Last Friday, on July 30th, Ella Pamfilova, the head of the president’s advisory council on human rights and civil society, abruptly resigned from her post, without an official explanation or specifying what it is she will do next. This has naturally encouraged wild speculation about why she would suddenly leave the council, which is recognized as one of the few liberal outposts still with official ties to the Kremlin.
The first thing I realized when reading through the English-language coverage of this event is how little of the story the media seems to grasp. Nearly every major publication has decided to treat the incident as a clear-cut case of rebellion against the recently-enacted FSB-empowerment law. This is puzzling, given the fact that nearly every Russian-language article about Pamfilova’s resignation has focused primarily, if not exclusively, on the even-more-recent scandal that broke out between Pamfilova and the youth movement ‘Nashi.’ Neither do Western journalists seem interested in a related battle between Ms. Pamfilova and Alexei Chadaev, a United Russia party ideologist who, two days prior to Pamfilova quitting, began publicly lobbying for her dismissal.
The Moscow Times, reposting a Reuters report, doesn’t mention a word about Nashi or Chadaev. The WSJ included a couple of brief sentences about the two near the bottom of its story, but dedicated the majority of the text to the Magnitsky Affair, the FSB law, and the general theme of “political liberalization.” The NYT published only a quick newswire from Clifford Levy, reporting merely that Pamfilova had grown “disenchanted with the political situation in Russia.” The BBC vaguely addresses Pamfilova’s past with Nashi, but fails to highlight her trouble with Chadaev. The VoA, which implies in its opening paragraph that Pamfilova quit in response to the FSB law, offers one of the more detailed retellings of the recent Nashi scandal, but also doesn’t have a single word about Alexei Chadaev. The Huffington Post syndicated an AP newswire about Pamfilova’s anti-Nashi comments, but again with few details and zero to say about Chadaev.
So what’s the whole story?
Chadaev on ‘the Don,’ the Khimki Forest, & Nashi
Let’s begin with Chadaev, since the media seems to have left him out most of all. Alexei Chadaev was recently made the Political Department Head of United Russia. He’s an active member of Twitter (http://twitter.com/chadayev) and has a personal blog (http://www.chadayev.ru/), which he used to disseminate most of his criticisms of Ella Pamfilova. He argued that she has brought about “the politicization of the council,” which he said “comes at the expense of its direct, immediate needs.” Among these needs, he counted two very recent incidents that he accused the council of ignoring: (1) a pitched battle that occurred in the Caucasus at a children’s summer camp, ‘the Don,’ between ethnic Russians and Caucasians; and (2) acts of violence and vandalism relating to protests against construction in the Khimki forest.
Chadaev has likened the anarchists involved in the Khimki forest unrest to activists of foreign color revolutions. (Incidentally, among the rioters were members of Gruppa Voina, an organization that recently staged an anti-consumerism demonstration in which a woman stole a chicken from a grocery store by hiding it inside her vagina.) Their goals, he maintained, “are the delegitimization of our political system and a return to [...] a disguised imitation-democracy for export.” Convinced that Pamfilova avoided these events out of partisanship, he demanded that “if she can’t wait to go into politics, then she should remove herself from the head of the council and go to the political party that most speaks to her heart, and capture the sympathies of voters in an election.”
Chadaev didn’t stop there. After accusing Pamfilova of shirking her duties on the council, he went on, in relation to her statements about Nashi’s recent Seliger-2010 festival, to call her “a star of agitprop,” “a drama queen,” and even “a ghoul.” (This last indictment seems a bit odd, given the fact that Chadaev’s website bizarrely features his own faded, ghostly head eerily peeking out from inside the title banner.) Nevertheless, he argued that her statements were an attack “on democracy, elections, and free speech.” Chadaev also implied that Natalia Timakova, head of Medvedev’s press service, was of questionable character, arguing that Russia needs to “defend its constitutional freedoms from Associated Press sources in pink dresses.” Ms. Timakova was the only person in Medvedev’s retinue in a pink dress (see image to the left).
What Happened Between Pamfilova & Nashi
I will assume that my readers have already heard about the now infamous “You’re Not Welcome Here” (Здесь вам не рады) exhibit at Seliger 2010. (For those who would like a quick rundown, Julia Ioffe summarizes the scandal here.)
Last Tuesday, just as the story broke worldwide, Pamfilova appeared on Ekho Moskvy to discuss the matter. For someone who works under the president, she was unusually unguarded about highlighting Medvedev’s (and Surkov’s) ties to a group she accuses of extremism. Here is what she said:
It’s terrifying to me that these guys will be entering the government [prokhodit' k vlasti] in a few years. [...] Because these spawn of certain political spin doctors are pawning their souls to the devil, to put it crudely. They’ve burned books. What’s next? Next will they start burning effigies? It’s scary and it’s unacceptable. And then there at Seliger were both the president and Vladislav Yur’evich Surkov. I don’t know if they saw [the exhibit]. I don’t know what their reactions might have been.
In his blog, Maxim Kononenko mocked Pamfilova for applying a double standard, pointing out that she wished to censor Nashi’s exhibit, but opposed the prosecution of Andrey Erofeev and Yuri Samodurov, who earlier in July were convicted of inciting hatred through their art project, ‘Forbidden Art – 2006.’ He also joked that Pamfilova was on the “verge of tears” throughout her interview, echoing Chadaev’s criticism that she is prone to “hysterics.” Kononenko claims that Pamfilova threatened to take Nashi to court for the art exhibit, though the transcript of her interview shows that she merely floated the prospect as an impossible solution.
I listened to the tape of her appearance and I confess that I don’t hear someone about to cry. She does seem to be out of breath much of the time, but accusations of hysterics, I would argue, are hyperbolic (and almost undoubtedly raised only because she is a woman).
At any rate, it turns out that Nashi has never held a book-burning. A few years ago, a group called ‘Moving Together’ staged a demonstration against “displeasing literature,” where they threw copies of Vladimir Sorokin’s “Blue Salo” into a giant bleach-filled stryfoam toilet. Confronted with this correction, Pamfilova reportedly refused to take anything back and affirmed that she was still “right in essence.”
Nashi responded by announcing that they will sue Ella Pamfilova for defamation. After Pamfilova resigned from the presidential council, twenty-four-year Nashi spokesperson Kristina Potupchik (pictured above) wrote the following: “We support Pamfilova’s right and courageous decision insomuch as her departure makes it clear that she won’t be taking up the defense of the fascist-ally Liudmila Alexeeva.”
The Spin Spectrum
Those are the facts in far greater detail than I’ve found anywhere in the English-language reportage on this incident. Here is some of the mystery and spin that I’m finding around the RuNet, some of which mirrors Western articles about “disappointment with political liberalism” and some of which raises (more interesting) conspiracies:
- Aleksandr Auzan, the man Pamfilova named as her preferred successor, said that the resignation came “as a shock.” Her leaving “was not a long-discussed subject — not one bit,” he added. He theorized that her decision to quit was “in part tied to the fact that she didn’t feel enough support from public opinion, or from the president.” Addressing the scandal with Nashi, he said it “couldn’t have any effect. We’re not going to treat the Nashi movement as a real factor. They simply don’t amount to so much.”
- Despite downplaying the role of Nashi, Auzan has already sponsored a council appeal asking the president to strip Vasily Yakemenko of his title as Head of the RosMolodozh’ for his role in Nashi’s “barbaric prank” on “those who defend victims of lawlessness, protect civil rights, and expose its transgressors.” Addressing Nashi members personally, Auzan warned, “Either you boys have no ties to the president or you treat with respect those people to whom the president extends his hand, gives flowers, and wishes well.”
- Though Auzan claims to have been surprised by Pamfilova’s resignation, Medvedev’s press secretary, Natalia Timakova told Gazeta.ru that she’d begged on multiple occasions to step down.
- Peripheral and figurehead political figures chimed in with commentary, as well. Living dinosaur and KPRF leader Gennadii Ziuganov defended Pamfilova, cautioning that “our leaders need to seriously consider the fact that, more and more, they’re slipping from [public] dialog toward coercive authoritarianism.” He added that this sort of politics won’t fly in the 21st century. (This from a man who’s lived through a few.) Vladimir Lukin, Human Rights Commissioner of Russia, was so distraught that he released a public plea asking either Pamfilova to reconsider or Medvedev to refuse. Liudmila Aleexeva herself made a similar request, but the matter was over with by Friday’s end. Pravoe Delo co-chair Leonid Gozman seized the opportunity to weaponize her resignation and proclaimed that it was “a sign of protest against all the disgraces currently going on in our country.” Sergei Mitrokhin, Yabloko’s pudgy leader, was even more specific, suggesting, in Western-style, that Pamfilova was attacking the recent FSB law.
It is amusing, if disappointing, to see that American newspapers basically regurgitate the political interpretations of Russia’s least influential public people. The opposition has naturally attempted to spin the loss of one of its greatest champions into a victory of its principles, but — with a better grasp of all the facts — it seems unlikely that Pamfilova had the agency as a political actor to leave office on her own terms. If that’s the case, it’s essential that we understand the various intrigues and personal offenses that make up this incident’s back story.
And now you know that back story.