Land of the absurd

‘Ukraine bans its Eurovision entrant’. It’s the kind of line an absurdist novelist might come up with. But it’s actually the title of a story in today’s BBC News, and it’s an indication of how truth is sometimes more absurd than fiction. On Saturday, Ukrainian singer Maruv won the competition to represent her country at this year’s Eurovision song contest, but she was almost immediately stripped of her victory.  Maruv often sings in Russia, and was told that she would not be allowed to continuing do so. Even when she agreed to cancel her next tour there, discussions of her Eurovision contract collapsed due to other terms which Maruv considered amounted to ‘censorship’. She complained that, ‘I am not ready to address [people] with slogans, turning my participation into the promotion of our politicians. I am a musician, rather than a bat at the political stage.’ According to the BBC,

In a statement, the state-funded UA:PBC said: ‘The performer representing Ukraine … also has commmitments of becoming a cultural ambassador of Ukraine and delivering not only their music but also expressing the opinion of the Ukrainian society in the world.’ … The TV station was backed by politicians, with the Ukrainian Culture Ministry saying that ‘only patriots who are aware of their responsibility’ should be allowed to sing at Eurovision.

I had thought that Eurovision was a singing competition, but I stand corrected. During the TV show to choose Ukraine’s song at this year’s contest, singers were quizzed by the host on their political views concerning Russia. As a report by AP notes,

Maruv was grilled about her Russian shows during the national finals in Kiev over the weekend. Similarly, another entry, a duo of twins from Crimea, were put on the spot by the host and asked whether they consider Crimea to be part of Ukraine. ‘Depending on your answer, you can either bury your own career or that of your mother,’ the host said, referring to the women’s mother who is a judge in the Russian-controlled Crimea.

What a nauseating statement by the host. But all credit to the twins. As AP records, ‘One of the sisters was brought to tears and said she would always stand by her parents if she were forced to choose between them and her career.’ Don’t expect her to get the contract to replace Maruv.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has transferred its culture wars and censorship proclivities over here to Canada. The cinema chain Cineplex is planning to show the Russian blockbuster T-34 which, as the title suggests, is all about the Second World War and, if the trailer is anything to go by, shows a lot of heroic action as Soviet warriors smash up Nazis with their T-34 tank. It seems like a fairly boiler-plate war movie. But the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) is having none of it. According to the UCC website:

The T-34 tank was the weapon used by Soviet Communism to keep captive the peoples of Eastern Europe for four decades. Together with its Nazi German ally, at the beginning of WWII, the Soviet regime invaded and subjugated eastern Poland, the Baltic States and several other independent east European states. As Soviet forces rolled east on T-34 tanks in the second half of World War II, they systematically committed myriad war crimes, crimes against humanity, mass rape, extrajudicial murder and ethnic cleansing. … That the current Russian regime, which funded this film, seeks to pay homage to this murderous history, speaks only to its own embrace of imperialism, aggression, and belligerence.

A letter sent to Cineplex by the UCC elucidates further:

The film uses a narrative of World War II heroism to inspire a crusade of ‘true’ Russians against ‘fascist’ enemies. This is representative of the pro-Russian disinformation we see around the world … We call on Cineplex to review the film in question and to listen seriously to the concerns expressed about the film and its producers. Please do not allow your company to be used as a means to amplify Russian propaganda and reconsider the decision to screen T-34 at your theatres.

There are some common threads running through these stories. In the first place, what should be entirely cultural activities, or simply pure entertainment, has been politicised, and in a rather unpleasant way. Second, the reaction to unwanted messages is to resort to censorship. And third, this kind of stuff makes the would-be censors look like fools and tends to backfire. The Eurovision publicity will no doubt help sell lots of tickets for Maruv’s next Russian tour; and an attempt to block the showing of T-34 in San Francisco actually led to it being shown in a bigger cinema and even more people seeing it than would have done otherwise. T-34 doesn’t sound like my kind of movie. I hadn’t planned to go to it. But now I will. I’m guessing that the Nazis lose.

 

 

Sickening

I read something recently which said that about half of all postings on social media are automatically generated (by so-called ‘bots’). You can bet your bottom dollar that every issue of social importance is being debated on the internet. That means that there are going to be a lot of bot-generated links to the matter in question. And, it goes without saying, some of those will have been generated by somebody in Russia. I say this just to point out that whatever the issue, if it’s important then it’s pretty much certain that you’ll find something about it on the internet that you can trace back to Russia. So if your measure of whether ‘Russia’ is pushing an issue, or is responsible for swaying public opinion on a given matter, is that Russian-based accounts have posted something on the subject, then there is absolutely nothing you can’t hold Russia responsible for.

Of course, regardless of the question, there will also be bots and trolls, and even genuine, ordinary people, commenting on it from America, and Canada, and England, and France, and Germany, and who knows where else. But for some reason, nobody ever holds them responsible. Russians are involved – it’s their fault. Forget about everybody else.

And so it is that in the past couple of weeks, a plethora of articles have appeared blaming Russia for, of all things, measles. As is well known, the disease has made a comeback in recent years, largely as a result of a significant reduction in vaccinations. It turns out that some Russian-based social media accounts have forwarded or provided links to anti-vaccination messages. Ergo, the revival of measles is Russia’s fault.

One of the most egregious examples of this logic appears in an article in the respect medical journal The Lancet. This blames an upsurge of measles in Ukraine firmly on Russia. In 2008, 95% of Ukrainian babies were vaccinated against measles. By 2016, this figure had fallen to 31%, ‘among the lowest in the world’. Vaccinations for Hepatitis B have similarly collapsed. Last year there were 23,000 cases of measles in Ukraine, about half the entire European total. The Lancet links this to the war in Donbass and also comments that, research ‘concluded that Russian trolls promoted discord and, masquerading as legitimate users, created a false impression that arguments for and against vaccination were equiposed. The result has been an erosion of public consensus on the value of vaccine programmes.’ The inference is clear: Russia is to blame for the massive outbreak of measles in Ukraine.

In fact, the research in question analyzes the Twitter hashtag #VaccinateUS, which was allegedly produced by the Russian ‘troll farm’, the Internet Research Agency. The research shows that this hashtag was associated with 253 posts, slightly more of which were pro-vaccine than anti. It also notes that ‘accounts the US Congress identifies as Russian trolls were significantly more likely to tweet about vaccine-preventable illnesses (e.g. Zika) but not necessarily about vaccines. Finally, traditional spambots (designed to be recognizable as bots) were significantly less likely to tweet about vaccine-preventable illnesses than was the average Twitter user.’ This hardly suggests that Russian bots are the no. 1 anti-vaccine propagandists. Moreover, it’s hard to see the link between #Vaccinate US and Ukraine.

As The Lancet notes, ‘the precipitous fall in vaccination level [in Ukraine] began after 2008’. The supposed link to the war in Donbass is therefore irrelevant, as this process began long before that. Moreover, the Internet Research Agency wasn’t even founded till 2013, so I can’t see how it had any influence on plummeting vaccination levels in Ukraine before then. Added to that, as a graphic on Ukrainian vaccination rates on Anatoly Karlin’s blog shows, vaccination levels  have shot up since 2016, at which point not only was war waging in Donbass, but Russian bots were supposedly working their hardest. In short, there is no correlation with Russian bot activity and falling vaccination levels, and so no good reason to link measles in Ukraine to Russia. This, however, has not stopped the likes of RFE/RL from running articles suggesting that the opposite might be true.

And now, here in Canada, as we suffer an outbreak of measles in British Columbia, our very own Marcus Kolga has come forward to tell us who is to blame. In an article in yesterday’s Toronto Star, he tells us that ‘Russian disinformation is attacking our democracy and making us sick.’ According to Kolga,

As our information environment continues to be poisoned by Kremlin bots and trolls, it turns out that they’re also making us sick, literally. … Since 2014, the Kremlin has developed, distributed and amplified antivaccination conspiracy theories, urging parents not to allow their children to be vaccinated against life threatening illnesses, including measles. This has created a global health crisis.

There are some highly questionable assertions here. The first is that all Russian bots and trolls are ‘Kremlin bots and trolls’. Kolga produces no information to support the claim that this is a ‘Kremlin’ plot. The second is that Kremlin is developing and spreading anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and ‘urging parents’ not to vaccinate their children. Actually, as shown above, alleged Russian messages tend to favour vaccines more than oppose them. The third is that it is specifically Kremlin bots who have ‘created a global health crisis’. This is blatantly untrue. The current crisis has its origins in a 1998 article by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, which linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism. Since then, the fear of vaccines has developed a life of its own, spread by vast numbers of people, most of whom have nothing to do with Russia. Even if it’s true that some Russian bots have spread anti-vaccine messages, nobody has yet shown that these constitute more than a tiny drop in the ocean of overall anti-vax propaganda. To say that Russian bots have ‘created a global health crisis’ is preposterous.

As for Canada, the current measles outbreak has been traced to the family of one Emmanuel Bilodeau, whose 11-year old son caught measles on a holiday to Vietnam. Bilodeau told the CBC that, ‘We worried 10-12 years ago because there was a lot of debate around the MMR vaccine. Doctors were coming out with research connecting the MMR vaccine with autism. So we were a little concerned.’ So this outbreak derives from a decision made eleven years ago. How then is it a product of Russian bots and trolls, none of whom, as far as anybody has yet claimed, was saying anything about measles at that point?

Connecting Russia to measles is fearmongering, pure and simple. And as the anti-vaccination issue has shown us, fearmongering is bad for the health. To quote Marcus Kolga, it ‘makes us sick’. Indeed.

 

Book Review: Moscow Rules

Here goes with another long book review (of what is actually quite a short work, which I read in a single afternoon). But bear with it. As so often, the book, while not revealing much of value about Russia, does provide valuable insight into how Russia is viewed by its Western critics.

Keir Giles of Chatham House in the United Kingdom wants to enlighten us about Russia, and has written a book, Moscow Rules, to that end. A clue to his thesis lies in the subtitle: What Drives Russia to Confront the West. According to Giles, the problem in East-West relations is that Russia is ‘confronting’ the West. Why? Because, basically, Russians aren’t like us, they’re ‘un-European’. They’re innately ‘expansionist’, distrustful of the West, untruthful, and authoritarian. The West should rid of itself of any delusions that it can live in peace with Russia, and instead focus on deterrence and containment.

Giles notes that Westerners have been surprised by Russian behaviour under Vladimir Putin. But they shouldn’t be. One can see a ‘remarkable consistency of specific features of Russian life over time,’ meaning that Russia today is just an extension of Russia in the past. The problem, in short, isn’t Vladimir Putin, it’s what one might call ‘eternal Russia’. As Giles says, ‘throughout the centuries, Russia’s leaders and population have displayed patterns of thought and action and habit that are both internally consistent and consistently alien to those of the West.’ Russia, claims Giles, is ‘a culture apart’, and ‘Russia is not, and never has been, part of the West, and thus does not share its assumptions, goals, and values.’

moscow rules

So what distinguishes Russia from the West?

Continue reading Book Review: Moscow Rules

Censors for democracy

On 17 January, the Ottawa-based Macdonald-Laurier Institute issued a report written by Marcus Kolga, Stemming the Virus: Understanding and responding to the threat of Russian disinformation. Kolga claimed that, ‘The information warfare that the Kremlin is currently engaged in against Canada and its allies is total, and its objective is to tear apart our society and undermine our trust in our government and institutions.’

Kolga’s report went on to list a whole series of individuals, organizations and publications which he believes are assisting the Kremlin in its dastardly plan. This blog was featured in a graphic titled ‘Illustration of a disinformation campaign’. Irrussianality was grouped with the likes of InfoWars as a ‘Pro-Kremlin, Conspiracy Theory, Extremist Platform’, and depicted as a conduit through which ‘False narratives’ generated by the Russian government are channelled to the ‘general public/voters’. On the next page of the report Kolga then alleged that such ‘platforms’ aimed ‘to generate support for Kremlin positions, discredit critics and opponents by all means available, and sow confusion and turn societies against each other in the West.’

Continue reading Censors for democracy

Deep people

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is said to be a fan of Deep Purple. Kremlin ideologist Vladislav Surkov is instead promoting what he calls the ‘Deep People’. In an essay  today in Nezavisimaia Gazeta, Surkov has penned a prolonged paean to autocracy as the true democracy, in which the autocrat and the ‘deep people’ work together in glorious harmony. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of the so-called ‘Grey Cardinal of the Kremlin.’ It’s also, I think, rather deluded.

A literal translation of the article’s title would be ‘Putin’s long state’, but a better version might be something along the lines of ‘Putin’s state will last a long time.’ Surkov writes that,

Putin’s large political machine is only just gaining momentum and intends to carry out a long, difficult and interesting job. … for many years Russia will still be Putin’s state. … We need to recognize, understand and describe the Putin system of government and the entire complex of ideas and measures of Putinism as the ideology of the future.

Continue reading Deep people

Three Russias

This week, the American press, and in particular the New York Times, has provided us with three contrasting images of Russia. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

First, the New York Times ran the article which was the subject of my last post – Franz Sedelmayer’s denunciation of Vladimir Putin. I won’t spend much time on this, as it would involve repeating myself. Suffice it to say that the intense focus on the person of the Russian president creates an image of Russia as tightly controlled from the centre. When anything happens – e.g. the arrest of Paul Whelan on spying charges – it’s because Putin ordered it. This, one may say, is ‘image no. 1’ – Russia as autocracy.

Image no. 2 is very different. It’s Russia as chaotic mafia state, and it can be seen in a long article published by the New York Times about the murder of Russian Duma Deputy Denis Voronenkov in Kiev in 2016. The Ukrainian authorities have accused the Russian state of involvement in the murder, the idea being that he was killed on the orders of Vladimir Putin after he fled Russia and gave evidence at the trial of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. Indeed, the Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iury Lutsenko called Voronenkov’s death a ‘typical show execution of a witness by the Kremlin’.

So far, this is all very much in keeping with image no. 1 – Moscow’s hand is in everything. The New York Times, however, notes that there is no evidence to support the accusation of Kremlin involvement in Voronenkov’s murder. Rather, it claims that, ‘To the contrary, the story of Denis Voronenkov is about something else entirely: a story of the chaos at the heart of the sistema (i.e. the Russian system).’ So here we have image no. 2 – Russia as chaos.

Voronenkov, says the Times, was a typical ‘adhocrat, someone who moved fluidly between the worlds of intelligence, crime and politics’. To construct this thesis, the newspaper describes Voronenkov’s corrupt activities and how he eventually chose to become a Duma Deputy in order to acquire immunity from prosecution. What eventually did him in was his involvement in a classic piece of Russian reiderstvo (raiding), in which he and his co-conspirators seized control of a building worth $5 million. It seems, however, that Voronenkov cheated his colleagues out of their full share of the profits. When the matter became public, he fled Russia and took refuge in Ukraine.

The article concludes that rather than being murdered by the Kremlin, Voronenkov was most probably killed on the instructions of one of those he cheated in the building ‘raid’. The fact that he was also a member of the Russian parliament indicates the close ties between government and criminals, ties which are so close that the two essentially operate as one. As the Times puts it, ‘Voronenkov’s tale, to those who know contemporary Russia, illuminated the chaos of Putin’s sistema: the personal rivalries, criminals, elites, crooks and clans trying to keep from running afoul of the country’s ever-shifting red lines.’ Instead of being a case of a Kremlin hit, his story instead shows how in Russia ‘criminal activity and state activity’ merge into one.

In a third article, however, the New York Times provides us with yet another image of the Russian state – one which, rather than robbing everybody blind, is investing heavily in improving the country’s infrastructure. In this article, the Times notes that the Russian government has built up massive financial reserves and is set to splurge a large proportion of these in a drive ‘to spend about $100 bn on big infrastructure projects.’ The Kremlin, says the article, is also pressuring wealthy businessmen to display their patriotism by increasing their investments in the Russian economy, and apparently ‘the arm twisting is working.’

So here we have a Russia in which the state is involved in much more than just theft (after all, if the state has built up reserves of over $400 bn, it would appear that most of its revenues aren’t actually being stolen). Moreover, this isn’t a country operating in a state of pure chaos. It may not be as tightly controlled as in image no. 1, but there’s a fair degree of order here, far more than image no. 2 would suggest.

Supplementing this third view of Russia is an article in Bloomberg by Leonid Ragozin. In this Ragozin notes that, ‘Since 2011, the Kremlin has been promoting a multibillion-dollar campaign to modernize Russian cities and towns.’ He describes an urban redevelopment project in the town of Torzhok, near Tver. This has included the opening of a new high speed rail line to Torzhok and the revitalization of the town’s tourism industry, and has been successful in attracting investment and in persuading people to move back into the town. Among the latter are a businesswoman, Tatyana Sokolova, and the new town mayor, Aleksandr Menshchikov, both of whom have played leading roles in redeveloping Torzhok. The two are credited with obtaining funds from international development banks and renovating the town square and key local landmarks, as well as developing a ‘museum and conference space and art residencies.’

Menshchikov is described as ‘a graduate of the elite Moscow School of the Economy’, and is portrayed as a highly educated, successful, and apparently dedicated official. As such, he’s far removed from the likes of Voronenkov. Nor is he entirely alone. A businessman who came to speak to my students last year told them that back in the 1990s Russian officials were largely ignorant both of law and of how modern economies worked; they produced very poor legislation, full of loopholes for corrupt practices, and were also incompetent when it came to putting plans into practice. Now matters were rather better. This is not universally true, of course. Nevertheless, in a way which wasn’t possible in the 1990s, one can now find hard-working, well-educated, competent, and honest officials with whom can work to do business in Russia effectively.

So, which image best represents the real Russia? The answer, I suspect, is a bit of all three. There’s a state which is theoretically highly centralized, but which in practice oversees some degree of chaos, but which is also able to exert a certain amount of control and enact plans of economic development; there’s a high level of corruption, but also a genuine effort to improve the country’s condition; there are crooked and incompetent officials, but also honest and efficient ones. In short, it’s a thoroughly mixed bag.

As human beings, we like to label things and put them in neat boxes. We also like to contrast them with things they are not, in order more clearly to define them. Thus we come up with simple ways to describe countries – kleptocracy, mafia state, and so on – and we set up simple dichotomies between us and them– democratic v. authoritarian, liberal v. reactionary, etc. But while such devices shows us part of the truth, their oversimplified nature means that they obscure much more than they reveal. If there is any common theme one can extract from these recent articles, it is that reality is far more complex than we are often led to believe.