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The Week In Russia: Triumph And Tragedy

A young girl lays flowers at an impromptu shrine to victims of a deadly school shooting that took place in Tatarstan's capital, Kazan, earlier this week.

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President Vladimir Putin snubbed the Western Allies in a speech marking the anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat in World War II, and a devastating school shooting hit the heart of Russia. Questions persist about Moscow's COVID numbers -- and its vaccine claims, too -- while rising prices are giving the government a headache it could be hard to relieve.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Present Tense

Putin is often accused of rewriting the past, and he seems meticulous about trying to shape the future, at least when it comes to his political prospects. Over his more than two decades in power, controlling the present has proved a bigger challenge.

This phenomenon was on stark display this week, from a May 9 military-parade speech in which Putin presented the Kremlin’s narrative of World War II -- with the Western Allies pointedly left out -- to the horrific school shooting that killed nine people in the Tatarstan region two days later.

Putin has always used his annual address before the Victory Day parade on Red Square to emphasize the Soviet Union’s huge and hugely costly contribution to the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, and often also to hint darkly that the United States poses a threat to the sovereignty of nations worldwide today.

Putin Reviews Victory Day Parade
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In many ways, it’s a repeat of tropes Soviet citizens heard from their government for decades: The United States entered the war too late, only after waiting to see which side would win.

This year, though, Putin's wording attracted particular attention: He said that "at the most difficult moments in the war, during decisive battles that determined the result of the struggle against fascism, our people were alone -- alone on the toilsome, heroic, and sacrificial path to victory."

A listener with little actual knowledge of the war -- a Russian schoolchild, say, who has not read up on it on her own time – would come away none the wiser about the role of the Western Allies or even the existence of a Western Front, let alone the material help the United States provided the Soviet Union and other Allies from 1941 on.

For Putin, that may have been the point.

He has at times also talked up the Western Allies' role and the wartime unity that undid Hitler's Germany -- but observers say that these days, doing so just doesn't fit the fortress mentality he is aiming to instill, and would clash with the Kremlin’s persistent and sometimes garish portrayal of the United States as a potential threat at best and a predatory adversary at worst.

And while Putin uses most of his major speeches to send signals to Washington and Brussels, among others, the rhetoric is aimed mainly at a domestic audience. Critics at home accuse him of using the still deeply resonant issue of the war, which killed an estimated 27 million Soviet citizens and left few families untouched, for his own political purposes.

Vladimir Putin takes part in a Victory Day commemoration ceremony in Moscow on May 9.
Vladimir Putin takes part in a Victory Day commemoration ceremony in Moscow on May 9.

"A complicating factor here is that much of the narrative surrounding Victory Day is either state-constructed or state-hijacked," Sergey Radchenko, a historian and a professor at Cardiff University in Wales, wrote on Twitter. "The regime is exceptionally skilled at playing identity politics and channeling public resentment in ways that suit its purposes of legitimation."

This year’s Victory Day ceremonies came about four months before the expected dates of elections for the lower house of parliament.

The elections are part of Putin’s effort to shape the future, and go a long way toward explaining the motives for an intense crackdown on Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, his followers, and anyone else apparently considered a threat, such as independent journalists, activists, and civil society groups.

'Ravishing Senility'

Putin seems confident and engaged when he’s talking about history, which at times seems to interest him more than pretty much anything else. And he is clearly laying plans for the future, or at least giving himself plenty of options as the end of his current term, in just under three years now, draws closer -- chiefly by engineering a constitutional amendment last year that allows him to run for two more six-year terms after 2024.

Control over the present is more elusive for Putin.

But not always. On May 10, the 68-year-old who learned to skate a decade ago scored eight of his team’s 13 goals on the way to victory in a celebrity hockey match -- an outcome that it’s safe to assume he did not need to order or organize.

Vladimir Putin (right) fist bumps ice hockey player Aleksei Kasatonov during a friendly match on May 10.
Vladimir Putin (right) fist bumps ice hockey player Aleksei Kasatonov during a friendly match on May 10.

Footage of the game suggests scoring goals may have been like shooting fish in a barrel – or, as journalist Leonid Ragozin put it, like Soviet stagnation-era leader Leonid Brezhnev hunting "tame boars lured to the feeder by forest rangers."

“Putin scores eight goals playing against hockey stars” Ragozin wrote on Twitter, adding that both leaders' exploits were "things that happen when a regime reaches the stage of ravishing senility."

Two days after the military parade and one day after the hockey game, Russia endured the kind of seemingly avoidable tragedy that seems to underscore the limits of Putin’s efforts at control – and that some observers say may be influenced by his rhetoric and style of rule.

Three years ago, shortly after he secured a fourth presidential term, it was a fire at a Siberian shopping mall that killed 64 people, most of them children -- and pointed up the sometimes deadly corruption and negligence that has persisted under a president cast by the Kremlin as tough on both.

On May 11, it was a school shooting: a heartbreaking attack in which, authorities say, a 19-year-old walked into his former school in Kazan, capital of the Tatarstan region, and opened fire, killing seven pupils, a teacher, and another staff member. More than 20 others at the school were injured, some when they jumped from windows to escape.

It was the deadliest school attack in post-Soviet Russia aside from the 2004 Beslan siege, which was carried out by militants and ended with 334 people dead -- also mostly children -- after Russian special forces stormed the school where the assailants were holding more than 1,000 pupils, parents, and staff hostage.

This Time I Mean It

Speaking on May 13, Putin called for "tough" new gun-control measures, saying that Russian authorities must "seriously raise the requirements for civilian gun owners and tighten control over civilian gun circulation," and that officials who grant gun ownership permits need to be held accountable for their actions.

After deadly incidents caused by man, nature, or a combination of the two, Putin has often demanded measures targeting what are seen as the direct causes -- better fire-safety enforcement, for example, or gun control -- as well as clampdowns on graft and corner-cutting that can lead to deadly incidents or aggravate the human toll.

Whether his orders are carried out, however, is another matter.

After an attack in 2018 in Russian-occupied Crimea, where authorities said an 18-year-old college student killed 20 people before shooting himself, Putin called for tighter gun-control measures and ordered the National Guard, which answers to him, to come up with proposals. He used almost identical language to his words on May 13, saying it was "necessary to seriously strengthen control in the sphere of firearms circulation."

But time went by and nothing much happened, according to a May 13 report from the independent Russian media outlet Dozhd, which said that "as the shooting in Kerch was forgotten, legislation to on the contrary soften the rules for acquiring firearms began to appear."

A heavily watered-down version of new rules drafted by the National Guard was put into force by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and a sweeping set of restrictions proposed in 2019 never made it out of the Kremlin, where officials in Putin’s administration deemed it too tough, Dozhd said, citing a report from the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Other pressing matters of the present that Putin has had a hard time getting a handle on: The coronavirus and consumer prices.

From the start of the pandemic early in 2020, Russia faced suspicions that it was fudging the numbers when it came to COVID-19 cases and deaths caused by the virus.

Despite acknowledging in December that the COVID death toll could be far higher than the number reported on the country's coronavirus task force website, which is used in the widely cited global tally by Johns Hopkins University, those suspicions have not faded.

COVID And Costs

Aleksei Raksha, a demographer who was fired from the state statistics agency last July after publicly questioning the way Russia was counting its coronavirus fatalities, told RFE/RL this week that he believes the death toll could be as high as half a million people -- more than four times the number on task force site. Globally, that would be the highest death toll after the United States, surpassing much more populous Brazil and India.

Raksha also contended that the government prioritized its political goals -- namely, pushing through the constitutional amendment that could keep Putin in the Kremlin until 2036 -- over coping with the public-health emergency in the crucial months of the first half of 2020.

Meanwhile, Putin and his government now also face questions about their claims as to how many Russians have been vaccinated. And those questions underscore the struggle the Kremlin has encountered in persuading dubious citizens to have the shots – a bitter development, it would seem, for the government that was the first in the world to certify a vaccine for use.

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Poll results released on May 12 by the independent Levada Center indicated that 62 percent of Russians were not ready to have the Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine, while 26 percent were. The latter number was down from 38 percent in December and 30 percent in February.

Putin says he has been vaccinated, but the murky circumstances – among other things, the Kremlin said he got one of the three Russian vaccines, but did not specify which one – have done little or nothing to encourage his compatriots to go get the shots.

Observers say one factor in some Russians' reluctance may be doubts spilling over from what the United States and the European Union have said is state-sponsored disinformation aimed to undermine trust in Western-developed COVID vaccines.

As for inflation, another big Kremlin concern ahead of the elections, Putin’s government is "flailing," Nick Birman-Trickett, a London-based expert on political risk, energy, and economics, wrote in a May 12 newsletter.

He suggested that senior officials are creating false narratives about the causes of consumer price increases -- notably, what Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin described in a May 12 report to the Duma as "the greed of individual producers and retail chains" -- while failing to address the underlying causes.

"The economy is now just a thing to wish away and find guilty parties for, not a dynamic system to be managed with the considerable fiscal tools available to the state," Birman-Trickett wrote. "Inflation is a headache Mishustin won’t be able to shake."

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

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