The Week In Russia: 2020 Or 1937: Show Trials, Torture, And The Emperor In The Elevator
By Steve Gutterman February 14, 2020
Opinion polls pointed to declining trust in Vladimir Putin at home and abroad, while a less formal survey -- a prank involving a portrait in an elevator -- provided a laugh-inducing lesson on shifting attitudes toward the Russian president. On the darker side, long prison terms for defendants who alleged they were tortured in a trumped-up terrorism case drew comparisons to Stalin's show trials.
Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.
No Laughing Matter
Like some other phrases, both publishable and much less so, "the emperor has no clothes" sounds more abrupt in Russian: Basically, "Uh -- the king is naked," making clear that anyone who doesn't realize it is deluded or dumb.
The term came to mind when a remarkable piece of footage found its way from a state TV studio in Kamchatka to the Internet. The leaked video showed a presenter breaking out into a long, pretty loud fit of laughter as she read a report about a hike in subsidies for certain groups of citizens.
Her laughter was apparently provoked by the amounts the report said could now be used by war veterans, radioactive cleanup workers, and others to pay for visits to health resorts (137 rubles, or $2.15) and for "international travel" to such sanatoriums (363 rubles).
While it was not shown to viewers on the evening news – as the presenter says at one point, "Good thing I'm not live" -- the clip was striking.
State TV usually moves in a kind of lopsided lockstep with the Kremlin, making strange sudden movements and overdoing the Kremlin line at times, often in an attempt to please. But it rarely slips up badly or pulls back the curtain, suggesting that what's behind may not be a wizard but an ordinary man with some machinery and a megaphone.
The fit of laughter and the social-payment increase that brought it on followed a January 15 state-of-the-nation speech in which President Vladimir Putin promised increased state subsidies and demanded that the government, which he replaced hours after the address, produce "tangible results in attaining worthy living standards that would be clearly perceived by the people."
It also came in a month during which opinion polls and far less formal surveys have shown that perceptions of Putin himself are changing -- abroad, in Russia, and in a tiny microcosm of the country: a Moscow apartment-building elevator.
Do The Right Thing
Poll results published by the Pew Research Center on February 7 showed that a mean of 60 percent of people in 33 countries covered by the survey said they have no confidence in Putin to do the right thing when it comes to world affairs.
That number was 79 percent in Poland, 78 percent in Ukraine, and 73 percent in the United States, while the only countries in which more than 50 percent voiced confidence in Putin were Bulgaria, Greece, and the Philippines.
In Germany, South Africa, and Indonesia, about 36 percent of respondents said they trusted Putin to do the right thing on the global stage.
That's one percentage point more than the proportion of Russians who listed Putin when asked to name five or six Russian politicians they trust the most, according to results published by the independent Levada Center on February 12.
The 35 percent figure was the lowest for Putin since 2013 and a sharp decrease from the 59 percent recorded in November 2017.
Lev Gudkov, director of the Levada Center, told RFE/RL that the 24-point drop "is really significant," adding: "It reflects an overall trend, showing a loss of trust."
Need A Lift?
While it may be harder to put one's finger on exactly why, to some the footage from a Moscow apartment-building elevator where a prankster put up a portrait of Putin probably seemed more significant -- and certainly funnier.
The reactions caught on camera ranged from amused laughter to obvious anger, and in some cases both. One woman said perhaps jokingly that the former Soviet KGB officer was watching through cameras hidden behind his eyes, another asked where she could lodge a complaint, a third said it was the worst thing to happen to the building since large-scale renovations. A few people cursed in Russian, and one in English, and a small boy stated correctly that it was not a picture of Tchaikovsky.
A far darker kind of insight into Russia under Putin came days after the elevator video went viral, when a court in the provincial city of Penza found seven men guilty of plotting terror attacks and sentenced them to prison terms ranging from six to eighteen years despite their claims of torture by members of the Federal Security Service and a judicial process that Kremlin critics likened to show trials under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
"1937 is back," opposition politician Aleksei Minyaylo said following the sentencing, a reference to the height of Stalin's Great Terror.
The defendants, aged 23 to 30, were known to the authorities as "the Network" -- but they contend that such an organization did not even exist, let alone plot terror attacks.
Terror And Torture
Human Rights Watch said that the case was far from an isolated one, but just one of three trials ending in verdicts since February 5 that were "marred by the prosecution and judges' refusal to rigorously investigate complaints of abuse, and by their reliance on dubious expert analysis and the use of anonymous 'secret witnesses.'"
All three were "deeply flawed terrorism cases in which the defendants alleged incommunicado detention, torture, and other ill-treatment to extract confessions," the New York-based group said.
Meanwhile, outside Russia, Stanislav Aseyev, a journalist and blogger who spent 962 days as a captive of the Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine before he was released and sent to Kyiv in a prisoner swap in November, described a small portion of the horrors he faced in an excerpt of manuscripts he wrote mainly while held in a makeshift prison in his native city of Donetsk.
The excerpt published by RFE/RL addressed the issue of suicide attempts, include one by a man he wrote had been "brought into our cell with severe electrical burns and a bleeding wound on his head" after being tortured together with his son.
"The head wound was the result of his suicide bid. He'd tried to smash his skull open against the metal corner of a bunk in the basement," Aseyev wrote.
Later that day, he wrote of the new cellmate, "the slightest rustling in the corridor was enough to make his hands tremble uncontrollably. He sat on the edge of a bunk by the door mindlessly repeating: 'Hold on, son. Just hold on, hold on.' He really believed he was back in the basement on the table beside his son."
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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