Discover more from TL;DRussia
TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
22 April 2023: The long and short, plus texts and tunes
Apologies, once again, for being a day late. I have a vague recollection of making a similar apology a couple of weeks ago, and perhaps of promising it wouldn’t happen again. I guess Washington is rubbing off on me.
What I’m thinking about
The week began on Monday with the news that Vladimir Kara-Murza had been sentenced to 25 years in prison for the treasonous act of telling the truth. It ended on Friday with the news of a new political trial for Alexei Navalny, which is likely to land him — and perhaps others — with a similarly severe sentence.
Let’s review the numbers. Kara-Murza’s sentence is far and away the longest sentence handed down to a political activist, opposition leader or dissident since the death of Josef Stalin. Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuri Daniel, whose sentencing in 1966 epitomized the show-trial repression of Soviet dissidents under Brezhnev, received sentences of seven and five years, respectively. Similar sentences were handed out to the small number of Soviet citizens who openly protested the USSR’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Navalny, who was arrested in January 2021, has nine years or so left on his prison term. While it is not entirely clear exactly what charges are being levied against him now, his legal team and political allies believe it is related either to extremism charges initially brought in 2021, or to other extremism charges levied last year, or both. Either way, once this new sentence is added to his existing one, Navalny is likely to face the longest prison sentence of any Russian oppositional figure in living memory, and likely beyond. Ilya Yashin, another prominent opposition figure, is almost a year into his eight-and-a-half-year sentence.
While there is still a lot we don’t know, the baseline assumption is that the regime will bring Navalny’s sentence in line with Kara-Murza’s, both in terms of duration and the severity of the statute. While Navalny has historically been hounded on a range of trumped-up non-political charges — fraud, hurting the feelings of veterans, and the like — the Kremlin clearly no longer feels the need for plausible deniability. The question is why, and what the impact may be.
For Navalny himself, in all honesty, nothing changes. He and his team have understood since 2021 that he will be in jail for as long as Putin is in power, and perhaps longer, regardless of the formal charges levied against him. The same is true for those of his allies who were named in the 2021 Investigative Committee press release — Leonid Volkov, Ivan Zhdanov, Lyubov Sobol, Georgy Alburov, Ruslan Shaveddinov, Vyacheslav Gimadi and Pavel Zelensky — and who have long ago learned to treat the sentences handed down to them as “nothing more than a formality”, in the words of one (anonymous) Navalny ally. Most of the people on that list have made it out of the country, and so whatever sentences are issued will amount to more or less permanent exile. The situation is more ominous for Zelensky and another Navalny activist, Lilia Chanysheva, who are in custody and whose conditions may thus appreciably worsen.
Given that there was nothing currently preventing the Kremlin from keeping Navalny and his allies in jail or in exile indefinitely, my assumption is that this move is predominantly about broader signaling, and I think they may be targeting three distinct audiences.
One audience, of course, is the Russian opposition and anyone who might consider joining it. Taken together with the 25-year-sentence for Kara-Murza, the return to Stalin-era charging and sentencing is meant to communicate that the Kremlin will tolerate nothing less than Stalin-era opposition — which is to say, no opposition at all. While this is unlikely to affect the calculations of hardened opposition activists like those on the list mentioned above, it would be unreasonable to assume that it will not alter the thinking of others who have not yet risen to that level. At the very least, I would expect this to push more new-generation oppositionists into exile. A quarter century, after all, is a long time to spend in a cage.
The second audience is the broader elite. Here, I think the charges filed Friday against Bellingat chief Christo Grozev are important context. It has long been supposed that investigative reporting projects like Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, Bellingcat and others have sources within the Russian elite, who leak information for their own internecine reasons. The Pentagon-Discord leaks suggest that American intelligence may be benefitting from a similar dynamic. By framing such initiatives as high-level threats to national security, the Kremlin is likely sending a message to elites that further leaks will bring charges of accessory to treason, at the very least.
Finally, the Kremlin is communicating a direction of motion to the security state, indicating that charges of the highest caliber — and thus career advancement of the highest karat — are available to those who can find people whose activities fit into the kinds of boxes defined by Kara-Murza, Navalny, Grozev and the like. I would expect, then, to see more and more of these kinds of cases not promulgated from the top-down, but sprouting up from below, reinforcing in the process the messages sent to the opposition and the elite.
What I’m reading
Unsurprisingly, given everything we’ve been talking about (this week and in weeks past), there has been a lot of reflection out there about where Russian society finds itself, and how it got there. This includes an essay in Meduza on Tuesday by Grigory Okhotin, one of the founders of the human rights organization OVD-Info, on the history of Putin’s Russia as “a history of war and repression.” He writes:
“Taken together, the authorities’ policies have led to the destruction of society’s political agency. The authorities have created conditions in which what we refer to as ‘public opinion’ is formed from above, ‘from the office’, and political decisions can be taken by a narrow group of people (or just one person) without regard to the social, political or economic interests of various groups in society. In starting this war and continuing it, this group of people has practically faced no risks at all.”
Now, I don’t agree with that assessment. I continue to believe that the process of shaping and manipulating Russian public opinion is more complex than is often assumed, and the task continues to give fits to — and sometimes confound — the Kremlin. The fact that the new ‘electronic mobilization’ project I wrote about last week will evidently be rolled out only on a trial basis is just the latest piece of evidence that the Kremlin does not feel as in control of public opinion as Okhotin argues. But two facts remain, on which Okhotin is certainly correct: public agency has been catastrophically circumscribed, and the state has been able to get away with astonishing levels of repression. Taken together with Sergei Ryzhenkov’s Otechestvennye zapiski essay, which I featured last week, this overwhelming sense I come away with is one of tragedy. It did not have to be this way.
Margarita Liutova and Andrei Pertsev had a similarly sobering story in Meduza on Monday on the state of the Higher School of Economics, an erstwhile bastion of high-quality and highly independent academic research and teaching — and now very much not that. Whether the HSE is indeed a sinking ship, as some of the article’s sources suggest, depends on your perspective. Clearly, the university has lost the best and brightest of its professors, administrators and students. They have been replaced, however, by people more than willing to perform their loyalty to the Kremlin, while coasting on what’s left of the HSE’s once stellar reputation. It strikes me, at least, that the ship has not so much struck an iceberg, as been taken over by pirates.
Staying with Meduza, Monday also featured a vox-pop piece on reactions to last week’s news that the Kremlin would tighten the screws on military recruitment, and a specific focus on the question of emigration. Almost all of Meduza’s respondents indicated that they would find a way to muddle through without leaving the country. At work here seems to be a combination of at least two factors: first, what seems to be a gradual dulling of the fear that took root in the early months of the war and during last autumn’s mobilization; and second, a sense that emigration is beyond the physical, material and emotional means of most Russians. The question, then, remains as it was: will the the Kremlin allow these citizens to continue to muddle through, or will it risk more outright resistance by trying more strictly to enforce compliance?
On that last point, Mikhail Komin had an interesting piece in Carnegie Politika on Wednesday, suggesting that the Kremlin might actually struggle to make the electronic draft work not because of grassroots resistance, but because the various agencies whose cooperation is required to make the database functional have powerful incentives to sabotage the system.
And finally, I highly recommend an essay in Tuesday’s Foreign Affairs by Lucan Way on the institutional challenges raised by the impending prosecution of Donald Trump. This piece, on the face of it, has nothing to do with Russia — except that Lucan is a Russianist, and he brings that sensibility to his analysis of the US. It’s something I wish would happen more often.
What I’m listening to
Next weekend is Merlefest, which, while I admit I’ve never actually made it to Wilkesboro, has somehow become my go-to source for roots music. It was clicking through their lineup lists in years past that I came across Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Adia Victoria — and just to prove that I can make it beyond the A’s, here’s my favorite find of this year (so far), Miko Marks and the Resurrectors. If you give yourself no other gifts this weekend, check out the guitar solo at 2:49.