Tag Archives: protests

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.

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Moscow

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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

Revolution or collapse? Thoughts on the Nemtsov memorial march

For those who don’t remember, this past Saturday, the 27th, is the one-year anniversary of the assassination of Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down about 100 meters from the Kremlin wall. This extremely public killing seriously upped the ante for dissidents in Putin’s Russia. In 2012 there was the crackdown on protest leaders. This would be followed by more laws restricting media, the liquidation of state-run news outlets that were too objective, and more of the usual harassment of opposition figures by pro-Kremlin youth groups. Violent incidents, especially among leading figures of opposition parties, was still rather rare- and then Nemtsov was shot. If he could be killed within sight of the Kremlin, literally a couple minutes walk from St. Basil’s Cathedral, what chance would ordinary, often working class Russian citizens have in a climate of increasing hatred towards “traitors?”

While the murder and the woefully inadequate investigation were no doubt aimed at intimidating opposition supporters, it would seem that it failed to do so. Just before Nemtsov was killed he was preparing to lead a sanctioned rally the following day. The march proceeded as planned, but instead of a protest it was now a funeral procession. I was not present at that event, but estimates say there were about 50,000 people in attendance. It is quite possible that the shooting actually convinced more people to come out. It certainly convinced me to come out Saturday.

Prior to the shooting, I never had a good word for Nemtsov. That is not to say I despised or had any ill will towards him; our politics are very different and so I paid him little mind as I do with most Russian opposition politicians. But what I learned over the past few years, what I didn’t know back during those days of protests in 2011 and 2012, is that the system is increasingly tightening its grip so that people who dissent rarely have the luxury of being able to sit around and wage polemical wars with each other. In 2011-2012 I was constantly arguing with Russian liberals. By 2014 I had to humbly admit they had a point. They knew this system better than I, a foreigner with expat privilege.

Not having seen any significant Russian political demonstration since 2011, I decided to go to Saturday’s anniversary march to get my finger back on the pulse of Russian opposition politics. As a side benefit, attendance gave me the opportunity to catch up with a lot of friends and acquaintances.

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When I first emerged from the metro, I noticed some organizers standing around with clipboards and taking down names. The people giving their names were wearing St. George ribbons and other insignia suggesting they were probably pro-Kremlin counter-protesters, possibly of the hilariously named “National Liberation Movement.” The way this works is that organizers use casting sites and casting groups on social networks to recruit demonstrators or counter-protesters. Participants are usually paid about 350-500 rubles for forty or so minutes of standing around with a flag or sign. They tend to be students or pensioners. I’m happy to say that after I reached the starting point of the march, I did not see anyone who looked like a counter-protester or provocateur. If they were there, they must have been corralled near the starting point of the march.

What struck me about the march was the ease of getting into the starting place on Strastnoy bulvar, near Chekhovskaya metro station. As is usually the case in public events like this one, the police had set up a line of metal detectors that marchers had to pass through. Yet in contrast to other events I’ve witnessed, it took very little time to get through and there was little back-up behind the detectors. I ended up near the front of the march, but for what seemed like about an hour Strastnoy bulvar all the way to Petrovka street filled up with people. It was starting to get rather crowded an I occasionally retreated and changed positions to reach a point where I wouldn’t be so hemmed in. For some reason the police weren’t letting the march proceed.

Overhead there was a police helicopter flying over the crowd from various angles. Strangely this particular helicopter was a common European model and not something local such as a Kamov or Mil. So much for import replacement. It seemed people were getting a bit agitated at being made to wait for so long. Occasionally chants would break out, with slogans such as “Russia will be free,” “Russia without Putin,” and a couple of young men near me chanted a variant of the latter based on a Ukrainian made meme: “Rossiya bez khuilo!” This means “Russia without the dickhead”- guess who that is. Many signs made references to head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov, widely thought to have had at least some connection to the Nemtsov murder.

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Oh what? A Russian helicopter isn’t good enough for the Moscow police?

Eventually the march got underway and I could make more observations. One thing that jumped out at me was the age diversity. Attempts to categorize Kremlin support or dissent by age fail to meet expectations. There were elderly people and young people. Among the latter were many that did not measure up to the stereotype of the “creative class” types. At one point I heard a young girl with a beautiful voice singing “Where have all the flowers gone?” walking next to me. At her side was a man that looked to be her grandfather.

One thing I was pleased to see was the preponderance of Ukrainian flags and ribbons. Here is where you can see Ukrainian pride without nationalist symbols and Bandera portraits- yes, that’s actually possible! And speaking of nationalists, protests in 2011-2012 often had large far-right contingents, identifiable by their flags. This was partially because Putin, who has long had a roller-coaster relationship with nationalists, was on their bad side at the time. Since the beginning of Putin’s military adventure, a lot of nationalists went back to the system’s camp, especially when granted the ability to take out their aggression on Ukrainians. On the other hand, I didn’t notice any far leftists such as anarchists.

Something that really struck me was the police presence. It seemed considerably relaxed compared to other marches I’ve been to, and that includes 1 and 9 May marches held by official opposition parties like KPRF. The Internal troops weren’t called out, and the whole route wasn’t lined with human chains of cops, as I’d become accustomed to. They were certainly visible, but they were mostly blocking off perpendicular streets with the help of large trucks. I didn’t witness any conflict between police and the marchers.

The best opportunity to get an idea as to the attendance was when we began to ascend Petrovsky bulvar in the direction of Trubnaya square. Here it became clear that there were actually two columns marching on either side of the park that divides the lanes of Petrovsky- apparently the “5th column” had been divided into two 2.5 columns. The crowd stretched back as far as the eye could see. I’m no expert in estimating crowd sizes, but I’ve been to marches involving around 20,000-30,000 people and this looked rather similar. It’s quite possible that this march had roughly the same numbers as last year’s memorial march, i.e. approximately 50,000.

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Naturally this march infuriates the pro-Kremlin crowd. In their eyes all those present are liberal scum, traitor 5th columnists working with the United States to destroy Russia because…reasons. Yet as with many concepts in Kremlin propaganda, what we have here is a case of Schrodinger’s 5th Column. The “liberal” opposition is minuscule and unpopular (actually true), but at any moment it will spring into action and start a Maidan-like “color revolution” that will deliver up the world’s largest country to the US.

Apart from all the other idiotic aspects of such claims, the sad thing is that the people who buy into the color revolution conspiracy don’t realize that revolution is preferable to the more likely alternative- collapse. See revolutions have organization, intent, plans. Collapse is just that- collapse. When I look at Russia’s political landscape, I don’t see any potential for a Maidan-style “revolution” at all. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is unlikely to come from that marginalized political ghetto that is the organized opposition. One must credit Mr. Putin’s media and political technologists for rendering that movement toothless. But in doing so, they are actively destroying whatever chances Russia has left for recovery.

When I contrast collapse to revolution, I’m not suggesting that it won’t involve some kind of popular uprising, I’m just suggesting it will not be very organized and it will lack clear goals, leading the country right back to where it was in 1991. Organized political opposition in Russia may be small in number, but discontent and protests are on the rise. Most of these are related to economic grievances as plants close and firms fail to pay salaries on time. Few of these people see their plight as a political struggle, and occasionally you seem them pathetically appeal to Putin for some kind of relief. As the economic situation worsens, the protests will inevitably increase. People can talk about “enduring” and “patriotism” all they like, but when you have no access to food or shelter you’ve basically got two choices left- lay down and die to stand up and do something. History shows that all demeaning stereotypes about “collectivism” and “despotism” aside, Russians won’t choose the former when it becomes a matter of life and death.

Sadly, Putin and his cronies are so afraid of the tiny 5th column replacing them that they end up suppressing the one movement of people who can save the country and give it the functioning institutions it needs after the regime collapses. And mark my words, the regime will inevitably collapse sooner or later. It is simply too rife with contradictions and its leadership is too disconnected from reality. If nothing else happens, Putin is not immortal or immune to incapacitating diseases or conditions, and once he’s not there to anchor the system, if only symbolically, things are going to get very interesting indeed.

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On the bridge where Nemtsov was shot. Putin’s system eliminates or suppresses anyone who can pick up the pieces after he breaks Russia.

NOTE: For more, much higher quality photos from the march, click here. You might notice some familiar characters. 

 

 

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.

 

 

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!

 

 

 

Variety Pack

As I recover from last night’s festivities, I developed three potential topics for upcoming articles. This, of course, would require me to write and release them over the course of three days. Seeing as how I don’t get so much free time anymore, I decided it would be better to combine those topics in a more concise fashion. Think of it as the equivalent of a Simpsons Halloween episode.

Part I: A Parallel Universe

The Russian government and even many ordinary Russians are still crowing about “returning the Crimea to Russia.” They aren’t saying much about returning its electricity, but they’re just thrilled that the peninsula is “theirs” even if they’ve never been there and can’t afford to go there thanks to the impending economic crisis. What is more, and in fact crucial to this point I’m making, is that Putin and all his lackeys have transformed the Crimea into some sort of Russian holy land. Russian Jerusalem. The joining of the Crimean peninsula to the Ukrainian SSR is the only Soviet edict  everyone can openly criticize these days, but to be sure that’s probably because it’s one of the few Soviet laws they actually remember. Crimea, we are told, is like the Russian equivalent to the Temple Mount. That it was left part of independent Ukraine was a historical travesty akin to the Roman exile of Jews, except nobody was exiled in this case. Crimea is sacred Russian ground; keep that in mind and stick with me here.

Now I’m sure I’ve already brought up the paradox that the Crimea was more accessible to Russian citizens when it was in Ukraine, but recently I’ve discovered an even more ridiculous paradox, thanks to reading the idiotic screeds of Russian patriots.  The standard Russian narrative is that the people of the Crimea voted to separate from Ukraine because of Maidan. Well, actually it’s because they wanted to avoid the war that broke out in the Donbass, even though that occurred nearly a month after the referendum in the Crimea. No wait, the Russian troops were there to save the Crimean people from a war like that which hadn’t yet started in the Donbass. But those troops who saved the people weren’t there because this was a referendum, not an annexation, and…Shit.

Okay I’m sorry, I just remembered that there’s never one Russian standard narrative, or at least not one that is coherent and doesn’t play so wildly with the space time continuum as to open up a rift to another dimension. Let me start over.

A basic claim of Russian annexation apologists is that the loss of the Crimea is Ukraine’s fault. If they hadn’t driven Yanukovych out of power, they’d still have the Crimea. No Maidan, no annexation totally legitimate referendum. Guess what- we’ve got a problem here.  Time for a thought experiment.

Suppose that Maidan didn’t drive Yanukovych from power. Imagine that however you want, from the protest never happening in the first place, to the crowds dispersing in the wake of the 21 February agreement. It’s your pick because it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that Yanukovych is in power. What would that mean for the Crimea? According to the Kremlin’s top leadership, its media’s pundits, and legions of vatniks on the street, the Crimea is only in Russia because of Maidan and the “coup” against Yanukovych. That means that if Maidan hadn’t happened or if Yanukovych somehow remained in power, the Crimea, that island of holy Russian land, would still be a part of Ukraine. Even if Ukraine joined Russia’s Custom’s Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, it would still be part of Ukraine and they still couldn’t make it any more accessible to Russians than it already was. The horrible, travesty of historical justice would still be enshrined in law.

Remember, the Russian government had made no open attempt to raise the issue of the Crimea up till that moment when they organized their little uprising. Russia did not dispute the territorial integrity of Ukraine and had not raised the issue of returning the Crimea.  While you would hear ordinary Russians lament the “loss” of Crimea from time to time, but everyone pretty much accepted it. I never heard anyone suggest that Russia should take it by force, and besides, most of those same people preferred to vacation in Turkey, Egypt, or Europe.  Thus we have no choice but to assume that based on the “patriots” own claims and the fact that Russia had not raised this issue prior to the annexation, the absence of the “coup” would have left the Crimea in Ukraine, ostensibly forever.

Of course we all know what really happened. While it is true that the Russian military had a plan to return the Crimea with the help of local collaborators, this was most likely nothing more than a hypothetical, the kind of plan that all military forces around the world create by the dozen. In the wake of Maidan and the flight of the president, however, they saw an opportunity, and the Kremlin is nothing if not ridiculously opportunistic.  Putin was desperate for a victory as the Russian economy was already starting to decline in 2013 and Maidan proved how much of a failure his regime was, in the sense that people were willing to engage in massive, violent protests just to get as far away from Russia’s orbit as possible. Maidan was proof that given a choice, nobody wants to be associated with Russia because Russia has nothing to sell.  I think it is in that context that Putin decided to bet on the Crimea, giving virtually no thought to the long-term consequences of doing so.

Still, it is worth remembering this thought experiment the next time an annexation apologist starts lecturing you about the sacred status of the Crimea to Russians, and how a historical injustice was rectified. Remind them that their heroes were not making any attempt to address that supposed injustice for roughly thirteen years, and even they insist that this rectification occurred only because of the Maidan protests. Do be aware, however, that should you so remind your interlocutor of these facts, they will most likely start babbling about Libya, Kosovo, Iraq, and the Donbass. They will also most likely dispute the existence of objective truth. You’ve been warned.

Part II: Why Russians don’t protest

As some of my readers may know, the Russian court moved the sentencing of Alexei Navalny and his brother Oleg from 15 January to 30 December. It is well known that supporters of Navalny, the dastardly Western agent who conspires to overthrow the Russian government by blogging about corruption, had planned a rally in support of their hero for the 15th. Therefore the snap decision to change the sentencing to 30 December, announced only the previous evening, is largely seen to be a ploy aimed at heading off protest attempts.

A demonstration took place on Manezh square outside the Kremlin nonetheless, but it was estimated that only around 1,500 people showed up to the protest that lasted roughly two hours. I don’t even know if that number factors in the pro-government counter-protesters who of course labeled everyone “Yankees” and told them to leave Russia if they didn’t like it.

To Westerners who aren’t very familiar with Russia, the apathy and submissiveness of Russians must appear confusing indeed.  Their government treats them with utter contempt and reminds them of it almost constantly. To live in Russia is to constantly be reminded of how you have no rights, and that people with more money than you can do what they want with impunity. I’m not basing this solely on hundreds, of anecdotes and news stories I’ve heard or read over the years, i.e. on that which I have witnessed as an outside observer. My family and I have personally experienced this sort of corruption in action.  With me this has always been somewhat mitigated by my status as an in-demand professional, at times my income, and my passport, but ordinary Russian citizens do not possess these privileges.  They are totally at the mercy of those who have more power or connections than they do. Any foreigner, upon being made aware of this fact of life in Russia, may be dumbstruck as to why Russians tolerate this humiliation. It seems as though they should have been in the streets years ago, even when things were objectively better.

There are many reasons why Russians don’t stand up for themselves, but probably the most common or at least the most important these days is the belief that protesting doesn’t help anything. Either it makes things worse or it does’t accomplish anything. As is the case with many things in Putin’s Russia, the Kremlin takes advantage of certain historical events and weaves them into its own cynical narrative.

Early on I noticed that Russians were interested in anything but politics. Back in 2006 and 2007 things were looking up for many people. It’s not that they attributed this to Putin; they rolled their eyes at the government’s propaganda and they could easily recount a litany of encounters with corruption they or their friends had experienced.  They saw no point in politics though, because they had come to believe they have no power whatsoever. The government clearly fostered this notion. On the other hand, back in those days the state was rather liberal. They went on stealing and the people could busy themselves with whatever they liked, be that all manner of foreign dance or music or traveling abroad. The state didn’t demand patriotism and conformity. Realistically, people had little reason to protest in those days, though that might have been a mistake on their part.

Of course virtually nothing came of the protests in 2011 and 2012. This fit the state narrative, that protesting doesn’t accomplish anything, quite well.  Crackdowns soon followed, reminding the people who was in charge. Putin’s return was accompanied by the campaign promise of “stability,” and protests go against that. The state media just loves showing footage of mass protests and riots in other countries, especially the US or in European countries. The message is always the same. “Look at how those countries are all in chaos. Russia’s not like that. We have stability here.”  Russians are encouraged to put a high value on stability, even though they don’t actually receive it. Russian life is anything but stable.

The media is also careful to make sure its audience always misses the point of protests in other countries. For example, they will say that Europe is in chaos and show you images of protests from Greece, Spain, Italy, etc. Of course many European countries do have serious problems, but they also grant their citizens enough freedom to take to the streets and be heard. They are able to put some pressure on their governments, even if it achieves little in the short term. The Greek protester or the American Occupy supporter may not have achieved their goals, but they both made their ideas a part of their countries’ political discourse. They stood up for what they believed in public. The Russian on the other hand stays home and grumbles, afraid to do anything that will threaten the stability he never actually receives in exchange for his servility.

Of course Russians are allowed to protest some things, but the targets must be authorized. For example, there is a limited ability to protest local bureaucrats or businessmen; just hope they aren’t well connected. You cannot blame Putin or the government; you must pretend that the Great Leader is unaware of the machinations that go on somewhere down the chain. This is essentially what happened at a recent demonstration by teachers and medical professionals in Moscow last month. Even then some people got carted off by the police. Of course you can always protest the United States or some European country. Russian citizens are allowed to let off some steam against pretty much anyone except the people who are actually responsible for their problems. Of course this is often portrayed as patriotism, but patriotism cannot exist in such a highly atomized, cynical society. When you look at the Ferguson protests across the United States, that is real patriotism because hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who may never have even visited Missouri and who certainly did not personally know Mike Brown took to the streets in his honor. They realized that what happened to that one individual matters to them to, and to the country as a whole. While the Russian media portrays these protests as chaos, they are in fact a sign of strength.

As far as historical background goes, there are a few key events observers must take into account. The first is the movement which brought down the USSR. Russians and many other former Soviet nationalities suffered a lot from the destruction of their country. Some peoples suffered more than others. There is plenty of blame to go around on all sides, but the Kremlin has created a narrative whereby the blame lies solely on a small minority of “traitors.” These were the “liberals” who came to power with words like freedom and democracy on their tongues, and indeed chaos followed in their wake. Realistically speaking though, these two things were not always connected. Plenty of liberal democracies didn’t experience what Russia went through in the 1990’s.  Russia’s problems were connected with specific historical, cultural, and economic factors, and many of those so-called liberals had little control over them.

Another key event was the crushing of the demonstrations in Moscow in October 1993. I often remind people that as much as Putin has done to reduce people’s personal freedom today, it’s worth remembering the far more violent crackdown Yeltsin unleashed in ’93 when speaking about this topic. This is especially important because many Russian oppositionists have a problem with presenting the 90’s as a positive time. I realize that in many cases they are referring to the potential of Russia to develop a functioning democracy, but the fact remains that it did not, and many people had horrible experiences during that time. Ignoring the crime of suppressing demonstrations with tanks and snipers cedes the moral high ground and sends the implication that the opposition wants Russia to be as it was in the 90’s, i.e. weak and humiliated.

These historical factors do not excuse the Russian attitude towards protesting, and taken by themselves they don’t even fully explain it. The Kremlin’s media and army of pseudo-intellectuals take these events and then weave them into the larger tapestry. “You are powerless, there are problems everywhere, at least you have stability, don’t rock the boat, protesting never solves anything,” and so on. That is the cynical message, the soft power. Just in case the message isn’t clear enough, however, the state is more than happy to resort to intimidation and force. That seems to be the trend since 2012.

Part III: How to spot a troll

Recently I was having a discussion with a reader about Kremlin trolls, aka Nashi-bots, and other regime supporting sources you find on the net. When it comes to comment trolls, they can often be spotted by their poor English skills, in spite of the fact that they claim to be Americans, Britons, Canadians, etc. They also tend to have names which signify their nationality. Of course if you’ve ever made the mistake of reading comments on sites like Youtube or Yahoo News, you know how difficult it can be to distinguish between a non-native English speaker and a half-literate dumbass.

Personally I’m not too interested in comment trolls. Far more important are various “independent” sources who either have their own platforms, or who are cited as sources by outlets such as RT. Here’s a particularly interesting example of a phony think tank possibly set up by Russians. Its rhetoric appears to be anti-Russia, but apparently their conclusions amount to something like, “Russia is just so dangerous we have no choice but to let it do what it wants!” I highlight this example because it is a rare instance of a possible Russian propaganda ploy which attempts to impersonate its own opposition, i.e. an anti-Putin false flag of sorts.

It’s important not to give into paranoia and hysteria and start flinging accusations of Kremlin agent left and right. This is precisely what the Russian government wants; it is the exporting of the same cynical narrative to the rest of the world. Therefore I wanted to share a few tips on spotting Kremlin shills based on my vast experience in this sphere.

-First of all, educate yourselves on various political movements. Read about libertarianism, Communism, and even far right-wing extremism. The more you know about various ideologies, their history, and their key figures, the more you will be able to spot the ideological slant in people’s writing. This is immensely helpful.

-Putin fans tend to be right-leaning populists. The more intelligent ones among them are good at concealing some of their more reactionary views from the eyes of leftists or otherwise progressive leaning people. Luckily there are a few ways to draw them out into the open. Bring up topics like LGBT rights, abortion, feminism, etc. These people will rarely make arguments in favor of any of these things.  If the person is claiming to be a leftist, especially a Communist or socialist, keep a close eye for their positions on social issues. Pretty much every Communist or socialist party in the world today favors women’s reproductive rights and LGBT rights. If you see a self-proclaimed Communist coming out against these things, you’ve probably got a Putin-lover on your hands.

-Excessive talk about BRICS, replacing the dollar as a reserve currency, etc. Russia’s psuedo-intellectual hacks have deluded themselves into believing that BRICS is some kind of anti-American, Warsaw Pact-like alliance, led by Russia of course! Pro-Kremlin hacks will often regurgitate these talking points, as well as predict the coming collapse of the dollar, claim that Russia is becoming more powerful, and so on.

-Look for anti-globalization rhetoric. Some of the more clever far-right wing extremists seized upon globalization because it helps them blend in with left wing movements. Anti-globalization appeals both to less-educated leftists and right wing nationalists.

-They claim they have complaints about Putin, but usually only when someone asks, and those complaints basically revolve around him needing to crack down harder on dissent, force some kind of ideology on the people, etc.

The above are just a few items I could think of after a night of New Year’s festivities. Obviously I could probably add many more items just as I could probably write entire articles on any one of those I’ve provided above. These are essentially off the top of my head.

Again, it doesn’t help to be paranoid or toss accusations at anyone who seems to display one or two possible indicators. Don’t make assumptions based on one article or appearance; try to get a good, representative look at their work. Also keep in mind that if they are being cited by a pro-government source, they may have been deliberately misquoted or taken out of context.  Happy shill hunting in 2015!

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Unfortunately my access to timely news from America is limited. Can anyone tell me if Obama has been taking over various media organs to stop the foreign-backed Orange revolution breaking out in Ferguson?  That the only reason people protest, right? Because someone pays them? Maybe I’ve been in Russia too long.