20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s media highlights, Alexander Arkhangelsky explains why the Kremlin avoids an ethical assessment of the 1917 Revolution; Igor Nikolayev questions Rosstat’s recent data; Alexander Kynev discusses the beginning of a new wave of reshuffles among Russia’s governors; Pavel Kanygin writes about the assassination of the last “people’s commander” in Donbass; and Artyom Shaibman delves into the meaning of the recent tensions between Russia and Belarus. If you are interested in receiving this weekly roundup in your mailbox every Friday, let us know at info@imrussia.org.


Red Army soldiers in Petrograd on October 1, 1917. Photo: TASS. 


Republic.ru: “Decide for Yourself.” Why does the Kremlin Avoid an Ethical Evaluation of the 1917 Revolution?

  • Author: journalist Alexander Arkhangelsky.
  • There are plenty of programs in the Russian state media dedicated to the 1917 Revolution, but the author notes that the wording of the issues and questions discussed is so vague that it defeats the purpose of getting actual answers.
  • This approach differs from other popular discussions on issues related to Ukraine, Europe, or America, where there was no shortage of uncompromised, clear-cut, and rigid assessments in the state media.
  • Arkhangelsky argues that the vague wording surrounding the 1917 Revolution can be explained by the Kremlin’s reluctance to address difficult questions of Russia’s history (e.g.: was the revolution a catastrophe or a triumph?) and desire to avoid ethical an evaluation at all costs. The Kremlin sidesteps it by offering a seemingly democratic option: “Let people decide for themselves.”
  • But this is just another manipulation tool. The idea is to level this fundamental discourse with a simple conversation within the lines of “tastes differ.”
  • Arkhangelsky writes that one logical assessment could be as follows: the 1917 Revolution is a tragic lesson of history. Launched as a great pursuit of human liberation, it ended in moral and physical collapse—“The collapse of a great human utopia.” The lesson is a monument to the fatality of political absolutism, absence of choice, and violence against people.
  • Yet, the Russian authorities avoid genuine discussions of 1917, preferring 1945 (victory in World War II) as the starting point of Soviet history—a better rallying point for national consolidation.
  • The Kremlin’s ideologues prefer to present Russia’s history as a “history of greatness,” and 1917 seems like an unfortunate transgression from its otherwise infallible, thousand-year-old path.
  • The Russian authorities are thus trying to irrationalize the roots of their power, because when people remember that power has a rational source, they stop being afraid.
  • Arkhangelsky concludes that the core reason why the Kremlin doesn’t want to answer the crucial questions about the 1917 Revolution is because these questions are essentially about the current situation: what country we are building today; what is more important—the state or the individual; how one should assess state violence.  

Republic.ru, «Решайте сами». Почему Кремль избегает этической оценки революции 1917 года?Александр Архангельский, 6 февраля 2017 г.


Vedomosti: Uncertain Calculations

  • Author: economist Igor Nikolayev, director of the Institute of Strategic Analysis at FBK Grant Thornton, one of Russia’s leading audit and consulting groups.
  • Nikolayev discusses Rosstat’s (Russia’s Federal Service of State Statistics) controversial tweaking of past data and what looks like manipulating statistics to match the political agenda.
  • For example, according to Rosstat’s revised data for 2015, the country’s GDP contracted only by 2.8, not 3.7 percent as had been previously reported. And according to the latest outlook, last year GDP contracted only by 0.2 percent, which means that in Q4 the economy grew by 1 percent.
  • Rosstat’s data differs from the information provided by another official source, the Ministry of Economic Development, which estimated that in 2016 Russia’s GDP contracted by 0.6 percent.
  • Nikolayev questions Rosstat’s 2016 annual outlook, since its data also doesn’t match information provided in its own quarterly reports. If the Russian economy started to grow, as Rosstat’s new data essentially suggests, the author wonders why it had no positive impact on the standards of living that continue to decline.
  • For instance, retail turnover was decreasing at a faster rate in December 2016—by 5.9 percent, while in 2016 its overall decline was at 5.2 percent.
  • What makes these discrepancies even more suspicious is the fact that Rosstat doesn’t make any public comments or provide any explanations of how exactly its analysis of the statistical data has been changed.
  • Explanations are in order, argues Nikolayev, as unclear reasons for statistical revisions raise uncertainty in the economy, named as one of the key constraints of entrepreneurial activity in Russia. While it seems that the goal of these revisions is to make businesses more optimistic, trust in the data is low and optimism suppressed.

Ведомости, Неопределенные подсчеты, Игорь Николаев, 7 февраля 2017 г.


RBC: The Rules of Survival: How Will the New Governors Differ From the Old Ones?

  • Author: political analyst Alexander Kynev.
  • Kynev discusses the recent wave of dismissals of governors in Russia.
  • New gubernatorial elections are due in 2017. Governors tend to leave a few months before their term expires, around five years after their initial oath. This has recently happened in Perm Territory and Buryatia, and is expected in a number of other regions.
  • This is done to allow governors (should they run for re-election) or their replacements a few extra months to set up an election campaign and consolidate support amongst the electorate.
  • The reason why the “rotation” started early this time is because 2018 is a presidential election year, and the regions need more time to adapt to their new governors.   
  • Kynev recalls that the first “reshuffling” occurred in 2009-2010, and regional heads were changed over en masse in time for the 2011 parliamentary elections.  
  • The second wave occurred in the first half of 2012 when governors were replaced in regions where United Russia showed the worst results. This allowed the federal elite to share power across the regions.  
  • Kynev ponders whether the usual tactics for governors to survive the elections can work this time. His answer is yes, for the most part. The support of elites is still centrally important. The most effective governors are those who are able to cooperate and strike deals with different groups.
  • Electoral results are less important now. This is due to the general loss of legitimacy in elections on both a local and national scale.  
  • Public scandals and personal popularity are both as effective as ever, and many governors actively utilize both factors.  
  • Kynev notes that the upcoming wave of elections will be marked by the arrival of a new breed of “young technocrats.” Their role is to give the impression of a new political atmosphere, but they will still continue to serve the federal government.   
  • Besides the unique PR effect that “young technocrats” have on the Russian political process, they come with a particular risk: none of them has any experience in public service, let alone electioneering.

РБК, Правила выживания: чем новые губернаторы будут отличаться от старых Александр Кынев, 8 февраля 2017 г.


Novaya Gazeta: Givi, the “Last Hero”

  • Author: special correspondent Pavel Kanygin.
  • On February 8, a popular figure of the war in south-eastern Ukraine, “people’s commander” Givi (real name Mikhail Tolstykh), was assassinated in his own station at Makeyevka. Another “people’s commander,” Motorola (real name Arseny Pavlov), was killed four months before that.
  • Both Givi and Motorola were the most notorious “people’s commanders” in the DNR (the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic) and the key media figures of the war in Ukraine. Both loved media attention, eagerly giving interviews to foreign journalists. Russia’s Life News channel established mutually beneficial cooperation with them by purchasing the commanders’ videos and presenting them as their own.
  • Yet neither of them was the hero of a key battle or could boast of a great feat of arms. Their stories of military adventures (like the battle for Ilovaysk) sounded unconvincing, and it seemed that real war was not part of their mission.
  • According to the author, their key role was not to participate in the actual fighting, but to serve as a facade for the real (i.e. Russian) military forces.
  • Givi’s assassination marks the end of the “people’s war” in Donbass and the establishment of a full military monopoly in the region—military units formed by Russian advisers from Russia’s “servicemen on leave” and locals. “Hybrid war heroes were no longer needed,” concludes Kanygin.

Новая газета, «Последний герой» Гиви, Павел Каныгин, 8 февраля 2017 г.


Carnegie.ru: Shouting Until Putin Hears You: How Far Will the Belarus Situation Go?  

  • Author: Artyom Shaibman, political columnist at Tut.by, a Belarusian media outlet.
  • The current dispute between Moscow and Minsk is multifaceted, as ever. Each month it reaches a new area—from energy to food products.  
  • As the bilateral relationship deteriorates, new scandals have broken out, such as the arrest of pro-Russian publicists or the extradition of a Russian-Israeli blogger from Belarus to Azerbaijan.  
  • In response, Russia’s FSB imposed a passport control regime on the border where such a system has practically never existed before.  
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko decided not to respond to the FSB decision so as not to create further problems for ordinary Russians. In his public comments, Lukashenko refrained from blaming Putin directly for the current tensions, rather he leveled his accusation at the Kremlin elite.  
  • Shaibman argues that this rhetorical maneuver gives Putin the opportunity to backtrack, should he wish to, while saving face.  
  • Traditionally, in its dealings with Belarus the Russian elite has employed one of three approaches:
    • The pragmatist approach: Officials and experts who adopt the pragmatist approach have long considered Minsk to be sponging from Moscow, and their view is that it should no longer be “hand-fed.”
    • The imperial-nationalist approach: This has always been the most popular option among Slavophiles and Eurasians. As long as Lukashenko is following the integration path, he’s “one of ours;” but if he begins to flirt with the West then he needs to be reminded who is the “younger brother.”
    • The Putin approach: Putin has long played the role of arbitrator between the two forces mentioned above. His is the centrist view.
  • Conflicts between Moscow and Minsk have always arisen when the Kremlin line swings to one of the two extremes—either the pragmatist or the imperial nationalist approach; and the recent problems are symptomatic of just such a change.
  • The situation looks as though Vladimir Putin has been distracted by his global agenda and ceased to pay attention to the smaller issues around him. And it seems that Lukashenko is trying to make a noise so that the Russian president pays attention to him. Even though it is clear that the elites in Minsk and in Moscow will adhere to bilateral integration, the current conflict will go down in history as a marker of the impending schism.  

Carnegie.ru, Докричаться до Путина. Как далеко зайдет конфликт с Белоруссией, Артем Шрайбман, 6 февраля 2017 г.


Nathan Andrews helped compile this week's roundup.