Daily Archives: July 27, 2008

July 27, 2008 — Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Sermon

(3) The Sunday Sacrilege

(4) The Sunday Sit-Down Strike

(5) The Sunday “Saint”

(6) The Sunday Funnies

NOTE: Kim Zigfeld’s latest installment on Pajamas Media details the latest horrifying facts indicating that the Kremlin is engaged in politically-motivated murder campaigns to advance its interests, and pointing out that these murdering thugs are licking their chops in anticipation of an Obama presidency. Those who support democracy should be heartened, however, by the fact that the Kremlin understands it is so weak that it can’t win arguments or votes; instead, the only way it can hope to prevail is crude violence, little different from that practiced by the Chechen “bandits” it purports to despise. Comments as to how the West should best respond to this barbaric outrage are welcome.

The Sunday Photos: Russia’s Eternal Shame

“One of the largest state-sponsored monuments to the Gulag, this monument sits atop a hill in Astana, the capital of independent Kazakhstan. It incorporates the names of all the major Gulag camps in Kazakhstan, images of barbed wire and the black raven (symbolic of the prisoner truck bearing its name). Many of the non-Russian republics of the former Soviet Union have more readily dealt with the legacy of the Gulag, as they have built it into a narrative of what they (the Russians) did to us (the non-Russian peoples of whatever state). Of course, this simplifies a very complex history in many cases, but at least allows for the beginning of a conversation.”

Where is the Russian Astana?

Russia can never escape the eternal shame it has brought upon itself for attempting to sweep the horror of the gulag under the national carpet. And the new online exhibition “Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives” from which the above photo was taken only serves to memorialize this point. A project not of the Russian government but of the American George Mason University and the Center for History and New Media, it documents the horror of worshiping Stalin, eerily similar to what is now happening with Vladimir Putin. A live exhibit will open in Washington DC later this summer.

And it underscores the single most important fact about Russian history: By far the worst murderer of Russians is other Russians. Russian xenophobia is, quite simply, utterly insane.

The Sunday Sermon: Stay in Prison, Mr. Khodorkovsky


Stay in Prison, Mr. Khodorkovsky

It’s hard to imagine a charade more obscene and absurd than the one that developed last week as jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky applied for parole after five years in custody on an eight-year sentence for alleged tax fraud. Should parole be denied, he plans to make a show of appealing directly to “President” Medvedev for justice.

Remember Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”? We’ve heard no such pronouncements from Khodorkovsky, who has been so uncommunicative that his own lawyers over at Robert Amsterdam’s blog are often reduced to reporting on his activities by relying on mass media reports. We have no idea, in fact, what plans if any he has for reorganizing Russia’s government in a civilized and democratic manner, or indeed what if anything he believes should be Russia’s future course.

If Khodorkovsky were to be released, the only basis upon which it could occur would be his secret undertaking to support the Putin dictatorship in all perpetuity. His release on parole would imply that he recognizes the charges against him were valid, and is acquiescing not only in his conviction but also in the nationalization of his company, Yukos. It would confirm what the Kremlin has said about him all along, that he was never a pro-democracy opposition leader, only a corrupt businessman looking for all the loot he could grab.

And besides all that, nobody seems to have noticed that the Kremlin is in the process of filing new charges against Khodorkovsky, charges that could keep him in prison for many more years. They’re hardly going to release him on parole if they are serious about those charges. So even if Khodorkovsky won parole on the old charges, he’d be kept in prison pending the new ones. As the International Herald Tribune reported: “He is now accused of laundering almost $30 billion and misappropriating 350 million tons of oil.”

The best possible spin that could be put on all this is that Khodorkovsky, knowing he faces many more years behind bars, is tweaking “President” Medvedev’s nose by making the application, calling his bluff on alleged legal reform in Russia and holding him up to the ridicule of the world. It’s also possible that he wants to appeal the denial of parole to the European Court for Human Rights, proving to that tribunal that the alleged infractions he has been charged with while in prison were a fallacious pretext to keep him out of Putin’s hair. He says he can produce the testimony of a former cellmate who was induced to lie about the infractions, and that would certainly be embarrassing to the Kremlin.

But is this really the best Khodorkovsky can manage by way of protest against the Kremlin’s malignant misdeeds? By applying for parole, Khodorkovsky is making it seem to his supporters that he might possibly cut a back-room deal with the Kremlin, and in the wake of his political silence this possibility can only be unsettling. Indeed, if Khodorkovsky were to walk free, then his ongoing challenge to his conviction in the EHCR would lose all meaning, and his entire incarceration would take on the aspect of a cosmic charade.

If Mikhail Khodorkovsky isn’t interested in trying to become Russia’s Martin Luther King or Gandhi, then he’s just one of innumerable Russians who have been victimized by a corrupt justice system and there is no reason to pay him any more attention than any of them. It’s time for Mr. K to fish or cut bait.

Thanks for reading La Russophobe !

The Sunday Sacrilege

Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Center, writing in the Washington Post:

The Russian Orthodox Church called on government authorities this month to condemn the Soviet communist regime. It’s odd that the church should think about this now: It’s been two decades since Mikhail Gorbachev initiated an avalanche of public disclosures about the horrors of the gulag and the masterminds of the bloody communist dictatorship — Lenin, Stalin, their accomplices and their followers.

That national journey into history was followed by the collapse of communism and then the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia’s first president, Boris Yeltsin, evolved as a passionate anti-communist and banished the rule of fear and repression that had plagued the nation for seven decades. In the following years, the government and public organizations sought to restore the historical record.

But Russia’s next president, Vladimir Putin, distanced himself from his predecessor’s outlook. During his presidency, anti-communism was strongly played down. Some communist symbols, including Stalin’s national anthem, were brought back, and references to Stalin’s crimes all but disappeared from official discourse. Government rhetoric promoting Russia as a strong state and warning of a hostile Western world seeking to harm the country boosted admiration for Stalin, which never quite died out during the post-communist years, and a general nostalgia for Soviet times.

The church’s anti-communist initiative may serve the interests of the Russian leadership, which appears to look for ways to denounce communism while avoiding raising questions about today’s regime and its association with the communist past.

The interest in a denunciation of communism may have to do with appeals by former Soviet states for an international condemnation of the massacres and other crimes committed on their territories by the Soviet regime. Ukraine, for instance, seeks to hold Russia responsible for the mass famine of its peasants during Stalin’s collectivization. Russian officials may be enraged, but they’re not in a position to say the death toll estimate is false, not least since Russian peasants fell victim to the same villainy. So the trick for Russia would be to admit crimes but not to take the blame for them, lest Ukraine or other nations seek compensation.

The church, the state’s traditional ally, is an appropriate candidate for this mission. Because of its notorious collaboration with the Soviet regime, it has its own reason not to go too deep in denouncing communism. In several statements over the past couple of weeks, a church spokesman urged the government, in very general terms, to honor the memory of victims; to change the names of cities and streets associated with prominent communist figures of the past; to remove “statues of bloody leaders from central squares”; and more. This “de-communization lite” made no mention of Stalin or other perpetrators of the Great Terror, or of the monstrous state security forces that tortured and executed millions on the orders of the Communist Party.

The church’s call for de-communization helps the state further marginalize the public effort led by Memorial, the Russian human rights group that, since the late 1980s, has researched and published information on communist crimes. Unlike the Russian Orthodox Church, Memorial wouldn’t keep denunciations of communism within “reasonable limits.” Little wonder that the church’s anti-communist campaign conveys the impression that the church is the only organization concerned with confronting communist horrors.

Putin’s Kremlin consistently sought to sideline organizations that wouldn’t compromise their autonomy and that pursued agendas that did not conform with the official line. Lately, Memorial may have raised more concerns: As Memorial’s board chairman, Arseny Roginsky, told me, public support for his organization has increased. Backing anti-Stalin initiatives, he explains, may be seen as a mild form of opposition by people who regard overt political activity as risky and pointless. For example, construction of a national memorial to gulag victims is again the subject of public discussion. Gorbachev and other prominent public figures are taking an active role. And Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper that Gorbachev co-owns, has published a series this year devoted to the victims of and participants in the Great Terror.

Interest in the dark side of Soviet history is modest now compared with the nationwide yearning in the late 1980s for the truth about the Soviet regime’s crimes. But it may be enough to make the Kremlin want to preempt or control such interest. If its plan is indeed to enlist the church in a mild anti-communist campaign while marginalizing Memorial, the government has abundant power and resources to do so. Of course, even a limited condemnation of Soviet communism is better than nothing, but these political half-measures cannot supersede a national effort to come to terms with Russia’s history.

The Sunday Sit-Down Strike

Reuters reports (hat tip: TakeYourCross):

Carrying bags of stolen groceries, Oleg Vorotnikov takes out the batteries of his mobile phone before entering the secret headquarters of his underground art collective on the outskirts of Moscow.

“This is to prevent the cops from listening in,” said Vorotnikov, a 29-year-old art graduate, who with other politically conscious artists co-founded the Voina, or War, collective in 2007. “Once a drunk artist introduced us to bystanders as ‘Russia’s main radical group’ — that’s when I understood that we have to do something together,” Vorotnikov said.

In a country where traditional opposition to the government has been dulled by public apathy and a diet of pro-Kremlin television news, these artists take a different approach: they poke fun at the establishment, and the more absurd the better. They hunch over laptops in their headquarters — a garage — editing video of their latest piece of guerrilla street theater: an impromptu tea party in a police station. For the lack of chairs they sit on chests of drawers and a TV set. Cameras, camcorders and books of poetry are scattered over the floor.

“We always do things that violate rules. We combine art and politics to achieve something new,” said Kotyonok, a slightly built young woman who teaches physics at a Moscow university and who only gave her nickname, which means kitten. “People watch us and are simply shocked.”

Voina became a household name in the Russian blogger scene with a stunt intended as a wry commentary on the handover of power — decried by opponents as undemocratic — from former President Vladimir Putin to his successor, Dmitry Medvedev. A day before the presidential election that Medvedev won by a landslide, five couples, including one heavily pregnant woman who gave birth four days later, secretly undressed in Moscow’s Biological Museum. With video cameras rolling, they had sex in front of a banner calling for copulation in support of “the bear cub-successor” – a pun on Medvedev’s family name, which is derived from the Russian word for bear.


Blogs carrying photos and videos of the event shot to number one in Russian Internet rankings within 24 hours. Some users called the participants “freaks,” “sh–eaters” or “animals.” One blogger suggested they should be shot. When the mother of the pregnant woman saw her having sex on television, she threw her out of home. Voina said they had to leave their old headquarters under pressure from the authorities but few members have yet to face the full weight of the law for their activities.

The group is most vulnerable to the catch-all “hooliganism” charge that could lead to a short prison term, but only one member is currently facing prosecution for throwing cats during one performance. Voina’s actionist art draws on Moscow Conceptualism, a movement that started in the 1970 with performances subverting socialist ideology. Given the repressive nature of the Soviet state, these happenings had to take place secretly.

Only when state control over the arts receded during Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms in the 1980s could artists take their events into the public sphere. In April 1991 members of a group around Anatoly Osmolovsky, a Russian artist, art theorist and curator, lay down on Red Square forming the word “khui,” Russian for cock, with their naked bodies. Voina members describe the happening as inspiring but add that it would be impossible today in an “authoritarian Russia” where, nevertheless, they have earned the respect of some in the mainstream art scene.

“In the ’90s art fell under the influence of a society that was becoming more and more bourgeois: artists happily turned into conformists,” said Andrei Yerofeyev, who until last month was head of modern art procurement at the state-run Tretyakov Gallery. “Only in the last year a strain of protest art reappeared, one that takes a critical line, reflects, takes a step back and sometimes cynically, sometimes comically, describes what is going on in our society.”

Back in the Voina headquarters the activists scramble around a laptop computer trying to improve the sound of their latest video to make it fit for Internet publication. Shaky images, filmed with a hidden camera the day before Medvedev’s inauguration, show the artists dishing out cream cakes and tea in a police station. Watched by a stunned officer, they pin Medvedev’s portrait to a wall. “We invite you to celebrate with us the inauguration of the new president,” one activist can be heard saying. Attempting to remove the intruders, the officer resorts to verbal abuse. “We have to fix the sound, you can’t hear anything,” said Kotyonok, twitching the dials on the video- editing software.


In another piece of performance art, the group rigged up a table in a metro carriage, brought out food and vodka and held a wake for absurdist poet Dmitry Prigov. They also marked international workers’ day by going in to a McDonald’s restaurant and throwing live cats at the counter staff. The idea, they said, was to help snap the workers out of the dull routine of menial labor. Behind the bizarre stunts, the artists who make up Voina have a serious political agenda. “If the authorities say ‘we are building a strong state,’ an artist should show that this is not the case. If they say ‘we are improving the lives of the people,’ an artist should show that this is a lie,” said Vorotnikov over dinner, tearing off a hunk of the chicken he earlier stole from a supermarket. But they say their work is also a journey of self-discovery, to see how far they can push their own boundaries as artists and radicals. “We hate cops but if we just attacked them like that, they would jail us immediately. So we hide our hatred behind art so they can’t get us and we achieve our aim quicker,” said Kotyonok.

The authorities have dealt harshly with overtly political opposition but to date there has been no sign of a crackdown on Voina. Acting under the aegis of art protects them to a large extent, she said. “We’ve had sex in public and are no longer scared of it. We’ve invaded a police station and are no longer scared of it. What else is there to scare us?,” asked Kotyonok. “Death we will deal with in the future. Soon we will be completely fearless.”

The Sunday "Saint"

On the red banner is written: “Glory to Stalin the Great!”

The Telegraph‘s Russia correspondent reports:

A couple of years ago I was in the Battle of Stalingrad Museum in the city now known as Volgograd.

On the wall of museum director Boris Usik’s office hung two paintings, one a delicate watercolour of the late Queen Mother, the other a heroic depiction of Josef Stalin in oils.

Seeing the old tyrant hung so prominently in a state official’s office was unnerving at the time. While the odd statue of Stalin had been restored in a couple of village squares, the man who subjected Russia to 31 years of terror had largely disappeared from public view.

Yet over the past couple of years it has once again become cool to revere Stalin, and so it was not much of a surprise to learn that the dictator responsible for perhaps 20 million deaths was leading early voting in a nationwide poll to decide the country’s greatest historical figure.

Even during his lifetime, Stalin enjoyed more public support in Russia than many in the West realise. After all, those who opposed him were dispatched to the gulags or their deaths. Others were terrified into silence.

But then, as now, a sizeable chunk of the population either swallowed the propaganda or genuinely believed that Stalin had reinvigorated a moribund nation, turning in to a great power while simultaneously saving Europe from Hitler.

For old Communists like Mr Usik, Stalin’s name is synonymous with stability in a country that has not had much of it of late. What has struck me, however, is Stalin’s cross-generational appeal. I’ve even heard bright young students praise his disastrous agricultural collectivization policies. Most Russians, even his supporters, acknowledge that Stalin had an awful lot of blood on his hands.

But they argue that it was a period in history when Russia needed a tough man at the top. And they argue that there is much more on the positive side of Stalin’s ledger, particularly in the Great Patriotic War.

While the Soviet Union’s role is often minimized in the West, many Russians are unaware of the role played by Britain and the United States in defeating Hitler. They believe the Second World War only began in 1941 and maintain that Russia fought alone for three years until Britain and the United States reluctantly joined the war during the D-Day landings of 1944.

Yet the fact that Stalin’s popularity has also grown in recent years – something attested to in opinion polls – is undoubtedly partly to do with an unofficial state campaign to rehabilitate his image.

A series of television documentaries, films and books released in recent years have proved little less than eulogies. Then the Kremlin began to attack the publishing industry for being beholden to Western grants.

Television news programmes, whose content is dictated by the State, regularly reported that the history text books used in schools had been distorted by the West to skew the representation of Russia’s Communist past.

So a new history guidebook for teachers was published last year which glossed over Stalin’s crimes and ultimately declared him Russia’s greatest leader of the 20th century.

Despite earlier denials that anything of the sort was planned, the work was republished as a children’s text book and while it has not become a mandatory set text most schools know they risk trouble if they try to teach from anything else.

Why is the Kremlin so intent on rehabilitating Stalin? Garry Kasparov, the former chess giant and opposition leader, reckons that by hamming up Stalin’s greatness, Russians will be more inclined to forgive the government’s march towards authoritarianism.

After all, as the old dictum states, he who controls the present controls the past and he who controls the past controls the future.

The Sunday Funnies