The Media’s Russia Obsession?

trumputin

Let’s talk about the media’s so-called Russia obsession for a few minutes.

What is meant by this is that the mainstream press have devoted tons of coverage to the substantial allegations that the Kremlin mounted a massive operation, mostly via social media, to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and, further, that the campaign of the candidate who won the election actively colluded with the Kremlin, among other things, in order to discredit the candidate’s main opponent in the election. The press has also focused a lot on Robert Mueller’s special investigation of these allegations.

Is all of this press coverage sterling? No. Does the press get the story wrong sometimes? Yes.

But this has always been the case with the nominally free press in nominally democratic societies ever since the free press emerged in the eighteenth century in a few countries groping their way towards democracy. It always been biased, prone to mistakes, and otherwise wildly imperfect. And yet it has always been subject to intense scrutiny, at least in my lifetime—and the really infantile desire on the part of certain social and political forces that it be perfect—that is, perfectly biased and ventriloquizing only their viewpoints—although these same forces are rarely so critical of either themselves or other important social institutions.

In this case, the social and political forces that routinely complain about the media’s so-called Russia obsession seem to mean, in fact, that the mainstream press and the press in general should simply stop covering what is surely the story of the century: allegations that the world’s largest country massively intervened in a presidential election in the world’s most powerful country, and that the man who won the election and members of his campaign and transition team were in close contact with agents of the world’s largest country during the campaign and transition.

What kind of press would we have if they completely ignored this story?

We would have a press much like the press in the world’s largest country, which routinely ignores or severely undercovers really big stories—such as the country’s involvement in putting down a popular revolution in a third country whose people have never down anything bad to the people of the world’s largest country—or which engages in outright Goebbels-like propaganda nearly every day, leaving the really important stories to opposition liberal newspapers and online media outlets that are read and accessed by a tiny fraction of the country’s populace.

Finally, the mainstream media have not been obsessed with Russia itself, but with the alleged actions of the Kremlin, Russian secret services, and Russian internet trolls in connection with the 2016 US presidential election. Period.

There is a another Russia, populated by 143 million people, that had nothing whatsoever to do with the story of the century. They did nothing to skew the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election and, in the main, their lives, aspirations, and actions are roundly ignored by the so-called mainstream media in the west and Russia itself. They are roundly ignored by the so-called alternative media, too, for the simple reason that much of the alternative media in the west operate under the delusion that Putin is an “anti-imperialist.” By definitions, Russians who oppose his sagacious rule must be “puppets of the west.”

If all of this weren’t the case, I would have expected that one or more of these “Russia-obsessed” or “anti-Russian-obsessed” newspapers, magazines, TV channels or websites would have picked up and covered, for example, the shocking story of the Penza-Petersburg “terrorism” case aka the Network case, in which eleven young anarchists and antifascists have been accused of involvement in a “terrorist community” dubbed “the Network.”

Most of the accused men have told the same grisly tale of being abducted by FSB-KGB field agents, who took them to remote areas in minivans or to the basements of their headquarters and tortured them for hours, using tasers and bare electrical wires, and severe beatings, attempting to force them to memorize the “confessions” they would later make (or, in some cases, refuse to make) to FSB investigators, who would then petition the courts to send them to remand prisons, where all of them are still imprisoned to this day.

The allegations of torture have been confirmed by Russian civil rights activists and defense attorneys who spoke with some of the men soon after their arrests and, in a few cases, they were also confirmed by physicians who examined the men when their wounds were still fresh.

In any case, a small but growing group of very determined people, including the men’s parents, friends, reporters, human rights activists, and concerned citizens, have been working as hard as they can over the last year to bring the case to the attention of the wider Russian public, force prosecutors to investigate the allegations of torture by FSB officers, and otherwise prove that, as seems to be the case, the FSB conjured the entire tale of the “terrorist community” from whole cloth and then handpicked a dozen or so completely innocent young men to be the fallguys, trying to torture and pummel them into admitting their “guilt” although they were guilty of no crime at all.

You would think the “Russia-obsessed” corporate media would jump on a story like this, but except for one article in the New Yorker, the western corporate media have utterly ignored the story of the Network “terrorists,” despite the efforts of actual alternative media like openDemocracyRussia (oDR) and my own blog, the Russian Reader, to write about it any chance we can and translate Russian coverage of the case, as published in such as liberal, leftist and civil rights media outlets as Mediazona, OVD Info, and Novaya Gazeta.

The campaign to save the Network boys scored a minor victory the other day during a meeting of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, when several members of the council brought up the case and a similar case no less shocking, the New Greatness case, and forced President Putin to talk about them.

A KGB-FSB officer to the core, Putin pretended not to have heard of the cases, which both pivot on allegations of extreme entrapment, torture, and fabrication by other KGB-FSB officers.

Putin hemmed and hawed, lied and prevaricated, feigned that he couldn’t believe what he was hearing, etc., but he did promise to look into the cases and get to the bottom of them.

It’s entirely possible he won’t do that, but it’s just as possible he will make the cases quietly go away to avoid embarrasment.

Who knows.

What I do know, though, is that western mainstream and alternative media, all of them “obsessed” with Putin (but not Russia) in their own way, have shown no interest in this story and thousands of other similar and dissimilar but no less fascinating stories from the real Russia inhabited by most Russians.

There was a slight uptick in their interest in grassroots Russia during the 2011–2012 fair elections protests, but since that movement was roundly defeated, western press coverage has been firmly refocused on the beloved hated figure of the supreme leader, thus once again denying nearly all the other 143 million Russians of agency, their own opinions, and their own lives.

If you’re interested in the Network case and related stories, please check out the coverage on oDR and the Russian Reader. Outside of Russia, practically speaking, there has been no coverage of the case anywhere else, and most things you read on international anarchist and antifascist websites are reprints of the stories we have translated and published.

So, let’s put this canard about the media’s Russia obsession to rest, okay? It’s deeply offensive to ordinary smart Russians, whose numbers are much greater than you would be led to think by the mostly lazy coverage of the country in the western press, and just as offensive to the handful of non-Russians who care deeply about what goes on here. {TRR}

P.S. You can support the Network suspects and their families concretely by donating to a solidarity campaign organized by comrades in London on their behalf. Your support will help to offset their legal costs, organizing humanitarian support for the arrested and offering support to their relatives. The resources gathered have so far been distributed according to the financial circumstances of the respective families and the needs of the arrested. Further financial support is being distributed according to the choices made by those arrested throughout the investigation.

Cartoon courtesy of JA and Union Thugs 

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How to Become a “Russian Expert” on Facebook in a Matter of Weeks!

paintingSaints Cyrill and Methodius Church on Ligovsky Avenue in Petersburg, as seen from the end of Tyushin Street, 27 October 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

How do you become a “Russia expert” on Facebook in a matter of weeks?

Method No. 1: Claim “the Russians” are behind literally everything untoward that happens in the world, from attempted piped bombings in the United States to typhoons in the South Pacific.

How does this method work?

It’s easy!

First, never provide any hard evidence of this alleged “Russian” influence. Refer vaguely but insistently to allegedly irrefutable research—done by someone else, of course—on how social networks can be used to disseminate fake news and crackpot theories.

Second, don’t learn Russian or spend any time in Russia.

In fact, it helps a lot if you know as little as possible about Russians and Russia, because knowing something would needlessly complicate your ambition to have yourself deemed a “Russia expert” on Facebook.

Finally and most important, if someone calls you on the carpet for your glaring lack of evidence and knowledge, and the spurious logic of your arguments, accuse the person of being “rude and aggressive” and immediately unfriend them. You can’t afford to have someone who actually knows something about Russia and Russians or can even just ask a decent question that throws a less than glowing light on your dicey arguments and made-up facts hanging round bothering you and your devoted virtual fans, for you have a higher calling.

You’re a “Russia expert”! {TRR}

Vera Afanasyeva: Russophobia

ataman klinokA “public service” advertisement, paid by Petersburg city hall, advertising a celebration of “Cossack culture” on August 27. Historically, Petersburg and the surrounding area never had anything to do with Cossacks, except for the Cossack regiments quartered in the capital during the tsarist regime. Borovaya Street, Petersburg, August 8, 2018. Photo by the Russian Reader

Vera Afanasyeva
Facebook
August 23, 2018

Russophobia

Russophobia is when you don’t know what makes Russians tick and how they live. You don’t walk the same streets they walk, you don’t take the bus, tram or subway with them, and you don’t eat the food they eat. You race down empty roads in your motorcade, while people are stuck for hours in traffic jams because of you. Before you visit the provinces, the roads are repaved with asphalt that will last a day, and the squalid sheds where people live are painted bright colors.

Russophobia is when you live in palaces while the majority of the populace huddle in ruins. You expropriate the people’s money, their lands, forests, water, and factories so you can bask in unimaginable luxury while depriving other people of the bare necessities. You are convinced people should work for years on end for kopecks so that you can sport a wristwatch that costs as much as a block of flats, and your dogs can fly on their own planes.

Russophobia is when you are afraid of your fellow Russians. During your meetings with them, you interact with shills and answer questions that have been rehearsed.

Russophobia is when you destroy everything Russian. You destroy education in Russia because ignoramuses are easier to govern, while your children study at Oxford. You destroy science and research in Russia because you could not care less about Russia’s future. You destroy culture in Russia to encourage lowlifes who will stop at nothing. You destroy morality in Russia because it is an utter mystery to you. You destroy manufacturing because all you want is an oil-dependent economy.

Russophobia is when you turn Russia’s expanses into giant dumps. You unnecessarily drain Russia’s natural resources without increasing the welfare of ordinary Russians. You clear-cut forests while admiring the plastic forests in Moscow.

Russophobia is when you rant and rave about patriotism while your family, real estate, and money have long been located abroad.

Russophobia is when your disrespect for your great, long-suffering country is so strong you casually rewrite its history to suit your purposes, resuscitating tyrants and reviving idols in the process.

Russophobia is when you despise the Russian people so much you replace their true virtues with absurd surrogates, thus spawning clowns and mummers.

Russophobia is when you crack down on all freethinking, cannot appreciate talented people, trample the best and the brightest, facilitate the nation’s degradation, and build a system of governance in which the nastiest folk flourish. You appoint your incompetent and vicious friends and relatives to the cushiest jobs.

Russophobia is when you rob Russia’s children of their future and hurry old people to their graves by depriving them of pensions and decent medical care.

Russophobia is when you quarrel with the entire world, plunging Russians into wars and even greater poverty.

Russophobia is when you pull out all the stops so Russians dream of living somewhere other than Russia.

Russophobia is when you regard all Russians as fools. You persistently and stubbornly lie to them while speaking on TV and in parliament.

Russophobia is when you take no notice of what is currently happening in Russia or you feign not to notice.

Russophobia is when you label everyone who tries to prevent all these outrages enemies.

That is what Russophobia is.

Vera Afanasyeva is a professor in the philosophy department at Saratov State University and a writer. Thanks to Yakov Gilinsky for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

 

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

How to Be a Useful Idiot

DSCN5264

1.  Jump on the “Putin is genuinely popular” bandwagon.

“Putin will eventually leave power, but it is not Washington’s place to facilitate this, nor is it an inherently desirable outcome. No one knows what will follow in Putin’s wake, or who could fill his role after nearly two decades and counting in the Kremlin. And no one doubts that Putin is genuinely popular, although support for him in the capital and among younger educated Russians has slipped.”

Putin is not genuinely popular. As in other pseudo-populist dictatorships and autocracies, the alleged popularity of Russia’s president for life is the product of a thoroughgoing war against all dissenters, dissidents, and free thinkers, and an ever-evolving personality cult, produced by carpet bombing the populace with TV, radio, social media, and print propaganda twenty-four hours a day seven days a week.

The mental carpet bombing is periodically punctuated by two rituals, designed to confer “popular legitimacy” on the rampantly undemocratic regime: massively rigged, unfair “elections,” and plainly hokey and methodologically unreliable “public opinion polls.”

Neither is there any empirical evidence that “young educated Russians” are more critical of Putin than cranky old ladies in Petrozavodsk and Perm. My educated guess would be that, in fact, the opposite is true.

Finally, it is sheer insanity to argue that Putin’s departure is not an “inherently desirable outcome.” Every day Putin is in power is a decisive step backwards in the country’s political and social progress.

Not even the most milquetoast progressive reforms have been possible while Putin and his clique have been in power (i.e., the last eighteen years), and there is every sign that, during his next term, things will go from very bad to incomparably worse.

By the way, why is the writer so certain “Putin will eventually leave power”? If he means Putin is a mere mortal, like the rest of us, and will die sooner or later, this is a factually correct but politically vacuous claim. If the writer means Putin is planning to leave office in the foreseeable future, he must have psychic gifts that most of us do not have. There is no evidence whatsoever Putin is planning to go anywhere in the next twenty years.

But it is easy to engage in free verse exercises like this one when you live and work in Brooklyn. You just make up the facts as you go along, because you will never have to face the consequences of your irresponsible, shambolic analysis.

2. Blame the US government for everything that has gone sour or wrong in Russia, the world’s largest country, a land blessed with natural resources and human resources beyond measure, and thus certainly capable of making its own fortunes and forging its own destiny, which nothing whatsoever prevents from being democratic and progressive except the current regime and its mostly pliable satraps and timeservers. “Genuine popular support” for Putin would vanish in a second if his regime were ever challenged by a strong, broad-based, grassroots democratic movement determined to remove him from office and steer the country towards a different path.

“Putin will eventually leave power, but it is not Washington’s place to facilitate this, nor is it an inherently desirable outcome. No one knows what will follow in Putin’s wake, or who could fill his role after nearly two decades and counting in the Kremlin. And no one doubts that Putin is genuinely popular, although support for him in the capital and among younger educated Russians has slipped.

“The United States should not ignore human-rights abuses in Russia. But principled criticism is only undermined by the perception that civil-society groups in Russia serve as fronts for US intelligence, and Russia has become increasingly hostile to such groups. The next administration should make clear that the United States is not trying to bring Putin down, and that its support for human rights is genuine. It should be wary of directly supporting opposition figures, who are easily tarred as American puppets. And it should lead by example and hold its allies accountable for their human-rights abuses and elite corruption as well.

“Ultimately, the best way the United States can help civil society in Russia is by normalizing relations enough that private civil-society groups from the United States and other countries can more effectively work in tandem with Russian counterparts. It is hard to argue that the US-Russia tensions following the failure of Obama’s reset have done Russian civil society any favors.”

What real evidence is there that civil society groups in Russia serve as “fronts for US intelligence”?

None.

Who has actually been working day and night to generate this “perception”?

The Putin regime and its media propaganda outlets.

Why has “Russia” become “increasingly hostile to such groups”?

Because the Kremlin perceives them as direct threats to its authoritarian rule. It has thus declared them “enemies,” “national traitors,” “foreign agents,” and “undesirables,” and gone to war against them. This blog has published numerous articles detailing this “cold civil war” between Moscow and Russian civil society.

What evidence is there that any US administration has “[tried] to bring Putin down”?

There is no such evidence.

What Russian opposition figures have US administrations “directly supported”?

None.

Aren’t civil society groups “private” by definition?

Yes.

Was Obama’s so-called reset the only or even the primary reason that tensions between the US and Russia increased?

No. Even before Putin went ballistic, invading Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, and Syria, shooting down passenger planes (e.g., Flight MH17) and gunning down opposition leaders right outside the Kremlin (i.e., Boris Nemtsov), his minions were harassing the then-US ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, the co-author of the miserable “reset,” whose purpose was to decrease tensions with Russia, not stoke them. There was no chance of this happening, however, when the Kremlin had long ago made rabid anti-Americanism the centerpiece of its public foreign policy.

Why do I call it “public” foreign policy? Because nearly everyone in the Russian ruling elite has made numerous junkets and trips to the US and other western countries over the years and has lots of personal and business connections to their boon enemies. They have extensive real estate holdings in the west. They educate their children in the west. They park their ill-gotten lucre in the west. In some cases, their families live in the west permanently, while they shuttle between the west and Moscow like some less fortunately people commute between Gary, Indiana, and Chicago.

The Russian elite’s anti-Americanism and anti-westernism, therefore, is a put-on, a hypocritical pose mostly meant for public consumption.

Has the Putin regime done Russian civil society “any favors”?

No, it has done its utmost best to destroy independent Russian civil society and coopt the remnants it has not killed off. If you want some of the particulars, read what I’ve been posting on this blog for the last six years and, before that, on Chtodelat News, for five years.

Why did the guy who wrote the passage quoted above write what he did?

It is hard to say. The article is a very clever whitewash job for the Putin regime, all of whose high crimes and misdemeanors against the Russian Constitution and the Russian people are passed off as understandable reactions to the alleged predations of the US government against the Putin regime.

Where was this article published?

In The Nation, of course. Who else would print such crypto-Putininst tripe with a straight face?

Why all the needless hyphens, e.g. “civil-society groups,” “human-rights abuse”?

Sheer snobbery, meant to intimate to the magazine’s hapless readers they are dealing with real smart cookies, not tiresome neo-Stalinist windbags.

3. Publish wholly misleading articles about Russia, like the one quoted above. If you cannot manage that (because your readership would notice), publish wholly misleading headlines. They are even more effective than longwinded articles in The Nation, a pro-Putin magazine no one in their right mind has read in the last ten years or so.

People scan headlines, however. It is much easier than reading the fine print.

“US Drastically Reduces Visa Services in Russia after St. Petersburg Consulate’s Closure”

This is exactly the headline Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would want to appear in the Moscow Times, because it places the onus for his government action’s and his own actions on the US government.

How could visa services not be drastically reduced if the Russian Foreign Ministry closed the US consulate in Petersburg and gutted the staff at the US embassy in Moscow once again?

But let us by all means imply, because this IS the message the Putinist tyranny wants its own people to hear, that the US did everything on its own as a way of punishing ordinary Russians. Sadly, a fair number of Russians will believe this.

4. Join a so-called leftist group in the west. Most of them behave as if the Comintern still existed and they were taking their orders from the Kremlin.

Most western so-called leftists these days are boring, uneducated morons. The most boring thing about them is their unshakeable reverence for the Soviet Union, a country about which they donot have the slightest clue, and for its woebegone “successor,” the Russian Federation, which has literally nothing in common with the long-dead Soviet Union.

So, they are just as defensive of Putin’s shambolic hypercapitalist despotism as they are of the country that killed off socialism once and for all by going on a murderous rampage in the 1930s.

The really hilarious thing is that most of them manage to maintain these cultish attitudes without ever having set foot in either country and without speaking a word of Russian. Star Wars fans have a more down-to-earth and coherent ideology than the post-Stalinists who pop up to crush you with their Anand Sheela-like rhetorical flourishes (i.e., truckloads of vehement slander and furious personal insults) if you so much as mention as their imaginary Motherland in a slightly untoward light.

I want to live long enough to see the influence of these dead-enders on progressive, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist politics die off altogether. That would make me really happy, if not genuinely popular, like Vladimir Putin. TRR

Photo by the Russian Reader

What Is Their Point?

6f987ab74c72f0c50b19b05ea775bc4033c57706A Tribe Called Quest. Photo courtesy of Spotify

First, a musical prelude, by the world’s best hip hop group of all time, A Tribe Called Quest.

Check The Rhime
Back in the days on the boulevard of Linden,
We used to kick routines and presence was fittin’
It was I the Abstract
And me the five footer
I kicks the mad style so step off the frankfurter
Yo, Phife, you remember that routine
That we used to make spiffy like Mister Clean?
Um um, a tidbit, um, a smidgen
I don’t get the message so you gots to run the pigeon
You on point, Phife?
All the time, Tip
You on point, Phife?
All the time, Tip
You on point Phife?
All the time, Tip
Well, then grab the microphone and let your words rip
Now here’s a funky introduction of how nice I am
Tell your mother, tell your father, send a telegram
I’m like an Energizer ’cause, you see, I last long
My crew is never ever wack because we stand strong
Now if you say my style is wack that’s where you’re dead wrong
I slayed that body in El Segundo then push it along
You’d be a fool to reply that Phife is not the man
Cause you know and I know that you know who I am
A special shot of peace goes out to all my pals, you see
And a middle finger goes for all you punk MC’s
Cause I love it when you wack MC’s despise me
They get vexed, I roll next, can’t none contest me
I’m just a fly MC who’s five foot three and very brave
On job remaining, no I’m chaining cause I misbehave
I come correct in full effect have all my hoes in check
And before I get the butt the jim must be erect
You see, my aura’s positive I don’t promote no junk
See, I’m far from a bully and I ain’t a punk
Extremity in rhythm, yeah that’s what you heard
So just clean out your ears and just check the word
Check the rhyme y’all
Check it out
Check it out
Check the rhyme y’all
Play tapes y’all
Check the rhyme y’all
Check the rhyme y’all
Check it out
Check it out
Back in days on the boulevard of Linden
We used to kick routines and the presence was fittin’
It was I the Phifer
And me, the abstract
The rhymes were so rumpin’ that the brothers rode the ‘zack
Yo, Tip, you recall when we used to rock
Those fly routines on your cousin’s block
Um, let me see, damn I can’t remember
I receive the message and you will play the sender
You on point, Tip?
All the time, Phife
You on point, Tip?
Yeah, all the time, Phife
You on point, Tip?
Yo, all the time, Phife
So play the resurrector and give the dead some life
Okay, if knowledge is the key then just show me the lock
Got the scrawny legs but I move just like Lou Brock
With speed I’m agile plus I’m worth your while
One hundred percent intelligent black child
My optic presentation sizzles the retina
How far must I go to gain respect? Um
Well, it’s kind of simple, just remain your own
Or you’ll be crazy sad and alone
Industry rule number four thousand and eighty
Record company people are shady
So kids watch your back ’cause I think they smoke crack
I don’t doubt it, look at how they act
Off to better things like a hip-hop forum
Pass me the rock and I’ll storm with the crew and
proper. What you say Hammer? Proper.
Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop
NC, y’all check the rhyme y’all
SC, y’all check it out y’all
Virginia, check the rhyme y’all
Check it out, out
In London, check the rhyme, y’all
______________________________________________

The Tribe were always on point, although Phife, sadly, died in March 2016.

I am happy to say I saw the group perform at a club in Seattle in 1991 or 1992, and it was the most positive, funkiest show I have ever seen anywhere.

______________________________________________

Meanwhile, the unhappy, far-flung, unfunky human shards of the collapsing new building once known as the Soviet Union are almost never on point, because the ones among them who clearly think they are the smartest, cleverest, and most cosmopolitan have been in semi-permanent national self-defense mode after it transpired the Kremlin tried its flat-out best to intervene in the 2016 US presidential election.

Two cases in point are ace reporters Julia Ioffe and Masha Gessen,* who seem to go back and forth all over the place on the “Russia question,” depending on the venue and the day. Here, they are, today, in full “Russophile” mode.

on point

Here is the interview itself, broadcast earlier today on NPR.

“The bottom line is that Americans elected Trump,” claims Gessen in the interview.*

No, the bottom line is that reporters like Masha Gessen and Julia Ioffe, for whatever reason, want to control the public discourse on Russia in the US, so they have to reach over and over again for the bag of tricks, perfected in their worst incarnations by pseudo-intellectual mags like the New Republic and Atlantic Monthly in the nineties, that counter-intuitive reporting gets you, the reporter, the most attention, even if your counter-intuitive argument is utterly worthless when examined on the merits.

I could see no point whatsoever to NPR’s interview with Ms. Gessen and Mr. Chen, just as I can see no point flapping one’s lips about Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election until Robert Mueller’s investigation has been completed.

It is not at all a straighforward question of dual loyalties or having been “flipped,” of course, but the genuine discomfort many Russians and Russian émigrés feel about the dire direction Russia has taken under Vladimir Putin. At the same time, parts of the Russian national and Russian émigré chattering class feel so utterly flummoxed by the way events have been unfolding in the last four or five years that they have gone, almost reflexively, into heavy spin mode while also trying to install themselves, in the west, as the go-to people when it comes to all matters Russian.

It would probably surprise NPR’s listeners to learn that Ms. Gessen, for example, did not exactly “flee” Russia, but chose to leave because she felt her non-traditional family would be safer in the US, where she emigrated with her own birth family when she was fourteen. She had every right and reason to do this, and if I were in her position I might have done the same thing.

It is nonsense, however, to say she “fled” because she was “persecuted” personally. The nonsensicality of this claim would be apparent only to people like me and my Russian reporter friend Sergey, who watched as Ms. Gessen “fled” Russia over the course of two or three years, generating an endless series of interviews and op-ed pieces about her “escape” as she was slowly packing her bags or whatever she was doing during her seemingly endless, slow-motion “flight to freedom.”

When you witness a journalist working so hard to make themselves the story, you start wondering what matters most to them—the truth out there in the world that needs to be investigated and reported or keeping the limelight fixed firmly on themselves.

I also happen to know that Ms. Gessen makes frequent trips to Russia on business. What sort of persecution-and-flight story is this, when you can fly back and forth between your “safe haven” and the “country you fled” at will, whenever you like, with no untoward consequences to your health and safety?

In fact, under Putin’s reign, there have been plenty of Russians who really have been persecuted in the most unambiguous sense of the word and have had to flee the country or face certain imprisonment, for example, Dmitry Buchenkov, the final defendant in the horrendous (and horrendously underreported) Bolotnaya Square case and its accompanying show trials.

Because both Ms. Ioffe and Ms. Gessen are terrific reporters and writers when they want to be, I wish they would spend more time telling us about the real Russia of unsung heroes like Dmitry Buchenkov, Yuri Dmitriev, Valery Brinikh, and the Penza and Petersburg antifascists tortured by the FSB on the fabricated pretense they belonged to a “terrorist” organization, and much less time making what really amounts to a half-assed quasi-defense of a very bad game (the Kremlin’s meddling in the internal affairs of countries the world over), seemingly only just to keep their charming mugs in front of the TV cameras and radio station microphones as much as possible.

Especially in the last instance, Ms. Gessen and Ms. Ioffe could use the mighty media soapboxes they have at their disposal to help eight innocent young men put through hell on earth so the FSB can tighten its grip on Russian grassroots society. But they don’t, probably because they have never even heard of the case, despite being the foremost go-to reporters on Russia in the US. TRR

* I have posted in the recent past about instances when Ms. Ioffe’s and Ms. Gessen’s alleged total omniscience regarding the Motherland has been seriously lacking. See “Does Vladimir Putin Have a Niece?” (11 November 2017), and “Ace Reporter Julia Ioffe Joins the Russian World” (5 October 2017).

** After I posted this last night, I thought about what Ms. Gessen’s reaction would be if, during a similar non-obligatory discussion on NPR (whose presenters, almost without exception, have no clue how to interview anyone, because their idea of interviewing involves lobbing slow softballs for their guests to slam out of the park) someone had said, “The bottom line is that Russians voted for Putin.”

It is easy to imagine how she would react, because she writes at length in her latest book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, about the 2011–2012 fair elections movement in Russia, sparked by a widespread (and accurate) perception amongst Russians that the December 2011 parliamentary and regional elections and the March 2012 presidential election had been anything but free and fair, to wit:

Even though the protesters belonged to different age groups, Putin had now been in power long enough that a majority of them had spent all or most of their adult lives in the era of supposed “stability.” Some of them had expected the Putin era to be like the Soviet past they remembered or imagined, the object of national nostalgia. According to these memories, that time was slow, predictable, and essentially unchanging. But in Putin’s era of “stability,” things refused to stay the same. The markets crashed because Putin said or did something. Innocent, randomly chosen people went to prison just because the government had declared a witch hunt against pedophiles. The spectacle of the Putin-Medvedev handoff and the experience of the farcical election served as reminders of how powerless Russian citizens were to affect any aspect of life. The protests were an attempt to renegotiate, to reclaim a little bit of space from the ever-expanding party-state— and it so happened that the party was the one of crooks and thieves. (Gessen, Masha. The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, p. 349)

Yet, in the US, the “bottom line” is that “Americans” “elected Trump.” In point of fact, Mr. Trump was elected by the Electoral College. The popular vote was won handily by Hillary Clinton, who garned 48.2% of all votes counted, as opposed to 46.1% for Mr. Trump.

In the world’s third-largest country by population, that translates into 2,868,691 voters whose clearly voiced preference for Mrs. Clinton was utterly negated, as it were. Since Mr. Trump’s Electoral College victory came down to razor-tight wins in a few key districts in a few key states, any extraneous or criminal factor that could have pushed voters in his direction has to be thoroughly investigated. This would have to be the case even had Mr. Trump won the popular vote. Given that the election campaign, the election, and its aftermath have been unprecedented in US history in such a myriad of ways, it stands to reason that Americans would be more than a little curious about what happened and why.

In Russia, where, as some “Russia experts” would say (although I would not say it myself), Mr. Putin is so popular he could win an election without cheating, Ms. Gessen thinks people have every right to protest the machinations of “crooks and thieves.” In her adopted country, the US, however, she thinks people should calm down, shut up, and accept the “bottom line” that they did this to themselves.

I doubt very much that Ms. Gessen, judging by her numerous books and articles on the subjects, would argue that Russians did Putin to themselves, although to someone like me who has been on the ground in Russia during most of his eighteen-year-reign, that does indeed seem partly to be the case.

Immigrant Song

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
You can learn more about the “real,” “nuanced” Russia by gazing into this shop window than you can by reading all the crypto-Putinist “Russian experts” in the world. Central Petersburg, September 19, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader

In 2014, the well-known Russian journalist and editor Leonid Bershidsky emigrated to Germany. In an short article, published at the time on the website 72.Ru, Bershidsky explained he was not a political emigrant. Rather, he was leaving Russia because he saw no more point in launching big media projects in Russia, since the country no longer had major media performing what he regarded as the media’s main function, “defending the weak from the powerful.”

It is hard to disagree with his sentiments.

So what has Mr. Bershidsky been up too lately, in his principled exile?

He has been publishing op-ed columns on the Bloomberg website hotly defending a “weak” Russia from a “powerful” west.

In a column published in September, Bershidsky had the chutzpah and stupidity to claim Russia was an emerging global agriculture superpower because “climate warming” was making it possible to relaunch farming in areas of the country that had been given up for lost in earlier decades because the climate there was too cold, while exponentially increasing yields in areas that have long served as Russia’s grain belt.

He wrote this during the official 2017 Environmental Year in Russia, which I was made aware of only the other day, when I saw a billboard, advertising a new production at the the Young Spectators Theater, that was, somehow, part of this mostly invisible Environmental Year’s slate of events.

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“2017, Year of the Environment in Russia. Premiere! September 7, 8, 28, 29. ‘The Face of the Earth. A Play about the Planet.'” Fontanka River Embankment, Petersburg, September 19, 2017. Photo by the Russian Reader.

I guess Mr. Bershidsky’s “climate warming is good for Russia” column was another event in a calendar chockablock with consciousness-raising of the same obscurantist variety.

You do know that Russia’s economy is massively dependent on selling gas and oil, and that it is nearly the last country in the world that, officially or unofficially, is going to make any effort to tackle climate change? Whatever treaties, protocols or agreements Russia has ostensibly signed, the country’s message to its own population is that climate change is either a hoax or will be wildly beneficial to Russia, even as it destroys or submerges whole other countries.

Mr. Bershidsky’s latest op-ed on the Bloomberg website sees him hopping on the old “anti-Russophobia” train, the immediate occasion being the creation of something calling itself the Committee to Investigate Russia, which somehow involves Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman, two beloved figures in American culture whom Mr. Bershidsky immediately derides as second-rank hacks, when, in fact, the latter is a terrific actor loved by literally every American, even by white supremacists, I suspect, while the former is not primarily an “actor,” as the ignorant Bershidsky claims, but a mostly former actor, the co-star of what many regard as the best, most politically charged situation comedy of all time, All in the Family. After he left the show, Reiner launched a directing career that has included such stellar films as Stand by Me and This Is Spinal Tap. Neither Mr. Morgan nor Mr. Reiner has ever struck me as an idiot, which is what Mr. Bershidsky immediately wants his readers to imagine.

This is not to dismiss Mr. Bershidsky’s reasonable point that the committee sounds hokey and pointless, and has no real “Russia experts” among the members of its advisory board.

The real “Russian experts” are both in short supply, he argues, and roundly ignored. To make his point, he cites “America’s Russia Blind Spot,” a blog post written by Samuel Greene, author of a book entitled Moscow in Movement: Power and Opposition in Putin’s Russia.

Mr. Greene does indeed echo many of Bershidsky’s complaints about the US and the west not seeking advice from real Russian experts and avoiding listening to the voices of real Russians.

But he begins his remarks with a proviso, a proviso that Bershidsky pointedly avoids making.

“There is no serious dispute about whether Russia tried to influence the American election: It did. And the British ‘Brexit’ referendum. And the French election. And the upcoming German vote. There is also no doubt about the role Russia is playing in eastern Ukraine, or in the world more broadly. Russia is a challenge, and we are right to worry about the fact that we don’t have an answer.”

Bershidsky, on the contrary, is loath to admit the anti-Russia hysteria that bothers him so much was provoked by real actions and decisions undertaken by the people currently running the country of his birth.

That is the real problem with so-called expertise on Russia. Half if not more of the west’s card-carrying “Russian experts” are incredibly quick to absolve “Putin’s Russia” (when can we ditch that phrase? Putin doesn’t own Russia, his ambitions and those of his Ozero Dacha Co-op buddies to the contrary) of all its crimes against its own people and its new drive to regain supah powah status on the cheap, by fucking with everyone’s elections, flooding the airwaves and internets with fake news and anti-immigrant hysteria in different shapes and sizes, and worst of all, serving its own population a steady diet of anti-Americanism, anti-westernism, xenophobia, and racism, especially on its national TV channels, for nearly the whole of Putin’s eighteen-year reign.

Think of Stephen Cohen, a “Russia expert” of high standing, who has been stalwartly defending every creepy, aggressive move the Kremlin has made over the past several years.

And there are whole battalions of other credentialed and self-made “Russia experts” out there like Stephen Cohen, more or less toeing the Kremlin’s line.

As for listening to the voices of the Russian people, that sounds like a great idea, but a) most so-called Russian experts don’t live in Russia itself and thus have little opportunity to listen to real Russian voices; and b) many Russian voices have either been badly singed by the relentless propaganda they have been subjected to in recent years or their voices have literally been drowned out by the din of that propaganda.

There is also the troubling tendency that many so-called Russian experts, when they want to evoke the “voices of the Russian people,” take the absolutely discredited shortcut of citing Russian public opinion polls, as carried out by the country’s three leading pollsters—FOM, VTsIOM, and the especially insidious Levada Center, which has a liberal, “dissident” street cred it does not deserve, painting its conclusions about “ordinary Russians” and what they think in the darkest terms possible, seeing them as benighted, dangerous creatures, akin to the zombies on The Walking Dead.

Why do the “Russia experts” they take these shortcuts? Because they don’t live in Russia and actually have no clue what real Russians really think.

One way to find out what some very different Russians think would be to read this website, which has been mostly devoted to translating the voices of people who have really been involved, usually at the grassroots, in dealing with their country’s problems or thinking through them in an eloquent way, a way not tainted by the thought patterns the powerful Putinist propaganda machine has been keen to implant in the minds of Russians too weak or too compromised by their stations in life to think for themselves.

There are lots of such people in Russia, unfortunately, including the men and women who serve the country’s bloated bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies, and secret services. Such people are several times more numerous under the current “liberal capitalist democracy” than they were under the Soviets or the tsars.

I have no doubt that, among these millions of officials, there are a good number of intelligent, decent people capable of thinking for themselves. Many of them are, I assume, not terribly happy with the road the Kremlin has led the country down and the roles they have been made to play in this deliberate degradation.

For example, would you like to be a district court judge who has to wait for a phone call from “upstairs” before rendering verdicts in high-profile cases? But this is what happens on a daily basis in the country’s judicial system.

In fact, if you listen to the voices of Russians who actually try and tell their stories—via Facebook and other social media, as well as the remaining online and print outlets where good journalism is practiced at least some of the time—and you listen to lots of these voices over an extended period of time (for example, I have been writing and translating this website and, before that, Chtodelat News, for the last ten years) and take to heart what they are actually saying, your hair will stand on end.

You will also be filled with intense admiration for the activists, researchers, and journalists who care about their country and have the courage to tell these stories.

You will not, however, come to the sanguine conclusion suggested by the last paragraph of Mr. Bershidsky’s latest op-ed.

“But Russia will still be there when this phase is over—resentful and hungry for Western praise, defiant and confused, thuggish and loftily intellectual, muscular and aggressive and weakened by graft and incompetence. Someday, the pieces will need to be picked up, and only people capable of taking in the nuance will be able to do it. These people have been ‘investigating Russia’ all along. It’s just that a less thorough and more politicized ‘investigation’ is temporarily supplanting their work.”

First of all, I am not sure Russia will still be there when this phase (of what?) is over, nor is Andrey Kalikh, whose alarming Facebook post from what have amounted to the frontlines of the Zapad 2017 War Games I posted yesterday.

Second, Russia’s problems are not the problems of a troubled teenager, as Mr. Bershidsky implies, but of a country ruled by an boundlessly greedy, ambitious tyranny that has had to test-run various sham ideologies (including homophobia, anti-Americanism, Russian Orthodoxy, xenophobia, migrantophobia, rampant state capitalism, etc.) in order to justify its continuing and, apparently, perpetual rule.

As Mr. Kalikh wrote on this website yesterday, this makes the current regime extremely dangerous primarily to Russians themselves. His argument has been borne out by the increasingly intense “cold civil war” the regime has waged not only against outright dissidents and oppositionists like Alexei Navalny, Anna Politkovskaya, and Boris Nemtsov, to name only a few people, but against otherwise ordinary Russians who have posted the “wrong” things on Facebook or VK (a Russian ripoff of Facebook more popular with the non-snobby crowd and activists who want to be in touch with them more than with the proletariat haters, but, unfortunately, a social network that is, apparently, absolutely transparent to the Russian security agencies) or, much worse, have banded together to solve their own problems, problems caused, as often as not, by their own local authorities or national government, which has not introduced “stability” after the chaotic years of Yeltsin’s rule, but has instead instituted “legal nihilism” (ex-President Dmitry Medvedev’s phrase) as its fundamental principle of bad governance.

If you deny all these basic facts about Russia today and, to boot, you don’t listen to the voices of active, thoughtful Russians, unfiltered by sham opinion polls, and finally, if you are not on the ground in Russia itself or have not spent oodles of time here talking to oodles of people and getting mixed up in oodles of different situations, I am afraid your Russian expertise is just a species of sophistry.

“Nuance,” after all, is a weasel word. Anyone with any feeling for English knows that.

Why was it that Mr. Bershidsky had to leave Russia only to land a job at Bloomberg supplying us with “nuanced” apologies for the current Russian regime? I really would like an answer to that question. TRR

UPDATE. RT has helpfully outed Mr. Bershidsky as a crypto-Putinist in a ridiculous hatchet job entitled “Russophobia: RT rates the top 10 Kremlin critics & their hilarious hate campaigns,” published on its website yesterday, September 28. In the piece, which seems to have been written by an alcoholic on a bender, RT praised Mr. Bershidsky for his criticism of their number ten “Russophobe” Molly McKew: “Perhaps the considerably more respected analyst Leonid Bershidsky said it best when he called her arguments against Moscow simplistic and misguided.'” My advice to RT would be to refrain from mentioning the Kremlin’s “secret” assets in the west in such a flagrant way.

UPDATE, October 12, 2017. Andreas Umland has brought my attention to more evidence that Leonid Bershidsky’s “exile in the west” was really a clever subterfuge for implanting a crypto-Putinist Russian journalist in a major western news agency. Mr. Bershidsky’s latest contribution to the art of the op-ed, “Why Catalonia Will Fail Where Crimea Succeeded” (October 4, 2017) is beyond the pale. Diane Francis turns the piece to chopped liver on the Atlantic Council’s website.