Tag Archives: St. Petersburg Times

US will work with Russia to investigate journalist’s Moscow murder

Following the fifth anniversary of the Moscow murder of Paul Klebnikov, a Forbes editor who started the Russian-language edition of the magazine, the Russian government has agreed to accept help from the U.S. in investigating the killing.

One can only hope that the involvement of American investigators will help catch the assasins—and that Russia’s commitment to resolving the case will give journalists who continue to work under dangerous conditions in Russia some respite from the violence and intimidation they sometimes face.

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A Russian perspective on the Iranian Election

In an opinion piece in the St. Peteresburg Times, Yulia Latynina, a political commentator for a Moscow radio station, takes on the recent election and turmoil in Iran.

In the election results and ensuing protests, she sees not grass roots activism, not fraud and the response of an outraged people, but simply the pitfalls of democracy in a poor country. Latynina draws parallels between post-Soviet Russia and Iran, arguing that poor voters tend to elect bad leaders:

The Iranian vote demonstrates a simple truth that even Aristotle and Plato understood but that is frequently forgotten by fans of democracy today — namely that democracy is one of the worst forms of government if the majority of voters are impoverished…

All observers of democracy — from Thucydides to Machiavelli — have made note of one simple fact: If the voters do not own property, democracy does not differ from dictatorship and will inevitably end in tyranny.

Click here to read the full piece.

Irony, Russian Style

The Aurora

The Aurora

I was going to try to write something witty about revelations that a Russian billionaire threw a party last week on the cruiser Aurora, which famously fired a blank shell at the Winter Palace during the 1917 Bolshevik takeover, and is now a museum of Communist propaganda. But seriously, just read this article about the “Capitalist Orgy” from the St. Petersburg Times. I have nothing to add.

Why dodge the Russian draft?

After yesterday’s post on police checking ID to find draft-dodgers, I want to add a bit of context as to why young men try so hard to stay out of the Russian military.

In a word, it comes down to hazing. I’m no expert on hazing in the Russian armed forces, but here is what I do know:

  • In 2004, at least 44 (Government figure), and as many as 3,000 (human rights group estimate) Russian draftees were killed in hazing incidents or commited suicide as a result of hazing. (Source: Pravda)
  • In the same year, Human Rights Watch released a report on hazing in the Russian military, and called on the government to do more to stop it. HRW estimated that hazing caused the “deaths of dozens of conscripts every year, and serious—and often permanent—damage to the physical and mental health of thousands others. Hundreds of conscripts commit or attempt suicide each year, and thousands run away from their units.”
  • In 2006, Private Andrei Sychyov was beaten so badly that his legs and genitals had to be amputated. His case was one of the few to be publicly discussed in Russia, because the doctors treating him leaked information to the media. (Sources: Radio Free Europe, NPR)
  • After Sychyov’s case became public, news outlets discovered another case at least as disturbing.
  • The St. Petersburg Times reported on the humiliation, beating, extortion and other trials Russian conscripts face following the Sychyov case. Despite the testimony of a hazed soldier, Russia’s Defense Minister dismissed continuing concerns about hazing.

Documents, please

Every time I walk past a police officer in St. Petersburg, I look down, up, to the side—anywhere but his face. It’s not that I’m guilty of anything, but here the militsia, as the St. Petersburg police are called, are not known for jolly attitudes and community outreach. They also do not need a reason to ask for your documents, an open request that can lead to questioning in an unfamiliar language and to the gifting of pastel-colored Ruble notes.

I’ve played out the scenario many times in my mind: An officer’s eye meets mine. Nightstick dangling from his wrist—Russian police seem to always have their nightsticks out and ready—he approaches. As I pull my photocopied passport (And here’s the technical guilt: By law, one is required to have the actual passport with him at all times) out of my wallet, he sizes up its monetary contents. He questions me. I tell him—in English—that I speak no Russian, as I’ve been advised to do. He suggests a ruble figure. I comply, replacing my passport in my now-lighter wallet, walking away, if all goes well.

Today, my imagination met reality.

As I walked into Vaselostravskaya Metro Station, a police officer, standing to the side with two others, stopped me. “Документы, пожалуйста,” documents please. As I’d practiced, I told him that I speak no Russian as I unfolded the crumpled copy of my passport. “Ah, American,” he said. And smiled. One of his partners added in a “Hello, American.” The young officer, no club in hand, gave me back my passport, and I was on my way.

Apparently, the police are not looking to bother American students, or to earn an easy several-hundred rubles.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, what the police are looking for is draft dodgers—young men trying to escape their mandatory time in Russia’s military. Spring is draft time, so the police may (they deny this, according to the St. Petersburg Times) be ratcheting up efforts to fill the military’s ranks, in part by checking the documents of young men at metro stations.

Russia tries to control interpretations of its past

For the Soviet Union, history was always a touchy subject. The state derived its legitimacy, at least in part, from a historical narrative that portrayed the Bolshevik revolutionaries as embodying the aspirations of the vast majority of Russians—not as a minority imposing their will through violence.

The Soviet Union couldn’t even stomach criticism that avoided the state’s founding myths. Soviet historian Roy Medvedev was harassed and expelled from the Communist party in the late 1960’s for writing a book critical of Stalin, for instance. There was one acceptable version of history—the one that suited the interests of the state.

And now, it seems the Russian government is working to shape the past once again. The St. Petersburg Times reports Russian President Dmitri Medvedev is creating a committee charged with “collecting and analyzing information about attempts to diminish Russia’s prestige by falsifying history.”

The initiative may simply be a piece in formulating a broader, more coherent national approach to Soviet-era history, particularly the Stalin era (sort of a curriculum standardization). Or it may be a political move, with little real effect. Of course, it could also have real consequences for the study of history in Russia.

Analysts quoted by the St. Petersburg Times seemed to have differing opinions. One believes that the committee may open more archives to researchers, making it beneficial in the long run. Another analyst, however, said the committee might lead to, “defense of the historical myth about Russia in the interests of the country’s rulers.”

Among Russians, memories of the Communist era are mixed.

While the horror of Stalin’s reign is acknowledged, there are still mixed feelings towards him here. Stalin embarked on massive purges and collectivized agriculture, killing millions, but also pursued large-scale industrialization and defeated the Nazis.

The text at the Museum of the Political History of Russia in St. Petersburg—a glimpse into how the state wishes to present its past—is quite critical of Stalin and his purges. But it does not mention some of the most undeniably evil portions of his reign. The Holodomor famine that occurred in the early 1930s in Ukraine, killing millions, is absent. Stalin’s aggressive collectivization of agriculture led to the famine, and Ukrainians consider the famine to be a genocide committed against their people. Russia rejects this claim.

In a related development, Russia’s parliament is likely to pass a bill that would criminalize criticism of the actions of the Red Army during World War II, the St. Petersburg Times reported. Penalties for such criticism, which is often made in former Soviet republics, could reach five years in prison. Foreigners who accuse the Red Army of atrocities (See: Katyn Massacre and Soviet War Crimes) could be punished upon entering Russia.

For a slightly different view of Medvedev’s committee, let’s turn to Pravda, the newspaper of Russia’s communist party. In a translated article headlined Russia will never let anyone falsify history of Second World War, Pravda celebrates the government’s effort to combat portrayals of Soviet soldiers as looters and rapists.

“As a matter of fact, we find ourselves in the situation when we must defend the historic truth and even prove the facts that seemed to be absolutely obvious not so long ago. It can be very hard and even disgusting at times, but we must do it. We must not turn a blind eye on the terrible truth of the war. We will never let anyone cast doubt on the deeds of our nation,” Medvedev said, according to the paper.

Neither Pravda nor the St. Petersburg Times made it clear exactly which “correct” version of history the government will promote.

Preparing for a trip

I haven’t quite realized yet that I’ll be spending the next ten weeks in Russia. I leave Thursday morning for St. Petersburg via Reagan-National to JFK and then Helsinki.

I’ve been studying Russian all year, but as I flip through my Russia at a Glance phrase book, I keep coming upon phrases I’ve never seen before, and hope to never use:

  • He’s stolen______ – Он украл______
  • There is no hot water – Нет горячей боды
  • I was hit by a car – Меня сбила машина

The book also includes useful phrases for meeting new people, such as “Are you married?” and “Are you alone?”.

To get a taste for St. Petersburg culture before arriving, I’ve been trying to read the English-language St. Petersburg Times. Among the stories leading right now are a piece on rising tensions between Russia and NATO and an article critical of anti-corruption efforts. 

From the latter article, we learn: “Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee, could vacation in the Czech Republic in an apartment owned by his wife. This inflamed United Russia Deputy Alexander Khinshtein, who told Kommersant that it was “nonsense” for a senior official’s family to own property in a NATO country.”

On the lighter side,”Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev, who put his earnings at about 370 million rubles ($11 million)… listed among his property a Porsche Cayenne and a Porsche 911.” 

It is unclear if Minister Trutnev was criticized for owning two cars manufactured in a NATO country.