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“The Turbulence Of The Post-Soviet Period”: Sochi’s Opening Ceremony Forgot To Mention A Few Things About Russian History

It’s fair to say that by the time the opening ceremonies began last night at 20:14, they were facing an uphill battle to impress. Russia, via Western journalists, had shown the world just how very corrupt and incompetent it is: $51 billion and years of preparation yielded upside-down toilet lids and yellow water and busted-through bathroom doors made of cardboard. There’s even a popular hashtag for the debacle: #SochiProblems.

And yet, the Russians put on a lush and wonderful show. It was grand pageantry and exquisitely choreographed theater, the kind the Russians have been so exceptional at for a century. The giant figure skating stuffed animals were a bit weird, “vodka” was missing from the alphabet of Russian cultural treasures that opened the show, and there was only one glitch to speak of: only four of the snowflakes turned into Olympic rings, a muck-up the Russians managed to fix via spliced rehearsal footage from the rehearsal. But on the whole, it was yet another exhibit, if any were needed, in the long show window proving the fantastic might of Russian artistry.

But the show was a very specific view of Russia, one that glossed over some of the cruelest parts of its history. Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, for instance, was all ships and marching cadets, without the bones and swamp on which the city was built. World War II, which is a hallowed, painful spot for all Russians merited just a sentence on the destruction—”the scariest hour in Russia’s 1000 year history”—and some searchlights slicing through the darkness. The Russian Revolution got the mixed treatment it deserved: it was portrayed as a gathering snow storm over the sumptuous imperial waltz of tsarism broken through by a locomotive glowing red as it screamed into the stadium. The benefits of the Revolution were praised, and its costs received an elliptically diplomatic acknowledgment: “The color red reigns, even though it is the color of blood,” the announcer intoned dramatically. “The country is galloping forward, but at what cost?” Early Soviet history was all gorgeous red constructivism and machinery, the perfect ode to the revolution in technology and the arts that it brought to the country. Malevich and the Constructivists were lauded, even though the Revolution that enabled them eventually turned on them and labeled their art counter-revolutionary.

This, by the way, is a curious, bitterly ironic element of contemporary Russian pride in its artistic figures. These days, Aeroflot planes are named for the poet Osip Mandelstam, who was brutally murdered by the state in 1938. So too the opening ceremony praised Leo Tolstoy, who became an outcast for giving up his landowner status. It reveled in Sergei Diaghilev, the flamboyant ballet master, who stayed abroad after the Revolution and whom the new Soviet state condemned in perpetuity. The opening of the opening gave the letter “N” in the alphabet to Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote his most famous works in English and outside a country where it was too dangerous for a son of the aristocracy to remain. When showing the post-War period, the ceremony showed the stilyagi in their poodle skirts, swinging and boogie-woogie-ing. They too were condemned for their emulation of Western “bourgeois” trends. And so on and so forth.

The spirit carried over into the march of the athletes, where the announcers on state-owned Channel 1, the biggest Russian channel, tried to take credit for every athlete with any Russian heritage, though, of course, there are usually profound economic and political reasons that so many millions of Russians—like me, for example—ended up living not in Russia, but in the West. (The announcers also took credit for the hats of the British team—”those are our Russian hats!”—but that’s another story.)

One glaring omission throughout the parade of Russian culture was any pretense of cultural diversity. The announcers importantly declared how big Russia is—”the biggest country in the world, as big as the ocean”—and that it contains multitudes, “180 nations, each with their own culture and language,” but we saw only one of them: the ethnic Russians. The world saw only traditional Slavic garb, with its lush brocade and big head pieces (kokoshniki), but nothing of the lezginkathe dance of the North Caucasus, or, say, the throat singing of Tuva. Putin is, after all, a Soviet man, and in the Soviet Union, the Russians were the first among the brothers of all the Soviet nations.

Missing also was the post-Communist period, the period that created Vladimir Putin. The world did not see how Russians see themselves today, but only that, even now, they view themselves as products of their history, forged in the cruel smelter of the centuries. It is a deft way of glossing over the turbulence of the painful, post-Soviet period, one that has produced very little of the kind of art and music and national treasure that Russia can flaunt before the world. (In fact, we did see modern Russia—in the upside-down toilet lids.)

And this is the cornerstone of Putin’s Russia: a historically significant nation but one that is still climbing back up to its historic heights after a historic fall, one that has many nations but of which one is dominant. Throughout Putin’s reign, this vision has been brought to life by his main showman, Konstantin Ernst, the head of Channel 1 and the director of the Opening ceremony. Joshua Yaffa wrote in The New Yorker of Ernst’s vision:

Programming on Channel One, Floriana Fossato, who worked on media projects in Moscow in the aughts and now studies Russian television at University College London, said, showed “people surviving a cruel but, to a certain extent, necessary system.” Above all, Fossato told me, Russia was shown as a heroic nation. Viewers could hear about some of the country’s mistakes but remain secure that, as she put it, “we didn’t waste our lives.” The picture onscreen should be grand, proud, and, most important, attractive.

And Ernst achieved it, this time, for a wider audience.


By: Julia Ioffe, The New Republic, February 8, 2014

February 9, 2014 Posted by | Sochi Olympics | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Befuddled Old Man”: John McCain Attempts To Publish A Column In A Communist Newspaper From The Distant Past

Sen. John McCain, a man of his word, published his editorial — a stirring defense of the rights to free speech, dissent and political expression — in Russia’s Pravda, just like he said he would.

One small problem: As people are now finally pointing out, this isn’t the famous Pravda. After the Soviet Union was made to collapse, its official propaganda organ was sold off and eventually closed. There is no more “Pravda,” omnipresent national newspaper in which the Kremlin disseminates the party line to the oppressed masses. There is now Pravda, the struggling, thrice-weekly organ of the remains of the Communist Party, and, a sensationalistic online-only news site few people in Russia take seriously.

So, after Vladimir Putin published a provocative column in America’s most prominent and trusted newspaper, John McCain basically submitted his response to the Russian equivalent of the Daily Blaze. After you read his impassioned words, you can scroll down to Pravda’s enlightening “photos of celebrities” section. Or why not check out Lady Pravda for your love and beauty tips? McCain really couldn’t have found a better way to illustrate that he’s a befuddled Cold War relic with no idea whatsoever what Russia is like in 2013.

Sen. McCain was goaded into this by Foreign Policy’s John Hudson, and some, like Dave Weigel, did point out earlier that McCain was effectively being pranked into submitting his serious editorial to a conspiracy site capitalizing on a famous name.

But there’s no one McCain can blame but himself. A few minutes of research — or any working knowledge of modern Russia, I guess — would’ve saved McCain some embarrassment. He almost got it right, sort of. One of Russia’s bigger newspapers is Komsomolskaya Pravda, or Komsomol Truth — not to be confused with plain “Truth” — and today Komsomol Truth is straight-up mocking McCain. Here is the very bad Google translation:

Iron man, U.S. Senator John McCain. He promised to write a column in the “truth” and did. True, “Pravda.Ru”, but this is small. You could have a “spark” to write “, but did not find, I guess. Or did not know what was, and a newspaper.

(“Spark” was the pre-revolution socialist newspaper run by Lenin and his allies. It ceased publishing in 1905.)

If McCain had wanted to write in a Soviet-era paper for the symbolism, he could’ve picked one of the ones that are still publishing. Pravda was the official paper of the party, but the USSR had lots of newspapers, and not all of them are now defunct. The Soviet Union’s actual “paper of record,” Izvestia, is still around, and today it has a fun interview with the chairman of “” in which it repeatedly asks him how and why McCain published an Op-Ed at his website instead of at an actual newspaper, like Izvestia.

Even if he’d picked an actual newspaper, McCain’s central conceit would still have been wrong. “A Russian citizen could not publish a testament like the one I just offered,” he wrote in his editorial after some boilerplate about the importance of self-determination. That is not remotely true. Russia has hundreds of daily newspapers representing a broad array of viewpoints. There are pro-Kremlin papers and pro-opposition papers. Russia has, in Novaya Gazeta, an award-winning investigative newspaper. Russians have access to anti-Putin journalism if they want it. The state, as I understand it, recognized long ago that controlling television is more useful than censoring newspapers. McCain could’ve easily placed his column in an actual newspaper that prints actual copies that actual Russians read, and I can’t imagine why any paper would’ve been scared to print it. (It’s far too ridiculous.)

If McCain’s mission was to prove that the United States is run by solipsistic buffoons who don’t even try to understand anything about the rest of the world before they go blundering out shouting hypocritical nonsense about freedom, well, mission accomplished. Way to make Putin look like a wise and prudent statesman, Senator.


By: Alex Pareene, Salon, September 20, 2013

September 20, 2013 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“My Country, Always Right, Never Wrong”: The Regressive, Vacuous Ideology Of Neocons

In the three months since the GOP’s trouncing in the 2012 presidential election, the Republican Party has shown numerous signs that it’s willing to change course to improve its future fortunes. First, the House GOP crumpled in the fiscal cliff standoff. Then it refused to engage in yet another game of chicken over the debt ceiling. And now Republicans in both houses of Congress appear ready to pursue a bipartisan deal on immigration. Those who care about the future of the party should applaud these developments. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be sufficient to solve the GOP’s problems. On the contrary, Republicans will continue to find themselves at an electoral disadvantage until they break free from the grip of neoconservatism.

Since the term neocon is so often deployed for polemical purposes these days, let’s be very precise about what it means. Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the original neoconservatives — Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and their colleagues at The Public Interest and Commentary — had two main aims: In domestic affairs, to expose the defects of Great Society social programs and propose more effective (read: less ambitious) alternatives; and in foreign affairs, to counter McGovernite isolationism with hawkish realism, which meant adopting a more confrontational stance vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

The domestic side of neoconservatism reached its apex of influence in the 1990s, with New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s crime-fighting policies and, at the federal level, the 1996 Welfare Reform Act. Today, domestic neoconservatism is largely extinct, a victim of its own success at changing the public policy conversation.

As for the neocons’ foreign policy agenda, it, too, became irrelevant once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Democrats showed (under Bill Clinton) that they were no longer averse to using military force.

Yet some of the neocons — or rather, some of their children — were unwilling to accept their fate. By the mid-1990s, Irving Kristol’s son William had teamed up with Norman Podhoretz’s son John to found The Weekly Standard, a magazine that would reorient neoconservatism entirely toward foreign policy — and toward a very different and far more reckless style of foreign policy thinking than the one their parents championed.

Neoconservatism 2.0 is the apotheosis of hawkishness. A latter-day neocon isn’t just convinced that force is often necessary in specific cases, which is what hawks have always maintained. Rather, he’s convinced that force is invariably good any time and any place it is used by the United States. As Kristol put it in a seminal 1996 essay co-authored with Robert Kagan, a foreign policy in which the United States started and fought wars around the globe would be, axiomatically, “good for conservatives, good for America, and good for the world.”

“My country — always right, never wrong”: It’s the least thoughtful and most primitive form of patriotism. And yet, since September 11, 2001, the Republican Party has adopted and repeatedly reaffirmed the outlook as its guiding ideology in foreign affairs. Why? First, because it perfectly fit the angry, wounded mood of the country (and within the Bush administration) after 9/11. Second, because it perfectly fit the angry, wounded mood of the GOP base after the White House was captured by a man many Republicans consider an anti-American Kenyan socialist.

Fortunately, the country as a whole seems to have moved beyond its post-9/11 collective PTSD, aided by the passage of time as well as by the sobering experience of having to clean up the mess that followed the neocon-inspired invasion of Iraq in 2003. It’s a very good sign for the nation — and for Democrats — that the American people prefer President Obama’s more measured style of conducting foreign policy to the one-size-fits-all bellicosity favored by the neocon-infatuated GOP.

Obama has managed to lead the U.S. through a period of considerable global volatility with only minor missteps — and he’s been able to do so because his approach to foreign policymaking is shaped by a clear-eyed assessment of the emerging post-Cold War world order. For a time, the implosion of the Soviet Union left what appeared to be a “unipolar” world ruled by the one remaining superpower. But unipolarity was always an illusion — and it’s revealed to be less and less accurate with each passing year.

Yes, American power is formidable in many areas. But there’s an awful lot we cannot do — and at the top of the list is bending whole peoples and regions of the world to our will. In the multi-polar world we now inhabit, the U.S. will remain the single most powerful nation, but not by orders of magnitude. We will defend the nation’s borders and its interests. We will offer support to allies in those selective cases (NATO in Libya, France in Mali) when we judge that doing so really will be “good for America and good for the world.” But we will not be leading any crusades to transform (and liberalize) entire civilizations at the barrel of a gun. Why? Because the effort would fail — and failure is bad for America and bad for the world.

The president deserves our support in his attempt to adjust American expectations to fit the reality of a complicated, recalcitrant world — just as the GOP deserves our disdain for denying that same reality. Which is precisely what leading Republicans are doing in their efforts to block Obama’s choice to head the department of defense. What is it about Chuck Hagel that so rankles the right? Some cry anti-Semitism, but the charge is so groundless that Hagel’s critics have yet to produce a single shred of evidence to substantiate it. What is it, then, that supposedly disqualifies him from serving as secretary of defense? The answer: Hagel is a Republican who dares to believe that the use of American military force is only sometimes (as opposed to always) a good thing. That’s all it takes to provoke denunciations in today’s GOP.

Until that changes, the Republican Party will continue to be punished — and to earn its punishment — at the ballot box.


By: Damon Linker, Senior Writing Fellow, The University of Pennsylvania,The Week, February 1, 2013

February 3, 2013 Posted by | Foreign Policy, GOP | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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