Tag Archives: Moscow

The Correction

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life and career. Like most people, this was due to a lack of adequate information. To paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, when the facts change, or in this case when more facts become available, I change my position. I know this is unfashionable, and that the trend today seems to favor doubling down on your assertion in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but I guess I’ll play the backward old curmudgeon in this case.

Long time readers know I have always hated The eXile. I saw it as a trashy newspaper that romanticized the “Wild 90’s” in Russia. At the same time, I’d started reading the work of Mark Ames and Matt Taibbi before I’d even learned they were associated with that rag (in my early years in Russia I tended to avoid all trappings of the expat life like the plague). I have almost always enjoyed the independent work of Matt Taibbi and I even found myself agreeing with a lot of Ames’ work before he went full-on Putin defender. I’ve now read three of Taibbi’s books and found them to be both entertaining and informative. So naturally, having also been exposed to the accusations against both Ames and Taibbi, it created an awkward feeling for me.

It was easy to dismiss Ames, who continues to write smear jobs of Putin critics, constantly invoking the 90’s even where it has no bearing on the topic, but Taibbi, who took a different trajectory, was a little bit more disappointing. But now, especially in light of the new evidence I’ve seen in the past few months, I have to admit that I have been wrong about not only Taibbi, but also Mark Ames as well.

Based on two articles, one recently published and another by my friend Natalia Antonova, I think it’s safe to say that both Ames and Taibbi were telling the truth when they claimed the things they wrote about in The eXile and their book were in fact “satire,” or better said, they didn’t actually happen. It is not right to call either of them rapists or sexual harassers.

Having got that out of the way, it doesn’t mean we can’t make valid criticisms of The eXile. As Antonova points out in her article, the image promoted by The eXile was taken as fact by thousands of men who flocked to Russia in search of desperate, pliant women who would do anything for a ticket out of the country. Ames and Taibbi may have wanted their audience to react with disgust at the expat lifestyle, yet it seems the opposite occurred.

There are valid criticisms of the satire as well. First of all, if your satire causes people to believe you were literally rapists, you might have fucked up somewhere. Now granted, I think their book publisher also owns some responsibility for this by declaring the accounts to be authentic, but at the same time nobody thinks Sacha Baron Cohen is really from Kazakhstan. At the same time, The Onion is a satirical newspaper but you don’t see them constantly writing stories glamorizing rape, prostitution, and yes- sexually assaulting young girls. In short, if your “satire” causes people to think you were literally a kiddie rapist, well, bro, I think you suck at writing satire.



From The eXile’s “Field Guide to Moscow. Many Russian youths graduate secondary school around the age of 16 (which is, for the record, the age of consent, but still). 

Another thing that is annoying about this claim of satire is that it is somewhat dishonest, and satire works best when it is truthful. Ames and Taibbi routinely characterize their work as satirizing the lifestyle of expats who came to Russia peddling neo-liberal advice, ostensibly to transform Russia into a prosperous democracy, but by night those same men were enjoying the benefits of the economic ruin their recommendations were inflicting on the country, usually in the form of prostitution. I totally get this too; in both Russia and Ukraine I’ve come into contact with people who in public are staunch defenders of the Russian or Ukrainian people, yet in private conversation you learn they have utter disdain for Russian or Ukrainian women. In the case of Russia this can describe both pro- and anti-Putin expats. But there’s something wrong with the way Ames and Taibbi treat the issue, as the more recent article I referenced shows:

“The paper was to be a mirror of the typical expatriate in ‘exile,’ who was a pig of the highest order,” Taibbi explained. “He was usually a Western consultant who made big bucks teaching Russians how to fire workers or privatize markets in the name of ‘progress,’ then at night banged hookers and blew coke and speed. The reality is most of the Westerners in town were there to turn Russia into a neoliberal puppet state by day, and get laid and shitfaced by night. So the paper was a kind of sarcastically over-enthusiastic celebration of this monstrous community’s values.”

This comes from Taibbi, but it could just as easily come from Ames, who also portrays the 90’s as some kind of colonial conquest of Russia by the evil West. There is no agency for Russians in this story. Yes, the West played the role of an enabler for Yeltsin and a lot of the corruption that occurred during the era, but if they really wanted to humiliate and destroy Russia there was a lot they could have done differently. They looked the other way as Russia set up puppet pseudo-states in Moldova and Georgia. They disarmed nuclear-armed republics like Ukraine and transferred those weapons to Russia. They never recognized the independence of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and they let Yeltsin have a free pass to do as he pleased there. They also never lent any support to Tatarstan’s independence bid. As for the horrible economic advice they were pushing on Russia- it was the same bullshit economics they’d already been pushing in the West for years. Why expect them to say anything different in Russia?

But more importantly, this “colonial” narrative also ignores Russian agency, such as “red managers” stripping enterprises’ assets for cash, duping their fellow citizens out of their vouchers to take control of companies, etc. Black markets existed pretty much throughout the entire Soviet period, and they were quite active around the time of Perestroika- the simple fact is that there were plenty of Russians and other Soviet citizens who thought imported clothes and fancy foreign cars were worth exploiting and even killing their fellow citizens, and no Western consultant planted that idea in their heads. Another failure that can be laid at the feet of Russians is the rise of nationalism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other authoritarian tendencies which became quite popular around the time of the Soviet collapse, especially among Yeltsin’s opponents. Many Russians could have chosen to rationally assess the problems facing their nations, but instead they chose to blame Jews or foreigners and thus they failed. No Western consultant made them do that.

Of course as I’ve said plenty of times, contrary to the claims of people like Ames and other Putin apologists, Putin never actually resolved any of these problems. He, or more accurately his “political technologists” just found ways to manage them, and the oil boom of the mid-2000s helped alleviate some of them or at least made them less in your face. Of course that has been starting to change in recent years. Things like gunfights in public and raiding on small businesses have gradually returned to Moscow. Poverty is rising. All these problems can and will come back in full force the more living standards drop toward 90’s levels. But this time, there won’t be any Western consultants to blame it on- no “neo-liberal colonial project.”

The “Wild 90’s” were a terrible time for Russia and many former Soviet Republics- this is indisputable. The West, while also sending needed aid, also dumped a lot of garbage in the form of neo-liberal economists and far-right losers like David Duke. But the 90’s were also a reckoning for the errors of the Soviet Union and the Russian colonial imperialist ideology, which we have seen fully revived under Putin. Trying to protect Russians from their own responsibility does them no favors. And I also find it hard to believe there wasn’t a much better way to satirize the Moscow expat lifestyle so that audiences got the right message- that it was horrible.

So that’s it- that’s my actual criticism. I still admire Taibbi’s post-eXile work and now I feel a little better about it because of what I’ve learned. Mark, if you hate read this blog regularly, I sincerely apologize for insinuating that you did those things you wrote about in The eXile, and I will try to correct whatever I wrote along that vein in the past wherever I should find it. I acknowledge that it was, as you both said, satire. Really fucked up satire to be sure, but satire and fictional nonetheless.


Gross incompetence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


NA64 (3)Pennington

US National Archives

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

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


Photo by Ron Haviv

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Night of Long Excavator Shovels

First we have breaking news. This morning I awoke to reports that kiosks and small shopping centers all over the city overnight.

While the war on small kiosks in Moscow is actually a few years old, as the reader can see from the pictures, even medium sized, multi-story shopping centers have been slated for demolition. This article, unfortunately only in Russian, has a map marking the 104 establishments that have either been demolished or are being demolished as I write this.

According to the linked articles, owners of the properties were compensated, but I can hardly see how this works towards Putin and Medvedev’s often stated goal to “support small business.”


19 Nov 2015, Putin declares support for small business to be insufficient. 1 Dec 2015, Medvedev leads a conference on the problems of support for small business. 9 February 2016, self-explanatory. Cartoon by Sergey Elkin.

Of course the destruction itself has little to do with Putin or Medvedev, unless of course this is only the first step in an elaborate plan to make amends to Ukraine by visiting on Moscow that same destruction the Kremlin inflicted on east Ukraine. Assuming that’s not the case, the real culprit would of course be Moscow mayor Sergey Sobyanin…OR IS IT?!

I did some in-depth research, and discovered that Sobyanin’s patronymic is “Semyonevich.” So in his surname you already have “ob,” then you take the “m” out of his patronymic and put it before the “a” in his last name and…Suddenly you discover the real perpetrator of this demolition operation!

UPDATE: According to this article by Bershidsky, owners will not be compensated and their leases were legal. We’ll probably be hearing a lot about this in the next few weeks if not months.


Keep on Trucking

So the big drama this week is about the independent trucker protest against the “Platon” road tax system. The truckers threatened to cause major traffic problems on Moscow’s outer ring highway, but since there appears to be a media blackout, it’s hard to get up to date information on the situation. Yandex maintains a special traffic monitoring service, but as I write it’s not showing any major disturbances. Besides that, the Russian state media is apparently ignoring the protest.

Naturally, some Russian government figures have tried to paint the truckers as paid agents of America, as always. The overall reaction, however, has been quite varied. Truckers are seen as those ordinary hard-working Russians who support the regime, and indeed many of them still do. It’s a bit difficult to portray them as West-leaning dupe and paid agents, which might explain the media blackout.

On the other hand, people expecting something big to come of this are most likely engaging in wishful thinking for a number of reasons. The first is that Russian society has for many years been extremely atomized and individualistic. “If it doesn’t effect me personally, who cares?” That’s the general attitude of most people. When the teachers and medical professionals protested massive cuts last autumn, nobody cared. It’s not like in Ukraine where the beating of some students who wanted European integration brought out scores of people who had their own agenda and grievances against the government.

Secondly, Russia’s media, politicians, and intelligentsia…Hold on a second, can you really call pro-Kremlin ideologues “intelligentsia?” There ought to be another word for it, like maybe dumbassia. Anyway, all those groups have concocted all sorts of ad hoc reasoning to explain why Putin and the overall system are not to blame for problems like Platon, in spite of the fact that Platon is owned by the Igor Rotenberg, the son of one of Putin’s close friends.

The explanatory narrative goes like this- Putin is a wise and just leader, but there are corrupt people around him and beneath him. He doesn’t know about all their activities. Just take a look at these quote from the VICE article quoted above:

“We didn’t come here to discuss Putin,” Andrei said, arguing Putin wasn’t to blame for his associates’ actions. “Do you know what your friends are doing at all times?”

“We support the government, we just don’t like this (Platon system),” added Sergei, a Moscow trucker. “People hand out fliers here, but why? We only care about one thing. We don’t get into politics.”

What you’re seeing there is typical Russian submissiveness. You’re allowed to criticize certain things but you must remain non-political and you must never question whether Putin, in spite of the authority he has wielded for 15 years, might be part of the problem. No, Putin is simply ignorant about the corruption his close friends engage in, but you mustn’t suggest this makes him a bad leader!

For this and other reasons, the trucker protest is likely to fizzle out. I don’t really see the Rotenbergs backing down on this one, so most likely the truckers will just take the hit and see their incomes drastically reduced. But that’s okay because remember, they’ve got to stand up to America! And don’t forget gay parades! It’s perfectly fine to live in poverty in a country where the government happily picks your pocket right in front of your face so long as there are no gay parades! Yes, folks, there are people who actually believe this.

So for the Goble-like crowd who’d like to see this as the beginning of trucker-maidan let me tell you this: you’re being just as unrealistic as the pro-Kremlin morons who are claiming this is being financed by the US. The only way you’re going to see mass protests that do anything significant is when you have more generalized poverty and other calamities.

Even then, the result isn’t going to be stellar because these protests will probably fall prey to enterprising con men and other demagogues who will promise the people to rebuild Russia’s imperial greatness. Once again a majority of people will trade their freedom to that guy in exchange for “stability,” and once again he’ll feather his own nest and help out his friends and family by reserving spaces at the trough of national wealth.

Start your week off with a positive note, I always say!






Welcome dear reader, to Russia Without BS. Here you will find dissections of various media distortions or myths about Russia from both within and without the Russian Federation. As an American who has been living in Russia since 2006, I started this blog because I was sick of seeing a total disconnect between the image of Russia outside its borders and the real situation “on the ground.”

More importantly, I was totally fed up with people taking advantage of the rift between Russia and the rest of the world to impress their audience with ridiculous fantasies and imaginary adventures passed off as being real. Visa regulations, prices, and a steep language barrier make Russia inaccessible to many people, and thus it provides some individuals with very favorable conditions for deception.  Journalists and individuals have been known to weave all kinds of lurid and thrilling tales involving secret agents, surveillance, wild parties, ridiculously beautiful women who are simultaneously perfect for both marriage and one-night-stands, gangsters, and of course the omnipotent hand of “ex-KGB agent” Vladimir Putin can be found behind every little event, no matter how insignificant.  The person without experience and first-hand knowledge of Russia is often at the mercy of these charlatans.

Lastly, journalism on Russia is bound to be biased, one way or the other.  In every major international story on Russia you will usually find one or two sane, sober articles discussing the issue at hand, but they will be but islands in a sea of either “pro-West” or “pro-Russia (i.e. pro-Kremlin)” propaganda pieces with little in the way of critical thinking.  Both sides will accuse one another of bias without addressing their own and often those who do attempt to analyze the issues carefully will be accused of being either pro-Kremlin or pro-Western by the appropriate corresponding side.  Failure to agree with even one conclusion of a pro-Kremlin piece puts you firmly in the Western camp, and the same when dealing with Western media article makes you a pro-Putin hack.  There are is no in-between in their book.  I have my political beliefs but as it turns out, I have no stake in the delusions of Russian or Western “liberals”, nor those of the self-proclaimed “Russophiles”(many of whom aren’t Russian at all) or their pro-Kremlin ilk.  If the first article you see on here is criticizing the Kremlin, the next may be a thorough takedown of an article written by a member of the opposition.  My policy is that if I see bullshit that doesn’t correspond to reality, I’m going to my best to take it down.