Russia, Explained

Money-making betrayal — Russia is burning — Roscosmos decay

Russia, Explained
Photo: AP / TASS

Here what’s in store for you this week:

  • We expose the two individuals apparently responsible for sabotaging the nation’s independent journalists, either as part of a legitimate job — or in the hopes of one;
  • As Russia is devastated by massive forest fires, we report on the toxic burning peat bogs in the Russian Arctic;
  • Plus, we bring you three very different pieces of news from the Russian space race: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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

The Sordid Business of Russian Betrayal, Explained

Since the Kremlin substantially expanded repressive laws targeting civil society and media in the last year, individuals and state bodies alike have been complicit in the oppressive, punitive measures deployed against independent journalists. At present, two specific informers are terrorizing Russian independent newsrooms. Unlike your regular informers in authoritarian states, they do not hesitate to publicize their own identity. This week our political editor Kirill Martynov looks at whether or not they are acting of their own volition.

'FOREIGN AGENT' WITCH HUNT. Alexander Ionov and Vitaly Borodin work every day to ensure that Russia no longer has independent media or political opposition. Both have openly and blatantly been writing letters to both the Ministry of Justice and the Prosecutor General's Office triggering formal procedures that will allow authorities to recognize our colleagues and us as "foreign agents." Ionov is a former member of the Public Monitoring Commission (ONK), and Borodin is the organizer of the so-called Federal Project on Security and the Fight against Corruption (FPBBK), a state-backed clone of Alexei Navalny's now-banned anti-corruption organization.

Vitaly Borodin and Alexander Ionov

Vitaly Borodin and Alexander Ionov

PROFESSIONAL INFORMERS ARE THRIVING AMID KREMLIN MULTIPLYING CRACKDOWNS. As social stratification in Russia becomes increasingly pronounced, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic, people have started seeking new sources of income. So, it remains unclear whether we're dealing with "professional informers" — that is, those recruited long ago by state security structures and who have since been regularly reporting to their employers — or simply chancers making the best of Russia's increasingly authoritarian situation. People who recognize this inequality as the normal state of affairs can often seek means by which they can "integrate into the system" and "become successful" — perhaps by prematurely displaying Kremlin loyalty.

"How do you achieve success in modern Russia if you were not born into the family of an employee of the presidential administration or a military general? Contemporary Russian society does not provide an answer to this question. In this sense, it differs from the late USSR, where the "recipe for success" was more or less obvious," writes Martynov.

He says Ionov and Borodin "swim in the murky waters of modern Russian life," dreaming of being at least Vitaly Milonov, a politician known for his virulent homophobia, or even better, Margarita Simonyan, head of Russian propaganda channel RT.

KREMLIN HAS FINALLY FIGURED OUT AN EFFECTIVE TEMPLATE TO DESTROY INDEPENDENT NEWSROOMS. Back in 2013, when Putin's regime launched the first attack against independent journalism with the takeover of government-owned media by Kremlin's propagandist in chief Dmitry Kiselyov, few had the idea what well-oiled bureaucratic machine it will become a decade later. Since a legalistic façade is crucial for Putin to claim legitimacy in a de-facto authoritarian state, his repressive policies are rooted in the vast web of laws and regulations. It took authorities years to perfect the repressive 'foreign agent' laws to be utilized in the attacks on newsrooms and individual journalists alike.

'New repressive laws are now being used for the targeted destruction of independent journalism in Russia. First, they finished off the television, replacing it with Kiselev and Solovyov, then came the turn of big business newspapers, after which even small online newsrooms became a bone in the throat for the Russian authorities. Those media outlets that the Kremlin cannot strangle with economic and political pressure become "foreign agents." Just look at the "foreign agents" list — it is full of folks engaged in professional journalism,' Martynov writes.

BACKSTORY. Being a journalist in Russia has never been easy, and attacks against independent outlets have ramped up recently. Journalists are routinely taken to court as part of a campaign to silence and intimidate, and violence against them is common. Earlier this year, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) raided the apartment of veteran investigative reporter Roman Anin. The government crackdown on independent reporters and outlets took a brutal turn in 2019 and has reached new lows in recent years. Our investigative reporter Elena Milashina was attacked in Chechnya back in February and has faced death threats over her latest reports. Six of our journalists were also murdered over the past 25 years, including Anna Politkovskaya. Her assassination still hasn't been adequately investigated.

N.B. As we started readying our article for publication, an individual by the name of Savinov (another pro) seems to have issued another similar denunciation of the head of the Committee against Torture, Igor Kalyapin. The domestic market for denunciations promises to become massive amid stagnation in other spheres of the economy.

Read all about the famous ‘informant’ duo, here.

Russia is Burning

Over the past month, Siberia and the Russian Arctic have experienced vast, devastating forest fires provoked by changing climate patterns. The worst hell-breaking-loose situation is in Yakutia, where 1.5 million hectares of forests are now gone after several weeks of fires. Around 120 large ones are currently burning across the country. There are simply too many burning sites to cover at once. So this week, we had to concentrate our limited resources on a few locations that bring light to a complex web of increasingly extreme weather conditions, climate change denialism by the Kremlin, corruption, and environmental degradation — an explosive mix that fuels the monstrous fire. The pan intended.

Photo: AP / TASS

Photo: AP / TASS

FIREFIGHTING IS SO UNDERFUNDED THAT AVERAGE FOLKS VOLUNTEER TO SAVE THEIR LANDS FROM FIRE. Yakutia residents have been choking from the forest fire smoke for more than a month. Meanwhile, local authorities were caught lying about the scale of the catastrophe amid a severe deficit of resources to fight it. Despite the large-scale forest fires becoming regular here, the emergency funds are scarce — either because of corruption, incompetence, or Kremlin neglect, or all at once. The situation is so dire that local authorities even reportedly used the help of schoolkids in putting out the fires. Meanwhile, locals are forced to fight the fire on their own. We talked to Aiyl D’ulurkha, a firefighter volunteer from Yakutia, who spent weeks in the burning Siberian forests.

‘We have a big problem with lack of financing for the firefighting sector. When we arrived at the government firefighting camp, we started working under the supervision of forestry officials. We acted under the guidance of professionals and carried out their orders. But in Soviet times, this region had 1,500 emergency firefighters taking care of the forest fires. Today there are just 224 of them. Plus, when the rest of the country gets 28 rubles ($0.40) per hectare in forest fire prevention, our region gets just 6.9 rubles ($0.10),’ D’ulurkha says.

The government underfunding looks incredibly reckless considering that Yakutia has become the ground central for most severe forest fires in Russia over the last years.

MASSIVE FIRE EXPOSES SEVERE UNDERFUNDING CRISIS. We saw the same situation playing out 2000 km away in the burning Russian Arctic. Our Irina Vorobyova reports from a national park consisting of 650 small islands on Lake Ladoga in Karelia. Here volunteer firefighters are also forced to sail out to fight the fires, plugging the gap left by the state. Locals need resources, manpower, and money. And, as usual, there are few. The peat and forest fires are beginning to happen on an almost annual basis, and so it is up to the local community to quell the heat over the space of some 200 square kilometers. They all face significant health hazards.

Photo: AP / TASS

Photo: AP / TASS

TOXIC SMOKE. “The smoke from the peat bog is poisonous (and as a matter of fact, in 2010, they lied to us again through the TV that it was similar to smoke from a fire and nothing to be afraid of,” Vorobyova writes.

“Compared to the scale of the fires in Yakutia, this seems like nothing at all. But to truly appreciate the disaster, you need to understand what a burning peat bog is. In 2010, when Moscow and many other cities of Central Russia were soused in smoke, we were told on TV that nothing can be done with peat bogs: they cannot be extinguished … One square meter of burning peat requires one ton of pressurized water,” Vorobyova says.

THE BOG WILL SMOLDER UNTIL WINTER. Volunteers can only work on the fires in a helmet — the trees crack and fall. They need respirators too and have to leave the area whenever they feel ill or dizzy. Volunteer Olesya Volkova told our reporters that the inability to breathe was the most terrifying of all. “I was able to breathe normally only when I returned to Moscow. And the fire that we put out there was for a thousand hectares, just huge. But in comparison with the general picture, it is just a dot on the map,” says volunteer Olesya Volkova. Vorobyova asked Grigory Kuksin, head of the fire department at Russia’s branch of Greenpeace, whether there was any hope of extinguishing the bog fires.

“The peat bog will likely smolder until winter, now it is important to save the roads so that the equipment can pass through and try to contain the spread of the outbreak further,” he said.

CLIMATE CATASTROPHE AND THE HUMAN FACTOR. 1.5 percent of Russia’s total territory has burnt over the past year. The aridity means that starting fires is all too easy — they can stem from anything, even a cigarette but. Indeed, most of the Ladoga peat fires appear to be the consequence of human activity. Furthermore, companies have attempted to extract peat for use as fuel from the Leningrad region. After the collapse of local peat extraction enterprises, the bogs fell into disuse. “Volunteer firefighters joke that there are only three natural causes of a fire: a dry thunderstorm, a meteorite, and volcanic eruptions.” Thus, bonfires and cigarette butts are the prime suspects, but the climate is plenty volatile too.

Read our interview with Yakutia firefighter volunteers here and the dispatch from Karelia fires here.

Increasingly Turbulent Russian Space Race, Explained

Three pieces of news from the stars dropped to Russian earth last week, the good (sort of), the bad, and the ugly. Let's start with a good one!

I BELIEVE I CAN FLY. Russia's new Sokol-M spacesuits now come with a fly (not wings, sadly, but a traditional zipper), meaning that Russian astronauts can now feel more comfortable at work. The new design also allegedly allows women to pee without fully undressing (perhaps this claim should be taken with a pinch of salt, though, as many companies have had little success at this). Given Roscosmos' current attempts to push their new 'Challenge' feature film about a female surgeon operating on an astronaut in space, one could see it as a nod to greater gender equality in the Russian space race. One shouldn't, though. Prominent Russian Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka has already commented that a woman in a new Russian spacesuit must still "have the anthropometric and physical characteristics of a man" to feel comfortable. So perhaps the suits may not be so different after all.

THE BAD. Unfortunately, these spacesuits with a fly have a much shorter lifespan, meaning that the guaranteed number of safe spacewalks that can be undertaken wearing them is lower. Controversial Roscosmos director Dmitry Rogozin has responded to complaints in a classic fashion: by declaring that he will set up his own spacesuit business, of course. Andrey Ionin, from the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Novaya that Rogozin's idea of a new space equipment manufacturing business follows the pattern of aggressive expansion of the Russian ruling elites inside state monopolies.

"Roscosmos today is one of the largest state monopolies," Ionin explains. "It almost completely absorbs the state budget for 'space' exploration. It doesn't even matter who is in charge. It always strives to take all money under articles where the word 'space' is even mentioned."

Illustration: Petr Sarukhanov / "Novaya Gazeta"

Illustration: Petr Sarukhanov / "Novaya Gazeta"

THE UGLY. It will soon be impossible to write about Russian spacesuits at all because it will be considered espionage or counterintelligence work. In a recent government draft decree on information, there are clear instructions to Russian journalists to only repost the Roscosmos press releases in full.

"Roscosmos management is making great efforts to prevent critical discussion of current activities of the struggling agency. It has narrowed the circle of journalists who can obtain comments on important issues … This is how departmental censorship worked in the USSR," writes our columnist Valeriy Shiryaev.

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. 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 the whole story here.

Other Top-Stories We Liked This Week

  • THE KREMLIN READIES IMPOSTERS TO TARGET OPPOSITION CANDIDATES IN UPCOMING ELECTION. Back in May, Boris Vishnevsky announced his intention to stand for the Russian State Duma as an Yabloko [opposition] party nominee. Russian parliamentary elections are due this September. Suddenly, a variety of new Boris Vishnevskys have started cropping up, announcing their intention to stand for election. This is a classic electoral confusion tactic by the Kremlin of course, with parties bearing similar names often standing against one another. They hope that voters intending to vote for the oppositionist will inadvertently vote for an imposter with a similar name. We visited the village of Ponomarevo, some 140 kilometers from Vologda. Here, one of Vishnevsky's electoral imposters was born and raised. We find out that all the locals know his family (it is a small village, after all), and many are surprised to learn that he has changed his name — including his sister.

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.

Добавьте в Конструктор подписки, приготовленные Редакцией, или свои любимые источники: сайты, телеграм- и youtube-каналы. Залогиньтесь, чтобы не терять свои подписки на разных устройствах