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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: March 30, 2015

Publication: Russia Update
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Is the Ruble Recovering?

The Russian economy imploded late last year, and perhaps nowhere was this more obvious than the value of the Russian ruble. One year ago the ruble was trading at about 35.14 to a US dollar. Using Bloomberg's data, at one point on January 30, 2015, however, the ruble hit 70.80 to a dollar, a record low.

But as we can see, the ruble has recovered since then. Today it is trading at 57.73 per USD -- bad, but not the disaster it was just a few months ago. Yesterday Business Insider ran this analysis:

Analyst Timur Khairullin at VTB24 said that the ruble's "firm dynamic" was being bolstered by both external and internal factors.

Among them is that fact the time for firms to pay their taxes in the country has only just passed meaning there has been a spike in demand for the ruble.

Also Khairullin said the bump could have been helped by the promise by President Vladimir Putin of an amnesty -- now being considered by parliament -- to try to encourage vast sums being stashed overseas to be repatriated to Russia.

Neil Shearing at Capital Economics said that the most important factor has been the "stabilisation and then rebound in oil prices", but added that the extent of the ruble's earlier plunge was likely an overreaction in the first place.

Why has oil stabilized? The war in Yemen, and continued violence in other areas of the Middle East and North Africa, have temporarily raised prices. But this is only temporary. It's a simple question of supply and demand, and since supply is outpacing demand, a trend which shows no signs of reversing, oil is not expected to rally for long. In fact, USA Today has just published an analysis that suggests that the U.S. is running out of places to store oil. Once oil reserves are at full strength, much of that oil will once again return to the market, potentially driving prices downward again.

The surplus oil goes into storage, with 8.2 million barrels stocked away last week, EIA figures released Wednesday show. Oil inventories are the highest in at least 80 years. The industry is using about 67% of the 520 million barrels of working storage capacity across the nation, up from 48% in early 2014. Much of the tanks are filled by traders who buy oil at today's contract price of about $48 a barrel, store it, and sell futures contracts to deliver the crude in a year at higher price, turning a profit after paying storage costs.

In Cushing, Okla., the nation's delivery point for such swaps, 80% of the region's 71 million barrels of storage space is occupied, up from 24% in October. That means it's close to effective capacity because a portion of the tanks is earmarked for moving oil in and out each day, while some is set aside for grades of crude that may not match customer needs.

"More oil is being stored (in Cushing) than ever before," says Hillary Stevenson, manager of supply chain networks for Genscape, a research firm that surveys oil inventories. "They are getting very full."

Brian Busch, Genscape's director of oil markets, expects Cushing's tanks to reach their limit by late April or early May.

-- James Miller

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
InformNapalm and Igor Sutyagin Report that Russian Army Units Honored by Putin Fought in Ukraine
On March 25 we reported that President Vladimir Putin had issued the honorary title of "guards" to three units: the 11th and 83rd air assault brigades and the 38th communications regiment. The text of the citation said (translation by The Interpreter):

"For massive heroism and bravery, determination and courage, displayed by the personnel of the brigades in combat actions in defense of the Fatherland and state interests under conditions of armed conflicts, and taking into account its merits in peace time."

Although the place and time of this combat was not indicated in the decrees, the question was raised as to whether the units had fought in Ukraine.

Russian presidential administration spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied that the honored units had fought in Ukraine, and claimed their merits  were earned in the Soviet period or in the Caucasus.

The units were not in the list prepared by of Russian armed forces confirmed as having fought in Ukraine when the bodies of some of their members who had died in combat were returned to Russia.

But InformNapalm, an independent site researching Russian armed conflict in the Eurasian region, said they had covered it last year:

Blogger Irakly Komakhidze said in an article in Russian for InformNapalm that according to information from activists in Buryatia, Russia, a flight with "Cargo 200" -- the Russian military term for the bodies of soldiers killed in combat -- arrived in January of this year in the Buryat Republic's capital of Ulan Ude. According to local reports, these were the coffins of 20 Russian soldiers from Buryatia who were in the 11th Separate Assault Guards Brigade of the Airborne Troops which is based in a village called Sosnovy Bor [Pine Tree Stand] (nick-named "Sosnovka").

The 11th brigade was deployed together in Rostov with paratroopers from the 76th Air Assault Brigades of Pskov in a mixed division or battalion tactical group, and had suffered heavy losses from Ukrainian artillery.

In these cases, as with other soldiers, the servicemen had been discharged from the regular army and evidently then signed contracts as volunteers.

This article also reported that soldiers in the 5th tank brigade in Ulan Ude who were also deployed in mass numbers to Rostov rebelled and tore up their contracts. "Not in a single unit in the RF has such a massive refusal to fight against Ukraine occurred," said Komakhidze.

The information is difficult to verify because no names of deceased soldiers are given or links to social media or news accounts of grieving relatives or funerals. The picture used with the InformNapalm article is taken from a Russian movie called Cargo 200 made in 2007.

On January, Roman Yermolin, an officer of army unit No. 31583  refuted the claim about Buryats deployed in Ukraine (translation by The Interpreter):

"We as official representatives of the Armed Forces can state that our troops have not bee on the territory of others countries and will not be on them. The training that is being conducted along the  borders is in accordance with planned training both by the minister of defense as well as the commander-in-chief, that is, the president. The trainings took place, they took place in the border zones of Rostov Region, Belgorod Region and so on. They were planned, they ended, and all the servicemen returned to their units, to their divisions."

Yermolin said that either the information about the "Cargo 200" was false, or could have involved soldiers who died while patrolling the border.

But it is the 5th tank brigade from which came the 20-year-old Buryat tank driver Dorzhi Batomunkuev, severely burned in a battle on February 19 in Logvinovo, outside Debaltsevo. He gave an interview to Yelena Kostyuchenko of Novaya Gazeta in which he described how he was conscripted into the regular army on November 25, 2013 and then signed a three-year military service contract (enabling him to be deployed outside his region) on June 2014.

The article attracted more than a million views and became emblematic of Russia's secret war against Ukraine in which increasingly, Russians soldiers are wounded or killed.

AFP has now also covered the story and cited Sutyagin, saying that the three units fought in Ukraine and the awards were a "morale boost" for Russia's airborne forces:

"Both air assault brigades fought in Ukraine," Sutyagin, a senior research fellow in Russian Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think tank, told AFP.

"Both of them even suffered losses -- and not small ones," said Sutyagin, who was jailed in Russia for passing information to a UK firm before being handed over to the West in a 2010 spy swap.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Novosibirsk Opera Director Fired Over Staging of Tannhäuser after Russian Orthodox Church Complaint

The Ministry of Culture fired Boris Mezdrich, director of the Novosibirsk Opera Theater for refusing to close a performance of Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser. The opera opened in December 2014, but then began to receive complaints in January 2015.

About 3,000 religious believers demonstrated last week at the opera house saying the work was offensive to the faithful. Metropolitan Tikhon of the Russian Orthodox Church has appealed to the prosecutor of Novosibirsk Region to open a case against the opera directors under Art. 158 ("offense of religious feelings of believers").

Vladimir Kekhman, director of the Mikhaylovsky Theater in St. Petersburg and a fruit importer has replaced Mezdrich, and will combine directing of both theaters.

Mezdrin received notice of his dismissal on March 29 from Vladimir Aristarkhov, deputy minister of culture. Theater director Timofey Kulyabin had staged the version of Tannhäuser which last month drew the ire of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church after Metropolitan of Novosobirsk Tikhon flied a complaint.

The ruling United Russia party also demanded the removal of the opera due to its "desecration" of the image of Jesus, which was depicted on the thighs of Venus.

After the Pussy Riot case of 2013, a law on offense to believers was passed with a jail sentence of three years. Aristarkhov made a statement to the press after delivering the Ministry of Culture orders to fire Mezdrin and install Kekhman (translation by The Interpeter):

It is impermissible on state budget funds to stage a performance that violates moral foundations and brings schism into society. Nothing was done to remove the tension, nothing was done to settle the conflict and we were not heeded. A director is a creator, but the director of a state theater must think about what he is staging and have responsibility.

The implication was that Mezdrich could have removed some scenes and made a public apology in order to keep his job.

In an outpouring of protest from figures who tend to stay out of current controversies, Lev Dodin, head of St. Petersburg's Maly Theater; Mark Zakharov, director of Lenkom Theater;  Valery Fokin, General and Artistic Director of The Meyerhold Centre in Moscow and the Artistic Director of the Alexandrinksy Theatre in St. Petersburg; and others wrote letters of protest against Mezdrich's dismissal.

Kekhman made a statement to the press (translation by The Interpreter):

"As a person who is a believer, who is baptized, and Russian Orthodox, as a Jew, I perceive this as an offense."

Kekhman is known for canceling a performance of the Russian classic Eugene Onegin and firing director Aleksandr Sokurov, after which the art director Yelena Obratsova also left. Kekhman is also credited with saving the Mikhailovsky Theater from bankruptcy in 2007 after he attracted Vladimir Putin to a concert performed by the Give Life Foundation, who then arranged a 137 million ruble ($2.3 million) grant through 2015.

Kekhman is famous for being one of the three largest Russian importers of bananas who survived the 2008-2009 economic crisis, only to declare bankruptcy in 2012. At that time Interior Ministry investigators had opened an embezzlement case against Kekhman upon an appeal from Sberbank, but the case has evidently stalled.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russian Court Rules Partly in Favor of Russian Railways President against the New York Times

Presnensky Court in Moscow has partially accepted a libel lawsuit filed by Russian Rails CEO Vladimir Yakunin against the New York Times, reported.

The court said the publication about Yakunin "did not correspondent to reality" but did not penalize the New York Times.

Yakunin's lawyer Aleksei Melnikov said he viewed the outcome as "positive" and that while the paper was not ordered to print a retraction, he hoped it would do so.

Meanwhile Galina Arapova, attorney for the New York Times in Moscow, said the decision was more favorable for her client (translation by The Interpreter):

"It does not oblige the American company to do anything. For Yakunin, essentially this means the case is lost."

The article in question by Peter Baker, titled "Sanctions Revive Search for Secret Putin Fortune," cites a diplomatic cable leaked by WikiLeaks filed by US diplomats:

In one cable, for instance, diplomats cited a General Electric executive working in the region who privately said that Mr. Yakunin, the president of the state-owned Russian Railways, “has made sizable cash payments to Putin” and estimated that the Russian leader was worth “well over $10 billion.”

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Satellite Photos Show Mass Graves in Rostov Reported by Bloggers in November 2014

Bloggers have been reported fresh graves that appeared between July and September 2014 outside of Rostov-on-Don, a city of more than 1 million people in the south of Russia near the Ukrainian border.

Rostov has served as a military staging area for supplying the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass and for preparing Russian invasions of Ukraine.

The location is here on Google Maps to the east of Rostov, near the town of Temernik, named for the Temernik River.

The coordinates have been found on Google Earth.

We can confirm that on Google Earth, if you set the slider on the timeline to July 1, 2014, the area has only some woods and a field, but if you move it to September 28, 2014, what appear to be numerous graves with markers become visible.



Some pro-Kremlin bloggers have claimed that the pictures shown are from 2002, but that's only the end point for the slider, which shows Google Maps. Google Earth was made available to the public in 2004. As indicated, these screenshots are from the Google Earth view indicated for dates in 2014.

Looking at Wikimapia, a Google map that has been marked by local people with landmarks, we can see the following locations: Severnoye (Northern) Cemetery, the Old Village Cemetery, the site of fresh graves believed to hold Russian soldiers who were
killed in Ukraine, a World War II-era trench, and a military base.


The Severnoye Cemetery is the second largest cemetery in the European part of Russia in terms of number of people buried per hectare. Russian Wikipedia says as many as 50 people a day are buried here.

Back in November 2014, published pictures reportedly taken of this grave by a local blogger, Aleksandr Okolita. The graves are marked with the Cyrillic letters "НМ" which means Neizvestniy Muzhchina, "Unknown Male".

But the link to Okolita's Facebook no longer works and he removed the content. also reported in November 2014 that the graves were confirmed. They said the pictures were published in a group called the Misanthropic Division on Russia's social network VKontakte.

It appears that the administrator of this group is the person who originally took the pictures. Here is his account (translation from The Interpreter):

Today the administrator of Misanthropic Division #1 visited the North City Cemetery in the city of Rostov-on-Don. Information about the new mass graves was confirmed. Beside the graves of unknown people, there are some with names, and the dates of death fit into the period June-September 2014. The date of death is missing on some although it is clear that they were buried at the same time, they were dug all at once with an excavator. There were none older than 55, the main mass of graves were from ages 30-35, about one third were 25-30. These graves are at the edge of the cemetery with an excellent view on to officers' homes which are being built there, as if hinting at the connection between the generations. While Ukrainian warriors are buried as heroes, Putin's lame dicks are ditched like dogs. These were still lucky. Each one got his 88!

Update: Originally we thought the figure in this last line might be a reference to the dimensions of the graves, since they appeared to be in a uniform size. But there is some speculation that it could be a reference to the phrase "Heil Hitler," expressed with the number 88 by neo-Nazi groups. Misanthropic Division is an international neo-Nazi movement whose Ukrainian branch is affiliated with the Social-National Assembly (SNA), as Anton Shekhovtsev has reported.

Some of the group's members are skeptical but the administrator points out that the graves were dug at the same time. Possibly they were related to the Battle of Ilovaisk in which some 300 Russian soldiers were said to have died.

Here are some of the pictures published by the Misanthrope Division administrator:




The Misanthrope Alliance administrator who went to make these photographs also wrote in his post of a "bonus" -- and included a photo of the grave of Vanya Oglov who died in 1990, which is a landmark. He took that photo of an old grave near the fresh ones.

Panoramio has a photo of the exact same grave of Vanya Oglov with geolocation, which leads to the same area as the fresh burial ground.

In some social media accounts, this story and pictures are being mixed with another grave found in Odessa but the pictures shown here are from Rostov.

What we can conclude is that Google Earth satellite views now confirm the pictures taken on the ground by a local blogger, who also said the persons buried seemed to be mainly males of combat age.

But to confirm that the men buried here were Russian soldiers who died in combat in Ukraine, more research would be needed. 

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick