Sunday, December 29, 2013

Yet Another "Black Widow"?

In connection with today's atrocity in Volgograd the Russian authorities have once again blamed a "black widow". This gendered narrative regularly appears in Russia's state-controlled media. As Amanda Alcott has pointed out
The monstrous narratives used to describe black widows have become a lynchpin in Kremlin propaganda... and show the world the Russian portrayal of the ongoing war and security services' operations in the North Caucasus. The narrative is particularly founded in the basic moral superiority of Russian masculinity over femininity, and reinforces the patriarchal power of the Russian government and society by using black widow propaganda as a way to in effect blame femininity for the actions of the black widows, removing any agency, legitimacy or pity associated with their actions and plight. 
Also, as I suggested on this blog in 2010:
- Almost without exception, Western media accepted at face value the official statements by Russia’s FSB and other agencies, including the terminology that was used in them. The existence of a “Black Widows” organization dedicated to obtaining revenge for the deaths of slain Islamist insurgents was also treated in some reports almost as an established fact, even though there is little independent evidence to support it.
- The alleged involvement of female suicide bombers – in particular, the “Black Widows” – was a feature of Russian media coverage and official statements (notably the FSB) following earlier terror attacks in Russia, particularly at Nord-Ost and Beslan. In the past, many commentators both in Russia and abroad drew attention to the fact that the “Black Widows” scenario, with its dramatic and even theatrical elements, does not look particularly convincing on close examination. For one thing, among North Caucasus Islamic insurgents shahid or “martyr” operations are usually carried out by men.

Update December 30: Today's trolleybus blast in Volgograd - the second in 24 hours - was apparently carried out by a male bomber. Some reports say both explosions were the work of male suicide bombers, but others still mention a female guerrilla in connection with the station blast.  

Saturday, December 28, 2013


This lively Al Jazeera @AJStream discussion on Putin's media shake-up makes strikingly clear the current divisions in Russian society and politics and their repercussions for people both inside Russia and outside it, in a unique and unsettling way: the energy and dedication of the AJStream presenters, the muddled and cynical doggedness of the Kremlin propagandist Milonov, the barbed incredulity of Bennetts, the sadly ironic detachment of Rothrock, the outrage and anger of Baronova - it all adds up to a kind of theatre, a symbolic acting out of irresoluble conflicts that may be with us for a long time to come, with unknowable consequences.  

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Letter to Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, I am writing to you from Finland. My name is Polina Zherebtsova. I am a political refugee from Russia. From contemporary Russia, which for many, many years has been ruled by Mr. Putin.

All my life I have kept a diary. And it so happened that I was born in the Caucasus, in the city of Grozny.

When I was nine years old my city was surrounded by a ring of Russian tanks - and houses were turned into ruins and ashes along with their inhabitants. Has your home been shelled by a tank, Mr Khodorkovsky? Mine was. The upper floors of the apartment building were on fire, and children were screaming in unbearable pain: shrapnel tore their bodies.

My grandfather, a veteran of the Second World War, was in the hospital on Pervomayskaya Street, but was killed in the shelling. He was recovering - my mother and I were going to take him home.

We could not bury him for a week. There was fighting.

I know you have been through a lot, have been imprisoned. But tell me - can you imagine how the patients scream when the guns are firing at their hospital or when a jet bomber, invisible and invulnerable to their curses, drops a one-and-a-half ton bomb on them?

We looked for where the snow was cleaner, gathered it up and strained it through cloth so we would drink it. It was not white snow, not at all like the snow I can see just now in Finland. It was dark gray and bitter, because there were burning buildings all around. An oil plant was on fire, and whole neighborhoods of homes were burning. Before they reached living human flesh, the bombs tore up stone and  concrete.

And the houses were full of people, and they had nowhere to run to.

We fell from hunger, lying about in the corners of apartments, half submerged in basements. And the rats huddled against the cold at our feet and squeaked.

The rats slept with me in the hallway on the icy wooden floor, and I didn't chase them away, realizing that even they were suffering from "Russian democracy" Our cats died, unable to withstand the diet of pickled tomatoes we fed them once every few days.

To get at least some food, you had to walk about in other people's basements, where the conquerors had left thin silver threads, and if you stepped on one of those threads you would go straight to heaven.

And do you want to hear how I stood near the concrete slabs under which for three days in the centre of Grozny, choking in the wreckage and cement dust, Russian old folk died?

No one was able to raise the slabs and remove the debris! People wept and prayed, but could not do anything. Those who died under the ruins of their houses did not get a grave in "the land we won." This hell was repeated many times in ten years: as long as the war lasted in the Caucasus, in the Chechen Republic.

In August 1996 rockets from a Russian military post flew into the staircase of our apartment building: our neighbours were blown to pieces. I was eleven years old at the time.

I came out into the front entrance of our building and my feet  sank ankle-deep in blood. Blood dripped from the walls and ceiling, and I could hear the surviving neighbours screaming in terrible agony. Since then, Mr Khodorkovsky, I do not believe Russia's rulers. I do not think that this is the price of conquering the land and preserving its integrity. This was done by "weaklings" - because a strong man will not assert himself at the expense of the lives of women and children.

Essentially they are traitors of their own people.

In 1999, when the "humanitarian corridors" of refugees were shelled, burning people alive in buses, we could not get out of the city. And on October 21 1999  Grozny market was hit by a rocket.  In the afternoon, when thousands of people were crowded there.

It was later announced that this was a "market of terrorists" with whom the the invaders were fighting.

"Terrorists" was the name they gave to the children, the old folk and women who traded vegetables, sweets, bread, cigarettes, newspapers, etc.  And the market was called the "arms market," but I never saw weapons there, although sometimes I would spend a whole day going round all the stalls with a box of stuff.

During the holidays or after school I could not rest - I had to work in order to survive.

I traded in that market place. There were no pensions, no salaries. People did their best to survive. For a year my mother received no salary. It was stolen. And we traded in order to survive and buy bread.

They did not have to start "conquering us", turning our lives into one continuous strip of hell. Our lives were already hard enough without bombs and "Grad" installations. When the rocket hit Grozny market I was three blocks away from the place where it landed. I saw fire from the ground to the sky, and then I heard a deafening explosion.

In my legs there were sixteen fragments of shrapnel.

And what happened to the people who were closer to the rocket? Severed arms, legs, heads, bodies turned to dust.

The children found their mother by her hairpins or the buttons on her jacket...

Did anyone get an apology? Or compensation for this hell? Did anyone?

I got nothing except threats and being told to "shut your mouth", as I was a true witness to these bloody events. Here is the face of the modern Russian government.

Killing, slandering and grabbing. And this is called "conquest"?

In 2000, On January 19, the surviving neighbours and my mother and I were threatened with execution by firing squad.

We were on the edge of a cliff and the soldiers fired over our heads.

Our old granny neighbour fell to her knees, crying:

"What are you doing? We're your people! We're  Russians! Don't shoot!"

The Caucasus is a peculiar region. In it, cultures and ethnicities, ways of life and cuisines, have been interwoven.

Of the forty-eight apartments in our building ten were Chechen and the rest - Russian, Armenian, Gypsy, Azeri, Ingush, Jewish, Polish...

We lived together amicably until the war began. The war swept everything away: life, friendship, love. It destroyed everything.

Surviving in inhuman conditions, people from the Chechen Republic n the other regions of Russia faced and still face the most vile discrimination, persecution and threats.

The authorities have no time for their stories of mass executions and extrajudicial kilings. All, regardless of ethnicity, are classed as "Chechens."

I have come up against this, too.

For about a year I was refused a passport. But you got one in a single day, and were even kindly driven to the gangway of a private jet. Double standards - those are precisely what distinguish despotism from democracy...

I was very sympathetic to you when you were in prison. I considered the sentences you were given unjust, political. Even now I think that you may have been subjected to pressure. But you in your interview you said: "Putin is no weakling. I am ready to fight in order to keep the North Caucasus as part of our country. This is our land, we conquered and won it!"  Consider: now you will have to share responsibility for those war crimes, which in  the Caucasus are not the costs of "conquest", but its essence.

Read my diary.

Read how we were conquered.

How we buried our murdered neighbours under fire, having first covered the graves with branches so that the hungry dogs would not tear the bodies apart.

How thousands of women and children were murdered in the Chechen Republic.

Do you still want integration with such a Russia?

I do not.

And I do not need her citizenship. I am embarrassed by it, like the shameful brand-mark on a slave.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Traditional Methods

In an article for The Dissident Blog, Tanya Lokshina writes about the ongoing crackdown on civil society that is taking place in Russia, affecting vulnerable minorites including migrants and the gay community. While Lokshina describes the current anti-liberal campaign by the authorities as "unprecedented", there are signs that it may simply be a reversion to type. In the name of a bogus appeal to political and social conservatism the Kremlin is exercising an old and atavistic mode of repression that it understands only too well:
those who dare speak out—be it about their sexual identity or their discontent with governmental policies—are threatened with punishment and blackened in the eyes of society. This is what lies behind the superficially respectable veil of ‘traditional values’ that the Kremlin is throwing over Russia today.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Two Gentlemen of Russia

On his blog Alexander Goldfarb writes that while he is glad to see an innocent man released from prison, there can be no doubt that Mikhail Khodorkovsky's plea for clemency was written under pressure: 
It says more about Putin than about MBK: not only has Putin kept a man in prison for ten years for nothing, he, the brute, has also forced a confession out of him. 
We should not forget that in the relationship between these these two characters there is much that is personal. In their Shakespearean drama the outcome of the plot still lies ahead. In this situation a plea for clemency in no way amounts to a capitulation. 
When one man sits on the throne, and the other in a dungeon, everything is clear - one is a tyrant, and the other a martyr. When a prisoner dies in a torture chamber or emerges into freedom with head unbowed, not repenting, everything is also clear: the tyrant has lost his authority and is powerless against the power of the spirit. Both of them understand that.
But a confession extracted by force tells us nothing. The final result depends on how MBK conducts himself in future. If, like Galileo who exclaimed:"And yet it moves!", he in some form disavows his confession, does not express thanks to Putin and says something, for example, in defence of the Bolotnaya prisoners or the thousands of businessmen who have been jailed by the lawlessness of the Cheka, then his persecutor will be shamed even further. 
But if he puts his lips to the hand of the man "who granted him freedom", gives us to understand, like Orwell's hero, that the "re-education " has worked and that now "he loves Big Brother ", then Putin will have something on which to congratulate himself. Then he will really have won.
Update: in a new post written after Khodorkovsky's Berlin press conference on December 22, Goldfarb adds:
The key passage in MBK's statement: "I don't want to take a completely open position on many issues. I have won the right not to say what I do not think. That is worth a great deal."
He will not sing Putin's praises. But he has not won the right to say what he thinks of him. Well, one cannot judge him for that, in his position he was entitled to make compromises. But the expectations that he would be a Sakharov or a Mandela have not been realized. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Kerry Statement on Ukraine

Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release December 10, 2013

Statement by Secretary Kerry

Statement on Events in Ukraine

The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kyiv’s Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity. This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.

Last week in Brussels and Moldova, I underscored publicly the importance of all sides avoiding violence and called on President Yanukovych to fulfill the aspirations of the Ukranian people. We put the government on notice about our concern.

As Vice President Biden made clear to President Yanukovych during their phone call yesterday, respect for democractic principles, including freedom of assembly, is fundamental to the United States’ approach to Ukraine. This is a universal value not just an American one. For weeks, we have called on President Yanukovych and his government to listen to the voices of his people who want peace, justice and a European future. Instead, Ukraine’s leaders appear tonight to have made a very different choice.

We call for utmost restraint. Human life must be protected. Ukrainian authorities bear full responsibility for the security of the Ukrainian people.

As church bells ring tonight amidst the smoke in the streets of Kyiv, the United States stands with the people of Ukraine. They deserve better.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Softly, Softly on Ukraine

For some time now, observers and political analysts watching the developing crisis in Ukraine have been wondering why the United States government has taken such a passive and secondary role in supporting the Ukrainian opposition, and why it has so far failed to put much pressure on President Yanukovych. On Monday, commenting on a Evropeiska Pravda report, Ukraine expert Taras Kuzio tweeted:

Why is current US administration so pathetically weak? US State Dept. asks Russia to go easy on Ukraine.

In an article for Up Front, Brooking Institution Senior Fellow Steven Pifer sees the situation like this:
[The U.S.] Congress, a traditionally pro-Ukrainian institution that used to mandate huge sums of assistance funds for Ukraine, now shows considerably less enthusiasm for the country. Notably, some on Capitol Hill have even begun talking about applying sanctions, which would have been unheard of in Congress just a couple of years ago.
The upshot is that the United States devotes less time and attention to Ukraine than was the case in the past. As a result, the European Union—the institution and individual EU member-states, such as Poland, Lithuania and Sweden—have taken the Western lead during the past several years.
Not having the United States on the frontline is, on balance, not a bad thing. As noted, the foreign policy agenda in Washington is jammed. Moreover, were the United States leading the Western charge, Moscow would regard it is a particularly dangerous geopolitical challenge. That would introduce to the complicated politics that are now playing out in Kyiv a U.S.-Russia competitive dynamic that would hardly be helpful to—and might well complicate—efforts to find a peaceful political solution to the current crisis
This can, however, be seen as a hollow excuse, an attempt to offload the burden of support for Ukraine from the U.S. onto Europe. As one U.S. commenter writes:
I hope our administration does not follow your advice but rather rises to the occasion of meaningfully supporting 46 million people and a nation being robbed of their national wealth. Over a 100,000 people in the US sent in petitions to have the administration take action against the thugs running Ukraine. There are 300,000 people in the streets in just Kiev - the position advocated above has to be a joke.

Monday, December 09, 2013

RIA Novosti Liquidated

With the liquidation of the RIA Novosti news agency and the formation of a Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today) agency headed by a virulently pro-Kremlin, anti-Western propagandist, Russia is signalling that its days of "soft" information and news distribution are over. The pretense, and to all appearances it was only ever a pretense - of objectivity and neutrality is finally being removed. As Leonid Ragozin tweeted: ": imagine a fusion of Fox TV & Berlusconi's entertainment channels run by Goebbels. You get the picture."

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Moscow's Information War on Ukraine

It looks as though the campaign of disinformation about the current situation in Ukraine is intensifying. As Natalka Zubar, chair of the Maidan Monitoring Information Centre pointed out two days ago,
During the last two years a great number of fake accounts in social networks were created in facebook, twitter and VKontakte, which were mostly sleeping before the beginning of November. Now these accounts are actively creating  white noise, jamming the communication channels and distributing misinformation.
The disinformation is distributed via the social networks and websites created solely for this purpose solely. Unfortunately, lots of misinformation is broadcast by other, even professional media. Most notable samples of misinformation were – the news about the restriction of cash flow by the National Bank of Ukraine and the news that the big number of European VIPs will not attend the OSCE summit in Kyiv.
Government sites are being under DDoS attacks. The access to legislative database of the Ukrainian Parliament and the current crime reports of Ministry of Interior are inaccessible periodically.
The situation in Kyiv is nearing a military state by the level of tensions. The activists on streets and all the citizens who watch the unaccountable and unprofessional media are kept in a state of permanent arousal expecting provocations, they are trying to check the rumors, which mostly appear to be misinformation.
The latest bout of activity in the information war appears to centre on the rumour, reported by British journalist Edward Lucas on Twitter, that Ukraine President Yanukovych has signed a strategic agreement with Putin that would mean Ukraine joining the Moscow-led Customs Union - news obviously designed to stir maximum trouble, and surely a provocation. The Kremlin is now denying that any such secret agreement exists, but Lucas says
To repeat: Yanuk did deal w Putin at Sochi. It included promise to join customs union later (by 2015). But what's a Yanuk promise worth?
In an article headed Panic à la Lucas – Use Your Brain, Liudmila Yamschikova, Content Manager at Maidan Monitoring Information Centre, expresses some skepticism about Lucas's tweets and appeals for a rational approach to the situation, and says:
These tweets are not very typical of a journalist of such a level. The thesis of the "concern of Western governments" alone is worth a smile. After all, governments do not report their concerns to the editor of a news magazine through unnamed sources. Whatever the real reason for these tweets... the reports do not look like a reliable source. 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

The Soviet Trace

Writing in, Andrei Piontkovsky assesses the probability of a "Soviet trace" in the assassination of President Kennedy:
Официальная версия комиссии Уоррена – убийца, действовавший в одиночку, – не убеждает ни экспертов, ни, судя по опросам, большинство американцев. Слишком много фактов, начиная с убийства самого Освальда, косвенно указывают, что, скорее всего, он действовал не в одиночку, а был элементом разветвленного заговора. Между тем, полвека попыток независимого расследования убийства Кеннеди десятками конспирологов, ориентированных на версии правоконсервативного заговора, не привели к убедительным результатам. Версия советского следа с первых же дней после трагедии сознательно на уровне идеологического табу отвергалась в США как властью, не заинтересованной в новом острейшем кризисе в отношениях с Советским Союзом, так и леволиберальными media, жаждавшими дискредитировать своих традиционных оппонентов. Тем более что людей, ненавидевших Кеннеди, действительно было много и среди южных расистов, и среди ультраправых консерваторов.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Kyiv, December 1: Questions

In the New Times, Konstantin Shiyan examines some of the uncertainties that divide the opposition in Ukraine: 
В настоящее время оппозиция призывает манифестантов сохранять спокойствие, не поддаваться на провокации и начать монтировать палаточный городок. Ее требования со вчерашнего дня не изменились: отправить в отставку правительство, подвергнуть президента процедуре импичмента, а перед этим - распустить Верховную Раду и объявить начало внеочередных парламентских выборов.
В общем и целом, складыывается впечатление, что у 700-тысячной толпы, которая собралась в центре Киева, сейчас нет единого, готового взять на себя ответственность, лидера. Лидеры трех оппозиционных партий - Арсений Яценюк, Виталий Кличко и Олег Тягнибок - обещают объявить план действий на ближайшие сутки несколько позже.
Митингующие сейчас условно разделились на два лагеря: одни призывают к силовому захвату власти, а другие подчеркивают: это даст властям только законное право на разгон митинга, не более того.