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Podcast: A Year In The Vertical

A president seemed to fade into the background, only to steal the show in the final act. An oligarch passed away, but the system he pioneered lived on. An opposition blogger found his voice and became a political force. Nationalism went mainstream and the culture wars intensified.

New words and phrases entered the political lexicon, sparking often hilarious discussions about what they might mean. Protest acts got more creative -- sometimes painfully so.

And as the year wrapped up, three of Russia's most famous political prisoners finally walked free.

It's certainly been a roller-coaster -- albeit one that's not moving in a clear direction. But on the last Power Vertical Podcast of the year, we'll try to make some sense out of 2013 for you anyway.

Joining me is co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- December 27, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- December 27, 2013i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Putin, Aleksei Navalny, Pussy Riot, Power Vertical podcast, 2013 Year Ender


Audio Podcast: The Pardon Heard Around The World

Former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It caused Russian markets to rally. It has been called "a landmark event" and a development of "colossal significance."

And it happened so fast, I had to entirely change my plans for this week's podcast.

It, of course, is the sudden release of jailed former oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky after more than a decade as Russia's most famous political prisoner.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, I discussed Khodorkovsky's release and what it might portend with Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas" and NYU Professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security services and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."

The discussion went on in real time, as Khodorkovsky's release was unfolding -- so please bear with us. 

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Mark, and I took a look at Vladimir Putin's quixotic bid to claim the mantle of the "world conservativism's new leader."

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast -- December 20, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- December 20, 2013i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Vladimir Ilyich Putin, Conservative Icon

Leader of the "Conservative International"?

Vladimir Putin is calling on the conservatives of the world to unite -- behind him.

The Kremlin leader's full-throated defense of Russia's "traditional values" and his derision of the West's "genderless and infertile" liberalism in his annual state-of-the-nation address last week was just the latest example of Putin attempting to place himself at the vanguard of a new "Conservative International."

The speech came on the heels of the appointment of Dmitry Kiselyov -- the television anchor who has said the hearts of gays and lesbians who die should be buried or burned -- as head of the new Kremlin-run media conglomerate Rossia Segodnya.

And just days before Putin's address, the Center for Strategic Communications, an influential Kremlin-connected think tank, held a press conference in Moscow to announce its latest report. The title: "Putin: World Conservatism's New Leader." 

According to excerpts from the report cited in the media, most people yearn for stability and security, favor traditional family values over feminism and gay rights, and prefer nation-based states rather than multicultural melting pots. Putin, the report says, stands for these values while "ideological populism of the left" in the West "is dividing society." 

"Against the backdrop of a difficult economic situation, people are becoming more prudent," Dmitry Abzalov of the Center for Strategic Communications said at the news conference. "It is important for most people to preserve their way of life, their lifestyle, their traditions. So they tend toward conservatism. This is normal." 

This, Abzalov added, represented "a global trend."

The Kremlin apparently believes it has found the ultimate wedge issue to unite its supporters and divide its opponents, both in Russia and the West, and garner support in the developing world. They seem to believe they have found the ideology that will return Russia to its rightful place as a great power with a messianic mission and the ability to win hearts and minds globally.

As the West becomes increasingly multicultural, less patriarchal and traditional, and more open to gay rights, Russia will be a lodestone for the multitudes who oppose this trajectory. Just as the Communist International, or Comintern, and what Soviet ideologists called the "correlation of forces" sought to unite progressive elements around the globe behind Moscow, the world's traditionalists will now line up behind Putin.

And there is some evidence that this message may be resonating.

"While his stance as a defender of traditional values has drawn the mockery of Western media and cultural elites, Putin is not wrong in saying that he can speak for much of mankind," conservative American commentator Patrick Buchanan wrote. "Putin may be seeing the future with more clarity than Americans still caught in a Cold War paradigm."

The 21st century, Buchanan adds, may be marked by a struggle pitting "conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite."

Others on the American right, like Rod Dreher, a senior editor of the "American Conservative," also wrote favorably -- albeit in a more nuanced manner -- of Putin's speech. "Putin may be a cold-eyed cynic, but he’s also onto something," he wrote. 

And the Kremlin, according to political analyst Aleksandr Morozov, has been spending considerable resources laying the groundwork to Putin's transformation into a global conservative icon.

They have used forums like the Dialogue of Civilizations and the Valdai Discussion Group to influence elite opinion, Morozov writes. They have co-opted Western pundits on the RT (formerly Russia Today) English-language television station. And they have subsidized the research of Western academics at Russian universities.

"It is a mistake to believe that Putin wants to lower a new Iron Curtain, build a new Berlin Wall and pursue a policy of isolationism," Morozov wrote in Colta.ru. "On the contrary, Putin is creating a new Comintern. This is not isolationism, but rather the maximum Putinization of the world. The Comintern was a complex system that worked with ideologically sympathetic intellectuals and politicians. What we are seeing now is not an attempt to restore the past, but the creation of an entirely new hegemony."

The Kremlin test-drove the approach in Ukraine this fall. When Kyiv seemed close to signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, billboards appeared warning citizens that moving closer to Europe would mean same-sex marriage would come to Ukraine. The advertising campaign, according to media reports, was linked to Viktor Medvedchuk, a politician and businessman with close ties to Putin. 

The notion of Russia as a defender of traditional values has deep historical roots: the 15th- and 16th-century claim that Moscow is the "Third Rome," the heart of Christian civilization, and Tsarist ideological doctrine of "autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality" from the reign of Nicholas I.

Even communism, wrote the early 20th-century Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdydyev, was "more traditional than is commonly thought" in that it is "a transformation and deformation of the old Russian messianic idea." 

The ground for Putin's conservative turn has also been prepared at home. And in the past couple months, in particular, Kremlin surrogates have been relentlessly on-message.

In October, filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov called the revival of a state ideology in Russia "an issue of national security." That same month, Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov derided "political correctness carried to the point of absurdity" and "multiculturalism of the Western kind." 

On November 21, State Duma Deputy Yelena Mizulina proposed, and a key committee approved, a proposal to insert a clause in the preamble of the Russian Constitution calling Orthodox Christianity the foundation of the country's national identity. On the same day, Putin himself called for turning the Russian language and literature into "powerful factors of Russia's global ideological influence." 

Whether this will all go anyplace or be relegated to the dustbin of abandoned Kremlin projects is an open question. (Does anybody remember "sovereign democracy"?) But for Putin, the year that witnessed him announcing his divorce to the world on television is now ending with him trying to grab the mantle of global defender of family values. 

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on December 20 when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin and Mark Galeotti.

Tags:conservatism, Vladimir Putin


Podcast: Agitprop Man

Defending 'traditional values." Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Kiselyov

With the appointment of an acerbic and controversial media chief and a fiery speech promoting traditional values, Vladimir Putin laid down a couple unmistakable ideological markers this week.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss two related topics: the appointment of conservative firebrand Dmitry Kiselyov to head the new state-run Rossia Segodnya media conglomerate and Putin's state-of-the-nation address, where he pledged to defend socially conservative values at home and abroad against "genderless and infertile" Western liberalism.

Joining me are co-host Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas" and special guest Nina Khrushcheva, professor of international affairs at the New School and author of the forthcoming book, "The Lost Khrushchev: A Family Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- December 13, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- December 13, 2013i
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Audio Podcast: 'EuroMaidan' And The Russian Street

From Bolotnaya Square to the "EuroMaydan" -- and back?

As Ukrainians take to the streets in numbers not seen since the Orange Revolution, the Russian opposition is looking on in awe -- and also with more than a bit of trepidation.

Coming almost exactly two years after mass protests rocked Moscow, some see Ukraine's "EuroMaydan" uprising as a lesson, an inspiration, and a precedent for Russia.

But with Russian President Vladimir Putin saying the events in Kyiv resemble "a pogrom," others fear the Kyiv uprising could lead to the Kremlin tighten the screws in order to prevent any contagion.

In the new "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss the Ukrainian uprising and its ramifications in Russia. Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "NZ," Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU and an expert on Russia's security services, and Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international affairs at the New School and director of the Russian program at the World Policy Institute.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- December 6, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- December 6, 2013i
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Tags:Russian opposition, Power Vertical podcast, EuroMaydan


The Bolotnaya Maidan

"Ukraine, We Are With You." Boris Nemtsov and other activists outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow on December 2.

The latest threat to Vladimir Putin's autocratic rule may be coming not from the Russian opposition but from the Ukrainian street.

As tens of thousands continue to protest in Kyiv against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to scuttle a pact with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Moscow, and with mass rallies scheduled this weekend, many in the Russian opposition seem to get this.

"We support Ukraine's course toward European integration," Boris Nemtsov told Interfax recently. "By supporting Ukraine, we also support ourselves." 

Nemtsov was among the handful of protesters detained on December 1 outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow. They had gathered under the banner "Ukraine, We Are With You" to show solidarity with those taking to the streets in Kyiv. 

A day earlier, 30 prominent Russian writers and poets penned an open letter in support of the Ukrainian protesters. 

"Your struggle for the right to choose your own path is going to be difficult -- but we hope you are successful," they wrote. "This would be a sign that in Russia we too can defend our rights and freedoms. We are with you!"

Putin, who also grasps the significance of the Ukrainian uprising for Russia, was predictably less positive in his assessment. The protests, he said, resembled "a pogrom." 

And it was perhaps with the events in Ukraine on his mind that the Kremlin leader announced this week that he would not be granting amnesties to the defendants in the so-called "Bolotnaya case" against those detained during anti-Kremlin demonstrations that turned violent on May 6, 2012. 

The mass protests in Kyiv are taking on additional symbolic value because they are taking place almost exactly two years after Russians staged the largest antigovernment protests since the fall of the Soviet Union -- also on Bolotnaya Square -- on December 11, 2011.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, Nemtsov noted the mass nature of the Kyiv protests, which dwarfed even the largest Moscow demonstrations. "What we saw in Kyiv last weekend, when by various estimates between 400,000 and 800,000 people came out, speaks for itself," Nemtsov said. "And by the way, the population of Kyiv is four times less than that of Moscow." 

WATCH THE WHOLE INTERVIEW (IN RUSSIAN):



In a sarcastic post on Slon.ru, blogger Arkady Babchenko implored the Ukrainian opposition not to repeat the "success" of their Russian counterparts. 

"The success of any human endeavor depends at least in part on the ability to imagine an outcome. The Westernizers in Russia have had so few successes in the last decade -- or the last century -- that they have a hard time imagining anything but failure," Moscow-based journalist and author Masha Gessen wrote in "The New York Times."

"But now the Ukrainians are showing the Russians that there might be another way. If they succeed, they may change the future of not one but two of the largest countries in Europe."

But the significance of the events in Kyiv, of the "maidan," is larger than the lessons they offer to Russia's Bolotnaya opposition. They are larger than the precedent that a democratic revolution in culturally similar Ukraine could set for Russia.

This is about more than contagion. True systemic change in Ukraine would have practical consequences for its northern neighbor.

It would deal a significant -- if not mortal -- blow to the corrupt political and economic model Putin has fine-tuned in Russia and sought to export to the rest of the former Soviet space.

In a 2012 briefing paper for Chatham House, James Greene wrote that a key part of the Putin model was to use corrupt business schemes to "capture" elites and make them compliant -- both in Russia and in other parts of the former USSR. 

"Putin used the carrot of corruption in conjunction with the stick of 'compromat' to establish patron-client political relationships," Greene wrote.

"By broadening this approach to the corrupt transnational schemes that flowed seamlessly from Russia to the rest of the former Soviet space -- and oozed beyond it -- Putin could extend his shadow influence beyond Russia's borders and develop a natural 'captured' constituency for maintaining a common Eurasian business space."

As growth slows and Russia faces an increasingly dire budgetary crunch, projects like Putin's Eurasian Union will become increasingly vital for the Kremlin. 

And as New York University professor and longtime Kremlin-watcher Mark Galeotti said in a recent Power Vertical Podcast, Ukraine is a key piece of that puzzle. 

"Ukraine performs a vital role for the not-so-open elements of the Russian economy," Galeotti said.

"Ukraine is an initial pre-wash venue for dirty Russian money. We've seen the port of Odessa being used for all kinds of dubious arms deals.... Losing that would affect not only the Kremlin but also the profitable opportunities of a large number of people whose opinions matter to the Kremlin."

Likewise, in his column in the "Financial Times," foreign affairs commentator Gideon Rachman noted that "events in Ukraine are profoundly threatening to the personal interests and ideology of President Putin and his circle."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on December 6 when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-hosts Kirill Kobrin and Mark Galeotti and special guest Nina Khrushcheva.

Tags:Russian opposition, Bolotnaya Square, Power Vertical blog, Maydan, Ukrainian opposition


Podcast: Love Thy Neighbor

Neighborly relations.

It was the U-Turn heard around Eastern Europe.

For months, Ukraine appeared ready to face down pressure from Russia and sign an association agreement and free trade pact with the European Union at its upcoming Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius. And polls showed that public opinion -- albeit by a small margin -- as well as much of the country's business elite, supported this course.

And then, at the 11th hour, after President Viktor Yanukovych made a trip to Moscow for closed-door meetings with Vladimir Putin, they flip-flopped, illustrating Moscow's continued sway over its neighbors.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss Russia's policy toward its neighbors in advance of the EU's Vilnius summit. 

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows" and special guest Edward Lucas, international editor for "The Economist" and author of the book "Deception: Spies, Lies, and How Russia Deceives the West."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- November 22, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- November 22, 2013i
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Punk Prayers, Stitches, Carcasses, And Nails

Pussy Riot's Punk Prayer, Pyotr Pavlensky's "Stitch," "Carcass," and "Nail."

If the Kremlin actually follows through with prosecuting Pyotr Pavlensky, then hold onto your hats -- it promises to be one hell of a show.

Pavlensky, of course, is the 29-year-old St. Petersburg artist who seized Russia's attention on November 10 when he stripped naked on Red Square and nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones -- an act of protest on the Police Day holiday against what he called a creeping police state. He dubbed the act "Nail."

"I used a metaphor," Pavlensky told DozhdTV after being released from police custody the next day. "It was a metaphor for the political indifference that threatens to become irreversible." 

Prosecutors have opened up a criminal case against Pavlensky for "hooliganism motivated by political, ideological, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred" and he has been summoned for an interrogation on November 21. He could face as many as seven years in prison. 

As Kevin Rothrock, editor of Global Voices' RuNet Echo project, notes in a recent post, his case is based on the exact same article of the criminal code used to prosecute Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Yekaterina Samutsevich for their anti-Kremlin protest in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. 

And if the authorities decide to prosecute Pavlensky, the case should just be picking up steam by March -- just as the two remaining Pussy Riot prisoners, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, are due to be released after completing their two-year sentences.

In many ways, a Pavlensky trial could turn into a Pussy Riot redux -- another example of guerilla artists taking on The Man.

Writing in the online magazine "Russia!" Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies called his Red Square action "an assault on the stasis that grip contemporary Russia" and a challenge for it to rise up.

"The greatness of Pavlensky’s work is that by nailing himself to the pavement, he neutralized police power," Guillory wrote.

"With a nail, a hammer, and a naked body, Pavlensky symbolized Russian society’s impotence at the same time he reveals its potential power."

If the Pussy Riot trial in the summer of 2012 was, in the words of the playwright Natalya Antonova, "a circus of grandiose proportions and with sinister overtones," one can only imagine what the spectacle of Pavlensky in the dock might entail.

"Opening a criminal case against me would be the the authorities' latest colossal mistake," Pavlensky told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "It would only serve to amplify my actions." 

During the Pussy Riot trial, media in Russia and around the world endlessly played the video of the feminist collective's "punk prayer" appealing to the Virgin Mary to free Russia from Vladimir Putin.

In a prospective Pavlensky trial, we would presumably see -- over and over again -- the artist, nailed to Red Square's cobblestones and shivering naked in the cold November rain in the shadow of the Kremlin.

Clever, personable, and articulate, the three Pussy Riot defendants showed remarkable poise and dignity during their trial. They used the stage they had been given to get their message out and, in the process, impressed even many who were appalled by their protest.

Pavlensky also comes across in interviews as smart, likable, and lucid. And he clearly has the courage of his convictions. He would, no doubt, turn any show trial the state tried to stage into an opportunity to showcase his political message. 

This, after all, is a man who has a history of putting his body through incredible pain to make a political point. It is somebody who, in an act he called "Carcass," wrapped his naked body in barbed wire in front of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly in May.

If Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich made for sympathetic defendants, imagine a young man on trial for an act of self-abuse that the renowned theater director Kirill Serebrennikov called a "powerful gesture of absolute despair."

And if Pavlensky is tried, and if this happens after Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are released, it will give the feminist punkers a golden opportunity to return a favor.

In his first piece of performance art, which he titled "Stitch," Pavlensky sewed his mouth shut in front of St. Petersburg’s Kazan Cathedral in the summer of 2012. He called it an act of solidarity with the women of Pussy Riot.

"The 10 holes around my mouth were minor wounds," he told "The Washington Post." 

Indeed, Pussy Riot's friends, supporters, and associates are already rushing to Pavlensky's defense -- and to ridicule the authorities.

"Criminal charges for nailing your own balls to Red Square -- this is an utterly new level of judicial hell in the country. Unbelievable," Tolokonnikova's husband, Pyotr Verzilov, tweeted on November 15. 

And lawyer Nikolai Polozov, who served on Pussy Riot's defense team, tweeted this zinger:

"The artist who nailed his own scrotum to the pavement is being charged with hooliganism. Motivated by hatred toward his own genitals, I presume?"

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE: This post has been updated to add Pavlensky's comment on the criminal case against him. I would also like to extend a huge h/t to both Kevin Rothrock and Sean Guillory for providing some of the inspiration for this post.

Audio Podcast: The Invisible Railroad

As Russians wondered about Nadezhda Tolokonnikova's location, performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky staged a provocative protest.

Stealthy trains with secret destinations. A clandestine network of transit prisons.  Inmates held in subhuman conditions and kept incommunicado from relatives and lawyers for weeks and sometimes months.

These are just some of the features of a process known in Russian as "etapirovanie," the shadowy process by which prison inmates are transferred from one penal facility to another.

This Gulag-era institution was in the spotlight in recent weeks due the prison-train odyssey of jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova -- who was out of sight, but very much in the headlines, for three weeks as she was moved from one prison colony to another while her family and supporters puzzled over her whereabouts.

Just months ago, Tolokonnikova drew attention to conditions in Russian prisons with a hunger strike and open letter that sparked international headlines. And without even saying a word, she seems to have done it again.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we take a look at the murky world of etapirovanie with special guest Merhat Sharipzhan, a journalist in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom who was a Soviet-era political prisoner.

Also joining me on the podcast are co-host Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology journal "Neprikosnovenny zapas," and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Also on the podcast, we take a look at artist Pyotr Pavlensky's provocative performance art protest that shook up Red Square this week.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- November 15, 2013
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Tags:Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Pyotr Pavlensky, Russian prisons


Podcast: The 'New' Nationalism

The polls show it is becoming more widespread. It is prevalent among the young, the affluent, the educated -- and the otherwise liberal.  And a series of dramatic incidents show it is becoming more violent, more intense, and more manifest.

Rising nationalism and xenophobia are increasingly driving the political dynamic in Russia.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the roots and consequences of Russia's nationalist wave.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU, an expert on Russia's Security Services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows" and guests  Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog," and  Kevin Rothrock, project editor for RuNet Echo at Global Voices and author of the blog "A Good Treaty."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- November 8, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- November 8, 2013i
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Russia's Silent Majority

Russian March, November 4, in Moscow

For all the crude xenophobic placards and slogans at this week's Russian March, one stood out for its -- dare I say -- cleverness.

"The good half of the population already hates the regime. Soon you will get to know the bad half," read a sign carried by a marcher.

Not only was it clever, but it also rang true. In a recent editorial, Gazeta.ru wrote that "for the first time, nationalist marches are taking on an oppositionist character."

After years of successfully manipulating nationalists for their own purposes and cultivating xenophobia among the population, the Kremlin is now standing face-to-face with the monster it helped create.

"Those nationalists who did not join up with the authorities in time attached themselves to the protest movement -- you have to avoid your own marginalization somehow," political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov wrote in a recent commentary.

In addition to the predictable chants of "Russia for Russians," "Stop Feeding the Caucasus," and various anti-migrant diatribes at this year's Russian March, there were plenty of calls for the end of Vladimir Putin's "Chekist regime."

But to get a grip on what is really happening in Russia now, we need to look beyond the dramatic and violent manifestations of nationalism -- the race riots in Moscow's Biryulevo district, the attack on a Moscow-Dushanbe train, or marchers calling for "death to Caucasians" -- and look at the more latent, and widespread, variant.

And widespread it is according to a recent poll by the independent Levada Center.

According to the poll, nearly 73 percent of Russians -- and more than 80 percent of Muscovites -- favor the deportation of migrant workers. Some 66 percent of Russians agreed to some degree with the idea that "Russia is for Russians," while only 19 percent said such a sentiment was "fascist."

Commenting on the poll for RFE/RL's Russian Service, Levada Center director Lev Gudkov said it showed that "between 70 and 80 percent" of Russians harbor xenophobic sentiments.

Most of these people will never attend the Russian March. They won't ransack a vegetable warehouse searching for migrants. And they are unlikely to attack a train from Tajikistan.

But they are deeply disturbed by what they perceive as an influx of migrants and with the criminality they associate with it.  Many believe -- despite evidence to the contrary -- that non-Russian citizens of the Russian Federation are privileged and ethnic Russians are discriminated against. 

"To understand Russian nationalism, even racism, you need to realize that despite their political, cultural, and numerical dominance, many Russians see themselves a nation without a state," Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies wrote in "The Nation." 

It is this latent nationalism of the silent majority that is driving much of the political dynamic right now. These aren't black-clad skinheads. Many are respectable urban professionals, students, and entrepreneurs. In a 2012 report, the Public Chamber warned of a "sharp rise" in xenophobia among city dwellers and the highly educated.

And they're in play politically. "Nationalism has become a universal method of fighting for voters -- both for the authorities and for the opposition," Kolesnikov wrote in Gazeta.ru. 

Gudkov says the rise in nationalist sentiments has been driven by a combination of anxiety about the economy that followed the 2008 financial crisis, anger about official corruption, and the Kremlin's general "crisis of legitimacy" since the 2011 protests.

Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's recent hedge regarding the Russian March, demonstrably not attending but encouraging his supporters to do so, makes some sense -- tactically at least -- given this environment. Numerous Russia-watchers have noted that he is trying to find that sweet spot that allows him to hold on to both his liberal and nationalist supporters.

But Navalny's nationalist-liberal dance may actually be less of a balancing act than it appears at first glance. Many of his liberal supporters are also latent nationalists.

"More and more, Russians from across the political spectrum are identifying with (and organizing around) a national identity tinged with racism," Ilan Berman, vice president of the Washington-based American Foreign Policy Council wrote recently in "The Atlantic."

In a recent Power Vertical Podcast, Sean Guillory noted that Navalny's conception of "democracy is really a Russian democracy and not one that seeks to incorporate all people of the Russian Federation. He's a democrat but he's a Russian democrat first and foremost." 

And he is playing to the silent majority. Much of this majority also hails from the post-Soviet generation that is now coming of age, a generation that, in addition to being more democratically oriented than their parents, is also somewhat more nationalistic.

Navalny has long argued that Russian nationalism needs to be brought into the mainstream and liberalized to keep it from being monopolized by retrograde elements. But what exactly is liberal nationalism in a multiethnic state? Ideally, it wouldn't be nationalistic at all, but rather an inclusive form of civic patriotism.

Perhaps it will evolve to this at some point. But neither Navalny, nor Russia's silent majority, appear to be anywhere near there yet.

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to The Power Vertical Podcast on November 8 when I'll discuss these issues with co-hosts Mark Galeotti of New York University and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Podcast: The Most Powerful Person In The World?

Power man? Putin flexes his muscles.

Is Vladimir Putin the most powerful person in the world? "Forbes" thinks so.

This week, the magazine put him atop its list of The Most Powerful People in the World for 2013.

"Putin has solidified his control over Russia and anyone watching the chess match over Syria has a clear idea of the shift in power towards Putin on the global stage," the magazine opined.

But the accolade comes at a time when many Kremlin-watchers see the Russian president's clout fading at home.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we assess Putin-power. Is it waxing or waning?

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia’s security services, and author of the blog “In Moscow’s Shadows.” and guest David Satter, a longtime Moscow correspondent, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and author of numerous books on Russia, including most recently, "It Was A Long Time Ago And It Never Happened Anyway."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- Nov. 1, 2013
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Tags:Vladimir Putin, Aleksei Navalny, Power Vertical podcast


Podcast: The Iron Fist And The Velvet Glove

Pussy Riot's Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Bolotnaya defendant Stepan Zimin, opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and Greenpeace activist Paul Ruzycki

The Investigative Committee drops piracy charges against Greenpeace activists. Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonikova gets transferred to a new prison following a hunger strike. Aleksei Navalny's sentence gets suspended. Top officials float an amnesty for defendants in the Bolotnaya case.

Is the Kremlin softening its crackdown? Or is it just changing its tactics?

In this week's Power Vertical Podcast, I discuss this issue with co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russia's security services, and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."

Also on the podcast, Mark and I discuss this week's suicide bombing in Volgograd and its implications as the Winter Olympics in Sochi approach.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- October 25, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- October 25, 2013i
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Tags:Aleksei Navalny, Pussy Riot, Power Vertical podcast, Bolotnaya case, Greenpeace, Nadezhda Tolokonikova, Volgograd bombing


Podcast: All The Rage

Ethnic riots with a political subtext. Nationalists attack a market in Biryulyovo; Opposition leader Aleksei Navalny returns to Moscow after his day in court.

Last weekend's nationalist riots in Moscow's Biryulyovo district followed a familiar script. A similar scenario played out in the southern Russian town of Pugachyov this past summer, in downtown Moscow in December 2010, and in the northwestern city of Kondopoga back in 2006.

What's driving this ethnic rage that periodically becomes manifest in Russia? What are its political implications? And how far will it go?

Joining me on this week's Power Vertical Podcast are David Satter, a veteran Kremlin watcher and fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies.

Also on the podcast we discuss opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's response to the Biryulyovo violence and his political future in the wake of this week's appeals court ruling.

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- October 18, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- October 18, 2013i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Aleksei Navalny, Power Vertical podcast, Moscow riots


Audio Podcast: A Martyr Is Born

Has the Kremlin created a new hero?

He's an ordinary 38-year-old Muscovite. He's an army veteran with a disability. He came to Bolotnaya Square on May 6, 2012, on the eve of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration to demand free elections. And he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Mikhail Kosenko this week became the third of 27 defendants in the so-called Bolotnaya case to be convicted of participating in mass disturbances. But his case has struck a deep chord.

Kosenko -- who suffered a concussion while serving in the military and has since been receiving outpatient treatment for a mild psychological disorder -- was sentenced to a psychiatric ward against the advice of his doctors.

Video footage appears to exonerate him. The police officer he is charged with attacking actually testified in his defense.

And Kosenko's eloquent and passionate closing statement at his trial made him a more sympathetic figure still.

Has the Kremlin inadvertently created another martyr hero? In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," I address this question with co-host Kirill Kobrin, editor of the history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovennie zapas," and guest David Satter, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of numerous books on Russia -- including most recently "It Was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway."

Also on the podcast, we discuss the latest work of the London-based writer and Kremlin-watcher Peter Pomerantsev, "Russia: Postmodern Dictatorship," which was published this week by the Legatum Institute and the Institute of Modern Russia

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast: A Martyr Is Born
Power Vertical Podcast: A Martyr Is Borni
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

The Revolution Of The Nerds

A protester shouts slogans during a demonstration in central Moscow on July 18.

The fact that a Moscow court found Mikhail Kosenko guilty of assaulting a police officer despite video evidence to the contrary didn't exactly come as a surprise.

In recent years, Russian courts have convicted Mikhail Khodorkovsky of stealing oil from himself and Aleksei Navalny of embezzling money without making a profit, just to name a couple of the more illustrious cases.

And this ludicrousness, says London-based writer and Kremlin-watcher Peter Pomerantsev, is the point.

"The Kremlin’s priority is to show it has full control of the script," Pomerantsev wrote in a paper, "Russia: A Postmodern Dictatorship," that was published this week by the Legatum Institute and the Institute of Modern Russia.

"This absurdity appears to be deliberate. It proves to the public that the Kremlin can reimagine reality at will, can say ‘black is white’ and ‘white is black’ with no one able to contradict."

And reality-bending show trials are just one element in what Pomerantsev describes as a "society of spectacle with no substance," where "the regime's salient feature is a liquid shape-shifting form of power." Unlike the Soviet Union, which attempted to crush opposition narratives, Vladimir Putin's regime operates by "co-opting them until there is no more space for an opposition to exist in."

Trying to pigeonhole this regime into classic categories "is to miss the point of its trickster nature," Pomerantsev writes. "By the time it has been defined, it will already have recreated itself and its leaders."

But recently "the system tripped over itself." It tripped over itself by miscalculating the middle class's reaction to the "castling" of September 2011. It tripped over itself in the whole Navalny saga, which has resulted in the ascendance of an effective leader able to articulate the anger and aspirations of urban professionals and the post-Soviet generation.

And it appears to be tripping over itself in the Bolotnaya case against the 27 people charged with participating in mass disturbances during demonstrations on the eve of Putin's inauguration.

The Kremlin has presented a spectacle of a massive foreign-funded conspiracy to destabilize Russia. But many of those on trial are ordinary folks who went to a sanctioned demonstration and were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And none among them evoked as much sympathy as Kosenko.

A 38-year-old army veteran who suffered a concussion during his military service, Kosenko has been successfully undergoing treatment for a mild psychological disorder ever since.

Video footage of the Bolotnaya demonstration shows him simply standing by as some protesters clashed with police. The police officer who he is charged with assaulting testified that he had no recollection of Kosenko attacking him, wished him well, and said he should not be incarcerated.

Nevertheless, he was sentenced to a psychiatric clinic against the advice of his doctors. In a blog post after the verdict, the prominent Ekho Moskvy journalist Anton Orekh wrote, "The court has found itself insane."
 
And then there was the cruelty. Kosenko was not allowed out of pretrial detention to pay his last respects to his mother, who died in September.

And his eloquent and passionate closing statement at his trial, in which he offered heartfelt thanks to all those who supported him and argued that society's highest value was freedom, made Kosenko a more sympathetic figure still.

Navalny, who himself stole the show at his own show trial, has called Kosenko "an example to us all." The crowds outside the courtroom chanting "Misha! Misha! Misha!" appeared to agree.

In his paper, Pomerantsev argues that Putin's postmodern virtual politics, in which elites "are still only capable of the politics of performance and simulation, rather than meaning," enjoyed fertile ground in post-Soviet society because public attitudes remained very Soviet.

"Homo Sovieticus learnt to live with a split consciousness; a private world with one set of values and a public one where lying was ritual," Pomerantsev wrote in his paper. "Soviet citizens grew up with several narratives in their heads, and switched between them whenever necessary."

But as the first post-Soviet generation comes of age, as an urban middle class finds its voice, and as social media allows these people to connect and network, a new alternative mindset is taking hold.

"What is fascinating for us Russia-watchers is seeing this new consciousness appearing. It didn't exist before and the fact that it has appeared makes it feel very big," Pomerantsev told me in an interview that will be featured in this week's "Power Vertical Podcast."

"They have small businesses so they have to function rationally. Of course, there's been people like that in Russia before, but what we're seeing for the first time is for them to form as a political class and its fascinating. It's almost a revolution of the nerds. It's like people walked off the set of the Big Bang Theory and into Russian political discourse."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Please tune in to the "Power Vertical Podcast" on October 11 when I will discuss the issues raised in this post with co-host Kirill Kobrin, editor of the history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovennie Zapas," and guest David Satter, a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and author of numerous books on Russia -- including most recently, "It Was A Long Time Ago And It Never Happened Anyway."

Tags:Aleksei Navalny, Bolotnaya case, Mikhail Kosenko


Resetting The Crackdown?

Mikhail Kosenko at a hearing in a Moscow court in September.

Two courtrooms in two cities. Two pending rulings in two high-profile -- and highly politicized -- criminal cases. Two chances over the next eight days for the Kremlin to signal its intentions.

A court in Moscow this week is scheduled to render its verdict in the case of Mikhail Kosenko, the 38-year-old Moscow man who has become a potent symbol of the absurdity -- and cruelty -- of the so-called Bolotnaya case against demonstrators charged with instigating "mass disturbances" on the eve of Vladimir Putin's inauguration.

And next week in Kirov, a court will hear opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's appeal of his conviction and five-year sentence on embezzlement charges that are widely viewed as trumped up.

Each case, in its own way, stretches the boundaries of logic. Each symbolizes the crackdown on dissent that has been in force since Putin returned to the Kremlin. And each puts the regime in a bind.

Kosenko was charged with assaulting a police officer during the May 6, 2012 anti-Putin demonstrations. This despite the fact that video footage shows him simply standing by as police scuffled with protesters.

Moreover, the police officer Kosenko allegedly attacked, Aleksandr Kazmin, refused to testify against him and said he shouldn't be jailed.

Kosenko suffers from a psychiatric disorder, the result of a concussion he sustained during his military service. For the past year he has been held in the psychiatric ward of a pretrial detention center and prosecutors are trying to get him committed to a psychiatric hospital -- despite the fact that he has successfully been receiving outpatient treatment for a decade. When his mother died in September, Kosenko was denied the right to attend her funeral.

Because of all this, Kosenko's plight has become a cause celebre. Russian rights activists have rallied to his defense and, on October 3, Amnesty International declared him and two other Bolotnaya defendants -- Vladimir Akimenkov and Artyom Savyolov -- prisoners of conscience

His passionate and eloquent closing statement during his trial, in which he argued that "freedom is the greatest value in our society," is being widely circulated on the Internet.

The Bolotnaya case is potent for society and potentially dangerous for the authorities because most of the 27 defendants are not opposition leaders -- or even political activists -- but ordinary citizens who attended a sanctioned demonstration.

They're electricians, chemists, artists, travel agents, insurance brokers, and students. They have parents, and siblings, children, and friends who also have parents, siblings, children, and friends, and so on and so on.

And Kosenko's case personified this on one highly sympathetic figure.

"Michael lived a normal life. He is entitled to his convictions. He had a right to be at that rally. He had the right to demand fair elections. And for this he has been deprived of his liberty," rights activist Anna Karetnikova wrote on her blog on Ekho Moskvy. "He's not some great leader. He's just one of us."  

Just over a week after the Kosenko verdict comes down on October 8, someone who clearly does aspire to be a great leader will also have his day in court. And what happens there will finally provide a clue about how the Kremlin intends to handle "the Navalny situation."

On October 16, a court in Kirov is scheduled to hear Navalny's appeal in the so-called Kirov Forest case in which he was convicted in July of embezzling 16 million rubles ($500,000) from the Kirovles state-owned timber company when he was an unpaid adviser to the region's governor, Nikita Belykh, in 2009.

Of the 35 witnesses called by the prosecution in the case, 33 testified to Navalny's innocence. And the prosecution's star witness, Vyacheslav Opalev, had a clear motive to frame the defendant. 

In 2009, Navalny recommended that Opalev, then the director of Kirovles, be fired for corruption. Opalev was convicted of fleecing the company in December 2012 --- and was given a suspended sentence only after agreeing to testify against Navalny.

But this case was never about the facts. It's always been about politics -- and high-stakes politics at that. It's about the Kremlin seeking to silence a fierce and effective critic and rising opposition star and removing him once and for all from the political arena.

But the mass demonstrations in Moscow on the night of Navalny's conviction in July, the hero's welcome he got after being released pending appeal, and his unexpectedly strong performance in the Moscow mayoral election in September, appear to have sparked a rethink of this strategy.

Will the authorities try to tame Navalny by overturning his conviction and luring him into the Kremlin-approved "systemic opposition"? Is Navalny willing to be housebroken this way?

Recently, Putin even reportedly said Navalny's name in public -- something he previously had studiously avoided. 

Some more clues should come into sharper focus after October 16.

So the Kremlin appears to be having second thoughts in both the Bolotnaya and Navalny cases and may be poised for a reset. Putin has said he won't rule out an amnesty for the Bolotnaya defendants. Likewise, Pavel Krasheninnikov, a leading United Russia member who chairs the State Duma's Legislation Committee, said he also agreed with the idea of an amnesty.

Reversing course in these two cases risks damaging the regime's credibility, as Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, pointed out in a recent "Power Vertical Podcast."

"This opens up a big problem," Guillory said. "The Russian government has made the Bolotnaya case out to be a vast conspiracy. They turned it into a giant show trial. If they turn around and amnesty these people then what are these charges? The same with Navalny. If they don't put Navalny in prison, then what were these charges? It proves that these cases were politically motivated."

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Aleksei Navalny, Bolotnaya case, Mikhail Kosenko


Podcast: From October 1993 To 'Managed Democracy'

Russia's post-Soviet "democrat" sets the precedent for its post-Soviet autocrat.

It lasted less than two weeks. It ended with the worst street violence Moscow had seen since 1917. And it set a series of political precedents that endure to this day.

Twenty years ago this week, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the army to shell and storm the country's parliament, the Supreme Soviet, bringing a violent end to his bitter conflict with the country's legislature.

At the time, many liberals cheered, arguing that with the retrograde hard-line parliament vanquished, Russia could finally get on with the task of building a functioning democracy.

Instead, in the end, they got the opposite. Were the events of the fall of 1993 post-Soviet Russia's original sin? Were the seeds of today's authoritarian power vertical planted two decades ago?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the legacy of this consequential  conflict that erupted two decades ago.

Joining me are co-hosts Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovennie Zapas" and New York University professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security services and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows." We are also joined by special guest Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of International Affairs at the New School and director of the Russian Program at the World Policy Institute, whose latest book, "The Lost Khrushchev: A Family Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.” will be published next spring.

Enjoy...
Power Vertical Podcast: From October 1993 To 'Managed Democracy'
Power Vertical Podcast: From October 1993 To 'Managed Democracy'i
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Russia's Original Sin

The shelling of the White House on October 4, 1993 set the stage for Russia's current political arrangements.

You could sense the young Boris Nemtsov's apprehension and ambivalence two decades ago as Russia hurtled into a full-blown constitutional crisis.

After months of bitter conflict, President Boris Yeltsin had dissolved the country's hard-line legislature and called new elections. Technically, the move was illegal. But Nemtsov's political sympathies were clearly with Yeltsin. And so were his loyalties.

It was Yeltsin, after all, who had appointed Nemtsov, barely in his 30s, as governor of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast two years earlier.

"Personally, I agree with the president that there need to be early parliamentary and presidential elections," a 33-year-old Nemtsov told reporters, before offering his caveats.

"It does bother me that the president has not set a date for presidential elections.... And if you approach this from a legal perspective, unfortunately I must say that the way this was done fell outside the boundaries of the law."

Nemtsov wasn't alone in backing Yeltsin's move, albeit with grave reservations -- even when the conflict turned violent and he ordered the army to shell and storm the parliament.

Many at the time viewed his heavy-handed and extraconstitutional move as an example of when it is necessary to use illiberal means to achieve liberal ends.

The parliament was dominated by nationalists and communists, after all. At the urging of Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi, violent armed mobs had assaulted the Ostankino broadcast center and the Moscow Mayor's Office. Parliamentary speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov had even encouraged them to storm the Kremlin.

So after vanquishing the retrograde legislature so decisively, the argument went, Yeltsin and his team could finally get on with the business of setting up a working democracy and functional market economy.

Except that it didn't quite work out that way. On the contrary, the violent resolution of Russia's 1993 constitutional crisis set a series of precedents that continue to plague Russia to this day.

The seeds of many of the elements of Vladimir Putin's "managed democracy," in fact, were planted during that fateful autumn, two decades ago.

"We survived that time and we should have learned something from it, but unfortunately we didn't learn anything," Sergei Filatov, Yeltsin's chief of staff at the time of the crisis, told RFE/RL's Russian Service recently.

"For the last 20 years, we've continued to use the same methods."

The executive-heavy power vertical, the unaccountable super-presidency, and the decorative pocket parliament otherwise known as the State Duma were the direct result of the way the 1993 crisis was resolved.

So is the fact that the rule of law is an illusion at best, consistently trumped by a much older principle: Might makes right. Yeltsin's reliance on the military and security services to solve the crisis presaged the central place the siloviki would occupy in politics -- from KGB veterans like Aleksandr Korzhakov in Yeltsin's time to Sergei Ivanov in Putin's.

Yeltsin's decision not to hold early presidential elections as well as new parliamentary elections, as he initially announced he would when he dissolved the Supreme Soviet, also telegraphed another feature of Russian politics -- the tendency to change the rules in the middle of the game.

A direct line can be drawn from Yeltsin reneging on his pledge to hold an early presidential election after the crisis and other, more recent, maneuvers when the fix was clearly in: from Yeltsin's unexpected transfer of power to Putin on December 31, 1999, to the castling of September 2011.

"We all had that Soviet, imperial mentality, where strength will always better solve the problem, as opposed to negotiations and compromise," Filatov told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

"If we're ever going to become a democratic society, we need to change our methods of managing the country and the methods of interaction among the authorities."

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast later today, when the issues raised in this blog post will be discussed in depth. Joining me on the podcast will be co-hosts Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovennie Zapas," and NYU professor Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia's security services and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows." Also joining us will be special guest Nina Khrushcheva, professor of International Affairs at the New School, director of the Russian Program at the World Policy Institute, and author of the book "Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics."

 


Audio Podcast: Letters From The Gulag

With a powerful letter from prison, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova continues a venerable Russian tradition.

Slavery-like conditions. Workdays that stretch from dawn until midnight. Sleep deprivation, beatings, torture, and even death threats.

These are some of the conditions that prisoners in Penal Colony  No. 14 in Russia's republic of Mordovia are enduring, according to an open letter that jailed Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova sent to Russia's Human Rights ombudsman.

Letters from prison have a long and storied history of carrying emotional power and moral weight in Russia -- and Tolokonnikova's is no exception. It has garnered sympathetic responses from some unexpected quarters, including some Orthodox clergy and a leading pro-Kremlin newspaper.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss Tolokonnikova's letter, its resonance, and what the reaction to it might signify.

Joining me on the podcast are co-host Kirill Kobrin, editor of the history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenniye Zapas," and Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies, author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Podcast -- September 27, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- September 27, 2013i
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About This Blog

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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