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Russia, Explained

Sanctions & Supermarket Shelves — The View from Mikolayiv — Osvyannikova’s TV Protest

«Новая газета», редакция
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«Новая газета», редакция
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Our correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko offers an eyewitness report from Mykolayiv in southern Ukraine. Photo by Novaya Gazeta

Here what’s in store for you this week:

  • We investigate the price rises and product scarcity resulting from a weakening rouble;
  • Our correspondent Elena Kostyuchenko offers an eyewitness report from Mykolayiv in southern Ukraine;
  • We explain the implications of Maria Osvyannikova’s one woman protest on state TV;
  • Plus, we report on Navalny’s last remarks before his sentencing on March 22.

Sanctions and Supermarket Shelves

Western countries have introduced an unprecedented raft of sanctions on Russia in response to the “special operation” in Ukraine. While the aim is to hit the pockets of the elite who fund and facilitate the operation, ordinary Russians are also feeling their impact. Ivan Zhilin reports on our data department’s investigation into the price rises and product shortages that are being reported across the country.

Photo: Alexey Dushutin / Novaya

SUGAR SCARCITY. According to the survey conducted by our data team, sugar is the most scarce product according to 84.5% of respondents. People from Western Siberia, the Volga region, and even Moscow have reported its absence. “It’s being sold under the counter, on the internet, at inflated prices”, one respondent said. “In our city (Oryol), there isn’t a single kilogram”, added another. The Ministry of Industry and Trade insists that the shortage is artificial and that intermediaries are to blame. “We have a lot of sugar. It’s just that the organisations that transport it from the factories and deliver it […] they are keeping it in the warehouse and waiting for the price to rise by 50%”, claimed ministry representative Viktor Yevtukhov.

WHICH OTHER PRODUCTS ARE DISAPPEARING? After sugar, respondents (22.2%) cited grain products and pasta as the second most difficult items to find. After these came coffee and tea (7.1%), cooking oil (5.2%), and alcoholic beverages (4.2%). Even when these products are still on the shelves, our study shows that the volume of product in a package is also decreasing. Grains — once sold in kilogram packages — are now sold in 800 gram amounts; certain brands of pasta are being sold in 400, rather than 500, gram packages.

RISING PRICES. Buckwheat — a Russian staple — is rapidly increasing in price. “In some stores, the price of buckwheat has risen from an average of 70 roubles to 80-90, and in some places, even to 110-130”, one respondent said. 680 respondents also reported that the prices of cereal and pasta have risen by more than 30%. Vegetables, fruit, fish, coffee, and dairy products are among the other items reported as having become more expensive. Pet food has also been impacted, with one respondent commenting that “Grandorf dog food has increased in price by 100%, and in some stores the price has increased by 200-400%. Purina cat food has increased in price by 50%.”

MEDICINE SHORTAGES. Perhaps the most concerning reports are those of the absence of vital medicines in pharmacies. Those for thyroid diseases, epilepsy, diabetes — and other diseases — are missing from the shelves. The medicines that are available have become more expensive. One respondent reported: “The price of Maxidex (a Finnnish drug that treats eye infections) has increased significantly. It was about 350 rubles, and is now 530. Sulfasalazine (an American drug that treats rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease, among other conditions) has increased from 400 roubles to 520. The price of Movalis (another American drug that treats arthritis) also increased a lot: it was 800 rubles, now it’s 1,300.”

Read our data department’s full investigation here.

The View from Mykolayiv

* Please note that this article contains images and descriptions that some may find disturbing.

Mikolayiv, a major city on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, has been on the front line of Russia’s “special operation” for weeks. Now, however, Ukrainian forces are making gains and pushing back the offensive. Danger, however, is still a daily reality and shelling can still be heard on the outskirts of the city. Our correspondent Elena Kostychenko, reports from this key port city.

A ‘NEW NORMAL’. While there is no longer fighting on the streets, Mikolayiv remains on high alert. “After sunset, you cannot turn on the light […] all stores except grocery stores and pharmacies are closed. Schools and kindergartens have been on holiday since the beginning of the ‘special operation’ […] Many public transport routes have been cancelled — some of the buses have been taken by the army, and others are being used in the evacuation effort.”

NO ONE IS SAFE. Many reports of indiscriminate attacks against civilians have been surfacing since the “special operation” began. Anatoly Gerashchenko has been driving educators from the city out to an orphanage throughout the conflict. On one of the trips, he and his passengers — three women — were ambushed. “I didn’t see the explosion”, he said, “I only felt something falling on us. A sharp pain in my leg. I ran out of the car […] one of the women was sitting by the door, parts of her face were gone […] on the floor by my door, was her finger. Her face was gone — gone! And behind me another woman was killed”

DOCUMENTING WAR CRIMES. The regional bureau of forensic medical examination receives the bodies of soldiers and civilians alike. According to the head of the bureau, Olga Deryugina, since the beginning of the “special operation”, more than 60 bodies have arrived in the morgue. She added that she could not provide more exact number since more bodies arrive “all the time.” Employees of the investigative department examine each body, preparing documents for the International Criminal Court in The Hague. “We have never had so many bodies”, Deryugina says, “Shrapnel wounds, bullet wounds […] We've had bodies with unexploded ordinances […] in the bodies, inside them, there were two such cases — bomb experts came and demined them.”

THOSE LEFT BEHIND. Kostyuchenko spoke with some of the people who had lost their colleagues, friends and loved ones. The conversations were harrowing. Dmitry Butym lost both of his daughters, Arina and Vera, in an explosion. “Vera was warming food in the kitchen, Arina had gone out into the yard […] there was no chance. The younger one died immediately, a fragment through the heart […] Now, the main thing for me is to bury the children.” Oksana came for the body of her 77-year-old mother. “My mother lived on the fifth floor. She couldn’t go down to the bomb shelter […] She died in the morning, calmly, as far as one can say — calmly. On the bathroom floor, hiding from this horror […] My mother’s name was Svetlana Nikolayevna. She was half Russian […] our family was Russian-speaking.”

Sasha is holding a fragment of an exploded shell in his hands: it can cut a man in half — he cries. Photo by: Ekena Kostuchenko / Novaya

SOLDIERS READY TO DEFEND THEIR HOME. Kostyuchenko spoke with soldiers in the A0224 military unit. One man told her, “Where would we evacuate to? We are on our own land.” Another adds, “I have family in Odesa. While Mikolayiv stands, Odesa will not be touched.” Other soldiers express their determination and desire to return to a normal life: “We are forced to defend our land […] we did not want a ‘special operation’, we did not expect it”, “What was I meant to do, sit home and wait? On the first day I went immediately to the enlistment office”, “We don’t want to fight against Russia”, “We want to be left alone.”

NEW LIFE AMIDST DEATH AND DESTRUCTION. Mikolayiv’s maternity hospital No. 3 has seen 22 births since the “special operation” began. The basement of the building was converted into a delivery room. Lena Silvestrova, who had just given birth to a baby girl, told Kostyucheko of her fears. “The ‘special operation’ had just begun, and I had an approximate delivery date. I was very worried about when it would start. I was constantly in fear, waiting for it to happen […] I was lucky, I had a caesarean section between air raid alerts.” Alexei, her husband, comforts her as she lies in a metal gurney. “I just want to remember what it’s like to walk down the street without fear of gunshots”, he says. Nadezhda Sherstova, who has worked in the maternity hospital for 30 years, told Kostuchenko: “We only want peace. Please write this.”

Read Kostyuchenko’s full report here.

Osvyannikova’s One Woman Protest, Explained

On March 14, Marina Ovsvyannikova — an editor for the state-sponsored Channel One — interrupted a live news broadcast with a sign protesting the “special operation” in Ukraine. Due to military censorship laws, we cannot quote the sign in full, save for the line “Don’t believe the propaganda. They’re lying to you here.” She then released a pre-recorded message via the OVD-Info human rights group in which she expressed her shame at having worked for a channel that promotes the Kremlin line. Police detained and questioned her for 14 hours, then fined her around $280. It is unclear whether she will face other charges. Alexander Minkin analyses the implications of Osvyannikova’s act of protest.

Marina Ovsyannikov holds a banner interrupting the most popular news show online in prime time on the Channel One. Screenshot and pixelized by Novaya

A LATTER-DAY JOAN OF ARC? “The Holy Inquisition has begun a test against Joan of Arc for forbidden contact with the devil”, is Minkin’s dramatic opening line. “We do not know what will happen to Marina Ovsyannikova, but we do know what happened to Joan of Arc. She was burned at the stake, but she saved France.” He acknowledges that she is not a classic dissident: she has not participated in protest rallies or pickets, and has profited from her work for a state mouthpiece. Nonetheless, “she knew what she was getting into — she was ruining her career and possibly that of her husband.”

ONE WOMAN BUT MILLIONS OF VIEWERS. Minkin compares Ovsvyannikova’s protest to that which took place on Red Square in 1968 in which eight Soviet citizens unfurled a poster reading “For your freedom and ours.” While only a few people saw this demonstration, millions witnessed the former state TV employee’s act of defiance. Minkin imagines the comfort it may have provided to Russians who do not agree with the “special operation” but who have been afraid to speak out. They “saw that they were not alone in their attitude towards this vile crime […] suddenly from the screen of Channel One they were told that they were right, that their thoughts and feelings were noble.”

UNJUST CRITICISM? Minkin responds to the significant criticism that Ovsvyannikova has received from observers in the West, many of whom have dismissed her protest as too little too late after years of serving an authoritarian regime. He refutes these critiques, stating that those who make them “do so from safe places […] where they do not face the threat of dismissal or arrest.” He also points out that those making these comments “raise it [the bar] to an unattainable height”. In other words: Ovsvyannikova may not be perfect, but what she did was brave and should be lauded. People can change, insists Minkin, citing the biblical example of Saul — a merciless persecutor of Christians who later became one of the faith’s greatest apostles.

A PLACE IN THE HISTORY BOOKS. Minkin concludes his resounding support for Osvyannikova with the claim that she has “entered history”. “When politics in this country returns to normal and the madness of the State is no more, Marina Osvyannikova will be in textbooks. For heroes are always included in textbooks. Who, at that time, was the Minister of Truth, the Minister of Peace and Peacekeeping Operations, the Minister of Foreign Affairs […] will be forgotten.” It remains to be seen whether Minkin’s glowing prophecy will come to pass.

Read Minkin’s full analysis here.

Bonus Round

On March 22, Alexei Navalny is due to be sentenced yet again. The prosecution is pushing for a 13-year sentence. We report on the opposition leader’s powerful closing remarks to Moscow’s Lefortovo Court.

Alexey Navalny speaking during the court in prison. Screenshot

“‘Defendant Navalny, you have the last word.’ If I were paid every time I heard this phrase, even taking into account the falling rate of the rouble, I would be a rich man for a long time.” Thus began the anti-corruption activist’s final remarks, characterised by his usual droll humour. We were only able to watch the speech via an unreliable video broadcast that repeatedly cut out at significant moments. Navalny used the opportunity to tout the work of his now-disbanded Anti-corruption Foundation, stating “it will become larger, it will become stronger. We will make more videos, we will do more investigations, we will expose even more of those people who interfere with the life of our country.” Authorities liquidated the organisation in the spring of 2021, and subsequently labelled it ‘extremist’’. The opposition leader also took aim at the “special operation” in Ukraine with a reference to Leo Tolstoy. At this point, the broadcast cut out and did not resume. A clarification later appeared on his Instagram account saying that he ended his speech with a quote from the famous author:

“War is the product of despotism. Those who want to fight war have only to fight despotism."

Instead of Backstories: How We Got Here

Instead of our usual backstories for each theme, we instead offer a recap of how we ended up with this brutal, unprovoked, “special operation”. On the night of February 24 — early morning on the 25 Moscow time — President Putin announced a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

It marked the culmination of 7 years of Kremlin attempts to attack and undermine Ukraine which, since the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, has been a thriving democracy with clear pro-Western and pro-European orientation. Putin’s broadcast occurred at the same time as an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council which — in a dark twist of irony — was being chaired by Russia. On February 24, Russia officially recognised the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “People's Republics”. The breakaway territories emerged after the 2014 revolution as part of the Kremlin attempt to preserve political and economic control over the country.

The “special operation” has led to Western nations imposing an unprecedented raft of sanctions on Russian individuals and economic sectors. The UK, EU and US have imposed sanctions on hundreds of members of the Russian regime, as well as oligarchs with close ties to the Kremlin. The US is banning all Russian oil and gas imports, with the UK planning to phase out Russia oil by the end of 2022. Germany has suspended permission for the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to open. Western countries have frozen the assets of Russia's central bank, to stop it using its $630bn of foreign currency reserves. These are just a few examples of the financially punitary measures imposed in response to Russia’s military activity in Ukraine.

Since their occupation of Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin has controlled more than 7% of Ukrainian territory. With the “special operation” that has seen attacks on all major Ukrainian cities, there is a real prospect that this percentage will grow.

The last seven years of Russian actions in Ukraine has left approximately 13,500 dead, 1.6 million internally displaced, and over 800,000 refugees. With no end to the current onslaught in sight, these numbers will soar.

THANKS FOR READING!

This newsletter drop is written and edited by several journalists at the Novaya Gazeta newsroom. Please, support our work by promoting our newsletter with #RussiaExplained hashtag on social media.

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.

The Novaya Gazeta Team

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