Thursday, October 31, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Where Beria’s Limo Still Runs But Isn’t Seen – Moscow at Halloween

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 31 – Muscovites interested in ghosts don’t need to go to Transylvania. They can find plenty right at home this Halloween, even if many in the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian government denounce this holiday as alien and “extremist” ( and

            In an article on yesterday, Artur Mulyukov and Kirill Zhuravlyov survey what they describe as “someof the most mystical and dangerous places” in Moscow” which the two journalists say in turn is one of the mostmysterious and anomalous European cities” (

            The two describe the legends surrounding a black cat on Tverskaya, one that some residents swear appears every midnight and others say was an inspiration for Mikhail Bulgakov’s Behemoth in “The Master and Margarita.”  They also say that elsewhere there are whole families of ghost cats.

            Some of these ghosts are more topical, Mulyukov and Zhuravlyov say.  There is the case of a pre-1917 couple who built up their wealth only to see it stolen away. When they discovered their loss, these greedy people fell down dead, but their voices can be heard even now “Oh, my little money, my little money” they are reporte to say in the dead of night.

            But the most frightening ghost of all can’t even be seen, the two journalists say. In front of Malaya Nikitskaya Street, no. 28, near the Barricade metro, the sound of a car approaching can be heard when it is completely quiet late at night.  That car, residents say, is the limousine of Lavrenty Beriya, Stalin’s notorious secret police chief.

            According to neighbors, the car, which they say sounds like a Soviet-era ZIL, can be heard stopping at Beria’s door, releasing passengers and moving off.  Some residents say they can hear the screams of “enemies of the people” being tortured, but that is clearly an invention, the journalists say. The NKVD man didn’t do torture at home.   

            But they add that the screams of young women from the building that some nearby residents occasionally report could be real: “Beria brought to his apartment not a few women, and some of them against their will.”

            Mulyukov and Zhuravlyov conclude their brief article by noting that there are no many ghost tours in the Russian capital for those who are interested. They suggest that it is “best not to joke” about such phenomenon because those who do often come to unhappy ends. “The most secure method for ghost hunters is literature, the Internet and a good imagination.”

Window on Eurasia: Russia Divided by Two Very Different ‘Unifying’ Ideas, Shiropayev Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 31 – The Kremlin has long talked about finding a unifying idea for Russia, but in fact the two unifying ideas on offer are mutually exclusive, cannot be combined, and threaten to drag the country into chaos, civil war and disintegration, according to Aleksey Shiropayev.

            One of these ideas, which seeks secularism, democracy and federalism, unites the forces of modernization and Westernization, the Russian regionalist writer says. “In essence, this is the idea of a peaceful bourgeois-democratic revolution” and is being advanced by lliberals, national democrats and the non-totalitarian left.”

            The other, which wants to “hold Russian in a permanently medieval state” in which the imperial state is paramount and the population its subjects, is supported by “the forces of regression and reaction” which are in power now and which know that if they yield their power, they will lose their own raison d’etre (

This situation explains the second group’s “hatred to the West as a civilized redoubt of democracy,” “its playing with tsarism” ideologically, its “pathetic slogan of ‘a single and indivisible Russia,’”and  its use of the Russian Orthodox Church as “a universal spiritual anesthetist.”

Russian society is deeply split as a result, Shiropayev says, a situation which “of course is worse than the victory of a bourgeois-democratic revolution, but all the same better than a civil war.”  It is unstable given how much at odds the two ideas are, “but what will happen next,” the regionalist writer says, “no one knows.”

Russian leaders have been looking for a single all-embracing and all-unifying idea for years, but “it is obvious that all attempts of this kind have proved unsuccessful” because Russia is simply too divided for that in terms of the values that its people have. And that situation, acute a century ago, is only getting worse.

At the start of the 20th century, the Russian Empire “entered into a decisive stge of crisis.” It had to federalize itself or face disintegration like Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Porte. But the Bolsheviks by the use of terror held things together, and despite “having lost enormous territories after August 1991, the Russian Empire in essence has been preserved.”

“More than that, now [the Russian state] openly declares its revaunchist goals and even seeks to expand its territory as was the case in August 2008.” But even as the Kremlin does so, it has engaged in an effort to find a unifying national idea, an effort that in the circumstances is doomed to failure.

None of the unifying ideas or events work effectively across the entire society: those who accept one set of ideas or versions of ideas do not accept the others and vice versa. The regime cannot use Stalin because too much is known about what he did, and even Victory Day divides almost as much as it unites, Shiropayev argues.

As far as the Russian Orthodox Church is concerned, it has not become and will not gain “unqualified universal authority” given its obscurantism. And tsarism, “nostalgia for which [the regime] is now promoting” for “the moral strengthening of Putin authoritarianism,” is offputting to many interested in a more open Russia.

This fundamental conflict is very much on view in the arguments over hat a new single school history textbook should look like, one that would seek to present Russian history as a single unified flow. Some divisions like that between the Reds and the Whites can be overcome “on an imperial basis” bcause both sides believed in that, albeit in different ways.

But it won’t be possible to fuse together Novgorod and Moscowbecause they represented “two completely different civilizational choices.”  In the official Moscow history, Novgorod with its democracy and Western ties remains a threat.  And it won’t be possible to unite Leontyev with Pobedonostsev or Stalin with Vlasov.

In reality, Shiropayev writes, “the authorities can fashion a universal conception of Russian history only by minimizing the components of Russian freedom.” That they won’t do because “the current imperial power simply by its nature isnot capable of offering society another Russian hstory besides the history of the state” and that won’t unite the country.

If Russia is to move forward, it needs a new conception of history, one that will be “the history of the liberation struggle of the peoples of Russia,” with stress not on the names of tsars and secretaries general but on those of the many in Russia’s regions who have fought for democracy and a genuintely federal Russia.   

In an ideal world, such a history would be based on the idea of Russia as “a secular democratic federation,” one that would allow Russia to become “a Russia for all, Russians and non-Russians, believers and unbelievers.” But unfortunately it is impossible to combine this idea with those of Zyuganov, Zhirinovsky and Putin.

The opposition of such people to a new history is easily explained: “the nomenklatura-chekist caste knows very well that in such a Russia it would in the best case face lustration.” Consequently, these people seek to defend themselves behind the ramparts of reaction and obscurantism.

And the unified history they seek is thus about only one thing: the latest effort to find “yet another instrument for the enslavement of society.”

The situation is truly “pathetic,” Shiropayv continues.  Despite all the power of the side of reaction, it is “not in a position to put down advanced society,” even though that society is not yet in a position to cast aside the reactionary powers. Instead, there are today, “two Russias, two societies, and they cannot (or almost cannot) be connected by system values.”
Faced with this situation, the Kremlin is trying to play a game of divide and rule, setting “the simple people” against “the creative ones,” “the poor provinces” against “rich Moscow,” even as it engages in discussions about “a unifying idea,” discussions that in the context of the real divides in Russian society are leading to extraordinarily “dangerous speculations.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Window on Eurasia: The Most Important Question in Russia Today – What’s Your Nationality?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 30 – A writer for the official newspaper of the Russian parliament says that today “the most important question” for residents of the Russian Federation is “what’s your nationality?” a question that is not easy for everyone to answer but one which is asked with such insistence that those of mixed nationality are regularly urged to carry their internal passports.

            Suggestions in the days since the Biryulevo clashes that Russia is entering a new age of nationalism ( are typically discussed at the level of high politics – is this development good or disastrous for the Russian Federation and President Vladimir Putin( and

            But the increasing “nationalization” of Russian life is having an impact on the residents of that country even if they are not personally caught up in violent conflicts, an impact that is discussed by Nadezhda Arabkina who is a commentator on social issues for the Parlamentskaya gazeta (

            In an article titled “The Most Important Question – What’s Your Nationality?”Arabkina notes that she has a particular problem in that regard: her father is an ethnic Korean and her mother is an ethnic Russian. Consequently, there are equal chances she could be “the victim” of nationalist skinheads or immigrants from Central Asia or the Caucasus.

            To be convinced of this, she says, she doesn’t even have to leave her multi-national apartment building. Some neighbors are convinced that she is not Russian, while others are certain that she is. Some respect national traditions and differences, but some unfortunately do not.

            But the explosion of media coverage of inter-ethnic clashes has exacerbated the situation, with ever more people being conscious of their own group, worried about threats from others and thus becoming hostile to them. Not surprisingly, some of the results would be funny if they weren’t so tragically sad, Arabkina suggests.

            One graduate of Moscow State University’s philosophy faculty, whose mother was a Lithuanian, not long ago told an immigrant to the Russian capital that he should “get out of my city.”  He clearly “does not  want to think about it now, but other people sometime cried these same words at his grandfather and grandmother.”

            In another case, she says, someone who is “half Tatar” but was baptized by his ethnic Russian mother in a Lipetsk village “suddenly became to demonstratively purchase halal” goods and go the mosque, but didn’t bother to “remove the cross” he had always worn.

            And in a third more serious case, an ethnic Armenian resident of Moscow who had never lived in Armenia wants to get married to an ethnic Russian woman but is getting threats from her former husband, a Daghestani. The issue is being resolved through the diaspora but for the time being, the young woman is carrying a pistol.”

                Thus, Arabkina continues, there is now “a trend” – to “survive” one must join one’s own national camp. Some of her Korean friends, she says, “who do not know any language except Russian” are nonetheless put off when they learn that her husband is of “a different nationality.”  It would be easier, she is told, if she would get involved “in Moscow’s Korean community.”

            “Every morning since the pogrom in Biryulevo, she writes, “I have heard one and the same thing: ‘Take your passport with you!’” Her family members are concerned that without it, she will be identified as an illegal immigrant, and indeed, policemen have challenged her, often asking indirect questions to get at the issue of nationality.

            One, for example, asked her whether she lived in Moscow. When she said yes, he asked where the Minin and Pozharsky monument is, something every native would know. When she responded that it was next to the execution place in Red Square, the policeman said that “everything is clear.”

            Arabkina says that a Tajik woman cleans her apartment, but she knows little or nothing about that woman’s life. “How is she paid? Where does she live? How many relatives does she feed with her earnings?  I’m not interested. For me, it is convenient and pleasing that she with gratitude takes my cash and smiles at me as if I had given her a million.”

            Near her apartment, the parliamentary newspaper commentator says, there is a school whose almost half of the students in the first class are not ethnic Russians.  The teacher told her that there are so many nationalities that the school even has an ethnic German.  But she said one student doesn’t know his nationality. “I think he is a Tajik or an Uzbek,” the teacher said.

            What a happy child, Arabkina concludes, “how simple his life is without these unending discussions about the nationality question and the national idea.”  But she leaves the impression that for her and those about her, those are “the most important questions” and that in the future, they will be for that child as well.

Window on Eurasia: Tatar Nationalism in Kazan Increasingly Regional and Pan-Turkic, Bashkir Writer Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 30 – Both moderate Tatar nationalists in the World Congress of Tatars and the Kazan Institute of History and more radical ones found in the All-Tatar Social Center, the Azatlyk Youth Movement, and the Ittifaq Party are increasingly promoting pan-Turkic ideas like the formation of an Idel-Ural republic including the lands between the Volga and the Urals.

            In a long and heavily footnoted article on the Bashkir portal, Azat Badranov says that the Kazan Tatars are increasingly looking back to the ideas of Ismail Gasprinsky (Gasprali), Gayaz Iskhaki, and other early 20th century advocates of these geopolitical ideas (

            While at one level, this article looks like an attempt to curry favor with Moscow by pointing out that intellectuals and political activists in a republic are threatening the territorial integrity of the country, at another, it is very much a plea by a Bashkir writer for Moscow to support his nation and other smaller ethnic groups lest they be absorbed by larger ones.

            Tatarstan’s turn toward pan-Turkist ideas reflects not only an act of rediscovery, he says, but also Turkey’s geopolitical strategy and the increasing presence of Turkish organizations in that Middle Volga republic: There are now 278 joint Turkish-Tatar firms in Tatarstan, Turkish investment there totals two billion US dolars, and trade turnover is running at one billion US dollars a year.

In addition, Badranov continues, since January 2013, there has been a Turkish center in the Kazan Federal University, and TURKSOY, the international Turkish cultural organization, has declared Kazan to be”the capital of the Turkic world” for 2014.

But the best evidence of the convergence of Tatar nationalist goals and Turkish ideas was provided by the October 12 commemoration of the anniversary of Ivan the Terrible’s sacking of Kazan in 1552.  This year, that meeting attracted and drew support from representatives of nationalist groups from Chuvashia, Mari El, and Bashkortostan as well as the Kazan Tatars.

Participants carried signs reading in English “Freedom for Tatarstan!” and “Freedom for Ideal-Ural!” and others reading in Tatar in Latin script “Idel-Ural will be free!” Such slogans and the use of the Latin script directed as they are against the territorial integrity of the Russian state cannot fail to cause concern, Badranov says.

On the one hand, despite Tatar efforts to the contrary, the Russian government has a law that prohibits the use of Latin script by non-Russian nations within the Russian Federation.  And on the other, all talk about Idel-Ural, a state that never existed Badranov says, serves “anti-Russian theories of a pan-Turkist trend.”

Badranov also calls attention to a calendar produced by the Azatlyk youth movement.  For 2014, it identifies the anniversary of the sacking of Kazan as a day of mourning, ignores Russia’s Victory Day, but calls for celebrating the conquest of “this or that Russian city” by foreigners.

The Bashkir scholar argues that the Tatar nationalists have a  problem because their rewriting of history contains “mutually exclusive” claims, something he suggests Moscow must counter because the ongoing “ethnicization of history is fraught with its politicization” and could lead many to conclude that Russia and Idel-Ural are moving in two very different directions.

According to Badranov, “elements of Tatar separatism basedon extremely doubtful theoretical constructions” can increasingly be seen. “It is difficult to predict,” he continues, “the extent to which Tatar nationalists will shift from words to deeds and how much support they will receive from the mass population.”

“However,” the Bashkir writer insists, “it is obvious that the population of the republic and the Tatar populationof neighboring regions ever more actively is being drawn into the framework of this propaganda and a certain part is becoming a bearer of the idea about the unity of the Turkic space,” all the more so because of the work of Tatar media.

In the event of “a social-political crisis in the Russian Federation,” such ideas “potentially are capable of assembling around themselves definite strata of the Tatar population in Tatarstan and neighboring regions,” something that would threaten both the titular nationalities of these regions and the constitutional system of the Russian Federation.

Among these groups are the Mishars, Teptyars, the Nogays, and Bashkirs, and Tatars in Perm Kray and Astrakhan, Samara,Saratov, Chelyabinsk, Omsk,  Tomsk, and Ulyanovsk oblasts, and, Badranov adds, “what is particularly important for Bashkortostan,” the situation of the so-called “’western’” Bashkirs who are linguistically especially close to the Kazan Tatars.

Unless these groups are supported and unless the ideas of Idel-Ural and other pan-Turkic ideologies are countered, he concludes, all these groups are at risk of being absorbed into a common Idel-Ural identity and ultimately into a common Turkic one, developmentsthat would destabilize the Russian Federeation.