Smotryashchie, kuratory (Russia)

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Smotryashchie, Kuratory
Russia map.png
Location: Russia, Ukraine
Author: Andrew Wilson
Affiliation: University College London, UK

Original text by Andrew Wilson

Post-Soviet politics has always been notable for its unique terminology, reflecting the uniqueness of local political practices. The term smotryashchie , which literally means ‘watchers’ or ‘overseers’, originates from criminal circles, when the avtoritety (‘criminal authorities’) would designate trusted individuals ‘to maintain order, resolve conflicts in prison, control the common fund of a criminal community, etc.’ (Vasylyev 2016[1]). Smotryashchie therefore had informal authority because of their bosses behind them and because their decisions were ‘guided by the laws of the criminal community’ (ibid).

It is symptomatic of the inter-penetration of organised crime and politics in countries like Ukraine and Russia that the term is now widely used on the outside of prison. Smotryashchie may represent organised crime in politics, but the term is also used for those who look after the interests of oligarchs and regional clans, so the latter can keep a safe and deniable distance from corruption at the heart of government. They control the money flows and keep an eye on decisions that are supposed to favour their sponsors.

In Ukraine the term has a long history, but it came into wider use after 2014. The centralised pyramid of corruption from the Yanukovych era was no longer around. The slogan of ‘de-oligarchisation’ was largely meaningless, but leading oligarchs took a step back from the more visible schemes of the old era. New President Poroshenko was not as crooked, but grew his business empire while he could. For all these reasons, smotryashchie were increasingly useful (Wilson 2016[2]; Yaffa 2016[3]).

Another term that became more noticeable during and after the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014 was kurator or ‘curator’. Smotryashchie come from the informal arena. Kuratory on the other hand, exist because the normal authorities, who are themselves steeped in informal culture, chose to shift certain functions even further into the informal arena. According to one Ukrainian analyst,‘ Smotryashchie are similar to kuratory ’, but a ‘ kurator is a non-official representative of a real authority’, whereas smotryashchie are official representatives of informal actors (Vasylyev 2016[4]). Smotryashchie are also more like delegates than representatives, and are more closely tied to their sponsors and to a certain set of rules; while kuratory are deliberately given a level of operational freedom.

According to one of the leading architects of the original Putin system, Gleb Pavlovsky (2016[5]), kuratory exist because the Kremlin has always relied on informal practices and twenty years of political technology. But kuratory were increasingly prominent after Putin’s return to the Presidency in 2012, reflecting the development of a ‘new governance style’ that ‘relies on indirection and interpretation rather than command and control’. In this system, ‘curators’ are ‘semi-official figures through whom state governance flows. A curator is a political bureaucrat, a project manager authorized by the Kremlin to operate through personal agents’ (11-13).

But with the aggression against Ukraine taking the form of so-called ‘hybrid war’ from 2014 kuratory were perfect agents for disguise and deniability. According to Pavlovsky, kuratory do not leave much of a paper trail: ‘Approval for any particular proposal takes the form of otmashka, which can be translated as “go-ahead”, implying not so much an order as a license to act in a desired direction’. Kuratory were behind the operations in Crimea and the Donbas. Though, as Pavlovsky stresses, ‘The trouble with curators is that it’s far easier to set them loose than to rein them back in’ (11-13). In Crimea, Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu was at the top of the pyramid. His main curator in Crimea was Oleg Belaventsev, an alleged former spy expelled from the UK in 1985 (Zygar’ 2016: 338[6]). Belaventsev oversaw the ‘choice’ of leaders for the coup d’état in February 2014; and, unusually perhaps, emerged out of the shadows to be appointed Putin’s special envoy in Crimea after the annexation. Another Shoigu protégé Frants Klintsevich, head of the Union of Veterans of Afghanistan, organised the flight of ‘170 former soldiers, veterans of Afghanistan and Chechnya, and also sportsmen, bikers and participants of patriotic clubs’ to Sevastopol on 28 February 2014. ‘They were portrayed as demonstrators, flurried Crimeans, who demanded the joining of Crimea to Russia. This was an improvised Maidan, just as earnest as the Kiev one. With the only difference that the majority of participants were Russian, that is at that moment citizens of another state’ (Zygar’ 2016: 341[7]; Kanev 2014[8]).

Vladislav Surkov represented another line of influence. Two Ukrainian sources paint a different picture: one implies Belaventsev was just a stooge for Surkov (Koshkina, 2015[9]); another stresses demand as well as supply, with the chair of the Crimean assembly Vladimir Konstantinov making the key trips to Moscow in December 2013 to ask for support (Berezovets 2015: 65-9; Zygar’ 2016: 337[10]).

For the attempted uprising in eastern and southern Ukraine, however, there were a number of rival kuratory. ‘The main supporter of Russia’s active measures in the east of Ukraine was Putin’s adviser the economist Sergey Glazev’, who is from Zaporizhzhia. But ‘from the start no one lead the operation in the Donbas, there was no single centre for taking decisions’. ‘Putin did not want to undertake decisive actions. Evert time he said to Glazev: let the inhabitants of East Ukraine take the first step, then Moscow will support them further’ (Zygar’ 2016: 346-347[11]).

The attempts of kuratory like Glazev to foment rebellion everywhere in eastern and southern Ukraine were not always successful (2016[12]). But as the Donetsk and Luhansk ‘People’s Republics’ became regularised, the kuratory established a regular presence there too (Peshkov 2016[13]).


  1. Vasylyev. Ye. 2016. Author’s e-mail conversation with Ukrainian analyst Yegor Vasylyev, 7 September
  2. Wilson, A. 2016. ‘Survival of the Richest: How Oligarchs Block Reform in Ukraine’, ECFR. Available at:;
  3. Yaffa, J. 2016 ‘Reforming Ukraine after the Revolutions’, New Yorker, 5 September. Available at:
  4. Vasylyev. Ye. 2016. Author’s e-mail conversation with Ukrainian analyst Yegor Vasylyev, 7 September
  5. Pavlovsky, G. 2016. ‘Russian Politics Under Putin. The System Will Outlast the Master’, Foreign Affairs, May/June: 10-17. Available at:
  6. Zygar’, M. 2016. Vsya kremlevskaya rat’: Kratkaya istoriya sovremennoi Rossii. Moscow: Intellektual’naya literatura.
  7. Zygar’, M. 2016. Vsya kremlevskaya rat’: Kratkaya istoriya sovremennoi Rossii. Moscow: Intellektual’naya literatura.
  8. Kanev, S. 2014. ‘Spetsturisty’ and ‘Geroi pod grifom “Sekretno”’, Novaya gazeta, no. 71, 2 July, and no. 64, 16 June
  9. Koshkina, S. 2015. Maidan: Nerasskazannaya istoriya. Kyiv: CreateSpace
  10. Berezovets, T. 2015, Aneksiya: Ostriv Krym. Khroniky “hybrydnoï viiny” . Kyiv: Bright Star Publishing
  11. Zygar’, M. 2016. Vsya kremlevskaya rat’: Kratkaya istoriya sovremennoi Rossii. Moscow: Intellektual’naya literatura.
  12. Melkozerova, V. 2016. ‘Two years too late, Lutsenko releases audio of Russian plan that Ukrainians already suspected’, Kyiv Post, 27 August. Available at:
  13. Peshkov, V. 2016. ‘The Donbas: Back in the USSR’, ECFR, 1 September. Available at: