Russia This Week is a weekly review by the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project, surveying developing stories in Russian domestic affairs as presented in the Russian media.
Cartoon Of The Week
Vk.com/13studiya, January 24, 2017.
Caption: January 28 - World Day for the unemployed. This is a dig by a pro-Kremlin cartoonist insinuating that Navalny has announced his run for the presidency because he is seeking employment.
Russian activist and anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny, who recently announced that he will run for president in 2018 and the harassment has already begun. The Russian media outlet The Moscow Times wrote: "Russia's Central Bank has denied asking electronic payment service Yandex Money to block a fundraising account belonging to opposition activist Alexey Navalny. Navalny claims that a Yandex Money account used to fund his presidential election campaign had been closed due to government pressure. Writing on his blog on January 23, he alleged that Central Bank employees had called Yandex staff and demanded that his account be formally blocked. The bank denied the accusations in a message posted on their public Facebook page, claiming that it had no legal right to close specific Yandex Money accounts..."(Themoscowtimes.com, January 27, 2017)
In The News:
Russia's State Duma Decriminalizes Domestic Violence
On January 27, 201y, the State Duma passed in the third and final reading a legislation making domestic violence an administrative rather than criminal offence, "only if it's a first-time transgression." The Russian news agency TASS explained: "The legislation, dubbed by some Russian media outlets a 'slapping law,' concerns both parents who beat their children and husbands who assault their wives. The document amends Article 116 of the Russian Criminal Code by excluding physical assaults on relatives from criminal offences while a person who commits the repeated assaults will be prosecuted according to criminal law... This concerns beatings that inflict physical pain but do not cause serious bodily injury. If there is any threat to the person's health, the attacker will face criminal charges. In cases of repeated assaults, a defendant will face a fine of up to 40,000 rubles ($676), compulsory community service for up to six months or an arrest for up to three months. The administrative offence for first-time physical assaults envisages a fine of up to 30,000 rubles ($507), an arrest up to 15 days or compulsory community service up to 120 hours."
(Tass.com, January 27, 2017)
Anniversary Of The October Revolution
The Communists want the 100th anniversary of the November 7 October Revolution declared a public holiday but the suggestion is opposed by the deputy chair of the Federation Council's Legislation Committee. He claims that it will produce social conflicts "some will exalt the meaning of the October Revolution while others will declare that the revolution took many lives."
(Ria.ru, January 6, 2017)
Duma Deputy Speaker Tolstoy Accuses Jews of 'Attempting to Destroy Churches'
Saint Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg (Image: Wikimedia/Commons)
At a January 23 press conference, Pyotr Tolstoy, Duma Deputy Speaker (United Russia) and great-grandson of renowned Russian author Leo Tolstoy, said that Jews are impeding a government decision to handover the St. Isaac's Cathedral in Saint Petersburg from museum officials to the Russian Orthodox Church. Tolstoy said: "The people who are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those, who had demolished our churches, having escaped from the Pale of Settlement armed with a handgun in 1917, are continuing the work of their grandparents and great-grandparents today, while working in various reputable places, such as radio stations and the legislative assembly." Tolstoy's statements created an uproar and he was accused of antisemitism by the Russian media.
Tolstoy later explained to the leader of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR) Alexander Boroda that he did not have in mind any nationality when he was talking about people vandalizing religious shrines. The Russian news agency Interfax reported the Tolstoy and Boroda shook hands as a token of reconciliation.
(Interfax-religion.com, January 26, 2017)
Tolstoy also said: "I am very surprised by the reaction to my assessment of the lawfulness of the transfer of St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church. Only people with a sick imagination, [who] do not know their country's history, can see 'signs of anti-Semitism' in my words. They were, on the contrary, a warning against repeating the events that occurred 100 years ago after which thousands of churches were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of people were deported and executed. Someone obviously likes to make labels in an attempt to [introduce] yet another division into the public debate ... I emphasize again: in my referring to actual historical events there is no indications of that which vigilant comrades wish to see."
(Meduza.io, January 24, 2017)
Commenting on antisemitism in Russia during a visit to the Jewish Museum and the Tolerance Center in Moscow, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: "Antisemitic sentiments and nationalist statements should be nipped in the bud at any level in any country, including ours." He then added: "Russia is a very complex country. We should value its tranquility, a respectful attitude between people of various cultures and various faiths; those are the most important conditions of existence and development of our multinational state."
(Interfax-religion.com, January 27, 2017)
Pyotr Tolstoy (Source: Meduza.io)
In an article published by The Moscow Times, Borukh Gorin, head of public relations for the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, wrote:
"The 'grandfathers' and 'great-grandfathers' Tolstoy talks about refer to the Bolsheviks who demolished the church and fought against religion. Several prominent Bolsheviks were Jewish. The Pale of Settlement was an area of western Imperial Russia where Ashkenazi Jews were permitted to settle.
"It does not take much imagination to understand the comments are anti-Semitic. Uttered as they were by a senior Russian official, they also caused a major uproar in the Jewish community. The Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia has formally expressed its indignation.
"Pyotr Tolstoy responded by explaining that he was not referring to the Jews at all. It was an altogether unconvincing explanation. But it did not stop Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin — the fourth most powerful man in Russia's political hierarchy — from rushing to his defense. 'This term refers to convicts,' Volodin said. 'Convicts later occupied positions of leadership in the revolution.' It is difficult to decide which is more shameful — the anti-Semitic prattle of the heir to a great name, or evasions that insult our intelligence by a senior government official. I cannot believe that the parliament is headed by a person who does not know that the Pale of Settlement refers to Jews.
"Returning to the original question — grandchildren — it is useful to point out that Pyotr Tolstoy is the descendent of a great Russian writer who was once excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church for his so-called anti-church activities. Those 'crimes' were qualitatively no different than the 'crimes' supposedly committed by the Jews. Does that mean Pyotr Tolstoy carries the same responsibility for what happened to Orthodox churches in 1917?
"Bear in mind, too, that the Soviet authorities destroyed a larger percentage of synagogues than they did churches. Does that mean Russian Jews should present their complaints to senior members of the State Duma? The Russian parliament is the political successor to those ruling authorities, after all.
"Russia's Jews do not share a uniform opinion on the return of St. Isaac's Cathedral. Their position on the matter is no more uniform than on any other aspect of Russian life. And it certainly has no connection with how somebody's grandfather or great-grandfather thought or behaved a century ago.
"Whatever happened in Russia then, today there is a different reality. People view that reality not as somebody's descendent, but as independent, rational individuals. Tolstoy's statement can only be interpreted as primitive nationalist propaganda. Xenophobia is, no doubt, a great temptation for political opportunists. They have only to convince voters that some 'stranger' disagrees with the majority, and no further proof is required. The stranger's 'crime' lies in being different, thereby making him a stranger and an enemy...
"It is entirely unacceptable that someone with the standing of Pyotr Tolstoy should utter such remarks. Russia's ruling United Russia party explicitly rejects antisemitism, and its banner speaks of a united nation. Tolstoy's comments undermine both positions. It is a break — an accident, let's say — that could be compared to the rupture of a sewage mains. If you don't stop the flow immediately, the stench will soon become unbearable."
(Themoscowtimes.com, January 26, 2017)
Several journalists and bloggers weighed in on Tolstoy's statements. Anton Nosik, a social activist and popular blogger, wrote the following: "Perhaps some are not aware that the Pale of Settlement was a western region of Imperial Russia, in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed and beyond which Jewish permanent residency was generally prohibited. That prohibition was abolished in 1917, soon after the February Revolution. The majority of Ashkenazi Jews living today in Russia (including this writer) are grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who lived within the Pale of Settlement before the revolution."However, the vice-speaker of the Duma has not explained how this fact is relevant to the transfer of the St. Isaac's Cathedral to the Russian Orthodox Church. Up until today, no Jewish organization in Russia, whether religious or secular, has expressed its opposition to the transfer. I suppose that now they will have to go on the record, although not regarding the property dispute around St. Isaac's, but to comment on the fact that the vice-speaker of the Duma, who claims to be Leo Tolstoy's grandson, turned out to be a Nazi-speaker and a spiritual son of Hitler and Goebbels. The notion of Jewish Commissars causing harm to Russian people is not his own invention; it was in fact widely used by the Nazi propaganda across the occupied parts of Russia in 1941-1944. Nazis thought they would be able to attract the whole population of the Soviet Union to their cause by spreading leaflets promising to overthrow the oppression of the Jewish Commissars. As we know, that plan failed. Antisemitism that was an important part of the Nazi theory, did not help them to defeat the Soviet Union...
I can foresee that Russian Jews will be upset by the fact that the vice-chairman of the Duma turned out to be a Nazi-speaker. However, I think it is no less of a problem that the vice-chairman of the parliament, a member of the ruling party, happens to be deranged to such an extent and perhaps stoned. And, by the way, he is also a fool... he chose the only week of the year [because of International Holocaust Remembrance day] when grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Nazis, whether by blood or by spirit, would be wise to keep silent. If not out of respect for victims... then just out of plain common sense."
(Dolboeb.livejournal.com, January 24, 2017)
In an interview with the independent media outlet Meduza.io, Communist Party State Duma deputy and ethics commission member Aleksandr Kravets said: "If we receive an [complaint], it is likely that the State Duma's Committee on Parliamentary Ethics will consider it. I think that there [are] more than enough reason[s] for a [complaint]. It is unfortunate that a descendant of the great Tolstoy, who was excommunicated and anathematized by the church, is saying this ... I think that it is evil and stupid coming from an adult man."
(Meduza.io, January 24, 2017)
It is worth noting that the decision to handover the St. Isaac's Cathedral in Saint Petersburg from museum officials to the Russian Orthodox Church has provoked debate. The opposition media outlet Khodorkovsky.com published an editorial opposing the decision, and explained its position as follows: "What's really going on here? Precisely this: one department of state is transferring an architectural monument/museum to another. What annoys so many Petersburgers is this: the Russian Orthodox Church gets to use the cathedral, but the running costs will still come out of the city budget... Scandalous? Yes. Surprising? Hardly."
(Khodorkovsky.com, January 26, 2017)
Debate On Wearing The Hijab In Russian Schools
The Kremlin distanced itself from discussions on the wearing of the hijabs in Russian schools. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: "We would not like to became a party to this decision at the moment."Russian Education and Science Minister Olga Vasilyeva had commented earlier on the ban on students and teachers wearing the hijab at a school in the village of Belozerye, in Tatarstan, said: "I do not think that truly faithful people try to emphasize their attitude to faith by attributes. Our education system is secular."
Chechnya head Ramzan Kadyrov said that Vasilyeva was imposing her personal opinion on society. "A headscarf is not an attribute. Rather it is an important part of a Muslim woman's clothes," Kadyrov said. He also added that continued debate on the issue is an attempt to divert attention from real school problems.
Yevgeny Bobrov, the council's deputy chairman and head of the council's commission for migration policy and protection of human rights in the sphere of interethnic regions, said: "I think that [hijabs] should be allowed in regions where the practice [of wearing them] has long existed."
(Interfax-religion.com, January 26, 2017)
Echo Of Moscow Interviews Russia's Anti-Corruption Crusader Navalny
In December 2016, Russian opposition activist and anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny announced that he intended to run for president of Russia in the 2018 presidential election. During an interview with Russian journalist and co-owner of the independent Echo of Moscow radio station, Alexey Venediktov, Navalny confirmed his intention to run. In 2013, Navalny ran in Moscow's mayoral elections and finished second. Prior to the elections, Navalny was found guilty of embezzling timber from a state-owned company, when he served as an unpaid consultant to the governor of Russia's Kirov region. He was originally sentenced to five years in prison, but the sentence was later suspended. The Russian Supreme Court overturned the decision in November 2016 and thus cleared the way for Navalny to present his presidential bid. The court's presidium began a reexamination of Navalny's case following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that Navalny's right to a fair trial had been violated. A retrial of the case is currently pending.
See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6756, Echo Of Moscow Interviews Russia's Anti-Corruption Crusader Navalny Following His Announcement That He Will Run For President In 2018, January 26, 2017.
Peskov Dismisses Rumors On Cabinet Reshuffle
Russian political expert Sergey Markov expects Russian president Vladimir Putin to reshuffle the government in the spring of 2017. The reshuffle is related to a pending economic plan.
(Mk.ru, January 19, 2017)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the rumor. Peskov said: "It's just the usual fun and games to predict a change in government by next Monday, next month or in six months. I am not inclined to indulge in it."
(Tass.com, January 20)
Strange But True:
Russian MP (United Russia) Vitaly Milonov initiated a draft law aimed at introducing financial fines for those who "try to defame Russian history, humiliate the human dignity, justify bloody criminals and minimize the role of outstanding Russia's achievements and [its] great scientists and technicians".
Milonov said: "The Internet is crawling Russophobic bots. They publish negative information about our country all day long... There are some citizens who dare to write that Russians are a nation of losers... Let's say if someone writes 'stinky Russia' for example – we'll fine him."
(Kp.ru, January 26, 2017)