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Russia Clickbait

So given the fact that today’s Russia news cycle has been dominated by the positively insane interview between RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan and the two suspects in the Salisbury poisoning case, you probably missed the story about Russia targeting the Boy Scouts of America.

“Wait,” you say. “The Russians are trying to ‘hack’ the Boy Scouts?”

Well no. Not yet at least. But they could! And so someone had to write an entire article about it.

Ordinarily when I see one of these articles, I do a CTRL-F and search for the word “Hamilton.” If I get a hit on the so-called Hamilton 68 dashboard, I close the tab, secure in the knowledge that this article is unlikely to offer any real insight. In this case, however, I didn’t do the search. As I scrolled through the article, I saw a bunch of stuff we’ve all been aware of for at least a year now. Yeah, we know Russia has orchestrated information warfare campaigns. We know they target wedge issues. I kept wondering when this article would get to the Boy Scouts. Was there some kind of specific information campaign being aimed at the Scouts?

Nope. The author tells us that due to all the various controversies that have plagued the Boy Scouts for many years now, the Russians might tailor some disinformation campaigns targeting those issues. Seriously- that’s it. The whole article doesn’t get to the actual topic of the headline until the second to last paragraph, which I am quoting here in its entirety.

“In the U.S., the Boy Scouts could be a tempting target for Russians seeking to inflame social discord. Over the past 50 years, the organization has been embroiled in various controversies over social values. The organization has internally – and publicly – debated allowing women to serve in leadership roles, whether to let gay men and boys join and lead scout troops, whether transgender boys could join and, most recently, including girls in Cub Scout and Boy Scout groups.

All of those changes, raising legitimate questions about equality and humanity, involved heated discussions in the scouting community and the wider society. Now imagine that an outside group – one whose only goal was discord – jumped in to deliberately inflame the debate.”

Think about that for a second. No fake Russian Facebook pages about Boy Scout controversies were found. No hacking attempts on their website or computer systems. No fake astroturfed campaigns with Russian links. They literally just thought about an organization that has been at the center of some controversies and said “the Russians could try to make decisive propaganda about this.” They could have written this article about literally dozens of different topics, and more importantly, the article doesn’t deliver on the headline’s promise. This was published on a site which boasts “academic rigor, journalist flair.”

This, folks, is clickbait. Literally anyone can skim the news about past Russian disinfo campaigns, then brainstorm until you find the latest bullshit culture war battle so you can declare that the Russians might target this issue for future disinformation campaigns. Do this often enough and open up a Patreon account, and you might be able to quit your day job.

 

 

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Devil’s Dictionary

One of my more popular pieces on this blog is the Russia Watcher’s Field Guide, which is why it occupies a permanent position as a page rather than a post. Today I’d like to induct a few new concepts into the parlance, though rather than just add them to the field guide I’d like to describe them at length. So, without further ado…

The Gerasimov Gambit

“I see the Team Deza is deploying all its active measures against my recent Tweet, where I called out Medicare-for-all as a Kremlin ploy to divide America. You always get the most flak over the target!”  -Some imbecile on Twitter

So there’s this logical fallacy often invoked by morons called the “Galileo Gambit.” This is a technique whereby some crank uses the fact that their theories are ignored and/or ridiculed by “the establishment” as proof that they are right. “After all, they laughed at Galileo, did they not?” 

Naturally this is dumb, and people who use this formulation are dumb. You know what’s also dumb? When you’re some 2016-minted “Russia expert” whose response to any criticism or question about credentials is to accuse your critics of being agents of the Kremlin, or at best, useful idiots.

There are people who attract hostility from paid Twitter trolls and Kremlin media because their work is actually a threat to the regime’s agenda (e.g. Bellingcat), and then there are people who attract the same hostility and harassment simply because they are low-hanging fruit, and when you’re a propagandist defending an indefensible regime you need that fruit to be as low as possible.

So yeah, maybe you get the most flak over the target, but that might not necessarily be the best military metaphor to describe what it is you’re doing. Are you really a B17 pilot flying on a mission to bomb a torpedo factory? Or are you an infantryman running towards a hardened machine-gun nest waving your arms and screaming?

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He is everywhere! He is watching you, hybridly!

Dictatorship Tourist Syndrome (DTS)

“Our mainstream media is constantly telling us that this country is an authoritarian dictatorship where nobody has any human rights. But I, an American, have been here for a whole week, speaking to teachers, policemen, and workers in state-owned enterprises with the help of my government-provided interpreter and I don’t feel oppressed at all! In fact I feel as free if not freer than I do at home, and for that I’m overwhelmingly grateful to the government organization that invited me on this press junket they organized!”

-Useful idiot

I’ve seen many examples of this over the years, but lately there was a bit of a cluster of such cases during the recent World Cup in Russia. In fact, this isn’t at all exclusive to Russia. You see examples of this shit all the time in countries run by differing degrees of dictatorships.

Some time ago I wrote an article about expat privilege, but this goes way beyond that. Expats are often aware of the problems in the country they live in, even if they don’t face the consequences or at least not to the extent that natives do. If you’re a tourist in a country, you probably don’t know dick about real life there. This goes double if you’re on some state-organized press junket like those that Russia and Syria have offered in the past.

Back in 2011 I went to China and I can still say it was one of the best trips I’ve ever been on. Yes, I was a bit shocked by things like the lack of central heating and doors (seriously what is the deal with that?), but in general everything was great. I can’t honestly tell you I saw signs of authoritarian oppression or corruption. The thing is, though, I’m smart enough to realize that just because I don’t personally witness something, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

The fact is that dictatorships, even some of the most authoritarian ones, have never been incapable of showing some guests a good time. Both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany pulled it off all the time (Nazi Germany even dressed up one of its concentration camps to make it seem like a veritable spa resort). Modern dictatorships like Russia are nowhere near as restricted, and thus it’s even easier for visitors to get the idea that all this talk of human rights violations and repression is “just propaganda from the mainstream media.” Don’t do this. Don’t think “everything you’ve heard is a lie” just because you weren’t arrested and shot in the face after two days in the country.

Kremlin Koncern Troll

“This new Cold War is ever so awful! It’s so terrible how there’s so much misunderstanding between the West and Russia now, and it’s really dangerous too! If only more Westerners knew the truth about Russia. The West is really spreading so much Russophobic propaganda! Such a terrible misunderstanding!” 

-The Kremlin Koncern Troll

I want to clarify something about this term. When I use the term Kremlin here I am only implying that these people promote a certain kind of Kremlin narrative with their rhetoric. I do not mean to imply that these people work for the Kremlin or the Russian state in any way. Most of these people hold sincere beliefs and a lot of times they fall for such narratives because they have personal relationships with ordinary Russians so it’s only natural to acquire some biases.

With that out of the way, one must understand the concept of a “concern troll.” This is an old internet term for someone who shows up in online discussions and pretends to be on the same side as the majority of the posters. They typically couch their rhetoric as constructive criticism or playing Devil’s advocate. However, over time it becomes clear that the concern troll seems to take more issue with the ideas of their supposed allies than their perceived opponents. Concern trolling can often be expressed via things like false equivalencies or “both sides” arguments, constant worrying about “our methods,” etc. In any movement, groupthink and cult-like behavior is bad, naturally, but when it seems someone takes more issue with the group than anyone else, it’s fair to ask whether they’re actually supporting the same cause or the opposite.

From time to time I encounter these would-be peacemakers, Westerners, who assure us that they just want to clear up all the misunderstandings we see between the West and Russia right now. First of all this is kind of disingenuous because the fact is that the number one reason for the breakdown in Russian-Western relations is neither the West nor Russian people but the Putin regime, plain and simple. The truth is that apart from some tough talk and the extremely limited Magnitsky Act, the West was more than happy to look the other way and defer to the Kremlin while Putin and his cronies robbed Russia’s citizens and stashed the money away in Western banks and luxury real estate. Hell, when Bashar al-Assad launched a major chemical weapons attack, Putin took credit for the proposal to work with the US in disposing of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, and the supposedly hell-bent-on-regime-change US government went right along with it. And of course after that Assad never used chemical weapons again. Oh wait. Shit. What was the thing that led to a real breakdown in relations? The annexation of Crimea by Russia. And even then, the really serious sanctions didn’t come until Russia’s proxy forces shot down a civilian airliner killing 298 people. So no, this wasn’t exactly mutual.

Look, I have no problem examining the West’s blunders toward Russia, whether in the 90’s or the early Putin era. But that only goes so far. Of course Russia is allowed to have security interests, but if those interests including getting a privileged sphere of influence where it gets to approve the presidents of other countries and determine their constitutional order (as they clearly have wanted to do with Ukraine), well I’m sorry that just can’t be accommodated. Still, while there are many Russians who agree with these policies and narratives, I must reiterate that the problem is the actual policies of the Kremlin, and the people had no say in that.

Of course the KKT doesn’t stop at “both sides” when it comes to clearing up this horrible misunderstanding they call the New Cold War. No it always seems to turn out that the problem is Westerners not knowing anything about Russians and never the other way around. They start off acting like there’s this mutual misunderstanding, but they end up explicitly or implicitly telling you that it’s the West’s fault for not being understanding enough. Realistically, Russia is a rather xenophobic country (caveat- it seems every country has been getting more xenophobic as of late). Russians have just as many inaccurate stereotypes about Westerners as Westerners have about them. But this is somewhat irrelevant because the situation we see in terms of bilateral relations with Russia isn’t because Americans think Russians sit around drinking vodka with bears or because Russians think Americans can’t find anything on a map and think they won the Second World War singlehandedly. It happened because of specific actions either ordered or condoned by the Russian government, actions which are hostile to the West and its citizens. And again let me reinforce the point that the Kremlin took those actions because it sees them as conducive to remaining in power, and remaining in power means continuing to rob and pillage the peoples of the Russian Federation.

As I said before, I don’t think all of the people who engage in this behavior are active or conscious supporters of the Putin regime. Yes, such people do use similar rhetoric, but they also tend to be far more open about which side they support. The people I’m talking about seem to do it out of a concern for balance, or more often than not, a certain flaw in reasoning that is often common among people on the left. Here I’m referring to the idea that only the U.S. or West acts, while other countries only react to those actions. So when someone on American TV slams the Kremlin for interfering in our election, this gets portrayed as hysteria, “McCarthyism,” or “Russophobia,” while no attention is paid to the fact that Russia’s state media is almost constantly running blatantly anti-Western narratives almost round the clock. Louise Mensch? Eric Garland? On Russian state TV people with that level of credibility are often regular guests on talk shows. And if you think some US pundit criticizing the Russian election hacking is aggressive and dangerous, maybe do a little research to see how often Russian state media openly talks about nuking the West.

This isn’t a mutual misunderstanding. The current state of relations between the West and Russia can be blamed largely on one side, one man, in fact- Vladimir Putin.

 

80’s Nostalgia Without BS

Hey remember THE EIGHTIES?! Remember Nintendo? Remember 8-bit Mario?! Remember Ghostbusters?! Remember the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?! Well, do you remember? Do you, you consumer son of a bitch? REMEMBER?!  

Seriously though, of course you remember all that. Everybody who lived through that decade remembers those things because they were immensely popular. And yet lately it seems that the entertainment industry has got the idea that things as mainstream as Star Wars and Ghostbusters are examples of “geek culture” that can be used to sell virtually anything. As you might have gathered, I’ve got a bone to pick with the industry.

This all came to a head around the time I heard several reviews for Ready Player One, which seems to be the perfect example of the weaponization of 80’s pop culture. In fact, if you think that film and the novel it’s based on represent a horrible one-off, you’d be wrong. Apparently the author, Ernest Cline wrote another novel, one that’s basically a ripoff of The Last Starfighter, but guess what- it has pop culture references! From the 80’s! I’ve spoken about this topic with friends a couple times in the past few months, but what finally triggered me to write on the subject was a trailer I saw recently for a sequel to the Creed film, part of the Rocky Cinematic Universe that’s apparently a thing now. It ends with a reveal of the antagonist and get this- it’s the son of Ivan Drago! Yes, that Drago, the one who killed Apollo Creed in the ring all those years ago. You remember that, right? REMEMBER, AND SEE OUR FILM!!!

Look, I don’t hate the 80’s- I love nostalgia as much as the next person. I also like a lot of the aesthetic that’s coming back into style. I like synth music. I like uzis. I also get that a lot of this is just plain marketing- my generation is the one with disposable income (or it’s supposed to be, at least). But I feel like this is going to wind up being a big missed opportunity to shine light on things from the 1980’s that aren’t universally recognized. That and I can’t stand this obvious pandering whereby makers of pop culture pretend that we’re in some super-exclusive “geek” club because we both remember Ghostbusters, an insanely popular franchise at the time.

We live in an era that gives people far more access to produce their own media and entertainment content. Hell I’m doing it right now. And while I cannot influence Hollywood, I can at least hope some content creators of my generation see this blog, and perhaps take my plea to heart. If you want to take the route of 80’s nostalgia, do it with passion. Don’t reference the things everybody remembers, reference the things you remember because they were special for you. Sure, many people won’t immediately get it, but the interested will head to Google and Wikipedia and actually learn something. Art is about making an emotional connection with your viewer or reader (at least I read this somewhere), and one way to do that is by sharing a part of your own personality or experience with them. The media that mattered to you personally, even if it faded into obscurity, can perform that function. And I’d argue that this would reach readers on a much deeper level than “Hey! Remember Back to the Future?!

To set the example I’d like to share with the reader some things from my 80’s childhood that I’m nostalgic for- things which didn’t necessarily make it into our era or achieve widespread popularity. If I were going to make a film packed full of 80’s nostalgia or otherwise inspired by it, these are the things I’d reference or draw inspiration from, even if only as a joke.

Bad Dudes

“The president has been kidnapped by ninjas. Are you a bad enough dude to rescue the president?” 

This is all the mission briefing you get after dropping a quarter and pressing start in the arcade game Bad Dudes, also known by it’s full title Bad Dudes vs. Dragon Ninja in case you’re one of those arcade consumers who wants to know exactly who’s fighting whom in any game you might play.

I used to play this game religiously in a bowling alley in Texas when I was about six years old. At that age, on a good day I could get to the boss of the third level. Might have beat him once or twice.

The concept is pretty simple- fight your way through an army of color-coded ninjas who have an extensive division of labor, and defeat a boss at the end of every level until you finally rescue the president, who incidentally is clearly based on Ronald Reagan. If you succeed, president “Ronnie” invites you and your bad best friend for a burger and I assume you get a couple post offices named after you or something.

Most of the time you’re punching and kicking, but you have a couple special moves such as a spinning jump kick and, if you hold down the attack button, your heroes arms burst into flames and you can release a powerful flaming punch because…80’s. Occasionally you can pick up nunchaku or a knife to ease the killing of color-coded ninjas. Whenever you beat a boss, your character raises his hands over his head and proclaims: “I’m bad!” Honestly I felt that was a bit pretentious. I mean being “bad” is something that other people should say about you; you can’t just claim the title for yourself unless you’re Michael Jackson.

Looking back, it’s the plot that sticks out to me most when it comes to this game. See when I was a little kid I dreamed of making video games (that dream really worked out well!). To be honest, most of “my” games were basically just mish-mashes of other games I liked at the time, only done in the way I thought they should be done. Now in those days, a lot of games had a simple plot device- someone’s kidnapped the hero’s girlfriend. Other times you’re trying to avenge some family member’s death, such as your father’s in Ninja Gaiden.  Bad Dudes raised the stakes by having the president getting kidnapped, and that had an impact on my 6-7 year old mental game design. The way I reckoned at the time, a hero could get in serious legal trouble if they engaged in vigilante violence and destruction of public and private property just because their girlfriend got kidnapped. You’re expected to contact the police and file a missing persons report. But, little me reasoned, if the president is the one being kidnapped, then the authorities would probably let you slide for beating ninjas to death on top of a moving cargo truck with a pair of nunchaku. Extreme times demand extreme measures, after all. Based on this child-logic, I made sure that all my “game” plots that took place in our world involved a kidnapped president, so the hero wouldn’t be bogged down with criminal charges and legal fees should he complete his mission.

Looking back as an adult, imagining this plot playing out in real life is even funnier. I hate to bury the lede about the president being kidnapped by ninjas, but the emergency meeting on what to do about it would have to be pretty amazing. I’d imagine you’d have the National Security Council with the heads of all the intelligence agencies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and everyone in the line of succession.  The army’s recommending Delta Force. The Navy recommends SEAL Team 6. And then there’s this guy, a White House aide, perhaps, who meekly pipes up with his suggestion:

“Guys, I know this is going to sound a bit unconventional, but I know just the people who can handle this situation. They’re the best martial artists in the world. A couple of real bad dudes. I think we should give them a chance.” 

And with that, a legend is born.

For people like me, Bad Dudes is a piece of nostalgia, but for younger people, I think it resonates differently. Whereas once it was considered a nightmare scenario, these days the idea of the president being kidnapped by ninjas is actually a message of hope, and I don’t think anyone, bad or otherwise, would bother to rescue him. If anything the ninjas would be trying to foist him back on us within a few days of holding him in captivity.

Ninja Gaiden 

Ninja Gaiden had a reboot of sorts on the XBox around the mid-2000s, but from what I gather the modern game had little to do with its predecessors. I first became acquainted with Ninja Gaiden in the arcades, where it was a side-scrolling beat-em-up with one of the most notorious continue/game over screens in arcade history, such that it traumatized me any time I saw it.

Soon, through Nintendo Power magazine, I learned that this was also a game on the NES console (I didn’t own one at the time), and while that version is very different from the arcade version, it quickly became clear that it was the better game. In fact, in recent years I’ve seen virtually every incarnation of Ninja Gaiden game from that era and I can state with confidence that the original NES trilogy was in fact the best incarnation in every way.

Ninja Gaiden is an extremely tough game, but more or less fair. I was only able to beat it around 1992, when I finally had an NES console of my own and a friend lent me the game. Your protagonist is Ryu Hayabusa, a ninja who comes to America not to kidnap the president, mind you, but to avenge the death of his father, thus making all his activities in the United States extremely illegal.

Seriously though, what was great about Ninja Gaiden was its plot. For it’s time, this was a sophisticated game in terms of its music, graphics, gameplay, but the real novelty was in its story that was told via cinematic cutscenes (but you can skip them!). For a game of that era it had a pretty decent story that becomes far more fleshed out than just “kill the guy who killed your father.”

Basically your dad was an archaeologist, presumably after leaving the no-longer lucrative field of being a ninja,  and he and his colleague Walter Smith uncovered these ruins in South America along with two statues of a grotesque horror (shades of Call of Cthulhu). After coming to America and killing tons of street thugs and their dogs you learn that the light and dark statues hold the spirit of a world-ending demon and they must never come together. You get where this is going now- an evil cult gets one of the statues and then Ryu is tapped by the CIA, yes, the CIA, to go to the same ruins his father found and get the statue back. And by the end of the game, you’d better believe those two statues come together and you get to fight Mr. Demon himself.

Since I didn’t have an NES at the time and because few of my friends that did had the game, I mostly became acquainted with the game via Nintendo Power magazine, which ran several feature stories about it which typically came with beautiful illustrations and random trivia about ninjas. In other words, crack for seven-year-old boys.

The illustrations are particularly noteworthy because in the days of 8-bit graphics, you really had to use your imagination. Illustrations in gaming magazines or instruction manuals helped give you an idea of what things were supposed to look like. As it just so happens I managed to track down some of those old magazines shortly before I moved to Russia in 2006, and a friend of mine kept them safe all this time. Here are a few photos to give you an idea of what it was like in that era:

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In case you’re wondering, yes, that is my actual hand.

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When a magazine intended for children gives tips on ninja weapons.

The sequel, Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, came out in 1990 but for all intents and purposes is still an 80’s game. It is arguably the best of the original trilogy and in terms of art the people at Nintendo outdid themselves with a special strategy guide I had when I was about nine. In it, nearly all the game’s cut scenes are beautifully drawn in comic book form throughout the guide. While I did find a copy on eBay, I was not able to locate it among my old library when I was in Phoenix. However, I did some googling and managed to find a blog post someone made about the guide, complete with some shots of the illustrations to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.

Shinobi

In case you haven’t noticed, we liked ninja shit in the 80’s. Shinobi was a game series started by the then-rising star Sega company and usually encountered in arcades.

The game was ridiculously hard but introduced some really novel concepts. For starters, your character was a ninja, but they did not wear a mask and you could use a gun sometimes. Also, while you would die in one hit, the game had a somewhat more realistic system. Typically you die only if you get hit by an enemy’s weapon. If you just touch the enemy you get knocked back but are otherwise unharmed.

In 1989 a sequel came out which was only released on the debut Sega Genesis (Mega Drive in Europe) home console. Revenge of the Shinobi, as it was titled, changed the formula by giving players a health bar but also limiting the supply of shurikens, the game’s main weapon. Although it deviated wildly from the format of the original, it was a major hit and is remembered not only for its gameplay and graphics but also its music and copyright infringement, as earlier versions often used popular film and comic book characters as bosses in the game.

To give you an idea how good the soundtrack was, many of its songs have been remixed by people today.

One could argue that the third game, Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master, is the best game in the series, but that came out a little too far into the 90’s for this survey of 80’s culture.

It’s worth noting that there was an arcade sequel called Shadow Dancer which I did not encounter until later, in the early 90’s, at Circus-Circus in Las Vegas. This was more in line with the gameplay of the first arcade game and while a version of it was ported to the Sega Genesis, it was essentially a different game. While the arcade version initially looks better, the Genesis version has a much better soundtrack and is ultimately a better game (though arguably not as good as Revenge of the Shinobi). For comparison:

 

Game Tapes

The explosion of home gaming took place concurrently with the explosion of home video. As anyone familiar with Red Letter Media’s Wheel of the Worst series knows, anything that could possibly be put onto VHS was recorded and shoveled out the door. Anything.

Home gaming was accompanied by strategy guides, typically in the form of magazines like Nintendo Power, shown above. But it didn’t take long for someone to figure out an even better way to show someone how to not suck at video games- game tapes. Now technically I never owned any of these until the early 90’s, but I was aware of them in the 80’s. There was a series from a group called Game Players, and I had the one that featured games by Ultra (actually a division of Konami) such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the ridiculously hard one) and Metal Gear. It also features intro music that may rupture your ear drums (or compel you to do the job yourself with a pencil). On the positive side, it got me interested in playing Metal Gear, but then again that just set me up for disappointment in 2001.

These tapes were pretty lame, but also the only way you could see significant gameplay from a game neither you nor any of your friends had (unless you lived by one of those Nintendo stores).

Another tape I found at a flea market (again, early 90’s so doesn’t quite count) boasted that it featured the “World Video Game Champion” Skip Rogers (so I guess he’s like Captain America if Captain America sucked). The writer Sean Baby already did a hilarious and thorough review of Skip’s work some time ago, but I’ll post part of the video here to give you an idea.

The main difference between the tapes, from what I could see, is that whoever was playing on the Game Players tapes was far more competent than the World Video Game Champion. I’m sorry, Skip, but someone had to say it.

 

Movies

This section is going to be a bit shorter but for a very good reason. In keeping with the theme of this article, I’m naming things that had significance for me personally, and most of the 80’s movies I liked were the big popular films that everyone remembers. Of course some of them I wouldn’t appreciate until later. For example, I first saw part of Aliens on cable when I was maybe five, and naturally it scared the shit out of me. Imagine you’re five and you think you’ve found some kind of futuristic war film, like live-action G.I. Joe. Then you suddenly come face-to-face with H.R. Giger’s living nightmare (it was the scene where the alien kills the dropship pilot- you never forget something like that). So while Aliens is easily one of my favorite all-time films, I can’t pretend like I get nostalgic for it, nor did I ever watch the whole thing in the 1980’s.

It’s really hard to think of a film from the 80’s that I liked but wasn’t insanely popular, and the films that weren’t so popular I either didn’t like or didn’t see until I was much older. But there is one film that is very relevant to this blog. In fact, you might say it altered my entire destiny (still not sure for better or worse). That film is Russkies, from 1987.

To understand it’s influence on me let me provide some context. I was maybe still six or seven and I started to get interested in Russian stuff. See the Cold War was going on and Russians were always appearing, obviously as bad guys, nearly all the time. Of course kids don’t understand politics and at that age, things like ushankas and greatcoats just looked cool. I also liked how everything the Red Army had was like an exotic version of our own military equipment. We had the sleek, modern-looking M16 and they had the unusually-looking, wood-and-metal Kalashnikov that still got the job done. We had the Abrams tank with its angular lines and they had T-72s and T-80s with rounded shapes. Obviously I couldn’t make this comparison at the time, but it seemed like two sides in one of those old real-time strategy games where the difference between the two playable factions is mostly just cosmetic.

Now as you might imagine, being into Russia while living in Cold War-era Texas doesn’t make you the most popular kid, but it’s not like I engaged people in political discussions. I just really loved those ushankas. So one day I’m in this convenience store that has video rentals and I see on the shelves this film, Russkies, with a Soviet submarine on it. It’s basically a family movie so my mom rented it and I proceeded to watch it roughly two dozen times or so until we had to return it.

To understand what kind of film it was, I would call it the anti-Red Dawn. In fact, that other film, which came out three years earlier, is referenced in Russkies by one character. But overall the film is mocking that kind of Cold War paranoia. It features a Russian submariner who falls overboard and washes ashore on Key West. He’s discovered by some local kids, some of whom initially believe he’s a spy and try to catch him. The rest of it is wacky fish-out-of-water hyjinks, standard fare for the time. I think Russkies can be categorized in that genre of Perestroika-era Hollywood films that promote cooperation and understanding between the East and West. This was a time when, for example, G.I. Joe teamed up with the Soviet special forces team October Guard. Unfortunately it also transformed into a genre that could be called “Let’s put aside our differences and gang up on the Arabs,” but that’s another article.

As I write this, I have never seen the film since I watched it back when I was little. I had trouble locating a suitable version online for years. Now it appears the whole thing is on Youtube (always the mark of a great film!), so I plan to watch it again. If it is totally lame, keep in mind I was six or seven the last time I saw it. Whatever the case, this film kindled my interest in Russia, one which would wax and wane until the point where I had to take a foreign language course in high school and Russian was available. That led to my first trip to Russia, which in turn led to me moving there after that. Yes, it has been rough at times, but it’s better that little me was obsessed with something like Russkies and not something like the Death Wish series, which glorifies murdering random people on the street, or Rambo III, which might have led me to idolize waging jihad in Afghanistan.

Music

This section is a total fraud, because I’m just using it as an excuse to post a video of “Africa” by Toto.

But if you’re looking for something a bit more obscure and rooted firmly in that era, I recommend the work of Ian Hammer for the TV show Miami Vice. 

Also, while I can in no way claim this has any nostalgic value for me, I present to you what may be the synthiest song of the whole decade, from the soundtrack of the TV movie Manhunter (this was based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon and is the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter).

 

Conclusion

So there you have it- a slice of my own personal 80’s nostalgia. To be fair, my childhood was split rather evenly into both the 80’s and 90’s, so this is only a fraction of a fraction. I also acknowledge that a film like Russkies is probably too obscure to use as a reference in any other work of art (I’ve literally never encountered anyone who’d heard of the film or saw it), but if I were going to make some kind of art that references the 80’s in some way, those video games are examples of things I would reference. If you get it, great, it’s a bonus for you. If not, no big deal. That was what made things like the original Simpsons great- it appealed to everyone but the references were a bonus for people who were more knowledgeable or who did their homework. Now references have replaced jokes and good writing entirely, and apparently you’re supposed to be entertained simply because you recognize something.

If you’re a creator reading this, break the mold. By all means embrace this 80’s nostalgia trend, but make it your own. Don’t let Hollywood shape your memories. If you remember anything I’ve mentioned in this post fondly, or have some of your own examples to share, by all means tell me in the comments.

Also here’s “Africa” by Toto again in case you missed it.

Trump As Allegory

So I’m packing to go on a trip to NYC tomorrow and a thought just crossed my mind that I had to write about. This past week has been, in general, one giant shitshow as the sponge-brained old racist uncle-in-chief prostrated and cowered next to Putin. From an almost flat-out refusal to acknowledge interference in the 2016 election to a pathetically weak response to Putin’s suggestion of turning over officials such as former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, Trump has pretty much convinced every rational-minded person in America that he is, at best, subservient to or afraid of Vladimir Putin.

But what if there’s a lesson in all this? What if Trump’s behavior, as despicable and craven as it is, is just exposing the truth about Russia and the West, in the same way Trump totally debunked the idea that America is a “post-racial” society?

If we look at interactions between Putin and other Western leaders who are considered sufficiently “tough” on Putin, we see that while they often talk a big game about standing up to him either outside of his presence or at press conferences, they rarely back their words with action. Macron living it up with Putin at the World Cup is a perfect example of this. Ditto Merkel and Nord Stream II, although to her credit she seems to have put a damper on Putin’s dream of cutting Ukraine out of the gas network. And while Obama did bring several successful rounds of sanctions against Russia since 2014, it wasn’t enough to deter Putin from getting directly involved in Syria, or more importantly- interfering with the US political system itself.

So the along walks Trump, a man who seems to have a special affinity for the dictator in Moscow. Trump hasn’t actually managed to lift sanctions; he’s delayed on implementing some of them but new individuals and companies still get added to the sanctions list nonetheless. He doesn’t recognize Crimea as Russian, but he doesn’t really do anything for Ukraine. He doesn’t really suggest new ways to deter or punish Russian aggression, but he doesn’t uproot those in place.

In a sense, Trump is just openly doing what the US and Western governments did with Russia for years, if not decades. Whether it was under Yeltsin or Putin, the Western leaders expressed “concern” over conditions in Russia or Russian moves abroad, but they never took any action until Putin forced their hand by unleashing another war in Europe. This kind of deference to Moscow seems to be rooted in two factors. The first is the capitalist system that wants Russian investment and investment opportunities in Russia, a large potential market. The second is the very old inability to recognize Moscow-dominated Russia for what it is- the last European colonial empire. We saw plenty of the former during the boom of the mid-2000s, when the West was more than happy to ignore or at most, pay some lip service to the issue of human rights in Russia while billions of petrodollars were skimmed off and pumped into Western luxury items and elite property in London, New York, Miami, or the South of France. In the case of the latter, note how the West has expressed support for former Soviet republics, yet says nothing about non-Russian territories within the inappropriately named Russian Federation (it’s not really a federation).

I’m not excusing Trump’s behavior or saying it’s no cause for real concern, but I can’t help but notice that in a way, all Trump has done is put an end to the empty lip service and openly embraced Putin as opposed to talking a big game in public while making deals with him behind closed doors.

This is something Westerners need to seriously think about after Trump is gone. So many of the people who today tell us that we’ve experienced another Pearl Harbor or, as Morgan Freeman put it, “we are at war,” either support or worked for politicians who in the past had the same knowledge we have about Russia today, yet still accepted key parts of the Kremlin’s narrative and enabled many of its nefarious actions. Maybe the silver lining of Trump’s recent actions is that people will start waking up to that fact.

The Left and ‘That Russia Stuff’

Yesterday’s reaction to the Helsinki meeting between Trump and Putin was, to put it mildly, a shitshow. And once again, we saw the so-called radical left seemingly spending more time attacking “the libs” than, you know, the actual fascists like the president and his minions. Few seemed to notice the fact that their dismissive rhetoric toward “that Russia stuff” and their hysteria about World War III just happens to mirror not only the line coming straight from Kremlin media, but also from the alt-right and neo-fascists the world over. And looking at this mess, and at the same time being part of the left as well as someone who has a bit of a background in “Russia stuff,” I feel I should interject and remind some comrades about some key facts in this whole scandal.

What makes me so qualified to do so? Well apart from my knowledge and experience in Russia and its media, I’ve also been one of those voices of reason when it comes to Russiagate in the first place. Long time readers will note that when the Clinton campaign started to bring up Russia during the campaign, I warned about going too far down that path. Not only were most American voters utterly unconcerned about Russia at the time, it was obvious that Russia and Trump could use such rhetoric to posture as anti-establishment, and posture they did.

Also, I followed the Galeotti line, saying that Russia did not expect Trump to win and thus the interference was actually aimed at causing problems for an incoming Clinton administration. If I didn’t point it out on this blog, I certainly made the point some time on Twitter that Trump is most likely not a conscious agent of Russia, turned either by some kompromat pee tape or by some winding conspiracy dating back to 1987. Rather I saw and still see Trump as being charmed by Putin, who knows how to manipulate such people. If there is any kompromat on Trump, it has to do with business dealings, conflicts of interest, and that sort of thing. Beyond that, I think the main reason Trump seems afraid to call out Putin, especially about election interference, is that admitting that it happened is tantamount to questioning his own legitimacy, and there is simply no way Trump would ever allow that.

Furthermore, I have routinely dunked on people like Louise Mensch, Eric Garland, and slightly less odious figures like Molly McKew. I’ve been attacked as a “Russian bot” by “Resistance” types, and not too long ago Mensch and Garland even sicced their incoherent army of morons on me.

The point I’m making is- you know me. You know I’m not some ex-intelligence community pundit or “neocon” think tank academic, and I’m certainly not an amateur counter-intelligence agent on the internet posting about how Bernie Sanders secretly works for the GRU and Black Lives Matter is a Russian front. I’m a revolutionary socialist, one who has spent most of his adult life in Russia.

So I’m hoping you’ll take it to hear when I tell you that yes, Russia interfered in our election. Yes, it was with malicious intent and it was largely aimed at helping Trump. For whatever reason, Trump has been largely disinterested in doing anything about that, and you should be concerned. Now before you interject, here are a few things to consider.

First of all, no, I’m not reversing my position about the reasons why Hillary lost or the efficacy of the Russian interference. To date, we have no concrete data on who might have changed their vote or stayed home due to things they may have seen on Facebook, specifically Russian propaganda. I’ve often criticized those who are so confident in the efficacy of that propaganda while being so reluctant to make any attempt to measure what influence it actually had. But having said all that, it really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if those idiotic memes didn’t change a single vote. The point is Russia put them out there with a certain intention, and that intention was to help Trump. Where they were not supporting Trump, they were encouraging people not to vote for his opponent, which objectively helps Trump.

Think about it this way- suppose there was a Trump supporter in the US, and he tried to support his candidate by writing a blog and maybe making a few Facebook pages with pro-Trump memes. Now let us imagine that they weren’t widely circulated, never got many views, and thus we later determine that they couldn’t have had any significant impact on voting whatsoever. Would we just totally ignore the fact that this person basically campaigned for Trump? Would we pretend he’s not a Trump supporter?

Worse still, the Russian Internet Research Agency, via Facebook, literally tried to hijack leftist causes, all for the purpose of getting people not to vote for Hillary, Trump’s opponent. That should piss most leftists off. I mean every election you see people correctly point out that to claim to stand “on principle” when doing so could hurt millions of disadvantaged or otherwise marginalized groups of people is bad, very bad. It’s almost the very definition of privilege. But operatives encouraged exactly this behavior while posing as leftists. That should piss you off, especially given the well-established connections between the far-right in America and Russia.

Next, let me smack down this objection that says the Russia stuff is going to cause Democrats to lose or that it’s being used as an excuse to ignore things like poor campaigning or historic problems like racism. First of all, as one of my Twitter followers have pointed out, you don’t really see many Democrats literally campaigning on Russia-related stuff. The media’s constantly talking about it, and they often talk to Democrats for commentary in these discussions, but apart from reactive criticism of Trump’s behavior on the Russia matter I haven’t heard of any candidates who are seriously running on a platform of RUSSIA! RUSSIA! RUSSIA!

As for the second issue, that of blaming historic problems on an external cause, yes- this is a valid concern, but let’s not pretend like every liberal does this. When you see the ones that do- just ignore them or dunk on them and move on. We don’t really have many options as to how to actually fight the fascists who dominate our government  at the moment but to work with people who aren’t quite as woke as you on social issues like wealth inequality. The good news is that these people did actually lose to the dumbest candidate in modern history, and thus we have every right to start making demands about how to proceed, but we do need to work with them. If you disagree, by all means run for the hills, kick off your protracted people’s war (I can tell you right now guerrilla foco is going to get you nowhere), and see how far that gets you.

Lastly I want to tackle two of the dumbest left objections to this issue. The first is the claim that “Well, like, we interfered in their election too!” This is largely based on one story in Time magazine which had a cartoon Boris Yeltsin on its cover, accompanied by the headline “Yanks to the Rescue!” It’s cringe-inducing to see so-called leftist Twitter accounts responding to anyone criticizing Russian interference in the 2016 election with a picture of that cover, acting like it’s some kind of awesome dunk. For one thing, the idea that we should let a far-right wing fascist regime interfere in our election on behalf of a local fascist, with the help of local fascists, just because the US allegedly helped Yeltsin get reelected in 1996 is one of the most idiotic pseudo-left arguments I’ve ever seen. The other reason this argument is idiotic is because the story itself is largely bullshit. Yeah, next time you might want to actually look into Russian history a little bit deeper. It’s amazing how people who seem to pride themselves on doubting the “corporate media” will fall for a narrative largely based on the cover of a major corporate news outlet. I don’t give a shit what the US government supposedly did when I was 14- I’m not going to give Russia a free pass to at the very least, attempt to help a fascist get elected in the US, and you shouldn’t either.

The other moronic objection is that talking about Russian interference and suggesting something be done about it will lead to nuclear war. Yeah, I saw people calling it 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. You know what I haven’t seen? Anyone seriously calling for open war with Russia. What is more, the US already has retaliated against Russia in direct connection with the election interference going back to 2016. Are we at war yet? Nope. Did Russia nuke us? Nope. The truth is that while Putin would like to see an end to the sanctions so he and his friends can stash their ill-gotten wealth in Western banks and real estate, they also need the appearance of a conflict with the West. They need that threat of an external enemy to solidify their support at home. As such, anyone who thinks that toning down the rhetoric will lead to better relations between Russia is not only ignoring the horrible imperialistic shit the regime is doing to its own people and others like Syrians and Ukrainians, but they are also simply ignorant about how the system in Russia perpetuates itself.

So please, let’s not let the fact that some people have been grifters or just plain idiots about Russiagate distract from the fact that this is a serious issue for the left. We’re talking about an authoritarian fascist state that is supporting similar movements and governments around the world. We are engaged in an existential struggle right here in the United States, and as one of my followers (albeit one I often disagree with), some liberals are starting to get really radicalized by this issue. Yes, some of them are going about it in stupid ways or making really bad takes, but we have no other allies to work with. The radical left needs to stop denying the Russia story and try to steer the centrists towards a more realistic understanding of it, as well as an understanding of why real progressive politics are crucial for defeating the far right in America.

The truth is that the “Russia stuff” is a socialist concern. At its root this is a story of wealth inequality, of the shadowy world of money laundering and neoliberal financial systems. It is a story of a global reactionary movement and an archaic, reactionary dream about returning to a 19th century world of imperialistic great powers which divide up the world into spheres on influence which they can exploit at will. Like it or not, this is our fight, and if you repeat the same apologia used by Trump and his defenders both in the US and Russia, you might as well be one of them.

 

Just What the Hell I’m Doing

My triumphant return to posting may seem like a dead cat bounce, but at the moment I have other priorities- some of which include working on articles for money, because after all, I need money. But there is another project I’m trying to launch which will be even more important. Can’t share the details now, but it involves providing help for Ukraine (BIG SURPRISE!) Help to defend against imperialist aggression as well as help to defend and advance progressive values in that country. After all, Ukraine cannot be truly free if it is reduced to smaller version of Russia with the same mentality painted blue and yellow.

Unfortunately getting this project off the ground will be slow going because it involves the world of fundraising and running an NGO. The former I haven’t been so successful at and the latter I have zero experience with. If you do, by all means leave a comment. I could really use the advice right now.

On the up side, I’ve got offers to do guest appearances on some regular podcasts so that front is finally sorted.

So stay tuned.

 

Keyboard Commandos vs. Real Life

 

I have to warn you ahead of time that this is going to be a very serious post. I initially planned it to be somewhat serious with some jokes thrown in to lighten the mood a bit. That was all before this afternoon, when I first saw the news that Russian dissident journalist Arkady Babchenko had been murdered outside his apartment in Kyiv. So the jokes are out, but because this tragic event only reinforces the original point I wanted to make, I have to write this piece.

Just for full disclosure, Babchenko and I were never close friends; we were acquaintances at most. I met him once in Moscow, possibly twice but I don’t remember as it was always with a group of people. I do have a number of friends who were closer, however. I’m just getting this all out of the way because the significance of this will be made clear a bit later. Thus let’s move on to what would have been the beginning of this post.

As some of my Twitter followers already know that last night I came under attack by the Dipshit Duo of Eric Garland (or someone reasonably claiming to be him) and Louise Mensch, as well as a number of their moronic wine mom fans. Because these people possess the communication skills of a third-grader drunk on Robitussin, it took me a while to figure out what had suddenly drawn their attention to me. After all, both Garland and Mensch have blocked me almost from the very get-go back in 2017.

From what I was able to piece together using Google Translate for Dumbass-to-English, it seems they were upset by this tweet.

Apparently one of the cretins took this as a personal threat or challenge, because these are essentially delusional people who think they’re the protagonist in their own blockbuster spy thriller, so of course it had to be about them. In reality, while this tweet was indeed inspired by some of these people, it is simply a prediction about something that will inevitably happen if this kind of behavior continues to spread. In fact it really doesn’t apply so much to people like Garland or Mensch because neither seem to exist outside of Twitter. They have largely been shut out of the natsec and Russia/Eurasia sphere because nobody takes them seriously. Even the major media networks figured out their grift fairly quickly, which is why you no longer hear them mentioned despite all this 24/7 Russiagate coverage.

No, those two simply aren’t in the tier of jackasses who are most likely to get popped in the face at a networking event because they called the wrong person a Russian agent. If someone like Garland even managed to find and get to such an event, he’d probably be rapidly escorted out by security when they notice him nervously stuffing his pockets with sugar packets.

But there are people who both engage in this behavior and do actually leave their house and mingle in the same circles, and I was merely predicting that some of these people may one day face a real life backlash for their online attacks. It’s not a threat, it’s not posturing, it’s a statement of fact that is often forgotten these days, when so much of life is lived online and not in reality.

Now having said all that, I do have a burning-hot hatred for all of these people, including Garland, Mensch, and their fan club, and there is very good reason for this. Whether it’s someone with at least some credentials like John Schindler or someone who has no idea what they’re talking about like the aforementioned Twitter stars, all of these people routinely give an air of immeasurable unwarranted self-importance. They style themselves “patriots” and defenders of the republic, and their fans go even further. The way their fans tweet, you’d think that they’re sitting in a foxhole manning the last line of defense between American liberal democracy and Putinist tyranny. If they’re not labeling other people as Russian trolls, bots, and agents, they’re calling them “keyboard commandos,” which is rich because that’s precisely what these people are.

I think few Westerners, in particular Americans, have any idea of what it’s like living under Putin’s regime or having to cover it as a journalist. It’s hard to describe, but there’s a very noticeable difference between when I talk to someone who’s “been there” and someone who hasn’t. With the former we have a shared language, with the latter there is a clear disconnect, sometimes so much so that I might as well be explaining Russia in Japanese.

Sure, it’s never all bad. I can talk about good times- the discoveries, the parties, the friendships. But I’ve noticed even as far back as 2008 that every conversation inevitably turns dark. The topic of corruption is brought up. Then there’s the stories of journalists murdered with impunity. Rigged elections. Veterans of the Second World War freezing to death in their flats. Side-stepping a corpse on a metro platform. You don’t consciously want to talk about these things; they just come up.

Then you add more years. You get into journalism and suddenly it is now your job to know about all those horrible things. The worse it is, the more important it is for you to find it. And you’ll have no trouble finding it because it turns out the same year you get into the business is the same year the regime loses its mind and starts the largest war in Europe since Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. I remember well how many of my first stories all included body counts. I remember having to slowly and diplomatically explain to an editor how the reason why the body count in a mortar attack in Donetsk had to be updated with one more killed is because wounded people sometimes succumb to their wounds, thus moving them into the killed category.

Seeing the war in the Donbas up close was just like pouring gasoline on a fire. It begins simple enough- you see towns in formerly Russian-controlled territory like Kostantynivka or Slovyansk, you see how dilapidated and impoverished they are, and you understand that this is very much the fault of all previous governments of Ukraine going back to 1991. You very quickly learn to distinguish battle damage from decay that took decades, and your thoughts turn to how the Kremlin saw these people as a prop to justify a war of naked aggression for the sake of imperialism and neocolonialism.

In order to “save Russian speakers” who were never under threat from anything but rampant corruption and organized crime, the paranoid delusional regime forced those same “Russian speakers” to shelter all night in basements in cities like Avdiivka. You walk through residential areas of the city and see sagging stairwells and a steel door bowed outward from a shell that exploded inside the flat. You eat dinner at a restaurant that lost three of its staff when a Russian shell hit its outdoor grill. You meet a woman who now lives in the hospital she works at because her flat was destroyed in the shelling. Putin saved that Russian-speaker from home ownership, apparently. In the morning you see the people coming into the city hall to get free plastic sheeting to seal up the windows that got blown out in the night. They’re almost all elderly. One old man stares, mouth agape. He looks like he could have survived the Second World War, and if so he almost certainly would have felt self-assured that in spite of the harrowing sacrifices that victory in that conflict demanded, his generation secured lasting peace, if not prosperity. Putin’s artillery ended that peace.

I could go on, but some readers might have already noted I’m mostly recalling things I personally witnessed back in 2015. My experiences are in many ways just the tip of the iceberg. I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who have spent far more time at the front, both as journalists and veterans. Some of them risked their freedom or even their lives investigating events in Russia. Among the former are many who have spent more time with internally displaced people and refugees. Just as my job was once to monitor the worst of Russia, theirs was to do the same in Ukraine, and they can easily match any story about injustice in Russia with one in Ukraine. Pre- or post-Maidan, your choice.

Of course I know plenty of people who aren’t soldiers or journalists, but ordinary people living in Russia or Ukraine. Apart from one unpleasant encounter I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the wrath of the FSB. A friend of mine who had nothing to do with journalism or activism of any kind was far less fortunate, and ended up getting threatened and tortured for nearly 12 hours by FSB who he believes were involved in some kind of criminal activity. I have other friends who were forced out of Russia because they fell afoul of the regime which robs and persecutes its own people so that a tiny minority can enjoy the most lavish luxury the West has to offer.  Collectively we have all witnessed the humiliation and brutalization of both the peoples of Russia and Ukraine by this sociopathic, kleptocratic regime.

And this one guy I knew…he just got shot today.

So that’s how we come back to Babchenko in all of this. Arkady Babchenko was, by any definition, the real deal. One friend of mine who knew him better than I said that Babchenko probably received more death threats than any Russian journalist he knew. Eventually someone made good on their threat, in Kyiv, no less.

By now I hope the reader is beginning to grasp why I have such a white-hot hatred for these self-appointed defenders of the republic. These people sit behind their Twitter accounts and lecture people on Russia issues with zero grounds to do so, and when they get called on their bullshit, their legions of gullible, unhinged morons defend their heroes by labeling the critics as agents of Russia or, most stupidly of all from a technical standpoint, bots. These people are essentially playing an online role-playing game in order to escape the boredom and utter pointlessness of their insignificant lives.

Gaming is the perfect analogy because essentially, what these people are doing is the equivalent of teenage Call of Duty gamers lecturing and ridiculing actual combat veterans. “I’ve got top kills on this map dozens of times, bro. I defend this country! What do you know about war, coward?” That’s basically it right there. Now imagine that gamer kid is 18 or 19, and he mouths off like that to the veteran in a bar. What do you think is going to happen? Who would you blame?

The grifters, both the total failures like Garland and Mensch and those who achieved modest success like Schindler and McKew, are portraying themselves as warriors defending democracy from the machinations of Putin, and yet they have never had to experience what that regime actually has to offer. They live lives of comfort in the West. At most, they’ll get trolled online, maybe by an actual paid employee of the Internet Research Agency if they’re really lucky. They won’t get that knock on the door late at night. They won’t get their heads bashed in by “cossacks” or have chemicals thrown in their face. They won’t be interrogated for hours on end by security services or charged with “extremism” because they liked a social media post or wrote online about finding a Pokemon in a church.

They won’t answer their door one evening and get shot.