Saints Cyrill and Methodius Church on Ligovsky Avenue in Petersburg, as seen from the end of Tyushin Street, 27 October 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader
How do you become a “Russia expert” on Facebook in a matter of weeks?
Method No. 1: Claim “the Russians” are behind literally everything untoward that happens in the world, from attempted piped bombings in the United States to typhoons in the South Pacific.
How does this method work?
First, never provide any hard evidence of this alleged “Russian” influence. Refer vaguely but insistently to allegedly irrefutable research—done by someone else, of course—on how social networks can be used to disseminate fake news and crackpot theories.
Second, don’t learn Russian or spend any time in Russia.
In fact, it helps a lot if you know as little as possible about Russians and Russia, because knowing something would needlessly complicate your ambition to have yourself deemed a “Russia expert” on Facebook.
Finally and most important, if someone calls you on the carpet for your glaring lack of evidence and knowledge, and the spurious logic of your arguments, accuse the person of being “rude and aggressive” and immediately unfriend them. You can’t afford to have someone who actually knows something about Russia and Russians or can even just ask a decent question that throws a less than glowing light on your dicey arguments and made-up facts hanging round bothering you and your devoted virtual fans, for you have a higher calling.
A selfie taken by elections observer and Golos coordinator David Kankiya in Krasnodar. He writes: “Dear Veniamin Kondratyev [governor of Krasnodar Territory], I would like to know what you think about the fact I was beaten up today and the continuing pressure exerted on political and grassroots activists by law enforcement. This is how you see the region’s image right before the World Cup?”
Vladimir Putin is not “popular” in any meaningful sense of the term. He is the head of what may be the world’s largest mafia gang. Unless forces emerges within the gang to challenge his leadership, which seems unlikely, he will remain head of the gang (aka the Russian Federation’s ruling elite) until he dies of natural or other causes. It is as simple as that.
How do I know it? Because of the sheer amount of main violence and rabid intimidation visited upon anyone who challenges Putin’s unchallengeable rule in any way, even in ways that are almost imaginary, as in the case of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, now on the sixth day of a hunger strike in a Siberian prison. Sentsov was sentenced to twenty years in prison by Putin’s mafia gang after it illegaly invaded and occupied Sentsov’s home of Crimea, part of the sovereign state of Ukraine.
Here is another example, closer to home and the notion that Putin is “popular” and was thus “popularly” elected. The day after Putin’s “reelection” this past March, NPR filed a story that contained this passage.
A month before Russia’s presidential election, observer David Kankiya was informed by the police that his car might have been used to commit a crime, Reuters reported. He was detained, charged with disobeying police and sent to jail for five days. “I was detained and charged on a false pretext,” Kankiya told the news agency. “It’s political pressure.”
Police say Kankiya didn’t produce identification during a routine check.
As the presidential election drew closer, Kankiya’s car tires were slashed and pro-Kremlin journalists accosted him in two separate incidents, he told Reuters.
Kankiya is a coordinator at Golos, a nongovernmental election watchdog that was labeled a “foreign agent” because it received foreign aid. Volunteers from Golos — a word that translates to both “vote” and “voice” — say when entering or leaving Russia, they are often stopped by border staff who accuse them of having terrorist links, according to Reuters.
Now word has come that Mr. Kankiya was assaulted and battered by two men in the stairwell of his own home yesterday. The word comes from Mr. Kankiya himself, writing on Facebook.
I’ve been beaten up in the stairwell of my building. It was two palookas. They hit me and kicked me. They zapped me with pepper spray. I hurt like hell, but I’ll live through this, too. Dear security forces guys, a big thanks for the attention you pay to little old me. But didn’t you already tell me straight to my face what you wanted from me? But first you jail me, then you have me tailed and beaten up. Why do you behave so shamefully?
I could supply you with a thousand more stories like Mr. Kankiya’s. And people like him who are on the frontlines of the fight against Putin’s mafia rule in Russia, including a friend of his and a friend of mine who informed me yesterday about the attack on Mr. Kankiya, could tell you ten thousand more stories like it.
When you add all those stories up, you do not conclude that the country in question is ruled by a truly “popular” leader.
What you conclude is that, for nearly two decades running, a gang of violent thugs has been pummeling, scapegoating, jailing, murdering, intimidating and otherwise silencing its real and imagined enemies—in the world’s biggest country, the list of those enemies has proven almost endless—while a troika of absolutely shameless pollsters (Levada, FOM, VTsIOM), eager beyond belief to stay in the mafia boss’s good graces and “scientifically prove” his “popularity,” has been monitoring, almost by the day, sometimes by the hour, to test whether the rest of the Russian “populace” gets it, whether they realize they have only one choice: “like” their “popular” president for life or “dislike” him and face the unpleasant consequences faced by the likes of Mr. Sentsov and Mr. Kankiya.
The pseudo-pollsters are just as shamelessly seconded by a whole battalion of “Russia hands” and “veteran Moscow correspondents,” like Stephen Cohen and Mary Dejevsky, to name two of the most loathsome, who are ready to tell any lie or fib to justify or explain away Putin’s tyrannical rule and the punishments he and his secret services rain down on their enemies, real and imagined, great and small.
That is the whole story. Anyway who says otherwise really is a liar or a sophist or a “Russia expert” resident in Ottawa or New Haven. // TRR
Putin is not genuinely popular. As in other pseudo-populist dictatorships and autocracies, the alleged popularity of Russia’s president for life is the product of a thoroughgoing war against all dissenters, dissidents, and free thinkers, and an ever-evolving personality cult, produced by carpet bombing the populace with TV, radio, social media, and print propaganda twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.
Neither is there any empirical evidence that “young educated Russians” are more critical of Putin than cranky old ladies in Petrozavodsk and Perm. My educated guess would be that, in fact, the opposite is true.
Finally, it is sheer insanity to argue that Putin’s departure is not an “inherently desirable outcome.” Every day Putin is in power is a decisive step backwards in the country’s political and social progress.
Not even the most milquetoast progressive reforms have been possible while Putin and his clique have been in power (i.e., the last eighteen years), and there is every sign that, during his next term, things will go from very bad to incomparably worse.
By the way, why is the writer so certain “Putin will eventually leave power”? If he means Putin is a mere mortal, like the rest of us, and will die sooner or later, this is a factually correct but politically vacuous claim. If the writer means Putin is planning to leave office in the foreseeable future, he must have psychic gifts that most of us do not have. There is no evidence whatsoever Putin is planning to go anywhere in the next twenty years.
But it is easy to engage in free verse exercises like this one when you live and work in Brooklyn. You just make up the facts as you go along, because you will never have to face the consequences of your irresponsible, shambolic analysis.
2. Blame the US government for everything that has gone sour or wrong in Russia, the world’s largest country, a land blessed with natural resources and human resources beyond measure, and thus certainly capable of making its own fortunes and forging its own destiny, which nothing whatsoever prevents from being democratic and progressive except the current regime and its mostly pliable satraps and timeservers. “Genuine popular support” for Putin would vanish in a second if his regime were ever challenged by a strong, broad-based, grassroots democratic movement determined to remove him from office and steer the country towards a different path.
What real evidence is there that civil society groups in Russia serve as “fronts for US intelligence”?
Who has actually been working day and night to generate this “perception”?
The Putin regime and its media propaganda outlets.
Why has “Russia” become “increasingly hostile to such groups”?
Because the Kremlin perceives them as direct threats to its authoritarian rule. It has thus declared them “enemies,” “national traitors,” “foreign agents,” and “undesirables,” and gone to war against them. This blog has published numerous articles detailing this “cold civil war” between Moscow and Russian civil society.
What evidence is there that any US administration has “[tried] to bring Putin down”?
There is no such evidence.
What Russian opposition figures have US administrations “directly supported”?
Aren’t civil society groups “private” by definition?
Was Obama’s so-called reset the only or even the primary reason that tensions between the US and Russia increased?
No. Even before Putin went ballistic, invading Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, shooting down passenger planes (e.g., Flight MH17) and gunning down opposition leaders right outside the Kremlin (i.e., Boris Nemtsov), his minions were harassing the then-US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, the co-author of the miserable “reset,” whose purpose was to decrease tensions with Russia, not stoke them. There was no chance of this happening, however, when the Kremlin had long ago made rabid anti-Americanism the centerpiece of its public foreign policy.
Why do I call it “public” foreign policy? Because nearly everyone in the Russian ruling elite has made numerous junkets and trips to the US and other western countries over the years and has lots of personal and business connections to their boon enemies. They have extensive real estate holdings in the west. They educate their children in the west. They park their ill-gotten lucre in the west. In some cases, their families live in the west permanently, while they shuttle between the west and Moscow like some less fortunately people commute between Gary, Indiana, and Chicago.
The Russian elite’s anti-Americanism and anti-westernism, therefore, is a put-on, a hypocritical pose mostly meant for public consumption.
Has the Putin regime done Russian civil society “any favors”?
No, it has done its utmost best to destroy independent Russian civil society and coopt the remnants it has not killed off. If you want some of the particulars, read what I’ve been posting on this blog for the last six years and, before that, on Chtodelat News, for five years.
Why did the guy who wrote the passage quoted above write what he did?
It is hard to say. The article is a very clever whitewash job for the Putin regime, all of whose high crimes and misdemeanors against the Russian Constitution and the Russian people are passed off as understandable reactions to the alleged predations of the US government against the Putin regime.
Where was this article published?
In The Nation, of course. Who else would print such crypto-Putininst tripe with a straight face?
Why all the needless hyphens, e.g. “civil-society groups,” “human-rights abuse”?
Sheer snobbery, meant to intimate to the magazine’s hapless readers they are dealing with real smart cookies, not tiresome neo-Stalinist windbags.
3. Publish wholly misleading articles about Russia, like the one quoted above. If you cannot manage that (because your readership would notice), publish wholly misleading headlines. They are even more effective than longwinded articles in The Nation, a pro-Putin magazine no one in their right mind has read in the last ten years or so.
People scan headlines, however. It is much easier than reading the fine print.
This is exactly the headline Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would want to appear in the Moscow Times, because it places the onus for his government action’s and his own actions on the US government.
How could visa services not be drastically reduced if the Russian Foreign Ministry closed the US consulate in Petersburg and gutted the staff at the US embassy in Moscow once again?
But let us by all means imply, because this IS the message the Putinist tyranny wants its own people to hear, that the US did everything on its own as a way of punishing ordinary Russians. Sadly, a fair number of Russians will believe this.
4. Join a so-called leftist group in the west. Most of them behave as if the Comintern still existed and they were taking their orders from the Kremlin.
Most western so-called leftists these days are boring, uneducated morons. The most boring thing about them is their unshakeable reverence for the Soviet Union, a country about which they donot have the slightest clue, and for its woebegone “successor,” the Russian Federation, which has literally nothing in common with the long-dead Soviet Union.
The really hilarious thing is that most of them manage to maintain these cultish attitudes without ever having set foot in either country and without speaking a word of Russian. Star Wars fans have a more down-to-earth and coherent ideology than the post-Stalinists who pop up to crush you with their Anand Sheela-like rhetorical flourishes (i.e., truckloads of vehement slander and furious personal insults) if you so much as mention as their imaginary Motherland in a slightly untoward light.
I want to live long enough to see the influence of these dead-enders on progressive, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist politics die off altogether. That would make me really happy, if not genuinely popular, like Vladimir Putin. TRR
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
Russia: It Can’t Be Improved So Destroy It, or It Can’t Be Destroyed So Improve It? Grey Dolphin
September 27, 2017
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
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.
Will purify gold from impurities.
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
Will purify gold from impurities.
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!
Will purify gold from impurities.
Those who believe in the truth will stand their ground.
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.”
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.
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
I think the best thing I’ve ever done on a blog is this long piece. I won’t say anything more about it here. You can either read it or not read it. But you might notice, if you do read it, that it is chockablock with raw Russian voices, unsorted into any boxes, although I don’t hide my own views in the piece in any way.
But when the group of activist artists whose name the blog on which the piece was first published bore had the chance to do a big show at a super famous contemporary art institution in London, my request to include this piece in a journal of texts by the art group’s authors (which, supposedly, included me at the time) that would accompany the show, I was flatly turned down by the group’s leader, who explained this text didn’t “fit the format” of the publication they were planning.
Not only that but I was later disinvited from attending the show with the group by this same leader.
After you’ve had several dozen experiences like that, you realize the vast majority of “Russian experts” are in the business for their own professional advancement, not to give anyone a clearer picture of the real Russia, which, I’ve discovered over the years, interests almost no one, least of all the tiny cliques of “Russia experts” in academia, art, and journalism.
People like the ones depicted and heard in my blog post from nine years ago actually frighten most “Russia experts.”
And yet there they are, real Russians, willing to fight the regime tooth and nail, and perfectly clear about the regime’s true nature.
At least half of the world’s “Russia experts” don’t understand even a tenth of what these “simple” Russians understand.
In 2014, the well-known Russian journalist and editor Leonid Bershidsky emigrated to Germany. In an short article, published at the time on the website 72.Ru, Bershidsky explained he was not a political emigrant. Rather, he was leaving Russia because he saw no more point in launching big media projects in Russia, since the country no longer had major media performing what he regarded as the media’s main function, “defending the weak from the powerful.”
It is hard to disagree with his sentiments.
So what has Mr. Bershidsky been up too lately, in his principled exile?
He has been publishing op-ed columns on the Bloomberg website hotly defending a “weak” Russia from a “powerful” west.
In a column published in September, Bershidsky had the chutzpah and stupidity to claim Russia was an emerging global agriculture superpower because “climate warming” was making it possible to relaunch farming in areas of the country that had been given up for lost in earlier decades because the climate there was too cold, while exponentially increasing yields in areas that have long served as Russia’s grain belt.
He wrote this during the official 2017 Environmental Year in Russia, which I was made aware of only the other day, when I saw a billboard, advertising a new production at the the Young Spectators Theater, that was, somehow, part of this mostly invisible Environmental Year’s slate of events.
I guess Mr. Bershidsky’s “climate warming is good for Russia” column was another event in a calendar chockablock with consciousness-raising of the same obscurantist variety.
You do know that Russia’s economy is massively dependent on selling gas and oil, and that it is nearly the last country in the world that, officially or unofficially, is going to make any effort to tackle climate change? Whatever treaties, protocols or agreements Russia has ostensibly signed, the country’s message to its own population is that climate change is either a hoax or will be wildly beneficial to Russia, even as it destroys or submerges whole other countries.
Mr. Bershidsky’s latest op-ed on the Bloomberg website sees him hopping on the old “anti-Russophobia” train, the immediate occasion being the creation of something calling itself the Committee to Investigate Russia, which somehow involves Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman, two beloved figures in American culture whom Mr. Bershidsky immediately derides as second-rank hacks, when, in fact, the latter is a terrific actor loved by literally every American, even by white supremacists, I suspect, while the former is not primarily an “actor,” as the ignorant Bershidsky claims, but a mostly former actor, the co-star of what many regard as the best, most politically charged situation comedy of all time, All in the Family. After he left the show, Reiner launched a directing career that has included such stellar films as Stand by Me and This Is Spinal Tap. Neither Mr. Morgan nor Mr. Reiner has ever struck me as an idiot, which is what Mr. Bershidsky immediately wants his readers to imagine.
This is not to dismiss Mr. Bershidsky’s reasonable point that the committee sounds hokey and pointless, and has no real “Russia experts” among the members of its advisory board.
Mr. Greene does indeed echo many of Bershidsky’s complaints about the US and the west not seeking advice from real Russian experts and avoiding listening to the voices of real Russians.
But he begins his remarks with a proviso, a proviso that Bershidsky pointedly avoids making.
“There is no serious dispute about whether Russia tried to influence the American election: It did. And the British ‘Brexit’ referendum. And the French election. And the upcoming German vote. There is also no doubt about the role Russia is playing in eastern Ukraine, or in the world more broadly. Russia is a challenge, and we are right to worry about the fact that we don’t have an answer.”
Bershidsky, on the contrary, is loath to admit the anti-Russia hysteria that bothers him so much was provoked by real actions and decisions undertaken by the people currently running the country of his birth.
That is the real problem with so-called expertise on Russia. Half if not more of the west’s card-carrying “Russian experts” are incredibly quick to absolve “Putin’s Russia” (when can we ditch that phrase? Putin doesn’t own Russia, his ambitions and those of his Ozero Dacha Co-op buddies to the contrary) of all its crimes against its own people and its new drive to regain supah powah status on the cheap, by fucking with everyone’s elections, flooding the airwaves and internets with fake news and anti-immigrant hysteria in different shapes and sizes, and worst of all, serving its own population a steady diet of anti-Americanism, anti-westernism, xenophobia, and racism, especially on its national TV channels, for nearly the whole of Putin’s eighteen-year reign.
Think of Stephen Cohen, a “Russia expert” of high standing, who has been stalwartly defending every creepy, aggressive move the Kremlin has made over the past several years.
As for listening to the voices of the Russian people, that sounds like a great idea, but a) most so-called Russian experts don’t live in Russia itself and thus have little opportunity to listen to real Russian voices; and b) many Russian voices have either been badly singed by the relentless propaganda they have been subjected to in recent years or their voices have literally been drowned out by the din of that propaganda.
There is also the troubling tendency that many so-called Russian experts, when they want to evoke the “voices of the Russian people,” take the absolutely discredited shortcut of citing Russian public opinion polls, as carried out by the country’s three leading pollsters—FOM, VTsIOM, and the especially insidious Levada Center, which has a liberal, “dissident” street cred it does not deserve, painting its conclusions about “ordinary Russians” and what they think in the darkest terms possible, seeing them as benighted, dangerous creatures, akin to the zombies on The Walking Dead.
Why do the “Russia experts” they take these shortcuts? Because they don’t live in Russia and actually have no clue what real Russians really think.
One way to find out what some very different Russians think would be to read this website, which has been mostly devoted to translating the voices of people who have really been involved, usually at the grassroots, in dealing with their country’s problems or thinking through them in an eloquent way, a way not tainted by the thought patterns the powerful Putinist propaganda machine has been keen to implant in the minds of Russians too weak or too compromised by their stations in life to think for themselves.
There are lots of such people in Russia, unfortunately, including the men and women who serve the country’s bloated bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies, and secret services. Such people are several times more numerous under the current “liberal capitalist democracy” than they were under the Soviets or the tsars.
I have no doubt that, among these millions of officials, there are a good number of intelligent, decent people capable of thinking for themselves. Many of them are, I assume, not terribly happy with the road the Kremlin has led the country down and the roles they have been made to play in this deliberate degradation.
For example, would you like to be a district court judge who has to wait for a phone call from “upstairs” before rendering verdicts in high-profile cases? But this is what happens on a daily basis in the country’s judicial system.
In fact, if you listen to the voices of Russians who actually try and tell their stories—via Facebook and other social media, as well as the remaining online and print outlets where good journalism is practiced at least some of the time—and you listen to lots of these voices over an extended period of time (for example, I have been writing and translating this website and, before that, Chtodelat News, for the last ten years) and take to heart what they are actually saying, your hair will stand on end.
You will also be filled with intense admiration for the activists, researchers, and journalists who care about their country and have the courage to tell these stories.
You will not, however, come to the sanguine conclusion suggested by the last paragraph of Mr. Bershidsky’s latest op-ed.
“But Russia will still be there when this phase is over—resentful and hungry for Western praise, defiant and confused, thuggish and loftily intellectual, muscular and aggressive and weakened by graft and incompetence. Someday, the pieces will need to be picked up, and only people capable of taking in the nuance will be able to do it. These people have been ‘investigating Russia’ all along. It’s just that a less thorough and more politicized ‘investigation’ is temporarily supplanting their work.”
First of all, I am not sure Russia will still be there when this phase (of what?) is over, nor is Andrey Kalikh, whose alarming Facebook post from what have amounted to the frontlines of the Zapad 2017 War Games I posted yesterday.
Second, Russia’s problems are not the problems of a troubled teenager, as Mr. Bershidsky implies, but of a country ruled by an boundlessly greedy, ambitious tyranny that has had to test-run various sham ideologies (including homophobia, anti-Americanism, Russian Orthodoxy, xenophobia, migrantophobia, rampant state capitalism, etc.) in order to justify its continuing and, apparently, perpetual rule.
As Mr. Kalikh wrote on this website yesterday, this makes the current regime extremely dangerous primarily to Russians themselves. His argument has been borne out by the increasingly intense “cold civil war” the regime has waged not only against outright dissidents and oppositionists like Alexei Navalny, Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov, to name only a few people, but against otherwise ordinary Russians who have posted the “wrong” things on Facebook or VK (a Russian ripoff of Facebook more popular with the non-snobby crowd and activists who want to be in touch with them more than with the proletariat haters, but, unfortunately, a social network that is, apparently, absolutely transparent to the Russian security agencies) or, much worse, have banded together to solve their own problems, problems caused, as often as not, by their own local authorities or national government, which has not introduced “stability” after the chaotic years of Yeltsin’s rule, but has instead instituted “legal nihilism” (ex-President Dmitry Medvedev’s phrase) as its fundamental principle of bad governance.
If you deny all these basic facts about Russia today and, to boot, you don’t listen to the voices of active, thoughtful Russians, unfiltered by sham opinion polls, and finally, if you are not on the ground in Russia itself or have not spent oodles of time here talking to oodles of people and getting mixed up in oodles of different situations, I am afraid your Russian expertise is just a species of sophistry.
“Nuance,” after all, is a weasel word. Anyone with any feeling for English knows that.
Why was it that Mr. Bershidsky had to leave Russia only to land a job at Bloomberg supplying us with “nuanced” apologies for the current Russian regime? I really would like an answer to that question. TRR
UPDATE. RT has helpfully outed Mr. Bershidsky as a crypto-Putinist in a ridiculous hatchet job entitled “Russophobia: RT rates the top 10 Kremlin critics & their hilarious hate campaigns,” published on its website yesterday, September 28. In the piece, which seems to have been written by an alcoholic on a bender, RT praised Mr. Bershidsky for his criticism of their number ten “Russophobe” Molly McKew: “Perhaps the considerably more respected analyst Leonid Bershidsky said it best when he called her arguments against Moscow ‘simplistic and misguided.'” My advice to RT would be to refrain from mentioning the Kremlin’s “secret” assets in the west in such a flagrant way.
UPDATE, October 12, 2017. Andreas Umland has brought my attention to more evidence that Leonid Bershidsky’s “exile in the west” was really a clever subterfuge for implanting a crypto-Putinist Russian journalist in a major western news agency. Mr. Bershidsky’s latest contribution to the art of the op-ed, “Why Catalonia Will Fail Where Crimea Succeeded” (October 4, 2017) is beyond the pale. Diane Francis turns the piece to chopped liver on the Atlantic Council’s website.
“There’s a more likely possibility, and it doesn’t hinge on accumulated historical trauma or some irrational longing to go back to the Soviet system. With the USSR’s fall came the loss of many other things Russians valued: their country’s stature in the world, decent living standards, the welfare state, education, even a sense of community and collective identity. Putin’s apparent promise to restore some of these things is a far better explanation for his widespread popularity at home than the theory that most citizens have been too brainwashed or traumatized to think for themselves.”
But he’s been eighteen years “in office” and he hasn’t restored any of these things really, and he never really promised to restore most of them, not that you would notice if you hadn’t lived here during those eighteen years, as the author of the book review, quoted above, has signally not lived here.
Nor, as far as I know, did the author ever live in the Soviet Union he misses so much, but which lots of former Soviet citizens I know don’t miss at all.
Go figure why the western left misses a country most of its current supporters never lived in or visited for a millisecond, but which millions of its actual former inhabitants don’t miss for a second. It says something slightly disturbing about the intellectual integrity of the western left, doesn’t it?
As for brainwashing, I can’t say anything about Russians, but I know a lot of foreign so-called Russian experts and reporters covering the Russian beat who have been brainwashed by the triumvirate of dishonest Russian pollsters known as FOM, VTsIOM, and Levada Center into believing that Putin enjoys “widespread popularity at home.”
In fact, this popularity is a lot less apparent when you’re actually on the ground day after day for years on end, conversing and dealing with lots of different people who say lots of different things but somehow usually fail to express their ardent love of Putin. Here, in the actual Russia, not the imaginary Russia inhabited by the Russia experts, his “popularity” looks more like a dictatorship for life, reinforced by brute police force, flagrant corruption, major TV channels that have been nazified to the point that almost no one I know has watched them for years, and selective but regular show trials in case anyone has forgotten where they really live.
Why do so-called Russian experts, like the author of the review, quoted above, believe every poll about Russia those shysters and shills publish, including the pap about Putin’s rampant popularitry?
I’ll tell you why.
Because the world’s greatest Russia experts do not live in Russia, nor do they want to live here (they’re not stupid!), but endlessly citing so-called Russian public opinion polls as if they are the gospel truth gives their specious, highly partisan arguments an air of scholarly or empirical knowledge, of “knowing what Russians really think.”
The subject of today’s Russia and what Russians really think is way more complicated (and, sometimes, way more simple) than the certified Russia experts suspect or want to admit, however. TRR