You would be forgiven if you imagined Russia’s liberal, leftist, technical, creative, conservative and other intelligentsias were abuzz right now with righteous anger or triumphant glee about what the country’s air force (now officially known, bizarrely, as the Russian Aerospace Forces or VKS) has been up to in Syria and, more specifically, Aleppo, these days.
No, many of them are terribly exercised, in various directions, about the controversy over an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges in Moscow.
This was borne out by the websites of some of the country’s leading dailies this morning.
The liberal Vedomosti, a business-oriented newspaper, listed its top stories this morning. The top story was entitled “Faces in a Queue for the iPhone 7”; the second most-read story was about the Sturges show.
True, Vedomosti readers are serious lads and lassies, so the number three story was about Syria. It was headlined, “Five World Powers and EU Demand Decisive Steps from Russia in Syria.”
Earlier today, I posted a few bits from the bizarre article about yesterday’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, published in the country’s other serious, formerly liberal, business daily, Kommersant.
Similarly, Moskovsky Komsolomets could not figure out what its readers would find more titillating: reading about how the VKS’s top guns were bombing Aleppo to smithereens or how astroturfed patriots were threatening the God-given right of every self-respecting intelligent to implement Dostoevsky’s maxim that beauty would save the world.
By way of splitting the difference, this morning’s website featured a picture of a chap obviously meant to embody the most average-looking Russian bloke on earth, sadly contemplating one of Sturges’s blasphemous nudes, while a sidebar headline shouts, “Everyone [sic] Is Bombing: Churkin Thinks Peace Impossible in Syria.”
Izvestia has become a particularly noxious loudspeaker for the regime in the past years, so the front page of its website contained a fair number of articles and op-ed pieces chockablock with baldfaced lies about the bloodbath in Aleppo, but at least it had the dignity not to yield to the fake moral panic brewing around the Sturges show.
The relative paucity of Russian media coverage of the Syrian conflict and publicly accessible grassroots reactions was confirmed by the following completely unscientific Google search.
“Джок Стержес” (“Jock Sturges”) got 12,000 more hits than “бомбардироква Алеппо” (“bombing Aleppo”), even though, one could argue, the bombing of Aleppo by somebody or other has been a more topical item in the news for a longer time than Jock Sturges, whatever his longevity or virtues as a contemporary artist.
When I did the same search (“bombing Aleppo”) in English, I got over a million hits.
Certainly, we immediately have to factor in the sheer numbers of Anglophone media and readers in the world. There are quite a few more of both than there are Russophone media and readers, and so one would expect to find more responses to particular topics of global interest in English than in Russian.
But what about the vox pop?
An even more unscientific survey of the Russophone segment of Facebook this morning (that is, the part of the segment to which I have access, amounting to several hundred people, most of whom could be identified as intelligentsia or quasi-intelligentisa) showed that quite a few people were up in arms over the Sturges show or coolly editorializing about it to their extended communities of invisible friends, while literally no one was writing anything about Syria.
This has been the case for the past year. Not only that, but I have shared a fairly large number of articles and opinions about Syria, including my own, over that time, and have elicited a total of zero likes and comments from my Russian Facebook friends.
Non-Russian friends, on the contrary, like and comment on these posts in the same numbers as they and their Russian counterparts usually react to the other, non-Syrian things I write about.
Maybe I have the wrong Russian friends, but my hypothesis is that “politically engaged” or “socially conscious” Russians are literally afraid to say or write anything in public about the Syrian conflict. They have the good sense to know that their president-for-life has sunken his teeth into this geopolitical chew toy and has no intention of unclenching them.
Hence, anyone foolish enough to comment on this catastrophic attempt to reassert an increasingly impoverished country as a super power might get themselves in trouble with the powers that be. Over the last year, they have been hauling in utterly ordinary people on “extremism” charges in fairly large numbers for reposting or commenting on the most innocuous things on Facebook and its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.
Even more telling, there has not been a single public demonstration in Russia against Russian military involvement in Syria during the past year—to my knowledge, at least.*
Again, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. The current Russian regime has gone out of its way to make public demonstrations and pickets an unattractive pastime for all but the bravest of Russians.
Still, the war in Syria is the central international conflict of our time, and Russia’s best and brightest have literally nothing to say about it, even though their nominally elected government has not been merely a party to the conflict, but has come firmly down on one side, arguably, the wrong side, the side causing the most damage.
I find this deafening public silence about Syria more disturbing than anything else happening in Russia right now.
* After I posted this, Comrade BN wrote the following to me: “In Moscow last year there were some very small pickets protesting against the war in Syria, and the people who organized it attempted to set up an anti-war committee. As far as I know, though, the authorities pretty much intimidated them with varying degrees of extremity into giving up.”