“Extremism” Ruling against Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Popular Will?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Was it the “popular will” that 500 hectares of land be reclaimed in the Neva Bay right off Petersburg’s Vasiliyevsky Island and developed into densely built high-rise estates, causing untold amounts of environmental and aesthetic damage? No, it wasn’t. In fact, locals were bitterly opposed to the project and they mounted a loud resistance back in the day. But their will was roundly ignored by Petersburg city hall and developers. Under the present authoritarian regime, “popular will” is a friendly phantom, at best, an irritant, at worst. Photo by The Russian Reader.

The Russian Supreme Court has gone ahead and banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses and ordered their property confiscated. This is a colossal insult to hundreds of thousands of law-abiding Russian citizens. A huge new underground has been generated. Massive crackdowns for their faith, new political prisoners, and mass immigration are around the corner. The Russian authorities and Moscow Patriarch Kirill, who is personally responsible for this operation, have curious ideas about the joy of Easter.
—Nikolay Mitrokhin, Facebook, April 21, 2017

Perhaps this is what is most disheartening about the recent legal battle. The state may be the central actor, but its actions reflect the popular will of Russians who, by and large, have decided that Witnesses have no place in their society.
—Emily Baran, “Jehovah’s Witnesses Ban Spells End for Russia’s Religious Diversity,” Moscow Times, April 24, 2017

When did Russians decide this? Did they hold a referendum recently? Are most Russians even aware of how the Justice Ministry has used the Russian Supreme Court to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists,” allegedly, at the insistence of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Patriarch Kirill? I very much doubt it.

Professor Baran only mentions actions by state or quasi-state actors, such as the central press in Soviet and post-Soviet times. Yet they were and have been somehow acting on behalf of the “popular will,” a symbiosis she makes no real attempt to prove in her op-ed piece for the Moscow Times, as quoted above.

As for real popular sentiment, I imagine there are as many Americans as Russians who have reflexively negative attitudes toward Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just think of all the jokes about JWs you have heard in your lifetime that cast them in a negative or ridiculous light, or how many times you have seen their likenesses figuring as the villains on TV medical dramas who refuse proper care for desperately sick children? Then why aren’t they banned in the US? At worst, the American “popular will” sees them as outsiders and obscurantists, at best, as an annoyance.

I can imagine that tenure-track professors in the US have a hard time understanding how disempowered and disconnected the grassroots are in a country that now has the world’s largest income inequality gap, and a long, brutal history of minorities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, getting hammered by the powers that be while putative “majority” either did not mind, looked the other way or did not even notice.

But does Tennessee, where Professor Baran teaches, have an utterly different history when it comes to protecting the rights of its minorities?

The Russian Supreme Court’s decision to declare the Jehovah’s Witnesses extremist is completely despicable in every possible way, but Russians who bother to care about minorities and “minority” interests (like the environment, civil and social rights, corruption, labor rights, migrant rights, and historical preservation and sound urban planning) are often too few and far between to fight every battle and put out every fire. And many of those fighters are themselves currently under the state’s gun. The same Justice Ministry that has gone after Russia’s Jehovah’s Witnesses like a pit bull has also been branding NGOs, research institutes, and grassroots organizations “foreign agents” like it was at a fire sale.

That is no excuse for the judicial execution the Russian state has just performed on the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it was a decision made at the top by the political, ecclesiastical and judicial elites, including the ROC’s Patriarch Kirill. It was not the state’s response to a nonexistent, utterly imaginary “popular will.” TRR

Return of the Wreckers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
When they work on construction sites, migrant workers from Central Asia often live in shantytowns like this one in Petersburg. Photo by TRR

FSB director Alexander Bortnikov has claimed that migrant workers from the former Soviet Union constitute the bulk of terrorist groups operating in Russia. He called on businessmen who employ migrant labor and officials who insure compliance with immigration laws to act more responsibly.

This comes from an organization whose direct legal predecessor, the NKVD, arrested and shot fifty-four people on the street where I live during 1937–1938. All these people were found guilty on spurious, trumped-up charges, and all of them were “rehabilitated” in the later, more “vegetarian” times after Stalin’s death, as Anna Akhmatova called them. Meaning the Soviet state admitted then, at least to the families of the victims, that their loved ones had been arrested and shot for no reason at all.

And yet, when the Great Terror was in full gear, the country’s leaders and its henchmen in the NKVD (now known as the FSB) were convinced or feigned that the Soviet Union was chockablock with wreckers, saboteurs, provocateurs, and foreign spies.

Now, in the absence of a public investigation and any trials of the accused (or any accused, for that matter), the agency’s current director wants us to believe that migrant workers from Central Asia are rife with “terrorist groups.”

The street I live on is quite small. It consists of two short blocks and exactly twenty houses. I can imagine the sudden arrests and executions of fifty-four of their neighbors made quite an impression on the street’s more fortunate inhabitants in 1937–1938.

As far as I know, the FSB has never really renounced its direct line of descent from the Cheka, the OGPU, the NKVD, the MGB, and the KGB. On the contrary, if statements made by its more prominent veterans such as Vladimir Putin are to be believed, its past and current officers are extraordinarily proud of this legacy, although they may admit on occasion that the Great Terror was a bit excessive.

So, in the interests of the state (which are nowadays equated with the interests of the members of the Ozero Dacha Cooperative and the so-called Laundromat, not with the interests of the “international proletarian revolution”), the FSB is still capable, I would guess, of lying through its teeth and scapegoating entire groups of completely innocent people, i.e., in this case, migrant workers from Central Asia. According to one expert on Central Asia, whom I trust, there are currently around three million such migrant workers in Russia.

How do you think they are going to feel after hearing Bortnikov’s announcement? Would you like to live and work in a country where you are regarded as a de facto terrorist? TRR

“Hysterical Russophobia”

Nikolai Davydov, successful Russian immigrant Silicon Valley businessman whose life has (not) been ruined by “hysterical Russophobia.” Image courtesy of RBC

Yet another victim of the “hysterical Russophobia” sweeping the US and Europe has been identified.

“The subjects of the new issue of RBC Magazine aren’t afraid of risks: they conceive their own projects and invest in unusual sectors of business. Nikolai Davydov, RBC’s Investor of the Year, left for the US with $100 in his pocket, but now he lives in a house on the California coastline.”

If “hysterical Russophobia” were a real thing, instead of a talking point for crypto-Putinists and just plain Russians who don’t know how to explain to their non-Russian neighbors why their homeland has become so “odd” in the past several years, you would have heard about Russian immigrants to the EU and US suffering the same main violence and putrid discrimination that Muslim, Asian, and African immigrants and asylum seekers suffer there, not to mention the relentless violence and staggering discrimination suffered by such absolutely 100% native Americans as Aboriginal Americans (i.e., Native Americans), African Americans, and Hispanic Americans in a land their peoples have been inhabiting from several centuries to several thousands of years.

But no, you never hear of such violence and discrimination against Russian immigrants, and the fact there is no such violence and discrimination against Russians (at least, not enough to show up on anyone’s radars) is a good thing, of course.

It does, however make you wonder what exactly this “hysterical Russophobia” is that has so many tongues wagging, but has absolutely no negative effect on the ability of actual, individual Russians to lead happy, productive, and violence- and discrimination-free lives in the countries where they have chosen to settle.

That’s an easy riddle to solve, however. “Hysterical Russophobia” is a non-phenomenon invented by a motley coalition of people with various political axes to grind, including sections of the mostly hilarious current western left, who for some reason have not heard the news about what has been happening in the Socialist Motherland the last twenty-five years or so or feign not to have heard it. They’re still defending Russia long after it became the world center of the blackest social and political reaction. That is, they’re defending a corrupt, oligarchic capitalist tyranny.

Why actual Russian immigrants might feel defensive about the old homeland is understandable, but they should figure out what’s worth defending and what’s not. The Putin regime, for example, literally has no redeeming features whatsoever, as a perusal of this blog, for example, and its predecessor, Chtodelat News, should persuade you, although there are thousands and millions of more credible sources of information out there that are even more persuasive than my occasional, half-baked efforts to knock some sense into your heads.

People who nevertheless hotly defend the Putin regime, wherever they’re from, immediately strike me as suspicious or hopelessly naive. And I’m not alone.

“10,000 articles in the left press about anti-Russian hysteria. They would have more impact if they ever acknowledged that this fucking bastard Putin is building a worldwide ultraright movement. Diana Johnstone told Counterpunch readers that Marine Le Pen was on the left, so you can understand how this sort of Red-Brown thing has been gestating for quite some time.” (Louis Proyect, as quoted by Raiko Aasa yesterday on Facebook)

And here is “hysterical Russophobia” at its most sinister!

‘Delfinov and Vrubel are part of a growing community of Russian artists, poets, writers and intellectuals who have turned Berlin into one of the most vibrant outposts of Slavic culture, a kind of Moscow-on-Spree that is light years away from the repressive world of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Delfinov, who moved to Berlin in 2001, says the influx has accelerated in the past five years, a period when Russians’ hopes of democratic change evaporated. Many of them quit the country after Putin returned in 2012 for a third term as president and veered sharply to the right, espousing a new nationalist rhetoric, clamping down on dissent and annexing Crimea. Official figures show there are now 22,000 Russian expats living in Berlin, up 6 per cent on 2015. “They are people who saw no future for themselves in Russia,” says Delfinov. “Middle-class people who just wanted to breathe.”’

Well, you’ve probably guessed I’m just being facetious.

I think it’s great that Russians can go anywhere and make new, happy, productive lives for themselves. It should be that way for everyone, of course. No one is illegal, and all that.

Yet, simultaneously, the Russian government has been working overtime over the last year to exacerbate the Syrian refugee crisis. But you’d be hard pressed to hear any of the nattily dressed émigrés, described in the Financial Times article, quoted above, or their countrymen saying anything whatsoever about that nasty business and their country’s role in it. Mum’s the word, I’ve got my life to live, and all that.

However, a fair number of Russians, in my experience (and not only mine), have had lots to say, paradoxically, about Germany and other European countries being “overrun” by refugees from Syria and other war zones. It turns out these “black” unfortunates, who come from completely other galaxies, apparently, don’t have the same right so seek a safe place to live and work in Berlin, Paris, London et al., as the now-“white” (as opposed to White) Russians do.

Isn’t that funny? TRR

The Standard Narrative

Is this the “real” Russia?

“I watched as the people of Chelyabinsk began to search for an identity—a Russian identity that would give them pride. Vladimir Putin’s unexpected ascent to power in 2000 was, for many, a godsend.”

How does the beloved Anne Garrels, formerly foreign correspondent of the dismal, faux-liberal but also mysteriously beloved NPR, know all this?

She claims she knows this because she made repeated visits to Chelyabinsk, in Putin’s nonexistent “heartland,” over twenty years.

I gather she’s now even published a book about this fairy kingdom to great acclaim.

The problem is that the story she pretends to have dug up has been the standard narrative for western journalists and academics pretending to cover or study the “real Russia” for a long while now.

The problem with the standard narrative is it’s not true, although it was partly spun from a combination of half-truths, outright but persuasive sounding lies, and thoroughly unexamined “facts.” It was cooked up, back in the day, by masterful Kremlin spin doctors like Gleb Pavlovsky or Vladislav Surkov or a whole team of such spin doctors.

Over the last eighteen years it has been drilled into the heads of “ordinary Russians” and the legions of pollsters, academics, and journalists who have feigned to be studying what “ordinary Russians are thinking.” All of the above-named parties, including some “ordinary Russians,” have then gone on to brainwashing each other with the narrative in a completely closed feedback loop.

Or is this the “real” Russia?

However, the Putinist standard narrative was never true even when easy oil money made it seem partly true, and it’s even less true now when that money has dried up, and the Russian economy has been driven into the dirt by crisis, mismanagement, cosmic-scale corruption, and sanctions.

Yet the less true the standard narrative becomes, the more determined the western media and the west’s dubious posse of “Russia hands” (who don’t live in Chelyabinsk but always somehow know what’s best for the people of Chelyabinsk; twenty more years of Putin’s “heartlandism,” apparently) have been to pound the narrative into our ignorant little readerly, viewerly, and listenerly heads.

It’s no wonder the odious phrase “the Russians”—as in “the Russians think this” and “the Russians do that”—has come into vogue again. As if 143 or 144 million people all think and do the same thing, as if the eighteen years of Putin’s faux “heartlandism” hasn’t, in fact, been one long “cold civil war,” as a friend of mine aptly put it many years ago.

That’s a really complicated story to report. Most western reporters aren’t up to the job for various reasons, so they have just rung the changes on the standard narrative, “heartlandism,” and Putin’s amazing “popularity” (measured by pollsters whose methods should not be trusted, and whose results should not be taken at face value in circumstances where polling cannot by definition produce objective feedback, if it ever could), and have called it a day.

Since editors and newscast producers are usually none the wiser and have lots of other stories to shepherd, they have let the journalists and their sources in the world of Russian handdom spread the Putinist standard narrative up and down and round the west, so that schoolkids and soccer mums in Melbourne, Grimsby, and Cuyahoga County, if pressed, could regurgitate it almost as convincingly as Garrels does, in the “Comment Is Free” piece for the “liberal” Guardian readership, quoted above.

If there’s anything worth preserving about political and social liberalism, it’s the desire to reject canned truths and dogmas and find out what’s really been going down somewhere.

“Real Russians” are upset “the west’ has swallowed the standard narrative hook, line and sinker.

Instead, nearly the entire western press corps and a good portion of its academic experts on Russia have bought the whole bill of goods, freeing the Russian elite from any responsibility for its cynical, destructive, dysfunctional, and dangerous governance of the world’s largest country.

Amid the fake moral panic over “hysterical Russophobia” this has always been the real story: how the western political, media, and academic elites have mostly been letting the heartlandist-in-chief get away with it, in effect, aiding and abetting him and his old friends in the Ozero Dacha Co-op, serving as cashiers to him and the Laundromat, helping him amass his supplies of real and symbolic capital.

This shell game will all come to a screeching halt one day, however, and all the backstocks of bestsellers like Garrels’s will have to be pulped because they won’t be worth the paper they were printed on. TRR

All photos by the Russian Reader

Viha Tekee Vihaa, or, The Finnish Class

Khadar Ahmed on the set. Photo courtesy of MTV3 Finland

“In NTV’s report you can by the way suddenly see a Finnish police car driving past, even though it’s about Sweden.”

That’s okay. The home audience just wants to hate on “Europe” and “Muslim terrorists” even if they have been edited, remixed, and totally fabricated out of thin air. The important thing in Putinlandia is to have something and someone to hate intensely all the livelong day.

And if you think this hatred is restricted to the “yobs” and other “uneducated” types, you’d be dead wrong. Over the last glorious seventeen years, I’ve been hearing this free-floating hatred spilling out in increasing quantities from the educated, from professionals, from the so-called intelligentsia.

In fact, I heard it again last night during my Finnish class (not the first time there, either). The remarks were “triggered” by the fact that I had had our group read a Helsingin Sanomat interview with the up-and-coming Somali-Finnish screenwriter and filmmaker Khadar Ahmed, who spoke with an utter lack of bittnerness (and in a totally fluent Finnish that none of us “Aryans” have yet achieved) about the total alienation and discrimination he had experienced as an immigrant to Finland. He’s now relocated to Paris.

My classmates were totally unimpressed that a road movie based on Ahmed’s screenplay, Saattokeikka, would be hitting screens in Finland in the coming days, or that a previous screenplay of his (Kaupunkilaisia) had been filmed by country’s hottest young filmmaker, Juho Kuosmanen, whose luminous and completely perfect film The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2016 Cannes festival and was submitted by Finland to the 89th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.

My classmates had never heard of Kuosmanen or the film, either, although Olli Mäki was screened right down the street from where we were sitting. That was a few months ago during the annual Finnish film festival, paid for by the Finnish government, who have been trying so hard to be besties with the “neighbor to the east,” which just wants to puff out its chest and hate on everybody as a matter of state policy and mundane practice.

We also read another Helsingin Sanomat piece, about the state of the Finnish nation and the state of “Finnishness,” in which well-known Finns were asked to respond to a set of ten questions that pollsters had posed as well to a larger sampling of ordinary Finns. One of the respondents was the Finnish rapper Prinssi Jusuf (aka Iyouseyas Bekele Belayneh), whose family moved from Ethiopia to Finland when Jusuf was two.

Yet my classmates were convinced, for some reason, that Prinssi Jusuf must rap in English, not Finnish, as if Finnish were too complicated for black people to learn.

One of my classmates was also on the verge of making a comment about who Prinssi Jusuf resembled. As an amateur psychic, I could imagine what she was about to say (Barack Obama, although they don’t look a thing alike), but a well-timed glare shut her up.

This is the lovely world that Putinism has built over the last seventeen years, although everyone answers for the garbage in their own heads, ultimately.

By the way, here’s a video of Prinssi Jusuf rapping in what sounds to me like perfectly fluent Finnish. TRR

Thanks to Robert Coalson for the heads-up on the Rinkeby story.

March 3, 2007 (March of the Dissenters, Petersburg)

the_dissenters_march_in_st-_petersburg_march_3_2007
Anti-Putin protesters gathered on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg next to the old City Duma building, March 3, 2007. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

A comrade reminds me that today (March 3, 2017) is ten years to the day from the first March of the Dissenters in Petersburg (March 3, 2007), in which thousands of anti-Putin protesters who had been kettled by riot police on Ligovsky Prospect near Insurrection Square broke through the police lines and marched, nearly unimpeded and without anyone’s “authorization,” all the way down the Nevsky to the old City Duma building, where various “ringleaders,” including the then-fearless and inspiring local politician Sergei Gulyaev, several Natsbols (during their “liberal” phase, now long since forgotten), and Garry Kasparov tried to mount the steps to give speeches, which they did with more or less success until the riot cops infiltrated the huge crowd gathered around the Duma and dragged them away to paddy wagons.

Needless to say, it was a wonderful day, one of the most memorable in my life, and a rare manifestation of real grassroots people power in a city whose populace is too often prone to wait for the cops to give them permission to stand in a dirty, invisible corner of town and hold up their handmade placards, which will be seen by no one except their mostly fairweather friends on Facebook.

If you weren’t there that day, but could have been, you made a big mistake, for which, I suspect, the gods of Ingria will never ever forgive you.

A great time was had by all. Really. TRR

Thanks to Comrade Oregon for the heads-up

Russian Is Easy: Bans for Brekkers

ban-s-rostbifom

One reason Russian has become a lot easier over the past ten or twenty years is that Russia’s creative classes have been strenuously churning their native tongue into a Russified variety of English.

Here’s a great example, as suggested to me just now by one of Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms, which know I adore this ghastly self-hating twee monster called Rusglish.

At one of Chef Aram Mnatsakanov’s tiny empire of restaurants in Petersburg, Jérôme (don’t ask), you can order something called ban s rostbifom and ban s svininoi for brekkers.

menu

It’s not the rostbif and svinina (“roast beef” and “pork”) that caught my eye. They’ve long been part of the great and mighty Russian language.

What caught me eye was the word ban (bun). Why were “Russia’s Jamie Oliver” (not my coinage) and Co. unable to condescend to the perfectly Russian, extremely ordinary, and utterly comprehensible word bulochka (“bun”) when writing up the menu?

Because that would have sounded too common. For €6.77 a pop Mnatsakanov’s diners expect something “fancier” (as Mum would have put it) than a plain old bulochka their babushkas could have baked for them out of the kindness of their lonely hearts.

Mnatskanov’s customers don’t want kindness. They want conspicuous consumption. And they want it labeled, at least partly, in English, even if that English is as supremely common and humble as “bun” (ban). TRR

Images courtesy of Jérôme