poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

June 14, 2010

Another horror story about Russian traffic cops?

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 6:05 PM
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So I am probably the last person on earth to hear of this guy, Sergei “Vissarion Christ” Torop, who used to be a Siberian traffic cop until he realized he was the Second Coming. Which leads me to wonder if being a Russian cop isn’t as psychologically dangerous for the cops themselves as it is for those they serve and protect. Especially the traffic cops. In Siberia. For whose inhabitants there appear 3 life options: corrupt civil servant, corrupt savior of mankind, or their victims. You can write the guy off, but he has 10,000 of followers. And they haven’t taken the Kool-Aid way out. Yet.

Here is a video produced for Nightline (an evening news program in the States that no one to my knowledge watches):

I was not made aware of Vissarion by Nightline, but by Daniel Kalder’s book, Strange Telescopes, which has a large section devoted to the cult. Unlike the backpacker in the news item, Kalder is a bad ass and goes to stay there during the winter. Like any proper cult, or political party, they have strict talking points (after watching several YouTube videos produced both by and about the cult, they start to sound like robots), so you won’t gain any new revelations from interviews with the members or its leader. But something I found very neat about Vissarion’s cult is how it is allowed to prosper: First off, he acquired a ton of land on lease in the heady days of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when encouraging religious expression and giving away land to crooks was all the rage. This is where he and his followers have settled among the mountains and taiga. He’s been able to stay legit in the more stringent, un-Orthodox friendly Putin era by … well, what does Mr. Putin like? Following the rules. Seriously, the Vissarions follow the law, pay taxes, conduct legal business, allow regular government audits and inspections, home school the kids using the State-approved textbooks, support the local governor, the whole shebang. In the country from which I hail, most cults spout up out of resistance to the government. We have more freedom of religion than Russia. (Which means little more than annoying people with pamphlets can show up at my door and not go away, or pyramid schemes with Hollywood actor acolytes can get tax breaks.) Yet the Messiah is thriving in Siberia. Oh, also the Messiah is also waging a War on Christmas by abolishing it and changing the holiday to his birthday. How nice to be God. Well, technically he’s not God. And technically he’s the 3rd coming.

Listening to and reading about the lifestyle of his followers and his basic teachings, I can initially totally see myself running away to join. At least for a year. They’re all environmentalists who develop useful skills and think positive thoughts. That sounds nice. No money. That sounds lovely. Arts and crafts and the whispering of the wildflowers in the Siberian spring… oohhhh. Then there is the stuff about following him, the global, nay, intergalactic Jewish conspiracy, traditional marriages and gender roles. (Kalder is miffed that Vissarion gets a hot little girlfriend -in addition to the wife- and a Land Rover while his followers must do without, but he is God, after all. It would be weird if he couldn’t have those things.) Yet I can see how people get lured in. It’s not difficult to imagine an educated professional reflecting upon their crap life of materialism and social alienation and thinking, all I have to do is submit to this guy and I get to live in a Utopia? Alright. The people I’m forced to submit to now are 10 times more evil and I’ve little to show for it.

Most if not all of the outside coverage of Vissarion’s cult point to the back-breaking work and harsh climate to illustrate just how brainwashed and desperate his followers are. You’d have to be either a total wreck or operating against your free will to become a Siberian construction worker. After all, that’s what Stalin chose as punishment for those who dared threaten his regime. I don’t buy it. I can totally see how sitting in an office/car/living room/etc. for most of their lives would make people antsy for some hard fucking labor, Office Space-like. Especially the kind of labor that leaves you with something to show for it. As for climate, it’s not like Moscow and St. Peterburg are tropical paradises. Plus, it’s a “dry cold,” making it more tolerable. (I’ve heard this when referring to the heat, but never the cold. Hm.)

Most if not all of the outside coverage of Vissarion’s cult point to the new religious freedoms allowed in the past few decades to illustrate what might have provoked such a cult. Eager to take advantage of their new rights and a bit confused and adrift because of all the social chaos and lack of obvious choices, these poor folk fell into Vissarion’s trap. I don’t buy it. Most Russians who wanted to cash in on their religious freedom had no problem locating the Orthodox Church across the street. But more importantly, Vissarion’s cult seems to me motivated less by the need to worship indiscriminately and more by the need to leave their current socio-economic situation for something better, more promising, more fulfilling. Yes, the origin of Vissarion’s cult coincided with the end of State atheism. But in many ways it is now trying to replicate the economic ideals of that failed State. I wonder if it was an infusion of faith, or a crisis of faith that has lured people to this workers’ paradise? Vissarionites are rejecting their post-Communist country, after all, not embracing it…

You can read more about Kalder’s stay with the Vissarionites here.

June 11, 2010

Lost Cosmonaut: Book Review

Filed under: Culture: Russia — poemless @ 6:03 PM
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Sad Teletubbies, Elista, Kalmykia. c.Daniel Kalder.

I recently got to thinking about the difference between a blogger and a journalist. It’s a terrible subject so I only thought about it for a few seconds before I settled on, “journalists are paid.” But now I’ve found another difference: Bloggers can write reviews of books that were published 4 years ago. Which kinda throws a wrench in the CW…

I don’t read many travel narratives. I went through a phase where I collected them, but I could never get past the first chapter before deciding I not only knew how the story ends, but I’m pretty sure the author was that jerk I used to see in the stolovaya being all chummy with the scary abacus lady or that girl with the overwhelming goodness and lack of personality particular to a breed of Western girls studying in Russia. I even wrote one too. Because when something deranged happens every day of your life, you have to write about it. Like vomiting to avoid alcohol poisoning. The problem is this: the same deranged things happen to everyone who writes these books. It’s all new to the author of course, but not to anyone who has already read a travel narrative, personal memoir or pseudo-autobiographical novel about Russia by a Westerner. So I passed by Daniel Kalder’s Lost Cosmonaut repeatedly until the day came when I’d read all the other books in that section of the local library, except Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Diary which I don’t think I could bear. (A typo just gave me brilliant idea for a children’s book: “Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Dairy”.) Also, I am not crazy interested in Udmurtia or Kazan. What’s going on there? Nothing.

A co-worker of mine and I were laughing today at the crazy synopses people put in WorldCat records. “Epic masterpiece that is about nothing and everything.” Ok, that’s helpful.

Lost Cosmonaut is an epic masterpiece that is about nothing and everything. Specifically as nothing and everything is experienced by a noncoformist Scot in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia.

If you are interested in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia you should probably read this because not much in English is written about them and you don’t have a choice. If you are not interested in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia you should probably read this because it’s not really very informative about these places anyway. You could be reading about anywhere. Or nowhere. Which is the point.

Kalder sets off with a mission to introduce the world to forgotten an unknown peoples and places. It begins with a manifesto:

From THE SHYMKENT DECLARATIONS

(Excerpts from the resolutions passed at the first international congress of Anti- Tourists
at the Shymkent Hotel, Shymkent, Kazakhstan, October 1999)

As the world has become smaller so its wonders have diminished. There is nothing
amazing about the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, or the Pyramids of Egypt. They
are as banal and familiar as the face of a Cornflakes Packet.

Consequently the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere.

The duty of the traveller therefore is to open up new zones of experience. In our over
explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban
blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid.

The only true voyagers, therefore, are anti- tourists. Following this logic we declare that:

The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable.

The anti-tourist eschews comfort.

The anti-tourist embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels.

The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings.

The anti-tourist scorns the bluster and bravado of the daredevil, who attempts to

penetrate danger zones such as Afghanistan. The only thing that lies behind this is

vanity and a desire to brag.

The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year.

The anti-tourist prefers dead things to living ones.

The anti-tourist is humble and seeks invisibility.

The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art.

The anti-tourist believes beauty is in the street.

The anti-tourist holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.

The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.

The anti-tourist loves truth, but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own.

At one point Kalder quotes the end of Gogol’s Dead Souls and answers the question of what lay ahead for Russia: “poor people and junk.” If the moral of the story were that every provincial Russian city is miserable in the same way (general disrepair, awful weather, egomaniacal leader, Stalinist factory, ethnic population with little or no recollection of their heritage as a result of centuries of occupation and systematic assimilation, dive hotel where the rooms are outfitted with radios you can’t turn off and no hot water, fat American men trawling for wives, Brezhnev era apartment blocks, depressing cafe and nightclub …) well, I’d have gotten through the first chapter and decided I knew how the story ends. Been there. Done that. The names were different (Pskov, Uglich, Suzdal…) but I’ve experienced the radio you can’t turn off and it is particular hell that cannot be underestimated. And I’m pretty sure the most depressing cafe in the universe is in Uglich. But that wasn’t the moral of the story. And I wasn’t prepared for the ending.

At times Kalder is a kamikaze thrill seeker, presenting his surroundings the world with all the grace and humility of an eXile deathporn spread. He’s really into Peter the Great’s collection of preserved mutant babies and Ilyumzhinov’s egomania. Russia is cruel and psycho. Lick it up baby, lick it up.

Then he gets really existential about the psychological effect of living in a place the rest of the world does not know exists. He muses that globalization makes life easier. We see an for McDonalds, Pepsi, Mercedes and are immediately connected to everyone else who has seen those ads. A man in London is eating the same cheeseburger as a man in Houston. They are not alone. Anyone who’s been in Russia or other Commie’d out countries when there were no or few corporate ads has understood this. All those nameless remont chasovs can really become unsettling. When you only have uniquely named stores in your town, when the billboards only advertize your local dictator, you are estranged from the rest of the world. Or something.

Realizing there is nothing shocking to see in these outposts he becomes obsessed with the nothingness, the boredom, the profound insignificance of his surroundings. Zen-like. (The combined fascination with the grotesque and the mundane leaves the reader feeling a little psychotic.) Eventually he does give himself completely over. But not to the nothingness. Or the freakishness. But to things as they are. To the efforts people make, the dignity they maintain, when dealt a mediocre deck. Nothing exclusively Russian about that. Except that Russians are perhaps more honest and upfront about their crap deck than rest of us. No sense in pretending about it.

There are many things I really liked about this book. The gonzo journalist tone is reminiscent of the eXile, which I really miss. He’s a pretty good and funny writer. Who happens to be interested in something that interests me. It is also endearing to watch someone else go through the stages of grief people with souls tend to go through when they try to get to know Russia. Like me. In fact, I have many selfish reasons for loving this book. The most obnoxious being that Kalder reminds me of this strange boy from college I hung out with for a year. Anyway. Kalder makes a lot of lists, which I too enjoy. Lists. He takes photos of random stuff and calls it “The Secret History of the World” – photodocumentation of things others walk past and never see. I liked that. He makes up entire scenes as if briefly lost in reverie while writing. He can be irreverently crass but it’s not an act, nor is the painfully sweet and beautiful observations he makes about things most people don’t notice. A little girl he catches a glimpse of in a dank cafe with her mother whose entire life he manages to invest himself in emotionally before she leaves – vanished forever. A self-promoting pagan preist who just makes up everything and even has a shrine to himself, but whom Kalder defends as not a fraud or a loser but just like the rest of us, making it up as we go along, seeking fame, trying to give some meaning and staying power to our unnoticed lives. Instead of getting angry at one local authority whom he expects to set him up with important people but can only get him a meeting with a local museum tour guide or theater director, Kalder thinks, well, he did his job, they did theirs, they don’t owe me anything beyond that. They didn’t even owe me that.

At the end, a tv anchor asks him what’s wrong with Russia. “Look around! It’s terrible. Other countries are not like this. Why is Russia like this?” She’s clearly not happy with the state of affairs. That’s for someone else to discuss, Kalder thinks. Let someone else make a profound appeal for democracy. From their warm safe lives in the West. Experts making profound appeals for democracy are a dime a dozen. Fuck them.

I really liked that last bit.

You should go check out his website now.

June 9, 2010

Odds & Ends: Insomnia Edition.

A thought I had while riding the el, sleep-deprived:

It is conventional wisdom that the fall of the USSR was a glorious populist event that would have been something pleasant if it had not been set back by the greedy, corrupt, lawless and undemocratic actions that followed as a result of the chaos brought on by the fall of the USSR. In fact, the literal dissolution of the Soviet Union was a greedy, corrupt and undemocratic action that set the stage for those that followed. It was the first land grab of the 1990’s. Ha!

Well, it sounded more profound on the el. Probably the bearded tranny staring at me while I thought it gave it extra oomph. Honestly, just when I get comfortable with everyone’s unique sexuality, I’m commuting with a bearded transvestite. I want to scream, “Is this a game? Why can’t you just choose?!” But his or her (his and her?) sexuality is not mine to judge or make demands of. Still, I resent being made to guess what pronoun to use. Or how many.

~ Every moose is crazy ’bout a sharp dressed man.

I want to be this baby elk.

~ Gorbachev is not a dick.

This is a lovely interview. If you read it and return here and still think he is, you better keep it to yourself, or I’ll refuse to marry you, too.

~ “foreign video games accused of committing “ideological sabotage” by painting Russia as a country of spies, villains and bears riding unicycles.”

Maybe because dead poets, cold showers and cabbage soup are boring topics for video games… Don’t think they haven’t tried:


More recently came the release of “Eugene Onegin: Devil’s Mercy”, which sought to provide a lesson in literature by rendering the hero of Alexander Pushkin’s masterpiece as a zombie killer. But neither of these titles fared well with critics despite rave revues from Russian officials.

In fairness, the original Pushkin poem on which the game is based is pretty damn boring too. Wish it had zombies…

~ Some person with a blog wrote this:

It’s just, I don’t like attracting certain persons to my blog. Anyway, this is not about the author, it’s about McFaul.


Michael McFaul sent me a message on Facebook (I friended him because I thought he might have press releases on his profile or some comments on these meetings) and said he understood I was a critic of his commission with Surkov, said he wanted to understand my views better, and offered me a phone number.

I’m pretty sure the fact that Vladislav Surkov 1) does not have a facebook page, 2) does not care to know my opinion of his work and 3) has not given me his phone number is the clearest illustration yet of everything that is wrong with Russia. Especially that last part. I’m going to friend McFaul and see what the Civil Society Working Group can do to rectify this situation.

~ Единая Россия Fail.

Or maybe he won. I don’t know…

~ Genius.

Apologies to whomever I was calling a genius last week. I know I was ready to run away with Shklovsky. But this time it is for real, I swear. Forget what I said about having to read some 1920’s avant garde poetry. I have found true love! Daniel Kalder is the one for me!

Hole in my heart left by the eXile? Filled.

~ Music only dogs can hear.

“Vicious…” Meh, dogs are pretty indiscriminate. I can’t see them appreciating Lou Reed or Laurie Anderson. Most people who are not dogs can’t even do that. Probably it is a good thing only dogs can hear Anderson, actually. PETA might want to boycott this.

~ Hitch has an autobio… er, memoir out. It’s probably not as awesomely offensive as this interview.


Hitch: There are still people who want to criminalize homosexuality one way or another, and I thought it might be useful if more heterosexual men admitted that they are a little bit gay, as is everyone, and that homosexuality is a form of love and not just sex.

NYT: Not everyone is “a little bit gay,” as you say. Do you think your basic sexual confusion underlies your political confusions? [...]

NYT: Your mother committed suicide, in a pact with a lover, in 1973. Did she suffer from lifelong depression?

Hitch: No. I think she was having a bad menopause, and she was losing her looks, which were pretty impressive.

~ “чисто по-мужски?”

If you think I write like a man, you should watch me install an air conditioner. Though, IIRC, most men cry and curse when doing that. Someone should compare me to a ninja. Because that’s how I install an air conditioner.

Ok, thanks for reading.

Stay tuned for my review of Lost Cosmonaut. Hint #1: One reviewer called it “A cult waiting to happen.” Hint #2: I’m joining.

June 3, 2010

LQD: “Rethinking Russia” by Stephen Cohen.

By now most of you who will read anything I write will have read this. But I’m reposting for several reasons: 1) In the vain hope that my American friends, family, etc. who are not interested in Russia will read it, 2) Because it appears a few people in Russia -like, actual Russians and not smug expats- read this blog, and I want them to know that some Americans have sane takes in U.S.-Russia relations, and 3) I’m in love with Stephen Cohen. And his wife.

It’s not completely accurate to suggest he says anything terribly new in this interview. He’s not only re-thinking, but re-peating. But let us forgo the easy standards of blogland and learn to value wisdom over novelty. I do recommend you read the whole thing. But it is 11 pages long. Below are just the parts I really appreciated.

[Emph. mine.]

Rethinking Russia: U.S.-Russian Relations in an Age of American Triumphalism

From an Interview with Stephen F. Cohen, Professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University and Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University. Journal of International Affairs. Spring/Summer 2010. Reprinted by, Russia Other Points fo View.

Journal: The world recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. How has this event been received in Russia?

Cohen: [...] Under Gorbachev, modernization therefore meant both political and economic modernization. After the Soviet Union ended in 1991, Yeltsin continued Gorbachev’s democratization in some respects but his policies resulted in the beginning of Russia’s de-democratization, which in the United States is usually, and incorrectly, attributed to his successor, Putin. The way Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union, like a thief in the night, was not constitutional or democratic. There was no referendum on it. If you want to create democracy, you do not abolish the only state and homeland most people had ever known with the stroke of a pen, without consulting them. Yeltsin could have done what Gorbachev had done in March 1991 hold a referendum on the Union. Yeltsin might have won it, ending the Soviet Union consensually and without the widespread bitterness that remains today, and the 15 republics would have gone their own ways. Then, in October 1993, Yeltsin used tanks to abolish a parliament popularly elected in 1990 when Russia was still part of the Soviet Union. This too was a Russian tradition the destruction of a legislature in a nation with a long history of overwhelming executive power but without a tradition of strong, independent legislatures. Russia has a parliament today, the Duma, but it is neither.

Note: This is part of a larger discussion about modernization. If you are interested in that topic, read the interview. Me, I suspect “modernization” is code for something (isn’t the history of man the history of modernization? why is this issue such a 3rd rail when it comes to Russia?) but I’m not sure what yet. They continue:

Journal: What opportunities exist for re-democratization in Russia?

Cohen: The main obstacle to democratization in Russia is not contrary to American political and media opinion Vladimir Putin or the KGB, or any single leader or institution. It’s the way the nation’s most valuable state economic and financial assets were “privatized” between 1991 and 1996. The idea of state or commonly owned property was not just a communist idea; it was a Russian idea, with origins long before 1917. The Soviet state property fell into the hands of a relatively small group of insiders not just the billionaires we call oligarchs and created an extremely wealthy class very quickly.

Polls show that a majority of Russians still think that property was taken and is held illegitimately. The people who own that property and who are part of the ruling elite, will never permit free elections or a freely elected parliament, knowing that such elections and such a truly representative legislature would endanger their property, endangering them personally, as well as their families. For evidence, look no further than how they have moved their families and their assets abroad.

Vladislav Surkov, a top aide to both Putin and Medvedev, referred to the existing elite as an “offshore aristocracy.” It’s a remarkably evocative formulation. By moving their assets and families abroad, the very rich show that their first loyalty is not to Russia and its future. Surkov said Russia needs its own real national bourgeoisie, which links its own future to Russia’s future. There is much truth in what he said. After all, you can’t modernize Russia by buying English soccer teams or American NBA teams.[<--Oh, snap!]

The essence of democracy anywhere is a free representative parliament however badly it may work. You can’t have this without free elections, but the Russian elite that holds vast property and controls part of the political system will never permit free elections as long as it fears for its wealth. The United States, by supporting Yeltsin’s privatization policies, was deeply complicit in the way that property was acquired. The Clinton administration and outside advisers called it a transition to a market economy and cheered it, and Americans went to Russia to guide the process. They unknowingly created a kind of firewall against democracy. Thoughtful Russians understand this conflict between ill-gained property and the lack of democracy. Some have proposed solutions, such as a one time super tax on this property, which would go into pensions, healthcare, and education in order to create a new social contract. According to this proposal, the people would forgive the rich and acknowledge their property as legitimate, and then their resentments would diminish over time, making democratization again possible. Social justice is a profound Russian belief. Without it, there will be no Russian democracy.

Is this seriously being considered, does anyone know? This is the first I’ve heard of the one time rape and pillage your country tax…

Journal: Despite the failure of the 1990s, do proponents of western-style liberalism remain a formidable force in Russia?

Cohen: They barely exist at high levels. From 1991 to 1994, they were perhaps the strongest faction in the Russian government due to the carry-over of Gorbachev’s westernism and the belief of Yeltsin’s political team that the United States was its true political partner and would provide generous financial assistance. Then came the calamities of the 1990s associated with shock therapy, which Russians thought had “Made in America” written on it not an unreasonable belief since they saw legions of American economists and other advisers encamped in Russia. I published a book, Failed Crusade, about the consequences of this ill-conceived U.S. policy and behavior.

Thinking in Russia about its relationship with the West has become more diverse. I simplify a bit, but there are essentially three groups. One says, “We are Eurasian; our civilization, our security, and our future are not with the West.” These political forces advocate minimal relations with the West. They are not urging a new Iron Curtain, but are arguing that Russia cannot stake its national or economic security on the West. Russia, they say, tried that in the 1990s and the early 2000s and was exploited and cheated. Its territory was endangered, promises were broken, and the country was left in ruins. [This would be the scary nationalist types, I think.]

Then there are those who still argue that historically Russia has been backward mainly because its citizens have not been given western-style political and economic freedoms and that the country’s future lies in the West in western models, alliances, and economic integration. To attain this, they hope for partnership with the United States, which they think still exemplifies the West. By the way, this small and diminishing group is the only one that still welcomes U.S. “democracy promotion” in Russia its funds and crusaders. [This would be the liberal intellectuals, then?]

The most interesting group emerging in Russia today, I think, is the one that says, “We are a Eurasian country, but that means we are in Europe and in Asia, and the United States is not a European country.” Their perceived western ally is Germany. It is often forgotten that, though Russia and Germany fought two wars in the 20th century, between those wars they had close relationships, along with a cultural affinity dating back to Tsarist times. That relationship is re-emerging. Look at German Chancellor Merkel. She came to power as an anti-Russian she grew up in Communist East Berlin but has emerged as one of Putin’s strongest European partners. [This would be the people actually running the country. They're the sane and sober ones! Go figure!]

Germany does not want to be an American protégé. Germany is beholden to Moscow for reuniting it in 1990-91: It wasn’t the United States that made reunification possible, it was the Kremlin leader, Gorbachev. The economic relationship between Berlin and Moscow is strong and growing. Russia is providing some 40 percent of Germany’s energy. They are building new pipelines together, and neither liked Ukraine’s disruption of supplies through its existing pipelines. Indeed, it was Berlin that blocked Bush’s attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO. This emerging Moscow-Berlin relationship, verging on an alliance, is one of the most important new bilateral relationships in the world, and almost no one in this country is paying any attention to it. In fact, for Moscow, Berlin and Beijing its new Eurasian relationships are more important than Washington, though Washington seems not to have noticed.

Stephen takes it personally, but to be fair, this is but a drop in the bucket of matters Washington seems not to notice. Or notices and chooses to ignore because they don’t have a place in the standard narrative we use to justify our actions and inactions. Cohen goes on to discuss China. Then,

Journal: This leads us to foreign policy. What is behind the deterioration of Russian-U.S. relations in recent years, in your opinion?

Cohen: There have been, I think, four major conflicting issues since the end of the Soviet Union between the United States and Russia [...]

First, we assumed we could and should instruct Russia on how to create a market economy and democracy, which Washington and legions of American crusaders tried to do in the 1990s. The reality is that Russians themselves know how to do both. More eligible voters have voted in Russian presidential elections than vote in ours. When Gorbachev began democratization in the late 1980s, Russians responded in enormous numbers and positively to the opportunity to participate in democracy not only to vote, but to attend debates and rallies, and argue as citizens. Furthermore, Russians have been buying and selling on the black and gray markets for decades, so they understand market economies. It was arrogance on our part, and the advice we gave was bad. Yet the notion persists it’s now called democracy promotion that every American president must actively throw his support to who we think are democrats in Russia. This not only creates hostility between America and Russia’s elites and people, but it is self-defeating. No good has ever come of it.

The second conflict involves NATO expansion eastward, which was for Moscow a broken American promise. No matter what former U.S. officials now say, Gorbachev was told by Bush and Baker in 1990-91 that if he agreed to a reunified Germany in NATO, the alliance would not move, in Baker’s words, “one inch to the east.” When Clinton expanded NATO eastward, for Russia he had broken a solemn promise involving its national security. That was only the beginning. The triumphalist notion that, “we won the Cold War,” seemed to make Washington think it had the right to break any promise to Moscow.

Americans forget, for example, that after 11 September 2001 Putin did more to help the second President Bush defeat the Taliban on the ground in Afghanistan than did any NATO country. Russia gave us intelligence, over-flight rights, and the Northern Alliance its fighting force in Afghanistan, which saved American lives. Putin assumed that in return, after ten years, a real partnership with Washington would result. And what did the second President Bush do? He expanded NATO a second time and withdrew unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, which Moscow regarded as the bedrock of its nuclear security. The Kremlin had done all this for us on the assumption of finally attaining a partnership and equality, and therefore felt, as Putin and Medvedev have said, “deceived and betrayed.”

The third post-1991 conflict is stated like a mantra by American policymakers: Russia cannot have the sphere of influence it wants in the former Soviet territories. This issue, the fundamental, underlying conflict in U.S.-Russian relations, needs to be rethought and openly discussed. The United States had and has spheres of influence. We had the Monroe Doctrine in Latin America and tacitly cling to it even today. More to the point, the expansion of NATO is, of course, an expansion of the American sphere of influence, which brings America’s military, political, and economic might to new member countries. Certainly, this has been the case since the 1990s, as NATO expanded across the former Soviet bloc, from Germany to the Baltic nations. All of these countries are now part of the U.S. sphere of influence, though Washington doesn’t openly use this expression. [...]

And that has created the fourth major conflict with Russia since 1991: Moscow’s perception that U.S. policy has been based on an unrelenting, triumphalist double standard, as it has been. Washington can break solemn promises, but Moscow cannot. The United States can have large and expanding spheres of influence, but Russia can have none. Moscow is told to make its vast energy reserves available to all countries at fair-market prices, except to those governments Washington has recruited or is currently recruiting into NATO, such as the Baltics, Ukraine, and Georgia, which Moscow should supply at sharply below-market prices. Moscow is asked to support Washington’s perceived national interests in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, but without considering that Moscow may have legitimately different security or economic interests in those places. And so it goes.[Actually #4 is just the result of 1-3...]

He then discusses the August 08 war and START. Which surely no one could actually have anymore to say about. Not here anyway.

Journal: How has the lack of political cooperation affected other areas of U.S.-Russian relations?

Cohen: The same is true regarding Iran and Afghanistan. If Washington wants Moscow’s cooperation toward Iran, it needs to understand Russia’s special problems. Iran has never caused Russia harm. It is not going to join NATO. It’s a large neighboring nation that is not part of America’s sphere of influence. Second, Russia has 20-25 million Islamic citizens of its own. Iran has done nothing to agitate them against Moscow’s secular authority. The Kremlin fought two wars in its Islamic republic of Chechnya. Iran did nothing to support the Chechens. So, Russia’s beholden to Iran in this regard, not to mention their important economic relationships. In other words, U.S. policymakers have to understand that Russia’s essential national interests in Iran, and elsewhere, may not be identical to Washington’s due to its different geopolitical realities.

Journal: Would Russia like to see a new regime in Iran?

Cohen: They don’t want a pro-American regime in Iran. But they’ve grown increasingly weary of the current Iranian government, which has not kept its word to Moscow on several occasions. Moscow is just as worried about Iran’s nuclear intentions as we are. Indeed, Russia no less than us doesn’t want Iran to develop a nuclear capability, if only because Iran is much closer to Russia and would not need an inter-continental missile to threaten its territory. Moscow therefore has compelling reasons for not wanting a nuclear-armed Iran but it needs the United States to understand its different geopolitical circumstances. In particular, as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov repeatedly stresses, Russia, unlike the United States, is located at the crossroads of civilizations that are in an increasingly antagonistic relationship. Great diplomats begin by understanding the other side’s problems. I don’t recall a recent American president or secretary of state demonstrating this kind of awareness of Russia’s circumstances. Instead, they’ve told Moscow: “We have a problem and if you don’t help us solve it, you are behaving like the Cold War is not over.” When Russia doesn’t agree, we say they are still thinking in zero-sum terms.

Again, this is really more a reflection of Washington’s stubborn inability to care about anyone else’s problems than Russia’s perceived stubborn inability to be cooperative. At the risk of repeating Cohen’s “double standard” grief, one must admit it is true: It is not only understandable, but commendable, heroic even, for Washington to act in American interests. For Russia to act in her own interests, however, is not only perplexing, but downright threatening.

Journal: The February 2010 election in Ukraine saw Viktor Yanukovych elected President. In terms of the United States’ relations with Russia’s neighbors, does the election change anything?

Cohen: [...] The question is what the Obama administration and the strong pro-Ukraine lobby in Washington will do. Both Georgia, which will eventually restore relations with Moscow, and Ukraine are major defeats for long-standing U.S. policy. Will the proponents of the policy of expanding America’s sphere of influence now stand down or continue it, as they have in their words and deeds in connection with Georgia since the war? For the moment, their leading representatives, like Biden, Richard Holbrooke, and McCain are silent about Ukraine. Let’s hope they are re-thinking their follies. Ordinary Ukrainians and Georgians have only experienced more economic misery and political instability from these Washington projects in their countries. As for Kiev, I hope the Obama administration backs off and lets Yanukovych try to do what he can to help his people. My guess is that the Kremlin will see that its in its interest to help him in this respect with regard to energy prices, for example. Indeed, if Washington promises to never put military bases on Russia’s borders, and Russia in return promises to respect the political sovereignty of these former Soviet republics, the governments of Ukraine and Georgia could turn their attention and resources to the economic needs of their people instead of focusing on the military build-ups and political conflicts required to join NATO.

But what do we get out of that? Surely stability in Ukraine and Georgia cannot be profitable for arms dealers or Congressmen. Cohen speaks truth to power, I mean Obama:

Journal: Does … a shift in U.S. policy seem likely under the Obama Administration?

Cohen: I’m not optimistic. Look at President Obama’s foreign policy team. Virtually every one of them comes from the Clinton era or the Clinton administration, which began this disastrous policy. As a senator, Biden was deeply involved in NATO expansion, and in both the Georgian and Ukrainian projects. Obama’s national security adviser, General James Jones, was head of NATO when it expanded. Michael McFaul, who heads the Russian section of the National Security Council, was a leading pro-democracy crusader in the 1990s. There is not a single dissenter, not one person who was in opposition to the policy in the 1990s who has a high-level foreign policy job in the Obama administration. I don’t see anyone near Obama who will or can tell him, “Mr. President, we need a new policy toward Russia, the clock is ticking, and only you, the president, can bring it about.” But it isn’t fair to blame Obama alone. No other American leader has proposed a new policy.

Journal: Let’s focus on the idea that underlies this discussion: that there is an absence of debate about issues surrounding Russia and the United States.

Cohen: There is virtually no serious discourse about contemporary Russia underway in the United States today not in public policy circles, not in the media, very little in academic life. Certainly, there is no substantive debate. That is in sharp contrast to when I entered the public debate in the 1970s, writing about policy for newspapers and appearing on television and radio. At that time, as I said before, the debate was between advocates of détente, those who wanted to do something to diminish the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and the cold warriors. There were organized lobby groups on both sides. And the media would almost always solicit both points of view. [...]

When Reagan decided to become the greatest détente-ist of our time, a heretic in the eyes of many of his long time supporters, in 1985-88 he and Secretary of State Schultz were opposed by many members of his administration, party and much of the media. But for all Obama’s talk about having a “team of rivals,” he has surrounded himself with like-minded people. [...]

For some reason, it was easier to get public and political attention for alternative policies when Russia called itself communist. People who used to blame communism for what they didn’t like about Russia now blame Russian tradition but the accusations are the same: Russia is inherently imperialistic, aggressive, autocratic and anti-democratic. This is false, and is even a kind of ethnic slur toward Russians. Russia’s political elite has much to answer for, but so do Washington policymakers. Some will say that I am anti-American or pro-Russian, as they have in the past. I have learned to disregard these comments as remnants of the McCarthy years. People like me, who claim to be knowledgeable intellectuals not shouting heads on cable television should not be like cooks preparing recipes for popular tastes. Our mission is to try to learn, understand, and speak the truth as best we can. Others will say, more kindly, that I am naïve about what kind of U.S.-Russian relationship is possible. But who would have predicted what Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan accomplished in the 1980s, or that it would be so quickly lost?

You may say, he’s a dreamer…

And you may say I only read this for self-serving reasons of confirmation bias and romantic ideas about how it is cool to be a Russia expert. To be honest, I do find him to be a little gloom and doom. Who wants to listen to such a depressive? And the whole idea that “The greatest threats to our national security still reside in Russia.” Really? I think they reside in Washington – but that’s just me. But just when I’m about to accuse dear Stephen of hysteria mongering, I realize that it’s just that he’s so passionate about it all. Easy to get worked up like that, especially when it seems no one will listen to you. You end up coming off as the town loony. I do it all the time. At least in Russia we might have the dignity of being Holy Fools.

I also find his evolution as a Russia expert person a little surprising at first. I’m reading a collection of dissident samizdat he edited in the bad old days. He clearly felt an affinity, a passion then, for these Soviet dissidents, struggling for freedom of expression, democratization, etc. We’ve had a lot of discussion here about the modern dissidents in Russia, who also claim to be fighting these age-old wars with their leaders. But judging from the interview above, it would seem he’s left the camp. Instead of aligning himself with the victims of the current Russian government, he’s -whether he’d admit it or not- advocating on behalf of the Russian government itself. At least on behalf of their better angels.

Maybe it’s not our hero who has changed, but the bad guy? As someone recently said, there are lots of serious problems facing Russia today, and whether or not to hang a picture of Stalin is not one of them. I don’t entirely relate to the bad old days Cohen because, frankly, I can’t get so worked up about Stalin. I can, however, get pretty worked up about the United States of America though. Being American, and not Russian, and all.

Check it out: We’re the new dissidents. Apologies to Yulia.

June 1, 2010

Odds & Ends: Spring Cleaning Edition

While I’ve not been writing about Russia (but instead cleaning, from top to bottom, in a fit of hoardophobia, every square inch of my apartment) a lot of stories have piled up in my bookmarks. Now I’m cleaning out those as well, before you show up one day to find me rotting under a heap of old news items.

THE POLITICAL DISH

~ David Hoffman, author of “The Dead Hand,” asserts that the Prime Minister does not have a nuclear suitcase.

I, author of, “poemless. the blog,” assert that David Hoffman is rather gullible if he believes that. But why on earth didn’t Vova change the law before he switched positions with Medvedev?

~ Russian Democracy: The Game Show!

Seriously. This looks like a scene from a Japanese game show. Whoever fails to cast enough votes for a quorum before the buzzer goes off will be doused with Ready Whip from a fire hose. Go team UR!

I wonder what is to stop the AWOL deputies from having their votes cast, say, against the Kremlin? The lackeys should do that, change the votes. How would the deputies defend themselves? “Prostite, esteemed Vladimir Vladimirovich, but the tool I paid to cast my vote while I was getting drunk pushed the wrong button.”

~ NFTEB on the topic of the vote:

“The law in question is President Medvedev’s pet project to lower the drink-drive limit; effectively reducing the amount of drinking you can do before legally driving to nil. This has created quite a furore. It turns out that Members of Parliament like to have a lunchtime tipple as much as the rest of us. Unlike in Britain, budget cuts won’t be soon forcing them to take platzkart from Krasnoyarsk when parliament is in session (or will they? That would be great). Furthermore, claims that drinking refreshing yet mildly alcoholic kvas or even eating black bread can be enough to push you over the limit have bolstered opposition to the law.

Some of my Russian friends claim that it has been scientifically proven that some people naturally have a certain amount of alcohol in their blood, even if they don’t drink. Naturally, I have had great fun winding them up about this. What was the alcohol level in the blood of the control group? “Are you sure you haven’t been drinking this morning Boris?” “Nyeeeet! Znachit, (hic) – it must be naturally occurring!” Russian scientists have proven a lot of things that my British brain has difficulty accepting.”

Russian scientists would probably find this proves a defect with British brains…

~ The now legendary VVP smackdown of DDT rocker Shevchuk.

Or, a master lesson in how to school your opponent. Looks like this is the new past-time over at Kremlin Inc. Below, Vladik responds to threats that businessmen are ready to flee Russia (“sitting on their suitcases”) by suggesting they should be a little more humble, telling them to unpack and make themselves at home.

~ Garbo, I mean, Surkov, Talks!

It’s not terribly humble of me, but Surkov can unpack and make himself at home here any time. What? It’s no more out of the realm of possibility than Ilya Yashin’s fantasy…

~ …in which Surkov would be thrown in prison for producing sextapes.

You know you want to believe him. Just as one day we will find Putin was indeed behind every journalist’s death in Russia between 1999 and 2029, we will find dear Slava was behind every filmed dissident orgy. It’s not terribly humble of me, but Surkov can … oh, never mind.

THE WORLD IN BRIEF

~ The U.S. ranks 42nd in child mortality, behind the United Arab Emirates, Cuba and Chile.

But we live in a democracy and that’s all that counts.

~ Amnesty International goes after Switzerland for their racism.

Oh, snap!

~ Jane Goodall goes after Switzerland for their materialism.

Double snap!

~ [T]here really is an urgent and perilous threat to Israel. It’s called “the Israeli government.”

No seriously, you guys are making Iran look like the sane ones.

BE AFRAID – VERY AFRAID.

~ Freedom of expression is not dead in Russia. … It is undead!

Apparently Vova isn’t worried about a zombie invasion tying up traffic to hospitals.

~ Chupacabra washes ashore in Canadia.

Even the Chupacabras hate American health care.

~ This is not an Onion story. Gulp.

“Not to be outdone, the owner of a religious museum near Lubbock claims that he has a stuffed chupacabra.
The Independent Creationist Association in Crosbyton is advertising: “See the real chupacabra. … Finally one has been caught.”

Curator Joe Taylor says he has always believed that man walked the earth with dinosaurs.

Now, he believes that both walked with the chupacabra.

“Sure, I believe that,” he said by phone from Crosbyton.

At his Mount Blanco Fossil Museum, he said, he spends a lot of time looking at animal bones.

“This isn’t the mythical chupacabra,” he acknowledged, adding seriously: “There’s two kinds.”

One was more intelligently designed than the other?

~ ” Frogs!”

What is more disturbing, a movie genre called “1970’s B-movie eco-horror” or the fact that it is so very timely in our age of global climate change? This film is like “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Wallstreet” rolled into one, but with scary close ups of frogs! Freaking Brilliant!

THE SOCIETY PAGES

~ Matt Taibbi is leaving True/Slant to devote more time to his Rolling Stone.

Good for him. True/Slant is perhaps the most user-annoying news outlet on the Internet.

~ Lyndon is seriously blogging again.

Just a word of advice: if you have been remiss in your blogging duties for an extended period of time, and then get at it again, please tell everyone! After a while we just stop checking your site, ya know…

~ Get Slavoj Žižek to Host SNL!

Though the collision of the meta and dialectical natures of such a stunt might result in something approximating a nuclear reaction, it would totally be worth it.

~ This Week In Facebook.

Vova writes a poem for his status update. Russia uploads Yanukovich wreath attack video.

WHAT TO READ

~ Orlov: “The Great Unreasoning.”

A reader sent me this. It’s a wonderful piece, pondering upon the whispers of cats, argument v. observation, the perverse role of opinion in political science, the diminishing returns of reason and … Merleau-Ponty.

~ Cohen: “An End to Silence: Uncensored Opinion in the Soviet Union, from Roy Medvedev’s Underground Magazine Political Diary.”

Found it lying on a shelf in the lib. You can’t go wrong with Stephen Cohen and Roy Medvedev, can you?

~ Shkolvsky: “Zoo, or Letters not about love.”

Josephina remarked that, “Russian literature is better than sex.” Russian literature is certainly like sex: When it’s bad, it’s mediocre but still better than most anything else you might have done instead, but when it is good, it blows your freaking mind. It’s a religious experience. Such was the case with “Zoo, or Letters not about love.” From Khlebnikov’s Menagerie, “Where the bats hang suspended, like the heart of a modern Russian,” to Remizov’s secret monkey society and everything in between: sermons disguised as heartache, literary theory disguised as poetry … well, if you are reading my blog you must read this slim tome of genius. It’s a new rule. Like, an initiation rite.

I promise she’ll be one of the best lovers you’ll ever take.

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