Tag Archives: Russia

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Eyes to See

What is the worst combination you could possibly imagine? Skittles on Chicago-style pizza? Mayonnaise Pop-Tarts? Automatic weapons for toddlers? I’ve got a pretty good contender. How about the worst film genre in existence, i.e. romantic comedy, and Russian propaganda about the Crimea? Not sold just yet? What if I told you this very real rom-com was scripted by none other than RT editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan? Yes. You read that correctly. Yes, I am going to subject you to this. I know about it, so now you must know about it. This is happening.

I realize some readers can’t fully understand that trailer, but rest assured it is a delightfully romantic romp that involves flagrant violations of international law as well as human rights! What’s next? A German rom-com where two star-crossed lovers are reunited in East Prussia when the Third Reich invades Poland? After all, Germany was merely trying to protect the German civilian population from a right-wing nationalist Polish government whose troops attacked several German border posts and a radio station!

But if this weren’t bad enough, the film apparently contains a subplot about the Crimean Tatars, and, as you might expect, it’s pretty ugly. Here are a few excerpts from the above-linked article.

“The film offers an unlikely take on the issue of Crimean Tatars. It opens with a young Crimean Tatar boy named Damir recalling how the original Kerch Strait bridge, a temporary wartime construction, was destroyed by winter ice in early 1945.

The scene is improbable at best, since the entire Crimean Tatar population was ruthlessly deported from the peninsula in 1944 by Stalin. In fact, Simonyan’s masterpiece was filmed just a few dozen kilometers from the Arabat Spit, where the last pockets of Crimean Tatars who had escaped deportation were loaded onto a boat that was then scuttled in the Sea of Azov, drowning all aboard.

Damir, however, grieves because the destroyed bridge separates him from his wartime love, a Russian girl named Raya, who has gone missing.

Damir is a forgiving type. At one point, discussing his own family’s fate under Stalin, he says simply, “They were sent away — that means it had to be.” At other points in the film, he has approving words for Stalin.”

Needless to say, not only was the situation for Crimean Tatars in the past very different from what is portrayed in the film, but the present is as well. Since the annexation Crimean Tatars have been subject to all manner of human rights violations, including torture and in at least one case, death. The whitewashing of both eras is a perfect example of how the Muscovite chauvinist regime views non-Muscovite nationalities within its grasp. “You will have your history dictated to you, and you may keep your culture and language so long as it doesn’t offend us.” 

The word ‘disgusting’ simply doesn’t suffice to describe this subplot.

As for the rest of the film, let’s just say this isn’t Russia’s first rodeo when it comes to feature length propaganda films about the Crimean annexation. There was also this piece of shit:

As bad as this may be, at least it’s not a rom-com; it’s clearly just a comedy. On the other hand, that 2017 film wasn’t written by Margarita Simonyan.

Now I know a lot of people, Americans included, will chime in with something about propaganda in Hollywood films. Sure, they certainly do (although in my opinion it’s more a matter of steering clear of certain taboo subjects more than anything), but rest assured modern Russian cinema blows them out of the water in terms of on-the-nose messaging. And whereas Hollywood will often liberally reinterpret real events to tell a better story, films like this basically invent a story out of thin air. If the examples above don’t convince you of this, check out the trailer for this upcoming Russian film, seemingly trying to capitalize off Ukraine’s Cyborgs, called Balkan Line.

In case you’re too young or not familiar with the 1999 Kosovo conflict I’ll help you out- none of that shit happened. It’s as if the Russian producers looked at Cyborgs, saw how well it did, and decided they just needed their own war film about an airport under siege. And since they couldn’t find a real one, they just made one up. In real life, the Russian airborne contingent who rolled into Pristina airport was totally isolated, and the whole situation was defused with the help of James Blunt. Yes, James “You’re Beautiful” Blunt. And it’s a good thing the Russians didn’t try anything because if you’ve ever seen Blunt on Twitter you know he’s no pushover.

But yeah, American Sniper sucks, but just imagine that almost every Hollywood film is American Sniper x 100, and your tax dollars are used to churn them out. Sounds great, right?

Honestly though, I’m wondering how far Margarita will go in the world of screenwriting. At the same time, I wonder how far the Russian film industry will go in the world of making up shit that never happened. Perhaps next we’ll see a film about how the Soviets actually landed on the moon first. The sky’s truly the limit when your film industry is a state-sponsored money laundering vehicle!

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If I Did It…

So as some of you may have heard, Bellingcat, or for you RT fans out there, “Soros/State Department-funded regime-change SmellingCIAt,” blew the lid on the second Skripal suspect. SPOILERS: He’s not “Alexander Petrov,” the totally unassuming fitness supplement salesman and church spire enthusiast who might be secretly gay. Turns out he’s actually Alexander Mishkin, a military doctor with the GRU, and like his colleague Anatoly Chepiga, a winner of the easily-traceable Hero of the Russian Federation award. What more can you say except:

Where did they go so wrong? Journalist Andrew Roth put it succinctly on Twitter today:

This sentiment, which I too expressed in my earlier post about Chepiga, is confirmed by Bellingcat in their expose of Mishkin.

“The starting point for our research was a passport photograph of “Alexander Petrov,”as well as security camera photos and video footage from this person’s interview on RT.”  

Some might suggest that the interview was just another example of Kremlin trolling, like when Putin spoke about “local” self-defense militias in Crimea shortly before openly acknowledging they were Russian soldiers (the military vehicles and latest Russian uniforms and kit were a dead giveaway), or when he denied any involvement in the U.S. election but then made a quip about “patriotic hackers.” I can agree that perhaps this was the initial intent behind the RT interview, but it seems they were phoning it in from the beginning and everyone could see it. It’s almost as if they just ran out of energy to lie, even in the typical unconvincing way that they do. It’s almost as if they’re going to stop trying to conduct counter-narratives where MI6/CIA/Russian liberals/Pravy Sektor/White Helmets are possible culprits and instead just continually repeat “PROOFS! SHOW US PROOFS!” incessantly until you go away.

 

Seriously though, this is too big a screw up to attribute to trolling. If they were smart, they never would have let these men give an interview, and certainly not with Margarita Simonyan, who is the editor-in-chief of RT. As I suggested in a previous post, the smartest thing to do, if you can call their usual approach smart, is to continue putting out the endless alternative narratives while publicly announcing that the FSB and Investigative Committee are interviewing the two men to get to the bottom of these “totally boundless accusations from our British colleagues!”

There’s precedent for this as well. In December 2014 the Investigative Committee announced that it had an anonymous witness who was former Ukrainian military and stationed at an air base at the time of the downing of MH17 (i.e. 17 July 2014). Somehow this witness saw a Ukrainian Su-25 pilot (Captain Vladislav Voloshin, who committed suicide earlier this year) take off from the base and return with one air-to-air missile gone. Much later on, the Investigative Committee later revealed the name of this witness, but of course this was around the time Russia switched to swearing that their “investigation” (carried out mainly by Buk SAM manufacturer Almaz-Antey) conclusively determined that a Buk missile shot down the airliner. Of course if you missed those latest Russian claims which are totally true and accurate, RT and Sputnik got you and any other fans of the idiotic Su-25 theory covered, because in the end all that matters is that you believe anyone but Russia was responsible for this tragedy.

Something similar could have been done with Chepiga and Mishkin, AKA Boshirov and Petrov. The Clown Committee could release a typical boilerplate statement about how it is opening a criminal investigation into the matter of Boshirov and Petrov, and Putin could have said he was ordering them to take the matter under “special control.” Basic elements of the story we saw in the RT interview could have been published in a “report” a week or two later, without all that bullshit about the spire and the roads choked with snow.  Maybe, a very short, much better-rehearsed interview could have been shot with an ordinary employee of Rossiya 1 or First Channel.

And with that- you’re done. It’s still largely bullshit, it’s still not exonerating anything, but just enough plausible deniability that you won’t force the Kremlin apologists who still give a shit about appearing to have a shred of credibility to wear themselves out doing mental gymnastics.

Damn. It really tells you how badly Russia’s intelligence and propaganda agencies have screwed up when I’m the one practically giving them free advice on how to do their jobs.

The Ties That Bind

If there’s one common theme we hear from grifters narrative architects about Russian influence operations, it’s that the object is to “divide” American society in order to weaken it. The proof, we’re told, is in the fact that much of the material put out by Russian soft power organs like RT and Sputnik, as well as the social media content from the St. Petersburg “troll factory,” is aimed at both far-right and far-left audiences. This allegedly means the Russians want to divide society by promoting polarized narratives. I’m sorry to say, but this is bullshit.

This delusion lives on because it is pleasing to certain people among the political class. It speaks to their unrealistic vision of an America where people may disagree on a few core issues, but at heart share much in common. In other words it’s Obama’s “there’s no red or blue America” speech. In reality, America has been very divided for quite some time, and while it may seem like Russian propaganda is aimed at further polarizing society, I’d say it’s more about unifying certain elements more than anything.

Over the past few years, regular readers have noted my increasing concern over red-brown activity, i.e. the coordination, both witting and unwitting, between the far-left and far-right. Historically the far-right has always tried to appropriate concepts from the left and co-opt leftists movements, but since the end of the Cold War certain actors have strove to embrace and advance this convergence for a number of aims. Where Russia is concerned, the neo-fascist Alexander Dugin appears to have made red-brown organizing a conscious strategy, one that has become a pillar of Russian soft power.

In short, Russian influence operations do not, in fact, aim to divide society in other countries, but rather unify certain elements against others. Where it cannot create actual alliances, it aims to get disparate groups to agree on certain talking points even if they may espouse them for different reasons and with different intentions. The fact that the propaganda being put out has polarizing messages is beside the point; it is designed that way simply to find a loyal audience. The main goal, once people of certain political views are hooked, is to turn them toward the Kremlin’s position on certain foreign policy goals.

We see this constantly not only in America but in other countries as well, such as Germany. Whether far-right or far-left, even in those countries where such people are often involved in bloody streetfighting, we see curious uniformity when it comes to certain issues that are near and dear to the Kremlin. Supporting Ukraine is a “proxy war,” brought on by a NATO-inspired “coup.” It matters little whether the person receiving and hopefully regurgitating the message believes that Ukraine has been taken over by neo-Nazis or liberal crypto-Jews; all that matters is that the audience is hostile to Ukrainian independence, identity, and territorial integrity. Similarly, it is irrelevant whether the same person supports Russia’s claims on that country because they identify it with the Soviet Union or as a champion resisting the neoliberal hegemony or because they see it as the last hope for the “white race” and “Western civilization.” What is important to the Kremlin is unity- unity around that key point.

No doubt the best example of this unity is in the case of Syria, where many leftists have so easily bought into the Kremlin/Assadist narrative that they find themselves in bed with literal fascist parties and even neo-Nazi icons such as David Duke. Again, from the Kremlin point of view it is utterly unimportant whether the reason for backing Assad or at least opposing his removal is “anti-imperialism” or the belief that he fights against a “Zionist New World Order.” All that matters is that the talking points are repeated- Bashar al-Assad is the legitimate ruler of Syria. The rebels are either all al Qaeda-linked Salafist jihadists or at least such people would surely dominate any future Syria without Assad.

Of course when it comes to the extreme right and left in many countries, they will often come close to such positions on their own, typically due to reasons inherent in their respective ideologies. But without direction, these groups might not always find their way to positions that benefit the Kremlin’s foreign policy aims. For example, while Russia clearly won the battle for hearts and minds when it comes to neo-Nazis and Ukraine, easily wooing more far-rightists to fight for their pseudo-states in the Donbas than the Ukrainian far-right was able to win to their side, the latter did manage to get some recruits. Were it not for the Russian propaganda machine, the split might have been more even. The same goes for recruitment of the far-left, as many more open-minded leftists around the world were supportive of Maidan for its revolutionary, anti-corruption aspects. Russian propaganda aimed at both ends of the spectrum helps guide disparate, even diametrically opposed sides to the same conclusions on key issues, though they may take different paths.

So in the future let’s put aside the idea that the aim of Russian disinformation is to divide society- our societies are divided and in many cases for very good reasons. After all, we cannot have unity with political groupings or tendencies that seek to strip away the civil rights of others. The key to understanding Russian influence operations (and doubtless those of other countries), is to understand their unifying aim. What are they trying to get disparate political tendencies to agree on, one way or another?

Devil’s Dictionary

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

The Gerasimov Gambit

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

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

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

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

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

gerasimov2

He is everywhere! He is watching you, hybridly!

Dictatorship Tourist Syndrome (DTS)

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

-Useful idiot

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

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

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

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

Kremlin Koncern Troll

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

-The Kremlin Koncern Troll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Trump As Allegory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What About Iraq Indeed

Recently I saw another reminder of an issue that I haven’t devoted a lot of time to in the past, but which deserves attention. Russia’s involvement in Iraqi Kurdistan (aka the Kurdish Regional Government) is a story often overshadowed by the campaign in Syria and the occupation of Ukraine, but it’s a good idea to keep it in mind.

What involvement are we talking about? As usual it’s a matter of oil and gas, Russia’s bread and butter. Russia has become one of the biggest investors in Iraqi Kurdistan’s energy industry, apparently. I knew that Gazprom was there several years ago, but apparently so is Rosneft. In fact, according to the article Russia is moving in to fill a gap that was left by the US as it got out of Iraq.

That is quite interesting because we all know that the Putinophile’s favorite answer to any criticism of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is “WHAT ABOUT IRAQ?!” Realistically, they already pissed away their right to use that when they decided to invade and occupy another country under false pretexts, just as Bush had done in Iraq. But the story about Kurdistan is just a reminder that Putin’s criticism of US actions in Iraq were always bullshit. Putin’s economic boom in the 2000’s was largely due to high oil prices. Putin had a win-win situation; criticize the war for political capital, reap the benefits of the war. But even if you say Putin had no control over oil markets (fair enough), he has certainly benefited from the toppling of the Baathist regime, which opened Iraqi Kurdistan up for investment.

Of course this doesn’t make Russia share responsibility for what the US did in Iraq, but the truth is that Putin never really cared. In his eyes, the invasion must have confirmed what he already believed- that a rules-based world guided by concepts like human rights and democracy was nothing but a sham, a velvet glove over an iron fist. In Putin’s 19th century worldview, invading Iraq was just realpolitik. Thus he saw him self justified in invading and occupying Ukraine.

The lesson here is one I learned long ago, even before I was totally wise to the Kremlin’s propaganda tactics. I’d see RT hosting some guest who would talk about the evils of US foreign policy, but you’d never see any criticism of Russia’s own foreign adventures (though they were far more modest at the time). That felt disturbing, and made me shy away from voicing my own criticisms of the West when in the company of Russians, because I didn’t feel any reciprocity. As one friend described conversations with a Russian mutual acquaintance- “When I talk about all the problems in America, her eyes light up, but when it’s her turn, she doesn’t have much to say.”

It’s different in many other countries. In Ukraine, I hate my government, they hate their government, I hate their government too, and we both hate the Russian government as well. There’s a kind of solidarity there. With pro-Kremlin Russians though, you’re a hero when you’re condemning the aggression of the United States, but you’re a neocon Banderite Nazi the second you start applying the same logic and criticism to the Kremlin. Some folks like to bask in the attention they get from pro-Kremlin Russians for voicing the former criticism, but the fact is that those giving the attention see them as traitors, as defectives who for some reason don’t know they’re supposed to cheer for their team. There is zero respect for such people in Russia. In fact, even Russians who aren’t pro-regime tend to see such enthusiastic Putinophiles as somewhat insane.

So just keep all this in mind when they say play the “what about Iraq” card. We who have been consistent on this issue have the right to criticize the American and British governments for that aggression. Putin’s fanboys don’t. They’re defending his aggression in Ukraine, either explicitly or implicitly. The truth is that as one Twitter follower pointed out- Russia actually won the Iraq War. America did the fighting, and they reaped the benefits.

Summing It Up

So the big news is that very soon I’ll be leaving not only Russia, but the Eastern Hemisphere altogether. For the first time in nearly 12 years, I’m finally, truly, “going home.” It’s a weird feeling- when I left the US in 2006 for the Czech Republic, I was leaving behind everything I knew and forging a path into what was more or less the unknown, yet it was exhilarating. Now I’m going back to what should be familiar, and I’m dreading it. Nonetheless I think this is a very necessary step- a chance to learn new skills, acquire new qualifications, and most of all, make money.

Ideally I’ll return to Ukraine with far more resources, enabling me to do more for the cause, but I have no plans to return to Russia in anything but the most extreme case. Because I have no plans to return, when I leave it will be the close of a very long chapter of my life- the majority of my adult life in fact. As such, I have been mentally taking stock of everything that’s happened, everything I’ve done and the lessons I have learned. I plan to distill all that into a very longread for my patrons, but for the rest of you I’d like to share a few of my observations over the years, with special focus on the positive aspects. After all, I started this blog in September of 2013, when Russia was already clearly entering a dark place. Thus a lot of the positive things from the earlier time, the time when there was hope and progress, were overshadowed by the increasingly authoritarian and reactionary nature of the post 2012-Putin regime. And though I’m focusing on the positive, it may turn out more tragic, because it gives you a glimpse of what the regime is destroying. Whatever the case, when you look at everything we associate with Russia today, keep in mind things could have been different.

Before moving on I just want to stress that I’m not saying these features are uniform in Russia and they are certainly not exclusive to Russia. I have made similar observations about Ukrainian culture, for example. But this is Russia Without BS and this is about leaving Russia after all, so Russia it is.

Culture

What did I like about Russian culture, especially in contrast to American culture, is first and foremost the lack of anti-intellectualism. Of course Russia, especially today, has more than its share of right-wing populists making all kinds of idiotic claims, but they more often than not present these claims as though they are intellectual and academic. They’ll cite sources or books, or they’ll reference other facts to back up their rhetoric, however flawed or questionable some of those “facts” may be. By contrast, many Americans, including big-name commentators who rake in money by the millions, basically sell their bullshit based on “common sense.” “Common sense” said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. It told people that the real reason for the economic collapse was the government forcing banks to loan to minorities who couldn’t afford to make their payments. Liberals would try to counter with facts, but who needs “book-learnin'” when there’s common sense? “How are you going to catch the game with your nose buried in some book that was probably written by some liberal Marxist professor because he’s saying things I personally don’t believe despite having no background knowledge of this issue?”

I’m going to be blunt with my fellow Americans here and say that the US, at least as I experienced it, is a country that often straight up hates intelligence. You’ll often hear people use phrases like “useless knowledge” to describe things such as history, which happens to be one of the most important topics a person can study. Meticulous knowledge of professional sports is fine, even respected in American masculine culture, but you’re a complete dork if you happen to know something like the history of Al Qaeda and US foreign policy in the Middle East. I’m also not convinced by the superficial rise of “nerd culture” and the obsession with STEM. I think this is simply driven by corporate interests. In general, I’d say a good portion of America, even its liberals, hate intellectualism.

By contrast in Russia even people who disagree with you show a certain modicum of respect when you couch your arguments in academic knowledge. There’s always a minimum of respect for knowledge and people who pursue it. Russians can be just as fanatical about sports as any American, but at the same time they tend to understand that the mind is just as important as the body. The Soviet Union, which brought Russians (and many other people) universal, compulsory education as well as access to higher education, put a high value on learning, even if politics often hampered the process. By contrast in America higher education has become more or less a giant scam, and you deliberately subject yourself to it because “you’ll get a good job.”

While we’re on this topic, I should devote a few words to Russian sport culture. Obviously it has been tainted by last year’s doping scandal, but I can only speak for what I personally experienced while training in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu here. Whereas I’ve always seen a lot of posturing in American sport culture, I find Russian training partners to be very supportive. They are extremely competitive, but not in an egotistical, “I’m the greatest” sort of way. Sports offer the chance of social mobility to some who might not otherwise be able to attain it, so you can understand why some Russian citizens push themselves so hard. Yet somehow they manage not to be such a dick about it.

There is hope for America, however. Lately we’ve seen a lot of talk about “toxic masculinity,” i.e. that sort masculinity that is harmful, negative, and at times dangerous for society. Many American men will dismiss the concept as “feminist SJW crap,” but if they’d only take the time to actually read up on what it is, they’d see that toxic masculinity tends to hurt males first and foremost. One could argue that it is a societal tool whereby men oppress and abuse each other in order to force conformity into roles that have long ceased to make sense in modern society. Of course talk like this is almost unheard of in Russian discourse these days, yet it’s interesting to note how in some ways the Russians are ahead of Americans in deed, if not in word.

Another thing that must be said is that Russians seem to be far more tolerant of human fallibility. Okay, maybe sometimes too tolerant, but let me illustrate what I mean. A good friend of mine who was a major motivator for me in writing a blog once explained at length about how Russians tend to be more forgiving of social slip-ups than Americans and other Westerners. If someone gets drunk at a party and gets a little bit too loud or maybe gets sick, no big deal- it happens. People were drinking. By contrast in the US that individual is more likely to be uninvited to future events and the whole circle of co-workers or friends will undoubtedly talk behind their back.

Now when I talk about this, I can instinctively hear an American voice asking something like: “Oh okay, so you think someone should just let it slide if someone comes to their house party, gets hammered, and then sexually assaults women while shouting racial slurs and endorsing eugenics?!” And you know what my answer is to that question? Thanks for proving my point about Americans being totally uptight tightwads, because of course you immediately came up with the absolute worst scenario you could imagine. We need to imagine the worst about people so we can justify not forgiving little social faux pas, as if forgiving them will lead to people forgiving horrible, criminal behavior. By contrast I’ve seen Russian friends get angry and shout at each other at many a drunken party, and afterward everyone makes up and understands because hey- we were consuming alcohol. Drunk people do drunk things.

I think this extends to a lot of other aspects of American life as well. For example, much of what I wear in Russia or Ukraine I’d never wear in the States. I can imagine the weird looks, the weird questions I would get if I were to say, wear my black beret. Yes, a beret, the one that was issued to me in the army with the flash and insignia removed. In Russia and Ukraine I’ve often seen people wearing berets. But in America, like I said, I can just imagine the questions. “Oh my god are you like, French or something? Are you in the army? Were you in the army? Why do you have a beret?!” It’s just a hat, America! Look at me, I’m talking to my own country now. This is what years of upbringing in such a nitpicking society has done to me.

The crazy thing about it is that compared to Russians and Europeans, Americans are by no means more fashionable. And yet in these more fashionable countries, you don’t have to follow fashion trends and you don’t get so much judgment for doing so, at least from ordinary people. If you wear something a bit exotic, it’s not taken as a statement, nor are you deemed a hipster. Since 2015 I have often worn a Ukrainian vyshivanka in public, including to work on one occasion. I got nothing but compliments from the few people who said anything. It’s just not such a big deal.

I think this is as good a place as any to wrap up the main cultural points.

Transport

I come from an American city where you have to have a car. Even if you happen to be located within walking distance of good supermarkets, you still need a vehicle because chances are the only job you may find is across town and our public transit sucks. And when you find out why public transit sucks in America, you’re going to be pissed.

During my driving life in my hometown I was fortunate to use a company truck which came with a gas card, especially given the prices at the time. A relatively simple drive across town was a slow, stressful affair. When I had my own car, it was like a ticking time bomb, exploding over and over again to take away a big chunk of my money. Transmission, brakes, water pump, tags- these things could easily wipe out a paycheck.

In Moscow (and Prague, and Kyiv for that matter), I have never felt the need for a car. To be sure, there are a couple good reasons for car ownership in these cities, but you can easily live your life without ever getting behind the wheel.

Moscow has what is arguably the best public transport system in the world. Even with the price hikes over the years, you can still spend less than a dollar to ride literally all over Moscow for as long as you want. If you just want to circle the ring line all day- fifty rubles. That’s nothing.

Sure it can be extremely crowded at rush hour, but I have never had much of a problem getting to any job that was within 15-20 minutes walk of a metro station, and those metro stations keep multiplying across the web that is the Moscow Metro. It is so effective in spite of all the massive problems in the country that you almost wish it would one day become self-aware and overthrow the government. Of course there’s always the danger that it wouldn’t stop there, and instead tunnel its way throughout the globe hell-bent on destroying humanity.

Ecology

When I first came to Moscow in 1999, one of the most striking things I noticed was the large swathes of green territory. At night, from the window of my hotel room near Izmailovsky Market, I noticed the clusters of city lights were interrupted by huge expanses of black. This contrasts greatly with my home town, which is basically paved from one edge of the city to another. At night it’s a flat, electrified waffle with virtually no blacked-out holes in the grid.

Moscow, by comparison, is extremely green. There are large forested parks well within the bounds of the city, easily accessible by metro (there it is again).  Even just around the neighborhood it is extremely green during the summer. It’s also nice to get outside the city and feel the difference in the air.

Sadly I was unable to see the Caucasus mountains (those in Russia, at least), or Lake Baikal.

Culture of Resistance 

Recently resistance to the regime has been rising in spite of increasingly authoritarian behavior since 2012. Right now the opposition movement, if you can even call it one movement, is far from attaining any kind of serious impact on politics, despite its recent victories in Moscow’s municipal elections. But when you look at the shortcomings of the opposition, you have to consider what they’re up against, and then you see how courageous many Russians can be, from soldiers that face prison for desertion because they refuse to take part in the invasion and occupation of Ukraine, to young people who come out to unsanctioned rallies in droves in spite of several years of this so-called “patriotic education.”

All the scheming of the president’s “political technologists,” the vigilante groups, assassination, jailtime for retweets and “likes” on social media, billions spent on domestic propaganda, including paid internet comment trolls- all this has failed to extinguish the spark of resistance and the desire for freedom among the Russian people.

I know that many of my Ukrainian friends look down on the Russian opposition, which has often had a very poor understanding of the “Ukrainian question.” As they say, it is with this question that the Russian liberal ceases to be. And this viewpoint is not wholly unjustified. Ukrainians are understandably upset due to invasion, annexation, occupation, and a war that has killed 10,000 and displaced almost two million people. More to the point, many Russian liberals, including Alexey Navalny, tend to be against the war in Donbas but for the Crimean annexation, making them irreconcilable with Ukrainian national aspirations.

That said, the behavior of Russian liberals is somewhat understandable when you consider the context of the system they live in. If Navalny publicly states that Crimea is Ukraine, he can be immediately hit with a charge for questioning the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation (which, incidentally, is allowed to question other countries’ territorial integrity). The penalty can be as much as five years. Ukrainians like to make a big deal of overthrowing a dictatorship via Maidan, but they never had to go up against a system like Putin’s- a unified dictatorship with a single purpose. Ukraine has been ruled by competing clans, which makes struggle a lot easier because your interests can align with those of other powerful groups. One should also note that Viktor Yanukovych had a place to run to. Putin does not, and I’m quite confident that if he were facing a Maidan-style revolution he’d unleash far more than snipers on his own people. Hell, Putin’s predecessor Yeltsin did exactly that.

Though it has numerous flaws, some of them quite serious, Russia’s opposition is an ember of hope. It’s not just the marches and the organizations either. It’s the little acts of personal resistance we see from time to time. Each one is a reminder to the system that its oppression and propaganda have failed to fully subdue the Russian people, that it will always fail to do so.

Conclusion

When all’s said and done, I have to admit I didn’t use my time here nearly as well as I could have. I often got so caught up in trivial things and missed many opportunities. But still, in these ten years I feel like I have learned more than I did in my whole previous life- about the country, about the world, about myself. I have had the opportunity to meet amazing people of many nationalities and learn from their experience. From Moscow I traveled not only throughout Russia, but throughout the whole hemisphere, from Shanghai to Tangier. I did jobs I’d never have a shot at in the US before I left. I learned to budget my money, and to cook from scratch those things Americans are able to buy in a box or a cheap Chinese buffet. I lost my hair, but I also lost a lot of weight. I experienced the thrill and ultimately the emptiness of casual flings, but also the fulfillment, exhilaration, and even pain of true love. I came face to face with an untimely death, something I’d never had to deal with before.  I experienced war first-hand, something I’d totally missed in the army. I pushed myself harder than I ever have and I offered my life for a cause which I still believe is just.

It’s been a wild ride, one which fails description. When I look back on what I’ve done here, or even how I got here, I feel like I can’t explain it to anyone. It barely even makes sense to me. Hopefully I’ll be able to put everything down in writing one day. At least now I can write the first volume.