"Excuse me, but what's your name?" (The Full Translation of the Putin-Shevchuk Showdown)

Shevchuk toasts the nation's children, attacks "totalitarianism" and Vladimir Putin.

Yesterday, Vladimir Putin met with the participants and organizers of charity event for sick children. The event included various famous members of the Russian artist and intellectual community. The most animated guest at the table was Yuri Shevchuk, lead singer of the rock band DDT and well-known liberal activist. Just a few months ago, Shevchuk made headlines for a viciously-worded speech against Putin. Last night, he repeated many of his criticisms of the Prime Minister, but this time he was sitting three seats away from the man.

What follows is a full translation of the public conversation between Vladimir Putin and Yuri Shevchuk. For the original Russian transcript, see here.

Putin: We can discuss any topic related to today’s theme. It’s up to you.

Shevchuk: Vladimir Vladimirovich, may I?

Putin: Yes.

Shevchuk: It’s just that the day before yesterday, one of your aides called me (I think — I don’t remember his name), and he requested that I not ask you any tough questions — political and so on…

Putin: Excuse me, but what’s your name? [А как Вас зовут, извините?]

Shevchuk: Yura Shevchuk, musician.

Putin: Yura, that call was a provocation. Continue reading ‘"Excuse me, but what's your name?" (The Full Translation of the Putin-Shevchuk Showdown)’ »

Newsweek on Russian TV Satire (Full Translation)

"What You Can Mock on Russian Television"

What follows is my full-length translation of a fascinating article about political satire on Russian television. The article was written by Yulia Taratuta, and it was published in Russian Newsweek on May 24, 2010. The article is on the longer side, but I think it’s a worthwhile read. I’ve included a number of hyperlinks to try to provide context for readers unfamiliar with Russian entertainment.

“Poli-Intonation” [ПОЛИТИНТОНАЦИЯ]

On television, they’ve started to joke about politics. But for now the humor, like the news on TV, is controlled by the hand of the regime.

Everyone can buy a ticket to a taping of the show “ProjectorParisHilton,” which airs Saturdays on Channel One. This is a Western practice: it’s thought that he who pays to participate in the show laughs more honestly than freeloaders off the street. A week ago, their guest was French fashion designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. Together, he and the hosts made fun of the clothes worn by Natasha Koroleva and Masha Rasputina, and later joked about director Fyodor Bondarchuk. “Alright, we’re done talking about United Russia’s advisory board,” concluded Ivan Urgant, putting aside a photo of the director, who recently joined the Party’s leadership. This particular moment was never broadcast.

Also not making the cut was the entire “Ukrainian bloc”: a parody of Viktor Yanukovich, explaining that he called Anna Akhmatova ‘Anna Akhmetova’ in honor of his sponsor, Rinat Akhmetov — and a skit about the criminal case launched against Yulia Timoshenko: “It’s stupid to give a woman money and later ask what she spent it on.” They also heavily edited the final gag about Britain’s new coalition government: “It’s not one person who manages the country, but two!” exclaimed Sergei Svetlakov. “Where do you see that?!” piped up Ivan Urgant. “Eventually, they’ll have to compete to see who’s in charge,” Urgan added. “Leapfrog!” Svetlakov summed it up. They also edited out these bits.

The taping takes more than two hours, but the hosts are only on the air for thirty minutes. Of course, the purpose of this montage wasn’t just to cut out the excessively sharp political jokes. Whether it’s the times or the viewers that have changed, or something else, it turns out that contemporary television has a hard time maintaining its audience’s interest without political satire. The central TV stations’ ratings have started to drop, as many active young people have simply stopped watching television. TV needed to reclaim these viewers and somehow force them to watch the news, though they apparently found it to be extremely boring. Continue reading ‘Newsweek on Russian TV Satire (Full Translation)’ »

The Chickens Come Home to Roost: the Russia-Iran Concessions

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC

Late last week, the media reported two instances of what are being called American “concessions” and “appeasement” to Russia over the Iran issue. The media has a reasonable case. Here’s what the Obama administration did:

  • Ended sanctions against four Russian arms dealers involved in weapons trade with Iran and Syria: Rosoboronexport (the state arms exporter), sanctioned in 2006 and 2008; and the Moscow Aviation Institute, the Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology of Russia, and the Tula Instrument Design Bureau, all sanctioned back in 1999.
  • Amended the current Security Council draft resolution sanctioning Iran to exclude a ban on ground-to-air defensive missile systems, i.e., the S-300 rockets sold but never delivered to Iran in 2005. In other words, the U.S. is not insisting, as a condition of the resolution, that Russia cancel the delivery of these weapons.

Explaining these decisions, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said, “What we’ve seen is a shift in Russian attitudes toward military support for Iran, and emblematic of that is the restraint with respect to delivering S-300s. This was not a quid pro quo, but the fact that Russia has improved its performance with respect to Iran has given us the confidence to take these steps.” These moves by the administration come as a bipartisan effort mounts to block the ’123 agreement’ on U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear cooperation.

I can think of two ways to explain this diplomacy: (1) this was indeed a quid pro quo and the U.S. valued the solidarity of a U.N. resolution against Tehran above stopping the delivery of a few million dollars worth of antimissile rockets, or (2) the Obama administration is asking the Kremlin to prove that it can be trusted by offering it a chance to cancel the S-300 delivery without the appearance of U.S. pressure. Continue reading ‘The Chickens Come Home to Roost: the Russia-Iran Concessions’ »

Will the Real Russian Dissident Please Stand Up

Coal miners and their families clashing with riot police in Mezhdurechensk. (Moscow Times)

Mikhail Khodorkovsky — Russia’s “most famous political prisoner,” the “billionaire dissident,” and the target of a “political fatwah from the top of the Russian state” — has been making quite a few headlines in the last week. This comes as no surprise, given that the man employs fourteen full-time lawyers (plus an unknown number of consultants) and an army of PR firms. His son, Pavel, lives in “self-imposed exile” in New York City, has parties at French châteaus, and vacations in the Greek isles. Khodorkovsky was stripped of his wealth, the narrative goes, but the Kremlin clearly didn’t get all of it. “The family is not in trouble,” Pavel Mikhailovich told Foreign Policy.

The most recent excuse to talk about Mikhail Khodorkovsky was his 24-hour stomach bug symbolic hunger strike carried out to accent Russian legal nihilism. In sync with the West as he’s always been, Khodorkovsky decided to circumvent Vladimir Putin and appeal directly to President Medvedev in the terms of his protest. What he wanted, he explained in an open letter, was simply to be assured that Dmitri Medvedev was “informed about the problem” of pretrial detention abuses in Russia. There are two ways to understand this tactic: either (a) Khodorkovsky is trying, like the Obama administration, to marginalize Putin by framing Medvedev as the sole arbiter of Kremlin power, or (b) he is trying to disabuse the West of the idea that Medvedev is a Gorbachevian reformer, by demonstrating that the president, too, is complicit in the trial against YUKOS.

In all this hubbub about Mr. Khodorkovsky, I found myself realizing how terribly boring it’s all become. The raging questions are “is he a dissident?” and, if so, “what does it mean to be a billionaire dissident?” There are some raised eyebrows about his past, but Mikhail Borisovich is basically celebrated now as a man-turned-hero, a victim of Vladimir Putin’s personal vendetta. Whether or not he deserves this title, Mr. Khodorkovsky has certainly spent enough cash to have it. The only thing more unfair that being imprisoned for political behavior would be getting imprisoned for that and then spending millions of stashed-away money for nothing. So Khodorkovsky keeps the channels buttered, and a few months never go by without a news story, a documentary, or an op-ed highlighting his plight.

When I heard about his hunger strike, I got to thinking about the state of public demonstrations in Russia. A hunger strike is something different from a mass rally: it’s personal and it’s quiet, and for those reasons it can serve as an extremely targeted symbolic act. But as suddenly as it was announced, Khodorkovsky called off the shtick, all before I’d even begun to outline any thoughts on what it is to ‘publicly not eat.’ Continue reading ‘Will the Real Russian Dissident Please Stand Up’ »

The Victory Day Commentary

It’s been more than a week now since Russia celebrated the 65th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany. I caught a little bit of the parade and the fireworks on Россия 24, and it was basically what you’d expect: a bunch of happy people standing around outside, watching things proudly march by and colorfully explode overhead. It wasn’t the heads-of-state powwow Putin organized five years ago, but, as far as spectacles go, everything looked pretty nice.

Not at all unexpectedly, Victory Day’s 65th anniversary inspired an angry legion of articles about the state of Russia’s collective consciousness as it relates to the historical scar of Stalinism. What follows is some (incomplete) commentary on writers whom I found especially thought-provoking (or enraging) in their V-Day observations: (in no particular order) Anatoly Karlin, Yulia Latynina, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Julia Ioffe, and Andrey Zolotov. Continue reading ‘The Victory Day Commentary’ »

Suing the State Over Terrorism

And you thought human rights couldn't be sexy.

Two days ago, the first moral damages lawsuit was announced against the Russian federal government for the terrorist attacks on the Moscow metro last March. The mother of nine-year-old Artem Rumiantsev is seeking a monthly pension to care for her “orphaned” son and a one-time payment of five million rubles. Her alimony-paying ex-husband, Georgy Budnikov, was killed when Maryam Sharipova blew herself up at Lubyanka. Continue reading ‘Suing the State Over Terrorism’ »

The Stalin Bus

The Stalin Bus.

Two days ago, members of the St. Petersburg Communist Party realized a long held wish, when a bus operated by the Network of Passenger Transports (SPP) rolled onto Nevsky Prospekt, sporting a ten-foot-tall image of Josef Stalin (see photo). The following two phrases appear on the side: “I would like to raise a toast to the health of the Soviet people and, foremost, to the Russian people!” (a quote from Stalin, dated May 24, 1945) and “Eternal glory to the victors!”

The same day the Stalin Bus appeared, somebody decided to smear white paint all over the Vozhd’s face, ears, and hair. A KPRF spokesman, Sergey Malinkovich, blamed Yabloko activists, to which local Yabloko leader Maxim Reznik responded by calling Malinkovich insane. As it turns out, two Yabloko activists were indeed responsible for the vandalism (see their video here). Yabloko has ruled out the further use of paint, but it does plan to stage a protest aboard the Stalin Bus sometime today. They’ll be carrying signs reading “The Doctor’s Plot,” The 1937 Terror,” and “The Tukhachevsky Affair.” Continue reading ‘The Stalin Bus’ »

Russian Defamation Law, or How Yuri Luzhkov Made 1 Million Rubles

Zhirinovsky ponders losing 1 million of his rubles.

With the death of Vera V. Trifonova, the world has again turned its attention to the Motherland’s legal system. For the most part, the current frenzy has focused on the fatal shortcomings of Russia’s pre-trial detention practices in white-collar criminal cases. Without going into the details of the stories surrounding Trifonova, Sergey Magnitsky, or Bill Browder, let’s just say that people have noticed — and they’re understandably quite upset.

I’d like to discuss something else, however: the story of how Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov used the Russian legal system to earn more than 1 million rubles.

The basic facts are these: on March 28, 2010, the Sovelovskii Court of Moscow sentenced Vladimir Zhirinovsky to a fine of 1 million rubles, half of which has to be paid to Mayor Luzhkov personally (the other half will go to the city government). Last year, Boris Nemtsov was also forced to pay Luzhkov 500 thousand rubles in a separate defamation suit. Continue reading ‘Russian Defamation Law, or How Yuri Luzhkov Made 1 Million Rubles’ »