20 years under Putin: a timeline

In this week’s roundup, Alexander Baunov and Ekaterina Schulman analyze the U.S. Treasury’s “Kremlin report,” The New Times writes about the meaning and consequences of the January 28 protest in Russia; Alexander Rubtsov discusses the recent reforms in the field of science that shocked members of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Sergei Medvedev explains why the Russian authorities banned Armando Iannucci’s latest comedy titled “The Death of Stalin.”


January 28, 2018. Protesters in Moscow support Alexei Navalny's call for boycott of presidential elections. Photo: Victor Kruchinin/ SOPA / TASS.


  1. Carnegie.ru: The Odd Ones Should Be Crossed Out. Why American Bureaucrats Are Rallying the Russian Elite 

  • Alexander Baunov, editor-in-chief of Carnegie Moscow, analyzes the U.S. Treasury’s new list of Russian “oligarchs” close to Putin who could potentially be sanctioned—a list that Baunov argues showcases the fatigue of U.S. officials from uncertain demands and vague goals when it comes to punishing Russia.
  • To Baunov, Russia can be punished with sanctions in two ways. They could fracture the elite, separating the neutral “lambs” from Putin’s “goats”—the U.S. could then isolate the latter and work with the former, threatening the latter as this would incentivize their cooperation.
  • Or, the U.S. could ensure that capital, political, and intellectual support flows to the “lambs,” increasing their political weight, and they in turn will eventually prevail and reform Russian politics.
  • But the Treasury’s list demonstrates a lack of clear criteria or direction for the punishment of Russian business leaders and politicians. This is reminiscent of earlier American public opinion, which began to favor collective punishment over case-by-case punishment.
  • If the entire Russian population is de facto recognized as the source of collective threat and the subject of collective punishment, then why shouldn’t sanctions be extended to the Russian elite?
  • The list does not increase, but rather diminishes the influence of those who seek a transitional strategy for a less belligerent Russia. It also fails to separate the constructive and aggressive part of the elite—instead it separates the elite from the people—and instead of blurring Putin’s support, it could consolidate the elite behind him.
  • Baunov concludes that the three sets of sanctions under Obama each had a clear task: 1) to punish those who participated in the Crimean annexation; 2) to stop the war in the Donbass, and if possible, to return it to Ukraine; and 3) to punish the Russian special services for their complicity in electoral hacking. They were all concerned with the unity of the Western world.
  • Now, any contact with a high-enough Russian can be criminalized without warning, and the professional community is puzzled at the fact that the American political elite is drawing them into a rhetorical struggle at the expense of their own professionalism, without a clear goal or guaranteed result.

Carnegie.ru, Ненужных зачеркнуть. Зачем американские бюрократы сплачивают российскую элиту, Александр Баунов, 30 января 2018 г.


  1. Echo of Moscow: Ekaterina Schulman on Navalny, the voters’ strike, and the “Kremlin report.”

  • Political scientist Ekaterina Schulman discusses Navalny and the voters’ strike, and shares her opinion on the U.S. “Kremlin report.”
  • In many Russian cities, hundreds of people joined the opposition protests on January 28. But, Shulman notes, the numbers—of those who showed up, of those who were detained—are not important. Rather, one should focus on the regularity and structure of opposition protests: if they happen, and if they happen regardless of pressure from the administrative or law enforcement authorities, which regional branches submit applications, which organize media support, which cover detentions, which follow the fate of detainees.
  • It’s also important to watch what happens after a protest is over, as that’s when the most interesting and scandalous things typically occur.  
  • Schulman also references the St. Petersburg civil rights activist Dinar Idrisov, who was beaten up in the entrance of his home by unknown attackers on the day of the protest. The reason for such dramatic stories is because the pre-election period is anxiety-provoking for all parts of the state machine. For the law enforcement agencies, this is the time when they must expose threats and demonstrate that they are fighting these threats.
  • But the pre-election period is also a time of great opportunity, when local authorities feel vulnerable and therefore forced to somehow listen to their citizens—or at least not beat them up or evict them, because in the end they are voters.  
  • Moving on to the “Kremlin report,” Shulman identifies it as simply a list of people who the American government labels as “oligarchs.” Their only identification is their financial prowess—they are billionaires—and their presence on the list 1) does not mean they will be sanctioned automatically, and 2) does not mean there is any evidence of malicious activity.
  • Russians always consider domestic policy more important than foreign policy, Schulman argues, and with the Kremlin list, the same can be said of the U.S. What’s striking about the document is not the U.S. attitude toward Russia, but what it tells us about internal relations among the U.S. political elite.
  • Moreover, the list is highly superficial. Most members of the Duma (the lower chamber of Russia’s Federal Assembly), most governors, and most leaders of state media are left out. There is not one member of the upper chamber, Federation Council (except for the speakers of both chambers) on the list—only the members of the Russian Security Council are included.
  • People who have long been living abroad, persecuted by the Russian authorities made it onto the list, while no leaders from the Central Bank, Accounts Chamber, or the Central Election Commission are included.
  • Thinking of the potential repercussions for Russian officials or U.S.-Russian relations, Schulman argues that typically there is inverse proportionality between the scorching rhetoric and real actions, which is a good thing.
  • Right now, Russia’s Federation Council is gathering a commission to determine what “interference in domestic affairs” has been committed, and how Russia has “violated sovereignty.” In the meantime, Schulman recommends watching the fate of the draft media law on “foreign agents,” which passed the first reading on January 12.

Эхо Москвы, Статус: Екатерина Шульман, 30 января 2018 г.


  1. New Times: The Voters’ Strike Took Place. What Next?

  • Elena Teslova of The New Times asks political scientists to share their input on whether Navalny’s January 28 protest was successful, what the tactics of the authorities are, and how the situation will develop further.
  • To Dmitry Oreshkin, the fact that Navalny’s protest sparked rallies in 100 Russian cities—unprecedented since the late 1980s—means that the opposition leader has successfully reached the federal level.
  • But only his supporters in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Yekaterinburg numbered in the thousands—elsewhere there were at best hundreds. Oreshkin posits that this indicates structural changes in support for Navalny.
  • Navalny’s called-for boycott of the elections is “too dry and rational” to incentivize his supporters to fight the police. Political commentator Leonid Radzikhovsky argues that a clearer idea and more constructive agenda are needed to unite the opposition.
  • Boris Makarenko of the Center for Political Technologies notes that instead of detaining protesters, the police have learned to patiently wait for them to disperse—eventually they will go home of their own accord. Navalny has yet to provide a response to this tactic.
  • Makarenko also believes that the opposition should play a role in the elections, rather than boycotting them altogether—a strategy Navalny has already dismissed. This is bad PR for Navalny—the authorities will place Communist Party presidential candidate Pavel Grudinin at the center of its information campaign against the opposition, while Navalny will be absent.
  • The electorate is concerned with the moral component, but also with its real living conditions. In the end, Nalvany’s career depends on how the government evolves after March 18. Once the pre-election issues pass, “Navalny will be able to come to the forefront again,” according to Abbas Gallyamov.

New Times, Забастовка избирателей. Что дальше? Елена Теслова, 29 января 2018 г.


  1. RBС: Doubling Reality: How Russian Science Is Forced to Imitate

  • Alexander Rubtsov of the Russian Academy of Sciences discusses the recent reforms in the field of science fostered by the Russian president and the Academy’s leadership. Two decisions made in January shocked members of the Academy: the promise of higher salaries and the plan to double the number of scientific articles for release.
  • Scientific issues are clearly secondary to this reform. Putin promised to dramatically increase salaries in socially and strategically important professions—medicine, education, and science—a restoration of justice for these historically underpaid, but noble fields.
  • But the plan to double scientific publications is unrealistic: if scientists are able to double the fruits of their labor, this falsely implies that they were performing half-heartedly before.
  • The plan also would undermine motivation, adding pressure and artificializing the entire work process, and seeks to increase the number of publications while reducing the real “output.”
  • Rubtsov also differentiates between the natural sciences, where there can be a long-term experiment whose results are published in a short article, and the humanities, where the text itself is the experiment. The sciences are also limited in their readership; the need for articles to be accepted by certified scientific journals hinders public access to their findings.
  • More than anything, Rubtsov argues, the mere number of publications is not a valid indicator of their significance, relevance, or quality. The system is built to push people to create quantitatively.
  • The decision seems less absurd if you think of it as a political technique. It is the same as a leader announcing that he will “double GDP,”—a symbolic achievement, not based on actual work or quality results. Doubling is not an indicator of scientific activity, but of loyalty and managerial zeal.
  • In Rubtsov’s view, if the president declares at an international forum that Russia has doubled its annual domestic science output, it will only provoke ridicule from the audience.
  • Finally, Rubtsov concludes, scientists are outraged that this decision was made with no input from them at all, illuminating the need to develop an adequate, scientifically based set of criteria and methodology for assessing the effectiveness of scientific management that involves both the Federal Agency for Scientific Organization and the Ministry of Education and Science. 

РБК, Удвоение реальности: как российскую науку заставляют заниматься имитацией, Александр Рубцов, 29 января 2018 г.  


  1. Republic: The Extermination of Tyrants. Why the Authorities Are Afraid of “The Death of Stalin”

  • Journalist Sergei Medvedev discusses the showing of Armando Iannucci’s “The Death of Stalin” in Moscow, where the film’s rental was terminated by the Ministry of Culture.
  • Last week, the Moscow cinema Pioneer continued to show the British comedy, despite the Ministry of Culture’s withdrawal. In response, the police arrived at the movie theater to withdraw the film.
  • Why such a potent response? The entire film raises the question of whether it is a dark comedy or hyper-realism. Iannucci is well-known for political satire, and while viewers shouldn’t look for factual accuracy in the film, it nevertheless presents a deep truth, mercilessly capturing the spirit of the time, where fear was mixed with absurdity and laughter with death.
  • Grotesque and caricaturistic, Stalin’s cruel and lonely character meets an absurd and ugly death, lying in a puddle of his own urine—hopelessly and ridiculously, other caricatures try to cover up their Darwinian struggle for survival with party slogans.
  • This is probably the main threat  the film poses for the current government, argues Medvedev: Rulers are supposed to be portrayed as great, scary, helpless, or disgusting, but never ridiculous. The legendary Spitting Image puppets (known as Kukly in Russian) belong to the Yeltsin era and the books of Vladimir Sorokin. “Laughter is the Achilles’ heel of power,” writes the author.
  • The authorities fear the comedy for two reasons, concludes Medvedev: 1) the myth of Stalin lies at the root of Russian power as an indulgence—the ultimate monopoly of the state on violence; and 2) deep down, the authorities suspect that they themselves are as grotesque and ridiculous as the characters in the movie.
  • They are afraid that with the inevitable change of power (or simply after March 18 when personnel reshuffling begins), the Kremlin will see more cockroach racing with the same tragicomic scenes.

Republic, Истребление тиранов. Почему власть боится «Смерти Сталина», Сергей Медведев, 29 января 2018 г.