Tag Archives: Yeltsin

Garbled Messages

Today there was a rather excellent article from Russian blogger Oleg Kashin on the failure of the West to react to Russian militarism in the 90’s, and how this led to what’s currently happening in Syria and Ukraine. Essentially he covers not only the Western approval for Yeltsin’s and Putin’s wars against Chechnya, but he goes straight to the root of the problem by pointing out how the former actually laid the groundwork for today’s authoritarian system in a bloody coup in 1993.

This is something far more Westerners need to be made aware of because you cannot understand the Putinist system without understanding Yeltsin. Both liberals and pro-Kremlin types constantly try to sever Putin from Yeltsin; the former do it because they idolize Yeltsin as a democrat (nonsense), and the latter do it because their narrative associates Yeltsin with weakness and submission before the United States. It is this latter opinion I’d like to focus on.

While Kashin’s article implies that the West didn’t have any significant criticisms of Putin’s war in Chechnya, this is not entirely true. Putin seems to be the first to start attracting scrutiny from the Western press, beginning with his ever-present title of “ex-KGB agent.” In hindsight this may seem justified to some, but this is part of the problem.

The Kremlin narrative today is that Putin saved the country from the embarrassment of Yeltsin, who also just happens to be the reason Putin was in power to begin with. One thing you often hear is “the West likes Russia when it’s weak,” which is a reference to Yeltsin and the near total lack of criticism for his regime from the Western press and Western leaders. On the contrary- the West gave Yeltsin a blank check in spite of the dirty money and organized crime flowing into their nations from Russia. They not only led him slide on Chechnya, but they also helped him get reelected when he slaughtered his own people in the center of Moscow.

Then along came Putin, and slowly but surely the press started to notice human rights violations, brutal military tactics, and corruption. Worse still, Putin was drawing criticism at the same time he was appropriating Russian patriotism and pride as the theme of his administration. The conclusion, if a bit oversimplified, is obvious- “Putin does nothing that Yeltsin hasn’t done, except for the fact that he’s preaching Russian patriotism- that must be why the West is attacking him!”

That wasn’t a notion held only by Russians either. Many Westerners, including myself at a young and considerably more naive age, also latched onto this idea. Many conservative and right wing figures seemed to sympathize with Putin, as they themselves believed that they faced persecution for their unapologetic patriotism. Many Western Putin fanboys still believe it today.

Unfortunately there really isn’t any concrete way to undo the past and hold Yeltsin and his cronies accountable. However, I think articles like Kashin as well as books and articles by Western authors can make a difference. Though you can’t change the image of Yeltsin in his time, we can certainly change the way history sees him. History is full of figures who received hagiographic treatment for decades before critical historians finally shattered their myths. If they did not totally supplant the previous legend of this or that historical figure (looking at you, Columbus), they at least managed to deflate them considerably.

So it should be with Yeltsin. By turning a blind eye to his corruption, aggression, and mistreatment of his own people, Western leaders gave Russians the impression that they don’t really believe in human rights or international law. Quite the contrary- they gave the impression that they would cheer Yeltsin on as he drove the country toward ruin. And what could you call intentional blindness to the suffering of ordinary Russians but an expression of “Russophobia?” Moreover, taking this step would also open up a discussion of the other side of the equation- Russian agency in their own post-Soviet problems.

While we shouldn’t buy into the phony “realist” arguments about “compromises” that amount to giving the Kremlin whatever it wants, history is one realm where was can make compromises and meet halfway before things get out of hand. Here a goodwill gesture costs nothing, because at the end of the day, Yeltsin was, in fact, a plague on Russia and much of the post-Soviet space.

 

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9 Year Anniversary Extravaganza

9 YEARS IN RUSSIA!

How this country has changed in just a couple years.

How this country has changed in just a couple years.

In honor of the 9-year anniversary of my move to Russia, I present my readers with…This long political rant:

Oblivious

These days there’s this idea that Russians miss the Soviet Union, as though they are Communists, as though this is what they actually wanted. Obviously when given the chance, the Russian people, like people in the other union republics, utterly failed to put up any fight to preserve either the union itself, just as they failed to do anything about the system which had long since ceased to be anything remotely resembling socialism in a Marxist sense. In reality the rising Soviet nostalgia, nurtured by the state media and state-connected organizations, is totally disconnected with socialist politics or even the actual Soviet Union itself. Instead, the Soviet Union has been reimagined as another Russian empire, and the message of the state is that Russian imperialism is just and right. This has great appeal for a population living nearly a quarter of a century under humiliation, especially when post-Soviet Russia shows little capacity for achievement in recent years.

Yet while we must not nurture modern Russian fantasies about how the collapse of the Soviet Union wasn’t their fault, or that they were wholly unaccountable for what happened next, we also need to stop doing things like what former US Ambassador Michael McFaul did in this tweet today:

Now I don’t mean to sound like Mark Ames here, but the fact is that while Russia and other Soviet republics were already suffering in the throes of Perestroika, the 90’s, especially the early 90’s, were no picnic for Russia and other former Soviet republics, to say the least. In fact, when Ames talks about the crime, violence, corruption, and prostitution of the 90’s, he’s not wrong nor lying. The only problem is that he used all that to build a career for himself, and then shits on anyone who wants to deal with Russia’s problems now, many of which are rooted in the 90’s.

I apologize for the digression but the point here is that McFaul’s comment is akin to the sentiments of many a clueless Westerner, who expect Russians to celebrate the destruction and humiliation of their country. I am not speaking of the break-up of the Soviet Union here; I’m talking about the literal destruction of the Russian Federation, what can best be described as Russia’s “rightful territory” (though that’s debatable).  Obviously some of these Westerners visited or lived in Russia at the time, and some of them might have been here even earlier, during Perestroika. These types might tell you that “it wasn’t so bad,” well that might have been the case- for them, and perhaps the well-to-do Russians they knew. The fact is that for millions of ordinary people, it was total chaos. All the while the economic advice from the West was neo-liberal to the core. Privatize everything as quickly as possible. Suffering be damned! Let the market decide everything, even if most of your majority population has little to no knowledge about markets and capitalism. No time to teach them!

Then you also have Western politicians and many journalists turning a blind eye to the violence of Yeltsin’s regime. I’m not just talking about the organized crime ties of his backers, but literal violence against his own people. For before he initiated a campaign of butchery in Chechnya which would later catapult Vladimir Putin to prominence, he used tanks and snipers against his own people in his own capital, all for the sake of defending his violation of the constitution. By comparison, the police response to the 2011-2012 protests don’t even register; they were even more reserved than Berkut during Euromaidan.

I could go on with more examples but I think the point is clear. This kind of behavior is precisely one of the reasons why you hear Russians say things like “The West only likes us when we’re weak! Better for them to fear us!” It’s not a paranoid Russian fantasy that foreign media coverage of Russia seemed to immediately change in tone once Putin was in charge. Putin was trying to project the image of a strong Russia, and the Western media was happy to oblige him, telling us how we should fear what he was doing.

The same phenomenon explains the renewed interest in the Soviet Union and Stalin, who has been stripped of his Marxist credentials and made into a Russian Orthodox nationalist. The thing about Russian liberals, almost from the beginning, is that they seemed to love talking about the horrors of “Stalinism” more than anything else. When people were suffering, not knowing where their next meal would come from, when their daughters were disappearing abroad into sexual slavery- the liberals and their foreign backers want to talk about the purges of 1937. It’s not hard to see where this leads in a country dominated by the politics of opposites. “If these same people constantly talk about Stalin, then Stalin must be the anti-liberal! He represents everything they hate, and they represent everything we hate! Glory to the Great Orthodox Russian Nationalist hero, YAROSLAV (Just you wait.) STALIN!”

This is how rudimentary politics is in these parts; it’s not just Ukraine. You attribute certain things to your opponents and then you automatically take on the opposite of everything you perceive to be on “their” side. There’s no middle ground, there’s no underlying principle or ideology guiding your decisions or choices. Take the outrage at the toppling of Lenin statues in Ukraine. Most Russians don’t know jack shit about Lenin, and even less about his ideology or what “Leninism” is (HINT: It’s largely related to organizational methods for Communist parties). Many Russians actually curse Lenin as a German agent, even an American agent, who destroyed their wonderful empire. Lenin is blamed not only for things such as the execution of the royal family, but I’ve even heard Russians claim that he “invented” Ukrainians, and gave them some of the best “Russian” territory. Incidentally, that territory was called “Novorossiya,” and if they were going by ethnic maps of the era Ukraine could have been a lot bigger today, including such cities as Voronezh, Belgorod, Kursk, and possibly the Kuban. Incidentally Lenin’s nationalities policy that is so-hated by Russian neo-imperialists and vatniks alike today was inspired by the work and arguments of none other than…Josef Stalin, but I’m digressing again. The bottom line is that you have this surreal situation where most Russians think nothing of cursing Lenin for the destruction of their empire, church, etc., but a Lenin monument gets smashed in Ukraine and suddenly their butts emit more thrust than the N1 moon rocket.

With Stalin it’s a bit different, largely due to the WWII cult, but the fact is that Russian love of Stalin is highly exaggerated. For one thing, the rabidly anti-Communist, anti-Stalin books of Viktor Suvorov (real name: Vladimir Rezun) are easily found in virtually any Russian bookstore, something I’ve noticed since I first moved here. Other works commonly found in bookstores big and small are the memoirs of various German generals and officers from the Second World War. These books seem to have gained quite a following in Russia, largely because to their audience here they seem like new, forbidden knowledge. I’ve even found works of the Holocaust denier Joachim Hoffman prominently displayed in some of Moscow’s biggest bookstores, including his book honoring Vlassov’s Russian Liberation Army.

What can explain these bizarre disparities, whereby Russians curse Ukrainians for toppling statues of the man who supposedly created Ukrainians? Simple- Ukrainian nationalists are Banderites, and they hate Lenin and the Soviet Union. Ergo statues of Lenin and Stalin are the polar opposite. Maybe more importantly, they enrage Ukrainian nationalists, who are the only Ukrainians worth considering at all, from a Russian point of view. In fact, you could almost say that this is really just trolling politics. Many Ukrainians only tolerate or wave UPA symbols because they know the reaction it will get from vatniks in Russia. They know nothing of the real history of that organization. By the same token, vatniks know that Stalin and Lenin are tools with which to troll their Ukrainian opponents. Thus the memes go back and forth on the internet, interspersed with numerous pornographic images (I’m not even kidding here).

Lastly, one needs to understand that a lot of the darker aspects of Russian politics stem from the kind of ideological garbage that poured into the country from the outside during the 90’s. Russian nationalist groups trying to create a synthesis between ethnic nationalism and the Soviet Union as a Russian empire actually pre-date the fall of the USSR, but after that fall, pretty much every reactionary, right-wing ideology or conspiracy theory flooded into the country. Again Westerners didn’t help. “Throw off all the vestiges of Communism! Bring back the old Tsarist flag! Yes! More religion! Build more churches! The Communists suppressed the poor persecuted church!” and so on. I’ve always found it odd how Western writers seem so perplexed about the prominence of far right ideas in Russia and Eastern Europe. Excuse me, but for roughly 40 years we bombarded them with propaganda that portrayed every Nazi-collaborating fascist as a tragic “freedom fighter” who really fought “against Stalin and Hitler,” sometimes in the ranks of the Waffen SS, no less! The rush to portray anything and everything associate with Communism and socialism as the ultimate evil also led to people questioning the original ideals of Communism, such as anti-racism, internationalism, secularism, science, and women’s rights. If you were led to believe those things were associated with Communism, and Communism is the worst evil imaginable, why would you have any regard for those values under liberal capitalism? Every fascist the world over, from the very beginning, sees such values as creeping Communism.

Monument to Nazi collaborator Andrei Vlassov in...New York. Note the symbols associated with the ROA. Keep that in mind when someone tells you that the Ukrainian flag or trident(It's a BIRD, goddammit!) are

Monument to Nazi collaborator Andrei Vlassov in…New York. Note the symbols associated with the ROA. Keep that in mind when someone tells you that the Ukrainian flag or trident(It’s a BIRD, goddammit!) are “associated with fascism.”
To their credit, Vlassov’s army did actually turn on the Germans to help the Czech resistance liberate Prague. Very different from Bandera, whose forces collaborated with the Germans after he had been arrested and imprisoned by them.

If Westerners want to actually help the situation, there are a few things we can do in discussions with Russians on these topics:

1.      Do not do what McFaul did. Acknowledge that Russia, like many other countries, suffered greatly due to the collapse of the Soviet system. This is not a defense of the system, which was already moribund at that point. It’s not about questioning the independence of any former Soviet republic either. The question of the economic and political system is separate from the question of independence of union republics.

2.   Don’t let Russians off the hook, letting them blame all their problems of the 90’s on a handful of “traitors” and the West, but also acknowledge that the West did play a role in the horrors of the 90’s. A lot of it was neglect- lack of concern or criticism over Yeltsin’s actions, giving him a blank check to do as he pleased. This didn’t just hurt Russians. It actually hurt a lot of foreign investors who wanted to do business in Russia.

3.   Again, it must be understood that celebrating the humiliation of Russia doesn’t mean you can’t say it’s good that the USSR broke apart. The humiliation in this case was not exclusive to Russia. Sure, today the vatniks long to be feared and to push smaller countries around, but that’s because the original humiliation was never solved, in the right way. That could have been solved if Russia had transformed into a proper democratic state, with separation of powers, rule of law, and most of all- a strong welfare state funded by its vast natural resources. The potential of this state would have been immense, and if it existed today I doubt any Russian would give a shit about Ukraine signing an association agreement with the EU or the fact that it had the Crimea, something Russia only gave a shit about in 2014. Countries that do well, whose governments provide their citizens with a high standard of living, generally don’t harbor dreams about recovering lost territories.

Fight the myth that “The West only likes Russia when it was weak!” First of all, Russia is weak today. Yes, yes it is. It’s economy is smaller than that of Italy and falling fast. It has no plan for what to do after Putin, lynch-pin of the system, is gone. Its attempts at sabre-rattling have only led to catastrophic air crashes and billions of wasted rubles. At best it can intimidate its much weaker members, and that’s about it. To the rest of the world it’s essentially a laughing stock as it babbles on about WWII, “historical justice,” and the so-called BRICS alternative while investing even more in US treasury bonds.

Second, it’s not that people in the West, particularly America, liked or hated Russia during the Yeltsin period- they didn’t care. Nobody cared. So much historical revisionism has taken place in modern Russia that they’ve deluded themselves into thinking there is some 150 year history of animosity between the United States and Russia. This is sheer idiocy that ignores tons of historical evidence to the contrary. Real hostility towards the Soviet Union, apart from Wilson’s intervention and a lack of recognition until 1932, didn’t begin until after 1945. During the interwar period the USSR was not seen as a threat. How so? Well the two main concerns for the US military during that period were Japan and…”The Red Empire,” a military designation for the United Kingdom. Yes, Great Britain. Perfidious Albion. Old Blighty. And I might add that part of the increased hostility during the Cold War stemmed from the fact that unlike the interwar period, the USSR actually gained the ability to strike the USA, and vice versa.

Most of all, Russians seem to have totally forgotten that this was an ideological conflict. Sure, plenty of Cold Warriors would sometimes use “The Russians” or “The Russkies” as shorthand for the USSR, but their real animosity was towards Communism. This is why they spent so much time attacking domestic dissidents and opponents as Communists. The House Un-American Activities Committee wasn’t trying to determine if people had hidden Russian ancestry, but rather if they were Communists or associated with Communists.

Lastly, it was not the US that weakened or humiliated Russia. It was people like Yeltsin and people who benefited from his system. Many Russians were complicit in this. Nowadays its Putin and his elite.

4.  Support and spread the truth, that a strong Russia doesn’t mean an empire that bullies other countries. Japan and Germany are both “strong” today. So are Norway, Sweden, Finland, or Austria. Strength can be measured in what the country produces, how the government treats its citizens, its living standards, etc.  It’s hard to say whether we’ve hit a point of no return here, but Russia still has a potential edge in two fields- IT and space exploration. Imagine where it would be were it not for boondoggle projects like Skolkovo and someone stealing $127 million from the space program.

5.  Stop insisting that Russia adopt the new European-contrived (for lack of a more concrete term) version of history. For one thing, it’s not accurate and rewriting history is bad no matter who does it. Worse still, it sends a message to Russians that it is perfectly fine to rewrite history to legitimize political goals. To this end, stop looking the other way when countries like Ukraine engage in this practice. Just because someone is the underdog in a fight doesn’t mean we should rewrite human history for their benefit. And might I add on that point- if you criticize people like me who prefer Ukrainians to take a particular position on Bandera and the OUN, who are you to insist that Russians adopt every point of your historical narrative? After all, do they not need to build a narrative for the sake of cultural cohesion? In truth the Russian identity isn’t that much more solidified than that of Ukraine. Technically there is no “Russia,” if you think about it. So is anyone ready to apply Anne Applebaum’s logic, that this is fine if it builds national unity, to Russia? I sincerely hope not.

Readers and other writers often talk about how shocked they are to see educated, seemingly worldly Russians mouthing the Kremlin’s line as of 2014. This is due to numerous factors, but one factor is the complete failure at setting up a real dialog in all these years. From my observation there as been a lot of reluctance to accept any Russian argument (not necessarily pro-government arguments either) on any subject, particularly when it comes to history. This is often contrasted with a willingness to pick up and disseminate some of the most egregious examples of historical revisionism when they come from other countries. The lack of inconsistency and the refusal to actually listen leads to a sense of exasperation: “They oppose everything we say! They must really hate us!” That, in turn, has led many of these people, who are quite valuable, to side with the Kremlin. If it isn’t that alone, it’s certainly a contributing factor.

In short, anyone who’s actually interested in supporting democracy and generally improving Russia needs to learn to stop being oblivious to this reality. We cannot get sucked into the politics of opposites, where we choose a camp and any criticism within that camp is taken as treason. Russians, even quite liberal ones, have always complained about being lectured to. And let’s be honest, there are some who have certainly been doing a lot of lecturing. So much lecturing, in fact, that they forgot to really explain what the democratic position truly is. This has left many prey to a system that is adept at the tactics of populism.

Vladimir Bundy

Among the many shows I was strictly forbidden to watch as a child was the notoriously raunchy-for-network TV sitcom Married with Children. Russians might recognize this show by its localized incarnation, Счастливы вместе(Happy Together) on the TNT network. For those too young to remember, the show revolved around the dysfunctional Bundy family, with the hapless father Al at the center. Along with The Simpsons, the show pushed back against the unrealistic, family-friendly sitcoms which had thereto dominated American TV.

One of the show’s recurring gags was Al Bundy constantly mentioning the fact that he once scored four touchdowns in a single football game back in high school. This was the crowning achievement of his life, and he loved shoehorning that bit of local sports trivia into many a conversation. Bundy became a trope- a dissatisfied middle-age man who holds on to one glorious moment in his past. It’s amusing, but somewhat tragic.

There’s another middle-aged bald man who likes living on his past glory, none other than Russian president Vladimir Putin. In his case, that past glory was stabilizing the country after the “Wild 90’s.” I know Russian liberals and other opposition-minded people out there will pillory me for this, but I have always given the man credit where it was due. He did manage to stop the bleeding and the patient did recover for several years. Then again, the country had nowhere to go at that point; anyone who was not a fat, dancing drunkard had a pretty good shot at improving Russia’s lot. It just so happens that the man was Vladimir Putin.

Unfortunately, after he stopped the bleeding, Putin left the patient unattended. He wasn’t so much concerned with actual recovery as he was securing power for himself and his friends. Local power brokers would be allowed to rule their roosts with impunity so long as they pledged their loyalty. The media had to be under the control of his supporters. Again, someone had to do something about the Yeltsin-era oligarchs and gangsters, but what was needed was far more than what Putin had in mind. After snatching power away from them, he should have prepared the road to the future by building up democratic institutions in Russia, strengthening the rule of law. In short, he should have planned for a Russia without him at the helm. Instead what we got is a managed “reality show” as Peter Pomerantsev has called it, where Putin’s official “opposition” is nothing but a sham. Via all manner of restrictions, threats, intimidation, and media pressure, the system has eliminated any threat of political opposition outside of the approved parties.

This is why the actual opposition ended up coalescing around a simple blogger; they simply couldn’t find a better leader. Do I really need to point out the severe danger of eliminating any potential pool of actual leadership for Russia? So much has been invested into the image of Putin, the only man capable of leading Russia, that it couldn’t be transferred to Medvedev. Neither Zyuganov nor Zhirinovsky can take over for Putin.  He made the slogan “If not Putin, then who” a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Now here we are in 2015, as Putin’s desire to hold onto power has led him to provoke an actual confrontation with the West as the economy goes down in flames. Still, his supporters bid us to, “remember the 90’s.” The 90’s!  Already the economy is showing similarities with the 90’s, yet we’re still supposed to fall back on Putin’s accomplishments in his first term. Will they still be talking about the 90’s when nearly all those conditions are present again? Will they talk about the 90’s if it actually gets worse than the 90’s? Are Yeltsin’s 90’s so much worse than Putin’s future 90’s?  Indeed, I imagine a scene of utter destitution three years down the road, and some hack will be yammering on about the horrible 90’s.  One day these people will look even more ridiculous than they do now.

You know Richard M. Nixon created the EPA and ended the Vietnam War, right? Of course he also illegally expanded that war and later on it was discovered that he had been abusing his powers in a myriad of ways. The point here is that leaders cannot keep falling back on one accomplishment, especially one which was due to many other factors. Putin’s success after the 90’s is essentially his four touchdowns in one game, or since Putin probably doesn’t know too much about American football- four ippons in one tournament.

Problem is, though, that the clock keeps ticking, and the years keep marching further and further way from 2000. Tell someone in 2025 that it was worse more than a quarter of a century ago and their response will be a sarcastic, “Really?” If it gets to the point where those 90’s conditions do come back, or if conditions get worse, people throwing out that line are going to have a problem. A government needs to either continue providing concrete gains and progress, or it needs to move out of the way to let others take a shot. In most industrialized countries, there’s a mechanism for accomplishing this. Russia lacks this, and thus we are forced to continually hear about Vladimir Bundy’s four touchdowns in one high school game back in the early 2000’s again and again. Well that and weird musings about bears eating berries in the forest and how the global economy’s “inevitable” growth will somehow save Russia in two years.  Damn.  Married with Children was more uplifting than this!

THE OBLIGATORY PUTIN ARTICLE

Image

So seeing as how this blog is called Russia Without Bullshit and is dedicated to exposing terrible journalism about Russia, it is only logical that the first post ought to have something about President Vladimir Putin.  When it comes to bullshit about Russia, it doesn’t get thicker than the mythology which surrounds Putin.  Think I’m joking? Take a look at this

Now you may object and say, “But that’s an article from Cracked, which is a humor website, not a real news organization! Also I live in my parents house despite having obtained a four-year degree and being well into my twenties. I enjoy masturbating to cartoon characters before crying myself to sleep, ”  While I am not going to dignify your candid admissions with any response other than that you need to learn to develop what people call a “social filter,” I have two points to make in regards to this objection.  First, Cracked is indeed a “humor” site but it isn’t funny.  Second, the article in question is basically just the distillation of years of idiotic journalism from real news organizations into one failed attempt at humor. When Luke Harding can make a successful career at the Guardian by pretending to be James Bond, it’s only natural that readers will see the Putin-as-Bond-villain comparison as believable. Now you might also object and say something like, “Hey! My first objection didn’t say anything about living at home or jerking off to cartoons, you lying dickhead!”  Well…Yeah.  I guess.  

Before sitting down to write this I went over all the things I thought needed to be said about this subject and in the end I decided that the most efficient and coherent way to organize an article of this magnitude is to structure it in a somewhat FAQ-like format. Before proceeding, however, please take the time to carefully read the following disclaimer.

WARNING!

The following article may cause severe buttanger if viewed by journalists, American Russian-studies majors who have never spent significant(if any) time in Russia, Russian liberals, Putin fanboys, wannabe Russians, Ron Paul cultists, and anybody else the author personally hates. In case of buttmad, seek medical attention immediately. 

Yes, Putin was an agent for the KGB. No, that is not particularly relevant. 

It often seems that many journalists outside of Russia live in fear of an editor who will can their asses if they fail to include the words “ex-KGB agent” in an article about Putin.  Strangely, I don’t remember seeing articles referring to George Bush Sr. as “ex-CIA director Bush,” but I’m sure there is a perfectly logical explanation for that which doesn’t have anything to do with sensationalizing otherwise boring stories so as to boost readership.  Let’s just get this one over with.  The KGB doesn’t exist anymore.  The state it served has been gone for over twenty years. The agency was actually split in two, the FSB(for domestic affairs) and SVR(foreign intelligence).  No doubt Putin learned a lot from his past work in an organization which had by that time come to amass far too much power, but more often than not his previous job simply isn’t relevant to the story which mentions it.  When Putin is discussing matters concerning the WTO with his cabinet I doubt he starts his sentences with, “You know in the KGB we would…”  He’s also not strengthening his relations with foreign leaders by surreptitiously slipping sodium thiopental into their tea.

Why does Putin get such bad press in the West?

Team Russia people like to believe in some kind of “information war” between the US and Russia. In reality, the bad press about Putin in the West is in fact his greatest propaganda. When a Western news outlet releases another “Putin’s making Russia strong and we should be scared of this” story, it implies two things which help Putin; the first is that he is making Russia stronger, the second is that the West is afraid of this allegedly strong Russia. This is exactly what Putin needs.

More than any kind of US State Department conspiracy, the drive to make Putin a bogeyman in the press stems mainly from sensationalism and the need to attract attention.  Stories about a big scary resurgent Russia and a “new Cold War” attract attention.  The other factor is the Cold War legacy of reducing Russian affairs down to one guy.

So did Putin make Russia stronger?  

The answer depends on how one defines “strong” and also how one answers the question of who this “strength” actually benefits.  Team Russia fans love to point to Russia’s improvements since the 90’s and crediting all of them to Putin.  There are a number of problems with this, however.  The first is that while Russian liberals, Team West, and Team Russia fanatics love to sever Putin from the 90’s and the incompetent Yeltsin with his circle of oligarch cronies, Putin actually owes his political career to Yeltsin, or even more specifically, to Boris Berezovsky.

The second factor to consider is that really Russia had little room in which to move except up.  Had it continued on the downward spiral of the 90’s, it would have become a failed state, possibly partially disintegrating.  Surpassing Yeltsin in competence was not a difficult accomplishment.  Moreover, much of Russia’s recovery had to do with rises in oil prices and a whole host of other factors which had little to do with Putin.

To be fair, in some ways Putin and Medvedev have had a hand in improving conditions in Russia, but this creates a particularly embarrassing problems for Team Russia fans, most of whom claim to be against globalization.  When we look at all the positive changes in Russia, we can see that they are related to Russia’s integration into the global economy, something which Putin and Medvedev both presided over. Russia makes its money selling oil, gas, and natural resources to other countries. Putin has publicly pledged that Russia would always be Europe’s source of energy.  Russian oil companies, partially owned by the state, have lucrative joint ventures with American and other foreign oil companies.  Russia is investing abroad and more Russians are traveling abroad for business and vacations.  Russia is now in the WTO.  Of course all of these things have pitfalls and downsides but one thing is clear, Putin is not opposing globalization; his positive contributions actually depend on his embrace of it.  People who think that Russia’s resources will enable it to somehow transform into some kind of fortress for the sake of opting out of global capitalism need to start studying economics instead of playing real-time strategy games.

Is Putin a dictator?

Since I’m a firm believer that all states are essentially dictatorships, this is a tough question.  A lot of times our views about what constitute a dictator are formed by pop culture. We assume there must be a one party state(as opposed to a state with multiple parties which essentially see eye-to-eye on the really important matters), photographs and posters of the tyrant plastering every vertical surface, and of course, constant repression.

Putin is a dictator in the common parlance only in the sense that he is an individual who obviously commands a great deal of power and connections which he uses to ensure that he is always close to the seat of power in Russia if not on it himself. No doubt much of his prowess in this endeavor stems from being far more worldly and intelligent than the rest of the morons who make up the government, plus his connections with Russia’s most powerful business interests.  While he does seem to be perfectly capable of outwitting those who threaten his position, he has also benefited from sheer idiocy of his opposition. He can either use populist appeals to force opposition movements to stand in rank in the name of patriotism, or he can wait for his undisciplined opponents to embarrass themselves. The man is a cold hard realist to the core, and it is my suspicion that he is perfectly willing to give up power at some point when he can be sure that he will not be prosecuted and made into a scapegoat of a future regime, nor will he have to make a  rather embarrassing run to Sheremetevo airport with only the bags he can carry.

The problem is that while he is obviously monopolizing power with a small coterie of friends, sensationalism has transformed him into something like a Pinochet or Mussolini.  Just look at this video with Charlie Brooker.  In it, one of Brooker’s jokes seems to imply that Putin kills people, specifically people who criticize him.  But who could blame Brooker when the Guardian publishes a book like Mafia State, allegedly about the “brutal new Russia.”  And that line, the “brutal new Russia”, shows us how sensationalist the press can be because while at the time I am writing this there has been a streak of resurgent 90’s-like activity plaguing the Russian capital, Russia has if anything become less brutal since that decade when the Western press turned a blind eye to the brutality of the Yelstin “government.”  Say what you want about Putin, but he never ordered tanks and snipers to open fire on unarmed demonstrators as Yeltsin did in October of 1993.

What the “liberal” reader may not be able to comprehend about all this is that portraying Putin as a brutal tyrant not only ignores the structural, systemic problems in Russia, but actually helps Putin’s PR machine.  It supports the notion that the West is out to get Putin.

Does Putin oppose the West?

Many of Putin’s fanboys in Europe and the USA are opposed to their own governments for whatever reason.  Sometimes their motives are virtuous, other times, not so much.  Whatever the case, it stands to reason that if one hates their own government and sees the media portraying another world leader as an opponent of that government, they will identify with that leader.  As for Russia itself, Putin’s power relies on portraying himself as a strong leader who is raising Russia from its knees.  Few Russians actually believe that, but of them few disagree that patriotic concept itself.

This question is difficult to answer at the moment because as I write this, the world is discussing Obama’s proposed “punishment” against Syria.  Strangely, Russia has deviated from its usual strategy of “talking shit but not actually doing anything while benefiting from increased oil prices” to “talking shit but probably not actually going to do anything despite engaging in some theatrics in the Mediterranean.”  Whatever happens, the first variant is the typical Putin response.  Earlier I mentioned how Putin declared that Russia would always be Europe’s source of energy.  Much of that “Europe” is in NATO. Russia also depends on the NATO mission in Afghanistan. In fact, Russia has been a member of US CENTCOM since its founding in 2001.  The truth is that if the United States decided to pack up the whole empire overnight there would be a power vacuum and Russia doesn’t stand a chance of filling it.  China would probably take the lead with Russia in some partnership with the EU.  As for what’s going on in Syria now, Obama’s hesitation probably stems from contradictory foreign policy goals and repeated warnings from his experts that the fall of the Assad regime will turn Syria into a fertile ground for Al Qaeda and other Salafist terrorists. However, that outcome is far more of a threat to Russia than the US.  Aside from the economic hit Russia would take, extremists could one day start a new insurgency in the Caucasus, whereas the best they could hope for in the USA is the occasional terrorist attack in a public place.

While it is difficult to gauge what the final outcome of the Syria mess will be, one thing is for sure- Russia has no concrete examples of resistance to “the West.”  It’s just as well since Russia in its present state is by no means anywhere near prepared for such a confrontation and the results would be even more disastrous than the early 90’s were.  Neo-Cold Warriors on Team Russia’s side are basically cheering and hoping for the very thing which would bring Russia’s ultimate destruction, and they oppose virtually anything which would change that reality because doing so would mean having to admit that their favorite strongman hasn’t turned Russia into the Soviet Union of Red Alert II.

It is also worth noting that during the Cold War, states which were considered clients of the USA and of the Soviet Union were not always obedient and often engaged in activities which embarrassed their benefactors.  This did not mean those regimes were truly independent, much less opposed to their patrons.  Gomulka’s rebellion against the USSR didn’t make the Polish People’s Republic an enemy of that nation, while Mobutu’s kleptomania never fully alienated him from the US, France, and Belgium.   Having taken this into account, we must remember that Russia is not a client state of that sort, meaning that it can exercise a great deal more independence.  This does not, however, mean that it doesn’t occupy a subservient role in the world, underneath the most powerful players such as the US, China, or the European Union.  In fact, the OSCE’s nod of approval toward Russia after the Ossetian conflict of 2008 seems to support those who believe that the great powers are more than happy to allow Russia to dominate its immediate sphere of influence in return for resources and regional stability.  In the future, Russia may play a role similar to that of the 19th century, i.e. the gendarme of Europe.

Is Putin a homophobe?

In light of the recent anti-gay laws passed in Russia, the media once again resorts to the practice of reducing all events in Russia down to one guy and propagates the idea that these laws were actually Putin’s idea.  Obviously Putin bears responsibility for passing these laws but none of these were his brainchild.  As I said before, the man is a cold hard realist and any realist doesn’t give a fuck about who people sleep with. What the media is missing in all this is that this is a political ploy, a populist appeal to sabotage and appease large segments of the opposition which appeared late in 2011 and continued its activities throughout 2012.  Western critics, as usual, tumbled right into Putin’s trap.

Since the outbreak of protests following the corrupted Duma elections of 2011, the Western media has continually distorted the image of the opposition in Russia. Continually ignored is the most obvious fact, that if we are speaking of numerical, official political opposition, Putin and United Russia’s biggest opposition comes from the KPRF, better known as the Communist Party of the Russian Federation.  Truth be told, the KPRF is “Communist” in name only, but this is beside the point.  The idea of thousands of Russians protesting in the streets holding Soviet flags and pictures of Stalin(something that could be observed long before 2011) is not something that Western media outlets, nor governments, want their respective populations to see.  People are supposed to remember Russians tearing down statues of Lenin.  The other major Russian opposition party is the LDPR or Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, led by the clownish Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Like the KPRF it is also populist and nationalist in its rhetoric and thus rather unsympathetic to Western audiences.  So what happened in the end was a ridiculous farce where figures who were in reality rather unpopular in Russia(especially outside of Moscow) were portrayed as the leadership of the opposition movement.  This included people like the blogger Navalniy and Boris Nemtsov and groups like “Strategy 31.”

Thus came the myth of the liberal opposition, the “White revolution,” both ideas which played right into Putin’s hands and allowed United Russia to paint the entire opposition movement as a Western-sponsored coup attempt.  Elements of the opposition movement which were inconvenient to the narrative were ignored. Among those were the many right-wing extremists, fascists, and open neo-Nazis.  I was at the first Bolotnaya demonstration and the demonstration at Academician Sakharov Prospect roughly two weeks later and on both occasions I saw neo-Nazi flags amid the crowd.  This was in addition to numerous other symbols used by Russia’s far right.  In fact, Navalniy himself has a well-established history of association with such groups, but that fact was inconvenient and thus it is rarely mentioned outside of Russia.  Long story short, the liberal opposition was a myth, a myth which served the regime well.  Many of the demonstrators, regardless of their political affiliations, held far-right reactionary views.

This is where the anti-gay laws came in.  Essentially by approving these laws, Putin is throwing a bone to a large part of his opposition and it seems to be working. Russia draws criticism for the action and suddenly Team Russia types, including those who most likely oppose Putin, are getting into ranks and defending Russia’s “different values.”  It’s become a matter of patriotism which the Kremlin wields very effectively.  Probably all of this could have been torpedoed if critics in the West had actually taken the time to analyze the political situation, but that’s too much to ask for when you’re busy building the myth of liberal hipsters standing up to the ex-KGB agent with their iPhones.

Once again, Putin is a realist, and if one day he got the idea that LGBT rights would secure his power a bit longer, he’d fly rainbow flags from the Kremlin wall and change the national song to this.

Did Putin kill my dog?  

Probably not.  I can’t say for sure though. He is an ex-KGB agent.


What about Dmitry Medvedev?

Nobody cares about Medvedev. I don’t think Medvedev cares about Medvedev.

What do Russians think of Putin?

Aside from pro-Kremlin youth groups who pay students to appear at their rallies(to be fair this is also practiced by opposition groups from time to time) and Team Russia fanboys, Putin is not very popular.  The best people can say about him is “stability” or “who else is there?”  The government has a long history of making promises that are supposed to be accomplished within the next year, five years, or in some cases ten years.  Needless to say, they either don’t materialize or end up very differently than planned.

Is Putin Stalin?

This Putin-Stalin comparison makes me want to punch someone.  If you’re a person who believes the worst about Communism and Stalin, you would be forced to acknowledge the fact that under Putin you don’t have shootings or a GULAG system.  If you are a left-wing individual more inclined to defending Stalin or at least the USSR, you would have to acknowledge that Stalin arguably did far more to improve Russia(and the territory of the USSR) than Putin ever has.  I realize that’s a controversial point but Isaac Deutscher was correct when he said, “He had found Russia working with wooden ploughs and leaving it equipped with atomic piles.”  At best, Putin is holding a field dressing to Russia’s wound, staunching the bleeding but unable to stop it completely.  Those who join his fan club, whether on the left or right, are essentially endorsing this slow death of Russia.

How should people in the West see Putin?

A difficult question seeing as how Putin’s real nature is mysterious even in Russia. Here in Russia he is like a one man rumor mill. When he finally announced his divorce a few months ago, people had been speculating that he had been having an affair for years prior, even claiming that he had fathered the woman’s child.  Ordinary Russians will throw out theories about what companies Putin allegedly owns, most of them among the largest in Russia.  He clearly has money to spare but the source is unclear. That being said, it’s important not to fall for the hype and PR.

The best thing people in the West can do to understand is not to trust any media source entirely.  That means not only the BBC but also outlets such as RT(the network itself isn’t exactly the pro-Putin propaganda network but it employs a number of Team Russia fanboys).   Living in Russia and reading the foreign press is often a bizarre experience, and I am not alone in this feeling.  You go to an opposition rally and you see hundreds of people waving red flags. Then you look on Western news sites and you’d get the impression that the Russian presidential election was between Vladimir Putin and Gary Kasparov.  If it’s really important for you to know, go to Russia, learn the language, and get a broad spectrum of opinion. Don’t just hang out in the center and talk to the faux-liberals at Jean-Jeacques, and don’t go straight to the Kremlin-backed “youth groups” who mask their tiny numbers with slick Youtube videos.  Don’t stay in Moscow either.  Eventually you’ll start to realize that the problems of Russia are not entirely unique, and that Russia cannot be boiled down to any one person.

Anyway, proceed with your buttmad comments about how I’m a pro-Kremlin Putin apologist hack or a Western liberal funded by the CIA.