Feckless Lowlifes and Incompetent Bounders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by the Russian Reader

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Cass Sunstein Stayed Out Too Long in the Sunshine

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A sunny late afternoon in downtown Petersburg. Do you see any Marxism or Marxists in this picture? I see only individuals going about their business and going home from work. According to the distinguished US legal scholar Cass Sunstein, however, “the Russians” are, in fact, busy “heightening the contradictions” in US society, which is a time-honored “Marxist strategy.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Cass Sunstein: “As the Russians know, heightening the contradictions is dangerous for the American people. Here’s a much better idea: E pluribus unum.”

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything sillier in my life.

First of all, “heightening the contradictions” has been the American way since our rickety but powerful country was founded four score and seven years ago or a bit longer than that. We haven’t been trying to create a 330 million-strong army of biorobots who think and act identically. Or have we?

Second, “heightening the contradictions,” pace the considered opinion of Samantha Powers’s power husband, is not a “Marxist strategy” per se, but a time-honored political tactic. Read Machiavelli. Read Thucydides. Read Suetonius. Read Robert Caro’s stunning masterpieces about Robert Moses and LBJ. Read anything.

Third, the Kremlin is currently inhabited by people who have no truck with Marxism in any way, shape or form.

Fourth, Marxism is not a set of tricks for sowing foment, dissent, discord, and chaos. It’s something else, but what it might be is too gnarly and boring for folks who take the Sunstein approach to cheap op-ed point-scoring.

Fifth, if the Kremlin’s current inhabitants meddled in the 2016 US presidential elections and have continued to play on the alleged contradictions in US society the election exacerbated, they have done this without any reference to or inspiration from Marxism, a political economic theory about which Cass Sunstein literally has no idea whatsoever.

I won’t be bothering to link to Mr. Sunstein’s original piece on the Bloomberg website, because that would mean inadvertently promoting Bloomberg, whose editors are so thick-witted they have taken on a pro-Kremlin provocateur as a full-time op-ed writer, and nobody noticed, even though I see lots of people quoting said provocateur (Leonid Bershidsky) all the time.

This is not to mention that whipping up an anti-Marxist panic in a world where Putin crony (and rabid anti-Marxist) Vladimir Yakunin has for years been co-opting western academics and decision-makers into his so-called Dialogue of Civilizations powwows on a wholesale basis right out in the open, but there has never been a single article about these particularly effective Russian active measures all this time in any reputable western newspaper or magazine, seems misguided, to put it mildly.

Finally, Russia has not been a socialist country, a communist country or a Marxist country (whatever that would mean) for twenty-six years. If its elites are messing with the internal politics of other countries, they are not doing so as Marxists, but as gangsters who want to skew the international geopolitical game in their favor as much as possible. Like true gangsters, their only ideology is what is good for them is good for them, and everyone else be damned, including their own countrymen.

This has nothing to do with Marxism.

P.S. While we are at it, let’s stop this “the Russians” business. There are 144 million Russians. They are as pluribus and pluralist as any other society. They are not the Borg.

The Russian Reader

Immigrant Song

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You can learn more about the “real,” “nuanced” Russia by gazing into this shop window than you can by reading all the crypto-Putinist “Russian experts” in the world. Central Petersburg, September 19, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

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.

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“2017, Year of the Environment in Russia. Premiere! September 7, 8, 28, 29. ‘The Face of the Earth. A Play about the Planet.'” Fontanka River Embankment, Petersburg, September 19, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader.

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.

The real “Russian experts” are both in short supply, he argues, and roundly ignored. To make his point, he cites “America’s Russia Blind Spot,” a blog post written by Samuel Greene, author of a book entitled Moscow in Movement: Power and Opposition in Putin’s Russia.

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.

And there are whole battalions of other credentialed and self-made “Russia experts” out there like Stephen Cohen, more or less toeing the Kremlin’s line.

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.