Tag Archives: The Interpreter

A bum rap

Things are so bad in Russia that people are reduced to stealing toilet paper, writes Paul Goble in an absorbing article in The Interpreter. Referring to the case of a 21-year old man who was arrested in Petrozavodsk after stealing a roll of toilet paper from the city’s Lotos Plaza shopping centre. Goble says that the incident indicates how ‘Russia’s poor are driven to despair by deteriorating economic conditions [and are] seeking to take care of themselves and their families by turning to crime.’ He cites Sergei Smirnov of the Higher School of Economics as suggesting that the situation is not yet so terrible as to cause social unrest, as many Russians still have money in reserve, but counters that ‘at a time when some Russians are forced to steal toilet paper, that may not be as much a reserve as Smirnov suggests.’

The Interpreter regularly plumbs the depths of Russophobia, and with this article hits rock bottom. It calls for a little bit of freshening ‘whataboutism’. A ten-second search for comparisons with other countries indicates that swiping a bit of loo roll is, as the British might say, a fairly ‘bog standard’ crime.

Take, for instance, the case of David Pinkham of Massachusetts, who ‘was caught out when police spotted him leaving Lawrence City Hall with a case of unused toilet paper. … Further investigations revealed he had even more about his person, with six rolls hidden down his pants. A police report stated that he “pulled six tightly folded toilet paper rolls from his buttocks and groin area” at the police station.’ And Pinkham is far from alone. Toilet paper stealing is in fact so common that many dispensers have anti-theft devices built into them. The problem got so acute at a Trenton, New Jersey, library that in 2013 it began rationing paper.

According to a newspaper report, ‘the rising cost of living’ was the most likely cause of Pinkham’s crime. And yet nobody has seen fit to turn his actions, or those of others, into an article entitled ‘How Bad Are Things for America’s Poor? Some Are Now Stealing Toilet Paper’, let alone suggest that the United States is on the brink of political revolution. Goble suggests that the Russian government’s policies are flushing the Russian economy rapidly down the drain. Maybe they are, but you can’t draw that conclusion from a single incident of petty thieving.


Spontaneous protests?

I don’t often agree with anything in The Interpreter magazine, an online publication whose content is almost uniformly hostile to Russia and its government, but it has recently had some sensible things to say about the protests in Armenia against electricity price increases. The magazine failed, however, to push its argument through to its logical conclusion, perhaps because doing so would have forced it to reassess some of its own preconceptions. Let me give two examples.

First, The Interpreter cites Russian sociologist Igor Eidman (a cousin of the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov), as saying that members of the Russian government, particularly the so-called siloviki (representatives of the military and security and intelligence services), ‘simply cannot imagine that people are capable of protesting against a government of their own free will to seek changes, democracy and so on. In their picture of the world, the special services of competitor countries must stand behind all such events.’

Second, Paul Goble remarks that, ‘Many Russian analysts are hurrying to suggest that this week’s protests in Yerevan and their suppression by the Armenian government are the opening round of a new Maidan, an anti-Moscow action that is being promoted and exploited by the West as part of a broader geopolitical struggle.’ Goble argues that this point of view is mistaken. Viewing the Armenian protests as engineered by the United States could lead Moscow into counter-productive policies, he concludes.

This is all true enough, but it isn’t the full story. The phenomenon which The Interpreter describes is not an exclusively Russian one; indeed The Interpreter itself has been guilty of it. For it and many others who oppose the current Russian government and who also oppose the rebellion in Ukraine, have consistently refused to accept that the protests in Donbass which led to the current war were expressions of popular will. They do not accept that the people of Donbass people are ‘capable of protesting … of their own free will.’ By contrast, most Russians do accept this, and thus it isn’t true that they cannot imagine such a thing. Whether people believe that protests are spontaneous or the product of outside forces depends very much on whether they support the protests in question.

Thus, the Russian government and its supporters regard the Maidan protests in Kiev which led to the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich as having been directed by American puppet-masters, whereas they view protests in Donbass as having been spontaneous in nature. The current Ukrainian government sees it the other way around: spontaneous protest at Maidan, and Russian puppet-masters in Donbass.

Both sides are wrong. It is obvious that foreign forces gave encouragement to both sets of protests, but it is naïve to imagine that the diplomats or intelligence services of any country can simply push a few buttons and incite rebellion wherever they wish. Local initiative, pushing from below, is essential in all cases, and is the primary driver of events.

Yet, while refusing to give too much credit to outside agencies, one should also avoid overstating the degree of popular support which underlies such protests. The people who occupied Maidan did not represent Ukraine as a whole; had they done so, there would not now be civil war there. Similarly, the initial demonstrations in Donbass in spring 2014 attracted no more than a few thousand people. Street protests provide a mechanism through which radicals can bypass normal legal procedures. Even if tens of thousands of people participate, they are not democratic in nature.

Overall, therefore, the conspiratorial model which describes mass demonstrations primarily in terms of external intervention is inaccurate, but one should be careful not to idealize such demonstrations as the true voice of the people either.