Russia, Explained#85

Parliamentary elections are done before even starting

Russia, Explained#85
Flood in Kerch. Photo: Sergey Malgavko / TASS

Here what’s in store for you this week:

  • As Russian parliamentary elections loom, the Kremlin makes sure Russians are left with zero choice except Putin’s ruling party;
  • We lift the lid on the country’s space agency Roscosmos which seems more concerned with stifling dissent than the space;
  • We report from the epicenter of catastrophic floods in Crimea and failure of local officials to deal with the worsening environmental situation;
  • Plus, we speak to the families of doctors killed by COVID-19 — they are now denied government compensations.

Want to get the full story? Click the links below for full-length articles in Russian.

The Fraud of Upcoming Parliamentary Elections, Explained

On September 19, Russia is set to vote for its Duma members — the nation's lower house, nine regional governors, and 38 regional parliaments. But is there any point to these elections? Authorities have 'neutralized' all possible opponents to the current ruling classes. This week our political editor Kirill Martynov explains how the Kremlin makes sure the results are fixed in Putin's favor before the voting even begins.

NAVALNY AND OTHER OPPOSITION FIGURES ARE BANNED FROM RUNNING. Russian opposition politician Ilya Yashin is one of many who have been prevented from participating in Russian politics in one way or another. «I provided election documents to the Moscow City Duma. In response, the Election Commission said I had been declared 'a person involved in extremist activities and that I am not allowed to participate in elections,» Yashin wrote on June 25. This is one isolated incident in a long line of assaults on the political opposition. However, this is the first time that Navalny's supporters have been targeted explicitly with expanded 'anti-extremist measures to prevent them from running in upcoming elections. Since the last fraudulent vote for Putin's power-grabbing constitutional amendments and rigged 2019 local elections, the Kremlin worked hard to disenfranchise any electoral challenge to the ruling regime.


«Over the past two years, the Russian political system has changed radically,» he says. «This is no longer relatively mild elected autocracy, but a fully-fledged kind of authoritarianism, combining features of modern China (digital surveillance), the late USSR (rhetoric and habits of the state apparatus) and corporate regimes.»

THE ONLY OPPOSITION PARTY ALLOWED TO RUN MIGHT NOT SURVIVE THE ELECTION. Opposition party Yabloko (Apple) has faded into relative obscurity in recent years, but it currently remains the only official political party that stands in opposition to Putin. «The fate of Yabloko itself will be decided in the coming months,» Martynov warns. «If the party is deemed dangerous for United Russia, its candidates may share Yashin's demise.»

ELIMINATION OF ALL POSSIBLE PUTIN CHALLENGERS HAS BEEN A GREAT SUCCESS. Right now, the 45-year-old Alexei Navalny is currently imprisoned in Russia. A mass solidarity movement in support of him was crushed by a wave of severe repressions. Russia's security forces arrested over 13,000 protesters who took to the streets across the country in the aftermath. Before Navalny, Boris Nemtsov appeared to be one of the nation's more viable opposition candidates. Nemtsov was elected to the Russian State Duma and became its deputy speaker in the year 2000. He repeatedly ran opposition campaigns, standing as a presidential candidate for a short period in 2008. He was assassinated near the Kremlin in early 2015.

BACKSTORY. Russia hasn't had a free or fair election since at least 2004. The country has a long history of falsifying election results, a tradition preserved from the Soviet era. Ballot stuffing, carousel voting, and outright falsification are systemic. Investigations into irregularities remain formal and never influence the final results. Novaya always receives countless messages from Russians who have been pressured into voting to manufacture broad public support for the ruling regime of Vladimir Putin. «During the 2018 presidential election, I was working at a school near Moscow. I had to provide a written statement about what polling station my family would be voting at,» one woman (among many with similar stories) told Novaya in 2018. In 2020, Russia held a historic vote that allowed Putin to retain power until 2036. According to independent polling, just 25 percent of Russians supported prolonging Putin's rule, while 40-50 percent were planning to vote in favor of his power-grabbing amendments. But the official result was that 78 percent of the Russian populace had voted in favor.

Read Martynov’s full breakdown of the Kremlin fixing upcoming election here.

Photo: Anna Mayorova / URA.RU / TASS

Photo: Anna Mayorova / URA.RU / TASS

The Decay of Russia’s Space Agency, Explained

Russia’s international isolation might be growing, but the country’s legendary space agency Roscosmos has remained unaffected by it. That’s especially curious since the institution is under tight Kremlin’s control amid a growing crackdown on academic and scientific freedoms. Just recently, Roscosmos made global headlines by presenting a new ISS module and launching successful cargo missions to the station. But there’s a dark unreported side to these headlines — a vicious crackdown on dissent within the agency. This week our Valeriy Shiryaev explains.

PROPAGANDA OUTREACH VS SPACE EXPLORATION. The agency is managed by Dmitry Rogozin, a prominent person within Putin’s inner circle and high-profile government figure since the 2000s. Since his appointment in 2018, Rogozin made sure Roscosmos’ current projects contribute to the Kremlin’s propaganda effort as much as to space exploration. Recently he launched a PR campaign lobbying Western countries to partially drop some of the international sanctions in exchange for shared space projects. Some Roscosmos employees started expressing dissent with the growing politicization of the agency and ‘pointless PR.’ The tension culminated in the firing of the agency’s prominent employee and former astronaut Sergei Krikalev.

THE LAST EXPERIENCED COSMONAUT IN ROSCOSMOS LEADERSHIP IS OUSTED. Krikalev’s dismissal occurred after internal discussions where he allegedly questioned a movie production backed and financed by the agency. A forthcoming feature film, ‘Challenge,’ is about a female surgeon operating on an astronaut in space. It is supposed to become the world’s first movie filmed onboard the International Space Station. Krikalev wasn’t convinced this is the best way to spend the agency budget that has been recently cut by 20% and plagued by misspending scandals.

PART OF BIGGER HR CRISIS. After Novaya brought light to Krikalev’s firing, more Roscosmos employees reached out to us with concerns about the agency’s drift away from science and towards politics. Krikalev was the last experienced cosmonaut in the leadership of Roscosmos, having clocked around 800 hours in space, and was in orbit when the USSR collapsed. Meanwhile, Roscosmos is currently home to some internal reorganization that makes very little sense to seasoned cosmonauts and employees.

‘CHALLENGE’ OR SCIENCE, PR OR SPACESHIPS — TIME TO DECIDE.’ Other prominent Russian astronauts point to Roscosmos’ increasingly erratic project management. A new ISS module will be launched to the station that gets decommissioned in a few years. Deadlines constantly change, strategic partnerships are replaced by geopolitical interests.

Russian cosmonaut Fedor Yurchikhin tells Novaya that “it is necessary to create, test and launch new ships, launch vehicles, and not explain why we are changing their names and constantly shifting the dates.”

Sergey Krikalev. Photo: Artem Geodakyan / TASS

Sergey Krikalev. Photo: Artem Geodakyan / TASS

BACKSTORY. Roscosmos takes roots in the Soviet space program, a pioneering space exploration initiative. Following severe crises in the 1990s and 2000s, the agency emerged as one of the world’s leading space exploration institutions in the late 2000s. It became a key partner in the management and resupplying of the ISS. Plus, it has developed one of the first commercial rocket launching programs. Yet, recent years brought budget cuts and revenue drops for the agency. International space cooperation is getting difficult for Roscosmos amid the growing international isolation of Russia. Plus, the rapid development of the privately-owned space industry makes unreformed state monopolies like the Russian space agency increasingly outdated. The government crackdown on scientific and academic freedoms in Russia only exacerbates brain drain from science-oriented institutions like Roscosmos, stifling the industry with politics and ideology. Russian scientists also have become an easy target for Russia’s security services, the FSB.

Read a full explainer on the turbulent internal politics of Roscosmos here.

Kerch Strait Chaos, Explained

Catastrophic floods have swept Crimea. This week we report from a key Crimean port of Kerch, where extremely heavy rainfall submerged entire neighborhoods. The catastrophe made plenty of headlines — primarily thanks to this viral video of Putin's top man in the region patrolling flooded areas with security swimming behind his boat. Yet, the struggle of locals largely escaped mainstream attention. Our Anastasia Smirnova spent days on flooded Kerch streets documenting the hardships of local residents, who are receiving very little help from authorities in the Russia-annexed region.

TRAVEL BY RAFT, FISH IN THE STREET. Kerch residents recount surreal, nightmarish scenarios, reporting seeing fish swimming in the street, being forced to swim to their attic, and having to travel around by raft.

«Our car was floating in the yard; it was upside down in the water,» one girl tells Novaya. «Everything in the house was floating too. I placed our appliances on top of the refrigerator, and it overturned. Everything drowned. I had to catch documents and dry them out. I still live without gas; I eat canned food with bread. It's good that there is water. We are self-sufficient: we save ourselves, we feed ourselves.»

Another local resident, Natalya, tells reporters. «I dried our remaining money to buy medicines and food.»

HOMES IN A 'DEPLORABLE' STATE. Residents are forced to rake through the silt and water residue in their homes themselves and have been forced to procure their own food items, blankets, basic personal hygiene products despite promises from authorities, whom they blame for the current flooding.

«Two weeks before the flood, we contacted the Ministry of Emergency Situations, saying that our houses would be flooded. It rained for three weeks,» Natalya says. «Couldn't they have foreseen everything and strengthened the dam during this time?»

LOCALS ARE SCEPTICAL ABOUT GOVERNMENT PROMISES OF HELP AND ASSISTANCE. «They say that the government will assess the damage, then pay the money,» one resident told Novaya. «Nobody will do any repairs for us.» While a state of emergency has been declared, residents complain that they have seen very little aid and are forced to deal with the problems on their own.

OFFICIAL STATEMENTS CONTRADICT THE REALITY ON THE FLOODED STREETS. According to authorities themselves, they are going above and beyond to ensure aid reaches residents. They claim to have dispatched 931 people, 149 units of equipment, 28 motor pumps, 9 boats, all of which are involved in alleviating the area from flooding. «Victims were offered accommodation in the Meridian and Dream Teya hotels with three hot meals a day. Subsequent humanitarian aid was provided in the form of food packages,» one of the official statements claims. However, it comes as a surprise to many locals interviewed by us. Even some of the stationed government troops in the flooded area complained to us about the lack of resources to manage the catastrophe.

BACKSTORY. Local environmental activists connect the severity of recent Crimea floods with the growing damage from aggressive post-annexation development in the region. Crimea has been experiencing a swath of ecological issues since the Russian takeover, notably a drought. Land wars and mass evictions often aggravate the region's environmental degradation. The Kerch strait has been the epicenter of one of these questionable developments driven by politics rather than ecological or economic necessity — such as the Kerch bridge. Inhabitants of the region have been subjected to invasive and cruel decisions on the part of the local authorities, with some even having been evicted in the middle of a pandemic to clear the way for Moscow-funded mega-projects.

Read Novaya’s dispatch from Kerch here.

Other Top-Stories We Liked This Week


“What do they care about the dead when there is nothing to pay the living with?” they ask in one of our most-read stories this week. In the event of the death of a medical worker from coronavirus, the state must pay their relatives 2.7 million rubles ($37,000). Spouses, parents, children under 18 or students under the age of 23, as well as disabled children and children under guardianship can apply for compensation. We’ve fact-checked at least 47 cases where insurance payments have been completely denied to the families.


We are obsessed with the new album by Moscow-based pop band Shortparis. They’ve been always famous for their critical art exposing severe equality deficit in Russia, including attacks on queer people. But the new album tops that trying to capture dystopian authoritarian hysteria engulfing Russia. “Why does Russia yearn for Stalin?” they ask in our interview with them. “The experience of repression is the experience of something big, great. That is, we are conditioned to perceive a source of colossal tension as something more than us, and therefore worthy of respect. Absurd, of course.” Shortparis, while developing a strong message about freedoms in Russia, have managed to survive something of a crackdown on local artists and musicians. In 2018 and 2019, 25-year-old rapper Husky and electronic musical duo IC3PEAK both faced the ire of authorities who managed to either interrupt or cancel their gigs outside of Moscow.

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