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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
August 19, 2016

Publication: Windows on Eurasia
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
A Baker’s Dozen of Neglected Russian Stories – No. 45
Staunton, VA, August 19, 2016 - 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 45th 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. 

1. Putsch? What Putsch? Approximately half of Russians say they don’t remember the August 1991 putsch that accelerated the disintegration of the USSR, either because they were too young – anyone under 35 is unlikely to have memories of it – or because they have not been encouraged to pay attention. The Moscow city government first banned – for the first time ever – and then allowed a march on this anniversary – but ordered that it involve 100 people or fewer. Like its Soviet predecessor, the Putin regime seems to believe in the principle of no person, no problem: there is now pressure to end the use of petitions which after all reflect popular attitudes. 

2. Have More Children Even If It makes You Poor, Orthodox Church Tells Russian Women.  With only immigration keeping the Russian population from falling and with non-Russians filling ever more slots in elite Moscow universities,  the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church has called on ethnic Russian women to have as many children as possible even if that will drive them into poverty.  But some state agencies haven’t gotten the message: a woman who worked as a Putin troll got pregnant and lost her job. She is now suing to recover it. 

3. Global Warming Reducing Russia’s Size Bit by Bit.  Global warming is leading both to rising sea levels in the Arctic and the erosion of land in Russia’s north, both of which are reducing a few acres every day the size of Russia’s territory. 

4. Medvedev’s Crack Backfires: Russian Teachers Turning to Politics, Not Business. Earlier this month, Dmitry Medvedev told teachers unhappy about their incomes to go into business, but some of them are taking a new direction: they are going into politics to press their demands.  Given the power of teachers’ unions elsewhere, this may be an important trend.  It may also serve notice on the Russian prime minister to be more careful in his remarks. That seems unlikely: this week he told regional officials that he didn’t want to listen to them complaining about their problems. 

5. Russian Standard of Living Now Back to 1989 Levels.  After rising in the first decade of this century to 15 percent more than at the end of Soviet times, the real standard of living Russians now have has fallen back 15 percent over the last three years and now stands just where it did in 1989, according to Russian economists. Other bad economic news this week included reports that Russia is permanently losing millions of jobs, that the decline in industrial production has resumed and even accelerated, that the elections may accelerate the country’s economic collapse, and that ever fewer Russians are applying for passports to travel abroad. Of course, this last may have another explanation: Russians may not want to attract attention to their desire to leave Russia today. 

6. Kim Jong Il Gets Plaque in Petersburg as Russia’s Statue Wars Continue. Russian officials have erected a plaque in honor of former North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, someone whose “effective management” style probably pleases current Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, fights over statues honoring others continue. A majority of Oryol residents say they want a statue of Ivan the Terrible who among other things was founder of their city. Many Russians are upset about the Mannerheim plaque and say they are worried about discussions concerning the erection of a monument to Admiral Kolchak, the leader of the anti-Bolshevik movement in Siberia. One piece of positive news on this front: the first tablets marking the last residences of people arrested by Stalin have gone up in Yekaterinburg. 

7. German Journalist Says Potholes in Russian Roads Reduce Highway Deaths There.  A German journalist has praised one of the things that most Russians condemn: the horrific state of Russian roads. He says that the potholes that mar most of the highways there are good things because they force drivers to go more slowly and thus reduce the number of traffic deaths. Meanwhile, Moscow has announced plans to increase the length of toll roads in Russia from 500 kilometers now to 2,000 by 2020. No word on whether these will be pothole free and thus more dangerous, however. 

8. Russian Dress Codes for Officials, Muslims, and Art.  Given the heatwave in Russia, many people are coming to work with lighter clothes than usual. That has offended some officials and they have ordered people to avoid wearing anything too revealing.  Meanwhile, other officials have said that they will not tolerate any burkinis, the swimwear favored by traditional Muslim women, and a Russian court has ordered the use of a Hieronymus Bosch painting as advertising for an art exhibit to be taken down lest it corrupt Russian youth. 

9. Matvienko Wants All Laws Checked for Conformity with Russian National Values. Federation Council head Valentina Matvienko wants to set up a special commission that will ensure that all legislation conforms to Russian national values. One of those values apparently is not democracy: Two-thirds of Russians say they are prepared to sacrifice that if needed for the struggle with extremism and terrorism.

10. For Kremlin, Islamophobia is the Anti-Semitism of Today According to one Moscow commentator, for the Putin regime, Islamophobia is the anti-Semitism of today, a set of attitudes that both reflects their real feelings and something that they are quite prepared to make use of against others. Such an instrumental approach to extremist prejudices has some interesting consequences. One includes the possibility of vacating charges of extremism against someone who declares that he is ready to serve in the interior ministry. 

11. Yekaterinburg Resident Wants Government to Refund Taxes Used for Crimean Annexation. A man in Yekaterinburg is demanding that the Russian finance ministry return to him the share of his taxes that were used for the Crimean Anschluss, yet another indication of the ways in which Russians are showing their resentment of Putin’s Ukrainian policies. Another case of this concerns people living along the roads leading to the Kerch bridge now under construction who say they will block the highways unless they are compensated. 

12. Stavropol Cossacks Given New Job: Fight Pokemon! The authorities are always looking for things that the Cossacks can do and the Cossacks are typically quite willing to oblige. Now, in Stavropol, the two have come together and decided that the Cossacks there will fight with Pokemon and with the Pokemon craze sweeping across Russia.

13. For Residents of Kaliningrad, It is Still ‘Koenig.’  Just as residents of Leningrad often referred to it as “Peter” in Soviet times before its historical  name was restored, so too residents of Kaliningrad refer to their homeland as “Koenig,” an abbreviation for “Koenigsberg” as Germany’s East Prussia was known before Stalin annexed the territory at the end of World War II. 

And six more from countries near Russia:

1. Drones Said Carrying Contraband from Belarus to Lithuania. Smugglers are going high-tech to get goods across the Belarusian-Lithuanian border: they are now using drones, Lithuanian officials say. 

2. Infant Mortality Up in Crimea Since Russian Anschluss. Infant mortality is one of the most sensitive measures of how a society deals with its most defenseless. Since Russia occupied Crimea, deaths among newborns have shot up.

3. Autonomy for Crimea Not About Federalization of Ukraine, Crimean Tatars Say. Some Ukrainians have objected to giving autonomy to the Crimean Tatars lest that trigger the federalization of Ukraine that Moscow wants.  But Crimean Tatar leaders are pointing out that giving them autonomy in fact would be a defense against such federalization because it would be based on nationality rather than regional autonomy. 

4. Graffiti a Cheap Way to De-Communize. Ukrainians have found a quick and inexpensive way to live up to the de-communization program. Instead of tearing down all statues of Lenin, they are simply drawing Ukrainian-style moustaches on Lenin.

5. Turkmenistan Wants to Be a Naval Power on the Caspian.  For most of the last 25 years, Ashgabat has largely ignored the need to have a naval presence on the Caspian. But now it is engaged in a massive naval construction program that will allow it to defend its territorial waters and pipelines against challenges from other navies on that body of water. 

6. Baku Bans Mini-Skirts and Speaking Russian in Certain Places.  Although the president of Kyrgyzstan recently suggested that it is better for young Muslim women to wear mini-skirts than bombs, the government of Azerbaijan is taking no chances and is banning short dresses in certain institutions.  Intriguingly, given the warming of relations between Russia and Azerbaijan, the new rector of Baku State University has banned the use of Russian for certain campus functions.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
What the August 1991 Putsch Attempt Did and Didn’t Do
Staunton, VA, August 19, 2016 - Twenty-five years ago today, the Soviet coup plotters said they were acting to ensure the territorial integrity of the USSR, something that, when their effort collapsed, happened within four months, leading many in Russia and the West to conclude that the Soviet Union disintegrated because of the coup.

At the same time, those who went to the Russian White House to oppose the plotters said they were acting to ensure that Russia would become a democracy instead of a dictatorship of the nomenklatura, a claim that, after the coup collapsed, both they and many in the West assumed was now ensured with not much additional effort required.

Neither of these interpretations, although they continue to shape opinion about the events of August 1991, is correct. The Soviet Union was on the way to disintegration long before the coup: it might have accelerated things, but it did not cause it. And the success of those who opposed the coup did not represent the defeat of the nomenklatura or the triumph of democracy.

The USSR was on its way to disintegration and would have come apart even if there had been no coup and counter-coup in Moscow. Within hours of the start of the coup, the three occupied Baltic countries were on their way to international recognition of de facto and not just de jure independence.

But they were not alone: Across the Soviet space, sometimes driven by popular movements like Rukh in Ukraine or the Popular Fronts in Belarus and Azerbaijan and sometimes by the calculations of party leaders that they could get out from under Moscow’s control, the 11 non-Russian republics were already on the march to independence well before August 1991.

Those who orchestrated the coup knew that or they wouldn’t have acted, but they demonstrated that they would have failed to keep the country together even if they had succeeded. After all, a collection of security officers unprepared to kill either Gorbachev or Yeltsin could hardly be expected to maintain power by drowning the country in blood.

Had that happened, the USSR would have dissolved likely along Yugoslavia lines. But it would have dissolved. And when the coup failed, the weakness of Moscow was so obvious that the Russians and all the non-Russians realized they had to take things into their own hands lest someone try that again.

In short, there would have been 12 “newly independent states” or perhaps even more and three Baltic countries which would have recovered their independence in the fall of 1991 or the winter of 1991/1992. The incompetence of the coup plotters ensured that this process was less bloody: it and they did nothing to cause it or stop it.

The same thing is true about the widespread assumption that the defeat of the August 1991 coup was a triumph of democracy over the nomenklatura and security agencies. On the one hand, the number of people who came to the defense of the Russian White House was microscopic, a mere handful in a country of almost 300 million people.

And on the other, while many who did come were animated by democratic ideals, most of their leaders sprang from the CPSU nomenklatura or even the security agencies. Yeltsin himself had resigned from the party but he had grown up as a party man. And in that he was hardly alone.

As a result, when the coup was defeated, what happened all too quickly was that members of the old nomenklatura and the security agencies, often declaring they had changed sides, moved into positions of power and subverted whatever chance Russia might have had to become a real democracy.

If that wasn’t clear in early 1992, it was certainly obvious in 1993 when Yeltsin fired on the parliament and then declared war on Chechnya. And it has become even more obvious since 2000 when Putin blew up the apartment buildings and launched another war on Chechnya, followed by wars against Georgia and Ukraine.

Unfortunately, many in the West were more interested in declaring victory than in helping Russia and the other countries to make a real transition to democracy. And many in Russia accepted the declarations of former communists and former KGB officers as genuine rather than as tactical moves to retain power.

If that wasn’t clear in early 1992, it became obvious by the mid-1990s with the rise of the state-enriched oligarchs and the new old security agencies and especially with the installation of a KGB officer as president who in a rare display of honesty talked about his role and that of its fellows as “a special operation.”

Those who did stand up for democracy at the Russian White House in August 1991 deserve to be remembered with honor, but those who failed to pay attention to what really happened and who continue do assert that the coup caused the demise of the USSR or that it guaranteed democracy certainly do not.