April Calendar

It is now 1 April, and here in Ottawa, Winter is making a determined last ditch stand against Spring, blanketing us last night with yet another layer of snow. But its days are numbered. Or so we hope.

Meanwhile, this month’s picture from my Soviet poster calendar shows a 1929 poster by Vladimir and Georgii Sternberg for Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’. Georgii died in a motorcycle accident in 1933. Vladimir lived till 1982.

calendarapr

Not so rebellious youth

Russia’s problem, says a common meme, is the survival of Soviet modes of thought among the ‘Sovoks’ and ‘vatniki’ who make up the mass of the population, especially those born in the Soviet Union. Given time, a new generation will grow up with a different mentality – more liberal, more Western, more democratic. At that point, Russia will finally complete its transition into a truly European society.

With this in mind, pundits have leapt upon the observation that last Sunday’s protests in Russia contained a large number of young people. ‘Putin’s romance with the nation is coming to an end’, wrote Yevgenia Albats in the Washington Post, adding that:

For the first time, a generation that was born after the fall of the Soviet Union – a generation that has no personal experience of totalitarian rule – came out to demonstrate. This generation doesn’t watch the Russian propaganda channels that tell of the great Putin and the horrible West. Its members live on social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Vkontakte and YouTube. … What we are seeing now is that young people born after the end of the Soviet Union have reached an age when they want to influence politics in the country. … we suddenly have cause for hope. On March 26, the future of Russia showed itself on the streets of cities across the nation.

Continue reading Not so rebellious youth

Arrests and accountability

Anti-corruption protests took place in multiple Russian cities on Sunday. In many cases, the protests lacked official sanction, and thus ran afoul of the law. According to one press report:

Police arrested roughly 900 people in incidents during the weekend. … The Russian Civil Liberties Association denounced the mass arrests, saying they were illegal and unconstitutional because police did not have reasonable grounds to believe that everyone they detained had committed a crime or was about to do so.

“To us, it’s abhorrent that we would be arresting more than 900 people to find maybe 50 or 100 … vandals. This makes no sense. It’s a fundamental breach of Russian law to have done that,” said the organization’s general counsel.

… The arrest figure of more than 900 people includes only those who were taken to the detention centre, not those who were temporarily detained by police. Most people were released without being charged.

… Igor Ivanov, who said he’d been detained for about 18 hours, said he had just stopped by to check things out when he was arrested on Sunday.

Wearing dark jeans, a dark t-shirt and no shoes, Mr. Ivanov said he was arrested for obstruction of police, but that he was released without charge. He said he suspects he was arrested for wearing a bandana, but said it was on his head, not his face.

He described the inside of the detention centre as “cages” resembling animal kennels, fitting as many as 20 people into the larger ones.

A 15-year-old boy, dressed in an oversized orange t-shirt and cargo pants, said he was arrested Saturday night and held for 33 hours. The teen said that he was only there to watch the protest.

“They surrounded us and told us to leave,” he said, “but how was I supposed to read the situation?” He said police never once told them how to leave or when the last warning would be before arresting him. He was initially arrested for obstructing the police, he said, but released without being charged.

Questions were raised Monday about the way police handled a group of several hundred protesters and innocent bystanders at an intersection on Sunday evening. The group was boxed in by riot police for at least three hours in the soaking rain. After several were arrested, the rest were finally allowed to leave at about 10 p.m.

………..

None of the above is true. I have switched the words Russia and Canada. The description is actually about the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010. A subsequent official investigation into the events surrounding the Toronto protests concluded that the ‘police violated civil rights, detained people illegally, and used excessive force’. A disciplinary hearing also found the police officer in charge guilty of ‘discreditable conduct and unnecessary exercise of authority’.

As might be expected, the arrest of about 900 protestors in Moscow on Sunday is being used to paint the Russian authorities as particularly authoritarian. This accusation is missing the point. Mass arrests of protestors aren’t a uniquely Russian phenomenon. New York police arrested 700 Occupy Wall Street protestors on Brooklyn Bridge in 2011. And in May 2012, police in Montreal arrested 500 people during student protests. Any powerful civil authority facing what it believes are illegal protests is likely to respond in such a manner. In this sense, the Russian example is not unusual.

The difference between Russia and countries like Canada lies in something else. The excessive use of police powers in Toronto led to an official investigation and a reprimand for the officer responsible. There was a system to hold the powers that be to account. By contrast, if any Russian police overstepped their authority on Sunday, it’s relatively unlikely that anybody will be able to do anything about it. Accountability is the bedrock of a democratic order, and the system of accountability in Russia is weak. This is a major failing and it cuts to the heart of Russia’s democratic deficit. But by themselves, the arrests of the protestors this Sunday prove very little.

#$@&%*!

There are times when I near the point of total despair. This week’s Congressional hearings into alleged Russian interference in the American presidential election are such a moment.

Answering questions about Russia, FBI Director James Comey said the following:

He [Putin] hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was that he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much.

They engaged in a multifaceted campaign to undermine our democracy.

They were unusually loud in their intervention. It’s almost as if they didn’t care that we knew, that they wanted us to see what they were doing.

Their number one mission is to undermine the credibility of our entire democracy enterprise of this nation.

They’ll be back. They’ll be back, in 2020. They may be back in 2018.

Also, in response to the question ‘Would they like to see more Brexits?’, Comey said ‘Yes.’

These statements were described by the BBC as ‘things the FBI knows about Russia’. Note the use of the word ‘knows’. In a previous post, I pointed out the need to differentiate between fact and opinion. In his evidence to Congress, Comey didn’t say that these things were his opinion. He stated them as facts, as things he ‘knows’. Putin ‘hated’ Clinton; Russians’ mission ‘is’ to undermine American democracy; ‘Yes’, they do want more Brexits, etc.

But what evidence did Comey produce to support what he was saying? None. These were opinions, masquerading as facts, not actual facts. So the question which then arises is whether Comey’s opinions on Russia are ones we should trust.

The organization he heads – the FBI – is an internal policy agency. It isn’t its job to analyze Russia, Russian politics, or Russian politicians, nor does it have the expertise to do so. It doesn’t know what’s going on inside Vladimir Putin’s head; it doesn’t have an inside line to what Russians are thinking about their ‘mission’ and whether they want to undermine American democracy; it doesn’t have any particular knowledge about what Russia’s leaders think about Brexit.

Simply put, unless  he has been spending the last few years learning Russian, speaking to Russians, interrogating Putin and his ministers, reading Putin’s speeches, analyzing what well-researched publications have to say on the subject, and the like (which of course he hasn’t), Comey isn’t qualified to make judgments of these sorts. And he certainly isn’t entitled to present them as definite facts.

Nor are his Congressional interrogators any better.

Take this exchange between Comey and Representative Jackie Speier (who had previously called Igor Sechin ‘CEO of the Russian gas giant, Rosneft’):

Speier: Do you know anything about Gazprom, Director?

Comey: I don’t.

Speier: Well, it’s a – it’s an oil company.

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

It’s RosNEFT stupid! It’s GAZprom!

And what about Comey? One minute he’s telling us with 100% confidence that he knows exactly what they’re thinking in the Kremlin, something which even the most seasoned Kremlinologists would have to admit they don’t have the faintest clue about, and the next he’s admitting that he doesn’t even know what Gazprom is.

#$@&%*!  – He doesn’t know what Gazprom is!!! But yet, he ‘knows’ Moscow’s innermost secret plans!

These guys are clowns. They are beyond ignorant, because they are ignorant even of their own ignorance.

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

#$@&%*!

Nobody should take these hearings in the slightest bit seriously.

Guess who’s getting happier and who’s not?

A couple of years ago I commented on the 2015 World Happiness Report, which showed Russia rising up the rankings. The 2017 version is now available, and for Russia it provides yet more good news.

I’m not convinced that ‘happiness’ is the right word to describe what the report measures, but it is certainly measuring something connected with general well-being and life satisfaction. Each country’s score is based on 8 factors: GPD per capita in terms of purchasing power parity; healthy life expectancy; social support, measured by answers to the question ‘If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you?’; self-evaluated freedom to make life choices; generosity, determined by charitable giving; perceptions of corruption; ‘positive affect … defined as the average of laughter and enjoyment’; and ‘negative affect … defined as the average of previous day affect measures for worry, sadness, and anger.’

Two years ago, Switzerland was no. 1 in the world, and Russia was ranked 64th. This time, Norway is top and Russia is up to 49th.

happiness1

happiness4

More remarkably, Russia is ranked no. 7 in the world in terms of changes in happiness over the past 10 years. Russia is still some way behind the Western European and North American countries which dominate the top of the table, but it is catching up.

happiness2

This is all the more remarkable given that Russia has suffered two major economic recessions since 2007, meaning that the GDP element of the happiness measurement has not increased. This in turn means that the more subjective elements of the measure must have improved quite significantly. Russians aren’t richer than they were a decade ago, but they apparently evaluate their lives as being much better. Either they’ve been thoroughly bamboozled by state propaganda or something is actually going well for them.

By way of contrast, let us look at the bottom of the table of changes in happiness, 2005-2007 to 2014-2016:

happiness3

Ukraine’s dismal performance suggests that, at least in the short term, Euromaidan has had a highly negative effect on Ukrainians’ state of mind. Meanwhile, although France and the United States remain highly ranked overall (31st and 14th), they are falling down the table fairly fast.

Make of all this what you will. As I said, I’m not entirely sure what this is really measuring. But if you’re looking for an explanation of Vladimir Putin’s popularity, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of Marine Le Pen, this report perhaps provides at least part of the answer.

Autocracy and the media

Thinking a bit more about the recent report on the Kremlin’s alleged weaponizing of comedy, as well as other claims concerning ‘Russian propaganda’, what has struck me is how many people seem to assume that everything which happens in Russia is directed by the Kremlin. As it happens, in the past few weeks I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Russian conservatives in the last 50 years of the Russian Empire. One might imagine that in an autocratic country such as late Imperial Russia, the press was under the firm control of the state, that there was no independent ‘civil society’, and that conservative and patriotic groups took their orders from the central authorities. Yet this is not exactly how things were.

Take, for instance, the most prominent Russian journalist of the 1860s, 70s, and 80s, Mikhail Katkov. He was a fervent supporter of the autocracy and was given free rein to write what he pleased. But it would be a huge mistake to believe that the products of Katkov’s pen reflected the opinions of the Tsar and his bureaucracy. On the contrary, much of his work consisted of severe criticisms of Russia’s rulers for what Katkov considered their weak-willed policies and insufficiently aggressive defence of Russian interests. These writings sometimes infuriated Tsars Alexander II and III, but they permitted it in part because Katkov also railed against the Tsars’ revolutionary enemies, and in part because they knew that Katkov’s views were shared by a large portion of educated public opinion. On one occasion Alexander III was so angered by a Katkov article that he threatened to issue a public denunciation. But he was persuaded not to on the grounds, among other things, that the negative public reaction might cause a crash in the stock exchange.

katkov
Mikhail Katkov

Whether the labels ‘autocratic’ or ‘authoritarian’ really apply to modern Russia is a matter of debate, but those who believe that they do also appear to think that this means that the Russian media is entirely under the state’s direct control, and so everything that it prints or broadcasts represents the government’s wishes. Arkady Ostrovsky has pointed out in his study of the post-Soviet Russian media that its shift to patriotic themes from the late 1990s onwards responded to a clear public demand. Too many commentators choose to ignore this inconvenient fact. Some historians consider Mikhail Katkov an opportunist. He said what he said because it sold newspapers; but it sold newspapers because people supported it and wanted to read it. Much the same dynamic is probably true today.

Weaponizing comedy

As Monty Python pointed out, jokes can be the deadliest weapon of war. In the current atmosphere of Russophic hysteria, therefore, we should not be surprised that NATO this week has accused the Kremlin of weaponizing comedy. At first, given the topic, I thought that this must a Pythonesque spoof, but it appears that the accusation is deadly serious.

Continue reading Weaponizing comedy

Russia, the West, and the world

%d bloggers like this: