Twerking leads to suicide? Russian propaganda break down

William Echols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soviet ghosts and dead politicians: Ukraine is on the brink 

William Echols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walking right into Russia’s trap 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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