poemless. a slap in the face of public taste.

October 1, 2010

A Tale of Two Mayors.

Filed under: Politics: Russia,Politics: U.S. — poemless @ 4:49 PM
Tags: ,

I’ve been loathe to weigh in on the axing of Luzhkov. I’m neither privy to insider information nor prone to political forecasting, which leaves me with little more than opinion, and frankly, I’m not even sure I have that. However, I am struck by the eerie parallels between my mayor and Moscow’s, and even more so by their radically different though strangely synchronized exits. I thought I might even be able to avoid writing about that when Julia Ioffe published an FP article entitled “Moscow’s Mayor Daley.” I was ready to thank her for the favor until I actually read it and found, er, nothing at all about Daley in it, actually. (Though it does contain this passage: “This, after all, is Putin’s style: Wait for the scandal to be forgotten, and then make your move, thereby avoiding the appearance that you caved to pressure. Luzhkov will not be fired … Luzhkov will step down…”) Good times. Anyway, back to the Wonder Twins, our exiting Mayors.

He ruled his city for two decades as if he were the king of a nation state, wielding unchecked power, conducting business through patronage and strong-arming, exhibiting a curious display of megalomania and populism. Since the average adult begins experiencing memory loss in their 20’s, no one clearly remembers when this man was not in charge. He loved this town and loved running it. His goofy smile was contagious. He had a signature oldschool look that said to the people, I might be a gangster, but I am a working class gangster. He was controversially outspoken, but his crazy talk was a reliable source of entertainment. As many an epigraph on his reign have noted, you may not have liked how he did things, but you admit that he got things done. He revitalized his decaying cityscape so that anyone complaining about traffic of the cost of living or police corruption were forced to add a coda: but look how much the city has changed in the past 10 years … oooh, so new and shiny, such an exciting place to live, so much better! Sure, holding a street protest, or being in the mere vicinity of one, might earn you a few bruises and a night in the slammer, but let’s face it, most of us don’t attend protests. And yes, his political party is notorious for corruption, scare tactics and ballot tampering. But does anyone doubt that he’d win if free and fair elections were held tomorrow?

I mean, “if free and fair elections were held a year ago?”

Richie and Yura, despite everything they’ve ever done for you, awoke this year to find themselves not as popular as they once were. Or their critics louder. Not that they are the kind of guys to let the opinions of others decide their fates. And few were willing to bet serious money they could not politically survive the recent turn of events. But why now? It’s not as if no one had noticed the corruption, inefficiencies or shady allocation of funds before. Why the sudden complaining, aloud? Complaining as if complaining about these men had ever accomplished anything? Was it the belt tightening of the global recession, the confidence brought by new young reform-minded Presidents, the growing inconvenience of car ownership? Bad weather? Something else mayors don’t actually have control over? A perfect storm? Who knows from which direction the winds were blowing, but everyone seemed to hear it…

Now we take a break from the parallels.

This summer, Mayor Daley held a press conference to announce he would not be seeking re-election.

This summer, Mayor Luzhkov vacationed abroad while his city suffocated in smoke, refused to return, eventually returned, people protested, the Kremlin suggested he think about resigning, maybe come up with the name of a replacement, he ignored them, they sent him on vacation to think about resigning, maybe come up with severance deal, he returned defiant. He was fired.

I might boast that my mayor is more humble than yours. However, being unaccountable to anyone, no one can fire mine for insubordination, so far as I am aware.

And we return to our parallels.

Shock. Yes, there had been murmurs, wishful thinking, fantasies and hysterical pundits who’d said it might happen, it could happen, it even would happen. But no one thought he’d actually do it. He being either Daley or Medvedev. Even the most vocal critics believed their mayor would take his final breath in office. It reminds me of the title of the book,Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. Neither man had been grooming a protege to succeed him in office. Neither man gave any potential successor much time to prepare for the new job. Unlike other modern day autocrats, they were not interested in transitioning out of office. The chapter covering their respective reign in the history books would end with a full stop.

While it’s popular to bemoan the joke that is the democratic process associated with Russia or Chicago, I hear few people complain that they’ve been robbed of the chance to vote their leader out of office. While a new era begins, and reform and “real politics” seem at least more possible now than it did a few months ago, I don’t see many people dancing in the streets. I hear lots of talk about legacies. About looming criminal investigations. About architecture and city planning. And, as if we’d regressed into ancients who’d just witnessed a comet, I hear people, bewildered, ask what it all means, and keep their fingers crossed that everything continues to work. Like those ancients, we will find new leaders, good or bad. The earth will keep turning. And we’ll find new things to complain about, new people to blame, new things to build, new rules and regulations to pass and new people to undermine them. We’ll find new humans to turn into icons before finding new reasons to expose them as merely mortal.

I suspect it will be some time, however, before we find a new Daley or Luzhkov.


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.

May 20, 2010

Why is Misha Khodorkovsky a Dissident?

Filed under: Politics: Russia — poemless @ 5:13 PM

The definition of greed: the man wants to be an oligarch AND a dissident! Did you ever?

The following is in response to Vadim Nikitin’s response to Susan Glasser and Peter “I live to drive poemless up the wall” Baker’s FP article, The Billionaire Dissident. I don’t normally engage in the Russia blog conversation du jour this way (though I did need to force myself from writing my own Top 10 Russia Blogs list). But those of you who have been reading my stuff for years know my love of Khodorkovskiania. What is the origin of this fascination? I’m a commie – shouldn’t I, like, hate the guy? Well, I’m a commie with with a fatal weakness for sexy, intelligent Russian men. It’s well documented – no point in denying it. Still, it doesn’t prevent me from being able to write sensibly. So here goes:

I’m American. I grew up under the belief that Soviet dissidents were noble creatures. These days it is popular to dismiss that as a Cold War manipulation. In part it was, as becoming a political pawn was the price of such fame. But it was more than the fact that they were “on our side.” And it was more than the fact that they were unfairly treated and spoke out about it. They were speaking out not just to make a point about injustice, but in spite of it, and on behalf of people who dare not take those risks. Even putting aside the sometimes ideologically questionable or self-serving reasons for their dissent, it has to be acknowledged that they were prepared to make substantial sacrifices and that they, as a result of circumstances largely beyond their own making, were fighting for something that transcended themselves. They had ideals. And courage. It was inspiring.

Sakharov did not speak out because he was unfairly persecuted. He was unfairly persecuted because he spoke out. He was an activist fighting for peace and human rights, something that all Soviet citizens could benefit from if achieved. And that’s what captured our hearts. Solzhenitsyn was not thrown in a gulag because he wielded unchecked influence which he was ready to use against any leader who did not fit squarely under his thumb. Sakharov was not prevented from travelling because he’d acquired disproportionate amounts of national assets which he was willing to sell to a foreign country.

Power struggles, resource grabs… these things happen all the time in countries all over the world. They don’t capture our hearts. This is why I cringe when people place Khodorkovsky and Sakharov in the same category. Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn were punished for their words and thoughts. Words and thoughts that doubtless many, many ordinary Russians had thought themselves and perhaps even spoken in private. Words and thoughts that could land you anywhere from out of print to in front of an executioner, regardless of your station. Certainly Khodorkovsky thinks thoughts and writes words that don’t flatter the administration. Now that he’s in prison with not much else to do. But more than words and thoughts it was actions that put him there. Actions motivated by profit, not altruism.

Clearly Khodorkovsky is a dissident, by virtue of the fact that he is speaking out against the regime. But is he fighting for changes to the system that will benefit all Russians? He was nimbly capable of turning a profit and gaining prestige regardless whether he was living in a Communist or Capitalist country. He was a member of the Komsomol. Now he’s a democrat. Is it the system he protests not, or his right to game it? And if it is the system, why was he not dissenting before it was his ass on the line, when he was comfortably profiting from a corrupt regime and a perversion of democracy? Not terribly selfless, brave and inspiring…

And what exactly is Khodorkovsky speaking out against?

~ The way the government is run? Get in line. Is anyone anywhere happy with the way their government is run? Is anyone who wants to be in power but is not not convinced it is due to a broken system and/or dirty elections? Does anyone really feel they live in a truly fair and democratic society? If anything, this form of dissent seems to actually confirm one’s existence in a relatively democratic society. Yes, he is in jail, but not for demanding democratic reforms. If that were the reason, Medvedev would have to check himself into the cell next door. And Latynina would be mining uranium. No, his demands were self-serving.

Some people have also dismissed him on the grounds that he’s just not very well liked in Russia. FWIW, I don’t personally take into account popularity when deciding the creds of dissidents. I mean, if they were not in the minority, they’d cease being polarizing figures, right…

~ The way his company was taken from him? That’s a rather understandable grief. Even if he used questionable means to acquire his wealth, you have to admit it was snatched back through questionable means as well. But such a unique and personal offense can’t really elevate someone to the level of iconic dissident, can it? Oil companies are not exactly good human rights campaign candidates; they have adequate agency and voice. Usually it’s their victims who need our help. Oligarchs are people too, but very few of us could ever imagine ourselves in their shoes … complaining. How does the seizure of Yukos inspire you to advocate on behalf of human rights? I know, right?

~ The lack of transparency, fairness and accountability that plagues the Russian justice system? The irony of being able to afford the best lawyers money can buy and still not getting off in a corrupt legal system must drive Misha mad. But of all his complaints, the absence of a fair trail may well be his most valid. It’s a problem that does not just echo the frighteningly indiscriminate yet equally targeted abuses of rights in Soviet Union, but is a direct descendant of them. Unlike obscene private wealth or disproportionate power, most sane people agree that all humans have the right to a fair trail. Really difficult to argue against that. Even if you believe Khodorkovsky should be imprisoned.

Which many people do. Making him a strange choice for poster child of Russian injustice. I mean, you would not expect a popular grassroots movement to form around Ken Lay, so why so peeved when Russians are not jumping on Misha’s bandwagon? Why not find someone who is really truly innocent, who has done no one no harm, languishing in a Siberian prison for that job? Well, there wouldn’t be much payoff in politically backing some filthy urchin, would there? Hell, since no one has made investments with the urchin, how would the WSJ even know where to find him, even know of his very existence?

If you ask me, the only reason Misha Khodorkovsky is a high profile dissident is because Vladimir Putin offered him the job, and he accepted. Sure, he could have kept the cash and lived out the rest of his days abroad in Manhattan board rooms and Greek Islands. Forever estranged from his homeland and always looking over his shoulder. Better yet, he could have bent full over and signed a deal to keep his company and remain in Russia in exchange for giving Putin a cut of the profits and full political support. An unbearably boring existence, if the perpetual look on Roman Abramovich’s face is any indication. No, where’s the challenge in that? Our protagonist and his nemesis, while both men with political savvy and a talent for self preservation, have minds for myth making and historical narrative. One can’t be a respectable Tsar without some famous intellectual sulking in prison writing manifestos against him. And one can’t be a respectable dissident living a cush life in exile. It’s just a much better story this way.

And that, dear readers, is why Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a famous Russian dissident. Not because he was the most noble candidate for the role or even plays it effectively. But because the powerful play goes on – and Misha took the part. It often happens that less deserving, but incredibly handsome actors are cast in important roles. We’re a shallow lot. Shallower even now that the Cold War is over and have gone from fetishizing poets and physicists to supermodels and international playboys.

Instead of mewing that Khodorkovsky is cast in the role of the dissident, perhaps we should be thankful we have fewer poets and physicists eligible for the part. Instead of asking where the Sakharovs and Solzhenitsyns have gone, perhaps we should be thankful we can’t find them in the prison camps of Siberia. In fact, maybe it wasn’t just his good looks and money that got Misha the job.

Perhaps he really is deserving of this fate.

May 14, 2010

Would the real Andrei Kolesnikov please stand up? please stand up?

Filed under: Culture: Russia,Politics: Russia — poemless @ 5:50 PM

Attention! Wikipedia writer and detective needed! See below for details!

There are two Andrei Kolesnikovs who are award winning journalists covering politics in Russia’s leading papers.

I didn’t even know this until today, when an aquaintance posted a link to this absurd little fantasy from Forbes Russia. The confusion began when I saw the byline “Андрей Колесников | 13 мая 2010 22:03” and subconsciously mistook Forbes for Kommersant. Which, really, is not so incredible. It’s a silly article in capitalist rag written by Andrei Kolesnikov. It would be strange if I didn’t mistake it for Kommersant.

However. The fellow whose picture is ostensibly that of the journalist Andrei Kolsenikov in said article looked nothing at all like what I imagined Andrei Kolsenikov looked like. Which is this:

I generally don’t pay attention to what journalists look like (except Latynina because how can you not?) but this a pretty unforgettable mug. And looks nothing like this:

Which is what the fellow writing in Forbes looks like. My first thought was that this was some prank. Kolesnikov has always struck me as a mischievous sort who likes attention… Or, he’d been in a terrible accident and needed a full face transplant. I googled to find out what tragedy had befallen our once impish looking reporter such that he now looks like the Spanish MBA student who takes my bus in the evening.

The genius who wrote this was not helpful:

en.Wikipedia: Andrey Kolesnikov

For a soccer player, see Andrei Kolesnikov (footballer).

Andrey Vladimirovich Kolesnikov (Russian: Андрей Иванович Колесников) is a Russian journalist, an author of a series of books about Anatoly Chubais.

It’s greatly unfortunate that this was the first thing I found, because it only reinforced my belief that there were two Andrei Kolesnikovs who were the same person in English, but different people in Russian. And lo, Russian wikipedia listed them separately!

ru.Wikipedia: Колесников, Андрей Иванович

Андрей Иванович Колесников (1966(1966), п. Семибратово Ярославской области) — российский журналист, публицист.

Окончил факультет журналистики МГУ им. М. В. Ломоносова, год проработал в многотиражной газете «Ускоритель» института физики высоких энергий, затем в газете «Московские новости». В 1996 году перешёл в газету «Коммерсантъ» специальным корреспондентом. Лауреат национальной премии «Элита», обладатель премии «Золотое перо России», номинант премии А. Д. Сахарова. Вместе с Н. Геворкян и Н. Тимаковой в 2000 году подготовил книгу-интервью с В. В. Путиным «От первого лица». Является автором многочисленных статей о В. В. Путине.

Главный редактор журнала «Русский пионер».

Книги А. Колесникова
Я Путина видел! — М.: Эксмо, 2004. — 480 с. — ISBN 5-699-08721-4 …

Ok, so that’s who I thought Andrei Kolesnikov was. If the Russians can be trusted (hah!) Ivanovich is the man I’ve always associated with the name “Andrei Kolesnikov.” And the puckish smile. I think. But there is not photo on this Wikipedia page to confirm that belief, and I’ve never met him in person, so…
Next up, Andrei Vladimirovich Kolesnikov:

ru.Wikipedia: Колесников, Андрей Владимирович

Андре́й Влади́мирович Коле́сников (р. 29 июля 1965, Москва) — российский журналист.
Родился в семье юриста. Окончил юридический факультет МГУ (1987).

1987—1990 — старший консультант судебной коллегии по уголовным делам Верховного Суда РСФСР.
1990—1992 — обозреватель журнала «Диалог».
1992—1993 — обозреватель газеты «Российские вести».
1993—1995 — обозреватель журнала «Огонёк».
С 1995 года — в журнале «Новое время» — The New Times: обозреватель, заместитель главного редактора, с января 1998 — 1-й заместитель главного редактора.

С 1998 года — в газете «Известия»: в июне — сентябре 1998 — редактор отдела экономики; в сентябре 1998 — январе 2000 — редактор отдела политики; с января 2000 — политический обозреватель; с февраля 2005 — заместитель главного редактора.

Был обозревателем интернет-газеты Gazeta.ru, колумнистом «Российской газеты» и журнала «Профиль», постоянным автором «Независимой газеты» и газеты «Новое русское слово» (США), журнала «Огонек», заведующим московским отделением литературного журнала «Время и мы» (США), обозревателем программы «Человек и общество» московского бюро радио «Свобода». В апреле 1997 — главный редактор первого номера антифашистского журнала «Диагноз».

В ноябре 1997 года «Общая газета» назвала Андрея Колесникова одним из авторов книги «История приватизации в России». Сам Колесников в интервью программе «Сегодня в полночь» заявил, что он редактировал главы, авторами которых были А. Чубайс и М. Бойко.[1]

Преподавал в Высшей школе журналистики ГУ-ВШЭ (курс «Базовые понятия и тематические направления политической журналистики»[2]).

В 2001—2005 — исполнительный директор по связям с общественностью аудиторско-консалтинговой компании ФБК.

Был пиар-консультантом и спичрайтером ряда российских политиков, PR- и GR-консультантом ряда российских корпоративных структур.[2]

Был членом Креативного совета СПС.

Well, this article makes no mention of Forbes and presents no photo evidence, but through process of elimination, I might assume this is the man who wrote the article about the fate of Misha’s parallel reality judge and feel lighter. Though again, I cannot confirm that this is true. In fact, all I can confirm is that someone is desperately needed to write a nice English Wikipedia page for the elfin Putinista journalist called “Andrei Kolesnikov” and at least clean up the page for whomever is writing Chubais’s biographies.

These Andrei Kolesnikovs are like good/evil twins or something. They’re both journalists who cover high profile politicos and contribute to widely-read newspapers and other media outlets. But one’s in with Vova’s cabal while the other is hanging out at RL/RFE and openDemocracy. When I saw openDemocracy Andrei Kolesnikov I almost had a heart attack from fear they were multiplying like pod people or being cranked out of the clone factory. Because this byline bio said, “Andrei Kolesnikov is an independent journalist and regular contributor to Russia’s leading online newspapers, gazeta.ru and slon.ru.” But another bio of him on oD reads, “Moscow based journalist, former deputy editor of Izvyestya. Author of three books, including biography of controversial politician Anatoly Chubais.” Which clears things up. Unless multiple Andrei Kolesnikov clones are contributing to oD… Which I am not ready to rule out at this point.

I am also not ready to rule out that this is really just one journalist who is using a fake face when he writes anti-Kremlin screeds so should anyone get the idea to shoot him in the brains, they would not be looking for him but someone who looks like a Spanish grad student in Chicago.

How are readers expected to differentiate between Andrei Ivanovich and Andrei Vladimirovich and whatever other journalists are out there using the name Andrei Kolesnikov? I’ve seen some English language sites prefer the spelling “Andrey” for Vladimirovich, but this is not helpful for anyone actually reading their articles in Russian. I don’t see much use of patronymics in their bylines. What a mess. What a terrible mess!

I demand the Andrei Kolesnikov of non-Kommersant Kremlin pool/Russian Pioneer fame to change his name!

I also demand you now read this positively GENIUS post I wrote about the real Andrei Kolesnikov several years ago. (Scroll down to Part II.) You wont regret it. Here’s a snippet of the genius at work, covering a Federation Council meeting:

“…Petrenko’s hairdo. It was fabulous. Maybe she goes to work every day with her hair done like that. I don’t know. But I don’t think it is possible to do your hair like that every day. You could spend your whole life fixing a hairdo like that. What was it like? Like a pastry that had fallen off the shelf and been kicked aside by an ill-tempered customer? Like a stale Napoleon cake? Like the foam they seal the windows of new buildings with that lets the bugs through any way? No. More like a ball of papier-mache with the top cut off. You wanted to touch it to make sure it was secured tightly. And you wanted to get up and jump around.”

I don’t know which or how many Andrei Kolesnikovs actually wrote that, but I think it was just one, and I think he’s brilliant and thus, should certainly not be forced to share his name with anyone else.

April 28, 2010

“This is nothing compared to how Putin rigged the UK elections…”

Rupert Murdoch won’t decide this election – Alexander Lebedev will!

A few days ago, a friend sent me a link to a comment on European Tribune about the upcoming UK elections. Before you head over there in blissful ignorance to find out what’s going on, like I did, here’s some background:

FT: James Murdoch ambushes Indy editor.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mr Murdoch walked into The Independent’s newsroom in Kensington, central London, carrying a copy of the newspaper. He was accompanied by Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of News International, which publishes The Times and The Sun among others.

The newspaper he was carrying was one of 300,000 Independents being distributed for free in the UK that day with a special wraparound front page advertising The Independent’s claim to freedom from proprietorial interference.
The advert stated: “Rupert Murdoch won’t decide this election – you will.”

The younger Mr Murdoch reached the busy editorial desk where The Independent’s editor-in-chief, Simon Kelner, was planning the following day’s edition with colleagues, and brandished the newspaper in his hand.

“What are you fucking playing at?” Mr Murdoch asked Mr Kelner in a loud voice and in front of dozens of bemused journalists.

At that point, Mr Kelner invited Mr Murdoch and Ms Brooks into his office where there was a heated conversation lasting about 15 minutes, one of those present told the Financial Times.

The Independent boss later told colleagues Mr Murdoch had complained, with the use of further expletives, that the advertisement besmirched his father’s reputation.[…]

“If Rupert Murdoch’s private life had been under attack, I could understand why it would excite so much anger, but to suggest that by saying he tried to influence elections you were damaging his reputation does seem quite extraordinary,” said Steve Barnett, professor of media at the University of Westminster.

He said: “[Rupert] Murdoch himself told a House of Lords committee [in 2007] that he influenced what was in the editorial comment sections of his tabloid newspapers and in 1992 The Sun claimed that it had won the election on behalf of John Major.”

In this election campaign, The Sun and News of the World have come out in favour the Conservative party. In the past week, both papers have reacted very strongly against a surge in support for the Liberal Democrats, which could see David Cameron’s Conservative party failing to win a majority in parliament.

Last month, The Independent papers were bought by Alexander Lebedev, the Russian multimillionaire who also owns the London Evening Standard.

… for one pound sterling, no less. According to ceebs at ET, who lives on the small island and would know, the Independent has been supporting the Lib Dems and Murdoch has been backing the Tories. Should you have forgotten the sway Murdoch’s media empire has in elections, here is some dude on a cannabis forum to remind you.

Ceebs also reposted the following Twitter updates:

@MichaelWolffNYC I’m hearing details of the threats made by James Murdoch against the Lebedevs–bare knuckle tabloid stuff.

@MichaelWolffNYC Here’s what I hear… James Murdoch, in the lingo of Sun newsdesk, called Simon Kelner a “fucking fuckwit”

@MichaelWolffNYC Also… Murdoch, Jr. , snarling at Kelner, said the Independent, recently bought by Alexander Lebedev was “funded by Putin’s money”

Is the paper backing the Lib Dems funded by Putin’s money? All one pound sterling of it? For all I know, this is the kind of insult all monied Russians in London get. After all, it’s not like the Murdoch media is famous for relying on facts. But I was still curious to know what kind of relationship Alexander with an x has with his fellow former KGB agent, Vladimir Putin. (No, Vova, I’m not insinuating anything carnal….) To my knowledge it’s not all wine and roses, unlike the relationship between the premier and Lebedev’s fellow emigre tycoon, Roman Abramovich, who has multiple photos of Vova in his office, including a portrait of the premier wearing a kimono!

For one, Lebedev also owns a significant stake in Novaya Gazeta. Not exactly a paper one associates with the promotion of Putinism. I’ve also heard Lebedev be quite critical of the less-than-free market atmosphere in Russia, which lead me to believe he was one of those folks who lecture about democracy when they’re thinking of capitalism. The kind of person who’d … vote Tory. However, Wikipedia informs me that he is also a member of the political party “Just (Fair) Russia,” which is either an impotent opposition party, a tool of the Kremlin or a cabal of schemers waiting for word from Dima to exert their independence. So, that’s unhelpful.

Who knows what -if any- influence Lebedev has on the Independent’s political persuasion? I’m not even certain the man’s officially taken charge of the paper yet. And if he did have a hand in the challenge to Murdoch’s electioneering propaganda, to what degree is it a marketing rather than political ploy? For all I know, pistols drawn at Murdoch are just another indicator of Alexander’s impeccable cool, in case the hipster specs didn’t get that message across. Meh, seriously, kids, this is about as nonstory as nonstories get.

The fact that the world’s most powerful media baron(‘s son) and his Latynina-esque (wow, that’s spooky…) partner flipped out when a well-connected former Russian spy bought the town’s biggest paper, and then another, which is now promoting the rival political party which was not even the rival party until a few days ago, when it went from being a meek 3rd party with questionable viability to leading the polls over both Labour and theTories, and just happens to be headed by a … er … kids, I am not making this up, Russian aristocrat, it’s a tempest in a teapot.

Move along, folks. Nothing to see here. Go on now. Surely you have something better to do than read this tabloid gossip.

Especially you Brits, who should be busy busting out your slovars and learning to sing “God Save the Queen” in Russian!

April 14, 2010

Lessons to be learned from Katyn.

Filed under: Politics: Russia — poemless @ 5:54 PM
Tags: , , , ,

Putin, embracing Polish counterpart:

Note the resemblance between Vladimir Putin and John Locke… No, not the father of liberalism. The leader of the group in the TV drama where there is a really terrible plane crash in a deserted area where evil lurks, followed by inexplicable phenomena and events that appear to be taking place in a parallel universe. Sound familiar? Like, maybe, the news over the past several days?

I live in a very Polish part of the world, except it is not Poland. Nevertheless, we have a Polish TV station, signs on businesses which read, “mowimy po polsku,” and a gigantic memorial to Katyn in one of the cemeteries, the local creator of which perished along with nearly 100 others in the forest near Smolensk this weekend. Taken together with the fact that on a good day I have a finely tuned radar for people talking smack about Russia and VVP, I prepared to be a busy little blogger after learning of the accident. “Oh wonderful. It’s going to be like August ’08 all over again,” I thought. I braced myself for the barrage of conspiracy theories, russophobia and general scapegoating and hysteria that was about to be unleashed in the media.

And I braced myself. And waited. … And waited.

Then I realized I was living in some kind of freaking Twilight Zone episode where the horrific deaths of masses of Poles in Russia bring the two countries together.

I mean, it was sad. Mostly it was just incredibly sad. The news. Polish people crying, everyone crying, masses, obituaries, memorials, vigils. Some balanced tributes to the fallen President “whose patriotism was only matched by his controversial politics.” Some explanation that the pilot had ignored requests to land elsewhere, there was a lot of fog. Some questions about why so many VIPs were on one plane. Some interviews with Polish dignitaries praising Putin for “opening his heart, and Russia’s heart, to the world.” Some …

Wait! What?! The KGB spy who kills journalists for sport and plans to invade Eastern Europe just because he can? The man my very own Secretary of State cum theologian has assured me has no soul? Y’all have suddenly decided he has a heart? Putin? … Really?

So now I am thinking, T- that’s it, you’re watching far too much RT. You need to stop loading up on delicious propaganda carbs and consume your media more responsibly. “Healthfully” as they like to say. So I flipped off RT and the local news (which I assumed had some unwritten mourning protocol before launching into the political aspects of the tragedy, out of respect for the dead. Who were Polish. A very important ally of America. A very important demographic in our town.) Like any good blogger I, though paralyzed with the immensity of the tragedy and hating myself for what I was about to do, proceeded to google for the red meat. Which I guess makes me even more heartless than Vladimir fucking Vladimirovich.

And here’s what I found:

BBC: “Russia-Poland thaw grows from tragedy.”

WSJ: “Poles and Russians unite.”

RIAN: “Poland thanks Russia for help in presidential plane crash probe.”

NYT: “Tragedy as Harbinger of Change.”

Guardian: “Poland and Russia: reconciled in tragedy.”

The winner for the best headline?

“Is Poland Becoming Pro-Putin?”

The winner for the best observation?

From Vadim Nikitin:

“But it is not only Russia which rose to the occasion and above pettiness. Poland must be equally praised, especially when it could have easily turned the tragedy into an opportunity to whip up anti-Russian sentiment and conspiracies.

Russia’s behavior is reminiscent of its outreach to the US after the September 11th attacks, when Putin, in the words of the US government, “seized upon the tragedies of the World Trade Center and Pentagon as an opportunity to transform relations with the U.S. from distant and sometimes hostile to one of broad cooperation and new opportunities in many fields”.

Yet Poland’s magnanimous response is very different how the US responded to Russia’s unprecedented overture…”

But nothing could have prepared me for THIS:

Slate: “Another Tragedy in the Haunted Forest But this time, no one suspects a conspiracy to kill the Polish elite.”

By … Are you sitting down? … Anne Applebaum.

“On Saturday, the Polish president, the Polish national bank chairman, the chief of the Polish general staff, and a host of other military and political leaders, some of whom were my friends and my husband’s colleagues, died in a tragic plane crash in the forest near Smolensk, not far from where 20,000 Polish officers were secretly murdered by Stalin 70 years ago. But this time around, nobody suspects a conspiracy.

Of course, a few fringe Web sites might make that claim, and the odd politician might voice it. But the Russian and Polish governments, the Russian and Polish media, and the vast majority of Russians and Poles believe the culprits to be pilot error and fog. More to the point, discussion of these potential causes has been open and frank. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk immediately flew to visit the crash site, accompanied by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Polish forensic investigators were on the ground within hours. The Russian government is offering assistance and waiving visa requirements for all families who want to travel to Russia. There are TV cameras everywhere. Russian airport officials have been speaking in public, answering questions, talking to journalists. […]

Indeed, Russian officials are showing more transparency in the wake of this tragedy than they have shown following some of their own.

And yet there is no law that says the past has to strangle the present: Countries can change, political cultures can grow more open, politicians can learn not to shroud difficult events in mystery and deceit. Over the last 20 years, Russian and Polish officials have begun to acquire the art of speaking with the public, even if they don’t always choose to do so. This is a real change, and we have seen what kind of impact it can have over the last few days.

Although there is not much to be grateful for this week, I am thankful, at least, that the families of the dedicated public servants who died on that plane will not have to wait 70 years to learn what really happened. This terrible disaster, in that strange and bloody forest, contains eerie echoes of the past. But it is not destined to become yet another “blank spot” in this region’s dark history.”

Alrighty, then. Still don’t believe that whatever happened in that horrible crash did something to the space-time continuum?

I realize some of you reading this will immediately find fault with the article. Well, I’m a blogger too and I know that game. I’m not about to cherry pick this looking for one good reason to rake poor Anne over the coals to preserve my bad ass reputation even though the woman undoubtedly just lost friends and acquaintances in smoldering wreck on the floor of a forest/mass grave. As I wrote in the past:

“I did not exactly need another reason to dislike the journalistic hacktastrophe that is Ms. Applebaum’s Washington Post column. Oh, no. No, what I need – and I am being serious here – is for Anne to write something really insightful, responsible, constructive, for her to put me in my place, so that I could humbly bow to her wisdom and walk away. Inspired. Filled with grace and knowledge. Because appreciating people is much more rewarding than resenting them.”

Given Anne’s past penchant for conspiracy theories and blood-curdling heartlessness, I struggle to explain her generosity of perspective. I’d like to think that it’s simply the matter of Death reminding us of our own mortality, wrenching our priorities into place. Life is short; what’s to be gained by endless grudges and mistrust? Or perhaps it took a real tragedy, and not some small-time thug pinching her pocketbook (which is so boring only blaming it on Putin could make anyone fucking care) to make Anne take the weight of her words seriously, to use her power a journalist responsibly. Or maybe it’s the shale. Who knows? All I know is that I was not the only one expecting a radically different response from her. The day of the accident, Mark Adomanis wrote:

“The only question I have is who is going to be the first person to blame the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, and a number of other high-ranking Polish military and civilian officials, on Vladimir Putin? Any takers? Speaking personally, my money is on Anne Applebaum, who is not only married to Poland’s hawkish foreign minister but has some real experience in the “blaming everything on Putin” field as she once wrote a column directly blaming him (really!) for the theft of her purse. However, as always, there are a number of other strong contestants in the field so this is far from a done deal.”

Mark’s received some heat for this. And deservingly so. It’s one of those things everyone is thinking, but you can’t actually write a post about it until the event has occurred somewhere that is not your imagination if you want to maintain any credibility. That said, I only found Mark’s article because I thought, “Damn. Applebaum blamed Putin for her fucking purse. You know she is going to go for his throat over this. Christ almighty. Here we go…” And there I was, ready to have his back. Ready to lecture her on not having any decency or dignity in this time of terrible loss. Ready to be better than her. And so I googled “poland applebaum putin plane crash.” … Nothing but Mark’s piece came up.

So, if Anne wants to lecture me – I’m pretty sure I am the one who deserves it. For falling into the very same trap of cynical, lazy and downright sick and perverse thinking that has previously defined her columns. Which I now understand. While it is still ludicrous to assume Putin stole your wallet or Roman Polanski isn’t a child rapist, it is incredibly easy to fall into a narrative, a well-established pattern of discourse, a particular set of expectations and roles. When the world around you stopped making sense a long time ago, why continue to operate within confines of reason and logic? When you’ve seen the lowness to which people are capable of stooping, why expect the world to behave with dignity and compassion? It’s so much easier to just go batshit crazy, become vicious and follow a script. This approach provides both a coping mechanism and muse.

But what about everyone else? Seriously, the goodwill fest has me a bit perplexed. Of course, logic and dignity would dictate this outcome. Every time there is a freak tragedy on a massive scale, the world comes together, tries to show compassion for the victims, their loved ones and their country and compensates for the deficit of compassion with money, aid and resources. Look, I’m not arguing that Poland and Russia are typically incapable or even unwilling to embrace reason and compassion, but let’s face it, these are not usually the first lines of defense in their relationship. If these two countries were renowned for their sobriety and responsibility, a planeload of VIPs would not have been on their way to commemorate a massacre in the first place.

Here’s my theory. Instead of reading this weird lovefest as Russia finally not being evil for once, I suggest a more practical explanation. For once, what happened was not Russia’s fault. Usually terrible tragedies, for which this country is a magnet (<– note another LOST allusion), are their fault, directly or indirectly, through injustice or, more commonly, incompetence. Not forced to busy themselves with damage control PR, the Russian administration could proceed to behave the way any normal person would logically be expected to behave: generously and compassionately. Which had the effect of prompting Poland to respond to Russia's overtures the way any normal person would logically be expected to: gratefully and graciously.


How hard was that?

The last lesson of the day, children, is that this was actually so simple it should not have taken a plane full of people's mothers and fathers, people's children, people's leaders to go down in flames on the way to commemorate a massacre to get people to behave the way any normal person would logically be expected to behave. As I bemoaned in my Cold War diatribe, it takes an unacknowledged effort to maintain hostilities, even if they are only emotional or ideological. I'm not suggesting everyone declare bygones and join in a round of kumbaya. But to quote Anne, "there is no law that says the past has to strangle the present: Countries can change."

In the course of writing this (yeah I know it's too long – countries can chage; writers cannot), a Polish MP has blamed Russia for the crash, Latynina has blamed Russia for creating such distrust that the Poles “suspect[ed] that the fog was just a political ruse instigated by Putin,” and some nut has compared Russia to Dracula.

So perhaps this was a fluke. Plane crash improving ties? Madness! Is it time to return to reality and leave reason and compassion back on the island and wait for another plance crash before we return to them? To be continued, I suspect…

March 31, 2010

START up the Hot Tub Cold War Time Machine!

Contents: Russia Today‘s “Crosstalk” discusses Gorby and perestroika, WBEZ‘s “Worldview” discusses nuclear disarmament, and David Hoffman (the homely guy who wrote The Oligarchs, not the hot guy I want to run against Daley) writes about the Cold War arms race. Bust out your vhs of War Games and tight-roll your jeans, we’re goin’ on a trip…

No, I was just kidding about the jeans! Please! Stop!

I. CrossTalk: “How should Gorbachev’s perestroika be remembered?”

Starring: Stephen Cohen (with whom I am in love, and with his wife too, actually, I think we’d make a fabulous threesome…), Mary Dejevsky (whom I aso really like, but not in that way) and some other people. One of whom is the host, Peter Lavelle. I don’t know how Peter got that job, but I’m pretty sure I should have it.

Nuggets of wisdom:

~Mary: “The Russia of today and the Russia of perestroika are totally, totally different countries.” It irritates her that this perspective is seemingly lost in Western reporting about Russia today. Like, Russia currently, not the tv station…

~Peter (eternally frustrated): The frequent references to Stalinism when talking about modern Russia in Western journalism doesn’t help us understand either modern Russia or perestroika.

~Stephen (eternally forlorn): Reporting on Russia during the Cold War was even better than it is today… grumble grumble gumble…

~VCIOM (not a guest, a poll): A growing number of Russians actually see perestroika as a positive thing, though that number is still under 40%.

~Stephen : De-democratization (me: can we just call it “mocratization?”) began with Yeltsin, not Putin. Me: Kasparov agrees, you know…

~Mary (eternally sane): The ailing state of reporting on Russia is due to the cost-cutting measures in journalism that has shut or pared down bureaus in Moscow and the loss of Russian language and cultural expertise in the West. And young people’s and intellectuals’ sense of history, which dates back only to the 1990’s. They remember the 1990’s as an era of ideological freedom, and find today comparatively worse. Most Russians who can remember the 80’s and 70’s find today comparatively better.

~Stephen: Only two other people share his view that American policy toward post-Soviet Russia since 1992 has been a dangerous disaster because the U.S. has not changed its policy re: Nato expansion and because there exists no organized opposition calling for better relations with Russia. Stephen, get out more! You are not alone. I bet I can find at least 2 people right now who agree with you! Me, and, oh, probably everyone who reads this blog. Which is at least 2 other people. Stop awfulizing, Stephen. You are not as alone as you feel.

Except for in the way that, existentially, we are all alone…

II. Worldview: “President Obama’s Nuclear Nonproliferation Vision.”

Starring: Joseph Gerson, peacenik. And host, Jerome McDonnell. I don’t know how Jerome got that job, but he’s freaking brilliant at it, thank god. He should take over Charlie Rose’s show when he dies. (A terrifying potential power vacuum my friends and I fret about when Charlie’s not looking so well.)

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of Programs and Director of the Peace and Economic Security Program for the American Friends Service Committee. His most recent book is titled Empire and the Bomb: How the United States Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.
Listen here.

Nuggets of wisdom:

~Re: “realists”: The idea of nuclear weapons ensuring the peace is like ensuring the peace by handing out hand guns to school kids. Even people like George Shultz (me: George Shultz, fer chrisssake!) have come to the conclusion that it is necessary to pursue real nuclear disarmament.

~Obama is investing in nuclear labs (and I’d add missile defense) as a compromise so Republicans will vote to ratify the New START. (me: Good luck with that, Barack. Remember all those compromises we made in the health care bill? Remember how many Republicans voted for it? If you held a vote banning the feeding of infants to sharks for entertainment, the fuckers would vote “no.”)

~The U.S. maintains a 1st Strike mandate defense policy. Official policy is that nukes can be used not just as deterrents. Madness.

~”8 years from now the U.S. and Russia will still have over 90% of world’s nuclear weapons.” Madness! Gorby, come back!

~Young people don’t remember or are not aware of nuclear freeze movement of the 1980’s. Without the Soviet threat, people are not afraid, but we still have the weapons. After the Cold War people just stopped thinking about it, were exhausted. (<– I think the theme of exhaustion is one of the least explored and most important aspects of the Cold War, actually. I've been thinking about it a lot lately. It's exhausting.)

~Gerson says the nuclear freeze movement forced Reagan to negotiate with Soviets which in turn ended the Cold War. (me: Well, if it makes him feel better.)

~Nuclear weapons: outta sight out of mind. No one even knows where they are. It's an abstract idea, which makes it difficult to organize around, make people care about.

If you want to join Gerson's peace movement, Click here!

… Before I continue, I think it is important to note that however much of a dreamy hippie you think Gerson is, Cohen has repeatedly asserted that the current American posture toward Russia persists because there is no opposition lobby to it, like there was during the nuclear freeze movement. Personally, I think we should start a lobby. But we don’t have one. At least Gerson is trying. Ya know? … I’m serious about the lobbying thing. Anyone got some money? If a hippie can get a lobby, surely we can too.

III. David Hoffman’s The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy.


During the Cold War, world superpowers amassed nuclear arsenals containing the explosive power of one million Hiroshimas. The Soviet Union secretly plotted to create the “Dead Hand,” a system designed to launch an automatic retaliatory nuclear strike on the United States, and developed a fearsome biological warfare machine. President Ronald Reagan, hoping to awe the Soviets into submission, pushed hard for the creation of space-based missile defenses.

In the first full account of how the arms race finally ended, The Dead Hand provides an unprecedented look at the inner motives and secret decisions of each side. Drawing on top-secret documents from deep inside the Kremlin, memoirs, and interviews in both Russia and the United States, David Hoffman introduces the scientists, soldiers, diplomats, and spies who saw the world sliding toward disaster and tells the gripping story of how Reagan, Gorbachev, and many others struggled to bring the madness to an end. When the Soviet Union dissolved, the danger continued, and the United States began a race against time to keep nuclear and biological weapons out of the hands of terrorists and and rogue states.

So I read this book. Or, I’ve been reading it – not yet finished. Because it is so freaking tedious to read. But I’ll come back to that. I picked up this book because I hd just finished reading Hoffman’s previous opus, The Oligarchs, which was astonishingly informative and exquisitely written. I guess I was expecting the same from The Dead Hand. It is true, data about nuclear warheads is not something that normally holds my attention. But honestly, neither do business schemes. Plus, with the New START, the anniversaries of the ends of the Cold War, the appearances of a New Cold War, it’s not like I just didn’t have my heart in it. Plus, biological warfare! How can that be boring? Hoffman’s gritty, detailed, fly-on-the-wall narration, filled with anecdotes and atmosphere, that made The Oligarchs such a page turner is replaced in The Dead Hand with rote historian banalities. Blech. Lots of on such and such a date so and so called so and so to set up a meeting with so and so and nothing ever came out of the meeting. Kill me now. Worse, it is not as well organized as his previous book. Which was, I must say, painstakingly well organized, so he’s set the bar high on all accounts. The Dead Hand follows a vaguely chronological order, but within the chapters things get messy and you have to flip back a few pages to find out what year it is. It lacks flow. More disappointing is that it lacks the narrative arc of The Oligarchs, which was a classic Shakespearean plot. It’s not like there weren’t historical events in the nuclear arms race to re-create that same kind of narrative crescendo. It just drags. Maybe Hoffman’s only fault is choosing to write about … negotiations. Week after week, month after month, year after year of … negotiations. The people who were in the room the first time were probably bored too, and thinking, “Haven’t we already been over this part before?” There is also the difficulty of conveying the tension and crisis of events that happen in minutes or seconds when writing a larger, epic, even, story.

That said … I have incredibly high standards for prose. I generally won’t touch 99% of the stuff that’s written. The Dead Hand is probably on par with most quality history writing. Most importantly, I think everyone under 35 should read this book! Ignore everything I just criticized the book for. That criticism was for those of us who have the luxury to read, or not read, this book. The rest of you don’t pass class until you’ve read The Dead Hand. Because I’m sick and tired of listening to smug young realists downplay the importance and difficulty and necessity of nuclear disarmament treaties. Damn it. Kids these days. I don’t care how they dress (but tight-rolling your jeans? for real?), what music they like, what sexual mores they have, what drugs they do. Don’t care. But I do care that everyone forgot to teach them about human civilization pre-2001. Yes, I am being curmudgeonly and rude. But while you were busy not being born yet, or watching Sesame Street, the rest of us managed to scare ourselves shitless over the prospect of nuclear war. Since you missed the initiation into the scared shitless club, we need to do something so we don’t have to go through it all again.

Why do we read history? That’s right, children.

Yes, I am a bitch. If that’s what I have to be to save the world, so be it. 🙂

Ok, thanks for reading!

March 24, 2010

LQD: What’s really wrong with Russia?

Filed under: Politics: Russia — poemless @ 1:16 PM

[Note the invisible “w” in front of the word Russia.]

Ben Aris has an article in Business News Europe titled, “What’s really wrong with Russia.”

I spend some effort exposing terrible journalists and good journalists’ mistakes. I don’t actually have anything against the traditional media, I just have high expectations of them. I should point out the good with the bad. Aris’ piece is not brilliant, nor do I agree with every assertion made in it. But it is refreshingly sober. Earlier today I witnessed two people writing about Russia go at it. Both had valid points, but the tone became hysterical and weirdly personal. I wanted to scream “Stop! Neither of you are helping yourselves and you certainly are not helping your readers…” Then I read this BNE article and thought, yes, this is what I’d like to see more of. Well organized, impersonal, full of data while not painfully wonkish, entertaining while not substituting entertainment for analysis. Sadly this is what passes for exceptional journalism these days…

The article begins with a quintessentially Russian little anecdote about a couple who breeds rabbits in their garden and desire to open a little corner store and sell rabbit meat, fur and livers. There is no law against this, but corrupt local bureaucrats keep thwarting their dreams of becoming bunny-mongers. What a great story! For the bunnies, anyway.

Aris points out that corruption is a serious issue in Russia, but this problem is not unique, esp. among emerging markets. He also notes that Russia per-capita income has doubled in the last five years, performing much better than some of her less corrupt neighbors. So he poses the question, “Once you start digging into the detail, the picture becomes quite confusing, begging the question: what is really wrong with Russia and are things getting better or worse?” He proceeds to take a look at some of the issues commonly cited in answer to, “What’s wrong with wRussia?”

On Infrastructure:

“Russia’s most obvious problem is that its Soviet-era infrastructure is crumbling and won’t be serviceable for much longer. A massive amount of investment is needed into pretty much everything. The hot spots are power and transport.

Before the crisis knocked the economy onto its back, the demand for electricity matched the country’s ability to generate it. Any further economic growth was going to result in blackouts, which in turn would become a major drag on growth. The crisis has brought the Kremlin some time, but the problem will resurface in the next few years as the economy recovers.

Happily, the Kremlin is well aware of this problem and has already done much of the groundwork.[…]

The big omission here on the Kremlin’s part is that while they are spending on power and trains, they have ignored badly needed investment into social infrastructure. The president’s modernisation programme is doomed to fail unless the state spends equally heavily on education. Likewise, the World Health Organisation released a study a few years ago that concluded the very best returns on investment for the economy were investments into the health system: not only does a healthy population work harder for longer and retire later, but the savings made from not having to care for sick pensioners for decades is incalculable.

And the Kremlin’s botched pension reform must be fixed. The Kremlin has just hiked pensions by 50%. However, there is a hole in the pension fund that already accounts for a quarter of this year’s deficit. As the demographic window closes, caused by the aging population, the pension system must be made to pay for itself or this problem will only get worse.

Behold! One can acknowledge both the Kremlin’s accomplishments AND failures, without poof! turning into a gremlin. Hell, even suggesting they’re giving any thought to their problems is considered radical in some circles…

On Oil addiction:

“…Russia’s economic growth is closely tied to the price of oil.

However, the state has actually been pretty prudent when dealing with oil revenues. Oil is heavily taxed, with the state taking 90 cents on every dollar when prices for oil are over $27. The extra revenue has been used to subsidise income and profit taxes (13% and 24% respectively) in an effort to boost economic diversification. Even this largesse can’t soak up all the petrodollars, so the excess cash is siphoned off into the “lockbox” of the Stabilisation Fund and kept out of the reach of free-spending MPs by Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. It is hard to see what else the Kremlin could have done to minimize the impact of Dutch disease on Russia. Indeed, even with oil prices at $150 a barrel the government still managed to bring inflation down into single digits at the start of 2008. (Ukraine let its inflation rate soar to 25% in the same year, the highest in the world.)

Still, Russia’s economy already has a bad case of Dutch disease. Russia has some the best scientists and engineers in the world, but yet it doesn’t export anything of note other than oil and arms. Everything in Russia is now expensive. Choosing one example at random: according to Moscow’s real estate consultants, the cost of building a distribution centre in Moscow is 34% higher than building the same thing in London, which is crazy.”

Moscow recently fell down the list of most expensive cities. Though I am sure “to live in” and “to do business in” look at different criteria.

On Diversification and top-down reform:

Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, spoke for many recently in a recent paper when she wrote: ‘A genuine modernisation alliance would have to be bottom-up and driven by the private sector. The Russian leadership is pursuing a model of modernisation that is state-centric and top-down. It throws money at new institutes to foster research, it nationalises big industries, it tells state-owned banks which sectors to lend to. It does not do the things that would be required for genuine economic diversification.’ […]

Barysch assumes there is a foundation of business that will flourish if the shackles of government are removed, but the Kremlin is facing an economy where rafts of products and services are simply missing and can’t get started.

State spending is inherently wasteful, but as Russia has the money thanks to oil, the issue at hand is not the efficiency of state spending, but rather its effectiveness: can the spending create sectors that don’t exist now or upgrade those that can’t compete now? ‘As there is no vibrant [small and medium-sized enterprise] sector, the only option left is heavy state spending. The Kremlin is doing this not because they want bigger versions of the existing state-owned behemoths, but because how else are they going to change the nature of the Russia economy?’ says Plamen Monovski, a veteran investor into emerging Europe and CIO-designate at Renaissance Asset Management.”

This is something I rarely hear and frequently think: Why do we commonly assume that the Kremlin’s strategies are always ideologically motivated, and not often simply reflections of a lack of alternatives or short-term practical solutions?

On Corruption and bureaucracy:

“When he was president, Vladimir Putin called for something to be done about corruption in every one of his State of the Nation speeches – and absolutely nothing happened. But since Dmitry Medvedev took over as president in 2009, the new president has launched Russia’s first ever concerted attack on graft. […]

You can question the size of the official numbers, but clearly the government has gone on the offensive. However, the actual numbers prosecuted are still tiny compared to the million-plus strong army of bureaucrats. This is no anti-graft pogrom, like in Georgia where Mikheil Saakashvili sacked the entire police force (which worked beautifully). Rather, the strategy currently seems to be to fire a warning shot over the bows of government to say: ‘Change is coming, mend your ways.’ But it will take years, if not decades, to make a real dent in the problem.”

I think I remember Putin had a few people fired and put in jail… But he was less Mighty Mouse about it.

On Political risk:

“Conventional wisdom has it that Putin is a virtual dictator, but bne’s sources in diplomatic, business and government circles say that Putin is visibly under an increasing amount of strain, frustrated by the government machinery’s failure to implement his plans. On top of this, bringing in Medvedev has considerably weakened his position. ‘Two camps have formed around Medvedev and Putin. The first wants to see Medvedev go further with the liberalisation of the economy and politics, whereas the people close to Putin want to keep things as they were prior to the crisis – where they were making money,’ says an economist who has been advising the government at a top level. ‘Putin is visibly stressed, as some people are starting to ignore him and others are openly calling for him to leave.’

Putin’s big gift to Russia was political stability. As a lone figure at the top of the political tree, he was able to balance all the interests of the various factions. But the arrival of Medvedev has upset that balance, as now there is an alternative power centre.”

Aris ends with a a joke his top secret sources say is making its way around the Kremlin:
“There are two camps that belong to Vladimir Vladimirovich and Dmitry Anatolevich. The only question is: which camp does Dmitry Anatolevich belong to?”

Bad duh bum!

Since I’ve quoted quite liberally, you are now required to go click through and apply for a subscription to BNE. Seriously, these LQD’s are probably copyright infringements, all 30 of you having read for free here what you technically should have had to read for free at BNE, and the outlet could probably use the money to buy sources with better access to jokes.

Anyway, discussion is open.

March 22, 2010

Surkov: Out Standing in His Field.

Filed under: Politics: Russia — poemless @ 1:27 PM

While I’ve been curled up in a ball of stomach pain and obsessing about the health care bill in Congress -can the two be unrelated?- apparently all hell has broken loose in Russia.

Hundreds of people took part in the “Day of Wrath” (“wrath” even! brilliant!) participating in demonstrations across the country calling for Putin’s head on a platter. Or police reform. Or lower taxes. Or another issue that has filled them with wrath. Not sure, to be honest… Nor am I sure who the wrathful are. Democratic opposition or Commies or free marketers or something. Wrath is a big tent, it seems.

In other news, it has been reported that Chubais (architect of 90’s liberal economic reforms, which led to a ruble crash and widespread suffering) and Surkov (architect of numerous Putin doctrines and campaigns, which have led to increased authoritarianism) have banded together on behalf of Medvedev to form a new party -or simply take over another party like Just Russia, or Right Cause, no one really knows- which will address the […drum roll…] economic disparity and sham democracy facing Russia under Putin. And Medvedev. Or something. This idea is like a fine wine. Take a moment to savor it; you won’t regret it.

Anyway, while I’m trying to separate the truth from rumour, propaganda, pipe dreams for people just f-ing with my mind for cheap thrills, here’s a dose of Surkov. He’s done another interview, this time on RT. With video! I know, it is magical. I asked RT for video interview of Surkov, et voila! WordPress, however, still won’t let me post the damned video. Which makes Russian state-run tv more open to suggestion than WordPress. Hm.

“We should learn to earn money with our brains” – Vladislav Surkov. Transcript and video from RT.

Slava, lookin’ all Mr. Burns:

An excerpt from the transcript:

Question: But why did you decide to build this town in an open field? Why did you decide to start everything from scratch?

VS: This is an issue for discussion. This decision has produced various reactions. We have excellent scientific centers, which were created in Soviet days in Siberia, near Moscow and in many other regions. Excellent experts and highly-qualified scientists work there. These centers have a very interesting and very qualified population. In fact, these are entire towns of mathematicians, scientists, etc. They have attained huge achievements. But, nevertheless, a decision has been made and it is not supposed to offend anybody.

We should understand what I have already said. Our task is to enter a new stage of civilization. Our task is not to carry out a European-style makeover in our Soviet home, but to build a new Russia with a new economy, and in order to do that it is sometimes very useful to find yourself in an open field. And I think that it is not accidental that Peter the First went into an open field because he understood that in the traditional tissue of Russian life he would do what he wanted at a much slower pace.

“Sometimes it is very useful to find yourself in an open field.”

I don’t know. Sounds pretty ominous to me. I mean, we’re not talking about farmers here. I think we all remember that last time the Russian government decided to put its great minds into open fields. Yikes.

In all seriousness…

Recently, someone quite well-informed and smart referred to Surkov as “a Goebbels of our time.” Let us take a deep breath, exhale, and look at the facts. Sure, he looks a little evil, like a vampire, especially when he clasps his hands together like that. And yes, he’s a political propagandist, the architect of the “Sovereign democracy” doctrine and has overseen some rather Machiavellian political campaigns. But Goebbels isn’t known to every soul on earth because he looked a little evil or was a political propagandist or architect of any old national doctrine no one took seriously or any old election campaign. He is known to every soul on earth because he was evil, he was a Nazi propagandist, the architect of Kristallnacht and oversaw a political campaign to annihilate the Jews. In what universe are unfair elections, exceptionalism and plain ol’ politicking on par with genocide? That’s really f-ed up. I mean, I can understand not liking the guy. Go for it. But until I see evidence that he’s constructing gas chambers instead of R&D institutes out in his open field, such assertions seem about as credible as those comparing Barack Obama to Stalin because he’s passed a damn health care bill.

After various exercises of logic and reason, part of me is convinced the rumour of Surkov’s involvement in a new Party of Medvedev is a sick joke. Or he’s in on this while simultaneously remaining involved in UR, all double agent-like, which I can weirdly, totally see. However, there is another, darker part of me who wants it to be true, despite my loyalty to Vova. Just to see how those who despise Surkov so viscerally react when he’s running the anti-Putin campaign. The man def. knows how to win an election. Hey, maybe he really is the devil. Out to reveal man’s true selfish nature… It’s all purely hypothetical, of course. But these are the kinds of things I actively fantasize about.

Which might explain why I have an ulcer…

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…

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