THE BELL WEEKLY: Tough talk from Russia’s top investigator

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Hello! This week we cover a raft of hardline proposals from the head of the Investigative Committee, look at how Russia reacted to the US presidential debate and the buzz around Kanye West’s rumored visit to Moscow.

A string of hardline proposals from Russia’s chief investigator

Russia is never short of outrageous proposals from officials looking to grab the headlines. But last week was impressive even by those standards, with Russia’s Chief Investigator Alexander Bastrykin rafting off a string of ultra-hardline initiatives he wants the country to adopt. In the space of just three days he hurled abuse at parliamentarians, called for the return of the death penalty, urged for a ban on niqabs on the pretense of combating terrorism, and complained that migrants should not be hired lest they take over Russia with their ideology and religious sites.

  • Alexander Bastrykin, who studied law alongside Vladimir Putin in Leningrad in the 1970s heads Russia’s Investigative Committee, the agency responsible for not only investigating Russia’s most notorious crimes but also bringing cases against the opposition and regime critics. Despite his status as Russia’s chief investigator, Bastrykin himself has been frequently embroiled in scandal. For example, in 2012 his security guards dragged journalist Sergei Sokolov into the woods where Bastrykin personally issued a “grave threat” to his life. Bastrykin allegedly drove one investigator to hospitalization with his criticism and another was reportedly pushed to suicide.
  • Bastrykin was one of the main guests at last week’s three-day Saint Petersburg International Legal Forum (though judging by the program, it wasn’t very international), where he succeeded in whipping up a new scandal almost every time he opened his mouth.
  • On the first day, Bastrykin spoke at length about alleged crimes being carried out in Russia by migrants. He blasted Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, for failing to pass laws to halt what he said was an influx of foreigners to the country. “I’d really like to know when our State Fools will introduce good laws,” Bastrykin said, with a pun on the similarity between the words for parliament (“Duma”) and fool (“Dura”) in Russian. In response, Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said that since deputies were elected by the Russian people, Bastrykin had “insulted the public.” 
  • On the same day the top investigator, notorious for xenophobic remarks, described holders of newly-issued Russian passports from Central Asia as “so-called Russians” and said as many as possible should be sent to the war in Ukraine. Addressing Russian businesses, he urged them to pay higher salaries in order to attract indigenous Russians and not to hire migrants. “They create buildings of their culture, places of worship,” he said. “They physically occupy our territory, not just with their ideology but with specific buildings.”
  • On day two, Bastrykin called for an end to Russia’s moratorium on the death penalty, in place since the mid 1990s. He claimed that in Soviet times criminals were executed for killing two or three people, while those suspected of carrying out the Crocus City Hall terrorist attack — in which more than 140 were killed — will get life imprisonment. He lambasted that prisoners can expect “three meals a day, two-hour walks and medical examinations, including a dentist” — something which requires a “colossal budget.” In order to reinstate the death penalty, some experts say a constitutional amendment may be required, or at the very least a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court. But Bastrykin insisted that the moratorium could be canceled by a simple presidential decree. Valery Zorkin, the chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court, dismissed this, saying the moratorium was “unshakeable.”
  • Undeterred, on day three Bastrykin again came out firing, harking back to recent terrorist attacks to urge for an “immediate” ban on wearing the niqab. He said the clothes could be used to conceal “some kind of terrorist sleeper cell.” On this front he was criticized by Ramzan Kadyrov, head of the predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya, who told Bastrykin “not to confuse religion with the extravagant ideas of rabid fanatics and Shaitans.”
  • For an encore, Bastrykin also shared his thoughts on gender issues and how he sees a women’s role in the world. “A man is always right,” he said and spoke of his support for “Domostroy,” a 16th-century code that, among other things, offers advice on how men can “correctly” beat their wife.

Why the world should care

It’s hard to see Bastrykin as an official who is particularly close to Putin. However, several of his previous proposals which seemed appalling at the time have ended up becoming part of Russian legislation. For example, in 2015 Bastrykin suggested abandoning the rule of law in the Russian constitution. Such amendments were adopted in the 2020 changes that enabled Putin to extend his term as president. And in 2018, before the widespread blocking of Western social media outlets following the invasion of Ukraine, he suggested banning Instagram inside Russia.

Moscow goes crazy for Kanye West

It’s less than six months since American journalist Tucker Carlson came to Moscow on a trip that was possibly the highlight of the year for West-bashing Russian propagandists. Now another American celebrity, rapper Ye (Kanye West) is reportedly in town. And once again, Moscow has seized on the visit as proof that it cannot be isolated on the world stage.

  • Kanye West flew to Moscow for the birthday of famous Russian designer Gosha Rubchinskiy, the chief designer of West’s Yeezy brand whose acclaimed work is inspired by late Soviet aesthetics. In several videos released on various Telegram channels, the musician is seen being accompanied around Moscow by his entourage, though his face is barely visible. 
  • West was believed to be staying at the Four Seasons hotel in central Moscow, just off Red Square. On June 30, a large crowd gatheredoutside the hotel, but the musician did not appear. 
  • Propaganda outlets claimed that West’s visit to a supposedly “canceled” country would usher in a new trend. “In other words, Kanye cancels cancel culture,” said a post on Moskvichka, founded by notorious Russian propagandist Kristina Potupchik.  “Ideologically, Kanye West is one of us,” commented philosopher Alexander Dugin.

Why the world should care 

The rapper’s visit is unlikely to be seen as rolling back the “cancellation” of Russia. Over the years West has been involved in major scandals that have seriously harmed his reputation at home. For example, the musician publicly admitted sympathy for Adolf Hitler, while his former business partner accused him of anti-Semitism. “Thanks to Gosha Rubchinskiy we were part of the universe for an entire day,” Russian movie critic Zinaida Pronchenko commented ironically on Russia’s crazed reaction to his reported visit.

Russia’s propagandists on the Biden-Trump debate

A presidential debate between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was always going to be too tasty an affair to pass up for Russia’s hoard of propagandists. While the coverage on state TV was surprisingly calm, focused mainly on Biden’s health, columns published on pro-Kremlin sites were far more charged.

  • The main line on state TV boiled down to: Biden is physically weak and finds it tough to compete with the healthier Trump. “The important thing is not what was said, but how. And here, you wouldn’t envy Biden,” said a presenter on Channel 1. “In general, a clearly destructive process is underway in America. And the presidential debate was a clear example of that,” added one of Russia’s leading propagandists, Dmitry Kiselyov. That was pretty much it in terms of editorializing on the Russian airwaves — with many state TV programs instead simply picking up on reports in the US liberal media, which offered enough of a damning verdict of Biden’s performance. 
  • It was different when it came to the reaction online. Influential Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin (often inaccurately dubbed “Putin’s brain” in Western media) used his RIA Novosti column to compare the debate to an episode of Beavis and Butthead. “As a result of the debate, the great superpower of idiots acknowledged Trump’s victory. He carried himself better, his hairstyle was more convincing and more aggressive than that of sleepy Butthead, whose batteries ran out towards the end when he began groaning monotonously,” Dugin wrote. If these candidates and the US electorate “determine the fate of humanity … we have to admit that we’re finished,” he wrote. 
  • The author of another RIA column suggested that Biden was being propped up by “certain forces” that had “grabbed onto power and are prepared to cling onto it to the bitter end.” A columnist for Rossisskaya Gazeta, the government’s official newspaper, wrote simply: “How wretched it all looked.”

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