Smear job

Writing about Russia is a risky business. Or at least that’s what an article in the Nordic journal Up North tells us. According to the article’s author, Patrik Oksanen, those who dare to talk about Russia are likely to face a wave of criticism and have their reputations dragged through the mud. The results, he writes, are deleterious:

The victim could start to self censor, or leave the field [of Russian studies] altogether. The employer or his peers could start to think ‘where there is smoke there is fire’ and withdraw – both socially and profesional[ly], so as to stigmatize the victim. … People might hesitate to engage, or to enter the field. This will mean fewer thoughts and skills, and that less energy will be put into problems that we have to solve.

Reading this, your first thought might be to welcome the fact that somebody is finally coming out in defence of all those who have in recent times been smeared as ‘Russian proxies’, ‘agents of influence, and ‘Kremlin’s Trojan horses’. You then might celebrate the fact that somebody is at last recognising the harm that such labelling has on public discourse. If so, you’d be wrong. For, according to Mr Oksanen, it’s not the people charged with being Kremlin agents who have been defamed. Rather, it’s the people who smeared them who are suffering. The situation is so bad, he writes, that people are refusing to speak out about Russia’s ‘malign activities’ for fear of the consequences.

Given the amount of stuff which is published about Russia’s ‘malign activities’ on an almost daily basis, I was rather surprised by this conclusion. It doesn’t strike me that people afraid to produce such stuff. But Oksanen is sure it’s the case, and to prove his point he tells us the sorry story of Swedish academic Martin Kragh, who works at the University of Uppsala.

In 2017, Kragh, along with co-author Sebastian Asberg, published an article in the Journal of Strategic Studies entitled ‘Russia’s strategy for influence through public diplomacy and active measures: the Swedish case’. For the most part, this was a run of the mill expose of ‘Russian disinformation’. A lot of it focused on the output of the Russian media agency Sputnik. Kragh and Asberg went beyond that, however, and under the rubric of Russian ‘active measures’ commented that, ‘There exist examples of actors in Sweden, such as politicians, academics and newspapers, who wittingly or unwittingly perform a role as agents of influence or interlocutors of disinformation.’

Kragh and Asberg then provided details, in some cases giving names and in others not giving them but instead providing enough information to make those accused easily identifiable. Supposed agents of influence included the left-wing tabloid Aftonbladet, businessman Carl Muerling, environmental and peace activist Tord Bjork and, rather bizarrely, Alexei Sachnin, a former member of the decidedly anti-Kremlin Russian political group Left Front, who was living in Sweden as a political refugee.

Throwing fuel on the fire, a few months later the Atlantic Council published a report The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 3, which contained a chapter by one Henrik Sundbom, who had previously collaborated with Kragh on another work. In the Atlantic Council report, Sundbom carried on where Kragh and Asberg had left off, naming those Swedes who, he felt, were acting on behalf of the Kremlin. Environmentalists came under particular scrutiny.

Unsurprisingly, those labelled as ‘agents of influence,’, enactors of ‘active measures, and ‘Trojan horses’ were none too pleased with what they considered were defamatory accusations. Muerling went so far as to declare that, ‘my life changed’ as a result of the accusations. Many of those involved therefore decided to strike back, writing articles, sending letters of complaints to the Journal of Strategic Studies and Uppsala University about alleged errors in Kragh’s work, and mobilizing others to do likewise on their behalf. Thus began what Oksanen describes as a ‘large scale attack’ on Kragh’s reputation.

In the process, Aftonbladet overstepped the mark, calling Kragh an agent of the British intelligence service MI6. This was because his name appeared on documents leaked from the files of the British Foreign Office funded Integrity Initiative, indicating that Kragh was a member of the Initiative’s Swedish cluster, Kragh denies the charge, and I’m inclined to believe him, as the files in question actually only list people that the Initiative would have liked to recruit rather than ones that they did. But regardless of the truth of the accusation, its inflammatory nature has allowed Kragh and his allies to counter-attack. The result was a public letter by several Swedish academics defending Kragh, and then Oksanen’s article. Together, these portray Kragh as the innocent victim of a Kremlin-directed smear campaign.

This framing of the issue is, in my opinion, revealing. The title of Oksanen’s article is ‘How the Kremlin silences critics: the Swedish case.’ Discussing those who criticized Kragh, the article notes that, ‘Most of them were all well known actors who support Russian views in Sweden, actors that had either in public openly supported Russia, or are trying to influence things in amore clandestine way – or both.’ The headline, as well as this quotation, and in particular the use of the word ‘clandestine’, make it clear that the author regards the complaints not as the natural reaction of people who felt themselves defamed but rather as a product of the Kremlin. No evidence is, however, provide to support this insinuation. In fact, it is notable that only one of the published criticisms of Kragh’s work came from Russia, and that appeared in the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, an outlet that nobody in their right mind could describe as ‘pro-Kremlin’. For whatever reason, this just isn’t considered relevant.

This isn’t an isolated incident. After the Macdonald Laurier Institute published a report by Marcus Kolga about Russian ‘disinformation’ in Canada, a flurry of complaints were sent to Institute. These led to Bill Browder tweeting that Mr Kolga was subject of a Kremlin campaign to discredit him. But I know for a fact that it was nothing of the sort. It was just a bunch of people who were pissed off that they, or people they knew, had been defamed. The idea that the likes of Kragh and Kolga are ‘victims’ is absurd.

In their universe, however, it seems as if people who disagree with them about Russia can’t be doing so be doing so because there are some genuine reasons for a different opinion or because they just have a different conception of their country’s national interests. It must be because they are ‘witting or unwitting agents of influence.’ And labelling them that way isn’t smearing them. If they complain, however, then that means that they’re smearing you. Moreover, they’re clearly acting on behalf of the Kremlin when they do so.

This is, of course, nonsense. People do what they do for their own reasons, not because the Russian state is directly or indirectly impelling them to do so. And calling people ‘agents of influence’ is indeed defamatory. This whole story reminds of a schoolyard bully who is shocked when those he bullied hit him back, and then runs to the teacher to complain that he’s been attacked.

To conclude, therefore, I’d like to return to Oksanen’s words above, where he writes that smear tactics deter people from engaging in discussion, which means ‘fewer thoughts and skills, and that less energy will be put into problems that we have to solve.’ I agree 100%. We shouldn’t be calling people agents of MI6, but we shouldn’t be calling them Kremlin agents either. Perhaps Kragh and others like him should reflect for a moment about how they like it when people accuse them of working on behalf of a foreign power, and in the future think twice before themselves making such accusations about others.

 

8 thoughts on “Smear job”

  1. “…but we shouldn’t be calling them Kremlin agents either”

    But it’s too late, isn’t it? The official narrative has taken hold, and the ruling elites are invested in it. They are in crisis and they need an enemy. It’s not a matter of some individual journos and politicians ‘reflecting’; it’s structural. Can’t fight the city hall.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Mao, you may be onto something here : “They are in a crisis…”
      It may be time to go back to Marxist / Leninist basics:
      Globalization of production, competing oligarchical nation states, and the working class which must be frightened and divided.
      Good questions are: “what is the crisis” and “will there be a war between the great powers” ?

      Like

  2. “Unsurprisingly, those labelled as ‘agents of influence,’, enactors of ‘active measures, and ‘Trojan horses’ were none too pleased with what they considered were defamatory accusations. Muerling went so far as to declare that, ‘my life changed’ as a result of the accusations. Many of those involved therefore decided to strike back, writing articles, sending letters of complaints to the Journal of Strategic Studies and Uppsala University about alleged errors in Kragh’s work, and mobilizing others to do likewise on their behalf. Thus began what Oksanen describes as a ‘large scale attack’ on Kragh’s reputation.”

    Pfft! He should have employed the talents of the world-famous Russian (now – former) lawyer Mark Zacharovich Feygin, who’s no stranger to facing insurmountable odds and keeping his calm and good cheer when making outlandish libelous claims about, virtually, anyone, and then happily living with the choices he made. In that case, Kragh’s might very well found that his life (in comparison) was uneventful and his reputation spotlessly clean.

    “In their universe, however, it seems as if people who disagree with them about Russia can’t be doing so be doing so because there are some genuine reasons for a different opinion or because they just have a different conception of their country’s national interests.”

    Carefully, professor! Next step would be claiming that the Russians supporting Russia and Putin on-line are not paid up trolls and agents of the KGB/FSB/GRU/SportLoto!

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  3. good point, Lytt.

    Of course Oksanen was slightly ridiculed himself for his security and civil preparedness–prepping, among others–project started in 2015. Check his Wikipedia entry. Thus he may understand how much it hurts, if people fail to grasp the danger of Russia ante portas.

    If Marcus Kolga is the co-publisher, who is the publisher?
    For more information contact info[at]upnorth.eu

    Marcus Kolga
    Co-Publisher

    ********************
    Be sure to look in “Finland’s Soldier”/Suomen Sotila’s article on the Finlandization or Russian influence in Finland over the ages. Not that I consider this history insignificant. … But then, it would be another topic:

    Pekka Virkki, hybrid? then and now
    https://upnorth.eu/turbulence-in-helsinki/

    With slightly less verbal heat, the same topic from old to new cold war:
    Alpo Rusi:
    http://www.alporusi.fi/blogi/the-presidency-of-martti-ahtisaari-1994-2000-needs-to-be-re-evaluated-was-he-displaced-by-a-pro-russian-clique-mainly-in-his-own-party

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  4. The following example is unscientific – even if there are academic articles such as in ‘The Peculiar Revolution: Rethinking the Peruvian Experiment under Military Rule’ about Youtube comments.

    I personally am pro-Soviet, and think that – for all its obvious crimes and monstrous characteristics – Stalin’s regime was still qualitatively better and the lesser of two evils compared to Hitler’s regime. I therefore think that those who collaborated with the Germans and actively participated in or were aggressively indifferent to ethnic and religious genocide are themselves heinous and evil.

    The response to such comments, sooner or later, is that I must be a Kremlin paid troll since I do not embrace the ‘two demons theory.’

    Like

    1. “I personally am pro-Soviet, and think that – for all its obvious crimes and monstrous characteristics”

      1) What “obvious crimes”?
      2) What “monstrous characteristics”?

      Thank you in advance for reply.

      Like

      1. -The Great Purges (both a crime and monstrous in the sheer scale of the fabrication, 700,000 innocents murdered and millions more unjustly imprisoned
        -The Great Famine of 1931-1933. Agronomic incompetence combined with cold blooded ‘resolve’ when the scale of the disaster became clear, making Vyshnegradsky look humane. 1-3 million people horribly and needlessly died.
        -Imprisoning or even killing people who fought the Germans but had committed ‘treachery’ by surrendering.
        -The Doctor’s trial in which Stalin was planning an anti-semitic purge, again on utterly fabricated charges.

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      2. “-The Great Purges (both a crime and monstrous in the sheer scale of the fabrication, 700,000 innocents murdered and millions more unjustly imprisoned”

        Full stop here. One – how do you know that either of them were “innocents” or “unjustly imprisoned”? Two – the state does not murder. It executes. Period. Third – post Revolutionary terror while a sad event is totally in line with universal historical tendencies noted elsewhere. After virtually any (successful) Revolution there begins an internecine political struggle and arises a need to deal with those, who’d squander the conquests of the Revolution one way or another.

        In short – you consider a “crime” (despite the fact that there were no tribunal to consider it this) an execution after a legitimate (for that time and place) trial of a bunch of Trots and Bukharinites?

        “-The Great Famine of 1931-1933. Agronomic incompetence combined with cold blooded ‘resolve’ when the scale of the disaster became clear, making Vyshnegradsky look humane. 1-3 million people horribly and needlessly died.”

        BS. If someone (as in – people) were to blame, it should be kulaks and grain hoarders. That’s it – if we went the road of the “artificial famine” nonsense and ignore all other facts. Besides, claiming in this age that there were no attempts to mitigate the disaster are, to put it mildly, disingenuous. Finally – you seriously can not throw around numbers and claim “that’s Holodomor victims”. Because you can’t really support these numbers with the data. Adding little bits like “horribly and needlessly died” might work on easily impressed people, who are always ready on such low-key emotional manipulation – but not on the people with the functioning brain. Please – don’t waste your time.

        “-Imprisoning or even killing people who fought the Germans but had committed ‘treachery’ by surrendering.”

        That one is totally false and you once again resort to emotional manipulation when you, clearly, lack facts. Once again – don’t do it. No one is impressed.

        What is true, is that after liberation of any number of your citizens (including the military personnel) it is most prudent (read – obligatory if you are not dumb) to debrief them thoroughly without any shred of the benefit of the doubt, given all kinds of shit your Enemy had been doing (see Vlasov and Nazi lead national SS battalions + shutzmanshaft). For that purposes you just can’t let your own former military personnel rejoin their units or go freely. They had to be proceed through filtration camps, and, once cleared, released. If not cleared they’d have to face the judgment. Just because they once fought the enemy does not make them exempt from this practice – they, as a soldiers, swore and oath, so it’s time to prove how sincere they were. And when they had been dealt with it was surely not for the simple act of surrendering, but for something much more grave.

        But, yeah, sure – go ahead and cite relevant numbers about “innocents” that, for various reasons, had to be dealt with. Once again – they were not “killed”, for the state has the monopoly on the violence.

        “-The Doctor’s trial in which Stalin was planning an anti-semitic purge, again on utterly fabricated charges.”

        Two sides of the issue. One – the USSR was against all expressions of nationalism, which, yes, includes the Jewish one as well. That was the aim of the “doctor’s trial” – the accused were way to cozy with already pro-Western Israel political elites and did nothing to conceal the fact where their loyalties had been lying. Two – there is NO (no) evidence about “Stalin planning an anti-Semitic purge”. Despite all the decades since the opening of the archives, evidence is not forthcoming – only bitter butthurt coming from the usual quarters.

        In conclusion. Were there repressions under Stalin? Yes, they were – as they were under previous and consequent Soviet heads of state. The fact that under his time fell the most widespread ones just points out that previously unresolved issues and governance by the compromise (all of which were necessary right after the October Revolution and the Civil War and Foreign Intervention to Russia) had ran its course and burst open. Nevertheless, the repressions were lawful, and, as such, could not be called “a murder” – unless you are a hardcore “kiss-your-sanity-goodbye” libertarian, for whom taxes are theft, imprisonment by the cops are a kidnapping and driving license is an atrocity against the free spirit of the individual. If, OTOH, you are just engaging in cheap semantics – don’t do that. It’s pointless here.

        Were there innocents falsely accused and punished by the Soviet law? Yes, they were – and the Soviet state (under Stalin and Beria) was the first to admit it and rehabilitate the wrongly accused. Import note – not everyone had been rehabilitated even to this day. As you surely know, the “political articles of the Criminal Code” included such things as the terrorism, banditry, treason and espionage. Even if we are to feel extremely generous and count just about everyone, persecuted by the “political” articles of the Criminal Code as “politically repressed” (which, btw, would include even Banderites, Basmachi and Forest Brethren), then the total number of thus persecuted would amount to just 2.5% of the population that had been living in the USSR since the beginning of “Stalin’s rule” and till his death. Again, should we go on a limb and assume that as much as the half of them had been innocently persecuted (again – highly unlikely, should be less), then it’s still just 1.25% of the population.

        “Monstrous characteristics”, pfft!

        Like

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