Russia’s next generation of cronies

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Russia’s next generation of cronies

President Vladimir Putin’s recent appointees to posts that handle the administration’s relations with civil society all have something in common: they embody the Russian autocrat’s version of conservative ideology. Some of them have highly unorthodox ideas, and all have little sympathy for Western-style intellectualism.

The new appointments began in April, when Putin named Tatyana Moskalkova, a police general who had also been a legislator, to be Russia’s human rights ombudsman. Moskalkova’s police career is not the only reason she is a strange choice for the job. She is a fervent Orthodox Christian, and she was a vocal advocate of punishing the punk band Pussy Riot for trying to perform an anti-Putin song in a cathedral. She has also accused the West of using human rights as a political weapon. In a recent interview, Moskalkova insisted that there was no problem with gay rights in Russia, despite laws that ban “gay propaganda.” She also asserted that Russia had no political prisoners, despite tough and arbitrary “extremism” laws.

In August, Putin replaced Sergei Ivanov, his chief of staff, with a career diplomat, Anton Vaino. In Russia, the presidential administration oversees politics and the civil society, so this is another important “interface” job. Vaino had co-written some dense academic papers on what is probably best described as futurology. Some of these mention an invention called the nooscope, which is described this way in a book co-written by Vaino —

“Design-wise, the nooscope uses the principle of the Russian nesting doll, this colorful image of geospheres — concentric shells of different density and composition that make up the Earth. The seven shells of the nooscope represent the main spheres in which changes takes place and are registered. The nooscope, which consists of a network of special scanners for receiving and registering changes in the biosphere and human activity with the help of transactions (film frames of collective being) in the image of the crossroads of space, time and life, allows us to forecast and preempt crisis events on the road map of development.”

Also in August, Putin named a former member of his staff, Olga Vasilyeva, to the post of education minister. Vasilyeva’s academic interest is the Russian Orthodox Church in the Stalin era. She suggested that the Soviet strongman’s manipulation of the church during World War II, when the regime stopped killing priests and relied on religion to help stoke patriotism, was a useful approach. Statements she has made also suggest that she believes the West destroyed the Soviet Union by, among other things, overdramatizing the history of the Stalin period.

Finally, Putin appointed Anna Kuznetsova as Russia’s children’s rights ombudsman. Married to a Russian Orthodox priest, she holds extremely conservative religious views. A non-governmental organization she managed in the Volga river city of Penza ran a competition among women’s health centers, rewarding the ones that performed the fewest abortions. Kuznetsova, a mother of six, isn’t just pro-life, though: she is also a participant in a group on the VK social network that is dedicated to denying the reality of HIV. And in 2009, in an interview to a Penza website, she spoke of her belief in telegony — the theory that a woman’s sexual contacts affect her future progeny, even if they don’t result in conception.

After her appointment, Kuznetsova said she didn’t remember these statements — though she said they sounded like they could be the words of “a qualified biologist, at least a Ph.D.” — but the interviewer came forward to confirm that he had recorded her remarks.

If Putin were a U.S. president, these appointments would have been the equivalent of drafting top officials from the most extreme church congregations and conspiracy theory websites. This is something new for Putin: for most of his reign, his regime was distinctly non-ideological.

Its interactions with society were handled by career bureaucrats who were interested in efficiency and budgets and whose views were irrelevant or extremely flexible. The more recent appointments show that Putin’s embrace of what he calls conservative values — a mix of Orthodox moral principles, Russian mysticism and anti-Western convictions — is not just a ploy to distract Russians from recent economic difficulties.

Putin is doing his best to fill the ideological vacuum in Russia since the fall of Communism. His officials are now messengers of a new platform that roughly matches the views of the religious right in Europe and the U.S., but with a Russian flavor. The ideology is a work in progress, but its bearers appear to share the same basic tenets and the same emotions, even if they don’t all share the same idiosyncratic beliefs. If the Putin system persists, its ideological platform will eventually crystallize, just as Soviet Communism did.

*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist.

Leonid Bershidsky
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