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A Short Guide to Lazy Russia Journalism

To commemorate the final closure of the Da Russophile blog and its permanent transfer and redirection to this site, here is a reprint of an excellent article by Nils van der Vegte (with a little editing from myself) that appeared in Jon Hellevig’s and Alexandre Latsa’s 2012 anthology on Putin’s New Russia.

Truly Will Rogers’ observation in 1926 that “anything is true if it’s about Russia” remains as prescient as ever.


 

A Short Guide to Lazy Russia Journalism

Nils van der Vegte

economist-welcome-to-moscowSo you’re a Westerner who wants to become a Russia journalist? Once you get past the self-serving bluster, it’s really a very safe, well-paid, and rewarding job – but only on condition that you follow a set of guidelines. Inspired by a post at the blog Kosmopolito on lazy EU journalism, I decided to provide a similar service for work ethic-challenged Russia journalists. Enjoy!

1. Mastering and parroting a limited set of tropes is probably the most important part of your work as a journalist in Russia. Never forget to mention that Putin used to work for the KGB. Readers should always be reminded of this: The “former KGB spy”, the “former KGB agent”, etc. Other examples include (but are not limited to) “Putin destroyed democracy”, “The Russian economy is dependent on oil”, “There is no media freedom”, “Russia is more corrupt than Zimbabwe”, “Khodorkovsky is a political prisoner and Russia’s next Sakharov”, “Russia is really weak” (but also a dire threat!), “Russia is a Potemkin village” and “a dying bear” that is ruled by “a kleptocratic mafia.” You get the drift…

2. Not sure who is doing what? Not sure how Russia works? Just make a sentence with the word “Kremlin”. Examples include “this will create problems for the Kremlin”, “the Kremlin is insecure”, “the Kremlin’s support of anti-Western dictators”, etc.

3. This “Kremlin” is always wrong, and its motives are always nefarious. If it requires many signatures to register a party – that is authoritarianism, meant to repress liberal voices. If it requires only a few signatures to register a party – that is also authoritarianism, a dastardly plot to drown out the “genuine opposition” amidst a flood of Kremlin-created fake opposition parties.

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Propaganda and the Narrative

I assume that most of the people who read this blog agree that a great deal of what might be called the “Standard Western Media Narrative on Ukraine” could better be termed propaganda. That is to say that it is a constructed narrative designed to produce deep-rooted convictions. Or, more bluntly, constructed lies and selected truths designed to shape opinion.

Let’s get the truths out of the way: Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych ran a corrupt and inefficient government. The condition of life for a great many Ukrainians is dreary, disappointing and declining. EU association had serious, perhaps majority, support in Ukraine at the time Yanukovych abandoned it. A lot, perhaps even a majority (but no one knows), supported, at least to some extent, the Maidan protesters and are glad to see the back of Yanukovych. Those could be agreed to, with some discussion about how big the support was and how bad Yanukovych was, by practically all people with any degree of informed knowledge. But those aren’t the things I am talking about.

The “Standard Western Media Narrative on Ukraine” (SWMN henceforth) goes quite a bit further than that. It would, I would say, consist of the following assertions

  1. Yanukovych was very much under the thumb of Putin (It’s very personalised: Russia is Moscow is Putin. But that’s another story.)
  2. A key Putin policy is to keep Ukraine and the other former USSR countries under his influence.
  3. Putin will not allow Ukraine or any of the former USSR countries to form an association with any other power.
  4. Using his influence, in furtherance of his aim to keep Ukraine under control, Putin forced Yanukovych to cancel the EU agreement.

Perhaps a little variation in the SWMN; maybe Putin bribed Yanukovych rather than ordering or threatening him. But these variances are unimportant and these four assertions are taken for granted in almost every Western report on recent events in Ukraine.

I say that these four are propaganda and I say they are because there are huge logic holes in them; therefore they cannot be true. They can only be believed if they are repeated so loudly, quickly and routinely that none of the audience gets a chance to think.

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“Everything is Annihilated”: The Economic Split of Ukraine

The attention of political analysts around the world is focused on the events in Ukraine. But at a certain moment, the fires die out and the riots subside – what will remain are the dry statistics.

Translator’s notes: This is a translation of a post on the weblog “Sputnik and Pogrom”, the authors can be described as Russian Nationalists. But that does not make it any less true, the reason that I translated this is that you will never read something like this in the Western Media, Russian Nationalists do not fit the narrative.

Original post by Kyrill Ksenovontov, 28th of January 2014

Translation: Nils van der Vegte

everythingisannihilated

Ukraine showed itself and the world in 2013 that the country is not important: instead of the planned 3.4% economic growth, it achieved something close to zero. 2013 was a negative year for almost all its economic sectors, except for agriculture (industry decreased by -4.7%). Most experts expect no more than 1% GDP growth in 2014. The irony is that the final fall into the abyss of economic crisis was prevented only by trade with Russia. But in 2014 even trade with Russia will do nothing to prevent that: The budget deficit for 2014 is 4.3% of GDP. The worst thing is that, economically speaking, the two halves of the country vary even more than the Czech Republic and Slovakia once did.

For example, the share of the Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk regions of total Ukrainian exports  is 35% , whilst the 7 most western regions (some of which have a serious historical bonus), make up for just 1/14 of Ukrainian exports. Regionally speaking, the highest number of people living below the poverty line can be found in the north-western and south-central regions (in the Lvov region, 30% of the people live around the poverty line).

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Book Review: John Durant – The Paleo Manifesto

The Paleo Manifesto” by John Durant, published in 2013. Rating: 5/5.

Most books on the paleo diet follow a set pattern: An inspirational story about how the author wrecked his health with junk food or vegetarianism before the caveman came riding on a white horse to the rescue; an explanation of why, contrary to the popular expression, almost anything is better than sliced white bread; a long and exhaustive guide to the do’s and don’ts of paleo with plenty of scientific explanations; and finally, a list of recipes and suggestions for further reading.

Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still get a solid idea of how to eat, move, and live by paleo principles from John Durant’s THE PALEO MANIFESTO. But at its core, this is no diet book.

It is a bold attempt to situate the paleo lifestyle within the “Big History” of human biosocial evolution, which is divided into four distinct “ages”: Paleolithic, agricultural, industrial, and information. Each of these ages was characterized by diets that created new problems, problems that were in turn partially mitigated by solutions specific to the very age that spawned them. This is a narrative that evokes a whiff of historical materialism, though John Durant is far more of a neo-reactionary than a Marxist.

Well aware of its pervasive violence and cultural backwardness, Durant does not unduly glamorize paleolithic life. (Nor does virtually anyone in the movement, strawmen set up by paleo’s detractors regardless). But one can’t escape the physical evidence that hunter-gatherers were far taller, stronger, and healthier than the early agriculturalists hunched over their hoes. An anthropologist shows off a male specimen who was 5″10 (175 cm) tall and weighed 150 pounds (68 kg), despite having a musculature that would put the vast majority of modern humans to shame. Average heights decreased by 5 inches after the transition to agriculture, and tooth and bone health deteriorated drastically.

The Bible tells the story: Man took up farming and began eating bread, and then cities appeared, famine and disease stalked the land, and childbirth became painful and dangerous. But childbirth also became more frequent, and the vast (if low-quality) caloric surpluses from grains enabled farmer populations – armed with metal weapons and commanded by literate elites – to gradually displace the world of Enkidu. That world might never have been paradise on Earth, but it “probably seemed like the Garden of Eden” compared to the lives of early farmers.

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Translation: Vadim Gorshenin – “McCain Looked for a Kremlin Mouthpiece”

In response to Putin’s (in)famous NYT op-ed, McCain told CNN he’d love to reciprocate on Pravda. He was probably surprised when they agreed to it – but he may not have gotten quite what he expected, according to Pravda.ru’s chief Vadim Gorshenin.

“McCain Looked for a Kremlin Mouthpiece, and was not Mistaken”

The Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Pravda.ru Internet-media holding Vadim Gorshenin on why the American Senator published his article on his site, and not in the “Soviet newspaper.”

On Thursday, the site Pravda.ru published an article by Senator John McCain, in which he replied to Russian President Putin’s publication in The New York Times. Initially, McCain promised to publish an article in Pravda, but he later changed his mind. The Chairman of the Board of Directors of Pravda.ru Vadim Gorshenin sat down with an Izvestia correspondent to tell us how it all happened.

Mikhail Rubin: Who suggested you publish McCain’s article, and when?

Vadim Gorshenin: It was a Foreign Policy journalist, he reads us and even writes lots of nasty things about us. When he heard McCain on CNN saying that he wanted to speak out at the Pravda newspaper, he wrote the following to the editor of our English-language version Dmitry Sudakov: “Could you refute the idea that you have no freedom of speech, and publish McCain’s text?” He replied that yes, of course he could. After this, the American journalist contacted McCain’s press secretary, who said that they’d follow through with all this. And it all ended up just as Mikhail Dvorkovich wrote on Twitter – the very fact of publication proves that everything that McCain wrote is a lie. If all the Russian media is controlled by the Kremlin, then how could such an article have appeared on what everyone calls a pro-Kremlin site?

MK: Did they understand, that Pravda.ru and the newspaper Pravda are two different publications?

VG: Yes, of course they understood. There have even been articles in the American MSM that analyzed the nature of the newspaper Pravda today. When this entire scandal flared up and Zyuganov got the impression that McCain was going to write something for his newspaper, McCain’s aides asked us whether we were somehow associated with the newspaper Pravda.

MK: Well, are you?

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A Game of Homs

What striking about Syria is how so many people insist on speaking about it in profoundly moralistic, Manichaean terms. This is complete nonsense, given that its civil war isn’t a showdown between democracy and dictatorship, but an ethnic and religious conflict. Here’s a more realistic guide:

The Assad regime

The rhetoric: He kills his own people! He is the Evil Overlord (TM)!

The reality: That’s kind of what happens in a civil war. Abraham Lincoln also “killed his own people,” you know. It is obvious why the “regime” fights on: That is what regimes do – as a general rule of thumb, they’re fond of surviving. The rather more interesting and telling question is: Why do key elements of the population continue to back them?

As far as the Alawites and Christians are concerned, it’s pretty clear: The Sunnis have never been particularly well disposed to them, and the past few years haven’t made them any fonder. The last time the Sunnis revolted in Hama in 1982, one of the slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood was “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard.”

In the game of Homs, you win or you die – and the “you” is in its plural form. No wonder Assad has a solid support base.

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A Conversation with Weiss

As far as I understand, Michael D. Weiss is one of those neocons who loves Guantanamo but has a special soft spot in his heart for those Muslims who happen to be fighting Russia or some other state that the US doesn’t like much. When he isn’t chumming it up with his jihadist pals in Syria (see below), he performs his role as the chief editor of The Interpreter – in theory, an “online journal dedicated primarily to translating media from the Russian press and blogosphere into English”; in practice, a publication that would be more aptly named The Interpreter of Novaya Gazeta, considered the open slant in its choice of which articles to translate and its consistently anti-Putin, pro-Western interventionist editorials.

michael-weiss-with-jihadists

Nonetheless, all translations are good. They are inherently neutral. This is why I wrote a letter to Weiss with a cooperation proposal, whose essence was to save both The Russian Spectrum and The Interpreter duplicating work while increasing the size of the content that we both offer. I did not think Weiss would accept and he failed to surprise to the upside. Which of course he was perfectly within his rights to decline. You’ll see no complaints whatsoever from me on that point.

But he wouldn’t let it go – and in fact later, started insisting that I was running around begging favors and threatening to publish my letter as he believed it would discredit me amongst my “Putinist chums” (which he eventually did). The conversations that resulted were not only illustrative of the neocon-Bolshevik like mentality of these people, but are also rather hilarious. It is for this reason that I’ve gathered them all together for the delectation of DR readers.

Note – There is nothing here that is not accessible to the public.

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An Examination of Navalny’s Trial and Conviction

The Western narrative on the Navalny case is that it was a selective and political prosecution on trumped up charges. I think that to a significant (but NOT full) extent that this interpretation is basically correct.

So given the paucity of convincing counter-narratives, I was extremely pleased to see that Alexander Mercouris, a British lawyer who closely follows Russian affairs, make a comprehensive case for why the prosecution’s case was actually quite a solid one in Alexey Navalny – An Examination of His Trial and Conviction.

I strongly believe everyone should read it, even – especially – those who are strong Navalny supporters and convinced of his absolute and unambiguous innocence. At the very least, it would make you think twice before making blanket statements such as that there was “no case” for theft. I’m afraid there was. There was also a clear legal-technical basis for charging him under Article 160 – a notion that I had mistakenly ridiculed in the past. That Mercouris managed to make me change my mind on this is a testament to his essay’s lucidity and legalistic virtuosity. He also argues that were this trial held under British laws, Navalny would have likewise been convicted.

This is not, however, to say that I agree with all the conclusions and reasoning in it; to the contrary, I remain at odds on the two most important points, namely that (1) the preponderance of the evidence wasn’t such that it could have been used to secure what was an incredibly harsh sentence by typical Russian jurisprudence; and (2) of its overall political wisdom. But there are good arguments to the contrary that Mercouris lays out and which are well worth considering and pondering over. Here is not the time to get into an extended debate – my own views and analysis I will further expound upon in a subsequent post. For now, Alexander Mercouris’ essay is reprinted without further commentary so that you can engage with it yourselves and draw your own conclusions.

Please comment at Mercouris’ blog.

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ALEKSEI NAVALNY – AN EXAMINATION OF HIS TRIAL AND CONVICTION

On 8th December 2008 following a private meeting the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev nominated Nikita Belykh, a well known Russian liberal politician and former leader of the Russian liberal party the Union of Right Forces for the post of Governor of the Kirov Region in central Russia.  Belykh’s subsequent appointment set in train a sequence of events which on 18th July 2013 led to the conviction by the Kirov Regional Court of Aleksei Navalny, the well known Russian opposition politician and blogger, for conspiracy to commit embezzlement contrary to Article 160 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.

Navalny’s conviction and his sentence of 5 years imprisonment, has provoked angry reactions.  In Moscow several thousand of his supporters protested near the Kremlin.  Scattered protests also took place in some other Russian cities.  The United States government has expressed its “disappointment” with the verdict.  The European Union has said the case highlights concerns about the rule of law in Russia.  The rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe have condemned his 5 year sentence as disproportionate and have claimed that his prosecution is political.

Media comment at least in Britain has been equally harsh.  In an editorial suggestively titled “misrule of law” published on 11th July 2013, a week before the verdict, the Guardian claimed that Navalny’s prosecution was a device to silence a prominent critic of the Russian government saying that “….it goes without saying that the charges are bogus”.

Similar comments have appeared in the Times and in the Financial Times.

Navalny himself has claimed that the prosecution against him is politically motivated.  He has claimed that the prosecution against him betrays a fundamental ignorance of how business is conducted in a free market economy.  He has also claimed that the prosecution is entirely based on the evidence of three persons who have a personal grudge against him and whose evidence is unreliable.

Navalny’s criticisms have been taken up by others.  The charge against him is said to make no sense.  Yegvenya Albats, the editor of the Russian liberal magazine New Times, says his conviction spells the end of capitalism in Russia.  It is repeatedly pointed out that the case against Navalny was investigated previously but was then dropped.  That it was later resurrected is seen as proof that it is without merit and that the motive behind it is political.

It has also been pointed out that the case against Navalny was only resurrected by the Russian Investigative Committee at the personal insistence of Bastrykhin its chief whom Navalny has accused of illegally owning property in the Czech Republic.  Navalny’s prosecution is said to Bastrykhin’s revenge.

Support for these claims is said to be provided by certain comments made shortly before the trial by Vladimir Markin the spokesman of the Investigative Committee.

The purpose of this essay is to examine in detail the facts of the case and the conduct of the trial to determine whether any of these claims and criticisms are true.

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Translation: Jews, Journalists, and Dead Kittens

Battle of the hacks! In response to Alexei Pankin calling him an anti-Semite in The Moscow Times, Oleg Kashin pens a tongue in cheek response telling him to imagine a kitten dying every time he abuses an overworn cliche.

On the Horrors of Anti-Semitism

In which Oleg Kashin gives some advice to the politologists.

The editors asked me to reply to a columnist in the English-language Moscow Times who accused Svobodnaya Pressa of – wow, wow! – anti-Semitism. I don’t even know how to object to this dear fellow – I love the way he holds that pipe in his mouth in his avatar; as for the rest of his remarks, I will only recycle what one of my friends has already noted: The Jewish question in Russia ended when those standard (which is to say, fascist) ads for apartment rentals marked “For Slavs only” started to encompass Jews, together with Russians, Ukrainians, and Belorussians. This was unimaginable even back in 1990 – you know, the era of Pamyat, and all that. Today – be my guest! Even the lumpenproles, ready at take part in some ethnic cleansing at the first opportunity, no longer consider Jews to be foreigners. In reality, it’s stupid to ponder on the differences between Ivan and Abram when Dagestan is in the foreground; those differences are negligible.

If there was any “social thought” whatsoever in the Russian Federation, beyond what we see at Svobodnaya Pressa and at one and a half other sites, there would have long been a flood of books, lectures, exhibitions, and films meditating upon the end of Russian anti-Semitism. But social thought, sucking away on his pipe, prefers to flog 20-year old stereotypes, whose authenticity somewhat resembles Intourist stories about bears and balalaikas.

Every time I have to speak before some foreign audience – well, not even “some” audience, but one that is prepared, and interested in Russian affairs – I am forced to answer questions about the threat of a Communist comeback in my country, about Moscow’s repressive policies towards the Chechen people, and even about the possibility that Russia could try to reconquer the Baltic countries. Patiently answering these questions (“No, ladies and gentlemen, the Communist Party is part of the political system”; “Excuse me, but Mr. Kadyrov himself represses whomsoever he wants”; “If they attack Europe, they will have nowhere to keep their money”), I can see despondency in the eyes of my interlocutors – they do not believe me, because the word of some unknown Russian can’t outweigh the terabytes of nonsense issued by all these veterans of the Valdai Clubs and Pugwash Conferences from both sides of their mutually beloved Iron Curtain.

Though it’s too late to do anything about Alexander Rahr or Nikolai Zlobin, I would however like to give some friendly politological advice to their less famous colleagues, who are easier to recognize by pipe than by name. Friends, next time you’re about to reproduce your typical analytical klyukva – imagine that a little kitten dies somewhere in Russia. Imagine that the kitten dies because he simply can’t bear to watch how credulous English-language readers are fed tales of Russia’s unreadiness for democracy, the popularity of “Ethnic Slurs” among the Russian opposition, and similar bears and balalaikas. Don’t think about about visitor views, reposts, and honorariums – think of the kittens. Maybe this will seem like an unserious argument to you, but it is surely – for all that – a more serious one than what you’re scribbling.

Mazel tov, friends!

Translation: Why Didn’t Transparency International Reveal Russia’s Bribery Data?

Why was there no bribery incidence data for Russia in Transparency International’s international survey of 2013? Andrey Kamenetsky at Odnako connects the dots to argue that it was simply because the results were too inconvenient to serve as propaganda.

A Crisis of Zombification: How Transparency International failed on The Russia Corruption Rating

Dear Readers! In July there took place two major crashes in Russia. Both of them were very revealing, but only one carried a wide resonance: the “Proton-M”rocket accident. We shall now have a talk about the second crash, which was in its own way also catastrophic.

The puzzle hasn’t been solved

I’m talking about the unexpected failure of the now traditional fun and games ratings that annually “equates Russia with Zimbabwe”. One of the leading international human rights organizations that regularly publishes its corruption ratings, Transparency International, has this time not included Russia in its bribe-taking rating because of a “technical fault” caused by the receipt of research information that had not been verified for its authenticity. Because of this, a whole row of data has been removed from the process, and instead of the usual solid news about how everything is terrible in Russia, there has spilled out into the media a whole pile of claims made against one another by the organizers.

What makes this story piquant is the fact that all the interested parties are organizations of word-wide renown. The research data customer, Transparency International, has come down on its research agent, the international sociological corporation Gallup. Even more interesting is that as the conflict widens, their representatives are beginning to remember things amongst themselves and have even started to talk, which used to be considered quite indecent.

“Judging by the received data, the question was either misunderstood or incorrectly set by the company that undertook the research”, pointed out Transparency International Research Director, Finn Heinrich.

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