Monthly Archives: January 2016

They never said it…

Ever notice how people will use certain phrases to preface an opinion or statement, and when they do you can almost predict what will follow?

Most people know this example:

“I’m not racist but…(INCREDIBLY RACIST STATEMENT)”

Here’s one you’ll get from conspiracy theorists:

“Here’s something the mainstream media doesn’t want you to know about…(TOTALLY BULLSHIT CLAIM OR CLAIM THAT IS REAL BUT THE “MAINSTREAM MEDIA” REPORTED IT EXTENSIVELY)”

This one’s limited to certain political circles but it’s still a good example:

“Despite its flaws…(HORRIBLY TORTURED MENTAL GYMNASTICS IN DEFENSE OF A TERRIBLE REGIME)”

Lastly one of my favorites from regime supporting Russians:

“I don’t watch the state TV…(LONG LIST OF RUSSIAN TV TALKING POINTS)”

Well readers, I believe I’ve found a new one, and it goes like this- when a Russian politician or diplomat begins a sentence with “We never said…” rest assured that they almost certainly said exactly the thing they claimed they never said, or they may have even gone further. Thus far I only have two examples, but they are major ones and these people are getting so predictable that we should probably look forward to hearing more.

The first example came from Putin, at his yearly press conference last December. At the previous year’s press conference Ukrainian journalist Roman Tsymbaliuk asked Putin how many soldiers and mercenaries he’d sent to Ukraine. Putin flat out denied everything, though implicitly admitted the existence of “volunteers” who supposedly couldn’t be called mercenaries because they were not being paid. The latter is bullshit on both counts; they certainly are paid one way or another, and even if they were not paid any sort of salary they’d still rightly be called mercenaries. This year Putin made what amounted to an admission, with the following quote:

“We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere.”

In fact Putin and many others had made this claim and gone even further, denying that they were organizing, financing, and arming the “rebellion” in the Donbas in any way. The only thing they would admit to was sending “humanitarian aid.”

Recently we got another example of “We never said,” this time from the Russian foreign ministry on the topic of Syria. Special thanks goes to Twitter user and geo-locator Reggae Mortis for catching these lies and making these pictures:

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The fact is that the Kremlin and its media have continually spread the talking point that the “moderate rebels” are a Western-concocted myth and that the opposition to Assad consists of radical Islamists, first Al Qaeda and then ISIS. However, at times when they need to point out what a great power Russia supposedly is, they will allude to their cooperation with those very same moderate rebels who supposedly don’t exist in an attempt to show the West that they should cooperate with Russia.

I think we can expect more of this in the future. Western leaders will accuse Russia over something they are obviously doing, Russian leaders will feign total bafflement, asking for proof long after plenty of proof has been provided, and then later they will make an admission prefaced by “We never said…(THING THAT THEY CERTAINLY SAID NUMEROUS TIMES).” The worst thing about this tactic is that it actually tacks on another massive lie onto the one in question. If Putin had admitted to some kind of military personnel in the Donbas, serving in a military sphere, he wouldn’t have been lying then, and the “We never said we didn’t have…” statement wouldn’t have been a lie either.

Here we have an interesting difference between politicians from functioning democracies and the Kremlin. In the former, there’s this concept of credibility; you want your lies to sound believable. Or, even better, you lie by omission by using really obtuse or contrived language. This isn’t necessarily good per se, but when you hear this you know that they are lying or otherwise distorting the truth and more importantly, you know that they know it. They care about making it difficult or impossible to debunk their lies. In that way they show some respect for your intelligence.

With the Kremlin (and no doubt a lot of other similar regimes in the world), this concern for credibility doesn’t exist. In fact, looking at Kremlin media it would seem there is no concept of credibility at all. For example, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov recently expressed a very creative interpretation of the Budapest Memorandum, the 1994 agreement which guaranteed Ukrainian territorial integrity in return for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons (yeah, they had those). The problem with this is that the full text of the Budapest Memorandum is available online for anyone to see, and it’s not particularly ambiguous. Indeed, the article I linked to above notes this as well:

“What does it say about the mendacity of Russian diplomacy and its contempt for international opinion when the foreign minister says something that can be proven wrong with less than 30 seconds of Google fact-checking?”

I’ll answer that question. It says they live in a fantasy realm. They are disconnected from reality, from the very concept of reality, and therefore any attempt to negotiate with them in good faith is really pointless unless you take this into account. Otherwise you’ll constantly find yourself being dumbfounded as they tell you they never said something they actually did say, sometimes word for word, numerous times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A feature, not a bug

So the long awaited indictment of Western liberalism is here, sort of. Honestly there’s so much to be said about this one could write a book about it, and indeed one did. It’s called Liberalism: A Counter-History by Domenico Losurdo. It’s a slog but it’s definitely worth reading. What I’m aiming at here is a streamlined version of my own argument in response to a certain “meme” that’s been floated around the Russian watching world lately.

The meme goes something like this: Western, and particularly European liberal democracy is wonderful, so wonderful, that it is the pinnacle of human achievement in the fields of government and society. Everyone was enjoying this wonderful utopia in the European Union, which proponents took to calling simply “Europe,” until one day this really bad thing happened.

An evil entity from the East called Russia, led by ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin, started stirring up trouble in paradise. He made inroads via connections between organized crime and his intelligence services. He took advantage of corrupt politicians. He forged connections with right-wing extremist parties and helped nurture them. Oh if only that nasty old Putin had never showed up, the liberal Shangri La once again live in peace and prosperity!

Of course this idea is absolute bullshit. For one thing, much of Putin’s behavior is little more than a continuation of policies his predecessor Yeltsin started, only the latter never faced any consequences for it. Creating pseudo-states and frozen conflicts? Russia was doing that in the early 90’s. Authoritarian tactics? Putin still hasn’t called out the tanks and snipers on his own people- Yeltsin did that. Corruption and organized crime? It was all there.

While it is true that the criticism of such policies began in earnest under Putin, it was typically just that- criticism. The “entrepreneurs,” our natural betters in the enlightened free market religion, were more than happy to invest in a rising Russia  enjoying high oil prices, just as they were happy to accept shiploads of dirty money from Putin’s corrupt elite. They still do in fact. Not only that, there’s a powerful lobby of European businessmen and their political puppets trying to get sanctions lifted on Russia so they can return to business as usual, Ukraine be damned.

And what of the rise of right-wing extremism? Many of these parties existed long before Putin, and espouse nationalist ideologies with roots in Cold War anti-Communism. Right-wing movements and organizations are often beneficial to the ruling class, which is why they’ve often been able to find wealthy donors and patrons. What is more, right wing populism has received a big boost from Europe and America’s failure to resolve their own class contradictions and domestic issues. This might explain the curious phenomenon of nationalists siding with Putin’s Russia in spite of a long-standing national beef with that nation.

European values failed to stop the rise of Jobbik in Hungary. While some might be tempted to point out the connection between Jobbik and Russia, how to explain the rise of the Law & Justice Party in Poland, which at least for the time being is historically anti-Russian? Again, these parties, organizations, and ideologies have been around for quite some time and Russia is just reaching out to them and making connections. The supreme irony is that the strange post-Cold War anti-Communist hysteria in Europe and the States has led to the rise of right wing groups who then side with Russia, much in the way Solzhenitsyn rejected Western liberalism for a right-wing romantic view of tsarism. Contrary to the misinformed opinions of many liberal pundits, Putin’s Russia doesn’t care whether its foreign supporters revile Stalin and the Soviet Union- plenty of people in his own elite actually express similar views. Once again reality outsmarts the liberal academics.

I must respectfully disagree with Brian Whitmore’s suggestion that Russia has “weaponized” globalization. Globalization has been weaponized by many countries in the past, and Russia is merely joining the fray. That it has hitherto been able to punch far above its weight as of recent years is a side effect of capitalism. Here we have a system dominated by the wants of capital, not human beings, and capital is without morals.

There are two reasons why I felt it necessary to point these things out. The first is that the West has a long history of supporting brutal dictatorships and otherwise exporting those problems which used to exist within their own borders in the past, such as child labor or violent suppression of labor activism. From time to time some of these regimes become to much of an embarrassment to the Western leaders, or they simply cease to be useful. When this happens, from time to time the West has sought some form of intervention to replace those leaders. Whether or not this is just is another matter, but what isn’t just is the West continually building up these regimes and leaders and then demanding that the population join in their condemnation of said regimes and leaders when they run afoul of their former benefactors. What is more, we’re all just supposed to forget about everything that happened before that point, and let our governments off the hook no matter how deeply in bed they were with one particular regime or another.

Let me put this another way. Suppose the American populace rallies behind the cause of a ground war in Syria and Iraq against both ISIS and Assad, something that our morally upright elites would find ideal. After all, one time Americans did rally behind a war in Iraq that was sold as being every bit as necessary as this one, and look what happened there. But let’s say we just pretend all that didn’t happen, and we also decide to buy into the idiotic myth that the aforementioned invasion had nothing to do with the rise of ISIS, as some pundits have been suggesting as of late. Okay, then what? Hold that thought, we’re not done yet.

Suppose the public rallies behind the US on Ukraine, and joins in the condemnation of Putin’s regime in Russia until it somehow collapses and is driven out of power. What Americans or Europeans are actually supposed to do to effect this is not clear, since Western leaders were adamant from the beginning of the Crimean crisis that there was no military solution (Russia apparently disagrees), but let’s ignore that plot hole for a second. Putin’s gone, Russia falls in line with whatever the Heritage Foundation thinks it should do. Then what? We just go back to our previous system, where all of working society is expected to bow in deference to the holy entrepreneurs, sparing nothing in the name of their profits and their rights to bend our political institutions to their will as they see fit.

Eventually those savvy investors will find profitable opportunities in new regimes, and new dictators will arise. It is fallacious to assume that whoever follows Putin will necessarily be worse, but there’s little reason to assume it will be better. I foresee a big risk whereby simply not being Putin, a corrupt Yeltsin like figure may get another free pass. This in turn could lead to more Yeltsin-like incompetence, which will then create another opening for an authoritarian, reactionary character just like Putin. If we don’t stop the cycle, it will repeat.

So to sum up that point, I have no problem acknowledging the moral superiority of the West versus regimes like that of Putin or Assad, but I’m not going to let them off the hook for their role in creating, nurturing, and coddling such regimes. I’m not about to lend my admiration to businessmen who made millions if not billions off of Putin’s Russia, and then suddenly got all concerned about human rights and democracy only when they got kicked off the trough by their former partners and friends. And that brings me to my second point.

The EU cheerleaders and fellow status quo supporters love to pretend that Russia is some kind of external threat to their system, rather than being a part of that system. This fantasy reminds me of some Republicans in the US who have recently taken to publicly condemning Donald Trump. Here is a rather passionate piece on that subject that I must admit I have some respect for. Congratulations, principled Republicans, you actually managed to wheedle some sympathy out of me. But you’re not getting that much, for a very simple reason. Trump didn’t just drop out of the sky to ruin your party with bigotry and childish antics. As one author put it, the GOP needs to “own” him.

Racism, bigotry, fear, and anti-intellectualism have been regular features of the Republican party for years now, and the last two races against Obama provided plenty of examples. Thus my sympathy is severely limited when I see members of the conservative intelligentsia moaning about the popularity of their circus-like political figures. They promoted this kind of idiocy through their astroturf lobbies, media, and internet sites, and now they act as if they can’t understand why so many in their audience take that seriously.

So it is with liberal democracy, capitalism, and “Europe.” These leaders, their pundits, and academics want to pretend like Europe or the West’s problems are external when they are really just features of their own system. To look at one example playing out right now, Moldovan citizens are rallying in Chisinau against a horribly corrupt government in a movement that was quickly and incorrectly characterized as “pro-EU” versus “pro-Russian” opposition. In reality, both sides have united against the current government, which has robbed them mercilessly. Unlike Maidan, however, in this case the robbers were the sitting pro-EU government, not the pro-Russian side. So much for “European values” and rule of law.

True, one cannot ignore the fact that Russia is increasing its influence in Europe, but Putin is merely doing what a virus does to someone with a compromised immune system. He has succeeded not because he is strong, but because he was allowed and enabled by a system that is incompatible with the highest ideals of human rights. Putin’s Russia isn’t a bug in the system of capitalism. He’s a feature.

Dignity. Get some.

We all love those stories about America’s impending collapse, which has been “just around the corner” for the past three decades or more, depending on who you talk to. But quite frankly, dear readers, there are times when I’m not sure how the country keeps chugging along. This is one of those times. Watch the video below. Do not turn away. Look at it

 

“Oh but I don’t have audio right now,” you say, making up excuses to avoid watching this political train wreck, one in which a train full of kittens and puppies slammed into another train carrying human babies and shock-sensitive explosives which were inexplicably packed in razor blades and nails. Not a problem! Go on and read the transcript here.

So now you don’t have time to do all that reading? Gotcha covered again! Here are a few choice extracts!

“How about the rest of us? Right-winging, bitter-clinging, proud clingers of our guns, our God, and our religion, and our Constitution.”

Confused? Not quite clear enough? Here’s a clip of just that part, looped over and over so it can sink in. Whatever you do, whether you read the transcript or watch the nightmarish abomination, keep in mind this was aimed at people who are fond of saying “Speak English or GET OUT!”

 

I think what you need to realize at this point, dear reader, is that you will not escape from this. You will experience it. We cannot move on and discuss the ramifications of this until you have. So conquer your fear, let it pass through you, and when you turn around you will see that it has faded and you remain, mentally scarred but tougher for having lived through this moment.

Why am I going on about this so much? Well on Sunday I was at this benefit concert and I was discussing the topic of vatniks and their closest American equivalents with some Russians. I had seen this video late, maybe a couple days prior, and as my wife was still up when I got home, I came to a certain realization while we were discussing these topics.

When I watch that video, when I read that eldritch horror of a “speech,” I come to a dark epiphany of sorts, whereby I realize that in some ways, America’s answer to the vatnik is actually quite inferior to the Russian variety in a very crucial way, and the difference is quite sad for America.

To explain let us make an analogy based on the Palin speech above. Suppose we have some political figure in Russia, not a candidate but some celebrity drumming up support for the Dear Leader Vladimir Putin. We’ll call this hypothetical celebrity Boris. In spite of being considerably wealthy thanks to his service to the state, Boris makes public appearances dressed like a stereotypical Russian gopnik, right down to his knock-off “Abbibas” track pants. He comes up on stage, squats, and begins to speak in between sips of Jaguar alco-energy cocktail and spitting out sunflower seed shells. He tells his audience he’s a real Russian, as Russian as Russian can be, and real Russians, who love cheap vodka and carpets on their walls, support Putin. Then he puts on some Russian pop music and starts dancing like this:

 

I’m telling you right now that I have faith in the vatniy-est of vatniks to say that I don’t think they’d buy it. I mean they might not start throwing things at the stage but probably everyone in that audience is going to suspect that this is some liberal oppositionist who is mocking them. Acting in this way and then saying that he’s like them would be seen as insulting to their intelligence, and make no mistake, being a vatnik and being highly intelligent are not mutually exclusive. Vatnost is about lack of critical thinking, sound reasoning, or moral issues, but it does not exclude education or higher than average intelligence.

Our hypothetical Boris the “real Russian” would be rejected because he represents a part of Russian society that vatniks would rather not pay attention to. The Russian society that the vatnik aspires to is one in which people are religious and virtuous. Their heroes are romanticized portraits of cossacks, tsarist officers, or heroic Red Army soldiers. They believe that their literary classics are far more important than foreign literature. I’m sure your average vatnik could easily recite Pushkin and probably a few lines from other works of Russian literature. And while they lack any ability to come up with a coherent interpretation of history, they do display a marked ability to rattle off isolated yet more or less correct historical factoids, something that few Americans conservative or otherwise could be asked to do.

Now let us contrast that with the key Trump/Palin demographic, which I’m sure shares considerable overlap with the target audience of Larry the Cable Guy, truck nuts, and TapouT t-shirts. The idealized “real American” to these people is a white, gun-toting, Gawd-fearin’, salt of the earth”redneck.” I put that in quotes because the fact is that many of these people aren’t rednecks by definition. They’ll talk about “small town America” even though they’re from massive cities and live in suburban McMansions with SUVs or minivans. And take a look at the gun-toting ones. Guns aren’t cheap, and neither are the bells and whistles that a lot of these guys purchase for their precious firearms. Granted, these types also like to make fun of rednecks, but they also see them as a key part of “real America.” If you want an entertaining take on the weird relationship between conservatism and “rednecks” I suggest watching this two-part video some time.

This seems weird to me because with the way the right idolizes the “self-made” businessman, in reality the super rich, one wonder why they don’t promote that aesthetic and image among their target demographic. It would seem that rather than glorifying the image of BBQs, guns, and country music, they should be convincing America’s working poor whites to spend what little money they have on cheap suits and encouraging them to emulate hedge fund managers, bankers, and other so-called “job creators.” Instead of a guy who was born and raised in the suburbs of a major city pretending he’s into fishing, they ought to be smoking cigars and saying things like “Yeah you’ve gotta buy low and sell high to make it in this market!”

What about admiration and promotion of classic American literature? Forget it. “Hemingway can go back to England! Anyway all you really need to read is the Holy Bible, but that’s really thick so you need a pastor or Bible group leader to read it to you a little bit at a time so you can understand it good!” And recite lines of poetry? You’re basically asking to be labeled a “faggot.” Historical facts? “Son all you need to know is that George Washington and Robert E. Lee whupped those tea-suckin’ British asses when they tried to to take our guns in World War II. The only historical facts that matter are sports stats!”

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Source: A great way to troll your conservative family members.

 

Once again we see a divide where Russian vatniks come out on top, because nobody can accuse them of being anti-intellectual as so many American conservatives are. Russian vatniks will reject academic research that contradicts their views, but they don’t tend to criticize intellectualism or academia in general.

Hell, Russian vatniks…pardon the pun…trump their American counterparts even in the realm of music. Remember this old gem?

The thing about this song is that it’s really only bad if you know Russian. To untrained ears and eyes this just looks like some kind of traditional folk song.

Now compare that to…whatever the fuck this is supposed to be:

 

I think the best reaction to this video when it first came out was that of Ed from Gin & Tacos, who said “Prussian Blue added a third kid, I guess.” It’s also worth noting that the Russian song is, to the best of my knowledge, original, whereas this horror show butchers a historic American song. That and social services didn’t whisk these poor girls away to a foster home as soon as this performance is over, because something tells me that these girls have at least a 50% chance of getting fatally shot when daddy has a “gun cleaning accident” in his living room.

I guess what I’m trying to say here, or rather what I want to ask so many of these working class conservatives, is simply: “Are you really buying this? Don’t you see that they are mocking you, that these people have nothing in common with you and don’t really understand you? Have you no dignity?” Just look at this excerpt from Palin’s “speech” and tell me this isn’t ridiculously condescending if not incredibly dishonest, both in its description of Trump and its implication that Palin and her family are working class.

“He’s not an elitist. And yes, as a multi-billionaire, we still root him on, because he roots us on. And he has, he’s spent his life with the workin’ man. And he tells us Joe six packs, he said, “You know, I’ve worked very, very hard. And I’ve succeeded. Hugely I’ve succeeded,” he says. And he says, “I want you to succeed too.”

She actually uses the term “Joe six packs,” a term which is often used by elitists to describe the unwashed masses. This is hardly the first time they’ve done something like this either. Remember “Joe the Plumber?” Reader, I was raised in a conservative family and had very conservative views for a good part of my life, yet for some reason I never wanted to be seen as a “Joe Six Pack.” I’ve never accepted the idea that poverty and and a working class background must be synonymous with stupidity and ignorance. That was, and still is insulting to me and it’s insulting to millions of other people regardless of their political beliefs. When I see things like that speech it just looks like some kind of bizarre minstrel show lampooning class rather than race, and I wonder what comes next. Maybe one day Palin or the next huckster will be even more condescending, throwing their elbows back and forth while pronouncing the following:

“Hey y’all rednecks, hillbillies, country bumpkins, and blue collar Joe Six Pack slobs! If y’all believe in the Good Book, guns, and making America great again, y’all best vote for Donald Trump! He won’t let them Mexicans replace your football with that pansy-ass soccer! He’ll cut yer taxes to zero so you’ll never run out of cheap beer while you watch the game! So whaddaya say, all you Gawd-loving, gun clinging, Moozlim-hatin’, Bahble-thumpin’, stump jumpin, cousin-banging, wife-punchin’, meth-makin’, teenager impregnatin’ hicks?! Has Trump got y’all’s vote? YEEEEE HAWWWW! HYUCK YUCK!!! THE SOUTH SHALL RISE AGAIN!”    

And now I wonder if the same audience that cheers Palin and Trump heard such a speech, would they react any differently to that which Palin actually gave at that event? Would they, like a Russian vatnik, suspect that someone is trying to mock them and patronize them? Or would they continue to clap and pledge their undying support?

For truly the vatniks of Russia pledge their support to Putin, but Putin and his crew, at least overtly, tell their constituency that they are a great nation- cultured, advanced, morally superior. There are many other factors which explain vatniks’ apparent though passive support for the system, but if we ignore those for a moment it isn’t hard to imagine why people would rally around a leader who strokes their ego. In reality the Russian elite has nothing but contempt for their people, but they at least make some effort to hide this in their public statements.

By contrast America’s conservative elite give us these caricatures who tell working people that real hard-working Americans are obsessed with guns, religion, and BBQs.  Then they use those votes to enact ever more policies that worsen the lives of those same people they mock, right to their faces no less. So sure, the vatnik is submissive and puts up with a lot of humiliation while the American equivalent will be out in the streets protesting things that aren’t even happening (e.g. “death panels”), but on the other hand they will basically endure the most cynical mockery from their own “heroes” without batting an eye.

 

Venturing out of the Shire

In the past we’ve often seen what happens when pro-Kremlin figures, be they politicians or pundits, attempt to promote their government’s line abroad, outside of the space that they control via the state and its monopoly on force. In case you haven’t seen what I’m referring to, microwave a bag of popcorn and watch this video sometime. If you don’t have time to do that now or in the new future I’ll tell you what you’re missing- a verbal bloodbath.

You see, inside Russia’s borders, power and force are used to marginalize and suppress facts or ideas the system doesn’t like. Echo chambers are constructed in which horribly bad ideas like Eurasian geopolitics are allowed to incubate unchallenged. Then someone with these ideas steps outside into a world in which people don’t necessarily assume that Russia is a great power with the right to invade sovereign nations and folks who don’t accept the idea that the misdeeds of the West give a free pass to Moscow. When they can’t even get their most basic premises past the gauntlet, the train wreck ensues.

There is, however, another reason why Russian narratives don’t work out so well outside of the space the Kremlin can control with force. We’ve seen time and time again that making up phony stories or transmitting fabricated stories without any attempt to confirm the claims is no grounds for dismissal in the Russian state media. In response to the crucified boy story, to use one of the best examples, critics were told that it was their responsibility to prove it didn’t happen, a complete reversal of the burden of proof. As it turns out, however, making up fake stories happens to have consequences outside of Russia. Criminal consequences, as it turns out.

Meet Ivan Blagoy, an adept in the ways of Russian “journalism” and a Berlin-based correspondent for Channel One. Yes, that’s the same channel that brought us such classics as the crucified boy of Slovyansk and the “foreign satellite photos” of a Ukrainian plane shooting down a stock photo of a Boeing 777 that was passed off as MH17. Ivan’s in hot water now because of a story he published which alleged that a 13-year-old Russian-German girl was gang-raped by migrants for 30 hours, after which the German police forced her to claim the sex was consensual so as to cover up the case. As the reader can most likely guess without even reading the link, the story turned out to be false. The German police found that the girl was neither kidnapped nor raped, and she returned home on her own (New information on this, see UPDATE below).

A fabricated story such as this one would normally be dismissed as par for the course in Russia, but as it turns out, Germany doesn’t tolerate this kind of nonsense. In Germany there are laws against inciting hatred against certain groups of people (in this case migrants), and unlike Russia such laws are actually applied with at least some measure of consistency.

No stranger to lying, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov doubled down on the allegation at his press conference today. Basically implying once again that Russian “investigations” of crimes outside of Russian territory are somehow superior to those of local law enforcement, Lavrov told conference attendees: “It’s apparent that this girl absolutely did not voluntarily disappear for 30 hours.” Of course in the real world, children and adults go missing, sometimes for even longer periods of time, without being kidnapped or assaulted at all, but it’s Lavrov, so what did you expect?

Now as soon as you talk about a case like this, a few poor counter-arguments from the Putin fan club immediately come to mind. I write “immediately” because these people are so ridiculously predictable. So let’s begin!

“What about free speech?!” Bullshit, Putinoid. Your Dear Leader’s state locks people up for poems, questioning the Crimean annexation, standing alone with a sign, and other rather innocuous actions that would be protected speech in virtually any liberal democracy. In Russia, laws against “extremism” and “inciting ethnic hatred” are selectively tailored to fit policy. Ergo one can rail against “degenerate Europeans,” Ukrainians, and Turk to one’s heart’s content without fear of getting dinged for extremism. Similarly, neo-Nazi or fascist politics are more or less tolerated if not directly or indirectly supported by the state so long as the people in question are on the Kremlin’s side of things. So long as a racist neo-Nazi proves himself useful to the Kremlin, particularly by fighting their dirty war in the Donbas in some capacity, he’ll have a “roof” as they say here.

Are there societies which would allow this kind of race baiting and hate-mongering? Sure. There’s actually a country that not only protects this kind of speech, but in fact tolerates it among its most popular presidential candidates. Check it out, Kremlin fans. Perhaps you can move there if you think Germany’s too restrictive on your media’s right to fabricate stories. Oh…Wait…No.

Seriously though, the German’s aren’t prosecuting the guy simply because he lied. In response to the story there have been anti-immigrant protests and ironically enough, Russians have been involved in some of them. In this sense the Germans are treating this matter in a way not unlike the shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre exception in the US, which of course is known for being far more tolerant of what is labeled “hate speech” in European countries. And on that note, the US doesn’t have endless tolerance for this kind of behavior either.

Next one might try to insist, much like Lavrov or some of the Russian immigrants in Germany, that the story is actually true and the police are just covering it up. Well the burden of proof is on the claimant, friends, and the fact is that young people, especially teenagers, go missing all the time for stupid reasons. The idea that police in Berlin are somehow successfully forcing a Russian family to stay silent about such a heinous crime is simply idiotic. Even in Cologne, where police reacted rather incompetently during the New Year’s assaults on women, the story got out and made huge waves not just in Germany, but throughout the world. Thankfully there were plenty of liberal, leftist, and Muslim pundits who immediately condemned the attacks in the press and similarly spoke out against anyone who might downplay what happened in a misguided attempt to oppose racism. To date I have yet to see any such apologetics.

In the end I think the supreme irony here is that in a real media organization, Blagoy would have just been fired for fabricating stories, and I’m not convinced this is his first time. Yet thanks to the Kremlin media’s tolerance for outright bullshit, he’s now getting hit with a criminal charge. Can’t say I really have much sympathy for him. It’s not just the lying, it’s the aim of the lying- demonizing an entire group of people and promoting a mindset whereby Russians in his audience wanted that 13-year-old girl to be raped. They were actually upset at the idea that she wasn’t. This kind of mindset is by no means exclusive to Russians or the Kremlin media’s target audience; it’s actually quite commonplace. It’s also something that the media, and in this case the Western media duly included, deliberately nurture. This time one of the purveyors tried it outside of his safe zone, was caught, and may be held accountable, but there are so many other fish in the sea.

UPDATE: Apparently further investigation suggests that the girl did indeed have what was called consensual sex with two males, though this is statutory rape because she was 13 (age of consent in Germany being 14, which by the way, what the fuck, Germany?!) Take a seat right over there). While nothing was said about the national background of the two males, they are being investigated by the police, thus negating the Russian claim that the girl was kidnapped and gang raped, as well as the claim that the police are deliberately covering it up and obstructing justice.

 

 

Enabling Putin

Recently I’ve had a desire to sit down and write a long polemical rant in response to all this talk of right-wing populism and “illiberal democracy” that’s supposedly sweeping Europe right now. It’s not that I deny it’s happening, it’s just that those who seem most concerned about it also seem unwilling to acknowledge its real cause and as such, they don’t really have much of a solution.

Part of this thesis includes the idea that the nefarious Putin is at least partially responsible for this regression in Europe, via his government’s connection with far right parties in Western and Central European states. In reality, many of these parties existed before Putin even became president, and their ideologies of course are much older. In essence, my counter-argument is that Europe’s capitalist system and its response to crises creates fertile ground for the rise of right-wing populism, and that same ground is also fertile for Kremlin manipulation.

At this point I’m sad to say that this is not that polemic article I wanted to write. I’m simply too busy and we’re talking about a long, philosophical polemic. So consider this a trailer. But it is a trailer I’m able to create thanks to Peter Pomerantsev and his latest article on the Litvinenko killing. This is because while others are focusing primarily on the killing itself, Pomerantsev holds Britain’s elite accountable for their complicity in enabling and encouraging Russia’s corrupt elite, their brothers by class.

Only after the release of the British investigation has there been talk of freezing the assets of the two main suspects. Why hasn’t this happened before? That they weren’t convicted in a court of law isn’t an excuse; they haven’t been convicted now. Moreover, why is it that only in 2015 did the British government suddenly got concerned about Russian money laundering through London real estate? Even after that From Russia With Cash documentary, Navalny found that the deputy prime minister Shuvalov purchased a 500-square-meter luxury flat in London. This was the middle of 2015. Why wasn’t this guy on a sanctions list?

Sadly there’s a certain breed of pundit who believes that one should only criticize the Russian government while giving Western governments a free pass, even when the latter has aided and abetted the former in numerous ways. This lack of accountability is infuriating because it begs the question as to why we should believe that these Western leaders won’t do the exact same thing again with a post-Putin Russia. At the end of the Cold War, anti-socialism meant turning a blind eye to Yeltsin’s corruption and human rights abuses. This led directly to Putin in more ways than one. Will the West repeat the same mistake by giving whoever succeeds Putin a free pass? If there’s profit to be made, I’m fairly confident that they will.

Putin’s Russia is, in a number of ways, a natural product of the free market religion that has come to dominate the world. For one thing, this system involves developed democracies exporting those woes they used to visit on their own workers to those workers of other countries. Democracy, in its flawed liberal form, is a luxury of the more developed nations. Meanwhile people in poorer countries get to make do with dictators who often count on Western aid. If not that, they can usually count on the West to turn a blind eye to their money laundering and consumption, as is the case with Russia.

Secondly, when you say let the “market” decide, sometimes it decides in favor of bad people. This is because the market is an abstraction. All that matters is money and commodities. Therefore attempting to reconcile lofty humanist values with a “free market” ideology is simply folly. If the market had its way, slavery would be legal. Oh wait…Slavery’s technically not legal and yet even today as many as 21 million people are held in one form of bondage or another as modern slaves. Terrible, but think how much we’d pay for t-shirts if Uzbek cotton weren’t picked by slaves!

Sure, national borders still exist, and the ruling class of various nations have their divergent interests. As such, you get something like what we see with Russia these days, where Putin and his capitalist cronies’ interests collide with those of the European Union bourgeoisie. As such, Putin finds himself compelled to do whatever he can to try to force his opponents to respect his sphere of influence. But we must not let these events happening in recent years blind us to the far longer period of time during which European and American leaders happily accepted ill-gotten money from the very same Russian elite while making all sorts of deals and investments which were beneficial to the Kremlin. Likewise, the relentlessly pro-business, austerity-for-everyone-else system in the West has made it that much easier for Putin’s propaganda to fall on fertile soil. Indeed, Putin’s Russia was in many ways built with Western money and Western approval.

Therefore if we buy into the West versus Russia dichotomy, blind to the past, we will certainly fall for this same trope in the future should the West and Putin reach an understanding, or if Putin is replaced by another lover of the free market. Let’s  not be duped yet again.

 

A manual for cheerleaders

In 2015 a fellow journalist moved to Kyiv from Moscow and posted about encountering all sorts of Westerners in a hostel, all of them excited to be doing something “for the cause.” She didn’t spell it out but the message was clear. I could see myself there, surrounded by Canadians, Americans, and Brits, listening to them yammer on about Maidan, “the cause,” Putin, and various other subjects they’d never spoken about prior to 2014, perhaps punctuated by bro-stories about “hot chicks.” Yeah, I know these types, and my expectations are low.

Last autumn I published a piece about cheerleaders. Looking back I think I might have left out a key feature that makes the worst sort of cheerleader out there. This is the cheerleader that really has no background or interest in a particular cause until they see something on TV or perhaps a movie, and then that thing “inspires” them to take up the torch and “fight” for something they don’t really understand. Generally these cheerleaders get a ridiculously oversimplified version of the story, pick a side, and then dive right in. Their boundless passion and black-and-white thinking causes them to attract the attention of the most radical, absolutist elements on the side they’re supporting. As they fall in with these people, a feedback loop is created whereby they believe their passion and dedication is both representative and appreciated. Simultaneously, their radical friends find a pliant foreigner on which they can imprint their own ideology, even if it isn’t very representative or accurate. At this point our newly minted cheerleader is more than happy to lecture people who have years of background in the subject and who are far more qualified to make opinions, usually beginning with the line: “Well I have Ukrainian/Russian friends, and they agree with me!”

The problem with these insufferable dipshits is that to them everything is simple. “I must save poor Ukraine from Putin’s Soviet Russia!” Never mind the fact that they never knew anything about Ukraine or Russia before that. “I must support the Donbass revolutionaries against the fascist junta!” Ah yes, if only you knew something about Russian and Ukrainian “Communists” before you decided to play Che Guevara in Donetsk. Sometimes you try to reach these people, but they’ve already got their “handlers” filling their heads with their own ideological bullshit.

In truth, what is happening in Ukraine, and indeed Russia too, is very complicated. The American or Canadian English teacher can spend a few months in Kyiv, write an article, and suddenly become a “fighter” for the cause of Ukraine versus Russia. For many Ukrainians that isn’t the case. Many of them have relatives and friends in Russia or behind occupied lines in the Crimea or Donbas. For me the epitome of how complex this conflict is was Pavel Petrov, the volunteer sniper I met on the train back to Kyiv . Born in Russia, ethnically Russian, a veteran of the Soviet army with relatives still living in Russia. And at 44 years he volunteered to fight not, as he repeated to me twice, against Russia, but “for Ukraine.” He was doing the fighting to keep his 18-year-old son safe from war. This is the sort of story that gets left out of the media coverage. It’s the kind of story that the American fresh out of college or the Brit on a gap year never learns.

Whence do these cheerleaders come? What foul mutant stork drops them on the doorstep? Well folks, I’ve finally got a perfect example. Look no further than Oscar-nominated documentary Winter on Fire. I’ve already voiced some apprehension at this film once, in the second section of this column. It seems some of my concerns were justified after I saw a couple reviews of the film.

Let me start with this review on RFE/RLOMG!CIA!!! Here’s where it set off my rage meter:

“One thing that proved crucial to the process was Afineevsky’s decision to focus solely on the people on Kyiv’s Independence Square and to tell their stories without overburdening audiences with too much background or context. The director did not want to take the audience “out of the Maidan” and he therefore eschewed any detailed explanations of the corruption and political tensions that brought people out onto the streets in the first place.”

Yeah that sounds like a winning strategy. You audience knows nothing about this country or its background, and your solution is to ignore all that in favor of focusing on a riot with flashing lights and loud noises. That certainly helps build understanding. Context? Who needs that? I bet only paid-Russian trolls would demand context!

It only gets worse:

Oscar nomination notwithstanding, some critics have also taken issue with the film’s “one-sided” narrative, which omits alternative viewpoints such as those of Ukrainians in the east who are now pushing to secede from the country and move closer to Russia.

Afineevsky gives such reproaches short shrift, however, saying that he is, first and foremost, a filmmaker not a journalist.

If he’s not a journalist, why is he making documentary films like this? The truth is that documentaries are often a poor replacement for investigative journalism, but that doesn’t mean that a documentary maker shouldn’t strive to educate his or her audience. This doesn’t help Ukraine. If he had got opposing opinions, at least from Ukrainians, audiences could have seen exactly how popular or unpopular Maidan was in the east. They might have learned how most people in eastern Ukraine don’t in fact see themselves as Russian and didn’t want to be a part of Russia. One-sidedness and oversimplification makes this film easy pickings for pro-Kremlin pundits, and they just love low-hanging fruit as it’s the only thing they can manage to take on without making fools of themselves.

Suppose for a moment that some RT hack made their own documentary about “Russian spring.” Naturally it would be pretty one-sided. Would this be nominated for an Oscar? Why not? Of course it wouldn’t be objective, but perhaps the author says that they are a filmmaker and not a journalist? If the technique of being one-sided is okay by Academy standards, then it ought to work both ways.

Once again we have a scenario whereby ignoring other viewpoints actually aids the Russian narrative, because not only can they claim bias, but they get to fill in the blanks on topics Western media outlets often ignored. An example of this I mentioned in a previous post was the matter of American funding for NGOs involved in Maidan. Because this was rarely broken down in detail in the West, the topic was essentially ceded to Russia’s propaganda machine, which filled the vacuum with their own conspiratorial narrative. Oversimplification doesn’t help the cause. I would have been far more receptive to Maidan myself had it not been for the oversimplified narrative commonly used by Western media outlets at the time.

Of course the director doesn’t seem to think oversimplification is a problem:

“He also dismisses claims that he oversimplified the narrative and glossed over some of the Maidan’s more unsavory elements, such as the involvement of the nationalist Right Sector movement, which has been accused of fascist leanings. (Afineevsky points out that insignia of the far-right group can be clearly seen on one of the interviewee’s clothes.)”

Minor correction here. Right Sector is a fascist movement by definition, hands down. It seems the director made no attempt to hide the nationalist involvement in Maidan, but if he had spent some time on that topic it would have actually been of great service to the movement. A more detailed analysis of nationalists at Maidan would have shown their true numbers and influence. We could have heard their views and then heard other Maidan participants’ opinions about them. This would have struck a blow against the Russian narrative, which from the beginning insisted that nationalists were a major, controlling part of the protests.

His defense:

“You know what? Right Sector, they actually fought for everything like everybody else. They were a part of these people,” he says. “At the end of the day, it was people who came out, who stood for what they believed in, and who achieved [something].”

Yeah, great defense there. I agree that entire protest movements shouldn’t be judged by the actions of a minority. Occupy had its share of libertarian Ron Paul cultists, LaRouchites, and even some neo-Nazis. I say this, and yet I just can’t help but remember how our American media, when faced with a domestic protest like Ferguson, just loves to focus all attention on a minority that breaks some windows or loots a store. Thereafter all the protesters and their defenders are compelled to give an account for people they had no control over and who really had nothing to do with their movement. I’d love to see more American news anchors point out that anarchists who smash Starbucks windows or opportunists who use social justice protests as cover to commit crimes were, at the end of the day “part of these people” who achieved something.

In another piece, the director referred to his film as a “manual for revolution.” To me it sounds like a manual for cheerleaders. I can almost picture that 23-year-old upper middle class American straight out of college and living on his parents dime in Kyiv. I see him at Shooters telling some local girls about how he was living it up in Amsterdam, but then he saw this film and realized that he just had to come to Kyiv and help the oppressed Ukrainian people. Or I see the young British man who’s “really into history” and oh so eager to inform me that all those bad things one hears about Bandera are really just Soviet propaganda. Such is what he learned when he started “researching” the matter here in Ukraine, in the middle of 2014.

This kind of shallow coverage doesn’t aid Ukraine or Maidan. It doesn’t promote understanding and I don’t feel it gives any agency to Ukrainians. Once again we have an Eastern European people being fetishized. We’re always gangsters, bandits, desperate women, “sex workers,” or in this case, idealistic revolutionaries who just want to be part of that wonderful, superior West.

The truth is that you can provide context and complexity without necessarily being verbose. I still think one of the best explanations of Maidan was the one provided in just a few words by Stopfake founder and director of Kyiv Mohyla Academy journalism school Yevhen Fedchenko when Robert Evans and I interviewed him last year. Paraphrasing here, he basically said that Maidan was about Ukrainians of many different agendas, ideologies, and walks of life coming together to change the way they were living. That might sound vague but in fact that is so much more accurate.

What is more, it gives people who truly are interested in Ukraine and who truly want to learn about this movement a more realistic foundation to start from. No doubt plenty of people who had rose-colored glasses during Maidan and who lacked any experience in the former Soviet Union were dismayed to find out that no, all is not well after Maidan, and no it’s not all because of the war. In fact, the problems left over after Maidan are one of the factors that has weakened Ukraine in fighting that war. I wonder how people plied with oversimplified narratives would deal with unpleasant information like that in this article about Saakashvili’s Quixotic anti-corruption crusade, or the bad news from this poll. People with realistic expectations and knowledge of the region soldier on. Newly arrived cheerleaders get disillusioned and move on.

The travails of Ukraine and Eastern Europe ought not to be a spectator sport or riot porn. What we need is more understanding and education as opposed to fetishization and vehicles through which Westerners with identity crises can live vicariously. And whether or not this film wins its Oscar, future documentary makers should remember that if they ignore large parts of the story, the Kremlin media will happily fill in those gaps with their own narrative.

 

 

James and the Horrifyingly Elusive Nightmare Coat

(I’m a little busy with some projects so I’ll be returning to political commentary tomorrow. -Jim)

It should have been the simplest thing in the world. I’d already done the very same thing back in 2012. And yet what began as a laughably simple task soon mutated into an arduous quest that would bring me to the very brink of insanity, as all logic seemed to implode upon itself along the way. Read my story. Heed my words.

One day I lost a button on my coat. And though this could easily be repaired, this provided the perfect excuse to get a new coat. After all, I’d had this one since the end of 2012. Perhaps I could have hunted down a new button, true, but what would I do if a seam were to burst, or a hole were to develop? One cannot simply wear the same coat indefinitely over many years; the lost button was merely a sign that it was time to move on.

Thus I went about searching for a new coat using the exact same method I had used to purchase the previous one. I went online to a Russian supplier and began to search. Within minutes, I’d found a design that suited my tastes perfectly for a very reasonable price. I began checking the sizes, as there was a discrepancy between those shown on the main site and those on the product’s own page. I checked my previous coat’s size- XXL. I found that somewhat odd, as XXL is often smaller here, and this coat fit so well in spite of weight loss and gain. For good measure I had my wife tape measure me and then compared the result with the size table. I was 116 cm round the chest, the coat in question 123 cm- a difference of 7 cm. Just to be sure I ordered two sizes and eagerly awaited the arrival of the courier with what I thought would be my new coat.

A day and a half later the courier arrived. The first coat, the slightly smaller of the two, was obviously too small. I could not even fasten the buttons. No matter, I thought, the second coat would surely fit. This proved to be a false assumption. While these buttons would fasten, the coat was still far too tight. While I was disappointed, I was not terribly dismayed. I went back to the computer and started searching for coats once again. At least it seemed I knew what size I needed. Seemed being the operative word here.

Though I searched more thoroughly than before, I soon found that there were few coats that matched my desires and any which did were not in my size. Often even XL was absent. This was getting a bit disturbing seeing as how in Russia, online shopping was generally the way to avoid the problem of small sizes in stores. For you see, whereas in America my problem had always been finding pants with long enough legs but with normal waists, in Russia tops were the problem. Though in my experience this preponderance of small sizes was usually limited to shirts, whereas sweaters and coats were somewhat exempt. This was about to change.

While I was loathe to go from store to store hunting down a new coat, I am fortunate enough to live close to a large shopping mall with dozens of clothing stores. Having some idea of what I was looking for, I figured it wouldn’t be too much of a problem to hit those stores, find something suitable, do some needed grocery shopping, and head home, my mission having been accomplished. Imagine my surprise when I quickly discovered that not only did these stores not have anything close to the sort of coat I was looking for, but few of them had any coats whatsoever. This would plague me throughout the quest which was only beginning…

Since the stores I had planned on visiting yielded no result, I resolved to check the rest of the stores in the mall, searching any one that sold men’s clothing. On that “men’s” note a short aside. In one store that specialized in men’s clothing and men’s clothing only, I spied some shirt/blazer combinations of such small size as to be mistaken for children’s clothing, yet this store did not claim to sell children’s clothing at all. Here I began to notice another theme that would remain constant over the course of this journey- there was always a surplus of XS, i.e. “extra small” sizes, whereas often even a single XL would be absent.

Already two conclusions were forming in my head at this point. The first was that it was unusually difficult to find a wide selection of coats in many shops I visited, which is simply maddening. This is Russia, and it is winter time. One should not have trouble finding a good quantity of coats in a major chain retailer. If anything the opposite should be true- you should walk into a shop and see so many coats as to instill a sense of Lovecraftian insanity in the realization of one’s powerlessness to possibly choose one coat among the myriad of offerings for sale.

The other realization was in regards to the matter of sizes. Again, I’d had problems finding large sizes in Russia before, but this was mainly with shirts and shoes. The problem with the latter item, incidentally, proved easy to rectify some years ago. In any case I’d never fully appreciated the lack of large sizes until this moment. You see dear reader, when it comes to Russian males Hollywood has lied to you- they are not hulking Dolph Lundgrens. Yet while they do tend to be shorter than Westerners or even some other Slavic peoples, they are also not very small on average. Were I to encounter this problem of sizes in Vietnam or China, I wouldn’t be surprised or disturbed in the least. And I should also note before one asks that throughout my entire ordeal not once did I encounter a coat that was too short; the problem was always one of width, usually across the chest. This means that a shorter Russian would have been faced with the same problem I was having.

Back to my story in progress, I soon realized that I’d expended my options in this shopping mall. On the other hand, I knew that I was not too far by metro from Moscow’s Evropeyskiy shopping mall, where I could still accomplish my grocery shopping. I resolved to continue my search there and made my way to the metro.

In Evropeyskiy my search proved every bit as fruitless. In fact, I don’t even remember seeing a single coat resembling what I was looking for. At one point I actually saw a store called “COATS,” in English, and yet when I drew near I saw that they sold only women’s coats. What a slap in the face. After thoroughly searching the entire mall I bought my groceries and headed home in defeat. I use the term defeat because at this point I had resigned myself to the idea that perhaps I should just buy another button and put off the subject of a new coat until next autumn.

I would end up stopping at two clothing repair shops on the way home. In the first, the woman immediately told me that they had no buttons like the ones on my coat, and that all she could do was take one from the top and move it to the bottom. She didn’t seem to understand why I was less than enthusiastic about this proposition. After all, this meant the coat would still be missing a button, only it would be slightly less noticeable. It seemed to me rather odd that such an unsatisfactory treatment would be the most realistic and readily available option.

Almost home, I found another clothing repair shop. A young and quite comely woman informed me that while they did not have my exact buttons, they certainly had some which looked close enough. This stop-gap seemed fine to me as she showed me some exemplars, among which I found two that could easily pass for the time being. But when I asked how much, she informed me that they were not for sale; I’d have to give them the coat for four business days while they repaired it or pay extra. This seemed unnecessary and wrong on principle. It seemed I’d reached an impasse.  Were I Mark Ames, I could have simply strangled the girl until she agreed to give me the button or passed out, thus leaving it unguarded. Alas, if only I truly got Russia, especially Wild 90’s Russia, the way he clearly did. This not being the case, I had no choice but to thank the woman and head home dejected.

ithurtstolive

Once again I returned to the internet. This time I would hunt down the coat by searching Yandex for specific parameters, in this case coats in large sizes. Many of the searches proved fruitless. Finally one seemed to show promise, and the shop in question was conveniently located. I knew where I had to go the next day. My quest would be at an end soon.

The next day I easily found the shop I was looking for and it wasn’t long before I saw the coats which had appeared on the site. There was an XXL. Same size as my jacket, also from Russia. Mission almost accomplished. I took it too the fitting room and…too tight. Much too tight. The sales assistant explained to me that XXL was too small. She then showed me something that was billed as a 4XL. Whereas I thought XXXL would have been sufficient, she wasn’t taking any chances. I tried it on. Still too tight! What was this? A 4XL for ants?!

No matter. I was on the ring line. Moscow’s Atrium shopping mall was but a stop away. I could do this. I could end this today. I headed over to Atrium, but soon found more of the same. I found something…too small. I found another that seemed well suitable. What was more, the store had discounts as much as 50%. My hopes were again dashed when I found that this latest example, the best I’d seen so far with the largest, most likely correct size, was 28,000 rubles with no discount whatsoever. Once again another mall down.

At this point I had not eaten for some time, since morning. There was something infuriating about all this, the inability to accomplish what ought to have been such a mundane task. Sure, I was doing things the hard way now by going from mall to mall, store to store, but I had already tried the easy way and that was a spectacular failure. For some reason I couldn’t let this go. I was turning into Captain Ahab. The coat was my white woolen whale. A Holy Grail with buttons. Either I would get the godforsaken coat, or it would get me. Where else could I go?

Perhaps the shops on Tverskaya? I made a mental route in my head. From Pushkinskaya down to Okhotniy Ryad. The last resort would be GUM, just a bit further on from the latter. The cold would not stop me. This was going to end tonight.

On Pushkinskaya square I saw United Colors of Benetton, a brand I’d literally never heard of before moving abroad. As I knew nothing about them, I figured maybe there was a possibility they specialized in the type of coat I was looking for. Not a chance. A quick inspection of the store revealed no such merchandise. Reserved, further down the boulevard toward the Kremlin also held nothing close to the item I was looking for.

At this point I must not neglect to mention that my ankle, suffering from a long-ago injury I no longer remember, was afire with pain. It seemed to plead with me to give up this search, just as my wife had sent me a message telling me to “let it go.” Nonsense. Only last year I hiked through Cyprus’ Troodos mountains on two bad ankles, with no less than 25 kilograms on my back. In one day I hiked nearly 20 kilometers in this same condition. If that could not stop me the streets of Moscow had no chance.

As if fate were trying to intimidate me out of my quest I slipped on some ice as I made my way to the underground shopping mall Okhotniy Ryad. I managed to stop myself with both hands, which were now freezing and covered in mud and grime. A mere trifle. I ducked into the Ritz-Carlton and washed them off in the restroom, marveling at the decor on the way in and out. The mission resumed.

I began searching Okhotniy Ryad’s shops in the same methodical manner. Eventually I found something. Not exactly what I was looking for, but suitable. The size, listed as a number rather than the unreliable letter system, seemed right. After searching the rest of the mall, it was time to make a decision. It fit. The harpoon had found purchase beneath the flesh of the white wale. It was finally over. I paid the cashier and walked out with a sense of satisfaction I’d not felt in some time. Only that feeling could offset the otherwise excruciating pain surging through my leg after so many miles put behind me.

Thus did my quest finally come to its bittersweet end. I shuddered to think that we tall people managed to be so blind as to let midgets come to dominate us with their “extra small” sizes. Worse still, in Russia it seems terms like big or tall sizes tends to refer exclusively to women’s clothing, because apparently only women need clothes and only women can be unusually big or tall. And yet what is “usual” when extra larges and larges are so ridiculously small? Extra large for whom? Hobbits? And then I remember who rules Russia, and I feel a chill. Nothing is out of the ordinary at all. Everything has been proceeding according to a plan. I have come to know things I’d rather forget. What I wouldn’t pay to return to that blissful state of ignorance…

putin-medvedev

Foul invaders from Munchkinland! From hell’s heart I stab at thee!