Richard Lourie: Shattering the boundaries of ordinary dumbassery

Leave it to The Moscow Times editorial page to scrape the bottom of the barrel and dredge up the most idiotic opinion articles about Russia.  Hell, I’m not sure bottom of the barrel is the right idiom here; the implications are far too positive.  To reach the depths of idiocy featured in this latest piece you’d need one of those industrial drill rigs that geologists use to get core samples.  Imagine one of those suckers puncturing some poor sap’s septic tank and spewing a geyser of shit into the air.  That’s still not an adequate metaphor for this travesty against the modern English language.  You need to imagine that this geyser of shit has burst forth from what turns out to be a magical, bottomless septic tank of shit, so that the shit rains down like oil in There Will Be Blood. Still not strong enough. Imagine that the shit develops into a flood which destroys the nearest town, drowning every last resident in shit.  Now imagine you could take that very same amount of shit, and somehow transform it into words. Someone did just that. That someone is Richard Lourie, and his digital shit geyser of unholy doom is entitled “10 Good Things about Putin’s Russia.”  

Who is Richard Lourie, you ask? I don’t know much about him other than he wrote this craptacular garbage which also appeared in The Moscow Times ever-so-objective editorial section. He’s also the acclaimed author of Josef Stalin’s Autobiography.  No that’s not a mistake. He wrote Josef Stalin’s Autobiography.  The name of the goddamned book is The Autobiography of Josef Stalin: A NovelMost people would think that it takes balls to write anyone else’s autobiography, but this kind of thing is pretty much par for the course when it comes to Russian or especially Soviet history. No evidence? No problem! Just make it up.  Check out the description on the Amazon page:  

“In a spellbinding novel that combines the suspense of a thriller and the accuracy of a work of history, the psychology of a monster is fully revealed, every atom of his madness explored, every twist of his homicidal logic followed to its logical conclusion.”

Accuracy of a work of history?  Sorry, but no. Not when the same description contains Stalin’s inner monologue(see link above for example).  Nor is anything revealed about a real person when you actually write their thoughts.  Sure, biographers of Stalin have been creatively interpreting his words and reading the dead man’s brain for decades, but none have taken it so far as Mr. Lourie.  

What I also know about Mr. Lourie is that his understanding of Russian life, culture, and the language is nearly non-existent.  I’m guessing he might have some formal education in Russian studies, maybe Russian or Eastern European history, because it usually takes formal study in these subjects to spout such idiotic opinions about Russia which are so disconnected from actual reality.  I’ve seen it plenty of times. Person studies Russian history. Person comes to Russia. Reality contradicts what they were taught; they ignore reality and invent their own, acknowledging only those things which fit their worldview.  They are almost literally the mirror image of your typical Western Russophile; both are out of touch with Russian society as a whole because they purposely seek out and limit themselves to that community of Russians which validates their preconceived ideas.  I’m not just stabbing in the dark here, as you read my comments on his article, I will point out tell-tale signs of Lourie’s obvious ignorance of Russian society, culture, and politics.  A running theme is that Lourie seems to get nearly all his knowledge about Russian politics from the Western, English language press.  I will point this out whenever applicable.  

I should also point out that in this article Lourie seems to have done away with cohesive paragraphs in favor of the ever fashionable listicle style. I’m not surprised. Without further ado, prepare for maximum idiocy.  

1. You can leave. Andrei Sakharov, leader of the Human Rights movement in the Soviet Union, insisted that the No. 1 human right was the right to leave your country, otherwise you are living in a prison house. It is unfortunate that some people still have to flee Russia, but it is fortunate that they can.

Okay first of all, I don’t give a shit what Sakharov said the “No. 1 human right” was.  I think the No. 1 human right ought to be the right to all the necessities of life. There are many countries in the world which allow their citizens to leave and they are horrible places without access to adequate nutrition or clean water supplies.  Furthermore, having the “right” to leave your requires you to have the right to enter another one.  Many people today would like to leave their impoverished or war-torn countries but cannot thanks to immigration laws, visa requirements, etc.  Even countries which are stereotyped as having “open borders” aren’t not the paradise for immigrants that people think they are.  Russian citizens are still routinely denied tourist visas by countries like the UK and US.  

2. You can pray. In my experience, it is a lot easier to find believers who are intelligent and fun in Russia than it is in the U.S. A Russian can be a member of the intellectual class and still follow the Orthodox Church’s complex schedule of fasts. For all the cozy hypocrisy in the relations of church and state that the Pussy Riot punk rock group mocked in its prank at Moscow’s main cathedral, it must be still counted as progress that believers can openly worship now without fearing social or economic loss as in Soviet times. That also raises the question of how long today’s Russia should be compared to a Soviet yesterday.

Here’s some of that ignorance I was talking about.  America is famous for its massive Christian fundamentalist movement which still exerts far too much political power to this day, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find plenty of American intellectuals who are religious.  Likewise in Russia you can find plenty of self-proclaimed Orthodox “believers” who exhibit the same ridiculous behavior as fundamentalists of all religions. Of course those kinds of Russians usually possess no English skills at all, not like members of the intelligentsia. See what I’m getting at here?  

He then goes on to make a Soviet comparison, wonders aloud as to whether Russia should still be compared to the Soviet Union, all in an article which consists of almost nothing but Post-Soviet Russia vs. USSR comparisons.  Brilliant.  

3. You can open a business. What once were capital crimes are now career choices. The streets of  some Russian cities now are now displaying more individual capitalism, the little stores with personality that lend color and variety to street-level life. Shopping is no longer an expedition. All sense of adventure has been lost. If you want something, you buy it — including on the Internet. E-commerce is a booming business in Russia. All you need is money, the new tyrant.

ImageHoly…shit.  I already had a counter to this clusterfuck of a paragraph before I reached the first full stop. and by the time I get to the end he’s basically made my point for me, thus debunking his own.  Let me handle this as efficiently as possible. You can start a business if you have money and access to credit. And hopefully the government doesn’t randomly pass some sweeping piece of legislation which undermines your business. Good luck with that, really.  As for small shops, personality, and “color” I don’t know what the fuck he is talking about. Yeah there are tons of these little small shops everywhere and they suck. Shopping’s no longer an “expedition?”  I’m very sorry but I used to live in near the center of Moscow and shopping was and expedition which added a minimum of one hour to my commute home. With my work schedule that meant that going to bed before midnight was pretty much out of the question.  Obviously this problem doesn’t exist everywhere in the city but I’d much prefer large supermarkets where you can get virtually anything to the small, colorful shops he idolizes.  Then he mentions that e-commerce is a booming business in Russia. Well it was until the Duma recently passed new customs regulations this year which will severely limit Russians’ ability to order goods from abroad. And to top it all off, he acknowledges that you can do these things only if you have money, which he then refers to as a tyrant.  Also do I need to note that he begins this point with a comparison to the Soviet period, right after the line where he questions whether we should do that anymore?  

4. The Internet is free. My rule is that a country without a free Internet can never be called free, whereas a country with a free Internet can never be called entirely unfree. The perverse irony here is that modern authoritarian regimes may actually prefer free Internet and social media because it makes it easier to track and monitor dissidents. Case in point: Protesters on the barricades in Kiev received the following text message: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in an unsanctioned rally.”

What can I say about his “rule?” He could have just as easily written this:  

My rule is that a country without puffed rice can never be called Biff, whereas a country with Capri Sun can never be called the ’92-93 Chicago Bulls. 

or this:

My rule is that when the moon caterpillar pulls a cow’s intestines out through its ear, the lead under the chairs of the Ford Ranger rust demons may howl into slack-jawed cosmic space. 

There’s literally nothing more I can say about that paragraph. It is the journalistic equivalent to a Tim & Eric sketch, if you somehow eliminated any vestige of humor and replaced it with sadness, despair, and rage hotter than a thousand suns.  

5. You can eat. When I used to travel to the Soviet hinterland, I always carried a salami, bread and a knife. It was perfectly possible to end up in a town where there was no restaurant open and no food in the stores. Recently I had a few nice meals in Murmansk in the Arctic Circle. Everywhere you look there are sushi restaurants, which somehow has become the emblem of modern dining sophistication — much like being pro-gay rights has become the emblem of the modern, civilized mindset. We’ll know that Russia has arrived when we start seeing gay sushi restaurants popping up not only in Moscow, but in the conservative hinterlands as well.

The fact that Lourie just noticed the sushi restaurants everywhere is telling indeed. So is the fact that he finds them “sophisticated.”  It tells me, as I have stated before, that Lourie’s connection with Russian society and culture is tenuous at best. You don’t need to spend much time in Russia to notice sushi restaurants, nor are they only widespread in the capital or St. Petersburg. I’ve seen plenty of sushi and Italian restaurants in cities like Volgograd and Kazan. No what reveals a deeper connection with Russia is an observation about the lack of decent Chinese food places in Moscow, or the noticeable rise in the presence of Plastic Paddy Irish pubs. 

It is the other half of this paragraph which is far more problematic, however.  Lourie engages in what is essentially a passive-aggressive shot against the Russian bout of populist homophobia from last year, but in doing so he fails to score any points. First of all, being pro-gay rights, is usually a sign of progressive, libertarian views, not a “civilized” mindset. I say “usually” because Western Europe is full of right-wing demagogues who use gay rights as a cover for Islamophobia.  Reactionaries don’t always have the same list of things they won’t tolerate, and for some of them the hatred of Muslim immigrants outweighs any problems they might have with LGBT people.  I have a problem with the term modern and civilized, if only because the Western press loves to fawn over states such as Dubai as being ultra-modern and ever so wonderful despite its horrible human rights record.  Declaring people “uncivilized” has often been the foundation of prejudices at best and the prelude to genocide at worst. I think anyone who has read a good deal of this blog can gather that I am on the side of LGBT rights. What I don’t support is people taking back-handed, passive-aggressive swipes at the country as a whole and implying that they are neither modern nor civilized. Associating a stupid, incomprehensible law with an entire nation and its people is racism, plain and simple. Worse still, it has actually helped the cause of homophobia in Russia. Because so much of the knee-jerk criticism basically amounted to Russians = homophobes, it turned homophobia into a mark of patriotism, quite possibly among many people are in fact very tolerant in their daily lives. If the immorality of this practice still isn’t fully clear, just imagine if say, the Netherlands labeled all Americans and America itself as homophobic due to the passage of Prop 8 in California. 

I realize this is a bit of a digression, but you don’t help the cause of tolerance by resorting to racism. 

Anyway, the next item on the list is idiotic on so many levels as to necessitate breaking it into several parts.

6. There is less anti-Semitism. Or maybe it has simply been exported to western Ukraine and Europe. In reality, of course, Russia’s xenophobia and bile has been refocused on Central Asian guest workers and natives of the Caucasus. From time to time, you can see Orthodox Jews in black coats and hats, long beards and payis walking down city streets unself-consciously, lost in their own conversation and oblivious to the fact that they are in the country that gave the world the words “pogrom” and “Pale of Settlement.”

Okay. Russia is less anti-Semitic since the days of pogroms and the Pale of Settlement, two features of the Russian Empire.  But I’m confused.  What changed? What ended the pogroms? What gave Jews not only equal rights, but even the first Jewish state before modern Israel?  It’s almost like Lourie is leaving something out.  I’m also confused about his suggestion that it might have been exported to Ukraine. Lourie doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d want us to doubt the virtuous nature of Evromaidan, which is of course about nothing other than the noble goals of moving closer to Europe, fighting corruption, and having a free and open society.  By all means don’t pay any attention to those guys with the wolf’s hook armbands or the portraits of Stepan Bandera!  

I was amazed and gladdened when there was no detectable outbreak of anti-Semitism over the fact that so many of the oligarchs were Jewish.

Remember when I said that Laurie drops tell-tale signs of being woefully ignorant on Russian society and politics? Here’s the smoking gun right here.  The fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of oligarchs led to a well-documented explosion of anti-Semitism in Russia. Has Lourie not seen the security measures at Bolshaya Bronnaya Synagogue, the site of one bombing attempt and a mass stabbing attack by a skinhead? I simply cannot stress the ignorance of this one sentence enough.  Lourie not only shows massive ignorance of common knowledge, but he also inadvertently supports one of the main claims of Russian anti-Semites, namely that Russia’s oligarch problem is a Jewish problem.  How could he possibly be unaware of any of this?  This is a man who has been published at least twice in the Moscow TImes.  

Sometimes the Western media overstates the problem of anti-Semitism in Russia. I remember reading many reports which would make you think that the streets of Moscow are routinely patrolled by gangs of skinheads. The truth is, however, that most Russians are not anti-Semites, nor neo-Nazis, and even far right activists tend to use coded language when talking about Jews, much like their counterparts in the West.  

Of course, there is still some anti-Semitism in Russia, but perhaps only just enough to prove the old bitter maxim that anti-Semitism is hating Jews more than you should.

Uh…Wow.  Okay. Sooooooo you’re saying we’re actually supposed to hate Jews. Good call, Moscow Times opinion editor Michael Bohm! 

7. Weak commies. In a country once totally dominated by Communists, it is a pleasure to see them now as a mostly toothless opposition — often figuratively — whose existence helps keep up the appearances of tolerance and democracy. It also gives Westerners who remember the Cold War the opportunity to look at real Russian Communists who still sincerely believe all of that ideological claptrap. Their spectacular historical failure has now sent some Communists back to their original function: helping society’s poor and forgotten.

Here’s yet another example of a sign that Lourie is totally out of touch with reality in Russia.  See where he calls the Communist party “toothless opposition?”  The KPRF(Communist Party of the Russian Federation) happens to be the second party in Russia’s Duma and it has been for some time.  In the last elections of 2011 they picked up 35 seats, while the ruling United Russia party lost 77. In fact, had these or any previous elections been fair, KPRF would have almost certainly come out on top. Lourie cannot possibly dispute this unless he’s willing to declare the 2011 elections entirely fair, though at this point I’d expect anything from him.  Gennady Zyuganov, head of the party, nearly won the presidential election of 1996 in the race against Yeltsin. His failure to win in the polls was due largely in part to the manipulation of certain oligarchs and even help from the United States. Officially sanctioned KPRF-led marches routinely draw thousands in the capital on 1 May and 9 May.  I might also add that if the KPRF actually managed to get a solid parliamentary majority, it would probably suggest that power would have shifted to such a degree that they would no longer be “toothless.”  

Lourie then goes on to say that Westerners can see “real Communists,” but truth be told nothing could be further from “real” Communism than the populist, nationalist, hodge-podge ideology espoused by most “Communists” throughout the former Soviet Union. As a rule their views tend to be diametrically opposed to most of the world’s Communist parties, and often the latter have relations with them only out of respect for the old Soviet Union or simple ignorance of the doctrine of parties like KPRF.  While there are many exceptions, perhaps growing every year, in general former Soviet Communist tend to be the worst in terms of Marxist theory. They did destroy the Soviet Union, after all.  

I’ll ignore his comment about “ideological claptrap” since I think it’s painfully apparent by now that Lourie’s political worldview was most likely pieced together from a mixture of fortune cookie proverbs, greeting cards, brochures, and Tom Clancy movies.  I’m glad that he acknowledges how Communists help the poor and forgotten, but hey, those poor and forgotten can leave the country now! Oh wait. No they can’t. They lack the means to avail themselves of that “right.”  

8. Smiles and good service. In the bad old days, smiles were rare in general and service was often called “unobtrusive” — meaning that the waiter or salesperson was nowhere to be found, having simply disappeared probably to stand in line for chicken or toilet paper. Service with a smile was outright inconceivable. Now Russians smile more often and more easily, and service is definitely speedier, probably because chicken and toilet paper are readily available in stores.

This is from the guy who suggests it might be time to cool it with the Soviet Union vs. Russian Federation comparisons, right?  Here he hits us with a stereotypical, unhistorical image which looks as though he stole it from a long forgotten Yakov Smirnov routine.  His description of service and smiles is only mildly accurate. As for the second part of this point: 

Nonetheless, you can still get the old-fashioned service with a scowl. On the bullet train between Moscow and St. Petersburg, the stewardesses are quick to bring you a surprisingly tasty lunch, but they slap it down on your tray and disappear to deal with things more important than customers like gossip and makeup. The Soviet Union dies hard.

Yup, it’s always the Soviet Union’s fault. Why is this guy writing for the Moscow Times again? What insight does he provide that someone who once took a guided tour through part of Russia and reads Newsweek and Time magazine cannot? 

9. Alexei Navalny. It’s wonderful that today’s Russia could have a wise-cracking corruption-fighting whistle-blower like Navalny. He is a person of intelligence, integrity and sufficient stature to worry Putin, especially after Navalny won an impressive 27 percent of the vote in September’s mayoral election in Moscow. There have already been efforts to cripple him with phony criminal charges resulting in a conviction that may disbar him from any future political runs for office. There may even be efforts to crush him even more completely than that. At least he can leave the country — as of this writing anyway.

Once again we see that Lourie displays a curious ignorance of the Russian political landscape. In fact it is the same ignorance of someone who happens to get all their news on Russia from Western, English language sources.  I remember the Western coverage of 2011-2012 quite well and if that was your source on goings on in Russia, your opinion would probably resemble that which Lourie expressed in this paragraph.  The truth is that Navalny was, probably up until his recent mayoral campaign, relatively unknown to most Russians.  Even many who do know his name don’t care about him. Lourie, who seems to be concerned about xenophobia when he’s not telling us how to properly hate Jews without being anti-Semites, seems totally unaware of Navalny’s well-known connections with Russian nationalism and the right-wing Russian March, something which is common knowledge among Russians and people who can read Russian media. Navalny has also long engaged in various actions which have made him an easy target for pro-Kremlin propagandists, which seriously compromises the claim that he is so politically savvy. Somehow Laurie seems to be oblivious to all of this. Hmmm… I wonder why that is! Could it be that Lourie simply doesn’t know jack shit about modern Russia, and he gets all his information from poor, English language sources?  


Navalny at the Russian March

Lourie also assures us that Navalny is a “threat” to Putin, particularly due to his slightly better than expected showing in the mayoral race. That might be a big reason for concern for Putin, if Putin were the mayor of Moscow and not the President of the Russian Federation.  Navalny couldn’t even contemplate running in 2012, long before the legal case was brought against him.  And if Putin weren’t in the 2012 race, Navalny would get trounced by Gennady Zyuganov. 

You know, this might be a good time to point out that the title of this article is “10 Good Things about Putin’s Russia.”  How is Navalny a good thing about Putin’s Russia? There’s a great American blog I love called Gin and Tacos, but I’m not about to include its author in a list of “10 Good Things about Obama’s America.” 

10. Everything that always made Russia wonderful no matter who rules from the Kremlin. The list includes vodka, jokes, excellent conversation, passionate friendship, vodka, heroic hospitality, banyas, a love of art and music, a sense of vastness reaching from steppe to space, vodka.

For fuck’s sake he couldn’t even rattle off random Russian touristy words without having to throw in things which are not exclusive to Russia, not to mention repeat vodka two more times.  Here, Mr. Lourie, let me teach you how to properly fetishize Russia. Get ready while I drop these cliches!

What I love about Russia is the pelmeni, borsch, vodka, samogon, valenki, matryoshki, the Moscow Metro, the Bolshoi Theatre, samovars, bliny, Ta.Tu., Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Master and Margarita, Ladas…

Is that shit too hardcore for you? It only gets worse from here: 

“I love the balalaikas, Sputnik, shchi, red caviar, ushankas, Red Square, Lenin, the Kremlin!  Aw..yeah..uh huh…yeah…Vykhino represent, yo! WHAT? 2014! WE RUN THIS MOTHERFUCKIN’ RAION!  

That’s how it’s done, son.  

Well that’s it- one of the most insane articles on Russia I have ever read. Like I said it sounds like the writings of someone took a typical tourism trip to Russia and follows the Western or English language news on Russia. As I stated before he provides no insight that such a person could not. His understanding of Russian politics is hilariously distorted and I seriously doubt his Russian language skills. If he does have the linguistic skill, only crippling laziness can explain the disconnect between his political ramblings and the situation on the ground.  

Michael Bohm, the opinion editor of the Moscow Times, sure knows how to pick winners. Bohm’s poorly concealed bias is pretty well known among Moscow-based journalists and expats. One sure sign of bias is the extent to which one will lower one’s standards if they agree with the content of someone’s work.  I’ve seen this happen all the time with RT’s opinion makers, and yet Bohm seems to be the type who will complain about the state-run channel’s bias without the slightest consideration that he’s basically doing the same by publishing this shit.  

Here at Russia Without Bullshit, I don’t care which “side” you’re on. If you write bullshit like this and put it online where people outside of Russia can read it, I’m going to call it out.  







5 thoughts on “Richard Lourie: Shattering the boundaries of ordinary dumbassery

  1. Estragon

    OK, it’s an old article, but I’ll leave a comment anyway. In regard to this,

    “I seriously doubt his Russian language skills”, I feel compelled to point out that Lourie is a fairly well-known translator of Russian (and Polish) literature. So for me at least, his linguistic skills are not lacking. But that raises a larger question: why are people whose business is to know about Russia – and who possess the skills to do so – often so clueless?

    I could raise a bunch of examples. For instance, Jeffrey Tayler, author of the notorious Atlantic article “Russia is Finished” (2001). Tayler lived in Moscow for ages, and speaks Russian fluently; yet this article is a poorly reasoned, cliché-ridden piece of crap which looks merely embarrassing today. Another one: David McDuff, prolific translator of classic Russian literature (I’ve got a couple of his translations on my shelf), but someone who retails a steady stream of neocon nonsense on his blog “A Step at a Time.”

    I have nothing against these guys, I’m sure they’ve done excellent work elsewhere, but their scribblings about the actual situation in Russia are nonsensical – good for a laugh but not much else. Yet they are not ill-equipped to understand Russia, which leaves me scratching my head.

    1. Big Bill Haywood Post author

      Hmmm…That is odd. You could add Luke Harding to that list as well. I think what it is sometimes is that people will come here with their own preconceived notions, and when they run into reality, they seek out and find that community which fits into those notions. It’s easy to tune out the rest of the country.

    2. Big Bill Haywood Post author

      One more thing: It’s actually a shame when people who know the language don’t use it to inform people of the truth. I often tell people that the best way to actually know anything about Russia is the Russian internet, for example. I’m talking about VK, livejournals, websites, etc. You have to read what people are talking about at the moment and you can often gauge the political climate by that. Of course all of this is beyond reach of anyone without good Russian language skills, meaning that sort of person depends on someone with knowledge to report accurately.

      1. Estragon

        When I was in Russia, the Russian blogosphere was a great way to take the pulse of people and get a wide range of local views. All the more so as it was not institutionally controlled and connected.

        As for the people I mentioned, I do think a lot of this is due to the fact that they tend to hang out with Russians who see the world in the same way, which mostly means urban intelligentsia. That means they’re getting a skewed view of Russia, just as you’d get a skewed view of America if you only hung out with liberal intellectuals from Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

      2. Big Bill Haywood Post author

        Exactly, though it also goes for the Russophiles too. When Russians don’t turn out to act like they “should,” this is blamed on the West and then the person in question seeks out some nationalist group which they decide really represents Russia’s interests.

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