Letter From the Editors

The theme of this letter was inspired by two extended metaphors that appeared in the Russian press this week. First, Ivan Rodin reported in NG that Vladimir Putin’s public confidence rating is about the same as it was in December. To a layperson, this doesn’t sound like news at all, but journalists in an authoritarian government are sensitive to the most minute fluctuations,

As Rodin explains, state-run polling agency ARCSPO just published its so-called “spontaneous rating,” where “a minor sensation came up: Over the course of a month, . . . the figures for the president have fallen by 5.4%. . . . And if you flip through past ARCSPO reports, it’s not hard to notice that the head of state was given about the same confidence level in December: When the election campaign began, he was at 42.7%.” This change (rather, the lack thereof) leads Rodin to interpret it as “a sort of barometric reading showing that our ship has entered political doldrums. Of course, only sailboats would drift under such conditions; steamboats and more modern ships can continue sailing as long as there’s fuel for the engines.”

The goal of keeping those engines fueled seems to underlie Putin’s new cabinet appointments, in which economically minded ministers like Denis Manturov (industry and trade) and Dmitry Patrushev (agriculture; son of Security Council ideologue Nikolai) rose to the ranks of deputy prime ministers. Experts see a similar trend in the most newsworthy personnel move, in which former economic development minister Andrei Belousov replaced Sergei Shoigu as chief of the Defense Ministry. In the wake of the recent bribery convictions of two officials in that ministry – Yury Kuznetsov and Timur Ivanov – Belousov seems to have been brought in to set the house in order.

Here’s where the second maritime metaphor comes in: Vladimir Pastukhov sails beyond the perfunctory lingo of “reshuffling” into choppier waters: “They say . . . that before a tsunami, the water recedes from the shore, exposing the bottom, where its typically little-seen residents accustomed to the dark depths are writhing in agony. Something similar is apparently happening now in Russia. The sea of the ‘Russian world’ has suddenly retreated, revealing not just all of the current bottom-feeders, but also the hulk of the long-sunken Soviet deep state.” Pastukhov concludes that the “Putin conceptual/mafia state,” shocked by the fallout of the Ukraine war, has begun “to reorganize itself into something more streamlined, more predictable and more effective from a managerial standpoint.”

In neighboring Kazakhstan, a high-profile criminal trial has rocked the ship of state not just at its upper levels, but all the way to the foundation: Kuandyk Bishimbayev, who once served as the country’s minster of national economy, was just convicted of the brutal murder of his wife. In this case, journalists did not have to listen outside closed doors to guess at the implications: On the contrary, as Stanislav Pritchin writes that the event has effected a “significant transformation” in the country, where “society was able to change the usual course of legal proceedings against former and current high-ranking officials.” It also brought to the fore the issue of domestic violence: “[T]he status and safety of women in the family has become one of the top priority areas of focus for the work of journalists, public figures and human rights defenders. . . . [A]cross the country, women have begun to publicly report violence by their husbands,” encouraged by recent legislative changes. Finally, Pritchin writes, “due to the public and detailed consideration of such a high-profile case, Kazakhstan has increased confidence in the judicial system and the work of law-enforcement agencies.”

The ship of state often drifts along so slowly that you can barely feel it – but this is one of the rare moments when the passengers themselves create a wave strong enough to propel it forward.