The Death of Maxim Borodin

This is pretty awful:

A Russian investigative journalist who wrote about the deaths of mercenaries in Syria has died in hospital after falling from his fifth-floor flat.

Maxim Borodin was found badly injured by neighbours in Yekaterinburg and taken to hospital, where he later died.

Being a journalist in Russia is not especially dangerous. Being a journalist in Russia and writing about things which concern powerful people is incredibly dangerous, bordering on suicidal.

Local officials said no suicide note was found but the incident was unlikely to be of a criminal nature.

Uh-huh. One minute he’s exposing the clandestine use of Russian mercenaries in Syria, the next he’s just fallen off a balcony. Could happen to anyone.

However, a friend revealed Borodin had said his flat had been surrounded by security men a day earlier.

Vyacheslav Bashkov described Borodin as a “principled, honest journalist” and said Borodin had contacted him at five o’clock in the morning on 11 April saying there was “someone with a weapon on his balcony and people in camouflage and masks on the staircase landing”.

Borodin had been looking for a lawyer, he explained, although he later called him back saying he was wrong and that the security men had been taking part in some sort of exercise.

Many a time have I come home to find people with weapons on my balcony and masked, camouflaged men in the stairwell conducting an exercise. Yeah, this is all perfectly normal.

In recent weeks, the journalist had written about Russian mercenaries known as the “Wagner Group” who were reportedly killed in Syria on 7 February in a confrontation with US forces.

Maxim Borodin was phenomenally brave in investigating this story but, like Anna Politkovskaya, you’ve got to wonder if it was worth it. I don’t know who is behind the Wagner Group but you can be sure they are nasty, brutal, and well-connected. Going anywhere near an outfit like this and raising awkward questions was bound to end badly, and sadly it has.

The story is a useful reminder that Russia is a violent, lawless place in many respects and not every high-profile murder is carried out on the orders of Putin. Putin must take a lot of the blame for presiding over the conditions which allow journalists to be murdered with impunity in Russia, but it’s worth noting he is a product of the same culture, not its architect. Murders don’t occur in Russia because Putin allegedly has people murdered; any murders ordered by Putin occur in a culture where murdering people is routine. There’s a difference, and I think this was missed during the Skripal affair when it was assumed Putin simply must have been behind it. Now he probably was, but there was also a fair chance he wasn’t, which those unfamiliar with Russia utterly failed to even consider. It has become an article of faith among western reporters that Putin is responsible for the murder of Politkovskaya, and they go so far to directly charge him with the murder of journalists. The sad truth is any number of people would have wanted Politkovskaya dead, and Putin might not even have been one of them. We’ll never know.

The other noteworthy point to this story is that Maxim Borodin was genuinely brave and attempting to uncover a story which is in the public interest. Contrast this with western journalists who are mainly propagandists for the ruling classes yet are forever congratulating one another on their bravery, despite facing nothing more perilous in their day-job than a burned lip from an over-hot latte. I wonder how well a journalist like Borodin would go down in a western media outfit? Not very well, would be my guess.

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Professionals at Work

From the BBC:

A woman who was partially sucked out of a window of a US passenger plane after an engine exploded in mid-air has died.

Southwest Airlines Flight 1380 made an emergency landing in Philadelphia after a window, wings and fuselage were damaged. Seven passengers were injured.

Initial findings say an engine fan blade was missing. In a recording, one of the pilots can be heard saying “there is a hole and someone went out”.

That’s the background. Now listen to this conversation between the female pilot and an air traffic controller at Philadelphia airport:

You can hear the pilot struggling to contain the emotion in her voice, but she does a tremendous job of keeping calm. The guy in the tower is as cool as ice, and that’s due to professionalism and training rather than the fact he’s safe on the ground and not up there in a crippled plane. That the pilot, Tammy Jo Shults, managed to handle this situation brilliantly perhaps ought not to surprise:

Shults applied for the Air Force after she graduated. She wasn’t allowed to test to become a pilot, but the Navy welcomed her. She was one of the first female fighter pilots in the Navy’s history, and the first woman to fly F-18s. She later became an instructor.

She’s now an American hero, and deservedly so. I suspect Trump will shortly be hanging a medal around her neck and saying something well-meaning but cack-handed as he does it.

I find the calmness with which Shults and her interlocutor handle the situation almost mesmerising, but I often find that when watching a real professional go about their job. Oddly, the scene I most enjoyed from the the film Captain Phillips is when the corpsman aboard the US Navy ship examines Tom Hanks for the first time. The way she went about giving him direct, clear, and repeated instructions with completely calm, professional body-language made me think this was a very good actress. Or:

Tom Hanks claimed that the scene of Captain Richard Phillips’ medical examination was improvised on the spot with real-life Navy Corpsman Danielle Albert, who was told to simply follow her usual procedure.

Which explained it. A friend later told me he’d also been struck by the same scene. Calmness is vital to thinking clearly, and the best way to remain calm is to follow an established procedure and practice as much as possible. If you panic you’ll make mistakes and, panic being highly infectious, you’ll cause other people to make mistakes too.

A Russian friend was flying from Paris to Lagos with Air France once, and a Nigerian lady started having some sort of seizure in her seat. The passengers alerted the stewardess who, frankly, had no idea what to do and her body language let the entire aircraft know it. The passengers began to get agitated, and the stewardess (who was not joined by a couple of others) go the lady to lie down in the aisle. Then she started going into convulsions, and the stewardesses started to panic. They called the head steward, a Frenchman, who arrived and immediately panicked himself. The passengers lost control of themselves and started screaming and shouting. Somehow the air crew regained control of the situation, the woman stopped flapping around, and she got back to her seat. My Russian friend was very unimpressed, and said he had little confidence the pilots would do much better under duress. Given Air France’s safety record, nor have I.

By contrast, I was once flying Aeroflot from Moscow to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk when my companion ate the wrong thing in the in-flight meal and had an allergic reaction. Her throat began to swell and her breathing got difficult. Normally she carries medicine with her, but either didn’t have it with her or forgot where it was. I alerted the stewardess – the usual slim woman with bleached-blonde hair and painted nails – who took one look and asked my companion firmly what she’d eaten. She asked a few more questions, never raising her voice, then calmly told her colleague to fetch the medicine chest. My companion’s face was swelling up and she was breaking out in spots. A helpful chap in the seat behind thought she was simply airsick and offered her a tumbler of cheap cognac, which I still laugh about today. The stewardess returned with the medicine chest, they confirmed with my companion that it was the correct one, and gave her the tablets. Within a few minutes everything was back to normal, and only those sat nearby had any idea anything had happened. Aeroflot might be the butt of a lot of jokes, but the air crew knew their stuff and didn’t panic, and you can be damned sure the pilots wouldn’t either even if they plane had lost a wing, was upside down, and on fire.

I’ve noticed in my professional life that Frenchmen are prone to panicking under pressure, and letting their emotions get the better of them. By contrast, I don’t think I ever saw a Russian man panic, and there are numerous videos of Russians walking nonchalantly away from horrific car crashes and this legendary one of a pilot lighting up a cigarette after ejecting from his MiG-29. That’s not to say Russians never panic and Frenchmen always do, but propensity to panic is probably cultural in part, and training is needed to overcome it.

Whoever they may be, I find something awesome about a professional calmly going about his or her business, especially in a situation which would render most people unable to function at all. That might be because absolute professionalism is something I don’t see as much as I should. Clearly, the Americans flying planes and manning control towers still have it in spades. Good for them.

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Story Changed

From the BBC:

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is to meet in the Hague and discuss the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

The emergency session was called by Russia, who denies being behind the attack and wants the UK to share evidence.

But the UK government says the only “plausible explanation” is that Russia is to blame.

Yes, this is what the government said from the beginning. They took a sample, sent it off to Porton Down – an indisputable centre of excellence for chemical warfare – who identified the substance as Novichok, which could only have come from Russia. Yup, this is what I remember quite clearly. Oh, hang on:

On Tuesday the UK’s Porton Down laboratory said it could not verify the precise source of the nerve agent used against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Ah.

The laboratory, which has previously identified the substance as a military-grade Novichok nerve agent, said it was likely to have been deployed by a “state actor” but said it was not their job to say where it was manufactured.

Right, this is beginning to piss me off. Now Porton Down’s position is perfectly reasonable and doesn’t mean anything in itself – their job was almost certainly to identify the substance not to speculate as to where this particular batch may have been manufactured. But this is not what the public was led to believe. Within a day or two of Porton Down getting involved their name was invoked by government ministers who heavily implied it was their experts who confirmed it almost certainly came from Russia. So where did they get this idea from?

The UK says further intelligence led to its belief that Russia was responsible.

Now this isn’t unreasonable in itself and the intelligence may be 100% accurate. But this is not what we were told. Why is this only coming out now, a month after the event and several weeks after Russia was issued with ultimatums and threats, plunging us neck-deep into a diplomatic row we’ve dragged around thirty other countries into?

To me, there is a big difference between:

Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family, and could only have come from Russia.

and:

Our experts at Porton Down have analysed the substance and concluded it is a nerve agent of the Novichok family. Intelligence sources say it could only have come from Russia.

Whereas I don’t doubt the impartial expertise of the chaps at Porton Down, British intelligence hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory in recent years. What form does this intelligence take? How much was it subject to interpretation? How much political pressure was brought to bear on the analysis? The British government has implied the source of manufacture has been determined by scientific analysis rather than intelligence sources. In other words, they have mislead the public.

Here’s what I reckon’s happened:

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog is to meet in the Hague and discuss the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the UK.

The emergency session was called by Russia, who denies being behind the attack and wants the UK to share evidence.

As a member of the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Russia has the right to request an emergency meeting of the body.

Among other things, it wants to know what kind of evidence the UK has provided to the OPCW, which inspectors visited the site of the attack in Salisbury, who they met and where the samples are being analysed.

The OPCW expects to receive the results of its own independent laboratory tests within a week.

Until now, everyone has been led to believe the Russian connection was made by Porton Down. The independent testing by the OPCW is likely to confirm the substance is Novichok, but will not be able to say where it was manufactured. At this point, the Russians will ask those at Porton Down “Then how did you know?” Anticipating this, Porton Down has distanced itself from making any Russian connection, forcing the government to come clean.

I have said right from the start that Theresa May’s government has handled this affair spectacularly badly. They’ve rushed to judgement for political reasons without getting their ducks in a row. Probably the best thing I can say at this point is that it doesn’t surprise me in the least.

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The tragedy in Kemerovo brings forth a much greater one

There is a story developing in the aftermath of the Kemerovo shopping mall fire which is getting uglier by the day. It concerns this man:

Last week Igor Vostrikov was a successful businessman, married with three young children. Today he says that he has “nothing more to lose” and will fight for justice to be served.
Vostrikov recalls that his wife, Elena, had been “beyond panic” by the time she reached him at around 4pm on Sunday. Elena, who had been in the cinema with Vostrikov’s sister and three of their children ‒ a seven-year-old girl and boys ages five and two ‒ knew that her husband was away in a nearby town, so she initially called her mother-in-law when smoke first began pouring into the movie theater.

But miles away, Vostrikov knew differently. Elena told him on the phone that she was “suffocating,” and he instructed her to get down on the ground and breathe through a wet cloth.

“Why aren’t they coming to save us?” his daughter asked. Recalling the moment when he stopped hearing the voices of his children in the background, he now thinks that they may have already been dead, even as Elena stayed on the line.

“Igor, we are burning here, I love you,” she said. He continued talking into the phone for several minutes, but there was no reply.

By the time Vostrikov arrived in Kemerovo, the death toll was rising. His wife, sister, and three children are among the 64 who have been officially declared dead.

For a man to suddenly lose his wife, sister, and three young children in this way is a level of tragedy I can barely imagine. News reporters quickly picked up on his anger and grief, and his name began to spread around the internet. Most people felt desperately sorry for him.

However, at some point in the past few years, Vostrikov had posted remarks on social media which were supportive of Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Syria, and derogatory towards Ukraine. This enraged Ukrainians online who openly said they had no sympathy with someone who made such remarks, and losing his family in a fire was an act of karma. Now we’re getting stories like this:

I expect this already deeply unpleasant situation will now get even worse.

Among the rather disgusting remarks aimed at Vostrikov was one that had some merit, and that’s the regime which Russians praise for “recapturing” Crimea and putting those uppity Ukrainians in their place is the same one which presides over corruption and dysfunction such that deadly fires in shopping malls occur. It is unlikely you can have one without the other, they are two sides of the same coin. It’s a point I’ve made often in the past, that the characteristics of Putin’s regime that Russians cheer are the same characteristics which make their life harder on a daily basis. Very few see it that way, though.

But the main point of this post is to highlight what an absolute, utter, appalling tragedy this pointless conflict between Russia and Ukraine is. As I said before:

It is well known that civil wars are fought with more bitterness and brutality than those between different peoples, and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine looks to me far more like the former.

Without even trying I can name six people I knew in Sakhalin whose surname ended with the Ukrainian -enko. If I rummaged through my memory banks I could come up with another six. Ukraine and Russia were so intertwined in the Soviet era and before that people would move from one to the other interchangeably. The cultures were so similar that one could move to the other and nobody would know you were an outsider.  Nikita Khrushchev passed himself off as a Ukrainian for years, even though he was Russian. By contrast, Stalin and Beria remained stubbornly Georgian and Mikoyan Armenian. I would bet that if you were to ask a Russian whether they had a Ukrainian grandparent, relative, or a relative living in Ukraine most of them would say yes. Okay, maybe not most, but a lot. The cultural and physical border between the two was all but non-existent for years.

There is no easy dividing line between Ukrainians and Russians, and the origins of this conflict seem to concern how people want to be governed in future rather than by whom, and had little to do with ethnicity, language, culture, national security, or any other excuse that’s been wheeled out by the hardliners on each side since.

A few years ago no Ukrainian would have dreamed of saying a Russian deserved to lose his family in a fire, and no Russian would have gloated on the internet about Russian military victories over Ukraine. The whole thing is so pointless, and the wounds will take decades to heal, assuming they ever do. This artificial driving of a wedge between two peoples reminds me of the way many Scots now see England, despite there being little meaningful cultural differences between the two peoples that an outsider could coherently describe. I’d like to say the relations between Scotland and England are not as poisonous as those of Ukraine and Russia, but I’m afraid I can’t. Ten minutes on Twitter will tell you there are people north of the border quite capable of telling an Englishman his family deserved to die in a fire because of his place of birth or political beliefs.

It’s tragic. How the hell did it come to this?

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Воскрешение

This morning I woke up to news that:

Yulia Skripal, the daughter of ex-spy Sergei Skripal, is improving rapidly and no longer in a critical condition, says the hospital treating her.

The BBC understands from separate sources that Ms Skripal is conscious and talking.

However Mr Skripal remains in a critical but stable condition, Salisbury District Hospital said.

Doctors said Ms Skripal, “has responded well to treatment but continues to receive expert clinical care 24 hours a day”.

Which comes as a bit of a surprise. A couple of weeks back we were told that this was a “weapons grade” nerve agent (as opposed to the sort you hand around at parties) and multiple times more deadly than sarin. Since then we’ve had the policeman who was exposed walking out of hospital, and now one of the principle victims is sitting up in bed, probably complaining about NHS food.

On Wednesday, police said the Skripals first came into contact with the nerve agent at the former Russian spy’s home in Salisbury.

Forensic tests show the highest concentration was found on the front door.

From what I can tell, the nerve agent was smeared on the door handle of the Skripals’ home. As a way of exposing someone to it, this seems risky. What if it washed off in the rain? What if the target wore gloves? What if a visitor turned up, taking the bulk of the poison away with them, and you end up killing the wrong person? Now I don’t know anything about murdering people, let alone with nerve agents, but there’s no denying this job was botched. Neither of the intended victims is dead and one seems to be making a reasonable recovery.

The whole thing sounds rather amateurish to me, something you wouldn’t normally associate with FSB assassins. Now Russians do botch jobs: if you’d have hired a chap to fix the electrics in a flat in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in 2007 chances are he’d have shown up with a carrier bag containing some ancient tools, two of which were lump hammers (the second one is his screwdriver), and a couple of weeks later you’d open up the junction box to find a fork in place of the fuse. But when it comes to knocking off political opponents at the behest of the president, Russians tend to get the job done properly. So it’s all a bit strange.

In addition, as I’ve already made pretty clear on this blog, I haven’t yet heard a plausible theory as to why Putin would order this hit and this method would be used. Various theories might work if it were one or the other, but the two combined leave us mainly with complex conspiracies which claim to know the inner workings of Putin’s mind and portray him as some kind of villain from a Batman film.

Now here’s what worries me. The BBC said the police are interested in speaking to Yulia Skripal once she’s well enough to answer their questions. Well yeah, I bet they are. But are they more interested in hearing what she has to say or making sure whatever she says fits the narrative the government assembled long before she woke up? You can be sure that whatever she says, the public will be told nothing that will make the government or police look bad.

I don’t believe governments and police departments engage in complex conspiracies from scratch, starting with a blank piece of paper. But I do believe they would burn whole neighbourhoods to the ground to cover up their own incompetence, or maintain a narrative once they’ve set the ball rolling in a particular direction. We are now in the middle of a full-blown diplomatic crisis with Russia into which we’ve roped several other countries, and it is still escalating. Now we find one of the two key persons is able to talk for the first time, perhaps shedding vital new light on what happened. Let’s face it, nobody has the slightest idea what she might say. Could we not have waited a little bit?

I know there are people out there who think any delay in issuing accusations, threats, and ultimatums would have “played into Russia’s hands”, but they seem awfully blasé about this whole thing. Contrast this with when MH-17 got shot down and Putin was visibly shaken, until he realised that what passes for EU leadership was not about to jeopardise business opportunities in Russia just for the sake of a couple of hundred dead passengers, and Obama might have to make a decision. Then they launched an absolute whirlwhind of disinformation, knowing full well they were culpable. This time they seem content with straight-faced denials and heavy sarcasm. They’re acting like they know full well they had nothing to do with it and at some point Britain and its allies are going to have egg all over their faces.

Of course I might be wrong, but I believe I’m justified in thinking the British government would stop at absolutely nothing to ensure this doesn’t happen, the truth be damned. I hope Yulia Skripal has a decent lawyer present when she talks to the police, one that is representing her interests and not the government’s. Who is representing the public’s interest in all this is anyone’s guess.

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Snapchat Diplomacy

Staying on the subject of Russia, consider this:

This is a pretty major allegation, one that even two years ago would not have been made without strong supporting evidence. But nowadays, accusations that Russians are “interfering in democracy” can be thrown around like confetti without anyone having to produce the slightest shred of evidence. We’re all just supposed to believe our dear leaders, who would never lie about such things for their own ends.

Now of course Russia engages in mass disinformation, and they have done since at least 1917 and probably before that. But nothing I’ve seen comes even close to what they were up to during the Cold War, when they were deeply embedded in western academia and funding trade unions. The only reason this is an issue now is because Hillary lost in 2016. I don’t mind dealing with Russia in a robust fashion – and we should have after MH-17 and the annexation of Crimea – but not for this reason.

And “interfering in democracy”? If that was an offence which got diplomats expelled from a country, US embassies around the world would be staffed mainly by janitors on local contracts. The US actively supported Boris Yeltsin in elections, and boasted about it, for goodness sake.

I have no problem with Canada throwing out these diplomats in solidarity with Britain over the Skripal poisoning, but spare us the bandwagon-jumping bullshit justification tagged on the end. If these four were doing what Canada accuses them of in any meaningful sense, they should have been turfed out independently of what happened in the UK. I suppose one shouldn’t expect anything else from a government headed by Justin Trudeau, but this smacks of someone wanting to fit in rather than a serious policy decision. This whole business is not being handled well at all.

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Russia’s trolling is a response to western immaturity

This is actually quite funny:

The Russian Embassy in the United States has posted a poll on Twitter asking people to choose which US Consulate-General should be closed after the announcement of the closure of the Russian Consulate-General in Seattle amid the US decision to expel 60 diplomats from the country.

Here’s the actual poll:

This isn’t the first time a Russian embassy has engaged in a spot of trolling, indeed the Russian embassy in London seems to take a delight in it:

Naturally, this has had people huffing and puffing that this is not behaviour expected of a diplomatic mission and that it is all extraordinarily undignified, but I have a sneaky suspicion they might be missing the point.

The fact is, long before Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were subject to a nerve agent attack, many of Russia’s critics – including heads of government – lost any right to be taken seriously by the Russian government when they engaged in a lengthy and high-profile campaign of absolute bullshit in which they accused Russia of throwing the US election. Despite there being no evidence whatsoever of the Russian government “hacking” the DNC’s servers, nor of their trying to influence the US election in favour of Trump, nor of Trump “colluding” with Russia, swathes of the western ruling classes and the media repeated these allegations to an international audience – and continue to do so. Seeing an opportunity to explain away other setbacks both real and potential, politicians seized on the all-seeing and all-knowing Russian bogeyman and doubled-down on the bullshit, such that national newspapers now claim Russia was behind Leave winning the Brexit referendum.

None of this should have happened, and you can be damned sure were the Soviet Union still intact and the Cold War raging, you’d not have western politicians shooting their mouths off about Russia like this. Their diplomatic clout would not have been spent inventing stories to explain why their own voters rejected them at the polls, but would have been reserved for serious matters – such as a double-agent being poisoned on British soil.

I know Russians well enough to believe this crisis isn’t being taken lightly by the government or their respective embassies, but they’ve taken a sober decision that mockery is a reasonable course of action for those who have spent almost 18 months engaging in behaviour which is…well, extraordinarily undignified. Perhaps Russia’s embassies will tweet in a more mature manner once their counterparts have grown up themselves. Indeed, I expect they’ve been waiting for some adults to enter the room for quite some time. I said at the time of Skripal’s poisoning that western leaders cried wolf once too many times over Russia, and now they’re not being taken seriously. They only have themselves to blame.

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Another deadly fire in Russia

This is bad:

At least 53 people have died in a fire that tore through a shopping and entertainment complex in the Siberian coal-mining city of Kemerovo.

As many as 41 children may be among the victims, officials say, and more than 10 are listed as missing.

The blaze started on an upper floor of the Winter Cherry complex while many of the victims were at the cinema.

Video posted on social media showed people jumping from windows to escape the flames on Sunday.

“According to preliminary information, the roof collapsed in two cinemas,” Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement.

Deadly fires are too common in Russia, the most infamous in recent memory being the Perm nightclub fire in 2009 which killed 156 people. As was reported at the time:

Alexander Fridman, a local entertainment producer in Perm, says he has little doubt that corruption has to be factored into any explanation for the Lame Horse tragedy.

“Fire inspectors found violations of the regulations a year ago, yet they didn’t come back to check whether corrections were made. Why was that?,” he asks. “There were hundreds of people gathering at that club every night, yet they never closed it down. The basic lesson is that fire inspectors should not take bribes.”

Amid Russia’s decaying infrastructure and often jury-rigged new construction, the potential for such accidents abound because laws are not enforced, experts say.

“I see this danger everywhere I go, especially places like supermarkets,” says Vyacheslav Glazychev, a professor at Moscow’s official Institute of Architecture. “As long as we have this practice of paying bribes rather than making the needed improvements, nothing will change.”

I have experience in construction in Russia and dealing with the fire safety authorities, and I can confirm that the entire system is a vehicle for graft. There’s actually not a lot wrong with Russia’s fire safety laws, and the design of a new building must include adequate fire protection and safety measures to get approval. However, the fire inspectors have a nasty habit of finding “problems” – even if none exists – and to rectify the situation to their satisfaction you must pay a specific person or company. Once paid, they leave you alone in many cases. So instead of having a situation whereby the fire inspectors are satisfied only once they’ve seen a building is safe, we have one whereby they are satisfied merely by being paid. Note that the building’s owner might not always be at fault here: he has no choice but to pay, and might not be aware that he’s in breach of fire safety regulations (like most Russian laws, following them is not straightforward). It’s the inspectors’ job to identify any non-compliances, but if they’re only interested in shaking people down for bribes who knows what they might overlook?

As well as a multiplex cinema, the shopping centre, which opened in 2013, includes restaurants, a sauna, a bowling alley and a petting zoo.

This is a modern building, not some ramshackle old thing made from wood. There should have been adequate fire protection systems in place (e.g. fireproof cladding), as well as a sprinkler system which would slow the fire’s spread and give everyone enough time to get out. As with previous disasters, the authorities will investigate, widespread corruption and non-compliances with the fire code will be identified, some sap will be fingered and thrown in jail and anyone with money and connections will walk free. Even if the owner is jailed, as was the case after the Perm nightclub fire, you can be sure no senior government official will suffer anything greater than an awkward question or two.

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What Putin Is Not

So Vladimir Putin won the Russian presidential election again, which probably didn’t surprise many. The BBC reports the reaction from world leaders is muted, presumably in comparison to the felching that Macron received. This line amused me:

But European observers said that while the poll was conducted efficiently there was a lack of genuine choice.

There are quite a few in the US and UK who know exactly how they feel. Anyway, Putin’s campaign gave an opportunity to those who don’t know much about contemporary Russia to give us their thoughts. Now this tweet is pretty daft:

But the responses aren’t a whole lot better either:

Whatever one thinks of Putin, he is not a ruthless dictator presiding over a regime which tolerates no dissent whatsoever. For example, here’s an article in The Moscow Times, and English language paper, which says:

Women were dealt a heavy blow at the start of 2017 when President Vladimir Putin decriminalized domestic violence, downgrading it to an administrative offense. “We lost that fight,” says Kira Solovyova, one of the founders of the ONA (She) feminist association.

Some within the feminist community have called for a boycott of the elections while others argue that a female candidate is their best hope for improving conditions for women in Russia.

“We have to choose the least of all evils,” Timofeyeva says. Alena Popova, a gender equality advocate, stresses the need for unity. “We have to strategize, to use all the doors we have to promote equality,” she told The Moscow Times.

This is not exactly scathing criticism but it’s hardly praise either, and would not have been tolerated by Stalin, Saddam Hussein, or the Kims. There are also Russian language papers (I forget which ones) which are critical of Putin, and it’s worth mentioning that I wrote this blog from 2006 to 2010 while in Russia, and didn’t hold back from criticising Putin’s energy nationalism. I expect things have changed since then and the place has become more nationalistic and less tolerant of outside critics, but it’s still allowed. I follow at least one prominent freelance American journalist based in Moscow who often makes critical remarks about the government.

That’s not to say that Putin is a tolerant man – he isn’t – but he is not totalitarian as the commenters above suggest. If you are a threat to Putin or his circle, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky was, you will be crushed like a bug. If you’re a journalist exposing corruption and other malfeasance on the part of Russian government figures, you’re taking your life in your hands. If you are a politician who might lay a glove on Putin in a fair election – such as Boris Nemtsov or Alexei Navalny – you will wind up dead or in jail. But if you’re an ordinary Iosif and you express disapproval about Putin to another ordinary person – or even one who’s not – you’re not going to be arrested, tortured, jailed, and killed. Russia is a police state on some levels, but not in the context of suppressing political dissent among individual citizens.

Now obviously one has to be careful. You’d not want to be mouthing off about Putin if you held a government job, or were interacting with government officials or a bunch of young patriotic males. I am sure a certain candour is required if you want to succeed in a state-owned bank, for example. But this is hardly unique to Russia. How well do Republicans get on in American academia? How much tolerance would a British teacher be afforded if he confessed to voting Tory? Would anyone working for the US government agency on climate change have been able to openly criticise Obama?

So yes, going around Russia bad-mouthing Putin will likely land you in a spot of trouble, but it won’t be the police or FSB who take an interest. And with a bit of common sense and politeness, you’d find that criticising Putin is permitted in Russia. Unbeknown to western commentators, Russians are not a bunch of knuckle-dragging thugs who have swallowed Putin’s nationalistic tub-thumping wholesale (although they did like the snaffling of Crimea). They know what Putin is like, and probably wouldn’t mind a change, but the question is “who and what”? Streetwise Professor gets to the nub of the issue here:

The fundamental problem isn’t Putin’s specific personality. It is that his personality and behavior are well-adapted to Russian political culture and its society. The issue isn’t Putin per se. It is Russia, and it is a problem that long preceded Putin and which will long outlast him.

There are some people out there who think if it weren’t for Putin, Russia would be like Brooklyn. Russians, who have skin in the game, are a little less certain. Most Russians I know acknowledge that things could be better, but they also know things could be much worse. For the most part, educated Russians between 20 and 50 have opportunities their parents could only have dreamed of, as well as double glazing, reliable electricity, a car that functions, and foreign holidays. These same people remember the carnage of the post-Soviet era as well as the currency crisis in 1998. For the large part, Russians trust that Putin will not bring about a catastrophe of those proportions, and are justifiably concerned that whatever follows him might. They simply don’t think rolling the dice to improve things a bit is worth the risk of things getting an awful lot worse. I spoke to two highly-educated, westernised Russians on this very point recently, and both agreed that they’ve seen enough chaos in their lifetimes, thanks very much. It’s easy to preach revolution when you’ve never had to live through one yourself.

Like many long-serving authoritarians, Putin has done an excellent job of convincing Russians that he is a safe pair of hands and without him the country will fall into ruin. He has got away with it because, in part, it is true – and would be for any Russian leader. Russians don’t deal with change very well, particularly at the top of their government. That’s not to say I agree with what Putin is doing, and I have said several times that he should have departed in 2008 when his second term was up. But it is important to understand why he is still president after 18 years, and that any replacement might be worse or dead within a week. It’s not Putin that needs to change, it’s Russia. Hyperbolic comments from western journalists and policymakers isn’t going to make that any easier.

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If gates are left open, people will walk through them

This, from Brendan O’Neill, is worth a read:

[T]he political elites cannot come out and say ‘We no longer want Britain to be a democratic sovereign nation’. So they developed a pseudo-progressive language to describe and justify their weakening of British sovereignty. They claim to be post-borders. They argue that the nation state is over. They say any defence of the nation is nationalism, and nationalism is dangerous. They insist that in a globalised world it is futile to try to erect borders against flows of people or goods or capital, and so on. And they seem ignorant of the message that their anti-borders, anti-nation political myopia sends to both the British people and the world at large. It tells British people their views don’t really matter, certainly not as much as cleverer people in Brussels. And it tells the world that Britain is a pretty porous place, not really that keen on protecting its borders. That it is a post-country, effectively, beholden to external influence and flows rather than being assertively, democratically sovereign. Perhaps now we might think about the kind of message this self-denuding cult of post-nationhood sends to more confident nations like Russia.

Indeed, we should not be surprised that a nation whose political and intellectual elites continually say ‘We are post-nation and we are open to the flows and fluxes of the globe’ might also find itself more open to the opportunism of states that have scores to settle here. After all, we effectively said: ‘We have no borders.’

I have to say, having seen over the last few years acts of despicable violence carried out on British soil by people who were in every meaningful sense foreigners (and in some cases unequivocally so), I find the outrage over Russians running about killing people a little…inconsistent. If Putin were a little less pasty and a bit more Muslim, I doubt we’d be making such a fuss. I’d find all this tough talk over Russia a lot more convincing if we’d not been so pathetically weak in every other area of national security, protecting the public, and looking out for our long-term interests.

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