Nothing is more annoying than the crunchy civics teacher telling you the pious tale about how "one person can make a difference." For every Rosa Parks tale that we eagerly swallowed, our teachers neglected to add that a few hundred million Africans before her failed to make a difference.
Out here in Russia, where there is little civil society, a suffocating bureaucracy, and rampant cynicism, it's even more difficult to imagine this mythical one person who can make a difference.
Enter the intrepid husband-wife duo, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. They served as The Washington Post's correspondents in Moscow from early 2001 through late 2004. During their tenure, they churned out a steady stream of rock-solid copy, grave in tone and ideologically as centrist as they come. Their tone only began to take a gradual turn towards the darkly foreboding right in step with the Bush Administration's decision to re-evaluate their friendship with Putin -- which is to say, sometime after the arrest of pro-American oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Baker and Glasser returned to Washington and quickly reworked their articles into a book, Kremlin Rising, that was released this past summer. And it is this book which may, like little else produced in the past five years, condemn Russia to pariah status for the remainder of Putin's political career, and perhaps beyond.
The tale of how Baker and Glasser took on the Kremlin Tyrant isn't exactly the morally-inspiring equivalent of Casey Sheehan's. The aggrieved mother of a son killed in Iraq stood completely alone with literally no chance whatsoever of making a difference, faced down one of the most frightening powers on earth, took a shitstorm of abuse, and managed to hold on against all odds. Baker and Glasser, on the other hand, slyly collected their material and waited until they'd safely beat it back home to safety, then unleashed an incredibly powerful work of anti-Putin, anti-Russian propaganda that is intellectually sleazy and appallingly deceitful, yet extremely influential, given their positions in the Post.
Putin remains largely a mystery to most in the West, including its political elite. In part this is because until the release of Kremlin Rising, no one had produced anything even seemingly-authoritative on the Russian president. The closest was Financial Times correspondent Andrew Jack's Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform Without Democracy? In spite of the grave, wonkish title, the book was considered little more than uninspired and shallow hackwork. eXile readers may recall Jack as the infamous writer of the hilarious summer 2001 piece "Fancy cars, fancy food: Muscovites let the good times roll," in which he argued that the appearance of Novikov's restaurant Syr, with its upscale Chuck E. Cheese design, was evidence of Moscow's economic boom. While much of Inside Putin's Russia pushes a negative, savage image of Russia, it's all effected far too tepidly. Sentences like this -- "Russia in 2008 is likely to be a country in better shape than some now fear, but not as impressive as it might have been had Putin used his potential to the full" -- recalled John Kerry at his finest, and ensured that Jack's book would be quickly be forgotten.
The lesson of Jack's failure wasn't lost on the Baker-Glasser duo. Compare Jack's cautious waffling to Baker-Glasser's indignant sensationalism: "Toxic hate, intolerance, corruption, indifference to human life -- in Putin's Russia, these were the legacies of the war in Chechnya that became clearer than ever when the chemical spray dissipated in the theater on Dubrovka Street." In another passage, the BGs decry "the textbook of tyranny." The heroes in this story -- which is anyone who is rich and pro-Western -- are portrayed as being just as scared as the book's American readers should be.
In the epilogue to Kremlin Rising, the last good guys to serve in government -- including German Gref and Alexei Kudrin -- only remained because, as Baker-Glasser claim, "they were literally not allowed to leave their posts."
This claim, relying on a single anonymous source, is shocking and hugely damaging, strongly implying that Gref and Kudrin would be summarily executed in the Lubyanka basement if they dared resign. (If the threat was at all real, it probably had to do with all the corruption evidence files that are kept on everyone with any power in the country, evidence which, from my experience here, is almost always is well-founded.)
They quote Konstantin Remchukov, described as "a liberal politician close to big business," as saying, "People have a genetic memory of [the Soviet times]. They're scared to death." I haven't met anyone in Russia who is "scared to death." In fact, that's one of the unique characteristics of Russians, one that makes them so impressive -- they're not scared of much at all, unlike Americans, who live in constant fear of everything that is and isn't.
This manipulation of Remchukov offers a far clearer example of the intellectual sleaze employed time and again in Kremlin Rising. First of all, to describe Remchukov as simply "close to big business" would be like describing Dick Cheney as someone who "carpooled with a guy who worked at Halliburton." Remchukov isn't simply close to big business -- he IS big business. While in parliament, Remchukov openly served the political interests of oligarch Oleg Deripaska, known as one of the two main oligarchs, along with Roman Abramovich, of "The Family," the Yeltsin clan. Before entering the Duma, Remchukov was a vice president in Deripaska's Basic Element company, which specializes in metals. When he moved to the Duma, he served as the deputy chairman on the Committee for Natural Resources. Moreover, according to NTV's Savik Shuster, Remchukov also served Roman Abramovich's interests. This, in Baker-Glasser's mind, wasn't worth noting.
Put in its proper context, in the aftermath of the crackdown on Yukos and the generally hostile atmosphere towards the remaining oligarchs, Remchukov's quote takes on an entirely different meaning than in the half-filled context offered by Baker-Glasser, who, it should be added, must have known these details. So what is Remchukov's fear? This isn't about poets and dissidents fearful for their lives like in the 30s; this is about one clan of savage thieves afraid that their loot might be stolen by another clan of thieves, sort of like in the '90s.
These omissions are colossally deceitful and yet emblematic of Baker-Glasser's entire strategy, which is to make heroes out of anyone rich and pro-Western, and villains out of anyone poor and/or critical of America. Here are a few I noted:
*Yegor Gaidar, the architect of the disastrous privatization program in the early 90s, which led to one of the most unprecedented collapses in GDP in modern history, and a population decline that matched the period of the worst of the Stalin/Nazi war years, is described as "the onetime whiz-kid economist prime minister who had masterminded Russia's rapid detox from Communism to capitalism in 1992." Read that again: "detox." It implies, as these types always do, that Gaidar applied painful yet necessary medicine, as if his program was for Russia's own good, and not for the benefit of Gaidar's cronies. The "whiz-kid" modifier ensures that he is seen as someone cute, nice, and harmless, a real go-getter type.
*Metals oligarch Kakha Bendukidze was labeled a "civic-minded tycoon," without any evidence of his civic-mindedness, and he was forced into eXile to Georgia because, according to another anonymous source they cite, he "concluded the times were so fraught that he would be better off outside Russia." Quick reality check: you don't take over metals industries in the Russia of the 1990s by being a civic-minded type. Considering the sheer numbers of contract hits and disappearances in the battles for control in the Urals metals business, this description not merely deceitful, but laughable in a Top Secret way.
Meanwhile, Khodorkovsky's savage, dramatic rise to prominence was whitewashed this way -- "[he] made the transformation from Communist youth leader to free-market capitalist" -- implying that he was some kind of Horatio Alger, or even a capitalist of any kind. Again, what is omitted is that many of the top capitalists were once high Communist officials, and the reason is that the transformation had nothing at all to do with "free market capitalism," and everything to do with corruption and theft and blatt.
Meanwhile, Abramovich's decision to buy Chelsea came about because he "was growing bored," and that after "watching a soccer game one day, he turned to his associates and announced that he wanted to buy a team." This implies that Roma's decision was completely eccentric and likeable, rather than highly calculated, a means by which he could secure a safe and prominent place in his increasingly-adoptive England.
Readers of the eXile during the Yelstin era will read these descriptions and feel a nauseating blast of deja vu. The old neo-liberal dichotomy -- between good pro-Western oligarchs and anyone less than wildly enthusiastic about America, capitalism, and the sort of democracy that developed under Yeltsin -- is back. And when I say it's back, I mean that it's as if it was never challenged by the revelations that every hack, analyst and academic was forced to face following the financial collapse in 1998. Did it ever leave?
Before the 1998 collapse, Baker-Glasser's predecessors at the Post's Moscow bureau, Fred Hiatt (now the Opinion Page Editor) and David Hoffman (who wrote Oligarchs, a whitewash of the Yeltsin-era oligarch class) pushed the neo-liberal Party Line about a Russia transforming for the better, led by courageous "free-market liberals" like Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar. After the collapse, when it was painfully clear that these people had engineered the largest plundering of a nation in modern history -- indeed, Chubais even bragged to Kommersant after the collapse, "My ikh kinuli," or "We ripped them off," "them" meaning the West -- the antithetical frame was abandoned, and everyone who had collaborated in setting it up did their best to cover their tracks.
In Kremlin Rising, that old frame is back and rolling, as if it never went away, as if it was never debunked by hard reality. It is interesting that in their introduction, Baker-Glasser deride as "revisionist history" the "majority" notion that "all chaos, crises, bank collapses, crazy corruption, and crony capitalism came from [the collapse of the Soviet Union," failing to add the obvious: that all of the chaos, crises, bank collapses, crazy corruption and crony capitalism really DID start with the collapse of the Soviet Union!
Just one statistic to keep in mind: the average male life expectancy in Russia under Brezhnev was 68 years; in the 1990s, that fell to 57 years. But this does not square with the authors' pre-conceived notion of Russian history from an American triumphalist point of view, one which demanded that the Russians be grateful and cheerfully accept our version, in spite of the grim reality: "It was the first of many times we were to be confronted with a version of recent Russian history so radically opposite to what we thought we understood that it might as well have been about a different country." Translated: We couldn't believe that so many people didn't see things our way, which proved that they were a bunch of savages.
What Baker-Glasser refused to see was that it was they themselves who were trying to see a different country than the one they were tasked to report on, a country where the American neo-liberal experiment had failed with horrific consequences. But that's not how they saw it -- rather, it was the Russians who were brainwashed apes because in their version, "there was nothing about the crippling legacy of totalitarianism or the follies of Communist central planning." That's what Baker-Glasser came to Russia looking for, and in Putin, they found it.
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Forgetting history -- the 1990s, to be specific -- is one of the key strategic omissions Baker and Glasser employ in order to give the impression that everything bad in the Putin regime is alarmingly new, terrifying, and demanding our immediate attention.
Baker, a short, energetic, health-looking man with a young, pointy face and a pointy little smirk, is said to be the real talent in the duo. Glasser, on the other hand, is sort of the Andrew Ridgely to her husband's George Michael, bitterly aware of her limits and of the fact that she is piggybacking on her husband's success, yet said to be grotesquely ambitious and resentful. She also has horrible teeth, according to one good source, who winced when describing them..
The sheer enormity of their sleaze and deceit is too much even for a lead article. A chapter-by-chapter survey of the duo's book is a good way to become acquainted with their agenda.
Chapter 1, "Fifty-two Hours in Beslan." The brutality and incompetence described in this account of Beslan are shocking and, admittedly, well written. But without some perspective -- namely, the Yeltsin regime's response to the hostage crisis in Budyannovsk in June, 1995, when special forces shot and killed dozens of hostages in bungled attempts to storm the hospital, and again the brutality and incompetence of the Pervomaisk hostage crisis a year later, with similar bloody results. Beslan may have had a higher and more grisly kill-count, but it differed little in substance. By omitting the fact that the Chechen Wars, both 1 and 2, were Boris Yeltsin projects designed to keep him in power and protect his interests, Baker-Glasser manipulate history and throw the entire blame on the bad guys -- Putin, the KGB, and anyone not sufficiently pro-American (Yelstin was our tool, so therefore, the authors do their best to simply leave his name out.).
Another interesting omission is the eerie similarity between Putin's m.o. and Bush's. For example, they take him to task for linking the war in Chechnya to Al Qaeda and international terrorism, observing, "at its root, the Chechnya conflict had little to do with Al Qaeda." With Bush linking the war in Iraq to Al Qaeda, and Blair blaming the London Underground bombings on Al Qaeda, you'd think that Baker-Glasser, whose newspaper was one of the strongest cheerleaders for war in Iraq, would be a little more humble. Wrong. "Rather than resolve the underlying political grievances and remove the popular mandate for the rebels, [Putin] had demonized, victimized, and consequently radicalized an entire people." What's grossly wrong here is that the Chechens were already pretty damn radicalized after Yeltsin's war, having kidnapped (and in some cases beheaded on video camera) some 3,000 Russians during their period of independence from 1996-9, introduced Wahabbi-style Sharia law, and finally they invaded Russia in the summer of 1999. I repeat: they invaded Russia! These facts are given little play, however, making their account of the Chechen war as duplicitous as if someone were to report on the rampant terrorism in Iraq today without mentioning that it first arose with the American occupation.
Chapter 2: "Project Putin." The description of Chubais, a man hairline-deep in the largest corruption scandals in human history: "a tall, red-haired reformer who had orchestrated the largest sell-off of state assets in world history..." Wildly deceitful description #2: "With Yeltsin's permission, Putin dispatched troops to [Chechnya]." That would be like saying, "With Hitler's permission, General Walther von Brauchitsch dispatched troops to the Soviet Union for Operation Barbarossa." The whole purpose of the Second Chechen War was to create popularity for Putin, thereby securing the Yeltsin clan's power, loot and immunity. Stepashin was fired by Yeltsin because he didn't have the balls to launch the second war on behalf of the Yeltsin clan; Putin was brought in specifically to head that war. Saying Yeltsin "approved it" is about as bone-white a whitewash as you can get. Omitting this is incredibly sleazy, yet it is necessary in order to create the Kremlin Villain which is central to Baker-Glasser's pitch.
Chapter 4: "The Takeover Will Be Televised." Here the omissions and whitewashings reach fever pitch, and the revisionism turns to outright lies. Commenting on Putin's takeover of NTV in 2000/2001, they write, "The showdown at Ostankino had been building ever since [NTV's] Igor Malashenko had refused to help the Kremlin install Vladimir Putin as the next Russian president in the summer of 1999, saying he could not trust a KGB man." He sounds like a good guy, right? Except that the real reason Malashenko didn't support Putin was because his boss at NTV, oligarch Vladimir Gusinksy, backed a rival senior KGB operator, Yevgeny Primakov, who, had he won, would have shut down ORT, the TV station that backed Putin. Meanwhile, Gusinsky's rise to power is whitewashed this way: "One venture led to another until finally he was able to put together a bank in 1989." This kind of explanation-by-omission is so cheap, it recalls Ash's attempt to take the Book of the Dead: "Klatu...Veratu...one-[cough]-venture-[cough]-another... Okay, then, we described it. Everything's cool." In one of the most violent, corrupt countries, one wonders what this "one venture led to another" business was all about -- but if explained, it might seriously undermine the dichotomy setup that is crucial to this book. Later in the chapter, Mikhail Kasyonov is described as "pro-market" and "respected in the West as a formidable international-debt negotiator and seen as a reliable promoter of capitalism -- so much so that some had questioned whether he was profiting personally on the side." Note how they slyly avoid mentioning what everyone in Russia associates with Kasyanov -- his nickname, "Misha Two-Percent," supposedly the fee he charged on every single corrupt international debt deal he oversaw -- by arguing that he was so darned good at being a pro-Western capitalist that certain unnamed enemies (and we can all guess who they are) jealously smeared him. No halfway professional journalist could possibly spe
nd four years in Moscow during Kasyonov's reign, and fail to mention his nickname, or how he earned it -- not unless it's part of an agenda. Which of course it is. Kasyanov is a good guy; therefore, any bad news about him is both omitted and dismissed as mere jealousy. Lastly, in this chapter, Baker and Glasser's larger hatred of Russia spews into the open: "While the intelligentsia was outraged at the loss of NTV, the vast majority of the public was not, so long as they continued to get foreign movies and other high-quality entertainment they had come to expect from the channel." To prove their point about the innate savagery of the Russian masses, they compare their reaction to that of America's most reliable lickspittles, the Czechs: "By coincidence, around the same time, more than one hundred thousand people protested in the much smaller Czech Republic against the appointment of a new state television director they considered insufficiently independent." Gee, why not just compare Russian apathy to America? That's because it would be pretty embarrassing. How many Americans hit the streets when Peter Arnett was fired from NBC at the beginning of the Iraq War for saying that the Americans were meeting more resistance than they had planned for; or when ABC fired Bill Maher for suggesting that the 9/11 terrorists weren't cowards; or MSNBC demoting Ashleigh Banfield just after the Iraq War for her criticism of media jingoism? Remember those huge crowds that poured into Washington over that? Moreover, Baker-Glasser cited a poll showing that 57 percent of Russians supported censorship of the media, but failed to note, for perspective, a recent US poll showing that 43 percent of Americans believe that the media has too many freedoms, while 22 percent believe that the government should censor the media -- and remember, this is from a population that has freedom of speech enshrined in its 200-year-old constitution! With Russians, on the other hand, supporting censorship wa
s really a way of supporting a crackdown on the hated oligarchs, who had destroyed the free media under Yeltsin, and used it to advance their commercial and political fortunes. While for Americans, supporting censorship is purely an expression of fascist idiocy, for Russians, it is seen as a way to curb the influence of a small clique that had destroyed their lives.
* * *
Every chapter of Kremlin Rising is thereafter packed with increasing numbers of glaring omissions and grotesque whitewashings combined with terrifying fear-mongering that would have made Tom Ridge proud. Meanwhile, they constantly fawn over anyone rich and pro-West, while either ignoring the horrible poverty, or blaming the Russians for their own wretchedness. They described the collapsed health care system, which worked better at least before "whiz-kid" Gaidar got his hands on the budget, as the fault of "a rigid system [that] refused to help itself" while making the astonishingly patronizing claim that "many Russians did not even realize hjust how poor the care they were receiving was." This is just a flat-out lie -- all you ever hear about is how poor their health care is, and how much worse it has gotten under Western-backed post-Soviet reforms.
The horrible truth about the Putin regime is that it is largely an extension of the Yeltsin regime. It was under Yeltsin that all of the problems and evils described in this book -- from the wars in Chechnya to the destruction of democracy and free speech, the corruption, indifference and cruelty they describe -- began. It has clearly gotten worse under Putin, particularly on the things that matter most to Westerners when we judge other countries. But what matters most to most Russians is making enough money to eat, and hopefully staying alive a little longer than 57 years. This desire to get paid, eat and live a bit longer is of no interest to Baker-Glasser, however, not unless it can somehow bolster their argument that Putin is a scary guy. Of all the omissions in this book, the most glaring is the omission of the economic boom under Putin. Whether or not he has anything to do with it, at least under his reign, workers get paid, something that often didn't happen under Yeltsin. Baker and Glasser aren't interested in this -- or about the destruction of the labor movement, for example -- because poor people just get in their way. Indeed they are the anti-Michael-Moore: fear-mongering, propagandizing while claiming objectivity, fighting on behalf of the plutocrats against the downtrodden masses.
How do they get away with it? Because a). most of their readers could not check the facts, and b). most of their readers want to believe that Russia is innately evil, precisely because they never became as subservient and manageable as the Czechs.
But what is most wrong and evil about Kremlin Rising isn't simply that it's sleazy and deceitful, willfully so. It's that this book is likely to frame the American elite's understanding of the Putin era. Already, Zbigniew Brzezinski blurbed it as "A bombshell of a book which makes clear why Putin's regime -- though successful in conning Bush -- does not have a bright future," while Strobe Talbott called it "A superb portrait of Putin's Russia by two reporters with an eye for the telling detail, an ear for the subtext of Russian life, and balanced, probing judgments about one of the most important dramas of our time."
Americans are fear-junkies, and they love simple moral frames in which good guys who are just like us fight bad guys who are different from us. The ex-KGB chief Vladimir Putin, as well as the dark, savage and mysterious country he rules over, offers the kind of fear-material, and the simplistic dichotomy, that Baker and Glasser simply could not pass up. I hate to say this, but the fact is these vile little strivers have a responsibility when they present their material not as sensastionalist propaganda, as I would, but rather as objective journalism, on credit built up during the long history of their newspaper, The Washington Post.
Reading this book, one gets the depressing sense that absolutely nothing has been learned by the West's disastrous failure to understand Russia in the 1990s. What that means is that a new and disastrous failure is slowly beginning to develop, spurred on by Kremlin Rising. And when the disaster hits, we can all be sure of one thing: Baker and Glasser, like Hiatt and Hoffman before them, will be due for a big promotion.