The Subtle Art of Vanganizing

Human languages are amazing things. In English, for example, it is relatively easy to change a word’s part of speech simply by using it as a different part of speech. So, we can wonder (verb) when I will publish something really worthy of wonder (noun) on this blog.

Since Russian, on the other hand, is a so-called synthetic language (i.e., a language whose nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronoun are fully declined and conjugated) you have to do a bit of prestidigitation to turn, say, a noun into a verb. The easiest (though by no means the only) way to do this is to add the verbalizing suffix -ovat’ to the noun or other part of speech in question.

One of my favorite such newfangled verbs is vangovat’, which means “to predict, to prophesy.” It has a heavily ironic connotation, since it was formed from the familiarized Christian name of the blind Bulgarian mystic and clairvoyant Vangelia Gushterova, née Dimitrova (1911–1996), more popularly known as Baba Vanga or Grandmother Vanga.

Despite having passed away over twenty years ago, Baba Vanga and her prophecies are still extraordinarily popular amongst Russians who go in for a what an old friend once referred to as “spooky knowledge,” while she is an object of ridicule amongst sane Russians. I have no evidence to prove it, but I take it that it was a member of the latter group who coined the verb vangovat’, which we will translate as “to vanganize.”

I thought of the verb this morning as I was perusing the electronic edition of one of Russia’s most respectable newspapers, the liberal business daily Vedomosti. Today’s edition features a gallery of photos of the stadiums in major Russian cities that will host the 2018 World Cup later this year.

An innocent enough feature, you would think, before I realized that Vedomosti‘s caption writer might have engaged in some full-blown vanganizing, to wit:

default-1d86“The arena in St. Petersburg is meant for 67,000 spectators. Here, the Russian team will play one match in the group stage and will get through the semifinals.” Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Yegorov/Vedomosti

But maybe not. The original caption (“Арена в Петербурге рассчитана на 67 000 зрителей. Здесь сборная России сыграет один из матчей группового этапа и пройдет полуфинал”) could also be translated as follows: “The arena in St. Petersburg is designed for 67,000 spectators. Here, the Russian team will play one match in the group stage, and the semifinals will take place.” That is, with or (probably) without the Russian team.

Whatever the case, the so-called Zenit Arena, situated on the western tip of Krestovsky Island, has been like a bad Baba Vanga prophecy from the very start. First of all, to make way for its eventual construction, the old Kirov Stadium, a lovely immense thing designed by the great constructivist architect Alexander Nikolsky, a grand oval open to the sky, the sea, the sun, and all the elements, and surrounded by a beautiful park, was demolished in 2006. Quite illegally, I might add, because it was a federally listed historical and architectural landmark.

IMG_2019

The Kirov Stadium in the summer of 2006, when it briefly served as the site of a sparsely attended alterglobalist counterforum, organized in response to a G8 summit, hosted by President Putin in the far south of the city, in the newly restored Constantine Palace in the suburb of Strelna. Enclosing the alterglobalists in the already condemned Kirov Stadium was a brilliant move on the part of local authorities, who thus invisibilized the entire event and made it nearly inaccessible to the general public. Although a subway station has been planned for the new stadium, it was not in operation in 2006 and probably will not be online in time for the World Cup, either. Photo by the Russian Reader

Since then, the project to construct the new stadium has been a raucous debacle, involving endless delays and extreme cost overruns; the employment of North Korean slave laborers, one of whom was killed on the job; the multiple firings and hirings of general contractors and subcontractors; and numerous revelations of newly discovered structural defects.

The construction of Zenit Arena has also been part of the general uglification and rampant redevelopment of the so-called Islands, a series of parklands situated on several smallish islands in Petersburg’s far north. It now seems that city officials and developers thought all those parks and all that greenspace were taking up too much valuable potential real estate and pumping too much oxygen into the atmosphere, because in recent years they have gone after the Islands and their environs with a vengeance.

Zenit Arena, the Western High-Speed Diameter (ZSD), and Gazprom’s Lakhta Center skyscraper are merely the most visible aspects of this mad greedfest, its crowning jewels.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGazprom’s Lakhta Centre skyscraper, under construction, as seen in April 2017 from another site of urban planning greed and madness, a nearly 500-hectare “reclaimed” island plopped in the Neva Bay immediately west of Vasilyevsky Island. The new island, which remains nameless, will eventually be built up with high-rise apartment blocks. Local residents vigorously protested the land reclamation project in the planning stages, but the authorities roundly ignored them. Photo by the Russian Reader

Getting back to my original topic, I think the Vedomosti captioner might have been taking the piss out of readers, after all. Here is another photo and caption in the series:

default-1huy

“The stadium in Yekaterinburg is a cultural heritage site. Part of the historical façade has remained after the reconstruction.” Photo courtesy of Sport Engineering Federal Unitary Enterprise

When I slipped this photograph onto my desktop, the filename caught my eye: “default-1huy.jpg.” I took this to mean that someone at Vedomosti was not terribly impressed with Yekaterinburg’s blatantly criminal attempt at “historical preservation” and decided to tag it with one of the most powerful cursewords in a language positively crawling with them. But since this a family-oriented, Christian-values website, I will let the experts explain the particulars.

Like the Sochi Olympics, I vanganize that the 2018 World Cup will be an unmitigated disaster for any and all locals who do not manage to escape the vicinity of the venues in time. I would also vanganize that the World Cup has already been a disaster for cities such as Petersburg and Yekaterinburg, which had venerable, heritage-listed stadiums put to death for the purpose, but I don’t think you can vanganize retroactively. TRR

Enough Already?

DSCN1392
“Veterans of the Secret Services,” marquee in central Petersburg, 12 November 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

Enough already?

For months, President Vladimir V. Putin has predictably denied accusations of Russian interference in last year’s American election, denouncing them as fake news fueled by Russophobic hysteria. More surprising, some of Mr. Putin’s biggest foes in Russia, notably pro-Western liberals who look to the United States as an exemplar of democratic values and journalistic excellence, are now joining a chorus of protest over America’s fixation with Moscow’s meddling in its political affairs. “Enough already!” Leonid M. Volkov, chief of staff for the anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, wrote in a recent anguished post on Facebook. “What is happening with ‘the investigation into Russian interference,’ is not just a disgrace but a collective eclipse of the mind.”

What the so-called Russian liberals, quoted in this New York Times article about how the continuing “fever” provoked by alleged Russian involvement in the 2018 US presidential election has been harming their mostly nonexistent cause by making Putin seem more powerful and craftier than he actually is, forget is that the United States is a democratic republic, all its obvious faults notwithstanding, not a kleptocratic tyranny, where the high crimes and misdemeanors imputed to the Kleptocrat in Chief and his cronies are never investigated, except by Alexei Navalny and the occasional journalist, and then only halfheartedly, because there is no division of powers in Putinist Russia and thus no independent judiciary, prosecutors or police investigators, not to mention the absence of an independent legislative branch.

So, the Ozero Dacha Co-op is free to run the country like a mafia gang running northern New Jersey.

In the US, on the contrary, the legislative branch and the judiciary, along with the relevant law enforcement authorities and intelligence agencies, are simply obliged, because they, too, have sworn to uphold and protect the Constitution, to pursue any and all evidence that the Trump campaign and now the Trump administration has had extensive ties with Russian officials, and that the Kremlin additionally attempted to influence the outcome of the election via active measures including the massive manipulation of social networks. They must pursue all this to the bloody end, however long it takes and however much it costs.

To do otherwise would be a dereliction of duty on the part of the sworn high officials who are charged with protecting the Constitution, even if that means protecting it from Don Trump and Vladimir Putin, whom Russian liberals have literally no plan or intention of ever seeing out the door, for his crimes or his wildly incompetent governance.

In the process, our often hysterical and uneven press, as well as everyone and his mother, posting on those selfsame social networks, will have much to say about the whole kit and kaboodle, and much of it will be wrong, worthless, and crazy.

Plus, the whole mess will inevitably be politicized to the hilt, another thing that upsets certain Russians, whose Soviet upbringing and post-Soviet survivalism has made them loathe the hugger-mugger of politics, which is always a hugger-mugger when it’s real, not an epiphenomenon of all-Russian TV brainwashing sessions, whose aftereffects are measured in real time by fake pollsters.

Messy is how it works when you can’t be sent down to Mordovia for reposting the “wrong” thing on VK, as you can be in Russia.

If anything, this little collective five minutes of hate, on the part of so-called Russian liberals whose professions of love and respect for the US sound suspect when encapsulated this way, have only reinforced what I’ve thought for a long time.

There are healthy Russians, and plenty of them, who are more concerned with their families, jobs, hobbies, neighbors, and politics in their own country and neighborhood, etc., but the so-called Russian elites and the so-called Russian intelligentsia are obsessed with the US in a way that most Americans (believe me, I’ve been around the big block several times and have noticed very little interest in Russia among the vast majority of my American acquaintances, friends, relatives, coworkers, etc.) are not and never have been, except, perhaps, during the Red Scare, but I wasn’t there to witness it, and I suspect it was more of an elite phenomenon than a grassroots thing.

The Russian most obsessed with the US is, of course, Vladimir Putin. He’s so obsessed that he persuaded himself that the 2011–2012 popular protests against his regime were personally engineered, launched, and steered by Hillary Clinton and the US State Department.

So, given the chance to get back at his number one enemy in the US, he did what he could.

This doesn’t necessarily mean his influence won the election for Trump or was even crucial. But throwing up our hands and saying it ultimately doesn’t matter would be irresponsible. We have to know or at least find out as much as we can about what really was done and by whom, and if we have evidence that high officials committed crimes in connection with this alleged conspiracy, they must be prosecuted, tried and, if found guilty, punished.

There is also the matter of less powerful Russians than Putin, folks like the ones quoted in the article, who can discuss US politics until they are blue in the face (I’ve been around that big block, too, many times, and have witnessed this “political self-displacement” on many occasions). Part of the reason for this is that (or so such people think) there is no politics to discuss in Russia. Or no reason to discuss Russian politics. Or every reason not to discuss Russian politics because doing it too loudly and publicly might get you in trouble.

But the Russian talking classes have to have something to talk about, so they talk about the fake moral panics the regime tosses them like bones to dogs every couple of weeks—and US politics and culture, such as “high-quality” TV series on Netflix and such.

They talk about the US so much you would be forgiven for thinking that many of them are certain, often to the point of arrogance, that they know more about the US and everything American than Americans themselves.

What they do less and less often is discuss their own country, partly because they have all but reconciled themselves to the “fact,” without putting up a fight (the only possible exception among the folks quoted in the article is Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s righthand man) that Putin will essentially re-elect himself to a fourth term as president in March 2018, and so on till kingdom comes.

Putin can pull off that trick in the world’s largest country, and yet, argue other Russian liberals, we’re supposed to imagine he is utterly powerless at the same time?

This article is a bill of goods, and we don’t have to buy it. I would love to find out why Andrew Higgins was moved to write it, and why so many talkative, opinionated Russians think they bear no responsibility for letting their “powerless” president do whatever he pleases whenever he pleases.

Maybe they should work harder on that for a few years and forget about the US and its signal failings. Let the real Americans handle those, however muckily and gracessly they go about it. It’s their country, after all.

I’m certain such a live-and-let-live approach to the US would make Russian grassroots and liberal politics more exciting and productive. TRR

Conservative

DSCN1711

It is almost as funny to read that Putin and his fellow gangsters in the Ozero Dacha Co-op and its subsidiaries are “conservative” as it is to read that Putin is utterly powerless (“impotent”!) to reign in his underlings or do much of anything else.

Even in the frightening, undignified mess in which Russia now finds itself, people want to make more of the mess than saying that, when push comes to shove, it is a vast criminal conspiracy that can only be laid low by an equally vast popular resistance, if only because that might commit them to do something about it.

It sounds much more dignified to say the county’s elites, including two “former KGB officers,” President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, who were trained to lie through their teeth, gull the gullible every chance they got, and pretend to be “communists” and “internationalists” and “democrats” and “conservatives” and “Russian Orthodox” and “nationalists” as the situation demanded, have taken a “conservative turn,” than to say the country has been taken over by a band of greedy, unprincipled liars who will not balk at any trick or power play to increase their dominion and grab more money, land, oil companies, yachts, real estate, and other goodies.

It is the same thing with my favorite bugbear, Russia’s completely nonexistent “senate.” Russia’s upper house of parliament is called the Federation Council, and its members are sinecured rubber stampers, not “senators,” but that was what they took to calling themselves (or a spin doctor like Vladislav Surkov told them they should call themselves) a few years ago, and so nowadays almost everyone, including the entire domestic and foreign press corps, part of the leftist commentariat, and even some perfectly sensible, educated people call them that, too.

But they are not senators, if only because there is no senate in Russia. More to the point, Russia’s unsenators are well-connected, highly paid sock puppets who could no more act independently than I could fly to the moon under my own power.

Likewise, a perpetual, self-replicating mafia dictatorship has about as much to do with real conservatism as my dog has to do with the Shining Path. And that is the thing. Given its sovereign wastefulness, major league legal anarchy, hypercorruption, and sheer absurdity, the Putin regime is an exercise, mostly improvised, in a new kind of radical governance by “former KGB officers” and their gangster friends, not in conservatism.

The “conservatism” is a put-on, just as Putin’s public support of democracy was a put-on when he worked as Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak’s deputy in the early 1990s. Then he was the Smolny’s bag man. Nowadays, he has moved up in the world considerably, but he has basically not changed his profession. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Remembering the October Revolution on ABC Radio National

unnamed

While it’s not entirely true that the centenary of the October Revolution has been entirely ignored or dismissed in Russia itself, enthusiasm for marking the occasion and reflecting on the revolution’s meaning and impact seems to be much higher in other parts of the world.

One proof of this is the email newsletter I just got in my inbox from one of the best radio stations in Anglophonia, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National or ABC RN for short. I’m reproducing it here nearly in full mainly to show what public broadcasting can be like when it stretches its wings a little, but also to reiterate what I’ve said on this website many times.

Russia is now one of the most reactionary countries in the world, and you cannot find more solid evidence than the bizarre attitudes that have been cultivated by Russian authorities and the Russian intelligentsia alike towards not only the October Revolution (about which there is, indeed, a lot to be said, good, bad, and contradictory, as well as legitimate arguments pro and con) but also revolution generally and even just vigorous grassroots involvement in politics.

This is not to mention that real curiosity about other countries, their histories and cultures, has been mostly eliminated from the Russian media, and this is another telltale sign of the blackest reaction. TRR

_________________________

It’s been 100 years since the Russian revolution, but its impact is still being felt today. So this week we’re zooming in on the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power and the legacy it left behind.

What do millennials see in socialism?
With the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago, it was said that humanity had reached “the end of history”: the Cold War was over and capitalism, along with liberal democracy, had won.

Seventy-five years after the Bolsheviks came to power in the October revolution of 1917, the Russian revolution was no longer widely hailed as an international model for workers’ activism. More often, it was cited as proof the socialist experiment had failed.

Yet this year Jeremy Corbyn — a self-described modern socialist — led UK Labour to a near victory in the country’s general election. And in the US, Bernie Sanders — a Brooklyn-born socialist who honeymooned in the Soviet Union — offered Hillary Clinton an unexpectedly tough challenge in the Democratic presidential primary.

So what does socialism offer young people in 2017?

Read more from two millennials who think socialism is still relevant.

The legacy of the Russian revolution
The Russian revolution challenged ruling classes all over the world with the idea that it is labour that creates wealth.

And it caused political shockwaves internationally, especially in Europe and the United States.

“The Russian revolution was not simply about some redistribution of income or some increase in taxation on the wealthy. It was about changing the fundamental relations of power that existed,” says Wendy Goldman, Professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Working people embraced the Russian revolution all over the world. And I think that was one of the things that really struck terror into the hearts of ruling classes”.

Hear more about the impact of the Russian revolution.

Inside the House of Government
In a real apartment building that still exists in Moscow, a group of romantic revolutionaries once dreamed of overturning the Czarist monarchy and establishing a golden utopia for workers and peasants.

They succeeded in destroying the monarchy, but not in creating their golden utopia.

The House of Government: A saga of the Russian Revolution is a work of history, structured as novel.

Its author, Yuri Slezkine, grew up in Moscow and remembers the building distinctly.

“I wasn’t really aware it was called the House of Government when I was child,” he explains.

“But I knew of it, as I think most Moscovites did, as a huge grey menacing looking building … covered with memorial plaques, dedicated to various revolutionaries.”

Hear Phillip Adams’s discussion with Yuri Slezkine.

No revolution for Putin
Much has been written, analysed, discussed and debated about the Russian revolution in other countries.

But in Russia, the anniversary is troublesome.

“The population is quite divided on whether or not this revolution was a good thing … [because] by and large the Russian Government likes to embrace historical events which can unite the nation,” explains author and historian Mark Edele, from the University of Melbourne.

So how do you celebrate the birth of communism when it has been renounced and the offspring, the Soviet Union, dissolved?

Hear Geraldine Doogue’s discussion with Mark Edele.

Russia’s anti-revolution
The philosophy of the late, and seemingly long-forgotten, Russian religious philosopher Semyon Frank is all about the unknowable.

Even his grandson, Berlin-based Nikolai Frank, doesn’t really understand it.

Accompanied by his friend, radio producer David Hecht, Nikolai Frank travels through contemporary Russia, to find out why his grandfather has been hailed by some in President Putin’s elite circle as “Russia’s salvation”.

There, they discover a deeply divided Russian Orthodox church.

Hear more about Nikolai and David’s journey in Russia.

Music of the Russian revolution

The year is 1917, the end of World War I is in sight. But Russia has been removed from the war and is undergoing a huge transition from the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union.

If you were attending the concert halls during this turbulent period, you would have been hearing a lot of Scriabin, who died two years before the revolution, but was seen as a musical champion, both leading up to it and for years after.

“He imagines the end of the world, and the transformation of the world,” explains Professor Marina Frolova-Walker, author of Russian Music and Nationalism from Glinka to Stalin.

Composers like Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov and of course Shostakovich were all affected by the rising Iron Curtain — and some stayed, but many didn’t.

Hear about changes in music before, during and after the revolution.

_________________________

Newsletter text and image courtesy of ABC Radio National

Keep It Like a Secret

Delovoi Peterburg, a business daily, has just published its ranking of Petersburg’s alleged ruble billionaires.

It is no surprise that Putin’s cronies Gennady Timchenko (I thought he was a Finnish national?) and Arkady Rotenberg topped the list of 304 capitalists, with alleged net worths of 801.5 billion rubles and 294 billion rubles, respectively. (That is approximately 11.8 billion euros and 4.3 billion euros, respectively.)

Screenshot, from Delovoi Peterburg, showing Putin cronies Gennady Timchenko and Arkady Rotenberg in the number one and two slots of the business daily’s 2017 ranking of Petersburg’s ruble billionaires

There are lots of other pals of Putin and Medvedev in the top fifty, but I was disappointed to see the personal fortunes of my own favorite Russian super villain, former head of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, had faded a bit in the past year. He has dropped to the number twenty-six spot in the ranking, claiming a net worth of a mere 37.07 billion rubles, which means that in Old Europe, where Yakunin is now dispensing Russian softpowerish wisdom to decision-makers and academics via his newly opened Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, in Berlin, he would be a regular old euro millionaire, with a measly net worth of 548 million euros.

But we should recall the exposés of Yakunin, his family, and their weath, carried out by the only person in Russian unfit to run for president, Alexei Navalny, and his Anti-Corruption Foundation. In short, Herr Doktor Yakunin, who once had himself declared among the twenty-two “foremost thinkers in the world,” is very nimble when it comes to parceling out his assets to family members for safekeeping, so to speak, and then hiring “cleaners” to make his deservedly bad reputation go away. So who knows how much he is really worth.

Screenshot, from Delovoi Peterburg’s website, showing Yakunin’s number 26 spot in its list of Petersburg’s ruble billionaires.

Another thing that struck me when I surveyed the list was the signal lack of women among the city’s ruble billionaires. Women appear on the list only towards the very bottom, which means they are not really billionaires, but dollar or euro millionaires, at most, and maybe not even that. And there are no more than ten such women in a list of 304 names.

So, the Delovoi Peterburg ranking is not only more evidence of Russia’s extreme wealth inequality—which is a matter of elite practice, if not of explicit government policy—but of the fact that this extreme wealth inequality has an even more extreme gender bias.

Even if Putin crony and Russian oligarch Vladimir Yakunin had named his newish Berlin think tank the “Vladimir Putin Institute for Peace and Freedom,” this would have had no effect, I am afraid, on all the decision-makers and academics who are prepared to rush into Yakunin’s embrace at the drop of a hat, forgiven, as it were, by the squirrelier name he has has chosen, Dialogue of Civilizations.

Yesterday and today, DOC Berlin has been holding a bang-up conference, dealing, like all conferences these days, with the centenary of the October Revolution.

The conference is entitled “Inequalities, economic models and Russia’s October 1917 revolution in historical perspective” and features some speakers whose names you might recognize, people you would never have suspected of wanting to shill for the Putinist soft power machine.

Speakers:

Georgy [sic] Derluguian, Professor of Social Research and Public Policy, New York University Abu Dhabi

Michael Ellman, Professor Emeritus, Amsterdam University

Domenico Nuti, Professor of Comparative Economic Systems, University of Rome “La Sapienza”

Vladimir Popov, Professor, DOC RI Research Director and a Principal Researcher in Central Economics and Mathematics Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences

Beverly J. Silver, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Director of the Arrighi Center for Global Studies, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, USA

Andres Solimano, International Center for Globalization and Development

Vladislav Zubok, ProfessorDepartment of International History, London School of Economics, UK

Kevan Harris, Assistant Professor,  Department of Sociology, University of California-Los Angeles, USA

But they are there, holding forth on “revolution” on the Putinist dime, while Yakunin, who clearly loves these powwows (there are tons of videos from past DOC gatherings on YouTube and elsewhere in which this is appearent), and is eager to show he is running the show, laughs his silent “former KGB officer” laugh.

While you are at it, check out this rogues’ gallery of useful idiots. Even if you have only a few toes in the world of academia, as I do, you will immediately recognize several of the people serving Yakunin on his think thank’s “supervisory board” and “programme council.”

Screenshot from the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute website
Screenshot from the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute website

But what about the quality of the research supposedly underway at this so-called research institute? Here is a little sample, the abstract of a paper, downloadable for free, entitled “Church and politics: Russian prospects,” written by someone named Boris Filippov.

The paper is an attempt to make a brief overview of the Russian Orthodox Church’s state in the Post-Soviet Russia. Author notes, that the Church’s role in building civil society in Russia is potentially very considerable, since the Orthodox community’s ability to self-organize is rare for the post-Soviet Russia. He provides abundant empiric material illustrating Christian Orthodox community’s high capacities to contribute to building a prosperous society, for, as he shows, believers have gone much further on the way of consolidation than Russian society as a whole.

Is everyone who is speaking at today’s conference in Berlin and everyone who serves on Yakunin’s supervisory board and programme council kosher with obscurantist Russian Orthodox nationalism masquerading as scholarship? Do all of them know that “Russian Orthodoxy” (as interpreted by Patriarch Kirill and his intemperate followers) is now being used in Russia as an ideological battering ram to quash dissent and difference and reinforce Putin’s seemingly endless administration, as “Marxism-Leninism” was similarly used in the Soviet Union?

Do they know that their generous benefactor Vladimir Yakunin, in one of his other guises, wholeheartedly supports just this variety of aggressive Russian Orthodox nationalism?

The merging of political, diplomatic and religious interests has been on vivid display in Nice, where the Orthodox cathedral, St. Nicholas, came under the control of the Moscow Partriarchate in 2013.

To mark the completion of Moscow-funded renovation work in January, Russia’s ambassador in Paris, Aleksandr Orlov, joined the mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, for a ceremony at the cathedral and hailed the refurbishment as “a message for the whole world: Russia is sacred and eternal!”

Then, in a festival of French-Russian amity at odds with France’s official policy since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the ambassador, Orthodox priests, officials from Moscow and French dignitaries gathered in June for a gala dinner in a luxury Nice hotel to celebrate the cathedral’s return to the fold of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Speaking at the dinner, Vladimir Yakunin, a longtime ally of Mr. Putin who is subject to United States, but not European, sanctions imposed after Russia seized Crimea, declared the cathedral a “corner of the Russian world,” a concept that Moscow used to justify its military intervention on behalf of Russian-speaking rebels in eastern Ukraine. Church property from the czarist era, Mr. Yakunin added, belongs to Russia “simply because this is our history.”

—Andrew Higgins, “In Expanding Influence, Faith Combines with Firepower,” New York Times, September 13, 2016

This entry has the title it does, not because I wanted an excuse to insert a recording by a beloved band of my salad days, which I did anway, but because when I draft editorials like this on Facebook, as I often do, I usually endure stony silence from my so-called friends and readers after I post them. It is not that they are usually so garrulous anyway, but I do know they read what I write, because they are capable of responding enthusiastically to other subjects.

Writ large, this stony silence is what has helped Vladimir Yakunin operate his Dialogue of Civilizations hootenanies (usually held annually in Rhodes until the recent upgrade and move to Berlin) under the radar for nearly fifteen years with almost no scrutiny from the western and Russian press and, apparently, no due diligence on the part of the hundreds and maybe thousands of non-Russian academics, politicians, experts, and other A-league movers and shakers who have attended and spoken at these events.

So can we assume, for example, that Georgi Derluguian, Anatol Lieven, Walter Mignolo, and Richard Sakwa (I am only picking out the names of scholars with whose work I am familiar) condone the Kremlin’s occupation of Crimea, the Kremlin’s invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin’s downing of Flight MH17, the Kremlin’s repeat invasion and wholesale destruction of Chechnya, during the early day of Putin’s reign, and the Kremlin’s extreme crackdown on Russian dissenters of all shapes and sizes, from ordinary people who reposted the “wrong” things on social networks to well-known opposition politicians, journalists, and activsts shot down in cold blood for their vocal dissent, including Anna Politkovskaya, Boris Nemtsov, and Stanislav Markelov, a crackdown that has been intensifying with every passing year Putin has remained in power?

A resounding “yes!” would be refreshing to hear, but we will never get any response from the members of Vladimir Yakunin’s semi-clandestine fan club. It is their dirty little open secret, and only someone who is uncouth, someone unfamiliar with the ways of the world’s power brokers and their handmaidens and spear carriers, would even think about asking them to reveal it. TRR

 

Russia’s Bright Future (Putin 4.0)

Member of HRC Describes Putin’s New Term: Everything under the Sun Will Be Banned
Alexei Obukhov
Moskovsky Komsomolets
October 10, 2017

Pavel Chikov argues Russia will become isolated internationally, and federalism and regional economies will be jettisoned.

Pavel Chikov, member of the Russian Presidential Human Rights Council, has forecast what politics in Russia will be like if Vladimir Putin is re-elected to another term. According to Chikov, the situation in the country will deteriorate rapidly, and more and more areas of public life will be off limits.

1a1bb3f8a345889fc79a754c4ae35c6dPavel Chikov. Photo courtesy of Facebook/MK

Foreign mass media will be the first to be banned. This has been borne out, says the human rights activist, by the threat to shutter Radio Svoboda, which the media outlet received from the Justice Ministry last Monday.

Following the media, “the political arena will be mopped up: the current persecution of Alexei Navalny’s employees and Open Russia’s employees is a harbinger of this.”

In Chikov’s opinion, the country will also be stripped of religious freedom, as witnessed by “the huge criminal cases against and expulsion from the country” of members of various non-traditional religious movements, from Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been declared “extremist” banned in the Russian Federation, to supporters of non-mainstream Buddhist and Muslim groups.

These measures, writes the human rights activist on his Telegram channel, will be paralleled by Russia’s renunciation of its international commitments. It will exit the Council of Europe and end its cooperation with the European Court of Human Rights. (Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of the Federation Council, said yesterday this was a probable scenario.) Russian’s relations with many European countries, from the Baltic states to Germany, will deteriorate, and their embassies will be closed. Restrictions will be placed on Russian nationals traveling outside the country, and the practice of stripping refugees and asylum seekers of their Russian citizenship and confiscating their property will be broadened.

Meanwhile, Russia will succeed in isolating its segment of the Internet and instituting a Chinese-style firewall to censor content.

Finally, Chikov writes, the country’s economy and domestic politics will deteriorate. The regions will lose the last remnants of their autonomy (Chikhov cites Vladimir Vasilyev’s  recent appointment as acting head of Dagestan, although the United Russia MP has no experience in the republic), and the assets the regions have left will be placed under the control of Putin’s inner circle.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Vasily Zharkov for the heads-up

This Is Russia

DSCN0810

“This is Russia. This is the Russia that Americans are so scared of.”

In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galereya shopping mall, located in downtown Petersburg. It’s gigantic, covering the land once occupied by five or six graceful tenement buildings and a cultural center and cinema. They were demolished in the mid 1990s, not to make way for the shopping mall, but so a new train station could be built there, jeek by jowl with the existing Moscow Station, because federal and regional officials wanted to build a high-speed train line between Petersburg and Moscow. Millions of dollars were allocated for the project, but ultimately, the train line was never built nor was the new station erected. No one knows what happened to the millions of dollars allocated for the project. They simply vanished into thin air.

The site of the former-future high-speed train station sat vacant for many years behind a tall, ugly construction-site fence. No one could figure out what do to with all that wasteland, which was in the very heart of the city, not in some forgotten outskirts. However, before the money had vanished, and the project was abandoned, construction workers had managed not only to demolish all the tenement buildings on the site but had also dug a foundation pit. Over the long years, this pit filled up with water. Some time after Google Maps had become all the rage, I took a look at our neighborhood via satellite, as it were, and discovered to my great surprise it now had a small lake in it. It was the foundation pit of the former-future high-speed train station, filled to the brim with water.

Good times came to Petersburg in the 2000s, when the country was flush with cash, generated by high oil prices, a flat tax rate of 13%, and runaway corruption. It was then the city’s mothers and fathers (I’m not being ironic: most of Petersburg’s “revival” was presided over by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Youth League functionary who had converted to the gospel of what she herself called “aggressive development”) decided that Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful, haunting, enchanting cities, should be extensively redeveloped, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a mecca of consumerism that would give pride of place to cars and new highways, since cars had become the new status symbol among the city’s rich and poor alike. They also decided that, since other big cities in the world had lots of high-rise buildings, their city, which did not have almost any high-rise buildings, should have lots of them, too.

Basically, they decided to demolish as much of the inner and outer city as they could get away with—and they could get away with a lot, because they had nearly unlimited political power and lots of the country’s money at their disposal—and redevelop it with high-rise apartment buildings, superhighways, big box stores, and shopping and entertainment centers, each one uglier and bigger than the last. Thanks to their efforts, in a mere fifteen years or so they have gone a long way toward turning a Unesco World Heritage Site into an impossible, unsightly mess.

But let’s get back to our miniature inner-city lake. Finally, developers came up with a plan to convert the site into a giant shopping mall. Even better, the architects who designed the mall were clearly inspired by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect and a leading Nazi Party member, to turn a rather oversized mall into a celebration of kitsch faux-neoclassicism, precisely the sort of thing Speer had championed in his projects. This, indeed, was a bit ironic, because Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, had survived a 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. Considered the longest and most destructive siege in history, it killed at least 800,000 civilians, that is, it killed the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the people who now enjoy visiting this mall, with its distinctly neo-fascist aesthetic.

Along the sides of the street running down towards the photographer from the Albert Speer Memorial Shopping Mall, you see lots of shiny new, fairly expensive cars, parked bumper to bumper. In fact, the Albert Speer has a huge underground car park where you can park your car relatively inexpensively (our neighbor lady, a sensible woman, does it), but most Petersburg car owners actually think parking their cars wherever they want—especially either right next to their residential buildings or, worse, in the tiny, labyrinthine, incredibly charming inner courtyards of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings—is their legal right. It isn’t, but they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. I know they think this way because many Petersburg car owners have told me so.

To my mind, the precipitous rise in personal car ownership in Petersburg has done more to degrade the city’s beauty than all the underinspired colossal high-rises put together, because the city was purposely designed by its original builders, beginning with Peter the Great, to have a good number of intersecting and radiating, awe-inspiring, long and clear sightlines or “perspectives.” Hence, many of the city’s longest avenues are called “prospects,” such as Nevsky Prospect (the title of one of Nikolai Gogol’s best stories) and Moskovsky Prospect. Nowadays, however, you gaze down these “perspectives” only to see traffic jams and hectares of other visual pollution in the shape of signs, billboards, banners, and marquees. It’s not a pretty sight.

On the right of the picture, somewhere near the middle, you should be able to spot a small shop sign with the letters “AM” emblazoned on it. It’s one of the dozens of liquor stores that have popped up in our neighborhood after the Kremlin introduced its countersanctions against US and EU sanctions, which were instituted in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The US and EU sanctions targeted individuals and companies closely allied with the regime. Putin’s countersanctions, in a manner that has come to seem typical of how the Russian president for life’s mind works, were targeted against Russian consumers by banning the import of most western produce into the country. An exception was made for western alcoholic beverages, especially wines and beers, and this meant it was suddenly profitable again to get into the liquor business. The upshot has been that you can exit our house, walk in any direction, even putting on a blindfold if you like, and you will find yourself in a liquor store in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.

Last summer, I tried painting a little verbal and photographic sketch of the effect this massive re-alcoholization has had on our neighborhood, along with other, mostly negative trends in the use and abuse of commercial space in the city.

Finally, there is one other thing you should know about all those new, mostly oversized cars parked on the street. Since the average monthly salary in Russia barely crawls above 600 or 700 euros a month, even in a seemingly wealthy city like Petersburg, most of those gas-guzzling, air-polluting status symbols were bought with borrowed money.

Just the other day, in fact, I translated and posted a tiny article, originally published in the business daily Kommersant, about how people in the Voronezh Region currently owed banks approximately two billion euros in outstanding loans. In 2015, the region’s estimated population was around 2,300,000, so, theoretically, each resident of Voronezh Region now owes the banks 870 euros, which I am sure is more than most people there earn in two or three months. Of course, not every single resident of Voronezh Region has taken out a loan, so the real damage incurred by real individual borrowers is a lot worse.

I could be wrong, but I think what I have just written gives you a rough idea of how you go about reading photographs of today’s Russian cities, their visible aspect in general, turning a snapshot into something meaningful, rather than assuming its meaning is obvious, right there on the surface. You don’t just tweet a photo of a new football stadium or fancy restaurant or street jammed with expensive cars and make that stand for progress, when progress, whether political, economic or social, really has not occurred yet in Russia, despite all the money that has been sloshing around here the last fifteen years. Instead, you talk about the real economic, political, and social relations, which are often quite oppressive, murky, and criminal, that have produced the visible reality you want to highlight.

Doing anything less is tantamount to engaging in boosterism, whataboutism, Russian Worldism, and crypto-Putinism, but certainly not in journalism. That so many journalists, western and Russian, have abandoned real journalism for one or all of the isms I have listed is the really scary thing. TRR

Photograph by the Russian Reader