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The Week In Russia: Trolleybuses, Trams, And Other Threats

Vyacheslav Volodin suggested Russia could fall apart if state officials are pressured to take public transport.
Vyacheslav Volodin suggested Russia could fall apart if state officials are pressured to take public transport.

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The State Duma speaker said Russia could collapse if top officials take public transport. President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of global conflagration -- again -- in a remote appearance at the Davos economic forum. Back home, apartment raids and a court ruling seemed to betray Kremlin concerns about Aleksei Navalny and the wider discontent that is evident at protests over his arrest.

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

Perils Of Public Transportation

Over the years and in its several incarnations -- as a kingdom under the tsars and as the central republic of the Soviet Union, to name two -- Russia has faced plenty of serious threats, among them the Time of Troubles and the Nazi invasion in World War II.

This week, State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin named one that seems, um, not obvious: He suggested that the country could fall apart if state officials are pressured to take public transport rather than riding in cars -- whether their own, apparently, or the government vehicles that cause congestion when police stop traffic to make way for President Vladimir Putin and others near the top.

Volodin’s point seemed to be that officials and the people they are supposed to serve should worry about what they do at work, not how they get there, saying that officials might “ travel by tram and trolleybus but be responsible to nobody and for nothing. But this populism leads to collapse.”

The remarks from Volodin, who was Putin’s chief domestic politics adviser for four years and has chaired the Kremlin-controlled lower parliament house since 2016, raised eyebrows in a country whose economic progress has long been hobbled by high-level corruption.

They were striking in part because he asserted that it had already happened in the past, speaking of times when, he said, "officials had switched [from cars] to buses, trolleybuses, and trams" and "we lost the country."

He did not say when that happened, but if he was referring to the perestroika era and the Soviet collapse of 1991, he may have an incomplete understanding of the causes of the U.S.S.R.’s disintegration -- as well as the concept of cause and effect.

The verbal attack on “populism” appeared aimed at Aleksei Navalny, the jailed Kremlin opponent who brought tens of thousands of people into the street across Russia on January 23 to call for his release and lambaste Putin.

Navalny, who was barred from challenging Putin in the 2018 election due to financial-crimes convictions in cases he contends were fabricated, returned to Russia on January 17 from Germany, where he had been flown for treatment following a near-fatal nerve-agent poisoning in August 2020 that he blames on the longtime president.

Palace Coup?

A day after he was ordered jailed for a month pending a hearing that could result in a 3 1/2 year prison term, Navalny released a video investigation alleging that a massive estate was built for Putin at a cost of $1.36 billion -- the latest in a long series of reports seeking to document evidence that Putin and his allies are a money-mad crew living large on resources stolen from the Russian people.

It’s a claim that clashes loudly with years of efforts by Putin, who sometimes likens himself to a “galley-slave,” to cultivate the image of a servant of the people.

The Palace for Putin video has been viewed more than 100 million times, with statistics from Navalny’s associates suggesting it has been watched by one in six Russians aged 15 and up.

If Volodin’s remarks were intended to target Navalny, they were a small part of a sweeping state effort to neutralize the Kremlin foe’s effort to mount large and persistent street protests.

Ahead of a second day of nationwide demonstrations planned for January 31, law enforcement officers raided the homes of several Navalny associates and their relatives, detaining some of them in scenes that seemed to accentuate the absurdities of politics -- or what the Kremlin has put in place of them -- in Russia today.

Piano Woman

One journalist noted the “curious detail that Russian police who crowbar & saw their way into opposition activists' flats are meticulous about having the person present when they conduct a search.”

And Anastasia Vaislyeva, a physician who heads an informal union of medical professionals, played Beethoven on the piano as police came to search her apartment at 3 a.m.

Navalny Supporter Defiantly Plays Piano As Russian Police Raid Her Home
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Navalny himself, meanwhile, remained in jail: A court rejected his appeal against the 30-day detention order, meaning he will remain behind bars during the Sunday protests.

For a decade, Putin has tried to play down Navalny’s importance: He and his spokesman avoid even uttering the name of one of the Kremlin’s most prominent critics, and he is virtually barred from state TV.

But observers say the Russian authorities, since Navalny boarded the flight to Moscow in Berlin, have had the opposite effect, helping elevate him instead of pushing him further to the margins.

That view is apparently shared by some in or near the Kremlin itself, according to a January 27 report in the Financial Times.

“Why do people hit their fingers when they’re trying to hammer a nail? They should have been more careful with their hammering,” it quoted a “person who regularly speaks to” Putin as saying. “The scale of the reaction increases Navalny’s importance.”

'Matters Of Concern'

It has also helped spark condemnation from the West -- something Putin also seems eager to play down or suggest is irrelevant.

After Putin’s first phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden on January 26, the White House said that Biden had raised several “matters of concern” including Navalny’s poisoning, but the Kremlin’s readout of the call made no mention of it.

And Putin, speaking at the World Economic Forum at Davos by video link, appeared eager to change the subject.

As he has done in the past, seemingly attempting to draw attention away from events at home and to turn the tables on the United States and the West, he issued a dire warning -- but one that lacked a grounding in concrete evidence -- that global conflict could be as close as it was in the 1930s.

The coronavirus pandemic has aggravated existing problems around the world, Putin said, warning that “international institutions are weakening, regional conflicts are multiplying, and the global security system is deteriorating.”

'The End Of Civilization'

This week’s agreement between the United States to extend the New START treaty limiting their long-range nuclear arsenals was “a step in the right direction,” he said. But the "inability and unreadiness to resolve such problems led to the catastrophe of World War II."

“Of course, such a wide-scale hot conflict, I hope, is impossible now in principle. I very much hope this -- it would mean the end of civilization,” he said. “But I repeat, the situation may develop in an unpredictable and uncontrollable way.”

A loose translation of those remarks might go like this, at least in part: Washington and the West, ease up on Moscow over matters like human rights, freedom of assembly, and Russia’s interference in Ukraine; we may have just extended the cap on our nuclear warheads but we still have a lot of them.

Suggesting that “traditional values” are under threat from the West, Putin said there is “a chance that we will face a formidable breakdown in global development, which will be fraught with a war of all against all and attempts to deal with contradictions through the appointment of internal and external enemies” will lead to a “grim dystopia.”

That particular warning may sound strange to Kremlin critics who accuse Putin of doing exactly that: using the specter of “internal and external enemies” to draw attention away from his own government’s actions abroad and its flaws and abuses at home.

At the protests on January 23, many participants called for Navalny’s release. But like at previous demonstrations he has organized, attendance has also been driven by discontent over broader issues including concerns about the rule of law, backsliding on democracy and human rights, and economic troubles that have hit Russians’ pocketbooks.

Population Woes

The suddenly stronger challenge Putin faces from Navalny comes at a time that is not ideal for the Kremlin.

Russia’s population declined by more than 500,000 people in 2020, by far the steepest drop in over a decade and a blow to Putin’s goal of robustly reversing the post-Soviet demographic decline.

Real disposable incomes dropped to their lowest point in a decade last year, according to the state statistics agency, and are now 10 percent below levels in 2013.

That was the year that Putin’s approval rating, which stood at about 65 percent in November 2020, had fallen to a longtime low of 61 percent, according to the independent polling agency Levada Center.

Months later, in March 2014, Russia seized control of Crimea from Ukraine after sending in troops, securing key buildings, and staging a referendum condemned as illegitimate by much of the rest of the world.

Moscow also fomented unrest in the eastern Ukrainian region known as the Donbas, helping separatists seize parts of two provinces -- land they still hold after nearly seven years of war and more than 13,000 deaths.

Those moves led to U.S. and European Union sanctions, but Putin’s ratings shot up -- the so-called Crimea bump -- reaching 88 percent in October 2014 and 89 percent in June 2015, according to Levada.

Donbas Talk

Moscow’s official position is that the portions of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces held by the Russian-backed forces are part of Ukraine and should remain that way while enjoying increased autonomy.

On January 28, though, two top Russian state-media figures seen as Kremlin propagandists spoke to a conference in the region and suggested that should change.

Vladimir Solovyov, a prominent political talk show host on state TV, called the people of the separatist-held part of the Donbas “the salt of the Russian earth.”

Speaking in separatist-held Donetsk, Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the state-funded network RT, delivered what sounded like a clear call for outright Russian control over the region, saying: “Mother Russia, take the Donbas home.”

The remarks seem unlikely to herald any swift, drastic action, in part because analysts say there would be little appetite for it among Russians, but they could be meant to draw Russians’ attention away from Navalny and test responses at home and abroad.

On January 29, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Simonyan is not qualified to voice Russia’s official position and that no attempt to make the separatist-held territory part of Russia is “either directly or indirectly on the agenda.”

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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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