Free Russia Foundation Launches #NoToWar Campaign

Kemerovo, the place where corruption kills

Mar 30 2018

You probably haven’t heard of Kemerovo. It’s understandable if you haven’t, it isn’t exactly Paris or London.

Keremovo is a city in Russia located 255 km (158 mi) from Novosibirsk, the biggest city in Siberia and Russia’s third largest behind Moscow and St. Petersburg. Slightly over 500,000 live in the industrial city of Kemerovo.

On March 25, 2018, a fire ripped through the “Winter Cherry” mall and theatre complex in the city. According to the BBC, the fire started somewhere on an upper floor in the mall, during school holidays. The complex, which had multiple movie theatres, a bar, cafe, and a bowling alley, was packed and bustling.

While the cause of the fire isn’t known yet for sure, two speculative answers are floating around.

“Senior regional official Vladimir Chernov was quoted as saying the fire probably began in the children’s trampoline room on the top floor of the four-story building.

“The preliminary suspicion is that a child had a cigarette lighter which ignited foam rubber in this trampoline room, and it erupted like gunpowder,” he said.

However, Rossiya 24 TV, a national broadcaster, said an electrical fault was the most likely cause – as in most previous deadly fires in Russia.”

President Vladimir Putin visited Kemerovo and blamed “criminal negligence and sloppiness” for the disaster.

The scenes were heartbreaking.

A Russian man spoke to a crowd of indignant protesters in the city center on the 27th of March, which had been declared a day of mourning. He detailed the last words he spoke to his daughter before she fell victim to the blaze. His last words to the crowd were interrupted by his own tears. The protesters called for an investigation into the disaster and for local officials to resign.

Rumors are swirling around. Official numbers claim 64 people died and that 27 are still missing, but some are adamant that the death toll is much higher, perhaps as high as 300. Despite the history of deceit and propaganda which has come from authorities and the state media in Russia, this has not yet been confirmed. In fact, Meduza, a Russian and English paper based in Riga which is generally quite critical of the Kremlin and President Putin, lays out a comprehensive list of reasons why the rumors of the death toll being much higher than reported may not be true.

Even if the official figures are not found to be entirely accurate, there is still a problem to be discussed among the Russian people in the wake of this horrific disaster.

The disaster in Kemerovo is a symptom of two much larger and much more grim problems than a simple building fire. First, corruption in Russia is a rampant epidemic. Transparency International ranks Russia 135th out of 180 in its corruption index, on par with countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Bangladesh. While corruption is arguably not as bad as it was in Russia under former President Boris Yeltsin, the issue is still a common scapegoat for Russia’s internal issues or inefficiencies.

Yet little ever seems to be accomplished regarding corruption. The current government, while occasionally offering words of encouragement to anti-corruption efforts, does not seem particularly interested in resolving the issue on a national scale. “Not as bad as it was under President Yeltsin” is a low expectation to set and an even lower one to declare the status quo.

Corruption has been a problem in the Kremlin long before Vladimir Putin ever considered running for office. It started to rear its ugly head on a nationwide scale under hardliner Premier Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. The planned economy, still being heralded as the superior system to the perceived excesses and hedonism of capitalism, had become rife with redundancies, waste and an endless bureaucracy. It had started to stagnate and rot from within. Reformist Premier Mikhail Gorbachov tried to right the ship, but his reforms largely backfired and contributed to mounting instability which eventually became a major reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. It only grew and spread under Yeltsin as his ineffective and wildly unpopular government fruitlessly attempted to reform the Russian economy from the smoldering ashes of the collapsed planned economy.

And here we are, in Vladimir Putin’s eighteenth year of power. While rushing to blame Putin as if he was the one to personally start the fire is excessive, it may be time to seriously address a different, intangible problem that is related to the stubborn corruption present in Russia: apathy.

Russians and their Eastern European counterparts are often stereotyped as stoic peoples who grimly go about their lives, rarely smiling unless something unexpectedly wonderful happens or they’ve had a few drinks. Unfortunately, this stereotype can sometimes translate to the political arena. Russians are generally supportive of democracy in theory, but the brain drain, poverty, crime and lost identity that came to define the 1990s soured many Russians’ opinions on the new system of government. Political apathy, while found everywhere, is especially recognizable and tangible in today’s Russia.

While Russia in the 1990s was more democratic than it is now or was under communism, “more” is a relative, and in this case, marginal term. When people are represented by a government which struggles to complete even basic functions, the power and freedom that democracy is supposed to extend to the people  of a sovereign state are difficult to realize.

This was a problem in the United States before its constitution was written as well. Between the end of the American Revolution in 1783 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a sort of prototype constitution that decentralized government to an extreme degree. While life was freer under the Articles that it was under the British Crown, the new government was so ineffective that it proved difficult to realize and celebrate these freedoms.

Eighteen years after Vladimir Putin swept his way into power, he remains the ever-dominant figure in Russian politics. While the Russian economy surged between 2000 and 2007, it has been sluggish or in serious recession since then. President Putin is starting to be compared to Leonid Brezhnev, as while life is generally stable and steady, corruption and apathy are rampant in a sluggish, stagnant state.

That’s where the Russian people can come in and make a difference.

The Kemerovo Disaster was a horrific disaster which could have been prevented. It’s easy to lay the blame at those directly involved, and they are right to be reprimanded. There is no excuse for the alleged negligence of those in the direct vicinity: the security who failed to pull or fix the fire alarm, those who decided to lock the theater doors, and the bogus inspection of the building’s procedures and preparedness for an emergency.

These livid protesters are calling for accountability, a basic tenet of representative government. For years the Kremlin has failed to deliver that. It’s not healthy to fall back into the complacency that life is stable and quiet-society requires an active and invested populace. Another reason for Kemerovo’s disaster was the under-funded fire department: Russia’s wealth, unfortunately, is mostly focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg. Proposed investments in the smaller cities are slow to come if ever.

Russia does not necessarily need photogenic pictures of millions in the streets demanding reform or even revolution as was seen in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014. What it needs, at least as a first step, is for its people to demand accountability on a grand scale. It’s time to stop brushing off corruption as a fact of life-reform is difficult but it certainly is not impossible. Kemerovo was not the first fire disaster in contemporary Russia, but if the people are willing to demand accountability, disasters like this can be prevented or at least substantially controlled so there is less to grieve.

by Kyle Menyhert

Keremovo is a city in Russia located 255 km (158 mi) from Novosibirsk, the biggest city in Siberia and Russia’s third largest behind Moscow and St. Petersburg. Slightly over 500,000 live in the industrial city of Kemerovo.

On March 25, 2018, a fire ripped through the “Winter Cherry” mall and theatre complex in the city. According to the BBC, the fire started somewhere on an upper floor in the mall, during school holidays. The complex, which had multiple movie theatres, a bar, cafe, and a bowling alley, was packed and bustling.

While the cause of the fire isn’t known yet for sure, two speculative answers are floating around.

“Senior regional official Vladimir Chernov was quoted as saying the fire probably began in the children’s trampoline room on the top floor of the four-story building.

“The preliminary suspicion is that a child had a cigarette lighter which ignited foam rubber in this trampoline room, and it erupted like gunpowder,” he said.

However, Rossiya 24 TV, a national broadcaster, said an electrical fault was the most likely cause – as in most previous deadly fires in Russia.”

President Vladimir Putin visited Kemerovo and blamed “criminal negligence and sloppiness” for the disaster.

The scenes were heartbreaking.

A Russian man spoke to a crowd of indignant protesters in the city center on the 27th of March, which had been declared a day of mourning. He detailed the last words he spoke to his daughter before she fell victim to the blaze. His last words to the crowd were interrupted by his own tears. The protesters called for an investigation into the disaster and for local officials to resign.

Rumors are swirling around. Official numbers claim 64 people died and that 27 are still missing, but some are adamant that the death toll is much higher, perhaps as high as 300. Despite the history of deceit and propaganda which has come from authorities and the state media in Russia, this has not yet been confirmed. In fact, Meduza, a Russian and English paper based in Riga which is generally quite critical of the Kremlin and President Putin, lays out a comprehensive list of reasons why the rumors of the death toll being much higher than reported may not be true.

Even if the official figures are not found to be entirely accurate, there is still a problem to be discussed among the Russian people in the wake of this horrific disaster.

The disaster in Kemerovo is a symptom of two much larger and much more grim problems than a simple building fire. First, corruption in Russia is a rampant epidemic. Transparency International ranks Russia 135th out of 180 in its corruption index, on par with countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Bangladesh. While corruption is arguably not as bad as it was in Russia under former President Boris Yeltsin, the issue is still a common scapegoat for Russia’s internal issues or inefficiencies.

Yet little ever seems to be accomplished regarding corruption. The current government, while occasionally offering words of encouragement to anti-corruption efforts, does not seem particularly interested in resolving the issue on a national scale. “Not as bad as it was under President Yeltsin” is a low expectation to set and an even lower one to declare the status quo.

Corruption has been a problem in the Kremlin long before Vladimir Putin ever considered running for office. It started to rear its ugly head on a nationwide scale under hardliner Premier Leonid Brezhnev in the 1970s. The planned economy, still being heralded as the superior system to the perceived excesses and hedonism of capitalism, had become rife with redundancies, waste and an endless bureaucracy. It had started to stagnate and rot from within. Reformist Premier Mikhail Gorbachov tried to right the ship, but his reforms largely backfired and contributed to mounting instability which eventually became a major reason for the collapse of the Soviet Union. It only grew and spread under Yeltsin as his ineffective and wildly unpopular government fruitlessly attempted to reform the Russian economy from the smoldering ashes of the collapsed planned economy.

And here we are, in Vladimir Putin’s eighteenth year of power. While rushing to blame Putin as if he was the one to personally start the fire is excessive, it may be time to seriously address a different, intangible problem that is related to the stubborn corruption present in Russia: apathy.

Russians and their Eastern European counterparts are often stereotyped as stoic peoples who grimly go about their lives, rarely smiling unless something unexpectedly wonderful happens or they’ve had a few drinks. Unfortunately, this stereotype can sometimes translate to the political arena. Russians are generally supportive of democracy in theory, but the brain drain, poverty, crime and lost identity that came to define the 1990s soured many Russians’ opinions on the new system of government. Political apathy, while found everywhere, is especially recognizable and tangible in today’s Russia.

While Russia in the 1990s was more democratic than it is now or was under communism, “more” is a relative, and in this case, marginal term. When people are represented by a government which struggles to complete even basic functions, the power and freedom that democracy is supposed to extend to the people  of a sovereign state are difficult to realize.

This was a problem in the United States before its constitution was written as well. Between the end of the American Revolution in 1783 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, a sort of prototype constitution that decentralized government to an extreme degree. While life was freer under the Articles that it was under the British Crown, the new government was so ineffective that it proved difficult to realize and celebrate these freedoms.

Eighteen years after Vladimir Putin swept his way into power, he remains the ever-dominant figure in Russian politics. While the Russian economy surged between 2000 and 2007, it has been sluggish or in serious recession since then. President Putin is starting to be compared to Leonid Brezhnev, as while life is generally stable and steady, corruption and apathy are rampant in a sluggish, stagnant state.

That’s where the Russian people can come in and make a difference.

The Kemerovo Disaster was a horrific disaster which could have been prevented. It’s easy to lay the blame at those directly involved, and they are right to be reprimanded. There is no excuse for the alleged negligence of those in the direct vicinity: the security who failed to pull or fix the fire alarm, those who decided to lock the theater doors, and the bogus inspection of the building’s procedures and preparedness for an emergency.

These livid protesters are calling for accountability, a basic tenet of representative government. For years the Kremlin has failed to deliver that. It’s not healthy to fall back into the complacency that life is stable and quiet-society requires an active and invested populace. Another reason for Kemerovo’s disaster was the under-funded fire department: Russia’s wealth, unfortunately, is mostly focused on Moscow and St. Petersburg. Proposed investments in the smaller cities are slow to come if ever.

Russia does not necessarily need photogenic pictures of millions in the streets demanding reform or even revolution as was seen in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014. What it needs, at least as a first step, is for its people to demand accountability on a grand scale. It’s time to stop brushing off corruption as a fact of life-reform is difficult but it certainly is not impossible. Kemerovo was not the first fire disaster in contemporary Russia, but if the people are willing to demand accountability, disasters like this can be prevented or at least substantially controlled so there is less to grieve.

by Kyle Menyhert

Free Russia Foundation Condemns the Signing of the Treaty on the “Incorporation of New Territories into Russia,” De Facto the Annexation of the Occupied Territories of Ukraine

Sep 30 2022

On Friday, September 30, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin and the heads of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” and “Donetsk People’s Republic,” as well as the occupation administrations of Zaporizhia and Kherson regions, signed treaties in the Kremlin on “joining Russia.”

Free Russia Foundation strongly condemns the decision of Vladimir Putin and his administration to continue the illegal annexation of the occupied territories in Ukraine. The forcible change of international borders at the expense of another sovereign state and the so-called “referenda” that preceded it are a serious violation of the foundations of international law and cannot be recognized under any circumstances.

Natalia Arno, president of Free Russia Foundation: “Today Vladimir Putin has de facto announced the illegal annexation of the occupied territory of a sovereign state. The signing of this treaty is a blatant violation of the fundamental norms of international law and the Charter of the United Nations, of which Russia is a member. Such actions by the Russian President, together with previously announced military mobilization and nuclear blackmail, only lead to an escalation of the conflict and new human sacrifices. In the modern world, borders cannot be redrawn at gunpoint. Russia’s actions are illegal and unacceptable to the civilized world.”

Free Russia Foundation, which provides support to Russian activists, journalists, and human rights defenders, calls on all countries and international organizations to join us in resolute and public condemnation of Russian military aggression and its illegal actions to tear away the territory of sovereign Ukraine. We urge you to call on the Kremlin to cease its hostilities and leave the territories it has seized.

Free Russia Foundation Condemns the Kremlin’s Decision to Annex the Occupied Territories of Ukraine and Preparations for Mobilization in Russia

Sep 20 2022

On September 20, 2022, the occupation authorities of the self-proclaimed republics “LNR” and “DNR” and other occupied territories of Ukraine, Zaporozhye and Kherson regions, hastily announced that they would hold “referendums on joining Russia” in the near future. The authorities of the “LNR” and “DNR” added that the vote will take place as early as this week, from September 23 to 27, 2022.

On the same day, the Russian State Duma introduced the concepts of “mobilization,” “martial law” and “wartime” into the Russian Criminal Code. The deputies voted for the law in the third reading unanimously — all 389 of them. Now voluntary surrender, looting and unauthorized abandonment of a unit during combat operations will result in imprisonment.

From the first day of the war unleashed by Putin’s regime and its allies against independent Ukraine, Free Russia Foundation, which supports Russian activists, journalists, and human rights activists forced to leave the country because of direct security threats, has condemned the crimes of Putin’s regime against independent Ukraine. We respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states and consider human life and freedom to be of the highest value.

The forthcoming “referendums”, mobilization, and martial law are a collapse of the whole system of “Putin’s stability,” the illusion of which the Kremlin has been trying to maintain since the beginning of the full-scale war with Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is preparing to blatantly violate international law once again and launch an attack on democracy and freedom in Ukraine and Europe. Any statements by the Kremlin that residents of the occupied territories of Ukraine want to become part of Russia are false.

Three decades ago, the Ukrainian people proclaimed the independence of their state. Since 2014, the world has seen that Vladimir Putin has undermined Ukraine’s sovereignty and any attempts at anti-war protest in Russia through military force, repressive legislation, false statements, and massive state propaganda. Despite all the suffering inflicted on Ukraine, Putin has failed to achieve this goal: Ukrainians continue to show fortitude and determination to defend their country at any cost, and Russian anti-war resistance continues despite repression.

We consider any attempts to tear away Ukrainian territory through so-called “referendums” categorically unacceptable and call on state institutions and international human rights organizations to join the demand for an immediate end to the war and the liberation of the occupied territories. Any war brings suffering to humanity and endangers peace. We will not allow a totalitarian dictatorship to prevail and we will continue to fight for Ukraine’s independence and Russia’s democratic future.

Free Russia Foundation announces the appointment of Vladimir Milov as Vice President for International Advocacy

Sep 01 2022

September 1, 2022. Washington, DC. Free Russia Foundation announces the appointment of Russian politician, publicist, economist, and energy expert Vladimir Milov as FRF Vice President for International Advocacy.

In her announcement of Vladimir’s new role, Natalia Arno, President of Free Russia Foundation, remarked: “I am delighted to welcome this distinguished Russian civil society leader to our team. I am certain that Vladimir will become our force multiplier and make a profound contribution to FRF’s mission, including strengthening civil society in Russia, standing up for democracy defenders who oppose war, both inside and outside the country, building coalitions and mobilizing supporters. Vladimir Milov’s professional skills and extensive experience in human rights advocacy will help us come up with effective and innovative approaches to combat the authoritarian regime and repression that the current Russian government has unleashed against citizens of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.”

Vladimir Milov was born on June 18, 1972. From 1997—2002 he worked in government agencies, more than 4 years of which were in senior positions, from assistant to the Chairman of the Federal Energy Commission to the Deputy Minister of Energy of Russia.

Vladimir Milov has bravely and publicly called out the authorities for monopolizing the economy, and encroaching into public and political life of Russian citizens. Milov’s profile as an opposition leader rose thanks to his joint project with Boris Nemtsov. The report titled “Putin. Results,” condemned the activities of the Russian government during Putin’s presidency. In 2010, Mr. Milov headed the Democratic Choice movement, which later served as the basis for the creation of a political party with the same name.

In 2016, Mr. Milov became an associate of the unregistered presidential candidate Alexei Navalny. On May 11, 2017, he began hosting a weekly segment on the economy, “Where’s the Money?” on the NavalnyLIVE broadcast on YouTube.

In April of 2021, he left Russia for Lithuania amidst persecution of Alexei Navalny’s organizations. In February of 2022, he categorically condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On May 6, 2022, the Russian Ministry of Justice added Vladimir Milov to the list of media outlets considered as “foreign agents.” Vladimir Milov is a regular guest expert for the world’s leading media outlets — CNN, CNBC, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal.

Kara-Murza faces a new charge as the Kremlin cracks down on its opponents

Aug 04 2022

Russian pro-democracy politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, who’s been in jail since April for allegedly spreading “disinformation” about the Russian military, now also stands accused of “carrying out the activities of an undesirable organization,” which names Free Russia Foundation in the newly filed charge.

Free Russia Foundation, unconstitutionally designated as an “undesirable” organization by the Russian government in June 2019, did not organize an event on political prisoners in Moscow in 2021. FRF does not have any presence or programs inside Russia. Additionally, FRF has never conducted any work in the State of Arizona.

FRF strongly condemns the new charges brought against Vladimir Kara-Murza by Russian authorities and demands the dropping of all charges against him and calls for his immediate release.

“All actions of the Kremlin directed against Russian opposition politicians and activists have nothing in common with establishing the truth. They are instead aimed solely at getting rid of opponents of Putin’s regime,” FRF President Arno stated.

Free Russian Foundation and Boris Nemtsov Foundation launch “Russians for Change” fundraising campaign

Jul 25 2022

Russia is not Putin. We are Russia.

We aim at sharing this message with our friends around the world — therefore, in cooperation with Boris Nemtsov Foundation we are launching “Russians for Change” fundraising campaign.

We are going to be telling the stories of active pro-democracy anti-war Russians who have not lost their hope. US nationals also participate in this campaign: Francis Fukuyama, investigative journalist Casey Michel, and alumni of Boris Nemtsov Foundation media school.

Thank you for your donation:

The Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom honors the political legacy of Boris Nemtsov, a Russian liberal opposition politician assassinated in Moscow in 2015. It promotes freedom of speech and education along with the vision that Russia is a part of Europe.