Ilya Shablinsky on important events of the past week: What the statement by Russian opposition groups in Berlin means, Prigozhin’s speech in Ukraine, and the charges against dramatists in Moscow [Spektr]
Photo by Sergei Chugunov

8 May 2023

By Ilya Shablinsky


Representatives of Russian political opposition groups met in Berlin on 30 April – 1 May. They adopted the Declaration of the Russian Democratic Forces. The meeting was held on the initiative of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other politicians in exile and would seem to have been more successful than all previous ones. In Berlin, it was possible to gather almost all the more or less prominent political and public figures of Russia now living abroad, and they were able to agree on a number of important political points, drawn up in a single text. The leaders of Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation were not present at the meeting.

There is nonetheless a problem here. Representatives of the Anti-Corruption Foundation are likely to have some form of approval from the leader of the opposition. And he recently conveyed through his lawyers his dissatisfaction with the fact that Mikhail Khodorkovsky had hired a person who had formerly been close to the current government of the republic of Bashkortostan.  This regional government (but not its specific former employee) has a direct link to the criminal prosecution of Liliya Chanysheva. Still, this can hardly be the grounds for a conflict between Khodorkovsky and Navalny.

It should be noted that the declaration was signed by some politicians and public figures who are close to the Anti-Corruption Foundation, such as Boris Zimin, Fedor Krasheninnikov, and Evgeny Chichvarkin. There were no conflicts or demonstrative alternative statements at the meeting. 

The declaration, which is a rather short document, contains, in particular, the following provisions. 1) The war against Ukraine is criminal. Russian troops must be withdrawn from all occupied territories; 2) Putin’s regime is illegitimate and criminal. Therefore, it must be eliminated; 3) The implementation of imperialistic policies inside and outside the country is unacceptable; 4) Political prisoners and prisoners of war must be released, forcibly displaced persons must be allowed to return, and abducted Ukrainian children must be immediately returned to Ukraine. The document notes that the signatories refrain from public conflicts in anti-war and democratic movements. In addition to those mentioned, the declaration was also signed by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Evgeniya Chirikova, Sergei Aleksashenko, Yulia Latynina, Mark Feigin, Sergei Guriev, Dmitry Gudkov, Evgeny Kiselev, Kirill Rogov, Maksim Reznik, Elena Lukyanova, Andrei Illarionov, Leonid Gozman, Garry Kasparov, Demyan Kudryavtsev, Yury Pivovarov and others.

What is the difference between this meeting of the Russian opposition and all previous ones? The fact that the well-known individuals who gathered in Berlin, perhaps for the first time, demonstrated a willingness to political consolidation. There were no personal attacks, the participants did not engage in any mutual recriminations. The discussion of the draft declaration, prepared in advance (presumably by Khodorkovsky’s team), did not cause much controversy. In fact, the participants in the meeting seemed to be concerned about the general outcome, not about self-expression. Moreover, it was clear that the tightening of the political regime in Russia, the daily prosecutions, the torture in prison of Aleksei Navalny and other political prisoners, the extraordinary prison sentences handed down by the courts, could not but affect the general mood of the opposition leaders. No one is feeling merry right now.

One way or another, the opposition movement in Russia, the formation of which is now only possible in exile, has clearly shown its ability to develop. And this tendency is being closely watched throughout the world.

Almost the main news of the past week was the appearance of two unmanned drones in the night sky above Moscow, or, to be more precise, the Kremlin, on 3 May. They swooped down on the dome of the former Senate building inside the Kremlin and exploded (or were exploded) with considerable noise, scorching the dome and nearly knocking down the country’s main flag.

After a pause in the middle of the day on 3 May, the press service of the Presidential Administration reported that on the night of 2-3 May, the Russian military and security services knocked out two drones that had attacked the Kremlin. The press service interpreted the incident as ‘an act of terrorism against the president of the Russian Federation, an attempt on the head of state on the eve of Victory Day.’ The press service also stated that the Kremlin reserves the right to retaliate ‘where and when it deems appropriate.’

The main dispute among analysts after this event revolved around one question: was the appearance of the drones staged by the Kremlin and based on some political agenda, or was it really an operation by the Ukrainian secret services, which wanted to spoil Moscow’s mood on the eve of May 9?

After weighing up some of the arguments, I am personally inclined towards the second version.

But initially the notion that the attack was staged looked quite convincing. After all, it was extremely difficult to imagine that Ukrainian drones could get not only, say, as far as Kolomna, but to the centre of Moscow. The goals of this attack did not seem very clear either: well, they did not really intend to make an attempt on Putin’s life by attacking the Kremlin in the middle of the night. (Let’s laugh softly at the ridiculous things Speaker Peskov has to say). The video, taken from the side of Red Square by a certain camera, looked staged – a spectacular explosion over the famous dome, almost bringing down the famous flag. And yet the main question remained without a clear answer. If this was the work of craftsmen from the corresponding department of one of Russia’s special services, what could have been its main purpose?

It has not been very easy to accept the most effective answer – it was all done for the sake of having a reason to take terrible revenge on Ukraine. So that it would finally be possible to deliver that crushing blow with the long-promised nuclear warhead. Weren’t there any such occasions before? Did it have to be invented? And most importantly, it has long been understood that the people who have seized control of the Russian state and its army do not need any special pretexts to commit the most horrible atrocities.

And then why else would the Kremlin need to send drones over its own head? To cancel the parade? But it hasn’t been cancelled. To cancel Putin’s personal presence at the parade? That’s a lot to think about, but still, his participation hasn’t yet been cancelled. It must be said that the absence of the dictator on the main square of the country at this precise hour means a lot more to the prestige of the regime (if I may use this term) than having two drones fly over the main dome of the Kremlin.

That is why I am inclined to believe that the Ukrainian special services succeeded in something that seemed unthinkable just a short time ago. Yes, it is hard for us to imagine that two drones, supposedly sent from Ukraine (say, the Kharkiv region), flew more than a thousand kilometres of airspace and all the different levels of anti-aircraft defence. Still, it seems possible. And one more thing: the devices could have been delivered to Russian territory and launched from somewhere near Moscow. And the purpose of this attack is quite clear: a flick on the Kremlin’s nose. On the eve of the celebrations. If we take a close look at that video, we can assume that the targets were that dome and flag. Not really very important targets, militarily speaking, were they? And these drones weren’t expensive ones, either.

So, it turns out that on the eve of 9 May we were shown the effectiveness of the capital’s air defence system – in reality. This made the dictator’s press secretary talk nonsense and the other Kremlin cadres grind their teeth. That’s not such a bad outcome.

And here is Mr. Prigozhin, owner of a well-known Private Military Company, recording a video message to the defence minister and the chief of staff. Another event of the week.  Prigozhin, without choosing his words (or on the contrary, choosing the most indecent), expresses outrage at the fact that the Defence Ministry is failing to supply his armed group with the requisite amount of ammunition. Because of this his PMC regularly suffers heavy losses. For greater effect, Prigozhin addressed the heads of the Ministry of Defence against a background of dozens (or hundreds) of bloodied corpses of his soldiers. What should be noted here? It was a long time ago that Prigozhin last made public his complaints about the leadership of the Defence Ministry and the General Staff – probably Putin had told him to stop it.  But here, he must have just boiled over. At the same time, he told everyone about the history of interaction between the PMCs and the army’s leaders: apparently, in March 2022 he was asked to ‘help’ the regular troops, after it became clear that the operation was not going according to plan (we were told that everything was indeed going according to plan – remember?). And the PMCs hastily arrived from Africa and immediately joined the fight. And, according to him, they were able to take one city and then hold the front, while in the autumn the Russian army units were fleeing from the Kharkiv area. And now they are being deprived of ammunition. What ingratitude.

This confession speaks volumes. Still, we think the bottom line is that Prigozhin’s ammunition shortage is not so much a lack of confidence in him by the Ministry of Defence chiefs, but a consequence of a general lack of ammunition for the entire army, stretched along a huge front of more than a thousand kilometres. Prigozhin is yelling at Shoigu and company, but they seem unable to do anything. And, of course, the fact that they he is swearing at them does not make them feel any more friendly towards this former chef and his people. Such is the moral component of relations at the top of the Russian armed forces. I do not know what motivates the rank and file.

In addition to his warm wishes, Mr. Prigozhin posted another video in which he says he will leave Bakhmut on 10 May if his demands are not met.

But he won’t leave without his men. He is not going anywhere. It should be stressed again: his PMC is not a ‘private company,’ but a group consisting of mercenaries and funded by the government. How regularly they are paid in recent months is an open question. Judging by the data provided by Prigozhin himself, a significant portion of his fighters, especially the former prisoners, end up in various graveyards, never having earned anything.

As an addendum to these exertions of the head of PMC, we should consider a short video recorded a few days ago by one of Mr. Prigozhin’s main supporters, Mr. Rogozin. He, it seems, also fears an attack by the Ukrainian army and speaks – apparently for the first time – about the ‘overwhelming superiority’ of the Ukrainian army. It is an advantage that can only be neutralized by tactical nuclear weapons, which Rogozin calls ‘the great equalizer.’ He was once a very cheerful supporter of the invasion. While he does not seem to be any great expert on the operational situation on the fronts, but he can still understand the general situation. And, of course, it would be scary if some of the crazed supporters of this war – including its initiator – were to think like that. It’s scary if, realising their military weakness, they are willing to play with sparklers in an ammunition dump.

Theatre director Evgeniya Berkovich. Photo: Radio Svoboda

The internal life of the Russian Federation looks more and more like a confrontation along the same front line. The security services, or rather a handful of the same spiteful supporters of the war, continue to eradicate any kind of creativity they don’t like. On 4 May the author and director of the play ‘Finist – the Clear Falcon,’ respectively Svetlana Petriichuk and Zhenya Berkovich, were detained in Moscow and then remanded in custody for two months. They were accused not of financial abuse in connection with the production of the play (as used to happen), but of ‘justifying terrorism’ (!), which is contained in the very conception of the play and a number of its dialogues. We have not had anything like this in our country for perhaps 60 years – not since Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel were convicted in 1966 for publishing a series of journalistic works abroad.

The extraordinary thing is that pre-trial custody has been applied not to murderers and robbers, but to the authors of a play that has been running for a couple of years.

Another extraordinary thing is that the subject of the criminal investigation is a play about one of the most important topics in contemporary Russian life: the influence of radical Islamic ideology on Russian girls. This is a serious and topical issue – first and foremost in moral terms. Moreover, we cannot say that the adoption of Islam by young girls from central Russia is widespread. In general, we’re talking here about individual dramas. But as it turns out, this topic can act in an extraordinary way on some people who (from my point of view) are not well-balanced in their minds.

Above we were talking about supporters of the war, but here it is necessary to specifically mention those who have a similar mind-set, the supporters of the totalitarian ideological state, lashing out at all those in whom they guess or smell an ideological opponent. Indeed, this is the point we have reached. The whole charge against them is based on the expert opinion of a group of enthusiasts who call themselves representatives of a new science – ‘destructology.’ The main conclusions of the ‘destructologists’ are the following. ‘The author of the play introduces literary techniques of romanticizing, justifying, glorifying terrorists, as well as the steadfastness and loyalty of their girlfriends in the struggle against the humiliation of Russian Muslims, on the one hand, and on the other showing Russian women in general, who are being humiliated and deceived by uneducated Russian men…”

Of course, the expert is also very concerned about the presence of the influence of feminism in the play: ‘The ideology of radical feminism, based on the idea of the immanent humiliation of women, is far from being harmless. The science of destructology has documented cases in which the assimilation of this ideology has led to the conscious preparation and execution of a terrorist act… The upsurge of crime based on the ideas of radical feminism occurs simultaneously with the waning of crime based on Islamism…”

One thing that is obvious in this passage, which is rather sloppy stylistically, is the biased stance of the ‘destructologist’ who is writing and some of their obsessive ideas. Have you heard anything about crime based on the ideas of radical feminism?

But this nonsense forms the basis of the charges.

So what if this strange expert thinks the terrorists in the play were ‘glorified’ and Russian Muslims looked humiliated! There is a completely different point of view in accordance with which this particular play truthfully relates the tragedy of some young Russian women seduced by the virtual affability of anonymous men who are supporters of radical movements.

In this case, the tragedy lies precisely in the fact that the view of one group of biased supporters of one ideological trend becomes the basis of an indictment. It serves as the position of the Investigative Committee. This was possible in the late 1930s, when Meyerhold was arrested and then beaten to death in prison. It was possible in the mid-60s when dissident writers were sent to prison. But that should actually be happening now!

We could also recall Dostoevsky with his The Possessed and Raskolnikov with his axe, who, however, was not accused of ‘romanticizing’ terror. Or Leo Tolstoy with his Confessions and Resurrection. Yes, he was accused of undermining the position of the official church, but he was never prosecuted.

But it is better to think of a much more recent author, Evgeny Nikolaevich Prilepin, known to us as the Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin. His novel Sankya is purely the romanticization of revolutionary violence and terror. Read it again if you want. The novel is not bad. In it you can see the tragedy of one man, the main character. But you can also see the ideology of National Bolshevism, which today has become, in fact, the official ideology of the state. No one wants to initiate a criminal case? (The novel was recently included in the school curriculum).

However, this is clearly no longer the most important news. The car in which Prilepin was traveling was blown up on 6 May near Nizhny Novgorod. The explosive device was activated remotely, immediately after the writer’s daughter got out of the car. He survived but was reportedly seriously injured. His driver was killed.

Now the meaning of this chain of attempts on the lives of ideologist Aleksandr Dugin (which resulted in the death of his daughter Daria), of the military correspondent Vladlen Tatarsky, and now on the advocate of radical militarism, Zakhar Prilepin, is more or less becoming clear. The aim is the elimination of those who in Ukraine are considered ideologues of this war, of the ideas of the destruction of Ukraine as a state and the mass murder of its inhabitants. The ideologists were considered responsible for what happened and is happening today in Ukrainian towns and villages, devastated by the war.

Zakhar Prilepin very recently said that if the Ukrainians did not surrender, Kiev would face the fate of Mariupol. He went to serve as a fighter (or unit commander, I don’t know exactly) in the Donbass, and more than once made it clear he had participated in combat operations. He probably fought quite successfully – after all, he is a professional, having served for a long time in a special forces unit. He probably killed. He has alluded to that in some of his interviews. What was more important to him in these months – killing or writing? I don’t know, but quite possibly, as for Dugin, the former.

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