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TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
29 April 2023: Phantom menaces, plus texts and tunes
Someone asked me recently whether there was much of a divide between various groups in the Russian political diaspora. My answer was that, while there are disagreements and frictions, on the whole it was fairly fluid, neither unified nor fatally divided. And then Garry Kasparov decided to remind us all of why most of us had decided to forget him. My Russian social media feeds have been able to speak of almost nothing else since his mid-week interview by Yury Dud’. But don’t take my word for how bad it was. Instead, read the almost identical reactions of Sergei Parkhomenko and Evgenia Albats, two strident voices who rarely agree about much, but definitely agree about this.
What I’m thinking about
A Russian judge on Thursday did what Russian judges of late are wont to do: he liquidated yet another human rights organization.
On the table this time was the Sova Center, the foremost group in Russia investigating issues of extremism, nationalism and xenophobia in the country. Founded in 2002, and thus one of the country’s newer human rights groups, Sova is — I refuse to say ‘was’ — most closely associated with Alexander Verkhovsky, who got his start with the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest human rights organization. Shura (I know no one who calls him Alexander) is for my money the wisest of all of Russia’s human rights activists, universally respected by all those who respect human rights. Given all of the above, it’s somewhat astounding that Sova stayed alive for as long as it did. The court reportedly deliberated for all of five minutes.
Not incidentally, another Russian court — also on Thursday — upheld a lower court’s decision to liquidate the Moscow Helsinki Group. Formally, the excuse was that the group participated in events outside of Moscow, despite defining itself as a Moscow organization. In practice, of course, no excuse was needed.
On the face of it, none of this makes any sense. While Shura and a handful of his colleagues bravely — and perhaps foolishly — remain in Russia, the majority of the country’s most prominent activists have fled. There is and has long been no real human rights movement in Russia, at least none capable of holding the regime to account. Going through the public process of legally dissolving Sova, the Helsinki Group, Memorial and others serves no practical purpose. But then, neither do the decisions to sentence Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison and Alexei Navalny seemingly to life, when the mobilizational capacity they worked so hard to build has been so thoroughly dismantled. And yet…
And yet the Russian regime seems intent not just on defeating political opposition — the Kremlin is cognitively incapable of distinguishing between human rights groups and opposition groups — but on arriving at a social and political landscape in which such things simply no longer exist. It is worth considering why, and what the implications may be if it succeeds.
I make no pretense to know what Vladimir Putin believes. I cannot get inside his head and do not particularly want to try. The best I can do is make inferences from what he does, and from that vantage point the logic of the Kremlin’s scorched-earth approach to the political scene is clear enough. As Putin seeks to embed conflict with the West as the core organizing principle of Russian political, economic and social life, he cannot allow for there to be legitimate conflict within Russia itself.
The late Russian sociologist Boris Dubin once wrote an essay on the common Russian statement, beloved of Putin’s propagandists but with deep popular resonance, that мы русские не такие как все — we Russians are different from everyone else. Embedded within this maxim, Dubin wrote, is an inescapable corollary: we Russians are all the same. If Russians as a whole are to be unique in the world — precisely the kind of “civilizational uniqueness” that Putin put at the core of his new foreign policy doctrine — there can be no uniqueness among Russians themselves.
In the Russia Putin is seeking to build, there can be no opposition — only treason. There can be no dissent — only extremism. There can be no resistance — only terrorism. Because Russia faces an existential threat, one that requires nothing less than full unity, no one who is Russian could possibly stand apart. Consequently, no one who stands apart is truly Russian. To wit, Putin on Friday signed a law instituting life sentences for those convicted of treason — and the BBC Russian Service calculated that authorities have brought 25 reason cases against Russian citizens in the first four months of 2023.
What, then, would be the purpose of allowing Sova, the Helsinki Group or Memorial to continue to exist? What message would that send, if not to legitimize difference? What would be the purpose of giving Kara-Murza and Navalny anything but the most draconian of sentences, if not to give succor to Russia’s enemies?
Even though Russia’s opposition and human rights movements pose no proximate political threat, Putin has somehow maneuvered himself into a position in which allowing them to exist even on paper is an intolerable risk, and the costs of tolerance appear in all cases to outweigh the costs of coercion.
If Putin succeeds in removing all trace of legitimate difference from the Russian political landscape, the consequences are difficult to overestimate. At the start of 2022, Putin had a political system that, while already quite authoritarian, was considerably freer than the one he has now; even then, he was able to take his country to war without any popular mandate for doing so. Since the war began, while political control has deepened, the Kremlin has nonetheless frequently looked over its shoulder to see whether the Russian people were following behind; occasionally, such as with military mobilization, it has moderated its plans accordingly. Imagine, then, a Russian in which no such furtive glances at the public mood are necessary: that would be a Russia even more untethered, even more erratic and even more dangerous than the one we face now.
All of that said, I’m not entirely convinced that Putin can get what he wants. In fact, I’m more or less convinced that he can’t. As I mentioned, Shura Verkhovsky is still in Russia; he may eventually go, of course, but he will continue to do what he does, as do the vast majority of the activists who have already been forced into exile. And new groups continue to emerge, with new people and new ideas. None of this is enough to pose a genuine challenge to the regime and the war, I’m afraid. And many of those who do emerge will follow their predecessors into exile or jail. But all the available evidence suggests that they will continue to rise up — not because we want them to, but because they want to. It is true, of course, that repression has deep historical roots in Russia. But so does dissent.
What I’m reading
Lots to read this week — maybe too much — but here goes.
I wrote two weeks ago about Russia’s new electronic military call-up system and the tightening of the screws that accompanied it, wondering aloud whether the Kremlin was really ready for the backlash that might provoke. Since then, two things have happened. First, the Duma announced on 19 April that while the system would be used for the upcoming spring draft, it would be deployed as a “test run” and the restrictions would (or might) not be enforced. Now, I don’t know whether that’s true, or whether it’s just an attempt to calm nerves, but even if it’s the latter, it suggests a recognition that there are nerves in need of calming. And second, there have been a slew of pieces digging into the technical and political difficulties the Kremlin is facing in actually implementing the thing:
A piece in Meduza on Thursday by Andrei Pertsev on how the use of the Gosuslugi platform for the military call-up notices is upending plans to deploy electronic voting in the 2024 presidential elections;
Wednesday brought another in a series of recent Prigozhin-adjacent investigations (see also here, here and here), this time a very long piece in Verstka by Regina Gilamova and Anna Ryzhkova on how Russia is trying to build a new propaganda system in the occupied Ukrainian territories. Spoiler: it’s not easy. For more Prigozhin fun, see the FT’s excellent investigation into the international galavanting of his immediate family, also published Wednesday. And Novaya Gazeta Europe got in on the Prigozhin action this week, with an interesting story Friday by Georgii Aleksandrov on the growing competition among private military companies in and around the Ukrainian front lines.
Switching Prigozhins — from the warlord Evgeny, to the music producer Iosif, who was caught on tape a few weeks ago badmouthing Putin and the war — this week brought yet another leaked recording, this time involving the billionaire Roman Trotsenko and the merely millionaire Nikolai Matushevsky doing much the same thing. This, then, led Roman Anin and Maria Zholobova at iStories to talk to a handful of high-powered anonymous Russian businessfolk and government officials to take the temperature. The piece reveals a diversity of perspectives, so while the general upshot is to confirm that the views of the (Iosif) Prigozhin’s and Trotsenkos of the world are reasonably widespread, it’s worth reading the piece to get the full nuance.
Unlikely to be caught on tape talking smack about the war are the Nikolai Tokarev, Arkadii Rotenberg and Gennady Timchenko, who — according to an iStories investigation — are doing quite well thank you from the illicit oil trade. So, evidently, are a number of German real estate brokers.
Feeling similarly upbeat, evidently, is Andrei Kostin, chief of the state-owned megabank VTB. While I’m admittedly a bit behind the curve on this one, he had a piece in RBK back on 11 April outlining his thoughts on where the Russian economy should go from here.
“This conflict — financial, economic, informational and, in the end, military — is material, substantial and, let’s be honest, painful. We should have no illusions: it will not end tomorrow, or in five years. We have weathered the first blow with dignity. Whether we will have the strength not only to withstand, but to turn the situation around, remains an open question.”
Kostin’s recipe is worth noting, because it reflects, I think, the locomotive to which much of the Russian economic elite will be hitching their wagons. He highlights three priorities: (1) Building new infrastructure to reorient trade to the east; (2) Building or re-building new industrial sectors for high-tech import substitution; and (3) Investing in the military-industrial complex. To pay for this, he suggests more aggressively investing the country’s reserves and, interestingly, a new round of privatization. While Russia’s erstwhile oligarchs may not be enthusiastic about the rest of Kostin’s agenda, the opportunity to get their hands on new assets may be more attractive.
For a more sober view of the economy, the Bank of Finland published an excellent policy brief by Heli Simola on Wednesday outlining Russia’s trade adjustments over the past year or so, and concluding that Russia has remained unable to find effective substitutes for the trade it lost with the West.
What I’m listening to
Two things are guaranteed to make me feel old: any conversation with my teenager, and any piece of music by Franz Schubert. The man was all of 18 years old when he wrote his third symphony (he was only 31 when he died), which I’m certain I had heard before and probably on multiple occasions, but which I had never really heard until I heard it at the Kennedy Center this Thursday. It has these sublime little melodies, flirtatious and at times almost trivial, but he lets them slip into a minor twist now and again and chases them with just the slightest hints of menace, dancing all the while, until culminating in a barely controlled ecstatic climax. He was, after all, 18.