CHooper's Post-Soviet Futures Blog CHooper's Post-Soviet Futures Blog blog brought to you by History News Network. Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 ( Not "Back in the USSR"

Cynthia V. Hooper is an Associate Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet History at College of the Holy Cross and an affiliate at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. She is currently completing a book entitled Terror From Within: Policing the Soviet Powerful, Under Stalin and Beyond.

Twenty years ago, when I was learning Russian one summer in St. Petersburg, I managed to lure both my best friend from college and my “little sister” from my local host family on a spontaneous and, in hindsight, somewhat ill-conceived trip to the middle of Siberia. My friend Mimi, who had prepped for her high-culture sojourn in the “Venice of the East” with Aleksandr Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” and a biography of Peter the Great, looked stunned when I first made the suggestion that we toss out the tour guides and head off for Lake Baikal. My explanation that it was the deepest lake in the world left her unimpressed. “Well, first of all,” she said “I grew up in Chicago – I’ve seen a lot of big bodies of fresh water in my time. Now I come all the way over here and you want me to get on another plane and fly another 12 hours, just to go see a new one?”

“Besides,” she added, as an afterthought. “Isn’t Siberia where people get exiled? Isn’t it cold there? Doesn’t everyone want to leave?”

 “Mimi,” I said, rolling my eyes in condescension. “That’s just in winter. This is summer.” I waved my fist in her face, excitedly. “Look! They are going to have strawberries there as big as my hand!”

 Eventually the three of us raced to the airport, to catch one of the then only twice-weekly planes. I carried a plastic bag stuffed with rubles to pay for our tickets in one hand, and a near-identical bag stuffed with our dinner, fried fish patties and a jar of eggplant spread, in the other. I felt a slight qualm when I saw the plane, a tiny, rusty machine that looked, to my unpracticed eye, as if it could have seen combat in World War Two. Another chill when I realized that my rudimentary Russian skills could, possibly, have led me to squander our entire stockpile of cash on three “one-way” tickets, instead of “round-trip” ones. And a final shock of horror when we landed, and I didn’t see any strawberries.

 A very, very long bus ride later, we were dropped off at the side of a lake, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. We hiked up a mountain where, thirsty and desperate, we knocked on a lone cabin door and asked the bushy-bearded artist who answered if we could sleep in a shed in his backyard. When we subsequently enquired if he knew where we could, say, buy some potatoes, he shrugged his shoulders and pointed at his garden. “Go dig,” he replied, and shut the door. While Mimi and I wandered around in shock, staring at an indeterminate mass of leafy green vegetation, Masha found the potatoes and showed us how to extract them. We proceeded to roam through the surrounding woods collecting mushrooms, which Masha unerringly sorted into “edible” and “fatally poisonous” piles. By the time we stumbled upon three boys, building another cabin, Mimi was, albeit grudgingly, speaking to me again. They had a guitar, and vodka, and matches, and knew how to build campfires and wanted to hear all about America. So we cooked the potatoes and mushrooms and began our Lake Baikal adventure.

 Today Masha is a literature professor, cool and poised, fluent in English, with a two-year-old daughter and a propensity not to mince words. She tells me about not only the best Russian books, but also the most hilarious British sitcoms (“Coupling” was one outstanding recommendation). But these days, her emails have a more somber tone, describing the situation in Ukraine and what she calls the “hysterical, chauvinistic and mendacious propaganda” in contemporary Russian media. Her disillusionment has deepened day by day. At the end of February, less than a week after former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich fled his country, she noted:

“While writing this letter I’m watching the news about Ukraine. We don’t know the real situation there; we don’t get any objective information, so it’s difficult for me to comment on the issue. I personally supported the protesters, but there were so many different people on Maidan, some of them were nationalists.  As for the Crimea, you probably know that the majority of people there (apart from the Crimean Tatar community) are very pro-Russian. That’s why they don’t support the new Ukrainian government. I just hope that we are not going to interfere in this chaos in any way. Though we have already done this when we let Yanukovich come to Russia. Such a silly step of our authorities.”

 Less than two weeks later, she sounded significantly more agitated, commenting on how, after the Winter Olympics, “any kind of demonstrations against anything are virtually banned and people get either arrested or fined for taking part in them.”

“But on the whole the worst thing about Russia now is that it’s consistently turning into a police state. I don’t think you can imagine the scale of anti-Ukrainian propaganda on our TV now… What really disturbs me in the case of Crimea is that many of my friends and relatives believe these obvious lies about fascists and nationalists threatening poor Russian (or Russian-speaking) people in Crimea, lies about “polite people in Russian army uniform” being not Russian soldiers but members of some mysterious self-defense units who apparently chose to buy themselves (can you believe that!) Russian military uniforms and the latest model of Kalashnikov… One journalist here said that this situation looks exactly like before the official Soviet intervention into Afghanistan, when our soldiers (also without any insignia) took part in military actions.”

The three boys from Siberia have had much more difficult lives. They never went to college, but learned to operate giant industrial drills, instead. Two of them spent several years in Norilsk, a former prison labor camp above the Arctic Circle, now home to one of the world’s largest nickel mining companies. One, Sergei – once tall, dark-haired, and dashing – drives a taxi and drinks every day. His parents had to flee for their lives into the Far North in the late 1990s, when a deal they’d borrowed money against fell through. Gangsters took over their apartment, in partial repayment of the loan. Sergei was left to shift for himself. He got married, got divorced, fell on his back from a construction-site scaffold, and now lives in constant pain. Yet this morning, the day before the Crimean vote, he texted me, in Cyrillic. “Cynthia, I’m thinking about you. I miss you. I’m with Danila and his family. We all say hi. ”

 Whatever their backgrounds, and whatever their histories, these are not people in any way desirous of alienating themselves from the Western world, as recently suggested in The New York Times.  Even 20 years ago, teenagers in Irkutsk danced to “La Macarena” and could quote lines from “The Godfather” with alacrity. The spread of computers, email, internet, cellphones, Skype, and text messages has only strengthened global ties. On New Year’s 1995, Mimi and I received a single-sentence telegram: “A hot hello from cold Norilsk.” We spent months admiring its clever brevity. Some six years later, after 9/11, my then-husband and I, living in Princeton, New Jersey, received calls and emails from across the former Soviet spaces: Armenia, Azerbaijan, even Mongolia. People called, or they called people in Moscow who could more easily phone overseas, or they went to internet cafes if they did not have a computer at home.  They remembered us, and they cared.

 They’ve also made their peace with the ideology of the free market. These days, people in Russia can have various attitudes to consumer culture and money and for-profit business and capitalist power. Some critique it, some embrace it in horrifyingly hedonistic fashion, some regard it with jealousy. But they all engage with it. Younger people can’t even imagine a Berlin Wall, or a world divided by a second Iron Curtain.

During my years in Russia, I many times heard the phrase “the people are good, it’s just the state that is bad.” Ironically, as a historian, I have spent a significant number of hours trying to deconstruct that statement in my scholarly work. The people, after all, make up the state and bear, so the theory goes, some responsibility for the way it works. Now I find myself struggling anew to understand the relationship between individuals and the systems of power that surround them. Putin is popular, and not all of that popularity is fake, or a consequence of fear.  The steps he is taking in talking tough with U.S. and European leaders, refusing to meet with the new government of Ukraine, muzzling the press in both Russia and the Crimea, stationing troops across the Black Sea peninsula, and casting the sole vote against a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the referendum on secession taking place in the region today, have pushed his approval rating up somewhere in the range of 71.6 percent (at least according to a poll released by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion). Yes, he has ruthlessly silenced any outspoken voices of opposition, but even such heavy-handed crushing of independent voices has apparently failed to generate widespread ire. So now what can we possibly expect those who object to his policies to do? And how do we account for his sustained mass appeal?

Late at night on Saturday, typing this post over bottle of wine, as increasingly grim news bulletins about Russian actions around the Crimea begin to trickle in, I find myself wondering in somewhat maudlin fashion if something I care about has been irreparably broken.  But I believe in the Russian people, and I know that even most of those who are pro-Putin are not in favor of another Cold War. 


Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 0
The Double Standards of Crimean Cold-War Diplomacy CLICK HERE TO READ "The Double Standards of Crimean Cold-War Diplomacy"]]> Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 0 Crimea: Power on Display

“Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia in the hearts and minds of our people,” President Vladimir Putin proclaimed Tuesday, in announcing his country’s decision to annex the region. His speech, in the Grand Kremlin Palace, was met with boisterous applause and tears of joy. Such a piece of elaborate political theater – like the referendum held across the peninsula last Sunday – illustrates the propensity for history to repeat itself in a region that has always been regarded as one of symbolic as well as strategic value. Throughout the centuries, Russian leaders have used the Crimea as a stage from which to send messages of greatness both to their own people and to the world, orchestrating elaborate pageants cast as victories of enlightenment values over poverty, ignorance, or outright barbarism. These “scenarios of power” have frequently involved a hefty element of artifice – and the decision of a whopping 97% of Crimean voters to endorse union with Russia is no exception. (Apparently even an enthusiastic number of “dead souls” stepped straight out of the pages of a Nikolai Gogol novel to head for the polls, with over 123% of the population of the city of Sevastopol voting to secede from Ukraine, at least according to Euromaidan.)

In the past, however, political leaders invested considerable effort into luring their audiences into believing in the bright appearances paraded before them.  Putin, in contrast, seems far less concerned about the question of belief, signaling his disregard for the opinions of incredulous observers, particularly those from overseas, at every turn. Desirous for voters in Crimea to produce a resounding verdict of support for Russia this past weekend, he did not appear overly discomfited about littering the path towards such a display of overwhelming “togetherness” with tell-tale signs of the heavy-handed “staging process” involved in its manufacture. And sadly, upwards of 70% of his domestic audience did not seem to care either, embracing current events with a burst of patriotism. Even the great reformer Mikhail Gorbachev has spoken out in favor of annexation, describing it not as a top-down takeover, but as a bottom-up, democratic movement in which “the people of Crimea” have sought to correct an egregious Soviet-era mistake

A Fresh Conquest

The place of Crimea as a center of modern Russian symbolic politics arguably began with Catherine the Great, who made it a defining ambition of her reign to win her sprawling but largely landlocked realm a major port along the Black Sea. After years of war with the Ottoman Empire, the Russian army – under the leadership of one of Catherine’s most legendary lovers, Prince Grigory Potemkin – annexed the Crimean peninsula in 1783. Left in charge of the Empire’s newest prize possession, Potemkin founded the Imperial Black Sea Fleet in the city of Sevastopol – the same fleet whose bases in the region have been such a source of contention between Russia and Ukraine in recent weeks.  He also did his best to develop the formerly Tatar territory, building roads and cities, planting vineyards, and, according to historian Robert Massie, importing everything from cattle to silkworms to mulberries to melon seeds. Four years later, Potemkin persuaded Catherine, then 58, to embark on a grand, months-long tour of her conquered lands, which the two of them both proudly referred to as “New Russia.” It was quite an elaborate event. The Empress left St. Petersburg in January, to travel with her court in giant horse-drawn sleighs over the snow to Kiev, from where, in the spring, she set sail down the Dnieper River to the Black Sea.  She and her entourage occupied seven galley ships, followed every day by 80 smaller vessels carrying some 3000 service personnel, including “doctors apothecaries, musicians, cooks, engineers, hairdressers, silver polishers, washerwomen” and a host of other functionaries.

Potemkin meticulously plotted out the route, eager to impress not only the Tsarina but also her international entourage, which included Emperor Joseph II of Austria, travelling incognito under the name of “Count Falkenstein.” So anxious was the Governor General to convey an impression of happiness and prosperity that, legend has it, he lined Catherine’s route with what became known as “Potemkin villages” – brightly painted pasteboard facades of neat peasant dwellings, in front of which his own soldiers would masquerade in “native” clothing, dancing and singing and bowing their heads as the glorious regatta passed by. However artificial the spectacle might have been, Catherine was delighted. Her letters back to the capitol boasted: “It is no exaggeration to say that everything is being built and planted here in the best way possible.”

Historians today are divided about the true extent of Potemkin’s theatrics. But at the time, rumors of these fake villages provided rich fodder for the Governor’s rivals, and in later years, they blossomed into a popular theme of European literary imagination. In 1856, German writer Luise Muehlbach, a woman with a penchant for writing multi-volume historical novels (and this in the day when you still had to dip your pen into an inkwell every five words), published an account of Joseph II and His Court (a mere 12 volumes) in which she cast the Austrian Emperor as a noble and progressive leader, growing increasingly frustrated with Catherine’s disregard for the welfare of her subjects, as well as with her voracious appetites for territory and power. One cannot but feel sorry for Muehlbach’s version of the European ruler, trapped on a boat with a greedy, gullible woman and all the while seeing through the labyrinthine fictions that surrounded her:

“All the pomp and splendor which Potemkin had conjured from the ashes of a conquered country could not deceive Joseph. Behind the stately edifices which had sprung up like the palaces of Aladdin, he saw the ruins of a desolated land; in the midst of the cheering multitudes, whom Potemkin had assembled together to do homage to Catherine, he saw the grim-visaged Tatars whose eyes were glowing with deadly hatred of her who had either murdered or driven into exile 50 thousand of their race.”

Concealing the Cost of Victory

Over a century later, and the Crimea again played host to a coalition of global leaders, with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill flying to Yalta to meet up with Josef Stalin for the second “Big Three” conference of World War Two in February 1945. By then, the tide of war had turned. The Red Army was only 40 miles from Berlin, and the rest of the world found itself heavily indebted to the USSR for bearing the brunt of the fight against Adolf Hitler. (Four out of every five German soldiers who died in WWII did so on the Eastern Front.) The Kremlin thus appeared to be in the driver’s seat, in discussions to determine the shape of post-war Europe. As future Secretary of State James Byrnes remarked, “It was not a question of what we could let the Russians do, but what we could get the Russians to do.”

 Yet the Soviet Union was not as strong as it appeared. The country was in ruins, with Stalin, even then, determined to keep his Western Allies from understanding the full extent of Soviet devastation. The Crimea itself had been occupied by Nazis for almost three years, liberated just months before the Big Three meeting, and the entire Tatar population, almost 200,000 people, had been subsequently loaded into cattle cars and deported, amid accusations of Nazi collaboration. Some 45% of them died.

 Overall, by the time of the conference, the Soviets had lost at least 20 million citizens, and across the country, people were starving. There was no food, no undamaged housing, almost no residential electricity or running water. Five-year-olds worked in factories to keep the war effort going.  Amid such a shattered landscape, Stalin’s invitation to host a 700-plus member Allied delegation generated consternation among the NKVD officers in charge of projecting an image of Soviet hospitality and pride. Historian Rick Atkinson describes the efforts involved to get Yalta ready:

“Thousands of Red Army soldiers filled bomb craters, refurbished gutted houses, and shoveled manure from nineteenth-century palaces that the Germans had used to stable their horses. 1500 rail coaches ran from Moscow, a four-day journey, bringing carpets, window glass, and even brass doorknobs, which the absconding enemy had sawed off and carried away. Chefs, waiters, chambermaids, maîtres d’s, linens, beds, curtains, dishes, and silverware were gathered from [Moscow hotels] for duty at Yalta. Each night a Russian convoy swept across the Crimea, rooting through farmhouses, boarding rooms and schools for shaving mirrors, washbowls, coat hangers, clocks, and paintings. Swarms of plasterers, plumbers, painters, electricians, and glazers worked around the clock. 500 Romanian prisoners-of-war planted shrubs and semitropical flowers in riotous profusion.”

Intelligence officials listened in to guest conversations to make adjustments. One Soviet officer recollected that, after Churchill airily wished for a lemon slice in his gin-and-tonic one evening, the entire behind-the-scenes Soviet support staff was mobilized to scour the razed surroundings, somehow producing a little lemon tree, laden with fruit, by the time the next day’s pre-dinner drinks were poured. (Other accounts claim it was Churchill’s daughter, who requested lemon on her caviar.)

Despite such astonishing feats, the Soviets simply didn’t have enough hotel rooms, lavatories, or bedbug-free beds to completely avoid Western complaints. The missives relayed then (“Regret necessity for 19 full colonels sleeping one room” by the British delegation, for example), echo the tweets of reporters upset with their accommodations at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games this past January (“Will trade two working lightbulbs for one doorknob. Serious offer.”) Sochi is, of course, not exactly in Crimea – it’s about a 17-hour circuitous drive to another picturesque beach location down the Black Sea coast, though much less far over water, as the crow flies. But the 2014 Games arguably also belong among these examples of power on display.  

We Could See Crimea From Our House in Sochi

$51 billion dollars – the heftiest Games price tag in history – was spent to build up Sochi and win the world’s good will (oops!) by projecting Russian athletic accomplishment, a spirit of welcome, and a beautiful, weirdly imaginative version of the country’s history. In this rendition, a nation comprised solely of dancing aristocrats in ballgowns, including a love-struck Natasha and Pierre from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, rather seamlessly morphed into a nation of dancing workers in overalls, racing around with ladders, smiling, and building machines in unison. In the words of one Guardian reporter blogging the ceremony live: “I’ve got absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but it’s very pleasant.” The end of the Soviet Union seemed to be captured by a little girl letting go of a red balloon. 

Now, Olympic Games ceremonies do not require and have never received any measure of historical accuracy. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and when we hosted the Summer Games in 1996, our Opening Ceremonies involved a lot of John Deere product placement, with trucks and cheerleaders wheeling through the stadium as a medley of different genres of Southern music played in the background. (The truly memorable moment came when Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame.)  It’s just notable how in all such instances, any mention of war, slavery, or violent transformation seems to end up on the cutting-room floor.

And this year, of course, there was the story of the Olympic Rings. Can we just digress briefly onto that issue? First, in the Opening Ceremonies, one of five snowflakes actually, embarrassingly, failed to open into a Ring. Then came reports that ORT, the state-run Russian television station broadcasting the Games to the host-country audience, had shown all the snowflakes functioning perfectly, due to an extremely prompt switch from live broadcast coverage to dress-rehearsal video. Wow. Really? Having worked in television for several years before graduate school, I can assure you that producers don’t generally have rehearsal footage perfectly queued up to seamlessly cover for any live snafu unless they’ve been given pretty precise directives well in advance. As in “you will show the Russian people a perfect Opening Ceremony so that they can take pride in their country, no matter what.” Amid the hullaballoo about Soviet-style censorship (and the old Socialist Realist adage that ‘tis better to show the world not as it is, but as it should be), ORT executives claimed that their sleight-of-hand was a harmless “open secret,” done out of respect for all that the Rings represented to the world. Finally, in a very witty move, dancers in the Closing Ceremonies imitated the earlier malfunction, forming themselves into Rings, but for one group, which huddled into a small, snowflake-like clump – until amid audience laughter, the performers re-assembled in perfect formation. Great to show Russia’s ability to laugh at itself, great to show it doesn’t keep negative information from its own people – a master stroke of PR. But imagine the secret meetings, not to mention secret rehearsals, that must have been held, to get the joke agreed upon, choreographed, and practiced, all while the Games were already underway. Secret snowflake damage-control brainstorming sessions must have been going on within hours of the initial faux-pas.

 Potemkin Villages of the 21st Century: Success or Failure?

 This weekend we witnessed a far less humorous moment of image management back in the Crimea, as citizens there voted on a referendum about whether to join together with the Russian Federation. Given Crimea’s 58% ethnic Russian population, such a proposition – legal or no – seemed destined to garner majority support, if only by a narrow margin. And therein, at least for me, lies the rub. In my opinion, the Kremlin could have recused the thousands of troops it sent out from its naval bases to blockade Ukrainian military installations and occupy the region’s communication and transportation centers. Putin could have called in more international monitors, offered to meet with Tatar leaders, and talked up tolerance and popular sovereignty. And Russia still would have won the referendum, and in a vote that would not have been so easy for world leaders to dismiss.

But for some reason, a closer vote conducted in a more legitimate fashion was not what Kremlin leaders were after. Instead, they preferred to generate a more overwhelming, if also more manufactured, show of popular enthusiasm for Russian union that will forever cast the legitimacy of Sunday’s outcome in doubt. Russian soldiers oversaw the voting, for which more ballots were printed than number of people alive in Crimea and from which many dissenting groups abstained. The two lone ballot questions did not even include “no” as an option. In the ten days or so leading up to the rushed plebiscite, Ukrainian television channels in Crimea were taken off the air and replaced with Russian ones.  Local reporters were forbidden to refer to the situation surrounding them as an “occupation.” A number of less compliant journalists were attacked, detained, and had their equipment confiscated or destroyed.


Pro-Russian authorities in Crimea marketed the voters’ choice as one between Nazi fascism and freedom, the former inevitable with continued alliance to Kiev and the latter attainable only via the Kremlin.  According to The Daily Beast, billboards for the referendum showed “two maps of Crimea, one painted in bright Russian colors, the other darker and enveloped by a Swastika.” Another successful bit of Imperial stagecraft – and in the same historic tropes of Enlightenment righteousness locked in battle against dark brutality.  Yet now, the technology of the 21st century has made the sordid realities behind at least this particular display of orchestrated “unanimity” much harder to hide. The question is, however, whether the appearance of artifice – in particular the state-directed manipulation of media – really makes much of a difference. For demagogic politics and the whipping up of mass patriotism, the spectacle of national greatness seems to matter far more than the integrity of the processes that underlie it.  Caught up in the emotions of collective jubilation, or of anger at a shared (albeit possibly exaggerated, or even invented) enemy, many citizens – in all countries –show a marked unwillingness in today’s world to look behind the scenes.



Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 0
Ukraine Crisis in Russia

Travels to Russia (Part One)

22. April 2014

Nothing like a shot of adrenaline, when suffering from jet lag. After arriving in St. Petersburg on Tuesday (coincidentally the 144th birthday of Vladimir Lenin), I crashed for 12 hours, only to wake up, groggy, to television headlines proclaiming:

1. Ukraine has turned off all water supplies to the peninsula of Crimea  (which run through the North Crimean canal, normally at 50 cubic meters per second). TV and internet news sites in Russian are showing pictures of empty canal trenches and calling such actions "inhuman."

2. Ukraine has started a second round of military "special operations" in the East which the U.S is supporting. (This report plays on the one remaining independent Russian cable TV station Dozhd -- "Rain" -- that has been dropped by major satellite carriers in recent months, only to be handed a potential olive branch by Vladimir Putin at his news conference on 17. April. So is the story true? Or is it one more shaped to please the Russian government, as part of a peace-making quid-pro-quo -- Dozhd survives, but they do a better job of towing the official line?) On second thought, I'm confused - did I really hear that at all? My Russian "second family," people who have known me for 20 years, are all talking, loudly, in one tiny little kitchen, over the already-loud TV and as the report goes on, it's easy to get confused. "How did you sleep?" "What do you want to drink, tea or coffee?" "Don't bother her Sergei, she's working." "Was it too cold last night?" "Sergei, I told you that shelf is too low, she keeps hitting it with her head.""Eat, you have to eat."

"Ummm, " I ask, shaking my head to clear it. "Did they just say the U.S. is directing military actions in East Ukraine?" 

"Well, they could have said it!" answered my Russian dad without missing a beat. "Because it's true!" There followed an animated discussion about the surreptitious visit of CIA Director John Brennan to Kiev earlier this month, with Brennan allegedly flying in under an assumed name and flying out the next day, apparently just before Ukraine announced its first "anti-terrorist campaign" against eastern separatists. Now THAT story made me laugh. Until I checked it on the internet, and found out that the CIA had confirmed the visit "as part of pre-scheduled trip to Europe." Dang - a hundred stories about Ukraine a day, and that's the one I miss.  

Unquestionably many people here are certain that the U.S. has been secretly meddling in Ukrainian internal politics in hopes of curbing Russian influence, long before the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych. (“Revolutions are Carried Out in Public Squares, But Prepared Behind Closed Doors,” reads one tabloid headline, with a picture of Secretary of State John Kerry shaking hands with members of Ukraine’s interim government. On the next page: "The USA Was Planning to Build Its Own Bases in Crimea.")  Many Russians are similarly convinced that amorphous U.S. “forces” are currently overseeing Kiev efforts to re-assert control in Eastern Ukraine, in much the same way that we Americans are pretty sure of Russia’s involvement in directing the separatist movement there. (Ukraine’s chief of intelligence today claimed that as many as 100 Russian military intelligence officers and special forces troops are “leading the seizures of towns and local governments” in the region of Donetsk and even “paying local criminal gangs to help” in the attacks. )

 My Russian host mother has never voted for Russian President Vladimir Putin and supports domestic movements calling for Russia to stay out of Ukrainian affairs. But even she agrees that both superpowers, not Russia alone, are using Ukraine as pawn in a larger superpower struggle.  Her husband, my host father, is a softie at heart but someone who likes to “shumit” as they say in Russian, meaning “to cause a stir” or “make a lot of noise.” The examples of Russian persecution at the hands of Ukrainian authorities are legion, he proclaims, offering, as example, the fact that Ukraine has barred all Russian men from the ages of 16 to 60 from entering their country. (An internet fact check suggests a somewhat less dramatic story, with the pro-Moscow television station “Rossiia 24” reporting that Ukraine has in recent weeks tried to restrict the number of men aged 25-40 from crossing the border, and that a total of approximately 1000 people have been denied admittance.) “And the pilots!” my Russian father exclaimed. “Don’t forget the Russian pilots!” Turns out that on March 9 in Kharkov and March 12 in Donetsk, Ukrainian officials had, in violation of international agreements, barred Russian pilots flying commercial jets to and from Moscow, from leaving their planes to spend the night in local hotels before their return routes the next day. An Aeroflot representative protested that the pilots “were not only forced to sleep in their airplanes, but also in the presence of and under the constant surveillance of border guards.” Really? Pity the poor Ukrainian guard who got stuck with that shift – and had to spend the entire night on an airplane seat, awake, keeping tabs on a sleeping Russian pilot. Sometimes there is such a disconnect between the garish language of global crisis and the petty, even comic, acts in which that crisis can play out on the ground...

I see another kind of disconnect in St. Petersburg, where life, at least in my small Russian circle, is ordinary and everyday. My friends from the States text (admittedly somewhat in jest) “What’s the mood in Russia? Do they have the bloodlust?” but really, Ukraine here feels as far away as Iraq – a distant place seen through pictures on TV. The atmosphere here couldn’t be further from that of an alleged Second Cold War: Americans and Europeans stream in and out of the airport, and a giant Starbucks greets new arrivals as soon as they pass through customs. People voice much more concern over how to find the entrance to new airport parking than over how to negotiate a new state of superpower rivalry. A grouchy security guard chewed me out yesterday – but for spinning a baby in her stroller in the middle of a subway station (a near-empty one, in my defense) and generally causing a little happy commotion, not for being American. “This is a place of public transport!” he snarled.  “Try to behave like an adult!”

 I can’t help wondering, not to sound overly dramatic, if the same texture of everyday normalcy prevailed back just before World War One began, in the time between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June, 1914 in Sarajevo, and the start of Austro-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia one month later, on 28 July. WWI was a completely preventable war, and that month between the shooting of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the outbreak of military hostilities reads, today, as a succession of spectacular diplomatic failures, full of missed opportunities to have averted armed conflict. For most inhabitants of Austria, the assassination itself barely registered in the days that immediately followed news of the event; citizens demonstrated neither mass displays of grief nor mass outpourings of indignation. Other countries similarly showed little initial alarm.  In Paris, for example, on June 30, “at the first cabinet meeting since the events in Sarajevo,” the deaths of Franz Ferdinand and his wife “were barely mentioned. The attention of the French public, meanwhile, was riveted on the scandalous case of Madame Caillaux, a politician’s wife who had murdered the editor of a right-wing newspaper after he threatened to publish damaging material about her husband.”

It strikes me as both odd and alarming how little people can get sucked into global events from one day to the next. The world would change forever with that war, yet throughout that month of bellicose diplomatic one-upsmanship at the highest levels of power, most of the millions of people who would die over the course of the next four years had no idea what kind of crisis lay before them.

Life in Petersburg also suggests that people are not perfectly consistent, and can often champion incompatible views at the same time. Specifically, they can feel a certain amount of emotional satisfaction, say, at Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or they can answer a poll saying they support Putin (and so contribute to a presidential approval rating currently hovering at about 80%) and yet they can still want their children to study in the United States, admire our country, and revel in its culture. They can sympathize with the Ukrainians, and they can feel confused by the different stories they hear from different media sources. They don’t feel like a vote for Putin involves choosing sides against the West or committing to some kind of terrible clash. In fact, one of the first things I heard that first morning I awoke to strident television stories was a joke: “Did you hear the results of the latest poll? 70% of Russians believe Alaska should belong to Russia. 80% of Russians are prepared to sacrifice their lives in the glorious struggle to reclaim Alaska. And 90% of Russians don’t know where Alaska is.” You can be patriotic, but also laugh at patriotism, or even at your own and others’ gullibility. We should be careful of reading public opinion in such simple, neatly packaged ways.

Is It War? Travels to Russia (Part Two)

24. April 2014

Breaking news - military conflict around Slavyansk. Russia's First Channel is showing pictures of a serious military operation, billowing black smoke, and blockaded streets. Barricades of tires and trees have been set aflame. Russian journalists cannot get through checkpoints; separatists speaking over the phone from inside Slavyansk are promising to resist. Putin says: "If Ukraine is using force against its own people, there will, without question, be serious consequences. Dialogue is needed." Both sides appear heavily armed. I hear, in St. Petersburg, that separatists weeks ago gained access to a government weapons stockpile, stored in an old coal mine near Donetsk.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 0
Is the Only Solution for Ukraine an Appalling One?

CLICK HERE TO READ "Only an Appalling Solution in Ukraine?"

Even if mountains of cold hard cash were at hand, Ukraine will never make it, without more middle ground being found among the country's main superpower patrons. And quickly! 

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 0
We Are Not Ukraine: Kazakhstan Stages a Show of National Reassurance

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- In Kazakhstan, the government is anxious to demonstrate to its people that the fighting that has riven Ukraine for the past four months could never happen at home – inside a country which has, since Soviet times, been advertised for its ethnic diversity. (As one state employee told me, tongue-in-cheek, Kazakhstan is routinely praised for its 150 different national and ethnic groups, although researchers have never actually discovered more than 80.) Today the regime of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, an autocrat who has led Kazakhstan since independence in 1991 via ritual “elections” held every five years, is, I am told, focusing its full public-relations powers on advertising not only the country’s vast diversity but also, and more importantly, its alleged harmony – exactly that which is missing, these days, in Ukraine.

In order to emphasize the country’s rock-solid level of peaceful coexistence, the government is, of course, relying on media censorship in which the conflict in Ukraine is barely mentioned on television, and when, then “gently and carefully” referenced, with an absence of dramatic pictures that show any fighting. (Their coverage varies tremendously with that found in Russia, where the government also controls most television media, but where state-sponsored reporting of the Ukraine crisis strives to be maximally sensational, and to upset and excite its viewers through exaggerated stories of anti-Russian conspiracy and persecution. One such example is the arson attack on Odessa's House of Trade Unions, in which at least 40 pro-Russian activists died: Russian television is not only blaming the tragedy on "Nazi-fascists" but also repeating, over and over again, elaborate tales of the attackers shooting and killing anyone who tried to jump out the windows of the burning building and later rifling through the charred corpses for valuables -- all echoes of genuine, well-known Nazi atrocities perpetrated during World War Two.) 

In addition to ignoring such events, the Nazarbayev regime is also focusing on what, in Soviet times, was referred to as “positive censorship,” staging ostentatious mass demonstrations of the love that all its citizens ostensibly share. Thus in the capital of Astana on May 1, Kazakhzan touted the “peace and harmony” of its citizenry through a succession of parades and performances in which official representatives of the country’s various ethnic groups dressed in their different national costumes, performed their different national dances, and shared their different national foods. All this took place on International Workers’ Day, a holiday observed in more than 80 countries and one which, in the Soviet Union, politicians had always associated with the turbulent struggle of the world’s poor for justice against the powerful and propertied.  In 1996, however, five years after the collapse of the USSR, a set of extremely powerful and well-propertied Kazakh leaders decided to re-make the holiday into a celebration of national (rather than international) strength, re-naming it the Day of Unity of the Peoples of Kazakhstan.  By focusing on an alleged constant state of “unity” rather than a one-time moment of “unification,” the holiday also emphasizes a condition of political stability rather than an instant of political change. This affirmation of the Kazakh status quo on the first of May is all the more ironic, of course, given that in the USSR, International Workers’ Day was always exalted as a tribute to revolution, and that worldwide, the holiday originated as an organized challenge to the established order. Then, on May 1, 1890, socialist leaders from number of different countries called on “all the workers of the world” to commemorate the so-called Haymarket Massacre, a violent clash in Chicago four years earlier between striking American laborers and police, by marching in global support of the eight-hour workday. (Then, too, United States leaders revealed a concern for political symbolism similar to that displayed by Kazakh rulers more than a century later, with President Grover Cleveland seeking to avoid sympathetic commemoration of the Haymarket struggle by announcing an alternate national “Labor Day” holiday designed to focus on the accomplishments of specifically American workers and their ostensibly “harmonious” relationship with U.S. business that would be celebrated not in May, but at the beginning of each September.)

Nevertheless, historical precedent aside, on Thursday a “great holiday weekend” began in Kazakhstan, during which time every citizen was encouraged to rejoice, as per the state news agency, “in the friendship and accord between different ethnic groups living under one sky.” President Nazarbayev proclaimed unity to be the core of the Kazakh state, pronouncing: “We are a country home to different nations and peoples. And our unity, our brotherhood is the essence of peace. When people live in friendship, peace, and harmony they achieve true happiness. I want people to develop this country together. Then life will be improved and our children will look toward the future with great confidence.” The multicultural celebrations that followed were scripted, and participation in them by low-level officials was required. Nazarbayev, who enjoys an elaborate “cult of personality” in Kazakhstan, spoke in an idiom dating back to the post-WWII Soviet period, when Josef Stalin was similarly heralded as the “father of all peoples” and the “gardener of human happiness.” Nazarbayev is not only skilled at holding on to power, but he is also an extremely wealthy man, siphoning off a share of the country’s oil and gas revenues every year, with a long record of corruption – documented in snippets such as those when in 1999, for instance, as Seymour Hersh noted in The New Yorker, “Swiss banking officials discovered $85 million intended for the Kazakh treasury in what seemed to be President Nazarbayev’s personal account.” Yet media laws designed for the "protection of the Presidency" forbid the domestic publication of any such charges.

Meanwhile, the news from Ukraine continues to worsen, with reports of more troops massing outside Slovyansk, pro-Russian rebels (somehow armed with shoulder-launch anti-aircraft missiles!) shooting down two government helicopters, more riots in Odessa, and economic breakdown across eastern Ukraine, where most workers report they are no longer being paid. Observers struggle to parse apart what is actually taking place on the ground, with both sides distorting facts and trading accusations. Separatists say the Ukrainians are bombing civilians, while Kiev authorities claim rebels are using those civilians as human shields. As Keith Darden recently wrote in The New York Times, “An absence of legitimate authority in eastern Ukraine has left an absence of transparent, agreed-upon facts — a breeding ground for suspicion and manipulative diplomatic games on the margins of the truth that may yet carry the region to war.” Darden’s “war on truth,” however, can come in many forms, generating pretty pictures of smiling faces as well as conflicting accounts of violence. As one political science student in Almaty commented, in a recent discussion about freedom of the press: "Why should I want to hear all the ugly details of the fighting in Ukraine when they will just upset me? And why should people here read about them? That kind of information will only make people from different groups think about fighting each other here. It's just unsettling, and why is that necessary?" It bears mentioning, that a number of his classmates took issue with his comments. Yet they illustrate how sometimes an absence of disagreement can be almost as disconcerting as a lack of any agreement at all. 

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 0
The War Against the Nazis: A Source of Cold War Antagonism and Current Superpower Conflict

WWII Victory Day celebrations in Moscow on May 9, 2014

In the conflict in Ukraine, information is a major weapon. Those vying for power in both east and west not only make it a priority to control the media, especially the television broadcasts, in their respective sectors, but also show little hesitation about distorting or even inventing breaking news in order to play for the sympathies of a wider audience outside the country. History is part of this information war, and this weekend, the anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe, promises to be a particularly tense time – with the four-day holiday providing space and alcohol-inflamed opportunity for chauvinistic displays among the poor and underemployed men who make up the most “committed” cadres of extreme nationalists on either side of the political struggle. In addition, the commemoration of what both Ukrainians and Russians call “Victory Day” (and what we, in the U.S., denote as V-E Day and honor with far less fanfare than August 15, 1945, which marked the end of war against Japan) provides a key symbolic moment for each group to advertise its own alleged moral superiority – with both supporters of the Kiev government in the west and separatists in the east casting themselves as the true descendants of those who heroically did battle against a cruel and repressive dictatorship.

For the U.S. and Russia, the two superpowers who have taken such an “interest” in Ukraine’s political turmoil, V-E Day could be upheld as a past example of successful diplomacy and as a model for future collaboration in resolving today’s crisis. After all, it stands for a moment when East and West worked together – as part of the “Big Three” coalition of the U.S., Great Britain, and the USSR – to bring down Adolf Hitler. Yet even the initial V-E Day in May of 1945 was an imperfect joint triumph, one marred by troubling indications of just how quickly a U.S.-Russian alliance could dissolve and one global cataclysm spill into another.

The sad fact is that the Big Three allies do not even commemorate the same Victory Day – with the U.S. and Great Britain celebrating on May 8, and Russia and the other former Soviet republics on May 9. As the war in Europe wound down, Wehrmacht commanders preferred to yield to the Americans – as noted in New York Times headlines reading “Pattern of Reich’s End: Surrender in West with Resistance in East Appears to be German Plan.” On May 7, 1945, military leaders capitulated unconditionally in France, at a red schoolhouse in Reims that served as the headquarters for U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the time, Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s sensibilities were not completely ignored: journalists present were banned from reporting the event for 36 hours and told that Allied leaders wished to make a synchronized victory announcement. But when the Associated Press broke the story without authorization, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Harry Truman both declared an end to the European war on May 8, in proud speeches to their respective nations. The Russians, however, remained silent. Red Army troops were still fighting in Prague and, as one journalist noted, “When Mr. Churchill was addressing the British people, the Moscow radio was imperturbably broadcasting its usual ‘children’s music hour.’” Stalin proclaimed victory only on May 9, after the terms of surrender were ratified in Berlin and signed by the legendary Soviet war hero Marshal Gennady Zhukov, who had engineered the successful defenses of Moscow and Stalingrad, then led the Red Army westward into Germany.

Thus one can argue that the Cold War began even before the Second World War came to an end. Certainly in Soviet popular culture, the two different victory days indicated Western determination to take undue credit for “liberating Europe” after the D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 7, 1944. Many years later, Russian President Vladimir Putin made it a priority to remind the western world both of the extent of Red Army heroism in fighting the Nazis virtually alone on the European continent for more than three years, and of the degree to which Russia’s contribution to the defeat of Hitler had been minimized in western histories during the Cold War era. In 2005, Putin invited over 50 national leaders to Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of V-E Day, prompting a flood of positive press around the world, with U.S. President George Bush, for example, lauding “the great bravery and sacrifice of the Russian people.”

 U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin wave to the press, following a ride in Putin’s 1956 Volga on the eve of Victory Day celebrations in Moscow in 2005.

Initially allied with Nazi Germany in a “marriage of convenience” from 1939-1941, the Soviet Union was notoriously taken unawares when on June 22, 1941 the Wehrmacht launched the largest invasion the world had ever seen, unleashing four million men, 3300 tanks, and 5000 airplanes in a surprise attack against their purported “partner.” During the first four months of combat, the Germans captured territory twice the size of France, containing half of Soviet industry, 40% of the country’s grain production, and 60% of its livestock. They also took some three million Soviet soldiers prisoner, most of whom were left to starve in vast barbed-wire pens under open air. Moscow came so close to falling that first winter of 1941 that NKVD operatives secretly smuggled the corpse of Vladimir Lenin out of the mausoleum built alongside Kremlin walls and shipped it, in the dead of night, to the small Siberian town of Omsk for safekeeping. On November 7, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Soviet troops paraded through Red Square in front of Stalin – then continued to march directly to frontline barracks, just a few miles away. The fate of Europe hung in the balance. At the time, citizens in England and the U.S., even those with staunch anti-Communist credentials, began to lavish praise on Red Army military accomplishments. Ultimately, many came to hope that the Soviets might, somehow, manage to hold out against the Nazis until the western Allies could open a second European front – something that leaders cautioned would take time. Newspaper articles in Britain mournfully noted the vast amount of work needed to transform their nation's "power to hold the line" into the “power to strike with deadly force."

Nevertheless, and whether justified or no, many Soviet citizens came to resent the Western Allies for failing to launch a full-scale European invasion more quickly. From 1941 to 1944, Red Army troops sarcastically referred to SPAM, cans of bright-pink lunch meat flown in from the United States through the Lend-Lease program, as “the Western Front.” And when the invasion of Normandy finally began, although Soviet forces joined the U.S. and Great Britain in jubilant thanksgiving, many also believed the operation had come only after the Red Army – following bloody but decisive triumphs at Stalingrad and Kursk – had already insured Nazi defeat. One cartoon printed in Soviet newspapers during the week after D-Day showed Hitler as a rat, with his head caught in a Russian trap and a British-American sword belatedly descending upon its defenseless backside.

Soviet media also drew public attention to the way Western coverage of the war changed in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion. In part, this shift was driven not by anti-Soviet sentiment as much as by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s domestic political concerns. Afraid of losing popular support for a military operation which he feared could involve significant U.S. casualties (with American troops still locked in horrific combat against the Japanese and many U.S. citizens still ambivalent about the merits of a direct attack on Germany), Roosevelt was determined to have the D-Day invasion generate positive headlines and a wave of patriotism. Thus he oversaw the launching of a tremendous public-relations campaign (similar to that practiced by the U.S. during the Second Gulf War), in which a handful of reporters such as a young Walter Cronkite sailed or flew across the English Channel with U.S. troops, under fire, and a larger press corps followed behind a day later, to march with Eisenhower through France along what they came to term a “highway of liberty.” Red Army exploits in the East disappeared from U.S. headlines, and, instead, D-Day was almost immediately mythologized as “the climactic battle of World War Two” and the turning point of the war. (Time Magazine’s 60th anniversary tribute to WWII called D-Day the “24 Hours that Saved the World.”) Western papers, both at the time and then later, failed to report that at the moment of the Normandy invasion, Germany had only 15 divisions stationed in the West and fewer than 15 in Northern Africa, but a whopping 228 engaged along the Eastern Front. However, Soviet citizens were keenly aware of such disparities.

Nazis worked to exploit such tensions among the Allies during the final months of war.

As two armies marched on Berlin, one from the West and one from the East, Nazi propaganda markedly shifted from advertising Aryan racial superiority to emphasizing the threat that a Red Army victory would pose for all of Europe and urging the world to stand together with Germany in facing down Soviet Communism. Posters such as the one below ignored the Reich’s five-year occupation of western Europe (much less the extermination of Europe’s Jews), choosing, instead, to portray Nazi Germany as but a single, albeit courageous, member of a team of independent European nations, locked in a ferocious war pitting all of Christian civilization on the continent against an approaching godless, barbaric, Russo-Soviet, Goliath-like monster.

 Nazi war poster from early 1945, reading, in Dutch, “Europe is Under Attack” and urging volunteers from all countries “to join in the fight against Bolshevism.”

Such propaganda obviously did not succeed in breaking up the Big Three. But during the decades of superpower hostility and global competition that followed on the heels of Hitler’s defeat, the idea that the Nazis had almost succeeded in persuading the U.S. to join forces with the Reich in fighting off the Red Army grew to become a powerful part of Soviet popular imagination. In 1973, the country’s most successful television series in history, “17 Moments of Spring,” was organized around this single plotline. The show revolves around one Max Otto von Stierlitz, the USSR’s most famous fictional double agent, who, when the series opens in February of 1945, has been working undercover as a Nazi for many years. His courageous acts of espionage throughout the war have, we are told, saved trainloads of Jews from Auschwitz, kept the Polish city of Krakow from being razed, and foiled German development of the atomic bomb. Such events, however, cannot compare with “the most important mission of Stierlitz’s career” and the subject of the entire 14-hour saga – namely, his assignment to disrupt secret peace negotiations taking place in Switzerland between representatives for Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler and then-intelligence officer (later CIA director) Allen Dulles. This story was a work of fiction, but it resonated deeply with Soviet audiences, deriving some of its believability from a record the U.S. had by then acquired of supporting proto-fascist leaders in order to defeat Communist ones in countries ranging from Greece to Nicaragua during the Cold War – and even of protecting upper-level Nazis like Klaus Barbie during the post-WWII years in exchange for information against Communist agitators in France and Italy or would-be revolutionaries further afield like Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

Understanding such historical background is not to excuse either Soviet actions in eastern Europe after WWII or those of Russia in Ukraine today. Yet such details perhaps help explain why Russia’s way of framing the Ukraine conflict plays so well to its domestic audience and continues to sustain Putin’s 80% approval ratings even in the face of European sanctions. In March, Kremlin-sponsored referendum posters in the Crimea portrayed the choice citizens on the peninsula were facing as one between Nazi fascism or Russian unity.

 Crimean referendum poster, in Russian, reading: “On March 16, we will chose one or the other.”

Russian news broadcasts today are similarly designed to reawaken viewers’ memories of the Soviet struggle during World War Two, as well as of the atrocities perpetrated during the late 1940s by Ukrainian nationalists who embraced many of Hitler’s racist ideals and continued to fight guerilla-style for liberation from Soviet rule in the years following the Third Reich’s surrender. Current coverage of acknowledged horrors such as the death of over 40 pro-Russian demonstrators in an Odessa fire is marred by exaggerations designed to fuel viewer outrage by linking, ever more tightly, the present to the past. The story is peppered with grotesque, fictionalized details deliberately intended to evoke Nazi-era barbarity – such as reports that everyone who tried to escape from the burning Trade Union building by jumping from windows was either strangled or shot, and that pro-Ukrainian fascists rifled through the charred corpses for valuables with impunity.

Moreover, the imagery of Russians fighting Nazis is also intended to conjure up popular Soviet ideas (absorbed from 1970s television, if nothing else) of alleged Western willingness to collaborate with fascists against those who would champion the rights of the world's working poor. Russian media coverage of Ukraine plays up this second angle, as well, focusing on purported Western conspiracies to install an anti-Russian government in the neighboring country. (News stories make repeated reference, for instance, to diplomat Victoria Nuland’s leaked phone call discussing U.S. “preferences” for a new Ukraine President, a recent visit to Kiev by CIA director John Brennan, and alleged “crowds” of U.S. intelligence operatives on the ground in Ukraine, said to be providing assistance to the interim regime). Just as Putin came to power very aware of Western failure to acknowledge the Soviet Union’s full contribution to the war against Hitler, so, too, is he similarly conscious of and insulted by current Western unwillingness to admit that Russia is essential to any stable solution in Ukraine – and he seems determined to mobilize historical memory to convince at least his own citizens otherwise, to justify his annexation of Crimea and his mobilization of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border, and to highlight the purported strength of pro-Russian sentiment inside eastern Ukraine (sentiment that the Kremlin seems to be at least indirectly encouraging).

The Ukrainians, for their part, are playing a similarly calculated game of selective history, presenting their country as victim of both Hitler and Stalin and as a land, post-1945, not of Soviet partnership but of unwilling occupation. Anxious to hold on to western sympathies (and thereby to secure giant amounts of financial aid), Kiev’s interim leaders are quick not only to associate Putin with Hitler, but also to present themselves as “true democrats” – in power thanks to a Maidan liberation movement of a piece with earlier Eastern Europe struggles against Soviet domination, like the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, the Czech-led Prague Spring of 1968, or the Polish formation of Solidarity in 1980. Ironically, while the Ukrainian parliamentarians celebrate their own ties to such moments of heroic resistance, they make sure never to cast eastern separatists as resistance fighters (however misguided), but instead refer to them, far less sympathetically, as despicable traitors. In a P.R. move that rivals the Russians’ invocation of fighting Nazis, the new Ukrainian leadership claims it is fighting terrorists, in terms designed to play on the emotions of a U.S. television audience. And in what also feels like a highly suspect effort to inflame popular U.S. fears of the role of radical Islam in terrorist activities, Ukrainian groups are also suddenly emphasizing the number of Chechens allegedly working with Russians in leading separatist insurgencies.

The U.S., with much of its own political leadership apparently unable to see outside of tired Cold-War tropes, has uncritically replicated much of this Kiev-disseminated language and symbolism. In a CNN interview, former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski went so far as to suggest that the U.S. should provide western Ukrainians with weapons in order to encourage them to put up as much of a fight as possible against Russian intervention. He even argued that such a strategy would draw on lessons learned from the Vietnam War, when, he said, Russians had repeatedly supplied armaments to the North Vietnamese, allowing them to kill “thousands and thousands” of Americans. This time around, he argued, the Americans could be the ones supplying the weapons – his implication presumably being that, bolstered by such U.S. "support," Ukrainians could go on to gun down thousands and thousands of their Russian foes.

While politicians invested in the Ukraine story manipulate history to awaken public memory, to play for sympathy, or to fuel easy fears, the realities on the ground defy such neat moral packaging. Ukraine is not full of Nazis, and Russia is not bent on reconstructing the Soviet Union. Leaders on all sides are playing dirty pool (with even U.S. claims that “the fate of Ukraine should be left up to Ukraine’s citizens” ringing as something more than just a tad insincere). Meanwhile, most ordinary people in Ukraine remain ambivalent about all forms of politics. They want to avoid war, and they want a future with brighter economic prospects for themselves and their children. Their decisions to vote “pro-West” or “pro-East” have little to do with either personal safety or political ideals and much more to do with which side seems to offer more prosperity. They are skeptical that any leadership change will be able to bring about significant reform, and they are disillusioned by the superpower struggle that rages around them. For these people – neither the young, admirable, internet-savvy liberals in cities such as Kiev and Lvov, nor the hardline, trigger-happy militants in East and West, but the more ordinary, less-visible middle-aged working poor – Victory Day is a sad moment, commemorating a time of triumph and unity that seems increasingly distant today.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 0
Russian Tabloids: Psst... Digging Up "Dirt" on Poroshenko


ST. PETERSBURG  — As elections took place in Ukraine as well as across many of the 28 European Union countries on Sunday, residents of St. Petersburg were more preoccupied with celebrating their city’s 308th birthday with a mix of songs and dances by performers decked out, due to rain, in plastic ponchos patriotically colored in red, white, or blue. Later, citizens swarmed around television screens to watch Russia’s ice hockey team win the World Championship. Political unrest, albeit in former Soviet territory, was not at the top of most people’s list of concerns.

Evening news programs, however, reported on the electoral race and eventual victory of billionaire Petro Poroshenko in language designed to emphasize ongoing Ukrainian turmoil in stark contrast to Russian strength and stability. Over the past week, television coverage of Ukraine has opened with graphics reading “When will we witness another coup?” and stories have showcased the inability of the Kiev-based government to control a variety of local and often right-wing militias acting in its name. In regard to the breakaway eastern regions, correspondents for Russian news agencies have routinely condemned the actions of various soldiers claiming allegiance to Kiev: they have repeated that these troops, not the separatists, are “terrorizing peaceful civilians” and “causing blood to flow in the streets every day.” Footage has included video of people who have allegedly been living in their cellars “for weeks,” even sound-bites of children describing their fear of men in Ukrainian military uniforms.

Nevertheless, in recounting, Sunday night, that the man Forbes has termed “the Willy Wonka of Ukraine” had won over 50% of the vote, Russian television announcers sounded comparatively restrained. In response, the New York Times concluded that Russian media coverage of Poroshenko seems to have changed for the better, positing that this less negative tone could signal Kremlin willingness to defuse the current crisis and engage with the new leader. And indeed, rather than suggesting, as they did last month, that the so-called Chocolate King’s candies are full of carcinogens, Russian authorities have instead apparently allowed the oligarch’s sole factory inside their country – shut down in March 2014 for the alleged "illegal manipulation" of trademark labels – to reopen. (No word, as yet, on whether Poroshenko’s chocolate imports to Russia, blocked in July 2013 for ostensible health-sanitation reasons, will be re-admitted.)

But while many assessors of the tycoon-politician appear to be taking something of a wait-and-see attitude, with correspondents acknowledging, for instance, Poroshenko’s professed willingness to talk to “all parties” involved in current civil strife, they also inevitably mention his wealth of at least $1.3 billion dollars and his ownership of a key Ukrainian television channel, “without the support of which, his victory would have been impossible,” according to news magazine Russkii Reporter. Poroshenko’s campaign slogan was an exhortation to citizens to “Live in a New Way.” But in Russia, the question most often posed is whether the magnate will really be any different from the men who preceded him. Frequent reference is made to the fact that since Ukrainian independence in 1991, all four elected presidents – whether they originally claimed to be pro-Russian or pro-European – have left office amid accusations of vast self-enrichment, despised by an overwhelming majority of voters on both “east” and “west” sides.

Moscow is not alone in such concerns, which have been echoed, albeit in more muted fashion, in the European press. A recent Politico profile also took a similar tone. It attributed Poroshenko's emergence as a frontrunner candidate to a backroom deal brokered by a third-party Ukrainian oligarch in Austria (interestingly one with long-standing ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin) who is currently facing extradition to the U.S. on bribery charges but out on $170 million bail. Later it quoted the Managing Director of the Ukraine financial services company AYA Capital as saying that he doubted that Poroshenko "is here to install a new system instead of just rebooting the old one."

More disturbing, however, is Russian tabloid coverage of the Chocolate King, which frequently emphasizes his Jewish heritage in conjunction with his opaque business dealings. Komsomolskaia Pravda (from May 21) claims that the entrepreneur deliberately changed his last name when he first decided to enter politics – the inference being that in a country as anti-Semitic as Ukraine, a Jewish politician could only succeed by hiding the fact of his Jewishness. Yet there is something that feels more than a little dirty in how the story is written, and in the stereotypes it reaffirms even as it purports to rail against them. Mention of Poroshenko’s heritage, the article continues, “recently disappeared from Wikipedia,” which it goes on to describe as one of a number of allegedly “global and open projects that are nonetheless at the final level controlled by the Americans.” These same Americans, asserts the author, have an interest in helping Poroshenko “cleanse his image” (as if erasing mention of Jewish roots would somehow constitute a public-relations gain). The article goes on to report that a year ago, Forbes Israel compiled a list of the wealthiest Jews in the world, with Poroshenko coming in at number 130, only to have the oligarch “demand” to be removed from the publication because he considered himself to be not Jewish, but Ukrainian. Komsomolskaia Pravda suggested that his reluctance to be included likely derived from the fact that, at the time, the Roshen candy owner was planning to run for mayor of Kiev and feared that the Forbes listing could injure his chances of success, due to “significantly high anti-Semitic sentiment among the capital’s electorate.” So are both Poroshenko and the citizens who voted for him scorned. 

The more mainstream Izvestiia, while not directly mentioning issues of religion, has emphasized Poroshenko’s ties to Mikhail Khordokovsky, a former Russian oligarch recently released from prison who is commonly described in the media as Jewish, although his mother is Russian Orthodox. While Khordokovsky is generally admired in Europe and the U.S. for spending more than ten years in jail after enduring a series of legal proceedings that appeared painfully arbitrary and contrived, in the Russian press he is often touted as an example of Putin’s valorous crackdown on big-business corruption. Recent stories about Khordokovsky’s support for Maidan demonstrators and his willingness to donate funds to send election observers to Ukraine have sparked resentment in Russia toward someone who is presented as still having plenty of illicit money to burn, even after his internment, and who is still working behind the scenes to undermine the Russian state. Meanwhile, Russian television coverage of the separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine that both Khordokovsky and Poroshenko oppose, has shifted slightly. Reporters no longer cast them as pro-Kremlin patriots unanimously in favor of unification with Moscow – in fact, their multiple and often rival aims are openly acknowledged. Instead, the participants are presented as ordinary people struggling against powerful and corrupt vested interests, little Davids fighting against giant Goliaths, with the support of their families and communities. Wives cook for them and old ladies bless them. Tabloids include stories and sentimental “letters” ostensibly written by anonymous ethnic Russian businessmen who have decided – in contrast to Ukraine’s reigning klatsch of rival billionaires, Poroshenko included – to give up their lives of wealth and privilege in order to volunteer for service in the Donbas militia. “My Wife Said: I Love You and I Will Let You Go To Defend Our Homeland” read one KP headline from May 22.

Such coverage aims to work on an emotional level, through association and innuendo, and to play into base, unexamined prejudices and fears. Overtly, it casts Poroshenko, quite legitimately, as an oligarch. Less legitimately, it presents Russian authorities (as well as ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine) as crusaders opposed to Ukraine’s post-Soviet history of oligarch-driven corruption. Between the lines, however, it goes even further, linking Poroshenko and Putin opponents such as Khordokovsky to repellant stereotypes of the “rich unethical Jew” – paradoxically after months of negatively characterizing Ukraine as a hotbed of right-wing, Nazi-inspired political violence. 

At the same time, Russian media coverage of Poroshenko’s main rival, the fellow billionaire and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, has grown ever-more venomous and carries strong “Nazis hate Jews” undertones. Despite Tymoshenko’s concessionary pledge to work with a new Ukrainian government towards reunification, Russian reports Sunday night were full of “talking heads” warning that she would go to any length to destabilize the country in order to unseat the man who beat her. Correspondents emphasized that her blonde-and-braided good looks (the recommendation of an image consultant that the naturally brunette Tymoshenko hired after being charged with gas smuggling in 2001) only served to mask her allegedly “limitless” hunger for power. They reminded viewers of Tymoshenko’s record of corruption, especially as president of United Energy Systems from 1995-1997, when her company came to control virtually all Russian natural gas imports to Ukraine. Furthermore, they replayed a telephone call leaked on Youtube shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, in which an angry Tymoshenko mentioned wanting to “take up arms to wipe out the damn Russians together with their leader” and getting the “whole world” to ensure that “not even scorched earth will be left where Russia stands.”(Tymoshenko later confirmed the authenticity of the call, but added that comments threatening use of nuclear weapons had been spliced into the tape by unknown outsiders.) Broadcasters also interviewed a number of “analysts” who claimed that “for her, Poroshenko is now enemy number one.”

In such coverage, nothing can be said to be false per se, and Tymoshenko is, admittedly, a problematic presidential candidate by almost any standard. But the details that are selected and the way they are combined evoke in each report, on an almost unconscious level, something more lurid: Tymoshenko, with her Aryan looks, wants to kill Russians and hates Jews. Nothing so specific is actually said, but associations aimed at feeling rather than fact serve to conjure up not memories as much as textbook stereotypes of the Nazi past.

Thus Russian opinion-shapers try to square the circle: using ugly, painful, damaging stereotypes to imply that the "new Ukraine" is full, somewhat paradoxically, of both violence-loving, Slav-hating fascists and money-loving, Slav-hating Jews. In so doing, they reaffirm any latent anti-Semitic prejudices among their own Russian audiences while reviling the purported widespread existence of the same among the Kiev state's citizenry. They also fuel Russian patriotism through "negative integration." This term was first popularized by historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler in discussions of modern Germany, specifically in regard to the way Chancellor Otto von Bismarck managed to unify Germany internally during the decades that followed the country's external, territorial unification of 1871. According to Wehler, Bismarck did so primarily by identifying a successive set of alleged "enemies" of the new state and urging all would-be patriotic Germans to rally against them. Russian nationalism today -- and popular sympathy for the ethnic Russians inside Ukraine -- relies on this same strategy of identifying groups of "outsiders" and casting them as threats. And as the current crisis demonstrates, this conjuring of threats does not even have to be ideologically consistent, but can simply draw strength from irrational suspicion, ignorance, and automatic, inherited resentment. 

So what lessons should the West take from such coverage?

Lesson #1: Understand the Spin

First, we should focus more on how all information is shaped, including our own. Russia is certainly playing a relatively sophisticated media manipulation game, and has been since President Vladimir Putin first took power 14 years ago. This media strategy is more fluid than that of the Soviet era and operates on multiple levels. For instance, on Saturday night, Putin gave a three-hour plus interview to foreign journalists over dinner at the conclusion of an International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg in which he appeared articulate and open, yet firm. (The meal notably included a course of “Crimean flounder.”) Asked about conflict with the United States, Putin stressed that he did not want to damage relations, but said that he would also like to underscore (in loose translation) “that when all sides talk about working together to find common ground, that ‘common ground’ should not mean just finding a friendly place for drinking tea or coffee together, but instead should refer to a willingness to listen and make difficult compromises.” He reiterated that Russia had, time and again, taken American “special interests” into account and announced that he felt that in this case, the U.S. had egregiously failed to do the same. His language was vivid, witty, and precise: a level of dialogue designed to engage with an informed audience suspicious of Russian motivations.

At the same time, much of the government-supported media operates on a much more emotional and impressionistic level. During the weekend before the Ukrainian election, the television station Rossiia 24 used minute-long gaps before and after news shows to broadcast quotes about Ukraine taken from writings by noted dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, famed for his open and critical discussion, in the 1960s, of the Soviet Gulag – a place where he was imprisoned for eight years starting in 1945, ironically after fighting in the Red Army during WWII. Honored in the U.S. for authoring books such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the Nobel laureate grew progressively more critical of America over the course of the 1980s, in particular castigating the first President George Bush for his role in encouraging the Ukrainian independence movement during the final months of Soviet power from 1990 to 1991. (“America has always maximally supported every anti-Russian impulse in Ukraine,” he once said.) The citations that have been scrolling across Rossiia 24’s screen these many days all speak of the alleged cultural and historical unity between Russia and Ukraine, at least as regards territory east of the Dnieper River – and all castigate those, who throughout the ages, have “unjustly” attempted to pull the area apart.

Film director Nikita Mikhailkov dedicated an hour-long television show on that same channel this past week to praising his country for its purported moral superiority in the current struggle with Ukraine, titling the segment "Russian Silence." Mikhailkov won an Academy Award and the Grand Prize at Cannes for his 1994 tragedy Burnt By the Sun about a family destroyed during the Stalin-era Great Terror, and he is respected by many both inside and outside Russia for his critique of Communism. Now a staunch nationalist, Mikhailkov on Saturday read two posts he said he had found on the internet – one by a Ukrainian advocating the annihilation of ethnic Russians in Donetsk, and the other from a resident of Odessa, describing how the Russians there are, so far, refraining from violence, “keeping silent” and turning the other cheek, despite the recent massacre of more than 30 citizens in a fire that appears to have been deliberately set by pro-Kiev agitators in the city's House of Trade Unions. After contrasting the bloodthirsty Ukrainian to the long-suffering Russian, Mikhailkov closed his segment in rather grandiloquent fashion by quoting past enemies of Russia, including Napoleon and Hitler, and giving examples of their fatal underestimation of his country and its strengths. 

He ended with a comment from President Obama, in which Obama dismissed Russia as “only a regional power.” “What is our answer?” Mikhailkov asked, rhetorically. “For the time being, Russia will stay silent.” Such language by the country’s cultural authorities is short on factual details or specific calls for action; its purpose is to fuel viewers' sense of injury and wounded pride, as well as to hint at eventual revenge.

Lesson #2:  Ukraine Is Also Spinning

But while Russian media coverage is skewed, the second lesson we must learn is that it is not alone in this regard and cannot simply be dismissed out of hand, but rather requires careful deconstruction. Ukrainian television coverage is also slanted, and in an atmosphere where both reporters and those who talk to them are instantly branded as either “for Kiev" or "against Kiev,” most critical opinions are, as in Russia, silenced by intimidation or even violence. It is clear within the country that groups on both sides of the east-west divide have kidnapped journalists and killed civilians – and that Ukrainian authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge such realities. While separatists in the east refuse to disband, so, too, do right-wing militias in the capital. Odd groups claiming diverse allegiances and without apparent official sanction have set up roadblocks across the country. On Facebook, a scholar from Ukraine who teaches in Canada and researches the involvement of Ukrainian nationalist organizations in acts of mass murder, recently posted that a judge in western Ukraine had nullified his right to a house he owned in the area, almost certainly due to pressure from right-wing politicians opposed to him and his work. “This decision,” he wrote, “was issued by a judge in my absence, in great haste, in violations of the law, and with brazen denials of mine and my lawyer’s requests to postpone the hearing and allow me to be personally present.” 

Almost a century ago, writer Viktor Shklovsky referred in his memoirs to the four years of civil war across Ukrainian territory that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 as “a time of local power and local terror.” The same can be said of the country today, where, even with presidential elections complete, the government is extraordinarily weak and, for now, unable to bring those who purport to fight either for it or against it fully to heel. The government can, however, minimize the extent of this disarray by maintaining a degree of oversight over the country’s media – one which the U.S. press has, at least until recently, little acknowledged.

Lesson #3: A Brave New World, But Not a Cold War One 

The final lesson we should take from these past days is the need to once and for all abandon the idioms and expectations of the Cold War era and develop both new tactics and a fresh language for dealing with Russia. Our world is not one governed by the kinds of ideological differences that were used to justify the Iron Curtain. Instead, it is one where superpowers such as Russia and the U.S. share a similar vision of Starbucks and Pizza Hut and iPhone prosperity, yet disagree as to the ways and means by which to get there. Both recognize the media as an important tool of power, for good or for ill, and, although the Russian government wields far more direct control over its country's communications sphere than does the U.S., both deploy careful P.R. tactics to tailor different messages to different audiences, at home and abroad. Both are not above playing on amorphous hatreds and fears. And while the Kremlin may fuel popular patriotism at the tabloid level by encouraging prejudice and resentment grounded in the past, such a strategy, while troubling, is anything but "backwards" in its intent. As Peter Pomerantsev wrote recently in Foreign Policy, Russia is not locked in dreams of reconstituting past Soviet glory, but of enhancing its current economic and geopolitical power.  “Look closer at the Kremlin's actions during the crisis in Ukraine,” he says, “and you begin to see a very 21st century mentality, manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning global media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances. Could it be that the West is the one caught up in the ‘old ways,’ while the Kremlin is the geopolitical avant-garde, informed by a dark, subversive reading of globalization?” 

We also do not have to endorse Russian tactics of power, in order to understand the importance of encouraging Moscow to become part of a longer-term “solution,” such as one may be, in Ukraine. As Putin shot back to journalists, when asked if he would be prepared to negotiate with new leadership in Kiev, “we’ll talk when they pay up” – a reference to the approximate $3.5 billion the country owes Russian company Gazprom in overdue bills. Given Sunday’s victory of the far-right National Front in France and of anti-austerity measure candidates in an economically strapped Greece, the European Union is facing enough internal challenges that it cannot, alone, prop up a country with a per capita GDP that was already in 2012, long before the current crisis, lower than that of Iraq, and with a currency that has lost more value this year than any other in the world. Most importantly, if Russia is not allowed to be part of the solution for Ukraine, it will continue to be part of the problem, working both more and less obviously, in a variety of media-savvy, 21st century ways, to destabilize the country and using whatever tactics are at its disposal to further divide the Ukrainian people, while simultaneously faulting Western leaders for making promises of prosperity to that same people that they failed to keep.

Read more about the region on HNN at CHooper’s Post-Soviet Futures Blog.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 0
25 Things I Learned at My 25th College Reunion (Well, OK, only 16)

25 Things I Learned at My 25th College Reunion

(Well, OK, only 16)

1.     25 is a big number. Set realistic goals. 

2.    If you are going to attend, never mind try to write about, your 25th reunion, you should immediately abandon compulsive past efforts to dodge exact reference to your age. That is, unless you want to iron a disclaimer onto your reunion sweatshirt reading something along the lines of “PLEASE BELIEVE ME: I went to college when I was ten.” (I can only add that in this day and age, it is far more difficult to find iron-on patches than it used to be.)

3.     Slurping large bowls of pasta “al dente” causes less of an insulin spike than doing the same when the pasta is fully cooked. In the former case, the pasta’s outer crunchy rind is not immediately digested but instead makes its way into the gut, furnishing your intestines with crucial bacteria. Turns out tradition-bound Italian grandmothers knew what they were doing.

4.     Unless you’re a full-time day trader, buy blue chip. No gimmicks. No emerging markets. Reinvest your dividends. Time is your friend. 

5.     It’s not “Buffy and the Vampire Slayer.” In fact, referring to the program in such a way (even with incredulity) is apparently the equivalent of boasting about your prowess searching on “the Google.”  Don’t do it. 

6.     Reunion nametags should, in the future, be worn as headbands, preferably with backlighting options. And while we are on the subject of product development, perhaps we might consider the invention of portable, personalized “filter” lights, designed to surround individual wearers at important social functions with a softening glow. (To quote the fading Blanche DuBois, “there’s nothing I hate more than a naked light bulb.”) 

7.    Speaking of naked, only 1% of our class claims to have sex every day, and the rest of us are convinced they’re lying.  

8.     A colleague who individually donated $150 million dollars (!) to financial aid in the run-up to our reunion is rumored to have “missed a lot of classes as an undergrad because he was too busy doing trades from his dorm room.” Personally, I’m very shocked and appalled at the news. (What I actually learned here is how physically dangerous it can be to almost lose a lung laughing at someone else’s tone of gentle, sad reproof in relaying such information. As in: “He’s such a nice boy – if only he could have managed to behave with just a bit more responsibility!”)

9.     If you don’t have a spare $150 million, the line “I flew all the way from Kazakhstan for this party” will generally serve to get you at least one foot in the door. (Of course, following it up with the comment that “I live in Cambridge now but am moving to Worcester for financial reasons“ may serve to get that foot kicked right back out again, but at least people will look at you with sympathy as they sidle away.) 

10.     Food pacifies a potentially restive populace. Stalin knew this. So, too, did reunion organizers stuck trying to ferry some 1200 participants on busses between Harvard Yard in Cambridge and Boston’s Symphony Hall. (And yes, I have also learned how to confidently spell “busses” without feeling the need to double check on “the Google.”) Revolution may be averted by roomfuls of dessert. Or in the case of the 1920s USSR, by a slightly more generous meat ration. Like one-eighth of a salami. 

11.     Despite the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Russian history – at least for, ahem, those minions we exalted scholars like to refer to as “non-specialists” – really only sounds interesting before midnight and when the “Talking Heads” are not playing. The subject of rumored KGB cameras in Sochi hotel bathrooms, however, can potentially sustain conversation into the early-morning hours (although it does tend, and I say this from a point of friendly scientific observation only, to make those engaged in the aforementioned conversation much more aware of urgently needing to go to the bathroom). Lesson: conversational choices, like many retrospectively momentous events throughout history, can carry unintended consequences.  

12.     If you write 893 words a day, you can crank out a 300-page book in 12 weeks and even give yourself 16 days for revision. Yes, and Alexei Stakhanov only had to mine 17 tons of coal an hour for six hours, too – and he became a Hero of Socialist Labor and ended up on a 1935 cover of Time Magazine! Easy. 

13.     People change. And people don’t change.

I realized this with myself, when I slept through one morning reunion panel and skipped another to finish a conference proposal due the next day. (A member of the first class to abandon our freshman-year typewriters for the 1986-produced “Macintosh Plus,” I returned to group festivities in time for an animated discussion about the perils of our old dot-matrix printers, which had required at least half an hour to churn out a five-page essay, inking back and forth over each separate line multiple times. These “modern” devices were consequently responsible for any number of missed deadlines and dormitory dramas, often involving concerned roommates screaming “Save it, save it. You have to print it NOW.”) In any case, although I have a far better track record of making it to my own classes on time today than I did as a student to my undergraduate ones, my family and friends would in all likelihood attest to a quality of, say, “flexibility” in my approach to deadlines that has managed to endure across the years.

Furthermore, while our bodies may have changed, our minds in some ways don’t seem to have evolved all that dramatically. For example, our 1053-page “Anniversary Report” – shipped to all classmates – contained a copy of every student’s senior yearbook photo juxtaposed against a snap (if provided) of him or her today. Somehow it did not take long before one colleague, now an esteemed professor of economics (who incidentally did not send in a recent headshot), ran a “systematic data analysis” on the entries designed to measure the “correlation between attractiveness 25 years ago and today” and posted his results on Freakonomics! Admittedly, the article was entertaining. And no specific names were named. But it did otherwise recall late-night scenes from my first month in college, with guys poring over our so-called “Freshman Facebook” and loudly debating which girls were “hot” (the same impetus that brought us, of course, the virtual Facebook in 2004).  At bottom, it seems, we continue to all be motivated by a handful of pretty (no pun intended) basic things. And even if we can couch those things, today, in far more intellectually “exalted” terms, we’re still all – to quote Blanche once again – little more than guests hanging out at “this party of apes.” (OK, guests who, at this point, at least according to our class survey, seem to collectively crave sleep more than sex, now that they’ve got that whole “food-and-shelter” thing out of the way… but still…. ) 

And yet, I have also seen many, many profound transformations over the years. A high-school cheerleader from Atlanta moved to an Indian ashram after graduation and now leads spirituality workshops around the world. A hard-drinking, macho Massachusetts boy, who hated himself for his closet homosexuality, has become the most caring, responsible, dynamic, and deservedly popular city counselor in the entire state of California and is about to marry his partner Sean. A roommate who once struggled with her weight is now the owner of a gym franchise and capable of morphing, weekly, into a legendarily terrifying boot camp instructor whose 90-minute classes inspire accomplishment through fear.  (Let’s just say, she doesn’t show a lot of sympathy for the words “I’m tired.”)

Willing or no, we all have passed through changes, and the miracle of human nature is that we can continue to grow and to change, for better or for worse, over the course of the years to come.  (“Change” in this case, however, should be distinguished from “inevitable physical decline,” which is an altogether different story outside the topic of this uplifting essay.) And yet there are stark continuities in our baseline selves, even more palpable than usual at an event like our 25th, where people still remember us as we were then, sometimes more clearly than as we are now. (And they like us anyway… or at least a few forgiving souls with very poor judgment do…)

In Russia, there’s a saying that a person’s greatest weaknesses are almost always excess manifestations of that person’s greatest strengths. Admittedly, Russia has a lot of good sayings, including “In every joke, there’s a grain of joke” and (as regards post-Soviet success) “Never ask about the first million.” But this one is perhaps my favorite, explaining as it does how a charismatic individual can often come across as overbearing, or a person who appreciates complexity can consequently suffer from crippling indecision. Understanding this principle of strengths-as-shortcomings can help us accept who we are, and work on smaller adjustments while staying true to ourselves, rather than embarking on take-no-prisoners full-scale excision and reinvention efforts that we all know, even as we attempt them, are doomed to failure.  That was how I came to Harvard, as an unhappy, socially awkward 17-year-old, who had grown up in a ruined house that could rival that of Miss Havisham – wanting to escape, to completely re-make myself into a “cool person,” and then tumbling into depression and shame when such makeover eluded me. One thing about the reunion that I took away as so affirming was the sense that I, like many others, can make peace with that 17-year-old self, accepting (if not outright cherishing) those qualities that continue to link us, even while appreciating the opportunity to present as someone different, and new. 

14.     Bad things happen. And if we are not either very oblivious to the world around us or perhaps very, very secure in our religious convictions, then we are all growing increasingly afraid of those bad things happening to us.  Our parents will die. We will die. Sometime far, far, far in the next thousand years, our children will die. Of course, we do not think about these things much of the time. And no sane person would admit that they go to their 25th reunion in order to share in the experience of impending death. But it is at this exact stereotypical moment of mid-life crisis, where the race to establish professions, homes, and families may have eased up just a bit, that we all confront the struggle to construct meaning in the face of our own mortality. Sometimes this struggle hits home more solidly than others – listening to a mother describe holding her child down for leukemia treatments or to a governor-appointed expert on education reform sing a funny song about waking up one morning with a brain tumor.  Then there are more muted conversations about divorces, lost jobs, and efforts to start over in middle age.

And here’s the other thing about the reunion.  Much as I loved it, it didn’t solve anyone’s problems. In all honesty, sometimes it was difficult – while meandering up stairs in unusually high heels or searching for at least one more bacon-wrapped date to help absorb unusually high quantities of wine – to even begin to acknowledge another’s troubles, never mind do them justice.  Such is the truth of group events like reunions or even group experiences like college.  Connection is one reality, disconnection another.

15.     A lot of life happens alone.  (Yes, Cynthia, and there’s this thing that’s called “the wheel,” too.) As someone who has long been afraid of isolation and wasted a great deal of time and talent trying to run away from that reality, I am struck anew by how central being alone is, both to accomplishment and to suffering. We, as a group, can admire, and we can sympathize. But the nitty-gritty of achievement and endurance and pain – not to mention the banality of driving to work, doing laundry, brushing our teeth (38.5 days over the course of a lifetime!) – is something we go through on our own. 

Loneliness and alienation was a big part of college, certainly for members of our oddball class, as any number of recent post-reunion Facebook comments can testify. One woman described an event in which students who felt they were in the majority at Harvard were asked to identify themselves, and no one raised a hand. “Everyone was fixated on the ways they were different from everyone else, which basically was a testament to how they perceived themselves in isolation, regardless of how they were perceived by others,” she wrote.  I knew, even then, that everybody was struggling with their own private demons (they don’t call it “superiority-inferiority complex” for nothing), but at this reunion, I learned to be more patient with surface small talk and fleeting connections, and more trusting of others’ good intentions. Let’s be real – it wasn’t as if we were all collectively transported off into some bright and sparkly outer-space world where our heads and hands magically melted together or even where we all engaged in deep and meaningful philosophical discourse 24/7.  I, for one, still had moments of walking into the dining hall and thinking, shit, who are all these people, and basically every conversation I had felt partial and incomplete, albeit in a “there’s so much more ground to cover” way. What I did get was a sense of uplift at being in a rarified environment where I could more or less be myself and pretty much at least potentially like every single person in the room, and where I wished I could hang out for, oh, say, another four or so years.  Of course, we were all on our best behavior, fueled by copious amounts of food and drink, and I’m sure two months and a reality television show later, and we’d be competitive, in cliques, and at each other’s throats.  But I’m not a flossy, buoyant, cliché-loving person, and I tend to have an allergic reaction to the jargon of self-help and group-speak – and yet I found myself incredibly moved by the waves of good will I felt rolling off the audience at points during the weekend. (Yes, the “little green men” in the Crimea had obviously put some little green pills in my drink, and I was feeling those waves…) At the happiness panel, at the Boston Pops, at the magnificent late-night dance party where I vaguely remember screaming with joy to hear “The Human League.”

We all hunger for the transcendent moment and yet, an aware bunch, we all realize how fleeting such moments are and how limited our ability to connect in a way more profound or enduring than a standing ovation is. But you know… that’s ok. I realize that Harvard as an institution is flawed and that reunions are money-making junkets, and in regard to Evan Mandery’s article on skipping our celebration in the Huffington Post, I’m personally very concerned about the increasing disparity in quality education between our nation’s public and private schools, long before the college years. I’d go so far as to say that in fine soft-Soviet fashion, I think a little bit more economic equality would serve our society well, even as I envy, I mean admire, those of you who have gone out and made millions.  But the politics of education, while critically important, is not here so much the point. This is personal. I came back to Harvard, and I felt happy, if wistful about opportunities both passed and past, and if all I can do is give a standing ovation to those who went through that experience with me and who are all stumbling forward in a search for meaning and at least making gestures of friendship across the great time and space divides… well, I’ll take it. And say thank you.

16.     We are all on our own journey. We are all on the same journey.  May we continue to learn from one another along the way.



Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 0
Money Talks - and Putin Can Afford to Compromise

Cynthia V. Hooper is an Associate Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet History at College of the Holy Cross and an affiliate at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. She is currently completing a book entitled Terror From Within: Policing the Soviet Powerful, Under Stalin and Beyond.  This article was published in The Moscow Times on Tuesday, August 5, 2014.

          When Russian President Vladimir Putin did not come out within 48 hours after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 to disassociate himself from the rebels fighting in eastern Ukraine, the world found itself facing yet another crisis. Just a week earlier, the Kremlin appeared to be riding high: Russia was diligently engaged in repairing relations with Europe, and North American talk-show hosts, if they mentioned Ukraine at all, did so only in order to disparagingly compare, once again, Putin’s purported strength to U.S. President Barack Obama’s gently-washed “mom jeans.” Putin even cheered with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the World Cup final game in Brazil, when a young substitute midfielder scored the winning goal in extra time.

Today, in contrast, a growing number of prominent voices are calling for Russia to be barred from hosting the world’s most popular sports event in 2018.  Above all, E.U. and U.S. leaders have agreed to level wide-ranging sanctions against Russia’s financial, energy, and defense sectors, in hopes of persuading the Kremlin to end its covert intervention in what the International Red Cross has classified as a civil war in Ukraine. These sanctions could go further – natural gas sales are still off the table, and France will be allowed to deliver a 1.1 billion Euro Mistral warship that Moscow has already paid for. But they are serious enough that both Russian and European economies are sure to take a hit.  Now the question is – what follows?

  Western analysts have, in recent days, wobbled between portrayals of Putin as all-powerful and surprisingly weak. On the one hand, he is cast as a tsar-like figure so fearsome that Russian billionaires would prefer to lose every penny in foreign assets than speak up in the face of sanctions. On the other hand, he has suddenly become a man imprisoned in a cage of his own design, trapped by the virulent anti-Ukraine, anti-U.S. rhetoric he initially encouraged. Having turned Russian television into a tool of demagogic power and used it to fuel hatred, rumor and fear, Putin has found himself a victim of the very processes he once set in motion. At least so the argument goes.

            Certainly he met the crisis with a lack of creative leadership and a seeming determination to follow Soviet-era rules of so-called “positive” censorship. First among them – never admit to anything in public that might make the state or its ruling cadre look flawed. Thus Putin, initially, stuck to a tried-and-true script, one very similar to that put out by Communist officials following the 1983 crash of Korean Air Lines 007, shot down as it strayed over Soviet air space en route from New York City to Seoul. Soviet leader Yuri Andropov first disavowed responsibility for the attack, only to later term it “a sophisticated provocation masterminded by U.S. special services with the use of a South Korean plane.”  And although the U.S. denounced the killing of 269 people as a “crime against humanity,” global outrage over Soviet actions quickly died down, amid sad recognition that the loss of an airliner was not worth nuclear war. (As The Christian Science Monitor reported at the time, U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s “restrained reaction” to the tragedy “angered some of his most fervent conservative supporters” but relieved those who had been inclined to see him as a hot-headed risk-taker “all too willing to seek confrontation with the Soviets.”) 

Putin seems to have gambled that U.S. and E.U. hands today would be similarly tied. He was banking (quite literally) on the fact that no one wants to embark on a military conflict with Russia, or to alienate a major power whose president could, if he decided to go completely rogue, scuttle international efforts to fight terrorism or block the development of nuclear weapons in countries like Iran. Above all, he doubted that Europe would risk losing one-third of its gas supplies and more than 400 billion dollars in bilateral trade, as well as a huge annual influx of investment capital some term “corrupt financial flows,” others simply “ill-gotten gains.” 

Ukrainian leaders feared likewise. For months they have condemned Europe for a caution they cast as “appeasement” and “betrayal.” Like their Russian counterparts, they, too, are engaging in an information war, and the downing of MH17 prompted a calculated media campaign to further fuel disgust and rage. Broadcasting pictures of dead children and proclaiming “Russia did this,” Ukrainian television outlets have clamored for global action. “The world must choose sides” announced Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, comparing the (likely) rebel attack to that which took down New York City’s Twin Towers and echoing the same language of good-vs.-evil articulated by U.S. President George W. Bush in his call for a “war against terror” after 9/11. Rejecting calls for a ceasefire, the Ukrainian Army has gone on the offensive, at a moment when the disorganization of government troops and the extent of the civilian casualties they are inflicting will be less noticed by a world press preoccupied by the plane tragedy and its international ramifications. 

It turns out that those who doubted Europe’s willingness to take a stand – Putin possibly among them – were wrong. And while sanctions are historically ineffective in bringing about the changes desired by those who impose them, it does seem that these particular measures might prompt the Kremlin to make a few, however grudging, concessions. Certainly Putin will never come right out and admit to, at the very least, criminal error on the part of a handful of pro-rebel subordinates. But, then again, neither did Reagan acknowledge fault in 1988, when a U.S. Navy captain accidentally shot down an Iranian Airbus, killing 290 people. In fact, then Vice President George H.W. Bush dismissed those who questioned the Pentagon’s doctored version of events with scorn, declaring, “I will never apologize for the United States—I don’t care what the facts are.”

But Putin could publicly accept a unified Ukraine and call for the separatists to disarm. He could even do so as a Machiavellian figure only pretending to respect democracy, all the while understanding that the E.U. would then be saddled with propping up a divided country in economic ruin.

Many western analysts argue that Putin can’t afford to back down. They mention all manner of statistics that make Russia sound like a nation of trigger-happy loons:  Gallup puts Putin’s support at 83% and the independent Russian Levada Centre found 64% of Russians blame the West for the Ukrainian conflict, 63% think Russian media coverage of the crisis is objective, and back in June, 40% supported an all-out war. But there’s a multivalence and softness to these statistics that outsiders frequently fail to understand. Such results are gleaned from respondents who are cynical about how power works, who see Putin as the best among a bad, not to mention scrawny, set of options, and who dismiss their own ability to effect political change. Ultimately, they do not think their desires much matter – and, in the end, neither does the Kremlin. 

Any pressure Putin has to fear will come from the top. And in recent months, he has, indeed, replaced so-called “reformers” among his inner circle with “hard-liners” who will not be happy, should he extend an olive branch to “enemies” overseas. But money also talks in post-Soviet Russia, arguably even more than do a few “stand up to the West” patriotic ideals. Back in 2007, former chess champion and oppositionist Garry Kasparov explained that Putin could not afford to alienate Europe by simply choosing to defy his country’s constitution and remain in power at the end of two presidential terms. He cannot come to be seen as a dictator-pariah, Kasparov said, because “the entire fortunes of Russia are tied to the free world.” Elites need the “reliable protective legal environment of the West” to secure “all the money, the financial benefits that they gained after eight years of looting Russia.” Seven years later, and Kasparov’s observations still hold true. Oligarchs are not the only ones with houses in London and children at Harvard – and anyone in Russia now with economic ties to that outside world must be worried. Sanctions, together with capital flight, a falling stock market, rising interest rates, and a ruling by the international arbitration court in The Hague that Moscow must pay out $50 billion to shareholders of an oil company judges found had been unjustly seized could, in sum, push even the biggest beneficiaries of the Putin regime to turn against their chief patron. Or at least nudge him towards compromise. 

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Winter Is Coming: As the World Crumbles, We Must Re-Engage with Russia

Russian trucks headed to the border with Ukraine:  What's in them?

John Kenneth Galbraith once termed foreign policy a choice between the merely unpalatable and the disastrous. As the U.S. launches multiple rounds of airstrikes against Iraq, in an attempt to halt Islamic State militants who have captured the country’s largest dam and embarked on a rash of blood-curdling atrocities – their strength fueled, incredibly enough, by the seizure of U.S. military equipment abandoned by a retreating Iraqi Army – U.S. leaders and public intellectuals must weigh some very difficult decisions. August, normally a sleepy vacation month, has been packed with one overseas disaster after another. As Israelis and Palestinians feud over an agreement in Gaza and the World Health Organization declares Ebola an “international health emergency” (and policy experts like Bruce Riedel, a 30-year CIA veteran, warn that the greatest pending threats to global security lie in yet a different direction, pointing to Afghanistan and Pakistan), we are going to have to pick our battles carefully. As Ned Stark would say, in Game of Thrones: “Winter is Coming.”

Like it or not, in such a setting we cannot afford to deepen our rift with Russia. Our airstrikes on Iraq, necessary as they are, have also furnished an ideal pretext for Russian President Vladimir Putin to initiate some type of militarized intervention in eastern Ukraine that he can argue falls under the banner of “peacekeeping” and “protection.” Case in point: Western politicians are openly wondering if the 260-truck convoy that set out from the Moscow region Tuesday is possibly carrying something other than what Russians profess is only “humanitarian aid” for the besieged city of Luhansk – and whether the trucks will actually stop, as claimed, at the Ukrainian border and hand control of the mission over to the International Red Cross.

The personalized animosity between U.S. and Russian leaders has led to an escalation of tensions that could never have been imagined even as recently as two months ago. So far, most “ordinary people,” even those who consider themselves pro-Putin, do not share in this hostility. Friends and colleagues in both countries are still trading information, still WhatsApping and Facebooking and finding humor where they can. With the Kremlin’s declaration of retaliatory sanctions on agricultural imports from the E.U. and U.S., families in Moscow and St. Petersburg are holding grim “banquet parties,” to savor the last of their foreign food “delicacies” (well over 50% of what they usually consume) before returning, so they joke, to the Russian staples of buckwheat and beets. Many are circulating a “comical” video clip hearkening back to the late-Soviet period when Western-made condiments were considered a special, sought-out treat. In it, a bleary-eyed Boris Yeltsin sits in a barren Russian kitchen saying: “We have tea with sugar, but what are you talking about, ketchup?” (Years ago in Moscow, my Russian boyfriend, now a U.S. citizen, said he always marveled at the refrigerators he saw in American movies during the late 1980s, where the inside of every door was crammed with bottles of different dressings and sauces. That was his adolescent image of fantastic luxury, and his contemporaries who remain in Russia are now making mocking reference to the fact that it might become such an image once again.)

This slide into mutually destructive hostility has to stop. The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17 was a crime, as well as a grotesque, what-are-the-odds mistake. And Putin’s regrettable response has been straight out of the Soviet playbook – deny and deceive in order to avoid looking weak. But even his most ardent anti-Western supporters in the Kremlin have expensive tastes and unofficial bank accounts that they do not want to have to relinquish and which depend on connections to Europe and the U.S. There is room for negotiation. But it is rapidly shrinking.

Russian television continues to be used in ever-more extreme fashion to whip up popular emotions of hatred and fear. One Moscow resident recently reported that every program, every movie is routinely interrupted for “emergency news flashes,” each one announcing a new alleged act of bloodshed in eastern Ukraine. He described the psychological pressure such alarmist warnings place even on those who are aware of the manipulation going on behind the scenes, and of the anger they inspire towards Ukrainian and U.S. leaders in less critical audiences.

Meanwhile, after hardening punishments for unauthorized political demonstrations (and making it a crime to refer to Crimea as something other than part of Russia), the Kremlin is gradually placing tighter and tighter controls on internet access and social media – the sole spaces left for free exchange of information and opinion. Blogs must be registered with police authorities. As of August 8, those same authorities have blocked anonymous internet access on public wireless networks: users must now enter their domestic passport number (the equivalent of a U.S. citizen’s social-security number) in order to log on. The government has also ordered a number of popular social media sites to install special hardware and software “that will enable the security services to automatically receive information about the actions of individual users of those sites,” and has made it a crime for these sites to block such surveillance in any way. These developments are chilling. However, lest they prompt overheated comparisons to past Soviet dictators, one tyrant in particular, we need to keep in mind: it is terrible, from our position, to see civic freedoms as they are gradually rolled up before our eyes. Yet powerful countries we do not generally condemn in public, China being a prime example, have had far greater restrictions in place for years. We accept them more easily, perhaps, because we are not witnessing in such excruciating detail, the process of their imposition.

Unpalatable, yes, but the only way to halt this evolution is through engagement with Putin and a display of public willingness to work with him, rather than against him. Call it appeasement, if you will. But Putin is not Hitler, and objectionable as his anti-Western, macho, homophobic and even racist rhetoric may be, he is far from calling for the collective extermination of his country’s purported enemies. Although an array of experienced diplomats such as former Russia Ambassador Michael McFaul are urging us to show our support for democracy by supporting Ukraine, we also need to consider just what such a commitment would involve and how it could ever, ever be sustained. Ukraine is financially unviable as an independent entity, without a massive infusion of cash that any sanctions-strapped European Union will simply be unable to pay. Just to reiterate a few uncomfortable statistics: Ukraine imports and exports more from Russia (its single largest trading partner) than from the E.U. It depends on Russia for natural gas – for which it has racked up at least 1.7 billion dollars in unpaid bills. In addition, Russia holds a chunk of the Ukrainian debt and can legally force Kiev to default if said debt ever exceeds 60% of its GDP – which seems increasingly likely. While Ukraine is a wonderful place for foreign academics like myself to work, far more open and free than its Russian neighbor and with a democracy movement championed by a number of articulate, cosmopolitan young people, the country also has a record of egregious ruling-cadre corruption and disarray, in which frequent fistfights among lawmakers during parliament sessions are upheld, by some, as a sign of healthy political due-process. In 2012, Ernst & Young rated Ukraine the third most corrupt nation in the world – the same year its per capital GDP clocked in just below that of Namibia and Iraq.

Today, the Ukrainian government is to some degree imitating Moscow, similarly using television to shape public opinion, exaggerating stories of rebel atrocities and censoring negative accounts of the behavior of government troops, stifling oppositional voices, and manipulating both language and information to appeal for Western aid. My sympathies are deeply with the Ukrainian people caught up in this tragic conflict, struggling with even greater difficulty than usual to make ends meet amid rampant lawlessness and arbitrary brutality. But the idea that a ceasefire could not be imposed long enough for bodies to be adequately recovered from the MH17 crash site is, itself, an atrocity – one for which both sides carry a degree of blame.

The rebels must disarm, but that can only happen by including Russia, with the E.U., as part of the solution to the Ukraine crisis rather than as its major problem. The situation in Ukraine is not going to be resolved in a perfectly happy nor perfectly moral way. I respect the wishes of Ukrainian citizens who yearn for a peaceful, autonomous, and law-abiding society. But I would a thousand times rather fight ISIS than Russia, and that over a bitterly poor region full of antiquated coal mines, where many residents seem to feel increasingly disgusted with (and endangered by) all the various armed forces that surround them. I would rather Europe sustain its economic recovery, instead of sinking into financial crisis should one-third of its natural gas supplies be cut, as the nights grow longer and temperatures fall. We need to have an endgame in mind in the Ukrainian conflict, as much as Russia does. Particularly now that winter is coming, when the world’s superpowers should be working together to stabilize situations that threaten us all.   

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Russia Fighting Information Wars with Borrowed Weapons Cynthia V. Hooper is an Associate Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet History at College of the Holy Cross and an affiliate at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. She is currently completing a book entitled Terror From Within: Policing the Soviet Powerful, Under Stalin and Beyond.

This article was first published on the website of The Conversation.

“Life would be boring without rumors.”

So said Russian President Vladimir Putin, upon re-emerging from a mysterious ten-day disappearance, during which the internet exploded with speculation he was dead.

The Kremlin added fuel to the fire after posting photos of Putin on its website it claimed were current – but which turned out to have been images from a meeting that had taken place a week earlier.

It’s not the first time that Putin and the Kremlin have played fast and loose with the facts. At the annual G-20 summit in Australia last fall, when the Prime Minister of Canada told Putin to get his country’s troops out of Ukraine, the Russian leader apparently responded, “Unfortunately, this cannot be done, as we are not there.” (And remember the “little green men” in Crimea whom Putin suggested were not Russian soldiers, but unknown citizens masquerading in used Russian uniforms?)

Yet according to polls, 85% of Russians voters trust Putin, an all-time high. And even though it’s common knowledge that the state has seized control of the country’s three main television stations, somewhere between 80% and 90% of citizens continue to rely on those stations for their news. (Russians watch an average of 3 ½ hours of state TV a day.)

Why are Russians so willing to swallow misinformation? Have the country’s citizens – after decades of learning to read between the lines during the Soviet era – suddenly become gullible?

Not exactly. Instead, the Kremlin has become increasingly sophisticated in its media strategy. Even as it continues to enforce conformity of coverage at home, it criticizes conformity abroad. Moreover, it borrows from the playbook of its former Cold War enemy, the US, to shape public opinion – in part by concocting a powerful story of Western spin. 

Newspeaking from both sides of the mouth

To the international audience, the Kremlin advertises pro-Russian coverage as an “alternative point of view” that any truly “free” press should acknowledge.

“Question More” reads the slogan of the Kremlin’s English-language news service Russia Today (RT).

Such rhetoric borrows heavily from that of Fox News. Upon launching in 1996, the nascent network introduced itself to US viewers as a “Fair and Balanced” alternative to what it claimed was the country’s overwhelming “liberal media bias.”

Likewise, in selling their product as more open-minded alternative to the supposed “Anglo-Saxon mass-media monopoly,” RT has enjoyed astonishing success.

Last November, the government went even further, announcing the formation of a new global media service named Sputnik to challenge US-led “aggressive propaganda promoting a unipolar world.”

These media agencies are slick – and not stupid.

In particular, their criticism of the American political establishment is often hard-hitting, conveying concerns about US-led hegemony shared by other countries across the world.

Such outlets typically argue that the US media frames the Ukraine conflict in outdated Cold War clichés, and that it too readily embraces Ukrainian leaders who are also manipulating information to elicit Western sympathy (not to mention vast amounts of financial aid). It also argues that Western media hypocritically avoids probing into the United States' own checkered record of overseas crimes.

“We’ve switched roles,” crowed Sputnik chief Dmitry Kiselev last year. “Russia is for freedom of expression and the West is not.” 

A Western toolbox

Some accuse the Kremlin of “weaponizing information,” combining the Newspeak of George Orwell with “the savvy of Don Draper.” According to journalists Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, Russian “political technologists” work behind the scenes to insert deliberately false material into international public debate in the name of balanced and objective coverage.

At the same time, they strive to discredit the very principle of objectivity, encouraging viewers to believe that – especially during international conflicts – all journalism is skewed by politics and preconceptions.

It’s a deeply cynical strategy. But it works. Most Russians appear to embrace the argument that “everybody lies” – including the West.

“Isn’t the labeling that CNN and BBC use also propaganda?” opined leading Russian state television anchor Andrei Kondrashov. “We [in Russia] have simply adopted the same methods that they use today.”

Kondrashov and others point out that US corporations and Hollywood celebrities (not to mention US presidential candidates) all hire expensive PR firms to place stories, tactically leak information and cultivate point people who can be relied upon for appropriate spin. And, indeed, a recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a decrease of 7,200 journalism jobs by 2022, but an increase of 27,400 positions in PR.

Then there’s the mass hiring of internet trolls to articulate a pro-Putin message on Western media sites. Many US journalists have called it a “Kremlin attack” to “claim control over the internet.” Moderators at the British Guardian – where articles can be flooded with as many as 40,000 comments a day – have termed it an “orchestrated campaign.” Meanwhile, the English-language Moscow Times has been forced to shut down its online discussion forum, citing floods of spam.

Russia’s only remaining independent investigative newspaper interviewed individuals who admitted to being paid to produce a quota of 100 posts a day. But in explaining their responsibilities, the interviewees echoed the language of US election campaign managers who organize “rapid response” teams of volunteers to write letters to the editor, post on social media and comment on articles – all to shape and influence debate. 

Entertainment’s agenda

Russian celebrities also play a role in molding public opinion.

Director Nikita Mikhalkov, for instance, is a long-time critic of Soviet-style dictatorship. (He won an Oscar for his anti-Stalin 1995 film Burnt By the Sun.) Yet he’s also an outspoken Russian nationalist – and a close friend of Putin. At the premier of his most recent film, Mikhalkov declared, “Anyone who says Crimea is not Russian is the enemy.”

Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov will eagerly come to the defense of friend Vladimir Putin. Source.

His next project will be a television series about the death of legendary 19th century Russian writer-diplomat Aleksandr Griboedov. The director claims that he will correct the historical record, to “prove” that Griboedov was killed in Tehran by Muslims acting under the direction of British spies during a time of Anglo-Russian competition for influence in Central Asia.

Though set in the distant past, the project reinforces contemporary media messages: just as the British connived to undermine Russian interests in 19th-century Persia, so, too, are the Americans meddling in Ukraine.

But US popular culture is also filled with anti-Russian allusions. For example, the third season of House of Cards depicts US President Frank Underwood locking horns with his Russian counterpart, Viktor Petrov – a figure who shares not only the same initials as his real-life model, but also a KGB background, an extended term in office, a failed marriage and a penchant for political cynicism.

House of Cards villain Viktor Petrov, played by Lars Mikkelsen, is (very obviously) based on Vladimir Putin. 

“Russia has nothing to gain from peace in the Middle East and, more importantly, nothing to gain from working with America,” Petrov intones in one episode, minutes after being received at the White House.

Meanwhile NBC’s Allegiance centers on Russian spies in America who are plotting a terrorist operation to retaliate against US sanctions. It’s an attack that will, exults one character, “allow us to operate as we wish, in Ukraine, in Europe, in the world.”

One early scene depicts the plotters slowly feeding one of their colleagues suspected of betrayal into a furnace, after reminding him that the name of their organization may have changed but “the rules remain the same.”

Viewers are thereby encouraged to link contemporary Russian intelligence operatives to the Soviet-era KGB, with a twist of modern-day ISIS thrown in.

Still, Russia’s in a league of its own

But differences in degrees of media freedom matter, and borrowed strategies do not mean equivalent ones. What’s important is to find a way to criticize the shortcomings of US media practice and policy, without fully embracing Russian spin.

While both countries may be promoting a “new Cold War” along cultural lines, what distinguishes Russia is the level of manipulation involved in, as Putin’s critics phrase it, “activating hatred.”

It’s a process fueled by an increasingly organized, largely invisible set of censorship personnel and practices. Government pressure on the handful of independent outlets that remain continues to grow. (The haunting question of who’s behind the death of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov looms large.)

Meanwhile, the most popular programs remain the ones where fact and fiction unapologetically blur.

A self-described “documentary film” that aired in mid-March to commemorate the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the Crimea opens with a shot of a Russian Orthodox church, a military helicopter and an interview with Putin.

Crimea: The Way Home first aired in mid-March and has already garnered over 5 million views.

“I invited the head of Special Operations to the Kremlin,” Putin somberly recounts, “and told him, ‘let’s speak directly, that we must save the life of the President of Ukraine.’”

Combining professional History Channel-style packaging with staged re-enactments of events (that may not have even taken place), the film, titled Crimea: The Way Home has already garnered more than five million views online.

It’s a testament to the immense – and rapid – growth of Russia’s mighty media megaphone.

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In the Wake of Syrian Missile Strike, a Look Inside Russia’s Alternate Media Reality Cynthia Hooper is Associate Professor of History at the College of the Holy Cross.

On April 11, the White House released an intelligence report accusing Russia of trying to cover up the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad through a global disinformation campaign replete with “false narratives.”

As a professor of Soviet history with an interest in media studies, I’ve been following Russia’s response to the chemical attack and subsequent U.S. missile strike – the various television and print news stories, tweets and analyses put forth by Russia’s domestic and international media outlets.

Together, they’re reflective a larger Russian information strategy: Stress a unified message at home but sow discord abroad.

Jumping to the wrong conclusion

Inside Russia, all state-run media outlets and many independent ones are emphasizing that the Trump administration has wrongfully (or at least prematurely) condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for being behind the April 4 attack; has taken military action overseas without congressional or U.N. authorization; and has indirectly helped terrorists by damaging an airbase essential to fighting ISIS.

Their stories echo positions championed by the Russian government. When news of the chemical attack broke, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense posted a YouTube video explaining that the Syrian Air Force hadn’t dropped chemical bombs on civilians. Rather, it had destroyed a warehouse where militants – unbeknownst to the Syrian government – were producing land mines packed with toxic chemicals.

And after the U.S. missile strike, the Russian Foreign Ministry published a report detailing numerous cases in which (it claims) terrorist groups have deployed chemical weapons and then blamed Assad.

What about Mosul?

Meanwhile, Russia’s Kremlin-funded, English language media, intended for a foreign audience, are echoing these claims, but with a twist.

With its slogan “Question More,” the international television agency Russia Today (RT) is promising to expose its viewers to certain “truths” of the Syrian story that, it says, are being clouded by Western spin.

For example, RT’s English website published an editorial deploring the “absolutely psychopathic knee-jerk reaction” of Western media in voicing immediate support for the U.S. decision to retaliate against Assad through military action.

In particular, RT is emphasizing the difference between the international outrage over civilians killed in Syria’s recent chemical weapons attack, compared to what it casts as the Western world’s relatively subdued response to the deaths of between 150 and 200 Iraqi noncombatants in a U.S.-led bombing raid on Mosul in mid-March.

“Media, officials react to Syria ‘toxic attack,’ not to Iraqi deaths,” read an RT graphic this weekend that scrolled across multiple TV reports.

Show us the evidence!

“Show us the evidence” was another mantra of the weekend, with networks pointing to “suspicious” American reliance on secret information to implicate Assad.

Between stories, the network repeatedly ran a montage of U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley holding up pictures of young children killed in the chemical attack, followed by a soundbite of President Trump referring to the “beautiful babies cruelly murdered” in Khan Sheikhoun. The sequence then cut to a shot of former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaking to the U.N. Security Council in 2003 and holding up a vial of powder (meant to resemble anthrax), followed by a soundbite of former President George W. Bush warning of Iraq’s vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Such a montage aims to remind viewers that U.S. “evidence” of Iraqi WMDs was inaccurate, and subsequently deemed a massive intelligence failure. Further, it suggests that U.S. government officials can – and do – use images to play on the emotions of citizens and conceal lack of concrete proof.

“When we see heart-wrenching images of dying children on our TV screen, it’s hard not to be moved,” a voice off-camera intones. “But we should ask ourselves – are our better instincts being manipulated?”

Souring on Trump

And then there’s Trump. During the presidential campaign, most Russian media outlets were staunchly opposed to Hillary Clinton. They often mocked Trump’s various foibles, but when he was elected, the Russian Parliament burst into applause. Since then, he’s been consistently portrayed as a successful pragmatist, a leader with whom the Kremlin could do business.

Now some in Russia are branding him a crazy cowboy.

“Trump – more insane and dangerous than Obama?” one analyst queried.

Even Echo Moscow, an independent radio station and staunch critic of the Russian government, tweeted as its “photo of the day” a caricature originally published by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In it, Trump smiles and shoots a mini-missile. The heading reads: “This April, let’s just do whatever we please.”

Other sources cast Trump as a great manipulator, trying to win over critics appalled by his earlier rhetoric of nonintervention. Many suggest that he’s attempting to appear tough on Russia just as he’s facing congressional scrutiny for his administration’s alleged Russian ties.

“He’s not the not the first president to use war to deflect from a troubled domestic situation,” a scripted RT piece declared, flashing to a picture of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.

‘Question More’ – if you’re not Russian

Such coverage of Trump illustrates how Russia’s international media policy expands on its domestic one.

Inside Russia, propaganda functions in a more familiar way, with a government bureaucracy working to ensure that the country’s three major television stations – Channel One, Rossiya and NTV – produce a united political message about a strong Russian state. (The Kremlin watchdogs are so careful to protect Vladimir Putin’s image that they recently made it illegal to circulate altered pictures of the Russian president wearing makeup.)

But RT – the international network – is ecumenical in its criticism, rather than rote. The network invites guests from all sides, with varying degrees of legitimacy, to air their views. Essentially, they provide a forum to sow almost any kind of doubt about the American status quo. It’s not about controlling a message as much as it is about confusing whatever messages are put out by Western – especially American – authorities.

Labeled by U.S. intelligence organizations as a Russian propaganda weapon, RT nevertheless casts itself as a voice dedicated to helping viewers become less gullible media consumers. It has even volunteered to help Facebook fight “fake news.”

If it is a weapon, then, it operates by encouraging a lack of trust in the institutions and ideals of a Western-led world order, all under the guise of independent thinking. At the same time, its anchors are quick to shut down or redirect any statements that call Russia’s actions into question. When, for example, CNN ran a story about a Pentagon investigation into possible Russian knowledge of Assad’s chemical attack, RT mentioned CNN’s coverage – but only as an example of Western bias.

U.S. and Russian journalists both claim to champion the right to criticize, to challenge authority and to investigate potential wrongdoing. However, only one country’s major media outlets seem interested in holding leaders accountable to the same degree both at home and abroad. Dependent on Kremlin patronage, Russia’s domestic media, with a few courageous exceptions, work to reinforce Kremlin power.

RT goes a step further, seeking to turn the strengths of liberal democracy into vulnerabilities. Its programming demonstrates how the right to question authority – an essential pillar of an open society – can also be “weaponized” by those who are prepared to exploit freedom of speech to undermine their rivals.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wed, 16 Jan 2019 10:35:10 +0000 0