Weirdness Diary: 30 September 2016

There’s a Cracked podcast where they’re talking about logical fallacies that are hardwired into our brains, using as one example Russian dashcam footage that you find on Youtube. Even people with no interest in Russia (AKA most of the Western world) have run across these “meanwhile in Russia” videos, most of which are taken from dashboard cameras used by many Russian and Ukrainian drivers. As the hosts of the podcast explain, it’s not that wacky things are happening more often in Russia, it’s just that due to the prevalence of dashcams Russians are more likely to catch crazy things on camera. Like this:

The howitzer in the video above later resigned from the Russian armed forces just before it rolled across the border, founded a pseudo-state, and created yet another frozen conflict. Russia denies all involvement. 

While yes, it is true that not every day in Russia involves soldiers cutting a tree down to save a cat or tanks jumping onto the road in front of oncoming traffic, anyone who has lived here for even a short while will tell you that you will experience some seriously weird shit. Today’s examples wouldn’t be too bizarre compared to what I’ve seen in the past decade, but firstly, I’m holding those back for my book, and secondly, they happened within the space of maybe a couple of hours.

The first was a young man who stops me on the street. I pull out my headphones and he asks me if I’m a skinhead. I find this odd because skinheads are not known to wear very baggy cargo pants, blouse their boots (they roll up their jeans), or navy blue peacoats. And while my head is indeed shaved, a haircut nature itself forced upon me, I was wearing a hat, so for all he knew I could have had a high-and-tight or a Ukrainian cossack chub underneath.

I informed him that no, I am not in fact a skinhead, and he then asked me if I’m an artist. Now these are both interesting choices I have to say. Hipsters are associated with art, and they have been known to appropriate all different sorts of styles. That being said, I have never heard of hipsters dressing up like skinheads and being neo-Nazis “ironically.” This was quite an odd pair of guesses- skinhead or artist.

He then told me he is a practitioner of yoga, and asked me about my karma. I told him it was fine. He tried to offer me some kind of book, no doubt on some Hindu-based faith, but I thanked him and went on my way. In retrospect, I should have told him to look up Savitri Devi if he ever wants to recruit actual skinheads to yoga classes.

A little bit later I come home and stop at a local grocery establishment. There is a crowd of young men gathered a few steps away from the door. At the door, I see a very old woman with a cane who appears to have trouble opening the door. Realizing that these ill mannered rapscallions are indifferent to the old crone’s plight, I promptly open the door and stand aside. And she moves forth…about an inch. Then a bit more. And a little bit more. I should point out that while she had a cane, she was not exceptionally frail, nor did she appear to be in pain. She was just moving extremely slowly for some reason.

Moving inside I am dismayed that my favorite tvorog is nowhere to be found. I might have consumed all of it this week. Thus besides having to acquire a few other provisions I took extra time examining and comparing the various brands and types of tvorog available. I then pay for my purchases. All in all, I’d say it was eight minutes.

I get outside, about to go my normal route home, and there’s that same old lady, who has managed to make it maybe twenty meters from the door. Still moving, seemingly inch by inch. Again, not rickety or visibly in pain, just super slow. Judging by her speed I’m guessing she works in the Russian post office.

pochta

 

 

Memory Loss

Soon I’ll be turning 34, still well short of what’s considered “middle-age” in our time. And despite this, I have to say that I’m starting to notice my memory slipping a bit. I’m not talking about memory loss that you associate with old age; most of what I forget or mix up are just trivial details. It still feels weird though. Five to ten years ago I could remember things going back to early childhood as vividly as a movie. Now those details start to blur and fade.

Of course I suspect this is entirely natural. If there’s anything unusual about my case it’s probably related to the radically different lives I’ve led over the years, moving from state to state, pre-army versus post-army, and leaving the US to spend the bulk of my adult life abroad. Taking all that into account, it’s not a huge deal if I can’t remember any but one of the teachers I had in 2nd or 3rd grade, for example. But suppose it was worse. Suppose I’d stayed in the US all my life, and at the age of 33 I’d somehow forgotten who was president of the US prior to Obama, who controlled the congress during most of that administration, and everything that administration had done during its tenure. I suspect I’d have more reason to be alarmed in that case.

I’m writing about memory today because while my interactions with Trump supporters have been mercifully few, those that have occurred are positively fascinating, if not mindboggling. To be sure, what I am experiencing seems to apply to many conservative types, regardless of whether or not they support Trump, but with the Trump supporters the memory disorder seems to be most acute. But whatever the case, I am simply astonished by the inability of these people to recall events in what is the relatively recent past. I could understand it if they were elderly, or even pushing 60, but we’re talking about people around my age and slightly younger.

The perfect example of this can be seen in the attacks on Hillary’s war record. Trump supporters have been crowing about Hillary Clinton’s support for the Iraq invasion, as well as her support for military intervention during her tenure as secretary of state. She is a “hawk,” they say. The problem with this is that the people calling her a hawk now, with a few notable exceptions, were themselves hawks or supporters of hawks, and their own candidate also speaks like a hawk.

Hillary’s enthusiastic support for the Iraq War is one of her worst deeds as a politician. This is why many leftists such as myself can’t stand her- she puts her finger in the wind and goes along with the status quo. The problem with these Trump supporters, however, is that they seem to forget that Hillary was going along with their party’s war. Republicans controlled the White House and the house at the time. They would later control both until 2007.

bush

Trump supporters: Do you know who this man is and what he did? 

During the run-up to the Iraq War nearly to the end of Bush’s administration, if you opposed the war on any grounds most of these rabid conservatives would call you a traitor. “You don’t like war? Love it or leave it, hippie! Move to Russia with all the other commies!”  That was the basic tenor, but if you think I’m exaggerating, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly once said he’d deem critics of the war to be “enemies of the state.”“enemies of the state.” During the Bush years America could do no wrong, nor could its military which became an object of public worship thanks in part to a massive taxpayer-funded PR campaign, and Uncle Sam would do whatever it wanted, wherever it wanted, because FREEDOM GODDAMMIT! In fact, America was kind of acting like this other country has been acting in recent years, but that’s another dozen blog posts.

Now the same people who would call you a traitor, commie, or pussy for opposing the war have suddenly become peace-loving doves, publicly calling how Hawkish Hillary. In my interactions with them it appears as though they literally do not remember the entire Bush administration. They seem to believe that the Middle East’s problems began with the Obama administration. That’s the moment when Fox News and the rest of the conservative media machine officially authorized them to criticize US foreign policy again.

Still I can’t get my head around this memory loss. How do you go through life not knowing what happened about 15 years ago? The Iraq War was one of the biggest media circuses of the first decade of the 21st century. It dominated the news for years. It became a part of our popular culture in TV, film, and video games. These are not the little details from grade school that I can’t remember. We’re talking major historical events.

I guess the phenomenon can only be explained by Trump’s particular style of lying, which incidentally resembles the Kremlin method. This is not the normal lie where you’re accused of something you know you did, ergo you try to concoct a plausible story so your accuser or the gallery will believe you. Such a lie is not really crafted at all. Basically the way it works is that your opponent says something about you, and you need to say something in order to “win,” typically the opposite of what they’re saying. It does not matter if your audience can easily check and see that this is not true. All that matters is that you have a response that opposes their claim. Imagine someone walks up to you wearing a thong and covered in sunflower oil, and when you point this out they say, “What? Nonsense. I’m wearing a very expensive tailored suit!” That you can see they are clearly not wearing anything close to that does not matter in the slightest. The point is you said they were one thing so they said they were another and that’s that.

If you support, follow, or sympathize with such people, eventually you’ll have to shape your own memories and reality itself in order to hold onto your worldview without creating too much cognitive dissonance. Trump actually supported the Iraq War, but in his campaign he said he was against it so now memories must change and it’s “the dishonest media’s” fault for bringing up the past. Bush and his White House team enthusiastically fought for, and got their invasion of Iraq, but Trump says all the fallout from that is Obama and Hillary’s fault, so now people who most likely voted for Bush can’t remember his entire administration or what it did. It’s another form of “they don’t believe these things because they’re stupid; they become stupid because they believe these things.”

What must that feel like, I wonder. How does an individual who enthusiastically cheered for war on Iraq feel when they attack Hillary supporters (or just Trump opponents like me) for being “hawkish” and supporting the invasion? How do people who attacked Obama in 2012 for telling Dmitry Medvedev he could be “more flexible” after the election reconcile their outrage then with their current candidate’s submissiveness toward Putin? I have to know if there are times when they are conscious of these contradictions, i.e. “I used to believe this but now I believe this other thing.”

It’s normal for beliefs to change and evolve- I’m living proof. But the difference with real evolution or change is that you consciously, often publicly reject your previous views and you have some kind of explanation as to why you did so. I just don’t see this with most of the Trump supporters. The military’s still awesome and Obama was a bastard when he “apologized for America,” yet Trump can call America a loser that doesn’t win anymore and attack Hillary for being a “hawk” and supporting the Iraq War. And hell, their own candidate exudes hawkishness as well, yet he gets a free pass.

Assuming the United States survives the next decade as a developed country, I hope scientists will devote a lot of time to figuring out this riddle. The future of democracy depends on it.

 

 

 

 

“They sow the wind…”

So in case you’re not a regular Russia-watcher (I envy you. Please tell me how it feels in the comments section) or you are but you’ve been living under a rock for the past two days, the Joint Investigative Team announced its conclusions from its investigation into the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17. Surprise, surprise, they confirmed the basic story that most rational, sane people figured out long ago. The plane was shot down by a Buk surface-to-air missile system from territory controlled by the Russian military and their proxies rebels. The investigation also found that the Buk system was moved back across the border into Russia so as to hide the evidence. Of course it doesn’t help the cover-up when your state run media forgets to take down the original article from the time when the “rebels” claimed they had shot down an AN-26 cargo plane that actually  turned out to be MH17. It’s still up there after more than two years.

At the same time Russia has been in the news a lot lately, from a string of malicious cyber-attacks on high profile Western targets to the bombing of a UN aid convoy. Naturally the Kremlin response to all of this is that it’s all lies and “provocations.” They do nothing but good, yet for some strange reason the United States and its puppets (i.e. any country that refuses to do what Moscow wants) have been engaging in this pointless, mean-spirited conspiracy against poor little Russia. But what Peskov and the Russian state media don’t seem to understand is that while they can continue their pathetic denial routine, the rest of the world isn’t buying into the bullshit. Even those who might have been willing to give Putin the benefit of the doubt are now waking up to the fact that he has nothing but contempt for them and thus cannot be reasoned or negotiated with.

Though I find it morally reprehensible, I think it’s fair to say that much of the Western world might have been willing to turn a blind eye to Putin’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, particularly if MH17 had never happened. But Putin and his cronies, paranoid and delusional as they are, could not resist pretending that they are running a relevant superpower. Hence the propaganda attacks, including high profile fabrications like “Liza” in Germany, and hence the cyber-attacks on targets like the DNC and various Western media outlets. Now the FBI suspects that Russian hackers might be targeting American voter registration databases, possibly trying to take over the GOP’s job of disenfranchising minority voters. Who knows for sure? The point is that after the MH17 and the sanctions, Putin should have reined in his propagandists, agents, and hackers. He should have tread lightly. But for some reason he felt he couldn’t, and he didn’t. And he soon might pay the price.

The West has been ridiculously tolerant of Putin’s antics for quite some time now. In the past Russia was a good business opportunity as an emerging market, and Putin generally didn’t screw around with his Western “partners.” Now he’s started and he can’t stop, and eventually Western patience is going to wear thin. Once that happens, you’re going to see retaliation, and it’s not going to be pretty for Russia.

Professor Mark Galeotti has in the past written about numerous measures the West could easily implement against Russia that will do far more than sanctions. Many a Putin fanboy dreams of a shooting war between NATO and Russia (which is odd because Russia would be crushed), but if the West decides to up the ante none of those precious Topol-Ms or Ka-52s are going to do any good. They can cut Russia off from SWIFT, impose blanket travel bans and asset freezes on whole swathes of Russian government officials and their family members, mess with trade, and even launch cyber-attacks of their own. Given the situation Russia is in now, the effects of a coordinated all-out economic warfare campaign would be devastating. Color revolution? No need. The Russian people have shown plenty of times in the past that their patience with incompetent leadership is also limited.

Putin’s Russia has been dubbed a “troll state” in the recent past- it’s not a serious threat to the West but it can cause a lot of trouble. But just as the internet troll cowers when made to face his targets in real life,  Russia may face a painful humiliation when the West finally tires of Putin’s angsty teenager act.

News from a parallel universe: ISIS Sanctions Renewed for Another Six Months

RAQQA– The US and European Union states have once again narrowly voted to renew targeted sanctions against the Islamic State (still commonly known as ISIS). In a press conference on Monday morning, US Secretary of State once again reiterated that sanctions would be removed as soon as the Islamic State complies with an agreement which would give the territories they control in Syria special status. ISIS leaders, meanwhile, called the sanctions “counter-productive” and promised “reciprocal measures” against those countries who support the sanctions regime.

Targeted sanctions were first imposed on ISIS following alleged attacks on the Yezidi minority in Iraq, attacks which the ISIS leadership has consistently denied.

“The Yezidi heretics were not killed by our people, but local farmers and tractor drivers who are fed up with Baghdad’s tolerance for heresy,” said an ISIS spokesperson in 2014, when news of the massacre broke.

The initial sanctions targeted key individuals in leadership of ISIS, but excluded family members. The sanctions were expanded later the same year when new allegations of ethic cleansing, sexual slavery, and beheadings of Yezidis and Christians surfaced. Not only was the list of travel bans and asset freezes expanded to include more members of the ISIS leadership, but new measures were put in place to limit ISIS’ access to Western financial markets and oil-drilling technology. Such sanctions are expected to severely limit ISIS’ ability to compete economically.

Yet in spite of the sanctions, many American and European banks and companies still do business with the self-proclaimed Caliphate. Timothy Hedges is a director of a London brokerage who says he still does a lot of business with ISIS.

“I don’t believe in letting politics get in the way of business,” Hedges said.

“Look, we live in a capitalist world, a free market world. These ISIS chaps have got money to invest and we’ve got people here who want to invest money there. You can’t let political rhetoric get in the way of that.”

But it’s not just money that’s changing hands when it comes to trade between ISIS and the West. A recent expose on British television shows how real estate agents in London sell luxury property to ISIS members, promising to protect their clients’ identity. On video one realtor is seen advising the undercover journalist posing as an ISIS official to create a special holding company that will officially own a London flat worth over 4 million pounds.

The ISIS presence is noticeable not only in London, but also in New York, where the son of one of ISIS’ propaganda networks has found himself an upscale apartment in gentrified Brooklyn. Ali, 24, laughed when asked about the sanctions on the Islamic State.

“Sanctions? What sanctions? Here I am living among the infidels in their greatest city,” Ali said.

“There are hundreds of us here. Same in London. The sanctions are a joke!”

Now that the sanctions have been in place for two years, continually renewed every six months, there have been signs of weakening resolve among the European states, many of which carried out lucrative trade with ISIS. Fringe politicians from Italy, Belgium, and France have spoken out against the sanctions, calling for them to be removed. Giovanni Buffone is a member of the Veneto parliament and one of the most fervent critics of the sanctions regime.

“We have carried out very lucrative trade with the Caliphate for many years now,” Buffone noted.

“But now because our weak leaders won’t stand up to the will of Washington, we will surely lose business. Is the safety of Iraq really worth it?”

Buffone’s statement is just one example of a growing number of voices in the business world calling for a removal of the sanctions regime.

It is not clear whether the sanctions will be renewed again in six months, but each time US officials have reminded ISIS that they will remove the sanctions as soon as ISIS fulfills its part of the peace agreement. ISIS, on the other hand, insists that it is not a party to the conflict in Iraq and Syria, and accuses the US and NATO of trying to encircle the “Islamic World.”

 

Russian out-Americas America

This is the most American thing you will see this month, but it happened in Russia. See that, gun nuts? You foolishly started whining about immigrants and safe spaces and look what happened- Russia beat you at your own game. You’re going to have to play something seriously complex to top this, and I’m guessing that most of you can only come up with “Free bird.” Better start practicing.

Slaughter those strawmen

While any satirical work is going to entail some hyperbole for comic effect, satire works best when it is at least rooted in truth. For example, if you read enough “realist” articles about Russia you will notice that they talk about negotiating with Russia while largely ignoring what Russia’s supposed to give up in return. Either that, or the proposed deal is weighted in Russia’s favor. Another common feature is the implication that America’s best interests are at home while Russia is allowed to find its national interests on its neighbors’ land or as far away as the Levant.

Satire doesn’t work if all your jokes are based on strawmen, or in other words, if they’re not true. Imagine I’m writing a satire aimed at mainstream American conservatives, for example, and I keep making references to them being stoners and always trying to enforce strict environmental regulations on everyone. This is totally ineffective because in general, American conservatives either don’t use recreational drugs or at least don’t advertise the fact that they do, and we all know how they hate environmental regulations of any kind. In short, satire works when it’s based on a kernel of truth.

With that out of the way, let’s look at an example of what not to do. This popped up in one of my news feeds and at first I thought it would be entertaining. Halfway through, however, it started to turn into a passive-aggressive attack on an army of poor, defenseless strawmen. The author is anonymous, but claims to have tried to work as a journalist in Russia without success. If you read the whole thing, I think it’s pretty clear that this happened because of the evil Western media conspiracy, which makes sure that only journalists who write “anti-Russian” work have careers.

Let’s unpack.

“On the bright side, while it is true that scores of journalists have been killed in Russia since the 1990s, foreign correspondents should have it slightly easier than local journalists, being allowed to work without the need to constantly put their life in danger, while posing as heroes fighting for liberty, truth, democracy, LGBT rights, Chechen independence, freedom, fair elections, and protesting against Russian propaganda.”

Here was the first red flag. The author correctly points out that yes, Russia is far less lethal for foreign correspondents (only one killed), but where are they getting this stuff about “posing as heroes” for all those things that follow it? Posing implies that you don’t actually believe in any of those things. Moreover, most of the Russia journalists I know don’t do this and aren’t interested in being seen as “heroes” for anything.

“I tried my hand at it once, many years ago, but I was very young, barely discovering my emerging skills at writing, and though I was very passionate about the cause and thought I knew a thing or two about what I was writing, I had not discovered the right formula to deliver the content I was expected to provide.”

Here it is, folks, that part where our anonymous hero was a visionary but the gatekeepers of the mainstream media couldn’t see their brilliance. Look, here’s a piece of advice. Maybe you did have a great writing style and unique insight or expertise on Russia, but then again maybe you didn’t, or maybe you were too “passionate about the cause”(what cause?), or whatever. When I say that my inbox isn’t swamped with invitations to conferences or job offers from major media outlets, I freely admit that on one hand it is due to politics, but on the other it is due to lack of academic credentials or in some cases experience. I realize that keeping my own style and point of view through most of my work is limiting, because it’s not necessarily what big outlets are looking for. I don’t imply that there’s some cabal of media guardians who don’t want me working for their outlets because they can’t handle the truth that I write. I accept limited prospects (which have been better than I could have imagined) as the price of remaining me.

I hope you’re ready for more passive aggression:

“I have come to realize however that, whatever the dangers might be, for many professional journalists from Europe or the US, spending one or two years in Russia may be a real life-time career investment: after some months spent there, you will deservedly become a respected and distinguished expert on all things Russian until your retirement.”

It’s interesting to me how these types always seem to assume that nobody can possibly have knowledge about Russia before moving there. I’m not talking about picking up a few books and skimming them as you prepare for your assignment. I’m talking about people actually studying Russian language, culture, and history in university, for example. I’m also not sure who these “distinguished experts” are. It sound more like a description of pundits rather than actual journalists.

“After all who goes to Russia voluntarily? There certainly must be some rewards if one is ready to sacrifice one or two years of their lives to live in a dirty, gray, squalid, corrupt and poor country surrounded by rude, aggressive and retrograde brutes.”

Again, a passive-aggressive strawman. These are your words, author, not theirs. The kind of complaints or jokes that many Russia correspondents make are the same as those made by ordinary Russians. In fact I’d say that most newcomers tend to be super idealistic and don’t get why Russians complain so much. To them, everything is magical and wonderful. You only really start to assimilate when you begin to hate the same things that Russians hate. They don’t like the mud and rain, the lack of sun, or the hell that is trying to accomplish any sort of transaction at Sberbank. None of these things are magical because they’re in Russia. They suck in your country and they suck here.

“Going to Russia and reporting from there will also provide you with the unique experience of joining the envied and exclusive club of the Moscow hack pack, where you will meet all these other eccentric and heroic individuals, some idealist reformers, some Oxford educated aristocrats, the inevitable New York Jew who feels tied to his Russian-speaking ancestors, and some mean spirited but good-at-heart intellectually restless and brave villains, who just like you, got stranded between Europe and Asia.”

Passive-aggression intensifies. For those who don’t know, the so-called Moscow Hack Pack, inasmuch as such a group formally exists, is nothing more than a Facebook group. Any member of the group can invite and authorize a new person, and many members are actually Russians as opposed to foreigners. In fact, many of the members aren’t even journalists but fixers, copyeditors, translators, etc. It’s not even remotely exclusive, my membership being strong evidence of this, and this cast of characters the author describes does not resemble anything like the parties I’ve been to. It’s clear that the author is describing these Western correspondents in a way that makes them unlikable, particularly with the “aristocrats” remark.

As for restless or eccentric well, that’s pretty much anyone who lives in Russia long term. And for the record, not all of us got “stranded” here. I’m here because however ridiculous and naive it might have been, I wanted to be here. It was my biggest goal from the end of high school until the day I left. But alas, I guess I don’t really love Russia on the deeper, molecular level that the author does. I don’t love it enough to conflate Russia and Russians with a particular government and its foreign policy. I don’t love it enough to pretend that Russia exists outside of a system based on antagonistic classes.

So the real slaughter of strawmen begins with a bullet-point list:

“You do not have to like Russia. What sane human being likes Russia anyway? At worst, it will only be a temporary stay, just enough for you to become more familiar with the realities of Russia, before your employer decides to post you somewhere else to prevent you from going native, that is to say, incapable of delivering objective reporting.”

From my experience, most of the Western correspondents I know like living in Russia. A number of them have worked in places that would make Russia look like paradise by comparison. It is rarely boring here, and no matter how bad things are you can always find some good in Russian society.

“It is good if you go to Russia with all your good old preconceived ideas: these are the ones that have been popular until now, and frankly, who are you, the newbie, to challenge the good old cliches anyway? After all, Russia is Russia is Russia. Read some of the masters and the classics in the genre of Russia “reporting”, like Edward Lucas and Masha Gessen and stick to their wisdom. They are professionals with a vast experience and you have a lot of things to learn from them. The readers know what to expect when they read about Russia, and you know what sort of people your readers are: idealist loners with a genuine wish to improve humanity and some weird, exotic interest in the dark and cursed corners of the planet, who are looking for the excitement they would otherwise find in a detective story; or your other type of readers, who are worried about the impending threat Russia poses to all of us naive fools who are too cowardly to recognize a threat when we see one.”

This one’s a bit long so I’ll break it down into two parts. First let’s tackle that thing about preconceived notions. The author is right to attack the practice of coming to Russia with preconceived ideas. For example, when I came to Russia my preconceived notion was that Putin was a patriot who was making his nation stronger, cleaning up corruption, and restoring Russian pride. I dismissed the Western media coverage of him because at the time I assumed they just hated him for all those aforementioned things he was doing. Luckily once I arrived it was blatantly obvious that this was all bullshit. Putin and his cronies were comfortably in bed with the West, which happily accepted their ill-gotten fortunes in Western banks and real estate markets, and which also invested billions into Russia. Good thing I gave up that preconceived notion, right?

Now for the second part, notice the only Russia journalists that are ever named are Ed Lucas and Masha Gessen. These are two members of the Trinity of Low-Hanging Fruit for Kremlin Apologists, the third member being Paul Goble. The implication is that other Western correspondents write like them. Uh no, they do not, in fact. If you can’t tell the difference, you’re not paying attention. And while Gessen is indeed hysterical at times, she did spent much of her life in Russia and speaks Russian. That ought to count for something.

And get a load of that description of the audience. Hey, guess what- that’s you, dear reader! You’re an idealistic loner who wants to save the world. I say let’s look at the audience for pro-Putin English-language media and see who has more loners and weirdos. Take a look at the comments section on any RT article some time.

I hope I’m not the only one that doesn’t find this incredibly pretentious beyond belief. The Western correspondents don’t really get it. The media outlets don’t get it. The audiences don’t get it. No, only this guy, who admits he failed at journalism in Russia, truly gets it. Sure.

“You don’t need to do your own investigative work. After all, you are in a foreign and dangerous country, and you’d better take care of yourself. Just read the newspapers, watch TV and talk to opposition politicians, particularly those who got so little votes that they failed to get into Parliament. In other countries, their voices would be “marginal”, that it is to say, insignificant. In Russia, their voices are “marginalized”, so well worth reporting.”

This one is really insulting. Just to give you an example why, here’s Simon Ostrovsky sitting in Moscow and reading some newspapers:

 

Ostrovsky’s work is extreme, but I can rattle off numerous “hack packers” who have reported from front lines in Ukraine, often on both sides. Many have literally put their lives in danger when reporting on this war. In fact, so have I. That’s why I get a bit pissed when I see some self-acknowledged failed journalist implying that Western Russia correspondents just hang out in Moscow, surf the net, and meet with opposition candidates.

Next a word on those opposition candidates. When someone asks why such candidates get that amount of attention it is an indicator that they know little about Russian politics. When you cover politics, you’re supposed to cover controversy and conflict. That’s why the Tea Party got so much attention, for example. The problem in Russian politics is that the official opposition parties don’t really oppose the government or more accurately, the president, on any issue of significance. Anyone who does gets seriously “marginalized.” Just ask Ilya Ponomarev.

The fact is that such opposition parties are marginalized. Their candidates and supporters have suffered everything from arrests to assaults, and in the case of Nemtsov- assassination. They are typically banned from the ballot in most regions. They often get no media coverage save for the occasional story about how they’re secret agents of the United States.

As for the official opposition parties, as I wrote in an update to my last post, this is basically a trap. If you report on the bombastic antics of the LDPR or the Stalin rehabilitation of the KPRF, as many reporters do from time to time, the pro-Kremlin people can just claim those are opposition parties that have nothing to do with Putin. You’re “smearing” Russia by implying that they have real power. If you don’t report on them, you’re focusing on marginal opposition figures. You just can’t win.

“You don’t need to study Russian (a smattering of Russian will be more than enough). Opposition politicians generally speak English very well, especially these self-exiled martyrs who have fled Russia for abroad. They might live outside of Russia now, but nobody has so much insider information about the inner diabolical workings of the Kremlin and so much insight into the bully psychopathic soul of Vladimir Putin. In fact, opposition politicians will court you, because they are careful to avoid Russian state propaganda media. Limited knowledge of Russian will also keep your exposure to Russian propaganda under check. Putin’s propaganda won’t fool you.”

Most of the correspondents I know either have a working professional knowledge of Russian or they are fluent in it (sometimes because it was their first language). But maybe that doesn’t matter. They don’t really know Russian like this author. There’s actually some kind of deeper Russian, so powerful that when you use it in conversation you actually make a connection with the other speaker’s magical Russian soul.

Oh and about interviewing opposition politicians, again I know plenty of people who interview die-hard regime supporters like Evgeny Fedorov (Marc Bennetts does so in his book I’m Going to Ruin Their Lives) or Night Wolves motorcycle club leader Aleksandr “The Surgeon” Zaldostanov. Western journalists have interviewed cossacks, volunteers in the Donbas, Sergei Markov, and of course Putin himself, on occasion.

As a final note, I find that a working knowledge of Russian is what protects you from “Putin’s propaganda.”

“Always remind the reader about Putin’s (preferably accompanied by the adjective “sinister”) KGB past. If you have some space left, do not fail to point out that in reality Putin was just a low level unglamorous employee posted to an insignificant provincial town in Eastern Germany, which does not make him anyway less sinister however. Putin is a nonentity, Putin is a nobody, but he is a dangerous tyrant who wants world domination too.”

The author nearly had a point here until the screwed it all up. Yes, there was and in some cases still is an irritating habit of always pointing out Putin’s KGB past any time he is mentioned. There are times when it is relevant, but this is way overused.

However, one reason it is overused is for the reason the author provides, namely that he was basically a desk jockey. Contrary to his implication, most journalists don’t point this out, and it has bolstered Putin’s mystique.

It’s probably worth pointing out that while Putin’s position was indeed not glamorous, he was stationed in Dresden, the capital of Saxony, and not some “insignificant provincial town in Eastern Germany.” Gee, the global Western media conspiracy really missed out on a great Russia expert here!

“Whatever action Russia takes, it is aggressive. For example Russia aggressively annexed Crimea (actually not a single shot was fired) and aggressively allowed for an aggressive referendum to take place in March 2014. Or like President Poroshenko put it last week, “the aggressor Russia, (with whom Ukraine is fighting a war) aggressively closes its markets, which amounts to economic aggression”. Not only the aggressor is aggressively attacking your country, it is also, aggressively, refusing to trade with your country!”

Whatever action? No, just the acts of aggression. The author excuses the annexation of the Crimea (which began with a military operation to secure the Crimean parliament building) because it was carried out without a shot fired. Well guess what- the Anschluss, the annexation of the Sudetenland, and the annexation of what was left of Czechoslovakia were all accomplished without a shot fired. Incidentally, the author is wrong about no shots being fired, and the takeover was far from non-violent; in some cases it was lethal. Incidentally one correspondent of mine had his camera stolen from him by Russian military personnel in the Crimea. Serves him right for not staying in Moscow and interviewing opposition figures!

Back to the question of aggression, seizing other countries’ land by military force, even if they rarely resort to using deadly force, is still aggression, period. Does anyone have the slightest belief that the author would approve of the US doing the same thing?

But you know what’s really funny? The author seems to be leaving out something. There’s a remark about Ukraine fighting a war with Russia, but no word as to who started it. For all we know, maybe Ukraine invaded and occupied Kursk or Rostov-na-Donu. Why mention aggression and then not bring up the Donbas? Instead the author mentions Poroshenko’s reference to a trade war. What the author doesn’t seem to know is that Russia had already pulled this trick…prior to Maidan.

Russia used trade and “sanctions” as a method of dissuading Yanukovych from signing the EU Association Agreement.  Here’s a relevant passage from that article:

“Glazyev, speaking on the sidelines of the discussion, said the exact opposite was true: “Ukrainian authorities make a huge mistake if they think that the Russian reaction will become neutral in a few years from now. This will not happen.”

Instead, he said, signing the agreement would make the default of Ukraine inevitable and Moscow would not offer any helping hand. “Russia is the main creditor of Ukraine. Only with customs union with Russia can Ukraine balance its trade,” he said. Russia has already slapped import restrictions on certain Ukrainian products and Glazyev did not rule out further sanctions if the agreement was signed.

The Kremlin aide added that the political and social cost of EU integration could also be high, and allowed for the possibility of separatist movements springing up in the Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine. He suggested that if Ukraine signed the agreement, Russia would consider the bilateral treaty that delineates the countries’ borders to be void.”

Hmmm…Glazyev. That name sounds familiar. Glazyev…borders void…separatist movements…OH RIGHT! THIS THING! Isn’t it weird how the thing they threatened Ukraine with in 2013 actually happened almost exactly as they said it would?

So no, Western journalists don’t call everything Russia does “aggression.” Only the aggressive stuff. And on that note, Russian state media loves to brag about Russia’s military and nuclear capabilities. When you do that, people might see you as aggressive, particularly if you’ve invaded your neighbor. On to the next point.

“No explanation is too far-fetched. 9/11 truthers, it is widely known, are a bunch of lunatic conspiracy theorists. Russia actually had its own little 9/11 two years earlier, in September 1999, when bombs were detonated in Moscow and other cities killing almost 300 people. It has become common place in the media universal consensus on Russia that these bombs were actually planted in the apartments by FSB agents who were trying to create a pretext for the next invasion of Chechnya. The tragic accident is often remembered because it brought about the rise of Putin, who had left his post as FSB director, where he served for eight months, and had just been nominated Prime Minister by Eltsin.”

While the truth will probably never be known until after the regime’s archives are opened, I would ask the author to look at the concrete evidence provided for both conspiracies before declaring them to be equal. And another thing to consider is that the idea that this was a false-flag was not cooked up in the Western media but rather in Russia. Lastly, if this was a false-flag, it was a crime of the Yeltsin administration and not Putin, who could not have organized such a thing at the time. Putin no doubt became aware of what happened somewhere down the road and thus this incident is probably one of many reasons why he’s afraid to leave power.

“Putin is a macho. What could possibly be worse than being a man, and not just any man, but a man who pretends to pose as a manly man? The age of men is over. Men should not be allowed to be men, otherwise they become machos. Putin may have been seen shirtless a couple of times or two. Angela Merkel has been spotted naked. Somehow the press does not show the pictures of the German Chancellor naked every time there is a passing reference to her. It must be because she does not look so good naked.”

What’s a pro-Kremlin article without a little bit of creepiness. The thing isn’t that Putin is macho, it’s that he wants to be seen as such so badly. He’s constantly appearing in photo ops riding motorcycles, shooting guns, running around shirtless. He’s not simply “spotted” this way. Putin’s media machine promoted this macho image so they’re responsible for the reactions. And no, I don’t see references to shirtless Putin any time there’s a passing reference to him. I think I’ll just take the author’s word on the Merkel thing.

“If somebody online is expressing a view which might be interpreted as a slight display of sympathy towards Russia, you can assume pretty much without doubt that you are dealing with a paid Kremlin troll. There are actually millions of them and they are extremely infectious, their sole task is to transform the naive online users into Putin worshiping zombies, so the best way to deal with them is to ignore their inherently worthless arguments while naming-and-shaming them. If your article or your book receive a bad review, do not worry at all, it is the work of professional online trolls.”

I’ve often written about how ridiculously overused the term “Kremlin troll” is. For one thing, people need to be aware that these pro-Putin citizens of theirs have been around for a long time, some before the advent of the St. Petersburg troll factories and some even before the founding of RT. Instead of pretending this phenomenon is some kind of artificial foreign invasion, they should look at the problems in their society which alienate people so much that they’re willing to fantasize about some foreign government being their potential savior.

Now that being said, don’t worry, author. If you told me that nobody pays you to write, I’d believe it 100%.

“Russia is on the brink of economic collapse, but it has billions of dollars to invest in propaganda operations to subvert the Western liberal order.”

More like hundreds of million now, but that’s beside the point. Venezuela is on the brink of collapse and yet they still fund Telesur. As for that Western liberal order, well, it is subverting itself with its internal contradictions.

“If somebody is killed in Russia, the first thing to do is to blame the Kremlin for the assassination. After all, centuries of history have proven that Russia is a genocidal country.”

Russia has a higher homicide rate than the US, so that would be a lot of murderers pinned on the Kremlin, don’t you think? And yeah, when outspoken Kremlin opponents are gunned down in a country where getting firearms is no easy task, people are going to look toward the Kremlin. The last political assassination included as one of its suspects a man connected to one of Russia’s most powerful men, Ramzan Kadyrov. The killing was carried out within sight of the Kremlin walls. Yeah that strongly suggests some state involvement, doesn’t it?

“Putin wants to invade the Baltics. Nobody understands what Putin wants, nobody can understand him because he is illogical and insane. Indeed Putin has no reason why and Russia has shown no intention to invade the Baltics but this is exactly reason why Putin will do it. How can you be insane if you don’t do insane things?”

This is the one argument I’d totally agree with, but even here it fails because the link used as an example goes to the Atlantic Council think tank and I don’t see many Russia correspondents taking this threat seriously. I strongly suspect that the author had Ed Lucas and possibly Anne Applebaum in mind when they wrote this whole piece, but I don’t understand why they didn’t just call those people out. Instead they go after this exclusive “hack pack,” which as far as I know, never included either of those authors.

This seems to be a common tactic of some Putin fanboys, as I’ve often seen it before in Op-Edges on RT. Basically you smear Western correspondents in general, then pick some low hanging fruit, many of whom are more pundits than journalists these days, and the reader thinks that the rest of those Western journalists are the same. Guess what- they’re not. Actually read what they write some time.

But in case the author hasn’t insulted your intelligence enough, they end with a cover of Der Spiegel magazine that says, in German, “Stop Putin Now!” This is supposed to show how hysterical and biased the Western media is. Yet looking at the cover and the date, it looks as though it is a photo collage of victims from the MH17 incident. These people were killed with Russian weapons, by Russian-backed forces, in a war started by Russia. But the author looks at this and smirks at how irrational the Western media supposedly is toward Putin.

Can’t imagine why those Western outlets never hired this individual. Must be because they all secretly hate Russia. If the author’s still up for the job I’m sure RT will take them. They’ll hire anyone.

Overkill

Sunday’s Duma elections were dubbed by some experts to be the most boring in Russian history. Low turnout was expected, and received, with a historic figure of roughly 48%. Not surprisingly, the Kremlin’s United Russia party won in a major landslide, now controlling about 76% of the Duma, enough for a constitutional majority if such a thing even mattered in Russian politics. And as the savvy Russia watcher no doubt suspected, there were plenty of reports of election rigging via the usual methods- ballot stuffing, carousel voting, etc.

The thing that gets me is why they even bothered to engage in rigging this vote. United Russia was already projected to win big, and so far those alleging that the vote was rigged say that United Russia should have 40 fewer seats- this still leaves 65 seats that they would have picked up anyway without any manipulation. Off the top of my head I can’t say if that would still give them the mandate to change the constitution, but anyone who knows Russian politics understands that if the constitution needs to be changed, it will be changed, period. Hell, most of the time the state ignores it anyway, particularly those parts that say there is no censorship, that the state is completely secular, etc.

The usual expert chatter suggests that this election is about gauging popular opinion toward the government (which is much lower than Putin’s approval ratings, because apparently Putin’s such a great leader he has no idea what his own government does), and that if anything it might signify a change in the Kremlin’s domestic policies (HINT: this tends to be negative) or a reorganization of the elites. My position is to wait and see, but I think by so stacking the Duma with loyal United Russia deputies, Putin might have seriously undercut a very important narrative that helped sustain his relations with the outside world.

Putin has long played the role of a moderate, willing to do business with the West. United Russia’s main opponent have always been the “Liberal Democratic” party and the “Communist” party, both very inappropriately named. The message is really obvious. “Deal with me, otherwise you’ll get this Communist Zyuganov who will nationalize everything including your investment! Or you might end up with this raving nationalist Zhirinovsky, who’ll launch a nuclear war to build a new Russian empire, or something.”

Now before I point out how Sunday’s elections has undermined this claim I must digress and point out that yes, Putin has a succession problem. If Putin either died or was incapacitated, someone from United Russia would most likely take his place, and you could write pages about that problem alone. Now if Putin and all of United Russia suddenly disappeared then yes, the next in line would be the “Communists.” But whether Putin is followed by right-wing nationalists or, well, right-wing Communists, the bottom line is that Russia faces this devil’s bargain because of Putin, or more accurately his servant Surkov. When someone challenges with “who, if not Putin,” they are tacitly admitting that Russia has failed to produce more than one leader capable of running the country in nearly two decades. And who, exactly was in charge during that time? Oh right- Putin.

Having got that out of the way, Putin already started chipping away at this pillar of support in 2014, if not earlier. I have to be honest and say that even I believed the Putin-as-moderate lie as late as 2013. In fact earlier, when there were protests in the streets of Moscow, I couldn’t understand why the “Communists” were not leading the movement, nor why they would later back down. After all, they were the ones who stood the most to gain from fair elections. In 2014, no competent person could hold onto the delusion that these parties represent any opposition to Putin. In fact, on one occasion Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a nominal presidential opponent of Putin, publicly called for the end of elections in Russia and for Putin to be made “Supreme Commander.” Could you imagine Romney saying this about Obama in 2012?

Now, not only has the curtain dropped so that more outsiders realize it’s Putin pulling the strings, but Putin’s party holds a constitutional majority in the Duma. This means that Putin can’t possibly use the “opposition” to excuse his behavior. Whatever Russia does can now be attributed to Putin and his party even by those who still naively entertain the notion that the other parties in the Duma are actually opposed to the president’s whims. In other words, the charade is over.

It kind of reminds me of the transformation of Russian state media that occurred in 2013-2014. Prior to that, you could actually find Russian state-owned media outlets that were quite balanced, even favoring real opposition viewpoints. Rather than hold onto these outlets as a way to counter Western claims that all Russian state media is nothing but pro-Kremlin propaganda, they decided to liquidate them and turn the whole state media into a propaganda bullhorn. And then they throw a tantrum when people call them propagandists, even though they willingly became propagandists of their own accord.

Typical Kremlin decision process here. Decide that your opponent does the thing that you want to do, without questioning whether this is actually true. Do the thing you wanted to do in the first place. Throw a fit when you get called out. Repeat.

So it is with this election. They decided that the strong majority they had in the Duma was not enough, so they artificially increased it even though they were already projected to gain seats. Now more observers will be even more justified in calling the Duma a rubber-stamp parliament, and naturally Duma deputies and various Russian politicians will screech about these accusations even though they were the ones that made the Duma what it is.

UPDATE: I recently ran across this on Twitter:

Basically Putin gave his “opponent” Zhirinovsky an award, and in response Zhirinovsky recites the old Russian imperial anthem “God Save the Tsar.” Yes, this guy is an opponent of Putin. Without Putin and the United Russia majority, this guy would totally take over and nuke Europe. That’s a plausible scenario, which is why we must support Putin and his party at all costs, even if they resort to election fraud.

And to anyone (including myself a few years ago) who asks why foreign media often passes up these “opposition” parties to focus on non-systemic opposition figures who have minuscule support, there’s a very simple answer. First of all, there’s little reason to cover opposition parties that don’t oppose the regime in any meaningful way. Politics is supposed to be about conflict, at least in a functioning democracy.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if Western journalists focused more on these “radical” parties and the antics of their leaders, the pro-Kremlin “information warriors” would all scream about how the Western media is panicking about the empty threats and bombastic rhetoric of opposition parties who are not in power and have little to no influence, and thank God for Putin to keep them in check. In other words, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.