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Johnson's Russia List
22 January 2000
[Note from David Johnson:
1. Komsomolskaya Pravda: Putin's House Is Guarded by Malysh. Some
little-known facts in the biography of the Acting President Vladimir Putin
2. Xinhua: Six Factions, Three Deputy Groups Formed in RUSSIA'S New
3. AP: Harvard Closing Institute. (Harvard Institute for International
4. Moscow Times: Brian Whitmore, Old PR Man for New Mess.
5. Rossiyskaya Gazeta: Iraida Semenova, One Small Fish Instead of Three
Big Ones Yesterday. (Russian Socioeconomic Indicators Eyed)
6. World Socialist Web Site: Vladimir Volkov, A political balance sheet
of the Yeltsin era.
7. The Guardian (UK): The new believers. Russia's war on God is over.
But an alliance between the orthodox church and the state has led to a disturbing campaign of religious intolerance. John O'Mahony reports.]
Russia Today press summaries
21 January 2000
Putin's House Is Guarded by Malysh
Some little-known facts in the biography of the Acting President Vladimir
He was born in 1952 in the lower-class family of a plant security guard and a
hospital attendant. He was the family's only child. His parents lived in one
room of a communal flat until 1990. Both Putin's parents died of cancer - his
mother in 1998 and his father in 1999.
VVP started working St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak's administration in
1990. He was the initiator of the "oath of allegiance" to outgoing Mayor
Sobchak, which he presented, speaking for all of Sobchak's administration, at
a meeting of the St. Petersburg government.
When Putin became the chief of the FSB, many observers expected
anti-corruption scandals. Nothing followed, however.
As the FSB chief, Putin reportedly refused to collect compromising materials
on some well-known persons in Russia for then premier Primakov. However,
sources say that Putin supplied these compromising materials to President
VVP loves to spend vacations in Finland. He has never taken his wife on his
short trips abroad.
Putin's wife Ludmila also comes from a poor family. She is a graduate of St.
Petersburg State University, but has had little work experience. The Putins
have two daughters, 13 and 14 years old.
When Putin was appointed the Acting President, the girls were taken from the
German school in Moscow and now study in Hamburg, Germany. The Putin family
has Caucasian sheepdog, Malysh.
Six Factions, Three Deputy Groups Formed in RUSSIA'S New Duma
MOSCOW (Jan. 21) XINHUA - Six party factions and three deputy groups were
officially established in the new, also third Russian State Duma or the lower
house of parliament, announced the Duma's temporary secretariat Friday.
The Communist Party faction will be the largest in the third Duma with 93
members. The Unity faction now has 81 deputies, the Fatherland-All Russia
faction has 46 deputies, the Union of Right- Wing Forces has 32 deputies and
the Yabloko bloc has 21 and the Liberal Democratic Party faction will be the
smallest with 17 members.
The biggest deputy group is People's deputy with 58 members. It is followed
by the Russian Regions Group (the Union of Independent Deputies) with 39
members and the Agro-Industrial Deputy Group with 37 members.
Sixteen deputies, including Roman Abramovich, Boris Berezovsky, Nikolai
Gonchar, Mikhail Gutseriuev, Alexander Korzhakov, Anatoly Kulikov and Nikolai
Ryzhkov, aren't affiliated to any faction or deputy group.
Some of these deputies may become members of a faction or a group later.
However, the second Duma had a number of independent deputies who worked on
their own for four years.
Harvard Closing Institute
21 January 2000
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) - Harvard University said Friday it was closing the
Harvard Institute for International Development, which had been tainted by a
scandal involving insider trading.
The institute's projects will be integrated into other Harvard schools, such
as the Kennedy School of Government, the School of Public Health and the
School of Education.
A faculty task force had recommended shutting down the institute, which
provides policy advice, technical assistance, training and applied research
on issues of international development. The panel said the institute was too
Harvard denied the closing of the institute had anything to do with a recent
Justice Department investigation into allegations that two former staffers
who took part in a federally funded program to establish capitalism in Russia
profited from stock investments there at the same time.
Harvard's provost, Harvey V. Fineberg, informed faculty of the decision in a
letter delivered Friday.
The institute, with 159 employees, currently has 41 active projects in 11
countries, studying areas that include the environment, macroeconomics,
public finance, health, education and social development.
The projects will continue to operate as they have been for the rest of the
academic year. Fineberg did not give a specific timetable for the transition
to be completed.
``I do not underestimate the difficulty of this transition, either
institutionally or individually,'' Fineberg wrote. ``I am convinced that the
cost of near-term disruption will be more than offset by a sounder, long-term
academic foundation for the field of development studies at Harvard.''
Former Harvard lawyer Jonathan Hay is under U.S. federal investigation to
determine whether he profited from stock investments while working for the
Harvard Institute, which was paid $43 million by the U.S. Agency for
International Development to advise Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his
USAID's own investigation already concluded that Hay and colleague Andrew
Shleifer, an economics professor, gained influence over Russian capital
markets they were helping establish, and had ``abused the trust of the United
States government by using personal relationships ... for private gain.''
Hay and Shleifer denied the charges but were dismissed from their posts at
January 22, 2000
PARTY LINES: Old PR Man for New Mess
By Brian Whitmore
Want to know where political power is moving in Russia? Just follow Sergei
Yastrzhembsky. Remember him?
Back in the days when energetic young reform ruled in the Kremlin,
Yastrzhembsky was Boris Yeltsin's slick cosmopolitan spokesman. He was the
Kremlin's smooth-talking official voice and spin-meister who managed to
convince most of the world's media that economic reform was moving forward
and prosperity was just around the corner.
Yastrzhembsky did his job, as it was, well - at least until the August
1998 financial crash destroyed the myth of Russia's emerging market. And
later, when Yastrzhembsky found himself on the wrong side of the Kremlin's
perennial intrigue, Yeltsin sacked him. According to media reports,
Yastrzhembsky had lobbied hard to have Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov appointed
as prime minister, angering Yeltsin's inner circle which saw Luzhkov as a
mortal enemy. Then, when it appeared to nearly everybody Luzhkov's
Fatherland-All Russia was on the road to becoming Russia's new party of
power, Yastrzhembsky moved to their side.
But Fatherland-All Russia finished a disappointing third in last month's
State Duma election and rumors immediately started circling that
Yastrzhembsky was leaving Luzhkov's entourage.
Finally, on Thursday acting Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin appointed him as
his assistant. If there ever was a bellwether of where political power lies
- or appears to be heading - Yastrzhembsky is it. With Putin,
Yastrzhembsky will be stuck with the unenviable task of spinning the
Chechen war, dealing with the media to smooth over Russia's tattered
image. According to the Kremlin, he will be in charge of "coordinating the
flow of information concerning Chechnya."
A career diplomat, Yastrzhembsky is no stranger to handling tough public
relations tasks. It was he, after all, who had to clean up after Yeltsin's
frequent public spectacles.
He is also adept at handling the media. Covering Yeltsin and U.S.
President Bill Clinton's 1997 summit meeting in Helsinki, I was impressed
with Yastrzhembsky's professionalism. His press center was well run and he
showed an uncanny ability to handle - or spin - the Western press. Foreign
reporters watched in awe as he fielded questions in several languages
without a translator and without missing a beat.
A former Foreign Ministry spokesman and ambassador to Slovakia,
Yastrzhembsky is seen to be angling for the top job at the Foreign
Ministry. This latest appointment by Putin has all the appearances of a
proving ground for just that job.
Meanwhile, foreign leaders have been parading through Moscow to urge Putin
to stop the Chechen war. A delegation from the Council of Europe has been
in Chechnya since earlier this week.
Chechnya also figured prominently in Russian government talks late this
week with Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini and Germany's Foreign
Minister Joschka Fischer. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is
scheduled to visit Moscow next week and the subject will likely be on her
The Kremlin is also launching trial balloons about a peace in Chechnya. On
Wednesday, the state-controlled Itar-Tass news agency reported that Chechen
guerrilla leaders had arrived in Moscow for peace talks. Pro-Moscow
Chechen leader Malik Saidullayev later confirmed this. And on Thursday,
Saidullayev said that he had met with Anatoly Kvashnin, the chief of the
armed forces general staff, to broker a deal.
Saidullayev also said a group of influential Chechen commanders
controlling up to 7,000 fighters are in Moscow negotiating a switch to the
Russian side if they are offered protection and a role in the post-war
The Kremlin has not confirmed that a deal is in the works, but something
is clearly afoot. In Russia, things like Saidullayev's initiative are not
leaked to the press - and are certainly not reported by the loyal Itar-Tass
- without a reason.
Yastrzhembsky's appointment comes at a time when the Chechen conflict - on
which so much of Putin's prospects rest - is reaching a critical stage. On
the battlefield, Russian troops are on the verge of being bogged down in a
drawn out bloodbath. Abroad, Moscow is facing increased criticism and
Maybe Yastrzhembsky was recruited to help clean up the diplomatic and
public relations mess as the Kremlin seeks a face-saving end to the
Russian Socioeconomic Indicators Eyed
18 January 2000
[translation for personal use only]
Report by Iraida Semenova: "One Small Fish Instead of Three Big Ones
After analyzing the country's socioeconomic
indicators according to the results of last year, the Russian Economy
Ministry has reported that citizens' official money incomes in 1999 fell
by 15% on the previous year. And every third Russian has found himself
below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the real situation differs from the
The statistics are like this: By the end of the year, a Russian's
subsistence wage came to 980 rubles and 35% of Russia's overall
population count are now citizens whose incomes were below this amount.
And this is with paid wages per worker being 49% up on the previous
year's level. The reason for the fall in the standard of living is clear:
The money's purchasing power fell by more than 20%.
Vyacheslav Bobkov, director of the Ministry of Labor and Social Development's
Standard of Living Center, explained that according to the center's
specialists' information two-thirds of the country's population
experienced a drop in living standards last year.
Well-being improved for only an insignificant proportion. Pensioners and the
disabled became especially poor. The purchasing power of families with
many children, single mothers, public-sector workers, and employees
shrank by almost one-fourth.
At the same time, the center's specialists drew attention to this fact:
The regional gap in the population's standards of living grew by almost
14 times. True, the level of inequality between citizens within a region
is not always very high. In Aginskiy-Buryat Autonomous Okrug, for
example, this gap is minimal. This means that Buryatia residents are
mainly equal in their level of poverty. The situation is the same in
Ust-Ordynskiy (Buryatskiy) and Komi-Permyak Okrugs, the Mariy-El Republic
and certain other regions. A small gap between incomes is one of the
things that greatly stabilize the social situation. That is why, despite
the population's low standard of living in these regions, the atmosphere
remains relatively calm.
In Magadan, Kamchatka, and Amur Oblasts, Yakutia, Khabarovsk Kray, and
Moscow, the income gap between citizens is almost forty-fold.
Incidentally, it is in precisely these regions, which are far from being
the poorest, that regional programs for giving social aid to the poor are
Despite all the official statistics' seemingly depressing essence, we must
be aware that it does not account for factors like "deferred demand" --
that is our "socks" and "moneyboxes," the existence of illegal incomes,
and citizens' receiving social concessions. It is no secret to anyone
that many people have contrived to amass a decent number of banknotes in
"socks" over the reform period. Specialists at the Russian Academy of
Sciences Institute of Socioeconomic Issues of the Population give a
figure of $40 billion. Many city dwellers, not to mention rural
residents, are helped by garden plots. Formerly a drain on the family
budget, they have often begun to bring in noticeable earnings from the
sale of food that has been grown. People lease housing, earn additional
money from petty trading and private carriage, give private lessons, and
so forth. In the experts' opinion, every second Russian family now has
alternative sources of income aside from wages. And legal wages do not
exceed 40% of the overall composition.
But that is not all. The proportion of additional income in the form of
all kinds of concessions has also grown. The specialists at the Russian
Academy of Sciences Institute of Socioeconomic Issues of the Population
estimate that one-fourth of paid wages is accounted for by 75%
compensation on food, travel, holidays, treatment, and other social
concessions. And whereas a year ago they were rather viewed as a blessing,
specialists now assert in unison that it is better to give concessions in
the form of banknotes and not social privileges.
The population's incomes cannot be increased without further growth in
production and strengthening of the economy's real sector, particularly
small and medium business. It is no accident that acting President of the
Russian Federation Vladimir Putin considered it necessary to discuss
issues of their development at a recent government session. After all,
two years ago entrepreneurs were geared toward success, whereas now
survival has become the criterion for their activity. Meanwhile, the
stability and development of their business largely determines the
population's employment and thus its standard of living.
Much depends on regional authorities. Some federation components have
already adopted their own social development programs. Yakutia, for
example, intends to double local production and bring its goods export up
to $2.1 billion. According to the program's authors' plan, expanding
sales markets and boosting manufacturing profitability will allow the
prosperity of the region's inhabitants to be increased. [Description
World Socialist Web Site
A political balance sheet of the Yeltsin era
By Vladimir Volkov
21 January 2000
On December 31, 1999 Russia's president Boris Yeltsin announced his early
departure from office. This put an end to an era that must count as one of
the most dramatic and contradictory in Russian and international history,
marked above all by the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the introduction
of capitalist relations into the territory of the “socialist camp”.
Among the ruling layers in Russia two views prevail regarding the last 10
years. The first, the official ideology of the Kremlin, is shared by its
liberal supporters at home and ruling circles in the West. It presents the
Yeltsin era as a great step forward from the "dead end of the Bolshevik
experiment" towards a "normal" modern civilisation. In place of the total
regulation of social life by the state and the suppression of any private
initiative, a period of personal liberty and democracy had arrived. Every
citizen would now have the possibility of realising his potential.
The second comes from the Russian nationalists of every colour—red, white
brown. In their opinion, Russia under Yeltsin lived through a "time of
confusion" (an analogy to the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the
Rurik dynasty was replaced by the Romanovs), i.e., a break in the development
of the Russian national state.
Truly Russian forms of social life, which took the form of "Soviet people's
power" during the time of the USSR, were undermined by the opening up of the
country to the influences of western civilisation. Thus a regime developed
which did not correspond to the traditional peculiarities of the "Russian
character" and the interests of the Russian people, they argue.
Both views are misleading. The real meaning of the Yeltsin era can only be
understood in light of the social conflicts that shaped the Soviet Union in
the course of its history: the fight between the dominant bureaucracy and the
strivings of the mass of the population, which found a conscious expression
in the programme of the Trotskyist Left Opposition.
The October Revolution of 1917 was based upon the active support of wide
layers of the Russian proletariat and the peasantry. The Soviet Union owed
its emergence to a broad mass movement, which aimed at the revolutionary
transformation of world society on the basis of social equality and
democracy. But this movement soon encountered decisive obstacles.
On the one hand, the Soviet Union was internationally isolated by the defeat
of the revolution in Germany and the other European countries. It was cut off
from the resources of the world economy, on which it urgently depended. On
the other hand, due to generalised destitution, a new privileged layer arose
in the form of the bureaucracy, which regarded Stalin as its political leader
and was ultimately able to make itself the exclusive ruler over society.
In the 1930s Trotsky made the prognosis that the unstable and deeply
contradictory situation of Soviet society meant it could develop in only one
of two directions. Either the bureaucracy completed the counterrevolution,
reintroduced private property and became the basis of a new ruling class, or
the Soviet proletariat carried out a political revolution, established forms
of real workers' democracy, revived the international revolutionary
perspective of Lenin and Trotsky, and opened the way for a rebirth of
socialism in the USSR.
In the great purges of 1937-38 the socialist opposition to Stalinism was to a
large extent destroyed, but the ultimate fate of the Soviet Union was not yet
decided. Right up to the 1980s, the bureaucracy did not dare to attack the
socialised property relations created by the October Revolution. Only during
the years of perestroika, by which point Stalin's nationalist utopia of
building socialism “in a single country" had led the Soviet economy into a
dead end and social problems burst into the open, did the bureaucracy succeed
in forcing their own program upon the Soviet working class.
Gorbachev emerged as the leader of the bureaucracy who laid the foundations
for the beginning of capitalist reforms, while Yeltsin, as an "escapee" from
the nomenclature, took over from him the responsibility for implementing the
Triumphant advance of the counterrevolution?
Can the 10 years of Yeltsin's rule therefore be described as a triumphant
advance of the counterrevolution? In a certain sense, yes. Historically,
Yeltsin represents the pinnacle of the policy that had begun under Stalin
decades before. On the other hand, much that occurred under Yeltsin hardly
resembles a triumph of counterrevolution, since there was no real opposition.
The Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s can hardly be compared to the USSR
on the eve of the Second World War. Several generations had passed. They had
been cut off intellectually and psychologically from the traditions and
spirit of the 1917 Revolution. In the Soviet reality that surrounded them
they did not find anything that they could regard as their own achievement,
and which they therefore considered worth defending.
In addition, the economic backwardness of the Soviet economy and its
dependency on the world market had become so obvious that for many people any
form of integration into the world economy appeared preferable, even under
capitalist conditions and regardless of its negative impact.
Under these circumstances, Yeltsin could ascend to the peak of the Russian
state and temporarily enjoy even a certain popularity. In the long run,
however, he is a transitional figure, like Gorbachev before him. Both
functioned to sell the masses a policy that exclusively serves the interests
of a privileged layer.
Under the banner of the "renewal of socialism" Gorbachev led the country to
the introduction of “shock therapy”, while in the name of the
of democracy" Yeltsin took everything the majority of the population
possessed and cast them into a fight for sheer survival.
At the beginning of 1992 the first government appointed by President Yeltsin,
led by Yegor Gaidar, began its policy of “shock therapy”—a ruthless
on the living standards and rights of most working people. Viktor
Chernomyrdin, who replaced Gaidar at the end of 1992, strove to stabilise the
financial system and attract foreign investors. To this end he increased the
pressure on the working class. His successor in 1998, Sergei Kiryenko,
attempted a new version of "shock therapy" and organised the financial
collapse that affected, above all, the most vulnerable layers of society.
Afterwards, Chernomyrdin was recalled to office, but his appointment was not
approved by the Duma (parliament).
>From that point on Yeltsin only appointed prime ministers who had started
their careers in the security or secret services: Yevgeny Primakov in
September 1998, Sergei Stepachin in May 1999 and finally Vladimir Putin in
In the meantime, the "democratic" programme has disappeared from the
Kremlin's rhetoric. Official propaganda concentrates on the stabilisation of
the state and the pursuance of "national interests". Putin's role in this
regard is predictable. He will use any dirty trick against those who oppose
the interests of the new dominant class in Russia.
The objective meaning of Yeltsin's resignation is that in order to carry out
further capitalist "reforms," a reorganisation of the state apparatus is
necessary, one which will enable it to act with police violence against the
growing protests of the working class. This requires a figure who is not
burdened with yesterday's promises or the reputation of a "democrat".
A balance sheet of Yeltsin's rule
What are the results of Yeltsin's 10-year rule? A short response would read:
disasters, poverty, the destruction of the foundations of life and any
perspective for the future.
Despite the profound crisis, at the end of Gorbachev's five-years of
perestroika the Soviet Union still possessed a certain economic foundation.
The Soviet education and social systems had left a possibility for
development and a cultural potential, which could have helped the social
organism make a relatively fast recovery and revival. This was the case even
if everything to do with the "Soviet way of life" evinced a certain grey
dullness and a general low level of quality.
This was how Yeltsin found Russia when he entered the Kremlin. But what did
he leave as he departed on the threshold of the twenty-first century?
The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), which was called into life as a
replacement for the USSR, is disintegrating on all sides. According to
cautious estimates, Russian industrial production has shrunk by at least
half. Gross domestic product is on the same level as the Netherlands, a
country with a substantially smaller population, smaller territory and
without the same supplies of raw materials. Millions of Russian citizens live
on a miserable income, which does not even satisfy the minimum needs of
modern life. Millions have been forced to leave their homes in order to save
themselves from ethnic and regional conflicts, or to seek a better life.
Average life expectancy has sunk dramatically and young people have been
robbed of any chance to find a reasonable job. All the organs of power have
been consumed by the cancer of corruption, and are bound to the criminal
world by invisible threads. The power and influence of criminal elements have
reached a level previously unknown.
Above the ocean of tragedy confronting ordinary Russians, an extremely thin,
ruthless, infinitely greedy and extremely egoistic layer of nouveaux riches
has arisen, who live for the moment and for whom it is unimportant what price
is paid for their wealth or what will follow them.
Yeltsin has become the symbol for this era of decline and this narrow layer
of rich social climbers. In his farewell speech on television, he tried to
present himself as a figure who had fulfilled a great historical role and who
could now withdraw because the country and society could expect increasing
success. However, he was not able to avoid mentioning the real situation in
Russia, at least in the form of a cheap apology.
"I would like to ask you for forgiveness," he said. "Forgiveness for the fact
that many of your expectations were disappointed. What appeared simple to us
turned out to be painful and difficult. I ask for forgiveness for the fact
that I was not able to fulfil people's hopes, who believed that we could
suddenly break out of the grey, totalitarian deadlock of the past into a
light, wealthy and civilised future. Even I believed in it. It seemed that
one more push and we'd manage it. But we did not manage it with just one
push. Partly, I was too naive. Partly, the problems were too difficult. We
fought our way forwards through errors and failures. During this difficult
time many people experienced great shocks."
That was all he had to say in justification.
The end of the Yeltsin era
The Yeltsin era actually came to an end with the financial collapse of August
1998. This breakdown buried all hopes that Russian capitalism would pull the
country out of its economic backwardness and poverty in the foreseeable
future. Yeltsin found himself at the centre of a massive international money
laundering scandal and emerged as a man surrounded by venal courtiers and
The Chechnya war served the Kremlin as a means to suppress the criticisms of
dissatisfied sections of the elite and to absorb the social protest of the
masses. Yeltsin used the opportunity it provided and disappeared from the
scene at the most favourable instant through a back exit he had
prepared—without forgetting to pocket the silver before he left.
He leaves the stage not as hero but as a charlatan, accompanied by boos and
cries. This is shown by the presidential decree of his successor Putin,
granting Yeltsin and his family special state protection as well as a
lifetime bodyguard. The former president is declared inviolable.
"Neither in criminal nor in civil legal proceedings can he be called to
account, detained, arrested, searched or cross-examined," reads the text of
Putin's decree. Similar warranties were granted for his personal fortune:
"the inviolability of the president ... extends to his living and working
accommodation, his means of transport and communication, documents and
luggage and to his correspondence".
Against this background, the words in his television speech addressed to
millions of Russians sound deeply hypocritical: "I felt the pain of every one
of you as a pain in my own heart. I endured sleepless nights when I painfully
considered what could be done, so that people might live more easily and
better. I did not have any more important tasks than this."
It is significant that in his television speech Yeltsin hardly mentioned the
key term which Kremlin propaganda employed throughout the recent
past—"democracy". In fact, this phrase always served propaganda purposes.
highlights of his rule—the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December
the beginning of "shock therapy" in January 1992, the bombarding of the
parliament building with tanks in the autumn of 1993, the collapse of the
financial markets in August 1998 and the bloody Chechnya wars of 1994-96 and
1999—were all stages in the construction of an authoritarian police regime.
As a politician and a personality, Yeltsin did not embody democracy and
justice. He was a typical Soviet authority figure of the Stalinist type. He
was a Boyar, a "master", for whom everything beyond the framework of his own
career and constricted life was of little importance. He was and is of little
intelligence, limited and arrogant; a social climber who was temporarily
washed to the social surface by a complex historical process, but who
actually changed very little.
This did not prevent American President Bill Clinton from calling Yeltsin the
"father of democracy" in a recent Times article. In Russia, however, this
formulation is used as rarely as possible. It arouses too many strong
associations with the well-known novel The Twelve Chairs by I. Ilf and E.
Petrov. This work, written at the end of the 1920s, makes merry about the
attempt in pre-revolutionary Russia to create a myth regarding the great
scale of "Russian democracy".
Viewed historically, today's endeavours to construct a viable democracy in
Russia on the basis of capitalism have a far smaller chance of realisation
than at the beginning of the century. If Russian capitalism is to exist, it
can do so only by means of the most ruthless methods of authoritarian
At the beginning of his political career, Yeltsin understood the need to
associate vague hopes for social equality and justice with his name. As long
as such hopes continued he played an important role for the new ruling class
in formation, filling the abyss between the privileged layer of private
property owners and the millions of ordinary citizens. With his departure
this abyss will become much more obvious.
The period of the masses' romantic faith in the miraculous strength of
capitalism will finally be consigned to the past. The ruling elite are
regrouping themselves and preparing for the use of force to suppress all
resistance on the part of working people. This is the objective social role
of the new president, Vladimir Putin.
The Guardian (UK)
22 January 2000
[for personal use only]
The new believers
Russia's war on God is over. But an alliance between the orthodox church and
the state has led to a disturbing campaign of religious intolerance. John
As we pull away from the coastline, the island monastery of Valaam rises from
the steely waters of Lake Lagoda like an apparition. Only a single, gleaming
dome is visible at first through the haze, a gilded beacon guiding the ferry
towards its destination. Soon, it is possible to make out the pillbox-like
chapel beneath, perched on the crest of an outlying island and moored to the
archipelago by a wooden walkway. The stocky ramparts of the monastery
building rear up behind. Finally, as we turn into the ice-logged main
waterway, we are confronted by the soaring, cobalt spire and cupolas of the
Cathedral of the Transfiguration, the focal point of this fortress of
The effect of this vision on the handful of monks returning to spend winter
in the monastery, might seem, to the unaccustomed observer, a little
startling. Throughout most of our journey, they have seemed sullen, quietly
praying or staring impassively into the distance. Suddenly, the cabin is
flapping with black habits and flowing beards. Some are setting their watches
to "monastery time", Valaam's own private time zone, in synch, not with
Russia, but with Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Others form a line along one
frozen, wind-swept deck, their heads nodding, their cupped fingers
frantically working through the co-ordinates of the sign of the cross. After
we had disembarked, one young novice explained the need for such observance:
"The beauty of this place, it moves you to prayer." It is now 10 years since
the monks began returning to this outpost on the Karelian peninsula, a
10-hour train and ferry ride north of St Petersburg.
It's been a decade of extraordinary transformation and renewal for the
orthodox church in Russia, one that has seen it cast off the shackles of
soviet suppression to achieve a degree of independence unknown throughout its
1,000 year history. Since 1990, 13,000 parishes have been re-established and
460 monasteries reopened, about 20,000 clergy given official posts and 22 new
seminaries established; 50% of Russia's population now declares itself to be
orthodox, the largest congregation of any eastern Christian church.
This burgeoning sense of self-confidence has coincided with the rise, within
church ranks, of a growing tendency towards anti-liberalism and an alarming
level of aggressive chauvinism towards other religions. The last 10 years
have also seen the church form an uncomfortably close relationship with the
largely unreformed state that once suppressed it, regularly supporting the
Russian government (the Patriarch's endorsement of the war in Chechnya) and
wielding in return considerable political influence. The most sinister
consequence has been a controversial new law, pushed through the Russian
parliament in 1997, mostly as a result of orthodox support, which human
rights groups claim has triggered a "secret offensive" by the state services
against "non-traditional" religions in Russia, with tactics from bureaucratic
obstruction to alleged beatings.
Euphemistically titled "On freedom of conscience and religious associations",
the law recognises the "special role of orthodoxy in the history of Russia".
It also gives elevated status to the Russian federation's estimated 10m
Muslims, Jews and mainstream Buddhists, despite uneasy attitudes to these
faiths, illustrated by the current onslaught in Chechnya and by endemic
anti-Semitism. The legis lation required religious organisations to meet
stringent conditions, many designed to exclude minority faiths, in order to
re-register with the state before December 31 1999. The passing of that
millennial deadline has deprived about half of Russia's religious bodies of
legal status, theoretically casting them back into the unofficial
"underground" of the soviet era. They have lost the right to worship in
public, own property, have bank accounts and engage in missionary or
charitable work. The "war on God" may have ended, but just a decade after the
humiliating defeat of the world's first avowedly atheist state, a new
religious cold war in Russia may only be beginning.
Nowhere could seem further from these inter-church battlefields than Valaam,
accessible when temperatures plunge only by helicopter or a treacherous
jeep-ride across the ice. For the 100 or so monks living here, this is the
most extreme form of retreat from the grimy contradictions and the
disappointments of "worldly" Russian life, a place to surrender themselves to
prayer, chastity, poverty and to the ascetic ideal of obriad , ritualised
Rising at 5.30am, they spend as much as 10 hours a day in the incense-laden
darkness of the cathedral, sparkling in their gold-embroidered robes and
filling the air with plainchant or the cadences of church Slavonic. The
contrast between the stringency of the ritual and the splendour of the sacred
vessels suggests a contradictory God of sumptuousness and austerity. Often
the monks don't emerge from the cathedral until after midnight, to be greeted
by the northern lights flickering in the sky.
The monks of Valaam could be regarded as the future of the orthodox church. A
large proportion seem young, in their twenties or early thirties, and their
drooping beards and pitchy robes are ill-fitting. Many have come to Valaam
via extraordinary paths. Brother Daniil was a DJ, well known on the Moscow
club scene. Brother Icidor was an actor who found God through a stage
adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel, The Possessed. The Valaam iconographer,
who now presides over a cupboard full of verdigris, ochre and cobalt, and
books of delicate gold leaf, was once a socialist realist painter whose
commissions included Lenin and Brezhnev; an unbeliever who discovered
religion through a paperback bought in the Moscow metro.
All the monks smoulder with a conviction of spiritual superiority, what they
refer to as the truth of orthodoxy: "If Russia does not become an orthodox
nation, then there is no hope for its survival," says Brother Alexander, 23.
"At a time when there are so many unChristian ideals, this is the only thing
that can bring us together." On the historical persecution of orthodox
believers by other faiths, Brother Kukshe, 27, a monk with burning eyes and
an almost messianic intensity, is even more forthright: "Throughout the whole
history of Russia, we have seen from the Catholics only blood," he exclaims.
"We can't count the amount of orthodox they have killed, particularly in
While Archimandrite Pankraty, the affable Abbot of Valaam, is eager to temper
the more outspoken assertions of his monks, he tends to agree with them in
principle and is in tune with the sentiment behind the new law on religion:
"Just take a country like Greece, a member of the European Union and
ostensibly a civilised country. The orthodox religion is its state religion
and the state helps it because it understands that the stronger the church,
the stronger the society. The same is true of Israel, where Judaism is
state-sponsored, despite lots of Christians and Muslims. Nobody finds that
strange. Russia, too, has its own particular history and religious tradition
and needs to preserve it."
In principle, the monks' position is irrefutable. Since the conversion of the
Slavs in the 10th century, shortly before the great schism when eastern and
western branches of the Christian church split , the orthodox faith has had a
definitive role in the life of the Russian nation.After the fall of
Constantinople in 1453, the idea that Moscow would take its place and become
the "third Rome" gave the nation its sense of purpose.
About the same time, missionary monks, including crusaders from Valaam who
penetrated as far as Alaska, helped conquer Siberia. Beliefs were so
entrenched that when Peter the Great, in a secularisation drive, ordered the
nobles to cut off their beards [a symbol of orthodox belief] they hid the
cut-off hair in their pockets, for fear they might not be admitted
clean-shaven to heaven. Right up to the 1917 revolution, the sense of
statehood was so indistinct that, if asked about nationality, a Russian
peasant was likely to answer: "I am orthodox and from here."
While the communist era anti-religious onslaught is estimated to have
produced 170,000 Christian martyrs and led to widespread desecration of
church property (Valaam was first a sanatorium for disabled soldiers and
later a repository for exiled dissidents), it is estimated that 50m Russians
still clung to their religion. Ironically, what the quasi-religious
conception of Russian identity, and the orthodox faith, have proved least
well-equipped to survive is the pluralism of modern liberalisation. The
church was most alarmed by the groups flooding into the country after the
collapse of the Soviet Union, many (including Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses,
Seventh Day Adventists and Scientology) with assertive missionary policies.
Even today, a trip to the red-brick Hubbard Humanitarian Centre in north
Moscow, with its psychic personality tests, or a visit to the Pentecostal
temple in the southern suburb of Tsaritsyno, give an indication of how exotic
these religions must have seemed 10 years ago. In starkest contrast to the
solemn majesty of Valaam, the Pentecostals worship in a sweaty, low-ceilinged
cubicle, most of which is taken up by the band in front and a giant mixing
desk at the back. Familiar cries of "Hall-le-luu-jah!" and "Jesus is among
us" are given an added incongruity by the tinkly Russian pop backing, while
the noises issuing from the glassy-eyed old babushkas in a session of
speaking in tongues have an eerie bluntness I've never observed before. "This
faith allows us to express ourselves. And since the actual services are
conducted in Russian, we can understand what is going on," said one young
woman, explaining why the Pentecostals rank second to orthodoxy in many
regions, including Karelia, the region of the Valaam monastery.
The perceived threat of these religious groups was compounded by the
simultaneous influx of sects such as the Unification church of Reverend Moon
and the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which, at the time of the Tokyo subway
attack in 1995 was estimated to have around 50,000 Russian followers, more
than in Japan.
The result was a backlash in the media, church and general population against
most new and resurgent religious groups, many of which were now associated in
the public consciousness with the rise of what were called "totalitarian
cults". "It became obvious that the legal situation at the time was quite
unconnected to reality," says Father Vsevolod Chaplin, a representative of
the inter-church relations department of the Patriarchate, who helped draft
the new legislation. "Any of these groups could set themselves up as a
religious organisation with just 10 signatures. This new law gives the
government the right to curtail the activities of destructive organisations.
Most older religions have no reason to worry."
In reality, the situation is not quite so clear. Many of the articles of the
law, such as the requirement that religions must prove they have existed on
Russian territory for 15 years, aim at all the faiths that have arrived since
the fall of communism. Other articles are so vague that they can be used on
any grounds against any religious group: "From a purely legal point of view,"
says Vladimir Riakhovsky, director of the Christian legal centre, which
guides churches through the registration process, "This is an extremely
badly-made law, riddled with contradictions and imprecision. That's why the
bureaucrats can read it in exactly the way they want. One of the conditions
for the liquidation of a church institution is the violation of social order.
What does this term mean? Since the law offers no definition, it can mean
And that, in what appears to be tacit collusion between the state and
repressive elements of the orthodox church, is exactly how the law is being
interpreted and applied, as an excuse to suppress any group that threatens
the ascendancy of traditional Russian faiths. So far, even the Catholic
Jesuits and the Baptists have had applications to local authorities turned
down, many on arbitrary technicalities. The Pentecostal church has been
widely obstructed, and "liquidated" in the eastern city of Khazan by a court
In the first court case brought under the the new law, Jehovah's Witnesses
are now being threatened in Moscow for "instigating religious enmity" by
doing no more than claiming to be the only true faith and "causing family
breakdown" by demanding that believers make religious work their first
priority. A favourite pariah, Scientology, has been regularly raided by the
police; church members claim staff have been physically attacked.
"In Russia, the law and the legal system can be regarded only as a system of
signals," says Yakov Krotov, a journalist and religious campaigner. "What
this new religion act has done is send out a signal that it is now right to
persecute minority faiths."
While none of this compares with the soviet anti-religious campaigns, it does
reflect badly on the orthodox church, which appears to have transformed
itself from persecuted victim to bullying aggressor in a decade. The most
probable reasons for this transfiguration lie in the murk of the soviet era.
"The communist party built the church in its own image," says dissident
orthodox priest Father Georgi Edelshtein, whose outspoken views mean he is
ostracised by the Patriarchate. "All the bishops were carefully picked so
that they would work with the soviet government. All were KGB agents. It is
well known that Patriarch Alexy was recruited by the KGB, under the code-name
of Drozdov. Today, they are preserving the same politics that they had 20 or
30 years ago."
In some cases, members of the council for religious affairs, the soviet body
charged with controlling religion, have found alternative employment in the
bureaucracy of the church, with one prominent ex-member Victor Kalinin, now
legal advisor to the Patriarch and a major force behind the law. "It's as if
post-war Germany had employed an ex-Nazi to oversee ethnic relations,"
comments Larry Uzzell, chief of the Moscow bureau of the Keston institute,
which runs a religious news service.
This intimacy with government and power has brought the church dividends,
such as state-sponsored reconstruction of the Church of Christ the Saviour in
Moscow, which was dynamited by Stalin but now looms proudly over Moscow once
again, at an estimated cost of $360m. It has also resulted in such damaging
and highly publicised scandals as the involvement of the church in the
importation of oil and cigarettes.
But the drive to constrict the activities of minority religions is unlikely
to have the desired result . The Russian state is now so debilitated by
inefficiency and corruption that its capacity for oppression is extremely
limited. "What we have found is that implementation of the law fluctuates
wildly from one province to another," says Larry Uzzell. "The law is so vague
and the state so unwieldy that it has not only created 'fortresses of
oppression' but some 'islands of religious freedom', Kostroma, Yekaterinburg
and St Petersburg."
As the orthodox church should have learned from its history, harassment of
religion will only tarnish its own reputation, while steeling the resistance
of persecuted faiths. Some may even see their congregations boosted by the
their newly-rediscovered unofficial status: "I hope it doesn't come to it,
but, if necessary, we will go underground," says Bishop Sergei Riakhovsky of
the Pentecostal church. "It's a place where we have already been, so it would
not be too unfamiliar. But our government and the orthodox church will be the
As the deadline for registration passed with the old millennium, the
denomination with the largest number of unregistered churches and parishes
was not the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Mormons, but orthodoxy, which had been
hampered by sluggishness of its bureaucracy, its size in comparison to the
other faiths and by an air of complacency. The failure of an attempt last
December to have the deadline extended means that many orthodox organisations
are now theoretically vulnerable to dissolution.
"In Moscow and St Petersburg they are unlikely to liquidate parishes," says
Lev Levinson of the Duma committee on religion, "but they might do so in
Karachayevo-Cherkessiya or Tatarstan." (Regions where orthodoxy is not the
Even the monastery of Valaam had still not managed, when I visited, to
complete the process of registration. "It is not something that we are too
worried about," said Abbot Pankraty. "It will all be worked out." Far more
pressing were such immediate concerns as a fire that had just destroyed a
wooden church, a storm that threatened to trap us on the island for weeks,
and the strict regime of worship.
The Abbot feels that any significant contribution that Valaam might make to
the wider debate must be by spiritual example, by the ferocious conviction of
the monks and their commitment to the virtues of piety, self denial and
charity, virtues that may one day lead to a more forgiving and tolerant
church in Russia.
"When we arrived here on the island everything was falling apart," the Abbot
says. "All the buildings were crumbling and everything was sooty and dirty.
Somehow, with God's help, we started to work and step by step we got to where
we are now. Perhaps, what is happening in the monasteries will help Russia in
general, help it find its true path. But we cannot concern ourselves directly
with the problem. All we can do is pray."
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