Amnesty, and the Failure of the Navalny REvolution

I don’t like spending too much time on the story of Alexei Navalny. For all of its personal drama and tragedy, ultimately, I suspect, it will end up being a mere footnote in history. Basically, as I see it, Navalny is a political dead end, not the paradigm changing revolutionary that so many in the hack pack believe him to be.

That said, people seem to expect me to churn out Navalny stories, so in response to the demand, I have written a couple.

The first, which you can find on the website of the Centre for International Policy Studies here, is a fairly basic survey of the whole Navalny saga, and explains why, in my opinion, his return to Russia and subsequent arrest has not sparked the mass political turmoil that so many pundits were expecting.

The second article, which is on RT here, looks at Amnesty International’s decision to stop referring to Navalny as a ‘prisoner of conscience.’ I point out that the decision makes little sense given that a) the hate speech Amnesty refers to is not relevant to Navalny’s imprisonment, and b) Amnesty continues to insist that Navalny’s jailing is political. The message seems to be that we only deem people ‘prisoners of conscience’ if we happen to like them. I conclude that this is a bad precedent.

Enjoy!

The Sad Decline of the Spectator (and Why so Many of its Contributors Now Write for RT)

Oh Speccie, my Speccie, what happened to you?

I think I’ve mentioned before that one of the weird contradictions of current Western reporting is the fact that it simultaneously maintains that Russia is a) the chief worldwide spreader of anti-vaccination propaganda, and b) devilishly undermining the world by trying to persuade people of the merits of its Sputnik-V anti-covid vaccine. Those damn Russians – anti-vax and pro-vax all at the same time!

Continue reading The Sad Decline of the Spectator (and Why so Many of its Contributors Now Write for RT)

Lipstick on a Pig, British-Style: Or Why the UK’s Anti-Russian Propaganda Campaign is Bound to Fail

In his book The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia British journalist Angus Roxburgh details the time he spent working as a public relations consultant for the Russian government. The problem he confronted, he writes, is that the Russians felt that negative fallout from any type of bad news, or bad behaviour, could be avoided if the news was given the appropriate media spin. He kept telling them that if they insisted on doing x or y, it would look bad regardless of how it was spun, while they insisted that as a PR guy it was up to him to make it look good nevertheless. In essence, Roxburgh says, the Russians never understood that if you put lipstick on a pig, everyone will still see that it’s a pig.

It’s a fair enough point, and I couldn’t help thinking of it when reading news this past week of a big dump of leaked documents showing how the British government has been spending millions of pounds on supporting anti-Kremlin journalists, media organizations, youtubers and other influencers both in Russia and its near abroad (especially the Baltic states).

The leaked documents consist of instructions from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to companies wanting to bid for contracts to supervise the media campaign, as well as various bids drawn up by companies hoping to win the contracts. You can find some of the details in an article by Kit Klarenburg on RT as well as on the Moon of Alabama blog.

The latter goes out of its way to portray this as a campaign of British subversion targeted against Russia. Strictly speaking, nothing in the documents says that. Rather, the FCO couches its language in terms of training journalists, overcoming disinformation, improving the quality of reporting, raising journalistic ethics, and so on. Who can argue with any of that? On the surface, it’s all fine and dandy, though perhaps a bit patronising, as there’s an underlying assumption that Russians are incapable of high quality, ethically sound reporting, whereas the UK (home of the Sun, the Daily Express, and the like) knows all about that sort of thing and can teach those poor benighted Russians how to do things properly.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and it’s clear that something is not quite as innocent as the FCO would like to make it out. Particularly striking was a statement that British funds have been used to set up a network of Russian youtubers while also helping them avoid having to register themselves as ‘foreign agents’, as required by Russian law. It’s hard to see how the Brits will be able to explain that to the Russians as not constituting interference in domestic affairs and aiding and abetting people to break the law.

Likewise, it’s difficult to say how one can describe positively the news that the FCO-funded Zink Network has been working with the Latvia-based Meduza and other media outlets, holding “weekly mentoring sessions with specialists from the outlets”, “adjusting their editorial and commercial strategy accordingly” and creating “common framings of issues.” It will be interesting to see how Meduza from now on rebuffs the accusation that it’s acting as an arm of the British government (I imagine that it just won’t bother trying).

I’m not going to go into all the details – you can read them yourselves, if you want. Instead, I feel it useful to mention a couple of points which these documents raised in my mind.

The first is that what I’ve called elsewhere the ‘disinformation industry’ (i.e. the industry devoted to combatting alleged Russian disinformation) is big business. There’s millions of pounds to be made in this. And nobody’s going to get any of that money by playing down the Russian threat.

The second is that it is all utterly pointless, even counterproductive. This sort of thing has a tendency to become public knowledge – as it now has – and when it does, it looks bad. In the process, it taints all and every anti-government source of information in Russia as the agent of hostile foreign states, even when they’re not. In this way, schemes like this actually end up playing into the hands of the Kremlin, justifying its claims that Russia is under attack from the West.

Perhaps that wouldn’t matter if somehow this great media campaign convinced huge numbers of people to change their view of the world. But I don’t see any evidence that it does. One of the leaked documents has the following to say about the Baltic states:

Especially amongst 40+ populations there is a lower level of trust in both the domestic and international media amongst Russian-speaking populations. There is the strong perception that the Baltic states’ Russian TV and radio programmes favour a Baltic perspective rather than reflect the Russian minority’s perspectives. There is also a degree of mistrust in the authorities especially around citizenship and language.

Returning to Mr Roxburgh, the correct solution to this, it seems to me, would be to address the policies that cause the mistrust, and also to start reflecting the Russians’ perspectives in your programming. But that’s not what the FCO plan wants to do. It assumes that the current policies and perspectives are fine; they just need some decent PR to sell them better. So, keep on churning out the same old line, just train some people to do it more professionally.

In short, paint some lipstick on the pig. But as the quote above shows, the reason Russians are listening to the message isn’t because the pig is ugly, but because it’s a pig. Making it a nicely painted British pig isn’t going to help in the slightest.

Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity

Russian president Vladimir Putin had a private meeting the other day with the heads of key media organizations. Normally, the content of these meetings remains secret, but on this occasion one of those present leaked what Putin had said. Apart from the statement that ‘We will not abandon Donbass,’ what grabbed the headlines was the following words of Putin:

I believe in passionarity [passionarnost’], in the theory of passionarity. As in nature, so in human society, there is development, a peak, and extinction. Russia hasn’t yet reached the peak. We are on the march, on the march of development. The country passed through very tough experiences in the 1990s, at the start of the 2000s, but it is on the march of development. I look at what is happening here: we have a sea of problems, but unlike other nations that are old or aging, we are still on the rise. We are quite a young nation. We have an immortal genetic code. It is founded on the mixing of bloods, if you can say it in such a simple, popular, way.

I mentioned this odd topic of passionarity once before, but it’s worth returning to it for a more detailed explanation of what Putin is on about, as I suspect it doesn’t mean a lot to most Western readers.

The term ‘passionarity’ was invented by the Soviet ethnologist Lev Gumilev and was a key point in his (failed) doctoral dissertation, later published as a book, entitled Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere. But before going on to that, it’s necessary to introduce a bit of historical background.

Continue reading Crackpot Theory No. 11: Passionarity

Debating the ‘New Ethical Reich’.

In my latest piece for RT (which you can read here), I discuss an inflammatory manifesto published this week in the liberal Russian newspaper Novaia Gazeta by the highly respected theatre director Konstantin Bogomolov (also well known as husband of the socialite and one-time presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak). Along the way, I also mention an article by journalist Dmitry Gubin (who has a show on the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station). (If you read Russian and want to read the originals of Bogomolov’s and Gubin’s articles, they are here and here, though Gubin’s is behind a paywall).

Gubin’s piece is an extreme but not unrepresentative example of Russian liberal thought. Its essential message is that the West is great, Russia sucks, and the Russian people have a backward and slavish mentality. “If you gave the people freedom it would turn America into atomic dust, bring back the death penalty, and lock up the liberasts, and anyone who’s very intelligent, in prison,” Gubin writes.

Bogomolov’s piece, on the other hand, is something of a stab in the back of Russian liberalism – or at least that’s how I describe it in my article. The idea that Russia should emulate the West is pretty much at the core of Russian liberalism. But rather than praising the West, Bogomolov lays into it as a “New ethical Reich” that has established a totalitarianism that tries to enforce total compliance not just of what people say but also of what they feel. Using some highly offensive language, Bogomolov complains that “the Nazis have given way to an equally aggressive mix of queer activists, fem-fanatics, and eco-psychopaths, who have an equal desire to totally transform society.” “We have ended up in the tail end of a mad train, steaming to a hell where we will be met by multicultural gender neutral devils,” he concludes, adding that Russia needs to get off the European train and instead create a “new rightwing ideology.”

In my article I paint this as something deeply reactionary, and remark that it could easily have come out of the pen of someone like the far-right thinker Alexander Dugin. And so it could have, more or less. It very much gives the impression that Bogomolov has gone over to the dark side. It’s quite remarkable that such a piece could be published in Novaia Gazeta.

But since writing my article, a different explanation of Bogomolov’s manifesto has occurred to me. Bogomolov and Sobchak, someone told me, have reputations as libertarians, so rather than a conservative piece, his manifesto could be seen as a libertarian one.

How?

Well, the ultra-conservative really hates what Bogomolov calls “queer activists, fem-fanatics, and eco-psychopaths”, but one could argue that what Bogomolov really hates is something different: namely, he hates being told that he can’t say that he hates them. Citing the novel Clockwork Orange, he argues that the beast within the human needs expression. “I demand the right to be obnoxious,” “I demand to be allowed to be a hoodlum,” is what he appears to be saying.

You might say that that’s not any better, and you’d be right, but it is possibly slightly different. It is, in essence, an extreme form of liberalism, interpreted as denying any form of positive liberty and instead insisting on a very narrow interpretation of negative liberty that gives people the right to do any damn thing they please. If Bogomolov had truly gone over to the conservatives, he’d starting talking of moral values. Instead, he complains that ethics are an inconvenience that get in the way of people’s freedom. The fact that the West is trying to enforce some ethical standards is proof that it’s really just Nazism 2.0.

Frankly, I can’t agree with this, and having read both their articles, I didn’t come away feeling overly fond of either Gubin or Bogomolov. No doubt they have other wonderful qualities, but the forms of liberalism they seem to promote are not my own.

There was once, a long time ago in the late nineteenth century, a type of Russian liberalism that did rest on some sort of transcendental moral values, even if this was perhaps the purview of a minority of so-called ‘Idealists’ within the liberal community. This intellectual trend took inspiration in part from the writings of the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov who moved beyond negative liberty to demand that societies provide their citizens with the minimum required for a dignified existence, and that they treat their citizens decently.

When liberalism re-emerged in Russia out of the dust of the Soviet Union, this sort of thinking seems to have largely failed to re-emerge with it. Instead, the libertarian, laissez-faire, ‘screw other people, I have the right to do what I please,’ variant won the day. Bit by bit, its negative effects convinced people that another approach is needed. So when Bogomolov says that he wants to return to the Europe that used to be, not the Europe that is, it seems to me that perhaps what he’s lamenting is the loss of the libertine days of the wild 90s, when anything went, no matter how outrageous.

I don’t know if this is a more accurate explanation of Bogomolov’s motives than the one that says that he’s gone over to the side of the conservatives. I just put it out there as a possibility. Maybe the reality is some strange combination of libertarianism and conservatism. It would be interesting to hear what you all think. Regardless, his manifesto is causing quite a stir in intellectual circles, and with good reason.

Defaming Veterans

I have written a piece for RT paralleling Alexei Navalny’s trial for defaming a WW2 veteran with the arrest of someone in Scotland on similar charges, and link it all to the place of WW2 in national mythology. You can read it here.

Meanwhile, my morning newspaper brought me this story of a fellow professor at the University of Ottawa whom a Polish court has just ordered to apologize for allegedly defaming someone (long dead, I believe) in relation to WW2. Is this a new trend?

Talking about Navalny on Al-Jazeera

I joined a panel on Al-Jazeera’s show ‘The Stream’ today, to discuss Alexei Navalny. The video is embedded below.

The key moment for me was when another guest, Roman Dobrokhotov, said that things in Russia would be very different if millions of people protested ‘and that is what is likely to happen.’ It strikes me that these people are living in a world of fantasy, in which they will be able to mobilize vast hordes onto the streets and bring about a revolution. At the same time, they are obviously rather isolated even within the opposition movement. This became clear when Dobrokhotov called Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky ‘Putin’s man’, who does whatever Putin tells him to (which is clearly not true).

Anyway, decide for yourself.

Navalny REvolution Collapses in Mutual Recrimination

Last week, I spent some time writing about the Decembrists – a group of disgruntled army officers who launched a failed coup in December 1825 in an attempt to overthrow Tsar Nicholas I. The Decembrists were divided into two groups – the Northern Society and the Southern Society. The former were considered more moderate, and came up with a plan for a constitutional monarchy. The latter, by contrast, plotted to murder the entire Royal family and institute a republic.

The leader of the Southern Society was an officer named Pavel Pestel, who wrote a sort of draft constitution for his proposed republic, in which everyone was to be equal before the law, citizens would enjoy full civil and political rights, and the country would have a parliament elected by universal franchise. It all sounded very democratic. Except that Pestel made it clear that all of that stuff would have to wait for at least ten years. In the meantime, Russia would be run by a dictatorship. Who was to be the dictator? Pestel didn’t say, but many of his colleagues felt that it was obvious that he had himself in mind. According to his biographer, Pestel alienated many others in the movement by ‘the perceived Napoleonic scale of his personal ambitions.’

The idea of the wannabe Napoleon lurking behind a democratic façade was making headlines again this week, with the publication of an article by the leader of the liberal Russian party Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky. In this Yavlinsky denounced opposition activist Alexei Navalny, who was recently jailed after returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been recovering from poisoning.

After making some unsavoury comments about the Putin ‘regime’, Yavlinsky condemned Navalny’s tactic of endless street protests, saying that they couldn’t possibly overthrow the government and would only lead to more repression. He then cited at length the late liberal writer Valeriia Novodvorskaia, who called Navalny ‘the future leader of the mindless mob, with a Nazi inclination.’ ‘If the masses follow Navalny’, Yavlinsky quoted Novodvorskaia as saying, ‘fascism awaits the country.’ Yavlinksy made it clear that he agreed. ‘There is nothing positive in Navalny’s pretensions to participate in Russian politics,’ he wrote.

Yavlinsky’s suspicions of Navalny aren’t unique among Russian liberals. I get the impression that a lot of them don’t like him very much. But Russian oppositionists have long taken the view that the only real enemy is the state, and so you shouldn’t attack others who are with you in wanting to overthrow it. Consequently, it didn’t take long for people to start laying into Yavlinsky for having dared to break this taboo. Most notably, the former mayor of Ekaterinburg Evgeny Roizman declared that it would now be impossible for him to ally with the Yabloko party in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.

Russian liberals are divided enough as it is, with several parties competing for what is already a small share of the vote. Rather than uniting the opposition, it would seem that Navalny’s return to Russia has served to split them into even smaller fragments.

This is not what was meant to have happened. For weeks, Western media was crowing that something had fundamentally changed in Russia, and that the demonstrations against Navalny’s arrest which took place in cities across the country were a sign of a new mood of discontent that was bound to lead to an accelerating wave of protest. Navalny, it was said, had galvanised the Russian population against the government.

Yet after two weekends of demonstrations, last week Navalny’s deputy Leonid Volkov called them off. That was it – the great wave of protests lasted all of two weekends. All things told, it can only be deemed a failure.

Volkov then made things worse by declaring that he was embarking on a new strategy, namely to mobilize Western states to impose more and more sanctions on Russia. If he’d wanted to endorse the Kremlin’s claim that Navalny and his team are in the pay of the West, Volkov couldn’t have found a better way.

Meanwhile, Navalny dug his own grave a bit more this past week in an appearance in court to face charges that he had slandered a World War Two veteran. If you don’t want to be convicted of slander, one might imagine that you would avoid insulting the person you are accused of slandering in court. You might, but not if you’re Alexei Navalny, who took the opportunity to accuse the veteran of being a ‘puppet’. Putting aside the validity of the court process, one can see that this wasn’t the wisest thing to do. There aren’t many war veterans left alive, and those that are have a sort of holy image that is wrapped up in Russians’ sense of patriotic pride of the victory over Nazi Germany. You insult that at your peril. Needless to say, the Russian media were all over the story, painting Navalny as treacherous and unpatriotic, and disrespectful of Russia’s sacrifices in the struggle versus fascism.

If something like the modern press had existed two hundred years ago, one can imagine how they would have covered the Decembrist revolt: ‘Regime in trouble’; ‘Failed coup marks first step in campaign of protest’; ‘Arrest of Pestel further undermines Tsar’s legitimacy’. And so on. Yet Nicholas I lived on as Tsar for another 30 years, and it took another 50 years on top of that before another serious attempt to overthrow the regime took place. Of course, history never exactly repeats itself, but for now it looks very much as if the Navalny revolution has shot its bolt.