Dmitri Sidorov, Washington correspondent for Kommersant, writing in Forbes:
Have you ever confirmed receipt of real donkey ears shipped by FedEx? Not likely, I’d guess. Unless you work in Moscow at Novaya Gazeta, the Russian weekly famed for exposing Kremlin corruption and defending human rights. Journalists at the newspaper, which the Russian government considers unpatriotic and unnecessary, recently received severed donkey ears in a box with a note: “From the presidential administration…”
My heart goes out to the donkey, but my primary purpose here is not to address the issue of cruelty to animals. From threats that unnerve to bullets that kill, the difficulties that critically minded journalists in Russia are encountering are numerous and significant. The Donkey Defense Union will have to wait.
In Russian, “donkey ears” are what you get when you get squat. President Vladimir Putin famously illustrated the proper use of the idiom in the course of a 2005 spat with Latvia over border demarcation, undiplomatically quipping, “They’re not going to get the Pytalovsky Region; they’ll get the ears of a dead donkey.”
I would be outraged if such an unpleasant gift arrived at any media outlet–for example, the government-owned Rossiiskaya Gazeta (Russian Newspaper) or RTR television channel. But they don’t seem to have any problems.
Novaya Gazeta, on the other hand, has had nothing but problems. In recent years, journalists Anna Politkovskaya, Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anastasia Baburina were all struck down by poison or bullets. These journalists were profiles in courage, applying their talents to investigative stories that linked the Kremlin to corruption and human rights violations. And they paid the highest price.
The bulk of the harassment has taken more mundane forms, as bureaucrats and government-supported organizations have made Novaya Gazeta a constant target for petty retribution. Interestingly, the donkey ears package arrived only days after a member of the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi (Our People) was arrested for attempting to bribe a journalist at Novaya Gazeta. The police, tipped off by a media source, caught the unsophisticated culprit red-handed.
After this surprisingly rapid and effective police action, Nashi issued a statement objecting that the individual detained for the ham-handed and well-documented bribery attempt was no longer a member of the Kremlin-boosting youth group. As undercover agents often hear from their superiors before a sensitive mission, “If you screw up, you’re on your own.”
Nashi was created with the help of Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s resident ideological guru, who kept his post as deputy head of the presidential administration after Dmitry Medvedev was anointed president by Vladimir Putin. The organization has made a name for itself not only for its fawning admiration of Putin and Medvedev, but also for sinister bits of street theater targeting anyone they see as opponents of the Kremlin, be they foreign diplomats or Russian writers and journalists.
On the Nashi victim list was Marina Kaljurand, Estonia’s ambassador to Russia, who was followed by movement members after the Estonian government decided in 2007 to move a Soviet war memorial in their country’s capital. Another target was British Ambassador Anthony Brenton, who had the effrontery to speak in 2006 at a conference organized by the Other Russia opposition movement, which is headed by chess champion Gary Kasparov. And there was the writer Vladimir Sorokin, whose works Nashi deemed injurious to national sensibilities and proceeded to stuff into a large papier-mâché toilet in the center of Moscow.
One might note that Nashi tracked the movements of the British ambassador in Moscow relying on information that is believed to have been provided to them by the Kremlin via the Federal Security Service, the proud inheritor of the KGB mantle known in Russia by the initials FSB. Also worth noting is the appointment of former Nashi leader Vasily Yakimenko as head of the Federal Youth Agency, a division of the Russian Ministry of Sport, Tourism and Youth Policy, three months and one day after Dmitry Medvedev took the presidential oath on May 7, 2008.
The shipment of donkey ears to Novaya Gazeta resembles nothing so much as a Kremlin riff on a famous scene from the Godfather. When, in the midst of a mafia war, Sonny Corleone gets a dead fish wrapped in a bulletproof vest, he asks “What the hell is this?” One of his capos explains that it betokens the demise of the Corleone’s main enforcer: “Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes.”
Youth movements sired by authoritarian governments and dictatorships always carry in their genes the ideology and behavior of their “parents.” Nashi is no exception, and the source of its ugly, thuggish “patriotism” is as clear as its mafia mentality.
Last week, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. national security advisor under President Jimmy Carter, noted with hope that the current regime in Russia has not produced a generation of followers. But he’s wrong.
Nashi is just the tip of a nasty iceberg that includes even scarier nationalistic movements throughout Russia, all of them formed with the silent support of the security services and the Kremlin. Their increasing activity has coincided with a rash of killings targeting enemies of the Kremlin all over the country. If free speech and human rights are not a priority on the long list of issues the White House needs to discuss with the Kremlin, then the recent meeting between President Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in London is worth little or nothing.