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The Russian Opposition “Snake Pit”

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

The Russian opposition is at war with itself, and it’s thanks to more than the usual ideological tectonics. The various fault lines that infamously allow the Kremlin to “divide and conquer” Russia’s would-be saviors are indeed political, but the divisions are every bit as much about idiosyncrasies and shady dealings. Take the case [ru] surrounding Konstantin Lebedev and his leftist comrades, Sergey Udaltsov and Leonid Razvozzhaev. The trio has been under criminal investigation since October 2012, following a program aired on Russian television network NTV, which featured footage [ru] of their meeting with Georgian politicians, allegedly involving a plot to facilitate riots in Russia, with the aim of destabilizing the Putin regime.

Background

Initially, the case against Lebedev, Udaltsov, and Razvozzhaev galvanized the opposition, rallying disparate factions in support of men accused on the basis of an apparently spurious NTV documentary film. (Bloggers have noted certain technical clues indicating that the video could be a recut montage.) Nationalist democrats like Vladimir Milov encouraged [ru] the public to support Lebedev, perhaps out of solidarity with Milov’s Democratic Choice ally Stanislav Yakovlev, who once worked alongside Lebedev in the movement “Smena” [ru] (“Change”). Alexey Navalny, another nationalist liberal, also hit the streets [ru] to call for Lebedev’s release, evidently to seize the opportunity to criticize Investigative Committee head Alexandr Bastrykin, against whom Navalny has personally crusaded [ru] since July 2012 [ru].

There were several broader reasons to band together over this case, as well: investigators tied it to the constantly expanding “Bolotnoe Delo” investigation into “rioting” at the May 6, 2012, “million man march”; Razvozzhaev claims [ru] that the police kidnapped and tortured [ru] him while in custody; and oppositionists are generally eager to believe that its putative leaders don’t plot their actions secretly with foreign conspirators.

Rude Awakenings

Konstantin Lebedev in pretrial detention, 18 October 2012, screen capture from YouTube.

Konstantin Lebedev in pretrial detention, 18 October 2012, screen capture from YouTube.

Earlier this month, on April 5, 2013, Lebedev’s presumed heroism abruptly ended, when state prosecutors announced [ru] that he had confessed to all charges of organizing mass unrest in May 2012 and violent acts elsewhere in Russia. In the aftermath of this news, the opposition’s political prisoner activists reshuffled their allegiances, producing a medley of censure and justification in the media and on the pages of Facebook and Twitter. The disillusionment of Lebedev’s detractors is matched only by the indignation of his defenders.

For those who believe that Lebedev betrayed Udaltsov and Razvozzhaev, the nature of his confession is fairly straightforward. Oleg Kashin’s April 8, 2013, article [ru] in Colta.ru is a good example of this attitude. In that piece, Kashin argues that oppositionists should have known better than to put their faith in Lebedev’s innocence. He alludes to Lebedev’s checkered past, which includes serving as the press secretary for a pro-Kremlin movement at the same time as when he entered leftist protest politics. While this blemish on Lebedev’s life story is well known, Kashin also entertains rumors that Lebedev enjoyed special luxuries (like Internet access and unguarded yard access) when in pretrial detention, that he owned a polo shirt with a spy camera sewn into the fabric, and that—before the Bolotnaya investigation—he always seemed to be a man of extraordinary means, who sometimes transported whole suitcases full of cash across international borders.

Less than a week later, on April 15, 2013, Kommersant’s Olesia Gerasimenko published an extensive profile [ru] of Lebedev, regurgitating—as Kashin had—many of the tawdriest details of his life, such as his pro-Kremlin affiliations, his unusual surveillance-embedded clothing, and many rumors long circulating among Lebedev’s closest friends. The article also includes the details of Lebedev’s confession, as conveyed by his girlfriend, Polina Starodubtseva. In a Facebook post [ru] later that day, Gerasimenko congratulated herself on a “job well done,” revealing that she had conducted roughly sixty-four hours worth of interviews with thirty-two different people in researching Lebedev’s story. “This is probably how people pan for gold,” she declared triumphantly. Among the 118 people to “like” Gerasimenko’s Facebook post were fellow journalists Yuri Saprykin, Yevgenia Albats, Ilya Azar, and Michael Idov.

Albats offered her own thoughts in a separate tweet [ru], indicating clearly that Gerasimenko’s work had soured her sympathy for Lebedev:

Читаю сопли по поводу Лебедева. Дети малые, стукачи были, есть и будут. В СССР до 30% взрослого населения сотрудничало с КГБ.

I’m reading all this sniveling about Lebedev. Kids, informers were, are, and [always] will be. In the USSR, as many as 30% of the adult population cooperated with the KGB.

Sticking By Friends

Of course, not everyone embraces the idea that Lebedev has sold out. Stanislav Yakovlev (mentioned above), whom Gerasimenko’s article implicates in a Kremlin plot to replace the unruly grassroots protest leadership with an astroturf doppelgänger, has lashed out [ru] on multiple occasions [ru] at the growing ranks of Lebedev-disparagers. On April 10, 2013, for instance, Yakovlev posted to Facebook the following quotation from Lebedev, taken from wiretapped Skype conversations [ru] between Lededev and his Georgian financier, Givi Targamadze (who denies the recordings’ authenticity):

Тут еще надо понимать, что наша оппозиция не монолит и уж точно не джентльменский клуб, а скорее террариум единомышленников.

Here we need to understand that [Russia’s] opposition is not a monolith, and it’s certainly no gentlemen’s club, but closer to a snake pit.

In that conversation, Lebedev was trying to convince Targamadze of the need for secrecy in their planning, given the fact that even fellow oppositionists could be expected to rat them out to the authorities if they learned of their conversations. Yakovlev presumably reproduced this excerpt to connote that the members of the protest movement are overeager to accuse one another of treachery, and that someone else might just as easily have betrayed Lebedev and forced him into confessing.

Maria Baronova, one of the many suspects accused of inciting (though not “organizing”) the violence at Bolotnaia last May, elected to push back [ru] against Yakovlev, arguing that the opposition’s rush to support Lebedev debunks the notion that it’s every man for himself:

Почему только вот террариум о нем беспокоился, когда он сдавал все идя на сделку с подонками?

Tell me then—why was “the snake pit” concerned with his wellbeing, while he was giving up everything to cut a deal with those [Investigative Committee] lowlifes?

This launched a long and heated argument that later attracted the mother of Lebedev’s girlfriend, Irina Starodubtseva, who called [ru] Baronova “a fool” and “a hysterical woman.” (Starodubtseva was exploiting—rather ironically, given their shared gender—a sexist trope often peddled in attacks on Baronova, i.e., that her “emotionality” distorts her judgment.) On her own Facebook page, Irina Starodubtseva also posted several condemnations [ru] of Oleg Kashin, following his April 8 piece (discussed above).

No one, however, has so passionately defended Lebedev as his longtime friend, Kommersant journalist, and former activist Anastasia Karimova, whose Twitter and Facebook accounts are a trove of sympathetic outpourings for the man she describes [ru] as her “mentor,” “older brother,” and “fulcrum.” Days after the authorities took Lebedev into custody and placed him in pretrial detention, Karimova wrote [ru] on Facebook a fervid appeal to Investigative Committee officials Alexandr Bastrykin and Vladimir Markin (whom she calls “miserable f**king clowns”), imploring them to “end this circus” and release Lebedev.

After Kashin’s critical piece on Lebedev, Karimova tweeted [ru] angrily:

Сегодня Олег Кашин умер для меня, как журналист. RIP.

Today, as far as I’m concerned, Oleg Kashin died as a journalist. RIP.

The announcement was rather surprising given Karimova’s longtime friendship with Kashin, to whom she in part owes her opposition credentials, following his coverage [ru] of her January 2005 political stunt, where she delivered mandarin oranges to the FSB’s headquarters at the height of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Karimova and Kashin soon reconciled [ru], but her irritation [ru] with Lebedev’s critics survives unabated. Indeed, as recently as April 16, 2013, she complained [ru] on Twitter about “hypocrites’ double standards,” alluding to the opposition’s soured feelings about Lebedev, but its enduring rapport with Vkontakte.ru founder Pavel Durov, who’s been suspected of collaborating with Russian police against the protest movement. (Karimova seems not to have read or not to have accepted Anton Nossik’s interpretation [ru] of the recent “leaks” incriminating Vkontakte.ru, which he argues are part of a campaign to economically weaken the actually quite independently-minded social network.)

The Odd Man Out

The most interesting thing to emerge from Karimova's April tweets is that she believes Lebedev’s underling Yuri Aimaletdinov played a key role in turning public opinion against him. Aimaletdinov, known simply as “Alimych” in their circle of friends, is varyingly described [ru] as Lebedev’s “unavoidable accessory,” his “valet,” and even his “slave.”

Aimaletdinov is the odd man out in the case. He appears in the NTV film that underpins the entire investigation against Lebedev, Udaltsov, and Razvozzhaev, and yet investigators consider him a witness and not an accessory. This could be because, as Aimaletdinov himself maintains, he’s simply not important enough to have played an organizing role in any revolutionary plot. In a November 2012 interview [ru] with Openspace.ru, he was overwhelmingly evasive when questioned about his unique status in the case. Earlier this week, on April 17, 2013, Aimaletdinov indicated on Facebook [ru] that he’s limited by a nondisclosure agreement with state prosecutors. (That same day, it was revealed [ru] that Lebedev, too, is forbidden from discussing the full details of his settlement.)

Also on April 17, Novaya Gazeta’s Yulia Polukhina published a summary [ru] of her conversation with Aimaletdinov, concluding that he is likely more involved in the case than he lets on. For instance, Aimaletdinov apparently knows certain details about investigators that would be impossible to know, if he wasn’t assisting their work. (For instance, Polukhina explains, he is fond of naming individual case officers and describing the interior of their offices.)

Karimova and Aimaletdinov, on the road, 4 August 2012, posted to Twitter.

And then there is Aimaletdinov's connection to Karimova and Lebedev—a friendship rigorously cataloged in tweets and Instagram photos dating back years. There are photos of Karimova embracing Aimaletdinov, Aimaletdinov kissing Lebedev, and their various travels [ru] to Georgia and throughout Russia. Read over the jokes constantly made at Aimaletdinov’s expense, and you start to wonder if Lebedev and Karimova didn’t have it coming. For instance, on April 26, 2012, Karimova tweeted [ru]:

Какой ад. Я знакома с Алимычем уже 7 лет и только что узнала, что его зовут ЮРИЙ. И у него, помимо имени, даже есть фамилия!!!

What a disgrace. I’ve known Alimych for 7 years already and only now have I realized that his name is YURI. And not only that, but he even has a surname!!!

Aimaletdinov again with Karimova, posted 17 November 2012 to Twitter.

Aimaletdinov, however, is hardly [ru] some charming, but under-appreciated, protagonist in this story. While he told Polukhina that he was first introduced to Lebedev through a communist labor organization (RKRP, which disowned [ru] Lebedev upon learning of his confession), in his November interview with Openspace.ru, Aimaletdinov had said that they met in a pro-Kremlin youth group, where Aimaletdinov’s friend of a friend (a prostitute) had offered her services. (Aimaletdinov said he had only joined in search of free meals and t-shirts.)

Aimaletdinov embraces Lebedev, 4 August 2012, posted to Twitter.

Karimova’s falling out with Aimaletdinov seems to have occurred sometime in late October, around the time that he was interrogated by police but never arrested. In a November 2, 2012, Facebook post [ru], she alludes to his “insane” behavior on a recent trip to Kostroma. In an April 8, 2013, tweet, Karimova accused [ru] Aimaletdinov of being responsible [ru] for spreading rumors to make Lebedev look like a traitor—rumors that appeared in Kashin’s and Gerasimenko’s articles about Lebedev’s special treatment in pretrial detention. Aimaletdinov has since responded [ru] on Facebook and in a number of obscene messages [ru] to Karimova, denying her allegations, and going so far as to insult her “short legs” and “fat” ex-husband.

Schisms Today & Tomorrow

If there is a snitch in the snake pit, who is it? Is it Aimaletdinov, the slave who broke his chains, as it were, or was it Lebedev all along? Could they be working together to scapegoat Udaltsov and Razvozzhaev? Or maybe Yakovlev’s suspicions are correct, and the real defector is Ilya Ponomarev, whose name appears (along with Karimova’s) in Lebedev’s conversations with Targamadze. Ponomarev, after all, is widely suspected of collaborating with the authorities in various initiatives. Though his former aid Maria Baronova is reluctant to speak out against her former boss, the two did come into conflict earlier this year, when Ponomarev visited federal investigators in relation to her case. Did he go to defend her, as he says [ru], or was the aim something sinister? If the former, why did he claim to have warned Baronova about it in advance, when she says [ru] he didn't?

If journalist Alexandr Podrabinek’s reaction [ru] is any indication, the effect of the Lebedev confession will be to aggravate relations between the protest movement’s two biggest camps: the liberals and the leftists. Podrabinek, a liberal, is convinced that May 6 was such a disaster for the movement because the liberals allowed radical leftists to hijack the process and turn off the masses with appeals to violence:

В целом наша страна, надо признать, иммунитета к коммунизму и его разновидностям не приобрела.

Generally, we need to acknowledge that our country has not acquired an immunity to communism and its variations.

Consider this perspective alongside Left Front member Alexey Sakhnin’s comments [ru] to Kasparov.ru following the news of Lebedev’s confession. Sakhnin points out that Lebedev was never a member of Left Front (unlike Udaltsov, Razvozzhaev, and Ponomarev), and argues that Lebedev is likely a provocateur sent to disrupt the organization. Unsurprisingly, he doesn't see May 6 as proof of the Left’s unpopularity, but as evidence of its superior political weight relative to the “liberal elite”—as demonstrated by the authorities’ decision to stage provocations:

А эта демонстрация, в отличие от остальных, не была связана с элитной фрондой, с теми, кого называют системными либералами. Это большая угроза для власти. В таких условиях не с кем договариваться.

But this demonstration, unlike the others [in December 2011 and February 2012], wasn't tied to the elite Fronde, to those who call themselves establishment liberals. It [the May 6 rally] was a big threat for the authorities. In such conditions, there’s nobody with whom to strike a deal.

Disputes and scandals like these are endless in the Russian opposition. Whether you denigrate it as a “tusovka” (clique) politics or a snake pit, or celebrate it as Russia’s “creative class,” it’s hard to avoid the simple truth that these people operate in a turbulent free-for-all, where friends at one moment are at each other’s throats the next. It all begs the question: what conflicts will tomorrow bring?

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