Welcome to the week in Russia.
I am Steve Gutterman, editor of the Russia Desk at RFE / RL.
Every Friday I dissect the main developments in Russian politics and society over the past week and look at what lies ahead. Subscribe here.
The COVID-19 crisis in the country raged during a week off imposed by the Kremlin, with the daily death toll reaching new highs. President Vladimir Putin lured the vulnerable Belarusian autocrat Alyaksandr Lukashenka in a tighter orbit as a relentless crackdown has continued in the small nation that is Russia’s closest ally against the West. Once again, troop movements and energy supply decisions have been watched with suspicion in Kiev and beyond for signals of Russia’s intentions towards Ukraine. Russia has expelled a correspondent for a Dutch newspaper, the second Western journalist to be expelled in recent months. And amid very tense US-Russian relations, the CIA director made a rare visit to Moscow for talks with “the tough guys in the Kremlin”.
But other developments have also drawn attention: A Communist lawmaker who screamed scandal over the September election found himself in hot water because of an elk carcass. And a wave of arrests resulting from risky photos with churches and government buildings in the background has raised questions about the priorities of the Russian state and the still powerful legacy of the Soviet era.
Here are some of the main developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways for the future.
“Monstrous and cruel”
A word of advice for members of the Russian political elite: Be careful what you keep in the trunk of your car – or what others put in it.
In November 2016, Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev was arrested in the middle of the night, and investigators said a bag containing $ 2 million was found in his trunk.
When the top official arrested in decades was tried, prosecutors said the money was a bribe he had asked for from Igor Sechin – the head of Rosneft and a person several degrees less liberal and several steps closer to President Vladimir Putin than Ulyukayev – in exchange for his ministry’s approval of the state oil giant’s bid to acquire a majority stake in a regional producer, Bashneft.
Ulyukayev denied, saying he believed the bag contained bottles of wine Sechin suggested he give him as a gift – not a bribe – when they met earlier today. In court, he protested his innocence, accusing Sechin of lying – an assertion denied by a lawyer for the head of Rosneft – and claiming that he had been the victim of a “monstrous and cruel” montage.
The case has been widely seen as part of a high-profile territorial war between the warring camps vying for a position under Putin.
The result: an eight-year sentence for Ulyukayev, who was convicted in December 2017 and is serving his sentence in a strict regime prison near Tver.
Late last month another politically charged incident related to an item found in a car trunk – not money, this time, but the carcass of a moose.
Police in Saratov Oblast said they found the elk carcass in the back of a vehicle they stopped following a report of gunfire.
Hunter or prey?
At the wheel was Valery Rashkin, a Communist member of the State Duma who demonstrated in central Moscow to draw attention to allegations of fraud for the benefit of the Kremlin-backed United Russia Party in the elections on August 17. September 19 in the lower house of Parliament.
Rashkin retained a seat in the Duma in the ballot, but he and others alleged that several opposition candidates who would have won a fair vote were stripped of their mandates by the state due to the manipulation of the system. online voting system used in Moscow and several other regions. .
Communists called off further anti-election protests after police raided the headquarters of the party’s Moscow branch, led by Rashkin, where party members and lawyers were preparing a lawsuit to overturn the results of the online vote, September 28.
Rashkin also voiced support for Alexeï Navalny, the anti-corruption activist and opposition leader who survived near-fatal nerve poisoning last year which he attributes to Putin and is serving 2.5 years in prison for alleged violation parole which he considers absurd and politically motivated.
Like Ulyukayev, Rashkin claims to have been the victim of a “provocation,” claiming that he and the other man in the car found the elk carcass and planned to report it to authorities. Police said they opened an investigation into suspicion of illegal hunting and also charged Rashkin with refusing to take a test for drunk driving, which he denied.
Member of Parliament since 1999 – the year Putin came to power – Rashkin currently faces no prison term. For this to happen, fellow Duma deputies would have to withdraw his immunity from prosecution.
Others who have clashed with state authorities in recent times do not have that shield.
On October 29, a Moscow court sentenced blogger Ruslan Bobiev and model Anastasia Chistova to 10 months in prison for a photograph showing them faking oral sex with St. Basil’s Cathedral, perhaps Russia’s best-known symbol. , background.
In the photo, Chistova is facing the camera and is wearing a parka that says “police” on her back in Russian. Bobiev, a Tajik citizen also known as Ruslani Talabjon, was also deported to Tajikistan.
The case was part of a wave of incidents in which people who have posted revealing or suggestive photographs of themselves with Russian Orthodox churches or government buildings in the background.
Bobiev and Shistova, also known as Asya Akimova, were found guilty of breaking a law against public acts aimed at “offending the religious feelings of believers”.
In St. Petersburg, model Irina Volkova faces the same accusation over a photo showing her in her underwear with that city’s most famous Russian Orthodox church, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, in the background.
Following a hearing on October 31, in which she was handcuffed and kept behind bars in a court cage, Volkova was released on her own recognizance but could face a year in prison if she is judged and condemned.
Russian legislation on “religious sentiments” has its roots in the performance of Pussy Riot almost a decade ago in which members of the punk protest group entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and sing a song in which they aimed at the close ties between Church and State and implored the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.
It was during Putin’s safe bid for back to the presidency for a third term in 2012, after a stint as Prime Minister, and a few weeks after the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, backed him – despite Russia being officially a secular state – by calling for his passage to power a “miracle of God”.
The current wave of business appears to be in line with the trend of Putin’s third and fourth terms, in which he has promoted what he calls traditional Russian values and conservatism while accusing the West of seeking to impose its values. to others.
Who offends whom?
But observers suggest it would be a mistake to think the cases reflect a rise in such feelings – not to mention widespread outrage over photos showing bare buttocks and iconic buildings, whether cathedrals, the Kremlin or a police station.
On the one hand, criminal cases are often triggered as a result of complaints not from long lists of petitioners but from individuals, some of whom appear to be acting on behalf of the state – and some of whom seem far from models of decorum. or moral values. .
A complaint that led to the arrest of Volkova, for example, would have come from Timur Bulatov, a man from St. Petersburg who railed against members of the LGBT community and made threats against LGBT activists on social media.
And critics of the government wondered aloud – or on social networks – why the police weren’t working harder to tackle violent crime and catch a potentially much more dangerous type of suspect.
Meanwhile, in social media posts on November 1, economist and political analyst Vladislav Inozemstev wrote that, among Russian Orthodox believers, “no serious manifestation of discontent” in the photographs had been reported.
Highlighting the crimes of the Soviet state against the Russian Orthodox Church and other religious organizations, Inozemtsev wrote that more than 30,000 clerics were killed and more than 50,000 places of worship destroyed under Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, the dictator Josef Stalin and other Soviet leaders, he wrote. .
“So today I would like to finally ask the most obvious question: the establishment of more than 100 monuments dedicated to Stalin in this country since 2005 alone, for example, is it not an insult to the feelings of the citizens Russians professing orthodoxy? he added. “Isn’t it such an insult that the mummified remains of the main enemy of Russian Orthodoxy – Lenin – lie in a mausoleum not far from the Kremlin cathedrals?”
That’s it for me this week. If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, posted every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket casts).
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