Making Women Visible: Russian Language Classes for Immigrants and Refugees in Petersburg

apa-1
Darya Apahonchich with students during class. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“Making Women Visible”: Why Female Immigrants Stay at Home for Seven Years
Karina Merkurieva
Sever.Realii (Radio Svoboda)
March 7, 2020

“My husband and children and I came to Russia from Afghanistan over eight years ago. At first, I had no time to learn the language: I had to help the children and work at home, and then I was unable to find suitable courses. So this is only my second year studying Russian,” says Suraya.

Since she is shy about speaking Russian, she agrees only to a written interview. She has been studying Russian for a second year at courses for female immigrants and refugees in Petersburg. Classes are held at Open Space, a co-working space for social activists, and at two libraries. Groups are divided into several levels according to how well the students speak Russian.

In February, project organizer Darya Apahonchich announced the launch of a new group for beginners. According to her, she saw the need for such courses in 2018, when she worked for a similar project run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“There were classes for children and adults. I taught Russian as a foreign language. The only problem was that only those who had official immigrant or refugee status could attend. In Russia, not everyone obtains this status. Another thing was that the course was limited in time. Not everyone was able to get the necessary minimum of Russian under their belt in this time,” Apahonchich says.

The group she led mostly consisted of women over the age of thirty.

“Young women who come to Russia at an earlier age and go to university have one set of opportunities. As soon as a woman becomes a mother, her set of opportunities decreases dramatically,” Apahonchich adds.

At one of the classes, a new student from Syria decided to join the group. In order for the students to get acquainted, Apahonchich suggested that everyone introduce themselves by telling what country they had come from, how long they had lived in Russia, and how long they had been studying Russian. It transpired that nearly all the women in the class had lived in Russia around seven years, but had only begun to study the language. According to them, they had no opportunity to study Russian before: they had to raise children. Working outside the home was not the custom in their native countries, so their husbands had not allowed them to take language classes.

apa-2A lesson in Darya Apahonchich’s group. Photo by Anna Shevardina. Courtesy of Radio Svoboda

“I was very shocked at the time. These women’s children have basically grown up in Russia: they know Russia on the level of native speakers, and make jokes more easily in Russian than in their native languages. The women have found themselves linguistically and culturally isolated, however. They stayed at home all those years. They didn’t even have a place to learn the language,” says Apahonchich.

When the Red Cross courses were coming to an end, Apahonchich suggested to the women that they should not quit their studies, but continue studying Russian elsewhere. They leapt at the suggestion.

“I realized that those woman would go back to their families, and that would be the end of their introduction to the Russian language. I didn’t want to let that happen,” she recalls.

Other groups and new teachers have subsequently emerged. The project currently encompasses four groups at different levels of proficiency. Classes are taught by eight volunteer teachers. Some of them, like Apahonchich, majored in Russian language pedagogy at university, while others are native Russian speakers with humanities backgrounds and experience teaching history or Spanish, for example.

“I wanted to create a horizontal structure in which each teacher could organize their own groups and take responsibility for the learning process,” says Apahonchich.

As a result, the teachers work autonomously: they find venues for holding classes on their own, and decide with their groups what topics would be interesting to discuss in class.

In her group, for example, Apahonchich focuses not only on teaching the Russian language, but also on the legal aspects of life as an immigrant in Russia. During classes, her students read brochures on how to behave if you are faced with aggression from the police, how to get a job, and how to rent an apartment without falling victim to fraud.

“Our all-female collective discusses issues related to health and doctor visits,” says Apahonchich.

According to Suraya from Afghanistan, this is one of her favorite topics.

“I also like to read texts about Russia and Petersburg, and discuss the weather and family. I really need this vocabulary when I pick up my daughter from kindergarten or go to the clinic. In the clinic, however, I often encounter aggression. The people at reception shout at me if I don’t immediately know what to say,” Suraya explains.

While the courses are more aimed at teaching Russian, the instructors sometimes also talk to the female immigrants about women’s rights.

“Right now, the easiest way, I think, to get women out of linguistic and cultural isolation is to get them into the world of work. That way they could learn Russian more quickly, adapt socially, and make new friends. At the same time, we have before our very eyes the example of women from Central Asia who come to Russia to work and eventually find themselves separated from their families. That is the other extreme. For the time being, I just want these women to stop being invisible. Currently, the majority of the Russian populace doesn’t even suspect how many female immigrants live in cultural isolation in their country,” says Apahonchich.

According to the UNHCR, about 220,000 refugees and persons with temporary asylum status were registered in Russia in 2019. Most of those people came from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, and Yemen.

Thanks to Darya Apahonchich for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader

The Network Case in Context

Scenes from the reading of the verdict in the Network trial in Penza on February 10, 2020. Filmed by Vlad Dokshin, edited by Alexander Lavrenov. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

Vladimir Akimenkov
Facebook
February 10, 2020

Today’s verdict in Penza was terribly inhumane, exorbitantly vicious, and so on, of course. The Putin regime handed out humongous sentences to members of the anti-authoritarian scene, punishing them for exercising their right to be themselves. Anarchists and non-official antifascists were severely and cruelly punished by the dictatorial regime—acting through the FSB and a kangaroo court—for their DIY activities, for making connections outside the official, formalized world, for dissenting, for rejecting all hierarchies. These political prisoners have been sent to the camps for many years, and it will take an enormous effort to keep them alive, if they are sent to the north, to keep them healthy and sane, and to get them released early. I wish them and their relatives and friends all the strength in the world.

Unfortunately, many people have reacted to the verdict in the Network Case as if it were utterly unprecedented, as if the bloodbath in Chechnya, and the torture and savage sentences meted out to defendants in other “terrorist” cases had never happened. It as if, even recently, their own government had not committed numerous crimes against the people of Ukraine and Syria, against prisoners in camps and other “others,” against National Bolshevik party activists and a range of other movements, against young radicals and people who professed the “wrong” religion, and on and on and on.  People, including political activists, have been surprised by the torture of the defendants, the rigged trial, and the harsh sentences in Penza, as if they lived in a happy, prosperous society, not a totally toxic, brazen empire whose security forces are the heirs of a centuries-long tradition of butchery and fanatical cruelty.

You are not supposed to say out loud what I am about to write, but if the young men had attacked government offices, there would probably have been no national and international solidarity campaign on behalf of these political prisoners. Or they would simply have been tortured to death or subjected to extrajudicial executions. If the Networkers had gone to jail for direct actions, a good number of Russian “anarchists” and “antifascists” would have disowned them, stigmatized them, urged others not to help them, and denounced them to western socialists. This was what really happened to the Underground Anarchists a hundred years ago: they were condemned by their “allies,” who wanted to go legal and curried favor with the Red despots.  The same thing has happened in our time: there were anarchists who hated on the young Belarusians sentenced to seven years in prison for setting fire to the KGB office in Bobruisk, the political refugees in the Khimki Forest case, the persecuted activists of the Popular Self-Defense, and Mikhail Zhlobitsky. Or, for example, some of the people in the ABTO (Autonomous Combat Terrorist Organization) case, who were sent down for many years for arson attacks: they were tortured and accused of “terrorism,” and we had to work hard to scrape away the mud tossed at them by the state and “progressive” society. Oddly enough, the attitude of “thinking people” to “incorrect” political prisoners is matched by the Russian government’s refusal to exonerate Fanny Kaplan or the revolutionaries who blew up the Bolshevik Party city committee office on Leontievsky Lane in Moscow on September 25, 1919. (After the bloodshed in Moscow in 1993, however, Yeltsin made the populist move of exonerating the people involved in the Kronstadt Rebellion.)

One of the places we should look for the roots of the savage trial of the Penza prisoners is the disgusting newspeak that people in the RF have been taught—”the president’s orders have not been implemented,” “the government has sent a signal,” “the annexation of Crimea,” “the conflict in Donbass,” “the clash in the Kerch Strait,” “s/he claims s/he was tortured,” “s/he claims the evidence was planted,” “the terrorists of the People’s Will,” “Chechen terrorists,” “the Russophobe Stomakhin,” “the neo-Nazi Astashin,” “the guerrilla band in the Maritime Territory,” “the terrorist attack in Arkhangelsk,” and so on.

Various people, including people from the anarchist scene, have written that the Network Case has shattered them and the people they know. If this is so, it is even worse than the outrageous criminal case itself. Yes, I am a living person, too, and yes, I find it very hard myself. But we cannot let the circumstances bend and break us: this is exactly what they want. This is especially the case if you are a consistent foe of systematic oppression, if you are an anarchist. Really, people, what would you do if the regime launched a truly massive crackdown on dissenters of the kind we have seen in the past, from tsarist Russia to Erdogan’s Turkey, from America at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the Iran of the ayatollahs? However, a massive crackdown would entail having a mass liberation movement, something that does not exist in today’s Russia. By the way, it would appear that our half-strangled semi-free media have been doing an excellent job of spreading fear among the atomized masses by regaling them with stories of the state’s repressive policies, of its crimes and nefarious undertakings, instead of using the news to instill people with righteous anger.

We can assume that the brutal verdict in the Network Case and other instances of rough justice on the part of the state will have direct consequences for the Kremlin both at home and abroad. Generally speaking, evil is not eternal. Over time, people will be able to overcome their disunity, believe in themselves, and finally destroy the thousand-year-old kingdom of oppression. “The jailed will sprout up as bayonets.”

politzeki1“Russia’s political prisoners: the jailed will sprout up as bayonets.” A banner hung over Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg by the Pyotr Alexeyev Resistance Movement (DSPA) in August 2012. Photo courtesy of Zaks.ru

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Elena Zaharova
Facebook
February 10, 2020

I don’t understand.

You can throw a brick at me, you can ban me, you can do what you like, but I don’t get you. Why this sudden mass fainting spell? When the authorities started abducting, murdering, and imprisoning the Crimean Tatars in 2014, you didn’t notice. Okay, you couldn’t care less about Crimea and Ukraine. The authorities have long been imprisoning members of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kazan and Bashkortostan, but there’s the rub—we defend Jehovah’s Witnesses, not Hizbites. And the authorities have been sentencing the Crimean Tatars and the Hizbites to ten years, twenty years, twenty-two years in prison. But you haven’t heard about that. And suddenly today you say, “Oh the horror!!! It’s fascism!!!”

It’s the same with the Constitution. The authorities long ago trampled it into the dust, killing it off with Federal Law No. 54 [on “authorization” for  demonstrations and public rallies] and giving us the heave-ho. No one noticed. For the last couple of weeks, however, everyone has been calling on people to defend the Constitution—that is, to defend what it is written in a booklet that everyone was too lazy to read before.

Need I mention the wars no one has noticed yet?

Only don’t remind me about the dozens of people who have been picketing outside the presidential administration building in Moscow for two years running. I have nothing but praise for them, but they are the exception.

Vladimir Akimenkov was one of the defendants in the Bolotnaya Square Case and currently raises money for Russian political prisoners and their families. Elena Zaharova is an anti-war and civil rights activist. Translated by the Russian Reader

Blame It on the Weather

kinderworld

Ask yourself who in their right mind and good conscience would want to cut off humanitarian aid and medical assistance to over one million people while simultaneously bombing them at will. Then ask yourself why these acts of homicidal aggression against innocent people have provoked almost no reaction either among the citizens of the country perpetrating them or among this country’s numerous well-wishers around the world.

I’ve asked myself these questions almost every day for the last four and a half years and, occasionally, I’ve asked you the same questions. I’m still waiting for answers, especially from the numerous citizens of the country aiding, abetting and perpetrating this massacre who, I am quite certain by now, watch me like a hawk on this infernal machine, and this country’s equally numerous well-wishers, who blame everything it does on history, other countries or the weather. \\ The Russian Reader

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Russia scored a victory for its close ally Syria on Friday, using its veto threat to force the U.N. Security Council to adopt a resolution significantly reducing the delivery of cross-border humanitarian aid and cutting off critical medical assistance to over one million Syrians in the northeast.

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Lindsey Smith

Facebook
January 10, 2020

“What we saw today was horrible” ~ Nour.

Severe storms devastated our community partnership camp leaving a flooded disaster much more help is needed.

Updates:
* ALL tents re-enforced with wood and canvas
* Oil provided for all families for entire winter
* We have funds to provide jackets for all 91 children 0-18 years old. (Distribution planned 1/15)
* 64 Adults still in need of jackets. $25 each.
* Urgent priority need of gravel. $450 to make paths, $640 more to ideally cover entire camp

Fortunately our newly re-enforced tents withstood but could not prevent the ground from flooding and sewage to come into the camp. We’ve been asked to help provide gravel to absorb the damage. $450 will provide 45 tons of gravel to at least provide paths between tents. For $640 more, we can provide 135 tons which is needed to cover the entire camp. We will do what we can with what emergency funds we can pull together.

🙏🏻 Please share!

Designate KINDER WORLD in drop box option.

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Kinder World
With love from Minnesota

The Project

Kinder World is a project that aims to create a sustainable support model for Syrian families seeking refuge through community partnership and solidarity.

Through the creation of this network, we will directly address the needs identified by camp residents and assist with solutions that empower the community.

Projects may include telemedicine services, medical and dental care, psychosocial support, nutrition, sustainable farming, education, language skills, parenting support, childcare, individual skill-building, team development through athletics, winterization, and access to clean water.

Minnesota Takes the Lead in Rethinking Aid

Minnesota and a settlement of 155 Syrians seeking refuge in Northern Lebanon are the first communities to partner using the Kinder World model. Our partner community in Northern Lebanon has identified their most prominent needs including winterization, clean water and proper sanitation, education for the children, and medical care.

We hope that the success of our project will inspire other communities to get involved and our outreach to Syrian families seeking refuge will continue to grow. Although our partnership US community is based in Minnesota, all are welcomed to get involved! All skills and all support are valuable.

Please contact us at kinderworldminnesota@gmail.com if you would like to be added to our email list for updates and opportunities to get involved!

Urgent Appeal for Winterization

Kinder World Minnesota Phase 1

Our partner community’s tents are dilapidated and won’t withstand the winter. This will result in flooding, damaging of their belongings, and illnesses from cold exposure. They need canvas and wood to rebuild their tents. Our community has also identified the great need for warm jackets and oil. They do not have proper attire for winter or the oil needed to keep their families warm.

Donate

For just $300, an average family size of 6-7 can be provided with:

– Warm jackets

– Wood and the heavy canvas needed to rebuild their family’s home

– Oil for heating

Select a one-time donation to support our community’s winterization.

You can also choose to select monthly recurring donations to continue to support Kinder World Minnesota and its ongoing projects.

Any amount helps! Click the donate button below and select “Kinder World” as the designation or include it in the comments!

Project Updates

Phase one is well underway in Lebanon as winter weather sets in.

Thanks to our partner community, new wood and canvas have been delivered for residents to reinforce their shelters for the winter weather and each family has received oil to heat their homes.

We would also like to extend a sincere thanks to our community leaders and our in-country coordinators who have made all of this possible in spite of difficult political and logistical circumstances in the country at the moment.

We hope to continue to work together to raise more funds to purchase the camp winter jackets and to move into the next phase of the project: sanitation.

About Us
In-Sight Collaborative is a registered 501(c)3 organization made up of a network of advocates with a shared vision for the improvement of the way we deliver humanitarian aid. Through partnerships and solidarity, we believe in promoting the empowerment of displaced populations and fostering self-sustaining growth through periods of adversity by supporting emergency interventions and long-term projects that aim to preserve dignity and independence while cultivating community. With nearly 70.8 million people displaced globally according to UNHCR due to factors such as conflict, natural disasters, and climate change, we recognize that modern displacement requires modern solutions.

Thanks to Ed Sutton for the heads-up. Images courtesy of Lindsey Smith and Kinder World. Read this article to find out fourteen more ways you can help Syrian refugees. \\ TRR

 

Picketing in Petersburg for the People of Idlib

idlib 5

Movement of Conscientious Objectors (DSO)
Jan 8, 2020
vk.com

“Done!” An Anti-War Picket on Christmas

Members of the Movement of Conscientious Objectors to Military Service held solo pickets on the evening of January 7 outside the headquarters of the Western Military District on Palace Square in Saint Petersburg. The decision to hold an anti-war picket demanding an end to the bombing of people in the Syrian province of Idlib was prompted by a series of articles in Novaya Gazeta about the actions of the Russian military.

idlib 1

Clockwise from upper left-hand corner: “Bombs don’t solve anything!” “Stop bombing for peace!” “Don’t serve war! Don’t join the army!” “Idlib needs medical care, food, and shelter—not bombs!”

We chatted online with Amir al Muarri, a musician from Idlib, and went out to picket on [Russian Orthodox] Christmas day.

As can be clearly heard in a recording of communications between Russian pilots and headquarters, they say, “Package received. Adjusting course. Counting down. Jackpot.”

They then release a missile that brings death, blood, and destruction to people.

After the missile has hit the target, a pilot reports, “Done.”

idlib 2

“Idlib! We are against bombing. I’m ashamed of my country.”

It is a pity we did not think to write these words in Arabic, only in English.

Read more about the situation in the Syrian province of Idlib in Novaya Gazeta.

idlib 3

As practice has shown, there are always people who start writing comments like “Where is the evidence?” I would like to reply, Do you see microbes? No. Then how do you know they exist? You believe scientists who have studied this question and shaped scientific opinion. It is the same with many other questions. I don’t claim to have researched all the questions in the world by myself. On this particular issue, I trust the journalists at Novaya Gazeta, in particular, Elena Milashina, who has studied the subject and authored a number of articles on it.

idlib 4

As for remarks that the American military is also bombing and killing people, I would reply that a pacifist’s uppermost concern should be criticizing the policy of war waged in the name of his or her country.

Otherwise, it is like the old Soviet joke. “We can also go out onto Red Square, shout that the US president is a fool, and get away with it scot-free.”

Or it is like in the famous song by Alexander Galich in which the narrator reads out a prepared speech written for a woman whom he urgently had to replace: “The whole world knows the Israeli warmongers. / I say, as a woman and a mother, / They must be brought to justice.”

Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up. Photos courtesy of the Movement of Conscientious Objectors (DSO). Translated by the Russian Reader

Always Open for You

always for you

It is important, I guess, to make note of the Putin regime’s now innumerable crimes at home and abroad, although it is practically pointless.

At home, in Russia, the progressive intelligentsia is more interested in debating meaningless “issues” like the virtues or, alternately, the vices of Greta Thunberg than it is in doing much of anything about the regime that has happily trampled all of its real and imagined opponents and enemies scot-free for twenty years while also destroying the rule of law, the welfare state, the education system, medical care, the environment, etc., and, just for fun, has also brutally put down a rebellion in Russia’s hinterlands (Chechnya), invaded three countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Syria), assassinated numerous “enemies” on foreign soil, and recklessly meddled in the domestic affairs and elections of numerous other countries all over the world.

But who cares? My experience of writing about these things for twelve years is that most people (including most people in Russia itself, bizarrely) are keen to give the Putin regime a free pass whenever possible, meaning it has only gained more confidence in the “justice” of its perverted cause over the years.

What is this cause? Ensuring that Putin and his circle remain in power in perpetuity and thus, in control, of the country’s vast wealth, which they dispense of as if it were their personal property.

Public indifference has been most depressingly on display when it comes to Russia’s decisive and murderous military intervention, launched four years ago, in defense of Bashar Assad’s criminal regime in Syria.

Frankly, I have no clue why Russians would need unfettered access to the World Wide Web when they signally have failed to make any noise or, as far as I can tell, even find out anything about their government’s baleful role in the world today.

In fact, if they think about it at all, I imagine they kind of like it. It makes them feel important. [TRR]

Thanks to Harald Etzbach and Boycott Russia Today for the heads-up. Thanks also to Sheen Gleeson for her abiding support. Photo by the Russian Reader

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Putin Begins Installing Equipment To Cut Russia’s Access To World Wide Web
Zak Doffman
Forbes
September 24, 2019

Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Russian Internet (Runet) [sic] into law to protect the country’s communications infrastructure in case it was disconnected from the World Wide Web—or so he said. Critics argued it was opening a door to a Chinese-style firewall disconnecting Russia from the outside world.

Now, Alexander Zharov, the head of the federal communications regulator Roskomnadzor, has confirmed to reporters that “equipment is being installed on the networks of major telecom operators,” and Runet [sic] would begin testing by early October. Such testing, reporters were told, is known as “combat mode.”

When the legislation was introduced there was some debate as to whether it would work in practice. The government claimed its objective was to deal with “threats to the stable, safe and integral operation of the Russian Internet on Russian territory,” by centralizing “the general communications network.” This would work by deploying an alternative domain name system (DNS) for Russia to steer its web traffic away from international servers. ISPs are mandated to comply.

The Moscow Times reported at the time that “Russia carried out drills in mid-2014 to test the country’s response to the possibility of its internet being disconnected from the web—the secret tests reportedly showed that isolating the Russian internet is possible, but that ‘everything’ would go back online within 30 minutes.”

As for this “combat testing,” Zharov has assured [sic] that everything would be done “carefully,” according to local media reports, explaining that “we will first conduct a technical check—affects traffic, does not affect traffic, do all services work.” The plan is for all of this testing to be completed by the end of October.

Although the regulator has been keen to emphasize that Runet [sic] is only for deployment when the system is perceived to be “in danger,” there is a clear question as to where and how such a decision would be taken. Such threats have been classified as “impacts to the integrity of networks, the stability of networks, natural or man-made impacts, or security threats,” all pretty wide-ranging classifiers.

Russia’s recent moves to shut down cellular data traffic to stymie anti-Putin protesters and government warnings that social media access may be curtailed have not brought much confidence to its tech-savvy citizens.

Runet [sic] is due to go live in November. According to Freedom On The Net, “Russian internet freedom has declined for the sixth year in a row, following government efforts to block the popular messaging app Telegram and numerous legislative proposals aimed at restricting online anonymity and increasing censorship.”

And there are no signs of that getting any better any time soon.

NB. “Runet” is a term that has long been used to denote the Russian or Russian-language segment of the Internet. Why Mr. Doffman thought it was something that would go online only in November or was “signed into law” is beyond me. But then I also do not understand why a respectable magazine like Forbes would not only fail to fact-check his article but also neglect to proofread it. I had to do the proofreading for them. [TRR]

More and More Russians

hongkong.jpgAccording to organizers, at least 1.7 million people attended a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong today, August 18, 2019. Photo courtesy of HKFP

More and more Russians seem to be breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line. Increasingly, they just do what they deem important, and the authorities deal with the consequences. We are all much more used to the reverse relationship, which is why Russia’s new situation is hard to grasp. People in Russia are only now learning to peer into themselves, not into their television sets, searching for clues to what will happen next.

This does not mean that the Kremlin has suddenly become more transparent or less authoritarian. It only means that Russian society has started to realize that it may, in fact, be an originator of political and societal change, not just on the receiving end.

For how long this new situation—or an impression of it—will last is unclear. The Kremlin is at war and wants everyone in Russia to be at war too. Russians seem to be drifting away from this belligerence. The question is whose pull, the Kremlin’s or Russian society’s, is stronger. I am afraid the Kremlin’s is stronger but will be happy to be mistaken.
—Maxim Trudolyubov, “Ask Not What Will the Kremlin Do Next,” The Russia File, 16 August 2019

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What does the phrase “more and more Russians” mean, in the essay quoted above? How does Maxim Trudolyubov know they are doing anything at all, much more “breaking free of the old habit of trying to guess the party line” and doing “what they deem important” (whatever that means)?

If its organizers are to be believed, a pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong was attended by 1.7 million people today, August 18. According to Worldometers, Hong Kong’s population, as of today, was almost 7.5 million people, meaning that nearly 23% of Hong Kong’s residents marched today in support of the city’s autonomy and democratic rights.

In Moscow, “up to 60,000 people” attended an “authorized” pro-democracy rally on August 10. It was, apparently, the biggest opposition rally in Russia since the fair election protests of 2011–2012.

World Population Review estimates Moscow’s population as slightly over 12 million people.

If the figures for the August 10 rally and Moscow’s population are to be credited, then, 0.005% of the city’s populace came out for an “authorized” rally—meaning an event where they had much less reason to fear a police crackdown than at the “unauthorized” rallies at which riot police and Russian National Guardsmen detained thousands of protests over the last month or so.

When you are trying to get your collective point across to an authoritarian government, the numbers do matter, just as they matter in non-authoritarian countries.

As I have argued in many different ways many different times, the Russian opposition, especially its self-declared leaders in Moscow, is woefully bad at two things: mobilizing ordinary pro-democratic Russians to make their numbers known to the regime, and meaningfully allying itself with the grassroots pro-democracy movement beyond Moscow.

In fact, at the very same time as a tiny minority of brave, smart Muscovites have been doing battle with the Moscow City Elections Commission and the security forces to defend their constitutional right to vote and run for office, an even tinier and, perhaps, braver minority of Petersburgers has been fighting to get a small slate of independent candidates onto the ballot for elections to the city’s municipal district councils, chronically underfunded entities with almost no power to do anything more than making cosmetic improvements to the neighborhoods they represent. Just as in Moscow, the would-be candidates themselves have been harassed, beaten, and arrested, along with some of their supporters.

Typically, when the Petersburg pro-democratic opposition held an authorized rally on August 3, only two thousand people showed up. Sadly and hilariously, Deutsche Welle described it as an “event in support of candidates not allowed to run in the elections to the Moscow City Duma.” In reality, Petersburgers rallied in support of their own beleaguered opposition candidates, in solidarity with Muscovites, and against the upcoming pro forma election of acting Governor Alexander Beglov, the Kremlin’s third satrap in the city, on September 8.

But the real story was too complicated for Deutsche Welle. It was, apparently, too gnarly for the vast majority of Petersburgers as well. World Population Review estimates Petersburg’s population as nearly 5.5 million. (I suspect it is actually much higher than this, but that is another conversation.) So, proportionately, even fewer people in Russia’s “cultural capital” are worried about their rapidly vanishing constitutionally guaranteed rights than their comrades in Moscow and their Chinese frenemies in Hong Kong: 0.0003%, to be exact.

In the face of these real numbers, which he signally fails to mention, Trudolyubov cites public opinion polls, notoriously unreliable indicators in a highly manipulated authoritarian society like Russia, and his own vague “impressions.”

He also makes an assertion that is debatable and a promise he probably has no intention of keeping, to wit:

“Russian society is turning into a much more active player in Russia’s public life. Importantly, it is not limited to the political protests that have been taking place in Moscow for the past several weeks. The protests are just the most visible part of the change. There is exciting new art, there is a new wave of independent journalism, there is an entire universe of YouTube and other social media channels that are completely free of both pro-Kremlin and strictly oppositional politics (all of those trends deserve a special take, which we will provide).”

I will have been reporting on these “other Russias,” as I have dubbed them, for twelve years come this October. I know them as well as any “outsider” can know them. I will keep writing about them and translating dispatches from these other Russias as long as I am able.

Despite my interest in the other Russias and Russians, however, and my endless admiration for the sheer courage, tenacity, and intelligence of many of the real-life heroines and heroes who have made appearances on this website over the years, I knew the fair elections movement of 2011–2012 was a non-starter almost as soon as it kicked off, even though it was a nationwide grassroots movement, unlike the 2019 fair elections movement, which has been practically limited to Moscow.

I knew that for two reasons. First, the numbers of anti-Putinists showing their faces in public at protest rallies, “authorized” and “unauthorized,” were also minuscule as percentages of the general populace. Second, the “movement” was managed lackadaisically, with indecently long pauses between “authorized” rallies.

In Moscow, at least, there does seem to be a greater sense of urgency and intensity this time around, but the numbers of people showing up for rallies have been halved. Paradoxically, however, those people have been more willing to face police crackdowns, but I am not sure this is necessarily a good thing, politically and strategically.

Like Trudolyubov, I am happy to be mistaken. Unlike Trudolyubov, I have no sense that Russian society has become a bigger player than it was seven years ago. There was also a lot of new art, independent journalism, and social media savvy on the margins then as now.

The sad truth is that, unlike countries and territories populated by people of color, such as Hong Kong and Puerto Rico, Russia gets way more credit for every tiny gesture towards democracy, autonomy, and independence made by its supposedly “white” people, even though Russian society punches way below its weight when it comes to every possible measure of official and popular support for democracy, minorities, civil and human rights, progressive environmental policies, engaged art, cutting-edge education, grassroots-driven urban planning, you name it.

What Russia does have a lot of is flag twirlers who have ensconced themselves in plum jobs at western news outlets and think tanks, places where, correspondingly, you will not find a lot of people of color and people from the formerly colonized parts of the world. So, even though the Kremlin has made xenophobia, anti-Americanism, rampant homophobia, Islamophobic, anti-westernism, anti-liberalism, Russian Orthodox obscurantism, and aggressive covert and overt interventions into the affairs of other countries planks in its unwritten ideological platform, and Russia’s opposition has said almost nothing about any of it, much less organized protests against, say, the Kremlin’s criminal military involvement in the brutal ongoing murder of Syria’s pro-democracy movement, the so-called west, at least as represented by places like the Kennan Institute and media organizations like the BBC, has way more time and sympathy for all things Russian than it has for anything happening in countries and places dominated by people of color.

It would be strange of me, of all people, to argue for less interest in grassroots politics and culture in Russia, but a genuine curiosity should also involve being able to tell the fibbers and crypto-nationalists from the truth-tellers and democrats. // TRR

Thanks to the fabulous Mark Teeter for the heads-up. I am nearly certain he would have a different take on Trudolyubov’s essay, but in my Facebook newsfeed it ended up cheek by jowl with an article about today’s truly massive protests in Hong Kong.

When We Were Ten

15220228-number-ten

Leonid Volkov
Facebook
August 10, 2019

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

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

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

Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of 123RF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spikery, or, How to Give Aid and Comfort to Fascist War Criminals While Making Lots of Money

It’s funny the things you find in your email inbox in the morning. This morning, as usual, I found mailers from many of the Russian and English-language online newspapers I read, including Petersburg’s humble but always revealing business daily Delovoi Peterburg.

Today’s big news was that police had searched the head office of Bukvoyed, one of Russia’s largest bookstore chains.

Founded in 2000, Bukvoyed (“Bookworm”) has 140 stores around the country.

A source at Bukvoyed told Delovoi Peterburg the search had nothing to do with the company per se but with one of its business partners.

If you have been monitoring the fortunes of Russian business under the Putinist tyranny, a crony state-capitalist regime, run by “former” KGB officers as if it was the Soprano mob, only a million times nastier, you would know it has not been easy to do business of any kind in Russia during the last twenty years. The country’s current prime minister and ex-president, Dmitry Medvedev, once famously said the regime’s vast police and security apparatus, known collectively as the siloviki, needed to stop “nightmaring” (koshmarit) business.

He also famously said, when he was president, that his country was plagued by “legal nihilism.”

Although he was right on both counts, Medvedev did nothing about it. Since the brief, supposedly more “liberal” period when he was freer to speak his mind because, technically, he was the most powerful man in Russia, the nightmaring of business (and nearly everyone else who makes themselves a target by doing anything more ambitious than hiding their light in a bushel) has only got worse, and legal nihilism, along with anti-Americanism, homophobia, xenophobia, and neo-imperialism, has become even more entrenched as part of the Kremlin’s unwritten ideology and, thus, a guidepost for how Russia’s police, security agencies, prosecutors, and judges deal with “criminals.” 

As Denis Sokolov recently argued in Republic, the siloviki have established a system of “police feudalism” in Russia under which the FSB, the Russian Investigative Committee, the Interior Ministry, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, the Russian National Guard, the tax police, and other state security agencies have divided the country into fiefs, bits of “turf” where they are almost entirely free to shake down, rob, nightmare, and legally nihilize whomever and whatever they want under a set of unwritten rules outsiders can only guess at.

After reading about Bukvoyed’s legal-nihilistic woes, then, I was startled by the banner ad I found at the bottom of the page.

mooks“Synergy Global Forum, October 4–5, 2019, Gazprom Arena, Saint Petersburg. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Grant Cardone. Michael Porter. Randi Zuckerberg. Ichak Adize.” Ad courtesy of Delovoi Peterburg

Referred to, hilariously, as “spikery” (“speakers”) on the Russian version of the Synergy Global Forum’s website, these five greater and lesser lights of global capitalism have been, no doubt, promised or paid extraordinarily hefty fees to keynote this hootenanny in the belly of the crony state-capitalist beast.

Formerly known as the Zenit Arena (after the city’s Russian premier league football team, FC Zenit, owned by state-controlled Gazprom), even the venue itself, the Gazprom Arena, is a monument to the mammoth crookedness, thuggery, violence, and corruption replicated all over the world’s biggest country every day for the last twenty years by the Kremlin’s minions.

But you would never know that by reading the cheery boilerplate on the Synergy Global Forum’s website.

Gazprom Arena is the most visited indoor stadium in Eastern Europe, second only to the famous Wembley in London. The main feature of the project — a sliding roof, which allows you to carry out activities in a comfortable environment at any time of the year and in all weather conditions. Large capacity, modern technical equipment, and two-tier parking make Gazprom Arena one of the best venues for major festivals, exhibitions, and business conferences.

More important, however, is the ostensible point of all this spikery, other than making lots of money for everyone involved.

Synergy Global Forum has been held since 2015. The first Forum gathered 6,000 participants and became the largest business event in the country. Two years later, we broke this record and entered Guinness World Records — 25,000 entrepreneurs and top managers participated at SGF in Olympiyskiy in 2017. This year we set a new big goal — to gather 50,000 participants from all over the world at SGF 2019 in St. Petersburg. Synergy Global Forum not only gives you an applied knowledge, but also motivates and inspires to global achievements, gives the belief that any ambitious goal is achievable. What goals do you set for yourself?

Aside from being one big [sic], this sampling of spikery reveals that the apocryphal gospel of Dale Carnegie and other “good capitalist” snake oil salesmen is alive and well and making waves in a place like Russia, where it could not be more out of place.

I don’t mean that Russia and Russians are “culturally” or “civilizationally” incompatible with self-improvement, the power of positive thinking, and other tenets of American capitalist self-hypnosis. If you had spent most of your adult life in Russia, as I have, you would know the opposite is the case.

Unfortunately. Because what Russia needs more than anything right now is not more navel-gazing and better business practices, but regime change and the rule of law. Since I’m a democratic socialist, not a Marxist-Leninist, and, I hope, a realist, these things cannot come about other than through a revolution in which Russia’s aspiring middle classes, at whom snake-oil festivals like the Synergy Global Forum are targeted, join forces with the grassroots, who have been nightmared and legally nihilized in their own way under Putin.

One of the first things a new bourgeois-proletariat Russian coalition government would have to do, aside from prosecuting and imprisoning tens of thousands of siloviki and banning them from politics and the civil service for life, would be to disentangle the country from its current incredibly destructive armed and unarmed interventions in conflicts in other countries, starting with Ukraine and Syria.

What does the Synergy Global Forum and its sponsor, Synergy Business School have to do with such seemingly distant and terribly messy international politics? Well, this:

The school has branches in 26 Russian cities, as well as a unique campus in Dubai, which is home base for an international MBA program for students from the UAE, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

So, in fact, Synergy Business School is in the business of equipping people from some of the world’s most powerful and aggressive theocratic, monarchist, and crony state-capitalist tyrannies with MBAs while claiming its core values are “openness to newness, commitment to development, and intelligence.”

You can say I’m a dreamer but I am nearly sure SBS’s core values are completely at odds with the neo-imperialism, neo-colonialism, militarism, hostility to civil and human rights, and fascism of the current regimes in Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.

I write this not because I believe in building a “better” capitalism (I don’t), but because I am nearly sure one party to this mass chicanery, including the invited spikery, does believe it is possible to do just that and thus “peacefully” transform these countries into slightly quirky versions of Australia and Canada. (For the record, I don’t for a minute believe these supposedly democratic countries have no problems of their own with human rights, etc.)

That is not going to happen if only because, at another level, carefully hidden from the incurious eyes of the people who go to such events, their real purpose is to whitewash these regimes, make them more attractive to foreign investors, and expand their international networks of shills and useful idiots.

I learned this valuable lesson about Putinist Russia by carefully following the amazing career of Vladimir Yakunin, another “former” KGB officer and fellow Ozero Dacha Co-op member who could write a textbook about how to co-opt distinguished foreign academics, decision-makers, and journalists into, mostly unwittingly, toeing the Putinist line.

It comes down to this. Why are Arnold Schwarznegger, Randi Zuckerberg, and their fellow 2019 Synergy Global Forum spikery so willing to help whitewash a gang of fascist war criminals who are also at war with their own people?

Since there is no good answer to this question, they should be arrested upon their return from the forum and charged with colluding with hostile foreign powers.

If you don’t understand what I mean by “fascist war criminals,” please read the article below. // TRR

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Russia and Assad are butchering Syrian civilians again. No one seems to mind
Terry Glavin
National Post
July 24, 2019

Maybe it’s because of the guilty anti-interventionist conscience of the world’s comfortable liberal democracies, or because it’s now an article of respectable faith in the NATO capitals that Syrian lives simply aren’t worth the bother. Maybe it’s just that we’ve all become so accustomed to reports of slaughter and barbarism in Syria that it barely warrants public attention at all.

Whatever the reason, or excuse, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is finally having his way in the Syrian governorate of Idlib, and the world barely notices.

It’s been nearly a year since Lavrov expressed his desire that the “abscess” of Syrian resistance in Idlib, a sprawling province that borders Turkey in Syria’s northwest, be “liquidated.” It’s been nearly a month since 11 humanitarian organizations came together with the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs to warn that “Idlib is on the brink of a humanitarian nightmare unlike anything we have seen this century.”

We’ve reached that brink now. Just this week, 66 civilians have been killed and more than 100 non-combatants wounded, the UN reports, in a series of bombing runs carried out across Idlib. The worst massacre was an airstrike Monday on a public market in the village of Maarat al-Numan. At least 39 people were killed, among them eight women and five children.

Since the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad’s barrel bombers and Russia’s fighter-bombers began their recent offensive in Idlib on April 29, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has tallied 2,641 casualties. The UN counts 400 civilian deaths, but there is no accurate count of the dead and injured in Syria anymore. The wounded lie dying in the rubble of bombed buildings. At least 25 hospitals and clinics in Idlib have been destroyed since April 29, bringing the number of health centers deliberately targeted since 2011 to about 570. More than 800 health workers have been killed.

Three years ago, when the UN and monitoring agencies stopped counting, the Syrian dead were numbered at 500,000. In the face of these most recent war crimes and atrocities, the UN’s humanitarian affairs office has been reduced to begging Assad and Lavrov to ease up to allow humanitarian aid into Idlib’s besieged districts, and pleading with Russia and Turkey to uphold the terms of a year-old memorandum of understanding that was supposed to demilitarize Idlib. Fat chance of that.

The Kremlin-Ankara pact arose from negotiations that began in the months following the 2016 fall of Aleppo, where thousands of Syrian civilians were slaughtered by Vladimir Putin’s air force in the course of the Kremlin’s commitment to Assad to help bomb the Syrian resistance into submission. Joining with Russia and Iran, Turkish strongman Recip Erdoğan entered into a series of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, that eventually led to an agreement to establish Idlib as a jointly-patrolled “deconfliction zone.”

A series of these de-escalation agreements have each in their turn become death traps. In Homs, in Ghouta, in Quneitra, the pattern has repeated itself. Weakened by starvation sieges, and bloodied by Russian fighter jets, Assad’s barrel bombs, ground assaults by Iran’s Hezbollah units and multiple chemical attacks — sarin, chlorine, napalm — Syria’s various and fractious resistance outfits have surrendered several cities and towns on the promise of safe passage with their families to one or another de-escalation area. Convoys of buses carry them across the countryside. They settle in, and then they come under attack again.

Until April 29, Idlib was the last of these demilitarized zones, and by then the population had doubled to three million people. Among Idlib’s recent arrivals were civilians fleeing the Syrian carnage who had not been able to join the six million Syrians who have managed to escape the country altogether. But the newcomers also include members of various armed opposition groups, and the Assad regime has deftly manipulated its “de-escalation” and safe-passage arrangements to pit those groups against one another.

More than a dozen safe-passage agreements struck prior to the Kremlin-Ankara arrangement amount to what democratic opposition leaders have called ethnic cleansing and “compulsory deportation.” Most of the opposition groups that submitted to them have ended up in Idlib. Among them: Islamic State fighters from Yarmouk, and the jihadist fronts Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Fatah from districts around Aleppo and Damascus.

What this has meant for Idlib is that the mainline opposition in the Turkish-backed and formerly American-supported Syrian Interim Government has been losing its hold on the governorate, and its democratically elected local councils have come under increasing pressure from the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham jihadist coalition. And now that Assad’s Syrian Arab Army has been moving in from the south, and Russian and regime bombs are falling from the skies, tens of thousands of civilians are on the move again.

More than 300,000 people are on the roads, most of them headed towards Turkey, but Turkey has already taken in half of Syria’s six million refugees and the Turkish border is now closed to them. More than 1,000 Turkish troops are patrolling Idlib’s northern countryside as part of the Astana accord, and they won’t let the Syrian civilians pass. Humanitarian groups report that hundreds of Syrian refugees have been picked up in Istanbul in recent weeks and deported back to Syria.

“Yet again innocent civilians are paying the price for the political failure to stop the violence and do what is demanded under international law — to protect all civilians,” is the way UN Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock puts it. “Our worst fears are materializing.”

No help is coming from Europe. The European Union has made its peace with Ankara — Erdoğan prevents Syrian refugees from sneaking into Greece or Bulgaria or setting out in leaky rafts into the Mediterranean, and Europe looks the other way while Erdoğan deports Syrian refugees back to the slaughterhouse of Idlib.

Neither is any help coming from the United States, where the Kremlin-friendly Trump administration is balking at the idea of imposing sanctions on Turkey for buying into Russia’s S-400 missile system, and is otherwise continuing the Obama administration’s policy of thinking about mass murderer Assad as somebody else’s problem.

And then there’s Canada, where we’re all supposed to congratulate ourselves for having high-graded the best and brightest Syrians from the UN’s refugee camps, and we expect the Syrian refugees we’ve taken in to be grateful and to forgive us all for standing around and gawping while their country was turned into blood, fire, and rubble.

Whatever our reasons, or excuses, Idlib is being liquidated, a humanitarian nightmare is unfolding in Syria again, and hardly anybody notices.

Putin’s Spectacles of Strength and Security at Home and Abroad

op31-Russia-in-SyriaRamped-up attacks in northwestern Syria by Damascus and its ally Russia have claimed the lives of hundreds since late April. Photo courtesy of AFP and the National

At home and abroad, Russia is using chaos to create spectacles of strength and security
Faisal Al Yafai
The National
July 30, 2019

In two incidents, in the space of one week, the Kremlin has twice sought confrontation where none was needed.

On Tuesday last week, Russia’s fighter jets violated South Korean airspace for several minutes, resulting in a major diplomatic incident as Korean jets fired more than 300 warning shots.

Then, over the weekend in Moscow, thousands of protesters gathered for the second week in a row, sparked by a crude and unnecessary attempt by the municipality to bar independent candidates from the city’s council elections.

Police responded forcefully to the protests, arresting thousands, including Russia’s most high-profile opposition politician, Alexei Navalny, who was imprisoned before being taken to hospital for exposure to an unidentified chemical.

Both situations could have been avoided. Neither were accidents, either. The Kremlin is actively creating confrontations at home and abroad, hoping to find a role in solving the chaos it is sowing.

This was especially clear in the protests.

The spark for the demonstrations came from an unlikely source: a decision by the country’s electoral commission to not allow a series of independent opposition candidates to stand in September’s Moscow city elections. Independent registrations for the elections require several thousand signatures, a usually insurmountable obstacle. But, when two dozen opposition candidates managed it, the electoral commission simply refused to register them.

These elections, it should be noted, are not for the city’s mayoralty, an important position. Instead, they are for seats on the city council, a much smaller prize.

But, even on something that barely matters, the Kremlin is determined to show its power, and show it in a way that demonstrates overt and public contempt for the election process. It is that sense, that Russia’s government is willing to publicly violate the rules, which pushed so many to protest.

That desire to flex the country’s muscles was also on show last week.

In a murky incident, Russian planes flew without warning through airspace where Seoul requires foreign aircraft to provide air identification, and then further violated the country’s air space. South Korean jets tracked the military aircraft and a volley of warning shots were fired.

On the surface, it seems bizarre to provoke South Korea, a country with which Russia has maintained good relations. However, the East China Sea is heavily contested. It was only last month, after all, that Russian and US warships almost collided in the waters below where the incident took place.

Under Vladimir Putin’s two decades of leadership, the role of the Russian state has shrunk. Although he often harks back to the glory days of the Soviet Union, in fact, the Russian state today does substantially less for citizens than its predecessor. Most housing is owned by private companies and landlords.* The idea that the state would provide the “flat, car and dacha” of Soviet lore is long gone.

Instead, Mr. Putin offers security and spectacle. He creates an idea of a world in turmoil, which only his government is able to defend ordinary Russians from, and offers visible displays of the protection he provides.

The intervention in Syria amply demonstrates this. First, the necessity of intervention, of Russia’s forces fighting beyond their country’s borders to stop a threat to the homeland. Second, the spectacle of a train full of tanks and guns looted from the Syrian battlefield touring the length and breadth of Russia, often accompanied by Soviet war songs.

There is no room for subtlety, either. The train departed from Moscow on a military holiday and returned on May 8, Victory Day in Russia, which commemorates the end of the Soviet war against Nazi Germany.

Mr. Putin behaves similarly on a personal level. On the same day as the street protests in Moscow, he was filmed descending in a two-man submarine to the bottom of the Gulf of Finland. In doing so, he projected himself as a strongman politician, able to control the unstable forces of the world by pure brawn and daring.

The Putin state needs these spectacles and this chaos, whether on Russia’s streets or beyond them. They demonstrate to a watching world a Russia that is more than a regional power, one that is a global player, able to cause global incidents from Salisbury through Syria, and on to South Korea. They also demonstrate to the Russian public that only the state can keep them safe.

With a weakened economy, poor relations with the West, and a war in Syria that drags on without end, the Kremlin is setting up clashes to create a place for itself at home and abroad.

Yet there is a danger in manufacturing conflicts because they can easily escalate out of hand. Even small skirmishes have the potential to expand unpredictably.

There was, for example, no guarantee that the South Korean incident would have ended peacefully. One miscalculation by either side in the skies above the Korean Peninsula, and there could have been serious consequences.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Mr. Navalny has been taken ill and his doctors believe he could have been poisoned. What started as a minor attempt to exclude candidates from a meaningless election has escalated first into the biggest street protests the Russian capital had seen in years, and the world watching to see whether an opposition politician had been brazenly poisoned in custody.

That is the problem with chaos: once unleashed, it is difficult for anyone, even the Russian state, to bring under control.

* This is the only false note in an otherwise powerful, impeccable analysis. Given the extraordinarily high number of Russians who own their own flats and dachas, legacies of the post-perestroika giveaway privatization of the country’s housing stock and the late-Soviet period, respectively, it seems dubious to claim, as Mr. Yafai does here, that landlords and private companies own most of the housing in Russia. Maybe this would prove true if we looked carefully at ownership statistics, but I am nearly certain Mr. Yafai has not done that. // TRR

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UN reports 400,000 Syrians displaced since Idlib offensive started in April
Deutsche Welle
July 26, 2019

The UN says there has been a “dramatic escalation” in violence since Syrian forces started an operation to retake Idlib province. Human rights chief Michelle Bachelet regretted “international indifference.”

More than 400,000 people have been displaced in northwestern Syria since the start of a government offensive to retake the region in late April, the United Nations said Friday.

David Swanson from the UN’s humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) said more than 2,700 people have died during the “dramatic escalation” in violence in Idlib province.

Russia has been helping government forces loyal to President Bashar Assad with airstrikes, despite an international truce.

UN reports persistent pattern against civilians

UN Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet criticized “international indifference” at the number of civilians dying in attacks on schools, hospitals, and other civilian targets.

“These are civilian objects, and it seems highly unlikely, given the persistent pattern of such attacks, that they are all being hit by accident,” she said.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had registered 39 attacks on health facilities and at least 50 attacks on schools. More than 740 civilians have been killed in those strikes, it added.

Intentional attacks are war crimes

“Intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes, and those who have ordered them or carried them out are criminally responsible for their actions,” Bachelet said.

Forces loyal to Assad have retaken around two-thirds of Syria’s territory.

The country’s civil war has claimed the lives of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it began in 2011.