Monthly Archives: February 2014

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If you want to understand politics in Russia and Eastern Europe, you’d better understand the concept of projection. Accusing others of doing exactly what you do is par for the course in these parts. Today I’d like to talk about a disturbing example of this projection, this time coming not from the Russian side but rather from apologists of Evromaidan, which destroyed the city of Kiev and threatens to drown Ukraine in the blood of inter-ethnic violence.

Evromaidan, obviously has its partisans in the West, particularly the European Union.  The movement was helped by an obviously well-organized PR campaign, complete with petitions and viral videos so as to “sell” the protests to Western liberals and generally ignorant people who enjoy living vicariously through foreign protest movements rather than working for change in their own countries. The vast majority of people who make up this audience do not speak Russian or Ukrainian, nor have they ever set foot in either country and thus know nothing of the politics or history of the region.  They are fish in a barrel for slick propagandists.

Of course Russia’s response to most of this can be summed up below:

In case you didn’t catch the metaphor, Russia’s not too good at propaganda these days.  For a nation where so many people are convinced that they are locked in an “information war” with the West, their methods of fighting that war are crude and ineffective. However ridiculous some of the responses from Russia are, it does not excuse the attempts I have seen by some Evromaidan cheerleaders to portray all opposition to Evromaidan as pro-Russian, pro-Putin, or even pro-Yanukovich.  Lately it is this kind of propaganda which has seriously pissed me off.

Last week I have seen numerous statements whereby non-Ukrainian Evromaidan apologists have attempted to whitewash the movement and obscure the fascist, neo-Nazi forces which have been so active within it. These writers, well aware of the fact that few if any of their readers can decode the various signs, symbols, and flags which are ubiquitous among the protesters, claim that the movement is actually broad, tolerant, liberal, and what is more, they claim there is a Russian, Kremlin-organized campaign to poison the well by associating all the protesters with Neo-Nazis. In the process, they go on and do the exact same thing, picking out a handful of critical sources which have some ties to the Kremlin-backed “Eurasian Youth Movement.”  In other words, they are claiming that it’s fascists calling other people fascists.  Apparently it’s unfair to tar the whole Evromaidan movement with one broad stroke despite the fact that in almost every wide shot of the protests we can usually see at least one Svoboda(far-right nationalist party) or OUN(Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) flag, but it’s perfectly acceptable to zero in on the worst examples of Russian nationalism or fascism and paint all critics of Evromaidan as being connected to them.  This is par for the course, dear reader.

For the record, I’d like to post a small number of sources here, which are clearly not part of a Kremlin-supported smear campaign.  Some of these sources are actually from people on the ground. (Apparently one of Ukraine’s top rabbis isn’t too convinced that this movement is about tolerance and democracy)

The reader is free to find many other sources from a wide range of political beliefs which highlight the neo-Nazi and fascist character of this putsch.

There is another thing I want to point out about the apologists’ pathetic attempts to whitewash fascism by tying anti-Maidan criticism to the “Eurasian Youth Movement.”  Yes, this “movement”, led by Alexander Dugin, can be considered fascists in an ideological sense. However the influence of this movement, even within Russia’s borders, is quite small. Even in the capital most Russians, including young, politically-minded people, don’t recognize the name Dugin and they certainly don’t recognize the Eurasian Youth Movement. I have it on good authority that even in Moscow they have had to resort to paying young people to show up at rallies. Since the movement is obviously pro-government, it draws the ire of many radical nationalists, especially those are racists and want nothing to do with “Eurasia.” More importantly, I have no knowledge of any examples of “Eurasianist” violence, much less anything on par with that of movements like Praviy Sektor or Svoboda in Ukraine.  This should come as no surprise, seeing as how the government is clearly connected to the “movement.”  All in all, this “Eurasianist” movement projects an impressive online presence, but in the real world it is simply not influential.  Therefore using it as a target to distract from the actions of Praviy Sektor, Svoboda, and their associated thugs is simply idiotic.

Lastly I want to say something about people who find a connection to a particular source and then use it as an excuse to dismiss anything that source or the person using it might say.  All arguments must stand and fall on their own merit, all claims on the merit of the evidence brought forth to support them. If CNN reports something which can be verified as factual, then it is a fact. If RT does the same, ditto. A major problem with the world these days is that people who get burnt out on the failure of their own mainstream media begin to give all their trust to any source which happens to be saying the opposite. Instead of considering evidence, facts, context, or any of that hard stuff, most people find it far more convenient to simply give unqualified credibility to whatever source happens to be telling them what they want to hear. They don’t trust big corporations, so any GMO scare is credible. They don’t trust “Big Pharma,” so they don’t vaccinate their kids. It’s definitely simpler, but it’s also idiotic and sometimes deadly.

In this case, there is a convergence of evidence from a wide spectrum which shows that Evromaidan is largely motivated by ethnic hatred, with corruption being only a cover. We’d do well to remember that fascists all over Europe and the world once promised that they would save their nations from the ravages of the Great Depression and the corruption which was common in those days. They had their apologists beyond their borders as well. Lastly, in these parts there is a sort of unspoken “rule” in these parts, that says “my fascism is not fascism, you fascist!”  That just doesn’t fly for me.

Two can play that game!

Apparently Russia is not the only country which can engage in accusations of rigging in the Olympics.  Take a look at this. Honestly I don’t give a shit about figure skating or the Olympics for that matter, but one part of this article deserves attention.

 “We know that the judges’ panel for the women’s free skate did not include a Korean judge (or an American one) but did include four from Eastern Europe: Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, and Slovakia.”

Uh yeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. I’m sorry if I don’t find this idiotic conspiracy of Eastern Europeans to be pretty credible, seeing as how Estonians hate Russians, the Ukrainian judge might be a Maidan supporter, and Slovakia frankly doesn’t give a shit.  This, folks, is an example of anti-Russian/Eastern European racism, the idea that all those Borat-y people are naturally going to support one another. Estonian, Latvian, Slovakian, Slavonian, Kreplachian, Kizikstanian…They’re all the same, right?    

Stick to commenting on figure skating.  


Tim Kirby’s Dreamland

The reader may wonder why, after so many months of mentioning Western “Russophiles” or “Team Russia” fanatics, I have hitherto avoided mentioning one of their best representatives, RT’s Tim Kirby. I admit this is strange even for me, seeing as how his writing drives me up the wall at times. The reason, I believe, is largely because there are many bizarre parallels between Kirby’s history and my own. I’m not going to get into what those details are, but suffice to say that they are in some cases incredibly specific. In fact discovering people like him was a relief because I realized that my youthful obsession with Russia was by no means unique. In short, Kirby reminds me of me, particularly during the roughly 7-year period between my first visit to Russia and my return in 2006.  It seems highly unfair to go all-out in an attack against someone who writes and sounds just like you once did, and to be honest many things I said and wrote years ago would be far more infuriating to me. If I deserve a second chance, surely he does.


American “refugee” from a non-existent war of some kind, Tim Kirby is shown here having just spotted Solid Snake. Alert mode activated.

Another reason I go easy on Kirby is because given our similar histories, I see him as a true believer, as was I.  It’s not hard to find Western, typically American or British supporters of Team Russia. When you talk to them in person or read some of their work, however, you learn that their “love” for Russia is largely bullshit. These are the types who “love” Russia just because they feel comfortable being a racist, sexist prick in public, and the cultural-linguistic divide makes it harder for people to immediately pick up on what bitter, angry assholes they are.  I strongly suspect that Kirby came to live in Russia because he was genuinely interested in Russia and not because he heard tales of beautiful but desperate young women who will throw themselves at the feet of an American man. Sincerity and consistency are admirable qualities.

In spite of all this, I knew when I started a blog called “Russia without Bullshit,” I’d have to take on the Kirb sooner or later. What better time than after I was made aware of a Wall Street Journal article about him, entitled “The American Who Tells Russia How Bad Things Are in America.” In all fairness, it seems Kirby was pretty upset about this, enough to write his own editorial on RT in response. For what it’s worth, that article is linked here, do what you will with that. I’m not going to get deep into the details of either article, but I found it somewhat amusing that Kirby is upset about the WSJ reporter reducing their hours of discussion to a few soundbites. That is what journalists typically do. This was the WSJ and not “An Evening With Tim Kirby” in The New Yorker or something like that.

Anyway, as the article’s name implies, Kirby tells Russians about the bad things in America, and it has a real impact. The article quotes a Russian listener in Murmansk as saying,  “It’s so interesting to hear from an American about how America really works…We Russians think that whenever something goes bad here that it must be better in America.” According to the same article, the listener now knows that things in America are either “worse of the same.”

This is my first problem with people like Kirby is that they continually profess their love for Russia while basically bullshitting Russians ever chance they get. I find it surprising that these Team Russia fanatics, who obsess over every little detail of anything remotely Russian, have never heard the Russian saying “better bitter truth than sweet lies.”  It’s not that Kirby lies outright to Russians, but what does happen is that when you look at the big picture he and other Team Russia members paint, that image is distorted and false. The fact is that life in America is not worse or the same as life in Russia, so if someone listens to you frequently and gets that idea, you’ve been doing something wrong. So what do people like Kirby do, exactly?

The typical Russophile appeal to Russians is often outrageously patronizing. It usually sounds something like this: “You think there’s no corruption/censorship/poverty in the West? Well let me tell you…” Typically this is being said to an audience of students or young professionals, many of them with higher education and possibly some experience abroad.  Now while there are many Russians, some of whom have traveled abroad, who have some pretty naive ideas about the West, I highly doubt that any significant portion of this audience literally believes that there simply is no corruption, poverty, or censorship abroad.  What Team Russia fails to understand with its whataboutery-laden arguments is the concept of scale.  The UK and USA have their corruption scandals, but the average citizen is unlikely to have been asked for a bribe. Participation in politics and real choices in elections are highly limited in the West, but they are far more limited in Russia. The United States has, particularly since 2001, seen much erosion of civil rights, including the right of free speech and free assembly, but this pales in comparison to the situation in Russia.  When activists are unfairly targeted by the state in the US, there is usually a huge outrage, indeed many Team Russia fans rely on this to find their stories of unfair treatment or persecution by the American government. In Russia, publicly speaking out against the government is likely to call down a whirlwind of accusations that you are a traitor, literally in the pay of the US State Department.  I was called a traitor for taking part in protests against the Iraq war, but nobody ever implied that I was literally in the pay of Saddam Hussein.

In addition to being patronizing, these people are essentially telling Russians that they don’t have a right to complain, or that they should keep their mouth shut.  I find this reminiscent of the attitudes I faced in America from about 2002 till the time I left. Only whereas in America those “patriotic” types are likely to tell you to “love it or leave it,” Team Russia fans from America or Britain tell Russians to love it and stay put, shut up and obey.  Western Russophiles are often oblivious to the advantages of their situation.  They are often paid far more than native Russians, sometimes for the same work(though not necessarily without good reasons for this).  They are foreigners so they’re “allowed” to make mistakes in every day social situations.  Much more important than any of that, however, is that they have a foreign passport to a first world country to fall back on. If Russia goes to shit one day, people like Kirby can pack up and go home. Where do the Russians go?

What I’m getting at here is that Russophiles often forget that the benefits they may personally have in Russia don’t exist for most Russians, if any. An honest person would remember this whenever they are discussing the benefits of living in Russia or the problems of America.  Personally I could write long articles about things I hate about America or advantages that I personally see in Russia.  However if I were to do so, you wouldn’t see me equating the two nations. If there really, truly are self-hating Russians who cannot think of any better thing in life but to move to some Western nation, who am I to tell them otherwise? If anyone deserves blame it is those in power who have allowed such a society to develop as it has.

In his defense Kirby claims that he points out problems about Russia, but his criticisms of Russia are far different than those of America. In at least two articles he implies that people in the West should seriously consider moving to Russia, yet I’ve never seen him say anything positive about Russians emigrating to America.  Criticisms seem to be along the lines of: Russia is great, but they’re not good at communicating that because they’re bad at PR. On one hand I’m inclined to agree, on the other I’d say Russia has some great PR among bitter, alienated Westerners, because they seem to respond enthusiastically to the works of people like Kirby.

At the end of the day what Russophiles like Kirby are doing is pissing on Russians’ legs and telling them it’s raining. They give horrible facts about America without any context or concern for whether their comparisons are even remotely accurate. They don’t truly empathize with Russians and consider their situation.  They try so hard to be Russian and yet in reality they don’t see Russians as being on an equal footing, to the point that it can be insulting.

In the WSJ article it is said that Tim believes that Russians aren’t suited to “Western-style democracy,” which in all fairness is an idea very common among Russia’s authorities and ideologues from whom he surely appropriated it.  Realistically speaking, most forms of “Western democracy” provide very little in the way of political representation or participation for most citizens, particularly the working class. It is foolish for Russians or anyone else to see that kind of “democracy” as the pinnacle of human liberty and the be-all end-all goal for humanity. On the other hand, that system exists nearly all over the world, far beyond the borders of “the West,” and in many places it does function pretty well according to its own standards. Having said this, it is clear that anyone who thinks that Russians can’t handle that minuscule increase in political franchise obviously has a low opinion of the Russian people.  Indeed, for all their professions of love for the Russian people, Team Russia fanatics, both Russian and foreign, can’t help but reveal how stupid they think the rest of the Russian people are.  They need some kind of strong leader to tell them what to do. Having them vote in new candidates every four years or so is too much for them to handle.  This kind of “love” for Russia is akin to that which an abusive husband supposedly has for his wife and kids.

You don’t love a country or people if you’re so willing to be dishonest with them and insult their intelligence, and that is precisely what people like Tim Kirby do.  I often wonder how people like Tim would feel if they lived in America and encountered some Russian immigrant who continually berated them every time they complained about some American social problem. What if he told them the problem existed in Russia, or that it was even worse in Russia? Would that suddenly make that particular problem go away? We have very limited political choices in America. Would we feel better if some Russian told us that they have even fewer choices in Russia?  If we want to criticize our president, would he call us self-haters and insist that the president represents America? If one of us, for whatever reason, felt alienated and at the same time very interested in Russia, would he accuse that person of self-hatred and attack their decision to move to Russia?  It’s rather hypocritical to deny Russians the right to be like Tim Kirby, that is to not fit in within their society and take an interest in other cultures, possibly to the point of moving abroad. To be sure, that isn’t the reason why many Russians emigrate, but clearly those that do are not satisfied with life in Russia for one reason or another, just as Tim wasn’t satisfied with life in America. Just as I, in fact, wasn’t satisfied.

Nearly every article The Kirb writes makes me want to throw it up on this blog and fire broadsides at it until it’s reduced to matchsticks. Kirby’s real problem, however, is simply that he is politically illiterate. That might sound like a pretty serious ad hominem, but it’s not; political illiteracy is so widespread that it is practically the norm for most of the world.  You can acquire political literacy by years of academic study, but the best way is through years of actual experience as an activist. You have to be a true believer, not just for one cause, but for several. You can’t be that type who joins the masses in the street when your party isn’t in power and who stays home when it is.  You have to have spent time truly believing, taking pride in your consistency and consciousness of your ideological values. You get good at tailoring your talking points, however radical they may be, to any audience. You learn to spot the ideological slant of your opponents. Then you have to be disillusioned, disappointed. You have to suddenly run up against a situation one day where everything you learned, everything you were told, can no longer suffice to explain the contradictions you see before you. You see the hypocrisy of comrades and people you trusted. You speak out and they throw you to the dogs to save their own asses. That’s just a part of the politics, how you acquire that kind of political literacy that can’t be taught in schools.  True believers change and evolve, painful as that process may be. And as I said, Kirby is a true believer.

A much-needed backlash

Perhaps we’ll look back on Sochi 2014 and see some positive outcome in terms of news coverage about Russia. It seems that the gleeful bashing of Russia has managed to provoke a serious backlash by journalists who are known for their criticism of the country’s authorities.  Do take some time to read this piece, for example. Ask yourself if the Wall Street Journal would write about say, India or China the way they’ve been writing about Russia. One thing is for sure, the negative media has certainly brought to light a form of racism that we’re seeing here. In fact it has done so to the extent that I’ve had to delay my upcoming series on anti-Russian/Eastern European racism just to blog about some of the stories you have seen here recently.  

I don’t want to sound too hopeful, but there is a possibility that if the major media outlets catch wind of a serious backlash to sensationalist, biased, and downright racist reporting about Russia, they will eventually moderate themselves and try to be more objective.  So long as they believe it will serve the bottom line, of course. The “information war” is really a war for profit.  

Dr. Phil visits Russia

"You see, Russia, your problem is that you're trying to teach your chickens to play accordions while the cows in the barn are playing dominoes. Your problem is YOU!"

“You see, Russia, your problem is that you’re trying to teach your chickens to play accordions while the cows in the barn are playing dominoes. Your problem is YOU!”

Julia Ioffe of the New Republic is a rather intriguing Russia correspondent. Accused of anti-Russian bias at times, she is wholly capable of hitting the nail on the head at others. Lately she did just that with this piece, entitled “The Russians Think I’m a Russophobe? They’re Right. A Response to Myself.” It might seem odd that I would endorse an article where the author admits to being a “Russophobe” in the title, but I don’t think the author is guilty of Russophobia even if she says so. I know Russophobia when I see it.

Many of the points in the article, even when delivered in a not-so-diplomatic manner, are totally correct and I know very well the feeling she is expressing. Before I go into detail let me say that I totally sympathize with Russians about their loss to the American hockey team.  While it seems that the referee’s decision not to count the goal was correct according to the rules, it does seem like nitpicking. If I were on the US hockey team I would feel rather uneasy about such a victory, and I’m sure some of the players would agree. On the other hand, this loss for Russia wouldn’t burn so much if some Russians didn’t obsess over America and the idea that it is some kind of “historical enemy” of Russia. I’m sure had the scenario been reversed, with Russia winning on a technicality, some American fans might suspect foul play, if only because the games were hosted in Russia(assuming that the judge in question were Russian and not American). However, Russians fail to appreciate that to Americans, this match doesn’t hold the same importance. To them the Russian hockey team is just a formidable team, like that of Canada, Sweden, or the Czech Republic; it’s not some kind of enemy.  Anyway, on with the show.

Julia offers a list of “Psychological issues” about Russia, which taken out of context might seem hostile but I would argue that they are not for two reasons. The first is that they are spot on observations. Anyone who finds them unfair or mean-spirited has either not lived in Russia or is probably a confirmed Team Russia fanatic living in denial.  Second, Julia does not launch these attacks on Russia as though they are exclusively Russian.  She makes a proper comparison with the attitudes of Americans, highlighting the similarity of both peoples, which have far more in common with each other than either does with Europe, but at the same time she doesn’t fully equate both countries. As she points out, America can be horrible to Americans in different ways.

One of the most important points she mentions is the bane of every “information warrior” in Russia, namely that Americans simply do not care about Russia the way Russians care about Americans and what they think of Russians.  While pondering this issue recently I was reminded of something a classmate of mine said on our exchange trip to Russia more than a decade ago.  He remarked that it was a pity that the Soviet Union no longer existed, because that way this trip would have been so much more important. He was right.  I have had trouble stressing the apathy that Americans have toward Russia, but basically the best way I can describe it is like this: I have lived in Russia for nearly eight years now. I have visited the US twice in that time. Most people I meet, including family members, do not rush up to me and quiz me about life in Russia. At several family gatherings I was greeted much in the way I always was when I lived in the States, and then after small talk they’d go off and start conversing with other family members or acquaintances. I don’t blame them; they live in the same country, state, and city. They have common experiences. I am simply not in the picture.  Few people, if any, ever send me messages asking about life in Russia. New acquaintances aren’t filled with curiosity if I tell them I live here.  I might as well be living in Moscow, Idaho, it seems.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a little bit disappointed sometimes. It would be nice to go to a party and suddenly have everyone hanging on your every word when they find out that you’ve spent years living in Moscow.  Surviving and succeeded in Moscow for so long as an ordinary working-class American is no easy feat and it would be nice to get some acknowledgement for doing so, but that’s the way it goes.

Another psychological issue she points out is what I would call in my own words a desire to have one’s cake and eat it too. Russia’s self-proclaimed “patriots”,some of whom might have been at various anti-government demonstrations just two years ago and some of whom are not even Russian, can’t seem to decide if Russia has really “risen from its knees” and is now equal if not superior to the dreaded West, or if it is still suffering from the humiliation of the 90’s, all of which is America’s fault, of course.  When Western reporters start complaining about deficiencies in their living quarters, the reaction is to call them pampered. Well maybe they wouldn’t have been in such a nitpicking mood if the Russian government hadn’t sunk so much money into this sport venue while making such a big deal of it. Maybe if they hadn’t been trashing Europe over “tolerance”(GASP! What a horrible idea!) or America over every goddamned little thing, this wouldn’t have happened.  See when you run around grandstanding, badmouthing other countries, pretending to be a big superpower, and generally waving your dick around in public, eventually reality is going to bite you in the ass.  I can’t tell you how many times I see Team Russia fans insisting that Russia is not only equal to the West, but that the West will “collapse” any day now, usually because of the allegedly corrosive effects of tolerance.  Yet strangely enough, gay parades have yet to bankrupt Sweden or the Netherlands, and if either country were to offer jobs and residency to the first thousand Russian citizens they’d have a riot on their hands in front of their respective consulates.

In short, if Russia wants to pretend it is a superpower and an economic powerhouse with high standards of living, it needs to put its cards on the table and show results.  If it isn’t, that’s nothing to be ashamed of, but doing something about that situation requires some serious self-criticism and introspection. Blaming it on Yeltsin(or Putin for that matter) and America doesn’t cut it.

In the finale Ioffe goes on to compare Russia to a teenage girl who craves the attention of what it sees as “the cool kids”, represented by the West, but then lashes out at them when they fail to respond favorably.  I think this teenager comparison is rather apt, but I have another based on my interactions here. Lately Russian populists have basically been acting like a bully, a wannabe tough guy who talks shit about everybody but who folds the second he’s suddenly faced with a real challenge.  Nerdy little countries learn to deal with negative press and even garner sympathy, but for the wannabe tough guy who gets called on his bullshit, the humiliation cuts right to the bone.

In my time I’ve met a few genuinely “tough” guys and a shitload of wannabes. One thing about the former is that you almost feel like you’re doing them a disservice by insinuating that they are “tough” because they are never concerned about appearing thus. I have a friend back in the US who was an ex-football hooligan. He was probably in more fights than he can remember, but he always remembered that he lost some of those fights. There was no shame in it because it’s inevitable that if you fight often, you will be beaten from time to time. You would never hear him talk about being “tough” or a “badass.”  Actual “tough” people are not concerned about being or more importantly appearing to be “tough” to other people. Something about getting whacked over the head with so many bottles or having so many pool cues snapped over your back must do something to that part of the ego which feels the need to prove itself to other people.  Every person I’ve known who I can honestly call “tough” was generally laid-back, easy going, and often humorously self-deprecating.

The untested tough guy wannabe is completely different. They’ve got to tell everyone they meet about their “street fight record”, which of course was always something-0. They’ve mastered one or more martial arts, typically traditional East Asian ones. They’re ex-military, almost always snipers, and of course they had to be Rangers, SEALs, or Force Recon because Lord knows an ordinary 11B in the 82nd Airborne or 10th Mountain division is just too ordinary.  They’re always oversensitive, trying to intimidate people who are their own friends.  You need to know that this guy is a stone-cold badass. The perception of toughness is everything.  Strangely, it doesn’t seem to go away with age. Many top grade bullshitters do not “grow out” of this phase, which is why you can encounter people like this who are well into their 40’s. When one of these people gets called on their shit, often in the course of bragging to someone who has actually done some of the things they claim, the result is often ugly. The humiliation is so awful you often feel sorry for them no matter how much you hate them.

That’s what Russia’s been acting like lately. They need the world to know that they are ever so strong and powerful, every bit like the West, except they’re even better because those European countries are on the verge of collapse from the 24/7 gay parades marching through their streets. The news media is happy to point out everything that goes wrong in America, but when journalists or even ordinary Russians point out serious problems within Russia the “patriots'” eyes begin to well up with tears and they scream that this criticism is unfair, that it’s Russophobia, and any Russians who speak about it are dastardly traitors. It would be useful to look at the example of the United States after 9/11. The Bush administration was characterized by what was termed to be “swagger,” as the US flexed its military might and insisted that it would be bound by no one in its global struggle against terrorism.  Oddly enough, it seems that the anti-American rhetoric coming from Russia was curiously more muted than it has been in recent years. By contrast, Obama won a Nobel Peace prize by giving a conciliatory speech which admitted to America’s arrogance and basically gave him a free pass to expand America’s wars at the time. That the speech was hypocritical or dishonest is not relevant in this case; the point is that Obama advanced the interests of the ruling class, possibly far better than Bush, because he made it seem like American leaders had seen the error of their past ways and that they would endeavor to engage other nations as equals. Russia on the other hand, has been recently been going into George W. Bush mode, and it’s eerie to see how many similarities there are between the political discourse in Russia today and that which dominated America during the Bush years, particularly his first term.  Back then, any criticism of America’s policies at home or abroad made you an anti-American traitor who hated freedom.

I should also mention that Ioffe makes an interesting point how the Russian establishment continually compares Russia solely with “the West”, meaning Europe and the USA. She mentions how China and Japan are totally ignored despite the fact that Japan has been a serious competitor of the US since the 1970’s, and China is set to become the world’s major economic power by 2016. You don’t see Japan or China constantly ragging on America or Europe. A major problem which sabotages Russia’s ability to deal with genuine anti-Russian racism is that those who often complain about it are themselves racist. They want Western nations to accept them as equals, but they don’t want to see themselves as being part of the same struggle as countries like Turkey, Tunisia, the Philippines, or even major powers like China. See the thing about racists is that they believe in biological determinism, i.e. Africa must be poor because there’s something wrong with African people. Therefore when someone like a German or Norwegian nationalist takes a good look at Russia and sees dirty streets, crime, corruption, and post-apocalyptic cityscapes, all the excuses about the traitor Gorbachev, Communism, Yeltsin, the US State Department, or the CIA aren’t going to do shit to change their opinion. They would conclude, according to their logic, that there is something wrong with Russian people.  If you want to fight that kind of prejudice, it doesn’t help when you think the exact same way about Central Asia or the Caucasus.  It is in the interest of Russians, for their own sake, to speak out against biological determinism, which is one of the major roots of anti-Russian racism.  Moreover, Russia need not compare itself to the West. If Russia had decided back in 2000 to go all-out and attempt to be more like China, for example, it would have worked out very well. China has seen the biggest reduction in poverty in human history over the last twenty years. But Russia’s patriots were too concerned with being “European”(except for that awful tolerant quality) to consider China as a role model.

Lastly Ioffe touches on something very important, though she does not mention it by name. It is that notion of “the Russian soul.” In the context of her article she is referring to the way some Russia defenders will dismiss all criticism by insisting that the critics don’t “understand” Russia, this despite the fact that many of the same criticism are made by actual Russians and the defenders are sometimes not Russian at all.  In other situations defenders will sometimes admit to Russia’s weaknesses but insist that Russia makes up for this with some kind of “spiritual” quality which, conveniently, can’t be observed or measured by anyone.  This is not the article to go into this subject in depth, but it is my observation that the “Russian soul,” however much Russians may cherish the idea, is a profoundly negative idea. Within Russia, it is wielded by authoritarian and reactionary individuals as a way to keep people in line. Since nobody can observe or measure this “soul,” what constitutes being truly “Russian” is left entirely in the hands of self-appointed leaders or their supporters, once again including many who are not Russian at all.  Speaking of non-Russians, the Russian soul is a myth which serves the basis of anti-Russian stereotyping and anti-Russian racism. It is something like the “noble savage” stereotype about Native Americans, or any number of stereotypes about East Asian peoples which give them mystical qualities. It deprives Russian people of their individuality or agency and places them beyond rational thought. To be Russian, according to this stereotype, means one must be very emotional, superstitious, cynical, obedient, and tolerant of their own suffering. In Russia this means submitting to authority, outside of Russia it justifies racist attitudes.  I realize that to the Russian reader giving up on this myth of the Russian soul may sound highly counter-intuitive, but I would remind the reader that not all stereotypes are overtly negative, though they can lead to negative consequences. But that’s a subject for another, much longer article.

All in all, I don’t see Ioffe’s article as “Russophobic,” and I suspect she was using the term somewhat ironically. I see it as a natural reaction to the kind of rhetoric which has been increasingly dominating Russia in the last few years, much of it directed at Americans. When I say Americans I don’t mean at the country or its government but at actual individual Americans, in Russia. This is why I understand her feeling so well.  The British and many other European nationalities are known to make plenty of jokes about Americans based on the common stereotypes- obesity, prudery, gun worship, and religious fundamentalism.  Yet when you encounter a Brit in a pub and say you’re American, you don’t meet this sort of passive-aggressive hostility you’re likely to meet in a Russian bar, even in the center of Moscow.  You’re never asked to answer for the actions of the American government. You’re not asked who won the Second World War, with your inquisitor ready to berate you if you’re ignorant on the subject or gloat if you correctly point out the Soviet Union’s contribution to victory.  If you voice criticism of the American government, you don’t get the feeling that your British counterpart sees you as some kind of useful traitor but rather you are likely to feel a sense of solidarity because chances are they hate the British government just as much.  And I might point out that this kind of behavior, which I and many others have experienced personally for years, is pretty much limited to Americans. The British and European press is often merciless in its treatment of Russia, to the point of re-writing the history of WWII so that the Soviet Union shares as much of the blame for the war as Germany, but I have never seen British, European, or other nationalities face this same kind of hostility.  One might think the difference might have something to do with the fact that the US is allied with the UK and most other European countries via NATO, but I know of a few other countries where Americans don’t receive this kind of treatment. From personal experience, there is China, for one. Another such country is, interestingly enough, Iran.  Yes, apparently despite constant threats of war and endless demonization of Iran in the American press, Iranians are generally polite to American tourists they meet, apparently even too polite. To some that might seem like weakness, but if anything it gives Iranian people a sort of moral high ground.

I strongly believe that Ioffe’s “Russophobia” is in fact just a natural reaction to this kind of behavior, perhaps specifically due to conversations like the ones she reported in this other article of hers. If some people still think her words are indeed “Russophobia,” I would remind them that during the Bush years it was common for conservative pundits to constantly tell their audiences about all the “anti-Americanism” in the world, all of which was of course totally groundless and unfair. What actual anti-Americanism existed was mitigated by the fact that millions of Americans routinely voiced their discontent about US foreign policy, largely in the form of the anti-war movement. Those who stuck to the party line justly deserved the hatred which was intended not so much for the American people but rather the government.  In a similar vein, if a significant portion of Russians get behind the government’s propaganda campaign, they are going to provoke this kind of “Russophobia.” I realize that once again, this might seem to many Russians as weakness or submission. What if the West continues its “information war” or provocative actions similar to the Magnitsky Act, and Russia does nothing in response? Well to be honest, Russia isn’t really doing anything concrete to oppose the West, with which it does a great deal of lucrative trade, nor can it.  More importantly, if the West is genuinely behaving badly toward Russia, at least Russia will have the moral high ground and eventually gain more sympathy throughout the world. Russia certainly held that ground when the Magnitsky Act was passed, but they pissed it all away by taking it out on their own orphaned children.  If Russia wants to be loved, it must be more appealing. If it wants to be feared, it needs to accept the consequences of that kind of behavior.


In case the reader is still not convinced that Ioffe is sufficiently balanced, I would recommend this other article of hers

A Scary Place to Live: The Media and Acceptable Racism (Part 2 of 2)

(Author’s note: Click this link for the first part of the series)


Our latest expert on Russia, Alex Kane of Alternet

In part one of this series, I dealt with the content of Alternet “world” editor Alex Kane’s article, entitled  “10 disturbing facts about Russia that will change the way you watch the Olympics.”  As I hinted at in the first article, the wrongness of this article has two sides. On one hand you have claims which are factually incorrect or sometimes dishonest; some of these might be forgivable considering the fact that the article is so full of links it can barely be considered Kane’s “work.”  On the other hand there is something far more disturbing. In order to lay out what this thing is, let me relate an anecdote.

Early in 2013 I read a story about a woman named Sarai Sierra, who went missing in Istanbul and was later found to have been murdered.  Having read one of the early stories in which she had only been reported as missing, I made the horrible mistake of scrolling down to the comments section.  Part of me knew what was in store for me.  Numerous American commentators, mostly male, loudly proclaimed that she was at best horribly naive, at worse that she deserved it. Why did she deserve it? Simple, she traveled alone to a “Muslim country.”  They figured she should have known better. Some of them seemed to relish in the fact that something terrible had happened to her, no doubt because there had been a rumor that Sarai, a married woman, had some sort of “romantic liason” with a Turkish man who was later exonerated after questioning.  I’m not going to dredge up any of those comments but let me just say the general tone of nearly all of them could be best described by the words sick and ignorant.

I chose this story because Alex Kane, who declared Russia a “scary place to live,” claims to be heavily interested in Middle Eastern affairs and Islamophobia, which would imply that he would probably have reacted to such comments the way I did. Islamophobes the world over constantly tell us that Muslims “want to kill us” and that we are “at war” with Islam. These are typically people who have never left their own country, much less traveled to any Muslim-majority country.  In my case I have visited three majority Muslim countries, including three visits to Turkey, and one predominately Muslim region of Russia. Therefore hearing people rant about the danger of Westerners traveling to Muslim countries always comes off as plain cowardice to me.  I’d like to think that someone like Kane would agree with this assessment.

I wonder how Kane would react to the following scenario- Some journalist in the US, not having been to Turkey, reads about the murder of Sierra and decides to Google up some negative stories about Turkey. There are plenty of items to choose from, whether it’s the increasingly heavy hand of the government, which has long controlled and censored the internet in Turkey to a degree which has never been seen in Russia, or the repression of Kurds. Having arbitrarily chosen ten negative pieces about Turkey, the author gives us “10 Disturbing Facts about Turkey”, calls them “the ten worst things to come out of Turkey recently,” and informs us that “Turkey can be a very scary place to live.” I would hope that Kane, someone who is an editor at a “progressive” news site and who specializes in Islamophobia, would have a lot to say about such an article. I would hope he would label it Islamophobic and racist, because the shoe certainly fits.

I think it should be clear by now that when someone with no significant(if any) experience in a country writes a ridiculously biased article on that country, deliberately highlighting the “worst” things about it and declaring it a scary place to live, this is basically an act of demonization. It contributes to prejudice, xenophobia, and of course, racism. Now I am sure that some readers might be a bit confused at this point, because it seems as though I’m implying that Kane’s article about Russia is racist, and indeed I am doing precisely that. “But Russians are white,” the good little college “progressive” might reply. “Racism = prejudice + power,” some might add. To answer the second point- bullshit. That describes institutional racism or discrimination. Otherwise you could hate all kinds of people in other countries and not be “racist” just because you have no power over them. More importantly, however, America’s definitions of “race” aren’t recognized all over the world. Even more importantly, I would argue that Russians are not “white,” as evidenced by the kinds of prejudices and stereotypes that are held against them and other Eastern European nationalities.

I wish I could say I was the first to broach the issue of anti-Russian racism, but someone else beat me to it. In an article entitled “Meanwhile in Russia: Buzzfeed, Russia, and the west”, a very intriguing point is raised:

It is no coincidence, then, that in the past few years Russia has become a rich hunting ground for easily consumable visual content (This special relationship took on an official character when market leader Buzzfeed chose the Guardian’s Russia correspondent Miriam Elder as its new foreign editor). The Russian-language internet has all the characteristics necessary to be the perfect fail-farm for those in search of a photo-fix: it is huge and active (with 70m users in 2011, it’s Europe’s biggest internet market) and, in contrast to inaccessible behemoths China and India, the dweebs and doofuses starring in Russian photobombs and facepalms don’t look so very different from English-language users. Bluntly put, they’re white.

Two things here. First note the name Miriam Elder from The Guardian. After Luke Harding was kicked out of Russia, Elder took over in Moscow for a while. Her writing wasn’t much of an improvement on that of Harding, as was evidenced by an article wherein she describes her troubles with dry-cleaning service and then declared that this was what the Russians at Bolotnaya were protesting against. The second point I wanted to make here is the claim that Russians are, as the excerpt stated, “white.” I am not going to go into deep detail here as I plan to do at a later date, but my general response to this assertion is that Russians are not “white,” but rather they become “white” only when it is useful for them to be. In other words, if someone calls you out for racism when the targets are Russian, something clicks in your American brain and you suddenly remember that Russians are “white,” which is supposed to give you a free pass for varying reasons depending on your position on the political spectrum. Much of the laughter and mocking associated with the mass arrival of journalists in Sochi, which quickly went beyond justifiable criticism, resembles the kind of attitude that English or WASPs in America held toward the Irish, Slavs, Italians, etc. That is to say that Russians seem to be mocked because they’re trying to be “like us” and they’re just not. It is reminiscent of the minstrel show cliche known as “Zip Coon,” a free black man who was mocked because of his stylish dress and confident mannerisms; his “flaw” being that he had the audacity to think he was equal to white people, an idea which was considered ridiculous by many whites when minstrelsy was popular. In a similar manner, the Russian may put on an expensive suit and carry an iPhone, but underneath that he’s still just a backward Slavic peasant whose only redeeming quality is his enigmatic, “Russian soul.”

There is one more piece worth quoting from the Calvert Journal article at this time.

Unlike their counterparts from, say, Austria or Canada, Russia’s loons and losers continue to be characterised by their country of origin: they’re not subsumed into the homogenous online country of Internetia; the word “Russian” always has to feature in the title. Russianness has, it seems, become a powerful online brand, a good way of guaranteeing clicks and thus ad revenue.

This paragraph advances a strong argument for the existence of anti-Russian racism(which as I stated before, often applies to other Eastern Europeans as well). In the same way that other groups are continually referred to by their nationality or ethnicity, the “Russian” identifier must always be used. This is most often the case with Russian women, who are fetishized in a manner similar to “Asian women.” On that note I should point out that just as many Americans lump all “Asians” together and consider them interchangeable, so do they tend to do the same with Eastern Europeans or former Soviet nationalities. Borat is the most obvious example of this, but even just the fact that Hollywood and the video game industry still manages to bungle Eastern European names in this internet age tells us how deep-rooted this issue is.

Coming back to the point of Mr. Kane’s article, I believe that the sometimes “white,” sometimes not nature of Russians and Eastern Europeans can explain why his article is unlikely to face any major backlash on the grounds of racism and prejudice. In this particular case, it’s perfectly fine to deliberately compile a list of “worst things” about a country and from that, declare it a scary place to live. Now I realize that Mr. Kane may have actually visited Russia,but judging from his publicly available info and the content of the article, which can barely be called “his” as it is basically links to other sources with some commentary,  it is highly unlikely that he has spent any significant amount of time in Russia. I don’t think not being a national of a particular country bars one from criticizing it, but obviously your credibility and right to pass judgment increases with time and knowledge.

It is doubtful that Kane will be “called out” for his demonizing, prejudice inducing article. Had he written it on India or maybe South Africa this might not be the case.  He most likely would have been called out for being prejudice, even if he did have a lot of personal experience within the country in question. I can’t speculate on an article he never actually wrote, but I’d be inclined to agree with such criticism. He may escape that kind of backlash from fellow progressive Americans who know nothing about Russia and Eastern Europe, but at least he didn’t escape Russia Without Bullshit.