Tag Archives: opposition

A Primer on Russia’s Presidential Election

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in! I’ve decided to write one more article about Russia-related stuff (for the foreseeable future) just because I recently saw another example of a trope that never seems to die and I don’t think I’ve ever actually dedicated a whole post to it. Before I proceed let me point out that I’m not trying to single out any particular author here. I’ve seen this trope and variations thereof many times over the years, and in my less-informed days I’d actually voiced similar arguments. With the disclaimer out of the way, let’s jump in.

Among Western Putin apologists there’s a grand tradition of smearing Western Russia correspondents by pedantically homing in on any mistakes, real or imagined, in their work. The idea is that they’re actually ignorant about Russia, that they have an axe to grind against poor wittle Putin. To be fair, some journalists, usually those not actually based in Russia, can display horrendous ignorance about the country. Case in point:

However, when attacking long-time Moscow correspondents, the grievances are typically unfair, inaccurate, nitpicky, or all three at the same time. When there’s a major election in Russia, Putin’s pedants rehash the same trope every time- they complain that the Western media gives so much attention to non-systemic opposition candidates who in fact are very unpopular and have no chance of winning.

In support of this claim they will provide plenty of legitimate opinion polls. Rest assured you can usually take these polls at face value; they’re typically correct. It’s no secret that opposition politicians in Russia are incredibly unpopular, indeed far less popular than the two leading systemic-opposition parties the “Communist” Party of the Russian Federation (I can’t put enough quotes around the word “Communist” in their name) and the equally inappropriately-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. So why does the Western media focus so much attention on politicians who have no chance of winning and are almost unheard of outside of Moscow? Apparently someone actually needs to explain this, so here goes…

First let me say that the inspiration for this comes from a tweet thread by David Filipov, Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post, in which he addressed this very question.

In case that didn’t make it painfully clear to you, let me break it down to preschool level.

In an election, a real election, candidates are supposed to compete. That means they actually want to be president. Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky have no plans to be president of Russia. If you deny the existence of systemic opposition in Russia you are either ignorant or a liar- period. While there is sometimes opposition at the local level and in the Duma, none of the systemic opposition parties pose a threat to Putin and his favored United Russia party. None of them plan to do anything to change the system that basically lets Putin do what he pleases as long as he wants.

Those opposition candidates, in spite of their minimal popularity, actually do want to change the system in some way. They actually intend to be real politicians. It’s kind of the media’s job to interview candidates, ask them about their ideas, why they want to be president, a representative, or whatever. Unless we’re talking about the Russian state media, of course.

And speaking of state media, it might be time to ask why these politicians are so unpopular. Apart from occasionally appearing on talk shows while they are mercilessly shouted down by other guests, most major opposition figures in Russia almost never appear on TV unless it’s in a bullshit story alleging that they’re working for the CIA, Soros, the YMCA, or whatever other organization the Kremlin is scared shitless of this week. All the while they and their volunteers are routinely harassed and their offices searched or closed under suspicious circumstances. Meanwhile the perpetrators are either never found or are promptly released.

Remember that the Putin apologists who constantly whine about the Western media devoting so much attention to minimally-popular opposition candidates are at least tacitly asserting that Russia has a functioning democratic electoral system. If they aren’t, I don’t know why they even bother, but let’s assume for the moment that they do. If this is the case, why are Russian elections so bizarrely different from those in other democratic states? Why are the second and third most popular presidential candidates not even interested in actually becoming president? Hell, one of them (Zhirinovsky) actually called for elections to be abolished and for Putin to be given the title of “Supreme Commander.” Can anyone imagine a Republican in the US suggesting such a thing for Obama? Can you even imagine them just calling for Obama to be able to run for a third term? The scandal would be at least equal to the one surrounding the Trump administration at the moment.

So please, Putinist pedants- stop pretending Putin’s regime is just a little quirky or just as democratic as other states and wringing your hands while presenting polls to show how unpopular candidates like Navalny are. We all know they’re unpopular, and anyone who knows about Russia’s political an mass media system knows why. To para-phrase Filipov, if you think there’s another candidate Russia correspondents should be spending more time covering, please name them and explain why. What is newsworthy about them? And to extrapolate from that- if you’re not happy with the stories that Western journalists cover, maybe you should provide examples of the stories you think should be covered and again, say why. I’ve often written about my complaints about some of that coverage and I give my reasons.

Otherwise, I suggest you drop that trope and stick to your whataboutism. At least there you’re more likely to come up with a decent point from time to time.


A Big Deal

In case you haven’t heard yet, yesterday Russia experienced its largest protest action since 2012. Sanctioned and unsanctioned anti-government protests took place in over 80 different cities all over Russia. Over 700 people (including American Guardian reporter Alec Luhn) were detained in Moscow, where the march went ahead without official sanction.

Of course if you watch any news besides Russia’s major state-run networks, you probably already know about the protests.



Now I had planned to write an explainer about the significance of these protests, but as it turns out, Mark Galeotti handled that:


I have a few points I’d like to add to Mark’s, but before I do, check out that massive collection of Osprey military history books on the right. That’s an impressive collection. This is a measure of wealth among military history nerds. A friend in the States is hanging on to my Osprey collection (which is about the same size as what you see there) so that, as per tradition, they may be buried with me when I die so I’ll have something to read in the next life. For as it says in The Havamal, “Cattle die, kinsmen die, you yourself must die. But I know of one thing that never dies- the fame of a dead man’s Osprey book collection.”

Now getting to my own points about the protests, I think the first thing to keep in mind is that the Moscow march was unsanctioned and it happened anyway, drawing as many as 20,000 people. This makes it smaller than some of the recent sanctioned opposition marches, but huge by unsanctioned protest standards. I can’t stress this unsanctioned part enough. People tend to get carried off by police even during sanctioned meetings in Moscow. If a meeting is unsanctioned, it’s possible to get hauled off by police just for getting too close as you pass by. The implication is that if the meeting is unsanctioned and you go to it, they have every right to take you (they actually don’t, according to the Russian constitution). Yet in spite of this threat hanging over everyone’s head, about 20,000 Muscovites decided to roll the dice. This is very important. It shows that there is a growing number of Russians who refuse to submit so easily.

Another interesting point is how the Russian state media almost totally ignored the protests. While yesterday’s events were unfolding in the center of Moscow, several state news outlets were covering the exciting story of a cow in the US that led police on a wild chase after it had escaped. This is curious because you think it would have been a great time to deliver a call to arms to the alleged 96%, the die-hard pro-Putin majority who support the Glorious Leader out of sheer patriotism and who don’t want to see him toppled by a US-sponsored “Maidan.” But alas, they decided to cover almost anything but this, including a helicopter crash in Ukraine. Of course.

Lastly, I’m now in a position to better gauge Ukrainian reactions to the protest, and while some of my friend were at firs highly skeptical and critical of the protests before they took place, that attitude changed somewhat when they saw how many Russians came out in spite of the threats and arrests. Ukrainians are understandably upset because most Russian opposition figures, including Alexei Navalny, typically tip-toe around the question of the Crimea and the Russian occupation of the eastern Donbas. What I would remind them is that first of all, there’s often a big difference between Russia’s opposition leadership, which has many ideological problems beyond the Ukrainian question, and the rank-in-file. Anti-war messages and Ukrainian flags were more visible at the past two Nemtsov memorial marches. In fact, this year’s march apparently had a lot of Crimean Tatar flags, which is even more controversial as it directly highlights the Crimean issue.

Ukrainians have every right to feel betrayed by the Russian people, including opposition supporters, but there comes a time when you have to ask yourself whether you’re going to remain bitter towards everyone or start forging ties with those who are closest to your side. Let’s not forget that at Maidan, a number of political groups with horrible ideas were tolerated and even respected because the brutality and corruption of the Yanukovych regime deliberately forced disparate groups into one camp. If it is wrong to associate Maidan as a whole with those marginal groups (a mistake I was once guilty of), it is surely wrong to pretend that Russians willing to risk arrest and much worse for the sake of standing up to the regime are no different from a pro-Putin vatnik just because they haven’t yet accepted the reality about the Crimean annexation and occupation. These are the people who you can actually dialog with, but not if you just dismiss their protest offhand, the way you were all dismissed as neo-Nazi Banderites by the Russian media back in 2014.

One more important thing to keep in mind on this point is that while it is true that many anti-Putin Russians still hold imperialist views on the Crimea, you’re unlikely to find any who support the war and occupation in the Donbas. In fact, I’d say very few Russians in general actually support the war in the Donbas. While it is important to restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity in total, it is the Donbas that is literally bleeding Ukraine at the moment. A new democratic regime in Moscow may be unlikely to hand over the Crimea without a struggle, but they’ll happily end the war in Ukraine to stop wasting state resources and lift the most hard-hitting sanctions. Also, if Putin feels threatened at home he will have to cease or at least greatly scale back his military adventures, and that includes in the Donbas.

So from the Ukrainian point of view, it’s important to realize that a seed has been planted and it needs to be nurtured. Just three years ago it seemed like all resistance in Russia was dead and buried. Now Putin and his cronies are waking up to reality- that the opposition they thought they’d all but stamped out is not only alive, but actually growing and spreading in places they never expected. Given the fact that non-political labor protests and strikes have been increasing throughout provincial Russia in the past few years, it’s only natural for them to eventually become politicized as more and more formerly regime-loyal people wake up and realize that the problem isn’t the “bad boyars” but the Putinist system itself.

It may go slowly or quickly, but one thing’s for sure- it’s only downhill from here for the Kremlin regime.





Not suspicious at all…

So while everyone was busy discussing the Panama Papers, it seems the Dear Leader President Putin has decided to consolidate several law enforcement organizations into one large “national guard.” Well okay, I shouldn’t get ahead of myself just yet. The presidential initiative has just been handed over to the Duma so there’s a chance that there might be heated debate and opposition:

Seriously though, the Kremlin has been saying some rather ominous things about this new force. Rather than sticking with a somewhat credible and more noble story about the need to protect against terrorism (very necessary these days), they’ve come right out and said that it would be involved in the suppression of unauthorized mass gatherings.

Yes, that’s right folks. Putin has superior approval ratings and the dwindling opposition consists of a handful of traitors and limp-wristed hipsters of the creative class, but at any moment that unpopular, marginalized group could suddenly rise up, turn into Nazis, and successfully overthrow the Russian government within a few weeks. Therefore, Putin needs this private army. By the way, can you believe how high is approval ratings are?! Russia loves Putin! But in case they don’t- private army. Oh yeah one more thing. Don’t go thinking the the president might not be entirely competent just because he apparently presides over a state which is so weak it could be overthrown at the drop of a hat by “degenerate” hipsters. Remember- private army!

This is all good fun, but in reality it shows that to some degree or another, the Kremlin is scared. There are things they, and in particular the FSO or Federal Guard Service, know and we don’t. If Peskov’s words were sincere and the national guard is about suppressing mass protests, it means they’re scared. If it is just another example of a trial balloon to intimidate the opposition, it still shows fear. Some dogs bark because they’re mean, but often they bark because they’re scared. Sooner or later, Russians are going to start calling the system’s bluff.

After everything that has happened since 2012, one would think that the Russian opposition would melt away. Almost totally frozen out of the media, extremely unpopular outside of Moscow with few exceptions, and with violent, in some cases fatal attacks against opposition figures, one would expect them to throw in the towel. But last February I saw that the cowardly intimidation campaign won’t work.

Putin, his circle, and the people who fervently support and maintain his rule are products of the 1990’s. They are largely rats, cowards who will go through any indignity to snatch some crumbs at the expense of their people. But what they failed to realize, for all their conceited delusions about knowing their own history, is that Russia may have its cowards but it also has people of unbelievable courage. This is the land that produced Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya and Viktor Leonov. People like them were a small minority, but their courage and endurance more than made good any deficiency.

The deluded pseudo-historians in the Kremlin camp love to invoke the supposedly legendary ability of Russians to endure any hardship for the sake of patriotism, but they are mistaken. They endure hardship, not humiliation, only insofar as the cause seems worthy. What humiliation or hardship could the Kremlin possibly inflict on dissenters at this point? They have slandered, harassed, tortured, and even killed- what more can they possibly do that Russians haven’t suffered before, often to a greater degree?

Credible information about Putin’s personal attitudes suggest that he sees Nikolai II and Gorbachev as weak, and that he believes he must be stronger than them. He also believes that the state is inherently legitimate regardless of its actions or the consent of the people. Given his support unwavering support of Yanukovych and more alarming, that he has for Assad, it’s clear that if threatened Putin will have no qualms about ordering his new private army to gun down Russian citizens in droves.

In that case, the price for Russia’s freedom will be high, but history tells us that there are Russians who will gladly pay it. While I fear and loathe the suffering that will inevitably follow this regime’s fall, there’s one small consolation about the violent scenario- Putin will never get to enjoy that $2 billion his friend squirreled away.

Mixed messages

Yesterday a proposal was raised in the Duma to cancel elections so long as Russia was still under “economic pressure” from the West, i.e. sanctions. Yes, the same sanctions they keep telling us do nothing and only hurt the West are apparently causing enough “economic pressure” that the Duma should consider cancelling the upcoming Duma and presidential elections. Sure.

First for you newbies let’s shut down something right here. No, this doesn’t represent Russia’s descent into “Stalinist totalitarianism” or some such nonsense. This is almost certainly not serious and probably won’t be brought up again. This is by no means the first time a Russian politician has suggested suspending elections. LDPR leader Zhirinovsky, despite technically being an opposition presidential candidate, once publicly suggested doing away with all elections indefinitely and renaming Putin “Supreme Commander.” The point is that this proposal is probably just another example of these scare tactics the government uses to panic people and remind them that if they don’t keep their heads down things can get a whole lot worse.

Just one problem though. I’m not saying that the proposal is going to turn into something serious, but in this case the message to the public is really garbled. Most Russians, including opposition supporters, have little illusions about change via the ballot box. Since no one believes in elections anyway, it almost seems like this is a cost-saving measure.

Who is this message even aimed at? The West, which imposed the sanctions on Russia, doesn’t believe in Russian democracy anyway. Therefore one can’t assert that this is some kind of threat like: “Lift your sanctions or look what we’ll do to our own people!” The Kremlin already demonstrated what it could do in that respect with the food import ban.

The message is even counter-productive as well, suggesting that Russia is in such danger thanks to crisis and those Western sanctions (which supposedly were helping Russia), the government can’t even afford to organize and rig some elections.

The most logical explanation I can think of in this case is that it was designed to troll and panic the liberals, which is often the case when you hear about some real draconian proposals being floated in the Duma. Even if they have no chance of winning anywhere, elections have become a sort of rallying point for the opposition and it gives them something concrete to do. Without that, they’d probably be reduced to holding the occasional rally in some sleeping district of Moscow. That and Russian liberals still seem very easy to freak out with bullshit proposals like this. Internet tax, exit visas- you name it and they’ll panic all over the internet for a couple days. You’d think they’d learn by now.

Finally, if it’s not any one of these motives, it could be possible that the message machine is breaking down somehow. Either that, or somebody’s been smoking spice. These days who knows?

So all in all it’s an educational experience and a good case study, but I’m fairly confident that the upcoming Duma and presidential elections will proceed as planned and I’m 100% confident that the United Russia party will maintain a majority while Vladimir Putin wins the presidency.


Definitely something happening here

Let me be frank. I had planned a long polemical post about Ukraine’s recent ban on the “Communist” Party of Ukraine (I’m sorry I won’t write that without quotation marks), and how it fits in with decommunization in general, but some other business came up and frankly my heart’s not in it at the moment. With topics like that I’ve decided that you’ve got to go hard or don’t go at all. Lucky for us, however, there’s no shortage of news coming out of Russia, so the Ukrainian government gets a little breather…for now.

A while back I wrote about some strange behavior of the Kremlin, which as of late definitely seems to be anticipating some kind of mass unrest. Some recent updates seem to confirm this point of view. I have to say this is puzzling to me, and not because I take the president’s high approval rating at face value. It’s confusing because it’s not clear exactly what the authorities are afraid of.

If we’re completely honest, we know at some level the powers that be should have an understanding as to what constitutes a serious threat to their rule. Publicly they may rant about gays, performance artists, and other trivial bullshit that supposedly poses an existential threat to this great Russian superpower, but in private there must be people who understand where the real threats are. This is their job. They must have some measure of competence, at least behind closed doors. Right? Right?

If we go with this explanation, then it suggests that the authorities, most likely the security forces, know about some gathering threat that the rest of us don’t clearly see at the moment. Perhaps there’s no legions of people ready to create that mass unrest the government is so afraid of, but maybe the latter is anticipating some coming economic catastrophe which they think might serve as a catalyst.

On the other hand, maybe they truly are largely incompetent, which is an equally debatable position. Groupthink can affect even the most professional institutions, and the peculiar nature of Russia’s system fosters groupthink to a much higher degree. In other words, it is entirely possible that many people in the halls of power have convinced themselves that small opposition parties and other marginalized groups are in fact somehow poised to overthrow them, and that this could actually be feasible with the sudden arrival of American aid that the authorities have hitherto been unable to find.

The point is, I just don’t see this threat the authorities are afraid of. Yes, the economy is in a nose dive with no end in sight. Yes, standards of living are dropping. Yes, Putin’s blame the West line is starting to wear thin, just barely. Still, I don’t really see people so brainwashed with the “stability uber alles” mindset coming out in the street until you start seeing things like widespread malnutrition and starvation or people’s elderly relatives freezing to death in the winter (which given Russia’s issues with utilities is entirely possible eventually).

Now to be fair, I failed to predict the opposition protests in 2011. This was based on experience with ordinary Russians and how apathetic they were toward politics. In 2007 everyone I talked to expected the Duma elections to be rigged but they simply didn’t care. Many of them were doing too well in their personal life to be concerned over trivial matters such as who was in charge of their country. Their mistake, I guess. But in spite of that apathy, one thing you definitely had in 2011 was a lot of people willingly to publicly voice their dissatisfaction. The Kremlin still put out its “NATO encirclement,” patriotic propaganda, but most people just seemed to roll their eyes. So while I didn’t expect the protests, I could at least understand where they came from.

These days I still don’t see that. Out of fear or cowardice, many Russians, including those who should know better, have drunk the Flavor Aid (Yes, Flavor Aid. Read your Jonestown history!). I have often struggled to explain to other foreigners what this is like. The best analogy I can come up with is one in which you and a friend are both die hard Star Wars fans. You both hate the prequels and you constantly trade jokes about how terrible The Phantom Menace was.Your complaints coincide 100% every time.

Then one day you make a joke about The Phantom Menace and your friend suddenly gets visibly offended. They tell you that The Phantom Menace is brilliant film and if you do not recognize it as such, you obviously hate the whole Star Wars series. At first you think your friend is joking. You want to see how he’ll ironically defend Jar Jar Binks, or little Anakin. He goes off on a long monologue about how brilliant both these characters are. You begin to realize he’s not joking. You ask him how he could hold this opinion now when it is 180 degrees the opposite of what he had said for years. His answers are evasive. He begins to talk about other film series which are allegedly worse. “You don’t like the prequels? And I suppose you think The Matrix trilogy was brilliant, don’t you?!”

That’s about as simple as I can break it down. Right now, while many people are still grumbling among themselves, publicly it looks like the majority still consists of confirmed Jar Jar supporters (Psst! “Jar Jar” is Putin). That doesn’t mean they’ll actually put any effort into defending the current regime; it just means they aren’t going to be pouring out into the streets any time soon.

Granted, I’ve been wrong about these things before. To hedge my bets I should remind the reader that uprisings and revolutions don’t always come from well-organized opposition movements. When the system breaks down, people can be faced with the choice of starvation and death or getting out into the streets and forcing change. It could very well be that the authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about their ability to keep that system running at a level considered acceptable by the majority. That being said, at this moment I don’t see any convincing evidence of storm clouds on the horizon.

With that in mind we’ll have to see what 2016 brings. What we’re most likely to see is the Goble-types predicting imminent total collapse after every scandal, while the Kremlin cheerleaders seize upon anything that can be spun as good news and present it as proof that Russia has weathered the worst of the crisis, and now it’s only a matter of time before the degenerate West collapses the way it was supposed to ten to twenty years ago. In other words, let’s be really cautious and take everything with a grain of salt.



What are they thinking?

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about how Russia’s biggest thieves and traitors scream the loudest about patriotism. Recently I was reading about a perfect example of this phenomenon, in this case the story of state Duma deputy Dmitry Sablin and his massive, palatial house and its fleet of luxury automobiles. The second part of the investigation deals with Sablin’s denials in regards to not publicly declaring his ownership of the property, but even if he had declared ownership it still wouldn’t explain where he got so much money in the first place, given his working history.

Now none of this is really news until you learn that Sablin is one of the founders of Russia’s latest astroturf movement, “Anti-Maidan.” As the author of the investigation calls him, he’s just another one of Russia’s “professional patriots.” Fully aware of their parasitic nature, they fear the wrath of the people they are exploiting and humiliating. Thus they create these organizations and disseminate propaganda so as to make people think that their enemy is the West, when in fact their enemy is Rublevka and the other elite districts of Russia. Sadly, many people are still on the needle that is jingoism. Why is this? Or an even better question: Why do people join organizations like Anti-Maidan when most of them wouldn’t be remotely surprised to hear about Sablin’s mysterious wealth?

Well first of all, Russians have been severely depoliticized since Putin took over. In the beginning he did stabilize things, but at a cost of cracking down on civil society and transforming Russian politics into theater, or what Peter Pomerantsev calls a kind of reality TV show. This is why if you discussed politics with anyone in Russia, they simply didn’t care. Thus it came as a shock to me after the Duma elections of 2011 when thousands of people suddenly started taking to the streets. It was 180 degrees the opposite of the elections in 2007 and 2008, about which no one seemed to care. Unfortunately not much in terms of useful ideas or a coherent ideology was formed in 2011-2012. In terms of political though, Russia has very little to work with and this has been the case since 1991. The liberals aren’t liberals, the Communists aren’t Communists, and so on.

Without any ideas of what can be done to save Russia, there can be no organized movement for change. If people have ideas, even really bad ones, they will brave police crackdowns and violence to force some kind of change in society. Maidan’s ideas, aside from anti-corruption and pro-civil society, ran the gamut from the naive idea that European integration would be a panacea for Ukraine, to the ridiculous, outdated ideas of the smaller but very vocal far-right. Without making moral judgments, people were able to coalesce around a core of ideas, even if that was only collective rage, and this gave them the determination to stay in the streets come what may. Unfortunately we do not know how far they were willing to go as Mr. Yanukovych decided to rage-quit the game.

Russia tends to lack such simple, coherent ideas because its media has been increasingly blasting the population with bizarre, often contradictory propaganda messages. Lenin is a great Russian leader when thugs in Ukraine topple his statue, but other times he’s an evil foreign-financed beast who murdered the Russian royal family and set Russia back by decades. Josef Stalin is a great leader, but only because they turn him into this Russian nationalist tsar of sorts, and all the negative aspects of the USSR under his tenure are presented in a positive light because this is useful to the rulers of today. Russia is supposedly a bastion of traditional family values, but it’s also a wild land of decadent parties and sexy women. All these contradictory messages occur against a background of corruption, apathy, and utter disregard for society by the authorities. The result is a high level of cynicism and utter hopelessness.

Of course this can only be used as a contributing factor in explaining why Russians don’t stand up to their government. It doesn’t explain why people join movements like Anti-Maidan. One thing the opposition might find difficult to chew on is the fact that for many, the reason can be sincere belief. I believe in an Occam’s razor approach that starts with the assumption that people who join organizations and movements must have some measure of actual belief in the stated cause. I suspect many of these people are young, inexperienced, and immersed in the kind of propaganda and indoctrination that is a feature of public schools around the world. Youth are the shock troops of politics because they are malleable and tend to fanatically support whatever cause they’ve become acquainted with. They also have a strong need for belonging and social approval, hence the readiness to join movements and organizations.

Indeed, it might seem odd that so many people could have genuine feelings of patriotism in a country where the government and ruling elite are so open in their contempt and hatred for the majority of their citizens. However one must remember that patriotism is one of the easiest causes to rally behind. Everyone has a nationality; if you can’t get into any other exclusive clubs, you were born into this one. The rules are easy too. Support your country by defending its government, and wave the flag. Decry Western values, even if you don’t know what they are. Reject Western products, except the ones you really, really need…or want. If someone asks you what values you are for that’s an easy question. Russian values of course! If they ask you what they are, question their patriotism or just flat out label them a traitor.  Patriotism isn’t just the last refuge of scoundrels, it’s also great for lazy people too.

Of course money is involved as well. It’s no secret that the government and approved opposition parties use monetary incentives and intimidation to get students, pensioners, and state employees to attend rallies. This is actually more sinister than people realize, because what it means is that the power structure actually has a negative incentive against not only improving living standards but also against expanding the so-called “middle class.” The more disposable income people have and the better their living conditions, the less likely they are to attend political rallies they don’t care about for paltry sums of money.

Another major factor is that groups like Anti-Maidan are authorized dissent. There’s an old Soviet joke about how and American and Russian are comparing their two countries on the basis of freedom of speech. The American points out that he can stand in Times Square and call the president of the United States a son of a bitch. The Russian tells him that he could just as easily stand in Red Square and call the president of the United States a son of a bitch. Many a truth is said in jest, and in this case it describes movements like Anti-Maidan quite well. Youth like the idea of going to protests and being rebellious, but they aren’t allowed to challenge the system here. Therefore movements like this let them blow off steam at enemies of the regime and other safe targets. Of course that brings up a darker side of movements like Anti-Maidan.

I have written in the past about the role of humiliation in modern Russian culture. Among the youth and even older males there is a lot of pent up rage. These people are angry at their family life, angry about their jobs or lack thereof, angry that their world seems to be crumbling all around them for reasons they cannot understand. They hate the stereotypical “creative class” that has become synonymous with liberalism in Russia, supposedly because they are traitors who would turn Russia into a colony of the United States. In reality, the opposition doesn’t necessarily consist solely of well-to-do hipsters. Nonetheless, this class appears threatening to certain segments of Russian society. They fear a Russia in which they will be forced to learn about an outside world they can’t understand, where they will be forced to defend their ideas without the ability to use the violence of the state to silence opponents. They will have to compete to succeed rather than getting kickbacks by knowing the right people. They fear a Russia where things like talent and innovation are the main currency as opposed to getting handouts for loyalty. Now all you have to do is wave a flag, call yourself a patriot, and accuse others of being traitors. What if that’s all gone one day? So long as these Anti-Maidan people are useful to the government, they’ll be the heroes of the day.

The other side of that coin is that these people know they will be allowed to harass, and possibly assault people with near impunity. If they are stopped by police, they will likely get off easy if they are even charged. In many cases, they won’t be caught at all. When you’re mad at the whole world it’s nice to be allowed to vent your anger on people who you assume have it better than you. In Russia the state and elite are always reminding you of how utterly powerless you are. If it’s not the Duma discussing another thing they want to ban, it’s the luxury cars parked outside ridiculously expensive restaurants in the center. These people know that their elite are dining on foreign cuisine and drinking the finest imported liquor, embargo notwithstanding, and no doubt with foreign business associates who will be fixed up with some of the most beautiful girls beyond the reach of your average Adidas-wearing 18-25 year old Russian male. Post-Soviet Russian society is always shoving this in your face, but you’re not allowed to strike back at the protected. Therefore all the better when those people give you a green light to beat up on people who enjoy Western fashions, listen to different music, and learn English or other foreign languages. You are humiliated so you want to humiliate others.

Indeed it’s all very cynical, but cynicism is the essence of Putin’s Russia. If you tell the members of these astroturf movements that their sponsors are insanely rich and live luxurious lives totally detached from the reality of most Russians, often at their expense, they might get a bit upset but they won’t be surprised. They most likely already know or at least suspect as much. They stick with the Kremlin because they sense this is the winning side and this is the safe option. As people in the movement vie for favor at the top and the handouts which go along with all that, underlings will see that loyalty isn’t always enough. Infighting will lead to splits and more parties and organizations will spring up while the more ideologically strict ones made up of true believers will fall by the wayside due to lack of funding.

As ominous as the rise of such movements may be, this cannot go on forever. In fact the more resources and power are allocated to these groups and movements by the state, the closer to the bitter end we are. This is because these groups have a major flaw in common with the top leadership of the country, namely, they are totally out of touch with reality. This means that they are unwilling to listen to people who present actual solutions to Russia’s concrete problems.

What they want to hear are patriotic speeches about crushing America, not someone telling them that Russia needs to attract foreign capital and support small and medium-sized businesses. This is why Putin became so popular while Medvedev is still pretty much a non-entity even among Kremlin fans. Putin appeals to their adolescent wishes and insecurities. Medvedev gives entire speeches without talking about nuclear missiles, bears, or Russian power.  As a general rule of thumb, you want your leader to talk more or less like those of successful countries with high living standards. If they start babbling about bears in forests or “traditions” it’s usually a bad sign.

No doubt these movements will one day turn against their masters; those people who egged them on, financed them, trained them, and then set them against “national traitors” will one day find themselves labeled traitors, and for once it will be just. Sadly what this means in the mean time is that the state is currently enabling, encouraging, and cultivating the worst elements of Russian society and pitting it against the last hope for this nation to survive in the 21st century. So there is a very real danger that when that day of reckoning does come, there won’t be any educated, intelligent, visionary class of people left to rebuild the nation from the ashes. This is the price of 15 years of cynicism and corruption. Russia’s epitaph will read: “Destroyed by her patriots.”

No Alternative – Khodorkovsky 10 years later

For years I took flak over my unrelenting position on Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his ridiculous martyr cult. At one point I was banned from a Khodorkovsky support page simply for asking the page’s admins to explain how Khodorkovsky originally made his fortune. The responses I got from them fit nicely with those I got from everyone else. “Sure he was an oligarch,” they’d say, “But everyone was doing what he did in the 90’s!” Actually, “everyone” was not doing the same thing Khodorkovsky did. Most people were trying to survive, and if everyone had been doing what he did, everyone would be as wrong as he was. “He wanted to transform Russia with transparency and rule of law,” they’d say. I “wanted” to join the French Foreign Legion and design video games. Do I deserve a white kepi and a position at Electronic Arts in spite of the fact that I didn’t actually realize either of those youthful ambitions? No? Then I don’t give a damn what Khodorkovsky supposedly “wanted to do.” “You sound like a Kremlin supporter,” some of them would say. The day that people are forced to concede that Russia’s only choices are Putin and Khodorkovsky is the day that we must all acknowledge the country is irreparably doomed. I’m not convinced that day has come.

Those were dark days indeed, when someone like me would be lumped in with the Putin fan club just because I refused to slavishly admire self-manufactured saviors whose sole claim to moral superiority is their professed opposition to Putin and their suffering at the hands of his regime. Surely Russian prisons are full of individuals who curse Putin’s name; I doubt any of them would make good leadership material. To their credit, however, many of those people probably did far less damage to Russian society than Khodorkovsky ever did. In case I haven’t driven the point home hard enough, I am quite confident that if you threw Vladimir Putin into a small room with a rabid male platypus shot up with methamphetamine, that rare freak of nature would probably show itself to be quite opposed to Putin. Notwithstanding this, I would not support its candidacy to lead Russia or any other country for that matter.

After all these years I feel somewhat vindicated by Julia Ioffe’s recent New Yorker piece all about Khodorkovsky, who was famously released from prison in December of 2013. Ioffe points out how Russia’s liberals and opposition tended to hold their tongue about Khodorkovsky while he was in prison, but now that he’s out they feel more relaxed about criticizing him. Perhaps many of them simply got submerged in his PR and forgot how he acquired his position in the first place. Perhaps now that they have begun actually dealing with him face to face or at least directly without Kremlin interference, they are starting to realize who he actually was before he went to prison. Garbage in, garbage out.

One thing I must praise about Ioffe’s work is that she doesn’t cover for Khodorkovsky in the slightest. Doing what other Russian opposition-supporters used to refuse to do, she carefully details the history of how Khodorkovsky amassed his fortune via fraud and connections in the state, along with his personal philosophy that gleefully put profits ahead of people. It was a worldview that characterized 90’s Russia. While millions suffered, a tiny minority partied. Ioffe’s retelling of this all but forgotten story is concise, clear, and incredibly useful to me ever since I gave away my copy of Marshall I. Goldman’s The Piratization of Russia. My edition was published prior to Khodorkovsky’s arrest in 2003, before he had become such a cause célèbre among Russian liberals and their like-minded supporters abroad. Thus the book contained an interesting passage about Khodorkovsky’s then recently-started PR campaign for transparency and better business practices, noting that it remained to be seen whether he would actually back his words with action. My guess is that if Khodorkovsky somehow achieved power in Russia, something he apparently still openly desires, he would not.

The crowning achievement of Ioffe’s article is that it provides the strongest case against Khodorkovsky as an acceptable alternative to Putin using the ex-oligarch’s own words. What I got from reading about the man, his behavior, and his ideas tells me that not only is he wholly unqualified to lead Russia or any other country, but that there is no reason to believe that he wouldn’t either become another Putin, or at least create the sort of conditions which would open the door to another Putin-like figure in the future. At his core, Khodorkovsky embodies the same toxic mentality of post-Soviet Russia. He is narcissistic almost to the point of psychopathy. While seeking the highest power in Russia, he clearly feels no responsibility or accountability to the Russian people by his own open admission. He clearly does not understand the concepts of democracy, nor does he understand the system of government in the Western countries he so admires. His understanding of the world doesn’t seem to be that much more rational than that of Vladimir Putin, and the way he runs his projects suggests that he can be just as dictatorial.

Clearly the strongest indictment against Khodorkovsky, the one which so eloquently demonstrates his lack of understanding and his potential to become another Putin, can be found in this passage:

“He recalled with fondness an old acquaintance, the unfortunate Kenneth Lay, the late C.E.O. of Enron, who was, in Khodorkovsky’s estimation, a thumbs-up kind of guy. The whistle-blowers in that case outraged him: why did people glorify cowardly spies and traitors, and put them on magazine covers?”

Note the utter lack of irony from a man who asserts that he was innocent of any crime, and who was accused of being a traitor to Russia by the government. This is also a man who is supposed to be a “liberal,” who was for years a figure of admiration for Russia’s “liberals,” and yet he has nothing but kind words for a man whom American liberals rightly scorned.There is a far deeper meaning in this sentence, however.

One paradox of Russia is that supporters of the Kremlin and Russia’s “liberals” both see people like Edward Snowden as traitors to their country. Even the enthusiastically pro-Russian Americans, Canadians, Britons, and other Westerners are traitors in the eyes of both Russian sides. In the eyes of the Kremlin supporters and their media organs such as RT, these are useful traitors, but traitors nonetheless. The “liberals” also see traitors, largely because their unqualified admiration of the West and their misguided belief that all politics should be reduced to an absurd false dichotomy.

As it stands today, Russians of all walks of life generally cannot understand an Edward Snowden, a Martin Luther King Jr., or a John Brown, and this is a huge problem. There are times when one’s country, or at least its government, is morally wrong. Opposing this often means breaking the law. Of course Russian liberals would claim that they totally understand this, pointing inaccurately to Khodorkovsky. But Khodorkovsky did not deliberately break an unjust law. He got rich off of the absence of rule of law, and went to jail over his riches. It was the liberals who transformed him into a hero simply because he was opposed to Putin. Merely being opposed to Putin does not denote any moral superiority. Rest assured the Kremlin and all Moscow’s halls of power are crawling with all sorts of individuals who are secretly opposed to Putin, and a great deal of them may be far worse than him.

Getting back to the point about traitors, if Putin can openly and publicly indulge paranoid fantasies about “fifth columnists” and “national traitors,” judging by Khodorkovsky’s own words there is a good possibility he might do the same. This is a man who reviles corporate whistleblowers. How might he react to dissent in his hypothetical regime?  Can Khodorkovsky and many of his supporters truly grasp the slogan, “Dissent is patriotic?” I have my doubts, especially as so many of them are all too willing to label any Westerner who speaks out against their own societies’ as pro-Kremlin dupes, even when they haven’t a kind word for Putin or his clique. How can they supposedly aspire to our standards of human rights and free speech if they expect us not to use them?

What about the topic of rationality? Ioffe’s article reveals that Khodorkovsky has a very bizarre belief about homosexuality, not much unlike the clearly anti-scientific beliefs of Russia’s right-wing legislators. Khodorkovsky suggested that it is a natural evolutionary mechanism for controlling population growth. This isn’t too far removed from the apparent beliefs of infamous figures such as Yelena Mizulina, who often claims her “family values” crusading is aimed at fighting Russia’s population decline, even if it means forcing people who have no sexual attraction to each other to have children they don’t want.  I’m not trying to say this means Khodorkovsky is a raging homophobe; he may very well not be. What I am saying, however, is that he is by no means the voice of reason Russia sorely needs. That the topic which demonstrates this fact happens to be LGBT issues is peripheral.

Of course some of the most disturbing traits which cast doubt on Khodorkovsky’s qualifications to lead Russia are his lack of basic understanding of American government and the fact that he does not speak or read any language fluently other than Russian. When I point out how many of Russia’s pro-Kremlin “geopolitical experts” and “America experts” can’t speak English, it is a source of amusement. These are people whose entire life revolves around hating America and to a lesser extent, the English language. Khodorkovsky and his followers, however, have near uncritical admiration for the US. The US is often presented as an epitome of what Russia could be, and what it should be. Suffice to say it is very important that these people know what they are talking about. Learning that Khodorkovsky doesn’t is pretty damning for him. Sure, many ordinary Russian liberals don’t get the West either, but they don’t have his influence. Khodorkovsky has the money and drive to cause some serious problems.

Khodorkovsky’s unqualified admiration for the West, rooted in ignorance, is part of a larger problem with Russia’s “liberal opposition” going back to the 90’s, if not the late Soviet era with its “dissidents.” These were not sincere advocates of human rights, democracy, and rule of law, but rather they were a cargo cult that believed shouting these phrases repeatedly would some how make the concepts materialize. I’ve said before how confusing it can be for some foreigners hear how Russian government supporters will openly scoff at the words “freedom” and “democracy,” and I have to remind them that this is due to an association of these terms with the breakdown of society in the 90’s. Everybody associated with that disaster seemed to have those terms on their tongue at the same time. ‘Cum hoc ergo propter hoc’ this belief may be, but it is at least understandable. The sad thing is that so many years later, a leading figure of Russia’s liberals still doesn’t seem to get it.

Russia’s early “democrats” or “liberals” never looked at the West critically. They saw only the good, that much is true, but it often seems they never understood how that good came to be.  That’s why “liberal” figures can’t understand why Americans would protest against their government or its foreign policy. “Our government is so much worse! Look at all the stuff you have!” Indeed, the American government is morally and structurally superior to that of Russia, but it is far from perfect and it took decades of struggle just to get it there. If Russia ever throws off the yoke of its own system and adopts a functioning form of liberal democracy, there will still be massive issues which must be tackled. What exactly did all those advocates of “civil society” expect civil society to do once they unchained it?  Russia’s “liberals” then, as it seems they do now, saw the West’s freedom and prosperity as something they could “get,” not something which had to be earned and relentlessly guarded. This is what they offered in the 90’s, and they failed to deliver. Eventually, a man came along and offered them something else, “stability.” That, of course, was Putin.

This is what I mean when I say that Khodorkovsky seems to embody the same bankrupt mentality that has been strangling post-Soviet Russia from the beginning.  Putin promised to give people order and most of all, “stability.” Nobody had to actually do anything other than give up their choice and rights. Now Khodorkovsky comes along offering “democracy” again, and all the Russian people will have to do is give him the same deference they gave Putin. Nobody has to struggle for anything, nobody has to work to actually make rule of law or democracy a reality. All you need is a cult of one man and a belief that he will hand you everything you want.

The other indicator that Khodorkovsky is cut from the same cotton-padded material as Putin is his utter lack of accountability for his past actions. He feels absolutely no responsibility to the people of Russia. Now Russian citizens are supposed to grant this man power over them? What is to stop him from becoming another Putin? What is to stop him from musing about Pushkin and bears eating berries in the forest at a press conference fifteen years after he somehow gains power in Russia? I think what a lot of people fail to see when Putin rambles on about his fantastical view of the world is that he’s sees things that way because he’s insulated and isolated from reality. He has never truly been held accountable for his actions in power and he’s never really had to face their consequences. He feels no responsibility to Russia’s citizenry whatsoever, and his utter lack of a coherent plan in the face of the looming economic meltdown is proof of that. Now here we have Mikhail Khodorkovsky in this interview, demonstrating quite clearly that he has the same psychopathic lack of accountability for his actions. It wouldn’t be long before such a man sitting in Putin’s chair might begin to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

I often tell leftists in the US that Russia is no alternative to the society we have there. Likewise Khodorkovsky is no alternative to Putin. What is more, he seems bent on financing and directing a revolution from abroad, one which will clearly do little more than get a lot of otherwise well-meaning people harassed, jailed, or worse. Of course Khodorkovsky won’t feel pity for them. He owes apologies to no one, even those who go to prison naively supporting his cause. For that reason alone his cause should fail. I only hope it does not drag too many of Russia’s last independent-minded people down with it.