Boots on the Ground

I have a couple of really good updates coming this week, but for the moment I wanted to address something that came up in an e-mail I received recently.

First of all, I have to admit that I was a bit of a dick with the person in question. One side-effect of watching endless Ukraine vs. Russia debates and having the extreme displeasure of reading page after page of bullshit is that you get this tendency to go off at the half-cock. The reader must understand that in this conflict, I have no “side,” meaning there is no community in which I can immerse myself. There are people on the Ukrainian side(many of whom are Russian) who seem intelligent and make good arguments against Putin’s regime. If I follow them long enough, however, they will inevitably start engaging in whataboutism, apologetics for the Ukrainian far-right, and the like. I’m sorry but even if the Russian grandmas are full of shit when they label everyone opposed to Yanukovych as Banderites, it doesn’t mean that Banderaism doesn’t exist in Ukraine or that it can be ignored.  By a similar token, any criticism of Ukraine’s government will almost always turn into apologetics, if not outright support, for Putin’s regime or its proxy in Ukraine.

Me, since July 2013.

Me, since July 2013.

One effect of this, besides general irritability, one major side effect of this is that you tend to develop a hair-trigger which is set off by certain memes found in a person’s writing. When an anti-Maidan article starts talking about fascist mass murderers I suspect pro-Russian bullshit, and a cursory examination of the sources usually bears this out.  When I see someone scoffing at the idea that Ukrainian nationalism is a serious problem in Ukraine, the same thing happens. Truth be told, if someone took excerpts from some of my writings on Maidan, maybe mixing them up and rephrasing some of the text, even that could set off the hair-trigger.  The ability to determine political slant via identifying talking points is useful, but it can be a double edged sword.

This is not the most important issue I want to address here, however. The topic I want to discuss is the question of why I’m qualified to speak on any of these topics and to what extent my living in Russia gives me an edge in these debates and discussions.

First of all, the idea that I base the correctness of my opinions on simply being in Russia is a ridiculous straw man.  While I do not hold any formal degree in Russian or Eastern European studies, I have been studying the topic of Russia and Eastern Europe since my teenage years. By the same token, I’ve encountered many Russian history majors with degrees whose views on Russia happen to be contrary to obvious reality. Don’t get me wrong, I respect the institution of academia, but in humanities topics such as this one it isn’t the be all end all. Ordinary non-university students have just as much access to literature, including academic literature and scholarly works, and I have availed myself of this for more than a decade.  During that time I’ve also had a number of radically different experiences and ideological changes which forced me to reconsider sources I had read before, as well as seek out new sources to get a different point of view.  So no, I don’t have the published academic papers or research, but my defense is that 1. Plenty of people who can say yes to that make claims which are easily refuted by simple observation, and 2. reading and studying Russian and Eastern European history as an autodidact for roughly 15 years ought to at least be considered equal to a four-year undergraduate degree in that subject.

Before I go on to the question of why living in Russia is so important, I’d like to relate an anecdote from late 2008 to early 2009, which tells you something about the limitations of academic knowledge. I was in the middle of a spat with a young American woman on the topic of Georgia and the war that had happened there. I was, and in a way still am on the side of Russia by default in that particular conflict. The woman said “The Caucasus is rising up against Putin!” I informed her that no, it was not in fact rising up, and that some time prior to this conversation Russia had pulled nearly all its forces out of Chechnya. I pointed out that Caucasian Emirate insurgents were the only forces in the region and that they were quite small and rather inactive. At this point she tried to pull out her degree on me, claiming that she had studied the region(I don’t remember the specific behavior).  I simply asked her if her university had a refund policy, because in spite of her fancy piece of paper, the Caucasus simply was not rising against Putin, or anyone else for that matter.  So you can flog your degree all you want, but if you’re making claims about insurgencies that simply don’t exist, I don’t give a fuck.

So what difference does spending nearly a decade living in Russia make? Well first of all, as I often say Russia is still very much a closed country and this is why most of the press about it tends to be sensational. You know those stories on where they tell you which viral social media news items happen to be fake? One thing you’ll notice is that they tend to be about China or North Korea.  North Korea, of course, is very isolated. China not so much, but it does have a massive language barrier.  Russia is not terribly tourist friendly and it also has such a language barrier. When a country is not very open, even for reasons like these, it means that it’s very easy for bullshit rumors or distortions to become real news.

Living in the country and speaking the language helps counter this because you have a frame of reference that other people don’t have if they need to rely only on internet-based media.  For example, every once in a while you’ll see a news story about some Russian politician talking about abandoning the dollar. This will be presented in an alarmist tone. Of course if you live in Russia, you’ll know that some politician will make a public statement about this at least one or two times a year, and nothing comes of it. The last time I saw such a statement reported on RIA-Novosti, it was almost immediately followed by an update wherein the Kremlin officially distanced itself from that adviser’s personal “opinion.”

Again, simply living in the country doesn’t mean anything. I know people who have lived here almost as long as myself, some which speak the language and some which don’t. Either way, some of these people don’t know shit about Russian politics or history because they just don’t care. That is simply not me, however. I came here because I was interested and I wanted practical knowledge, not simply the academic variety.

In my early years here, I spent a lot of time interacting with Russian political activists of many stripes. Now I’m sure some readers will say, “AHA! You were probably hanging out with those liberal hipster types who frequent Jean-Jacques cafe!”  Wrong again. Russia’s liberals are probably the group I have interacted with the least since I’ve been here. I generally only encounter these types by chance, often through work. Most of my interaction has been with (self-proclaimed) “Communists,” both of the KPRF variety or various off-shoots.  I’ve also had the opportunity to speak with representatives of various nationalist movements and organizations in Russia, something many readers would probably prefer to avoid.  Lastly, aside from having countless candid discussions with Russian citizens of various social classes, my work has often brought me into contact with some pretty big fish. Obviously I can’t go into details about something like this on the blog, but suffice it to say I know what I’m talking about when I describe the gap between Russia’s masses and the elite that rules over them. If Yanukovych’s golden toilet was a shock for you, it wasn’t for me.

That is very important because I often see outsiders writing about Russia and poorly characterizing its internal politics to fit their own distorted views. People tend to see what they want in Russia’s internal politics, much as they did with Ukraine. Western liberals wanted to see Maidan as a progressive movement for democracy, and they didn’t want to see the nationalist, racist side of that movement. Many confused leftists in the West wanted to see Maidan as a Western-sponsored fascist coup against a government that was supposedly a staunch rebel against the IMF, another idea with no basis in reality.  Both Maidan and the Russian government have engaged in a massive propaganda campaign aimed at the rest of the world and using roughly the same tactics, usually taking advantage of outsiders’ ignorance of the region and their inability to understand the language. Russia, of course, has a far stronger media arm and therefore it tends to get its message out more than Ukraine, which must go via proxy of the Western press.

Russia’s propaganda strategy is based primarily on telling any lie necessary to dupe your audience. If you suspect they are left-wing, show them photos of rebels holding Soviet flags, compare the struggle to the Spanish Civil War, and characterize it as a fight between a neo-liberal world order and a supposedly alternative Russia.  If the audience is right-wing, and thus more compatible with the real ideology of most Russian politics, characterize it as a defense of morals and traditions against the Godless, perverted European Union.  It does not matter that both of these narratives are ultimately lies. Russia is not left wing and while it doesn’t practice the free-market-or-die economics of the United States, it has certainly managed to achieve extreme neo-liberal results without neo-liberal policies.  Russia is neither progressive nor right wing, nor does it offer any sort of alternative. Conservatives and other right-wingers might be disturbed to find out that Russia is not in fact a bastion of traditional values, as is evident from even a cursory browse through the various groups and profiles of sites like Vkontakte.  I grew up staunchly conservative and I can tell you most of the conservative and right-wing people I have known would have a heart attack if they knew what kind of stuff goes on here.

If you don’t speak Russian and you don’t spend any time living here, it’s easy to pick and choose what sources you want to listen to and then form your views about Russia based on that. The problem is, however, that you don’t have a frame of reference for judging which sources are probably accurate. Lately there’s been a lot of hysteria in the media about Russia potentially invading other countries, including Baltic NATO members. I’m sure many of these authors can quote all kinds of numbers and statements by Russian leaders, but I’m not convinced. Aside from vast military knowledge and personal experience in the military, I also have a lot of detailed knowledge about the Russian military, mostly from people who served in it. So for me that article about a Russian Baltic invasion is simply laughable.  I simply cannot pretend that Russia is a threat; that would mean actively believing something I know to be untrue.

When you’re limited to internet sources, however, you have the luxury of denial. If you happen across a news item which contradicts your view of Russia, you can simply dismiss it. It’s a state-run channel. It happens to coincide with something Putin said. Or conversely, this must have been written by someone from a Western-backed NGO. It’s propaganda. It’s anti-Russian. This article challenges my notion of what I think Russia should be.  I want Russia to be X, but if this article is true, Russia isn’t X, and therefore it can’t be true.  When you live here you don’t have that luxury. I can’t pretend Russia is a dystopian tyranny, teetering on the edge of collapse, because the truth is that most of the time everyone and everything leaves me alone and I don’t get any shit from any direction. Aside from some seriously worrying trends, it appears to be business as usual in Russia, at least in the capital. Serious problems are on the horizon, but for the moment everything appears to be running more or less as normal.  Conversely, I cannot pretend that Russia is some island of morality, or that it is a progressive, socialist society, because it simply isn’t. Crass consumerism is still the norm, nearly all politics are far-right, and people tend to be total dicks to one another.

I’m terribly sorry if the reality I see in front of my eyes every day contradicts the vision you have of Russia from your comfortable home in the US, Canada, the UK, or wherever. I’m sorry if you want Russia to be a certain way and what I report to you contradicts that. There is a simple way to rectify the situation. You can move to Russia and see what it’s really like. Don’t just stay in Moscow and seek out those Russians who happen to agree with your pre-conceived notions; you may find they are a very small group. Get out into the small towns, the other major cities, and the villages. Ride some trains. My bet is that you’re going to realize that your original ideas about Russia were flawed, if not totally wrong. You’ll probably feel lied to and betrayed.  That’s alright though, you can always accept reality and learn the truth. Or you can double down, insist that you are right, and work carefully to surround yourself with like-minded people while denying every day reality. This strategy of going into a fantasy land may not be so great for your mental health, but it could potentially land you a job at RT or Voice of Russia.

I’d like to end with one more recent anecdote which demonstrates the importance of being in a country. As I have probably mentioned before, I’ve been to Ukraine four times. To be sure, most of those trips were quite short and they were all to Kyiv, not known for being very representative when it comes to conditions in Ukraine. As long-time readers of this blog know, I have in the past endorsed a Ukraine-based “Communist” organization known as Borotba, mainly because at least up until this year their line was rather solid- they claimed to oppose both the EU association agreement and the Russian customs;’ union agreement. I approved of this because this basically started as two major economic powers trying to secure a deal with Ukraine which would ultimately benefit their own ruling classes.  As the insurgency in the East unfolded, however, Borotba’s line became distinctly pro-Russian, making excuses for alliances with Russian nationalists and fascists. I also stumbled upon third party reports about their collaboration with far-right extremists. I was also a skeptic regarding Russian military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, but while I do think there’s a good chance the Ukrainian government has been exaggerating the extent of that involvement, I quickly realized that I was wrong on this point. While there probably was some organic uprising not too dissimilar from Maidan in the early stages, the self-declared republics quickly came under control of Moscow-based figures such as Alexei Borodai and Igor Strelkov, both bringing unusually well-equipped contingents of fighting men with them and even arresting and disarming some of the local militia.

My mistakes regarding these two points were largely related to not being “on the ground.” The internet has virtually limitless resources, but we don’t have a constant feed giving us all the relevant facts. Most of the time we have to seek them out ourselves, and if we don’t happen to find the right sources, we miss things. The early Ukrainian claims about Russian involvement which I had seen turned out to be pretty unconvincing. Conversely, an article by a respected military reporter from the West strongly suggested that much of the insurgency was local; at that time it may very well have been.  Had I been living in Ukraine or at least staying there for some time, I might have been exposed to different sources.

This is why actual journalists visit war zones and other hotspots around the world. It’s expensive and dangerous, but it’s second to none when it comes to getting the facts. Unfortunately we live in an age when some extremely popular “citizen journalists,” in reality bloggers, sit in their American home in the suburbs and pontificate on all manner of international events without ever visiting any of the countries they write about, often without speaking the language as well.  These people have long lists of sources from various internet publications and insist that their analysis is just as good as anyone else’s. Granted, you could be right, depending on which sources you pick, but you have to ask what frame of reference you have to determine the veracity of those sources. If they all tend to say the same thing, you may be right, but then again it may be your confirmation bias seeking out articles and outlets which support the conclusion you want.  If someone is claiming to be bringing you the truth about events somewhere in the world, it really helps if they’ve at least spent some significant time there. Even better if they live there permanently and speak the language.

I’m pretty well-read on the Israeli-Palestinian question, but I admit that were I confronted with an opponent who’s actually living in Israel, I would be very hesitant to start a debate with him or her even if I totally disagreed with what they were claiming. They aren’t automatically right simply because they live there, but I don’t want to be embarrassed by saying something like, “X happens to Palestinians in Israel,” and then get slammed when they hit me with some question that reveals I have no personal knowledge of this topic beyond what I’ve read on the internet. Obviously I intend to visit Israel and Palestine, not because this will somehow make me automatically right, but because that experience of observing and communicating with actual Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs will help back up my arguments, as well as tell me which sources I can probably trust and which I cannot.

So in conclusion let me reiterate. Readers- at no time should you take my being here as the basis of my expertise on these matters. That is merely the icing on the cake that backs up my years of study. Furthermore, my being here has nothing to do with my objectivity in terms of politics on this blog. I’ve stated in the FAQ that I have no incentive to take a side in most of these conflicts. I don’t like the Russian regime(just like many Russians), but I don’t think that a standard liberal democratic regime is what the country ultimately needs. Of course I would welcome it as a sign of progress, but I guarantee you I’d continue to criticize it just as I criticize the US government. Lastly, if you’re a reader with questions or you want to send me something, I shall strongly endeavor not to jump to conclusions about what position you’re taking, and I shall try not to be a dick. But please, if you wish to do so, it would really help if you lay out your cards on the table ahead of time and say where you’re coming from, what experience you have with or in Russia, and most of all what it is you want to find out from me.  Thank you for your understanding.

2 thoughts on “Boots on the Ground

  1. obviously a pseudonym

    wow, just wow !
    It’s a pleasure reading from you. You go straight, your points are valid, you have knowledge, and even accept that you can be wrong at times. I wish more people were like you, and, wish that people like you were in charge !
    You pretty much summed um what modern foreign policy is made of. People being sure to know much based on “personal experience” with a browser, reading news of websites they consciously (or not) chose to trust.
    You may not be read by many, and may not even be read by the “important” ones. But FUCK, you are GOOD !
    Thanks so much for what you share with us. It’s a priviledge to read from you.

  2. Big Bill Haywood Post author

    Just to clarify- I would never be like those post-modernists who claim personal experience is the be-all, end-all. Like I say in the article, I know people who have been living here far longer than myself and they don’t know shit about Russian politics because they don’t care. That’s fine for them. But if one does want to have an advantage in political analysis, it helps to at least have spent some significant time in the country and to speak the language so you can read their press and see what they say to one another. Even the guy who sits at home collecting news stories on the internet is essentially relying on people who actually go to the place he’s writing about.


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