The Russia Watchers


When I started this blog almost ten years ago, I had no earlier experience of blogging: in those days not that many people did. My original plan was to present a kind of informal diary, a conversational, subjective and honest appraisal of current affairs in Britain, Russia, Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. I’m embarrassed to read some of my early posts – among other things, they show how hard it was for me to establish a political compass-bearing in the post-9/11 debate about terror, Islamism, U.S.-Russia relations and European security. Yet some of the conflicts I discussed  – the clash, for example, between the views of the anti-jihadist historians Spencer and Pipes and those of Western onlookers concerned about Russia’s abuse of human rights in Chechnya  – are still actual today, and have if anything increased their topicality.

Ten years ago my blog was a collection of the thoughts of a 59-year-old observer of current affairs with an academic training in Russian language, history and literature who also worked in the field of literary translation from Russian and the Nordic languages, including Finnish. My experience of travel in Russia and Eastern Europe, my visits to Estonia during the 1990s and my contacts with members of Estonia’s Pro Patria Union (Isamaaliit), as well as with literary figures there, gave me  – I thought –  a way into the discussion about the future of Europe. In particular, I was concerned with the question of Russia’s role vis-à-vis Europe , of whether Russia would finally make the transition to  formal de-Sovietization  and European-style democracy that many hoped for, or whether it would remain tied to its Soviet past –  superficially modern, but inwardly hidebound and backward-looking.  

I soon discovered that airing views on Russia-related topics, even on a tiny, low-traffic blog, was not without its hazards – the presence of a large and seemingly well-organized pro-Kremlin lobby  was conspicuous on the Web even back in 2004. The voicing of any criticism of Russia’s foreign policy, however mild, tended to attract hostile comments in the boxes, and at times these became intolerably shrill. From my earlier participation on several Internet forums, I was familiar with these attacks , which were nearly always destructive and ad hominem. A particular animus seemed to exist among Russian-speaking posters with a commitment to the new version of Balkan – especially Serbian – nationalism. But I soldiered on, tending to post less and less of my own personal thoughts, and more and more of news items and op-ed commentaries gathered from both Western and Russian-language media. To guard against hacker attacks, I backed up the original Blogger blog with a facsimile version on WordPress. I covered the Beslan school hostage crisis of September 2004 as well as the Ukraine crisis and Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, and later followed this up with translations of related Russian-language documentary material and interviews. However, in late 2005 I began to translate articles for the Prague Watchdog website, which monitored the human rights situation in Chechnya, and in 2007 I started to work with PW more or less full time, as an editor and translator in the site’s English-language section. This meant I had less time to devote to the blog, and in fact it’s only recently that I’ve been able to give it some proper attention again.

What I’ve discovered, looking round at the English-language Russia-watching blogosphere in 2014, is that in many respects the spectrum of opinion and analysis has hardened to an extent that was probably not the case even five years ago. The more reflective, wide-ranging blogs, like Siberian LightScraps of Moscow  and Neeka’s Backlog, seem to have changed their character,  becoming either more personal or less frequently updated, while  polemical blogs, like La Russophobe (Dying Russia) and Da Russophile, have become more strident and prominent. There are some more recent blogs like Catherine Fitzpatrick’s Minding Russia, which break away from the polarized Russia debate and strike out into new territory, looking beyond the surface of Russian life. Above all, however,  there appears to have been a huge increase in the amount of academic blogging, with numerous U.S. college professors and Russian studies “experts” – a relatively new phenomenon, this –  dominating the landscape. While some of these academic blogs are long-established – Sean’s Russia Blog is an example, providing useful, if somewhat cautious background to the  news – others have materialized only in the last few years. The global affairs analyst Mark Galeotti writes a blog called In Moscow’s Shadows about crime and security in Russia. In addition to several titles mainly  concerned with crime, security and the Russian military, Galeotti  has also written a book about  the Chechen wars of 1994-2009 – yet in his posts on North Caucasus-related events like the recent Volgograd bombings he tends to take an almost ahistorical view, concentrating on issues of tactics and security, as well as on the Kremlin’s ongoing narrative, rather than on the roots of the crisis. 

Among the academic bloggers there’s a tendency to take that Kremlin narrative at face value as the expression of policies that  don’t differ essentially from those of other governments in the world. The peculiar and unique nature of Russian governance – its connection with irrational, spontaneous forces that lie just under the surface of an apparently normal exterior – does not feature in their analyses. Although they perceive the networks of corruption and manipulation that drive the political process, they do not stop to unravel them in the context of the Russian past. For a group blog like Global Voices Online, Russia is just one more region of the world to be considered like any other – and in fact it is treated more or less in isolation from the rest of the world, in a periodic collection of posts about “RuNet” – the Russian Internet which, again following the Kremlin narrative, is assumed to exist separately from the Internet that functions in the rest of the globe. Whether this inclination to follow, if not the bias, then the structure of Russian official thinking is caused by a reluctance to offend the authorities and a desire to retain visiting rights to the Russian Federation, one can only speculate.

What is lacking in the blogosphere’s coverage of Russia is an all-round picture that includes not only the issues of government, society, security,  business and crime, but also the historical and cultural background, a knowledge of which instantly renders the country and its leaders less opaque. While there are some excellent blogs on Russian literature – Sarah J. Young’s is an example – there appear to be very few that link that literature to an understanding of current events in Russia.  Though not a blog, Radio Liberty’s Russian-language site is the only one I know of that fulfills this function, including along with its output of news and analysis, features like its series on the work of the great Russian philosopher, historian and cultural anthropologist Alexander Pyatigorsky, including his taped lectures. Something of this kind is badly needed in English. 


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.

Eurasia Outlook

Eurasia Outlook is a new Carnegie Moscow Center blog with quite a wide range of contributors and topics. Recent English-language posts include a comparison of the protests in Turkey and Russia by Lilia Shevtsova, an American Interest op-ed on the surge of new authoritarianism throughout the world, and a discussion by Dmitri Trenin of the interconnection between economic and political factors in the process of civic awakening.

The blog also publishes material in Russian, French and several other languages. In the Russian-language section Alexey Malashenko considers the demise of Egypt’s President Morsi, and points to the lessons that will inevitably be drawn from it by leaders of other nations in the region:

За ситуацией в Египте пристально наблюдают в соседних странах. И поражение местных исламистов (если это, конечно, поражение, а не временное отступление) эхом отзовется в Тунисе, Ливии, в некоторых других государствах, в том числе в Турции.

The Freeman

freemanMany of the articles in early issues of the Foundation for Economic Education’s journal The Freeman still have a relatively modern resonance. In spite of their deep entanglement in the Cold War espionage and un-American activities debates of the day, some of the discussions of U.S.-Soviet relations in the August 1952 edition were still relevant more than 30 years later. Fascinating items include an appeal for an end to Western appeasement of the USSR by the double defector Igor Bogolepov (alias Ivar Nyman), with his account of how passive resistance could bring the Soviet system down if only there was co-operation with the resisters on the part of the West, and his “confession” about his own duplicitous behavior:

Thus, during the years 1923 to 1942, I was personally connected with the Communist business of selling to the West a false picture of an innocent, peace-loving, arch-progressive and democratic Soviet regime. At first I was none too pleased to be associated with this “operation confusion” carried out by my boss, Maxim Litvinov. But since it was impossible to live in the Soviet Union without somehow serving the Communist cause, I said to myself: “I might as well remain where I am, because if a real Communist takes my place here at the Foreign Office, then who is going to throw monkey wrenches into this monkey business?”

So I began to sabotage in my own field as my fellow-countrymen all around me were sabotaging in theirs. Although it was not in my power to alter Soviet strategy, I could at least try to make its execution less effective. I always overemphasized the legal or factual difficulties in the way of carrying out political moves. Or I tried to soften their effect. And whenever I was charged with conveying Soviet propaganda to the West, I did my best to make it as unfit for the Western mentality as possible. This was not difficult, since the censors were mostly sharp, uneducated boys from the Secret Police who preferred to have articles from Pravda, and other propaganda for home consumption only, translated into foreign languages with very little alteration.

The Interpreter

From the About page of The Interpreter:

The Interpreter is a daily-updated online journal dedicated primarily to translating media from the Russian press and blogosphere into English.

Conceived as a kind of “Inopressa in reverse,” The Interpreter aspires to dismantle the language barrier that separates journalists, Russia analysts, policymakers, diplomats and interested laymen in the English-speaking world from the debates, scandals, intrigues and political developments taking place in the Russian Federation.

Stratfor infiltration attempt

From the Telegraph:

It was… revealed yesterday that one of the agents, a man called Andrei Bezrukov who passed himself off as Donald Heathfield, had been attempting to infiltrate influential US risk advisory group Strategic Forecasting.

The Texas-based company, better known as Stratfor, said Mr Bezrukov had held five meetings with them to try to get them to install his software on their computers.

“We suspect that had this been done, our servers would be outputting to Moscow,” George Friedman, the firm’s chief executive officer, said. “We did not know at the time who he was. We have since reported the incident to the FBI.”

Al-Jazeera under pressure

On the fourth anniversary of the Lebanon-Israel war, American, Israeli and Canadian victims of Hezbollah rocket attacks have filed a lawsuit against the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network, alleging that

Al-Jazeera intentionally reported live coverage of the locations of the missile strikes inside of Israel in violation of military censorship regulations, in order to enable Hezbollah to aim the missiles more accurately.


Prague Watchdog closing

Prague Watchdog, the Prague-based North Caucasus human rights NGO and monitoring service, is closing down after 10 years of operation. In May this year, for reasons that are unknown to the site’s co-ordinator, the delivery of new Russian-language material stopped and has not been resumed. Andrei Babitsky, who was fulfilling the role of chief commissioning editor, appears no longer to be in charge of PW’s publishing, though he continues to be active as an editor and commentator at other Russian-language media outlets, including Radio Liberty’s Russian service.  

According to PW’s present coordinating editor, the site will continue to be accessible even though it is not updated, and its considerable volume of North-Caucasus-related information and resources will continue to be available to the general public.

British blinkers

Julie Burchill, on the curious but predictable attitude of British media to the flotilla crisis:

Not once did I hear a British interviewer ask any of the so-called secular radicals participating in the flotilla why they are allied with Islamic supremacists who subjugate women, persecute gays, oppress non-Islamic minorities and seek to impose Islam globally.

Cropped Reuters photos

On Sunday LGF  published another cropped Reuters photo, comparing it with the original. As the blog noted:

One picture cropped to remove a knife might be explained as incompetence or a simple mistake. But now we have two pictures from the “peace activists” that were cropped by someone at Reuters to remove knives in the hands of the activists, as they attempted to take soldiers hostage.

Reuters’ response:

The images in question were made available in Istanbul, and following normal editorial practice were prepared for dissemination which included cropping at the edges. When we realized that a dagger was inadvertently cropped from the images, Reuters immediately moved the original set, as well.