Imagine a bad metaphor, the formulaic kind used by a newspaper columnist to introduce a topic. Now imagine that this columnist has been asked to write a much, much longer piece for a major American magazine.
Said columnist will stretch this lousy metaphor into three whole paragraphs before getting to the point. That's exactly what happened in Masha Gessen's "See No Evil" in The New Republic, when she asks us to "Imagine that the king has died." Three 'graphs later, after herds of delusional natives, parachuting foreign correspondents and dubious editors wander across the page, we learn that the dead king is democracy in Russia.
It's quite a feat that the piece which follows manages to be so objectionable, given that it is basically saying Putin is a fascist and American journalists his willing stooges. Really, it's what we've been saying all along. So how does Gessen manage to bungle such a fundamentally sound argument? It's not that we here at the eXile think we've got eXclusive rights to criticize the regime, or even because we felt snubbed when Gessen sold our very own John Dolan a malfunctioning exercise bike and then refused to either admit culpability or refund the money. No, what Gessen did in this article is much worse, worse even than her initial metaphor: she's guilty of totally deluding herself about Russia before Putin. She's on target as long as she sticks to listing the ways Putin has clamped down on freedom of speech and gotten the American press to go along with him, but it all goes straight to hell when she starts waxing poetic about the golden age of Yeltsin's presidency.
It starts slowly enough, provoking no more than the occasional raised eyebrow. Phrases like "newly subservient Russian people" in isolation seem more silly than anything else. Russians have been subservient since Novgorod Veliki's experiments with democracy were cut off by the Mongol invasion some 800 years ago, but I was willing to let it slide. Likewise with saying the fall of Russia's newborn democracy began four years ago. Not with the shelling of the White House in '93, not with the conspiracy to get a corpse elected in '96, but four years ago, when Putin appeared on the scene. It's nonsense, but as long as she didn't push it too hard, I'd've let it slide.
Getting a little choked up inside when looking back at those heady Yeltsin days is understandable. I only lived them vicariously through the eXile, and I still get nostalgic. Mmmm, the Duck...fools who didn't speak a word of Russian earning generous packages...white god factor in the very center of town... it sounded great! But Gessen wasn't about to stop at a little sloppy nostalgia for Yeltsin. Journalists like Gessen and Tregubova (see Mark Ames' lead article in eXile #182) take this lie way too far, like when Gessen calls Yeltsin's Russia "a more democratic and generally happier place."
Say what? What could possibly be democratic about Loans for Shares? Or, if Gessen is so concerned with the fascist tendencies of Rodina, doesn't she care to remember when Zhirinovsky's LDPR won 23 percent of the seats in the Duma? Or when Zhuganov, by far the most popular candidate in the '96 elections, simply disappeared from the airwaves? Playing Swan Lake continuously until Yeltsin was declared the undisputed winner would have been more subtle than what Yeltsin's champions of democracy did in that election. Putin totally controls the media, but all of the most outrageous offenses against freedom of speech in Post-Soviet Russia were perfected during the Yeltsin era. Russia under Yeltsin might have been more sloppily administered, but it certainly wasn't democratic.
And "happier"? For who, exactly? Certainly not the pensioners and school teachers who weren't getting paid for months on end. Or the folks who lost their life savings to hyperinflation and pyramid schemes. Or the people who watched oligarchs fleece the country. Or the people who had their money in banks which vanished overnight, taking the money with them, in 1998.
Sure, Gessen got her first book published and made a hell of a career for herself back in the Yeltsin era. Maybe that's what she means: they were happy times for her, no doubt. But they weren't so cheery for ordinary Russians. Now at least people are accustomed to living in a third-world country, but when the big fall in living standards happened under Yeltsin, it was brutal. A lot of people dealt with it the only way they could: by dying. And Yeltsin showed his compassion by careening around the world with a sloppy, drunken grin on his face and saying everything was fine.
There are good reasons Russians like Putin so much more than they ever did Yeltsin. Putin may not be democratic, but he is genuinely popular, and would probably win a free and fair election, which Yeltsin never could have done. At the start of his last campaign, his popularity was hovering around 3%. It took a whole lot of anti-democratic antics to keep him in power.
Nowhere in the OSCE reports on Russia's dawning authoritarianism does anyone seriously claim that, if only there were a free press, Russians would toss Putin out of office. Russians dig him, if only because he isn't continually making them feel ashamed the way Yeltsin did. So when you hear enlightened Russian and Europeans bemoaning the collapse of democracy in Russia, what they're really doing is just the opposite: they're hating on democracy.
They hate the way that poor people vote. Dem po' folk don't really give a shit whether Itogi is independent or not; they don't read it anyways. What matters is cheap bread and vodka. They are nationalists and racists and get a kick out of watching news reports that show MIRVs launching from the steppe, proving that Russia still has the power to turn America to dust. Sure it's too bad that a collection of nationalists and proto-fascists got elected to the Duma, but it's basically an expression of the popular will. Non-elitny Russians are pissed off, and they have every reason to be.
en clearly prefers the Athenian model of democracy, in which a small group of property-owning individuals get to vote and the rest of society is made up of slaves. It's fitting that she's currently got a fellowship at Harvard, in the Athens of America. What could be more anti-democratic than a cancerous institution that pays no taxes and has slowly expanded to swallow up large tracts of not only Cambridge, but all the surrounding towns? Poor people flee before the skyrocketing real estate values that price out everyone except for visiting scholars with housing subsidies. It must please her no end, the way Harvard has managed to eliminate the problem of the misguided poor screwing up a smoothly functioning democracy by forcing them out of the neighborhood, then shipping them in from afar to work as non-union day labor.
Many of the points Gessen uses to highlight the Russia's fast approaching fascist future are disingenuous to an extreme. She points to characters like Gennady Raikov, Valentin Varennikov and Sergei Glazyev as politicians with strong fascistic leanings. While that much is true, the fact is all these guys were elected to the Duma during the Yeltsin era. Now they're rising to the top of the hierarchy, but that's not proof that Putin's regime is less democratic than Yeltsin's. It's just seniority--a fine old parliamentary tradition--in action.
Indeed, all the problems Gessen sees as products of Putin's regime can be easily traced to the Yeltsin era. War in Chechnya, abuse of the media, vote rigging, using Zhirinovsky as a fake opposition figure... it's all there. The only difference is that Yeltsin didn't feel obliged to make many concessions to populism. He governed for the benefit of the Moscow elite, with an eye on pleasing his American advisors. He couldn't have cared less about ordinary Russians. They knew it, and hated him for it. And as Ames pointed out in our last issue, they're grateful to Putin for siding with them against Yeltsin's elite. Like it or not, that's democracy.
But Gessen's not content to claim that Putin destroyed democracy. She also blames American journalists, saying that "a pattern of dangerously na?ve reporting...has been developing for five years." Five years, meaning since '99. So, let me get this straight... what came before wasn't na?ve? What about the pre-default coverage? Articles by longtime eXile target Fred Hiatt spring to mind. Or the hero worship accorded to arch-villains Chubais and Gaidar?
Gessen eventually lets the Americans off the hook, because reporters are only as good as their sources. And the US journalists' sources in the Russian media have been corrupted (excepting, we may safely assume, her work). "But," she writes, "if the story told by the Russian media cannot be trusted, where is the journalist to find an alternative narrative? A logical place to look would be the U.S. government."
Whoa. Full stop. Is she really suggesting that American journalists turn to the U.S. government for accurate information? Bush's government? That clique of deceitful ideologues? Doesn't the hunt for WMDs mean anything to her? The American government is not only wholly dishonest, xenophobic and malevolent,but its intelligence agencies are perhaps the most notoriously inept in the world. Remember how they missed the fact that the USSR was collapsing until CNN broadcast the footage of Yeltsin on the tank? That was a typical debacle, combining incompetence with outright deceit. In other cases, the US intelligence and defense agencies have resorted to plain and simple lying, as when they intentionally exaggerated the Soviet military menace so that they could pump billions into developing fancy new weapons that don't work.
And these are the people we should trust to tell us what's really going on in Russia? Like many Yeltsin-spawned journalists, Gessen is na?ve to the point of madness about American reality.
The quote continues, "That was where reporters looked in the bad old days of the cold war and where most international stories in the U.S. media originate today. But Washington is telling the same story--one of Russia 'inching toward democracy,' of Putin's friendly and cooperative soul, of Russia as a partner in the fight against terrorism." So what she's saying is that the American government would usually denounce and refuse to work with any foreign government that's fundamentally anti-democratic? In other words, the Bush regime simply doesn't realize how evil Putin's government is? Maybe a remedial course in American diplomatic history would help. Or just a list of names: Marcos, Reza Shah, Somoza, Duvalier, Batista....
Gessen had just finished a rant about the evils of Russia's tight grip over the media, only to say that it's OK for American journalists to let the benevolent hand of the US government guide them. It's totally insane. Of course the US government is going to lie to promote its own agenda. But it doesn't follow that the media should unquestioningly report it. I thought that was her whole point in the first place, at least as far as Russia's concerned.
She qualifies this nonsense a little, saying that sometimes journalists need to break with the government consensus, but her point still stands. The government is a logical source for independent journalists. Go figure.
Gessen ends with a plea for American journalists to use dissident sources, among whom she clearly includes herself. But by now she's already exposed the superficiality of her democratic ideology. It's all about having an audience. The Yeltsin system worked well for her because there was lively public debate among the elite, though they maintained a consensus about the most important things, like keeping Yeltsin in office. There was democracy only in that Gessen thought her articles could influence politicians and oligarchs. The views and hardships of the bulk of society didn't enter the discussion. Indeed, it was better if they were excluded entirely from Russian political culture, as they were in Yeltsin's time -- because, if allowed to make their own choices, they might have ended up electing someone like Putin...you know, someone who wasn't really democratic.