For those of you who don’t know, Russia has ten days of public holidays starting on January 1st. Generally not much in terms of major news happens during this period, as the whole country kind of shuts down. As it turns out, I kind of shut down as well, thanks to the bitter cold and long periods of darkness. Nonetheless, there are a few updates I’d like to share. This also includes a lot of commentary that is the sum total of several days of having literally nothing to do. As such, you might want to tackle it in parts.
Russia Without BS in Russian!
Noodle Remover Alexei Kovalev generously volunteered to translate my latest piece on Russia! Magazine, entitled “Patronizing Patriotism,” and publish it on his blog. Apparently it’s a big hit, and I’ve seen a lot of positive feedback from Russian readers.
Naturally, the vatniks weren’t too happy about it, and their response has been predictable. The typical response to this is: “This foreigner doesn’t understand anything about Russia!” Here’s a tip- When a vatnik says this, it means you probably hit the nail right on the head. “You don’t understand anything about Russia” is basically the Russian equivalent to the American “You just hate muh freedoms!”
This idea of the eternally enigmatic, mysterious Russia which no foreigner can possibly comprehend is just ridiculous on so many levels. You think Russian history or culture is complicated? Tell that to China, which boasts a continuous civilization spanning about 4,000 years, and which boasts numerous dialects and languages which are not mutually intelligible yet all speakers understand the same writing system. Try getting your head around that.
Where to begin with this idiotic myth, that Russia is so super-exotic and difficult to understand? Well let’s start with the fact that I’ve been here nearly ten years and I speak the language. If people can study your country’s history for roughly 15 years, live there continuously for nearly a decade, have numerous friendships and intimate relationships with the locals, all the while having a command of the language adequate to be able have deep discussions and consume local media, and yet still not understand anything about your country, I’ve got bad news for you. Your country isn’t deep; it’s insane. North Korea is enigmatic and mysterious. Russia isn’t.
Oh yes, it was a borderland with “the East” and it was ruled under the Mongol-Tatar yoke. Who gives a shit? Hungary was founded by Magyar people, Finno-Ugric speakers who most likely originated in the Volga-Ural region. Bulgaria was originally inhabited by Turkic Bulgars (I’m not convinced by Indo-European Bulgar theory) who also originated in roughly the same region. Both of these peoples were at one time or another nomadic steppe dwellers, not too far removed from the Mongols who would one day conquer Rus in terms of culture and lifestyle. By contrast Russians are Eastern Slavs who came from the West. This being the case, who ever insists that Hungary or Bulgaria are simply impossible for outsiders to understand?
Second, the idea of enigmatic Russia and the mysterious Russian soul is part and parcel of the patronizing, condescending Russophobic mythology that was the topic of that article in the first place. At first, this idea of being mysterious seems like a positive stereotype. These Russians who peddle the idea remind one of that angsty teenage outcast from high school. But where else do we see this kind of mythology? That’s right- in racist noble savage stereotypes.
Pop culture is doing this all the time with East Asian people and Native Americans who, according to Hollywood, have magic powers. They do it with Russians as well, and you can see a perfect example of this in the popular computer game Call of Duty: Black Ops. In an early mission that involves breaking out of a Soviet prison camp, the Russian supporting character Reznov and his fellow inmates describe their escape plan in strange metaphorical language. For example, they use the phrase “skewer the winged beast” in reference to bringing down a helicopter. There’s this implication that a Russian can’t just say “Take out that helicopter!” And since vatniks just love talking about WWII, there’s also the well-known habit of German officers mentioning the mysterious Russian soul or mentality as well as Russians’ “closeness to nature” in their memoirs. This is often paired with passages about how Russians are “Asiatics” and not European.
Another problem with the “you don’t understand Russia” argument is that it tends to come from people who think they understand every other nationality and yet fail so hard even at understanding the mentality of their own neighboring former Soviet republics. Probably the closest relatives to Muscovite Russians would be Ukrainians, and yet I think it’s pretty clear that most Russians, including those who aren’t extreme “patriots,” simply don’t understand Ukrainians or Ukraine at all. Ukrainians, for better or for worse, understand that change is preferable to stagnation and a slow death, and they also understand that while change can bring great difficulty (even if your neighbor doesn’t deliberately sabotage things with invasion, annexation, and economic warfare), progress is preferable to phony “stability” under an incompetent regime.
In fact, some of the feedback actually shows how true this point is. Apparently a significant number of people who commented on the article seemed to get the impression that I thought Kyiv, a city which I have visited 7 times since early 2007, is in Russia. I was confused as to how they could infer this and feared there might have been some kind of typo I had missed. When I examined the article again, I found the likely culprit was where I mention how Putin was spooked by protests in Moscow and Kyiv. Now Putin actually has a history of being spooked by protests in Kyiv, though it is of course in a different country (not that Putin cares about that though), going back to the Orange Revolution in 2004. This being the case, why would someone ignore what ought to be common knowledge in Russia and assume that the author doesn’t know Kyiv is the capital of a separate country? Oh right, because the author is American, and of course every Russian knows Americans are just terrible at geography. So terrible, in fact, that one can safely assume an American living nearly ten years in the region and who has spent time in both countries in question wouldn’t notice that they’re separate countries.
But you know I’ve got to wonder. If vatniks understand the rest of the world so well and no one outside can understand them, even when the outsiders live within their borders, speak their language, and communicate with them directly, why is it that the Kremlin is in so much trouble these days? Sun Tzu said “Know your enemies and know yourself…” The way vatniks tell it, Russia has this down pat, and yet it’s stuck in two military quagmires, one with a country that had only a token military until the summer of 2014, and its economy is tumbling with no end in sight. In the mean time, they continue to spend millions on ineffective foreign-language media that deliberately appeals to the political fringes of these Western countries they supposedly understand so well. This leads us to an argument I find myself making in so many situations I might as well name it Kovpak’s Razor, i.e. if your theory or system is so effective, where are your results? Effective theories, ideologies, plans, etc. can have flaws, even major flaws, but to be justified they ought to be able to show concrete positive results.
In summation on this point, every nation has cultural differences, nuances, and paradoxes. Some may have more than others. This does not mean, however, that any nation can be so paradoxical, so mysterious, so enigmatic as to render it impossible for anyone not born to that nation to understand. Japan, owing to centuries of isolation, is practically impossible for an outsider to assimilate into. This does not mean, however, that a foreigner cannot gain a firm understanding of Japan and its culture, to the point that their analysis can have predictive or explanatory value. Russia is nowhere near as opaque to Westerners as Japan. Give it up, you’re not such a special snowflake after all.
Kovalev attributes some of the hostility to this common notion in Russia that their societal issues aren’t the business of the “pindosy” (Americans). To those cotton-padded critics I say you made it my business when you lost your spines in 2012 and decided to submit in exchange for “stability” you never received. If you lived in America and people in your community were enthusiastically supporting politicians who gut budgets for infrastructure, education, and other services, I’d expect you to raise your voice about it even if your neighbors were apathetic or against you. Dignity means standing up to those who steal from you, insult you, and generally make yourself worse. You don’t achieve dignity by shaking your fist at some bogeyman that isn’t doing anything to you. Oh yes, you all decided to stand with your president against NATO in 2014. Imagine if Americans of all political stripes stopped protesting the government and started lavishing praise on Obama, possibly giving him a third term, all because we suddenly decided we needed to stand up to the mole people, a hostile subterranean race that has definitely been moving its military infrastructure closer to the surface.
What a lot of these particular Russian readers don’t seem to understand is that most of what I say about Russia is based on things Russians have told me over the years, that is to say I repeat or comment on things you told me. Then in 2014 so many of you suddenly acted like the corruption, the thievery, the insulting behavior, and the squandering of the country’s future either stopped, or just wasn’t important anymore. This isn’t patriotism, it’s cowardice plain and simple, and you’re not fooling anyone when you say otherwise.
In the Lions’ Den
What follows is an experience, a veritable torrent of audio visual pleasure. Before watching this video, I suggest you prepare for it. Microwave a bag of popcorn. Or if you’re the high class type, light up a cigar and pour yourself a brandy. Lay on a pile of throw pillows while smoking a shisha. Maximize the sensory delight.
What follows is an Al Jazeera program where a Russian former diplomat and Duma deputy Natalya Narochnitskaya made the mistake of stepping outside Russia’s controlled, managed media bubble and into the real world. I’m at a loss to choose the most appropriate image as an analogy for what ensues. Christian versus lions? A firing squad? Watch this and take your pick:
It’s so great watching a supporter of the regime getting flak like this because in Russia, they have this arrogant attitude whereby they dictate reality and you mustn’t question them otherwise you’re an “extremist” or whatever. If this host worked in Russia and asked hard-hitting questions like this, he’d have his accreditation and possibly visa canceled. If he were a Russian citizen, he’d probably face persecution and extremism charges. This is what they do inside of Russia, where they can use the power of the state to enforce their views. Yet outside of Russia, without the power to punish those who disagree, they are powerless. The results are simply hilarious.
One of my favorite parts were when Natalia tries to go for a what about with Iraq, and Hasan, who will have none of it, quickly says that yes, American troops in Iraq was not legal under international law, right before getting back to the question of Russian troops in Ukraine. I always find this amusing because what-about artists will always throw out these arguments as if they expect you to say: “Hey wait a minute now! That invasion of Iraq was completely legal and okay because freedom, democracy, human rights, and AMERICA!” The idea that at individual would be anti-imperialist on principle no matter who is doing it simply doesn’t occur to them. Even the idea that a journalist might consider it their job to grill politicians and guests on a political TV program, regardless of where they come from, is beyond them.
Obviously I don’t agree with all the questioners and I think Hasan should have pushed harder on some topics while maybe leaving aside others as a matter of priority, but I’m willing to let all that slide because I’m so entertained to see a journalist asking the kind of questions I would ask. This was truly a masterpiece.
Of course poor Natalia will no doubt chalk up this hostile response to the vast multi-national Western conspiracy against innocent Russia, and it’s obvious this host is nothing but a Western, American boot-licking lap dog of the mainstream media right? He’d never grill a Western official or criticize the US like that, right? Oh…Wait…No…
Of course none of these videos matter to Team Kremlin, which will still note down Al Jazeera as “Western mainstream media” for their impunity. Actually I wouldn’t be surprised if they labeled them terrorist supporters.
Speaking of lists and mainstream media…
How do you know if media is mainstream? RT will tell you.
I’ve made references before to RT’s so-called “Ultimate Guide to the Mainstream Media” in the past, but a recent TV spot on RT made me go back to it again. The most glaring omission in the list is Russia. Does Russia, supposedly a superpower, not even have a mainstream media in spite of the fact that most of its major media giants are owned either by the state or oligarchs loyal to Putin? That the Russian media isn’t in English is irrelevant; this list includes Germany and France. Why can’t I get any info on Russia’s mainstream media?
More curious still is the inclusion of sources like Buzzfeed, Gawker, and Vice as “mainstream media.” Well it’s curious if you don’t know how Russian media works. While Buzzfeed, Vice, or The Daily Beast may be financially successful and/or boast ownership by by large corporations, none of this makes a media source mainstream. I’m sure I could find plenty of Americans who have never heard of Vice, or at least never watched it. Buzzfeed, which actually does do good investigative journalism, is more likely to be associated with pictures of cats and nostalgic 90’s lists for most people. On the other hand, pretty much everyone in America knows about Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, etc.
So what makes something like Vice “mainstream?” Oh right, it’s because they countered the Russian government’s foreign policy line:
The fact that in the process Vice also allowed plenty of separatists to voice their own opinions, you know, showing the “Russian POV” on the conflict is irrelevant. Putin said something and Vice challenged it, ergo it’s “Western mainstream media” and you can’t trust it. Obviously they’d never make stories critical of Western government policies! Oh wait, what’s this? Youtube apparently has a search function!
Wow, amazing things happen when you actually bother to CHECK THINGS. And what about all-American propaganda bullhorn, that pillar of the mainstream media, Buzzfeed? Here’s an article about CIA torture programs. Here’s another about Snowden, and as a side note, I should say that most Western media coverage of Snowden has in my experience been very favorable. This is probably best demonstrated in John Oliver’s interview with Snowden, where Ed is virtually unchallenged:
Getting back to Buzzfeed, here’s one of their articles on the Pentagon’s failed weapons program in Syria. Here’s one about police in Britain using illegal warrants. Here’s another talking about the Saudi-led coalition bombing of a hospital.
And what about The Daily Beast? Sure, it often hosts ultra-critical articles on Russia by authors like Michel Weiss, but it also hosts things like this piece, which looks like it could have been on Sputnik News. Here’s another article praising Russia’s impressive military technology, a favorite topic of state propaganda organs in Russia. Here’s one suggesting that Obama found common ground with Putin after “four years of failure” in Syria. Those are pretty damning words. This one, complete with a hilarious photograph, unveils General Petraeus’ brilliant plan to “use” Al Qaeda to fight ISIS. Speaking of Al Qaeda, here’s none other than “Russophobe” Michael Weiss writing about a US-backed rebel leader defecting to Al Qaeda.
The reason I’m pointing out these stories is twofold. First of all, there’s this liberal theory of journalism that says a free press enhances and preserves democracy because it scrutinizes power and keeps people informed. Obviously, like most liberal ideals, this doesn’t always work in the real world, but it certainly works better than its opposite- a heavily regulated, state controlled press.
Sources like Buzzfeed and Vice aren’t really mainstream, but they are definitely giving the real “mainstream” media a run for its money, and I suspect this is largely because they are doing a better job of scrutinizing and challenging authority, something Western news consumers want to see. RT and other Russian media outlets don’t provide this kind of coverage; they are a cheap knockoff which only scrutinizes Russia’s perceived enemies while providing their own government’s talking points. If one is unaware, this can seem like real alternative news, breaking taboos and challenging the real mainstream narrative. Again, it may seem that way but it simply isn’t.
Recently I issued a challenge to test Russian media claims that they are merely an equivalent to the “Western mainstream media.” Only one example of what I was looking for was put forth, and though it was watered down and heavily qualified with a disclaimer and a link to a rebuttal, I still let it count. Recently a friend of mine made a similar suggestion, pointing out how you will never see Russia’s state run foreign language media challenge Putin the way you’ll see US outlets challenge American politicians. Obviously conservative outlets like Fox constantly rake Democrats and insufficiently loyal Republican over the coals all the time, but even non-conservative mainstream outlets aren’t reluctant to question the president.
To give you an example I just did a Google search for “fact checking the state of the union.” Here are three actual mainstream media sources doing exactly that. First The Washington Post, next is NPR, and finally there’s ABC News, which according to RT’s guide is perceived as having “liberal bias.”
Now in Putin’s end of year press conference in December, he not only fudged numbers or played fast and loose with figures, but actually told a number of lies. So where’s RT’s “fact check” on Putin? I don’t expect them to use terms like “outrageous lies,” as those American sources didn’t use such language in their articles about Obama. I’m just talking about a simple fact check. “Putin said this, but the real evidence shows otherwise.” Instead we go to the Op-Edge section and find all kinds of apologetics and fawning praise for his royal majesty. If this is just the equivalent to the Western mainstream media, where’s the questioning of Russian government claims? Where’s the internal political debate that we see on American TV?
The truth is that at the end of the day, RT and Sputnik aren’t alternatives. For one thing, they are mainstream media, as they are merely foreign language versions of Russia’s domestic state run channels. When I think of criticism of Western media I think of the ideas you find in documentaries such as Orwell Rolls in His Grave or Weapons of Mass Deception. What you’ll notice about both documentaries is that while they ruthlessly pick apart all the problems of American corporate media, at no point does anyone suggest the solution to this is to give one’s trust to foreign government outlets that put out their masters’ message. At the end of the day, all RT ends up being is a foreign version of Fox News, an Fox News of course was largely responsible for many of the problems in the US media. Basically it’s as if RT’s founders looked at the worst news company in America and said: “That’s what we should be!” Obviously this does not help advance critical thinking, nor does it inform people.
At the end of the day, the term “mainstream media,” when used by RT, is nothing more than a buzzword, loaded language to use Robert J. Lifton’s terminology based on his study of thought reform (aka brainwashing). Whereas a normal definition of mainstream media suggests papers of record or the evening network news, in RT parlance “mainstream media” can be lobbed at any media outlet, however small and however critical of other governments including their own, simply because it contradicts the line of the Kremlin. And once the label has been applied, the viewer, reader, or listener should discount any information that source provides about Russia because it is now untrustworthy. Of course if that same source writes something critical of the US or say, Ukrainian government, that particular piece is entirely genuine and can even be cited to make Russia’s case. Again, critical of Russia equals “mainstream media” and thus the source can be dismissed out of hand. Hell, maybe one day someone will call this blog “mainstream media” even though I’ve never directly made any money from it. All media outlets which fail to uphold the Kremlin’s line or challenge it in any way, regardless of size, funding, circulation, country of origin, or ownership can be labeled “mainstream media” and should thus be seen as part of the dastardly world conspiracy to defame Russia.
I guess to sum up I have to once again relate this point which was once used by someone I used to argue with online all the time. I had the idea myself, but she put it into the best words at the time. Basically when we are confronted by the failure of our “mainstream media” we have two choices. One is to be critical thinkers and evaluate each story or claim on the merit of its evidence. This is ideal. The other route, the route that outlets like RT would like us to take, is to uncritically accept any source that claims it’s an alternative, not mainstream, and which appears to be saying the opposite of those outlets it designates as “mainstream.” This route is a surefire recipe for disaster.