If We Don’t Talk About It, It’s Not Real

syrian observatoryImage courtesy of The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

One of the better ways to see what ails the Russian intelligentsia nowadays is to read what its leading lights write about goings-on in other parts of the world. Almost without exception, these meditations and interventions are so at odds with reality, so chockablock with rank prejudices and basic factual errors, that they shed no light whatsoever on these goings-on as such.

They inadvertently reveal other things, however. For one, it would seem that Putin and Co.’s massive, painstaking, long-term project for closing the Russian mind and making everything foreign, everything beyond Russia’s frontiers, utterly contemptible, alien, repulsive, ridiculous, and incomprehensible, has been a rousing success, a success all the more impressive in that it has been achieved at a time of unprecedented global integration and myriad possibilities for people all over the world, especially in relatively prosperous, well-educated countries like Russia, to get detailed, reliable information about events in other parts of the world.

For two, the new Russian “internationalists” are tellingly selective in the subjects on which they choose to pontificate. For example, the Russian military has been bombing Syria to smithereens for fifty-one months, but you would be hard pressed to find any of the Russian public intellectuals otherwise so eager to comment on matters such as Brexit and Trump’s impeachment even so much as mention their own country’s disastrous role in the Syrian conflict. It is as if they were completely unaware anything were happening in Syria, much less that their tax rubles have been funding a genocidal crackdown against a popular revolution to remove a murderous hereditary dictator and his wildly homicidal, repressive regime.

Hence their rhetorical vehemence when it comes to the rather persuasive allegations that their country’s government has been meddling in less obvious and less obviously destructive ways in the internal affairs of other countries. Utterly powerless (or so they imagine) to do anything about the Kremlin’s more outrageous crimes (genocide in Syria, ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, the occupation of Crimea, etc.), they judiciously disappear Russia’s destructive neo-imperialist adventures from the public discourse, while violently denouncing the mere suggestion that Russia’s violent geopolitical ressentiment could have more “subtle” manifestations, such as disinformation campaigns and assassinations of “enemies” on foreign soil. \\ The Russian Reader

Me Talk Pretty One Day

67392734_2292618164188215_3196602514246783151_nPopular Russian blogger Dr. Philipp Kuzmenko might style himself the Russian “Doctor Phil,” but the title of his new book admirably owes nothing to modern English. Image courtesy of Feedler

The wholesale destruction of the Russian language at the hands of intellectuals and hipsters trying to look more worldly than they really are is not distressing only because what they do to their mother tongue looks and sounds awful and needless, but also because they pilfer the most threadbare, unattractive bits of modern English to gussy up their own perfectly pedestrian thoughts, e.g.,

В школьников по-прежнему запихивают объем информации, а сегодня надо учить компетенциям, трекам, по которым ребенок сможет добывать знания сам.

Schoolchildren are, as before, crammed with a volume of information, but today it is necessary to teach competencies, tracks with which the child will be able to obtain knowledge himself.

This is not the most egregious example I could find (it popped up on my Facebook newsfeed a few minutes ago), but it nicely shows the kind of wild register switching that happens when people talk and write like this.

There are at least three registers in the sentence quoted above: colloquial Russian (“crammed,” “schoolchildren”), bureaucratese (“as before,” “volume,” “information,” “obtain”), and avoidable, undigested Anglicisms (“competencies,” “tracks”).

Topping this progressivist cake is the cherry of Russian’s inbuilt sexism, if we can call it that, which means that a “child” is always a “he,” not a “she” or “it” or “they.”

Sometimes, the outcome of this permanent mental confusion is almost worthy of the greatest Russian literary register switcher of all time, Andrei Platonov. But he was making a very big tragicomic point, unlike his tin-eared descendants, who are unconsciously turning his uncanny nightmares into linguistic norms.

Why should this bother me, a non-native Russian speaker? Because I work as a translator. Much of the stuff I translate, nearly all of it written by highly educated, extraordinarily well-read Russians, resembles the hodgepodge quoted above, although it is usually even more unintentionally funny, chockablock with so many half-baked, misunderstood Anglicisms that I could think the authors were pulling my leg.

In fact, they are deadly serious.

To spare my readers the same sense that the writers are having a laugh at their expense, I have to translate their hipster worldliness signaling into what they might have said had they been real English speakers with no penchant for tiresome jargon and bureaucratese.

Does this mean I translate their “I’m so clever I’m also thinking in English as I write this” Russian into idiomatic Russian before translating it into real English?

Of course not. But in this case, I could venture such a translation, just for fun.

Мы все еще запихиваем в школьников большие куски информации, но сегодня мы должны учить их умениям, способам, с помощью которых они могли бы учиться сами.

It’s hardly perfect, but at least I used twenty-four Russian words—and one foreign borrowing, naturalized ages ago—to say what a native Russian speaker wanted but failed to say.

Tellingly, Yandex Translate had no trouble translating my hasty rewrite into perfectly decent English.

We still cram large chunks of information into schoolchildren, but today we have to teach them skills, ways in which they could learn for themselves. // TRR

When We Were Ten

15220228-number-ten

Leonid Volkov
Facebook
August 10, 2019

I was ten years old but I remember August 1991 well. And I remember how many people asked, after that unique celebration of unity and freedom, what would have happened had the coup emerged victorious.

Russia 2019 is the answer to this question. It is a country in which the coup has emerged victorious, [a country ruled by] a dozen paranoid old men, their hands trembling in fear.

Yes, the new coup has lasted longer than three days, but not much longer. The first chords of Swan Lake have already sounded.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of 123RF

_______________________________________________

A friend of mine asked me the other day what I thought about the new fair elections protests in Moscow. First, I feel solidarity with the protesters. Otherwise, I would not have bothered to translate and edit eleven posts (so far) about the protests and their ugly aftermath.

But I don’t understand the point made by Alexei Navalny’s comrade Leonid Volkov, an otherwise sensible person, in the Facebook post, as quoted above.

I could very well be wrong, and, actually, I do hope I am wrong, but I see very little difference between the mostly lacksadaisical fair elections protests of 2011–2012 and the relatively fierce but tiny fair elections protests of 2019.

The numbers are, in fact, the main problem. Despite the strange argument made by a talking head from the Carnegie Center Moscow, as quoted in the Moscow Times, that fifty thousand is a number of protesters the Russian authorities cannot ignore, there is no question of their ignoring anything. The Putin regime did not ignore the protests of 2011–2012. It waited until Putin had secured a new term as president before cracking down hard on protesters and quickly adopting a whole raft of laws designed to make public protests and dissent much more dangerous.

In 2019, the crackdown has begun almost immediately, but there is no sign the regime will cave and force the Moscow City Elections Commission to reinstate the candidates it barred in July from running in the September elections to the Moscow City Duma, much less collapse altogether.

Since it is the world’s largest country, it seems funny to say it, but Russia is one of the most insular, isolated places on earth. International news is a genre that barely exists in the country’s mainstream or alternative press nor does it usually make much of an impression on the chatocrats who set the tone in Russia’s remarkably hysterical, dispiriting, troll-infested social media.

It also does not help that places mainly or completely populated by what many Russian liberals regard as subhumans almost never figure in the news in Russia at all. Otherwise, political and media activists like Volkov would think twice before seeing the demise of Putin’s twenty-year-old “putsch” in yet another series of relatively minuscule gatherings of righteous Muscovites brandishing clever placards and getting their pictures taken for Instagram.

If there were real international news in the Russian press, the Russian fair elections movement and its would-be leaders and strategists, like Volkov, would think about the recent, incomparably more numerous, and demonstrably more effective protests in Puerto Rico and Hong Kong, for example. When half a million people protest against the powers that be on an island populated by 3.5 million people, the authorities really cannot ignore them, just as Beijing could not pretend all was well in Hong Kong, a city of 7.3 million people, when two million people there took to the streets to protest the former enclave’s shrinking autonomy and the PRC’s attacks on its laws and democratic institutions.

Puerto Rican officials have already seen the writing on the wall and surrendered to the demands of the fierce, fearless, relentless protest movement there. The Hong Kong protest movement faces a much stronger enemy, of course, but I think there is a far greater chance we will witness democracy emerging all over China in our lifetimes than we will see the reemergence of democracy in Russia.

Despite the fact the Russian intelligentsia likes to hypnotize itself with dubious theories about history and regime change—namely, that great historical turnabouts have always been powered by tiny but energetic minorities—real democratic change in Russia will only happen when many more people join a movement that, in fact, exists only as a notion, not as a real grassroots movement.

A real grassroots movement, after all, would be capable of mobilizing considerably more than fifty thousand people in a city of twelve million people.

The second big problem with the Russian protest non-movement is that, like many of the Russians who make usually brief appearances in its ranks, it is wildly impatient. Liberal, educated Russians regard themselves as the most “European” and “western” people on the planet, hindered from realizing their true destiny as saviors and leading lights of the nonexistent west only by a thousand years of unrelenting, savage tyranny, an endless dark stormy night punctuated only here and there by occasional, short-lived bursts of sunlight.

Since they are essentially not practically “Europeans” and “westerners” (unlike most actual Europeans and westerners, who, in their view, have given up the west’s civilizing mission by letting their countries be overrun by Puerto Ricans, Chinese, and Muslims, among other miserables), many Russians think they deserve to live in a democratic country right now without doing most if any of the things other societies do to establish and fortify democracy and the rule of law at home.

The flip side of this blatantly anti-western “westernism” is that droves (or, at least, very large dribbles) of Russians have been leaving or semi-leaving Russia in recent years, knowing nothing can change for the better under Putin and despairing that the post-Putin era will not dawn anytime soon. Like most of the really important things going in Russia, this story has been underreported, although anyone who has hundreds of Russian acquaintances or who lives in one of the handful of cities on earth that liberal Russians consider civilized (Berlin, Paris, and New York, e.g.) will know what I mean.

In yet another “only in Russia” twist, many people in this new wave of émigrés and exiles are not battle-hardened veterans of the amorphous protest non-movement, but the most politically apathetic people you could ever hope to meet.

This is not to say there are not lots of good eggs among them. Likewise, this blog’s mission has been to reiterate constantly the well-missed point that there are other Russians besides Putin and other Russias besides “Putin’s Russia,” whatever that is. But since I am not a politician and, thus, a sophist, like Leonid Volkov and his friend Alexei Navalny (the first, a well-informed commentator whose reflections I have shared on several occasions with my reader; the second, a smart cookie who might also be nearly the only person in the ragtag Russian opposition who really understands politics and has an inkling of how to build grassroots political movements), I am under no obligation to paint a pretty picture of “democracy in Russia” when what is called for is a horrorshow.

Lastly, fifty thousand people protested in downtown Moscow for the right to vote for their own candidates to a Russian regional parliament in a country where all that parliaments, city councils, municipal district councils, and village councils ever do is rubber-stamp the executive branch’s decisions. At exactly the same time, Russian warplanes were trying hard to finish off the last stronghold of a genuinely popular revolution in what they hoped would be the final chapter in a four-year-long military intervention in a majority Muslim country. And yet Putin’s criminal entanglement of his country’s well-equipped armed forces in Syria has been so uninteresting to liberal Russians that they have never protested in numbers greater than three or four at a time, and you can count those times on one hand.

The irony of this non-coincidence will be lost on Leonid Volkov and his comrades in the Russian protest non-movement, a non-movement that imitates the civil disobedience of the Indian independence movement and the US civil rights movement, for example, while blithely ignoring their superior political, strategic, and organizational aspects. Like the overall ignorance among Russians about today’s protest movements and popular revolutions in Syria, Hong Kong, and Puerto Rico, this might be because they were movements led and sustained by people of color. // TRR

Stanislava Novgorodtseva: Portraits of Angry Muscovites

“The Regime Has No Feedback from the Populace”: What Are People Saying Who Support the Candidates Barred from the Moscow City Duma Elections?
Photographer Stanislava Novgorodtseva took photos of angry Muscovites, trying to find out what it was they wanted
July 27, 2019

3a28b76117eb6539c85008b98b8c8159Viktor, 21, student and programmer. “Ideally, I would like to see all the candidates who were illegally barred put on the ballot and the Moscow City Duma dissolved, respectively. That would make sense to all of us.”

mikhailMikhail, 23, web developer. “I came here to support Ilya Yashin, a candidate in Borough No. 45, which includes the Krasnoselsky and Meshchansky Districts. He is currently detained by the police. My big hope is that at least one election in this country is legitimate.”

vadimVadim, 61, retired doctor. “I wanted to hear the barred candidates speak and support them, and defend our rights, which have been violated. A criminal offense has been committed and we must get to the bottom of it.”

ilyaIlya, 21, artist. “First of all, I would like to stop the lawlessness directed at the populace, the continuing poverty, arrests, and prison sentences. We need to see justice done and hold fair elections so the so-called government stops pushing us around. Because a country is not a bunch of people but a nation.”

klaraKlara, 75, retired engineer and metallurgist. “We came specially to defend our candidate, Yulia Galyamina. She is a decent person, she lectures at two universities. What were the police’s grounds for searching her home? A huge number of people have supported her, but she has been barred from running.”

marinaMarina, 56, psychology lecturer. “We basically cannot change anything at the moment. We are merely showing them we exist because it is impossible to change anything now. But everything will change after a while. When they see we are here, they take us into account.”

Yulia, 42, chief accountant. “I am here to get the candidates who met the legal requirements onto the ballot. We want to see an end to the manipulations, violations, and planting of drugs on people. We just want the laws to be obeyed. I want to be able to go to court and defend my rights.”

Andrei, 43, technical consultant. “It is the only thing left to us: we cannot do anything else. If we stay at home and ‘strike,’ we could die and no one would care. People have to take to the streets around the world. Otherwise, if you are not seen you are not heard. The prosecutor’s offices, courts, and police do not do their jobs. All the state agencies send formal replies or do not respond at all when you complain to them.”

Vera, 56, oil geologist. “We have a problem with infill construction, but our candidate, Elena Rusakova, has been barred from running. We are absolutely certain the signatures [on the petitions supporting Rusakov’s candidacy], are genuine: we signed them ourselves and helped her collect them. We have come to voice our protest.”

Natalya, 62, manager. “We lived in a nice green neighborhood. I was apolitical, but suddenly we were surrounded by construction sites, fences, sidewalks, and paving stones. They have been expropriating green spaces and cutting down trees. Candidates willing to fight against this are barred from holding political office. My mom is 94 years old. She survived the Siege of Leningrad. She does not leave the house anymore, but she told me I definitely had to come to this rally. Otherwise, she said, my children would live in a police state.”

Alexander, 44, activist: “I filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights because my building has slated for [Moscow Mayor Sobyanin’s massive residential building] renovation. That is one of the reasons I came. But Sobyanin and his stooges in the Moscow City Duma are bad guys not only because of the renovation program. They have been robbing and disfiguring the city. We came out to show the authorities what we think, although we have been accused of wanting violent regime change. This is not true.”

Anatoly, 48, programmer: “I came to the rally as part of a social experiment. I am not much interested in showdowns over who gets on the city council. I have more grudges against the current regime than everyone else here combined, but people are fighting for cosmetic changes. Even if [independent] candidates get on the ballot, I don’t believe improvements will follow. The regime has no feedback from the populace, but I don’t think protest rallies can solve the problem.”

Translated by the Russian Reader

Syria Is Only Three Syllables

It is pointless to say anything more about the near-total non-reaction of Russians to their government’s ruthless, quasi-genocidal bombing campaign against civilians in Syria, but I will say one last thing before giving up the subject entirely on this blog. It is important for eyewitnesses to important historical events to write down what they saw, heard, and read. Otherwise, decades from now, posterity might be reading about a nonexistent “Russian anti-war movement” during the Putin era.

Anything is possible in our fallen world.

Like Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Central Asians, Syrians are viewed as civilizational subhumans by Russians, as “natural-born terrorists” who deserve to be destroyed, as they would put it in the blunt lingo of Russian TV propagandists.

Educated Russians feel solidarity only towards a very limited segment of other Russians and northern Europeans, and even then only under extraordinarily limited circumstances, as witnessed by the self-love and virtue-flagging festival currently underway on the Runet.

The whole point of it is not to save the life of an investigative journalist framed by the police on drugs charges but to show to themselves (and the world) they can “fight back” against their corrupt government, that they are not as bad as they imagine themselves to be and, in fact, really are.

Indeed, Russians can fight back, as has been proven hundreds of times during the last twenty years. But this has been proven not by today’s virtue-flaggers, but by other Russians, Russians who have been fighting for their lives, livelihoods, natural and urban environments, workplaces, you name it. They live in the twenty-first century, too, and so they also have made use of the internet as needed for their campaigns, but their campaigns have had real objectives, and the militants in these campaigns have often been less bashful in their methods.

Look up, for example, anything you can find about the grassroots movement against plans to mine copper and nickel in Voronezh Region, which reached a crescendo four or five years ago. One of the leaders of that protest was an “ordinary” woman who worked at the local produce market. She virtually commanded battalions of other locals, including local Cossacks, in a knock-down, drag-out fight against mining companies and police.

Not surprisingly, these skirmishes have generally garnered much less attention in Russian society at large, the Russian press, and the international press.

It has been easier for all those groups to imagine the Russian provinces as “Putin’s base,” as a wasteland filled with aggressive vatniki, as they are derogatorily called. (The reference is to the humble gray quilted jacket favored, allegedly, by regime-loving proles in Russia’s regions.)

I have spent at least a third of my time on this blog and its predecessor trying to show this is not the case. It is a thankless and nearly pointless business, however, because it is not trendy to care about hicks in the sticks anymore anywhere, so almost no one reads these dispatches.

Putin’s real power bases are and always have Moscow and Petersburg, but you would never know that from the cool spin residents of the “capitals” put on every gesture in the direction of protest they make, even when they are not really protesting anything at all. If anyone has benefited from Putin’s promises of stability and prosperity, it is them, not the hicks in the sticks. But none of this has led to a “bourgeois revolution,” as some were expecting. Quite the opposite has happened.

Of course, there are activists and grassroots politicians in the capitals who are every bit as smart, fierce, and savvy as their counterparts in the provinces, but they do not outnumber them, despite what certain large-scale, protests in the recent past might have suggested.

So, what is up now? Sooner or later, every ambitious Russian with a social media profile and any sights on the west realizes it is not great to look like too much of a conformist. It is okay for Putin to kill Syrian babies by the truckload. Or, rather, it is not okay, but you are only asking for trouble if you protest something a) no one else is protesting, and b) that looks to be really important to the powers that be, so important they would squash you like you a fly if you made a peep about it.

The grassroots “Free Golunov!” campaign is perfect for anyone who wants to pad out their protest resume because a) everyone is protesting it, and b) the real powers that be probably do not care so much about prosecuting Golunov to the full extent of their lawlessness.

At his next public appearance, Putin could well be asked about the case by reporters. If he is asked, I would not be surprised if he said it was a bloody mess that shows how much work needs to be done before Russian law enforcement has been thoroughly purged of corruption.

Heads would then roll, and Golunov would be released as a gesture to the Russian moral one percent’s “yearning for justice.”

People with shaky protest resumes—meaning nearly every member of the intelligentsia in the capitals and major cities—want to jump on a bandwagon that has half a chance of making it to its destination, not light out for the territory with no chance of winning.

On the other hand, the Kremlin could neutralize these virtue-flaggers for good by throwing the book at Golunov, despite the overwhelming evidence he is innocent, and sending him down for fifteen years.

In reality, this sort of thing happens all the time. It happens routinely to “politicals” and ordinary blokes, to businessmen and Central Asian migrant workers, etc. But no one bothers to go ballistic when these people are framed by the wildly unscrupulous Russian police and security services because a) everyone leads really busy lives, and b) these victims of Russian legal nihilism do not have reporters and editors going to bat for them and publishing their names in big letters on the front pages of their newspapers.

What will “rank-and-file” protesters do if, despite their extraordinary efforts, Golunov is sent to prison for a crime he did not do? What will become of their “movement”? Will they up their game? Will they embrace more radical methods to free their beloved here.

Their movement will evaporate in seconds. We will never hear or see any political statements from most of these people ever again because if they can live peaceably with everything done by the Putin regime at home and abroad in their name over the last twenty years except this one thing, they can go on swallowing or, really, ignoring a double and even triple portion of the more of the same until Putin finally keels over thirty or so years from now.

Or they will leave the country. It is not as if they actually give a flying fuck about it. If they did, I would have written a very different outburst than this one. I would have written it a long time ago, in fact. || THE RUSSIAN READER

idlibThe bombing of Idlib is stirring memories of Guernica, as portrayed by Picasso. Photo by Abdulaziz Ketaz. Courtesy of AFP, Getty Images, and the Sunday Times

Syria: Russians refine slaughter in Idlib
Observers say Moscow is using the Syrian province as a kind of Guernica, while casting innocent victims as terrorists
Louise Callaghan
The Sunday Times
June 9, 2019

The fighter jet screamed over the town at about 8.30am, while the family was still asleep in the cool morning air. Mahmoud Ali Alsheikh, his wife and their three children were shaken awake by the first bomb.

Ahmad, the youngest, was 10 months old. His father held him as the second bomb exploded further down their street. His mother, Fatma, 29, held her hands over his ears. Nour and Salah, 8 and 7, crouched next to them.

The next bomb hit the house. Shrapnel ripped into Ahmad’s stomach, killing him. “I was trying to protect him,” said his father, a sweet-maker.

Ahmad was just one victim of Russia’s bombing campaign in Idlib, a rural province in northern Syria where a renewed assault by pro-regime forces has killed at least 347 civilians since the end of April, according to local doctors with the aid group Uossm. Twenty-five medical facilities have been bombed, many of them far from the front lines.

It is a horrifying escalation in a conflict in which Moscow and Damascus have an overwhelming military advantage as the eight-year-old civil war winds down. Analysts suspect that Russia, which has bragged about testing more than 200 new weapons in Syria, is cynically using Idlib to refine the bombing techniques it has developed during the conflict.

“Idlib for the Russians now could be what Guernica was for the Germans ahead of the Second World War. It’s a conflict in which they tested all of their techniques, rolled out their new doctrine,” said James Le Mesurier, a former British Army officer who founded the organization that trains and supports the White Helmets rescue group.

The Nazis’ use of the Spanish town of Guernica for bombing practice in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War allowed them to break new ground in the mass killing of civilians from the air and refine techniques that would later become invaluable to their war machine. The aftermath of the bombing was immortalized in a painting by Pablo Picasso.

For Russia, disinformation techniques have become as vital as military tactics. Moscow and the Syrian regime portray Idlib as a terrorist haven under the control of hardline groups — justifying the bombing campaign on the grounds that they are fighting jihadists.

Russia has put great effort into an online campaign portraying Idlib as a vipers’ nest of terrorists. The truth is more complicated. While groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly an al-Qaeda offshoot, control large swathes of the province, some key towns are held by more moderate rebels.

A rebel counter-attack last week took back several villages from pro-regime forces. But the rebels have no air power.

Mixed in among them — and vulnerable to Russia’s supremacy in the air — are tens of thousands of terrified civilians: both locals and others from across the country who were bused to Idlib when their homes were retaken by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

After ousting rebel forces in much of the country, the regime is now renewing the attack on Idlib, which it has pledged to claw back at all costs.

A ceasefire, negotiated last year in Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort, is in tatters after an assault by pro-regime forces targeted civilian and rebel targets alike with cluster bombs and barrel bombs. Videos appear to show incendiary weapons being used.

Diplomats say that, for the moment, an all-out military assault on Idlib is unlikely. The aim of the bombing campaign is to wear away at the ceasefire, grind down the rebels and force Turkey — which maintains military observation points in Idlib and backs some opposition groups — to agree to a handover of the province to the regime.

“A full-on assault is not imminent. But I do think the option will be kept on the table so that people can use that as a way of increasing influence,” said a senior western diplomat working on Syria.

Turkey, which is one of the guarantors of the ceasefire, has been outwardly maintaining a balanced relationship with Moscow, even as it reportedly funnels weapons to opposition groups in Idlib.

The Turkish border with Idlib is closed to the tens of thousands of civilians who have fled to it in search of safety. Last week residents told The Sunday Times that entire villages in Idlib’s interior were deserted, and displaced people were camping out in olive groves near the border without food or water.

Among them were the surviving members of Ahmad’s family.

“I don’t know what will happen but I hope the regime won’t advance because they will kill and arrest everyone,” said his father, who was badly injured in the airstrike that killed the baby. “The Assad regime is targeting our town all the time.”

He said his home town, Kafranbel — which used to be famous for its figs and is about 30 miles from the Turkish border — is not controlled by jihadists but by remnants of the Free Syrian Army.

Other locals and analysts confirmed this. But for Russia and the Syrian regime, rebels, jihadists and civilians alike are regarded as terrorists.

“Since the beginning, the Russians, Iran, Assad regime and Hezbollah are saying that,” he said. “Because their military policy is burning and killing everyone who lives in the opposition areas.”

Using Russian state-funded broadcasters and websites, Moscow has muddied the waters of the Syrian conflict by attempting to push the narrative that anyone who is against Assad is a terrorist, and that no news from opposition-held areas can be trusted.

Its disinformation campaign particularly targets the White Helmets, portraying its members as jihadists who stage their work. Slick video content, purporting to show the White Helmets faking chemical attacks by the regime, is often presented as impartial news and shared across the world.

Last month a Syrian government television channel took this technique a step further in a “fake news” comedy sketch that lampooned the White Helmets. A glamorous actress portrayed a crying woman as “White Helmets” staged a fake rescue mission. She later apologized for causing offense but made clear she still believed that attacks and rescues were often faked by the White Helmets.

Impartial observers, who credit the White Helmets with saving many lives and drawing attention to the regime’s atrocities, say there has been no proof that they have faked anything.

Additional reporting: Mahmoud al-Basha

Thanks to Pete Klosterman and the Facebook public group Free Syria for the heads-up. {TRR}

They Are Who They Are

gorzhush“Tomorrow, the whole world will write about this. I am proud of my profession. #FreeIvanGolunov…” Vedomosti.ru: Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBC will for the first time…” Screenshot of someone’s social media page by Ayder Muzhdabaev. Courtesy of Ayder Muzhdabaev

Ayder Muzhdabaev
Facebook
June 9, 2019

Russia’s “liberal opposition journalists” have been vying to praise each other as they celebrate a feast of “disobedience.” They just stood in the crossfire, that is, in timid solo pickets. And now, risking having their offices torched, three newspapers have produced editions with the same headline in defense of a colleague detained by police on trumped-up charges.

They have never nor would they ever publish a newspaper with the headline “I Am/We Are Crimean Tatars,” a people their country has been murdering and imprisoning on trumped-up charges by the hundreds for the last five years.

They have never nor would they publish a newspaper with the headline “I Am/We Are Ukrainians,” a people their country has been murdering by the thousands and imprisoning by the hundreds on trumped-up charges for the last five years.

It suffices to say they would even find printing the headline “I Am/We Are Oleg Sentsov” terrifying. It would never occur to them because they know how life works in the Reich, where Ukrainians are “fascists,” and Crimean Tatars are “terrorists,” just like Oleg Sentsov. So “I-ing” and “we-ing” is taboo to them.

They are delicately integrated into the Russian Reich. They feel it in their bones. They are one of the regime’s vital props. The hybrid dictatorship badly needs to pretend there is a political struggle in Russia and the country has a free press. They help it in its quest to destroy the western world and attack other countries.

They always only do things that won’t get them in serious trouble. They would never do anything that poses the slightest risk of exposing them as real enemies of the Reich.

We enter this in #TheChroniclesOfTheRussianReich.

Translated by the Russian Reader

i-we

The front page of Vedomosti, June 10, 2019: “I Am/We Are Golunov.” Courtesy of Vedomosti

Joint Communique on the Ivan Golunov Case by the Editors of Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBC 
We Demand Maximum Transparency from Investigation
Vedomosti
June 9, 2019

Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter with Meduza, was detained on June 6 on suspicion of attempting to produce and distribute narcotics.

We welcome the fact that the court has ordered house arrest for Golunov rather than remanding him in custody in a pretrial detention facility.

However, we do not find the evidence of Golunov’s guilt, as provided by police investigators, convincing, while the circumstances of his arrest raise serious doubts that laws were not broken in the conduct of the initial investigation.

We cannot rule out the possibility that Golunov’s arrest has something to do with his work as a journalist.

We demand a detailed inquiry into whether the Interior Ministry officers who were complicit in Golunov’s arrest acted legally. We insist that the outcome of this inquiry be provided to the media.

We expect law enforcement to comply strictly with the law. We demand maximum transparency from the investigation. We will closely monitor the investigation’s progress. We encourage relevant public organizations to join us.

We believe implementation is fundamentally important not only to Russa’s journalism community but also to Russian society as a whole. We demand that everyone obey the law and the law be obeyed with regard to everyone.

Translated by the Russian Reader

upside down cake

Pineapple upside-down cake. Stock photo

Nearly the entire leftist and liberal Russian intelligentsia have thrown their ferocious but scattered energies into a campaign to free a well-known journalist on whom the cops planted narcotics. It is obviously a frame-up and rightly makes folks in the world’s largest country indignant.

But it also makes people think they are fighting the good fight when most of the fights they should be fighting or should have been fighting long ago they ignore altogether, like the fight against what their own government and armed forces have been doing in Syria, or the kangaroo court trials against antifascists in Penza and Petersburg (the so-called Network trials), and the alleged (Muslim Central Asian) accomplices of the alleged suicide bomber who, allegedly, blew himself up in the Petersburg subway in April 2017.

I shouldn’t even mention the case of the so-called New Greatness “movement,” an “extremist group” set up, concocted, and encouraged from its miserable start to inglorious finish by the FSB (the newfangled KGB). Its so-called members did nothing but attend a couple of “political” discussions organized by the selfsame FSB.

All these young people have been framed, and many of them have plausibly claimed they were tortured by FSB officers into “confessing.”

That is, whole groups of innocent people (mind you, I am only scratching the surface here, leaving out scores if not hundreds if not thousands of the regime’s other victims at home and abroad) have been railroaded by the mighty Putinist state, but they have not been granted an audience, so to speak, by progressive Russian society because progressive Russian society cannot identify with any of them in any way.

But it can identify with the nice white middle-class reporter from Moscow. And it does want to remind itself of its essential goodness and compassion from time to time, so everyone has jumped on the bandwagon to get the reporter out of jail.

Or, rather, everyone has engaged in a frenzy of virtue signaling that may not actually get him out of jail.

Bully for them, but no one notices that many of these grassroots campaigns are patterned like hysterias and moral panics. They are also identical to other suddenly emergent internet-powered fads, like the recent craze for Game of Thrones or “Facebook flash mobs” that involve, say, posting a picture of yourself from twenty years ago and explaining what you were up to way back then.

It has to be something, anything, except the things that matter a million times more, like the Russia air force’s endless bombing of Syrian children and Syrian hospitals, and the Putin regime’s endless, vicious hunt for “extremists” and “terrorists” like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Network “terrorists,” the “New Greatness” extremists, the conspicuously othered (and, thus, forgotten) Petersburg subway “terrorists,” and on and on.

These witch hunts are discussed publicly by virtually no one, and their victims (this is especially the case with the Central Asian “subway bombers”) are mostly left to fend for themselves.

What matters about the reporter is that he is white, innocent, and “one of us.” Apparently, he doesn’t believe in “extremist” nonsense like anti-fascism, anarchism, Islam or Jehovah’s Witness doctrine.

The reaction to the case is a symptom of liberalism that is utterly white and nationalist, meaning it is not liberalism at all.

It is white nationalism with a human face, Great Russian chauvinism turned upside down.

“They cannot do this to one of us.”

But “they” have done to it to thousands of non-white, non-Russian others over the years, including Chechens, antifascists, Syrians, Crimean Tatars, businessmen, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Krasnodar’s farmers, truckers, environmentalists, anarchists, LGBTQ+ activists, Central Asian migrant workers, Ukrainians, anti-“reunification” Crimeans, the passengers of MH17, US voters, etc.

Almost no one batted an eye when they were “destroyed” (this is the regime’s pet dehumanizing verb for when it murders or obliterates its enemies), neutralized or otherwise royally fucked over by the Putin regime.

It is all over but the shouting unless the shouting quickly becomes a lot more inclusive. June 9, 2019 || THE RUSSIAN READER

redman.JPGPhoto by the Russian Reader

“This is too much, even for Russia.”
Meduza editor on BBC Radio 4 morning news broadcast, commenting on the arrest of Meduza reporter Ivan Golunov, 9 June 2019

But declaring all Jehovah’s Witnesses “extremists” and organizing a witch hunt against them is not too much, “even for Russia”?

I had it with Meduza after the hamfisted, blatantly misogynist way it handled its recent in-house #MeToo scandal. The scandal revealed the actual shallowness of the website’s liberalism.

Of course, Meduza should defend its reporter from police railroading.

But the fact it has managed to make the story go international in a matter of days and then, using this bully pulpit, suggest there is nothing worse going on in Russia than Golunov’s persecution, also reveals something about the depth of its liberalism or, rather, about what passes for liberalism in Russia.

Unlike liberalism in other countries, Russian liberalism has no time for anybody but the rather narrow segment of Russians it recognizes as full-fledged human beings.

I would guess this amounts to less than one percent of the entire population, but I am probably being too generous. June 9, 2019 || THE RUSSIAN READER

crisisRussia does not have to worry about a crisis of democracy. There is no democracy in Russia nor is the country blessed with an overabundance of small-d democrats. The professional classes, the chattering classes, and much of the underclass, alas, have become accustomed to petitioning and beseeching the vicious criminal gang that currently runs Russia to right all the country’s wrongs and fix all its problems for them instead of jettisoning the criminal gang and governing their country themselves, which would be more practically effective. Photo by the Russian Reader

Free the Network case defendants, the Jehovah’s Witnesses facing charges and the ones already doing jail time, ditto for the Crimean Tatars, Oleg Sentsov and Alexander Kolchenko, the Ukrainian sailors, Yuri Dmitriev, the Petersburg subway bombing defendants, the myriads of Russian businessmen in prison after they were set up by rivals and taken down by the FSB for a good price, the New Greatness kids, and hundreds of other Russian “outlaws” whose names I cannot remember or, worse, have never heard.

Free them first, and the day after you free them, free Ivan Golunov.

While you are at it, stop making war in Eastern Ukraine and stop bombing innocent Syrians. And bring the people responsible for shooting down Flight MH17 and killing everyone on board to justice.

The day after you have done all these things, free Ivan Golunov.

But don’t be such arrogant, self-important pricks as to appear on the world’s most respected radio and TV network and claim the Golunov case is the worst thing that has happened under Putin’s reign.

Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, for God’s sake. And so were Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova.

I could start another list of reporters, activists, politicians, etc., who were murdered, probably on the orders of the Kremlin or with its blessing, over the last twenty years.

Boris Nemtsov was murdered only a few hundred meters from the Kremlin.

God forbid I should mention “convicted pedophile” Sergei Koltyrin. Even the most hardcore human rights advocates in Russia have abandoned him and made mention of his name taboo, although I am reasonably certain he was set up just like the saint-like Ivan Golunov, only on charges so devastating that his former allies abandoned him and he abandoned himself to the nonexistent mercies of Russia’s nonexistent justice system.

But, definitely, the worse thing that has happened under Putin’s reign is the house arrest of Meduza reporter Ivan Golunov on what are undoubtedly trumped-up drug charges. June 9, 2019 || THE RUSSIAN READER

barney fife

P.S. As I was assembling this collage of reflections inspired by the collective hysteria among the Russian liberal intelligentsia over reporter Ivan Golunov’s dubious arrest, it occurred to me that, perhaps, my own reaction and that of Ayder Muzhdabaev, whose “outburst” leads off this montage, were not sufficiently charitable.

But then I read and translated what the editors of Kommersant, RBC, and Vedomosti published on the front pages of their newspapers today. Their milquetoast appeal to Russian law enforcement—a multi-headed hydra that has spent the last thirty years proving again and again it is one of the most brutal, vicious criminal gangs in the world, an army of thugs who routinely terrorize the people they have sworn to protect, a mob of degenerates who will stop at nothing, including the routine use of torture, to get their man—sounds more like an appeal to US TV sitcom cops Barney Miller and Barney Fife.

Do these hardened (?) newspaper reporters really believe an appeal like this will have a real effect on the investigation of Golunov’s nonexistent crimes?

It is also worth remembering (as Sergey Abashin did on his Facebook page earlier today) that the free press warriors at Kommersant recently fired a reporter for writing negative comments about Valentina Matviyenko, formerly Putin’s satrap in Petersburg, currently chair of the Federation Chamber, which rubber-stamps all the odious, wildly unconstitutional laws sent its way. In protest at the firing, the newspaper’s entire political desk immediately resigned as well.

That, by the way, is real solidarity, although it probably won’t get them their jobs back, quite the opposite.

Meanwhile, RBC has been a shell of its former militant self after its owners fired three top editors three years ago and, again, a whole slew of reporters resigned along with them.

RBC used to have an investigative reporting desk that would be the envy of any newspaper anywhere in the world. Nowadays, it mostly reports the kinds of “news” its oligarch owners and the Kremlin want it to report.

The 2011–2012 fair elections protests were mostly an extended exercise in virtue signaling and “creativity,” not a serious attempt by the grassroots to force the Kremlin to hold fair elections, much less to attempt regime change. Russian society has paid heavily for its frivolousness then.

Why, then, has it not yet figured out what its foe is really like? Why does it appeal for justice and fairness to authorities who have proven beyond a reasonable doubt they are hardened criminals? Finally, why does it imagine that reposting Ivan Golunov’s articles on Facebook is real solidarity? Does it think the regime will fall if, say, a million people repost these articles? Five million?

Photo of Don Knotts as Barney Fife courtesy of Wikipedia

Dmitry Kalugin: It’s Saturday

idly maintained flat“Ideally maintained apartment and refined household.” Photo courtesy of Collectionerus

Dmitry Kalugin
Facebook
November 24, 2018

When I lived in a communal apartment on Nekrasov Street, a man nicknamed Vitek was my neighbor for a while. The other neighbors did not like him, because he was a “new guy.” A factory worker, he struck a rather coarse pose among the other tenants of our “Ideally Maintained Apartment.”

In the evenings, Vitek got into the habit of eating a bowl of cabbage soup or borscht in the kitchen, washing it down with a quarter-liter bottle of vodka. Then he would go to bed. He would get up early in the morning and head again to the factory, returning home only in the evening.

At the weekend, he would not show his face in the kitchen. A pot of soup was brought to his room, where he “would do his thing,” as a famous satirist put it.

Sometimes, Vitek liked chewing the fat about life. He mainly did this with me, since no one else talked to him.

“Do you know,” he would ask me, “the difference between the intelligentsia and the working class?”

He went on without listening to what I said.

“How many days are there in the intelligenstia’s week?”

“I don’t know. Seven?”

“That’s right: seven. You go to the movies, you go to the theater, you watch television. You think Vitek is stupid? That he doesn’t see anything? He sees everything. There are only two days in my week, you see, Monday and Friday. And then it’s suddenly Monday again.”

My point is that today is Saturday.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Dmitry Kalugin for his kind permission to translate and publish his feuilleton on this website. This is his sixth contribution to our salmagundi.

Zeitgenossenschaft

almost violence

Judging by virtual and real encounters in recent weeks, Russophonia has been doing its darnedest to descend into a war of all against all.

Thus, at the birthday party of an old family friend, a group of Russian physicians—people who run whole departments of hospitals and even whole hospitals—artlessly segued from running down the birthday boy’s grandson, who was seated only a table’s length away from them, and is one of the sweetest young men I have ever met, to making baldfaced statements such as “Putin is the guarantee of stability,” “There should be more than one currency in the world,” and outright nationalist assaults, prompted partly by the fact I had been introduced to the other guests not by name, but as a “citizen of country X.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of the Russophoniacal political spectrum, which looks a lot like the opposite end, only it is topsy-turvy and striped, a well-known Ukrainian provocateur decided to take a few swipes at me on Facebook by claiming I “defended” Russia.

What he really meant by this, I could not figure out for the life of me, but I gathered that the point of his mostly incoherent remarks was that, since I write about Russia and edit a website about Russia, I was thus inadvertently or even deliberately legitimizing the country.

The problem for professional Russophobes like him is that Russia exists and has existed for a long time. No one can wish it away, just as we cannot wish away climate change, rampant poverty or racism. But we can wish for a world without any of these things or a lot less of these things, and we can make that world a reality.

Russians can also wish for a more democratic, egalitarian Russia and make that a reality, too. If, like me, you are not in a position to engage directly in the country’s democratization by virtue of your nationality, you can at least help people in Russia campaigning for a freer, fairer country by writing about them and, more generally, by providing or seeking a clearer, more detailed picture of what has been going on in Russia, and what the causes of current events in Russia really are, refusing to accept the lazy non-explanations of Russophobes, Russophiles, crypto-Putinists, and bored academics alike.

My Ukrainian detractor was not having any of it, alas. My unwillingness to accept the falsehood that Russians are mostly bad to the bone was more proof I was soft on Russia.

The crux of our disagreement was that I refused to concede that there are inordinately large numbers of bad or stupid people in Russia, as compared with other countries. On the other hand, I do believe, on the basis of long years of in-country observation, conversations with thousands of Russians, and intense and extensive reading of the Russian press and the relevant literature, that Putin’s alleged popularity is an authoritarian construct, not an expression of the popular will.

This is an argument that needs to be made in full, which I have done in bits and bobs over the last few years, often by translating the work of Russian observers who have made similar claims. That is, it is, at least, a rational argument that has a good deal of evidence to support it.

I definitely do not believe in collective guilt, which my Ukrainian interlocutor seemed to think was as natural as the sun rising in the morning.

My detractor believed in lots of noxious things and decided he could dump them down my throat by way of debunking the ten-plus years of hard work I have put in covering Russia from an angle no one else covers it.

Several of my comrades and friends were party to this ridiculous conversation, but instead of defending me or at least pointing out the flaws in the Ukrainian provocateur’s completely blowsy argument, they just let him spit in my face repeatedly, although his only real object was to get my goat and disparage my work.

Here we arrive at an actual—not imaginary—problem in Russia these days: the lack of solidarity among people who should otherwise feel it and exercise it towards each other and, in its absence, the sickening phenomenon of people standing by idly and silently as out-and-out bullies—the police, Putin, NOD, “Cossacks,” Russian physicians, Ukrainian provocateurs, and so forth—beat up other people physically or verbally or both.

In the aftermath of solidarity’s triumph in the Yuri Dmitriev case, a groundswell has been seemingly gathering to support the nine young Penza and Petersburg antifascists abducted and tortured by the FSB, and then accused, absurdly, of being wannabe terrorists supposedly hellbent on causing mayhem during the March presidential election and upcoming World Football Cup.

If the groundswell really does exist, the credit for it should go to an incredibly tiny group of people who decided they had to make a lot of noise about the case at all costs. Most of these people are 100% Russians, whatever that means, and I have rarely been so inspired as I have been by this group of people, most of whom are also fairly young and predominantly female.

In fact, if you read this and its predecessor, Chtodelat News, you will find lots of stories, some of them going ten years back, chockablock with smart, courageous, team-oriented, democratic, egalitarian Russians.

Russia thus has every chance of becoming a democratic, egalitarian country in the foreseeable future. But the same could be said of the United States and a whole host of other countries—the vast majority of countries on earth, I would imagine—that either have strayed too far from the democratic path or never were quite on track in the first place.

Democracy is not an essential feature of some peoples and countries, while despotism is an essential feature of other peoples and countries. If you believe that canard, it will not be long before you are saying the Jews are entirely responsible for the mess we are in, the Palestinians are capable only of terrorism, the Americans are too blame for all the world’s problems (including problems they really did not have a hand in causing) or your own people (fill in the blank) are too corrupt, swinish, and stupid to govern themselves, so a dictator like Putin or Assad has to do the job for them. There is no alternative, in other words.

Democracy is something we do together. We either practice hard and try to make every note bend just right or we don’t practice at all or not often enough, in which case a cynical cacophonist like Putin or Trump gets to call the tune for us. Not because we are inherently racist or authoritarian, but mostly because we are too scared, indifferent, busy, self-absorbed, lazy and sorely tempted not to listen to our better natures and see the good in others.

But we are obviously not essentially good, either. We are the political animals who have the power to make and remake ourselves and our societies in ways that are better and worse. We also have to decide all the time what constitutes better and worse.

If you do not believe this, you do not believe in the power of politics and do not understand the “mystery” of human beings. Ultimately, you think that some humans or all humans are too wayward and disorganized to get their act together, and therefore should be policed.

I did not think up this distinction between politics and policing myself. A far wiser and thoughtful man than I am, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière did, but as the years go by, seemingly becoming nastier and darker, I see how his distinction does get to the heart of the matter.

This is simplifying the matter unforgivably, but you are either on the side of politics or the side of the police.

Politics is messy and usually not particularly satisfying, but it is the only way we have to approximate knowing all the things we have to know to make and enact good decisions that affect us all.

Policing, on the other hand, is easy as pie. Entire groups, classes, peoples, and groups are declared out of bounds and thus subject to police action. If you argue with the police about their inclusion of a particular group of people on its list of “not our kind of folks,” they will say what police always say on such occasions—”Oh, so you’re in cahoots with them?”—and rap you over the head with a truncheon.

In the years I have been editing websites and deliberately misusing social media for the same purposes, I have been rapped over the head with heavy verbal truncheons so many times I am now permanently punch drunk.

Most of the policing, unsurprisingly, has been meted out by Russophones, many of whom really do suffer from chauvinism of a kind that, at best, does not brook the possibility that a non-native Russophone could have anything worthwhile to say about Russian politics and society. The Ukrainian provocateur was from this school of opinion.

Since there are something like twenty people in the world—seriously!—who genuinely support what I do here, I guess I will keep doing it, but the other day’s round of kangaroo boxing left me seriously wary about people whom I had considered comrades. // TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

Zeitgeist Checklist

taste real mexicoA 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.

That’s no fun to think about it, either, and it’s altogether scary to do something about it, so why not pretend you live in Williamsburg while you can?

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

Salmagundi: A New Low

DSCN4978
An advertisement for hard drugs in downtown Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

“I very often hear from smart and even progressive colleagues, not only so-called conservatives, that we should not exaggerate. The regime, they say, has not cracked down on millions of people, and you can criticize it, albeit on the internet. There are protest rallies from time to time. Intelligent books are published, not burned, and monuments to Stalinism’s victims are erected. The west has many of its own faults, too, and generally speaking, the regime is not all that oppressive.

“What I do not like about this rationale, however, is the constant desire to normalize current Russian reality, turn a blind eye to the crimes and mean tricks that actually do occur, muffle criticism and, ultimately, justify the regime, if only unconsiously. It is somehow especially offensive to hear and read such things when they are said and written by people who have left Russia.”

Source: Sergey Abashin

DSCN4964.jpg
“Oil.” Photo by the Russian Reader

“When the Russian Federation occupied Crimea, Russians celebrated. When Donetsk and Lugansk were shelled and captured, they encouraged the vampire and cursed the Ukrainians. When the Russian Federation bombs Syria, our vast country’s deaf inhabitants are out of the loop.

“But why do they got upset when their own children are poisoned? Are the children of the Crimean Tatars, made orphans, and the murdered children of Ukraine and Syria worse than the children of Moscow and Voronezh?

“As long as you agree to kill others, don’t expect happiness. Your actions will catch up with you, sooner or later.

“Some would call it fate, others karma, still others, divine punishment. What’s the difference? Everything in this world is connected.”

Source: Elena Zaharova

DSCN4860Front page of official municipal council district newspaper, Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

“‘My name is Mikhail Safronov. I’m a tenth-grade student and I’m against the decision by the Russian Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs to close the British Council in Russia.’

“According to Mikhail, closing the British Council would deprive Russians of the opportunity to learn about British culture, study English, and attend lectures, seminars, and other interesting events.

“’I think that political squabbles should not affect educational and cultural activities, for when we look at the historical past, we shall see that culture has always been an important element in any situation,’” believes Mikhail.”

Source: Email message from Change.org

lahiorotat-jaloviinaScreenshot from the video for “Skujaa” by Helsinki hip-hop group SMC Lähiärotat

The really hilarious and sad thing is the number of Russians who are convinced that, because they are “victims” of their own regime, the so-called west (the EU, US, etc.) owes them something, everything.

I don’t mean asylum. Under international law, countries are obliged to provide safe haven to people who flee their own countries “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

Unfortunately, there have been a good number of Russians who have fled Russia for just these reasons in recent years, and many of them have been granted asylum, as they should have been.

But there have been many more Russians who have simply left the country for a better life somewhere else.

That’s cool, too.

Or it would be cool if more or most Russians extended the same right to live the good life to other peoples. But even as they either live happily in the west or think hard about relocating there, which they regard as an entitlement and a birthright, many of them are horrified that Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, etc., have been “overrun” by Muslims, Mexicans, Africans, Indonesians, etc.

The entitlement to a good life does not extend to these people, even if some of then, namely, Syrians, have been fleeing their homeland because the Russian government has allied itself with the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to crush all opposition to his tyrannical dynasty and been bombing the last opposition strongholds to smithereens with its superior air force and firepower.

I don’t need to tell you how many refugees, displaced people, and asylum seekers the Assadist massacres in Syria have generated, but Russia itself has taken in only a handful, at most, of these refugees, and caused them a lot of problems in the process.

Meanwhile, wherever they are in the rest of the world, at home or abroad, a good number of Russians would deny refuge and asylum to these same people because, in their mind, they are all potential “Islamic terrorists” or otherwise incompatible with “western civilization,” whatever that is and as if Russia were indubitably a part of it, an imaginary construct.

This same sense of entitlement extends to the mostly jejune “battle with the regime” at home. Of course, there are lots of Russian grassroots activists and opposition politicians who fight the good fight without even once thinking about “the west” and what it can or should do for them in their uneven struggle with the Putinist tyranny.

But there are just as many Russians who take it as a given that “the west” should be ready and willing to provide them with whatever they require when they need it: funding for their endless “projects,” junkets to conferences, research fellowships, lectureships, etc.

You might wonder why a grassroots activists or an opposition politician would need a research fellowship. Most real activists and politicans don’t need them, in fact. But the “struggle” in Russia has generated a rather large academic cottage industry of researchers and “activist researchers,” supposedly engaged in studying the “struggle,” the country’s “social movements,” and so on.

By all means, whenever possible, “the west” should fund this research, too. Russian intellectuals—unlike Syrian intellectuals, Iraqi intellectuals, etc., (do “Islamic terrorists” even have intellectuals?)—are entitled to this support because, in mysterious ways I cannot even fathom at this point, they “share the same values” as “westerners,” whoever they are.

Here’s the kicker. While western leftists and other assorted kooks have imagined “the west” has been doing Satan’s work and trying its darnedest to dismantle the once-mighty socialist utopia, the real story has been that the west actually has been flooding the former Soviet Union and Russia in particular with all manner of aid to civil society, academia, and even governments.

This extends even to the US State Department, rightly condemned as the source of all evil in the known universe. There is probably not a single person in the current Russian government and parliament who has not been the beneficiary, at some time in the surprisingly recent past, of an all-expenses-paid fact-finding junket to the US and/or the EU. A rather large number of Russian law enforcement officers and judges have also been on such trips to the Great Satan, as I know for a fact.

You might argue this kind of aid is ultimately self-serving, and you would be right. It was and has been mostly premised on the crazy notion that Russia was a democracy, and the west just needed to give it a little help and practical advice to get it all the way to the premier league of democracy, so to speak.

In the historiography of the Soviet Union, an important breakthrough was made when a new tribe of then-young historians started doing something that subsequently became known as “revisionist” history. That is, they dared to look at the Soviet Union as something other than a nonstop Stalinist totalitarian nightmare, meaning they tried to examine how ordinary Soviet citizens perceived their society or periodized the country’s history to show how very different the Stalin era was from the Thaw, and so on.

We are in desperate need of a revisionist history of the recent past, meaning the 1990s to the present. I realize no serious historian believes in “histories of the present,” but it’s good to attempt such things anyway, if only to preserve parts of the present or the near past that will not be so obvious to the people who come after us.

What I have in mind most of all is the very successful attempt to hypnotize the whole world into believing what I call the standard narrative about the collapse of the Soviet Union, its aftermath, and the rise of Putinism. Remarkably, the standard narrative is shared by Putinists, anti-Putinists (especially leftist anti-Putinists,) and lazy western academics and journalists alike, that is, by people who would seem otherwise to be at odds in the present when it comes to interpreting Russia’s current morass or, alternately, “resurgence.

I don’t want to rehearse the standard narrative here, partly because at this point it bores me to tears, and partly because I don’t want to give yet another platform to a story that the remarkable US president would call “fake news.”

The upshot is that everyone has forgotten that, during the “savage nineties,” Russian politicians, Russian society, Russian media, and ordinary Russians were not all reflexively anti-American and anti-western. Nor were they necessarily pro-American and pro-western.

Whatever they were, then, and whatever they were doing, it was this that was crucial to what happened in Russia at the time, for good and for ill. Meaning that no amount of American and western aid, advice, and other interventions (including the interventions of capitalist wheeler dealers and carpetbaggers) made a critical difference to the polity or the unbearable chaos, depending on your point of view, that Russians produced collectively at that extraordinarily interesting time

To know that, it helps a great deal to have actually been here to witness it, as I was.

This is not to say that nothing the west and the US did at the time (I’ll leave it you to make up your own lists of those things) had any impact on life in Russia. What I do mean to say is that impact was never so critical as to make inevitable the period that followed, meaning the Putinist period, in which the country’s ruling elite has been engaged, from day one of the post-Yeltsin, in an all-out “cold civil war” (a term coined by a friend of mine) against ever more numerous and ever larger segments of Russian society.

However, throught both periods, western governments, including the US, and western organizations of all kinds have been keen to promote democracy, civil society, academic research, and culture in Russia, and have spent a good deal of time, energy, and money on that mission, premised, mistakenly or not, on the notion that Russia was a society not so different from our own societies.

I realize I am deliberately emphasizing the positive side of this relationship and practically ignoring the darker, negative sides of this effort. I am doing so for two reasons. One, I really do believe the positive has outweighed the negative. Two, I think the real challenge for serious “new revisionist” historians of the recent post-Soviet past would be to not take the standard narrative as a given, because once you do that, I would argue, you are a short slippery slope away from full-blown Putinism, which in Russian hipster leftist discourse usually has been camouflaged by a rather dubious take on post-colonialism, namely, that “the west” has attempted to “colonize” post-Soviet Russia, that would make all the pioneers of post-colonialist theory turn over in their graves, that is, if they are not still alive and happily theorizing among us.

The flipside of this wholesale sellout to the Putinist standard narrative, paradoxically, is the widespread belief that “the west” owes each and every Russian a personal debt either for screwing up their country so badly or, conversely, for not doing enough to make it a full-fledged democracy.

So, having spent millions and billions of dollars and euros, and thousands and hundred of thousands of manhours doing our best to help our wartime ally take what we all thought would be a tiny, natural, easy step in the right direction, we are now universally reviled (and revile ourselves) either for attempting to divert Russia from its unique historical trajectory or not doing enough to divert Russia from its uniquely catastrophic historical trajectory.

Concomitant to this “porridge on the brain” (kasha v golove) is the equally widespread and equally false notion that “we” (as if “the west” were a real thing, a monolith centrally governed by me or the Rockefeller family or my Uncle Duane) have not been paying enough attention to “victimized,” “colonized” or “resurgent” Russia (cross out the words that do not apply) both in terms of journalistic coverage and academic research.

In fact, Russia has had so much attention of all kinds lavished on it in the last thirty years, I would wager that, in terms of character counts, minutes of airtime, column inches, and so forth, it would easily outdo all other parts of the so-called non-western world, China included.

Yet I am constantly encountering people, Russians and “Russophiles” alike, who argue that if “the west” would spend more time (and money) listening to this group of Russian or that group of Russians, it would finally get the “real picture.”

In reality, nearly all those groups of Russians with big messages for the imaginary Big Brother have been furiously shuttling back and forth across the frontier for a long time now, wearing a large furrow in the carpet.

This brings me to my non-intuitive and unforeseen conclusion, which would seem to be at odds with everything I have professed and done over the last nearly thirty years.

What if “we” (although “we” know don’t really exist, but “they” don’t know that, even though “they” don’t really exist, either) just gave up altogether on our nonexistent collective project to befriend Russia or bring it to its knees by begging it fecklessly not to turn into a tinpot kleptocracy.

With all the time, money, and manhours freed up, “we” could engage with other parts of the world or take up other worthy pursuits.

What does this have to do with Russia? Absolutely nothing at all. And that’s my point. I think it would have a tremendously invigorating effect if “we” (who don’t really exist) disengaged from Russia altogether, if only because we need to deal with our own ailing countries or other traumas, joys, and dreams pestering our souls.

And also because solidarity, as I have been harping on for years, is a two-way street.

There was a time, in the nineties, when I thought I could see that two-way street being built. It has long ago turned into a one-way street, however, and whatever “we” do do and whatever “we” do not do, “we” are damned and condemned and reviled and told “we” are not doing enough. That is, “we” are in what Margaret Mead’s less-famous but equally distinguished husband Gregory Bateson called a double bind.

I suggest “we” either just give up and get on with our lives or we take seriously the idea that, for the last two decades, we have been feeding ourselves a load of crap about our relationship with Russia and what has really been going on here, and we have let ourselves be fed a load of crap. TRR