Tag Archives: The Guardian

How I became The Guardian

Life has been full of surprises lately. Yesterday I found out I was published in The Guardian. Today I learned that I am The Guardian. In fact, I am the “Western mass media.” Yeah I know, weird huh? It’s true though, at least according to the prestigious Russian news site Ridus.ru (yes, that Ridus.ru), who just today ran a story featuring yours truly bearing the headline “British Guardian accuses the Western mass media of idiocy.”

Yes, we have yet another case of one source being labeled as the “X mass media,” in this case British, but this time I happen to be the source. Well I guess it wouldn’t be the first time Russian media over-hyped some lone blogger.

In the article there are no direct quotes from the article in question. Nor are there any links to the article. Instead it says:

“Джим Ковпак в статье «Сталин, водка и ядерное оружие: как не надо писать о России» перечислил мифы, используя которые иностранные журналисты оказываются в положении полных идиотов.”

“Jim Kovpak in the article “Stalin, vodka, and nuclear weapons: How not to write about Russia,” lists myths whose use makes foreign journalists look like total idiots.”

It  then goes on to say that I wrote that Western media coverage gives the impression that Russia is full of prostitutes.

Before I tackle this I should point out that The Guardian piece is heavily edited to be more concise. The original article appeared on Russia!.

Once one sees both articles it ought to be clear that it isn’t necessarily aimed at journalists. It certainly isn’t aimed at Western Russia correspondents, many of whom I know personally and who in many cases have far more background knowledge and/or experience in Russia than the expat Putin fanboys out there. Many of those types flat out tell you they “knew nothing about Russia” prior to chasing down some girl they met on the internet or whatever.

Of course these cliches certainly can apply to people who are by definition journalists, but these types are most likely those who for whatever reason find themselves writing about Russia without actually being in the country or even visiting it. They may work for some news aggregator site, they could be some kind of travel journalist, or someone just reporting on pop culture phenomena throughout the world. I did specifically refer to expat writers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean journalists. They could be bloggers or even novelists. Also in the long version I occasionally point out that some of these cliches apply to Ukraine as well. And lastly, nowhere in either article did I “accuse the Western media of idiocy.”

It wouldn’t seem like a big deal if I didn’t just get a call earlier in the evening from the state-run NTV about an interview regarding this article. Even if I had the time and were so inclined, I’m afraid they’d be disappointed if the reason for their interest was the wholly inaccurate Ridus article.

But there’s a good lesson to be found in the unusual level of interest that the Russian media paid to this. First of all, the Guardian piece had been up for roughly a day, maybe a day and a half before I was told about the Ridus story. I got the NTV notification about two hours later. Is it not curious how the Russian media constantly paints the “mainstream Western media” as nothing more than a propaganda machine bent on waging information war on Russia, and yet the second they find something in that “mainstream media” they think they can use, the jump all over it? Also, The Guardian is pretty “mainstream,” and it is particularly hated by the Kremlin media and Putin fanboys the world over. To be fair, that no doubt is largely due to the publication’s association with intrepid super spy Luke Harding. Still, The Guardian is definitely “Western” media, so it’s a little odd that Western media would accuse Western media of idiocy, isn’t it?

The other funny aspect of this, perhaps the funniest of all, is that this long-time Kremlin media tactic of referring to “Western/American/foreign mass media” in order to back up some claim, whether it is a matter of gross distortion as with my article or misrepresenting an author’s expertise or credentials in other cases, is essentially a tacit admission that the Russian media isn’t trustworthy. See every time they do this the message is always the same, “Look! A Western says this! If they say that, it must be true!” It’s as if they know they must somehow attach themselves to Western sources because otherwise they have no credibility, or at least Western sources seem more credible to their audience, even if they too generally believe the ideas behind the story and buy into the “information war” conspiracy.

Western media doesn’t appear to operate by these rules. They don’t need to constantly throw up some Russian source and say, “Look! Even the Russians themselves support us and say what we’re writing is true!” Okay, sometimes it seems like Paul Goble is doing that, but he’s hardly “MSM.” Otherwise there is some concept of journalistic ethics and its expected that a reporter will go out and speak to sources and make every effort to confirm their stories while also striving for objectivity. If they interview opposition sources, for example, it’s because there’s a political or human interest story here and you’re supposed to let the sources speak for themselves. The idea isn’t to say “Look, even the Russians themselves admit that Putin sucks! Obama is right!”

Does the system of journalism always work that way? Of course not. For one thing journalism is, for most major Western outlets, a business. Thanks to the internet it has become a rather cutthroat one at that. But as I’ve said plenty of times in the past- just because one system has flaws doesn’t mean we should adopt another one that is worse. And if the Kremlin owned media wants to protest the implication that it is worse and not, as they sometimes claim, equal in terms of credibility, maybe they should stop and ask why they have to constantly invoke the “Western media” as backup for their claims.

UPDATE: They apparently really love that piece because a more accurate translation of the article was published on RT’s Russian site. So yeah, now I’v finally been published on RT. Unfortunately it would seem that RT failed to recognize my Guardianship. Have no doubt in your minds, I am The Guardian, and I shall rule this world that is rightly mine! 

Is Nick Cohen reading this blog?

Here’s a rather insightful article about RT from Nick Cohen of The Guardian. It shows I’m not the only one who grasps the essence of the Kremlin’s satellite channel.  Take a look at this excerpt, for example:

“Where the old communists claimed the Soviet Union was freer and more democratic than the west, Putinists claim “all liberalism is cant and anyone can be bought”. Russia Today feeds the huge western audience that wants to believe that human rights are a sham and democracy a fix. Believe that and you will ask: what right have we to criticise Putin? At least he is honest in his way.”

Is this not basically the same concept I put forth in my article “On Deaf Ears: The Wasted Potential RT,” when I wrote the following:

So it is with Russian media. Rather than actually present some coherent, alternative message, the new direction seems to be aimed at merely confusing every new story until nobody has a clue what is going on. If Russia is called out for wrongdoing and they can’t concoct any conspiracy theories to explain the accusations away, the response is typically whataboutism- not because the Russian government is terribly concerned about the rights of people living in Detroit or Ferguson, but simply because they trying to say, “Yes, we are bad, but everyone else is bad too, so we should all just mind our own business and continue being bad.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not accusing Cohen of plagiarism here; in fact the formulation of RT’s de facto credo that I wrote in “On Deaf Ears” was actually inspired by a friend who is far more knowledgeable about journalism and RT than I.  But what the similarity shows is that outsiders, including people perhaps not familiar with Russia from the inside, have managed to figure out RT’s game.

Getting back to Cohen’s statement above, I have to respond to his statement about people who believe “human rights are a sham and democracy is a fix” with a question. If so many people in the West believe that, and indeed many do, why do they believe that? How does a person come to believe this? The answer, of course, is due to the contradictions between the concept of human rights, and the class-based society we live in, between the liberal concept of democracy and the reality of capitalism. Of course there are two responses to this problem. One response is to acknowledge that human rights and democracy are, at least on paper, inherently positive things. At the same time, contradictions in our society prevent us from fully realizing the potential of those two concepts. Ergo it would be incumbent on those who want to improve society to work towards the goal of resolving those contradictions so as to fully realize that ultimately positive goal. The other prominent view is that these concepts are bad or at least highly flawed, ergo some other alternative should be substituted in their place. Instead of improving democracy so as to increase political participation of the masses, democracy should be done away with entirely and replaced with one or a few “strong” leaders. Instead of human rights, some groups should receive hand-outs and automatic privileges simply because they were born into a particular group, however arbitrary that determination may be.  Guess which group RT tends to appeal to.

Of course RT appeals to people on the left as well, but many of these people are simply ignorant of the ideology behind Kremlin propaganda. Rarely does the Russian government directly reach out to actual leftists. They want your solidarity if it’s useful to them, but they don’t have any sympathy for your beliefs. The USSR was positive to them only because they transformed it into another Russian empire, it was authoritarian, and it struck fear into the US and other Western countries. Beyond that, the Kremlin and its supporters long for the days of the original Russian empire- obedient citizens unquestioningly doing what they are told, isolated from the rest of the world and without demands on their leaders. Women are to be shackled in the home with religious dogma. Well, not all women. The ruling elite will still need their prostitutes and escorts when they go out on Friday nights. Oh yes, they will still do that. The whole provincial, wholesome Russian peasant lifestyle in a capitalist society isn’t for them. It’s only for Russia’s masses.  Getting back to the point about leftists supporting Russia, to a certain degree I can forgive them for their ignorance. Sadly though, I have seen many leftists who upon learning the truth from someone such as myself, decide to double down and begin lecturing a man who’s been living in Russia for nearly a decade. It’s not a pretty sight.

I have to say it’s a bit disturbing, living in Russia during this economic crisis and knowing that the two things the government keeps pouring money into is the military and propaganda networks like RT. In a way it’s logical though. Pumping money into the military is a desperate measure to make Russia look strong, possibly by scaring Ukrainians, Georgians, and the Baltic countries.  Should NATO ever call Putin’s bluff, however, it will all be over very quickly and the government will never recover from the humiliation. As for the propaganda organs, they get money because it’s far easier for the leadership to lie about conditions in Russia or confuse and distract foreigners than it is to actually fix those conditions. Why build roads or fix sidewalks when you can tell viewers in that town about how there are poor areas in America too, and you can also imply that people who complain too much just might be paid agents of the US State Department?  Why fix the problems of the country when those same problems give you thousands of poor students you can pay to troll foreign and domestic media outlets and social networks?

Russia’s success in the middle of the last decade taught the Kremlin one lesson. When people’s standards of living improve, they will continue to expect more. Putin and his supporters apparently thought, and still think, that he did enough for people in the early 2000’s. They should be satisfied with that and not ask for more rights. They should continue to be unquestioningly loyal even if those standards decline.  Thus there is no incentive for the Kremlin to improve standards of living any more. Poorer people are more easily manipulated.  TV is preferable to the dangerously unpredictable internet.

Two good pieces from The Guardian

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of running across two excellent articles regarding Russia’s recent attempt to hit back at Western sanctions by depriving millions of consumers and potentially destroying thousands of local businesses.

Let me start by presenting this piece by Natalia Antonova. If you haven’t heard of Antonova, know that she used to work for The Moscow News and RIA Novosti. She also has a personal blog which is definitely worth following. One of the most entertaining things about her blog is that for some reason it seems to attract a lot of creepy, misogynistic stalker types who she exposes and mocks from time to time. I’m telling you these guys are so stereotypical they almost seem like someone’s deliberate parody of the “M’lady”-spouting, chivalrous “gentleman” or the “red pill” expat archetype. If you visit her blog for no other reason, you’ve got to see at least one of these bizarre creatures in action.  Alright, enough plugs.

The reason I’m blogging about her article is because she points out something which I feel Julia Ioffe totally missed in her recent article regarding the import ban on foodstuffs. Ioffe, who is by no means alone among journalists when it comes to this topic, has either intentionally or unintentionally implied that this ban will be felt most keenly by Muscovite hipsters, the “creative class.”  In her defense, her perception could have been skewed because she was following the reaction of various Russian bloggers who belong to that crowd.

Antonova corrects this by pointing out that it isn’t just the upscale supermarkets like Aliye Parusa or Azbuka Vkusa and their well-to-do clientele who are affected by this ban. In fact just hours ago I ran across this story about how the Finnish dairy products company Valio has stopped all production for export to Russia. This isn’t some line of “elite” products. We’re talking things like spread cheese, maybe butter. The shelves of ordinary supermarkets, even those far from Moscow, hold foreign products. And even if one argues that the list is limited today, even if the Kremlin has no plans to expand it people know that they can do so at any given time. Once again the Kremlin shows weakness, hurts its own people, and undermines trust and stability. Great move, guys!

Moving on to the other article, I thought it deserved recognition for being very unique in that it presents four very different viewpoints, three of them being rather objective and thus making the article uniquely balanced. It provides a photo of Donbas refugees, reminding people that while Russian claims of ethnic cleansing or atrocities may be bullshit, there is a humanitarian crisis in the Donbas and civilians are caught in the crossfire. If sympathy for the victims in Gaza is mainstream, I don’t see why we can’t do the same for Eastern Ukrainians who may never have desired to be a part of Russia.

There is bad news though; I do have to take issue with the second piece in the article by James Nixie of Chatham House. While he does make a good case and avoids blatant bias or sensationalism, I get a strong sense of concern trolling from what he wrote.

The problem starts when he is describing two extreme sides of the spectrum when it comes to Russia. He talks about how rabid anti-Russia critics are accused of being Cold Warriors who live in the past, but then he presents a counter-argument in their favor, implying that they were proved right, without any criticism.  Then he gets to the other side, which I will quote so that I can demonstrate my problem with his analysis.

Those who think more charitably toward Russia are, to my mind, a more interesting bunch.

When you read the words “think more charitably toward Russia” keep in mind he’s comparing that to the opposite extreme. So there’s a huge implication there, particularly since he doesn’t really define what he means by thinking more charitably toward Russia. Are we talking about principled attempts at being objective or just more nuanced thinking, or are we talking about full-on Team Russia? That seems important because while he is pretty level-headed, he does reveal a bit of a slant which I’ll explain after this part where he describes those more charitable thinkers. I supply my commentary for each item.

Their rationale for thinking the way they do appears to be among the following:

– they have spent insufficient time in the other former Soviet states (such as Ukraine) and thus are overly impressed by Russia

I’m not sure what point he’s trying to make here. It implies that other former Soviet states might be as good as, if not better than Russia. That can certainly be the case in some former Soviet states like those of the Baltics, though they do have some serious issues of their own, but what if you spent your time in Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan? And is he implying that Ukraine is impressive? I’ll be the first to admit that I liked Kyiv more than Moscow, at least before a bunch of dipshits destroyed it. Still, the fact that Ukraine was far worse off than Russia in almost every category was the reason why Maidan happened in the first place. Again I’m not sure what point he’s trying to make. It’s like saying a person hasn’t spent enough time in other Russian cities besides Moscow, and thus they are overawed by that city. Sure, Kazan has improved greatly and is one of Russia’s most developed cities, but that doesn’t change the fact that opportunities and living standards are far greater in Moscow.

– good old fashioned left-wing thinking or anti-Americanism (America is bad so Russia must be good… or at least no worse)

I don’t take kindly to the conflation of this kind of vulgar anti-Americanism with “left-wing thinking” of any sort. There have been plenty of right-wingers who gravitate towards Russia and I would go so far as to say most die-hard Russian supporters are likely to be conservative. The “enemy of my enemy is my friend” thinking is in full-swing, but they are attracted to Russia’s phony image of a guardian of “traditional” values.

– they make money in Russia or their income is dependent on it;

Okay this hits a little close to home. For one thing, he ignores the fact that many critics of Russia used to make tons of money off of it until they were kicked off the gravy train. Then suddenly they had a change of heart and decided that their real concern was democracy and human rights. The late Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky are two examples who come to mind.

Tim Kirby could fall under this category, since he has clearly made a profitable career off of Russia. I make money in Russia and depend on it, but that’s because I live and work here and I have a family to take care of. I continued working here because I saw that my skills were in high demand here, so I endured all the problems in order to make money and be productive. Should I have stayed home and continued doing the backbreaking labor I used to do?  If an investor moves his capital abroad because he sees it as more profitable, he gets lauded for his business acumen. If a worker breaks the bonds of national borders to go where they can get better pay for their skills, they’re looked at as a job-stealing parasite or in my case some kind of traitor.

The truth is our lives are dominated by capital. If you don’t own capital in one form or the other, you are at the mercy of the market and other factors far beyond your control. Believe me, I’m feeling that very strongly right now.

– they are ‘great power realists’ who believe that big states dominate have always dominated the small and so it must always be. It’s not very nice but at least it will help keep the peace if we keep Russia happy and give it what it wants;

This can be a bit of a strawman. Realistically, in a capitalist world rich, powerful countries dominate weaker ones. Of course it’s not always big dominating the small. The recent sanctions and the Russian government’s flailing, impotent response shows that large nations which neglect their economy can find themselves without leverage. Russia’s leaders just assumed that size, nuclear weapons, oil, and gas would guarantee it regional superpower status. They guessed wrong.

In any case, it would be good to think back to late last year and remember that Ukraine, which had been used as a political football by Russia and the EU for years, was basically delivered an ultimatum to sign a free trade agreement which would be most profitable for European businesses. Russia’s counter-offer was essentially the same thing. Only an idiot could believe that the terms could possibly benefit Ukraine more than the side offering the treaty.

So this is one of those issues where you only get to condemn it if you are against capitalism, the system that drives this kind of disparity between nations.

– finally, for some, a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Having visited Russia in the 1990s and possessing a vague interest in international affairs should not be mistaken for expertise.

On this I totally agree, because prior to moving here I was that guy who visited Russia in the 90’s for a short time and became an insta-expert. Now it’s hard to come up with a single thing I believed about Russia in the period between 1999 and 2006 which was actually correct. Having said that, and more importantly having now spent more of my adult life in Russia rather than the United States, I must say that expertise also doesn’t come from four years of classroom instruction and a summer or two in Russia. I’m not saying this about Mr. Nixey, but those types are out there and they occupy both sides of the fence when it comes to Russia.

The next disturbing thing Nixey writes comes in the form of another list, which I will treat similarly.

I would like to think that if the evidence changed, then so would my views (what’s the alternative? To hold steadfastly to one’s views even when fresh and contradictory evidence becomes available?)

This is a sentiment I greatly respect, but keep in mind that Mr. Nixey did not specify what he meant by thinking more charitably toward Russia, so we don’t know what mistaken views he’s really talking about here.

Sadly however, the evidence thus far is damning in its sheer volume as well as in its content and variety.

What’s about to follow is a list of grievances against Russia that I assume is supposed to make people think less charitably toward Russia. Among totally legitimate complaints, he slips in some not-so-honest items which I will point out below.

Consider:

– the prosecution of an horrific war in Chechnya killing tens of thousands;

“An horrific war?” There were two wars in Chechnya, the first actually claiming more casualties than the second. And who prosecuted that first war? Yeltsin, not Putin. Now one might ask why that matters since it was still Russia. I agree that this is legitimate, and I don’t buy the Yeltsin’s Russia/Putin’s Russia dichotomy, but I do know that Yeltsin never experienced anything like Putin when it comes to criticism of the Chechen conflict. He crushed his own people with tanks and soldiers and got away with it too. For all his faults, who could possibly expect Putin not to take notice of that?

– the dismemberment of an independent oil company – Yukos – and theft of its assets;

To be fair, it was stolen from a thief. You know what they say about honor among thieves. But that’s just it- Putin is a symptom, not the disease.

– the expulsion of British Council offices from Russian cities;

Granted I don’t know much about what British Council actually does, but I’m not sure if this is a terrible stain on Russia’s record. In fact if they provide free or low-cost English language training, fuck ’em, I say.

– overt support for Yanukovych in the obviously rigged 2004 Ukrainian election;

While this is indeed bad let’s not forget he won an election democratically later down the road, which to be honest doesn’t bode well for the reputation of liberal democracy if such a corrupt man can be so elected.  But realistically speaking, the West heavily backed candidates which were favorable to their interests. Expecting a country like Russia not to have interests in its own neighborhood is just naive and literally unfair. You can criticize the way Russia acts in furtherance of its interests, but not the idea that Russia should have interests at all. Again though, we’re talking capitalist world here.

– reneging on international treaties (Energy Charter, INF, Helsinki Accords, Budapest agreement);

Not going to dispute this as a lot of it is out of my field of expertise, but I take international treaties and law with a grain of salt ever since the Iraq War. I know this is going to set off whataboutery alarms, but I’ve noticed a clear pattern by which countries like the US cite international law when it suits them, then claim it’s irrelevant when it doesn’t, a behavior I often observed in supporters of the Bush administration. As St. Augustine wrote, “An unjust law is no law at all.”

– selling weapons to the Syrian regime;

Because Western countries never sell arms to authoritarian regimes, and certainly not Middle Eastern dictatorships. And I don’t care what anyone says- Better to sell all the arms you can to Assad than ISIS or rebels who might end up turning them over to ISIS and similar groups. Also I noticed he didn’t mention Gaddafi. I wonder if that had anything to do with the fact that the US and some Western countries had been selling him some kind of military equipment or supplies up until 2010(based on what I read about those countries reducing these sales at the time).

– the invasion of Georgia, ripping two territories away from it;

Okay here we’ve got a major problem. I don’t know how many times I’ve gone over this, but Georgia declared Soviet law null and void. It was the USSR which determined that Abkhazia and South Ossetia were to be autonomous SSRs inside of the Georgian SSR, which under Soviet law meant they did not have the right to secede. Declaring that law void and the USSR an “illegal occupation” certainly would give the Georgians an argument for claiming those territories and not granting them autonomy, but it also gives the Abkhaz and Ossetian people the right to secede from Georgia. After all, were they not also “illegally occupied” by the Soviet regime in Moscow, and forced into the composition of Georgia? Clearly those people thought they had that right, because they fought for it in 1992 and 1993.

Georgia launched an ill-advised offensive in 2008 against Ossetia and violated a ceasefire. Indeed, Russian forces did invade actual Georgian territory, but they quickly vacated it, indicating that this offensive was aimed at neutralizing retreating Georgian forces. The idea that you must break all contact with a retreating enemy force the second it crosses an imaginary line isn’t taught in any war academy as far as I know.

– the invasion of Crimea, ripping it from Ukraine;

Agreed.

– an absence of free and fair elections;

Agreed, but then this was always the case, including during the Yeltsin regime which was praised by the West and Russian “liberals” alike. In fact American PR advisers even saved Yeltsin’s ass in 1996 in a very suspicious campaign.  Apparently there’s a Hollywood film about it.

– total control over the television media;

Though they have tried to shut it down via indirect means, they haven’t managed to kill Dozhd TV.

– a poor human rights record (assassinations of journalists, Pussy Riot’s incarceration, political prisoners etc);

This could apply to many countries which do not receive anything like the treatment given to Russia, at least by the press if not by politicians. Also I can’t think of a single journalist assassination which has actually been linked to the Russian government. I can think of at least one, Paul Klebnikov, who was most likely assassinated by that crusader for human rights and democracy in Russia, the late Boris Berezovsky. You didn’t see a lot of talk about that.

– the lack of an independent judiciary;

Nolo contendere.

– predatory state-owned corporate enterprises run by security service officials with little regard for sanctity of contract or corporate social responsibility.

I always get suspicious when I see people use terms like “state-owned” as if we’re supposed to see that as inherently bad. Norway has at least one oil corporation that is 100% state-owned, if the information I read is accurate. In the case of Russia, lack of rule of law and the flagrant cronyism is beyond a shadow of a doubt, but all this means is that state ownership can go both ways. When run according to strict rules and for the benefit of the public, they can have amazing results as in Norway. Or like the steel-manufacturing giant POSCO, a state can build up an enterprise before privatizing it when it is prepared to compete on a global scale, as Korean economist Ha Joon Chang points out.

Now we get to Nixey’s conclusion.

However bad the west can be, whatever its misdemeanours – and there are plenty, there’s no doubt – its recent record is not this bad.

What does he mean by “recent record?” Some of the most egregious things on his list happened as far back as 1993. In that case there are a bit more than plenty “misdemeanors.” I would say the invasion of Iraq, which is now descending into radical terrorist chaos threatening to claim thousands more lives, is actually a pretty serious felony rather than a misdemeanor. The fact that he ignores this reveals a clear bias. And he doesn’t get to claim whataboutery here since he opened the door to comparisons.

Reporting on Russia, for real balance, should concede what must be conceded but reflect the fact that there is no moral equivalence.

Whenever you hear think tank pundits telling you there is no moral equivalence, beware. What has Mr. Nixey basically just told us here? I don’t want to put words in his mouth but I feel you could rephrase that as “admit the facts but still arbitrarily dismiss any equivalency.” It’s not that I’m terribly opposed to what he’s saying in this case, but it’s a dangerous habit that can be used to justify pretty horrible policies.

The West continually talks about democracy and human rights, ergo it should hold itself to a higher standard. For years they were happy to make profits off of Russia while snubbing every overture Putin made toward them, particularly his offer of Russian membership in NATO. This refusal to acknowledge Putin at that time could not have been conducive to making the kind of political or economic reforms necessary to be a part of that world. You could even say he was “taught” that the West only wanted oil and gas from Russia, and was happy to turn a blind eye to whatever he did so long as it didn’t hurt the profits of their investors.

Another reason for not letting the West off the hook is that as recent events have proved, they are still far more powerful economically, socially, and militarily. The US, for example, had every opportunity to not invade Iraq. It’s not as if the US economy was collapsing, Bush was in his third term, corruption was rampant, and thus a military campaign was necessary to silence the masses in the name of patriotism. The West could have pressured the Ukrainian government to suppress right-wing nationalists. The US could have stayed out of the debacle altogether and let the EU take responsibility for the whole thing. John McCain could have stayed home instead of telling the protesters that the United States was uncritically supportive of them.  And NATO could certainly prevent the Ukrainian army from indiscriminately bombing and shelling populated areas. In the case of Russia, Putin’s really not in total control of the rebel insurgency. Plenty of other observers have expressed this idea before me, i.e. the idea that Putin has unleashed forces which are no longer under his control.

Given these facts, I am suspicious of anyone who uses the claim of no moral equivalency when it seems to let the West totally off the hook. You could almost say that the West acted like something of a bad parent to the emerging Russia of 1991. That parent didn’t pay any attention to Russia’s problems or needs, it was dismissive of its ideas and requests, it refused to acknowledge its good deeds, it was arbitrary, and it fed it junk food and junk ideas. Now it’s dealing with the angsty, pissed off teenager whose lashing out and rebelling. This doesn’t absolve the Russian government or even the Russian people of responsibility, but they aren’t going to take responsibility and progress if the West doesn’t do the adult thing and set an example.

Indeed, on many issues there is no equivalency between Russia and the West, but before making a blanket statement declaring there to be no moral equivalency altogether, it might be helpful to remember that this works both ways. Thus far Russia has yet to fully invade and conquer a sovereign country on totally flimsy pretexts, causing well over 100,000 civilian casualties and leaving a power vacuum which is rapidly being filled by well-armed fanatics. Russia has, to the best of my knowledge, not been a state-sponsor of terrorism, nor has it aided Islamic fundamentalists in any country. Russia’s also comparatively weak all across the board, meaning it cannot project its power very far, its propaganda is crude and thus it cannot conceal any of its crimes, and it lacks any effective way to influence many countries save for certain former Soviet republics. That alone could be used to make the argument that the US and its allies should be considered more of a threat to worldwide peace and security.  See when you just go ahead and unilaterally declare that there are no moral equivalencies, you end up with statements like this one from the article’s most anti-Putin contributor, Gregory Feifer of NPR:

After his first invasion of a sovereign country, neighbouring Georgia in 2008, western leaders eager to look past the conflict were able to quickly resume business as usual with Moscow partly because international media didn’t pay enough attention to Putin’s messianic nationalism and anti-westernism.

I’m sorry but an Iraq comparison is very apt here, and much more egregious because it led to total regime change which is still having repercussions today. I don’t think I even need to mention the fact that Medvedev, not Putin, was president during the Georgia conflict, and the “messianic nationalism” was nowhere near what it’s been since the annexation of the Crimea and the takeover of the rebellion in Eastern Ukraine. I know, I was here the whole time.

So please, let us not arbitrarily abstract away things we don’t want to consider by dismissing any idea of equivalency. The West needs to live up to its standards, and it needs to make Russia aware that it can live up to those same standards and if it does so, it will mean prosperity and dignity for all Russia’s citizens.

Sevastopol Sketches

The events in Russia and Ukraine in the past few weeks have sapped all my energy for writing.  Instead I’d like to present a few items which serve as rays of light in otherwise dark times.  First I’d like to start with RT host Abby Martin’s courageous statements on the situation in Ukraine. I’m posting the link to the video on RT’s own website, where it is in fact still hosted, so the reader should skip to about 26.40 if you want to catch the whole thing without watching the entire program.

Martin still has her job at RT, and contrary to some idiotic Youtube comments I have seen, her life is not in danger. The head of RT in Russia did fire back, claiming that her statements were “pro-Ukrainian” and “American propaganda.”  No, they were not propaganda, they were totally consistent with what RT and the Russian government has said about military intervention, including “humanitarian intervention,” for years.  The heads of RT in Russia, and indeed a great deal of those who have the pro-Kremlin point of view, clearly don’t understand the concept of consistency or principle.  They have the same “it’s okay if we do it” attitude as people like John Kerry, or John McCain.

RT’s heads apparently don’t take notice of the fact that much of their commentary comes from dozens, if not hundreds of Americans, Brits, Canadians, and Europeans who routinely and openly criticize their governments’ policies and actions. Now to be fair, some of those people are utter nutcases, conspiracy theorists, or both, but the fact is that most of these people suffer no government harassment as a result of their actions, nor do massive state-run media outlets accuse them of being paid by the Russian government.  Recently I wrote an article about a WSJ article on Tim Kirby.  Obviously the article was critical of Kirby, but rather than just smear him as a traitor in the pay of the Russian government(technically true), they just simply took an interest in his views, even if they chose to highlight the most controversial among them. There is a sort of acknowledgement that Kirby came to those opinions on his own, as a result of certain experiences. By contrast, Russians who openly criticize their government, especially on matters of foreign policy, are routinely denounced as being paid by the US State Department. You don’t form your own opinions, you have no agency. Someone is paying you. I should point out that this is another example of projection, because it is no secret in Russia that pro-government organizations and parties do indeed pay people to show up at rallies, and in some cases state employees or students are forced to attend for whatever reason. There are numerous videos taken by Russians of virtually every political stripe of this sort of activity.

Returning to the topic of Abby Martin’s courageous statement, she did not back down in the face of criticism, as is evident in this video.

While this might seem a bit odd, I think it is uniquely appropriate that the person expressing this kind of principled solidarity with Ukraine is a woman. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the women of Ukraine, Russia, and other former Soviet republics have born the brunt of much suffering. In the most extreme cases, they have been forced either by want or by violence into prostitution, often being trafficked far from home, and in the best cases they find themselves in societies where they are practically second-class citizens. Patriotism, whether Ukrainian nationalism or the Muscovite variety, is a man’s game.

Abby Martin, if you’re reading this, this is for you. You’ve earned it.

If you are not RT's Abby Martin, you are not authorized to participate in this internet fist bump.

If you are not RT’s Abby Martin, you are not authorized to participate in this internet fist bump.

In other news, we’ve got Shaun Walker of The Guardian with this very objective article.  What he points out, quite correctly, is that while there is a clear fascist presence in the Evromaidan movement, many of the Russians in the Crimea and Moscow screaming about fascism are basically fascists themselves.  Here’s a choice quote:

On the ground in Crimea, what is particularly odd is that the most vociferous defenders of Russian bases against supposed fascists appear to hold far-right views themselves.

Outside the Belbek airbase, an aggressive self-defence group said they were there to defend the base against “Kiev fascists”, but also railed against Europe, “full of repulsive gays and Muslims”.

“What you foreigners don’t get is that those people in Maidan, they are fascists,” said Alexander, a Simferopol resident drinking at a bar in the city on Monday night. “I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don’t like fascists.”

This is really nothing new. I’ve often heard or seen people talk about how “Russia defeated fascism,” how “the West is fascist”, and then go on rants about black people, Jews, gays, and so on. God forbid you advocate being tolerant; that’s a dirty word in these parts. Indeed, the first Russian propaganda response to Evromaidan was “EUROPE = TEH GAYZ.”  First of all, European Union membership was not on the table, a lot of Maidan supporters and Russian opponents clearly missed that.  Second, even if I were a homophobe, when I think of all the potential problems of Eurointegration, I don’t think gay parades would be anywhere in the top twenty.  Unfortunately to many Russians(including those in Ukraine), things like unemployment, low wages, industry-killing free trade agreements,  brain drain, austerity, or prostitution and women trafficking all pale in comparison to the grave threat that a legally sanctioned gay pride parade might take place somewhere in their country. I attribute a lot of this to the fact that the Russian education system, and indeed probably the Soviet one as well, didn’t really do a great job of educating people on the topic of fascist ideology after WWII.  Today “fascist” is something like “Hitler” or “bad Germany,” and to many people it’s bad only because it attacked Russia. Some young people I’ve talked to think it would have been cool if the USSR had allied with Nazi Germany, so they could control the world. I had to explain to one of these poor, misguided youths that this was ultimately an ideological impossibility, and that it would have had dark consequences for the rest of the world.  But whereas the Soviet Union always denied being an empire, and decried imperialism, post-Soviet capitalist Russia revels in the idea. It was, to many Russians, a continuation of the old Russian empire, and all those Tatars, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, etc. should feel good about living in a country dominated by Moscow. Why would anyone hate that?   Oblivious.  Here’s a propaganda tip, which America has used successfully for decades: When people claim you are an empire who wants to dominate them, DENY THAT YOU ARE A FUCKING EMPIRE!

In case the reader happens to be an English-speaking Russian who suspects that he or she does not fully understand what fascism is, here’s a helpful guide:

Fascism is a right-wing, authoritarian system which often presented itself as a “third way” between capitalism and Communism(TIP: It’s not).  It often uses populist appeals and claims that it can bridge the conflict between classes based on national identity. It glorifies one leader, who is vested with the power to decide most issues. It is xenophobic, seeing anyone who disagrees with the fascist ideology as traitors. At its core, there is a melding of power between the political leadership and the richest industrialists( we can see this on both sides in Russia and Ukraine). Individual liberty is scorned, and fascists seek to shape people’s lives down to the last detail.  They determine how to be a proper Ukrainian, Russian, “good German,” etc.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does it not remind you of Svoboda, who wish the right to define what is or isn’t Ukrainian? Does it not remind you of the Duma deputy Mizulina, who is now introducing a whole set of new laws in favor of what she calls “the traditional family,” meant to encourage Russian young people to have large numbers of children yet without any serious increase in funding for pensions, housing, medical care, etc.? Does it not remind you of the press who declares that anyone who questions the government publicly must be a US State Department spy?

Fascists come in all shapes and sizes. They did not always wear swastikas, and like Praviy Sektor and Svoboda in Ukraine, they don’t always get along. Some sport blue and gold, others the Russian tricolor, and still others have the audacity to clothe their views under the Soviet flag, dishonoring the egalitarian and progressive values which that flag represented.  What all these people have in common however, is hate, paranoia, fear, ignorance, and ridiculously poor reasoning capacity.  At the top of these movements, as sponsors sit various wealthy businessmen or politicians, who may only partially subscribe to the ideology of these groups, if at all.  The ruling class in Russia or Ukraine doesn’t give a shit about Stepan Bandera or the “traditional family.” Ukraine’s nationalists had to make common cause with large masses of Russian-speaking people in order to seize power.  Russia’s tough-talking politicians consume massive amounts of Western products, own property in the West, vacation there, and send their children to university in that hated land of non-stop gay parades and fascism.  The ruling class, the businessmen, the investors, the holders of capital have no nation and are more than happy to work with anyone.  Until we learn to build solidarity and work across borders and other arbitrary boundaries, their power over us will remain totally intact.