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The Week In Russia: On The Offensive


Russian President Vladimir Putin makes the sign of the cross during a Mass earlier this year at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

Welcome to The Week In Russia.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk.

Every Friday, I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. Subscribe here.

The country’s COVID-19 crisis raged on during a Kremlin-mandated nonworking week, with daily death tolls reaching new highs. President Vladimir Putin drew vulnerable Belarusian autocrat Alyaksandr Lukashenka into a tighter orbit as a relentless clampdown continued in the smaller nation that is Russia’s closest ally against the West. Once again, troop movements and energy supply decisions were watched warily in Kyiv and beyond for signals about Russia’s intentions toward Ukraine. Russia expelled a Dutch newspaper correspondent, the second Western journalist to be kicked out in recent months. And amid severely strained U.S.-Russia ties, the CIA director made a rare visit to Moscow for talks with “the hard men of the Kremlin.”

But other developments attracted attention, as well: A Communist lawmaker who cried foul over the September elections found himself in hot water over an elk carcass. And a rash of arrests stemming from risqué photos with churches and government buildings in the background raised questions about the priorities of the Russian state and the still-powerful legacy of the Soviet era.

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

'Monstrous And Cruel'

A piece of advice for members of the Russian political elite: Be careful what you keep in the trunk of your car -- or what others put in there.

In November 2016, Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev was arrested in the middle of the night, and investigators said a bag containing $2 million had been found in his trunk.

When the highest serving official arrested in decades was tried, prosecutors said the money was a bribe he had solicited from Igor Sechin -- the head of Rosneft and a person several degrees less liberal and several steps closer to President Vladimir Putin than Ulyukayev is -- in exchange for his ministry's approval of the state oil giant’s bid to acquire a majority stake in a regional producer, Bashneft.

Former Russian Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev stands inside a glass defendants' cage in a courtroom of the Moscow City Court in 2018.
Former Russian Economic Development Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev stands inside a glass defendants' cage in a courtroom of the Moscow City Court in 2018.

Ulyukayev denied it, saying he had believed the bag contained bottles of wine that Sechin had suggested he would give him as a gift -- not a bribe -- when they met earlier that day. In court, he protested his innocence, accusing Sechin of lying -- a claim that a lawyer for the Rosneft chief denied -- and contending that he was the victim of a “monstrous and cruel” setup.

The case was widely seen as part of a high-level turf war between the conflicting camps that jockey for position under Putin.

The outcome: An eight-year sentence for Ulyukayev, who was convicted in December 2017 and is serving his term in a strict-regime prison near Tver.

Late last month came another politically charged incident linked to an object found in a car trunk -- not cash, this time, but the carcass of an elk.

Police in the Saratov Oblast said they found the elk carcass in the back of a vehicle they pulled over following a report of gunshots.​

Hunter Or Prey?

Behind the wheel was Valery Rashkin, a Communist member of the State Duma who protested in central Moscow to draw attention to allegations of fraud benefiting the Kremlin-backed United Russia party in September 17-19 elections to the lower house of parliament.

Rashkin retained a Duma seat in the balloting, but he and others alleged that several opposition candidates who would have won in a fair vote were deprived of their mandates by the state through manipulation of the online voting system that was used in Moscow and several other regions.

Valery Rashkin addresses supporters during a rally in Moscow in September to protest the results of parliamentary elections.
Valery Rashkin addresses supporters during a rally in Moscow in September to protest the results of parliamentary elections.

Communists called off further protests over the elections after police raided the headquarters of the party’s Moscow branch, which Rashkin heads and where party members and lawyers were preparing a suit seeking to overturn the online voting results, on September 28.

Rashkin has also voiced support for Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption crusader and opposition leader who survived a nearly fatal nerve-agent poisoning last year that he blames on Putin and is serving a 2 1/2-year prison sentence on a parole-violation claim he contends is absurd and politically motivated.

Like Ulyukayev, Rashkin contends he was the victim of a “provocation,” claiming that he and the other man in the car had found the elk carcass and had planned to report it to the authorities. Police said they opened an investigation on suspicion of illegal hunting and also accused Rashkin of refusing to submit to a test for drunk driving, which he denied.

A member of parliament since 1999 -- the year Putin came to power -- Rashkin is not currently facing any potential imprisonment. For that to happen, fellow Duma deputies would have to strip him of his immunity from prosecution.

Others who have run afoul of the state authorities of late do not have that shield.​

Risky Business

On October 29, a Moscow court sentenced blogger Ruslan Bobiev and model Anastasia Chistova to 10 months in prison over a photograph that showed them simulating oral sex with St. Basil’s Cathedral, perhaps the best-known symbol of Russia, in the background.

In the photo, Chistova is facing away from the camera and wearing a parka that says “police” on the back in Russian. Bobiev, a Tajik citizen who is also known as Ruslani Talabjon, was also ordered deported to Tajikistan.

The case was part of a wave of incidents in which people who have posted revealing or suggestive photographs of themselves with Russian Orthodox churches or government buildings in the background.

Bobiev and Chistova, also known as Asya Akimova, were found guilty of violating a law against public acts aimed at “offending the religious feelings of believers.”

Blogger Ruslan Bobiev (aka Ruslani Talabjon) and Anastasia Chistova (aka Asya Asimova) at Moscow's Tverskoy District Court.
Blogger Ruslan Bobiev (aka Ruslani Talabjon) and Anastasia Chistova (aka Asya Asimova) at Moscow's Tverskoy District Court.

In St. Petersburg, model Irina Volkova faces the same charge over a photograph that showed her posing in underwear with that city’s most famous Russian Orthodox church, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, in the background.

Following a hearing on October 31, in which she was handcuffed and kept behind bars in a courtroom cage, Volkova was freed on her own recognizance but could be sentenced to a year in prison if she is tried and convicted.

Russia’s “religious feelings” legislation has roots in the performance nearly a decade ago by Pussy Riot in which members of the punk protest group entered Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral and belted out a song in which they took aim at the close ties between church and state and implored the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin.

That was during Putin’s sure-thing bid to return to the presidency for a third term in 2012, after a stint as prime minister, and weeks after the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, endorsed him -- despite the fact that Russia is formally a secular state -- by calling his time in power a “miracle of God.”

The current wave of cases seems to fit in with the trend of Putin’s third and fourth terms, in which he has promoted what he calls traditional Russian values and conservatism while accusing the West of seeking to impose its values on others.

Who's Offending Whom?

But observers suggest it would be a mistake to think the cases reflect an upswelling of such sentiments -- let alone widespread outrage at photos showing bare buttocks and landmark buildings, whether they are cathedrals, the Kremlin, or a police station.

For one thing, the criminal cases are often instigated following complaints not from long lists of petitioners but from individuals, some of whom seem to be acting on behalf of the state -- and some of whom seem far from being models of propriety or moral values.

A complaint that led to Volkova’s arrest, for example, reportedly came from Timur Bulatov, a St. Petersburg man who has railed against members of the LGBT community and issued threats against LGBT activists on social media.

And government critics wondered out loud -- or on social networks -- why the police weren’t working harder to fight violent crime and catch a potentially far more dangerous kind of suspect.

Meanwhile, in social media posts on November 1, economist and political analyst Vladislav Inozemstev wrote that, among Russian Orthodox believers, “no serious manifestations of dissatisfaction” over the photographs had been reported.

Pointing to the Soviet state’s crimes against the Russian Orthodox Church and other religious organizations, Inozemtsev wrote that more than 30,000 clerics were killed and more than 50,000 houses of worship destroyed under Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, dictator Josef Stalin, and other Soviet leaders, he wrote.

“So today, I’d like to finally ask the most obvious question: Is the establishment of more than 100 monuments to Stalin in this country since 2005 alone, for example, not an insult to the feelings of Russian citizens professing Orthodoxy?” he added. “Is it not such an insult that the mummified remains of the main enemy of Russian Orthodoxy -- Lenin – lie in a mausoleum not far from the cathedrals of the Kremlin?”

That's it from me this week. If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).

Yours,
Steve Gutterman

P.S.: Consider forwarding this newsletter to colleagues who might find this of interest. Send feedback and tips to newsletters@rferl.org.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague. 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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Some of the key developments in Russia over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward, by the editor of RFE/RL's Russia Desk, Steve Gutterman.

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