Delhi via Moscow: Dispatch 1

William Echols

Delhi will give no quarter. That’s not how it works. Perhaps somewhere off in walled-off compounds, the cacophonous hustle, bustle, blaring babble and bluster of humanity is beaten down to ambient noise — assimilated into the droning hum of air-conditioned palaces. I live in the wide-landed tree canopied streets of central Delhi; I can almost imagine what that would be like —peace. Sometimes the sing-song chatter of the orange-faced, black-masked mynahs is the most noise I contend with.

Sometimes it’s pigeons scrapping claws across stacks of air conditioners in the throes of dead, read-eyed passion. Sometimes it’s the suicidal washing machine filled-with-rocks sound of my upstairs neighbor’s air-conditioner unit that beats back the birds and traffic like a John Deere racing a short track on a gravel lot.

A bus hurdles down nearby Barakhamba Road; engine roar seemingly red-shifting forever until auto rickshaw bleats punch holes in the rumble. The leaves continue to rustle soundlessly through glass. The palms stand at attention. The partially eclipsed gulmohar paints an orange aura of flame around the evergreen leaves. A wire dangles overhead.

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The first time I came to India, I realized the volume on life was just turned up. It is one of the few places on earth that makes Moscow feel relatively empty and easy. I remember walking those tritone streets in the dead of winter upon my return; metallic-silver skies with white snow screens hanging between achromatic gray soviet tower blocks. The sidewalks were wide, the people sparse, though they still manage to bump into you in that Russian way (or ride your soles despite you being the only other soul on the street; least a strangers internal burden not find an external resting place.) But then that angry spirit pushes off beyond a snow drift, his footsteps muted by packed-powder and swallowed by the wind.

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Courtesy: Tanya Dikareva

India forces upon you a kaleidoscope view of the world, through some of the pebbles filling space between the light-reflecting mirrors end up being desiccated shit. Okay, a lot of them in fact. Though in these parts, sometimes that which appears to be diarrhea sprays of shit, like the stained colonnade corners of Connaught Place, are in fact sunbaked streaks from passerby paan spitters. spitting_paan-spit-and-sleeping-dogs_flickr-artist-in-doing-nothing That description might not bode well for the gift shop spiritualists who imbue the brown-skinned extras in their poverty porn with some superfluous form of hyper-humanity. Yes Jessica, you are the dog whisperer, and they are your anthropomorphized pets. Just eat pray love honey, eat…pray…and love.

No, northern India is a place of anger, quirk and dirt. At times there is mockery in their smiles — they are not always laughing with you. The open wound of partition pumps through Punjabi blood, which, like paan spit, features heavily in the Delhi palette. But yes, there is love too. In all places there is love.

Forget about pony-tailed narcissists karate chopping their way to the heart of India à la Shantaram. Love was neither created not perfected here. Religion is often reduced to the same type of brow-beating, rain-made genie lamp rubbing superstition that you would scoff at if it came from a Christian grandma in a minivan. But deep down, it’s the same old shit. In India, as everywhere else, the one true religion of the poor is hustling. The one true virtue: pragmatism. Luckily for the guru industry, goras buy snake oil in bulk. guru-630x354——————

I used to say that Moscow took a lot from me, but it gave me a lot back in return. But there is something I’ve noticed that, in the physical reality of India, differentiates itself from Russia. In Russia I was able to compartmentalize my beauty; to keep my red, yellow and blue from turning into an infinitely less appealing composite tone. As of yet, India keeps taking me on a tawny turn and forces me to pick my diamonds from among the muck. The is no shrine free from the waft of latrine or pungent particulates puffing your eyes fuck-pigeon red. Delhi always demands its pound of flesh and starts cutting before the meal is over (and sometimes before the meal begins.) majid22 After years in Moscow, I often said I was living in a city of ghosts. They were my ghosts, from my own life. I had spent enough time there to have street corners turn into beacons of hiraeth; empty nooses of nostalgia waiting to catch my neck. I began to feel like I was an ash tree in a cemetery, tree fingers casting shade on steles and pushing roots beyond bodies. But in Delhi I feel like a water lily on black water, floating on the surface of something opaque and impermeable. It could be sewage, it could be sacrosanct, it could be both.

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The high, ceilinged, modern and massive office space feel of the Barakhamba Road metro station gave me a false sense of security. It was mostly empty.  Maybe that the crush of humanity above me had not yet taken to the trains and tunnels I thought. Three stops later and hands pulled me into a rugby scrum pack as we clashed head on with the testudo formation trying to break out lines and push onto the train. I wanted to tell them there was a better way, but then my head phones got ripped out of my ears and as i turned around, a woman offered a smile to complement her elbows in my kidneys. Never turn around in a stampede.

From that point on the inertia takes you over and you just ride the wave onto the escalator. Then the eyes find you, and they never let you go. You are ejected into the open sewage smell of the ‘moonlight market’ in Old Delhi, where a few neo-colonial buildings are mostly overshadowed by the crumbling cardboard box feel of not-so-high rises being quartered by a massive tangle of cross cutting wires. One giant hand on that mass of cable could make the whole thing rise or fall depending on the decision to push or pull. A hand just like that had found its way to neighboring Nepal. majid20 The Red Fort frames the street in the 40 degree head-hazy distance. The street food, stray dogs, rickshaw drivers, shoppers, walkers, errant tandoori-baked tourists; dust clouds, ammonia stench, soot, exhaust and wet shits, mosquito-coil cancer, camphor, and incense burn a miasmic dust cloud swirl in a Mughal urn.

So you dive into the swirling dust like Pig-pen being mauled by the Tasmanian Devil, make a b-line through a sea of makeshift stalls, and find yourself in the splendor of the Jama Masjid, where beggars line stair cases ascending to the northern gate.

The candy cane minarets of red sandstone, white marble and perfect gumdrop domes are glorified by the blue sky. The over head eagle swarm is awe-inspiring. The legion eyes swarming on you, less so. The massive stone courtyard sucks up the sun and cooks your feet for those stupid (or tough) enough to ignore the trail of cloth snaking its way around the complex. I plead stupidity. While walking back through the madness on sole-burned feet, i caught a glimpse of what Delhi will likely be to me during this strange intermission in my life. majid4 In Moscow, my relationships formed around the principle of the sculpture hall of the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum; many of the figures were only plaster replicas of the real thing, while a small, small number were genuine works of beauty cut from sturdier stuff.

At the very least, all of them had form in the sense that I understand form. Reach out and touch it. Sometimes the plastic arts chose the medium of stone. But on the dilapidated backstreets of a dead dynasty’s heart, the sculptures were crushed to dust and scattered like ashes. Rather, the occasional glints of sapphire, emerald and amber eyes, alabaster smiles, and betel-juice grins were all varied pieces of stone and glass flung my way; tesserae to paint a picture of human connection in a sea of chaos.

The figures do not stand, this mosaic is fleeting by design; you can never call on the same configuration again. Moscow is going to take some processing, even if it did feel like a cemetery at times. The thing about cemeteries though, is there may be death in the soil, but there is life above ground. The sun shines overhead, birds perch on tombstones, and the living walk among the dead. If I had once been an ash tree in a Moscow cemetery, it wasn’t always the ghosts rustling me leaves. No, sometimes it was two pigeons fucking. 3343323072_29270b3691_b

What Putin wants: A response 

William Echols

Mark Galeotti’s recent assessment of what Putin wants and the pitfalls of inferring motivation from past behavior goes a long way to lying out the binary thinking that can come to grip all Russia watchers. Is Putin a classic kelptocrat more concerned about the moneybag in his left hand, or a moral crusader with a stronger grip on the cross-tipped scepter in his right?

In ‘Kleptocrat or crusader? It’s time to figure out what Putin wants’, Galeotti focuses on claims made by Karen Dawisha, who argues that corruption is not a byproduct of Putin’s power vertical, rather, corruption and all of its spoils were, all along, Putin’s primary objective.

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Galeotti in turn, argues that to pigeonhole Putin as a kleptocrat seeking material gain, rather than a rational leader who is the standard bearer for a cause, is to fundamentally misunderstand what motivates the Russian leader to act.

Between those two poles, kleptocrat or crusader, it is not difficult to imagine how Putin would frame his own actions, both publicly and personally.

But just as psychologists differentiate between the ‘I’ (how we see ourselves) and the ‘me’ (how others see us), I think what Putin himself believes about his own motives may belie what prompts him to act.

For years, countless accusations have surrounded Putin, accusations which paint him as a deeply vain man who allegedly gets botox despite his carefully crafted tough guy image, boosts a watch collection worth six times his annual salary, and reportedly built a multi-billion dollar drug lord-esque  palace on the Black Sea.

He even allegedly stole a 124-diamond Super Bowl ring from New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and reportedly had his guards snatch a tacky glass replica of a Kalashnikov automatic weapon from the Guggenheim.

Masha Gessen has gone as far as to say he suffers from pleonexia, “the insatiable desire to have what rightfully belongs to others.”

In this light, his carefully crafted identity as “an honest and incorruptible civil servant” is intended to mask and perhaps compensate for his compulsion.

During his time as a KGB agent in Dresden, German intelligence even characterized Putin as a “philanderer and a wife beater.”

Such accusations and armchair psychological evaluations are par for the course in a regime as secretive as Putin’s. But even he, growing up on the rough, post-war streets of Saint Petersburg, stressed in his official biography that he was more of “bully” than a “Pioneer.” 

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The question is, did this rebel find a cause, or is the cause, as Gessen’s interpretation would posit, merely a cover for the deeper compulsion?

A loyalist paramilitary in Northern Ireland, after all, can claim (and even believe) he joined the UDA for the sake of protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom. But what he loves, and what actually drives him (perhaps subconsciously) is the power, the violence, and the illicit gains brought in through crime. Without the paramilitary identity, the mysticism of the history and the purpose, he is, in fact, a thug. There is a powerful psychological benefit in being able to reconceptualize crime through the prism of a cause. That is true for a street kid in Sandy Row turned paramilitary; that is true for a street kid from Saint Petersburg who became president. But make no mistake, even without the veneer of legitimacy given by a political cause, a certain type of person would embark on that path no matter what. In popular fiction, the transformation of Walter White in the series Breaking Bad was a character study in that very form of criminal archetype.

So is Putin cut from the same cloth of Walter White — was he simply built for crime?

Of course, no one knows what Putin privately believes regarding his goals, and what motivates him to act, nor can motive simply be derived by actions and outcomes.

One only need to look at the two events that most shaped Russia’s global perception in 2014, the Sochi Winter Olympics and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to understand that Putin the crusader and Putin the crook narratives both gel irregardless of the datum.

Regarding the former, the widely reported (but never verified) price tag of $50 billion for the Games inspired countless ‘what if’ scenarios regarding how that money could have been put to better use (education, infrastructure, healthcare, etc.)

Critics will contend that the exorbitant price tag on a prestige project in a country where living conditions outside of Moscow can be quite dire is a perfect sign that the national treasury is a piggybank of Putin’s inner circle (notwithstanding the fact that billions did come from private investors, even if billions more were allegedly stolen from the government coffers).

Others will claim that Russia, which has never confronted and processed its loss of imperial status, is the kind of place where some people would rather drive on pockmarked roads and watch their orphanages crumble if it means the world will turn its attention to them, if only for a moment.

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It might sound like madness, though it’s a madness we can all understand. It is, on a national level, the phenomenon of a slum kid in South Asia buying a Western-style B-Boy jersey at the expense of going hungry for week, or Kazakh families bankrupting themselves buying animals to be slaughtered for ostentatious funeral ceremonies.

People make choices like that all of the time. What we call rational is based on a messy nexus of need, culture, obsession, and myriad other qualities one would be hard pressed to unravel. Putin, for the vertiginous heights he has scaled as a historical figure, comes from the same inauspicious circumstances as his countrymen. That is one reality that is often lost on the West; Russians, with few exceptions, lived out parallel experiences during Soviet times. It is one of the few places on earth where society’s upper-crust and dregs have many intersecting and shared experiences (as much as many of them would hide it today.)

The pain of Soviet life was in part compensated for the greatness of being a world power. That pride is gone, and unlikely to return.

One could argue that for Putin, Sochi was perhaps about the infrastructure of the heart, if not the country. For a brief window of time, the resentment of millions could be overcome via the proxy of sports. The anger that that proxy was quickly soiled by events in Ukraine should not be underestimated.

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The point being, when it comes to the Games, the kleptocrat and crusader interpretations both fall into what  W. Joseph Campbell called “the cusp of plausibility.” The motive cannot be easily inferred from outcome, and the primary actor (Putin) might not know himself, even if he thinks he does.

The second such example is Russia’s hybrid war in Ukraine. For Galeotti, the cost of Russia’s secret invasion of its neighbor demonstrates how this conflict is being motivated more by ideological concerns than financial ones.

“In Ukraine, the neat seizure of Crimea brought domestic legitimacy at the cost of the first sanctions; the subsequent intrusion into southeastern Ukraine has mired Russia in a politically- and fiscally-expensive conflict,” he wrote.

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This is arguably true within a short-term context, but intervention in Ukraine can also be seen as absolutely necessary in maintaining the longterm viability of Russia existing as a kleptocracy (and a quasi-empire.)

In Russia, Moscow has often been described as the ‘voronka’ or funnel, in the sense that it is the focal point for all of Russian wealth accumulation. Its not just a matter of the disproportionate amount of foreign direct invest that flows into the capital. Russia, after all, is a land bound empire with an extractive form of economy. The resources come out of the east en masse, the money flows west.

Putin’s Customs Union was arguably a means of extending the mouth of that funnel to the former Soviet republics. If billions of dollars flow into Moscow illicitly (last year, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor accused former president Viktor Yanukovich of  leading a mafia-style syndicate that siphoned $100 billion out of the country, $32 billion of which was sent to Russia by truck), well, that is just icing on the cake.

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But while Russia does offer a market for goods from former satellites (and subsidized gas), allegiance almost guarantees institutional breakdown, corruption and decay. And, as global capitalists, those expanded markets come without any social responsibility from Moscow’s side. For those saying Putin is attempting to rebuild the Soviet Union, in a sense, the inverse of that is true, at least as far as capital is concerned. In the Soviet Union, the goal was to reward the ideologically faithful, to make tangible the benefits of socialism.

Now, there is nothing to believe. Moscow’s goal, arguably, is not to subsidize, but to siphon.

The majority of Ukrainians believed in this interpretation and wanted to break from Moscow’s orbit. It has often been said that without Ukraine, Russia cannot be an empire. But in truth, Russia cannot be a kleptocracy with an institutionally sound, euro-centric Ukraine  on its southern flank. What’s a few billion dollars for a shadow war when you are trying to keep an entire region under your thumb? That it would contribute to stellar popularity ratings at home for a population which has been made pathologically resentful certainly does not hurt.

So once again, when it comes to “the cusp of plausibility”, confirmation bias can lead you in either direction. It’s all a matter of how one looks at the same phenomena.

All of this is useful as an intellectual exercise, but formulating a policy in regards to Russia ultimately entails divining Putin’s motives. But what about Galeotti’s assertion that “the palaces and the yachts are side-effects, rather than end goals” in Putin’s Russia? Is the West really misguided to follow the money, rather than the rhetoric?

It is arguable that Putin would be playing a drastically different game in Ukraine if if ideology trumped finance. After the relentless Russian state media onslaught regarding a “fascist” takeover and anti-Russian pogroms, that Moscow has not openly intervened in Eastern Ukraine to save their “brothers” seems counterintuitive. Putin, after all, claimed he had considered the nuclear option just to protect his compatriots in Crimea, adding that they were ready to “take [former President] Yanukovich out of Ukraine by sea, land, and air.”

And when Crimea officially “joined” Russia on March 18, 2014, Putin gave a speech in which he declared his right to defend all citizens of the “Russian world.”

But if Putin really believed in a cause, and was willing to suffer greater Western sanctions for the greater benefit of that “Russian world,” there is a strong case he would have openly intervened in Ukraine and have long since built a land bridge between Donetsk and Crimea. The move would have been widely popular domestically, and for a leader who is rhetorically committed to “gathering Russian lands”, in line with his crusade.

In fact, reports even surfaced that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asked Putin to take the Donbass off of his hands, to which Putin reportedly replied: “’Are you out of your mind? I don’t need the Donbass. If you don’t need it, declare it independent.’”

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Notwithstanding the likelihood that Poroshenko ever said such a thing, the “leak” implies that Moscow wants the world to believe he said it, and that Putin considered the idea to be madness.

In truth, there are two primary reasons why Putin wouldn’t “take” Donbass off of Poroshenko’s hands. One, incorporating the regions into the Russian Federation would be costly. Secondly, Western sanctions would be deeply ratcheted up. That such financial concerns would supersede the needs of what Putin called “a unique sociocultural civilizational community” seem at odds with a leader on a moral mission.

In truth, Putin’s Soviet roots and composition of his actual inner circle point more towards a man who is comfortable using the language of nationalism, but ultimately does not believe in it. His cause might be that of lost Soviet power (not socialist ideology), but like all Soviet’s who suffered the privations of the times, that power should be balanced with access to luxury goods and the freedom to park your money and your children abroad (Putin’s own daughter only recently fled her luxurious home in the Netherlands.)

If one wants to understand a man cut from Putin’s own cloth, there is no need to look back at historical figures like Pyotr Stolypin or Ivan the Great, when a far more viable analogue is available: Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev riding a horse (fully clothed).

Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev riding a horse (fully clothed).

A  ‘sovok’ or Soviet man to the core and  a ‘leader for life’ who speaks about the scourge of corruption while allegedly stealing billions and bringing state enterprises under family control, Nazarbayev was an avowed atheist who flirts with religiosity to placate the nationalist sentiments of the Kazakh Muslim majority he is a member of. But Nazarbayez has something that Putin will never have: a country rich enough to plunder but just weak enough for the West to ignore on all fronts but business.

One only needs to look at the true message of RT and the disparate political parties Russia funds abroad to understand, above all, the one thing that Putin has always wanted. Everything is bad, everyone is corrupt, there is nothing left to believe in anymore, so lets stop with these political games and just do business. If the West, one day, learned to really do business Russian-style, lofty rhetoric about the decedent West and the “Russian world” would quickly be a thing of the past.

But to his great consternation, the West, as far, as Russia is concerned, refuses to turn that blind eye. Nazarbayev, who sits at the head of the Switzerland of Central Asia, with Russia, America and China all vying for influence, has been given the green light for graft and human rights violations. Just don’t rock your boat too far to one side or the other.

As a national leader, Putin’s cause is likely the same as Nazarbayev’s cause, but barring the luxury geopolitics affords his Kazakh counterpart, Putin has been forced to assume another mantle all together. But it is unlikely the one he really wants.

Twerking leads to suicide? Russian propaganda break down

William Echols

A recent claim by the face of Russian domestic propaganda that twerking contributes to teenage suicide brings to the fore Moscow’s not so subtle attempt to employ failed American-style strategies of female subjugation to tackle very real social ills.

It all started with the apotheosis of political kitsch and trailer park sexuality. A bunch of white girls in a transcontinental city, provocatively dressed in the two-tone colors of Russian military valor and Ukrainian invasion, twerking around Winnie the Pooh and his honey pot.

At around the 0:37 mark, a horrified mother and her child can literally be seen doing their best imitation of the San Diego illegal alien crossing sign.

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Yes, this video pulled off a trifecta of Post-Soviet trash; a veritable hat trick of ‘This is Russia bitch’ if you will.

And in a time when Russia’s ruling class is excessively fond of aping the histrionics of American far right moralists to decry the morally decedent West, Russia’s spin doctor in chief Dmitry Kiselyov didn’t miss a beat in his most recent condemnation of the twerking bees.

“We’re not going to dwell on this for long, but we simply need to ask ourselves one question: are we for or against early sex,” he asks in his all to familiar rhetorical style.

True to Kiselyovian theatrical form, the presenter then purposes a false dilemma, whereby those who are “for” minors having sex need to put an end to the “persecution of pedophiles”, purge the legal codex of corresponding laws, and “close your eyes to the obvious harm of early sex, which is accompanied by a crippled life…teenage abortions and suicide.”

That’s right, this isn’t just about girls in a provincial town expressing themselves in a manner that some might find distasteful. No, this is the decline of Western civilization, and Russia risks becoming America’s decedent watershed least they built up their moral defenses.

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A few issues are at play here. One, the false equivalency Kiselyov makes between sexually charged dancing and actually engaging in sexual activity, or the ungrounded claim that the former is a slippery slope to the latter, is glaring.

Secondly, Kiselyov assertion that sex among teens leads to depression and suicide is contingent on a 12-year-old study from the right-wing Heritage Foundation, whose methodology leaves much to be desired.

Thirdly, seeing that Russia has a lower age of consent than the US (16 vs. 18), some of the girls portrayed in the clip are (by the country’s own standards) not likely minors to begin with. Not that any of this matters. The manufactured scandal which has led to a criminal investigation being launched by the Russian equivalent to the FBI is merely another form of public theater, whereby the government feigns religiosity for the sake of consolidating political power and further carving out a few slivers in that artificial East Vs. West divide.

When it comes to issues of sexuality, Russia is a patriarchy, but certainly not a theocratic one. Due to deep societal atomization and a politically apathetic culture which embraced rampant consumerism as the only truly binding national ideology, “unchaste” women are part and parcel of the everything is possible playground of the Third Rome. Sex has been more commodified in Russia than possibly any other place on Earth, and this is not a ruling class that has any interest in rolling back its access to pleasure.

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Rather, any attempts to “chasten” Russian women will likely have little to do with limiting the actual availability of willing sexual partners for men in the country, but rather change the social dynamic which gives women (at least limited) control over their own sexuality. Despite all its faults, after all, the Soviet Union (sometimes out of pure necessity) did a lot to empower women regarding employment, maternity benefits, and control over their own bodies (though, in one of those perfect Soviet contradictions, it never found a need to manufacture tampons for them.)

There are more than a few men who would be more than happy to roll those rights back. This is, after all, a country where a politician can threaten a pregnant female journalist with rape and see no consequences (he also blamed the Ukrainian revolution on “female hysteria.”)

Add to that a political need to vilify the West and you find the government investigating the activities of a provincial dance studio. But there are real issues as well. Rampant rates of substance abuse, STD transmission (particularly HIV), high abortion rates and relatively low birth rates have led many a pundit to declare Russia a dying nation.

The problem with these moral crusades (manufactured or not), however, is that they rarely examine the actual issues in good, scientific faith. Rather, they engage in a form of bait and switch, whereby one proposes an ineffectual, ideologically-driven solution to a real problem.

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This, of course, is a tactic borrowed from the American right, which sought to tackle the issues of teen pregnancy, abortion and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases with curtailment on women’s reproductive rights, the repression of sexual education, and  a war on sex itself. This cultural war continues to be waged, despite all available evidence pointing towards higher rates of the above mentioned social maladies in those avowedly more religious states which embraced the abstinence only ethos.

Evangelical teens, in fact, have sex at the same rates as their non-religious peers, and no amount of guilt or slut shaming actually stops this biological drive, though it might adversely affect their self-esteem (see the Heritage study) and, with a lack of education, leave them needlessly exposed to unwanted pregnancy and preventable diseases.

On the abortion front, Russia has seen a dramatic drop from the shockingly high rates of the 90s, when the number of live births were often doubled by the number of terminated pregnancies.

As Mark Adomanis recently pointed out, the ratio of abortions to births has actually flipped, with roughly two pregnancies being carried to term for every termination.

Despite these positive trends which had nothing to do with religious influence, The Russian Orthodox Church, which recently framed the country’s demographic crisis within the false dichotomy between “free choice” and “moral norms,” is similarly using genuine social maladies to artificially insert itself into what is ultimately a public health issue.

Likewise, if Kiselyov is really worried about teenage suicide, instead of fretting about “morally decedent” western cultural imports, perhaps he should do something useful, like rally the government to both destigmatize therapy (which was deeply damaged by Brezhnev’s use of psychiatry as a weapon against political dissidents), and to make counseling available to at-risk kids. Of course, Kiselyov does not care about twerking. His primary goal is to besmirch the West via its “moral decadence”, even if manifestations of that moral decadence (substance abuse, rates of STD transmission, abortion rates) are actually more prevalent in Russia.

But to talk about Russia’s issues honestly, to view them as public health problems that need solutions which might not be beneficial to an authoritarian government seeking “tradition” as a means of further consolidating and controlling the population, is to defeat the great point of this mad metanarrative. Why talk about introducing comprehensive sex education throughout all Russian schools when you can just decry the West for teaching Russian girls to dance like sluts (which makes them become sluts, and sluts, as we all know, get abortions and then kill themselves.)

Why talk about a culture that has made it impossible for children to openly express their feelings or grapple with issues of sexuality, when it is much more politically expedient to create citizens who lock up their spirits and embrace conformity at all costs, even if it is killing them inside?

As for Russian women and sex, perhaps the perfect example of where all of this twerking nonsense could be going if the country’s real nationalists ever ascend to the throne came in October, when Aleksandr Mozgovoi, leader of the quasi-rogue pro-Russian ‘Ghost Brigade’ in Luhansk, Ukraine, announced (an ultimately unenforced) ban on women going to bars and clubs. In his own words, they should instead “sit at home and embroider.”

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In a coup of poetic justice, it was Anastasiya Pyaterikova, a high-profile Luhansk separatist (and one-time stripper), who put Mozgovoi in his place.

“You’ve gone too far, Mozgovoi!,”  she wrote on VKontakte, Russia’s answer to Facebook.

“What right have you got to arrest women,  and, what’s more, establish order in this way??? Have you got women troubles? That’s how it looks.”

It is not difficult to imagine that Russia’s steadily growing chorus of “traditionalist” voices have a lot of women troubles, none of which involve twerking. But as history has borne out time and time again, when men have problems with women, it often spells trouble for “the fairer half.”

Soviet ghosts and dead politicians: Ukraine is on the brink 

William Echols

At least eight former government officials dead in two months, two journalists killed in Kyiv since Monday, another pro-Russian former deputy shot dead outside his home this week, controversial laws meant to whitewash history, and a shaky ceasefire in a civil war that risks engulfing the entire nation — Ukraine is on the brink, and no one appears willing or able to stop the descent into disintegration.

Whatever you think of the Putinbots, vatniks, trolls, or true believers caught up in the digital miasma regarding the Ukrainian crisis, on one point they appear to be correct — a spat of mysterious and not so mysterious deaths to befall Ukraine since late January appear to have been underreported in the Western press.

Within a day’s time, 45-year-old Oles Buzyna, a journalist-cum-pro-Russian activist who made an unsuccessful 2012 parliamentary run on the Russian Bloc ticket, was the victim of a brazen drive-by shooting in the courtyard of his apartment building in Kyiv on Thursday afternoon.

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On Wednesday, 52-year-old Oleg Kalashnikov, a former deputy in ousted president Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, was shot dead on the landing of his apartment in the Ukrainian capital. And on Monday, Serhiy Sukhobok, a journalist who covered business affairs in eastern Ukraine, reportedly died during a fight with neighbors within whom he had a history of bad blood.

Between January 29th and March 14th, eight former government officials are alleged to have committed suicide, though theories have emerged that some were forced to take their own lives. Many were former political allies of Yanukovich and under investigation for a litany of crimes. Members of the marginalized pro-Russian opposition claim the mysterious deaths have followed a wave of intimidation employing the judicial branch as a punitive organ against former regime elements. Those swept into power following the 2014 revolution say they are merely “cracking up” at the prospect of prison time given the impunity with which they acted while in power. Those two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.

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Following the deaths of Buzyna and Kalashnikov, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered an investigation into the killings, saying it was clear “these crimes have the same origin.” 

“Their nature and political sense are clear,” Poroshenko said. “It is a deliberate provocation that plays in favor of our enemies.”

Provocation, of course, is the carpet under which all evils are swept under in the post-Soviet world.

Following the February 27 assassination of former statesman and oppositionist Boris Nemtsov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary similarly said the murder was “100 percent provocation.” 

Putin for his part had earlier employed the phrase “sacrificial victim” in 2012 to describe an alleged plot by the opposition to kill one of their own merely to tarnish his regime.

It came as little surprise that Russia’s Investigative Committee would employ the same language three years later, saying Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals.”

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It is not to say “provocations” do not take place. But to insinuate motive without evidence is irresponsible, especially from a head of state. Poroshenko, however, isn’t the only one to to fit the killing into a politically expedient narrative.

Parliamentarian Sergei Leshchenko wrote on Twitter that the murders looked like an FSB “provocation”, referring to Russia’s principle security agency, the Guardian reported.

Another deputy, Volodymyr Ariev, told the daily that “an FSB shooting brigade” was picking people off on the streets of Kiev.

“It easily fits into the Russian narrative that Ukraine is all about fascists, a country where even basic right for life is violated,” he said.

Walking right into Russia’s trap 

When it comes to this admittedly false Russian narrative that the Ukraine is “all about fascists”, the Ukrainian government is doing itself no favors in promoting a more democratic image.

First, there was the so-called Ministry of Truth.

Then, on April 9, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) adopted four laws, one of which recognizes the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as veterans of the Second World War. The law further says that “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukraine’s independence”, and by extension, criticism of those who fought for said independence, is “unlawful.”

The following day, three Soviet-era statures were toppled in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv.

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The UPA cannot simply be written off as Nazi-collaborators, though they did in fact collaborate with German forces (only to fight against them later, albeit as a “secondary” enemy).

They were also involved in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against Polish civilians in Volhynia and Galicia, killing up to 100,000 people. The UPA’s alleged role in massacring Jews in Western Ukraine is historically more contentious.

At the very least, any laws which could curtail criticism of such a group at a time when Russian propaganda explicitly called the Ukrainian revolution a fascist coup shows a shocking lack of political astuteness on behalf of the Ukrainian parliament.

It does not help that the black and red UPA flag, as well as their slogan “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” were staples of the Euromaidan movement that prompted Yanukovich to flee the country. In reality, many democratically-minded young people in Ukraine merely view the UPA as 20th century freedom fighters, without themselves having any Nazi sympathies. That fact alone demonstrates why any laws attempting to curtail historical discourse are especially dangerous for a country in the midst of an identity crisis. That the government would act to whitewash history in the middle of a civil war fueled in part by these very controversial issues seems like madness.

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Likewise, a similar February 2014 attempt to repeal the Yanukovich-era minority language law, which approved the use of so-called “regional languages” (primarily Russian) in courts, schools and other government institutions, showed a staggering lack of priorities and a grave misreading of the Russian propaganda onslaught to follow. For Ukrainian nationalists to confuse distancing themselves from the political entity known as the Russian Federation with purging themselves of a very real Russo-Ukrainian cultural tradition was a recipe for disaster, which has deftly been exploited by Russian forces which ignited the civil war in Ukraine’s east.

Simply put, Ukraine does not risk becoming a failed state because it is lacking a coherent ethnolinguistic identity, and any attempts at forcing a sense of Ukrainian identity on the masses rather than letting it develop organically is counterproductive on every front. For Ukraine, the question of identity is deeply wrapped up in the necessity of political pluralism; a prerequisite for any institutionally solvent state. Laws such as those passed last week are not only an attack on freedom of speech, they are chipping away at a cornerstone of any viable Ukrainian state.

Amidst a backdrop where oligarchs control private armies and the government seems incapable of providing security in those parts of the country not ravaged by war, Ukrainian institutions appear to be in free fall. Meanwhile, every layer of society is cannibalizing itself as a means of survival as Ukraine has slipped to 142nd place (out of 175) on Transparency International’s latest corruption index.

All the while, Russia is betting on (if not fueling) this national death spiral.

In March, Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko told Bloomberg that Russian President Vladimir Putin in fact hopes to turn Ukraine into a failed state, adding that war in the east was likely to reignite as a result.

Amid escalating violence in the region, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic recently threatened to take control of the strategically important coastal town of Mariupol if Ukrainian “aggression” did not cease, signaling that Jaresko’s fears may in fact be justified.

Jaresko, meanwhile, warned creditors on Wednesday that a lack of willingness to restructure $40 billion in Ukrainian debt could signal untold peril down the road.

Ukrainians have already seen their living standards plummet over the past year, making the consequence of an actual default socially untenable.

“If, God forbid, there is another revolution” Jaresko said, “it won’t be of the same kind [as 2014].”

With a wave of high-profile suicides and murders, a ceasefire drenched in gasoline, a government facing insolvency and a political class more capable of tackling Soviet ghosts than modern day robber barons, Jaresko’s words may prove eerily prescient. And however the next revolution ends if it comes to pass, one thing is certain: modern Ukraine is unlikely to survive it.

I spy a ‘f*** up’: Edward Snowden’s strange Moscow sojourn 

William Echols

In a media landscape where talking heads reduce individuals to sinners and saints, NSA leaker Edward Snowden is equal parts savior and heretic. But the choices the 31-year-old “hacker”, “spy”, “traitor” and “patriot” made, and their subsequent fallout, are as convoluted as the strange life he leads in the shadow of the Kremlin.

Edward Snowden is easy to like. Affable, intelligent, soft-spoken, and brimming with that very specific form of American idealism, he is a spy cut from the cloth of the millennial generation. For those who grew up on the espionage novels of John le Carre, the image of the spy in a reversible mackintosh walking with cobblestone echoes is a familiar one. Rather than code breaking Cambridge cryptographers, spies were (seemingly) distinguished men of prodigious intelligence whose craft was contingent on pure observation and a mastery of human psychology.

But Snowden, with his tech-guy flair, collared shirts, and square-rimmed glasses, is a spy for the modern age; an age where wranglers, and not debonair men of mystery, rule the espionage roost.

Yes, for someone of his age cohort, give or take a few years in either direction, he is a spook, but a spook who walks, talks and speaks in a manner that is direct and familiar. And yet, there is also something in his genial but self-possessed manner that belies a deeper shrewdness. Often characterized as a low ranking analyst who was out of his depth, in a May 2014 interview with NBC, Snowden, with an air of unwavering confidence (some would call it arrogance), made it clear that it was folly to reduce him to a mere contractor.

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“I was trained as a spy in sort of the traditional sense of the word — in that I lived and worked undercover, overseas, pretending to work in a job that I’m not — and even being assigned a name that was not mine,” he said.

“Now, the government might deny these things. They might frame it in certain ways, and say, oh, well, you know, he’s a low-level analyst. But what they’re trying to do is they’re trying to use one position that I’ve had in a career, here or there, to distract from the totality of my experience.”

The unexplained Hong Kong flight 

In that same NBC interview, Snowden admitted he had never intended on ending up in Russia, saying it came about because the United States government decided to revoke his passport and “trap” him in a Moscow airport, where he had flown to from Hong Kong with the hopes of catching a flight to Cuba (and beyond).

That story was always an odd one. When Snowden first made revelations of massive NSA spying from a boutique hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong roughly one year prior, the defense of his decision to head to the quasi-city state was almost academic in nature.

Rather than debating the strength of the island’s English common law tradition, the likelihood of his extradition, or Beijing’s human right’s record, that proponents would sidestep the logistical issue in his destination was much more telling. When Snowden hoped onto a plane in Hawaii on May 20th with four laptops which gave him access to some of the US governments most highly classified information, was there ever a doubt he would not eventually be seeking asylum somewhere? Was there ever a question of seeking asylum in China? If the answer is yes to the former and no to the latter, the choice to fly to Hong Kong simply does not gel.

If it had always been his intention to head to Latin America (though countries such as Iceland were also floated at the time,) why not just go there? After all, one of his first contacts and primary advocates was Glen Greenwald, a one-time Guardian columnist who has lived and worked out of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil for years.

Of the 21 states where WikiLeaks activist Sarah Harrison sent asylum requests to while Snowden was holed up in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport for over a month, six of those states, including Brazil, were in North or South America. Ecuador was one of two states he initially sent his application to (Iceland being the other.)

Hong Kong was alway a strange choice, and muddled justifications behind it as a dentition always fell flat, prompting a whole host of accusations. At first, he was accused of working for the Chinese. And not longer after Snowden was granted temporary asylum in Russia on August 1, 2013, a report surfaced in the independent Russian daily Kommersant claiming that the former NSA contractor had lived in the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong for several days.

Greenwald would later claim the story was “fabricated”, while  Anatoly Kucherena, an attorney who represents Snowden’s interests in the Russian Federation, also denied the reports. Kucherena, who took on Snowden’s temporary asylum case pro bono, is no stranger to Moscow’s elite and an avid supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He also happens to serve on a board that oversees Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).

Depending on one’s reading of the situation, it might come as no surprise that Kucherena would go on to represent former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich after he fled Ukraine in February 2014.

Torture proof? 

Snowden was always acutely aware (or at least ready to manage) claims he was working as a double agent.

Before his asylum case was settled in Russia, he assured former two-term republic Senator Gordon Humphrey that the information which had come into his possession could not be pried away under duress.

“Further, no intelligence service — not even our own — has the capacity to compromise the secrets I continue to protect. While it has not been reported in the media, one of my specializations was to teach our people at DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] how to keep such information from being compromised even in the highest threat counter-intelligence environments (i.e. China),” he wrote.

“You may rest easy knowing I cannot be coerced into revealing that information, even under torture.”

Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project (and whatever prejudices that might entail) , called Snowden’s immunity to torture claim “laughable.”

Foust, perhaps intentionally, was obfuscating the fact that Snowden did not  necessarily mean that he could withstand Rubber-hose cryptanalysis, but rather lacked the ability to decrypt the information  in his possession without the support of a third party.

Whatever the case, during a December 2014 Amnesty International event, Snowden said his security in Moscow “was great,” adding that he lived a “fairly normal life” and commuted on public transport.

Whether or not Moscow flipped Snowden is open to debate though claims that he had came from all the likely sources. Former CIA case officer and regular CNN guest Robert Baer, for example, believes Snowden might have “betrayed” his country while working as a communicator in Geneva from 2007 to 2009.

Others say that Snowden might have come into contact with Russian agents while attending a ‘security analyst and ethical hacker’ course in New Delhi in 2010.

India, after all, was once home to the largest presence of KGB operatives outside of the Soviet Union, having previously been described as “the model of KGB infiltration of a Third World (countries which were neither aligned with the West or the Soviet Union) government.” The claim, whatever the evidence, seems logical enough, right?

Putin’s unenviable ‘envy’ for Obama

That Snowden has be so widely assailed from people with deep ties to the US intelligence community should come as no surprise. Such speculation is interesting as an intellectual exercise, but is far more the product of deductive reasoning than any sort of fact finding mission. Anonymous sources and unsympathetic former US spooks are not in and of themselves enough to label Snowden as a traitor.

From a logical standpoint, that Snowden would be given shelter on Russian soil on anything other than a pro-bono basis seems highly unlikely. But what Russia would consider proper renumeration is anyone’s guess. After all, just the presence of Snowden in Russia is a big enough thumb in Obama’s eye to make make Putin crack a smile (and a knowing wink).

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When asked how he felt about the Snowden revelations during his annual Q&A session in December 2013, Putin said he was jealous of Obama because “he can get away with it,” in reference to the NSA spying program.

The statement is patently absurd, of course, given that Russia actually has its own system to intercept telephone, internet, and other forms of communication media called System for Operative Investigative Activities (SORM).

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Following the initial Snowden revelations, Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and author of several books on Russian intelligence, told the now defunct Moscow News that “The Russian system is even more advanced [than the American one].”

In the run up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, Ron Deibert, a professor at the University of Toronto and director of Citizen Lab, similarly told the Guardian that SORM was like the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program “on steroids.”

“The scope and scale of Russian surveillance are similar to the disclosures about the US program but there are subtle differences to the regulations,” Deibert told the daily. “We know from Snowden’s disclosures that many of the checks were weak or sidestepped in the US, but in the Russian system permanent access for SORM is a requirement of building the infrastructure.”

So in a country which gives security services cart blanche to monitor domestic internet and telephone communications with zero governmental oversight and a compliant state media, for Putin to say Obama is getting away with anything is beyond disingenuous.

In the United States, for example, US citizens have potentially seen their data swept up in bulk collection efforts due to a loophole in Section 702 the of FISA Amendments Act of 2008: “Procedures For Targeting Certain Persons Outside The United States Other Than United States Persons.”

Snowden said as much in a surreal, revelatory, at times juvenile and yet hard hitting interview with comedian John Oliver in Moscow earlier this month.

That a US citizen’s email or, in the case of Oliver, “dick pic”, could get caught up in a bulk collection effort is troublesome. But it pales in comparison to Russia, where eight government agencies can tap into analogous internet surveillance programs directly targeting its own citizenry with virtual impunity.

What’s more, Russia regularly employees its security services to spy on opposition figures, often capturing them in compromising situations which they themselves have orchestrated.

In 2010, for example, video footage allegedly showing three opposition figures having sex and/or doing cocaine with an amateur model known as ‘Moo-Moo’ was released in a calculated and coordinated fashion.

‘Moo-Moo’, otherwise known as Ekaterina Gerasimova, is believed to have slept with six politicians or journalists unsympathetic to the power vertical, including one time Newsweek editor Mikhail Fishman, who could allegedly be seen snorting cocaine while Gerasimov was seen walking naked behind him in leaked footage.

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Viktor Shenderovich, a journalist and the script writer whose reputation and marriage took a serious blow as a result of another sex tape with Gerasimova, claimed “federal authorities” were behind the leak. Alexander Potkin, onetime leader of the far-right Movement Against Illegal Immigrants said it was proof that citizens had no “guarantee” of their private lives being protected.

And yet when Snowden asked Putin whether Russia surveilled its citizens in masse during an annual call in show in April 2014,  Putin answered that Russian intelligence services were under the tight reign of “the state and society,” adding that they neither had the money nor the technical knowhow available in the US.

The US Embassy in Moscow would later tweet that Snowden would likely be interested to know that Russian law allows for the “control, storage and study of all data in the communication networks of the Russian Federation.”

For anyone familiar with the Russian propaganda strategy of whataboutism, that Moscow could gain a sense of moral superiority on account of Snowden’s revelations, despite the fact that Russia’s leadership condones far more intrusive surveillance against it’s own citizenry, is a coup de theatre of epic proportions. Everything after all, is PR.

‘He’s clearly being exploited’

And how does Snowden feel about all of this? Well, if he is aware of it at all, his made for television question for Putin regarding mass surveillance will arguably be his first and last foray into Russian political matters (at least for domestic consumption) which doesn’t occur across a kitchen table. On the plus side, it also appears he won’t be forced to become a shill for the regime.

In an interview with Michael Weiss published in the Daily Beast on Monday, Soldatov said that Snowden has likely been relegated to only discussing NSA-related issues with American journalists as a condition of his temporary asylum. But Snowden’s apparent refusal to deal with Russian outlets, even state media ready to heap accolades on him, shows that he has likely struck some sort of a deal with Moscow, whereby he’ll never “be used by Russian propaganda.”

That does not mean, however, that he’s not being “used” for propaganda purposes.

“He’s clearly being exploited—after all, many repressive measures on the Internet in Russia were presented to Russians as a response to Snowden’s revelations,” Soldatov said.

“For instance, the legislation to relocate the servers of global platforms to Russia by September of this year, to make them available for the Russian secret services, was presented as a measure to assure the security of Russian citizens’ personal data.”

Soldatov says that Snowden’s insistence that he’s secure in Moscow belies the fact that he lives such a secretive life in Russia. This reality is further complicated by the fact that he did ask Putin, and only Putin, a veritably stage-managed question about surveillance within the Russian Federation.

“There is some problem with logic here,” Soldatov said. “For instance, I would understand if he says, ‘Look, I cannot comment on Russian surveillance, this is not my war.’ Instead, he asked his question about Russian surveillance. And he is not transparent. I just don’t get it.”

The way we…and Snowden get by 

Of course, those allowing for slightly more nuance, who neither need to crucify nor canonize the former NSA contractor, could easily see a solution to this conundrum. People redraw lines every day of their lives in order to survive. If one does not take a one drop of venom poisons the well logic, Snowden’s everyday existence in Moscow could be a see how far I can bend without breaking philosophy, with the Russian government equally testing their limits. After all, just because one side in this equation is infinitely more powerful than the other fails to account for one simple reality: Snowden’s mere existence in Moscow is better for both sides, even if a secret or word were never to be shared.

A year after his revelations, Snowden said if he ended up in chains at Guantanamo, he’d be okay with that. But there is no denying his flight to Moscow, and the propaganda value he provided to a quantifiably more repressive government than his own, tarnished his crusade.

Snowden need not have ended up in chains on strictly moral grounds, that is true. Daniel Ellsberg, who was charged in 1971 under the Espionage Act as well as for theft and conspiracy for copying the Pentagon Papers, himself said that comparing Snowden to him for leaving the country and seeking asylum rather than facing trial were being unfair.

“The country I stayed in was a different America, a long time ago,” he said.

Broadly speaking, Ellsberg is right, but contextually speaking, he is wrong.

If Snowden had made it to Iceland or even Ecuador, his position would be more or less unassailable. But if his decision to go to Hong Kong was a fluke, and his subsequent stranding in Moscow unfortunate, it’s ultimately on his head.

Ironically, between dick pic jokes, no one put Snowden on the ropes harder than John Oliver did.

Snowden made a decision to outsource the vetting of classified materials to journalists. The New York Times would subsequently fail to properly blur out the name of a NSA employee on a slide the paper published, which just so happened to outline the very legitimate surveillance target of Al-Qaeda in Mosul, Iraq.

Snowden himself admitted that there had been “f*** ups “in the way some of the information was handled. But his  admission was followed up by a justification that in journalism, “we have to accept that some mistakes will be made. This is a fundamental concept of liberty.”

Oliver was not so forgiving.

“You’re giving documents with information that you know could be harmful which could get out there … We’re not even talking about bad faith, we’re talking about incompetence.”

Taking ownership of your f***ups 

The simple fact is, Snowden is at the top of the NSA leak chain of command, and is thus ultimately responsible for how it all plays out. Likewise, ending up in Moscow is also his f*** up, that is, unless he was actually a double agent, which, given the means by which he choose to release the information, he likely wasn’t. But if he is a patriot, he must also accept that any boost he’s provided to a hostile foreign government for the sake of confronting his own government’s misdeeds is on his shoulders. None of that undoes the good that Snowden’s done via the NSA leaks (though judging by the general insouciance of the US public, that good might be needlessly low.)

This reading of the situation is unlikely to satisfy his detractors in the US intelligence community who are still working out a portmanteau for traitor and defector. Nor will it find quarter among the likes of Glen Greenwald or Oliver Stone, who have a laser-like focus when it comes to what is good and what is bad in the world. That Snowden could be good and bad, that he could have tried to help his country in some ways and betrayed it in others, that he could have been selfless enough to speak out and give up his life in paradise but then selfish enough to give succor to Putin’s regime after his own missteps found him stranded in Moscow, and not Quito, is a position that few are willing to take.

Snowden has walked with far more silent footsteps through the streets of Moscow than Western spooks pounding out those cobblestone echoes during the height of the Cold War. And yet the trajectory of his flight and the velocity of his landing continue to reverberate throughout the world. Any normative valuation of his final impact is difficult to suss out, though it is unlikely to be an either/or proposition. But for those looking to beatify or damn the “hacker”, “spy”, “traitor” and “patriot, the lines have clearly been drawn in the sand.