poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

February 27, 2010

Уважаемые читатели! Your input is requested!

Filed under: Meta — poemless @ 12:35 PM
Tags: ,

Or, on the passing of the 6-month anniversary of Poemless (the blog.)

I began this blog because I was told I wrote well, I identified a niche and I was sick of following other people’s rules. I didn’t set out with any grand plan or concrete goal. I tend to avoid concrete goals. I prefer my failure to be open to interpretation. I did not seek to make money (the wealthy are generally crap writers), advance my career (career?), put a political party in office (that’s what I do when I am not blogging) or achieve enduring celebrity (I’ve faith history will see to that). I just wanted an outlet where I could purge the madness from my mind when the mood struck. Hygiene – that’s all I was after. If someone found it helpful or enlightening, wonderful. If people just stop in to gape at the freak show, well, step right up. But the aim was: Low Maintenance. It’s no secret that I can be infuriatingly high maintenance, so I expect you will appreciate the challenge I created for myself. I got a WordPress.com blog that does everything for me but write the content. Free and pre-assembled, all I need to do is write whatever I want.

How hard could that be?

A List of Grievances:

1. I originally didn’t care much what the site looked like. But the header is not displaying properly. And I can’t post videos from their original sources. And I’d like to be able to move things around. And have subject fields for comments. And more distinctly blocked quotes. And I’d like to not have to deal with this new onslaught spam. However, I’m largely technologically illiterate. I don’t have the the first clue how to do these things, which seem like they must be the most tedious and boring things to do. They didn’t teach this in school. (They didn’t have the Internet in school!) So I begrudgingly google about… But it seems all the sites about blogging are focused on 1) how you can make more money, 2) how to advance your career or 3) how to become well known, all of which end up telling you to clean up your grammar and learn to game search engines. What if you just want to know how to have a classy little blog? Where are the instructions for those of us with souls? Halp.

2. WordPress.com tells you how many visitors you’ve had, but not how many are unique or where they’ve come from. I’m one of those people who do not give a damn what anyone thinks of me, except that I still I need to know. In the way I need to know if there is a bit of basil stuck between my teeth. I need to know! WordPress.com stats are like the crack dealers outside schools for people like me. They give you a taste. “Look, at the hundreds of visits, little girl… Yeah, you’re all that. What, like what you see? you want to find out more?, that’ll be $60/month.” I don’t have the first clue if the last 90 visitors are high school kids who accidentally wound up here trying to find a poem less than 10 lines long to memorize for English class, if they are spammers, friends, prophets or the KGB. Who are they? Why are they here? What do they think? What do they want from me? What if they are zombies?

3. As a result I find myself being unacceptably narcissistic. This is not good, given my natural diva-esque tendencies. I suppose you have to be an egomaniac to have a blog and take it seriously in the first place. To assume anyone in the world but the people already obligated to listen cares about your opinion on missile defence or German honey. But that, in addition to pontificating day in and day out, you are forced to be aware of your audience … Uhg, it’s all too terrible. It’s one thing to be an armchair policy wonk, another to be an egomaniac with a blog, counting your visitors, googling your name, wondering what people are saying about your (“opinionated,” “out of touch” …) or panicking because they are not saying anything at all. And suddenly, instead of writing for fun, you are writing for your share, for the lure of fame, for attention, for power, to defend your position, stake your claim.

4. And wondering… Why? Don’t misunderstand – it is great fun. But there’s a dark side to this blogging gig. I certainly don’t have the credentials of my peers, with their think tanks and PhDs and gigs representing jailed oligarchs, so I don’t even understand why I should care about these things or consider myself in their league. But I also don’t have that chillaxed stoner mentality that lets me say, “What’ev. S’just a blog.” I’m a control freak. (Which I suspect contributes to my empathy for VVP.) So if I am going to write about something, I am going to do it effectively and with intent and you are going to be impressed. It’s true I don’t care if you agree with me (if everyone agreed with me, I would have no motivation to write) but I need you to acknowledge my import – that’s all. Though… I’m still not sure why.

5. No really, why?

A List of Clarifications:

1. I have a political agenda, and oh, is it grand. But I really have no expectations of advancing it, let alone via this blog. 35 years of life on earth has tought me not to expect anyone to agree with me. Often, I find it more satisfying when people don’t … and want to talk about it.

2. I am not Russian. I cannot, do not and will not claim to speak on behalf of any Russian or claim know better than they do what is best for that country. Ever. Period. And if I do, by some freak accident or bout of blogging-induced narcissism, it’s bullshit, and I need to be called out on it. It’s a serious pet peeve of mine.

3. I blog primarily to empty my head and to learn. And not, that’s not a contradictory statement.

4. I write for myself, about what interests me, yes, but also to untangle thoughts. Something might make perfect sense until I begin writing it down and realize thought B does not logically follow from thought A at all. But I simply cannot do it alone. I could think AND write something and still be profoundly wrong. Everyday, countless journalists and academics do it. I am surely not immune. How will I know I am wrong, or delusional, or myopic if no one points out my faulty logic? Furthermore, I could think AND write AND be perfectly correct about something and wind up stuck in a rut of rightness. I’m an atheist for many reasons, one of which is I reserve the right to adjust my beliefs when presented with new information.

5. All that said, ok, fine Lyndon, I am opinionated. But I try to let it be known when it’s an opinion based on personal experiences or weird fetishes and one I don’t ask others to share. Mostly I will not use such opinions to seriously defend a political position. I will use things like reason, logic, verifiable facts and empathy. Or will try to anyway.

The Survey! Take It!

“Ok, enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?”

1. Do you primarily read this blog for mindless entertainment, to learn, to debate, to express your opinion or to find like-minded people?

2. Does the design, style, interface matter very much to you?

3. What about this blog annoys/frustrates/disappoints you? In your opinion, what does it not do well? What would you axe or change?

4. What about this blog do you appreciate/find helpful/enjoy? In your opinion, what is its strength? What should be given more attention or expanded upon?

5. Are there any topics, projects, etc. you would like to see here? [For example, there are people I would like to interview, but have not because right now that’s Andy’s thing.]

[Bonus Points!] Name one book or article you think I need to read to make me a better blogger/writer/Russia watcher. [Can I just tell you how much I hate that term, “Russia watcher?” Makes one sound like either a peeping Tom or a nanny. Ick. Ick, ick, ick…]

Please post your responses in the comments. I promise I will not take offense at any constructive criticism! But I will take offense if no one posts responses. You can also use the contact form (or e-mail me) if you want to be all sneaky and anti-social about it. Yes, this post is perhaps the most self-involved thing ever written, but ultimately, I’m doing it for the benefit of you, dear readers.

(Though I’m still not sure why.)

February 24, 2010

Guilty Pleasures…

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 6:29 PM
Tags: , , ,

Contents: A cartoon, a video, a photo and a magazine article. All you need is a glass of chardonnay and you’ve got yourself a serving of superficial bliss.

The heated discussion ignited by the previous post has me seeking lighter fare. (So if you came here looking for a bunch of overeducated Westerner know-it-alls arguing about the relative merits and horrors of 90’s Russia, that’ll be the next post down.) For now, a few indulgences provided for my own enjoyment. But feel free to help yourselves.

I. Oh, snap!

From xkcd. (H/T: Sublime Oblivion)

Question #1: Can it be called “navel gazing” if stick figures do it? I mean, they don’t have navels.
Question #2: Has xkcd yet published the cartoon of stick figures going online to post xkcd cartoons of of stick figures going online to post xkcd cartoons?

II. Colbert takes on the Swiss, Irish and Russians!

February 23, 2010: Olympic International Houses

I hate WordPress. Why can’t I embed a damn video?! Well, follow the link – it’s worth it for the Swiss-bashing alone, though the praise for Putin is fun to watch as well…

III. Vova’s rockin’ the vampire suit.

How many old guys can rock the all black get-up and pull it off without looking like a washed up rockstar or a washed up theater critic or a washed up vampire? Johny Cash and… …. Just Johny Cash and Vova.

I am a sucker for a world leader who dresses like Johnny Cash and says stuff like this. I turn right into that girl at the party who politely informs you she’s had too much to drink. I know one day I will be on the stand explaining myself and begging for forgiveness before my willing executioners, but for today, I think he is just divine…

IV. Vanity Fair’s magnum opus on the eXile.

What? Looks like I am not the only one suffering withdrawal. But why are they publishing this now?

“Lost Exile.” Excerpts:

Ames on the 90’s:

Everything was about free markets and capitalism and democracy, and it was all leading us to some great new future, but all you had to do was look around in the streets and see there was something fucking wrong with it,” Ames says. “We were in the middle of total devastation, one of the worst, most horrible fucking tragedies of modern times.”

Fred Weir on the 90’s:

Ames had just turned 28. He ran around the city, chasing tank fire, ducking behind soldiers until they kicked him away. “It was this different world where everything was more intense and consequential and full of surprises,” he says. This was home.

By the mid-90s, a different species of expatriate was flocking to the Wild East, as it was known. The decade had all the indulgence of 1920s Paris and Weimar Berlin, without the bothersome art and poetry. There was too much money and sex to be had. Perestroika and glasnost were all very nice, but Russia was broke, and Yeltsin, committing to a raft of hasty privatization measures, ushered in Western bankers, consultants, lawyers, entrepreneurs, and opportunists of every other stripe, who joined the nascent capitalists and native raconteurs of Russia. According to The Christian Science Monitor’s Fred Weir, “It was, of course, the sexiest story in the world, because the great Soviet giant was transforming itself—we thought—into a Western country.” In fact, he says, “the fuckers were just looting Russia.”

The Hungry Duck:

“They would get up and continue dancing, blood everywhere,” Baseav says. Steele recalls a night when the deputy head of a Moscow police unit, drunk beyond all reckoning, emptied his pistol into the ceiling and made everybody lie on the floor for three hours. Lavelle claims he saw a man stabbed to death next to him one night. “No one thought it was unusual.”

Edushka, being disingenuous:

“One thing I couldn’t stand was Westerners who thought they had higher moral values than Russians, these people who came preaching Western civilization and then become connived,” The Economist’s Edward Lucas says. “The Exile exposed them.”

Ames on America:

“It’s kind of terrifying being back here. I find the rules here suffocating,” Ames says when I ask how it feels returning to the States after a decade and a half in Moscow. “I miss the extreme melodrama” of Russia, he says. “Here there are so many horrifying layers of décor and piety. Everything is at stake in this country—in theory it’s Rome, and yet it operates like small-town Nebraska. There’s so little real drama here.”

“Certain people” on how it ended:

Certain people close to The Exile, including some of those investors, claim Rossvyazokhrankultura did not cause it to fold. They say that Ames was tired of publishing it and that he used the government as a scapegoat. Alex Shifrin, The Exile’s lead investor, whom Ames accuses of abandoning him, would say only, “There are a lot of half-truths as to what happened.” Another investor claims the officials were simply looking for a bribe. “There was no government plot. I think everybody had it out for The Exile to some extent,” he says. But the investors didn’t “want to get involved with a media fight [Ames was] having with the feds.”

As always, thanks for reading!

February 22, 2010

LQD: “The eternal weakness of Russian liberalism” by Mark Adomanis.

Filed under: Lazy Quote Diary,Politics: Russia — poemless @ 6:09 PM
Tags: ,

Adomanis is a contributor at True Slant. What is True Slant – besides where Taibbi is writing now which just makes me grieve uncontrollably for the eXile? I know nothing about True Slant or Adomanis, but he has been making a lot of the same observations as bloggers like Sublime Oblivion, A Good Treaty, SRB and … myself. Demographics doom debunking? Check. Masha Lipman having a point but being unjustifiably hysterical? Check. Criticism of Russian liberals based on their assumption that the 90’s were something worth returning to, their apparent disdain for the poor, their lack of strategy/interest in the hard work that is governance? Check, check, check…

Tolya thinks Mark must been reading his blog. A long time ago when I was young I jokingly suggested that someone who wrote an article entitled, “Russia will kick your ass,” contemporaneous with a post I’d written declaring the same thing, had plagiarized me. I said it in absolute jest – as if it were inconceivable two unique individuals could have this reaction upon seeing Russia throw her weight around the international stage for the first time in decades. (If anyone ever copyrights “Russia will kick your ass” they’ll probably make some cash.) Lo, I was issuing apologies left and right. I almost got some poor shmuck fired! That was no fun. No, I think Mark is telepathic. That’s because I subscribe to the theory that the most interesting explanation is the best explanation. I refuse to live in a boring world. However, if I thought the best explanation were the real explanation, I’d say we are simply witnessing a renaissance of common sense with a dash of Internet meme thrown in to taste.

The bad news is this makes me feel less special. I want my niche back! The good news is the, “Hold on now, let’s think about this,” bloggeratti may actually be gaining ground against the hysterical Russia fear-mongering media noise machine foaming at the mouth with Schadenfreude. The other good news is I don’t have to write as much; I can just re-post other people’s hard work here. So here goes, a dandy of an article:

The eternal weakness of Russian liberalism.

Reprinted in full with author’s permission.

In a self-parodic article, noted Russian liberal Georgy Satarov does quite a lot to show why Russian liberals and Russian liberalism remain so utterly inconsequential and unpopular. I make an effort to remain as emotionally detached as possible from discussions of politics, but I can almost make an exception when talking about Russian liberals – a group characterized by such overpowering mediocrity, stupidity, and petty self-centeredness that they are virtually impossible to not loathe.

Satarov’s target is Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov’s recent interview with Vedemosti, an exercise in the sort of banal defense of government power that exist completely independently of time or place: if he was an American, Surkov would undoubtedly have a high-profile chair at the Brookings Institutions or AEI from which he would sagely spout all sorts of justifications for cutting taxes, invading Iraq, occupying Afghanistan, and torturing “terrorists.” Surkov’s words, which Satarov tries to imbue with some magic and profound significance, are almost entirely without meaning since they are the words of the government apologist and (by design) are so vacuous that they can be use to defend any course of action be it republican, democratic, authoritarian, monarchical, totalitarian, or some combination of all of these.

What interests me is the shocking and barely believable degree of tone deafness that Satarov displays when discussing the 1990’s. To put it mildly, the 1990’s were a catostrophic and near fatal disaster for Russian society. Historian Stephen Kotkin has persuasively argued that the best way to understand Soviet/Russian history from the late 1970’s until the early 2000’s is not as a period of “transition” or “transformation” but as one of utter collapse: the extended death throes of the bankrupt and broken communist system. It should go without saying that societal collapses are not particularly pleasant experiences and are not typically remembered fondly by those who lived through them.

As can be expected in an environment of complete societal collapse most Russians suffered horrifically during the 1990’s, and it is virtually impossible to overstate how blood-curdlingly awful they were for the average citizen. To take just a small sample of what happened: personal savings, which in many cases had been built up over decades, were completely wiped out by hyperinflation, the price of all but the most basic goods exploded (the always-stoic Russians made light of this absurd situation by noting “Under communism we had money but the stores had no goods. Under capitalism it is much better: now the stores have goods but we have no money!”), unemployment went from being illegal to being commonplace, real wages plummeted and, if they were paid at all, were often payed 5-6 months late and in-kind (i.e. if you worked in a mine every few months you’d be given a big bag full of coal, which you would then have to barter, laboriously working out how many lumps of coal would buy a chicken breast, a bottle of aspirin, a jacket etc.), healthcare and educational spending fell by 30-35% from already manifestly inadequate levels, and, to sum things up, the economy, measured in constant dollar prices, contracted by over 60%. That’s right, the Russian economy shrank by over 60%. Russia’s macroeconomic performance during the 1990’s was thus significantly worse than America’s during the Great Depression. Things got so bad that reasonable people predicted that Russia would turn into Yugoslavia, only on a far grander scale and with thousands of nuclear weapons thrown in for good measure.

So when Satarov say the following, you can understand why I can barely repress my sense of revulsion:

During the 1990s, independent universities and independently educated people began to emerge. There is a reason why those universities have been suppressed. Independent courts began to appear and people began to use them independently. There is a reason why this independence has been destroyed over the last 10 years. And independent and (which is more important) effective business began to emerge. From furniture factories that were able to export their products to Italy to Yukos, which was looted and destroyed by the authoritarian modernizers. After the August 1998 crisis it was precisely independent business that lifted the country off its rear end in record time. And all it took was not getting in its way. There is no longer any free business in Russia. And all that was the very energy that we so sorely lack now.

So, in Satarov’s telling, despite the unfortunate fact that Russians were dying on the streets en-masse, because a few factories shipped furniture to Italy(did this actually happen? has anyone ever seen Russian furniture on sale anywhere in the West?) and because Yukos waged a good PR campaign, shock therapy was a success! Neoliberal economics triumphed! Рынок победил!

This is equal parts laughable and contemptible. Laughable because every social and macroeconomic indicator, literally every single one of them, declined rapidly during the 1990’s and has gotten significantly better since Putin came to power. Satarov’s pablum is contemptible, and deeply so, because the 1990’s in Russia were a humanitarian tragedy on a grand scale. Millions upon millions (somewhere between 5-6 million) of Russians died earlier than expected, and while such “excess deaths” are not directly comparable to genocide or murder they should, at the absolute least, give great pause to someone who is extolling the manifest virtues of the time period during which they took place. Yet Satarov couldn’t care less that heaps of his countrymen were dying like flies, in his telling it was all worthwhile because “independently educated people began to emerge.” One can see why people like Satarov and his ilk may accurately be called “market Bolsheviks,” as their “break some eggs to make an omelet” philosophy is thoroughly Soviet. Indeed the only change from such a worldview’s rotten Leninist predecessor is the metamorphosis of “the market” from the source of all evil in the world to the source of all good.

I can understand, and even conjure some sympathy for, an argument of the sort proffered by Anders Aslund: that Yeltsin and his advisers did all of the unpopular heavy lifting and structural reorganization and Putin, through no particular effort of his own, inherited an economy that had bottomed out and was ready to blossom. But that is not what Satarov is claiming. Satarov is not claiming that Russian liberals laid the groundwork for the economic success of the 2000’s (which has the virtue of being at least partially true), but is instead making the patently false and truly insane claim that the 1990’s in Russia were better than the 2000’s. To understand how preposterous and absurd this is, imagine the public response if candidate Michael Dukakis solemnly pledged to do everything in his power to “weaken the dollar and bring back stagflation” or, perhaps as an even better illustration, imagine if Thomas E. Dewey’s campaign had not accommodated itself to the New Deal but instead openly promised to “eliminate social security, encourage deflation, and spark mass unemployment!” What would happen to politicians with strategies so totally removed from reality? Well, probably, they would extremely unpopular. Shockingly, when Russian liberals defend and embrace a period during which Russia collapsed it does nothing to help their popularity

As I’ve said before, democracy is not a panacea: democratic governments actually have to govern and not, as Satarov seems to suggest, “get out of the way” and then occupy their time by issuing vague platitudes regarding “freedom.” Russian liberals have rarely had any interest in the difficult and boring business of running a large and complicated country and, when they have actually seized the reigns of the state, the results have been so disastrous as to discredit them for a generation. What Russian liberals need to do seems quite obvious: first, they need to apologize for ruining the country the last time they were in power (recognizing that Yeltsin is one of the least popular figures of the past several decades would also be a good start). Next, they need to show that they have some sort of connection (even if a tenuous and insincere one) to the real-world problems experienced by average Russians, the great majority of whom are positively disposed towards the current regime. Finally, Russian liberals should develop some vaguely plausible plan for addressing the concerns of average citizens. As of now, their thinking seems to mirror that of South Park’s famous underpants gnomes:

Russian liberalism’s strategic plan:

1. Get rid of Vladimir Putin
2. ?????????????????????
3. Freedom and prosperity!

Indeed after reading Satarov’s article it was immediately clear that nothing the Kremlin does or says could possibly stigmatize Russian liberals more effectively than their own rhetoric. All of the politicians associated with the 1990’s are toxic figures, the targets of vicious scorn, ridicule, and even outright hatred. And yet, rather than distancing themselves from the manifest and epic failures of those years, Russian liberals still draw ever-closer to totally discredited policies and shout themselves horse defending Yeltsin. No one has apparently told them how utterly foolish this makes them look.

Towards the end of his piece, Satarov snidely remarks:

Russia has been undergoing “authoritarian modernization” for 10 years now. We see the results.

Yes we see the results, and so do Russian citizens. Since 2000 real wages have more than doubled and the economy grew by 7% a year. Social spending has exploded and is now substantially more generous than it ever was in the Soviet period. Russian business, while still technologically backward and inefficient compared to leading Western countries, is gradually, is slowly, converging with world standards. More than at any point in their history Russians are free to travel abroad, and Russia has never been more open to foreigners. The ruble’s buying power has increased substantially, and foreign goods are more available than at any time in Russia’s often-painful economic history. This is an incipient catastrophe? In such a situation, why would anyone expect that the peasants would be storming the Bastille? If Russians didn’t revolt when they were being robbed blind by the oligarchs and forced to watch their parents sell their old war medals in order to avoid starving, why would they revolt now? One can very easily exaggerate the success of Putin’s regime, and underestimate the size of the problems still confronting Russia, but it takes a deeply sick and unbalanced psyche to see the past 10 years of Russian history as nothing but an uninterrupted series of catastrophes.

Unless and until Russian liberals take responsibility for the 1990’s and develop a platform that is able to explain not only the difficulties and problems of everyday life but practical methods for redressing them, they will be nothing more than a totally marginal force in society and a crude parody of an effective political opposition. And deservedly so. Any political grouping which views 1990’s Russia as model to be emulated should be kept as far away from the levers of power as humanly possible.


I don’t expect anyone else to share my perverse affinity for Surkov. In fact, it might be best he doesn’t get too much encouragement. Or my visceral disgust for the policies of the 90’s. I have horrific images burned into my psyche for life, but that’s not your problem. But Adomanis is able to rebut liberal rhetoric without glorifying the current regime or even questioning Yeltsin’s legacy as well-meaning reformer. Criticism of contemporary Russian liberals is not, then, implicitly an endorsement of Putin or anti-capitalist. I think that’s the strawman. Much easier to present oneself as the preferable alternative to Putin by invoking the bad old days of the Soviet Union than to recreate one’s own tarnished image and win back the people with responsible policy that benefits the common good.

Adomanis makes an astute remark that “democratic governments actually have to govern and not, as Satarov seems to suggest, ‘get out of the way’ and then occupy their time by issuing vague platitudes regarding ‘freedom.'” I am thinking that this choice between authoritarianism and freedom is just as much of a strawman. I hope we can eventually overcome our dependence on catchphrases and scare-tactics, on sounds bites that make us feel and labels so overused they’ve lost all meaning. Freedom is not a form of government, and any effective government must have some degree of authority. I’ll take Adomanis’s advice for the liberals one step further: actually identify problems facing your country (there’s lots to choose from, and not just your own personal ones!) and come up with possible long term solutions.

Like, for example, Medvedev and Putin are attempting to do…

February 19, 2010

“Next I’d like to ask you, What is your overall opinion of Russia?”

Filed under: Politics: Russia,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 5:57 PM
Tags: ,

“Is it very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or are you a bitter former media magnate?”

Released: Gallup’s 2010 Country Favoribility Ratings.

(Favorability among Americans that is…)

Not surprisingly, the poll finds Democrats and young people have a higher opinion of most foreign countries than do the elderly and the GOP. With the notable exception of Israel, which senile neo-cons have a weakness for, apparently. Anyway, why am I posting this poll? Because I am constantly trying to divine, between what I read in the papers (Russia baaaad!), what people on the street say (nothing against the average Ivan – hey the Russians know how to party! However, Putin is a spy, so…) and my own perverse inclinations (If loving Russia is wrong, I don’t want to be right…), how Americans really feel about Russia. What does the new Gallup poll conclude? That while Russia has a less than 50% thumbs up from Americans, that’s actually an improvement:

Partial Rebound in Views of Russia

After dipping to 40% in 2009 — most likely in response to Russia’s 2008 military crackdown on Georgian separatists — favorability toward Russia has recovered somewhat to 47%; however, this remains lower than where it stood for much of the past decade.

The historical high point for positive U.S. feelings toward Russia was 66%, first reached in 1991 and repeated in 2002. However, favorability toward Russia plummeted to 41% in March 2003, after that country sharply opposed the United States’ launching of the Iraq war. (U.S. public opinion of France and Germany, two other countries opposed to the war, also turned more negative in 2003.) By February 2004, Russia’s favorability score was back to 59%, and it remained above 50% until 2008.

Well, for all the “However, Putin is a spy, so…” fearmongering, let it be known that it was not Medvedev at the helm in 2004, year of the shiny happy 59% approval rating. Just sayin’.

Another interesting observation: Russia is nestled just between Mexico and China. Pure coincidence perhaps. I honestly don’t know if Americans are afraid of Russia. Most deny it, opting for a more polite, “No, just confused by it…” If you’ve ever been invited into your boss’s office to be told, “I am confused by your actions…,” you know it’s code for, “There is a law that requires me to give you the chance to explain yourself, otherwise I’d strangle you with my bare fists!” But anecdotal evidence, a.k.a., kitchen conversations with friends and family, not infrequently invoke Mexico and China as countries to be very, very worried about (for admittedly very, very different reasons). Probably most Americans have nothing against these countries or their beautiful cultures, per se, but you could also get a cable news show devoted to demonizing and scapegoating them. These are countries which provoke our anxiety and expose our weaknesses. As opposed to those Arabs who only make us stronger when they attack us and our way of life.

47%. Not high, not scandalously low. But it does make me want to call out those who assert that while Russia is foaming about the maw with anti-Americanism, Russia isn’t even on our radar. We don’t really have an opinion one way or the other about them. Meh. Too inconsequential to bother with hating. Do you know who is inconsequential? Whom no one has an opinion about, one way or the other? Who is not on our radar? And do you see who has the highest favorablity ratings in the new study? This poll was taken before the start of the Olympics. Do the math, kids. Americans are an accepting but proud lot. So long as you don’t get in our way, you are good people. So long as you are inconsequential and boring, we think you’re just peachy keen.

But find yourself ranked between Mexico and China on our list of favourites, and you can bet you are on our freaking radar.

Here’s a snapshot of a typical person who gives Russia a “not favorable” approval rating:

From the National Review:Conrad Black: Our Faltering Rivals. The U.S. is in decline, sure — but it’s still leading.

Ok, not American, technically. But please, take a moment to savour the Canadian pot, and its encounter with the Russian kettle:

“Russia is a fraud.”

Oh, that’s a knee slapper! Ok, so maybe it takes one to know one…

“Its population is in steep decline and chronically afflicted by alcoholism. The governmental system is authoritarian and corrupt, allied with protégés who have been given monopolistic concessions and who repay their rulers with obscene kickbacks. Except for a few areas that have survived from the USSR’s expertise in some defense industries, Russia’s manufacturing is continuing to wither, and its economy depends almost entirely on the exportation of natural resources, especially oil. It is not an efficient producer of anything, and commodity prices are always vulnerable.”

Now that Conrad has explained to us what Russia hasn’t done for him lately… Mark Adomanis at True Slant moves in for the smackdown:

Re: “Fraud”

What makes such arrogance not simply annoying or distasteful but truly, riotously, funny is that, in between visits from the warden and time spent stamping licence plates, Mr. Black has, like all movement conservative hacks, constantly bemoaned the “elitism” and “arrogance” of liberals. But labeling an entire country a “fraud” and consigning it to nothing but the very bleakest of futures…well that’s humbleness, or something.

It’s also the kind of rhetoric that forces Russia to write manifestoes about sovereign democracy. So long as we are all still playing the nation-state game, you can’t write off a centuries old country as a “fraud.” Russia might be unseemly and even evil – but it is legit, recognized nation-wise.

Re: “Its population is in steep decline and chronically afflicted by alcoholism.”

These are actually two very separate issues, but what the hell, why not, we’ll combine them. As I’ve argued before Russia’s population decline has actually abated rather dramatically. What is Russia’s demographic future? No one really knows (predictions are hard, especially about the future!), but it stands to reason that it’s not nearly as bad as Black, Eberstadt, Steyn, Feshbach, and all the other nameless neocon apparatchiks, most of whom have made crude linear projections decades into the future, think. And alcoholism in Russia is not some eternal unchanging constant: the country’s current high rates of alcoholism are the result of a trend that started in the 1960’s, not in prehistory. Alcoholism in Russia was and is largely a reaction to bleak socioeconomic conditions and the easy availability and cheapness of alcohol, not the result of some quasi-mythical Russian predilection for booze and penchant for self destruction. Will this trend be reversed? Perhaps! Perhaps not! The truth is no one really knows, but to pretend that Russians are utterly passive in the face of some all-powerful and immutable force known as “alcoholism” is as condescending as it is stupid.

Moreover, steps are actively being taken to address these problems. While the ship was headed toward the iceberg, it’s changing course.

Re: “The governmental system is authoritarian and corrupt, allied with protégés who have been given monopolistic concessions and who repay their rulers with obscene kickbacks.”

Because authoritarian and corrupt governments have never been influential or powerful on the world stage. Democracies always win!!! Irving Kristol said that, didn’t he? Or was it Francis Fukuyama? Oh whatever, either way democracy rules and autocracy drools – it’s science. […]

As for the second part of that sentence, I can’t even begin to disentangle it. Medvedev got “monopolistic concessions”(?) and is repaying Putin with huge kickbacks? What? I sure hope that Black isn’t suggesting that the current crop of oligarchs are “proteges” of Putin and Medvedev because, unless they’ve perfected time travel, this is simply impossible: the great majority of the oligarchs seized their assets in the early and mid 1990’s when Putin was in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office and while Medvedev was still lecturing law students. Putin’s rule regarding the oligarchs has basically been “you stay out of politics and we stay out of your business. If you do get involved in politics, watch your back.” Is this a particularly enlightened pact? No. But are the Oligarchs Putin’s “proteges?” Only someone who is entirely ignorant of the past two decades of Russian history would say so. I’d also add that the people who granted the “monopolistic concessions” Black so disdains were Western advisers who, of course, were loudly cheered by publications such as National Review for their efforts to implement neoliberalism.

This is why I think Black’s (and other wealthy psychopaths’) complaints about Russia tend to boil down to “What have you done for me lately?” We like a Russia that does our bidding, that gets us rich, that lets us call the shots. The fact is that “monopolistic concessions and who repay their rulers with obscene kickbacks” are nothing new. In fact, American advisors helped bring that monster to life. It’s curious that the neoliberals only decided it was a monster after Putin came to power and challenged our invasion of Iraq and began re-nationalizing industries and asking the small favor that if you are going to get rich off Russia, you not only give back enough to pay a few measly wages around here but … support the government that lets you get away with it. What is new is not the corruption, monopolies and kickbacks. It’s that it’s stopped letting people like Black call all of the shots.

Re: “Except for a few areas that have survived from the USSR’s expertise in some defense industries, Russia’s manufacturing is continuing to wither, and its economy depends almost entirely on the exportation of natural resources, especially oil. It is not an efficient producer of anything, and commodity prices are always vulnerable.”

Also the observation that Russia’s manufacturing is ”continuing to wither” is flatly inaccurate. Russian industrial production withered in the 1990’s, and then, after hitting a nadir in 1998, recovered and surpassed its Soviet level in 2007. There’s been a downturn since the economic crisis of 2008, but that doesn’t exactly make Russia unique, does it? Certain large sectors are actually substantially more productive than they were before communism collapsed, mining production, for example, has increased by 17% over its 1992 level while production of electrical equipment has grown by 74%. Certain other sectors have never recovered: production of clothing and textiles is still down more than 60% from it’s 1992 level. This is because some areas of Russian industry were capable of competing in the world market and other weren’t. Russian industry has not even had two decades of exposure to the discipline imposed by market forces, and even in that limited time frame has changed to a shocking degree. Treating it as a historical constant takes a particularly powerful and willful sort of ignorance.

I’m not sure why I would expect better from a guy who, having been convicted of fraud, is currently serving time in a Federal Prison, but apparently National Review’s ever so highbrow customers don’t mind getting their (boring and inaccurate) analysis from criminals. I could easily read the ravings of a prisoner provided they were interesting, but this piece of trash reads like a Mark Steyn column that has had all of its hatred, warmongering, and thinly-veiled racism (i.e. the fun bits) surgically removed and replaced with the boring parts of George Wills latest book.

You would not expect better from Conrad Black. But you should from the average Joe who regurgitates these very talking points when asked on what ground he does not give Russia a favorable rating.

What rating would I give Russia? I don’t know. There are a lot of things about it that piss me off. No society is open enough for me. Also, I don’t care much for capitalism. After the financial crisis from which it appears no one learned anything, I’m ready to fail the lot of them. On the other hand, I have a controversial tolerance of corruption (I think Mayor Daley has done wonderful things for this city, including those flower pots downtown) if it gets the job done, and think that if you are boring you are cheating. This is why I have an unfavorable rating for the Switzerlands and Canadias of the world. Watching the tango between unchecked insanity and tiresome process in America or Russia makes me want to root for them. What kind of a ridiculous subjective poll is this anyway? I know this much. I would not give Canadia the highest rating, not after giving the world Conrad Black.

And I wouldn’t give them the Olympics again for a good long while. Also.

February 17, 2010

Surkov: Consolidated power in Russia is a tool of modernization, or, “I believe in miracles…”

Filed under: Politics: Russia — poemless @ 3:18 PM

…since you came along. You sexy thing…

Not content with “First Deputy Chief of Staff to the President,” “Grey Cardinal,” “Chief Ideologue (or, Propagandist),” “Co-Chair of the US-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission Civil Society Working Group,” or Nashi puppeteer, our lovely Vladislav has a new title under his belt: Deputy Chairman of the Commission on … establishing a Russian Silicon Valley. Or something. How many more trees will have to die before he is content with the length of his resume? And where on earth does he find the time? The real news here may be that Russia is cloning humans. I wonder if they could make an extra one for me…

Truth be told, I’m not in a huff about Medvedev’s recent modernization drive, unless getting their Olympic athletes’ act together is part of the program. But I am fascinated with Slava’s curious ability to say things that actually make sense, albeit in an irreverent fashion, and seeing those statements served up as evidence of Russia’s psychosis. Also, he doesn’t (or, did not used to) give many interviews. So I gratuitously seize upon them when they appear. Though given his recent PR blitz, I may need to scale back before this becomes some kind of “All Surkov, all the Time” joint. Not that there’s anything wrong with that… Anyway, earlier this week he gave a “now infamous” interview to Vedomosti about plans to create Russia’s version of Silicon Valley, miracles and democracy.

From: Kiev Post: Kremlin says tight control key to modernising economy.

MOSCOW, Feb 15 (Reuters) – The Kremlin’s top strategist on Feb. 15 said Russia must maintain tight political control if it is to successfully modernise its economy and compete with China and the United States.

Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, a key architect of Russia’s political system, rejected calls for political liberalisation to foster innovation.

“We have a school that teaches that political modernisation — by which is meant political debauchery, ‘anything goes’ — is the key to economic modernization,” Surkov told the Vedomosti business daily.

“There is a different concept, to which I hold, which considers the consolidated state as a transitional instrument, a tool for modernization,” he said. “Some call it authoritarian modernization. I do not care what it is called.”

He does not care what it is called. How hard is that, Obama? Why can’t you just not care if some call your healthcare reform bill “socialism?” Why waste your time with that? Your job is to fix what is broken, not try to personally win over everyone who calls you names.

From: Businessweek: Kremlin Aide Defends Russia’s Top-Down Modernization.

Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) — Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s political strategist, defended the system of state control he developed, saying Russia can only modernize if it has a strong central government.
“Consolidated power is the instrument of modernization,” Surkov said in an interview in Vedomosti today. “Some call it authoritarian modernization. I don’t care what they call it.”

Modernization is the new catchword of President Dmitry Medvedev, who wants Russia to kick its dependence on natural resources in favor of a high-tech economy. Surkov, the first deputy chief of staff in Medvedev’s administration, coined the concept of “sovereign democracy” to describe the system of centralized power he helped create during Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s presidency.[…]

“Raw resources companies dominate, and the people who got rich and super-rich made their fortune not from new ideas and technology, like Gates and Edison, but from dividing up the property amassed by the Soviet people,” Surkov said.[…]

The Institute of Contemporary Development, headed by Medvedev, published a report this month saying economic modernization depends on political reforms that will turn Russia into a U.S.-style democracy.

While Surkov allowed that centralization has reached its limits, he said Russia is already a democracy.

“If they criticize democracy in Russia, that means it exists,” he said. “If there are protests, that’s democracy. In totalitarian states there aren’t any demonstrations.”

Hey! He’s using my talking points!

Fom the original: Ведомости: «Чудо возможно», — Владислав Сурков, первый замруководителя администрации президента, зампредседателя комиссии по модернизации.

The first thing that struck me was the … call for submissions?

Пользуясь случаем, хочу пригласить читателей «Ведомостей» придумать название и спроектировать нашу Кремниевую долину методом краудсорсинга (сrowdsourcing), или, как говорили раньше, «народной стройки». Присылайте ваши идеи, планы, концепты на сайт газеты. Мы все их изучим. Лучшие в обобщенном виде лягут в основу проекта, который будет утверждаться на самом высоком уровне.

Translation po-Googleskii:

[I take this opportunity invite readers to “Vedomosti” to choose a name and design of our Silicon Valley by Crowdsourcing (srowdsourcing), or, as mentioned earlier, “traditional construction. Send us your ideas, plans, concepts of website of the newspaper. We all learn them. Best summarized form the basis for the project, which will be approved at the highest level.]

The rest of the article was a bit tedious until the last few paragraphs:

Мне кажется, главная задача демократического общества — беречь людей. Друг друга беречь. Не колошматить друг друга по поводу и без, а беречь. Минимизировать риски гибели людей. Я не говорю, что сейчас нужна сверхцентрализованная власть. Нужна консолидированная, которая контролирует ситуацию.

— Но разве этому мешает появление большего числа сильных партий?

— В Америке система двухпартийная. Вы ее упрекаете в недостаточном либерализме? Кто сказал, что партий должны быть много? В США был период, когда 40 лет подряд (с 1954 по 1994 г.) в палате представителей большинство удерживали демократы. Там нет демократии, нет развития?

— Но президент при этом был из другой партии…

— Пятьдесят лет в Японии у власти была одна партия — не было развития? Да так развивались, что нам и не снилось. А в 1990-х гг. мы не развивались. Да, кучка людей развивалась. И стала почти европейцами. А остальные? Остальных — их большинство! — пришлось вытаскивать из бедности в нулевые годы, тупо возмещая им убытки, которые они понесли в прошлом десятилетии. Или Швецию возьмите: 70 лет была одна партия у власти. В Швеции нет развития?

— То есть вы удовлетворены нынешними демократическими институтами в России?

— Нет конечно, никто не удовлетворен. Но я хочу также напомнить: безудержная критика демократических институтов — это естественный признак демократии. Это не я сказал, а один известный европейский политолог. Если критикуют демократию в России, значит, она есть. Если есть митинги протеста, значит, есть демократия. В тоталитарных государствах протестных акций не бывает. Да, мы нуждаемся в критике, понимаем, что система глуховата к критике, недостаточно восприимчива. Мне самому многое не нравится. Президент больше любой оппозиции делает для борьбы с коррупцией, отсталостью, для развития политической системы. Но говорить о том, что политическая система, существовавшая в 90-е при Борисе Ельцине, которого я уважаю, в администрации которого я, кстати, работал (придя туда, когда никто туда особенно не рвался), но говорить, что эта система больше соответствует задачам модернизации… Это такая ложь! Да Борис Николаевич и выдвинул-то Путина потому, что надо было остановить распад страны. Он же и сам видел, что система не работает. А теперь работает, хотя и скрипит иногда.

— Но, может, хотя бы сигнал дать, показать перспективу: сейчас модернизируем только экономику, но потом — допустим, через 20 лет — возьмемся и за политику.

— А это само собой. И не через 20, а немедленно. Но не резко. Оба послания президента реализуются в этой части. Со временем в России, как и везде, будут две доминирующие партии и еще несколько других — это я сказал много лет назад. При этом «Единая Россия» имеет все шансы снова победить и в 2011 г. Почему бы и нет? Это полезно для целей модернизации. Систему надо адаптировать к меняющемуся, усложняющемуся обществу. Но это не значит, что мы должны от системы отказываться. Ее надо сохранять. И не впускать то, что может ее разрушить. Эта система не отделена от народа, как кому-то кажется, она глубоко укоренена в социальной ткани. Тот, кто хочет разрушить ее, социально опасен. Критически важно сохранять политическую стабильность. Стабильность не значит застой, не значит остановка. Это инструмент развития. Из хаоса модернизация не получится. Не факт, что второй приступ распада Россия вообще переживет. Хотя точно так же не переживет она и отсутствие развития.


[I think the main task of a democratic society – to take care of people. A friend of a friend to take care of. Do not clobber each other on occasion, and without, and cherish. Minimize the risk of death. I’m not saying that now need supercentralized power. Must unite, which controls the situation.

– But does this prevent the emergence of more powerful parties?

– In America, the two-party system. You blame her lack of liberalism? Who said that parties should be a lot? In the United States was a period when 40 consecutive years (1954 to 1994) in the House of Representatives, the majority held by Democrats. There is no democracy, no development?

– But while the president was from the other party …

– Fifty years in Japan has been in power for one party – there was no development? Yes so developed, that we never dreamed. And in the 1990’s. we have not developed. Yes, a handful of people developed. I was almost Europeans. And the others? The rest – most of them! – Had to pull out of poverty in the zero years, stupidly compensating for their losses which they suffered in the past decade. Or take Sweden: 70 years was one party in power. In Sweden, there is no development?

– So you are satisfied with the current democratic institutions in Russia?

– No, of course, no one is satisfied. But I also want to remind you: the unrestrained criticism of democratic institutions – is a natural feature of democracy. It is not, I said, but one prominent European politician. If you criticize democracy in Russia, so it is. If there are protests, then, is democracy. In totalitarian states protests do not happen. Yes, we need to criticism, understand that the system is deaf to criticism, not receptive. I am very much not like. President more than any opposition to making the fight against corruption, backwardness, for the development of the political system. But to say that the political system that existed in the 90’s under Boris Yeltsin, whom I respect, the administration of which I, incidentally, worked (when he came there when no one in particular is not eager to go there), but to say that this system is more consistent with problems of modernization … It’s a lie! Yes, Boris Nikolayevich and put forward some of Putin because it was necessary to stop the disintegration of the country. He himself saw that the system is not working. And now works, although it creaks sometimes.

– But, maybe even give a signal to show the future: now only modernize the economy, but then – let’s say, 20 years – take a look and for the policy.

– And that by itself. And not in 20, but immediately. But not dramatically. Both the President’s message implemented in this part. Over time, in Russia, as elsewhere, are the two dominant parties and a few others – I said this many years ago. Thus, United Russia has all chances to win, and again in 2011, why not? This is useful for the purposes of modernization. The system must adapt to a changing, increasingly complex society. But this does not mean that we should abandon the system. It must be preserved. And do not let something that can destroy it. This system is not separated from the people, as someone thinks, it is deeply rooted in the social fabric. Anyone who wants to destroy her, socially dangerous. It is critical to maintain political stability. Stability does not mean stagnation, does not mean stop. This is a tool for development. From the chaos of modernization will not work. Not the fact that the second attack of the collapse of Russia in general survive. Although these did not survive it, and the lack of development.]

Makes sense to me…

I’ve been reading David Hoffman’s The Oligarchs and am coming to the realization that I have some kind of PTSD from living in Moscow in the 1990’s. I suspect I am not alone, and if you were an incredibly cynical type, you could draw the conclusion that people like Surkov are playing on those fears in order to garner more power for themselves. In fact – they probably are. But this – to me – does not negate the fact that these fears have some basis in reality, as the recent global economic meltdown as a result of reckless free-market economics illustrates. I am no economist, but I do ask myself the following: is it true that Russia is somehow exceptional, that there is something unique about the country that makes the laws of the free-market unable to work there? Or is it that those laws do not work anywhere without strict regulation, government “interference,” top-down control? So when people like this write thinks like this:

In a nutshell, Surkov is saying: “We’re Russian! We don’t know any better! Even though we’ve tried this same thing numerous times, and it’s failed every time, it’s what we do. And we’re going to do it again. Muscovites once, now, and forever.”

Surkov’s belief is that something innately Russian condemns its people to remain forever on the hamster wheel from hell (to reprise a metaphor). To justify this position, he has to present false choices and distorted pictures of the alternatives.

I am inclined to wonder, who is really on the hamster wheel from hell?

February 15, 2010


Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 6:05 PM

Seen, heard, read …

(I know. The titles are getting shorter and shorter. Soon I will be writing nothing and calling it art.)

Blog: A Good Treaty.

No, not the Son of Start. A new blog on the blok. About:

I work in Washington, DC, in a think tank as a research assistant for U.S.-Russian relations experts. I created this blog as an outlet for my own personal thoughts and opinions on Russian politics, Russia’s relationship with the United States and the West, and to generally rant on subjects that have been nagging at me.

I studied Soviet History in graduate school and have lived in Moscow three times, most recently for about 8 months in 2008.

I would describe my politics as ‘realist,’ which is to say I don’t subscribe to what is called neoconservative (or neoliberal) philosophy. Namely, I believe that geopolitics should be the overriding concern for American (and Russian) decision-makers — not ‘liberal’ or ‘democratic’ values. While a fan of free societies (i.e., rich societies with a diffuse spread of wealth and power), I generally don’t think calculations about a nation’s ‘freeness’ should enter into the business of foreign policy.

Interestingly, mystery think tank blogger uses “realism” to arrive at many of the same conclusions I arrive at via “idealism.” This means we must be right, any way you look at it, no? Even more interestingly, mystery think tank blogger claims to be a fan and reader of poemless, and no one reads my blog, no one but you. Yes you.

Book: “The Oligarchs,” by David Hoffman.

It took me a very long time to get around to reading this book. I have positively no idea why. I think it was on my list a while back, along with a Peter Baker book and a Lilia Shevtsova book. I think I read those and ran screaming from the world of very recent Russian history books. It remained on my mental syllabus, but I just didn’t get to it. Well, Sean told me I should read it, and I’ll do just about anything Sean says. And it is a good thing, that.

I’m only about 1/2 through it, but Damn! It reads like butter, a real page turner. And while I generally know the stories, (it follows those of Luzhkov, Chubais, Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Smolensky and Misha K) I’m still learning something new on almost every page. It’s dense in that way, but superbly organized and very entertaining. I have to admit that I was hooked on one of the first pages, at the mention of the brown bar soap. The brown soap! WTF? And how did I ever forget that? I mean, what the hell was that all about? Anyway, I caught myself wondering why any of this business about famous greedy capitalists should hold me so captive. Of the infinite choice of genres to read, “how so and so made his fortune,” is at the bottom of my list. After golf jokes. Maybe it’s this endless quest to find out what really happened, how the Soviet Union really “collapsed,” and why. Or this endless desire to have my personal experiences of post-communist Russia validated. For someone to say, “Oh, yes, it was that insane!” Maybe I could just lie around reading descriptions of cute Menatep boys all day… Who knows…

Magazine: Johnny Weir.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, the flamboyant ice-skater channels … me:

Q: Do you think the criticism you received for wearing a C.C.C.P. jacket was fair?

A: I am a firm believer that being a good American and being a good ambassador means being a citizen of the world and appreciating all cultures. I happen to love Russia and I happen to love America. I see no issue in that.

Q: What do you say to your critics?

A: Suck it.

TV: The 2010 Olympics.

No one can be expected to meet the standard set by the Chinese. And we are in the middle of a global recession. But the only thing that opening ceremony left me thinking about Canadia pride is that, well, there might be a legitimate cause for their inferiority complex. Oh, and that I’m a little relieved Chicago did not get the games. I’d be incurably embarrassed if I were in their position. Somewhere between the Twin Peaks hoe-down paired with interpretive dance and the torch fail, I was ready to crawl under the couch. Oh, Canada! indeed.

Even though I have no idea what that song had to do with the Olympics, K.D. Lang can still belt it out! Jesus. I defy you to find a better voice.

Luge. Tragic. (And disgusting that the media keep showing that poor man’s accident, over and over.) But. How is it a sport? Exactly?

The U.S. moguls skiing uniforms. Look like pajamas. Why are they skiing in ugly pajamas? Why??

Johnny Weir is criticising the idiot American judge who decided to make public an e-mail about Plushenko in order to raise doubts about his skills. Because the idiot American judge is making the Americans look bad. Ok, the obsession with all things Russian was nice, but I’m pretty sure this – an American athlete complaining about an American judge’s attempt to discredit the Russian athlete – makes him an official “Russophile” in the not-so-quaint sense.

Video: Apes eating blinis.

RT has a clip from the Krasnoyarsk zoo’s celebration of Maslenitsa. Because what is the Internet for, if not videos of monkeys eating pancakes?

Thanks for reading and Happy Maslenitsa, Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, Pączki Day, Shrovetide, Fastnacht or whatever excuse you are using to consume those sugary, buttery carbs!

February 12, 2010

Apropos of nothing…

Filed under: Politics: Russia,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 4:19 PM
Tags: , ,

Contents: Epic democracy fail; What’s the Mayor’s son doing in Moscow?; Russia moves one step closer to world domination.

I have what they call “writer’s block” and I call “just not bothering to sit down and write and anyway Lost is on!” The Olympics are about to begin, which means I’ll have “just not bothering to sit down and write and anyway the Olympics are on!” The outlook is bleak, my friends. But I refuse to let guilt about a silly blog and pandering to its followers stop me from indulging in the bliss that is watching the Olympic games.

On the other hand, I can’t go on with that video at the top of the page like that. Every time I check my blog, I am overcome with an overwhelming urge to click “play,” and then I have that damned Gorby song in my head all day. It’s gotten to the point that I don’t want to visit my own blog. Also the stalkers freak me out. But that’s a matter for a different post. Something must be done. On the one hand something must be done and on the other I do not wish to do it and this, dear readers, is the story of my life. Which refuses to write its damned self.

A couple of weeks ago we had an election. You know, that beaming floodlight in that beacon in that city on that hill. No one came. What if you held and election and no one came? A man who runs a pawn shop, beat his ex-wife, owes child support and abused his prostitute girlfriend is elected Lt. Gov., apparently. Perhaps you are thinking, “Well, what’s the Lt. Gov. responsible for anyway?” Nothing. Until his boss is indicted and impeached or imprisoned, which the 2 previous Governors have been. Nothing, until they wake up one day and are Governor of Illinois because their boss tried to sell Senate seat and now they have to figure out how to run the State while their boss goes on Celebrity Apprentice to pay for his legal bills. Nothing. Some say, “Eh, let’s get rid of the position of Lt. Governor. They don’t do anything anyway. Put the Attorney General next in line for Governor.” Do you know who says that? Our Speaker, Mike Madigan. Whose daughter is … get outchyer drums kids … Attorney General. Rock. And. Roll.

I do hope that the previous paragraph illustrates for you why I believe all the “OMG!! Russia’s not a democracy!! Call an exterminator!!” hysteria is … still have those drums? … bullshit. Your moral compass needs tuning if you’d wish this upon anyone else, and your intellect honing if you think Russia is exceptional in its horrorshow embarrassment of a democracy.

I was going to write a thoughtful piece on democracy. I was going to call it, “Let’s talk about Democracy,” and have Salt’n’Peppa do a back up jingle. I was so disappointed in our little election. The turn out was about 27%. The most common excuses for not voting were 1) the 2 inches of snow that fell that day and 2) corrupt politicians. When 69% of Ukraine came out to vote, I was coated with another layer of embarrassment. And anger. I felt so passionately about what was at stake here. I had things to say. Now? I’m exhausted and cynical and know people don’t care. I’m also PMS-ing and don’t f***ing care bout your f***ing democracy right now, ok? Fortunately I did begin to write something before I took the last pink pill in the pack:

If the vast majority of people don’t vote, they’ve already handed their personal agency and government over to a minority. And yet these same people would be up in arms if a minority drove in with tanks and took over. Citizens would begin chanting, “Of the people, By the people, For the people!” They’d retaliate and win because that’s how much we love our democracy in this country. But on election day, somehow voting is for losers who still believe in the system, who have too much time on their hands, or who are fanatics. People with that attitude not only suck, they make me understand the appeal of authoritarianism. And yet if people are ignorant of the process and what is at stake, the solution should be to inform and enlighten them, not blame them. We require students to learn the Constitution. But they’re left on their own to figure out how our democratic system works. Unfortunately, to increase the funding for education to ensure that the electorate is both informed of the process and has developed the critical thinking skills necessary to make responsible decisions, people have to go to the polls and vote to increase funding whichalsomeansmoretaxeswhichthemoronsdon’twantsowe’rejustscrewed! Motherf***ers!

I added that last bit a little later. Ignore it. The irony – absurdity, really – of our situation should be clear. As should the source of my frustration, both with my fellow Americans who fail to understand that sitting at home distrusting the system does not, in fact, improve accountability, and with those who peddle democracy like snake oil as the cure to whatever is wrong with your country. The democratic process may be imperative for ideological reasons: the right of every human to equal access to government in order to advocate for their rights and needs. But as a system, it is hardly impervious to apathy or corruption. So it is peculiar to me that it’s what we prescribe, top-down, for Russia’s political ailments. Which seem to be, above all, apathy and corruption. Meanwhile back in Illinois, rampant apathy and corruption is not met with proclamations from on high that we need more or better democracy. In fact, it seems people are coming to the conclusion that Illinoisans should no longer be allowed to choose their leaders. In fact, it seems 75% of Illinoisans agree.

Apropos of nothing…

Mayor Daley’s son was called to active duty. Normally this kind of announcement would go in one ear and out the other. War fatigue. But innocuously buried within the press release was the following, “Patrick Daley was living in Moscow when he got word of his recent redeployment…” It is 2010 and there’s no reason a young American man shouldn’t be living in Moscow for any number of reasons. But this is no ordinary young American man. This is the son of Mayor Daley and the grandson of Mayor Daley. A chill ran down my spine. This is a combination that goes together about as well as Stoli and Valium. I used to joke that Chicagoans could teach the Kremlin a thing or two about corruption and fixing elections. And when I lived in Moscow and told people I was from Chicago, without fail I was asked if I knew Al Capone (no, really, I was). Moscow was positively crawling with mobsters and somehow my hometown carried weight, bought me some cred, even though I’d only seen Capone in the same movies they had. Anyway, my point is that Chicago and Moscow have things in common and they are not good things: inclement weather, political corruption, organized crime. So when I read that “Patrick Daley was living in Moscow when he got word of his recent redeployment…” my first thought was not, “Oh, I wonder if he’s writing a thesis on the portrayal of women’s morality in the latter works of Chekhov as a reflection of social anxiety about modernity or some bs.” My first thought was, “Certainly nothing good can come of this…”

But that is not fair. I don’t know Patrick. Maybe he is writing a thesis on the portrayal of women’s morality in the latter works of Chekhov as a reflection of social anxiety about modernity or some bs. I would not want to be judged by the actions of my father. And I don’t want to be one of those tiresome angry bloggers out to destroy the reputations of complete strangers. So I googled to find out what Patrick was doing living in Moscow. I still don’t know (private equity investment manager or something – I wasn’t putting much effort into it) but this was the first thing that came up:

Sun Times: Russian emigre Garber now king of Chicago taxi empire. He’s a friend of Daley’s son, but City Hall says he got no special treatment.

Fifteen years ago, after being introduced to high-ranking Russian government officials, Garber started a taxi business in Moscow, the Chicago Tribune reported in 2004. He has said he operates 900 cabs in Moscow.
“It’s all about who you know,” Garber told the Tribune. “It’s important to be well-connected. Life is a two-way street.”

Garber has said he met Patrick Daley in Moscow.

“Me and Patrick are very good acquaintances,” Garber told the Sun-Times in a 2008 interview. “We met in Russia somewhere in August 2001. One of my friends, he introduced me to Patrick. We were there twice at the same time. And one time we went out in New York” — where Patrick Daley worked for Bear Stearns, the now-defunct investment and financial services company.

By fall 2002, Garber had started buying taxicab medallions in Chicago, many of which had been surrendered by Yellow Cab as part of its effort to focus more on managing cabs and less on ownership of cabs. Garber had control of 300 medallions in June 2003 when he got a license from the Daley administration to begin operating Chicago Carriage Cab.

In Chicago, as in New York, City Hall has complete control over cab companies. City officials determine the number of cabs, who can operate them, who can own them, who can drive them and how much riders pay to ride in them.

Though Garber expanded to Chicago within a year of meeting Patrick Daley, the mayor’s son had no role in Garber’s getting a license from the Daley administration, Garber has said. And the mayor’s press secretary, Jacquelyn Heard, echoes that.

“Patrick didn’t help me with anything,” Garber told the Sun-Times in 2008. “We did not go out in Chicago socially. I knew he was the mayor’s son, and I didn’t want to have any implications that anyone is helping me run my company.

“The only business deals were with a bottle of vodka,” he said then. “Patrick is an excellent guy. Great drinker, knows how to hold his liquor. We played some rugby. He has a great sense of humor.”

Heard says the mayor and his son have never spoken about Garber.

Heard explains Garber’s success in Chicago this way: “Here’s a young man who started a business in New York and did well and then came to the second-biggest market, Chicago, and started a business here.”

Patrick Daley, who has recently been living in Moscow, didn’t respond to an e-mail asking about Garber.

Patrick Daley, who has been a venture capitalist for several years, has been under investigation by the city’s inspector general and federal authorities over the hidden ownership stake he bought in 2003 in a sewer-inspection company that won millions of dollars in no-bid contract extensions from City Hall.

A year after Garber got into the cab business in Chicago, he hired the mayor’s former chief of staff, Gery Chico, to lobby Norma Reyes, the mayor’s commissioner of business affairs and consumer protection.

Chico didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

Reyes says she believes Chico was trying to get the city to raise the lease rates Garber charges drivers — and wasn’t successful.

Garber’s cab company keeps growing. During the first nine months of 2009, even as Chicago and the rest of the nation remained mired in recession, city records show Garber and his associates kept buying taxi licenses. They bought 68 medallions, paying more than $9.1 million.

Well there you go. An unusually successful Russian businessman who happens purely by chance to be a drinking buddy of the Mayor’s son. Who is under under investigation by the city’s inspector general and federal authorities. And is living in Moscow. Which has no extradition treaty. Meh. Nothing to see here, kids. Move along…

For a moment I was worried that our Mayor might be up to no good, sending his son to Moscow like Michael Corleone was sent to Sicily. And seriously, what would the kids in Kremlin want with the Daleys? It’s hardly as if Chicago is a success story other places would seek to emulate. We lost the Olympic bid, our public transportation is on life support, there are gaping holes in the ground where new skyscrapers were supposed to go and Daley’s been on a madcap privatization rampage, holding one going out of business sale after another to pay the city’s bills. Seriously, it’s not like we’re full of bright ideas over here…

What’s that? You say Medvedev is calling for what? More privatization?

Apropos of nothing…

A Russian company just bought a whole entire town in Latvia. I think the plan is to privatize everything, have private companies or oligarchs buy up our towns and sports teams and when the time is right, re-nationalize it all. Pwned!

And you thought they would arrive on tanks.

Ok, thank you for reading & have a lovely Valentine’s Day! [Stupid consumerist patriarchal holiday. And I’m not just saying that because I’ll be spending it with a pint of Häagen-Dazs, watching Johnny Weir and Yevgeny Plyushchenko duke it out in sparkly leotards. Really. I’m not. Even though it would still be true even if that were my reason for saying it. Hmph.]

February 8, 2010

Dear Mr. Gorbachev

Filed under: Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 3:01 PM
Tags: ,

Hat Tip: Sovok of the Week.

February 4, 2010

The Usual Suspects.

Filed under: Odds & Ends — poemless @ 6:11 PM

It’s like a drive-by, but with links instead of bullets, and wonks instead of innocent children.

RT: According to Eternal Remont, Russia Today has now become the most-watched foreign news channel in the United States.

This makes me feel like a 6 year old girl who wakes up to find a real life unicorn right there in her bedroom. It’s like I believed the imaginary into becoming real. Is this what religious people feel like?

Zizek: Love him or hate him (or don’t and save him a lecture on how your love of him is actually an expression of loathing.) The comment thread at Crooked Timber, in response to a mis-informed post reporting that Zizek asserted Gandhi was more violent than Hitler, is one of the most entertaining reads on the interwebs. I know. The bar is low. Anyway, fun one-liners:

“It’s not trolling if you’ve got tenure.”

“As far as I understand SZ’s dialectic, it seems equivalent in logic to the following proposition: This orange is really orange. It is more of a vegetable than this carrot.”

“Zizek should not have right to use thoughts!” [I love it when people say brilliant and obnoxious things in broken English. Eddie, is that you?]

“Zizek is the Houellebecq of the academy.”

“The claim that Gandhi was more violent than Hitler because he was proposing a radical change in the social structure makes sense in terms of Zizek’s philosophy.
Not on Earth though.”

“search google Books for ‘Gandhi killed monkeys’”

“Zizek is what happens when a decent education is mixed with a total disregard for clarity of thought or purpose; and possibly large quantities of dope.”

“Does not Zizek invite us to use the appearance of “Zizek” as the object of Zizek?”

I’m going to google “Ghandi killed monkeys” while you continue reading this post.

FP: Josh at FP Passport is taking submissions for “The Oscars of Foreign Policy.”

It must be a great weight off their backs to finally stop pretending to provide responsible, intelligent coverage of the most grave and influential matters facing our species, like war… peace… poverty… climate crisis… OTOH, I don’t judge FP. Good luck getting the public to care about anything that doesn’t involve an annual celebrity-studded awards show. And it’s hardly FP’s fault that world leaders prefer to stage dog and pony shows instead of figure out how to improve the quality of people’s lives. “Best actor in a leading role” takes on a whole new meaning. I can just see Barbara Walters sitting down with Obama before the big night, asking him if pretending to be a leader day in and day out hasn’t actually tricked him into believing he is one.

Email your nominations to Joshua.Keating@foreignpolicy.com.

Also in FP, Julia Ioffe has written this little ditty: Putin’s Parliamentary Circus. Naming a louche pop singer to the Duma is just the latest in a string of bizarre appointments for Russia’s increasingly brazen ringmaster.

My knee-jerk response to the headline was, wait, there is a BRIC country where being movie star is seriously considered a springboard for a life in politics. And why would pop singers implicitly be worse politicians than watermelon salesmen? Jesus, wasn’t Minnesota even run by a professional wrestler at some point? Then I actually read the article and came to this:

It’s a strategy that, paradoxically, seems to be working. On the one hand, according to a recent poll by the Levada polling center, Russians have not really had the wool pulled over their eyes: Only 9 percent of Russians believe that their current form of government can be called “a democracy.” (Two years ago, it was 15 percent.) “People see that state bureaucrats are getting more and more power and that the people get less and less; they see the highly personalized rule, the rigged elections,” says Levada sociologist Oleg Savelev. Russians, in other words, are not stupid.

United Russia, on the other hand, is smarter. Levada polling — widely seen as the country’s most reliable — shows that Russians have largely bought into five years of rhetoric of “sovereign democracy,” the theory propagated by the Kremlin, and seen as an excuse for creeping authoritarianism, that the Western model of democracy would be inappropriate for Russia. Nearly half of respondents say that Russia needs a form of democracy that is “completely unique, corresponding to the national traditions and specifics of Russia.”

And, strangely, in the few years since Putin started granting election-list slots and Duma seats as favors to his favorite celebrities, Pavlovsky’s cynical tactics seem to be paying off. (And let’s be clear here: In a country where opposition figures are routinely plucked off ballots on absurd technicalities, there can be no question that someone has to be allowed to run.) Russian opinion of the Duma — inefficient and obstreperous in Boris Yeltsin’s days; a rubber stamp now — has always been low. But, since 2007, it has received a significant boost (relatively), with 13 percent approving of the Duma, up from 9 percent.

Which is also nearly the same spread as in the democracy poll.

Damn. Not only is there sober, informative, thought-provoking journalism in this article, it contains the word, “obstreperous.” Big words, practical facts, sexy headlines… Julia can be whoever you need her to be.

Russian Word of the Day: У меня есть or имею?

U menia est! U menia est! Everyone knows imet is for losers! Seriously, though. Stop trying to learn French with one of those tear-off daily calendars. They’re bad for the environment and everyone knows French is for losers. Ditch it (I mean recycle it) and bookmark Russian Word of the Day!

Vodka: Now with vitamins!

This seriously downsizes my grocery shopping list. And makes me able to do it all at the store on the corner. And makes me believe there is a God.

What to Read: The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, by Jeremy Rifkin.

I’m a sucker for Rifkin AND for 600+ page books. Yay!

Chicago, IL: Making evildoers live in Gitmo, humane. Making evildoers live in Illinois, not so much.

It’s funny because it’s TRUE.

“I’ve been to Guantanamo,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said today at a hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – as the subject of the federal government’s intentions of purchasing the Thomson Correctional Center in northwest Illinois came up.

“It’s pretty nice compared to Illinois — the place in Illinois where they want to put them,” Hatch said in the committee hearing. “It’d be nice and cold in the winter time and… all I can say is that I imagine there’ll be a hue and a cry that we’re not fair by bringing them here.”

What about the fine law-abidin’, God-fearin’ American-born citizens who live here? How is it fair to us? Maybe someone should drive in with tanks and liberate us from this cold, corrupt hell. Would rock if they brought some of that democracy I’m always hearing about with them too.

(I actually love living in Chicago. In the same sick, masochistic way I loved living in Moscow.)

Rogozin: Russian Ambassador to NATO tweets about RFE/RL blog about his tweets. Not content with wasting time on social networking media when he should be making America GO HOME or fierce narcissism, the Ambassador takes up homophobia as a hobby too:

“Gay isn’t a reliable soldier. Imagine: the foe’s soldiers are all so hadsome! If our gays refuse to shoot them we’ll lose the war.”

And what, your own soldiers are not hot enough to charm the pants off your enemies? Way to boost soldier morale, Rogozin.


“This is a man who has earned a worthy place in the history of Russia. His popularity allows him to take any kind of decision. We count on his common sense.”

~Igor Yurgens on Vladimir Putin.

Is this a change in tune, or was Yurgens never as critical of Putin as the media made him out to be? I don’t know…

Capitalism, New Cold War, No – This is not a story from the Onion: Henry Paulson has blamed Vladimir Putin for forcing the U.S. bail out the banks.

In next week’s news: Keyser Söze forces U.S. to bail out Hank Paulsen’s credibility…

OMG. Gandhi DID kill monkeys!

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.