Obama Does Moscow

In the final days before Obama's arrival in Moscow, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appeared to have had second thoughts about why he had invited the U.S. president. Medvedev must have felt Obama was at least a bit indiscreet in his public remarks in advance to the summit.


On Monday, July 6, Nick discussed the Moscow Summit with Gary Eichten on MPR's MIDDAY.  To listen to their discussion, click here


On March 19, I finally met Gorbachev.   I attended an invitation only mini-conference on issues of law and democracy in Russia hosted by the Washington based Kennan Institute.   Gorbachev was the main speaker and prize of the meeting.  Escorted by Lee Hamilton, a Gorbachev, visibly so much older than the Gorby of his heyday, walked to the podium – his face aged, jowls draining energy from his once magnetic smile and the gleam gone from his eyes.  For the most part, Gorbachev told again, as he always does, the story of his reforms – his perestroika – forever defending his policies and re-living his days at the center stage of world history.  Turning to today’s world, he did have two poignant remarks.   Commenting on the landscape of today’s Russian politics in the Putin/Medvedev era, he said:  “It appears Russia has decided to be a one party state again.  I don’t know who decided this but it is so.”

Asked about the condition of American politics, he referenced our economic woes and the legacy of the Bush presidency and then draw applause – “I think maybe it’s time for America to have its own perestroika.

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Blood has flowed with the Irish spring this year.  The recent news from Ireland reads like old news.

IRA gunmen shot down two British soldiers in Antrim.

A policeman murdered in Armagh.

Old news except we haven’t heard or read such news from Ireland in the last decade.  The success of the “Good Friday” agreements had brought an era of calm and complacency.  The new killings suggest that Ireland’s past is not yet past.  There remain in Ireland a diehard faction of the IRA that is determined not to accept power sharing within Northern Ireland but to promote terror driving the Protestants into retreat and/or emigration and united the North with the Republic of Ireland.  To point out that such terrorist are a small minority and lack popular support in the North and the south misses the essential point of terrorist movements.  They recognize that terrorism is symptomatic of their weakness within conventional politics.  Their goal is not to generate a majority at the voters’ box but to create a majority of fear.

Writing for GlobalPost.com, HDS Greenway puts the Irish killings in a broader historical pattern.  In his article “Splitting Differences,”  Greenway argues that the Irish situation is replicated in Pakistan, South Africa, Lebanon, Kosovo, and Israel.  I would suggest the same issue underlies recent national tensions within the nations of the former Soviet Union – as evidenced in the recent war in the Caucasus, strive within Ukraine, and lingering conflicts within the Baltic nations.

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Georgia and Russia on verge of all-out war?

The intended audience for Russia's actions in Georgia was neither its friends, the Ossetians, nor its enemies, in this case the Georgian government.  The real target for Putin's message is the Bush administration and its advocates of the expansion of NATO eastward into the new nations formed out of the former Soviet Republics.  The second targeted audience consists of the heads of government in the formerly Soviet Republics and especially the government of Ukraine.  For both audiences, the message is clear - Would the West, or even could the West defend these territories.  Is the eastward expansion of NATO worth the political costs and risks?

All politics is local.  In the case of today's war in the Caucasus, Putin has played to his home audience.  Think back on Reagan's "liberation" of Grenada.  This war is Putin's Grenada.

For more comments and background on the war in Georgia, go to my commentary (link below) with q & a on MPR's Midday with Gary Eichten for Monday, August 11, 2008.  An interview (link below) with me by Doug Stone in regard to the events in Georgia can also be found at www.MinnPost.com  for Tuesday, August 12. You can also find my comments (link below) on the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on Midday on the Monday, August 4 of the previous week.  To download my programs on MPR programs, go to www.mpr.org and click the tab for Midday.     

audio link to Nick Hayes on Midday-August11

interview with Nick Hayes

audio link to Nick Hayes on Midday-August 4

A New President for Russia

On the eve of the end of the Putin  Presidency, a political bombshell has come out.  Boris Nemtsov, a former First Deputy Prime Minister (1997-1998) and Vladimir Milov, for Deputy Minister of Energy (2002) recently published Putin – The Bottom Line: An Independent Expert Report.   The Kremlin blocked its publisher from access to mass distribution of the report.  Even if the Kremlin preempted its distribution to a large audience, sources say the existence of the report put the Kremlin in panic mode.  Read the report as an equivalent to the release of the Pentagon Papers  and, to continue the Nixon and Watergate Era analogies, the confirmation that there was a “deep throat” and whistle blower buried somewhere inside the secretive inner circles of the Kremlin.

audio link to Nick Hayes on Midday-May 6 http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/05/06/midday1/

Link to Report on Putin

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By Nick Hayes

Politics in Moscow get stranger and stranger.  In one especially bizarre turn of events, President Vladimir Putin has managed to turn Edvard Limonov – long known as an opportunist of the nationalist right – into a hero of young Russia's democratic left.  There's a story here.

Natasha Chernov
I first met Edvard Limonov in the summer of 1999.  In the early 1980s, It’s Me, Eddy – his raunchy memoir about his émigré days in New York – was translated into 15 languages and made him a cult figure in Russia.  By the time we met, Limonov had published 38 books and gone through six marriages.  His second, made for the tabloids marriage, to the singer Natasha Medvedeva, also made him a celebrity in France, where they had lived from the mid-1980s until 1994 – when she divorced him to marry an Italian count and he returned to Russia.
Natasha Chernov

It’s hard for an American to get a handle on the Limonov phenomenon. We don’t see our writers as celebrities.   Imagine our recent poet laureate, Billy Collins, on steroids, hooked up with Madonna, and bringing back to political life the SDS Weathermen who unfurl banners in praise of Patty Hearst, G. Gordon Liddy and the Unabomber along with slogans like “Elders! We’ll cut off your ears!” and “Capitalism is shit!”

We met in his “bunker.”  Located in the basement of an apartment building in central Moscow, it was the headquarters of the National-Bolshevik Party that Limonov founded in 1994.   The place hummed with an excitement that reminded me of my days in student politics in the 1960s.  But these university kids were not the Russian equivalent of young Americans getting clean for Gene McCarthy or winning back Camelot for Bobby Kennedy.

These activists looked like extras in a film about young Nazis or Bolsheviks in the 1920s.  They all wore black, notably black leather jackets and red armbands with white circles and the hammer and sickle insignia.  Their salute was an outstretched right arm and clenched fist.

The posters on the walls and the literature on the table celebrated the unmentionable and unforgiven of the Russian past.  Several posters paid homage to Stalin’s head of the secret police – Lavrenty Beria, whose name until that moment I had never heard praised by anyone in Russia, with the possible exception of some who suspected he had murdered Stalin.

The party members were young but their leader was not.  Although Limonov was 56 during that 1999 meeting, he had the look of a much younger man – fit and slender, with stylized short hair, a t-shirt, mischievous eyes and a prankster’s grin.  In fact, he belonged to the generation of parents that his young party activists scorned. 

Limonov asked if I knew the film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”   I did.  He said that was good because:

We don’t include America as part of civilization.  You are cannibals.  You are like the body snatchers in that old science fiction film.  You think you can just kill any non-conformist country.  We want nothing to do with you.  In America, you were free to do only two things – business management and sex.  But now, since the AIDS epidemic, you don’t even have sex.  Your only choice is business.  You in America have lost your freedom.                                                       Edvard Limonov

When asked what will happen next in Russia, Limonov said, “There will be an uprising and a revolution.”  How so?  “I will bring it on,” he smirked.

Discretion was never the better part of Limonov’s valor.  In 1992, he went to Bosnia as a journalist to cover the war, but ended up as a story himself, featured by Russian and Serbian television as he fired artillery rounds from atop Mt. Igman down into the besieged city of Sarajevo. 

In 1994, he co-founded the National Bolshevik Party (NPB) with philosopher Alexander Dugin – who soon quit, protesting that the party was a Limonov publicity stunt.  Its newspaper – the Limonka – is a pun on his nickname and Russian for “little lemon,” which is also slang for hand grenade.  Even if you don’t know Russian slang, you can’t miss the point.  The paper’s logo is a hand grenade.

In April 2001, Limonov left for the mountains of Kazakhstan.  It was a short visit.  Local authorities arrested him for setting up a terrorist training camp and sent him back to Russia. He said his intention was to create a commune where the “nats-bols” would forge a model of the true Russia. 

Limonov was charged with plotting the violent overthrow of the government and sentenced to four years hard labor in a Saratov prison. After he had served two and a half years, a Russian court released him under “conditional punishment” while the prosecution searched for the evidence it lacked at his original trial.

Prison changes people.  By the time I met up with Limonov again in January, his smirk was gone.  He had shed the image of the punk provocateur of 1999.  Now with blow-dried steel-gray hair, horn-rimmed glasses and an impeccably styled goatee, he might be mistaken at first glance for Jeremy Irons playing Anton Chekhov in a BBC drama.  But this is an Uncle Vanya with attitude. He has captured the imagination of Russia’s new generation and made his NBP into the in party of Russia’s young and hip, with more than 55,000 followers who call themselves “nats-bols” or, more to the point, limonovtsy.  Every week, they stage another of the 800 to 900 “actions” they have carried out across Russia during the past two years.

The brazenness of the limonovtsy makes everyone else in the Russian political opposition look like a bunch of chickens in suits.  The only exceptions are the youth movements spun off by the two successors to the Communist Party, who have joined the “nats-bols” in taking to the streets their opposition to the war in Chechnya and the Kremlin’s final assault on what remains of the old socialist safety net. 

Limonov makes it clear that this is politics as unusual.  “We are not like your American Republicans or Democrats or our liberals in their suits and ties,” he says.  “We are a young, wild party that wants to misbehave.”  And they have.  They revel in what they call their war of “velvet terrorism” against the state.  Mayonnaise is their weapon of choice. When, in August 2004, the Ministry of Health held a press conference to announce reforms that shifted the cost of healthcare from the state to the poor and elderly, the “nats-bols” carried out an “assassination” of the minister by shooting him with mayonnaise from a squirt gun. 

The limonovtsy have paid a price for their very political pranks.  The seven activists who carried out the mayonnaise murder of the minister are serving a 14-year sentence at hard labor in a prison in Ufa.                                                                                               National Bolshevik Demonstration
Another case has leaked through the state-controlled media and garnered the sympathy of the Russian counter-culture and a few journalists.  It is the story of Natasha Chernova.  A few years back, she left her hometown of Orenburg to take a chance on love.  She had met a guy from Moscow, and she also wanted a shot at making it as an artist in the big city.  They married.  Her paintings, charcoals and illustrated poems covered the walls of their Moscow apartment, making their place into the next thing on the Moscow arts scene.  Today, she’s in Moscow’s Pechatniki prison.

Alone in their Moscow flat, her husband, Alexander Averin, tries to make sense out of this.  On December 14, 2004, she and 39 other “nats-bols” occupied the entry to Putin’s presidential office building. Within 20 minutes, the Ministry of Interior’s special forces arrested them.  Averin says they only wanted to present a petition to Putin that demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the nullification all Putin’s social and political initiatives. 

Averin did not mention that they had also unfurled a banner in the window that read “Putin:  Go fuck yourself!” The protesters were convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison for plotting the violent overthrow of the government.  On appeal, 33 were released while Chernova, two other women and four men were given lesser sentences of seven years on the reduced charge of disorderly conduct in public. 

Last May, prison officials force-fed her to end her hunger strike.  The record cold of this recent January broke her health. With next to no heat in Pechatniki prison, the 40 women in Natasha’s cell took turns wearing about 20 coats.  Some of the women would get a few hours of warmth, then give their coats to the next shift and take their own turn coatless and near freezing.

Disorderly conduct in public is a Russian national characteristic. Imprisoning Natasha Chernova for it makes about as much sense as criminalizing Americans for a trip to the mall.   Putin reacts with such malignity because leniency never crosses his mind, but also because Chernova and the “nats-bols” are evidence that another Russia still exists beyond his control.

Tyrants are best measured by their pettiness.  If you want to understand the churlishness of Putin’s politics, skip over the easy question of why he would incarcerate the powerful oilman Mikhail Khodorkovsky.  Ask instead what type of political leader would destroy the life of young Natasha Chernova. For some time now, Kremlin watchers have waited to spot something sinister slouching toward the Kremlin.  We thought it had to be a political monster worthy of the nation that produced Josef Stalin. We missed or simply dismissed the little slouch who has occupied the Kremlin since 1999.  Limonov did not.

Nick Hayes teaches at Saint John’s University in Minnesota.  He is frequent commentator for public radio and television on Russian and European affairs.  This article draws on his trips to Russia from 1999 to January 2006. He may be reached at nhayes@csbsju.edu.