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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Russia Update: October 23, 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.
Russian Twitter Rep Apologizes for Anti-Government Tweet

A Twitter representative in Russia made a critical tweet about the Russian government today, then apologized after deleting his tweet when Roskomnadzor, the government censorship agency, demanded an explanation from Twitter managers.

Alexey Shelestenko, the manager of media partnerships for Twitter, tweeted a critical remark after learning that opposition leader Alexey Navalny would have to pay 11 million rubles in damages from the Kirovoles lumber case -- widely believed to be fabricated in retaliation for his anti-corruption work.

While the tweet was deleted, numerous Twitter uses had taken screenshots:

2015-10-23 23:13:30

Translation: Some day that nasty thieve's government, together with all those Markins, Bastrykins and -- yes, yes, Putin -- will go behind bars. Soon or later.

His reference was to the phrase of "thieves-in-law," a Russian term meaning criminals who live under their own laws of the underworld, and also echoed Navalny's tag line of "government of thieves and crooks." Aleksandr Bastrykin is the head of the Investigative Committee, the figure associated with the trumped-up criminal cases against the opposition, and Vladimir Markin is spokesman of the Investigative Committee.

According to, Vadim Ampelovsky, press secretary of Roskomnadzor, a request for an explanation was sent to Twitter's management.  Twitter managers who had visited Russia had indicated Shelestenko was the contact person for authorities to reach regarding concerns.

Shelestenko then wrote an explanation:

Translation: 1. Regarding my deleted tweet: I admit that I got overheated upon the news about Kirovles. I shouldn't have been so harsh -- I beg forgiveness.

Translation: 2. I'll explain my position: I don't agree with the decision on Kirovles and speak up wholeheartedly for justice. That's my personal position, not the company of Twitter.

Prominent Russian blogger Oleg Kashin was dismayed about the incident.

Translation: Shelestenko apologized to Putin (((

Others wondered what there was to explain.

Translation: I wonder which of the words "nasty," "thieves' or "government" was not understandable?

Translation: Only "when" is not understandable. deleted its own first tweet about the news, sparking some concern, but then explained that it was merely reissuing the tweet with quotation marks around the phrase "thieves' government."

Navalny retweeted all the tweets involved, including Shelestenko's apology, and commented on the first version of RBC's tweet:

Translation:  So what's to explain? Here's a tweet that couldn't be more clear.

He published a blog today about the fee for damages, illustrating it with the famous painting by 15th century Dutch painter Gerard David about a flaying, The Judgement of Cambyses.

Translation: 16,165,826 ruble fine levied.

The amount is currently equivalent to $261,576

This past week, court bailiffs arrived at Navalny's home late at night to confiscate his property in payment of the remainder of the damages in another case related to the French company Yves Rocher, for which Navalny and his brother Oleg had done some mail-order work.

Navalny was handed a suspended sentence of 2.5 years in the case, and Oleg sent to serve 2.5 years in a labor colony. Recently, as Oleg wrote in a statement published on Alexey's blog, he was transferred to a punishment cell after wardens claimed to find a cell phone in his possession. The measure was taken after a recording of an appeal by Oleg regarding poor conditions in prison and his need for an operation on his jaw was played at a rally September 20.

Then today, a court held a hearing regarding the appeal of the Kirovles sentence, but without the defendant and plaintiffs, and wound up issuing the ruling of even greater damages.

The case hinged on the accusation against Pyotr Ofitserov, Navalny's business partner, for purchasing lumber for 14.5 million rubles and then selling it for 16 million. The court is then fining Navalny for the entire amount of the transaction. Navalny pointed out that even in the contrived Yves Rocher case, the fine involved only the profit, not the whole amount. Navalny's lawyer Vadim Kobzev noted that Kirovles already  had received 14.7 million and had not returned the funds, so it was absurd to charge Navalny for this amount.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Putin Recites Anti-Western Propaganda Staples, Positioning Himself as Leader of Global Anti-Terrorism Coalition

Yesterday, the Valdai Discussion Club, a prestigious group of Russian elite and and Western experts on on Russia, opened up its annual conference.

President Vladimir Putin gave a belligerent keynote speech, ringing all the chimes of Kremlin propaganda even more vigorously than usual. He was particularly aggressive in the question and answer period where even Amb. Jack Matlock, he makes a point to deal with the Kremlin constructively, came in for a vigorous scolding.  We have summarized the speech, which is available in English, and answers to questions from the Russian original, which has not yet been translated officially yet.

Last year, The Interpreter obtained a list of invitees. This year, the list has not been available, but we haven't seen as many of those who attended in the past evident at the conference. Participation in the event might have been once seen as a legitimate East-West debate. But particularly since last year's moderation of the forum by British journalist Seumas Milne, known for his minimization of the crimes of Stalin, and what became an infamous tag-line, "If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," quipped by Vyacheslav Volodin, first deputy head of the presidential administration, the event has been perceived as a gathering of sycophants and fellow-travelers.

Some Russian experts no doubt believe they still must attend to keep their access to the Kremlin -- without which their scholarship is believed to be doomed.  This year Putin was more militant and politicized than ever, however, begging the question of when access becomes cooptation. The Russian autocrat made a point of keeping the participants waiting.

The Lada is a Russian-made car and Putin was promoting "import substitution," a program to replace with domestic goods those items once imported from Western countries that now have sanctions against Russia.

Putin began by quoting Lev Tolstoy to the effect that war was counter to human reason and all of human nature and peace was good for people. But peace is based on a balance of powers, said Putin, citing Yalta as such a triumph, recalling it as a time when the great powers decided to form the United Nations, rather than recognizing it as the watershed when the West ceded Eastern Europe to Soviet tyranny and spent the next 50 years overcoming this legacy. Putin also invoked "guaranteed mutual destruction," the great sobering phrase of the 1970s detente era which Putin said made "great war unthinkable."

The Cold War brought an end to "ideological opposition" but not "the grounds for disputes and geopolitical contradictions" because countries have interests contradictory to one another, he said. Competition among powers and their unions "is absolutely natural," says Putin, as long as it is built "on certain political, legal moral norms and rules"; otherwise there are "crises and dramatic outbursts." Putin yet again condemns "the model of one-sided domination" -- although it is he who has added territory to his country in recent years.

Putin sees the nuclear threat from Iran as only a "pretext" that "destroyed the foundation of modern international security" and accused the US of exiting from the AMB treaty "unilaterally."

"Today, by the way, the Iranian nuclear problem is resolved, there was never any threat from Iran, just as we said." Though the reason for building anti-missile defense has "disappeared," the US has not halted development of such defense, running the first test in Europe recently.

The problem isn't "the hypothetical Iranian nuclear threat," says Putin but by implication the US attempts to undermine the strategic balance so as to "dictate its will to everyone." This, as in fact the US and EU scramble to react to Putin's moves on Ukraine and Syria, not to mention the Caucasus.

Putin thinks now the usefulness of nuclear weapons to prevent war has become "devalued" and there is now the temptation "for some" to use nuclear superiority to dictate terms, despite the irreversible consequences. Here, he didn't have in mind his own generals and TV hosts who have brandished the nuclear threat in anti-Western propaganda.

The "anti-war" vaccines people acquired from two world wars has worn off, says Putin, especially as people see war as a "media spectacle" and don't realize real people die "and even entire cities and states." Of course, the war propaganda of Putin's own state television has been notorious, whether "crucified toddlers" or "phosphorus bombs."

Having painted this distorted picture, Putin invokes the US fining of foreign companies -- French and German Banks and Toyota -- for breaking Western sanctions against Russia and asks "is this how allies behave?"

On the eve of the Valdai talks, Russian media reported the vague news that a new national security policy was being developed, evidently by Kremlin staff, and that it was going to be presented for Putin's approval soon. This new notion would involve greater openness to cooperation with other countries. What the Kremlin has in mind isn't the West, but efforts like the recently coalition with Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and Syria to ostensibly fight ISIS.

Putin also styles himself as the lone organizer of the crusade against ISIS -- if terrorists could take over Damascus or Baghdad they would have a platform for global expansion. "Is anybody thinking about this, or not?" he raged. "You shouldn't play with words, dividing terrorists into moderate and non-moderate. I'd like to know the difference."

The US, giving arms to moderate rebels yielded "unclear results" but how could this be explained, if the US possesses the greatest military might in the world? Only because the West is playing "a double game," says Putin, "trying to exploit some of them to arrange figures on the Middle Eastern board in their interests or what seems in their interests." Of course, an obvious reason is that Russia is arming Bashar al-Assad and providing political cover for him and met with him just the day before Valdai.

Putin invokes Russia's vast experience fighting terrorism at home, which some would argue it has helped instigate by its ruthless policies. Putin envisions himself as the leader of a worldwide coalition against terrorism, proposing that terrorism can be defeated only by uniting the regular armies of Iraq and Syria (supported by Russia, of course), along with the Kurd militia and various opposition groups suitable to Moscow. This will ostensibly create the conditions for "the Syrian people" to decide their own fate "without pressure."

With such cooperation which the US ostensibly is invited to join, Putin will help the world return to the days of the early 2000s, when Moscow and Washington cooperated after the terrorist attack on the US on September 11, 2001.

In the question and answer period, Columbia University's Robert Legvold pointed out that Putin's notion that the West seeks regime change in Russia is an incorrect interpretation of US foreign policy and cited other "distortions" in Putin's outline which amount to a failure to realize that it is Russian behavior that has engendered the world's attitude toward Russia "especially in the context of the Ukrainian crisis." Legvold added and that this is seen by many as "a function of the essence, the nature of the Russian political system and regime." As Legvold explains, in this perspective:

"Russian behavior is defined not by cooperation with the outside world but by inalienable elements of the Russian system. External enemies are needed so that democracy doesn't reach Russian borders and also as a justification of the economic difficulties in the country."

Legvold says that this view is "fundamentally incorrect" but widespread. Putin reiterated his contention that the break-up of the USSR "was a tragedy of the 20th century" which was "primarily humanitarian in nature" because 25 million people found themselves in foreign countries over night.

Amb. Jack Matlock then took the opportunity to say that he didn't support US anti-missile defense on the whole, and believed it was just a program "to provide jobs" in the military-industrial complex. Putin chided Matlock saying his arguments "weren't convincing" and that he had "embellished" his answer.

"Jobs shouldn't be created which as a result of their activity are a threat to all of humankind," Putin retorted -- as if the vast Russian military-industrial complex didn't provide numerous jobs for Russians -- including the supplying of arms to Assad.

Putin returned to Ukraine in this reply, making the misleading claim that in the 2004 election contest between Viktor Yanukovych and Viktor Yushchenko there was an "illegal third round." "What kind of democracy is this? It's simply an uproar," he fumed, calling it a "total violation of the Constitution" supported by the West. He was less fastidious about the reasons the second round was re-run was challenged: media bias, voter intimidation and Yushchenko's own poisoning with dioxin. International observers claimed the voting had been rigged and later declared the repeat of the second round to be fair. Putin made this point to set the stage for his claim that the West backed the toppling of Yanukovych, who fled with Russian assistance after he was discredited for ordering force to be used on demonstrators leading to the killing of a number of Maidan participants.

Once again Putin said he "sees no difference between Russians and Ukrainians" and calls them "a fraternal people," and pointed out that while Yushchenko and Yuliya Timoshenko were pro-Western politicians, Russia cooperated with them.

Astoundingly, Putin once again involved the "$5 billion dollars" supposedly spent by the US government on "support of the opposition." This is a staple of state media propaganda that evidently Putin believes himself (he recently spouted it in an interview with Charlie Rose on 60 Minutes), although it has been authoritatively debunked numerous times, notably by Politfact, which explains that "$5 billion" is the total amount of all US aid to Ukraine in 20 years, including to the Yanukovych regime and the US didn't bankroll the Maidan protests.

Putin turned to another propaganda staple -- finding fault with American democracy so that he could upbraid Washington's notions of "democratizing" other countries with aid. Putin said that "twice" in American history, the president was elected by less than the 50% of the population, but actually there have been 15 presidential candidates so elected, three of them twice.

As for whether Assad should go, Putin once again weighed in saying this was "impolite" as outsiders should not decide the issue of when a head of state should leave; "the Syrian people itself" should decide. Putin ignores the issue of how a people can choose freely when their leader is bombing them, and only concedes that there should be "transparent democratic procedures" and "international oversight" of the elections. He reiterated the Kremlin position that the Syrian government should have "dialogue with those opposition forces prepared for dialogue."

"As far as I understood from the conversation with President Assad the day before yesterday, he is prepared for such a dialogue," said Putin.

Ali Larijani, current speaker of the Iranian parliament, raised the issue of ISIS' sale of oil and asked why the West was not seeing this or stopping this. He also spoke in opposition to the division of Syria, which he said would be a "prize for ISIS."

Putin did not directly answer his question about the sale of oil -- at least in the transcript available, which breaks off in the next paragraph with the note "to be continued."

Rather, Putin pointed out that he had watched videos of the air strikes of his military's planes on Syrian territory and said he was impressed at the explosions:

"They are detonating such a quantity of ammunition stocks that they fly up almost to the plane itself. There's the impression that the ammunition stocks and armaments have been collected from all over the Middle East, there's a colossal might accumulated there. And really, the question arises: where's the money coming from! It's a collossal might! Of course it's less now. And really, the Syrian army is demonstrating its successes with our support. They are modest for now but they do exist. And I am confident there will be more."

As for "democracy approaching Russia's borders," Putin said he was more concerned about "military infrastructure approaching our borders" -- this was the eternal Kremlin claim that NATO is "expanding" and thus undermining Russia's security. Russia itself has expanded by essentially annexing Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia, and outright annexing and occupying the Crimea, and controlling significant territory in the Donbass. East European members of NATO such as Estonia voluntarily joined due to valid concerns about their security living next to Russia.

Putin promised to release an "very intriguing" document involving a conversation between German politicians and the Soviet leadership on the eve of German reunification - which reads "just like a detective story," he enthused. He quoted an unnamed leader of the Social Democrats from memory:

If we do not agree on the principles of the unification of German and the future of Europe, the crises will not end after the unification of Germany, but will grow, and we will not rid ourselves of them, we will only meet them in a new form." When Soviet leaders began debating him, he was surprised, and said: "There's the impression that I am now now defending the interests of the Soviet Union" -- he was reproaching them for nearsightedness. "But I'm thinking of the future of Europe," he said.

But at that time, he said, addressing Amb. Matlock, the parties did not agree on issues such as whether Germany would become a member of NATO, how its military infrastructure would develop, how questions of security in Europe should be coordinated.

At that time everything was said verbally, nothing was put on paper, nothing was recorded, everything just went its way. But verbally then -- everyone remembers my speech in Munich, I said so at the time -- verbally then the NATO general secretary said that the Soviet Union at any rate could be certain -- and I quote -- that NATO will not be expanded beyond the borders of then-East Germany. But nothing of the sort, two waves of expansion followed immediately and now we have an anti-missile defense system at our borders.

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has recalled that no such pledge was in fact intended. And Putin is myopic about Russia's ongoing behavior in the decades since the fall of the Berlin wall that prompt countries to see NATO protection. In 2008, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, at Germany's behest, the members rejected the idea of having Ukraine and Georgia join NATO. This unilateral forebearance had no effect, as Russia proceded to grab their territories years later.

Putin styles himself as the cooperative party here, saying that he offered to have the US, Russia and Europe would have joint equal access to managing these systems and decide what directions they would be aimed at -- but was rebuffed. It's as if he has no comprehension of of the consequences of Russia's annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbass.

On Syria, as we have reported in our blog "Putin in Syria," Russian air strikes since September 30 have been striking rather anti-government rebel groups rather than the ISIS terrorists that Moscow ostensibly claims to target. Putin here, too, blames the West, claiming that when the Russian military asked to provide maps of what areas should be targeted and which shouldn't, they were refused. Naturally, Western countries could not be party to the Kremlin's disingenous claims. Yet Putin triumphs again, noting, "Thank God, now apparently at the military level, as I've already said, we're beginning to come to an agreement. Life itself forces it."

In reply to Nick Buckley of the Financial Times asking for more clarity on Russia's plans in Syria, Putin said he was confident of the Russian approach and was already seeing results, although to really defeat terrorism more would be needed. "We don't want to throw rocks in any one else's garden," said Putin smugly, but the Western coalition, after 500 air strikes on various targets "had no results, that's the obvious fact" -- ISIS has grown its presence in both Syria and Iraq. Here, again, Putin feigns to be oblivious of the fact that his own arming of Assad and Assad's brutal attacks on civilians are a factor in ISIS' spread.

Putin said he was prepared to send a high-level delegation and to unite forces with the West to fight ISIS, but he was rebuffed -- although he said American colleagues "at the ministerial level had clarified" that there was a misunderstanding and "the road was open." The foreign ministries of the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will be meeting and here Putin pointed out "we are in the closest contact with our Iranian partners" and that Iran "will make its substantial contribution in settlement" of the crisis. Putin said he opposed the division of Syria as he saw it as a recipe for endless conflict.

-- Catherine A. Fitzpatrick