Winter is coming and all that


August 31, 2015 by AK

I’m tempted to subscribe to somebody else’s theory that Russia is on its way to replacing Iran as the largest pariah state of the world. Whether it is a crackpot idea or something obvious, Russia is facing a major decline in the living standards of its emerging middle class in the coming months, and an economic depression for the next year or two. I’m watching the slide daily but chronicles of a sinking ship make for poor reading. Just some quotes now, in my own free translation.

Grigory Revzin, the well-respected critic specializing in architecture and art history, wrote last week:

People are certain that things are moving towards a disaster. People from the elites, to be clear. They are certain in different ways — business people, intellectuals, politicians, art figures — but they all agree it’s a road to disaster. And the people you meet in the government are also expecting a disaster. No one has any other scenario in mind.

…It’s not that anyone has a program, a goal, a bet on disaster… Some people try to ensure themselves – to secure a safe landing strip – but the majority do not even bother, believing that one should keep doing what one is good at and is used to…

We realize what whatever the government does – repression, war, the circus tricks with the ruble or the destruction of good supplies – are making the cataclysm worse… We keep saying “the government does not understand it” but I’m not sure anyone believes this. Once you get to know people in the government, you find out they have a highly developed faculty of comprehension and comprehend things somewhat ahead of others, by virtue of their occupation… The collapse – of society, of the state, of civilization – has become something like a natural phenomenon. That it’s going to sweep away all the elites – that’s all of us – business folk, intellectuals, politicians, scientists and scholars, the art crowd – is understood by all but as if they were strangers, vicariously. Winter is coming. Man is mortal.

Revzin goes on to suggest a parallel with the death slide that preceded and ended in the 1917 denouement. It is dubious since Russia was, broadly speaking, on an ascending path 100 years ago, even though riven by social strife typical of countries in transition, while Putin’s Russia is a pathological case by itself. As the well-known music and culture critic Artemy Troitsky wrote in response,

…The disaster isn’t coming from anywhere — we are already living in it. The Russian state as it is, Putin with his achievements — this is the disaster. One cannot expert worse than that. How odd it is to compare the Russian Empire of 1916 (to say nothing of 1913)… to the chars and ashes of our days.

From a different angle, the crop of apples, pears and plums has been good to phenomenal this summer even in ungenerous middle Russia.

The Crimean show trial


August 25, 2015 by AK

The conviction and jailing of Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko for “terrorism” are shameful and will stain Russia and its pro-Putin citizens for years to come, unless the injustice is promptly remedied.

Alexander Sokurov, the great Russian director of our time, has raised his voice against this travesty. He views Sentsov as a legitimate civil protester: “If at home, in St. Petersburg, the same started to happen as in Crimea, I would not be silent — it is simply shameful: how would people look at me then?” (Andrei Zvyagintsev also supports Sentsov.)

Russia arrested the Ukriainian activists in Russia-occupied territory and tried them in a military court. The right to a fair trial is denied most Russian citizens; Sentsov could not hope for an exemption. Besides, virtually no country recognizes Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea and, therefore, the Russian courts’ jurisdiction over the area.

Sentsov was accused of setting up a “terrorist organization,” a vague and meaningless charge. There were three specific charges: two acts of terrorism; two planned acts of terrorism; possession of explosives and guns.

The two “acts of terrorism” were setting fire to the offices of United Russia and of the Russian Community of Crimea, both agents of the country that had annexed the region from Ukraine. No one was injured because both times, somebody threw a Molotov cocktail bottle late at night, when the offices were empty. A door and a window frame damaged, and some office equipment. These were purely symbolic acts.

The two “planned acts of terrorism” were plotting to blow up a statue of Lenin and the Eternal Flame monument in Simferopol on the Victory Day, May 9. Under Stalin, people got accused of digging tunnels from Moscow to Tokio and poisoning wells with plague-infected broken glass. This comes close. But if the accusation were less insane, blowing up monuments would be an act of symbolic vandalism, not of terror.

It would not come close to the IRA or Hamas, even if the charges were true.

Margin notes 2


August 18, 2015 by AK

When Stalin was forced to leave the theological seminary in Tiflis in 1899, he received a certificate confirming that he had completed four years of instruction with excellent behavior (!) and was qualified to teach elementary school or work “in the area of religion.” He was 20 years old.

When Mussolini graduated from Collegio Giosuè Carducci in 1901 (with a high grade for “morale”), he also received a diploma that allowed him to teach elementary school. He was not yet 18.

The similarity stops here. Mussolini went on to teach, to write and edit newspapers. Stalin plunged into “revolutionary work,” first setting up strikes and rallies, later robbing banks and trains.

Margin notes


August 17, 2015 by AK

Thomas Mann wrote in his essay Bruder Hitler that the German dictator, in his “dreamy arrogance,” did not have the discipline to learn how to ride a horse, drive a car or pilot a plane; the man could not even father a child. (A little below the waist, the last bit.)

Mussolini learned to ride a horse, drive a car, and pilot an airplane; he fathered at least six children. He was a competent fencer and, for a while, an active duelist. He had edited three newspapers before coming to power, one of which he co-founded.

Both dictators were good at oratory; Mann claimed it was the only thing Hitler was good at.

Everything is permitted


August 9, 2015 by AK

The Russian Investigative Committee, which is supposed to look into all sorts of serious and high-profile crime but is mostly infamous for fabricating dossiers against Alexei Navalny, Nadiya Savchenko, and Bolotnaya Square protesters, has published a book titled The Tragedy of Southwestern Ukraine: A White Book of Crimes. The head of the Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, provided a preface, including this:

The armed conflict in the South-West of Ukraine, unleashed by the political and military leadership of that country, has had monstrous consequences: entire residential communities have been destroyed; infrastructure and essential services have been razed; there have been enormous casualties among civilians; there is a never-ending outflow of refugees, forced to leave the areas of military conflict…

The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation has no right to stay away from these tragic events and believes its duty is to scrupulously record all crimes committed by nationalism battalions and the Armed Forces of Ukraine, all evidence of human rights violations in Ukraine, including the violation of the most important right, the right to life.

It’s bog standard Russian propaganda but with a special glitch: the picture on the cover is not a genuine panorama of war-torn Donetsk but a Photoshopped stock photo of the city taken in better times. The picture was exposed as a fake as early as in May 2014.

It’s not that the new pamphlet is going to stand out against a backdrop of its peers. Try stopping by the politics and history section in any of the few major bookstores in Moscow, and I guarantee you it will be packed with brightly colored tomes unmistakably and unapologetically full of revisionist garbage and paranoid lies.

Going back to the Investigative Committee’s exploits, I’m tempted to quote from president Putin’s recent interview with Swiss journalists:

But there are certain international legal norms stating that if somebody suspects a crime committed by anybody, certain data are collected and given to the prosecutor general’s office in the state of which the suspect is a citizen. But this is not related in any way to the fact that one nation – big or small – travels throughout the world, grabs anyone it wants and takes them to their prison. In my view, that is unacceptable.

The obvious reference is to the arrests of FIFA officials in Geneva, and the less obvious, to the capture of Victor Bout in Thailand and Konstantin Yaroshenko in Liberia and their subsequent imprisonment in the US. Apparently the (plausibly alleged) kidnappings of a Russian opposition activist in Kiev in 2012 and of Nadiya Savchenko in 2014 don’t really count.

Perhaps to the Kremlin, they count in a different way: “If you Americans break the law, we’re going to break the law more blatantly. Quod licet Americae, licet Rutheniae.” There’s something Raskolnikovian in this attitude: “Am I a shuddering little statelet, or do I have the right to screw limitrophes, as (I believe) America does to whomever displeases it?” Two wrongs can’t make a right, but what is right? The weak get beaten. It’s no real pleasure in life.

Food as foe


August 2, 2015 by AK

I did not expect the Kremlin to break the ancient, deep-rooted, almost archetypal taboo against the wasting of food. Or do they think that “Western” food is not real food?

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree Wednesday ordering the “destruction” of all food brought into the country against import bans on Western products.

The order goes into effect next Thursday:

Shipments of banned food are to be destroyed starting on Aug. 6…

The Russian word unichtozhenie is morphologically equivalent to annihilation (nichto = nihil), meaning “the turning (of something) into nothing.” The opposition-minded public would like to know the affiliation of the St. Petersburg producer of furnaces to be used for burning the sanctioned food. The lighter-minded note that there are better ways to annihilate food, say by eating it; jokes proliferate.


Casus Savchenko: women no longer entitled to a jury trial in Russia


July 30, 2015 by AK

Nadiya Savchenko is a Ukrainian military held in a Russian jail, accused of a “war crime” against Russian citizens. She took part in Ukraine’s war against Russia-backed separatists in 2014. It appears that she was kidnapped in Eastern Ukraine and brought to Russia in June 2014. The Russian authorities claim that, while piloting an army helicopter, Savchenko directed the artillery fire that killed two Russian reporters in Eastern Ukraine in the same month. Ironically, she is also charged with illegally entering Russia.

Since her arrest more than 13 months ago, Savchenko has been elected to the Ukrainian parliament and the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, awarded Ukraine’s highest military honor, gone on a lengthy hunger strike and stopped it just in time to avert certain death.

There is little doubt that all the charges against Savchenko are bogus. Apart from the merits of the case, Russia is not the right venue and its courts have arbitrarily assumed jurisdiction. Even more obviously, it is impossible for Savchenko to receive a fair trial in Russia. Hardly anyone can, much less a Ukrainian soldier.

The latest turn in Savchenko’s legal ordeal is remarkable even by Russian standards. Earlier this month, her lawyers requested a jury trial but the request was turned down. Jury trials in Russia are only available to those accused of the gravest crimes, those punishable by death or life imprisonment. In 2013, the Constitutional Court ruled that juveniles are not entitled to trial by jury because they cannot,  by law, receive either the death penalty or life imprisonment (a substitute for death during the current moratorium).

This brilliant legal logic, taken half a step further, results in denial of jury trials to women as well (unless the prosecutors agree): by law, women cannot be sentenced to death and, therefore, to lifelong incarceration in Russia.

Which is, according to an opinion column by a Russian legal scholar in Vedomosti, exactly why Nadiya Savchenko has been denied the right to be tried before a jury. Because she’s a woman.

A note on names, once again. Both the Ukrainian and the Russian languages tend to nativize common Eastern Slavic names. It’s “Volodymyr Putin” in Ukraine and “Nadezhda Savchenko” in Russia. “Nadiya” and “Nadezhda” mean the same, “hope,” in Ukrainian and in Russian. I’m using the Ukrainian form for obvious reasons, although Savchenko appears bilingual. “Nadia” is a familiar form not appropriate in formal communication.

Clinton’s mentor and the Russian interregnum of 1825


July 28, 2015 by AK

In his acceptance speech at the 1992 Democratic nomination, Bill Clinton named his history professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, Carroll Quigley, as a major influence. Quigley was a scholar of wide-spanning, almost Toynbean ambition and indisputably great learning. Perhaps the greater the range of a historian’s interests, the more relaxed is his approach to peripheral facts.

From Prof. Quigley’s 1976 lecture, Public Authority and the State in the Western Tradition: A Thousand Years of Growth, 976-1976:

There are no constitutional rules of succession in Islamic Civilization, in Byzantine Civilization or in Russian Civilization — ever. To talk about constitutional law in Russia is to talk nonsense. Alexander the First left a note in his desk saying that he wanted his second son, I believe, to succeed him, and that settled it. That was not an act of constitutional law: it was an act of will.

Alexander I had no sons; his two daughters died in infancy. He might have had illegitimate children but no historian has seriously suggested Alexander ever thought of them as heirs to the throne.

What Quigley probably had in mind are Alexander’s brothers. The claim becomes this: Alexander disinherited his natural successor, the oldest of his younger brothers, in favor of the second-oldest, in a secret and whimsical manner.

I would call it an unorthodox view. As a scholar of the Napoleonic period — his doctoral dissertation was The Public Administration of the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy — Quigley might have had access to some secret archive unavailable to Russian historians, but speaking seriously, his recall of the facts was probably imperfect.

Alexander’s father, Paul I, enacted a succession law in 1797 restoring male primogeniture. Although Alexander loved and respected his imperial grandmother Catherine more than he did his father Paul, he only made one change to the succession law, disqualifying children of morganatic marriages from the throne. 

Paul’s law made Constantine, the second of Paul’s sons, Alexander’s lawful successor, although Constantine’s children from his marriage to Countess Grudzińska might have been ineligible for further succession. However as early as 1819, Constantine indicated he was indisposed to rule. In 1823, he sent a formal letter to Alexander asking to be removed as his heir. Alexander wrote a manifesto citing Constantine’s renunciation and making Nicolas the heir apparent. For some reason, however, Alexander sealed the manifesto and ordered it published upon his death.

Alexander passed away unexpectedly on November 19, 1825. The State Council, the advisory legislative chamber created and appointed by the late emperor, was at a loss: Alexander’s manifesto appeared to contradict the succession law. The majority of the council decided to pledge allegiance to Constantine, and were encouraged to do so by Nicolas, who also took the oath, on November 27. 

Once Constantine had confirmed his refusal to take the scepter, Nicolas proclaimed himself emperor on December 13. The day after, Decembrist officers assembled their troops in the Senate Square in St. Petersburg but were defeated. They used the temporary confusion over the succession process to strike but it was too late. Perhaps they would have had a chance if Constantine had changed his mind.

Quigley’s offhand remark works like a fun house mirror. Not Alexander’s second son but second brother. Not an envelope discovered by chance but three sealed copies of a decree left with three trusted officials. Top bureaucrats reluctant to accept the late monarch’s will as law. (As to why Constantine stepped aside, and whether he was coerced to a decree, conspiracy theories abound.)

This does nothing to disprove Quigley’s general thesis, of course. One can argue that in matters of succession, Russian autocrats faced options limited by tradition or by elite opinion but that would take a more serious effort than correcting an imprecise statement.

The latest on Russian libel tourism


July 23, 2015 by AK

Up until 2012, Vladimir Slutsker (Sloutsker) was a second-tier Russian oligarch. He was a member of the Federation Council, a senator in colloquial usage, in 2002-2010. His detractors claim that Slutsker largely owed his success to being good at obtaining “protection” for his businesses from high-placed government officials, typically with backgrounds in intelligence.

Together with his wife Olga, known in Russia as the owner of the World Class gym chain, Slutsker bought a house in Kensington for £6 million in 2000. The Slutskers got divorced in 2009 and after a legal battle in London, Vladimir lost the house, then worth £40 million, to his ex in 2012. In the same year (or 2011 according to some sources) he left Russia and permanently settled in Israel.

Olga Romanova is an experienced Russian journalist, a professor of journalism at a leading university, and a human rights activist. She co-founded a movement called Rus’ Sidyaschaya, “Russia behind bars” or “Russia doing time,” seeking to reverse wrongful convictions and improve prison conditions. Her activism was triggered by the prosecution and conviction of her husband, Alexei Kozlov, on likely trumped-up embezzlement and laundering charges. Kozlov was jailed in 2008-11 and then again in 2012-13. Although the Russian Supreme Court quashed his conviction in 2011, Kozlov was re-convicted in 2012 and had to serve another year until the Supreme Court acquitted him on some of the charges.

Kozlov had managed one of Slutsker’s businesses for several years before charges were brought against him. About the time of Kozlov’s first arrest, in 2007, Olga Romanova accused Slutsker of orchestrating the judicial assault on Kozlov. In 2010 she was reported to file a formal complaint against Slutsker with the prosecutor-general’s office. When Kozlov was re-arrested in 2012, Romanova claimed that Slutsker had arranged for her husband to be murdered in custody.

Slutsker filed a libel suit in London in 2012 based on four instances of Romanova’a publlicizing these two allegations. There was much wrangling between the parties over the issues of jurisdiction and service of process. In March 2015 the judge ruled that England and Wales was the proper place for the claim and that valid service had taken place.

At that point, Romanova declined to take part in further proceedings. In July the judge entered a default judgment , ordering her to pay £110,000. The court never got down to examining the merits of Slutsker’s and Romanova’s claims. I cannot come up a good reason for Romanova’s sudden refusal to defend herself. It seems to me that she would have invoked the “fair comment” principle to shield herself. She has said somewhere that she expected police investigators who worked on the Kozlov case (and feel bad about their involvement, apparently) to testify for her, but now they are not allowed to travel abroad.

I don’t quite agree with this logic, but that’s a minor puzzle compared with the fact that it was allowed to proceed in London. I’m not questioning the judge’s finding of Slutsker’s substantial link to the UK despite his never being a resident. Rather, I am looking at the big picture, a purely Russian dispute between two non-UK residents getting resolved in London.

New MH17 footage, one year after


July 17, 2015 by AK

Like carrion-eating hyenas, News Corp. and its peers sometimes help the ecosystem to cleanse itself. This time they’ve dug up this:

…after a 12-month pursuit, News Corp Australia has obtained new footage shot by the rebels themselves on a camcorder as they captured what they initially believed to be a Ukrainian air force fighter jet they had just shot down using a ground-to-air missile system…

The film records their dismay as they minutes later discover the aircraft is a commercial airliner.

I believe there were obvious clues to whodunit on the day of the downing, July 17, 2014 (no doubt lots of new evidence has been discovered in the past year). Within 10-15 minutes of the disaster, perhaps less, Strelkov was on Twitter (or was it VK? I don’t remember now) saying the separatists had just shot down a Ukrainian military plane, or two planes. I’m not a heavy Twitter user and I’m not on VK but like everybody else, I can read Russian news wires. They carried the same reports of a Ukrainian plane, or two planes, just downed by the separatists. They stopped and began to disappear an hour or two later.

The footage unearthed by News Corp. makes the same point with greater force.


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