Trump’s Wrong Turn or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Putin

William Echols

One candidate doesn’t know what Aleppo is, but is quite certain that whatever is going on in Syria, the only way we can deal with it is by “joining hands with Russia.” The other argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has been a leader, far more than [Barack Obama] has been a leader.” His pick for VP, hailing from the northern fringe of the Bible Belt, said that opinion was “inarguable.”

But how exactly did a country which in one iteration was the the world’s first constitutionally socialist state, only to mutate into a “gas station masquerading as a country”, as one prominent critic put it, become a beacon of hope for America’s increasingly fractious (and fractured) right?

The answer to that question, of course, is as varied as the sundry state of American conservatism itself. 

Putin has become a Rorschach test for the American afflicted. Knowledge of his actual policies or how they manifest themselves in Russia society has little bearing on his perceived efficacy as a leader. Much like Trump himself, perceptions of Putin are far less a matter of rational choice than emotional need.

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Establishment Republicans, who had long excited the passions of Americans who saw elections in eschatological, and not political terms, one day woke up to find they had lost control of a base they had been whipping into a frenzy for decades.

Is it really shocking that a party which ignored (if not actively undermined) the interests of the working class at every turn while engaging in dog whistle politics and playing upon the most paranoid fears of pre-tribulationists would one day decry the fact that the lunatics had taken over the asylum?

The rise of Trump, and the seemingly oblique embrace of Putin, have been fueled in part by the establishment’s perceived betrayal of the social contract with the white working class. The post-war years were defined by rising living standards, two-tone ideological considerations and political realism.

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Americans were the good guys fighting the good fight against an Evil Empire that built concrete walls and dropped iron curtains.

But then the end of the Cold War ushered in the end of history, a much heralded utopia that for many devolved into a post-industrial wasteland where neither gender, God, nor well-paying jobs appeared to actually exist anymore.

As it increasingly seemed that the culture wars and America-first rhetoric were in fact smoke screens for a two-party duopoly beholden to the movements of global capital and other shadowy “cosmopolitan” forces, right wing political movements from Tea Party populists, libertarians, paleoconservatives, outright nazis and the so-called alt-right have all sought to pour a healthy dose of iodine into brackish political waters.

How these same groups would come to lionize one of the most opaque and unaccountable political systems in the world is, to put it mildly, ironic.

But, for leading libertarians like Ron Paul, his son Rand Paul, their ideological bedfellow (and Aleppo-amnesiac Gary Johnson), arch Paleoconservative Patrick Buchanan and white supremacist Richard Spencer, Putin has at worst been given a bad rap, and at best serves as an exemplar for the type of leader needed to pull Western civilization from the brink.

In this strange, post-Reagan world of the right, Americans no longer tear down walls, they build them; Russia is no longer viewed as the Evil Empire, but is rather the levy holding back America’s decadent globalist tide.

Otherwise, after Putin comes the flood…

‘One of us’

In a December 2013 article entitled ‘Is Putin One of Us?’, Buchanan bemoaned the fact that “our grandparents would not recognize the America in which we live.”

Given the fact that Buchanan’s grandfather actually fought on the side of the Confederacy, one is free to take from that statement what they will. 

He goes on to write that Reagan had once called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world,” though, as Putin implied in a recent speech, “Barack Obama’s America may deserve the title in the 21st century.”

Buchanan continues that Americans caught up in a “Cold War paradigm” have missed the decisive struggle of the 21st century, which entails “conservatives and traditionalists in every country arrayed against the militant secularism of a multicultural and transnational elite.”

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In a later essay published this past May entitled “Why Russia Resents Us,” Buchanan, in reference to NATO’s expansion, poses the question, “If there is a second Cold War, did Russia really start it?”

Buchanan is not the only one who who believes the US policy establishment is stuck a Cold War paradigm (while otherwise missing the plot).

On the eve of military operations that would see Russia annex the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, Senator Rand Paul argued: 

“Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time and I don’t think that is a good idea.”

Then, in April 2014, after Russian had already annexed Crimea and was clandestinely fomenting unrest in Eastern Ukraine, Johnson, the Libertarian party nominee, had choice words not for actual Russian intervention, but perceived US meddling, while speaking on RT America.

“When you look at The Ukraine [sic] right now, that would be analogous to Russia getting involved in Puerto Rico. They’re not going to do it. We shouldn’t get involved in The Ukraine [sic].”

Months later, when Russian-backed rebels shot down passenger flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, Ron Paul was quick to jump to Russia’s defense.

“Just days after the tragic crash of a Malaysian Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine, Western politicians and media joined together to gain the maximum propaganda value from the disaster. It had to be Russia; it had to be Putin, they said.”

Those more establishment figures echo the views of Richard Spencer, a leader of the alt-right movement which is, in many ways, a synthesis of 20th century white supremacy and 21st century 4chan sophomoric snark.

This past December, RT gave him a platform to both advocate for a Trump presidency and further join the chorus of right wing cheerleaders rallying against a Western-agitated Cold War 2.0.

In his words, Putin and Trump to some degree offer “an alternative to what you call neo-conservative or neoliberal foreign policy.”

He continues that it was ridiculous for former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to say that Russia was America’s number one geopolitical adversary.

“Anyone who would say that is not looking at the world as it is; they are looking at the world through some 1980’s Cold War rosy glasses.”

Spencer had previously written about what he called “Putin Derangement Syndrome, what he called “a common affliction among Washington consensus journalists” following the 2008 Russo-Georgian War.

“Symptoms include delusions that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is not simply a totalitarian dictator at home but a super-genius strategist in foreign affairs. If anything unusual happens in his part of the world, it’s all part of one of his wicked schemes for more power,” he wrote.

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In short, Putin, through his embrace of traditional values and penchant for, if not non-interventionism, at least spheres of influence, resonates with political actors themselves who are struggling with the perceived decline of nation-states and the alleged rise of unaccountable globalist forces. For his troubles, he’s been consistently demonized by the Western establishment.

Further below the surface, there is a tacit belief among many that white Americans are being deracinated in their own homeland, and Putin, somehow, offers a chance at mooring one’s nation against inundation of the other.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has grasped at the basic tenants of these intellectual undercurrents, both in his praise of Putin and denigration of Obama, his threats to deport 11 million Mexicans and ban Muslims from traveling to the United States, and his promise of protectionist policies to somehow stem the tide of transnationalism.

Trump has also embraced non-interventionism by coming out against the Iraq War, though he did tell NBC’s Matt Lauer “it used to be [to] the victor belong the spoils. Now, there was no victor there, believe me. There was no victory. But I always said, take the oil.”

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That he would advocate non-intervention and pillaging at the same time is likely a sign of his deep political illiteracy. But then, Trump is grasping at ideas put out by more intellectually dexterous members of political movements he scantly understands but primally embraces.

He further solidified that targeted ideological incorporation by choosing chairman of Breitbart Media and alt-right promulgator, Stephen Bannon, to lead his campaign.

Nothing is real

Many non-ideological Trump’s supporters, in turn, are simply harkening back to the postwar years where everything, from the rules to remaining a productive member of the middle class to the immutability of the now endlessly mutable sexual, moral and cultural values, were more concrete.

Despite fears of nuclear war, the binary battle between communism and capitalism provided a model which, at least in hindsight, was more intellectually (and emotionally) tractable. No matter how formidable the opponent, the spectacle of well-trained pugilists having it out under the Marquess of Queensberry rules provided a metanarrative everyone could follow.

The post 9-11 era, in turn, brought a Royal Rumble with the referee having been concussed by a folding chair outside of the ring. Everything has been decentralized and deconstructed. Perpetual watchers of the 24-hour news cycle have long since had the bends.

Proponents of Putin are looking to return to that world of Hegelian conflict, though this time, it will, as Buchanan put it, be a decisive struggle between traditionalists and the secular, multicultural, transnational elites. This time, it is America, or at the very least the American establishment, sitting on the wrong side of history. This time, it is our house which needs to be burnt down and built anew.

Matthew Heimbach, a self-described white nationalist and leader of the US-based Traditionalist Worker Party has followed Buchanan’s logic, telling eurasia.net this past July:

“[The World National-Conservative Movement] is a broad coalition of all ethno-nationalists – all nationalists that reject neoliberalism, and reject globalism, coming together as a united front, based out of Russia. [During the Soviet period] there was the Comintern, the Communist International. And in the modern era, it’s almost like a nationalist version – or the Traditionalist International.”

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He further said that “Putin is the leader, really, of the anti-globalist forces around the world.”

Trump, with his rhetoric about Muslims and Mexicans, mixed in with protectionist promises and anti-PC swagger, has modeled himself, not exactly on what Putin is, but rather on what he perceives Putin to be.

It was enough to earn him the support of former-KKK leader David Duke, who has shown sympathy towards the Russian president, writing in 2005 that “Putin and the Russian people dare to defend themselves from the powers of Jewish supremacism.”

Duke for his part has been traveling to Russia, a country he once labeled “the key to white survival,” throughout the duration of Putin’s tenure.

He was an early adopter in the belief that Russia, along with other Eastern countries, had the “greatest chance of having racially aware parties achieving political power.”

They know not what they speak

For many of globalization’s discontents, Putin’s Russia has become an imagined bulwark against an ever-changing social and economic tide. That Putin himself is a neoliberal completely enamored with the benefits of transnational finance is seemingly lost on many of them. 

How, after all, do staunch opponents of “creeping islamisation” tout Putin as the vanguard defender of Christendom when he successfully lobbied for Russia to be granted observer status in the Organization for Islamic Cooperation over a decade back?

Putin, who opened Moscow’s new grand mosque last year, heralded “traditional Islam as an important spiritual component of Russia’s identity” during a visit to Uffa in 2013.

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Ironically, Rustam Batrov, the deputy mufti of Tatarstan, expressed a sentiment to Al Jazeera America that sounded shockingly similar to a something Buchanan (or Heimbach) might have said:

“Just like after the fall of Byzantium, [when] Moscow saw itself as the Third Rome, defending orthodoxy, under Stalin we were the defenders of the proletariat, [and] today Russia is the defender of traditional values on the world stage.”

Begging the question for Putin’s Western cheerleaders: What fruits, exactly, have these so-called traditional values borne at home?

Russia has been chided by pro-life activists for having an “abortion culture” while the number of registered cases of HIV exceeded the one-million mark in January.

The country also boasts some of the highest divorce rates in the world. It is beset with a raging heroine epidemic and endemic alcohol abuse. Domestic violence is rampant.

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Due to Putin’s economic policies which have led to a protracted financial crisis, prostitution has also surged in Russia. 

Vladimir Zazhmilin, deputy head of the campaign group Vice Squad, told Newsweek earlier this year that the number of Russians engaged in sex work had “exceeded 3 million a long time ago.”

And while Barack Obama is ostensibly a closeted Muslim, it is Putin’s Russia where, according to RT, “girls as young as three undergoing genital mutilation.”

Then there are the child brides and polygamy , which anti-gay activist and archconservative lawmaker Yelena Mizulina said would be “ridiculous” to criminalize, as there are “not enough men with whom women want to start families and have children.”

That “traditional” idea has long held by leader of the faux ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who a decade back said polygamy should be instituted in Russia “because we have 10 million unmarried women”.

That such a country has been reconceptualized as some sort of Valhalla for white, Western, Christian traditionalists and outright neo-nazis beggars belief.

Russia, the non-interventionist, has invaded two of its neighbors in eight years, annexing (both de facto and de jure) parts of their territories, while holding other neighbors hostage by leveraging frozen conflicts that the Kremlin can help reignite at any time. Then there is Russia’s at times indiscriminate intervention in Syria.

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Another bugbear of conservatives in general and Trump in particular — immigration —is an issue that also resonates with the Russian right.

Russia, after all, has the world’s second largest migrant population, trailing only the US. And unlike in the United States, many of those migrants are Muslims. Regardless of rhetoric about creeping Sharia in the UK, France and Germany, it is Russia that boasts Europe’s largest Muslim population.

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And from the 2010 Manezhnaya Square riot to the 2013 riot in Moscow’s Biryulyovo district — both sparked by the murder of ethnic Slavs by Muslim migrants — multicultural-free Russia is anything but free of ethnic tensions. 

Putin’s embrace of Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, along with his penchant for “feeding the Caucasus”, meanwhile, has never sat well with Russian nationalists themselves.

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Though in truth, none of this really matters. Such misconceptions about Putin’s Russia are essentially myths for disaffected Westerners grasping for an alternative view of reality. For those piecing together the world via message boards and broadband rather than direct experience, anything and everything can be whatever one needs it to be.

Ultimately Trump, who has long aped the affectations of the authoritarian strong man, implicitly offers a key component of palingenetic ultranationalism: the promise of societal rebirth following period of moral decay. Putin, through his rhetoric and carefully-crafted strong man image, has proved an exemplar for those looking to bring the United States from it knees, even if, in the end, they are merely dragging it into the gutter.

Putin doesn’t care about borders (or boundaries)

Russia’s New Year’s holidays have ended. Groggy eyes on the metro, aching heads on electric trains. The stories of ten days of debauchery trickle in one by one. The doctor who punched his own patient dead. Lazarus who drank himself to death and back to life. The homeless men who drank themselves from death to deader after finding an unidentified brown liquid in a dumpster and going full on YOLO.

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Plunging like the blood sugar of the morning commute funeral mass and their post 10-day communion wine hangover, oil hit a 12-year-low, bringing the long-suffering ruble even further down with it. Following previous claims Russia was rebounding from recession, both Moscow and the IMF now expect GDP contraction for 2015 to be at 3.8 percent. Rising economic tides are not predicted for 2016.

In December 2014, Putin vowed the Russian economy would start growing again in two years under what he called the worst case scenario. He’s still got a year to pray for the global oil glut to go away, all the while pretending that much needed economic diversification will just manifest itself in a virtual mafia state where personal initiative is deincentivized via legal nihilism and systemic rot. It doesn’t help that the best of Russia have been leaving in droves. But what does one do in a country where the glass ceiling has nails?

In a revelatory interview with the Germany daily Bild published on Monday, Putin appeared to be straining under the bad news, economic and otherwise. Looking at the state of Russia and the world today, Putin argued that Russia should have been stronger after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then the world would somehow be a better place. The question is: A better place for whom?

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Putin’s latest use of Western media  for yet another “J’accuse…!” screed against the West offers a potent glimpse into the “other world” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said he now inhabits. His lack of consistency and belief are seemingly the hallmarks of a sociopath, a chekist who believes in nothing beyond intrigue and raw power, or both.

Putin can, on the one hand, bemoan how former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner allegedly promised Gorbachov during the 1990 negotiations on German reunification that NATO would not expand eastward. Never mind that this alleged promise from an official who has been dead for two decades referred to Eastern Germany itself, and not Eastern Europe, as has been argued. Never mind whether a promise holds the weight of a ratified treaty.

Every perceived slight against Russia has the half life of forever.

Manfred Wörner

On the other hand, Putin has absolutely disregarded Russians obligations under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in exchange for assurances its borders would be respected, force would not be used against it, and economic pressure would not be levied to influence its politics. Which of those points has Russia not broken time and time again? Violations of the third point, in particular, most certainly predate the “fascist junta” in Kyiv.

In reality, the attempted dismantling of Ukraine echoes the anger of Munich 2007, with the spheres of influence Putin actually believes in ultimately clashing with the rule of law he pays lip service to. Ukraine, of course, never joined NATO, it was never even close. But there is always the chance. In Putin’s world, that chance fit into his own version of ‘The One Percent Doctrine.’

When asked if the Eastern European states had the right to organize their own security affairs by joining NATO, Putin dismissively noted he had heard this argument “a thousand times.”

“Of course every state has the right to organize its security the way it deems appropriate,” Putin said.

“But the states that were already in NATO, the member states, could also have followed their own interests – and abstained from an expansion to the east,” he continued.

Translation: “I claim to support the principle in spirit, but I will take a torch to it in practice.

I know Central and Eastern European states had every right to join NATO, but it was in the member states interests to deny them this right so as to avoid illegal military action on Russia’s behalf.”

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In other words, a pure attempt at dismay. Don’t do what you have every right to do; do what we say you can do or there will be trouble. Then deflect your own aggressive actions by claiming you were pushed into a corner and forced to act defensively against your weaker neighbors…by invading them.

If Putin’s complete disregard for a rule-based international order was not already apparent, his 19th century imperialist thinking shone threw when discussing the annexation of Crimea.

“For me, it is not borders and state territories that matter, but people’s fortunes,” he said.

“Napoleon once said that justice is the incarnation of God on Earth,” he would go on to say.

“I’m telling you: the reunification of Crimea and Russia is just.”

Never mind a small man evoking Napoleon and making his actions coequal with a theophanous manifestation. Stick to his far less esoteric claims of support for the “people’s fortunes” when an estimated 160,000 were killed to crush Chechnya’s dream of independence.

When Grozny was razed, filtration camps were set up, and rape and torture were used as instruments of collective punishment against a civilian population, whose interest was Putin acting in again:  “Borders and state territories” or people?

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Is Putin not the one who deemed calls for “separatism” in Russia illegal, making them punishable by up to four years in prison? Has Putin not forced the same type of federalization on Kyiv that he has actively opposed in Russia since becoming deputy chief of the Yeltsin’s presidential administration in 1998?

Just how absurd is it? Rafis Kashapov, a Russian Tatar activist, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for criticizing Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. In Russia, you can literally (ok, figuratively) cleave off part of another country, and then imprison people who criticize that illegal land grab on…separatism charges. The mind boggles.

And yet, after once again evoking Kosovo, Putin says “everyone should comply with uniform international rules and not want to change them any time one feels like it.”

In the codex of Putinist propaganda, this is called mirroring —accusing others of doing precisely what you are doing.

He then goes on to claim that Western sanctions are not about helping Ukraine, but “geopolitically pushing Russia back.”

If by geopolitically pushing back Russia, he means expelling Russian soldiers from Ukrainian soil, he is correct. But in Putin’s world, invading a foreign country and then being sanctioned for it is deeply unjust.

He proceeds to call European Union sanctions “a theatre of the absurd.” But saying the tens of thousands of Russian troops to have actively taken part in military operations in Ukraine are on holiday (with uninterrupted supply lines) is not absurd? In what world is using economic pressure rather than military force to  compel an aggressive party to back down  somehow beyond the pale?

Putin, one can be certain, has an answer to that question. It just might not correspond to any knowable reality.

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As I previously wrote, in the “graveyard of ideologies”, for many Russians in general (and Putin in particular), a simple rule of thumb has come to define morality of action: “If Russia does it, it is right.”

Putin is not for or against military intervention in principle, but he is for Russian military interventions. Putin is not for or against security services meddling in the internal affairs of other states, but  he does support Russian security services meddling in the affairs of other states. Putin is not for or against imperialism, but he does support Russian imperialism. He is not for or against international law, but he opposes it when it’s not in his interest, and supports it when he sees an opportunity to stick a finger in Washington’s eye.

And Putin has no particular regard for “the freedom of expression of the people,” as he claims to have had in Crimea. But he will use the pretense of the democratic will as a trojan horse to carve up neighboring states, as has been done in Georgia and Ukraine, as could easily be done to Moldova, Kazakhstan, Armenia and beyond. As for the “freedom of expression” of Chechens and Russia’s other ethnic minorities, well, no need to belabor that point.

In a rational world, a leader of 15 years and counting with carte blanche to do whatever he wants might hold some sense of accountability for the state of the nation.

But, rather than face up to the monolithic failings of his power vertical, he is doubling down on rage and victimhood. Time and time again, he cries about where his neighbors have built their fences, all the while, burning his own house to the ground.

Russia is on the ropes and punching itself in the face. But to hear Putin tell it, the West has once again given her a black eye.

And just like with the ten-day-drinking binge to have engulfed Russia over the holidays, the hangover from Russia’s hallucinated reality is coming. The big question is: On the Monday morning after the masses finally come down from the latest Russian trip, how many people will be left lying dead in the snow?

Happy New Year’s everyone.

 

Putin’s Ukraine Admission and a Culture of Lies

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William Echols

After persistent denials, Russian President Vladimir Putin seemingly admitted to a Russian military presence in Eastern Ukraine (before he didn’t). In any “normal country”, coming clean about a clandestine military operation on live television would have huge political implications. But in Russia, it didn’t even make the evening news.

It all started on December 17 during Putin’s annual marathon Q&A session, a PR exercise in which he vacillates between his roles as global statesman and provincial Santa Claus.

Putin faced many queries, some serious, some prosaic. Due to Russia’s economic woes, his usual air of confidence was punctuated by more bluster than usual. This was especially true when questioned over recent corruption allegations leveled at the family of Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika.

But from Chaika’s alleged mob ties to a quasi-admission that Katerina Tikhonova was in fact his daughter (because only in Russia is the identity of one’s children a matter of state security), it was his answer to a question about Yevgeny Yerofeyev and Alexander Alexandrov, two alleged officers of the Russian military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) captured during fighting in East Ukraine, that gave pause to many watching the proceedings.

“We never said there were not people [in Eastern Ukraine] who performed certain tasks, including in the military sphere,” he said. “But that does not mean there are Russian (regular) troops there, feel the difference.”

Putin, of course, has vehemently denied that very thing before…

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine

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Russia’s Prisoner Dilemma

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William Echols

Much has been said of the “legal nihilism” which consumes Russian society. Few, however, have realized that rather than some esoteric expression of the Russian soul, the orgy of corruption in the Third Rome is a logical reaction to the world its citizens have been forced to navigate.

In 2008, Russian presidential place holder Dmitry Medvedev argued that “if we want to become a civilized state, first of all we need to become a lawful one.”

Nearly eight years later, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika believes the battle against corruption, following a rocky road and more recent economic dips, is going swimmingly well.

“Over the past two years, the Prosecutor-General’s Office has been keeping impartial crime statistics on whose basis I can confidently say that the fight against corruption in the country has been intensified substantially recently,” Russian News Agency TASS cites Chaika as saying.

Over the past nine months, officials had been implicated in corruption cases amounting to 30 billion rubles ($423 million). One-fifth of that sum has been reimbursed. While Chaika himself admits those figures could be higher, he also believes they should “command respect.”

In a country where corruption accounts for anywhere between 25 and 48 percent of an ever-contracting GDP, how much respect the authorities deserve on that account is debatable. But then, how does one stamp out corruption in a nation where graft is not a byproduct of the system, but rather the raison d’etre?

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine 

Doomsday and urban decay: In Russia, the end of the world is now 

William Echols

Norilsk: National Geographic

Norilsk: National Geographic

Sometimes it all comes into focus. Beneath the unending static of distraction, the esoteric musings, the multifarious political analysts attempting to dissect motivations, worldview and strategies, a far more simple image takes form upon standing back from the fray. Some are very rich, some are very poor, some want things to stay that way, and thus seemingly indefatigable human ingenuity and creativity is put towards creating multilayered worlds of symbolic meaning to obfuscate far more bare bones truths.

In excavating the strange world of Russian politics and every manifestation of social trauma, in digging through the origami propaganda messages where mouths seemingly crease into smirks and sneers at the same time — double-exposures in prime time — a very simple narrative can take hold.

For Putin to live like this:

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People in Syktyvkar have to live like this:

And then, with or without irony, officials build a monument to the Ruble in the heart of the city; a neo-byzantine stele to their own profligacy.

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But it doesn’t stop there. In order for Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to allegedly live like this:

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People in Kazan live like this:

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For Putin’s press secretary to spend 350,000-euro per week on a yacht like this:

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Your grandmother might have to live like this:

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And for officials to spend $200 million per kilometer on a road in Sochi that ends up looking like this:

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The road between Russia and Belarus will produce a contrast like this:

In writing Russia’s Strange Prophets of Doom, the at times oppressive realities of urban decay were informative both personally and anecdotally. The unrelenting blight and pollution, the seemingly endless stretches of steppe dotted with human settlements replete with post-soviet ruin porn, these are the realities that drive even nominal patriots to dreams of Mediterranean shores.

It is easy to see that the end of the world isn’t a fantasy, it’s right outside your front door. There is also a quiet desperation which bubbles beneath the stoicism; your mental armor to block out the filth, the bleakness, the desperation. People wrap themselves in blankets of distraction, navigating every iteration of eyesore with eyes locked on feet, pushing past sooty-snow and filth to find warmth and cleanliness locked away in the rows up rows of glowing tower block lights. Then there is the crime, at times bordering on anarchy, the instability from the lack of rule of law; the television glow singing yet another hymn from the church of murder.

No, fifth columnists, Atlanticists, and every variation of conspiratorial cabal fighting to keep Russia on its knees can only provide so much subterfuge. Americans didn’t steal the money for your roads, your schools, your nursing homes. Brussels isn’t the reason crowdfunding campaigns are needed to buy grandmothers firewood in the most resource rich nation on earth.

Obama isn’t the reason why some have a license to kill, to steal, to do everything that ill-gotten wealth can buy. It was you Russia, it was always you.

And until you can learn to heal yourself, to face your challenges head on, beyond the self-satisfying fake empire and false pride, beyond the resentment, beyond the need to be right, beyond the need to wonder if “in other places it was more terrible”, beyond the infinite feedback loop of the “whataboutist” question-word clause, there will be forces who would rather burn it all than somehow, someway get on with life. And, in turn, there will be lives in which it truly seems better to just burn it all.

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Popular revolutions and Putin’s state supremacy shell game

Putin believes in the responsibility to protect states, not people

William Echols

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Euromaidan coups, off-color revolutions and Syrian sorties; the worldview of Vladimir Putin posits that to avoid chaos, state supremacy must supplant even the best-intentioned popular will. But has the Syrian quagmire proven that revolution, democratic or otherwise, is a recipe for disaster?

From the shores of North Africa to the Tian Shan mountains of Central Asia, revolution has swept across the Middle East and former Soviet space with increasingly fraught results.

For Putin, the two-headed dragon of Western interventionism and popular protest have breathed fire across the world, leaving death and destruction in its wake…

Read the entire article at The Intersection Project: Russia/Europe/World

My Russian trauma trilogy and a thought experiment with Putin’s United Nations speech

William Echols

My latest article for The Intersection Project, The psychology behind Russia’s propaganda onslaught, was published soon after Putin spoke before the United Nation General  Assembly.

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It is part of a loose-knit series, all of which are essentially variations on one central theme: many Russians are suffering from undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder; Russian state media has essentially weaponized that trauma as a means of maintaining social control and executing otherwise unpopular foreign policy decisions.

I have also covered the nature of Russian humiliation and power obsession as they are manifested through the concept of ‘Ressentiment’. Ressentiment, as previously stated, can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. The ego, rather than internalize the implications of weakness, failure, and the emasculating lack of power, creates an enemy, an external evil which can be “blamed” for one’s woes.

As a result, Russians are particularly at a loss to both face the dark chapters in their past, the driving idea behind “‘In other countries, it was more terrible:’ Why Russia won’t heal itself”. Nor can they psychologically assimilate the horrors being committed in modern times, an idea explored here: ‘One Year On: Can Russians ever accept Moscow helped shoot down MH-17.

Russians have, by and large, already managed to turn their government’s decision to veto a United Nations resolution, which would have created an international tribunal to prosecute those who shot down the Malaysian airliner MH17 over eastern Ukraine last year, into a defensive measure. At this point it is easier to imagine the entire world is conspiring to bring Russia to its knees rather than accept that rebel fighters (or even Russian soldiers) could possibly have shot down a civilian airliner. That, despite the fact that Kremlin-friendly media reported that Russian proxies had shot down an AN-26 [military transport plane] in the area immediately after MH17 was downed.

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The “flywheel” for Ukraine’s manufactured civil war, Igor Girkin, admitted as much on the same day.

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Bearing all of that in mind, I’ve purposed something of a thought experiment. Keeping in mind the two primary sources of Russian trauma being manipulated by state media (the Second World War and the collapse of the Soviet Union), Russia’s inability to accept responsibly for wrongs past or present (and more specifically, how that has manifested itself in Moscow’s decision to veto the establishment of an MH17 tribunal), and Russia’s overall obsession with power and national humiliation, read Putin’s speech and take note of just how many of these concepts were made manifest in the Russian president’s words. For, as much as the Russian elite might manipulate the masses, they are suffering from the same trauma. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: The lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Read Putin’s UN General Assembly Speech. 

‘In other countries, it was more terrible’: Why Russia won’t heal itself

William Echols

“Healing does not mean the damage never existed. It simply means the damage no longer controls our lives.”

Healing, in its multifarious forms, is something which often runs victim to self-help fetishism; an obsession that things can simply be left behind, forgotten, gotten over, relegated to the dustbin of history. But any false sense of closure, which denies the damage ever existed, will set individuals and nations alike down a perilous path.

There is a strong argument that that which we do not assimilate, we sublimate. And that which we sublimate, can be manipulated by those who understand us better, perhaps, than we understand ourselves. It is an idea at the heart of my latest article for Russia! Magazine, ‘Russia Has Weaponized Its National Trauma.’

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In 2007, a provincial history teacher, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, railed against the notion that Russian history could ever give cause to “self-flagellation.” It was a moment for Putin to step in as a statesman and offer Russia a chance to begin coming to terms with its deeply complicated, at times brutal story as a nation. Putin, it turns out, found a muse for his own resentment, arguing “in other countries, it has been said, it was more terrible.”

“We have not used nuclear weapons against a civilian population,” Putin said. “We have not sprayed thousands of kilometers with chemicals, (or) dropped on a small country seven times more bombs than in all the Great Patriotic (War).”

Regarding the purges of 1937, he added: ”We had no other black pages, such as Nazism, for instance,” he said.

In Oliver Bulloughs historical travelogue ‘Let our Fame Be Great’,  he argues that “Russia’s actions in the Caucasus —independent of the politics or beliefs of its rulers over the centuries —have been destructive, murderous, brutal, and cruel.” The Circassian Genocide in 1864. The deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars and mountain Turks during the Second World War. Two brutal wars in Chechnya, which resonate throughout the region to this day.

It wasn’t just the Caucasus. Nineteenth century Siberian regionalists argued that imperial Russia’s actions in the region “had taken on genocidal proportions.”

And yet, one thing set Russia apart from other such European encroachments which left a trail of tears and blood. Nearly 70 years after Yermak kicked off Russia’s Siberian conquest, a legal amendment was introduced in 1649 (and yet another in 1658) which made many Slavic Russians themselves slaves in all but name. In this regard, Russia’s ruling class was perhaps slightly more ecumenical in turning his fellow man into property.

Bulloughs therefore argues that the suffering of Russia’s minorities is not well-known in Russia, “perhaps because Russians themselves have suffered so terribly that they prefer not to remember the horrors they have imposed on others.” 

This conflicted historical position of being both repressor and oppressed can only lead to a certain sense of cultural schizophrenia. The descendants of serfs now wave the Imperial Standard (actually, it’s the Flag of the Russian Empire for “Celebrations” but that’s an entirely different matter); the grandchildren of GULAG survivors herald the glory of a decontextualized Soviet Union that, like Imperial Russia before it, is reduced to nothing more than a symbol of greater Russian chauvinism.

Their greatness is a collective phenomenon that they, nor their ancestors, have necessarily benefited from in any concrete way. The private misery that accompanied it, on the other hand, was all theirs, to be suffered in silence.

And that unresolved suffering, which was never recognized in any substantive way, has now been repressed and channeled in ways that are often self-destructive.

The authorities have long attempted to channel that unassimilated fear, aggression, and shame through a state sanctioned cause. This time around, Ukraine has become the drainage ditch.

But even as nationalist rage allows for temporary displacement, the damage lives on. Generations of people whose neurons were reconfigured through trauma, and, who in turn, passed down that trauma behaviorally (if not epigenetically), have shaped their children in a pain long since divorced from its origins. All along, the government continually triggers that trauma, summoning imaginary wolves to the gates, creating a siege mentality, making sure the damage controls their lives.

It is abuse on a massive scale. It is heartbreaking.

Ultimately, we can forget history, but history does not forget us. To burn up the past is to create the fallow ground through which it will live again. Plant seeds in a cemetery long enough and you’ll get some strange fruit. It’s why Moscow is so terrified of spring.  It’s why Russia may be in for a long winter.

A few thoughts on my Kazakhstan/Russia article for Open Democracy

William Echols

The last time I did this, I wrote an appendix to the article which was as long as the actual article itself. I’ll try not to do that this time. More than anything, I’d like to give people a chance to check out my latest article for Open Democracy, ‘Kazakhstan’s quiet balancing act’, especially for who don’t follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

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Turns out search engines are my primary referrer, and I promise you, some of those search terms I get have made me want to give up on blogging all together. No, if you want to see the id of the internet on full display (plus how difficult it is for people to type “Kheda Goilabiyeva” and some iteration of porn one-handed, likely in a second language), write an article with teenage bride in the title. Teenage brides in Russia to be more exact. You’ve been warned.

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You’ll also see traffic spikes from countries where people otherwise never clicked on blogs about Russia. At least, they never clicked on my blog. To even begin characterizing those countries (though it would be easy to do) would open up a whole other can of worms. I, after all, came here to talk about Kazakhstan!

Kazakhstan, after all, is where I got my start in the post-Soviet world, and I myself have had to be careful not to speak about the two countries interchangeably when generalizing about certain political and sociological trends.

Inspirational I know.

Inspirational I know.

Even prior to writing this article, I had previously speculated that what Putin secretly wanted deep down was to be granted the geopolitical luxury of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. His country is rich enough to steal billions from, but marginal enough for its human rights abuses to be overlooked for the sake of doing business. I think Putin, with his vanity (see botox) and love of opulence (like his press secretary, a $500,000 timepiece fulfills his mafioso need for bling), had once dreamed of setting off for his so-called ‘Guest House’ outside of Paris or a similarly safe european home, weekending with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ‘bunga bunga’ style —reclining like two mafia dons who had played ‘The Game’ and won.

'Just the two of us...

‘Just the two of us…”

Perhaps Putin’s true hatred of the middle-class Snow Revolution was that his retirement plan was scuttled, his salad days to be burned along with tons of French cheese.

And then there is this...

And then there is this…

I don’t think he always wanted to leave the Kremlin foot-first, but it seems almost like an inevitability at this point. Heavy is the crown of the gatherer of “Russian lands.”

In light of the many parallels between Kazakhstan and Russia, the two countries offer comparative analysts a rare opportunity to control for certain factors in measuring outcomes. Will Russia’s irredentism pay dividends vs. Kazakhstan’s attempts to accept its position of relative weakness and court partners from all points on the compass? Will Kazakhstan’s relative attempts at economic diversification bear any fruit, or will it simply be impossible to build a modern, knowledge-based economy with thriving small and medium-sized businesses if the elite’s share of the pie remains static. Will Kazakhstan’s propensity towards privatization vs. Russia’s strict statist model make any difference within the framework of a purely extractive political model?

I think with Kazakhstan and Russia suffering from many of the same systemic problems, in the next few years, many of these questions may be answered, at least in part. But what really interests me is how the implementation of actual democratic reforms would actually play out, if Astana or Moscow ever chose to go down that road.

As it is, I’m not holding my breath on on that one. At best, both states are attempting to mitigate chaos in light of factors they can scantly control by this point. But however things play out in Kazakstan, I will give Nazarbayev credit for this: He might have taken a lot to remain president for life, but he didn’t steal his nation’s sanity along the way. That’s more than I can say for Putin at this point.

‘Russia’s “special path” is a red herring’: A few thoughts

William Echols

My latest piece for Intersection Project, ‘Russia’s “special path” is a red herring’, like anything we write, did not come about in a vacuum. Even stories that appear academic in nature can be propelled by a sense of pathos which comes from the heart of lived experience. That was certainly the case with this piece.

Something I was recently discussing with Jim Kovpak, who is raising hell across Eastern Ukraine at this very moment, is how much of everything we write about Russia is infused with countless memories from years gone by.

Memory juice

Memory juice

It might come as a surprise that an article referencing Thomas Khun and historical dialectics would be evocative of anything, at least anything personal.

But in truth, most of the ideas expressed on Russian Avos can be traced back to raucous nights that descended into drunken philosophizing, uninvited diatribes from cabbies and thugs, grey-skied tea time with neighbors and acquaintances, and everyone else that’s come my way since I first found myself dropped off in a rat-infested hole in northeastern Moscow all those years back.

They taught me everything I know about love.

They taught me everything I know about love.

The great American novelist Thomas Wolfe once said it took an entire village to make a single character in one of his books. And while I might not be writing 20th century’s greatest bildungsroman, even a blog about Russia has its inspirations, big and small.

Seemingly sterile sentences can be minefields of memory; pathos-free paragraphs an attempt to distill down a million floating fragments of lived experience into a single drop of coherence. Its funny how the mind words. An article you vaguely remember reading five years ago blends with a conversation you had six months back to create something new. You spend all that time collecting tesserae in your pocket, until one day you go about creating a mosaic. Results, of course, will vary.

The same can be said for my latest, where ideas formed while reading Khun many aeons ago on Fitzwilliam Street in Belfast collied with an op-ed I recently encountered in the Moscow Times by Jim Kovpak’s favorite whipping boy, Pyotr Romanov.

The piece which caught my eye (and my ire) is titled  ‘Russia Won’t Be Rushed by the West’. Such writing is really indicative of a tendency I (unfortunately) encountered quite often in Russia — the ability to condescendingly talk about your supposed backwardness; to arrogantly dismiss assumed arrogance; to use relativism as a whip to sanctimoniously lash out against judgment.

It’s why I keep returning to the undercurrent of cognitive dissonance in Russian society. It takes a lot of intellectual gymnastics to argue that a simmering latent inferiority complex is a manifestation of superiority, just as it takes a lot of prevaricating to say that the hallmark of Russia’s civilizational and spiritual superiority is a populace which, for some reason, is incapable of governing itself.

As for Romanov, if one had an interest in understanding how the Russian propaganda machine’s 4D tactic of rebuttal works, he would be a good place to start. Dismissal, distraction, distortion and dismay —most anything he writes is a semantic attempt to draw and quarter a straw man (if not a scarecrow.)

That'll show Obama!!!

That’ll show Obama!!!

And when it comes to Russia’s “special path”, it seems like the Russian people are destined to take a backseat and let the hand of fate steer them. Or, as Romanov puts it: “Russia will ripen when it ripens,” Russia has just one healer and helper — time.”

This special pleading is fatalistic to the core. It is the essence of Russian Avos (the concept, not my blog!), and it is also a deeply, deeply flawed proposition.

Why? Because there is no guarantee that Russia will ripen at all. Maybe it will rot and disintegrate; maybe it will be the mulch from which a new civilization arises. The world, after all, is littered with the graves of once-great (and not-so-great) civilizations.

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The problems is, when viewed in an ad hoc way, history can seem inevitable and progressive. Of the seemingly infinite variables at hand, there is a tendency to weave a web of meaning around those events which did transpire, as if there could have never been another way. And while there does appear to be an overall arc of development spanning the roughly 200,000 years of human existence, nothing should be taken as inevitable.

Although some steps in our historical timeline do necessitate the emergence of others (the industrial age certainly precipitated the information age), other steps were wholly unnecessary social and political constructs which led to needless centuries of stagnation. The bronze age most certainly begot the iron age, for example, but Europe’s 600 year feudal holding pattern was neither necessary or beneficial. That it was did not mean it ever had to be.

Ultimately, Romanov on the surface is right in arguing that a country’s unique history should always be taken into account when analyzing its current political order. That Moscow would take prominence over (and eventually subsume) the proto-democratic Novgorod Republic due to the former’s collaboration with the Mongols (among other factors) should not be overlooked in understanding Russia’s centuries-long dance with despotism.

But it also demonstrates that the absolutist, statist, expansionist and militarist aspects in contemporary Russia were not inevitable facets of Russian reality. If Novgorod proves anything, there was nothing intrinsically despotic about the “Russian soul” at all. That Russia was a victim of circumstances in the past does not mean it should forever be bound to them, though some, for various reasons, would disagree.

I think you should always be wary of system apologists who promise for tomorrow what they (or their patrons) are doing nothing to build today. Often, they are tearing down the very scaffolding which they claim they will climb in due time. It’s just an intellectual shell game to deflect criticsm from a regime which is selling out its own people while claiming their interest is one and the same.

That Venice, which, in the words of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, went from “economic powerhouse to museum”, proves that the elite, in a bid to maintain their privilege, can strangle the polity, sometimes irreparably.

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As Romanov himself said, this isn’t rocket science.

Despite my somewhat discursive analysis, you don’t have to dealve into dialectics or history to answer a few simple questions.

Over the past 15 years, has Putin’s administration worked to make a more or less inclusive political system? Have the instances when Moscow cracked down on democratic rights been warranted or necessray in light of any genuine existential threat? Has Putin used his 15 years in power to diversify the economy to the point where it is no longer exposed by the externalities impicit in any resource-cursed economy?

Speaking of rockets, that the same country which helped put the first man in space over half a century ago struggles to put a sensor on a rocket rightside up is telling. One Rocket crash may be a mistake. Fifteen in five years is systemic.

One only need to look at the swift pardoning of Evgeniya Vasilyeva, a former defense official who stole millions from the military, to see the signal being relayed from the government.

 (Adding insult to injury, Vasilyeva managed to weaponize the money she stole.)

Is it a coincidence that the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, was found to have committed $1.8 billion in financial violations in 2014 alone? Is it a coincidence that rockets are falling from the sky when such a vital agency can bleed nearly $2 billion in one year?

None of this is occurring in isolation. It starts at Putin’s one billion dollar Black Sea palace and ends with the postal worker stealing your mail. This is the house that Putin has build. And now some apologists are telling you to wait for it to come crashing down on your head rather thank pick up a hammer and fix the damned thing. Madness, utter madness.

As that old proverb goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Rather than plant treets, Putin is busy burning saplings for a patriotic orgy. He is robbing Russia of its future to give people a false sense of greatness today.

And frankly speaking, there is nothing unique about that path at all. But that doesn’t make it any less tragic.