Happy May Day!

May Day 1937

May Day Parade, Moscow, 1937Left to right Nikita Khrushchev, G. Dimitrov, Stalin, V. M. Molotov and Anastas Mikoyan.

Today is traditionally the day when Kremlin-watchers come out to see who is lined up above Lenin’s Tomb on Red Square.

The tradition has shifted , though. The celebration of May Day ended in 1992, after the Soviet Union ended. Last year it was resurrected to celebrate the annexation of Crimea. Next week’seventieth anniversary of the Soviet victory over the Nazis trumps it.

May 1 was associated with workers’ movements throughout the nineteenth century for a shorter workday. It was a holiday for labor, with Marxist support. Here are explanations from the Industrial Workers of the World (yes, the Wobblies are still around!) and the Marxist Internet Archive. Because the Soviet Bolsheviks claimed to represent international labor, they made it their holiday, with parades showing off their martial prowess in Red Square.

The Kremlin has always been opaque to outsiders, and one of the ways to get a tiny bit of information about power distributions within it was to see who was honored to be in that ultimate reviewing stand above the embalmed Lenin for the national celebration.

The Soviet Union had a multitude of high-level positions – the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party was at the top, with members of the Presiduum and the Politburo at the next levels down. Those members were typically the governmental ministers of agencies like the KGB and the Foreign Office, heads of national Communist Parties, and some of their deputies. That narrowed down the numbers, but it was difficult to tell what kinds of power struggles might be in progress behind the scenes. Those few chosen to stand with the General Secretary on May Day, the order in which they were arranged, and who was missing were all signs of favor or disfavor.

The Kremlin remains opaque, perhaps even more so than in Soviet times. Government ministries still exist, but the oligarchs are also important. Recently, Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, has been in the news for his apparent influence. Even before May Day, there has been a great deal of speculation as to Kadyrov’s influence with President Vladimir Putin and his rivalry with the FSB.

There is a variety of speculation around, and I am not going to pretend to sort it out, just to outline some of it. I’ll begin with Boris Nemtsov’s murder. Zaur Dadayev, a Chechen allied with Kadyrov, and four others have been accused of the murder. Chechnya is part of Russia, but after a bloody separatist war in the early 2000s, Kadyrov’s father helped Putin to put down the rebellion. When he was assassinated in 2004, his son took over.

Kadyrov has kept the peace in Chechnya, with corruption and oppression. This has kept him in Putin’s good graces. Kadyrov has much more autonomy in Chechnya than do the other Russian republics. This autonomy may be emboldening him to challenge even Putin. (A somewhat longer history here, by Maria Lipman.)Caucasus_regions_map

Rumor has it that the FSB, Russia’s major law-enforcement agency and successor to the KGB, is annoyed by this autonomy. After a Chechen man was shot by police from Stavropol, Kadyrov declared that Chechen police may shoot to kill any outsiders, “whether Muscovite or from Stavropol.” This probably did not improve his relationship with the FSB.

Now Ramazan Abdulatipov, the Putin-appointed head of Daghestan (see map), has lined up with Kadyrov against the federal police. Abdulatipov is said to be one of the more cautious of the North Caucasus leaders, which may mean that sentiment in the region is hardening against Moscow, or it may mean that he could easily be peeled away from Kadyrov.

With a war in eastern Ukraine and a financial inability to incorporate Crimea into Russia, Moscow doesn’t need a war in the North Caucasus as well. So Putin will do what he can to keep Kadyrov on his side, while placating the FSB. However, Kadyrov also understands Putin’s need to avoid a break, so he is likely to keep testing the relationship. Russian commentators point out that financial support to Chechnya has been an important part of that relationship, and that Moscow can now afford that less as oil prices remain low.


Russian troops backing the military action in eastern Ukraine have been located in Rostov Oblast. Those troops are not far from the North Caucasus and could be moved in easily if that became necessary (h/t Alexander Clarkson). Map from WikiMedia. Orange lines seem to be roads and dashed lines railroads.

Kadyrov probably won’t show up in his signature jogging suit above Lenin’s Tomb on Victory Day. But Vladimir Putin may be wondering exactly where he will show up.

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