I know most of you are busy watching the all-too-real reality horror show of the 45th administration, but there has been some interesting news coming out of Russia (sorry, no meteorites or Putin’s nipples). On Sunday, somehow almost 90 thousand people went out on the streets in 87 cities all over Russia to protest against corruption. The unsanctioned demonstrations were met with brutal police crackdown with around 1000 protesters arrested in Moscow alone. To make matters worse, none of the TV channels reported the disturbances (apart from Russia Today, to be fair). Channel One spent about an hour on “news of the week”, castigating Ukraine, ISIS, discussing the London terrorist attack, Alaska sale to America and Rockefeller’s life among other things. Nothing to see here, move on.
Even though ISA provided some much-needed group therapy, in the end we still need to grapple with and teach about #45. I was inspired by some ideas in syllabi 1, 2, and 3, but I also needed some background information and topics that are geared towards a non-American audience. On top of it, I left the theme of one session open for the students to decide on.
So below is roughly what my students are in for at the University of Bremen. Any ideas how to improve it?
Women in academia do not enjoy an easy ride. Even though “manel” count at this year’s ISA was much lower, there is still work to be done. Not to mention the recent scandal about the epidemic levels of sexual harassment at the UK universities. But let’s rejoice at the thought that a mere hundred years ago things were much worse. My university campus in Bremen has a Lise-Meitner-Strasse and the International Women’s Day is a good opportunity to share her story. In short, Hidden Figures needs to have a German prequel.
Do you think this person is white?
If you are from Europe or North America, you might have said yes. If you are from Russia, you might have described this person as black. Most IR peeps are familiar with the fluid perceptions of whiteness and blackness that exist in the word: Sandor Gilman wrote, for instance, how Irish immigrants in the US in the beginning of the century were often considered black. The irony of blackness could not be more poignant in Russia: the famous Russian Armenian actor Frunzik Mkrtchan whose picture I put above is literally Caucasian, because he comes from the South Caucasus region in the European South of Russia. The ones who would describe him as black would also very likely to adhere to “Russia for [ethnic] Russians” slogan and in worst case scenarios would have tried to kill him because he “doesn’t look Slavic enough”.
Derogatory terms like ‘kavkazcy’ (Caucasians), and ‘chyornye’ (blacks) have become ubiquitous in everyday speech in Russia, while Russian mass media employs euphemisms such as ‘litsa neslavyanskoy vneshnoti’ (non-Slavic looking people) when it comes to the identification of crime suspects. A xenophobic discursive representation applies to non-Slavic looking individuals irrespective of their citizenship, even though former USSR citizens can seek Russian nationality under a simplified naturalisation procedure, according to the Federal Law on Citizenship. Apart from “Caucasians” who are often discursively connected to terrorism and ethnic criminality, there isn’t much love for former Soviet citizens from Central Asia. If you are not Ivan Drago or Natasha, you might have a lot of trouble even renting an apartment.
When President Trump and Press Secretary Spicer started to insist that the protest against Muslim ban [that is not a ban] was paid for, it rang a bell. This kind of rhetoric is a textbook reaction from an autocratic ruler who cannot believe that people would care enough about human rights to go out on the streets on their own. Unfortunately for all the autocrats in the world, people would. The success of the protest is hard to predict, especially in a democratic country, but if people are protesting against you, the first thing to do is to try and delegitimize it. Here is how.
I remember laughing about an article in The Medium about a TV Sitcom that triggered the downfall of Western Civilization. In case you were wondering, it’s Friends with its “tragic hero” Ross Geller. The author lamented the awful mistreatment of the most cerebral character on the show that signified the harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism in America in the early 2000s. For instance, most of Ross’s academic stories were cut off by his bored friends and audience laughter. Why? Maybe some people would like to know more about sediment flow rate?!
In the age of an amazing accessibility of knowledge, America was conned by a man who disregards the value of science and whose surrogates do not see the difference between facts and feelings. Richard Hofstadter warned about the tendency for anti-intellectualism in the US back in the 60-s, but things seem to have gotten much worse. These days, there is a whole field and a term for deliberate politics of ignorance – agnotology. It was already obvious on presidential campaign trail: Hillary Clinton was made fun of because she was preparing for debates instead of “winging” them. Academics and professional journalists were scolded (says who?) and college students were derided as snowflakes out of touch with real America. Gagging of scientists and professionals has followed: yes, lock them up in their ivory towers. Agnotology has even born its long-awaited fruit — the by now infamous “alternative facts” euphemism (or is it “euphenism”?). As one of American bookstores has put it:
Putin’s annual press conference is a chance for regular citizens to spend 3 hours in a great and rich Russia, where everything is in order and Putin is capable of installing presidents in foreign countries (according to one journalist). In general, the press conference strived to paint a picture of a great power facing some economic problems and who is constantly challenged by other countries (they are probably jealous and/or Russophobic). For me it was also a chance to wonder at Putin’s stamina. He might not be Superman, as one of the posters brought by the journalists stipulated, but his bladder is definitely made of steel.
As always, Putin demonstrated his ability to juggle all kinds of statistics in response to questions about economics, including Russia’s successful export of IT. One may wonder if he included hacking, because that was definitely a very successful export. As a female journalist called for abolishing juvenile justice in Russia, because ‘slapping children is a traditional Russian [sic] pedagogical method’, Putin emphasized that there was a slim line between slapping and beating up, but still warned against interfering into family matters. In comparison to the rhetoric of some of the questions, Putin did make an impression of a more liberal and reasonable politician, very much fitting into the narrative of ‘without Putin it could be much worse’ .
Gone are the good old days when I had to explain what the word ‘yarki’ means to my friends and colleagues (for the record, ‘colorful’, not ‘brilliant’). Now I will have to clarify the complexities of planting child pornography into the computers of oppositional leaders thanks to the re-emergence of ‘kompromat’.
Why did kompromat, arguably a KGB-developed practice of mining compromising material on politicians and blackmailing them with it, surface again in the media? As Fabian Burkhardt noticed, the word first appeared in the English language with the information wars of the 90s. Moreover, the term ‘kompromat’ is inextricably linked in Russia with the former Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov – or, rather, with ‘a man who looked like the prosecutor general’…
Pizzagate, the conspiracy theory started by alt-right Twitter which alleged that John Podesta‘s emails exposed some members of the Democratic party as being part of a DC pizzeria-based child-sex ring, has made its way into Russian social networks. Now some people are convinced of the existence of pedophile lobby that ‘rules’ the US, and believe that both ‘lamestream’ media and elites are trying to hush it up. As one Russian LiveJournal user puts it: its’ ‘American internet community versus pedophiles in politics’. Why do people believe that debunked conspiracy theory? Two reasons: the blood libel trope and a pattern of misinformation.
As children are viewed as a universal symbol of the future, the attack on them can be viewed as an existential threat to a nation. This is the way homophobic fears are stocked as well: in the US and most recently in Russia homosexuality was constantly discursively linked to pedophilia. This is the mechanism borne out of ‘blood libel’ cases, which were pretexts for organizing Jewish pogroms: the ‘killing of babies’ and the ‘use of their blood’ during Passover is a perfect way to incite hatred. Hillary ‘nasty woman’ Clinton is also present in the blood libel narrative.
Usually when news about Russia makes it to American late night shows, Russia either gets hit by a meteorite, or it annexes part of a neighboring country. Either way, it is illustrated by Putin’s bare-chested photograph on a horse. This time, however, neither celestial bodies, nor Putin’s nipples were at stake. Several high-profile newspapers and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah reported on… an ice-skating dance routine.
‘Wife of Putin’s ally’ [putting aside the whole sexist tradition of defining a woman through her male companion] was widely criticized for her Holocaust-themed ice-dancing routine. Even though the press secretary of the Russian Federation of Jewish Communities said in a commentary that the story didn’t have anything to it and there was no reason to get upset over the dance, as the Holocaust has been used as a theme in many art projects. The champion ice-skater Tatyana Navka was also surprised at the negative reactions and insisted that the routine was done ‘to remind our children about that horrible time’.
No offence, American media, but you kind of live in a bubble that does not include Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic crime. Oh, sorry, now you no longer do. Russia is a different story. Holocaust was never really a part of Russia’s collective memory. Most monuments erected during the Soviet era on the sites of Jewish massacres were dedicated to civilians while their Jewish identity was brushed over. Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz in 1945 and Soviet citizens knew about concentration camps, but the Jewish identity of the victims was downplayed. Through the works of Ilya Ehrenburg, Evgeny Yevtushenko or Vassily Grossmann some people were familiar with mass executions of Jews. But these works were far from mainstream and were a protest against Soviet governmental policy of hushing up the ‘final solution’. This is yet another example of ‘warped mourning’ over the victims of wars, famines, repressions and purges in Russia.
After Donald Trump won the elections in the US, Twitter was abuzz with the picture of potential UN Security Council country leaders that included Theresa May, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Marine Le Pen. So now all eyes are on France and its upcoming presidential elections. The possibility of ‘Frexit’ in case of Le Pen’s win is alarming enough, but Russia is also on the agenda. Russian-French relations have been strained since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, but have got even worse after President Hollande accused Russia of war crimes in Syria that purportedly prompted Vladimir Putin to cancel his trip to France. While in American elections Russia had a clear favorite, and did not really have a plan B for Hillary Clinton’s win, French elections seem to be much more comforting.
In the recently finished primaries on the right, the losing candidate Alain Juppe criticised the winner Francois Fillon for leaning too close to Russia. Fillon did defend Russia’s actions on a number of occasions and even wished for a Putin-Trump alliance. Putin admitted himself that he cultivated a good relationship with Fillon in 2008-2012, probably because they both belong to the J. Mearsheimer’s ‘I don’t give a damn about small countries’ sovereignty’ school of thought. On top of that, Fillon fits well with the conservative turn of the Russian government, being a vocal supporter of la Manif Pour Tous (anti-gay marriage movement in France), whose ‘traditional family’ poster has also been adopted by Russian anti-gay activists.
Marine Le Pen managed to shift Front National further to mainstream by purging some of her father’s most racist friends and allies and settling on a more conventional anti-migrant xenophobia. After all, Nicolas Sarkozy’s government expelled Roma migrants and closed borders way before the refugee crisis. Ms. Le Pen has been a welcome guest in Moscow and received a large loan from a Russia-affiliated bank for her party. Eurosceptic, pro-Trump and anti-NATO, Le Pen would be a perfect partner for Putin and the worst nightmare for the EU. At the same time, Sputnik News, a pro-Russian propaganda outlet, puts Fillon and not Le Pen into their IR dream ménage à trois with Putin and Trump. [dirty joke edited]
‘I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in my car. If I find one. Join me! They have earned it‘. If you were wondering who else was celebrating Trump’s win, it was the Editor-in-Chief of Russia Today Margarita Simonyan. Overnight, a deep-seated Russian Anti-Americanism and disbelief in American democracy was turned into almost unending love, although Russian Prime-Minister Medvedev still finds the name ‘Americano’ too unpatriotic for coffee and proposed to rename it into ‘Rusiano’.
The US election results came as a big surprise in Russia as well. According to many sources, most Russian TV talk shows had already prepared panels of ‘experts’ that were supposed to prove how democracy in the US is dead, how the elections were rigged, how American mass media were unfair to Donald Trump and how Clinton cash bought everything. Sound familiar?
Mass media in the US often portray Donald Trump as an American version of Putin, if not his puppet. But it makes sense to take a closer look at the essence of Trump’s and Putin’s appeal to their respective populations. Let’s recap three broad topics: foreign policy, domestic policy, and the economy.
Both Putin and Trump focus on ‘foreign policy populism’ trying to sell the idea of great power resurgence. Showing the West “Kuzma’s Mother” has been Russia’s operative battle cry since Khrushchev didn’t slam his shoe at the UN General Assembly in 1960. Russia’s current leadership is carefully executing this master plan, starting with cyber-attacks and finishing with nuclear missile deployment In Kaliningrad.
On the other side of the pond, apart from “we’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning” and the whole “make America great again” rhetoric, the Trump campaign has voiced admiration for Saddam Hussein, Bashar Assad and Kim Jong-un, complaining that Obama failed to show real leadership. I guess, “bombing the shit out of ISIS” as well as praising genocidal maniacs is his way of showing Kuzma’s mother to the rest of the world. Why this is necessary is a whole other question.
Russia has been one of the spectres haunting the US presidential election. President Obama’s latest press conference is a case in point:
Mr. Trump’s continued flattery of Mr. Putin, and the degree to which he appears to model many of his policies and approaches to politics on Mr. Putin, is unprecedented in American politics and is out of step with not just what Democrats think but out of step with what up until the last few months almost every Republican thought, including some of the ones who are now endorsing Mr. Trump
It is rather bewildering for a Russian observer: the party that gave birth to McCarthyism is now overwhelmingly endorsing a candidate who embraces Putin who is ‘a leader far more than our President’. Hillary Clinton, despite having pressed the ‘reset’ button back in 2009, has called Russia a dictatorship on a number of occasions, showing that it is easy to revert to Cold War era clichés to perpetuate American exceptionalism in comparison to Russia’s un-American autocratic Otherness. No wonder there has been a lot of angst and conspiracy theorizing on the (American) left that Trump is the Manchurian candidate, whose arrival has been anticipated from the Pavlov Institute since 1959.
We’re not so different, you and I. We both dislike Hillary. It doesn’t really matter that she was among key players in the Russian reset policy back in 2009, we really don’t trust her – just like you! We also like a strong leader. Our leader is much better at doing business than yours though.
You have a misogynist pig for a presidential candidate? We’ll take that and raise you a foreign minister who jokes about female journalists on their knees. Not to mention a former children’s ombudsman who thinks that after 27 women shrivel up, and that it’s ok for a teenager to be married off as a second wife to a man 30 years her senior. We might be a bit behind on anti-abortion legislation, but we’re working on it.
What about the whole homophobic thing? One of your running mates, as well as numerous senators and governors believe in gay-conversion therapy, adopt anti-gay legislation, and force people to use bathrooms corresponding to the sex specified on their birth certificate. And you’re criticizing me for some ‘harmless’ gay propaganda law? As Russian people say in this kind of situation, and who are you to tell me not to pick my nose (it’s a real expression, unlike the one about a hibernating bear)?
So we broke into the DNC, big deal. For starters, it could have been that 400-pound guy in his bedroom. Or the Chinese. But what were we supposed to do when you were giving State Department’s cookies left and right, trying to start a revolution in 2011-2012? It’s not like people would go protesting electoral fraud on their own. Continue reading