Monthly Archives: September 2017

Oh the Places You’ll Go…to Die!

Recently Russia lost a high-ranking general in Syria. Lt. General Valery Asapov (nope, not Valery Gerasimov in disguise) was killed along with two colonels in a mortar attack near the town of Deir-ez-Zor. Apart from the high rank of the deceased, this wouldn’t be particularly remarkable were it not for the fact that Asapov commanded the “1st Army Corps” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in a conflict that Russia calls a “civil war” and swears it has no part in.

Isn’t it amazing how despite being a “civil war” and an “internal matter” of Ukraine, so many Russian military personnel have taken part with zero reprimand from the Russian government? Here we have a general who decided to go on vacation to fight in a conflict for a “country” his government does not recognize, and then he returned to the Russian army with zero consequences (possibly with a promotion) and got deployed to Syria.

Given Russia’s constant denials (against overwhelming evidence to the contrary) of any significant involvement in this “civil war,” you think they’d want to come down hard on all these “volunteers,” especially the military personnel who supposedly “went on leave” to fight for Ukraine. I guarantee you that if US military personnel took leave and then joined the YPG in Syria, or any other military force for that matter, there would be hell to pay. For starters that’s desertion, plain and simple. Yet the only deserters the Kremlin sees happen to be those who left the army because they say they were being pressured to sign contracts and fight in Ukraine. Curioser and curiouser.

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But It Says DON’T Do Drugs!

Anyone remember this famous anti-drug ad from the 1980’s?

It was supposed to be simple and straightforward- drugs are frying oil; your brain is an egg. If your skull (the shell) gets cracked open, your brains slide out and fall on some drugs, your brains will fry on the sidewalk or something. At least that’s how I interpreted it as a five or six year old.

Seriously though, the message was supposed to be incredibly simple- drugs fry your brain. Do they though? There are, after all, all kinds of drugs that are perfectly legal and don’t cause any sort of brain damage. And I have to wonder what the makers of that ad would think if we could go back and tell them that decades later, doctors would be prescribing opioids as daily pain medication. Is it accurate to say that cannabis fries your brain?

Today we might look back at those 80’s anti-drug PSAs and laugh at how serious they were. I mean how could you not laugh at this?

Surely by the 2000’s, our nation’s anti-drug policy experts had wised up and started giving kids the cold hard facts about the effects of drugs, right? Wrong.

Needless to say, the actual effectiveness of these ads is highly disputed, to say the least. I can’t pretend to know what went on during the pitch meetings for any of these ads, but I have a feeling I can guess the general mentality. “We’re making anti-drug ads! How can anything anti-drug be bad when we have a drug problem in this country!”

This seems to be the attitude of the new crop of “Anti-Deza” fighters, like the geniuses behind the Committee to Investigate Russia (which doesn’t seem to be doing any investigation at the moment). After their Morgan Freeman video got savaged all around, they have labeled any and all criticism to be “pro-Russian” and insist that negative reactions to their schlock proves that their message is effective. Kind of sounds familiar.

We’ve all heard proverbs like “there’s always more flak over the target,” but some of us have heard that proverbs are often bullshit in the real world, and there’s also a logical fallacy based on the idea that getting lots of negative reactions means you must be onto something. Of course their video drew attacks from the Russian state media and the gaggle of nutjob dupes who think Russia’s on their side- how could it not? But it also drew criticism from people who actually know what they’re talking about, mainly because it contains some blatant factual errors and also ridiculously oversimplifies and distorts the subject. But in the bizarro world of the committee and their fans, their video was anti-Kremlin, ergo you couldn’t possibly take any issue with it unless you are pro-Kremlin. They’re that dense.

If their density sounds strange to you, just keep in mind that several of the people on the committee work for think tanks which helped craft policies that made American audiences vulnerable to Russian propaganda in the first place. That should tell you all you need to know about whether or not they have a viable solution to the Russia threat (HINT: they don’t).

This is an ongoing problem because I feel the real response to Russian interference and propaganda needs to be a grassroots one, spurred by a movement that is also working hard to reform our shattered domestic system. But for millions of ordinary people to take up that mantle, they need to be reliably informed about Russia, the Kremlin regime, its tactics, motives, etc. A new committee headed by a guy who was literally an architect of the Iraq War isn’t going to fulfill that role.

But of course this humble old blog will no doubt be ignored by the media, and pretty soon the Committee to Investigate Russia will probably be launching a campaign to require all video games to display a WINNERS DON’T WATCH RT message before the title screen.

What About Iraq Indeed

Recently I saw another reminder of an issue that I haven’t devoted a lot of time to in the past, but which deserves attention. Russia’s involvement in Iraqi Kurdistan (aka the Kurdish Regional Government) is a story often overshadowed by the campaign in Syria and the occupation of Ukraine, but it’s a good idea to keep it in mind.

What involvement are we talking about? As usual it’s a matter of oil and gas, Russia’s bread and butter. Russia has become one of the biggest investors in Iraqi Kurdistan’s energy industry, apparently. I knew that Gazprom was there several years ago, but apparently so is Rosneft. In fact, according to the article Russia is moving in to fill a gap that was left by the US as it got out of Iraq.

That is quite interesting because we all know that the Putinophile’s favorite answer to any criticism of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is “WHAT ABOUT IRAQ?!” Realistically, they already pissed away their right to use that when they decided to invade and occupy another country under false pretexts, just as Bush had done in Iraq. But the story about Kurdistan is just a reminder that Putin’s criticism of US actions in Iraq were always bullshit. Putin’s economic boom in the 2000’s was largely due to high oil prices. Putin had a win-win situation; criticize the war for political capital, reap the benefits of the war. But even if you say Putin had no control over oil markets (fair enough), he has certainly benefited from the toppling of the Baathist regime, which opened Iraqi Kurdistan up for investment.

Of course this doesn’t make Russia share responsibility for what the US did in Iraq, but the truth is that Putin never really cared. In his eyes, the invasion must have confirmed what he already believed- that a rules-based world guided by concepts like human rights and democracy was nothing but a sham, a velvet glove over an iron fist. In Putin’s 19th century worldview, invading Iraq was just realpolitik. Thus he saw him self justified in invading and occupying Ukraine.

The lesson here is one I learned long ago, even before I was totally wise to the Kremlin’s propaganda tactics. I’d see RT hosting some guest who would talk about the evils of US foreign policy, but you’d never see any criticism of Russia’s own foreign adventures (though they were far more modest at the time). That felt disturbing, and made me shy away from voicing my own criticisms of the West when in the company of Russians, because I didn’t feel any reciprocity. As one friend described conversations with a Russian mutual acquaintance- “When I talk about all the problems in America, her eyes light up, but when it’s her turn, she doesn’t have much to say.”

It’s different in many other countries. In Ukraine, I hate my government, they hate their government, I hate their government too, and we both hate the Russian government as well. There’s a kind of solidarity there. With pro-Kremlin Russians though, you’re a hero when you’re condemning the aggression of the United States, but you’re a neocon Banderite Nazi the second you start applying the same logic and criticism to the Kremlin. Some folks like to bask in the attention they get from pro-Kremlin Russians for voicing the former criticism, but the fact is that those giving the attention see them as traitors, as defectives who for some reason don’t know they’re supposed to cheer for their team. There is zero respect for such people in Russia. In fact, even Russians who aren’t pro-regime tend to see such enthusiastic Putinophiles as somewhat insane.

So just keep all this in mind when they say play the “what about Iraq” card. We who have been consistent on this issue have the right to criticize the American and British governments for that aggression. Putin’s fanboys don’t. They’re defending his aggression in Ukraine, either explicitly or implicitly. The truth is that as one Twitter follower pointed out- Russia actually won the Iraq War. America did the fighting, and they reaped the benefits.

Escape from Shawshank (of Stupid)

It’s been a couple days and I’m still overwhelmed by the stupidity that flows from the new think tank called “Investigate Russia.” As is the case with all charlatans in this internet age, the best its defenders can come up with is “LOL THEY MAD!”

Incidentally, that’s basically the same selling point RT uses– they show quotes of American and other Western politicians ranting about RT or Sputnik, and say “Look! We must be accomplishing something!” Then at some point they show Putin or someone from his administration and RT and Sputnik get another massive infusion of cash (much of which no doubt disappears into the pockets of the people at the top).

I don’t know where to begin or end with this idiocy, so I’m going to put forth some of my main points in no particular order.

First of all, I find it funny when some of these people scoff at their apparent lack of Russia expertise. After all, was it not the centrist types who bemoaned the lack of respect for expertise when it comes to issues like Brexit or Trump? Was not the failing of the American people in 2016 a failure to know and acknowledge the facts about politics, the economy, and so on? But of course when it comes to waging information war against a resurgent Russia that is supposedly using an innovative new hybrid war doctrine- who needs experts?

Another thing I find annoying is the willful blindness towards the state of American politics that these people seem to encourage. There is nothing I hate more than someone pretending not to know about events that happened in recent memory for the sake of making a partisan political point. We all know Republican voters, for example, who voted for George W. Bush twice, but called Hillary a “warmonger” in the last election. Many of those same people also pretended that the American economy was doing just wonderfully until Obama got in office (they forget that the crash happened in 2008, whereas Obama wouldn’t be president until January of 2009, and thus inherited all that).

Now what we’re seeing is Democrats or their sympathizers talking about how Russia has sowed discord and polarization into our political discourse starting in the last election. Did these people all just forget that even before Obama was elected president, right-wing media was calling him a Muslim extremist, a foreign-born citizens ineligible for the presidency, a Marxist, and a fascist? Did they forget that back in the early 2000’s, questioning the wisdom of invading Iraq was enough to get you labeled a traitor and, by some people, an “enemy of the state?” Please, centrists- tell me when you think American political discourse wasn’t incredibly polarized.

I’m sure some people with an academic background in American politics could show that it has ever been thus (our polarization today pales in comparison to the period running up to the election of Lincoln in 1860, for example). But if I’m trying to be practical and keep it relevant I’d say that what we see today is an outgrowth of 9/11. If 9/12 was the day we all came together, it seems like 9/13 is the day we decided that half the country was either going to nuke the world (Republicans) or surrender vast swathes of territory to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda (Democrats). It all went downhill from there. Back in the 90’s, talk about black helicopters and invading UN troops was fringe theory you would only hear at gun shows. By Obama’s election it had become mainstream.

And yet Team Anti-Deza and its legion of fans (who seem to be die-hard Hillary supporters still hoping there’s a magical way to overturn last year’s election) seem to be sincerely acting like they don’t know about any of this. They act as if none of this stuff was a big deal until last year, when they heard about RT and Sputnik for the first time in their lives. They actually seem to think that a significant amount of Americans might have switched their political views based on $100,000 worth of Facebook ads. I guarantee you that anyone who saw those ads reacted with “Yep! That’s old Crooked Hillary alright!” or “This is Republican bullshit!” and moved on. That’s where we were at that point, and that’s where we’ve been for a long time.

I’m starting to get tired of writing about this topic so I’ll sum up with something I alluded to in a thread on twitter the other day. Yes, Russia is waging an information war against the West, though not for the reason most people think it is. Defending against information war isn’t like defending against a conventional war. It’s more like counter-insurgency, perhaps even more complex. Imagine a war in which shooting the enemy actually makes them stronger unless you manage to shoot them precisely in the back of the kneecap or their right elbow. In such a scenario, it makes no sense to line up machine guns and pour into the enemy with a hail of lead. Information war requires nuance, deliberate strategy, and indirect approaches (OMG GERASIMOV DOCTRINE!!!). But what it requires most of all is something I’m afraid US leaders don’t want to countenance, and it might explain why they’re always going to be more amenable to listening to the likes of McKew or Max Boot.

Speaking for America, our politics have devolved to where they are now because for decades, both parties have shown almost open contempt for their constituencies. The Republicans openly praise policies which fork over more public resources to the super-rich and leave Americans destitute, while the Democrats assure us they’re very upset about all that but any attempt to change the system would be essentially demanding a multi-colored flying pony. In the 1990’s, the GOP decided to go full culture war, making anyone who disagreed a degenerate traitor. In the same election the Democratic party, under the leadership of Bill and Hillary, happily threw the working class under the bus and embraced all manner of neo-liberal policies as well as “compromise” with the Republicans. In 2016 we could see the disaffection on both sides. Trump’s victory in the primary was a revolt against slavishly pro-business policies; GOP voters wanted a politician who spoke like the talk radio pundits they listen to on the radio, the people who get them fired up. Democrats also rebelled by voting for Sanders, but the Clinton machine won and, contrary to the abject lies of some of her supporters, the overwhelming majority of Sanders supporters held their nose and voted for Hillary (much more than Hillary supporters who voted for Obama in 2008). And though Trump won, I get the feeling that nobody in America at this point is really satisfied with the result.

I look around at my old city, and while I see improvements, I also see ominous signs. A centrally-located shopping mall that used to be the mecca of my youth is now dying. On one street I see block after block of stripmalls with just a few businesses open- the rest are just vacant, their tenants long gone. We’re far from Rust Belt level degeneration here, but when I left this was one of the fastest growing cities in the US. These conditions, especially when paired with a political system that seems openly disdainful of the population, build anger, resentment, and cynicism. Here we have fertile soil for Russian propaganda to take root. Or if you prefer another analogy I’ve made in the past- our immune system has been compromised, allowing the virus to spread.

Our media is also contributing to the rot. It pretends to care about the issues I raised above, but instead they blamed poor working whites for Trump when in reality it was largely middle to upper-class whites who supported him. This message just tells rural and working class whites that they are to blame, that they’re too stupid to know what’s good for them, and that they’re basically beyond hope because their cities and towns are dying with no solution in sight (Hey! Just learn to code!). And after the media moved on from the poverty porn, they went into full Russia! Russia! Russia! mode. Do you have any idea how infuriating it is for a working class American who’s concerned about the state of the country to turn on the TV and see endless babble about Russia? You might as well be talking about Uzbekistan or Zimbabwe. Yes, Russia did interfere with the US election, and yes there are serious improprieties in the relations certain members of Trump’s campaign had with Russians, but this is one story. I’d also argue it’s one part of a much larger story about the influence of money in politics and the way capitalism puts profit above things like ethics.

Now this might seem like a digression, but everything in those three preceding paragraphs goes to explain why our governments prefer to listen to people like McKew and not people who actually know what they’re talking about. The McKews, the Schindlers, the Mensches- they don’t tell the government they have to change. It’s basically perfect the way it is. Russia is just a foreign policy issue- and American foreign policy can never actually be wrong, only misguided. According to their narrative, America has every right to cry to the world about Russia interfering in its election without ever acknowledging that the US has a long history of doing this same thing, often more egregiously and with fatal results, without apologizing for this behavior, and without voicing a commitment to ending this kind of foreign policy all around.

And what about the polarization of American politics? It’s certainly not the fault of the Republican party’s long history of courting extremist groups and conspiracy narratives. It’s certainly not the fault of the Democrats continually throwing their constituency under the bus, breaking promises, and lecturing their voters about how real change isn’t possible so they should be satisfied with means-tested unpaid internships in New York City-based startups. No- American political discourse was totally rational and refined until RT showed up. This is what our leaders want to hear; it absolves them of both guilt and any responsibility. The Russia grifters are basically selling miracle diet pills to people who don’t want to get up off the couch and stop eating junk food all day.

Whatever these grifters peddle as solutions, you can bet they’ll have nothing to do with improving American education, healthcare, or living standards. If anything we’ll probably see some Silicon Valley-sourced bullshit like an AI algorithm designed to “fight Russian fake news on social media,” but which inevitably ends up weeding out countless stories which are factual, yet critical of US foreign or domestic policy. Beyond that, we’ll probably see a whole plethora of fact-checking sites which will basically be copy-pasting stories from already existing fact-checking sites, as if anyone who believes Soros is funding antifa to start a civil war in order to justify a UN military invasion is going to be swayed when a government-funded website tells him that story is confirmed “FALSE.” This is the kind of idiocy our politicians will happily piss away our tax dollars on. That and salaries for grifters, of course.

And naturally, the grifters are easily spurred to anger when someone endangers their grift by questioning their expertise or their claims. So expect to be labeled pro-Russian or worse, a Kremlin agent, if you question any of these people. Meanwhile the real Kremlin agents will continue having a field day making fun of these grifters, picking that low-hanging fruit, and using their idiotic output as material from which to weave their narrative about “Western Russophobes and their paranoid hysteria!” This is largely why the entire Russian state press is apparently laughing their asses off about the Morgan Freeman video.  This is also why I suggest Team Anti-Deza ought to be labeled for what they actually are- unpaid Kremlin PR.

Durp Impact

I’m going to be busy for the next few days, I think. Take a look:

I’ve already made some preliminary responses to the video on Twitter, but there is a ton of stuff to unpack here. What is disturbing is the apparent lack of expertise one sees in the advisory board of the organization which put poor Mr. Freeman up to this.

How bad is their “investigation” so far? Well earlier this morning my friend Alexey Kovalev caught this gem:

He’s wrong though- this is Valery Gerasimov. Shapeshifting maskirovka to disguise one’s identity is a core tenet of the Gerasimov doctrine. If you say otherwise, it’s obviously because you’re a subtle propagandist dog whistling that Russia isn’t a threat and Putin is just a peace-loving leader who wants to cooperate with the West to solve global problems. That is an entirely rational thing to imply.

Anyway, you can catch the rest of the reactions here. Freeman’s video demands a much more detailed response from me, and as I am apparently still jet-lagged (earlier I thought otherwise but I was wrong), that will have to wait a bit. For now let me just say that Freeman is mistaking Hollywood for history and politics. He’s given us a movie pitch instead of actual insight into Russia’s ruling regime and why and how it interfered in America’s politics.

Lastly, so I don’t have to put it at the front of my next piece on this subject, let me just remind readers that saying “the threat isn’t what the hacks are saying it is,” is in no way equivalent to saying “Russia’s not a threat” or “Russia is for peace.” The problem with these grifters is that while they play up the threat, they also offer poor solutions, if any. If I believed Russia was as dangerous and powerful as these people say it is, I think I’d be coming up with more radical solutions that what I’ve seen from the grifter community so far. In any case, if you believe you’re “at war” with Russia, and Russia is the enemy, then you ought to be study the enemy as it is, and not what you wish it to be.

I also know that some members of Team Anti-Deza would chafe at my population-centric solution proposals. To that I must say- If you have the money to spend on high-tech “anti-propaganda” computer programs, NATO military exercises, and fact-checking projects, surely you could spare a little for healthcare, education, or literally anything that might make more Americans think that their government actually gives a little bit more of a shit about them than say, Saudi princes. Russian propaganda channels have mastered the art of appealing to disaffected, disenfranchised Americans and other Westerners. If you don’t want to speak to them, RT and Sputnik are more than happy to do so.

Stay tuned and we’re going to deal with Morgan Freeman’s movie pitch very soon. It brings me neither joy nor pleasure to do this. Would that this day never have come, but it has been forced upon me.

 

 

 

The REAL Gerasimov Doctrine

If there’s on plus side of a 9+ hour flight, it’s that you get a lot of reading done. While I spent most of the time reading about the CIA’s wacky hijinks in Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, I did manage to get around to reading Timothy Thomas’ paper Thinking Like a Russian Officer. The paper summarizes a collection of articles on military science by a number of key Russian generals and officers, one of them being the Western think tank’s flavor of the week- Valery Gerasimov. It strikes me that when you read a paper like this, as well as Gerasimov’s actual work, you only become even more infuriated at the hype Gerasimov gets thanks to lobbyists and journalists without  the proper background. Indeed, if Gerasimov has been made aware of all the buzz he’s got in the West lately, he is no doubt converting it into a ton of currency to gain favor with Putin).

First it’s noteworthy to point out that as I alluded to above, all the talk about “hybrid war” and “indirect operations” does not spring from the allegedly fertile mind of Valery Gerasimov. Thomas’ paper shows how these terms, themes, ideas, and concepts can be found throughout a variety of articles and papers by Russian officers, which display on one hand commonality but which also differ in definitions and emphasis. The reader (the reader who is not a grifter lobbyist, that is) may note that many of the trends the authors describe could be seen decades ago, and did not start in Ukraine in 2014. For example, one common concept is the idea that wars are rarely declared these days, and in the future they are unlikely to be declared as well. Is that really new? The US never declared war in Vietnam, after all. And while we’re on the topic of Vietnam, we could point out all the massive non-military operations which surrounded that conflict as an example of indirect approaches and operations short of war. Hell, Vietnam was very indirect when you consider how the US was running ops on Laos and Cambodia while waging war on North Vietnam and the insurgents in the South.

But what is even more important from my point of view is that when you read this Russian “doctrine” a number of flaws or at least potential flaws emerge. The most striking example is how the Russian officers understand protests and civil society both in and out of Russia. For them, demonstrations and the groups that organize them are basically nothing but hybrid warfare directed by other countries. It’s almost as if these generals can’t imagine the existence of internal politics in a country- others or even their own. Ordinarily people just do what their authorities tell them, regardless of what those authorities do to the country or its economy, and if they protest it must be because they are either paid by some nefarious group or foreign government which is trying to destabilize the country. I think this is particularly interesting because if you are trying to develop at theory of war or doctrine that deals with political destabilization, it’s kind of important to understand how politics work.

We can see how this failed Russia during Maidan and their aggressive actions after the fact. As is typical for the Kremlin, they assumed that Maidan was nothing more than a plot of the West. All the protesters were paid, none of them actually believed in anything, nor did they have any legitimate grievance against then-president Yanukovych. This was the classic Kremlin a priori justification to do exactly what they accuse the West of doing- paying people to organize protests in support of their own goals. Of course for Russia, money wasn’t enough to deliver the Crimea and Donbas, thus they had to send in troops. If Russia’s military and top leadership had a better understanding of politics and civil society, they might have been able to kindle an actual ideologically-driven insurgent movement in Ukraine, one which would exert far more influence on Kyiv while giving Russia a lot more plausible deniability. But the robot-like thinking of Russia’s military geniuses apparently failed here.

Also, as others have pointed out in response to claims that Ukraine was a clear demonstration of some kind of new Russian doctrine, Russia’s prosecution of that war has been painfully conventional, casting doubt on the idea that they have developed some radical new form of warfare. They couldn’t get popular support for their goals with carrots, so they were forced to resort to the sticks of Little Green Men. When they were challenged in the Donbas, they couldn’t rely on popular support for a guerrilla movement, so they sent in their conventional forces and fought set piece battles, aided by cross-border heavy artillery support. Throughout this whole war, Russia has made rash decisions but at the same time has been extremely cautious at the tactical level, both in Crimea and Donbas. In the former they moved cautiously to isolate and blockade Ukrainian military assets before moving ahead with the annexation (an account of this can be read in the book Brothers Armed), whereas in the Donbas the Russian command relied on local proxies and mercenaries as much as possible, feeding in regular armed forces only when absolutely necessary to stave off total defeat. The inability to wage proper, ideologically-driven unconventional warfare is also made evident by the behavior of the population in formerly occupied territories after they were liberated by the Ukrainian army. No organized insurgency has broken out in these territories, and much of the population showed appreciation to the Ukrainian armed forces upon their arrival, regardless of their feelings toward the government in Kyiv.

Obviously this is all based on cursory observation and deeper analysis by people far more qualified than me is needed to unravel the flaws in Russian military doctrine, but here we see the problem with all these Chicken Littles in the media warning us about the big bad “Gerasimov Doctrine.” They’re so busy playing up this non-doctrine as something frightening and threatening that they can’t even be bothered to look for its vulnerabilities and flaws. I have rarely seen any proposed solutions to this threat, and those I have read are awful. This is a tragedy because there are serious flaws in the Russian military’s understanding of the world (ditto for the Kremlin leadership), and those could be exploited to set fire to the Russian paper tiger. But of course actually offering solutions doesn’t lend itself to an easy job of lecturing and writing articles that scare the crap out of politicians who hold the purse strings.

In reality, Ukraine doesn’t prove the existence of a frightening new unconventional warfare doctrine from Russia. Quite the opposite- it proves that Russia’s leadership has a profound misunderstanding of the world, leading them to make rash strategic decisions that turn disastrous. It shows that for all the resources Russia has spent on military modernization, it has still failed to produce the desired results. Russia attacked Ukraine because it was the opportunistic thing to do, or in other words, because it thought it could do so with few consequences. They turned out to be wrong, even about that. Wherever they have had a measure of success, like in Syria, it has largely been a case of capitalizing on the failures of Western foreign policy rather than superior strategy, tactics, and alternative policies. With this dismal record for the non-existent “doctrine,” why should we by hyperventilating about it?

 

The Conquest of Laundry

As I will be in the air for an extended amount of time in the near future, I’d like to leave you with an anecdote that characterized the first year and a half or so of my life abroad.

Clean clothes. Such a simple concept yet we take it for granted so often. We Americans are spoiled- we have dryers. Until I traveled to Russia for the first time in 1999, I’d never seen anyone hang clothes outside of films or TV. After you wash your clothes, a mere 45 minutes is all you need and you can wrap yourself in the warmth of freshly dried clothes. But soon after I moved abroad I would learn that while a dryer is simply a luxury, a washing machine is essential in our modern, urban life.

Our story begins in Prague, where I first arrived in the beginning of March, 2006. I was there to take a course in subverting the Russian government for the American neocon deep state establishment teaching English as a foreign language, and the school running the course offered students rooms in apartments that they owned. Thankfully, this apartment had a washing machine, so everything was in order. No worries, other than that time I got so hammered I threw up in “the biggest club in Central Europe!” and was later nearly robbed by a woman posing as a cab driver, but that’s a story for another time.

Once the course was over, naturally, they wanted you out, and even if they were to let me stay the room was very pricey, so I set about finding a new place. I eventually got a room overlooking Ječná street. It wasn’t the best arrangement. The most obvious deficiency was the lack of the washing machine. But the landlord, an Afrikaner man married to a Czech woman, promised he’d get one within a week. Needless to say, he didn’t get it within a week. I don’t remember how long it took exactly, but it was much later. And within a few days it was clear that it was broken.

Naturally the only solution while we waited for the landlord to “replace” it was to wash stuff by hand. Needless to say as an American I have no experience washing clothes by hand. Even us poor folk had access to washers and dryers, though they were often coin operated. I never managed to get the smell of soap out of my clothes. I suppose there could be worse smells. Every once in a while, like if I was going out at night, I’d treat myself by having a load of laundry washed at this place that did it for you (not drycleaning, just ordinary laundry). They also pressed it, which was a big plus.

Eventually I ended up moving far from the center of town to an establishment known as Hotel Dum, a name which sounds funny regardless of whether or not you pronounce it correctly. I lived on a floor for long-term residents, most of whom were students. Naturally my first question was about laundry. And of course, I was to be disappointed.

There was a “laundry room,” but it contained only one washing machine. The procedure for using said washing machine was ridiculously complex. What you had to do was leave a deposit with the front desk in order to get a key to the room for 24 hours. However, since there were many other people on the floor who wanted to do laundry, you had to find out from the front desk who had the key and when they would be returning it (assuming they were going to return it around the end of their 24 hours and not early). You’d need to coordinate with this person so as to make the handoff. Of course some people were happy to let you use the washing machine while they had the key, but this meant you had to coordinate your schedules for the day. I probably managed to use that machine maybe three times, about once a month. Needless to say I still paid those people to do my laundry a few more times, most notably when I moved to Russia in late August of 2006.

washingmachine

The Holy Grail that I had sought in Prague in vain. Would I find it in Russia?

Moving to Russia was the realization of a dream I’d had for roughly six years (my Russian and Ukrainian readers are most likely rolling on the floor with laughter at this point), but now it was the potential fulfillment of a great desire I’d had ever since I’d left that first apartment in Prague. Because I would be working in a small town in the Moscow region, I was entitled to my own company-provided apartment (Moscow-based teachers had to share). When I arrived I was quite pleased to see how modern and spacious it was for a one-bedroom. Sadly, it wasn’t modern enough to have a washing machine.

No worries though- the school administrator promised to get me a washing machine within a week. Spoilers: It was more than a week, but they did actually deliver the damned thing. Once it was delivered, I had to wait for the handyman to install it. Of course it was missing some parts and couldn’t be connected as is. The handyman promised to get the parts and return one day.

Unfortunately that day didn’t come soon enough. You see, two new teachers, a married couple, arrived at our humble school and didn’t like the idea of sharing a washing machine with me, a slovenly bachelor living down the block in another building. Thus my washing machine was moved to their apartment. Sharing the washing machine, especially as the weather began to turn unpleasant, wasn’t really practical. But the final insult was still to come.

I want to stress that both these people were extremely pleasant and competent teachers, and we got on very well. But apparently they didn’t take kindly to Russia. These people had taught in China and traveled throughout Southeast Asia, seeing a great deal of underdevelopment and poverty all along the way- and yet they loved it. Russia, however, managed to break them in about two months. My washing machine was torn from my life and given to them, and yet they left. The administrator decided to leave the washing machine where it was, since they already had a new teacher to replace the couple that left. I would spend the rest of that contract washing my clothes by hand, with the same terrible results.

At the end of that contract, I transferred to Moscow. I would be sharing an apartment. Unfortunately this one was old and dark, and the room where I would spend the next year and two months was practically the size of a walk-in closet. But that didn’t concern me when I first arrived. I looked in the kitchen, and there, under the counter, was a washing machine! One that worked! The nightmare was over. I would have clean clothes all the time. I had zero fashion sense and my clothes were cheap or old because my salary was still quite low in those days, but they were clean and didn’t smell like detergent.

From that day on, I would never be without a washing machine. Even when I was in Ukraine for most of this year I was never without a washing machine, because contrary to what you might have read on Sputnik News or novorossiyanews.info, Ukraine has no shortage of washing machines. I can personally attest that Ukraine’s washing machine game is on point.

Since that first rough year abroad I have called many washing machines my own, including two in one place (the door broke on one and it nearly flooded the bathroom). Over the years I’ve noticed something funny about some of these washing machines here. They all tend to be Italian-made. That wouldn’t be particularly remarkable except for the fact that it seems that some of these Italian manufacturers decided that they could overcome language barriers by using a system of hieroglyphic symbols, numbers, and random letters as opposed to words on the front panel of the machine. The second-to-last washing machine I had was impossible to truly decipher. I had to download a manual and it always seemed like no symbol actually did what the manual claimed it would do.

washing machine

Panel of a Zerowatt washing machine similar to the one I had. Nothing here makes sense. It only provides the illusion of control. For in reality, the machine controls you.

It is possible that one must not only decode the symbols on the machine, but also say or chant a magical incantation while setting the dials in order to actually get the desired effect. It shall forever remain a mystery. Thankfully the washing machine which replaced that ancient model is clearly marked with Russian words and works perfectly, a real testimony to Italy’s prowess at producing washing machines. Bravi!

Anyway, I hope this light-hearted saga from the early period of my time abroad proved amusing to you, the reader. Hopefully it will serve as a temporary but welcome distraction from the horrendous awfulness of our modern world. A distraction from things like this, for example.

See you on the other side of the world!*

 

*Where we have dryers too!