Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia Report: November 8, 2007

At 90, Bolshevik Revolution Shows Its Age

By Claire Bigg

A Russian woman holding a portrait of Lenin during the traditional communist demonstration in downtown Moscow today

November 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- For the best part of the 20th century, Russians celebrated the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7 by watching grandiose annual parades crossing through Moscow's Red Square.

Ninety years after Vladimir Lenin led Bolsheviks to the Winter Palace in Petrograd, Russians this year were once again able to tune their televisions to a Red Square parade. This time, however, the underlying ideology was entirely different.

Today's event commemorated not the Bolshevik Revolution itself, but a World War II parade marking the Bolshevik Revolution. The procession was called by Josef Stalin in 1941 as an act of defiance against Nazi German troops, who had advanced to just a few kilometers from the Kremlin.

Speaking at a lavish Kremlin ceremony following today's parade, President Vladimir Putin gave an emotional speech about the Soviet Union's contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany, and ceremoniously bestowed the title of "cities of military glory" on five Russian cities -- Vladikavkaz, Yelna in Smolensk Oblast, Yelets in Lipetsk Oblast, Malgobek in Ingushetia, and Rzhev in Tver Oblast.

Historical Revisionism

The event, staged this year for the first time, left many Russians scratching their heads over what exactly was being commemorated, and why.

Vladimir Buldakov, a leading historian of the Bolshevik Revolution, says the new parade fits into the government's efforts to associate itself with the iron-fisted rule and strong statehood of the Stalin years. "Stalin embodies superpower, imperial might. Lenin, on the contrary, symbolizes destruction," he says.

Stalin's popularity has soared in recent years, largely under Putin's influence. Putin has consistently tapped into Stalin-era symbols, restoring, among other things, the Soviet national anthem adopted under Stalin and abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By contrast, public esteem for early revolutionary leaders like Lenin and Leon Trotsky is declining sharply.

Buldakov says the decision to abolish the November 7 holiday two years ago signals the Kremlin is intent on eradicating what it perceives as a glorification of mutiny and regime change. The holiday was replaced with People's Unity Day on November 4, which celebrates yet another military victory -- the expulsion of Polish troops from Moscow in 1612.

Amid today's World War II extravaganza, Communists were some of the few to remember the Bolshevik Revolution. But with Red Square dominated by the parade, Moscow's Communists had to content themselves with quietly laying flowers on Lenin's tomb.

Breaking The Spell

Over the decades, the November 7 holiday lost much of its ideological substance. While the intense period of artistic expression (see slideshow: The Art of the October Revolution) that followed the revolution left a lasting cultural legacy, politically 1917 had lost much of its impact. As early as 1967, the revolution's 50th anniversary, the festivities were already failing to conceal a creeping feeling of disenchantment.

"When we were children, we would go to the Red Square demonstration and rejoice at seeing Stalin in his mausoleum. These things genuinely made people happy," says historian and sociologist Leonid Sedov. "But in the 1960s, people's attitude to the revolution, to the Bolsheviks, had changed. It was already clear that the revolution's ideals had not materialized."

In 1977, Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev, raised the anniversary's profile by linking it to the new Soviet Constitution adopted one month before. But interest in the 1917 events was wearing thin. Most Bolshevik revolutionaries had already passed away, and the economic stagnation and repressive climate that came to characterize Brezhnev's rule further eroded faith in the triumph of the Bolshevik cause.

A decade later, with Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika well under way and the Soviet Union in its death throes, the celebration of the Bolshevik Revolution seemed little more than self-delusion. The Soviet Union saw four more Red Square parades in honor of the revolution before collapsing in 1991. The newly formed Russian Federation scaled down the festivities and renamed the holiday Accord and Reconciliation Day.

The current shift of focus away from the 1917 events casts doubt on the prospect of high-profile commemorations for the Bolshevik Revolution's approaching 100th anniversary.

Buldakov, for one, says this is regrettable. "It is impossible to erase a catastrophic event of that scale from people's memories," he says. "It should be reflected upon. If we don't understand the revolution, we can understand neither the previous nor the subsequent history of Russia."

(Related: A Future Vision Of Russia Based On The Past)

No More 'Troubles' Under Putin

By Robert Coalson

Vladimir Putin, Russia's leader-for-life?

November 7, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia has its own path to democracy, one that is determined by the country's long history, President Vladimir Putin and his entourage frequently assert. To understand their vision of Russia's future, one must pay attention to their use of the past and to the national myths they create and promote.

Russia is engaged in a political transition now that, even Kremlin insiders admit, is virtually a "crisis." The celebration of People's Unity Day on November 4 and the 90th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on November 7 have brought to the forefront crises of the past and models for emerging from them. The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and the state media have labored overtime in recent weeks to reduce these historical events to easily understood elements -- chaos, disunity, internal and external enemies, violence, and famine -- and to emphasize that Russia survived them only by rallying around a strong, authoritarian leader-for-life.

Historical Precedent

People's Unity Day is a three-year-old holiday that marks the liberation in 1612 of Moscow from Polish occupation and the end of a decade and a half of discord known by the ominous Russian phrase "Smutnoye vremya," the Time of Troubles. The "smuta," or trouble, was set off when the royal line of Ivan the Terrible came to an end and the country's political elites began a ruthless battle among themselves for power. The period was characterized by factional infighting, famine, and foreign occupation, nearly leading to the collapse of the Russian state. It came to an end only in 1613, when the nobility chose one of their own, Mikhail Romanov, at a Grand National Assembly, founding the dynasty that would rule Russia until 1917. Before the 17th century was out, Mikhail Romanov's grandson, Peter the Great, was in power and the country that had been on its knees was on the verge of becoming a global power.

The new People's Unity Day holiday has developed in two directions in its short history. On the one hand, it is a cause for annual semi-sanctioned "Russia-for-the-Russians" actions, events that serve to remind the public that the country's unity is fragile and that violent confrontation is lurking close to the surface. On the other hand, the holiday is marked by widespread demonstrations in support of the Kremlin and the strong central government. The Unified Russia party has begun the practice of sending representatives into schools and other institutions to make sure that the horrors of the Time of Troubles remain vivid and the lessons of unity and authoritarianism are not forgotten.

November 7 -- the anniversary of what was once called the Great October Socialist Revolution, but which is now generally referred to as "the Bolshevik coup" -- is no longer an official holiday. The rump Communist Party marks the date with smaller and smaller events each year, while the state draws parallels between the Time of Troubles and the decades of revolution and civil war that Russia endured in the early 20th century. Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin has decidedly lost his luster and it seems only a matter of time before his body is removed from its mausoleum on Red Square and buried.

In Praise Of The Iron Fist

The logic of the analogy between the Bolshevik Revolution and the Time of Troubles leads to the conclusion that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was the strong, authoritarian leader-for-life who pulled the country out of chaos and, through a far-sighted program of industrialization and collectivization, created a country that was capable of withstanding the onslaught of Nazi Germany and of competing in the Cold War for decades. The Kremlin, of course, is wary about direct praise of Stalin, largely because of how such statements are seen in the West. In addition, the means by which Stalin came to power -- infighting, betrayal, show trials, and persecution -- are clearly less savory than the image of the Grand National Assembly that elevated Mikhail Romanov on a wave of national unity.

Putin has co-opted the Stalinists (epa file photo)

However, Putin has made enough overtly pro-Stalin statements over the years to have lured away virtually all the Stalinists from the Communist Party. He has restored Stalin-era state symbols and has stated directly that the country has no need to feel guilty about its past. During Putin's years in power, Stalin's reputation has grown steadily, with more and more Russians stating that he played "a positive role" in Russian history. State television commentator Mikhail Leontyev wrote in "Profil" this month: "What Stalin inherited from the Bolsheviks as an object of state -- in fact, imperial -- restoration was an absolutely Asiatic formation that could only be managed by Asiatic methods -- literally those of Genghis Khan. That is, by using 'the masses' as raw material, fuel for the historical process. There were no other means for managing that country, for saving it, for securing it in the midst of an aggressively oriented environment."

But the analogy between the revolutionary period and the Time of Troubles is emphasized in Putin's Russia. Both were times of internal division, chaos, famine, foreign intervention, and widespread suffering that presented an existential crisis to the country.

Act Three?

All of this attention to history is designed to create a backdrop for the current political transition. The 1990s are constantly presented as a new smuta, one where internal divisions and foreign interference came perilously close to ending Russian sovereignty. In July, "Literaturnaya gazeta" published an article titled, "No Longer Ashamed Of Our Country." "We need to show everyone that the era of humiliation and collapse associated with [the 1990s] is gone and won't come back," retired Major General Aleksandr Vladimirov was quoted as saying.

The state media have played up these themes in both subtle and obvious ways. In his official remarks on People's Unity Day, Putin himself said, "Some people are constantly insisting on the necessity of dividing up our country and are trying to spread this theory." State television has accused the CIA and Western governments of fomenting revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. The current unrest in Georgia is being actively contrasted with images of orderly stability and progress in Russia.

The Kremlin has manipulated the process of transition as Putin's second term comes to an end in such a way as to keep many possible scenarios available -- as long as they all result in Putin retaining supreme power. However, as the Duma election campaign season heats up, one scenario -- which could be called the Mikhail Romanov variant -- is increasingly coming to the fore.

On October 1, Putin agreed to head the Unified Russia list of candidates for the Duma elections, effectively signaling the end of the Kremlin's half-hearted stab at creating a managed two-party system. Since then, Unified Russia has devoted all its considerable resources to turning the December 2 elections into a national plebiscite on Putin himself. The entire vote has been reduced to one huge endorsement of Putin.

'National Leader'

At the same time, in recent weeks, a wave of "spontaneous" demonstrations and meetings has swept over the country, the simulation of a groundswell of popular support for Putin to remain as "national leader." Across the country, small pro-Putin organizations are springing up. According to media reports, these groups intend to hold a national congress in Moscow around the time of the elections to call for Putin to remain in power.

On November 6, Unified Russia posted on its website an article that further lays out the Mikhail Romanov scenario. The piece argues for the calling of a Public Assembly shortly after the Duma elections, at which representatives of grassroots organizations would anoint Putin as the country's "national leader." According to the piece, the public has no confidence in the political process or political parties and only such a Public Assembly would have the legitimacy to effect the radical political change the country needs. Unified Russia is in the process of drafting a "Pact of Civil Unity" that could be adopted at such an assembly. That pact will "formulate the institution of the national leader as the basic element of a new configuration of power."

If the Kremlin's plan (whichever one is finally put into action in March 2008) succeeds and Putin is installed as the country's leader for the foreseeable future, the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution will likely be treated entirely differently. In 2012, Russia will mark the 400th anniversary of the end of the Time of Troubles, presumably in the 12th year of Putin's reign. In 2017, when the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution rolls around, there will likely not be even any rump communist enthusiasts around to mark it.

With the problem of political succession solved, the state's need to play up the possibility of "troubles" will disappear; the need increasingly to celebrate the regime that ended the troubles and lifted the country off its knees will grow stronger. A system that derives its legitimacy from a trumped-up groundswell of popular support and a stage-managed Public Assembly will have a hard time resisting maintaining its grip on power by a combination of fear and a stultifying cult of personality. Russian history offers models for this as well.

Spinning The Kremlin: Russia's New Agitprop

By Brian Whitmore

A Moscow man watches the televised question-and-answer program with President Putin on October 18

November 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Putin loves to play the tough guy -- especially when he's on television. And during a recent nationally televised chat with carefully vetted ordinary citizens, the Russian president got his chance.

An engineer from Novosibirsk claimed that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had once said Siberia's vast natural resources were too important to the world for Russia to "unfairly control" on its own. What, the engineer, wondered, did the president think about that?

Putin professed to be surprised by the query. But his answer, when it came, seemed far from spontaneous. "Such ideas are a sort of political erotica," the president said coolly. "Perhaps they give somebody pleasure, but they are unlikely to lead to anything positive." He elaborated, accusing unnamed outsiders of scheming "in their fevered brains" about how to lay claim to Russia's natural wealth.

Driving the point home, he derided the U.S. military campaign in Iraq as a "pointless" effort to seize that country's oil reserves, and solemnly assured his compatriots that they would avoid a similar fate. "Russia has the strength and means it needs to defend itself and its interests, both on its own territory and in other parts of the world," he said.

It was a virtuoso performance for the media-savvy Kremlin leader. Never mind that there is no apparent record of Albright ever making such a comment. Far more important was the opportunity for Putin to drive home one of his favorite messages to millions of viewers: We are surrounded by diabolical enemies who would steal our riches and do us harm. But as long as my team is in charge, you have nothing to fear.

Such carefully choreographed "impromptu" exchanges are but one part of a sophisticated Kremlin marketing strategy aimed at rebranding Russia as a resurgent world power that has risen from the chaos and humiliation of the 1990s. To promote this new grand narrative -- and embed it in the minds of friend and foe, both at home and abroad -- Kremlin image gurus have relied on a potent cocktail that is equal parts truth, illusion, subterfuge, spin, and outright falsehood.

"There is this mosaic of claims or pretenses about restoring Russia as a great power. Restoring the Russian political culture," says Fritz Ermarth, who spent 25 years as a CIA specialist in Soviet and Russian affairs. "There is a lot of fakery -- deliberate, contrived fabrication. There is also a lot of illusion. That is, they believe in it; they are sincere about it."

New And Improved

So how is Russia being rebranded? In a February 2006 speech, Vladislav Surkov, Putin's deputy chief of staff and main ideologist, laid out much of the vision.

Addressing activists from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, Surkov said the collapse of communism had led to a "deformed democracy" dominated by a corrupt oligarchy and susceptible to Western efforts to weaken and exploit Russia. Putin's election in 2000, Surkov argued, was the first step toward recovery.

But the West and its sympathizers inside Russia, he continued, are unhappy with this revival -- and intent on overthrowing the Kremlin leadership using methods similar to those of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution. Surkov ominously warned about "the soft conquering of Russia" by the West, with the help of "orange technologies" in a time of "decreased national immunity to foreign influence."

In such an environment, Western-style democracy and an open free-market economy would leave Russia unacceptably vulnerable to the machinations of Western governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and multinational corporations. To protect Russia's independence, Surkov argued for a statist and nationalist political system that he called "sovereign democracy" -- with the emphasis clearly on sovereign. "Sovereignty," Surkov said, "is the political synonym of competitiveness."

Under such a regime, government control of the media -- particularly the broadcast media, which is almost entirely in the hands of the Kremlin -- is acceptable because otherwise it would fall into the hands of oligarchs who would use control of the airwaves to weaken the state. Cracking down on NGOs and opposition activists is desirable because they are tools of the West and would, therefore, undermine Russia's sovereignty. A strong executive is necessary to protect the country from foreign and domestic enemies.

Putin has appeared in increasingly macho publicity photos recently (epa)

Robert Amsterdam, a lawyer who is part of the defense team for jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the author of a popular and respected blog on Russian affairs, summarized the Kremlin's domestic message: "We are the best and the brightest, and we are surrounded."

Underlying all of this is the message that Russia is a force to be reckoned with after being victimized by the West throughout the 1990s, and -- flush with energy wealth and the influence it buys -- it can and will vigorously defend its interests.

To that end, the Kremlin was quick to hire the Western public relations agency Ketchum in 2006, during Russia's critical tenure at the helm of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized nations.

A Ketchum executive at the time described the firm's mandate as "not changing Russian policy, but helping on the presentational side" -- lifting the veil on Western media techniques, logistics, and web materials. In a year when Russia was dogged by complaints about its aggressive energy policy, its G8 chairmanship emerged as a solid, well-managed highlight.

"The Kremlin's principal intention at this time is to show a resurgent Russia in a multipolar world, a world in which Russia is confident," says Steven Lock, who heads the Russia office for the Mmd public relations firm. The upcoming publicity storm likely to surround the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi is just one example, he notes, adding, "'Brand Russia' will be as sophisticated about promoting itself as Russian companies have become about promoting themselves."

In addition to promoting its selling points, the Kremlin is also sending a second message loud and clear: Russia has no qualms about playing rough with NATO, the European Union, and the United States when it suits its needs. And it feels no obligation to conform to Western standards of democracy and human rights. Recently, Russia even tried to turn the tables on the West with a proposal to establish an "Institute for Freedom and Democracy In Europe" to monitor human rights in the EU.

"Don't measure us. Don't condemn us. Take your European Court and your OSCE and stop judging us. We define our own reality," Amsterdam summarized the Kremlin's rebranding strategy abroad.

Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB general who now lives in the United States, says the majority of Russians are receptive to such nationalistic appeals. "Putin and the current generation [of leaders] exploit [this] mercilessly. They understand what they are doing," Kalugin said.

Not Your Father's Propaganda Machine

In shaping this virtual reality, Putin's strategists rely on many traditional tools, like near-total control of the broadcast media, careful management of the news cycle, and strict message discipline among officials.

They also have become adept at using carefully choreographed set pieces -- manufactured conflicts, subterfuge, provocations, and diversions to influence the general climate of opinion at home and abroad and to make it more fertile for the Kremlin's preferred message.

But this is not your father's Soviet propaganda machine. Gone are the presenters in boxy gray suits, the monotone cadences, and poor production value that characterized communist-era news broadcasts. Such an approach would fall flat in today's Russia, where an increasing number of people are plugged into a global media culture. "In the society of the spectacle, your spectacle has to be spectacular," says Andrew Wilson, author of "Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World."

Today's news anchors on Russia's state-controlled television channels are young, their outfits hip, the sets modern, and the production top-rate. Putin's message may be a bit retro, but his medium is big, shiny, and high-tech. Analysts say the Kremlin has become frighteningly good at conjuring up its own version of reality and selling it to the Russian public -- and, to an extent, the outside world -- to serve its own political ends.

"They have gotten slicker at it. You have a couple of new generations that have come to the fore who have learned, if you will, Western ways," Ermarth says.

A good example is a prime-time documentary aired on state-controlled Rossiya television on September 30. The report, titled "" -- or "" -- alleged that the CIA was planning to overthrow the Kremlin elite with an Orange Revolution-style uprising in Russia.

Russia Today, Moscow's response to CNN (ITAR TASS)

"To the West's great pleasure, velvet revolutions have broken out over the course of the past five years throughout Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet space," journalist Arkady Mamontov said ominously as he introduced the report. "Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan. The next goal -- Moscow."

Mamontov's slickly produced report alleges that the CIA is at the epicenter of a massive conspiracy involving opposition groups like Garry Kasparov's Other Russia, pro-democracy youth organizations like Smena, NGOs like Freedom House, and the Western mass media to overthrow the Kremlin leadership.

The report aired on the eve of Putin's surprise October 1 announcement that he would lead the Unified Russia candidate list in December's parliamentary elections, and would consider becoming prime minister if the pro-Kremlin party scored a resounding victory at the polls. It was the clearest indication yet that Putin intends to keep power after his presidential term expires.

Commenting on Mamontov's documentary in the newspaper "Vremya novostei," television critic Kseniya Larina noted that as elections approach, a trend toward "brainwashing" by the state-controlled Russian media was "gaining speed."

Manufacturing Drama

The Kremlin's image-shaping efforts, however, go well beyond the traditional media.

A new generation of pro-Kremlin bloggers, for example, is being cultivated to spread Putin's word online -- and to rapidly disrupt the activities of Russia's opponents, both real and imagined.

When Kasparov's Other Russia held a rally in Moscow on April 14, for example, a group of pro-Kremlin bloggers from the Young Guard youth movement flooded the Internet with reports of a smaller pro-regime demonstration on the same day. In doing so, they crowded out postings about the opposition march on Russia's top web portals -- creating a virtual news blackout in one of the last refuges of free media in the county. Pavel Danilin, the pro-Putin blogger who spearheaded the effort bragged to "The Washington Post" that his team "played it beautifully."

"The authorities are developing pro-presidential websites and they aren't even all that boring," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank. "The basic line is a pro-Putin personality cult and counterpropaganda."

Pribylovsky, who runs an opposition website called, adds that the personality cult on the web is "even cruder than on television or in the print media."

The Kremlin is also becoming adept at using the blogosphere to manufacture convenient "facts" that they can use to shape their message. The first reference to Albright's comment about Siberia, for example, was posted by a blogger called "Nataly1001" back in 2005. The comments were then picked up by the Kremlin-controlled media -- including the government's own newspaper, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" -- and disseminated as fact.

But one of the most effective elements in the Kremlin's rebranding arsenal is the use of dramaturgy. Wilson, the author of "Virtual Politics," describes this technique as "politics as set piece," in which the Kremlin's preferred message is transmitted via a full-blown virtual drama.

An example of this technique on the domestic front was Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky's arrest in October 2003.

According to Wilson, Putin used the idea of an "antioligarch" operation to reset the narrative of Putin's presidency. It created a clean break in the public mind from the crony capitalism of the 1990s, provided a new bogeyman to frame Putin's upcoming reelection campaign, and reminded remaining members of the Boris Yeltsin-era business elite that was in charge.

"The anti-oligarch 'dramaturgiya' proved to be the perfect virtual object, an enormously powerful lodestone realigning all parts of the political system," Wilson wrote in "Virtual Politics." Putin, he says, used Khodorkovsky's highly publicized arrest to "stamp his authority on the elite."

Internationally, Wilson says Russia's furious reaction to Estonia's decision to move a Soviet-era World War II monument from central Tallinn was classic dramaturgy. The move sparked rioting in the streets by ethnic Russians in Tallinn, noisy and menacing demonstrations by pro-Kremlin youth at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow, and a cyberattack on Estonian government websites.

Wilson said that at one level, Moscow's response was aimed at preserving Russia's cherished narrative of World War II -- that the Red Army liberated Eastern Europe from the Nazis -- rather than the emerging consensus that the Soviet Union merely replaced one totalitarian occupying power with another. "Winning back their traditional narrative of World War II is important," Wilson says.

But he adds that there was a deeper message aimed at new EU members from the old Soviet bloc. "It was a warning to the other small fries," Wilson says. "'You may be in the EU, but we are still the regional big power.' Clearly it is part of a bigger picture of great-power aggrandizement in the region."

Some Kremlin-watchers like Ermarth also see more than a bit of dramaturgy in the November 2006 poisoning death in London of former security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. The Kremlin strongly denied accusations that it was involved in the killing.

"You've got a lot of bodies in Moscow. Nobody cares anymore," Ermarth says. "Now you've got one in London. This is a demonstration that Russia is back as a great power, when its political hits take place in foreign capitals."

Back To The Future?

Ermarth has seen this movie before. In the late 1970s, he and his colleagues at the CIA were deeply concerned about an increasingly confident and assertive Soviet Union which -- for a time -- appeared to be winning the global information war with the West.

"In the late 70s we had a problem," Ermarth said. "The Soviet Union was feeling its oats, believing that the trends...were running in its favor," he said. "The U.S. was in retreat around the world because of Vietnam and related things. The Soviets had reached a new peak in strategic power. They were making money hand over fist with oil and gas."

Ermarth said Moscow sought to "parlay this into political coin" by provoking divisions within the Western alliance, by making inroads into Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and by "sanctimonious beating up on Washington in the name of peace."

At the time, Kremlin ideologists argued that the global "correlation of forces" were on their side -- and Moscow acted accordingly, with an aggressive foreign policy.

A decade later, of course, the pretense was exposed as an illusion. Energy prices dropped sharply, exposing deep structural flaws in a Soviet command economy that was unable to meet basic consumer needs. Soviet citizens lost any semblance of faith in the moribund communist ideology. And the United States recovered from its post-Vietnam funk.

"We had programs of various kinds to grapple with that, and it wasn't hard. Mostly because so much of the audience we were talking to in Western and Eastern Europe was on our side anyway," Ermarth says.

Now, he adds, the United States and its allies have to "do battle" with Russia's current rebranding trend, by "poking holes in the narratives where it deserves that. Where the narrative is false. Where the narrative is dangerously pretentious."

But, Ermarth says, in contrast to the Cold War -- when the Soviet Union was at the center of the West's foreign-policy universe -- Washington is currently devoting precious few resources to combating Moscow's information offensive.

"In order to have a coherent policy for dealing with this meta-narrative, you've got to have a comprehensive, coherent understanding [of it]," Ermarth said. "And I would say we haven't invested enough in building that understanding to know how to do this. Just standing up and saying the Russians are bullies on oil and gas, and they're just trying to pull our chain on ballistic missile defense, is not adequate."

Russia Targets Vote Monitors In Bid To Overhaul OSCE

By Jean-Christophe Peuch

ODIHR Director Christian Strohal has expressed his reservations about Russian efforts to reform election monitoring (file photo)

VIENNA, November 5, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- During Russian parliamentary elections four years ago, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent some 450 observers to monitor the State Duma ballot. But when Russians vote on December 2, that number will have dropped to 70.

Moscow has never hidden its long-standing antipathy toward the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE's election-monitoring body. And now Russia has slashed the number of invitations extended to foreign election observers -- and says its ultimate aim is to cut that number even further. As one of the OSCE’s 56 member states, Russia says it reserves the right to decide on the scope and duration of all ODIHR monitoring missions on its territory.

It was a shocking development for ODIHR, which is often criticized by Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries for its typically harsh assessments of ballots "east of Vienna." Yet while significant, Russia’s move was merely its latest step in a broader bid to reshape the OSCE by shifting its focus to security issues -- at the expense of its human rights and democracy functions.

For the United States, which strongly backs ODIHR's work, the development is another wrinkle in its uneasy relationship with Moscow. In Vienna, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns said on November 1 that Washington "regrets very much" the decision by Russia, which he described as "unprecedented."

Too Little, Too Late

On October 31, Moscow sent its “unhurried” invitation to ODIHR monitors. Such invitations are generally extended at least three months in advance to give the body time to deploy its observers. This time, Moscow left barely a month for the group to rally its forces. "We certainly would have liked [the invitation] to come earlier," ODIHR Director Christian Strohal says.

The invitation came three days after candidates for the election were formally registered -- a critical stage in an election that is expected to see a clean sweep by the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. In 2003, the OSCE had some 50 long-term monitors on hand in Russia to observe the registration.

"We're currently looking at the implications, and we will see how fast our deployment will be possible," Strohal says. While he acknowledged the possibility that his office might ultimately decide to send no observers because minimal conditions for a "professional job" could not be met, Strohal says he hoped for a different outcome.

Moscow's decision to reduce the number of OSCE observers comes amid a tense debate on the efficacy of the organization in general, and of its election-monitoring body in particular.

The ODIHR has criticized most parliamentary and presidential ballots that have taken place in the CIS as failing to meet democratic standards. For that reason it has long been the target of Moscow's ire.

Russia claims the ODIHR is guilty of double standards by focusing selective attention to elections in post-Soviet states, a charge Strohal denies. The Kremlin also blames the OSCE's bad marks on elections in Georgia and Ukraine for prompting the Rose and Orange revolutions that saw the toppling of those countries’ political regimes.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov earlier this year described ODIHR as a "politicized" organization that operates beyond the control of OSCE member states.

Moscow is therefore seeking to put ODIHR under the supervision of the Permanent Council, the OSCE's main regular decision-making body. Since consensus is required on all council decisions, such a move would give Russia and other CIS countries an effective veto over ODIHR's election reports.

Russia and six other CIS countries (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) recently put forward a proposal they hope will figure on the agenda of the November 29-30 OSCE ministerial council in Madrid.

The proposal calls for limiting to 50 the number of ODIHR experts sent to monitor any given ballot. It also suggests that OSCE observers be forbidden to offer snap commentary on any elections until the inviting country releases its own official results and an election mission report is presented to the Permanent Council.

Strohal, choosing his words carefully, has described the proposal as both a "legitimate" attempt to initiate a debate about ODIHR among member states, and an effort "to deconstruct the current framework for election observation."

"If there is any way to strengthen the work we are doing, that's fine," Strohal said on November 1. "But I don't think this is the intention of this proposal."

Shifting Focus

This is not the first time Russia is enlisting the support of its CIS neighbors to demand an in-depth reform of the OSCE and some of its institutions.

OSCE monitors at the 2005 Kazakh presidential vote (courtesy photo)

In a letter made public at a July 2004 CIS summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the heads of states of another eight former Soviet republics (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan) criticized the ODIHR as "failing to take into account the specificities of individual countries."

The signatories also accused the OSCE of interfering in the internal affairs of their respective countries by paying too much attention to human rights and neglecting economic, environmental, and politico-military issues. In so doing, the signatories argued, the OSCE was restricting its ability to meet "new challenges and threats."

Earlier this year, Russia drafted what it calls a new "charter" for the OSCE, which details its vision of how the organization should work. In addition to shifting the OSCE's priorities toward security issues, Russia's proposed "charter" seeks to put the ODIHR and all other OSCE institutions under the direct supervision of the Permanent Council.

The United States has staunchly opposed the proposed reforms, arguing that they could "undermine" the OSCE and its work. "We do not believe that a charter should be negotiated," U.S. Ambassador Julie Finley told Lavrov in May.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Burns echoed the sentiment on November 1, saying Washington would not support Russia's recent proposal "to change the way that ODIHR does business." Burns also described the plan as "quite negative" and unlikely to win support for being put forward at the Madrid conference.

Kazakh Card

In their present form, neither of the initiatives stands any realistic chance of being debated -- let alone adopted -- in Madrid. Were Moscow to put forward the proposals at the ministerial council, Washington and other capitals would simply respond with alternative proposals, forcing the issue into extended negotiations and compromise. So why, then, is Russia stepping up pressure ahead of Madrid?

Perhaps one explanation lies in the fact that the conference is due at the council to decide on Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009.

The organization originally had been expected to make a decision last year, but it eventually voted to defer an assessment, to give Astana more time to improve its democracy and human rights record. One year later, there is still no consensus among participating states as to whether Kazakhstan is ready to take the helm of the organization.

Russia and all other CIS countries strongly support Astana's chairmanship bid, while the United States and a number of European countries remain opposed to it. Washington has suggested postponing an offer to Astana to lead the OSCE until 2011, but it looks unlikely that Russia will agree.

Moscow's insistence on curbing the work of ODIHR and circulating controversial proposals ahead of the Madrid conference could be part of a strategy to negotiate an earlier date for Kazakhstan in return for putting its own controversial reform plans on hold.

All involved are well aware that an Astana chairmanship would undoubtedly provide a significant boost to Moscow's efforts to reshape the organization. Addressing the Permanent Council on September 20, Kazakh State Secretary Kanat Saudabaev said granting the chairmanship to his country would help transform the OSCE into an organization "where the opinions of all participating states are taken into account."

Trailblazing Canine Cosmonaut Remembered

By Claire Bigg

Laika rocketed from stray dog to international space hero in 1957

November 3, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Fifty years ago today, a stray dog called Laika became the first earthling to reach outer space.

The flight was a crowning triumph for the Soviet Union in the emerging space race with the United States. Just a month earlier, Moscow had successfully lifted Sputnik I, the world's first satellite, into orbit.

'Victory For Mankind'

Oleg Mukhin, the vice president of the Russian Federation of Astronautics, says November 3, 1957, was a victorious day for the USSR. "It was a victory for the whole country and a global achievement," he says. "It symbolized mankind's science, it was a victory for mankind. Of course, we are proud that our country took these first, great steps into the cosmos."

But amid the cheering, one man was grieving for the ill-fated dog. Oleg Gazenko, the director of the Institute of Biomedical Problems, was responsible for training Laika. He knew the Sputnik II aircraft that would take the dog to space did not have the technology necessary to return her safely to Earth.

"Newspapers, radio, and television were ecstatic," Gazenko says. "But I must admit that my heart was very heavy. Firstly, I understood that the animal would not be able to come back to Earth. Secondly, I knew that the temperature in the rocket's cabin gradually rose during the first hours. I guessed that the dog was dead."

Soviet scientists originally planned for Laika to spend seven days in orbit before being euthanized. But due to a malfunction in the thermal-control system, Laika died of stress and heat exhaustion within hours of the launch.

Five months and 2,570 orbits later, in April 1958, her capsule burned up upon reentry into the Earth's atmosphere.

Ahead of the Sputnik II mission, several dogs had been flown to the stratosphere on a rocket and parachuted back to Earth. But for the first space flight, Gazenko picked Laika from a pool of three canines selected for the experiment. He describes Laika as a friendly, endearing dog.

Gazenko says Laika's six-month training was intense. "She had to be trained to sit still in a small cubicle, to eat gel-like food dispensed by a small machine, to get used to the stress and irritating aspects of space flight," Gazenko says. "We accustomed her to the sound of rocket engines and spun her in a centrifuge."

The mutt was also trained to wear a spacesuit dotted with sensors to monitor her heartbeat, blood pressure, and breathing.

Despite Laika's ordeal, the mission was deemed a success. By proving that a mammal could survive liftoff and weightlessness, Laika paved the way for manned flights to outer space.

In April 1961, the world's first cosmonaut, the Soviet Union's Yury Gagarin, blasted into space.

State Secret Revealed

The circumstances surrounding Laika's death remained a state secret for 45 years. To soothe outraged animal lovers around the globe, Soviet officials insisted the four-legged cosmonaut had died peacefully after a week in space, by eating a specially planned toxic substance that mission organizers said would allow for a painless euthanasia.

The truth was revealed only in 2002 by Dmitry Malachenkov, a scientist who had worked on the Sputnik II mission.

To this day, the 88-year-old Gazenko says he is regularly gripped by remorse over Laika's death. But perishing in space, he says, was Laika's fate.

"Unfortunately, the mission was necessary," he says. "Before Laika's flight, we were able study the effects of weightlessness for just a few minutes. Laika's flight showed that the path to space was open for the Earth's living beings."