THE BELL WEEKLY: Back to the Future – Anatoly Chubais’s new think tank

The Bell

Hello. This week we look at Anatoly Chubais opening a Russia studies institute in exile, and the bitter debate over his legacy at home. We also cover the ongoing fallout from last year’s scandalous “Almost Naked” party and a new war exhibition in Moscow.

1990s reform architect Chubais sets up research project on the future of Russia

Anatoly Chubais, one of the key architects of the 1990s economic reforms, has opened a center for Russian Studies at Tel Aviv University. Chubais, who held senior positions in the Russian government and state-run companies until 2022, “organized a group of sponsors” for a new project that will explore possible scenarios of Russia’s future development. Chubais played an important role in Vladimir Putin’s ascension to power during the 1990s and remains an extremely divisive figure in Russian society. In recent months, he has become a major target for the young Russian opposition, seeking to revise the legacy and lessons of the post-Soviet years.

  • The new center will analyze recent events in Russian history, covering economic, political, social and cultural themes. The main aim is to research the recent past in order to predict Russia’s future trajectory. In his only comment on the opening of the center, Chubais said that “for the second time” since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia was “reversing its direction of development”, and that it was important to extract lessons from the country’s recent history that will be relevant for its future. He did not specify the first instance he was referring to, but he was likely thinking of the 2014 annexation of Crimea. 
  • When The Bell contacted Chubais for a comment, he directed us to Dmitry Butrin, deputy editor-in-chief at the Kommersant business daily who has joined the center as a researcher. "If we are talking about the history of Russia from 1991 to 2024, we will not go anywhere from the present. A historical approach will be applied precisely because we, like everyone else, are most interested in answering the question of how we arrived at this point. The basic problem of 99% of current researchers and publicists is that they stick to this notion and say that everything else is unimportant," he said. Butrin said his focus will be looking at what has happened over the past 10 years in Russia's new institutionalized economy and that he plans to write fewer than 10 articles over the next two years. The announcement press release stresses that the center will be an apolitical project. "We are not going to produce tombstone inscriptions … and will minimize the political recommendation component as much as possible," Butrin told The Bell.
  • Chubais is still a highly controversial figure. He was one of the leading reformers after the fall of the Soviet Union, spearheading Russia's dismantling of its command economy in favor of a market-based one. He held various government posts in the 1990s. His supporters call him “the author of a new Russia, the architect of private property.” From 1998-2008, he was in charge of the UES Russia energy company before moving to another state corporation, Rusnano. Under his leadership, it lost tens of millions of dollars and its debts approached $1 billion (Chubais left in 2020 and today the outfit is on the brink of bankruptcy, seeking financial aid from the state). After Rusnano, Chubais worked as the presidential special representative for relations with international organizations, a role that ended with the invasion of Ukraine.
  • As part of the group of liberal reformers whose careers continued under Putin, Chubais is known as a “systemic liberal.” Russia's general attitude to him is negative, summed up by the popular “everything is Chubais’s fault” meme, which first became popular in the late 90s as emerging problems in the economy led to the ruling party suffering parliamentary losses to the Communists. More than 20 years later, Chubais said in an interview that he did not want to be the person blamed for everything, but that he had come to terms with it and recognized his role as the era’s “whipping boy”. “If you kicked [someone] with a bad reputation, your reputation improved,” he said. 
  • Chubais has not commented publicly on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — neither supporting or criticizing the war. Instead, he quietly stepped down as a presidential envoy and left Russia. At the time, he was the highest-ranking official to leave. Initially, the Kremlin made no detailed comment on his departure, calling it a personal decision. Then, in the fall of 2023, Putin said that Chubais might have “escaped” Russia amid huge financial problems at Rusnano. “Why the hell does he need this? I honestly don’t understand,” said the president.

Why the world should care

The 1990s are a hot topic again in Russia after Alexei Navalny’s team released three parts of a documentary film, titled “Traitors”, into the era, the rise of Putin and those who made it happen. The underlying message is that Chubais and his fellow liberal reformers were responsible for Putin’s rise to power. Almost 25 years after he first tried to shape the future of Russia, Chubais is returning to the topic — this time far away from Moscow and the levers of power.

‘Almost Naked’ party host backs Putin

Anastasia Ivleyeva, the host of the notorious “Almost Naked” party that provoked fury among supporters of the war and cost its guests lucrative advertising contracts, has come out in support of Vladimir Putin. In her first interview since the much-discussed event, she revealed she had visited soldiers on the front lines in Ukraine and had donated to Russia’s war effort.

  • In 2021, Forbes calculated Ivleyeva’s fortune at $2.7 million, making her the richest Russian blogger. She emerged from humble roots, working as a manicurist, hostess and then running a car dealership. She became popular first thanks to short, humorous clips on Instagram. Her rising fame saw her move into TV and she now has 18 million followers on Instagram and 4.6 million on YouTube.
  • In late 2023, Ivleyeva hosted the “Almost Naked” party at a Moscow nightclub, with many Russian celebrities turning up in revealing outfits. When images of the evening hit the internet, they sparked a wave of criticism from supporters of the war and in pro-Kremlin media outlets over such an ostentatious show of debauchery at a time when Russian soldiers were fighting in trenches. Guests started to lose advertising contracts, were cut from high-profile New Year TV shows and saw the release of their films postponed indefinitely. The nightclub was forced to rebrand and one of the guests was detained for 15 days for “LGBT propaganda" after he appeared naked, with the exception of a sock covering his modesty. Several others made public apologies and even traveled to war-torn occupied territories in Ukraine. In today’s Russia, this is the most effective way of “atoning” for sins and regaining the favor of the pro-war community. Widespread persecution of those at the party began in earnest after the footage reached Putin, who publicly criticized the party-goers.
  • Ivleyeva had previously apologized for the party. She was fined around $1,000 for public disorder over the party and another $545 for “discrediting” the Russian army in an anti-war post on her Instagram from the start of the invasion. Amid the fallout from the “Almost Naked” party, she has disavowed herself of those previous views.
  • Last week, she gave her first interview since the scandal, speaking to Andrei Tretyakov, a far less prominent blogger and restaurateur. She spoke for more than an hour about the bullying she faced and said the party was an “event that happened in the wrong place at the wrong time,” adding that the backlash was justified. She revealed that she had spent her birthday in Donbas and had helped Russian soldiers by buying them a drone and a minibus. She promised to create an “honest media outlet” where she would analyze the situation “from both sides.” Asked what she would say if she came face-to-face with Putin, she said she would ask how she could help him. When asked the same question in a 2018 interview, she had said: “Aren’t you fucked?”

Why the world should care

Ivleyeva’s story is a clear example of the compromises Russian celebrities have to make with the authorities if they want to preserve their status and income. To stay in the public eye, they have to abandon any hint of criticism of the Kremlin and stand up for “traditional” values.

Russia displays captured NATO military equipment

An exhibition of captured military “trophies” has opened in Moscow, showing off Western military equipment and vehicles that Russian forces had destroyed and seized on the battlefield in Ukraine. Russian propaganda exploited the show to demonstrate the Russian army’s success on the front and tell the public that there is no “invincible” weapon in Ukraine’s arsenal.

  • The exhibition opened during the May holidays — extended public holidays to mark Labor Day (May 1) and Victory Day (May 9) celebrations — to ensure a high turnout. Almost 100,000 people visited on the opening day, the defense minister said. It’s hard to confirm, but videos and photosfrom the exhibition show a significant flow of visitors. The exhibition is being staged at Park Pobedy (Victory Park), dedicated to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War, which Russia calls the Great Patriotic War.
  • There are over 30 types of military equipment on display from 12 countries, including the United States, Britain, Germany and France. Some of the equipment is damaged: for example, there are visible bullet marks on the windshield of a British armored vehicle, while the windows of an Australian Bushmaster transporter had been smashed. The equipment is guarded by men in masks, camouflage or full military uniform. 
  • Russian propagandists paid particular attention to American Abrams M1A1 tanks and a German Leopard 2A6 among the “trophies” on display. Before the exhibition opened, the barrel on the Leopard was bent so that it “looked like a defeated man,” wrote pro-Kremlin newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. State media said the West had claimed those weapons to be invincible (1,2). “The Abrams was destroyed, and so was its reputation,” reported a correspondent from Channel One.

Why the world should care

The Russian propaganda narrative has long depicted the war with Ukraine as just one front in a wider hybrid conflict with the “collective West.” This exhibition of Western “trophies”, unveiled on the eve of the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, is its latest iteration.


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