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The Week In Russia: Fear, Racism, Normalcy, And Numbers

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) talks to U.S. President Barack Obama during a meeting at the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, in 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) talks to U.S. President Barack Obama during a meeting at the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou, China, in 2016.

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A remark in Barack Obama's memoir and a racist TV sketch targeting the former U.S. president play into persistent questions about Russia's image in the world. The country's official COVID-19 numbers also face questions as the toll rises and the Kremlin seeks to ramp up availability of a vaccine that was rushed to approval in August.

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

It is President-elect Joe Biden who will be interacting with Vladimir Putin's Russia soon, but an indirect exchange between Barack Obama and allies of the Kremlin who attacked him with a racist TV sketch added a twist to the tense ties between the two countries.

In over 20 years as president or prime minister, Putin has built a country "to be feared, perhaps, but not emulated," Obama wrote in A Promised Land, which was published on November 17. He added that few, if any, citizens from developing countries look to Moscow for "inspiration."

Less than two weeks later, a satirical show on NTV that is hosted by the husband of Margarita Simonyan, who is chief editor of the state-funded network RT broadcast a sketch that featured an actress in blackface who played a character clearly meant to be Obama discussing his memoir, and included numerous overtly racist tropes and remarks.

A vocal critic of the United States, Simonyan is reportedly a "creative producer" and writer for the show hosted by her husband, Tigran Keosayan. NTV is owned by Gazprom, the state-controlled Russian state natural-gas giant.

If the sketch was intended to undermine Obama's portrayal of Putin's Russia as a country that is unlikely to inspire or encourage emulation, for some viewers the effect may have been the opposite.

The NTV skit featured an actress in blackface.
The NTV skit featured an actress in blackface.

The relationship between Putin and Obama has always seemed tense. It appeared to worsen after Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012 following a four-year stint as prime minister and Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, dealing a final blow to the already battered "reset" of ties with Moscow that Obama launched after taking office in 2009.

Obama's appraisal in the new memoir seems unlikely to sit well with Putin, who has sought to cast Russia as a beacon for those who are wary of U.S. power and a protector of sovereignty in the face of what Moscow frequently asserts are efforts by the West to impose its authority and its values on others.


Sergei Karaganov, a pro-Kremlin political analyst, expounded on this idea -- and urged Putin's government to push it more aggressively -- in an article in the official government gazette under the headline "An Offensive in The War of Ideas."

Russia should be "offering ourselves to Eurasia and to everyone as the leader of those who are normal, national, sovereign, and peaceful," Karaganov wrote in Rossiiskaya gazeta on November 26.

He was elaborating on his call almost a year ago for Russia -- which seized Crimea after sending in troops, backs separatists in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine, and has been accused of targeting civilian infrastructure in Syria with "callous disregard" for the lives of millions -- to package itself as the world's premier "supplier of peace."

A prominent element of the Kremlin's bid to present itself as an alternative to the United States is the claim that Russia is a protector against what it asserts are efforts by the United States and other Western countries to impose liberal values and restrictive cultural rules across the globe.

Best And Brightest

"We defend sovereignty and identity, the freedom of choice of a cultural, political, and economic path for every country," Karaganov wrote. "We are for the freedom of countries and peoples from hegemonism in politics and economics and from universalism in culture and the sphere of ideas."

Russian soldiers standing guard in front of a Ukrainian military base in Crimea during the takeover in March 2014.
Russian soldiers standing guard in front of a Ukrainian military base in Crimea during the takeover in March 2014.

But the NTV skit targeting Obama -- in which Roma were also mocked -- seems to jar badly even with the vision of Russia described by Karaganov: "We are an internationalist people and cannot be otherwise, given our history," he wrote. "All racism is deeply alien to us."

While the Kremlin seeks to attract adherents abroad as an alternative to the West, a recent piece of legislation suggests Putin may be worried that state officials will stray in the opposite direction: he has submitted a bill that would bar military personnel and civil servants with access to state secrets from holding foreign citizenship or permanent residency.

This sends a clear message to capable Russians who are tired of Putin's authoritarian rule or are leery of making such a commitment, political analyst Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in an article published by Russian media outlet VTimes on December 2.

The message is, "If you don't like it here, go to your Gayropa," he wrote, invoking a derogatory term some antigay people in Russia use to describe Europe. In other words, the Kremlin doesn't care about keeping Russia's best and brightest in Russia because it is out for loyalty.

Virus And Vaccine

Like other big countries with a solid background in science, Russia has been hit hard by the coronavirus but has an opportunity for global outreach in the form of vaccine development.

Countries including Hungary and Serbia have received batches of the Russian vaccine Sputnik-V for testing and verification. Both countries are also acquiring vaccines from other sources, including the United States and China.

In Russia, Putin promised on December 2 that about 2 million doses of Sputnik-V would be produced in the near future and that medical personnel and teachers would be the first to receive them.

He pressed the government to start a large-scale vaccine drive by about December 11, repeating the request after Tatyana Golikova, the deputy prime minister who oversees health care, said it would not be clear until sometime next week whether that target could be met.

The push comes amid continuing questions about the efficacy of Sputnik-V, which Putin announced in August had been approved for use -- the first vaccine approved by any government -- despite the fact that it had not undergone broad "Phase III" testing on humans.

Medical workers and patients are seen in the treatment hall of a temporary hospital for coronavirus patients in the Krylatskoye Ice Palace in Moscow on November 18.
Medical workers and patients are seen in the treatment hall of a temporary hospital for coronavirus patients in the Krylatskoye Ice Palace in Moscow on November 18.

It also comes as a second COVID-19 wave that started in September persists in Russia, with new case numbers exceeding 25,000 every day since November 26 and reaching a high of more than 28,000 on December 3.

An already troubled health-care system is being strained to the breaking point, with hospitals and patients in some regions hit particularly hard.

There are also fresh questions about the true coronavirus death toll, which has been under scrutiny since the spring amid evidence that the official figures fall short of reflecting reality.

With more than 2.4 million coronavirus infections recorded in Russia since the first case was confirmed in late January, the official death toll was 42,176 on December 4. But statistics this year point to an usually high "excess mortality" rate that suggests the real COVID-19 death toll is much higher.

In a report published on November 23 and based on data from the federal statistics agency and government registry offices, the news outlet Mediazona said that the number of people who died in Russia from April through October was higher -- by about 120,000 -- than the average for the same period over the last five years.

The official COVID-19 death toll for those seven months was 28,200 -- less than one-quarter of that.

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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.

About This Newsletter

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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