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.

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Feckless Lowlifes and Incompetent Bounders

american sect

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.

_______________________________________________

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

Books Are Not Bombs

Sergey Golubok’s letter to the customs post at Pulkovo Airport in Petersburg, dated 14 November 2018. Courtesy of his Facebook page

If you order a Masha Gessen book and have it sent to Russia via DHL, you might be asked to write the letter civil rights lawyer Sergey Golubok was asked to write today, confirming that the Masha Gessen book in question contained no calls for “extremist” and “terrorist” actions, did not vindicate terrorism, and would cause no damage to the economic and political interests of the Eurasian Economic Union’s member states and their national security, or the health and morals of its citizens.

The letter was addressed to the Russian customs post at Pulkovo Airport in Petersburg.

I hope the book Mr. Golubok ordered was the one about Ms. Gessen’s remarkable grandmothers, my personal favorite. {TRR}

What Is Their Point?

6f987ab74c72f0c50b19b05ea775bc4033c57706A Tribe Called Quest. Photo courtesy of Spotify

First, a musical prelude, by the world’s best hip hop group of all time, A Tribe Called Quest.

Check The Rhime
Back in the days on the boulevard of Linden,
We used to kick routines and presence was fittin’
It was I the Abstract
And me the five footer
I kicks the mad style so step off the frankfurter
Yo, Phife, you remember that routine
That we used to make spiffy like Mister Clean?
Um um, a tidbit, um, a smidgen
I don’t get the message so you gots to run the pigeon
You on point, Phife?
All the time, Tip
You on point, Phife?
All the time, Tip
You on point Phife?
All the time, Tip
Well, then grab the microphone and let your words rip
Now here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am
Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram
I’m like an Energizer ’cause, you see, I last long
My crew is never ever wack because we stand strong
Now if you say my style is wack that’s where you’re dead wrong
I slayed that body in El Segundo then push it along
You’d be a fool to reply that Phife is not the man
Cause you know and I know that you know who I am
A special shot of peace goes out to all my pals, you see
And a middle finger goes for all you punk MC’s
Cause I love it when you wack MC’s despise me
They get vexed, I roll next, can’t none contest me
I’m just a fly MC who’s five foot three and very brave
On job remaining, no I’m chaining cause I misbehave
I come correct in full effect have all my hoes in check
And before I get the butt the jim must be erect
You see, my aura’s positive I don’t promote no junk
See, I’m far from a bully and I ain’t a punk
Extremity in rhythm, yeah that’s what you heard
So just clean out your ears and just check the word
Check the rhyme y’all
Check it out
Check it out
Check the rhyme y’all
Play tapes y’all
Check the rhyme y’all
Check the rhyme y’all
Check it out
Check it out
Back in days on the boulevard of Linden
We used to kick routines and the presence was fittin’
It was I the Phifer
And me, the abstract
The rhymes were so rumpin’ that the brothers rode the ‘zack
Yo, Tip, you recall when we used to rock
Those fly routines on your cousin’s block
Um, let me see, damn I can’t remember
I receive the message and you will play the sender
You on point, Tip?
All the time, Phife
You on point, Tip?
Yeah, all the time, Phife
You on point, Tip?
Yo, all the time, Phife
So play the resurrector and give the dead some life
Okay, if knowledge is the key then just show me the lock
Got the scrawny legs but I move just like Lou Brock
With speed I’m agile plus I’m worth your while
One hundred percent intelligent black child
My optic presentation sizzles the retina
How far must I go to gain respect? Um
Well, it’s kind of simple, just remain your own
Or you’ll be crazy sad and alone
Industry rule number four thousand and eighty
Record company people are shady
So kids watch your back ’cause I think they smoke crack
I don’t doubt it, look at how they act
Off to better things like a hip-hop forum
Pass me the rock and I’ll storm with the crew and
proper. What you say Hammer? Proper.
Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop
NC, y’all check the rhyme y’all
SC, y’all check it out y’all
Virginia, check the rhyme y’all
Check it out, out
In London, check the rhyme, y’all
______________________________________________

The Tribe were always on point, although Phife, sadly, died in March 2016.

I am happy to say I saw the group perform at a club in Seattle in 1991 or 1992, and it was the most positive, funkiest show I have ever seen anywhere.

______________________________________________

Meanwhile, the unhappy, far-flung, unfunky human shards of the collapsing new building once known as the Soviet Union are almost never on point, because the ones among them who clearly think they are the smartest, cleverest, and most cosmopolitan have been in semi-permanent national self-defense mode after it transpired the Kremlin tried its flat-out best to intervene in the 2016 US presidential election.

Two cases in point are ace reporters Julia Ioffe and Masha Gessen,* who seem to go back and forth all over the place on the “Russia question,” depending on the venue and the day. Here, they are, today, in full “Russophile” mode.

on point

Here is the interview itself, broadcast earlier today on NPR.

“The bottom line is that Americans elected Trump,” claims Gessen in the interview.*

No, the bottom line is that reporters like Masha Gessen and Julia Ioffe, for whatever reason, want to control the public discourse on Russia in the US, so they have to reach over and over again for the bag of tricks, perfected in their worst incarnations by pseudo-intellectual mags like the New Republic and Atlantic Monthly in the nineties, that counter-intuitive reporting gets you, the reporter, the most attention, even if your counter-intuitive argument is utterly worthless when examined on the merits.

I could see no point whatsoever to NPR’s interview with Ms. Gessen and Mr. Chen, just as I can see no point flapping one’s lips about Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election until Robert Mueller’s investigation has been completed.

It is not at all a straighforward question of dual loyalties or having been “flipped,” of course, but the genuine discomfort many Russians and Russian émigrés feel about the dire direction Russia has taken under Vladimir Putin. At the same time, parts of the Russian national and Russian émigré chattering class feel so utterly flummoxed by the way events have been unfolding in the last four or five years that they have gone, almost reflexively, into heavy spin mode while also trying to install themselves, in the west, as the go-to people when it comes to all matters Russian.

It would probably surprise NPR’s listeners to learn that Ms. Gessen, for example, did not exactly “flee” Russia, but chose to leave because she felt her non-traditional family would be safer in the US, where she emigrated with her own birth family when she was fourteen. She had every right and reason to do this, and if I were in her position I might have done the same thing.

It is nonsense, however, to say she “fled” because she was “persecuted” personally. The nonsensicality of this claim would be apparent only to people like me and my Russian reporter friend Sergey, who watched as Ms. Gessen “fled” Russia over the course of two or three years, generating an endless series of interviews and op-ed pieces about her “escape” as she was slowly packing her bags or whatever she was doing during her seemingly endless, slow-motion “flight to freedom.”

When you witness a journalist working so hard to make themselves the story, you start wondering what matters most to them—the truth out there in the world that needs to be investigated and reported or keeping the limelight fixed firmly on themselves.

I also happen to know that Ms. Gessen makes frequent trips to Russia on business. What sort of persecution-and-flight story is this, when you can fly back and forth between your “safe haven” and the “country you fled” at will, whenever you like, with no untoward consequences to your health and safety?

In fact, under Putin’s reign, there have been plenty of Russians who really have been persecuted in the most unambiguous sense of the word and have had to flee the country or face certain imprisonment, for example, Dmitry Buchenkov, the final defendant in the horrendous (and horrendously underreported) Bolotnaya Square case and its accompanying show trials.

Because both Ms. Ioffe and Ms. Gessen are terrific reporters and writers when they want to be, I wish they would spend more time telling us about the real Russia of unsung heroes like Dmitry Buchenkov, Yuri Dmitriev, Valery Brinikh, and the Penza and Petersburg antifascists tortured by the FSB on the fabricated pretense they belonged to a “terrorist” organization, and much less time making what really amounts to a half-assed quasi-defense of a very bad game (the Kremlin’s meddling in the internal affairs of countries the world over), seemingly only just to keep their charming mugs in front of the TV cameras and radio station microphones as much as possible.

Especially in the last instance, Ms. Gessen and Ms. Ioffe could use the mighty media soapboxes they have at their disposal to help eight innocent young men put through hell on earth so the FSB can tighten its grip on Russian grassroots society. But they don’t, probably because they have never even heard of the case, despite being the foremost go-to reporters on Russia in the US. TRR

* I have posted in the recent past about instances when Ms. Ioffe’s and Ms. Gessen’s alleged total omniscience regarding the Motherland has been seriously lacking. See “Does Vladimir Putin Have a Niece?” (11 November 2017), and “Ace Reporter Julia Ioffe Joins the Russian World” (5 October 2017).

** After I posted this last night, I thought about what Ms. Gessen’s reaction would be if, during a similar non-obligatory discussion on NPR (whose presenters, almost without exception, have no clue how to interview anyone, because their idea of interviewing involves lobbing slow softballs for their guests to slam out of the park) someone had said, “The bottom line is that Russians voted for Putin.”

It is easy to imagine how she would react, because she writes at length in her latest book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, about the 2011–2012 fair elections movement in Russia, sparked by a widespread (and accurate) perception amongst Russians that the December 2011 parliamentary and regional elections and the March 2012 presidential election had been anything but free and fair, to wit:

Even though the protesters belonged to different age groups, Putin had now been in power long enough that a majority of them had spent all or most of their adult lives in the era of supposed “stability.” Some of them had expected the Putin era to be like the Soviet past they remembered or imagined, the object of national nostalgia. According to these memories, that time was slow, predictable, and essentially unchanging. But in Putin’s era of “stability,” things refused to stay the same. The markets crashed because Putin said or did something. Innocent, randomly chosen people went to prison just because the government had declared a witch hunt against pedophiles. The spectacle of the Putin-Medvedev handoff and the experience of the farcical election served as reminders of how powerless Russian citizens were to affect any aspect of life. The protests were an attempt to renegotiate, to reclaim a little bit of space from the ever-expanding party-state— and it so happened that the party was the one of crooks and thieves. (Gessen, Masha. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, p. 349)

Yet, in the US, the “bottom line” is that “Americans” “elected Trump.” In point of fact, Mr. Trump was elected by the Electoral College. The popular vote was won handily by Hillary Clinton, who garned 48.2% of all votes counted, as opposed to 46.1% for Mr. Trump.

In the world’s third-largest country by population, that translates into 2,868,691 voters whose clearly voiced preference for Mrs. Clinton was utterly negated, as it were. Since Mr. Trump’s Electoral College victory came down to razor-tight wins in a few key districts in a few key states, any extraneous or criminal factor that could have pushed voters in his direction has to be thoroughly investigated. This would have to be the case even had Mr. Trump won the popular vote. Given that the election campaign, the election, and its aftermath have been unprecedented in US history in such a myriad of ways, it stands to reason that Americans would be more than a little curious about what happened and why.

In Russia, where, as some “Russia experts” would say (although I would not say it myself), Mr. Putin is so popular he could win an election without cheating, Ms. Gessen thinks people have every right to protest the machinations of “crooks and thieves.” In her adopted country, the US, however, she thinks people should calm down, shut up, and accept the “bottom line” that they did this to themselves.

I doubt very much that Ms. Gessen, judging by her numerous books and articles on the subjects, would argue that Russians did Putin to themselves, although to someone like me who has been on the ground in Russia during most of his eighteen-year-reign, that does indeed seem partly to be the case.

Does Vladimir Putin Have a Niece?

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Vera Putina, Vladimir Putin’s niece

On October 31, 2017, New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen published a short piece about the plea deal between former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopolous and special counsel Robert Mueller, entitled “The Papadopoulos Plea Deal and the Great Blowhard Convergence of the 2016 Election.”

The articles contains the following passage.

“Take the Female Russian National. Papadopoulos, according to the plea agreement, believed her to be Vladimir Putin’s niece. To have a niece, however, the Russian President would have had to have a sibling. All of the available biographies of Putin, both official and unauthorized, agree: the Russian President had two older brothers who died as children, before Vladimir was born. He was an only child. He doesn’t have a niece.”

While it is definitely true Putin doesn’t have a niece in the English sense of the word, it seems he does have a niece in the Russian sense of the word.

Many Russians refer to what English speakers call cousins as their “brothers” and “sisters,” without specifying that these blood relatives are in fact двоюродные братья and сестры, something on the order of “brothers and sisters once removed.”

It took me exactly five seconds of digging on the internet to find out Putin has a двоюродная племянница, meaning the niece of a cousin or a “niece once removed,” so to speak.

In this case, the cousin’s name is Igor Putin, and Igor Putin has a niece named Vera Putina. That makes Vera Putina Vladimir Putin’s двоюродная племянница.

It is entirely conceivable that Vladimir Putin and other Putin family members simply refer to Vera as Vladimir Putin’s племянница or niece.

As Gessen points out toward the end of her article, Papadopolous later learned the Russian woman in question was not Putin’s relative after all.

However, Putin seemingly does have a niece in the broader Russian sense of the term, despite what Gessen has said on the subject.

I can even vouch for Vera Putina’s existence, because I have a close friend who has met her in person on a few occasions.

You can read what Vera Putina does in this article about her and other members of Vladimir Putin’s extended family, published in 2015 by the independent Russian-language news website Meduza. TRR

Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Asmolov/Delovoi Peterburg