On one of my last days in this trip to Moscow, I went to the VDNKh (no one seems to call it by its new, post-Soviet title of VVTs, even the posters read VDNKh). It was a cold, wet day and most of the people around were workers sprucing the place up for the later spring and summer, but my objective was the Ukraine pavilion which, with a certain vicious irony, is now the home of ‘Donbas: 365 Days of the ATO‘ [Anti-Terrorism Operation — what Kiev calls its military campaign against the rebels]. Past some of the toughest security checks I encountered this trip, I found an exhibition which took the undoubted horrors of the campaign (and let’s be honest, Kiev pulled few punches, and the often-indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets has helped harden rebel sentiment in the region) but often turned it into a haunted house-style horror show in the name of propaganda. We’re talking replicas of bombed out strobed with red lighting, pictures of dolls in rubble, the works. In many ways, I suppose, this is a metaphor for much of the worst kind of Russian propaganda: taking a basis of truth, but then turning into a macabre spectacle of one-sided caricature. An interesting experience, and worth the time spent schlepping there through the rain, but an unsettling one for both the intended and unintended reasons.
Posted by Mark Galeotti on April 19, 2015
As the 70th anniversary Victory Day celebrations near (counted down on the video display board on Kutuzovsky Bridge), themes of victory, the Great Patriotic War and the St George’s ribbon proliferate. Here is just a small sample, from concerts to ice creams.
Posted by Mark Galeotti on April 18, 2015
While I’m here in Moscow for a couple of weeks teaching a course for MGIMO-University, I’ll take the opportunity to post some random observations. The first is that the “70 years since the end of the Great Patriotic Bandwagon” is as predictably a Big Thing as one would expect but also, and I suspect not least thanks to the current national (or at least Kremlin) mood become a competition of sorts. Equally predictably, Russian Railways (RZhD) boss Vladimir Yakunin, everyone’s favourite KGB veteran/Putin chum/Orthodox Chekist booster, is not going to let such an opportunity pass by and RZhD “we are proud and remember” billboards greet you at the airport and dominate several city landmarks, including a massive video one that provides a veritable multi-stage history of the railways and WW2…
Posted by Mark Galeotti on April 7, 2015
Putin’s continued absence from the public scene and his unexpected calling off of a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart led to a tsunami of rumour, supposition, denial and outright fantasy. He was dead. He had had a stroke. He was in Switzerland on the birth of his latest love-child. He was hiding from having to make difficult decisions between Kadyrov and the FSB. There had been or was a coup… I’ve no idea where Putin is now, and what’s his health like. Unless the Armenian president is part of a conspiracy — not impossible, but unlikely — then we do know that he (or, if you really want to follow the paranoid route, and go for a really, really unlikely possibility, a gifted mimic) had a phone conversation with Putin on Thursday 12th. A phone conversation could have been patched through from wherever, and Putin could have spoken from a sick bed, so other options could still apply, but at least this suggests no need to start planning the state funeral.
What about a coup, especially a military one? Again, I’m unconvinced. Some day, I suspect Putin will fall to a political coup; that seems to me much more likely than a willing retirement (assuming his health lasts), let alone stepping aside after losing an election (hah!). However, this seems far too soon to me. It will have to be something like the move that ousted Khrushchev, a reflection of near-enough elite consensus, and we’re not anywhere near that now. Things will have to get worse, for longer, for that to become a possibility. And as regards a military coup, that is one thing Russia is actually quite inoculated against. The military does not have a tradition of political involvement (remember, most held back from active support of the 1991 August Coup and Yeltsin’s 1993 coup against the Supreme Soviet alike), Shoigu is hardly the kind of bloody-handed adventurer we’d see as a likely prospect, and there is a powerful control network. The FSB and FSO (Federal Guard Service) both monitor the loyalties of the military and the balance of forces in Moscow itself (two army divisions, the FSO’s Kremlin Guard, the Interior Troops’ ODON ‘Dzerzhinsky Division’, plus the police and FSB) is to a large extent an exercise in ensuring no one agency could mount a swift seizure of power itself.
Besides, were this happening or even possible, we’d see troop movements, unexplained dismissals or ‘accidents,’ and public rhetoric to match. Russians would have been hearing that Putin was ill, as a prelude to the announcement of his ‘retirement,’ or else they’s be being warned of the prevalence of ‘traitors’ in the ranks, to rationalise the subsequent purge. Instead, there is nothing of the sort.
Whatever the reason for Putin’s current absence — and it could yet be something serious — this is being handled clumsily, yes, but the Kremlin spin is definitely that there is nothing to see here, move right along. It is instead I feel a mark of the heightened and even feverish mood amongst the Muscovite chattering classes and their Kremlin-watching interlocutors and counterparts outside the country that this is being made something more than it probably is.
And yet that mood in itself matters. The news of the phone call — and the rumours of another mini-Putin — have helped dampen the flames, but still the longer before we get a real, credible evidence of Putin’s health (so no still publicity shots, nor yet footage of insider meetings that could easily have been taken previously), then the more the speculation will rage, and the more likely it is that the tsar is, if not dead, somehow seriously impaired. And then all bets are off; so much of Putin’s self-image but also public persona are tied into his image as the bare-shirted Chuck Norris of leaders, that although there may be no practical reason why he could not still rule, he will probably get a first-hand lesson in how far politics is a subjective rather than objective art.
Posted by Mark Galeotti on March 14, 2015
I write this post in some trepidation. I have become increasingly concerned and even somewhat irked by a lot of the easy misstatement of basic facts around Boris Nemtsov’s murder and the way that those determined to see this as a “Kremlin hit” are interpreting every fact or inference as proof thereof. I’m on record as saying that I do not know, but think it unlikely it was a state-sanctioned assassination. (Though that does not wholly exculpate the Kremlin for stirring up the toxic passions which I think were more likely to have led to the killing.) Many of the aspects of the murder which “prove” to some Putin’s direct fingerprints as questionable and I think that it is important to understand what we do and do not know, what we can legitimately claim as fact and what is actually just opinion. This does not in any way “prove” that the Kremlin didn’t have Nemtsov killed, just that none of this necessarily proves anything either way. The very “death of neutrality” about which I wrote in my previous post on the murder ensures that there will be those who regard this as tantamount to running interference for the Kremlin, alas. If anyone is interested, my “agenda” is simply that I happen to believe that facts and the truth are important. “And the truth shall set your free” is, to me, a much more compelling slogan than “And a more effective use of lies will set you free”… (Oh, and also for the record: all those ludicrous claims that Nemtsov was killed by the CIA, or by the Ukrainian SBU, or by other oppositionists looking for a martyr. They are even more ridiculous and, unlike the “Putin dunnit” claims, usually offensively so.) Read the full post »
Posted by Mark Galeotti on March 4, 2015
Posted by Mark Galeotti on March 4, 2015