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February 27 2014

Chechen Dictator and Russian Nationalist NOT Taking Over Ukraine

A Yin and Yang of Russian trollitics, Leader of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov and nationalist blogger Egor Prosvirnin. Unlikely bedfellows. Images remixed by author.

Yin and Yang of Russian trollitics, highly unlikely bedfellows Leader of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov and nationalist blogger Egor Prosvirnin. Images remixed by author.

Time and time again Russian Internet users and Russophone mass media prove that they will fall for any hoax, no matter how bizarre or unbelievable. It's not as if it is the first time someone took the fake Twitter account of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov for the real thing. @KadirovRussia [ru] was started before the real Kadyrov joined Twitter and quickly gained a following. These days, however, almost everyone is aware that although Kadyrov does tweet at his own account, @rkadyrov [ru], he mainly uses it to link to his favorite social networking platform, Instagram [Global Voices report].

Nevertheless, multiple bloggers, forum users, and online media outlets were taken for a ride with a recent tweet by @KadirovRussia:

Prosvirnin and I are riding the “friendship train” to support Russians in Crimea.

Crimea is a primarily Russophone region of Ukraine currently protesting the change of power in Kiev. Crimeans are afraid that nationalist Ukrainians will infringe on their culture, and many Russians share their fear, stoked as it is my mainstream Russian media. A beach paradise not far from where the Sochi Winter Games took place, it is also home to a Russian naval base, and is currently a pressure cooker of ethnic tension between Russians, Ukrainians, and Crimean Tartars. Not a day passes that there aren't rumors of Russia deploying troops or Kiev sending its own militia to the region. The most recent development [ru] is that armed men have occupied a regional administration building and hung Russian flags from it.

In this climate the announcement that the gruff Chechen leader has joined causes with nationalist blogger Egor Prosvirnin (of Sputnik & Pogrom fame), who has been vocally advocating for Crimean independence [ru] for the past several days, fell on fertile ground. Never mind that Prosvirnin harshly mocks and lambastes Kadyrov, the news was reported by several Ukrainian outlets, including Ukrainian Komsomolskaya Pravda [cache], Obozrevatel [ru], and Korrespondent [cache], with commentary noting the increasingly violent climate in Crimea. Kadyrov's alleged involvement must have been particularly troubling — it was the Chechen “Vostok” Battalion that was in the lead during Russia's 2008 armed conflict with Georgia over the breakaway province of Abkhazia.

Prosvirnin himself was amused with the confusion, writing [ru]:

Разбудили звонком с НТВ, спросив, правда ли мы с Кадыровым едем в Крым. Спросонья ступил и сказал, что они там совсем что ли ебу дались, и уже повесив трубку понял, что НАДО БЫЛО ВСЕ ПОДТВЕРДИТЬ.

Was woken up with a call from NTV, asking if its true that Kadyrov and I are going to Crimea. I was still dozy and stupidly said that they were out of their f*cking mind, but as I hung up I realized that I SHOULD HAVE CONFIRMED EVERYTHING.

He said that the news might have scared the Crimean Tartars who are currently against any talk of secession. Later he also joked [ru] that Kadyrov has agreed to take charge of the western Ukrainian province of Lviv.

Chechen “Vostok” Batallion troops at a Crimean beach, or what it might look like if they were. Images remixed by author.

Meanwhile, the real Kadyrov has actually sounded off about Ukraine [ru] on his Instagram account:

Получаем информацию, что у проживающих в этой стране соотечественников появились серьезные проблемы с сохранностью бизнеса и личной безопасностью. Мы никогда не претендовали на чужое, но и своё защитим. Следует четко осознавать, что не дадим в обиду чеченцев и других россиян, где бы они не находились.

We have received information that our countrymen living in that country are having serious problems with safety of their businesses and personal safety. We have never wanted what isn't ours, but we will protect our own. It needs to be clearly understood, that we won't let Chechens and other Russians come to harm, wherever they may be.

A troubling statement — perhaps more troubling than any fake news of rapprochement with Russian nationalists.

February 26 2014

The Russian Familiarity Yanukovich's Fabulous Palace

Yanukovich's presidential palace, where dreams came true. (And then crashed back to Earth.) Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Yanukovich's presidential palace, where dreams came true. (And then crashed back to Earth.) Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

When Viktor Yanukovich fled Kiev last week, he left home in a hurry. The crowds of ordinary civilians and journalists who later flooded the abandoned presidential palace, on the other hand, took their time, marveling at an opulence even Yanukovich's sharpest critics found shocking. When the first visitors arrived, they encountered a skeleton crew of guards, who actually led journalists on a tour of the property, inviting them to take photographs [ru] in order to “reveal how Ukraine's President lives.”

Popular Russian photo-blogger Ilya Varlamov gained access to the grounds, photographing various sights on the 140-hectare property. There was a private zoo filled with animals both domesticated and exotic. The garage hosted a collection of expensive classic cars. Docked at the shore of a private lake, a galleon served as a restaurant. And, of course, there was a private golf course. Ukrainians piled into the mansion to see their taxpayer money at work. An open invitation [ru] went out over Twitter inviting people to come and see the palace with their own eyes. 

Yanukovich's floating 19th hole. The galleon restaurant.

Curiously, the Russian blogosphere’s response was largely muted. Russians, admittedly, are already familiar with examples of their own politicians’ wealth and bad taste, as photos of their residences regularly leak onto the Internet. Vladimir Yakunin, president of the state-run company Russian Railways, starred in such a scandal last year, when anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny published materials [ru] on Yakunin's 70-hectare property outside of Moscow.

With this history in mind, one of Varlamov’s readers joked that Yakunin must envy Yanukovich's bigger mansion:

Ни в коем случае не показывайте эти кадры Якунину.

Don't see these photos to Yakunin.

Another Russian blogger, Oleg Kozyrev, reminded reader about a remark by Vladimir Putin in 2008, when he referred to himself as a galley slave.

Теперь понятно, что Путин имел в виду, когда говорил, что он раб на галерах. Вот галера Януковича

Now it is clear what Putin had in mind when he said that he is a galley slave. Here is Yakunin’s galley.

Lenta.ru journalist Andrey Kozenko tweeted:

Generally speaking, after seeing photographs of the residence, [I have to say]: all embezzlers have horrible taste.

Long lines to gaze upon Yanukovich's riches.

Journalist Alexander Plushev observed on Twitter:

I wonder how many of our people [Muscovites] would go to Novo-Ogarevo [Putin’s residence outside of Moscow]. (Let’s just say, if the appropriate circumstances arose.)

Vladimir Varfolomeev jokingly replied:

Hold on now—are they already taking reservations for tours? Damn. Once again, I've missed everything while on vacation.

Andrey Davidov offered the following novel solution:

You could create an electronic queue management system.

February 25 2014

From Kiev to Moscow: Russia's Tired Protest Antics

Tires (for burning on barricades) in the shape of the Olympic symbol. Anonymous image found online.

Car tires (used for burning on barricades during Ukraine's Maidan protests) in the shape of the Olympic symbol. Anonymous image found online.

With the Sochi Olympics over, it is back to business as usual in Russia — futile protests for the opposition, reactionary repression for the government. On Monday, February 24, 2014 Moscow's Zamoskvoretsky Court sentenced eight political activists to several years in prison for participating in a May 6, 2012 riot near the centrally located Bolotnaya Square. The actual sentences in the “Bolotanaya Case” vary, from two years and seven months for Artem Savelov to four years for Sergey Krivov. Alexandra Duhanina, the only female defendant left after an earlier amnesty that freed Maria Baronova, received a suspended sentence of 3 years and 3 months.

An image showing the Bolotnaya prisoners and their sentences. Anonymous image found online.

An image showing the Bolotnaya prisoners and their sentences. Anonymous image found online.

The sentencing took place this Monday, rather than last Friday as was originally planned [ru], likely to keep from spoiling the Olympic closing ceremony with untoward headlines. Even though it was a week-day, hundreds of people showed up to the court building, and later to Manezhnaya Square, to protest against the court case, which many view as rigged and political in nature. Some of these protesters seemed to have been inspired by the revolution in neighboring Ukraine, where violent street action helped the opposition reach their political goals. Specifically, several people tweeted about the need to bring car tires to the protest — either a defiant gesture referring to the mounds of tires burned by protesters on Kiev barricades, or a call to build barricades of their own.

Ilya Azar, a reporter at Lenta.ru, was the first one to call for “tires at Manezhka,” tweeting:

не забудьте каждый взять с собой на Манежку хотя бы одну автомобильную покрышку

everyone, don't forget to take at least one car tire with you to Manezhka

He later deleted his tweet, perhaps rightly fearing that it could be construed as a call to violence by the humorless Kremlin, but not before people made screenshots [ru]. Others [ru] picked up on this call to action, one Twitter user also calling [ru] for empty bottles, gasoline and motor oil (Molotov cocktail ingredients), another using Aesopian language to avoid charges of extremism:

I need help! Around Manezhka I got a flat tire. Everyone who is coming, please bring a spare, it could be old or without the rim.

A few people heeded these calls, one of them Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot fame, who was apparently arrested while carrying one [ru]. Tolokonnikova later tweeted from a police van, describing [ru] her detention as “rough.”

A man getting arrested on Manezhnaya Square, holding a car tire. Grani.ru.

Indeed, the Moscow police reacted swiftly and ruthlessly, dispersing the protest and detaining several hundred people, among them putative opposition leader Alexey Navalny [ru], according [ru] to tweets [ru] by protesters. Some also described [ru] the police action as “unusually” brutal and impatient. Pro-Kremlin writer Eduard Bagirov tweeted [ru] that this was because of the Ukrainian angle; post-Maidan the riot police have a “moral right” to “execute” protesters, he maintains.

A burning Kiev barricade photoshopped to look like a Google

A burning Kiev barricade photoshopped to look like a Google “doodle.” The protesters are holding car tires. Anonymous image found online.

Yulia Arkhipova, an economics student who recently got into a Twitter flame war [Global Voices report] with radio talk-show host Vladimir Solovyev for being pro-Maidan, wrote [ru] a scathing criticism of the tire-debacle, arguing that the Russian opposition is adopting the trappings of Ukrainian protests without their spirit:

В России оппозиция насмотрелась на Майдан и теперь играет в ролевые игры. К Замоскворецкому суду приносят российский флаг, поют российский гимн. Протестующие кричат “Банду гэть!” и называют ОМОНовцев Беркутом.

In Russia the opposition has seen the Maidan and is now role-playing. They bring the Russian flag to the Zamoskvoretsky court, they sing the Russian anthem. The protesters yell “Down with the thieves” [in Ukrainian] and call the riot police “Berkut.”

Sure, that might look like the Maidan, she writes, but what these protesters lack is the willingness to quit their jobs and the commitment to stand in the cold for months at a time. Thus, what worked in Kiev, is unlikely to work in Moscow.

Meanwhile, the Bolotnaya Square prisoners will do hard time, although human rights defender Pavel Chikov hopes [ru] that the sentences are low enough that they might soon be released on parole, considering how much time they've already spent in jail. It remains to be seen if these eight men and women will become a mascot for the protest movement or a successful deterrent against it.

February 24 2014

Big, Bad Bullies of the Russian Media

The bullies of the Russian media. Dmitri Kiselyov, left, and Vladimir Solovyov, right. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

The bullies of the Russian media. Dmitri Kiselyov, left, and Vladimir Solovyov, right. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

The media environment in Russia is not good right now. Readers of RuNet Echo are already familiar with the high-profile attacks on TV Rain, Russia’s only independent television channel, as well as legal threats against Echo of Moscow, the country’s most popular radio station, and Alexey Navalny, Russia’s most famous political blogger. All of these cases involved some utterance published online that politicians and conservative media figures deemed offensively unpatriotic. TV Rain ran a poll asking viewers to assess abandoning Leningrad to the Nazis in World War II; Echo of Moscow published an article by Victor Shenderovich, comparing aspects of the Sochi Olympics with the 1936 Berlin Games; and Navalny made a cryptic joke about an assassinated judge in Ukraine, quipping that the same might await Russian judges.

While Russians can debate how offensive they find TV Rain, Shenderovich, or Navalny, beyond dispute is the prominence of the TV station and these two men in Russian politics. In that regard, for all the senselessness of modern Russia’s witch-hunt against supposed “traitors,” a certain logic guided the process of targeting persons and institutions.

Last week, the logic seemed to break down, when popular Russian TV and radio journalist Vladimir Solovyov dedicated an entire radio show [ru] to dissecting and denouncing the Maidan-supportive tweets of a handful of students from Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. (See Sultan Suleimanov’s detailed report on this scandal, in Russian.) Yulia Arkhipova suffered the brunt of Solovyov’s attacks, villified (in absentia) for being a homosexual-loving Ukrainian citizen.

Solovyov appears to have learned of Arkhipova thanks to Vitalii Milonov, the St. Petersburg city councilman infamous for launching Russia’s original legal crackdown on “gay propaganda” in 2011. Milonov engaged Arkhipova a day before Solovyov’s radio show, mocking her concerns about wounded protesters in Kiev [ru] and holding up her ‘misplaced’ worry as an example of Russian higher education’s failings. When Arkhipova later taunted Solovyov, writing [ru] on Twitter that “specially for him” she had dawned traditional Ukrainian clothes and cradled her Russian passport in her pocket, Solovyov responded by saying [ru] that her “soul remains rotten,” despite the wardrobe change.

Why did Solovyov hound a group of unknown university students over a few Ukraine-related tweets? Arkhipova herself theorized that Dmitri Kiselyov—a recently promoted, pro-Kremlin journalist who regularly shocks liberal society with assaults on the Russian opposition—has raised the bar for loyalty in the Russian mediasphere. Solovyov has long been a Putin-supportive polemicist, but his regular antics pale in comparison to Kiselyov’s, who made Milonov look like Harvey Milk, when (in 2012 on national TV) Kiselyov angrily championed burning the hearts of gay car accident victims. Popular journalism and public debate in the era of Kiselyov have become wildly sensitive to the two main tropes of Russian liberalism: criticism of the Kremlin and praise for the West.

While Solovyov may have been upping the ante by taking the good fight to twenty-somethings on Twitter, the larger objective was of course the Higher School of Economics, which Milonov has condemned [ru] as a “nest of liberalism.” In other words, the logic guiding Russian reactionaries may not have disappeared after all.

In the meantime, “Vyshka” (as the university is known colloquially) has done its best to remain above the fray in this controversy. On February 21, 2014, the school’s Facebook page published a note [ru] calling Solovyov’s behavior a “provocation.” The post also included a photograph of Mark Twain, with the quotation: “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

Image posted to Vyshka's Facebook page.

Ukrainian Revolution Rattles Russian Nationalists

Photoshopped image of politician Yulia Timoshenko, released from jail by the opposition controlled Ukrainian parliament. Many view her as a strong candidate in the coming presidential elections. Anonymous image found online.

Photoshopped image of politician Yulia Timoshenko, recently released from jail by the opposition controlled Ukrainian parliament. Many view her as a strong candidate in the coming presidential elections. Anonymous image found online.

Remarkably, it is now a fait accompli that the Ukrainian opposition has taken control of the country's political process. President Yanukovich's fall from power was in no small part due to the radical nationalists who made up the core of the street activists standing opposite Ukrainian riot police for the last three months. Nationalist parties like Svoboda, and radical organizations like the “Right Sector” (see this early YouTube video [ru] of Right Sector leader Yarosh talking about taking the fight to “Ukrainian” lands in Russia) contributed to the eventual victory of the Maidan movement, and now appear to be in a unique position to influence Ukrainian policy making.

At least this is what Russian nationalists fear — not only that the new Ukraine will look towards the West, rather than Russia, but that the Russian speaking population in Ukraine will come under attack from radicals who will attempt to “derussify” them. The prominence of Ukrainian nationalists in the opposition movement gives fodder to these fears. A Russian radio-host Ilias Mercury, for example, tweeted about statements previously made by leader of the Svoboda party Oleh Tyahnibok:

Tyahnibok declared that the Russian language in Ukraine will be made illegal. Clear?

and 

Tyahnibok declared that Russians living in Ukraine will be made “non-citizens of Ukraine.” Clear?

It doesn't matter if such policies will ever come to pass. The very thought of them scares nationalists who feel that Russian-speaking Ukrainians are also Russian.

Some Russians blame Yanukovich for this turn of events. Blogger and publicist Egor Holmogorov wrote [ru] recently that:

Судьба Януковича – великолепный урок всем мелким тиранам, предающим русских. Он мог бы сделать русский язык государственным и править опираясь на русскую половину, которая постепенно стала бы русским большинством. Он предпочел прямо противоположный путь.

Yanukovich's fate is a great lesson for petty tyrants who betray Russians. He could have made the Russian language an official state language and rule relying on the Russian half of the country, which over time would become a Russian majority. He chose an exactly opposite approach.

This language map by Kiev National Linguistic University shows the split between Russian speaking east and Ukrainian speaking west.

This language map by Kiev National Linguistic University shows the split between Russian speaking east and Ukrainian speaking west.

In general, language appears to be a major point of contention for nationalists on both sides. In the past couple of days the new opposition controlled Rada has passed several laws, one of which was to repeal of an older law that gave Russian the status of a secondary official language in Ukraine. This led nationalist philosopher and founder of the National Democratic party Konstantin Krylov to proclaim [ru] the new regime “anti-Russian.” Krylov claims that such laws diminish political freedoms and Ukraine, and calls for new policy that would allow Ukrainians to easily acquire Russian citizenship, if they so choose.

Nationalist publication Sputnik & Pogrom also commented on the law repeal, saying [ru] that it fits with their predictions of increased nationalism in Ukraine in the case of an opposition win. S&P also criticized Alexey Navalny for supporting the Ukrainian opposition movement, as it seems contrary to his claims of looking out for the interests of Russians. S&P also published an address to “all Ukrainian Russians,” [ru] in which they call on them to self-organize and create “Russian national organizations,” because, “that's the only way to create a European Ukraine.”

Conservative publicist and radio-show host Dmitry Olshansky, on the other hand, made a more emotional appeal [ru]:

Можно себе представить, что было бы, если бы не было 1941 года, и существовали бы те, кого убили, и их потомки, – а Рада отменила бы идиш в качестве регионального языка.

You can imagine what would happen, if there was no 1941, and all of those who had died and their descendants would now be alive – and the Rada took away the regional status of Yiddish.

Truly, Russian nationalists are vehemently against any kind of ethnic discrimination — unless, of course, they get to be in charge.

Reposted byepimetheus epimetheus

February 22 2014

Pro-Maidan Video Goes Viral Thanks to Pavel Durov, Russia's Zuckerberg

Screen capture from

Screen capture from “Fear Is Not Real.” YouTube.

Pavel Durov, the creator of Russia's most popular online social network, Vkontakte, is an unusual man. Young and fabulously wealthy (he made nearly half a billion dollars [ru] last month divesting from VK), Durov has something of a mixed reputation. In December 2011, he gained a reputation for defending civil rights, when he publicly defied a police request to delete certain Vkontakte groups formed in opposition to United Russia, the country's dominant political party. Early last year, however, Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia's best established anti-regime newspapers, revealed evidence that Durov may have cooperated with the authorities in more subtle ways. In the last year, Durov has been at the center of a shareholders conflict with United Capital Partners, an investment group that bought 48% of Vkontakte in April 2013. Last month, Durov sold his remaining 12% in the company to a close ally of Alisher Usmanov, preserving Mail.ru Group's majority control.

While he's no longer a part-owner in the website, Durov remains Vkontakte's CEO. That arrangement might not last much longer. Indeed, there is widespread speculation in Russia that Durov will soon be forced out of the company entirely. Durov has fought hard to remain at Vkontakte, but his recent divestment suggests he may finally be acquiescing. (Losing his creation undoubtedly costs him some sleep, but Durov can now toss and turn on a bed of 420 million dollars, thanks to the stock sale.) 

Besides selling off his shares, Durov did something else recently that could signify his impatience with keeping himself in the good graces of Russia's powerful. On February 20, 2014, Durov republished an evocative two-minute video featuring combat footage from Kiev, narrated in a dramatic male voice cheering on demonstrators. The video is thoroughly pro-Maidan, challenging protesters to overcome the fear of battle and encouraging them to continue resisting. At the time of this writing, Durov's post has almost 32 thousand views and over 17 thousand “likes.”

Given the political climate in Russia now, Durov's willingness to stake such an unabashedly pro-opposition position on the Ukraine crisis is rather astounding. Durov leads a multi-billion-dollar company—the “Facebook of the Russian Internet”—where an unpredictable competition between two investment tycoons will decide his future. Outside Vkontakte, Russian politicians have been on a spree of attacks against anyone who promotes “extremism” (read: any kind of support for Ukraine's opposition). As I've documented in past Global Voices posts, there have been assaults on television and radio stations, websites, and individuals—sometimes for behavior as innocuous as a bad joke. Is Durov's daring a show of open defiance? 

The video: “Fear Is Not Real”

Artist Alexander Makedonskiy originally authored the video that Durov published on Vkontakte. YouTube hosts the clip, as well, on Makedonskiy's channel and other accounts. The commentary in the video is a curious mix of dialogue from two Hollywood movies: the 2013 film After Earth, starring Will Smith, and the 2006 movie Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone's sixth and final Rocky installment. (The scenes harvested for the narration include father-and-son moments from each film, and the speech Rocky delivers to the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission, when he tries to renew his boxing license.)

What follows is a transcription [ru] of the “Fear Is Not Real” Maidan video, with the original English text from the two films mentioned above. The video itself, with English subtitles, can be viewed below.

Страха в реальности нет!
Страх живет в одном закоулке в наших мыслях о будущим.
Страх это плод нашего во брожения.
Он заставляет нас боятся того чего нет! И вероятно не будет ни-ког-да!
Это ж чистое безумия.
Ты только пойми меня правильно!
Опасность это реальный факт, но страх это твой выбор!
Я скажу то что для тебя не новость. Мир не такой солнечный и приветливый.
Это очень опасная и жесткая места.
Если толька дашь слабину, он опрокинет с такой сили тебя что больше уже не встанешь!
Не ты, не я не кто на свете не бьет так сильно как жизнь!
Совсем не важно как ты ударишь , а важно какой держишь удар.
Как двигаешься в перед будешь идти иди если с испугай не свернешь!
Толька так побеждают!
Если знаешь чего ты стоишь?! Иди бери свое!
Но будь готов удары держат!
А ни плакаться и говорит ” я нечего не добился из-за его из-за нее и из-за кого-то. Так делает трусы а ты не трус!!! Быт этого не может!
Если человек сам хочет за что то драться, хочет добиваться своего, кто правы остановит его?! А может кому-то из вас тоже чего-то хотелось.?! Чего-то о чем мечтал, чего-то не обычного. А его не дают “нет” говорят и точка.
Кто имеют права так говорит “кто?” Ни кто !
Человек сам решает в какую сторону ему повернуть. Права каждого быт именно тем кем он захочет быт!

Fear is not real.
The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future.
It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist.
That is near insanity.
Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice.
Let me tell you something you already know. The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.
It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.
You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life.
But it ain’t about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.
How much you can take and keep moving forward.
That’s how winning is done!  
Now if you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth!
But you gotta be willing to take the hits.
And not pointing fingers saying you ain’t where you wanna be because of him, or her, or anybody!
Cowards do that and that ain’t you! You’re better than that! 
Because if you’re willing to go through all the battling you've got to go through to get where you wanna get—who’s got the right to stop you? Maybe some of you guys got something you never finished, something you really want to do, something you never said to somebody—something!—and you’re told “No,” even after you pay your dues?
Who’s got the right to tell you that? Who? Nobody!
It’s your right to listen to your gut. It ain’t nobody’s right to say “No” after you earned the right to be where you want to be and do what you want to do.

February 21 2014

Russian Politicians Stick to Their Guns as Ukraine Burns

Ukraine's Trade Union House, headquarters of the protesters burns

February 19, 2014. Ukraine's Trade Union House, headquarters of the protesters burns as violence intensifies. Photo CC 3.0.

As the political situation in Ukraine continues to deteriorate, and reports of fatalities grow, Russian politicians have been voicing their opinions on the crisis. Somewhat predictably, opinions on who is to blame for the worst political violence to grip Europe this century were sharply divided between government and opposition figures. Several members of Russia's ruling United Russia party sharply criticised the protesters and the West for the disturbances.

Deputy Alexey Pushkov, head of the Duma's foreign affairs committee, blamed Western pressure on Ukraine's government. Referencing the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution,’ Pushkov tweeted:

With their pressure on Ukraine's authorities, and attempts to pass off chaos as democracy, the West has opened the path to radicals, and now in Kiev there's Orange anarchy.

Deputy Robert Shlegel, who has long been an outspoken critic of American policy, sarcastically tweeted [ru] about US President Barack Obama's call for the Ukrainian army to exercise “restraint.”

Obama making demands of Ukraine's army. :-O Barack Husseinovich! Aren't you ashamed of yourself, once again you're digging yourself a hole with your colonial worldview.

Another prominent United Russia deputy, Sergey Zheleznyak, went on Facebook to voice his full support [ru] for the Ukrainian government's violent crackdown.

Совершенно очевидно, что с бандитами, взявшими в руки оружие, не может быть никакого перемирия, это не политическая сила, с которой имеет смысл вести переговоры, а преступники, которых нужно срочно выявлять, арестовывать и привлекать к уголовной ответственности! При вооруженном сопротивления преступников, угрожающих жизни и здоровью – уничтожать их без сожаления!

It's perfectly obvious that there can't be any sort of reconciliation with bandits who have taken up arms. This isn't a political force, with whom there's sense in holding discussions, these are criminals who need to be identified, arrested and brought to criminal responsibility! During an armed confrontation, criminals who threaten life and limb need to be eliminated without pity!

Russia's more liberal-minded politicians were less critical of the protesters. Ilya Ponomaryov, a member of the opposition party ‘A Just Russia,’ wrote rather ambivalently in his LiveJournal [ru].

я полностью поддерживаю право народа на восстание, считаю события в Киеве именно народным восстанием, но скорблю, что причиной этого восстания является манипуляция общественным мнением со стороны недобросовестных политиков со всех сторон. Преследуемая людьми цель – ложная, и люди со временем это поймут, но много позже, когда пролитой кровью воспользуются проходимцы.

I fully support the right of the people to rise up. I consider the events in Kiev such a people's uprising, but regret that the reason for this uprising is the manipulation of public opinion on the part of cynical politicians on both sides. The goal people are striving for is a lie and people in time they will get this, but only much later, only after the schemers have exploited the bloodbath.

Fellow party-member Dmitry Gudkov, one of the most outspoken oppositionists sitting in the Duma, was more openly critical of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Yanukovych has to quickly announce early presidential elections and carry out constitutional reforms or prepare himself for a meeting with Gaddafi.

United Russia has thrown its full support behind Yanukovych and is unlikely to be swayed in its opinion by mountaining casualties, which it blames ultimately on a combination of Western interference and far-right elements. Similarly, for Russia's opposition politicians, the bloodshed in Ukraine is a clear example of the dangers of corruption and an unwillingness for reform. For Russia's politicians, the battle lines over Ukraine have already been drawn, and now there can be no compromise. 

February 20 2014

Russians Eye Ukrainian Turmoil with Hope, Fear

Iron Maiden's

Heavy metal band Iron Maiden's mascot “Eddie the Head” gets a Ukrainian restyling in this meme. Anonymous image found online.

The latest development in a long running stand-off between the Ukrainian government and opposition, deadly clashes between protesters and riot police erupted near Kiev's Independence Square on Tuesday, February 18. As events unfolded, authorities halted the city subways, barricaded roads, and blocked a major opposition TV channel,  Channel 5 Ukraine [Ukr]. According to recent numbers as many as twenty-five protesters and police have died in the violence, over 200 people have been hospitalized, and over 1,000 have been otherwise injured. The numbers also include journalists and bystanders.

Russian bloggers have been carefully observing these events, so much so that many Russian Internet users have lost interest [Global Voices report] in the Sochi Winter Games in favor of protests on the Maidan. Positive commentary ranges from expressing sympathy for the protesters to demanding that Russia not meddle in Ukrainian internal affairs. At the same time pro-Kremlin bloggers and state-sponsored Russian media outlets have lambasted the protesters as extremists. 

As usual, members of the Russian opposition gave some vicarious analysis of the situation. Journalist Sergei Smirnov, formerly a member of the radical and banned National Bolshevik party, tweeted:

Seriously, 13 wounded armed cops equals urban warfare. That is, this means the opposition has several times more wounded.

Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov made the same comparison, lamenting the violence [ru]:

В Киеве продолжаются уличные бои. 9 убитых. 7- гражданских и два милиционера. И все потому что Янукович цепляется за власть и не хочет объявить досрочные выборы.

Urban warfare is continuing in Kiev. 9 killed. 7 civilians and 2 policemen. And all because [President] Yanukovich is hanging on to power and doesn't want to announce snap elections.

Vladimir Milov's second in command at DemVybor party, Kirill Shulika wrote [ru]:

Виноват, естественно, Янукович со своим маниакальным желанием удержать у власти группировку донецких бандитов. Да, можно говорить о вине оппозиции, но есть президент, который просто обязан не допускать этого. А если он уже не в состоянии контролировать ситуацию, ему надо уходить.

Of course Yanukovich is to blame, with his maniacal desire to maintain power for a group of Donetsk bandits. Yes, one can also fault the opposition, but there is a president who simply cannot not allow this [violence]. And if he can no longer control the situation, he should leave.

Some Ukrainians also tweeted in Russian. Singer Oleksandra Koltsova tweeted about the much-discussed split between Ukraine's Russian speaking East and EU-oriented West:

People in the east aren't “for Yanukovich.” They've also been robbed. They are also ready to trade him in for a better candidate, but they need concrete proposals and different faces [in the opposition leadership.]

In the end, though, RuNet discussions of the Ukrainian “problem” should remain online discussions, thinks Russian writer Maxim Kantor [ru]:

Началась украинская гражданская война. [...] Россия не должна участвовать в этой войне. Сегодняшнее украинское правительство дискредитировано, и его призыв о помощи (если будет) нельзя рассматривать как призыв народа. А народ ни о чем не просил.

The Ukrainian civil war has begun. [...] Russia should not participate in this war. The current Ukrainian government has lost credibility, and its call for help (if it happens) should not be seen as the voice of the people. And the people themselves haven't asked for anything.

Vladimir Putin, who reportedly ignored a recent phone-call from President Yanukovich, seems to be on same page.

February 18 2014

To Hell with the Games: Russians Turn from Sochi to Ukraine

A woman in Kiev reacts to the sight of two dead bodies (protesters killed in the violence). 18 February 2014. Screenshot from YouTube.

A woman in Kiev reacts to the sight of two dead bodies (protesters killed in the violence). 18 February 2014. Screenshot from YouTube.

Before the Sochi Winter Games kicked off less than two weeks ago, yours truly told US News & World Report that unrest in Ukraine might divert the attention of Russian Internet users from the Olympics. Today, after a relative lull, violence returned to Kiev’s streets, causing a dramatic shift in RuNet activity. Indeed, the images coming out of Ukraine depict something like a civil war.

While the news from Kiev is making headlines globally, comparative Twitter analytics demonstrate that today’s events in Ukraine galvanize Russian speakers to a degree distinct from the rest of the world. Indeed, in the last 24 hours on Twitter, Russian users’ interest in Ukraine has surpassed their attention on the Olympics. This reverses a trend in place since February 2, 2014, several days before even the opening ceremony, when Russians last tweeted more about Kiev than Sochi.

The trend among Anglophone Twitter users over the last month is similar, but interest in Sochi has always dominated. Even today, with Ukraine in flames, tweets about Kiev are just over half the more than 200 thousand tweets about the Winter Games.

While it’s no surprise that Internet users are drawn to the revolutionary display in Kiev, it is remarkable that the host of the Winter Olympics seems to have lost its home audience to a foreign event.

Russian-language tweets (click to enlarge):

Russian-language tweets about “maidan” or “kiev” (orange) versus tweets about “sochi” or the “olympics” (blue).

Russian-language tweets about “maidan” or “kiev” (orange) versus tweets about “sochi” or the “olympics” (blue).

English-language tweets (click to enlarge):

English-language tweets about “maidan” or “kiev” or “euromaidan” or

English-language tweets about “maidan” or “kiev” or “euromaidan” (orange) versus tweets about “sochi” or the “olympics” (blue).

February 16 2014

The Hilarity of Murder Among Russians

Alexey Navalny (left) and Irina Yarovaya (right). Images from Wikimedia commons.

Alexey Navalny (left) and Irina Yarovaya (right). Images from Wikimedia commons.

Where do you draw the line between a joke and a death threat? That question has been on Russians’ minds this week, after a controversial tweet [ru] by famed blogger and opposition leader Alexey Navalny, who described the assassination [ru] of a judge in Ukraine as a “greeting card” to judges in Russia. The murder victim, Aleksandr Lobodenko, was responsible for sentencing several protesters convicted of rioting in Ukraine’s Poltava region, leading police to believe the killing was politically motivated.

Duma deputy Irina Yarovaya quickly branded [ru] Navalny’s tweet “extremist,” interpreting it literally. Navalny’s message, she claimed, “not only mocks a man’s death, but transmits a positive attitude about murder.” Other state officials soon chimed in. Kirill Kabanov, a member of the President’s Council on Human Rights, implied that he believes Navalny was joking, but warned that some of his readers might misunderstand, saying, “Navalny has a pretty big group of fans, who aren’t always evenly balanced, and some of them might see [the tweet] as a call to action.” Georgy Fedorov, a member of Russia’s Civic Chamber, accused</a> [ru] Navalny of being a thug disguised as an activist, calling the tweet “reckless” and “twisted.”</p> <p>A day after his “greeting card” tweet, Navalny <a href=" http:="">responded [ru] to the backlash, addressing only Yarovaya. Changing the topic entirely, he pummeled Yarovaya for hiding a luxurious Moscow apartment in her daughter’s name. Indeed, Navalny first blogged about the secret accommodations nearly a year ago, in March 2013, when he republished [ru] findings by an opposition-leaning newspaper. At the time, Yarovaya denied the accusation, calling it “a dirty insinuation.” This week, Navalny presented on his blog a copy of a real estate title in the name of Yarovaya’s daughter for a four-bedroom apartment in a posh area of Moscow.

Navalny offered to delete his tweet about the Ukrainian judge’s murder, if Yarovaya could clarify how her daughter, at 18-years-old, managed to buy property worth an estimated three million dollars. Comedically undeterred, Navalny even offered, in the event of an explanation from Yarovaya, to compose a new tweet, “calling on people never to kill on-the-take judges or corrupt deputies.”

Navalny’s sarcasm has always been a major feature of his persona. Particularly before he became one of the political opposition’s most prominent figures, Navalny’s public image was foremost associated with his blogging. Though he rarely responds to comments on LiveJournal these days, and his blog posts now are heavier in information than opinion, Navalny’s voice online is still consistently snide and disparaging. This is not to say he’s meaner than most using the Internet, but Navalny’s manner distinctly remains a blogger’s style.

How else can we explain why Navalny considers it appropriate to issue a mock death threat to judges throughout Russia? In a year that has kicked off to multiple harsh reactions by authorities in response to ‘offensive utterances,’ Navalny is clearly advertising his fearlessness about pushing the bounds of free speech. Others elsewhere in Russia have responded with similar resolve (or stubbornness, depending on your point of view), when accused of speaking irresponsibly. TV Rain may have apologized and canceled a program, after it caught hell for a survey about abandoning Leningrad to the Nazis, but the station’s management refused to fire anyone. Victor Shenderovich, who enraged many by noting uncomfortable similarities between Russian and fascist Olympians, has stuck to his guns and defended himself against critics who say he crossed a line.

Navalny may very well think he’s rallying behind the country’s beleaguered and besieged civil society. His choice of resistance—turning a man’s killing into a jab at Russia’s own admittedly hated judges—may have been in poor taste, but Navalny is far from the only opposition member who’s alluded to prospects for Ukrainian-style unrest in Russia. Making this stand with a joke, however (and then refusing to defend it directly), suggests that Navalny and his generation have room to mature.

February 15 2014

Blood on the Ice, Fury on the Tubes

Vladimir Putin sees all of your shenanigans.

Vladimir Putin sees all of your shenanigans. Image mixed by Kevin Rothrock and Andrey Tselikov.

Drama is never far behind when the Russian and the USA national hockey teams meet on the ice. The latest match-up at the Sochi Olympics, where US won 3-2 in a series of shootouts, was no different. While Americans celebrated, Russian fans were incensed by what they view as an unfair loss — late in the game the Russians scored a third goal that was nullified by the referees according to IHF rules, because one of the US goal-posts was slightly dislodged. Arguably it was this call that cost the Russians their victory.

“There was a goal! Even we saw it.” says a Russian cosmonaut. Anonymous image found online.

The goal's position was so slightly out of kilter that most people watching the game did not notice it. Confusion over the reasons for nullification quickly turned to anger and conspiracy theories, fed by the fact that the referee was an American national. The Twitter account of the liberal cable channel Rain-TV tweeted:

By the way, the referee who didn't count the third puck in the American goal, because the American goalie moved the goal-post, is also American

The implication here being that while the IOC maintains that judges “don't have nationalities,” the American referee somehow chose to overlook the Russian goal to help “his” team. In a way, the outrage has united Russians from opposite sides of the political spectrum like few other things have in the past. Pro-Kremlin MP Maria Kozhevnikova also tweeted [ru] that the American goalie moved the post himself, while opposition MP Dmitry Gudkov couldn't believe that the referee is American, calling the fact “crazy [ru].” Nationalist publication Sputnik & Pogrom noted that in a way, the game reflects Russia's weakness on the international arena [ru] — first the Russians let Americans judge their game, and then they complain about the results, rather than questioning the entire setup.

Some chose to vent their frustration with outgoing US ambassador Michael McFaul, who was cheering the US team on Twitter. After McFaul tweeted “Victory!”, someone replied

@McFaul the American referee cheated, when he nullified the goal. Is this a national trait ?

To which McFaul responded with an exasperated “Come on man!” McFaul's defensiveness showed when he took seriously an obviously jocular tweet that was parodying the conspiracy theorists:

Ive seen it all now! RT@vdzyubenko The DC bosses and @McFaul stole our victory ))

Russia is still in the running for hockey gold, although the going will get harder now. And in the end, blaming the referee is a time honored tradition in both countries. Let's hope that Vladimir Putin, a hockey fan, doesn't take this loss as seriously as some memes imagine:

Putin over-reacts to Russia's hockey loss.

Putin over-reacts to Russia's hockey loss.

February 13 2014

Welcome All to Russia's 2014 Olympic Hunger Games

President Putin at the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony. Anonymous image found online.

President Putin at the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony. Anonymous image found online.

As “toilet-gate” jokes[Global Voices report] and the hashtag #SochiProblems grow stale, another way to poke fun at Russia's hosting of the Winter Games has emerged: comparisons between the Olympics and the wildly popular Hunger Games franchise.

The Hunger Games story features a dictatorial leader, President Snow, who maintains control of a dystopic nation by forcing teenagers to compete in a televised tournament that must end in only one survivor. Of course, in practice, the Olympics has no similarities with the violence of this fictional death-match. For one, Olympians don't kill each other for their gold medals.

However, a combination of the word “Games” and President Putin's signature stern facial expressions (as well as his reputation as a strong authoritarian leader) has struck a chord with Internet users — enough to create numerous memes using Putin as the background for President Snow's quotations. One common meme a photo of Putin with the phrase “Welcome. Happy Hunger Games [to you.]” superimposed on the image:

“Welcome. Happy Hunger Games.” Anonymous image found online.

Other memes focus on a different aspect of the Hunger Games. There, the outfits of the characters from the ruling faction are notoriously flamboyant and appear ridiculous and frivolous to the working class of the fictional nation. One popular image currently circulating Twitter is of one of the women carrying country plaques during the opening ceremony, juxtaposed with a character from the recent Hunger Games movie who wears a somewhat similar retrofuturistic dress:

Character from the Hunger Games movie, and model carrying Argentina's plaque in the opening ceremony parade. Anonymous image found online.

Character from the Hunger Games movie (left), and model carrying Argentina's plaque in the opening ceremony parade (right). Anonymous image found online.

There is serious meaning behind the silly outfit comparisons — the Sochi Games, which are estimated to have cost over $40 billion, have been plagued by allegations of corruption [Global Voices report], horrible working conditions and lack of payment for the possibly illegal workers. The idea of an under-class looking with horror at the waste of the “Capitol” can be seen as an allegory for Russia's poor and disadvantaged watching the most expensive Games in history take place right in front of them, yet out of reach. One Twitter user wrote:

It's true. Same sh*t, the people are going hungry and poor, while the government is happy

Another user eschewed subtlety and embraced hyperbole in making his comparison:

The Hunger Games, like the Olympics, are controlled by the authorities, to entertain the slaves, and maintain an eternal president — all those who disagree are ruthlessly killed!

Not all comparison are this negative — most of bloggers take a humorous approach. One Twitter user humorously suggested that the Olympic Games would be improved if they were turned into Hunger Games for government officials:

It would be better if instead of the Olympics they stage Hunger Games … between members of parliament.

In some ways, this lighthearted approach to poking fun of the Olympics is a breath of fresh air compared to some of the harsher memes [Global Voices report] out there. At the same time, the RuNet has become a confusing hodgepodge of articles criticizing Sochi, and articles criticizing the critics, until the real point of the Olympic Games, athleticism and national pride, is almost completely buried in a pile of meta-criticism. 

February 11 2014

Russia's Patriotic Overdrive in Sochi?

Hans Woellke (left) and Julia Lipnitskaia (right) compared. Ashley Wagner's reaction-face meme responds. (Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.)

Hans Woellke (left) and Julia Lipnitskaia (right) compared. Ashley Wagner's reaction-face meme responds. (Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.)

The Soviet Union may have defeated Hitler, but modern-day Russia’s war against fascism wages on. In just the last month, Russian authorities have used their battle with “the rehabilitation of Nazism” as a pretext [ru] for attacks on three different media outlets.

In late January, Russia’s only independent TV station got into hot water, when it aired a survey asking viewers if the USSR could have saved more lives by abandoning Leningrad to the Germans. On February 7, 2014, a Russian Senator demanded [ru] that officials temporarily suspend the broadcasting of CNN, after it published a story (later deleted) calling the Brest Fortress World War II memorial in Belarus “one of the world’s ugliest monuments.”

Most recently, there is trouble at Echo of Moscow, Russia’s premier liberal radio station (and a major hub for opposition-leaning materials online), where satirist Victor Shenderovich (best known for creating a political puppet show that aired in the 1990s) published a controversial blog post [ru] about the politics of Russia hosting the Winter Olympics.

Speaking on the floor of parliament today, Vladimir Vasilyev, the deputy chairman of the Russian Duma, demanded that Echo of Moscow apologize for Shenderovich’s post. (Curiously, Vasilyev addressed only Echo of Moscow, though the text was originally published on the less-trafficked website Ezhednevnyi Zhurnal.) Echo’s chief editor, Alexey Venediktov, wasted no time refusing to apologize [ru], pointing out that Shenderovich’s piece was never broadcast over the radio and only appeared in his blog (hosted on Echo’s site). (Shenderovich has also refused to apologize [ru].)

The post in question, titled “Olympic War: Putin and the Girl on Skates,” describes how liberal oppositionists suffer from a certain “schizophrenia” during the Olympics, struggling to reconcile their love of Russia’s historical accomplishments (Tolstoy, constructivist art, and so on) with Vladimir Putin’s apparent exploitation of these feats to boost his own popularity. Most memorably, Shenderovich also likens fifteen-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia’s performance in Sochi this week to Hans Woellke’s triumph in the men’s shot put competition in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. “Something, however, prevents us from enjoying [Woellke’s] victory today,” Shenderovich adds, warning against pride in an authoritarian state’s Olympic athletes.

While many things undoubtedly do keep us from celebrating Woellke today (in the war, he served as a captain in the Waffen SS, and his murder precipitated the massacre of a village in Belarus in 1943), Shenderovich’s comparison has proved controversial for many Russians. Though the Internet-savvy might regard it as nothing more than quick service of Godwin’s law, Shenderovich’s decision to equate Russia’s newest national treasure—a charming adolescent girl, no less—with a Nazi jock couldn’t have come at a worse time.

With the Winter Games underway in Sochi now, Russia is (understandably) in patriotic overdrive. That means anyone toying with the World War II narrative—to this day, Russia’s most sacred unifying myth—better be careful. TV Rain’s survey about ditching Leningrad crossed the line. CNN’s mockery of the Brest Fortress went too far. Shenderovich seems to have committed an even greater sin by abusing young, pretty Lipnitskaia, but it’s possible that any of these offenses would have passed as minor kerfuffles, were it not for the Olympic adrenaline now filling the country’s veins.

February 08 2014

I've Got 99 Sochi Problems

One of the rings fails to open during the Olympic opening ceremony -- a minor setback in an otherwise masterful performance. YouTube screenshot.

One of the rings fails to open during the Olympic opening ceremony — a minor setback in an otherwise masterful performance. YouTube screenshot.

Last week foreign journalists descended on Sochi, and tweets and photos of unfinished construction quickly made headlines in the west and in Russia. Journalists complained about everything from rusty water to faulty door handles. A Twitter account called @SochiProblems was launched, mocking the alleged disaster of the Russian Winter Olympic games.

For example, one CNN reporter complained that only one of the rooms booked for his group was available, and posted a photo of himself in his hotel room with the curtain rod fallen down:

Many Russians were less than pleased with the negative publicity. One blogger alleged [ru] that the reporter could have done the damage himself to create a story:

[...] гражданин, скорее всего, сам отломал держатель карниза, и теперь всем демонстрирует моральное убожество режима резидента Путина.

[...] this guy likely broke the rod himself, and is now demonstrating the moral squalor of the Putin regime to everyone.

Meanwhile, a Levada Center poll [en] released on Wednesday found that 53% of Russians approved of Russia holding the Olympic Games in Sochi. However, 38% of respondents also felt that corruption was the main reason for the Games. The RuNet seems to bear out both of these feelings. Many feel that the criticism is justified and necessary, while others (like noted writer Boris Akunin [ru]) think that people should concentrate on supporting the athletes, and ignore the problems.

DemVybor's Kirill Shulika wrote [ru] on his Facebook about the importance of speaking out and criticism. Otherwise, says he:

Проблема-то тут как раз в том, что все разговоры о заговорах и желании навредить в проведении Олимпиады опасны тем, что и дальше все будет то же самое. Я имею в виду гигантские затраты и при этом ржавую воду, отсутствие душа или наличие граждан России, которым в нарушении всего отказано в посещении соревнований, несмотря на купленные билеты.

The problem is precisely that all this talk of conspiracy and desire to do harm to the Olympics is dangerous because afterwards everything will remain the same. I am referring to the huge costs accompanied by rusty water, no showers, or Russian citizens, who in violation of everything have been denied access to events, despite having purchased tickets.

Blogger and Alexey Navalny's second in command, Leonid Volkov, also felt [ru] that negative reactions to criticism were out of line:

Ничего обидного нет ни в @SochiProblems, ничего страшного нет в том, что какие-то вещи не доделаны, и какие-то косяки случаются. Страшна и позорна, невероятно постыдна только неадекватная реакция на иронию – поиск “врагов” и “заговоров”, истории про “журналистов, которые специально отрывают дверные ручки.”

There is nothing offensive in @SochiProblems, nothing horrible in that some some things aren't finished, and there are some screw-ups. What is terrible and shameful is the incredibly shameful and inadequate response to the irony – the search for “enemies” and “conspiracies,” stories about “journalists who deliberately destroy doorknobs.” 

Regardless, he will still watch the Games, said Volkov.

The Dependence of Russian Independent Television

Who is to blame for the demise of TV Rain? Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

Who is to blame for the demise of TV Rain? Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

In the last two weeks, seven satellite and cable television providers decided to stop broadcasting TV Rain, Russia’s only independent news station, cutting [ru] its national audience from just over ten million households to about two million. The catalyst for TV Rain’s troubles was a January survey the station conducted about the WWII Siege of Leningrad, which self-described Russian patriots interpreted as offensively worded. The apparent crackdown on the channel sparked a wave of anger from Russian Internet users, many of whom accused the Kremlin of forcing cable providers to abandon TV Rain.

TV Rain’s chief investor, Aleksandr Vinokurov, said at a press conference [ru] on February 4, 2014, that the station is “absolutely sure” that the companies now dropping the channel are doing so “under pressure.” Though he refused to name names, Julia Ioffe of The New Republic reported days earlier that Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Alexey Gromov, and another high-placed figure, Sergey Chemezov, have both called cable and satellite operators several times, demanding that they “boot” the station.

While Vinokurov’s February 4 comments in part reaffirmed the widespread perception that TV Rain is currently battling political censorship, he also seems to have precipitated a backlash against the station, leading some bloggers to highlight the financial backstory that perhaps diminishes the degree of political persecution at work.

In his comments, Vinokurov offered [ru] to let cable and satellite operators broadcast TV Rain for free during the 2014 calendar year. Writing for politcom.ru, analyst Tatiana Stanovaya asked [ru] why Vinokurov is trying to address a political problem with “marketing” solutions. (In a Facebook post [ru] hours earlier, Stanovaya went so far as to call Vinokurov “naïve.”) For others online, the press conference’s focus on “marking solutions” similarly turned attention away from ‘crackdown by the bloody regime’ toward questions about the television business and TV Rain’s troubled past in that industry.

Why, after all, does Vinokurov’s offer extend only to the end of the year? What is the incentive to sign TV Rain, if operators must renegotiate new (paid) contracts in 2015? Stanislav Apetian, the blogger known as Politrash (who is notorious for ties to the Russian establishment and for attacks on opposition leader Alexey Navalny), seized on this detail, writing the next day on LiveJournal and Facebook that TV Rain’s troubles are more financial than political.

Drawing on a June 2013 report in Forbes.ru, Apetian cataloged TV Rain’s growth since April 2010, pointing out that the station’s problems with cable and satellite operators are as old as TV Rain itself. In the past, the chief dispute with operators like “Tricolor” has been who should pay whom. For the first year that the station existed, virtually no one was interested in carrying TV Rain, unless the channel agreed to pay for the privilege. Moscow’s biggest cable provider, Akado, broadcasted the station for a week in 2010 and then dropped it. Months later, the satellite company NTV+ agreed to carry TV Rain, but only after Sindeeva appealed to Natalia Timakova, a close friend who happened to be the press secretary for then-President Dmitri Medvedev.

In late 2011 and early 2012, Vinokurov, whose private fortune bankrolls TV Rain, actively sought outside investors to share the burden (and hopefully the future profits) of running the station. He courted the money of Mikhail Prokhorov and Alisher Usmanov, two of the richest men in Russia, both of whom have close ties to the Kremlin. Vinokurov couldn’t reach a deal with either of them, telling Forbes.ru that their offers to invest in TV Rain were underwhelming. The failure to tie the station to a powerful elite group like Prokhorov’s or Usmanov’s would later have great costs for TV Rain. Instead, Vinokurov and Sindeeva appear to have ‘bet on the wrong horse,’ placing their hopes in President Medvedev.

Even from the start, loyalty to Medvedev was never easy. In late March 2011, Sindeeva actually pulled the channel’s most popular show, “Poet and Citizen,” off the air, claiming that a lyric in the program directed at Medvedev was excessively critical. After a Facebook post explaining her reasons for the censorship, Sindeeva even appeared [ru] on TV Rain itself to defend the decision, on-air.

President Medvedev visits TV Rain's studio, 25 April 2011, Kremlin photo service, public domain.

President Medvedev visits TV Rain's studio. Medvedev center, Natalia Sindeeva right. 25 April 2011, Kremlin photo service, public domain.

TV Rain is often described as a product of the political thaw that occurred in Russia during Medvedev’s single term as president between 2008 and 2012. While this sentiment seems to imply that TV Rain bloomed into existence spontaneously, Apetian points out that the station failed to attract serious cable and satellite coverage until April 2011, when President Medvedev (less than a month after the “Poet and Citizen” scandal) personally visited the station’s office in downtown Moscow. Within weeks of Medvedev’s visit, Akado was broadcasting TV Rain again, even paying the station a “symbolic” 28 dollars per month for the rights. Before long, upward of 13 different operators were beaming the channel across the country—all suddenly amenable to TV Rain’s refusal to pay them any money.

Many of those cable and satellite companies are now backing away from TV Rain. Some are jumping on the bandwagon of moral outrage, faulting the station for its Leningrad Siege faux pas, and others cite business grounds. The suits running Russia’s cable and satellite operators have leapt at the chance to ditch TV Rain. That opportunity exists thanks to the mounting hostility of Russian apparatchiki and the decline of Medvedev’s political influence. But would a bit of bluster in the Duma and a few angry phone calls from a former arms-export official so easily sway an entire industry, if that industry wasn’t already itching to be rid of TV Rain?

Echo of Moscow pundit Anton Orekh asked this exact question in a blog post [ru] on February 4, arguing that cable and satellite operators can kill two birds with one stone by dropping TV Rain now, appeasing the conservatives in the Russian establishment and jettisoning a troublesome content-producer they never wanted in the first place.

In Russia, you can run a successful television station without turning a profit, if you’ve got the right political sponsors. But you better rake it in, if nobody has your back. TV Rain lost its patron before gaining the momentum necessary to stand on its own. Now the country's politicians and businessmen seem determined to watch it wither and die. That could very well happen—and soon.

February 07 2014

A Riot Within Pussy Riot?

boohoo

Since their release from jail late last year Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, members of the feminist punk collective Pussy Riot, have gone on a worldwide publicity tour, visiting countries in Asia and Europe. At the time of their release they had announced that their new goal is the fight for human rights, specifically the rights of Russian prisoners — political or otherwise. Last night, Feb 5, as part of this tour they appeared at an Amnesty International-organized concert in New York.

According to [ru] journalist Anton Krasovsky (who himself was at once point persecuted for his sexual orientation) the concert wouldn't have been possible without the help of Russian billionaire and erstwhile presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov and his sister Irina. During their segment the Pussy Riot girls spoke about human rights abuses in Russia, and educated the audience about the Bolotnaya Square case, which many view as political in nature:

We are in New York, and there are 15,000 more people who know about the #BolotnoeCase. Starting today. And yes, we believe in caring

While in New York they also met US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, who called them “brave troublemakers” in a tweet, and appeared on the Colbert Report. (The founder of the nationalist online publication Sputnik & Pogrom pointed out [ru] that they were probably the first guest Colbert interviewed through an interpreter.)

Unfortunately, all of this publicity may have ruffled a few feathers back home. The day after the concert, other, anonymous members of Pussy Riot (the reader will remember that although 3 persons were arrested, at least 5 women were involved in the punk performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior) made a statement on their LiveJournal page, pussy-riot.livejournal.com [ru]. In this statement [ru] they proclaimed that Tolokonnikova and Alekhina are no longer members of Pussy Riot, because their human-rights activism is necessarily in opposition to the violent disruption at the heart of of the Pussy Riot method:

Мы очень рады освобождению Маши и Нади. [...] К сожалению для нас, они настолько увлеклись проблемами в российских тюрьмах, что начисто забыли о стремлениях и идеалах нашей группы: феминизм, сепаратистское сопротивление, борьба против авторитаризма и культа личности [...] Правозащитная деятельность не может позволить себе критику норм и правил, лежащих в основе устройства современного патриархального общества, потому что она является институциональной частью этого общества [...]

We are very happy Masha and Nadya were released. [...] Unfortunately for us, they are so concentrated on the problem of Russian prisons, that they forgot about the goals and ideals of our group: feminism, separatist insurgence, struggle against authoritarianism and the cult of personality [...] Human rights activism can't criticize norms and rules that are at the base of the modern patriarchal society, because it is an institutionalized part of this society [...]

They also criticized the Amnesty International concert, which billed Tolokonnikova and Alekhina's involvement as the first legal performance of Pussy Riot. “Pussy Riot doesn't do legal performances” — say the anonymous members. In fact, the whole idea is inimical to the concept of punk protest. They also stressed anonymity as an integral part of the Pussy Riot image, so it is unclear if Ekaterina Samutsevich, who previously had a falling out with Tolokonnikova and Alekhina when she took a plea bargain [Global Voices report] for early release, is still part of the collective.

Is this an attempt to hijack a worldwide, popular brand? Or, perhaps, Pussy Riot is indeed larger than its two most famous members. In any case, the group behind the statement is unequivocal:

Раз уж теперь мы оказались с Надей и Машей по разные стороны баррикад, разъедините нас. Запомните, мы больше не Надя и Маша, они – больше не Pussy Riot.

Since we are now on opposite sides of the barricades with Nadya and Masha, separate us. Remember, we are no longer Nadya and Masha, they are no longer Pussy Riot.

February 06 2014

Moscow School Shooting: Firsthand Accounts and Mistaken Identities

PioneerBarrels

Tragedy struck a Moscow school Monday morning when a straight-A student brought two hunting rifles to class and killed his geography teacher, also shooting two police officers that tried to apprehend him (one of them later died). As is often the case in the modern era, some of the tragic story played out online.

One girl, who attends the same school, wrote a post [ru] on the social network VKontakte about what happened:

Сегодня в моей школе было вооруженное нападение, утроенное одним из учеников 10 класса. Убит учитель географии – Кирилов Андрей Николаевич (светлая память !!) [...] У Андрея Николаевича 5-ти летний сын. Мне бы безумно хотелось, что бы эта ПАДЛА оказался на месте сына учителя. Имя террориста – Гордеев Сергей. Предположительная причина – 4 в четверти по географии. Парень шел на золотую медаль. Теперь парень пойдет в тюрьму.

Today there was an armed attack at my school, perpetrated by one of the 10th grade students. The geography teacher has been killed – Andrey Nikolaevich Kirillov (bless him !!) [...] Andrey Nikolaevich has a 5 year old son. I really want that ASSHOLE do end up in the place of the teacher's son. The name of the terrorist is Sergey Gordeev. Suspected reason – a B in geography last quarter. The guy was aiming for a gold medal [valedictorian - A.T.]. Now the guy will go to jail.

Another girl, who apparently goes to a nearby school posted an Instagram selfie [ru] (later deleted) of students making faces at the camera, commenting: “f*ck.” Later that day an alleged first-hand account by one of Gordeev's classmates was was published [ru] by former Kremlin PR guru Gleb Pavlovsky on his Facebook page. The source is anonymous, and gives gory details of the murder:

Вдруг кто-то стучиться в дверь.[...] Появляется лицо Гордеева. [...] Андрей Николаевич не успел ничего сказать, как Серёга стрельнул ему в лицо. Андрей Николаевич сделал пару оборотов, сбил у художника с парты вещи и упал на пол, хлестая кровью. [...] Серёга говорит:”А теперь вопрос на оценку, почему он ещё не сдох? Я же его убил” Потом говорит:”всем два балла” и стреляет ещё пару раз в Андрея Николаевича.

Someone knocked on the door. [...] Gordeev's face appeared. [...] Andrey Nikolaevich didn't have time to say anything, Sergey shot him in the face. Andrey Nikolaevich turned a few times, knocked some art materials from the desk and fell to the floor, bleeding. Sergey said: “And now a question for a grade, why isn't he dead? I killed him” Then he says: “everyone gets a D” and shoots Andrey Nikolaevich a couple more times.

According to this student, Gordeev then took the class hostage and started talking to them about his life and his belief in god. When his mother called, he talked to her, calling himself a “psycho” and saying that he wanted to die. Later, Gordeev's father showed up, and after some negotiation managed to disarm him and free the students.

Legislative troll Vitaly Milonov memefied: The shooter was a 10th grader and a straight A student - we should ban the 10th grade and straight A students. Anonymous image found online.

Legislative troll Vitaly Milonov memefied: “The shooter was a 10th grader and a straight A student – we should ban the 10th grade and straight A students.” Anonymous image found online.

Later it became known that Gordeev's father is an officer in Russia's security forces, a fact that was pounced on by opposition bloggers. Alexey Navalny tweeted [ru] that this probably meant that the beat policeman didn't check Gordeev-elder's gun permits and storage safes. Other bloggers referred [ru] to the shooter as the “son of an FSB agent” or “son of a secret policeman,” and jokingly wondered [ru] if this mean the parliament would ban security officers from owning personal weapons. At the same time, yet more [ru] bloggers [ru] wondered [ru] why no one is mentioning the fact that the father is allegedly affiliated with the security apparatus. This led Sultan Suleymanov, an editor at Tjournal (a tweet aggregator), to sarcastically tweet:

Whew, good thing that the student's father turned out to be an FSB agent. Before that people didn't know what to hate him for — he wasn't a migrant, a nationalist, or gay

A case of mistaken identity caused some of that hate to be wrongly aimed at a different Sergey Gordeev, for a time. Journalist, blogger, and notorious internet troll, Maxim Kononenko (f.k.a. mrparker) found a VKontakte photo [ru] of a Sergey Gordeev which he posted on Facebook and tweeted. He caveated the photo, saying it was “preliminary.” Other twitter users, and later mainstream Russian media, picked it up [ru] without fact checking and ran it in publications (likely illegally because the individual is a minor). The Gordeev in question later posted a picture of himself holding a newspaper [ru] with his face on the front page, as a way to prove that he wasn't the guy. He wrote:

Ребят, вы извините дурачки 1) Я Сергей Гордеев это правда!!!!!! 2)Я не стрелял не кого (просто ошиблись, тоесть ТВ врет) 3)Если это был я я бы сейчас не фотался с газеткой!!!(Кстати сегодня был в “Комсомолькой правде” Там все прихуели когда меня увидели…….)

Guys, sorry but you are idiots 1) I am Sergey Gordeev, that's true!!!!! 2) I didn't shoot anyone (it's just a mistake, the TV is lying) 3) If it was me I wouldn't be taking photos with a newspaper right now!!!(By the way, I was at Komsomolskaya Pravda [newspaper] today, they all sh*t their pants when they saw me……)

Kononenko later apologized [ru] for his faux pas, reiterating, however, that he wasn't the one to publish the photo in mass media.

“I was so brutal because of computer games” says Stalin. Anonymous image found online.

Meanwhile, Russian members of parliament, eager as ever for something to blame, blamed [ru] guns, violent movies, video games, and American influence. RuNet funny man, poet and journalist Ivan Davydov tweeted in response:

The MPs are thinking small. To avoid school shootings, you shouldn't ban guns, you should ban schools  

February 02 2014

13 Olympic Memes as Sochi Games Approach

As the Sochi Winter Olympics are fast approaching (the opening ceremony is this coming Saturday), RuNet Echo takes a look back at some of the funnier jokes that the Russian online community made about the logo, the torch, and other Olympic accouterments during the years of preparation for the games.

1. The logo itself has been the butt of various memes, the most ubiquitous of which is its pairing with a “saw” mascot, as a play on the verb “to saw,” a Russian slang term for “embezzlement.” This is, of course, contextualized amid years of accusations of wasteful spending and embezzled funds during the construction process:

The friendly embezzling saw. Anonymous image distributed online.

The friendly embezzling saw. Anonymous image distributed online.

2. A more succinct joke comes at the expense of the easily parodied font:

“A f*cking shame” reads the modified Olympic logo. Anonymous image found online.

3. Another Olympic accusation of corruption — this is one on behalf of Russia's students:

“The Olympic flame burned your stipend” reads the caption of this alternative logo. Anonymous image found online.

4. A 2010 competition to design a mascot to go with the logo, organized by Russia's Olympic committee, resulted in several meme-worthy entrants. This one utilizes the ancient RuNet “Превед медвед” (“Preved medved”) meme. (This meme was at one point so widespread, it has its own KnowYourMeme entry.)

“Preved!” says the bear. Anonymous image distributed online.

5. Bears are an easy sell for Russian-hosted Olympics — ever since the lovable 1980 mascot. This entry into the 2010 contest uses the well known “Pedobear” meme:

Skiing-kuma. Anonymous image distributed online.

Skiing-kuma. Anonymous image distributed online.

6. Fans of Lovecraft had their own approach:

Ktulhu for President (of the Olympics)! Anonymous image distributed online.

Cthulhu for President (of the Olympics)! Anonymous image distributed online.

7. And fans of the classic Soviet kid's cartoon “Cheburashka,” their own (albeit similar):

Cheburashka fhtagn! Anonymous image found online.

Cheburashka fhtagn! Anonymous image found online.

8. The most popular entry (although it later turned out it was part of an astroturf campaign to raise contest popularity) was the Arctic hypno-toad nicknamed Zoich, created by cartoonist Egor Zhgun.

2014 sort of looks like ZOIЧ, a mix of English and Russian characters.

9. The mascots that were eventually selected, drew accusations of plagiarism both from Russia's last Olympics:

“Plagiarism is when you take someone else's thing and make it worse.” One of new mascots side by side with the 1980 Mishka the Bear. Anonymous image found online.

10. And from foreign Olympics:

“F*cking shameful,” reads the caption. Salt Lake Olympic mascots on the right. Anonymous image found online.

11. The Sochi Olympic torch relay, plagued as it was with the flame constantly going out [Global Voices report], also became the butt of jokes. Some pointed out its similarity to a Vodka logo:

“Russian” brand vodka looks suspiciously like the Olympic torch. Anonymous image found online.

12. Others noted the similarities between this bearded relay runner holds his torch, and the way Chechen guerrillas hold their guns:

Olympic terrorists. Anonymous image found online.

Olympic terrorists. Anonymous image found online.

13. Perhaps the harshest meme of them all, this Olympic Bingo sheet has been translated from the Russian original by RuNet Echo. Various versions of the meme are widespread on Russian imageboards and forums. All deal with some form of failure on the part of the Russian hosts. This, folks, is Russian fatalism at its most depressed:

Anonymous image translated by RuNet Echo.

Anonymous image translated by RuNet Echo.

Russians are fond of self deprecation. Hopefully the 2014 Winter games will prove them wrong.

January 29 2014

Blogger Unveils Sochi Corruption Website

The costs of the Sochi Olympics according to Alexey Navalny. Screenshot.

The costs of the Sochi Olympics according to Alexey Navalny. Screenshot.

Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny joined the Sochi anti-corruption campaign this week, launching an interactive website outlining what he calls the “true costs” of the Olympic preparations in Sochi. 

Navalny tweeted, linking to the website:

How much did the Olympics cost?  Who paid for it?  Who stole, and how much? http://t.co/FN8bZAwtdw pic.twitter.com/uCilgqiToG

With increased western scrutiny of the games, Navalny’s latest campaign was instantly covered in the New York Times, and other English-speaking media outlets shortly thereafter. Pro-Kremlin blogger Stanislav Apetyan (twitter handle @politrash) took the speed as a sign of some sort of foul play, or a collaborative effort:

An article in the New York Times goes up within 15 minutes after Navalny’s post: http://t.co/hBHYx9Pq6n It's like some kind of magic!

Photographer Ilya Varlamov shot back:

@politrash this is perfectly normal. These types of things are distributed to the media in advance, as an exclusive story. What is the problem here?

According to Apetyan [ru], the problem is that this means the story was created for foreign consumption — implying that Navalny is chasing foreign attention. Varlamov, though, claims [ru] that Navalny gave the story to pro-government Russian media as well, but they haven't published anything about it. Another twitter user criticized Navalny on merits, saying:

@varlamov @politrash the main question here is how much was spent on Olympic venues and the hosting of the Olympic games, and how much on regional infrastructure projects.

Navalny alleges that has Putin lied about the cost of the Sochi Olympic projects, when he claimed that it had cost 214 billion rubles (or roughly 6.5 billion dollars). Navalny claims that the actual figure is several times that, at $46 billion. (A previous project launched by opposition politician Boris Nemtsov found the spending had reached $51 billion.) The argument [ru] of the pro-government bloggers is that the 6.5 billion was indeed spent on the “Olympics proper” while the rest was spent creating infrastructure in Sochi — roads, utilities, and airports. All things that will be useful in one of Russia's few resort regions.

Navalny's numbers are pieced together from various public sources, as he says [ru], after much trial and tribulation. But the project did not just focus on Olympic construction projects, but also on the people he says benefited the most from the embezzlement. They include the Governor of Krasnodar Region (where Sochi is located) and his son-in-law; President Putin’s judo partner, billionaire Arkadiy Rotenberg; the oligarch Vladimir Potanin; and the CEO of state-owned Russian Railways, Vladimir Yakunin. And that, to some, is the real scandal.

Cable Providers Begin Dropping Russia's Only Independent TV Station

It's not just threats facing Russia's only independent TV station. Providers are not dropping the channel outright. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

It's no longer just threats facing Russia's only independent TV station. Providers are now dropping the channel outright. Images mixed by Kevin Rothrock.

The prospect that Russian cable television providers might drop TV Rain, Russia’s only independent channel, became a reality today, when two major cable companies reported decisions to stop providing customers with access to the station.

In a tweet today, January 29, 2014, the telecom Akado (where the Board Director is Yuri Pripachkin—the man who launched yesterday’s crackdown on TV Rain) announced [ru] on Twitter that it is suspending TV Rain’s broadcasting license on its cable network, effective tomorrow. Another cable television provider, Dom.ru, has already cut off access to TV Rain on its network, citing [ru] the absence of a broadcasting agreement with the station. According to the cable provider, it is illegal in Russia to broadcast a channel without such an agreement. Curiously, Dom.ru’s press release says nothing about why it only now realized that it lacks a contract with TV Rain.

A third cable television provider, Tricolor TV, told [ru] Echo of Moscow’s St. Petersburg branch that will continue to carry TV Rain, but warned that it would drop the station, if it ever repeated the scandal (covered at length in a previous GV post) that sparked its current troubles.

According to reports and the telecoms’ own websites [ru], Akado and Dom.ru have somewhere between seven and nine million customers in Russia, serving upwards of 56 cities throughout the country.

Akado’s decision to announce on Twitter that it is suspending TV Rain coverage exposed the cable provider to a wave of anger from the station’s supporters.

Here are a few choice responses to Akado’s tweet:

Dishonor.

Akado, this is shameful! Give viewers the chance to decide for themselves what to watch!

Akado, you electrically operated scumbags.

C**ksuckers.

What’s it like to write a tweet with a d**k in your mouth?

It’s good when the opportunity arises for some resistance. I’m switching away from Akado for its refusal to broadcast TV Rain, and I advise you to do the same.

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