Can’t Get There from Here

When the world is a monster, bad to swallow you whole
Kick the clay that holds the teeth in, throw your trolls out the door


One of the strangest shocks I’ve had over the past couple years was discovering an advert for this sprightly academic tome in my favorite biweekly review of books:

9781479860982_Full

In this unique volume from the World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations and the Social Science Research Council, some of the world’s greatest minds—from Nobel Prize winners to long-time activists—explore what the prolonged instability of the so-called Great Recession means for our traditional understanding of how governments can and should function. Through interviews that are sure to spark lively debate, 22 Ideas to Fix the World presents both analysis of past geopolitical events and possible solutions and predictions for the future.

[…]

Interviews with: Zygmunt Bauman, Shimshon Bichler & Jonathan Nitzan, Craig Calhoun, Ha-Joon Chang, Fred Dallmayr, Mike Davis, Bob Deacon, Kemal Dervis, Jiemian Yang, Peter J. Katzenstein, Ivan Krastev, Will Kymlicka, Manuel F. Montes, José Antonio Ocampo, Vladimir Popov, Joseph Stiglitz, Olzhas Suleimenov, Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Immanuel Wallerstein, Paul Watson, Vladimir Yakunin, Muhammad Yunus

source: NYU Press (emphasis is mine)

What brought me up short was Vladimir Yakunin’s presence on the roster of the “world’s foremost thinkers.” The only Vladimir Yakunin of whom I was aware was the Putin insider and Russian Railways head, who even back then (in 2013) had already been accused by anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny of having amassed a vast offshore business empire with members of his family.

Vladimir and Yakunin are common enough first names and surnames in Russia, so I thought that maybe the Vladimir Yakunin in question was a previously obscure philosopher or economist working in the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences or Tempe, Arizona.

What I didn’t know then was that the cumbersomely named World Public Forum Dialogue of Civilizations was a soft-power vehicle, vigorously headed by the one and only Vladimir Yakunin, for advancing Putinism 3.0’s new Cominternist “conservative” agenda, a wild melange of militant homophobia, “traditional Christian family values” (this from veterans of an organization previously and murderously committed to “militant atheism”), “anti-imperialism,” post-capitalism, “anti-fascism,” “anti-globalism,” anti-Americanism, anti-liberalism, a yearning for the (perpetual) “decline of the west,” etc. You name the flavor, they had it (almost).

The main thing, apparently, for the hundreds and thousands of “foremost” thinkers, pols, players, NGOists, bored middle-aged academics, IR chancers, and “youth leaders” invited by Yakunin to dialogue and confab in exotic locations like Rhodes was never to ask too hard (or at all) who was footing the bill for all this grassroots diplomacy and heavy thinking.

After I attended a Russian sponsored conference in Rhodes last year, a friend and colleague separated from me for many months believing I had fallen in with KGB oligarchs and gangsters,” wrote Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, around the same time NYU Press was rolling Yakunin’s vanity publication off the presses and Navalny was publishing his exposés. (If you think I’m kidding about the vanity business, read the editors’ acknowledgements.)

What a rare, perceptive friend Mr. Ruse had! At the time, the only other person on planet Earth, apparently, to notice that something was amiss with Yakunin’s largesse and the seating arrangements at his tea parties was Richard Bartholemew, who writes about religious affairs:

That’s quite a line-up of intellectuals. However, the key name here is not the most famous, and it has the penultimate position: Vladimir Yakunin runs Russia’s state-owned railways, and he is a part of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. He also co-founded the World Public Forum, which co-produced the book and which perhaps therefore has some bearing on why he’s among the “World’s Foremost Thinkers”.

As I’ve discussed previously, the WPF holds regular “Dialogue of Civilizations” events involving academics, activists, and religious leaders. The range of those involved is unusually broad – recent events have included input from figures ranging from Noam Chomsky, whose critical view of the place of American power in the world is doubtless congenial to Russia, through to Don Feder, an arch-conservative “family values” fulminator whose social views fit well with Yakunin’s activism on behalf of Russian Orthodoxy. WPF events have also involved Helga Zepp-LaRouche, and it is claimed that Yakunin has cited her husband Lyndon LaRouche favourably. More on all these links here and here. There’s also apparently some interest at the WPF in extra-terrestrial matters.

Another oddity I’ve noted before is that one of Yakunin’s fellow WFP co-founders is a US-based businessman who is closely involved with the neo-Pentecostal sector of the Christian Right, particularly Rick Joyner and William “Jerry” Boykin. More on that here.

* * * * *

Further shocks to my feeble mental health were to come as, intrigued by my chance discovery of the nexus between leftist grandees like Wallerstein and Russian’s head railwayman, I plunged into the weird and distinctly unwonderful world of the Yakuninshchina.

For example, when I visited the website of the WFP-affiliated Rhodes Forum in July of last year, I was greeted by the following surreal collage:

chomsky yakunin

Far be it from me to cast aspersions on Professor Chomsky’s deservedly sterling reputation. In any case, it is clear the positive associations and cultural capital the website’s designers were trying to generate for Yakunin with this juxtaposition, probably made without Chomsky’s permission. (The site seems to have been completely redesigned since then, and the offending collage has vanished.)

But what prevented Chomsky or any other of Yakunin’s many forum guests and co-authors from doing a bit of due diligence into Yakunin and his ilk, and deciding whether their progressive causes and scholarly research were well served by dialoguing or associating with him in any way?

What really beggars the imagination is how all this useful networking on the part of an authoritarian, kleptocratic regime with growing homophobic and clericalist tendencies has flown under the journalistic radar for over ten years.

* * * * *

On March 30, 2014, Yakunin popped up as the headliner and co-chair of a timely international conference in Petersburg entitled “Neo-Fascism in Europe: 70 Years Later.” As can been seen in a news report aired on local channel TV 100, Yakunin predictably inveighed against the dangers of “Ukrainian fascism,” even as his own country had tens of thousands of troops amassed along the Ukrainian border.BV5A7638

Petersburg governor Georgy Poltavchenko and Vladimir Yakunin (right) at “anti-fascist” conference in Petersburg, March 30, 2014

Liberal city councilman and journalist Boris Vishnevsky broke the curious story that one of the scheduled speakers at this “anti-fascist” conference was renowned Polish neo-Nazi Mateusz Piskorksi.

Piskorksi later helpfully turned up in Petersburg again in the autumn, this time not as an “anti-fascist” but as an “elections observer.” He was part of an international team putting its facile stamp of (pre-)approval on a farcical but successful bid to transform the “incumbent,” Putin appointee Georgy Poltavchenko, into a “popularly elected” governor, and, by the by, stack the mostly powerless municipal councils with the right sort of folk. (If, unlike ninety-nine percent of the population and the world, you’re actually interested in how it all went down, read this eyewitness account.)

On the other end, presumably, of the political spectrum, 22 Ideas to Fix the World co-editor Richard Sakwa has recently published a hilarious op-ed in The Guardian arguing that Putin may actually be planning to do an end-around on his detractors and liberalize the regime.

So, the furious networking Yakunin has been doing over the past ten years or so has not been without its dividends.

* * * * *

But the really unfunny thing is that Yakunin has a day job as head of Russian Railways. What have they been up to lately?

On New Year’s Eve, they announced they were ending service on hundreds of local routes in Russia’s regions.

Russia analyst Paul Goble explained the likely impact the cuts would have on people in rural and small-town Russia:

The importance of local and regional train service in Russia is far greater than in almost any other country, given the lack of decent roads in much of the country and the availability of critical services only in the oblast capitals.  Without train service, for example, diabetics who need insulin face enormous difficulties in getting it in a timely fashion.

Indeed, in some cases, as in Pskov oblast over the last two decades, the increasing difficulty rural residents face in getting to the capital – there the authorities earlier cut back bus service and then snow removal efforts – has sent mortality rates skyrocketing, reducing life expectancy among rural residents by a decade or more.

Now that Russian Railways is posed to cut back rail services elsewhere, a similar pattern is likely to obtain, and a Russian government which claims that it is acting on behalf of ethnic Russians and what it calls “the Russian world” in Ukraine will be harming ethnic Russians at home in the most serious and immediate ways.

Ordinary Russians, of course, didn’t need Paul Goble to help them see how their lives would be drastically altered for the worse, as The Moscow Times reported on February 4:

“I am a schoolboy in Class 11 and I need to prepare for the Unified State Exams. Most students have tutors that live in Tver,” Yury Arakcheev wrote on petition site change.org after local trains from his town to regional capital Tver north of Moscow were canceled.

“A large number of people work or study in Tver and to leave at five o’clock in the morning and returning at 10 o’clock at night is not an option, especially if a person has a family or small child,” Arakcheev said in a petition addressed to the regional governor that has now 7,700 signatures.

Cancellations of suburban trains have launched a wave of popular anger in Russia, a country where social protests are rare.

Last month, residents of a small village in Zabaikalsky Krai threatened to block Russia’s East-West rail artery, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, after suburban train services were cut, local media reported.

Other protests have taken place against the cuts in particularly-badly affected regions.

Opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, currently under house arrest, has repeatedly raised the topic in his popular blog, dubbing the cancellation of train services a “genocide of Russians.”

On Jan. 12 Navalny said in a blog entry that a Facebook post he wrote about the issue was seen by almost 1 million people, making it one of his most popular posts on the social networking site ever.

Predictably, the uproar has forced Putin to give the minister responsible for transport a televised dressing-down and demand that all local services be restored. Meanwhile, Yakunin has denied any responsibility for the mess.

* * * * *

And who knows, maybe in some sense, despite the charges of corruption and corporate malfeasance leveled by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation against Russian Railways, Yakunin isn’t strictly to blame for this business.

But what if there is a connection between all his generosity and persistence on the soft-power front and the miseries endured by Yuri Arakcheev and people like him as they try and travel between home and work and school in Russia’s regions? (I won’t even mention the possible connections between those things and allegations of Yakunin’s family’s living large outside of Russia.)

What I mean to say is that it takes a lot of chutzpah to imagine that your academic career or political/moral cause or balance sheet is so earth-shatteringly important that you can’t even be bothered to do an elementary background check on who exactly is paying your junket to sunny Rhodes or using your university press’s good name to publish his cultural-capital-generating vanity volume.

Although in the space of this blog post and with the limited means at my disposal, I can’t strictly get from here to there today, I do mean to suggest that you might have been visiting harm on people like Yuri Arakcheev by pretending none of these considerations mattered or even existed when you were getting ready to hobnob with the world’s “foremost” whomevers, who rarely have to worry about reduced public services.

At any rate, I don’t think anymore, after digging a bit into Yakunin’s high-powered glad-handing, that it is exactly an accident there is so much “confusion” in the west over recent events in Russia and Ukraine.

There are less charitable ways of putting this, but I’ll stop while I’m ahead. I really can’t get there from here yet.

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