Interview with Mark Chapman (The Kremlin Stooge)

Next in our line of Watching the Russia Watchers interviews is Mark Chapman, the fiery Canadian sailor who’s been blazing a path of destruction through the fetid Russophobe ranks since July 2010. That was when he first set up The Kremlin Stooge, after being blocked from La Russophobe, who couldn’t withstand his powerful arguments without resorting to Stalinist tactics. The blog’s name, as he explains below, was bestowed by one of LR’s commentators (“Soviet Goon Boy” was considered, but rejected). Since then, he has expanded his coverage well beyond exposing La Russophobe and now goes from strength to strength: humiliating the self-appointed experts, drawing guest posts, being regularly translated by InoSMI, praised by La Russophobe, and making first place in S/O’s own list of the Top 10 Russia blogs in 2011. Without any further ado, I present you Mark Chapman the Kremlin Stooge, the Rambo of the Russophile blogosphere!

The Kremlin Stooge: In His Own Words…

Why did you start blogging about Russia?

As I’ve mentioned before in various exchanges with commenters, I was invited – hell, the whole world has been invited – to start my own blog by La Russophobe. Most have noticed “she” doesn’t care for dissent or for having her own blog rules used to regulate her conduct, and a common response is “why don’t you go and start your own blog, and see who reads it”. So I did. Of course, the invitation is based on the presupposition that it will be a grim failure which will teach you what a useless worm you really are.

I stumbled upon the La Russophobe blog during a search for early souvenirs of the Olympic Games in Sochi – I was looking for a backpack as a present for my wife. La Russophobe ran a post mocking the Russian souvenirs at the Olympics then in progress in Vancouver, because they were allegedly tacky and cheap. An exchange took place between us, and eventually I was banned from commenting. I invented a new ID – snooty Englishman Francis Smyth-Beresford (so as to have the initials FSB, and it was amazing how quickly otherwise-clodlike Ukrainian/Australian La Russophobe devotee Bohdan caught on). I tried hard to keep the criticism subtle, but eventually I was banned under that name as well. After that, I started The Kremlin Stooge, adopting the name from one of Bohdan’s favourite insults.

Prior to the initial accidental visit to La Russophobe, I was quite honestly unaware of that brand of barking mad Russophobia. I understood, of course, that bias against Russia existed, but there’s some degree of bias against almost everybody, and I rationalized that some had good reasons to dislike Russia while others just thought they did. But there’s a gulf of difference between reasoned disapproval and slobbering hate. I enjoyed challenging that hate, and exchanges with commenters who took a more reasoned approach while backing up their opinions with solid references taught me a great deal. Starting a blog seemed enormously daunting because I’m not that computer-savvy. However, for anyone who’s thinking it over, it’s dead easy and I encourage you not to wait if that’s what’s holding you back.

What were your best and worst blogging experiences so far?

The best was probably the first time a post was picked up by inoSMI; it was one I had done on Georgia and Saakashvili, about 6 weeks after I started the blog. I thought something had gone wrong with my stats counter, because I got more hits in one day than I’d accumulated to that time in total, I think – 1,146 where my total for all of July, the month I started, was only a pitiful 854. Also great is any time I get a comment from one of the blogging greats I admire, like Eugene Ivanov, Leos Tomicek, yourself, Sean Guillory or Kevin Rothrock.

The worst is whenever I get my ass handed to me because I failed to research something properly. A good example was the post, “Are Slavs Stupid?” At the time I’d had a running argument going for some time with a commenter who appeared to be a borderline white supremacist, and we’d gone the rounds of blacks being criminals because they were black to Mexicans being lazy because they were Mexicans, to Slavic peoples being genetically less intelligent because of their nationality. I kept pecking away at the post until quite late, and hit upon some killer references that totally vaporized his arguments by demonstrating that Estonians had an extremely high incidence of apparently uniform academic excellence. Unfortunately, I didn’t take the crucial step of ensuring Estonians were Slavs – which, by and large, they’re not. I just assumed they were. I was too tired to take the extra 5 minutes it would have required to check my main argument, and as a direct result the whole thing fell apart. The larger point that Slavs are no stupider than any other group and that research supporting “genetic intelligence” has been broadly discredited was lost in the triumphant mockery, which of course I richly deserved for my laziness. I’d like to say it taught me a lesson, but still every now and then a dodgy bit of research or some shortcutting has resulted in me getting my legs kicked out from under me. Live and learn, they say.

What are the best blogs about Russia? What are the worst?

That’s hard to answer, because there are so many good ones and not really any bad ones. All serve a purpose. I really like “Russia: Other Points of View”, especially those entries contributed by Patrick Armstrong – the blog strikes just the right tone of reproachful correction of errors or misconceptions without a lot of screeching histrionics. But it’s dull because there are hardly ever any comments or argument, and I’d love to learn from a really good bare-knuckle fight at that elevated level of discourse. “Truth and Beauty” is another really good one. I did a review of the Russia blogs right after we rolled through 100,000, but it left out all the brilliant ones I haven’t discovered yet. Mark Galeotti’s, “In Moscow’s Shadows” has had some fascinating discussion of Russian legal and constitutional reform and Caucasian politics, but it’s not updated very often and the comment format is awkward.

Even blogs like La Russophobe serve a purpose – they’re really funny, not only because of the over-the-top exaggeration, fabrication and deliberate attempts to mischaracterize actual reports, but because of the breathless arrogance, swollen ego and holier-than-thou self-stylings of its author or authors. It used to motivate me to argue, but now it more often makes me laugh on the rare occasions I read it, and I’ve kind of gotten away from using it for inspiration. I remember in his interview AGT singled out Catherine Fitzpatrick as well, for generally long-winded blather, and there has been a good deal of speculation that she actually is La Russophobe. While her writing often runs to lengthy rants and she does seem to fall into that Soviet expat Russia-is-the-root-of-all-the-world’s-problems pigeonhole, she comes across as intelligent and well-educated, and you can sometimes reason with her a little (both of which argue against her being La Russophobe, if anyone cares). I don’t think those kind of blogs are responsible for too many attitude changes, so they’re mostly harmless.

What is your favorite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

I’m not well-traveled in Russia at all, and have never been outside the Primorsky Krai. I love Vladivostok, and was greatly encouraged the last time I was there to see ongoing efforts to restore and properly maintain some of its old buildings, with their beautiful architectural detail. There are so very many places I’ve never been, but I tend to favour places with a lot of history and large areas where the “old city” is preserved. For that reason, I’m especially interested in St Petersburg. Although Moscow seems to me like a grey, anonymous city that could be anywhere, there are probably fabulous attractions there as well that I’d love to see. I enjoyed visiting a lot of small villages around the Primorsky region – usually just passing through – and would like to spend more time there as well. Generally, I’m less interested in going someplace I already know everything about, and more interested in discovering a place I know nothing about.

If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?

The First Directorate: My 32 Years in Intelligence and Espionage Against the West”, by Oleg Kalugin [AKClick to buy]. I imagine you were thinking more of a book that reveals the true Russian soul, or reflects a defining phase of the nation’s history. Doubtless such works exist, but I’m not an academic and I haven’t read them; besides, I’m not convinced my assessment of what constitutes the key to the Russian soul or a significant historical moment would have much value. Kalugin’s book was compelling because it revealed so much about the inner workings of the KGB, including how influential it was on all aspects of state policy. It was instructive in its substantiation that the best intelligence assets simply walk in off the street rather than being wooed by “honey traps” like you see in the movies, and that they are nearly always motivated by money. Kalugin was one of American spy John Walker’s handlers, and the most senior KGB operative to write about the organization he had been an influential part of. He also revealed that for many years they had a very highly-placed source in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Security Service (which eventually became our version of the American CIA, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS)); something I never knew.

For what it’s worth, I asked my family – all Russians (my Father-in-Law, Mother-in-Law and wife) – the same question. Each got a pick, although it inspired much anguish and a comment from Sveta that it was like asking a mother of ten to choose her favourite child. They came up with Nikolai Gogol’s “Taras Bulba” , Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”, and Tolstoy again with “War and Peace”. I’m not trying to cheat and recommend four books for a question that asked for just one, but to point out that the essential character of Russia means different things to different people.

If you could invite three Russians, past or present, to a dinner party, who would they be?

Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr Revva and  Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Mr. Putin because his leadership of Russia fascinates me, Aleksandr Revva in case the mood got too somber because everything he does and says is hilarious, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn in case I had to do the cooking myself. I learned from “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” that he’s not a fussy eater, and would likely make anything look tasty. Aleksandr Revva might not count, because he was born a Ukrainian, but he’s been a staple feature of Russian comedy for a long time.

Do you think the average Russian lives better today than in 2000? What about 1988? Are they richer, freer or happier than before?

All of those, I think, but I don’t have any firsthand knowledge and am basing that assessment simply on statistics. There will always be people who are dirt-poor no matter how good the economy becomes, because they don’t know how to manage their money and won’t ask for help. But the opportunities to be richer and freer are certainly present to a greater degree, as are those to be well-informed and connected.  The entire category of what constitutes the “average Russian” has changed since 1988.

Who knows what makes people happy? Russians are no different than anyone else in that respect, and some people everywhere are happy regardless of the conditions that define their lives. But I believe Russians feel much more self-determinant and in control of their own lives now. If that’s happiness, then yes.

To what extent is there a difference between Putin and Medvedev, and who do you think offers the better vision for Russia’s future?

Medvedev is a dreamer and Putin is a pragmatist. Medvedev seems out of his depth trying to actually run a country – it’s quite a bit different from running a company – and there seem to be too many variables for him to grasp, while Putin knows as much about running a country as anyone in Russia. Medvedev would be gobbled up in nothing flat without Putin behind him, while Putin demonstrably could survive quite well without Medvedev. For all of that, Medvedev has a better vision for Russia’s future, because he’s a dreamer and he wants things that will only come true – in the short term – in dreams. I don’t doubt he wants what’s best for Russia, but the opportunities for him to fall into a pit on the way are legion. Putin is considerably more a realist and his ideas for reform are generally more achievable as a consequence of his worldview. Together they make a pretty good team, and would be even better as Medvedev gains a little political experience and learns when saying nothing is better than saying something stupid.

If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing it isn’t already doing, what would it be?

National image management. Even though resistance is strong to any attempts by Russia to put itself in a positive light on…well, just about anything you care to name, it’s just a skill like any other, and you get out of it what you put into it. Look at Israel – legendary lobbying skills. The USA is very, very good at it as well. Russia, frankly, stinks out loud at it. Past time for a makeover.

This came up awhile ago, in a couple of places. One was at Eugene Ivanov’s blog, where he proposed – half-jokingly – in the comments section of an excellent post on the odious Jackson-Vanik Amendment that Alina Kabaeva be deputized as the “new face” of United Russia. Of course she doesn’t have any real qualifications for the job except that she couldn’t possibly be as stupid as Sarah Palin is, she’s beautiful and has eye-magnetizing cleavage. But the implication that Russia needs to get away from arm-waving “Commie” stereotypes who are too easy to mock and move in the direction of suave, personable diplomats who have been groomed all their working lives for their assignments is spot-on.

Another was at Denise Martin’s blog, where we were discussing the late-50’s-era novel, “The Ugly American”. Although it was a work of fiction, it bore down fairly strongly on American foreign policy vis-à-vis Asia and the fictional nation featured was often said to mirror real-life South Vietnam; it was tremendously influential on JFK’s revamped and revitalized foreign policy, and instrumental to the creation of the Peace Corps. In the novel, American diplomats are clumsy, ignorant and uncaring, speak the native language poorly or not at all and are plainly uninterested in learning. Their Soviet (at the time) counterparts are sophisticated and urbane, firmly in touch with the culture and traditions of their hosts and speak the language like natives. Consequently, their influence is viewed in a much more positive light than that of the United States.

Take a memo, Russia. Stop staffing your diplomatic corps with bad copies of Boris and Natasha from “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” and start recruiting people foreigners will want to listen to.

HARD Talk with The Kremlin Stooge

Now you often come off as a big Canadian patriot (in a good way), but you also respect Russia’s assertive foreign policy of recent years. But what happens should the two collide? They have conflicting claims in the Arctic, due to overlapping continental shelf extensions. In recent years, Ottawa has criticized Russia for planting flags at the North Pole and flying bombers near its airspace. Both countries are expanding their military forces in the High North. Whose claims are the most valid? Who is most to blame for the intemperate rhetoric? Is this just political grandstanding, or is there a risk of an escalating cold war?

I don’t see any risk at all of it escalating beyond the decision of a UN Commission, if it even goes that far. After all, in accordance with the Illulissat Declaration, all nations with skin in the game are resolved to settle the issue by bilateral agreement. Russia’s current claims do not extend into the existing coastal boundaries (EEZ’s) of any Arctic coastal claimant, although opinions differ on overlapping claims beyond those, as you say. From what I can see, although I certainly am not a geologist, the Lomonosov Ridge is just as likely to originate on the Canadian side as the Russian side, and that’s the subject of intense research, but it’s like trying to determine which end of the Golden Gate Bridge is its origin after everyone who built it is dead and there are no plans.

In truth, I would have to say Canadian rhetoric I have read on this specific issue has had more of the ring of challenge about it, while Russia’s position appears more conciliatory. However, our government – especially when it is a conservative government as it is now, often echoes the concerns of its more powerful neighbour without thinking too much about whether the issue actually threatens us. About 85% of our trade goes south to the USA, and any “misunderstanding” that might imperil that relationship is to be avoided. To be honest, any government would do the same in the same circumstances, because any hiccup would have immediate impact on our economy. And the USA is the only nation that has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, although the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted overwhelmingly to send it to the Senate for a vote 5 years ago. The USA seems to be waiting for new developments before committing itself, and the potential for an open Northwest Passage is likely a big part of that reluctance. I see Canadian rhetoric on this issue as mostly strutting for the benefit of our partners to show them we are keeping their concerns in mind. The offshore patrol vessels currently in the imaginative design phase for the Canadian Arctic are unlikely to have any serious offensive capability, and surely are not intended to fight a war for the high north.

As far as flying bombers “near” another nation’s airspace goes, when did that become illegal? As the agreement cited above specifies, all Arctic coastal states share responsibility for and stewardship of the Arctic. And almost all Russian aircraft designed and crewed for long onstation patrol functions are military.

My first loyalty is always to my own country; but I see no need for bellicose posturing and swaggering and believe it serves no purpose other than to make you look an ass when you are probably not. I’m in agreement with U.S. Senator John Quincy Adams – “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

You’ve praised A Good Treaty, and he rewards you by telling La Russophobe that “you guys really deserve each other.” Ouch! Have anything to say to that?

I’m glad you brought that up, because I was really hurt. I threw up my supper, stumbled to my room, buried my face in my pillow, drummed my feet on the bed and screamed, “Fuck you!!! Fuck you!!! What do you know, anyway??” Now that I’ve had time to cool down a little, I demand satisfaction – let’s settle this like men. We’ll fight. Since it was my idea, I get to choose the weapons, and I pick can openers in six feet of water (I hope he’s a short little bastard). Meet me in Shreveport, Louisiana on July 16th (my birthday), MoFo, and only one of us will walk away.

Seriously, I doubt Kevin thinks very much about my blog, although he’s kind enough to leave it on his blogroll and I get a lot of referrals from AGT. But I believe Kevin sees himself as a Serious Blogger, while seeing me as a Fundamentally Unserious Halfwit. He announced at his first blogging anniversary that he was going to hang up the tilting-at-windmills stuff and try for serious analysis. Maybe there’s just not as much room in his life for silliness any more, or he’s lost his patience for it. Also, he has a new baby in the house – must be just about time for some teeth – and maybe he was just tired.

Anyway, I really didn’t take any offense, because he’s right – we do deserve each other. There wouldn’t be any Kremlin Stooge without La Russophobe, and although I don’t use her articles for inspiration as often as I once intended, it’s great blogs like his that coaxed my interest in Russia beyond the panting fury on show at her nutblog. I guess he’s entitled to a little criticism. And I’m pretty sure there’s still plenty of room in the Russia-watching blogosphere for Serious Bloggers and Fundamentally Unserious Halfwits.

In the previous section, you said that Medvedev was a “dreamer.” Could you please elaborate? Because some would say that he has been very active at implementing reform. He has fired far more senior bureaucrats and regional bigwigs than Putin ever did, e.g. in the course of the police reforms a third of the most senior officers were recently dismissed. To give a range of other examples, in the past year Medvedev ordered state officials to leave the boards of state companies, signed a law that eliminates prison terms as mandatory punishment for white-collar crimes, promoted the privatization of state assets, and asked the government to draft a program for the support of education of Russian students in leading international universities. So is your attitude not, in fact, a “presumption of failure” in Eugene Ivanov’s words?

Actually, I kind of wish I had read that post before I responded. The comments as well; especially Patrick Armstrong’s, in which he pointed out that the attitude toward reform in Russia – from a typical western perspective – is that it’s immediately a complete success or else it’s another dismal failure. But it probably wouldn’t have changed my response much. Still, you’re right – as is Eugene – that Medvedev has achieved a good deal that he’s received little or no credit for, and perhaps that’s deliberate although it’s difficult to reconcile a west that wants to see Medvedev in the big chair rather than Putin with a west that never says anything good about Medvedev.

No, what I meant to infer when I said Medvedev was “a dreamer” was not so much Medvedev’s/Putin’s actual accomplishments (and admittedly, the list of Medvedev’s accomplishments is more impressive than I would have thought) as Medvedev’s hopes that these accomplishments are going to win over the west and inspire a renewed rapprochement with it. Putin, whom I described in the same question as “a realist”, knows there will be no such rapprochement unless the west has no other alternative, and that the international game of musical chairs in which the west tries to inch closer and closer with encircling military bases will continue long after the music stops. In this comparison, Medvedev looks like Charlie Brown; unable to stop himself from taking another run at the football, even though on some level he understands the probability it will be yanked away just as he commits.

However, if you suggested that’s uncharitable, and that someone who really wished Russia success insofar as her interests do not trample on those of someone else’s rights, you’d be correct. The thing to do would be to get behind Medvedev’s plans, and amplify his successes as they deserve to be. I humbly so resolve. And although I remain unconvinced he’s the strong leader Russia needs to consolidate and progress its gains achieved over the past decade, I apologize for my lack of faith in his ability to achieve anything constructive. If for no other reason, because anything that appears to put Lilia Shevtsova and I on the same side cannot go on unresolved.

When Putin came to power he promised to “eliminate the oligarchs as a class”, but as of last year there were 114 billionaires – an order of magnitude greater than under Yeltsin. Putin’s judo buddies and Ozero friends have done particularly well; e.g., to quote Daniel Treisman, “During his second term, control over valuable Gazprom assets began to pass into the hands of one of [Putin’s] old friends, Yury Kovalchuk… After Gazprom bought the oil company Sibneft from the oligarch Roman Abramovich, much of its oil was sold by another old Putin acquaintance, Gennady Timchenko.” (I’d also note the latter was sold the Port of Murmansk for $250 million this year with no public bidding). All this isn’t exactly out of character for Putin either; back in 1999, when the Prosecutor-General  Skuratov insisted on investigating corruption in Yeltsin’s Family, Putin helped discredit him with a sex video and pressed him to resign. Even if we accept your arguments that Putin isn’t personally corrupt, isn’t it undeniable that he broke his promise and far from eliminating the oligarchs he has ensconced their power? And given the favors he’s dispensed to his friends, will he not be able to cash in on them with interest once he leaves the Presidency and thus enter the oligarchy himself?

First, what’s the direct relationship between numbers of billionaires and oligarchs? I’m afraid I don’t see a natural correlation between oligarchs and billionaires – if you are one, are you, ipso facto, the other as well? Is T. Boone Pickens an oligarch? If everyone in Russia is a little bit better off financially than they were under Yeltsin – and they are unless they are making a conscious effort to not be – are they incrementally more corrupt?

Although FT often goes out of its way to spin every news item that concerns Russia in an unfavourable light, this reference is at pains to point out that one of these oligarchs is Mikhail Prokhorov. Back in 2007, Prokhorov was allegedly forced by Putin to sell his 26% stake in Norilsk Nickel.  This, according to the New York Times, suggests the Kremlin flexing its muscles and punishing Prokhorov. Bouncing back to your reference, we learn that the Kremlin actually did him a huge favour, since when markets collapsed, Prokhorov was “the only oligarch with any cash to spare.” If the Kremlin was able to foresee the market collapse a year before it happened, why didn’t every sugar-daddy make out like a bandit? There’s a disconnect here, in which (according to the NYT) “…under Mr. Putin, the Russian government is establishing vast, state-owned holding companies in automobile and aircraft manufacturing, shipbuilding, nuclear power, diamonds, titanium and other industries. His economic model is sometimes compared with the state-owned, “national champion” industries in France under Charles de Gaulle in the 1950s. The policy of forcing owners of strategic assets to sell their holdings has also been compared to recent nationalizations in Venezuela and other Latin American nations. “Yet while Putin reinvents the Soviet Union – and, according to Irina Yasina, “In Russia today, no serious deal can be made without approval from the Kremlin” – despite the fact that there were no oligarchs until Yeltsin sold off state assets at fire-sale prices, somehow Putin is consolidating everything under the state’s iron grip, while a burgeoning bumper crop of oligarchs is getting rich. How? How can these two conditions coexist? A new Soviet Union and a simultaneous flabbergasting spike in private wealth? Come on, guys – get your narrative nailed down.

FT also points out that the surge in personal wealth by the wealthy it persists in referring to as “oligarchs” originates with a 20% increase in value in the Russian stock market in 2010, and increasing demand for raw materials from China. It’s a bit of a stretch to maintain that Putin personally controls the Russian stock market and is shunting sweet deals to his friends – when would he find the time to do that, and how could he have been such a dink as to let it crash in 2009, wiping out billions in his pals’ money? – but anyone who means to suggest Putin is behind Chinese economic growth is asking to be laughed out of the room. Maybe some of those wealthy businessmen gained their original oligarch spurs during the privatization giveaway (under Yeltsin); but if you make more money in straight business deals using that money, are you still an oligarch? When does that stop – ever? Is the west as unforgiving of the source of personal fortunes in the west?

It simply stands to reason that if the economy of the whole country is picking up, the rich will get richer and new rich will join their ranks. It’s astonishing how many places that happens, and the risks are demonstrably greater in Russia along with the rewards.

How has Putin “ensconced the oligarchs’ power” when Prokhorov is the first to dip a toe into politics since Khodorkovsky, and allegedly on the Kremlin’s side at that? As to the other part of the question, is it unusual for national leaders to be connected to the rich? Does this presuppose Putin will become a rich oligarch when he leaves politics? Maybe, but as someone who has not flaunted conspicuous wealth all his life as many similarly-connected western leaders have, it would not simply be a return to type. There’s no denying the opportunity is there. But a Putin no longer in a position to “dispense favours” might not be an advantage worth the price.

As a follow-up to the last question, don’t you think that the only reason Khodorkovsky was singled out by the regime for prosecution was because he funded the opposition and called for transparency? After all, plenty of other oligarchs who misappropriated Russia’s wealth in the 1990’s were allowed to enjoy their riches – or get even richer with the Kremlin’s help.

No, I don’t. Only a fool would argue everyone who deserves to be in jail in Russia is in jail, any more than that state of affairs prevails anywhere else. It was indeed unconscionable to make a deal with the oligarchs in the terms it’s been described – stay out of politics, and yer can keep the swag, ahrrrr. However, once again, was it effective? The country has prospered, the remaining oligarchs have indeed stayed out of politics or moved abroad to protect their wealth (have a look at the numbers of wealthy Americans moving abroad to avoid what they say are crippling taxes), and the chances of success for a policy that would have seen Putin pitting himself against the accumulated wealth of Russia’s richest and all the influence they could muster would have been, I submit, dim. Perhaps Mr. Putin viewed it as a necessary deal to move the country forward without opposition. Again, there’s no evidence to suggest he did it to enrich himself.

There certainly is a sizable segment of society that would like to believe Khodorkovsky is guilty only of funding the opposition and advocating transparency. However, despite YUKOS’s reputation for transparency in business dealings, company records are no such thing and Khodorkovsky is defiantly unrepentant for defrauding Russia of legal tax revenue in order to increase his profit. I believe he funded the opposition mostly to put stumbling-blocks in the government’s way and keep them occupied while he increased his personal control over Russian affairs, and that he had no interest in running the country himself as a political leader because it would have limited his opportunities to enrich himself further, provided he still wanted to court western support. I further believe he was sandbagged disproportionately hard for tax evasion because the government could not get anyone to testify against him for more serious crimes, although there is considerable circumstantial evidence those crimes occurred. Unfortunately, the government’s star witness – the former mayor of Nefteyugansk – is dead, and Mr. Khodorkovsky’s former chief of security is in jail for it.

In September 2000, central Russia was wracked by a series of apartment bomb blasts. As you probably know, many questions about it remain unanswered. There was the bizarre Ryazan incident, the materials on which the Duma voted to seal for 75 years. There was Duma Speaker Seleznyov telling the deputies about a bombing in Vologda, accurate in all respects but one – it occurred three days after his announcement. And those who tried to carry out independent investigations tended to see a drop in their life expectancies; one by one, they were assassinated (e.g. Yushenkov, Schekochikhin, Litvinenko). Is it possible that, directly or indirectly, Putin’s sky-rocketing popularity in late 2000 – and consequently, his Presidency – was built on the blood of innocents blown up by the FSB?

Well, of course it’s possible. However, every story has two sides, and in a disagreement regarding an event for which no direct evidence has been produced, much goes to the credibility of the defenders of each respective viewpoint. So, let’s take a look at who said what. On the “Putin did it” side, David Satter – former Moscow correspondent for FT Russia, then columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Yury Felshtinsky, co-author (with dead Alexander Litvinenko) of “Blowing Up Russia”, sponsored by Boris Berezovsky, in which Felshtinsky accuses Putin of masterminding the bombings to achieve political power. Supposedly the target of a 3-man FSB assassination team, which had arrived in Boston in 2007 to kill him, Felshtinsky is unaccountably (and embarrassingly) still alive 4 years later – perhaps they’re tied up in customs at Logan International (What? Poison gas-tipped umbrellas are illegal???). Boris Berezovsky himself, former oligarch who high-sided it to the UK with his money and forecast in 2001 that Putin would be gone by the end of the year, while blathering on as an authority on what constitutes corruption although the source of his fortune is generally acknowledged to have devolved from his connections with the Yeltsin “family”. The reference also helpfully notes that Berezovsky broke with Putin when he “moved to rein in the oligarchs”. Boris Kagarlitsky, editor-in-chief of Levaya Politika and democracy activist. Vladimir Pribylovski, another co-author with still-not-dead Felshtinsky, and another admittedly biased opposition supporter through his political website Anticompromat.ru. On the “That’s just bullshit” side, Gordon Bennett of the Conflict Studies Research Centre, a former component of the Defence Academy of the UK and present component of the Advanced Research and Assessment Group. Robert Ware, noted expert on the North Caucasus. Henry Plater-Zyberk, former analyst for the British Foreign Office, specialist in Russia and Central Asia and senior analyst at the Conflict Studies Research Centre. Simon Saradzhyan, security and foreign policy expert, former editor of the Moscow Times and research fellow at Harvard. Richard Sakwa, Professor of  Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, and recognized expert in Russian and Eastern European politics. Who has more invested in the “Putin blew up his own people” story being true?

None of the people mentioned were present when the bombings took place. Although there’s been a lot of talk about “evidence”, there apparently has been none brought forward, and those who supplied testimony are more or less disposed to lie depending on who’s telling the story.  Novaya Gazeta reported the testimony of one Private Pinyaev, for example, who supposedly was party to a group who made tea with some “sugar” which was actually Hexogen and which “tasted terrible”, although RDX derivatives like Hexogen are a poison that is toxic even if inhaled or absorbed through the skin and can lead to seizures. That’d be hard to forget.

There are indeed inconsistencies in the case that are difficult to explain. However, the actions supposedly undertaken by the FSB seem so clownishly verifiable that it’s hard to imagine they would so obviously incriminate themselves. The side that argues for it being a false-flag operation consists mostly of political dissidents and democracy activists, while the side that argues against that explanation consists largely of respected academics with a good deal of experience. And if the FSB are all liars, well, it’d be worth remembering where Litvinenko came from.

I noticed that in the original discussion that drew you to La Russophobe (and blogging), you made the following bet with commentator Felix: “The Sochi Winter Games will go ahead as scheduled, and the positive reviews will far outnumber the negatives.” Are you still confident about that given the rate of embezzlement corroding that project? (For instance, one road was found to cost $8 billion; it would have been cheaper to pave it with black caviar). And if you’re wrong do you still intend to send Felix his beer?

I’m still confident Sochi will be rated a success, even though many English-language sources will be disposed to look for negatives. I believe that case of Stella is as good as mine, but of course a bet is a bet and I will pay up if I’m wrong. Note, though, that Felix defined the terms very narrowly, and it does not even need to be a roaring success for me to win – Russia merely has to hold to full completion more than 20 medal-winning events (20 is proposed to be a tie; less, and I lose), and as Felix points out, that’s less than half the events held in Vancouver. Money for jam, as the British used to say.

In that post I also got away with arguing that Boris Nemtsov was not from Sochi, which was Ding! Ding! Ding! incorrect. I didn’t know any better then. Of course, I do now.

As far as the road to Sochi goes – come on, Anatoly. You blew that one to pieces yourself, here. I quote: “Intended to be completed within 3 years in an area with a poorly developed infrastructure, this so-called “road” also includes a high-speed railway, more than 50 bridges, and 27km of tunnels over mountainous, ecologically-fragile terrain!” Once you consider that, you told us, “things begin to make a lot more sense.” That kind of construction ain’t cheap. Although doubtless corruption has inflated the overall expense, this is commonplace with government projects in many countries, few of whom are sufficiently pure to cast aspersions; let’s not inflate it to “Congo-like proportions”. Say, did you notice it’s only Russophobes who counsel using caviar as an alternative – and economically competitive – road surface? I beg to differ: it has serious durability issues compared with asphalt, and in summer! Well, I don’t have to tell you what a caviar road would begin to smell like.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where their mouth is. Though I’m sure you’re not the type, feel free to confirm it by making a few falsifiable predictions about Russia’s future. After a few years, we’ll see if you were worth listening to.

Russia will be a full member of the WTO by the end of 2012. Joint Asian financial institutions will form which will channel tremendous direct investment into Russia, and ties between Russia and China particularly will strengthen. New spheres of influence will form, and China and Russia will hold annual large-scale joint military exercises. Russia will permit a much greater degree of foreign ownership in state assets. The new Japanese government will formally forswear all claims to the Kuriles, and Russo-Japanese relations will dramatically improve.

That last one is really going out on a limb, as if any such initiative does look likely there will be intense lobbying from the USA to discourage it, and the USA is likely to remain strongly influential in the formation of Japanese foreign policy. But I feel good about it nonetheless.

And specifically, could you make any predictions on who will be the President from 2012?

Whoa – too close to call. I still think it’ll be Putin, and that’s what I’d like to see, but the list of Medvedev’s accomplishments you reeled off earlier makes me think he’s a better bet than I had at first supposed. Either of them could win easily, so I could just say, “The United Russia candidate”. But that’d be facetious.

I think it would be better for Russia if Putin won, for reasons I stated earlier. He’s less easy to seduce with saccharine promises of western cooperation, which is not going to be forthcoming unless whoever wins swears to run the country according to western diktat. However, Medvedev is the more likely of the two to push for liberal reforms that will benefit Russia long-term.

What are your plans for The Kremlin Stooge?

As long as I’m having fun, I plan to keep on keepin’ on. If I can encourage some more of my lazy commenters to put their opinions where my posts are, I plan to have more guest work. Confusion to our enemies, and death to Russophobia!!!

Thanks to The Kremlin Stooge for an excellent interview!

If you wish me to interview you or another Russia watcher, feel free to contact me.

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