Monthly Archives: February 2016

Revolution or collapse? Thoughts on the Nemtsov memorial march

For those who don’t remember, this past Saturday, the 27th, is the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down about 100 meters from the Kremlin wall. This extremely public killing seriously upped the ante for dissidents in Putin’s Russia. In 2012 there was the crackdown on protest leaders. This would be followed by more laws restricting media, the liquidation of state-run news outlets that were too objective, and more of the usual harassment of opposition figures by pro-Kremlin youth groups. Violent incidents, especially among leading figures of opposition parties, was still rather rare- and then Nemtsov was shot. If he could be killed within sight of the Kremlin, literally a couple minutes walk from St. Basil’s Cathedral, what chance would ordinary, often working class Russian citizens have in a climate of increasing hatred towards “traitors?”

While the murder and the woefully inadequate investigation were no doubt aimed at intimidating opposition supporters, it would seem that it failed to do so. Just before Nemtsov was killed he was preparing to lead a sanctioned rally the following day. The march proceeded as planned, but instead of a protest it was now a funeral procession. I was not present at that event, but estimates say there were about 50,000 people in attendance. It is quite possible that the shooting actually convinced more people to come out. It certainly convinced me to come out Saturday.

Prior to the shooting, I never had a good word for Nemtsov. That is not to say I despised or had any ill will towards him; our politics are very different and so I paid him little mind as I do with most Russian opposition politicians. But what I learned over the past few years, what I didn’t know back during those days of protests in 2011 and 2012, is that the system is increasingly tightening its grip so that people who dissent rarely have the luxury of being able to sit around and wage polemical wars with each other. In 2011-2012 I was constantly arguing with Russian liberals. By 2014 I had to humbly admit they had a point. They knew this system better than I, a foreigner with expat privilege.

Not having seen any significant Russian political demonstration since 2011, I decided to go to Saturday’s anniversary march to get my finger back on the pulse of Russian opposition politics. As a side benefit, attendance gave me the opportunity to catch up with a lot of friends and acquaintances.

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When I first emerged from the metro, I noticed some organizers standing around with clipboards and taking down names. The people giving their names were wearing St. George ribbons and other insignia suggesting they were probably pro-Kremlin counter-protesters, possibly of the hilariously named “National Liberation Movement.” The way this works is that organizers use casting sites and casting groups on social networks to recruit demonstrators or counter-protesters. Participants are usually paid about 350-500 rubles for forty or so minutes of standing around with a flag or sign. They tend to be students or pensioners. I’m happy to say that after I reached the starting point of the march, I did not see anyone who looked like a counter-protester or provocateur. If they were there, they must have been corralled near the starting point of the march.

What struck me about the march was the ease of getting into the starting place on Strastnoy bulvar, near Chekhovskaya metro station. As is usually the case in public events like this one, the police had set up a line of metal detectors that marchers had to pass through. Yet in contrast to other events I’ve witnessed, it took very little time to get through and there was little back-up behind the detectors. I ended up near the front of the march, but for what seemed like about an hour Strastnoy bulvar all the way to Petrovka street filled up with people. It was starting to get rather crowded an I occasionally retreated and changed positions to reach a point where I wouldn’t be so hemmed in. For some reason the police weren’t letting the march proceed.

Overhead there was a police helicopter flying over the crowd from various angles. Strangely this particular helicopter was a common European model and not something local such as a Kamov or Mil. So much for import replacement. It seemed people were getting a bit agitated at being made to wait for so long. Occasionally chants would break out, with slogans such as “Russia will be free,” “Russia without Putin,” and a couple of young men near me chanted a variant of the latter based on a Ukrainian made meme: “Rossiya bez khuilo!” This means “Russia without the dickhead”- guess who that is. Many signs made references to head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, widely thought to have had at least some connection to the Nemtsov murder.

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Oh what? A Russian helicopter isn’t good enough for the Moscow police?

Eventually the march got underway and I could make more observations. One thing that jumped out at me was the age diversity. Attempts to categorize Kremlin support or dissent by age fail to meet expectations. There were elderly people and young people. Among the latter were many that did not measure up to the stereotype of the “creative class” types. At one point I heard a young girl with a beautiful voice singing “Where have all the flowers gone?” walking next to me. At her side was a man that looked to be her grandfather.

One thing I was pleased to see was the preponderance of Ukrainian flags and ribbons. Here is where you can see Ukrainian pride without nationalist symbols and Bandera portraits- yes, that’s actually possible! And speaking of nationalists, protests in 2011-2012 often had large far-right contingents, identifiable by their flags. This was partially because Putin, who has long had a roller-coaster relationship with nationalists, was on their bad side at the time. Since the beginning of Putin’s military adventure, a lot of nationalists went back to the system’s camp, especially when granted the ability to take out their aggression on Ukrainians. On the other hand, I didn’t notice any far leftists such as anarchists.

Something that really struck me was the police presence. It seemed considerably relaxed compared to other marches I’ve been to, and that includes 1 and 9 May marches held by official opposition parties like KPRF. The Internal troops weren’t called out, and the whole route wasn’t lined with human chains of cops, as I’d become accustomed to. They were certainly visible, but they were mostly blocking off perpendicular streets with the help of large trucks. I didn’t witness any conflict between police and the marchers.

The best opportunity to get an idea as to the attendance was when we began to ascend Petrovsky bulvar in the direction of Trubnaya square. Here it became clear that there were actually two columns marching on either side of the park that divides the lanes of Petrovsky- apparently the “5th column” had been divided into two 2.5 columns. The crowd stretched back as far as the eye could see. I’m no expert in estimating crowd sizes, but I’ve been to marches involving around 20,000-30,000 people and this looked rather similar. It’s quite possible that this march had roughly the same numbers as last year’s memorial march, i.e. approximately 50,000.

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Naturally this march infuriates the pro-Kremlin crowd. In their eyes all those present are liberal scum, traitor 5th columnists working with the United States to destroy Russia because…reasons. Yet as with many concepts in Kremlin propaganda, what we have here is a case of Schrodinger’s 5th Column. The “liberal” opposition is minuscule and unpopular (actually true), but at any moment it will spring into action and start a Maidan-like “color revolution” that will deliver up the world’s largest country to the US.

Apart from all the other idiotic aspects of such claims, the sad thing is that the people who buy into the color revolution conspiracy don’t realize that revolution is preferable to the more likely alternative- collapse. See revolutions have organization, intent, plans. Collapse is just that- collapse. When I look at Russia’s political landscape, I don’t see any potential for a Maidan-style “revolution” at all. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is unlikely to come from that marginalized political ghetto that is the organized opposition. One must credit Mr. Putin’s media and political technologists for rendering that movement toothless. But in doing so, they are actively destroying whatever chances Russia has left for recovery.

When I contrast collapse to revolution, I’m not suggesting that it won’t involve some kind of popular uprising, I’m just suggesting it will not be very organized and it will lack clear goals, leading the country right back to where it was in 1991. Organized political opposition in Russia may be small in number, but discontent and protests are on the rise. Most of these are related to economic grievances as plants close and firms fail to pay salaries on time. Few of these people see their plight as a political struggle, and occasionally you seem them pathetically appeal to Putin for some kind of relief. As the economic situation worsens, the protests will inevitably increase. People can talk about “enduring” and “patriotism” all they like, but when you have no access to food or shelter you’ve basically got two choices left- lay down and die to stand up and do something. History shows that all demeaning stereotypes about “collectivism” and “despotism” aside, Russians won’t choose the former when it becomes a matter of life and death.

Sadly, Putin and his cronies are so afraid of the tiny 5th column replacing them that they end up suppressing the one movement of people who can save the country and give it the functioning institutions it needs after the regime collapses. And mark my words, the regime will inevitably collapse sooner or later. It is simply too rife with contradictions and its leadership is too disconnected from reality. If nothing else happens, Putin is not immortal or immune to incapacitating diseases or conditions, and once he’s not there to anchor the system, if only symbolically, things are going to get very interesting indeed.

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On the bridge where Nemtsov was shot. Putin’s system eliminates or suppresses anyone who can pick up the pieces after he breaks Russia.

NOTE: For more, much higher quality photos from the march, click here. You might notice some familiar characters. 

 

 

Real Realism

Beware the snake oil known as foreign policy “realism” or “pragmatism,” at least when it comes to Russia. Every time I read something from a “realist” or “pragmatist” it always starts out more or less fine, but then soon degenerates into blaming all Putin’s bad behavior entirely on the West, and suggesting a “compromise” that basically amounts to giving the Kremlin whatever it wants, whatever the case. Usually these people portray themselves as moderates, objective observers standing in no-man’s land between rabid neocons in the West and Kremlin-supported neo-imperialists in Russia. Yet one cannot help but notice how quickly their arguments degenerate into a collection of tried and true Kremlin talking points, and their “solutions” require the West or its allies to make all the concessions while Russia isn’t bound to reciprocate.

If you feel like reading a long takedown of these folks and some of their arguments, there’s a nice piece on the topic by Lilia Shevtsova. Brian Whitmore of The Daily Vertical also has a recent piece which helps toward explaining why the “realist” approach is at best, extremely misguided. But if you’re dead set on reading a response to the “realist” school of foreign policy punditry that contains dick jokes- well, you’d best set here for a spell and read on.

First of all let’s tackle the whole objectivity thing. As I stated in my FAQ when I began this blog, my objectivity stems from not having a stake in the game between the Kremlin or “the West.” I’m not saying this is the only way a person can be objective. I respect striving towards objectivity so long as one is not engaging in balance for the sake of balance and making false equivalencies. I also can’t respect it when someone claims to be objective and then clearly takes one side 100%. Declare for a camp or try to remain a moderate, objective observer, but please don’t claim to be the latter or fly a false flag as you represent the other camp.

Having dealt with the question of objectivity and moderation, let’s get on to the topic of negotiation and compromise, which “realists” seem to misunderstand, occasionally on purpose. Compromise entails a quid pro quo. You do this, we’ll do that. To date I’ve yet to see a single “realist” say what Putin should do for the West in exchange for the long list of concessions they think the Kremlin deserves:

Scrap Minsk and unilaterally pull out of the Donbas, taking their weapons and proxies with them? Oh no! Russia will always feel a deep-rooted connection to those Russian speakers of East Ukraine! This is their backyard after all! They’ll want assurances that Ukraine won’t join NATO! Hell, even Chomsky claimed that Russia had “a case” for invading and carving up Ukraine. And give back the Crimea? Don’t even waste your breath. Deep historical connection, national humiliation, etc. If we just let them have the Crimea, they’ll be more inclined to quit Eastern Ukraine! But if they don’t, well, see the previous explanation.

What about Syria? Well a peace deal would be great, so long as there are new elections and Assad leaves. But you know, we shouldn’t press him to leave. In fact, we don’t really need those elections at all. Let’s just team up with Russia against ISIS and let them do whatever they want in the Middle East. In fact, the Middle East is so important, and Russia is so essential to the efforts against ISIS, that we can’t afford to be worrying about little Ukraine and its problems. Russia was justifiably upset at Western support for Maidan and the new Ukrainian government. Surely if we just recognize the Crimean annexation and put pressure on Kyiv to do everything Moscow demands, the latter will fulfill all its obligations and we can all concentrate on pounding ISIS into dust! 

You get the gist. These articles never seem to explain what Putin will give in return for all of this, and by coincidence, neither does the Russian foreign ministry. Hell, what can they give, some kind of guarantee in the form of a treaty? Whatever treaty they might sign guaranteeing no further intervention in Ukraine, for example, wouldn’t be worth the paper it’s printed on. This would be especially true if the price of such an agreement amounted to recognizing the Crimean annexation and allowing Russia to continue exercising influence in the Donbas. Since I’ve never seen any “realist” even suggest Putin actually giving any concessions from his side, it seems like the only possible obligation from Moscow’s side in a “realistic” compromise would be a worthless agreement.

Another misunderstanding common among “realists” and “pragmatists” is their understanding of Western responsibility for Putin’s Russia. They way they put it, the West is responsible for all of Putin’s bad behavior. In fact, this often goes towards justifying said behavior by making it seem like a logical response to Western rudeness, neglect, meddling, or outright aggression. There are legitimate critiques of the West in relation to Russia, and there are not so legitimate ones. Guess which category the “realist”arguments tend to fall into?

One of these illegitimate arguments, for example, are the claims that Putin is driven by a perceived threat of NATO expansion. The NATO expansion line looks pretty solid until you actually bother to study what forces existed in Europe and where they were located. As Kremlin hysteria over NATO expansion grew, troop numbers, especially for the US, steadily dropped. No permanent bases were built in the new member states, including those which bordered the Russian Federation. Even today very little has been done to reverse this trend, the only catalyst for doing so being Putin’s recent sabre-rattling and invasion of Ukraine. And should anyone dispute that last point, feel free to provide some evidence about a buildup of NATO forces on the Russian border, as well as an explanation as to why a country that couldn’t manage a war in Iraq and Afghanistan would decide it could pull off an invasion of the largest country on Earth, which also happens to be heavily armed with nukes.

Still not convinced? Just a few years ago Russia was allowing NATO members, including the US, to use an airport in Ulyanovsk as a military transit hub for the sake of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Just a logistical base, you say? Well take a look at how many US military installations in Europe are basically the same thing. And what about espionage? Why is the Russian government so afraid of NGOs and bloggers yet it was willing to actually allow NATO military personnel to use its airspace and infrastructure? The answer is that they’re full of shit, that’s why. They’re not afraid of a NATO invasion and they never were. In fact, their campaign in Ukraine proved how useless and non-threatening NATO really is. If something scared Putin, it was the Orange Revolution, and Maidan doubly so. The thing he fears most is being held accountable for his actions by his own people, which is why he’d rather have NATO military personnel on Russian soil than civil society groups and opposition parties.

Here is where we get to the crux of “realism” when it comes to Putin’s Russia. The fact is that it isn’t realistic at all; it is either out of touch with reality or in the worst cases, totally delusional. It is for this reason that I wish to present to the “realists” a bit of actual realism, so as to shake you out of these fantasies. Naturally this will be lost on the die-hard Kremlin supporters, particularly those with careers courtesy of the Russian state media or other lucrative business in Russia. This is for those naive types who are really struggling to meet Moscow half way and silently wonder what can we do to make Putin respect the Western position. It’s for those who think this is all just some big misunderstanding and if we could only find common ground Putin would be more than happy to cooperate toward a more prosperous, peaceful world, one in which Western businessmen can keep on making massive profits in Russia. If you’re one of those folks (e.g. John Kerry), brace yourself- this will not be gentle.

Give up. Putin and his elite don’t care about your genuine remorse for how the West has treated Russia, whether the slights are imaginary or real notwithstanding. Whatever concessions you give the Kremlin will be accepted with a smile, but nothing of significance will be given in return. As they smile and shake your hand, their media will be regaling the populace with tales of how Putin and his pals have once again outfoxed the degenerate, ever-weakening West, but also how everyone must still remain vigilant because that same collapsing hegemonic power is still a grave threat to Russia. To use the vernacular of a good friend of mine, they’ll be talking out their neck while you’re patting yourself on the back, thinking you finally got them to see your point of view.

Putin literally can’t pull back or offer any concessions. If Merkel, Obama, and literally every other Western leader came to Putin, asked him what he wanted, and then just granted his every wish, the rhetoric wouldn’t change. He wouldn’t give a televised speech praising the West for coming to its senses, being realistic, and finally burying the hatchet between them and Russia. How do I know? Well for all those years America was getting its military out of Europe, Kremlin propaganda has made it sound as though NATO is gearing up for Operation Barbarossa II. For all those years that American and other foreign companies were pouring millions of dollars into the Russian economy and providing Russian citizens with a wealth of consumer goods their parents and grandparents could only dream of, the same propagandists were screaming about how the West wanted to undermine and dismantle Russia, leaving it destitute. If this is what the Kremlin narrative was during the best of times, what will it be during the worst of times, even with concessions. Indeed, we can see a microcosm of this reality in recent times. While the West leaves Ukraine in tatters and lectures it on the need to fulfill the ridiculously pro-Russian Minsk protocol, the propaganda machine is still droning on about NATO legions with American and Turkish mercenaries. So what will more concessions do?

Once you accept the reality that Putin will not reciprocate for any concessions, there’s the fundamental question of why this is the case. Put simply, Putin is not worried about NATO or the West. Putin and the elite he serves are scared to death of their own people. Back when oil prices were high and times were good, they didn’t have to worry so much. Russians were enjoying their new commodities, hobbies, and foreign travel. Then they got too uppity and demanding and had to be put in their place. The need to do so became even more dire after the Ukrainian people showed they wouldn’t put up with corruption and economic ruin for the sake of non-existent “stability.” Obviously one course of action for the Kremlin to remain secure against popular revolution is to crack down on dissent, which has been the case since 2012. Of course this is a lot easier to do with some kind of justification, therefore we have the sharp increase in anti-Western rhetoric. Yes, Russian citizens will have to tolerate more corruption and declining living standards, but there simply is no choice- we’re at war!

The specific nature of that rhetoric is such that any attempt to deescalate the conflict and promote peace and understanding is seen as weakness and submission. This is especially true as the government has mobilized vatnost, a certain mentality that obsesses over dominance and humiliation. To get an idea of why this is so dangerous, imagine that tomorrow the Kremlin and Washington totally make up and be friends on whatever terms. Obama goes on TV and informs America that Russia and the USA are definitely friends now, and that “New Cold War” is definitely off for good. Apart from some politicians looking to score tough-guy points, the vast majority of Americans won’t care. When I say they won’t care, I mean at all. Assuming they even pay attention to the news, they’ll probably just blink and wonder what that whole two-year Cold War 2.0 was all about before popping some Jimmy Dean sausage biscuits into the microwave. You’re not going to find significant numbers of Americans lamenting the fact that they never got to trounce Putin’s Russia in a military engagement, or that economic trade will resume and there’ll be no repeat of 1991. I was rather young that year, but I don’t remember any celebrations about the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was more like shock and the exhilaration that comes from witnessing a historical event of massive significance.

However, as I have stated above, in the same scenario Putin could never make the same announcement, no matter how many concessions America makes. He can never say: “Well it looks like our Western partners listened to their realists and not only recognized our claim to Crimea, but they also agreed to create a buffer zone of neutral, non-aligned states so as to ensure we cannot possibly be threatened by NATO. Therefore, let us stop this animosity toward America and the West and embrace each other in a spirit of brotherhood!” No, Putin could not say this because to the base he now relies on, this still sounds like capitulation. Thanks to the narrative the Kremlin has been disseminating through its media, the only acceptable ending entails America in ruins like the USSR in 1991, and because that’s not going to happen, Putin has to keep up the self-destructive dick measuring contest* they call the “New Cold War.”

To admit that the West is not a threat to Russia is to undermine the legitimacy of his rule and the measures that have been implemented to cement it. Without the NATO bogeyman, there is nothing with which to distract Russian citizens from the real conflict that has been going on this whole time- between the Russian ruling class and the majority. In other words, Putin and his elite will feel just as threatened no matter how conciliatory the West acts. As long as these countries represent an alternative to his corrupt system, and in particular so long as they maintain considerably higher living standards compared to Russia, they will represent a threat to the Kremlin that is far more frightening than any NATO tank division the US might deploy in Europe.

You wanted realism? That’s reality. Deal with it.

 

*Thought I wouldn’t deliver on the dick joke? You thought wrong, my friend.

 

Gross incompetence

Besides oil an gas, other major exports for the Kremlin include whataboutism and other logical fallacies. This story, however, concerns domestic consumption of whataboutism. Meduza reports on a recent photo exhibition* by  the pro-Kremlin group “Network,” entitled “Where a Lie Leads.” The theme “exposes” the lies and crimes of the US government, featuring 11 cases in the past 100 years. Yes, because in Russia it’s courageous to make exhibits about the wrongdoing of some other country but never your own government, no matter how many times it changed in the past century.

The first thing that struck me was the handful of examples. William Blum documented dozens of examples in his book Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since WWII. Or perhaps you’re more into the misdeeds of “Perfidious Albion?” Well then there’s The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire by John Newsinger. Not scathing enough? Why not look up Mike Davis’ Late Victorian Holocausts, or if you prefer to focus on American history, there’s always James Loewen’s Lies my Teacher Told MeWant to know about the lies and delusions that got America into Vietnam? Try Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie. Hell, although it isn’t really political and doesn’t point a finger at just one country, probably one of the most eye-opening book I’ve read in my adult life is The Road to Hell by Michael Maren. It will forever change your perspective on the topic of foreign aid.

Whatever you do, don’t rely on the Russian media or their ideologues to educate you on any of these subjects, because they are totally incompetent in both the history and the execution. “Where a Lie Leads” is a perfect example of how little effort these people put into their work. Let us count the ways.

The article begins with an exhibit on the American intervention in Russia during the civil war. According to the report, the exhibit ignores all the other intervention armies from other countries such as Japan, Great Britain, and France. It also deliberately misconstrues some quotes to make it seem like American troops were committing atrocities in Russia.

What the article unfortunately fails to point out is why American troops, along with the other intervention armies, were there in the first place. The intervention was an attempt to prop up the provisional government that had been displaced by the Bolshevik revolution. Apart from the fear of Communism, the Entente powers were most concerned about the Bolsheviks knocking Russia out of WWI. Therefore intervention on the side of the Whites to restore the provisional government was largely geared towards getting Russia back in the war…because they were alliesYes, remember that? The United States and Russia were allies, going back much further than Russia’s alliance with Great Britain. Russia sold Alaska to the United States to keep it out of British hands. The Russian navy also patrolled the coasts of the US during its civil war, with standing orders to attack British or French ships and assist in the Union blockade of the South should either of those countries extend recognition to the Confederate States.

And what right do these people have to complain about Americans coming over to fight some Bolsheviks? After all, the Dear Leader Putin himself recently condemned Lenin for destroying the precious Russian empire, where each and every illiterate communal peasant, no matter how poor and no matter how many children lost before the age of five, could beam with pride at the idea that “they” exercise authority over Poles or Finns, and of course Ukrainians were forbidden to print literature in their own language. Then again, I’m quite confident that every vatnik who dreams of this golden age is quite certain that if he were alive then, he wouldn’t be an illiterate peasant like most of the population back then. No, he’d be some cossack officer, possibly related to the nobility, and his life would resemble a Tolstoy novel in the early 20th century.

Whatever the case, many years ago I heard teenagers tell me how they’d been taught that the Russian empire was on its way to become like the United States in terms of economic development, until WWI and Lenin came along and ruined all that. Patriarch Kirill had commented on this same alternative history theme at least once, to the best of my memory. So these people really ought to be cheering the Americans for trying to save their country from an ignominious defeat, right? Whatever the case, I doubt the exhibit even mentions the reason why the US, along with Britain and France, ultimately pulled troops out of Russia along with their support for the Whites. This was due to mass strikes and protests by American, British, and French Communists in their home countries. In the US there was a general strike where the workers refused to load or service ships sending troops or arms to Russia. You’re welcome.

The worst failures of the exhibit come from the photos themselves. A photo (graphic) that was supposed to be from the American intervention in Nicaragua in the 1920’s was actually from the Rwandan genocide in 1990’s. Let that sink in- they didn’t accidentally use a  photo showing an atrocity committed by US-backed Contras in the 80’s. It’s not that they got a photo from the wrong country. They got a photo showing an atrocity committed in another country, on another continent, in a war the US had nothing to do with. How does one fuck up that badly? Please somebody answer that question for me! You want a grisly photo of an atrocity carried out in the 1920’s intervention in Nicaragua? Here you go:

 

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US National Archives

Not only is that photo more accurate, you know, being from the same continent and all, but it’s also way more graphic. And if you’re wondering where I found out about this photo, I first saw it in a book I purchased from a large chain bookstore in 2004. It’s called Addicted to War, and you can actually look through the 2004 edition here. One page even mentions the US intervention in Russia. Like the books I mentioned above, one may dispute certain claims or interpretations of historical fact in Addicted to War, but once again I must drive home the point that the Western media and Western sources do a far better job exposing the crimes of their own governments than Russian media does. In fact, the latter often has to rely on Western sources when they report on these things, no doubt in large part because they can’t be bothered to do any actual research.

Ah but it gets even better, folks. Remember this iconic photo from the Bosnian War?

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Photo by Ron Haviv

The photo depicts members of the infamous paramilitary unit known as Arkan’s Tigers (officially: Serb Volunteer Guard) kicking Bosnian Muslim civilians in Bijeljina. For some unknown reason this photo was used in a section about the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, which of course was related to the war in Kosovo, not Bosnia. Just imagine for a second that this photo was used in a NATO exhibit to justify the 1999 bombing campaign. Assuming someone actually gave enough of a shit to check, you can bet some pro-Kremlin blogger or columnist would have been howling mad over this lying propaganda. And hey, justifiably so, but when it comes to NATO propaganda, they tend to have much higher standards than the Kremlin media. And if they hadn’t bungled Kosovo enough, they actually posted a photo of an Albanian woman whose home had been destroyed by Serbian forces, not NATO. Again, how hard is it to find something like this? There’s no Russian language version of the page, but there are Serbian and Ukrainian versions. What’s the matter? Can’t understand any of the language of your “Slavic brothers,” vatniks?

In the end I think it’s important to realize several key points here. First of all, the best sources on the crimes of Western governments are almost invariably going to come from Western sources. One reason why this is the case is because in democratic societies, there’s this idea that individuals aren’t representatives of their government.  If anything they are supposed to be a check on state power.Even many of the people who write for Russian media at least claim to be doing so due to a disagreement with their respective governments’ policies.

Likewise, however naive it might seem, the basic idea of journalism is that a free press is also a check on power, and its job is to question authorities. By contrast the Kremlin media chiefs and “political technologists” just arbitrarily decide that they’re in an “information war,” and this justifies not caring about credibility or verifying sources, and in some cases, fabricating stories out of thin air. Yes, thank you, we all know that the mainstream media has in the past failed to properly cover certain stories, with dire consequences. And yes, they will probably do it again in the future. But just because a system is flawed due to the contradictions between the ideal of journalism and the reality of a capitalist, profit-driven system doesn’t mean we should reject it entirely in favor of propaganda outlets that deliberately distort stories or fabricate entirely.

This case also demonstrates how fears of Russia “weaponizing information” are largely overblown assuming you’re not in Ukraine, Georgia, or some Baltic state. The fact is that no matter how many times they embarrass themselves, these propagandists seem to have a compulsion to do everything half-assed. Hell, it’s more like quarter-assed or even tenth-assed. Yes, they are on an all-out offensive, but from what I’ve seen recently China has Russia beat in terms of propaganda, even right down to the whole “troll army” concept. And perhaps the reason why some American leaders are panicking about Russian information warfare is because they’ve largely been giving China a free pass on all kinds of heinous behavior over the past few decades.

Ultimately this “information war” is doomed to fail (indeed I’ve argued that it already has) for several key reasons. One is because they don’t care about credibility. They think there’s some kind of inherent value in confusing the enemy with disinformation, something they did for decades during the Cold War. That might sound pretty serious were it not for one inconvenient detail- they lost the Cold War. Second, the system is largely based on sucking up to superiors and showing what a great team player you are. There’s little to no room for dissent. If there were, we’d probably see much more varied propaganda coming from the Russian side, and some of it might actually have some quality. I estimate that we don’t see that because internal criticism is either ignored, dismissed, or maybe even subtly punished. Anyone claiming that RT would achieve far more if it were more objective and paid more attention to accuracy and sources probably won’t be taken seriously. The demise of The Moscow News and the RIA-Novosti English service teaches us about how much objectivity and diversity of opinion is respected in Kremlin media.

The last point is a minor one, but when I look at something like this story all I can think is how cowardly these people are. Here they are, in Moscow, no doubt with some form of funding or support from the state, showing their bravery and principles by condemning the United States. This would make sense in a country that is allied with the US, especially if it were participating in some US military operation at the time. But in that country and in the US itself, it is generally accepted that courage lies in standing up to one’s own government when it is wrong. We tend to admire journalists who expose wrongdoing and whistle-blowers, not government spokespeople or lobbyists. And when it comes to Western correspondents who criticize Russia, I don’t know a single one that sticks up for human rights violations in Ukraine, in the US, Saudi Arabia, or whatever. Principle is what matters.

Just a closing thought on that last note- I might have mentioned this anecdote before, but I was 17 I once wrote a final project in high school called “American War Crimes” (complete with a “political cartoon” for the cover that I made in MSPAINT) for my international relations class. It was after I’d been to Russia the first time, discovered Chomsky, and was fully into that ultra-edgy phase that every white American male seems to hit and hopefully, grows out of later down the road.** I saw some kind of inherent value in going against “the establishment,” and I knew enough to anticipate that it would be controversial, so I devoted a lot of time on the then-slow and crappy internet (search engine of choice: Alta Vista) trying to find the best sources I could. In the end the paper got a B, from a teacher who used to work for the US Department of State no less. It was certainly no worse than this exhibition. And if I could somehow find a copy of that paper after nearly twenty years…I could probably get it published in Russia Insider.

 

*Unrelated note: I don’t usually give dating advice but I remember that on many occasions Russian women would invite me to some photo exhibition for a date. Never accept such an invitation. These are all incredibly boring and you’ll either be saying “This one’s nice,” 40 times, or you’ll end up trying to sound like you actually know something about photography, e.g. “I like how the lighting in the foreground contrasts sharply with the shadow in the background, creating a subtle interplay of color. He certainly used the right lens for this shot!” Further romantic activities are highly unlikely to take place afterwards, unless your date has a fetish for men trying to hide how bored they are.

**Yes, I was listening to Rage Against the Machine all the time too.

Denial

Anyone who has seriously tried to study the real (i.e. international consensus) history of Stepan Bandera and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists knows the kind of reaction one gets from Bandera fans when you question their hero. First you’ll be accused of being a member of the vast Russian conspiracy that spans decades and stretched its tentacles into the most unlikely organizations (such as the Cold War-era CIA). If not that, you’ll be accused of working for the other evil empire seeking to keep Ukraine down- Poland. Yes, Poland, whose Second Republic obviously joined in the Soviet’s anti-OUN propaganda campaign even though both nations appeared to be bitter enemies. Poland, whose post-1989 state also apparently insists on fabricating a defamatory narrative of the heroic Bandera and the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army). Occasionally, less PR-savvy OUN fanboys will accuse you of being one of those other “conspirators” who have allegedly long sought to oppress Ukraine and malign their heroes like Bandera and Shukhevych.

As for myself, I tend to get the Polish accusation a lot, and to be fair my “Ukrainian” heritage may just as well be Polish or part Polish given my fuzzy family history on that side. Of course while I condemn the UPA’s deliberate attempted extermination of Polish people in Volyn during the war, this has nothing to do with my heritage. Nor do I approve of Poland’s interwar policies toward Ukrainians as the typical Ukrainian nationalist whataboutist argument goes. Fortunately for them, Poland’s new right-wing government has given us a perfect example of a state trying to rewrite history using the force of law, showing Ukraine exactly what not to do.

The media has been somewhat captivated by the disturbing actions of Poland’s ruling “Law and Justice” party for some time now, but this mess started when a Holocaust expert was threatened with having a state award revoked because his work pointed out the Polish complicity in some anti-Jewish massacres that occurred under Nazi occupation. As such, he’s been accused of violating laws that prohibit “defamation of Poland.” Apparently facts and accountability don’t matter.

If only that were the end of the matter. The new right-wing government is introducing a law that would make it a criminal offense to imply that Poland had anything to do with Nazi crimes, including those committed on its own territory. In this sense the law is very similar to that introduced in Ukraine, which makes it illegal to “defame” fighters for Ukrainian independence. While such a law could theoretically make it illegal to defame leftists like Hrushevsky or even Marxist revolutionaries like Lesya Ukrainka, it’s perfectly obvious that the legislation was designed to defend the OUN and the UPA.

As in the case with the Ukrainian law, passed nearly unanimously by its “pro-European” government, the Polish law seems unconcerned with actual historical facts. I’m terribly sorry, but Poles did sometimes collaborate with Germans in the commission of various crimes, and the Polish government collaborated with Nazi Germany in giving away Czechoslovakia to the latter, eventually taking a piece of the country as a reward. Interestingly enough, though that particular episode occurred  while Poland and Nazi Germany had a non-aggression pact, we do not hear about the two countries being “allies” who carved up Czechoslovakia as we do in the case of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. But I digress.

Unfortunately whether it is Russia, Ukraine, or Poland, we Slavs often have an infantile worldview where we refuse to take responsibility for the actions of our often manufactured “heroes.” Ukraine is probably the strangest case, if only because Bandera and the OUN didn’t really represent Ukraine or Ukrainian people,  regardless of their claims to the contrary. Rarely do these national cheerleaders realize that virtually every country in Europe contributed to the Holocaust and the rise of Nazi Germany in one way or another. America refused entry to thousands of Jewish refugees. American companies conducted lucrative trade with Nazi Germany, some of which helped build the German war machine. Britain and France enabled Germany and Italy to intervene in the Spanish Civil War so as to crush the legally elected Republican government. Later Britain handed Hitler Czechoslovakia on a silver platter and then tried to save face by making a half-hearted guarantee to Poland that they never intended to actually make good on. And of course the Soviet Union traded with Nazi Germany during the days of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, supplying it with grain, oil, and other resources necessary to run its war machine in the early years of the conflict.

If we go deeper than the state level, we see that virtually every European nation had people who collaborated for various reasons. The worst, of course, were ideological collaborators who supported fascist ideals. Others did so out of fear. Acknowledging this doesn’t put the nation in question on par with Nazi Germany.

Poland’s Law and Justice Party is engaging in that Slavic infantilism, whereby “national” values and childish fairy tale narratives of national history replace real policy in times of crisis. It is no different from what we see with “patriotism” in Russia and Ukraine- politicians inventing heroes and a sanitized version of the nation’s history while they rob and run their country into the ground.

So there, “patriots of Ukraine”, you can rest assured that I don’t work for Polish intelligence, which of course is but a branch of the great Russian conspiracy to defame Ukraine’s “heroes.”

Fake refugee beating story part II: After Action Report

Yesterday provided us a perfect example of how the Russian propaganda machine creates and disseminates fake stories. In this case it was a chain-email type story about heroic Russian men defending the honor of their womenfolk against somewhere around 50 “Middle Eastern migrants.” Details in each story varied, but in each case one pro-Russian source cited another, none of them contained any names or quotes from eyewitnesses, victims, or authorities, and all variations seemed to revolve around a certain core story. Virtually every version of the story made some kind of jab at Europe, “tolerance,” and in particular the Germans for their mishandling of the Cologne New Year’s sex assaults.

As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, this story was just too fishy on a number of points. Due to some confusion between versions of the story, I found that there is indeed an establishment called “Gandvik,” where the fight supposedly began. However, the place is described as a “beer bar” and not a discotheque or night club.  This means it wouldn’t have, as I mentioned in the previous post, “face control,” and it probably wouldn’t have much security apart from maybe a single guy. However, it is located in the same building as a hotel, which boasts a good number of positive reviews from what I can see. One mentions a night club on the first floor, but I don’t know if that refers to Gandvik or if the bar is simply in the same building. Either way, the reviews I’ve seen suggest that this is a quality establishment, one which would necessarily have good security and especially CCTV.

Every version of the story I’ve found so far always claims to be based on “material from social media” without ever explaining what social media that is, i.e. Twitter, VK, Facebook, Odnoklassniki, etc. None of them contain a date or anything that could indicate a date for the alleged incident, and all of them acknowledge in one way or another that there have been no official statements on the matter from the authorities, though some make lame excuses for this. In an earlier version of the story, only five migrants were involved.

Alexei Kovalev managed to find another hallmark of the Russian propaganda machine, which involves making spurious claims that the story is popular in the West. Incidentally this tends to happen when the people disseminating the fake story translate it into foreign languages and then pass it around to their buddies in other countries or post it on English language sites like Russia Insider and Fort-Russ, as in this case. Naturally if this happens enough times it will get picked up by someone in the West, and indeed this story was.

The offending article in this case comes from a Russian site called ridus.ru, and like virtually every article of this type it has a misleading headline, which tells us that the West was captivated by the story of immigrants being beaten in Russia. As is typically the case, the article begins by talking about the reaction of “the Western media,” and social network users. In the latter case- who gives a shit? Social media users, assuming they aren’t paid trolls, often comment on all kinds of fake stories or viral bullshit. But who is “the Western media” in this case? CNN? BBC? Reuters? Nope. As I pointed out in the last article, the “Western media” apparently consists solely of The Daily Caller, a right wing tabloid with a reputation for concocting their own fake stories. Granted, it’s better than some random blog nobody reads, but it’s hardly “the Western media.” Oh well, at least even this article admits that there have been no official statements or mentions of this incident from local authorities. It’s almost as if…this never happened! As a rather amusing side note, the photo in The Daily Caller story, which appears in the ridus.ru article, actually depicts pro-Russian activists in the Crimea beating a pro-Ukrainian protester. At least that’s what the caption says.

 

One last bit before we go on to our summary of this case study in bullshit. This story has been passed around plenty of times in English. Some versions claim that the police allegedly didn’t want to say anything about it so as not to provide “the West” with more “fodder” for their “wild Russia”(in spite of the fact that some of these Russian sites included demeaning pictures of stereotypical Russian men). And yet one wonders where the real Western media is in this story? According to ridus.ru it’s a big hit in the West, and we know the evil Western mainstream media is constantly waging information war against poor, innocent Russia, so then why didn’t they seize on this opportunity to concoct their own narrative of bloodthirsty Russian skinheads, possibly back on rotation from Ukraine, assaulting and beating these poor helpless refugees who were minding their own business? After all, the Western media certainly didn’t miss real race riots in Russia.

Summary: What did we learn, class?

This post is the sequel to yesterday’s piece, which was inspired by Russia Insider, the site that exhorts us to become “media skeptics” and helps train us in this endeavor by providing laughably fake or otherwise highly distorted stories on a daily basis. Indeed, at times it seems the only difference between Russia Insider and the parody site Russia in Your Face is that the latter doesn’t link to sites with sections on Holocaust denial. Thanks to Russia Insider, we were able to construct a perfect exercise in shooting down a BS story that went viral. So what practical lessons can we extract from the exercise, now that it is over?

-First, realize that fake stories aren’t unique to Russian media. Cracked.com busts bullshit viral media stories all the time, and Snopes.com doesn’t seem to be going out of business any time soon. For those who claim that this is different because Russia is “weaponizing” this kind of disinformation, you’re still missing the mark. This kind of organized disinformation has been used in the US, particularly by the Republican party, for years now. The tactics, such as carousel citations where one conservative blog cites a conservative pundit, who cites another blog or conservative news outlet and so on, are not unique to Russia at all. This means that if you familiarize yourself with those tactics you can better understand those of Russia’s propagandists. This is especially helpful for those who don’t speak Russian.

-You can often tell if a story is bullshit by looking for what is present versus what is absent. First there’s the narrative, which as I said in yesterday’s post reads like one of those conservative chain emails. Here there’s a valuable lesson to be learned- Europe is full of limp-wristed weaklings who “tolerate” barbaric migrants even as they grope and harass their women in public, but Russians are masculine, real men who don’t tolerate this insolence. While they use violence to get their point across, they are still somehow more civilized than the degenerate West. The article even ends with an obviously editorial line, reminding refugees that Russians don’t take kindly to “guests” who misbehave. Is that something you usually see in a normal news story?

That “lesson” shines through several times throughout the story, but what is curiously missing? As it turns out, virtually all the hallmarks of a news story are absent. No date or anything that hints at a date (i.e. Friday evening, Saturday, etc.) can be found. There are no quotes or names for anyone involved in the story. There are actual admissions that the local authorities did not mention or comment on the story. Two versions of the story tacked on an excuse as to why authorities did not comment, but a small difference in the translation drastically changed the meaning.

-In spite of the way this story clearly fits the Kremlin’s narrative on migrants, the major state-run outlets don’t seem to have paid much, if any attention to this story. Could that be because TV viewers would expect to see staff, residents, and police officials being interviewed on the subject?

-Each version of the story had either misleading or unhelpful photos. One article I found shows what is alleged to be the inside of “Gandvik,” but of course this could be any Russian dance club virtually anywhere. The others have photos of dark-skinned migrants, two show rather demeaning photos of what seem to be stereotypical Russian gopniks (possibly played by non-Russians), and of course Russia Insider has a photo of Putin with sunglasses, because that must be their placeholder any time they can’t find a suitable image for a story.

-The actual Western media outlet that picked this story up was a tabloid that already has a reputation for bad journalism if not actual political smear campaigns. As one might expect, The Daily Caller is right-wing but not pro-Putin. I found several stories that counter Russia’s foreign policy claims. Of course this doesn’t mean that conservative readers won’t be entertained by stories about macho Russian guys beating up Muslim refugees, who have already become a new bogeyman in the US despite their minuscule numbers.

Even some of the most Putin-hating American conservatives hold on to a self-loathing idea that America has become weak and that Russia is strong because it is supposedly unencumbered by left-wing ideas like feminism or LGBT rights. This combines with a sort of “noble Russian savage” mentality whereby they see the Russian as backward and inferior but in some ways stronger, more disciplined, and destined to defeat more civilized populations should the latter fail to turn away from the path of cultural and spiritual degeneration. If that sounds like something that Nazis believed, it’s because they kinda did. The point I’m making here though, is that some of these “tough, politically incorrect Russians” memes actually originated in America, in some cases long before things like RT, Sputnik, Fort-Russ, and so on. Sometimes they got picked up by Russians and reworked, only to be spit back again in different forms.

-Numerous things in this story make no logical sense. As I pointed out in my last post, the police supposedly tried to prevent a lynching while “secretly” assisting in the beating. How anyone would know this with no statements or comments from authorities, victims, residents, medical staff, or bar staff is a mystery. Why a group of refugees who’d been kicked out of Norway back into Russia would decide to go to a drinking establishment in a hotel and start harassing women is also hard to imagine. Remember that we’re told a group of about 50 people of Middle Eastern descent came into this bar or nightclub. Wouldn’t people immediately notice that and take photos, videos, or at least try to talk to them? I once sat down at a bar in Volgograd by myself and a woman came up and asked me to dance, sensing I was a foreigner even though I’d lived in Russia for over a year at that point. I don’t look Middle Eastern by any stretch of the imagination. Well, at least I didn’t back then.

So why is it in a country where nearly everyone has a camera phone, where nearly every driver has a dash cam, and where establishments have CCTV, we get no video clips or photos of this incident? None. Nothing. Again, it’s almost as if this story didn’t happen!

-The story is obviously aimed at triggering certain emotions and teaching a particular lesson. In those American chain emails, Marine Todd knocks out an atheist professor for mocking god. He does so right in the university auditorium, the liberals’ home turf. Anyone familiar with American conservative politics knows that colleges and universities are portrayed as fortresses of left-wing theory and indoctrination camps for the youth. In fact, some Christians even made a movie about that very subject, though sadly we never see Marine Todd show up in the film, or any marines for that matter.

In this case the message for Russian domestic audiences is that Russia is civilized and doesn’t tolerate Muslims gone wild like they do in liberal “Gayropa.” On the domestic front Russian media is constantly harping on similar themes- the West is degenerate, crumbling, and dying. There, as is the case everywhere outside of Russia, there is “chaos.” In Russia however, there is a superior civilization. Russia is not tolerant of degeneracy. In Russia there is stability, and this is all thanks to Putin. Naturally this same message will often be punctuated by graphic stories of heinous crimes in Russia and news that dozens of shops were demolished overnight, but of course we all know who is responsible for all that.

For Western audiences the emotional hooks have more or less been described above. Reactionary Westerners who have been duped by their own politicians and pundits into believing their country is tumbling into the abyss tend to get a thrill out of these “politically incorrect Russia” tales. As they see their national leaders and media outlets clash with Putin’s Russia, one can make a logical leap that this difference in political values is part of the conflict. Right wing Westerners get the idea that there is hope, there is a country to emulate. They can live vicariously through these non-existent Russian heroes. Telling them about the problems of Russia, or how Muslims in Russia actually wield quite a bit of influence, more so than in the West, is a waste of time. Even if they’ve actually visited Russia, they know their own countries problems far better than those of Russia, so the grass will appear to be greener.

-Real stories have sources. If you pitch a story to an editor and they ask where you heard about this from, saying it was based on “material found on social media” isn’t going to cut it. In real media outlets you’d better have an awesome follow up to that statement, otherwise you’ll probably be canned. Sure, sometimes you find out about a story because it’s buzzing on social media. Twitter is often the place where a story originates. But if you go on Twitter and watch how those stories develop, you’ll often notice journalists qualifying tweets, asking for confirmation, confirming stories, and so on. Suppose a video of the event had been taken and posted on social media like VK. Then we might have something, and we might want to watch the comments on that video to see if other residents, cops, witnesses, etc. commented or provided more information. But even then, there would have to be statements, confirmation, etc.

-If a story flat out admits that officials didn’t comment on a story or make any statements whatsoever, that’s a pretty good sign it’s bullshit. Nowhere did I see that the police actually refused to give a comment, which would imply that they were actually contacted for one. The articles just say they didn’t make any report or comment. Then the author(s) go on to speculate as to why that is with no basis for doing so. Also, given the popularity of the sentiments expressed in the article, don’t you think that the police would have wanted to brag to the nation about how they shut down a riot while still teaching these migrants a valuable lesson?

 

In the end we see that fake viral stories are not unique to Russian propaganda and they often possess the same features and use the same techniques. This blog might be called Russia Without BS, but BS is sadly universal and if our species is to survive we need to learn to strengthen critical thinking while suppressing those emotional instincts that lead us into making huge mistakes. Instincts got us this far, but in order to survive in the modern world, where we possess devastating weapons and technology which can adversely affect the planet, reason must prevail.

This bullshit story was just a small drop in an ocean of Russian propaganda, but it bears a lot of concrete features that make it a perfect case study not only for fake stories coming from Russia, but anywhere, including your elderly uncle who can’t help forwarding every chain email he receives.

 

 

 

How to be a “media skeptic” (or not)

For those of you who don’t know, Russia Insider is basically the place where anyone who can string together paragraphs about the “neocon warmongers,” “Turkish jihadists,” and “Ukrainian junta Nazis” can get their work published. Oddly enough, the site has an ad on the right that says “BECOME A MEDIA SKEPTIC.” Judging by their coverage, it would seem that they intend to help you do so by publishing fake or otherwise idiotically flawed articles in order to help train the reader’s skeptic skills. If that’s the case, good for them.

Today’s training material popped up in my Facebook news feed, which of course means that someone’s about to get all their messages hidden. I actually feel I have to avoid seeing Russia Insider articles and even headlines lest this blog end up turning into a never-ending exercise in tearing down low-hanging fruit and smashing it on the ground. The article in question is a story about some “Middle Eastern” refugees who allegedly harassed some Russian women at a night club in the Murmansk region and then got severely beaten by an ad-hoc vigilante group of local men. And though this story has absolutely nothing to do with Vladimir Putin, the article features a photo of him because…Russia Insider.

Since Russia Insider wants me, you, and all of us to become good media skeptics, I decided this was a perfect training exercise. After all, having lived in Russia for almost ten years, and the better part of one of those years in a town smaller than Murmansk, this story sounded extremely fishy to me. The theme of Russian men being politically incorrect, chivalrous tough guys is a fantasy not only in Russia but also among many Westerners and even Americans. In short, to the experienced eye the story reads like one of those “Marine Todd” chain emails your elderly aunts and uncles forward. But before getting to that let’s talk about sources.

One of the first things I noticed is that the source cited by the RI article is The Daily Caller, which is an American conservative tabloid. One that has been seriously dinged at least once for fabricating a story. This struck me as odd, because after a little browsing on the Caller’s site I determined that they were in fact…THE MAINSTREAM WESTERN MEDIA! Yes, look at these filthy lies they posted about Russia! In this story they had the nerve to contradict the words of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov himself! Not only that, but they even quote the devil incarnate, Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat, and implicitly refer to him as an “expert!” In another obvious concoction of lies, this MSM source claims that Russia is sponsoring terrorism! Obviously this makes The Daily Caller totally untrustworthy and as a good media skeptic we must dismiss it out of hand as “mainstream media.” Hence I looked for another source in the article, and that’s where I began to tumble down the rabbit hole.

The second source mentioned is an article in Italian. I thought it was interesting that the Italians would know more about this than the Russians. Interestingly this Italian link didn’t have a photo of Putin in it, which tells me these might be liberal neocons plotting to fund a color revolution in Russia. The photo they did use, however, was a rather unflattering photo of what I suppose are supposed to be stereotypical Russian men. Rather insulting, in fact. The end of the article contained an interesting disclaimer, and as my wife’s not around to translate, I apologize in advance for using Google:

“Translator’s Note: Since the German mayor yet another recommends the girls to stay away from the “refugees, ** we see a more gallant vision on the part of our Russian friends and acquaintances, and we are pushed to publish this story, even though it may not be officially documented. : Lol:”  

Hmmm… “Not officially documented.” That’s odd, especially when we’re talking about refugees supposedly kicked out of Norway. You need a visa to be in Russia. If you’re involved in inciting a mini-riot, something’s going to get officially documented. In fact, if you’re a group of Middle Eastern migrants who engage in behavior that just happens to fit perfectly into the narrative of the state-run press, your story would end up on the national news. I wonder why it didn’t.

At the end of the article the source cited is “Fort-Russ,” a site which I have busted for posting a fabricated story once in the past. As a side note, this article also used the demeaning stereotypical Russian guy photo. But more to the point, here we have a perfect example of how the Russian propaganda machine works when it comes to stories like these. There’s usually some overarching narrative often set by the Kremlin or its state-run media. Dressing off of what happened in Cologne during New Year’s, the Russian media fabricated its own story about Liza, a 13-year-old girl allegedly kidnapped and gang-raped for 30 hours by Middle Eastern migrants (these people have sick but vivid imaginations). Next what they need is a morality tale that tells people “Russia doesn’t tolerate this sort of nonsense,” and that’s exactly what this reads like. Now what you get is a kind of source carousel, where one pro-Russian source cites another and its difficult to pin down where the story originally came from.

Returning to our media skeptic training course, I was already wondering why it was so hard to find a Russian-language original source on this. Thankfully the Fort-Russ article actually had a link to a Russian-language article, but it was not some local Murmansk site. In fact, it’s called newsli.ru and contains very little information in its “about” page, where it is described not as a media outlet but a “project.” I went and typed “newsli” into Stopfake.org’s search engine and wouldn’t you know it- there were hits. Not a good sign when it comes to credibility.

The original Russian article doesn’t seem to contain anything very different from the translations in English or Italian, therefore we can now skip to the part where I explain why this story is bullshit.

-First of all, if you live in Russia and know the culture, you’ll understand why the idea of Russian males being chivalrous defenders of their women’s virtue is simply laughable. I’m not saying they’re better or worse than other nationalities in this respect, it’s just that they aren’t that.

-Clubs in Russia have this thing called “face control.” This is where the bouncers don’t let you in if you look disheveled, intoxicated, or whatever. True, not all clubs have face control, and Murmansk probably doesn’t house Russia’s most fashionable night clubs, but they will have security and they would be very unlikely to permit the entrance of around 50 Middle Eastern, non-Russian speaking men.

-These are supposedly refugees who were kicked out of Norway. When you’re a refugee who made it from Syria, Iraq, or wherever, all the way to Norway, and then you get kicked out for “bad behavior,” I’m guessing that you probably aren’t too well off financially. If you’re somehow returned to Russia, where you must have a visa simply to be on Russian territory, you’re probably going to be preoccupied with how you’re going to survive and where you’re going to go next. After all, what little money you had has got to be dwindling pretty low by now, and you’re trapped in nation where you don’t speak the language and have no right to work. You’ve no doubt had uncomfortable run-ins with the Russian police already. Now one of your fellow refugees suggest you and 48 other guys go clubbin’ and sexually harass some local women. What do you reply? Yeah. Exactly.

-In Russia people record stuff. Lots of stuff. Hell, the Russian military, apparently lacking a word for OPSEC, couldn’t even keep its war in Ukraine secret due to its soldiers snapping selfies and posting them on social media. I guarantee you that if you have a running battle that starts in a night club and ends somewhere else in the city, involving 50 migrants and what we can only assume to be an equal or larger quantity of Russian muzhiki, somebody’s going to catch that on their iPhone. There are dozens of videos of eye-grabbing activity from places in Russia far more provincial than Murmansk on Russian social media networks. In fact, VK.com has entire groups dedicated to videos of that sort.

-I searched in vain for a night club or discotheque by the name of “Gandvik” in the city of Murmansk. No results whatsoever. Searching for the name itself on Yandex did lead to a sponsored link to a striptease club in Moscow though.  Way to stand up for women’s rights! In any case, it would have been easy to do a search like I did and find an actual night club in Murmansk, but then again, that would mean anyone could look the place up, give them a call, and torpedo this story within minutes. (UPDATE: I’ve been reading some versions of the story, which place Gandvik not in Murmansk but the Murmansk oblast, in a town called Polyarnye Zori. Indeed, there is a dance club by that name in this small town. I was able to find a number and I’ll try to check it as soon as possible.)

-The Russian story has very specific details about the condition of the beaten migrants, yet no names are given for anyone involved in the story. No eyewitnesses, no police, no night club staff, no female victims, no beaten migrants, no local officials commenting on the issue of migration- nobody. The Russian article claims it was based on sources from social media. You know, that same social media where Russians are always posting photos and videos of crazy shit happening in their towns? Not this though. Nobody in Murmansk cared about recording this mini-riot involving what must have been around 100 people, not counting policemen.

-After looking at different versions of the article, there are some interesting inconsistencies. In the Fort-Russ article we see this line: “Still and all, judging by the identical reactions, the agents of law enforcement did not differ in tolerance level and while exhorting not to resort to lynching, secretly assisted in the educational process, news.li reported.” This translation is crap, but the underlined part appears in the newsli article relatively intact. In this case the “educational process” refers to the beating of the migrants. This raises numerous questions. The article states that the “squadrons of police” saved the migrants, so how did they both deter the crowd from vigilante justice (a more faithful translation of the newsli term in my opinion) while at the same time “secretly” assisting in it? If they were secretly assisting, who says so? The migrants? The attackers? Other policemen? This makes no sense.

-In the Fort-Russ article the pathetic excuse for the lack of any statement from law enforcement officials was: “Official confirmation by law enforcement authorities is not forthcoming, as they have no desire to feed the West with any more fodder for the “Wild Russia” line.” But in the newsli version this is different in a way that is slight, but important- it suggests that “perhaps” the authorities didn’t want to provide that “fodder” as they call it. Fort-Russ makes it seem like they intentionally withheld any statement, implying that something did in fact happen but they are refusing to comment on it for this idiotic reason. Newsli.ru presents it as speculation, which implies that it is their own. If the law enforcement officials in this small town were so afraid of feeding the “Wild Russia line,” one wonders why Fort-Russ published this story. Ditto for every other version of the story which makes that sad excuse for a lack of official confirmation. This entire story is presented as Russians and Russian police doing what is right, compared to those “tolerant,” pansy German police. If these Russian news sources saw fit to publish the account, why would the police be so shy? After all, they saved the migrants while somehow simultaneously and secretly taking part in the “educational” beating.

-The Fort-Russ article ends with a quote: “Welcome to Russia. We’re delighted to have visitors, but you mustn’t forget, you are guests here.” At first I was dumbstruck as the quote has no attribution. Then I checked the Newsli.ru version yet again and found that it has the same line, only it’s not a quote, it’s just there. This kind of thing is very strange for a news article. It’s obviously intended to make some kind of moral point, one which inflates the ego of vatniks and fulfills the fantasy of disenfranchised Westerners who decry “political correctness.” Why was this here? If it was a quote, who said it? If this story is based on “material from social media,” great- what social media? Where? Screenshots? Tweets? Anybody?

So what’s the verdict? Organic fertilizer, dear readers. All in all, however, I must say that this was a great training exercise in media skepticism and I really owe a great deal of gratitude to Russia Insider for coming up with it. With their help, I’m sure I’ll earn my media skeptic stars in no time!

 

journo

In fact, I might even be able to buy this special Russia Insider journalist starter kit so I too can become a diligent, muckraking, fact-checking reporter myself!

 

 

 

Backfire

I’ve found that the best way to navigate the horror show that is life is to never lose your ability to laugh. Take today’s earlier post. It’s very serious subject matter. But as part of it concerns the notorious Azov battalion I couldn’t help but be reminded of another recent story, and in remembering that I noticed something rather funny that I just have to share.

As some readers already know, the Netherlands is holding a referendum on approving the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine. Some consider this move highly unusual and ominous, but that’s another story. What’s important here is that after the announcement of the referendum, a fake video appeared online, disseminated by Russian sources, in which masked, armed men claiming to be members of the Azov battalion threaten acts of terrorism against the Netherlands should the Dutch people vote “no” on the referendum.

Apparently a second video was made:

Alright, the purpose of these videos seems pretty clear. Azov guys threaten the Netherlands with terrorism, and the Dutch people get insulted and decide they want nothing to do with Ukraine, thus voting “no” on the referendum by a landslide. That’s how it should work, right?

Wait a second. Just suppose for a second that Dutch people are total cowards, or at least a wide majority of them are.* After all, according to the Kremlin media isn’t the country the epitome of Gayropean tolerance, where you let Muslim migrants walk all over you in between orgiastic gay pride parades? So if this were the case, what if a majority of Dutch people were so frightened by those “Azov” men that they collectively said: “Oh dear! I don’t want to anger those guys! They might crash a truck full of horilka into Anne Frank’s house or something! I’d better vote ‘yes’ in this referendum!”

Of course if polls leaned that way, maybe the Kremlin media will have to release more “Azov” videos, in which our masked men inform the audience that they have changed their minds, they hate Europe, and the Dutch people had better vote “no” if they don’t want to be plagued with Ukrainian terrorist attacks. Of course that could backfire too, if Dutch people are not cowards but in fact really stubborn. “Threaten us? Well let’s just vote ‘yes’ and see what they do about it!”

Sure, it’s just a funny little scenario and those videos probably won’t have any bearing on the referendum, but it just goes to show how Russian propaganda messages often get so twisted that they can become garbled, incoherent, and possibly have an effect that is the opposite of the original intention.

 

*No, I’m not calling Dutch people cowards. I love Paul Verhoeven and I’ve seen Soldier of Orange twice. My favorite WWII film is still A Bridge Too Far. I know about the Anglo-Boer Wars. Take a hit off the bong and relax.