Over the next 10 weeks, Inside Russia will bring reports and features from across the biggest country in the world, travelling through its 11 time zones to open a window into the lives and views of some of its 144 million people.
From the political and business powerhouse of Moscow and the old imperial capital of St Petersburg to the Arctic, the Caucasus mountains and the Baltic and Pacific coasts, we will see where Russians stand today – 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and after two decades under President Vladimir Putin.
What do Russians think about where their country is heading? Will tomorrow’s parliamentary election reveal cracks in President Putin’s power base? Will the Kremlin ease pressure on its critics or launch an even harsher crackdown?
How will the opposition movement cope without its most prominent figure, jailed campaigner Alexei Navalny, as President Putin eyes another possible re-election in 2024?
In Kaliningrad, wedged between EU and Nato states on the Baltic Sea, Russia’s chilly relations with the West will come into focus, while in Siberia and the far east we will see how ties with neighbouring China and Japan are the priority for locals and top officials alike. How will this energy giant and its people respond to the impact of climate change on Russia’s vast carbon-absorbing forests, the thawing permafrost of its far north, and the huge coal, oil and gas industries that power its economy?
The 19th-century poet Fyodor Tyutchev famously wrote: “Russia cannot be understood with the mind... One can only believe in her.”
With Inside Russia, we hope to challenge that notion .
ON THE EVE OF PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS, A SHAM BALLOT IS EXPECTED AS PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN’S POLITICAL OPPONENTS HAVE BEEN JAILED OR KILLED, AND INDEPENDENT MEDIA AND ACTIVISTS PROSECUTED AND BRANDED ‘FOREIGN AGENTS’
In a children’s playground in northern Moscow, ringed by tower blocks and watched by several police officers, Marina Litvinovich gives a campaign speech to a few dozen locals, takes their questions, and then sits down on a green wooden bench to explain why she’s running in Russia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday.
The Communist Party heckler she had to deal with is the most minor of concerns in a country where major opposition figures of recent years have been jailed or killed, and activists, media and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) are being prosecuted and branded “foreign agents” for criticising Russia’s leader of two decades, Vladimir Putin.
“I believe we need to fight to the end,” says Litvinovich. “And if I don’t do it then who will? There’s almost no one left.”
Voters will elect 450 state deputies, dozens of regional parliaments and several regional governors in ballots that will not threaten Putin’s presidency but could undermine the legitimacy of his allies in the ruling party, United Russia.
Critics say the ballot will be a sham – with leading Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny jailed, his movement banned as “extremist” and dozens of opposition figures prevented from running – but pro-reform candidates such as Litvinovich, along with defiant media and civil-society groups, refuse to stop fighting for change.
“I got into politics in 1996 and first thought of running for office in 2003,” says Litvinovich (46). “Now, I realised it was time to stop being a political consultant and to stop writing political programmes for others. People are being put in prison, prosecuted, they are leaving the country – so now I have to do this myself.”
Litvinovich, who has three sons, has long known the risks that come with challenging Putin’s rule, even before Navalny nearly died from poisoning in Siberia last year and was then imprisoned on his return to Russia in January.
She worked as a consultant to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was Russia’s richest tycoon before being jailed for a decade after clashing with the Kremlin, and then as an aide to Garry Kasparov, the chess grandmaster and Putin critic who fled Russia in 2013.
Russian opposition politician Marina Litvinovich, who is running in northern Moscow in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Photograph courtesy of Marina Litvinovich
Before that, in the late 1990s, she created Russia’s first political website for then deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who would become a fierce and charismatic opponent of Putin’s regime before he was shot dead in Moscow in 2015.
Twenty years ago she was even an adviser to Putin, who at that time was a former KGB officer and St Petersburg official who had been summoned to work in the Kremlin. He went on to lead the FSB security service and ultimately succeed Boris Yeltsin as Russian president.
“I worked with him for two years and took part in his 2000 election campaign. Then I set up the first online presidential conference in Russia, and before it we sat down and I taught him about the internet and how to use it,” she recalls of a leader known for his mistrust and occasional misunderstanding of the online world.
“Clearly I taught him very badly,” she adds. “I scold myself for that.”
As Putin’s relations with the West have deteriorated... so the Kremlin has tightened the screws on domestic opponents and accused them of doing the bidding of hostile foreign states
Putin was initially seen as a moderate, bland and broadly pro-western figure who would quickly make way for a more substantial leader, but Litvinovich recalls several early crises that rang “alarm bells” about how he would rule the country.
She says the authorities’ alleged mishandling of the sinking of the Kursk submarine in 2000, the terror attack on the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow two years later,and the Beslan school siege in 2004 showed her that “people’s lives mean nothing” to Putin and his close allies.
“I realised they were still FSB in their heads. And that it was incurable.”
As Putin’s relations with the West have deteriorated – over the wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and the sanctions imposed on Russia for annexing Crimea and fomenting war in eastern Ukraine – so the Kremlin has tightened the screws on domestic opponents and accused them of doing the bidding of hostile foreign states.
That pressure soared with the near-fatal poisoning of Navalny – which he and the West blame on the Russian security services – his subsequent arrest upon returning home from treatment in Germany, and a decision in June to outlaw his network of anti-corruption groups as “extremist” organisations.
The move effectively banned anyone associated with the groups of running in Sunday’s election, while other opposition figures were barred from the ballot for attending unauthorised street protests and other alleged misdemeanours.
Even a few members of Russia’s so-called systemic opposition – parties that provide some variety but no serious challenge to Putin and United Russia – have been excluded from the vote, to the benefit of a ruling party whose approval rating sits at about 29 per cent, about half the figure enjoyed by the president himself.
While many Russians still credit Putin with rebuilding stability and national pride from the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, they blame his allies in parliament and government for growing hardship in daily life.
The coronavirus pandemic not only exposed problems in the Russian healthcare system but hit people’s incomes hard, and the government provided relatively little financial support to the self-employed and to small- and medium-sized businesses.
Russian law obliges blacklisted publications and reporters to preface every article and social media post with a 24-word statement, in block capitals, declaring their foreign-agent status
Millions of Russians had to dig deep into their savings to keep going, and their finances are now being stretched further by rapidly rising prices, reflecting annual inflation of 6.68 per cent, the highest level for five years.
Real disposable incomes for Russians have been falling since 2013, the year before Putin’s annexation of Crimea brought down a wave of western sanctions on his country. Last month a Levada Centre poll showed that almost four out of 10 Russians struggle to afford basic groceries and other essentials.
At the same time, Russia continues to spend lavishly on its military, buoyed by a record $615.6 billion (€522 billion) in gold and foreign currency reserves that Putin has amassed to cushion against sanctions and other forms of foreign pressure.
The Kremlin’s portrayal of Russia as a country assailed by external adversaries and their domestic collaborators intensified this year, with the designation of dozens of investigative journalists and independent news outlets as “foreign agents” because they allegedly receive funding from abroad.
Russian law obliges the blacklisted publications and reporters to preface every article and social media post with a 24-word statement, in block capitals, declaring their foreign-agent status, and to submit frequent, detailed financial reports to the authorities; failure to comply can result in big fines, prosecution and even closure.
Several outlets fell foul of the law after publishing stories on alleged corruption and cronyism in Putin’s inner circle, which embarrassed friends and associates of the president who have grown rich and powerful during his reign.
Perhaps the highest-profile designation came last month, when Russia’s top independent television station was added to the list of foreign agents.
Tikhon Dzyadko, chief editor of the Russian independent TV channel Dozhd, which has been declared a ‘foreign agent’
“With the whole situation in Russia, it would be weird if we didn’t become a target,” says Tikhon Dzyadko, chief editor of the Dozhd (Rain) channel.
“When you are an authoritarian leader, with some clear elements of a dictator, you don’t need independent media... When you tell people to go straight, even if there’s a wall there, they have to go straight. Independent journalists will say that maybe instead we can go left or right, and they will analyse what the wall’s made of and figure out how much money was stolen to build it.”
Dzyadko (34) believes the authorities finally lost patience with Dozhd over its coverage of huge opposition rallies in Russia’s ally Belarus last year; its reporting on the poisoning of Navalny; and its live streaming of pro-Navalny street protests in Russia this winter which state television almost completely ignored.
Police detained thousands of protesters, including scores of journalists, at protests that were called by Navalny’s allies after the returning campaigner was arrested at Moscow airport and his group published an eye-popping report accusing Putin of secretly building a vast €1 billion palace on Russia’s Black Sea coast; Dzyadko says that up to 11 million people followed the protests on Dozhd.
“Dozhd is the biggest independent Russian media and the only independent television station in Russia... The consequences of designating Dozhd as a foreign agent are obvious and huge – an international scandal – so I have no doubt that this decision was at least confirmed by the president himself,” says Dzyadko.
When they call you a foreign agent, they are actually calling you an enemy of the state. And this is bullshit – me and my colleagues here are patriots
“I am also sure that this whole strategy against civil society and the media was directed by the president. And also this decision to turn the page, from when we pretended to be a democracy, and to start a new chapter when we are a strong authoritarian state with many clear elements of dictatorship.”
Dozhd and other foreign agents say the obligatory declaration on every article and social media post, and the onerous financial reporting obligations, are not the most worrying aspects of their new status.
“When they call you a foreign agent, they are actually calling you an enemy of the state. And this is bullshit – me and my colleagues here are patriots, and for the 11 years of Dozhd’s existence we have been doing everything in the best interests of our country and people,” says Dzyadko.
“Once you are a foreign agent you become toxic. It’s like you have a disease, and others who approach you could get that disease too ... It could mean advertisers [pull out], or the owners of this venue where we are sitting, or the firm that provides our internet or TV signal. There are a huge number of possible consequences.”
Dozhd is used to political pressure, and previous clashes with the authorities led to it being dropped by Russian cable and satellite TV providers and forced to leave at least two studios, prompting it to broadcast from an employee’s flat for a while.
Its current home is in a former industrial complex that has been transformed into a “creative cluster” of boutiques, galleries, workshops, coffee shops and street-food stalls that would not be out of place in any western city.
Its denizens are mostly young, stylish and relatively wealthy – members of what many United Russia supporters would describe as a small urban elite, whose outlook and criticism of Putin do not reflect the views of the 144 million-strong nation.
A Moscow sign saying ’Let’s choose together!’ ahead of Sunday’s Russian parliamentary elections, which has been covered over with posters for a Communist Party candidate and offers of prizes to people who register to vote online
“There is opposition to the government, it is diverse, but there is a small portion that is very vocal – that’s the Navalny crowd and Dozhd and some others... that seem to be arrogant,” says Yuriy Filatov, Russia’s ambassador to Ireland.
“They dislike the general population. They think of themselves as advanced, progressive, and think of the people as bydlo [trash], duped by the regime into some sort of conformist living...They don’t have any coherent political programme other than ‘Putin shall go’. I don’t think that’s a credible political programme.
“There is a feeling that these opposition units are being manipulated from outside, from the US... We think, with some reason, that this is being done to destabilise somewhat the internal political scene in Russia, maybe with the hope that the [Russian] government would be more agreeable in foreign policy issues.”
Yuriy Filatov, Russia’s ambassador to Ireland
United Russia, which holds a two-thirds majority in the lower house of parliament, or State Duma, promises stability and warns that any political upheaval could pitch the country into turmoil and leave it at the mercy of a hostile West.
Continued control over the Duma will be important to Putin as he decides whether to run for re-election in 2024, having pushed through constitutional changes that allow him to remain president until 2036, when he will be 83 years old.
He is not a formal member of United Russia but dominates the party, and he announced a flurry of handouts in recent weeks that seem timed to boost the election prospects of deputies who dutifully rubber-stamp his proposals.
Putin promised one-time payments of €115-€170 to pensioners, the military and the police, in a display of largesse that analysts believe could benefit more than 40 per cent of voters and cost the country almost 500 billion roubles (€5.8 billion).
Posters around Moscow are also offering one million prizes to people who register to cast their ballots online, including 20 flats and 100 cars, as Russia rolls out electronic voting in seven regions and allows people to vote in person over the course of three days.
Both innovations make it much harder for observers to oversee the election and make fraud much easier, says Stanislav Andreichuk, co-chairman of independent vote monitor Golos – which is also blacklisted as a foreign agent.
Stanislav Andreichuk, co-chairman of independent Russian election monitor Golos, which has been blacklisted as a ‘foreign agent’. Photograph courtesy of Stanislav Andreichuk
“It’s not true that there is one single political regime in Russia. We have more than 80 political regimes [Russia has 85 regions] and there are three general types,” he explains. “There are ‘electoral sultanates’, where the result has nothing to do with reality, they just write down the result and it has been like this for 20-25 years. There are up to 15 regions like this.
“Then there are about 15 regions on the opposite side, where voting is mostly clean and fair and like in eastern European countries, with only small problems. And then there are the majority – about 50 regions – in the middle.”
Independent groups such as Golos are not allowed to be present at Russian polling stations, but it still offers training to people who want to monitor the vote through political parties – and Andreichuk says the more voters and observers who come out on Sunday, the harder it will be for the authorities to falsify the results.
“We don’t have good public opinion polls. We don’t understand the situation in the country now, when a lot of candidates and potential candidates are excluded because of the extremism law,” he adds.
“I see a lot of people are angry now, they are not satisfied with the way the country is going and they want to see some changes. I think this is a problem for the authorities, but we might not see the results now but in two or three years.”
International observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) will also be absent from the election – for the first time in Russia since 1993 – after the group objected to Moscow’s insistence that it send only 60 monitors to the world’s biggest country and its 100,000 or so polling stations.
Navalny issued a call from jail for Russians to back the single strongest opposition candidate in each district, according to a ‘smart voting’ strategy
“The situation with Covid is better now... but it is still quite unstable and we simply cannot have a widespread huge gathering of people... That’s a fact and there is nothing political about it,” says ambassador Filatov in Dublin.
“If there would be any statements from [the OSCE], they would have nil significance because they are not present on the ground because of their own arrogance.”
On the eve of the elections, Navalny issued a call from jail for Russians to back the single strongest opposition candidate in each district, according to a “smart voting” strategy laid out on his group’s app, which Apple and Google deleted from their online stores on Friday in response to Russian pressure.
“I’m here all the time urging you to go to the elections on September 19th and wipe out United Russia through ‘smart voting,’” Navalny said in a message posted to Instagram by his team. “The more people I can convince, the bigger the chance that we will throw out a couple of disgusting Putin thieves from the State Duma.”
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny speaking to pro-Kremlin activists during an anti-Putin rally in Moscow in 2018. Photograph: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP via Getty Images
In northern Moscow, Litvinovich and another opposition candidate refused to make way for each other regardless of any “smart voting” strategy – potentially boosting the chances of the district’s more pro-Kremlin incumbent and highlighting the splits and rivalries that have weakened Russia’s liberal wing for decades.
Back in the urban playground, as her helpers pack up after her campaign speech, and the small audience and attendant police officers wander off towards the nearby tower blocks, Litvinovich recalls the times she was beaten, detained and threatened because of her opposition activism and human-rights work.
“I’m an optimist. But it pains me when friends leave the country, when they take their kids with them and say that everything’s hopeless and useless here, and that nothing will work out. I get upset and angry about that,” she says.
“There’s a saying here – Ot tiurmy i ot sumy ne zarekaisya – which means something like ‘No one is safe from prison and poverty.’ Our country is like that. You have to be ready to pay a high price.”