from Russia with bias

Is Patriotism Better Than Nationalism?

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I keep seeing various people, including those who I respect, using the word ‘patriotism’ as a positive alternative to nationalism. I must admit that, like many people who went to school in the USSR, I find the word “patriot” disturbing, because of it being a larger-than-life marker of both moral and material corruption. Falsely ascribed to Saltykov-Shchedrin, but nevertheless a widely popular line immediately comes to mind: “If you hear someone shouting about patriotism, be sure that something has been stolen somewhere”.

But besides emotions, there is also a rationale behind my aversion to most, if not all things “patriotic”. It’s the word patria or fatherland itself that’s problematic. It derives from the cult of common ancestors, which cemented prehistoric tribal cultures. But tribalism, built around a patriarchal figure who rewards relatives for their loyalty to the tribe and rallies them against hostile strangers, is something modern societies have been struggling to overcome over centuries, while trying to build a more efficient, impersonal and meritocratic state.

In his two-volume treatise on political order and decay, Francis Fukuyama shows how people’s natural tendency to reward relatives by giving them higher status and access to resources at the expense of better-performing non-relatives led to the decay of powerful political regimes over centuries. Nationalism, which one may call patriotism so it sounds more seemly, is a path to corruption because it rewards ethnic kinship at the expense of decency and talent. In Eastern Europe, it is simply a front for post-Communist mafia state.

For someone like me, who came of age in the late 1980s, the word solidarity suits much better as an alternative to nationalism as it transcends national borders linking with the old Polish slogan: “For our and your freedom!”. When instead of dividing nations, the frontline in the global war of values cuts right through them – in the US, Britain, Russia and everywhere in Eastern Europe – it is international solidarity of people who cherish freedom, openness and diversity that matters, while “patriotism” is something that belongs to the other side of the barricade.

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January 17, 2019 at 3:48 pm

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One of my great-grandfathers, who was a revolutionary soldier in Petrograd in the autumn of 1917, doesn’t mention what became known as October revolution at all in his memoirs written 50 years later on request of the Pskov history museum. He refers to the “storming of Winter Palace” only once, in the context of punishing soldiers who had looted the palace’s wine cellars. That’s pretty much how it felt for most contemporaries – not the “ten days that shook the world”, as lionised by American journalist John Reed, but merely an episode in the ensuing collapse of the empire.

The Provisional Government, toppled by Lenin and Trotsky in the October coup d’etat, was supposed to hand over its power to the elected Constituent Assembly. The elections began, despite Bolshevik takeover of government buildings in Petrograd, on November 12 (old style) and dragged on for another two months due to logistical difficulties. When polls closed, the Bolsheviks were soundly defeated by the moderate peasants’ Socialist Revolutionary Party. Together with its Ukrainian outfit, the SR gained 48.1% of the vote against 24% received by the Bolsheviks.

The Constituent Assembly convened on January 5, 1918 (old style) at Petrograd’s Tavrichesky palace, surrounded on Lenin’s orders by pro-Bolshevik Latvian riflemen and Lithuanian guardsmen regiments. After a heated session that dragged on into the early morning, the Bolsheviks proclaimed the assembly dissolved and – in a truly Orwellian move – denounced legitimate representatives of country’s citizens as “enemies of the people”.

Of course in reality it were the Bolsheviks who pitted them against the majority of Russians and specifically their largest group, the peasants (who overwhelmingly voted for the SR). It is only through unthinkable terror and with the crucial help of non-indigenous fighters that they managed to suppress the resistance – the greatest resistance any nation ever offered to Communism – during the subsequent civil war and multiple peasant uprisings thereafter.

In modern terms, the force that took over Russia by the end of the civil war in 1921 was an international terrorist network that had strong resemblance to the present days ISIS. It was a fanatical religious movement (even though it officially denied religion) with its own pantheon of gods and heroes, holy books, stone idols and even a sacred mummy that still occupies a granite temple in the Red Square designed by architect who in his young years fancied himself as an adept of ancient Egyptian religion. As in any theocracy (say, today’s Iran), it had the ideologues, the high priests of Marxism, on top of the hierarchy and political, economic and military administrators below them.

It was an expansionist movement that strove to spread its Communist caliphate all around the world. But by no means it was an empire in the old sense of the word, because the brunt of its genocidal policies fell on the presumed imperial masters – ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. As in the case of ISIS, outsiders from the periphery of the old Russian empire and the rest of the world (Latvian riflemen, Hungarian POWs, Chinese leftists) played a critical role in suppressing indigenous population in core areas of what is now known as Russian Federation.

But – as in the case of ISIS – its greatest appeal for destitute people robbed of their meagre possessions and dignity by suicidally selfish imperialist elites in the three years years of World War I was its egalitarianism, its denial of old class hierarchy and ethnoreligious tribalism, which people rightly regarded as the cause of their misfortune. They saw the beauty in the fact that a Russian worker (like my grandfather), a Jewish intellectual (like the man who converted him into Bolshevism – Lev Trotsky), or a Latvian officer (like his Red Army commander Janis Fabricius) could stand together and create a new of community of people based on equality and justice.

My other great grandfathers – a Polish church choir conductor; a Russian doctor who, with his Latvian wife, clung to a German-speaking religious community; a Russian railway worker who fled Bolshevik-inflicted artificial famine in Ryazan region – hardly shared his idealism. In his memoirs, he admits to his own naiveté. He chose the Bolshevik side after listening to a single speech by Trotsky (a brilliant orator), which was followed by a presentation delivered by the inarticulate future chairman of the Constituent Assembly, Mikhail Chernov of SR party.

But when I read about his adventures as a peasant boy desperate to get any job at all paid by food rather than money from the age of ten, a young worker in St Petersburg who did 12-hour shifts for meagre payment and risked his life every time unions went on strike with demands to improve conditions, a soldier in a senselessly brutal war under the command of sadistic officers who enjoyed beating and humiliating their subordinates – I begin to wonder, which side I’d choose in his place, despite my deeply entrenched anti-Communism.

It was the elites’ total disregard for human life and dignity that that had pushed people across their pain barrier, whereby the bloodiest of catastrophes began to look better than their current existence. It no longer mattered for millions whether they live or die – they were essentially driven to suicide.

In the decades that followed, the Soviet caliphate predictably began acquiring features of a normal nation state, built around the artficial (though not entirely unsuccessful) concept of multiethnic Soviet nation, which still has its adepts in places like Belarus or East Ukraine. In 1991, the utopian state finally broke up into a bunch of ethnocracies, most of which saw a quick degradation from backward clientelist democracies into authoritarian oligarchies with patronage, venal offices and other features of not even pre-1917 Russia, but the Russian empire prior to progressive court and local government reforms conducted by tsar Alexander II in the middle of the 19th century. Ukraine remained the last redoubt of multicultural modernity in the ex-USSR until the Russian aggression pushed it towards ethnocratic archaism thinly disguised with pro-Western rhetoric.

Apart from the huge trauma that defines political culture in the region (particularly in Russia – with its rogue teenager political behaviour) the events of 1917 are only relevant today in the sense how modern politicians and ideologues exploit them to mobilise their support base.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin touts stability as the main achievement of his political era and therefore pictures himself as a counter-revolutionary and anti-Bolshevik, while dubbing his political opponents from the liberal camp as neo-Bolsheviks keen on unleashing another revolution. But he has to be be very careful with that rhetoric given that his ageing, less educated and low-income support base feels nostalgic for the Soviet past.

So his denouncement of Bolshevism is limited to the revolution itself and partly to Stalin’s terror, which he half-heartedly condemns. He is considerably more positive about Soviet nation-building effort, which was centred around World War II victory cult forged by Brezhnev-era ideologues. He has revived and upgraded that cult, having married it with some American import – Christian fundamentalism, aggressively manipulative infotainment and even biker gang culture. In this paradigm, Lenin emerges as an unquestionable villain, while Stalin is a controversial figure who – yes – killed many people, but led the country to win the World War II.

In other East European nation states, the ruling (outwardly or discretely) nationalist coalitions continuously refer to the Bolshevik legacy with the aim of enhancing the cult of national victimhood, which remains a central feature of nation-building mythology across the region. That involves whitewashing own history (so that all heroes were indigenous and all villains were foreign), flatly denying their ancestors’ contribution to both totalitarian regimes and blaming own failures on large neighbours, primarily Russia.

This took grotesque forms during and after the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, when far-right groups like Svoboda and Patriot of Ukraine led the nationwide effort to destroy Communist idols, even though Communism ended peacefully more than two decades earlier and Yanukovych regime was anything but Communist. On the contrary, with its deeply rooted patronage and corruption, it displayed key features of oligarchic right-wing regimes that spurred violent left-wing uprisings in various parts of the world throughout the 20th century.

In the West, the reference to Bolsheviks is often used by right-wing commentators in relation to Putin’s regime, even though anyone who has lived through both Putin’s and Soviet years can testify that the two hardly compare in any aspect of life, except their repressive nature. But the comparison allows right-wingers to paint Russia as an alien non-Western power, while ignoring the capitalist nature of Putin’s regime, which is strikingly more similar to corrupt dictatorships the US supported in South America during the Cold War than to Soviet totalitarianism, where corruption was neither a driving force for nor even a major feature. It also helps to create an illusion that Russian nationalism (and associated irredentism) is of radically different nature than its equivalents in other East European countries.

In the most bizarre recent example, Anne Applebaum (whom I highly respect) went as far as suggesting that far-right movements currently supported by the Kremlin in Europe in fact stem from Bolshevism. The reality of course is that the likes of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban or the “ayatollah” of Poland’s ruling conservatives, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, all hail from the right-wing camp of the anti-Communist movement. The fact that they emulate Putin’s policies (and, in Organ’s case seek rapprochement with the Kremlin) is only natural since Putin’s regime is also a product of neocon-influenced oligarchs and spin doctors, centred around Boris Berezovsky, who sought to forge a Russian version of Pinochet in the late 1990s.

To be fair, I’ve myself used the word Bolshevik in the reference to Trump’s majoritarianism in this blog – simply because this is what Bolshevism literally means in Russian language.

All in all, there is little in the events of 1917 that directly applies to 21st century politics. But there is an often overlooked legacy of Soviet revolution in the form of successful European social democracies that wouldn’t simply develop, if not for the threat posed by the Soviet Communists and the influence they had on workers’ movement in various countries, especially France and Italy. Had the Russian imperial government and moderate socialists been more prone to negotiations and compromise, they could have achieved a similar result leaving both left- and right-wing radicals in the graveyard of history.

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November 12, 2017 at 10:05 pm

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I was lucky enough to attend Timothy Snyder’s lecture in Riga last night. A major political thinker of our times, he was introduced by former Latvian presidents, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, with the current president Raimonds Vējonis present in the audience. Guess this is as much honour as one can get in this country.

Like a rock star, Snyder was touring European capitals, with his lectures held in major venues, such as Riga’s Art Nouveau gem, the Splendid Palace cinema.

This I think is a perfect illustration of the globalisation of political thought which goes hand in hand with the globalisation of political technology. The ideas of political thinkers like Snyder apply equally well to political environments and resonate with intellectual elites in very different countries, from the US and Britain, to Latvia, Ukraine or indeed Russia..

In the same way,  politicians – especially of the populist streak – float the same kind of ideas and use the same type of messaging to rally their constituencies all across Europe and North America. That’s why political messages originating at a St Petersburg troll farm find fertile soil in the US – same messages and same circulation technology have long been used by the troll herders in political battles inside Russia as well as within the context of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

At one point during his lecture, Snyder did what I’ve heard various radio and TV commentators do many times before him – he nearly said Putin when he was meaning to say Trump. I think this Freudian slip, which I am also prone to, derives from the fact that despite their outward differences, the two leaders represent the same set of ideas and the same cynical attitude to people and institutions of the state.

The political theory Snyder outlined in his lecture revolves around the notions of the “politics of inevitability” and the “politics of eternity”. In the European context, the former represents the liberals’ tendency to believe that progress is unstoppable and that the Western realm of freedom and prosperity will be expanding effortlessly because there is no alternative. The latter represents nation-builders’ myth about their respected “wise nations” being around since the times immemorial, even though most of them emerged like five minutes ago within their current borders and with their current ethnic composition.

One may use different terminology to describe the same phenomena, but as a journalist and avid traveller I can’t help but notice the existence of two information and social bubbles that stem from these two sets of political beliefs in pretty much every country that I visit. I find the Moscow liberal bubble strikingly similar to the liberal bubbles in Latvia, London, New York or Snyder’s native state of Ohio, which I travelled through the week before the 2016 election. In the same way, the Putin- or Trump supporter bubbles are strikingly similar not even in the political, but in the cultural and behavioural sense – how they consume and treat news, how they communicate with the outside world and journalists in particularly, how they approach history and ethnic issues.

I’ve always found it alarming that I habitually slip into my original “inevitability” (or simply liberal) bubble no matter where I am – Russia, Ukraine, Latvia or the state of Ohio. So I strive to make a special effort and overcome a pretty serious psychological barrier to reach other to people on the other side. I think it’s a very good exercise that allows me to assess the strength of my own convictions and identify gaps in my defences.

Snyder is good because he offers criticism of both bubbles and perhaps a hint at where a way out of this vicious circle might be found.

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October 17, 2017 at 11:52 am

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“Think about something cheerful”, – the translator tells the girl.

“About what?”, – she asks, her eyes full of tears.

Under the Sun by Vitaly Mansky – what a beautiful and heartbreakingly sad documentary film about North Korea. It’s totally because of his own experience of living under a totalitarian regime, that the director has managed to depict North Korea as a place of horrific tragedy that has struck people like us, not a human zoo populated by exotic alien species that wear funny costumes and behave like madmen.

The film shows victims of an acute Stockholm syndrome, many of them beautiful and seemingly intelligent people, forced to partake in maddening rituals, collaborate in producing mind-boggling visual fakes and conceal their inherent humanness from dehumanizing institutions.

It is also a film about religion. People hailing from the ex-Soviet bloc seldom realise that they were brought up in a deeply religious environment, even though it was a 20th century charismatic cult, not a “traditional” millennium-old religion.

That’s why after the collapse of their Communist church they were easy prey for Christian and Islamic fundamentalists.

That’s why many find solace in nationalism – another 20th century cult that venerates a mythical past and promotes archaic practices in politics and everyday life.

That’s why East European liberals, like myself, better connect with ex-evangelicals and Jesuit school dropouts that with traditional Western left, which – it often seems – could do way more to develop the faculty of critical thinking.

That’s why we see the psychological traits of Communist officials, KGB handlers and their secret agents in loud-mouthed info-warriors, self-proclaimed defenders of Western values and right-wing bigots.

The film is now available on Netflix.

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October 10, 2017 at 10:47 am

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I’ve recently spent five weeks in Ukraine, doing a travel guide rather than gathering for a political story, so I didn’t interview anyone and mostly avoided talking politics. But I had a few interesting encounters, which I wanted to share.

The first one actually happened in Riga, just before I went down to Ukraine.

Anatoly drives large tourist buses, and I happened to spend a couple of days travelling with him around Latvia. He speaks Russian with a thick Baltic accent, so I was slightly surprised when he introduced himself – his name sounded too Russian. But then I recalled Anatolijs Gorbunovs, the first leader of newly independent Latvia, and also the fact that my own name has a perfectly Latvian form – Leonīds, which allows me to celebrate my Latvian vārda diena (name day) a week before my actual birthday.

We had some beers one evening and Anatoly told me that he sometimes drives buses across the Russian border, so I asked how he goes about the visas.

“I don’t need one”, he replied. “I am a non-citizen”.

Wow, I thought. I had been assuming he was from Latgale, an eastern region where cultural landscape is shaped by Polish and Russian cultural influences. But the “non-citizen” status meant he had no historic connection to Latvia at all.

He turned out be Ukrainian, from Sumy region in the north. Ukrainian was his native language and he didn’t study Russian at all until fifth grade at school. He remembers when he first met a Russian-speaker. It was an engineer sent to his village from Moscow, when Anatoly was eight or nine.

“I remember my surprise – I could understand most things he said, but it was another language and it sounded so funny”, he recalls.

Anatoly came to Riga in 1978 as a migrant worker and soon married a Latvian woman. He speaks Latvian to his wife and two children, but at work the main language is Russian and he helps his Russian-speaking boss and other drivers with anything that involves Latvian language, when necessary. “When inspectors, especially those from the language police, pay a visit, the boss lets me do all the talking”, Anatoly says.

Anatoly voted for independent Latvia in the March 1991 poll and participated in Latvian People’s Front’s rallies. But from the standpoint of the newly independent Latvian state he was a Soviet occupier and an agent of Russian cultural influence, so as many people like him – he was denied citizenship and received the grey-coloured non-citizen’s passport.

He felt humiliated, so he decided no to go through the naturalisation process, which basically requires passing a basic Latvian language test – something he would have had no problems with. When dust settled, it turned out that his status denies him only one right – to vote. But he doesn’t want to vote in Latvia since that last faithful vote he gave for the country’s independence. “My wife is a citizen by the right of birth, but she doesn’t vote either – these politicians are all the same for her”, he says. Their children are building white collar careers in Western Europe.

I didn’t ask him about Ukraine, but at some point he burst into a tirade that included the vocabulary of the Russian propaganda – banderovite fascists, drunken Poroshenko (picturing Ukrainian president as Yeltsin number 2), American puppets turning Ukraine into battlefield with Russia. I asked him, if stays in touch with anyone in his village. He said yes. He heard that some of his nephews had been called up to the frontline, but he claimed that everyone over there was just as unhappy with the new government in Kiev as he was. To me, it felt like he did’t know much about realities on the ground in Ukraine.


Andrey (name changed) is a night-time guard at a hotel in Myrhorod, the town known under its Russified moniker Mirgorod to those who have read Nikolay Gogol. He was the only person in the lobby, when I sat down to do some work and he had a very friendly face, so I asked him how things were in Myrhorod.

He said life was difficult because of the war and post-revolutionary reforms. But, he said: “Slowly, step by step we are getting closer to Europe. Maybe my daughter will see Ukraine become as good as Poland or Czechoslovakia”. He said Czechoslovakia, which I guess is forgivable for a man in his 50s, who lives in a small town.

Aleksandr is from Novgorod in Western Russia. He came to Ukraine in the USSR’s final years because he fell in love – “with a woman, with the land, with food, with every sunflower around here”. Being in the Soviet military, he got himself transferred to the Mirhorod air base and, when Ukraine became independent, he joined the new Ukrainian army without much hesitation.

He says that although the air force was badly underfunded, it was fun to be a part of it. As a technician preparing aircraft for flights, he travelled to various international air shows, even to America. His travel experiences re-enforced his conviction that post-Soviet countries, both Ukraine and Russia, should move towards adopting the Western approach to both politics and economy.

Back in Ukraine, however, he was increasingly upset about deteriorating safety standards in the air force – no one bothered to repair old Soviet planes, which were getting increasingly dangerous for pilots. He kept writing complaints and warnings about imminent tragedies to all of his commanders, including defence minister. Finally out of sheer desperation, he wrote to a plant in the Russian Far East, which produced those planes and was theoretically responsible for servicing them. The Russian response, addressed to high-level Ukrainian military, said that the planes were absolutely unfit for flying and needed an urgent repair. That finally prompted the government to take action, but Andrey had to resign because his immediate commanders thought he was too troublesome.

That happened not long before the start the war in Donbas. Myrhorod-based aircraft were deployed there at the initial stage, but then the sides agreed to not use the aviation at all. Andrey said he wouldn’t hesitate to fight against the Russians, because his country was Ukraine and he made an oath to it.

A year ago, he travelled to Novgorod for a school reunion. His classmates booked a hotel on the lake Ilmen and they partied there for three days. “We never spoke about politics. If anyone tried to mention Ukraine in my presence, girls would start shouting and the person would shut up”.


On an intercity bus between Dnipro (former Dnipropetrovsk) and Zaporizhya, the Ukrainian outfit of the Moscow-based Russkoye Radio blared cheese Russian pop. The driver and the woman, who sold and checked tickets, had to talk in loud voices so they could hear each other.

Ticket woman’s elder son was a contract soldier in the Russian army, in a unit based in Samara. He went there before the war. Now she wanted to find a way for her younger son to dodge the Ukrainian army service and get enrolled in the Russian army instead.

She extolled the benefits of being a Russian military – the flat her son was given in Samara, the kindergarten his children go to, how clean and tidy his area of town is, how they helped him to obtain Russian citizenship.

Now that everything was so complicated between Ukraine and Russia, she wasn’t sure how to proceed. The driver, evidently a former military, asked competent-sounding questions about life in the Russian barracks. At one point in conversation, he offered to contact his pals in the Russian military, because perhaps they could be of some help.

I found this conversation extremely surreal, given that both Dnipro and Zaporizhya are only 300km from the frontline Donetsk. In Dnipro, I had just seen a memorial to the paratroopers who died defending Ukraine in this ongoing war with Russia. I had also visited the newly created Museum of ATO – an open-air display of bullet-ridden and burned-down military hardware from Donbas.

I kept wondering when someone on the bus would start yelling at them. But people sat silently – looking into their gadgets or dozing off. It felt like I was the only one who actually cared.


Ivan, an ethnic Moldovan/Romanian who runs a smallish tourist business in southern Bessarabia (Odessa region), asked me to explain what I thought about the war between Ukraine and Russia. I didn’t want to engage in this conversation for too long, but he kept asking very specific questions about Putin, the Russian involvement, Maidan, Poroshenko’s government, Crimea and so on. So I had to present my views, which are basically sympathetic of Ukraine and its revolution, but sceptical about its future, and unsympathetic about Russia as is now, but hopefully realistic about its intentions and internal constraints.

He listened attentively, but never gave away his own views. When we parted, he suddenly gave me a book and said that I would understand a lot by reading it. Titled “Lost Legions Enter the Battle”, the book was written by a self-styled historian from the town of Kiliya, on the border with Romania. An old man interested in archaeological excavations in the area that used to be settled by ancient Greeks and Romans, he developed a theory, according to which ancient Slavs preceded and nurtured all other world civilisations with their talent and wisdom. The book was interspersed with his World War II memoirs, which sounded way more interesting than his civilisational concepts, but they were somehow meant to prove his theory.

His ideas echoed those that I found – to my huge amazement – in the books I read while working at the now defunct cafe Kult Ra in Kiev. Run by (tongue-in-cheek) nationalists, it contained a whole library of weird right-wing literature, as well as portraits of Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera. One book described the story of proto-Ukranians from Tripillia culture who spoke pure Ukrainian language before the advent of any other known civilisation and spread their culture in the Middle East, building Babylon and Egyptian pyramids. Those books in Kiev were obviously a fine example of blood and soil nationalism. The one from Bessarabia was more ecumenical and didn’t give a preference to either Ukrainians or Russians, but rather regarded them as one nation. Which politically, I guess, puts them into the pro-Kremlin box, though I don’t think it was the author’s intention.

I was wondering what Ivan, with his Romanian roots, finds in these Slavic-themed fantasies. But it was too late to ask.


Viktor had an accent, which sounded Caucasian to me, but he turned out to be West Ukrainian from Ternopil region. He had only just come back to Ukraine from Moscow, where he had lived for 15 years. “Oh we he had a perfect life there and we were making so much money! But not any more”, he sighed.

His Moscow career started at Vorobyevy Gory observation square (best view of the city), where he ran a stall selling matryoshka dolls to foreign tourists. All the policemen, who racketeered/protected his business, were his best friends, and he was doing brisk business.

In the wake of the economic boom of the early 00s, he switched to construction business. It started with small groups of repairmen, but eventually he and his brother created a whole network of itinerant construction worker teams, bringing them in droves from Carpathian regions.

When the war started, it seemed the Russian authorities would make it even simpler for Ukrainians to work in Russia, which received around 400 thousand refugees from the war-torn eastern regions. But promises never materialised, while the police started clamping down on illegal migrants from Ukraine, while ignoring Central Asians, who make the bulk of migrant work force in Russia. Official licenses were available, but the cost was so big, that Moscow could no longer compete for migrant workers with Poland. Eventually all the Ukrainians left, and Viktor literally switched off the lights in his workers’ hostel before leaving as well.

“Tell me, when all these troubles will be over? Can Russia fight with America in some other place, not in Ukraine?”, Viktor asked. He clearly wanted to go back to Moscow.




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September 25, 2017 at 8:37 pm

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“Voronezh bombed again” – that’s what I thought when I realized, thanks to Ambassador McFaul, that many of US embassy personnel who will suffer from Putin’s counter-sanctions are actually Russian citizens and that the main immediate effect of that measure will be long delays in the issuance of US visas in Moscow and other consulates across the country.

Voronezh is a city in southern Russia. It features in a super-popular meme used to describe any event in which the Kremlin retaliates against the West by punishing Russian citizens. This meme emerged at the end of 2012, when Russia prohibited US parents from adopting Russian children, thus denying a happy and dignified life to hundreds of orphans, many of them with serious disabilities. Syria was another hot topic at the time, so a cartoon emerged which depicted Putin saying: “If NATO invades Syria, we will start bombing Voronezh”.

The war in Ukraine, in which Russian artillery pounded the houses of people, whom official Kremlin propaganda dubbed as “brothers” and “our kin”, is a typical “bomb Voronezh” story, only the bombing was literal.

The Russians who suffered in the latest “bombing” are no collateral damage. Putin’s entire foreign policy boils down to his desire to externalise the simmering internal conflict and fight it outside the country. This is why he invaded Ukraine – to show Russians, many of whom joined Bolotnaya protests in preceding years, what will happen to them if they choose to revolt, the way the Ukrainians did.

This time, the Kremlin is punishing those Russians who travel to America and who – how dare they! – work for the enemy in the enemy’s embassy. Well, Russians are used to be punished – either by their own government, a proud descendant of an international terrorist network that occupied and subjugated Russia a hundred years ago, or by the unsympathetic and ignorant or – more often than not – openly Russophobe West. They know that punishment will always come – if not from this side, then from the other – no matter how hard they try and what they do.

This life between the rock and the hard place produces conformism, deep cynicism, lack of mutual trust and psychotic communication habits. But internal observes can also see a vibrant discussion and positive cultural tectonic shifts under way beneath the ugly crust of Kremlin politics. Russians are gradually learning to talk to each other, overcoming the deep psychological trauma inflicted on them by the horrible 20th century. They may still be pushed back into the suicidal mode, but they’ll be very strong if they survive the brutal political experiment generations of them have had no choice but to live through.

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July 31, 2017 at 10:59 am

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Last night we left our car at the port in Chios town. In the morning the car park was filled with people – exhausted, poorly dressed people sitting on the gravel surface and drinking broth dispensed by American volunteers in uniform red jackets. The migrants crossed the narrow straits separating the Greek island from Turkey overnight, in two boats that made landfall right near the port. There were some people who could be Syrians and Somalians, but most were clearly from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Later during the day, the news arrived about 40 migrants who died of thirst in Niger while traversing Sahara desert on the way to Libyan coast. Many of them appeared to be Ghana and Nigeria – not the most destitute of African countries, especially the former.

In my opinion, what drives these people is more than destitution or fear of violence. It is a dream as well as a rational calculation. Western countries enjoy standards of living, which these people have no hope of achieving within their lifespan. Risking their lives to reach the lands, where these standards are realistically achievable, is therefore a rational gamble. This dream of better life is capable of possessing millions of young minds all around the world in the way it possessed the minds of the participants in earlier historic and prehistoric mass migrations, including those that brought the ancestors of contemporary Europeans and Americans to their promised lands.

The West is vulnerable to both unsustainable migration and violent hatred from the rest of the world because it is too little. There is not enough West to accommodate everyone for whom it serves as beacon, a lifetime goal.

This is why the West and Western supranational structures should relentlessly expand, salvaging more and more people and territories from poverty trap and degrading revolution/dictatorship cycles. Not in the imperialist manner, but using political and economic leverages, as well as conflict-preventing interventions. It is a matter of survival for clearly the best political and economic model humanity has created so far.

Mired in self-defeating nationalism, contemporary Western political elites are certainly not up to this task. The way they alienated dozens of millions of once eagerly pro-Western people in Turkey and Russia, while nurturing extreme forms of – ultimately anti-Western – nationalism in Eastern Europe, speaks volumes about their profanity and their lack of vision. But then it is the same people who allowed such disastrous and potentially suicidal events as Brexit and Trump election in countries we believed to be the pillars of modern liberal democracy.
Will these senile patricians see the Western world all the way to the new Attila, or a new generation of visionary politicians will emerge out of this crisis? I have no answer to this one.

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June 1, 2017 at 4:46 pm

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img_5242“We will come back again” – that was one of the most frequently repeated chants during Bolotnaya protests of 2011 and 2012. People who manned them at the time stay true to their promise.

Today, thousands of Muscovites marched again to commemorate their fallen hero, Boris Nemtsov. As many before it, today’s procession was impressive if average sized, very calm and disciplined. Some people chanted: “Who killed Nemtsov? Putin!”. Others shouted: “Putin is war”. But most walked quietly.

There were many Russian national flags and also some Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar insignia, as people showed solidarity with the neighbours’ struggle against common enemy. Among them, a lonely EU flag felt like an embodiment of 1968 slogan: “Be realist, demand the impossible”.

It was certainly not a march of revolutionaries, but rather of people who are in for a long game, who realise that they are a minority, but they have enough dignity and hope to gather once in a while and show they are still around and there are still many of them.

It is also the minority the Kremlin is most scared off. Putin’s political operatives have managed to co-opt most of the right- and left-wing electorate, but it has consistently failed to tame people who are capable of critical thinking and free from ideological blindfolds.

The ongoing self-inflicted demise of Western liberal democracies is having an interesting impact on Russian politics. A more confident and less paranoid Kremlin can allow itself a certain grade of liberalisation (a “homeopathic thaw”, as Gleb Pavlovsky put it). Russia is not really back into Medvedev-era mode, but Putin’s trademark pinpoint terror is giving way to attempts by his new chief political strategist, Sergey Kiriyenko, to build a broader pro-Kremlin coalition and ensure Putin’s win in something more closely resembling a real democratic election in 2018.

As ever, the protesters were markedly more well-off and less radical than Maidan crowd in Kiev in 2013. Like all Russians, they gained a lot in the last 15 years in terms of wealth and personal freedom associated with it. They don’t want to squander it all in a revolutionary chaos. Instead, they are prepared to wait until tectonic cultural shifts that proceed under the ghastly film of authoritarian politics will lead to a real transformation of institutions and politics in Russia.

Written by fullofbias

February 26, 2017 at 4:52 pm

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This op-ed was originally published by the Norwegian newspaper Morgenbladet

The 2015 Norwegian series “Okkupert” may not have had the captivating power of the House of Cards, but it also contained a strong prophetic element. I don’t mean the idea of Russia occupying a neighbouring country, which is a bit too direct. But suggesting that Western superpowers might collude with Russia to undertake something as vile as occupying independent Norway felt both shocking and original.

Now with Trump moving into the White House, it also doesn’t sound wildly improbable. The US press and major politicians are in fact close to directly accusing Russia and team Trump of colluding to fix the US presidential election in Trump’s favour. In many ways, this scenario looks even more fantastic than the plot in the Okkupert.

Bringing in another cinematographic analogy, in this new reality a country like Norway may find itself turning into something akin to a Rebel Alliance planet, like the ones which provided refuge for rogue freedom lovers in Star Wars. Unless, of course, it is taken over by the same brand of far-right crypto-authoritarians as Russia and the US.

The Star Wars analogy is however flawed, because Trump is not an undercover Sith who communicates with the Dark Lord of the Kremlin, when night falls on New York. He is a product of cultural and political crisis that has engulfed the US and the rest of the world. Investigations striving to reveal his Putin connection may or may not yield any tangible results (the material published so far looks dubious to say the least), but ultimately Putin hysteria in Western media reflects the state of denial which replaced the shock caused by Trump’s election. It would be so nice to explain Trump as a foreign agent, but the bitter truth is that he is a homegrown product which didn’t need Russia’s help to succeed.

For hapless old-fashioned liberals, It is equally convenient to see Russia as an evil alien empire that is trying to conquer free world. In reality it is an integral part of what we tend to call the West, which historically employed some of the worst Western ideas and governance practices, like Communism and authoritarian nationalism. It is Dorian Gray’s picture of the West, an image of its real self, which the model is hiding from everyone in the attic. With the election of Trump, Brexit and the ascent of far-right populists in Europe, the model is looking increasingly like the horrible image on the painting.

Today, both the US and Russia are divided by the same barricade. The divide ethical as much as political. There are people on one side of this barricade who believe that evil – lies, bigotry, violence, torture and aggression – is not only acceptable, but in many ways attractive and even cool. All around the world, from Maharashtra and Siberia to English Midlands and Ohio they call themselves conservatives. But in reality they are radical revolutionaries who want to undo the imperfect yet totally functional and rather comfortable liberal world that emerged in parts of the planet after the fall of Communism.

There are also people, naive and weak as they are at the moment, who are trying to preserve and protect the liberties and the sense of unity achieved in Europe and North America in the last quarter a century. One might call them genuine conservatives.

The difference though is the breakdown. Whereas in Russia roughly 15% of people consistently oppose Putin’s policies, according to multiple polls, in the US Trump was elected by a relative minority of voters. That said, Putin received only 53% of the vote when he was first elected in 2000, but he managed to build a much broader support base thereafter.

The likes of Putin, Trump and both far-right politicians across the globe love to explain tensions emerging in the world in terms of clash of civilizations – East vs West, Christians vs Muslims, Europeans vs Asians. But in reality liberal-minded cosmopolitans in Europe, ex-USSR, America and Muslim world have more in common with each other these days than with their “conservative” or simply more backward compatriots. In simple terms, they watch same films, read same books, go through same fashion crazes and generally strive to live very similar lifestyles.

In the same way, while talking to Trump supporters in the swing states of Ohio and Pennsylvania around the election date last November, I couldn’t help feeling that these were very same people as pro-Putin villagers in Russia’s Pskov region I had met just a couple of weeks earlier. Their standards of living might be different (though not as radically as one might think), but what makes them so similar is their vulnerability to fake news and hate-inciting rhetoric, their childishly short span of attention and their attitude to politics as a brand of show business, in which they are passive spectators rather than pawns moved towards the edge of the cliff by evil manipulators.

These two parties are becoming truly global as illustrated by the synergy created by Putin, Trump, British Brexiteers and other far-right politicians in Europe which benefits each of these players. In terms of internationalism, liberals are lagging far behind the far-right populists because they are still poisoned by nationalism and regionalism. The epoch Trump will usher in when he moves into White House will be dominated by a supranational confrontation between these two (or more) global parties. Let’s see if at the end of day one calls it a global cold civil war.

Written by fullofbias

January 25, 2017 at 4:48 pm

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Kremlin’s spasmodic reaction to Ukrainian revolution was caused by the fear of Ukraine becoming an alternative Russia – a country with the same ex-Soviet and Russian-speaking population that enjoys the advantages of inclusive institutions and economy. The revolution has won, but the Kremlin has also achieved its goal – Ukraine will not become a viable alternative to the Russian mafia state model in any foreseeable future. In fact, it has largely remained a mafia state.

Now that the West is getting engulfed in internal political crisis and post-Soviet countries will be largely left to their own devices, it is vital for all healthy  forces to communicate and coordinate their actions. Nationalism and xenophobia, which infect many liberals and democrats, work for the Kremlin. A successful pro-European platform will only emerge when everyone begins helping each other to move towards Europe. It is also important to prevent the return of atomised Europe and the old normal of wars and annexations.

Written by fullofbias

November 21, 2016 at 8:42 pm

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