20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup: Andrei Zubov explains why the Russian authorities are ignoring the centennial the Russian Revolution; The Bell gauges the reactions of Russian businessmen on the recent U.S. sanctions law; New Times outlines potential strategies for Ksenia Sobchak’s presidential campaign; Ivan Kurilla discusses the decision not to revoke Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky’s doctorate of historical sciences; Alexander Rubtsov juxtaposes the new official rhetoric of modernization and the growing abundance of various “fakes” in Russia’s political and social life.


A Red Guard unit at the Smolny Institute before a combat mission assigned by the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee on October 25, 2017. Photo: Pyotr Otsup / TASS.


  1. Novaya Gazeta: A Subject of Horror

  • Like the Reformation or the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution was a turning point not only for Russia, but for the entire world. Why then, asks historian Andrei Zubov, are the Russian authorities ignoring the centennial?
  • According to the author, the October 1917 Revolution was the first time in history that a lasting terrorist expansionist regime was created. It also influenced the rise of other totalitarian and authoritarian regimes and spread communism to a third of the world by the 1980s.
  • Aside from a few communist regimes that remain today, the collapse of the USSR dismantled communism and gave rise to two types of post-communist states:
    • European countries that restored elements of pre-communist statehood (legal systems, property rights, police, symbols), and have successfully integrated into the EU, NATO, and the democratic world.
    • The majority of the 12 former Soviet republics, which quickly lost any democratic or civil rights gained in the collapse as old communist elements were restored. Communist ideology was replaced with nationalism, and property was transferred to the elites.
  • The exceptions are Georgia and Ukraine, which dropped their post-communist regimes after revolutions. Between Europe and the post-Soviet world, these countries, along with Moldova, will most likely take advantage of the opportunity to integrate with Europe, but will have to enforce systemic de-communization first.
  • In Belarus and the Russian Federation, the opposite process—“Bolshevik revanchism”—is gaining speed. Authoritarianism is tightening as leaders change legal norms, establish full control over the media, and commit other abuses.
  • At the same time, the crimes of the communist period are being covered up, and the personalities of the “Bolshevik tyrants” (Lenin, Stalin) and their henchmen (Dzerzhinsky, Kirov, Beria) are exalted. Even the FSB recognizes its successor as Lenin’s Cheka (Soviet secret police) and will celebrate the security service’s 100th anniversary this December.
  • The same goes for the state—the Tsardom of Russia, the Russian Empire, and the USSR are considered as one historical entity, and their tsars, emperors, and general secretaries as a succession of rulers, culminating with Vladimir Putin.
  • Therefore, the author argues that any mass social movement—especially one that seized power, like the October 1917 Revolution—is a subject of horror for the Kremlin elites, who control property and power in most post-Soviet states. They prefer their subjects to read history like the newly minted “Alley of Rulers” in Moscow: a continuous succession of “God-given” power that extends from antiquity to the present day.

Новая газета, Предмет ужаса, Андрей Зубов, 20 октября 2017 г.


  2. The Bell: The Oligarchs’ Turn. Russian Businessmen Prepare for Personal Sanctions

  • Journalists Irina Malkova and Svetlana Reiter gauge the reactions of Russian businessmen on the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act,” a bill signed into law by Donald Trump on August 2.   
  • Under this law, the U.S. Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, and the Director of National Intelligence are required to submit a report on Russian “oligarchs” and top officials involved in foreign policy to Congress by February 2018.
  • According to a source that spoke with The Bell, this is a way for the U.S. to signal to Russian elites that they may understand their place vis-a-vis Putin, but that they shouldn’t interfere with U.S. politics.
  • Russian businessmen fear personal sanctions that could ban their ability to enter U.S. territory, their business with American citizens and companies, or freeze their assets. Once on the blacklist of the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets, removal is next to impossible.
  • Malkova and Reiter spoke with a dozen members on the Russian Forbes list. Almost all were aware of the law and admitted their concern, unsure of the criteria the U.S. report would use to judge them. They have no contact in U.S. sanctions policy as the position has remained vacant since Trump assumed office. One source mentioned that it is necessary to fly to Washington in order to inquire about the situation.
  • While the law does not mention specific names, there is consensus among the businessmen that Oleg Deripaska, Mikhail Fridman and other Alfa-Group shareholders, including Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov, are at high risk.
  • Deripaska allegedly had relations with Paul Manafort, the former head of Trump’s staff, and Alfa-Group was mentioned in the Steele memo leaked last year as a meddler in the U.S. elections.
  • Aware that problems could arise for business magnates, the Russian authorities convened a meeting of major Russian businessmen about two years ago to warn them of the possibility of personal sanctions, two sources said. Now those concerned are hiring lawyers and reaching out to lobbyists and other contacts in Washington.
  • Two of the most reliable ways to protect against personal sanctions is divorce—a couple can register assets under the name of the wife—and selling assets.
  • Roman Abramovich and his wife, Daria Zhukova, announced their divorce on August 7, although a source close to Abramovich says this had no connection to the sanctions. Mikhail Prokhorov sold a 7 percent stake in UC Rusal on August 10—eight days after Trump signed the law—and recently decided to sell more.
  • The journalists note that the report on oligarchs and top officials has yet to be written, but Senators Ben Cardin and John McCain have appealed to Trump “to implement the law in its entirety” and the U.S. president began to delegate its implementation last week. 

The Bell, Черед олигархов. Российские бизнесмены готовятся к персональным санкциям, 24 октября 2017 г.


  1. New Times: Three Scenarios for Sobchak

  • After surveying politicians, political scientists and sociologists, journalists Elena Teslova and David Yakovlev outline three potential campaign strategies for Ksenia Sobchak:
    • Achieving the highest possible percentage of votes.
    • Fighting against other candidates (a spoiler campaign).
    • Treating the elections as a TV show, without focusing on any particular outcome.
  • Sobchak lacks a specific political program, but claims she is “against everyone,” a futile strategy that opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov doesn’t think Sobchak is serious about.
  • Gudkov is not alone in believing that Sobchak has real ambition given her participation in the Bolotnaya protests and her interview show on TV Rain. He said she would fare well with a campaign that is both style- and content-driven, building hype while answering the big questions: “Is Putin a thief?” “Who owns Crimea?”
  • Political scientist Valery Solovey thinks that a more entertaining campaign from Sobchak could revive interest in the elections. The Kremlin is also interested in a “show” and would curb Sobchak’s campaign in the event that it acquires a farcical hue.
  • Director of the Levada Center Lev Gudkov points to the possibility of a “spoiler campaign”—one that, supplemented by a “show,” will criticize Putin’s “grandfatherly” opponents, but not shake Putin himself. In fact, next to Sobchak, Putin will look like the father of the nation.
  • Sobchak’s base will be those who don’t vote or vote irregularly, young people, and those who don’t trust career politicians.
  • The Levada Center suggests that her “against everyone” platform could secure 0.5-3 percent of the vote. But she could achieve the same results as Mikhail Prokhorov (7.9 percent) in the 2012 elections, or even surpass him, if she runs a competent campaign.
  • Political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin is more optimistic. Sobchak’s fame guarantees 10±2 percent, and with a proper campaign, she could win a quarter of the votes. Though not the most objective source, a poll conducted by the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center puts Sobchak at 20 percent.
  • Vasily Yakemenko of the youth movement “Nashi” claimed that with her energy and knowledge, Sobchak will succeed “if she has enough money.”
  • A “show” campaign directed at social and TV networks would be inexpensive. But a more strategic one that mobilizes volunteers, opens regional headquarters, and represents Sobchak in the media could cost 1-2 billion rubles, estimates Oreshkin. 

New Times, Три сценария Собчак, Елена Теслова, Давид Яковлев, 23 октября 2017 г.


  1. RBC: Withdrawal or Protest: How Historians Are Reacting to Medinsky’s “Victory”

  • Historian Ivan Kurilla discusses the decision of the presidium of the Higher Attestation Commission (VAK) not to revoke Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky’s doctorate of historical sciences, and what this means for Russia’s academic community.
  • In establishing the priority and superiority of the bureaucracy over academia, the VAK’s decision deals a potentially fatal blow to the institution of awarding academic degrees in Russia.
  • This is one of many long-standing offenses. Professors in Russia continue to be deprived of time to research and teach in order to file obligatory government reports. This year, the Federal Agency of Scientific Organization—the same agency that revoked the education license of the European University in St. Petersburg—restructured the Russian Academy of Sciences.
  • For many years, Russian scientists have tried to defend peer review and other standards of evaluation, but the approval of Medinsky’s unscholarly dissertation is movement in the opposite direction.
  • Some have even speculated that soon academics will be divided into two camps, depending on where they graduated. Others hope that the legitimacy and reputation of scholars will be transferred completely abroad, so that they receive their diplomas in countries where academic institutions remain sound.
  • Kurilla posits that the VAK’s decision finally illuminates how the Russian government will celebrate the centennial of the Russian Revolution: to determine a clear boundary between the state and historians.
  • But for a regime that legitimizes itself through the past, the Medinsky affair is a point of no return; it is impossible to make plans for the future or defend the present with a fictitious, mythological history.
  • Many historians now face a choice: to leave academia or to protest. The author does not assume that historians will oppose Medinsky, but the event may bring about new organizational forms of protest, replenish the Free Historical Society, or inspire influential academics to speak out.  

РБК, Уход или протест: как отреагируют историки на «победу» Мединского, Иван Курилла, 23 октября 2017 г.


  1. Vedomosti: The New Insincerity

  • Alexander Rubtsov, the head of the Center for the Study of Ideological Processes, discusses the danger of the new rhetoric of modernization.  
  • In 2004, the very existence of Russia was tied to modernization and the economy of knowledge, innovation, and human capital. And before each election, it is necessary for the regime to invent something new.
  • This is where Putin’s latest Valdai Club speech comes in. In a return to modernization, Putin spoke on how Russia is again looking ahead to an innovative future, but already witnessing exponential—and irreversible—progress. The novelty here is not in the irreversibility of progress, but in the risks of technological backwardness and the lack of time.
  • The author remarks that it is tempting to divide technology between “military security and international politics” and social and humanitarian “decor,” but the social and humanitarian sphere is now more important than ever, especially in the field of science.
  • Despite his dubious scholarly work, the authorities made it impossible to rescind Vladimir Medinsky’s doctorate. This type of relationship between the administration and the scientific community exists, but the author says the Medinsky affair was unprecedented.  
  • Rubtsov observes that today the brain drain is growing as functionaries of the state create their own parascience, ignoring ethical norms and methods. More and more scientists are either leaving science, or emigrating from Russia.
  • In art, an abundance of fakes, supplied with “expert” conclusions and fake provenances sharply lowers the price of private collections. In science, the same tenet exists. The false discoveries, documents, and procedures, coupled with administrative pressure, is a tumor growing inside the very system of production of knowledge, Rubstov concludes. 

Ведомости, Новая неискренность, Александр Рубцов, 23 октября 2017 г.