“Moscow can’t find builder for new military base on Ukrainian border” and other neglected Russian stories

Russian urban climbers overnight transformed a Soviet star on top of a central building in the Russian city of Voronezh into a character from beloved U.S. cartoon show Spongebob Squarepants on October 25, 2016. Spongebob’s hapless sidekick Patrick survived in Voronezh only a couple days before the city officials had it painted over. (Image: social media)

Russian urban climbers overnight transformed a Soviet star on top of a central building in the Russian city of Voronezh into a character from beloved U.S. cartoon show Spongebob Squarepants on October 25, 2016. Spongebob’s hapless sidekick Patrick survived in Voronezh only a couple days before the city officials had it painted over. (Image: social media) 

2016/11/19 • Analysis & Opinion, Russia

The flood of news stories from a country as large, diverse and strange as the Russian Federation often appears to be is far too large for anyone to keep up with. But there needs to be a way to mark those which can’t be discussed in detail but which are too indicative of broader developments to ignore.

Consequently, Windows on Eurasia presents a selection of 13 of these other and typically neglected stories at the end of each week. This is the 58th such compilation. It is only suggestive and far from complete – indeed, once again, one could have put out such a listing every day — but perhaps one or more of these stories will prove of broader interest.

Polls show that Vladimir Putin’s rating is falling even though it remains high relative to other Russian institutions and international standards. Some of the decline appears to reflect the feeling many Russians have that their country is already a world power and should not think more about its own problems than those of other countries. But another and related reason is that polls show that Russians have ever less trust in the chief prop of the Putin regime, government controlled television and news outlets. They are beginning to trust Internet news more but still by a margin of more than two to one, Russians say they favor censoring the Internet.

There are increasing indications that Russia can’t afford Putin’s aggressive foreign policy for the long term. Its military now is seeking the right to use draftees in Syria, something the Kremlin leader earlier promised would be unnecessary but presumably feels compelled to do because it can’t afford to hire enough professional soldiers to do the job. And Moscow can’t find anyone willing to build a military base on the Ukrainian border even after boosting the amount it was willing to pay, an indication that Russian firms fear they won’t be paid if they build it.

One consequence of this lack of cash is that the Kremlin is increasingly turning to public relations, a much less expensive tool, to advance its interests. Among the examples of this in the last ten days are a foreign ministry call to make Russian an official language in all former Soviet republics, a demand that the US rescind the Captive Nations Week resolution, efforts to ban Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer song in Scandinavia, and promotion of ideas like California separatism. All too many people in Russia and the West see such bombast as a sign of Russian strength; in fact, it is almost certainly an indication of Russian weakness.

Every day brings fresh indications that the Russian economy under Vladimir Putin is disastrous now and will become more disastrous in the future. The World Bank says half of Russians are now at risk of falling into poverty, and polls show that three out of four Russians say they are already suffering. Surveys also show the faith Russians have in the future is rapidly slipping away.

Among other bad news stories this week are the following: Britain has now passed Russia as the second biggest arms exporter, Russian gold and silver production are down sharply, poor Russians are now selling themselves as marriage partners to immigrants who want to gain permanent residence status in Russia, Russia is now the largest economy in the world that doesn’t produce its own machine tools, hidden forms of slavery are spreading throughout the Russian Federation, Moscow may soon have shortages of gasoline, Transbaikal regional officials announce they are cutting all social subsidies except for funerals, and Moscow is making it cheaper for people to declare bankruptcy.

Not surprisingly, Russia has slipped to 56th position in the world happiness scale. Two new steps under consideration may push its ranking down further: Some in Moscow want to create a Day of Destroyed Products to commemorate losses from the Kremlin’s counter-sanctions actions, and more immediately, the government may impose new taxes on champagne just before New Year’s.

If one needed a symbol of the problems the Kremlin faces with its promotion of monuments as a way of distracting Russians from their problems, it surfaced this week when officials discovered that under a portrait of Vladimir Lenin was a picture of Tsar Nicholas II. But that was far from the only dispatch from this Russian front. Among the others: activists in Khabarovsk want to put up a monument to animals victimized by Russians, others are calling for a statue of Mongol khan Batu [Genghis Khan’s grandson and the founder of the Golden Horde with Muscovy as its ulus – Ed.], activists are calling for Putin to defend a memorial to Rasputin in Tsarskoye Selo, people in Nizhny Novgorod want to erect a memorial to Boris Nemtsov, vandals have desecrated the Kolchak plaque in St. Petersburg.

Russians begin thinking about Lenin’s brutal suppression of Tambov uprising now that Moscow has made the Tambov wolf a symbol for 2017, Ryazan residents want to rename Godless Street for Donald Trump, Vladimir Zhirinovsky wants St. Petersburg to be called Petrograd once again, and vandals turn a Soviet symbol into Spongebob’s friend Patrick in Voronezh.

But perhaps the biggest proposal for new monuments is one that is calling on Moscow to erect statues of Aleksandr Nevsky along the border of Russia to defend the country. As Russia heads into the centenary year of the 1917 revolutions, such monument battles will only heat up further.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has landed in trouble again for one of his off-hand remarks. He said recently in an official meeting with the prime ministers of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan that Caffè Americano [a style of coffee prepared by adding hot water to espresso – Ed.] should be renamed ‘Rusiano.’

He may have intended that as a joke, but some Russian outlets have taken him seriously, prompting much humor on Russian social networks. But the damage hasn’t been limited to that: a Cossack group in St. Petersburg now wants people to call a coffee its group offers “Kazachino” and has applied for a patent on that. Other groups are likely to follow.

A Russian activist says that the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate has effectively blessed the revival of state terrorism in Putin’s Russia by its uncritical support for what the Kremlin has been doing. That may come back to haunt the church itself: One of its officials has gone so far as to call on the Kremlin to use the methods of the late 1930s against dissenters in the church, a move that would be unlikely to stop with just those Patriarch Kirill doesn’t like.

One of the most troubling developments in Putin’s Russia in recent months has been the Kremlin’s increasing proclivity to use groups that are nominally not part of the state but that in fact are controlled by it to attack its enemies or even, as in the North Caucasus, to kill them. Bellona has complained about regime provocateurs who come to their meetings to undermine the environmental movement. And rights activists in the North Caucasus say that such regime “deniables” form the core of death squads being used against Moscow’s opponents there.

Russia has now fallen below Zimbabwe in terms of Internet freedom. It may slip further now that the Cossacks have been given a new task by Moscow officials: to defend the Internet against unwelcome Western influence.

Violence within, among and by ethnic mafias in Moscow has been given more attention again in the Russian media, although it is far from clear whether there has been a real uptick in their activities or whether the powers that be simply want to play up xenophobia now that the boost they received from annexing Crimea appears to be wearing off.

One Russian woman now dies every 40 minutes as a result of domestic abuse. It is far from clear whether that the situation will improve if the Duma adopts a proposed law on how Russian men should beat their wives in accords with Russian national traditions.

Sexually transmitted diseases are growing at explosive rates across Russia, even though Moscow officials have tried to suggest that things are not so bad. One indication of the level of the problem is that prostitutes in some regions are insisting on engaging only in safe sex and doctors are being ordered to report on any teenagers they see who have had sexual contacts.

Moscow has celebrated slight declines in the amount of alcohol Russians are buying, but those declines do not reflect the reality of the situation. Not only are some Russians turning to illegal producers but far more are now purchasing stills and producing their own moonshine lest they be forced to pay high prices in state stores or risk getting dangerous and often fatal surrogates from others. In this situation, a far better measure of alcohol consumption is likely to be the amount of sugar Russians are buying and the price for that basic component of alcoholic production.

Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “the evil empire,” but now Sergey Kovalev, the head of the Memorial human rights organization, suggests that Putin’s Russia has become “the center of evil” in today’s world.

And six others from countries in Russia’s neighborhood:

In a small but symbolic indication of the direction things are moving in Eurasia, the Western alliance has closed its information office in the capital of Uzbekistan.

Even though Russia has invaded Ukraine, Kyiv has been dissuaded from breaking diplomatic ties with Moscow; and even though it has suspended most of its ties with the Moscow-dominated CIS, Ukraine still remains a member. The second of these may finally be about to change now that Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada has taken up a bill to exit the organization of former Soviet republics. If Kyiv does so, the CIS will have only nine members besides Russia.

A five-volume collection of the works of Svetlana Aleksiyevich is now to be published in Minsk, yet another indication of the growing importance of that language regardless of what the country’s president Alyaksandr Lukashenka may say about the role of Russian there. Meanwhile, another indication of Belarusian influence has suffered: a Belarusian cinematographer says he and his colleagues are now responsible for 60 percent of the successful TV films in Moscow.

Belarus’ Muslims now have a cathedral mosque in their national capital and have elected a new mufti. But the events attended by Muslim and Turkish dignitaries could not pass without scandal: Alyaksandr Lukashenka offended many when he kissed a Koran.

One of Moscow’s most counter-productive (from its own position) and most criticized (by Russian nationalists and supporters of “the Russian world”) moves regarding the ethnic Russians in the Baltic countries has now been reversed. The Russian government will not require ethnic Russians without citizenship in Estonia and Latvia and who were born since 1992 to get a visa in order to visit Russia.

An Estonian commentator has pointed to a problem the Baltic countries and former Soviet republics increasingly have. As the number of Russian language outlets in their countries has declined and the number of English ones has not increased, he says, many foreign countries are losing access to accurate information about what is going in them and drawing wild and incorrect conclusions.


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Edited by: A. N.

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  • Alex George

    “All too many people in Russia and the West see such bombast as a sign of Russian strength; in fact, it is almost certainly an indication of Russian weakness.”

    I agree. This is a mistake often made by those unfamiliar with Russian ways of operating.

    “Russia is now the largest economy in the world that doesn’t produce its own machine tools,”

    A reminder that Putin’s much vaunted idea of “import substitution” never came close to working.

    • Quartermaster

      The Soviet Union could not make a ball point pen until Jimmy Carter allowed the sale of precision machine tools to the SU. It also allowed them to MIRV their ICBMs.
      Looks like things haven’t changed much.

  • Alex George

    ” others [Russian activists] are calling for a statue of Mongol khan Batu”

    That would be the most appropriate monument in Moscow.

    “One of [the church’s] officials has gone so far as to call on the Kremlin to use the methods of the late 1930s against dissenters in the church, a move that would be unlikely to stop with just those Patriarch Kirill doesn’t like.”

    You think?!

    • Quartermaster

      That’s a pretty strong demonstration of Kirill’s fake Christianity.

  • Alex George

    ” the Cossacks have been given a new task by Moscow officials: to defend the Internet against unwelcome Western influence.”

    Given that these fake “cossacks” cannot fight, that is probably as good a use for them as any

  • Dagwood Bumstead

    “Is the Ukraine finally going to leave the CIS?” If (or perhaps one should say WHEN) the Verkhovna Rada does decide to pull the plug on Kyiv’s membership it will be another black eye for the dwarf and his “recreate the USSR” project- and by far the most painful. I’m surprised Kyiv still is a member as the CIS is only there for the benefit of Moscow.
    Leaving would be severing yet another tie to Dwarfstan and a further weakening of Moscow’s evil influence in Kyiv. Kyiv can always create bilateral ties with CIS members without Moscow being involved in any way.

    • MichaelA

      ukraine is still in cis because many rada members are employed by ukrainian oligarchs who want to go back to russian world
      they dare not say this publicly because the people would not like it but their heart is in corrupt moscow