Ivan Davydov: The New Greatness Trial

new greatness.jpegDmitry Poletayev, Vyacheslav Kryukov, Ruslan Kostylenkov, and Pyotr Karamzin, defendants in the New Greatness trial, during a court hearing. Photo by Pyotr Kassin. Courtesy of Kommersant and Republic

Russia’s Most Important Trial: The New Greatness Case as a Model of Relations between State and Society
Ivan Davydov
Republic
July 11, 2019

The term “hybrid war” has been in vogue for a while. The folks on Russian TV, who long ago unlearned how to do anything good or, maybe, never knew how to do anything good constantly mention the “hybrid war against Russia.” The term is infectious. At any rate, I have the sense you could not coin a better phrase for describing the Russian state’s attitude toward Russian society.

The Russian state has been waging a hybrid war against Russian society, and it has also been a guerrilla war. It is as if the state has been hiding on the edge of the woods, lying in ambush, sometimes leaving the woods on forays to do something nasty, like hitting someone over the head with a billy club, fining someone, passing a law that defies common sense and threatens the populace or just blurting out something terrifying and stupid. Then it goes to ground in the woods again. The sound of steady chomping is audible and, occasionally, peals of happy laughter.

Russian society sometimes tries to fight back, of course. Actually, society exists only when it tries to fight back. When there is no fightback, there is no society, only confused, atomized individuals whom the “guerrillas,” happily chomping their food in the woods, consider food. Society rarely tries to fight back, and it scores victories even more rarely. This summer, it managed to drag reporter Ivan Golunov out of jail before the guerrillas could chew him up. I cannot recall any other victories.

Although I am mistaken. Last summer, for example, society secured house arrest for the two teenaged girls, Maria Dubovik and Anna Pavlikova, accused in the New Greatness case. They were nearly killed in remand prison, but they were finally released. There was a tidal wave of articles in the press, an angry buzz on the social networks, and a March of Mothers that the authorities decided not to disperse.

It is not clear why: the riot cops would have made short work of the mothers. The tough guys who constitute the rank and file of the OMON would have enjoyed beating up women armed with stuffed animals.

Even Margarita Simonyan emerged from the woods to shout something about the “serious people” in the Kremlin who cut short their summer holidays to make the right decisions. Then it was back to the woods, whence the steady sound of chomping and slurping could be heard.

I still cannot get used to the fact that we in Russia consider house arrest for the victims of police lawlessness a victory for our side and incredibly good luck. I mean to say I understand why people think this way, but I cannot get used to it.

And now all of them—Maria Dubovik, Anna Pavlikova, Vyacheslav Kryukov, Ruslan Kostylenkov, Sergei Gavrilov, Pyotr Karamzin, Maxim Roshchin, and Dmitry Poletayev—are on trial.

Pavel Rebrovsky and Rustam Rustamov have already been convicted. They made a deal with investigators and prosecutors before the case went to trial. They were sentenced to two and a half years in prison and two years probation, respectively.

It is not as if there is no buzz in society about the case, but it amounts to background noise at most. Our society is short of breath: it has enough air in its lungs to make one attempt at resistance. Meanwhile, amazing things have been happening at the trial.

Courtroom Miracles
In brief, the story is that young people who were not entirely happy with their lives shared their thoughts in chat rooms. (By the way, have you ever seen young people who were completely satisfied with their lives? Didn’t you feel like going out of your way to avoid them?)

A nice man emerged in their midst. He suggested they organize a group to fight for everything good and oppose everything bad. They met in real life a couple of times. Prompted by the nice man, they drafted a charter for their movement. The nice man, it transpired, was a police provocateur, and the members of the so-called New Greatness movement were detained by police, not without a certain amount of pomp and ceremony, right before the 2016 presidential election.

And how could the security services get by without pomp and fanfare? They had apprehended dangerous criminals and exposed an entire group of “extremists.” If you believe the case investigators, New Greatness were planning “mandatory participation in popular uprisings, revolutionary actions, [and] clashes with authorities of the current Russian regime.”

Can you imagine someone using the phrase “voluntary participation in popular uprisings”? Security services officers who specialize in such matters have decided to destroy the lives of these unfortunate young people. In fact, they have already destroyed them. But these same security services officers have a slippery grasp of Russian and are not terribly worried whether what they write makes any sense. The takeaway message is that the New Greatness kids have to be sent to prison whatever the cost and the words used to do it play an auxiliary role.

The goings-on at their trial leave no one in doubt that this is the point. None of the defendants has pleaded guilty. Pavel Rebrovsky testified against his friends as part of the pretrial deal he made with prosecutors. In court, he testified he had been promised probation, and so he had agreed to say what state investigators wanted him to say, not tell the court what had actually happened.

“You call me. Do you have Whatsapp? I’ll send you the testimony you need to give in court,” Investigator Anton Malyugin had said to Rebrovsky to encourage him.

I don’t know how to judge Rebrovsky’s actions. It is easy to feign you are an honorable person when you are not locked up in remand prison. Rebrovsky was locked up in remand prison. Nevertheless, the investigator pulled the simplest trick in the book on him. Rebrovsky was sentenced to actual prison time, not probation, but he had the guts to tell the truth in court.

Except the court does not want the truth. Prosecutor Alexandra Andreyeva petitioned the court to examine the witness again, and Judge Alexander Maslov granted her motion. Investigators now have the time they need to explain clearly to the defenseless Rebrovsky how wrong he was to do what he did and what happens to people who pull what he pulled so everything goes smoothly the second time around.

It is vital we know the names of all these people. They should become household names. We should not think of them as generic investigators, judges, and prosecutors, but as Case Investigator Anton Malyugin, Judge Alexander Maslov, and Prosecutor Alexandra Andreyeva, who pulled out all the stops to send these young people down on trumped-up charges.

Rustam Rustamov, whose testimony is also vital to the investigation’s case, mysteriously vanished the day he was scheduled to testify in court. He was in the court building, but he did not appear in court. Apparently, the prosecution decided not to risk putting him on the stand. There are also ways of making a person on probation realize that the desire to tell the truth can be quite costly. It is better to coach the witness properly. There is no hurry.

The Russian State’s Self-Defense
The whole story is quite pointed. The case has been cobbled together haphazardly. This was already clear last year, but now it has become completely obvious. No one plans to retreat, however. When the Russian state’s guerrillas come out of the woods, they always bag their prey. Otherwise, their prey might get funny ideas.

This is a story about decay, you see. It is not that Russia’s law enforcement agencies have nothing else to do. Unfortunately, there are real criminals aplenty. Nor have the Kremlin’s military adventures abroad been a panacea for terrorists. But it has been harder and harder for Russia’s law enforcers to find the time to deal with real criminals and real terrorists.

Recently, a friend’s elderly mother was taken to the cleaners by scammers. When he went to the police, they worked hard to persuade him there was no point even trying to investigate the crime. Everyone remembers the case of the serial poisoner in Moscow, who was released by police after he was detained by passersby. He was apprehended again only when a scandal erupted, the press got involved, and the big bosses voiced their outrage.

Who has the time to work on silly cases like that if you have been ordered to take down a reporter who has been snooping around? And why should you bother when you can “solve” a terrible crime you concocted in the first place and you also had the good sense to detain your homemade “extremists” right before an election?

All you have to do is remove one rotten log from this house for the whole thing to come tumbling down immediately. The Golunov case, which cost several police commanders their jobs, was an excellent illustration of this fact.

By the way, there are no suspects in the new Golunov case, which has been entrusted to the Russian Investigative Committee. The drugs planted themselves on the reporter. They were treacherous drugs. No wonder they say drugs are bad.

The investigators, the judge, and the prosecutor handling the New Greatness case understand this perfectly well. They will use all the means at their disposal to put away the defendants, most of whom have been locked up in remand prison for over a year. As they themselves like to say, it is a matter of honor or, simply put, a matter of self-defense. The investigators, the judge, and the prosecutor are defending themselves: if the case comes unglued, a scandal would be inevitable, and a scandal could cost them their cushy jobs. It would also do irreparable damage to the system, to the fabled woods, because the more such unhappy endings there are, the less comfortable it will be for the guerrillas to chow down in the woods.

This is a curious aspect of what I have been describing. When the current Russian authorities engage in obvious wrongdoing, they do not experience discomfort. Of course, they don’t: when they defend themselves in this way they only aggravate the injustice. The lives of villagers who are raped and pillaged by brigands hiding in a forest mean nothing to the brigands, naturally. What the big men of the woods do not like is noise. The sound of their own slurping is music to their ears. If a hullabaloo arises, they could lose the little things that make life in the woods so pleasant.

So, I would like to write that the New Greatness case is the most important criminal case in Russia at the moment. The lawlessness and injustice evinced by the Russian authorities have been obvious and flagrant. But there is also the Network case, whose takeaway message is that the FSB can torture anyone it does not like, and it is nearly legal for them to do it.

There is also the case of the Khachaturian sisters, in which the lesson is that “traditional values” are interpreted in Russia in a way that can tear society apart.

There is also the war on environmentalists who have been trying to prevent the opening of a giant landfill for garbage from Moscow near the town of Shies in Arkhangelsk Region.

And there is the case of Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopieva.

Finally, there is a mountain of smaller cases, which are no less terrifying even though they have generated less buzz or no buzz at all.

The menu of the forest brothers is too extensive, while Russian society is short of breath, as I wrote earlier. All arguments about Russia’s future boil down to a simple question: are their appetites hearty enough to eat all of us? None of them have complained about a lack of appetite so far.

And yet it would be unfair not to mention Anna Narinskaya, Tatyana Lazareva, and the other women involved in March of Mothers, who have been forcing their way into the courtroom and supplying accounts of what has been going on there. This is no easy task: the Lyublino District Court simply lacks room, but the judge has refused to have the trial moved to another court.

Then there are the musicians (Alexei Kortnev, Boris Grebenshchikov, Andrei Makarevich, Roma Zver, Pyotr Nalich, Vasya Oblomov, Maxim Leonidov, and MANIZHA) who recorded a video with Lazareva in which they performed an old song by the group Chizh & Co. about the “commissar contagion” as a way to draw attention to the case.

Finally, there is the website Mediazona, which has scrupulously chronicled the deeds of Russia’s law enforcers. It has also attempted to make the investigators, the prosecutor, and the judge in the New Greatness case household names.

It says a lot about Russia that a news website wholly devoted to covering the lawlessness of so-called law enforcers can function here and enjoy well-deserved popularity. Thank you, colleagues.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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While Anastasia Shevchenko Was Being Charged with Thought Crimes, Her Daughter Was Dying

shevchenkoAnastasia Shevchenko

In Rostov-on-Don, an Open Russia activist was charged with a crime. While this happened, her daughter died.

Anastasia Shevchenko was charged with involvement in a undesirable organization. Criminal charges were filed against here because she took part in political debates and promoted a training workshop for municipal council members.

Shevchenko was jailed on January 21, but on January 23 she was placed under house arrest. She raised her three children—7-year-old Misha, 14-year-old Vlada, and 17-year-old Alina—alone.

In court, Shevchenko’s defense lawyer asked that Shevchenko be released on her own recognizance. The lawyer showed the judge a letter verifying that Shevchenko’s oldest daughter had a congenital disease and required attentive care since complications could be deadly, care her mother could not provide if she were under house arrest. Alina was in a care facility for children with disabilities. The judge refused to allow Shevchenko visit her daughter, leaving her under house arrest.

On Wednesday, Alina was taken to hospital from the care facility and placed in the intensive care ward in critical condition. Doctors said she had obstructive bronchitis. Shevchenko heard the news when she was being charged with a crime, when she went from being a “suspect” to being a “defendant.”

She was allowed to visit her daughter only in the evening.

Yesterday, Alina died.

How can you help?

You can help Anastasia Shevchenko’s family by sending money to the Sberbank MC/Visa card of her daughter, Vlada Shevchenko (5469 5200 2558 8500) or her mother, Tamara Gryaznova (6390 0252 9033 8215 30).

Source: OVD Info weekly email newsletter, February 1, 2019. Photo courtesy of Radio SvobodaAnastasia Shevchenko has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Translated by the Russian Reader 

“Popular” (Who Will Foot the Bill for the 2018 FIFA World Cup?)

zenit arena-3The Zenit Arena in Petersburg is the most expensive football stadium in history. And one of the ugliest. Photo by the Russian Reader

Mega events like the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 World Football Cup are held in Russia not for compelling or eve merely sound economic reasons, but to satisfy the destructive, overwhelming vanity of the country’s president for life and his clique of gangster-cum-satraps.

Do you think ordinary Russians are unaware of this? If they are aware of it, maybe the current Russian regime isn’t nearly as “popular” as the press and Russia’s troika of loyalist pollsters (Levada, FOM, VTsIOM) would have us believe?

Why would a regime so remarkably bad at the basics of governance be “popular”? Because Russians are less intelligent than other people?

Or is it because the current regime has treated them from day one like inhabitants of foreign country it has recently occupied by brute fore? // TRR

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The initial plan had been that as of 2019 each region would be responsible for its own arenas. But local authorities estimate that this would create costs of 200 million to 500 million rubles (€2.6 -6.5 million/$3.2-8 million) — a tremendous financial burden for seven of the cities hosting World Cup matches.

Several do not even have teams that play in Russia’s top football division. The most successful squads in Volgograd, Kaliningrad, Nizhny Novgorod and Samara play in the country’s second tier. This season, home games in those regions drew just 1,000 to 5,000 spectators. Saransk’s team plays in the third division; Sochi does not even have a professional squad. So generating sufficient money through ticket sales will prove challenging at best.

And even the more-elite clubs Yekaterinburg and Rostov, which respectively attract some 4,500 and 9,000 fans per match, will struggle to generate enough income to cover the hefty running costs of their huge football stadiums.

How to Be a Useful Idiot

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1.  Jump on the “Putin is genuinely popular” bandwagon.

“Putin will eventually leave power, but it is not Washington’s place to facilitate this, nor is it an inherently desirable outcome. No one knows what will follow in Putin’s wake, or who could fill his role after nearly two decades and counting in the Kremlin. And no one doubts that Putin is genuinely popular, although support for him in the capital and among younger educated Russians has slipped.”

Putin is not genuinely popular. As in other pseudo-populist dictatorships and autocracies, the alleged popularity of Russia’s president for life is the product of a thoroughgoing war against all dissenters, dissidents, and free thinkers, and an ever-evolving personality cult, produced by carpet bombing the populace with TV, radio, social media, and print propaganda twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.

The mental carpet bombing is periodically punctuated by two rituals, designed to confer “popular legitimacy” on the rampantly undemocratic regime: massively rigged, unfair “elections,” and plainly hokey and methodologically unreliable “public opinion polls.”

Neither is there any empirical evidence that “young educated Russians” are more critical of Putin than cranky old ladies in Petrozavodsk and Perm. My educated guess would be that, in fact, the opposite is true.

Finally, it is sheer insanity to argue that Putin’s departure is not an “inherently desirable outcome.” Every day Putin is in power is a decisive step backwards in the country’s political and social progress.

Not even the most milquetoast progressive reforms have been possible while Putin and his clique have been in power (i.e., the last eighteen years), and there is every sign that, during his next term, things will go from very bad to incomparably worse.

By the way, why is the writer so certain “Putin will eventually leave power”? If he means Putin is a mere mortal, like the rest of us, and will die sooner or later, this is a factually correct but politically vacuous claim. If the writer means Putin is planning to leave office in the foreseeable future, he must have psychic gifts that most of us do not have. There is no evidence whatsoever Putin is planning to go anywhere in the next twenty years.

But it is easy to engage in free verse exercises like this one when you live and work in Brooklyn. You just make up the facts as you go along, because you will never have to face the consequences of your irresponsible, shambolic analysis.

2. Blame the US government for everything that has gone sour or wrong in Russia, the world’s largest country, a land blessed with natural resources and human resources beyond measure, and thus certainly capable of making its own fortunes and forging its own destiny, which nothing whatsoever prevents from being democratic and progressive except the current regime and its mostly pliable satraps and timeservers. “Genuine popular support” for Putin would vanish in a second if his regime were ever challenged by a strong, broad-based, grassroots democratic movement determined to remove him from office and steer the country towards a different path.

“Putin will eventually leave power, but it is not Washington’s place to facilitate this, nor is it an inherently desirable outcome. No one knows what will follow in Putin’s wake, or who could fill his role after nearly two decades and counting in the Kremlin. And no one doubts that Putin is genuinely popular, although support for him in the capital and among younger educated Russians has slipped.

“The United States should not ignore human-rights abuses in Russia. But principled criticism is only undermined by the perception that civil-society groups in Russia serve as fronts for US intelligence, and Russia has become increasingly hostile to such groups. The next administration should make clear that the United States is not trying to bring Putin down, and that its support for human rights is genuine. It should be wary of directly supporting opposition figures, who are easily tarred as American puppets. And it should lead by example and hold its allies accountable for their human-rights abuses and elite corruption as well.

“Ultimately, the best way the United States can help civil society in Russia is by normalizing relations enough that private civil-society groups from the United States and other countries can more effectively work in tandem with Russian counterparts. It is hard to argue that the US-Russia tensions following the failure of Obama’s reset have done Russian civil society any favors.”

What real evidence is there that civil society groups in Russia serve as “fronts for US intelligence”?

None.

Who has actually been working day and night to generate this “perception”?

The Putin regime and its media propaganda outlets.

Why has “Russia” become “increasingly hostile to such groups”?

Because the Kremlin perceives them as direct threats to its authoritarian rule. It has thus declared them “enemies,” “national traitors,” “foreign agents,” and “undesirables,” and gone to war against them. This blog has published numerous articles detailing this “cold civil war” between Moscow and Russian civil society.

What evidence is there that any US administration has “[tried] to bring Putin down”?

There is no such evidence.

What Russian opposition figures have US administrations “directly supported”?

None.

Aren’t civil society groups “private” by definition?

Yes.

Was Obama’s so-called reset the only or even the primary reason that tensions between the US and Russia increased?

No. Even before Putin went ballistic, invading Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, shooting down passenger planes (e.g., Flight MH17) and gunning down opposition leaders right outside the Kremlin (i.e., Boris Nemtsov), his minions were harassing the then-US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, the co-author of the miserable “reset,” whose purpose was to decrease tensions with Russia, not stoke them. There was no chance of this happening, however, when the Kremlin had long ago made rabid anti-Americanism the centerpiece of its public foreign policy.

Why do I call it “public” foreign policy? Because nearly everyone in the Russian ruling elite has made numerous junkets and trips to the US and other western countries over the years and has lots of personal and business connections to their boon enemies. They have extensive real estate holdings in the west. They educate their children in the west. They park their ill-gotten lucre in the west. In some cases, their families live in the west permanently, while they shuttle between the west and Moscow like some less fortunately people commute between Gary, Indiana, and Chicago.

The Russian elite’s anti-Americanism and anti-westernism, therefore, is a put-on, a hypocritical pose mostly meant for public consumption.

Has the Putin regime done Russian civil society “any favors”?

No, it has done its utmost best to destroy independent Russian civil society and coopt the remnants it has not killed off. If you want some of the particulars, read what I’ve been posting on this blog for the last six years and, before that, on Chtodelat News, for five years.

Why did the guy who wrote the passage quoted above write what he did?

It is hard to say. The article is a very clever whitewash job for the Putin regime, all of whose high crimes and misdemeanors against the Russian Constitution and the Russian people are passed off as understandable reactions to the alleged predations of the US government against the Putin regime.

Where was this article published?

In The Nation, of course. Who else would print such crypto-Putininst tripe with a straight face?

Why all the needless hyphens, e.g. “civil-society groups,” “human-rights abuse”?

Sheer snobbery, meant to intimate to the magazine’s hapless readers they are dealing with real smart cookies, not tiresome neo-Stalinist windbags.

3. Publish wholly misleading articles about Russia, like the one quoted above. If you cannot manage that (because your readership would notice), publish wholly misleading headlines. They are even more effective than longwinded articles in The Nation, a pro-Putin magazine no one in their right mind has read in the last ten years or so.

People scan headlines, however. It is much easier than reading the fine print.

“US Drastically Reduces Visa Services in Russia after St. Petersburg Consulate’s Closure”

This is exactly the headline Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would want to appear in the Moscow Times, because it places the onus for his government action’s and his own actions on the US government.

How could visa services not be drastically reduced if the Russian Foreign Ministry closed the US consulate in Petersburg and gutted the staff at the US embassy in Moscow once again?

But let us by all means imply, because this IS the message the Putinist tyranny wants its own people to hear, that the US did everything on its own as a way of punishing ordinary Russians. Sadly, a fair number of Russians will believe this.

4. Join a so-called leftist group in the west. Most of them behave as if the Comintern still existed and they were taking their orders from the Kremlin.

Most western so-called leftists these days are boring, uneducated morons. The most boring thing about them is their unshakeable reverence for the Soviet Union, a country about which they donot have the slightest clue, and for its woebegone “successor,” the Russian Federation, which has literally nothing in common with the long-dead Soviet Union.

So, they are just as defensive of Putin’s shambolic hypercapitalist despotism as they are of the country that killed off socialism once and for all by going on a murderous rampage in the 1930s.

The really hilarious thing is that most of them manage to maintain these cultish attitudes without ever having set foot in either country and without speaking a word of Russian. Star Wars fans have a more down-to-earth and coherent ideology than the post-Stalinists who pop up to crush you with their Anand Sheela-like rhetorical flourishes (i.e., truckloads of vehement slander and furious personal insults) if you so much as mention as their imaginary Motherland in a slightly untoward light.

I want to live long enough to see the influence of these dead-enders on progressive, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist politics die off altogether. That would make me really happy, if not genuinely popular, like Vladimir Putin. TRR

Photo by 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.

Chutzpah

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Here’s the score, boys and girls. This is what happens, sooner or later, to everyone who has a beef, however minor, with the Putin regime. They get a visit from a “policeman” who is indistinguishable, in his behavior, looks, and speech, from an ordinary thug.

Today, it happened to my friends Lika and Alik, who are not only some of the nicest folks I’ve ever met, but run the invaluable Jewish Community Center on Rubinstein Street on a shoestring budget.

Here’s what Lika wrote about their encounter with the Putinist police:

I just got a visit from two plainclothes “policemen.” What was their business? Literally: “Have you been writting all kinds of crap on Facebook about wogs getting beaten up?” I am conveying what they said to me. The prosecutor’s office found your message, which you wrote one and a half years ago. We need a clarification from you. I see he’s holding printouts from the Sova Center. I told them they had woken up on time, since one and half years had passed since then. After I said that, one of the “policeman” was rude to me. “Why do you write garbage? Do you have nothing to do?” I asked him not to talk to me like that and show me his ID. He refused and behaved very aggressively. My husband tried to take his picture on the phone, but he threatened to smash the phone. He really was holding papers from the prosecutor’s office. Supposedly, they had been given three days to take care of the matter. I said I could deal with it on Friday morning. The conversation ended with our promising to call the police and closing the door.

There is no doubt they were from the police, judging by their behavior.))

I am writing a complaint to the prosecutor’s office.

Here is a photo of one of the “heroes.”

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I myself just got chewed out, on a leftist mailing list, for writing a “screed” about how Chris Hedges and Noam Chomsky had sold out to Putinism by appearing on RT. What is worse, the super-righteous Hedges, an ordained minister, if I’m not mistaken, has even started presenting a program on the channel.

Why do I object so strongly to this? Because whether they know it or not, Hedges, Chomsky, and everyone who behaves like them is putting their stamp of approval on the way this country is misruled by thugs like the ones who just visited and threatened my friends Lika and Alik.

Make no mistake: this is not a one-off, random incident. This is something that has happened millions of times, and often in much rougher form, since Putin took charge of Russia eighteen years ago.

So, when you say to yourself that your “anti-imperialist” (or whatever) message is so earth-shakingly important that you’ll go on a TV channel paid for by Russian taxpayers, but run as a flagrant anti-US, anti-western, pro-Assadist, pro-Putinist propaganda outlet by thieves, crooks, and thugs who openly intimidate, assault, and sometimes murder these same taxpayers for the “criminal” act of disagreeing with the general line or drawing attention to a wrongdoing or demanding that state officials, including police and judges, actually do their jobs in keeping with the Russian Constitution, the Russian law codes, and the international and European conventions on human rights to which Russia is still a signatory, you have to have a lot of chutzpah.

In fact, you have to have decided, whether consciously or not, that ordinary taxpaying Russians who don’t toe the Putinist line are your enemies, and you don’t mind at all if they’re crushed in the dirt by absolute fucking scumbags as long as self-righteous snake oil salesmen like Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges have yet another “outlet” for their tiresome message, which we all memorized years ago and which, in fact, they’ve had no trouble at all disseminating at will to whoever will listen for years on end.

Pretending that they’re “forced” to go on RT, because they can’t get a hearing anywhere else, is the last refuge of an “anti-imperialist” scoundrel. TRR

Dust in Our Eyes

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“A third country hostile to the United States may have been involved.”

You don’t say? And what country might that have been?

Meanwhile, some of the most respected political pundits I know in this country have adopted as an article of faith that Putinist Russia is an “ordinary authoritarian regime.”

Why have they adopted this article of faith? Did the Archangel Gabriel appear to them in a dream and tell them the good news?

No. They’ve persuaded themselves this is the case so they don’t have to think about things such as why their country’s operatives tried to cause permanent hearing damage to US diplomats at the US embassy in Havana; why their country has invaded and occupied parts of Ukraine; why an unidentified agent of their country’s security forces went to the grassroots memorial to Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow the other day and broke the nose of the activist standing vigil there, thus eventually killing him; why their country’s armed forces have aided the bloody dictator Bashar Assad in crushing the massive popular rebellion against his tyrannical regime, a war that has killed, according to some estimates, at least half a million people, not to mention the millions of people it has forced to leave the country; why the country’s most famous theater director, Kirill Serebrennikov, has been arrested on manifestly absurd trumped-up charges; why their country has tried, valiantly it has to be said, to mess with elections in several other countries, including the US; and so on.

My catalogue of ships could have been a hundred times longer. It could have spanned as many of the past eighteen years as I would have liked or been limited to the last week or two. But what’s the point? Do all or any of these behaviors strike you as typical of an “ordinary authoritarian regime”?

They strike me, at very least, as the actions of an extraordinarily aggressive regime, hellbent on pushing its way back to the top (of what?) on the cheap, risking all-out war in the process, and long engaged in a “cold civil war” with its own people.

And so, some of Russia’s hepcat political pundits have adopted this new article of faith so that, no matter what new hellish stupidity the Putin regime commits at home or abroad today or tomorrow (it does something of the sort almost literally every day; sometimes, ten times a day) they can remark dryly to their concerned foreign colleagues, “Don’t look so worried. It’s just an ordinary authoritarian regime.” TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader