On Monday, the Levada Center released a poll on Russian attitudes toward the government, corruption, bureaucracy, the legislature and the party of power, United Russia. The results reveal a growing pessimism toward Russia’s governing institutions, and in particular, the political elite. Over half of respondents (52%), for example, believe that the the circle around Putin are more concerned with their “personal material interests” than with the country’s problems (33%).
This bodes poorly for Russian politicians across the political spectrum. But it’s particularly bad for United Russia. Forty-four percent of respondents consider ER’s Duma deputies the wealthiest, and not due to their entrepreneurial skills, but because “administrative resources are available to United Russia for the possibility of quick enrichment.” More telling, however, is that after a mere two years, Aleksei Navalny’s slogan casting United Russia as a “party of crooks and thieves” is now embraced by a majority of polled Russians.
Putin may take Navalny down “legally.” But the damage is already done. So much for ER’s “re-branding.”
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By Sean — 5 years ago
This week’s Russia Magazine column, “The Kremlin’s War against the Russian Left,”
Two weeks ago, Aleksandr Ivakhnik argued that over the last year Russia’s security organs have waged a campaign to neutralize the radical left and in particular the Left Front. “The impression is that having made convenient use of the “Bolotnaya case,” security organs are attempting to weaken left-wing radicals,” he writes. “This is all the more of interest for the authorities because the ideology of the Left Front strongly conveys the social side of protest which will clearly become more attractive and all the more believable in conditions of economic crisis.” Indeed, the place of the Russian radical left as a target of Russian state repression is rarely reported. Not only has current trial of twelve Bolotnaya suspects, who face up to eight years for “mass disorder, physically assaulting police officers and disobeying police instructions” garnered little continuous coverage outside of Russia, so has the ongoing pre-trial detention of Leonid Razvozzhaev and house arrest of Sergei Udaltsov, both of whom stand accused of conspiring to overthrow the Russian government, nor the wider campaign that has sent left-wing activists into political asylum and apartment searches, seizure, and interrogations of activists in the provinces. As Andrey Tselikov recently wrote, the travails of the Russian left are “out of sight, out of mind.”
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By Sean — 11 years ago
What is going on between the siloviki and what does it means for Putin and post-Putin Russia? It’s old news by now but a quick recap of the story is necessary. The siloviki’s infighting became public in early October when FSB agents arrested the head of Russia’s Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN), Lieutenant-General Alexander Bulbov at Domodedovo Airport. The FSB accused Bulbov of taking bribes and conducting illegal wiretaps of 53 journalists and businessmen. But it also turns out that Bulbov had been heading an investigation of the Moscow furniture outfit Tri Kita for smuggling goods from China without paying import taxes. It is believed that there are top FSB agents providing “protection” to Tri Kita. In a statement released by his lawyers, Bulbov said, “I insist that the legal action against me, including my arrest and the unsubstantiated charges, as well as the ongoing media frenzy, are due to my part in the investigation into the Tri Kita [furniture chain] and the smuggling of Chinese goods. FSB officials acted on their fear of new facts coming to light.” The judges either didn’t think so or are in the FSB’s pocket because they upheld his arrest as legal in Moscow’s Basmanny Court on Tuesday.
In Russia, the arrests of top agents from one security organ by another is never really about stopping crime and corruption. As most quickly noted, they are a sign of clan warfare within Putin’s government. And clan warfare it is. In response to the arrests, FSKN head Viktor Cherkesov published his now famous “We must not allow warriors to become traders” statement. Breaking with protocol, he decided to make the feud public because it was “better to open the abscess right away than to wait for gangrene to set in.” He also gave an additional warning: “There can be no winners in this war, there is too much at stake.”
Cherkesov’s words opened the floodgates. Over the next few weeks former KGB/FSB notables echoed of his calls for unity in the conservative Zavtra. Putin finally stepped in. He scolded Cherkesov in Kommersant for airing chekist dirty laundry in public. “If I were in the place of people who defended the honour of the company, I would not blame all round, especially with the help of mass media,” Putin told the paper. He then gave Cherkesov a promotion.
But Putin’s intervention might not have been enough. There is now speculation that the poisoning of Konstantin Druzhenko and Sergei Lomako in St. Petersburg is yet another episode in the clan war. (One should remember that when Yuri Shchekochikhin, the deputy editor of Novaya gazeta turned up dead in 2003, he was investigating FSB connections to Tri Kita.) Druzhenko and Lomako were no drunks as police originally thought when they stumbled upon the two men’s bodies. Both were agents of Cherkesov’s FSKN. According to Alexander Mikhailov of the Drug Contol Service, “poison was involved” but what exactly what kind of bane required more tests. The murders are another threatening sign that the clan feud might erupt in open and bloody warfare. It’s like 1936 all over again. Well, maybe not exactly.
But to return to the initial question: what does all this mean? A good place to go for some answers is Jonas Berstein of the Eurasian Daily Monitor. Bernstein has published a few articles dealing with the subject. One just the other day on the Druzhenko and Lomanko murders and another today analyzing a commentary by Vladimir Milov published in Gazeta.ru on October 22.
In both articles, Bernstein argues that the infighting has intensified because each clan is jostling for position in a post-Putin Russia. So far Putin has acted as a mediator but there is a growing belief that his role as Godfather might be waning. So much so that Bernstein entertains a possibility drawn up by Milov: the infighting is “reminiscent of what happened during 1990-91, when “Gorbachev’s conservative circle gradually strengthened their influence on decision-making.” The way he breaks it down is as follows:
Today, the siloviki in Putin’s administration have already accumulated “real power,” meaning that Putin can no longer give them orders and must instead reach “an understanding” with them, Milov wrote. “They are in many respects dissatisfied with the essence of the policy [currently] being carried out, which still contains rather many elements of liberalism (above all in the economic sphere),” he wrote. “They have begun to express this dissatisfaction in public and to propose their prescriptions for solving this problem.”
While not predicting a hard-line coup, Milov wrote that Putin, like Gorbachev, will increasingly have to heed the demands of the hardliners in his administration. “The prescriptions proposed by the insiders of Putin’s circle are already clear – spend the Stabilization Fund to support enterprises …, intensify regulation of the economy, regiment the entire country under the Chekist corporation,” he wrote. “If we want stability in Russia, it would be better if these people sat quietly and didn’t thrust themselves forward. However, they do not want to sit quietly … and Putin already cannot force them to be silent. Such an evolution of the system of governance he built arouses serious fears for Russia’s future.”
For those who think that the results of Russia’s Presidential Elections are written in stone might do well to pay attention to the power play taking place between the factions within, possibly until now, Putin’s most ardent allies. We might be witnessing another example where Russia’s elites bust up the state’s stability through their own horizontal power intrigues. You can pick whatever historical allegory you want to draw conclusions or lessons. There are many to chose from with their own particular dynamic. The only historical constant is that Russia’s ruling class might be a class with a consciousness of itself but not certainly not necessarily one for itself.Post Views: 429
By Sean — 6 years ago
The trial and conviction of Pussy Riot has sparked a number of historical analogies. Never wanting for hyperbole, the Washington Post, among others in the West and Russia, argued that the trial echoed “Stalinism” (an analogy nicely rebutted by Mark Adomanis). The Pussy Riot case has also been likened to the 1964 trial of the Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky, not to mention harking back to the trials of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel in 1965. But historical analogies did not end with the Soviet period. Another common refrain was that the accusations and trial of Pussy Riot reflected medieval Russia. This comparison wasn’t hard given that Artem Ranchenkov, one of the case investigators, cited Orthodox canonical rules of proper church dress from the 4th century Council of Laodicea and the 7th century Quinisext Council. Nor was it difficult to call the affair “medieval” since the trial proceedings were often more like an ecclesiastical than a civilian court. The coup de grace for which was when Yelena Pavlova, a lawyer representing nine of Pussy Riot’s “victims,” called feminism a “mortal sin.”
Another common historical analogy making the rounds were excerpts from Article 231 of the Imperial Russian Criminal Code of 1845, which stated that “improper loud cries, laughter, or any other noise or unseemly conduct that causes temptation, averts attention of worshipers from their duty to God” carried a fine of 50 kopeks to a ruble or detention from three to seven days. If the disturbance occurred during church service, the sentence was prison for a period of three weeks to three months. The irony here was that under the “well-ordered police state” of Nicholas I, Pussy Riot’s sentence would have been far lighter. Yet, others listed other possible laws applicable to Pussy Riot from the 1845 code. One blog post listed 24 satutes, Articles 182-205, concerning blasphemy, sacrilege, and other violations of faith. The sentences varied from corporal punishment, forced labor in factories and mines, jail time and exile to Siberia. The only problem is that blasphemy and sacrilege are not in the Russian Criminal Code of 2012. That is unless it’s disguised as “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”
But the historical semblances didn’t stop with references to bygone eras or now defunct imperial codes. Some of the more interesting ones were those that placed Pussy Riot within a broader historical tradition of Russian minstrelsy, where hooliganism, art, and protest collided into a staple of Russian medieval culture.
Indeed, there were two references to Russian medieval minstrels, or skomorokhi, in the trial. When one of the prosecutors asked Stalnisalv Samutsevich, the father of Pussy Rioter Yekaterina, if he believed “it was acceptable to say ‘Holy shit’ in a church”, he compared his daughter’s act to that of the skomorokhi of the sixteenth century. Likewise, in her statement to the court, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said that Pussy Riot were in the tradition of the skomorokhi. “We are jesters, skomorokhi, maybe even, holy fools. We didn’t mean any harm.”
Skomorokhi were minstrel entertainers in Kievan and Muscovite Russia that performed for public and Tsar alike. They were wildly popular as they performed songs and folktales or acts of trained bears to the delight of onlookers. Despite their entertainment value, like Pussy Riot, they combined entertainment and mockery with unruliness. Unlike the balaclava-clad feminists, however, the lawlessness of the skomorokhi mostly involved theft and pillage. One famous story told of a band of minstrels distracting the peasants of Likovo with their performance, while their comrades were busy rounding up the villagers’ sheep. Other incidents told of skomorokhi ransacking barns, raiding animal pens, and making off with whatever they could grab. According to Russell Zguta, a historian of the minstrels, “The performing minstrels would frequently allude in song and proverb to the mischief their unseen comrades were engaged in, but no one was wiser until it was too late.”
Sometimes minstrel “hooliganism” was sanctioned, especially by Ivan IV, who was known to use them to mock and heap scorn upon his enemies. These acts were sometimes sacrilegious. One story told of Ivan having Archbishop Pimen of Novgorod placed on a white mare which paraded him around Moscow accompanied by a band of minstrels. In fact, Ivan Grozny was no mere observer. Sometimes he was a participant in the revelry. In the later part of his reign, he was known to put on a mask himself and dance and frolic with the skomorokhi.
As Ivan’s unleashing of the skomorokhi on the Archbishop suggests, the minstrels had few friends in the Orthodox Church. Church officials viewed the skomorokhi as disseminators of paganism, purveyors of “shameful performances” on street corners and marketplaces, and disruptors of church rituals. Weddings garnered many priests’ ire as the minstrels’ performance often overshadowed the religious sanctity of the nuptials. Sometimes confrontations between priests and skomorokhi descended in fisticuffs. In his biography, Ivan Neronov, a leader of the Orthodox Zealots of Piety, told of an incident in the mid-1640s where he attacked a group of minstrels, seized their instruments and smashed them. Angered, the skomorokhi severely beat clergyman in return. But the zealot was undaunted. As Zhuta reports:
Henceforth [Neronov] and some of his students patrolled the streets of the town during the major festival periods such as Koliada in order to discourage the skomorokhi from performing. But, says the author, students “received not a few wounds at the hands of the skomorokhi, those servants of the devil, and they bore these bodily wounds with joy as they returned to their homes, bloodied but alive.”
Avvakum too had confrontations with skomorokhi. When a band of minstrels with dancing bears arrived to his village of Lopatishch in 1648, he quickly set to drive them away. “I, a sinner, being zealous in the service of Christ,” he wrote, “drove them out and destroyed their masks and drums, one against many in the open field, and I took two great bears from them—one I killed but he later revived, the other I set free in the open field.”
Neronov’s patrols and Avvakum’s clash with the minstrels provide a whole new historical context for the recent call by Ivan Otrakovsky, head of Orthodox Christian movement Holy Rus, for Orthodox activists to form patrol squads to protect worshipers from the “enemies of faith.” “The time has come to remind all apostates and theomachists that it is our land and we forbid blasphemous, offensive actions and statements against the Orthodox religion and our people,” Otrakovsky wrote in his appeal to the faithful. A modern day Zealot of Piety, I’d say.
Though skomorokhi enjoyed the patronage of Tsars Ivan IV, Fedor I, and Mikhail Romanov, the latter’s son, Alexei, took stringent action against minstrelsy. Urged by his confessor and leader of the Zealots of Piety, Stefan Vonifatev, and pushed to reestablish public order in the wake mob violence in Moscow and revolts in Ustiug, Solvychegodsk, Yaroslavl, Tomsk, Novgorod and Pskov, Alexei issued “On the Righting of Morals and the Abolition of Superstition” in December 1648 against the skomorokhi. Aleksei was alarmed by the “drunkenness and devilish amusements” of the skomorokhi, which turned the people away the Orthodox faith and God and to the worship of the minstrels. The 1648 edict unleashed a wave of repression against minstrels, including the confiscation and destruction of their instruments, and penalties such as knouting and exile for performing skomorokhi entertainments, as well as prohibitions on a whole host of pagan rites, festivity, games, and practices. Even priests questioned confessors about their connection to the skomorokhi. They asked penitents: “Did you seek out the games of the skomorokhi? Did you seek out Satanic games, look upon these, or yourself take part in them?” If they answered yes, the penitent was required to recite, “I have sinned, I delighted in hearing the sound of gusli and the organon, of horns, and all manner of skomoroshestvo, of Satanic sayings, and for this I also paid them [that is, the minstrels].”
The skomorokhi hobbled along after 1648, but thanks to Alexei’s crackdown, they never regained their popularity, notoriety, or cultural significance. While the practices of the skomorokhi certainly continued in different forms, according to Zhuta, historical references to them died out after 1768.
But as the Pussy Riot affair shows, the memory of the skomorokhi lives on in Tolokonnikova’s “We are jesters, skomorokhi, maybe even, holy fools.” And perhaps thanks to her, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevitch’s “punk prayer” they will live again, in all their former anarchic glory.
All references come from:
Russell Zguta, Russian Minstrels: A History of the Skomorokhi, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978.Post Views: 1,558