Moscow’s Friday the Thirteenth: Just a Mid-Summer Horror Movie?

Posted July 15th, 2012 at 6:11 am (UTC+0)

Russia’s democratic opposition leaders wait for President Putin? Of course not! This poster was created over three decades ago, for the original 1980 Friday the 13th slasher movie. Photo: New Line Cinema.

While many Russians were relaxing at the dacha or lolling on beaches overseas, back home in Moscow the air conditioning was humming around the clock in the Duma building.
After eight weeks of hard work, the parliamentary session ended on Friday — Friday the13th.

Indeed, as regards to political freedom, the Duma session looks like a Moscow sequel to Hollywood’s notorious slasher movies.
Russia’s lower house passed bills that:
– Force private groups that receive foreign donations to declare themselves “foreign agents.”

– Set up an internet control system for bureaucrats to shut down “offensive” websites.

— Re-criminalizes slander laws, setting big fines and jail sentences.

– Dramatically hike 15-fold the fines for organizing ‘illegal’ rallies.
But Moscow’s slashing at freedom is not a Hollywood import.
This summer, the Kremlin’s political strategy, it seems, is to bring back the fear.
In concert with the legislative crackdown, Russian police and courts are implementing parallel crackdowns.
Starting with the protests that surrounded the May 7 inauguration of Vladimir Putin to a third term as President, police have jailed a dozen protesters and have raided homes and offices of top opposition leaders, often seizing computers and cash. Two activists whose apartments were raided have applied for political asylum in Western Europe, one in Germany and one in the Netherlands.

Members of clandestine punk group Pussy Riot appear at July 2 concert in Moscow by US rock group Faith No More. More than 100 Russian artists and musicians have petitioned state authorities to free group three members, who face up to seven years in jail for performing an anti-Putin punk prayer in Moscow’s central cathedral. On July 20, the trial starts in Moscow. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Email accounts have been hacked, apparently in attempts to find evidence of wrong-doing. As interrogation of opposition leaders stretch through the summer, analysts predict ‘show trials’ this fall.
Separately, prosecutors plan to try on July 20 three young women who conducted a lightning anti-Putin protest at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral last February. The women, who have been in jail since March, have been adopted by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience. Members of a punk band known as Pussy Riot, the women are drawing international attention to the tightening alliance between the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy.
Targeting opposition members of the Duma, government harassment forced one opposition Duma deputy to sell his family business at a fire sale price.  Another member of parliament has lost his parliamentary immunity over a shoving incident at a protest.

Mike Patton, lead singer of Faith No More, performs in a Pussy Riot’s trademark balaclava in solidarity with jailed members of the feminist group. Support concerts have been held in New York and court appearances of the women in Moscow draw protesters and wide coverage by Russia’s alternative, internet media. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin.

As many here see it, Russia’s new, conservative legislation was approved by a parliament that is handicapped by a shaky mandate. The conduct of parliamentary elections last December prompted widespread allegations of fraud and triggered the start of massive street demonstrations.
Since then, the Kremlin has targeted Golos, a clean elections groups supported largely by European and American donations. Because of this support, Golos will now have to declare itself a ‘foreign agent,’ a phrase that in Russia is virtually synonymous with “spy.”
In open societies, citizens fund their own non-governmental organizations.

But Russian businessmen know that if they give money to groups unpopular with the Kremlin, they run very real risks of government reprisals. Last winter, a Russian financier pioneered an internet system of paying for protest equipment – loudspeakers and platforms – through thousands of micro donations. Within weeks, he was tried on an old, unrelated charge, quickly convicted, and jailed.
The attacks on non-governmental groups prompted, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, to write on his LiveJournal blog: “Putin’s main goal is to create an atmosphere of spy mania and hatred and to start with witch hunts.”

Funny in Berlin, verboten in Moskau. At last month’s Christopher Street Day parade in Berlin, Russian gay-rights activists carried a poster satirizing their nation’s ruling tandem, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The parade, which drew 700,000 participants and onlookers, paused briefly in front of the Russian Embassy to fire a cannon loaded with rainbow colored confetti. After St. Petersburg banned in March all public displays of “gay propaganda,” Russia’s Duma is mulling enacting a nationwide ban this fall. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peters.

“Most of all,” Nemtsov wrote, “the regime wants to silence people who threaten the pillars of Putinism: falsification, corruption and police tyranny. That’s why it especially hates the association Golos, which caught it stealing our votes red-handed; Amnesty International, which has exposed unjust rulings; and Transparency International, which has rated corruption in Putin’s Russia at the level of an African country.”
Vladimir Ryzhkov, another opposition leader, wrote last week, “This is the most ruthless attack the authorities here have waged against NGOs in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
With muscular, authoritarian laws in place, the question is: will Mr. Putin use them?
Chris Weafer, a political analyst with Troika, tells me he believes the Russian president is moving proactively, storing up legal weapons to use when the oil price drops and the next economic downturn hits.
But the government’s scary, Friday the 13th moves seem out of step with Moscow’s mood this summer.
Civic engagement is the trend.
In the aftermath of terrible floods that killed more than 170 people in Southern Russia last week, hundreds of young Muscovites spontaneously gathered near Moscow State University to pack trucks donated relief goods. Governmental involvement seemed minimal.
Similarly, on Saturdays and Sundays, as many as 100,000 Muscovites crowd the newly-renovated Gorky Park, taking yoga classes, listening to lectures, dancing to salsa music, and watching outdoor movies. The scene could be Berlin, Paris or London.
Indeed, public opinion polls indicate that most Muscovites are not on the same wave length as their president. An Associated Press-Gfk poll released this month found that 60 percent of Russians favor President Putin. In Moscow, that number falls to 38 percent.
To shore up defenses, the city government is giving $9 million in bonuses to police who controlled the May crowds protesting Mr. Putin’s inauguration. The dozen policemen who were injured are to receive free apartments.
It remains to be seen if Moscow’s Friday the 13th is just another bad summer movie. Or if it sets the stage for real horrors to come.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

7 responses to “Moscow’s Friday the Thirteenth: Just a Mid-Summer Horror Movie?”

  1. Sam says:

    Was this really written by James Brooke? Doesn’t read like his work.
    All the old cliches, melodramatic Cold War tone (‘horrors to come’, as if Stalineque purges and show trials are just around the corner), and no sensible perspective on what’s going on.

    The Russian legal changes are, for example, hardly as draconian as portrayed. Many western countries – eg the USA under strict federal election funding legislation put in place in the 1950’s to stop rivers of ‘Moscow gold’ from influencing elections in the USA, or Australia with it’s own Internet blacklist of several thousand sites – have harsher restrictions in place.

    The end of the world isn’t nigh, the gulags aren’t returning etc. Stop scaring the children.

  2. James Brooke jbrooke says:

    the legal changes are vaguely worded and basically allow the government to ban all demonstrations, shut down any website, and harass any NGO out of business.
    If the government were serious about democratising, they would be encouraging the growth of civil society, or at least they would allow it to grow, instead of restricting it.
    This what I saw the Brazilian military generals do, in slow motion, in the 1980s.
    But the question remains whether President Putin really wants to expand democracy or to continue with same personalist, authoritarian rule.
    Last month, he made the usual promises to build democracy at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Judging by the stony faced reaction of attendees, people were not impressed. One French banker dismissed the annual, ritual promises as “white noise.”
    Kind of rude, but kind of memorable.

    • Me says:

      And why shouldnt they call CIA-financed groups foreign againts ? How many members has a communist party in USA its a democracy afterall ? How many tv stations has alkaida in America ? Those NGO are just trying to undermine goverment and state and poison minds of people its a form of warfeare seen also elsewher in the world. Like satanazing Serbs in media, how many times have you seen Serb civilians killed on tv or half a milion banished Serbs wrom Croatia ? How often is mentiond in USA 5 milion civilians killed in Vietnam o hundrets of thousends killed Arabs in Iraq or Afganistan ? Was Izrael under embargo wor trashing Libanon ? Of course not.

  3. Gennady says:

    To Sam:

    I completely disagree with you. Without any doubt you are paid by the Kremlin for your lavish support. It’s well known that Kremlin agents all over the world work hard to support Kremlin’s agenda with stolen from the Russian people money.

    1. Many thanks for such helpful & comprehensive update in the article. Moscow’s Friday the 13th certainly isn’t a bad summer movie; it has created spy mania & witch-hunt, it was intended to bring back the fear (for the Russian people), it has set the stage for real horrors to come (for the regime). Following the footsteps of his icon, Joseph Stalin, Mr. Putin generated the atmosphere of the late 1930s years in Russia, the Great Purge, with “enemies of the (Putin’s) people”. Psychologists give the advice: if you can’t avoid of being a pray for a rapist, then don’t clash with him and try to enjoy the process. The main goal is to survive the ordeal.
    2. Fortunately, at this point the similarity with the late 1930s years in Russia ends as the country is empowered by the international community, the globalized world and all-mighty Internet. They watch every slightest exertion of the regime and wonder. The Russian people also remember that the “new legislation” was approved by a parliament that is handicapped by a shaky mandate and the election was fraudulent.
    3. I greatly pity the blundered people who still favor Mr. Putin despite alarming records of misused billions dollars earned for selling-off country’s wealth, one-sided stagnated economy, poor public healthcare and education. The tragedy in Krasnodar and its hush-up by state-monopolized television added to the extensive file of misdeeds in the last ten years that could have been prevented or their extent mightn’t have been that devastating.
    4. The regime is at its wit’s end by planting the seeds of fear, inventing illegitimate and anticonstitutional means to suppress willingness of people to have their say. The establishment lost its moral ground. People shouldn’t despair and have the inspiration in Aesop, the great writer from Ancient Greece, around 600 years BC, who gave the pattern to win the battle in his fable “The Bundle of Sticks” when six sons were always fighting amongst themselves. It made hard to get any work done. Their mum showed the error of their ways when she asked each one in turn to snap a whole bundle of sticks. But when she untied the bundle and gave them one stick each to snap, it was easy. The sons realized the value of working together. I see application of the fable in reverse order: they can apply all hosts of draconian laws one step at a time, to separate citizens, but not to the sparkles which kindled the flame. In unity is our victory! Muscovites gave great examples to get together at Moscow State University and Gorky Park.

  4. Kafantaris says:

    Putin has restricted access to information.  This will not quench the thirst for freedom.  
    As long as Russians can read, see, and hear they will learn how others think and live in the world. 
    The steamroller of the information age has momentum now; there is no stopping it. Relentless efforts to do so merely add to the pent-up anger and frustration — and Putin has yet to see it. 
    He can raid homes and offices; he can arrest Russians on bogus charges; he can torture them.  But these measures only fan the flames of freedom. 
    Putin cannot extinguish the fires by killing the Russians in whose chest they are burning. 
    Nor will he find a shortage of Nathan Hales in Russia whose only regret is that they have but one life to give for freedom in their country.

  5. Gennady says:

    To Me:

    1. I’m puzzled, were you that blundered in your FSB-college to believe that the rulers who now reside in the Kremlin have the legal rights and undeniable evidence to call Russian NGOs as “CIA-financed foreign agents”? Or your FSB-paymasters ordered to spread such a lie?
    a) Were the NGOs involved in any anticonstitutional underground, terrorist activities on Russian soil?
    b) Don’t you know that the NGOs are led by highly respected and qualified Russian professionals who have had great records of legal experience?
    c) Don’t you know that the illegal Bill signed by Mr. Putin contravenes to the Russian Constitution and the numerous international agreements signed by the Russian Federation, do you?
    d) Are you aware that already ten years Rights and Freedoms of Man and Citizen stipulated in articles 17.1, 22.1, 27, 29.1,29.5,31, 56.1 of Russian Constitution are denied for Russian people, aren’t you?
    e) Do you want that more that one thousand years old Russia should be a banana republic without regards to basic human rights as all over the world, don’t you?
    f) You assert in your orthography that “Those NGO are just trying to undermine goverment and state and poison minds of people its a form of warfeare seen also elsewher in the world.” Is the now existing government in Russia a lawful legal entity? You should have known that it was appointed by the parliament that was handicapped by a shaky mandate in the election that was fraudulent or heavily tilted in favor of a certain dishonored and disgraced party?
    g) Don’t you want that the rule of law was denied in Russia as in , do you?
    2. You resort to the same slanderous wording that you paymasters have used while they poisoned hearts and minds all over Russia because those evil people who high-jacked Russia and who hold it hostage have seen the real threat in the NGOs to their relentless rule over Russian people.

  6. Meda says:

    This article comments are quite funny.

    Sam, well said!



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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