Weekly 1 November 2021

Rapper in hot water

Hello! Our top story this week is about how comments by rapper Morgenshtern on the senselessness of Victory Day sparked an official backlash and forced the popular musician to apologize. We also look at how a criminal case against an ex-deputy education minister is linked to a conflict with a billionaire friend of Putin, a mysteriously well-funded political ad campaign, and a quasi-lockdown in Moscow.

Officials attack rap star Morgenshtern over Victory Day criticism

Popular rapper Alisher Morgenshtern landed in hot water this week when he criticized Russia’s lavish annual celebrations to mark the Soviet Union victory over Nazi Germany in 1945. His words brought an angry response from both the Kremlin and the head of the powerful Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin.

  • In a video interview with TV presenter Ksenia Sobchak released Monday, Morgenshtern said he didn’t understand why Russia spent millions of rubles on military parades and other Victory Day events. “Perhaps there isn’t anything to be proud of,” he said. “Remembering that once upon a time we won something, and doing this every year for almost a century … I don’t understand.” Morgenshtern said it was time to celebrate more recent triumphs, like achievements in IT or space.
  • Victory in the Second World War is a key ideological pillar, and the response was swift. The following day, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, said the musician was ignorant of history. “Go and ask any of our veterans, of whom there are fewer and fewer left but who still live among us. Ask them why Victory Day is so important,” he said.
  • Morgenshtern apologized for his remarks. “I in no way sought to diminish the significance of the event, I just admitted honestly that I don’t understand and that phrase was taken out of context,” he wrote Tuesday on Instagram. The rapper added that he is proud of veterans but “failed to properly express his ideas”, and pointed out that his call for more funds for veterans “didn’t even make it into the interview”.
  • But it was too late. Bastrykin ordered an investigation into Morgenshtern’s words. A press release from the Investigative Committee asserted the popular rapper had insulted “the historical memory of the defenders of the fatherland”. Following a new law passed earlier this year, this is a criminal offense carrying a potential five-year jail term. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was fined under a previous version of the same law for allegedly slandering a veteran.
  • Presenter Sobchak pointed out that Morgenshtern had only said he didn’t understand the scale of the celebrations. “He’s 23! He represents a different generation, which cannot, on an emotional level, respond to what happened 76 years ago,” she wrote.
  • Moscow’s Victory Museum invited Morgenshtern for a guided tour following his comments. His lawyer said that the musician would be happy to visit. “I think that’s a sensible initiative as young people should not be punished for things they do not know or understand but, instead, should be enlightened,” the lawyer added.
  • Morgenshtern was rated the most “influential influencer” for young Russians in a poll earlier this year. But this is not his only brush with the law. In early June, he was fined 100,000 rubles ($1,400) for promoting drug use in his lyrics. The musician insisted he was “absolutely innocent” and unsuccessfully appealed the fine.
  • For Bastrykin, the investigation into Morgenshtern is the latest attempt to burnish his image as a defender of conservative values. The same day, Bastrykin ordered an investigation into St. Petersburg artist Kirill Miller, alleging he had offended war veterans because of a painting he did that depicts a group of people holding placards with deformed human heads.
  • However, Bastrykin’s attempts to push himself to the top of the news agenda do not always work out. At the start of the week he said he was “taking control” of the reported disappearance of actor Svetlana Svetlichnaya. However, the actor was quickly found — and it emerged the whole incident was a PR stunt. The attention on Svetlichnaya meant resources were diverted from efforts to find real missing people and search-and-rescue organization Liza Alert said this was one of the reasons it failed to find a man in the woods of Moscow Region who ended up dying.

Why the world should care

Morgenshtern’s experience is a warning to the younger generation about the dangers of being apolitical, according to blogger Ilya Varlamov. A year ago, the musician gave an interview in which he said that he has no interest in politics. “We have a wonderful country in which to build a business,” he said at the time. However, within a year, he has been forced to apologize after pressure from officials — in order to save that same business.

Influential lawmaker linked to conflict behind ‘Rakova case’

The so-called ‘Rakova case’ is fast becoming one of the most significant criminal cases to be opened this year. So far, it has implicated former deputy minister Marina Rakova and the head of one of the country’s last surviving independent universities. Since we last reported on the case, The Bell has established that the criminal investigation was preceded by a conflict over multi-billion ruble state contracts involving Russia’s largest high school textbook publisher, Prosveshcheniye, which is controlled by veteran lawmaker Oleg Tkach.

  • Sources who spoke to The Bell described Rakova as a “harsh” and “uncompromising” bureaucrat, but acknowledged she did a great deal for education. “Without Rakova there would be no Quantorium,” one admitted. Quantorium was Rakova’s signature achievement in government: 135 study centers in 84 of Russia’s 85 regions. Each one is different, but they generally have expensive facilities to provide free teaching of subjects like coding, robotics, microbiology, and 3D-modeling. They are funded by a mix of government and corporate money.
  • There are no official figures, but the cost of each Quantorium center was estimated to be about 104.5 million rubles ($1.5 million). So, contracts for all the study centers built since 2015 would be worth a minimum of 14.1 billion rubles.
  • Officially, the Rakova case is not linked to Quantorium. Instead, Rakova is accused of fraud over research her ministry commissioned from the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Science (Shaninka). Rakova is currently in prison, as is her partner Artur Stetsenko, two former government colleagues, Yevgeny Zak and Maksim Inkin, and Kristina Kryuchkova, former executive director of Shaninka. Sergei Zuev, rector of Shaninka, is under house arrest.
  • Nevertheless, it was Quantorium that led to Rakova acquiring influential enemies and may provide the key to understanding why she is now behind bars, five different sources told The Bell. One of Rakova’s biggest conflicts was with the Prosveshcheniye publishing house, which enjoys a virtual monopoly on the production of textbooks for Russian high schools.
  • However, as well as textbooks, Prosveshcheniye is involved in equipping educational buildings. And, according to three people close to the project, it had plans for Quantorium — Prosveshcheniye wanted to supply equipment to the study centers.
  • Rakova often spoke out internally against Prosveshcheniye’s lobbying, an Education Ministry source told The Bell. A former colleague of Rakova’s said the publishing house pushed for changes to procurement procedure. “Rakova successfully resisted this pressure,” said one official. “She was able to uphold high standards, ensuring schools did not receive laptops that had to be scrapped within a year.”
  • When Rakova left government earlier this year for a senior position at state-owned Sberbank, the conflict did not end. In May 2021, Sberbank, development bank VEB.RF and state-owned Russian Direct Investment Fund reached a deal to buy 25 percent of Prosveshcheniye. Rakova was in charge of Sberbank’s involvement and joined the publisher’s board of directors on behalf of the bank. The bad blood continued to be an issue in her new role, several of her acquaintances said.
  • Prosveshcheniye was set-up in the Soviet Union to produce high school textbooks (effectively holding a monopoly on this business). However, in the 20 years following the collapse of Communism, its market share dropped to 35 percent. It was bought in 2011 by Olma Media, a small publishing house owned by senator Oleg Tkach and his business partner, Vladimir Uzun. For the purposes of the deal, Prosveshcheniye was valued at about 2.25 billion rubles and Tkach and Uzun got the money from SMP Bank, which is owned by billionaire brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg — who are also close friends of Putin. Prosveshcheniye backed out of a planned IPO in 2017 because of the risk posed by U.S. sanctions.
  • Now, Prosveshcheniye once again has an effective monopoly on the production of high school textbooks. In effect, the state guarantees the publisher rising profits.
  • Tkach is known as one of the most influential members of Russia’s upper house of parliament. In a rating of influence compiled by NGO Transparency International, he ranks higher than Federation Council speaker Valentina Matvienko and deputy speaker Nikolai Zhuravlyov. Of 17 laws he has proposed, 14 were passed.

Why the world should care

For some time now, the Russian government has been investing large sums of money in high school education, and textbooks are seen to be of particular importance in shaping the outlook of young people. Rakova evidently made some powerful enemies.

IN BRIEF

Moscow enters quasi-lockdown amid rising COVID-19 cases

Moscow went into a partial lockdown Wednesday in an attempt to contain rising coronavirus cases. The measures have been dubbed a ‘business lockdown’ since the movements of individuals are not restricted. For now, it’s due to last for a week. People are barred from shops and services, sport, leisure and cultural events, public entertainments, cinema screenings and more. Only online sales and takeaway food services will be allowed. There is already much debate about whether this quasi-lockdown will be extended any further: although Moscow City Hall denied a prolongation was on the cards, Forbes magazine cited eight separate sources in a report suggesting this was under discussion. Other Russian regions have also imposed restrictions — the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in a single day topped 40,000 for the first time Thursday. According to official figures, 49.2 million people are fully vaccinated, which is about one third of the Russian population.