Cult Leader Seduces Beslan Mothers

According an
article in the 20 September edition of Izvestia, the Beslan Mothers are under the influence of Grigorii Grabovoi, a cult leader who claims to be Jesus Christ. Now forget the fact that Grabovoi’s (????????) name contains the Russian root “????”, which means “to grab or take.” Or the fact that the verb formed from this root, ???????, means “to rob”. No, let us forget that the fact that this guy is a total charlatan is embedded in his namesake. This isn’t the first time Grabovoi has been associated with the tragedy in Beslan. Shortly after the incident, he declared that for 39,000 rubles, about $10,000, he could resurrect the children from the dead. Um . . . okay.

Grabovoi sounds like your typical cult leader. He claims to be the second coming of Christ, and the Trinity. His followers believe that he can perform all the biblical miracles: heal the sick, predict the future, control world events, bring peace to the world, and, it seems, even raise the dead. One of his latest “predictions” is that he will become the next President of Russia in 2008. Grabovoi says that his first act will be to “promulgate a law to prohibit death in the entire country.” He’s even created a political party to facilitate this, the Voluntary Messengers of the Doctrines of Grigorii Grabovoi (DRUGG). In Russian this acronym means “friend” but English speakers are likely to get a good laugh out of it. DRUGG has held six congresses. The Beslan Mothers attended the most recent on September 16 where they declared themselves to be Grabovoi’s followers. Izvestia got an audio recording of this congress which features Susanna Dunieva, the leader of the Beslan Mothers, giving a speech:

“We related to the teachings of Grigorii Petrovich and understood that we have one road and one purpose—to save humanity. We believe in resurrection. We have now become followers of Grigorii Petrovich. I know that God has many miracles. I always read [biblical] stories to my children (cries), and I taught them to believe in them, to believe in God. And I believe that this miracle with happen. This maternal heart gives me maternal faith (cries). I and the women who are together with us, we go on this path to the end for the sake of our children. We will fight so that [the Beslan massacre] will never be repeated. All of the women, who arrived here believe in [Grabovoi’s] teachings. If you only knew the peace we felt in our soul on the day of the funeral. We stuck our already world famous Beslan with labels [it seems that these “labels” contain Grabovoi’s inspiration sayings or doctrines. I am not sure what these are—Sean] of the distant direction of Grigorii Grabovoi. Thanks to all these labels we were calm on the day of the funeral, and I think that now always and everywhere everything will be calm, harmony will be in the world. In Beslan we tried to work with people, and we told them about the teachings of Grigorii Grabovoi, and we said that only we ourselves can save ourselves and our children. People understood us.” (My translation).

A woman in the crowd then shouted, “Why didn’t [Grabovoi] help us on September 1?” and just before black suited men rushed out of the room she managed to shout “Charlatan!” After the woman was thrown out of the auditorium, Grabovoi explained to the crowd that he knew about the terrorist attack and for two weeks he called the MVD, and even offered them some of his teachings, but the “corrupt bureaucrats didn’t believe him.”

There is something to be said of how these desperate women, having lost their children in such a horrifying incident, would gravitate to someone like Grabovoi. People like him feed on such tragedies. He promises them the impossible. He reaches into the depths of their sorrow and gives them a way, however an unbelievable and impossible way, out. At the moment of complete psychological shock, vultures like Grabovoi feast on the mind’s shattered remains.

True to form, the Beslan Mothers view the recent media assault on their relationship with Grabovoi as merely a secret police plot to discredit their cries for full governmental disclosure. In a statement on the Moscow radio station Ekho Moskvy, the Beslan Mothers said: “This trip is a provocation aimed at discrediting and getting rid of our movement. The liquidation plan has been planned by the intelligence agencies and the authorities.” Some of the Mothers claim that only ten members have fallen in with Grabovoi, even though the most visible mother, Susanna Dunieva is one of them.

There is nothing worse when such a horrible tragedy is turned into an utter farce.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see how far this farce will go. Grabovoi predicts that by October 14 there will be a mass resurrection in Beslan. Get your popcorn ready . . .


The Ukraine’s Orange “Revolution” continues to hover over Russian politics. In a speech given at Stanford University, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern about the growing number of Western NGOs in Russia. Given the influx of Soros money and the other financial backing of Ukrainian groups, especially the youth organization Pora, the Putin government has much to be concerned. For a while now, Administration officials have accused Western governments of funding Russian opposition forces. His comments, however, particularly targeted American NGO interference in Russia politics. As Lavrov told his Stanford audience:

“We appreciate that the USA has legitimate interests in the post-Soviet space, both in the field of combating terrorism and in accessing energy resources. These are entirely legitimate interests, which we do acknowledge, but we would want the methods by which they are realized to be understandable and transparent.”


“The number of non-governmental organizations in Russia is going up. The only thing we will not tolerate is for these organizations to be used to finance political activities, particularly from abroad. This would distort the national political process, thereby undermining the country’s development in the future.”

I can’t help relish the fact that Lavrov said this at Stanford, the traditional center of rabid anti-communism and to some extent, anti-Russianism. I also like Lavrov’s swipe at Stanford alumnus and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. “I suggest she read extracts from Russian publications with criticism of the Russian Federation authorities.” This isn’t Lavrov simply posturing. If you read Russian, and Condi does, you will find a lot of criticism of the Putin Administration in Russian print media. Far more that you’ll find of the Bush Administration in the United States. You won’t, however, find that same criticism on Russian television. Most of the major networks are either under the control of or are voluntarily sympathetic to Putin.

In other news, Putin will answer callers’ questions on a live television broadcast next Tuesday. He has conducted these live question and answers shows since 2001. He used his December 2003 live show to announce his running for a second term. There is also speculation he will address whether he will seek a third term as Russian President. Such a move would require changes to the Russian constitution.

The London Guardian has a story of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Dagestan. The article is just another example of the rapidity the Chechen War is spilling over into neighboring provinces. Many have been pointing out that the increased bombings in Dagestan and the rise of militancy threatens to engulf the region.

The show trial of the Andijan15 is underway in Uzbekistan. The fifteen are accused of attempting to overthrow the Uzbek government in May 2005. The Uzbek government blames the uprising on Muslim extremists. According to independent investigations, Uzbek security forces massacred up to 700 people. The government claims only 187 people died in the uprising. Since May, Uzbekistan has prevented the return of Andijan refugees who are in UNrefugee campsin Romania and arrested and tortured scores of alleged “conspirators,” according to a recently released report by Human Rights Watch.

In an what I think is an unprecedented story, Boris Kostruba, a Russian metro officer has been sentenced to 9 years in prison for shooting a 20-year-old migrant worker from Tajikistan, Rustam Baibekov, as he tried to enter the Moscow Metro without paying. According to Mosnews, “Kostruba detained Baibekov, found he had no Moscow registration, started demanding money from him and after a refusal shot him in the mouth.” All I can say is: What the fuck!? Moscow Metro militsia are known as rather violent and corrupt bunch. The list of their activities include: bribery, hassling and beating non-Russians and tourists, and even raping young women as they travel home late at night. Usually nothing ever happens to them. So the surprise for this story is not the fact that Kostruba shot Baibekov in the mouth for skipping the metro fare. It’s that he was actually sent to prison for doing it.


I’ve left Russia. My ten month research trip is finally over. I won’t bore readers with all of the emotion I felt leaving a place that began to feel like home. I’ve decided a while ago not to make this blog that type of blog. There are enough egoists on the net who feel that the intimacies of their life are worthy of public display. Suffice to say that Moscow is an amazingly magnetic city. I met many wonderful people who I know will always be part of my life.

But the question remains: since this blog was created because of trip to Russia, what happens now that I’m no longer there? I’ve decided that I rather enjoy writing about Russian current events as much as about its history. And from talking to some of you (most of who are my friends), it seems that my thoughts on these matters are appreciated. Therefore, I’ve decided to make this a permanent thing. I figure that if anything this will aid my career as an academic, or provide an avenue for a different career path. We’ll see. But let there by no mistake. My main reason for doing this is because I enjoy it.

Now that I’m home and have better access to the internet and other resources, there are a few things I want to add/change about the blog.

  1. A consistent schedule for posting. So far, I’ve tried to post at least once a week. I’ve been moderately successful in this. I would like to increase to posting two times a week, with hopes of three. For now I will post on Tuesdays and Fridays, and if this works and I can manage the time, hopefully I will also include Sunday.
  2. More frequent shorter postings that highlight news about Russia and more infrequent longer articles and book reviews about particular themes. If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I post rather long pieces. My hope shorter ones will allow me post more frequently. The difficulty will be in transforming my verbosity into brevity.
  3. Guest writers. I want to start including pieces by some people I know who also make Russia their career. If they are willing to go a long with this, it will provide more voices besides my own. I especially want to include more book reviews and including other people will help with this.
  4. I would like to hear from those who consistently read the blog. Some of you have posted comments, and though I don’t always respond, I do read and enjoy them. I would like readers to give their input to what they think I should include. My long term hope is that if people post comments this might start discussion on some of the issues I bring up.
  5. Adding links and other resources is an on going project. This will expand as time goes on. I’m trying to keep the Russian language links at a minimum since I presume most readers don’t read Russian. I will however continue to include links to Russian sites I find interesting.

In addition to all this, look out for a piece on the phenomenon of dedovshchina in the coming week. Dedovshchina or “rule of the grandfathers” is the culture of hazing in the Russian military. Last year Human Rights Watch released a 90 page report on its rituals, frequency, and effects on recruits and the military. If the Russian government ever comes around to the necessity for military reform (which they are avoiding like the plague), dealing with dedovshchina will be a major issue.

Also, to continue with my reporting on youth politics in Russia, look for a piece on the recent attack on the National Bolsheviks by alleged Nashi activists. In late August, a meeting of the Natsbols and representatives of the Communist Youth League, Red Youth Vanguard, and Za Rodina were attacked by 30 masked men with baseball bats and air guns. This incident only points to the increasing role of violence between youth groups. It possibly is another prelude to what tactics groups like Nashi will use during the 2008 Presidential Elections.

Finally, I want to thank everyone whose been reading. The hits on the site have been steadily increasing, with readers from the United States, Russia, France, Germany, Kazakhstan, and Sweden. Keep reading and I’ll keep writing.

Beslan: One Year Later

Though the recent cloudy and rainy days signal the end of summer, its official end comes with the sudden appearance of children on the streets of Moscow. These bright young faces, dressed to the hilt for their first day of school are also a grim reminder. September 1-3 marks one year since the Beslan Massacre.

On the morning of September 1, 2004 Chechen terrorists took hostage Beslan School No. 1 in the small town of Beslan in North Ossetia. The hostage takers demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. For three days 1,200 adults and children were held hostage as Russia and the world watched. On September 3 all hell broke loose. When a FSB sniper shot one of the terrorists who had a bomb, thus setting it off, Russian forces stormed the school. It was then that the details get murky. Overwhelming force was unleashed on the school, including helicopter gunship fire and even a tank. Some claim that terrorists began shooting hostages held in the school gym. Others claim that FSB agents indiscriminately fired rounds into the school, killing many hostages. As chaos broke out, parents, themselves armed, ran toward the school to save their children. Teachers and children fled out of it. When the smoked cleared 330 hostages were killed, including 186 children. 918 hostages were rescued. Quickly dubbed, 9/1 following America’s 9/11, the Beslan massacre sent shock waves across the Russian body politic. Blame for the deaths was and continues to fall on both Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warlord who organized the act, to Russian President Vladimir Putin, for failing to prevent it.

Beslan has become symbolic of many things over the last year. It is a reminder of Russia’s brutal and seemingly never ending war in Chechnya. It is a symbol of Russia’s weakness, even while Putin has created an image of decisive and authoritarian strength. It has drawn Russia further, whether rhetorically or in actuality, into the “global” war against terrorism and Islamic extremism. Beslan, along with the terrorist raid on the Nord-Ost Theater in October 2002, killing 129; the February 2004 Moscow subway bombings, which killed 39; another metro bombing at Rizhskaya in October 2004, which killed 10; and blowing up of two passenger planes in August 2004, killing 89, has become a symbol of Russia’s inability to provide security against terrorism. In a recent poll, 65% of Russians polled believe that the authorities cannot protect them against terrorist attacks. Many Russians are still looking for answers of how this tragedy happened, who is to blame, and what can be done to prevent another. This search for the “whys” of Beslan, answers to which might provide not only psychological comfort to the victims’ families, but also to the nation, has been dubbed by some the “Belsan Syndrome.”

The so-called “Beslan Syndrome” goes beyond Beslan itself. How can one forget how Putin used the massacre to scrap the election of governors for their appointment by the Kremlin? Officials claim plans for the ditching regional elections were in the works for months. Beslan, however, provided the perfect political opportunity to unfurl them. Beslan also caused no reevaluation of the Chechen War. Moscow’s doctrine of overwhelming force continues unabated. It trudges further down the rabbit hole. Any hope of a political solution died with the killing of moderate Chechen separatist Aslan Maskhadov. Now the nationalist-Islamist Shamil Baseyev is now the de facto leader of Chechen independence. The conflict has moved to the border of Dagestan and bombings are becoming more common in Ingushetia. A year after Beslan, the Chechen War threatens to engulf that region.

The town of Beslan remains sorely divided between those who lost love ones and those who didn’t. Suspicion informs how each side deals with the other. The scores of official delegations, visitors, and journalists heading to the southern town have only increased the stress. Most of all, residents cannot understand how their own neighbors aided the terrorists. One man is on trial for allowing the terrorists into the town for a bribe of 500 rubles ($20). Many are blaming the school’s director for hiring maintenance workers who turned out to be the terrorists.

Thousands have showed up at the school to morn. Thirty women from the Beslan Mother’s Committee began a three day hunger strike and spent the night in the school to commemorate the incident. Forty others slept in the local cemetery where the victims are buried. According the one report in the Moscow Times, the tensions between citizens are high:

“[Zoya] Gadiyeva said her 38-year-old son died of heart attack just five months after the attack because he could not handle the stress.

“Why didn’t you do anything to protect them?” she berated the police.

“I will cry everyday until I reach you over there,” she said, turning to the pictures of her daughter and granddaughter.

Nearby, an old woman in black sang a song in Ossetian. “You all died and still the authorities are hiding the truth from us,” the woman sang, according to a translator. “Tell me, my dears, where should we go for the truth?”

A policeman told her to be quiet, and she retorted in Russian: “You haven’t lost anyone. You should have protected my children, but you failed, and now you are trying to shut me up?”

A group of screaming women tried to stop the principal of School No. 1, Lidia Tsaliyeva, from entering the gym. One woman ran up and tried to hit her on the head, connecting only lightly before police carried her away.

Some men then approached her. “How dare she come here today,” one man yelled.

“She is responsible for the death of our children. She betrayed us,” screamed Batras Tsalago as she tried to get near Tsaliyeva.

Police officers quickly surrounded Tsaliyeva and escorted her away.”

The politics of Beslan also continues in Moscow. Putin met with three members of the Beslan Mothers’ Committee. Many of the mothers blame Putin himself for the tragedy and they vow to make their views clear. “I will say that we think President Putin is to blame for what happened. As for what else I will say, well I am unpredictable and I can’t tell the exact words I will use but it will be serious,” says Susanna Dudiyeva, whose 12-year-old son Zaurbek was killed in the incident. The meeting however is being hailed in the media as a “precedent” for all of Russia. Putin is known to steer clear of any meetings with angry voters.

It is hard to not see this move by Putin as pure political calculation, rather than a genuine concern for the views of the Mothers’ Committee. During the meeting, Putin promised to punish those who “blundered” and a full and open investigation. What else could he say? His statements were so predictable they sound trite. His words, however, did their job. The Mothers seemed satisfied, though cautious.

There is a struggle between the State and society over the memory of Beslan. There is attempt by the Russian State to incorporate 9/1, like 9/11 in the United States, into its own narrative. Nothing shows this more than the black posters with “??? ????” (No Words) that appeared inside metro cars a week ago. At first I thought these were done by the Mothers’ Committee because the posters announce a meeting in solidarity with the victims of Beslan. It was only yesterday did I find out that Nashi, the pro-Putin youth group, were the source of the posters and sponsors for the meeting. Nashi has erected a large stage down the street from Red Square and plan to hold their “meeting” on Saturday. Yesterday, Nashi activists, dressed in black windbreakers with “??? ????” written across them could be seen in the city’s center.

There is a poem on the Nashi website that is telling of how the memory of Belsan is being turned. How the general grief of the public is being consolidated into that of the State. The poem reads:

We are one country. One people.
The murdered us.
The subhumans want us to be afraid of them.
When we sleep in our homes,
When we go in the metro,
When we rest,
When we take our children to school.
This will not happen. One year ago—3 September—Beslan.
There are no words that can describe this tragedy.
There are no words able to voice all the pain and sorrow
For those who will never walk the earth.
That who did this will be eternally damned.
They will only be remembered
In life.
For them,
Everything will be done so that this won’t be repeated.
A meeting of silence at the monument for the victims of Beslan.
No words.

It says that there are “no words.” However, between the lines of remembrance is a deafening silence that calls for revenge; a statement of absolute victimhood that produces a silence that covers up the context of their murder. Nashi is wrong. There are words. One word really. A word denied in this poem, and thus silenced from memory. That word is Chechnya.

Katrina’s Death Blow

Events have called for a pause in speaking about Russia. It is impossible for me to take in the force of the news. Reports from CNN and other news outlets give a gruesome picture. Democracy Now! has done some excellent reporting. I encourage readers to tune into to their episodes over the past few days. All of the tensions that under “normal” circumstances lie below the surface of New Orleans has exploded to the surface, fueled by desperation, frustration, and anger. All I feel here in Moscow is sorrow, bewilderment, frustration, anger, and embarrassment of the inadequate response by the Unites States Government. So many people are suffering, and it seems all people can do is moralize about looting. Are we so naive to think this wouldn’t happen!? There isn’t much more for me to say that hasn’t or is being said by many media outlets around the country.

Take for example, an editorial by the New Hampshire Union, one of the most conservative newspapers in the country, wrote a blistering editorial against the Bush Administration’s response, or lack thereof. The editorial reads in part:

“As the extent of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation became clearer on Tuesday — millions without power, tens of thousands homeless, a death toll unknowable because rescue crews can’t reach some regions — President Bush carried on with his plans to speak in San Diego, as if nothing important had happened the day before.

Katrina already is measured as one of the worst storms in American history. And yet, President Bush decided that his plans to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VJ Day with a speech were more pressing than responding to the carnage.”

A desperate and empassionate editorial from the Biloxi, Mississippi’s Sun Herald asks:

“Yet where is the National Guard, why hasn’t every able-bodied member of the armed forces in South Mississippi been pressed into service? On Wednesday reporters listening to horrific stories of death and survival at the Biloxi Junior High School shelter looked north across Irish Hill Road and saw Air Force personnel playing basketball and performing calisthenics. Playing basketball and performing calisthenics! When asked why these young men were not being used to help in the recovery effort, our reporters were told that it would be pointless to send military personnel down to the beach to pick up debris.”

Many are noting how the response by the National Guard has been hampered by the Iraq War. 40% of Mississippi’s National Guard and 35% of Louisiana’s are in Iraq. I can’t imagine the frustration of these soldiers having to watch and not help their families and neighbors.

And finally, as the fears and warnings that it was not if a hurricane like Katrina would strike New Orleans and Gulf Coast, but when, come to fruition, NOW there is recognition that all the reporting New Orleans’ The Times-Picayune about Crescent City’s inadequate infrastructure. As usual too little to late.

I know the traffic on this site isn’t heavy, but being on the other side of the planet I feel obligated to at least list organizations where people can donate money, goods, etc.

American Red Cross
Operation USA
Salvation Army

Slezkine’s Mercurian Century

“The Modern Age is the Jewish Age, and the twentieth century, in particular, is the Jewish Century.” Such is the opening line of Yuri Slezkine’s intriguing and controversial book, the Jewish Century. Slezkine charts modernity through the journey of one, albeit significant, ethnic/religious group: Russia’s Jews. It’s a story about shedding and becoming, triumph and tragedy; about how Russian Jews became more Soviet than Jew, and how in the end they were too Jewish to be Russian. The Jewish Century is also a narrative of how the twentieth century is about how all of us, in a sense, have become Jewish.

Slezkine’s argument is complex and its implications profound. If modernity is about becoming urban, mobile, and literate; if it is about being ripped from the land and thrust into the abyss of free labor; if it is about the dissolution of national borders and everyone becoming nomads; and if it is about the struggle of the self to reconcile the plethora of modern “identities”, then the Jews represent the most adaptive group to these changes. Within their culture and tradition is something best suited for dealing with the fact that in the modern age,

“All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.” (The Communist Manifesto)

The Jew is a chameleon, a shape shifter, a mimic man. Ironically, these are also stereotypes many have used to persecute Jews. In a way, the anti-Semites of the 19th century already wrote Slezkine’s argument. Except that their pen was not a computer in Berkeley, California. Nor were they driven by a deep academic humanism. Their passion was forged with the cold steel of violence. Their ink was blood. This is not to say that Slezkine rewrites all anti-Semite paranoia to the melody of a new key. Not at all. He turns them on their head. He takes their stereotypes seriously in order to measure the place of Jews in modern society. His study is the return of the repressed. In the end, his heroes are not the shifty-eyed Jew found in anti-Semite propaganda. They are the heroes of the twentieth century. Their tale is filled with irony, triumph, tragedy, and sorrow which make their experience transcend all classes, ethnicities, geographies, and cultures. The Jews are models for us all.

Yet, while the Jews are the models for the modern, their particular journey disavowals it. As we were becoming more modern, that is more “Jewish,” the Jews themselves were becoming more like us. They either suppressed their Jewishness in favor of identification with an over arching national identity: Russian, German, etc; or if their host country foreclosed assimilation, they became hyphenated, split: Jewish-American, Russian-Jew, German-Jew. They were almost the same but not quite, hampered by the primordialism of their “blood.” And blood was the curse of the modern age. As science categorized the “races” into advanced and primitive, blood became the marker of being in the last instance. Culture, with all its messiness and malleability, was streamlined into the fixed empiricism of science. Jews could therefore become Germanized and Russified but never really German or Russian. Their blood contained an essence, a one millionth of one percent that made them, despite all efforts, Jewish. If the modern age was about the mobility of body and fluidity of self, then the very ideology of modernity itself, the search for absolute scientific truth and origin, was its own contradiction. Because of their cultural adaptability, the Jews were never really fully outside, but because of their blood they could never be completely inside either.

This in-betweeness was the nature of what Slezkine calls the Mercurians. The Mercurians followed the example of the Greek god Hermes (Mercury), who was “the god of all those who did not herd animals, till the soil, or live by the sword; the patron of rule breakers, border crossers, and go-betweens; the protector of people who lived by their wit, craft, and art.” Mercurians are those groups who mockingly danced on the borders of the hegemonic. They are the Romani of Europe, the Sikhs of India, the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, the Kanjar of Pakistan, and the Margi of Sudan. They are the diasporic populations who wonder the Earth as traders, beggars, shopkeepers and because of this they were the subject of primitive capitalist accumulation; the circuitry of a vast emerging economic network.

However, every concept has its Cain. For the Mercurians it was the Apollonians. These people were the settled and the agrarian. They also inhabited the halls of political power and looked at the Mercurians with a suspicious eye and branded them as the unwashed, the barbaric, and the primitive. For their part, the Mercurians stared back with the same piercing epithets. Instead of throwing themselves into the whirlwind of the modern, the Apollonians painstakingly tried to turn back the clocks of time. They built nations to ward off the specters of modernity for the world was theirs to lose. They were the universal to the Mercurians’ particular.

But the forces of capital were not easily tamed. By the late 19th century, the world the Apollonians knew, the world that they made turned on them. Qualitative presence of the market began trumping quantitative superiority of the fields. It became a world determined by dancing tables rather than the till. Concrete and steel replaced dirt and wood. The Appolonian nations became besieged from within and from without by ethnic and cultural aliens. The particular was rapidly becoming the universal. For those caught in this social-economic tempest, it was sink or swim. All the values that defined Apollonian life and tradition were now fetters to be overcome. All the values that defined the Mercurians became the template for modern man.

Though well suited for the birth of modernity, at the same time the Mercurians were potentially tragic figures. Contrary to some of their fellow Mercurians, like say the Romani, many Jews strove, out of desire or necessity, to go beyond the cultural and political borders that their culture professed or that others ascribed. So while mobility was integral to the Mercurian way, Russia’s Jews rejected it. Here Slezkine looks to Sholem Aleichem’s classic Tevye the Dairyman to develop a wonderful metaphor out of Tevye’s daughters: Hodl, Chava, and Beilke. All three desired to find solid footing in the quicksand of modernity. Hodl looked beyond herself to Communism to become part of a greater nation founded on the international of peoples. On the surface, Communism provided a conversion narrative to a higher organization of humanity with its attempt to perfectly wed Apollonianism and Mercurianism. That is, a state that produced Mercurians with Apollonian faces that was national in form and socialist in content. But Communism could only get ideally beyond ethnicity; it never could really overcome it. The Soviet attempt to right historical wrongs with its minorities required the constant positing of ethnicity as a concrete identity. I will return to this point below. Chava, on the contrary, became a Zionist and looked to the future Jewish nation to give her blood and culture hallowed ground. The myth of Palestine provided fulfilled biblical prophecy and utopian desire. A Jewish state, even adrift in a sea of Arabs, could potentially be the only place where otherness could turn into an expression of self. Beilke went to America, the most Mercurian of modern nations. American liberalism, it seemed, provided the best ideological compromise between Mercurianism and Apollonianism. It was a state without a nation. All of its immigrants forsake their various ethnicities to fit under the broad mestizo umbrella of Americanism. American capitalism, however, produced other contradictions that the mestizo umbrella could not reconcile. Some immigrants, because of their “race” were able to become more American than others. For others, only political struggle could Americanize, that is to say, “whiten” their skin. In the end, America’s supposed Mercurian equality turned out to be window dressing for a racialized Apollonian hierarchy. It was capitalist in form and racial in content. In the context of 1930s America, this made Liberalism the least ideologically attractive to Chava’s children. The American “wilderness” only conjured dreams of other, future worlds. There in the “land of Liberty”, Chava’s children remained “uncertain Jews and incomplete Americans, while believing their cousins in Russia were “native-born Russians and perfect Soviets.”

It is these “native born Russians” and “perfect Soviets” that are at the center of Slezkine’s story. He shows the metrics of Jewish representation in the Soviet project, from their high percentages in the Communist leadership and the secret police to their overrepresentation in Soviet intellectual and cultural circles. His statistics reverse any doubt as to Jews’ influence. Russia’s Jews, formerly relegated to the Pale became an essential part of the establishment of Soviet hegemony over Russian social and cultural space. If the long term goal of Soviet modernity was the birth of the New Soviet Person (novyi sovetskii chelovek), Soviet “Jews” overfilled the cribs of its maternity ward.

Then everything changed. Every major Soviet nationality had a room in the Soviet communal apartment of nations. Because the Jews had no geographical space of their own like their Armenian, Georgian and Uzbek brethren, they “fixed” themselves in the room of Soviet national identity. For a time, this room was a comfortable one. But the Soviet state eventually evicted them, like so many others. The Great Terror eliminated a whole stratum of Soviet elite and promoted in their place were mostly Russians of peasant and worker origin. This new strata buttressed by the Russian patriotism of the Great Patriotic War, “began to think of itself as the legitimate heir to the Russian imperial state and Russian cultural tradition.” This, along with Hitler’s “final solution,” made many Soviet “Jews” consider something that they hadn’t in many years, and for some, for the first time. Despite all their efforts to subjugate the self, they were, in the end, simply Jews. Culture couldn’t wash away blood. In the climate of the Cold War and the creation of Israel, which aligned with the capitalist West, Soviet Jews became an internal enemy just like any other. The expression of Jewish culture was now a nationalist act. Their assimilation became a mask that had to be ripped off to reveal their true face. Stalinist Russia sought to remove their influence through extralegal repression and violence. Post-Stalinist Russia did it through legal means: the social promotion of everyone but Jews.

The “discovery” of Jewish overrepresentation in the Soviet elite was more than a result of policy and paranoia. It was the outcome of a biopolitics that is at the core of modernity. The modern state’s desire to catalog its population according to a connection between blood and culture made all efforts to develop an individual identity born of free will a fruitless one. Populations, Soviet or otherwise, could never really escape the ethnic stamp the state gave them. Identity was always first a negotiation of categories that were a priori. Biopolitics was an Apollonian mechanism to fix the emerging Mercurian fluidity. States’ adoption of what Foucault called “governmentality” required its populations to be decipherable objects that could be compartmentalized into the prison house of the nation, and by that very act, those objects were transformed into subjects. The Soviet state was no different. The effort to fulfill the utopianism of Marx’s statement, “to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic,” (The German Ideology) was undermined by the very categories that were the metrics of Soviet progress. The state wanted, no, needed to know the quantity and quality of its population. It needed to measure its present self against its past and its future. The withering away of ethnicity demanded knowledge about the cultural and economic quality of said ethnicity. Every time the state asked: How many Jews there were in higher education compared to Uzbeks, it only unwilling regenerated what Althusser called the “reproduction of the means of reproduction.” Every statistical report on ethnicity maintained a compartment for the Jew, even if the Jews themselves had no desire to fill it. Thus, the Soviet project destroyed the Jew as a signifier as it simultaneously retained Jew as a signified.

By the 1970s, triumph and irony turned to tragedy. The postwar effort to marginalize Russia’s Jews from political, social, and intellectual life only generated doubt in their belief in Communism. As Slezkine puts it, “Communists might have children, . . . but Communism did not.” The Soviet system, which many of Hodl’s generation themselves helped create, appeared to her children and grandchildren as only the apogee of exclusion, violence, and repression. With Soviet Communism now thoroughly corrupt, and its utopian pretensions made utterly na?ve, Hodl’s descendants increasingly reconciled themselves to their other two options: Zionism and Liberalism. Thus, the one sided love affair with Russian Communism ended not because Jews weren’t willing to commit themselves. It ended because in the end when Communism looked into its lover’s eyes, it did not see a faithful communist. It only saw a Jew.

Still, a larger question haunts Slezkine’s study. Given that Russia’s Jews are one of many Mercurian groups, one can and should ask: what makes the Jews so different from other Mercurians? Why do they represent the modern, while to suggest similarly about the Romani would elicit laughter? Is it their cultural tradition, their prominence in the arteries of capital, and their presence in the high priesthood of Western knowledge? I think that it is this and more. Slezkine’s Jews represent modernity in part because their history deals with a particularly modern problem: the struggle to reconcile the fractured self into a coherent whole. As those living on the edge of society, straddling the border between inside and outside, the European/Russian Jew is fractured at birth. To be a Jew is both an ethnic and a religious category. For some Jews, to be religious is to automatically be ethnically Jewish, and thus in a disasporic context they remain more outside than inside. Yet, for the secular Jew who aspires to be more inside than outside, there is a tension, even a schizophrenia, around the fact that to be Jewish is to be part of an ethnic and a cultural lineage that may disavowal the religious but never really escape its cultural power to define what is Jewish. (As a side note, the issue of religion is glaringly absent from Slezkine’s book and requires comment. Unfortunately, I must refrain from commenting on this absence here.) This tension has the potential affect to push them toward a dialectical synthesis, not with Jewish ethnicity and religion, but with the hegemonic cultural space they occupy. One may, for example, identify him or herself as a German-Jew that is more German than Jewish. However, the hyphenation at the center of hybridity constantly points to the ethnic Jew, which points to the cultural Jew, which also points, no matter how much it is denied, to the religious Jew. This is not to suggest that religion is the determinant of Jewish in the last instance. It is only to suggest that as a category and possibly as an identity, Jewish cannot completely exist without it.

And why is this struggle for the self connected to the general problem of the self and modernity? The story of Jewish identity in Europe and Russia is an allegory for the displacement we all experience in the age of global capital. If we have or are still becoming Mercurian, the mobility of capital requires the mobility of people. The logic of capital, according to Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, is to transform us all into nomads. Yet, despite the increase in nomads, whether they be the Turk in Germany, the African in France, the Mexican in America, the Pakistani in Britain, or for that matter, the American in Russia, nation states and nationality still matter more than ever, making all those nomads out of place. They are the new diasporics marooned on the islands of nations. We diasporics are confronted with the same question the Jews of the nineteenth century were: Do I remain outside or proceed inside? And if I go inside, will they let me in and what will it cost me? Who will I become and will I still be me? Globalization turns us all into potential mimics for “power has wielded the most extreme violence against this mobility.” (Empire) This effort at fixity proliferate the discomfort of being almost the same, but not quite. It subjects all of us to what Homi Bhabha calls the repeated turn “from mimicry—a difference that is almost nothing but not quite—to menace—a difference that is almost total but not quite.” It is this movement between mimicry and menace that made the slippage from Jew to Soviet and back to Jew again so utterly tragic.

The Natsbols Rise Again [Updated]

It seems that many of Russia‘s opposition parties can now breath a sigh of relief. Today, the Russian Supreme Court overturned the Moscow Regional Court‘s banning of the National Bolshevik Party. If you remember, the Natsbols were outlawed in June for violating Russia‘s political party law. The Natsbols originally filed as a political party, but was ruled to be a social organization. They offered to drop “Party” from their name to no avail. The overturning of the ban is already being hailed as some sort of victory for Russian democracy. As a editorial on stated, “By reversing the ruling of a lower court to ban the National Bolshevik Party, the Supreme Court restored the rights not only of Eduard Limonov’s supporters, but of contemporary Russian politics as a whole.”

While I support the overturning of the ban, I am continually fascinated by all the attention the Natsbols get in the Russian media and how, it seems, Russian democracy is connected to their fate. They are a small, albeit radical group whose tactics have garnered a lot of attention. But it could be easy to simply write them off as a insignificant group of disaffected youths who’ve found meaning in Edward Limonov’s cult celebrity. But things don’t work that way here and the Russian government has a tendency to undermine itself. The ban is just one example. The show trial of the 39 Natsbol “Decembristy” is another. The trial has gotten a lot of sympathy from otherwise apathetic Russians. The State’s heavy hand has not played well with the public, many of who see the Natsbols as symbolizing the frustration of many youths. It’s the frustration that many see as the problem, not the youths themselves. Putin Administration’s persistence against these kids has in many ways created the Natsbols as much as Limonov did. Putin has played right into Limonov’s hands.

The Natsbols, however, do represent a brewing battle for Russia‘s youth. As I’ve written in other reports, there is an effort by pro-government groups like Nashi to assert themselves as the representatives of youths. If Nashi is one option for political youth, the Natsbols represent another. Yet, the scope of the Natsbol’s influence is difficult to measure. Some say there are only a few thousand members; the Natsbols themselves claim that they have up to 17,500 activists with the average age of 20. The real numbers are probably closer to a few thousand, maybe even hundreds. Despite the low or high membership numbers, the Natsbols as a political aesthetic goes beyond organization. In many ways, their radicalism and tactics makes them the most attractive group to disaffected youths. They have reached the zenith of cool.

The Natsbols also represents more. According to the editorial from, their presence in a country that has a history of political radicalism is a further sign of the weakness of Russian democracy:


“The NBP work for themselves, and for everyone else. Had there been a real opposition party in Russia that represented the opinion of those that don’t agree with the current regime, the NBP could have remained a small radical sect, as it was at the end of the 1990’s. But as it is, anti-Putin groups can consider themselves to be anything they want “parties, movements, interest clubs” but not real political forces. The popularity of the NBP and the sympathy it has from those people who would otherwise find the words “National Bolshevik” disgusting proves that there is something obviously unhealthy about the current state of Russian politics.

Once again the National Bolshevik Party is catapulted to heights that even itself doesn’t profess, but I’m sure, would not refuse. The editorial continues, the party in power, United Russia, is a “bureaucratic” party which is bent maintaining the status-quo. Further, since Russia‘s democratic institutions are merely “plaster casts,” that is they merely fake real ones, the Natsbols’ mocking of power and politics fits well in a system that already parodies itself. In a way, the Natsbols have become the real opposition because the “fake” one is not only without ideology, it is without will. And this difference of will, according to this editorial, is what gives the Natsbols real political meaning: “And that’s because the NBP is the only party that not only talks, but does something too. As best as it can, of course. “

That “best it can” has been more than many “real” (or is it “fake”?) Russian politicians have done to become an effective opposition. The Natsbols radical profile and antics have filled a vacuum of sorts by doing what Limonov created them for: to scream a big fuck you to power.


It seems that the battle for the streets slated for the 2008 Russian Presidential elections is gearing up. According to Ekho Moskvy, as reported by, Alexander Averin, a National Bolshevik spokesman, claims that six of its members were beaten by 30 members of Nashi with baseball bats and empty beer bottles. How does Averin know that they were Nashi? They were “trendily dressed young men.” Averin believes that the attack was associated with the overturning of the ban on Natsbols.

Perhaps there is something to Boris Kargalitsky’s recent opinion on how the political activities of Russia‘s youths are attracting more attention. And this attention has everything to do with the upcoming elections:


“Politicians’ recent interest in Russia‘s youth is inversely related to their interest in elections. The opposition has split into two groups: those who are willing to go to the polls and have already made their peace with defeat, and those who are ready to take to the streets and address disputed issues there. But the liberal elite that is fed up with President Vladimir Putin is not about to go and take a blow from a police truncheon themselves. Only the radical youth — whether they are on the far left or right is unimportant — will be hitting the streets in protest. No matter who wins the battle for political power in Russia, they will not be sharing it with these young people anyway.

Those in the Kremlin understand this all perfectly well, and they formed Nashi according to this very principle. When a bunch of policemen beat up some kid protesting on the street, the regime has done something wrong. But when two gangs of young radicals brawl in the street, it’s a minor riot. The authorities have no choice but to step in and reestablish order.”

Pieces on the chessboard of Russian politics. Kargalitsky is right when he says that it is unlikely that in exchange for their defense of the “nation”, Nashi will be given the country. He concludes, “The grown-ups who run the country have no intention of giving anything to anyone. They have kids of their own, after all, who would never stoop to fighting in the street.”

Despite decades of class consciousness being shoved down the throat of Russia‘s population, real class consciousness only embodies the minds of the ruling class. The millions that live to scrape by are once again abiding by the historical fact that nationalism always trumps class interest. Or one should more accurately state, for the ruling classes nationalism and class interest reinforce each other without contradiction. For everyone else, nationalism contradicts class interest. The blade of the former smites the latter.

One only needs to do a class analysis of Nashi and the Natsbols to see polarization in process. There is no doubt that Nashi’s ranks are filled with middle class youths who aspire to play a role in Russia‘s bourgeois future. The Natsbols, on the other hand, appeal to the “disaffected youth” a code word for Russia‘s new working class–little education, no prospects, and therefore no future. Time will tell if this symbolic battle between youths will become a real one. It looks like Nashi has their bats and bottles ready. Do the Natsbols? Will they soon trade in their eggs and mayonnaise for the weapons of their enemies?

Молчание = Смерть (Silence = Death)

For Rodrick.

Two weeks ago readers of the Moscow Times were met with a rather chilling article on the front page. The headline: “Growing Number of Army Draftees Have HIV”. According to Major General Valery Kulikov the number of draftees rejected by the Russian army with HIV “skyrocketed by 27 percent over the past five years.” Last fall, 9000 were rejected for having HIV. Before 2000, only 300 were rejected. The military admits that this new figure is difficult to quantify because there aren’t reliable numbers of HIV/AIDS of the population as a whole to compare to, the extreme reluctance of the Russian armed forces to discuss the matter, the lack of equipment for reliable testing, plus recruits are not systematically tested. In many ways the military is a microcosm of the overall problem of HIV/AIDS in Russia.

The prognosis for Russian is not good. For 2004, UNAIDS estimates 420,000 to 1.4 million cases of HIV/AIDS, compared to the official Russian figure of 240,000. By 2020, they predict 5.3 million to 14.5 million cases, and 252,000 to 648,000 HIV/AIDS related deaths per year. For female sex workers, the estimates are staggering: 33.3% of female sex workers between 15-19 years old, 63.5% 20-24 years old, and 40% between 30-34 years old are infected with HIV. The numbers are shocking. Russia has the undesirable distinction of having the highest rate of HIV infection in the industrialized world.

Some might ask what the point of yet another article about the problem of HIV/AIDS in Russia. The issue is not new. There perhaps nothing new that one can say. Not to mention that nothing can top Michael Specter’s profound and chilling explication of the global AIDS pandemic in his series of articles in the New Yorker. (Unfortunately, Specter’s article “The Devastation” is not available online without paying. However, you can read an interview with him discussing the issue here. You can also get the article through Lexis-Nexus if you have access.) The issue might not be “new” and there might not be much more one can say about it. But the problem is real. All too real. It is also being consistently ignored by the Russian government and society. All one can do is scream. Scream so loud into the darkness of ignorance and denial in hopes that a ray of sense pierces through.

Pointing out the dire situation that exists in Russia on the HIV/AIDS front has nothing to do with Orientalist pretensions. This is no East/West thing. This has nothing to do with our “superiority” and their “backwardness.” It is about life and death. It is about a preventable problem. It is about putting the breaks on a still emerging epidemic. In fact the Russian case is illustrative of the global problem. The Russian discourse on HIV/AIDS is reminiscent of how the American government dealt with the issue in the 1980s. Hell, much of it is so strikingly similar to the American discourse now.

After I read Specter’s article I asked a young Russian friend of mine about what she knew about AIDS. At first, my questions were met with blank stares. The reality of AIDS in Russia just flew over her head. She did respond and her response was telling: “Well, this disease only afflicts drug users and homosexuals.” That’s right the dregs of society, the depraved, the “abnormal.” One can’t really blame her. Much of the official discussion is about these “high risk groups.” Since they continue to engage in these risky behaviors they will be more likely to get HIV. Behind such statements is an implicit: “They deserve it.” Specter noted similar in his piece. As an unnamed “prominent” Russian liberal told him in reference to drug addicts, “AIDS might be a good thing, in a way, because it is killing people who only destroy the country anyway.” However, behind such crude and social Darwinist statements is also its binary opposite: those who don’t engage in those practices are “safe.”

My argument is not with the fact that HIV/AIDS infection is higher among these groups. My problem is about how the creation of the category of “risk group” suggests a “safe group.” You can see it in statements like the following from


“In those countries [Southeast Asia, India and China], HIV is creeping out of marginalized urban groups such as prostitutes and intravenous drug users and into the population mainstream. The latest research gives a strong statistical boost to those warnings.”

“Urban groups” versus “population mainstream.” Our concern should not be with the former. We know what that code screams. It is the latter that is troubling. What is the “population mainstream”!? And if the AIDS is penetrating into the “population mainstream” means heterosexuals, non-drug users, and people who don’t go to prostitutes, then isn’t there something equally risky about their behavior? Shouldn’t they also be lumped in with the so-called risk groups? The point is that ultimately HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. It does not care about risk groups, urban groups or population mainstreams. The pandemic has gotten worse in the last 20 years not better, especially in Africa, India, China, and now Eastern Europe/Russia. Isn’t it time to stop speaking about “risk groups” and time to start talking about safe sex?

It is here that the ideology of sex of in Russia and the United States converges. They both assume a hetero-normative position based on the ideal of monogamy. We know all too well, or we should know, that the Bush Administration has tied AIDS funding to abstinence education. The idea behind this is that no sex until marriage will cut down on unwanted pregnancy and STDs. Such a policy is starving organizations that urge condom as they find themselves more and more excluded from the money trough. Just read Helen Epstien’s excellent article “God and the Fight for AIDS” in the New York Review of Books.

The Russian case is different in this respect. There isn’t the brick wall of religion in the way. Denial has a different optic. Consider this statement from the article “Sex in Russia: Teeming with Unpleasant Surprises”: “On the other hand, an average Russian’s thoughts on safe sex include the following maxim: Having sex while wearing a condom is like smelling flowers while wearing a gas mask.” Yeah sure, and having sex without a condom could also be like inhaling nerve gas without a gas mask. The article continues that the risk/safe binary is so ingrained that:


“Many people doubt they can contract a disease simply because of their high social status – surely they and people they sleep with can’t possibly be infected. But STDs know no social boundaries, [urologist, Dr. Leonid] Spivak says: “Quite frequently, young women come in thinking they have cystitis [a urinary tract infection] that won’t go away, and we find gonorrhea. Of course, when you tell a young woman who’s well-off and professional and certain she’s clean that unfortunately, she has such a disease, she’s going to be rather shocked.”

I’ve read and heard other, more outlandish beliefs about AIDS. Myths and folklore that produce a shock in me perhaps comparable to that of the HIV infected “well-off and professional” Russian woman. AIDS is a number of things here. Rarely these things are anything close to the truth. AIDS is a CIA conspiracy. AIDS can be contracted by a cough, kissing, even touching. Many don’t understand the basic complexity of the disease—that there is a time lag between infection and symptoms. That it is a blood born disease that has a short lifespan outside of a plasma environment. Education about AIDS is sorely lacking. But the Russians do not possess a monopoly on such thinking. A recent U.S. Congressional report on sex education showed that many American teens think similarly.

It also doesn’t help when the disease itself is so infused with stigma. Because many associate HIV/AIDS with risk behavior, those who are actually brave enough to disclose their infection to family, partners or even doctors can sow suspicion, hatred, and disgust. According to a Human Rights Watch report, HIV-positive women are frequently berated by doctors and nurses, sometimes refusing them treatment. Natasha R, a HIV-positive woman in her thirties from St. Petersburg, told Human Rights Watch the following:


“She and her friends have found one way to avoid the contemptuous glances and rude treatment at the clinic – they have stopped going there altogether. “We go to our own clinic,” she said, referring to the St. Petersburg AIDS center. In theory, the local clinics are supposed to treat all HIV-positive patients within the district for comprehensive medical care—gynecological, dental, surgery, etc. But since many of these local doctors refuse to treat HIV-positive patients—and many HIV-positive patients refuse to continue to go there—the AIDS center has to pick up the slack. The lines are often very long, says Natasha R., but it is worth it to be able to avoid her local clinic”

Lenin’s slogan “??? ????” (who beats who) is eternally caught in a historical echo chamber. Its meaning and context changes but its core rhetorical power haunts the Russian societal landscape. If Russia was flesh those two words would protrude from its surface as keloid scars. ??? ???? silently hovers over the problem of HIV/AIDS. The question remains as to whether Russia will be “???” or will be “????”. At the current pace Russia will be the object and not the subject of this phrase.

Sadly, full acknowledgment of this issue remains elusive. The Putin Government has taken steps, albeit very small, toward recognizing that there is a problem. Aleksey Kudrin, Russia’s Minister of Finance recently approved an addition $20 million to the global fund against AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria for 2005-2008. Kudrin also reported on the particular threat AIDS poses to Russia. Mikhail Zurabov, head of the Health and Social Development Ministry, has also complained that the current government funding for AIDS treatment is only adequate for treating 1000 people. Even the outgoing U.S. Ambassador Vershbow noted the necessity to engage the Russian media to “talk up particular issues where we see problems that need to be addressed, whether it is sensitive issues like the independence of the media or social problems that they’re not paying enough attention to, like HIV/AIDS.”

Unfortunately, states have done miserably in combating the short but deadly life of AIDS in the late 20th Century. In star-fucker culture of America, it was the death of Rock Hudson and the infection of Magic Johnson that partially awoke a sleepwalking public. Some suggest that this is what Russia needs; one of their cultural icons to contract or die of AIDS to make the disease a mainstream reality.

But also In America it wasn’t until homosexuals took up radical positions toward sex that anything was accomplished. True they didn’t alter much as to how the government concretely dealt with the issue. What the activism of ACT-Up did with their slogan “Silence = Death” was to throw AIDS into the face of the homosexual community. It became a zero tolerance issue. Perhaps this is also one possibility for Russia. If the state isn’t going to recognize the issue then it must come from society itself. There are, however, signs of this necessary radicalism developing. In the tradition of ACT-Up, the group FrontAIDS looks to turn silence into death. They protest and chain themselves to government health buildings. They scream and shout about the reality of AIDS. We can only hope that their efforts are not in vain; that their small numbers can help penetrate the morass of denial. For this we can only wait and see. And hope. And hope that the shocking quantitave particularies of HIV/AIDS do not become a horrific qualititive universal.

Nighline’s Shamil Basayev Interview

For the past few days Russian news outlets have been filled with stories and condemnations. The issue: the Nighline’s broadcast of an interview by Russian journalist Andrei Babitsky with Shamil Basayev, the most notorious and wanted man in Russia. Basayev is a terrorist and he admits it. A proclaimed Chechen nationalist and Muslim, he’s been fighting for Chechen impendence for the better part of a decade. In the last few years Basayev has been the mastermind of some of the largest terrorist attacks in Russia. In October 2002, his fighters took the Odintsovo Theater in Moscow hostage. The attempt by Russian security forces to gas the theater led to the deaths of 129 people. In September 2004, Chechen rebels took the school of Beslan hostage. The incident left 330 adults and children dead and 700 wounded. A few days later, the Russian passenger deaths were blown up by Chechen terrorists, killing 89. Basayev is absolutely unapologetic. When Babitsky asked Basayev about how he justifies the horror of Beslan, he threw the blame back onto Russia as a whole:


“It’s not the children who are responsible. Responsibility is with the whole Russian nation, which with silent approval gives a yes. A nation that feeds their grasses who ravaged Chechnya. They collect food, things for them, they supply them. They pay taxes. They give approval in word and in deed. They are all responsible. And in Beslan, to be honest, I didn’t expect this. But in Beslan, the issue was either stop the war in Chechnya or have Putin resign. Just one of those two things. Carry out one, and all people are released, no questions asked. Get it? There wasn’t more to it. Well, you can ask why I did it. To stop the killing of thousands and thousands of Chechen children, Chechen women, and the elderly. Look at the facts. They have been kidnapped, taken away, murdered.”

The words of Franz Fanon haunt Basayev’s statement:


“On the logical plane, the Manichaeism of the settler produces a Manichaeism of the native. To the theory of the ‘absolute evil of the native’ the theory of the ‘absolute evil of the settler replies.” (Wretched of the Earth, 93).

It is also such statements by Basayev that have infuriated Russian officials about the broadcast of the interview. In their view, Basayev is the Russian Osama Bin Laden. In fact they claim that they’re affiliated. It is difficult to say whether that is true. I would place the global embrace Islamism by Muslim rebels as similar to the universal appropriation of communism 50 years ago. Basayev desires that an independent Chechnya be ruled by Shari’a law. But if we are to believe his own words, Chechen independence is key.

It is this wedding of Islamism and nationalism and its increasing influence on Chechen rebel forces that has led many Russia watchers to declare that after the Russian security forces killed Aslan Maskhadov in February, they had no one to talk to. Maskhadov, a moderate nationalist, was seeking a cease fire and peace agreement with Moscow. Now, Basayev is their de facto leader. His position is clear. Moscow must leave Chechnya. He isn’t interested in talking. And Moscow isn’t interested in talking to him.

Fanon states that there is a point of no return in anti-colonialist struggles. A point where the violence reaches such intensity that violence itself becomes a force of unification. Or as Sartre put it: “The only possible way out was to confront total negation with total negation, violence with equal violence; to negate dispersal and atomisation by an initially negative unity whose content would be defined in struggle” (Critique of Dialectical Reason). There is no sign of a coming dialectic between Chechen and Russian. Their own unity as Russians or Chechens is based on an absolute disavowal of the Other. An internal positivity predicated on an external negativity. For the Chechens, this point was reached sometime during the long drawn out campaign of Russian destruction and brutality. People say that the Chechen capital, Grozny, is little more than rubble. Thousands have been killed. Thousands have fled into the neighboring regions of Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Abkhazia. Over the last 15 years Chechen desires for political self-determination but economic dependence have transformed into absolute rejection of anything less that absolute sovereignty. It can be said that the point of no return for them was a long time ago.

For the Russians, however, if reconciliation was ever a desire, it was obliterated by Beslan. In the Russian eyes, the slaughter of children only reconfirmed inhumanity of their foe. Morover, the slaughter of children was an psychological affront to the entire Russian family. It struck the heart of its patriarchal structure. It made them seem weak, feminine. As Paul Starobin put it in an interesting article on Putin for the Atlantic Monthly:


“The Russian Orthodox and Islamic cultures are both patriarchal. As a man, and as Russia‘s symbolic father, Putin is supposed to protect women and children. His tormentors were triumphant when he acknowledged that he had “suffered immensely” from the Beslan ordeal. They had pierced his shield and made him seem womanish. “Putin screamed like a stuck pig,” Basayev crowed in a statement posted on a Web site.”

Hence the Russian government’s outrage over the Basayev interview. At the end of the program, Ted Koppel made an obligatory statement about free speech as if to make a distinction between our “free” press and the unfree Russian society. When threatened, you can always count on Americans to wrap themselves in the ideal force but materially bankrupt shards of the American Constitution, as if it had universal application. Koppel said, “Freedom is speech is never an issue when a popular person expresses an acceptable point of view. It is of real value only because it guarantees us access to the unpopular, espousing the unacceptable. Then, we can reject or accept it, condemn it or embrace it. No one should have the authority to make that decision for us. Not our government and certainly not somebody else’s.” I’m sure Koppel channeled Thomas Jefferson himself for this little speech. While I applaud ABC for airing the Basayev interview, until Koppel dares to air an interview with an American equivalent and takes the heat from “our government,” I can’t help to see his overtures to “free speech” as a pompous and laughable farce.

I’ve made some changes to the blog over the last few days. Most of them have been cosmetic. I’ve changed the color of the fonts, etc. However, there is one change I feel I need to explain. And that is the news feeder you see on the right. The news feeder culls stories from, an English language Russia news site. I don’t exactly remember how I found Mosnews, but I remember the first story I read from it: “Stray Rocket Kills Bull, Cuts Power Supply in Russia’s Far East.” At first, I thought Mosnews was the Russian answer to The Onion. After all, how else to you explain stories like: “Drunk Scuffles With Bear in Ukrainian Zoo” or “Breasts Betray Cross-Dresser Trying to Pass Moscow University Exam for His Sister“? The strange thing is that along with these stories there are rather serious one’s like today’s “Chechen Warlord Basayev Admits to Being Terrorist, Promises More Attacks“. This story is coupled with this one: “Police Detain Vampire in Russia’s EU Enclave” Terrorists and vampires? Are these stories even real? It is hard to say. The scary thing is that many of these inane stories come from Russia’s Interfax News Agency.

(Just as an aside, I noticed on Interfax that ABC News broadcast an interview with Shamil Basayev, the admitted mastermind of the Beslan massacre. Broadcasting an interview with Basayev is like if the main Russian TV news, Vesti, showed an interview with Osama Bin Laden.)

Since the tone of the blog tends to be serious political commentary on Russia, I wanted to make some space for some of the lighthearted and comic elements of this country. Mosnews seems like a perfect place to introduce these. Some other “stories” of note are:

Russian Schoolboy Dies After 12 Hours of Computer Gaming

Russian Woman Bitten by Pet Piranhas

Russian Villagers Blame U.S. as Lake Disappears

Russian Man Hammers Nail Into Head After “Hearing Voice”


2 Tramps Detained for Cannibalism in Russia’s Far East

Until I actually see a stray dog riding the Moscow Metro and makes a transfer, as many I’ve talked to claim, enjoy Mosnews.

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