Russia’s Traumatic Politics

24 Apr

My article in The New Republic, “Is Russia Suffering From Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

In Collapse of an Empire, Yegor Gaidar, the Russian economist and 1990s shock therapist, wrote that “the identification of state grandeur with being an empire makes the adaptation to the loss of status of superpower a difficult task for the national consciousness of the former metropolis.” Gaidar likened the loss of the Soviet empire to Germany’s defeat in WWI and warned, like Weimar Germany, Russia could thirst for a strong national leader to right the wrongs of the Soviet collapse. Empire, after all, was “an easy-sell product, like Coca-Cola” to a parched population. Gaidar turned out to be premature though prescient. Only now, with the crisis in Ukraine, is the opportunity for Russian revanchism—and the collective trauma that serves as its foundation—fully revealed.

Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea is a reaction to a trauma experienced by millions of Russians: In his speech to Russia’s Federation Council, Putin called Nikita Khrushchev’s 1954 transfer of Crimea to Ukraine a robbery that made Russians on the peninsula feel “they were handed over like a sack of potatoes.” Crimean Russians simply “could not reconcile themselves to this outrageous historical injustice.” This trauma redoubled when the Soviet Union collapsed. “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders,” he said.

Read on . . .

Graffiti for Crimea

1 Apr


Crimea and Russia together forever.

There’s a new campaign in Moscow: “Two Thousand Russian Buildings.” The campaign seeks to paint two thousand buildings in the two capitals with patriotic graffiti. One such facade has already gone up in the Tagansk district of Moscow. Last week, the entire side of the Solzhenitsyn building was covered with large image of Crimea painted in the Russian tricolor. Next to it the artist emblazoned it with “Crimea and Russia together forever.” The graffiti was signed with the logo of the ruling party United Russia and the art collective LGZ-Art, or World’s Best City-Art. This graffiti is the latest example of the patriotic sentiment in Russia.

According to the Village, LGZ Art was registered in early March under the company Antikupon, a Russian version of Groupon. Dmitry Tsvetkov, a representative from Antikupon, the painting in Tagansk is part of a larger campaign to paint murals about the uniting of Crimea to Russia and other patriotic scenes “to nurture patriotic feelings in urbanities with the help of a wide spectrum of themes.”

How did this mural go up so fast for a project that was just legal registered a few weeks ago? Especially since getting permit for such a mural is a “long and difficult process”? It helps to be connected to Putin’s government. Aleksandr Dyagilev, the general director of Antikupon and the “Two Thousand Buildings” campaign’s face, has those connections. He’s a graduate of the Russian Academy of State Service under the President of the Russian Federation and a former participant in several pro-Kremlin youth groups: a coordinator with Walking Together, a Nashi commissar and a Molodaia gvardiia district leader in Moscow’s East Biriulevo district. Since 2009, Dyagilev also served as an election commissioner in several local and national elections. As for the permission to paint the mural, Dyagilev told the Village that everything was handled legally with the permission of the local administration and “local residents.” However, sources tell the Village that the “patriotic graffiti” didn’t get any administrative permission, but rather was initiated “from above,” presumably from United Russia’s leadership, since the painting carries its logo. According to Dyagilev, two million rubles has been allocated for the project.


Enough lounging around at home, go vacation in Crimea.

As of today, another mural has gone up on the side of an apartment building in the district of Marino. Again there’s a Russian tri-colored Crimea decorated with the slogan “Enough lounging around at home, go vacation in Crimea.” Again the United Russia and LGZ-Art logo appears. About this mural, the Russian photojournalist Ilya Varlamov wrote, “This building is familiar to many reporters as the place where the apartment of Alexei Navalny, who is under house arrest, is located. It seems they decided to play an April Fool’s joke on Alexei.”

You are with us, we are with you.

You are with us, we are with you.

LGZ-Art murals aren’t the only Crimea inspired graffiti art to spring up. In the Crimean capital of Simferopol, the art group “Crimea’s Future” painted a mural influenced by the Michelangelo’s’ Sistine Ceiling, showing Putin with an outstretched arm saving the people of the peninsula. The painting includes the slogan, “You are with us, we are with you.” According to a “Crimea’s Future” press release, the mural “reflects the support which the Russian president extends to the residents of Crimea and also symbolizes that Putin is now personally creating the history of the peninsula.”


The art group has also created as series of posters in support for Putin. One features a leather jacket wearing Putin with “Order” across the top. Another shows Putin riding a bicycle with the Crimean coat of arms with “Ready or not here were come!” on it. A final poster shows Putin with third eye and the slogan “He knows better.”

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He knows better


Ready of not, here we come!

Though some of these posters seem ironic, they’re not.

When asked about “Crimea’s Future’s” position on Crimea unification with Russia, Andrei Evseenko, a participant in the art group, told Ridus,

“We think that the new Ukrainian authorities completely discredited themselves before Crimea. When we declared our desire to conduct the referendum in which we ourselves wanted to determine the fate of the region, the nationalists who came to power took unprecedented measures to beak us. This [came in the form of] financial isolation and a transportation blockade. In this situation the vaunted western democracies did not come to our aid, but Vladimir Putin who has promised that Crimea would get all possible assistance. This is why we are so grateful to him and want to connect ourselves with Russia. This view is held by hundreds of thousands of people all over the Crimea, and they have already written us in support of our work and are grateful that we are not afraid to openly express our approval of Putin.”

Ukraine’s Embattled Far Right

28 Mar


By William Risch

Last week in Kyiv, I saw that the Maidan had changed. The heart of Ukraine’s protest movement that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych, it looked like a war zone. The Trade Unions Building was a burned-out shell. Entire sections of pavement were gone, the stones used as weapons against riot police the previous month. Piles of tires lined barricades. Boxes of bottles kept for Molotov cocktails were stowed away near tents. Unlike January, the students were gone. Nearly everyone was gone. Only a few dozen people mingled around the Maidan, mostly the elderly, curious tourists, and “revolutionaries” spinning doubtful, though anguished, tales.

Men in green camouflage uniforms also roamed the Maidan and the Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main boulevard. Among them were members of Right Sector, a radical right organization that had helped fight street battles with the Yanukovych regime. Wearing insignia, armbands, or scarves with trademark colors of the far right (red and black), they guarded buildings Right Sector had seized, including the Hotel Dnipro on European Square and three stores on the Khreshchatyk. One afternoon I saw a guard briefly pop out of one store with a rifle and then quickly return inside.

It was a frightening scene. One colleague made it even more frightening when he reported seeing such paramilitary types on the Khreshchatyk beat up a man with metal bars until he bled.

Yet all week, as I traveled back and forth in the rest of the city, Kyiv was just like it always was. Police patrolled the streets. People went to work and did their shopping. Even trains were running to Simferopol and Sevastopol, which by the week’s end had wound up in Russia.

What I’d seen in Kyiv last week epitomized the dubious power of Ukraine’s “far right,” as defined by Western and Russian media. While making quite a show in downtown Kyiv, neither Right Sector nor the Freedom (Svoboda) Party have much potential electoral support or real political power. While appearing to threaten the new government, these forces look like they are on the verge of dying out.

After Oleksandr Muzychko (Sashko Bilyi), Right Sector’s coordinator for western Ukraine, was killed in a gun battle with Sokil special forces near Rivne on March 25, Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh called for the immediate resignation of Acting Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov and the arrest of Sokil’s commander and Sokil agents responsible for Muzychko’s death. It looked like the new government was about to battle Right Sector as well as Russian forces across the eastern border.

However, the next day, March 26, a set of opinion polls suggested the far right was not much of a threat. A mere 2.5 percent of likely voters indicated that they would support Oleh Tiahnybok, leader of Svoboda, in May 25 presidential elections, and only 1.4 percent Dmytro Yarosh, leader of Right Sector.  The same polling agencies – SOCIS, Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, Reitinh, and the Razumkov Center – polled Ukrainians on their opinions about early parliamentary elections, which have not yet been scheduled. A total of 5.2 percent of likely voters expressed a desire to support Svoboda, and only 2.7 percent Right Sector. On March 27, Right Sector rallied in front of the Supreme Rada, demanding that Avakov be fired and that former Acting Minister of Defense Ihor Teniukh face justice (presumably for his handling of the Crimean crisis). They brought tires to the entrance and broke some of its windows. Some activists forced their way inside. The drama soon ended here. After some debating, Right Sector decided not to storm the building, and by 10 p.m., Right Sector members had left the Supreme Rada’s premises.

The far right has strong symbolic presence on the Maidan and on the Khreshchatyk. They can voice popular grievances with police forces still perceived to be just like they were under the old regime. Svoboda members are in such government positions as General Prosecutor of Ukraine (Oleh Makhnits’kyi), Deputy Prime Minister (Oleksandr Sych), Environment Minister (Andriy Mokhnyk), and Agriculture Minister (Ihor Shvaika). While the General Prosecutor is a crucial position, Svoboda has only three posts in the Cabinet of Ministers, while the rest of the interim government is made up of members of the Fatherland (Bat’kivshchyna) Party, which is not on the far right, and independents. Given the overwhelming support for early parliamentary elections (65.8 percent, according to Ukrains’ka Pravda) and low polling numbers for Svoboda and Right Sector, it is doubtful the far right will have a serious presence in Ukraine’s state in the near future. Ineffective government, the threat of economic collapse, and Russia’s invasion of Crimea endanger Ukraine’s fragile revolution much more than Right Sector’s men standing guard in downtown Kyiv.

William Risch is an Associate Professor of History of Georgia College and author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011)

Approval of Putin Hits Eighty Percent

26 Mar

Brian Whitmore often says on the Power Vertical podcast that approval ratings in 60 percent range just aren’t good enough for a politician like Vladimir Putin. Given the lack of political alternatives and the dominance of the state’s narrative on television, Putin needs approval ratings in 70 or 80 percent range to have a comfortable political mandate. Thanks to the Sochi Olympics and taking Crimea, Putin is back up to 80 percent according to a recent Levada poll. Putin hasn’t garnered this level of approval since March 2008 when his rating peaked at 85 percent. Putin isn’t the only one basking in the Olympic-annexation surge. Sixty percent of Russians also think the country is going in the right direction, a high, once again, not seen since March 2008. Even the hapless Dmitry Medvedev and his government are riding Putin’s coattails. Medvedev enjoys 62 percent and the government 58 percent approval rating. In January, Medvedev was at an all time low of 48 percent while approval for the government hasn’t been this high since March 2008 when Putin became prime minister.



How to explain this jump in Putin rating? Denis Volkov of the Leveda Center told Slon the following:

“Eighty percent is not the highest result for Putin. During the Georgian War in 2008 his approval rating was 88 percent. But the mechanism driving the numbers is the same. The rise occurred thus: the Olympics added a few percentage points and the rating grew a few more because of the possibility of war and the mobilization of patriotic sentiment. And the joining of Crimea to Russia gave an additional 8-10 percent.”

When 80 percent of the population approves of the president, you have to be determined to express an opposing opinion. I’m not talking now about the internet where there is a sufficient broad range of views which is contrary to what’s on television.”

No, he’s talking about television where there’s only one opinion.

Putin’s Autocratic Moment

24 Mar

Vladimir Putin

The latest round of US sanctions imposed on Putin’s associates assumes that if you squeeze the oligarchs orbiting Putin, then they will in turn compel him to change his policy toward Ukraine. The idea an oligarchy rules Russia, where the tsar acts as an arbiter over elite conflicts is a staple of Kremlinology. It was Edward Keenan who most systematically put forward this argument in his seminal article “Muscovite Political Folkways.” Then Keenan wrote, “the Muscovite, and later Russian, systems tended to prefer oligarchic and collegial rule, to avoid the single leader, and to function best when the nominal autocratic was in fact politically weak.” Indeed, Keenan’s schematic of this oligarchic rule resembled an atom where the tsar sat and the center and oligarch neutrons and electrons orbited him. Keenan’s argument was significant because it suggested that the idea that Russia was a pure autocracy was a myth. The all-powerful tsar was a fiction perpetuated by the oligarchy to conceal the real and often conspiratorial nature of power in Russia.

Keenan’s argument was and remains compelling. It has also endured. In December, Andrew Weiss wrote of Putinism in the New York Times:

Yet Russia’s oligarchy (that is, the control of the state and economy by a small group of well-placed, extremely wealthy insiders) is alive and well. The supposedly all-powerful Mr. Putin actually devotes much of his time to refereeing bitter disputes between oligarchs like Igor I. Sechin, the head of the state oil company Rosneft, and Gennady N. Timchenko, a co-owner of Russia’s largest oil trading company and an independent natural gas producer. These latter-day oligarchs, many of whom have built vast business empires on the back of longstanding connections to Mr. Putin, are part of a political tradition that dates back to the rapid expansion of the Grand Duchy of Muscovy in the 1400s.

Given events over the last few weeks, does this analysis of Putin still hold? With Crimea are we not witnessing Putin’s transformation into a truly autocratic ruler who is no longer restrained by the oligarchs orbiting him? If this is the case, then the underlining premise of the US sanctions is a miscalculation.

Indeed, press accounts say that Putin’s decision to take Crimea was ad hoc and made with the counsel of a shrinking group of advisors from the security apparatus. As Shawn Walker recently reported in the Guardian:

Despite the staunch support for the move in Russia’s parliament, it is clear the decision to seize Crimea was taken by a very small circle of people. Russian newspapers reported that all their government sources had been taken completely by surprise by the move.

The president now takes counsel from an ever-shrinking coterie of trusted aides. Most of them have a KGB background like the president and see nefarious western plots everywhere.

They are also less likely to hold any assets abroad. Consider this with Putin’s calls over the last year for Russia’s elites to renationalize their assets so they wouldn’t be vulnerable to the west. Indeed, some in the Russian press argue that the US sanctions will strengthen Putin’s grip over the elite rather than loosen it. Now he has the patriotism card at his disposal along with “I told you so” to any elite who feels the financial pinch from sanctions. The sanctions could also be inducing a patriotic fervor causing Russian elites to pull their money out of the west. The last time something like this happened was at the outbreak of WWI in 1914. In fact, in a television interview, Yuri Kovalchuk, Putin’s so-called banker and US sanctions victim, warned other oligarchs that “people intuitively understand which side of the barricade a business is on.” He added:

“You can have an apartment abroad or a villa on the (French) Riviera. Fine. The question is, where is your home? And one’s home is not just money. Where is your family, where do your children go to school, where do they work? . . . And what sports team do you sponsor? Businesses are different – one might sponsor, say, a serious soccer team in the premier league, another a sandlot (unorganized) team. That’s not important – the question is, where is the team – here or outside your country?”

While there have been rumors of elite grumbling and dismay at Putin’s actions, none have said a thing publicly. Why? Because Putin holds all the cards. With Crimea he has the power and a patriotic public behind him. He is no longer beholden to oligarch whispers. And perhaps thanks to US sanctions he can further subordinate the “fifth column” in the elite and become a true autocrat.