I figured it would come to this some day. I was warned. It seems I finally have a bone to pick with Julia Ioffe of New Republic, and it is something which is concretely within the purview of Russia without Bullshit. The offending article is here.
Basically my criticism of this article is that like a lot of Western press on Russia, it makes Russia’s liberals out to be the main force of opposition and the only hope for Russia. As I’ve stated many times before, the opposition in Russia in extremely broad and includes many elements which are much worse than the ruling clique in the Kremlin. In a recent New York Times article, the Western-dubbed “leader” of the opposition, Alexei Navalny, implored Western leaders not to fall for the idea that Putin is necessary to keep dark, nationalist forces in check. Rather amusing coming from an individual who refuses to apologize for his repeated involvement with the nationalist “Russian March” held on 4 November. The problem I’m getting at here is that when you talk about Russia’s liberals as though they alone represent the opposition, it’s quite dishonest. Many self-proclaimed Russian “liberals” also hold views which Western liberals might find abhorrent. Like most post-Soviet political ideology, theirs is a hodge-podge of various ideas from the West, many of them not fully understood. The result is something like a knock-off you might find in a Beijing electronics market.
The thing that really prompted this was the sensationalism. Before quoting the offending passage, I’ll give the reader the gist of the article in case you didn’t read the whole thing. Basically she’s saying that Russian liberals are worried that the sanctions leveled by the US and Europe will lead to a tougher crackdown on Russia’s opposition, or at least the liberals, the only part of the opposition she seems to care about. Well I think that is entirely possible to a degree. I was hoping that after 2011, Putin would react to Western criticism by liberalizing the country in terms of free speech and right to assembly. What happened was the opposite. This shows that the state has something to fear, and it must feel terribly vulnerable if it is so terrified of a movement as nebulous, disorganized, and incoherent as Russia’s fledgling opposition movement is. How strong can a state be if it finds Pussy Riot to be a threat?
That being said, there have recently been some protests against the actions in the Crimea, and from the photos I saw I was shocked. It seemed as if the massive police presence was either not there or far more low-key than at any protest I have seen. Even for celebrations and marches led by KPRF(“Communist” Party), one would typically encounter a police cordon controlling the entire march route and any squares where said march was set to begin and end. You cannot simply cross the line to join the march or the celebration. At the protest rally of 10 December 2011, the cordon actually began from the nearest metro station, meaning it took forever to actually get to the site of the protest. All this means is that the situation with civil rights in Russia fluctuates radically, and while crackdowns happen, one should not go overboard and make the country out to be some kind of Orwellian dystopia. In other words, like this:
It’s not that the crackdown is coming. The crackdown is already here, and the opposition—or what’s left of it—has been grunting under its weight for the last two years. But now, it’s about to get really, really bad. At least that’s the fear. There’s talk of closed borders and exit visas, arrests, unemployment because of political beliefs: You know, the kinds of things you do with traitors in Russia.
I’m surprised that Ioffe doesn’t seem to understand the power of rumors in Russian society. Late last year, the state suddenly yanked the licences of a couple banks, supposedly due to their involvement with money laundering. It would have been nicer if they could have maybe isolated the offending accounts and given depositors more warning dropping this bombshell on them, but as I remember the ordinary customers were promptly taken care of after the fact. In the following weeks, a few more banks were closed. This gave birth to a rumor that after the Olympic games in Sochi ended, Putin was going to start yanking the licenses of dozens of banks. Clearly this has not yet happened. That’s the way it goes here. Government does something bad, and people start imagining worse. Now Ioffe acknowledges that all these things about closed borders and arrests are simply “fear”, but to me it sounds more like taking these ordinary rumors and running with them to the point of panic-mongering. This is strengthened by the way she implies that these are “kinds of things you do with traitors in Russia,” as if this is already par for the course.
This kind of sensationalism is dangerous, if only because long after people read it, the only thing they may remember is that Russia is a place where they have exit visas, closed borders, etc. It’s kind of like how comedian Charlie Brooker got the idea that Putin literally kills journalists. This does not build understanding and only plays into the hands of Kremlin hacks who scream “bias” every time the Western media criticizes Russia.