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The Week In Russia: Party Of War

A firefighter works at the site of a warehouse heavily damaged during a Russian missile strike in Kyiv on December 29.
A firefighter works at the site of a warehouse heavily damaged during a Russian missile strike in Kyiv on December 29.

I'm Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

Welcome to The Week In Russia, in which I dissect the key developments in Russian politics and society over the previous week and look at what's ahead. To receive The Week In Russia newsletter in your inbox, click here.

The choreographed backlash over a risqué holiday party speaks volumes about Russia as the New Year approaches. So does the treatment of imprisoned Kremlin opponent Aleksei Navalny, who has been moved to a harsh prison in the country's frigid Far North.

Here are some of the key developments in Russia over the past week and some of the takeaways going forward.

Anatomy Of A Scandal

For decades, star-studded galas have been a gaudy staple of the winter holiday season on Russian television, bringing tens of millions of viewers an annual message: sit back, relax, stay out of politics -- and forget about the high price of the eggs you boiled for the obligatory New Year's potato salad.

This year, a celebrity-laden gathering that was ostensibly private has stolen the show: The state is stoking a backlash over an "Almost Naked" party at a Moscow nightclub earlier this month, using the louche celebration to drive home the socially conservative notions that it is increasingly casting as a national ideology amid a severe break with the West over Russia's war on Ukraine.

Socially conservative is an understatement in a country where the Supreme Court this month classified what the government called the "international LGBT social movement" as extremist. Kremlin critics say President Vladimir Putin's sharpening focus on so-called "traditional values" is disingenuous, a way to draw Russians' attention away from troubles such as inflation and to score points among select audiences abroad by portraying Russia as the world's valiant protector against what he paints as the decadent, ultra-liberal West.

Despite its risqué theme and the celebrity of some of the big-name guests, the party on December 20-21 might have flown under the radar for the vast majority of Russians if it had come off without incident. But even as they profess disinterest, state authorities have drawn attention to it, not least by arresting a rapper who wore nothing but a single sock -- and not on his foot. On December 27, a court sentenced him to 15 days in jail for "hooliganism" and ruled that the party had violated legislation banning the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" -- Russia's infamous "gay propaganda" law, which has been made increasingly harsh by amendments since Putin first signed it in 2013.

Cancel Culture

Nobody else has been prosecuted at this point, but the club has been closed temporarily and its premises sealed by the consumer protection agency, famous attendees have lost sponsors and contracts, including for the New Year's Eve shows that the "Almost Naked" party has overshadowed in advance, and several -- including the organizer, Anastasia Ivleyeva -- have recorded public apologies that are being likened to the forced displays of repentance that were a fixture of the Stalin era, which are now echoed by those who cross Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya.

With Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaching the two-year mark in February, with no sign of a let-up in Moscow's onslaught, the scandal raised over the party was a sign of the times.

According to the Russian-language media outlet The Bell, it was also a signal to Russians that whether they are celebrities or ordinary citizens, they must "listen to the Party of War." And with Putin asserting that Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is actually an existential struggle against the West that has many elements, including a culture war, that means anything that the authorities pick out as a reflection of disloyalty is subject to pressure and punishment from the state.

In some ways, that's nothing new. A clampdown on dissent that can be traced back at least as far as opposition leader Aleksei Navalny's arrest upon his return to Russia in January 2021, and arguably to a wave of protests that began in 2011, has intensified since Putin ordered the full-scale invasion.

While the spiral of oppression has become the status quo, with any public criticism of the war risking persecution, prosecution, or both, some of the near-daily developments seem to stand out.

Poets Imprisoned

On December 28, two poets, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba, were sentenced to seven and 5 1/2 years in prison, respectively, for condemning the invasion in verses they read out in September 2022 on a Moscow square. They were convicted of "inciting hatred and calling for anti-state activities."

Like the "Almost Naked" party, meanwhile, Navalny was also seemingly used by the state to send a message to Russians and the West.

After almost 20 days during which they were unable to contact him or determine where he was, lawyers for Navalny finally found him at an isolated prison above the Arctic Circle that former inmates have described as a harsh place where everyday treatment of the convicts was tantamount to torture.

Navalny disappeared while he was being moved, via a circuitous route, from the prison closer to Moscow where he had been held. This is common practice in Russia, dating back to the Soviet era and even earlier -- prison authorities hold inmates incommunicado while transporting them within the penitentiary system.

'Then The Night Again'

All the while, Putin's spokesman asserted that the Kremlin had no idea of his whereabouts and no interest in knowing them.

Many observers dismissed that claim, just as they doubted reports that the scandal over the nearly nude party was the result of a popular backlash, spawned when soldiers who had been decorated by Putin after returning from the war in Ukraine complained about the event, rather than what The Bell called a top-down "cancel campaign" approved by Putin's administration -- or at the very least used by Putin for his own ends.

Navalny, for his part, made light of his predicament. Finally located by one of his lawyers in a prison cell in the frigid Far North on December 25, Christmas Day in much of the West, he joked that he was exhausted from the journey "but still in a good mood, as befits a Santa Claus."

In the same post to his account on X, formerly Twitter, Navalny mentioned one way that he differed from Santa Claus. And in doing so, as 2024 approaches, he described the lightless atmosphere that Kremlin critics say is likely to prevail for the foreseeable future in Russia as Putin, in power as president or prime minister since 1999, heads for a new six-year term in a March vote.

"I don't say 'Ho-ho-ho,'" Navalny wrote, "but I do say 'Oh-oh-oh' when I look out of the window, where I can see a night, then the evening, and then the night again."

That's it from me this week.

If you want to know more, catch up on my podcast The Week Ahead In Russia, out every Monday, here on our site, or wherever you get your podcasts (Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts).


Steve Gutterman

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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About This Newsletter

Week In Russia
Steve Gutterman

The Week In Russia presents some of the key developments in the country over the past week, and some of the takeaways going forward. It's written by Steve Gutterman, the editor of RFE/RL's Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk.

To receive The Week In Russia in your inbox, click here.

And be sure not to miss Steve's The Week Ahead In Russia podcast. It's posted here every Monday or you can subscribe on iTunes or on Google Podcasts.

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