from Russia with bias

Archive for October 2017


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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.

Written by fullofbias

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.

Written by fullofbias

October 10, 2017 at 10:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized