Kevin Rothrock is RuNet Echo project editor at Global Voices, a news site that reports on civil society around the world, and web editor at The Moscow Times, Russia’s longest-running English-language independent newspaper. He previously worked as an editor and translator at Meduza and, long before that, a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.
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By Sean — 9 years ago
Scott Anderson’s article “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power” is a throwback to the 1990s when ex-KGBmen turned mafioso, private security, or hired hands to execute nefarious plots. It is also a showcase of bygone figures. Once powerful, influential, or at least in the public eye who have since drifted into memory only to be periodically conjured up as partisan weaponry of high politics. You know the names: Boris Berezovsky, Alex Goldfarb, Aleksandr Litvinenko, and Mikhail Trepashkin. The latter serves as the hero of Anderson’s tale. The gatekeeper of a longstanding conspiracy that many Russians know well: The FSB carried out the apartment bombings on Guryanova St. in Moscow that brought down eight floors and killed ninety-four residents in their beds.
It’s been a while since Trepashkin’s name graced an English language publication. He’s spent the last several years serving two stints in the clank. In 2003, he was arrested for illegal arms possession and divulging state secrets (the former charge was eventually dropped, the latter stuck). And then just as he was freed in September 2005, he was scooped up again. He was released in 2007. Four years for likely trumped up charges. Such is what happens when you piss off the wrong people in Russia.
But now Trepashkin has come out of the woodwork to tell his story to Scott Anderson. But the details of the story aren’t really the issue. Anyone who’s familiar with the apartment bombings already knows the in-outs of the incident and the conspiracy theories behind them. Anderson didn’t even have to go to Russia. He could have just watched that horrible Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case documentary and got the story there.
The real story, however, is really the story itself. Indeed, as many Russia watchers discovered last week, Conde Nast, the company that owns GQ in Russia, made an executive decision to not run the story there. According to the NPR report on the matter:
“Conde Nast management has decided that the September issue of U.S. GQ magazine containing Scott Anderson’s article ‘Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power’ should not be distributed in Russia,” Birenz wrote.
He ordered that the article could not be posted to the magazine’s Web site. No copies of the American edition of the magazine could be sent to Russia or shown in any country to Russian government officials, journalists or advertisers. Additionally, the piece could not be published in other Conde Nast magazines abroad, nor publicized in any way.
The story doesn’t even exist on GQ’s English site. The only place you can read the story is on Gawker and a site called Ratafia Currant. So what made Conde Nast pull the plug? Self-censorship? Commercial interests? Or was it a plain PR stunt to bring attention to an article that would most likely be ignored? Who knows. I am more inclined to think the latter.
But the thing I find funny about all of this is Gawker‘s self-appointed mission to translate the article into Russian “as a public service” because “Condé Nast has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent Russians from reading a GQ article criticizing Vladimir Putin.” I mean, really what planet are they from? Um, the Iron Curtain, like, fell eighteen years ago. There isn’t a cloak of darkness over Russia that filers out anything anti-Putin. Take it from me, the Russians don’t need Americans to save them from themselves. The last time that happened, it didn’t work out to well for the Russians.
The truth is that this conspiracy isn’t new by any means. Nor does Anderson shed any new light on it. An internet search will turn up all sorts of versions of it. Hell, even the Russian wikipedia entry on the bombings chronicles the “unofficial versions” of the story. Yet Gawker is all ecstatic that a few Russian sites have picked up their Russian translation. One is a blog on LJ. The other is one of those creepy Russian nationalist forums. Now Russian news outlets have picked up on the story and adding their own conspiracies to explain the conspiracy. But the thing is there might not even be one. According to a statement from Nikolai Uskov, the editor-in-chief of GQ Russia, published in Nezavisimaya gazeta:
It is hard for me to comprehend how this company can prevent the distribution of its own magazine anywhere. What has reverberated on Ekho Moskvy and then repeatedly said on the Internet, is not completely correct: a Russian publisher, like any other media company, is an independent product. We’re not obligated to reprint American material, and moreover receive recommendations not to do so. I have personally not received any prohibitions or directions whatsoever from management about not translating or reprinting this article. But it would also not enter my head to do it. . . . Similar material in the Russian media would appear quite strange today. There is nothing in this article that is sensational.
Basically, the story is old news. And if there is an order to not translate and publish the story, Uskov hasn’t heard of it. That’s rather strange isn’t it?
So is Conde Nast’s act of “self-censorship” merely a back handed way to stir up criticism of Putin and the strangling of the press in Russia? Perhaps. But perhaps as Evgeny Morozov notes, it just might be pure incompetence on Conde Nast’s part and now they are suffering the whiplash of the Streisand Effect. After all, Conde Nast isn’t really getting anything from this but a bunch of negative press. But as they say even bad press is good press.
But the article and the whole stunt surrounding it might just be another opportunity to piss on Putin. Though the piss will come more in a trickle than a hot steady stream. His image among Americans is already so soiled that not even the toughest Tide Stain Release could wash it clean. One more story about a shadowy Putinist plot can’t make things any worse. Nevertheless, the timing is interesting. This week is tenth anniversary of the bombings and a month shy of ten years since Putin became Prime Minister. Digging up the conspiracy is just another reminder that the strongman of Russia might have gotten his power by exploiting a tragedy that was really carried out by his buds in the FSB.
Remember children, conspiracies happen over there in the dark shadowy world of Russia. It’s that whole “‘riddle wrapped up in an enigma” thang. Here in America, we rightfully dismiss our crackpot conspiracy theorists–from the 9/11 Truthers to the tin-foil wearing Trilateral Commission believers and Lyndon La Rouchites–for what they are: nutjobs. But their Slavic equivalents? Nah. Somehow they are bearers of the truth.Post Views: 407
By Sean — 9 years ago
The opening paragraph of Kommersant‘s article on Stanislav Markelov’s funeral reads:
Ostankinskoe cemetery where the jurist Stanislav Markelov was to be buried was heavily guarded. OMON, police buses, and patrol cars. They asked mourners to show the contents of their bags and required them to show documents. There were whispers in the crowd that police feared a terrorist attack. They expected high state officials to be among the double murders’ mourners. But government officials didn’t come (However, there were public politicians from both government and opposition). It’s notable that representatives of the Russian government also didn’t give any condolences. But yesterday Viktor Yushchenko send at telegram to his countrywoman. (The journalist Anna Baburova, who was shot after the lawyer, is a native of Ukraine.)
Not a consolatory peep from the Russian government? Then what were all those Robocops supposed to represent?Post Views: 196
By Sean — 10 years ago
Who is leading the tandem dance? Is it Medvedev’s or Putin’s turn this week? The answer to who is at top in Kremlin Inc. is superfluous to those who live at Russia’s poverty line. Like in most places, the little guy is mostly a creature for cardboard cut out used for political rhetoric and posturing to those inhabiting the commanding heights. For the class conscious lumpen, it’s not who’s dancing that matters. It’s the dance itself. Each twirl, dip, side step, or skip is another assurance that the Russian elite will remain prosperous and the Russian prols will have to continue fighting over the scraps that trickle down.
For those living at the very bottom of Russian society, that trickle down is a fine mist. With costs of food, energy, and other staples rising that mist is leaving many Russian more and more parched. All the Russians can take comfort in is that they are not alone. With food riots in Haiti, Bangladesh and Egypt, fuel costs hitting pocket books the world wide, and a commodities bubble fueling the shebang, one can only wonder what will come next. For the Russians, its a sign that being part of the globalization block party isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Medvedev may pirouette and motion to West as the source for the despair all he wants. But the nature of the economy can no longer be thought of in terms of states or even regions. It’s all connected making the latest global economic crisis structural in nature.
With rising inflation in Russia (up 5.3% in the last three months), those living at the poverty line are forced to make it by with less. According to the Russian State Department of Statistics, Rosstat, the minimum subsistence level in Moscow is 62 Euros a month (or about 95 in sinking dollars terms) . This is supposed to cover food, clothes, housing utilities, and transportation in the capital. As of 2006, 21.6 million (15.3%) of Russians live below this threshold. Just to add some perspective, a recent figure says that there are 131,000 millionaires in Russia. That’s about sixteen impoverished Russians to every one millionaire. Sixteen live on what every one minigarch throws down for decent sushi. Can living in Moscow on 62 Euros a month be done? If so, how?
For answers we have to turn to Polit.ru journalist Liz Surnacheva, who recently pulled a Barbara Ehrenreich to see if the seemingly impossible is indeed possible. She chronicled her travails in a three part series on Open Democracy. The latter recently teamed up with Polit.ru to provide a bit more comprehensive coverage of the Russian scene for the English reader.
In part one, Surnacheva quickly finds that Rosstat’s statistical “shopping basket” and what is actually possible to do with it are two different things. Also, she finds that livin’ on the line is not just about cheap food, its more about what one has to do to first find it and then not getting screwed over when you get it. Kiosks are cheaper, though you run the risk of getting cheated. Prices at supermarkets are “catastrophic.” “From now on,” Surnacheva writes, “everything that saves time is out: nothing oven-ready, and above all, no eating out. Breakfast cereals, yoghurt, sweetened curd cheese, buns, frozen ready-meals, pel’meni and pizzas have all become forbidden foods. Kinder, Kuchen, Kirche.” One day of shopping: 628 rubles 90 kopeks. 1552 rubles 80 kopecks left.
By the time part two is published, Surnacheva is down to 920 rubles 50 kopecks. Sick of the “soup selection,” she laments that she has no choice. “I can’t afford meat, poultry or fish.” The Moscow favorite business lunch is out and days at work are spent hungry. But what is most revealing is not that she’s not managing, but why. Here is her conclusions:
1. I’m inexperienced. This is my first attempt at living on so little money. The worst time in any crisis is the beginning, when you haven’t worked out a survival strategy.
2. I’m irrational. I can’t even turn the classic female trick of making a salad and a scandal out of nothing. My grasp of energy and nutrition values is weak. 2000 calories still means half a kilo of sugar to me rather than so much cereal, milk and meat. Apparently I even use carrots inefficiently – I’ve had readers explaining to me that that the body can’t digest raw carrots without fat.
3. I haven’t got my bearings. I haven’t a clue where to get things cheap, or what to buy. In the first week I discovered that a perfectly fresh carrot that’s broken is half the price, and that apples that cost 15-20 rubles per kilo do exist – they just don’t look so great. For me, the word ‘meat’ means an expensive cut, and I haven’t yet learned what to do with cheaper cuts, bones and offal.
4. I don’t belong to the local network. Those who live on really limited means belong to a sort of informal club, whose members know where, what and how much. The moment cheap dairy products appear on a neighbouring stall or good cheap meat in the market, its members find out about this from one another. Outsiders like me only get to hear about these bargains by accident.
5. I live alone. Of course it’s a bit different for families- wholesale is cheaper. I went to this conference on regional poverty a month or so ago. The researchers noted something interesting: people always think of pensioners as the group most at risk of poverty. Actually, the group most at risk are families with children. Without going into the reasons (discrimination against single mothers, tv propaganda about programmes of social support etc) I must admit I made this assumption myself when I took on the role of lonely pensioner for this experiment. True, it would have been complicated trying to simulate being a family with lots of children – I might have had to starve the entire editorial team of Polit.ru.
Apparently living poor isn’t just about surviving, it’s about surviving artfully.
In part three, it’s day twenty and Surnacheva is down to 583 rubles, 70 kopecks. Life is consumed with a new consciousness of prices and looking for alternatives and substitutes (margarine for butter, damaged fruit and vegetables for fresh ones, and organ meats–liver, kidneys, and bones–for quality meats). Other items are put into perspective. “I could live for half a day on dictaphone batteries, and as for a ticket for the Paul Anka concert at the Kremlin, I’d last almost six months on that.”
Advice from babushkas on the street and readers begins pouring in. “Eat ground elder and dandelions. Sunbathe. Make rusks. Buy sea kale. Make friends with some Uzbeks and eat pilaf. Plant Jerusalem artichokes,” a reader suggests. Students tell her to eat “lots of kasha,” pop vitamins instead of fruits and veggies, and processed and canned meats instead of the real deal. Heroin chic devs write in urging a diet plan where eating less is more. A spoonful of cottage cheese for breakfast and soup for dinner. Surnacheva admits she could live on six days with a diet like that. But for your average person? Forget it.
By day 31 she’s down to 18 rubles. Even her colleagues at Polit.ru began feeling sorry for her. Invitations to lunch and offers of food began to pour in. The desire to be fed restaurant food even leads her to agree to a date.
In the end, Surnacheva survived one month on Rosstat’s “shopping basket.” Barely. Proving that living in poverty is as much about how you live than what you have to live with. “I did survive,” she concludes, “but I won’t be doing it again.”
If only 20 million or so Russians had such a choice.Post Views: 341