Daily Archives: March 18, 2007

The Sunday Photos

The sign reads: If you buy seven bottles of vodka
(except small sizes) you get a liter of beer FREE!

Department of little-known facts:
Lenin hoisted a mean perimeter jumper!

The Sunday Magazine: Russia!

The New York Sun documents the further onslaught of the neo-Soviet propaganda campaign in English. First the Kremlin bought itself a blog (Russia Profile), then a TV station (Russia Today) and now it has a glossy magazine (Russia! – click the picture to visit the site). Russia has already bought a former leader of Germany: How long before it starts trying to buy off Western journalists? Yawn. The USSR tried all this stuff, and it failed and ceased to exist. Apparently, Putin thinks that the idea was a good one, it was just executed badly.

It may not be Cold War II, but Russia‘s image in America needs defrosting.

“When Putin appears on the cover of the Economist looking like Al Capone, holding a gas nozzle made to look like a submachine gun, you know the Kremlin p.r. people have got work to do,” the George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University, Stephen Sestanovich, said.

But while the Russian government recently funded two English-language press outlets aimed at the West — a satellite television news network, Russia Today, and a monthly magazine, Russia Profile — Russia’s latest public relations effort product comes from private sources and is produced in America.

Russia! magazine, a glossy quarterly, arrived at newsstands in New York earlier this month, and its publisher, Ilya Merenzon, said the full print run of 20,000 copies will soon be distributed in major cities across the country, in Canada, and in Britain. A shipment to Russia is now in transit, he said, as a deal is being signed with a Russia-based distributor. And a German-language edition of Russia! is in the works.

The magazine has editorial offices on Lafayette Street and is aimed 70% at Americans, 20% at the British, and 10% at Russians, he said. A 30-year-old native of Chelyabinsk, Mr. Merenzon came to America in 1999, studying at Pace University and the New School and, along the way, helping with the launch of a local Russian-language entertainment magazine, Metro.

Over coffee a year ago, Mr. Merenzon pitched the idea for Russia! — which he envisioned as a nonpolitical, design-heavy publication with articles from a range of authors that would inform Westerners about the country — to a Moscow-based businessman, Andrew Paulson.

Mr. Paulson, an expatriate American who has lived in Russia since 1993, had already found success with Afisha Publishing House, which puts out a range of popular Russian-language publications, including Afisha, Bolshoi Gorod, and Afisha Mir. But after selling the business to billionaire Vladimir Potanin‘s ProfMedia in 2005, Mr. Paulson shifted his sights to the Internet, buying the Russian version of the virtual community LiveJournal with his new company, SUP.

A year after that first pitch meeting, another of Mr. Paulson’s companies, New Century Bold, is partowner of the new magazine, along with Press Release Group, an American company led by Mr. Merenzon and partly financed by American businessmen. (Despite much speculation in the Russian press, Mr. Merenzon said Russia! is not backed with Kremlin money.) When asked why he returned to publishing with Russia! Mr. Paulson said Mr. Merenzon is “one of the — if not the — most determined and stubborn entrepreneurs I have ever met.”

Mr. Paulson said his input on the first issue was limited to telling Mr. Merenzon “that it was his job to hire the editor in chief and keep out of the way” and agreeing with him that Artemy Lebedev “should be the designer.”

Mr. Lebedev, whom Mr. Paulson calls “one of a handful of great graphic designers in Russia,” is now the magazine’s art director. The designer of the Russian search engine Yandex.ru as well as Afisha and a host of other high-profile Russian projects, Mr. Lebedev, who is based in the Russian capital, agreed to collaborate on the new project “to broaden his appeal, because he’s done everything in Moscow,” Mr. Merenzon said. Mr. Lebedev created the magazine’s logotype — a mix of different-shaped letters in which the U, S, and A within Russia! are thinner, standing out — and came up with the first cover concept, a gray moonscape bearing a footprint and the imprint of a rake. Mr. Merenzon called the cover “a strange macro of a macro” that “might not be very understandable to Americans” and spent several minutes trying to explain it to this reporter, starting with a description of a Russian proverb about stepping on rakes and ending by saying, “I don’t really know what it means.”

The publisher was quick to point out that design alone may sell magazines in Russia and the rest of Europe, but it is not enough to make a magazine successful in America. “Here the text must be excellent,” he said. “A major challenge is to make it interesting to Americans.”

As such, the first issue of Russia! has features from a contributing editor of New York magazine, Michael Idov, one of Moscow’s best-known gallery owners, Marat Guelman, and the novelist Boris Akunin. Topics range from recipes for a traditional dish to an exploration of Moscow’s underground passageways and an epic Russian train trip.

For the second issue, which will be published in mid-May, Mr. Merenzon said the Russian input will be limited mainly to art, photos, fashion, and design. Future articles will be written solely by English speakers, and Mr. Idov will take over editing duties from Michael Thompson, a political scientist who edited the first issue but who will now move to the editorial board.

Mr. Merenzon said the magazine had “1,000 subscribers on Day 1, probably because it was in the news,” but that advertisements are expected to create the most revenue. Although the magazine’s sales staff did not sell the first issue aggressively, he said, some companies will “have to be here,” including Aeroflot, which placed an advertisement in the first issue; Delta, which has daily direct flights to Moscow; and the vodka purveyors.

The editor of the New Yorker, David Remnick, said he had not seen Russia! but said the lack of a vibrant press in Russia — with some exceptions in print and on the Internet — made the topic a pressing one.

“All I can do is hope for a great magazine about the subject, because it is getting overlooked,” Mr. Remnick, who served as the Washington Post‘s Moscow correspondent for four years and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his book “Lenin‘s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire,” said. “We need to know a lot more about Russia, not least in English.”

But Mr. Sestanovich, of the Council on Foreign Relations, expressed doubt about the possibility for success of such a magazine.

“Every so often someone gets the idea that Westerners just don’t know that much about Russia, and it would be cool — and profitable — to educate them,” he said. “Remember the Gorbachev-era contest to identify words in our own language that come from Russian — like vodka, gulag, and perestroika? Not a big hit.”

To Mr. Merenzon, the mere fact of the magazine’s arrival in America is important. “It doesn’t matter how the magazine turns out — just the fact that a magazine called Russia! is on bookshelves in America and England will make Americans curious and Russians proud,” he said.

Russian Persecution of "Foreign" Religion Continues Apace

Forum 18 reports that the Kremlin’s harassment of “foreign” religious organizations on behalf the Russian Orthodoxy continues apace, and that even some aspects of the Orthodoxy itself are beginning to feel the heat.

Catholic and Orthodox communities are reporting the same inordinate level of state interest in the technical aspects of worship buildings which has mainly been experienced up to now by Protestants, Forum 18 News Service has found. For example, claiming that it is an “unlawful construction”, the authorities in Kaliningrad are calling for the demolition of a Catholic priest’s house – although Fr Anupras Gauronskas has told Forum 18 that “there’s nothing to take down!” Russian Orthodox communities also complain of apparently over-zealous authorities. One example is that fire safety officials in Komi have taken issue with a “wooden partition” – the iconostasis – in a village church, and made what the local diocesan secretary Fr Filip (Filippov) calls “absurd demands”. These include the installation of a fire alarm system which is activated by candles and incense during services. Such demands are still most commonly reported by Protestants, and if deadlines are given – as in the case of a mosque in Astrakhan – such situations normally drag on beyond deadlines.

An apparently inordinate level of state interest in the fire safety and other technical aspects of worship buildings, so far experienced mainly by Protestant communities, is also beginning to be reported by some Catholic and Russian Orthodox communities, Forum 18 News Service has found.

Claiming that it qualifies as “unlawful construction”, for example, the authorities in the Baltic Sea enclave city of Kaliningrad are calling for the demolition of a priest’s house belonging to the Roman Catholic parish of the Holy Family. “It’s nothing drastic,” Dmitri Burko, who as Public Prosecutor of Kaliningrad’s Leningrad District filed suit for the building’s removal, insisted to Forum 18 on 12 March. While the parish does have some documents authorising construction of the priest’s house, he explained, it does not have all those required under Russian law, particularly a final document giving overall permission to build. Currently “almost complete according to our data”, Burko maintained that the priest’s house could still be given this document if it passed inspections by various state departments.

“It’s all a misunderstanding – there’s nothing to take down!” Fr Anupras Gauronskas of Holy Family Parish remarked to Forum 18 on 9 March. While the Catholic parish does intend to build a priest’s house on the site of the alleged unlawful construction, he explained, “there’s only earth there right now.” According to Fr Gauronskas, the plot is owned by the parish and located next to the site of its worship building, which is also church property. Parishioners are currently still gathering documentation for permission to start construction of the priest’s house, he told Forum 18, “but somehow we ended up on a list of unlawful buildings.”

Apparently over-zealous demands by some government inspectorates are also beginning to be reported by communities of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). In the northern European republic of Komi, fire safety officers have taken issue with a “wooden partition” – the iconostasis – in a village church, according to local diocesan secretary Fr Filip (Filippov). In a 28 February report on Komi Online news website, Fr Filip cited other “absurd demands” by regional fire safety officials, such as the installation of a hypersensitive modern fire alarm system – which is activated by candles and incense during services – the enclosure in metal of hanging icon lamps, the laying of a concrete path to a church – “immediately, right in the middle of winter!” – and the use of openwork grilles over church windows – even though police officers insist on closed grilles to thwart thieves. The secretary of Syktyvkar and Vorkuta Orthodox diocese added that he intends to appeal against a 10,000 Rouble (2,350 Norwegian Kroner, 290 Euros or 380 US Dollars) fine for alleged fire safety violations in his own Kazan Icon of the Mother of God Church, as he maintains that these were rectified long ago.

Also responding to Komi Online, Anatoli Shevchuk, the head of Syktyvkar’s state fire inspectorate, acknowledged that it was possible that young inspectors might sometimes make absurd demands. He insisted that “disputed issues can always be discussed – we are ready to co-operate,” however, and maintained that Orthodox priests are not usually forthcoming with complaints.

Abbess of Novodevichy Orthodox Women’s Monastery in St Petersburg, Mother Sofiya (Silina) complained on 20 October 2006 that a recent fire safety check-up resulting in an order to close her convent was unlawfully conducted in her absence. “I found out that they were trying to close the monastery from parishioners who had read about it in the newspapers!” she told local journalists.

On 2 November, however, the head of St Petersburg’s Emergency Ministry department, Leonid Belyayev, announced that the women’s monastery would not be closed after all. As reported by Russia’s Regnum News Agency, he pointed out that the company carrying out renovation work on the complex’s Resurrection Cathedral – rather than the convent itself – had instead been fined 10,000 Roubles (2,350 Norwegian Kroner, 290 Euros or 380 US Dollars) for breaching fire safety regulations. Belyayev also apologised for the “harm to the convent’s image” caused by his department’s original allegation that it was responsible for the violations.

Such demands are still more commonly reported by Protestant communities, however. On 7 December 2006 Khakassia Arbitration Court ordered Glorification Pentecostal Church in the Siberian republic’s main city, Abakan, to demolish its church building and vacate the plot of land beneath it by 1 April 2007 due to alleged fire safety and sanitation violations (see F18News 8 February 2007). At an 8 February hearing to consider the church’s appeal against this ruling, the same court ordered that its case be re-examined, starting on 1 March.

On 6 March, Glorification’s assistant pastor and administrator Aleksandr Prus told Forum 18 that the 1 March hearing had concluded with a call for an expert analysis to check the building’s safety. “We’re confident the investigation will be objective,” he remarked, explaining that the procedure is to be conducted by a private company from another town, although a date has not yet been set. Prus confirmed that his congregation is currently able to use its building.

In a separate case, Khakassia Arbitration Court has begun consideration of a demand by the republic’s Education Ministry to close Glorification’s adjacent private secondary school, also due to alleged fire safety violations (see F18News 8 February 2007). According to Prus, a 9 March hearing was adjourned until 16 March to allow the court time to consider relevant documentation. To the church’s surprise, he added, Khakassia’s senior religious affairs official, Nikolai Volkov, defended the school at the 9 March hearing, arguing that the authorities “could not simply take an institution and close it down in this way.”

Volkov assured Forum 18 on 13 March that the problems surrounding Glorification’s church building would be “sorted out quietly and peacefully.” He confirmed that he told Khakassia Arbitration Court at the 9 May hearing that “the school should function” and stressed to Forum 18 that – as long as it was in line with the law – he believed it should receive a new educational licence after its present one expires.

Following a threat by the regional authorities in Lipetsk to close down a Baptist prayer house if it is not approved fit for use [sdano v ekspluatatsiyu] by 22 February (see F18News 22 February 2007 ), the church’s pastor Vladimir Boyev told Forum 18 on 6 March that this deadline has been postponed to 19 March.

Similar situations – such as the threatened demolition of Mosque No. 34 in the southern city of Astrakhan – have tended to drag on beyond deadlines (see most recently F18News 8 February 2007 ).

Usually, as with Catholic parishes in Rostov-on-Don and Sochi on the Black Sea, refusal to recognise de facto complete houses of worship as fit for use does not result in such extreme threats as closure or demolition. It does allow the state to exert pressure on religious organisations in the form of constant check-ups and fines, however (see F18News 18 May 2006 ). Forum 18 has also noted a tendency for the Federal Registration Service to make petty complaints regarding some religious organisations (see F18News 18 July 2005). There is concern that this will increase following the implementation in April 2007 of those parts of the so-called NGO Law that affect religious organisations (see F18News 14 November 2006). (END)

For a personal commentary by an Old Believer about continuing denial of equality to Russia’s religious minorities see F18News.

For more background see Forum 18’s Russia religious freedom survey.

Socor on the Estonian Ballot

Writing in the Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vladimir Socor (pictured) provides insights on the recent Estonian elections (hat tip: reader Ron Raygun):


Pro-Western, pro-market parties won a convincing victory in Estonia’s March 4 parliamentary elections, despite Moscow’s efforts to prevent such an outcome. This election’s political ramifications — like those of Estonia’s elections in the early and mid-1990s — transcend the country’s confines. A decade ago, election winners turned Estonia into the most successful among the countries navigating the transition toward the market economy and Western institutions. Estonia’s March 4 election helped bring to the fore Russia’s problem of coming to terms with the legacy of Soviet crimes — an unresolved issue no less salient than the long-resolved issue of Germany coming to terms with Nazi crimes.

Russia’s attitude toward its Soviet legacy and the occupation of Estonia was a prominent issue in this electoral campaign, albeit not the central issue, not at the expense of socio-economic issues, and certainly not for the first time in Estonia’s political debates. However, the emphasis has recently grown stronger in response to the official trend in Russia toward identification with the Soviet heritage amid implicit or explicit denial of Soviet crimes.

Since the last election in 2003, Estonia has recorded consistently high GDP growth (11% in 2006), turning the problem of unemployment into one of a net labor deficit, which poses a different set of dilemmas. It has become one of Europe’s pioneering countries in terms of generalized use of the Internet, innovation (Estonia is the home of Skype), and e-governance, with growing use of electronic voting. However, lagging development of rural areas and under-funding of the health care and education systems were major issues in this campaign, as they will be for the new government. Demographic stagnation remains a source of national anxiety.

Right-wing, free-market-advocating parties obtained 50 seats and their allies 10 seats in the 101-seat parliament. The right-liberal, pro-business Reform Party, led by the incumbent Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, will hold 31 seats. The right-conservative Alliance of Pro Patria Union and Res Publica, led by former prime minister Mart Laar — who had pushed through the preceding decade’s reforms — will hold 19 seats. These parties’ ally, the Social Democrat Party — seen as close to its former leader, recently elected president Toomas Ilves (see EDM, September 22, 26, 2006) — has now re-entered parliament and will hold 10 seats.

The president has announced that he is nominating Ansip to form the new government, likely to consist of those three parties. This will end the tension-filled two-year cohabitation of the Reform Party with the left-leaning Center Party in the incumbent government. The Green Party, a new entrant to parliament with six seats, has expressed interest in joining the likely new coalition.

The programs of Reform, Pro Patria/Res Publica, and the Social Democrats overlap on the essentials, but differ in their nuances. They all support low taxation of business, high incentives for investors, free trade, early accession to the euro currency zone, and concentrating state investment toward education, public health, and environmental protection. They also call for a pro-family policy to increase the population and preserve the identity of the small Estonian nation.

The Center Party led by incumbent Economics and Communications Minister Edgar Savisaar is second strongest with 29 seats in the newly elected parliament, narrowly short of its goal to lead the new government. Moscow regards this party as a “healthy force” in Estonian politics. The party’s atrophying ally, People’s Union, based on local officialdom in the countryside, will hold six seats.

With this election the Center Party has completed its transformation into a left-leaning populist force. It moved accordingly to capture most of the local Russian vote while retaining much of its traditional support among Estonian urban pensioners and rural voters in poorer areas. The party’s campaign called for steep progressive taxation of incomes, public-sector wage increases by more than 20% annually, and other inflationary spending proposals. The Center Party introduced politically targeted patronage by ministries under its control, aggressive recruitment of public-sector employees, rent-generating arrangements with favorite businessmen, and highly personalized decision-making by Savisaar.

Savisaar positioned himself as Moscow’s political partner in Estonia and signed a cooperation agreement with the United Russia party of power. Moscow obliged by urging Estonia’s Russian voters to support Savisaar, which they largely did. The goal was to lift the Center Party into first place and capture the prime-ministership for Savisaar, then to form a new coalition government more to Moscow’s liking.

This election (as that of 2003) pulverized Estonia’s Russian parties, all three of which totaled this time some 2% of the votes cast countrywide and some 3% in heavily Russian-populated districts. The leader of the leading Russian party (1% country-wide) complained that Russia’s First Baltic Television Channel and a galaxy of Moscow politicians had been guiding Estonia’s Russian voters to back the Center Party.

Assured of such support in advance, Savisaar declined to form a bloc with the Russian parties, thus amassing those votes for his party, but not enough to reach the top. Voter turnout in Russian-inhabited districts was considerably lower (e.g., 52% in the Ida-Viru county around Narva) compared to the countrywide turnout of 61% and probably a two-thirds turnout among ethnic Estonian voters.

Moscow officials assail Estonia for withholding the right to vote from Russian residents who lack citizenship status or hold Russian citizenship. As Federation Council chairman Sergei Mironov remarked, “If 200,000 non-citizen [residents] had been able to vote, the election’s outcome would have been totally different” (Interfax, March 5). Such comments reflect the goal to change Estonia’s (and also Latvia’s) election outcomes and policies by demanding an automatic, blanket grant of citizenship to those residents. This strategy in itself vindicates Estonia’s (and Latvia’s) existing policies of naturalization at a measured pace that the political system can accommodate.

In the elections’ wake, some Russian officials such as Konstantin Kosachev and Mikhail Margelov, chairmen respectively of the Duma’s and Federation Council’s international affairs committees, openly demand that the Center Party be included in Estonia’s new government — “in consideration of Russia-Estonia relations” as Kosachev put it. Otherwise, Mironov warns the pro-Western parties, “the people of Estonia will sooner or later remove these gentlemen [from government]” (Interfax, March 5).

In that context, issues of national identity and recent history inevitably affected Estonia’s electoral strategy. Early in the campaign, the Reform and Pro Patria/Res Publica parties pushed through legislation authorizing the relocation of remaining Soviet monuments from conspicuous public places (see EDM, January 12), but President Ilves later returned that law to parliament for reconsideration over apparent technicalities. Those parties also pushed through a law by which the anniversary of the Soviet “liberation” of Tallinn (September 22, 1944) becomes the Day of Estonia’s Fight for Liberation, honoring all those who resisted the occupation during the war and the ensuing years.

That law came into effect on March 1, along with amendments to the language law that the same parties pushed through. The amendments strengthen the Language Inspectorate’s authority to test the Estonian language competency that is legally required for specified categories of employees. While Moscow and some local Russians protest, many have in the course of time successfully passed the Estonian language test.

These developments did not change Moscow’s political behavior toward Estonia for the worse. That behavior continued as accustomed, pretending to see a “rebirth of fascism” there, and calling in vain on the European Union and other international organizations to criticize Estonia and change its laws. In the elections’ aftermath, Moscow seems to be considering two possible options. One, suggested by Russian parliamentary leaders, aims to influence the composition and policies of the new Estonian government by working with the “healthy forces.” The other option, publicly recommended by the Kremlin-affiliated consultants Gleb Pavlovsky and Sergei Markov, suggests writing off the Center Party as unable to deliver and agitating as before against Estonia within Russia and at the international level.

The Sunday Question

This post is just an obscura for the Russian speakers. Others, pay it no mind.

Have a gander at this cartoon from ellustrator:

Is this funny? If so, why? LR would dearly love for somebody proficient in Russian to tell her.

She gets that it is a play on words about the two artificial, Kremlin-concocted political parties, “Yedinaya Rossiya” (“United Russia” — the first ticketholder) and “Spravedlivaya Rossiya” (“Fair Russia” — the second ticketholder). The enforcement officer (on a train or bus?) says, “Citizens, show me your tickets.” The first guy says, “I have a whole one” (using the same word, “yedinyy”as you would for the party). The second guy says, “I have a fair one” (using the same word for the other party). There were unusually few comments by readers. One called it a “great play on words.” Another one commented that the choice in Russia is between a “Russia that united but not fair, or fair but not united.”

After that, LR is lost. What’s the point? Is it a subtle linguistic thing? Do you just have to be Russian? Can anybody help?

March 17, 2007 — Contents


(1) Exploring Russian Westophobia

(2) Russia Poisons Democracy

(3) Annals of the Media Crackdown in Russia

(4) Annals of Screwball Yuri Mamchur Part I: The Lies from Russia Blog Just Keep Coming

(5) Annals of Screwball Yuri Mamchur Part II: The Lies from Russia Blog Just Keep Coming