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Bulletin May 28, 2024

“Traitors” and the split in the Russian opposition

Photo source: Ivan Shilov / Unsplash

The three-part documentary series “Traitors”, produced by Aleksey Navalny’s associate Maria Pevchikh, was released on 16 April, 23 April and 1 May this year. According to Pevchikh, it is a screening of Navalny’s manifesto published last year[1], which embodies the thoughts of the oppositionist who was killed in prison.

In his famous 2023 manifesto “My Fear and Hatred”, Navalny wrote: “I can do nothing with myself and I hate fiercely, furiously, those who have sold out, wasted, squandered the historic opportunity that our country had in the early 1990s. I hate Yeltsin with his ‘Tania and Valia‘[2], Tchubais and the whole family of parasites who put Putin in charge.

I hate the scammers whom we call reformers for some reason. It is as clear as day that they were only interested in intrigue and personal wealth. In what other country have so many ministers of a ‘reform government’ turned into millionaires and billionaires?”[3].

The story of how Boris Yeltsin and his entourage sank into a quagmire of corruption, how a clan of oligarchs serving the President’s “family” was formed, destroying and discrediting the foundations of liberal democracy, and how the “family” appointed Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin’s successor, is told in three parts of the film: (1) “The story of the big conversation. Who took over Russia and how”; 2) “The family” and the oligarchs. How the oligarchs robbed Russia and the “democrats” stole the elections”; 3) “Where Putin came from and why Russia was given to him”.

The “Traitors” series and Navalny’s text “My Fear and Hatred” share an important idea: that the origins of Russia’s current troubles lie not in Putin but in the Yeltsin era.

The “Traitors” series and Navalny’s text “My Fear and Hatred” share an important idea: that the origins of Russia’s current troubles lie not in Putin but in the Yeltsin era (the manifesto’s headline word “hatred” is directed at this era) and that in the future Russia, at yet another crossroads, may again choose the path of deceit, corruption and dictatorship (the manifesto’s headline word “fear” is directed at this possible future).

Both Navalny’s manifesto and Pevchikh’s series emphasise that Putin/KGB did not seize power: the oligarchs of the day, who played the role of democrats and liberals, hired this bunch, knowing full well what they were doing.

Both Navalny’s manifesto and Pevchikh’s series emphasise that Putin/KGB did not seize power: the oligarchs of the day, who played the role of democrats and liberals, hired this bunch, knowing full well what they were doing. They did so because they were afraid of losing the 1996 presidential elections, on which their still stacked capital depended. In the long run, the oligarchic ‘family’ gave even the presidency to their former mercenaries.

Why Putin? This question is raised at the end of the third part of Pevchikh’s film. And on this occasion, the author quotes at length the explanation of Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko (Yumasheva), made public in 2009. Tatyana’s text is entitled: ‘Why Vladimir Putin’. According to Pevchikh, it is an extremely important text that should answer fundamental questions, because the person who wrote it was directly involved in the appointment of Putin as Yeltsin’s successor.

And here is what Yeltsin’s daughter writes (and I quote from Pevchich): “Imagine that you are the President of Russia. A president who chooses a successor. Primakov is not suitable because he is too tough and promises to imprison [everyone]. Chernomyrdin cannot win the elections. Luzhkov is a traitor. Yavlinsky, Gaidar are good, but they won’t win elections either. Nemtsov has no chance.

And Putin. We liked his informative presentations, his reasoning, his calm, restrained approach to the acute regional problems. We could not fail to appreciate the honourable way in which he behaved when the attack on his mentor, the first mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, was launched with trumped-up criminal cases. His previous work for the KGB did not disturb us at all. On the contrary, the image of a spy was always bright during the Soviet era. And you decide that he is the main candidate.

He will lead the country on the path of democracy. He is for market reforms. His character is strong. […] Yes, nobody knows him now, but you are sure that people will immediately feel his charm and his inner strength. You are still thinking, debating: Putin or not Putin? And then you still decide: Putin.”

“The family has decided to appoint a dutiful and loyal mafia consigliere who is a good reader of reports as head of state.”

That is the detailed quote Pevchikh reads in the film. She shudders: ‘And that’s it. Do you understand? I am reading this text hoping to find an explanation that I can understand. And there is nothing in it except that Putin read the reports well and saved his boss Sobchak from prison.” The family has decided to appoint a dutiful and loyal mafia consigliere who is a good reader of reports as head of state.

Navalny and Pevchikh do not see a fundamental difference between those oligarchs who at some point did not bow to Putin and suffered for their position and those who remained loyal to Yeltsin’s family’s protégé.

In the film-makers’ view, although some of the influential oligarchs of the time (such as Vladimir Gusinsky) did not support Putin’s candidacy, this does not diminish their responsibility for what happened to Russia. Navalny and Pevchikh do not see a fundamental difference between those oligarchs who at some point did not bow to Putin and suffered for their position (Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and those who remained loyal to Yeltsin’s family’s protégé (Boris Abramovich, Vladimir Potanin, Anatoliy Tchubais). From the point of view of the makers of ”Traitors”, there is no fundamental difference in their moral make-up.

The moral face of the oligarchs of the time, in relation to their relationship with the KGB, is vividly described by Navalny in his text: ‘I hate oligarch Gusinsky (although he is no longer an oligarch) for demonstratively hiring Bobkov, the deputy head of the KGB, who was responsible for the persecution of dissidents. It seemed to them at the time that this was a joke: ‘cha-cha, he was putting innocent people in prison and now he works for me’. Like a bear in livery. So not only was there no lustration: scoundrels were even encouraged. And now those who served Bobkov in his youth are jailing Yashin, Kara-Murza and me.”[4]

Both Navalny’s manifesto and Pevchikh’s series make it clear that it is not only Putin and his entourage who have to take responsibility for Putinism (as they naturally do), but also those who created them and handed them the levers of virtually unlimited power. It is not only Yeltsin and his entire so-called ‘family’ and the famous oligarchs who surrounded them, some of whom later turned into famous oppositionists, who are held responsible for Putin’s entrenchment, but also those who were on the other side of the barricades, and who, in 1999, supported, for example, Yevgeny Primakov’s group, but who were still part of the same corrupt system.

The ”Traitors” series has received very controversial reactions from the Russian democratic opposition living in exile, which should perhaps not be surprising. After all, some of the Russian oppositionists who are often seen in the media and in public forums, such as Khodorkovsky or Alfred Koch, a former Russian Deputy Prime Minister who is currently living in Germany and who is active in commenting on politics, are openly labelled as traitors by the creators of the film. At the same time, Alexei Venediktov, the former head of Echo Moskvy, is mentioned among the Putinist henchmen in last year’s Navalny manifesto.

A very different view of the TV series “Traitors” was expressed by Vladimir Pastukhov, a Russian political analyst who is often seen in the public sphere, who spoke favourably of the film and declared on Radio Liberty that he agreed with “99% of the statements made in the three episodes of the film”[5]. Farida Kurbangaleyeva, a journalist currently living in the Czech Republic and a writer for opposition Russian publications, has a similar view.

The arguments of the film’s critics usually boil down to a few main theses: that the filmmakers of “Traitors” present everything in a one-sided, simplistic and “flat” way.

The arguments of the film’s critics usually boil down to a few main theses: that the filmmakers of “Traitors” present everything in a one-sided, simplistic and “flat” way; that they sympathise with the Yeltsin-era communists and are unaware of the threat they pose; that they exaggerate the facts of the sale of state assets through corrupt collateral auctioning schemes; that they are serving Putin’s interests by discrediting privatisation; and that they are splitting Russian opposition.

The argument about ‘benefiting Putin’ is so silly that it is not even worth considering seriously. “The ‘benefit’ in this case is that the Kremlin is supposedly planning large-scale nationalisation and the film serves its purposes. Obviously, Putin would have absolutely no need of Maria Pevchikh’s help if he decided to nationalise anything.

The moaning about splitting the opposition does not seem worthy of counter-argument either, because you cannot split something that is already split. Navalny’s comrades were not involved in the signing of the so-called Berlin Declaration by Russian oppositionists a year ago, with Khodorkovsky playing first fiddle. Navalny’s and Pevchich’s colleagues have also long had a rather sceptical view of the activities of this opposition, which they have not hidden. “What good is it if we rub shoulders at conferences in Berlin or have delicious dinners and coffees and croissants in Paris?” – they ask sarcastically[6].

The criticism of the film-makers for exaggerating the privatisation of state-owned enterprises in collateral auctions (saying that there were very few enterprises privatised in this way) is a rather interesting way of sidestepping important facts by referring only to their statistical weight and ignoring their political weight. As for the communist threat, it is a good old communication trick about the “lesser evil”, which can be used to justify almost all the world’s misdeeds. Stalin’s USSR is a lesser evil than Nazi Germany, so let us give half of Europe to Stalin and have peace of mind.

What is really worth pointing out is Pevchikh’s reproach against the film for its alleged “flatness” and one-sidedness, which at first glance seems rather vague and even banal, but which actually says a lot about the Russian opposition and its thinking today[7]. But this reproach is a separate topic, which we will discuss in another text.

Footnotes

[1] https://navalny.com/p/6651/, „Мои страх и ненависть”.

[2] Boris Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana and son-in-law Valentin Yumashev.

[3] Op.cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] https://www.svoboda.org/a/kak-putin-zakonchit-voynu-s-ukrainoy-predateli-fbk-ohota-fsb-na-shoygu/32933180.html

[6] https://republic.ru/posts/111807?utm_source=republic.ru

[7] t.me/prazhskygrad. Фарида Курбангалеева. Приватизация, пирамиды, и момент, когда «что-то пошло не так».

 

Russian propaganda researcher. Moderator of the EESC “Akiračiai” club. Producer, columnist and presenter of the project “Understanding Russia” (main platform – IQ magazine). Host of TV3’s political current affairs programme. Graduated from Vilnius University with a Master’s degree in Comparative Politics. Research interests: political philosophy, history of ideas, political communication. Lecturer in political science and political communication at Mykolas Romeris and Vilnius Universities. He is the author of several scientific texts on political philosophy and political communication. His journalism focuses on analysis of political life, information space, and socio-cultural phenomena.