THE BELL WEEKLY: The shadow of the 90s haunts the Russian opposition

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Hello. This week we cover the opposition backlash to a major documentary on the 1990s published by Team Navalny. We also look at the latest piece of pro-war propaganda in Russian schools and how Moscow is responding to new US aid for Ukraine.

Team Navalny film about 1990s oligarchs divides Russia’s opposition

The 1990s were a turbulent period following the collapse of the Soviet Union — and 30 years later it remains the most controversial era in modern Russian history. The rapid democratization of society and the switch from a planned to a market economy was accompanied by poverty, rampant crime and the wholesale redistribution of state property into the hands of a few oligarchs close to power. In Russian society, the lingering sense of the “wild 90s” as a national trauma has been exploited by Putin-era propaganda, threatening a return to those chaotic times unless Russians staunchly support the “stability” of the current regime. At the same time, there is another widespread point of view of the era: one of an age of liberty, when people could speak and think freely after having thrown off the shackles of Soviet-era censorship.

What happened during this pivotal decade — the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union — is directly linked to the state of modern Russia today. Many prominent businessmen and active government officials cemented their positions at that time. Shortly before his death, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny accused the liberal elite of the era of paving the way for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. Last week, his team released a documentary further developing that idea. The main narrator and ideologist was Maria Pevchikh, one of the leading figures in Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Her narrative, while containing no new revelations, annoyed many members of the opposition.

  • Team Navalny released the first episode of a new documentary series, titled “Traitors” last week (another two episodes should soon be released), in which they explain how oligarch Boris Berezovsky won control of the main Russian TV channel — at the time known as ORT, now Channel One. Berezovsky could not have taken control of such a key asset without money provided by fellow oligarch Roman Abramovich, best known as the owner of Chelsea Football Club. Abramovich, in turn, was vying to bring together two state-owned oil extraction and refinement enterprises. In exchange for the funding, Berezovsky persuaded Boris Yeltsin to approve Abramovich’s deal by threatening to use the power of ORT to sink his 1996 presidential election campaign if he did not agree. Yeltsin won the election, and within less than four years had named Putin as his successor.
  • It is believed that Valentin Yumashev played an important role in Putin’s rise to power. He started out as a journalist and then got to know Yeltsin in the late 1980s. Yumashev was Yeltsin’s literary aide and worked in the presidential administration, heading it for a time. In 2001, after Yeltsin had left office, Yumashev married Yeltsin's daughter (now Tatyana Yumasheva). The pair were Yeltsin’s closest advisors before he resigned, a unit collectively known as “the Family”. Yumashev repeatedly told Yeltsin that Putin, his former subordinate and at the time head of the FSB, was the most suitable successor. Although as journalist Ilya Zhegulev wrote in his book, there wasn’t much competition at the time. “Here we have Putin — out of desperation,” a source in the presidential administration told Zhegulev. After Putin became president, Yumashev worked for him as an adviser on a voluntary basis. 
  • The Pevchikh film provides no new detail or revelations about this period. It is based largely on the memoirs of Alexander Korzhakov, Yeltsin's security chief, as well as transcripts of court hearings in the Berezovsky vs. Abramovich case. The oligarchs famously clashed in a London court in the early 1990s, with the court filings revealing the ins and outs of doing business in Russia at that time. Berezovsky had demanded $5.6 billion in compensation from Abramovich, who he claimed had forced him to sell his stake in two Russian companies at a cut-down price. The court threw out Berezovsky’s claims and ordered him to pay Abramovich’s costs. Less than a year after the verdict, Berezovsky committed suicide.
  • As soon as it was released, the film faced almost unanimous criticism from Russia’s scattered opposition. It was accused of “smoothing over” a complex story, turning a blind eye to the historical context, sympathizing with the leftist agenda (in 1996, Yeltsin’s most dangerous opponent was Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov), rewriting history, producing propaganda and marginalizing the Russian opposition. Disgraced Russian oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who made his fortune in the period, said that the film left him “ideologically bewildered.” According to him, Pevchikh could have focused on more important issues of the era, such as the war against Chechen separatists or the internal political conflict of 1993 that led to tanks firing on the parliament building in Moscow.
  • Few would disagree that it is necessary to dredge through difficult events of the past. Reviewing controversial historical periods is a generally accepted way of working through collective trauma, one that helps foster a consensus of what happened, and reduces the risk of a repeat. However, both the film and the reaction to it suggests that even in a part of society that is genuinely interested in having this conversation, common ground is still far away.

Why the world should care

On the day the film was released, Time magazine ran an interview with Yulia Navalnaya, who it named one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Following the death of her husband, Navalnaya is trying to take his place as the overall leader of the Russian opposition. The interview was headlined: “Putin is my enemy. The Revolution of Yulia Navalnaya.” One of her key beliefs is that Russian antiwar and opposition movements exist — and that they can be brought together. “As for uniting the opposition, the last demonstrations showed that it’s not hard to unite around a good, collective action. That is the main source of unity,” she said. The reaction of opposition bloggers to Pevchikh (who Navalnaya sees as the curator of effective international sanctions) once again casts doubt on that belief.

Russia tries to downplay importance of US aid for Ukraine

On state TV over the weekend, Russian propagandists tried to minimize the importance of the US House of Representatives approving $61 billion of military aid to Ukraine after months of delay. The key message on Russian airwaves was that most of this money would remain in the States, and would simply bring more pain for Ukrainian forces fighting on the frontlines.

  • Russian news broadcasts devoted a lot of time to the US Congress finally advancing a package of support for Ukraine. On the most watched TV channels (Channel 1, Rossiya 1 and NTV), the coverage focused on opposition to the bill inside the US and bigging up the claim that the package is primarily an investment in Washington’s own defense sector. “Most of the money will remain in the USA,” reported Channel 1.
  • “This is an order for Ukrainians to keep dying on behalf of American suppliers,” said notorious propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov. “This isn’t about Russia, this is about our goals,” said Irada Zeynalova on NTV. In addition, that channel inserted a spot of fake news into its coverage of the bill, falsely accusing Joe Biden of muddling up the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia during a meeting with Czech PM Petr Fiala. This was presented as “evidence” of Biden’s serious mental health issues.    
  • Several Russian officials also rushed to comment on the passing of the bill. Former president turned hawk-in-chief Dmitry Medvedev called it a “vote of gleeful American bastards.” Maria Zakharova, foreign ministry press secretary, said the vote showed the US was “driving Ukrainians to the slaughter.”

Why the world should care

A large portion of the aid (more than $23 billion) will go towards replenishing American arsenals, with $13.8 billion on new weapons and $10 billion intended as a loan that Ukraine (theoretically) will someday repay. One way or another, the aid package is significant — almost equivalent to the amount that the US has given to Ukraine since the start of the war more than two years ago. The Russian authorities understand its importance, and after months of depicting the West as split on support to Ukraine, they are now spinning a narrative that it won’t make a difference and most of the money will stay in America.

Russian schoolchildren forced to commemorate ‘genocide of the Soviet people’

In the latest installation of forced propaganda in Russian schools, students across the country were forced to kneel en masse in front of a five-pointed star — an army symbol — to mark the “genocide of the Soviet people.” It follows an intensification of war-time messaging in the Russian curriculum following the invasion of Ukraine, that also includes meeting with war veterans and “patriotic flashmobs.”

  • Nobody outside of Russia has ever heard of or spoken about a “genocide of the Soviet people.” The term was conjured up in the bowels of Putin’s presidential administration, said historian Konstantin Pakhalyuk. The president first uttered the phrase in July 2020. And the following April, Russia began to mark the catchily-named “day of united action in memory of the genocide of the Soviet people at the hands of the Nazis and their accomplices during the Great Patriotic War.” 
  • As part of this year’s event, pupils at almost 2,000 schools and colleges across the country were lined up in the shape of five-pointed stars. In several cases, the children were told to kneel, the independent Agentstvo outlet wrote, publishing photos of the events. Citing manuals given to schools, the outlet reported that the five-pointed star — a symbol of the Russian army — was intended to be presented to schoolchildren as a “symbol of safety and security.”
  • Teaching in Russian schools has become increasingly politicized in recent years. Hundreds now offer “lessons in courage” led by servicemen, including Wagner Group mercenaries and men called up by the regular army. Since Sep. 2022 schools have also run compulsory sessions titled “Conversations about Important Things,” where pupils essentially recite propaganda lectures on geopolitics and other “patriotic” subjects that Moscow deems it “important” that schoolchildren are indoctrinated with. Topics range from criticism of the West to historic Russian achievements such as Yury Gagarin’s first flight into space.

Why the world should care

In authentic Soviet fashion, the Russian authorities are currently devoting a lot of time to political agitation in schools — targeting students from elementary years right through to high school. This is the new reality of the Russian education system, and it is set to continue in this fashion for years to come. “We have to understand that this war [for the minds of the younger generation] will be our longest,” said Sergei Kiriyenko, first deputy head of the presidential administration, in 2023.


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