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.

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Feckless Lowlifes and Incompetent Bounders

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Mark Schrad’s new article in Foreign Policy is yet another attempt to absolve the Putin regime of its crimes and make it seem like a harmless posse of bumbling, extemporizing clowns.

What observers like Schrad fail to realize is that the Putin regime is organized in its own peculiar way in order to achieve objectives that themselves are peculiar or, rather, not political in the usual sense of the world.

From Putin on down, the regime’s satraps and foot soldiers see themselves as an indefinitely massive police force for guarding Russia’s wealth and sovereignty as they have come to define them and thus, their own roles, over the last twenty years.

This ostensibly noble mission does not preclude its adepts from engaging in highway robbery and rampant corruption. Rather than preventing them from amassing vast personal fortunes, the mission implicitly encourages them to do so. Better that Russia’s vast wealth should be located safe and sound in their “patriotic” hands rather than the hands of the opposition, who are by definite treacherous. God forbid that foreigners should get their hands on much of it, either.

Generally speaking, the Putin regime of self-consciously bad cops on a noble mission has been wildly successful at defining and achieving most of its objectives, even if its victims (the Russian people) and outside observers have often been baffled.

It is thus another matter altogether whether Plan Putin is ultimately good for Russia and Russians themselves, not to mention other countries that have had the misfortune of ending up in its cross-hairs as friend, foe, neighbor or “partner.”

Returning to Schrad’s article, no one in their right mind has ever seriously claimed Putin is “the all-seeing, all-knowing puppet master of U.S. politics.” But nor has there been such a deliberate, massive attempt by a foreign government to subvert US domestic politics since the Cold War, and I would suspect the same thing could be said about many of the other countries where Putinist Russia has been fighting hot wars and hybrid wars during its twenty years of high-minded bad governance and “wholly understandable” revanchism.

I have never understood why this circumstance, whose existence has been proven beyond a doubt by mountains of direct and indirect evidence, should drive so many otherwise intelligent, knowledgeable people into fits of denial and hysteria. These same people are able to acknowledge the existence of any number of large-scale, well-organized, murderous criminal conspiracies and terrorist groups in our fallen world, from Mexican drug cartels to the Islamic State, but they think, apparently that the segment of Russian society obsessed with absolute power, who have been ringing the changes on abject, outright tyranny and ruthless imperialism for a thousand years, are suddenly incapable of anything more than petty crime and feckless corruption on tiny scale that hardly bears nothing..

In reality, the Putin regime has only been doing to US politics what it has done to Russian politics and civil society for the last twenty years, but when it comes to the US its means are, obviously, much more limited and its aims, correspondingly, more modest.

Finally, there can be no question of Putin’s associating himself personally with operations like this. When the situation requires it, he is capable of admitting mistakes and exposing himself to a bit of criticism, but like any chief of an utterly corrupt police force, he always makes sure to have his underlings do all the dirty work and take the rap when it goes south. Whether it is practically true or not, he has to be seen by his inferiors and his target audiences, including the Russian public and US leftist academics and journalists, to be above the fray.

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The foggy notion that the Kremlin’s efforts to subvert the 2016 US presidential election is actually nonsense, a fiction, a comedy of errors staged by low-level hustlers and bumblers who could not have wanted anything of the sort, much less accomplished it, now passes as common knowledge among the growing camp of Trump-Russian collusion denialists and so-called Russophiles in the west, who have managed to pull off their own hustle by roundly and pointedly ignoring nearly all the numerous developments in Russia itself during the same period, reactionary policy outbursts and crackdowns on any number of real and imaginary dissidents and political opponents that would tend to reinforce the baleful analyses of the so-called Russophobes.

These circumstances point to the fact that the Putin regime, which by definition could only consist of hustlers, bounders, and thugs, with a smattering of well-spoken “liberal economists” to balance the books as best they can and make the regime look respectable at international gatherings like Davos, has been playing a long game aimed a establishing a new-model police state.

Ever since the events that exploded around the moving of the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn in 2007, the Kremlin’s long game has had a “foreign policy” aspect as well.

Masha Gessen has been pushing the new spiel (“It was all a crazy, meaningless mix-up”) harder than her earlier writings would have lead us to expect. Currently a staff writer at the New Yorker and nearly everyone’s darling the world over, she routinely gets away with writing things lesser lights would have trouble getting past their editors’ desks. In the past several years, she has made a huge effort to persuade the entire Anglophone world that she knows more about Russia, Russian politics, and Putin than anyone else, but at least half the time her analyses are so wide of the mark you wonder whether she really knows all that much about Russian politics.

For a very long time, especially since she spent two or three years “leaving Russia” (due to entirely legitimate concerns for her family’s safety and happiness given her status and that of her partner as LGBTQI) in an astonishingly public way, granting several dozen interviews and writing just as many as first-person accounts of her plight in the process (a plight much more for Russian lesbians with families who have neither her means or her connections), she has mostly been involved in promoting the Masha Gessen brand, not doing real reporting.

The point of her latest shout-out to her devoted fans in the New Yorker is to reinforce the now-fashionable notion that the Kremlin had nothing whatsoever to do with Trump’s election to the US presidency and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool.

In this case, Gessen has pretended to read Mueller’s report so her readers need not bother to read it. Happily, she has reached all the conclusions the denialists and Russophiles want everyone to reach, also without reading either the report or the whole icebergs of great journalism out there that might persuade them otherwise.

No, argue Gessen and the denialists, the whole affair was a lot of fuss about nothing, dust kicked into everyone eyes by a surprisingly large number of invariably mendacious lowlifes whose actions and statements have signified absolutely nothing at the end of the day.

I have been waiting patiently for someone with more clout and cultural capital than I have to call Gessen on the carpet, especially since she has been rapidly encroaching on Leonid Bershidsky’s slippery beat.

Like Gessen, Leonid Bershidsky is a former big-time Russian journalist and editor who loudly went into exile in the west several years ago, allegedly, because it was impossible to do real journalism at home anymore.

Bershidsky, like Gessen, is an extremely smart cookie and a good writer. He scored a prominent gig writing op-ed pieces for Bloomberg, mostly but not exclusively on Russian affairs.

During his tenure at Bloomberg, Bershidsky has managed to defend the Putin regime’s supposedly benign or not altogether malign intentions at least as often as he has attacked its follies and failures, producing a bewildering picture of the Russian political elite and its actually wildly damaging effects on the country and world for anyone who has had the misfortune to read his column regularly.

That is, Bershidsky, for reasons that are not clear to me, has because a part-time mouthpiece for the Putin regime. He also doubles, confusingly, as its part-time trenchant critic.

For reasons that are just as unclear to me, Gessen has been trying, on occasion, to squeeze herself into the odd niche Bershidsky has carved out.

As the Mueller investigation has dragged on, and the press and public have paid more mind to it, Gessen has more and more often adopted the contrarian position that the subversion and collusion were manifestations of hysteria, of the US’s complexes about itself, not the consequences of a treacherous presidential campaign and a Russian “active measures” operation that produced more outcomes and wildly contradictory aftereffects than anyone involved in “masterminding” them had ever bargained for. {TRR}

Photograph by the Russian Reader

Does Vladimir Putin Have a Niece?

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Vera Putina, Vladimir Putin’s niece

On October 31, 2017, New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen published a short piece about the plea deal between former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopolous and special counsel Robert Mueller, entitled “The Papadopoulos Plea Deal and the Great Blowhard Convergence of the 2016 Election.”

The articles contains the following passage.

“Take the Female Russian National. Papadopoulos, according to the plea agreement, believed her to be Vladimir Putin’s niece. To have a niece, however, the Russian President would have had to have a sibling. All of the available biographies of Putin, both official and unauthorized, agree: the Russian President had two older brothers who died as children, before Vladimir was born. He was an only child. He doesn’t have a niece.”

While it is definitely true Putin doesn’t have a niece in the English sense of the word, it seems he does have a niece in the Russian sense of the word.

Many Russians refer to what English speakers call cousins as their “brothers” and “sisters,” without specifying that these blood relatives are in fact двоюродные братья and сестры, something on the order of “brothers and sisters once removed.”

It took me exactly five seconds of digging on the internet to find out Putin has a двоюродная племянница, meaning the niece of a cousin or a “niece once removed,” so to speak.

In this case, the cousin’s name is Igor Putin, and Igor Putin has a niece named Vera Putina. That makes Vera Putina Vladimir Putin’s двоюродная племянница.

It is entirely conceivable that Vladimir Putin and other Putin family members simply refer to Vera as Vladimir Putin’s племянница or niece.

As Gessen points out toward the end of her article, Papadopolous later learned the Russian woman in question was not Putin’s relative after all.

However, Putin seemingly does have a niece in the broader Russian sense of the term, despite what Gessen has said on the subject.

I can even vouch for Vera Putina’s existence, because I have a close friend who has met her in person on a few occasions.

You can read what Vera Putina does in this article about her and other members of Vladimir Putin’s extended family, published in 2015 by the independent Russian-language news website Meduza. TRR

Photo courtesy of Yevgeny Asmolov/Delovoi Peterburg