17 June 2021

How to write about Russia, part three

Part one; part two.
Screenshots from source.  

The first thing to be said: when describing Russia, it is not necessary to begin with politics. During my years of living in Elektrostal, and my visits to many other places in Russia, I was witness to the fact that Russians are normal people who can enjoy life, overcome personal crises, display amazing generosity and hospitality, and deploy wicked humor as needed. If the picture of Russia that emerges from Western journalism doesn't give this human context, it makes the whole of Russia that much easier to demonize.

It is not necessary to begin with politics, but it is also impossible to avoid politics. Everywhere we humans organize ourselves into communities, states, nations, empires, we are unavoidably caught up in systems where some seek to gain and maintain advantage over others, where some love to test the boundaries and others simply want to know where the boundaries are, where customs and rules arise to manage those inevitable conflicts, and where vast majorities simply hope to go from day to do, feeding themselves and their families without being noticed by anyone with power and an agenda.

What happens when someone is noticed? This is where a nation's politics meets its testing point. The philosopher David Hartman was right when he called "due process" the most important development in the history of humanity. Whenever due process is sabotaged -- in the USA, in Russia, or anywhere -- the demons that rushes into the vacuum are corruption and cruelty.

Each country must face its own reckoning for the ways it allows those with power to crush people, whether by intention, or by structural racism and elitism, or simply by caprice and neglect. (Maybe we should make an exception for nations that do not claim to observe justice -- are there any such nations?) Such reckoning is not achieved by pointing at another nation's failures, but by accounting for and amending one's own by one's own claimed standards.

Yesterday, ABC reporter Rachel Scott confronted Russian president Vladimir Putin in Geneva with a pair of pointed questions. (CNN's version of the full exchange, with Putin's answers, is here.)

First question:

The list of your political opponents who are dead, imprisoned, or jailed, is long. Alexei Navalny, whose organization calls for free and fair elections, an end to corruption -- Russia has outlawed that organization in calling it extremist. And now you have prevented anyone who supports him to run for office. So my question is, Mr. President, what are you so afraid of?

The transcript with Putin's full answer is below, after the video, but it was an extremely vague set of references to organizations operating in Russia with USA funding, and claiming that one such organization (referring to Navalny's) was calling for mass demonstrations and trying to manipulate young people. He went on to refer to the disorders in the USA that followed the killing of George Floyd, and said that such disorders would not be allowed to happen in Russia.

Scott followed up:

You didn't answer my question, sir. If all of your political opponents are dead, in prison, poisoned, doesn't that send a message that you do not want a fair political fight?

Putin this time decided that she should have asked another question entirely ... who is killing whom? He then proceeded to answer that question by referring to the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol. I think he is trying, with both of his answers, to claim, without saying it openly, that genuine political competition is too risky. And, the unspoken corollary is that it is better to arrest and poison people, and threaten their friends with loss of jobs, their children with loss of prospects, and a nation with bottomless cynicism, than to take the risk of an honest political fight which he and his whole "system" might lose.


Rachel Scott's question referred to Putin's political opponents ("dead, in prison, poisoned"), but last week brought a fascinating and shocking investigation into the apparent poisoning of a prominent poet, author, and literary critic, Dmitri Bykov. Bykov is not a political activist himself at all, certainly not on the scale of Navalny, and he leads absolutely no movement. However, he has made no secret of his opposition to Russia's current leadership. He is well-known, well-respected ... in other words, noticeable.

I remember when the original incident occurred, back in spring 2019; Facebook and Twitter came alive with requests to pray for Bykov, who fell ill on an airplane and remained in a coma for several days. Bellingcat's report is here; some of the puzzled commentary about the attempt on Bykov's life is here. According to Bellingcat, Bykov himself had no idea why he would be targeted; his very telling comment was that maybe he was just "next on the list."

I wrote about my own experience of one of Bykov's events on this post from 2016.

Does Russia in fact employ a team of poisoners working with their intelligence services to kill their own citizens who ask too many questions? This would certainly seem to be a way of reinforcing that desire, well-known in the former Soviet Union, of shrinking into the background, of simply living from day to day in the hopes of not being noticed by those with power and an agenda.


Back to Putin's reply to Rachel Scott. One of his rather disconnected phrases stuck out to me: "In many countries the same thing happens that happens in our country." Again, I'm guessing at his meaning: If something happens in Russia that doesn't seem to fit the ideal, then don't forget that it also happens everywhere else.

Scandals in other countries are not at all a reason for me to ignore or trivialize blatant cruelty as government policy in a land -- Russia -- whose people and culture have become part of me. However, it also is yet another reminder that when the USA's own people of power subvert due process, abuse and beat and kill suspects, harass peaceful demonstrators, weaken voting rights -- all that just makes life easier and more delightful for the world's smooth-talking authoritarians.

Just a reminder: cynicism is spiritual poison. If you're being invited to abandon your ideals because there also happens to be corruption elsewhere, resist! Together we can work toward the day when corruption and cruelty no longer have a home anywhere.


Among the winners of a survey of Russia's best speakers of Russian: Dmitri Bykov.

Putin's "master class" in whataboutism, and its possible weakness as a strategy.

Earth's energy imbalance has doubled. What does that mean?

This article about insomnia promotes a particular brand of bedding, but, having had several encounters with insomnia over the years, the article seems helpful to me. (Plus: Canadian content!)

Banda Health: Software developers in a frontline alliance with clinics in East Africa and Niger. (Thanks to Bob and Hope Carter, whose newsletter told us about Banda Health.)


Part two of my tribute to James Harman. Here he is at Buddy Guy's Legends club back in the '90's:


Rachel Scott (ABC News): The list of your political opponents who are dead, imprisoned, or jailed, is long. Alexei Navalny, whose organization calls for free and fair elections, an end to corruption -- Russia has outlawed that organization in calling it extremist. And now you have prevented anyone who supports him to run for office. So my question is, Mr. President, what are you so afraid of?

Vladimir Putin: Well, once again I would like to repeat what I said about so-called "foreign agents" and the people who position themselves as the non-system opposition. I've already spoken to your colleagues; now I have to repeat that to you. The U.S. has passed a law that said the U.S. would particularly favor individual organizations in Russia. And at the same time they declared the Russian Federation as an enemy. They publicly declared that they will try to contain Russia. My question is, "Which organizations, which political organizations in the U.S. are going to be supported by the U.S., especially if they pay them? We, the same as the Americans in the 1930's, have endorsed a law but their work is not prohibited. If the organization has an extremist character, that's another kettle of fish. I just wanted to tell you that that one in particular called for public mass demonstrations and also involved or urged minors to take part in street demonstrations and obviously they were being used or manipulated against the law enforcement agencies.

America just recently had to deal with terrible events after the killing of an African American. And an entire movement developed, known as Black Lives Matter. I'm not going to comment on that. But here's what I do want to say. What we saw was disordered destruction, violations of the law, etc. We feel sympathy for the United States of America, but we don't want that to happen on our territory. And we're doing our utmost in order to not allow it to happen. And some fears, has nothing to do with anything.

RS: You didn't answer my question, sir. If all of your political opponents are dead, in prison, poisoned, doesn't that send a message that you do not want a fair political fight?

VVP: As for who is killing whom, throwing whom in jail, people came to the U.S. Congress with political demands. Four hundred people. Over 400 people had criminal charges placed on them. They faced prison sentences of up to 20, maybe even 25 years. They're being called domestic terrorists. They're being accused of a number of other crimes. Seventy of them were arrested right away after the events. And 30 of them are still under arrest. It's unclear on what grounds. And as for the -- nobody from the official authorities has informed us about it. Some people, some people died. And one of the people who died was simply shot on the spot by the police, although they were not threatening the police with any weapons. In many countries the same thing happens that happens in our country. I'd like to stress once more that we sympathize with what happened in the United States but we have no desire to allow the same thing to happen in our country.

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