Take Russia out of Europe

Dmitry Tymchuk, on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 flight MH17:

I sincerely believe that some part of the responsibility for this tragedy lies with the European leaders. In the case of the Russian aggression against Ukraine they have been too busy counting their money, forgetting that the world is very crowded and fragile. They forgot how small Europe is. And it cannot be that one country is the victim of aggression and consumed by war, while this is apparently of no concern to all the others.

It’s also time, I believe, that those in Europe and the U.K. who are involved with Russia at a general cultural and educational level made their position clear. Time that Russian propaganda organizations like RT (Russia Today) and Voice of Russia were taken off the air and closed, time that Russian PR agencies like the Russkiy Mir Foundation and Academia Rossica were shut down and their offshoots and branches in Western universities removed.

Smoke and Mirrors

The unconfirmed reports of the death of Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov, together with the recently-released but unverified statement and video by a Dagestan-based group calling itself “Ansar al-Sunna” (Helpers of Sunna, a name it shares with Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna, a group based in Iraq), and claiming Umarov’s sponsorship and guidance in the Volgograd bombings, are increasing the uncertainty about Russia’s ability to maintain adequate security at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics.

Moscow sources have begun to make capital from the rumours, with one commentator pointing to a supposed link with the Syrian conflict and a threat to Russia from Saudi Arabia, which is said to have promised “internal complications” if Russia continues to support Syria’s Bashar Assad. The Saudi theme is an old one in Kremlin propaganda, which seeks to lay the blame for atrocities like the Beslan school siege at the door of the West, the CIA, and alleged “Saudi links”.

Academy of Questions

academia rossicaIn March the 5th Russian Literature Festival – SLOVO 2014 – will be held in London under the auspices of Academia Rossica,  a Russian arts and culture foundation that calls itself an NGO but is in reality a Russian state cultural organization. The organization is headed by Svetlana Adzhubei, a Moscow University arts graduate who is married to the son of Alexei  Adzhubei, Nikita Khrushchev’s son in law, and chief editor of the Soviet newspaper Izvestia from 1959 to 1964.

Among the “partners” of  Academia Rossica are the Russkiy Mir Foundation, set up by Vladimir Putin in 2007, the Russian Ministry of Culture, the state-controlled press and media agency Russia Now (an offshoot of the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta) , which also operates on the Internet at the website Russia Beyond the Headlines,  and a number of British cultural and financial organizations, including the British Council and Peter Hambro Mining plc.

In addition to holding Russia-related cultural events throughout the year, Academia Rossica also sponsors two Russian literary translation prizes, and – most notably – serves as a hub and social gathering point for London’s expatriate Russian community.

As the Russian government tightens its control of media and sponsors repressive legislation targeting sexual and ethnic minorities, it seems legitimate to ask whether Academia Rossica plays a part in this process. Government exploitation of cultural outlets and activities for political purposes was widespread during the Soviet era, and this lavishly staged project in a foreign capital looks suspiciously like a reanimation of the genre.

While one can see the advantage to the Kremlin authorities of promoting a positive image of Russia through literature and culture, involving British and other Western publishers and cultural groups, it’s hard to see the purpose of the SLOVO events, which are now extended through a period of several weeks. As the BBC’s Alexander Kan pointed out last year:

The abundance of Russian –  or more precisely Russian-speaking – Londoners  makes the festival’s success a foregone conclusion. Cut off from their native roots, people are hungry to hear the living word of the man of letters, remembering the traditional Russian phrases “leaders of opinion” (vlastiteli dum) and “in Russia the poet is more than a poet.”

The one or two Britons present – most of them specialists in Russian studies –are lost in the crowd of expatriates and visiting guests. In this sense, the disconnection of the latter with the professional community of publishers, literary agents and booksellers  who make up the main audience of the London Book Fair, is perhaps also undermining the chances of success for the project’s original task—  to promote the Russian word in Britain.

It’s perhaps as well to note that this year’s SLOVO festival is to be held separately from the London Book Fair, about a month earlier, from March 8-23. Even so, the event still holds a distinct air of mystery.

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 signaling 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.”

Putin, Westgate, Propaganda

There are signs that the propaganda war over use of chemical weapons in Syria may not be confined to Syria alone.

Vladimir Putin, speaking at the CSTO meeting in Sochi, Monday September 23:

“The militant groups (in Syria) did not come out of nowhere, and they will not vanish into thin air,” Putin said.

“The problem of terrorism spilling from one country to another is absolutely real and could directly affect the interests of any one of our countries,” he said, citing the deadly attack on a shopping mall in Nairobi as an example.

“We are now witnessing a terrible tragedy unfold in Kenya. The militants came from another country, as far as we can judge, and are committing horrendous, bloody crimes,” Putin said at a CSTO summit in the Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

Al-Shabab, on its Twitter account, Wednesday September 25:

Zakayev: Umarov will appear in Syria

In an interview published on the Radio Svoboda website, exiled Chechen opposition leader Akhmed Zakayev accuses Russia of getting ready to stage a propaganda coup in Syria involving the North Caucasus Islamist guerrilla leader Doku Umarov. Zakayev says that contrary to recent reports (published on Kavkaz Center) Umarov is alive and well and is preparing for a new project that will involve his disappearance in Dagestan and his reappearance in Syria on the side of the rebel forces there.

Let me draw your attention to this: when  the opposition rallies against Putin in Moscow developed, Doku Umarov issued a statement saying that his supporters would not commit terrorist acts on the territory of Russia, as the Russian people had finally woken up and rebelled against the tyrant. The statement seems to be against Putin, but in fact it is absolutely consistent with the interests of Putin and his entourage.

After all, if Doku Umarov comes down on the side of the opposition, in the eyes of the average Russian the opposition is guilty of an alliance with bad people like Umarov. This figure has been spun for so long and so many civilian lives have been sacrificed in order to create the impression that it’s not only Navalny and the opposition who are standing up to Putin and denouncing corruption and unfair elections, but also the terrorist Doku Umarov. The emergence of Umarov in Syria will arouse attention around the world, and many Western politicians will feel very uncomfortable.

Parody and Propaganda

This Pravda article, which quotes an “expert” in the Russian security services as saying that the Tsarnaev brothers were probably enticed with money and then “set up” in an FBI plot to make the Boston bombings look like an al-Qaeda terrorist attack, gives the unmistakable impression of a not-so-subtle parody: the parodied text is a generic one – the reports in Russian opposition media and among Western sources that have in the past suggested the FSB’s involvement in the 1999 apartment bombings. The piece’s tit-for-tat approach is striking, to say the least.


– Alexey Navalny’s reflections on Monday’s rally, in English.

 – Boris Akunin, on how his speech at the rally in which he warned Russia’s celebrities not to collaborate with the “police state” was misinterpreted – he was describing a possible future, not the present:

1. In my speech I repeated several times that I was talking about the situation when Russia will finally turn into a police state.

So far the judicial reprisals have been fragmentary, spasmodic: the Yukos case, Pussy Riot. But now we await a wave of convictions (in the cases of Alexey Navalny and Aksana Panova, and the “May 6” case). And then our authoritarian state will move from a relatively herbivorous phase into one of primary cannibalism People with a name, with a reputation will, as previously, find it impossible to live in such a situation. Otherwise their name will remain, but they will have to say goodbye to their reputation.

2. I am not calling for a boycott of the state and all its institutions, for a rejection of state subsidies, state grants or state salaries. That money is all yours and mine, Putin won’t get it out of his own pocket. He has the power, but not the state, which is not equivalent to the presidential administration and the Investigative Committee. A boycott of the state is something else entirely. It’s a campaign of civil disobedience, the direct prologue to a revolution. Perhaps one day the situation will come to something like that, but that wasn’t what I was talking about. And I was addressing some quite specific people.

– The Times (UK) writes about Boris Berezovsky’s will. In The Interpreter, Alexander Goldfarb looks at Berezovsky’s death in terms of theatre:

The interrelations inside and among the triangle of Sasha-Volodya-Boris, which ended with the polonium murder of Litvinenko and Berezovsky’s suicide on the banks of the Thames rise to the level of a Shakespearean drama not only because the backdrop includes untold wealth, the fate of the throne and the relations of states but because of the clash of characters and the play of passions; here there are loyalty, and betrayal, and revenge.

–  RFE/RL’s Berlin correspondent Yury Veksler on the continuing topicality of Joseph Goebbels and his Ministry of Propaganda:

Nonetheless, Joseph Goebbels is probably the only one of the Nazi leaders whose legacy, alas, is still relevant today. Almost every authoritarian regime, in building up its propaganda system, voluntarily or involuntarily bases itself on the techniques and methods that were once developed and tested by Goebbels’s ministry. It is fortunately true that since then the level of skill – and fanaticism – of most of the propagandists has clearly diminished. It is hard, for example, to imagine Joseph Goebbels saying the following: “I’m not really a liberal, but I don’t know whether I’m a conservative either. I try not to attach myself anywhere: for the most part it doesn’t matter, because I’m a member of the presidential administration, working for the head of state, and my convictions are my own business ” These are the words of Vladislav Surkov, who enjoys the reputation of the main propagandist of the current Russian regime. Propaganda that is not much believed even by its own creators is unlikely to be truly effective. Here Dr. Goebbels might have a lot to tell.

Update: Surkov has been fired. Or did he resign of his own volition?

Two sides of the same coin

The curious standoff between two types of political extremism on the fringes of Europe – yet in close proximity to the Russian Federation – continues unabated. Most recently,  Finland’s Helsingin Sanomat daily newspaper reported on one aspect of the affair, namely the news that Finland’s public prosecutor is demanding a jail term for the Finnish businessman Mikael Storsjö, who is accused of illegally helping dozens of Chechen refugees to enter Finland. But this is only a part of the ongoing situation, which involves a vitriolic campaign by two Finnish pro-Russian activists – the Lutheran pastor Juha Molari and the university lecturer Johan Bäckman – whose aim is apparently to call into question the activities of human rights campaigners in the North Caucasus, and also at the same time to challenge the policies of governments in the Baltic states, particularly those of Estonia and Latvia, with regard to their Russian-speaking minorities.

The problem for outside observers who are trying to make sense of it all is that the confrontation between Molari/Bäckman on the one hand, and Storsjö/pro-Islamist (Doku Umarov) Kavkaz Center website on the other, looks suspiciously like a manufactured conflict representing two sides of the same extremist coin.  Since most of the details are published either in Finnish or Russian on websites not normally visited or read by Western media, the potential for disinformation on these and related issues is probably rather high.