Delhi via Moscow: Dispatch 2 — BJJ on Jail Road 

William Echols

The heat hits you like an open oven on Thanksgiving Day. Sometimes we throw out metaphors to be poetic. But sometimes, the visceral sensation is so similar, that a metaphor is all there is to explain how it all went down. A forty degree May day in New Delhi, before the monsoon season brings in death by sauna, takes me back to a beachside Holiday Inn kitchen where I cut my first honest paycheck as a dishwasher. But in Delhi it’s the heat that washes over you. Clearly, nearly a decade in Russia has left Yakov Smirnov jokes firmly entrenched in my mind, even if I hated ‘in Russia’ reversal jokes at the time.

A transparent belly dancer aligning her hips with the horizon, a tandoori oven sun opens its mouth and spits fire at you through a haze of dust.

I march on down the wide, tree-canopied lanes of bungalo-dotted ‘New’ New Delhi, until I push on down the staircase for the Barakamba Road subway station, the ‘half-hearted’ sirs of the shoe shine boys, still groggy with streetside sleep, echoing in antiphony with my footsteps.

Thirteen stops, 12 of which are above ground, give me a panoramic view of the center to west perspective on the Delhi cityscape.  The whole thing rushes by like a two-dimensional cardboard box claymation rendition of a town on a television from my youth. Pot-bellied men and women in technicolor saree meet the morning on their terraces, big and small. My heavy eyes feel as dust-filled as the sky. Out of shape drinkers and sometime smokers should never wake up at 6:00 a.m. to do Ju Jitsu on Jail Road.

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In Delhi I try to avert a thousand glaring eyes. In  Moscow I tried to navigate a sea of aggression. And getting back into martial arts after half of my own lifetime had passed me by, I realized one thing very quickly. Moscow, with all of its anger, might have hardened my heart, but it had not hardened my body. Luckily for me, on those days when my attitude had soured enough for me to confuse the former for the latter, I did not have the learn the difference in an uncontrolled environment. The first time an Amerikana screamed fire ant spit through my rickety elbow and arthritic shoulder, I became eternally grateful that happened in a situation where it could all end with a tap.

When my infinitely chill instructor Lakshye, who seemed just as intent on teaching us boxing as he did jiu jitsu, showed us how much more power he could generate using proper technique with his hips by merely planting his quarter-wide knuckle into my chest and pushing off, I winced, and battled not to flench when he opted to do it again. But I also asked myself what would happen if a dude like him started throwing mechanically correct elliptical hammers at my face. And it reminded me of lessons I had learned as a barely mediocre high school wrestler, and yet somehow forgotten. If you go too long without being humbled, while a million stressors, passive aggressive slights, and overt aggressions big and small buffet your psychological defenses like the Kuiper Belt teeing off on Jupiter, your anger can make you delusional. You can become so accustomed to being pissed off that you develop a certain fearlessness, if not for actual combat, than the pageantry of combat that often fizzles out (though, as a litany of YouTube knockout videos demonstrates, sometimes does not.)

Back in high school, there was an incredibly affable and good natured guy on my wrestling team named Mike Snelgrove, who represented , for a lack of better words, the ‘you can’t do shit’ principle. The you can’t do shit principle is what happens when a person you are up against is not only more skilled at every aspect of the fight game, but may also be larger, faster, stronger, tougher and a creature of greater will.

Mike wasn’t the only person on our team who could thrash me, but he perfectly embodied the you can’t do shit principle. He wrestled two weight classes above me, was incredibly strong and compact, highly aggressive on the mat, more skilled, more athletic, more everything. The only reason I even got thrown to the varsity wolves was because our vastly superior 145-er blew out his knee during a freak accident while wrestling Mike at practice. I remember once during a match at Coco High School in Brevard Country Florida, Mike charged this kid like a bull out of the gate, threw technique to the wind and sent his adversary airborne in seconds — bottle rocket-style. It was shock and awe; an overwhelming and irresistible display of force. Every wrestler on both sides of the matt pitied that kid. We were also all secretly relieved that Mike would only issue one execution for that night, and that it wouldn’t be us.

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But there is something more to it than that. There is a Mike Snelgrove in every wrestling room in every high school in the United States. When the Mikes of the world separated the wheat from the chaff, they make it to regionals, then state, then the nationals. The best of them go on to do the same thing in a tiered-university system based on school size. And the procession of elimination continues to both expand and whittle down until unfathomably hard men, men of iron sharpened by iron for decades, clench Olympic gold.

I don’t know what Mike’s maximum potential was. He went to regionals, that I remember, and I have an inkling he went to state but didn’t place, though my memory fails me on that point. But he never went on to wrestle in university. He instead became an Army medic, served in Iraq and tragically died in 2010 shortly after returning stateside. Mike was a good man, he was never a bully and he never, ever preyed on the weak. Even when I was an awkward and overweight 13-year-old transplant  to Florida who could not have cut a sharper contrast to Mike than I did before running and wrestling transformed me a few years down the line, he cracked jokes with me and granted a level of respect that few did at the time. He was that way to everyone, it was his nature. But there was also a savagery in him, and not in the typical sense that he was specifically violent towards other men. There are just some men who come across a bluff and put their nose to the grindstone until they manage to move mountains or die trying. It just so happens that some mountains come in the shape of other men.

There are men like that everywhere, and we often cannot tell it just by looking at them. Sometimes telltale signs of cauliflower ear, crooked noses and scared faces give it away, but not always. There are some beautiful men out there who can fuck you up.

For me and many others, there is something about actually training in combat sports that makes you far less aggressive in your everyday life. You become acutely aware of the you can’t do shit principle and it sticks with you. Delusional teenagers and delusional men can fantasize about throwing haymakers at any opponent and knocking his ass out cold. Some secretly believe they could pull it off on pro-fighters. Madness, pure and utter madness. But during my second lesson, when a guy who was slightly bigger than me completely manhandled me, purely with technique, I had no room to imagine what I could have, would have done. I’d done everything I could and it wasn’t enough. He had free reign to impose his will on me any time he wanted. He also wasn’t a master. He’d been rolling for 6 months. Six months gave him that advantage over me, at least on the ground.

Imagine someone who’s been doing it for 6 years. And a lot of men have done it a lot longer than that. I’m not even talking about those who become professional fighters.

You have no idea how helpless another man can make you feel until they force you to play a game where you scantly know the rules. That knowledge is humbling. It’s also ironic. The better I become at defending myself, the less I want to have anything to do with any type of physical altercation, no matter the reason. There are too many variables to manage, too many consequences, and a logical unwillingness to find yourself in a situation where a tap is not going to forestall a snap. Better to just let whatever is troubling you go and save it for when you really don’t have a choice. Funny how the 17-year-old version of my self that had never stepped foot on a Moscow street could have told me that. Funny how we can find a way to keep learning the same lessons over and over.

My friend Charles once saw a guy take a ‘non-lethal’ pistol shot to the face after an altercation over nothing on the Moscow metro. He got off at the next stop. The pool of blood and the man face down in it created an interesting semantic argument about the meaning of the word lethal. Charles was cured of his Moscow commuter aggression. He keeps it where it belongs; the London tube. Sometimes it takes an extreme act of violence to cure a man of his delusions regarding the consequences of his anger. Sometimes all it takes is BJJ on Jail Road.

 The Russian trip: The roots of post-Soviet unreality 

William Echols

Much has been made of the post-modernist theater which has come to govern both the Russian political experience and its increasingly aggressive ‘information war’. But what factors have left the Russian populace particularly susceptible to tactics which, in the West, would easily be dismissed as crude propaganda?

“Everything is P.R.” That’s what members of Moscow’s jet set class told Peter Pomerantsev, the television producer cum journalist whose theories on Russia’s managed reality have become all the rage in the wake of Putin’s silent war in Ukraine. The gist of it goes that with stagnation in the late-Soviet period, followed by chronic disillusionment and eventual collapse, people disengaged from politics and stopped believing in much of anything at all. Barring any efficacious institutions or values, Russians exist in a vacuum of belief that can “easily be spun into a conspiratorial vision of the world.” The paradox, in Pomerantsev’s words, is born: “the gullible cynic.”

The greatest irony of all, perhaps, is that you’d be hard pressed to find a country that is both so deeply cynical and yet so fawning of power. It is arguable that the roots of Russian susceptibility to phantasmagorical perceptions of reality lie in its non-analogous experience during the post-war period, a time of philosophical transformation which arguably left western media consumers more comfortable with navigating ambiguity. In short, while baby boomers were questioning the very nature of existence, Russians were scantly able to question their own history.

The affects of that disparity are made manifest in how Russia is governed today.

Orange juice and the Communist mushroom

Members of Generation X and beyond grew up on the myth of the young man who took too much LSD and ended up in a psych ward, believing for now and forever he was a glass of orange juice. The cautionary tale actually dates back to the 1960s, when often misunderstood (or intentionally misconstrued) information about psychedelics and the profound impact they were having on society was circulating en masse. Glass_OJ_T_w125_h150

Such urban folklore represented a long held ‘what you see is what you get’ attitude towards the world. Drugs like LSD make people see things that are not real, the argument went. There is a baseline for objective reality, what people call “feeling normal.”

The counterculture was preparing to turn that notion on its head. Through the medium of mind altering drugs, a growing interest in eastern religious practices, and the popularization of post-modernist thought, a serious conversation on the nature of reality got underway in the “free world” during the post-war years. Schrödinger’s cat might have been lying in a box for decades by that point, but the idea that reality was somewhat slippery was only starting to become woven into the wider culture narrative.

Nothing that was called real or true could be taken as a given. Previously, the West, more or less, held to two sides of the same materialist coin, or what the Zen philosopher Alan Watts called the “ceramic” and “fully automatic” models of the universe. One found a need for God, the other didn’t, but they both posited a mechanical view of a knowable universe that was hard to the touch and governed by laws. We might not always know the truth, but the truth was always knowable.

These suppositions came under fire, largely as a reaction to the untold horrors unleashed during Second World War. Two French philosophers, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, came to articulate the malaise felt particularly by those in Western Europe. How could God, justice or meaning exist in a world so patently cruel? It was an old question given urgency by a new era. And the answers, at times, were grim. Grim, but not without hope. The conclusions of Sartre and Camus were, after all, deeply humanist.

Sartre believed man had to go through a crisis in which belief in God and ultimate meaning were thrown by the wayside. This ‘we are all alone in the universe’ moment does give way to what he called “nausea” and despair. But once this crisis passes, there is liberation; people are empowered to fashion the world as they wish and create their own values, rather than being bound to some ideal notion of form or nature. In the West, those who set sail on the sea of despair passed through choppy waters, by and large accepting empowerment as agents in the universe, be it reaffirmed Christians, Eastern travelers or committed atheists.

It was not a seamless process, as the societal chaos of the times shows. But the West “lost” its religion during ‘the golden age of capitalism.’ When they peaked out into the abyss, it was through the rings of a massive safety net. Ultimately, post-modern interpretations of the world were the byproduct of critical theory, which in turn spurred critical thought. People became more, and not less critical of power, but for all of the right reasons. Knee-jerk refusal of everything was not the name of the game. Alternative visions of the world, rather, were key. Philosophically, it was a natural progression from the 16th century Protestant reformation, which started a long process in the West of assailing the gatekeepers of reality. It was part and parcel of a long humanist drive towards liberation. It was a cry for better ideas. It was, ultimately, a sign of progress.

But just as the Russian Orthodox Church never had its own reformation, the Soviet Union in the post-war era went through no such progression, where old ideas were challenged and a new era of thought came to light. Rather, a 19th century form of materialist naturalism remained the primary prism through which reality was filtered. This was a time, after all, when typewriters were registered with the KGB, photocopiers were severely restricted, and Goskomizdat, Goskino and Gosteleradio controlled all printed material, cinema and radio and television broadcasts, respectively.

The government might allow for the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s labor camp fictionalization ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’, as it did in 1962, only to later label him an enemy of the state, arresting, and ultimately deporting him in 1974. In contrast with the Western counterculture of the 1960s, with its “turn on, tune in, drop out” approach to life, the de-Stalinization campaign in 1956 did little to roll back proscriptions on “anti-Soviet” ideology or challenges to officially vetted values. As a result, Soviet society remained overwhelming conservative. Areligious yes, but its utopian values served as a surrogate for traditional religion. Much like the Sadducees, if there was heaven, it was a place on Earth.

Even in the absence of God, essence was very much bound to existence. Such an attitude was evident in Socialist Realism, the predominant form of art until the late 60s (and officially until the demise of the Soviet Union). Reflecting the broader social values, it very much relied on idealized forms, both physical, psychological, and for a lack of a better word, spiritual.

The same year ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’ was published, Krushchev derided artists such as Ernst Neizvestny and Eli Beliutin for being “homosexuals” who produced “shit” due to their abstract offerings during a socialist realism-heavy exhibition for the 30th anniversary of the Moscow Artist’s Union. In the decedent West, meanwhile, Roy Lichtenstein was holding his first exhibition in New York, while Andy Warhol was offering up the West Coast’s first pop art exhibition, Campbell Soup cans and all.

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Ernst Neizvestny, (Untitled) 1926

No, there was no doubt what the world was or what man was meant to be. The question was, not if, but when he would become it. In Kruschev’s own crude words, society didn’t have much time for those who thought (or dared express themselves) otherwise.

Disillusionment with the system, in turn, only started bubbling up during the 1970s — the years of stagnation. Ironically, it is those very years that many Russians are most nostalgic for. And even with the  onset of the Afghan War in 1979, they were not ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Socialism was okay, even worth fighting for in a far off land. It was the communist party leadership under Brezhnev that was the problem. But as the idealism of the Afghan campaign and its promise of socialist nation-building descended into brutality and chaos, communism was on the ropes.

By the time Glasnost rolled around, the rot, both economically, politically and societally was too deep. The tendency towards personal compartmentalization was also well-entrenched; being a Soviet functionary by day, and a kitchen table drinking radical by night, had become the norm. It’s a trait that has been exploited deftly in Putin’s Russia. It was particularly in the dying days of the Soviet Union that young people, already deeply cynical, started exploring, in earnest, alternative interpretations of reality.

A primary example of this was captured by Adam Curtis in a seminal article on Russia’s punk avant-garde moment, “The Year of Stagnation and the Poodles of Power.” In it, Curtis recounts a 1991 incident in which Sergey Kuryokhin, from the band Popular Mechanics, attempted to prove that Lenin was really a mushroom on a popular TV talk show.

“Kuryokhin wanted to show that in a society where no-one believed in anything, the media could be used to make anything real,” Curtis wrote. “To western eyes it is a bit silly, but at the time it caused a sensation.”

Sergey Kuryokhin

Sergey Kuryokhin

What’s telling is that pretentious stoner philosophizing had been elevated to the level of national discussion. It was like debating whether Lenin believed himself to be a glass of orange juice. But in a country steeped in 70 years of materialist tradition, to even start playing with the slippery nature of reality was an altogether different proposition.

But unlike the West, this examination of reality came not during the halcyon days of social revolution and economic boom, but during a time when everything was falling apart. In the absence of genuine civil society, a robust economy or any form of institutional mooring, rather than sail through the death of a godless god and the birth of another, Russia has been left in a two-decade long holding pattern — existential purgatory.

And as logotherapist Viktor Frankl beautifully expressed, meaning more than anything else is key to survival. Many Russians, incidentally, had lost that. The subsequent malaise was shocking. In the first 20 years following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, nearly one million Russians committed suicide. As Curtis pointed out, many of Russia’s perestroika-era bards were among them. Crime was rife, substance abuse sky-rocketed, anomie set in. It was in this context that Putin’s managed reality took hold, under the guiding hand of his chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov.

‘Thus spoke the Grey Cardinal’ 

Surkov is a brooding, violent, Warhol-esque figure who arguably transformed the whole of Russia into his own dark “Factory”. Pomerantsev called Putin’s Russia (and by extension Surkov’s) an admixture of despotism and postmodernism. The writer and radical nationalist Eduard Limonov said Surkov had “turned Russia into a wonderful postmodernist theatre.”

Vladislav Surkov

Vladislav Surkov

Surkov has arguably reshaped Russia’s media landscape (and beyond) around the ideas of François Lyotard, the French theoretician of postmodernism who, in his 1979 work ‘The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’, blasted an “incredulity towards meta-narratives” which post-modernism had spawned. Given the lack of consensus on what reality is or the capacity to know anything at all, he argued, post-modernism had given birth to myriad micro-narratives.

But while the West had been chewing on such ideas for decades, Pomerantsev notes that Lyotard was only translated into Russian by the end of the 1990s. That Lyotard and Jacques Derrida would explode in popularity, while two decades-old and controversial practices — neuro-linguistic programming and Ericksonian hypnosis — would become all the rage in modern day Russia, belies both how the elite themselves are behind the times, and how a largely cynical population largely educated by rote are deeply susceptible to intellectual parlor tricks.

Lyotard and his micro-narratives, meanwhile, are now the pulsing heart of Russia’s propaganda efforts. Russians, after all, had already lost the greatest metanarrative of all; the Hegelian dialectic, which was destined to result in the triumph of socialism. Any explanation to world events that they found emotionally satisfying (both as unreformed imperialists and insecure supremacists) were likely to hold say.

Thus, Russia’s current information war is less about truth and more about muddying the waters so that no one can really know anything. The new tactic is to provide shotgun explanations to everything and leave your critics chasing (or dodging) the individual pellets. That Russians feel comfortable with the government providing a new narrative to how MH-17 was shot down every other week seems to prove the Kremlin has its heart on the pulse of the nation. Just hold one variable constant in a nation that has never had a moment of truth and reconciliation: ‘blame anyone but us’.

Doctored photo widely shown on Russia state media allegedly showing a Ukrainian warplane shooting down MH17.

Doctored photo widely shown on Russia state media allegedly showing a Ukrainian warplane shooting down MH17.

This protracted campaign of disorientation has been pivotal to the government maintaining its grip on power. It coincides with a fundamental resentment which exists in the hearts of many Russians, a resentment that is a reaction to lacking agency domestically, while at the same time maintaining a myth of superiority intended to shore up deep-seated insecurities.

Through a lack of belief in politics, democracy, civil society or institutions,  Russians feel powerless to control their own fate, and are deeply needing of an enemy to project those frustrations onto. The government has deftly served up variations on that enemy, namely the United States. If nothing feels real apart from that which one hates, then the purpose of propaganda is to bypass the cerebral cortex and set your viewership’s limbic system on fire.

The government is no longer selling its achievements to the citizens Soviet-style. Rather, they are relentlessly broadcasting a stream of death and desecration at the hands of “Ukrainian fascists” into people’s homes on a daily basis. This is not longer about the mind. Rather, it’s about the “soul.” The whole, maddening process, which has rent more than one Russian family apart, was characterized by a former state media employee as a process of “zombification”. Russians have few footholds to step back onto and get their bearings, leaving them ever susceptible to the barrage. Their foray into existentialism was not about an expression of freedom. It was capitulation to desperation, and it shows.

‘…Fall for anything’

Russia is a sick country suffering from a collective sense of post-traumatic stress disorder. But rather than attempt to heal the nation, the government has opted to throw firecrackers at them in the night.

In the West, post-modernism ultimately became a means to challenge authority. In Russia, it was turned into another tool of control. For a leader ostensibly bent on rising Russia from its knees, Putin appears incapable of helping his countrymen overcome their trauma and learning to stand on their own two feet. But he can’t. A citizen can stand via the proxy of the state, but under the state they must remain on their knees to support the base of the power vertical.

Genuine belief spurred by critical thought would bring down the house of cards. Faux patriotism, “tradition” and moral confusion are key to business as usual. It’s the Soviet Union without socialism, neo-tsarism that dare not utter the words peasant or slave. It is a bad trip that cannot ever stop. As a result, Russia has become a country where 55 percent of the country lament the fall of the Soviet Union while nearly half also believe that Soviet-style repressions will return in their life time.

If one were to track those respondents in a Venn diagram, the percentage who hold both positions would be shocking to those expecting more intellectual consistency. The number who support Putin, an avowed global capitalist heading up one of the most unequal countries on earth (who would theoretically head up those repressions), is consistently over 85 percent. Something clearly does not add up. Vladimir Putin at a navy parade in Severomorsk But it is the absence of believe that fuels this social and political schizophrenia. Writing for the journal Mental Hygiene in 1945 while war still raged in Europe, Gordon Eadie had these ever-relevant observations for those lacking in genuine belief and pining for lost days. “

“We are trying to show him not only what we are fighting against, but what we are fighting for. So many of these boys have only a very hazy idea of the real issues of the war. About all they see is ‘going back to the good old days.’ This is a dangerous state. If they don’t stand for something, they will fall for anything.”

Russians believe they have beat the system by refusing to believe in anything. Every night when they turn on their televisions, the system wholeheartedly agrees. 485279707

Blame Canada:  Putin scores own goal with ‘Dear Leader’ hockey triumph

William Echols

One day after Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Kim Jong Un a run for his money in unadulterated propaganda by scoring 8 goals in an exhibition hockey match in Sochi, a crack Canadian squad decimated Russia 6-1 at the hockey worlds. The PR stunt and subsequent Canuck thrashing, it seems, is the perfect metaphor for Russia’s managed reality and Potemkin triumphalism.

Call it confirmation bias, but sometimes reality seems as scripted as Putin’s Grey Cardinal Vladislav Surkov would have Russians believe. Except this time, Putin’s vizier went rogue, organizing a crushing Russian defeat on the ice, which likely made Alexander Nevsky turn in his grave.

The setting: a city of former Soviet occupation. The enemy: a NATO member from North America with the largest Ukrainian population outside of Russia and Ukraine proper. Their uniforms: cut from the same red and black cloth of Ukraine’s Right Sektor — the marauding fascist bête noire of Russian state media.

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That was a detail which might have left the Grey Cardinal himself winking up at God for a show of approval for his attention to detail. Semiotics my friend, semiotics.

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But despite the narrative clearly being laid out, when the puck hit the ice, something happened.

Just over 9 minutes in and Canada was up 4-0, while the Russian squad had yet to manage a single shot on goal. Was a dramatic comeback in the works? While Evgeni Malkin would help Russia save face by finding net for Russia with 7:13 remaining in the third, a miracle on the ice was not to be. When all was said and done Canada clinched gold 6-1 in what became the greatest route Russia has ever endured.

Meanwhile, one day prior in Russia’s managed reality, Putin’s cult-like status had ascended to new highs during a government-run exhibition hockey match in the 2014 Olympic host city of Sochi.

But while the game was hockey, among the ex-NHL players were a number of former associates of Putin’s Yawara-Neva Judo Club, including his childhood friends Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, valued at just under $2 billion and 1.7 billion respectively, and Gennady Timchenko, who has an estimated fortune of $15.3 billion. Amazing how Judo turned so many men into billionaires. Russians, of course, value their sports.

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With the likes of NHL Hall of Famer Pavel Bure serving up assists, Putin, seemingly skating and shooting at the bottom of a swimming pool, still managed a whopping 8 goals, gloriously leading his team to a crushing 18 to 6 victory. The 62-year-old bested his double hat trick in the previous year’s exhibition game, in which his side managed a 21-4 rout.

It’s a pity late North Korean leader Kim Jong il isn’t around to play a round of golf with his newfound disciple.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the deification of Putin was not yet done for the day. In the northern town of Vartemyagi, Saint Petersburg’s Cossack Society unveiled a Roman-style bust of Putin, replete with armor and  tunic a la Caesar; a la Czar. The bust was meant to commemorate the Nazi Germany’s capitulation to Soviet forces during the Second World War, though it remains unclear what role Putin played in that victory.

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Not that it matters. Putin’s PR stunts are now well-tread ground.  Releasing leopards, shooting wales, saving a tv crew from a tiger, leading a flock of endangered Siberian cranes home, oh and finding 2,500 year-old Greek amphorae at the bottom of the Black Sea. Putin was apparently a man fit to lead a nation, and a great one at that.

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

But before the illegal seizure of Crimea, before atavistic sentiments and targeted psychological warfare against its own populace whipped Russia up into a fury, such stunts were almost done with a nod and a wink. One would not be surprised if Surkov himself, with his grand love of spectacle and the absurd, was openly mocking Putin through an imagined meta-narrative, in which the leader was both a one-dimensional hero for the peasants, and a gay icon caricature of a ridiculous strong man half cut from Sacha Baron Cohen’s dictatorial cloth.

Nothing could be put beyond Surkov’s world-weary eyes. But after 2014, it seemed that no one was laughing anymore, and the nation had fallen in love with its hostage taker in chief.

The problem with the Putin as savior narrative is that everything can be made to look beautiful on TV. But just like Canada’s crushing victory, things often play out differently when you don’t get to direct and produce your own perception of reality.

A couple of things of particular note about Saturday’s foray into North Korea land.

Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, who came in second in the scoring contest (earning himself a hat trick), was a potent symbol of offense in Russia’s militaristic culture.

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His robustness is fitting, seeing that with austerity cutting like a knife through all of Russia, defense spending is expected to increase 33 percent over 2014, despite the fact that most other economic sectors are facing a 10 percent cut. Hybrid wars are not cheap, and Putin will pull out all the stops to make Russians feel secure.

Meanwhile, with healthcare spending down 9 percent over the past two years, one government agency claimed  the cuts had led to thousands of extra deaths in Russian hospitals last year, Bloomberg reported.

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As for the Rottenburgs hitting the ice, well, there was something symbolic about that as well. The two brothers, after all, saw their name attached  to a proposed law which would require the state to compensate sanctioned Russian businessmen for subsequent losses. It appears that there are only two aspects of Russian society that are crisis proof: the military and Putin’s inner circle.

The Rotenburgs have every reason to love hockey. Arkady is the President of the Moscow-based hockey club Dynamo, while Boris’ older son Roman is chief of marketing for the professional ice hockey team SKA (Sports Club of the Army) Saint Petersburg.

For Arkady, Russia’s last great foray into winter games saw his companies clinch an estimated ($7.4 billion) of contracts. That’s more than a sizable drop in the 2014 Sochi Games’ alleged $50 billion dollar budget.

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But while one can put on arguably the most spectacular Opening Ceremony in Olympic history, Russia’s triumph of meticulously planned choreography would not translate to the rink, where the results, once again, could not be stage managed by spin doctors.

Russian star Alex Ovechkin had said before the Olympics that a gold medal would “be worth “$50 billion.” Perhaps so. But just like so many things, the local talent was not properly developed, and Russians were living on the past glory of the Soviet Red Machine. And when it came time to play, the Russian team failed to medal, while the nation was left crestfallen. In truth, there was no reason to believe it should have turned out any other way.

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The last time Russia was part of a winning Olympic hockey effort was in 1992, when they clinched gold as part of The Unified Team — Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Uzbekistan and Armenia.

Since then, it’s all been downhill.

Like so many things Russian, the deep need to be strong and respected are always eclipsed by the national pastimes of chronic mismanagement and graft. The same is true for its defense modernization plans, the same was true for Sochi.

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Mark Galeotti earlier argued that Putin was more a crusader than kleptocrat. But the proof is in the pudding. Much like the scholastic arguments of old regarding the nature of God, either Putin is complicit in the corruption or he is incapable of stopping it. Both interpretations undermine his carefully crafted image, though his domestic audience is clearly obliviously to it, or willfully turning a blind eye. But seeing that Putin is either incapable or unwilling to stem the tide of corruption, no matter how many schools crumble, how many deaths occur in hospital, or how many Proton rockets fall from the sky, the country can only be offered the pageantry of greatness, but not the real thing.

Russians today are living in fictitious times. The country is fearful of color revolutions that are not happening and fascists juntas that do not exist. They live among the ghosts of Russian soldiers who are not dying in Ukraine, and the shadow of an empire that is not coming back. They turn on the television screen to see Putin score 8 goals in a rigged hockey game, only to be thrashed by Canada the following evening in the real world, where the Wizard of Rus cannot manage reality from the great heights of Ostankino.

In the real world, Presidents don’t score multiple hat tricks in a single game with NHL vets. Real planes, do, however, plummet from the Russian skies, wiping out entire hockey teams.

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There is a problem when a $50 billion investment cannot seize hockey gold in Sochi, while money siphoned off to Switzerland degrades the country’s transportation systems and infrastructure, leaving an already insecure public exposed to unnecessary risk.

And as recession sets in and healthcare, education and infrastructure become further degraded, expect the deification of Putin to ratchet up. Because for a country which invented the concept of the Potemkin Village, if the leadership is unwilling to help Russians rise from their knees, the least they can do is show them a great leader walking tall. The public, meanwhile, will continue to watch this Potemkin greatness, prostrate in front of their televisions — heads in the clouds, lips on the ground.

Traditional values and teenage brides: Russia’s ombudsman for children goes off the rails

William Echols

Recent comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ombudsman for children’s rights, in which he defended a middle-aged Chechen official’s decision to “forcibly” take on a second, teenaged-bride, gets to the heart of Russia’s rotten core of “tradition” and hypocrisy.

The gist of the most recent scandal, which highlights Moscow’s tenuous power over Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, involves Nazhud Guchigov, a 46-year-old police commander in Nozhay-Yurt, and a 17-year-old girl named Kheda Goylabiyeva.

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According to reports, Guchigov, who is already married with children, has prevented Goylabiyeva from leaving her home and threatened her family with reprisals least they hand her over.

On May 5, Kadyrov refuted those claims on Chechen television, saying a trusted envoy had been sent to the girl. The envoy, unsurprisingly, reported back that the girl and her family were kosher with the arrangement.

Earlier this week, Lifenews, a tabloid media outlet with connections to Russia’s security services (and who’s founder infamously resettled in Brooklyn), ran an interview with the taciturn girl, who looks visibly uncomfortable and rarely makes eye contact.

In it, she claims to have known her husband-to-be for a year, saying he is good because he is “manly” and “dependable.”  Goylabiyeva also says she is not bothered by the age difference. It is difficult, based on body language alone, to know if she was coached to give her answers, or if they are genuine.

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According to gazeta.ru, the marriage is set to go forth on Saturday, though it is illegal under Russian law. Georgy Bovt, who regularly writes for the Moscow Times, sounds a note of capitulation, responding to all of the marriage’s critics (and there are many) that attempting to enforce Russian law in Chechnya may lead to “new terrorist attacks on the Moscow metro and other Russian cities, or quite possibly “a third Chechen war.”

He could be right. But what’s really telling is that Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s children’s ombudsman for the Russian Federation, is not only all right with the entire affair, but essentially argued that it was okay for Russian men to take on teenage brides because some Russian women age prematurely.

“Let’s not be prudes,” he said. “There are places where women are already shriveled at age 27, and by our standards they look around 50. And, in general, the Constitution forbids interference in citizens’ personal matters.”

This, mind you, is coming from someone who once claimed there was an active pedophile lobby in Russia, adding that children’s advocacy groups were the leading means through which pedophiles battled for legalization.

Following a public backlash, Astakhov would “apologize,” not for essentially promoting the marriage between a 46-year-old man and a 17-year-old-girl, but rather for offending “the fairer sex” with his “awkward comments” by basically calling some of them ugly.

Astakhov, of course, is the quintessential hypocrite so endemic in Russia’s leadership. He says whatever is required of him — he believes in nothing.

The children’s commissioner, who sent his wife to France to give birth to their third child, once complained that he had to go to Cote d’Azure every weekend out of fear that his son would forget him.

When anti-corruption blogger criticized Astakhov for parking his family in an “elite mansion in Nice” and his money “in a “Swiss bank account,” Astakhov claimed Navalny was employing the “longstanding tricks of the enemies of Russia.”

astakhovThis incident is one of those made in Russia moments where the elite’s hypocrisy and obsession with promoting “traditional values” converge.

Tradition after all, is often a euphemism for justifying the domination of one group over another. When ‘the woman question’ arose in Russia in the 19th century, a bleak picture, whereby Russian men reportedly beat and raped their wives and daughters en masse, while members of the upper classes could molest peasant women with apparent impunity, emerged. As noted by the academic Marianna Muravyeva, instances of rape between a daughter-in-law and her father-in-law in Russian and Cossack communities were so common, the crime received a special name: ‘snokhachestvo’.

Russian nobles were also known to possess harems of women who existed merely to satisfy their masters’ sexually.

Under the Code of Laws of the Russian Empire in 1866, statutory rape could only be committed against a woman under the age of fourteen. In that light, Astakhov is clearly supporting “traditional values” at a time when Russia is doing its best to drag itself back into the 19th century.

And much like every other Russian official, those who question where he sends his children or his money are the “real enemies of the people”.

Perhaps one of the greatest ironies of all is that Russia wants to protect children from gay propaganda which does not exist. But when it comes to protecting teenage girls from the sexual advances of middle-aged men, tradition rules the roost. After all, there is only one rule that Russia’s leadership ever abides by: never roll back access to sources of pleasure.

In April, when a group of teenage girls caused a scandal (and incited a federal investigation) simply by twerking, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov asked if Russia was “for or against early sex.” 

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Astakhov, it seems, has provided an answer.

Russia’s Pyrrhic victory in Chechnya 

William Echols

The increasingly brazen behavior of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov shows that modern Russia’s two-decade long struggle to pacify the restive southern republic may eventually leave Moscow with ashes in its mouth.

Two brutal wars. Tens of thousands dead. An entire generation ravaged by violence. Cities decimated and then rebuilt with billions of federal dollars. Billions more pour in to pacify a brutal warlord ruling with impunity. A perilous rise in religious fundamentalism. A hotbed of terror forever on its southern flank. A ticking time bomb. This is modern day Chechnya under the thumb of Ramzan Kadyrov.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has often been described as a great tactician but a less adept strategist. He knows how to act ruthlessly, decisively to obtain short-term goals. He is expert at winning battles. He is at a loss for winning wars. Perhaps, one day, Chechnya will come to embody this reality.

Russians have never much liked Chechens, whom even members of the middle class will openly describe with derision.The great 19th poet Mikhail Lermontov would popularize the myth of the “zloi Chechen” —the evil, unrelenting savage who will fight tooth and nail, even in the face of total annihilation. It’s an image in a land-based empire with amnesia regarding its own roots that holds true today. Myths of the “zloi Chechen” were said to have a powerful psychological effect on Russian troops during the first Chechen War.

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Lermontov would also popularize the small tributary Valerik as the River of Death — a place of slaughter — based on his own battles in the region. It was a name that predated the Russians, it is a name that may outlive their hold over the republic. Afghanistan need not be the only graveyard of empires.

No, in one of those strange ironies of fate, the desire to hold onto 6,700 square miles of hostile real estate could one day prove the death nail for the remaining 17 million-plus. And yet, Russia will likely never let it go willingly, though many would rather say good riddance.

In fact, a July 2013 poll showed that 24 percent of Russians would be glad if Chechnya left the Russian Federation. Another 27 percent said they wouldn’t care. The 23 percent who said it should remain within the Russian Federation were unlikely doing so out of some form of shared history, values, mutual respect, or affinity. Rather, it was likely a perennial expression of Russian chauvinism and 19th century geopolitical thinking that treats the world like a chess board; bigger is always better, we must shore up our southern flank, no matter the cost.

And since the murder of Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on February 27, the true cost of keeping Chechnya in the fold appears be quite high. The term “stop feeding the Caucasus”, in response to the disproportionate amount of government subsidies to the region, has long been popular with Russian nationalists, and not just. That Russia would destroy Chechnya only to pump billions of rubles into it each year while many Russian regions fall by the wayside is a sin for many. That they would do so while a man who once boasted of killing his first Russian at the age of 16 (and who was also allegedly filmed in the beheading of others) would one day become a “hero of Russia”, that smacked of travesty. Moscow always projected strength in a country pathologically obsessed with strength. One man , however, could make it look weak, its authority uncertain.

And last week, that man, Ramzan Kdyroz, enraged that police from the neighboring Stavropol region fatally shot a man in the Chechen capital, ordered his security forces to “shoot to kill” Russian cops or feds who appear on Chechen territory without their “knowledge.”

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That sounds like the leader of his own country, not the head of a regional republic. Yes, in a country where a cashier at a grocery store can be charged with inciting ethnic hatred for posting documentaries about Ukraine on social media (or sentence a 22-year-old man to 2 years in prison for that matter), the head of a republic can call for the assassination of police and investigators without consequence. This is a textbook definition of what Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson called in their seminal work, ‘Why Nations Fail’, “rule of law vs. rule by law.”

There have been efforts within the Russian establishment to “bring Chechnya” back into the fold, and by extension, pull Russia back from the precipice of legal nihilism. Speculation abounds that Federal Investigative Head (SKR) Aleksander Batryskin’s decision to take the investigation into the April 19th shooting under his control is a sign that the Kremlin (or at least powerful forces on its flank) are not so secretly trying to hem Kadyrov in.

Genuflecting to his suzerain, Kadyrov said he would step down from his post if ordered, perhaps with a smirk. Many experts, after all, say there is no alternative.

All the while, Putin has been left navigating the Scylla and Charybdis of chaos in Chechnya vs. a rogue feudal lord ruling with a massive private army numbering in the tens of thousands (and a cut above the average Russian conscript). As is so often the case in Russia,  a false sense of security wins the day. But the 38-year-old Kadyrov might very well be eyeing more than just the day, but history.

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There have long been rumblings of a Muslim-majority rising within the Russian federation over the coming decades, both Western and domestic.

Mark Adomanis, writing for Forbes, takes a far more measured approach to such claims, saying that while the relative growth of Russia’s muslim population will have “political, economic and social consequences,” it is overall analogous to similar growth trends throughout Europe.

Not that Russia’s growing Islamic population, however you cut it and at whatever clip, is in and of itself a problem. The issue is that many Muslim majority regions, including Chechnya, are not fundamentally integrated into broader Russian society. Add into that soaring rates of poverty, corruption, crime, religious fundamentalism and at times borderline anarchy, and a societal recipe for disaster is in the works.

In this context, Kadyrov has jockeyed to make himself the preeminent leader of Russia’s Muslim world, and perhaps one day, the gatherer of Russia’s Muslim lands.

For Putin, Kadyrov is always effusive in his praise, though he appears to being watching shrewdly as the Russian President exaggerates external threats and turns his attention outwards. Kadyrov from the get go offered to send his troops there (and despite his future denials, he allegedly has done just that.)

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The eventual blowback from the Kremlin’s silent war in Ukraine and other geopolitical meddling, after all, will all play into Kadyrov’s hands. It is one thing to have de facto control over Chechnya. It is another for Moscow to be so overextended it could not bring Chechnya back, even if it wanted to.

It is in this context that Kadyrov made such a large show of Stavropol police operating on his turf. All the while, he has regularly dispatched his security forces into neighboring Ingushetia, at times sparking clashes.

Sensing that Russian officials were potentially using local Ingush forces as a buffer to contain Kadyrov’s ambitions, in February he suggested deploying Chechen security forces to crush “terrorism and extremism,” be it in “Moscow or other regions of the country.”

It all plays into his growing image as a Muslim analogue to Putin —a strong man and defender of “tradition.” Publicly, he expresses support for honor killings and “virtue campaigns” for women. He would also offer thinly veiled threats of violence if the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were ever to be published in Russia, and even used those cartoons as a flimsy pretext behind Nemtsov’s assassination.

Mosque building, schools for hafizes (Muslims who know the entire Qur’an by heart), a clinic for Islamic medicine — all projects spearheaded by Kadyrov as part of his PR campaign to assume the Islamist throne.

But despite these outward displays of piety, he  apparently lives the life of the cookie cutter developing world despot. Gold-plated guns, a race horse stable costing over $367,000 to maintain annually, his own private zoo, a million dollar watch, a fleet of luxury cars (including one of 21 Lamborghini Reventons to ever be produced), and a string of celebrities ready to join his garish birthday celebrations (in exchange for up to half a million dollars) — there is no excess the Russian taxpayer doesn’t pay for on his behalf.  On that score, he may have much in common with his mentor.

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A disillusioned Chechen commander, Molvadi Baisrov, once described Kadyrov as a medieval tyrant who “can take any woman and do whatever he pleases with her” in the style of former Soviet Security chief Lavrentiy Beria. Kadyrov is, in Baisrov’s words, a man who acts with a sense of impunity, as if he was a “law unto himself.” Baisrov, incidentally, was killed by members of Kadyrov’s security forces a couple hundred meters from the Kremlin in 2006.  Apparently Putin believed Kadyrov’s actions were an “internal affair,” even if they happened in the heart of the Russian capital.

People who have a falling out with Kadyrov tend to end up dead, extrajudicially, and even outside of Russia. Take Ruslan and Sulim Yamadayev, the former a Hero of Russia and State Duma deputy, the later the commander of the Vostok battalion (which rivaled his own ‘Kadyrovtsy’.) Ruslan was killed on the streets of Moscow in September 2008, while Yamid was later assassinated in Dubai in March 2009.

And just like in the deaths of Baisrov and Russian Yamadayev, Kadyrov’s men appear to have carte blanche to operate on the streets of Moscow.

On February 3, for example, 30 armed Chechens stormed an office complex in Eastern Moscow. Eleven of the men were arrested, but mysteriously released the following day.

In a country where twerking by a World War 2 monument can get you two weeks in prison, or where an environmental activist can receive a 3-year sentence for spray painting a fence, paramilitary forces can act with impunity in the nations capital if they have Ramzan’s blessing.

But if you attempt to make a film about Kadyrov’s influence on modern day Russia, you just mind find armed men raiding your offices as well.

Once again, rule of law vs. rule by law; an old Russian tale.

But with the murder of Boris Nemtsov on February 27, members of Russia’s security services, allegedly unhappy with Kadyrov’s influence (many would have served in Chechnya during the wars), seemed to target him. Almost immediately, Zaur Dadayev, the former deputy commander of a paramilitary unit founded by Kadyrov, was arrested in Nemtsov’s killing.

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On the day Dadayev was officially charged with murder, Kadyrov would describe him as a “true patriot of Russia.”  The Chechen leader would also laud another suspect who blew himself up with a grenade when police attempted to arrest him at his home in Grozny. While 5 suspects would be arrested in total, (a reality Kadyrov was not at all happy about), another key witness, Ruslan Geremeyev has been hiding safely in Chechnya all of this time. It’s as if Russia doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Chechnya; it’s as if Moscow would need one.

In telling sign of where the prevailing winds were blowing, on March 9—less than 24 hours after Kadyrov praised Dadayev — Putin awarded Kadyrov the Order of Honor, one of Russia’s highest decorations. It’s the 12th such state honor Kadyrov has managed to rack up.  Kadyrov reaffirmed his oath of loyalty to Putin the following day, expressing his willingness to die for the Russian leader. By that point, Putin had disappeared from pubic view, sparking a litany of conspiracy theories along the way. When he reemerged on March 16, one such theory seemed to hold water; whatever rumblings among the Russian security services, Putin had thrown in his lot with Kadyrov, perhaps until the bitter end.

“Putin appeared, alive and with legitimacy, at exactly the same moment when Interfax reported that the Nemtsov assassination wasn’t a contract hit,” political analyst Leonid Volkov wrote on his Facebook page at the time.

“Putin had to make a choice. Either feed Kadyrov to the FSB, or surrender the FSB to Kadyrov. It’s a difficult and unpleasant choice, so he laid low like Stalin in June 1941, in order to think and let the smoke clear,” he continued.

“Lay low, and choose. [And he] chose the one and only thing he could choose: Kadyrov.”

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For now, as Caucasian Knot editor-in-chief Gregory Shvedov recently told Newsweek, Putin “single-handedly” controls Kadyrov, which is, in a sense, kind of like saying the right hand controls the left, or that the ego controls the id.

But, with economic instability, a cauldron of ethnic tensions bubbling under the surface of Russian society, and attempts to channel violent Russian nationalism into Eastern Ukraine without it spilling over into broader society, it remains unclear, in Shevdov’s words, “for how long Putin would be capable of controlling the institutions behind the most influential leader in North Caucasus,” or the well-oiled fighting force under his control.

In a way, Putin’s fate is intricately tied up with Kadyrov. His presidency was built on war in the republic, and Kadyrov has become his lynchpin of legitimacy in the region.

Recently writing for The Interpreter, Paul Goble asked whether Putin was about to start a third war in Chechnya to escape the Ukrainian “impasse.”

Even to entertain such a scenario and its relatively best possible outcomes is reminiscent of the 3rd century Greek King Pyrrhus during the eponymously named Pyrrhic War: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.”

But to look at the rise of Kadyrov following the Second Chechen War and what modern day Chechnya says about the Russian Federation today, a third conflict in the region might not even be necessary to bring about “ruin.” Through the arch of history, as Russia creeps towards what some alarmists have characterized as impending “implosion,” historians may one day look back on the Second Chechen War, the rise of Putin, and a conflict in Ukraine intended to “gather Russian lands” as the moment not when Russia finally rose from its “knees,” but when 500 years of empire truly began to unravel. For now, under a clear, blue sky, Kadyrov stands on the banks of the Valerik, biding his time.

For him, the question was never “why” we fight. For him, the question has, and always will be, when.