Entweder Gehst Du oder Ich Gehe!

friedrichshain police state.JPGGermany has begun implementing the Putinist police state in parts of Berlin to make its Russian partners feel less lonely in their pursuit of absolute tyranny. Photo by the Russian Reader

Council of Europe and Russia Reach Tentative Compromise
Deutsche Welle
May 17, 2019

Russia said it had no desire to leave the Council of Europe and was ready to pay its dues following an apparent breakthrough between Moscow and Western nations. Russia’s delegation had faced sanctions over Crimea.

France and Germany pushed through a compromise that would allow Russia to return to the Council of Europe (CoE), as foreign ministers from the 47 member states resumed their two-day summit in Helsinki.

The Russian delegation has faced sanctions at the CoE over the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. One of the measures included stripping Russia’s representatives of their voting rights, which in turn prompted them to boycott CoE plenary sessions.

On Friday, the body adopted a declaration saying “all member states should be entitled to participate on an equal basis” in the CoE. The declaration also states that its members “would welcome that delegations of all member states be able to take part” in the assembly next June.

“We do not intend to leave the Council of Europe, as some rumors would have you believe,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “We are not evading any of our commitments, including the financial ones.”

Germany’s top diplomat Heiko Maas previously met with Lavrov on Friday. Maas said it was “good that we have agreed that Russia should stay in the CoE Parliamentary Assembly—also to give millions of Russians the protection of the European Court of Human Rights.”

Berlin has actively supported Russia’s full reinstatement into the council, but that did not come without conditions, Maas told DW.

“We have also agreed on a mechanism by which it will be possible in future to sanction members of the CoE who violate fundamental legal provisions.”

In 2017, Russia stopped its financial contributions, leaving the CoE with an annual budget hole of some €33 million ($37 million). Russia could be suspended from the body next month for not paying its membership fees.

Activists Want Russia in CoE
Human rights activists were concerned that suspending or expelling Russia from the assembly, which is a non-EU organization to uphold human rights, could have a disastrous effect on civil society in Russia. The watchdog body is in charge of electing judges for the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the largest percentage of ECHR cases comes from Russia. Others worry that revoking Russia’s membership could eventually bring back capital punishment in the country.

Ukraine Warns of “Normalizing” Russia’s Actions
Ukraine responded angrily to the reconciliatory signals between Russia and France and Germany. In protest, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin decided to send his deputy to Helsinki.

In a Facebook post, Klimkin also said that ending sanctions would start the process of “normalizing” everything Russia has done.

“And if some people in Europe respond to Kremlin blackmail and hide their heads in the sand, very soon there might be nothing left of the Council of Europe and ultimately of all European values,” he said.

Thanks to Jukka Mallinen for the heads-up.

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When you make endless compromises with gangsters, you end up shredding your own principles into pulp.

The Russian Federation does not honor or observe the European Convention on Human Rights in any way, shape or form, and it knows it.

Keeping it in the Council of Europe at all costs will, ultimately, ensure the collapse of democracy and the rule of law all over Europe.

Kicking it out would speed up the Putin regime’s collapse and finally spark a crisis among Russia’s elites and grassroots in which Russians would have a chance to get rid of Putin and his thugs.

But it is a job they have to do themselves. The dicey argument that human rights defenders in Russia need the European Court of Human Rights to defend human rights in Russia only postpones what has to happen sooner or later.

On the contrary, diplomatic victories like this tell the Putin regime in no uncertain terms to ratchet up the crackdowns at home and the neo-imperialist military adventures abroad, because both its own people and European democracies are too weak to call it on the carpet.

Europe doesn’t want to deal with Putin’s twenty-year-long war against democracy and human rights in Russia, despite the fact that ordinary Russians in faraway places like Yekaterinburg and Shies are fighting the regime tooth and nail

But who cares about them? Who in Europe has ever heard of Shies? How many European officials can find Yekaterinburg on a map?

This compromise gives the Kremlin the green light to crack heads in both places, if push comes to shove, knowing it has Europe firmly on its side. {TRR}

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Immigration Blues

Immigrant hopefuls would be deemed eligible and competitive based on the points they accrue through a set of criteria, including educational specialty or degree, age, English proficiency, and a high-salaried job offer. They would need to show that they “like our way of life,” a senior official said, and that they are capable of “patriotic assimilation.” They could demonstrate that quality by passing a civics test much like the kind someone might encounter at a U.S. college.

I never had to take a civics test at a US college. The only civics test I have taken was the highly politicized test on Russian history and Russian laws I took last summer, along with a Russian language test, as part of the application to extend my Russian residence permit another five years.

It was a bloody joke, explicitly designed to show I “liked [their] way of life,” which they do not like themselves.

So, for example, I had to choose from among four possible answers when asked whether the “RF” (“Russian Federation”) was: 1) a totalitarian country, 2) an authoritarian country, 3) a hybrid country or a 4) a democratic country.

russian state

The right answer, obviously, was No. 4. I had enough Russian Bizarro world street smarts to choose it, although it was right only on the exam. In real life outside the exam, meaning on the ground, the RF is a No. 2 that badly wants to go No. 1.

If you imagine the test’s authors laughed their heads off when they drafted questions like this, you would probably be right.

When I was getting my other papers ready at Petersburg’s shiny new Amalgamated Documents Center (where Russians themselves can apply for foreign travel passports and lots of other precious papers, seals, stamps, permissions, visas, etc.), an employee suggested to me that, if I paid twice as much for the test, I would not have to take it for real. The fee would be considered a fee for an exam prep course I would not really take, either. On the appointed day, I would report at a certain time to a certain room to pick up a certificate showing I had passed the test with flying colors, although I would have done no such thing in reality.

I decided to take the test for real. I studied for it by taking sample tests I found on the web.

In the event, I passed the Russian civics exam with flying colors the hard way: by studying for it for most of a day and then taking it the next day.

A few months later, the FSB raided the language text and civics exam prep center at the Amalgamated Documents Center, claiming, probably on good grounds, the test center was helping applicants scam the government, which was footing the bill.

But the Russian government generated the problem in the first place by insisting immigrants take a hokey exam that, I am sure, most government officials would not be able to pass, much less rank-and-file Russians.

How odd the US government, currently headed by an avowed Putinist, would suddenly propose setting up the same hurdles to legal immigration to the US (“United States”). {TRR}

NB. The illustration, above, is a screenshot of the question on a sample test found on the internet. But I had to answer the same multiple-choice question, with the same set of four possible answers on the exam itself.

No One to Call Them on the Carpet

karlshorst tankA WWII-era Soviet tank, its muzzle pointed toward downtown Berlin, in the yard of the so-called German Russian Museum in the city’s Karlshorst neighborhood. Until 1994, it was known as the Capitulation Museum, since German high command formally surrendered to the Soviet high command in the building that houses the museum. Photo by the Russian Reader

At this point in their downward spiral towards worldwide moral and intellectual superiority, it is sometimes as hard to compliment Russians as it to make common cause with them or, on the contrary, argue with them.

I was thinking about this in a different connection when my attention was drawn to this column by Masha Gessen, published two days ago by the New Yorker.

The column is an odd beast.

First, Ms. Gessen makes a sound argument, based on hard, easily verifiable facts, but then she does an about-face and acts as her argument’s own resentful, miserably uninformed whataboutist, drawing false parallels between commemorations of the Second World War in Russia and the US, and the roles played by Putin and Trump in tarnishing these memorial events with their own sinister political agendas.

She is thus able to set readers up for the column’s takeaway message: “[T]he Trumpian spin on [the Second World War] is all maga, which makes it essentially the same as Putin’s.”

Ms. Gessen once was one of my favorite reporters, especially back in the days when she wrote for the weekly Russian news magazine Itogi.  Later, I adored her poignant, richly rendered dual portrait of her grandmothers and the turbulent times of their younger years. I would still urge anyone curious about what the Soviet Union was really like under Stalin and after his death to put the book, Ester and Ruzya, at the top of their reading lists.

Nowadays, however, Ms. Gessen finds herself in what should be the unenviable position of having no one willing to call her on the carpet . Whatever she writes and says is regarded as the gospel truth, apparently, by her editors, readers, and listeners. In any case, I have never come upon any criticism of her work, at least in Anglophonia.

Her editor at the New Yorker, David Remnick, himself a Russia expert of sorts, has gone missing in action when it comes to editing critically what she writes about the country of her birth, and so has everyone else who could be bothered to notice the sleights of hand and sophistry in which she now indulges all too often.

In this case, it is simple. In the United States, there has been nothing like the overbearing politicization of victory in the Second World War as there has been in Russia since Putin took power twenty years ago.

The US does not even have a public holiday commemorating victory in the war, whether on the European front or the Pacific front. I think this says something. Maybe what it says is bad, but the importance of the “victory” for US society, especially now that nearly seventy-five years have passed since the victory was declared, has been waning with every passing day.

More to the point, whatever deplorable uses Trump may have made of the war, he has had a mere two years in office to do his damage, while “decisive victory” in the Great Fatherland War (as the war is called in Russian) has long played a central role in Putin’s eclectic, opportunist but extraordinarily reactionary ideology.

It is an rather odd stance, since the Kremlin regularly speaks and acts almost as if the Putin regime and the current Russian Armed Forces achieved victory over the Nazis in 1945, rather than the Stalin regime and the Red Army.

Victory in the war has been used as much to bludgeon the regime’s “traitors” and “enemies” into submission as it has been used to brainwash the Russian people into a false sense of national unity and international moral superiority.

Of course, there have been periods since 1945 when victory in the war was politicized by the US establishment, too. We need only think of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” and, years before that last gasp, the ways movies and TV shows about the war functioned as surrogates for reinforcing western capitalist ideology during the Cold War.

As should naturally be the case, however, since the war ended a long time ago, and most of the people who witnessed it and fought in it have died, it has meant less to the rising generations in the US than it did to the generations of my grandparents (who fought in the war, if only on the home front) and my parents (who were born just before or during the war), and even to my own generation (who grew up in a vernacular culture still permeated by memories of the war, sometimes embodied in our own grandparents and their age mates, and a popular culture still awash in books, comic books, TV serials, movies, toys, and other consumerist junk inspired by the war).

A gradual waning of interest in the war should have happened in Russia as well,  albeit in a manner that acknowledged and honored the war’s much greater impact on the country and all the other former Soviet republics.

In the nineties, under the “villainous” Yeltsin, this was on the verge of happening.

I remember going to the Victory Day parade on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg in 1995. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end in Europe, but the main event consisted only of columns of real war veterans, some in uniform, some in civilian dress, all of them wearing their medals, marching down the Nevsky accompanied by a few marching bands and a military honor guard, if memory serves me.

Tens of thousands of Petersburgers lined the pavements, cheering the veterans, crying, and occasionally running out into the parade to hand them flowers, kiss their cheeks, and thank them personally for their courage.

It was simple, dignified, and moving.

But then a new mob took over Russia. The new mob wanted to rob the country blind and install themselves in power for as long as they could, so they had to convince their victims, the Russian people, of a number of contradictory things.

One, the highway robbery, as committed by the new mob, was for their own good. Two, the highway robbery was making them better and their country great again; it would bring “stability.” Three, the highway robbery was spiritually underwritten by the former country’s former greatness, as demonstrated, in part, by its victory over the Nazis in the Great Fatherland War.

It is not true that all or even most Russians have swallowed all or even most of this dangerous nonsense.

Putinism, however, has destroyed politics in Russia not only by demolishing all democratic institutions and persecuting grassroots activists and opposition politicians in ever-increasing numbers.

It has also disappeared most real political issues and replaced them with non-issues, such as nonexistent “threats” to the glory of Russia’s victory in WWII, as posed by “traitors” and hostile foreign powers, the completely astroturfed “upsurge” in “love for Stalin,” and several other fake zeitgeist events that have been designed purposely to set the country’s dubious troika of official pollsters polling like never before and take up oodles of space in the real media, the social media, and ordinary people’s minds and their bar-stool and dinner-table conversations with strangers, friends, relatives, and coworkers.

I am much too fond of French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s distinction between “politics”—what happens in the public space around real sources of political and social conflict in democratic societies or societies striving towards freedom and equity) and “police”—the opposite of “politics,” the utter control of public space and a monopoly on decision-making by a tiny anti-democratic elite.

“Police” as a concept, however, encompasses not only real policemen kicking down the doors of “extremists” and “terrorists,” and casing and tailing everyone suspicious and “unreliable” every which way they can.

In Russia under Putin, it has also involved tarring and feathering all real political discourse and political thinking, while promoting sophistry, scuttlebutt, moral panics, two minutes hate, and intense nationwide “debates” about non-issues such as “the people’s love of Stalin” and “victory in the war.”

The point of substituting artificial “police” discourses for wide-open political debate has been to prevent Russia from talking about bread-and-butter issues like pensions, the economy, healthcare, housing, the environment, war and peace, and increasingly violent crackdowns against political dissenters, businessmen, migrant workers, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities.

Russians are capable of talking about these things and do talk about them, of course, but a steady diet of nothing, that is, immersion in a topsy-turvy world in which the state, mainstream media, and many of your own friend will try, often and persistently, to engage you in “serious” conversations about chimeras and phantoms, has had an innervating effect on serious political discourse generally.

Try and talk to Russians about politics and, often as not, you will soon find yourself talking “police” instead.

If Ms. Gessen had decided to write a substantive article about the Putin regime’s use and abuse of the “victory,” popular acquiescence to its campaign, and grassroots pushbacks against, it would have familiarized Ms. Gessen’s readers with a story about which they know either nothing or almost nothing.

I cannot imagine anyone better qualified to tell the story than Ms. Gessen herself.

But, as is the case with many other Russians, the straight talk in Ms. Gessen’s recent printed work and media appearances about what has been happening in Russia under Putin has been veering off, sooner or later, into whataboutism and a series of well-worn memes whose hysterical repetition passes for political argument these days.

There is a different but curiously overlapping set for every political tribe in Putinist Russia, from nominal nationalists to nominal liberals and leftists.

What is my own takeaway message?

There can be no politics in Russia in the Rancierean sense or any other sense until the Russian liberal intelligentsia (with whom Ms. Gessen has explicitly identified herself on several occasions, obviously considering them vastly superior intellectually and morally to the American mooks with whom she has been condemned to spend too much time, Russiansplaining everything under the sun to them as best she can, mostly to no avail) and all the other intelligentsias and political tribes in Russia give up their pet sets of non-issues and non-solutions and revive the deadly serious politics and political discourses of the pre-Revolutionary period, if only in spirit.

However, the efficacy of “police” under Putin has been borne out by the way in which nearly everyone has united, time and again, around the very non-issues the regime and state media has encouraged them to discuss.

On the contrary, several painfully real issues, for example, Russia’s ruinous, murderous military involvement in Syria, have never been vetted by “police” for public hand-wringing of any kind.

As if obeying an unwritten rule or a tape reeling in their heads, nobody ever talks about them, not even the great Masha Gessen. {TRR}

Thanks to Comrade GF for bring Ms. Gessen’s column to my attention.

Marrying the Mob

DSCN1068

On Facebook, I regularly push stories about Syria and, especially, Russia’s criminally disastrous involvement there. Unfortunately, it has had no visible effect on any of my Russian Facebook friends with one exception.

I should thank Allah for that many “converts.”

In international politics, marriages of convenience among dictators and wannabe dictators always lead to mayhem and unintended fallout for the innocent bystanders in their immediate vicinity.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Trump and his campaign really did not collude with Putin and other Russian government officials to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if that were the case, Trump’s overweening admiration for Putin’s style of bad governance has still had catastrophic effects on the country he is supposed to be leading

For someone like me who is all too familiar with the bag of tricks known, maybe somewhat inaccurately, as Putinism, it has been obvious Trump wants to steer the US in a quasi-Putinist direction.

While the republic, its states, and the other branches of government can mount a mighty resistance by virtue of the power vested in them, Trump can still cause lots of damage as an “imperial” president, even if he is booted out of the White House two years from now.

Likewise, Russians can imagine there is a far cry between living in a country whose cities are besieged and bombed by the country’s dictator, and what Putin has been doing in Syria. What he has been doing, they might imagine, mostly stays in Syria, except for Russian servicemen killed in action there, whose names and numbers are kept secret from the Russian public.

In reality, it is clear that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist turn in Ukraine, Syria, etc., has made the regime far more belligerent to dissidents, outliers, weirdos, “extremists,” and “terrorists” at home.

Over the last five years, more and more Russians have fallen prey to their homegrown police and security services either for what amount to thought crimes (e.g., reposting an anti-Putinist meme on the social network VK or organizing nonexistent “terrorist communities”) or what the Russian constitution does not recognize as a crime at all, such as practicing one’s religion (e.g., Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do)

Putin has adopted an Assadist mindset, therefore. He, his cronies, and the ever-expanding Russian security services, whose mission is making the paranoia of their superiors come true by meeting quotas of harassed, interrogated, arrested, tortured, jailed and convicted “extremists” per quarter, have come to imagine the only way to avoid the mess in which Assad found himself is to hammer anyone in Russia who sticks their necks out too far, whether intentionally or not, that everyone else will get the clue dissent and even plain difference come with a heavy price tag and reduce theirs to an invisible minimum.

Things were not exactly peachy during the first years of the Putin regime, but they became a hell of a lot worse after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine and went flying off to Syria to save Assad’s bacon from the fire of popular revolution.

As long as Russia remains entrenched in those places, there can be no question of progress on the home front, especially when the vast majority of Russians pretend very hard not to know anything about Syria and their country’s involvement there, and have grown accustomed to the Ukrainian muddle, meaning they mostly avoid thinking about what has really been happening in Eastern Ukraine, too. {TRR}

Thanks to the fabulous Sheen Gleeson for the first link. Photo by the Russian Reader

My Generation

frenkel-subway trialThe defendants in the Petersburg subway bombing trial. Photo by David Frenkel

After a terrific, well-attended solidarity talk in support of the defendants in the Network case, held here in Berlin the other night, I spoke to a lovely young Russian activist.

I said to them that there were, of course, many more instances of wild injustice in Putinist Russia with which an engaged foreign audience could be regaled, such as the ongoing trial of several Central Asians, accused of complicity in the alleged terrorist suicide bombing in the Petersburg subway on April 3, 2017.

Like the Network case, the Petersburg subway bombing case has all the hallmarks of a frame-up. As in the Network case, there have been numerous allegations the defendants have been tortured by investigators.

“But the difference,” the young person interrupted me, “is racism.”

They meant that, since all the defendants hailed from Central Asia, there was no way to mount the successful solidarity campaign that has shown a harsh light on the Network case and garnered it widespread notoriety, especially within Russia.

The young person went on to tell me that a friend of theirs had been attending the subway bombing trial. She had told them it was horrific. The defendants had been assigned state-appointed lawyers who did doing nothing to defend them. The trial was such a flagrant frame-up the interpreters working it had banded together to try and do anything they could to help the young people, who in all likelihood have been accused of terrible crimes they did not commit.

It goes without saying that all of them will be found guilty and sentenced to long terms in prison.

The case has been covered spottily by Petersburg and Russian media outlets, but I have seen very little outrage or even mild concern about it from my acquaintances on Russophone social media, most of whom live in Petersburg.

Many of these same people are now visibly bent out shape about goings-on in Israel-Palestine. In the past few days, they have been treating virtual friends like me to generous helpings of unsubstatianted hasbara.

Are they unconcerned about the miscarriage of justice perpetrated on nearly a dozen young Central Asians because they think all Muslims are terrorists and, by definition, guilty of every charge of terrorism laid at their door?

It has been a commonplace of Russian quasi-liberal thinking that Stalinism affected Russians so deeply it infected their collective DNA. The Stalinist bug, so this spurious argument contends, has been passed on to the new generation as well, even though the Soviet Union collapsed almost thirty years ago, before my interlocutor and huge numbers of other terrific young Russian social and political activists I know were born.

Supposedly, several generations must pass before the Stalinist bug will finally be expunged from the national genetic code and Russians can build a more democratic polity in their country.

In reality, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence pointing to the new generation’s eagerness and readiness to live that way right now.

On the contrary, it is my own age mates, the so-called last Soviet generation, who were born after Stalin died, who seem most afflicted by a kind of cognitive and emotional Stalinism that, often as not, emerges in their thoughts and deeds not as nostalgia or admiration for the real Stalin, but as dogmatic worldview that makes events in, say, Israel more real and important than most events in their own country and cities.

Given recent oddities around the Network trial and the unwonted negative publicity the case has generated for the FSB, I think there is a slight chance the powers that be might have decided to ratchet things down a bit. I could be wrong, but I would not be surprised if, when the trials in Penza and Petersburg resume after a long, unexplained recess, the defendants were indicted on lesser charges and then immediately released on probation, taking into account the long time all of them have spent in remand prisons since their arrests in late 2017 and early 2018.

There is no chance this will happen in the subway bombing trial for the simple reason that almost no one in Petersbug can be bothered to go to bat for a group of non-Russian Muslims or even bat an eye when they are tortured and framed exactly like their non-Muslim contemporaries. {TRR}

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Fulda Gap

fulda gap-e

My neighborhood in the former East Berlin harbors some of the last anarchist squats in the city. All the dogs here go for walks without a leash. The odor of marijuana lies heavy in the air. And the sharing economy is practiced as a matter of course.

This means that when someone decides to get rid of something that someone else could use, they often as not set it out on the pavement for the taking.

In this way, several valuable finds have come into my temporary possession.

What I found while we were strolling the neighborhood yesterday, however, was a gift beyond price, and yet it was completely free, to rephrase a line from Rush’s greatest song, “The Spirit of Radio” (1980).

Rush recorded all of their best records during the Cold War, whose moral and intellectual were palpable in Neil Peart’s hippy libertarian fantasy mini-epics, sci-fi short stories, and sonic sermons on the virtues of freedom and individualism.

I was a Rush fan from an early age, but little did I know that as Rush were in Toronto composing and recording the soundtrack of my adolescence, a company called SPI (Simulations Publications, Inc.), headquartered on Park Avenue South in Manhattan, was churning out extraordinarily complicated “conflict simulation” games by the hundreds.

Many of SPI’s conflict simulations were based on historical battles and campaigns, ranging from the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Austerlitz to “fantasy & science fiction games” such as Invasion: America—Death Throes of the Superpower and (in the interests of “balance”) Objective: Moscow—The Death of Soviet Communism (“A hypothetical invasion of the USSR by a world coalition”).

Oddly, the first game retailed for $18, while the second cost $27, a decent chunk of money at the time, considering SPI’s target market and the fact that their games consisted of lots of instructions, charts, tables, diagrams, maps, playing pieces, and game boards, all of them printed on cardstock and heavy paper, not on embossed cardboard, etc.

In 1977, when I was ten, and the Cold War informed most of the zeitgeist one way or another, SPI released a remarkable conflict stimulation entitled Fulda Gap: The First Battle of the Next War.

Yesterday, I found what looks to be a completely intact, serviceable specimen of Fulda Gap in a cardboard box along with other things clearly left there for the taking by a kindhearted Berliner.

fulda gap-a

My first impression of Fulda Gap is that it is a thousand time more complicated than the actual Cold War was. The “Rules of Play” alone run to sixteen pages.

fulda gap-1.jpg

Fulda Gap also features three sets of “Charts and Tables,” a large folded sheet containing a “Turn Record / Reinforcement Track” on one side, an “Untried Unit Table Analysis” on the reverse, and, of course, a foldout map of West Germany and East Germany where, apparently, the main action takes place and the players pretend, variously, to invade West Germany or fend off the cunning, treacherous Reds.

 

fulda gap-b.JPG

Finally, Fulda Gap contains what SPI’s mail order catalog of its other games honestly identifies as several hundred “die-cut cardboard playing pieces […] packaged in ziplock bag[s].” The playing pieces are printed with such arcane combinations of numbers, letters, and symbols it is easier to imagine they have something to do with the Kabbalah than with all-out warfare between NATO  and the Warsaw Pact.

If I were a contemporary artist I would stage a performance involving Fulda Gap in one of the ex-Cold War settings and current Cold War memorials with which Berlin teems.

If I were a real gamester I would just find a few other comrades, figure out how the game works, and play it.

In any case, I would appreciate your comments, suggestions, and reminiscences about Fulda Gap and SPI’s other remarkable products, as well as information about the company and the people who produced its games. {TRR}

Feckless Lowlifes and Incompetent Bounders

american sect

Mark Schrad’s new article in Foreign Policy is yet another attempt to absolve the Putin regime of its crimes and make it seem like a harmless posse of bumbling, extemporizing clowns.

What observers like Schrad fail to realize is that the Putin regime is organized in its own peculiar way in order to achieve objectives that themselves are peculiar or, rather, not political in the usual sense of the world.

From Putin on down, the regime’s satraps and foot soldiers see themselves as an indefinitely massive police force for guarding Russia’s wealth and sovereignty as they have come to define them and thus, their own roles, over the last twenty years.

This ostensibly noble mission does not preclude its adepts from engaging in highway robbery and rampant corruption. Rather than preventing them from amassing vast personal fortunes, the mission implicitly encourages them to do so. Better that Russia’s vast wealth should be located safe and sound in their “patriotic” hands rather than the hands of the opposition, who are by definite treacherous. God forbid that foreigners should get their hands on much of it, either.

Generally speaking, the Putin regime of self-consciously bad cops on a noble mission has been wildly successful at defining and achieving most of its objectives, even if its victims (the Russian people) and outside observers have often been baffled.

It is thus another matter altogether whether Plan Putin is ultimately good for Russia and Russians themselves, not to mention other countries that have had the misfortune of ending up in its cross-hairs as friend, foe, neighbor or “partner.”

Returning to Schrad’s article, no one in their right mind has ever seriously claimed Putin is “the all-seeing, all-knowing puppet master of U.S. politics.” But nor has there been such a deliberate, massive attempt by a foreign government to subvert US domestic politics since the Cold War, and I would suspect the same thing could be said about many of the other countries where Putinist Russia has been fighting hot wars and hybrid wars during its twenty years of high-minded bad governance and “wholly understandable” revanchism.

I have never understood why this circumstance, whose existence has been proven beyond a doubt by mountains of direct and indirect evidence, should drive so many otherwise intelligent, knowledgeable people into fits of denial and hysteria. These same people are able to acknowledge the existence of any number of large-scale, well-organized, murderous criminal conspiracies and terrorist groups in our fallen world, from Mexican drug cartels to the Islamic State, but they think, apparently that the segment of Russian society obsessed with absolute power, who have been ringing the changes on abject, outright tyranny and ruthless imperialism for a thousand years, are suddenly incapable of anything more than petty crime and feckless corruption on tiny scale that hardly bears nothing..

In reality, the Putin regime has only been doing to US politics what it has done to Russian politics and civil society for the last twenty years, but when it comes to the US its means are, obviously, much more limited and its aims, correspondingly, more modest.

Finally, there can be no question of Putin’s associating himself personally with operations like this. When the situation requires it, he is capable of admitting mistakes and exposing himself to a bit of criticism, but like any chief of an utterly corrupt police force, he always makes sure to have his underlings do all the dirty work and take the rap when it goes south. Whether it is practically true or not, he has to be seen by his inferiors and his target audiences, including the Russian public and US leftist academics and journalists, to be above the fray.

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The foggy notion that the Kremlin’s efforts to subvert the 2016 US presidential election is actually nonsense, a fiction, a comedy of errors staged by low-level hustlers and bumblers who could not have wanted anything of the sort, much less accomplished it, now passes as common knowledge among the growing camp of Trump-Russian collusion denialists and so-called Russophiles in the west, who have managed to pull off their own hustle by roundly and pointedly ignoring nearly all the numerous developments in Russia itself during the same period, reactionary policy outbursts and crackdowns on any number of real and imaginary dissidents and political opponents that would tend to reinforce the baleful analyses of the so-called Russophobes.

These circumstances point to the fact that the Putin regime, which by definition could only consist of hustlers, bounders, and thugs, with a smattering of well-spoken “liberal economists” to balance the books as best they can and make the regime look respectable at international gatherings like Davos, has been playing a long game aimed a establishing a new-model police state.

Ever since the events that exploded around the moving of the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn in 2007, the Kremlin’s long game has had a “foreign policy” aspect as well.

Masha Gessen has been pushing the new spiel (“It was all a crazy, meaningless mix-up”) harder than her earlier writings would have lead us to expect. Currently a staff writer at the New Yorker and nearly everyone’s darling the world over, she routinely gets away with writing things lesser lights would have trouble getting past their editors’ desks. In the past several years, she has made a huge effort to persuade the entire Anglophone world that she knows more about Russia, Russian politics, and Putin than anyone else, but at least half the time her analyses are so wide of the mark you wonder whether she really knows all that much about Russian politics.

For a very long time, especially since she spent two or three years “leaving Russia” (due to entirely legitimate concerns for her family’s safety and happiness given her status and that of her partner as LGBTQI) in an astonishingly public way, granting several dozen interviews and writing just as many as first-person accounts of her plight in the process (a plight much more for Russian lesbians with families who have neither her means or her connections), she has mostly been involved in promoting the Masha Gessen brand, not doing real reporting.

The point of her latest shout-out to her devoted fans in the New Yorker is to reinforce the now-fashionable notion that the Kremlin had nothing whatsoever to do with Trump’s election to the US presidency and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

In this case, Gessen has pretended to read Mueller’s report so her readers need not bother to read it. Happily, she has reached all the conclusions the denialists and Russophiles want everyone to reach, also without reading either the report or the whole icebergs of great journalism out there that might persuade them otherwise.

No, argue Gessen and the denialists, the whole affair was a lot of fuss about nothing, dust kicked into everyone eyes by a surprisingly large number of invariably mendacious lowlifes whose actions and statements have signified absolutely nothing at the end of the day.

I have been waiting patiently for someone with more clout and cultural capital than I have to call Gessen on the carpet, especially since she has been rapidly encroaching on Leonid Bershidsky’s slippery beat.

Like Gessen, Leonid Bershidsky is a former big-time Russian journalist and editor who loudly went into exile in the west several years ago, allegedly, because it was impossible to do real journalism at home anymore.

Bershidsky, like Gessen, is an extremely smart cookie and a good writer. He scored a prominent gig writing op-ed pieces for Bloomberg, mostly but not exclusively on Russian affairs.

During his tenure at Bloomberg, Bershidsky has managed to defend the Putin regime’s supposedly benign or not altogether malign intentions at least as often as he has attacked its follies and failures, producing a bewildering picture of the Russian political elite and its actually wildly damaging effects on the country and world for anyone who has had the misfortune to read his column regularly.

That is, Bershidsky, for reasons that are not clear to me, has because a part-time mouthpiece for the Putin regime. He also doubles, confusingly, as its part-time trenchant critic.

For reasons that are just as unclear to me, Gessen has been trying, on occasion, to squeeze herself into the odd niche Bershidsky has carved out.

As the Mueller investigation has dragged on, and the press and public have paid more mind to it, Gessen has more and more often adopted the contrarian position that the subversion and collusion were manifestations of hysteria, of the US’s complexes about itself, not the consequences of a treacherous presidential campaign and a Russian “active measures” operation that produced more outcomes and wildly contradictory aftereffects than anyone involved in “masterminding” them had ever bargained for. {TRR}

Photograph by the Russian Reader