Sunday, August 30, 2015


Russia's Surrealistic August

What a long, strange month it's been.

Brian Whitmore

There are still a few days left for all hell to break loose, but Russia appears to have survived August without a major catastrophe this year.

There have been no coups and no defaults. No submarines have sunk, no trains or shopping malls have been bombed, and no wars have started -- well, at least no new ones.

There's been plenty of silliness, to be sure: bulldozers running over forbidden goose meat in Tatarstan, the mass slaying of contraband Ukrainian ducklings in Belgorod, and a viral video of a crazed man (or good actor) sticking it to the West by destroying iPhones and iPads, just to name a few examples.

There have also been the routine exposes of the elite's opulence, this time Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov's $620,000 watch and lavish honeymoon on a yacht. And there were surprises, like the shock resignation of Vladimir Yakunin, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest cronies, as head of Russian Railways. 

But if this August was largely uneventful, it has been marked, at least among the chattering classes, by a sense of foreboding.

Russia is stuck in a quagmire in eastern Ukraine. The economy is buffeted by falling oil prices, a sinking ruble, and Western sanctions. And the best the Kremlin can do is wage a war on foreign cheese. 

This, together with signs of stress in the regime like Yakunin's departure, have led many leading Russian commentators to conclude that things cannot continue as they are -- and that something big just has to be coming soon.

Speaking to Ukraine's Espreso TV, political analyst Andrei Piontkovski said "strange tectonic shifts are taking place around the Kremlin." 

According to Piontkovski, "panic and confusion" are evident in the elite and "a showdown in the upper echelons of the authorities" is looming. 

Likewise, Aleksei Venediktov, editor in chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station, said Putin's relationship with his inner circle has changed dramatically. 

"The Kremlin's towers are battling as always," Venediktov told Novy Kaliningrad, using the euphemism for clan wars among the elite. 

"But if in the past these battles were waged for influence over the president, now they are being conducted over how to get away from him. This has to be done gracefully so one is not charged with desertion."

And Valery Solovei, a professor at the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations, suggested the whole thing was about to collapse.

"What I think is clear, and even inevitable, is the departure of the current political regime in the not-too-distant future," Solovei wrote recently on his heavily followed Facebook page. 

"Its governance has been an absolute failure and this is gradually becoming evident to everybody. Even propaganda won't save it. And the fall of the regime will likely be bloodless and banal."

So are we on the verge of a palace coup? Is September the new August?

Who knows? Russia's chattering classes are notoriously alarmist and the Kremlin's inner sanctum, opaque in the best of times, is a virtual black hole today.

In recent years, the narrative on Russia has tended to swing between two extremes: Putin Is the Master of the Universe! and The Regime is About to Collapse! 

The collapse narrative reigned during the mass protests of 2011-12, the master of the universe meme took hold following the annexation of Crimea and the patriotic wave that followed it.

And the surrealistic August we've just experienced has caused the pendulum to swing yet again.


Audio Podcast: Requiem For A Railroad Baron

It's time to go.

Brian Whitmore

He was supposed to be untouchable. He was supposed to be immortal. He was supposed to be eternal.

Few members of the Russian elite looked as unassailable as Vladimir Yakunin.

He's been personally close to Vladimir Putin for decades, going back to the Ozero dacha collective in the 1990s. He ran the massive state company Russian Railways and had close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. He was a key member of the Kremlin's inner sanctum. He was consistently ranked among the most powerful men in the country.

When somebody like Yakunin takes a fall, it's a sure sign that all is not well inside the "Collective Putin."

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast, I unpack Yakunin's departure, and what it portends, 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 the tumultuous six months since Boris Nemtsov was assassinated.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Requiem For A Railroad Baron
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Video The Daily Vertical: Ukraine Names Names

The Daily Vertical: Ukraine Names Namesi
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August 28, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: Lessons From The Nemtsov Hit

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August 27, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
The Daily Vertical: Lessons From The Nemtsov Hit
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: A Song Of Defiance

The Daily Vertical: A Song Of Defiancei
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August 26, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Brave New Russia

Andrei Polyakov, leader of St. Petersburg's Cossack community, inspects food at a St. Petersburg supermarket.

Brian Whitmore

One face of Vladimir Putin's brave new Russia is a man called Nikolai. 

We don't know his last name, but we know he lives in Vladivostok. And we know that after having a few drinks on the evening of August 16, he called the cops to rat on his neighbors for cooking illegally imported goose meat.

"I served in the army and I understand the situation like this: we have our superiors and they give orders that we must carry out, meaning there is the law and we must obey it," Nikolai said, according to Russian media reports. 

Another face of the brave new Russia is Andrei Polyakov, leader of St. Petersburg's Cossack community. Polyakov recently said he would regularly send his men, armed with a mobile crematorium, to raid stores suspected of selling contraband foreign food. 

The food snitches and food vigilantes are taking their cues from the top, of course.

Russia's Federal Customs Service has drafted legislation classifying banned foreign foods as "strategically important." Until now, that label only applied to weapons, explosives, poisons, and radioactive materials. 

If it becomes law, the new classification will mean those caught importing banned fruits, vegetables, meat, and poultry can face up to seven years in prison. French cheese is apparently now just as dangerous to the security of the state as polonium, uranium, assault weapons, and dirty bombs.

And speaking of cheese, the Interior Ministry this week released footage of a bust of what it called a "major cheese-smuggling ring." Some 470 tons of forbidden cheese was found and six members of the alleged cheese mafia were arrested. 

And why stop with food? The head of the Russian Association of Textile Manufacturers says contraband foreign clothing should also be destroyed.

Russian authorities have also begun removing household products manufactured by Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble, and other leading Western companies from stores, claiming health risks.

Fortress Russia 

It's hard to wrap your head around all this craziness. At first glance, the Kremlin's jihad against all things Western looks like the postimperial temper tantrum of a regime that is truly losing the plot. 

And perhaps it is. They want their empire back, dammit, and if they can't have it they're going to smash their dinner plate on the floor and trash their room. 

"All the falling regimes share an interesting pattern. Before a fall they start acting crazy, they are struck by the epidemic of mass idiocy," political analyst Valery Solovei wrote on Facebook

"This is exactly what's going on right now in Russia. From the public destruction of food, to the attempt to ban Wikipedia, to the prohibition of importing household goods and all the other idiocy large and small."

Or perhaps there is a method to the madness. Perhaps Putin's Kremlin is preparing society for what is coming in an era of low oil prices, a weak ruble, sanctions, and a long-term confrontation with the West.

Consider it reverse shock therapy.

In a recent article, economist Vladislav Inozemtsev, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies, wrote that the Russian economy was heading for an era of austerity and autarky, with thousands of private businesses going under and the state sector expanding.

"The real consequence will be Russia's retreat from the global market and its economy’s transformation into one which is much more closed," Inozemtsev wrote.
 
"This way leads us towards a quasi-Soviet economy detached from the world and, at the same time, proud of its autarchy; towards a deteriorating economy which compensates for the drop in living standards with pervasive propaganda."

Is it working? If the public reaction to the destruction of contraband foreign food is any indication, the results are mixed. 

A survey by the state-run All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM) showed that 46 percent favored the destruction of banned food and 44 percent opposed. A poll by the independent Levada Center showed just 40 percent supporting it and 48 percent opposing.

"Can Russia 'opt out' of contemporary globalization? I do not see any reasons which would prevent this," Inozemtsev wrote.

"How long will it remain stable under the new conditions? I believe much longer than the majority of today’s analysts are prepared to admit."

How long the regime can remain stable, to a degree, depends on people like Nikolai the food snitch and Polyakov the food vigilante. It depends on how long patriotic fervor can keep the population supportive with patriotic appeals as living standards plummet. 

But much of it also depends on how long the elite -- which has become accustomed to their comfortable globalized lives -- remains cohesive.

We should soon learn whether we are witnessing the death throes of the Putin regime or the birth of a new fortress Russia.


Video The Daily Vertical: Food Snitches & Cheese Mafias

Food Snitches & Cheese Mafiasi
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August 25, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Food Snitches & Cheese Mafias
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Ukrainian Independence, Then And Now

From de jure to de facto independence?

Brian Whitmore

Twenty-four years ago, Ukraine won its de jure independence. Today, it is in a war to achieve its de facto independence.

When Ukraine's departure from the Soviet Union became irreversible in the dramatic summer of 1991, the breakup of the Soviet Union became all but inevitable. Moscow's rulers were simply not interested in keeping together a union in which ethnic Slavs would constitute a minority.

And if Ukraine's current struggle for de facto independence from Moscow is successful and becomes irreversible, it may provide the shock and the catharsis Russia needs to move beyond its postimperial malaise.

In this sense, Ukraine's relationship with Russia is the linchpin for the former Soviet Union to truly become post-Soviet.

"The stakes of what is happening are not just some minor struggle in a faraway country of which we know little. The stakes are intellectually, morally, and politically much, much greater than that," Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, author of the book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin, said in a speech at the Chicago Humanities Festival last year.

If the Russian-Ukrainian relationship is the kind preferred by Vladimir Putin's regime -- that of a patron and client, of a master and a vassal -- then the post-Soviet space will remain neo-Soviet and dominated by Moscow.

But if Ukraine is successful in breaking free of Moscow's grip, if it can successfully reform and join the West, if it can become truly and fully independent, this could provide the death blow to Russia's imperial legacy.

The old cliche that, "Without Ukraine, Russia is a country; with Ukraine, Russia is an empire," may be, well, cliche, but it also has the virtue of being true. Any Russian imperial project begins with Ukraine.

For more than two decades, Ukraine lived a dual existence. It was formally independent, but it lived in Russia's shadow. The Kremlin may have recognized Ukraine's independence in August 1991, but it never really accepted it.

And like Russia, Ukraine was riddled with corruption, cronyism, and oligarchic rule -- and much of its corruption, cronyism, and oligarchy was linked to Moscow and provided the Kremlin with a valuable tool to meddle and control Kyiv's affairs.

But unlike Russia, Ukraine's elite was pluralistic, its civil society was vibrant, and its elections were competitive.

Ukraine and Russia were separated at birth.

For more than two decades, Ukraine's rulers bobbed and weaved between these two realities, just as they bobbed and weaved between Moscow and the West.

But as Ukrainian society became more Westernized and more bold, and as Russia became more imperial and more overbearing, the duality became unsustainable. The bobbing and weaving just wasn't going to cut it anymore.

The result was a revolution.

Ukrainian civil society, in the words of Snyder, wanted to move from oligarchic pluralism to the real thing.

Ukrainian civil society wanted to move out of Moscow's shadow and break free from Moscow's grip. It wanted to be part of Europe. And it wasn't going to take no for an answer.

And the result was also, of course, a war, as Russia chose to use force to try to prevent the inevitable. It was a war in which Russia managed to take Crimea and perhaps a small chunk of the Donbas -- but in the process, appears to have lost the rest of Ukraine.

On August 24, 1991, Ukraine received its independence. Today, it is finally realizing it -- and the fallout will be profound.


Video The Daily Vertical: Ukraine's War Of Independence

The Daily Vertical: Ukraine's War of Independencei
X
August 24, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Audio Briefing: Shuffling The Oligarchs

Out with the old, in with the new? Oleg Belozerov (left) and his predecessor, Vladimir Yakunin

Brian Whitmore

A crony of Vladimir Putin is unexpectedly demoted. Will others follow?

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, we discuss the fallout from Vladimir Yakunin's resignation as head of Russian Railways. With the economy flailing, is Putin reining in his oligarchs? Is he making an example of a longtime crony? Or is Yakunin being prepped for a larger political role?

Also on the podcast, we discuss Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's visit to Berlin, which comes as the country marks 24 years of independence.

Joining me is RFE/RL Senior Editor Steve Gutterman.

Enjoy...

The Power Vertical Briefing: Shuffling The Oligarchs
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EDITOR'S NOTE: The Power Vertical Briefing is a short look ahead to the stories expected to make news in Russia in the coming week. It is hosted by Brian Whitmore, author of The Power Vertical blog, and appears every Monday.


Audio Podcast: The Odesa File

He's got the whole thing in his hands?

Brian Whitmore

It's a place known for wit and humor -- as well as for crime and corruption.

Its location is highly strategic and its symbolism is absolutely vital.

Its fiercely independent residents proudly call it the freest Russian-speaking city in the world.

Odesa is a city and a region that Ukraine's pro-Western authorities absolutely must get right if they are going to be successful. And they've placed it in the hands of one of the former Soviet Union's most colorful and controversial figures.

On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we discuss former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's efforts to reform Odesa, and why they are so vital to Ukraine's efforts to become a European state.

Joining me are co-host Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University, an expert on Russian organized crime, and author of the blog In Moscow's Shadows; Odesa-based blogger and political commentator Nikolai Holmov, author of OdessaTalk; and Salome Asatiani, a correspondent and popular blogger for RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

Also appearing on the podcast is Volodymyr Dubovyk, a professor of International Relations at Odesa's Mechnikov National University. 

Enjoy...

The Power Vertical Podcast: The Odesa File
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Listen to or download the podcast above or subscribe to The Power Vertical Podcast on iTunes.​


Video The Daily Vertical: Russia's Temper Tantrum

The Daily Vertical: Russia's Temper Tantrumi
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August 21, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: The Best Thing That Could Happen To Russia

The Daily Vertical: The Best Thing That Could Happen To Russiai
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August 20, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 20.08.2015 11:14

Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Meet Putin's Hostages

Three hostages: Estonian police officer Eston Kohver, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, and Ukrainian military pilot Nadia Savchenko

Brian Whitmore

One is a police officer; one is a filmmaker; and one is a pilot.

Three people illegally abducted from their homelands and unjustly incarcerated by a rogue foreign power -- their lives uprooted and disrupted, their futures in doubt.

Meet Vladimir Putin's hostages, two men and a woman who have become victims of the Kremlin leader's jihad against international rules, norms, and law. 

Putin has done many shocking and disturbing things in the past couple of years. 

He's the first leader to forcibly annex another country's territory in Europe since Adolf Hitler. He started a completely manufactured war in eastern Ukraine that has killed thousands. He's plunged Russia into an absurd spiral of xenophobia, intolerance, and repression. He's engaged in a dangerous game of brinksmanship with the West.

And he's also become a kidnapper -- the functional equivalent of an international crime boss.

The Police Officer

Moscow claims Eston Kohver is an Estonian spy and that he was caught conducting espionage on Russian territory. He isn't and he wasn't. The only thing he is guilty of is doing his job well and being a convenient target.

Kohver is an officer of Estonia's Internal Security Service, or KaPo, that country's equivalent of the FBI.

At the time he was abducted, he was investigating a smuggling ring run by Russian organized crime groups in Estonia. On the morning of September 5, 2014, Kohver was on his way to meet a confidential informant in a secluded forest near the Estonian village of Miikse, just a few kilometers from the border with Russia. 

It was a ruse. It was nothing but a set-up. On his way to the meeting, Kohver was ambushed with stun grenades, abducted at gunpoint, and taken into Russia.

Estonian and Russian border guards inspected the area where Kohver disappeared on the day of the incident. A bilingual joint protocol clearly states, based on analysis of footprints in the area, that a group of people entered Estonia from Russia and then returned there. It also noted impact craters from stun grenades.

After a widely criticized show-trial, a court in Russia's Pskov region today sentenced Kohver to 15 years in prison for espionage. 

The Filmmaker

Russia claims Oleh Sentsov is a terrorist. He isn't. The only thing Sentsov is guilty of is bravery -- of being willing to openly oppose Moscow's illegal annexation of his homeland.

Sentsov is an up-and-coming Ukrainian director best known for his acclaimed film Gaamer, which debuted at the 2012 Rotterdam Film Festival. He is also the single father of two children.

A native of Crimea, Sentsov was a strong supporter of Ukraine's pro-Western Euromaidan uprising. He was also a fierce opponent of Russia's annexation of Crimea, and helped deliver food supplies to Ukrainian servicemen trapped on their bases on the peninsula. 

Sentsov was seized off the street by Russian security agents in Simferopol on May 11, 2014, shortly after he had attended a demonstration against the annexation. 

He surfaced in custody in Moscow days later and was charged with setting fires in the offices of the United Russia party and the Russian Community of Crimea. He was also charged with plotting to blow up Simferopol's Lenin monument and its eternal flame. 

Prosecutors have shown scant evidence to support the charges against Sentsov and a key witness -- Hennady Afanasyev -- retracted his testimony incriminating the director in open court, claiming it was given under duress.

Sentsov's show-trial in the southern Russian city of Rostov-On-Don wrapped up today with prosecutors calling for a 23-year sentence.

"I am not going to ask for anything from you," Sentsov said in a defiant closing statement. "Everyone understands that a court of occupiers by definition cannot be just. Don't take it personally, your honor."

The Pilot

Of Putin's three international hostages, Nadia Savchenko is the most famous.

Moscow says Savchenko is a murderer. She isn't. The only thing she is guilty of is risking her life for her country's independence.

Ukraine's first female military pilot, Savchenko was a volunteer fighting Moscow-backed separatists in Donbas. She was on a mission to rescue Ukrainian soldiers when she was captured by separatists near the village of Metalist in Luhansk Oblast sometime in mid-June 2014.

On June 19, separatists posted a video of her being interrogated while handcuffed to a metal pipe. 

She surfaced in custody weeks later in Russia and was charged with being complicit in the deaths of two Russian journalists, who were killed in a mortar attack, and then illegally crossing the border into Russia. 

Savchenko's lawyers say her mobile phone records and video evidence prove that she was already in captivity when the journalists were killed. She faces 25 years in prison if convicted.

Fair Game

Other than being victims of Putin's kidnapping spree, Kohver, Sentsov, and Savchenko have something else in common. 

They were all born in the Soviet Union and they all became loyal, successful, and productive citizens of their newly independent countries.

And for Putin, who considers the break-up of the U.S.S.R. to be a tragedy, this is enough of a crime to make them fair game.

But for the rest of us, they must be considered hostages who were illegally abducted by an increasingly dangerous rogue state.


Video The Daily Vertical: Touching The Untouchables

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August 19, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Video The Daily Vertical: False Flag Alert!

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August 18, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Moscow's Donbas Psyop

Moscow's Donbas Psyopi
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August 17, 2015
The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.
Moscow's Donbas Psyop
Brian Whitmore

The Daily Vertical is a video primer for Russia-watchers that appears Monday through Friday. Viewers can suggest topics via Twitter @PowerVertical or on the Power Vertical Facebook page.


Audio Briefing: Russia's Summer Offensive

Ukrainian servicemen near the village of Starohnativka.

Brian Whitmore

Fears are mounting that that the war in Donbas may escalate with Moscow-backed separatists increasing their Grad attacks on Ukrainian positions -- and on residential areas.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, is preparing to visit the annexed Crimean peninsula. German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier called the situation "explosive."

On this week's Power Vertical Briefing, I discuss the uptick in fighting with RFE/RL Senior Editor Steve Gutterman. Is a fresh Russian offensive coming? Or is this just Moscow's latest psyop?

Enjoy...

Power Vertical Briefing: Russia's Summer Offensive
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EDITOR'S NOTE: The Power Vertical Briefing is a short look ahead to the stories expected to make news in Russia in the coming week. It is hosted by Brian Whitmore, author of The Power Vertical blog, and appears every Monday.


Photogallery Viktor Tsoi And The Russia That Never Was

  • Viktor Tsoi was born in Leningrad in June 1962. His family heritage was Korean. He was kicked out of a Soviet art academy at the age of 15. Two years later, in 1979, he began writing songs.
  • Tsoi's brand of post-punk, new wave rock was not accepted in the Soviet Union. He joined Leningrad's underground musical scene. Once he attended an underground concert by Boris Grebenshchikov, after which he managed to play two of his original songs for the Aquarium front man. Impressed, Grebenshchikov helped Tsoi form his own band.
  • Tsoi, shown here performing with his band Kino in Moscow in 1988, made his stage debut in Leningrad as a soloist in 1982. His profound lyrics and starkly original music made him an immediate sensation.
  • Also in 1982, Tsoi formed the band Kino and the group recorded its first album, 45. The song Elektrichka, about a man stuck on a commuter train going in the wrong direction, was taken as a metaphor for life in the Soviet Union and was promptly banned by the authorities.
  • Tsoi and Kino quickly became a sensation. In 1983, they debuted their song I Declare My Home (A Nuclear-Free Zone). In 1986, the band released (We Want) Changes! -- an anthem calling on the young generation to become more active and demand political change. The song made Kino's reputation across the Soviet Union.
  • Tsoi married Marianna Rodovanskaya in 1985. Later that year, their son, Aleksandr, was born. Marianna, who died of cancer in 2005, was Tsoi's heir and controlled the rights to his music after his death.
  • In 1988, Tsoi starred in the movie The Needle by director Rashid Nugmanov (right). In the center is Tsoi's co-star, Nina Ilyina. In the film, Tsoi plays a man desperately trying to break his girlfriend's morphine habit and fight the narcotics mafia. Tsoi and Kino provided the film's soundtrack.

     
  • After his tragic death in August 1990 in a car crash, Tsoi's friends and fans held a tribute concert in Moscow. Earlier that year, Kino had played its largest concert ever -- bringing 62,000 fans to Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.
  • The Viktor Tsoi wall on Moscow's Arbat Street. When Tsoi died, the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda wrote: "Tsoi means more to the youth of our nation than any politician, celebrity, or writer. This is because Tsoi never lied and never sold out."
  • The photo shows a portrait of Tsoi in downtown St. Petersburg. In 2014, United Russia lawmaker Yevgeny Fyodorov caused a sensation by claiming that the CIA wrote Tsoi's songs as part of its effort to destroy the Soviet Union. Tsoi's son has sued Fyodorov for defaming his father.
Brian Whitmore

Viktor Tsoi embodied late-Soviet cool before it was overtaken by post-Soviet kitsch and defined late-Soviet hip before it was overrun by post-Soviet glitz.

He epitomized late-Soviet sincerity before it gave way to post-Soviet cynicism and channeled late-Soviet angst before it morphed into post-Soviet nihilism.

Tsoi -- who died in an automobile accident a quarter of a century ago, on August 15, 1990, at the tragically young age of 28 -- would be in his 50s today.

We never got to see Tsoi in middle age. Like all iconic figures who die before their time, the trail-blazing Soviet rocker remains frozen in our minds: iconoclastic and irreverent, clad in black jeans and a T-shirt, a wild mane of black hair flopping in the breeze.

A guitar in his hand and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Always a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Tsoi is a reminder of a more hopeful time -- one that probably seems even more hopeful in retrospect. A time of introspection and anxiety, but also a time of promise. A time when anything and everything seemed possible.

Tsoi played the last concert of his life on June 24, 1990, at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium before a capacity crowd of 62,000. He closed the concert with his iconic protest anthem "Peremen" (Change).

Less than two months later he was dead.

No, we never got to see Tsoi in middle age. But we have seen the generation he inspired. And for most of them, the hopes and ideals of their youth died not long after Tsoi did.

Some of them are among those running Russia today. Some are among those cheering them on. And some are still holding out hope for that promise of change that was never truly fulfilled.

And Tsoi remains frozen in time, a symbol of the post-Soviet Russia that never was.


Audio Podcast: Hearts, Minds, And Confusion

Brian Whitmore

A half a billion dollars a year spent to get the Kremlin's message out. An army of trolls on a mission to influence foreign news coverage. The most widespread disinformation campaign since the end of the Cold War.

And the result? According to a new poll on global attitudes, Russia's brand is in the toilet.

The numbers are devastating. Globally, just 30 percent view Russia favorably. In Europe, just 26 percent do. By large margins, Russia is viewed negatively in every region of the world.

And the only thing doing worse than Brand Russia is Brand Putin. Worldwide, just 24 percent trust the Kremlin leader. In Europe, just 15 percent do.

On the latest Power Vertical Podcast we examine whether Vladimir Putin's vaunted information war is actually an abject failure. Joining me are Leonid Bershidsky, a political columnist for Bloomberg View, and Michael Weiss, a senior editor at The Daily Beast and the co-author of a widely circulated report on Russia's information policy.

Enjoy...

Podcast: Hearts, Minds, And Confusion
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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