22 September 2022

Naming things by their true names

Top: "Serving Russia is real work." Source.

Ever since Vladimir Putin's announcement yesterday morning (Moscow time) of a partial mobilization of the Russian army and his approval of so-called referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine, a flood of reactions in the media and on the Internet remind me of how small a role is played by truth these days.

For example, the BBC interviewed (starting at 30:00) a person who expects to receive a call-up notice to serve. He's covered by the mobilization order because he once served as a conscript.

BBC: "Have you had military training?"

Interviewee: "It was called military training but I don't get it. I mean, things in Russia they make it on papers but not make it in real life. So I have machine gun for one time in my hands, so I am lieutenant on paper but not in real life."

We experienced this formula of "on paper but not in real life" (and its corollary, "in real life but not on paper") countless times in our years in Russia, so when we read the stream of testimonies from those affected by the mobilization order, it's entirely believable. Some examples collected from a Telegram channel:

  • They took my father with other men from Yakutia.... He's 49 years old, and never served in the military.
  • My dad is 50, today received the order to go to training.
  • Today classmates of my husband received their orders at work. Born in 1985. They were never in the military.
  • My neighbor is a 63-year-old colonel. Got his notice today.
  • Yakutia. They took my 58-year-old father who never served but is classified as a military specialist. They came at night to deliver his notice, took him to the conscription board in the morning, and now he's already flying to his unit.
  • Volgograd. I have a colleague, a 55-year-old lieutenant, who also got a notice. He was supposed to show up on Monday, but they phoned him at home today and told him to show up tomorrow morning.

From another channel we learn that some of the young people arrested for protests against mobilization are being met by representatives of the conscription board who order them to present themselves for conscription at 9:00 the next morning. "From the very first day, mobilization is being used to put pressure on the protesters," reports the human rights organization OVD-Info.

Keir Giles comments in The Guardian:

Russia says it plans to mobilise an additional 300,000 soldiers. That raises the question of whether Putin is fully aware that his army is already unable to train and equip the much smaller numbers of reinforcements it has received to date. Coming as Russia’s parliament passes laws for severe prison sentences for those evading military service, the new measures seem likely to set up a comical game of musical chairs: thrown into prison for not going to war, Russian prisoners can then be recruited to go and fight with the promise of their sentence being annulled. [Link in original.]

So that is how to round up 300,000 (or more) additional soldiers to face Ukraine's defenders. At least on paper.

Now, about those votes in the occupied territory.

Commentators on the independent Russian-language channel Populyarnaya politika called them "pseudoreferendums." Timothy Snyder cautions us about even using the term "sham referendum":

There is not only no legal basis for speaking of a “referendum,” but not even much factual basis for speaking of a “sham referendum.” A sham is shambolic but it does actually exist. What Russia is undertaking is nothing more than a media exercise designed to shape how people think about Russian-occupied Ukraine.

It would be illegal to hold referendums during an armed conflict and under the threat of the use of force. And this is reason enough to ignore the media exercise completely. But it is just the surface of the problem. If held, referendums would indeed be illegal. But we should be careful: even when we say "illegal referendum" we are not quite getting to bottom of things. We might convince ourselves that some voting happened with some flaws.

It takes infrastructure to hold an election. That infrastructure is not there. Although we will no doubt see photographs of old ladies holding pieces of paper, it would be wrong for reporters to speak of a “vote.” What is more: even if the Russians actually had voting infrastructure, which they don't; and even if they intended to have people in the occupied territories vote, which they don't; they couldn't do so, since they do not actually control the totality of any of the regions where they will claim that voting is taking place.

Some commentators believe that this exercise is simply intended to escalate Ukrainian attempts to liberate these territories, allowing Russia to portray such actions as direct attacks on Mother Russia herself, with consequent permission to Russia's forces to respond at maximum force. Putin's announcement yesterday did not make such a link explicit, so commentators might be doing it for him.

I personally doubt very many Russians would be fooled by such maneuvers, especially since the stakes are suddenly higher for every family and every friend of anyone now caught up in the new mobilization. And they are all already aware of the difference between what's on paper and what's real.

The obligatory "whatabout" acknowledgment: Russia is not the only place where there's a disinformation gap between what's claimed officially and what is real. The USA has only recently endured a period of shameless lying on the part of its highest elected official, which he continues to practice brazenly as a private citizen, so it hardly becomes us to act the global moralist.

Some of the USA's past disinformation cost lives as well—for example, the U.S. government's resistance to acknowledging the harm caused by weapons such as Agent Orange or depleted uranium. The whole U.S. large-scale involvement in Viet Nam was founded on distortions of the Gulf of Tonkin incident. The eight costly years of the Second Persian Gulf War were similarly based on fake evidence and outright lies. I could go on ....

Wherever in the world there are power structures, those structures tend to prioritize self-preservation. Ephesians 6 refers to our struggle "... against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (From Ephesians 6:12.) Aside from prayer, the classic approach of those in this struggle is to apply truth: "It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light." (Ephesians 5:12-13.)

For this reason, the "light" provided by freedom of speech and of the press is rightly cherished as vital to the struggle against the powers and principalities. The (relatively) free exercise of these rights in the USA, even when they convey lies, is an important distinction that "whataboutism" must take into account. Russia's power structures have changed the information landscape drastically compared to just five years ago, when we left Russia, even though the hunt for "foreign agents" and "undesirable organizations" was already well underway at that point. Here in the USA, we have our own liars in the public arena, often well-organized and well-financed, but they are always subject to public challenge—provided we don't all give in to passive cynicism. 

Although it may look like Russia has fallen on difficult times in this matter of disinformation and repression of free speech, we know that all is not lost. The phrase "to name things by their true names" is still an honored quality in Russian rhetoric, often quoted by those who attempt to speak truth to power, and those who praise such attempts. 

Here's what one of my friends in Russia posted just a few hours ago on her social media page. After citing examples of how people are avoiding getting caught up in the conscription dragnet, she added:

PS: What is important: if our country were really in danger, if we really protected innocent people from the horrors made by someone else's evil will, the reaction of the Russians, I'm sure, would be very different (all morning yesterday I read chats in non-political, totally non-oppositional publications; it's the same everywhere—anxiety and rage, the highest degree of irritation and dissatisfaction with what is happening). Russians do not want to go to war/let their loved ones go, not because they are cowards or selfish, but because (very many) understand that the state is lying.

This mobilization has once again brought thousands of courageous Russian people into the streets and public spaces, despite the acute risks of naming "war" by its true name.

The Russian superstar Alla Pugacheva spoke for many of those protesters when she expressed solidarity with her husband Maksim Galkin's desire for "...the end of the deaths of our boys for illusory goals that make our country a pariah and weigh heavily on the lives of its citizens."

The last time I remember Alla Pugacheva in a political setting was during the 2012 Russian presidential election campaign, when she appeared as part of candidate Mikhail Prokhorov's team in his debate with candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky. She directly challenged Zhirinovsky on his manners and behavior as unsuitable for a president. He in turn accused her, and her fellow artists, of being political prostitutes at the service of whomever was in power.

"Kings Can Do Anything"

My own first memories of Alla Pugacheva go back much further. I visited the Soviet Union in 1975, and while I was there I became acquainted with a guy my age who lived on Vavilov Street. We began a correspondence, and began exchanging phonograph records. I remember sending him B.B. King's Live in Cook County Jail, for example. One of the records he sent me was Alla Pugacheva's bouncy ballad "Kings Can Do Anything" (1977), which I played often enough for the chorus to threaten to cycle around endlessly in my brain 45 years later.

(By the way, according to her song, "kings can do anything" except marry for love. If you remember Soviet pop songs of that era, you might recognize another song my friend sent me, the unbearably sentimental "How Young We Were." Maybe the most interesting thing he sent was an album by David Tukhmanov.)

So now the Soviet Union's and Russia's number one living pop music legend is naming things by their true names.

Nancy Ries on the Kremlin's fascist project.

complex case study of a city at war: Politics, leadership, industry, trade unions, and the dilemmas of war in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.

Sergei Nikitin's history of Quaker work in the Russian famine of 1921-22 and its historical context of Quaker contacts with Russia, Как квакеры спасали Россию, was published in 2020. I first mentioned it toward the end of this post, promising to let you know when it would be available in English. The translation by Suzanne Eade Roberts, entitled Friends and Comrades: How Quakers helped Russians to survive famine and epidemic, has just been published. In the USA, it's available as a "print replica edition" in the Kindle format.

Adria Gulizia and Windy Cooler are presenting an online retreat, "Time to be Tender," October 21-22, in Powell House's "Testimonies to Mercy" series. The series calendar is here.

Friends United Meeting announces the schedule for nine Unleashing the Power monthly workshops starting October 27.

"I cannot express how good this is!" says guitar teacher Michael Palmisano about Albert Collins's "If Trouble Was Money."

Here's a link to the video Palmisano used in his appreciation of Collins's musicianship.

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