I was seven years old when a distant relative, the brother of my great-aunt’s husband, showed up at our dacha. He was stuck there for the whole summer. We called him Uncle Misha. He was decidedly unlike my parents and their acquaintances. Having him around caused me grief at the time, but now I am grateful to fate, because in the person of Uncle Misha, Russia (from whose sight my relatives had erratically shielded me) came into my life.
Like Russia, Uncle Misha was extremely stupid. The first thing he did was dig up a huge boulder sticking out of the ground in the garden, and spend a whole month chiseling an inscription on it. The inscription was long: “On April 22, 1870, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the world proletariat, was born.” Uncle Misha painted each embossed letter white.
Besides, he liked to drink, and that addiction laid waste to his dreams. The fact was that Uncle Misha wanted a bicycle most of all and saved up for one for a long time. When he had purchased a bike, Uncle Misha went to Solnechnoye to celebrate the occasion. He fell asleep at a beer stall, and the bike was immediately filched.
Like Russia, however, Uncle Misha had amazing skills. I remember how he picked a basketful of pine cones, took out our decorative, Nicholas I-era samovar, filled it with the cones, soldered the leaky spigot, stoked the pipe almost with his boot, and brewed some extremely tasteless tea.
Then he disappeared, and a couple of years later he died of cancer. It was all a long time ago, and I would have forgotten Uncle Misha, but now he has suddenly risen from the grave. I constantly see and hear (mostly at a safe distance, thank God) the people who surrounded me as a child. There are the old women crushing each other whilst queueing for sugar, officious Auntie Motyas with serious hairdos, exact replicas of my teachers and head teachers, the peasants wearing baggy-kneed trousers, the gopniks with herring eyes — they are the grandsons and granddaughters of the Soviet people who so spoiled my childhood. They have been cloned whole, already dressed and sporting mohair hats and berets from the get-go.
I spent a whole month this past winter in Petersburg and saw them at every turn. While I was it, I went to a Chris Marker retrospective that friends of mine put on. There were about twenty people in the large auditorium, and I knew almost all of them personally — five organizers, five foreigners, and ten university students.
After getting any eyeful of this, I was persuaded that it was impossible to improve this country. It keeps churning out people on the same old conveyor belt, but no cataclysm is capable of stopping it. And right now I’m even more convinced that this is the case.
If a Russian loves Russia, he’s a patriot. If a Ukrainian loves Ukraine, he’s a “Bandera nationalist.”
If pro-Russian slogans are bandied about in Russia, it’s normal. If pro-Ukrainian slogans are bandied about in Ukraine, it’s “Nazism.”
If the Russian president talks to the American president, he’s forging better relations between their two countries. If the Ukrainian president talks to the American president, they’re “hatching a plot” against Russia.
If a Russian national speaks Russian, it is par for the course. If a Ukrainian speaks Ukrainian, he is “persecuting” Russophones.
When you see footage from protest rallies in the Russian Federation, all that ring-around-the rosy, or watch broadcasts made by the Russian emigration in Tbilisi, you immediately recall one of Jünger’s journal entries in Strahlungen. Although, admittedly, some Russians, a few, have already caught sight of the abyss out of the corner of their eyes.
PARIS, 14 JUNE 1942
Went to Bagatelle in the afternoon. There Charmille told me that students had recently been arrested for wearing yellow stars with different mottoes, such as “idealist,” and then walking along the Champs-Ėlysées as a demonstration.
Such individuals do not yet realize that the time for discussion is past. They also attribute a sense of humor to their adversary. In so doing, they are like children who wave flags while swimming in shark-infested waters: they draw attention to themselves.
[Ernst Jünger, A German Officer in Occupied Paris: The War Journals, 1941–1945, trans. Thomas S. Hansen and Abby J. Hansen (Columbia University Press, 2019)]
We have to admit that our generation of Russian anti-authoritarian leftists drew the short straw when it comes to the people [narod]. I want to emphasize, though, that they are not the way they are “genetically.” They have been raised to be this way. Yes, there was a seed of imperial mindedness, but without soil and fertilizers, that godawful hogweed would not have grown.
– Brutal capitalism and maximum competition multiplied by the cult of success, causing universal brutalization and an inability to communicate.
– The survival tactic that follows from the first subprogram: identifying with the powerful aka blaming the victim. If you want to foster a nation of stern warriors, you foster a nation of toadies. Hence our servility and respect for ranks.
– A regime based on a twenty-year-long counter-terrorism operation.
“I need love and vodka,” says one young woman to another. Everyone is so joyful.
T-shirts sporting the Z symbol are sold in the pedestrian underpass near Gostiny Dvor. Near the the exit from Gribanal [Griboyedov Canal subway station], a woman sells willow branches [for Palm Sunday, which is this Sunday in the Russian Orthodox calendar], the Soviet flag flying above her. A jeep adorned with a huge [Russian] tricolor cruises near Kazan Cathedral. A car branded with the letter Z is parked in Bankovsky Lane.
I don’t know whether I will ever be able to love this city again. Or at least not feel sick. I walk around it looking for niches, corners, secret places where I can hide, pretend to be a shadow cast by the caryatids, so that I won’t be found, pried out, and forced to be part of universal vileness.
Source: Comrade JG, Facebook, 16 April 2022. Translated by the Russian Reader with the kind permission of the author, who wishes to remain anonymous.
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
A Williamsburg-inspired eatery in snowy central Petersburg, 5 February 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader
It’s remarkable how the MH17 final report and Ukrainian political prisoner and filmmaker Oleg Sentsov’s hunger strike have exacerbated two sad trends among Russia’s left/liberal/creative/academic intelligentsia.
The first trend involves intelligenty out-Putining Putin and his regime’s put-on anti-Americanism by ramping up the number of social media posts and hasbarical hate-a-grams about the US, its sinister machinations, and its signal failings.
This is part of the same operetta in which the nefarious NATO is a greater threat to world peace than a country that reserves the right to invade its closest neighbor and join in crushing a democratic, grassroots rebellion in a faraway country whose people have never harmed Russia in any shape or form.
But it’s no fun talking, much less doing anything, about that at all, because it would require real collective effort. So, depending on your political tastes, it’s much easier, as a Russophone, to hate on NATO or Hamas.
Some Russians go for the trifecta, hating on both “terrorist” organizations, while also indulging in the most satisfying infantile pleasure on our planet today: Islamophobia. You know, Europe has been overrun by Islamic terrorists and that whole tired spiel, which gives such a sense of purpose to otherwise wildly ignorant people who have betrayed their own country and countrymen so many ways over the last 25 or 30 years it should make all our heads spin.
The other trend, which has also kicked into high gear again, is going hipster as hard as you can. There are any number of “projects,” “creative clusters,” eating and drinking establishments, festivals, semi-secret dance parties, and god knows what else in “the capitals” to make the younger crowd and even some of the middle-aged set forget they live in a country ruled by a ultra-reactionary kleptocratic clique that can have any of them abducted for any reason whatsoever at a moment’s notice and charged with “involvement in a terrorist community” or some such nonsense and ruin their lives forever.
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
Andrei Zakharov, A Crossroads in Time: The New Rossiyans (Alfa Kniga, 2012)
None of our contemporaries who decided to vacation on the shores of a mysterious lake in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone expected the trip would change their future. A natural disaster and encounters with Red Army soldiers, surrounded near Kiev in 1941, and a detachment of White Guards from 1919 were not part of their plans. But man proposes and God disposes. They did not know who wanted to test them—God or someone else—by gathering and abandoning them in the mountains of South America in the sixteenth century, during the collapse of the Inca empire and its conquest by Spanish conquistadors. But the trials that befell their lot forced all of them to unite and start a new life.
Translated by the Russian Reader
Police, Nationalists Clash As Russians Mark National Unity Day
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
November 04, 2017
Police detain protesters at the nationalist march in Moscow. Photo courtesy of Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Riot police and nationalist demonstrators clashed in Moscow on November 4 at an antigovernment demonstration coinciding with celebrations of Russia’s National Unity Day holiday.
Police detained several demonstrators in a crowd of nationalists who had gathered in southeastern Moscow for an annual Russian March that organizers called off almost as soon as it began after police refused to allow participants to carry banners.
Organizers said authorities had granted approval for banners at the demonstration. The city government had given official permission for the rally, and hundreds of participants had gathered for the event at the time police intervened.
Video footage showed one woman being carried off in a stretcher after what a Dozhd TV reporter at the scene described as a scuffle with riot police.
A second Russian March, meanwhile, was under way in northwestern Moscow.
The standoff between police and demonstrators came at the start of a politically charged weekend in which Russians nationwide are marking National Unity Day.
The holiday, which the Kremlin established more than a decade ago, has replaced Soviet-era celebrations of the Bolshevik Revolution anniversary.
This year’s holiday comes three days ahead of the centennial of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
A day before the celebrations, Russian authorities on November 3 said they had detained several backers of a self-exiled Kremlin critic in the Moscow area, claiming they were plotting to trigger riots by attacking government buildings and police during the holiday.
Russian opposition politician Vyacheslav Maltsev (right) at a Russian opposition rally on May 6, 2017. Photo courtesy of TASS
The Federal Security Service (FSB) said the suspects are members of a “conspiratorial cell” of Artpodgotovka (Artillery Bombardment), a movement established by outspoken opposition activist Vyacheslav Maltsev.
Maltsev, who has described himself as a nationalist and anarchist, has said on YouTube that Russia is up for a “revolution” this weekend.
RBC news agency cited an unidentified Interior Ministry source as saying that a spate of additional raids targeting Maltsev’s group were carried out in Moscow and the surrounding area on early on November 4.
Russia’s state TASS news agency quoted officials as saying that more than 90,000 security personnel will be on duty for some 2,000 Unity Day events across the country.
Nationalists traditionally hold rallies on November 4, while Russians nostalgic for the Soviet Union, such as the Communists, celebrate on November 7.
National Unity Day, which President Vladimir Putin established in 2005, officially honors a Russian victory over Polish forces in 1612.
In a ceremony commemorating the event, Putin on November 4 placed flowers at the Red Square monument to Kuzma Minin and Dmitry Pozharsky, who are credited with leading Russian troops against the Poles.
October 14, 2017
Crimean Tatar Journalist Ayder Muzhdabaev to Russian Rock Musician Andrei Makarevich: “It Hasn’t Passed, It Hasn’t Stopped Hurting, We’re Not Going to Take a Deep Breath”
Before arriving in Ukraine to clean up at the box office yet again, Russian TV presenter and showman Misha Kozyrev advises Ukrainians not to let the war into their hearts. By the way, he will again be arriving in the country real soon. Someone has to tell the “embittered” younger brothers what to think and how to live. We are clueless on our own.
And when Russian musician Andrei Makarevich was asked why he wanted to drag his band Time Machine’s keyboardist Andrei Derzhavin, who signed an open letter to Putin supporting the annexation of Crimea and the war, along with him to Ukraine, he wrote on Facebook it was time to stop discussing events that had happened four years ago. “Learn to take a deep breath,” he wrote. As if everything had passed and stopped hurting. No, it has not passed, and it has not stopped hurting. If someone thinks we have forgotten everything, he or she probably should not come to Ukraine.
If your keyboard player, Mr. Makarevich, still slips into the country under your skirt, so to speak, we will drag him from his dressing room and send him home packing. If you are incapable of understanding such a simple, normal thought, then so be it: we will explain it to you. We have not taken a deep breath, and we are not going to, because we had our homeland stolen from us—or at least part of it. We remember that and we cannot forgive what happened, not only the war and annexation but also the indifference to us.
We are not aquarium fish or serfs who remember nothing and have no right to rage. We do not need any Russians here except those who are wholeheartedly against the Putin Reich, support the return of Crimea and Donbas to Ukraine, and support Ukraine unconditionally, without any provisos. If you are incapable of understanding us, if you lack the humanity to put yourself in our shoes, to feel and share our pain, you had better stay home, in the so-called Russian world.
I hope the so-called Russian world will take it easy on you, Mr. Makarevich. I hope it treats you more gently than it has treated the Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars. Although I do not think it will happen. Life is set up in such a way that right after the Jews were massacred, trouble came for the Germans. But who knows. If you continue to sit still and choose your words carefully, maybe you will be luck personally.
In the background of this photo, you can make out the Galeria Shopping Center, located in downtown Petersburg. It’s gigantic, covering the land once occupied by five or six graceful tenement buildings and a cultural center and cinema. They were demolished in the mid 1990s, not to make way for the shopping mall, but so a new train station could be built there, jeek by jowl with the existing Moscow Station, because federal and regional officials wanted to build a high-speed train line between Petersburg and Moscow. Millions of dollars were allocated for the project, but ultimately, the train line was never built nor was the new station erected. No one knows what happened to the millions of dollars allocated for the project. They simply vanished into thin air.
The site of the former-future high-speed train station sat vacant for many years behind a tall, ugly construction-site fence. No one could figure out what do to with all that wasteland, which was in the very heart of the city, not in some forgotten outskirts. However, before the money had vanished, and the project was abandoned, construction workers had managed not only to demolish all the tenement buildings on the site but had also dug a foundation pit. Over the long years, this pit filled up with water. Some time after Google Maps had become all the rage, I took a look at our neighborhood via satellite, as it were, and discovered to my great surprise it now had a small lake in it. It was the foundation pit of the former-future high-speed train station, filled to the brim with water.
Good times came to Petersburg in the 2000s, when the country was flush with cash, generated by high oil prices, a flat tax rate of 13%, and runaway corruption. It was then the city’s mothers and fathers (I’m not being ironic: most of Petersburg’s “revival” was presided over by Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a former Communist Youth League functionary who had converted to the gospel of what she herself called “aggressive development”) decided that Petersburg, one of the world’s most beautiful, haunting, enchanting cities, should be extensively redeveloped, despite its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, into a mecca of consumerism that would give pride of place to cars and new highways, since cars had become the new status symbol among the city’s rich and poor alike. They also decided that, since other big cities in the world had lots of high-rise buildings, their city, which did not have almost any high-rise buildings, should have lots of them, too.
Basically, they decided to demolish as much of the inner and outer city as they could get away with—and they could get away with a lot, because they had nearly unlimited political power and lots of the country’s money at their disposal—and redevelop it with high-rise apartment buildings, superhighways, big box stores, and shopping and entertainment centers, each one uglier and bigger than the last. Thanks to their efforts, in a mere fifteen years or so they have gone a long way toward turning a Unesco World Heritage Site into an impossible, unsightly mess.
But let’s get back to our miniature inner-city lake. Finally, developers came up with a plan to convert the site into a giant shopping mall. Even better, the architects who designed the mall were clearly inspired by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect and a leading Nazi Party member, to turn a rather oversized mall into a celebration of kitsch faux-neoclassicism, precisely the sort of thing Speer had championed in his projects. This, indeed, was a bit ironic, because Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, had survived a 900-day siege by the German army during the Second World War. Considered the longest and most destructive siege in history, it killed at least 800,000 civilians, that is, it killed the grandparents and great-grandparents of many of the people who now enjoy visiting this mall, with its distinctly neo-fascist aesthetic.
Along the sides of the street running down towards the photographer from the Albert Speer Memorial Shopping Center, you see lots of shiny new, fairly expensive cars, parked bumper to bumper. In fact, the Albert Speer has a huge underground car park where you can park your car relatively inexpensively (our neighbor lady, a sensible woman, does it), but most Petersburg car owners actually think parking their cars wherever they want—especially either right next to their residential buildings or, worse, in the tiny, labyrinthine, incredibly charming inner courtyards of these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings—is their legal right. It isn’t, but they don’t know it or don’t want to know it. I know they think this way because many Petersburg car owners have told me so.
To my mind, the precipitous rise in personal car ownership in Petersburg has done more to degrade the city’s beauty than all the underinspired colossal high-rises put together, because the city was purposely designed by its original builders, beginning with Peter the Great, to have a good number of intersecting and radiating, awe-inspiring, long and clear sightlines or “perspectives.” Hence, many of the city’s longest avenues are called “prospects,” such as Nevsky Prospect (the title of one of Nikolai Gogol’s best stories) and Moskovsky Prospect. Nowadays, however, you gaze down these “perspectives” only to see traffic jams and hectares of other visual pollution in the shape of signs, billboards, banners, and marquees. It’s not a pretty sight.
On the right of the picture, somewhere near the middle, you should be able to spot a small shop sign with the letters “AM” emblazoned on it. It’s one of the dozens of liquor stores that have popped up in our neighborhood after the Kremlin introduced its countersanctions against US and EU sanctions, which were instituted in response to Russia’s occupation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine. The US and EU sanctions targeted individuals and companies closely allied with the regime. Putin’s countersanctions, in a manner that has come to seem typical of how the Russian president for life’s mind works, were targeted against Russian consumers by banning the import of most western produce into the country. An exception was made for western alcoholic beverages, especially wines and beers, and this meant it was suddenly profitable again to get into the liquor business. The upshot has been that you can exit our house, walk in any direction, even putting on a blindfold if you like, and you will find yourself in a liquor store in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
Last summer, I tried painting a little verbal and photographic sketch of the effect this massive re-alcoholization has had on our neighborhood, along with other, mostly negative trends in the use and abuse of commercial space in the city.
Finally, there is one other thing you should know about all those new, mostly oversized cars parked on the street. Since the average monthly salary in Russia barely crawls above 600 or 700 euros a month, even in a seemingly wealthy city like Petersburg, most of those gas-guzzling, air-polluting status symbols were bought with borrowed money.
Just the other day, in fact, I translated and posted a tiny article, originally published in the business daily Kommersant, about how people in the Voronezh Region currently owed banks approximately two billion euros in outstanding loans. In 2015, the region’s estimated population was around 2,300,000, so, theoretically, each resident of Voronezh Region now owes the banks 870 euros, which I am sure is more than most people there earn in two or three months. Of course, not every single resident of Voronezh Region has taken out a loan, so the real damage incurred by real individual borrowers is a lot worse.
I could be wrong, but I think what I have just written gives you a rough idea of how you go about reading photographs of today’s Russian cities, their visible aspect in general, turning a snapshot into something meaningful, rather than assuming its meaning is obvious, right there on the surface. You don’t just tweet a photo of a new football stadium or fancy restaurant or street jammed with expensive cars and make that stand for progress, when progress, whether political, economic or social, really has not occurred yet in Russia, despite all the money that has been sloshing around here the last fifteen years. Instead, you talk about the real economic, political, and social relations, which are often quite oppressive, murky, and criminal, that have produced the visible reality you want to highlight.
Doing anything less is tantamount to engaging in boosterism, whataboutism, Russian Worldism, and crypto-Putinism, but certainly not in journalism. That so many journalists, western and Russian, have abandoned real journalism for one or all of the isms I have listed is the really scary thing. TRR
Photograph by the Russian Reader
It’s a strange thing when a journalist who, only six years ago, wrote an excellent article in Foreign Policy about how officials in Petersburg quickly set up and then rigged elections in two out-of-the-way municipal districts so outgoing Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s “upmotion” to the Federation Council and the post of its chair would appear “legal,” would suddenly sink to naïve, angry Russian boosterism and, kick all Americans in the face, to boot.
Okay, so a stadium somewhere in Russia added extra seating when FIFA demanded it. So what?
Does Ioffe know about the debacle—involving extreme cost overruns; the employment of North Korean slave laborers, one of whom was killed on the job; the destruction of a federally listed architectural landmark; the multiple firings and hirings of general contractors and subcontractors; numerous revelations of newly discovered structural defects—that has plagued the Zenit Arena on Krestovsky Island in Petersburg, one of the main venues for this past summer’s Confederations Cup and next summer’s World Cup?
Told in full, it’s a mean, ugly story that would not “scare” Americans, but would hardly leave them with the impression Russia was well governed.
Ditto regarding the ongoing destruction of a tiny intellectual powerhouse, the European University of St. Petersburg, which the Kremlin, the Smolny (Petersburg city hall), the courts, and the state education watchdog, Rosobrnadzor, have decided to shut down for no ostensible reason.
Americans, if they are so inclined, can read these seemingly endless stories of Russian official malfeasance, thuggery, and gangsterism until they are blue in the face in publications running the gamut from the high-toned mags for which Ioffe writes to the crap blogs about Russia I’ve been editing for ten years.
I don’t think these hypothetical Americans would be “scared” after doing this extracurricular reading.
If anything, they would conclude (rightly) that Russia is a basket case and should not scare anybody but its own people, who have had to put up with this incompetent, larcenous tyranny 24/7, 365 days a year, year after year, for almost two decades.
The least anyone with a heart and, one would think, in Ioffe’s case, detailed knowledge of these circumstances, should do is avoid cheap whataboutism and extrapolating a media and political non-event (“the new Red scare”) onto an entire country of 325 million people.
I imagine most Americans could not really care less about Russia and the non-Red non-scare. They have things closer to home to worry about. Unlike Russians, ordinary Americans are definitely not obsessed with thinking about what Russians think about them.
But a good number of Russians, including Russian immigrants like Ioffe, are obsessed with thinking about what Americans think about them, and this is especially true among the intelligentsia and elites. (Trust me on this: I’ve been watching it at close range, fascinated but baffled, for almost twenty-five years.) Hence, I guess, Ioffe’s sudden, angry conversion to Russian Worldism. TRR
The So-Called Partners: How the Kremlin Corrupted an Unimaginable Number of People in the West
March 14, 2017
Before Crimea, everyone “cooperated” with the Russians. Until mid 2016, there was confusion about this past. The sanctions did not almost nothing to change this mode of cooperation.
But since the elections in the US, quite significant changes have been occurring that are hard to describe accurately and identify. Outwardly, this is encapsulated in the fact that people accused of communicating with the Russians have been losing their posts, and all this comes amidst public scandals. It’s not that people cooperated maliciously, but they were involved in what Russian gangsters call zaskhvar, “getting dirty.”
No one doubted Flynn’s loyalty, but he resigned due to “contacts.” The deputy speaker of the Lithuanian Seimas, Mindaugas Bastys, resigned the other day. He resigned because the Lithuanian secret services refused him access to secret information, although the list of Russians with whom he palled around at different times doesn’t contain anyone special: employees of Russian state corporations in Lithuania, crooked local Russian businessmen, and so on. Recently, the mailbox of an adventurer who has worked for the Kremlin in four countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary), and the Balkans to boot, was hacked. It transpired that Russian businessman Konstantin Malofeev had discussed or conducted ops of some kind during the elections in Bosnia and Poland.
Malofeev is, seemingly, an extreme example of frankly subversive actions in other countries. Perusing the correspondence and knowing the atmosphere of Russian affairs in Europe, you realize that Malofeev’s strategy and tactics differ not a whit from the actions of dozens and hundreds of similar actors operating outside the Russian Federation. Before Crimea, all of this resembled benign “promotion” of their interests on the part of all those who cooperated with such people. But now retrospection kicks ins. What trouble have those who were involved in the Petersburg Dialogue, the Valdai Club, the Dialogue of Civilizations, and the dozens and hundreds of programs where the Russians either footed the bill, generated incentives or simply provided a one-time service got themselves into? I was told by people from compatriots organizations (who fairly early pulled out of Russian World’s programs) that initially they were fooled by Nikita Mikhalkov’s early cultural projects outside Russia. They sincerely supported his appeal to the descendants of the post-revolutionary emigration. Around 2008, however, they sensed they were getting sucked into a system of ideological support for the Kremlin. Many even continued to travel to Moscow to the compatriots congresses, but inwardly they already felt like observers. They had already decided then that this was a new “Comintern,” and it would be wrong to accept grants from it. But others happily kept on taking the grants and sailed off with the Kremlin for Crimea.
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But all these political, humanitarian and media contacts pale next to the vastness of business collaborations. Millions of people worldwide were involved in Russian money for over a decade. After all, so-called capital flight occurred on a massive scale. This capital was then partly reinvested in Russia through offshores, and partly spent on buying various kinds infrastructure outside of Russia (firms, shares in businesses, real estate, yachts, etc.). This entire giant machine for circulating the Putin corporate state’s money was serviced by millions of people as counterparties, including lawyers, dealmakers of various shapes and sizes, politicians, MPs, movie stars, cultural figures, translators, and so on.
The outcome, when Crimea happened, was a huge spontaneous lobby. This doesn’t mean all these people had literally been bought off, to describe the process in terms of the battle against corruption. People simply “cooperated” and received various bonuses from this cooperation. It is not a matter of recruitment, but a psychological phenomenon. Any of us, having once received money from a rich childhood friend, even if we are critical towards him, would still remain publicly loyal to him. Would you want to shout to the heavens about the atrocities of a man thanks to whom, say, you had earned enough money to buy a new house? You would just keep your lips sealed.
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In other words, for around ten years, beginning approximately in 2004, after the takeover of Yukos, the Russian economy “warmed up” foreign strata whose scale is hard to evaluate. It was not a matter of corruption in the narrow sense of the word. Of course, on their part it was regarded as economic cooperation with a peculiar type of “eastern” economy that involved “pats on the back,” kickbacks, exchanges of various bonuses and preferences, trips to the banya, hunting for wild sheep from helicopters, and so on. But it was not criminal. On their part, it was indulged as a “peculiarity.” Russia is hardly the only economy marked by these ways. It was a partnership in the primary sense. The world’s major companies opened offices and production facilities in Russia. Until recently, it was a privileged economy, included in the BRICS grouping.
Crimea turned all the fruits of this decade-long warming-up into a problem. It is obvious Putin used Crimea to implement an instantaneous mobilization amongst those involved in the partnership. He confronted all the partners with the need to define themselves. Putin’s use of the word “partners,” which he pronounces ironically, has often been thought to relate to the diplomatic lexicon. But in fact Putin has in mind other partners, the millions of people who have received big bonuses for dealing with Russian contracts, Russian money, and various undertakings with Russians for a decade.
* * *
Now these partners have big problems, and we must sadly note that the problems are not due to Crimea as such nor to the regime of sanctions and countersanctions, nor to the ambivalence of having been involved in toxic projects with Russians in the past. The problems lies entirely in the fact that Putin does not want to stop.
This entire massive milieu would sigh in relief if it found out that Putin had “transferred the title to himself” (i.e., focused on Crimea) and called it a day.
But the extreme ambiguity has been maintained and even intensified from 2014 to 2017. It was not Putin who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, but folks mobilized by Malofeev. It was not Putin who murdered Nemtsov, but Chechen security officials. It was not Putin who hacked the Democratic Party’s servers, but volunteer hackers, who maybe were Russians or maybe not, but they used Russian servers. The attempted coup in Montenegro was not orchestrated by Putin, but by persons unknown. It was not Putin who plotted to destroy Ukraine as a country and establish Novorossiya, but, say, Sergei Glazyev. The pro-Russian rallies in European countries were organized not by Putin, but by a guy named Usovsky, who raised money for the purpose from patriotic Russian businessmen. And so on.
The list now grows with every passing day. Yet the Kremlin doesn’t really distance itself from any of it with a vigor that would be comprehensible to its so-called partners. The Kremlin has not conducted an investigation of any of these events, but has played an ambiguous game that can be clearly read as “covering up” all of “its own” people.
So the ten-year economic warming-up has been transformed before our very eyes into “inducement to conspiracy.” Everyone is now looking back and asking themselves, “Who was it we ‘partnered’ with? Maybe it was Russian intelligence? Or, from the get-go, was it just bait to get us involved in an unscrupulous lobbying scheme?”
* * *
There is tremendously frightening novelty at play here. Everything happening before our eyes with the State Department and pro-Russian politicians in Europe lays bare a complex problem. The boundaries between lobbying, partnership, espionage, propaganda, and corruption have been eroded.
A situation is generated in which it it impossible to tell benign partnership from complicity in a politics that erodes the limits of the permissible. Just yesterday you were a Christian Democrat building a partnership with the Russian Federation, but today you are just a silent accomplice in eroding the norms of Europe’s political culture. You are not just tight-lipped, refusing to evaluate the Kremlin’s actions. On the contrary. “Maintaining fidelity,” so to speak, to the fruits of your past partnership with the Kremlin, you even raise a skeptical voice. “What’s so criminal about Putin’s policies?” And others do the same. “The sanctions have been been ineffective. Frankly, Crimea has always been Russian.”
And if you were somehow able to take in at a glance the entire so-called Kremlin propaganda machine abroad as a combination of the work of Moscow news agencies and little-visited European websites run by left- and right-wing critics of American hegemony who for that reason sympathize with Putin, it would be utterly impossible to get a glimpse of the giant roots the Kremlin has put down in the western economy. It is beyond estimation, just like the transformation or, rather, the corruption not only of its own native population but also huge circles in the west, a task the Kremlin has accomplished in ten years.
Three years ago, I imagined Putin was putting together a kind of right-wing Comintern, and I wrote about it. Now it is often dubbed the “black Comintern.” I think, however, the situation is more complicated and a lot worse. The “Putinist Comintern” is the fairly insignificant and well-visible tip of a much larger process taking place on other floors of European life, where people who are not involved in either ultra-rightist or ultra-leftist politics remain silent about the Kremlin’s actions. Condemning it, they remain loyal nevertheless. They considerately wait for Putin to return to European norms of partnership. These people cannot see and do not want to see that the ambiguity fostered by the Kremlin in the matter of responsibility for murders, paramilitary detachments, mercenaries, and destabilization of small countries is not a temporary phenomenon. It has been conceived that way. And it will continue that way in the future.
Alexander Morozov is a Russian journalist and political analyst. Translated by the Russian Reader
Unity in a Vacuum
November 4, 2015
All holidays are rituals of unity, and it is hard to imagine society functioning without them. November 4, however, is a truly odd day, whose originators ask us to experience unity for its own sake. It reflects the emptiness of official ideology, which claims the role of a national idea.
National Unity Day (Den’ narodnogo edinstva) will never be a truly popular, grassroots holiday. Whatever our attitude to living holidays like International Women’s Day (March 8) or Victory Day (May 9), despite the vulgarity surrounding them and the distortions of their original meaning, they are still bound up with significant societal needs: honoring wives, mothers, and heroic forebears. The sense of unity experienced by millions of people at tables laden with champagne and Olivier salad is maybe illusory but it is not groundless. But who besides thuggish nationalists is capable of feeling the narcissistic pleasure of “unity” as such, especially since it is totally unclear what we are called on to rally around?
The search for a national idea in post-Soviet Russia has resembled the quest for the philosopher’s stone, and has been just as fruitless. According to the Russian Constitution, the sovereign power in the Russian state is “its multinational people,” who are usually designated by the semi-bureaucratic term rossiyane [citizens of Russia, as opposed to russkie, ethnic Russians]. And yet multiculturalism (the coexistence of different ethnic traditions within a single society) is considered a dirty word, and federalism has finally been shunted aside by the vision of Empire. Promotion of ethnic nationalism, “Russianness,” and its concomitant Russian Orthodoxy, the official “spiritual bond,” has led to the fact that Chechens, Dagestanis, and Buryats, for example, are often not regarded as “citizens of multinational Russia,” but as suspicious foreigners like the migrant workers from the once-fraternal former Soviet republics.
However, as it flirts with Russian ethnic nationalism, which has served it well in Ukraine, the regime at the same time fears its devastating consequences for empire. While reacting morbidly to the most innocent speeches about federalization, the Kremlin also prevents the holding of the so-called Russian Marches. The regime’s rhetoric contains an explosive ambiguity. On the one hand, the regime constantly tells us about the “Russian world,” thus stoking ethnic chauvinism. On the other, it talks about the country’s multinational people and the danger of nationalism.
When they invented a holiday to replace November 7 (Revolution Day), the Kremlin’s ideologues deliberately chose the vaguest phrasing possible: “national unity” or “popular unity” [narodnoe edinstvo]. But what is “the people” [narod] today? The word is hardly equivalent to “nation” or “ethnic group.” In pre-Revolutionary Russia, the word denoted all the non-privileged classes, the “simple folk,” especially the peasants. The people was distinguished from educated society by its special (unique and authentic) way of thinking and living, as well as its perennial disempowerment and oppression. In other words, it was more a class and cultural notion than an ethnic or official legal concept.
Later, a new supranational identity, the Soviet people [sovetskii narod], was constructed. We can argue whether it was a reality or the stillborn offspring of communist propaganda. However, this concept cannot be denied its logical shapeliness. The Soviet people was the unity of working people, freed from the yoke of the past and headed towards a post-capitalist future. Unqiue, authentic tradition gave way to Soviet society’s social authenticity and uniqueness. It had overthrown tsarism and capitalism, successfully defended its independence in the fight against fascism, and was proud of its unprecedented historical mission.
In post-Soviet Russia, however, there are no longer any communal peasants or builders of communism. Russia has no monolithic ethnic foundation or alternative social project that it could show to the world and itself. All that can be said about our society it that it is post-Soviet. But there can be no “post-Soviet” people. The mutilated shards of the imperialist, Soviet, and westernized mindsets have generated a postmodernist mishmash that a disoriented and atomized populace gags on and vomits out. It is not the nation or the people but the unscrupulous regime, which has no other purpose than self-reproduction, that is only the glue binding this stagnant society, a society bereft of guideposts. The November 4 holiday is a vacuum into which the ruling class gazes, a void that will eventually swallow it.
Translated by the Russian Reader
Editor’s Note. Confused readers might imagine that the following (excerpted) screed from the hilariously named website The Saker (for the ornithologically challenged, the saker is a falcon used in falconry) is an apology for fascism. Actually, they’d be right.
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“There are no separate Russia or Ukraine, but one Holy Rus” – Elder Iona of Odessa
The year 2014 saw an unprecedented surge of patriotism in contemporary Russia, which resulted in popularizing the notion of the Russian World. One reason for increased patriotic sentiment was Crimea’s return to the home port after the overwhelmingly positive vote by its majority-Russian residents in a referendum one year ago. The onset of the liberation war in Donbass from the West-backed Kiev regime was the other. This war truly delineated the stakes for the existence of the Russian World. The latter is not an ethnic, but a civilizational concept that encompasses shared culture, history, and language in the Eurasian space within a traditionalist framework. To a certain extent and despite the obvious ideological differences, the Russian Empire and the USSR embodied the same geopolitical entity. A particularly noteworthy aspect of the ongoing crisis in Donbass is the symbolism—religious and historic—that surpasses the commonly used, but outdated Left-Right political spectrum. In the Russian context, this also means overcoming the Red-White divide of the Communist Revolution. That this war pushed Russians to examine their country’s raison d’être is somewhat remarkable: for two decades its citizens did not have an official ideology, prohibited by the Constitution that is based on Western models. The emergence of a new way of thinking in Russia will become clearer once we refer to the meaning of religious insignia, wars—Russian Civil and Great Patriotic, as well as the question of ideology in the Postmodern world.
In fact, post-Liberal ideology is one of the factors that blinds many Westerners to the realities of the liberation war in Donbass. The current Western model of citizenship is an abstract one: it centers around a set of principles in which individuals are interchangeable—as long as they adopt “European values” or the “American way of life”—instead of the more traditional notions of rootedness in the landscape, cultural and linguistic ties, and ancestral bonds. Thus, those who subscribe to this abstraction have difficulties understanding how belonging to the same people (narod) overrides living in two different states—contemporary Russia and Ukraine—haphazardly formed at the time of the Soviet collapse, and why they seem so attached to their language, culture, religion, history, and land that they are willing to die for them. But even for those Russians that lean toward more traditionalist thought, it took this war—the war that was meant to separate—to ideologically and spiritually unite them with others like them across the border, to begin questioning who they really are, uncertain, but hopeful, forging the idea of the Russian World. Beyond Left and Right, Beyond Red and White.
You would be right in asking, Who the heck is Nina Kouprianova? What does it matter what she thinks? But what this guy thinks does matter and he seems quite on message with Ms. Kouprianova:
Putin also addressed Ukraine’s struggles, saying “extreme nationalism is always harmful and dangerous,” and implied that Ukrainian voters would hold the parliament and the Poroshenko Administration responsible the country’s current mess. “I, for one, have always thought of Russians and Ukrainians as a single people,” he added.
His intentions could not be plainer.
Thanks to Comrade NT for the heads-up on this depressing new website.