Saturday, August 30, 2014

Audio Podcast: When Russians Talk About Ukraine

A Tale of two cities? Kyiv in flames; Bolotnaya defendants in the dock

The Russian state-controlled media has described the unrest in various alarming ways: A coup attempt by extremists and neo-Nazis; a Western-backed insurrection; and a nefarious attempt to dismember Ukraine, just to name a few.

For its part, the Russian opposition, while disturbed by the violence in Kyiv, is raptly watching events in Ukraine with a mixture of envy and respect.

And as the Ukrainian crisis climaxed this week, many Russians' attention quickly shifted from the Winter Olympics in Sochi to the showdown on the streets of the Ukrainian capital.

So what are Russians talking about when they talk about Ukraine?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss what lessons the authorities, society, and the opposition are absorbing from the Euromaidan uprising. Joining me are co-hosts Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," and Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Mark, and I discuss Russia's so-called Bolotnaya case, which wound up this week with guilty verdicts for eight anti-Kremlin protesters and the trial of Left Front leader Sergei Udaltsov, which has just commenced.


Power Vertical Podcast -- February 21, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- February 21, 2014i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Russian politics, Russian opposition, Power Vertical podcast, Sergei Udaltsov, Bolotnaya case, Euromaidan

Audio Podcast: The Comeback Kid

Putin's Olympic kitsch

Suddenly, Vladimir Putin seems to be having the time of his life.

He is visibly relishing the Sochi Olympics, which -- at least in the eyes of the Russian public -- are coming off much better than expected. There has also been a noticeable, and predictable, backlash against foreign criticism in the run-up to the games.

And, oh, by the way, Putin's approval ratings are steadily and clearly rising.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the Putin "resurrection." Is it real? Is it an illusion? Is it a trend?  Or is it a blip?

Joining me are Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas"; Nina Khrushcheva, a 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”; and Kevin Rothrock, project editor for RuNet Echo at Global Voices, author of the blog "A Good Treaty."

Also on the podcast, Kirill, Nina, Kevin, and I discuss the economic storm clouds appearing on Russia's horizon that have suddenly gotten Putin's attention.


Power Vertical Podcast -- 14 February, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- February 14, 2014i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Vladimir Putin, Sochi Olympics, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast

Podcast: The Sochi Syndrome

Sochi 2014, a metaphor for Russia

They're finally here!

After years of anticipation, the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi are finally underway.

What do the the seven years of preparations for the Sochi Olympics illustrate about Russia? And how will things develop once Vladimir Putin's big party is over?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss Sochi as a metaphor for Russia.

Joining me is 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 recent efforts by the Kremlin to rein in social networks and new media -- including the recent moves against Dozhd TV.

Power Vertical Podcast -- February 7, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- February 7, 2014i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Sochi Olympics, Russia corruption, Russian politics, Power Vertical podcast

The Kremlin Plays Whac-A-Mole

A woman attends a protest in Russia against Internet censorship, with a sign over her mouth reading "censorship."

Russia's nationalists are going anarchist. Or at least some of them are, sort of.

Take the movement "Russia Will Liberate Itself" or RONS, for example. The group's website features some of the normal expected nationalist staples: support for Orthodox Christian values, opposition to multiculturalism, revival of Russian culture, etc.

But they also declare themselves to be "opponents of the current regime" and call for its overthrow. And their site offers a series of highly technical -- albeit surprisingly readable -- primers that would please the hearts of many self-respecting liberals, libertarians, and, yes, anarchists.

There's a helpful little manual on "how to access blocked Internet sites," for example. And there's a list of dos and don'ts in case anyone suspects the FSB is tapping their phone. 

RONS is yet another example of how the Kremlin has lost control of the nationalist groups they once manipulated and used so effectively. But it also illustrates something else: despite the Kremlin's best efforts, and all the tools at its disposal, it will be increasingly difficult for the regime to regain complete control of Russia's information space.

"The Russian authorities are putting ever more pressure on the Internet in the hopes of imposing Kremlin control on the last relatively free segment of the Russian media," Paul Goble wrote on his blog "Window on Eurasia," which flagged RONS efforts in a recent post. 

"But their efforts are being countered by those most affected who are offering what they describe as 'very easy' workarounds so that those who want to visit banned sites can.

From the de facto takeover of the popular VKontakte, to new legislation making it even easier for the authorities to block websites they find distasteful, to the recent assault on Dozhd TV, the Kremlin is clearly trying to rein in new media and reassert control over the narrative.

The apparently imminent removal of the iconoclastic Pavel Durov as CEO of VKontakte has been widely interpreted as the endgame of a long campaign to gain control of a popular social-networking site that has been frequently used to organize opposition protests. (When the authorities told Durov to block VKontakte pages operated by anti-Kremlin activists in late 2011, he responded by tweeting a photo of a dog sticking its tongue out.) 

Cable- and satellite-television providers' decision to drop Dozhd TV after it aired a controversial poll on the Leningrad blockade looks like an obvious attempt to effectively shut down a key alternative media outlet.

And legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin in December enables prosecutors to block websites advocating "extremism" -- without a court order. Putin also signed a law criminalizing online calls for separatism. And another proposal seeks to allow for sites that publish incorrect information about banks to be blocked without a court hearing. In an editorial, quipped that the word "devaluation" could soon be forbidden.

"The goal is to erect a huge media wall to protect the authorities and isolate Russia from the free world," Yulia Latynina wrote recently in "The Moscow Times." "They are building that wall slowly but steadily."  

They may be. But that wall is bound to have many cracks in it, tunnels under it, and backdoors around it.

Dozhd TV may be on the ropes. But the channel's success has proven that there is a growing market for independent media that will sooner or later be filled -- one way or another.

The Kremlin may finally have gotten rid of Durov and gotten VKontakte under control. But this should provide an excellent expansion opportunity for Facebook -- or a startup opportunity for Russia's next Internet guru. 

And as RONS illustrates, young tech-savvy Russians -- regardless of their ideological bent -- are adept at finding workarounds when the authorities seek to block troublesome websites.

The Kremlin is late to the new media party. The regime has long focused its attention on corralling and controlling traditional media while ignoring the growing communities and outlets springing up online. And now, with Internet penetration at 59 percent, they are forced to play Whac-A-Mole

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags:Dozhd TV, Russian Internet, VKontakte

Audio Podcast: Two States. One Revolution?

Takin' it to the streets.

It's an uprising fueled by the young.

It features an odd alliance of nationalists and pro-Western liberals.

It's taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers and has baffled the regime with its mastery of social media.

It's goals are to replace a corrupt authoritarian regime with a more pluralistic and inclusive political system.

Wait. Are we talking about Russia or Ukraine?

Or are we talking about both?

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast we ask whether Bolotnaya and the Euromaidan are two parts of the same incomplete post-Soviet revolution. Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an expert on Russia's security services and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and guest Sean Guillory, a fellow at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Also on the podcast, Mark, Sean, and I discuss Aleksei Navalny's return to the headlines this week and what awaits him in the coming political season.

Power Vertical Podcast -- January 31, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- January 31, 2014i
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to "The Power Vertical Podcast" on iTunes.

Tags:Russian opposition, Power Vertical podcast, Euromaidan

The Russomaidan

A tale of two cities. Which is Moscow and which is Kyiv?

Aleksei Navalny has Ukraine on his mind.

The anticorruption blogger and opposition leader has been plugging the Euromaidan protests on his blog and promoting them relentlessly on his Twitter feed

Over the weekend, he approvingly retweeted an image posted by a Ukrainian activist -- a mock-up of a video-game screen. "If you were born in Ukraine or Russia, then you have chosen the most difficult level of play. But Russians are still at the first stage, while we are already wiping out the last big boss," the screen read.

"Ha ha! Excellent!" Navalny wrote.

Navalny's interest in the events in Ukraine and his support for the Euromaidan is hardly surprising.  His ongoing battle with the Kremlin and the intensifying upheaval in Ukraine are, in many ways, part and parcel of the same process.

"What is happening in Kyiv is not even strictly a Ukrainian revolution, nor is it simply a continuation of the events of 2004.  It is a continuation of the events of the late 1980s, a still ongoing perestroika," political commentator Aleksei Kolesnikov wrote recently in 

"The empire is still disintegrating -- it is a long, multistep, multistage process."

It's also a slow process, a tortoise revolution, if you will.  

"The process has not ended," Kolesnikov wrote. "It was not exhausted by the 1990s or by the events of 2011-12, and may not be completed by the centenary of the Great October Socialist Revolution" in 2017.

And one of the things driving the process at this stage is the coming of age of a generation, in both Russia and Ukraine, which was born after the Soviet collapse. The Ukrainian activists use of a video-game metaphor on Twitter and Navalny's positive reaction to it are apropos; this is very much a revolution of the young.

In both Russia and Ukraine, the post-Soviet generation that is fueling the respective protest movements appears more liberal than that of their parents, aspiring to a more pluralistic, less corrupt, and less authoritarian political system. But, at the same time, they appear, by and large, to be simultaneously more nationalistic as well.

This is evident in the antimigrant sentiment prevalent in Russia, particularly among the young and well-educated and in Navalny's attempts to carve out a political niche as a "liberal nationalist." 

In Ukraine, it is evident in the prominent role nationalist youth groups from the country's west have played in the protests.

This politically active youth has no memories of -- and certainly no nostalgia for -- the multiethnic Soviet Union. In Russia, this manifests itself in the antimigrant slogan "Russia for Russians" as well as in opposition to what nationalists call Vladimir Putin's "Chekist regime." In Ukraine, it manifests itself in a yearning to be free of Moscow's influence and meddling -- which all too often veers into overt Russophobia.

The marriage of liberalism and nationalism has a historical precedent in 19th century Europe, when national liberation from empires went hand in hand with calls for political liberalization.

But, in a multiethnic Russian Federation and in a Ukraine with a large Russophone population, nationalism and liberalism inevitably come into conflict -- unless, that is, ethnic nationalism evolves into an inclusive form of civic patriotism.

"To ignore the alienation of Russophone Ukraine is to fundamentally misunderstand the prospects of the current protests," Leonid Ragozin wrote in a particularly thoughtful piece this week in "The New Republic." 

"Russophone Ukraine has a decisive say when it comes to the country’s future. Ukraine is not and will never be a classic monocultural eastern European nation state."

But if the Euromaidan movement successfully reached out to the Russophone population, he adds, they could become valuable allies.

"There is no reason why Ukraine's Russophone inhabitants should not support the protests. Euromaidan protesters want their country to join the European Union, and the EU has many qualities that should make it attractive to the Russophones," Ragozin writes, noting Brussels' protection of regional languages and minorities and its social welfare guarantees.

The Twitter image of the mock video-game screen that got Navalny's attention also pointed to another truth about the respective Ukrainian and Russian protest movements: the process is much farther along in Ukraine than in Russia.

Compared to its southern neighbor, Russia's political system is more tightly controlled, its economic elite is more obedient and housebroken, and the security services have much more political clout, as Julia Ioffe pointed out in a recent article

It will take time and not a small amount of skill to turn Bolotnaya into a Maidan

But success for Ukraine's Euromaidan protesters could deal a significant -- if not mortal -- blow to the corrupt political and economic model Putin has fine-tuned in Russia and is working to export to the rest of the former Soviet space. 

"The Putin epoch has been called a stage of post-revolutionary stabilization, but it hasn't turned out that way," Kolesnikov wrote in 

"It is merely a period of the ongoing perestroika revolution and the half-dissolution of the Soviet imperial essence."

-- Brian Whitmore

NOTE TO READERS: Be sure to tune in to the Power Vertical Podcast on January 31 when I will discuss and debate the issues raised in this post with co-host Mark Galeotti and guest Sean Guillory.

Audio The Yukos Endgame

Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev

He was always the other guy in the case. Mikhail Khodorkovsky's silver-haired business partner was charged with the same crimes and received the same sentences as his more famous associate.

But when Khodorkovsky walked free in December after being pardoned by President Vladimir Putin, Platon Lebedev remained behind bars.

Until now, that is.

In the latest Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss the machinations surrounding Lebedev's release.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows," and guest Sean Guillory, a fellow at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies and author of "Sean's Russia Blog."

Also on the podcast, Mark, Sean, and I discuss the reemergence of Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin. And just for fun, we chatted about an odd photo from Sochi that went viral this week.


Power Vertical Podcast -- January 24, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- January 24, 2014i
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Tags:Mikhail Khodorkovsky

Audio Podcast: The Political Games

Sports seems to be the last thing to come up in discussions about the Sochi Olympics.

In less than a month, the most expensive Olympic Games in history will start. But in the run-up to Sochi, there has been little discussion about sports.

Instead, the focus has been on politics, human rights, and the ever-present threat of terrorism.

What will LGBT activists -- and athletes -- do at the Games? How will the Russian authorities respond? Will Chechen militant Doku Umarov pull off a terrorist attack as he has pledged to do? And how will the Sochi Olympics, which have been shrouded in controversy almost from the outset, make Russia look to the world?

Such questions are overshadowing ones about who will take home the most Olympic gold.

In the latest "Power Vertical Podcast," we discuss the upcoming Sochi Olympics and what they might portend politically. Joining me were co-hosts Kirill Kobrin, editor of the Moscow-based history and sociology magazine "Neprikosnovenny zapas," and Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows."


Power Vertical Podcast -- January 10, 2014
Power Vertical Podcast -- January 10, 2014i
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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."


Power Vertical Podcast -- December 27, 2013
Power Vertical Podcast -- December 27, 2013i
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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."

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 "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

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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