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GQ bans Moscow blast article, bloggers catch up
September 6, 2009 12:17 PM   Subscribe

It took spontaneously crowd-sourced translators less than 24 hrs to make an article on the FSB's (former KGB) alleged implication in the Moscow 1999 apartment blasts accessible in Russian. Before, distribution of the issue of GQ in Russia had been banned by the editor himself. The topic (although the allegations are anything else than new) became an instant top in the russian blogosphere today (dynamic listing, will change with time)
posted by megob (22 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
What the hell, Gawker doing a public service? That said, the author of that piece ought to watch his back.
posted by msali at 12:25 PM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is what the internet is for.
posted by availablelight at 12:39 PM on September 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


All I gots to say is "Wow"...
posted by Vindaloo at 1:17 PM on September 6, 2009


I knew this would make it to the blue eventually, although the article itself isn't great. One of the problems with it, like the vast majority of Western discourse about Russia, is that it treats Russia as a liberal democracy that has somehow degenerated into tyranny. If one operates under that assumption, it makes sense to try to use the power of the public sphere to expose crimes and corruption, call for investigations, and so on. Superficially, the interest the whole business has generated among Russian internet users suggests that this is in fact the correct approach.

That would be wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because the equation "exposure = power" that generally holds for a country like America does not hold for Russia. The Kremlin has arranged things in such a way that "everyone" can know the government is criminal and corrupt (as someone mentions in the article), but no one can do anything about it, since the electoral and political alternatives are just not there. Their latest project is "The Right Cause" (remember that "right" means "pro-democracy and human rights" in Russia), a party which the Kremlin sponsors with the intent of soaking up all the opposition into a safe and powerless political free-speech zone. Other, similar projects are also in the works.

The point of this is that Russia is not a degenerated liberal democracy. Treating it as such is essentially the same as letting someone out of prison and then acting surprised when, a few weeks later, he starts killing and robbing again. The "reform" was as illusory as the "relapse."

What is Russia, if not a degenerated liberal democracy? I've just finished a 2001 book by Vladimir Mau and Irina Starodubrovskaya (published in English, I believe, as "The Challenge of Revolution") which makes the very persuasive case that what happened in Russia between 1985 and 1999 was in fact a revolution in much the same sense as the Bolshevik and French Revolutions. The primary difference is that while the French Revolution (and the English Civil War, and to some extent the German revolution in 1848) served to eliminate or reduce the systemic obstacles preventing a premodern economy from becoming a modern one, and the 1917 revolution removed the barriers between a modernizing economy and a contemporary Fordist/Keynesian one, the 1985 revolution realigned a system that was unable to transition between a Fordist economy and a post-industrial, knowledge/services-based one. One good argument, for instance, is that the 1985 revolution displays much the same sequence of phases as any other: first the moderate alternative (Gorbachev) is brought to power, but proves itself unable to control the flow of events or implement necessary reforms, so after a challenge from the Right (the August 1991 coup), the radicals (Yeltsin) take over. They struggle and do implement some successful reforms ("shock therapy," in Mau's reading, was more or less the only alternative available to a state that had lost effective control over the economic situation and regional authorities), but they are followed by a Thermidorean reaction (the later Yeltsin years) where the country becomes more conservative and revolutionary advances are scaled back. After Thermidor, according to Mau, there are only a few possible ways forward. One is a military dictatorship oriented towards its own survival; another is a partial restoration of the old order. In one way or another, though, all the alternatives are authoritarian, paternalistic, and conservative.

That's what the Putin regime is. How long he and his successors can hold on to power is likely an economic question, but the answer won't be clear for a long time. It's also not clear if Russia will ever escape the strong leader/centralized state-centric economy paradigm. (I'm pretty pessimistic on that front.) Remember that the post-Thermidorean reactionary phase lasted over 30 years in France, 28 in England, roughly 28 in Soviet Russia, and so on. So if Russia manages to get rid of Putin-style governance before 2020, that would mean it would be doing extraordinarily well from a historical point of view.

In any case, articles like this are wrong in treating Putin's rise to power as an event happening in the normal flow of history, to be seen the same way as Watergate or the Kennedy assassination. The article's assertion that Putin would never have acquired control without the building attacks is, I think, unsupported--some Reichstag fire or other would have been found, whether or not it was manufactured deliberately by the security services.

It's not a popular stance to be this fatalistic, but really the only way Russian politics will get better is through time. CIA-funded color revolutions won't help; economic and political pressure from the West won't help; popular uprisings and riots won't help. At this stage in the development of Russian civil society the only alternatives to authoritarian government are mass repression (if you think Politkovskaya was bad, you have no idea how much worse it can get) and civil war. Neither is preferable to the Putin regime. Sit tight.
posted by nasreddin at 1:33 PM on September 6, 2009 [43 favorites]


don't worry, that won't happen again. denton has already placed a call reminding the poor scribe only to write what sixteen year-old girls from new jersey would deem interesting and that it better not generate any hits twenty-four hours after posting because that just wouldn't fly with them internets business model.
posted by krautland at 1:39 PM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


nasreddin, just out of curiosity, what is your philosophy about historical development of nations? I get the sense from your comments that you seem to link economic development with political developments -- so a growing Russian economy will inevitably lead towards more liberalization perhaps?
posted by Avenger at 1:40 PM on September 6, 2009


Before I clicked on the comments page I thought "I bet they'll be some lengthy, insightful comment from nasreddin about Russia." in here soon.

Behold my powers mortals, and fear.
posted by The Whelk at 1:55 PM on September 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


nasreddin, just out of curiosity, what is your philosophy about historical development of nations? I get the sense from your comments that you seem to link economic development with political developments -- so a growing Russian economy will inevitably lead towards more liberalization perhaps?

In the Russian case, I think that's a really problematic question, for two main reasons:

a) Mau points out that in the '60s-'70s, fossil fuel exports went from 15% to 53% of the Russian total. As in countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, they provided an essentially free source of money that allowed the regime to put off economic and infrastructural development indefinitely. This has not changed. Russia lost a catastrophic 10% of its GDP over the last year due to the collapse in oil prices. Since oil prices are bound to recover and even possibly reach $150-$200 a barrel, the economic recovery will inevitably be heavily dependent on oil. Whether economic growth in that context can lead to the kinds of social changes that are linked to liberalization is unclear, but I think it's pretty doubtful.

b) The Russian economy is and remains, as I've said, state-centric. (According to most historians this goes back at least to Peter the Great. The state effectively substituted its own influence for the role that growing cities and the urban bourgeoisie played in other countries, which was really the only option in the absence of the latter.) Even outside of the fossil-fuel issue, it's likely that any economic growth that takes place will be tightly linked to state intervention in the economy. My sense is that this kind of growth is largely decoupled from any real expansion in civil-society institutions or in the politically-engaged portions of the middle class.

So there's reason to be pessimistic here. On the other hand, as far as I know the German economy was just as state-centric up until the postwar period, and nonetheless developed an effective civil society. So anything could happen, but it's hard to tell until we see what kinds of changes come with the economic recovery (assuming it happens).
posted by nasreddin at 2:02 PM on September 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


I should make clear that I don't think Putin himself will be in power for 30 years. Mau's analysis suggests that post-revolutionary dictatorships never quite manage to consolidate their power sufficiently and are quickly replaced by others. I doubt the replacement will be very quick (the article is too optimistic about that, although Putin's fall is a real possibility depending on how the crisis plays out), but whoever comes along after Putin will be a disappointment--he'll have to rely on the same or similar mechanisms to keep afloat.
posted by nasreddin at 2:52 PM on September 6, 2009


The apartment bombings probably were the work of his FSB, or at least Rogue Elements...

that said, Putin the Great will likely be Russia's best-- in the sense of usefully stabilizing-- option for some time.

Given memories of the chaos and wretchedness of the 90s, any lurch in governmental direction Russia might take would probably be toward stronger authoritarianism.
posted by darth_tedious at 3:26 PM on September 6, 2009


Perfect example of the Streisand effect.

If I were an editor of a somewhat questionable story, I would definitely 'ban' its publication in another country. Just sayin....
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 5:48 PM on September 6, 2009


> I knew this would make it to the blue eventually, although the article itself isn't great. One of the problems with it, like the vast majority of Western discourse about Russia, is that it treats Russia as a liberal democracy that has somehow degenerated into tyranny. If one operates under that assumption, it makes sense to try to use the power of the public sphere to expose crimes and corruption, call for investigations, and so on.

While of course I appreciate your in-depth understanding of Russia, I'm not terribly clear on what your point is here. Fine, Russia is not a liberal democracy that has somehow degenerated into tyranny, it's a Thermidorean regime. And? Your conclusion is that we should all just shut up and accept whatever Putin & Co. do because it's a historical inevitability? We shouldn't point out that the bombings were a government frameup because it's not going to effect a change in the government? I'm all for fatalism where appropriate, but moving on beyond that to "don't worry, don't talk about it, just cultivate your garden" is a bridge too far. Why exactly is it "not great" to try to uncover the truth?
posted by languagehat at 10:51 AM on September 7, 2009


While of course I appreciate your in-depth understanding of Russia, I'm not terribly clear on what your point is here. Fine, Russia is not a liberal democracy that has somehow degenerated into tyranny, it's a Thermidorean regime. And? Your conclusion is that we should all just shut up and accept whatever Putin & Co. do because it's a historical inevitability?

We don't have to shut up, but we're forced to accept it whether or not we want to.

We shouldn't point out that the bombings were a government frameup because it's not going to effect a change in the government?

No, pointing it out is just fine. But pointing it out with the purpose and expectation of achieving liberal-friendly political change in Russia is bound to result in disappointment.

I'm all for fatalism where appropriate, but moving on beyond that to "don't worry, don't talk about it, just cultivate your garden" is a bridge too far. Why exactly is it "not great" to try to uncover the truth?

Seriously, where are you getting this idea that I'm pro-censorship or anti-investigation or whatever? What's "not great" is the article itself, which brings little new to the bombings discussion besides the popular, mass-consumption style (a good thing) and the hectoring crusader tone (a bad thing). I'm not opposed to "uncovering the truth"--that's all fine and dandy and might bring a lot of people emotional closure. Beyond that, there's not much to expect from it.
posted by nasreddin at 11:29 AM on September 7, 2009


> where are you getting this idea that I'm pro-censorship or anti-investigation or whatever?

Not so much that you're "pro-censorship or anti-investigation" as that you seem irritated with the entire concept of trying to figure out what happened and publicize it. And frankly, you still do: "that's all fine and dandy and might bring a lot of people emotional closure." I guess investigative reporters should be baking pies for people instead, because that would feed them as well as giving them happy emotions. And how exactly are Vladimir Mau and Irina Starodubrovskaya an improvement? They give you better emotional closure?
posted by languagehat at 12:00 PM on September 7, 2009


I'm not sure evaluating my arguments on the basis of whether I "seem irritated" is quite the slam-dunk debating tactic you imagine it to be. You might want to save your sarcasm for an occasion when I actually disagree with you.
posted by nasreddin at 12:08 PM on September 7, 2009


Not debating, just expressing my own irritation. It is a well-known fact that the two of us differ on the value of postmodern "it's all just smoke and rhetoric" theory.
posted by languagehat at 12:11 PM on September 7, 2009


Perfect example of the Streisand effect.
small but well-balanced piece ob this today on neteffect.foreignpolicy.com (by Evgeny Morozov).

the equation "exposure = power" that generally holds for a country like America does not hold for Russia
I would not say that's right. Exposure in Russia is not immediate power (as the checks and balances we are used to do not exist), and will not achieve any short-term political change. But it does have an influence on the discourse - readily visible in the discussions about censorship, freedom of the press, moral responsability, objectivity of history etc. that have been stirred up by the case. Soft and smart power of the discourse is not too bad, could be.

What is striking is a statement I encountered somewhere today in the blogs: "We know that the twin towers were blown up by Bush, so what is astonishing in that the apartment houses were blown up by Putin?"
posted by megob at 12:15 PM on September 7, 2009


Or to put it another way, there's a big difference between "Good for Scott Anderson for finding a former KGB official willing to go on the record about this stuff, and I'm glad the word is getting out; here's some background information that puts it in context..." and "Eh, forget this crap, here's the real deal," which is how I read your initial comment. But I'm always going to prefer hard-won facts to fancy theorizing, and you're just the reverse. Don't get me wrong, I understand the value of seeing Putin's Russia as a Thermidorean regime, but it butters no parsnips, it just provides fodder for more analysis. Which of course is what you're interested in, and that's great, but I wish you were a little less disdainful of mere facts. But I guess you'd call them "facts."
posted by languagehat at 12:52 PM on September 7, 2009


Or to put it another way, there's a big difference between "Good for Scott Anderson for finding a former KGB official willing to go on the record about this stuff, and I'm glad the word is getting out; here's some background information that puts it in context..." and "Eh, forget this crap, here's the real deal," which is how I read your initial comment. But I'm always going to prefer hard-won facts to fancy theorizing, and you're just the reverse. Don't get me wrong, I understand the value of seeing Putin's Russia as a Thermidorean regime, but it butters no parsnips, it just provides fodder for more analysis. Which of course is what you're interested in, and that's great, but I wish you were a little less disdainful of mere facts. But I guess you'd call them "facts."

My epistemological position wrt facts/"facts" isn't really at issue here. My impression is that Anderson hasn't uncovered any new facts--I've heard similar charges being made for years. Certainly nothing I've written in this thread has been disdainful of facts; that I dislike Anderson's approach doesn't entail anything in this regard that I can see. If his discovery does represent truly new information, I'm perfectly willing to give him that credit. I wish you'd be less eager to drag out the strawman in these discussions.
posted by nasreddin at 2:27 PM on September 7, 2009


But it does have an influence on the discourse - readily visible in the discussions about censorship, freedom of the press, moral responsability, objectivity of history etc. that have been stirred up by the case. Soft and smart power of the discourse is not too bad, could be.

Maybe--but discourse where? The Russian comments I've seen on this issue have been a predictable combination of weary cynicism and guarded suspicion of American media.
posted by nasreddin at 2:32 PM on September 7, 2009


See, for instance, this discussion thread (Russian), one of the first Google results for "скотт андерсон."
posted by nasreddin at 2:36 PM on September 7, 2009


Well, I'll admit that my knee may be jerking excessively, but Russian comments on every article about Russia in the American press are a predictable combination of weary cynicism and guarded or not-so-guarded suspicion of American media. It says as much about the value of the article as does Conde Nast's "no comment."
posted by languagehat at 3:23 PM on September 7, 2009


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