Russia’s Democratic Opposition and Putin’s Silent Majority

Posted March 7th, 2012 at 3:37 pm (UTC+0)

Putin supporters in Moscow may be from out of town, but they formed a majority in Sunday's election.

Russia’s democratic opposition now has to deal with the elephant in the living room: Russia’s silent majority elected Vladimir Putin President on Sunday.

This week in Moscow, there is a post mortem round of press conferences.
The European observer group correctly called the election process heavily skewed toward the official candidate.
Golos, the vote monitoring group, estimated that Putin won with “50 percent plus a pixel.” (Whatever that means).
On Wednesday, the Voters League, which includes many opposition figures, said their data gave Putin 53 percent of the vote.

For most Russians, Sunday’s election has enough legitimacy to last until oil prices collapse again. When that happens (it always does), Putin may find he is standing on a hill of sand.

But, for now, the opposition has to deal the election results.

In my first presidential election in the United States, I was a volunteer campaign worker for the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. George McGovern. All the cool people were for McGovern. The argument against reelecting President Richard Nixon was crystal clear, a no brainer.

Next stop: the back of a police truck for this anti-Putin protester.

The American people did not buy that. Nixon’s silent majority carried every state, except mine, Massachusetts.

Today, I see a faint echo in Russia.

On Sunday, the urban elite turned against Putin. He failed to get a majority in Moscow and barely won a majority in his home city, St. Petersburg.

In a measure of Putin’s unpopularity in Russia’s two largest cities, his campaign billboards there did not feature his image. In Moscow, his one campaign event and his Sunday night victory rallies were not promoted locally. Instead, they were filled with supporters bused in from out of town.

Moscow is Russia’s media capital, and the press (myself included) have had a field day interviewing the smart, charming, self-confident, opposition supporters. Reporters love news, and this winter, the protest movement was new.
It was harder to break through to Putin supporters. They were often sullen, generally reluctant to talk to reporters, and often half-hearted in their support for Putin after 12 years of his rule. Mike Schwirtz did a fine job in his Sunday New York Times piece from Lubertsy.

This press failing reminds me of an insight a reporter friend, Ken Freed, gained while covering the Iranian revolution for The Los Angeles Times in the fall of 1978. When shooting broke out in Teheran between pro- and anti-Shah forces, he took refuge in an open street sewer in Teheran (where he caught a skin disease). Reflecting on the journalism business from this inglorious spot, Ken concluded that many foreign reporters had taken the easy path in Iran, interviewing those nice Iranians who spoke English and had studied oil production at the University of Texas. Those Iranians now live in Los Angeles.

Back to modern Russia.

Moscow's welcoming committee for people unhappy with Vladimir Putin's new 6-year presidential term.

Cool Russia and un-cool Russia will have to come to terms.

Opposition hardliners looking for direct confrontation play straight into the playbook of President-elect Putin. Ever since a 2004 tent encampment in Kyiv forced the annulment of a presidential election in Ukraine, Putin has been warning of the threat of “Orange Revolution.”

In January, as preparation for this post-election week, Putin doubled police salaries. On Monday night, his black uniformed Robo Cop police army was fully deployed in downtown Moscow – pumped up riot police with shields, bullet proof vests, black helmets and combat boots.

In a street confrontation, the opposition will lose. More importantly, it will lose the vast majority of middle class backers who have no interest in violence. One turnout test will be Saturday. The opposition has a permit, a forecast of sunny weather, and a central location – the New Arbat entertainment avenue.

But now, the opposition should focus on reforms that will swell their ranks long term.
Hold the Kremlin to its December promise to create a national “public” TV that would not answer to state controls. This would allow opposition voices to reach the half of Russia that is not online.

Another December promise — direct elections for governors, should be expanded to mayors. Democracy starts at grassroots level.

These Russians back Prime Minister Putin. Both pro-Putin and anti-Putin forces have adopted the ghostly Putin photo from the Time magazine's 2007 Person of the Year.

Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire businessman, came in second in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The nearly 1 million Muscovites who voted for him should pressure President-elect Putin to adopt Prokhorov’s agenda – cut red tape, cut corruption, and lift the dead weight of the state off the backs of entrepreneurs.

It is no accident that Russia’s pro-Putin silent majority was largely made up of voters dependent on the government – for jobs, pensions, and spending. Twenty years after the collapse of communism, about half of Russia’s economy still depends on the state.

Finally, with the arrival next month of spring, the street protest movement should migrate to city parks – like Moscow’s newly renovated Park Kulturii. There, in the tradition of the American teach-in and the French political kermesse, the tens of thousands of people who volunteered as election observers Sunday can channel their energies into putting in place the building blocks of civil society – joining neighborhood groups, green groups, women groups, new political parties, and, dare I say it, gay groups.

People want to work for causes where they see an impact. It was this growth of civil society that made possible Brazil’s transition in the 1980s and 1990s from military rule to multi-party democracy.

Russia’s evolution may be different. But as a friend remarked to me the other day: Russians are idealists disguised as cynics.

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.

Two Russias Will Collide in Sunday’s Presidential Election

Posted February 29th, 2012 at 6:52 am (UTC+0)

On Moscow's Garden Ring Road, protesters taking part in 16-kilometer long human chain around the Kremlin wave white flowers to passing cars. The democracy movement picked white as a symbol of peace. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

In the last week, I covered two big political rallies in Moscow: the first, a staged mass meeting for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Luzhniki, Russia’s largest stadium; the second, a hastily organized event, where opposition supporters held hands in a 16-kilometer human chain around the Kremlin.

On display were two radically different Russias.
Next Sunday, these two different tribes will collide in the nation’s presidential election.


The Great White Ring, the 16-mile human chain, was organized through a website:

A couple of very 2014 guys married a Google map of central Moscow with a Facebook page. Visitors could virtually cruise Moscow’s Garden Ring Road and choose a protest spot by checking out who would be there — opposition leader, neighbors, cute guy, cute girl, etc. Social networks are making opposition politics very sociable.

At the appointed hour on Sunday afternoon, people gathered on sidewalks, holding hands or waving something white – a ribbon, a scarf, a household pet, an unused diaper. Since the demonstration was unauthorized by city officials, there were virtually no signs. Police did not interfere, contenting themselves with patrolling amiably. Drivers drove slowly by, honking horns in solidarity. Passengers waved cheerily out of car windows opened to the winter air.

Oleg Orlov, of the Memorial Human Rights group, brought his white cat to Sunday's ring around the Kremlin protest. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

For people driving around the Garden Ring, the combination of a Sunday traffic jam and an endless ribbon of people waving merrily gave the impression — visual at least — that Prime Minister Putin has lost the city of Moscow.

But Moscow Police, who just saw their pay doubled last month by the Kremlin, estimated the crowd at 11,000. This would have meant that people had pretty long arms to cover all 16,000 meters. Given the bunching of participants near metro stations, there were probably around 30,000 people.
Total organizational cost: $0.

On Thursday, the march of Putin supporters down a Moscow River embankment to the mass rally at Luzhniki Stadium turned out to be by invitation only.

I arrived at the appointed hour at the appointed march site only to discover that the march had started one hour earlier. Police were not allowing people to join the march, and were redirecting them to metro stations to go to Luzhniki.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, walks on a stage after addressing a massive rally in his support at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow last Thursday. About 30,000 people, many in organized groups, marched along the Moscow River and then packed the stadium for a campaign rally in support of Mr. Putin, leader in all polls. Many attendees were state employees who came at the behest of their employers. AP Photo:Ivan Sekretarev

Around Luzhniki, hundreds of chartered buses were parked, some from as far away as Ingushetia and Kalmykia – over 20 hours by highway. It seemed odd to ship in supporters, when about 10 percent of Russia’s population now lives in greater Moscow – 14 million people.

But just as pro-Putin organizers were not interested in neighborhood people joining (infiltrating?) their march, they were not interested in unaffiliated people wandering into the stadium. On arrival, people were asked which group they belonged and directed to their assigned block of seats. There were many reports of teachers and work team leaders checking off names on attendance lists.
The top down organization seemed very 1984.

As this demonstration was very much authorized, the stadium was filled with professionally painted signs and banners of support for candidate Putin. When he arrived, his speech was carried on three giant stadium screens.

But, presumably for security reasons, it was never announced that Prime Minister Putin would take part in the largest mass rally of his own campaign.

Prime Minister Putin waves to the largest crowd during a campaign waged largely through television. He drew about 75,000 people to Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, Russia's largest. AP Photo: Yana Lapikova

As a result, an hour before his speech, thousands of people drained out of the stadium, heading for the nearest subway station, apparently believing they had fulfilled their duties. There were many reports of people who agreed to attend in return for two days of vacation, outright cash payments, or, for state employees, simply to keep the peace at work.
Mr. Putin’s speech only lasted seven minutes. But it served the goal of Kremlin-controlled TV: providing sound bites with a mass crowd in the background.

Moscow Police generously estimated the stadium crowd at 130,000. This number is hard to reconcile with Luzhniki’s official seating capacity: 78,360.

Total cost of chartered buses, signs, screens and stadium rental: millions of dollars?

All political polls indicate that Mr. Putin will score an outright win in Russia’s presidential election on Sunday, eliminating the need for a runoff.

But given the softness of his support as seen at Luzhniki, I can only wonder if his Silent Majority is really a Silent Minority.

Time and again, people at Luzhniki were shy about their support Putin.
One woman told me she was holding a Putin balloon only because she planned to take it home to her granddaughter. A man stacking pro-Putin signs in the back of a van declined to say why he supported Putin. His sign collection included a now popular slogan: “If not Putin, who?”

But that is a back-handed endorsement. The French call it “faute de mieux” – lack of anything better.

Along the way to the stadium, I fell into step with a long stream of people coming from chartered buses. One man, with a large droopy mustache, glared at me and refused to give any “informatsiya.” A man ahead of him turned out to be from the Caucasus and he talked non-stop for three blocks about his support for Putin. This prompted the man with the droopy mustache to lecture him not to talk to reporters.

In a sharp contrast, the White Ring participants have lost their fear.

Friendliness and good cheer prevailed at the Great White Ring, the opposition's human chain the circled Moscow's core on Sunday afternoon. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

Everyone I talk to at opposition protests gives me their names.
They exude self-confidence. They seem empowered.

At the White Ring protest, people ignored the men who walked up down the line, filming faces.

To date, all major protests have had Facebook sign up pages. Thousands of people have signed up to attend protest rallies, presumably knowing that the security services are compiling little lists.

But these lists must now run to hundreds of thousands of names. This may be another reason why people don’t seem intimidated by the list makers.
Near the pro-Putin rally at Luzhniki, I finally found one man who would give me his name, Nikita Vlasihin. Nikita and two friends were handing out pamphlets. Nikita, the 25-year-old owner of an Internet store, said he was happy to do a radio interview, adding that he could even do it in English.

I turned on the Marantz recorder, and held it up.
He immediately started to rant: “This is a corrupted and criminal regime!”

I took a second look at his pamphlets. They were from the opposition group, Solidarity. The front page title was: “Putin. Corruption.” Each came with a white ribbon, printed: “I drive my stake into thieving power!”
Nikita said that many participants at the pro-Putin rally quietly slipped his pamphlets into the pockets of their winter coats.

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.

Prokhorov Melts Hearts in Russia’s Political Winter

Posted February 22nd, 2012 at 7:00 pm (UTC+0)

Evelina Zakamskaya, interview hostess for Russia 24 News, endured a dreary series of gray men in gray suits, until she landed her one on one with Mikhail Dmitrievich. Photo: Russia 24

Evelina Zakamskaya had a new bob in her hair. She leaned forward in her chair. Her eyes shone brightly. Her lips glistened. Her white teeth flashed in the night. She hung on every word. She tittered at every attempted joke by her TV interview guest, Mikhail Prokhorov.

Russia’s tall, lean, bad boy bachelor billionaire is running for President.

To understand Russian politics, it is sometimes simplest just to turn off the sound. Watch the body language. It is like watching the new French silent movie, The Artist, without the 1920s music track. Appropriately, The Artist opens with a scene from an apocryphal movie, A Russian Affair.

On winter evenings, after dark settles over Moscow, I often work alone, with Evelina on the TV.

On weeknights, around 20:00 she conducts her interview show, Menenia, or Opinions, on Rossiya 24, Russia’s 24-hour state-owned news channel.

Evelina’s body language is good guide to Russia’s presidential race.

Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of New Jersey Nets NBA team, coaches student basketball team in campaign photo op in Moscow. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

Poor Evelina clearly works under sadistic bosses who routinely force gray men in gray suits upon her. They drone on Soviet-style, under the delusion that an interview consists of taking one question and then blathering on and on. They are tone deaf to any conceivable audience. They consider the slightest interruption by a reporter to be a deep offense. (And Russian TV directors wonder why Russians under 30 call TV sets “zombieboxes.”)

Evelina has not interviewed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Russia’s strong man does not do debates or one-on-one interviews. He controls his campaign message through 7,000 word essays in newspapers and carefully choreographed public events.

But Evelina’s producers landed interviews with two candidates, both dinosaurs of “The Loyal Opposition” – Gennady Zyuganov, of the Communists, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, of the Liberal Democrats.

With Zyuganov, Evelina’s face froze into an expressionless pancake, letting the Communist Party candidate go on and on about industrial and agricultural policy. She didn’t exactly slump into the back of her chair. Let’s just say she braced herself for a long evening. Deep inside, there may have been a flicker of interest – like the small flame from a disposable cigarette lighter. But it was hard to detect.

Russian political heartthrob Mikhail Prokhorov stands 2 meters tall, is worth $18 billion, and has yet to find a wife: Photo: AP

In the mid-1980s, when change stirring the Soviet Union, Zyuganov was an instructor in the Communist Party propaganda headquarters in Moscow. From his base in the party’s Ideological Division, he led hardline resistance to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost policies.

Fast forward 25 years. Zyuganov’s idea of signaling his modernity last month was to greet reporters with a gruff “Merry Christmas!”

Zhirinovsky presented more of a challenge to Evelina.
He first ran for President in 1991. His political act revolves around rant and bombast. He demands that Americans return Alaska. (Sorry, we paid for it. And we still have the receipt). Or he reminisces about the days when “Russian soldiers washed their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean” (Sorry, it never happened. The British stopped them in Afghanistan).

Zhirinovsky’s eternal theatrics and bullying give him the highest negatives of any presidential candidate in Russia. About half of Russians tell pollsters that they would never vote for him under any circumstances.

The problem for an interviewer is that this Slavic Mussolini wannabe can be genuinely entertaining. People laugh with him — and at him.

Mikhail Prokhorov, candidate for president, balances on a basketball, as he coaches Moscow middle schoolers in front of a battery of TV cameras. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

Evelina clearly struggled during the interview not to smirk, or to laugh. She took the safe route, opting for a polite, noncommittal half smile.

A disdainful smirk would have cost her job. A hearty, sympathetic laugh at would have condemned her to a lonely life in Moscow, shunned by friends and disowned by family.

(Prokhorov proposed the best solution for Zhirinovsky. If elected President, Prokhorov promised to build Zhirinovsky, now 61 years old, his very own theater).

Which brings us to Evelina’s evening with Mikhail Dmitrievich.

Far from frozen with boredom, Evelina perched in the edge of her seat, literally licking her lips in anticipation.

Some Russian women raise their eyebrows at Prokhorov, still a bachelor at age 46.
By age 25, they sniff, a man should be married or in a monastery.
Some make insinuations about his sexual orientation

To this, Prokhorov recently posted a response on his Facebook page
“How will I become President without a First Lady?” he asked “Let me tell you a secret: I had my first lady when I was 17.”

As Julia Ioffe reports this week in her Prokhorov profile in The New Yorker, a joke making the rounds in Moscow has President Prokhorov choosing “his first lady, his second lady, his third lady.”

Prokhorov comes with more than a bad boy reputation, two meters in height, and power abs honed by daily two-hour workouts.

Basketball break -- Mikhail Prokhorov and some short guy (James Brooke). VOA Photo: Ellen Pinchuk

In Moscow’s core, where concentric ring roads place the Kremlin in a bull’s-eye, Russia’s power center is populated by ambitious, single women looking for something simple: not fancy moves on the dance floor, not red wine and roses, not candlelight dinner. Just five minutes and a good reading light to quietly study a prospective partner’s statement of assets and liabilities. (A copy audited according to International Accepted Accounting Practices would be nice).

But with Mikhail Prokhorov, why bother? His net worth is public knowledge to the 55 million Russians now on the Internet. Last spring, Forbes clocked him at $16 billion, and rising.

Evelina leaned forward, lips shining anew. She smiled sweetly and encouragingly. She locked her big baby blue eyes on his. She seemed to positively purr. She threw Mikhail Dmitrievich what looked like yet another tender question. (The TV was on mute, remember).

After all my quiet evenings alone in the office with Evelina, I was shocked, crushed, disappointed.

If Prokhorov could arouse such passion in prim Evelina, I wondered, what is he doing to the rest of the country?

Pollsters have more sophisticated social research tools than watching a TV set with the sound off.
They are detecting an interesting phenomenon. Two months after Prokhorov launched his campaign, he has jumped over Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky to come in second in polls in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

But you don’t have to un-mute your TV to learn that.

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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.

Ghosts of Revolution Serve as Political Brakes in Russia

Posted February 18th, 2012 at 1:02 pm (UTC+0)

Century old portraits of Czar Nicholas II and his family stand in front of Yekaterinburg's Church on the Blood, built in 2003 on the 1918 execution site of the Imperial family. VOA Photo: James Brooke

YEKATINERINBURG – In the gray twilight of a winter afternoon, the black and white photographs appear before the church walls like ghosts.

These ghosts may well inoculate Russia against revolution this spring, when political passions may rise with the temperatures.

The ghosts are Czar Nicholas II, his wife, Alexandra, their son, Alexei, and their four daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. Their portraits stand before a church erected on the site of the Ipatiev House, a mansion built in the 1880s for a wealthy Czarist merchant.

After the 1917 revolution, the house was confiscated by the Communists, surrounded by a high wooden wall, and designated “The House of Special Purpose.”

In April 1918, Bolshevik guards moved the Romanovs to live in the house in internal exile. On the night of July 16, 1918, as pro-Czarist forces neared Yekaterinburg, the Imperial family was told they were to be moved, and were gather in the half-basement to wait for a truck.

There, shortly after midnight, a nine-man Bolshevik squad entered the basement. They shot and bayoneted every family member to death.

For many in modern Russia, this was the original sin of their revolution.

For many modern Russians, the fate of the Romanov family personifies the excesses that killed millions during the Russia's communist era. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Czar Nicholas II and his family as saints of the church, passion bearers for their faith. On July 16, 2003, 85 years to the day after their murders, Russian Orthodox clergy gathered from across Russia to consecrate on the site of the death house a soaring new church: The Church on Blood in Honor of All Saints Resplendent in the Russian Land.

Inside the church, under a vaulted dome, the central altar stands on the precise spot of the basement killings.
From the large photographs outside, the last Romanovs stare out across a century of Russian history.

In the eyes of this beholder, their reproachful gaze seem to offer Russians a reminder of the dangers of radicalism.
Communist leaders are often linked to the phrase: “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.”

For many Russians, the fate of the Romanov family personifies the chaos and trauma associated with revolution.

Today, a middle class movement for change is underway in Russia. A daily drumbeat of mass demonstrations is planned for the week following the March 4 presidential election.

In advance, the Kremlin strains to present the reformists as revolutionaries. And the reformists strain to remain reformists.

Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Nikolaevna rest in the spring sunshine in 1917, while in captivity at Tsarskoe Selo, the Czarist estate south of St. Petersburg. About one year after this photo was taken, a Bolshevik squad shot and bayoneted the girls to death in a basement in Yekaterinburg.

“We Want Reforms, Not Revolution,” was the headline to an essay written last week by Vladimir Ryzhkov, an opposition leader.

“There is only one peaceful resolution to this standoff,” Ryzhkov wrote in The Moscow Times. “The authorities must hold real and sincere negotiations with the opposition. When authorities and Kremlin-friendly journalists and analysts label the opposition ‘radical,’ it is a clear attempt to demonize the protesters and delegitimize their legitimate complaints. The opposition is ready and willing to engage in substantial talks. It advocates reforms, not revolution.”

The Kremlin’s game plan is to try to demonize the opposition as dangerous revolutionaries. In this vein, ample funding is to flow next year for ceremonies marking the 400th anniversary of the founding of Romanov dynasty, in 1613.

For a few modern Russians, the solution to the nation’s brewing political confrontation is to restore the Romanovs.
“I would bring to Russia a descendant of Nicholas II, or Queen Victoria, a young Windsor, Hohenzollern or Romanov – and I would prepare him to one day occupy the Russian throne,” Dmitry Olchansky, a Moscow writer, said in an interview last month with Le Courier de Russie, a French publication.

But if the street names of this city are indicators, Russians remain divided over their history.

Founded in 1723 and named after Peter the Great’s widow, Czarina Catherine I, Yekaterinburg grew under the Soviets to become Russia’s fourth most populous city.

In 1927, Communist authorities erected a statue to Yakov Sverdlov, the Bolshevik leader who signed the telegram from Moscow carrying out Vladimir Lenin's orders to execute the Czar and his family. Photo: Sandrine

Today, the church and museum devoted to the Imperial family stands on Karl Liebknecht Street, named after the German Marxist who was murdered in Berlin, on January 15, 1919.
From the church, if you walk two blocks south on Karl Liebknecht, parallel to Proletarian Street and crossing First of May Street, you will reach Lenin Avenue. If you then walk one block east on Lenin, and cross Red Army Street, you will be in Paris Commune Square. There you find a heroic, early Soviet-era statue of Yakov Sverdlov.

In mid-July, 1918, as president of the Russian Soviet Republic, Sverdlov signed the telegram ordering the executions of the Czar and his family.

In Yekaterinburg today, only three city blocks separate memorials to the executioner and to the executed.

It is a history that many Russians do not want to revisit. It is a history that far fewer Russians want to repeat.

Yakov Sverdlov, president of the Russian Soviet Republic, sits at his desk in Moscow in a photo taken a few months after ordering the execution of the Romanovs.

A footnote: Sverdlov only lasted eight months after ordering the execution of the Romanovs. On March 16, 1919, Sverdlov was visiting a Moscow factory, when a worker picked up a pipe and fatally beat him on the head. Fearing anti-Semitic outbursts, Communist officials hushed up circumstances of the death of Sverdlov, whose parents were Jewish. Sverdlov was accorded a full state funeral, winning the first individual tomb in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. This city and the surrounding region were renamed after him – Sverdlovsk.
In September, 1991, as the communist sytem was collapsing, authorities compromised. They restored the original Czarist name, Yekaterinburg, to the city, and retained the communist name, Sverdlovsk, for the region.

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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.

Russia: Revolution of the Well-fed, Well-dressed and Well-informed

Posted February 13th, 2012 at 10:45 am (UTC+0)

In Moscow, last weekend, this couple would have been sculpted in ice. But marble is the medium in Odessa, Pearl of the Black Sea. VOA Photo: James Brooke

At 8pm Friday night, I decided to close up shop in VOA’s Moscow office and fly to Odessa, Ukraine, for the weekend.

Moscow’s weekend forecast was -30C, my trip to Central Asia had been cancelled, and the Black Sea sounded like a good mid-winter break. I did not have an airline ticket, but I knew the schedule.

Three hours later, at 11 pm, I was buckled into a window seat in a nice, new Boeing 737, and rolling down the runway at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport.

What transpired in those three hours gives an insight into a central problem facing Prime Minister Putin as he tries to hold on to middle class support this political year — in the March 4 elections and beyond.

Putin is a victim of his own success.

The 20 and 30 somethings who chant “Russia Without Putin” have no real memory of the chaotic 1990s, much less the gray, repressive communist years before that. Putin’s promise of “stability” may be music to the ears of the older generation. But, to Russia’s younger generation, it sounds like stagnation.

Back to Friday night.

After throwing clothes in a bag, I walked to the Aeroexpress office at Kievskii Railroad Station. Painted bright red and white, these clean and modern trains now serve Moscow’s three international airports. The definition of express means that they leave on time, arrive on time, make no stops, and cut straight through Moscow’s notorious and unpredictable traffic jams. The only people who drive to and from Moscow airports these days are first time foreign visitors and Muscovites who suffer from severe cases of car attachment disorder.

At the station, I fed 590 rubles ($20) into a ticket vending machine. Tap, tap, tap on a touch screen. The round trip ticket was in my hand, and the change in my pocket.

After a century of neglect, the 1904 beaux arts style Bolshaya Morskaya building is under renovation in the heart of old Odessa. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Minutes later, I was seated in the train, rolling to Vnukovo International Airport, 30 kilometers west of Moscow. Clean and quiet, the train was a rolling reading room, allowing me to catch up on back newspapers and check email on my mobile phone.

Thirty five minutes later, at 9:35, I was at the station riding the escalator into the new steel and glass terminal.

With 85 minutes to take off, I make one mistake. Faced with going left to “International” or right to “National,” I gambled that the airport administration was stuck in “old think,” classifying Ukraine, a former Soviet Republic, as a domestic destination.

Wrong. But the courteous guard at national section allowed me to go the wrong way through his metal detector to walk to the international section.

At the international section, I went to ticket sales office and asked to buy a round trip ticket to Odessa. At 70 minutes to take off, she was running my Visa card, charging me 9,774 rubles ($328) for a round trip ticket – about 2 percent less than the internet price. (At the same time, I was juggling a telephone call from my oldest son, James, calling from Ohio to tell me about his job interviews).

While running up my charge, the ticket agent discovered that the man before me, wearing a distinctive green shirt, had left behind his Visa card. Without any fuss, an Aeroflot attendant came out to the ticket counter, and reunited the passenger with his Visa.

Ticket in hand, I went through the customs x-ray machine and checkpoint. The customs officer asked me if I was carrying a lot of cash. I said no, realizing at that point that I was embarking on an international trip with about $41 in Russian rubles. I knew there were plenty of ATMs in Odessa.

Built in the 1890s, Odessa's Bristol Hotel went through the Soviet ear as the Red Hotel. After an extensive renovation, it reopened last year. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Now 45 minutes before takeoff, I checked in for the international flight.

Boarding pass in hand, I was off to passport control manned by a Russian border guard in a glass booth. She looked at my American passport, looked at me, and then gave me a big smile. She was encouraging me to smile, like in my passport picture. (If Russian border guards are coaching Americans on their smiles, what is the world coming to?)

Another airport security check with x-ray machines. Ten minutes to boarding time, I was threading my way through a gauntlet of stores selling duty free liquor, perfume and silk scarves. Modern Russian airports increasingly are trips to the shopping mall.

With five minutes to spare, I called two hotels in Odessa on my mobile phone. I picked the cheapest one, reserved a room, and told them it would a late check in.

A few minutes later, I was in the jet, looking at a large lady sitting in my window seat.

The steward intervened and diplomatically explained to her that my seat was 22F, and her seat was 19A. No shouting, no hysterics.

Settled into my seat, I heard the tell-tale clink of large bottles going into the overhead. It was the man in the green shirt. He had used his recovered Visa for last minute shopping at the duty free.

“Vodka?’I asked.
“No, “ he replied. “They have plenty of that in Ukraine. This is whiskey.”

Wheels up for the Black Sea, three hours after locking the door to my office.

Why does all this spell trouble for Prime Minister Putin?

James Brooke with Odessa monument to Ludwig Zamenhof, creator of Esperanto, the international language that once was popular in multicultural Odessa. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Let’s go make a quick trip back 20 years ago to my first flight internal flight in the Soviet Union, in September 1991, for The New York Times.

A Times assistant had to make the trip with me to a grey, bleak Moscow airport, leading me through a bewildering travel bureaucracy: bizarre Soviet stations of the cross that could only be satisfied with a series of permits and stamps, to allow a foreigner to take an internal flight in the Soviet Union.

The upside was that the ticket to Tbilisi cost $12.

The downside was that there was no guarantee that the old Tupolev jet would leave anywhere near on time. Also, at the destination, rival gangs were cruising the streets of Tbilisi, holding Kalashnikovs through open windows of their Ladas.

In Moscow, the most depressing feature in the airport, was the men’s room. The stench would have stopped a horse at 20 paces. I took a deep breath, and hustled in to answer nature’s call. The odor stemmed from broken plumbing, partially fixed by rags tied around pipes. Facing the sinks, sat the washroom attendant, a woman whose large frame spilled over the edges of her stool. In the corner, hunched a downcast boy, presumably her grandson, his head shaved to combat lice. A Dickensian orphanage would have been a step up.

Fortunately, many urban Russians under 35 don’t know what I am talking about.

Their conception of the Soviet Union is a hazy collage of nostalgic memories passed on by grandparents and modern fantasy video games about world domination.

In 1991, there were probably 20 restaurants in Moscow that accepted credit cards. Last year, there were 70 million Visa cards in use in Russia.

In 1991, there were no ATM machines and the only mobile phones were car phones for the Communist Party elite. Last year, there were 225 million mobile phone accounts in Russia, a country with a population of 142 million.

Millions of dollars was spent in 2007 on gold leaf to restore the rococo interrio of Odessa's 1887 Opera and Ballet Theater. But, Saturday night, a Row 12 ticket to the Mozart-Salieri concert cost only 80 hyrvnia, or $10. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In 1991, the number of Russians traveling outside of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, was in the low thousands. Last year, 10 percent of Russia’s adult population took international flights outside of the former Soviet Union. The majority went through modern airports like Vnukovo.

For middle class Russians under 35 years of age, this is the only reality they know.

“For them, the 1990s are already a myth, almost on the same order as the time of Ivan the Terrible,” Valerii Fedor, director of VTSIOM, a leading polling company, says in the current issue of Le Courier de Russie, a French fortnightly here.

This is the Kremlin is trying to cope with: revolution by the well-fed, the well-dressed, and the well-informed.

Now Russia’s new middle class wants more. They want private sector, consumer-oriented efficiency extended to public life. They want transparency, honesty and the rule of law.
For a decade, Vladislav Surkov was the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, the architect of the soft authoritarian system he called “sovereign democracy.” Then on Dec. 27, three days after 100,000 people demonstrated against Putin, the Kremlin sidelined Surkov into a non-political post.

Surkov, a history buff, must have recalled the words of Maximilien Robespierre, who said, as he faced the guillotine in 1794: “The Revolution devours its own children.”

Instead, Surkov, the architect of modern Russia’s political system, noted ironically to a reporter: “Stabilization devours it own children.”

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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.

Russia’s Generation Gap: Аста Ла Виста, беби!

Posted February 7th, 2012 at 9:16 pm (UTC+0)

Their backs to the massive Lenin statue on October Square, the Anarchists were spoiling for a fight. Dressed in black, the young men and women jumped up and down, straining at their rope lines, and chanting again and again: “Аста Ла Виста, беби!Аста Ла Виста, беби!”

I asked a middle aged man who was detouring over a snow bank, giving the anarchists a wide berth. He muttered: “It’s something in ‘hispanski.’”

Then it flashed on me. It came from a movie: Terminator 2: Judgment Day. As Arnold Schwarzenegger was about to blow away the frozen remains of his nemesis, the T-1000 nanomorph, he tossed off a line that ultimately circled the world: “Hasta La Vista, baby!”

Presumably, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin does not see himself as a frozen nanomorph.

But some members of Russia’s younger generation do.

During the two months of Russia’s protest movement, Kremlin strategists have shown a calm front. They seem comforted by their knowledge that Russia’s demographic profile is more like Japan’s — top heavy with retirees – and less like Egypt’s – lots of angry youth.

It will all blow away, they seem to say. We can take it in our stride.

Two days before the Feb. 4 protest march, Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, tried to pop the balloon of political suspense in an interview with The New York Times. On the night of the March 4 presidential election, he predicted, the opposition will cry fraud (fake yawn). And then, the next day, there will be a big protest rally (boooringgg). (The best description of Peskov came in a December New Yorker article by David Remnick: “When he lies, he knows that you know, and you know that he knows that you know.”)

Confounding Mr. Peskov’s expectations, 100,000 people turned out in minus 20 degree C weather – probably the coldest Saturday of the winter.

Mikhail Dmitriev, president of the Center for Strategic Research, has a message about Russian urban youth the Kremlin does not want to hear. Due to the high concentration of universities and employers in Moscow, about 30 percent of Moscow’s residents are in their 20s. Ditto for St. Petersburg and the 10 “millioniki” – the 10 cities with populations of about 1 million. This is an Arab Spring demographic profile.

Rural and small city Russia is old, dying out, and watching Prime Minister Putin inaugurating new factories every night on TV.

Urban Russian youth is online, and getting their political education from opposition radio and Internet comedy shows that regularly rack up over 1 million hits a segment.

The generational conflict was as clear Saturday as the young man who danced in the march, brandishing a homemade sign that read: “Old Putinist codgers, get out of the way!”

Boris Nemtsov, one of the bigger egos of the opposition movement, was recently caught on the wrong side of this generational divide. In a secretly recorded conversation leaked to an internet news site, the 52-year-old opposition leader derided Russia’s new generation of dissidents as “internet hamsters.” When his indiscretion was revealed he took to the very same internet and blogged an apology.

That did not stop three young protesters from showing up Saturday, dressed from head to toe as hamsters. They wove through the crowd in a bouncing conga line.

Svetlana Kolchik, who writes a weekly column, Women Talk, dug up this protest recruiting ad on the website of a popular Russian online dating site. Addressed to unattached women, it read: “Sixty-five percent of the protests’ participants are men, 80% boast an above-average income, 75% have an above-average IQ, and 50% are currently single. So don’t miss it!”

Protesting is now cool. And, with the university year stretching to June, the calendar is working against the Kremlin.

Historically, student protests take place in the spring – think Paris and Prague in May 1968, the May 1970 shootings at Kent State, and the April 1971 anti-Vietnam war march on Washington. And, of course, last year’s Arab Spring.

As a former student protester, against the Vietnam War, I recall that spring was my season of protest – sit-ins, playing cat and mouse with the police in the streets.

Russian Anarchists: waiting until spring? VOA Photo: James Brooke

At my high school in April, 1971, a group of us 16-year-olds secretly pored over The Anarchist Cookbook. We studied how to flip open the back of a Volkswagen beetle, yank off the distributor cap, and thus immobilize the car – and an entire lane of traffic. The strategy, as circulated by the Liberation News Service in those pre-internet days, was to block commuter traffic on all bridges into Washington. We were going to stop the Nixon War Machine!

I would have done all that, and more!

But, my parents did not let me take the bus to Washington.

On the opposite side of the globe, in Leningrad, Vladimir Putin, was living through his own rebellion. In his memoirs, he describes himself as a “shpana” or a street punk. Only the timely intervention of a judo instructor kept him off the path to jail, and put him the on the path to university, a KGB career — and the rest is history.

Of course, today’s Russian students are completely different.

I’m sure that this spring, when Moscow inevitably defrosts, when the leaves start popping, and the girls’ hemlines start rising, the young men and women of urban Russia will be 100 percent concentrated on their final exams, and on the productive careers that await them.

And, if you believe that little fairy tale, “Аста Ла Виста, беби!”

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.

Russia in Syria in 2012 — Echoes of Britain in Suez in 1956?

Posted February 2nd, 2012 at 5:33 am (UTC+0)

Cartoon shows Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin trying to use his UN Security Council veto to reanimate Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Under protection of the Free Syrian Army in Kafranbel, near the Turkish border, demonstrators held this sign in a protest January 27 against what they called Russia’s backing of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Reuters

Is Russia living its Suez moment?
In October, 1956, France, Britain and Israel attacked Egypt in an attempt to reverse President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal. The United States and the Soviet Union strong armed the three attacking nations into pulling back.
Today, that conflict is widely seen as the bitter, historical turning point when Britons realized they were no longer a world power.

It is also seen as the dawn of Moscow’s influence in the Middle East, a region distant from its pre-Cold War sphere of influence.

Now, half a century later in Syria, we may be witnessing the sun setting on Moscow’s sway over the Arab world. For Russians, it is a painful reminder of Russia’s reduced reach in the world.

Last year, Moscow stubbornly clung to it Soviet legacy allies in the Arab world. One by one, they wobbled, and eventually fell: Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and, finally, Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi. Now the Kremlin seems to making a last stand with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad.

Russia is threatening to veto a United Nations resolution calling for a political transition in Damascus. If Mr. Assad goes, the Kremlin seems to reason, Russia has nothing to gain, and a lot to lose.

Moscow’s 40-year alliance with Assad family has concrete benefits today: $4 billion in arms contracts for future delivery, $20 billion in gas investments, and Tartus naval station, Russia’s last military base outside the former Soviet Union.

On March 4, Russians vote for president. For the next month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the leading candidate, has no interest in alienating a key electoral constituency, Russia’s military-industrial complex. (The real foreign policy votegetter is to keep the beaches of Egypt, Tunisia, Israel and Turkey open for the millions of Russian vacationers who now flee there every winter.)

On the world stage, Mr. Putin is determined not to be pushed around by the West. In Moscow, officials talk darkly about “the Libya scenario” and “the Libya precedent.”

Russian officials still see geopolitics through the old simplistic, Soviet zero sum lens. The fall of Gadhafi was a victory for Washington, and a setback for Moscow.

It rarely occurs to Russian journalists to talk to real Libyans, and ask them what they want. It rarely occurs to Russian diplomats that if they keep complaining about Libya’s revolution, Russian businessmen are going to stand at the back of the line in Tripoli.
(Two days after this Russia Watch was posted, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued this statement: “After 14:00 Moscow time on February 5, an unauthorized rally under anti-Russian slogans was staged in front of the Russian embassy in Tripoli to protest against Russia’s position while voting a resolution on Syria at the United Nations Security Council. The protesters, numbering several dozen, climbed onto the roof of the embassy building, damaged surveillance cameras and hauled down the Russian flag.” On Monday, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a second statement: “That gross violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations was committed by persons, who misinterpreted Russia’s principled position on Syria at the UN Security Council.”)

Part of this stems from a deep skepticism in Russia today about revolution. After two traumatic revolutions in the 20th century, this allergy is shared in Russia by both the rulers and the ruled.

Demonstrators step on Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's poster during a protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Homs January 27, 2012. Photo: Reuters

But there is also a disdain for Arab public opinion.
In Libya and Syria, Moscow has taken stands opposing the will of the Arab League. Of course, Russia, the world’s largest oil producer, has no need to tiptoe around the big oil producers that dominate the Arab League.

But, now Arab newspapers and internet sites are peppered with a novelty: anti-Russian cartoons and protest images coming from Syria and from Syrian exiles. On Wednesday, the Facebook page of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suffered a spam attack that experts attributed to Syrian opposition hackers.

In Moscow, Russia’s plummeting stock in the Arab world is a non-issue. Beneath this lack of concern may be the unspoken understanding that Moscow is wrapping up its big power role in the region.

The half century that started with Suez, may end with Syria.

One of several anti-Russian banners held by demonstrators who gathered in Kafranbel after Friday prayers on Jan. 20 to protest what they saw as Russia’s backing for Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Photo: Reuters

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.

WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and Kremlin TV: Anti-Westernism Makes for Bizarre Bedfellows

Posted January 27th, 2012 at 10:30 pm (UTC+0)

In March, Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, is start recording an interview program for RT, taped in the home where he is living under house arrest in Britain. Photo: Espen Moe

Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks transparency advocate and leaker of about 115,000 confidential U.S. government emails, has found a new home: a talk show on RT, or Russia Today, the English language TV channel funded by the Kremlin.

Shortly after WikiLeaks released the American classified documents in 2010, Assange announced his next step: publishing confidential Russian government documents.

Odd how that just never happened.

In the old Soviet days, a Russian who got caught facilitating the overseas publication of secret files would have been walked down a corridor of the basement of Lubyanka, the headquarters of the KGB in central Moscow. At a certain point, an accompanying officer would have pulled out a pistol and dispatched the traitor with a neat shot to the back of the head. Nowadays, Article 275 of the Criminal Code of Russia stipulates 12 to 20 years in jail for disclosure of state secrets to a foreign organization.

Alexander Lebedev knows Lubyanka, which he visited in the 1980s, as a KGB officer. He knows Britain, where Assange is now confined to house arrest as he battles extradition to Sweden on sex charges. Lebedev, a Russian, also knows press freedom – he owns the Independent and London Evening Standard newspapers.

“Shame on you, Mr. Assange!” Lebedev wrote in his Twitter and Facebook accounts last week. “Hard to imagine more miserable final for ‘world order challenger’ than employee of state-controlled ‘Russia Today’.”

WikiLeaks said in a press release that Assange will host 10 half-hour interviews with “key political players, thinkers and revolutionaries from around the world.”

Lots of revolutionaries right here in Russia these days. I wonder if any will get air time with Assange?

Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Russia Today TV channel, has signed up Julian Assange as a talk show AP Photo:Dima Gavrysh

RT is run by Margarita Simonyan, a former member of the Kremlin press pool. Since taking over in 2005, Simonyan has expanded RT into Arabic and Spanish and has taken on the title of editor-in-chief.

She knows what the Kremlin wants — and likes.

When the clean government protests erupted in Moscow and other cities after the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, Simonyan tweeted that adults encouraging young people to take part should “burn in hell.”

Last year, RT’s effusively covered the Occupy Wall Street movement as it spread around the globe. But the cheerleading stopped at Russia’s border. Here, RT told viewers, protests are foreign funded and several protest leaders are racists.

Strangely at odds with the official “reset” policy of smoother relations with Washington, RT constantly hammers on the United States. When it gets the chance, as in last August’s riots in London, RT expands to include the rest of the West.

In a recent Al Jazeera report on RT, the announcer described it as “a channel more interested in reviving the Cold War, than reporting what’s really happening in Russia today.”

And that is the paradox of RT.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange makes a statement to media gathered outside the High Court in London, Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. A British court Monday gave WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange permission to continue his legal battle to avoid extradition to Sweden over sex crimes allegations. AP Photo:Kirsty Wigglesworth

In countries, like China, Japan, and South Korea, where difficult languages confound western visitors, English language broadcasting serves to promote the host nation. When I worked in Northeast Asia, Japan’s NHK English and South Korea’s Arirang were useful windows on their country’s tourist sites, cuisine, economy and foreign policy. Informative, if a bit bland.

These state-owned channels are not used for dissing China, Australia, or the United States. Not only would that violate ingrained Asian courtesy, but it would be seen as a counterproductive use of a tool for national promotion.

So, I was not surprised last week when, over lunch with an Asian diplomat in Moscow, he eyed me closely and asked: “What do you think of Russia Today?”

I responded that I know Americans who have watched it, and, as a result, have decided not to visit Russia.

The diplomat, a veteran Russia hand, sighed at the paradox.

But the Kremlin depends on about 15 major energy companies for over half of government tax revenues. It is not going to fret about stagnant hotel room tax revenue.

RT is seen as useful for scoring points, and asserting a Russian voice in a multi-polar world.

And, after seven years at the top, Simonyan’s instincts for Kremlin politics have yet to fail her.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin publicly called Assange’s detention in London undemocratic. At that time, in December 2010, The Guardian newspaper quoted a source close to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposing that Assange be nominated for a Nobel Prize.

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.

Russia and Iran: Uneasy Neighbors — Since the 16th Century

Posted January 23rd, 2012 at 6:03 am (UTC+0)

Countries without natural borders are like amoebas. Over centuries, they expand and contract, expand and contract.

A quiet time in Russian-Persian relations. Shah Suleiman I receives two envoys from Georgia at his court in Isfahan in 1670. Painting by Ali Qoli Jabbador. The Institute of Oriental Studies, St. Petersburg.

As the Western world wonders why Russia has such a nuanced policy toward Iran’s nuclear program, it is important to skip back over four centuries of history.

Under Ivan the Terrible, Russia defeated the Tatars and Russia started to expand east to Siberia and south to the Caspian Sea. There, it first encountered Persia, forerunner to modern Iran.

Persia’s first ambassador to Russia visited the Kremlin four centuries ago, in 1592. For the next century, wary coexistence ensued between the two empires, one Christian, the other Muslim.

Then, in 1722, Russia expanded south again, embarking on the first of four successful wars against Persia. Steadily, Russia gobbled up chunks of Persia’s Central Asian Empire. With the 1828 Treaty of Turkemnchay, the Caspian Sea became a Russian lake.

One author of that treaty was Russia’s new ambassador to Persia, Alexander Griboyedev, a witty and charming poet and playwright, recently arrived from the court in St. Petersburg.

Aleksander Griboyedov, beloved Russian poet, playwright and ambassador to Persia. His legendary wit and charm did not save him from the Persian mob that sacked Russia’s embassy in 1829. Sketch done in 1875 by Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition

But Persian resentment of the treaty boiled over when an Armenian eunuch escaped from the Shah’s harem and two Armenian girls escaped from the harem of his son-in-law. Under terms of the new treaty, Armenians were allowed safe passage from Persia to Russian-controlled Armenia. Ambassador Griboyedev stood on principle, and protected his Armenian charges.

What happened next, made the Iranian seizure of the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979, or the sacking of the British embassy two months ago, look like tea parties.

A mob of thousands of rioting Persian overwhelmed the Russian Embassy’s Cossack guards and slaughtered everyone inside. A few days later, the remains of the eunuch were so disfigured that he was only recognized by a scar on his hand.

When Griboyedev’s 16-year-old bride, Nino, learned of her husband’s fate, she became so distraught that she miscarried, and lost their baby. For the rest of her life, she refused all suitors. Today, a larger than life Griboyedev statue in Moscow is a popular meeting point for young people. In St. Petersburg, Griboyedev Canal is a picturesque waterway in the heart of historic city.

Nino Chavchavadze, 16-year-old wife of Alexander Griboyedov. After his death, she refused all suitors. Painting by Emille Francois Desent

The embassy slaughter may live on in Russian’s popular image of Iran. But it did not deter the Kremlin, which retained control of Northern Iran through 1946.

In 1907, with the military rise of Germany, Russia and Britain decided to stop wasting their energy in their “Great Game” over the former Persian empire. That year, they signed in St. Petersburg, the Anglo-Russian Convention. Under this treaty, Persia was divided up between a northern Russian zone, a central neutral zone governed by a Shah, and a southern British zone. This allowed Britain to develop oil deposits in southern Iran and to build a refinery in Abadan. Founded in 1909, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company grew into what is known today as BP.

This division continued until August of 1941, when Britain and the Soviet Union conducted a joint, three-week military campaign and deposed the pro-German Shah, installed his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. For the next five years, the two foreign nations to oversaw what had now come to be called Iran.

Colonel Vladimir P Liakhov, commander of Persian Cossack Brigade, shelled Persia’s new parliament, the Majlis, and executed several constitutionalist leaders in 1908. Out of gratitude, Mohammad Ali Shah appointed him Military Governor of Teheran.

In early 1946, the British pulled out, but the Red Army stayed in Northern Iran well beyond an exit deadline stipulated in the Teheran Conference of 1943.

By early 1946, the Cold War was starting and Stalin tried to prolong control over northern Iran by setting up two puppet Soviet republics and signing a oil treaty with Teheran that gave the Soviet Union ownership of 51 percent of northern Iran’s oil deposits. But soon after Red Army troops withdrew from northern Iran, the puppet republics collapsed. In late 1947, Iran’s parliament refused to ratify the oil agreement.

With this history in mind, I could barely repress a smile Wednesday as I sat in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s comfortable new press auditorium building. Minister Sergei Lavrov, perhaps hoping that no one in the hall knew history, was sternly warning that interference in the internal affairs of Iran is “impermissible.”

Here, morality in diplomacy may be dictated by changing realities on the ground.

Six decades of oil earnings and a swelling young population have given Iran a powerful military machine. Now, it may be building a nuclear bomb.

In contrast, the Russian amoeba has retreated. With an aging and shrinking population, Kremlin power projection has dramatically ebbed from the Soviet era high water mark.

In the Caspian, post-Soviet Moscow’s control has receded to about 20 percent of the 7,000 km shoreline. And half of the Russia portion is in Dagestan, where currently the hottest insurgency is underway in Russia’s Islamic south. Instead of Moscow reaching across the Caspian to destabilize Northern Iran, Moscow now fears Iran reaching across the Caspian to destabilize southern Russia.

“The Russians at Isfahan” --sketch by Eugene Dambians printed in the Paris weekly, Le Petit Journal, April 23, 1916.

Last year’s Arab Spring, ended a series of Soviet legacy relationships. Russian influence in the Mediterranean receded to a toehold in Tarsus, a naval base on Syria’s coast. Now, Russia seeks to prop up Syria’s government, its last Arab ally in the Mediterranean. This month, Russia sent to Syria its last aircraft carrier and fresh supplies of bullets for Syria’s army. But a large question mark hangs over the future of Syria.

And the Russian public has little taste in overseas military entanglement, whether Syria or Iran.

In Central Asia, Russia talks loudly, but acts cautiously, In June 2010, Roza Otunbayeva, then president of Kyrgyzstan, publicly asked Moscow four times to send troops to end ethnic rioting in Osh. President Medvedev replied that he would study the matter.

Russia’s political system may be authoritarian. But the Kremlin keeps its ear close to the ground through an extensive public opinion polling system.

A weakened military, an aging population, and little popular support for military adventures – these were not the concerns of Ivan the Terrible, or of his modern day equivalent, Joseph Stalin.

So, today, as the Russian amoeba retracts, there is no indication that Russia’s leaders want to tangle with Teheran.

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.

Behind Russia’s Protests: Artistic Ferment

Posted January 16th, 2012 at 7:50 pm (UTC+0)

PERM, Russia – On one wall, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin happily brandishes a pistol, as his arch-nemesis, Mikhail Khordokovsky, smiles enigmatically from behind prison bars. Nearby, identical Putin heads are superimposed on rows of neighborhood boys in a group photo.

“Motherland” is the theme of the art show at the Perm Museum of Contemporary Art, a state-supported institution. Marat Guelman, the curator, does not shy from including paintings that do not show Russia’s prime minister in the kind of action man poses that the Kremlin prefers.



In recent weeks, the world has awakened up to the fact that not all Russians want Vladimir Putin to be president for life. And the Russians turning out for midwinter protests are only the visible tip of a larger social iceberg of skepticism. Out of sight are large numbers of Russians who either tune out of politics, or for whom the Putin mystique is long gone.

Guelman told me at the opening of Motherland, in Perm, at the Museum of Contemporary Art : “What we are doing here is more important than the presidential elections. We’ve found a strategy to make people’s lives better in Russia. Not to wait to elect the right president, but to start locally and to create a normal society.”

Well before protests broke out last month, Russian artists happily satirized the czar-like airs of the nation’s strong man. Art, live theater and opposition newspapers — all media with limited audiences — have long been allowed largely free rein in modern Russia.

Western reporters, eager to find art censorship in authoritarian Russia, focused on the legal travails of Voina, or War, a St. Petersburg art collective with an anarchist bent. Voina’s latest legal cases stem from two recent pieces of “performance art” — filming Voina members turning over a police car, and, more recently, burning an (empty) police truck. While such actions may have artistic merit, I am sure that if they took place in New York, there would be arrests and prosecutions.

In reality, Russia’s art scene is about as free as in New York, Berlin or London.

Guelman’s museum, known as PERMM, writes of his show: “Motherland is not a political exhibition, and it’s only political message is that the museum, PERMM, is unregulated, uncensored art space.”

Today’s artistic freedom contrasts sharply with the artistic repression of the Soviet era, symbolized by the so-called “Bulldozer Show” of 1974. In response to an unauthorized show of avant garde art, the KGB sent bulldozers, water cannons, and dump trucks to break up the show and destroying most of the paintings in the process. The next year, in 1975, Vladimir Putin joined the KGB.

In Prime Minister Putin’s Russia, a largely unregulated art scene is no accident. It is part of a careful information control of Kremlin strategists. They let artists and intellectuals blow off steam, knowing that gallery shows and opposition newspapers have small audiences in a nation of 142 million people.

In contrast, the Kremlin keeps tight control over television and most radio. This strategy proved successful for the Putin decade – the 2000’s.

Then the Internet exploded in Russia. Now anti-Putin images, like the ones here, can suddenly bounce all over the nation. Before, a political comedy session in a Moscow coffee shop might draw 80 people, usually converts to the anti-Putin cause. Now, anti-Putin political comedy shows and video clips draw 1 million hits.

Putin defenders reply that modern art is for snobs and intellectuals. They say that Russia’s silent majority will vote for Mr. Putin on March 4. (And as some here like to point out, American Republicans often charge that most American journalists and intellectuals sympathize with the Democratic Party, but that America’s silent majority votes conservative).

The Russians may be right. In recent polls, 42 to 48 percent of respondent indicated that they will vote for Mr. Putin in the presidential elections. The Kremlin’s challenge of the next few weeks is to convert this core of supporters into a real majority, allowing Mr. Putin to win on the first round.

With the number of Russian internet users at 51 million and climbing, more and more people are saying that this will be Russia’s last “television election.”

Instead of 50 Moscow intellectuals in a coffeehouse, now 50 million Russians can watch Marat Guelman (in a hooded jacket) and Syava, a Perm group, rap in their music video for the Motherland show.

In English, the refrain goes:
We are children of the Soviet times,
We walk down dark streets named after Lenin,
New leaders look at us from the wall,
And we’re still waiting for change.

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.



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.



July 2024
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