Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 7 March 2021



The Russians Protesting Putin in Their Personal Lives

Sergey Titov.
Since Alexey Navalny’s arrest, some Russians, including Sergey Titov, have quit their positions in state-run or state-affiliated institutions.Photograph by Evgeniy Rein for The New Yorker

In 2018, at the age of twenty-five, Sergey Titov was hired as an editor at Mash, a fast-paced Russian news startup with offerings that alternate between trashy, ironic, and would-be serious. “You could write about an actress from a television series popular with old ladies, but the next post would be about QAnon or what’s happening on Wall Street,” he told me. It was a dream gig. He had always wanted to write copy, and it turned out that he had a natural gift for coming up with irreverent, pop-culture-driven spins on the news. But it wasn’t long before he realized that Mash, which is primarily viewed on Telegram, the messaging app, appeared to have connections to influential figures in politics and business who were, in turn, close to the Kremlin. Mash was not nearly as brazen a propaganda instrument as, say, Rossiya-1 for domestic audiences or RT for international ones, but it obeyed its own subtle, unspoken limits on what it covered, and how. It didn’t publish outright hagiography of Vladimir Putin, for instance, but it also avoided coverage of the comings and goings of his daughters, a taboo subject for media outlets in any proximity to the state. “There were moments when I had to ask: Do we cover this or not?” Titov said. He got a “no” around twenty or thirty per cent of the time, he told me, making clear that there was a “narrow category of topics that should not be touched.” (He declined to say which ones exactly, saying, “I think they’re obvious.”)

For several years, the pleasures and advantages of the job outweighed his sneaking discomfort with it. He had a fluid sense of how to write posts that went viral, such as adding nostalgic music or a clip from a Tom Cruise movie to a bit of news. Within half a year, he was promoted to deputy editor, which meant that he was now in charge of the channel’s output on Telegram and oversaw the work of dozens of other writers and producers. “It was exciting, interesting, and creative,” he said.

But his new position came with new responsibilities. Now he was the one judging whether a piece of news could go out on the channel. As Mash became more popular, the Kremlin’s political technologists, as the cohort of advisers in Putin’s administration are known, took an ever more acute interest. “The more successful, influential, and significant we became, the more posts began to appear that caused me anxiety,” Titov told me. “I don’t want to say exactly what they were, but let’s just say I more and more started to disagree, or felt like making a facepalm—‘God, how embarrassing!’ ”

In August, when Alexey Navalny, the country’s most visible opposition leader, was poisoned, Titov had little doubt that the Kremlin was to blame. “It looks as if the state is ready to kill its opponents,” he said. “There’s no way to say such a thing is O.K. It was scary. I started thinking it was time to leave.”

It was not an easy decision. He would have liked to work for an independent outlet, but they were so few in Russia and tended to pay little; he felt equally sure that whatever jobs opened up at them went to people in the “tusovka”—the cliquish in-crowd of liberal journalists in Moscow. And there was a lot to like about his job at Mash: in the fall, Titov was dispatched to cover the front lines of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a short and bitter conflict. He was also proud of Mash’s coverage of protests in Belarus, which didn’t shrink from the brutality of the riot police or fail to mention the large size of the crowds of demonstrators who turned out week after week. And then, there was the money, not an insignificant concern for Titov, who comes from a working-class family and has no financial cushion. Just before the New Year, Titov told his bosses he was thinking of quitting; they offered him a substantial raise. “My soul was up for sale, at least for a month,” he said, wryly.

Whatever the bargain he had made with himself, the events of January upended it. On January 17th, Navalny flew back to Moscow from Berlin and was promptly arrested; two days later, while being held in pretrial detention, he released a video on YouTube dubbed “Putin’s Palace,” a two-hour investigation into a secret residence on the Black Sea with a supposed price tag of more than a billion dollars. Navalny published visualizations showing the house’s hookah lounge, ice-hockey rink, and seven-hundred-euro toilet brush. The Kremlin was conspicuously quiet. Finally, five days after its release, when the video had been watched nearly a hundred million times, Putin offered up a pro forma denial. “Nothing of what is listed there as my property belongs or has ever belonged to me or my close relatives,” he said. But Navalny’s original video didn’t allege that Putin owned anything himself; in fact, Navalny traced the palace to a series of complicated shell companies with offshore accounts held by figures close to Putin. The attempt to make the story go away was widely ridiculed online.

On January 29th, a new video that appeared on the Mash channel suggested that the outlet had been co-opted into the Kremlin’s counter-P.R. campaign. Mash’s editor-in-chief, Maxim Iksanov, managed to secure access to the would-be palace and took a tour of the premises, in what looked like a staged visit. (The same day, the Insider, a news site focusing on open-source investigations, linked Iksanov to Russia’s Presidential administration.) As Iksanov strolled around the palace, he noted that it was less a glamorous retreat than an unfinished construction site. “Concrete everywhere,” he said. “Nothing to brag to your friends about.”

Titov was off that day, and declined to discuss his own role, if any, in producing the video. “I knew it was going to come out, but I can’t say anything more than that,” he said. In any case, he thought the result was laughable. “In the past, Mash had certainly released some things that could be called wrong, and with which I definitely disagreed,” he said. But this latest video “forever moved us into the category of state propaganda.” The segment didn’t actually contradict Navalny, either—his investigation claimed that the palace had been plagued by mold and was in need of a wholesale renovation. Titov went to his bosses, and told them, “No, no, no, I’m not going to think about it. I’m leaving, one hundred per cent.”

The next day, a second video appeared on Mash. This one featured Arkady Rotenberg, an oligarch who parlayed his childhood friendship with Putin in postwar Leningrad—the two trained at the same judo club—into billion-dollar state contracts to build everything from gas pipelines to a bridge linking Crimea with mainland Russia. Rotenberg claimed that the palace on the Black Sea was his. “It’s no secret now—I’m the beneficiary,” Rotenberg said. “It’s a real find. The location is fantastic.”

Titov had already told Mash he was leaving, but the Rotenberg video was a new low. “It looked stupid, sad really,” he said. He composed a post for his own personal Telegram channel. “I know everything about Mash’s reputation, I know about the shameful things, but we really did everything we could (when we could),” he wrote. “We lived in this gray zone and fought desperately for the opportunity not to write shit.” But, with the release of the “Putin’s Palace” videos, “the work of talented people” was “simply crossed out by the decisions of people in suits who couldn’t care less about the work of journalists.” Titov said that, despite making many compromises along the way, he never had any intention of becoming a shill for state propaganda. “That’s why I had to give up my beloved job.”

In recent weeks, as Navalny’s return to Russia and immediate arrest gave way to protests in more than a hundred cities across the country—protests that were met with a violent police response and thousands of arrests—a less visible reckoning has been unfolding throughout the country. Slowly, and in small numbers, Russians who previously formed part of the system, however loosely defined, are reëvaluating their compromises, questioning whether the price of success—or merely getting by—has become untenable. Last year, in my book “Between Two Fires,” I tried to describe the dynamic: “One could not live in ignorance or indifference to the urges and caprices of the state; in fact, it was to your advantage to guess what it wanted from you, and to deliver that while also being clever enough to extract some benefit for yourself.” Even if Putin’s rule remains outwardly secure, its long-term viability will depend on the tacit support of people like Titov, talented and capable professionals who have found a comfortable niche for themselves inside the system.

Video From The New Yorker

When I spoke with Ekaterina Schulmann, a noted political scientist in Moscow, she suggested that the disaffection of such figures carried some advantages for the Putin state. “The authorities, in fact, welcome the departure of those who don’t like the current order,” she said. That departure can be external (leaving Russia to settle elsewhere) or internal (quitting a job at a state-connected firm). “It’s a way of lowering pressure on the system, and has been one of the secrets of its stability,” Schulmann told me. But, if the number of those leaving positions inside the state machine were to become too sizable, the result would be ever-decreasing effectiveness and competency—manageable for the Kremlin in the short term, perhaps, but damaging in the long run.

Schulmann said that, compared with the situation in Belarus, where scores of high-ranking officials and notable figures publicly broke with President Alexander Lukashenka, nothing similar has happened in Russia. Defections among the ruling élite are essentially unheard of, and, even at the lower and middle rungs of the system, few can afford to make a principled exit: a 2019 I.M.F. working paper estimated that half of the jobs in the country come from the state sector. And yet the mobilized and coördinated support for recent demonstrations, including crowdsourced bail funds for arrested protesters, suggests that Russians “are increasingly showing a kind of civic self-awareness,” Schulmann noted. Publicly leaving a job out of a political or ethical disagreement is another manifestation of this same tendency, she said. “In and of themselves, each of these cases are not dangerous for the system, but they are interesting symptoms of a broader tendency.”

In recent weeks, a handful of police officers across Russia refused to take part in suppressing protests and left the service. In the Moscow suburbs, Nikolai Korolyov, a police captain from an élite canine division, gave an on-camera interview to Proekt, an investigative outlet, in which he said he was retiring rather than face the prospect of being called to detain or restrain protesters. “I am ashamed to wear this uniform because I realize it is covered in blood,” he said, before tossing it in a dumpster. Ruslan Agibalov, an officer in the city of Kursk, posted a video on YouTube in which he expressed fear that his children live in a country where they can be killed or imprisoned for their political beliefs. “I am also afraid that, when my children grow up, they will ask me the question ‘Dad, what have you done to insure that we live in a free and prosperous country?’ And I will have nothing to say to that.” He was fired less than an hour after posting the video.

In Ivanovo, a midsize city a hundred and eighty miles northeast of Moscow, a police officer named Sergey Rimmsky released a similar first-person video appeal on February 2nd, shortly after a Moscow court sentenced Navalny to nearly three years in prison. “This is not justice,” Rimmsky said. “The state has demonstrably chosen the path of lawlessness, carrying out political repressions in their purest form. Unfortunately, we have reached the point where it is no longer possible to stand aside.” Rimmsky, who is now twenty-eight, grew up in the provinces during the nineteen-nineties, a period of unrestrained criminality; he joined the police force in 2015. “Even if I didn’t agree with the authorities on a lot of questions,” he told me, “I thought their motives were honest and genuine, and that there remained a chance to change things from the inside.”

What Rimmsky encountered instead was a department in which a certain “lawlessness,” as he put it, was commonplace. He recalled apprehending a drug dealer only to see him released hours later because officers from another department didn’t want to deal with the paperwork involved in processing the arrest. He heard of another case in which fellow officers had been accused of theft and then saw their charges quietly dropped. “I tried to justify my dissatisfaction by telling myself, ‘Well, O.K., even if the others don’t want to work correctly, then I can try to bring some kind of benefit on my own level.’ ” But that benefit, if it existed at all, seemed only to be shrinking. “All I achieved was calming myself.”

In the summer of 2019, Rimmsky watched from Ivanovo as protests in Moscow over city-council elections turned violent, with riot police beating young people with wooden batons and arresting hundreds. He felt helpless. “I am a part of this system and absorb its negativity, but don’t have a single instrument to change it for the better.” Most of his fellow-officers, he said, weren’t “raging tough guys looking to use force, but rather silent types who are completely indifferent, and not just to protesters on the street, but to the situation, over all.” He didn’t want to be quiet. In July, 2020, when a series of constitutional amendments gave Putin the right to run again in 2024, keeping him in office potentially until 2036, Rimmsky posted a number of videos to social media criticizing the move. Rank-and-file officers are forbidden from speaking out on political topics, and the internal-security department called him in for a disciplinary meeting. They told him that his position was being eliminated, which left Rimmsky without policing duties, even if he formally remained in the service.

The awkward arrangement held for several months. But, after Navalny’s poisoning and arrest, Rimmsky felt, as he put it, that it was time to “clean his conscience.” Shortly after the judge read her decision to send Navalny to a prison colony, Rimmsky set up his camera to record. As he explained to me, “I wanted to show people I don’t agree with this, so they would see there are police officers with this position, that you don’t have to hate everyone in uniform, the problem is with the system.” He had a message for his former colleagues, too: “I wanted to show other officers that they don’t need to be afraid, and don’t be tempted by compromises.” It might seem obvious, Rimmsky admitted. “Other people may have come to see the world this way years ago,” he said. “I started to just now.”

In February, I spoke with Alexander Pavlov, who is thirty years old, and, until recently, was a technician at Transneft, the state monopoly that oversees the country’s network of oil pipelines. He is from Velikiye Luki, a town in western Russia near the border with Belarus, and had worked at Transneft since 2012. A recent promotion moved him to Transneft’s regional headquarters in St. Petersburg, where he was the foreman of a repair shop that maintained the heating systems spread out along the pipeline network. “What I did on my own level brought me satisfaction,” he said.

But he was increasingly disillusioned with Russia’s over-all political trajectory—“classic Russian dualism,” as he put it. With colleagues, he brought up the need for independent courts, free elections, civil society, and the transfer of power; they jokingly referred to him as a “revolutionary.” In 2018, when Putin was running for a fourth Presidential term, Pavlov went to a protest in St. Petersburg. The notion of Putin’s holding on to power with little regard for term limits was a “clear violation of the fundamental laws of the country,” he told me. And yet, given that the Russian state budget is largely dependent on oil and gas revenues, and Transneft is responsible for the pipelines that export oil to global markets, Pavlov knew that he, too, was implicated. “I was supporting the current order in my own way,” he said.

A reference to Transneft appears in the “Putin’s Palace” video: according to documents unearthed by Navalny, the company has apparently paid more than fifty million dollars in rental contracts meant to pay for the upkeep of the palace. Navalny claimed that, in order to justify the payments, Transneft’s head, a longtime Putin associate named Nikolai Tokarev, makes regular visits to the site to deliver speeches and take photos. To Pavlov, Navalny’s documentation appeared legitimate. “It looked just like the contracts I see at work,” he told me. “It was as if you found out a person you admired and looked up to was, in fact, involved in something terrible.” It might sound naïve or even willfully ignorant, he admitted, but he had convinced himself that, although other state-owned firms were involved in corrupt schemes, somehow the one he worked for wasn’t. “Everything got turned upside down in one second.”

In January, Pavlov attended a protest in St. Petersburg, even as he remained skeptical of Navalny himself—he considered his economic program unrealistic and populist, and was put off by nationalist statements from earlier in Navalny’s political career. While standing in a snowy square, Pavlov was approached by a Russian journalist, who asked why he had come. “I’m tired of enduring this lawlessness,” he said, on camera. “Every month, I get poorer, but then I open up YouTube and see that my company has paid more than four billion rubles to this slush fund.” These remarks were sure to upset his bosses, but that no longer felt important. “I figured that, if I’m going to answer these questions, what’s there to hide? I don’t want to act on the sly.” The following week, at work, he learned that an official reprimand had been added to his file, and that supervisors from the human-resources department wanted to see him. When he showed up, he told them he was quitting. “I consider that they destroyed our relationship from their side,” he told me, “which gave me the right to do as I please.”

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