Eastern Radar #1

“Eastern Radar” is a newsletter by D&B member Fabrice Deprez that will bring each week a digest of select, overlooked stories and relevant links about Eastern Europe. You can read the full first issue right here on D&B, but consider subscribing to receive the next issues in your mail box!

What caused the wildfires that spread through Ukraine’s Luhansk region last month, killing at least nine people and destroying entire villages? The autumn was warm and dry, unusually so. And as the fires spread near the frontline between the Ukrainian military and the territories held by Moscow-backed separatist groups, officials quickly accused the separatist forces of having caused the disaster by firing mortar shells and tracer bullets. But Ukraine’s State Investigation Bureau (a sort of local FBI) now has a new theory, one that looks as plausible as it seems grim: the fires, they say, could not be extinguished in time because officials in local fire brigades had been clocking odometers and siphoning fuel from the trucks, stranding them as more than 400 houses turned to ashes.

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Welcome to the first issue of Eastern Radar! Let’s get started — in no particular order, here are a few interesting things that happened this week:

  • Moscow is angry at Norway, a NATO member bordering Russia: the country can no longer continue its “two-track approach”, Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. She also accused Oslo of becoming “NATO’s foothold in the Arctic.”
  • A Nigerian court sentenced six foreign nationals, including Ukrainians, Pakistanis and a Ghanaian, to seven years in jail for stealing crude from pipelines.
  • Chinese authorities introduced quarantine and kicked off a massive testing campaign in Manzhouli (Google Maps), a city of 200,000 inhabitants on Russia’s border. Local authorities shut down all schools and public venues after two cases of coronavirus were reported on Saturday.
  • 18 civilians were killed and 85 injured this year in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, the OSCE reported.
  • A goldmine in Siberia will be the location of Russia’s first 5G commercial network. Network provider MTS and Ericsson are planning to launch the network by the end of the year.
  • Following the arrest of a high-ranking local police officer (charged with helping one of the 2010 Moscow metro suicide bombers), the Dagestan region branch of Russia’s Interior Ministry announced it would “temporarily” suspend its Instagram account because of a high amount of “questions and complaints.”

Under the Radar

Russia / TJournal / Demolition of the House of Soviets: how Kaliningrad’s biggest unfinished building became a 30 years-long problem for the authorities, and a symbol of the collapse of the USSR [RU]

“Construction began in 1970, and was planned to be completed in just four years. […] Due to problems with the supply of materials for the construction site and interruptions in financing, the deadlines were regularly overshot. After 15 years, Perestroika began in the USSR, and there was not enough money for a large-scale Soviet project. “By 1991, the building was 95% complete. […],” workers involved in the construction said. In 1995, city and regional authorities privatized the House of Soviets […] For eight years they could not find an investor.”

Russia / Inde / Robert Garayev on Kazan’s criminal world: “If you dig deep, every family has some kind of trauma” [RU]

“What the groups profited from in the 1990s — protection and racketeering — has now clearly passed to the security forces. Now, if you need a krysha (protection), you don’t go to the bandits, you go to the security forces. It is much more profitable to have an acquaintance or a relative from the power structures than a bandit. Everything changed: the security forces fought against the groups, to the point that they [themselves] became the groups.”

Russia / Atlas Obscura / The Proud, Demanding Vodyanoy Rules Russia’s Rivers and Lakes

“Over centuries, Slavic folk traditions have faded dramatically in the face of political disruption, revolution, and generational shifts. But the vodyanoy endures, and its legends still circulate among Russians and Eastern Europeans of all ages. Most agree that he is a malicious spirit. “They prefer lakes known to have [a] traitorous nature like dangerous shores, deep torrents, and such,” according to one Russian local.”

Research & General Nerdistry

Global Society / From Russia with Lols: Humour, RT, and the Legitimation of Russian Foreign Policy 🔒

“Whilst studies have so far analysed the content of RT’s media reports, they have yet to interrogate how Russian legitimation claims are often expressed on RT through a blurring of news reporting and comedy. This paper addresses this gap and places humour at the centre of analysis, arguing that comedy and satire are fundamental to how RT claims legitimacy for Russian foreign policy.”

Canadian Slavonic Papers / A family affair? Post-imperial Estonian Orthodoxy and its relationship with the Russian Mother Church, 1917–23 🔒

“This article deals with the evolution of the Estonian part of Riga diocese into an autonomous Orthodox Church, focusing on the negotiations, compromises, pluralism, and realpolitik that characterized this process. The reconfiguration of Riga diocese in 1917–23 and the emergence of the autonomous Estonian Orthodox Church under the patriarch of Constantinople occurred under the influence of three factors: first, the political formation of Estonian statehood; second, the violence of the Bolshevik takeover and the Civil War; and, third, the temporary decentralization of the Russian Church.”

BOFIT Discussion Papers / Gulags, crime, and elite violence: Origins and consequences of the Russian mafia 🔓

“I web scraped a unique dataset that contains detailed biographies of more than 5,000 mafia leaders operating in 15 countries of the (former) Soviet Union at some point between 1916 and 2017. Using this data, I first show that the Russian mafia originated in the Gulag – the Soviet system of forced labor camps which housed around 18 million prisoners in the 1920s – 1950s period. Second, I document that the distance to the nearest camp is a strong negative predictor of mafia presence in Russia’s communities in the early post-Soviet period.”

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