A Williamsburg-inspired eatery in snowy central Petersburg, 5 February 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader
It’s remarkable how the MH17 final report and Ukrainian political prisoner and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike have exacerbated two sad trends among Russia’s left/liberal/creative/academic intelligentsia.
The first trend involves intelligenty out-Putining Putin and his regime’s put-on anti-Americanism by ramping up the number of social media posts and hasbarical hate-a-grams about the US, its sinister machinations, and its signal failings.
This is part of the same operetta in which the nefarious NATO is a greater threat to world peace than a country that reserves the right to invade its closest neighbor and join in crushing a democratic, grassroots rebellion in a faraway country whose people have never harmed Russia in any shape or form.
But it’s no fun talking, much less doing anything, about that at all, because it would require real collective effort. So, depending on your political tastes, it’s much easier, as a Russophone, to hate on NATO or Hamas.
Some Russians go for the trifecta, hating on both “terrorist” organizations, while also indulging in the most satisfying infantile pleasure on our planet today: Islamophobia. You know, Europe has been overrun by Islamic terrorists and that whole tired spiel, which gives such a sense of purpose to otherwise wildly ignorant people who have betrayed their own country and countrymen so many ways over the last 25 or 30 years it should make all our heads spin.
The other trend, which has also kicked into high gear again, is going hipster as hard as you can. There are any number of “projects,” “creative clusters,” eating and drinking establishments, festivals, semi-secret dance parties, and god knows what else in “the capitals” to make the younger crowd and even some of the middle-aged set forget they live in a country ruled by a ultra-reactionary kleptocratic clique that can have any of them abducted for any reason whatsoever at a moment’s notice and charged with “involvement in a terrorist community” or some such nonsense and ruin their lives forever.
The day before yesterday, I translated and posted an essay, by Maria Kuvshinova, about Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike and the non/reaction to this brave call to action on the part of Russia’s creative so-called intelligentsia. At some point, I thought the essay might be a bit off the mark, but on second thought, despite its obvious quirks, I decided Ms. Kuvshinova had sized up the Russian zeitgeist perfectly.
Post-Soviet infantilism is total. It affects the so-called intelligentsia no less than the so-called ordinary folk. Infantilism means being unable to empathize, being unable to put yourself in another person’s shoes, even if that person is President Putin, a man with a quite distinct sense of ethics, a man who has been studied backwards and forwards for twenty years. Apparently, the message sent to the creative communities through the arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov was not registered. If you want to be a dissident, start down the hard road of doing jail time for misdemeanor charges, facing insuperable difficulties in renting performance and exhibition spaces, becoming an outsider, and experiencing despair. If you want a big theater in downtown Moscow, play by the rules. Like your average late-Soviet philistine, Putin regarded the creative intelligentsia with respect at the outset of his presidential career. (See, for example, footage from his visit to Mosfilm Studios in 2003.) However, a few years later, he was convinced the creative intelligentsia was a rampantly conformist social group who would never move even a millimeter out of its comfort zone and would make one concession after another. A lack of self-respect always generates disrespect in counterparts.// TRR
I will perform my familiar role as Captain Obvious. The Alexandrov Ensemble, Doctor Liza, the ambassador to Ankara, and the two hundred and seventeen people flying back to Petersburg from Egypt over a year ago would still be alive if President Putin had not personally ordered our troops into combat in Syria.
It is impossible to calculate how many Syrian women and children were killed by Russian bombs, but nobody in Russia gives a shit about it. The Vesti TV news program said they were smearing their faces with tomato juice instead of blood, and everyone believed it, because it is easier that way. But it is odd that over the past year no one has bothered to ask Putin what higher purpose was served by the death of the twenty-five Russian children flying in the plane from Egypt that was blown up by Islamic State. It was possible to explain the Chechen terrorist attacks in Moscow by invoking the battle for Russia’s so-called territorial integrity. The hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine had something to do with Ukraine’s being our nearest neighbor and the so-called Russian world. (Although that would be cold comfort to the families of the passengers of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, blown to smithereens by a Russian rocket.) But no one in Russia has any clue why our army has put itself in the middle of the latest bloodbath in the Middle East. Ask anyone on the street. They won’t know what to say: I have checked. No one believes in the fairy tale about fighting Islamic State.
People believe more in the spiel about supporting the vampire Assad, but it doesn’t come across as persuasive either. After all, Assad is not Yanukovych, who, at least, was right next door and bought natural gas from us. More people believe we are involved in a tactical war with America. We have supposedly shown the Yanks we know a few tricks ourselves. That was the explanation given to me by a guy in Michurinsk. Yet he felt no indignation whatsoever, by the way. Hundreds of Russians have been killed in this war, a war the country is fighting the fuck knows where and the fuck knows why. You have to be utterly brainless, of course, to know everything we know about Afghanistan and get bogged down in the same deal again. But that is the saddest part: no one could give a flying fuck.
On television, they ramble on about GEOPOLITICS. It is now the magic spell, the national idea, the new Russian god that has replaced hydrocarbons, which have proved unreliable. It works like a charm, because any crap on either side of the border can be explained in terms of geopolitical interests. The majority of Russians still imagine that geopolitics is something remote and boring, something Pyotr Tolstoy would discuss on his talk shows, but in fact it has now made itself at home in nearly every Russian household in the shape of incipient poverty, inflation, unemployment, deteriorating medical care and education, rising utilities rates, and, more and more often, the violent deaths of loved ones.
The most surprising thing, however, is that Russia’s so-called geopolitical interests, to which so many victims have been sacrificed, is a myth, a fiction, the latest of Putin’s simulacra. You and I have no interests in Syria, and neither does Russia. All of Russia’s major foreign policy decisions, from the annexation of Crimea to the war in Syria, have initially been made by one man on grounds known only to him. Were rank-and-file Russians terribly worried about whether Crimea was part of Russia or Ukraine until the president took care of the problem? This is not to mention Syria, whose existence was a mystery to many Russians until we launched military operations there.
There is no separating Putin from geopolitics. Putin is geopolitics, and Russia’s so-called geopolitical interests are mainly the interests of Putin, who is guided by a rationale known only to him. God knows what is going on in his brain, but after sixteen years of individual rule, anyone’s brains would warp. This is a typical problem of authoritarian regimes: the illusory reality in the dictator’s overindulged, fevered brain becomes everyone else’s reality, and real people die.
A dictator thinks a thought, and it immediately becomes the national idea. We know that our dictator has long been uninterested in anything except self-assertion in the international arena. At home, he has everything sorted out (he even erected a monument to Prince Vladimir recently), but when it comes to authority on the world stage everything has been totally fucked. He has played the big shot every which way to Sunday, but it has only made those sordid faggots in other countries frown even harder. They have got Putin stuck on the fourth rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: the need for reverence and respect. He cannot move on to the highest stage, the stage of spiritual development, where a lonely Gandhi and the coveted Nobel Peace Prize have long been waiting for him.
Putin sees geopolitics as a gamble in which he has been trying to beat the West by desperately conning it. He sees us as bargaining chips. It is clear he will continue to solve his profoundly personal problems using the entire country as a hammer. Of course he claims to be acting in Russia’s interests, but the trouble is that after so many years of unchecked power it is hard to separate national interests from personal interests. Putin has so fused with the system, he has short-circuited so many public institutions, that you pull him out of politics now and Russia really would crumble. Putin does in fact now equate with Russia, and if you oppose Putin, you oppose Russia—in the shape in which it now exists.
So you won’t get any optimistic pre-New Year’s predictions from me. The Napoleonic tricorn, propped on the head of Little Zaches, will grow so large it will soon completely obscure his view. The quantity of insanity and victims will thus naturally increase.
Andrey Loshak is a well-known Russian journalist. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to a number of friends for the heads-up
“I wrote a post in which I said Putin was responsible for the crash of the Defense Ministry plane. There was no malice or disrespect for the memory of the dead in what I wrote, just a take on well-known facts. A hour later, a hellish orgy kicked off in the comments section in which wishes for my immediate death were expressed. Who the heck knows whether they were trolls or not. Some of them were definitely real people. I think that if I had been tied up and handed over to them at that moment, they would have skinned me alive, ripped out my heart, and stomped on it. Such orgies had occurred before, as soon I would write something critical about Putin. You cannot imagine how many insults I have had to read, written by aggressive assholes who had never met me in real life but who nevertheless called me all the names in the book and dispensed idiotic jokes about my surname and my loved ones. I used to take such things ironically, but after my son was born, I have felt like personally smacking everyone in this pack upside the head. My ‘liberasty’ lasted for a long while. For almost eight years, my Facebook page was as open and pluralistic as the Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. I thought it was vital to maintain the possibility of interacting with people who held different views. Unfortunately, however, the absolute majority of them proved capable only of insults. This audience is, probably, what is pejoratively dubbed the vata: an aggressive, mentally limited pack, willing blindly to follow the alpha male anywhere, whether to the edge of the precipice or over the edge. Today I couldn’t stand it and acted liked Putin. I changed the comments settings: now only Facebook friends can leave comments. I must admit my little sociological experiment in establishing a dialogue with society has failed.”
Here is an amazing bit of “folk art” I just captured on Facebook. What’s amazing about it is that it turns on their head all the impossible contortions that Russian state and mainstream media, and segments of Russian social media have been going through, over the past week, to befuddle the Russian public as to who might have shot down Flight MH17 (as described here, for example, by the indispensable Peter Pomerantsev), attributing them instead to US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. In the past couple months, Psaki has been elevated by the “pro-Russian” crowd (meaning the same state/”grassroots” media synergy behind the contortionist act) into a Great Satan figure, emblematic of American stupidity and ignorance.
The missile that shot down the Boeing was launched from the cruiser Aurora, which, under the cover of night, and escorted by the FSB, arrived on the shores of Belarus. It launched the missile and just as quietly rowed back, via the Great Rostov Ridge, to Petersburg.
Jen Psaki became one of the favorite targets of the Russian media. RG.ru published an article entitled “Jen Psaki found mountains in Rostov Oblast.” The article attributes direct quotes supposedly obtained by journalist Matt Lee about Ukrainian refugees to Russia, whom Psaki was said to have referred to as “tourists traveling to enjoy Rostov’ mountains.” Matt Lee promptly denied ever having such a conversation with Psaki, asserting that the claims in the article were false. In spite of Lee refuting claims in the article, the same allegations were regurgitated by Komsomolskaya Pravda and other news outlets, some of which attributed the fake quotes to Associated Press. Lenta.ru published an apology to Jen Psaki for re-printing the said false claims. None of the other outlets apologized, but instead went on to pontificate about Psaki’s prior commentary, continuing to attack her credibility.
While society at large is complicit in this hysteria, to say the least, it cannot be stressed too many times how much of this “folk wisdom” about current affairs and “popular support” for whatever way the Putinist line is bending, has been generated either by state media outright or by covert paid commentators (i.e., Internet trolls), operating out of offices like this in the Petersburg suburb of Olgino:
Local reporters have infiltrated a covert organization that hired young people as “Internet operators” near St. Petersburg and discovered that the employees are being paid to write pro-Kremlin postings and comments on the Internet, smearing opposition leader Alexei Navalny and U.S. politics and culture.
Journalists from the MR7.ru website and the Novaya Gazeta newspaper have reacted to a posting by St. Petersburg local Natalya Lvova, who wrote on the Russian VKontakte social network about an interview she attended on Aug. 30 at what she described as a “posh cottage with glass walls” in Olgino, a village in St. Petersburg’s Kurortny District.
According to Lvova, the office occupying two rooms reminded her of an “internet club with lots of computers and people.” Employees in one room wrote blog posts for social networks, while those in the other room specialized in comments.
“To my question about a technical task — what exactly should be written in the comments — a young guy, a coordinator, told me, briefly and clearly, that they were having busy days at the moment and that yesterday they all wrote in support of [Moscow acting mayor Sergei] Sobyanin, while ‘today we shit on Navalny,’” she wrote on her VKontakte page.
According to Lvova, each commenter was to write no less than 100 comments a day, while people in the other room were to write four postings a day, which then went to the other employees whose job was to post them on social networks as widely as possible.
Employees at the company, located at 131 Lakhtinsky Prospekt, were paid 1,180 rubles ($36.50) for a full 8-hour day and received a free lunch, Lvova wrote.
Russian humorist and occasional liberal opposition activist Viktor Shenderovich sums up the topsy turvy “explanations” of the MH17 crash now being fed to the Russian public via mainstream media outlets and social networks:
So. On Washington’s instructions, to discredit the Donetsk Republic, a plane filled ahead of time with corpses was specially sent through an area occupied by militants and, as witnessed by a Spanish man, was shot down by two Ukrainian fighter planes, who took it for the Russian president’s plane. Have I forgotten anything?