Vienna, March 5 – While Russians remain more deferential or even indifferent to the actions of the powers that be than many nations, they are increasingly agitated by two high profile cases in which members of the post-Soviet Russian elite have signaled their contempt not only for laws that other Russians must obey but also for those who are not in the elite.
And that anger has been fueled over the past week not only by numerous stories in the Moscow media that Stalin, for all his crimes, insisted that his son fight in the Red Army alongside other Soviet soldiers but also by an interview with the current Estonian president in a Moscow paper today in which he talks about his son’s service in that country’s military.
The contrast between the behavior of many members of the post-Soviet elites and that of others, both Soviet and non-Soviet, is so stark that it is clearly stoking class anger and possibly leading to increased support for those Russian organizations and groups which are calling for a wholesale change at the top of the Russian political and social system.
The two cases featured in the Moscow media this week show the Russian powers that be to have a sense of entitlement and arrogance that would offend almost anyone. In the first, a senior LUKOIL official is seeking to evade responsibility for an automobile accident; and in the second, prosecutors are homing in on Russian officials who have ignored hunting laws.
Yesterday, in an article significantly entitled “Their Own among Aliens,” “Novyye izvestiya” reported that LUKOIL is now “seeking ‘needed’ witnesses” in order to ensure that its vice president Anatoly Barkov will not be convicted of running down and killing two women in a February 25th automobile accident (www.newizv.ru/news/2010-03-04/122825/).
The paper pointed out that the LUKOIL maneuver follows reports that “rights activists have already found three witnesses to the accident who speak about the guilt of the car of the [LUKOIL] vice president and are prepared to confirm this officially.” Only one of the seven other witnesses is ready to support the oil company executive’s version of events.
According to a “Svobodnaya pressa” report today, the two fatalities were Olga Aleksandrina and Vera Sidelnikova, the latter an honored doctor of Russia who headed a department of pregnancy pathologies at Moscow’s Kulakov Center. LUKOIL spokesman express regret but admit no responsibility (svpressa.ru/society/article/21990/).
But, the portal continues, “representatives of the families of those who died consider that the version of [the traffic police] and LUKOIL “ is “’falsified,’” and they insist on several blogs that they can and will present evidence to that effect, including that the traffic police failed to come to the accident site or talk to them.
Meanwhile, as “Novyye izvestiya” reported yesterday, the investigations committee of the Russian prosecutors office announced that it has decided to conduct a new investigation into the circumstance of the January 2009 helicopter accident in which several senior officials were killed while illegally hunting endangered species (www.newizv.ru/news/2010-03-04/122810/).
Not only has this announcement renewed interest in a case that sparked widespread popular anger a year ago, but it has also led to additional reports about the contempt that many Russian officials show about hunting laws. As the paper said, “the tragic incident [of last year] has not taught Russian bureaucrats anything.”
Such illegal activities, ecologist Vladimir Kuznetsov told the paper, are “no rare thing in Russia.” The problem is that “with us, it is not considered appropriate to punish bureaucrats for the killing of animals, even of those which are included in the Red Book [of endangered species].” Those in the elite who violate the law, he said, do not suffer in any way.
Vladimir Krever, the coordinator for biodiversity of the World Wildlife Foundation of Russia, agreed. He said that illegal hunting “today is carried out primarily by ‘representatives of the powers that be and businessmen,’” because it requires either “a lot of money or administrative resources which can take the place of funds.”
A major reason why these crimes of the powers that be and their business partners look so bad to so many Russians just now is that the latter have been presented with examples of a very different kind of behavior by officials of the most different kind imaginable, including Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Today marks the 57th anniversary of Stalin’s death, and this week the Russian media have been filled with stories about him. While many of the reports call attention to his massive crimes against humanity, others are more positive, presenting aspects of his behavior that many Russians today would be likely to approve.
One of those is Stalin’s insistence that his son serve in the Red Army during World War II, something other Soviet leaders did at that time but that few Soviet leaders of a later generation and that even fewer members of the current post-Soviet Russian elite have done, even as Moscow has maintained a draft for other sons not similarly positioned.
Not surprisingly, that is a major irritant among many Russians, and it is also an indication that at least in part one Moscow commentator is right when he suggests that in Russia today, “Stalinophilia is to a significant degree not a cause but the result of heightened attention to Stalin” by the government and the media (www.apn.ru/publications/article22444.htm).
But it is not so much figures from the past who pose a challenge to Russian feelings about their own elites. Today, “Nezavisimaya gazeta” carried an interview with Estonian President Ilves, who clearly surprised his interlocutor by his saying that his son now serves as a regular Estonian soldier (www.ng.ru/ideas/2010-03-05/5_ilves.html).
Mikhail Veller pointed out to the Estonian leader that “children of big people in Russia today study in foreign universities, they go into top management, and into big business. What do your children, the children of the president of Estonia occupy themselves with?”
Ilves replied that his son graduated from Stanford University “with distinction” but now “serves in the Defense Forces of Estonia.” Clearly expecting that the Estonian leader had made special arrangements for his son, Veller asked if the president saw him often. Ilves replied that he did so only “rarely” because Estonian soldiers are not given home leave during their training.
“He hasn’t complained?” Veller continued, to which the Estonian president replied, “Luukas is an adult, he’s 22, and he is responsible for his own life. It is entirely normal for a young person to fulfill his civic responsibility” and to serve in the Estonian army, all the more so because Estonia “doesn’t have ‘dedovshchina.’”
The contrast between the situation with regard to elites in Estonia and that in the Russian Federation of Putin and LUKOIL could hardly be more stark, and this was certainly not lost on any of those who read President Ilves’ interview or looked at the picture of him and his soldier son in the Moscow paper today.