Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Every people possesses the inalienable, sovereign right to their own path of development, their own choice of allies,
their own forms political organization, their own paths of economic construction, and to defense from danger.
Russia has always and will always treat this with respect. - Vladimir Putin

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Truly Excellent Lecture On Putin, Russia and Ukraine from a Geopolitical Perspective.

I plan to do some extensive analysis and comparison work between this speech and few other documents from direct Russian sources later this week. But this video-lecture is so informative and useful to this debate, that I can't resist posting it now. Thanks to the Chicago Humanities Festival and Professor Timothy Snyder. Please watch, comment and discuss.

Today's Headlines from Russian and English Language Media

  • Russian military aircraft nearly collides with civilian passenger jet over Sweden on December 12th, 2014
  • Captured Ukrainian military pilot Nadezhda Savchenko announces a hunger strike against her unjust imprisonment
    • Nadiya Savchenko, who until earlier this year was a decorated Ukrainian soldier and pilot, fell into rebel hands while fighting in the volunteer Azov Battalion in Eastern Ukraine, one of the ad-hoc military units that have helped the Ukrainian army stand its ground in the East. Following her capture she was transferred into the hands of the Russian Federation during the last week of June 2014 under dubious circumstances, eventually showing up (after disappearing from Donetsk) in Voronezh, in custody of the FSB. They attempted to charge her with complicity in the murder of two Russian journalists in Ukraine, which they were unable to prove in any meaningful way. The president of Ukraine has called for her release, but Russia does not appear eager to submit to even this humble request. So then, in response to her indefinite and unjustifiable detention, Nadiya has today announced a hunger strike for justice; let's hope that she finds it.
  • Russia announces inquiry into possibility of building Russia-only space station
    • Oleg Ostapenko, head of RosCosmos (Russia's NASA), today confirmed speculation that Russia is considering embarking on the project of creating a space station to rival the ISS, that will be controlled and operated exclusively by Russia. In conjunction with this, Russia is considering ending its support for the ISS starting in 2020 or 2024, and refocusing the efforts of RosCosmos entirely on this new project. Ostapenko also hinted at this project being a prerequisite for achieving further Russian ambitions in space, such as extensive moon exploitation and colonization and other deep space research missions.
  • The Russian Ministry of Culture discusses the possibility of banning US films in Russia
  • And finally today, the Ruble continues its disastrous slide versus major world currencies
    • The Russian Ruble continues to tumble versus the Dollar and Euro, reaching a record 63 Rubles to 1 USD today (now 65 to 1 as of 3PM, CST), all while the price of crude oil hovers just barely above $60 per barrel. This news, as would be expected, is causing great concern among economists and politicians invested in Russia's future. But you need not panic: simply pick your favorite, relaxing jam and watch the numbers move on my new favorite site,

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A Brief History of Dissident Music in Russia, from Stalin's Death to the Present

A housing project completed under Khrushchev, lovingly
referred to in Russian by the combination of the words
"Khrushchev" + "Slum" 
Joseph Stalin's death on March 5th, 1953 arguably marked the most important change in Soviet government of its entire existence. In an instant, the paranoid monster who had personally overseen an entire incarceration apparatus that facilitated the massacre millions of his own innocent citizens, was dead. While the reaction was largely that of shocked loss on behalf of the Russian people, the sudden removal of the main source of Soviet terror. There were many results of this, but the general outcome was that of a thaw in oppression, during which the arts and sciences flourished as Russians grew excited about a future that promised new infrastructure, housing and space exploration. Within three years of his death, the Soviet leadership had denounced Stalin's terror and tenure, and Russia (and by proxy the Soviet Union) had turned a corner.

This combination of events left the Iron Curtain malleable enough to be penetrated by the most consequential musical revelation in recent history: the Beatles. Their music was (still is) catchy, it spoke to the struggles of everyday young people, but most importantly, it was available and
transportable. As rock music entered Soviet culture, many expressions of dissidence began to spring up. For example, young people began to dress in the popular Western style and meet in private, a practice which was strictly forbidden, even in the less restrictive atmosphere of the Khrushchev Thaw. This particular dissident movement is well illustrated by the (somewhat) recent Russian film on the topic: Stilyagi.

A jazz record printed, like countless
others, on medical x-ray film by
dissident musicians
While the popularity of the Beatles in Russia was unmatched by any other group, the 1970s saw a host of new bands and groups come onto the scene, playing music that was not approved by the state, and therefor subject to pressure in a variety of ways. Often, government officials would threaten, coerce or bribe venue owners to not allow rock musicians to play. This practice was very effective, although there was one prominent counter example to this trend: the Leningrad Rock Club. Originally founded under Brezhnev as a home for "respectable music", it quickly grew into the hub of Soviet rock music. This was in St. Petersburg, a city of over 4.5 million in 1980, that was only 170km from the Soviet Union's border with Finland, making it a transit hub for all Western art entering Russia. Still, the general inability to play venues and spread the word lead to the phenomenon of samizdat', or "publish it yourself" in Russian.

Very quickly a black market for not just music, but also self-published literature and art come into being in the Russian underground art scene. Some very famous Soviet bands, such as Kino, Akvarium and Mashina Vremeni used samizdat' to build their followings and become cultural icons. These bands slowly emerged from the shadows under Gorbachev's program of Glasnost' or openness, which preceded the collapse of the once oppressive Soviet regime.

Skipping forward to Putin's early tenure (2000 - 2008), during which musicians were generally allowed to speak their mind, even if it was critical of the Kremlin, so long as they did not represent an actual threat to the status quo. However, as I've covered in earlier posts, Putin's regime has pushed Russia in the direction of  authoritarianism, well demonstrated by the Freedom House Scores for Russia from 2001 to 2008, during which Russia slipped from partly free to not free.

Bolotnaya Square following the publishing of videos on
YouTube incontrovertibly demonstrating widespread
fraud in the 2011 legislative elections
Since the Bolotnaya Square protests in 2011 (in response to clear electoral fraud), Putin's regime has cracked down with increasing severity on freedoms of expression, assembly and speech. But most recently, the Ukraine Crisis has caused severe friction within Russia's music scene, pitting modern dissidents and those of Soviet period against those who are sticking to the Kremlin line and supporting Russia's actions. Most prominent among these two sides are Televizor, a late Soviet era dissident rock group, and Russian singer Valeriya, who has played extensively in western Europe while taking fire for her pro-Kremlin political views.

The regime's reaction to this cultural upheaval is a simple reapplication of the Soviet remedy: censorship and coercion. According to Televizor front-man Mikhail Borzykin, already he is having trouble keeping venues due to pressure from the regional government, which threatens the venue owners with closure for hosting "disfavored" groups. Even his band members are unwilling to play out of fear for their safety or that of their families. All this while groups that support the Kremlin and their various provocations and wars of the last 15 years play concerts unfettered by government censure, including Steven Seagal, who has baffled his American fans by supporting the Kremlin's Ukraine policy.

I feel strongly that this overt, Soviet-style censorship is an affront to human dignity. But with propaganda over the Ukraine crisis reaching a fever pitch and the fighting in Donbass dragging on, it seems reasonable, if abjectly depressing, to think that this return to a harsh climate for outspoken artists is here to stay.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Putin's War on the Free Russian Press

Anna Politkovskaya

As has been mentioned in previous posts, Putin's Russia has made no qualms about resorting to illegal and often brutal measures to silence their opposition. While systemic changes can be used to dilute or silence the influence of the political opposition, it is the media that often presents the most urgent and legitimate threat to autocratic regimes.
Putin's Regime has of course been no exception. They have intimidated watchdogs such as Amnesty International, forcing them to register as "foreign agents". This has resulted in massively increased scrutiny of NGO's and civil society organizations, including of domestic civil society groups. But most importantly, and what I'd like to cover here, are the stories of two extremely brave and noble media sources: Anna Politkovskaya and TVRain, both of whom have made indispensable contributions in helping to maintain and reconstitute the Russian free press following crackdowns and repression.
Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist and human rights activist who made her name reporting independently on the Second Chechen War. She published articles from Chechnya at a furious pace, taking a line that was highly critical of the pro-Russian regime in Chechnya as well as the way the war was being waged, which included massacres, bombing and shelling of civilian homes, and chemical warfare. She was virulently critical of president Putin in her work, fully aware of the danger she was in for her outspoken views. She received nearly constant death threats from the time she began reporting on the Chechen war to her murder in October 2006. On the seventh of that month, Politkovskaya was found dead in a lift, shot once in the shoulder, then again in the head at point-blank range. Conspiracy theories abound as to why this happened and who carried it out, but this is the clear take-away: outspoken critics of the Kremlin in Putin's Russia can be murdered with impunity.
TV Rain is a liberal, independent Russian TV station focused on news, politics and business that has frequently taken positions critical of the Kremlin. In fact, in recent years they have served in more of a watchdog role, frequently and primarily publishing articles and headlines critical of Kremlin policy on a wide range of issues. Their efforts have been immeasurably valuable to Russian society and political discourse, but they have also incurred the wrath of the Kremlin. Their problems began in 2011 when they became the first Russian television network to offer coverage of the protests that erupted in major Russian cities, after videos that clearly demonstrated fraud in that year's parliamentary elections were posted online. In response to TVRain's coverage, the Kremlin carried out an audit of their coverage and subjected them to significant undue scrutiny.
More consequences came earlier this year, when TVRain published an online poll, asking if the city of Leningrad (St. Petersburg today) should have surrendered while it was under siege by the Nazis during WWII, during which millions of Russian citizens suffered and died. This topic is taboo in Russia, as any questioning of Stalin's tactics or elements of the Russian strategy in general is inseparable from larger questions about Stalin's terror and the horrors of the war itself. The repercussions of this act, in addition to their previous affront to Putin's regime, have been felt as the year has worn on. They have been evicted twice from their studios this year, the second time just yesterday (Dec. 8, 2014). They are now broadcasting from a private apartment in Moscow, with fears of harsher government retaliation a looming concern.
These two giants in the free Russian media have all but been erased, with Politkovskaya murdered and TVRain's viewership a fraction of its former size. While the latter continues to fight on to air the Kremlin's dirty laundry, the consensus as to the health of Russia's independent media hasn't been this pessimistic since the days of the Soviet Union.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Defiance, Delusion and Stagnation: an Analysis of Putin's State of the Nation Address

President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, giving his State of the Nation address

 Call it what you will, but Vladimir Putin's State of the Nation speech on December 4th marked an abrupt departure from, if not his so-called doctrine of Putinism, then certainly from the people's and perhaps even his own conviction in it. Furthermore, I believe that this is an event

which may very well come to demarcate the year that Putin's luck finally ran out. To find out why this event is so important, let us first take a look at what political features comprise Putinism. We will then analyze the text itself and why it was so poorly received, finally concluding with an assessment of what changes might be on the horizon, based on the observed substantive changes in this most recent speech.
It is impossible to discuss Putinism without at least briefly discussing how Boris Yeltsin governed and shaped Russia in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Collapse. In general, regimes that emerge during a transition from one political system to another are dominated by the presence of a charismatic leader, who can consequently take advantage of extremely weak political institutions with no ability for mobilization. In Yeltsin's Russia, the remaining Soviet political institutions, namely the Supreme Soviet (essentially the Soviet
A gathering of the Supreme Soviet in the early 1990s.
parliament), posed a significant obstacle to Yeltsin's agenda, opposing him at every turn with every ounce of political capital they possessed. From early in his presidency, it was clear that Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet would be forever diametrically opposed, which likely provided the primary impetus for Yeltsin to crush that body. He accomplished this by devolving a significant amount of power to the
Oblast' (state) and local levels of government, which then allowed Yeltsin to "undercut" the mandate of the Supreme Soviet, eventually forcing them from power. Let it be observed by all that this was the first major political initiative in post-Soviet Russia.
Next Yeltsin's presidency entered a period in which it was characterized by a substantive loss of traction with the masses, stemming from the defeat of the Supreme Soviet, which represented the only tangible and credible threat of a coup to restore the old system. From there, Yeltsin's Russia stabilized around a model of Military-Bureaucratic consolidation of power, in which the State and military acted exclusively to preserve their own interests. At this point, the Kremlin began the lengthy process of transferring the massive state owned assets into private hands, which, as many of my readers may know, resulted in the massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, well positioned individuals. It was essentially in this form that power remained consolidated under Yeltsin up until New Year's Eve, 2000.
The regime inherited by Putin was one that was totally decentralized, with political power significantly devolved and economic power in the hands of a class of oligarchs. It is with this reality that the Putin regime has struggled since day one, a struggle that has consisted primarily of (1) sacking a number of oligarchs (see: Mikhail Khodorkovsky) to restore the economic power of the Kremlin, and (2) using political means to consolidate authority in the at the federal level. In achieving the latter, Putin's regime has murdered and threatened journalists as well as political opponents, bribed and cajoled their way into Oblast' level and local level administrations, and of course invaded sovereign nations, most notably Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, both of which have resulted in increasing the territory of the Russian Federation. This is, in essence, Putinism.
Prime Minister of Russia, Dmitrii Medvedev, asleep at Sochi
Dmitrii Medvedev having another ill-timed nap
The text of the speech itself can be found in English here. The reaction to the address, as mentioned earlier, was tepid at best. In fact, it has been recently argued by many respected Kremlinologists that this speech had much more in common with a speech given by, say Brezhnev during the Soviet Era of Stagnation, especially in comparison to Putin's most recent major policy speech, following the seizure of Crimea. All of the telltale signs were there: applause was muted at best as Putin riffed on the Stalinesque themes of cracking down on the "fifth column" of society, while increasing the efficiency of the government bureaucracy charged with overseeing the food system and threatening "unnamed creditors" who are underhandedly causing the ongoing devaluation of the Ruble. Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev even fell asleep, as Brezhnev himself was wont to do. It seems that stagnation is a likely outcome according to many of the most credible Russia watchers, an assessment with which I concur decidedly.
Another key feature of this speech was the first claim from Putin that Crimea represents a holy place for Russians on par with that of the Temple Mount for Jews, a claim that has baffled Russian historians. Besides the offensive nature of these comments to both Jews and Muslims (not to mention anyone with a sense of historical justice), this is simply a bad move at a political and geopolitical level- and worse, It seems to indicate sloppy planning by a regime inundated in political and economic crises, which provides ample reason for worry on behalf of responsible state actors (and people for that matter).
This is all coming in the midst of the recent attacks in Chechnya (reported below), which have fueled concern over a resurgence of the domestic terrorism that has plagued Russia for decades, most notably punctuated by the Beslan Tragedy.
Coming out of this speech, it is probable that we can expect the Russian state to further careen toward consolidating power in the Kremlin while attempting to assert itself militarily abroad, in conjunction with pushing misinformation and their psuedo-Soviet ideology on all who will listen, but especially those disaffected by the United States' numerous and ghastly blunders in recent years.
The State of the Empire seems wobbly at best these days.
An Addendum/Further explanation to the above post:
The aforementioned change in tone really was most marked in comparison to other speeches that Putin has given. I believe that I cited his Crimea annexation speech as a contrast (which might be best compared to Obama's "I killed Bin-Laden" speech, in terms of gravity and importance to the people). The primary reason for this is that Putin has seemed to lose his way in applying some of the aspects of Putinism that helped it gain traction with the people, namely the use of Orthodox Christian lore (as it pertains to the inception of Kievan Rus' - which was essentially the source of Russian civilization) to justify belligerent Russian actions in general, but especially the seizure of Crimea and War in Donbass. As I mentioned in the post, he for the first time used the Crimea as Temple Mount for Russians argument. So it's not that this is necessarily evidence of him backing away (perhaps I should review the exact language of the post), but of increasing sloppiness and decreasing effectiveness of these measures.
But while he continues down the same rhetorical paths, the reactions are growing more tepid (especially among the powerful elite) and worried as the economy and ruble continue to tank, oil prices slide (which supplies the vast majority of the Russian Federation's annual budget) and Russian military involvement in Ukraine becomes undeniable and untenable (with the blame for MH-17 not far behind).
There is also the legacy of the Era of Stagnation hanging over all of this. The stability of cadres has been the equilibrium point for Russia in recent history, in which development and innovation suffer at the hands of enforced bureaucratic and military stability, not to mention the state of human and personal rights. Many respected observers believe that this speech showed many signs of a coming stagnation under Putinism.
I strongly believe that Vladimir Putin is a man who is psychologically incapable of changing course, especially when making decisions with such meaningful repercussions for Russia (but probably in every aspect of his life). He seems to be losing control of the narrative to a greater extent than before, and many Kremlinologists believe that Putin's luck is about to run out.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The 8 Month Anniversary of the Founding of the D.N.R.

This Sunday marks the eight month anniversary of the proclamation of the Donetsk People's Republic, or D.N.R., the entity which declared itself an independent state within Ukraine. While the founders (who included a number of prominent Russian citizens) attempted to steep the genesis of the D.N.R. in the comfort of the positive aspects of Soviet Ideology, the reality on the ground has fallen far short.
Rather, the existence of the D.N.R. has been marred by consistent problems stemming from the ongoing civil war with Ukraine's central government (which to date has claimed nearly 5000 lives). And while the war may be the primary impetus, the problems gripping the D.N.R. remain varied and nuanced.
They range from trouble achieving a mandate to govern, with low turnout in the recent elections, to serious human rights abuses, to the economic chaos that civil war combined with a poorly-implemented Soviet-style command economy has led to.
It must also be mentioned that, since this summer of 2014, when the central Ukrainian government had nearly crushed the opposition of the D.N.R. and its twin the L.N.R., the Russian Federation has been administrating, supplying and largely fighting the War in Donbass on behalf of the rebels. This resulted in a huge jump in the casualties of the war, leading to the numbers we are seeing today.
On this eighth month anniversary of its founding, I fear that the D.N.R. and L.N.R., backed by the full force of the Russian armed forces, shall continue to exist so long as they serve the Russian Federation's geopolitical goals; goals which unfortunately show no signs of change.