Russia, Explained#24 by Novaya Gazeta

Putin’s Syria mess — School shootings — Crowdfunded libraries

Russia, Explained#24 by Novaya Gazeta
Photo: Maksim Kimerling / Novaya Gazeta

This Week’s Highlights

Putin tries to salvage his relationship with Turkey’s President as the Syria standoff escalates; Russian law-enforcement prevents another school shooting as online coordination between shooter-wannabes rises; our readers rally to help an indebted village librarian, and Russians push back against the mass murder of stray dogs in connection with the COVID-19 outbreak.

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Putin’s Collapsing Gambit in Syria, Explained

As the situation in Syria continues to escalate, Putin is trying to salvage relations with Turkey’s President Erdogan. Following the Syrian regime’s airstrike on Turkish positions in the northwestern region of Idlib on February 27, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov issued a largely conciliatory statement. Meanwhile, emergency negotiations between Russia and Turkey are still ongoing.

A floundering bromance.Before the most recent attacks, Putin was hesitant to organize a summit on the situation in Idlib until there was at least some progress in the bilateral talks between Moscow and Ankara. But he has now agreed to meet with President Erdogan in Moscow on March 5 or 6. Putin is hoping to prevent the conflict from escalating any further and to try and save what’s left of his geopolitical partnership with the Turkish leader — Moscow has invested too heavily in this alliance to let it fall apart just like that.

Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan. Photo: RIA Novosti
Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan. Photo: RIA Novosti

Meanwhile, more fighting. From the very beginning, many Russian military personnel and diplomats thought that nothing good would come of trying to gain Erdogan’s support, says our columnist Pavel Felgenhauer. And unless he and Putin announce a new ceasefire after their next meeting, the armed confrontation in Idlib is likely to get worse. “If only in order to capture more territory before the armistice, there will probably be all sorts of new provocations, ” he predicts.

Read Pavel Felgenhauer’s take on Russia’s deteriorating relations with Turkey here.

Thwarted School Shooting in Saratov, Explained

Russia appears to have a growing problem with would-be school shooters. Last week, the Federal Security Service (FSB) detained two teenagers – aged 14 and 15 years old – who were planning an attack on their school in the southwestern city of Saratov. And this is not an isolated incident, but rather part of a spreading network.

Shooter-wannabes keep in touch through online networks.The two boys from Saratov were reportedly detained at an abandoned bomb shelter, where they were storing their weapons. According to the security officials, the students used online instructions to make petrol bombs, which they planned to use in the attack. Reports from another law enforcement agency also stated that the teenagers were involved “in various online communities” that promote “mass killings and suicide.”

Teenagers detained on suspicion of preparing an armed attack in Saratov. Photo: RIA Novosti
Teenagers detained on suspicion of preparing an armed attack in Saratov. Photo: RIA Novosti

More planned attacks in Crimea.Just a few weeks ago, FSB agents arrested a couple other teenagers in the Russian-annexed region of Crimea. The two boys — aged 16 and 17 years old — were planning attacks on schools in Kerch. Both were inspired by Vladislav Roslaykov, who carried out a mass shooting at the Kerch Polytechnic College in 2018 that left 21 people dead (including the shooter himself) and injured 70 others — in Europe’s deadliest school shooting to date.

Cross-country network.The Crimean suspects had homemade bombs and components for making explosives at their homes. The teenagers tested “trial” explosive devices on domestic animals, the FSB noted. Law enforcement is also looking into what appears to be a network of teenagers in three other regions of Russia — its members were in close contact with the Crimean suspects and wanted to take part in their planned attacks.

Read more about the thwarted school shooting in Saratov here.

Raising Funds for Shakva’s Librarian

At the end of January, Vera Savina, a librarian in the village of Shakva (located in the Perm Krai at the edge of European Russia) received a letter, saying she had until the beginning of April to pay over 42,500 roubles (about $640) in debt. Facing a potential lawsuit, the librarian – whose monthly salary is usually between $75 and $105 – took on a second job as a firefighter – where she earned an additional $100 per month. Meanwhile, the local authorities suggested that her son “help mom out” by tending cows in the summer.

Vera Savina. Photo: Maksim Kimerling / Novaya Gazeta
Vera Savina. Photo: Maksim Kimerling / Novaya Gazeta

Ebook debt.The debt had accumulated because the librarian had been downloading Ebooks. The local authorities installed unlimited Internet at the library in 2014 – but soon decided to cut costs and reduced their Internet access to just 100 megabytes per month. Every additional megabyte costs over two roubles and in September 2015, the regional library administration received an 80 thousand rouble bill (about $1,200). As it turns out, the Shakva branch had used over 30,000 megabytes (30 GB) and it was all because of Vera Savina. She didn’t even deny it: if readers at her library asked for a piece of literature from the Internet, she went ahead and downloaded it for them.

“I’ve been dreaming about that.”Vera’s story came to Novaya Gazeta’s attention and our readers were shocked that this rural librarian is saddled with such overwhelming debt. Within a couple days, folks crowdfunded over $9,000 to help her out. When asked how she plans to spend the money, Vera replied: “I was thinking about the library […] we need a new laptop and I’ve also been dreaming about buying a color printer for a long time. I asked for it, but they didn’t give it to me […] For myself, to be honest, I’m afraid to spend it, although I do want to connect the house to running water – I have been dreaming about that for a long time too.”

Photo: Maksim Kimerling / Novaya Gazeta
Photo: Maksim Kimerling / Novaya Gazeta

Check out the story of Vera Savina and Shakva library here.

Mikhail Gorbachev Turns 89

On March 2, the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev — who helped set up Novaya Gazeta in 1990 using his Nobel Peace Prize money – turned 89 years old. To mark the occasion, we invited our readers to send him birthday cards and received dozens of well-wishes. We passed them along to Gorbachev, who definitely plans on reading them. In the meantime, we’ve published some of these letters so you can read them too.

Photo: Novaya Gazeta
Photo: Novaya Gazeta

Read our readers’ birthday cards to Mikhail Gorbachev here.

Stray Animals Murdered in Anti-coronavirus Campaign

On Sunday evening, a third case of the COVID-19 virus was confirmed in Russia. The country’s borders with China and North Korea remain closed and large-scale disease control measures are being rolled out in Moscow. So far, these include placing over 2,000 people under quarantine and slaughtering stray animals.

Science ignored. Biologists say that stray animals are not necessarily a threat and that killing them off is unjustified. “Cats and dogs can carry coronaviruses, but not COVID-19,” explains science journalist Irina Yakutenko. “Some other [strains of the coronavirus] are very dangerous for dogs and cats, some are even fatal […] But as of yet, there hasn’t been a single confirmed case of coronavirus transmission from cats and dogs to humans.”

Photo: RIA Novosti
Photo: RIA Novosti

Animal murders could make the crisis even worse.Killing off stray cats and dogs could also create another problem because it will allow the rodent population to grow, says professor Nikolai Nikitin of Moscow State University. And this is especially worrisome given that the source of the virus has yet to be identified.

Public pushback.In response, Russian environmental movement ECA has organized an online flash mob in support of stray animals. Russia is home to an estimated 40 million stray cats and 20 million street dogs, which continue to reproduce uncontrollably. Meanwhile, the country’s animal shelters are overcrowded. ECA’s flash mob therefore seeks to educate people about stray animals via social networks, and encourages them to help and, if possible, adopt them as pets.

Read more about the latest anti-coronavirus measures in Moscow here.

Other Top-Stories Russia Has Been Reading

  • Coronavirus hits Italy.Our most-read story this week was a report on the outbreak of the coronavirus in Italy. The first patient was a 38-year-old man in the city of Lodi (in Lombardy, northern Italy), who had recently returned from China. Doctors were unprepared to confront the disease and sent the sick man home. Within a few days, the patient had to be put in intensive care and three doctors had contracted the virus. Within 72 hours 90 people had fallen ill – by Tuesday there were already over 2,000 COVID-19 infections in the country.
  • Victory for Timur.At the end of January, we shared thestory of Timur Dmitrienko, a one-year-old boy suffering from a rare disease: spinal muscular atrophy. Since Timur’s family was unable to afford the $2.4 million injection needed to treat his condition, we launched a fundraiser to support his treatment. And we’re happy to announce that as of February 28 – thanks to donations ranging from 40 kopecks to 2 million roubles – the full sum has been raised. That being said, there are still between 900 and two thousand people in Russia who are living with spinal muscular atrophy – and they are all in need of help. As such, Novaya Gazeta has been raising money to help other families whose children suffer from this disease. We are also urging the government to submit a bill to the State Duma, on including spinal muscular atrophy on the federal list of diseases that are covered by state-funded healthcare providers.

Thanks for reading! To keep up with Novaya Gazeta’s reporting throughout the week, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Telegram. Our video content is available on Youtube and don’t forget to visit our website for the latest stories in Russian. Until next time!

— The Novaya Gazeta Team

The new English language newsletter from Novaya Gazeta brings you a weekly overview of our finest journalism covering and explaining key news events across Russia. This includes a rundown of Novaya Gazeta’s high-stakes investigative reporting, as well as analysis aimed at answering your questions about the latest developments. In short, we bring you everything you need to know about Russia, courtesy of a legacy newspaper in the country. Subscribe here.
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