Friday, May 24, 2019

Protests Likely to Increase in Number but Remain Divided and Diffuse, Lev Gudkov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 23 – Russians are angry at the authorities for impugning their dignity and are ready to protest, but they do not see any leaders who can channel such protests and make them effective, Lev Gudkov says. As a result, protests are likely to increase in the coming months but remain diffuse rather than focused on the powers that be.  

            At the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg this week, the Levada Center director says popular anger has been growing more or less constantly since 2015 as Russians have concluded that the regime has no intention of trying to keep its part of the social contract (

            “The number of local protests is already extraordinarily large,” Gudkov says, and “Putin’s high rating is accompanied by the most profound conviction in the totally corrupt nature of the entire system. By my crude estimate,” he continues, “every day appear three to five reports about corruption scandals.”  

            As a result, there is an equally profound conviction among the population that “there is money in the country but that it has been seized by an egoistic and greedy bunch among the powers that be. And there is nothing that can be done about this,” even though it is increasingly hard to put up with.

            People are thus protest for individual reasons but “possibilities for the expression of group interests have been suppressed,” Gudkov says. The number of strikes has gone up by 70 percent over the last three years, but this kind of protest isn’t being transformed into “a democratic and responsible movement.”

            A major reason for that failure is that such events “do not appear on the federal television channels and thus do not become the focus of public opinion. They are consciously sterilized and kept out of public view.” And this highlights an important difference between Putinism and Stalinist totalitarianism.

            The rule of the current powers that be “is based not on direct force as was the case in the times of the totalitarian system … [it] is based on the manipulation of mass consciousness,” something that has become possible using information technologies and the government’s control of television. 

            Only eight to ten percent of all media are beyond the regime’s direct control, Gudkov continues; and as a result, “people cannot get out of the system of propaganda.” The content of that propaganda, he points out, is remarkably similar to what Stalin used. Thus, arguments about Crimea repeated arguments about Finland in 1940.

            With regard to re-Stalinization, the sociologist says, the regime has proceeded extremely cleverly.  But it is important to remember that “recognition [by respondents] of a positive role for Stalin does not mean a desire to live ‘as under Stalin.’”  And consequently, there is no  need for the regime now to deny that there were mass repressions and terror.

            Instead, Gudkov says, the current powers that be “say that ‘each country has its dark spots, we have nothing to be ashamed of, and nothing must obscure the positive in the figure of Stalin and his achievements as the organizer of Victory.” That is “one argument,” the pollster says; but there is another.

            The current powers that be want it to be accepted that “only with an iron hand was it possible to transform a peasant country in to a most powerful nuclear superpower. In other words, modernization and Victory serve as justification after the fact of all crimes.” But the authorities do seek to minimize the number of Stalin’s victims.

            Twenty years ago, most Russians said Stalin killed millions; now, thanks to propaganda, most say that he killed “about a million.”  And many are ready to reduce that number still further or even deny that he killed more than a handful.

            The Putin regime has been helped in this by the rise of a generation for whom Stalin is no more part of contemporary life than Chingiz Khan or Ivan the Terrible. They thus don’t understand the talk about him that dominated their parents’ conversations and don’t recognize what this shift in opinion opens the way to.

            There has also been a fundamental change in popular expectations, Gudkov says. At the end of 2013, three out of five Russians in major cities said “they were tired of waiting for Putin to fulfill his promises and 47 percent said that they did not want to see him continue as president for another term.”

            “But the anti-Ukrainian wave, the wave of propaganda about and confrontation with the West restored Putin’s rating and raised it back to its earlier levels,” Gudkov says. But the pension debacle drove it partially back down to what it is now, about 61 to 66 percent. And that figure shows that once again Russians have concentrated all their hopes on a single figure.

            What is going on, the sociologist says, is the working out of the old principle of “the good tsar and the bad boyars.”  People may be angry and dissatisfied but they are expressing it less about Putin than one might expect but rather at Medvedev, ministers, and officials of a lower level, one more reflection of the weakness of Russian institutions.

Ten Pieces of Bad News from Russia Today

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 23 – As the lead character in the Ealing Studios’ classic film “Kind Hearts and Coronets” puts it, “sometimes the obituary columns brought good news, but sometimes the birth announcements brought bad” as he plotted to kill all those standing between him and the inheritance of a dukedom.

            One often feels something similar in reading the news from Russia today. Sometimes, there is a mix of good and bad; sometimes, more rarely, there is only good news; and sometimes, more often, there is a flood of bad news. The last few days have been examples of the last. Below are ten especially “bad” pieces of news:

1.      As the economy has deteriorated, there has been a sharp spike in the number of beggars in Moscow, something not seen since the 1990s and an indication that many people are not only suffering but being driven to extreme measures (

2.      In yet another indication that one of the worst features of the Soviet system is returning, a Kazan court has sent a Tatar activist to a psychiatric hospital, the latest example of punitive psychiatry being used now as it was in Brezhnev’s time to try to “cure” people of dissident views (

3.      Russian police are now testing compact facial recognition cameras to allow them to identify participants in demonstrations so that they can be arrested later when the news cameras disappear from the streets (

4.      Officials had to threaten judges in Yekaterinburg with dismissal to get the courts to convict those taking part in protests there against the construction of a cathedral in the central park, an indication of just how much the Russian authorities are prepared to abuse the judicial system (

5.      A new poll shows that a majority of Russians do not think that family violence is a serious problem in their country despite numerous reports suggesting otherwise (

6.      Russian judges have left in place a six-year jail sentence imposed on Danish Jehovah’s Witness Dennis Kristensen, part of the continuing round of repression against members of that denomination (

7.      A court in Tatarstan has found a loophole that may allow it to ban basic Islamic religious texts. Because Muslims consider translations of the Koran an interpretation, Russian courts have the power to ban such translations despite Russian law and Kremlin commitments not to touch basic religious texts including the Koran (

8.      Forty-Three Percent of Russians Still Oppose Equal Rights for LGBTs. Despite significant improvements over the last decade and particularly marked ones among young people, 56 percent of Russians say they have a negative attitude toward the gay community and 43 percent do not support its members from having equal rights (

9.      Most Russians Willing to Allow Employers to Violate the Law. In 2014, the Duma passed a law that required employers to allow their employees to deposit their pay in any bank that the workers specified. Most employers violate this law, but a majority of Russians say they don’t care (

10.  Persons Unknown Destroy Nemtsov Monument in Yaroslav. Vandals have destroyed a memorial plague in Yaroslavl on a house where murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov once lived.  His supporters say that such people feel they can get away with such actions and all evidence suggests that is the case (

Ankara, Under Pressure from Moscow and Out of Its Own Concerns, Backs Away from Circassians

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 23 – Russians have always been more obsessed with emigres than other peoples because so much of their national history has been made by those who voluntarily or involuntarily ended up abroad and then who returned intellectually or in person to transform their country.

            That attitude was especially widely held in Soviet times because the Bolshevik revolution was made by a group led by a clutch of emigres who returned only a few months earlier and in their own words “turned the world upside down.”  Post-Russian leaders informed by these Soviet attitudes are no exception.

            The Putin regime pays far more attention to emigres than any other contemporary state, and its attentions are anything but neutral. Instead, Moscow works to ensure that those from Russia who now live abroad have as difficult a time as possible unless they are prepared to work on behalf of the Kremlin.

            Moscow today is especially obsessed with non-Russian groups as its attacks on Chechens living abroad and with non-Orthodox ones as reflected in its efforts to ensure that other countries do not offer asylum to Jehovah’s Witnesses even as Russian oppression drives many of both these communities as well as others to seek refuge in the West.

            But perhaps the diaspora Moscow is now most concerned with is one that has existed for more than a century and numbers more than five million, the Circassians, whose increasing activism abroad and at home threatens the Moscow-imposed order in the North Caucasus (

            Moscow has employed two strategies against this group which has long enjoyed some support from the Turkish government, support that has always been limited by Ankara’s Turkish-centric approach and its fears that providing too much backing to the Circassians could inflame relations with Moscow and undermine domestic cohesion given the Kurds.

            On the one hand, the Russian government has sought to divide the Circassian community by creating alternative and pro-Russian NGOs among the Circassians and by deploying representatives of republics in the North Caucasus who are compelled to be loyal to Moscow to interact with Turkey as the “true” voice of the Circassians (
            And on the other, Moscow has both played up fears about the Kurds to prompt Turkey to back away from the Circassians, fears that have only grown in recent times because of developments in Syria and Russian arguments that Turks are now more ready to listen to because of the Erdogan government’s current rapprochement with Russia.
            That has led to two developments in the past week that are most unwelcome among Circassians. For the first time in 15 years, the Turkish authorities have banned a march by Circassians to the Russian consulate in Istanbul on May 21, the day on which Circassians recall their 1864 deportation from Moscow (
            And on the same day, deputies from Turkey’s ruling part blocked consideration of a resolution declaring those events to be a genocide, an action that likely reflects not just Russian influence but Turkey’s concerns that any move on this point would open the door to new discussions about Armenians in 1915 (
            Some Circassians may be dispirited by these developments, but they shouldn’t be. They show just how important their national movement has become in the eyes of Moscow, and any Turkish approach adopted now when Ankara’s relations with Moscow are warm is almost certain to be reversed when as they inevitably will those ties cool.