Category Archives: Good Stuff

Babchenko Voskres! (Babchenko has Risen!)

Well. This has been quite the day. I’d even go so far as to call it a historic moment. The scripture says Jesus died and rose again on the third day. Arkady Babchenko did it in less than 12 hours.

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Shalom, this was a special operation by the SBU!

Yesterday’s post now feels like part of some kind of bizarre psychological experiment- it was written when I and all of my friends (as well as Babchenko’s own immediate family) were certain that he had been murdered. As such, our tweets, our status updates, yesterday’s post- they are now like fossilized remains of a moment in history. A moment when for everyone who was watching, including the Kremlin lackeys who were immediately gearing up for another disinformation campaign about the latest “provocation,” Arkady Babchenko was the latest Russian dissident to be murdered.

For me it began with an alert from RIA Novosti that he was “alive.” I stared in awe and thought “Well this is a bold new direction for Kremlin disinfo.” Then the reports from more reputable outlets started coming in. And a few minutes later the whole Russia/Ukraine watching world lost its collective mind. Below is a short video presentation that serves as the perfect metaphor for the reactions on Twitter:

Of course it’s Twitter so people had to pick fights, even with people nominally “on the same side,” so today’s War of Takes boiled down to a spectrum of opinions between “SBU Did Nothing Wrong” and “Won’t Somebody PLEASE Think of Ukraine’s Credibility?!”

What I found most interesting was watching how many commentators’ position, including my own, evolved over the course of the day in real time as we all began to process the reality of what was happening. Team SBU Did Nothing Wrong was angry at many commentators, including veteran Ukraine correspondents, for being seemingly upset about the SBU’s credibility and wondering whether this would be a major boon to the Kremlin propaganda machine. Personally I was cautious. I acknowledged that there were ethical implications in this issue, but like many of my friends I was just happy to see that Arkady Babchenko was alive. If he had actually been killed, not only would it be another sign that the Putinist regime can kill with impunity beyond its borders, but his death would be accompanied by a flood of propaganda and multiple contradictory “alternative” explanations blaming the killing on anyone and everyone but the most obvious suspect. They were already beginning the whole process with their кому выгодно? (qui bono?) arguments online.

But things didn’t go according to plan. Unlike in the case of Litvinenko or the Skripals, when the perpetrators escaped (and in the latter case aren’t even known), the agent who ordered the hit on Babchenko, and who was allegedly planning several other hits on Russian dissidents in Ukraine, is in custody. I am still extremely skeptical towards the SBU, but this time they seem to have got something right, and what a thing to get right at that!

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“The SBU resurrected Babchenko so they wouldn’t have to investigate his murder.” Sickest burn of the day reminds us that the SBU still has a lot to answer for. 

And as for the “credibility issue” and claims that this will benefit Russian propaganda? Sorry but those arguments don’t hold water. If anything would have helped their propaganda narrative it would have been if they’d murdered yet another dissident abroad, then flooded the information space with more conspiracy theories, all accompanied by “a knowing smirk and wink,” as Mark Galeotti put it.

Knowing what I know about Kremlin propaganda, I’ll ask you to forgive me for being skeptical about any upcoming paradigm shift in Russian propaganda thanks to this stunt. Yeah, I’ve already seen one of these pro-Kremlin dipshits try to claim that this “proves” the White Helmets staged chemical attacks, for example. So what? Claims like this are easily debunked and dismissed by pointing out that the reason we know this particular murder was deliberately staged is because less than 24 hours later all those involved called a press conference where they openly admitted the whole thing and explained how and why they did it. If the White Helmets ever do that in regards to any past or future chemical attacks in Syria, I’ll definitely start taking those conspiracy claims seriously. Only when that happens, and not a second sooner.

I’m very sorry to shatter some people’s hopes, but I don’t believe the Kremlin was about to come clean on the Skripal case, Nemtsov’s murder, or MH17 until the SBU dicked everything up and handed the Kremlin media machine a new argument. I am quite confident you will only get an admission on all that when the Putin regime is finally overthrown and the archives are once again opened much like they were after the collapse of the Soviet Union. So yeah, I’m sure you’ll hear Putin’s peanut gallery bring up Babchenko from time to time, but they’ll sound just as idiotic as they always do. And as past research has shown, most Kremlin propaganda does not convert people. It tends to appeal only to those already inclined toward it. If it does influence anyone not already on board, I suspect it just makes them apathetic and ambivalent to “both sides.”

I’d say the worst take on the whole credibility issue comes from Reporters Without Borders, who condemned the operation saying that “Nothing” could justify such deception. Yes, nothing. Not even saving a life, or several lives. I suppose if a journalist in German-occupied Poland had the opportunity to avoid identifying a source as Jewish they should have told the truth because nothing could ever justify breaking the rules of journalistic ethics. Goddammit these people betrayed the news! The neeeeews! 

Seriously though, they seem to forget that Babchenko wasn’t participating in this as a journalist, but as someone whose life had been threatened. Babchenko had received death threats for years until a particularly vitriolic wave of threats initiated by a state-sponsored hate campaign against him in late 2016 finally drove him from his home country. There are ethical concerns and then there are priorities.

Lastly, the reader might wonder if this new development changes anything I wrote yesterday, when I justifiably lashed out at fake, self-proclaimed “infowarriors” and “patriots” who act like tweeting rambling nonsense punctuated by words like “dezinformatsiya” and “kompromat” puts you on the front line of the New Cold War. Nope. Not a chance. Non, je ne regrette rien! Okay maybe I regret that I discarded nearly all the jokes I wanted to put in the post before hearing about Babchenko’s then apparent murder, but apart from that, why change a thing? This episode just drives home the point I was trying to make even further.

Yesterday I used Babchenko’s apparent murder as an example of the most extreme consequence for truly opposing the Kremlin regime, not on Twitter or a blog, but in real life. By the same token, finding out someone you and many of your friends personally knew got murdered for their real world dissent is par for the course for those who live this life in Russia or Ukraine. Obviously finding out he wasn’t dead is ultimately a huge relief, but the trauma, depression, and rage many of us experienced for a barely a day was totally real. Worse still is that after the initial shock, my first thoughts turned to who among my friends would be next- several immediately come to mind as prime targets. I’m absolutely certain I wasn’t the only one thinking that either. And those rapidly evolving positions I alluded to earlier? That’s people who have been on an emotional roller coaster reeling from the shock and struggling to adjust to the new reality. In a way it’s like mock execution by proxy- indisputably better than actual mock execution but still a shock to the system nonetheless.

Everything that has happened in the past 24 hours reaffirms what I wrote yesterday about what this part of the world does to people who’ve lived it. There’s the darkness, the pain, the fear, the hopelessness, the paranoia, the depression, the fury, and then…there’s the sheer thrill of it. You hate it with every fiber of your being until you’re out of it and you’d do anything just to get back over there like a moth drawn to the flame.

As for the past 48 hours, it was messy, it may raise ethical questions, and the SBU’s still got a lot to answer for, but for now Arkady Babchenko’s alive, and the man who tried to arrange his murder (and possibly many others) is behind bars. The good guys won today.

Catch your breath and get ready. The week’s not over yet.

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Summing It Up

So the big news is that very soon I’ll be leaving not only Russia, but the Eastern Hemisphere altogether. For the first time in nearly 12 years, I’m finally, truly, “going home.” It’s a weird feeling- when I left the US in 2006 for the Czech Republic, I was leaving behind everything I knew and forging a path into what was more or less the unknown, yet it was exhilarating. Now I’m going back to what should be familiar, and I’m dreading it. Nonetheless I think this is a very necessary step- a chance to learn new skills, acquire new qualifications, and most of all, make money.

Ideally I’ll return to Ukraine with far more resources, enabling me to do more for the cause, but I have no plans to return to Russia in anything but the most extreme case. Because I have no plans to return, when I leave it will be the close of a very long chapter of my life- the majority of my adult life in fact. As such, I have been mentally taking stock of everything that’s happened, everything I’ve done and the lessons I have learned. I plan to distill all that into a very longread for my patrons, but for the rest of you I’d like to share a few of my observations over the years, with special focus on the positive aspects. After all, I started this blog in September of 2013, when Russia was already clearly entering a dark place. Thus a lot of the positive things from the earlier time, the time when there was hope and progress, were overshadowed by the increasingly authoritarian and reactionary nature of the post 2012-Putin regime. And though I’m focusing on the positive, it may turn out more tragic, because it gives you a glimpse of what the regime is destroying. Whatever the case, when you look at everything we associate with Russia today, keep in mind things could have been different.

Before moving on I just want to stress that I’m not saying these features are uniform in Russia and they are certainly not exclusive to Russia. I have made similar observations about Ukrainian culture, for example. But this is Russia Without BS and this is about leaving Russia after all, so Russia it is.

Culture

What did I like about Russian culture, especially in contrast to American culture, is first and foremost the lack of anti-intellectualism. Of course Russia, especially today, has more than its share of right-wing populists making all kinds of idiotic claims, but they more often than not present these claims as though they are intellectual and academic. They’ll cite sources or books, or they’ll reference other facts to back up their rhetoric, however flawed or questionable some of those “facts” may be. By contrast, many Americans, including big-name commentators who rake in money by the millions, basically sell their bullshit based on “common sense.” “Common sense” said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It told people that the real reason for the economic collapse was the government forcing banks to loan to minorities who couldn’t afford to make their payments. Liberals would try to counter with facts, but who needs “book-learnin'” when there’s common sense? “How are you going to catch the game with your nose buried in some book that was probably written by some liberal Marxist professor because he’s saying things I personally don’t believe despite having no background knowledge of this issue?”

I’m going to be blunt with my fellow Americans here and say that the US, at least as I experienced it, is a country that often straight up hates intelligence. You’ll often hear people use phrases like “useless knowledge” to describe things such as history, which happens to be one of the most important topics a person can study. Meticulous knowledge of professional sports is fine, even respected in American masculine culture, but you’re a complete dork if you happen to know something like the history of Al Qaeda and US foreign policy in the Middle East. I’m also not convinced by the superficial rise of “nerd culture” and the obsession with STEM. I think this is simply driven by corporate interests. In general, I’d say a good portion of America, even its liberals, hate intellectualism.

By contrast in Russia even people who disagree with you show a certain modicum of respect when you couch your arguments in academic knowledge. There’s always a minimum of respect for knowledge and people who pursue it. Russians can be just as fanatical about sports as any American, but at the same time they tend to understand that the mind is just as important as the body. The Soviet Union, which brought Russians (and many other people) universal, compulsory education as well as access to higher education, put a high value on learning, even if politics often hampered the process. By contrast in America higher education has become more or less a giant scam, and you deliberately subject yourself to it because “you’ll get a good job.”

While we’re on this topic, I should devote a few words to Russian sport culture. Obviously it has been tainted by last year’s doping scandal, but I can only speak for what I personally experienced while training in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu here. Whereas I’ve always seen a lot of posturing in American sport culture, I find Russian training partners to be very supportive. They are extremely competitive, but not in an egotistical, “I’m the greatest” sort of way. Sports offer the chance of social mobility to some who might not otherwise be able to attain it, so you can understand why some Russian citizens push themselves so hard. Yet somehow they manage not to be such a dick about it.

There is hope for America, however. Lately we’ve seen a lot of talk about “toxic masculinity,” i.e. that sort masculinity that is harmful, negative, and at times dangerous for society. Many American men will dismiss the concept as “feminist SJW crap,” but if they’d only take the time to actually read up on what it is, they’d see that toxic masculinity tends to hurt males first and foremost. One could argue that it is a societal tool whereby men oppress and abuse each other in order to force conformity into roles that have long ceased to make sense in modern society. Of course talk like this is almost unheard of in Russian discourse these days, yet it’s interesting to note how in some ways the Russians are ahead of Americans in deed, if not in word.

Another thing that must be said is that Russians seem to be far more tolerant of human fallibility. Okay, maybe sometimes too tolerant, but let me illustrate what I mean. A good friend of mine who was a major motivator for me in writing a blog once explained at length about how Russians tend to be more forgiving of social slip-ups than Americans and other Westerners. If someone gets drunk at a party and gets a little bit too loud or maybe gets sick, no big deal- it happens. People were drinking. By contrast in the US that individual is more likely to be uninvited to future events and the whole circle of co-workers or friends will undoubtedly talk behind their back.

Now when I talk about this, I can instinctively hear an American voice asking something like: “Oh okay, so you think someone should just let it slide if someone comes to their house party, gets hammered, and then sexually assaults women while shouting racial slurs and endorsing eugenics?!” And you know what my answer is to that question? Thanks for proving my point about Americans being totally uptight tightwads, because of course you immediately came up with the absolute worst scenario you could imagine. We need to imagine the worst about people so we can justify not forgiving little social faux pas, as if forgiving them will lead to people forgiving horrible, criminal behavior. By contrast I’ve seen Russian friends get angry and shout at each other at many a drunken party, and afterward everyone makes up and understands because hey- we were consuming alcohol. Drunk people do drunk things.

I think this extends to a lot of other aspects of American life as well. For example, much of what I wear in Russia or Ukraine I’d never wear in the States. I can imagine the weird looks, the weird questions I would get if I were to say, wear my black beret. Yes, a beret, the one that was issued to me in the army with the flash and insignia removed. In Russia and Ukraine I’ve often seen people wearing berets. But in America, like I said, I can just imagine the questions. “Oh my god are you like, French or something? Are you in the army? Were you in the army? Why do you have a beret?!” It’s just a hat, America! Look at me, I’m talking to my own country now. This is what years of upbringing in such a nitpicking society has done to me.

The crazy thing about it is that compared to Russians and Europeans, Americans are by no means more fashionable. And yet in these more fashionable countries, you don’t have to follow fashion trends and you don’t get so much judgment for doing so, at least from ordinary people. If you wear something a bit exotic, it’s not taken as a statement, nor are you deemed a hipster. Since 2015 I have often worn a Ukrainian vyshivanka in public, including to work on one occasion. I got nothing but compliments from the few people who said anything. It’s just not such a big deal.

I think this is as good a place as any to wrap up the main cultural points.

Transport

I come from an American city where you have to have a car. Even if you happen to be located within walking distance of good supermarkets, you still need a vehicle because chances are the only job you may find is across town and our public transit sucks. And when you find out why public transit sucks in America, you’re going to be pissed.

During my driving life in my hometown I was fortunate to use a company truck which came with a gas card, especially given the prices at the time. A relatively simple drive across town was a slow, stressful affair. When I had my own car, it was like a ticking time bomb, exploding over and over again to take away a big chunk of my money. Transmission, brakes, water pump, tags- these things could easily wipe out a paycheck.

In Moscow (and Prague, and Kyiv for that matter), I have never felt the need for a car. To be sure, there are a couple good reasons for car ownership in these cities, but you can easily live your life without ever getting behind the wheel.

Moscow has what is arguably the best public transport system in the world. Even with the price hikes over the years, you can still spend less than a dollar to ride literally all over Moscow for as long as you want. If you just want to circle the ring line all day- fifty rubles. That’s nothing.

Sure it can be extremely crowded at rush hour, but I have never had much of a problem getting to any job that was within 15-20 minutes walk of a metro station, and those metro stations keep multiplying across the web that is the Moscow Metro. It is so effective in spite of all the massive problems in the country that you almost wish it would one day become self-aware and overthrow the government. Of course there’s always the danger that it wouldn’t stop there, and instead tunnel its way throughout the globe hell-bent on destroying humanity.

Ecology

When I first came to Moscow in 1999, one of the most striking things I noticed was the large swathes of green territory. At night, from the window of my hotel room near Izmailovsky Market, I noticed the clusters of city lights were interrupted by huge expanses of black. This contrasts greatly with my home town, which is basically paved from one edge of the city to another. At night it’s a flat, electrified waffle with virtually no blacked-out holes in the grid.

Moscow, by comparison, is extremely green. There are large forested parks well within the bounds of the city, easily accessible by metro (there it is again).  Even just around the neighborhood it is extremely green during the summer. It’s also nice to get outside the city and feel the difference in the air.

Sadly I was unable to see the Caucasus mountains (those in Russia, at least), or Lake Baikal.

Culture of Resistance 

Recently resistance to the regime has been rising in spite of increasingly authoritarian behavior since 2012. Right now the opposition movement, if you can even call it one movement, is far from attaining any kind of serious impact on politics, despite its recent victories in Moscow’s municipal elections. But when you look at the shortcomings of the opposition, you have to consider what they’re up against, and then you see how courageous many Russians can be, from soldiers that face prison for desertion because they refuse to take part in the invasion and occupation of Ukraine, to young people who come out to unsanctioned rallies in droves in spite of several years of this so-called “patriotic education.”

All the scheming of the president’s “political technologists,” the vigilante groups, assassination, jailtime for retweets and “likes” on social media, billions spent on domestic propaganda, including paid internet comment trolls- all this has failed to extinguish the spark of resistance and the desire for freedom among the Russian people.

I know that many of my Ukrainian friends look down on the Russian opposition, which has often had a very poor understanding of the “Ukrainian question.” As they say, it is with this question that the Russian liberal ceases to be. And this viewpoint is not wholly unjustified. Ukrainians are understandably upset due to invasion, annexation, occupation, and a war that has killed 10,000 and displaced almost two million people. More to the point, many Russian liberals, including Alexey Navalny, tend to be against the war in Donbas but for the Crimean annexation, making them irreconcilable with Ukrainian national aspirations.

That said, the behavior of Russian liberals is somewhat understandable when you consider the context of the system they live in. If Navalny publicly states that Crimea is Ukraine, he can be immediately hit with a charge for questioning the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation (which, incidentally, is allowed to question other countries’ territorial integrity). The penalty can be as much as five years. Ukrainians like to make a big deal of overthrowing a dictatorship via Maidan, but they never had to go up against a system like Putin’s- a unified dictatorship with a single purpose. Ukraine has been ruled by competing clans, which makes struggle a lot easier because your interests can align with those of other powerful groups. One should also note that Viktor Yanukovych had a place to run to. Putin does not, and I’m quite confident that if he were facing a Maidan-style revolution he’d unleash far more than snipers on his own people. Hell, Putin’s predecessor Yeltsin did exactly that.

Though it has numerous flaws, some of them quite serious, Russia’s opposition is an ember of hope. It’s not just the marches and the organizations either. It’s the little acts of personal resistance we see from time to time. Each one is a reminder to the system that its oppression and propaganda have failed to fully subdue the Russian people, that it will always fail to do so.

Conclusion

When all’s said and done, I have to admit I didn’t use my time here nearly as well as I could have. I often got so caught up in trivial things and missed many opportunities. But still, in these ten years I feel like I have learned more than I did in my whole previous life- about the country, about the world, about myself. I have had the opportunity to meet amazing people of many nationalities and learn from their experience. From Moscow I traveled not only throughout Russia, but throughout the whole hemisphere, from Shanghai to Tangier. I did jobs I’d never have a shot at in the US before I left. I learned to budget my money, and to cook from scratch those things Americans are able to buy in a box or a cheap Chinese buffet. I lost my hair, but I also lost a lot of weight. I experienced the thrill and ultimately the emptiness of casual flings, but also the fulfillment, exhilaration, and even pain of true love. I came face to face with an untimely death, something I’d never had to deal with before.  I experienced war first-hand, something I’d totally missed in the army. I pushed myself harder than I ever have and I offered my life for a cause which I still believe is just.

It’s been a wild ride, one which fails description. When I look back on what I’ve done here, or even how I got here, I feel like I can’t explain it to anyone. It barely even makes sense to me. Hopefully I’ll be able to put everything down in writing one day. At least now I can write the first volume.

 

BREAKING: Batman fights drug dealers in Moscow suburb!

I don’t normally do breaking news here but what I have just learned is unprecedented. Prepare to witness the greatest thing in 21st century Russian history. This may very well be the salvation of Russia. Today he fights minor criminals on the streets. Tomorrow he may go after the criminals in the Kremlin. He is vengeance. He is the night. He is…BATMAN! 

No I’m serious. There’s a guy beating up drug dealers in the Moscow suburb of Khimki and he’s dressed as Batman. Here’s an excerpt from Meduza:

“Law enforcement officers told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets that, earlier this month, a taxi driver in the Khimki area witnessed a man dressed as Batman exit a building that later proved to be a drug den. The taxi driver says the Batman threw some kind of fire bomb at the ground and then disappeared into the shadows (see the video below). Police officers soon arrived, entered the building, and soon walked out escorting two men in handcuffs.”

He even uses smoke bombs, as you can see in the video:

 

This is simply awesome. In fact, on this occasion it might be good to talk about Batman’s relations with Russia. First of all, Batman in Russia is approximated as Бэтмен, which would sound something like “betmen” in  English. This is interesting because the actual word for “bat” in Russian is летучая мышь (lyetuchaya mysh’), meaning literally “flying mouse.” Obviously they went with “Betmen” because it sounds better than saying “Flying Mouse Man” in Russian, whereas Spider-Man is known as Человек-паук (Chelovek pauk) or “Man spider.”

The prospects of a real Russian Batman are quite interesting indeed. After all, in the past few years the kind of crime once associated with Russia’s “Wild 90’s” has started to rear its ugly head once again. Not only that, Russia has a perfect rogue’s gallery of supervillains for Batman to battle on a regular basis. Here’s a few I just thought of off the top of my head:

Mr. Big: His nickname being a subtle joke about his tiny stature, Mr. Big is the head of the Kremlin Kriminal Krew (KKK). His skills in judo more than make up for his lack of social skills and generally bizarre demeanor. Over the years Mr. Big has become more and more disconnected from material reality, blaming all his problems on gremlins he calls “foreign agents.” Often unable to appear in public for unknown reasons, Mr. Big often prefers to speak through his press secretary Dmitry “The Mustache” Peskov.

The Joker: Originally a TV host named Dmitry  Kiselyov, working for Putin’s regime caused him to undergo a psychotic breakdown. Now he is obsessed with fighting what he calls an “information war,” and to that end every week he assaults Russia’s television audiences with lies so ridiculously hilarious they can actually cause rational people to laugh themselves to death.

The Rotenberg Gang: Two brothers, two partners in crime. Thanks to their relationship with the biggest crime boss in Russia, these two oligarchs are able to rob the whole country blind without jimmying open a single door or pulling a gun.

Mesmerizer: The secret alter-ego of ex-railroad magnate Vladimir Yakunin, the Mesmerizer can stun and totally disable people by lecturing them about convoluted Western conspiracies against Russia.

Ms. Two-Face: The Joker’s female sidekick with a passion for culinary arts and whataboutery. She runs Russia’s foreign language media empire with the help of her gang of ludicrously overpaid expats. Flips a coin to decide whether to claim her TV channel is “no different from Western networks” or “more objective than the mainstream media.” Her only weaknesses are accurate TV ratings reports and financial accountability.

The Worst Person in the World: Born Pavel Astakhov, The Worst Person in the World AKA Captain Cocksplat defends domestic abusers, condemns disabled orphans to woefully underfunded facilities rife with abuse and exploitation, and defends polygamous marriage of teenage girls to middle-aged men.

The Mountain Wolf: The only man in Russia that strikes fear into the heart of Mr. Big. So much fear, in fact, that Mr. Big routinely pays the Wolf millions of dollars from the state budget. The Mountain Wolf is a flamboyant villain, sporting gold-plated pistols, flashy cars, and an incredibly expensive cat.

Gummy Bear: By day he’s mild mannered Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev. By night he…sleeps. Sometimes he plays badminton. He likes his iPhone.

As you can clearly see just from this preliminary brainstorming session, Russian Batman will have his hands full with these and dozens of other villains who belong in Arkham Asylum, or failing that, the bottom of an abandoned mine somewhere near Vorkuta.

I’m sorry but I just can’t go on writing anymore- this is simply too awesome.

Russian Batman. He’s the hero Russia needs.

 

 

The Good Stuff VI: Not getting shot

First of all no, I didn’t watch Putin’s speech. The only thing surprising about it was that he apparently didn’t mention Ukraine at all. Other than that it’s the same old bullshit he’s been saying for years now. “Blah blah sovereignty…blah blah…chaos…blah blah there have been some difficulties but things will get better for reasons I won’t go into…blah blah <random idiotic statement>” There, I just saved you the trouble by summing it up for you.

Now on to the good stuff. What’s that you say? I’m still writing the Good Stuff series after everything that’s happened in the last two years? Well yes I am. So long as there is something positive to find here, I’ll acknowledge it, and after last night I’m about to do a lot of acknowledging.

If I haven’t written about it here before, one quandary my wife and I have about moving back to the States is that it’s the easiest place for us to move to, yet it is a very unappealing option, at least for the time being. The ideal choice since we started contemplating leaving Russia has always been some third country, probably in Europe. Part of that is due to career considerations, culture, interests, hobbies, and oh yeah, not wanting to get shot.

It’s not just about getting shot. People in Syria and Ukraine are getting shot at all the time. There’s just something extra infuriating about living in one of the world’s leading economies, once the country with the highest standards of living in the entire world, and then getting unexpectedly gunned down by some “gentle loner” who was upset about abortion. Or maybe it’s a young man who’s upset that girls won’t have sex with him. Or maybe it’s a little terrorist who blames black people for the failures in his life. Maybe it’s a group of terrorists who shot members of Black Lives Matter, but according to their lawyer are “white supremacists,” not racists. Yeah. Or maybe some idiot mother owned numerous assault weapons (Yes, they are assault weapons) and let her fuck-up of a son get to them so he could go murder children. Or maybe It’s just some whackjob who somehow managed to get ahold of an assault weapon and ammunition with no trouble whatsoever, all so he could go and murder people trying to watch a shitty Batman movie.

And then, of course, we had yesterday’s shooting in California, a shooting that occurred even before some of the victims from the last shooting spree, the one in Colorado, were buried. Think about that for a second. But hey, so far I’ve read that at least one of the shooters may be non-white and Muslim, so at least this crime will get labeled terrorism.

These things are becoming so repetitive that I worry I’m becoming repetitive as well. I’ve seen other writers and commentators compare it to a sort of after-shooting ritual where we go through the motions. Hoping that I’m not repeating myself here, I’d like to share an anecdote that really underscores what I’m talking about when I say I’d rather not move back to the States.

A few days after the Aurora shooting, I went to the cinema. We’re sitting in the middle row and as the lights dim I suddenly come to a realization. I could go to cinemas in this country every goddamned day and never have to even consider the possibility that some jackass will come in and start pumping rifle rounds into somebody. Yeah, there was Nord-Ost, but that was a terrorist attack. Those people had to plan and finance their vile mission. The Sandy Hook shooter just had to take his mom’s guns.

This sense of security has always been with me here, no matter how bad things get. I go to shopping malls, events, public squares, crowded metro stations, and the last thing I’m thinking about is “Maybe someone will start shooting as many people as he can see.” Yes, we still have the threat of terrorism, but I’ve got to hand it to those FSB guys- they’ve been doing a pretty good job, at least in Russian territory. Better than the French or Belgian authorities, that’s for sure. Then again, if they do slip up, the last hostage crisis you want to be in is one where your rescuers are Russian counter-terrorism teams. After Beslan I wouldn’t be surprised if the next “rescue” operation involves leveling the building with a Buratino.

Again, though, that’s terrorism. It’s rare in most of the developed world. Yet in nearly ten years in Russia I’ve never heard a single real gunshot, unlike in my old neighborhood back home. The closest it gets are blanks in historical reenactments. The only time I was anywhere near a crazed Russian maniac wielding an assault rifle was when I was in Avdiivka. And speaking of Avdiivka, prior to that the only shots I’d heard fired in anger were back home, and that just a few days before I left the States, ostensibly for good. Think about that. To hear more people shooting at each other I had to go to the front line of a war zone. There is something very wrong with that.

Yes, there is violence in Russia. Yes the homicide rate is higher than in the States, though there are a number of factors which skew that and others which must be taken into consideration. At the same time, most developed nations with sensible gun control laws have homicide rates that are far lower, ridiculously lower than the American rate. No, the “criminals” don’t get guns anyway. These countries just have flat out lower gun crime, in some cases nearly non-existent gun crime, and yet somehow don’t turn into dictatorial tyrannies either. Imagine that.

I’ve never faced real violence in Russia but I feel a lot better about the fact that here, I feel like I’d at least have a fighting chance. If not that, like in a situation where the person is armed with a knife, there’s always this very effective knife defense known as running away. Try outrunning a bullet.

I’m perfectly fine with people having reasonable access to guns, including semi-automatic models, but there needs to be rigorous regulations and restrictions to make sure they are only in responsible, competent hands. Plenty of people have pointed out that it is more difficult to get a drivers license in the US than a gun. Let’s start there. Demonstrate competence in storing, using, and maintaining firearms, and obtain a license after a thorough background check. It’s not perfect but it’s a start. In the military you have shit tons of firearms and ammunition on post, yet access is restricted and everyone is trained and qualified. And guest what- army posts and Marine bases aren’t having shoot outs every few days or so. In fact, they’re actually somewhat rare. Could that have something to do with the fact that firearms ownership is restricted on military bases?

Sometimes I ask myself why bother even talking about this. Just as readily as I can provoke whatabouts from Kremlin supporters, all I have to do is say “Maybe we should think about doing something about guns…” and the tsunami of stupid crashes over me. “MUH RIGHTS! CAWNSTITUSHUN! IF ONLY THEY’D HAD A GUN AT THAT SCHOOL! <RANDOM BUMPER STICKER QUOTE>!”

Yes, yes. You’re right. If you restrict gun sales or ownership in any way, shape, or form, the US will become a dystopian tyranny, a la the UK, Germany, Australia, Norway, Japan, Canada, etc. Yeah I know, if only those Jews had guns there’d be no Holocaust. That’s why Germany goosestepped all over Europe until 1943- nobody had ever thought of opposing them with guns. Yeah I know, if you had been there with your concealed carry Glock, you would have stopped the Aurora shooter, the Sandy Hook shooter, the Columbine Killers…just pick one. Yeah, good luck with that.

So yeah. I’m pretty much done. Barring someone giving me a shit-ton of money so I can travel outside the US frequently, I’d really rather move to just about any country between Russia and my bullet-riddled former home.

Point for Russia here, folks.

 

UPDATE: Earlier in this article I used a link which claimed there have been more mass shootings than days in 2015. This link, however, disputes that. While I would dispute some of their own claims, they raise enough solid points to show that the definition of “mass shootings” picked up by some media is ridiculously vague. In spite of that, other firearms homicides, accidents, and attempted mass shootings are still a serious problem.

The Good Stuff V: Sports fans

If you’ve been following the blog lately, you might be shocked to see that I managed to come up with another item for “The Good Stuff” series. Well, sorry to disappoint you, Russophobic pigs! Seriously though, this is something that Russia deserves credit for. I am in this case speaking of the attitude towards sports and athletics in Russia.

Now yes, Russia has sport problems comparable to other European countries, such as football hooliganism, and sometimes people confuse their country for a sports team, but that’s a political matter. I want to posit that Russia has a much better attitude towards sports and physical activity than the United States, and to do so I must begin by saying what’s wrong with the attitude in the latter.

Though it is 2014, there is still a belief in America that to be a man is to love sports. Key word here is “love” sports, not “do” sports. It’s perfectly fine to be a gelatinous pile of adipose matter so long as you always catch “the game” and you’re able to rattle off statistics. If you can drop all kinds of historical facts about past presidential elections and Supreme Court decisions, that’s “useless knowledge” in America, while knowing how many yards so-and-so ran to win Super Bowl whatever-the-fuck, you are manly. I can’t claim to have done the research myself, but I’m pretty certain the ratio of die-hard sports guys to guys who actually play sports regularly is pretty imbalanced in favor of the former in the US.

No comment.

No comment.

Now anyone familiar with Russia knows that the “real man” bullshit in this country is just as intense if not more so than in the US.  That being said, it seems to me that a far greater percentage of people in Russia, including women, either regularly engage in some sport-like activity or have done so in their past.

More importantly, while Russia isn’t exactly the critical thinking capital of the world, I have to say that the anti-intellectualism associated with the US and especially its sport fans is non-existent. Russians value education. Perhaps they don’t respect a flabby nerd who has nothing but his intellect, but at least with most generations there doesn’t seem to be that idea that intelligence and strength must be mutually exclusive.

I can appreciate a culture which puts a high emphasis on sports and fitness, but more specifically actually doing sport of fitness activities as opposed to watching other people do them and constantly talking about it. Full point for Russia here.

The Good Stuff IV: Bad Comedian

One should not be surprised to learn that Russia has its own internet celebrities. And while many of them aren’t much different from those of the Anglosphere, some stand head and shoulders above the rest. Today allow me to introduce you to one such individual, Evgeniy Bazhenov, better known as “Bad Comedian.”

Russia's film critic

Russia’s film critic

Bazhenov is most of all a film critic, and well known for his excellent take-downs of some of Russia’s worst films. I first got acquainted with him via his review of Burnt by the Son 2 (Утомлённые Солнцем 2), one of the most vile films ever to be made about the subject of the Great Patriotic War, and at the Russian taxpayer’s expense no less. I’m including one part of that review here in spite of the lack of English subtitles. If you are not fluent in Russian it will be difficult if not impossible to follow, but the viewer can at least get a taste of what he has to deal with.

For the non-Russian speaker let me just say this about that film. That film might as well have been made by Adolf Hitler. The Adolf Hitler, Fuhrer of the German Reich. Fuck it. This film is Hitler!  The director, of course, was the delusional Nikita Mikhalkov, and it would not be any stretch of the imagination to say that he might actually believe the events of the film to be accurate. I mean in the sense that he might think he was actually there. Trust me, you don’t know this man the way I do. He went on TV once and read a 10,000 word manifesto about how to save Russia. Big shocker- turns out the solution is for Russians to be really religious and obedient to a strong leader who will tell them what to do and essentially treat them like children. Like most Russian patriots, Mikhalkov despises the Russian people and can’t help but depict them as utter idiots in his films. What more can you expect from a man who receives state money to defile the memory of the Great Patriotic War?

Bad Comedian demonstrates the typical reaction to Mikhalkov's films.

Bad Comedian demonstrates the typical reaction to Mikhalkov’s films.

Money is something Bazhenov focuses on, that is to say he always shows you the budget of the film, its sponsorship, especially if it involved the Ministry of Culture, and the results, which are most often losses and not profits.  I’ve even seen him describe it as a form of money laundering in an interview with the now-defunct Moscow News. This is a tragedy because with state funding far better films could be made. We Americans have good reason to be disappointed with Hollywood these days, but they are at the mercy of the market, and that severely restricts what they can do. With far less money than that required for a Hollywood summer blockbuster the Russian state could bankroll some truly amazing films, especially on subjects like the Great Patriotic War. Of course they could do that so long as they gave the money to a visionary director who uses the revolutionary historical film-making technique known as “reading history books” or hiring a handful of the thousands of historical reenactors one can easily find in Russia.

Mikhalkov doesn't need your stupid "history book."

Mikhalkov doesn’t need your stupid “history book.”

As far as I know, only one Bad Comedian video has English subtitles. It is a review of a PC game called Company of Heroes II and I highly recommend watching it.  I can’t vouch for the quality of the subtitles as I only watched the Russian version.

Russian gamers felt really betrayed by that game because apparently they really liked the series. They must have been elated to hear that the sequel would take place on their front, but then devastated to find it full of ridiculous propaganda, stereotypes, and nonsensical things pulled directly out of the asses of the writer Quinn Duffy(no, not the actor).  Like most contemporary games dealing with WWII in the USSR, the main source of “research” is the film Enemy at the Gates from 2001. Apparently you can legally rip off all kinds of things from films and put them in video games, as the original Call of Duty proved.  Of course the saddest thing is that Russian-made films like Stalingrad(2013) and the Burnt by the Sun series make Enemy at the Gates look like a goddamned documentary.

Now if the reader has already seen a bit of Bad Comedian’s work, I want to head off a few criticisms which might come to the Western viewer’s mind.  First, I realize that there is a strong urge to compare him to that unholy child of Satan himself, aka Nostalgia Critic, aka That Guy with the Glasses.  I realize why that comparison comes to mind but the similarity is only superficial. First of all, Bad Comedian actually does reviews, whereas Nostalgia Critic always does these long commentaries which should be called synopses as opposed to reviews. Bad Comedian also doesn’t shoehorn in so many sketches or forced memes. Lastly, and most importantly, Bad Comedian does not screech while “stutter-cursing” and waving a toy gun around.  More importantly, Bad Comedian actually has a cause, exposing the corruption and degeneracy of the modern Russian film-making industry.  So rest assured, he’s no Nostalgia Critic.*

I regret that I could not find more of Bazhenov’s material in English or with subtitles, but I thought he deserves exposure to the Anglosphere. I’m confident that if people like him had the resources and the clout, they could seriously clean up Russia’s piss-poor film industry and turn it into something profitable and respectable not only in Russia, but the world.

 

*If you don’t know who Nostalgia Critic is, consider yourself fortunate. Google at your own risk.

The Good Stuff Part III: Your wedding traditions suck

Without a doubt, we Americans have the stupidest traditions when it comes to the process of getting married. Let us examine American wedding traditions and see how they stack up to those of Russia. Hopefully by making Western readers aware of these facts, it will spark a movement to ditch our corporate-contrived “traditions” and adopt far more economical, practical, and reasonable customs of Russia in this particular sphere.

Getting Married in America 

-“Tradition” dictates that the man should propose in public, typically making the biggest scene possible. You’re having a good time at a restaurant or sporting event, and suddenly you find yourself bidden to give your attention to some jackass who gets down on one knee and proclaims, “Madison, ever since I got you pregnant last month I knew you were the one I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. Will you marry me?” We’ve all seen videos of poor saps who get rejected, sometimes in the middle of a basketball court in front of thousands of people. Instinctively we feel embarrassed for both parties, but in reality we should hold the man in utter contempt. He’s using all of us as an audience to pressure his girlfriend into saying yes, and if she refuses we have to feel awkward as a result. Could you imagine a married couple engaging an entire restaurant to witness one of their arguments? No, that’s “making a scene” and it’s bad because it makes everyone uncomfortable. But we’re all supposed to turn our attention away from our own very important business to watch total strangers take their relationship to another level, which statistically will lead to divorce within a few years. Thanks, asshole.

Occasionally I’ve heard American women brag about how “traditional” their fiances are, apparently because they asked their  father for their “hand in marriage” prior to proposing directly. This isn’t more traditional. This is fucking stupid. Aside from the idiocy of asking an adult woman’s father in a modern, free society for his permission to marry her, you’re not some kind of nobleman and neither is he. You work at Best Buy, he manages a fucking Denny’s. Chances are he’s not angling for the chance to marry off his daughter to some man who has landed titles or who can at least offer a large dowry.  Ask your girlfriend directly, and not in public.

-Diamond engagement rings. Ah yes, we all know the tradition that a man should spend two months salary on a diamond engagement ring. It is a deep-rooted custom which stretches far back into the depths of human history all the way to…1939-1947, the period in which the De Beers diamond cartel hit America with an advertising blitzkrieg aimed at making people think that diamond engagement rings are an essential part of getting married. Hollywood was happy to do its part as well.  So basically we think that no proposal can be acceptable without a “traditional” diamond engagement ring solely because…a company which sells diamonds basically told us so. This is a societal equivalent to the “wallet inspector.”  (Here’s an amusing video if you’d like to learn more. If you’re looking for more in-depth history on De Beers and their bullshit, look here.)

-The average American wedding costs something between $25,000-27,000, forcing some families to go into debt for their little girl’s big day.  All that money goes to planners, the dress you wear once, a tuxedo, the rings, bouquets, catering, limousines, DJ’s, etc. I was shocked to find that even in my home state, which is not known for having very high costs of living, a significant portion of weddings are over $10,000, with a slight majority being just under that.

-Brides wear a white dress, and ignorant people crack jokes about the color because they think it has something to do with virginal “purity.” Do you want to know where the white dress tradition comes from? Right here:

Behold, your goddess, ladies! Still want to follow the tradition of wearing white? Why not follow some of Queen Victoria's other traditions, such as marrying your cousin, for example?

Behold, your goddess, ladies! Still want to follow the tradition of wearing white? Why not follow some of Queen Victoria’s other traditions, such as marrying your cousin, for example?

That’s right. Queen Victoria started the trend of wearing white wedding dresses, and you know it couldn’t have anything to do with “purity” because Vicky very famously loved the cock. Loved it.

-You are expected to get married in a religious institution or failing that, by a member of some clergy.  I remember attending weddings where I knew damned well that the bride and groom were not religious, and as far as I know never went to church, yet there officiating their wedding was a pastor or priest.

-The father walks the bride down the aisle, signifying that he is giving his property daughter away to the husband, who will be granted official rights to bone her shortly thereafter. Father-husband parallels make me sick.

-The flower girl and ring bearer- why? I was a ring-bearer one time when I was about 7. Fuckin’ nailed it, of course.  But it seems sometimes that these poor children are chosen in hopes that they will do something amusing and it will be caught on video. Admit it. If you choose a 5-year-old nephew to be a ring-bearer, you’re secretly hoping he’ll blurt out some curse word he saw on TV the other night or piss himself at the altar. You’re setting these kids up for failure. You don’t need a flower girl or a ring bearer. The best man can carry the damned rings, and you’ve got plenty of flowers all over the place. If you must preserve these two make-work, unproductive job titles, give them to family members who are no younger than 10. By that age they have a firm understanding of what shame is, and the crucial role that feeling plays in making us functional, well-adjusted people.

-People at the weddings publicly making jokes about what the couple will be doing later that night. For some unknown reason it is perfectly acceptable for friends and family of the bride and groom to make “jokes” about how the newly-wedded couple will most likely be fucking later that night. No shit? In most cases they’ve already been doing that for months at this point. That’s why the bride’s two months pregnant. I realize this practice seems to run in certain demographic groups in the US, but I’m sad to say my family seems to be totally afflicted by this matrimonial social-filter breakdown. Can you imagine the same people making these cracks a couple years down the road, perhaps at a Thanksgiving gathering?

Married man: “Well thank you so much for a wonderful evening, but Madison and I have to get home.”

Father(winking furiously): “What’s the rush? Looking to spend some time alone with my daugher?”

Mother: “Oooh I bet these two are gonna be up aaaaaaaaaaaaall night!”

Married man(muttering to himself): “Tonight’s the night. I do her, the kids, and myself. Sweet release of death. I await you with open arms.”

Getting Married in Russia

-First off the bat there is one caveat I should mention, and that is the ridiculously bureaucratic process of getting the marriage registered. You and the bride must fill out a form with laser-like precision, and a desk-jockey will then examine the forms and your personal documents with the scrutiny of a watchmaker. They will look at individual letters in your names and occasionally lengthen lines or correct minute parts of those letters to ensure that they are perfect. That process was the toughest crisis my marriage has ever faced to date.  Another issue is the massive pain in the ass it is for the bride to change her name on all her documents, but I’m told it is similarly annoying in the US and luckily it’s not a problem for her to keep her own surname if she so wishes. I recommend it. This way if you are ever murdered, your wife will be able to secretly track your killers until it’s time to wreak bloody vengeance upon them. They won’t see it coming.

Anyway, yes, the paperwork aspect of getting married in Russia is annoying, but that’s not something the US needs to adopt.

-I have never seen a Russian man publicly propose to a woman anywhere. In fact I asked students over the years how to propose marriage and I was given two common examples. One is that a couple lives together for a long time and then one day the man or the woman will suggest getting married. Another common way is for the prospective bride to make the proposal, with the traditional phrase “I’m pregnant.”  I just casually popped the question on a Sunday morning, in my own place.

-No engagement rings. It’s pathetic how badly Russia beats America in this category because with Russian society being as it is, you would think that diamond engagement rings would be all the rage, especially given the fact that American TV and Hollywood movies have been very popular here ever since the 90’s. I’ve heard of some people buying diamond rings but De Beers thus far hasn’t been able to work its dark magic here for some reason.

-Costs. When I tally up everything associated with my wedding, that is to say every piece of notarized paperwork, wedding rings, wife’s dress(she bought it herself), restaurant, fees, etc.  The total comes out to around $1100. I just wore my best suit while my wife’s dress can be worn on other special occasions. We could have paid extra to have the band play the traditional “Wedding march” as we walked out of the hall after the short ceremony, but guess what- we didn’t! If I’m going to walk out with my bride to a march, this is what I’d choose.  Americans can call us cheap all they want. We used the money we saved to travel to three different countries.

-Russians get officially married in a state office, not in churches or religious institutions. You can get married by a priest or imam, but that marriage isn’t recognized by the state unless you go through the state wedding ceremony. You know what’s nice about getting married by a state official? They make it short and sweet instead of rambling on with that “Dearly beloved” bullshit. Then you get to sit down and sign this contract and the whole affair looks like you are two heads of state securing a free trade deal or a non-aggression pact.

"Let's see here. Blah blah blah...Sudetenland...yada yada...shall be annexed by Germany...blah blah... Screw it. I'm sure everything's in order here."

“Let’s see here. Blah blah blah…Sudetenland…yada yada…shall be annexed by Germany…blah blah… Screw it. I’m sure everything’s in order here.”

-No sick father/husband parallels.

-No stupid kids dicking up the ceremony.

Conclusion

Russian wedding traditions win, hands down. Perhaps if we started doing things this way in America, minus the nerve-wracking bureaucracy associated with the pre-marriage paperwork, we’d have a lot more successful marriages.

Also, I’m sorry but I can’t stand the name Madison for girls. It literally means “son of Matthew.” Is your name Matthew? Is your daughter your son? If you answered no to either of those questions, do not name your daughter Madison.