Sunday, December 14, 2008

Demonizing the Putin regime?

Sean's Russia Blog has a post (based on an article by Mark Ames) lambasting Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt of disregarding facts in a rush to conclude that the mercury poisoning in France of Karina Moskalenko, lawyer for the family of murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was probably an assassination attempt linked to Russia. It now appears clear that Moskalenko's poisoning was an accident, due to the fact that the previous owner of the used car she had bought in August had broken a thermometer in it. Sean accuses WaPo of being "vociferous in painting Russian (sic) and Putin as a neo-Evil Empire" and, with Ames, laments this "incessant demonization."

Was there a rush to the judgment by the WaPo editorial page? Sounds like it. Is there a tendency, after a string of unsolved murders of Russian politicians and journalists who were on the wrong side of Putin's favor, to see the long hand of Putin behind every suspicious death or illness? I'm sure there is. To be honest, I would prefer to believe that Putin was not involved in any of those murders, if only because the thought that the de facto leader of a nuclear power with a population of nearly 150 million is capable of common, naked criminal acts of the worst kind -- not just bending the law for what he sees as the common good, but plain and simple crimes -- is a little too scary.

However, it seems to me that the Putin (now, Putin/Medvedev) regime needs no demonizing. Exhibit A: The horrific treatment of Vasily Alexanian, the terminally ill ex-Yukos lawyer who is currently in prison on charges of embezzlement (widely viewed as a tactic to pressure him into testifying against his former boss Mikhail Khodorkovsky). Alexanian has AIDS and cancer, and is reported to be virtually blind. Russian law requires him to be released due to the state of his health (and also because the statute of limitation on his alleged crimes has now expired). Yet he is still in a prison hospital, for no apparent reason than the Putin clique's maniacal vendetta against Khodorkovsky and Yukos. The latest news in his case is that the government is now willing to release him -- on 50 million rubles (about $1.6 million) bail. You can't really demonize people who do that. They've done a fine job of demonizing themselves.

Sean Guillory, who writes Sean's Russia blog, sincerely loves and cares about Russia, and that is, of course, a good thing. Unfortunately, I think this often leads him to see justify criticisms of Russia's government and society as Western maligning of Russia. In discussing the Litvinenko poisoning case two years ago, Sean lamented the Western media's readiness to paint Russia as "some sort of abnormal society." Okay, let's assume for the moment that it's not so abnormal as to have a government that poisons its critics. But is today's suppression of the opposition rallies in Moscow the mark of a "normal society"? How about the fact that none of these rallies were mentioned on the television news? How about the fact that there has been no news coverage of the massive protests in Vladivostok (not directly political, since they have to do with new tariffs on the import of used foreign cars, but still directed against the authorities)? Is that "normal"?

And something else I found jarring, reading Sean's October 23 post on the Moskalenko case:

Westerners should be more cautious in making Russia’s “fierce critics’” every word sacrosanct. We might recognize that some of these people are victims of their own paranoia and self-deluded sense of importance. They are not martyrs, saints, or saviors. No matter how much they want us to think they are.

Are all fierce critics of Putin's Russia saints or wise men and women? Of course not. (Eduard Limonov, for instance, is a nut and a narcissist.) But the dismissive tone toward people who are taking substantial personal risks in taking on a repressive machine grates. (Does Sean have any reason to believe Moskalenko has delusions of grandeur? I would say that in her case, paranoia is not an irrational reaction. Even the paranoid have enemies -- but, by the same token, even those who have real enemies are sometimes paranoid.)

I find it deeply offensive when the likes of LaRussophobe shower the mass of the Russian people with dehumanizing contempt for their submission to Putin and their indifference to human rights violations in Russia. It's easy for someone who has never lived under a dictatorship, and never endured the chaos, uncertainty, and privations that came with freedom after that dictatorship's collapse, to pass high-handed judgment on people who are grateful to have a semblance of a normal life. Easy, and frankly revolting. (Besides, how many Americans -- living in a democracy -- protested slavery or segregation?) However, it's also ... shall we say, not very attractive to heap scorn on people who are willing to do the heroic work of challenging an authoritarian state, from the comfortable perch of someone who is very unlikely to ever be in their shoes.


Sean Guillory said...

Cathy, there is a lot for me to say in response to your criticism of me. But in the meantime, let me respond to the following. You say:

How about the fact that there has been no news coverage of the massive protests in Vladivostok (not directly political, since they have to do with new tariffs on the import of used foreign cars, but still directed against the authorities)? Is that "normal"?

How can you say that there has been no news coverage. Well, yes there has been little coverage in English. In Russian, however, the coverage has been quite substantial. Including, btw, on the government controlled NTV. So I really don't know where you get this.

Cathy Young said...

Hi Sean,

Glad to see you here; I was going to send you the post. (By the way, I'm working on another one, about the Memorial raid and Stalinism, that will mention your posts -- no, I haven't suddenly decided to pick on you, just found your comments interesting.)

Re the Vladivostok events: first of all, I hope we can both agree that coverage on the Internet is not "coverage," especially in a society where fewer than 15% of the population uses the Internet every day. The overwhelming majority of Russians get their news only from television.

The NTV segment you sent me has nothing to with the current protests. It is a story from August 2007 (did you look at the date?), about a small protest that has to do with the city government's failure for several months to issue drivers new registrations and inspection certificates. The current wave of protests has to do with new tariffs on used imported cars (introduced by the federal government). Those protests have practically paralyzed city traffic, and have resulted in the legislature of the Primorsky territory appealing to the federal government to lift the tariffs. And yet, not a word on national television. (I don't know about local TV in Vladivostok.) Where do I get this? From the blog of Vladimir Solovyov, host of the NTV show K barieru.

Sean Guillory said...

Well then I stand corrected on the TV coverage. Not the first time it's happened. Thank you for that.

I await your comments on Stalinism.

Anonymous said...

Um, Cathy, it looks like protests worked. TV or no TV coverage; neo-Stalinism or no neo-Stalinism.

It isn't often that a protest in America leads to quick legislative about-face, but how often does that happen in the kind of authoritarian regime you take Russia to be? Or is Russia more complex than you make it out to be?

Cathy Young said...


Actually, if you look at my posts from just the past several days, I think I fully admit that Russia is a complex society. I think it's a mistake to reduce everything that's happening in Russia to a formula like "back to the USSR" (let alone "neo-Stalinism").

The development you mention is not a "legislative about-face." The legislature that has voted to appeal to the federal government to postpone the new tariffs is not the body that voted for them in the first place.

Obviously, the vote is a positive step. What's truly pernicious is that, due to the lack of national TV coverage, events like this will not have the empowering (and mobilizing) effect they could have had on people all over Russia.

Unknown said...

Hi Cathy,

I'm from Khabarovsk, Russia. Please, take a look at google maps to see where is it related to Vladivostok :)
I lived in Australia for about 3 years and had access to Australian TV and newspapers, so I could compare how major news
were shown at 'western' and Russian media. And I was always wondering are western journalists payed for this specific approach to Russia or it's so deep in mass culture, so they just can't have a different view of it. Reading your post looks like it's in subconsciousness.
I guess Russia was never fully understood by the West and therefore was a threat. There are many articles trying to explain why Russia is the threat and almost no one expaining why it's not.
So almost any news from Russia has to prove this mass culture stereotype.

Regarding Vladivostok events.
"Where do I get this? From the blog of Vladimir Solovyov, host of the NTV show K barieru."
"events like this will not have the empowering (and mobilizing) effect they could have had on people all over Russia."

Why do you think, from what knowledge, this events HAS to have the mobilizing effect? Read comments (it's hundrends of them) in the Solovyov's blog.
You will see how many different points of view there are. This protests and the reason of them are quite controversial and you have to LIVE in Russia for last 10-15 years to fully understand them.

Regarding national TV, this events were covered, but as I said it's not the case when whole country has to stand up and fight:
etc etc

I wonder why do western journalists and media pay so much attention and are so rigid in their position to other countries' problems?
Why it's taken as absolute truth that current US democracy is the best regime for all times all nations? Even in Western Europe in 1950-s there were at least 2 dictatorships.
And there were 30/40-s, there were restrictions for black people in US and restrictions for asians and aboriginal people in Australia in 60/70-s. It's just 40 years ago!
And take it right, I don't think it was bad! It was right enough for that time and that nations.
I strongly believe every nation has it's own way and it's own time for internal changes.

There are huge amount of information about corruption, human rights violations, war crime in the US and Europe in internet, but almost nothing in papers and TV. How about that?
Probably it worth to pay more attention to internal problems?

Please, understand that you don't know the other countries well enough to judge them, you don't 'feel' them until you live inside it significant part of your life. And please, be VERY careful when you try to criticize them.

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