The 1600th: Futurama

This is my 1600th entry since I started translating and writing articles about modern Russian politics, society, economics, art and culture, history, social movements, grassroots endeavors, and everyday life on this website nearly ten years ago.

My first post, dated October 23, 2007, was a translation of an excerpt from Viktor Mazin and Pavel Pepperstein’s fantastic 2005 book The Interpretation of Dreams. Provocative and surprising as ever, Mr. Pepperstein argued that

[o]nly the interim between Soviet socialism and capitalism was ecological. It was a time of crisis: the factories stood idle, and the air became cleaner. It is a pity, but those days (the nineties) came to an end, and now (under cover of patriotic speeches) our country is becoming a colony of international capitalism. They try and persuade us this is success, but it is not true. We should (my dreams tell me, and I believe them) put our beautiful country to a different use, for example, by turning it into a colossal nature and culture reserve. (After all, our country, like Brazil, produces the most valuable thing on Earth: oxygen.) We should close the borders to foreigners (but let anyone leave as they like), carry out a program of deindustrialization, and limit the birth rate.

Shortly thereafter, I was offered the job of editing another website, Chtodelat News, where I volunteered for nearly five years, publishing 740 posts and slowly figuring out what I wanted to say with this hybrid of translation,  editorializing, and media collage, and how I could say it.

After the long stint at Chtodelat News, I revived the Russian Reader, trying to make it as pluralistic, polyphonic and, occasionally, as paradoxical as I could, while also fulfilling the brief I have tried to keep to the fore from the very beginning: covering stories about Russia which no other Anglophone media would bother with (although they thus miss tiny but vital chunks of the big picture) and giving my readers access to Russian voices they would not otherwise hear.

I had meant to celebrate my 1500th post on this beat, but that make-believe anniversary came and went without my noticing it. It was all for the best, however, since now nearly ten years have passed since I set out on this unpredictable journey.

Like the very first post on this blog, my 1600th post is a glimpse into Russia’s possible futures, as imagined by Grey Dolphin (aka Vladimir Gel’man), his fellow scribbler Grim Reminder (yours truly), Russian rappers GROT, and my friends at the Moscow Times. TRR

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Russia: It Can’t Be Improved So Destroy It, or It Can’t Be Destroyed So Improve It?
Grey Dolphin
September 27, 2017

Grey Dolphin

The discussions about Russia’s prospects, currently underway among the conscious segment of Russian society, despite their public nature, in many respects resemble similar debates about the Soviet Union’s destiny, held in the kitchens of members of the intelligentsia and among politicized émigrés during the so-called stagnation. Relatively speaking, it was a debate between two parties. One party, the moderate optimists, grounded their expectations on hopes the country’s leadership would change course for one reason or another (or would itself change), and there would be a chance to change the Soviet Union for the better. (There were different opinions about what “better” meant and how to achieve it.) The other party, which included both moderate and radical pessimists, argued it was no longer possible or fundamentally impossible to improve the Soviet Union, and changes should be directed towards its total elimination. Time seemed to be on the side of the optimists, whose chances at success appeared realistic at perestroika’s outset, but in fact it was working inexorably on behalf of the pessimists. By the time the optimists seemingly got their chance, opportunities to improve the Soviet Union had largely been frittered away. History does not tolerate the subjunctive mood, and we do not know what turn events could have taken had perestroika been launched ten or fifteen years earlier. Those ten or fifteen years, however, passed only in conversations around kitchen tables, while the country’s leaders strove to prevent any change whatsoever. When the changes kicked off, the energies of both parties—the supporters of improving the Soviet Union, and the supporters of destroying the Soviet Union—had not exactly been exhaused in vain, but they had not been used very effectively.

Despite all the political and economic differences between the early 1970s and the late 2010s, the current conjuncture in Russia is not so remote from what it was then in the Soviet Union. Moderate optimists have proposed seemingly reasonable projects for improvements to the authorities and the public, but they themselves do not believe they can be realized “in this lifetime.” The moderate pessimists, if they had believed earlier in the possibility of improvement, have lost faith, while the radical pessimists never believed in improvements as a matter of principle. The optimists are waiting to see whether they will get the chance to improve at least something (and if so, when), while the pessimists are ready at a moment’s notice to exclaim, “Lord, let it burn!” For better or worse, however, so far there are no obvious “arsonists” in the vicinity who could and would want to demolish the current Russian political and economic order nor have any appeared on the distant horizon. Once again, as during the stagnation, time inexorably works on behalf of the pessimists. Sooner or later, yet another former optimist or, on the contrary, a person not involved in these debates will say something like, “Today’s Russia cannot be improved. It can only be destroyed.” (Essentially, this was what happened in the Soviet Union towards the end of perestroika. Of course, there were a different set of causes and other mechanisms in play then. What I have in mind is the rationale of transformation itself.) If and when the number of people supporting the verdict “destroy” reaches a critical mass, then the first of the questions posed in my post’s title will irreversibly be answered in the affirmative, occluding the second question altogether. The more news about events in Russia transpires every day, the more inevitable this outcome seems.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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GROT, “Fire”
If God wants to punish a man, He strips him of his reason.
I often think the whole country has been punished.
As in a fantasy story, I can see a light glowing over people’s heads.
This is not a sign of holiness.
It is a sign of moral decay,
Decay of beliefs, principles, and ideas.
The nostrils are already used to the rotting smell,
And there are cadaver spots on the faces of children and adults.
Self-destruction at the mental level,
The nation jumps into the abyss with a cry of “Keep off me!”
We will soon go extinct like the mammoths.
Young mothers with Jaguars and Parliaments.
People will have coming to them the trouble they stir up
Everyone will be punished according to their whims.

Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.

An ancient serpent lashes the sky with a crimson tongue,
Its breath ripples over the television networks.
Through TV screens it animates the golem and generates ghosts.
In the skulls of those who ate their souls
And vomited them out indifferently with counterfeit vodka
In the snow in winter or summer in the dust.
Two abused dudes filmed it on a mobile.
Look online, search for the tags “degenerates,” “masturbate,”
“Suck,” “come,” “sex with babies.”
I’m waiting for the last fire, but you better run.
Nothing can be fixed here now. Lord, let it burn!

Fire!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Fire!
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.

Source: rap-text.ru

Translated by the Russian Reader

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Russia could ban Facebook next year if it fails to comply with a 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian citizens’ personal data on local servers, the state media censor said on Tuesday.

The U.S. social network would follow in the footsteps of LinkedIn, the social platform for professionals that was banned in Russia last year after a September 2015 law requiring companies to store Russian users’ personal data on localized servers.

The head of Russia’s state media watchdog Roskomnadzor warned that “there are no exceptions” to compliance with the data storage law seen by some observers as unenforceable.

“We will either ensure that the law is implemented, or the company will cease to work in Russia,” Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov was cited as saying by the Interfax news agency.

He said the watchdog is aware of Facebook’s popularity, with an estimated 14.4 million monthly and 6 million daily users in Russia as of last year.

“On the other hand, we understand that this is not a unique service. There are other social networks.”

Twitter, Zharov said, has agreed to transfer by mid-2018 its Russian users’ data to Russian servers.

“We have no plans to investigate Facebook in that regard until the end of 2017,” he added. “We will think about it in 2018. Maybe we will investigate.”

[…]

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Grim Reminder

There are no technical or legal justifications for banning Facebook in 2018, only political considerations. The principal political consideration would be the need to find ways of “celebrating” Putin’s auto-reinstallation as president for “another six-year term” (i.e., for life).

As a tyrant who brooks no opposition to his illegimate rule, Putin would have to celebrate his hollow victory by instituting a series of crackdowns against his foes, as he did after formally returning to the presidency in 2012.

One of these crackdowns could involve banning Facebook in Russia, as is strongly suggested by the article I have quoted, above.

But that would be the least of everyone’s worries once Putin essentially crowned himself tsar as a gift to himself for his stunningly bad performance as the country’s leader for eighteen years.

Since his entire reign has orbited not around solving the country’s problems, but around imbricating himself and his clique of “former” KGB officers into every corporate and institutional nook and cranny in Russia (and beyond) while stealing everything he can get his hands on and rewarding his satraps with the booty “for a job well done,” he has not had much time to solve any real problems.

Hence the constant need to designate enemies and cripple, vanquish, jail, disappear or murder them, be they Facebook, Jehovah’s Witnesses or Boris Nemtsov.

Anyone who does not explicitly support Putin—and by definition only members of his clique really support him, in the sense that members of a mafia clan are loyal to their boss—is de facto opposed to him.

This might be especially true during the upcoming election, because, I would imagine, the majority of Russian voters are, at very least, quite weary of Putin and his oppositionless electoral “victories” by now and would be inclined to stay home on election day, even if they are not willing to march in the streets. (That might require too much effort.)

But a low turnout would still be a slap in the face to a man whose whole schtick the last eighteen years or so has been his alleged “wild” popularity, a schtick supported by the mainstream Russian press, corrupt Russian pollsters, foreign media covering Russia, and “Russia experts,” most of whom have no other gauge for measuring or probing “Russian public opinion,” so they rely on rigged, astronomically high popularity ratings.

If something around ten percent of voters in the two capitals (Moscow and Petersburg) and the non-ethnic regions showed up on polling day, the myth of Putin’s popularity would be dealt a near-fatal blow.

Putin would take his humiliation out on his treacherous non-constituency by unleashing a panoply of crackdowns, adopting a whole new raft of repressive laws at lightning speed, as happened in the wake of his 2012 re-election, and, perhaps, arresting a prominent figure from the opposition, such as Alexei Navalny, sending him down for hard time. Or worse.

Author photos courtesy of cetacea.ru and the Russian Reader

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Petersburg’s Naval Disgrace

Putin and Petersburg’s Naval Disgrace
Dmitry Gubin
LiveJournal
August 1, 2016

Navy Day in Petersburg is not a holiday for adults, because the fleet is tiny, but there are tons of adults.

So Navy Day is really meant for two tiny groups of people: the demobbed navy vets who are already blotto by morning and stumble around town hanging onto a buddy and a flag, dressed in striped sailor’s shirts and pants bursting at the seams in the chest and the ass—and children.

Children gaze at the ships anchored in the Neva, tug on their parents as they queue to go on board, and in the evening wait for the fireworks to start.

“Pa, are the fireworks going to start soon?”

All the news agencies had reported the fireworks in Petersburg were supposed to start at 10:00 p.m. on July 31, 2016.

Since the city on the footloose Neva is the only tourist mecca in all of Russia, and tourists do not know Navy Day is meant only for children and demobbed sailors, the Neva’s embankments were threatening to collapse under the weight of the bodies yesterday evening at ten o’clock, as were the bridges. There were so many boats, craft, and ships on the Neva it looked less like a navy-style broth with dumplings, and more like a rich Marseilles bouillabaisse. The street vendors were doing a land office business in peddling patriotism, and sailor hats for the kiddies were selling like hotcakes. Flags and smartphones were raised in the air.

There were no fireworks at 10 p.m., however.

I am practically no longer a child, I am not a tourist, and I am certainly not a demobbed sailor. It was just that yesterday somewhere between ten o’clock and ten-thirty in the evening was my only chance to hop on my bike and have a gander at the ships standing at anchor. I jumped on my bike and took off.

I biked past the triple-parked cars on the Palace, Admiralty, and English Embankments, past the tense, frozen crowd glued to the granite parapet, past the nervously grumbling mob (“Pa, when’s it going be?!”), and realized that since the fireworks had not happened at 10 p.m, as had been promised, they were not going to happen at 10:30 p.m., either.

Because there is only one man who makes time stand still in this country.

We are the kind of country where even commitments to children mean nothing. Children in Russia, even as we swear by their future, exist only to be raised and overworked for the glory of the state, meaning so that all the Shuvalovs, Naryshkins, and Yakunins, all the tsar’s intimates, can own villas. We are the kind of country where military honor consists not in doing one’s duty but in sucking up to the supreme commander, who, I happened to know, had come to Petersburg for the celebrations and was probably late, as was his wont. He has long been late to everything.

When I biked away from the embankments, the fireworks still had not happened.

Children were crying, while the adults were poking at websites on their smartphones and swearing under their breath.

When I was already far from the big water and the ships, the salvos from the toy cannons finally thundered. The walls trembled, the skies lit up, the shots echoed off the walls, and the car alarms barked and growled. The time was approximately 10:51 p.m.

The tsar must have arrived in the end, and our brave admirals pressed their lips to his lips, or to what they took to be his lips as they shut their eyes in servile delight.

I was ashamed I felt not the slightest shame for the admirals, Putin or the adults telling their kids sorry lies as an excuse. Basically, I have not given a rat’s ass about any of them for a long while, just as someone could care less about a summer cottage standing on a crooked foundation, which is pointless to patch up because it will fall apart anyway.

Although behind me was a wondrous performance, a piece of contemporary art: the multi-figure personification of Russia’s modern disgrace, a state of affairs in which no one gives a fuck about children, and everyone is on their knees before the tsar, for he is the only person whom our gallant admirals genuinely fear.

Russia, blah, is a great country. Our navy is invincible. Dostoevsky, the tears of a child.

I am sympathetic to the senseless, drunken demobbed sailors, who have only one chance a year to prove they are men.

It is better to get stinking drunk and tear the sailor’s shirt on your chest, since drunkards are exempt from shame.

Ugh.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photos courtesy of Dmitry Gubin and Washington Monthly/iStock.

This post is dedicated to my Russian dog, who was awoken at eleven o’clock at night by the shelling from the Neva, as described, above, by Mr. Gubin, and got so scared he wet the bed.

I could not sleep, either, and it occurred to me as I lay there waiting for the fireworks to end that there was a connection between the fun a few kilometers away and the siege of Aleppo. I am probably slightly off my hinges, but I have always taken such celebrations as a reminder to the folks on the home front that its “boys” are quite capable of doing to them what they do so casually to the swarthy types in Aleppo, Grozny, Fallujah, etc. That is, should the folks on the home front suddenly withdraw their loyalty or, rather, cheerful passivity towards the status quo and attempt to dethrone the tsar and his henchmen.