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.

Church and State

vladimir sunset

Nearly Fifty Russian Orthodox Church Affiliates Awarded Presidential Grants
Vedomosti
Yelena Mukhametshina
October 31, 2018

At least 47 organizations affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) have been awarded presidential grants totalling 55.3 million rubles [approx. 734,000 euros] in the latest NGO grants competition, according to the Presidential Grants for Civil Society Development Foundation website. They include lay religious organizations, monasteries, parishes, and dioceses.

Thus, the parish of the Church of the New Russian Martyrs and Confessors in Smolensk has been awarded 2.2 million rubles for a project entitled “The Pearl Necklace of Holy Russia,” meant to encourage youth tourism and cooperation with the Belarusian Orthodox Church. The ROC’s Yakutia Diocese has been awarded 2.5 million rubles for a project entitled “Yakutia’s Churches Are Russia’s Historic Legacy.” The grant winners plan to produce three documentary films, ten videos in a series entitled “Reading the Gospel Together,” and one video about Easter. The largest grant awarded to these NGOS was 10 million rubles. Mercy, an ROC organization that helps homeless people, won this grant.

According to Ilya Chukalin, executive director of the Presidential Grants for Civil Society Development Foundation, it is easy to explain why organizations associated with the ROC have won grants. The Orthodox Initiative Grant Competition has been held in Russia since 2005, so these NGOs have know-how in writing grants and also submit numerous grant applications. As Chukalin explains, the more applications submitted, the better the chances of winning.

“Besides, the grant applications are mainly submitted by church parishes, often in villages. Grants have to be submitted by legal entities, and there are only two types of legal entities in small villages: local governments and church parishes. Usually, they apply for small grants—for example, to build a park or sports facilities in the village,” Chukalin said.

Chukalin, however, underscored the fact that Muslim and Jewish projects have also been awarded grants.

Grants totalling 41 million rubles [appox. 554,000 euros] were awarded to eleven branches of the Combat Brotherhood, headed by Boris Gromov, former governor of Moscow Region, and Russian MP Dmitry Sablin. The Combat Brotherhood’s head office won the largest grant, worth approximately 20 million rubles, for a project entitled “Memory Is Stronger than Time,” dedicated to the thirtieth anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The Russian Union of Youth (RSM) has been awarded 63.5 million rubles [approx. 843,000 euros] to involve young people in developing small towns and settlements.

The largest grant in the competition overall was awarded to the Concerts, Festivals, and Master Classes Agency, which will spend nearly 112 million rubles on a project entitled “Yuri Bashmet to Russia’s Young Talents.”

A total of 19,000 applications was submitted to two competitions in 2018. 3,573 projects were awarded grants. The total amount awarded was 7.8 billion rubles [approx. 103.6 million euros].

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The largest presidential grants awarded to NGOs. 1) Concerts, Festivals, and Master Classes Agency, “Yuri Bashmet to Russia’s Young Talents,” 111.97 million rubles; 2) Association of Art and Culture Schools, “Second Tertiary Degrees for Creative Professionals,” 80.64 million rubles; 3) New Names Foundation, “Russia’s New Names,” 68.96 million rubles; 4) Russian Union of Youth, “The Space of Development,” 63.51 million rubles; 5) Golden Mask Festival, National Theatrical Prize, 50 million rubles; 6) Northern Capital Foundation, “A Road through War,” 40.97 million rubles; 7) Elena Obraztsova Foundation, International Competition for Young Opera Singers, 40.72 million rubles; 8) Butterfly Children Foundation, Compiling a Registry of Epidermolysis Bullosa Patients, 35 million rubles; 9) Tyumen Development Foundation, Local Community Development Centers, 27.04 million rubles; Peace Avenue Foundation, “The Country’s Main Law,” 24.92 million rubles; Urals Musicians Association, Urals Music Night International Festival, 23.86 milliion rubles. Source: Presidential Grants for Civil Society Development Foundation, October 2018

Alexei Makarkin argues that this way of awarding grants has its own rational. The ROC has long been an ally of the government, which can help it implement small projects, for example, to encourage an energetic priest.

The Combat Brotherhood has also been working with the government a long time, and this year marks the anniversary of the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

The large grant awarded to the RSM, however, may have been triggered by the protest votes cast in many small towns during the recent local and regional elections, argues Makarkin.

“The hinterland is also vital, because in many small towns there is the sense of having reached the edge. There are no more budget cuts that can be made, and reforms will hit them hard. Therefore, the idea is to support local activists, whose projects do not require a lot of money,” Makarkin said.

Photo and translation by the Russian Reader

You Gotta Fight for Your Right to Party

Involving Teenagers in Unauthorized Protest Rallies Could Cost as Much as One Million Rubles
Experts Say Authorities Won’t Find It Hard to Prove Charges
Olga Churakova
Vedomosti
July 11, 2018

Госдума готовится ввести многотысячные штрафы за вовлечение подростков в несанкционированные митингиThe State Duma plans to introduce hefty finds for involving teenagers in unauthorized protest rallies. Photo by Andrei Gordeyev. Courtesy of Vedomosti

On Tuesday, the State Duma’s Family Affairs Committee gave the go-ahead to a law bill that would introduce penalties for “encouraging” teenagers to attend unauthorized protest rallies. On Monday, the bill was approved by the government’s Legislative Affairs Commission. In its written appraisal of the bill, the Family Affairs Committee recommended clarifying the minimum age at which offenders would be held liable for violations, although the relevant committee reviewing the bill is the Committee on Constitutional Law.

Tabled by Alyona Arshinova, Anatoly Vyborny, and other United Russia MPs, the law would amend the Administrative Violations Code to include penalties of 15 days in jail, 100 hours of community service or a fine of 50,000 rubles for individuals who encourage minors to attend unauthorized protest rallies. Fines for officials would range from 50,000 to 100,000 rubles, while fines for legal entities would range from 250,000 to 500,000 rubles. A repeat violation could send individuals to jail for up to thirty days, while legal entities would be fined as much as one million rubles [approx. €13,800].

“In my experience, there is no such thing as a perfect law bill. As for the current bill, the relevant committee has not yet meet to discuss it,” says Vyborny.

However, Vyborny is certain the amendments are necessary.

“Children cannot resist the negative influence of adults. It matters to them to express themselves, and we hope this bill will deter them from ill-considered actions. Administrative liability will be a deterrent,” he says.

What matters is that young people are not drawn into a culture of legal nihilism, the MP argues. According to Vyborny, the bill does not aim to punish minors, but protest rally organizers. Hence, the age limit is defined in the bill.

OVD Info estimated that ninety-one teenagers were detained on May 5, 2018, in Moscow at an unauthorized protest rally to mark the inauguration of Vladimir Putin as president for the fourth time. According to OVD Info, at least 158 minors were detained nationwide on May 5 at similar protests. OVD Info estimated that a total of 1,600 people were detained that day.

Lawyer Oleg Sukhov says proving protest rally organizers are in violation of the new law would be a piece of cake. Rallies are organized in different ways, including personal contacts and public announcements.

“Our government is planning to deter all means of organizing protest rallies. It realizes this work on the part of the opposition will only intensify over time not only via the web but also through communication with young Russians,” notes Sukhov.

The main point is the government would not have to prove anything, argues Sukhov. Minors will go on attending protest rallies. Whenever they tell police they saw an announcement on the web, the organizers will be charged with violating the law according to a fast-track procedure.

“Clearly, the law will be enforced selectively. It’s a classic manifestation of the so-called mad printer. The terms used in the wording of the bill are not defined at all. For example, what does it mean to ‘encourage’ a teenager to attend a rally? Can teenagers attend rallies? They can. So, how do we figure out whether they attended on their own or were ‘encouraged’? We can’t,” says Navalny’s righthand man Leonid Volkov.

Volkov does not believe the law will be effective since protesters have been paying fines as it is.

“It is no accident this attempt to intimidate young people made the news today, the same day the Investigative Committee released a video about a teenager who goes to prison for reposting [‘extremist’ items] on social media. Of course, this will only produce new Primorsky Partisans,” Volkov concludes.

“Extremism Is a Crime,” a video posted on YouTube on June 25, 2018, by the MultiKit Video Studio. The annotation to the video reads, “A public service video on the dangers of extremism, produced by MultiKit Video Studio for the Russian Investigative Committee’s Altai Territory Office. The video will be shown in schools to prevent such crimes.”

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KMO_156800_00022_1_t218_212746.jpgAlexei Avetisov. Photo by Emin Dzhafarov. Courtesy of Kommersant

Youth Policy Finds a Direction
Kremlins Finds a Specialist in Subcultures and Extremism
Sofia Samokhina, Maxim Ivanov and Lada Shamardina
Kommersant
July 11, 2018

Kommersant has learned Alexei Avetisov, member of the Russian Public Chamber and president of the Russian Student Rescue Corps, could join the Office of Public Projects in the Kremlin. Avetisov has been tapped to head the Department for Combating Extremism among Youth. Ksenia Razuvayeva, head of Rospatriotcenter (Russian Center for the Civic and Patriotic Education of Children and Young People) has been named as a candidate for head of the Department of Youth Policy in the Office of Public Projects. Both candidates would still have to be vetted by the Kremlin.

Alexei Avetisov, member of the Russian Public Chamber and president of the Russian Student Rescue Corps, could head the Department for Combating Extremism among Youth in the Kremlin’s Office of Public Projects. Currently, the Office of Public Projects, which is run by Sergei Kiriyenko, the president’s first deputy chief of staff, has no such department. Our sources say Mr. Avetisov would be tasked with overseeing youth subcultures and decriminalizing the youth scene, in particular, by dealing with the popular AUE network of criminal gangs. The Presidential Human Rights Council discussed the issue with Vladimir Putin in December 2016.

Olga Amelchenkova, head of the Victory Volunteers Movement and member of the Russian Public Chamber, told us there were few organizations in Russia involved in volunteering in emergencies, and Mr. Avetisov was one of the few people who had constantly brought up the subject in the Public Chamber.

An acquaintance of Mr. Avetisov’s said his Russian Student Rescue Corps had brought many universities together. The organization took part in the first Taurida Camp held after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, an event attended by MPs and high-ranking officials. From 2015 to 2017, Mr. Avetisov was director of Territory of Meanings on the Klyazma, a youth education form, sponsored by Rosmolodezh (Russian Agency for Youth Affairs). His main job at the forum was providing technical support for the camp.

On June 6, Znak.com, citing its own sources, reported law enforcement agences were investigating Territory of Meanings on the Klyazma and, in this connection, “questions for the forum’s ex-director Alexei Avetisov could arise.” The website indicated companies allegedly affiliated with Mr. Avetisov had for several years been awarded “lucrative” contracts for constructing venues at the forum. The firms in question had no experience implementing government contracts. Currently, some of the companies have either gone out of business or are dormant, wrote the website.

Timur Prokopenko, deputy chief of staff in charge of the Office of Domestic Policy in the Kremlin, had been in charge of youth forums in recent years. He also handleded youth policy in his capacity as head of the Office of Domestic Policy. However, on June 14, a presidential decree turned youth policy over to the Office of Public Projects.

znakcom-2039402-666x375Territory of Meanings staffers. Photo from the camp’s VK page. Courtesy of Znak.com

Gazeta.Ru has reported that Rospatriotcenter head Ksenia Razuvayeva could take charge of the Office of Public Project’s Department of Youth Policy. Before taking over the running of Rospatriotcenter, Ms. Razuvayeva ran the Moscow branch of the Russian Volunteers Union and collaborated with the Young Guard of United Russia (MGER), which Mr. Prokopenko ran from 2010 to 2012. Ms. Razuvayeva would not confirm to us that she was moving to the Office of Public Projects Earlier, a source of ours in the Kremlin said she might not make it through the vetting process. Another of our sources noted a possible conflict of interests was at play. Ms. Razuvayeva also told us it was the first time she had heard about Mr. Avetisov’s moving to the Office of Public Projects.

“The vast majority of Young Guardsmen and other pro-regime activists brought up through the ranks in the past decades are supremely focused on their careers. The system simply spits out anyone else,” political scientist Abbas Gallyamov told us.

According to Gallyamov, “Changing colors for the new boss and refusing to have anything to do with people they worshipped only the day before are quite ordinary for this crowd.”

“Therefore, it does not matter whose people they were considered yesterday. They will be loyal to any boss, just because he or she is the boss,” Gallyamov added.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Astroturf on Ice

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Washington Capitals star player Alexei Ovechkin. Photo courtesy of A. Gordeyev/Vedomosti

Alexander Ovechkin’s Movement Could Be Part of Putin’s Election Campaign 
Svetlana Bocharova
Vedomosti
November 9, 2017

Putin Team, a movement launched last week by Washington Capitals hockey star Alexander Ovechkin, is meant to unite celebrities and could be part of the campaign of Vladimir Putin, who is expected to announce he will run for re-election in 2018. Vedomosti was given this information by a source close to the Kremlin, and it was corroborated by another source. The idea for the movement was not generated by the Kremlin, but nor did Ovechkin come up with the idea himself, our two sources claimed. According to them, the idea was conceived by IMA Consulting (a subsidiary of IMA Group). The Kremlin signed off on the idea after it was launched, one of our sources added.

Ovechkin announced he was establishing Putin Team on November 2.

“I am sure there are many of us who support Vladimir Putin. So let’s unite and show everyone a strong and united Russia!” Ovechkin wrote on Instagram, adding he had never hidden his attitude to the president and had always openly supported him.

Ovechkin’s appeal was supported by NHL Hall of Fame inductee Pavel Bure, Ilya Kovalchuk, a player with the Petersburg side SKA, and the governors of Tula and Moscow regions, Alexei Dyumin (Putin’s ex-aide and a Night Hockey League player) and Andrei Vorobyov. Ovechkin’s announcement has not been followed by any formal actions or explanations. Ovechkin’s agent Gleb Chistyakov told Vedomosti he had nothing to say about the movement for the time being, and he also refused to comment on who had come up with the idea.

When asked by Vedomosti whether it was IMA who had come up with the idea for Putin Team, Vartan Sarkisov, general director of IMA Consulting, said, “It’s not true.”

In August, IMA Consulting won a tender from the Central Election Commission to develop the concept for a campaign raising awareness of the presidential election. IMA will be one of the key players in everything the Kremlin has planned for the election, we were told by our source close to the presidential administration, and Ovechkin’s movement could become part of Putin’s campaign. The idea behind the undertaking is that “celebrities support Putin,” our other source close to the Kremlin told us.

Russian has been no stranger to such organizations. Thus, in December 2007, as Putin’s second term as president came to a close, the Movement for Putin emerged, advocating Putin retain power as the “national leader.” In 2009, a co-leader of For Putin, Pavel Astakhov, was named the national children’s rights ombudsman.

Ovechkin’s movement would mainly be useful to Kremlin as a means of shaking the western stereotype that Russia’s finest people [sic] do not support Putin, but back the opposition, political scientist Yevgeny Minchenko said. According to Minchenko, the emergence in Putin’s camp of a figure popular in the west, such as Ovechkin [sic], would increase the president’s legitimacy in the eyes of the west [sic]. Minchenko has seen with his own eyes how Ovechkin is regarded in Washington, DC, where he has a “quite large fan club.” In Russia, however, the movement will be considerably less effective and will not significantly increase the number of votes Putin wins in the election, argues Minchenko.

Such movements are always needed on the international stage, and not just in the run-up to elections, argues pro-Kremlin political scientist Andrei Kolyadin.

“A person who has found the courage to speak up for a national leader whom some American politicians regard as an incarnation of pure evil, and defend the interests of a country not liked in the US, can cause a wave of similar actions by people forced to hide their respect for Russia.”

The movement is also capable of producing extra votes for Putin in Russia, argues Kolyadin. Very many people regard Ovechkin as an opinion leader [sic], and finding opinion leaders who sincerely support you requires great talent on the part of spin doctors running any politician’s election campaign.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Talk of the Town

You would be forgiven if you imagined Russia’s liberal, leftist, technical, creative, conservative and other intelligentsias were abuzz right now with righteous anger or triumphant glee about what the country’s air force (now officially known, bizarrely, as the Russian Aerospace Forces or VKS) has been up to in Syria and, more specifically, Aleppo, these days.

No, many of them are terribly exercised, in various directions, about the controversy over an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges in Moscow.

This was borne out by the websites of some of the country’s leading dailies this morning.

vedomosti-syria

The liberal Vedomosti, a business-oriented newspaper, listed its top stories this morning. The top story was entitled “Faces in a Queue for the iPhone 7”; the second most-read story was about the Sturges show.

True, Vedomosti readers are serious lads and lassies, so the number three story was about Syria. It was headlined, “Five World Powers and EU Demand Decisive Steps from Russia in Syria.”

Earlier today, I posted a few bits from the bizarre article about yesterday’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, published in the country’s other serious, formerly liberal, business daily, Kommersant.

Similarly, Moskovsky Komsolomets could not figure out what its readers would find more titillating: reading about how the VKS’s top guns were bombing Aleppo to smithereens or how astroturfed patriots were threatening the God-given right of every self-respecting intelligent to implement Dostoevsky’s maxim that beauty would save the world.

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By way of splitting the difference, this morning’s website featured a picture of a chap obviously meant to embody the most average-looking Russian bloke on earth, sadly contemplating one of Sturges’s blasphemous nudes, while a sidebar headline shouts, “Everyone [sic] Is Bombing: Churkin Thinks Peace Impossible in Syria.”

Izvestia has become a particularly noxious loudspeaker for the regime in the past years, so the front page of its website contained a fair number of articles and op-ed pieces chockablock with baldfaced lies about the bloodbath in Aleppo, but at least it had the dignity not to yield to the fake moral panic brewing around the Sturges show.

The relative paucity of Russian media coverage of the Syrian conflict and publicly accessible grassroots reactions was confirmed by the following completely unscientific Google search.

“Джок Стержес” (“Jock Sturges”) got 12,000 more hits than “бомбардироква Алеппо” (“bombing Aleppo”), even though, one could argue, the bombing of Aleppo by somebody or other has been a more topical item in the news for a longer time than Jock Sturges, whatever his longevity or virtues as a contemporary artist.

Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “Jock Sturges” in Russian, September 26, 2016
Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in Russian, September 26, 2016

When I did the same search (“bombing Aleppo”) in English, I got over a million hits.

Results of Google for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in English, September 26, 2016

Certainly, we immediately have to factor in the sheer numbers of Anglophone media and readers in the world. There are quite a few more of both than there are Russophone media and readers, and so one would expect to find more responses to particular topics of global interest in English than in Russian.

But what about the vox pop?

An even more unscientific survey of the Russophone segment of Facebook this morning (that is, the part of the segment to which I have access, amounting to several hundred people, most of whom could be identified as intelligentsia or quasi-intelligentisa) showed that quite a few people were up in arms over the Sturges show or coolly editorializing about it to their extended communities of invisible friends, while literally no one was writing anything about Syria.

This has been the case for the past year. Not only that, but I have shared a fairly large number of articles and opinions about Syria, including my own, over that time, and have elicited a total of zero likes and comments from my Russian Facebook friends.

Non-Russian friends, on the contrary, like and comment on these posts in the same numbers as they and their Russian counterparts usually react to the other, non-Syrian things I write about.

Maybe I have the wrong Russian friends, but my hypothesis is that “politically engaged” or “socially conscious” Russians are literally afraid to say or write anything in public about the Syrian conflict. They have the good sense to know that their president-for-life has sunken his teeth into this geopolitical chew toy and has no intention of unclenching them.

Hence, anyone foolish enough to comment on this catastrophic attempt to reassert an increasingly impoverished country as a super power might get themselves in trouble with the powers that be. Over the last year, they have been hauling in utterly ordinary people  on “extremism” charges in fairly large numbers for reposting or commenting on the most innocuous things on Facebook and its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.

Even more telling, there has not been a single public demonstration in Russia against Russian military involvement in Syria during the past year—to my knowledge, at least.*

Again, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. The current Russian regime has gone out of its way to make public demonstrations and pickets an unattractive pastime for all but the bravest of Russians.

Still, the war in Syria is the central international conflict of our time, and Russia’s best and brightest have literally nothing to say about it, even though their nominally elected government has not been merely a party to the conflict, but has come firmly down on one side, arguably, the wrong side, the side causing the most damage.

I find this deafening public silence about Syria more disturbing than anything else happening in Russia right now.

* After I posted this, Comrade BN wrote the following to me: “In Moscow last year there were some very small pickets protesting against the war in Syria, and the people who organized it attempted to set up an anti-war committee. As far as I know, though, the authorities pretty much intimidated them with varying degrees of extremity into giving up.”

Cossacks versus Pokémon: Which Are More Real?

“In 1996, game designer Satoshi Tajiri invented the Pokémon, which immediately garnered immense popularity. Years have passed, and their glory had seemingly faded, but on July 6, 2016, the Pokémon Go mobile app set the Internet world on fire and split Russian society. Some psychiatrists believe the game was developed by American neo-Nazis; others, that it is a CIA project; still others, that it is simply a brilliant commercial project. But spokesmen for the Russian Orthodox Church have detected an occult component in the game. While others have been trying to figure out what Pokémon Go is, the Cossacks are certain the game is part of the information war against Russia. So they went out on a raid against the Pokémon.”
—Annotation to the video of a TV news report, above. It was posted on YouTube on August 1, 2016, by Svoyo TV, based in Stavropol, Russia. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Rustam Adagamov for the heads-up

__________

If the “Cossacks” are against this Pokémon business, I am all for it. And you should be, too. Because there are no “Cossacks” in reality, only mental patients, policemen, and FSB officers dressing up as “Cossacks.”

In this sense, the Pokémon are just as real as the “Cossacks,” but much less harmful. They don’t try and shut down art exhibitions and plays, they don’t assault opposition leaders, they don’t attack Pussy Riot with “real Cossack whips” in Sochi, and they have not set themselves up as the ultimate voice of popular Russian common sense.

The “news segment,” above, is like a news segment in which Darth Vader is asked what he thinks about Santa Claus.

There is no Darth Vader. There is no Santa Claus. There are no Cossacks.

“Russia’s strident conservatism,” mentioned in the article, below, is a hoax as well, a total fiction, spun from whole cloth by a gang of crooks and thieves who, first of all, want to fool themselves about having real “moral” values, “anti-liberal” values, rather than admitting they are just soulless, greedy nihilists on the make and on the take.

More importantly, the “conservative” fiction is a nifty gimmick for occupying the minds and hearts of people whose time would be better spent thinking hard and creatively about how to rid themselves of the gang of crooks and thieves, rather than tolerating or even buying into the endless waves of hokey moral panics dreamt up and launched by mainstream TV, the Putinist online troll army, the relevant FSB directorates and offices in the presidential administrations, and the FSB and police agents (bolstered, no doubt, by a handful of true believers) who dress up as “Cossacks,” “members” of the “grassroots” National Liberation Movement (NOD), and so on.

Finally, pace what Tom Balmforth has written, below, there are no “senators” in Russia, either, for the starkly simple reason that Russia has no Senate. (Post-Petrine Imperial Russia had an institution called the Senate, but that is neither here nor there.) The upper house of Russia’s current rubber-stamp parliament is called the Federation Council. A few years ago, its members took to calling themselves “senators,” just as other self-empowered clowns took to calling themselves “Cossacks.” No one, especially self-respecting reality-based journalists, is obliged to encourage this blatant attempt at dignifying an utterly undemocratic, unelected institution.

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Pokemon Go Away: Russians See CIA Plot, ‘Satanism’ In Viral App
Tom Balforth
RFE/RL
July 15, 2016

Russia’s strident conservatism, perhaps best personified by Cossacks and the Orthodox Church, probably could not have less in common with Pokemons, the multicolored, virtual “pocket monsters” from Japan’s Nintendo.

So it’s unsurprising that reports that Pokemon Go, a new augmented-reality app that invites users to seek and “collect” the creatures by navigating in real space with the help of a mobile device, could be unveiled in Russia this week have irked some of the country’s conservatives.

Further still, though, some in Russia have depicted the application as an extraordinary scheme by the U.S. secret services to craftily enlist millions of people across the world to photograph and film hidden, out-of-the-way places.

“Imagine that the ‘little creature’ in question doesn’t appear in some park but on a secret site where a conscript or other soldier takes and photographs it with his camera,” state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Aleksandr Mikhailov, a retired major general of the Federal Security Service (FSB), on July 15 as saying. “It’s recruitment by one’s own personal desire and without any coercion. This is the ideal way for secret services to gather information. And no one takes any heed, entertainment is fashionable after all.”

Russian ultranationalist thinker and frequent conspiracy theorist Aleksandr Dugin made similar allegations on July 12, even claiming that Niantic, the San Francisco-based developer of the application, is linked to a CIA venture capital firm.

Communications Minister Nikolai Nikiforov told Tass his ministry does not intend to specially regulate or ban the application. “Some people like creating their own startup, achieving results, some people like to lounge on the sofa all day, some people like running after Pokemons and falling into ditches. Everyone chooses for themselves, happily, we have a free country,” Nikiforov said.

On July 14, influential business newspaper Vedomosti quoted two sources in Nintendo’s Russia office as saying the application could be released by the end of this week.

There has been some hype on Russia’s social networks where Pokemon Go has been trending, and experts predict it will take that country by storm, toomuch to the disapproval of some officials.

On July 14, Lyudmila Bokova, a senator [sic] from Russia’s upper house, the Federation Council, attacked the latest incarnation of the Pokemon franchise as a provocation and a trick to extract money from the parents of its fans.

“This is some kind of strange trick to renew this story, to again get children hooked on who knows what, and to actively obtain the money in their parents’ wallets,” Senator Lyudmila Bokova was quoted by Tass as saying.

‘Smacks Of Satanism’

Meanwhile in St. Petersburg, the country’s cultural capital [sic], the Irbis Orthodox Union of Cossacks called for the application to be formally banned.

Andrei Polyakov, the ataman of the society, said he intends to appeal to the Consumer Health Watchdog and the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service, Znak.ru reports.

“We need to drag people out of the virtual world; otherwise it all smacks of Satanism. There are so many real interesting things and professions in the world, so much of interest to do that it is wrong to be distracted by every nonsense.”

Polyakov continued: “As for churches and temples, holy places, cultural institutions, children’s institutions, this absolutely has to be banned. We must respect culture and people’s faith, regardless which. Either there must be a sensible framework, or instructions that must be observed, or the application has to be banned completely.”

The smartphone application invites users to gather imaginary Pokemons that are projected onto images of real locations.

Vakhtang Kipshidze, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, has urged users not to play the game in places of worship. In particular, he mentioned the duels that can be called between Pokemon Go users and their retinues of pocket monsters.

The Kremlin’s Council for Human Rights and Civil Society said on July 14 that it would discuss threats linked to the game and would make recommendations.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said of the fad in the Russian context: “Pokemons are not the reason to visit the Kremlin, a jewel of world culture. Moreover, the Kremlin is unprecedentedly open, although it is the residence of the head of state.”

Pokemon Go has prompted concerns outside of Russia, too. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, for instance, felt obliged to warn players and seek exclusion from the game, announcing that “playing the game is not appropriate in the museum, which is a memorial to the victims of Nazism.”

Kuwait on July 15 banned the game at “sensitive landmarks,” AP said, reportedly to include military and other government locations. Authorities in California said two men fell off a seaside cliff there after climbing through a barrier to play Pokemon Go, underscoring what U.S. officials have warned is a risky tendency to trespass in the heat of the chase.

481fc409498e6e0cf9fc5f13057f058c
Image courtesy of appleapple.top

Alexander Zamyatin: Three and a Half Theses on the Elections

Three and a Half Theses on the Elections
Alexander Zamyatin
Anticapitalist.ru
July 24, 2016

Thesis No. 0: The Obvious
The parliament in Russia has been reduced to such a condition there is no point in talking about a hypothetical leftist faction or a group of MPs from single-mandate electoral districts tabling or blocking law bills independently of the presidential administration. If there has been anything consistent about the political reforms of the past fifteen years, it is that legislative bodies, the Duma foremost among them, have been stripped of the power to influence the government’s social and economic policies, even despite their formally voting budgets up or down.

The elections to the Seventh State Duma are not a chance to transform the political regime or even have an impact on it.

The entire campaign is controlled to a lesser or greater extent by the presidential administration’s Office for Domestic Policy. The leaders of the current Duma factions have long ago left no doubt as to the complete absence of conflict within parliament. Even such a harmless identity as “systemic opposition” has taken a backseat to rallying round the president by way of combatting the “fifth column.”

1000_d_850Boris Titov. Photo courtesy of Rossiyskaya gazeta

This stricture applies as well as to the Party of Growth (Partiya Rosta) and its leader Boris Titov, the federal commissioner for the rights of entrepreneurs. The handiwork of spin doctors, the party’s emergence has marked the utter degeneration of the idea of founding an independent right-wing party, a project that has dragged on since the late nineties in shape of parties such as Boris Nemtsov and Nikita Belykh’s Union of Right Forces (SPS) and Leonid Gozman and Mikhail Prokhorov’s Right Cause (Pravoe delo). The fortunes of the Party of Growth’s forerunners have been telling: they immediately fell apart, absorbed by the so-called Crimean consensus.

Despite the transparency of the schemes involved, any conversation about parties and elections has to begin with these textbook truths, not only because they are not obvious to many people but also because certain actors in this process, including people comfortable with leftist ideas, call them into question by the way they behave.

Thesis No. 1: The Possible
A considerable number of the Kremlin’s actions in domestic and foreign policy over the past five years has been aimed at preventing the recurrence of the events surrounding the 2011 parliamentary elections. Despite the fact that, in retrospect, the White Ribbon rallies and Marches of the Millions seem harmless, they were an unprecedented challenge to the Putin regime, a challenge that, moreover, meshes perfectly with the ruling elite’s view of the world.

The ouster of spin doctor extraordinaire Vladislav Surkov and his projects for building “sovereign” democracy and preventing the “orange threat” by establishing quasi-fascist youth movements, and his replacement by the hard and taciturn Vyacheslav Volodin as domestic policy chief were obvious reshuffles meant to be read literally. During Putin’s third term, not even the pretense of political liberalism must remain.

This would seemingly contradict the preservation of certain liberal gains in the realm of electoral law made during Dmitry Medvedev’s single term as president: reduction of the electoral threshold for parties hoping to enter the Duma from 7% to 5%; the return of the mixed voting system, with 225 seats (out of a total of 450) up for grabs in single-mandate districts; and a reduction of the number of members required to officially register a party (from 50,000 to 500). But attempts by the independent right-wing liberal opposition to run in “warm-up” regional elections in 2013-2015 have shown that everything remains under the Kremlin’s total control.

Moving the date of the Duma elections from November to September reveals one of the regime’s main wagers: the election campaign should be as inconspicuous and cushy as possible for all vetted candidates, and the turnout on voting day must be minimal. Previously, parliamentary elections immediately preceded the presidential election, but now, finally, the figure of the president has been detached from the bureaucratic and political body of the country with all its shortcomings.

Should we expect independent candidates in the single-mandate districts who are capable of taking advantage of the simplified electoral procedures, as described above? Hardly. To get his or her name on the ball0t, an independent candidate has to collect the signatures of at least 3% of voters in the district. (Until 2003, they were required to collect the signatures of 1% of all voters and put up a cash surety.) In reality, this amounts to collecting the signatures of 5-6% of all voters in the district [because local electoral commissions make a habit of invalidating large numbers of signatures—TRR], meaning tens of thousands of signatures.

The only legal loophole for independent candidates is to run in single-mandate districts as the nominees of parties, which are not required to collect signatures. This applies to parties that hold seats in the Duma or one of the regional legislatures. All other parties must collect around 200,000 signatures to be registered in the elections. There are only fourteen such parties among the seventy-seven parties registered in the country.

Thesis No. 2: The Unlikely
The right-wing liberal opposition’s march to the elections using the slain Boris Nemtsov’s mandate as an MP in the Yaroslavl Regional Parliament was frustrated after the Democratic Coalition’s primaries proved a failure, with only a tenth of the planned 100,000 participants registering to vote.  The infighting that ensued ended with the dubious, to put it mildly, ex-PM Mikhail Kasyanov being joined on the PARNAS list by the extreme right-wing populist blogger Vyacheslav Maltsev, who is totally at odds with the party’s moderate electorate, and Professor Andrei Zubov, famously sacked from MGIMO (Moscow State Institute for International Relations) for his anti-regime remarks about Crimea, but a man who is otherwise given to alternately spouting liberal truisms or utter monarchist nonsense. That is all you need to know about the Democratic Coalition at present.

yavlin1_1428604380Grigory Yavlinsky. Photo courtesy of Polit.ru

The only source of intrigue in these elections has, perhaps, been the good old Yabloko Party. For the first time, the party has supported independent politicians from outside the party’s central apparatus, thus benefiting from the collapse of the Democratic Coalition. Yabloko’s willingness to blur its identity both on the right (there are members of Democratic Choice of Russia among Yabloko’s single-mandate candidates) and the left, has given hope to many opposition castaways. At the same time, Yabloko has proposed a strategic deal to everyone who has asked the party’s help in getting access to state campaign financing. Grigory Yavlinsky will need broad support in the 2018 presidential election.

Basically, the intrigue boils down to how honest Yavlinsky and Co. are in their intentions to give the regime a fight and compete with Putin in the presidential election. The first answer that comes to mind would question their independence. The party has been perfectly integrated into the system since 1999 (or even 1996). Party functionaries are kept on a short lease by state financing, and access to national media leaves no doubt as to the existence of an agreement between Yavlinsky and the presidential administration or the president himself.

Yet a more cunning answer is possible as well. Yablokov’s moderateness gives it a tactical advantage over opposition politicians who held the bar high for radicalism in 2012 and are now political outsiders driven to the verge of legality. We will be able to clarify which of these hypotheses is closer to the truth after the elections.

Be that as it may, these parties have been talking seriously about overcoming the five percent barrier and forming a faction in the Duma. Is this possible without a serious mobilization of the protest electorate?

Thesis No. 3: The Imperative
What does the radical left have to do with any of this? The paradox of the situation in which we find ourselves is that while our programs and main slogans answer to the interests of tens of millions of people in Russia (and, in a sense, of the entire society), our campaigning hardly goes beyond a few thousand people. We are excluded from the political process, which is now dominated by anti-popular and, sometimes, simply dangerous forces.

The fact that Russia lacks a full-fledged bourgeois parliamentary democracy sometimes leads people to draw the false conclusion that the country lacks a political process. Of course, it is imitated to a considerable degree by constructs, controlled by the presidential administration, that imitate pluralism in hysterical debates with Alexander Prokhanov and Vladimir Solovyov on national TV. But the very origins of these costly imitations, cultivated for years on end, indicates the presence of political antagonism, in which there are, at least, two sides: the current elite, playing to maintain the status quo, and the active segment of society, opposed to the elite and trying to organize alternatives.

Another common mistake appears at this point in the otherwise correct argument that the right-wing liberal opposition offers no real alternatives and stands programmatically for the very same neoliberal reforms as the regime. Trading the Putinist elite for someone from the opposition, such people argue, would not entail any consequences for the country except, perhaps, the flagrant acceleration of the selfsame unpopular economic reforms.

This claim completely ignores the real state of affairs, in which the loss of power by the Putinist elite (even under a smooth and sophisticated transfer of power to someone from outside that elite) would be tantamount to its death.

Whoever came to power afterwards, the chance to make public the details of how the president’s friends personally enriched themselves both at the expense of individuals knocked out of the game and at the expense of the Russian state and the entire Russian people, would give this person colossal power over the current members of the ruling class. This is clearer to the ruling class than to anyone else, so they have been doing everything to make sure that stripping them of power would be prohibitively costly to their opponents and, thus, the entire country. It is therefore quite likely that the departure of the Putinist elite would be accompanied by tectonic shifts in the societal and political landscapes, shifts that could have quite different consequences. This state of affairs has become a risk factor even for the well-off segments of society, not to mention its least socially protected members.

Coupled with the systemic depravity of the current economic model, the developing political crisis at some stage could bring the country to yet another historical fork in the road. Expectation of this moment, when the accumulated contradictions are revealed as keenly as possible, unites more or less everyone in the leftist opposition. But does our budding leftist movement currently have any sense of how to hasten this moment? No. Does it have a clear, confident answer as to how to prepare for it? No. Nor could it have such an answer, because we cannot know anything about the political struggle without being involved in it. Of course, economic struggle is supposed to shape an organized working class. But it is a classic mistake to believe that by disconnecting ourselves from the “bustle of bourgeois politicking” and redeploying all our forces to the economic struggle and organizing, we will accelerate the awakening of working class consciousness.

Involvement in the political struggle, which in any case does not abolish the economic struggle, encourages the movement to take on qualities necessary for the establishment of a real political force: the know-how of spirited political agitation among the depoliticized masses, the know-how of debating opponents, and, finally, a place in the media that report on politics and society. It is important that even in the embryonic state in which we find ourselves we can begin working in this direction.

When freedom of assembly is practically nonexistent, and freedom of speech and the freedom to agitate are subjected to well-known restrictions, elections remain a venue for developing the three qualities mentioned above. But there is another consideration at work here. It is only during election campaigning that we have a chance to speak to people with the hope of being heard. If you simply hold pickets and hand out leaflets, the only means of drawing considerable attention to yourself is by engaging in tawdry moralizing. As an election campaigner, however, you play a role to which people are accustomed, a role in which they either ask you what we should do or vigorously object to your arguments. And that means you have made contact. What you do with it depends on your skills as a campaigner.

vy_nas_b_1“You don’t represent us.” / “You can’t even imagine us.” Banner at Fair Elections rally in Petersburg, December 2011. Photo courtesy of Colta.ru

Is there currently a party we could support in these elections? No, but that means only that it will have to be created. There is nothing surprising about the fact we still have not founded a party in a country where, with some reservations, there are no independent, grassroots parties, parties not generated by the Kremlin. It is amazing to think it will always be this way and it is not necessary to prepare for change.

The lack of such a party poses the most difficult question: how can we be involved? First, it is possible to back candidates running in single-mandate districts, candidates whose campaigns we can join without forfeiting our own identity. Now, when the registration process has almost ended at the Central Electoral Commission, we can identify such candidates in our districts.

Second, oddly enough, there is the hypothetical possibility of running a campaign against involvement in the elections, since there is no political force advancing a leftist agenda. This campaign tactic could become part of the political struggle if it were run as a full-fledged campaign with a highly refined appeal every activist would be able to defend. There are two significant drawbacks to this option: a) unlike a campaign in support of a particular candidate, there is no source of funding; and b) campaigning “against all” candidates appears more dubious to the authorities than legally campaigning for a registered candidate and is likely to be prohibited altogether.

This paltry slate of options for active involvement in the upcoming elections to the Duma might get a big boost from the municipal council elections scheduled for next fall. Registering as an independent candidate for a municipal council is an accessible option for where we are at now, and all the advantages of running an election campaign can be realized in this case as well.

We have a whole year to answer the question of whether the leftist movement needs to be involved in elections and prepare ourselves should the answer be yes. From this point of view, this September’s elections are useful at least in the sense they confront us with the issue of political involvement, even if some imagine that it has been decided once and for all.

Translated by the Russian Reader