All entries for Monday 02 March 2015

March 02, 2015

Monday Morning Muesli

Writing about web page Nemtsov Putin KGB

According to Putin's spokesman Dmitrii Peskov, the Russian President considers that the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was a contract killing with "all the signs of a provocation." This theory has been echoed faithfully by the chief of the investigative commission Vladimir Markin:

The murder could be a provocation to destabilize the political situation in the country, and the figure of Nemtsov could represent a kind of 'holy sacrifice' for those that don't shrink from any means to achieve their political goals.

(Remember that phrase: "holy sacrifice" (in Russian сакральная жертва).

These officials imply that Russian oppositionists murdered their own leader in order to cause chaos and create an opportunity to seize power. The investigators are also considering other motives, although none of them is the most obvious one, that someone had Nemtsov killed in order to remove the opposition's best known leader and intimidate those that remained.

That interpretation should not come as a surprise. Two years ago almost to the day, prime minister Putin was campaigning for election for Russia's president. At a meeting he addressed the context of public protests over the conduct of the election. Referring to the opposition, he said:

The ones that you mentioned, they want some clashes and are directing everything towards this goal. They are prepared even to put someone forward as a victim and blame the authorities for it ... They've been trying to do this for ten years, especially those that are sitting abroad. I'm telling you this exactly. This is what I know. They are even looking for a 'holy sacrifice' from among the prominent people. They themselves will go 'bang,' if you'll excuse me, and then they will blame the authorities.

And yes, Markin's words "holy sacrifice" are exactly the same as the words that his master used two years before. You have to wonder if they've been talking to each other.

***

The general effect is one more creepy echo from Russia's past. On 4 December 1934 a gunman entered the Leningrad communist party headquarters and assassinated Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad party chief. The circumstances strongly suggest some kind of official collusion: Someone above Kirov, which really means the NKVD or Stalin himself, either ordered the murder or knowingly allowed it to happen, but all those close to the deed were dead within a few days or months, and the documents in the archives have not settled the matter. Most likely we'll never know for sure.

We do know what happened next: Stalin immediately took personal charge of the investigation. Within days an official narrative began to emerge: the murderer was a terrorist acting on behalf of foreign powers and domestic traitors. The opposition had incited and organized the deed. Based on this conclusion, the Kirov murder became the pretext for ever-wdening circles of repression; many of the defendants in the show trials in Moscow and elsewhere in 1936 and 1937 were charged with complicity in Kirov's death, among many other fantastic crimes.

***

Recently I've been trying to learn about underground humour. In the process I came across a very nice paper by Elliott Oring, “Risky Business: Political Jokes under Repressive Regimes,” in Western Folklore 63(3) (2004), pp. 209-236. This paper has some wonderful material from a respondent called Klava, a Jewish woman from Odessa. Here's a story that I particularly liked:

Klava was born in 1948. She remembered growing up with political jokes. ‘It was a national past time.’ Odessans prided themselves on their jokes and on being good jokers, and this reputation was recognized by people from others parts of the country as well … But Klava was always aware that jokes and other kinds of discussions could not be freely shared. ‘It was a given ... You are not to repeat ... Only to your family members and your friends.’ Because there were very strict – though unofficial – quotas for Jews at the university, Klava, like many Jews seeking education and advancement, obtained her degree in engineering. She was employed at a large firm, but she eventually quit her job, and became a manicurist. She planned to apply for permission to emigrate, and she knew that once she applied, she would lose her engineering job. By obtaining a job as a manicurist before submitting her application, she could assure herself a source of income while awaiting permission. Nevertheless, she did not immediately apply as her family did not want her to leave.

In 1974, she was working in the shop and she had several clients who were waiting to have their nails done. One of her customers came in without an appointment. She needed to have her nails done because she was going on vacation. She had been Klava's customer for several years. Klava told her that she would do her nails if she would wait until she had finished with her scheduled customers. So while she worked on the other customers, the woman waited in the shop. 1974 was a celebratory year in the communist calendar – a Lenin anniversary – and Klava and her customers exchanged jokes and witticisms – many about Lenin …

Her unscheduled customer sat there the whole time that the jokes were being told. The rest is in Klava's words:

"After the two girls left and she was in the chair. And as I was working on her, she told me, ‘Klava, do you know who I am?’

"I said, ‘Of course, your name is Ludmilla Ivanovna.’ And she said, ‘Do you know where I work?’ ‘Of course, it's in the municipal hall.’ She said, ‘Do you know what department I work in?’ ‘I have no idea.’ ‘It's department number one,’ which was KGB. And the joke was said, it was Lenin's hundredth birthday, and so all the jokes were about it. [The customer then told the following joke.] ‘There was a competition for the best joke about Lenin. And the first prize is ten years to where Lenin used to go’ – jail, exile. And she looked at me and the smile disappeared from her face, and she told me, ‘If I did not value you as my manicurist, I would send you for ten years to where Lenin used to go.’ And that was a decisive moment, because I wanted to go [emigrate] like three years ago, and my family did not want me [to]. I was scared. I was very scared, more than in my whole life, before that or after that."

That night Klava called her family together and told them what had happened and that she was going to submit her application to emigrate. It only took her three months to get the permission, and then she had thirty days to leave the country. Her parents also applied to leave but they were refused, and she had to leave without them.


I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).



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