I is me is you: Identity and war in Ukraine 

William Echols

Identity is a tricky thing. It is both organically developed and imagined, conceived and defined from without and within. This ceaseless interplay between different forces, of how we are seen, how others see us, and how we react to how others see us, (in turn changing how we see ourselves and them), is a seemingly fractal process.

It goes without saying that identity, in both its realist and most imagined sense, has been at the heart of the Ukrainian civil war.

If there were some sort of pecking order regarding the atrocities that have been committed over the last year, I am not in any position to suss it out. But something LA Times photojournalist Sergei Loiko said during an interview back in November has always stuck with me:

“This war is different because there were no reasons for it. They are all fictional. They are built on lies, spread by Russian television. There was no reason for people to kill each other. It is a theatre of the absurd. This is now one of the most epic wars for me.”

Battle for the Donetsk Airport taken by the LA Times Sergei Loiko.

Battle for the Donetsk Airport taken by the LA Times Sergei Loiko.

For a war fought in “fictitious times” for “fictitious reasons”, the bitter existential pill that it is all a lie makes the death and destruction that much more horrifying. Human beings can almost endure anything if it is meaningful, or if we can manage to weave meaning out of it. This conflict, by any stretch of the imagination, is meaningless, if one were to assume that meaning were generated by any actual need to fight, defensively or otherwise. Without a doubt, meaning has been created by the very real and tragic consequences the bloodletting has entailed. But this qlipothic tree planted in the heart of Ukraine has fake plastic roots. The “flywheel” behind this needless war has already admitted as much.

So what does all of this have to do with identity? Well, one of the most glaring aspects of Loiko’s theatre of the absurd is that myths regarding the binary east-west divide in Ukraine have been taken on by Ukrainians themselves (at least some of them.) Which is to say, one of the many fictions used to incite this conflict became a reality. Identity reimagined itself via the force of directed imagination.

Over the past year, a culture caste from varied but mostly riveted links was smelted with white hot hatred and further alloyed with fear and loathing. But unlike with actual metals, this purified base is much weaker than the ore from which it came, while the metaphorical slag heaps from that artificial decoupling are even more ugly than the actual ones littering the Donets Basin.

A recent conversation with a close friend and journalist who is ethnically Russian but Ukrainian-born brought all of these issues to the foray for me. And to look at issues of identity in 2015 Ukraine, one must also confront a war ostensibly being fought to protect one group of people from another.

Born in the historical region of Podolia in west-central Ukraine, she described a world in which she was unaware of being bilingual until she relocated to Moscow as a teen. It was not that she didn’t recognize there were two different languages, countries, cultures, or identities. It was merely never something she thought about. The mixture of languages and identities seemed natural; it was natural – it was home, a painfully uneventful one at that.

It was only in leaving Ukraine that her identity, not as a Russian (though she is unequivocally that), but as a Ukrainian-born Ukrainian speaking Russian, became something she was made aware of.

I do not want to take too much from one anecdotal experience. But one reality that has widely been written about remains true: prior to the civil war, any attempts to split the country down the middle, calling the western sphere “Ukrainian” and the eastern sphere “Russian” was an overt simplification at best. Not entirely untruthful mind you, but a simplification.

Ukrainian-born journalist Peter Pomerantsev tackled this very issue in a deeply illuminating piece entitled ‘Do you speak Surzhyk?’

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In a folksy but poetic manner typical of the region, “surzhyk” was initially a Ukrainian word used to designate bread or flour that was made from mixed grains.

Linguistically, it is sometimes (but not always) defined as any combination (and I mean any combination) of speech using Russian and Ukrainian. There are no hard and fast rules, no sense of dilution from one side or the other, and no requisite grammar or semantic base that needs to be followed. Whatever which way you splice it up, you are speaking Surzhyk.

A 2003 study by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology found that anywhere between 11-18 percent of Ukrainians communicated in Surzhyk. As for those in the now worn-torn east, 9.6 percent of the population spoke the sociolect at the time of the study.

A breakdown of the percentage of Surzhyk speakers by region.

A breakdown of the percentage of Surzhyk speakers by region.

The fascinating part, however, is that few people were aware that they were in fact mixing (but not confusing) the two languages.

Where this becomes important for the country today is that at the time of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, these recently distilled identities which were poured red hot into artificial casts are far more fluid than many would have us believe.

Pomerantsev expressed this fluidity by the highly variable nature of the individuals and groups who ended up falling on either side of the Ukrainian revolution.

“The closest thing Madan has to a leader is the boxing champ Klitschko, who struggles in Ukrainian and whose Russian is far purer than President Yanukovich’s,” he wrote in January 2014, over a month before the former Ukrainian president fled the country and all hell broke loose.

“Its first martyrs include an ethnic Armenian from Russian-speaking Dnepropetrovsk and a Belarussian Ukrainian resident. Its violent front line appears to be multilingual,” he continued.

Pomerantsev touched on a reality that everyone who has traveled to Kiev quickly realizes; despite it’s status as a “Ukrainian speaking” city, 60 percent of the capital is in fact Russian speaking when it comes to everyday life. For Kiev and many of the urban centers in the country’s center, Russian can rightfully be called “the language of the street.”

That Kiev was the epicenter for the revolution had little relation to the socio-linguistic dynamic in the city, despite propaganda from its aggressive northern neighbor speaking of a fascist coup targeting ethnic Russians. The ideals represented by Maidan, in fact, were not related to the Russian-Ukrainian question as it relates to national identity, at least for the majority who came out to protest. Rather, it was an issue of what modern day Russia represents as a political entity (and how connections to this political entity boded for Ukraine’s future), that sparked the westward shift.

As for the imperial-era territory of “Novorossiya”, which Putin bemoaned for being handed over to Ukraine, Pomerantsev noted an 1897 census, which found that 62.5 percent of the population of the Donbass (which Novorossiya partially encompassed) was in fact “little Russian”, or what we would call Ukrainian, at the time.

In light of present day events, the history of the region is somewhat ironic. A slice of land seized from the Ottoman Empire which was majority Ukrainian during czarist times would only become majority Russian after it was handed over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922.

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And yet, that Soviet-era Russian identity embraced by the majority was not enough to determine political allegiances in any blanket sense. As Pomerantsev points out, Russian-speaking footfall fans (with all the far right tendencies and proclivities for violence that entails) in the region actually threw their support behind the Maidan revolution, and not Yanukovich. And following the opening shots of the Russian-generated civil war, despite their (often legitimate) misgivings about the new government in Kiev, 70 percent of those in the East wanted Ukraine to stay a united country, according to a Pew Research Poll released on May 8, 2014.

Dynamo Kiev ultras at a league tie with bitter rivals Shakhtar Donetsk in 2011; the fans have since put their differences aside. Esquire.

Dynamo Kiev ultras at a league tie with bitter rivals Shakhtar Donetsk in 2011; the fans have since put their differences aside. Esquire.

Meanwhile, the most European part of Ukraine, Transcarpathia in the south-west, “with its cross-Schengen trade and communities of Germans, Hungarians, Romanians and Slovaks”, threw their support behind Yanukovich during the 2010 election. Clearly, nothing is clearcut at all.

It could, however, be argued that all of these minor points are used to obfuscate a simple fact that, by and large, the West is Ukrainian-speaking and the East Russian-speaking. There are minor points of difference, but by and large, one half of the country leans towards Europe, and the towards Russia. That portrayal is not by an stretch of the imagination false. It does, however, miss the bigger picture. Ukrainian and Russian-speaking Ukrainians have lived side by side for centuries, and conflict was rarely organic, but rather the direct result of political meddling. In fact, there were even times in history when Russian peasants who did not identify themselves as Russians and Ukrainian peasants who did not identify themselves as Ukrainians coexisted via a common cultural line that both diverged and intermingled. Some forms of Surzhyk are a manifestation of that very interplay.

And yet czarist-era attacks on Ukrainian cultural expressions, which saw the Ukrainian language suppressed or banned numerous times, was often a means of consolidating power and creating an artificial, standardized identity.

The justifications for this process are also telling. A secret decree issued by the the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Russian Empire, for example, which essentially banned the printing of the Ukrainian language in 1863, said that “no separate Little Russian [Ukrainian] language ever existed, doesn’t exist, and couldn’t exist.” In effect, the document claimed the Ukrainian language was nothing more than Russian corrupted by Polish influence.

Sadly, this is a mistaken belief that is widely held throughout Russia today, and not just among the country’s right-wing nationalists, but well-educated and well-traveled urbanites as well.

The reason, of course, is a lingering imperialist desire to put their own imagined sense of Russianness at the forefront of Eastern Slavic identity. Rather than accepting the fact that ethnic “Russian” people are descended from the same Eastern slavic tribes as Ukrainians, and thus their languages and cultures could have developed on parallel tracks, there has been a concerted effort for centuries to absorb all East Slav history into Russian history for the expediency of elevating “Great” Russia above “Little Russia” and “White Russia”.

That political power would shift following the 13th century siege of Kiev and the subsequent rise of the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the 15th century has unsurprisingly resulted in a narrative that puts Russia at the heart of all of eastern Slavic life. In order to maintain this myth, the culture of other Slavic peoples in the area is turned into a bastardization of Russian, a worldview which justifies the banning or subjugation of those peoples’ linguistic and cultural expressions.

As has been seen in recent times, it also justifies cutting up and divvying out the territory of other states, seeing that Moscow has made itself the arbitrator of what Vladimir Putin called a “unique sociocultural civilizational community.”

The usefulness of this imperialist rendering of history can clearly be seen today. When Putin referred to the recently annexed Crimean peninsula as Russia’s Temple Mount, claiming that Grand Prince Vladimir was baptized there in 988 (though Vladimir was likely baptized in Kiev), he was actually saying that the history of all East Slavs is the history of Russia, and that the assumption of Slavic Christendom is first and foremost a Russian affair.

In light of this might makes right historical reading, Russian no longer becomes a lineal descendant of the language used in Kevin Rus, but rather is the linguistic terminus of it. Other tongues, in contrast, are treated as muddied deviations – linguistic heretics.

In short, political power has created an artificial, cultural caste system. The term “Little Russia” really says it all.

And what has been seen in Ukraine intermittently since the Soviet collapse is what happens when big country chauvinism is met with a form of small country chauvinism; ugly attempts to suppress the Russian language or drive out Russian influences (even if those Russian influences stem from Russian-speaking Ukrainian natives.)

Activists of the Svoboda (Freedom) party march to mark the 71st anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and carry portraits of its leader, Stepan Bandera. Reuters

Activists of the Svoboda (Freedom) party march to mark the 71st anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and carry portraits of its leader, Stepan Bandera. Reuters

But sorting out what is or is not Ukrainian is kind of like getting to the bottom of Surzhyk, and what it says about Ukraine today.

In 2002, Anthropologist Laada Bilaniuk noted that there are 5 distinct languages which can be considered Surzhyk. Sometimes it is viewed as the mere byproduct of Ukrainian peasants attempting to speak the language of Russian administrators, and is thus dismissed as a low class, imperial pidgin.

As Bilaniuk noted, however, this form of Surzhyk includes “mixed” features of village dialects, which she argues predate the standardization of either Russian or Ukrainian.

There is also the Sovietized Surzhyk, in which Ukrainian terms were purged from dictionaries (to what degree remains unclear) and replaced with Russian ones.

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This form of the dialect has been targeted by nationalists and linguistic purists, who argue that the entirety of the Ukrainian language as it exists today is nothing but Surzhyk as a result of this imperialist practice. Their goal, of course, it to return Ukrainian to its undiluted roots.

I am by no stretch of the imagination qualified to weigh in on any of those issues. Rather, I am bringing them up for another reason. If not for fear of national disintegration, a fear which is clearly being stoked from without, none of it would really matter.

There is often this false belief put forward by nationalists of every persuasion that there was once a historic golden age which should be viewed as some sort of sociolinguistic and cultural garden of Eden.

It is not just this artificial snapshot of a frozen and imagined history that turns Russian nationalists on their “fraternal brothers,” but it is also the reason why Ukraine runs the risk of cannibalizing its own culture (including the Russian aspects of it) for the sake of an imagined sense of purity.

Ukraine finds itself in a doubly difficult position because unlike the former Baltic states, Moldova, or Central Asia, which were all met with a massive influx of Soviet-era (and ethnically Russian) settlers, its language and culture is intrinsically linked to that of Russia via the Kievan line.

To remove those Russian aspects which are viewed as alien would be like taking a knife to extract bullet fragments scattered around one’s spine. As for Russians in the east, they would rather just amputate their leg and donate it to what they believe is a more suitable body.

But such procedures could prove fatal to what has become a deeply schizophrenic patient. And yet, due to minor but ultimately manageable resentments fanned to an inferno by outside forces, that appears to be exactly what is happening inside of Ukraine today.

People are dying not because of who they are, but who they think they should be. But who they think they should be, in truth, looks nothing like who they really are.

Fascists come to Russia to rally against…fascism?

William Echols

Following the first International Russian Conservative Forum, the overall militarist bent Moscow has taken in the wake of its secret war against Ukraine has brought to the fore a startling fact; many in Russia are scantly aware of what fascism actually means anymore.

Imagine if you will, an authoritarian form of government which borrows heavily from socialism, but believes that the real locus of history is not class conflict, but national and racial strife. Proponents seek private enterprise with a heavy government hand, often with the strong presence of state-run enterprises. They stress the need for autarky, or self-sufficiency, which entails the national interest being protected via interventionist economic politics. The goal, of course, is not necessarily to cut oneself off from the outside world, but to be sure the state can survive with or without international trade or external forms of assistance.

What if adherents to this ideology were, in the words of political scientist and historian Robert Paxton, obsessively preoccupied with “community decline, humiliation, or victimhood?” What if these forces, in a shaky collaboration with traditional elites, jettisoned all democratic principles and used “redemptive violence” for the sake of internal cleansing and external expansion?

'The future belongs to us.'

‘The future belongs to us.’

What if the ideologically faithful were obsessed with conspiracy theories and the constant need to remain vigilant against internal security threats, which often involved both indirect and overt appeals to xenophobia, and more specifically, anti-semitism?

What if cultural myths were promoted for the sake of fusing the individual and the masses into what Emilio Gentile described as a “mystical unity of the nation as an ethnic and moral community?” What if discriminatory measures were adopted to punish those outside of this community, who are viewed as inferior and dangerous to the integrity of the nation?

'Protect your motherland, protect your loved ones.'

‘Protect your motherland, protect your loved ones.’

What if, in the words of Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov, this ideology exhibited  in its foreign policy “the most brutal kind of chauvinism”, cultivating what he called “zoological hatred” against other peoples?

What if this policy, “inspired by the myth of national power and greatness,” is predicated on the “goal of imperialist expansion?”

The above list of qualities, if you haven’t already guessed, are all related to scholarly definitions of fascism.

And over the past year, Russians engaged in a war of words (as well as actual war) have clutched two rhetorical grenades called “provocation” and  “fascism.” With the former, any social ill can be chalked up to an external enemy or outside plot, deflecting all blame or need to hold the individual or government responsible for the current state of affairs. The latter is used to delegitimize your enemy by associating them with a historical force which negatively impacted most every Soviet family. Both are intended to shut down critical thinking.

But despite the incessant talk of juntas, Banderites and fascists which has filled the Russian airwaves ad nausem, it is in fact Russia which, as a nation, is on a stark, fascist drift.

“What you foreigners don’t get is that those people in Maidan [Kiev], they are fascists,” Alexander, a Simferopol resident, told the Guardian’s Shaun Walker two weeks before Russia officially annexed Crimea last year. ”I mean, I am all for the superiority of the white race, and all that stuff, but I don’t like fascists.”

To anyone who has not spent much time in Russia, the internal contradictions present in the above statement are glaring. But no matter the level of cognitive dissonance, that very attitude, albeit to different degrees, is widely held throughout Russian society.

Perhaps that is why, despite the rhetoric, observers from far-right European parties, including Béla Kovács from the Hungarian Jobbik Party, one time neo-nazi and modern day “National Bolshevik” Luc Michel, far right Spanish politician Enrique Ravello, and representatives from the Flemish right-wing party Vlaams Belang came to Crimea to legitimize the sham independence referendum, rather than throw in their support behind their supposed fellow ideological travelers in Ukraine. In this strange and managed reality, everything you think you know about the world no longer applies.

For people like Alexander, the far-right European observers in Crimea, and perhaps many in attendance at the International Russian Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg on Sunday, a fascist is some type of Anglo-American-Zionist (Jewish) tool who wants to crush traditional values in general and Russia in particular via the vehicle of NATO force and so-called cultural Marxism.

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A fascist is not, in contrast, a militant, anti-immigrant white supremacist who talks about Europe’s Christian roots, rallies against homosexuality and other forms of moral degradation, berates the EU and promotes some vague return to a nationally-centered economy, and believes his country to be under the thumb of Israel and other Zionists forces.

Of course, a worldview contingent on such semantic muddying is destined to lead to a few moments of absurdity, as it did on Sunday when participants at the forum actually debated just who could be called a fascist (and whether that was a bad thing at all).

“I don’t find it defamatory to be called a fascist,” said Roberto Fiore, leader of Italy’s far-right party Forza Nuova, who, as Max Seddon pointed out, actually signed an “anti-fascist memorandum” in Crimea last August. “But I do find it defamatory if you call me a Nazi.” 

But for Aleksei Zhilov, an organizer for pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine, nothing was worse than fascism, that is, if fascism were to be defined by a simple tautology.

“All that is in Donbas—that is antifascism, and everything in Ukraine is fascism,” he said. “There isn’t any other fascism anywhere.”

It is in this bizarro world where Alexander from Simferopol can be a white supremacist who is also opposed to fascism. Julia Ioffe confronted the same type of “mind-melting” cognitive dissonance with Russian rebels in Eastern Ukraine this past June.

“As Dmitry and I talked, I noticed a Vostok fighter in fatigue pants, a t-shirt, and a bulletproof vest pacing around with a Kalashnikov. He had a long, scraggly blond beard and was peppered with tattoos: a rune on one elbow, and, on the inside of his right forearm, a swastika, just like the one on the chest of the supposed Right Sector soldier. I asked Dmitry about it, but the man spotted me pointing to my arm.

‘Come here,’ he growled, beckoning angrily.

I remained frozen in place.

‘Don’t you go spreading your lies,’ he barked as he strode toward us. ‘This isn’t a swastika. This is an ancient Slavic symbol. Swa is the god of the sky.’

I stared, silently.

‘It’s our Slavic heritage,’ he said. ‘It’s not a swastika.’ Then he turned and walked away.”

To be fair, this habit of appropriating the swastika as a symbol of slavic heritage is one found on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict.

In July, a volunteer from the Ukrainian National Guard’s First Reserve Battalion told Vice’s Simon Ostrovsky much the same thing the Vostok fighter told Ioffe.

“I don’t consider myself a fascist, a Nazi or [a member of] Right Sector,” he said.

“It’s [referring to a swastika pendant around his neck] an ancient Slavic symbol. It’s always brought good luck.” 

Claims, however, that swastikas, kolovrats (spinning wheels) or other neo-pagan symbols have been divorced from neo-nazism within eastern Europe are dubious at best. Sometimes, the meaning of the symbol is contingent on the interlocutor, which is to say, which face you need to present to which audience.

In the case of Alexey Milchakov, a Russian mercenary fighting for  the“Donetsk People’s Republic” who was also a guest at Sunday’s forum, there is no prevaricating when it comes to his Nazi allegiances (he first made a name for himself by brutally murdering puppies and posting the images online.)

alexeymilchakov

And yet, somehow, Russia has reached a point where neo-nazis are not only fighting “fascists” in Ukraine, but they are being invited from abroad to throw their support behind the Russian government in a war which is ostensibly being waged against other fascists.

The mind numbing confusion of it all begs the question: how can a country whose main cultural rallying point entails its massive contribution to the defeat of the Nazi menace be both ignorant to fascism and, in the right context, sympathetic (if not outright supportive) to its goals?

Iosif Zisels, the head of Vaad Ukrainy, the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, spoke about this strange reality back in November.

Zisels said that Russian neo-nazis (including the group Russian National Unity) are playing an active role in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, though the source of their ideology dates back 20 years. He believes these far right forces were born in 90s and incubated in a cultural climate which Russians themselves have come to describe as a time of national humiliation.

“Russia is infected with the ideas of revanchism, which is very closely connected with fascism,” he said.

Revanchism, a policy of “revenge” centered around reclaiming lost territory, was made evident in Crimea, and rears its ugly head every time Russian President Vladimir Putin criticizes the legitimacy of former Soviet states. And it is this Soviet fall, with “Russia” no longer being viewed as a super power despite a national unwillingness to give up the imperial ghost, that stokes the fires of fascism. That, dashed with red hot resentment due to the wild economic instability of the 1990s, created a pressure cooker society with atomized proto-militarists looking for meaning in something collective and violent.

And in these strange, sometimes angry, post-Soviet times, Russian authorities have begun to lionize the country’s imperial past, aping czarist iconography to bind the people together in some caricature of national identity in lieu of genuine trust or social cohesion.

Of course, many of the reactionary Russian forces battling it out in Eastern Ukraine are reminiscent of the Black Hundreds, early 20th century monarchists known for their russocentrism, blatant xenophobia and penchant for anti-Jewish pogroms.

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It is perhaps no surprise that the Black Hundreds rabidly denied the existence of a Ukrainian nation as well, and did everything in their power to stifle Ukrainian culture and heritage.

Those yielding power in the Kremlin are comfortable using such nationalist fervor when it suites their needs despite being global capitalists at heart (their primary goal is to maintain the opulent lifestyles Russia’s resource wealth provides them). So far, they have managed to harness this extreme national force to their own ends. How long they can keep this golem on a leash, however, is anyone’s guess.

But there is one important thing to remember. This is a mutually beneficial relationship. Kremlin funds and Kremlin support for Europe’s far right is a means of driving fringe parties into the mainstream, who in turn will be more amenable to the Kremlin’s politics, “traditional values”, and ultimately corrupt governance.

The Kremlin is, in a sense, encouraging the worst aspects of European society, all so it can preserve the rot in its own.

The hypocrisy of Putin’s Russian exceptionalism

William Echols

Vladimir Putin’s recent admission that he was ready to put Russia’s nuclear arsenal in a state of combat readiness prior to the annexation of Crimea is a stark reminder that when it comes to criticizing the extreme dangers of “exceptionalism”,  the Russian president is woefully (or perhaps willfully) blind to the plank in his own eye.

One year after the Crimean Peninsula was formally absorbed into the Russian Federation, the country’s propaganda apparatus has been in full overdrive. “Crimea: The Road Home,” a two-plus hour pseudo-documentary that aired on Russian state television on Sunday, is perhaps the apotheosis of media-generated content in post-Madian Russia.

To venture into this manufactured world of light and dark forces is to confront a parallel reality built on unqualified conspiracies; a realm in which the United States is the puppet master behind all disorder, Ukrainian nationalists were preparing to poison the water supply on the peninsula, and Russia was compelled to act and save its own people from certain destruction. What, to an outsider, appears to be a bizarre simulacrum of reality seemingly lifted from an 80s action film, is ultimately a glimpse into the prism through which many Russians see the world today.

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Putin, of course, plays the central role in this contrived narrative, and on Sunday, the coup de théâtre was all his.

In a documentary packed with half-truths played off as facts and actual facts failing to make the final cut, Putin sent shockwaves through the largely jaded Russia-watching community and beyond by admitting that nuclear weapons were on the table when it came to bringing Crimea back into the fold.

“We were ready to do this [put Russia’s nuclear weapons in a state of alert],” he said.

“I told them openly that [Crimea] is our historic territory. Russian people live there, they are in danger, we can’t abandon that.”

He further said Moscow had never thought about “severing Crimea from Ukraine” until the “government overthrow,” though there is evidence that such plans had been in effect for at least a year (and possibly as early as 2005).

Seeing how Ukraine had jettisoned its nuclear arsenal  under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in return for assurances its territorial integrity would be respected, that Putin would risk nuclear war to annex a piece of Ukrainian territory is perhaps the mother of all ironies.

Russia-Nuclear-Missile

The absurdity of the situation is further demonstrated by the fact that Russia is technically obligated to seek out “immediate United Nations Security Council action…if Ukraine should become a victim of an act of aggression or an object of a threat of aggression in which nuclear weapons are used.” 

The hastily organized sham referendum which followed the Russian military occupation should be understood in this context, as Moscow needed a justification (no matter how flimsy) to not only shirk its obligations under the memorandum, but to trample all over them. Moscow, in fact, would later argue it was never required to force Ukrainian citizens to remain within Ukraine under the agreement, providing context to why the no-status quo ballot was rushed through, with Crimean MPs literally under the gun, according to onetime rebel leader and “former” Russian Federal Security Service Colonel Igor Girkin.

And even if the nuclear threat was a made for TV moment, it’s a telling admission, given that Putin and his team were fully aware of how it would play out domestically, and opted to run with it.

Which is to say, the relentless propaganda effort aimed at the Russian population has fostered a siege mentality, a worldview in which Russia was nearly forced to deploy nuclear weapons in the face of a perceived existential crisis. There was no bridge too far when it came to securing the motherland, (except, perhaps, for the Kerch Strait Bridge.)

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Russia has spent the better part of the last year tearing Ukraine apart, and yet its people view themselves as the victims. Putin has tapped into a deep, deep sentiment (or in Kierkegaard’s words, ressentiment), which informs much of the citizenry. And even as Putin is the puppet master of this stage managed reality, it is a sentiment that he, at least on some level, believes himself.

In the words of the 20th century slavophile Ivan Ilyin (who is said to be Putin’s favorite philosopher), the West neither understands Russia nor tolerates its identity.

“They are going to divide the united Russian ‘broom’ into twigs to break those twigs one by one and rekindle with them the fading light of their own civilization,” Ilyin wrote.

Putin himself said much the same thing this past December to the chagrin of Western journalists, though his folksy analogy was deadly serious.

“Sometimes I think, maybe they’ll let the bear eat berries and honey in the forest, maybe they will leave it in peace. They will not. Because they will always try to put him on a chain, and as soon as they succeed in doing so they tear out his fangs and his claws.”

And what do the fangs and claws represent? Why of course, Russia’s nuclear deterrent.

“Once they’ve taken out his claws and his fangs, then the bear is no longer necessary. He’ll become a stuffed animal. The issue is not Crimea, the issue is that we are protecting our sovereignty and our right to exist.”

Now, to understand how one country can actively dismember its neighbor while speaking of defending its right to exist, it is necessary to understand what Putin means when he says “we.”

In his own words, Russia is not just a state, but “ a unique sociocultural civilizational community” which sees “Russians” occupying its “cultural nucleus.”

Within this world view, the notion of Westphalian sovereignty is supplanted by the deeper, “sociocultural civilizational community” that Ukraine is prima facie a part of.

Hence, Kiev’s westward drift was construed as an act that undermined Russia’s own civilization, and, as the story told in doublespeak goes, a conscious effort to rip Ukraine apart is viewed as an act of preserving Russia.

So when Putin calls large swaths of Eastern Ukraine by its czarist designation, “Novorossiya”, or when he refers to Crimea as Russia’s “Temple Mount,” he is not only reinforcing Russia’s creation myth, he is obliquely denying agency to every other nation in the region.

During the Seliger 2014 National Youth Forum in August, for example, a young woman (arguably a plant) asked Putin if a Ukrainian scenario could be repeated in Kazakhstan following President Navarbayev’s departure.

Putin, in turn, said that Navarbayev had “accomplished a unique thing” in creating a state on a territory “where there had never been a state.”

“The Kazakhs had never had statehood,” he reiterated.

Kazakhstan Political Map 2000

The lesson for Kazakhstan is the same one Georgia learned during the 2008 war (Putin in fact told CNN that those who wished for the recently integrated Abkhazia and South Ossetia to remain a part of Georgia “are Stalinists”), and the same lesson that keeps Azerbaijan and Armenia on short chains regarding Nagorno-Karabakh: every state in the region runs the risk of being dismembered if they cross their self-appointed suzerain.

Last September, Putin assailed US President Barack Obama for making a case for American exceptionalism, warning it is “extremely dangerous” to encourage people to view themselves as exceptional, no matter the motivation.

“There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

And yet, in the post Soviet world, all states are not created equally. In a strange metaphysical morality play in which Putin has rhetorically supplanted the rights of states for his self-proclaimed civilization, to cross Moscow is to risk a lesson in forceable, real life cartography.

Viewed threw this lens of Russian exceptionalism, one year on, the lesson of Crimea is clear.

For unruly sheep which stray too far from the flock, they might soon learn the hard way that the shepherd will stop at nothing to strip them of their pasture, a pasture which he always regarded as his own to begin with. And as the world was not so subtly reminded on Sunday, this is a shepherd who carries a big stick indeed.

With or without you: How #Putindead scared the hell out of Russian liberals 

William Echols

Something peculiar happened last week. First my friends joked about it. Then it was the hot topic of discussion during a raucous Friday night surprise party with former colleagues working in media. My balkanized Twitter feed looked like an endless sky-blue colored scroll with iterations of the same text popping up in 140 character segments. Though there were still cat photos on Facebook, so the occupation of my social media was not complete.

But then Julia Ioffe wrote about it, and I had no choice but to accept that it was true. The death/disappearance/ascendency into heaven of Vladimir Putin had secretly scared the hell out of everyone.

Ok, but he’s not dead, right? Something about babymama drama, maybe another round of botox?

theresastarman

News reports from the future and old photos of Putin being passed off as recent have not helped matters.

And when theories turned to palace coups or catastrophic strokes, the awkward laughs made a dynamic diminuendo al ninete. The silence was always bested within a moment, but it was the space between overlaid voices, clinking glasses and laugher that told the story; they were the thin-skinned plates floating on the soft plastic mantle of reality which had been manufactured for them. They didn’t have to love him, they could have cried ‘Russia without Putin’ countless times from the streets of a not too distant Moscow that seems in today’s climate infinitely far away. It doesn’t matter. Many secretly were being faced with something the creative classes never could have envisioned facing:  They couldn’t imagine a Russia without Putin.

How did this come to pass? Traumatic bonding in mass? Perhaps.

In an exhaustive editorial published by Vasily Gatov in the Moscow Times entitled ‘How the Kremlin and the Media Ended Up in Bed Together’, Gatov argues that a key component of the state’s artificial agenda is “an exaggerated role” for Putin in public life.

Regarding the final real flareup between Putin and protesters in May 2013, Gatov notes how “the main weekly program on Channel One, ‘Vremya’, ran 11 pieces on Putin’s various activities and only two covering other recent events. What’s more, every mention or depiction of Putin was not only positive, but slavishly complimentary.”

Fawning coverage of the president in an authoritarian state is par for the course. And while my liberal Russian acquaintances, and even his more sophisticated supporters among Moscow’s middle class, all feel comfortable pointing a finger at the quasi-North Korean style portrayal of Putin in state-run media, there was always an understanding that it was chum for the provincials.

It is this knowing wink from the ruling class that belies the complexity of Russian propaganda, and the cult of personality around Vladimir Putin. For the working class and perennially complaining grandmas who see Putin as a ‘right kinda guy’ when he’s galavanting shirtless and doing any number of manly things, the creators of this image are doing so with a knowing wink towards their urbanite peers.

shirtlessputin

Just like all of the other contradictions rife in Russian life, the ‘Dear Leader’ treatment  is both a provocation and an appeal to the ego of Russian liberals. This is trash, turning our president into the cover of a Daniel Steele novel, we know it, and you know it, but look at ‘our people’, ‘our people’ love this. We, and especially you, know better of course. And personally, I find many of your memes to be quite humorous.

But it goes beyond the semiotics of kitsch and masculinity. The media is not only fawning over Putin, but through carefully orchestrated PR stunts, it provides him with a Wizard of Oz sort of air, deftly micromanaging his subjects across 11 time dozes.

When residents of the small town of Pikalevo, just outside of St Petersburg, raided city hall and blocked a federal highway over dire economic conditions stemming from their shuttered aluminum plants in May 2009, they directly appealed to Putin to intervene and resolve the crisis (although Medvedev was technically president at the time.)

After a nationally televised defrocking in which the plant owners (including Oleg Deripaska) were likened to “cockroaches”, Putin also accused the town’s residents of being paid to stage a “provocation.”

None the less, Deripaska was ordered to foot the bill in order to kickstart the town’s faltering economy. He was also required to shell out over 41 million rubles ($1.3 million) in wage arrears to the city’s residents. And just like that, Putin had saved the day.

Of course, in a country with upwards of 400 monotowns (cities whose economies are basically dependent on a single industry or company), Putin had to act, especially in the heart of a financial crisis. In many ways, Pikalevo was a symbol for the great beyond; what those outside of Moscow call the ‘Real Russia.’

This perennial appeal to the heartland is all about stability. Just look at Putin’s annual marathon Q&A sessions, which start heavy and devolve into a daytime television platform for him to doll out goodies to fawning provincial journalists.

“The residents of Kuzbass would like help with our struggling coal industry, can you help us Vladimir Vladimirovich?” 

To which Putin replies: “Something something buzzword (infrastructure) done!”

“Why thank you Vladimir Vladimirovich, please, take a stuffed Yetti!”

‘Well Vladimir Vladimirovich, that Yeti girl was very clever! If you give our newspapers more money even as you cut back state media budgets, I will give you a teddybear.”

 “We have no more money for media” Putin replies, “but something vague, ‘additional support measures’, and done!”

“By the way, are you in love?”

Anyways, you get the point. Putin is something like a cross between a father and a genie who can grant all wishes to those who merely ask in good faith and with sufficient love for the motherland.

Sometimes he provides the bullets for his own messengers when his own policies force officials to cut back on services they can’t pay for, just like when he accused his ministers of going mad for cutting regional rail services in these austere times.

Now the idea that Putin can do everything might be derided in liberal circles, and many are well aware that in a power vertical, it seems odd that the buck stops anywhere but the top. But for many Russians, the president is the only unassailable feature of their country, at least in their kitchens.

But that isn’t the story anymore. ‘Russia without Putin’ was a battlecry against this illogicality, the belief that a system based on the power of one man, and not institutions, could somehow also tell its people that everything going wrong in the country was the fault of everyone but this one man. But the real depression, the real fear in those silent spaces when Putin death jokes turn to more frightful alternatives, is that while Putin might be a slightly murderous Ovcharka who feeds himself first and turns on his sheep when he has to, there are no shepherds waiting in the wings to replace him. Rather, there are wolves.

A recent run down in The Interpreter outlines Russian blogosphere buzz regarding how more hardline elements could take over after Putin, and, if much of the speculation is correct, they already are.

The Interpreter cites LiveJournal blogger v_n_zb, who said that a “quiet political coup” was currently under way n Russia, much like with the resignation of Boris Yeltsin which ushered Putin in in the first place.

“So it’s quite possible we are seeing the last days of the setting of the political star of V.V. Putin. Behind-the-scenes players may leave him in his seat, placing around him ‘their’ people (in that case, Medvedev’s government will be dismissed and Putin’s heads of  intelligence services will be fired) and he can be sent into honorable retirement to babysit the newly-born Kabayeva child. This may be helped along (as an extreme variant) with death ‘from a cold,’” v_n_zb wrote.

Without delving into all of the palace intrigue which is part and parcel of a system so shrouded in secrecy that political writing becomes an exercise in reading tea leaves, I’ll mention one theory from v_n_zb, who says that if rumors of the death of Viktor Zolotov (essentially Putin’s chief bodyguard) are true, that could mean that Putin has already “been crushed.”

“Now it is not so important whether Putin lives or not – the real power has passed into the hands of an increasingly hard and brutal group.” 

I am not endorsing this interpretation of events, nor am I in any position to verify them. No one is, at least, no one who would ever talk. But even if they are paranoid fantasy which will be dismissed when Putin is seen topless on a bear trotting down Red Square, what’s more important is the message this alternative reality presents. Just as on the streets of any Russian town, where nationalists and outright fascists far outnumber liberals, siloviki (“politicians” who first cut their teeth in the security services or military) have all but sidelined the liberals. To be fair, that was a process that got underway as soon as Putin ascended the presidency, but liberals to some extent always had his ear, (former Finance minister Alexei Kudrin being the most prominent example.)

The narrative since the Crimea crisis began is that Putin has increasingly isolated himself from more moderate elements of his government, allowing hawks to rule the roost. And in a country so marred in political violence, and fresh off of the brazen murder of former deputy PM Boris Nemtsov not more than 50 yards away from the Kremlin, the public is primed with the type of paranoid fear where even the briefest absence of Putin sets the mind in a talespin of catastrophizing.

It is also his fault. In weakening every single institution except the security services, in failing to diversify the economy and leaving 50 percent of the budget precariously dependent on oil and gas prices (neither of which are tied to a currency the government has any control over), in stifling every attempt at the development of organic civil society, in the destruction of real opposition through marginalization, co-option, and the creation of Potemkin political parties, through the harassment and imprisonment of opposition leaders (who are day by day more aptly described as dissidents), and the creation of a climate where others can possibly be murdered for being viewed as “national traitors”, there is no one left to take over when Putin goes.

One only need to look at this recent article in the Guardian naming non-systemic opposition figures who could possibly challenge Putin for the throne to realize how absolutely dire the situation is.

To paraphrase Jim Kovpak, for years Russia has been one slip in the shower away from falling apart. That was funny, until it wasn’t. I for one am hoping that when Putin does reappear, likely from “holidays with Alina and the baby”, as one special correspondent  from state media put it to me, he’ll seriously invest in some bath tub mats, among other things.

‘I’m a Russian Occupant’: Viral video justifies imperial aggression 

William Echols

A recently released YouTube video entitled ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’ is a deeply telling panegyric to 19th century-style white man’s burden imperialism, which goes a long way towards explaining what is wrong with the mentality of many Russians today.

It’s a rare occurrence to see proponents of a worldview unironically putting out such a bold (and frankly racist) statement of agency, a statement which approaches Idiocracy levels of parody. One could almost laugh, if this clarion call to unapologetic national pride was not so blatantly supremacist and aggressive.

To put it all in a rather crude nutshell, everything in this part of the world would be crap if it weren’t for the Russians, and it’s crap again because Moscow’s petulant children forgot the benefit of kowtowing to their suzerain. That might sound like an exaggeration. It is not. In a typical display of Russian militaristic bravado, the highly-stylized clip begins with a so-called Little Green Man (slang for the crack Russian troops who took Crimea sans insignia) loading a clip into his AK-100 while the narrator proclaims that being an occupier is his manifest destiny.

Screenshot from Я Русский Оккупант | I'm a Russian Occupant [Subtitles], courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Turning his eye to Yermak’s 16th century conquest of Siberia, the video goes full on Heart of Darkness by arguing that now they (whoever they might be) produce oil, gas and “other useful stuff, have “schools and hospitals” and can’t sell women for “a bundle of sable skins” – all thanks to Russian colonial expansion.

I guess one is left to assume that the benefits of 400-plus years of progress would have escaped the indigenous population if it weren’t for the Russians occupation. It’s also strange how putting a stop to selling women for sable skins is brought up as a justification, seeing that rape, enslavement and self-admitted genocidal policies were carried out against the natives, often, and rather ironically, due to the lucrative fur trade.

Screenshot from Я Русский Оккупант | I'm a Russian Occupant [Subtitles], courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Serfdom was also being deeply entrenched in Russian society during the same time period, which is to say, Russia was actually moving backwards socially during this period of imperial expansion (legal amendments in 1649 and 1658 made the bulk of Russians slaves in all but name.) So they saved the people from selling their women into slavery so Russians  themselves could sell them into slavery? Right.

The narrator moves on to the Baltics, arguing they were renowned for their high quality radio equipment, cars, famous perfumes and balms during Soviet times.

“I [Russia] was asked to leave them. Now they sell sprats, and part of their people clean toilets in Europe.” 

That the financially robust Baltic states, one of which is projected to reach the economic level of the Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Norway by 2025 (and potentially become one of the top five most productive nations in the world) have been relegated to forage fish sellers and European toilet cleaners is frankly odd.

Screenshot from Я Русский Оккупант | I'm a Russian Occupant [Subtitles], courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Central Asia is next, and perhaps an easier target given the authoritarianism and wealth inequality that plagues these states for a number of reasons. Seemingly reducing the five republics of the former Soviet bloc to one homogeneous mass, the narrator sidesteps any substantive issues by saying they are now being saddled with US loans and “growing Cannabis” (with the image of a pot leaf quickly being replaced with a white powder I’m assuming is heroine.)

Screenshot from Я Русский Оккупант | I'm a Russian Occupant [Subtitles], courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Apart from the unforeseen possibility that Colorado has outsourced its pot business to Uzbekistan on the back of high interest loans, I’m not really sure what the narrator is getting at. Another contention, that many migrants now work in Russia in often desperate conditions, is true, though to blame them for the macroeconomic conditions that make some states net importers of guest laborers seems ludicrous.

The reductionist approach also belies the fact that Kazakhstan’s GDP per capita is nominally close to Russia’s, providing economic conditions which attract more Central Asian migrants than any other country in the world (apart from its neighbor to the north.) And what, pray tell, do Russia and Kazakhstan have in common? I’ll give you a hint:

In Ukraine, well you guessed it. Once upon a time they built things, and now all they can do is construct “revolution and dictatorship.” 

Screenshot from Я Русский Оккупант | I'm a Russian Occupant [Subtitles], courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

So looking at all of the chaos that’s been unleashed by one of the worst geopolitical disaster’s of the 20th century, the narrator, whoever he is speaking for, is coming out of the closest (no, not that closet!)

“Yes, I’m an occupant, and I’m tired of apologizing for it. I’m an occupant by birthright, an aggressor and a bloodthirsty monster. Be afraid.” 

The video, unsurprisingly, goes on to deride western hypocrisy, parroting the widely held belief that democracy does not exist, before reducing western values to gays, gays, more gays, and Conchita Wurst (as opposed to transparency, the rule of law, the protection of minorities, civil rights and the regular and predictable transition of power through free and fair elections.)

Screenshot from Я Русский Оккупант | I'm a Russian Occupant [Subtitles], courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

“I politely warn you for the last time, don’t mess with me. I build peace, I love peace, but I know how to fight better than anyone else,” the message, which is quickly dispatched to Barack Obama, concludes.

Screenshot from Я Русский Оккупант | I'm a Russian Occupant [Subtitles], courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Kevin Rothrock from Global Voices contacted the alleged creator of the video, a man going by the name of Evgeny Zhurov. Zhurov is emphatic that the professionally produced video was independently made, saying claims of Kremlin involvement are an absolute “lie.”

“These people want to destroy the ‘myth’ about a guy who works ‘for an idea,’” Zhurov said. “They want to make all my work look like it was part of some government contract.”

I for one believe whoever is behind the video is an ancillary point. That the Kremlin would make (or at the very least finance) such a video in a world of internet troll farms and organized-state hysteria is par for the course. What’s more important is the fact that the maker of this video has his finger on the pulse of contemporary Russia. In line with their educational curriculum, many Russians believe in a reductionist view of history which hinges on external invasions of Russia, but ignores numerous instances of Russian aggression against its own neighbors.

It is within this narrative that the myth of the peaceful but ferocious Russian was born. The revelatory part of the video, of course, is that it couples Russians belief in their peaceful nature with its highly militaristic culture, which revels in the idea of being feared. For those who visit Russia, the obsession with power is stark. Some have likened it to a sublimated prison culture, and even in Soviet times, prisoners themselves called the labor camps the ‘small zones’ and the country itself the ‘big zone.’ And this obsession with power manifests itself in virtually every interaction.

When the face of Russia’s domestic propaganda effort Dmitry Kiselyov warned “Russia can turn the US into radioactive dust” last March, he was speaking directly to the Russian id that can resentfully only find parity with their former Cold War rival in its ability to destroy it (and be destroyed in turn.) Russia is a shadow of its former Soviet incarnation, but due to its nuclear arsenal, it most be feared and respected, or so the logic goes.

I already mentioned its reduction of Western values to one gigantic gay pride parade, though there is something interesting in its interpretation of Soviet History. Russians both view the Soviet Union as a Russian imperialistic project and as a commonwealth of brotherly nations coming together for a utopian vision of the future. Many Russians deftly navigate very convoluted waters in which all of the evils of the Soviet Union are blamed on outside anti-Russian forces (often Jews), while at the same time believing that all of the accomplishments of the Soviet Union were in fact Russian accomplishments.

The videos portrayal of the former Soviet republics and Siberia itself as backwaters that would have been nothing if not for Russia’s beneficent occupation is a widely held belief. Jim Kovpak, an amateur historian and author of the popular blog Russia Without BS, summarized this mentality in an article entitled ‘See, this is why nobody likes you.’

“It goes something like this. Russian wants to rant against some former Soviet nationality. It doesn’t matter if its their ‘Slavic brothers’ like the Ukrainians or non-Slavic nationalities like Uzbeks, Tajiks, or Georgians. With the most condescending and patronizing tone, they remind the target of their rant how great they had it under the USSR, or in the case of this article, the Russian Empire. Typically no distinction is made between the two.  

The story is that Muscovite Russians selflessly endeavored and bled to give these people various “gifts” for which they were ungrateful in 1991. Basically it’s the equivalent of a right-wing American telling black Americans that they should be grateful for slavery, or better said a British person lecturing India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan about how great they had it when they were the jewel of the British Empire. The difference being, however, that in the US or UK views like this are often met with sharp criticism, often all across the political spectrum. In Russia they are mainstream and encouraged,” he wrote.

That these views are mainstream and encouraged is obvious in the stellar popularity of ‘I am a Russian Occupant’, which has gathered over 5 million views and 111k likes in some two weeks. One of the most telling aspects of many Russians is that they are supremacists who are enraged that they might be viewed as inferior, anti-PC bigots who will jump at the slightest mischaracterization of their own people, self-proclaimed lovers of peace who are militarists obsessed with power and respect, patronizing colonialists who are deeply resentful that neighboring nations do not respect the paternalistic yoke.

These contradictions are the source of a great deal of internal strife that manifests itself externally, as the pressure of cognitive dissonance rarely dissipates of its own accord. And often, the psychic fault lines between reality and delusion create tremors in the real world.

It would be easy to dismiss this clip if it weren’t so telling. After all, it is the worldview it depicts (a false belief that it is Russia’s “birthright” to keep their backwards and rebellious children in the fold) that drove the Kremlin to rip Ukraine apart rather than let it choose its own path. Taken in that light, there is nothing funny about ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’ at all.

Screenshot from I'm a Russian Occupant , courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нет.

Screenshot from ‘I’m a Russian Occupant’, courtesy of YouTube user ОКеям Нетю

The truthful lie behind Putin’s Crimea admission

William Echols

A video teaser released two days back in which Vladimir Putin publicly admitted that his plan to “return” Crimea was drawn up during an all-night meeting on February 22 – nearly a month before the peninsula was formally annexed – has done much to rile up opponents of the blatant land grab. What’s more interesting, perhaps, is why such  documentary would be made in the first place, and what it has to say about the precarious balancing act Russia’s relentless propaganda effort has forced Putin to manage.

One thing should remain immediately clear; all of the prevarications about Russians troops not being deployed in Crimea were for the sake of the international community, not the domestic audience. I think a majority of Russians would have been amenable to forcibly taking back Crimea under most any circumstances, though the pretext of “protecting ethnic Russians” certainly didn’t hurt matters.

According to the basic time line, after former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev on February 22, Putin and four unidentified officials pulled an all-nighter to hammer out a plan to wrest control of the peninsula from Ukraine.

“It was the night of the 22nd,” Putin told Rossiya One’s Andrey Kondrashov. “We were done by 7 am. And I won’t conceal it, when we were saying goodbye, I told my colleagues – there were four of them – that the situation in Ukraine has evolved in such a way that we have to start work on returning Crimea to being a part of Russia. We couldn’t abandon the territory and the people who live there; couldn’t just throw them under this nationalist bulldozer.” 

There are two things I’d like to say about this, both of which are perhaps ironic. The first is that this admission is most likely a lie.

If a recent report leaked by Novaya Gazetta (and here in English) on February 24 turns out to be authentic, plans to annex Crimea and other parts of Eastern Ukraine had been in the works for more than 12 months.

And in actuality, forces within the Kremlin were preparing for the potential partition of Ukraine as early as December 2005, when Andrei Purguin, Alexander Tsurkan, and Oleh Frolov set up the political party Donetsk Republic, allegedly at Moscow’s behest.

In 2006, leaders from the nascent party, which hoped to create a Federal Republic of Donetsk in Southeast Ukraine ( a plan Yanukovich himself opposed) attended a summer camp in Russia organized by Aleksandr Dugin’s neo-fascist  Eurasian Youth Union. The Eurasian Youth Union, in turn, was established with funding from the Presidential Administration under the watchful eye of then First Deputy Chief Vladislav Surkov, the stage manager behind Russia’s managed democracy, and later, its managed reality. The camp, which taught espionage, sabotage and other means of waging guerrilla warfare, was ostensibly intended to train participants to resist so-called color revolutions in their own states.

In August, Anton Shekhovstov identified at least 5 people who attended that summer camp that later went on to engage in the armed insurrection in eastern Ukraine, an uprising in which former rebel commander and one-time FSB Colonel Igor Girkin admitted would never have occurred if his troops had not crossed the border from Russia. On a side note, Girkin, who goes by the nomme de guerre Strelkov and either has a low sense of self-preservation or a very “high ceiling”, recently admitted that Crimean MPs were forced to vote in the March 16 status referendum under the gun.

In short, the idea that Putin scrambled to formulate a plan on the night of February 22 to reincorporate Crimea is an example of coming clean with a lie; a lie which makes him appear more bold and decisive in the eyes of his domestic audience while still holding true to the basic narrative used to justify the land grab in the first place.

The second irony, is that even if one were to take all of Russian state propaganda at face value, you’d have no choice but to believe that the Russian government is acting hypocritically and illogically.

When it came to the Crimea, Putin was forced to act preemptively to protect ethnic Russians from the “nationalist bulldozer.” As he said, we couldn’t just abandon the people, i.e., the Russians who live there.

And yet, in eastern Ukraine, where Nazi death squads are supposedly roaming around crucifying three-year old boys, executing civilians en masse and leaving behind “hundreds of unmarked graves”, where women are systematically raped and where Putin himself said the decision to cut off natural gas to some parts of Eastern Ukraine “smacked of genocide,” here, in this presence of this roaming fascist menace, Russia will do nothing for its people.

In Crimea, just the mere potentiality that Russians could be imperiled sparked the deployment of Russian troops and ultimately the annexation of the territory. But faced with a scene of actual slaughter (or so the narrative goes), Moscow has systematically denied it ever supplied a single gun to pro-Russian forces, let alone put boots on the ground.

I’ve always tried to figure out how Russians square that circle. Every night death is spread all over their television screens; a virtual holocaust is being documented right on Russia’s borders and against their own people. But somehow, Moscow refuses to intervene least they get, what, more Western sanctions? I don’t know how many Russians take all of this to its logical conclusion, but Putin’s admission over Crimea (whatever it’s veracity) should make people even more confused over his avowed non-involvement in Ukraine’s east. But the question is simple. If what state media is saying is true, how can Putin not act? In February Putin said that no matter how much “pressure” is exerted on Russia, Moscow will “continue to pursue an independent foreign policy” which supports the “fundamental interests of our people…” 

So to recap: Moscow will not buckle under Western pressure, sanctions won’t sway Putin, Russia will act decisively and preemptively to save the citizens of Crimea from Ukrainian nationalists, but nothing will be done to stop an all out quasi-genocidal rampage in “Novorossiya.”

Of course, such contradictions are part and parcel of the Russian propaganda experience nowadays. Just after Nemtsov was killed, Putin’s Press Secretary called the assassination a “provocation,” or in the parlance of Western conspiracy theorists, a “false flag.” In that instance, the public was being told that the murder of a fifth columnist, a national traitor, a CIA shill intent on destroying Russia was committed by forces attempting to discredit…Russia?

So national traitors could only be killed by national enemies and  interventions can be carried out to halt the potential of violence, but not actions which “smack of genocide.” Got it?

The hysteria of impotence 

William Echols

I was recently reading an article by Alex Polikovskiy in Russia’s leading liberal daily, Novaya Gazetta. The article, entitled ‘Nemtsov Bridge,’ was elegant in describing what it felt like during that brumal Sunday afternoon procession, when a mostly solemn mass of people came out to find shelter from the shock, weather be damned.

I myself remember pulling into the Kitai Gorod metro station and being taken aback when i was pushed out onto the platform and into a funnel, which crept to a dual person drop at the escalator ahead. It took me a good 20 minutes just to exit the station onto Slavyanskaya Square, where the golden domes of the Muscotive Baroque-styled  Church of All Saints seemed to provide the only points of contrast against an otherwise dishwater-colored sky.

kitaigorodchurch

Stuck on the staircase exiting onto the street and ascending at a clip of a step a minute, a middle-aged couple behind me said with typically sardonic Russian wit: ‘so i guess we are the fifth column.’

Polikovski waxed poetic on the almost analgesic effect the being a part of what was not a crowd, but rather a gathering of kindred spirits; a largely cowered bunch who had been forced back into Russia’s atomizing existence after a brief window in 2011-2012, when people felt like a nascent civil society was pushing up like a flower through cracks in the pavement.

But eloquent words depicting a solemn if not strangely comforting scene soon bled into anger, as he passionately and perhaps illogically asked where was the massive security presence dispatched to police the procession when Nemtsov was shot in the area overnight Friday? Of course, if hundreds of riot police and drones were dispatched in the area on a regular basis, he would have likely found himself railing against the manifestation of the police state right in the heart of the Russian capital. I understand his point, of course, was rhetorical, but there is another point as well.

He decried Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for himself turning up to the million-man Charlie Hebdo march in Paris, while remaining conspicuously absent when political terror struck down Nemtsov just outside the Kremlin’s walls. It seemed to him, and perhaps rightly so, that solidarity was only for the sake of PR, that any grandstanding against Islamic extremism would always find a place onto the itinerary, but a problematic albeit long-since diminished former deputy PM slain on the streets of Moscow was not worth honoring. After all, he was a vociferous critic of the regime, a womanizer, a fifth columnist, a national enemy. He existed in this strange political purgatory in Russia that is stuck somewhere between opposition and dissident. But really, to the bulk of Russian society, he was a nobody. But the death of that nobody sent shockwaves through the cowered creative classes that are the hallmarks of any liberal society, a class which has become all but antiquated in the post-Ukrainian schism reality of modern day Russia.

“The American ambassador and European ambassadors came to the bridge, to the scene of the murder,” Polikovski wrote, “but why is Europe and America showing empathy to us in this terrible hour, and are closer to me than all this stupid, cowardly, thieving, treacherous authority, from which not a single minister has come and put flowers at the spot where their former colleague was killed.”

nemtsovmarch

Many Russian liberals rarely lend themselves to restraint, and often the line between journalism, editorializing and flat-out activism is blurred beyond distinction. Sometimes it’s chalked up to a basic lack of professionalism, the argument being that many were self-taught during the raucous 90s and did not have the long history of objectivity that we at least exalt in the Western press, if not religiously practice.

Another reason, perhaps, is the audience they need to sway is hammered down to the floor in a far off land, and what should be a plea to the masses amounts to little more than yelling at the top of their lungs in an echo chamber. This is not their fault. Despite all the fire in their reporting, the independent media has more or less been stamped out to an ember. In Russia, eighty-four percent of people listed state television as being among their top three news sources, while the only independent broadcaster, Dozhd TV was essentially banished by most cable providers and is hobbling along as a web-based broadcaster.

Only 10 percent of Russians use the Internet as a primary news source, and that number is likely skewed greatly by the relatively more liberal urban hubs like Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

When I think about a tri-weekly newspaper like Novaya Gazetta, I can find it in Moscow, not at all news agents, but enough. I have no idea what their reach is, but even according to their own numbers, circulation is 227,000 per issue.

Moscow is a city of 12.1-17 million, and Russia a country of 148,689,000 (if you count Crimea, and you don’t have to if you don’t want, but reality, rather than any moral judgment, tells me to count it.)

The New York Times, by contrast, has a circulation of 1,379,806, though the Guardian is at 177,827. The one difference, however, is that web traffic to those sites has drastically supplanted print editions. Newspapers are still more popular in Russia than web portals, so I am doubting that Novaya Gazetta’s reach is significantly broadened by their web presence, though I could easily be wrong.

So what is my point in all of this, what is the thread connecting it all? Impotence.

As I wrote in my previous entry, Chechen’s were an easy go to for culprits in Nemtsov’s assassination, and while the chances that Chechens were commissioned to carry out the crime is high, the likelihood of identifying the masterminds, if historical precedence is any guide, remains quite low.

Moreover, scores of damning reports on crime, corruption and contract killings in the liberal press are virtually ineffectual in moving the needle in Russian society. The mechanisms of power in Russia are greatly shrouded in secrecy, and those trying to figure out its inner machinations are virtually left reading tea leaves. There are no independent branches of government, there is no countervailing force to appeal to for checks and balances in the power vertical. A front page expose carefully documenting how an official stole hundreds of millions of dollars will have absolutely zero effect, unless said official falls afoul of the powers that be later. In a nutshell, their work is virtually pointless, except as a pressure valve to release their own anger and to find limited solidarity with their fellow ideological travelers. Perhaps a career spent screaming against the wind will make on hysterical from time to time. Perhaps.

Last Sunday, after crossing the bridge and approaching Bolshaya Ordynka Street in the historic Zamoskvorechye District, there was an impending sense, as people slowed down and crisscrossed between the road and pedestrian path, that all of this was supposed to lead somewhere.

moscowmarch2

But with each step leaving the piles of flowers and the Kremlin in their wake, there was no natural terminus, no rallying point, no climax to what ended up being a two-hour plus procession, at least for those of us straggling and taking photographs. Boris was still dead, the lack of belief in a fair and impartial investigation was seemingly a fait accompli, the 50,000-plus  crowd was still a drop in the bucket, and there did not appear to be one well-known face waiting at the end to tell the masses what next. I think for many, with Navalny in prison at the time and Nemstov soon to be put into the ground, a march that started in a bottle neck and indeterminately ended in dissipation was the perfect symbol for the day.

They had all come out for comfort, marched in relative silence, but when they waited for that voice to guide them on, each and every one of us found in the end that we were alone. So we piled into cafes, walked to the metro, watched the people watching us, seemingly oblivious to why so many damned people were on the streets that Sunday afternoon. And then, as it always does, life went on.

In the subhead for Polikovskiy’s beautiful if indignant recap of the day (at least the print edition), he proclaimed that Nemstov had once again united society and freedom, following a decade in the political wilderness and his brutal and untimely  murder.

Polikovskiy’s sentiment is a comforting one, but I have my doubts about it…

‘Chechen connection’ in Nemtsov murder should surprise no one 

William Echols

The announcement by Russia’s Federal Security Service head that two suspects from ‘Russia’s North Caucasus’ region had been arrested in connection with the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was to be expected, given the long and sordid history of the Chechen boogeyman in the Russian psyche.

Renowned criminologist Kathryn Russell-Brown once wrote that in American society, the black male is oft depicted as a “symbolic pillager of all that is good”. When Susan Smith tearfully found a fall guy in the archetype of the black carjacker before coughing up to the murder of here two small children over two decades back, what was laid bare was less an example of personal bigotry, and more a sociological manifestation of a small-minded and emotionally challenged young woman grasping at the one straw her culture offered her. If not me, then whom? In much the same way, from petty street crime, sexual harassment, religious extremism, and murder, Russia has its own perennial patsy: the Caucasian, and more specifically, the Chechen.

In the West, the racial taxonomy of the 18th/19th century German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach is the reason why those of European descent are known as Caucasians. In his words, the Caucasus, a mountain system between the Black and Caspian Seas on Russia’s southern flank, is home to “the most beautiful race of men…” But while Caucasians (in Blumenbach’s example, Georgians) became the archetype for “the white race”, in a coup of irony, Slavic nationalists deride Caucasians with the ethnophaulism “black asses.”

There is not enough time to venture into Russia’s long and complicated relationship with the region. What’s important about Saturday’s announcement by Federal Security Service Head Alexander Bortnikov, which pinned the crime on two suspects from the North Caucasus, is that it should surprise no one. Less than a day after Nemtsov was shot dead on Moskvoretsky bridge in ‘the shadow of the Kremlin’, Russian state media began publishing images of a  car allegedly commissioned in the murder of the former deputy PM. The car, unsurprisingly, had Ingush license plates.

Following the pacification of Chechnya, neighboring Ingushetia has become the drainage ditch for unexpended militant rage which, barring a defiant attack in December, was mostly stamped out in Kadyrov’s fiefdom. Combined, Chechnya and Ingushetia have just under 1.7 million people. Moscow, in contrast, officially has a population of 12.1 million, though some estimates have put that number as high as 17 million. That two contract killers would drive their getaway car 1,000 miles (from the country’s most restive region to the heavily surveilled heart of Russian power), and then use that very same car to commit the most high-profile assassination in Russia’s post-Soviet history, seems highly problematic to say the least.

The speed with which the car was recovered and the convenience of the license plates had many corners of the internet appropriating the catch phrase of the Kremlin’s chief propagandist and favorite TV host Dmitry Kiselyov:

‘A coincidence? I don’t think so.’

But the coincidental nature of the killers’ alleged nationality is doubly telling, given that both Russia’s infinitesimal opposition and Kremlin apologists alike are critically on the same page in one respect. Just as Junior Soprano hired two black and ultimately incompetent hit men to whack his cousin Tony in an ineffectual attempt to cover up his own tracks (the professional hit as street crime is a well worn device), few on either end of the political spectrum believe that Chechens are both the puppets and the puppeteers in Nemtsov’s death. Thugs, terrorists for hire, yes. But the brains behind the trigger, no.

For those committed to muddying the waters of reality on behalf of the Kremlin, apart from a a slender minority who are seriously proposing that Chechen militants actually gunned down Nemtsov for his position on the Charlie Hedbo shootings in Paris, the rest entertain the notion that Russians national enemies, both internal and external, have commissioned the Caucasian hit men to besmirch Putin’s reputation. Ukrainian intelligence, the CIA, the negligible opposition, some exiled anti-regime businessman, take your pick or even a combination of the above.

For the opposition, the Chechen killers were merely a gun deployed by Putin himself, siloviki acting with or without the Russian president’s tacit consent, or rogue nationalists acting as the golem that Putin created to shore up his power but then lost control over. Nemtsov, of course, is not the first thorn in the government’s side to have allegedly died at the hands of Chechen killers.

The 2004 murder of Forbes journalist Paul Klebnikov and the 2006 assassination of Anna Politkovskaya were both chalked up to alleged Chechen contract hits. In Klebnikov’s case, Russian prosecutors initially accused Chechen rebel leader Khozh-Akhmed Nukhayev of planning the attack. Three Chechens were later tried and acquitted in the killing, though no mastermind was ever fingered. In May of last year, five men, including three Chechen brothers, were found guilty of killing Politkovskaya, though the orchestrator of the crime was similarly never identified.

Unlike Klebnikov and Politkovskaya, however, Nemtsov’s connection to the Caucasus was virtually non-existent, partially explaining the particularly flimsy Charlie Hebdo motive to have surfaced in the aftermath of his death. But domestically at least, a flimsy motive will likely be sufficient, in so far that the government has a strong motivation to obfuscate some of the more likely culprits (far-right nationalists with a connection to rebel forces in eastern Ukraine or independent actors who have taken the talk of fifth columnists and national traitors seriously.)

From the government’s position, the Chechen scapegoat is deeply satisfying, both because the population is already primed to believe that a great many social ills stems from this much maligned minority, and because it deflects attention from the government’s incitement of nationalist forces, which it very well might be losing control over.  What’s more, in lieu of an actual investigation where the actual organizer of the hit will actually be found (history teaches us otherwise), the Chechen exists as a template, where by the public can project whatever motive they want onto it without the government actually having to identify a mastermind.

That Chechens can be portrayed as mere puppets of Ukrainian fascists or US intelligence is merely icing on the cake. One is living in very strange times indeed to draw a line between those disparate threads; a stitched up frankenstinian monster in every sense of the word. But in a country willing to believe that dead bodies were packed onto a plane and then shot down over eastern Ukraine to discredit Russia, practically nothing is beyond the pale these days.