Guys and Dolls

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and all that. It’s also the season for silly stories, of which, it must be said, there are always plenty when Russia is the topic. For instance, 50 days or so on from start of the Great Ukrainian Invasion of 2021, the Russian army has yet to storm across its western border and race towards Brezhnev’s old hometown of Dnepropetrovsk (or Dnipro, if you want to be all decommunized). However, fear not, for we all know that the Russians are seeking to revive the USSR. In fact, they’ve as good as admitted this by playing some hockey games in CCCP jerseys. What more proof do you need?

It didn’t help the Russians much, as the Finns defeated the CCCP-clad players 3-2, causing some commentators to wax lyrical about how they also whacked the Russians in the Winter War (though failing to point out that the Soviet commander at the time – Kliment Voroshilov – was a Ukrainian, as was his successor – Semyon Timoshenko).

But that’s not the main thing I want to talk about. For the silliest story this Christmas season is surely Maria Butina’s statement that she wants to regulate the Russia doll market, in order to keep out foreign undesirables, especially those of the wrong skin colour.

Butina, you may recall, was the women locked up by the United States in solitary confinement for several months for the dastardly crime of failing to register as a ‘foreign agent’ when acting as gun lobbyist. To be honest, I don’t have a lot of time for the American gun lobby – all that 2nd amendment stuff strikes as extremely weird and downright dangerous. Foreigners lobbying for gun rights in the USA is even odder. Butina, in my opinion, was treated unnecessarily harshly, and for obviously political reasons, as a sort of bystander victim in the Russiagate hysteria. But her politics are most definitely not my own.

Anyway, once ‘Back in the USSR’, Butina became a TV chat show regular, and in September got herself elected to the Russian parliament, the State Duma. This week, she has made a splash with a bizarre denunciation of dark-skinned Barbie dolls. As the Moscow Times reports:

‘Russian lawmaker Maria Butina said she is working on legislation to regulate dolls, pointing to growing diversity and representation in the children’s toys … In a Telegram post Tuesday, Butina contrasted a white-skinned Russian doll to a dark-skinned, pink-haired Barbie with a caption saying, “Maybe it’s time to think?” … “While the Education Ministry closely monitors school textbooks, there are no standards for educational toys for kindergartens, which is a shame,” she said. … “I hope that it doesn’t turn out in a couple of years that our children are being raised on [foreign] dolls and emulating them,” Butina added.  … “This is a national issue and there can be no opponents here,” Butina was quoted as saying.’

There has undoubtedly been a nationalist turn in Russian political discourse of late. Paranoia over ‘foreign influence campaigns’ is just as strong there as it is over here. And it’s equally silly. Add in a bit of racist rhetoric and it’s more than a little disturbing. ‘Emulating’ foreign dolls as a threat to national security, and as an issue in which ‘there can be no opponents’ – is that really the depths to which people have sunk? Apparently so.

I think, though, that Butina’s campaign highlights more than just xenophobia. It also illustrates a more fundamental problem with the Russian political system. For the State Duma is a very weak institution. By and large, the political initiative belongs to the executive branch of government. Given that all the big issues are the prerogative of the executive, if Duma members want to make a name for themselves, they have to find some fifth-tier topic to be their cause, ideally one that will be sufficiently provocative as to grab headlines. The result is a lot of silliness, such as this. One suspects that if being a Duma member was a more responsible job, this sort of thing wouldn’t occur. Butina, in other words, is just acting in accordance with the incentives that the system provides.

Since dolls and hockey are in the news, I therefore wrap up by suggesting that someone send Butina this Canadian special for Christmas, which you can get at Walmart for a mere $19.94 Canadian. For good measure, I propose also adding in a dozen Timbits and a reminder of who won the 1972 Summit Series (and in case you’ve forgotten, it wasn’t the CCCP). I’m sure Ms Butina will appreciate the gift!

Merry Christmas. Ho, ho, ho!

Brean, Braun, and Putin’s Brain

Occasionally, I wonder why I got into the blogging business. Fortunately, whenever these doubts arise, my local rag, The Ottawa Citizen (for which I once used to write), helps me out by publishing some outrageous nonsense, reminding me of the need for someone, somewhere to take the initiative in debunking it all. And since nobody else round here seems to be doing the job, the task falls upon me.

Today the Citizen obliged me by producing not one, but two such pieces, which was kind of generous of it because one would have been quite enough. The theme of both was the impending Russian invasion of Ukraine. As any sensible person knows, this isn’t going to happen (unless the Ukrainians are stupid enough to try to recapture the rebel provinces of Donbass by force). But that hasn’t stopped Western politicians and the media from screaming wolf on an almost daily basis for the past couple of months. Every day that Russia fails to invade Ukraine brings more articles saying that it’s just around the corner. Just wait. ‘The Russians are coming!’

Anyway, article no. 1, on which I won’t spend much time, is a relatively straightforward piece of reporting entitled ‘Russia warns of response if Ukraine joins NATO.’ This uncritically repeats a statement by Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielus Landsbergis saying that, ‘We are convinced that Russia is actually preparing for an all-out war against Ukraine. It’s an unprecedented event probably since the Second World War.’

To this my response is that, A) Landsbergis being ‘convinced’ doesn’t make it so, and B) even if true it’s hardly ‘unprecedented’ – there’s been no shortage of wars since 1945, quite a few of them fought by Western powers (The invasion of Iraq anyone? The bombing of Yugoslavia?). So wouldn’t it make some sense to tell readers so?

Next, the article tells us that ‘In response to Moscow’s provocation, EU foreign ministers agreed to hit targets linked to the Wagner group, a Russian private military firm, with punitive sanctions, accusing it of destabilizing Ukraine and parts of Africa.’ So what is the ‘provocation’ here? It’s stated as a given, but no evidence of any ‘provocation’ is given.

And then, the Citizen finishes with this gem:

‘Russia’s domestic intelligence service was accused by its Ukrainian counterpart Monday of waging information warfare after it said it had arrested 106 supporters of a Ukrainian neo-Nazi youth group for planning attacks and mass murders. The Federal Security Service said that two of those held had planned attacks on educational institutions.’

Damn those Russians, arresting Neo-Nazis who planned to attack schools! ‘Waging information warfare indeed!’

The problem with this article is not that it’s factually false, as it mostly just repeats claims by Western and Ukrainian officials, but that it treats those claims as given and makes no effort to either challenge or contextualize them. That said, it’s a relatively mild piece of propaganda compared to what appears on the op-ed page of the same edition. This is an article by one Joseph Brean, entitled ‘Putin’s Taxi Driving Disclosure Part of Plan, Expert Says.’ It’s a real doozy.

Basically, the article is a four column story based entirely on the opinions of a single ‘expert’ – Aurel Braun, a professor at the University of Toronto, who, I think it’s fair to say, sits on the hawkish wing of the Canadian foreign policy community. No other ‘expert’ is cited. Nor is any effort made to analyze whether Braun is right. His mere opinion is considered sufficient to justify half a page of full-sized newspaper.

Let’s take a look at the Braun told Brean. (Their names have a certain ring to them, don’t you think?) The starting point is once again Russia’s impending invasion of Ukraine, and the ‘hook’, as journalists say, is a recent revelation by Vladimir Putin that in the 1990s he drove a taxi in order to raise money. ‘One can assume that Putin did not just make these remarks off the cuff,’ says Braun. Putin must have had a reason for raising the taxi driving story.

Fair enough, I say. Putin obviously felt that the anecdote would serve some purpose. Braun and Brean tell us what that might have been:

‘The effect is subtle but by reflecting on the indignity of the collapse of Soviet society, Putin is whipping up support for his campaign against Ukraine, to deny it has a legitimate national identity separate from Russia’s, but rather is a construct of the West, destined to be reclaimed, just like Russia’s imperial influence.’

You can see it, right? Putin says, ‘I drove a taxi’. But what he really means is, ‘let’s invade Ukraine!’ Makes sense, huh?

Braun explains the logic to Brean, who laps it all up uncritically. Putin’s story gives him a link of ‘shared suffering’ with other Russians, says Braun. Putin is thereby indicating to everyone that the ‘loss of superpower status was not just abstract but personal.’ Brean adds: ‘This is typical of the modern Russian geopolitical victim as both aggressor and victim, Braun said, simultaneously projecting confidence and complaining about being treated unfairly.’

Just to make sure we get the point, Brean then proceeds to inform readers that Putin is rewriting history, and wraps up his piece with the following piece of tosh:

‘He [Putin] indulges a rosy view of Joseph Stalin as a firm hand who organized and industrialized Russia. … A recurring theme is that Russia’s future should look like its past, as an imperial Third Rome. His 2014 invasion of Ukraine and Georgia before that, for example, were always described as reclaiming Slavic land and people.’

In a previous post, I mentioned various principles for writing a bad article about Russia. This includes ‘making stuff up’, quoting what others have claimed without mentioning that their claims are dubious or even wrong, and citing only sources that fit your chosen narrative. Here we have them all.

Making stuff up: Putin doesn’t ‘indulge a rosy view of Joseph Stalin’ (as I’ve detailed on various occasions), wasn’t even president during the 2008 war with Georgia, and, as far as I know, has never justified that war in terms of ‘reclaiming Slavic land and people’ (the South Ossetians, after all aren’t Slavs). (One could allow this in the case of Ukraine if one calls the 2014 annexation of Crimea an ‘invasion’, but Putin has never admitted to supporting the rebellion in Donbass, so can’t be said to be justifying that in any terms, let alone those of reclaiming Slavic lands and people).

Quoting claims without pointing out that they may not be true: pretty much the whole article fits that criterion.

Citing only experts who fit your narrative: Brean cites only one expert – Braun – so we have that one too!

In short, we’ve got pretty much the personification of the bad article. Its thesis – that an anecdote about taxi driving reveals some aggressive imperial intent – is amazingly far fetched. One can’t prove it wrong, given that one would have to have access to Putin’s brain to do so. But there’s nothing to connect taxi driving with Ukraine. Putin’s popularity has long rested on his ability to restore stability at home after the chaos of the 1990s. His latest anecdote fits firmly in that narrative. There’s absolutely no reason to see anything else in it.

The taxi driver story is ‘a “calculated” act of propaganda,” says Brean. For sure, there’s propaganda here. But it’s coming from the Ottawa Citizen, not from anyone else. Brean, Braun and Putin’s Brain – quite the combination!

Some thoughts prompted by Nemtsov’s Confessions of a Rebel

Writing my 2019 book on Russian conservatism, I occasionally came across some outrageous statement from the likes of, say, Yegor Kholmogorov, which would make me take a step back and say ‘Wow!’ But as my research for my new book on Russian liberalism moves into the modern era, I’m finding myself experiencing the same sense of shock even more often. One may recall, for instance, Konstantin Bogomolov’s recent rant ‘The Rape of Europa 2.0’, with its complaints about ‘queer activists, fem-fanatics, and eco-psychopaths.’ Anyway, this week I came across an example written by one-time liberal hero Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered near the Kremlin in 2015, and it made me think that some of this stuff is worth sharing.

Continue reading Some thoughts prompted by Nemtsov’s Confessions of a Rebel

The Russians Shall Not Have Constantinople!

“The Dogs of War” are loose and the rugged Russian Bear,
Full bent on blood and robbery, has crawl’d out of his lair;
It seems a thrashing now and then, will never help to tame
That brute, and so he’s out upon the “same old game.”
The Lion did his best to find him some excuse
To crawl back to his den again, all efforts were no use;
He hunger’d for his victim, he’s pleased when blood is shed,
But let us hope his crimes may all recoil on his own head.

We don’t want to fight but by jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too!
We’ve fought the Bear before and while we’re Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

(McDermott’s War Song – G.W. Hunt, 1878)

And so it goes, round and round. 150 years later, Britons are playing the same old song again, with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss charging around the fields of Estonia in an armoured vehicle flying the Union Flag and the flag of the Royal Tank Regiment (‘Through the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond’!), while the Royal Navy prods the Bear in the waters off Crimea. War is in the air. Russia is to blame. But, worry not, ‘We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, and got the money too! … THE RUSSIANS SHALL NOT HAVE CONSANTINOPLE!

The problem the Brits have, though, is that they don’t have the money or the ships anymore. So some way has to be found to persuade the British people to cough up some more loot. And this is where a new report by a UK think tank called the Council for Geostrategy comes into play.

Continue reading The Russians Shall Not Have Constantinople!