Case closed

In November last year, Mikhail Lesin was found dead in a hotel in Washington, DC. From 1999 to 2004, Lesin was Minister of Press, Broadcasting and Mass Communication of the Russian Federation, and from 2004 to 2009 he was adviser to the President of the Russian Federation for mass media relations. Thereafter, he occupied a number of other senior positions, including head of Gazprom Media from 2013 to 2015.

Reports that Lesin had died of ‘blunt force trauma’ led many commentators to surmise that he had been murdered on the orders of Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Daily Beast, for instance, reported that the American authorities had been investigating Lesin for ‘corruption and human rights abuses in Russia’, and that:

The mystery surrounding Lesin’s death had fueled speculation that Lesin was murdered after coming to Washington to cut a deal with the FBI. The conspiracy theories are arguably well-founded, because it wouldn’t be the first time someone who posed a political threat to Putin wound up dead under unusual circumstances.

Similarly, in an article entitled ‘Another Defector Dead in Washington’, former NSA analyst John Schindler claimed that Lesin and the Kremlin had had a ‘major falling out’, and that Lesin was ‘believed to have been cooperating with the FBI’. Schindler compared Lesin’s death to those of Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered in London in 2006, and Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky, who died in mysterious circumstances in Washington in 1941. Schinder concluded:

While he certainly may have taken his own life in despair, Mr. Krivitsky’s murder by Soviet agents appears at least equally plausible. It would be a terrible fate if the eerily similar death of Mikhail Lesin goes unsolved too. If Kremlin agents are conducting assassinations on American soil, brazenly in our capital, the public has a right to know.

Robert van Voren, Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas (Lithuania) and Ilia State University in Tbilisi (Georgia), likewise remarked that, ‘an increasing number of people from Russia’ were ‘dying under rather suspicious circumstances’, and that the Lesin case was ‘rather suspicious, and one has increasingly the feeling that Putin is getting rid of people who know too much.’ Van Voren said, ‘It is not unusual behaviour: being the Al Capone of a gangster state, he [Putin] must be constantly worried about everything people know about him, his past and his corrupt businesses.’

Without directly accusing Putin of murder, various mainstream media outlets have implied it by including Lesin in lists of ‘opponents’ of the Russian ‘regime’ whom the Kremlin has allegedly ordered killed. In August of this year, for instance, the New York Times mentioned Lesin in an article entitled ‘More of Kremlin’s Opponents Are Ending Up Dead’. And National Public Radio (NPR) included Lesin in a broadcast called ‘The Curious Deaths of Kremlin Critics’. According to NPR:

Evelyn Farkas, who served until recently as the top Russia official at the Pentagon, says she’s never seen proof that the Kremlin is ordering hits on people. Still, she says, ‘The fact that someone like Mikhail Lesin all of a sudden shows up dead in a Dupont Circle hotel, to me, is fishy. The message is to all the other people who are Putin cronies, who are oligarchs, that these kinds of things could happen to you.’

It turns out, however, that Putin did not kill Lesin. On Friday, the US Attorney for the District of Columbia issued the results of a joint investigation with the FBI and Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department. Lesin died of a combination of ‘acute ethanol intoxication’ and falls caused by ‘days of excessive consumption of alcohol.’ The case is now considered closed.

Friday book # 41: Harvest of Sorrow

This week’s book is an important one. When it was first published, Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow broke new ground in revealing details of the famine which struck parts of Kazakhstan, southern Russia, and Ukraine in 1932-33. Conquest suggests that the famine was a) a deliberate act of policy, and b) specifically targeted against Ukrainians. Conquest did not have access to archival sources. More recent archive-based research, such as that of R.W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft, has come to rather more nuanced conclusions, but Conquest’s thesis still has supporters. The debate continues to this day.


Memory wars

Following the recent kerfuffle in Russia over a statue of Ivan the Terrible, the issue of monuments continues to make headlines. Two differing approaches to historical memory are on display. Both create their own historical distortions. By eradicating monuments of an entire era, one paints that era as bad in every single way. By sanctifying an autocratic ruler, the other whitewashes the imperfections of the past.

According to the Ukrainian television station Espreso TV, the last remaining statue of Lenin in Ukraine, located in the town of Novgorod-Severskii, has been taken down. There were once more than 2,000 Lenin statues in the country. As a result of a 2015 law prohibiting communist memorials and symbols, Ukraine is now Lenin-free.

Meanwhile, a bell-tower dedicated to Russia’s last Tsar, Nicholas II, was formally opened in the Crimean capital, Simferopol, on Tuesday. Attending the opening was Duma deputy and former chief prosecutor of Crimea Natalia Poklonskaia, who has acquired something of a reputation as a monarchist, and whose idea the bell tower was. Poklonskaia told reporters that, ‘For me, my colleagues and friends, this isn’t simply a bell tower, but an entire church. And this church is not simply a building but a holy one, in which will be carried out, with full rights, all the services and liturgies as laid down in the church canons.’

Natalia Poklonskaia pays homage to Nicholas II

The first story illustrates an approach to historical memory which is destructive and coercive; the second an approach which is constructive and voluntary. If there is one thing the participants can agree on, it is that they aren’t fans of communism. But as these examples show, the victors of today’s memory wars aren’t always the victors of tomorrow’s.

Entertainment arms race

Matthew Fisher reports in today’s National Post that:

Jerzy Pomianowski, head of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED), was in Ottawa Thursday to ask Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion whether Canada would help fund a project designed to provide Balts, Moldovans, Belarussians and other eastern Europeans with Russian language television programming that is not produced in Moscow.

While the state-controlled Russia Today and other Russian media spread highly biased ideas about global events, this is a ‘secondary issue’ to the damage done by the Kremlin media machine in countries with significant ethnic Russian minorities and where locals often speak Russian well, Pomianowski said after meeting Dion.

What the former Polish deputy foreign minister was referring to is immediately obvious to travelers to places such as Latvia and Lithuania. Russians there say the only credible news sources come from Moscow. This is although the reports are often biased and sometimes incendiary.

Pomianowski says that the Russian government is capturing the ‘hearts and minds of native Russian speakers with high quality entertainment’ (the devils!), and using this to ‘keep them glued to the screen and then (they are) brainwashed through false debates and lies that are spread through the news programs.’ To counter this:

Seed money is now being sought from several countries, including Canada, to allow independent producers to create high-quality dramas or infotainment programming for Russian minorities and others who speak Russian and live in the Near Abroad. ‘The amount of funds being mobilized is not dramatically impressive,’ Pomianowski said. ‘What we are talking about 10 million or 15 million euros ($14.5 million to $22 million) a year.’

Let’s put aside for a moment the irony of Matthew Fisher producing a propagandistic article complaining about propaganda. Just for the purposes of deeper analysis, let us imagine that all Mr Pomianowski’s complaints are true, that Russian speakers in eastern Europe really are being ‘brainwashed’ by Russian TV  (curse those Russkies for being so entertaining!), and that this really does pose some threat to the security of Europe. The question then arises of why the Canadian taxpayer is expected to stump up several million dollars to do something about it.

The combined GDP of the European Union is approximately $16 trillion. If Russian propaganda really is such a threat, surely the EU could find $14.5 to $22 million a year to deal with it by itself. More to the point, surely the European states most directly affected by the threat should be able to find that sort of money with relative ease. After all, it would be incredibly irresponsible to do nothing about such a grave danger given the tiny cost involved. Yet for some reason, Pomianowski feels a need to go cap in hand to Ottawa. Could it be that despite the hype, deep down in the bottommost recesses of their hearts, Europe’s leaders realize that this isn’t such a big problem after all?

Friday book # 40: Inside the Soviet Army

This week we have yet another book by Viktor Suvorov – it’s the sort of stuff I used to read back when I was a young, impressionable army officer in the dying stages of the Cold War. Opening it up yesterday for the first time in many years, I discovered that it is dedicated to Andrei  Andreevich Vlasov. Hmm…


Drifting towards authoritarianism, or not

Remember the news stories and op-eds a month ago saying that Vladimir Putin was about to ‘recreate the KGB’ by merging Russia’s various intelligence and security agencies into one super-agency, to be called the Ministry of State Security, MGB? The story originally appeared in Kommersant, and then spread far and wide. ‘If true’, wrote Mark Galeotti, ‘it suggests Putin is seriously worried about his future. … Besides this fits a wider picture of a drift toward authoritarianism’. The creation of the new agency, added Galeotti, ‘would allow even more intensive and aggressive espionage overseas. … That should send alarm bells ringing across the West.’

RFE/RL’s Brian Whitmore agreed: ‘I think the low turnout in the election, the supermajority that United Russia secured, and the specter of a revival of the KGB are related,’ he wrote, ‘Vladimir Putin appears to be moving away from electoral authoritarianism and toward plain old authoritarianism.’

Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph sought to scare readers by noting that the title MGB was the same as that used by the Soviet security services under Stalin (at least part of the time). According to the Telegraph, ‘Kremlin critics were horrified by the possible rebirth of an organisation synonymous in Russia with political oppression. “It’s time to get out [of the country],” wrote Elshad Babaev, a Twitter user. “Anyone who can should take the opportunity”.’

Since then, the much touted new super-agency has mysteriously failed to materialize. On Monday, Komsomolskaia Pravda published an interview with Putin’s former chief of staff Sergey Ivanov, in which Ivanov was asked whether it was true that he was going to head this agency. Ivanov replied:

This is one hundred percent fake! No Ministry of State Security has been considered or will be considered. I can confidently say that. It’s a classic example of somebody thinking up a fake, throwing it out, and then people commenting on it for a long time. It’s the production of news in the absence of real news.

Where does that leave the ‘drift toward authoritarianism’, I wonder?

Book Review: The New Politics of Russia

Given the hyperbolic hysteria which characterizes so much analysis of Russia, it is good to come across a book which studiously avoids all that and instead calls for ‘a sophisticated, empathetic understanding of Russia and how it works.’ In The New Politics of Russia: Interpreting Change, published this year by Manchester University Press, Andrew Monaghan of St Antony’s College, Oxford, denounces what he calls ‘the mainstream view of Russia in the West’, which he calls ‘narrow, simplistic, and repetitive.’ He analyzes the reasons why Western observers have continually been surprised by Russian actions and finishes by laying out his own model of how the Russian political system works. His book challenges Russian ‘experts’ to reconsider their assumptions.


Continue reading Book Review: The New Politics of Russia

Friday book # 39: Victims of Yalta

This week’s volume covers very similar subject matter to a previous Friday book – Nicholas Bethell’s The Last Secret – namely the forcible repatriation of Soviet citizens and Russian emigres at the end of the Second World War. Author Nikolai Tolstoy subsequently lost a famous libel case against Lord Aldington (Toby Law), who had been a brigadier in the British Army at the time of the repatriations. Tolstoy and co-defendant Nigel Watts were ordered to pay £1.5 million in damages.


Double standards again

One of the interesting aspects of the research I am conducting into the history of Russian conservatism is the contemporary resonance of texts written 100, 150, or even 200 years ago. My point here is not to express approval or support of what was written, merely to say that, if you change a few names, much of it could be written today. As a means of understanding contemporary Russian thinking, some of these older texts are quite insightful.

Take for instance Nikolai Danilevskii’s 1869 book Russia and Europe, the 2013 translation of which by Stephen Woodburn I have just started reading. As early as page one I could not but notice the contemporary relevance. Danilevskii complains of Europe’s double standards. Why, he asks, did Prussia’s and Austria’s flagrant aggression against Denmark in 1864 fail to arouse any sense of indignation among Europeans, whereas Russia’s earlier war against Turkey (notionally in defence of Christians) generated immense moral outrage and the creation of the coalition which defeated Russia in the Crimean War. Substitute the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq (or any other example of American or British aggression) for the Prussia/Austrian invasion of Denmark, and substitute Russia’s current war in Syria for its earlier war against Turkey, and you can see that, in Russian eyes at least, not much has changed in the past 150 years. For some reason, a double standard applies when moral judgements are made about Russia and the West.

To illustrate the point, here are some key excerpts from Chapter 1 of Russia and Europe, starting on page one.

[P.S. I am thinking of starting a regular feature which would involve the weekly publication of extracts from other Russian conservative texts chosen for their contemporary relevance (and, I stress, not as a mark of approval). I think this could be educationally useful as well as providing a good springboard for political discussion and getting feedback on my research. My previous translation and publication of Ivan Ilyin’s ‘Against Russia’ got a lot of readers, so maybe these would too. It would be good to know if there is any interest.]

  Continue reading Double standards again