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.
Pavel 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.
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.
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
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
It’s a strange thing when a journalist who, only six years ago, wrote an excellent article in Foreign Policy about how officials in Petersburg quickly set up and then rigged elections in two out-of-the-way municipal districts so outgoing Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s “upmotion” to the Federation Council and the post of its chair would appear “legal,” would suddenly sink to naïve, angry Russian boosterism and, kick all Americans in the face, to boot.
Told in full, it’s a mean, ugly story that would not “scare” Americans, but would hardly leave them with the impression Russia was well governed.
Ditto regarding the ongoing destruction of a tiny intellectual powerhouse, the European University of St. Petersburg, which the Kremlin, the Smolny (Petersburg city hall), the courts, and the state education watchdog, Rosobrnadzor, have decided to shut down for no ostensible reason.
Americans, if they are so inclined, can read these seemingly endless stories of Russian official malfeasance, thuggery, and gangsterism until they are blue in the face in publications running the gamut from the high-toned mags for which Ioffe writes to the crap blogs about Russia I’ve been editing for ten years.
I don’t think these hypothetical Americans would be “scared” after doing this extracurricular reading.
If anything, they would conclude (rightly) that Russia is a basket case and should not scare anybody but its own people, who have had to put up with this incompetent, larcenous tyranny 24/7, 365 days a year, year after year, for almost two decades.
The least anyone with a heart and, one would think, in Ioffe’s case, detailed knowledge of these circumstances, should do is avoid cheap whataboutism and extrapolating a media and political non-event (“the new Red scare”) onto an entire country of 325 million people.
I imagine most Americans could not really care less about Russia and the non-Red non-scare. They have things closer to home to worry about. Unlike Russians, ordinary Americans are definitely not obsessed with thinking about what Russians think about them.
But a good number of Russians, including Russian immigrants like Ioffe, are obsessed with thinking about what Americans think about them, and this is especially true among the intelligentsia and elites. (Trust me on this: I’ve been watching it at close range, fascinated but baffled, for almost twenty-five years.) Hence, I guess, Ioffe’s sudden, angry conversion to Russian Worldism. TRR
“The tumultuous poll in Catalonia left more than 800 injured and pretty much everybody with mixed emotions which offers a perfect opportunity for Russia. Russia has no particular interest in Catalonian independence but Russian media were actively promoting the narrative about Spanish authoritarianism and Russian hackers helped the organizers keep their websites up. Russian interest lies in shifting the narrative around Crimea, keeping the EU busy with other topics than Russian aggression, and mainly in dividing Europe as well as undermining Europe’s democracy and institutions.”
Nevertheless, an argument like theirs should be backed up with lots of facts and quotations, not just rolled out as a bald-faced assertion we must either accept or reject.
Russian trolls can, in fact, troll and dispatch bots on any subject they like. It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, their actions will have a decisive effect on every conflict in which they intervene.
True, in the body of the newsletter, there is this follow-up on the story.
“Referendum in Catalonia: The Crimean spring has moved to the Pyrenees… Not.
“Despite Dmytry [sic] Peskov’s statements that the Catalonian referendum is an internal Spanish matter, Russia would not want to miss a chance to bring its alternative point of view on the Catalonian referendum or extend a helping hacking hand to the referendum organizers either. Spanish media have been on high alert. El País blatantly stated that Russian news networks are using Catalonia to destabilize Europe. These accusations have been thoroughly investigated by the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab, focusing on the role of Sputnik and RT. Russian media spread stories about a violent and repressive Spanish government and warn that a civil war is imminent as the EU passively stands by. Russian creativity is legendary and the media managed to find similarities with the situation in Crimea and Kurdistan.
“According to the Russian press, independent Catalonia might recognize Crimea as part of Russia. The benefits of doing so are not very clear, Russia might in exchange push Nicaragua to recognize Catalonia? “This does not mean that Russia wants Catalonia to be independent at any cost. What it fundamentally seeks is to create division, in order to slowly undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” says Brett Schaffer, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund. And we can only agree with that.”
There are only three hyperlinks in the entire passage, no other references, and one of the links reiterates the article in El País. It is not enough to convince even a true believer in Russian troll farms like me.
Because just the other day I read the following article, published on the excellent Russian charity and investigative reporting website Takie Dela, about the huge numbers of dilapidated residential buildings in Barnaul, capital of Altai Territory. The article details the considerable inconveniences and humiliations faced by the tenants, who are more or less stuck in their flats until the mayor’s office does something, although it is clear to the residents that the mayor’s office would rather the buildings all collapsed, killing the tenants in the wreckage.
Degradation of postwar-built housing stock is a severe problem not just in Barnaul, but all over Russia, a problem the central government (since under Putin 3.0 there is no such thing as local government anymore) has been doing a really bad job of solving.
I could make a list of a hundred other problems plaguing “mighty” Russia right now that the government has pointedly failed to address, because its priorities have been elsewhere (e.g., Crimea and Syria).
Russia is a colossus with incredibly fragile clay feet.
This means three things. First, its active measures operationd involving trolls and bots intervening in the affairs of other countries is one way Russia can assert itself as a supah powah (but not a super power) on the cheap, without spending a lot of money.
Second, since it is doing this on the cheap, the “global vision” guiding its creepy efforts is likewise fragmented, impatient, contradictory, and severely misinformed at times. The Kremlin just wants to make trouble somehow.
Finally, it hasn’t been conclusively proven these operations have been decisive factors in altering the outcome of any election, referendum or conflict.
It’s an invidious comparison, of course, but I hgve been blogging for nearly ten years, and during that time over half a million viewers have read my posts. Does that mean I have been a decisive factor in Russian politics or how the west views Russia? As much as I would like to say, yes, I have been, I cannot say that. I would be happy if I have changed a few people’s minds now and then and, especially, if I have showed them aspects of the Russian grassroots they had never heard of before.
The Internet Research Agency or whatever the Russian trolling and botting campaign now calls itself, has a lot more resources at its disposal for winning hearts and minds, but it is not operating in a vacuum.
Instead, it is operating in an incredibly dense media environment where domestic media outlets, of different political stripes and shapes, will be more persuasive to Catalonians and Spaniards, say, than Russian goofballs smacking away at keyboards wherever the IRA has been hiding out lately and posting dipshit memes and one-liners in comment threads, because the Spanish and Catalonia domestic media understand the issues, speak the languages fluently, and do not speak them with accents.
Do you really imagine that all Catalonians, Spaniards, Americans, Germans, Belgians, etc., are so gullible and incapable of critical thought they cannot tell the difference between a sound reportage or analysis, written by a real local reporter or op-ed columnist, and a pile of crap whipped up by a Russian working the late shift at IRA and loopy as a kite on energy drinks?
Trolling and botting as a way of regaining supah powah status is, in fact, a “weapon of the weak,” but not in the sense James Scott meant the phrase. We should deal with the weapon as such, instead of worrying its mere presence is decisive and disruptive everywhere it rears its puny, feeble head.
To argue otherwise is to imagine that Spanish national cops could not have beaten independence-minded Catalonians over the head, although it was probably not such a smart move, or those same Catalonians were not capable of holding their perhaps illegal referendum without being hypnotized by outside Russian agitators.
Let the Russian trolls pretend they are really shaking up the world with their teenage pranks. In the meantime, competent technicians and hackers should devise a technical solution that would deal a knockout punch to the Russian IRA.
That would be more efficient and make for less panic mongering, which, alas, is not in short supply these days. TRR
This is my 1600th entry since I started translating and writing articles about modern Russian politics, society, economics, art and culture, history, social movements, grassroots endeavors, and everyday life on this website nearly ten years ago.
My first post, dated October 23, 2007, was a translation of an excerpt from Viktor Mazin and Pavel Pepperstein’s fantastic 2005 book The Interpretation of Dreams. Provocative and surprising as ever, Mr. Pepperstein argued that
[o]nly the interim between Soviet socialism and capitalism was ecological. It was a time of crisis: the factories stood idle, and the air became cleaner. It is a pity, but those days (the nineties) came to an end, and now (under cover of patriotic speeches) our country is becoming a colony of international capitalism. They try and persuade us this is success, but it is not true. We should (my dreams tell me, and I believe them) put our beautiful country to a different use, for example, by turning it into a colossal nature and culture reserve. (After all, our country, like Brazil, produces the most valuable thing on Earth: oxygen.) We should close the borders to foreigners (but let anyone leave as they like), carry out a program of deindustrialization, and limit the birth rate.
Shortly thereafter, I was offered the job of editing another website, Chtodelat News, where I volunteered for nearly five years, publishing 740 posts and slowly figuring out what I wanted to say with this hybrid of translation, editorializing, and media collage, and how I could say it.
After the long stint at Chtodelat News, I revived the Russian Reader, trying to make it as pluralistic, polyphonic and, occasionally, as paradoxical as I could, while also fulfilling the brief I have tried to keep to the fore from the very beginning: covering stories about Russia which no other Anglophone media would bother with (although they thus miss tiny but vital chunks of the big picture) and giving my readers access to Russian voices they would not otherwise hear.
I had meant to celebrate my 1500th post on this beat, but that make-believe anniversary came and went without my noticing it. It was all for the best, however, since now nearly ten years have passed since I set out on this unpredictable journey.
Like the very first post on this blog, my 1600th post is a glimpse into Russia’s possible futures, as imagined by Grey Dolphin (aka Vladimir Gel’man), his fellow scribbler Grim Reminder (yours truly), Russian rappers GROT, and my friends at the Moscow Times. TRR
Russia: It Can’t Be Improved So Destroy It, or It Can’t Be Destroyed So Improve It? Grey Dolphin
September 27, 2017
The discussions about Russia’s prospects, currently underway among the conscious segment of Russian society, despite their public nature, in many respects resemble similar debates about the Soviet Union’s destiny, held in the kitchens of members of the intelligentsia and among politicized émigrés during the so-called stagnation. Relatively speaking, it was a debate between two parties. One party, the moderate optimists, grounded their expectations on hoped the country’s leadership would change course for one reason or another (or would itself change), and there would be a chance to change the Soviet Union for the better. (There were different opinions about what “better” meant and how to achieve it.) The other party, which included both moderate and radical pessimists, argued it was no longer possible or fundamentally impossible to improve the Soviet Union, and changes should be directed towards its total elimination. Time seemed to be on the side of the optimists, whose chances at success appeared realistic at perestroika’s outset, but in fact it was working inexorably on behalf of the pessimists. By the time the optimists seemingly got their chance, opportunities to improve the Soviet Union had largely been frittered away. History does not tolerate the subjunctive mood, and we do not know what turn events could have taken had perestroika been launched ten or fifteen years earlier. Those ten or fifteen years, however, passed only in conversations around kitchen tables, while the country’s leaders strove to prevent any change whatsoever. When the changes kicked off, the energies of both parties—the supporters of improving the Soviet Union, and the supporters of destroying the Soviet Union—had not exactly been exhaused in vain, but they had not been used very effectively.
Despite all the political and economic differences between the early 1970s and the late 2010s, the current conjuncture in Russia is not so remote from what it was then in the Soviet Union. Moderate optimists have proposed seemingly reasonable projects for improvements to the authorities and the public, but they themselves do not believe they can be realized “in this lifetime.” The moderate pessimists, if they had believed earlier in the possibility of improvement, have lost faith, while the radical pessimists never believed in improvements as a matter of principle. The optimists are waiting to see whether they will get the chance to improve at least something (and if so, when), while the pessimists are ready at a moment’s notice to exclaim, “Lord, let it burn!” For better or worse, however, so far there are no obvious “arsonists” in the vicinity who could and would want to demolish the current Russian political and economic order nor have any appeared on the distant horizon. Once again, as during the stagnation, time inexorably works on behalf of the pessimists. Sooner or later, yet another former optimist or, on the contrary, a person not involved in these debates will say something like, “Today’s Russia cannot be improved. It can only be destroyed.” (Essentially, this was what happened in the Soviet Union towards the end of perestroika. Of course, there were a different set of causes and other mechanisms in play then. What I have in mind is the rationale of transformation itself.) If and when the number of people supporting the verdict “destroy” reaches a critical mass, then the first of the questions posed in my post’s title will irreversibly be answered in the affirmative, occluding the second question altogether. The more news about events in Russia transpires every day, the more inevitable this outcome seems.
Translated by the Russian Reader
If God wants to punish a man, He strips him of his reason.
I often think the whole country has been punished.
As in a fantasy story, I can see a light glowing over people’s heads.
This is not a sign of holiness.
It is a sign of moral decay,
Decay of beliefs, principles, and ideas.
The nostrils are already used to the rotting smell,
And there are cadaver spots on the faces of children and adults.
Self-destruction at the mental level,
The nation jumps into the abyss with a cry of “Keep off me!”
We will soon go extinct like the mammoths.
Young mothers with Jaguars and Parliaments.
People will have coming to them the trouble they stir up
Everyone will be punished according to their whims.
Will purify gold from impurities.
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
Will purify gold from impurities.
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
An ancient serpent lashes the sky with a crimson tongue,
Its breath ripples over the television networks.
Through TV screens it animates the golem and generates ghosts.
In the skulls of those who ate their souls
And vomited them out indifferently with counterfeit vodka
In the snow in winter or summer in the dust.
Two abused dudes filmed it on a mobile.
Look online, search for the tags “degenerates,” “masturbate,”
“Suck,” “come,” “sex with babies.”
I’m waiting for the last fire, but you better run.
Nothing can be fixed here now. Lord, let it burn!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
Russia could ban Facebook next year if it fails to comply with a 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian citizens’ personal data on local servers, the state media censor said on Tuesday.
The U.S. social network would follow in the footsteps of LinkedIn, the social platform for professionals that was banned in Russia last year after a September 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian users’ personal data on localized servers.
The head of Russia’s state media watchdog Roskomnadzor warned that “there are no exceptions” to compliance with the data storage law seen by some observers as unenforceable.
“We will either ensure that the law is implemented, or the company will cease to work in Russia,” Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency.
He said the watchdog is aware of Facebook’s popularity, with an estimated 14.4 million monthly and 6 million daily users in Russia as of last year.
“On the other hand, we understand that this is not a unique service. There are other social networks.”
Twitter, Zharov said, has agreed to transfer by mid-2018 its Russian users’ data to Russian servers.
“We have no plans to investigate Facebook in that regard until the end of 2017,” he added. “We will think about it in 2018. Maybe we will investigate.”
There are no technical or legal justifications for banning Facebook in 2018, only political considerations. The principal political consideration would be the need to find ways of “celebrating” Putin’s auto-reinstallation as president for “another six-year term” (i.e., for life).
As a tyrant who brooks no opposition to his illegimate rule, Putin would have to celebrate his hollow victory by instituting a series of crackdowns against his foes, as he did after formally returning to the presidency in 2012.
One of these crackdowns could involve banning Facebook in Russia, as is strongly suggested by the article, quoted above.
But that would be the least of everyone’s worries once Putin essentially crowned himself tsar as a gift to himself for his stunningly bad performance as the country’s leader for eighteen years.
Since his entire reign has orbited not around solving the country’s problems, but imbricating himself and his clique of “former” KGB officers into every corporate and institutional nook and cranny in Russia (and beyond) while stealing everything he can get his hands on and rewarding his satraps with the booty “for a job well done,” he has not had much time to solve any real problems.
Anyone who doesn’t explicitly support Putin—and by definition only members of his clique really support him, in the sense that members of a mafia clan are loyal to their boss—is de facto opposed to him.
This might be especially true during this upcoming election, because, I would imagine, the majority of Russia voters are, at very least, quite weary of Putin and his oppositionless electoral “victories” by now and would be inclined to stay home on election day, even if they are not willing to march in the streets. (That might require too much effort.)
But a low turnout would still be a slap in the face to a man whose whole shtick the last eighteen years or so has been his alleged “wild” popularity, a shtick supported by the mainstream Russian press, corrupt Russian pollsters, foreign media covering Russia, and “Russia experts,” most of whom have no other gauge for measuring or probing “Russian public opinion,” so they rely on rigged, astronomically high popularity ratings.
If something around ten percent of voters in the two capitals and the non-ethnic regions showed up on polling day, the myth of Putin’s popularity would be dealt a near-fatal blow.
Putin would take his humiliation out on his treacherous non-constituency by unleashing a panoply of crackdowns, adopting a whole new raft of repressive laws at lightning speed (as happened in the wake of his 2012 re-election), and, perhaps, arresting a prominent figure from the opposition, such as Alexei Navalny, sending him down for hard time. Or worse.
Author photos courtesy of cetacea.ru and the Russian Reader
I think the best thing I’ve ever done on a blog is this long piece. I won’t say anything more about it here. You can either read it or not read it. But you might notice, if you do read it, that it is chockablock with raw Russian voices, unsorted into any boxes, although I don’t hide my own views in the piece in any way.
But when the group of activist artists whose name the blog on which the piece was first published bore had the chance to do a big show at a super famous contemporary art institution in London, my request to include this piece in a journal of texts by the art group’s authors (which, supposedly, included me at the time) that would accompany the show, I was flatly turned down by the group’s leader, who explained this text didn’t “fit the format” of the publication they were planning.
Not only that but I was later disinvited from attending the show with the group by this same leader.
After you’ve had several dozen experiences like that, you realize the vast majority of “Russian experts” are in the business for their own professional advancement, not to give anyone a clearer picture of the real Russia, which, I’ve discovered over the years, interests almost no one, least of all the tiny cliques of “Russia experts” in academia, art, and journalism.
People like the ones depicted and heard in my blog post from nine years ago actually frighten most “Russia experts.”
And yet there they are, real Russians, willing to fight the regime tooth and nail, and perfectly clear about the regime’s true nature.
At least half of the world’s “Russia experts” don’t understand even a tenth of what these “simple” Russians understand.
In 2014, the well-known Russian journalist and editor Leonid Bershidsky emigrated to Germany. In an short article, published at the time on the website 72.Ru, Bershidsky explained he was not a political emigrant. Rather, he was leaving Russia because he saw no more point in launching big media projects in Russia, since the country no longer had major media performing what he regarded as the media’s main function, “defending the weak from the powerful.”
It is hard to disagree with his sentiments.
So what has Mr. Bershidsky been up too lately, in his principled exile?
He has been publishing op-ed columns on the Bloomberg website hotly defending a “weak” Russia from a “powerful” west.
In a column published in September, Bershidsky had the chutzpah and stupidity to claim Russia was an emerging global agriculture superpower because “climate warming” was making it possible to relaunch farming in areas of the country that had been given up for lost in earlier decades because the climate there was too cold, while exponentially increasing yields in areas that have long served as Russia’s grain belt.
He wrote this during the official 2017 Environmental Year in Russia, which I was made aware of only the other day, when I saw a billboard, advertising a new production at the the Young Spectators Theater, that was, somehow, part of this mostly invisible Environmental Year’s slate of events.
I guess Mr. Bershidsky’s “climate warming is good for Russia” column was another event in a calendar chockablock with consciousness-raising of the same obscurantist variety.
You do know that Russia’s economy is massively dependent on selling gas and oil, and that it is nearly the last country in the world that, officially or unofficially, is going to make any effort to tackle climate change? Whatever treaties, protocols or agreements Russia has ostensibly signed, the country’s message to its own population is that climate change is either a hoax or will be wildly beneficial to Russia, even as it destroys or submerges whole other countries.
Mr. Bershidsky’s latest op-ed on the Bloomberg website sees him hopping on the old “anti-Russophobia” train, the immediate occasion being the creation of something calling itself the Committee to Investigate Russia, which somehow involves Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman, two beloved figures in American culture whom Mr. Bershidsky immediately derides as second-rank hacks, when, in fact, the latter is a terrific actor loved by literally every American, even by white supremacists, I suspect, while the former is not primarily an “actor,” as the ignorant Bershidsky claims, but a mostly former actor, the co-star of what many regard as the best, most politically charged situation comedy of all time, All in the Family. After he left the show, Reiner launched a directing career that has included such stellar films as Stand by Me and This Is Spinal Tap. Neither Mr. Morgan nor Mr. Reiner has ever struck me as an idiot, which is what Mr. Bershidsky immediately wants his readers to imagine.
This is not to dismiss Mr. Bershidsky’s reasonable point that the committee sounds hokey and pointless, and has no real “Russia experts” among the members of its advisory board.
Mr. Greene does indeed echo many of Bershidsky’s complaints about the US and the west not seeking advice from real Russian experts and avoiding listening to the voices of real Russians.
But he begins his remarks with a proviso, a proviso that Bershidsky pointedly avoids making.
“There is no serious dispute about whether Russia tried to influence the American election: It did. And the British ‘Brexit’ referendum. And the French election. And the upcoming German vote. There is also no doubt about the role Russia is playing in eastern Ukraine, or in the world more broadly. Russia is a challenge, and we are right to worry about the fact that we don’t have an answer.”
Bershidsky, on the contrary, is loath to admit the anti-Russia hysteria that bothers him so much was provoked by real actions and decisions undertaken by the people currently running the country of his birth.
That is the real problem with so-called expertise on Russia. Half if not more of the west’s card-carrying “Russian experts” are incredibly quick to absolve “Putin’s Russia” (when can we ditch that phrase? Putin doesn’t own Russia, his ambitions and those of his Ozero Dacha Co-op buddies to the contrary) of all its crimes against its own people and its new drive to regain supah powah status on the cheap, by fucking with everyone’s elections, flooding the airwaves and internets with fake news and anti-immigrant hysteria in different shapes and sizes, and worst of all, serving its own population a steady diet of anti-Americanism, anti-westernism, xenophobia, and racism, especially on its national TV channels, for nearly the whole of Putin’s eighteen-year reign.
Think of Stephen Cohen, a “Russia expert” of high standing, who has been stalwartly defending every creepy, aggressive move the Kremlin has made over the past several years.
As for listening to the voices of the Russian people, that sounds like a great idea, but a) most so-called Russian experts don’t live in Russia itself and thus have little opportunity to listen to real Russian voices; and b) many Russian voices have either been badly singed by the relentless propaganda they have been subjected to in recent years or their voices have literally been drowned out by the din of that propaganda.
There is also the troubling tendency that many so-called Russian experts, when they want to evoke the “voices of the Russian people,” take the absolutely discredited shortcut of citing Russian public opinion polls, as carried out by the country’s three leading pollsters—FOM, VTsIOM, and the especially insidious Levada Center, which has a liberal, “dissident” street cred it does not deserve, painting its conclusions about “ordinary Russians” and what they think in the darkest terms possible, seeing them as benighted, dangerous creatures, akin to the zombies on The Walking Dead.
Why do the “Russia experts” they take these shortcuts? Because they don’t live in Russia and actually have no clue what real Russians really think.
One way to find out what some very different Russians think would be to read this website, which has been mostly devoted to translating the voices of people who have really been involved, usually at the grassroots, in dealing with their country’s problems or thinking through them in an eloquent way, a way not tainted by the thought patterns the powerful Putinist propaganda machine has been keen to implant in the minds of Russians too weak or too compromised by their stations in life to think for themselves.
There are lots of such people in Russia, unfortunately, including the men and women who serve the country’s bloated bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies, and secret services. Such people are several times more numerous under the current “liberal capitalist democracy” than they were under the Soviets or the tsars.
I have no doubt that, among these millions of officials, there are a good number of intelligent, decent people capable of thinking for themselves. Many of them are, I assume, not terribly happy with the road the Kremlin has led the country down and the roles they have been made to play in this deliberate degradation.
For example, would you like to be a district court judge who has to wait for a phone call from “upstairs” before rendering verdicts in high-profile cases? But this is what happens on a daily basis in the country’s judicial system.
In fact, if you listen to the voices of Russians who actually try and tell their stories—via Facebook and other social media, as well as the remaining online and print outlets where good journalism is practiced at least some of the time—and you listen to lots of these voices over an extended period of time (for example, I have been writing and translating this website and, before that, Chtodelat News, for the last ten years) and take to heart what they are actually saying, your hair will stand on end.
You will also be filled with intense admiration for the activists, researchers, and journalists who care about their country and have the courage to tell these stories.
You will not, however, come to the sanguine conclusion suggested by the last paragraph of Mr. Bershidsky’s latest op-ed.
“But Russia will still be there when this phase is over—resentful and hungry for Western praise, defiant and confused, thuggish and loftily intellectual, muscular and aggressive and weakened by graft and incompetence. Someday, the pieces will need to be picked up, and only people capable of taking in the nuance will be able to do it. These people have been ‘investigating Russia’ all along. It’s just that a less thorough and more politicized ‘investigation’ is temporarily supplanting their work.”
First of all, I am not sure Russia will still be there when this phase (of what?) is over, nor is Andrey Kalikh, whose alarming Facebook post from what have amounted to the frontlines of the Zapad 2017 War Games I posted yesterday.
Second, Russia’s problems are not the problems of a troubled teenager, as Mr. Bershidsky implies, but of a country ruled by an boundlessly greedy, ambitious tyranny that has had to test-run various sham ideologies (including homophobia, anti-Americanism, Russian Orthodoxy, xenophobia, migrantophobia, rampant state capitalism, etc.) in order to justify its continuing and, apparently, perpetual rule.
As Mr. Kalikh wrote on this website yesterday, this makes the current regime extremely dangerous primarily to Russians themselves. His argument has been borne out by the increasingly intense “cold civil war” the regime has waged not only against outright dissidents and oppositionists like Alexei Navalny, Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov, to name only a few people, but against otherwise ordinary Russians who have posted the “wrong” things on Facebook or VK (a Russian ripoff of Facebook more popular with the non-snobby crowd and activists who want to be in touch with them more than with the proletariat haters, but, unfortunately, a social network that is, apparently, absolutely transparent to the Russian security agencies) or, much worse, have banded together to solve their own problems, problems caused, as often as not, by their own local authorities or national government, which has not introduced “stability” after the chaotic years of Yeltsin’s rule, but has instead instituted “legal nihilism” (ex-President Dmitry Medvedev’s phrase) as its fundamental principle of bad governance.
If you deny all these basic facts about Russia today and, to boot, you don’t listen to the voices of active, thoughtful Russians, unfiltered by sham opinion polls, and finally, if you are not on the ground in Russia itself or have not spent oodles of time here talking to oodles of people and getting mixed up in oodles of different situations, I am afraid your Russian expertise is just a species of sophistry.
“Nuance,” after all, is a weasel word. Anyone with any feeling for English knows that.
Why was it that Mr. Bershidsky had to leave Russia only to land a job at Bloomberg supplying us with “nuanced” apologies for the current Russian regime? I really would like an answer to that question. TRR
UPDATE. RT has helpfully outed Mr. Bershidsky as a crypto-Putinist in a ridiculous hatchet job entitled “Russophobia: RT rates the top 10 Kremlin critics & their hilarious hate campaigns,” published on its website yesterday, September 28. In the piece, which seems to have been written by an alcoholic on a bender, RT praised Mr. Bershidsky for his criticism of their number ten “Russophobe” Molly McKew: “Perhaps the considerably more respected analyst Leonid Bershidsky said it best when he called her arguments against Moscow ‘simplistic and misguided.'” My advice to RT would be to refrain from mentioning the Kremlin’s “secret” assets in the west in such a flagrant way.
UPDATE, October 12, 2017. Andreas Umland has brought my attention to more evidence that Leonid Bershidsky’s “exile in the west” was really a clever subterfuge for implanting a crypto-Putinist Russian journalist in a major western news agency. Mr. Bershidsky’s latest contribution to the art of the op-ed, “Why Catalonia Will Fail Where Crimea Succeeded” (October 4, 2017) is beyond the pale. Diane Francis turns the piece to chopped liver on the Atlantic Council’s website.