlines, news broke of a man who had been stabbed to death in St. Petersburg. Whoever killed him left a religious icon on his head.

All of this has put Team Pussy Riot on the defensive, with the women’s lawyers trying to distance themselves from the violence. They have labeled the blood graffiti “a case for a psychiatrist” and called the Archangelsk cross-fellers “two mentally-retarded youths.”

The faithful, however, have felt compelled to respond in kind. Shortly after the Pussy Riot verdict, there were reports of them attacking people wearing “Free Pussy Riot” t-shirts. One young man, a veteran of the second Chechen War and head of the “Holy Rus” organization, announced that he would form bands of Orthodox “volunteers” to patrol Russia for crimes against sacred artifacts and priests.

In truth, Pussy Riot only heightened the cultural tensions underlying Russian society. In the last few years, criticism has mounted against an Orthodox Church that is increasingly lavish (the Church’s press service recently admitted to airbrushing a $30,000 Breguet watch of the patriarch’s wrist), increasingly unapologetic (Chaplin called the patriarch’s sumptuous lifestyle his “cross”), increasingly brazen (a woman thought to be Patriarch Kirill’s lover is suing to take over the apartment of a famous cardiologist dying of cancer) and increasingly seen as a Kremlin franchise. This winter, as anti-Kremlin protests broke out in Moscow, the patriarch called on people to go to church instead, and later enthusiastically endorsed Vladimir Putin ahead of the March presidential election. The people who took to the streets demanding fair elections have, with the help of Pussy Riot, come to see the Church as their enemy, too.

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that Putin’s popularity depends, in part, on his support for the Church. (Support that’s not just rhetorical: He returned religious art to the Church from state museums and, the day before his most recent inauguration, he inaugurated a chapel that would pray for his health around the clock.) The Church’s militantly anti-Western, anti-liberal rhetoric appeals to Putin’s natural base of support, most of it in smaller, poorer cities. This population, if they’ve heard of Pussy Riot at all, is conservative, religious, and nationalistic, and finds the ideas of the opposition deeply alien. It is also a fairly huge population.

Given the increasing economic and political tensions in the country, these two Russias were bound to come to blows. And, as usual, religion has provided an easy, steadily burning fuse.

Pussy Riot? More Like Pussy War [TNR]

How Three Young Punks Made Putin Blink

Friday, August 17th, 2012

MOSCOW—When the sentence came, it was after three hours of Judge Marina Syrova monotonously reading aloud the entire tale of Pussy Riot’s encounter with the law. Three hours from the time she pronounced the three young women guilty of “grossly violating the public order” and of being “motivated by religious hatred,” the judge announced that only a “real sentence”—rather than probation—would be fitting and instructive enough. She quickly handed down a two-year sentence in minimum security prison to each of the defendants, and that was that.

In those three hours, however, with the entire courtroom standing the whole time, we got to hear the entire case all over again. We heard about how the three young defendants—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina, handcuffed inside a bulletproof “aquarium”—as well as “two other unidentified people” entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on the morning of February 21, at which point they mounted the steps to the altar, shed their winter clothing, donned colorful balaclavas and began to “raise their legs” and to “hit the air, as if it were an opponent.” We heard about how their clothing was in violation of Church rules, how Samutsevich, “in clear collusion” with the others, took out a guitar and how Tolokonnikova plugged it into an amp “without delay,” about how the place where they stood—the ambon—was not for women, how the Cathedral’s employees tried to stop them, how the Pussy Riot “demonstratively and cynically” defied “the Orthodox world” and tried to “devalue centuries of revered and protected dogmas” and “encroaching on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.” We heard about the materials seized in the searches of the defendants’ apartments, materials that, apparently, had “offended God.” We heard about the testimony of the victims, the Orthodox believers so deeply wounded by the thirty-second performance, though we learned that that testimony of one witness—he had seen the resultant music video on YouTube and read an interview with Pussy Riot —was struck, which was a shame because he had been the only one to explain to the court the etiology of the group’s name. (“Do you even know what ‘pussy’ means?” he asked the court two weeks ago. “I do. I brought a dictionary.” The word, it turned out, derived from “pus.”)

Through those three hot, tiresome hours, the three young women listened to the litany of absurdist, pseudo-legalistic, theocratic woe, by turns laughing and rolling their eyes. Alyokhina, the brain, watched attentively, her pale face calm under a poof of dirty blonde frizz. Tolokonnikova, the opposition’s sultry new sex symbol (Ukrainian Playboy has just invited her onto its cover), wearing a blue “No pasarán!” t-shirt, smirked and curled her lips in disdain. Even the shy and awkward Samutsevich laughed when the judge, a prissy older woman, read the full text of the punk prayer “Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!”, uttering the phrase “the priest blows the prosecutor.” At one point, the unmistakable strains of punk wafted into the courtroom. The members of Pussy Riot who are still anonymous and free had emerged on a balcony across the street from the courthouse and began to rage through their new single “Putin Lights the Fires of Revolution.” Then they made it rain CDs. At the sound of the music, Tolokonnikova’s face lit up and, clasping her chained hands like a victorious boxer, shook them above her head.

When the two-year sentence came in, the girls laughed. When they were first detained and charged in March, all the signs had pointed to seven years behind bars. Putin had apologized to the Orthodox faithful, and the patriarch and Church made a point of staying out of the case, though it was quite clear that they weren’t.

But the Kremlin’s grasp on the story soon slipped. First, the story became a domestic PR-headache. Then, starting in July, Western musicians started glomming onto the case one by one: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting, Franz Ferdinand, Bjork, Paul McCartney. Madonna came to Moscow to give a concert, and ended up delivering an ode to the girls, donned a balaclava, and wrote the words “Free Pussy Riot” on her back. Unlike the highly politicized case of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a man with a shadowy past who had the assets Putin wanted, the case of Pussy Riot had become an easily consumable image of good and evil: Three young women against an Evil Empire. The heretofore little-known punkettes received such unanimously positive international publicity that one began even to pity the Kremlin and the Church a little: They had clearly and severely miscalculated.

As is so often the case with the Russian government, it was Putin himself who dramatized the pathos. Just before Putin’s departed for the London Olympics—halfway through the trial—London mayor Boris Johnson spoke up for Pussy Riot; upon his arrival, Prime Minister David Cameron broached the issue with Putin in their private meeting. Putin took notice of these slights; as swaggering and rude as he is (he’s been late to meet just about every foreign leader, including the Queen), he very much cares about his image in the West. It is where, after all, all his friends and subjects have their money. It is also important to Putin to be the leader of a world superpower, which is what he thinks Russia still is. He cannot be an Assad or a Qaddafi; it is very important for him to be what the Russians call “handshakeable” abroad. And so, while his instinct is often to hit first and think later, Putin knows it’s in his interest to cultivate the image of a centrist. It is not unheard of for him to bow to public pressure, though he will try his damndest to make it seem like public pressure has nothing to do with it.

Thus, when the case reached a fever pitch, Putin, speaking from London, said the girls “shouldn’t be punished too harshly.” Let them think about what they’ve done, he chided, and, as always, left it up to the court. The court immediately picked up on the signal, and soon the prosecutor was asking not for seven years, but for three. Some of the victims stopped calling for any punishment. The liberals who had gotten so fired up about the case became even more fired up: Here it was, the taste of victory! Ebullient rumors of probation soon began to circulate around Moscow.

There was some truth in this euphoria, but not enough. Twitter had helped Russian liberals back the Russian regime into a corner in unprecedented fashion. But the system that does not have a reverse gear, a system that admits no mistakes, and shows no weakness (ninety-nine percent of criminal cases in Russia result in a guilty verdict) cannot get a new transmission in one week, or in one case. As soon as the trial began, it was clear that the government did not intend on absolving Pussy Riot.

Still, the two-year sentence was a surprise because it was less than the three many expected, and far less than the seven everyone feared. “In our system, two years is not a real sentence,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who advised Putin’s successful 2000 presidential campaign. “They probably think they’re being very merciful,” especially considering that the girls have already served nearly six months of it in pre-trial detention. This was, in other words, as much give as the system could give.

Afterwards, supporters of Pussy Riot made their arguments for why it was still not enough. “Putin’s statements that the court could deliver a not-too-harsh verdict were expressed in a verdict that deprived innocent people of their freedom for two years,” defense lawyer Mark Feygin told a scrum of journalists outside the courthouse. “Who in their right mind could say this was a not-too-harsh verdict?” Alexey Navalny, the unspoken leader of the opposition, announced that he was “too angry to comment.” Nearby, a couple hundred very angry people had gathered nearby to protest, and a couple dozen of them were arrested. (One climbed the fence of the nearby Turkish embassy, and the police chased her onto its grounds.) The parents of the Samutsevitch and Alyokhina, who had originally disapproved of their daughters’ performance, now were fully behind them. “They did the right thing, absolutely,” Samutsevich’s soft-spoken, somewhat religious father said afterwards. “They really hit a nerve and showed the Church for what it is.”

And so the conclusion of the Pussy Riot trial served the same function as the performance that was its instigation: a demonstration of the deep contradictions plaguing Russian politics. From the perspective of the government, a sentence of two years is merciful; in the view of the country’s nascent, if disorganized and clumsy, but increasingly conscious, forward-looking middle-class opposition, it is beyond the pale. The original prupose of the trial may have been to cow Russia’s liberals, but the result was the opposite: Those paying attention to the trial—the journalists, the European parliamentarians, the activists, the chattering classes—were outraged, not intimidated, at the thought that three young women would be locked up for two years for singing a silly song.

When Tolokonnikova’s husband and Pussy Riot spinmeister Peter Verzilov emerged from the courthouse after the verdict, he was mobbed by journalists asking him for comment.

“What will happen to your wife and daughter?” one journalist asked. “Who will take care of them?”

“My daughter, wife, and everyone else will be saved by the revolution,” he said blithely. “Only the revolution. And we’re going to make it happen.”

How Three Young Punks Made Putin Blink [TNR]