“Thank you for standing with us”


April 26, 2015 by AK

Two images from Moscow.

We Remember 1915” written in red under an image painted in black on the wall of an underground walkway.

The side panel of a bus stop. In the upper right corner: “100 years 1915-2015 // April 24 is the anniversary of the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.” In the center, under “armenia futura // www.armeniafutura.com” and above the national flags: “Thank you for being with us.”

“Specimens from home”


April 24, 2015 by AK

Elif Batuman, the Turkish-American author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (reviews 1, 2, 3, 4), discusses “reading racist literature” in New Yorker:

There I’d be, reading along, imaginatively projecting myself into the character most suitable for imaginative projection, forgetting through suspension of disbelief the differences that separated me from that character—and then I’d come across a line like “These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children” (“The Brothers Karamazov”).

The sentence Batuman quotes comes from Ivan Karamazov’s invective on human cruelty, especially to children. “These Turks” refers to the Ottoman bashibazouks who committed atrocities in Bulgaria. To the speaker, “these Turks” exemplify the wickedness of humans in general – not some special Oriental perversity – and he proceeds to give examples of sadistic treatment of children by Russians lest this cruelty should seem analgetically foreign.

Our historical pastime is the direct satisfaction of inflicting pain… I’ve collected a great, great deal about Russian children… it is a peculiar characteristic of many people, this love of torturing children, and children only… In every man, of course, a demon lies hidden—the demon of rage, the demon of lustful heat at the screams of the tortured victim, the demon of lawlessness let off the chain…

In the run-up to the Balkan war of 1877-8, reports of Ottoman irregulars murdering and torturing Balkan Slavs in barbaric ways drove thousands of Russians to fight against the Porte as volunteers. One can find an argument on whether it was a worthwhile cause in part eight of Anna Karenina. Levin, Tolstoy’s favorite, takes an unpopular non-interventionist stance. In one of his essays in A Writer’s Diary, Dostoevsky was acutely critical of Levin’s and Tolstoy’s ethics while praising the novel. Gary Saul Morson discusses the two writers’ dialogue in Anna Karenina in Our Time: Seeing More Wisely.

Oppositionists, who else?


April 21, 2015 by AK

First there were reports of forest fires in Khakasia, in the south of central Siberia, then news of great fires east of lake Baikal, near ChitaA major disaster. But Putin’s commissar in the region knows who to blame:

Nikolai Rogozhkin, the Presidential Envoy in Russia’s Siberian Federal District, suspects the political opposition may be responsible for the wildfires sweeping across eastern Siberia…

…Rogozhkin… is puzzled by the fact that fires are starting simultaneously in various parts of the region, including very remote areas, which are “impossible to reach even if you’ve had training.” He speculated: “let’s say there is a sabotage group out there, and they are instantaneously starting the fires.”

“This is not your standard situation. Forest fires are starting simultaneously in different parts of the woods. I don’t know how this is possible…

This sounds like something out of the 1930s: blame it all on enemies of the people. The man’s logic itself, taken out of context, is timeless: if it is impossible to reach the areas where the fires originated, invisible opposition ninjas must have done it. Cidu’s razor is all-powerful.

So nekulturny, so Dicey


April 18, 2015 by AK

Towards the end of his (paywalled) piece on Magna Carta in the London Review of Books, Ferdinand Mount writes:

Belief in the untrammelled sovereignty of Parliament is now decidedly vieux jeu and nekulturny. Power is no longer clenched in Westminster and Whitehall. Magna Carta is back.

While I dislike the idea of parliamentary supremacy without constitutionally grounded judicial oversight, I’m quoting this because of the author’s word choice.

Nekulturny is a somewhat dated Soviet-Russian word that literally translates as “uncultured” and usually means “ill-mannered” or “rude.” Spitting on the floor, sticking out your tongue at strangers and yelling obscenities are all examples of nekulturny behavior. According to the Urban Dictionary:

Literally means uncultured, but has connotations of white trash, chav, or naco.

As for vieux jeu, literally “old game,” it merely means “old-fashioned,” “old-school,” “stuffy,” “conservative.” By the way, here’s Ferdinand Mount with Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev, discussing the latter’s new book, Nothing Is Real and Everything Is Possible.

The conflict is shaping new identities


April 15, 2015 by AK

The Guardian published a long article by Peter Pomerantsev on the Kremlin’s information warfare last week, along with a Russian translation. While it reads smoothly in English, the Russian version requires a little effort to take in, but I still hope it gets reprinted and discussed in Russia. (It has an odd word, блёф, in it, probably a typo: Russian borrowed “bluff” as блеф a century ago; changing е into ё makes it sound like a slang word for “vomiting.”)

The author’s father, Igor Pomerantsev, is a poet, essayist, Radio Liberty host, and a former Soviet dissident. He spent his late teens and early twenties in Chernivtsi (Czernowitz, Cernăuți) and graduated from the same university as Arseny Yatsenyuk – the same school where Schumpeter taught in the 1910s and Celan studied around 1940. (In the late 1960s, according to Igor P., very few people had heard of Celan in Chernivtsi.) Svyatoslav Pomerantsev, Igor’s nephew and, therefore, Peter’s cousin, is a native and resident of the city and president of the annual poetry festival, Meridian Czernowitz. The family connection to Ukraine continues.

However Peter P. is a Briton for all practical purposes: he arrived in the UK at the age of three. One more excerpt (see parts 1, 2) from his March 2015 interview with Ukrainska Pravda:

I am a little wary of talking about Ukraine because I don’t live here and don’t feel I have the right to speculate on this. But there are different angles to take on what’s going on.

It’s principally a geopolitical crisis, Russia’s war against Ukraine; a certain crisis within Ukraine – should Donbass be its part?

Besides, it’s a war of Russians against Russians. It’s a fight for a different future for Russian culture. My friend Oliver Carroll has seen a good Russian in the Donetsk airport, fighting on Ukraine’s side. It’s Whites vs. Reds again.

I think the Russian and Ukrainian cultures can coexist. The Maidan has broadened a potential Ukrainian identity.

Before the Maidan, it was a classical national project of the 21st century: language, blood, Kievan Rus, Vasyl Stus. I have an awful lot of respect for all that but what do I have to do with it? The Maidan has greatly expanded what it means to be Ukrainian. For example, it is now possible to be a “Jewish Banderite” [an absurd slur invented by Putinists and cheerfully adopted as a self-designation by some supporters of the Ukrainian revolution].

The Nestor Group, having undertaken a massive poll, has recently presented its report in London. According to them, the value system in Ukraine is southern, akin to the Italian one. My father, Igor Pomerantsev, has also written a good deal about Ukraine being part of a southern civilization. And now polls are supporting this.

I don’t really know what to make of the last paragraph (the next-to-last is important to me but I concur without comment). By the standards of core EU countries, the Italian state has been a failure but measured against the non-Baltic post-Soviet world, it must look a shining polity on seven hills.

Family business


April 13, 2015 by AK

My comment, expanded and modified, to Tim Newman’s post on the government-supported restaurant chain proposed by the Russian filmmakers Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov. As La Stampa writes incredulously, “what is somewhat astonishing” is that the people promoting “patriotic food” are two “prominent film directors… despite their connections to the American world.”

What never ceases to amaze me is the Mikhalkov clan’s adroitness at getting what they want from the Kremlin. This time it’s cheap financing, probably subsidized loans from state banks. Last week, the CFO of a major state-controlled company admitted he could not raise ruble debt for less than 17% pa. Are the Mikhalkovs getting a 70% interest rate subsidy like Russian farmers? Not a big deal for the Kremlin but a nice perk for the clan. Another perk would be the “most favored” status the regional governors will grant the project if the Kremlin orders them to. It would mean low rents, local tax exemptions, and protection from incessant pestering by sanitary and fire inspectors.

What’s wrong-headed about it is Putin’s willingness to support the project. As Tim says, it will come at the expense of the Russian businesses that will be facing a privileged rival. The Mikhalkov brothers are shrewd operators: they know they are going to compete not with McDonald’s but with chains like Mu-Mu, Grabli, and Yolki-Palki, and a multitude of non-chain eateries. (The failed Russkoe Bistro was an attempt at a Russian-style fast food chain.) They are going to build on the image of Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky’s wife, the actress Yulia Vysotskaya. She has hosted a popular cooking show on NTV since 2003 so she’s practically a household name (or face). But so far she hasn’t been able to convert that into anything but recipe books.

Now all the pieces of the puzzle are falling into place: financing, protection, advertising. Of course it took access to Putin and patriotic chest-stumping to secure the former two – not fair game but the Mikhalkovs probably think of themselves as aristocrats of the flesh and the spirit, who are entitled to privileged treatment, those peasants be damned. “Both have poured scorn on Western influence in the past,” perhaps, yet the Mikhalkov shtick has always been playing the Slavophile (Nikita) and the Westernizer (Andrei). Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky is skeptical of Russia’s ability to get anywhere at all, and I hear that his movies are more pessimistic in their view of Russia than any work by Andrei Zvyagintsev. But what does it matter when a great money-making opportunity presents itself and the clan closes ranks to grasp it?

(The name of Vysotskaya’s TV show has been chosen as the name for the food chain. Which is the odd bit, since “Eating at Home” only makes sense as a show: a restaurant can be billed “Home Cooking” or “Tastes Like Home” but hardly “Eating at Home.” According to Russian wisecrackers, it’s like naming a brothel “Sleeping at Home.”)

It goes back to the grand old man. The family patriarch, Sergei Mikhalkov, carved out a comfortable niche for himself and his extended family under Stalin, Khruschev, and Brezhnev. His two sons – both talented filmmakers – did rather well under the late-Soviet regime. In 1980, Andrei managed to leave to work in Hollywood (where he made Tango and Cash) without being denounced as a traitor. What set them apart from their colleagues was their ability to leverage their artistic success to get the most out of the Soviet system for themselves and their numerous relatives.

It was well known as early as in the 1980s, when Valentin Gaft (a very popular screen actor at that time) wrote the famous two-liner: “Russia, can you feel this strange itching? It’s the three Mikhalkovs crawling on your skin.” It’s family business as usual in 2015.

Broken promises?


April 9, 2015 by AK

In Slate, Masha Gessen writes about the death of Ibragim Todashev, a presumed associate of the elder Tsarnaev, who was shot by an FBI agent during an interrogation. But central to Gessen’s piece is another story, that of a middle-aged Russian woman who married an American man, followed him to the US, divorced him six months later and found herself in a precarious predicament: at a risk of deportation and without health insurance. She signed up for Army training and service, with the standard benefits and a promise of citizenship attached.

Six years later, she was told that she would be placed on an indefinite paid leave: she was under FBI investigation because her daughter had been romantically involved with Todashev. The next day, writes Gessen, “Elena accepted a medical discharge from the Army.”

As we learn from the article, Elena is now a US citizen. Gessen does not mention whether Elena was entitled to any benefits after her discharge. I imagine she was – since it was honorable, on health grounds, and the lady is now “retired,” in Gessen’s words – but the article skips over these details.

We know that at least on that crucial point, citizenship, the US kept its promise. It is unfortunate that a circumstance outside of Elena’s control – her daughter’s affection for Todashev – cut her army career short. But Gessen goes farther than that, apparently siding with Elena, whose deep disappointment with her new homeland translates into a judgment of moral equivalence between the US and Russia:

America’s promise of fairness, openness, and honesty had turned out to be a ruse, she [Elena] concluded. It was not a better country than Russia; it was just a better liar…

…the minute she heard her daughter screaming into the phone – “Mama, they killed him!” – she knew she had been fooled. The same rules applied in this country as in the old one. The secret police killed people when they wanted to; a reason could always be found later. The secret police could and would engineer tragedies to their own ends, or to the government’s; someone to blame could always be found later.

I can understand Elena’s disillusionment – although America’s promise personally to her was at least partially fulfilled – I can even accept that the psychological trauma was so deep that it ruined the lady’s good judgment:

Elena became part of the online community of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s defenders.

In contrast, I am suspicious of Gessen’s tacit acceptance of Elena’s flawed logic. To view this case as strong evidence of moral equivalence between the two countries, or their law-enforcement agencies, one has to boldly extrapolate from a very small pool of facts, to put it mildly.

“Worldview factors”


April 7, 2015 by AK

Paul Goble has summarized a piece by the Ukrainian journalist Bogdan Butkevich, 10 Reasons Why the Donbass Will Not Become Ulster. I’ve been saying some of these things here and elsewhere but a Ukrainian perspective is more valuable.

Some quotes – first, on the recency of settlement:

Until the mid-19th century, “this territory was practically empty.” It acquired importance because of industrial development, something that attracted people from throughout the Russian Empire and USSR regardless of ethnicity and who were mixed together once they got there…

The majority of the people of the Donbass have been there no more than two or three generations…

Second, there is no religious divide in Donbas(s), “despite efforts by Russian propagandists to spark one,” and ethnic differences are not the driving force of the conflict:

Ukrainians and Russians “are fighting on both sides,” and “the chief role in the conflict is played not by nationality [Butkevich probably meant ethnicity] but by worldview factors,” with those supporting a liberal democratic order being for Ukraine and those supporting “national conservatism” backing Russia.

And the worst of the difference:

The Number of Victims. Over almost 40 years of conflict in Northern Ireland, an estimated 3,000 to 8,000 people were killed or less than 250 per year on average at most. In the Donbas, the number of killed is more than 5,000 and may be as much as 10,000 – and that in one year, not 40.



April 5, 2015 by AK

Max Seddon reports from the fringes (one hopes) of Russian military theory:

One plan to destroy America goes something like this:

“Asymmetric megaweapons” bypass all anti-missile systems and deliver nuclear strikes deep in the Atlantic and Pacific. The explosions trigger gigantic tsunamis that ravage the East and West coasts. The seismic waves activate the long-dormant supervolcano in Yellowstone National Park, smothering the continental U.S. in layers of ash. Aftershocks trigger more tsunamis that wipe out Europe, for good measure.

I am passingly familiar with the Yellowstone Volcano meme but the mention of gigantic tsunamis rang a louder bell. I vaguely remembered that the Soviets had that idea in the 1950s and the early 1960s, that Andrei Sakharov had something to do with it, and that exploding non-nuclear charges in a lake showed its futility.

Apparently, there were two distinct but related Soviet projects involving a (thermo)nuclear attack on the East or West Coast. The first project was an attempted answer to the delivery problem: before long-range ballistic missiles were developed, Soviet planners sought alternatives to bomber planes as a means of bringing nuclear charges to the Lower 48. Submarine-based nuclear-bearing torpedoes were one speculative option. Later, in the early 1960s, the Soviets briefly toyed launching H-bombs from subs to create tsunamis. Neither concept worked.

According to Gennady Gorelik, a biographer of Sakharov,

…the idea of a giant nuclear torpedo to attack coastal targets appeared well before the Tsar Bomb [the 50-megaton H-bomb detonated on Novaya Zemlya in 1961] and even before the Flaky Pie [the first Soviet H-bomb] was tested, and it was not Sakharov’s idea: Stalin himself signed an order to that matter on September 9, 1952. The torpedo was codenamed T-15; it was about 25 meters long and weighed 40 tons.

As for Sakharov’s Tsar Torpedo [a project Sakharov writes about in his memoirs], the idea actually came from across the ocean. A US submarine commander who witnessed the Soviet “Tsar Blast” of 1961, suggested in a journal… that a charge like that might be used as a new kind of marine weaponry. A clipping from that journal made its way to Khruschev’s desk; he ordered “the ministers of medium machine-building [in charge of nuclear engineering] and of defense together with academician M.A. Lavrentiev” to look into the issue… The new type, a supertorpedo, was supposed to generate, as a result of an underwater superexplosion, a superwave (an artificial tsunami) capable of “washing off” [American] imperialism from the face of the Earth. Luckily for the Americans, research put an end to this hypothesis.

Where Soviet nuclear physicists and military engineers failed, it’s going to be Mission Impossible for the current Russian crop. Fortunately for all.

“More than mere journalism is needed”


April 2, 2015 by AK

More from Peter Pomerantsev’s Ukrains’ka Pravda interview (his text, translated by me, is in blue). I think he cuts to the heart of the problem but I detest the idea of a “global BBC” financed by a group of governments. There are few things government are good at, and the BBC is far from perfect.

You are calling it Russian propaganda but I would call it an informational-psychological war. It does not aim to convince, as does classical propaganda; it aims to litter the information field.

To litter it with conspiracy theories, with fears, with irrational movements, to the point where it would be impossible to argue rationally on the future of Donbass or NATO’s role in Eastern Europe.

To soil Ukraine’s image in the West so people would say: “It’s totally unclear who’s right and who’s not: let the Slavs sort it out on their own.” In principle, Kremlin has succeeded in that. A sort of a terror attack on the infrastructure of reason.

To resist it, more than mere journalism is needed; journalism alone won’t make it. What’s been called journalism so far needs rebuilding. An education on the media is needed so people would understand they are being maniputlated.

Completely new media structures will have to be built, and we are seeing their embryos: StopFake in Ukraine, Bellingcat in England, where people come together by their own and try to find the truth and regain confidence.

For the objective of Russian propaganda is no one should trust anyone. Its message is: you don’t have to believe us but whatever the other side is saying is also propaganda and is also untrue so don’t believe anybody. Then the information field is dead, all that works is fear, panic and apathy.

We need a sort of a global BBC financed from public state budgets – not a journalistic by a fact-checking and investigative project.

Today’s financial model doesn’t work any more at newspapers and TV stations. There’s a helluva lot of these papers in the West but they aren’t doing journalism, they don’t need this boring search for truth. People used to think it’s OK without it – let it die. Who needs that news?

But the fact that information is used as a weapon and as a psychological tool to influence other countries has sobered up Western elites.

The West is starting to realize what kind of world it is without journalism. That reporters are needed like doctors and social workers and if so, the government should support them.

You probably realize how much they are being paid, the poor reporters running around in Donbass without war zone insurance. They are kids! Talented kids but it’s not serious.

It’s not a way to address the challenges posed by the Russian information-psychological war, nor the problem of China’s advance in Asia. They are pumping lots of money into that, so either the West will face a horrible future in which they win, or we need to invent a completely new model to replace what used to be called journalism.


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