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!