While the West Watches Crimea, Putin Cleans House in Moscow

by Julia Ioffe | March 14, 2014

photo credit: ALEXEY SAZONOV/AFP/Getty

While the world awaits Sunday’s referendum in Crimea and nervously watches the Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, the world is missing that, in Moscow, Vladimir Putin is busily cleaning house.

Yesterday, Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin wrote here about Putin’s renewed crackdown on the media: What began just days before the Olympics with a Kremlin attack on Dozhd, the last independent television station in Russia, has now extended to Lenta.ru, arguably the best news site in Russia. On Wednesday, the site’s editor-in-chief was fired and replaced with a Kremlin loyalist, and the whole staff quit in protest. Yesterday, the Kremlin went full-China on the Internet, the holy of holies of the Russian opposition. Using some flimsy legal pretexts, it banned access to various oppositional news sites, to the website of Moscow’s biggest radio station, and to the blog of Alexey Navalny, who is currently under house arrest. Last week, the owner of Dozhd announced that, due to the clampdown, the channel is going to close in a couple months.

Within the span of a couple months, the Kremlin, by hook and by crook, has cleared all the media underbrush. There’s suddenly not much left of the independent media, even of what little of it there was left after Putin’s first two terms at the wheel. 

But that’s not all. In fact, terrifyingly, it’s not nearly all. Yesterday, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the pseudo-nationalist pseudo-parliamentarian, proposed banning the letter Ы (usually transliterated as “y” into English, as in NavalnY or, say, blinY) from the Russian alphabet because it was too “Asiatic.” The day before that, Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways, the biggest company in the country, proposed spending “trillions of rubles” on a “Trans-Eurasian Development Belt” that would take certain non-Western, non-Anglo-Saxon values into account. Yakunin added that the West had foisted onto Russia a form of economics—in which, judging by the number of Russian billionaires, it’s been quite successful—that was all growth for the sake of growth, and which annihilated Russia’s intrinsic spirituality. (It’s also a strange statement for a man whose children live in the very heart of the Anglo-Saxon West: London.) And that’s all happening with the backdrop of thousands of mysterious men, armed with state-of-the-art weaponry and dressed in uniforms that look very Russian but that Putin insisted they had “bought in a store.”

Westerners rightly know Russia as a font of absurdity, but lately, it’s been hard to keep up: I’ve been trying to write this post for a solid week now, and have been constantly derailed by the increasingly bizarre and worrying developments coming from the Trans-Eurasian Development Belt.

Actually, I wanted to start last week, the day a professor at Moscow’s elite diplomatic academy was fired for writing an article that slammed the occupation of Crimea, and comparing it to Germany of the 1930s. Or did I want to start with the zealously Bolshevik response of Margarita Simonyan, RT's editor-in-chief, to the foolish on-air, anti-war rant of Abby Martin? “The American propaganda machine, which Abby herself denounces every time she is on the air," Simonyan wrote, "is so strong that it is capable of brainwashing even the brightest and most ardent people. The more fiercely we will continue to resist it.”

But then came the day a Moscow acquaintance announced on Facebook that her daughter, a first-grader, came home from school in a panic because the teacher had told the class that America was about to invade Russia. But then television host and attack dog Dmitry Kiselev went after the “radicals” in Kiev in a special broadcast dedicated to Ukraine, saying that the transfer of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954 was “a historical crime” and blaming the dissolution of Yugoslavia on the West. “What is Yugoslavia now? A pimple on the body of Europe.” (He’s the same man who on his show recently ran a photo of liberal magazine editor Evgenia Albats, who is Jewish, with the backwards Hebrew lettering asking: “What kind of a Jew are you?”)

I was going to write about that, but then came the letters. First, an open letter to Putin from the Russian Writers’ Union, which is as Soviet as it sounds, declared that, “in these worrying times, when the fate not only of Russia and Ukraine, but of all European civilization, is being decided, we want to express our support of your firm and responsible position.” They also blamed “the destructive forces of the West.”

No sooner had I looped that into my narrative, that another letter in support of Putin’s Crimea strategy emerged, this one signed by hundreds of the country’s artistic and intellectual elite, many of them dependent on the Kremlin for grants to their theaters and opera houses. Not that they had never signed such brassily Soviet letters before, but still, the sheer density of the zestily stale statist language was a little much.

And, while we were reading about the Washington visit of acting Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, one state-friendly tabloid in Moscow—Moskovsky Komsomolets, whose revolutionary name has not changed since its founding in 1919—was reporting that Yatsenyuk had smuggled out Ukraine’s gold reserves to hand over to the Americans. Not to be outdone, Putin, who has denied the legitimacy of the provisional government in Kiev, went even further while Yatsenyuk was in D.C.: Ukraine, he said, had left the Soviet fold in 1991 illegally.

That was Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry went apeshit on hearing that the House passed some kind of version of sanctions against the Russians. On its Facebook page, the Ministry posted a screed reminding the U.S. of the Declaration of Independence, the core principles of which, it felt, should apply to the residents of the Crimea, but not, for some reason, those of Chechnya, against whom Putin fought the war that cemented his hold on power.

Yesterday, Ekho Moskvy, the biggest Moscow radio station who had its website blocked yesterday, invited on the air the editor of Den, a strange Moscow paper, said the crackdown on the press was necessary because the West had waged “an information war” against Russia, to which Russia had to present a united front. A family friend wrote from Moscow in shock: His television was telling him the internet is for radicals and perverts, which, to him, was a clear foreshadowing of a great firewall with the West. (Other Moscow friends, all liberals, are beginning to get seriously depressed. One describes a foreboding feeling that a civil war is near, another asked for the number of a good immigration lawyer in the U.S.)

I could go on, but that’s all the appetite I have for this grotesquery. Some of it is proudly Soviet, some of it is so outrageous and loony and crypto-fascist that it makes me wish for the hardy good sense of Leonid Brezhnev. These days, I’m afraid to look at the news and my almost entirely Russian Facebook feed in the morning. Who knows what the loosed hounds have done while I was sleeping? And, more importantly, who can stomach it?  

My cup completely overfloweth.

Here’s what’s scary about this: this is all being done, according to various reports, without any consultation with anyone outside Putin’s shrinking inner circle of old KGB spooks. The economic elites most likely to suffer from a plummeting ruble and sanctions have been shut out of the decision-making process. This is all about intangibles, the things that reason can't hook, the things impervious to logic and reasoning and even the cynical algebra of geopolitical interests. This is about pride and values and the Trans-Eurasian Development Belt.

And, yes, all of this is familiar and increasingly terrifying, but to whom? To you and me and an increasingly besieged island of Moscow liberals? Because, terrifyingly, familiarly, all of this works. The method has been tried many times, and it is true: Putin’s approval ratings have grown to their highest level in three years. Nearly two-thirds of Russians think there is no legitimate government in Kiev and that there is anarchy on the streets of Ukraine. Over half said that moving Russian troops into Crimea was legal; of those, two-thirds agree that this is basically Russian land. Nearly half of those polled said that a Russian presence in the area brings stability, and that Crimea should be brought into the fold of the Russian Federation.

What Moscow liberals are discovering is how quickly the ground has shifted beneath their feet since Putin came back to power in 2012, how futile and pathetic their resistance, and how easily wartime mobilization can steamroll them into nonexistence, in a way it couldn’t when Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008. This time, even their tiny Internet ghetto isn’t safe anymore. And its not clear that, once all this over and Crimea is safely part of Russia, that the regime will roll back these measures. In fact, it's highly likely that it won't. Maybe the Soviet rhetoric will dissipate, but the Internet ghetto will still stand pillaged and smoldering. And, most terrifying of all, why resist at all? Moscow liberals have looked on with envy at what their Kievan brothers accomplished on the Maidan, but their protest had a different end: All of this is happening in Moscow precisely because they went out to the streets to protest Putin two years ago. Dare they protest again, and lose even more? Or have they lost it all already?

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