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The Week In Russia: The Great Terror, The Admiral Kuznetsov, And An Attack On The FSB

A woman fastens flowers to a tree with portraits of victims of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's purges at the memorial where the victims were buried in the woods on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, on October 30.
A woman fastens flowers to a tree with portraits of victims of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin's purges at the memorial where the victims were buried in the woods on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, on October 30.

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President Vladimir Putin was a no-show at ceremonies honoring the victims of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's Terror, while rights activists accused Putin's government of abuses of its own, including a sharp increase in the number of political prisoners. Russia's only aircraft carrier was back in the news after a dry dock plunged into the sea, a teenager died in a possible suicide attack on an FSB office, and "the country of Tolstoy" came under fire over the wars in Syria and eastern Ukraine.

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

Just Remember This

Vladimir Putin often sends signals to Russians and the West with his words and actions -- driving a truck across a bridge to Crimea, say, or telling an audience that the aggressors in a nuclear war will "croak" within moments of launching an attack.

This week, as Russians solemnly honored the memory of the victims of Josef Stalin and the Soviet state, Putin sent a pretty clear message by saying and doing nothing at all.

A year after he opened the Wall Of Sorrow on the official Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression and said that "this horrific past must not be stricken from the national memory," Putin was absent from the all-day ceremony at the Moscow monument on October 30.

He was also a no-show the day before, when thousands of Russians lined up at Lubyanka Square, near the headquarters of the Soviet KGB and the Russian FSB, to read the names and occupations of thousands of long-dead relatives, friends, and citizens -- along with the date when each one was executed by the state in Stalin's Great Terror of 1937-38.

In short, pointed statements, several of them also called for the release of people they say are political prisoners of Putin's government today.

Political Prisoners

Their numbers are rising, according to Memorial, the human rights and historical-documentation group that organizes the Returning the Names ceremony at the Solovetsky Stone every year. Memorial said the number of political prisoners in Russia increased sharply in the past year, rising from at least 117 to at least 195.

Putin, who reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in a 16-year KGB career, headed the FSB for eight months in 1998-99 -- a short step in his swift rise from oblivion to the Kremlin. So he may have little interest in drawing attention to killings carried out, however long ago, by the secret police.

Despite the strong words last year, Putin's public remarks about the "horrible past" have been mixed -- in 2017, Putin said that the "excessive demonization" of Stalin was used as "a way of attacking the Soviet Union and Russia."

Arseny Roginsky, an activist who was chairman of the respected rights group Memorial and died in December 2017, accused the authorities of trying to push the memory of Stalin's abuses "to the distant periphery of the consciousness."

A man holds a poster depicting Vladimir Putin saluting alongside Josef Stalin during a protest in Bulgaria in 2008.
A man holds a poster depicting Vladimir Putin saluting alongside Josef Stalin during a protest in Bulgaria in 2008.

Another factor in Putin's decision to steer clear of the ceremonies could be that as he settles into his fourth term -- with no right to seek reelection in 2024 without changing the constitution -- his focus is less on the past than on the future. Specifically, on whether -- or exactly how -- to stay in power.

Evidence? There were two pieces of that this past week.

Room For Change

At an October 30 ceremony, Putin said that the electoral system was "constantly being perfected" and that such a "complex organism as Russia" must "adapt to the growth of political culture" and other developments.

As is often the case with Putin's remarks, on one level these seemed unremarkable and reasonable -- pallid and perfunctory comments about the need for gradual change.

On another level, though, they could reinforce suspicions -- generated by Constitutional Court head Valery Zorkin's article in the official government gazette in October -- that changes could be made to keep Putin in power, either as president or in some other role.

In another sign that he may be seeking ways increase control over Russia and discourage outbreaks of discontent amid uncertainty about the future, Putin signed the latest in a series of laws Kremlin critics say are intended to rein in street protests and stifle dissent.

The Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier is shown at PD-50 shipyard in Roslyakovo in 2011.
The Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier is shown at PD-50 shipyard in Roslyakovo in 2011.

It Sank

Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov – a 305-meter-long metaphor for Russia's assertive behavior on the world stage and the problems that hamper its progress -- was back in the news when the massive floating dry dock being used to stage costly repairs sank, sending a crane crashing down on deck and leaving one worker missing, now feared dead, and four injured.

The Admiral Kuznetsov made waves two years ago when it steamed toward Syria from the Russian Arctic, belching smoke as it circled around Europe and causing NATO countries concern.

As Russia's only aircraft carrier headed back home from the mission, Britain's defense chief called it the "ship of shame" for its role supporting Moscow's military campaign in Syria, which saved President Bashar al-Assad from possible defeat and strengthened his hold on power.

Throughout the throughout the nearly eight-year war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people since it began with a crackdown on protests against Assad's rule, Russia has used its position in global diplomacy and its veto power at in the UN Security Council to protect the Syrian president.

The latest evidence of its success in shielding Assad came at a summit between Putin and the leaders of Germany, France, and Turkey in Istanbul on October 27: A communique said that the leaders called for a committee tasked with creating a new Syrian constitution to convene before year's end, but there was no mention of Assad's fate.

Tolstoy's Country

Asked whether that issue had come up in the talks, Putin said that "no personalities were discussed" because, in his words, that would be counterproductive to the peace process.

Putin also said that Russia reserved the right to help Assad mount an offensive in Idlib Province, Syria's last rebel-held region, where an agreement between Turkey and Russia to establish a demilitarized zone averted a threatened assault by Russian-backed government forces in September.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in May.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during their meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi in May.

The day before the summit, the outgoing UN envoy for Syria said that the United Nations was facing a "serious challenge" to its efforts to end the conflict because Assad's government was refusing to let the UN have any formal role in forming the constitutional committee.

Amid renewed fears of violence in Idlib and uncertainty about the fate of the diplomatic efforts to forge peace and a new constitution, the French ambassador to the UN said that "between war and peace in Syria, the key is largely in the country of Tolstoy."

The bearded count's country was also in the spotlight at the UN over its interference in Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists plan to hold elections in the territory they hold in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk on November 11.

'Sham Elections'

In a vote on October 30, Western states blocked a Russian bid to have a separatist figure in Luhansk brief the Security Council on what the U.S. deputy ambassador called "sham elections staged by Russia."

UN political chief Rosemary DiCarlo said that elections held "outside Ukraine's constitutional and legal framework would be incompatible with the Minsk agreements," referring to a 2015 pact on a cease-fire and steps toward peace.

In a joint statement read out before the Security Council meeting, eight European Union countries called on Russia to "bring its considerable influence to bear to stop the so-called 'elections' from taking place."

That clearly won't happen, and several recent developments have done nothing to improve the already dim-seeming prospects for implementation of the Minsk agreements -- which were supposed to restore Kyiv's full control over its border with Russia by the end of 2015.

An election campaign billboard is pictured on a street in Donetsk last month.
An election campaign billboard is pictured on a street in Donetsk last month.

The dispute over the Ecumenical Patriarch's decision to bless the creation of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church free of control from the Moscow-based Russian Orthodox Church has added to strains that have only worsened since Russia seized Crimea and backed the separatists in 2014.

The rift widened further on November 1, when Russia retaliated for sanctions imposed by Kyiv by hitting 322 Ukrainians and 68 companies with punitive measures that include the freezing of any assets or property they hold in Russia.

'Pretty Scary'

Back home, the Kremlin got what observers said should be a serious scare when, according to the authorities, a 17-year-old student at a local technical college was killed and three Federal Security Service (FSB) officers were injured when explosives the teenager brought into an FSB office in the northwestern city of Arkhangelsk detonated.

Media reports said that minutes before the blast on October 31, a member of an anarchist group on Telegram posted about his intentions to attack the FSB building in Arkhangelsk, saying that the FSB "fabricates cases and tortures people."

The source of the post could not be confirmed. But Andrei Soldatov, an author and expert on Russia's security services, wrote on Twitter that it appeared to be "the first suicide attack carried out not by a usual suspect" -- a reference to the fact that such bombings in the past have almost invariably been claimed by or blamed on Islamic militants.

"Pretty scary development for FSB," Soldatov wrote in the tweet.

It came two weeks after the authorities said an 18-year-old student mounted a bomb-and-gun attack on his college on the Russian-controlled Crimean Peninsula, killing 20 of his fellow students and faculty and fatally shooting himself.

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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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Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

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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