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Russia Report: March 5, 2003

5 March 2003, Volume 3, Number 10
In "The Gulag Archipelago," Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes an incident that reportedly occurred at the height of the Great Terror in the late 1930s at a Communist Party conference in Moscow Oblast. The new party secretary -- the previous one had been arrested -- closed the proceedings with a tribute to Josef Stalin. Everyone was standing and applauding, and after five minutes "the older people were panting with exhaustion." After 11 minutes, the applauding continued until a local factory director finally stopped clapping and sat down. That man was later arrested and given a 10-year sentence.

This week, Russia commemorates the 50th anniversary of the death of Stalin, and clapping is no longer required. Yet, Stalin continues to win considerable approval, if not applause, in Russia. Some 53 percent of respondents in a recent poll conducted by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) expressed the view that Stalin played a positive role in Russian history. About 20 percent of respondents said they consider Stalin a "wise leader who made the USSR a powerful and prosperous country." Only some 27 percent found Stalin to be a "cruel, inhuman tyrant, guilty of killing millions of people."

"RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly" spoke with Jeffrey Brooks, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, about Stalin's legacy. Brooks is the author of "Thank You, Comrade Stalin" (Princeton, 2000) and "When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917" (originally published in 1985 by Princeton University Press and reissued with new material by Northwestern University Press in March 2003) (JAC)

RFE/RL: Now that we are poised for the commemoration of Stalin's death, how would you evaluate his legacy? Has contemporary Russia come to terms with Stalin and the Stalin era?

BROOKS: The fall of communism has brought no trials or punishment of the perpetrators of some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. An examination by Russians and others of their experience during the time that Stalin reigned is oddly missing from today's historical discourse. Where one would expect a cacophony of accusations, denunciations, demands, denials, and individual condemnations, one hears instead only silence.

The lack of attention to a traumatic and fairly recent past derives in part from an understandable preoccupation with the demands of the present, but it also owes much to the key defining features of Soviet culture under Stalin's regime. In "Thank You, Comrade Stalin," I argued that the fundamental message with which Stalin and those who worked with him infused Soviet public culture was a sense of obligation. I called this "the economy of the gift." According to this moral equation, the population was perpetually in debt to the leader, the party, and the state for all goods and services. It was the fundamental message of Soviet culture that the population was obligated to work because of all the things provided free by the party/state. This had the effect of disarming would-be critics, since how can one say anything but thanks for something that is provided gratis?

RFE/RL: And what effect has this had on Russia's political culture?

BROOKS: Well, the underside of this cultural system was the theft of agency. Since Stalin and, later, other leaders claimed that they and the party were the chief actors in society, the rest of the population was placed in the position of children or incomplete adults who were not responsible for what happened. I believe that this has two aspects today. First, there is the sense of "leave it to the bosses to solve the problem," whether it is a local issue or one like the war in Chechnya. Of course, Russians hardly have a monopoly on this attitude toward large problems.

The second issue is equally arresting. One aspect of today's world has been the great attention paid to public memory and the affixing of blame for past atrocities. Whereas elsewhere in the world there are truth commissions and public trials of the perpetrators of crimes of mass murder, in Russia there has been nothing of this sort. The Russians have hardly a word of apology for the surviving victims of some of the most horrific crimes of the 20th century. Nor have there been public accusations against the perpetrators. Even Jews, who elsewhere have demanded an accounting, are strangely quiet.

Perhaps this effacement of responsibility is explicable in terms of the difficulties of the post-Soviet era, but I would suggest another explanation: the ingrained habit of seeing a few titans as the chief actors in society. From that perspective, it is easy to blame it all on Stalin, [secret-police head Lavrentii] Beria, and a few other monsters, even though they depended on the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of willing helpers, if not millions. Paradoxically, that also explains why Stalin would be so warmly remembered. Making himself the chief protagonist of Soviet history, he became inseparable from its achievements as well as its atrocities. So if people choose to remember Soviet history in a positive way, Stalin naturally becomes something of a hero, and in that role he obscures the memory of the evils that he and his supporters perpetrated.

RFE/RL: We've talked about continuity with the Stalin period -- what about change? What is different now from then?

BROOKS: Happily, there is plenty of evidence that Stalin's legacy and the values with which he and his helpers infused Soviet culture are passing from the scene. Although the habit of seeing the country's leaders as the chief actors might still hold sway in many respects, other features of Stalin's cultural system do not.

Let me give a couple of examples. Under Stalin and his successors, the chief metaphor of the Soviet experience was "the path" -- the path to communism. This fiction had many implications, but the greatest of all was a tendency to ignore the present in favor of both an idealized past and oncoming future. Moving along the path toward the future, the present is naturally left behind. After all, why worry about pollution or, for that matter, building something to last, if everything will be completely transformed in a decade or two? Fortunately, the current Russian government and the Russian polity on which it depends have largely cast aside this myopia. Public culture has become present-oriented. This is apparent in the growth of advertising and in the new popular culture as well. Here, one only need note the refreshing emphasis on the self [that is] so characteristic of consumer culture. Instead of forgoing life in the present for a future that might never arrive, the message of today's Russian culture is oriented toward the present.

Even more interesting is the fact that most successful popular writers unabashedly portray a world in which authority can be, and is, challenged. And what better and more classic hero or heroine to perform this task than the private detective? Reading the works of such writers as Aleksandra Marinina (Marina Alekseeva) and Boris Akunin (Grigorii Chkartishvili), we can practically hear Sherlock Holmes mocking the bumbling policeman Lestrade, who never seems to solve a crime. Of course, Akunin's protagonists often do work for the police, but they are as independent as Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret, who is also a policeman. And, like Maigret, they seem to make more of an effort to satisfy society or "the public" than to please their superiors.

So, on balance, Stalin's legacy of the theft of agency has left some mark on today's Russia, but other aspects of his cultural system show every sign of having largely vanished.

RFE/RL: How much of what we think of as the "Soviet mentality" is really the "Stalin mentality"? And how much of the "Stalin mentality" is a reflection of the Russian Orthodox mentality?

BROOKS: Stalin did not arise in a vacuum. The traditions on which he was able to draw in order to gain power and maintain power existed before him. To argue, however, that much of what we associate with Stalinism is simply Russian or even Russian-Georgian would be to deny Stalin, and [Vladimir] Lenin before him, their historical roles as agents of change. Lenin seized a moment in history. He created in the Bolshevik Party and in his political practice a means of subverting civil society and politics as they had been hitherto understood. Stalin used the party to go further.

To attribute the Bolsheviks' monopolization of power and their brutal application of that power to a tradition of Russian Orthodoxy, to the Russian experience with serfdom, or to the backwardness of the Russian peasantry is to ignore the striking modernity of the Soviet project. And it is certainly not irrelevant to note in this regard that the peasants and the church suffered inordinately under the Soviet system. From what we know now about the late imperial period, civil society was expanding at a fast clip, and there were more and more independent organizations and institutions. Of course, [World War I] intervened and weighed in on the side of more restrictive political practices. Was the fact that before 1917 the leadership of the Orthodox Church was so subservient and intolerant a factor in Stalinist culture? Perhaps, but there were many other traditions upon which a government that ruled Russia could have drawn, including religious traditions within Orthodoxy. So I think that when we consider Stalin's legacy, we have to give him some credit, even though he necessarily relied on hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of willing collaborators to do what he did.

"Kommersant-Vlast," No. 7, argued that President Vladimir Putin's recent appointment of Sergei Ushakov, a former senior official at the St. Petersburg directorate of the Federal Security Service (FSB), is an attempt to shore up the St. Petersburg faction of the management team at the natural-gas monopoly (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 3 March 2003). According to the weekly, Putin is launching the first phase of reform of the gas concern by increasing transparency at the company. At the same time, Putin declared earlier in February that the company has been, is, and will remain a "single entity" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). The weekly speculated that this statement was designed to appeal to the company's management, which doesn't welcome the idea of a breakup of the company. The magazine argued that "Putin can't permit himself to disregard the opinion of Gazprom, since there will soon be elections, and Gazprom is the last large state-owned company that can play the role of [cash cow] for the president's campaign." So Putin has tried to kill two birds with one stone by securing Gazprom's support in the election and by paving the way for launching gas-sector reforms. JAC

Meanwhile, "Gazeta" reported on 28 February that Unified Russia General Council Chairman Aleksandr Bespalov, who was recently named head of Gazprom's information department, will have control there over the company's $100 million advertising budget, as well as its media holdings, including NTV (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2003). Bespalov also has every chance of gaining access to the gas concern's "election budget," which, according to the daily, is even larger than that set aside for advertising. JAC

Ekho Moskvy reported on 3 March that it has received a letter from its largest shareholder, Gazprom, asking that the radio station terminate the powers of its board of directors, which was elected ahead of schedule last summer. Former Gazprom-Media head Boris Jordan still holds the post of chairman of the radio's board of directors, though he was dismissed as head of Gazprom-Media and as NTV general director in January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 22 January 2003). JAC

The board of directors of Unified Energy Systems (EES) decided on 28 February to sell its almost-70 percent stake in REN-TV, Russian news agencies reported. According to Interfax, an EES spokesman said the decision is consistent with "the company's policies of pulling out of its non-core assets." EES obtained the share in REN-TV from LUKoil in 2000 for about $100 million, according to (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 October 2000). "Gazeta" on 3 March, however, speculated that EES's decision might be part of a deal made with presidential chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin in exchange for the administration's support for a package of electricity-sector reforms recently passed by the Duma. Citing an unidentified Kremlin source, the daily wrote that "on the eve of the elections, the Kremlin wants one way or another to take control of all the major television channels." The paper predicted that control of the channel will pass to a person more loyal to the Kremlin than EES CEO Antaolii Chubais. JAC/RC

The campaign for the 14 March 2004 presidential election will officially begin on 10 December, Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov announced on 21 February, RBK reported the same day. The official start of the campaign for the 14 December State Duma elections will be 1 September. Veshnyakov estimated that four or five candidates will run for president. JAC

A three-day nationwide protest by state-sector workers ended on 28 February, Russian news agencies reported. According to "Vremya-MN" on 1 March, about 310,000 people in 33 regions participated in the action. The workers were protesting low wages, chronic arrears, and proposed legislation that would make local governments, rather than the federal government, responsible for paying state-sector workers such as doctors and teachers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2003). In Moscow, protesters were banned from marching in the streets, "The Moscow Times" reported on 27 February. However, groups of 10-15 people each gathered and collected signatures at some 50 metro stations in the city. According to "Vremya-MN," authorities in Krasnodar tried to prevent a gathering by digging a hole in the center of the city's main square in front of the krai administration building. However, protesters gathered around the hole and "expressed their thoughts about local authorities," according to the daily. On 26 February, some 3,000 demonstrators gathered in Petrozavodsk in Karelia, according to RosBalt. In that republic, union officials reported that not a single municipal organization had yet paid its wages for January. JAC

At a conference of law-enforcement officials in Ulyanovsk, presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko said that strategic facilities in the oblast are vulnerable to terrorist attacks, Interfax reported. Kirienko said that mock bombs were planted at key facilities and that none of them had been discovered as quickly as they should have been. In one case, a breach in a facility's barbed-wire perimeter fence was noticed only after 90 minutes. Mock bombs planted at a railway station, downtown market, and a meat factory in the town of Dimitrovgrad went undiscovered, Kirienko said. JAC

At a Security Council session in Saratov on 28 February, council members discussed problems associated with protecting Russia's borders, "Vremya-MN" reported on 1 March. According to the daily, Russia's border with Kazakhstan is the most problematic of all Russia's borders. No crossings or demarcation lines have been constructed since 1993. The biggest reason has been cost: The construction of 1 kilometer of border in keeping with international standards costs about $1 million, the daily reported. And today, border troops are reportedly financed for only about 10 percent of their needs. According to Federal Border Guard Service (FPS) First Deputy Director Nikolai Reznichenko, the government will consider three versions of a federal program for border construction this month, one of which allocates $100 million per year for the next several years, while another earmarks just $10 million. JAC

Bashkir Supreme Court Chairman Marat Vakilov and his family have allegedly been subjected to harassment after his court's ruling last March that the republic's new constitution runs counter to federal legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 21 March 2002), REN-TV reported on 27 February. Vakilov told the station that the day after the ruling, Bashkir President Murtaza Rakhimov called him and told him to resign. Rakhimov also reportedly threatened Vakilov and his relatives. Nonetheless, Vakilov has remained in office. However, he told REN-TV that his son had been expelled from the university and drafted into the army and that a criminal case had been launched against his younger brother, a state-farm director, for allegedly not paying wages to an employee. Vakilov himself has been accused of misappropriating 60,000 rubles ($19,350) and of speaking too much on a court-provided mobile phone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 30 April 2002). JAC

Independent ethnic-policy analyst Ildar Gabdrefikov told an RFE/RL Ufa correspondent on 26 February that ethnic factors will play a significant role in the 16 March elections for Bashkortostan's State Assembly. Gabdrefikov noted that Bashkirs are the only nationality granted official status in the republic and that this is reflected by local staffing policies. He cited official statistics that show that, although Bashkirs constitute only 22 percent of Bashkortostan's population, they occupy more than 60 percent of the posts in local executive branches and the same percentage in the republican parliament. Gabdrefikov predicted that the role of ethnicity in this year's presidential race will be similar to that seen in the 1998 presidential campaign, when Bashkortostan's Russian, Tatar, and Bashkir communities each promoted their own candidates. JAC

An unusually high percentage of votes cast "against all" was registered in the 2 March elections in Komi Republic for the republican parliament and city councils, Russian news agencies reported on 3 March. Only nine members of Syktyvkar's 25-seat city council and 12 members of Vorkuta's 25-member council were elected, ITAR-TASS reported. Elections for the 30-seat republican parliament were more successful, with 24 legislators selected. In six of 30 districts, "against all" attracted at least 20 percent of the vote, and new elections will have to be held in those districts at a later date. According to, only six of 21 municipalities managed to elect a full roster of new members to their city councils. Commenting on the election results, Komi head Vladimir Torlopov said, "The candidates' chief competitor this time appeared to be 'against all.'" He added, "Voters want to see qualitative steps taken toward improving the socioeconomic situation in the republic." JAC

The owners of the "first official" gay club in Yekaterinburg announced on 27 February that they are closing the establishment because of the "interpretation by several mass-media outlets that the activities of the club have a political character," reported on 28 February. The club opened at the beginning of February and soon attracted denunciations from the Russian Orthodox eparchy in Yekaterinburg (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 February 2003). The regional gay rights group Forum issued an open letter that condemned the church and accused it of trying to incite hatred among groups on the basis of sexual preference through its efforts to close the club, according to Novyi region. Forum said it intends to appeal to judicial and law-enforcement authorities about alleged massive violations of citizens' constitutional rights. According to the group, there are 330,000 people with nontraditional sexual orientations in Sverdlovsk Oblast, of whom more than 100,000 live in Yekaterinburg. JAC

A group of Yekaterinburg-based political consultants has decided to nominate "Garri Ivanovich Potter" as a candidate in the September 2003 gubernatorial elections in Sverdlovsk Oblast, Novyi region reported on 26 February. There is reportedly a person in Yekaterinburg who plans to change his name and passport information so that he or she can become the living embodiment of the young wizard in time for the election. The consultants believe that "Potter" could fetch as much as 10 percent of the vote, particularly the youth and protest vote. Potter's support would likely come from among those who generally do not bother to vote or who vote against all candidates. On the same day, the head of the Yekaterinburg police public-safety department, Sergei Mochalin, confirmed that local police have detained a group of political "dirty tricksters," who, according to Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel, have come to the Urals to destabilize the region, reported. The oblast prosecutor is currently deciding whether to file a criminal case. JAC

In a long article about the Federation Council on 25 February, "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported that former Mezhprombank head and Federation Council representative (Tuva) Sergei Pugachev, who reportedly enjoys close relations with President Putin, is the least vocal member of the upper legislative chamber. According to the daily, during a sleepy discussion of the law on the rehabilitation of victims of political repression, the normally silent Pugachev apparently manifested a desire to express his views. This prompted Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov to say with surprise, "Do you really want to speak?" Pugachev replied by shaking his head. Mironov then asked, "Perhaps you pressed your button by mistake?" Pugachev nodded, and the session continued. JAC

Residents of four apartment buildings in Ulyanovsk who had their heat and hot water turned off sent a telegram to President Putin asking him to take immediate measures to introduce order into the country's heating and electricity sectors, "Simbirskii kurer" reported on 1 March. According to the newspaper, pensioner Rimma Mikhailovna came up with the idea. After composing the telegram, Mikhailovna called the offices of the governor, mayor, and the chief federal inspector, informing them that if the apartment buildings' heat and hot water were not turned on by 6 p.m. local time, she would send the telegram to the president. When there was no response, she sent the telegram at the cost of 67 rubles ($2). At 10 p.m. that evening, the heat and hot water were switched on. According to the newspaper, the supply of heat and hot water was reportedly resumed at the request of oblast officials. "You see, something happened, because we didn't remain meek [but] insisted on our rights," Mikhailovna commented. JAC

The Muslim community in Vologda has expressed its support for a proposal to create a list of names of public officials who actively oppose the activities of the Muslim community in Russia, reported on 18 February. The list would be maintained on an Islamic website. The idea was first suggested by the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in Karelia, the website reported. According to a press release from Vologda's mosque, the Vologda Muslim community believes that "the creation of such a database is a very important and timely measure that will enable us to temper the passions of those politicians and public officials who seek to earn political capital by inciting enmity among peoples of different religions or nationalities." According to the website, the Vologda community already has some candidates in mind for the list, including Vologda Oblast First Deputy Governor Ivan Pozdnyakov, who along with others reportedly supports demolition of the city's mosque. Construction of the city's first mosque began in 2000 amid public protests (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 16 February 2000). JAC

Three days after the original story about the possible blacklist appeared, reported that the director of the Muslim community in Vologda, Nail Mustafin, said he has been contacted by six print publications and three television channels regarding the blacklist. However, the story was distorted by these media outlets, he said, which reported incorrectly that the Vologda Muslim community has published a list of names of enemies of Islam on its own website and has called for these people to be "physically eliminated." These media outlets also claimed that the mayor of Vologda heads the list. According to, the Vologda Muslim community does not have a website and its members are wondering who spread such false information. JAC

IN: Grigorii Pasko, the former military journalist who was convicted on charges of espionage for passing information to Japanese television about the environmentally hazardous practices of the Pacific Fleet, has accepted a position as an aide to State Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov (independent), Interfax reported on 3 March. Yushenkov is a co-chairman of the Liberal Russia party.

TRANSFERRED: Aleksandr Bespalov, chairman of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia's General Council and its Central Executive Committee, has been named head of Gazprom's information-policy department, RosBalt reported on 27 February. This post was vacated when Aleksandr Dybal became head of Gazprom-Media last month. According to, Bespalov was one of President Putin's colleagues at the St. Petersburg regional office of the KGB (see "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," 17 January 2003). If that report is true, then Bespalov is the third former intelligence officer from St. Petersburg to join the natural-gas concern in recent weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 21 February 2003). Bespalov has also served as a senator in the Federation Council (Penza) since June 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 June 2002).

ATTACKED: State Duma Deputy Oleg Shein (Russian Regions) was attacked and beaten in Astrakhan on the evening of 27 February, reported on 3 March. According to Shein, the unidentified assailants used his name repeatedly and did not try to rob him. He told journalists he is certain the beating was connected with his political activities, in particular, his recent initiative to create a city commission for substantiating the rates charged for electricity and hot water.

5 March: 50th anniversary of the death of Stalin

6 March: Date by which the final version of the constitution of the Russia-Belarus Union will be prepared, according to Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev on 3 February

6-7 March: President Putin and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze will meet in Sochi to discuss bilateral relations and the Abkhaz conflict

7 March: Tatarstan's Supreme Court will hold a hearing on the constitutionality of some provisions of the republican constitution, RFE/RL's Kazan bureau reported on 26 February

8 March: International Women's Day observed

12 March: Norilsk Nickel management has scheduled a meeting with workers to avert a possible strike, although local union leaders say they will not participate

12 March: Federation Council will consider package of legislation reforming country's electricity sector

22 March: Congress of Democratic Forces will be held in Moscow

23 March: Mayoral elections will be held in Novorossiisk

23 March: A referendum will be held in Chechnya on the republic's draft constitution and draft laws on the election of the president and parliament

25 March: The Leningrad Oblast legislature is scheduled to select a new representative to the Federation Council

29 March: Unified Russia party will hold a congress

1 April: Date by which the State Duma would like the government to submit legislation amending the Budget and Tax codes in line with proposed legislation to reform local government, ITAR-TASS reported on 21 February

7-10 April: Russian-Mongolian Forum on Economic Cooperation to be held in Ulan Bator

15 April: Court hearing in the trial of writer and National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov will reconvene

20 April: Mayoral elections will take place in Norilsk

22-25 April: The Sixth General Assembly of the Northern Forum will be held in St. Petersburg. Governors from 28 countries are expected to attend, and Prime Minister Kasyanov will head the Russian delegation, ITAR-TASS reported

May: St. Petersburg will celebrate the 300th anniversary of its founding

1 May: Deadline by which the government is expected to finish preparing a package of legislation establishing a mortgage system, ITAR-TASS reported on 26 February

11 May: Parliamentary elections will be held in North Ossetia

18 May: New law on railway transportation will come into force

25-27 May: Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao will visit Russia

31 May: Russia-European Union summit will take place in St. Petersburg

17-21 June: Seventh International Economic Forum will be held in St. Petersburg

27 June: Gazprom will hold annual shareholders meeting

July: Month by which a working group of European and Russian legislators wants to create a "road map" for implementation of the joint Russian-EU accord on Kaliningrad of 11 November 2002, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 March

October: Days of Bulgarian Culture will be held in Russia

29 October: 85th anniversary of the founding of the Komsomol.