Olga Romanova: How “Law Enforcement” Works in Russia

calvey
Michael Calvey in court. Photo by Maxim Shemetov. Courtesy of Reuters and Republic

“We Give You Serebrennikov and You Give us Calvey”: How Law Enforcement Works
Olga Romanova
Republic
May 13, 2019

“Who would make the decision about your arrest?”

“My colleagues would betray me, but they would vet it with my bosses.”

“What about Vasya [a big businessman]?”

“Cops, the economic security squad. It’s enough for the word to come down from the district office to grab him. Vasya is a respected person. He’s a thief.”

“And me?”

“You’re an enemy of the state. If the neighborhood cops can decide to arrest Vasya, the Secret Chamber, so to speak, would have to give the orders to arrest you. The decision to arrest you would be made by no one lower ranked than Bortnikov’s deputy, although you’re naked and barefoot, and no one would ask the prosecutor’s office or the Investigative Committee to go after you. It’s creepy and pointless.”

This should give you an idea of the conversations I have with my acquaintances in the security forces nowadays. It helps to do business with people who know the score. None of them is surprised when you ask them who would arrest someone, how they would do it, and when they would do it. Everything would have been planned long ago, and there are no illusions. If a person has to be placed under arrest and charged, it is going to happen. If they do not need to be indicted, they can be kept in custody for a while. No one remembers, even for appearance’s sake, that there are courts in Russia, and courts decide whether to remand someone in custody after hearing arguments by all the interested parties. Everyone knows the decisions are not made in court.

Who Makes the Decisions?
Who made the decision to arrest Kirill Serebrennikov? Who decided to let him go for the time being? Who arrested Michael Calvey and the employees of Baring Vostok? Who let them out of jail? Why? Who made the decision to arrest Mikhail Abyzov?

There is no one with whom you can talk about these cases.

This is not quite true. My sources in all the law enforcement and security agencies, who can be frank with me as long as they remain anonymous, talk to me about these cases, too, but they look really worried when they do.

Rank-and-file law enforcement officers are confused. They do not understand why someone decided to back off the Serebrennikov case so abruptly and quickly. The train was rushing the director and filmmaker towards a sentence of the four years or so in the camps when a powerful hand jerked hard on the brakes. The passengers jumped off the train, of course, for they didn’t want to keep traveling in that direction, but the trainmaster, driver, and conductors were completely at a loss.

What should they do with the next train and its contingent of VIP passengers? Should they railroad them, as they were ordered to do, or should they avoid hurrying the case? After the emergency brake has been pulled, everyone emerges with injuries and bumps. Some of the crew were counting on promotions after they had wrapped up such a big case. Other members of the crew were acting on orders from a celestial. He will not forgive them because now they know there are tougher celestials in the system. He cannot forgive the people involved in the case for knowing that fact nor can he forgive the other celestials for intervening. The passengers could not care less. Either they get to where they are going or they do not get there, but the crew is always aboard the train.

True, a smart alec from the Investigative Committee told me something interesting about the procedural aspect.

“Why is everyone so angry? The Serebrennikov case was sent back to the prosecutor’s office, so what? You saw that the court ordered a forensic examination. The first forensic examination was really crooked. The judge in the trial of Serebrennikov’s accountant, Nina Maslyaeva,  wondered why everyone was so glad. Serebrennikov’s case would now be sent back to the prosecutor’s office because his circumstances are the same as Maslyaeva’s. You are mixing up cause and effect. The judge in the Maslyaeva case cannot reach a verdict because he understands the outcome of the forensic examination, which was the same as in the Serebrennikov case, will now be different, and Maslayeva will have to be re-indicted in the light of the new forensic examination in the Serebrennikov case.”

Translated into ordinary language, he means the case can still go any which way. Procedurally, all the cards are still on the table, and the haggling could continue. Things could go one way or the other. The powers that be could change their minds and send Serebrennikov to prison, but they could also let him go. They could arrest him again and send him down. The statute of limitations is a flexible thing.

Somewhere above the clouds, the thunder gods fight over the case. Invisible to the world, they communicate with ordinary people by making motions to conduct additional forensic examinations. Ordinary people make of it what they will. Police investigators are also part of the rank and file, part and parcel of Russia’s unwashed masses.

In ordinary times, this is not what happens to ordinary defendants in ordinary cases. Everyone would have gone down five years each per capita, and no would have batted an eye. In this case, the decisions are obviously political. Look who made the decision! Who telephoned whom? What levers did they use? Who or what did they offer in exchange? Freebies are for freaks, after all. We will return to this subsequently when we discuss other factors.

If the boring procedural hypothesis made by my anonymous source at the Investigative Committee is right, events should unfold as follows. The authorities will get the results of the new forensic examination in the Serebrennikov case. If the total damages are less than was claimed earlier (or, say, there were, miraculously, no damages at all), the charges against Serebrennikov and the other defendants will be dropped right in the courtroom. If, on the contrary, the sum of the damages is more or less hefty, a million rubles, at least, the defendants will be found guilty and sentenced to prison. Then you can appeal the verdict wherever you like.

No one would ask why a particular ruling was made. No one would ask what happened. Why are some people treated one way, while others are treated another way? The foot soldiers of law enforcement know the score. But when they do not know the score, they know it is better not to ask whether a mistake has been made but to follow orders.

How Things Go Down
The Calvey case bears a strong resemblance to the case against Vladimir Yevtushenkov. Yevtushenkov failed to take the hints. He was told directly what to do but refused to hand over his business. Then he was arrested and given a good talking. He and his captors came to an understanding. He was released and his business confiscated. Unlike Yevtushenkov, however, Calvey is as poor as a church mouse. Compared with Yevtushenkov, that is. Calvey does not own a Bashneft, after all.

The foot soldiers in the security forces have not been particularly surprised about how the Calvey case has unfolded. They expected something of the sort. They expected him to “cash out,” as they call it, and they believe he has, in fact, cashed out. They are uninterested in what this meant. It is not their war, and the spoils are not theirs to claim.

We should look at this more closely.

My source, whom I  trust, albeit warily, explains the obvious to me.

“All cases are business as usual except the cases in which there a phone call,” he says.

I have two questions for him right off the bat. What does he mean by “business as usual”? Who usually makes the  “phone call”?

He explains that people who follow high-profile cases and comment on them fail to take one important factor into account in their arguments. The high-profile cases are handled by another agency as it were. They involve the same players: the prosecutor’s offices, the courts, the remand prisons, and the Investigative Committee. All of them realize, however, when they are handling a special case involving the interests of high-ranking officials and elite businessmen. In these cases, they need to keep close track of which way the wind blows.

The bulk of cases are “mundane.” There is a huge number of such cases, and they can drag on forever. Take, for example, the Baltstroy case, the case of police anti-corruption investigator Boris Kolesnikov, and the case of ex-deputy culture minister Grigory Pirumov, cases that everyone has forgotten, and the Oboronservis case, the cases of the banks implicated in the so-called Russian Laundromat, and the case of Alexander Grigoriev, the man, allegedly, behind the Laundromat, who was mixed up with Putin’s cousin Igor Putin. New indictments in these cases are made all the time. More and more defendants are convicted in these cases and sent down. It never stops, but public interest in these cases is almost nil.

There are cases that collapse, however. Why does this happen?

Why was the case of ex-economics minister Alexei Ulyukayev not reviewed on appeal? Why was his prison sentence not reduced by four years during the sentencing appeal hearing? Does anyone know why? Perhaps the political spin doctors get it, but Russia’s law enforcers do not have a clue. What they understand is when an order comes down to reduce a sentence and when it does not. They leave the blabbing to the spin doctors.

Alexei Fedyarov is a former prosecutor from Chuvashia. Nowadays, he is the head of our legal department at Russia Behind Bars. He gave me permission to quote him.

“It happens. A case is going fine. In the morning, you have a meeting with your superiors. They tell you everything is great, keep pushing, you’ve got the bastards. I was handling a case against the management of the Khimprom factory in Novocheboksarsk. At briefings, I was told my group and I were doing a great job. We had done the initial investigation beautifully and now it was time to detain the suspects, remand them in custody, and put them away. I went to my office, where the city prosecutor was waiting for me. He asked me to hand over the case file. I gave him the case file and he told me it was over, I should forget it. He was personally going to deliver the case file to the head prosecutor of the republic and that would be the end of it.  There would be no supporting documentation or anything. The case really did disappear, although an hour before I had been told to push it.

“During that hour, the head prosecutor of the republic had got a message from the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office. A call from a deputy prosecutor general was enough for them to take the whole thing back, despite the fact it was a big, interesting case involving illegal wiretapping throughout the company and even the local police department and the tax police office. We had found tons of recorded conversations: they recorded everything. They were trying to protect themselves and investigate other people.”

Sources of the “Telephone Call”
How does the “telephone call” work?

The “telephone call” is a conventional name for the outcome of lengthy negotiations. We see only the reflection of this process: Calvey’s arrest, his transfer to house arrest, Serebrennikov’s arrest and his release on his own recognizance, Abyzov’s arrest.

I am going to quote my anonymous source verbatim. In this instance, the way he says what he says is as important as what he says.

“Anyone can hit the brakes. It could be Bortnikov. It could be Chaika. But it is the outcome of agreements among people, not an arbitrary decision. They do not do things that way. Maybe new factors have been brought into play, but there has to be someone who wants to negotiate on behalf of the accused person, who appeals on his behalf. He would be told, ‘Okay, fine. But you have to give us such-and-such in exchange.” Then it is a matter of talking with Lebedev [Chief Justice of the Russian Supreme Court] and everything is put into reverse. It could be like, ‘We’ll give up Serebrennikov if you take the heat off Calvey.’ You see, the siloviki are not all on the same side. There is no longer one side. Not even everyone in the FSB or its departments is on the same side. The Constitutional Department fights with the Anti-Terrorism Department. It’s the same thing in the prosecutor’s office and the Investigative Committee. In the Investigative Committee, there is the group loyal to Bastrykin and then they are the boys from the North Caucasus. There are also the guys from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, who are filthy rich but live orderly lives and are also capable of getting things done.

“Anything goes at this level. Why are you inclined to exaggerate how this works? Number One basically does not care about this stuff.”

I should try and explain.

The Investigative Committee and Prosecutor General’s Office are still at serious loggerheads. The conflict has even intensified. It is a personal conflict and a clash of business interests and a fight over resources. The amount of resources has not grown. On the contrary, there are palpably fewer resources. Relations between the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor General’s Office are currently not just strained, they are intolerably strained.

In court, they take the same side, but those are the rules of the game. If a case has gone to trial, you cannot come out against your colleagues: you would be digging yourself a hole. As a prosecutor, you did not reverse the indictment. You were involved in prolonging the suspect’s custody in remand prison, and you seconded all the motions made by the case investigator. The case investigator, of course, always plays along with the prosecutor. In criminal trials, they are the prosecution.

Even the “groundlings” find it easier to make a deal. The big bosses may be at war with each other, but down on the ground, the workhorses plow away and know the score. There is no love lost for Bastrykin among Investigative Committee officers just as prosecutors are not fond of Chaika. But it is like this everywhere: people like their bosses only when they are standing right in front of them. There is a certain difference, however. Chaika and his deputies at the Prosecutor General’s Office are all former case investigators. They have paid their dues. Bastrykin does not have this background: he is not a criminologist. Their workhorses thus complain about different things. Bastrykin’s underlings complain about incompetence, while prosecutors grouse about their bosses’ passion for business.

The Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor’s Office have an innate tendency to divide up into clans, which are defined geographically: there are Circassian clans, Bashkir clans, etc. They are local fraternities of sorts, and they do not go away when someone moves and transfers to a new job. The clans are often at odds with each other. This is something you must always factor in when dealing with Russian law enforcers.

Internal disunity has also been increasing day by day in the conglomerate known as the FSB. Even mid-level officers have trouble getting along. For example, M Directorate, which oversees the Interior Ministry, the Federal Penitentiary Service, and so on, is often combined, in many regions, with the Economic Security Department, and there is a big problem with compatibility in terms of the cases they pursue. But there is also K Directorate, aka the 8th Directorate, which oversees banks and the financial system. Regarded as “blue bloods,” they are strongly disliked by other FSB officers.

“A guy from K Directorate worked out at the World Class gym where I worked out. His driver took him to work in a Maybach. Now he has transferred his membership to the gym in Zhukovka. A membership there costs 600,000 rubles a year [approx. $9,500] and the swimming pool is filled with mineral water. ‘My clients work out there,’ he said to me, ‘so I moved my membership there,'” an athlete and retired FSB veteran told me.

The FSB’s Constitutional and Anti-Terrorism Departments are a whole other story. They oversee everyone who has any dealings with the opposition and they inspire no confidence whatsoever. For example, I am flattered Kirill Serebrennikov and I are overseen by the same FSB officers. But we are overseen by officers from the Constitutional Department, while the Anti-Terrorism Department are working-class blokes who specialize in completely different cases. They were merged into a single directorate in which the Anti-Terrorism Department, supposedly, is subordinated to the Constitutional Department. Naturally, they cannot stand each other.

What about the top bosses? They are busy with other things, which is why they are in charge. They are busy with politicking and intrigues. These quiet squabbles surface as cases like the recent arrest of Colonel Kirill Cherkalin from K Directorate. Did he really take a bribe? Maybe he did: anything is possible. It is more likely, however, he was arrested as part of a war for turf, turf that has been shrinking exponentially with every passing day. Fattened cows no longer graze on this turf: there are basically no cows left to milk. The entire herd has been devoured.

What to Expect
I will quote in full the monologue my anonymous source delivered when I asked him about the future. I do no think there is any need to decode it.

“The turbulence will increase. Until all the issues with Russia’s natural gas and its transit through Ukraine are settled, Number One won’t have time for things happening here. They have been outsourced to our guys. They have been told to go and bite everyone’s heads off. They have temporary permission to do it.

“But there are few fat cats. All the money has been sent abroad. Everyone is living on loans. All of Rublyovka is up to their ears in loans. There will be searches in some people’s homes, and some folks will be ripped to shreds. There will be a lot of this kind of stuff this year. The government will be purged, too. People love this sort of thing.

“Abyzov made no impression on anyone. No one understood what it was about. The only thing people will remember is that he offered to pay a billion rubles in bail. No one will forget him and the billion rubles.

“Circumstances are such that even the system’s insiders cannot make any forecasts. The settings are changing constantly. There is no stable paradigm.

“It is like with water. At room temperature, we understand how it acts. You can stick your finger in it and blow on it. But now it is being warmed. It has not boiled yet and vaporized, but you do not know what to do with it and how it will act next.

“The tax police are busy with major shakedowns. They are kicking everyone’s ass. When we ask them why they are doing it, they reply, ‘Crimea is ours, and our job is to get people to make additional payments.’ But additional payments and penalties are different things, especially penalties meant to wipe people out. They are going after people’s last rubles.

“I have a friend who works as a business court judge on tax cases. Whereas earlier, when she would be asked why she reduced a claim from one hundred million rubles to ten million, she could have an off-the-record chat with the head judge of the court and explain she was doing it so the person could keep their business, such chats are not kosher nowadays.

“Hard times are coming. The Syrian project fell through, and Russia failed to get control of the pipeline going through Turkey. Nothing that was planned in Syria has worked out, and both the South Stream and Nord Stream projects fell through [sic]. Nor will they replace the Ukrainian transit, although that was the goal. But it impossible to exit Syria, and now they have butted their noses in Venezuela. Their luck has been bad. People’s nerves are on edge up top.

“Number One is interested only in oil and gas, and so other parties have got involved in the game. If it were up to Number One, he would crush everyone and no one would breathe another word. He probably decided the lower ranks should take care of this stuff themselves. The very top bosses are not concerned with these matters at all right now. The lower ranks are running things and a huge amount of haggling has been happening.  We are witnessing a classic turf war.”

Welcome to the magical world of turbulence in a pot of boiling water.

Olga Romanova is the director of Russia Behind Bars, a charitable foundation that aids Russian convicts and their families, people who have been victimized by the Russian justice system. Translated by the Russian Reader

One Righteous Man

mokhnatkinSergei Mokhnatkin. Courtesy of the Moscow Times

Since it is my practice report all real Russian opposition to the Kremlin’s war crimes against the Syrian popular revolution, however rare and nearly invisible though it may have been over the past four years, I have to report the comments of the renowned Russian ex-political prisoner Sergei Mokhnatkin, a man who was put through the wringer by Putin’s fascist gangster clique for having the temerity to defend a woman being beaten by a riot policeman in Moscow.

If you are interested in the extraordinarily frightening details of Mr. Mokhnatkin’s case, his time in Russian prisons, and his equally extraordinary courage and fighting spirit, look him up on the internet. (His name can also be written as Sergey Mohnatkin, as on his Facebook page.)

Mr. Mokhnatkin writes, “I will go on smacking down anyone who directly or indirectly supports Russia’s bullying of Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria (the real Syria, of course, not the Syria of Assad, who is more of a cannibal than Kim Jong-un and Putin himself). I could not care less about how the people and governments in these countries view this bullying. The bully must be destroyed and punished regardless of what they think. The lack of a firm stance on this issue on the part of the [Russian] opposition and [Russian] human rights activists allows the bully to behave like a rogue at home and abroad. It encourages Putin, and he takes advantage of it. The current priority is defending these countries. If we succeed in doing this, it won’t take long to scratch Putin off and discard him.”

Hallelujah!

___________________________________________________

Sergey Evgenevich Mohnatkin
Facebook
July 3, 2019
Мочил и буду мочить всех, кто прямо или косвенно поддерживает агрессии России против Грузии, Украины и Сирии (естественно подлинной, а не асадовской, людоеда почище Ким Чен Ына или самого Путина. Мне наплевать как народы и правительства этих стран воспринимают эти агрессии. Агрессор должен быть уничтожен и наказан не зависимо от их мнения. Отсутствие жёсткой позиции по этому вопросу у оппозиции и правозащитников и позволяет агрессору творить беспредел не только внутри страны но и за рубежом. Это поощрение Путину, и он им пользуется. Сегодня первая задача-защитить эти страны. Удастся сделать это, и Путина сколупнуть будет не долго.

Terry Burke: Russiagate, Syria, and the Left

dezaOnce again, years of experience and research have been poured into an article challenging entrenched narratives on the anglophone institutional left, and once again, fear of retaliation from the purveyors of these entrenched narratives has made this challenge unpalatable even to left and liberal publishers with an obvious interest in countering them.

So, once again, the Antidote Writers Collective is pleased to participate in a decentralized effort to bring this challenge out into the open.

The following was initially published on CounterVortex with the understanding that the website’s publisher would be backed up by cross-posts from sympathetic websites in order to reduce the authoritarian left’s ability to target one vulnerable person with their classic arsenal of trolling, threats, abuse, and lawsuits.

Comrade of the zine Terry Burke has been a dedicated peace activist her entire life and has already heard the worst of it even from former comrades who have unthinkingly taken on Putinist narratives and allowed themselves to be played against the emergence of effective opposition to rising fascism in the United States. We salute her years of persistence and are proud to have her back. Enjoy.
Antidote Zine

Russiagate, Syria, and the Left
Terry Burke
CounterVortex
June 27, 2019

The last major national protest in the US was “Families Belong Together” in June 2018. Hundreds of thousands of people across the country demonstrated against the Trump administration’s policy of separating children and families at the border. People who had never protested before brought their families. It’s now a year later and the situation for immigrant families has only gotten worse. Where is the outrage?

Plans for an ICE raid targeting millions of immigrants. Initiating a military strike on Iran and then canceling it. Environmental policies that disregard climate change. Pulling the US out of treaties. Rising alt-right and nationalism around the world. Ignoring congressional subpoenas. Corrupt, incompetent people heading every federal agency. The list of destructive Trump policies seems endless.

Trump’s recent visit to London brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets. Where are the protests in the US? Where are the coalitions in the US organizing against Trump’s anti-democratic, inhumane policies? Where is the left?

Part of the problem is the enormous amount of disinformation that has been specifically directed at the left, disinformation that most people don’t recognize. The disinfo uses anti-imperialist language and is posted on “left” and “progressive” sites that usually have nominally accurate stories on Palestine, Israel, climate change, corporate corruption, and other progressive issues. In addition to the disinfo media sites, respected left authors have confused their readers by dismissing Russiagate as a hoax, claiming that Russian interference in the US elections has been greatly exaggerated to provide the Democrats an excuse for Clinton’s loss.

Eight years of steady disinformation on Syria have created a split in the peace movement. The enormous amount of time and energy spent debating Syria could have gone to building the peace movement instead of dividing it. The doubts raised repeatedly about Russian interference and Mueller’s investigation have weakened the opposition to Trump. Some people don’t know which news sources they can trust. Others restrict themselves only to sources that support their ideological line.

Steve Bannon famously said, “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” That is exactly what has happened. There are thousands of new and unaccountable media organizations on the internet.

As Syria solidarity activists, we have been struggling against extensive, sophisticated disinformation regarding Syria for years—and it’s largely not from the US mainstream media. Syria is not Iraq, where the New York Times helped Bush lead us into war with fake information about WMDs. Syria is not Kuwait, where there were false stories planted about babies in incubators.

The mainstream media articles “demonizing” Assad are fundamentally true: his regime is one of the world’s most repressive, with a police and prison torture system of historic proportions. Unlike Iraq and Iran, and contrary to the propaganda claims, the CIA did not instigate a serious covert regime change operation in Syria. The US efforts in Syria are well documented in Shane Bauer’s recent two-part article for Mother Jones. He writes, “American involvement in Syria has been as fragmented and volatile as the conflict itself.” In this groundbreaking article, he documents how the US has spent billions, initially aiding the Free Syrian Army, but ultimately focused on combating ISIS, forbidding US-backed groups from fighting Assad’s forces.

His article corroborates the stories of anti-Assad Syrians of a genuine uprising against a brutal dictator evolving into a proxy war; of Assad bombing and starving civilians. The Syrian people were caught up in the fervor of the Arab Spring and surprised themselves (and the CIA) by going to the streets in the hundreds of thousands, demonstrating for democracy, overcoming their deep fears of reprisal.

However, most of the peace movement still doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Syrian people’s eight-year struggle against the Assad dictatorship. There have been so many articles in “progressive” media promoting Assad’s narrative of another US regime change effort that they have buried the voices of Syrians.

The voices of Syrian communists, anarchists, democracy activists, writers, artists, intellectuals, and nonviolence activists have rarely been represented in “progressive” media. The majority of these media’s articles on Syria have been written by non-Syrians and they usually promote Assad’s line that he is protecting his sovereign country from US-backed terrorists.

Research from the University of Washington has shown how dominant the pro-Assad political messaging is from an “echo system” of sites that follow Russian, Iranian, and Syrian government-funded media. Researchers examined Twitter conversations about the White Helmets (a Syrian volunteer rescue group) in the summer of 2017. There were four times as many tweets from the echo system as there were from other media sources. Articles from the echo system claimed the White Helmets were a “propaganda construct,” “crisis actors” who staged events, and “they worked with or were themselves terrorists.”

The UW study noted that this echo system of sites claiming to be “independent” and “alternative” shared the same stories and writers. A few of these sites are Global ResearchRTMint Press NewsSputnik NewsFree Thought ProjectThe Anti-Media21st Century WireVeterans TodayZero Hedge, and many others.

For Syria activists, the UW research wasn’t a surprise. It confirmed our experiences over the last six years, that our struggle to get the truth out was up against a substantial, coordinated disinformation effort. We were familiar with this “echo-system” well before the UW study. While they claim to be “independent,” their political line was almost always the same on Syria, Crimea, Putin, and Trump. They played a role in electing Trump by bashing Clinton, equating Clinton and Trump, going easy on Trump, and disparaging voting.

While the sites claim to be funded by their readers and ads, they actually have very few ads and do not disclose information on their funding sources. In 2013, a former writer at Mint Press News, Joey LeMay, told BuzzFeed News, “It was incredibly secretive.” The article goes on to say there were “barely any ads on the website, and whenever LeMay asked about where they got their money, ‘it was brushed off as a non-issue. I would go home feeling not squeaky clean,’ he said.”

The sites in this echo system have all also posted numerous Russiagate articles. It’s understandable that progressives would question how extensive and effective Russian propaganda was in the 2016 elections. The mainstream media hasn’t examined Russian propaganda that targets the left. The UW research has not been mentioned in mainstream or progressive media. But it’s not an either/or proposition: we can criticize Clinton’s campaign and still acknowledge that Russian interference helped Trump win in an election where Clinton won the popular vote by a substantial margin.

The claim that a few Facebook ads bought with Russian rubles could have influenced the 2016 election may have seemed preposterous back in 2016. However, since then, there have been numerous exposés of Russia’s sophisticated use of social media and information warfare—something we had thought was mainly the province of our CIA.

While Russian disinformation is a new concern for Americans, not so for Europeans. In June 2017 the Washington Post reported that “across the [European] continent, counterintelligence officials, legislators, researchers, and journalists have devoted years—in some cases, decades—to the development of ways to counter Russian disinformation, hacking and trolling.” There have been numerous articles on how Swedenthe Baltic statesFinlandGermany, France, Italy, and others are dealing with Russian cyber attempts to influence elections and sway popular opinion.

When well-known left writers like Glenn GreenwaldMatt TaibbiKatrina vanden HeuvelNorman Solomon, and Max Blumenthal immediately denounced the evidence of Russian interference back in 2016, it had a silencing effect. After that, few well-known left writers pursued the serious possibility of effective Russian involvement. In the two and a half years since Trump’s election, there have continued to be new articles and research on Russian bots, trolls, Twitter campaigns, fake accounts, and continued Russian interference in the EU, but the Russiagate authors have ignored this information. Dark Money author Jane Mayer has also written on how Russia helped elect Trump.

After the release of the highly biased Barr summary which seemed to vindicate them, Chris HedgesGlenn GreenwaldStephen CohenMatt TaibbiAaron MatePaul Street in Counterpunch, and Katie Halper from FAIR castigated the US press for its extensive coverage of the Russia/Trump allegations.

However, they wrote nothing revising their Russiagate-is-a-hoax position after the subsequent release of the redacted Mueller report in April and Mueller’s public statement in May. The Mueller report explicitly documents extensive Russian interference in the 2016 elections, but they have refused to acknowledge this.

Greenwald wrote on April 18 that “the actions in which Trump engaged were simply not enough for Mueller to conclude that he was guilty of criminal obstruction.” After Mueller clearly stated on May 29 that he would not exonerate the president for obstruction of justice, Greenwald wrote a series of articles on Brazil and wrote nothing to correct his earlier misstatements about obstruction.

It is critical to understand that the Russiagate narrative is Trump’s narrative. By insisting for over two years that Russian interference was overblown, these authors have been defending the worst president in US history.

The UW-identified echo system of “alternative” media sites has also had numerous articles promoting Russiagate skepticism and Barr’s disingenuous summary of the Mueller Report. Global ResearchMint Press NewsFree Thought ProjectThe Anti-MediaZero Hedge21st Century WireActivist Post, and others have also continued to argue for the Russiagate conspiracy thesis, despite Mueller’s statement and all the information on Russian cyberwarfare.

Even Fox News occasionally departs from supporting Trump’s position on Russian interference, as summed up in a May 2019 Newsweek headline: “Fox News Legal Analyst Says Mueller Evidence Against Trump ‘Remarkably Similar’ to Nixon, Clinton Impeachment Charges.” But the left’s Russiagate skeptics have not conceded anything. Stephen Cohen recently wrote that Russiagate “is the worst and […] the most fraudulent political scandal in American history.”

The echo system and the Russiagate authors have published very little criticism of Putin’s Russia. They have many articles criticizing the US mainstream media, the corporate ownership of US media, “censorship” by Facebook and YouTube, but nothing on the new law in Russia whereby people can be jailed for fifteen days for “disrespecting” the Russian government online. An open internet in the US means there are thousands of sites with articles criticizing the US, but even one site with critical articles in Russia could result in fines and jail time. The difference is dramatic, and there have been no articles from the Russiagate skeptics on this oppressive law.

It’s rarely mentioned that Hedges has had a weekly show on RT (formerly Russia Today) since June 2016, which is funded by the Russian government. He’s scathing in his criticism of the US, but it’s hard to find his criticisms of Russia. After the Barr summary, he chastised the US press for “one of the most shameful periods in modern American journalism” and somehow never mentions the Russian restrictions on “disrespecting” the Russian government online.

Rania Khalek is also paid by the Russian government. Her site In the Now is one of three that were recently exposed as being owned by RT. Facebook briefly took them down until a small mention of RT’s involvement was placed on the page – a mention most people will never notice.

It is difficult to determine the motivation of the Russiagate writers and the echo system. Kate Starbird at the University of Washington writes about the echo system that “[their] efforts […] consist of diverse individuals and organizations who are driven by a variety of different motivations (including political, financial, and ideological).”

There is a certain amount of hyperbole to the Russiagate articles. The investigation is blamed for “Manufacturing War with Russia,” for “Endangering American Security,” for “Media Malpractice,” for being “This Generation’s WMD,” for “Target[ing] Any Dissent in US,” and so forth. When examining these authors’ lists of articles, one would prefer they had spent as much analysis on the dangers of a Trump presidency as they have spent on promoting their Russiagate thesis.

Stephen Cohen talks about the origins of the allegation that Trump was an agent of the Kremlin. Was it “begun somewhere high up in America by people who didn’t want a pro-détente president?” He suggests that “this originated with Brennan and the CIA.” It is all speculation, with no corroborating evidence.

For a starkly different perspective, consult authoritarianism scholars Sarah Kendzior or Timothy Snyder’s interviews, writings, and videos for detailed documentation of Trump’s dealings with Russia. They have been warning for the last three years about the dangers of the US sliding into autocracy under Trump. They have researched Trump’s ties to Russia in the decades before the 2016 elections and have tried to warn us about what is coming.

Contrast Cohen’s speculation with Snyder’s detailed factual information. Snyder is a Yale historian who wrote The Road to Unfreedom about Russia’s return to an authoritarian government under Putin and the rise of nationalism in Europe and America. He has put together a series of videos to explain what is happening here and internationally. In a concise Twitter thread, he documents fifty very specific reasons (with citations) why Trump owes a debt to Putin. He discusses the people in Trump’s campaign and in the Trump administration: “It is astounding how many of them are more directly connected to the Russian Federation than to the US.”

Kendzior lived in Uzbekistan during its transition from democracy to autocratic rule. When she started covering the Trump campaign in 2016, it reminded her of what she’d seen from the regime in Uzbekistan. Her website and podcast Gaslit Nation, which she presents together with journalist Andrea Chalupa, is an unparalleled source of information about Trump and his Russian connections and crimes. Kendzior and Chalupa advocate impeachment hearings so that the rest of the country can learn about these crimes.

Snyder and Kendzior have no doubts about the Trump-Russia collusion. There are other independent authors and researchers who are documenting and exposing what’s happening. Even without the Mueller report, there is an enormous amount of public information about Trump’s ties to the Kremlin, Russian interference, and the loss of our democracy.

When Syria solidarity activists first read the November 2016 Washington Post article about Russian propaganda influencing the 2016 elections, we were relieved. Finally, the Russian propaganda we had struggled against for years was being exposed! We assumed the propaganda on Syria would also be exposed. We thought the propaganda sites on the internet would be discredited.

We didn’t anticipate that prominent left writers would immediately denounce the Russian propaganda story as the “new McCarthyism” and Russiagate and that they would still be defending this narrative two and a half years later, in the face of so much evidence.

We didn’t understand how difficult it would be for the techies at Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to discern propaganda from the truth and how clumsy they would be in taking down sites, usually with almost no explanation, and occasionally taking down legitimate sites at the same time.

From our viewpoint as Syria solidarity activists, we are still in the same position now as we were in November 2016. Disinformation still dominates the internet. Syrian and Russian planes have been bombing civilians in Idlib for the last month, initially bombing twenty-five hospitals. While Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International have condemned the strikes on hospitals, sounding the alarm, there is no international pressure on Russia and Syria to end them. The echo system of media sites is distracting the left with disinformation about Assad’s 2018 chemical attack on civilians in Douma being supposedly “staged” by the rebels.

The persistent Russiagate articles from prominent left writers have many progressives feeling unsure what to believe. It has put us in the strange position of claiming that a former FBI director is more trustworthy than Chris Hedges or Stephen Cohen. But there is much more information validating what Mueller has reported than there is for the Russiagate skeptics and Trump.

There is no easy solution to the problem of massive disinformation on the internet. Certainly, we should be listening to the voices of progressive Syrians, Venezuelans, Palestinians, Ukrainians, Sudanese, not media pages that follow Putin’s line. Information about who is funding web pages would be one step towards transparency. Independent university research labs could evaluate the accuracy of media sites.

Another voice we should be listening to now is the authoritarianism scholar based in St. Louis. Sarah Kendzior says the Trump administration is a transnational crime syndicate masquerading as a government and he should be impeached. It’s time for us to be in the streets.

Terry Burke is an activist with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of Syria (CISPOS) in Minneapolis. Thanks to Comrade Ed Sutton and Antidote Zine for the heads-up. The article has been edited slightly to meet this website’s unwritten standards. Photograph by the Russian Reader, December 15, 2018, Ligovsky Prospect, Petersburg. In Russian slang, the word deza means “disinformation.”

#PutinKillsChildren

putinkillschilren.JPGPoster at a rally in support of Idlib, 15 June 2019, Pariser Platz, Berlin. Photo by the Russian Reader

As the extraordinarily eloquent photographs a friend of mine took six days ago in Moscow show, another “look at us revolution” has been taking place there.

Like the previous “look at us revolution” of 2011–2012, staged almost exclusively for social media and international media consumption, the implicit message has been, “W are smart white people and we deserve better. Marvel at our clever placards. Look deeply into our educated white faces. In every single way that matters, we are just like you Herrenvolk in Europe and the US. The fact we live under a vicious tyranny is an unhappy accident for which we bear almost no responsibility.”

Beyond that, apparently, there is no plan, program or coordination, so it would be a mistake to imagine the detention of these protesters by the hundreds means the Putin regime is afraid of them. No, the regime is discouraging the protesters and potential protesters and, more importantly, it is gathering information on the detainees, information it can use in future crackdowns.

There will be a real revolution in Moscow when the super smart “white people” there not only learn how to get much larger numbers of people on the street, coordinate their movements, push back against the police’s attempts to detain them, and make real political demands but also discover the existence of the rest of the world and Moscow’s increasingly baleful effect on it.

If a hundred thousand people marched in the streets of Moscow demanding Putin immediately withdraw all Russian troops and mercenaries from Syria, this would not only signal the beginning of the end of Putin’s long reign but it would also mean anti-regime Russians had realized solidarity is a two-way street.

You cannot expect people in other parts of the world to empathize with your struggle for democracy and justice when your country’s armed forces, internet trolls, mercenaries, spies, and military proxies are fighting and fueling armed conflicts and political crises in dozens of other countries.

Russia might have more natural resources than any other country in the world, but the reserves of goodwill toward the country and its people will eventually dry up.

It has been said before by hundreds of activists and commentators, but if the US had allied itself with Assad to bomb the hell out of his opponents in Syria, the whole world, especially the leftist part, would be up in arms.

Russia has been bombing the hell out of Syria and doing lots of other nasty stuff elsewhere, including poisoning people in broad daylight and shooting down airliners, but it troubles almost no one, relatively speaking.

What is more, no one bothers to ask why it does not bother all the nice “white people” in Moscow, who would never think to demonstrate en masse against their country’s attacks on lesser folk in third-world countries. {TRR}

#PutinKillsChildren

Syria Is Only Three Syllables

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

Anything is possible in our fallen world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional reporting: Mahmoud al-Basha

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

“War Is Not Fashionable” (Anti-Syrian War Demo in Moscow)

“War Is Not Fashionable”: Activists Protested Launch of Rapper Timati’s Fashion Collection for Defense Ministry
Novaya Gazeta
June 4, 2019

Three activists—Anna Etkina, Elisabetta Corsi, and Anna Romashchenko—carried out a protest action, “War Is Not Fashionable,” at the debut of Black Star Wear’s new collection on Novy Arbat.

Video by Victoria Odissonova. Edited by Gleb Limansky. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

The rapper Timati designed the new collection in collaboration with Voentorg’s Russian Army clothing brand. Timati has promoted the collection as clothes for the country’s patriots, while spokespeople for Voentorg said the collection was based on values  like “strong leadership, patriotism, attention to detail, and full confidence in each new step.”

A target is depicted on the front of the t-shirts in Black Star Wear’s new collection, while the word “Syria” is embossed on the back.

The activists arrived at the protest in t-shirts similarly embossed with targets, but the backs of their shirts featured figures showing the costs of the war in Syria: the number of children killed (28,226), the number of Syrian citizens killed (223,161), and the number of refugees (4.8 million).

voina-1The slogans on the women’s t-shirts read, “28,226 dead children,” “War is an unjust and foolish business © Leo Tolstoy,” “4.8 million refugees from Syria.” Photo by Victoria Odissonovoa. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

“We made t-shirts that resemble the t-shirts in Timati’s new collection,” said Corsi, “because war should not be depersonalized. What he is doing is hyping himself using the war. Many people associate Syria only with Islamic State. But it is mostly innocent people who perish from the allegedly pinpoint strikes.”

The activists handed out leaflets entitled, “Say No to War-Based Hype!” They also shouted the slogans “War is not fashionable!” and “War is murder!”

voina-2Elisabetta Corsi ran onto the stage towards the emcee. A minute later, she was dragged away. Photo by Victoria Odissonova. Courtesy of Novaya Gazeta

According to our correspondent, around one hundred people came to the launch of Timati’s collaboration with the Defense Ministry. Some took the leaflets and read them attentively, while others handed the pamphlets back or ripped them up.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Techwear for War Criminals

Timati’s new clothing collection includes a T-shirt with a target emblazoned on the front and the word “Syria” embossed on the back. Photos courtesy of Buro 24/7 and YZ

Timati Shows Collection Designed in Collaboration with Russian Army Brand : Check Out the T-Shirts with “Syria” Logos
Buro 24/7
May 27, 2019

Today, in the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Building on the Frunze Embankment in Moscow, Timati showed the clothing collection his brand Black Star Wear designed in collaboration with Russian Army brand clothing. It includes cargo shorts, sweatshirts, jackets, and everything captured by the concise Anglicism techwear. The Russian rapper worked on the collection for over six months. The undershirts and T-shirts embossed with the logo “Syria” are of particular note.

timati-5Timati speaking to state TV at the premiere showing of his new clothing collection. Courtesy of Buro 24/7

“This is quite a historic event. Right now I’m at one of the most secret facilities, the Russian Federal Defense Ministry. And I want to announce that right here in the Defense Ministry, as part of the collaboration between the Russian Army brand and Black Star, the collection will be shown,” Timati wrote on his Instagram page on May 21.

Ekaterina Korotkova, director general of Voentorg, also confirmed the brands’ plans.

Black Star Wear and Russian Army’s “Syria” T-shirt can be ordered in advance for 2,900 rubles (approx. 40 euros) at blackstarwear.ru. Courtesy of YR

“Yes, Russian Army brand and Black Star really do have such a collection. It will be premiered at a show in the Main Building of the Defense Ministry on May 27, just as Timati announced,” TASS quoted her as saying.

Thanks to YR for the heads-up and images. Translated by the Russian Reader.

No One to Call Them on the Carpet

karlshorst tankA WWII-era Soviet tank, its muzzle pointed toward downtown Berlin, in the yard of the so-called German Russian Museum in the city’s Karlshorst neighborhood. Until 1994, it was known as the Capitulation Museum, since German high command formally surrendered to the Soviet high command in the building that houses the museum. Photo by the Russian Reader

At this point in their downward spiral towards worldwide moral and intellectual superiority, it is sometimes as hard to compliment Russians as it to make common cause with them or, on the contrary, argue with them.

I was thinking about this in a different connection when my attention was drawn to this column by Masha Gessen, published two days ago by the New Yorker.

The column is an odd beast.

First, Ms. Gessen makes a sound argument, based on hard, easily verifiable facts, but then she does an about-face and acts as her argument’s own resentful, miserably uninformed whataboutist, drawing false parallels between commemorations of the Second World War in Russia and the US, and the roles played by Putin and Trump in tarnishing these memorial events with their own sinister political agendas.

She is thus able to set readers up for the column’s takeaway message: “[T]he Trumpian spin on [the Second World War] is all maga, which makes it essentially the same as Putin’s.”

Ms. Gessen once was one of my favorite reporters, especially back in the days when she wrote for the weekly Russian news magazine Itogi.  Later, I adored her poignant, richly rendered dual portrait of her grandmothers and the turbulent times of their younger years. I would still urge anyone curious about what the Soviet Union was really like under Stalin and after his death to put the book, Ester and Ruzya, at the top of their reading lists.

Nowadays, however, Ms. Gessen finds herself in what should be the unenviable position of having no one willing to call her on the carpet. Whatever she writes and says is regarded as the gospel truth, apparently, by her editors, readers, and listeners. In any case, I have never come upon any criticism of her work, at least in Anglophonia.

Her editor at the New Yorker, David Remnick, himself a Russia expert of sorts, has gone missing in action when it comes to editing critically what she writes about the country of her birth, and so has everyone else who could be bothered to notice the sleights of hand and sophistry in which she now indulges all too often.

In this case, it is simple. In the United States, there has been nothing like the overbearing politicization of victory in the Second World War as there has been in Russia since Putin took power twenty years ago.

The US does not even have a public holiday commemorating victory in the war, whether on the European front or the Pacific front. I think this says something. Maybe what it says is bad, but the importance of the “victory” for US society, especially now that nearly seventy-five years have passed since the victory was declared, has been waning with every passing day.

More to the point, whatever deplorable uses Trump may have made of the war, he has had a mere two years in office to do his damage, while “decisive victory” in the Great Fatherland War (as the war is called in Russian) has long played a central role in Putin’s eclectic, opportunist but extraordinarily reactionary ideology.

It is an rather odd stance, since the Kremlin regularly speaks and acts almost as if the Putin regime and the current Russian Armed Forces achieved victory over the Nazis in 1945, rather than the Stalin regime and the Red Army.

Victory in the war has been used as much to bludgeon the regime’s “traitors” and “enemies” into submission as it has been used to brainwash the Russian people into a false sense of national unity and international moral superiority.

Of course, there have been periods since 1945 when victory in the war was politicized by the US establishment, too. We need only think of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” and, years before that last gasp, the ways movies and TV shows about the war functioned as surrogates for reinforcing western capitalist ideology during the Cold War.

As should naturally be the case, however, since the war ended a long time ago, and most of the people who witnessed it and fought in it have died, it has meant less to the rising generations in the US than it did to the generations of my grandparents (who fought in the war, if only on the home front) and my parents (who were born just before or during the war), and even to my own generation (who grew up in a vernacular culture still permeated by memories of the war, sometimes embodied in our own grandparents and their age mates, and a popular culture still awash in books, comic books, TV serials, movies, toys, and other consumerist junk inspired by the war).

A gradual waning of interest in the war should have happened in Russia as well,  albeit in a manner that acknowledged and honored the war’s much greater impact on the country and all the other former Soviet republics.

In the nineties, under the “villainous” Yeltsin, this was on the verge of happening.

I remember going to the Victory Day parade on Nevsky Prospect in Petersburg in 1995. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s end in Europe, but the main event consisted only of columns of real war veterans, some in uniform, some in civilian dress, all of them wearing their medals, marching down the Nevsky accompanied by a few marching bands and a military honor guard, if memory serves me.

Tens of thousands of Petersburgers lined the pavements, cheering the veterans, crying, and occasionally running out into the parade to hand them flowers, kiss their cheeks, and thank them personally for their courage.

It was simple, dignified, and moving.

But then a new mob took over Russia. The new mob wanted to rob the country blind and install themselves in power for as long as they could, so they had to convince their victims, the Russian people, of a number of contradictory things.

One, the highway robbery, as committed by the new mob, was for their own good. Two, the highway robbery was making them better and their country great again; it would bring “stability.” Three, the highway robbery was spiritually underwritten by the former country’s former greatness, as demonstrated, in part, by its victory over the Nazis in the Great Fatherland War.

It is not true that all or even most Russians have swallowed all or even most of this dangerous nonsense.

Putinism, however, has destroyed politics in Russia not only by demolishing all democratic institutions and persecuting grassroots activists and opposition politicians in ever-increasing numbers.

It has also disappeared most real political issues and replaced them with non-issues, such as nonexistent “threats” to the glory of Russia’s victory in WWII, as posed by “traitors” and hostile foreign powers, the completely astroturfed “upsurge” in “love for Stalin,” and several other fake zeitgeist events that have been designed purposely to set the country’s dubious troika of official pollsters polling like never before and take up oodles of space in the real media, the social media, and ordinary people’s minds and their bar-stool and dinner-table conversations with strangers, friends, relatives, and coworkers.

I am much too fond of French philosopher Jacques Rancière’s distinction between “politics”—what happens in the public space around real sources of political and social conflict in democratic societies or societies striving towards freedom and equity) and “police”—the opposite of “politics,” the utter control of public space and a monopoly on decision-making by a tiny anti-democratic elite.

“Police” as a concept, however, encompasses not only real policemen kicking down the doors of “extremists” and “terrorists,” and casing and tailing everyone suspicious and “unreliable” every which way they can.

In Russia under Putin, it has also involved tarring and feathering all real political discourse and political thinking, while promoting sophistry, scuttlebutt, moral panics, two minutes hate, and intense nationwide “debates” about non-issues such as “the people’s love of Stalin” and “victory in the war.”

The point of substituting artificial “police” discourses for wide-open political debate has been to prevent Russia from talking about bread-and-butter issues like pensions, the economy, healthcare, housing, the environment, war and peace, and increasingly violent crackdowns against political dissenters, businessmen, migrant workers, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities.

Russians are capable of talking about these things and do talk about them, of course, but a steady diet of nothing, that is, immersion in a topsy-turvy world in which the state, mainstream media, and many of your own friend will try, often and persistently, to engage you in “serious” conversations about chimeras and phantoms, has had an innervating effect on serious political discourse generally.

Try and talk to Russians about politics and, often as not, you will soon find yourself talking “police” instead.

If Ms. Gessen had decided to write a substantive article about the Putin regime’s use and abuse of the “victory,” popular acquiescence to its campaign, and grassroots pushbacks against, it would have familiarized Ms. Gessen’s readers with a story about which they know either nothing or almost nothing.

I cannot imagine anyone better qualified to tell the story than Ms. Gessen herself.

But, as is the case with many other Russians, the straight talk in Ms. Gessen’s recent printed work and media appearances about what has been happening in Russia under Putin has been veering off, sooner or later, into whataboutism and a series of well-worn memes whose hysterical repetition passes for political argument these days.

There is a different but curiously overlapping set for every political tribe in Putinist Russia, from nominal nationalists to nominal liberals and leftists.

What is my own takeaway message?

There can be no politics in Russia in the Rancierean sense or any other sense until the Russian liberal intelligentsia (with whom Ms. Gessen has explicitly identified herself on several occasions, obviously considering them vastly superior intellectually and morally to the American mooks with whom she has been condemned to spend too much time, Russiansplaining everything under the sun to them as best she can, mostly to no avail) and all the other intelligentsias and political tribes in Russia give up their pet sets of non-issues and non-solutions and revive the deadly serious politics and political discourses of the pre-Revolutionary period, if only in spirit.

However, the efficacy of “police” under Putin has been borne out by the way in which nearly everyone has united, time and again, around the very non-issues the regime and state media has encouraged them to discuss.

On the contrary, several painfully real issues, for example, Russia’s ruinous, murderous military involvement in Syria, have never been vetted by “police” for public hand-wringing of any kind.

As if obeying an unwritten rule or a tape reeling in their heads, nobody ever talks about them, not even the great Masha Gessen. {TRR}

Thanks to Comrade GF for bring Ms. Gessen’s column to my attention.

Marrying the Mob

DSCN1068

On Facebook, I regularly push stories about Syria and, especially, Russia’s criminally disastrous involvement there. Unfortunately, it has had no visible effect on any of my Russian Facebook friends with one exception.

I should thank Allah for that many “converts.”

In international politics, marriages of convenience among dictators and wannabe dictators always lead to mayhem and unintended fallout for the innocent bystanders in their immediate vicinity.

Let us pretend, for the sake of argument, that Trump and his campaign really did not collude with Putin and other Russian government officials to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Even if that were the case, Trump’s overweening admiration for Putin’s style of bad governance has still had catastrophic effects on the country he is supposed to be leading

For someone like me who is all too familiar with the bag of tricks known, maybe somewhat inaccurately, as Putinism, it has been obvious Trump wants to steer the US in a quasi-Putinist direction.

While the republic, its states, and the other branches of government can mount a mighty resistance by virtue of the power vested in them, Trump can still cause lots of damage as an “imperial” president, even if he is booted out of the White House two years from now.

Likewise, Russians can imagine there is a far cry between living in a country whose cities are besieged and bombed by the country’s dictator, and what Putin has been doing in Syria. What he has been doing, they might imagine, mostly stays in Syria, except for Russian servicemen killed in action there, whose names and numbers are kept secret from the Russian public.

In reality, it is clear that the Kremlin’s neo-imperialist turn in Ukraine, Syria, etc., has made the regime far more belligerent to dissidents, outliers, weirdos, “extremists,” and “terrorists” at home.

Over the last five years, more and more Russians have fallen prey to their homegrown police and security services either for what amount to thought crimes (e.g., reposting an anti-Putinist meme on the social network VK or organizing nonexistent “terrorist communities”) or what the Russian constitution does not recognize as a crime at all, such as practicing one’s religion (e.g., Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses do)

Putin has adopted an Assadist mindset, therefore. He, his cronies, and the ever-expanding Russian security services, whose mission is making the paranoia of their superiors come true by meeting quotas of harassed, interrogated, arrested, tortured, jailed and convicted “extremists” per quarter, have come to imagine the only way to avoid the mess in which Assad found himself is to hammer anyone in Russia who sticks their necks out too far, whether intentionally or not, that everyone else will get the clue dissent and even plain difference come with a heavy price tag and reduce theirs to an invisible minimum.

Things were not exactly peachy during the first years of the Putin regime, but they became a hell of a lot worse after the Kremlin invaded Ukraine and went flying off to Syria to save Assad’s bacon from the fire of popular revolution.

As long as Russia remains entrenched in those places, there can be no question of progress on the home front, especially when the vast majority of Russians pretend very hard not to know anything about Syria and their country’s involvement there, and have grown accustomed to the Ukrainian muddle, meaning they mostly avoid thinking about what has really been happening in Eastern Ukraine, too. {TRR}

Thanks to the fabulous Sheen Gleeson for the first link. Photo by the Russian Reader

Sergei Vilkov: Everything You Thought You Knew About the Russian Working Class Was Wrong

kalashnikov workersWorkers of the Kalashnikov plant in Izhevsk, Russia, on September, 20, 2016. Photo by Mikhail Svetlov (Getty Images). Courtesy of Fortune

The Heroes of the Day: What We Know about the Russian Working Class
How the Proletariat Stopped Fearing TV and Came to Dislike It
Sergei Vilkov
News.ru
April 30, 2019

It has been a tradition on the eve of May Day to recall the working class, which in Russia has seemingly been usurped by televised images of the “patriots” and regular blokes who work at the Uralvagonzavod plant in Nizhny Tagil.

Actually, Russia’s workers are a genuine black hole to sociologists. No one had seriously researched their circumstances, sentiments, and views for thirty years.

The first tentative attempts to research today’s Russian industrial laborers have produced a portrait that many had not expected. It transpires that today’s proletarians, at least, the most politically and civically dynamic among them, almost never watch television. They have a sober take on politics. They are immune to state propaganda. They have a relatively relaxed attitude toward migrant workers.

They regard themselves as outside observers in the debates between the regime and the opposition, not finding their own interests reflected in them. They are more likely to feel trampled upon by plant management than by a new law passed in the State Duma.

It is the factory where they fight their battles, which are usually invisible to official statisticians. Most important, according to researchers, they have more in common with early twentieth century social democrats than with current parties who try and speak on behalf of workers. However, the new research leaves a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. News.ru took a look at it.

They Got What They Fought For
According to official data, 26 million people in Russia or over 36% of the able-boded population are employed in industry, transport, agriculture, fishing, and several similar sectors. These figures do not include, for example, the large numbers of people employed in commerce and services. Overall, however, sociologists estimate that workers make up 40% of Russia’s population. They identify them as the largest group in society.

These people dwell on the dark side of Russia’s moon, as it were. It would be hard to say when someone last tried to examine them through an academic lens. However, understanding the nature of Russian society and its largest segments is, perhaps, the most ambitious humanities research project in the country today.

In government reports, Russia’s workers are imagined as a passive, homogeneous milieu that positively exudes tranquility. In 2017, Rosstat, the state statistics service, recorded only one strike, while in the preceding years their official number oscillated between two and five strikes annually.

By comparison, in 2005, according to official data, there were 2,600 strikes in Russia. And yet the following year, Rosstat claimed the number of strikes had decreased by a factor of 325. Since then, according to official statistics, it has remained consistently scanty, despite the economic crises of 2008 and 2014.

However, the Center for Social and Labor Rights, which has monitored the situation on its own, claims there were an average of 240 labor protests between 2008 and 2014. In 2016, when the political opposition was quiet, there were twice as many labor protests, while in the first six months of 2018, the last period for which it has data, the center recorded 122 strikes and acts of civil disobedience. Nearly half of these incidents led to workers downing tools.

Since 2014, a year dominated by an apparent “patriotic” consensus in politics, the number of strikes has increased abruptly due to an upsurge of resistance in provincial cities, including district seats. The largest number of walkouts and protests occurred in industry, especially the machine building and metalworking sectors, which have accounted for 28% of the overall number of strikes. The transport sector has accounted for the same percentage of strikes and protests, despite the fact they have mainly been carried out by employees of private transport companies based in the cities. The construction industry has accounted for 19% of strikes and protests during the period.

The main cause of protests and strikes remains unpaid back wages, which accounted for 60% of incidents. Demands to raise pay were factors in 19–20% of incidents.

The Center for Social and Labor Rights noticed a curious thing. In 2018, the number of spontaneous, unorganized protests by workers rose abruptly by 22%. Trade unions were involved in a mere 17% of all strikes and protests. The experts claim this was partly due to the fact that the Russian hinterlands, where there have been no real trade unions for the last one hundred years, have taken the lead in labor activism, along with sectors dominated by precarious employment.

Shop Floor Intellectuals
Someone has been organizing these strikes and protests, however. It is evident there is a core of energetic progressive activists among Russia’s workers.

On April 22, Alexander Zhelenin gave a lecture at a round table held in the offices of Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Zhelenin is a well-known expert on workplace conflicts, and part of his talk dealt with a research study on the Russian proletariat. In July and September 2018, he and his fellow researchers did a small-scale qualitative sociological research study in Kaluga and Omsk that focused on the self-identification and sociopolitical views of workers.

A total of twenty-three people were interviewed. The small sample was offset by a thorough probing, through in-depth interviews, of the respondents’ attitudes and views, which are never revealed by run-of-the-mill public opinion polls. The workers interviewed by the sociologists were somehow connected to independent trade unions, which had, apparently, supported the research study. However, in the main, the interviewees were not politically engaged: only one of them was a member of a political organization.

We should also not forget it is usually the most energetic people who agree to be interviewed for ordinary official public opinion polls, which affects their outcomes.

In Kaluga, the respondents worked in the food industry and the new auto assembly plants, while in Omsk, they were employed at old Soviet military-industrial complex plants. They ranged in age from twenty to fifty, and included women and men. They were quite well-paid technicians who were proud of their contributions to society. On the other hand, they had a constant sense of their status as subordinates. They tended to strongly associate themselves with their workplaces. Family “labor dynasties” were a possible factor in their outlooks.

Most of the workers interviewed at the auto plants had been abroad one or more times, and this partly had to do with Volkswagen’s work exchange programs. One of the things they had learned on these trips was independent trade unions were ordinary, valuable organizations.

On the contrary, a foreign-travel passport was a rarity among the workers of the old defense plants, and yet both groups of workers tended to spend their holidays on the Black Sea coast. Some respondents in Omsk said they had never seen the sea or had seen it in early childhood.

Mortgages were the main financial obstacles to holidays away from home. Financially, the skilled workers felt they were members of the so-called middle class. In terms of standards of living in their regions, however, they noticed the gap between the more affluent segment of the populace and themselves. Thus, they had a keen sense of the difference in life chances for their children and the children of rich families, talking about it with great indignation.

Pavel Kudyukin, ex-minister of labor and employment and a lecturer in public administration at the Higher School of Economics, commented on the growing social segregation in Russia.

“It comes to the fore when talk turns to children’s futures. It is an aspect that will become more acute, because we are moving from segregation to social apartheid. I think it will facilitate [grassroots] civic activism,” he said.

The authors of the report did not hide their amazement at the fact that the respondents were quite well-educated, intelligent people. Nearly a third of them had a higher education or an uncompleted university degree. Many of them pointed out it was ordinary to find university-educated workers on the shop floor.

Tellingly, a man from Kaluga, identified as Anatoly, who did not finish his university degree, and whose outward appearance (a bespectacled intellectual), cultivated manner of speaking, and hobbies (music and organizing non-profit music festivals) gave the researchers the impression he was a local intellectual, although he said he had been employed as a skilled laborer for over eleven years. Like some other respondents, Anatoly noted he had become a laborer because life had worked out that way and he had to earn money. Industry was the only place where it was possible to earn a more or less decent wage, the study noted.

They Have Their Own Values
And yet 74% of of the respondents unambiguously identified themselves as workers, stressing their difference from other groups in society and their direct involvement in production. The remaining 26% preferred to call themselves “employees” and supported the notion of so-called social partnerships with management. However, despite their decent standard of life, it followed from the interviews that the workers believed they occupied one of the lowest rungs on the social ladder. This had to do with their palpably subordinate positions at work and the lack of prestige in their occupations. This circumstance was painfully apparent in the tension between blue-collar and white-collar workers at one plant, a tension exacerbated by the arrogance of the latter towards the former.

The workers were very annoyed by the fact that, as Sergei, a grinder who was involved in the Omsk focus group, said, “In terms of wages and education, the blue-collar workers often outperform the office workers, but the latter still treat them as inferiors.”

In Omsk, for example, the wages of workers fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000 rubles a month, but workers at some defense plants could earn up to 70,000 or 80,000 rubles a month. However, according to the same interviewee, the well-paid jobs were “inherited.”

Besides, he said, to earn such a wage, one virtually had to live at the factory, working twelve hours a day and enjoying only one day off a week, something not all workers would do. Meanwhile, office workers at the same plant could earn only 20,000 rubles a month, but they treated the workers “as if they were above [them],” said Sergei.

“A really interesting thing is the split in self-identification as workers and members of the middle class,” said Kudyukin. “It clearly manifests the pressure exerted in society by hegemonic views. It is like what Marx wrote: ‘The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.’ Since the notion of the middle class is constantly in the air, people give no thought to the fact that it’s a sociological fiction. People realize they are workers. They work on an assembly line or operate a machine. Yet in terms of income they identify themselves as middle class in the sense that they are neither rich nor poor. Maybe this has to do with the notion that the middle class is formally defined by income.”

“Russia is a quite highly stratified country, and it is constantly becoming more stratified,” explained Gregory Yudin, a professor at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences. “It’s not a matter of income gaps, but of what these people say: the sense of symbolic superiority in cases where there is no income gap. When this sense takes root at a particular factory, what happens is quite predictable. In this sense, Marx was more or less right.”

Speaking about their place in production, the workers voiced the opinion their plants could run without managers, but without them the shop floors would grind to a halt. However, they sensed the arrogant attitude towards manual labor that had emerged in other parts of society. They realized that, from this perspective, their status was not considered prestigious at all. The factory laborers responded by opposing the values of their milieu to “other” values, saying that nowadays the chic thing to do was to steal and mooch, to make lots of money for doing nothing.

“I think this is an ordinary means of compensation, a psychological defense mechanism. We are considered impoverished in some way, whereas in fact we are the salt of the earth, and everything would grind to a halt without us. Their sentiments are quite justified. Despite the importance of managerial work, if you got rid of the management staff, the shop floor would function all the same. But if the workers suddenly disappeared, the plant would shut down,” said Kudyukin.

The research study showed the respondents perceived Russian politics as an established system that ignored their interests. This applied not only to the government but also to the opposition. Nearly half of the respondents consciously refrained from voting. By comparison, during the last presidential election, in March 2018, the Central Electoral Commission reported that 32.5% of registered voters did not vote.

Some of the respondents voted for the CPRF (Communist Party of the Russian Federation), A Just Russia, and LDPR [Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s party], although they noted these parties were entangled in establishment and supported workers’ interests more in words than in actual deeds. They were not a serious opposition.

What they had to say on the matter was telling.

“I have little trust in politicos and parties. I have more faith in the people here, the people with whom I work, the people I know. Here, at the local level, there are decent people among the members of different [political] movements. But the leadership is usually a bloody shambles,” said Sergei, 35, a grinder at the Aggregate Plant in Omsk.

“There are currently no parties that would defend workers’ interests. We need to create such a party,” said Sergei, who works at the Volkswagen plant in Kaluga.

Volodya, who also works at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was likewise certain such parties did not exist.

“All of them are against us [workers]. They represent business and big money, even the CPRF and A Just Russia. Those parties just use the ‘movements’ to score political points. They have great jobs. United Russia try and pass bad laws. They have the majority in the Duma, so [the three other parties represented there] can pretend to oppose them, since the bad laws will be passed all the same,” he said.

He quoted Mark Twain.

“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”

The federal government was a source of considerable irritation to the workers, especially in connection with the pension reform.

Roman, a 45-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, was the only respondent in either city who said he had always voted for Putin and United Russia, but since the pension reform had passed, he was severely disenchanted and was more inclined to vote for the CPRF.

Vladislav, a 28-year-old worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga, had a confession to make despite the fact he had never voted.

“I was never opposed to Putin. But I did not believe to the last that he would say yes to this cannibalistic reform,” he said.

“Their statements jibe with what we see in other studies,” said Yudin. “People are depoliticized, yes. They distrust the system profoundly. This distrust grew even deeper last year. It’s a typical Russian scenario, and I am not entirely certain it has something specifically to do with workers. It typifies many segments of the populace. People who espouse this worldview serve as the base for different populist projects.”

Researchers describe their views as a contradictory mix of spontaneous anarchism and paternalistic expectations from the state. They would like to see the state solving society’s problems and intervening in the economy to raise wages, create jobs, and distribute incomes more fairly.

Igor, a worker from Omsk, had a typical view of the matter.

“The government should definitely solve these issues if workers have hired them to serve the people. When are they going to handle all of this if they work six and seven days a week? They just don’t have the time to deal with their own improvement [sic],” he said.

However, their political beliefs were more leftist and democratic than conservative and reactionary, even when it came to ethnic, religious and gender issues.

“The workers with whom we spoke, irrespective of whether they believed in God, wanted to lived in a secular state, while hoping the Russian Orthodox Church would be behave more modestly when it came to secular issues and would be less politicized. The views of workers on gender roles, the place of women in families, society, and the state were generally quite democratic. In terms of their worldviews, the workers had more in common with classic leftists than with a good number of current leftist parties and movements in Russia,” write the study’s authors.

Cool Heads
The researchers claim the workers they surveyed were clearly not victims of government propaganda. Their attitude towards Russia’s involvement in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria was generally very restrained, if not sharply negative. Many of them argued that Russia’s foreign policy, as defined by the country’s leadership, had nothing to with their interests and was even capable of harming them. They also had a skeptical attitude to the promotion of great-power patriotism, seeing it as a means of distracting working people from real problems. But while they openly voiced their attitudes to foreign policy, the workers were cautious about discussing it, emphasizing a lack of information on the subject.

Many of them said society was not told everything.

To the surprise of the sociologists, most of the interviewees (78%) identified the internet as their main source of information, despite the fact they were asked about this part of their lives in a way that mentioned television and newspapers first, while the internet was among the information sources listed last.

By comparison, in March 2018, Levada Center published a poll claiming 85% of Russians got most of their information by watching television; moreover, 72% of respondents preferred watching state-controlled Channel One. On the contrary, only five of the workers (22% of the focus group) watched news and political programs on television. They regarded what they saw on television quite skeptically, trying to detect the influence of certain third-party interests.

They had a rather low opinion of the state of the nation.

“Lately, I’ve been ashamed of my people,” said Roman, a worker at Volkswagen in Kaluga.

Another worker, Vladimir, countered Roman.

“To stop feeling ashamed of your nation, just don’t identify yourself with it. Russia, the people, and the nation are illusions that have been pounded into our heads. There is just the earth and the people who live on it. The people who lived before us dreamed up border: here is Russia, there is Ukraine, here is America. In fact, we are all people. If you look at things from this standpoint, everything falls into place. For example, I don’t acknowledge the existence of national Olympic squads. My world is the people I know. When they say, “Our guys are playing football,” I think of “our guys” as my neighbors, workmates, family members, and the clerks at the shop. I could not care less what is going on in Syria and Donbas,” said Vladimir.

The researchers got rather unexpected and ambivalent results when they asked the workers about their attitudes towards migrant workers. In July 2018, Levada Center reported that 67% of Russians regarded them negatively. It is such sentiments that currently fuel nationalism and xenophobia. Among the workers in the survey, however, the intensity of these sentiments was considerably lower.

The different focus groups were split in their opinions of migrant laborers.

“Why hide it? I have a positive attitude toward them, because they are former brothers [within the Soviet Union]. We have the same troubles as they do. They get paid under the table, and so do we. And sometimes they are not paid at all,” said Mikhail, a 55-year-old freight handler.

“I tend to believe we need to create jobs for our own people first, and only then can we create jobs for migrants. As a worker, I consider them competitors, but as a human being I have no problems with them. On the other hand, how do we employ Russians if no Russians want to work as janitors?” said Svyatoslav, a truck driver at the Volkswagen plant.

Ultimately, 45% of the respondents took anti-migrant worker stances. In Omsk, the breakdown between migrantophobes and internationalists was six to four. In Kaluga, on the other hand, where the focus groups and in-depth interviews were dominated by workers from modern, foreign-owned production facilities, there were seven internationalists, as opposed to three migrantophobes.

The study’s authors argue the discrepancies are due to the different types of industry in the two cities, contrasting the workers from the old Soviet defense plants with the employees of foreign companies. However, we would be remiss not to note the relatively low level of nationalism in all the groups surveyed.

“In our view, this is because the workers have closer and more frequent contacts with migrant workers, and thus have more personal experience with them, something that always shatters stereotypes. It is yet another testimony to the fact that the dominant media coverage in Russia has less impact on the views of workers,” argue the study’s authors.

As for attitudes towards religion, twelve of the twenty-three respondents identified themselves as believers, while eleven identified themselves as atheists or agnostics. Two of the respondents regarded themselves as deeply religious Russian Orthodox believers. However, all the respondents said they wanted to live in a secular country in which the Russian Orthodox Church should have a smaller role in secular issues and politics.

The views of the workers on gender relations and the place of women at home and in society were quite democratic. According to the researchers, nearly all the men agreed women had the right to pursue any career or calling. They would not stop their own wives from getting involving in public life and politics or pursuing a career.

However, they regarded female politicians in the State Duma quite skeptically, since they did not see them as politicians who hailed from the grassroots. The respondents named German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović as positive examples of women involved in politics.

At the same time, both of the experts we interviewed, Pavel Kudyukin and Gregory Yudin, agreed the research study had serious methodological flaws. Besides, it gave its readers no sense of the particular life experiences that had prompted the workers to embrace particular outlooks.

Thanks to Alexander Zamyatin for the heads-up. Translated by the Russian Reader