Monthly Archives: September 2013

All aboard the stupid train! PART I

It’s been a pretty lucky week for me seeing as how just a few days after I posted an article about the popular Russian attitude toward dissent, I get a link to an article which so perfectly demonstrates the kind of hypocrisy I was trying to describe. I was pleased until roughly minutes later I discovered John McCain’s rambling, incoherent address to the Russian people.  On one hand I have to do twice as much work in the short term while the subject is still relevant. On the other hand, the two articles compared side-by-side do give the reader a good example of how idiotic the Russia vs. USA dichotomy really is.  What follows is my deconstruction of the the two articles, beginning with Mark Stolyar’s craptacular piece on Voice of Russia entitled “Classical US despocracy or democracy 2.0?”

Now be forewarned, if you’re a Team Russia supporter who can’t handle any criticism of your beloved adopted homeland(which you may never have actually been to) no matter how accurate or how qualified,  you might want to leave this blog and go back to your Russian porn or foreign bride sites until I post my critique of Senator McCain’s article. At least there’ll be some fap material for you in that.

Before I begin I have to make something absolutely clear.  I don’t believe that democracy, by definition, exists in the world today.  Liberal, representative democracy is not actual democracy because it runs up against the contradictions of capitalist society.  Since the interests of the capitalist and that of the workers are inherently opposed, one side must dominate the other.  While theoretically anyone can run for public office in a liberal democracy, it’s no coincidence that our “representatives” just happen to come from the upper classes of society. They tend to be former businessmen and lawyers, or in any case people with respectable stock portfolios and considerable personal assets. You don’t see them taking a second job delivering pizzas to supplement a meager income from the state.  Even if working people, being a majority, could somehow elect candidates which better represent their interests, so long as the state is organized on capitalist lines it would be forced by necessity to enact laws which benefit business.  Business after all means tax revenue, the lifeblood of the state.  The capitalist state, regardless of its organization, must choose between needs of workers and needs of businessmen, and it invariably sides with the latter unless forced to do otherwise by the former.  If Europe truly had democracy, “austerity” would have been driven from the public discourse years ago. The people would never willingly agree to sacrifice their own living standards to pay for the mistakes of a handful of businessmen who demand the preservation of their lavish lifestyles even after bankrupting their own countries.  Obviously I could write much more on this topic but for now this will suffice.

The reason I need to make my position on democracy so painfully clear is because when it comes to Russia the word gets thrown around so often it tends to lose its meaning.  In fact I have to lay the blame for this at the feet of Russia’s liberals and their supporters. Their rhetoric often implies that democracy is simply something which exists in Europe and the USA but not in Russia,  and therefore if Russia could just have that magical thing which allegedly exists in the West, Russia would be democratic.  From my class-based point of view, aspiring for Russia to be “democratic” in the Western sense is aiming low.  Liberal support for oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov’s political campaign only goes to prove my assertion that liberals would simply exchange one group of billionaires with another, the exact same thing Putin did when he came to power.  An end to the United Russia Putin-Medvedev “tandem” would only give us a wider variety of millionaires and billionaires running Russia, but those new faces would be every bit as disconnected and isolated from the citizenry as Putin and his cronies are now.  It’s worth remembering that all these villains and “heroes” share the same neighborhoods outside of Moscow.  Yet if we limit ourselves to the frame of bourgeois liberalism, we can judge Russia to be far less democratic than other industrialized nations. Therefore when I refute the author’s claims about Russian democracy I am purposely limiting myself to the liberal, bourgeois definition and not that which I believe is a more accurate definition of democracy.  You have been warned.

I don’t know much about Voice of Russia but with headlines like “Discovery of unmarked military base in Las Vegas sparks concerns over martial law coming to America” I don’t have high hopes.  Note to Russian journalists for future reference: We have had yahoos screaming about martial law being “just around the corner” for decades. It was always just after the next terrorist attack, the next mass shooting, the next natural disaster. Clearly something is holding up that arbitrary imposition of martial law, but I digress. The article in question begins with some poorly-constructed sentences and a little victory dance.

Mr. Putin’s article has voiced what millions of Americans secretly thought all this time. No, there is no mistake about the president’s surname. My feeling is that for the first time in US history a foreign president has beaten the American leader on his own turf. Barack Obama failed to convince his nation, letting his popularity slip even lower since the NSA surveillance outrage. Even his G20 trip to St. Petersburg passed unnoticed, indicating that a G20 summit without Obama would be just as successful. That was Russia’s big moment. And we made use of it to 150%.

Where do begin with this abortion of a paragraph?  So as to save time I’ll ignore the bizarre red herring sentence about the president’s surname and focus on the idiotic claim that Putin voiced what Americans “secretly thought.”  Polls show that the idea of war with Syria was ridiculously unpopular among Americans even prior to the alleged chemical attack which prompted the recent diplomatic clusterfuck.  But if that didn’t convince you, perhaps you should read about the anti-war protesters besieging John Kerry’s house or the 60 activists who stormed senator Bill Nelson’s Jacksonville office to demand he renounce his militant stance on Syria. The former occurred on 2 September, nearly ten days before Putin’s op-ed in the NY Times appeared.  The latter occurred on the 12th, but seeing as how protests like this are planned in advance it would be nothing short of idiocy to imagine that these people’s actions were somehow inspired by the words of Putin. In fact, nobody in the US media, including the pro-war side, seems to be suggesting that the anti-war opposition is taking its line from Putin.

Another thing that’s worth noting when looking at these anti-war demonstrations is the stark difference they bear compared to Russian opposition protests.  Here is a mob outside John Kerry’s house, and you can’t see any police. I think we can safely surmise that no permit was required for this action, unlike in Russia where permits are strictly controlled, and as far as I could find nobody was arrested despite the fact that demonstrators actually knocked on the door and pounded on the windows.   Unsanctioned protests are routinely broken up by police in Russia and anyone attempting to do something like this would risk getting shot long before they ever approached the walls of a Russian politician’s Rublevka compound.

Americans, secretly thinking about opposing military action in Syria and hoping that Vladimir Putin will make it safe for them to voice their thoughts.

Americans, secretly thinking about opposing military action in Syria and hoping that Vladimir Putin will make it safe for them to voice their thoughts.

Numerous organizations in the US representing a wide variety of different political views have been expressing their opposition to Western support of the Syrian rebels for almost as long as this conflict has been going on.  Mark is on Team Russia, however, so he has no respect for those people, nor does he attempt to understand why they so freely express their opposition to the government on foreign policy matters.  He refers to the Russian government as “we” in the same way a football fan talks about his team. It’s clear he doesn’t have a shred of respect or sympathy for the anti-war protesters in the US. Let us move on.

The Russian leader and Russian diplomacy should be applauded for this fine game they played in the Syrian conflict. Apparently, the solution to it was there all this time, but Obama’s tough talk left him no leeway. At one point he realized that any word or action of his would only backfire. And it did. The political ball is in the Russian court, despite John Kerry’s claims or Mr. McCain’s taunting remarks on Twitter.

This kind of writing reminds me of something I might have written back when I was 19 and firmly on Team Russia. If Putin truly had a solution to this crisis what was stopping him from bringing it up months ago?  What stopped him from taking any action to protect Gaddafi in Libya?  The truth is that nothing is in Russia’s court because it cannot really do anything if NATO decides to attack, even at present.  In fact, Russia’s solution entails disarming Syria and leaving it more or less open to the prying eyes of foreign nations, some of which may be members of NATO or friendly to NATO countries.  Regardless of how one feels about chemical weapons, they are Syria’s only deterrent against a massive conventional invasion aimed at regime change.  Now Russia is working with the US to take that away, all the while posing as the hero.  This has worked out so well for Putin, who just last year had been facing unprecedented opposition in the streets, that one could reasonably suggest that the whole deal might have been arranged to come out exactly as it did.  Obama takes a dive but gets Syria disarmed, Putin gains popularity and silences opposition with the patriotism card, and thus the US and Europe maintain the regime which gives them stability in Russia.

It is now obvious that the very “reset,” which the then US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, made such a show of last year, has finally taken its course, though it came not from above, as Clinton’s PR campaign, but from the grassroots level as could be seen in Twitter and Facebook messages of many common Americans.

There’s not much I have to say about this except that when Russians complain about the government or when there are literally thousands of reports of suspicious behavior during elections, Team Russia pundits will insist that these are all lies made up by the CIA or that the complainers are just liberal traitors.  Yet if Americans voice opposition to their government, something which pretty much happens all the time, suddenly Team Russia is on their side.  See what I mean by patronizing?  Remember he said that it was Vladimir Putin that gave a voice to Americans who were keeping their thoughts on the matter secret.  People like these in Los Angeles, or maybe these people in Washington. Oh…Wait…No. Those actions both occurred prior to the appearance of Putin’s op-ed, the one that was supposed to give them a voice and let them express their thoughts in public.

Next he goes on to cherry-pick some random things posted by random people on Facebook, but then follows it up with this gem:

The other side of the coin is critical responses about Vladimir Putin’s meddling with “our American business.” There is, of course, a place for nationalism and blind patriotism in any country, as well as people who fall for every word of their leader.

Of course. This guy wouldn’t know anything about nationalism, blind patriotism, or slavishly following some leader. What he also probably didn’t note was that many people expressing anger about this war also have no love for Putin whatsoever, particularly since he approved a number of ridiculously backward laws since late last year.  Apparently they’re right when their opinions align with that of the Russian government, but they must be totally insane to criticize Putin over his internal policies.  Totally oblivious this one is.  The idea that someone could agree with one policy while opposing them on other issues is totally lost on Team Russia.

The massive interest that Putin’s article evoked and its appeal to the common public instead of sulky, nerdy pundits, mean that Vladimir Putin told the Americans as much as they felt deep in their hearts. Naturally, some of them have been irked to hear the words they expected from their own president coming from a foreign leader (“Who does he think he is to write about us?”). On the contrary, others came to realize they are an integral part of the world community that is larger than the US Empire, proving that a different opinion can yet crack the shell of American propaganda.

This mess of gibberish is difficult to untangle, but it is clear that Mark really has no understanding whatsoever of US politics or the American people.  First a minor point.  I generally hate all pundits but nerdy and sulky tends to best describe American members of Team Russia, particularly those who haven’t even visited the country.  The truth is that Putin didn’t “tell” Americans anything. I was involved in anti-war protests going back to 2003 just before the beginning of the war against Iraq.  I got into shouting matches with counter-protesters who were sponsored by the local conservative talk radio station and who called us “traitors.”  For years people like me endured every jingoistic cliche you can imagine.  Love it or leave it.  The troops are dying for your right of free speech so don’t use it.  You’re protesting for Saddam. Why do you hate America?  We encountered that because after 9/11 the media scared half the population out of their wits.  Logic went out the window and many people who had previously had the privilege of ignoring world events suddenly couldn’t feel safe unless America was bombing someone.  As Bush’s second term came to an end things started to change. More people calmed down and started to look at the war rationally.  That’s why this current drive to war failed so spectacularly among both conservatives and liberals as opposed to the fringes of politics.  Nobody needed Putin’s approval to think for themselves.

The US is starting to lose its leverage as the global policeman and its standing as a world power, not because the world’s biggest economy is in tatters and it cannot print out some more dollars, but because the times have changed. The Syrian crisis has shown that the US can’t just ignore the UN and strike at Syria, even after coercing its fund-addicted allies into backing it.

Here it’s pretty clear that the author isn’t opposed to world powers which dominate other countries via military force but rather just world powers that aren’t Russia.  Also the problems with the American economy really depend on which perspective you view it from. If you’re an investor or CEO the US economy is doing wonderfully.  If you’re a worker, well…

The reason for it lies inside America. Your own people don’t share your viewpoint, Mr. Obama! It is they who averted your warheads from Syria.

As is typical the author expresses no solidarity with the American opposition but rather seems to be mocking Obama for their failure to support him.  This is what I was alluding to in my other article on dissent.  When discussing these matters with most Russians you will always feel this strong vibe that they view Americans who protest against the government as defective traitors to their own government.  The author treats Obama’s failure to rally the American people behind the war as though it were a case of erectile dysfunction, and embarrassment.  I’ve never been an Obama supporter but the guy’s slick marketing campaign managed to gather a very effective movement around him in the past, one far larger than Putin’s fan club and which doesn’t need to be paid to appear at public rallies.  Compare the photos of Putin’s last inauguration with those of Obama’s.

It was not all thanks to Vladimir Putin’s article in The New York Times that only served as a catalyst for the public outcry. Did you catch a glimpse of half America taking to the streets when you looked through the window at your White House residence, Mr. Obama? Remember those rallies spreading across all major cities? Remember when your police taught Occupy Wall Street protesters democracy with the help of fists and batons?

Finally he admits that Putin didn’t mobilize the American people, yet still insists on calling it a catalyst for public outcry.  That is an impressive catalyst indeed, considering it managed to cause massive reactions long before it even existed.  As for the comments about Occupy Wall Street well, how did Occupy Moscow work out?  Oh…Right.  Permits had to be obtained to have demonstrations. The city gets to decide where the protest can take place.  Most often this was Bolotnaya square, away from the center, Red Square, and Tverskaya where it would be more noticeable.  Often right outside the metro the streets are lined with riot police which stretch all the way to the meeting place and surround the entire perimeter.  You cannot cross the line and you must move like a herd of cattle through a handful of metal detectors.  When it’s time to leave you force your way back.  I wasn’t at Occupy Wall Street though I’m very familiar with police brutality and abuse connected with Occupy but as I have alluded to above, protesting is far easier in the United States. Most of the time you don’t even need a permit and usually people are free to walk in and out of the protest area as they please.  This is why massive police brutality or lock-downs such as that which occurred in Chicago during the NATO conference are so shocking to Americans.

Now brace yourself…

We are so used to talking about America’s “classical democracy” that we hardly ever give a second thought to what it really means.

Indeed, though I rarely hear people speak of America’s “classical democracy.”  One would think that is a more appropriate label for Athenian democracy.  If we limit ourselves to the bourgeois definition of democracy, America’s system could be considered fairly weak.  It is still more democratic than post-Soviet Russia.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2006), “democracy,” or the rule of people, is a political system based on collective decision-making with an equal impact of all its participants on the outcome or on its main stages. In a nutshell, the people are entitled to choose their own leaders that are to protect their interests, and everyone has a say. Could it be that the Americans have forgotten about it? Or is it the US leadership that is trying to narrow the concept of democracy?

Does this describe Russia? Is Russia ruled by the people? Are the people entitled to choose their own leaders and do they protect their interests?   See usually when this issue comes up I find myself tangling with Team West and Russian liberals.  They say they want democracy in Russia and they assume that European countries or the United States have democracy.  I am trying to convince them that this is not a worthy goal and that they should strive for a system more democratic than what exists in the world today, especially in the United States.  Having said that, since no actual democracy exists in the world it isn’t a stretch to point out that Russia is not a democracy by any stretch of the imagination.

The Syrian case was a wake-up call for the US government that suddenly realized that the people behind them may have their own opinion.

Again there’s that passive-aggressive, “HA HA! YOU’RE PEOPLE ARE DEFECTIVE AND DON’T DO WHAT YOU SAY!”  So were the protests in late 2011 and 2012 against corruption in elections also a sign of Russians forming their own opinion about their government? Of course not! It was a CIA-backed “Orange revolution” to replace Putin with a pro-Western candidate who didn’t really exist.

Over the past 50 years, the goals of American presidents and their administrations have boiled down to pursuing their money interests at the expense of their nation. The “Emperors” soon felt constrained by the boundaries of North America as they were driven them further on.

Clearly this guy needs to read up on his history. If you don’t count Manifest Destiny itself as an example of American imperialism, the United States more or less “officially” became an empire after the Spanish American War. Last time I checked, the Philippines were beyond the boundaries of North America.  America quickly jettisoned old school European colonialism in favor of neo-colonialism, a remarkable innovation whereby the people you’re exploiting, should they rebel, end up killing their own people rather than yours.   It should be noted that during this same time, Russia was an empire, similarly expanding its borders into Central Asia at the expense of millions of illiterate, impoverished people.  During the post-Stalin Soviet era the USSR began to act like its opponent and impose its will on other countries.  Typically the Soviets offered their support with strings attached, and while they were usually backing regimes which were progressive in contrast to those backed by the West, imperialism is imperialism.  Those regimes all floundered with the collapse of the USSR.

The central truth, however, is that all capitalist governments uphold “money interests” at the expense of the majority.  Russia is no different from this.  Putin doesn’t care about the Syrian people any more than Obama or Kerry does.

Were airstrikes against Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan in the interests of grassroots Americans? Would any sane American truly wish death to men and women, children and the elderly that fell victim to political and military ambitions of a hundred senators?

Were the two Chechen wars in the interests of Russians?  Is that ridiculous money hole in Sochi in the interests of millions of people who don’t even have the opportunity to visit Sochi at any time?  See sycophants like Mark like these questions if Americans are asking them. If Russians ask they are treasonous liberals.

So much for “classical democracy.” Is that is the kind of cookie-cutter “democracy” the US intends to plant worldwide, I doubt that anyone including me would want it that way.

It is clear that America does not spread its own form of “democracy” around the world because governments like that of Afghanistan and Iraq do not resemble the American system at all.  Our politicians, however cynical they may be, would never be so stupid as to tell Iraqis that they should have an electoral college so as to eventually limit their government to exactly two parties.

The post-Soviet Russia has a long way before it. Our democracy is still young, but it is a totally new kind of democracy, Democracy v2.0, which relies on the people and protecting the sovereignty of those who don’t have enough weapons to stand up to an aggressor, not on money and military lobbyists. This is our democracy and our duty. Do you have a problem with that, Mr. Obama?

I have to admit I like the way the author seems to save his most idiotic statement for the end. It’s like a grand finale of stupid.  Where to begin? Oh right. Russia is not a democracy. Not by my definition, not by the liberal definition, not by any definition of the word which has any basis in reality. Even if one insists that Putin was fairly elected one would have to justify him running a third time, and possibly a for a fourth.  See in the US we might have this ridiculous system of two parties which exchange power every few years but at least they have to keep finding new people to run.  If Putin and Medvedev don’t see any need for having an undue amount of power they should nominate new candidates.  Putin could replace Medvedev with another person as prime minister.  If this is a democracy and there is no need for keeping an iron grip on power what difference would it make?  Of course the truth is that Russia isn’t a democracy, even by the liberal definition, and Putin and Medvedev maintain each other in power because if they lose it they’re afraid whoever takes their place might turn on them, even if he’s a member of their party.

Moreover, how would Russia’s alleged “democracy 2.0” AKA “the shitty, not-real democracy” be defined by standing up for some other country’s sovereignty?  Was this author not concerned about the original definition of democracy? Since when did foreign policy have anything to do with internal democracy?  And if the Russian government is so concerned with national sovereignty why does it hand out passports like candy to people living in unrecognized countries?  Here’s a hint: It’s not because the government truly cares about the self-determination of Abkhazians or Ossetians.  In fact if they really believed in that they’d push for recognition of those countries and not issue Russian passports to people in such territories.  This whole paragraph almost seems like some kind of Freudian slip, whereby the author nearly admits that Russian foreign policy is connected to the question of democracy in Russia.  Specifically, foreign policy circuses like this one are used to force Russians to direct their attention outward and rally to the colors.  So far it seems to be working.

So there you have it. I’m not crazy after all.  These people really don’t respect Americans who protest against their own government.  There’s no solidarity, no principle, no attempt to build understanding.  Some might argue otherwise but I think they are mistaken as I once was.  They mistake the welcome they get for their opinions in Russia as true solidarity when in fact their hosts are just treating them like useful idiots.  

No doubt this has probably left a fair deal of Team Russia fans with a serious case of butt-devastation.  Stay tuned though, because very soon I’m going to give John McCain the same treatment.

On Dissent in Russia

Anyone who spends time reading this blog will quickly gather that I’m not a fan of the US government. It’s not a matter of bias though; I’m not a fan of any existing government on the planet now save for maybe one or two exceptions.  An American who speaks out against his or her own government is quote welcome in Russia.  It will get you time on RT(if not your own column or show), speaking engagements, and in general lots of attention from Team Russia, including those groups which at least claim to oppose the current ruling regime in the country.  I learned how welcome such “anti-American” opinions can be from my first days in Russia, when some friends sometimes referred to me as an “American dissident.”  Over the years, however, I gradually drifted further and further away from political activism in Russia despite the easy access to publicity(if not a career) my opinions might garner.  Although the reasons for this were manifold, the recent rhetoric over the situation in Syria has brought one formerly subconscious reason to the fore, about which I had not considered very thoroughly in the past.   An old American friend had broached the topic before and recent events seemed to shed more light on it.  In short, I feel a sort of reluctance to publicly voice my opposition to American policies in Russia which I would never feel in the United States or virtually any country.  This is not only because American exceptionalists would surely use my location as “proof” that I am a “traitor”, but rather because there is a sort of patronizing, condescending attitude towards “American dissidents” that one feels coming from Russians at times.

For starters, I have never been so pleased to see the reaction of the American people to the warmongering of the Obama administration toward Syria.  The absolute refusal of Americans to get behind this war clearly cuts across political lines.  It seems as if liberals who held their tongues about Obama’s drone wars and the overthrow of the Libyan government finally reached the end of their patience on the question of Syria.  Conservatives are being accused of hypocrisy for opposing this war while cheering for war in Iraq, but this argument fails to take into account the very different climate in 2002, when widespread fear post-September 11th drove people to seek scapegoats and take irrational positions.  Granted conservatives are known for taking irrational positions, but they are also usually known for blindly supporting any action involving the US military.  Looking back to 1999, for example, conservative pundits joked about Clinton using the war in Kosovo to distract from his sexual escapades, yet rarely did one find any outright criticism of his decision to bomb Yugoslavia.  Here the situation is different; the answer is again and again “no” to war on Syria, to the point that former Republican presidential candidate John McCain can’t find support for his war even among people who most likely voted for him.  Busted clocks are reading right, as Glenn Beck showed his viewers a video which revealed the true nature of the so called “Syrian opposition” which the US claims represents the voice of the Syrian people.  After being told to tighten their belts for more than four years now everyone but the most die-hard Obama supporters, no doubt those with career connections or political ambitions within the Democratic party, is wondering how the austerity-minded federal government can so readily find funds for a new war.  After more than ten years of giving up civil liberties and trillions of tax dollars in the name of fighting Al Qaeda, few are enthusiastic about providing support to a movement whose best-financed and most active organizations consist of Salafist extremists, many of which have ties to Al Qaeda.

Now as the US seems to have taken a step back in reaction to protests from Vladimir Putin, one might be tempted to declare victory.  No doubt many members of Team Russia, the international cabal of Putin-admirers(many of whom are not even Russian) are basking in glory at what they see as an American defeat.  A more sober analysis would show that the recent proposal of the Russian government may in fact be selling Syria out in the long run.  This settlement may not be so much of an American defeat but rather a conscious collaborative effort by the US and Russia to disarm and de-fang Assad, eventually leading to an outcome which may not actually save the Syrian people and could possibly lead to a partition of the country.  While not supporting the use of chemical weapons, that arsenal is most likely Syria’s only deterrent against foreign invasion. Now Russia has proposed that Assad identify the location of his entire arsenal so that the “international community” can take control of them.  Since Obama claims he hasn’t ruled out the use of force, there is a very real possibility that Russia’s proposal may in fact end up being nothing more than target acquisition for the US Air Force and Navy.  These very real possibilities might be more widely discussed if more people would step out of the false Putin vs. USA dichotomy and entertain the very real likelihood that the regime in Russia and the US are in fact not opposed but rather that they have been working together for quite some time.  Obviously that proposition alone merits its own article but now is not the time.

What is it like to be an “American dissident” in Russia?  Imagine the following.  You finally move to Russia after experiencing the first Bush term.  For roughly four years any dissenting opinion you voiced in public was likely to provoke accusations of treason from the flag-waving patriot crowd.  You’re told to love it or leave it so you do.   Initially a place like Russia might seem like a breath of fresh air.  Initially people are suspicious towards you because you are an American, but once you let on that you are opposed to US foreign policy you suddenly start making friends(or so they seem).  What you may not realize is that you would find the same freedom in many other countries around the world. Even in the US the political climate has changed as more than a decade of endless wars and an economic downturn soured much of the population across political lines.  But wherever you find that agreement or at least tolerance of your dissenting views, the motives behind it are very different than what you find in Russia.  As you pick up the language and listen to the conversations your “comrades” think you can’t understand, you start to realize that here, even among people who are supposed to be politically like-minded, there is no solidarity.  You are not one of them.  You are still a traitor, but you’re a useful traitor.  You’re accepted so long as you prove useful to them, particularly if your dissent goes along with praise for Russia.

The truth is I’d feel a lot better about voicing my opposition to American policies around Russian people if I had even the slightest inkling that at least some of my audience agreed on principle rather than blind loyalty to Team Russia and the desire to hear anything bad about America.  People in other countries oppose wars for a number of reasons. Some noble, some unrealistic, others for less honest reasons, and in some cases the motive is nothing more than cloaking an evil ideology in an air of morality.  Many of these people sincerely believe that their dissenting opinion reflects what is best for their country, and appeals  to shut up for the sake of patriotism or maintaining unity on the world stage fall flat.  No so in Russia.  Late 2011 and much of 2012 were marked with some of the largest political protests in recent Russian history.  2013 has been rather quiet in contrast.  Could it have anything to do with a stream of populist legislation which seems to have induced many people to stop their criticism in favor of “defending” their country from Western criticism?  I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer to this question, but one thing is for sure that Russia hasn’t really demonstrated the kind of dissent we see in other countries and thus it’s hard to make common cause with people even when it seems they agree on a particular policy.

One wonders, for example, how anti-war the average Russian would be if Russia regained the military strength necessary to intimidate and push smaller countries around.  During the 2008 war in Ossetia I remember the popular press making it seem as though the five-day conflict was comparable to the Great Patriotic War, complete with some idiotic memes floating around which compared Georgian president Saakashvili  to Hitler.  I saw organizations like the KPRF(Communst Party of the Russian Federation), supposedly an opposition party, loyally supporting the government.  What I saw far to little of, was those who condemned both sides in the war and demanded its end.  To be sure, I did see such opinions expressed by a small Communist youth group, but virtually nowhere else.  While Russia was most certainly “right” in the busted clock sense when it came to this war, the conflict simply did not deserve the glorification it got in the press, nor could any thinking person actually believe that the leadership of Russia is seriously concerned about the self-determination of Ossetians or Abkhazians.  The interest of both Russia and Georgia in the region is identical; it is economics pure and simple.

We have seen RT cheering on the likes of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden in recent times.  In response to the repeated attacks on these two individuals by American media hacks I have often wondered aloud how they would have been treated in the press if they were agents of a foreign government seeking asylum in the US, specifically if they worked for the government of China or perhaps Iran. We all know that such pundits would be praising the Iranian Bradley Manning or the Syrian Snowden.  But suppose there was a Russian Snowden who exposed a program in Russia identical to that of the NSA, but run by the FSB.  Now suppose he was appealing for asylum in the US or UK.  Would we see him receiving the kind of support Snowden has garnered in the US?  Would Russians reject the piss poor “analysis” and distortion of their media and turn their anger at the regime for spying on their private lives?  Surely many would, but the overwhelming majority, judging by recent history and the present, would not.

We can see a case study in the way people react to figures like the late Anna Politkovskaya.  Reading her books I found her political ideology to be naive and in many cases incoherent, even schizophrenic.  Despite this she did expose a lot of things which should be of top concern for ordinary Russians from pensioners to the mothers of soldiers.  Yet in conversations about Politkovskaya it seems her alleged liberalism outweighs the importance of the abuse she discovered.  This is especially common when discussing the problems of Russia when it is known that you are an American.  Even though these social problems hurt Russians, it seems that some people here are willing to deny things which everyone experiences every day and which everyone constantly talks about.   Admitting any of these problems seems to be looked upon as “airing dirty laundry” and such discussions bear resemblance to a twisted form of democratic centralism far divorced from the motivations behind the practice within the old Bolshevik party.  Russians will say some of the most horrible things about their country, sometimes bordering on self-hatred and occasionally made up. But mention America and suddenly some of the same people don the guise of patriotism and form a phalanx around the country. Not the real Russia, the one which consists of living breathing people who suffer the problems which are being discussed, but rather the idea of Russia in the abstract, a flag, a crest.  I barely need mention at this point that the supreme irony of Russia’s patriots is that no matter how much they hate America, they are so perfectly the very mirror image of America’s worst examples of bumper-sticker patriotism.  Both wave the flag and would rather see their country suffer than admit to its faults and fix them; both answer critics with “love it or leave it.”

I started this blog roughly a month prior to writing this.  For several years I have contemplated, from time to time, increasing my exposure by voicing my thoughts on American politics, knowing full well I would find plenty of venues to do so in this country.  Every time I decided against it but until this recent Syrian crisis it wasn’t clear why.  Now I can say it is a kind of fear, a fear of being used, of being flattered by people who see my dissenting opinion as useful rather than being respected by people who share like principles.   Not being an idealist, the day may come when it becomes necessary for me to take advantage of the opportunity provided by the phony “New Cold War.” Till then I’m not exactly eager to engage in criticism of the United States with those who see countries as football teams.  I criticize American imperialism because I’m opposed to imperialism, not America. I would like to think that if the military and economic situation in Russia and the United States were to be swapped tomorrow, I would find Russians just as critical of their own government’s policies as they currently are of the US. For the time being, however, I’m skeptical.

EDIT:  I know there are some individuals, typically leaning to the right, who come to Russia because they see it as a paradise for their backward, reactionary views.  They will insist that their Russian comrades(typically a small coterie of people involved in some kind of political organization) truly respect and accept them based on their ideology, ethnicity, because they converted to Orthodoxy, or whatever other nonsense.  Believe that if you will, but people like those never truly accept a Westerner, especially an American.  Like I said before, to anyone with nationalist leanings you will never be Russian no matter how much kvas you drink or how much kasha you jam up your ass.  You’re just a defective individual who could not fit in with their own people and thus had to go traitor in another country.  It just so happens, however, that you are useful, perhaps as an English-speaking Lord Haw Haw.  If you’re that type and you happen to be reading this I don’t expect you to be happy, but I also have a sneaking suspicion that deep down you feel what I’m talking about.  Rage if you must, but you have only yourself to blame if you thought you could use Russia to assuage your very American identity crisis.  This ain’t Avatar.

THE OBLIGATORY PUTIN ARTICLE

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So seeing as how this blog is called Russia Without Bullshit and is dedicated to exposing terrible journalism about Russia, it is only logical that the first post ought to have something about President Vladimir Putin.  When it comes to bullshit about Russia, it doesn’t get thicker than the mythology which surrounds Putin.  Think I’m joking? Take a look at this

Now you may object and say, “But that’s an article from Cracked, which is a humor website, not a real news organization! Also I live in my parents house despite having obtained a four-year degree and being well into my twenties. I enjoy masturbating to cartoon characters before crying myself to sleep, ”  While I am not going to dignify your candid admissions with any response other than that you need to learn to develop what people call a “social filter,” I have two points to make in regards to this objection.  First, Cracked is indeed a “humor” site but it isn’t funny.  Second, the article in question is basically just the distillation of years of idiotic journalism from real news organizations into one failed attempt at humor. When Luke Harding can make a successful career at the Guardian by pretending to be James Bond, it’s only natural that readers will see the Putin-as-Bond-villain comparison as believable. Now you might also object and say something like, “Hey! My first objection didn’t say anything about living at home or jerking off to cartoons, you lying dickhead!”  Well…Yeah.  I guess.  

Before sitting down to write this I went over all the things I thought needed to be said about this subject and in the end I decided that the most efficient and coherent way to organize an article of this magnitude is to structure it in a somewhat FAQ-like format. Before proceeding, however, please take the time to carefully read the following disclaimer.

WARNING!

The following article may cause severe buttanger if viewed by journalists, American Russian-studies majors who have never spent significant(if any) time in Russia, Russian liberals, Putin fanboys, wannabe Russians, Ron Paul cultists, and anybody else the author personally hates. In case of buttmad, seek medical attention immediately. 

Yes, Putin was an agent for the KGB. No, that is not particularly relevant. 

It often seems that many journalists outside of Russia live in fear of an editor who will can their asses if they fail to include the words “ex-KGB agent” in an article about Putin.  Strangely, I don’t remember seeing articles referring to George Bush Sr. as “ex-CIA director Bush,” but I’m sure there is a perfectly logical explanation for that which doesn’t have anything to do with sensationalizing otherwise boring stories so as to boost readership.  Let’s just get this one over with.  The KGB doesn’t exist anymore.  The state it served has been gone for over twenty years. The agency was actually split in two, the FSB(for domestic affairs) and SVR(foreign intelligence).  No doubt Putin learned a lot from his past work in an organization which had by that time come to amass far too much power, but more often than not his previous job simply isn’t relevant to the story which mentions it.  When Putin is discussing matters concerning the WTO with his cabinet I doubt he starts his sentences with, “You know in the KGB we would…”  He’s also not strengthening his relations with foreign leaders by surreptitiously slipping sodium thiopental into their tea.

Why does Putin get such bad press in the West?

Team Russia people like to believe in some kind of “information war” between the US and Russia. In reality, the bad press about Putin in the West is in fact his greatest propaganda. When a Western news outlet releases another “Putin’s making Russia strong and we should be scared of this” story, it implies two things which help Putin; the first is that he is making Russia stronger, the second is that the West is afraid of this allegedly strong Russia. This is exactly what Putin needs.

More than any kind of US State Department conspiracy, the drive to make Putin a bogeyman in the press stems mainly from sensationalism and the need to attract attention.  Stories about a big scary resurgent Russia and a “new Cold War” attract attention.  The other factor is the Cold War legacy of reducing Russian affairs down to one guy.

So did Putin make Russia stronger?  

The answer depends on how one defines “strong” and also how one answers the question of who this “strength” actually benefits.  Team Russia fans love to point to Russia’s improvements since the 90’s and crediting all of them to Putin.  There are a number of problems with this, however.  The first is that while Russian liberals, Team West, and Team Russia fanatics love to sever Putin from the 90’s and the incompetent Yeltsin with his circle of oligarch cronies, Putin actually owes his political career to Yeltsin, or even more specifically, to Boris Berezovsky.

The second factor to consider is that really Russia had little room in which to move except up.  Had it continued on the downward spiral of the 90’s, it would have become a failed state, possibly partially disintegrating.  Surpassing Yeltsin in competence was not a difficult accomplishment.  Moreover, much of Russia’s recovery had to do with rises in oil prices and a whole host of other factors which had little to do with Putin.

To be fair, in some ways Putin and Medvedev have had a hand in improving conditions in Russia, but this creates a particularly embarrassing problems for Team Russia fans, most of whom claim to be against globalization.  When we look at all the positive changes in Russia, we can see that they are related to Russia’s integration into the global economy, something which Putin and Medvedev both presided over. Russia makes its money selling oil, gas, and natural resources to other countries. Putin has publicly pledged that Russia would always be Europe’s source of energy.  Russian oil companies, partially owned by the state, have lucrative joint ventures with American and other foreign oil companies.  Russia is investing abroad and more Russians are traveling abroad for business and vacations.  Russia is now in the WTO.  Of course all of these things have pitfalls and downsides but one thing is clear, Putin is not opposing globalization; his positive contributions actually depend on his embrace of it.  People who think that Russia’s resources will enable it to somehow transform into some kind of fortress for the sake of opting out of global capitalism need to start studying economics instead of playing real-time strategy games.

Is Putin a dictator?

Since I’m a firm believer that all states are essentially dictatorships, this is a tough question.  A lot of times our views about what constitute a dictator are formed by pop culture. We assume there must be a one party state(as opposed to a state with multiple parties which essentially see eye-to-eye on the really important matters), photographs and posters of the tyrant plastering every vertical surface, and of course, constant repression.

Putin is a dictator in the common parlance only in the sense that he is an individual who obviously commands a great deal of power and connections which he uses to ensure that he is always close to the seat of power in Russia if not on it himself. No doubt much of his prowess in this endeavor stems from being far more worldly and intelligent than the rest of the morons who make up the government, plus his connections with Russia’s most powerful business interests.  While he does seem to be perfectly capable of outwitting those who threaten his position, he has also benefited from sheer idiocy of his opposition. He can either use populist appeals to force opposition movements to stand in rank in the name of patriotism, or he can wait for his undisciplined opponents to embarrass themselves. The man is a cold hard realist to the core, and it is my suspicion that he is perfectly willing to give up power at some point when he can be sure that he will not be prosecuted and made into a scapegoat of a future regime, nor will he have to make a  rather embarrassing run to Sheremetevo airport with only the bags he can carry.

The problem is that while he is obviously monopolizing power with a small coterie of friends, sensationalism has transformed him into something like a Pinochet or Mussolini.  Just look at this video with Charlie Brooker.  In it, one of Brooker’s jokes seems to imply that Putin kills people, specifically people who criticize him.  But who could blame Brooker when the Guardian publishes a book like Mafia State, allegedly about the “brutal new Russia.”  And that line, the “brutal new Russia”, shows us how sensationalist the press can be because while at the time I am writing this there has been a streak of resurgent 90’s-like activity plaguing the Russian capital, Russia has if anything become less brutal since that decade when the Western press turned a blind eye to the brutality of the Yelstin “government.”  Say what you want about Putin, but he never ordered tanks and snipers to open fire on unarmed demonstrators as Yeltsin did in October of 1993.

What the “liberal” reader may not be able to comprehend about all this is that portraying Putin as a brutal tyrant not only ignores the structural, systemic problems in Russia, but actually helps Putin’s PR machine.  It supports the notion that the West is out to get Putin.

Does Putin oppose the West?

Many of Putin’s fanboys in Europe and the USA are opposed to their own governments for whatever reason.  Sometimes their motives are virtuous, other times, not so much.  Whatever the case, it stands to reason that if one hates their own government and sees the media portraying another world leader as an opponent of that government, they will identify with that leader.  As for Russia itself, Putin’s power relies on portraying himself as a strong leader who is raising Russia from its knees.  Few Russians actually believe that, but of them few disagree that patriotic concept itself.

This question is difficult to answer at the moment because as I write this, the world is discussing Obama’s proposed “punishment” against Syria.  Strangely, Russia has deviated from its usual strategy of “talking shit but not actually doing anything while benefiting from increased oil prices” to “talking shit but probably not actually going to do anything despite engaging in some theatrics in the Mediterranean.”  Whatever happens, the first variant is the typical Putin response.  Earlier I mentioned how Putin declared that Russia would always be Europe’s source of energy.  Much of that “Europe” is in NATO. Russia also depends on the NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, Russia has been a member of US CENTCOM since its founding in 2001.  The truth is that if the United States decided to pack up the whole empire overnight there would be a power vacuum and Russia doesn’t stand a chance of filling it.  China would probably take the lead with Russia in some partnership with the EU.  As for what’s going on in Syria now, Obama’s hesitation probably stems from contradictory foreign policy goals and repeated warnings from his experts that the fall of the Assad regime will turn Syria into a fertile ground for Al Qaeda and other Salafist terrorists. However, that outcome is far more of a threat to Russia than the US.  Aside from the economic hit Russia would take, extremists could one day start a new insurgency in the Caucasus, whereas the best they could hope for in the USA is the occasional terrorist attack in a public place.

While it is difficult to gauge what the final outcome of the Syria mess will be, one thing is for sure- Russia has no concrete examples of resistance to “the West.”  It’s just as well since Russia in its present state is by no means anywhere near prepared for such a confrontation and the results would be even more disastrous than the early 90’s were.  Neo-Cold Warriors on Team Russia’s side are basically cheering and hoping for the very thing which would bring Russia’s ultimate destruction, and they oppose virtually anything which would change that reality because doing so would mean having to admit that their favorite strongman hasn’t turned Russia into the Soviet Union of Red Alert II.

It is also worth noting that during the Cold War, states which were considered clients of the USA and of the Soviet Union were not always obedient and often engaged in activities which embarrassed their benefactors.  This did not mean those regimes were truly independent, much less opposed to their patrons.  Gomulka’s rebellion against the USSR didn’t make the Polish People’s Republic an enemy of that nation, while Mobutu’s kleptomania never fully alienated him from the US, France, and Belgium.   Having taken this into account, we must remember that Russia is not a client state of that sort, meaning that it can exercise a great deal more independence.  This does not, however, mean that it doesn’t occupy a subservient role in the world, underneath the most powerful players such as the US, China, or the European Union.  In fact, the OSCE’s nod of approval toward Russia after the Ossetian conflict of 2008 seems to support those who believe that the great powers are more than happy to allow Russia to dominate its immediate sphere of influence in return for resources and regional stability.  In the future, Russia may play a role similar to that of the 19th century, i.e. the gendarme of Europe.

Is Putin a homophobe?

In light of the recent anti-gay laws passed in Russia, the media once again resorts to the practice of reducing all events in Russia down to one guy and propagates the idea that these laws were actually Putin’s idea.  Obviously Putin bears responsibility for passing these laws but none of these were his brainchild.  As I said before, the man is a cold hard realist and any realist doesn’t give a fuck about who people sleep with. What the media is missing in all this is that this is a political ploy, a populist appeal to sabotage and appease large segments of the opposition which appeared late in 2011 and continued its activities throughout 2012.  Western critics, as usual, tumbled right into Putin’s trap.

Since the outbreak of protests following the corrupted Duma elections of 2011, the Western media has continually distorted the image of the opposition in Russia. Continually ignored is the most obvious fact, that if we are speaking of numerical, official political opposition, Putin and United Russia’s biggest opposition comes from the KPRF, better known as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.  Truth be told, the KPRF is “Communist” in name only, but this is beside the point.  The idea of thousands of Russians protesting in the streets holding Soviet flags and pictures of Stalin(something that could be observed long before 2011) is not something that Western media outlets, nor governments, want their respective populations to see.  People are supposed to remember Russians tearing down statues of Lenin.  The other major Russian opposition party is the LDPR or Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, led by the clownish Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Like the KPRF it is also populist and nationalist in its rhetoric and thus rather unsympathetic to Western audiences.  So what happened in the end was a ridiculous farce where figures who were in reality rather unpopular in Russia(especially outside of Moscow) were portrayed as the leadership of the opposition movement.  This included people like the blogger Navalniy and Boris Nemtsov and groups like “Strategy 31.”

Thus came the myth of the liberal opposition, the “White revolution,” both ideas which played right into Putin’s hands and allowed United Russia to paint the entire opposition movement as a Western-sponsored coup attempt.  Elements of the opposition movement which were inconvenient to the narrative were ignored. Among those were the many right-wing extremists, fascists, and open neo-Nazis.  I was at the first Bolotnaya demonstration and the demonstration at Academician Sakharov Prospect roughly two weeks later and on both occasions I saw neo-Nazi flags amid the crowd.  This was in addition to numerous other symbols used by Russia’s far right.  In fact, Navalniy himself has a well-established history of association with such groups, but that fact was inconvenient and thus it is rarely mentioned outside of Russia.  Long story short, the liberal opposition was a myth, a myth which served the regime well.  Many of the demonstrators, regardless of their political affiliations, held far-right reactionary views.

This is where the anti-gay laws came in.  Essentially by approving these laws, Putin is throwing a bone to a large part of his opposition and it seems to be working. Russia draws criticism for the action and suddenly Team Russia types, including those who most likely oppose Putin, are getting into ranks and defending Russia’s “different values.”  It’s become a matter of patriotism which the Kremlin wields very effectively.  Probably all of this could have been torpedoed if critics in the West had actually taken the time to analyze the political situation, but that’s too much to ask for when you’re busy building the myth of liberal hipsters standing up to the ex-KGB agent with their iPhones.

Once again, Putin is a realist, and if one day he got the idea that LGBT rights would secure his power a bit longer, he’d fly rainbow flags from the Kremlin wall and change the national song to this.

Did Putin kill my dog?  

Probably not.  I can’t say for sure though. He is an ex-KGB agent.


What about Dmitry Medvedev?

Nobody cares about Medvedev. I don’t think Medvedev cares about Medvedev.

What do Russians think of Putin?

Aside from pro-Kremlin youth groups who pay students to appear at their rallies(to be fair this is also practiced by opposition groups from time to time) and Team Russia fanboys, Putin is not very popular.  The best people can say about him is “stability” or “who else is there?”  The government has a long history of making promises that are supposed to be accomplished within the next year, five years, or in some cases ten years.  Needless to say, they either don’t materialize or end up very differently than planned.

Is Putin Stalin?

This Putin-Stalin comparison makes me want to punch someone.  If you’re a person who believes the worst about Communism and Stalin, you would be forced to acknowledge the fact that under Putin you don’t have shootings or a GULAG system.  If you are a left-wing individual more inclined to defending Stalin or at least the USSR, you would have to acknowledge that Stalin arguably did far more to improve Russia(and the territory of the USSR) than Putin ever has.  I realize that’s a controversial point but Isaac Deutscher was correct when he said, “He had found Russia working with wooden ploughs and leaving it equipped with atomic piles.”  At best, Putin is holding a field dressing to Russia’s wound, staunching the bleeding but unable to stop it completely.  Those who join his fan club, whether on the left or right, are essentially endorsing this slow death of Russia.

How should people in the West see Putin?

A difficult question seeing as how Putin’s real nature is mysterious even in Russia. Here in Russia he is like a one man rumor mill. When he finally announced his divorce a few months ago, people had been speculating that he had been having an affair for years prior, even claiming that he had fathered the woman’s child.  Ordinary Russians will throw out theories about what companies Putin allegedly owns, most of them among the largest in Russia.  He clearly has money to spare but the source is unclear. That being said, it’s important not to fall for the hype and PR.

The best thing people in the West can do to understand is not to trust any media source entirely.  That means not only the BBC but also outlets such as RT(the network itself isn’t exactly the pro-Putin propaganda network but it employs a number of Team Russia fanboys).   Living in Russia and reading the foreign press is often a bizarre experience, and I am not alone in this feeling.  You go to an opposition rally and you see hundreds of people waving red flags. Then you look on Western news sites and you’d get the impression that the Russian presidential election was between Vladimir Putin and Gary Kasparov.  If it’s really important for you to know, go to Russia, learn the language, and get a broad spectrum of opinion. Don’t just hang out in the center and talk to the faux-liberals at Jean-Jeacques, and don’t go straight to the Kremlin-backed “youth groups” who mask their tiny numbers with slick Youtube videos.  Don’t stay in Moscow either.  Eventually you’ll start to realize that the problems of Russia are not entirely unique, and that Russia cannot be boiled down to any one person.

Anyway, proceed with your buttmad comments about how I’m a pro-Kremlin Putin apologist hack or a Western liberal funded by the CIA.

WELCOME! ДОБРО ПОЖАЛОВАТЬ! FAQ

Welcome dear reader, to Russia Without BS. Here you will find dissections of various media distortions or myths about Russia from both within and without the Russian Federation. As an American who has been living in Russia since 2006, I started this blog because I was sick of seeing a total disconnect between the image of Russia outside its borders and the real situation “on the ground.”

More importantly, I was totally fed up with people taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the rest of the world to impress their audience with ridiculous fantasies and imaginary adventures passed off as being real. Visa regulations, prices, and a steep language barrier make Russia inaccessible to many people, and thus it provides some individuals with very favorable conditions for deception.  Journalists and individuals have been known to weave all kinds of lurid and thrilling tales involving secret agents, surveillance, wild parties, ridiculously beautiful women who are simultaneously perfect for both marriage and one-night-stands, gangsters, and of course the omnipotent hand of “ex-KGB agent” Vladimir Putin can be found behind every little event, no matter how insignificant.  The person without experience and first-hand knowledge of Russia is often at the mercy of these charlatans.

Lastly, journalism on Russia is bound to be biased, one way or the other.  In every major international story on Russia you will usually find one or two sane, sober articles discussing the issue at hand, but they will be but islands in a sea of either “pro-West” or “pro-Russia (i.e. pro-Kremlin)” propaganda pieces with little in the way of critical thinking.  Both sides will accuse one another of bias without addressing their own and often those who do attempt to analyze the issues carefully will be accused of being either pro-Kremlin or pro-Western by the appropriate corresponding side.  Failure to agree with even one conclusion of a pro-Kremlin piece puts you firmly in the Western camp, and the same when dealing with Western media article makes you a pro-Putin hack.  There are is no in-between in their book.  I have my political beliefs but as it turns out, I have no stake in the delusions of Russian or Western “liberals”, nor those of the self-proclaimed “Russophiles”(many of whom aren’t Russian at all) or their pro-Kremlin ilk.  If the first article you see on here is criticizing the Kremlin, the next may be a thorough takedown of an article written by a member of the opposition.  My policy is that if I see bullshit that doesn’t correspond to reality, I’m going to my best to take it down.