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.

The double parade of November 1941


July 12, 2015 by AK

If you have taken a cab from Moscow to Sheremetievo, you must have seen these giant anti-tank “hedgehogs” in Khimki. It is a monument to the defenders of Moscow in 1941. While regular Nazi troops probably did not advance as far as Khimki, the front line in November 1941 was a mile to the north of what is now the Sheremetievo runway. It is said that by early December, Rokossovsky’s 16th Army had stopped the Germans at the 41th kilometer of the Leningrad Highway: a 25-mile drive to the nearest metro station in Moscow, Sokol, opened in 1938.

Despite all this, the Soviets decided to hold the annual military parade on Red Square on November 7, as usual, in commemoration of the 1917 revolution. Oleg Khlevniuk writes, citing this article among others:

[The parade] was a risky undertaking since a few days earlier, on 29 October, German planes had dropped a large bomb right on the Kremlin. A total of 146 people were injured and 41 were killed.78 The Luftwaffe could certainly strike again. In anticipation of this possibility, a parallel parade was held in Kuibyshev (today’s Samara), the city chosen as the reserve capital should Moscow fall. In case of an attack during the Moscow parade, radio coverage of the celebration would switch to Kuibyshev.

A “just in case” military parade in Samara while the Germans were 25 miles from the capital. The bit below is also typical of the time and place.

Stalin addressed the parading troops with a short speech delivered from atop Lenin’s Mausoleum…

The military parade on Red Square was captured on film, but for some reason Stalin’s speech was not. It was decided to stage the speech in an improvised studio. A mockup of Lenin’s tomb was built in one of the halls of the Great Kremlin Palace, and Stalin repeated his speech for the cameras on 15 November.

In December, movie theaters began showing [the film]… including the reenactment of Stalin’s speech. Over seven days, beginning December 4, two hundred thousand viewers watched the film in Moscow alone.

Inspired by this discussion at LanguageHat.

What a loss


July 9, 2015 by AK

Recall Flirt, the sex ad rag that printed jingoist rants alongside pictures of sylphs for sale. The couple running the business have been detained on suspicion of procuring, along with 35 call center operators. Apparently Flirt served as a sort of sex exchange: a potential customer would have to call a Flirt number and reference the advertisement he would like to act on. The operator would then put him through to the sex worker, or more likely her pimp or madam.

One source claims Flirt skimmed 30% off each “order.” quotes a policeman saying one issue “brought in” – in revenues, I suppose – around five million rubles for its owners. I think it comes up to more that half a million dollars per month. Not a huge turnover considering the risks but probably enough to make a couple million per year.

Prostitution is not a crime in Russia, merely a (petty) misdemeanor, an “administrative infraction” like speeding, jaywalking or littering. In contrast, pimping and procuring is a felony. suggests plausibly that Flirt went down because it had lost protection by the usual suspects, which include law enforcement. But perhaps not all is yet lost for these patriots.

By the way, I used strictly gendered language in the first paragraph because Flirt was staunchly heterosexual – I would even say conservative in its menu.

Happy July 4th


July 4, 2015 by AK

…to my American readers and to all who celebrate the Declaration.

Stalin the helmsman and the imitation of Mussolini


July 2, 2015 by AK

This post has been inspired by this note by Language Hat on a slightly different subject.

In modern Russian usage, “the Great Helmsman” is taken by default to be a reference to Mao. The word most likely to denote Stalin is vozhd’, a leader-chief hybrid. (Of course he was also the Coryphaeus of All Sciences – and Humanities, especially the theory of language.) However, it’s true that Stalin was called a great helmsman as early as 1934 on the occasion of the Soviet ice-cutter F. Litke  (previously called Earl Gray, Canada, and The Third International) successfully passing the Northern sea route. That was 15 years before the Communist takeover of China.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, going back at least to John Chrysostom (possibly to Justin the Martyr), the Church is sometimes referred to as a ship and Christ as its helmsman. Later Roman Catholic interpretations have St. Peter steering but in the East, it’s always the Messiah Himself. The nautical symbolism in Christianity goes deep and far back in time – consider the origin of “nave” for example.

Stalin, as a former priest in training, may have been familiar with the Christian connotations of the Great Henchman title. According to Oleg Khlevniuk’s latest bio of the dictator, Ioseb Jugashvili was either expelled or forced to leave the seminary “with a commendatory certificate on the completion of four years,” which “would have enabled him to work in the area of religion or teach elementary school.”

Did the coiner of the sacrilegious epithet realize what he was doing? A considerable number of Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries came from the clerical estate, but that’s all I can say for now.

Curiously, in the same year 1934, a Sardinian-born aspiring intellectual called Edgardo Sulis published a book titled The Imitation of Mussolini, no less. According to R.J.B. Boswell:

The first claim to fame of Edgardo Sulis is that in 1934 he published a book with perhaps the most egregious title of all the star-struck accounts of the Duce – **Imitazione di Mussolini**. In its pages, this Thomas à Kempis of Fascism set out the basic tenets of what he labelled in somewhat hackneyed phrase ‘the new political religion’. In the articles of this totalitarian faith, love of country, of nation, of Duce and potentially of race fused in mysterious fashion.

Sulis published more books in support of fascism and rose to a senior propaganda position in the republic of Salò but little if anything is known about him after 1945.

Primakov as PM and Yeltsin’s non-successor


June 30, 2015 by AK

When Russia defaulted on its public ruble-denominated bonds and the ruble lost two-thirds of its value to the dollar in August 1998, the Kirienko cabinet also fell. Facing a largely hostile Duma, Yeltsin appointed Yevgeny Primakov prime minister. It was feared the cabinet would push for counter-reform, for a return to a late-Soviet, state-dominated economy.

My impression is that Primakov’s cabinet did not do much at all. The Russian economy started to recover in 1999 without much government or IMF intervention, helped by the cheap ruble and temporarily unused production capacity (if in need of modernizing investment). August 1998 seemed like the end of the world; in May 1999, it looked like the worst was past us.

Meanwhile, Yeltsin was probably thinking of retiring and did not want the old spy Primakov to succeed him. (Eventually he picked for that part a young spy whose name also begins with a P.) Besides, Primakov – two years Yeltsin’s senior – was past 70 so and would have been almost as old when assuming the top office as Konstantin U. Chernenko was in 1984. “Comrade X assumed the post without regaining consciousness,” the standard early to mid-1980s joke went.


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