De-Escalation

idlibSmoke rises after an airstrike hits a city center in Syria’s northwestern Idlib Province on March 13, 2019. Photo by Ahmet Rehhal. Courtesy of Anadolu Agency and the Middle East Monitor

Commander of Russian Airborne Forces Lands in Syria: Andrei Serdyukov Takes Charge of Russian Forces in Republic 
Ivan Safronov
Kommersant
April 12, 2019

Kommersant has learned that Lieutenant General Andrei Serdyukov, commander of Russian Airborne Forces, has taken charge of Russian troops in Syria. He replaces Lieutenant General Sergei Surovikin, commander-in-chief of Russian Aerospace Forces, who commanded the Russian military in the republic the last several months.

As we have learned, Serdyukov’s priority will be coordinating joint patrols by Russian military police and Turkish servicemen in the Idlib de-escalation zone, in which over 35,000 insurgents are amassed and over thirty facilities containing chemicals [sic] are located.

Several high-ranking military and diplomatic sources told Kommersant about Serdyukov’s appointment. They said he had taken up his new duties on April 10, replacing Suvorikin who, according to our sources, would again focus on his immediate responsibilities (commanding Russian Aerospace Forces) after returning from his latest Syrian deployment.

Yesterday, the Russian Defense Ministry refrained from official comments on the shuffle.

Our sources explained Suvorikin had spent over a year in total commanding Russian forces in Syria, longer than any of the other high-ranking officers who have occupied the post. While the Syrian campaign was underway, he was promoted from the post of commander of the Eastern Military District to the post of commander-in-chief of Russian Aerospace Forces (see our November 1, 2017, issue), but even after his promotion, he was rotated in and out of Syria to command not only the Russian air force but also regular combat troops and special ops units.

In keeping with the practice of rotating senior command personnel, Serdyukov could have been sent to Syria as early as September 2017. (Our sources said his combat experience in Chechnya and the operation to annex Crimea were significant advantages.) However, shortly before this was to take place, Serdyukov’s official vehicle, while returning from exercises in Murmansk Region, brushed against a car in the oncoming lane at full speed. Serdykov’s car flipped over several times and slid into a ditch. In hospital, he was diagnosed with head and back injuries, including a closed vertebrae fracture.

The general underwent a long convalescence during which there was no question of deploying him to a combat zone. Ultimately, Lieutenant General Alexander Zhuravlov, current commander of the Western Military District, was dispatched to Syria instead.

Serdyukov has now been deployed to Syria to perform a specific mission, said one of our sources. He will focus on accelerating the Russian-Turkish agreement to organize joint patrols in the demilitarized and deescalation zones in Idlib Province. Ankara and Moscow reached the agreement in 2018. They had originally planned to launch joint patrols of Russian military policemen and Turkish servicemen on October 15. However, as one of our sources noted, the Turkish side took responsibility for withdrawing insurgents and heavy weapons from the Idlib de-escalation zone into the demilitarized zone. The plans were thwarted, however. Due to an intensification of attacks by insurgents (especially those controlled by the Al-Nusra Front, an organization banned in the Russian Federation [sic]), the joint patrols did not begin on schedule, while insurgents remained in the demilitarized zone along with their heavy weapons.

The highest level of military diplomacy was put into motion to remedy the situation. Thus, in February 2019, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar signed a supplementary memorandum outlining the actions to be taken by Russian and Turkish troops during their joint patrols. According to our sources, on March 8, Turkish troops began patrolling the demilitarized zone as situated between the Turkish observation posts at Barkum, Tel Tukan, and Surman. As of March 17, their patrols were extended to areas west of Aleppo and north of Hama and the mountains of Latakia. As of yesterday, according to our sources, a coordinated patrol by joint convoys of Russian and Turkish servicemen should have begun patrolling the contact line between the warring parties in the area between the Turkish posts at Barkum and Surman.

If these maneuvers are deemed successful, the two countries will commence joint patrols in the northeastern part of the de-escalation zone after April 20.

“We are counting on being able to launch coordinated patrols in the form of joint convoys inside the demilitarized zone in May,” our source in the Russian army added.

He said the de-escalation zone was divided into parts: into a withdrawal zone 3,300 kilometers square in area, containing 511 towns and villages, and over two million people, and a demilitarized zone as such. According to our source, the demilitarized zone had an area of 3,100 square kilometers and a total of 341 towns and villages, with an approximate population of 1,690,000 people.

Our source said the situation was exacerbated by several factors simultaneously. Aside from civilians in Idlib Province, there were over 35,000 armed insurgents. There were around 8,900 militants on the western front, and almost 15,000 on the southern front. They regularly carried out raids. The last raid took place in the wee hours of April 10, when the militants shelled the towns of Tall Al-Maktal (Idlib Province), Safsafa (Latakia Province), and Hamdaniya (Hama Province).

However, according to the Russian military, the Idlib de-escalation zone contains over thirty sites where chemicals are stored [sic]. Serdyukov would also have to try and solve this problem in cooperation with the Turkish military command, our source added. He specified that an invasion of Idlib by Russian ground forces was out of the question.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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The Takeaway

Why would I translate and publish this dry-as-dust article from Kommersant about the new commander of Russian forces in Syria and how he will be handling joint patrols with the Turks in the Idlib demilitarized zone?

1. Whenever the Russian press has anything to say about Russia’s decisive, murderous adventure in Syria, it says it in this utterly depersonalized way, as if the real subject were an upcoming corporate merger.

2. Nevertheless, the only people who ever emerge as full-blown human beings in these scanty reports are members of the Russian high military command. Notice how General Serdyukov, the new Russian commander in Syria, has been given the loving touch by Kommersant.

3. Although I would argue that Russia’s successive invasions of Ukraine and Syria have had extraordinarily bad consequences for Russians back at home, especially the working class and the political opposition, you will search high and wide for meaningful discussions of Russia’s role in Syria in Russia’s opposition press and burgeoning social media.

4. The charitable way of putting this is that Syria is a taboo subject for Russians. I’ve already written about the uncharitable way of putting this so many times I’ve lost count, but it has no visible effect on anyone.

Most Russians are convinced Syria doesn’t matter to them. In fact, Putin’s Syrian campaign has probably destroyed the last chances they had at living in a more or less prosperous, democratic country in our lifetime.

5. It’s a timely reminder that the holy blessed “anti-imperialist” martyr Julian Assange has been supporting this regime of fascist Starship Troopers for years. This is not even a secret. If you demand Assange’s release while claiming solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, I think you should have your head examined.

6. But I wouldn’t insist on it, unlike the Putin regime’s satraps, who have increasingly resorted in recent years to compulsory psychiatric hospitalization of their opponents, evoking some of the darkest pages of Soviet history. {TRR}

P.S. My comrade Dick Gregory, who has published the blog News of the Revolution in Syria since 2012, posting a total of 4,036 entries during that time, had these important corrections to make to my remarks and, especially, Kommersant‘s exercise in pro-Putin and pro-Assad propaganda.

Obviously, there are a number of untruths [in the article], from the joint patrols, which they announced a couple of weeks ago and turned out to be entirely separate patrols, through the non-existent Al Nusra Front to the nonexistent chemical weapons in Idlib.

A piece in the Syrian Observer got me thinking. I actually tweeted the portion where the Syrian opposition spokesman was saying it was important for rebel groups not to fight each other; but I began to think Russia is not trying to start an offensive in Idlib, but wants to leave enough confusion about its activities, and to massively retaliate against civilians when there is any action by the rebels, in order to protect Assad against the possibility of the rebels launching an offensive, so Assad can be kept in power despite Russia having no real plan to restabilize the regime.

Al Nusra doesn’t exist, as it was shut down in 2016 by its former leadership as part of the break with Al Qaeda, and an attempt to broaden the appeal of that brand of Islamic jihadism. So, partly the Russians are just being as lazy as many westerners by continuing to use the old name. But the Russian bombing campaign in support of Assad, always presented as combating the threat from terrorists, was initially very largely directed at specifically FSA groups (to which the US may well have given them the coordinates,, supposedly so then they wouldn’t bomb them). That’s why the surviving rebel groups in Idlib are largely Islamist, because the Russians bombed out of existence the specifically secular ones.

Andrei Kolesnikov: Hooked on Militarism?

new hope“New Hope. All drug addicts quit using. Some manage to do it while alive.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Where Militaristic Infantilism Leads
Society’s Losing Its Fear of War Is More Dangerous Than What Happens in the Absence of an Anti-War Movement
Andrei Kolesnikov
Vedomosti
November 28, 2018

The “polite people” in the Russian military have taken to ramming ships, shedding their politesse. A military coming out has happened. Either so-called hybrid war has become more hybridized in terms of the variety of its methods or it has become more like good old-fashioned war, involving actual armed clashes. Politically, Russia has become not merely toxic but hypertoxic. A premonition of war prevails among more timid folks, although the footage of the ramming at sea, as painless and triumphal as a military parade on Red Square or a football match (“Crush him!”), still make military operations appear unscary and toylike. We will carry the day in any case, sans victims and blood (ours, that is), as in a cartoon by Putin.

This militaristic infantilism—the loss of the fear of war, the loss of the idea that war is terrible—is the worst outcome of our country’s daily intoxication with the thought of its own greatness for several years running. The army is greatly respected nowadays. People need to trust someone, and the armed forces have bypassed another institution, the presidency, in trustworthiness ratings.

Does this mean Russians are ready for a real war? To put it more plainly, are Russian parents willing to let their eighteen-year-old boys be called up to fight Ukrainian boys just like them? Does anyone understand what they would be fighting for? Is it really all about cementing the nation, “Crimea is ours!” and the personal ambitions of several high-ranking figures in the Russian establishment?

Since 2012, Russia’s collective identity has been built on negative foundations, on awakened resentment, which had been dozing, but had no thought of waking up. The plan has worked quite well. This resentment, however, is verbal and fictitous. Public opinion supported “coal miners” and “tractor drivers” verbally. In Syria, the official army and private military companies fought, or so Russians imagined, at their own risk. The proxy war with the US has gone very far at times, but in the summer of 2018 it did not stop the majority of Russians from abruptly improving their attitude [sic] to the States and the west in general.

But suddenly there is the threat of a real war. On the other side of the border, in the country [i.e., Ukraine] that the Russian imperialist mind never really considered sovereign, a mobilization is underway and martial law has been declared. Is this reality capable of changing popular opinion and rousing Russian civil society, which has a lot going for it except an anti-war movement? No, because so far the war has not been regarded as real.

Identification with the military is the last bullet in the Russian regime’s gun, but it is a blank or, rather, a prop. Exploiting what Russians regard as sacred—i.e., privatization of the memory of the Great Patriotic War [WWII] by a particular group—is a tool that is still in play, but militarism as such has lost its power to mobilize and consolidate Russians. If “German POWs” are marched around Novgorod on January 20, 2019, in an absurd attempt to reenact the NKVD’s Operation Grand Waltz, and on January 29, a military parade is held in St. Petersburg to mark the latest anniversary of the lifting of the Siege of Leningrad, it will not raise Putin’s approval rating from 66% to 80%. Those days are gone. So, the props have been dropped in favor of direct action in the Kerch Strait, but its power to mobilize people is not at all obvious.

You can cynically throw the ashes of those who perished in the Siege of Leningrad to stoke the furnace of fading ratings as much as you want. You can march people dressed up as German POWs round Novgorod as much as you like. When, however, pollsters ask Russians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four what countries they regard as role models, they list Germany, China, and the US. This is not because young Russians are unpatriotic, but because not everything comes to down to the top brass feeding on the poisonous corpse of the Stalinist past. The present day, progress, and visions for the future matter, too.

Can we do it again? We cannot. Nor is there any reason to do it. Infantilized by the regime, Russian society’s maturation will be measured by the numbers of people who are convinced that we cannot and should not do it again.

Andrei Kolesnikov is program director at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Translated by the Russian Reader

Lilia Shevtsova: Gutting Russia

1535459018_stena-1The Wall, one of the Russian National Guard’s new toys for crushing popular unrest. Photo courtesy of Voennoe obozrenie

Lilia Shevtsova
Facebook
September 27, 2018

Gutting the State
“They are crazy!” we wail as we gaze at the regime’s latest stunts.

“What stupidity!” the commentators exclaim in horror as they compile the Kremlin’s list of shame: raising the retirement age; a high-ranking silovik threatening to kill Navalny in a duel; the fiasco of the so-called Salisbury tourists; vote rigging in the Maritime Territory; the Russian fighter plane shot down by the Syrians with our own rocket; the hole in our spaceship, patched up with epoxy; threats to ban use of the US dollar in Russia; more lies about Malaysian Airlines Flight 17; and Navalny’s latest arrest.

The regime’s attempts to rectify its blunders only exacerbate the circumstances, turning them into farces. Did annulling the election in Vladivostok restore people’s faith in elections? Were the elections in Vladimir Region and Khabarovsk Territory not turned into farces when the winners did their level best not to win? And what about the televised interview with the Salisbury tourists? What should we make of attempts to blame Israel for downing the Russian warplane, and the Americans for punching a hole in the Soyuz capsule? The latest act of shooting ourselves in the foot was supplying the Syrians with a S-300 surface-to-air missile system, which is a threat to Israel and, of course, the US. (The Israelis will most certainly respond.)

If we regard all these topsy-turvy achievements as the outcomes of stupidity, the hope emerges that we can fix the stupidity by purging the ranks of officialdom, which is exactly what the Kremlin, in fact, sunk its teeth into today. Actually, what we regard as failure and stupidity have long become the new normal. What we see are the outcomes of a monopoly on political power, which has turned its own replication into an end in itself, and of a negative selection of members of the political elite based on the loyalty principle. In short, a duelist in charge of the Russian National Guard, and poisoners disguised as tourists are the new Russian normal. They are logical and inevitable consequences.

The wailing about a crisis at the top is, therefore, groundless. Russia skipped over the crisis stage. A crisis is a natural turn of events that compels society to look for new solutions and new people to implement them. When this does not happen, society and its superstructures rot. This stinky viscous goo is our current location. Decay prevents collapse: what is rotting cannot collapse. But decay also prevents our country from finding the strength to change.

The ruling class can seemingly take it easy, for the system somehow hobbles along. There are no large-scale protests, and the protests that do occur can either be ignored or quashed, especially since the National Guard has special new crowd-control armored vehicles at its disposal like the Shield, the Storm, the Wall, and so on.

In reality, things have taken a serious turn for Russia. By seeking to ensure its endlessness, the regime has been destroying the Russian state. That is a whole other ballgame. We have reached the point at which the ruling class has been rocking the pillars of statehood, destroying its own guarantee of survival in the bargain.

By outsourcing violence to volunteer oprichniki, the regime has deprived the state of one of its vital attributes: a monopoly on violence. By making Russia a global scarecrow, the regime has undermined the country’s international status and the external habitat in which it dwells. By rejecting strategic planning in favor of tactical maneuvers, the regime has stripped the country of the capacity for progress. By making the Russian state a tool of clan domination, the regime has destabilized the country, since society has been forced to defend its own interests by protesting on the streets.

Finally, by destroying institutions and making the rules of the game relative (there is more than one way to “get things done: in Russia), the regime has plunged the country into a state of lawlessness. When lawlessness ensues, no one is safe from it.

Do the guys in the Kremlin not realize how things will end? Apparently, they do understand, but they are incapable of stopping.

The autocracy survived in 1991 by scrapping the Soviet state. The autocracy has now been trying to survive by turning the post-Soviet Russian state into a lip-synched song about superpowerdom.

Lilia Shevtsova is a well-known Russian political scientist. Translated by the Russian Reader

Militarism Is Fascism

Vadim F. Lurie
Facebook
March 19, 2018

An endless stream of Muscovites and out-of-town visitors headed to the concert marking the anniversary of Crimea’s “annexation.” And only the lonely voice of a man, heard by a few and jotted on a piece of paper on Tverskaya, quietly resisted the general hysteria.

Photograph by Vadim F. Lurie. Thanks for his kind permission to reproduce it here and translate his annotation. Translated by the Russian Reader

On the Warpath

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Andrey Kalikh
Facebook
September 19, 2017

They are f***ed in the head. They are flying in droves over our house. They are launching rockets at random. They are Soviet rockets and they might fall on somebody. The wife urgently wants us to insure the house and wonders whether insurance would cover a chopper crashing in the garden.

Rusty jet engines are now roaring at the long-mothballed airfield in Siversky.

The roar of explosions is audible forty kilometers from the Luga Firing Range.

The apotheosis happened on the afternoon of the fifteenth, when Pavel Antonov and I were having a round table on Skype with European prosecutors. (A little cheeky, of course.) Suddenly, the house shook with a roar, black shadows flashed on the ground, and a multi-gunned monster flew out of the Mshinsk Marshes. Our sons counted twenty-four fully-equipped battle helicopters.

You in the west are quite right to be tense. But hang on. This country will destroy itself. That is how it has always been.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of the author

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One Solution: Demolition

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Sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov putting the final touches on his monument to weapons designer Mikhail Kalashnikov. Photo courtesy of Valery Sharifulin/TASS

Sergey Abashin
Facebook
September 19, 2017

Everything about the new monument in Moscow is disgusting. Once again, it is huge, and it shows us a non-military man holding a rifle. As an obvious symbol of militarism, it looks savage in the downtown of a major city. And then there is the very man the monument commemorates, who besides giving his surname to a lucrative arms brands apparently did nothing else for his country, let alone for a city in which he never lived.

Debates are underway about what to do with monuments when the context in which we view them has changed. Should we demolish them? We are not obliged to destroy them: we could move them to places where their symbolic baggage vanishes. Or would it be better to recode monuments where they stand by building something around them and thus imparting a new meaning to them? In my opinion, we have no choice in this case. There is no way to remedy this abomination. It can only be demolished.

Sergey Abashin is British Petroleum Professor of Migration Studies at the European University in St. Petersburg. His most recent book is Sovetskii kishlak: Mezhdu kolonializmom i modernizatsiei [The Soviet Central Asian village: between colonialism and modernization], Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2015. Translated by the Russian Reader

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Moscow To Unveil Statue Of AK-47 Inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov
Tom Balmforth
RFE/RL
September 18, 2017

75AC53AB-0E8F-47DE-BC13-452E78BD5FBF_w1023_r1_sThe 7.5-meter tall statue to Mikhail Kalashnikov, which stands on a northern intersection of the Garden Ring around central Moscow.

MOSCOW — After several false starts and some grumbling from locals, a prominent statue of a gun-toting Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of one of the world’s most ubiquitous weapons of war, is set to be unveiled in an official ceremony in the Russian capital on September 19.

The 7.5-meter metal likeness — still covered in plastic — features Kalashnikov cradling his eponymous AK-47 assault rifle and looking west down the Garden Ring that loops around central Moscow.

The statue was hoisted onto its plinth over the weekend beside a new business center.

A second metalwork sculpture, of St. George slaying a dragon with a spear tipped with a rifle sight with AK-47 written on it, stands nearby.

The Kalashnikov statues’ sculptor, Salavat Shcherbakov, is also the artist behind a towering 17-meter statue of Prince Vladimir the Great that was erected — amid controversy — outside the Kremlin in November at a ceremony attended by President Vladimir Putin.

A4E87823-7F31-405E-A58C-7FE440CBDC33_w650_r0_sRussian sculptor Salavat Shcherbakov presents a model for a monument to Mikhail Kalashnikov, Russian designer of the AK-47 assault rifle, at his workshop in Moscow on November 10, 2016.

Shcherbakov told TASS news agency that the rifle was added to his original plan for the Kalashnikov statue because people might not recognize him without his signature contribution to the Soviet Army.

“So we dared to include the rifle after all,” Shcherbakov said.

Other prominent statues in the vicinity include statues to poets Alexander Pushkin and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky presented plans to Putin for the Kalashnikov statue in September 2016 during a tour of the Kalashnikov arms manufacturer, headquartered in Izhevsk, the capital of the republic of Udmurtia.

The project was backed by the Russian Military-Historic Society, which is chaired by Medinsky and Rostec, the state weapons and technology conglomerate run by powerful Putin ally Sergei Chemezov.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, Medinsky, Chemezov, and Kalashnikov’s daughter, Yelena Kalashnikova, were expected to attend the unveiling ceremony on September 19.

The statue was originally meant to be unveiled on January 21, marking the day in 1948 when Soviet Defense Minister Dmitry Ustinov signed a decree ordering the construction of an experimental batch of Kalashnikov rifles.

But the ceremony was moved because of inclement weather to May 8, ahead of Victory Day, and then to September 19, Gunmaker Day.

Not everyone is on board with the project.

7926FEAF-D770-479A-84A0-0FB57CC87D96_w650_r0_sMikhail Kalashnikov with one of his fabled assault rifles in 2006.

Veronika Dolina, a local resident, posted a photograph of an apparent protester at the still-shrouded Kalashnikov statue holding a sign that said, “No to weapons, no to war.” She wrote: “Man at Kalashnikov pedestal. Humble hero, no posing.”

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“No to weapons, no to war.” Photo courtesy of Veronika Dolina/Facebook

Resident Natalya Seina told 360, a local media outlet, “This is not artistic, to put it mildly. This is trash. It’s loathsome.” She also noted how Kalashnikov had lived his life in Izhevsk, not Moscow, unlike playwright Anton Chekhov and poet Aleksandr Pleshchev. “These are probably more worthy people than the creator of a rifle.”

There are estimated to be as many as 200 million Kalashnikov rifles around the world —prompting one expert to label it “the Coca-Cola of small arms” — and they are manufactured in dozens of countries.

Mikhail Kalashnikov died in 2013 at the age of 94.

Defenders of the Fatherland: Yunarmiya and the Personality Cult

Russia Has Surpassed the Soviet Union: I Would Only Learn German Because Putin Spoke It
Liana Turpakova
Vechorka
February 24, 2017

Russian TV channels were dominated by the February 23 holiday yesterday. The topic of war and patriotism was off the scale at a concert held to mark the holiday, as broacast on Channel One.

Yunarmiya performing during Defender of the Fatherland Day concert, 23 February 2017, Moscow. Still from youtube.com
I watched Flight Crew, but switched to NTV during the advertising breaks. NTV was showing a film about a cop. The ad breaks on RTR and NTV would coinicide sometimes, and I would switch to Channel One. I switched one too many times and ended up watching a performance by the Katyusha Children’s Center for Aesthetics and Beauty and the patriotic organization Yunarmiya (“Youth Army”). I never did figure which was which. They are like the Young Pioneers, apparently. The kids were reciting poems with feeling and a sense of meaning, and pausing at all the right spots,  adoration beaming from their faces.

One girl recited a poem in the style of Mayakovsky, which ended as follows: “And though I were an old man getting on in years, really, in fact, basically, I would learn to speak German only because Putin had spoken it.”

The audience applauded, of course, and the camera switched to a shot of VVP and Defense Minister Shoigu, seated in the first row. They didn’t smile, but looked on seriously. Shoigu said something to Putin.

I was a Young Pioneer during the Brezhnev era. We recited lots of poems with a patriotic filling, and if they mentioned the names of Soviet leaders, those leaders were dead. I am talking about Lenin. At the time, there were no panegyric verses about the then-General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. Words of gratitude were spoken, and there were slogans, but children, at least at my school, did not memorize anything of the sort. Odes to the living leader of the country were composed and declaimed only under Stalin. The parallels are obvious. And they say that insanity flourished in the Soviet Union.

I’ll take another potshot at this ecstatic orgy. How do you like the idea of building a mock-up of the Reichstag, in Patriot Park in Kubinka, for the Yunarmiya kids to storm? As Shoigu noted, they would thus have “a specific location to storm, not just any old place.” We’re talking about the same Yunarmiya kids who performed the doggerel about Putin. I am sure they fought it amongst themselves over how who would get to recite the punchline about the country’s biggest VIP. It was the girl who gets straight A’s at school and whose comportment is impeccable.

The Reichstag in Berlin. Photo courtesy of dw.com

I’m not against promoting love for one’s country. But this business about German and Putin is clearly overkill. By the way, it used to be a joke. Now it’s a patriotic poem. The times have changed.

Holiday Concert in Celebration of Defender of the Fatherland Day, 23 February 2017, in its entirety. Originally broadcast on Channel One in Russia

Translated by the Russian Reader