20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, Nikolai Petrov analyzes the recent elites reshuffling; New Times examines Putin’s presidential administration and the limits to its authority; Oleg Balanovsky comments on Putin’s claims that foreign agents are allegedly collecting DNA samples from Russians to create “ethnic bioweapons” and engage in biological warfare with Russia; Tatiana Stanovaya writes how Putin is forced to exist in two worlds—the “decent” one that upholds democracy and a cruel geopolitical “reality” where Russia is a besieged fortress; and Alexander Cherkasov commemorates victims of political repressions.


Despite the elites reshuffling in Russia, some of the key members of the Putin system remain intact. Depicted above (left to right): Deputy Prime Ministers Alexander Khloponin and Dmitry Kozak, Kremlin First Deputy Chief of Staff Sergei Kiriyenko and Kremlin Chief of Staff Anton Vaino. Photo: Alexei Nikolsky / TASS


  1. Carnegie.ru: How Fear Is Transforming the Political Elite in Russia

  • Since 2014, the Russian political elite have faced a radical personnel shake-up affecting officials in state corporations and security forces, and most recently governors, almost a quarter of whom have been replaced. The reshuffling is strategic rather than situational, argues Nikolai Petrov of the Center for Political and Geographical Research.
  • On the one hand, this is an update to the staff, but on the other, it reflects deeper changes in the regime. Not only has it duplicated many structures that already existed, but Putin has also paralyzed the will of the elite to resist reorganization, making officials easier to control, but incapable of being mobilized to implement any type of project.
  • Many have characterized the updates to the governor positions as the rise of the young technocrats, but more indicative is the fact that those dismissed were perceived as burdens to the presidential elections. Their replacements are expected to provide at least short-term positive effects in the most electorally significant regions.
  • It also marks a shift in the state system, as “regional elites” disappear, giving way to the rise of a “nomenklatura elite.” Differing from the typical political elite, whose success is based on merit or experience, the positions for the nomenklatura elite are determined by their utility and absolute loyalty to their patron.
  • According to Petrov, this signifies that the authority of the president is growing—not only in the face of governors, but also in the electoral system—and a turn from soft to rigid authoritarianism with elements of totalitarianism.
  • Experts have suggested different models for Putin’s elite, and Petrov favors the “royal court” analogy, which, having taken shape after 2014, is characterized by:
    • The progressive weakness of all institutions, except presidential power.
    • Dependence on the leader and those connected to him, rather than electoral politics.
    • The hierarchy of specific people, rather than the hierarchy of posts, making physical access to the leader more important than formal status in the system.
    • The president as an absolute mediator, without major elite groups that represent various interests.
  • In this nascent system, the old rules are nullified, but the new ones remain unclear. Right now, the Kremlin is turning it into a single, automated machine where governors and other officials function as transmission links between the president and the executors of his will.
  • But because the current system is unable to enact any project, Petrov predicts that it will have to change after the presidential elections whether it wants to or not.

Carnegie.ru, Как страх трансформирует политическую элиту России, Николай Петров, 30 октября 2017 г.


  1. New Times: The Main Body of Power

  • While Putin’s presidential administration is an institution not mentioned in the Russian Constitution, today it is a more important body than the government itself. Journalist Denis Vardanyan examines Putin’s presidential administration, the limits to its authority, and where its role overlaps with formal government officials.
  • This role for the presidential administration has always existed, but was finally fixed in place when Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, bringing many former ministers with him who now serve as understudies in various departments, duplicating the jobs of—and sometimes even subordinating—ministers.
  • According to a high ranking official in the Kremlin who spoke with New Times, the presidential administration independently oversees whole areas of national development and duplicates the functions of many ministries. The personnel reshuffle in 2016-2017 made it clear that the role of the presidential administration is in electing Putin to a fourth term.
  • Vardanyan underscores various figures within the presidential administration who are acting in significant political roles.
  • Former Head of the Presidential Administration Sergei Ivanov left his post to become the president's special envoy for environmental issues. But while this is a formally low position, he still holds the status of first deputy head of administration with membership of the Security Council and the ability to give interviews on international issues, typically the privilege of Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov.
  • Anton Vaino, the successor of Putin’s longtime head of administration Sergei Ivanov, was first seen as a young technocrat without any interest in politics, but has proved to be one of the most active heads of the Kremlin administration, delving into domestic politics.
  • In similar positions are Alexei Gromov, who now has almost complete control over the media, and Sergei Kiriyenko, who has turned the domestic affairs sector of the Kremlin administration into a headquarters for the presidential election campaign.
  • New Times sources generally expect that after the election, Putin will want to continue updating the elite and dismiss many officials—meanwhile, Vardanyan says, they have to prove to the president that they’re needed for the election campaign.

New Times, Главный орган власти, Денис Варданян, 30 октября 2017 г.


  1. RBC: Scientists and Alchemists: Why There’s No Need to Be Afraid of Biomaterial Collectors

  • Earlier this week, some Russian scientists and Kremlin officials, including Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov, were quoted in the media revealing that foreign agents are allegedly collecting DNA samples from Russians of different ethnicities to create “ethnic bioweapons” and engage in biological warfare with Russia.
  • Oleg Balanovsky of the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics writes that this is a myth created in the imagination of alchemists and journalists that has been disproved by scientists.
  • Human DNA varies so slightly that there are no genes that are present in the majority of Russians but completely absent in other countries, says Balanovsky. If these “ethnic bioweapons” were created, they would be able to kill 99% of populations anywhere.  
  • Russian genes also differ little from those of Europeans, and the few genes that do are found in a very small proportion of the population. Regardless, millions of samples were already moved to Europe and the U.S. during multiple waves of emigration from Russia. One could collect samples from U.S. citizens of Russian origin in order to obtain data.
  • The genomes of hundreds of Russians have also been studied for several years and published in scientific articles, which are freely available on the Internet, precisely because they are not suitable for creating any “ethnic weapon” and need not be secret.
  • Restricting genetic research, as some have advocated in light of the “ethnic bioweapons” claim, could also hinder medical progress—analysis of genetic diversity helps fight disease.
  • Further, without this research, it would be impossible to determine the geographical origin of a person by his or her DNA, which is not only in the interest of private genealogical purposes, but in the state interest in its search for criminals.
  • Finally, concludes Balanovsky, genetic history is part of the history of Russia and the history of mankind. In the end, the author is certain that society will listen to science, rather than to the horrors bellowed by modern alchemists.

РБК, Ученые и алхимики: почему не надо бояться сборщиков «биоматериалов», Олег Балановский, 2 ноября 2017 г.


  1. Republic: Sovereign and Liberal, or How the Secret World of Vladimir Putin Is Being Manifested 

  • Tatiana Stanovaya of the Center for Political Technologies discusses the starting position for Putin’s fourth term, which is split between the president’s rhetorical support of a “decent” world that upholds rights and freedoms and a cruel, geopolitical “reality” that views Russia as a besieged fortress.
  • While Putin recently held a meeting with the Russian Human Rights Council, the hostile relationship between the president and activists is like a marriage of convenience: for activists, this is an important public act that elevates their agenda to the federal level, and for Putin, maintaining a dialogue is an unpleasant but necessary duty.
  • If stripped of its Russian context, Putin’s “value system” mirrors that of the world’s democratic leaders: he speaks publicly in favor of universal human rights and decries political persecution and election manipulation.
  • But his presence in this civilized space has become increasingly ceremonial—to maintain his status as a “decent president,” he is forced to follow certain rules.
  • In the “real” world where Putin lives and makes decisions, Russia is the center of the hostile aspirations of the outside world, an object of intense interest to foreign intelligence, and a target of biological, genetic, nuclear and chemical weapons. In this world, international norms and law are devoid of meaning—there is no equality between states, and human rights activities are only a cover for foreign interference.
  • The only cordon on the enemy’s path is repressive power—institutions like the press, the opposition, and NGOs must be controlled.
  • On the eve of another election, Putin’s actions are imbued with a certain political nobility, as if he deigns to support human rights activists. But his reaction to the attack on Tatiana Felgenhauer of Echo Moskvy (he doesn’t understand why the media politicized the event), and to the idea that foreign agents are using Russian genetics to create bioweapons and attack Russia, say otherwise.
  • With Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012, a rift formed between liberals and conservatives, globalists and isolationists. Two years later, Crimea upheld his position and an isolationist, anti-globalization logic came to dominate.
  • But Putin, Stanovaya concludes, believes he is the greatest liberal in Russia, yet the only one convinced that rights and freedoms are not so much fundamental values ​​as vulnerabilities to his “besieged fortress.” And within this global order, only a responsible political elite, not the law, can save the country from degradation.

Republic, Государь и либерал, или Как тайный мир Владимира Путина становится явным, Татьяна Становая, 1 ноября 2017 г.


  1. Vedomosti: Memory and Monument

  • Historian Alexander Cherkasov, a board member of the international NGO Memorial, considers the history of commemorating victims of political repressions in Russia, and what the Wall of Sorrow unveiled in Moscow on October 30 means for commemoration.
  • Memorial came into being thirty years ago when young activists began collecting signatures for the creation of a memorial complex that would serve to commemorate victims of political repressions in Russia and prevent a repeat of this totalitarian past.
  • While underground literature, memoirs and fiction began interacting with the memory of Stalin in the late 1980s, history came later, so to speak. With the partial opening of the archives in the 1990s, hundreds of volumes of research on the political repressions were published.
  • Today, Memorial’s database lists 2.7 million of the 12 million victims considered under the 1991 Rehabilitation Act. It will take decades to complete, but it prevents the tragedy from becoming just a statistic.
  • Memorial’s activities spiraled into a mass movement and the state opened an account for donations to the proposed monument, which eventually culminated in the Wall of Sorrow.
  • In addition to other forms of commemoration, October 30 has been marked as the day of political prisoners since 1991 and for the past 11 years on the eve of the holiday people have gathered in cities across Russia and abroad to read and honor the names of those killed.
  • With the Wall of Sorrow, the government recognizes the terror and mass murders as criminal, but Memorial’s overall task has not been accomplished: Stalin, the symbol of the Terror, is now glorified in Russia, many memorial organizations have been declared as “foreign agents,” and the space for freedom is shrinking.
  • Still, Cherkasov argues that the Wall of Sorrow can become a potent symbol if there is significant meaning behind it—that is, if the commemoration process focuses on the comprehension and awareness of these crimes.
  • Thirty years ago, it seemed like political repression in the USSR was a thing of the past—the very foundations of the Soviet state and social system were disappearing. But judging by the dozens who were convicted in the “Bolotnaya case” and by people taken into custody from Crimea and Ukraine as political prisoners, Cherkasov argues that October 30 is not just history—the past is here, just outside the window.

Ведомости, Память и памятник, Александр Черкасов, 30 октября 2017 г.