The standoff between the main Russian propagandist, Vladimir Solovyev, and the political elite of the Urals region (see EDM, May 17) has taken a new turn. At the beginning of June, the mayor of the small Sverdlovsk Oblast city of Pervoyualsk, Igor Kabets, posted on his social media page a picture in which the governor of the region, Yevgeny Kuyvashev, cuts off the head of Russian propagandist Vladimir Solovyov with a lightsaber (Segodnya.ua, June 4). This virtual battle was preceded by a series of no-less scandalous clashes.
At the end of April, Solovyev went on the air with Vladimir Yakushev, the presidential envoy to the Urals Federal District. During the broadcast, Solovyev called Yekaterinburg “the center of a vile liberota,” an insulting expression associated with the large number of people with liberal views in the city (YouTube, April 28). In reply, the governor of Sverdlovsk Oblast, Yevgeny Kuyvashev, recorded a video message in defense of the city, urging the notorious Russian TV personality to “watch his language” (Vk.com/evgenykuyvashev, April 28).
The result of Kuyvashev’s speech was a new flood of invective from Solovyev. He switched to the slang of criminals, accusing the governor of having a (non-existent) criminal past and advised Kuyvashev to join those who had allegedly attempted to assassinate the TV presenter (ВВС—Russian service, April 28). The conflict quickly became one of the main topics of focus for the federal mass media. Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the quarrel in response to journalists’ questions, but representatives of the regional political elite, including the acting mayor of Yekaterinburg, Alexei Orlov, and former governor Eduard Rossel, supported their native land and criticized Solovyev’s declarations (Fontanka.ru, April 29). They were joined by Yevgeny Royzman, Maxim Petlin, and other well-known Ural politicians (Kommersant, May 4). Interestingly, despite the conflict with Solovyev, who is unofficially called the “mouthpiece of the Kremlin,” Russian President Vladimir Putin supported the decision of Governor Kuyvashev to run for a new term (E1.ru, May 20).
Yekaterinburg has long been considered one of the centers of liberal protest in the country. It is one of a few regions with experience fighting for autonomy in recent Russian history. In 1991–1993, in several regions, including Ingushetia, Tatarstan and Sverdlovsk Oblast, referenda were held regarding the status of federation members. Eighty-three percent of the inhabitants of Sverdlovsk Oblast voted in favor of the region having equal powers with the republics.
The Ural Republic was declared on June 1, 1993, and on October 27 of the same year, its constitution was locally ratified. However, on November 9, then–Russian president Boris Yeltsin signed a declaration “on the termination of the activities of the Sverdlovsk Regional Council of People’s Deputies” who developed the Ural Constitution; the following day, he dismissed the governor of the Sverdlovsk region, Eduard Rossel. The Ural Republic, having existed for just over four months, was never recognized at the federal level (Uraloved.ru, January 23, 2013).
Nevertheless, a number of prominent political figures remained committed to the idea of a republic even years later. In 2003, the “Ural Republican Movement” was registered in Yekaterinburg, which proclaimed “the creation of a Ural Republic” as its main goal, and newly reelected governor Rossel declared that the republic “legally exists to this day” (Rossaprimavera.ru, January 30, 2013).
It is important to underscore that the Ural political elite was never in favor of the region seceding from Russia but only demanded more economic and legislative independence (RBC, May 3). Yet in the eyes of the federal authorities, the region was classified as “unreliable,” which periodically resulted in propaganda campaigns against Yekaterinburg.
In 2014, in the midst of sporadic protests against the annexation of Crimea and the war that Russia unleashed in Donbas, a part of the local opposition returned to the idea of creating a Ural Republic, which led immediately to public harassment and the publication of various kinds of “compromising evidence” (“kompromat”) on Yekaterinburg activists (Politrussia.com, February 13, 2015). Federal and local propagandists accused the municipal authorities of too closely cooperating with the Consulate General of the United States in Yekaterinburg (Politrussia.com, June 30, 2015), and provocations against the consulate itself were organized periodically with “the infiltration of agents” (Pravdaurfo.ru, October 9, 2014) and attacks in the media (Politikus.info, August 23, 2014).
The renewal of condemnations against the city was related to the opening in Yekaterinburg of the “Yeltsin Center” in November 2015. Despite Putin’s personal participation in the ceremony (Yeltsin.ru, November 25, 2015), the well-known conservative-patriotic pundit Nikita Mikhalkov repeatedly declared that “the Yeltsin Center is destroying the spirit of youth” (Ura.ru, May 7, 2017) and compared the awards issued by the center with medals given out by the Nazi Wehrmacht (Ura.ru, May 7, 2017). The head of Russia’s Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, also called for closing the Yelstin Center (Ura.ru, March 11, 2020). The most recent vehement criticism of the Center was heard at the end of May 2022—again from Vladimir Solovyev. This time, the Russian propagandist rebuked one of the Yekaterinburg high schools for putting on a dance performance ostensibly in the “LGBT style,” supposedly under the influence of the “lessons of tolerance” conducted by the Center (Ura.ru, May 31).
Besides the activities of the Yeltsin Center, for several years, protests have repeatedly erupted in Yekaterinburg against the construction of a Christian Orthodox cathedral in the center of the city, on the site of one of the favorite squares of the townspeople. In May 2019, protesters defended the square for several days (Svoboda.org, May 16, 2019), and President Putin had to personally speak out about the conflict (Svoboda.org, May 16, 2019).
Understandably, actions against the construction were of a local character and did not concern the global political agenda; thus, they were unlikely to grow into a nationwide protest. A similar situation arose concerning protests in Khabarovsk in 2020 that lasted for several months (see EDM, August 3, 4, 2020). However, the anti-Moscow character of both movements should not be ignored. Predictably, as the economic situation in Russia worsens, mass demonstrations will crop up in other regions of the country. So far, the atmosphere of general social mobilization is sufficient to neutralize discontent at the local level; but over time, the situation may change (see EDM, March 1, 10, 2022).