Black Lives Matter has spearheaded a massive reckoning of race relations in the US and around the world, but not so much in Russia. The discipline of IR may have started a bit earlier than this year’s protests: there have been a number of interventions that have brought the issue of race to the forefront of teaching and research – even though it should have always been there at least since DuBois. Not everyone is happy though: right-wing media cry “cancel culture” and debates on the merits of critical approaches somehow make national news.
Russian mainstream IR community has been slow in embracing this problematique – even though Russian IR itself has been often considered as one of the examples of non-Western IR. A recent piece in “Russia in Global Affairs” by Dr. Alexander Lukin seems to make a point similar to a lot of critical scholars and scholars from the Global South: “It is necessary to correct the West-centric bias … by gradually introducing more information about the non-Western world into the teaching of history and international relations”. Fair point? Yes, absolutely. Alexander Lukin argues further that “a new all-encompassing totalitarian theory is approaching us, according to which all social and historical phenomena will need to be analyzed from a “racial” point of view, just as the Marxists analyzed them from the point of view of the “class struggle.””. How do you like them apples?
This past weekend, two European capitals witnessed large-scale protests. Both of them protested against the government, both carried the flags that once symbolized their state, in both cases the police was involved, and during one of them the crowd was chanting “Putin! Putin!”. If you think the latter happened in Minsk you are sadly mistaken: the crowd in Belarus is much more creative than the Neo-Nazi conspiracy theorists in Berlin.
While Putin is not going to save the Berlin protesters from wearing a mask on the train, he can still play a role in the Belarus protests, at least Lukashenka thinks so: they already spoke 5 times on the phone and right now the de facto president of Belarus seems to be on the way to Moscow. Why does Putin care? For the same reason that he cared about the Orange Revolution and Maidan in Ukraine. For once, he is afraid that might happen to him. And secondly, as Alexander Baunov notes, Russian politics suffers from geopolitization of any domestic political action. That means that elections are not about an internal transfer of power, not about feedback between the population and the government, but an act of foreign policy defense, and their results should be treated accordingly. The same applies to freedom of assembly, press, doping investigations, Eurovision, movies, monuments, you name it.
On top of it, 20 years of Putin have significantly eroded public faith in organic protest. For the past four Putins and 1 Medvedev all Russians heard on TV was the same conspiratorial regime change narrative. Orange Revolution – it’s the West! Georgian revolution – it’s the West! Arab spring – it’s the West! Maidan – it’s the West! According to Levada, 39% of Russians are sure that the mass protests were provoked by “foreign forces” and almost 50% believe the elections in Belarus were mostly fair. Yes, those elections where you had polling workers climbing out the windows with the protocols so the observers don’t catch them falsifying.
The protesters in Belarus, unlike those in Berlin, hope that Russia does not interfere, because by the looks of it, Putin can only be on the one side, and it is not the side that is being tortured in Okrestina police station. Really, the Berlin protestors could really learn a thing or two about governmental oppression from the brave people in Belarus. Russians have also been protesting electoral fraud for years now, but it seems that Putin and his cronies either sincerely believe that every single precinct in a city can have exactly the same numbers or they don’t care that the results are cooked. Luckily, citizens of Belarus care and hopefully, they manage to send their dictator into a long overdue retirement.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times indeed.
In an attempt to distract myself from the thought that today my small university town will be overrun by 900 frat boys who went to Northern Italy on a skiing vacation despite the Dutch government’s warning, let’s discuss something that might have gone under the radar – future changes to the Russian Constitution.
Amid a global pandemic what could be better than voting in a Referendum? Only voting for a President, amirite? But let’s start from the beginning. Mid-January Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly announced that the Russian Constitution might need some freshening up. Needless to say, the announcement came as unexpected as Putin’s previous hints that he will leave his post after his current term.
What kind of questions do you usually expect from a Town Hall meeting in the US? Healthcare? Climate change? Pensions? Schools? Roads? You would be surprised, but these are also the kind of questions journalists asked President Putin last Thursday at his annual presser (his 15th one, no less). Apart from the recurrent theme of the Great Patriotic War, it was your run of the mill, banal Q & A session; just instead of concerned citizens you have a room full of 1895 journalists from Russia and abroad with varying level of sanity and servility.
The range was big to say the least: from icon-waving crackpots and terrified young reporters reading out encomiums about Putin’s involvement into youth programs to BBC correspondents asking about his daughters’ business ventures or about Boris Johnson’s comparing Putin to Dobbie the Elf from Harry Potter. The ones playing annual Putin bingo probably got everything down during the over 4-hour exercise in democracy and transparency: a bunch of mostly correct statistics, a traditional jab at the US, a signature lidded cup with (allegedly) tea, record numbers in agriculture, a snarky exchange with a Ukrainian journalist, as well as a couple of lessons in history.
Warning! According to the law that the Russian parliament passed yesterday, this post might need to be prefaced with a disclaimer that the following text has been compiled by a foreign agent. An individual can be labeled as a “foreign agent” in Russia if they (1) distribute information, and (2) receive funds from sources outside Russia. I am ticking both boxes here, even as an academic working at a university, and the law intentionally left the “information spreading” extremely broad: you can literally post something on social media. It would be up for the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to decide who receives a “foreign agent” label. A specific procedure is yet to be established, but if an individual is deemed a foreign agent, they will have to create their own legally registered organization within a month in order to interact as a foreign agent with the Russian government.
This iteration of the law comes as a sequel to the ‘amendments to the law on non-commercial organizations’ of 2012 that obliged Russian organizations to register as ‘foreign agents’ in case they were involved in ‘political activity’ (even through funding) and received funding from abroad. It has affected by now a large number of my colleagues, including the Sova Center for the Monitoring of Xenophobia that was forced to pay a large fine. As one of the defenders of the law stated on prime-time television and in line with the usual liberal anti-American narrative and a conspiracy theme:
The purpose of the law is to reduce the influence of foreign countries on the policy. Thus, our law is much softer than the one in the US […]. And at the same time if you engage in politics, that means fighting for power, you must inform the Russian citizens. Those who oppose this law, do this for two reasons: the first – or they want to seize power in Russia in the interests of foreign states and against the interests of Russia, and the second – they get Western money and want to steal it.
Duma Member Sergey Markov
The law on foreign agents was passed in the same session with more restrictive legislation on public rallies undoubtedly taking the cue from Vladimir Putin who remarked during his Direct Line in December 2011 that he was sure that some of the people went to the protest ‘in a foreign country’s interest and for a foreign country’s money’. The notorious usage of the singular as opposed to the plural was telling – the country in question was not named, but it was clear for the audience that he was talking about the only country that could afford financing a protest in Russia, the USA.
Pervyi Kanal, Russian state TV, responded to the Direct Line with lightning speed and three days later on Sunday prime time news there was a segment on ‘the history and spread of coloured revolutions’, where it was stated that there is a special American think tank that is active in countries where the US ‘is interested in changing the regime’. One of the Pervyi Kanal’s experts emphasized that ‘there are many symbols and concepts, but the aim and the sponsor is the same – the USA’ (Pervyi Kanal, 18 December 2011). Thus, the Soviet frame about American dollars buying instability and wars was time and again re-articulated both by state officials and TV personalities.
Why pass this new foreign agent law now, one might ask? After all, who doesn’t like that goofball Donald and who is afraid of that barely competent State Department that can’t even fact check a TIME magazine cover? According to a Russian MP, it’s because of Maria Butina’s case:
Very recently, Maria Butina returned to Russia. She was sentenced to a year and a half under a similar law that’s in place within the United States of America because she failed to register as an individual ‘foreign agent.’ […] We’re talking about protection from direct foreign influence on the media market […]. Unfortunately, political forces in our country use tactics like these quite often in order to bring often unreliable and compromised facts forward for discussion.
Duma’s Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy (United Russia party)
For starters, of course the American law is not that similar. Individual foreign agents in the US are supposed to be taking action in the interest of a foreign government or lobbying politicians. You know, like the convicted Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort. But lobbying effort is completely absent from the Russian law. While Butina was portrayed as another victim of “deep state” elite battles that ravage the American establishment, with the impeachment hearings kicking into high gear, who knows who will be the next President in the US and what kind of cookies the next State Department is going to distribute in Russia? In the meantime, “sovereign internet” is coming along and the laws are ready.
You never know when IR is going to bite you in the ass. One minute you are reading a children’s nursery rhyme and the other you realize that the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry Ms. Zakharova read it too, but decided to use it in foreign policy discourse. The rhyme in question is by a Soviet children’s writer Samuel Marshak, a Soviet Dr. Seuss, if you will:
stand too close to me
tiger, not a pussy
Yes, pussy has the same Russian translation and it has both meanings, the one that Marshak used back in the day denoted just a cat, but Ms. Zakharova built a whole Facebook post around the double entendre. The photograph above featured Ms. Zakharova in boxing gloves and the headline read “Don’t you stand too close to me, I’m a boxer, not only pussy”. The comments to the post ranged between “yes, show those stupid Americans what we are made out of” to pearl-clutching about the use of the word “pussy” to questions whether Ms. Zakharova would attend the protests in Moscow “with the people”. Just so you know, she was planning to stay at home “with the people”.
It’s not the first time that Ms. Zakharova posted something controversial. As a woman in a very male dominated profession (at least, in Russia), her posts and statements often feature metaphors that are not always deemed becoming of a diplomatic protocol – at least not something that I was taught to be appropriate at the same university Ms. Zakharova attended. Back in the day, professors at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (happy birthday, alma mater!), the Soviet and Russian diplomatic talent hotbed, would praise the eloquence and adherence to etiquette of the Russian civil servant upper class. Boys would be sent back home if they were not clean-shaven or didn’t wear a tie and a suit for some classes. And girls… well, we were told at the chair for diplomacy that future ambassadors need educated wives so why the hell not let women study here.
Enter Ms. Zakharova, one of the most high-ranking female diplomats in the Russian Foreign Ministry. She is obviously good at her job of “showing the Americans what we are made out of” and she can dance a fire “Kalinka” away. She is quick on her feet rebutting foreign press at Foreign Ministry Press briefings and has a killer emoji game on social media. Her whataboutist rhetoric is perfection and she can offer it in multiple languages, including Chinese. So, what if Ms. Zakharova talks about meetings that never happened and dabbles in anti-Semitism? In this day and age, who doesn’t?
Between the burning Amazon and burning Siberia, Brexit clustercoitus and Hurricane Dorian, there is still some space in the tired news cycle for the tear gas in Hong Kong and broken limbs in Moscow protests. Elections to the local parliament in Moscow have proved unexpectedly difficult for the ruling vertical: by refusing to register oppositional candidates for made-up reasons, the election committee and the Mayor’s office drastically underestimated mobilisation capabilities of the opposition. Result: over a month and a half of “unsanctioned” protests in the city center, police brutality, several high-profile arrests and mass prosecution of random bystanders who happened to be in the melee.
The protests in Moscow are a very local thing, but they are also indicative of a growing dissatisfaction among the Russian population that has manifested in region-specific unsanctioned protests that usually start with seemingly unpolitical issues: landfills in Arkhangelsk and Moscow region, a mall fire in Kemerovo, church construction in Yekaterinburg. Unlike the 2011-2012 protest wave that spread all over Russia, or the more recent pension reform outcry or anti-corruption rally against Prime-Minister Medvedev in 2017, these protests are about several oppositional candidates to the local Moscow parliament – a body with relatively little clout. Moscow electoral committee consistently refused to register oppositional candidates citing allegedly falsified citizen signatures, while the ensued brutal crackdown of the protests only added fuel to the fire.
Live footage of violent arrests, an absolute insane number of police forces and National Guard that most likely outnumbered the protesters in spades, repressive measures by the universities (!) whose students were arrested for the rally organization, did not make Moscow or Russia look good. Moreover, there is an important difference between Hong Kong and Moscow: Russian protesters are consciously trying not to block public transportation routes and the work of governmental buildings or shops, so the accusation of “mass riots” and property damage that is supposed to justify the “yellow vest” level of police brutality is especially galling.
What do Russian media cry? They cry wolf. I mean, West. For starters, the American Embassy allegedly published the protesters’ route and thus was involved in the organization of the rally. The provocateurs obviously strived for a “brutal and striking image” for domestic audience and for the politicians in the West. And most protesters are “not registered in Moscow” anyway, “were educated in the American young leader program” and were “controlled by their curators in social media”, “many from Ukraine” in order to organize a “Maidan” in Russia. Also, didn’t you know that you have similar protest legislation in Sweden and the UK?!
The problem with this narrative is that it is quickly falling apart. Some arrested protesters were let go. Some independent candidates got registered. Even some of Putin’s allies are saying that not letting real opposition run in the Moscow election is dangerous, which probably means that the cliques in Putin’s circle haven’t agreed on one course of action in the face of growing popular discontent. There are no burnt cars or smashed shop windows, but there are distraught parents of arrested students standing in one-person pickets in front of the Mayor’s Office. And that’s one brutal and striking image.
One thing that Trump hasn’t done today yet (which he should have if he wants to stay in Putin’s good graces) was to congratulate Russians with Victory day. It’s an incredibly important holiday in contemporary Russia and its commemoration dynamic can help understand a large chunk of Russian foreign policy.
Cue in the Twitter hot-takes in which Ukrainians elected themselves “a TV show star” with “no political experience”. Relax, not all TV stars are racist ignoramuses who want wall and try to spoon state flags. Despite winning the elections with a whopping 73% (and beating his own onscreen presidential score in his hit TV show), this one is different.
If you grew up in post-Soviet Russia you already know Ukraine’s incoming president – Volodymir Zelensky. He was a regular on the Soviet Union’s stand-up comedy show KVN (Club of Funny and Quick-witted), which propelled him to Russian-speaking international fame back in the 90s. His skit of a “person born in dance” made him one of the most recognizable KVN members, most of whom still represent the backbone of the Russian-speaking comedy industry in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. New generations might be more familiar with his later work in “Servant of the People” (also the name of his newly formed party) – a TV show about a history teacher who accidentally won the presidential elections in Ukraine, – as well as a host of other comedy shows and movies. The incumbent Poroshenko called Zelensky “a bright candy wrapper” (and that’s something coming from a chocolate candy king of the Post-Soviet space) that conceals a bunch of external interests and “fifth column”, even going as far as plastering Ukraine with election posters that showed Poroshenko against Putin, alluding to the fact that Zelensky is supposedly the latter one’s puppet.
I know, democracy dies in darkness (sorry, WashPo put it better) and we need good journalism, but what you publish in the Opinion Section often does not qualify as journalism, like, at all. I am not even talking about “Intellectual Dark Web” (which is neither intellectual, nor dark, but maybe web) or blatant climate denialism; you seriously need a Russia bullshit detector. Because so far, Russia articles are mostly botched Cyrillic wrapped in a cliché inside an Orientalist talking point.
The latest “scary Putin/racist nonsense/KGB/italicized Russian words” piece grazed your pages yesterday and it already caused the Russia Twitter to eye roll off our couches. For starters, who knew that there is a Russian word for “lies”. Like, really. If you actually spent time in St. Petersburg or Moscow (because those authors never go further out in fear of bears and balalaikas) you would know that “vranyo” is hardly a word that would ever be used in the context of whatever “active measures” you are talking about. Which are, by the way, not a thing, as well as the “Gerasimov doctrine”.
So, what’s with the “corruption DNA”, people? Last time I checked, 23andMe doesn’t offer a breakdown on social vices. When the author talked to Volodya back in the 90s, did he also take some of his genetic material? Or tested every single Russian out there? Who counts as a Russian? Just the Russian-speakers or the ones who live in Russia proper? Do you get the corruption DNA if you have a baby with a Western person? So many questions, and, sadly, no bigotry-free responses.
And what’s with the menacing pictures of Putin? At least when I write my posts I preface them with some presidential wardrobe malfunction action, aka the executive nipples. Yes, Putin is watching you, but so is PRISM and that one has way more capabilities and potential for abuse than its Russian analogue. So, Volodya (at least, it’s not Vlad) was fine when he helped you get rich and had beer with you in the 90s but not anymore? As Maxim Edwards remarked, it’s unclear why the contingent of “I made a killing in the nineties and then it went to shit” still needs to be heard. Even though there are a couple of valid points in the piece, they are overshadowed by racism and conceit of a “civilized” Western man braving the borderless wasteland that is Russia and trying to advertise his company that “recovers assets”.
I have to wrap this up before my head explodes from the uncontrollable rage at the stupidity and arrogance of some of your contributors. Do better next time.
Somewhat cranky and slightly under the weather Putin graced the foreign journalists with his presence for almost 4 hours. Starting right off the bat with some optimistic economic indicators (that he used to be able to juggle without any papers), the conference progressed with its predictable pace and predictable plot points: a bunch of questions on economy, token booed Ukrainian question, some dad jokes and good tsar, bad boyars excuses. There was no panache, pizazz or punch. Putin is tired (at some point he was off by 20 million when talking about the Russian population) and his whataboutist rhetoric expected. His cough has got better since last year though.
At the beginning, Channel One gleefully pointed out that all accredited journalists are welcome at the press-conference (not really) and there are absolutely no restrictions. Press Secretary Peskov started with the Kremlin press pool soft ball questions (as though they don’t get enough access to the body of the sovereign on a regular basis). Crimea came up almost right away and kept coming up throughout the press conference. Putin got himself some rally-around-the flag theory ready and angrily pointed out that the only reason there was a “provocation” in the Kerch Strait is because presidential elections are coming up and President Poroshenko was looking to boost his failing rating. Moreover, Russia will increase its military presence in the Azov Sea the way it sees fit, especially given that some governmental officials in Ukraine are threatening to blow up the pained Crimea bridge. Putin forcefully denied that an “annexation” of the peninsula took place (despite having used that word himself several days prior). It was the citizens who came and voted to re-unite with Russia and now they are being punished for their vote by Western sanctions.
Progressives and liberals were quick to praise President George H.W. Bush when he passed away. Some of this was basic human decency. Some of this was honest admiration for a masterful foreign policy practitioner and a decent man. But some of it felt strategic, a way to point out all of Trump’s failings. Highlighting Bush’s virtues emphasized the issues with Trump and his Presidency. The fact that Bush was a Republican seemed to make this more effective; “look,” Trump critics could say, “here are things Republicans used to value.” It seemed an effective tactic.
And then Trump nominated William Barr to be Attorney General. Barr has been skeptical about the probe into Trump’s Russia ties and thinks the “Uranium One” deal is a major scandal that implicates Hillary Clinton. He has also called on the government to promote socially conservative values. So we can expect some potent attacks on him by progressives…except that he was also Attorney General in the George H.W. Bush Administration. It’s going to be hard to accuse him of being unqualified and dangerous without questioning the wisdom of the man so many recently praised.
This highlights the danger of trying to steal Republican talking points. Progressives frequently do this: “Republicans claim to care about X, but they’re not actually doing much on it.” There are many examples:
When President Obama was calling for nuclear disarmament, he referenced a similar call by Ronald Reagan. He made similar appeals to Reagan when announcing the New START treaty with Russia. And I know, at the urging of a progressive foreign policy group I was then part, I made a similar argument but I haven’t found the article yet (I’ll update this if I do). This provided useful historical context to Obama’s policies, but it was also an attempt to undercut Republican objections.
When Democrats retook the House in 2006, part of their platform was controlling the deficit that had expanded under George W. Bush. This was also one of Obama’s attack lines in the run-up to his Presidential campaign. Again, this represents fiscal prudence, which is good. But it’s also an attempt to “steal” fiscal prudence from Republicans.
Another Bush-era attack line had to do with US Special Operations Forces (SOFs). Democrats didn’t just argue against the Iraq War, they argued that it–and the broader war on terrorism-were being mismanaged and that they could do better. One of their proposals was to “double the size of [US] Special Forces.” This was meant to highlight the fact that Democrats could be tough on national security too, taking away an additional GOP talking point.
Most of these worked at the time. But they later backfired. Obama’s praise for Reagan makes it harder to criticize problematic aspects of his legacy, and was countered by conservatives, limiting its impact. Democratic criticism of Bush’s deficits opened Obama up to GOP attacks on his economic policies–some of which require expanding the deficit–and Democrats are running into this problem again. Democrats’ call for more Special Forces was criticized for definitional issues (Special Forces refers just to Army personnel) and infeasibility. It also makes it harder to criticize Trump’s use of SOFs in counterterrorism operations that haven’t been debated or approved by Congress.
And I’m not even going to go into poorly-thought-through but convenient attack lines. Remember when Obama mocked Romney for being stuck in the 80s after he expressed concern about Russia, with a lame “the 80’s called” joke. Progressives at the time (including me) thought it was great, but it’s made current Russia concerns seem opportunistic.
As Democrats get ready for 2020, there are a lot of potential attacks on Trump. Candidates and their campaigns will be tempted to attack him as not being a good enough Republican. If those attacks come from a centrist trying to present a Bill Clinton-esque “third way” that may be ok. And if it is praise for an earlier, more cooperative era of politics, that’s fine too. But more often than not they’ll come from progressive candidates who are just trying to score an easy point. This very well may work, but it will continue to muddle Democratic messaging. Resist the temptation.
There is a spat of ecumenical proportions brewing in the Eastern hemisphere: Patriarch Krill of Russia stopped praying for the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The reason for that is simple: the patriarch of Constantinople is rumored to consider granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church an autocephalous status that would potentially carve out a third of Russian Orthodox Church curacies severely damaging Moscow’s status as the third Rome* not to mention financial repercussions.
For the first year of the Trump Administration, the Washington D.C.- based denizens of the U.S. foreign policy establishment assured themselves that although Donald Trump had tipped over the geopolitical apple cart, everything broken could be put back into place without undue difficulty. They were wrong.
Taking their cue from the caustic reactions of American allies to Trump’s twin summit debacles, foreign policy elites on both sides of the aisle are now a chastened bunch–only too aware of the immense damage Trump is doing to the fabric holding together America’s alliances, the de jure and de facto clusters of its closest allies.
The allies have become increasingly disabused of this Administration’s year-long recitation of how much it values them, in both trade and security terms. For they now stand on the precipice of deeming the U.S. a pariah nation state, not to be trusted and sufficiently harmful to their interests that they appear on the verge of sidelining the U.S. in their renewed approach to preventing the world from succumbing to the throes of nationalism. It would appear the world is at an unprecedented inflection point, at least in the postwar era.
Donald Trump’s penchant for lauding dictators and potentates, while denigrating allies and friends–in remarkably personal and pugilistic terms–has caused our NATO, G-7, and WTO allies to begin laying the groundwork for isolating the U.S. when it comes to tending to their core national security interests. Already in the early days of the new Administration, public reports surfaced that the UK and Israel had discussed at the highest levels of their governments whether it might be necessary to begin withholding certain tranches of their most sensitive intelligence.
In recent weeks the President of the European Council Donald Tusk remarked “with friends like this, who needs enemies,” while the new German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas gave a speech in which he equated recent U.S. foreign policy forays with those of Russia’s actions that have directly harmed Europe. Already his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel had declared on his way out that “the U.S. is permanently changed.” And Emmanuel Macron declared this week that France does not share the same values with the U.S. Only our Asian allies have been more cautious in their recent appraisals of American missteps, for traditionally Japan and South Korea are less public about their discontent.
The cost of the unprecedented calumny on the part of the Trump Administration in their eyes is significant, and growing closer to severe with each passing week. For it is increasingly clear that America’s allies are becoming less secure and less well-off due to direct assaults on them from this President, both verbal and consequential. Ipso facto, the U.S. is becoming less secure and less well off as a result. Continue reading
While in the US children are being separated from their parents seeking political asylum and taken to a Walmart prison, some Russian lawmakers are concerned that illegal aliens can enter the country through its citizens’ vaginas during the FIFA World Cup that starts today.
Today is President Putin’s inauguration day and even Avengers couldn’t stop it, as evidenced by the arrested raccoon in the center of Moscow on Saturday during the unsanctioned rally ““He’s No Tsar to Us.” For Russia watchers, the Saturday protests probably created a sense of déjà vu of May 2012 when much larger protests erupted in Moscow and around Russia. They displayed a high degree of social mobilization around the fair elections narrative, but the protesters paid a high price for it: over 30 were criminally charged and 17 were sentenced to several years in prison, some fled the country.
The scale of the protest in May 2012 was so large that a new legislation on rallies was enacted on 9 June 2012. It increased the fines for the violation of public rallies law to up to a million rubles. One of the authors of the rally law – ‘Just Russia’ member Sidyakin – at first stated that the law was supposed to prevent the ‘Ukrainian scenario’ in Russia . Communist Party and Liberal Democratic party members warned President Putin about the ‘orange plague’ and that nobody ‘wants to go back to the 90s’ and the President should not let an ‘orange revolution’ take place in Russia.
One of the most predictable elections is just around the corner: even Google has already proclaimed Putin the winner of the presidential race of March 18th 2018 in Russia. The only marginal hiccup for the authorities might be a low turnout, but a couple of viral videos are already scaring the bejesus out of the electorate: if they don’t show up and vote for you-know-who, somebody else will be elected and they will make each family house a gay man in pink pajamas in their apartment!
Surprisingly enough, Putin will have a wee bit of competition on the ballot after all. Pavel Grudinin [I am very tempted to translate his name as ‘boobilicious’], a candidate from the Communist Party, has managed to gain an unexpected amount of support – around 10%. With other candidates polling between a margin of error and about 5%, Grudinin’s rating seems unexpected. The head of the company “Lenin’s Sovkhoz” is popular not just with Russia’s pre-baby-boomers, but also with millennials! And if the Kremlin wants to blame somebody for this, they should be kicking themselves for Grudinin’s success. Millennials like the communist candidate because of governmental idealization of the Soviet past.
With an avalanche of news about the government shutdown, DACA, CHIP and Stormy Daniels, the American news media did not have too much time to cover Putin’s nipples (this time around), even though it was a great opportunity to update the famous horse riding photograph. On the Russian Orthodox Epiphany night Putin was photographed bathing in ice cold water in the Seliger Lake, displaying both his Orthodox Christian devoutness and manly sass. Why does he do that? While for some in the West these displays of machismo can seem gay, in Russia they are gobbled up as the ultimate display of virility and strong leadership. Moreover, they have a deeper political meaning for the population that sees Putin as a spiritual leader, a pastor that would guide Russia to a brighter tomorrow.
Any woman would tell you that. What matters is what you do with it and whether you know how to use it. Whatever Brobdingnagian thing you’ve got going on there, it’s way more important to have a game plan and understand the sweet spots you need to target. Otherwise, both parties may come away less than satisfied from the encounter.
I am talking, of course, about the nuclear arsenal size and the ever-lasting dick-measuring contest that is international politics. After the ridiculous Trump tweet that Kim John Un’s nuclear button is smaller and less powerful than that of #45, IR Twitter was quick to point out Carol Cohn’s seminal “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” article that discussed exactly that. That the world of arms race is essentially a world of phallic worship and missile envy, replete with “penetration aids”, “thrust capabilities” and “vertical erector launchers”. Who knew that a presidential candidate who mentions the size of his penis during a primary debate would actually bring it up during an international nuclear stand-off?!
Another piece that comes to (my) mind is the book by Stephen Ducat “The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity”. As he observed, the ‘wimp factor’, i.e., the possibility of coming off as too feminine in politics is a major fear in many cultures, spanning from ancient Greece to modern United States. In a culture with a generalized ethos that equates penetration with domination, political hierarchy is often built along the same lines that glorifies ‘real men’ ‘with balls’ hence denigrating femininity and non-cis-gendered males and females. The wimp factor is especially relevant for global politics built on notions of hierarchy, and is often expressed in terms of gender, which favors the male, dominant position.
If anybody is planning to collude with some Russians for New Year’s (but not in order to swing an election), I compiled a brief checklist. Originally, I wanted to take apart an article from a prestigious newspaper that described “a Christmas encounter with a Russian soul”, but then I decided against it. After all, if you don’t buy “the case for colonialism”, then you probably also won’t think that “Russians do not share the ethical heritage of the West, but moral intuition exists everywhere, and is able to be inspired”. But enough with the narcissistic white bigotry, let’s learn about Russia!
In good ol’ orientalist tradition let’s start with drinking. No self-respecting Russian ever says “na zdorovie” while toasting. Ever. You drink for something – “za”. Want to impress some Russians, say either “vashe zdorovie” or “budem!” – both are correct equivalents to “Cheers”.
Another important thing, New Year is THE winter holiday in Russia. Not Christmas. You prepare for it in advance, buy presents, decorate a tree, have a massive meal and get together with the family. Atheist Soviet traditions have stuck pretty well and the reflex of cutting an Olivier salad on December 31st is hard to suppress.
What the hell is an Olivier salad I anticipate you’d ask. It’s a Russian New Year staple food that originally included hazel grouse, crayfish, and a bunch of other expensive ingredients concocted by a French chef in mid 19th century, but gradually became a potato, pea and mayonnaise based delight that you enjoy by the ton.
So what about Christmas (you might wonder)? Most Russians celebrate Christmas (if they do) on January 7th thanks to the power squabbles with the Catholic Church back in the Middle Ages. While after the Revolution Russia moved almost two weeks ahead (hence the Great October Revolution celebration on November 7th), the Russian Orthodox Church stayed behind and insists on celebrating all Christian holidays based on the Julian calendar. Some even celebrate Old New Year on January 13th!
Also, Christmas trees. Again, in a post-Soviet mind – a fir tree is a totally secular New Year tradition that has nothing to do with Christmas. To be fair, they have much more to do with Saturnalia than with Christmas anyway. You know how in America people make fun of those who take down their Christmas lights in February? Try keeping your tree until March!
Last but not least. Russians also have a type of Santa – his name is Father Frost (Ded Moroz), he brings presents, rides a sleigh and he is assisted by his granddaughter Snowmaiden (Snegurochka). Despite his somewhat dubious origin story and unclear family tree (where is his wife? Or Children?!), his is still a far cry from the controversy caused every year by Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands.
I am off to cut the Oliver and obsessively check the statuses of submitted manuscripts. Remember, despite the condescending orientalist horse crap that you might read in the Wall Street Journal, Russians are like everybody else. They just want acceptance with minor revisions.