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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April 30, 2008 -- Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: Authentic Russian Gibberish

(2) Censoring Nemtsov, Destroying the Nation

(3) The Mailbag: Russia and 9/11

(4) That's Russian Entertainment

(5) Hiatt on Putin and the Gymnast

(6) Annals of Neo-Soviet Russia: Dissidents Fleeing to Ukraine

EDITORIAL: Authentic Russian Gibberish


Authentic Russian Gibberish

There is a scene in the Mel Brooks cowboy movie Blazing Saddles where an elder rises at a town meeting to thank a citizen for delivering a motivational speech in "authentic frontier gibberish." But the babbling cowboys had nothing on the modern Russian Kremlin.

In a shocking recent report, RosBusinessConsulting stated:
Russia could face a staff deficit of between 8m and 22m people, according to various estimates, Deputy Health Minister Alexander Safonov told a round table on Russia's employment problems. He stressed that even now, the shortage was considerable, and was not only of a quantitative, but also a qualitative nature. The primary and manufacturing sectors are seeing a steep decline in staffing, while the accident rate continues to soar. According to Health Ministry data, the share of work places that does not meet the relevant standards has reached 25 percent, up from a maximum of 12 percent several years ago. Safonov also noted growing foreign work force problems in Russia, as the number of international workers in Russia stood at between 4m and 12m people, according to different sources. While the quota for issuing work permits stood at 3m people in 2007, only 2m were actually granted.
Russia is facing a massive demographic crisis, suffering a net loss of up to 1 million people from the population each year due to a pandemic health crisis even though it is experiencing record waves of immigration as unwanted Russians return home from the far-flung reaches of the former USSR. Russia doesn't rank in the top 100 nations of the world when evaluated for average male adult lifespan.

So it's hardly surprising to learn that Russia will soon experience a blood-curdling dropoff in the size of its workforce, as it becomes a nation of the old and the sick. What's startling in this report is not that obvious reality, but rather the fact that the Kremlin has no idea what the actual contours of the problem are -- or, worse, it simply won't say.

A deficit of "between 8m and 22m" workers?

"Between 4m and 12m" foreign workers arriving?

"According to various estimates" and "different sources"?

It's doubtful that Federico Fellini could concoct a more insanely disjointed attempt to document the problem. Do you dare then, dear reader, try to imagine the quality of the Kremlin's actual policy response to the problem, if this is their attempt to describe it?

In it word, that policy response is non-existent. The Kremlin is wholly preoccupied with a massive militarization campaign, just as was the case in Soviet times, utterly at the expense of Russia's social and economic fabric. It's spending money on buzzing American cities with nuclear bombers rather than on building the Russian population.

And, as we've said before, we doubt that the Kremlin even wants the people of Russia to be happy, healthy or prosperous. Such people are much harder to govern and control than those who are depressed, sick and poor -- and ease of control has dominate Russian political thought since the times of the tsars. To be sure, one would think that sooner or later Russians would realize the damage this kind of thinking does to the foundations of the country, having already seen not one but two fundamental collapses of their national government in less than a century.

Each time, of course, the collapsed regimes held themselves up to the nation as indestructible -- the words of the anthem of the USSR on that score are enough to induce convulsive fits of laughter. And now, history repeating itself like a pulverizing wheel, Putin's Kremlin says the same, and the hapless citizens of Russia once again go right along.

It would be funny, if it were not so very tragic.

Censoring Nemstov, Destroying the Nation

Richard Lourie, writing in the Moscow Times:

In February, Boris Nemtsov published a white paper on the Vladimir Putin years that he considered so inflammatory that he suspended his membership in Union of Right Forces, the party he co-founded, to spare it the Kremlin's ire. Nemtsov, the former boy-wonder governor of Nizhny Novgorod and first deputy prime minister in 1997 and 1998, wrote the 75-page essay with Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister, in 2002.

All Russian bookstores have reportedly refused to carry the book, whose title has been variously translated as "Putin: The Results" and "Putin: The Bottom Line." It is available in Russian and English on the blog of La Russophobe.

After a one-paragraph review of Russia's success -- "true but only the lesser part of the truth" -- the authors launch into an unremitting assault on the crimes, follies and failures of the Putin administration. The central failure was not using the oil windfall to modernize the country's economy, army, health care, education and infrastructure.

Authoritarianism only brought corruption on a colossal scale -- $300 billion a year. Transparency International ranks Russia 143rd on its Corruption Perceptions Index, along with Gambia and Togo. The authors' analysis of the larceny under Putin is sharp, detailed and convincing. They do not hesitate to call his a "criminal system of government."

Meanwhile Russia is dying out. Men can expect to live less than 59 years ("I'm officially dead," a Russian friend said to me on turning 60). The annual numbers are bad -- car accidents (33,000), murder (30,000) and suicide (57,000). Drinking, smoking, poor diet and the lamentable health care system polish off even more.

The justice system obeys the Kremlin, causing "the collapse of the idea of the supremacy of the law" (never very widespread in Russia if the truth be told). The Constitution has been "trampled into the dust." The infrastructure is in dire straights, endangering economic progress (Finland has more paved road).

The report's own weakness lies in its off-putting tone and its too-general suggestions. The tone is too dark, every problem is a crisis. Understatement was always alien to the intelligentsia.

The report offers very little in the way of practical suggestions. Something more than exhortations can reasonably be expected from men with their political experience. How to build a decent "successful, European" Russia is, they say, "perfectly clear. First and foremost, the police state has to be dismantled and human dignity returned to the people." You could hardly think of a more unobjectionable statement, except perhaps to the people running the police state in question.

They authors do, however, at times propose useful solutions to pressing problems. For example, they point out that it makes more sense to encourage middle-class people to have more children by writing down mortgage debt at government expense than to encourage the "lumpen proletariats" to reproduce by offering cash awards to "hero mothers" who produce large numbers of offspring.

The authors' list of Russia's problems contains no great surprises. And just as we can guess pretty much in advance what a New York liberal will think of U.S. President George W. Bush, we can do the same for what a Moscow liberal will think of Putin. But there is one subject where the authors came up with some surprising, even shocking conclusions -- the fear of China. They accuse Putin of conducting "capitulatory" policies -- arming the enemy and making "major territorial concessions." In time, China will demand much more, claiming that tsarist treaties were unequal and unjust.

"China represents a real threat to our country," they say, calling Putin a "Chinese agent of influence." I have heard similar sentiments from highly placed political figures with whom Nemtsov and Milov would otherwise have nothing in common. Perhaps in the absence of ideology all that can unite Russia now is love of money and fear of China.

Mailbag: Russia and 9/11

Letters, we get letters, we get lots of cards and letters every day

Dear La Russophobe:

First of all, I really enjoy your blog. I've become very interested in Russia lately, but I don't speak Russian (yet!) so I can only really scratch the surface when it comes to deciphering the place.

But – I was kind of shocked when I read an entry about Russia and its connection to 9/11 that you posted on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Not because I'm some idealistic American patriot offended that you'd blame anyone by the dirty A-rabs for 9/11, but because you're missing the most obvious link: One of Litvinenko's allegations about the FSB was that Ayman al-Zawahiri was an "old agent of the FSB." An old FSB agent corroborated Litvinenko's story, saying that Litivnenko himself was responsible for facilitating al-Zawahiri's entrance into Russia (1). Litvinenko alleged that al-Zawahiri was being trained by the FSB when he was supposedly in their custody as a suspect rather than agent-in-training, only a few months before al-Zawahiri and bin Laden issued the fatwa that declared that it was okay to kill civilians in the name of jihad (2). It was the intellectual precursor to 9/11. Jamestown Scholar Evgenii Novikov points out the obvious holes in the accounts given by both al-Zawahiri and the FSB that despite being in possession of a well-known terrorist leader with phony credentials and encrypted Arabic data on his computer who was caught trying to illegally sneak into Russia, the FSB simply couldn't figure out eh was, and so they had no other choice but to let him go (3). Wright, in his book The Looming Tower, says that al-Zawahiri was likely the author of that fatwa. Bin Laden's favorite biographer, Hamid Mir, even declared once that in meeting bin Laden and al-Zawahiri (which he did more than any other journalist), he believed that al-Zawahiri was in control and "He is the person who can do the things that happened on Sept. 11" (4). Bin Laden and al-Qaeda were the perfect vehicle for Russian proxy terrorism: bin Laden earned his terrorist creds while fighting the Soviet Union and was once backed by the US. Surely the Americans would never dig deeper than simply "the terrorists," because of the Americans' misdeeds are also rather prominent. It also explains al-Zawahiri's low profile, despite all indications pointing to him being the key player in al-Qaeda: bin Laden needed to remain the figurehead, as he had a reputation for being against the Soviet Union. However, al-Zawahiri had no such past. Not to mention that Litvinenko pointed him out as an agent, so he couldn't play too prominent a role lest people start digging into his background.

The motive for the attacks is the motive of all Russian-sponsored terrorism: wars in the Middle East and higher oil and natural gas prices. Russia has been quite openly abetting Iran's nuclear ambitions, not because it honestly thinks that it needs any more protection of its empire, but because a US invasion of Iran would further destabilize the region and drive energy prices up further. Not to mention that terrorism is what brought Putin to power – he was unknown before the Second Chechen War, which you as the Russophobe know was likely provoked by a series of black-flag terrorist operations. Putin was the first leader to call Bush to offer his condolences after September 11th, and the Russians never miss an opportunity to cite common cause with the US – "We're both the victims of terrorism!"

Very truly yours,

Stephen Smith

That's Russian Entertainment!

Reuters reports:

Before grumbling about rising movie ticket prices in the United States, consider a trip to the multiplex in Russia.

The recent Matthew McConaughey movie "Fool's Gold" is playing at Moscow's 11-screen Oktyabr Cinema for 300 rubles per ticket -- that's $12.70. [LR: In a country with an average wage of $4 per hour, a Russian needs to work for three hours to pay for a single movie ticket; a whole day's wages would be needed to pay for a date]. Stick around for the later showing of the horror film "Shutter," which is running only in Oktyabr's 35-seat VIP room, and the price jumps to 1,200 rubles ($51).

A night out at the movies or the occasional theater seats might require budget-balancing in the West. But that same escapism is becoming a luxury item in Russia, where out-of-home entertainment can eat up a sizable portion of the average wage of the working class and those on retirement incomes. "Certainly, there is a segment of the Russian population that is left out of entertainment because of the price," says Maria Lipman, analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, which studies public policy issues.

But even as Russia spawns a growing middle class and disposable income increases of about 10% each year, the average net monthly wage translates to $524 per month and the average monthly pension to $130.The increasing prices aren't limited to Moscow's entertainment industry; the city was named the most expensive in Europe two years running, according to Mercer Human Resource Consulting. At the same time, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the average price of a movie ticket in Russia was 101 rubles ($4.12) in 2006. Today, Moscow prices range anywhere from 150 rubles-500 rubles ($6.12-$20). And for "event" movies, ticket prices often are hiked during the first two weeks in release. In Moscow, prices also can vary depending on the time of day or whether it's a weekend showing.

Leonid Ogorodnikov, CEO of Russia's largest movie chain, Caro Film, explains the variance in cost as the price of ensuring quality. "There are theaters in which prices don't go up on weekends and holidays, but these are old cinemas that don't guarantee quality presentation, sound, service, etc.," he says. "These are attended by moviegoers who aren't ready to pay for a quality film screening."

Kirill Ivanov, vp operations and development at Cinema Park, Russia's fourth-largest exhibitor, chalks up the expensive ticket prices to extremely high rental rates for cinemas in Russian shopping centers. "If before this concerned only Moscow and to a certain extent St. Petersburg, now the rental rates in small cities are just through the roof," he says.

But Sergei Lavrov, box office analyst at Russia Film Business Today, places the responsibility for high ticket prices squarely on the shoulders of the film business. "With so little regulation in this country, distributors can do whatever they like," he says.

Although reserved seating is becoming increasingly common in Europe and the U.S., tickets in Russia are divided into economy and VIP categories. Some theaters even set aside halls with much smaller capacity, with tickets selling for as high as three or four times the usual admission rates. If prices are beyond your reach, don't even think about heading out to a Moscow nightclub. A booth can cost as much as $12,000 in some hot spots.

Hiatt on Putin and the Gymnast

Fred Hiatt, writing in the Washington Post:

On a recent visit to Italy, President Vladimir Putin was asked about a Russian newspaper report that he was divorcing his wife of many years to marry a 24-year-old rhythmic gymnast famous in Russia for her lithe beauty.

Putin denied the report in his usual charming way, scolding the media "with their snotty noses and their erotic fantasies." Then the newspaper that published the rumor was shut down.

Or, to be more precise, the newspaper that published the rumor, in a paroxysm of self-loathing and czar-love, shut itself down. And a few days later, just to make sure, the lower house of parliament, or Duma, approved a law, by a vote of 339 to 1, allowing authorities to shutter any other newspaper that dared to print such reports again.

It is no longer controversial to note that Putin "has led Russia into a harsh brand of authoritarianism with some fascist features," as French scholar Pierre Hassner said in a speech last fall. But it's worth recalling the methodical and patient way he crept toward dictatorship, because recent events raise fears that he is now creeping in the same way toward stifling the independence that Russia's neighboring states have enjoyed since the Soviet Union fractured in 1991.

Putin did not announce, eight years ago, his intention to create an autocracy in which all television channels would be under Kremlin control; in which elections would be decided, by him, ahead of time; in which every major industrialist and provincial governor would dance to his tune and roving bands of nationalist youths would threaten, intimidate or beat up anyone who objected.

He did not announce that by the time he gave up the presidency he would have created a replacement for the Communist Party of olden days -- United Russia -- and that he would graciously accept its chairmanship, though without deigning to join the party. (The only historical analogy that former Russian official Alfred Koch could find for that, Koch told me, was "the relationship between the Hebrews and their God during the exodus: God gave them the law, he led them out of Egypt, but the law was not binding on God.")

Putin did not preview any of this, but he did it, gradually and step by step. And for most of the journey, the Bush administration and other Western governments refused to acknowledge it publicly, or perhaps even to themselves. They fatuously compared 21st-century Russia with Stalin's Soviet Union, as if the positive differences should be comforting. And when the negative trends became too obvious to ignore, they -- particularly the Western Europeans -- still hesitated to offend the bear.

So it should not be surprising that leaders of small and even medium-size democracies on Russia's borders feel nervous as they see Putin challenging their sovereignty and threatening their futures. Estonia has endured cyber-attacks; Georgia's exports to Russia have been blocked; Ukraine has been told that it will be targeted by nuclear missiles should it think of joining NATO and watched as its president was mysteriously poisoned and nearly killed.

"It's clear that, for Russia, any formerly Communist country is a threat, if it opts for democracy, rule of law and human rights," Estonia's president, Toomas Ilves, told me during a recent visit to Washington.

Now Putin has issued a decree establishing legal ties with the rulers of two breakaway regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. "A greater provocation is harder to imagine," Ilves said, than telling Georgia's government "you don't have sovereignty over your own people."

Georgia's foreign minister, David Bakradze, came to Washington last week to make the same point. "It's not just about Georgia," he said. "It's the first time the Russians think they are powerful enough to change borders in post-Soviet space. . . . If they are not stopped, they will go to the end."

It's quite possible that the Kremlin does not in fact want to absorb and take responsibility for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, at least not now. But undoubtedly Russia took note last month when, at Germany's insistence, and purely out of deference to Putin, NATO deferred Georgia and Ukraine's request for "membership action plans" -- one step on a long road to possible membership. Russia saw NATO's hesitation "as a green light," Ilves said. "It is not the signal being given, but it is taken that way."

U.S. and allied officials, including in Germany, objected last week to Russia's decree on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as did all three U.S. presidential candidates. Maybe that will be enough, for now. But President Putin will soon become not only party chairman but also prime minister, in charge of implementing the decree he has just issued. The goals of provoking the Georgians into intemperate action, while persuading the Germans that it's all too much trouble to get involved -- those will not recede.

Meanwhile, the lovely and flexible Alina Kabaeva has been installed as a United Russia member of parliament, or Duma deputy. Are relations between Chairman Putin and Deputy Kabaeva anything more than comradely? Don't look for answers in a Russian newspaper anytime soon.

Annals of Neo-Soviet Russia: Dissidents Flee to Ukraine

The Moscow Times reports:

The tiny apartment looks like a safe house except for the crib in the middle of the room. No carpets on the floors. No magnets on the fridge. No pictures on the walls. No books in the bookcase.Just a desk with a computer, a large mattress propped against one wall, and a fold-out couch along another. The crib stands in the middle.

Olga Kudrina (pictured, left) has been living in this one-room apartment in Vinnitsa, a city in central Ukraine, since she fled Moscow two years ago to escape what she calls a politically motivated prison sentence. A Ukrainian court sided with Kudrina last month, granting her asylum, and she now shares her apartment with her 6-month-old daughter, Lena, and two fellow National Bolshevik activists who are seeking asylum.

Their days are filled with endless hours of typing ICQ instant messages, reading LiveJournal blogs and listening to Ekho Moskvy radio. Kudrina is studying Ukrainian in hope of entering university to continue her education in computer programming. Every so often, the other two sit down with local authorities for interviews about their applications to be declared political refugees.

Dozens of Russians have sought asylum in Ukraine after complaining of political pressure at home, raising the specter of new tensions between the two countries. Russian authorities have been particularly tough on activists with the banned National Bolshevik Party, jailing dozens in recent years for their theatrical, anti-Kremlin protests.

But the Russian Foreign Ministry -- which has sharply criticized Britain and the United States for granting asylum to Russians facing prison terms at home -- seems unfazed that Ukrainian courts are offering asylum to Russians.

Kudrina, 24, was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison for a May 2005 stunt in which she and another National Bolshevik member hung a banner from the now-demolished Rossiya Hotel reading "Putin, Quit Your Job" and for participating in a 2004 break-in at the Health and Social Development Ministry [see photograph at right]. She failed to show up for her sentencing in May 2006, instead fleeing to Ukraine.

"I had to leave fast. I didn't even have time to go home. I just brought my purse, my documents and some money," Kudrina said. She said she would only return if President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev drastically changed Russia's course and a court annulled her prison sentence. "I hope it will change," she said, a sentiment echoed by her roommates, Mikhail Gangan, 24, and Anna Ploskonosova, 19. "They are all waiting. This is what makes them real refugees," said Dmitry Groisman, head of the Vinnitsa Human Rights Group. A doctor by training, Groisman helped Kudrina win asylum and is now assisting Gangan and Ploskonosova.

To get to the apartment, Groisman, 35, took a tram three stops from the main bus station, down a busy, potholed road, and entered a dimly lit apartment building with green-painted halls. At the door of the apartment, he knocked and, after hearing a noise behind the leather-covered wooden door, he called out, jokingly, "It's the police, open up!"

The three Russians squeezed into the closet-sized entryway of the apartment to meet him. Kudrina, wearing silver-trimmed, cat eye glasses and black clothes, held her baby on her hip. Gangan, a former leader of the National Bolshevik's Samara branch, is tall and lanky with dirty blond hair. Ploskonosova is the most recent arrival, arriving last month to avoid what she calls trumped-up charges of assaulting a police officer. Ploskonosova wore a black scarf around her neck and greeted Groisman timidly. "They're always thinking about going home," Groisman said. "They are planning their life in this country only because they can't go home."

Planning may be too strong a word. The three seem to be biding their time. "Life would be different for me here, but now I'm taking care of this one here," Kudrina said, looking down as Lena bubbled and cooed on her lap, "and studying Ukrainian and programming." Gangan should know by June or July whether he will receive asylum, Groisman said. Last Wednesday, Ploskonosova went for her second interview with Vinnitsa's migration service. "The hearing went well, I think," Ploskonosova said. She will have two or three more interviews before a court decides whether to declare her a political refugee, Groisman said. "Anna must be granted refugee status. She fits the textbook definition of a refugee," Groisman said.

In addition to the assault charges, Ploskonosova saw her boyfriend, National Bolshevik member Yury Chervochkin, die of injuries sustained in a beating in the Moscow region in November. National Bolshevik activists say Chervochkin was being followed by police officers and accused them of attacking him. Police deny the allegation. Under a 2001 Ukrainian law, a foreigner is eligible for refugee status if he has "reasonable apprehensions" of becoming a victim of persecution in his native country because of his race, faith, nationality, citizenship, social status or political views. In 2002, Ukraine joined the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention, becoming its 143rd member.

While Ukraine's law is in line with that of Western countries, Groisman said he feared that the decision about Ploskonosova's status would be politically tinged. "If the price of Russian gas would be cut by just 10 cents per 1,000 cubic meters if Ukraine sent back these refugees, they would be sent back like that," he said, snapping his fingers. Relations have been strained over Russia's insistence on raising the price of the gas it supplies to Ukraine as well as Kiev's aspirations to join NATO and the Orange Revolution election of President Viktor Yushchenko in 2004. Asked whether offering asylum to Russians wanted on criminal charges might affect relations, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "For now, the issue is not being discussed during bilateral political contacts."

"Issues of this type are considered within the court and law enforcement bodies of the two countries," he added. A Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman also pointed to asylum as a judicial issue. "Granting asylum is not within the Foreign Ministry's jurisdiction," she said by telephone from Kiev. Last year, 93 Russians applied for refugee status, while four were denied it, six were stripped of it and a single applicant from a previous year was granted it, Ukraine's State Committee for the Affairs of Nationalities and Religion said in an e-mailed statement.

In 2007, Russia placed fourth on a list of 11 countries whose nationals had applied for refugee status in Ukraine. The top country was Afghanistan, with 1,171 appeals, followed by Armenia with 205 appeals and Azerbaijan with 184 appeals. Russia was followed by Congo with 85 appeals, Georgia with 79 appeals and Sudan with 61 appeals. The only Russian who received asylum last year was Alexander Kosvintsev, a 54-year-old journalist who fled the Siberian city of Kemerovo in late 2006, citing threats from local authorities. He and other Russian asylum seekers said they picked Ukraine because of its proximity, a visa-free regime for Russians, and the absence of language and cultural barriers. But it is no home, said Kosvintsev, who lives in Kiev with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. "If the circumstances changed, of course I would come back. I love Russia," he said by telephone.

Vinnitsa, a city of 350,000 people located 260 kilometers southwest of Kiev, has considerable experience with asylum seekers. In 1992, during fighting in Moldova's breakaway region of Transdnestr, more than 50,000 refugees flooded Ukraine, and about 20,000 settled in Vinnitsa. With this history, Vinnitsa has become a magnet for refugees, taking everyone from Somalis fleeing Mogadishu to Uzbeks caught in the Andijan massacre. The city looks like a standard Soviet provincial town, with low-rise office buildings, dilapidated Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, muddy parks and uneven tram lines. It is surrounded by rolling farmland, now coated in a thin film of springtime green. "I moved from city to city around Ukraine for about three months, working, until I heard about Dmitry [Groisman] and came to Vinnitsa," Kudrina said. "And it's cheaper here." The Russians seem to be making friends. Kudrina has met people at the three local universities, and Gangan has made friends with students at one university's journalism department. Though all three have similar interests and beliefs, "it is a few too many people for an apartment of this size," Kudrina said.

She and her roommates are not interested in leaving Ukraine for Europe or the United States. "Of course it's boring here, [but] it's better than being in prison," Gangan said. "We are living, and we are waiting."

Monday, April 28, 2008

April 28, 2008 -- Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: Running on Empty

(2) Kasparov on the Olympics Fraud

(3) Annals of Neo-Soviet Hypocrisy

(4) Russia, Imploding (again)

(5) Holdomor and Genocide

(6) Annals of the Neo-Soviet Crackdown on Journalism

(7) More Sports Humiliation for Russia

NOTE: A newspaper and a human rights group shut down in Russia using the so-called "Anti-Extremism Law." Think it's only "local" and the Kremlin is not involved? Then check out #6 above and eat your thoughts. Publius Pundit has all the horrifying details, check it out (and feel free to send in an e-mail comment, Publius is now publishing reader comments as blog posts -- you can make the big time!).

EDITORIAL: Putin's Russia, Running on Empty


Putin's Russia, Running on Empty

Most Russians don't know that sickening feeling of driving on a lonely road and realizing that you are running on empty, about to run out of gas and be stranded all alone. They don't know it because, with an average wage of $4/hour, they can't afford to buy a car (Russia does not rank in the top 55 nations of the world in automobiles per capita, Mexico for instance has far more; likewise, Russia is not in the world's top 50 countries ranked for per capita purchasing power GDP) -- and even if they could, the spiking price of gasoline at the pump would preclude them from using it. That's to say nothing of the horrifying prospect of dealing with corrupt police officials at virtually every intersection, or Russia's horrific rate of highway fatalities -- Russian roads are among the most dangerous in the world.

It's quite strange, of course, to read that Russians are being oppressed by the rising cost of gasoline, since Russia is a world leader in oil production. One would think that at least one benefit of living in Russia would be cheap gas. But in fact, we've previously reported on how Russian oil production is falling off fast. Those who hope that Russia can replenish its production by developing offshore fields may be barking up the wrong oil derrick. The energy industry trade publication Upstream Online (hat tip: Robert Amsterdam) reported on April 18th:
Russia needs 61 trillion rubles ($2.6 trillion) of investment to develop offshore oil and gas deposits, Rosneft boss Sergei Bogdanchikov has claimed. Exploration alone of offshore regions until 2050 will cost 16 trillion rubles and production 45 trillion rubles more, Bogdanchikov told reporters and government officials in Moscow today.
UpstreamOnline also reports:
Russian gas giant Gazprom has booked a a worse than predicted 20% fall in second-quarter net profit, blaming lower sales in Europe and higher operating costs. Net profit fell to 113 billion roubles ($4.62 billion), to International Financial Reporting Standards, from 141 billion roubles in the same period last year and below the average of 129 billion roubles in a Reuters poll of 11 analysts. Revenue rose 5% to 532 billion roubles, in line with forecasts, but the bottom line was hurt by high operating expenses, which jumped 18% year-on-year to 390 billion roubles. Gazprom's total long-term borrowings, including affiliates, rose to 1.105 trillion roubles from 806 billion roubles at the end of 2006.

So Russian gas and oil fields are running dry, trillions are needed to refurbish them, and Gazprom is deep in debt, unable to provide such funds. Blogger Tim Newman of White Sun of the Desert, who works in the Russian energy sector, adds:

The $2.6 trillion required by Gazprom and Rosneft is only that amount needed to develop Russia's offshore fields. The onshore developments will need separate funding, as in Upstream Online tells us: "Gazprom Neft, which expects Gazprom to hand over the right to develop all of Gazprom's 11 oilfields within the next two to three years, has said it plans to invest up to $4 billion per year to 2020, or around $50 billion, to boost output." $4bn per year is one hell of a lot of money for a single company to invest in oil and gas projects, if not much beside the $62bn per year that they say they are going to have to come up with to develop the offshore fields. Bear this in mind next time you hear about Gazprom investing in trans-saharan pipelines, Libya, and Nigeria. Despite the political rhetoric and talks of the massive potential and influence of Gazprom, it is Russia's most indebted company. In other words, Gazprom is unlikely to be in much of a position to be financing mega-projects any time soon, and if it is going to sink billions into places like Africa, having never run a major project on home soil let alone in a political minefield like Nigeria, Russians might be waiting a while for their offshore gas receipts.

If the #1 best indicator of the total failure of the Putin administration in Russia is the country's rapidly declining population (Putin's policies are wiping out Russians with Hitlerian efficiency), then surely the second-best sign is the decimation of Russia's energy sector. Russia could, of course, solicit foreign investment to provide the needed sums, but then it would have to share the profits and the control, and it's currently in the process of enacting legislation to make this illegal out of pure neo-Soviet paranoia. The Kremlin imagines that it can simply bleed the nation white, just as was done in Soviet times, using the funds from oil and gas proceeds not to develop the nation or even the energy sector, but to wage a new cold war with the West. Meanwhile, just as in Soviet times, the energy sector and the people themselves get sicker and sicker until finally there is a massive collapse.

Speaking at Harvard University in November 2006 Martin Dewhirst, an Oxford-trained Russia scholar who during the Cold War mixed lecturing at the University of Glasgow with translation work for Radio Liberty in Munich, said of Putin's Russia:
"To call it post-Soviet Russia is a little bit premature. Neo-Soviet Russia might be a more appropriate term." He said he was glad Andrei Sakharov died in 1989. The nuclear physicist who personified anti-Soviet dissent, said Dewhirst, "would have died of a broken heart in the 1990s." Post-Soviet" does not convey the right perception to either scholars or to a reading public outside Russia, said Dewhirst, who prefers the retrograde power of the term "neo-Soviet."

Marina Khazanov, who teaches Russian in the Department of Modern Languages at Boston University, disagreed: "If it's a neo-Soviet regime, there is no hope. And there is hope." She pointed to "completely free" newspapers still publishing, and to Russian movies and literature free of Soviet-style repression. One must wonder if, two years later, Ms. Khazanov still thinks so, and indeed whether she now worries that she contributed, in her small way, to delaying opposition to the neo-Soviet state, helping it consolidate power.

Russia replaced the USSR after the most recent collapse. What will replace Russia after the coming one?

Kasparov on the Olympics

Garry Kasparov, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

The international community is justly concerned about China's crackdown in Tibet in the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. But perhaps some attention could be spared for the suffering of Russians ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics, scheduled to take place in the Russian town of Sochi.

An International Olympic Committee official visited Sochi last week and remarked: "Here you start from nothing." Jean-Claude Killy went on to say that the complete lack of infrastructure only meant it was "an incredible chance" to build a resort.

The original estimate for the Sochi Games was $12 billion, more than was spent on the last three Winter Olympics combined. Now the organizers are saying $20 billion, and it's only 2008. This is only the beginning of yet another massive shift of Russian assets from public to private hands – this time under the cover of the Olympic rings.

Three weeks ago, I and other Russian opposition members held a press conference with residents of Sochi. We read aloud from a new law pertaining to the Olympic site. It gives the state the ability to confiscate as much land as it wants in the area, with no possible appeal. With one decision, people will lose their homes and businesses and will have no avenue of protest.

The government announced that it will soon begin to appropriate land, and that the current owners will get a "fair-market price," which of course will be set by the government. During the IOC's visit, a group of local protesters tried to unfurl an "SOS" banner and were physically attacked by the police.

President George W. Bush recently visited Vladimir Putin in Sochi and did not object to the Kremlin's assault on private ownership. Perhaps this is the same "quiet diplomacy" advocated by U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley a few weeks ago, when he was asked about the Chinese crackdown in Tibet. In other words, we are not going to hear this U.S. president say "I am a Tibetan" any time soon.

I have had a painfully close-up view of over seven years of Western quiet diplomacy toward Russia. "Quiet diplomacy" can be roughly translated as, "we'll cut a deal no matter what." During this period we have moved from a frail new democracy to a KGB dictatorship. Based on such results, it is long past time to try something noisier.

Despite their bluster over missile defense, Kosovo and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, there are only two things that Mr. Putin and his gang really care about: total control inside of Russia and legitimacy outside of Russia.

Legitimacy in Western eyes is clearly important to Mr. Putin. Otherwise, why not simply change the constitution, or ignore it entirely, and remain as president for a third term? Why did he even bother with the rigged elections?

The answer: the hundreds of billions of dollars flowing out of Russia in the hands of Mr. Putin's oligarchs need a safe home. London's capital markets, Swiss banks, real estate, energy companies across Europe – this is where much of the Russian treasury has been going for the past eight years. In order to maintain such a cozy arrangement of mutual enrichment with the West, Russia must maintain a democratic façade.

I used to compare our vanishing democracy to that of countries like Venezuela and Zimbabwe. But events have shown how wrong I was to make such comparisons – and how unfair I was being to Hugo Chávez and Robert Mugabe. Venezuela's Mr. Chávez, little more than an oil-empowered hooligan, actually lost a recent referendum on expanding his powers by 2%. Vladimir Churov of the Russian Central Election Committee would never have stood for such an embarrassment!

Even Mr. Mugabe, Zimbabwe's old-fashioned despot, is too shy to publish victorious results in the latest elections. Perhaps Mr. Churov can be rented out to other would-be dictators who wish to maintain pleasant relations with the champions of democracy in America and the European Union.

After Mr. Putin's handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, "won" the Russian presidency last March, the leaders of the free world lined up to congratulate him on, as German chancellor Angela Merkel put it, "a smooth transition of power." Were phone calls made to celebrate a similar transition in Cuba, when Fidel Castro handed the reins to his brother?

Legitimizing their capital in the West is the Kremlin's top priority, and those congratulatory phone calls to Mr. Medvedev were worth countless billions of dollars. The last hurdle, transition of power, has been surmounted with barely a word of protest from the leaders of the G-7 nations. The return of Silvio Berlusconi, a self-declared European "advocate" for Mr. Putin and his gang, can only make things worse.

It doesn't take a whole lot of courage to criticize the rule of Fidel Castro or Kim Jong Il. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sounded quite tough criticizing Zimbabwe's elections. But when it comes to nations like Russia and China, issues of basic human rights suddenly become "complicated."

I am all for refusing to bless the Chinese show. But at the same time, it's not fair to suddenly drag the world's greatest athletes into a battle that politicians should have had the courage to fight. Will Russians have to wait until 2014 to see support for our own struggle for human rights?

Reuters reports:

Russian police clashed on Wednesday with local people opposed to the destruction of their homes under plans for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, during a tour by Olympic inspectors. A resident said police beat some people and detained several others at a local cemetery near the site for the main Olympic venues, during a traditional visit to relatives' graves ahead of the Russian Orthodox Easter on Sunday. In a statement, police in the Black Sea resort of Sochi denied beating anyone, saying they were only trying to prevent a group of about 100 local residents from disrupting the IOC inspection. Locals in Nizhne-Imeretinskaya Bukhta have been protesting over the Olympic construction plans, which are likely to involve the demolition of some houses in the settlement, but deny they were planning to stage a protest there. "We were at the cemetery. Our village was surrounded by police. There were 200 of them. They did not let anyone in or out. They came to the cemetery and beat people up," local resident Andrei Korutun told Reuters by telephone. One local official "grabbed my wife, who is pregnant, by the stomach and threw her to the ground," he said. Police parked buses to conceal the cemetery from the visiting IOC officials, who were about 800 metres (yards) away at the time of the clashes, Korutun said. "We shouted out to them for help, we are sure they would have heard," he added. Sochi police said in a statement that reports "in some media about a supposed fight between Sochi police officers and Sochi residents, about people being beaten, are not true." Steps had been taken to ensure public order in line with normal practice in Russia and other countries, it added. Russian Olympic officials say very few homes will be demolished to make way for games venues, and that owners will be properly compensated.

Annals of Neo-Soviet Hypocrisy

In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post commenting on their April 22 editorial on Georgia which we've previously published Natalie Mason Gawdiak, an editor with the Law Library of Congress, states:

It's nothing less than droll how Russian President Vladimir Putin oscillates [editorial, April 22] between trying to impress the world with the fiction of his and Russia's supposed urbanity and lashing out with such brutish tactics as the shameless attempts to undermine the political stability of two smaller neighbors, Georgia and Ukraine, knowing that he can blackmail his country's weak-kneed European gas customers, such as France and Germany, into rejecting even the idea of NATO's eastern expansion.

Russia would love to be admired on the level of a European civilization, yet Mr. Putin's actions, like those of the demagogues of old, send Russia's pretensions of passing for a civilized nation hurtling back to the Stone Age. Likewise, the hesitancy of NATO members in this instance sends a similar message to students concerned with what we like to call "international law": If your country has lots of oil or gas, you can wear a nice suit over your bearskin loincloth, and you and everyone else can pretend that you really aren't a caveman who likes to beat up the neighbors with a big club.
This is neo-Soviet hypocrisy laid bare with few words wasted. Indeed, it's simply breathtaking how Putin can complain about the West viewing Russia as "a little bit barbaric" (as he did for instance to Time magazine) and yet continue to behave like such a caveman in dealing with all of Russia's neighbors abroad and the entire population of his own country.

The letter has been translated into Russian and published on a Russian website.

Russia, Imploding (again)

Writing in the Wall Street Journal Nicholas Eberstadt, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., and Hans Groth, a Pfizer global health fellow and managing director of Pfizer-Switzerland, together authors of the book Europe's Coming Demographic Challenge: Unlocking the Value of Health, expose the horror of Russia's demographic collapse:

Russia is a European country, and its population patterns are unmistakably European in a number of respects, e.g. low birth rates, rising illegitimacy ratios and immigration tensions, and an aging population. But its demographic profile and future prospects differs in two important respects that bode ill for Russia's long-term economic outlook – to say nothing of the Kremlin's ambitious goal of becoming the world's fifth-largest economy by the year 2020.

First, Russia's health and mortality situation is vastly worse than Western Europe's. Life expectancy for Russian men is astonishingly low, well below current levels in either Pakistan or Bangladesh. And trends have been moving in the wrong direction for decades. In 2005, male and female life expectancy at birth in Russia were both lower than they had been 40 years earlier.

Russia's brutally high levels of mortality, along with anemic fertility levels, fashion a second "exceptional" demographic trend for the country: depopulation. In the 16-plus years since the end of the U.S.S.R., Russia has recorded over 12 million more deaths than births. Net immigration has only partially compensated for this deficit. Consequently, Russia's population dropped from 148.7 million in 1992 to just over 142 million at the start of this year. Whereas Western Europe faces the prospect of population decline a generation hence, Russia is in the midst of it.

President-elect Dmitry Medvedev envisions a Russia in which births come to exceed deaths by 2014, with positive population growth over the following decade. He has endorsed a new "official demographic concept" with population policies like birth bonuses and other social measures, including in public health, to reverse the decline. Unfortunately, there is not a single example from modern history where pro-natal policies have been able to achieve a sustainable demographic reversal. Outside of Russia, few demographers anticipate depopulation will actually halt over the coming generation. Even the United Nation's "high" projection envisions a drop of over 10 million between 2005 and 2030.

Russia's working-age population is set for an even steeper decline. Between 2005 and 2030, Western Europe's working-age population – aged 15-64 – is projected to shrink by about 7%. In Russia, that figure is 19%. Although Russia's population is just over a third of Western Europe's, absolute declines in working-age population promise to be roughly similar in magnitude over the coming decades. On current mortality schedules, seven of eight Swiss men 20 years of age can expect to celebrate their 65th birthday; only three out of seven Russian men can have the same hope.

In and of itself, the sharp falloff in working-age population – together with the rising ratio of older citizens to Russians of working age – frames a serious demographic challenge for the effort to propel economic growth and raise living standards. But the problem is even more acute than these raw numbers might suggest. For Russia's mortality problem is concentrated in its working-age population.

For over 40 years, Russia has been witness to a truly terrifying upsurge of illness and death precisely among those who ordinarily form the backbone of a modern economy. In 2005, for men between the ages of 27-57, death rates were typically 100% higher than they had been in 1965. As for Russia's women, their situation might only be described as "good" in comparison to that terrible record for Russian men. Death rates for women aged 26-59 in 2005 were at least 40% higher than in 1965 – and for some ages, death rates were up by 50%, 60%, or even 70%.

The causes of death are clear enough: Skyrocketing mortality from cardiovascular disease and injuries (accidents, poisoning, suicides and homicides). The underlying causes here are harder to pinpoint, but we can mention a number of plausible factors: Poor diet, lack of exercise, heavy smoking, and social stress. Russia's deadly love affair with the vodka bottle remains legendary, and looks to be another significant factor, with per capita consumption extraordinarily high.

Russia's "excess mortality" threatens to straitjacket Russian productivity and development. It is true that Russia has enjoyed robust economic growth rates over the past several years, but this has primarily been generated by oil and gas exports. In the modern world economy, a country's health profile is an essential element of its sustainable economic potential – quite arguably, the key element. How can Russia hope to be a vibrant modern economy with a dwindling and debilitated workforce and a life expectancy which is a full 12 years shorter than in Western Europe? No modern society can expect to enjoy an Irish standard of living on an Indian survival schedule.

If Russia is to arrive in the front ranks of 21st-century economies, the yawning health gap that separates Russians from the rest of Europe and all other industrialized democracies has to be closed. Nothing less than a protracted national struggle may be necessary to achieve this goal.

Holodomor and Genocide

Writing in the Moscow Times, Georgy Bovt explains the psychotic and malignant manner in which Russia has sought to deny the Ukrainian genocide its former rulers have caused:

This spring marks an anniversary that Russia will not commemorate. In fact, Moscow will make a point of ignoring it, as if the event had never happened. I am speaking of Holodomor, in which millions died of starvation in Ukraine, the Northern Caucasus and the Volga region in the spring of 1933. The famine began earlier, but reached its peak during those months. This year is the 75th anniversary of Holodomor, and Kiev will honor its victims as it has done in prior years.

This is far from being just a historical disagreement between Russia and Ukraine. It has spilled into the political arena as well. For example, the delegations from both sides have presented opposing resolutions to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Kiev suggests that Holodomor should be considered an act of genocide against Ukrainians, whereas Moscow proposes honoring all of those who died from starvation in 1932 and 1933 -- not only Ukrainians.

The Kremlin argues that genocide is the killing of a population based on their ethnicity, whereas Stalin's regime annihilated all kinds of people indiscriminately, regardless of their ethnicity.

But if the Kremlin really believed in this argument, it would officially acknowledge that Stalin's actions constituted mass genocide against all the people of the Soviet Union. But this is highly unlikely. In fact, Russia's political elite avoid using the word "genocide" at all -- even though it is clear the Soviet authorities specifically targeted certain ethnic groups for repression, such as Crimean Tartars, Ingush, Chechens, ethnic Germans of the Volga region.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko first proposed classifying Holodomor as genocide a few months ago, and Moscow immediately objected. Perhaps the Kremlin views it as Ukraine's underhanded attempt to whip up anti-Russian sentiment at a time when Kiev is attempting gain admittance to NATO and the European Union.

Stalin's regime deliberately used hunger as a means of forcing peasants, regardless of their ethnicity, onto collective farms. But because Ukraine was the Soviet Union's breadbasket, the Ukrainian people suffered the most from Stalin's collectivization policy. From 2 million to 8 million people starved to death from 1932 to 1933. Nobody knows the exact figure because officials simply stopped recording the deaths in many regions.

It began with what was a naturally poor harvest in 1932. But in 1932 and 1933, Stalin's commissars were sent out to the villages. When residents resisted the forced relocation to collective farms, party officials seized every bit of food they could find -- including seeds. They also destroyed livestock, even cats and dogs, and trampled all edible plants growing near the villages. The authorities who were charged with enforcing Stalin's forced collectivization at the local level purposely deprived the villagers of food and even seized their farming tools to prevent them from growing more. The Kremlin claimed that these were necessary "educational" measures.

During the entire Soviet era, there was never any serious attempt to investigate the brutal and inhumane methods used in the forced collectivization project. It was actually U.S. historian Robert Conquest who, in 1986, wrote the most authoritative work on the subject, "The Harvest of Sorrow."

Even 16 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has still been no serious Russian investigation into Stalin's forced collectivization or Holodomor. On the contrary, the Kremlin, through its various media outlets, has tended to cast Stalin in a positive light during the past few years.

In my opinion, this explains Moscow's opposition to Yushchenko's effort to bring up the Holodomor issue. The problem is not so much that Ukraine is trying to create a standoff with Russia, but that the Kremlin has not completely severed itself from Stalin's legacy.

Annals of the Neo-Soviet Crackdown on Journalism

The Daily Mail reports (hat tip: Reader Penny):

Russian MPs voted yesterday for further media censorship in response to a newspaper report that Vladimir Putin had divorced his wife to marry a gymnast. The Duma, or parliament, voted 339-1 in favour of allowing the authorities to suspend and close down Press and television outlets deemed guilty of libel. Defined as "dissemination of deliberately false information damaging individual honour and dignity", libel is now subject to the same sanctions as the promotion of terrorism, extremism and racial hatred.

Moscowsky Korrespondent claimed in its pages earlier this month that Mr Putin, 55, had divorced his wife Lyudmila in order to marry Alina Kabayeva, 24. The president, who steps down on May 7 to become prime minister, denied the allegation. Miss Kabayeva won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics and is widely regarded as one of Russia's most beautiful women. The gymnast is often seen on talk and reality television shows and is now a Duma member for a pro-Kremlin party. Korrespondent, which is a tabloid, was shut down on Wednesday after Moscow authorities banned its distribution.

The media bill passed by the Duma will go to the upper house for approval and then to Mr Putin for him to sign it into law. MPs rejected the first draft of the bill in January but approved a revised version submitted after Korrespondent ran its story. Mr Putin's critics say he has presided over a steady rollback of post-Soviet media and political freedoms. All the major national television networks have come under the control of the Kremlin or its allies and the print media has experienced growing pressure from Government officials.

Other Russia has more.

More Sports Humiliation for Russia

A massive, totally humiliating shut-out against Russia. Ouch. In Russia. Double ouch! In ice hockey. Triple ouch! The glory of Vladimir Putin's Russia continues unabated. The Vancouver Sun reports:

Brayden Schenn could barely believe his ears. What started as a pro-Russian crowd was boisterously backing the Canadians by the end of Wednesday's final at the under-18 world hockey championship.

Canada blasted the host team 8-0 at Tatneft Arena in Kazan, Russia.

"The Russian fans, near the end of the game, started cheering for us when we were scoring," said Schenn, a Saskatoon-born-centre with the Canadian team," I don't think the Russian players appreciated that, so they were trying to stick up for themselves. But we held our own. That's what we do."

The Canadians fell 4-2 to Russia during the preliminary round, but emphatically avenged that loss Wednesday. Schenn scored his first goal of the tournament during Canada's five-goal first period. His forechecking forced a turnover and then the crafty centre deked to his backhand and beat Russian goaltender Alexander Pechurskiy. Schenn added an assist on Canada's seventh goal, an even-strength tally by Brandon McMillan with 3:39 left in the second. "Right after McMillan's goal, they started cheering for us. We were surprised and shocked," said Schenn. "Having 10,000 Russians cheer for you is definitely a good feeling."

Regina Pats sniper Jordan Eberle netted a pair of goals for Canada. Taylor Hall, Tyler Cuma, Corey Trivino and Nicolas Deschamps also scored. Canadian goaltender Jake Allen stopped 29 shots to earn his second shutout of the tournament.

Schenn is the second member of his family to win a world hockey title this year. His brother Luke, an 18-year-old defenceman with the Kelowna Rockets, helped Canada win the world junior championship in January. The elder Schenn previously helped Canada win the 2006 junior World Cup and the 2007 Super Series against Russia.

"I'm sure there's always room for more gold in the Schenn household," Brayden said with a laugh. "Being able to match [Luke] with a gold medal is a great feeling. He deserves a lot of the credit because he's helped me out a lot throughout the year."

Brayden Schenn made a name for himself with the Brandon Wheat Kings this season. He led all Western Hockey League rookies with 71 points in 72 games. He was also one of only four 1991-born players to crack Canada's roster, which won its first under-18 world title since 2005.

"Getting to play in this tournament as an underager is really going to help me," said Schenn. "It's a great honour to play for Canada and win a gold medal."

April 27, 2008 -- Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos: Postcards from Chechnya

(2) The Sunday Sabbatical

(3) The Sunday Book Review

(4) The Sunday Persecution

(5) The Sunday Funnies

Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Sunday Photos: Postcards from Chechnya

A blogger in Grozny, Chechnya, posts current photographs of her home town, which Vladimir Putin has supposedly rebuilt into a civilized part of Russia:

The Sunday Sabatical

The New York Times reports:

YURI BAGROV, a 32-year-old with a boyish face, a squished nose and long brown hair that flops around his shoulders, is a relatively new figure at RTVi, a Russian-language cable channel with a small studio on Hudson Street in TriBeCa. For years, Mr. Bagrov covered the separatist conflict in Chechnya, the war-ravaged republic on Russia’s southern border, for various news agencies. But in New York these days, his life is much quieter.

As he entered the studio, Nina Vishneva, the station’s news chief, greeted him at the door. “Privet, Yuri,” she called out, using a Russian word for hello. After giving Mr. Bagrov a cup of tea, she handed him his assignments for the day: narrating a segment on ice-skating rinks in Moscow and another on a butterfly exhibit at the St. Petersburg Zoo. Although it was different from Chechnya, Mr. Bagrov seemed glad to be back in the chaotic rhythm of a newsroom.

Sitting in a recording booth in the studio, he read the first script too fast, and he had to return to the booth for a second take. “When I first arrived,” he said, “all I would want to do was write, but I would sit in front of the computer and nothing would happen. I guess it was my own internal protest.”

Protest against what? Outside the booth, as she waited for Mr. Bagrov to finish, Ms. Vishneva ventured an answer. “He left, but he hasn’t yet arrived,” she said. “He’s somewhere in between.” Miles, she seemed to be suggesting, are just one measure of the distance an immigrant like Mr. Bagrov must travel as he struggles to create a new life for himself.

Mr. Bagrov began working as a reporter in 1999, just after the outbreak of the second Chechen war. He was living in Vladikavkaz, not far from the fighting, and he filed dispatches for The Associated Press and Radio Liberty, among them first-person accounts on the mounting death toll of Russian servicemen and the spread of atrocities to neighboring republics.

For one report, about a battle in the foothills near Grozny, he bought a uniform from a young Russian soldier and sneaked onto a military transport helicopter, Mr. Bagrov said.

His work quickly made him a target of government harassment. A court ruling kept him from attending news conferences, he said, and local officials frequently trailed his car and raided his apartment and his office. At night, anonymous men telephoned his home, and when his wife answered, they asked to speak “with Mr. Bagrov’s widow.”

Finally, in 2005, Russian state security services stripped him of his citizenship and took away his passport. “After a while,” he said the other day, “the message became pretty clear.”

For a while he lived in legal limbo in Moscow. Then, after the United States granted him refugee status, he came to New York a year ago. With the help of the Committee to Protect Journalists, he settled into a three-room cottage at an estate in Rockland County that is financed by a foundation begun by Leo Tolstoy’s daughter Alexandra; the estate has served as a sanctuary for Russia’s political undesirables since the 1940s.

But these days, Mr. Bagrov prefers to live in New York, where he boards with an older Russian woman who has a couple of spare rooms at her apartment on West 141st Street in Hamilton Heights.

His days are lonely and quiet; he speaks almost no English, and except for a few journalistic contacts, he has few friends here.

Most nights, he fills his time reading the Russian classics — the stories of Varlam Shalamov, a survivor of the Soviet labor camps, are a current favorite — or looking through photographs from his reporting days, when he used his charm and long list of local contacts to talk his way past military roadblocks, the price of passage sometimes no more than a couple of cans of beer.

“Of course, the one thing really lacking here is dialogue,” Mr. Bagrov said, lamenting his isolation.

IT was past midnight, and he was sprawled on the couch, his eyes fixed on his laptop. On the screen was a grainy, profanity-laced documentary called “The 60 Hours of the Maikopskaya Brigade,” about a doomed battalion of Russian soldiers left for dead after they captured a train station in downtown Grozny.

Mr. Bagrov has learned that there isn’t very much work for a Russian-speaking journalist with extensive but specific knowledge of the remote mountains of the North Caucasus. True, some days there is a freelance assignment or two at RTVi. And a few nights a week, he drives his car deep into the Russian enclaves of South Brooklyn and works as an unlicensed taxi driver. “I don’t know what I’d do without G.P.S.,” he said about navigating the unfamiliar streets.

One recent night, he sat at the kitchen table at his apartment, drinking tea with his landlady and talking politics. When she went off to bed, he walked down the hall to smoke a cigarette.

In New York, he said, he feels alone, wholly unbothered and uninteresting to just about everybody. The anonymity is both depressing and liberating.

“For a while,” he said, “I was used to it, the people who follow you in a car all day, visiting the places you visit, talking to the people you talk to.”

He leaned against the faded yellow wall and pulled the last few drags of his cigarette. “But here it’s just normal,” Mr. Bagrov said. “And that’s what’s not normal.”

The Sunday Book Review

Vladimir Bukovsky, a former KGB prisoner and leading Soviet-era dissident, reviews The Age of Assassins by Yuri Felshtinsky and Vladimir Pribylovsky in the Guardian:

I have always wondered why Western political elites love the KGB so much. Nearly 25 years ago, when Yuri Andropov, the longest-serving head of the KGB, made it to the top of the Soviet pyramid, there was no end of jubilation in the Western media. We were told that he was a 'closet liberal', that he liked jazz and cognac and could speak English. As it turned out, this was mostly incorrect. Why such enthusiasm for one whose job for 15 years was to kill people, even if he could speak English and preferred cognac to vodka?

It happened again, at the end of 1999, when President Yeltsin announced his resignation, making the little-known KGB Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Putin his heir. All over the world, familiar faces popped up on television screens: he was surely a committed democrat, a liberal, he had lived in Germany and, yes, he could speak German! As for his KGB past, they said, so what? The KGB was 'the elite of Soviet society'. Strange logic indeed; the SS was once the elite of Nazi Germany. In a rotten society, elites are the source of the rot. What is there to celebrate? Only after all the murders and terrorist attacks in nearly a decade of KGB rule in Russia, with all its consequences for freedom of the mass media and of individuals, after Moscow's bullying of its neighbours and blackmailing the whole of Europe with its natural gas supplies, did the West reluctantly come to its senses.

So who is Mr Putin and what is his regime all about? The Age of Assassins gives a clear and accurate picture of Putin's life and his regime. The book details various aspects of KGB rule, from its genesis in the 1950s to the circumstances of its most notorious assassinations. In fact, it reads like an indictment of Putin & Co presented to the Hague Tribunal.

It also destroys the biggest lie of today's Kremlin propaganda, namely, that democracy has been tried in Russia and failed. There was no decisive victory for democracy in Russia in the 1990s. True, the communist nomenklatura abandoned its bankrupt ideology and the party as ideological straitjacket, but the nomenklatura itself remained firmly in power. Now, freed from Marxist-Leninist dogma, its true essence was revealed: the Mafia.

The book shows Russia of the 1990s for what it was and provides a well-informed account of how the KGB played the oligarchs one against another. It had won its game long before Putin's victory in 1999, which was simply the moment it came out of the closet. 'We are in power again, this time forever,' Putin announced in 1999 to an audience of his KGB colleagues.

Putin's role was that of a time-serving nonentity. In Soviet times, he was pushing papers around in KGB offices and conducting surveillance of dissidents. Then he stayed in East Germany, not as a spy, but as an emissary of the secret police in that part of the Soviet empire, where 'he oversaw the conduct of Soviet students in East Germany' and 'investigated anti-communist acts of protest'.

He was called back to the USSR and assigned to keep an eye on the then mayor of St Petersburg. As deputy mayor, he was deeply involved in organised crime, including the international drug trade. Then, a lucky pawn in the games of KGB clans, he was transferred to Moscow and became a convenient candidate as Yeltsin's successor. It was pure coincidence that the KGB assignment to pose as 'Russia's strongman' went to him.

The rest is recent history. Explosions of apartment blocks in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia - blamed on Chechens, but obviously caused by the Federal Security Service (FSB); a 'small victorious war' in Chechnya which still goes on all over the north Caucasus and has turned into a genocide; closure of all independent mass media in Russia; a Stalin-style atmosphere of xenophobia and spy-mania; political prisoners; strict censorship; a prevalent fear in the country.

The KGB is in power again, with all the consequences that entails. But this time, it cannot be justified even by a crazy ideology and there is no control over it by any body. What used to be done for the glory of an idea, of the world socialist revolution, is done today for the sake of personal ambition. And this time around, it is much cheaper and easier for them to murder their opponents in a dark lane than to put them into the Gulag. As Stalin put it: 'No man - no problem.'

Felshtinsky and Pribylovsky take a bold angle over the KGB's system of corporate rule. 'Russia became a new kind of republic - a corporate republic,' they write. 'A corporation took over a government of the country and put its own President in charge. President Putin, who until August 1999 had been the president of the FSB kontora ('company'), and who on 26 March 2000 was elected the President of the country, began to rule Russia in the corporation's name. For the first time since 17th-century European East India companies ruled entire countries in Asia for their shareholders, a modern company owned the largest landmass in the world - the Russian Federation.'

The comparison is controversial. It is almost commonplace to say that Russia nowadays is run by the KGB Corporation. By that, we mean a corporation as opposed to an individual dictator or a democratic government, but not literally a commercial company. Compared to the KGB, the East India Company was civilised; the main tool by which it solved its problems was not assassination. The present Chekists are mafiosi, villains from the James Bond movies, not businessmen. KGB rule resembles colonial rule in only one way: they don't care much about the country as long as it provides them with natural resources for export.

Regrettably, the authors do not analyse the KGB Corporation's attempts to restore the Soviet empire internally or externally. The strength of this book is not analysis, but research - it puts together hundreds of little-known facts. That material merits a much more intelligent debate than the one provided by 'Kremlinologists'. It clearly shows that people such as Putin are of very limited importance within that system; whoever they are, they are bound to be tyrants to the country and slaves to the corporation. Putins come and go, but the KGB remains.

The Sunday Persecution: Annals of the Holy Russian Empire

As the Kremlin officially voices support for religious tolerance, Protestant congregations are regularly referred to as "sects" and must obtain official permission before doing any kind of religious outreach. A group known as the Evangelical Baptists is one of the few Protestant groups with an official place of worship, but they were barred from renting a theater for a Christian music festival and are not allowed to hand out toys at an orphanage. Other groups are forced to meet in small private homes like the one shown above, where a congregation of Seventh-day Adventists now meets, after being evicted from their meeting hall by the police.

The International Herald Tribune reports (read comments translated from Russian about this story on a Russian LiveJournal blog here):

STARY OSKYOL, RUSSIA. It was not long after a Methodist church put down roots here that the troubles began. First came visits from agents of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, who evidently saw a threat in a few dozen searching souls who liked to huddle in cramped apartments to read the Bible and, perhaps, drink a little tea. Local officials then labeled the church a "sect." Finally, last month, they shut it down. [LR: Watch video on the persecution of Russian protestants here. Read about how the Russian government is using its visa regime to exclude the "wrong" religions from Russian soil here.]

There was a time after the fall of Communism when small Protestant congregations blossomed here in southwestern Russia, when a church was almost as easy to set up as a general store. Today, this industrial region has become emblematic of the suppression of religious freedom under President Vladimir Putin.

Just as the government has tightened control over political life, so, too, has it intruded in matters of faith. The Kremlin's surrogates in many areas have turned the Russian Orthodox Church into a de facto official religion, warding off other Christian denominations that seem to offer the most significant competition for worshipers. They have all but banned proselytizing by Protestants and discouraged Protestant worship through a variety of harassing measures, according to dozens of interviews with government officials and religious leaders across Russia.

This close alliance between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church has become a defining characteristic of Putin's tenure, a mutually reinforcing choreography that is usually described here as working "in symphony."

Putin makes frequent appearances with the church's leader, Patriarch Aleksei II, on the Kremlin-controlled national television networks. Last week, Putin was shown prominently accepting an invitation from Aleksei II to attend services for Russian Orthodox Easter, which is this Sunday.

The relationship is grounded in part in a common nationalistic ideology dedicated to restoring Russia's might after the disarray that followed the end of the Soviet Union. The church's hostility toward Protestant groups, many of which are based in the United States, or have large followings there, is tinged with the same anti-Western sentiment often voiced by Putin and other senior officials.

The government's antipathy also seems to stem in part from the Kremlin's wariness toward independent organizations that are not allied with the government.

Here in Stary Oskol, 300 miles south of Moscow, the police evicted a Seventh-day Adventist congregation from its meeting hall, forcing it to hold services in a ramshackle home next to a construction site. Evangelical Baptists were barred from renting a theater for a Christian music festival, and were not even allowed to hand out toys at an orphanage. A Lutheran minister said he moved away for a few years because he feared for his life. He has returned, but keeps a low profile.

On local television last month, the city's chief Russian Orthodox priest, who is a confidant of the region's most powerful politicians, gave a sermon that was repeated every few hours. His theme: Protestant heretics.

"We deplore those who are led astray — those Jehovah's Witnesses, Baptists, evangelicals, Pentecostals and many others who cut Christ's robes like bandits, who are like the soldiers who crucified Christ, who ripped apart Christ's holy coat," declared the priest, the Rev. Aleksei Zorin.

Such language is familiar to Protestants in Stary Oskol, who number about 2,000 in a city of 225,000.

The Rev. Vladimir Pakhomov, the Methodist minister, recalled a warning from an FSB officer to one of his parishioners: " 'Protestantism is facing difficult times — or maybe its end.' "

Most Protestant churches are required under the law to register with the government in order to do anything more than conduct prayers in an apartment. Officials rejected Pakhomov's registration this year, first saying his paperwork was deficient, then contending that the church was a front for an unspecified business.

Pakhomov appealed in court, but lost. He said he could now face arrest for so much as chatting with children about attending a Methodist camp.

"They have made us into lepers to scare people away," Pakhomov said. "There is this climate that you can feel with your every cell: 'It's not ours, it's American, it's alien; since it's alien we cannot expect anything good from it.' It's ignorance, all around."

Yuri Romashin, a senior city official, said the denial of the Methodist church's registration was appropriate, explaining that the government had to guard against suspicious organizations that used religion as a cover.

"Their goal was not a holy and noble one," he said of Pakhomov's church.

Romashin said the government did not discriminate against Protestants. "We have to create conditions so that we do not infringe upon their right in any way to their religion and their freedom of conscience," he said.

Yet, like many Russian officials, he referred to Protestant churches with the derogatory term "sects."

Trouble for Protestants

The limits on Russia's Protestants — roughly 2 million in a total population of 142 million — have by no means reached those that existed under the officially atheistic Soviet Union, which brutally suppressed religion. And churches in some regions say they have not experienced major difficulties.

The Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and Putin has often spoken against discrimination. "In modern Russia, tolerance and tolerance for other beliefs are the foundation for civil peace, and an important factor for social progress," he said at a meeting of religious leaders in 2006.

Putin has also denounced anti-Semitism. While many Jews have emigrated over the past two decades, the Jewish community — now a few hundred thousand people — is experiencing something of a rebirth here.

Anti-Semitism has not disappeared. But in some regions it seems to have been supplanted by anti-Protestantism and, to a lesser extent, anti-Catholicism.

Mikhail Odintsov, a senior aide in the office of Russia's human rights commissioner, who was nominated by Putin, said most of the complaints his office received about religion involved Protestants.

Odintsov listed the issues: "Registration, reregistration, problems with property illegally taken away, problems with construction of church buildings, problems with renovations, problems with ministers coming from abroad, problems with law enforcement, usually with the police. Problems, problems, problems and more problems."

"In Russia," he said, "there isn't any significant, influential political force, party or any form of organization that upholds and protects the principle of freedom of religion."

This absence looms especially large at the regional level. At the request of a Russian Orthodox bishop, prosecutors in the western region of Smolensk shut down a Methodist church last month, supposedly for running a tiny Sunday school without an educational license. The church's defenders noted that many churches and other religious groups in Russia ran religious schools without licenses and had never been prosecuted.

The FSB has been waging a battle across Russia against Jehovah's Witnesses. In Nizhny Novgorod, in the nation's center, the local Jehovah's Witnesses have had to cancel religious events at least a dozen times in the last few months after the FSB threatened owners of meetings halls, the church's members said.

In February, some officials in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest, proposed creating a commission to combat what it called "totalitarian sects." The governor of the Tula region, near Moscow, charged that American military intelligence was using Protestant "sects" to infiltrate Russia.

Officials do not say precisely which groups they are referring to, but Protestant ministers say the epithet is so widespread that most Russians assume the speakers mean all Protestants.

The term has clearly seeped into the public's consciousness.

"As a Russian Orthodox believer, I am against the sects," said Valeriya Gubareva, a retired teacher, who was asked about Protestants as she was leaving a Russian Orthodox church here. "Our Russian Orthodox religion is inviolable, and it should not be shaken."

Like other parishioners interviewed, Gubareva said she supported freedom of religion.

A New Identity

While church attendance in Russia is very low, polls show that Russians are embracing Russian Orthodoxy as part of their identity. In one recent poll, 71 percent of respondents described themselves as Russian Orthodox, up from 59 percent in 2003.

There are a few hundred thousand Roman Catholics in Russia, and the Russian Orthodox Church has had tense relations with the Vatican, accusing Catholic missionaries of trying to convert Russians. The Vatican says it seeks only to reach out to existing Catholics.

The Russian government has often refused visas for foreign Catholic priests, whom the Vatican has sent because there are few Russian ones.

There have been considerable numbers of Protestants in Russia since the second half of the 18th century. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Protestant faiths in the West saw Russia as fertile territory and spent heavily to send missionaries to help the existing worshipers and to convert others.

But the Russian Orthodox Church, which was widely persecuted under Communism, was rebuilding and worried about losing adherents.

A backlash ensued. In 1997, under President Boris Yeltsin, the first major federal law was enacted restricting Protestant churches and missionaries, requiring many of them to register with the government. But Yeltsin had a far more ambivalent relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church than does Putin, and in the chaos of the times the laws were not always enforced.

Under Putin, who has worn a cross and talked publicly about his faith, the government has added regulations, and laws have often been enforced more stringently or, some Protestants say, capriciously.

For its part, the church, with its links to the czars, has conferred legitimacy on Putin by championing his rule as he has consolidated power and battered the opposition. In December, after Putin selected his close aide, Dmitri Medvedev, as his successor as president, the church's head, Patriarch Aleksei II, extolled the decision on national television.

Aleksandr Fedichkin, a leader of the Russian Evangelical Alliance, which represents many Protestant churches, said governors, who are appointed by Putin, regularly deferred to Russian Orthodox bishops.

"Many times, officials say to us, 'Please, you must ask the Orthodox bishop about your activity, and if he agrees, then you can work here,' " Fedichkin said.

Asked about such complaints, Dmitri Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said Protestants had made impressive strides in Russia, with the number of officially registered religious organizations in the country having increased nearly fivefold, to more than 23,000, in recent years. Many of those, he said, were Protestant.

"First of all, all religions are treated on an equal basis," Peskov said. "But at the same time, we have to keep in mind that the Russian Orthodox Church is the leading church in Russia, it's the most popular church in Russia."

He added, "Speaking about violations in terms of Protestants or others, about possible complaints, it's very hard to draw any trends."

He recommended seeking the views of Bishop Sergei Ryakhovsky, head of the Pentecostal Union, whom Putin appointed to the Public Chamber, a Kremlin advisory council.

Bishop Ryakhovsky said in an interview that while the Kremlin voiced support for tolerance, the situation at the regional level was troubling. Little if anything was being done, he said, to help Protestant churches that are routinely barred by officials from obtaining space for services. Nor, he said, did the Kremlin seem interested in discouraging Russian Orthodox clergy members from attacking Protestants.

"These questions, like construction and obtaining plots of land, are deeply problematic all over Russia," he said. "The issue is not some particular regions or provinces. I am like a firefighter, and I have to rush to different areas of the country, to find ways to establish a dialogue with the authorities."

The Grip of Orthodoxy

Here in southwestern Russia, the Belgorod region, traditionally a stronghold of Russian Orthodoxy, has been at the forefront of the anti-Protestant campaign.

In 2001, during Putin's first term, the region enacted a law to drastically restrict Protestant proselytizing. More recently, it mandated that all public school children take what is essentially a Russian Orthodox religion course. A guide for teachers of young children recommends that schools have religious rooms with portraits of Jesus Christ, Russian Orthodox icons and other sacred items.

The regional governor, Yevgeny Savchenko, who calls himself a Russian Orthodox governor, would not be interviewed for this article.

Archbishop Ioann, the chief Russian Orthodox priest in the Belgorod region, said Russians had a deep connection to Orthodoxy that the government should nurture. "In essence, we have begun to live through a period that is like the second Baptism of Russia, just as there was before the Baptism of ancient Russia," he said, referring to Russia's adoption of Christianity in the year 988.

He said the church wanted warm ties with other faiths, though it was hard to overlook the foreign connections of Protestants. "You know, what else alarms me, the majority of them are born — I must apologize, but I will tell the truth — from the West's money," he said. "Naturally, they need to play the role of the offended ones who need protection."

The archbishop denied that the church disparaged Protestants.

"In our sermons, you will never hear us trying to condemn them or say that they do anything wrong," he said.

In fact, on the day the archbishop was being interviewed, the local television was repeatedly showing the sermon of his deputy, Father Aleksei, likening Protestants to those who killed Jesus Christ.

The Protestant churches here say they are left alone by the authorities only if they keep their activities behind closed doors. And so it was that on a recent weekend, clusters of Protestants made their way to whatever gathering spots they could find.

The Lutheran pastor, the Rev. Sergei Matyukh, held a service in a small apartment with his Methodist colleague, Pakhomov, as a show of support. Many of the parishioners said that what most bothered them was that the officials who harassed them once professed loyalty to Communism, and had switched to Russian Orthodoxy.

"The power holders, they are, as a rule, atheists," said Gennadi Safonov, who works in marketing. "They have adopted a fashion or a trend."

One of the few Protestant groups with a permanent base is the Evangelical Baptists, who in the relative freedom of the early 1990s were able to obtain a sturdy building that seats several hundred people. They have been allowed to stay, though they say they would not be permitted to find other space.

Protestants here must receive official permission before doing anything remotely like proselytizing. The Rev. Vladimir Kotenyov, a Baptist minister, said his church had given up asking.

"Naturally, it will be perceived as propaganda directed at our population," Kotenyov said. " 'What kind of propaganda are you preaching?' " they would ask. 'An American faith?' "

"This is how they think: If you are a Russian person, it means that you have to be Russian Orthodox."