I realize all everyone wants to talk about right now is the presidential election in Russia, and although it has yet to be run as I start this post, it might well be over before I finish. But I am fairly easy in my mind that Vladimir Putin will win on the first ballot, and fairly sure that the Russian liberals will try to whip up massive protests on the grounds that his win was fraudulent although even the most virulent I-hate-Putin sources have said he will win on the first ballot even if there is no cheating at all. Who knows – maybe that’s a devilishly clever western trick, to lull Putin into a false sense of security, so that he won’t cheat and Zyuganov will win. Kidding.
No, I thought I would do something like the “Top Russia Blogs” sort of post, only this time I would showcase the most barking mad, snake-handling, rolling-in-the-dirt loopy, frothy Russia haters I know of. Among them, the vast majority are know-it-all foreigners who fancy themselves near-psychic academics who can predict the future of Russian politics and affairs, and who are never called to account when they are wrong. Only two are Russians living in Russia; Julia Ioffe does not count as such, since she left Russia as a small child and grew up in the United States. Anyway, let’s get to know my rogue’s gallery of Russophobes, and I’ll try to tell you a little bit about them – maybe you’ll think of some I forgot or missed, or will disagree that some of those listed are actually Russophobes. In no particular order, here they are.
American Kathy Lally and her husband, Will Englund, came to Moscow in the early 90’s as journalists for The Baltimore Sun. Kathy Lally is the Deputy Business Editor at the Washington Post. She and her family lived in Moscow throughout most of the 90’s, and I can only guess it was not a good experience. Back when she and her husband worked for The Baltimore Sun, the expectation when Yeltsin resigned was that Vladimir Putin would “carry on economic reforms already under way”. When it became clear Mr. Putin did not intend to carry on “economic reforms” that were resulting in a handful of Russians controlling the nation’s wealth at fire-sale prices, any probationary slack he had been granted melted away. Putin was described as the initiator of “shrill and aggressive” anti-Americanism, and Lally and others like her took up the cause of the opposition, playing up alliances between Russian liberals and the United States and encouraging – if you can imagine it – the Communists. An article covering the protest at the Garden Ring suggested that although the police estimated the crowd at 11,000, she pegged it at twice that number and that those in cars who “honked their horns in solidarity” should be included in the total.
The ersatz-intellectual blatherings and stubborn outright falsehoods of British nutjob Edward Lucas make you think of Clarence Darrow’s pungent witticism; “I have never killed a man, but I have read many an obituary with great pleasure“. The very model of the smug idiot who is so smugly certain of his own unassailable rightness in everything that no reason can penetrate the Shroud Of Durak, Lucas regularly embarks upon the most vitriolic stupidities imaginable where Russia is concerned. Author – as if he would let you forget – of “The New Cold War“, Mr. Lucas seems sometimes to be the sole occupant of a parallel universe, evident in silly ramblings that cast Mikhail Saakashvili as “radiating responsibility“, upping the total of protesters in the Garden Ring protests to 20,000 with no evidence whatsoever and the by-now-familiar assessment of Mr. Putin’s support among decided voters as “40%” when it is in fact better than 60%, which he will augment with “a bit of rigging” setting the stage for de-legitimizing the vote amid screams of massive fraud. At the same time, he ridicules the threat against Russia – as described by Mr. Putin – as “imaginary”. (As predicted, at this point in the post the vote count revealed that Mr. Putin would win easily and maybe with more than 60% of the vote: congratulations, Mr. Putin.) Mr. Lucas regularly and wearyingly propagates tired and discredited tropes about Russia’s population, such as that there is a punishing “brain drain” of the smartest intellectuals from Russia to the benevolent manna-strewn shores of the west, and that the overall population is in an irretrievable nosedive. Suspiciously, often-cited “intellectuals” like economists Vladimir Mau, Vladislav Inozemtsev and Yevsey Gurvich, Stanislav Belkovsky, Yulia Latynina and Masha Gessen remain in Russia. I guess they are just part of the massed hopeless dullard halfwits who didn’t get out while the getting is good. Either that, or Russia is churning out brilliant intellectuals faster than they can leave. You can’t have it both ways, Ed.
Founder and Director of the National Strategy Institute – whose sole purpose seems to be churning out rubbish about the Russian economy and making up official-sounding figures that cannot be defended when it is pressed for substantiation – Stanislav Belkovsky is a real piece of work. Best known for his fantastic stories about the usurious wealth allegedly accumulated by Vladimir Putin – who is supposed to personally control 37% of Surgutneftegaz, 4.5% of GAZPROM and “at least 75% of Gunvor” – and who is supposed to be sitting on a fortune (at least $40 Billion) that would make him easily Europe’s richest man, Belkovsky confides, “I suspect there are some businesses I know nothing about…it may be more. It may be much more.”
Speaking of things you know nothing about, Stas, I’ve just been through the Forbes List of Billionaires: all 1,153+ of them – plus because many of them are ties. I found a lot of Russians, most of whom I’d never heard of and including one with the improbable first name of “God”. And you know something? On this list – maintained, tracked and scrupulously updated since 1987 by financial professionals who make it their business to know the business of every fantastically rich person on the planet – the name “Vladimir Putin” does not appear anywhere. Does it seem conceivable to you that Stanislav Belkovsky and nobody else, since all the papers who “reveal” Putin’s supposed wealth are only quoting your original figures, stumbled upon what turns out to be the world’s fifth-richest man (after Carlos Slim, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Bernard Arnault) while the fiscal professionals missed him over and over again? Is it conceivable that Gunvor could have a secret majority shareholder who controlled 75% of its stock, and nobody in the company knew who he was? Particularly viewed in light of the incredible clangers dropped by you in the past, such as in 2007 when you were sure Putin would step down and leave power completely, in order to protect his secret personal fortune (which has managed to remain secret for an additional 5 years now in spite of your blabbing it to the world). Also, according to this piece, Putin somehow managed to surreptitiously increase his stake in Gunvor from 50% to 75% in the month between your talking to the Jamestown Foundation and talking to serial liar Luke Harding. Quite a businessman: where does he find the time? And that’s without even getting into the ridiculous allegation by the organization of which you are director that “44% of the Russian economy is off the books”. So while FDI in Russia is drying up and the brightest Russians are fleeing the country in droves, the Putin/Medvedev administration still manages a steadily-increasing GDP that is actually nearly half again what the state says it is, is that your position? Sure you want to stick with that? How many fingers am I holding up?
Russia correspondent for U.S. News & World Report – as well as sometime writer for a variety of sources including Slate, Vanity Fair and the New York Times – Masha Gessen holds dual citizenship, and mostly uses her Russian citizenship to tirelessly demean and abuse the country of her birth and present residence. While a little less ambitious than Crazy McCrazerton Stas Belkovsky, Gessen also contends that Putin is fabulously wealthy, this time owing to funds embezzled while deputy mayor of St. Petersburg under Anatoly Sobchak – as lovingly chronicled by the aforementioned High Priest of Prevaricators, Luke Harding, in a gushing review of Gessen’s Putin biography, The Man Without a Face. Gessen is of the opinion that a violent revolution would free the Russian people of their torment by the evil, grasping Putin and pave the way for that all-healing palliative, western-style democracy. Although she never comes out and says it in so many words, she appears to agree with train-wreck nutcase Yulia Latynina that poor people are too susceptible to cheap promises to better their lives for them to be entrusted with The Vote, and that only the elite have the dispassionate distance necessary to make important decisions on the nation’s future.
Curiously, she also engages in an energetic defense of media oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, her former employer. She concludes, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the only man who could have crushed Gusinsky’s media empire was Vladimir Putin, and that he had MediaMost destroyed because it was critical of his government. But this report suggests otherwise; while it is generally in agreement that the Putin administration intensely disliked Gusinsky and MediaMost for their aggressive promotion of Yuri Luzhkov over Putin in the Presidential elections, and an American Embassy official at the time was quoted as saying “Gusinsky bet wrong”, it also points out that Gusinsky used MediaMost to suppress criticism of his other holdings, that he had no business plan, and points out that the financial obligations that formed the basis of the charges against MediaMost would likely have been forgiven if Luzhkov had won. Would that have made Gusinsky right? In fact, the report is clear that MediaMost’s debts – the greatest part of which by far accrued to NTV – were approximately $1.3 Billion in the summer of 2000. Gessen implies Putin made them up, in order to attack MediaMost and wrest control of it from Gusinsky, although the report is also clear that NTV’s financial outlook was “grim” and that without financial intervention it would not be able to meet its debt deadlines. Similarly, Gessen skips over Gusinsky’s arrests, saying that Spain conducted the only extradition hearing, and that a Spanish court concluded the Russian charges were “without substance”. That’s not quite how it happened; Gusinsky was actually arrested in December 2000, and was held under strict house arrest for 4 months before the Spanish court released him because the crimes he was accused of (fraud and embezzlement) “were not considered crimes in Spain“. Good to know; it explains a lot about Spain’s present economic state. In any case, that’s far from the Spanish court immediately ruling the charges were without substance. He was also arrested on the same warrant in Greece in 2003, but was released – reportedly under intense pressure from the American Ambassador in Athens, Israeli officials and the European Jewish Congress.
An unpredictable fusion of shit and high pressure, Britain’s The Guardian windbag Luke Harding is actually more full of shit than his total surface displacement. His sophomoric sense of humour and self-impression as centre of the universe, coupled with his propensity for insulting and patronizing everyone with whom he comes in contact – perhaps in the mistaken belief that the famous British appetite for self-deprecation extends to a broad international welcome for being the object of gratuitous flagellation – shortens his welcome to seconds everywhere he goes. He wasn’t always the Russian correspondent; he did a stint as a correspondent in Germany. However, insistence on his right to feed his infants on potato chips and squire them about outside without warm clothes led to a conflict with elderly Germans, leading him to twin epiphanies that Germany is run by bitchy old folks, and that living somewhere else would be better. Since Luke Harding believes in a world ruled by People Who Think Like Luke Harding, he felt that the existence in Germany of a powerful political bloc of pensioners “impeded reform”.
However, when he got to Russia Harding was overcome by a previously untapped love for pensioners – particularly when he singled them out as the group who had not benefited from Russia’s oil and gas fortunes and consequently could be used in a typically hysterical attack on the government. Russia went ahead with a 6.3% pension increase in 2010 despite warnings that the country could not afford it, from the Finance Minister, and pensions in Russia increased steadily under Putin.
Notorious for his sloppy research and laziness, which on occasion led to representing others’ work as his own original work, the best thing that ever happened to Harding was Russia’s refusal to allow him to enter the country last year, which he promptly spun into a web of intrigue featuring himself as fearless journalist who had to be muzzled because of his Fearless Laptop Of Truth. His breathless account of having his apartment tossed by the FSB while he and his family were out (he immediately picked up on their coded signal to ixnay the criticism of Russia, or his children would pay the price, by his observation that his son’s tenth-floor bedroom window was left open) and his foolproof technique for spotting covert FSB agents (spoiler alert – they wear leather jackets) make for some racy reading; no horse’s head left in the bed for these guys, they’re subtle. Deflects all criticism of his maudlin Guardian opinion-as-fact pieces by speculating that critics are “Kremlin trolls” who must of course be paid to disagree with his work because it threatens to split the Kremlin’s very foundations asunder. Author of – surprise – a book (Mafia State) which leaves no stone unturned in its efforts to portray Russia as a festering swamp of crime and corruption from which no ruble emerges unstolen.
In fact, of our Russophobes thus far, Kathy Lally is the only one not cruising on a book written blasting Vladimir Putin and his supposed klepto-government’s ruthless squeezing for the last drop of blood from his poor, benighted people. You know, the ones who just re-elected him president with 64% of the vote.
And I’m afraid we’re going to have to leave it there for the moment; I’ve decided to break this post up into a miniseries, because I kind of got into it, and we’re already at 2,271 words. Ideally, it shouldn’t be much longer than that, but we still have Julia Ioffe, Yulia Latynina, Simon Shuster, Fred Weir, Miriam Elder and Nicholas Eberstadt to go. As always, your participation and suggestions are encouraged.