Talk of the Town

You would be forgiven if you imagined Russia’s liberal, leftist, technical, creative, conservative and other intelligentsias were abuzz right now with righteous anger or triumphant glee about what the country’s air force (now officially known, bizarrely, as the Russian Aerospace Forces or VKS) has been up to in Syria and, more specifically, Aleppo, these days.

No, many of them are terribly exercised, in various directions, about the controversy over an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges in Moscow.

This was borne out by the websites of some of the country’s leading dailies this morning.

vedomosti-syria

The liberal Vedomosti, a business-oriented newspaper, listed its top stories this morning. The top story was entitled “Faces in a Queue for the iPhone 7”; the second most-read story was about the Sturges show.

True, Vedomosti readers are serious lads and lassies, so the number three story was about Syria. It was headlined, “Five World Powers and EU Demand Decisive Steps from Russia in Syria.”

Earlier today, I posted a few bits from the bizarre article about yesterday’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, published in the country’s other serious, formerly liberal, business daily, Kommersant.

Similarly, Moskovsky Komsolomets could not figure out what its readers would find more titillating: reading about how the VKS’s top guns were bombing Aleppo to smithereens or how astroturfed patriots were threatening the God-given right of every self-respecting intelligent to implement Dostoevsky’s maxim that beauty would save the world.

mk-syria

By way of splitting the difference, this morning’s website featured a picture of a chap obviously meant to embody the most average-looking Russian bloke on earth, sadly contemplating one of Sturges’s blasphemous nudes, while a sidebar headline shouts, “Everyone [sic] Is Bombing: Churkin Thinks Peace Impossible in Syria.”

Izvestia has become a particularly noxious loudspeaker for the regime in the past years, so the front page of its website contained a fair number of articles and op-ed pieces chockablock with baldfaced lies about the bloodbath in Aleppo, but at least it had the dignity not to yield to the fake moral panic brewing around the Sturges show.

The relative paucity of Russian media coverage of the Syrian conflict and publicly accessible grassroots reactions was confirmed by the following completely unscientific Google search.

“Джок Стержес” (“Jock Sturges”) got 12,000 more hits than “бомбардироква Алеппо” (“bombing Aleppo”), even though, one could argue, the bombing of Aleppo by somebody or other has been a more topical item in the news for a longer time than Jock Sturges, whatever his longevity or virtues as a contemporary artist.

Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “Jock Sturges” in Russian, September 26, 2016
Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in Russian, September 26, 2016

When I did the same search (“bombing Aleppo”) in English, I got over a million hits.

Results of Google for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in English, September 26, 2016

Certainly, we immediately have to factor in the sheer numbers of Anglophone media and readers in the world. There are quite a few more of both than there are Russophone media and readers, and so one would expect to find more responses to particular topics of global interest in English than in Russian.

But what about the vox pop?

An even more unscientific survey of the Russophone segment of Facebook this morning (that is, the part of the segment to which I have access, amounting to several hundred people, most of whom could be identified as intelligentsia or quasi-intelligentisa) showed that quite a few people were up in arms over the Sturges show or coolly editorializing about it to their extended communities of invisible friends, while literally no one was writing anything about Syria.

This has been the case for the past year. Not only that, but I have shared a fairly large number of articles and opinions about Syria, including my own, over that time, and have elicited a total of zero likes and comments from my Russian Facebook friends.

Non-Russian friends, on the contrary, like and comment on these posts in the same numbers as they and their Russian counterparts usually react to the other, non-Syrian things I write about.

Maybe I have the wrong Russian friends, but my hypothesis is that “politically engaged” or “socially conscious” Russians are literally afraid to say or write anything in public about the Syrian conflict. They have the good sense to know that their president-for-life has sunken his teeth into this geopolitical chew toy and has no intention of unclenching them.

Hence, anyone foolish enough to comment on this catastrophic attempt to reassert an increasingly impoverished country as a super power might get themselves in trouble with the powers that be. Over the last year, they have been hauling in utterly ordinary people  on “extremism” charges in fairly large numbers for reposting or commenting on the most innocuous things on Facebook and its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.

Even more telling, there has not been a single public demonstration in Russia against Russian military involvement in Syria during the past year—to my knowledge, at least.*

Again, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. The current Russian regime has gone out of its way to make public demonstrations and pickets an unattractive pastime for all but the bravest of Russians.

Still, the war in Syria is the central international conflict of our time, and Russia’s best and brightest have literally nothing to say about it, even though their nominally elected government has not been merely a party to the conflict, but has come firmly down on one side, arguably, the wrong side, the side causing the most damage.

I find this deafening public silence about Syria more disturbing than anything else happening in Russia right now.

* After I posted this, Comrade BN wrote the following to me: “In Moscow last year there were some very small pickets protesting against the war in Syria, and the people who organized it attempted to set up an anti-war committee. As far as I know, though, the authorities pretty much intimidated them with varying degrees of extremity into giving up.”

Petersburg’s Naval Disgrace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ugh.

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

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

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