The Parallax Brief

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Unrepentant Subjectivity on Economics, Politics, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Russia

Medvedev’s Visit to FDR Fireside Bodes Well for Russia

There are many reasons to believe the Kremlin’s policy to publicly obfuscate the severity and implications of the crisis afflicting the Russian economy is counterproductive.

First, denying the existence of the obvious doesn’t fool any of the people any of the time, and cultivates distrust. When officials do eventually need to appeal for calm, they will find they have diminished authority.

Second, a limited understanding of a situation enfeebles the population’s ability to make rational decisions and plans, leaving it likely to move in irrational, dramatic lurches rather than manageable shifts. Finally, news does not sit still simply because the Kremlin decides it won’t contribute. Refusing to admit the problem, simply allowes other, less responsible sources shape opinion and understanding.

However, it appears the Kremlin may be arriving at the conclusion that continuing on this track is inadvisable, and President Dmitry Medvedev’s television address Sunday was an important part of that process. Taking a leaf from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s now famous fireside chats, which acted as a reassuring, calming influence on the US populace during the Great Depression and Second World War, Medvedev appeared on national television to “speak the truth” and explain the economic problems “that the entire world is living through, and that our country is living through.”

According to Reuters, Medvedev said:

“I consider that the authorities are obliged to speak about this (crisis) frankly and directly, to speak about the decisions which the authorities are taking to overcome the crisis and about the difficulties with which we are faced… The forecasts really don’t make anyone happy… [and] We should expect our development to undergo a pretty tough scenario.”

This more honest approach will pay dividends by avoiding the issues outlined above; however, honesty in an unpleasent and politically difficult situation should not be seen as a sign of weakness. When Winston Churchill took over from Neville Chamberlain in the darkest hours of World War II, he did not gloss over the problems or tell the nation that victory was close. Instead, he painted a bleak picture:

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.”

By doing so, he gained respect. And stoicism in the face of suffering is something Russians admire.

Of course, Medvedev as Churchill is quite a step,  and whether Medvedev’s fireside chat was simply part of the wider propaganda mechanism (first, deny; second, claim only decadent, rotten Western economies will be affected; third, admit Russia will be affected, but blame the decadent, rotten US; fourth (now) admit the truth but reassure), or a genuine change in direction remains to be seen, but at first glance, it appears the Kremlin has finally accepted its role as a positive, reasurring and honest intermediary between the crisis and Ivan public.

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Russia, , , , , , ,

I Miss the eXile

It had plenty of critics, and offended even more, but I thought the eXile was brilliant. It is difficult to describe what it was, but somehow (and uniquely, as far as I can imagine) the eXile successfully combined brutally honest, rude, offensive, yet lovingly irreverent portraits of life in Moscow with toilet humour, pornographic stories, military history, outrageously misogynistic diatribe, investigative journalism, college pranks, and insightful political commentary.

Unfortunately, an official audit after ten years of living on the edge brought the party to a close and consigned the eXile to online exile.

In its new online guise, it doesn’t cover Russia in the depth it once did, but the occasional story provides a reminder of what we’re missing.

I wish they’d come back.

Filed under: Russia, , ,

Time for a Better Understanding of Russia and Russians

A story by Clifford J. Levy in the New York Times yesterday opened with a sentence that encapsulated the insultingly patronizing view of Russians held by vast swathes of the western press:

“Over the last eight years, as Vladimir Putin has amassed ever more power, Russians have often responded with a collective shrug, as if to say: Go ahead, control everything — as long as we can have our new cars and amply stocked supermarkets, our sturdy ruble and cheap vacations in the Turkish sun.”

What Levy is basically saying is that Russians are so vacuous – at least compared to us enlightened and freedom-loving westerners – that they have happily traded liberty for lifestyle.

Ostensibly this is true. Russians are, in general terms, fatalistic and apathetic about their ability to change their environment. Further, it is true that while Putin has increasingly centralized power and runs an undeniably authoritarian government, he has remained amazingly popular as Russians are living better than ever. “Authoritarianism by consent,” Levy calls it.

Yet this is a slothful, superficial analysis.

Russians don’t love Putin because they can now afford to frolic in discount resports in Turkey, but because he was in power during the period when the country emerged from the crushing poverty, lawlessness and misery of the 1990s, and regained some of its pride and gave its citizens hope.

In the 90’s the Russian people were promised escape from the yoke of communism, but were instead ruined. Led by western economists of the Chicago School and their Russian equivalents, the young reformers, an insidious laissez fair capitalism was installed in Russia via the infamous shock therapy, and was combined with a stripped-down, basic form of democracy which, absent of the great institutions which protect democracy in the West, was ripe for abuse.

Most Russians were plunged into poverty the depths of which Russia had not experienced since the First World War. Meantime, a tiny, nefarious group, now known as the oligarchs, accumulated unimaginable wealth by plundering the nation’s resources, seizing control of Russia’s industries through bribery and violence, and stealing aid money earmarked for the beleaguered Russian people. The whole calamity was presided over by the corrupt, incompetent and infinitely malleable Boris Yeltsin.

The IMF, supposedly supervising Russia’s transformation to a market economy merely nodded its supine approval as the villains pillaged the family silver. And all the West did was gloat about its ‘Cold War victory’, support to Yeltsin in the mistaken belief he was a democrat, and point to the freedoms Russians now enjoyed.

Some freedom.

Russians may be naïve about capitalism and democracy, but they know when they’ve been ripped off. Is there any nation on earth in which the people, after that decade, wouldn’t accept a curtailment of freedom in exchange for some hope, pride, stability and prosperity?

It is clear that the blame for Russia’s current state should not be placed exclusively on the shoulders of the West, nor should we fall into the trap of becoming apologists for all that is broken in Russia, but until the West comprehends the epic scale of its post-communist nation-building failure, and understands that Russians are not simply a uniquely vacuous, apathetic rabble, but actually share the hopes of all peoples, the sooner the West can go about understanding Russia and its problems, as well as improving relations.

On this matter, it is rare to find anything other than the official line of anti-Putin invective published in British and American newspapers, but I am happy to say that the Financial Times is running a story today which actually provides balanced and fair minded – and therefore interesting and useful – analysis.

Filed under: Economics, Politics, Russia, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Putin and the Cult of Slothful Journalism

The western media is obsessed with the doings of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. Virtually everything the former president does is lavished with newspaper coverage. But being firmly in rapacious anti-Russia mode, the western media seem to have turned his PR activities into something more sinister: the construction of a cult of personality.

It makes for a neat argument. Wrestling tigers, teaching kids judo, and fishing topless are all part of an attempt to build a cult of personality; cults of personality are unique to totalitarian regimes; therefore, Russia is necessarily a totalitarian regime, which – whoda thunk it? – fits neatly with the line currently peddled by much of the Western media that Putin’s regime is despotic, while simultaeously making mundane politicians’ photo-ops into something interesting enough to sell papers. Perfect!

The latest similar news item to be given the hysterical tint now commonplace in western coverage of Russian politics is word that the Russian PM has painted a picture to contribute to a charity auction. This time, nobody has explicitly linked the painting to the cult of personality theory, but they have done so with similar stories in the past and the implication is there this time.

But before neo-con knickers get in a twist about Putin leading another Red Scare, I’d like to ask whether this isn’t the kind of thing all politicians do everywhere? Their PR people try to cultivate a certain image, and invite journalists along to official trips that will show off their man or woman in an attractive light, do they not?

Such practice is considered normal practice in the West, but apparently when Putin does likewise it’s cast as some kind of nefarious retread of Stalinist propaganda.

I’m no apologist for Putin, but this is absurd. And let’s be honest, the idea of having an all-action hero as president proved incredibly popular in the US back in the day.

Filed under: Russia, , , , ,