Three hundred people is a respectable number for Moscow, a city with perhaps some several thousand journalists. So when I was studying the list of the 300 Russian media colleagues who had been awarded orders and medals for their 'objective coverage' of the annexation of Crimea, I found the names of many people I know and started congratulating them.
'How did you find out about that?' asked one.
'Has it leaked and become public knowledge?' asked another, in alarm.
'Do you think my American visa will be revoked?' asked the third.
Russian state ceremonies are normally lavish occasions and broadcast widely, such as this one on 25 March 2014. Kremlin.ru
Normally, when one offers congratulations on some well-deserved award, the recipient thanks you politely; this time round no one did – they were all too scared. The boldest of them did actually consent to my publishing some of his pictures from the award ceremony, as long as he remained anonymous. But when I put them up on my site, he suddenly changed his mind and asked me to take down four of the six, leaving only the pictures of the bosses of two TV channels. Everyone knows the bosses, but photographs of rank and file journalists could discredit them. A rum affair, I'm sure you'll agree.
There was no information about the ceremony, though Putin's every step is usually broadcast by all Russian TV channels
It's not difficult to work out. I found the list of journalists who had been thus honoured on the site (in Russian) of an anonymous hacker group. The site regularly publishes letters from hacked mailboxes of small time Kremlin officials (according to one interpretation, the site actually belongs to other Kremlin officials who use the hackers to sort out problems with rivals). This was the only posting of the list; information about the Kremlin ceremony was nowhere to be found either, though it was President Putin himself handing out the awards and his every step is usually broadcast by all Russian TV channels.
Why did Putin decide to cover up the awards to the journalists? The most obvious explanation is that people who were part of the annexation of Crimea, even if they were only part of the PR menage, stand a very strong chance of being put on the US sanctions list. For an ordinary journalist this would be very much more of a problem than for an oligarch or a minister. By keeping the awards secret, Putin was protecting loyal journalists from being refused a visa or having their foreign assets frozen. This would be quite logical, but the problem is that it's hardly the first time high-ranking Russian awards have been handed out secretly, and society has only found out about them by chance.
It's hardly the first time Russian awards have been handed out secretly, and society has found out about them accidentally
On 9 May, the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu took the Victory Day parade on Moscow's Red Square. ITAR-TASS correspondents noted (in Russian) that the minister's dress uniform was adorned with the order of St Andrew the Apostle (the First-Called) with swords. This is Russia's highest military and civil award and only 15 people have received it since it was reinstated in 1998 (having been abolished by the Soviet authorities). The version of the medal with swords indicates military distinction and has never been awarded, so Sergei Shoigu is the first knight of the order. But how it came to be that he was wearing it, no one knows. There has been no official announcement of the date it was awarded, what for…one can only assume that it has something to do with Crimea.
Russian Defence Minister Shoigu resplendent with his medals and orders, 2014 Victory Day parade, Red Square Moscow. kremlin.ru
Anatoly Serdyukov, Shoigu's predecessor in this post, is now a witness at a trial relating to corruption in the Defence Ministry. Several Russian newspapers expressed the view (in Russian) that if Serdyukov should be found guilty his punishment will be reduced because the former Defence Minister was awarded the honorary title of Hero of Russia. This is the highest Honorary Title of the Russian Federation, which has existed since Soviet times; those thus honoured are decorated with a gold star. Serdyukov has never worn the gold star and the Russian President's website carries no information about the award. It was probably awarded by a secret decree, which would have remained shrouded in secrecy, had it not been for the corruption scandal. According to Nezavisimaya gazeta (a Russian independent newspaper), he received the title for the military operation in Georgia during the 2008 war, but this is only a rumour and has not been confirmed anywhere.
In 2002 Moscow witnessed a very large-scale terrorist operation: for three days Chechen separatists held several hundred actors and spectators hostage in the theatre which they had occupied. When the security services stormed the building, all the terrorists died and almost 200 of the hostages. Arguments are still going on over whether the operation can be considered to have been a success, but Vladimir Putin awarded medals and orders to the organisers of the rescue. Vladimir Ustinov, Prosecutor General at the time, Vladimir Rushailo, then Secretary to the Security Council, FSB director Nikolai Patrushev and his deputy Vladimir Pronichev became Heroes of the Russian Federation. But here too, one is relying on hearsay, because several of these people could, according to some, have been honoured previously for the military campaign in Chechnya. Each time the decree was passed in secret. Putin himself revealed that Ustinov and Rushailo had been made Heroes of the Russian Federation. It was by chance, in a speech on quite another subject; he said that they had been honoured several years previously for their 'excellent work in Chechnya.' But when and what for was not explained, and the decree was secret.
There's a logic to secret agents being honoured secretly. But why should public figures receive their awards in secret?
This tradition existed in Soviet times as well. Probably the most famous secret Hero of the Soviet Union was Lev Trotsky's murderer, Ramon Mercader. Everyone knew he was a secret agent, but the Mexican court that tried him was unable to prove it. Mercader served his sentence under the name of Lopez and this is the name on his tombstone in Moscow. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that information appeared in the press (for the first time in 50 years) that his name was really Mercader, and that he had worked for the Soviet security services and had been made a Hero of the Soviet Union for murdering Trotsky. There's some kind of logic to secret agents being honoured secretly. But why should public figures receive their awards in secret?
The tradition of state hero awards existed in Soviet times and continues in present day Russia. cc Ivan Dubasov
If at any point Putin, or one of his inner circle, were to write their memoirs, then we might have a chance of finding the answer. For the moment we can only guess. The most romantic interpretation of it all is linked to Putin's sentimental side. He began his career in the KGB, served in low-ranking positions and could, therefore, only dream of secret awards for secret operations. Now he has the whole of Russia under his control, he rewards his inferiors with secret orders to remind himself of the good old KGB days when a secret medal was infinitely more valuable than a public one.