The Bizarre End to Vladimir Putin’s Bizarre Marriage

June 6th, 2013

This is how it happens: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his wife Lyudmila go out for a quiet evening at the ballet and, in an interview with a camera crew in a hallway with fake plants, announce that they have gotten a divorce, a month shy of their thirtieth anniversary.

And yet, it’s the happiest we’ve seen Lyudmila in years. In part, that’s because we haven’t seen much of her in years. She was conspicuously absent from this year’s official Easter service, prompting jokes that Putin had made the mayor of Moscow his wife. There were rumors that she had been locked into a convent in the western Russian city of Pskov, there were rumors that she was drugged, rumors that she was dead—which, when you saw her stand swaying and blankly blinking through Putin’s third inauguration last year, were more than believable.

For many years, it was an open secret in Moscow that Putin had taken up with former rhythmic gymnast Alina Kabaeva. A few years ago, she had a son—which she recently claimed was her nephew—and there were reports in January that she’d had a baby daughter, presumably with Putin. Then, of course, there were the rumors that Putin had moved on from Kabaeva to a former basketball star. Putin’s athleticism, it seemed, knew no bounds.

It did not appear to have been a happy marriage. There were stories from Dresden, where Putin had been stationed as a middling KGB agent during the ’80s, of abuse and philandering. When Putin was named Yeltsin’s successor in January 1999, Lyudmila was said to have cried through the night. Her fears seem to have been realized today when Lyudmila said that one of the reasons for the divorce was that “Vladimir Vladimirovich was always working” and that “we hardly ever see each other.”

An odd moment in the announcement came when Putin mentioned his confirmed children, two adult daughters whom we’ve never really seen, though there were reports in 2010 that one of them was marrying the son of a South Korean admiral. (You’ll notice that this very article is riddled with the words “rumors” and “reports,” which is indicative of how different a role—from our American expectations—the first family plays in Russia.) Putin volunteered that his children “got their education in Russia and live in Russia permanently.” It was a strange statement for the president of a country, unless that country is Russia, where children of the elites tend to live in Europe. Their fathers’ occupation—plundering the country—is a dangerous one, and tends to make Russia poor and thus not a great place to live for anyone. And it’s just more convenient to have your wife and kids living near your money, safely stashed in a Western bank.

Which brings me to my last point. By Russian law, half the wealth accrued in a marriage goes to the wife in a divorce. Vladimir Putin, by most accounts, er, rumors, is one of the wealthiest men in the world. But there are a couple sticking points here. A Kremlin pool reporter once told me that Russian oligarchs are not truly oligarchs, “they merely work as oligarchs.” Meaning, they are human offshores for Putin’s wealth. (They also pay dividends, but in a “Sopranos”-style fashion, buying him yachts and chipping in for his billion-dollar beach house. Rumoredly.)

Officially, of course, Putin made just $177,000 last year. And Lyudmila Putin, as the old Russian saying goes, will never see that money just like she’ll never see her own ears.

The Bizarre End to Vladimir Putin’s Bizarre Marriage [TNR]

Susan Rice is a Better Fit for National Security Adviser than for Secretary of State

June 5th, 2013

Today, Barack Obama stopped the music on yet another round of cadre-shifting musical chairs. And this time, the reshuffle left Special Assistant to the President and former journalist Samantha Power in the U.N. ambassador’s chair, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the national security advisor’s chair, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon with no chair at all. Billed by the Times as “a major shakeup,” this round was wholly predictable.

In fact, it had been scheduled back in December, when Susan Rice, then the favorite to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, pulled out of the running amid a storm of controversy over Benghazi. Back then, Rice, who was essentially eased out of the pre-nomination process by the White House, told me that she had “had a warm conversation” with Obama, which made her feel better. White House advisors were openly talking even then about Rice getting the national security post. In the months since, that chatter, from people in the White House and close to Rice, has only intensified. One source close to Rice told me that they were simply waiting for Donilon to get up out of that chair.

The more ironic twist in this is that this job, now seen by everyone as Rice’s consolation prize, was actually the job she had wanted way back in early 2009. She had been one of the founding members of the Obama campaign’s foreign policy team, having thrown in her lot with him early despite her deep ties to Clintonland and that going with Obama then seemed like a career-ender. As I recount in my December profile of Rice, she was none too pleased.

But when the election was over, Obama nominated Clinton for secretary of state and appointed James L. Jones as national security advisor, the position Rice had coveted. Like others, Rice was bitter and disappointed, but, ever the loyal soldier, she observed that the only people to get their first choice jobs were Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama himself. (Rice disputed this account, saying, “My preference was what the president wanted me to do.”)

But perhaps it’s not a bad thing that Rice has had to wait four years to get the job she wanted four years ago. Most everyone who has dealt with Rice, while acknowledging her brilliance and awesome work ethic, has noted, as one foreign policy insider told me, “Every job she’s had, she’s had four or five years too soon.” This is more than a sexist remark about a young overachieving black woman. The speed of her ascent is, in part, what has made her the polarizing personality that she is today. For example, when she first worked at the State Department from 1997-2001 as assistant secretary for African affairs, she may have been one of the chief architects of Bill Clinton’s Africa policy, but she had a hell of a time inside the Department.

Politically, though, Rice had a tough time. At meetings, “she was often the youngest person in the room,” recalls her assistant during that period, Annette Bushelle. “Those older and more seasoned officers—most of them male—thought that she was a bit young and inexperienced.” This led, perhaps, to a self-reinforcing spiral. Rice can seem spiny because she knows how she’s perceived. “Publicly, she’s just 48, she is an incredible over-achiever and she’s got a lot of detractors that think she got too far, too quickly,” says a friend and colleague. For each staunch ally who praises her warmth and smarts, she seems to have made an enemy. There are no Rice agnostics.

National security advisor is the perfect job for Rice in large part because she is so much like Obama. Like him, she works with a tight inner circle, and politicking does not come naturally to her, according to her family and colleagues. Like Obama, she prefers the data and wonkery to grand theories. This has made her flexible and pragmatic, and, for her critics, frustratingly hard to predict. (She has been labeled, derogatorily, both an interventionist and a non-interventionist.) In this, she is just like her boss, in large part because she’s helped shape Obama’s foreign policy views. Rice, who has become a friend and a fixture inside the Obamas’ inner sanctum, was advising the President even when he was a Senator. She was also one of the architects of the Phoenix project, a white paper that laid out Obama’s foreign policy views early in the campaign. Given that her views and Obama’s line up in a kind of perfect policy eclipse — heck, she made his views — working together this closely will likely be a breeze.

Susan Rice is a Better Fit for National Security Adviser than for Secretary of [TNR]

The Cold War Heats Up in Syria

May 21st, 2013

The violence in Syria has descended into sectarian warfare, attracting Islamic extremists from all over the world. Tensions with Turkey have escalated as the conflict claims Turkish lives and threatens to spill across its border. The West, wringing its hands over whether and how to intervene, has offered a diplomatic solution, but one that requires an impossible, simultaneous laying down of arms. Russia, in the meantime, continues to send its navy to putter around menacingly at the Syrian port of Tartus, where it has a small base; it also continues to sell arms to Assad’s regime, despite U.S. objections. Nevertheless, Russia has expressed its hope and willingness to see the diplomatic solution put to work to avert a potential years-long civil war.

Sound familiar? That was June 2012, just under a year ago. Arguably, the only thing that’s changed in Syria since then is the scale: more casualties, more extremists, more violence, more spillover. What hasn’t changed is the rest of the world’s approach to the mess. Obama continues to waffle and stall, the Europeans continue to push for at least arming the rebels, and the Russians continue to hold the stay-out-of-it line, while doing little to hide the fact that their ships are massing in Tartus and that they’re shipping weapons to Assad.

What’s Russia’s endgame? That hasn’t changed much either: stall, maintain the status quo as long as possible. It is for this reason that Russian ships continue to cruise around in Tartus and that Moscow keeps sending arms to Damascus. The Russian ships and the anti-aircraft missiles won’t be used against the rebels—who have no planes or ships—but, rather, are Russia’s way of maintaining equilibrium. If the Saudis and Qataris arm the rebels, Russia will arm Assad. If the West makes moves to intervene, Russia ships and anti-aircraft supplies will have made the moves exponentially more risky. But the reality, as familiar as it is, is evolving, and it’s making it increasingly difficult for Russia to tread water. “Russia would prefer a status quo, yes, but everyone here understands that a status quo no longer exists,” says Fyodr Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “It’s a slowly disintegrating situation. The erosion of the regime is acknowledged by all, but what is the time horizon? How long will it take till it finally crumbles? Russia can wait, but the U.S. can’t.”

Russia is willing to wait in part because it has, and has always had, a fundamentally different conception of the conflict. “For Americans to understand the Russian position, you have to understand that the American, Western position is not totally right,” says Maxim Yusin, the deputy foreign affairs editor of the main Russian daily, Kommersant. “The Russian position is less emotional and more pragmatic. Russia doesn’t believe at face value all these emotional declarations that a bloody dictator is stifling freedom and democracy.” Since the conflict began, Russia has been pointing out that if Assad goes, those that replace him may not necessarily be liberal, Western-minded democrats. And what follows the end of this war may not necessarily be peace. Because, in Moscow’s view, what’s happening in Syria is a fundamentally local, religious fight, but one, as Yusin puts it, “to which we’ve all become prisoner.”

“Moscow understands that something has to be done because the war has been going on for two years and it has to stop,” he explains. “But if Assad’s opponents win, there will be a bloodbath. Shiites and Alawites will be slaughtered.” Moreover, he adds, echoing the official Russian position, that the successors to Assad will likely be the ones flying the black flag of jihad and sponsoring terrorism outside Syria’s borders. Lukyanov points out that Syria has long been home to those displaced by the upheavals in the Caucasus, which has become a hotbed of terrorism and Islamist insurrection. “Getting rid of a dictatorial but secular regime, and replacing it with an Islamist regime creates yet another support network for the terrorists in our backyard,” Lukyanov explains. Yusin makes a starker analogy. “Assad does not want to target America, but these guys do,” he says. “These are thousands of potential Tsarnaevs, and France and Britain want to arm them!”

One argument the Russians make officially is that all of this posturing, all of this standing behind Assad and sending ribboned delegations to show the Kremlin’s support, is not so much about Assad, but about principle. Assad won an election, and now the West and its Arab allies have decided to topple him — as the Kremlin sees it, in order to weaken Iran, Syria’s main ally. (American meddling has ramifications at home, too: Less than a year after Tahrir Square, Moscow exploded in anti-Putin protests with Western leaders, like Hillary Clinton, egging them on—at least that’s how the Kremlin saw it.) And if Syria goes, what happens to Iran, and, by extension, Russian influence in the region? They lost Saddam, they lost Qaddafi; now Assad, too?

This is the crux of the issue. Moscow may not have a long term plan—in fact, while it knows that the peace conference it’s co-sponsoring with the U.S. will inevitably fail, it continues to push the idea anyway—but fighting the fight, acknowledging the proxy war aloud is, in some ways, all that matters. “The issue isn’t a love for Assad, or our port at Tartus, or even the arms sales,” says Georgy Mirsky, a venerable Russian scholar of the Middle East. “These things matter, of course, but they are not the main thing. We can live without Syria, we can live without Assad, but to allow someone to say that Moscow is dancing to Washington’s tune would be unacceptable. Unacceptable.” This, Mirsky says, is a holdover from the Soviet days, which, at the Russian Foreign Ministry, have never quite receded. “Soviet rule has been gone for twenty years, but the Soviet mentality remains, especially at the very top,” Mirsky explains. “There is a very strong suspicion that you can’t trust the Americans in any way because they’ll take every opportunity to do something nasty to us. So the instinct is that if the Americans are against someone in the Third World, then we have to be for this person. And vice-versa. This all comes from the Soviet mentality.” This would explain why Mirsky once heard a Russian diplomat say, “I would rather have a nuclear Iran than a pro-American Iran.”

The problem with this approach, if you’re America, is that there isn’t much you can do with a fluid, roving check-mate. There is even less you can do when your ostensible partners in bringing the two sides together project onto you their worst fears and suspicions, and when everything is done not to win, but to prolong a status quo that no longer exists.

The Cold War Heats Up in Syria [TNR]

The Spy Who Shot Himself in the Foot

May 14th, 2013

While Moscow slept, and Washington slept, a man named, as far as we know, Ryan Christopher Fogle, who had been, as far as we know, a third secretary in the political section at the American embassy in Moscow, was tackled by guys from the FSB (the successor agency to the KGB), pinned to the ground and handcuffed. He was wearing an awkward wig that shone blonde in the night time footage, with a gray baseball cap perched atop it. His clothes—a blue checked shirt and a pair of jeans—made him look like a delinquent frat boy being hustled away from a rowdy costume house party in a police cruiser, not the CIA case officer the Russian authorities said he was. Fogle, they said, had tried to flip an FSB agent by offering him $100,000 in crisp 500 Euro notes. Also recovered at the scene: a brown wig, four pairs of sunglasses, a Moscow street atlas, a flashlight, a Swiss Army knife, a cell phone that seems to have been on this earth for at least a decade, and a compass. There was also a letter, “from someone who is very impressed with your professionalism,” instructing the recipient to set up a Gmail account at a café with wifi in order to get in touch with the Agency. It was signed, “Your friends.”

It was a strange scene, and it got even stranger when Fogle, whose arrest was filmed by the FSB, was hustled, handcuffed, into the agency’s notorious Lubyanka headquarters and berated, on camera, by an FSB officer with a blurry face and an impeccable American accent. Fogle, he said, had phoned the FSB agent at around 11pm last night and asked to meet with him. When the FSB agent declined, Fogle insisted and got his meeting. This agent, the berating officer gently explained, “is responsible for [redacted], and is involved in fighting terrorism in the North Caucasus.” He is, the officer noted, “a well-trained warrior.” “At first, we didn’t believe that this could have happened, because you know perfectly well that, recently, the FSB is actively aiding the investigation into the explosions in Boston, as well as other information that is potentially threatening to the safety of the United States of America,” the officer went on, his voice rising steadily as he began to circle around Fogle, bobbing from the waist as he became more and more angry at the thought of all of Fogle’s iniquity. There was the FBI visit to Moscow, the productive meeting between Obama and Putin. “And, with this as a backdrop, when relations between the two countries are being strengthened, an American diplomat commits a state crime against the Russian Federation. We think that, when two presidents are working hard to strengthen ties, when they are trying to improve the climate of mutual understanding, this citizen, in the name of the government of the U.S., commits the most serious of crimes here, in Moscow!”

Fogle, who seems to have no trouble understanding the Russian official’s accusations of harshing the geopolitical mellow, sits in his chair looking like a kid who’s been in trouble before and knows exactly how this is going to go. He has clearly been trained for such an eventuality. He seems to know that soon, the Russians will release him back to the U.S. Embassy, he’ll be PNG’d and expelled from the country, and, after a brief shitstorm, all will go back to its old ways. And that’s exactly what happened.

But the whole incident is a strange one. First of all, wigs and a compass? Really? Did he not graduate up to the Groucho Marx glasses? “Yeah, the Agency has a tendency to do that,” says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA case officer in Europe and the Middle East. The problem, he says, is that when you don’t have a “tech” present to help you compile your disguise, “you usually come out looking like a gay mad scientist.” “I know everyone gets a kick out of the wigs and thinks that went out with the Cold War, but it didn’t!” says Peter Earnest, former CIA operations officer and executive director of the Spy Museum in Washington. “Sometimes, light diguise works really well if you’re meeting someone at night and you don’t want a casual observer to recognize you.” Earnest points out that all the “fancy” hi-tech stuff is great, but is easily hacked into. “Osama bin Laden cut off all electornic communications,” Earnest points out. “He was using medieval methods—a courier!” As for the Gmail account Fogle was encouraging his target to open? “That’s not surprising,” says Gerecht. This, apparently, was a “cold pitch”—trying to flip someone unprimed—and the procedures, Gerecht says, “are fairly standard.”

Surprised? Well, given the other espionage techniques that the Russians and Americans have used on each other in the past, you shouldn’t be. “Oh, you should talk to [former Moscow CIA station chief] Burt Gerber,” one espionage specialist exuberantly suggested. “He invented the pop-up kit!” The pop-up kit, if you must know, is what the Agency used in Moscow at the height of the Cold War: because all cars coming out of the U.S. embassy were tailed by the KGB, the American spook would have a driver who would make a sharp turn, the spy would jump out and disappear into a crowd, and a contraption in the shape of a human would pop up in the passenger’s seat. Then, there was the “spy rock,” in 2006. The Russians alleged that the British were using a rock to spy on them. It was all very funny until last year, when the Brits confirmed that, yes, in fact the rock had been spying on the Russians. (Actually, it was being used to send and transmit data, which is notoriously difficult to do when spying on the cunning Russians. “The rock was a real improvement over what we had before,” says Robert Jervis, an expert in the field and a professor at Columbia.) The Russians are not too shabby when it comes to Keystone Cops maneuvers, either. In the summer of 2010, ten Russian “sleeper” agents were busted by the FBI. Among their techniques: using WiFi in cafes, swapping orange bags in public places, and burying money in a field. Anna Chapman, the most infamous of the so-called “Illegals,” purchased a temporary cell phone and registered it to the following address: “99 Fake St.”

What’s most amazing is that, by all accounts, Moscow is a terribly difficult place to work if you’re a spy. “Every case officer had a half life in Moscow because the place was bugged up the wazoo,” says Gerecht. “They could sniff out who you were pretty fast.” And yet, our spies are using blonde wigs straight from a Halloween store, printed instructions, and compasses. No one had an explanation for why, but at least, Gerecht assured me, we’re not using this in Islamabad and Sana’a. (Says Earnest: “It would not surprise me.”)

What is it we’re looking for in Moscow? During the Cold War, some 40 percent of the CIA was dedicated to spying on the Soviet Union. One old hand described meeting a woman whose full-time job at the Agency was tracking the canned-goods industry in the USSR. Since the end of the Cold War over two decades ago, counter-terrorism has become the priority, and Russia has become, for the most part, just another country. These days, we’re mostly concerned with Russia’s still well-stocked nuclear arsenal and their counterterrorism operations in the volatile North Caucasus. And, there’s the “defensive” target, explains Jervis. “If we can penetrate the FSB, we can learn a lot about what they’re trying to find out about us,” he says. (That’s right. We’re spying on them to see what they’ve spied on us, and they’re spying on us to see what we’ve spied on them.) In this case, the Russians seemed to be accusing Fogle of going rogue in the international Boston investigation. Unclear if that’s true, mostly because the video and the FSB officer’s lecture were featured prominently on Russian state TV, and most such spy scandals are handled quietly. Most likely, Fogle was caught red-handed—or blonde-wigged—and the increasingly powerful, increasingly visible hardline faction of the Russian government was just flexing its muscles, and showing that, though it’s cooperating with the Americans, it’s still stronger and wilier than the Yanks. One Russia analyst jokingly speculated that Fogle was a double agent working for the FSB, sent in to make the CIA look bad. “I’m only half-joking,” he added.

The Spy Who Shot Himself in the Foot [TNR]

Foreigners in Their Own Land

May 6th, 2013

Monday’s rally in Moscow started with a moment of silence to commemorate the event, exactly one year ago, that sowed the seed of the protest movement’s demise.

Last year, on May 6, the day before Vladimir Putin was inaugurated president of the Russian Federation for the third time, tens of thousands of people marched peacefully down a wide Moscow avenue to Bolotnaya Square, an act that itself commemorated the first mass protest against Putin’s government on December 10, 2011. It was a heady time: People were angry and fed up with the government’s increasingly ham-fisted lies, and they were giddy at the discovery that there were tens of thousands of people in an atomized, sprawling city who were just like them, a fact that the Russian media had done its best to keep from anyone.

But then—either because of a planning glitch, or, more likely, a police provocation—the May 6 protest devolved into chaos. Police and protestors clashed violently in the square, and the violence spread throughout the city as the protestors scattered, and police pincered them out of subways and cafes. It was a violent, horrifying day, made all the more so by the unexpectedness of the conflagration.

In the following year, the protest movement sank into a kind of aimless despair as the state systematically arrested 28 people it deemed had disturbed the peace. One, Maria Baronova, a young mother, faces two years in prison for a YouTube video showing her encouraging protesters. One young man faces a lengthy jail term for exhorting people to violence, even though he has a debilitating stutter. Others face years in prison for hitting police officers, when they were the ones injured. The dragnet even caught an old woman, a pensioner. (There were, of course, no investigations into possible police brutality; all the injured special ops fighters who suffered bruises and bloody noses were rewarded with free apartments.)

Monday’s rally was nominally to show support for these people, the so-called Prisoners of Bolotnaya, whom the government has clearly made an example of: You want to protest, be prepared for the consequences. But in reality, today’s protest was a sort of test for signs of life. Did anything remain of that thrilling, optimistic protest movement of yesteryear?

The answer? A definitive, depressing maybe. As usual, more people came than the pessimistic projections predicted: anywhere from 8,000 (police estimate) to 30,000 (organizers). By all accounts, the hopelessness was dissipated a bit by anger, but the aimlessness of it all was still there. “It was a lot of people,” tweeted Moscow Guardian correspondent Miriam Elder. “And they know what they want. But they—and the opposition leaders—still dunno how to get there…” This was reflected in the tired, usual-suspects line-up of speakers, and their staid, regurgitated speechifying. It was made all the more pathetic by the weak sound system: A mishap earlier in the day had killed a volunteer setting up the equipment, and speeches had to be delivered from the side of a truck rigged up as a stage. Sometimes, it reverted into farce, as when opposition journalist Oleg Kashin went dada and sang, a capella, a song called “It’s All Going According to Plan.” Some invoked the Stalinist purges of 1937—a common, if slightly inappropriate trope of late. Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under Yeltsin and an opposition veteran, declared, “No more resolutions! This time, we have demands!” It was a cringeworthy, unwittingly Monty Python-esque moment, and it reflected the impotence of the large, angry crowd. It was the age-old Russian dilemma, incarnate: What is to be done?

Elder told me that everyone she spoke to came to the rally “because we couldn’t not come.” She said it reminded her of the people who vote for Putin “because there’s no one else to vote for.” “It’s all so passive,” she noted. I would argue that the passiveness is the impotence of defeat, when, as the Russian saying goes, your hands fall to your sides because you just don’t see what can be done. Because if the government ignores you and doesn’t give an inch—the best the Kremlin could do today was simply to say that Putin is “aware” of everything going on; aware, and nothing but—there’s not much you can do. And if it pushes and intimidates, it makes sense to do what many Muscovites do: retreat into your vacations to Goa and your Apple products, into a cozy cocoon of friends and family, hidden from the brutality outside. Or you could do what an unverifiable number of Russians are doing: leaving. But it’s a hard decision to make. “I have no other country, I have nowhere to retreat,” boomed opposition politician Alexey Navalny, the one rousing speaker today. It was a heartbreaking expression of what I’ve seen in many of my liberal Moscow friends: They are being slowly squeezed out of their country, being made to feel like foreigners in their own land.

After the live streams from Bolotnaya ended, I spent the afternoon watching videos from the fallout of last year’s May 6 violence: a peaceful, many-days-long sit-in at the statue of Abai Kunanbaev, a Kazakh poet, on one of Moscow’s old tree-lined boulevards. It was a wonderful, happy spring, the days sunny and long, full of hope and silliness, and people played guitars and sang old Polish Solidarity songs about toppling walls with their shoulders. A year later, it’s hard to watch. There is no one at the fountain today, and it’s not just because it’s unseasonably cold in Moscow.

Foreigners in Their Own Land [TNR]

The Tsarnaev Women Tell Chechnya’s Story

May 6th, 2013

There were three important women in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s life—five, if you count his sisters—and each is a window into the culture to which he seemed to cling in the final years of his life.

First, there is his aunt, Maret Tsarnaeva, a Chechen refugee from Kyrgyzstan and now a resident of Toronto, by way of the U.S. In a press conference the day her nephew Dzhokhar was being hunted in the streets of suburban Boston, Maret, with her rust-colored hair and silvery manicured nails, gave a magnificent performance. She was brassy and assertive, commanding the attention of the reporters calling to her with questions. “I’m lawyer from back home,” she declared, exhorting the FBI to prove to her that her nephews were responsible for the bombing of the Boston marathon. “How difficult is that? Give me evidence!” she demanded, flicking her hand into the air as if peppering the press with her disdain. She talked about her nephews, but also about her youth in Kyrgyzstan, where the Tsarnaev brothers spent part of their childhoods. As a Chechen, Maret said she had to prove her mettle, to go over and above her Kyrgyz and Kazakh peers because, unlike them, “I was not in my land.” Asked about Tamerlan’s radicalization, Maret acknowledged that he did indeed turn to Islam in recent years. “He started praying five times a day, but I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” she said. “You just say words, gratitude to Creator.”

Maret is the old Chechnya: secular, Soviet, severed from its roots, paranoid and cynical in its knowledge, acquired painfully and firsthand, of what a government can do to its subjects. When Maret talked about her nephews being framed, she knew what she was talking about: “Lawyer from back home” actually meant state prosecutor, a key actor in a judicial system that was in practice a political bludgeon, one that actively invented charges against potential opponents. Maret also talked about Islam as a thing that is both native and foreign to her. Islam was something into which she was born, and which, to her, likely, is a set of pleasant traditions and holidays that give her a sense of belonging to an old history. For someone who had a Soviet upbringing, being born a Muslim was akin to being born Chechen; it was just another mark of ethnicity, and, towards the end of the Soviet experiment, didn’t mean much more than having a non-Slavic name.

Enter her sister-in-law, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, wife to her brother Anzor, mother to her nephews Tamerlan and Dzhokhar. You look at that old baby photo of Tamerlan from the late 1980s, and you see Zubeidat looking like a more sullen version of Maret. Her hair is uncovered and fashionably teased; her dress is secular, even stylish. At a press conference in Makhachkala, Dagestan, a quarter of a century later, she is a woman transformed, though the long, morose face is still the same. In between, she had moved from the wasteland that was nominally Buddhist Kalmykia, where Tamerlan had been born, to nominally Muslim Kyrgzystan, had another son, Dzhokhar, and two daughters, emigrated to America, gone to beauty school, married off her older son and daughters with uneven success, was arrested for shoplifting, divorced her husband, and moved back with him to her native Dagestan.

Somewhere along the way, Zubeidat found Islam in a way Maret never did.1 It is said that Zubeidat pushed Tamerlan toward the old faith when he started to lose his way, and it is also said that Mikhail Allakhverdov, the mysterious “Misha,” a Ukrainian-Armenian convert to Islam, had pushed Zubeidat or Tamerlan or both closer to Islam. And from there, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar seem to have moved on to more intense forms of the religion, including an interest in the radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. It is something that seems to have percolated through the house and into Zubeidat’s newfound faith: She told one of her customers that the September 11 terrorist attacks were an inside job designed to turn the world against Muslims. “My son knows all about it,” Zubeidat is said to have claimed . “You can read on the Internet.”

Zubeidat is the new Chechnya, and the new Dagestan. At the Makhachkala press conference, she is dressed in a long-sleeved black caftan, her face framed tightly by a black and white hijab. Her mourning is expressive and theatrical, almost Middle Eastern. She talks about how she regrets moving to America— “why did I even go there?”—about how she expected America to keep her children safe, but instead “it happened opposite,” she says, weeping. “America took my kids away.” If the Tsarnaevs hadn’t emigrated, Zubeidat contends, “my kids would be with us, and we would be, like, fine.”

That, in the new Chechnya and the new Dagestan, is highly unlikely. While the Tsarnaevs were in Kyrgyzstan and America, the region began to change rather violently. After the First Chechen War ended in 1996, Chechnya became a mix of lawless wilderness rife with violence and kidnapping, and pockets ruled by fundamentalist warlords, like Aslan Maskhadov. After a second war between Russia and Chechnya broke out in 1999 and dragged on for years, Vladimir Putin installed Ramzan Kadyrov as president of Chechnya. Kadyrov was the son of a separatist mufti and led a vicious militia that switched to the Russian side early in the second war, and become allied with the FSB.

Kadyrov, who now posts photographs of his devout family at play or going on Muslim pilgrimages on his Instagram account, is accused of grotesque human rights violations. He now rules Chechnya with a mix of terror and a torrent of money from Moscow. He has led Chechnya down the path of increasing Islamization. Women are now required to cover up, lest they be harassed by the authorities or, worse, subject to paintball attacks by Kadyrov’s modesty vigilantes. Kadyrov has also voiced his support of honor killings, a rather stark turn for the once secular republic. “Now Chechen women must wear hijab and long dress with long sleeves to go anywhere out of home. There have been many situations of the public humiliation of those who tried to resist,” a Chechen woman told me. She asked to remain anonymous for fear for her family’s safety. “The previous generation was under the radicalization of Wahhabi regime during 1996-1999, but the Wahhabis lost, they didn’t achieve the goal to cover all Chechen women with hijab. But now the government has achieved that goal. This young generation of radicalized girls and boys might be a real threat to the society in the nearest future.”

Even before this policy had firmly taken root, the region became a source of unique terrorism: the female suicide bomber. The first woman to detonate herself was 22-year-old Khava Baraeva, who, in 2000, drove a truck packed with explosives into a local Russian military base, killing three. She was going after the commander who had killed her husband. Other Chechen and Dagestani women followed her lead, blowing up military posts as well as civilian targets inside Russia. Two women, for example, simultaneously brought down two Russian airliners in 2004, killing 89, and two young Dagestani women blew themselves up in the Moscow metro, in March 2010, killing 40. Half of the terrorists who seized the Dubrovka theater in Moscow in 2002 were women, strapped with explosives. Experts estimate that up to 40 percent of suicide bombings originating in the region are perpetrated by women.

The women have come to be known in Russia as “Black Widows.” At home they are known as shakhikdi, the Russianized feminine form shakhid, or martyr. “A lot of the women in these radical Islamic groups, for example, in Indonesia, they don’t get personally involved in frontline warfare but they raise their sons so that if their father is killed, they can step right away into his shoes,” says Mia Bloom, a scholar at Penn State’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism, and author of Bombshell, a book about women suicide bombers. “Women act as the glue within the terrorist cell,” she explains. “The daughter of one cell leader will marry a cell leader in another area to create linkages, like in 15th century European courts. And the women are to make sure that their men stayed fierce.” Bloom adds that, though it’s hard to do this in the U.S., in conflict zones “the mothers will convey a certain ideology or worldview to the children.” Others, like Mariam Farhat, a Hamas activist, encouraged her sons to go on suicide missions, and publicly bemoaned the fact that she didn’t have more sons to send into battle.

Chechen and Dagestani women took it one step further; they went into battle themselves. It is a stunning paradox, given that at home they live in what Bloom calls “an extraordinarily patriarchal society—so much so that the women at the Dubrovka theater were wearing explosive belts, they were not the ones with the detonators.” The man is the means and the ends of a Chechen home. When a Chechen woman is married, she is not allowed to speak at the wedding. Often, her relatives can’t even come. It is a celebration of the man’s acquisition. “In a Caucasian family, where the man dominates, woman is raised to take care of the man and to sacrifice for the man,” the Chechen woman told me. “The Caucasian code of ethics requires the woman to be modest and quiet. But during the war in Chechnya I have witnessed so many times how Chechen women would step before tanks and armed soldiers, aiming weapons at them, if their men were in danger of being captured or killed. So, this socially required behavior changes when it comes to a life and death issue. Mothers are ready to sacrifice for their sons, sisters for their brothers, wives for husbands, and so on.”

Though Zubeidat refuses to accept her sons’ guilt—“No, never,” she said that day in Makhachkala—and though a Russian wiretap caught her talking with Tamerlan about jihad, it seems unlikely that she would strap herself with explosives and charge forth against the enemy. Chechen and Dagestani mothers usually don’t. And that’s where Katherine Russell comes in, especially after a woman’s DNA was said to have been found on a fragment of the bomb.

Russell, the daughter of a Rhode Island doctor, met Tamerlan at a night club, converted to Islam, and, after marrying the elder Tsarnaev brother, reportedly became more observant and began to pull away from her family. She went to work while her husband stayed home. According to her friends, he was often abusive, calling her a “prostitute” and hurling furniture at her. This too is unfortunately common in the culture: Tamerlan’s naturalization was held up when he faced charges for slapping his girlfriend; his father, in an interview with The New York Times, wondered aloud at the strangeness of this country, where “you can’t touch a woman.”

But unlike a black widow, and unlike Zubeidat and Maret, when her husband was accused of blowing up the Boston Marathon and then died in a shoot-out with police, Russell, the American, did not pick up arms, verbal or physical, to avenge her man. She walked away. His violent attack on the state did not bond her to him; rather, it seemed to rip her out of his orbit, to shame and terrify her where, had Tamerlan been a radical in Dagestan, it may have brought her a certain grief-tinged honor. Instead, Russell issued statements in which she expressed her ignorance of the plot—the DNA was found not to be hers—as well as her shock and her family’s grief for the victims of the bombing. Most tellingly, she declined to claim Tamerlan’s body. Instead, it was claimed by his sisters, who though Americanized and horrified by Tamerlan’s act, said they would give their brother a proper Muslim burial.

The Tsarnaev Women Tell Chechnya’s Story [TNR]

We Told You So: How Russia responded to the Boston bombings

April 21st, 2013

Shortly after Barack Obama finished his press conference after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s dramatic apprehension last night, a Russian newspaper reported that the president did not mention the “Russian footprint” in his address. There was almost a note of relief in the report, which came after a day spent by Russian and Chechen officials (though Chechen officials are also Russian officials) batting that footprint away from their doorstep, or denying that one even exists. “We don’t know the Tsarnaevs,” Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic, said. “They never lived in Chechnya, they lived and studied in America.” In this, Kadyrov found himself in strange company, with people among the liberal opposition who also wondered what Russian footprint anyone was even talking about. “Chechnya?” one Russian journalist told me. “They’re Americans, they’ve been in America since childhood!”

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said that the Russian president had been appraised of the situation as it unfolded, struck a slightly different note, however, and it was one of “we told you so.” “Putin has repeatedly said there is no such thing as our terrorists and somebody else’s,” Peskov said. “One must not differentiate between them, deal with some and condemn others. They all deserve the same approach, the same rejection.” This was a reference to America’s vocal defense of the Chechen separatists in the 1990s, as well as to the rebels in Libya and Syria—where fighters from the North Caucasus often turn up. To Putin, the Taliban and the Chechen separatists, the Salafis and Wahabis, Hamas and the Free Syrian Army are all one. It is why he can be friendly both with Bibi Netanyahu and with Bashar al-Assad: He feels their pain, he fights their fight at home. In fact, his presidency was baptized by the fire of domestic terrorism and war against an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus. His subjects and his capital have been attacked many times, most recently in March 2010, when two young women from Dagestan blew themselves up in the Moscow metro during the morning rush hour.

Putin has spoken gruffly and scatalogically about terrorists, and he has no patience for them. “We will pursue the terrorists everywhere,” he said back in 1999, when he was just a pale and unassuming former KGB officer beginning the Second Chechen War. “If they’re in the airport, we’ll get them in the airport. That means, you’ll have to excuse me, if we find them in the toilet, we’ll whack them in the outhouse.” One Russian political analyst said, “Russia has long warned the Americans that flirting with various separatist and terrorist organizations of the North Caucasus would not lead to anything good.”

The we-told-you-so resonated with Russians, albeit in different ways. A graphic that went viral on the Russian-language internet showed that now infamous black-and-white photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with the following text, printed in big block letters: “Welcome! Sochi 2014.” Russia is hosting the Winter Olympics next year in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, which is perilously close to the still smoldering Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus. (The decision to have the Olympics there was, at the time, criticized for this lack of foresight.) Others, among them the nationalist guerilla new-media entity known as Sputnik & Pogrom sent out this graphic into the Internet ether. “Enjoy the freedom fighters, America,” it says. “Chechens are no rebels, Chechens are terrorists.” (Sputnik & Pogrom later released a more helpful graphic, to set Chechens—“Mostly Muslim, gave the world [terrorist Shamil] Basaev and Tsarnaev”—apart from Russians—“Mostly Christian or atheist, gave the world Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.” “Know the difference,” it declares.)

There has, however, been a lot of interest both in the suspect’s family—the Russian press was the first to track down Antsor Tsarnaev, the father—and in the Hollywood-style chase, even on the state-controlled channels. The crowds in Boston cheering their police force made for an especially odd piece of theater. Russians look with suspicion on their law enforcement agencies—deservedly so—and they usually deal with Chechens in a way that doesn’t resemble a classic action flick. The Russians usually storm the place in a take-no-prisoners way, intentionally and unintentionally kill a bunch of people, and retire back to their mysterious caverns, leaving the public to ponder what the hell just happened.

But as much as Russians have distanced themselves from the attack, or have scolded the politically correct Americans for dealing with the bad guys with kid gloves, this has been an odd moment of bonding for the two countries at a time when Russian-American relations are at yet another low point. I never thought I’d agree with Alexei Pushkov on something—he is the foaming-at-the-mouth anti-American head of the Duma’s foreign policy committee and a frequent and virulent commenter on state TV—but I do now. In a statement, he said that he sees no reason for the Russians and Americans to fight over the Tsarnaev brothers. “American citizens are members of Al Qaeda, they fight in Pakistan, they fight in Afghanistan against NATO and against other Americans,” he said. “And therefore, if some citizens of Russia—and we still have to clear up if they’re citizens of Russia, or not—participate in some kind of global terrorist activity, I don’t see any reason for this to cause a crisis of [Russian-American] political ties.”

What he means is, Russians don’t see terrorists as having national identities, really. Their only identity is terrorist, their only allegiance—terror. “The U.S. actively supported Al Qaeda in the struggle against the USSR, and then bin Laden began to kill Americans; it supported terrorists in Libya, and then they killed the American ambassador; it supported Chechen separatism, and now these terrorists are beginning to blow up Americans,” Sergei Markov, another loyalist hawk, pointed out. “I will not be surprised if these terrorists arrived in the U.S. on the basis of some program of assistance to Chechen political refugees ‘from Russian repression.’” The Russians feel that they know this like no one else in the world, and terrorism is a real and smarting wound in Putin’s worldview. This is why Putin was the first foreign leader to call Bush on 9/11, and why he offered, in the wake of the Boston bombing on Monday, to aid Obama in the investigation. It’s also probably why the two got on the phone last night, and why Putin’s spokesman said the countries’ intelligence services will be in touch. Putin understands the terror of terrorism, he feels Obama’s pain. After all, his own presidency was born of it.

We Told You So: How Russia responded to the Boston bombings [TNR]

The Boston Bombing Suspects Were Reared by Both Chechnya and America

April 19th, 2013

Friday morning, America woke up to Chechnya. Two Chechen brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, had become suspects in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings, gunned down an MIT cop, and, in the ensuing chase, turned Boston into an eerily quiet war zone. Suddenly, everyone needed a primer on Chechnya, on the wars there, on its connections to Al Qaeda and the Free Syrian Army—despite the fact that we don’t know whether their alleged acts were motivated by ideology. “Now everyone, they play with the word Chechen,” their uncle Ruslan Tsarni fumed at the press scrum outside his Maryland home. “They put a shame on the entire ethnicity.”

But the Tsarnaev story—at least as I see it now—is not about Chechnya. Or, rather, it is only about Chechnya insofar as it is a story about the wanderings of the Chechen people writ very, very small.

The Chechens are an ethnic group from the mountains of the North Caucasus, a small neck of land between the Black and Caspian Seas. When the Imperial Russian army invaded at the end of the eighteenth century, Russia’s writers began to romanticize the place, a land of severe mountains, full of quiet, dark-eyed maidens and proud, ruthless warriors against Russian conquest. Tolstoy, who was once stationed in the region, wrote about their eternal struggle against the Russians in Hadji Murat, as did Pushkin, who went there in exile, in Prisoner of the Caucasus. They describe a society that fetishizes masculine honor and violence, skill with one’s horse and one’s sword. The fact that the region now produces international wrestling and martial arts stars is not a coincidence, nor is the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was as devout a boxer as he was Muslim and that Dzhokhar, 19, was an all-star wrestler in high school. Nor is it a coincidence that they faced off against the authorities, and that Tamerlan died in a hail of bullets.

Russian orientalism ended, however, when a guy from Chechnya’s next-door neighbor, Georgia, came to power in 1928: Joseph Djugashvili, or, as we know him, Stalin, knew how to end the aspirations for independence among the Caucasian Muslims like the Chechens and the Ingush. As elsewhere, he drew the boundaries of the local republics in a way that would make separation along ethnic lines a nightmare, and he imported a lot of ethnic Russians. When Nazi Germany invaded, local nationalists sensed an opportunity to wrest their independence from the Soviets. After the Germans retreated and Stalin crushed the insurrection, in 1944, he shipped the entire Chechen population to the barren steppe of Kazakhstan, where as many as half of them died. (The European parliament recently labeled this a genocide.)

The fact that Dzhokhar was born in Central Asia, in nearby Kyrgyzstan, is ironic and deeply significant, as is the fact that he shares a name with Dzhokhar Dudayev, who unilaterally declared Chechnya’s independence in 1991, and, when the First Chechen War broke out with Russia, in 1994, declared jihad against the Russian Federation. That war ended in a truce in 1996, and Chechnya, now de facto independent, became a wild and violent place. Ethnic Russians fled or were pushed out, and many Chechens escaped north, to neighboring Dagestan, which is where Dzhokhar is said to have attended the first grade, in 1999-2000. Around that time, in 1999, Chechnya invaded Dagestan, plunging the region back into war, and it is shortly thereafter that the Tsarnaevs moved to Boston, in either 2002 or 2004. It is why their uncle Ruslan told a local reporter this morning that “they got their start as refugees, as refugees from war.”

In the U.S., they seemed to have lived a hard life. Their father was a mechanic who struggled to make ends meet, doing repair work here and there for $10 an hour. Then he is said to have been diagnosed with brain cancer and had to go to Germany for treatment, though he is now, apparently, in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s capital, where he is besieged with television cameras.

If Dzhokhar seems to have been a relatively well-adjusted kid, the elder, Tamerlan—who is named for a Muslim Mongol warrior—clearly had more trouble. Their uncle, incensed at his “loser” nephews, was outraged that they were ungrateful to this country “that gave everyone a chance,” and speculated that they were driven by “hatred of those who were able to settle themselves.” In the now infamous and currently blocked photo essay on Tamerlan, he speaks of his Chechen background and flaunts shoes that any person who’s ever been to Russia will tell you are kavkaz shoes: They are the trademark footwear of men from the North Caucasus who are trying to be posh. And so, Tamerlan tells the photographer, “I’m dressed European style.”

Tellingly, Tamerlan also says he has no American friends. It is a statement that the media jumped on, but the second half of that statement is the more illuminating one: “I don’t understand them.” This is not surprising. I moved to America from Russia when I was 7, spent my entire conscious life and education here, am fully assimilated and consider myself American, and I often don’t understand Americans. It’s no wonder that Tamerlan couldn’t make sense of them either. Based on what’s known of when the Tsarnaevs came to the U.S., he was either 15 or 17. Immigration is hard at any age, but it is especially difficult when you are a teenager, when your mind and body is changing and you are struggling to come to grips with who you are. For Tamerlan, national identity was thrown into the heady mix, and he seems to have stuck with the one he knew his whole life: Muslim Chechen. The fact that history has made that definition an uneasy one cannot be irrelevant.

If the YouTube channel that is said to be Tamerlan’s really is his, you can see him fervently clinging to this torn identity: It is full of Islam and Russian rap, which makes sense given the Soviet policy of Russifying Chechnya. In fact, Chechnya is still part of Russia and Russian, as well as Chechen, is its official language. Dzhokhar, who was either 9 or 11 when the family moved, may have been more assimilated than Tamerlan, but if that VKontakte page is his, it too is telling: VKontakte is the homegrown Russian rip-off of Facebook. The mere fact that he had a page on an exclusively Russian social network shows that the assimilation was not a complete one. Because emigrating at 11, or even 9, is hard, too. (The most revealing image of Dzhokhar is not the one of him hugging an African-American friend at his high school graduation, but the one of him sitting at a kitchen table with his arm around a guy his age who appears to be of Central Asian descent. In front of them is a dish plov, a Central Asian dish of rice and meat, and a bottle of Ranch dressing.)

In the end, this is not a story about Chechnya or radical Islam or the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Ramzan Kadyrov, the usually insane president of Chechnya, says that the Boston bombing was not a Chechen act of terror, that these boys were reared and forged in America. He was probably right. But that’s not to say the men—whatever their alleged motive—had nothing to do with Chechnya. They were reared by both Chechnya and America, forged in the joining of the two through the painful, disorienting process of emigration, of accepting and being accepted by a new society, or not.

The Boston Bombing Suspects Were Reared by Both Chechnya and America [TNR]

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List

April 15th, 2013

On Friday, the State Department, in conjunction with the Treasury Department, published a list of 18 people who are believed, “based on credible information,” to be in some way responsible for the gruesome death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009. (Over the weekend, Moscow responded with its own list, which includes David Addington, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, and Bush administration lawyer John Yoo.) Why the U.S. government cares enough about the death of a Russian corporate lawyer to publicly forbid these people from entering the U.S., and from owning any real estate or holding any bank accounts here, boils down to the lobbying efforts of one man, Bill Browder.

Browder, whose grandfather Earl was the head of Communist Party USA, rescinded his American citizenship, moved to Britain and then to Moscow, where, in the gangland economy of the 1990s, he made a fortune. When Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000, Browder became his vocal champion, cheering when oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003. (The move killed all political aspirations in the business community.) In 2005, Browder was shut out of Russia for reasons that still remain unclear, though some observers speculate that it was because he violated the core economic principle of Putin’s Russia and refused to share his profits with Putin.

Shortly afterwards, his lawyer, Magnitsky, began to uncover where Browder’s wealth was going. With the cooperation of the Russian Interior Ministry, tax inspectors, and courts, an organized crime ring was able to reappropriate $230 million dollars. Soon, people like Interior Ministry officials Artem Kuznetsov and Pavel Karpov were living outsize lives, driving luxury vehicles and buying upscale real estate in Moscow, despite their meager official salaries of about $2,000 a month. So were the judges, like Olga Stepanova, who had approved a complex set of transfers of money to various shell companies.

Now, all those inspectors and interior ministry officials and judges find themselves on the list, as do the heads of prisons where Magnitsky spent the last year of his life—after Magnitsky uncovered the scheme, Interior Ministry inspectors had him thrown him in jail. There, screaming with pain, he died, at 37, of untreated pancreatitis. Dmitry Komnov, the head of Butyrka prison, where Magnitsky died handcuffed to a bed, battered, and in a pool of his own urine, is said to have ignored nearly 100 complaints from the prisoner. The judges who prolonged his arrest, as well as the prosecutors who pushed to prolong it, are also on the list.

Almost as soon as Magnitsky died, Browder launched an intensive PR campaign knowing that, despite their officious outrage, the Russian authorities would do nothing. Browder compiled a slick series of videos in English called “The Untouchables,” which detailed how Kuznetsov and Stepanova and Karpov stole his money and killed his lawyer.

Karpov, of course, sued Browder for libel. And here’s where it gets complicated: We don’t know for sure whether Karpov or Kuznetsov or Stepanova did any of the things outlined in “The Untouchables.” The Russian government is made up of many, many vicious men, but Browder is not the most trustworthy—or disinterested—person on the planet. None of his accusations have been proven in a court of a law, and these people, who probably own nothing in the U.S.—Russians prefer to keep their assets in Europe or Cyprus—have become international pariahs. That said, even if they did steal the money and kill Magnitsky, which is highly likely, there is no court in all of Russia which would consider the case, let alone find them guilty. The only person to be tried in all of this, tellingly, is Magnitsky.

The Magnitsky list raises all kinds of questions. Is it America’s place to dispense justice for crimes—alleged crimes—committed elsewhere? Can we publicly shame people who have not been convicted of anything and have no right to appeal the decision? Are these people scapegoats for a Congress that wanted to show itself a defender of human rights? Moreover, why are Congress and the State and Treasury departments all doing such heavy lifting—and further angering Moscow, whose cooperation we need on North Korea, Syria, and Iran—to avenge Browder, who pointedly rescinded his American citizenship and has no plans to ever get it back?

On a purely intellectual level, I think that we should not be wrapped up in this—which has been Obama’s position. But on a gut level, having spent three years in Russia and observing how brutal and cynical and just gut-wrenchingly awful the Russian police and courts are, the list feels like a form of justice. These 18 people, though unconvicted, have become scapegoats for all the evil that the Russian government does to its people. Is it imperfect? Yes. Is it dubious and is it strange that the U.S. is getting involved? Oh, yes.

But, on a purely visceral level, it feels good to say this: The Russian system feels perfectly fine making scapegoats out of dozens of people caught up in the violence of the May 6 protests, violence that the government itself orchestrated in order to sacrifice some scapegoats, terrify the others, and stamp out burgeoning opposition to Putin. (A Russian journalist told me the prosecutors involved in these cases speak openly of the cases’ fabricated, political nature.) The system also feels fine committing all kinds of more minute but equally horrible, demeaning, violent acts on its citizens, day in, day out. So why should America open its banks and its borders to the system’s enforcers?

The problem is, we’re playing by Russia’s rules. And we, thank god, have different rules. May it be ever so.

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List [TNR]

The All-Night King of the Capital

March 27th, 2013

On March 13, before heading to Capitol Hill to talk deficit reduction with House Republicans, President Barack Obama, as is his custom before such showdowns, met with his economic team, including National Economic Council head Gene Sperling. The NEC, a Clinton-era innovation, is supposed to serve as an organizing body for the government’s other economic agencies, like Treasury and the budget office. In the hands of Sperling, who worked at the NEC at its inception and has been its director for longer than anyone else, the council has become half think tank, half coach’s corner. Sperling and his team of wonks find economic policies, incubate them, game them out, and present them to the president.

This has made Sperling a ubiquitous figure in the economic policy debates and fiscal crises of recent years. Sperling is the one prepping the president for TV appearances. He’s often dispatched to brief congressional Democrats, as well as the chief policy staffer for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, on the White House line. During the fiscal cliff talks, Vice President Joe Biden was accompanied on his forays to the Senate by Sperling, the human cheat sheet. The only times he hasn’t been in the room is when it was just Obama and House Speaker John Boehner.

It’s an unexpected turn, given that Sperling barely made it into the administration in the first place. A veteran of Bill Clinton’s team from the campaign days in Little Rock, Sperling had worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential run, and when Obama won, Sperling was left without a job in the administration. Larry Summers, an old friend and colleague, was named head of the NEC, and he urged Timothy Geithner, the new treasury secretary, to find Sperling a position. Geithner made him a counselor. For someone with Sperling’s experience, it was, at best, a bit part.

When he started at Treasury, Sperling was temporarily given a suite that had once served as Andrew Johnson’s Oval Office during the months that it took Mary Todd Lincoln to move out of the White House. It was the peak of the financial crisis and Sperling’s deputies slept on the 150-year-old couches. One Saturday morning, an informal tour stumbled upon Sperling and his team cranking out a PowerPoint presentation amidst the flotsam of an all-nighter. “This is a historic office!” the guide exclaimed. “Well, it’s a historic crisis,” Sperling reportedly shot back.

This kind of behavior didn’t immediately endear him to his new bosses. Obama’s inner circle is obsessively orderly. Sperling, as Clintonian as they come, is rambling and intensely inefficient. He is compulsively late; meetings that were scheduled to run for half an hour go three times longer. (“The unit of productivity per unit of work is probably lower” than the ideal, a former staffer told me.) “Gene kind of fit in more on Clinton time,” says a onetime colleague. “This ‘you better be on time’ or ‘the meeting’s going to end in fifteen minutes’ kind of shop is not quite as aligned with his demeanor.” The colleague adds, “It took the Obama people a while to warm up to him.”

But Sperling made himself indispensable, mostly by never going away. “He was constantly over in the West Wing. He hustled,” says Peter Orszag, Obama’s first budget director. “If there wasn’t a spare desk at the White House, he would just sit on the floor and work,” recalls Bob Greenstein, who runs the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “He either didn’t have pride or swallowed his pride and took it on, but … Gene started to become one of the central players even without having the portfolio to be one.”

At Treasury, Sperling pushed progressive policies that, in the middle of a nine-alarm financial meltdown, were not high on the list of priorities. He pushed anyway, “in his usual, relentless way,” says Geithner.

“Gene was holding ten p.m. calls every night on executive compensation at a time when most people were worried, is the financial system going to fail?” says one former staffer. It made Sperling the target of some derision, but he got his way. One of his pet causes became the Small Business Jobs Act, a combination of tax cuts and loans for small enterprises, which Obama signed into law in 2010. In 2009, he also proposed two measures to regulate how companies pay their executives. The extension of unemployment benefits in 2010 was Sperling’s doing. And the American Jobs Act of 2011 (which would have provided relief for Americans hit hardest by the crisis but which ultimately failed to clear Congress) was all Sperling, says Geithner. “He really was the main architect of the American Jobs Act,” Geithner explains. “It was big, and it was designed very creatively.” “Gene was prescient,” says the staffer. “You look back and you say, ‘Geez, this is stuff we’re still getting hammered on, and, were it not for Gene, we would be in a way worse place.’”

Most of the stars of Obama’s founding economic team have now departed, but Sperling is still there. He has managed to outlast them by, well, outlasting them. During the 2008 transition, Summers recalls haggling with Sperling over a tuition tax credit in the planned stimulus package. Sperling wanted to make the credit refundable, while Summers, the man with the real job in theadministration, disagreed: There were simply too many refundable tax credits already. “It was ten at night, and he wouldn’t let me leave!” says Summers.

After over an hour of arguing, Summers declared his decision final and went home. Sperling stayed late into the night drafting the memo that would recommend the best policy to the president. By the time Summers came in the next morning, the tax credit had become refundable. Geithner remembers a furious Summers calling to demand that he rein in his counselor. “‘It’s just unfair, he stays up later!’” Geithner recalls Summers saying. “He would just outlast everybody; he would just fight harder, longer. He just wore everybody down.” (Then–Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel had to take Sperling aside to remind him that economic policy isn’t made by staying awake the longest.) “He has an awesome tenacity advocating for people who are vulnerable,” Summers told me. “It’s frustrating for lesser mortals.”

The overwhelming power of this political bulldozer is folded, rather messily, into a five-foot-five frame, with graying hair and a receding hairline. It’s hard to quote Sperling, because he rarely finishes a sentence, or even a clause. His is not one of those brains that produces speech in essayistic paragraphs or recounts events in chronological order. There’s a disarming and goofy informality about him. I arrived for our interview on time—“That was silly of you,” said the West Wing receptionist—and about an hour later, was ushered in to meet Sperling, who was pacing in and out of his office and joshing with his mostly male staffers.

In the boyish world of economic policy, his quirks have made him the target of elaborate pranks. Geithner once sent a friend, posing as a Government Accountability Office inspector, to Sperling’s Treasury office to tell his assistant that the gigantic conference table he used for his crowded, marathon brainstorming sessions was too big and didn’t meet government specifications.

Yet Sperling has also earned his colleagues’ respect, because, as odd as it sounds to say this in Washington, a big part of his drive comes from the fact that he truly believes he is making the world a more just place. Born to a progressive family in Ann Arbor—his father was a lawyer who won several constitutional cases; his mother was an education reformer—Sperling says it was instilled in him that Jews, as people who were once oppressed, had an obligation to ease the burden of others. “He’s clearly attracted to power, to being part of that big process,” says a colleague from the Clinton years. “But a lot of people get inside the room and forget what it’s like outside the room, and he’s never forgotten.” Bob Woodward, in his book on Clinton’s presidency, The Agenda, describes Sperling, then–NEC deputy director, thanking his staff for helping preserve Clinton’s progressive policies during the brutal 1993 budget negotiations. He described the millions of working poor who would be lifted above the poverty line and the millions of children who would get hunger relief. Woodward noted, “Tears came to some eyes.”

But Sperling also thrives on the gritty business of policy-making. He recounts battles over budget line items like a kid telling a spooky story, flashlight propped under his chin. One episode in which his relentlessness paid off came in 1997, during a showdown with Newt Gingrich. Basically, knowing that Gingrich would have a limited appetite for tax credits for the working poor, Sperling and his NEC team figured out a way to combine a child tax credit with the earned income tax credit, boosting the amount of money eligible families would receive. Unfortunately, Gingrich caught on and Erskine Bowles, then the White House chief of staff, was sent to repair the damage. He came back with a counteroffer from Gingrich limiting the stacking of the tax credits. Sperling, armed with a sheaf of charts detailing the impact of every possible outcome, protested: It was going to take serious money out of millions of pockets. Bowles pleaded with him not to scuttle the whole deal over a single policy initiative. But Sperling held the line, and Gingrich, infuriated, walked out. Later, however, he sent over some autographed copies of his latest book, and the two sides started talking again. In the end, Sperling and the working poor got their stackable credits. “Whether you’ve prepared enough to know the impact of every detail and potential option can make the difference between whether you’ve used your spot at the table to help or let down millions of people who are relying on you to look out for them,” Sperling told me.

Back then, Sperling was able to work with Gingrich and the House GOP, even when they bitterly disagreed. During the 1997 budget clashes, Sperling sparred constantly with then–House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich. But after Kasich became governor of Ohio in 2011, he could still call up Sperling, who, with help from Valerie Jarrett, was able to find a way to help Ohio expand Medicaid. “I do not support Obamacare, but I do support the expansion of Medicaid. I wanted to get it done but not under these conditions,” Kasich told me. “We have the same goal. Once you make up your mind that you want to reach a goal, you think of ways to get there.”

Stories like these are rare. Washington and the Republican Party have changed, and Sperling now finds himself dealing with an opponent who cannot be exhausted into submission. During the fiscal cliff talks, Sperling was amazed that House Republicans never made it to the stage of negotiations when both parties, in their best dramatic bargaining voices, announced their final offers, take it or leave it. Instead, the House Republicans just walked away. Here he reprises his familiar joke about Boehner and Eric Cantor: “I wouldn’t want to date them,” Sperling says. “Because they don’t say, ‘Can we talk?’ They don’t say, ‘Can we take a break? Can we see other people? Can we go to a therapist?’ They’re just gone one day!” The only explanation he can come up with is that Republicans don’t want any deal at all, and they never make a final offer for fear that Democrats might actually take it.

Now, Sperling senses a spitefulness within the GOP that wasn’t there even with his arch nemesis, Gingrich. Newt was mean, but he could count votes and he could deliver. He was also willing to work with Democrats on the less flashy stuff. He was vicious in the big fights, yet there were feel-good bipartisan measures, like a veterans’ tax credit, on which they could collaborate. There’s a bemused sense around Sperling’s office that, if Barack Obama is for chocolate cake, the Republicans would be against chocolate cake, too.

It’s all harder these days. Sperling has married and had kids; at 54, the all-nighters take a toll. And, while he may have successfully browbeaten his way to power, he has never truly made it into Obama’s inner circle, the hallowed, tiny space still reserved for political gurus, Chicagoans, and those from the long march of the 2008 campaign. “It definitely bothers him,” says the former colleague.

Still, Sperling has not yet tired of pushing the budgetary rock up the mountain. The fact that he has been able to win before allows him to believe that he might be able to win again. “It would be hard for me to come in every day and work really hard if I weren’t an optimist,” he says. Besides, he is too busy looking for openings and doggedly ramming fixes through to have time to fall into the subjunctive progressive whine: if only. “I feel like, yes, I’d like to be six-one and twenty-six and start for the Pistons, too, but those things aren’t going to happen, and this is the world we live in,” he says brightly. “Sometimes you get up the hill, sometimes you don’t. But you always keep pushing.”

The All-Night King of the Capital [TNR]

Saving Cyprustan: How Russia Sees Cyprus

March 24th, 2013

The day that Cyprus rejected a European bailout that would have given every bank account in the country a “haircut,” the Cypriot finance minister Michael Sarris went on a mission. He went not to Brussels or Berlin, however, but to Moscow. Sarris had to find $7.5 billion dollars to cover the gap between the $12.5 billion the Eurozone was going to give Cyprus—the Europeans and IMF insisted the loan be capped at 10 billion Euros— and the $20 billion that the Cypriots needed to plug the hole in their economy. Flying to wealthy, flashy Moscow, which, as we’ve all heard, has oodles of money in Cyprus, though no one knows exactly how much, was a predictable move, like calling your spendthrift millionaire friend when you can’t make your rent this month.

So Sarris showed up in Moscow, but not hat in hand, exactly. He came offering stakes in Cypriot telecom companies and in its recently discovered offshore gas reserves— reserves which Gazprom was reportedly eying in a potential private bailout. And yet, on Friday, the three-day talks with Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and Dmitry Medvedev—who is said to have audibly cheered in a meeting when he saw the news that Cypriots had rejected the Euro bailout–ended with little to show for the effort. Medvedev said he wasn’t shutting the door on bailing out Cyprus with help from Europe, but Sarris went home to a ticking clock, empty-handed.

It’s not clear why Moscow didn’t bite, but all of this exposes a very interesting geopolitical situation. Russians are said to have up to $32 billion in Cypriot banks, which is not insignificant for a country with a $25 billion GDP. But don’t quote me on that Russian number. Asked by a Russian paper how much Russian money was in Cyprus, the head of the Cypriot Central Bank said, “depends on how you count it.” This is in part because it’s very easy for Russians to acquire residency as well as to register off-shore or shell companies on the island. Often, however, they are registered to a local lawyer, so the company is technically Cypriot, but stuffed with Russian cash.

Cyprus is often talked about as a money laundromat for ill-gotten Russian money, and as a tax shelter, but the more accurate description is probably “haven.” Some of Russia’s wealthiest tycoons have money stashed in Cyprus, but so do people from the humble ranks of Russia’s many, many millionaires, not to mention droves of the merely upper-middle class. (The big dogs have their money all over the world—Isle of Man, Switzerland, London real estate, the Cayman Islands—but Cyprus is the starter haven, the gateway to the world of offshore accounts.) The reason, as former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin explained, is simple: Cyprus was once an English colony, which means that it has English law, which the Russians revere for its ability to fairly settle business disputes. Not only is Cyprus an Orthodox Christian country, with an alphabet from which Cyrillic was derived, it is also a place with rule of law and a functioning, independent court system. Russians do not have this at home, where money or property can be yours one day, and someone else’s the next, without any legal recourse. So yes, money gets laundered in Cyprus, but money is also kept safe there from other Russians, specifically those working in the Russian government.

And that’s where it gets crazy: on Thursday, Medvdev said that unnamed “government structures” have their funds in Cyprus. Which explains Russian President Putin’s outburst when the European plan was first announced: Putin, the man who jails dissidents and on whose watch corruption and government extortion of businesses has reached near mythical levels, called the Cypriot bank tax “unfair.” But not really. How does one explain to the average foreigner that the Russian government is sheltering its money…from the Russian government?

It’s worth noting here that Russians generally don’t see their government as a ruling body and neutral arbiter, or as a guarantor of the rule of law. Russians, correctly, see their government as a collection of front-row seats to the auction divvying up Russia’s natural plenty. In the last decade, government bureaucrats have become the country’s new elite. Their expenditures on houses, cars, or watches rarely match their official incomes. Over the summer, for example, a Moscow real estate company found that over half of the luxury flats in Moscow—those priced at $2 million and up—were purchased by government officials. It’s no surprise then, that when Russians are asked about corruption, they are not so much infuriated as envious: polls repeatedly find that a majority of Russians simply want to get into a government post to get access to the goodies.

And once you get those goodies, you must hide them in a place where other people in the government—say, overzealous fire marshals—can’t get at them.

But the Russian government itself owns a lot of businesses, like VTB Bank—where Kudrin, until recently, served as chairman of the board—that, in turn, does a lot of business in Cyprus. VTB is one of Russia’s largest banks and it is mostly owned by the Russian government. Which makes some of its transactions seem rather strange indeed. For example, Alexey Navalny, an opposition politician, uncovered one such scheme: VTB decided that it could make some money renting oil drilling equipment it purchased from China. VTB did not purchase them directly, but through a Cypriot company, registered to two Russians, which bought and sold them to VTB at a 50 percent markup, and pocketed the difference: $150 million. (The point was for the Cypriot company to make the $150 million, rather than the rental of the drilling equipment, which is lying unused in some forsaken field in Siberia.)

To the Russians, Cyprus has become a kind of Mediterranean Russian colony. There are Russian storefronts, nearly 50,000 Russian residents, and many more vacationers from the Russian middle class. Cyprus has become wildly dependent not on Europe, whose currency it uses, but on Russia. It’s a particularly ironic twist given that Russia, historically, has seen itself as the Third Rome, the Orthodox power that picked up the flag that Byzantium dropped when it was conquered by the Turks. Perhaps it is because of this that the Europeans, particularly the Germans, pushed for the Cypriots to pay for part of their own bailout. Greeks are one thing, but Russians—whom Europe sees as the barbarians at the gate, aping its fashions and customs—are another, and Germany sees no reason why a country that turns off its gas supply to punish Ukraine, should be bailed out by German taxpayers.

The real question in the Cyprus debacle is why Russia is being so careful. You’d think Moscow would be happy to rush in and save a small European country that the Continent has snubbed. They already have a colony in the Mediterranean. $7.5 billion would be a cheap price to turn it into an ally.

Saving Cyprustan [TNR]

Neigh Gourmet

March 4th, 2013

I’m just going to come out and say it: I love horsemeat. It’s lean, yet tender, it is flavorful but not gamy; it’s delicious. Those IKEA meatball-eaters have no idea how lucky they are.

I was first introduced to it in the Uzbek restaurants of Moscow, where they serve kazy, the horse sausage eaten across Central Asia, with translucently sliced onions and warm, naan-like bread. I was skeptical at first, but eating kazy is a conversion, that first moment of doubt melting away into a long “mmmmm” as you chew. But this was no mere staple of exotic Central Asia. By the time I got to Zurich, I was totally ready for the horse steak my hosts ordered for me. For the sake of comparison, we got one steak steak and one horse steak, and both slabs of raw meat came out on hot stones that sizzled and cooked the meat to the degree you wanted. And you know what? It wasn’t even a contest. Compared to the sweet richness of the horse, the cow tasted bland and dry. If I ever come across horse on a menu again, I would order it: I still crave that horse steak.

And that’s just the flavor part. Horsemeat is healthier than beef or other red meats: it is less fatty, and, unlike its more socially acceptable counterparts, less doped up with hormones and, likely, raised in better, less crowded, and more sanitary conditions. It’s rich in vitamin B12, which is key to blood production and the healthy functioning of the nervous system. “If someone were anemic, horsemeat might be a good way to get iron into that person’s system,” says LeeAnn Weintraub, a Los Angeles dietician. “You’re still getting the iron without all the saturated fat of other commercially raised meats.”

Yet much of the West is having a freak-out over the appearance of horsemeat in dishes like Taco Bell tacos, things that we probably assumed were made of meat far baser, if we assumed they were made of meat at all. Moreover, why are producers pulling these products off the shelves, as if they were found to contain plutonium or, worse, rat?

To someone who has spent time living in Russia, this may smack of the pampered squeamishness of the West. The aversion, however, has far deeper roots.

Horses, both wild and domesticated, have been an important source of protein for ages, especially in Central Asia, where they teemed on the steppes. It was a different story in Europe, where horses were scarce by comparison (this was one of the reasons that menaces like Attila the Hun, galloping in from the steppe, were such a potent threat). The early Christians, clustered around the Mediterranean, ate fish and lamb. Horseflesh they associated with the heathen savages, the Teutons who lived in the forests beyond the reach of Rome and were known to eat horse. In 732, Pope Gregory III declared the practice of eating horsemeat unclean and unchristian. This was not a hard edict to abide by: The forests were far better for raising pigs, and the European grasslands for ruminants, like cows. Horses were treasured work animals too expensive to eat, who would end up on the plate when they were too old for any other purpose.

In the modern era, horses became the meat of Europe’s underbelly, the meat of the hungry. Napoleon’s starving troops were infamously instructed to eat horse on their campaigns. In 1866, French authorities legalized the production and sale of horsemeat as a way to get protein to the malnourished working classes, but this was a controversial and very classist move: the wealthy, for whom horses were not just transport but pets with names and personalities, found this to be a deeply repugnant practice. It was considered a basse viand, a base meat. Not because of how it tasted, but because of who ate it and who had the luxury to pamper it. (Horsemeat, by the way, is still eaten in France, even if it is not nearly as popular as other meats—or even, ironically, snails.)

But the Anglo-Saxon tradition, of which we are the heirs, is different, and here’s where the French come in. The Anglo-Saxons may have eaten horse when Pope Gregory was fretting about their paganism, but when the Normans conquered them, in 1066 a certain gastronomic duality entered the lexicon, a cognitive dissonance made flesh. The Normans are responsible for introducing much of the French that today floats around the English language, especially when it comes to food. When one spoke of food, one spoke in the language of the French conquerors, rather than the language of the Anglo-Saxon hoi polloi. (Or, as it was then known, Angle-ish.) And so we came to eat not cow, but beef (boeuf), not pig, but pork (porc), not lamb, but mutton (mouton), not calf, but veal (veau). It is a pretension and a prudishness that we have internalized and unconsciously propagate to this day.

The next layer, of course, is the Angle-ish obsession with the horse as a noble beast, a beast that bears us into battle and a beast we bet on and cheer in derbies. (Why it’s okay to race these horses and then euthanize them when they break a knee, but not eat them is, frankly, beyond me.) Unlike their counterparts elsewhere, American girls dream of ponies, and if they grow up swaddled in money and privilege, like Georgina Bloomberg, they can live the fantasy of every other young woman who shops for the equestrian look at J. Crew. Horses are the stuff of myths and dreams in America, and, because we’re not hungry, we have the luxury of adding them to the list of animals we are too guilty to eat, foie gras, veal, rabbit. One friend of mine, for instance, loved burgers but could not, for the life of him, eat duck. It was too cute, he said.

For some reason, non-vegetarian Americans can live with this nonsensical ethical code. Cows, chickens, pigs—we feast on their flesh without wincing or imagining them marching into the slaughterhouse, their lives racing before their big, dumb eyes. But tell them that there may be some horse in their dead cow patty, and you get theatrical retching and indignation. In part, it is deep-seated historical and cultural taboo going back centuries. But in part, perhaps mostly, it is because we are spoiled: we are spoiled to not only have the option of eating meat on a daily basis—unheard of before the 20th century—we can pick and choose. And we’re sated enough to have animals as pets, as sacred companions whom we feed with meat, placing them in a strange plane above other animals.

More news is sure to break in the coming days and weeks about horse meat found in this or that product, and it would be nice if, just for a minute, we recognized that it is simply the flesh of one dead animal mixed in with the flesh of another dead animal, and that it is by cultural coincidence that we prize one over the other, and that we do it because we are so supremely, absurdly sated. It would also be nice if we realized that having some horsemeat in those tacos might not be such a bad thing. It might even be the best thing in there.

Neigh Gourmet [TNR]

Gun Shy

February 26th, 2013

For a guy whose professional life involves talking to people about firearms, Wayne LaPierre doesn’t seem especially enthusiastic about either people or firearms. “I knew of no gun interest that he had,” says former National Rifle Association (NRA) chief Warren Cassidy, LaPierre’s boss for a decade. If LaPierre were ever to join one of his colleagues’ hunting trips, says John Aquilino, who used to run the group’s media relations, “I would run like hell.”

Not that LaPierre appeared hungry for company. “Is he a guy who exchanges slaps on the back or glasses of beer?” asks Joseph Tartaro, head of the Second Amendment Foundation, who has worked with LaPierre for 35 years. “No, I don’t think he’s that kind of person.” “He is a shy, wonkish person,” says Richard Feldman, a longtime fellow gun lobbyist. In a memoir, Feldman described his first impression of LaPierre: “This guy doesn’t have what the human resources gurus call ‘people skills.’”

A characterological profile like that doesn’t comport at all with the LaPierre we’ve seen on TV screens since the Newtown tragedy—the from-my-cold-dead-hands gun defender who blames movies and video games, rather than weapons that can shoot dozens of rounds a minute, for all the mass murders that have taken place in the last year. Which leads one to wonder why he’d even want to lead the NRA at all, or why the NRA feels he’s the best man for the on-camera job.

A studious kid from Roanoke, Virginia, LaPierre joined the NRA almost immediately after leaving a political science Ph.D. program at Boston University. Even though he’d gone from academic to operative, he couldn’t shake his campus intellectual vibe. Aquilino remembers once seeing a trail of notebooks and folders in the lobby of the NRA’s old headquarters. “Wayne walked by, didn’t he?” he recalls asking. “He literally had a stream of papers and books and notes that led all the way out to where he got into the cab and headed off to Capitol Hill.”

What LaPierre lacked in professional polish he more than made up for in intensity of belief—something that stood out in lobbying, a calling dominated by schmoozers. But the NRA wasn’t just any lobby. Arriving a year after the so-called Revolt at Cincinnati, when young radicals took over what had been a sleepy sporting organization, LaPierre moved up quickly by taking the most hard-line positions in the room. He fought to undo the biggest federal gun law, pioneered the tactic of shifting the focus away from firearms to a dysfunctional criminal justice system, and thrived as NRA moderates lost internal power struggles.

“It takes a certain amount of chutzpah,” Cassidy told me, “to be a lobbyist and walk into an office where Teddy Kennedy’s in there and he’s had two brothers assassinated, and you’re going to talk pro-gun?” But in 1986, LaPierre had done just that, helping to craft a rollback of a 1968 federal gun control law. The Senate had already passed its version of the bill, and the House debate seemed to be going the NRA’s way when Speaker Tip O’Neill called for a two-week Easter recess. When the House reconvened, an amendment banning new automatic weapons had been added.

Furious NRA ultras wanted to kill the entire bill. But LaPierre called his boss, Warren Cassidy, from Capitol Hill, ready to cut a deal. “I believed in giving an apple to gain the orchard, and he agreed,” Cassidy recalls.

Once the bill passed, however, Cassidy found himself vilified by the NRA rank-and-file, and LaPierre let his shyness kick in at the most useful moment. “I was a little unhappy that Wayne didn’t stand up, accept the fact that he had recommended it to me, … and say that he supported it,” says Cassidy. “There was almost dead silence from him.”

The lesson for LaPierre was that the other side didn’t want apples. They wanted to burn down the orchard. Less than a decade after the deal came the Brady Bill, and now, after Sandy Hook, the NRA again feels besieged. LaPierre’s former colleagues describe a man driven to distraction by what he sees as liberals’ bait-and-switchery in their quest to ban all guns.

At a hunting and conservation gala in Nevada last month, LaPierre talked not about sportsmanship but about Barack Obama’s use of the word “absolutism” in his inaugural address. “Obama wants to turn the idea of ‘absolutism’ into a dirty word, just another word for extremism,” LaPierre said, registering the same note of barely controlled rage he’d hit at his post-Newtown press conference. Over the years, LaPierre has laid out his strident views in half a dozen books, including one treatise about the United Nations’ plot to take away Americans’ guns.

In the meantime, the conservative landscape around the NRA’s circled wagons has been changing. Groups like March for Life and the National Organization for Marriage have hired media-friendly leadership. But if the increasingly powerful political wing of the NRA has no taste for compromise, it has even less for media likability. So LaPierre, his old shyness sublimated into rage, snarls at the cameras on behalf of his organization. “Let me say it this way,” says Feldman. “If it had been me holding the news conference [after Newtown], I’m certain I would’ve used a woman and I would’ve found an educator.” Aquilino puts it differently: “I wanted to bitch slap his advisers,” he says.

But Aquilino and Feldman are moderate dinosaurs compared with LaPierre, and it’s no coincidence that they were forced out with the other moderates decades ago. They may not like his media strategy, but it’s hard to argue with his record. Since 1991, membership has increased by nearly 70 percent. “Usually, his addresses are rather enthusiastically received,” Tartaro says. “Both in substance and defiant style.” In the NRA, he explains, this has helped create “a cult of personality” around LaPierre.

The problem for the organization, though, is that the base can only do so much. Given that half of gun owners don’t think the NRA fully represents their views, that more people dislike the organization’s leadership, and that gun control has become increasingly popular, the NRA might soon need new friends. At which point it might be useful to have a people person at the helm.

Gun Shy [TNR]

Ezra Klein: The Wise Boy

February 12th, 2013

he first time I interviewed Ezra Klein, the 28-year-old prince of D.C. media, he brought me a sandwich: prosciutto on a poppy-seed baguette. (Also, chips and a beverage.) We were in the back of a chauffeured black town car, sent by the Washington Speakers Bureau, to take Klein from his office at The Washington Post, across the river, to a speaking event at the Northern Virginia Community College. There, he would give a talk on U.S. politics. “I have a little spiel I do at these,” he told me. “The one I like to do is called ‘Why Washington is Horrible (in Charts),’ but they don’t have PowerPoint capability, so I’m doing a modified version.”

The point was, we were not going to eat for a while, and Klein took care to bring us dinner. (He also took care to stipulate that, should my barometer of professional ethics require it, I could pay him back for said sandwich, which I did.) “Did you read that New York Times Magazine article on decision fatigue?” he asked me, unwrapping his sandwich. “They ran this experiment where the judges would get hungry, and if you came up to the judge right before lunch, you never got parole; if you came up right after, you always got parole. The numbers were unbelievable! So now I’ve become more respectful of the way my stomach runs my brain.” He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed in silence, rushing and elongating his neck as if he would run out of air before he swallowed.

“Why Washington Is Horrible (in Charts)” is more than a spiel; it is Klein’s grand theory of politics, the media, and history. “One of my big beliefs about Washington is that we highly overstate the power of individuals and highly underrate seeing Washington as a system, in general, but, in particular, we highly underrate the power of Congress,” Klein began as we wheeled through the city. He placed particular blame on the media for latching onto trivial matters and overlooking the sticky, more complicated issues of how the government actually works. “I think the focus on gaffes is a deep embarrassment, like, a deep embarrassment, and a systemic failure on the media’s part,” he says. “And the danger of that is that, when you don’t tell people how a machine works, when it’s broke, they don’t know how to fix it. And I think that’s begun to happen.”

The audience for having someone explain Washington’s often esoteric policy debates has proved to be far larger than anyone could have anticipated a decade ago, when Klein first started blogging, and he has franchised himself to keep pace. His Wonkblog, which started out as a solo venture and has since swollen to include a staff of five, has arguably become the Post’s most successful project, bringing in over four million page views every month. “It’s ‘fuck you traffic,’” one of Klein’s Post colleagues told me. “He’s always had enough traffic to end any argument with the senior editors.” On top of this, Klein writes a regular column for the print edition of the Post, as well as long features for The New Yorker. He is a columnist for Bloomberg View. He has a book deal. He frequently subs in for Rachel Maddow, on MSNBC, where he is also on contract as a contributor, and, recently, there were rumors that Klein was on track to get his own show on the channel. (Klein dismisses this notion, saying Wonkblog is his priority.)

By all accounts, he is doing the underlying job—understanding complex policy and translating it for the interested layman—well. Scholars, policy professionals, and journalists respect him, as do a handful of fellow wonks in the West Wing. “His voice matters a lot,” says a White House official. “The president talks to Ezra.” “I’ll put it this way,” says Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, “when I’m trying to get a quick handle on some currently hot policy, on the facts and the numbers, I very often find that I’m going to Ezra’s blog.”

That Klein has achieved this kind of success by age 28 is a fact that thrills his fans and rankles his detractors. (Wonkette once referred to him as a “child typist.”) It also puts him in the pantheon of hungry young men who have moved to Washington and shape-shifted, whether consciously or not, into something that’s more palatable to the city’s establishment. The blogger who, in 2008, tweeted, “fuck tim russert. fuck him with a spiky acid-tipped dick,” now styles himself as the evenhanded, empirically driven adult in a room of squabbling, stubborn children. Even his critique of Washington, grounded in data and charts and graphs, is establishment to the core: This place, he says, is not like it used to be.

“There are critiques that bother me, but that isn’t one of them,” he told me when I asked him about people’s obsession with his age. We sat nibbling on cookies in a bare, garishly lit greenroom, waiting for Klein to go on stage at the community college. “The idea that I shouldn’t do my work because I’m twenty-eight, as opposed to forty-six, does not strike me as a compelling critique.” But he is aware of his age, and, despite the high-profile job, the mortgage, and the wife, Klein says he intentionally tries to project a youthful image. “I wear jeans, not suits, for instance,” he says. Given that most of his peers have a different perception—“Ezra has kind of a dorky dad vibe,” said one friend—Klein’s playing up his youth explains why he is especially beloved by adults. When he finally came on stage, the audience was filled with people who could at least have been Klein’s parents, and they loved him: He was the good grandson delivering an intelligent and schticky bar mitzvah speech.

The presidential election was less than two weeks away, and Klein asked the crowd to consider a Mitt Romney victory, which they promptly booed. “You haven’t even seen him be president yet!” he exclaimed, in mock shock. “OK, let’s say his first act in office is the Give Ezra Klein Twenty-Five Million Dollars in Perpetuity Act of 2013.” The crowd ate it up. “See?” Klein said, waiting for the laughter to die down. “He’s not as bad as you think!” More laughter. Klein went on for an hour, replacing his charts with what he called “air graphing.” He talked about how Congress would likely block the Ezra Klein Act and, given the way the U.S. government is set up, leave the president with no recourse; he talked about the filibuster, about elections and the history of the devolution of the U.S. Congress, and he scolded the media for lying to this very audience, day in, day out.

“I couldn’t believe he was twenty-eight!” an older woman named Deb said when the Q&A was over and the audience began to trickle out. “I said to Judy, I said, ‘He must be brilliant! He must read all the time!’”

“I think he’s great! I read him in the Post,” added her friend Fran. “I’ve never read his blog, but I will!”

Then they swapped pictures of their grandchildren and lamented the fact that Klein was already married: A friend wanted her daughter to marry him.

Out in the lobby, Klein posed for photos and signed autographs, which, he later clarified, was unusual. A young man named Albert asked Klein for career tips. “My only advice is to try to get the job that’s most like the job you want, rather than the one that’s more prestigious,” Klein said. “Always try to be the talent.”

Klein’s office is a spare cubicle on the fifth floor of The Washington Post building; a sign saying “WONKPOD” dangles from the tiled ceiling. When he works, Klein rarely looks up from his computer and his knee rarely stops bouncing. He is usually on the phone, listening and banging away at his keyboard with two index fingers, in the hunt-and-peck fashion. Occasionally, he walks over to the TV mini-studio in the newsroom to “do a hit” for MSNBC. He is a polished, fluent speaker, but while he waits to come on, he sits perfectly still, his hands clasped on the table in front of him, staring straight ahead at the camera and breathing almost yogically. I watched him do this for a good five minutes as his appearance kept getting pushed back. He didn’t flinch. “I tease him that he is like Mork,” says Kelly Johnson, who edits his Post column. “He arrived on the planet as perfectly formed Ezra!”

He didn’t. Growing up in Irvine, California, where his father was a math professor, Klein was—in his own words—“a chunky nerd.” He was also a lousy student, graduating high school with a 2.2 GPA. But he read a lot, mostly bad science fiction. He devoured, for example, the entire Dragonriders of Pern series, but none of The Lord of the Rings. (Dragonriders of Pern consists of two dozen books about how the residents of the planet Pern commune telepathically with intelligent dragons to fight showers of a corrosive spore called “Thread.”)

At the University of California, Santa Cruz—the only school that would accept him—Klein didn’t quite fit in. The kid who had been reading Noam Chomsky’s 9/11 in high school was a moderate here, and he supported the Iraq War on a very anti-war campus. Klein applied to the student newspaper, and was rejected. Sophomore year, he applied to an internship at The American Prospect, and was rejected. He applied to be a reporter-researcher at The New Republic, and didn’t get that either. He tried to help out Gary Hart, who pondered a presidential bid in 2004, and the day after he drove him around traffic-clogged San Francisco, Hart decided not to run.

Klein has spun these youthful misfires into a compelling mythology of humility and good fortune, a reason not to begrudge him his success. “I always think that I’m very, very lucky in the opportunities I’ve screwed up for myself,” he told me. What he’s glossing over, of course, is that he’s always been smart and curious; he could smell opportunity; and when he wanted to, he’d work. At Santa Cruz, Klein channeled his intellectual dissatisfaction into starting a blog. He did a good enough job on it that he was brought on by Jesse Taylor to join him at Pandagon, and, when Hart pulled the plug on his run, one of Klein’s readers, Joe Trippi, invited him to work for the Howard Dean campaign. Unsatisfied at Santa Cruz, Klein transferred to UCLA and picked political science as his major while continuing to blog. “Since my work is all in politics, what I learn and do feeds nicely into my classes, vastly diminishing the amount of work I need to do for them,” he explained in an interview at the time. “I’m done by five, like everybody else.”

By the time John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, Klein was drawing 25,000 viewers a month, figures that, for the time and for a college blogger, were fairly impressive. Back then, he was campaigning for Kerry and was openly partisan. If Kerry won, he said, there would be “days and days of revelry,” and if the spoils went to Bush, then “depression. Loss of respect for countrymen.” The blog archives do not survive, but if an interview he gave to LAist in November 2004 is any guide, his voice is recognizable: confident, overwrought, and highly self-aware. He was also a little more fratty. Asked what kind of car he drives, Klein replied, archly, “A bright blue Ford Focus hatchback. Yeah, I’m bangin.’ ”

He became part of a crew of bloggers, all of them young men, most of them still in college, who were essentially the liberal guerrilla underground during the Bush years: They were disgusted by Bush’s policies and disconnected from the enfeebled Democratic establishment. The mainstream media, which they felt had abetted both Al Gore’s defeat and Bush’s misadventure in Iraq, were particularly villainous in their eyes—little more than stenographers and scandal hounds.

“What the blogosphere did with newspaper column analysis is make fun of how horrible it was,” says David Weigel, Klein’s friend and fellow member of what came to be known as the Juicebox Mafia. “There were columnists who, even with all their access, which you assumed they had, were just completely lazy and misinformed. And that was the opposite of the blogosphere. The only way to succeed in the blogosphere was actually to shoot at the groin of whoever was bigger than you.” Almost everyone came in for derision: George Will, David Brooks, David Broder. The latter became synonymous with high-minded appeals for bipartisanship, or “High Broderism.” Klein and co. were far less interested in finding compromise than in their side winning.

The rebellion was also largely about data, about relying on studies and numbers instead of “gut” (that favorite Bush word) to solve policy problems. “I don’t really like writing defenses of ‘comparative effectiveness review,’ ” Klein once wrote. “It makes me despair for our country.” Often, the dorkiness went down with a spoonful of irreverence, like in posts titled “The ‘Purple Nurple’ Theory of International Relations.”

When these young men moved to Washington—Klein crammed enough classes into a summer to get his degree and run off to join The American Prospect in 2005—they rented houses together where they sat in boyish semi-filth and blogged. The Times noticed, and swooned. But Klein would soon break away decisively from the rest. Brian Beutler, another blogger from the crew who was then Klein’s roommate, recalls how ambitious Klein was. “We all worked pretty hard, but he, far and away, had the most regular, strongest, most consistent work ethic,” Beutler says. “He was more proactive about networking. It’s not really that he had a plan of action, but he was constantly positioning himself well to have a consistent upward trajectory.”

And he was doing good work, particularly on health care, making sense of a controversial and highly politicized topic well before the issue became national news. In 2009, the Post took notice and, looking to bring in some new media talent, hired Klein. Once there, it didn’t take him long to figure out how to adapt to the customs of elite Washington: One must be nice and above it all. Klein now says that he will not write a negative book review. “Because if you’ve gone through the trouble to write a book? And I just don’t think it’s that good?” Klein told me, breaking into his occasional habit of lilting at the end of each clause. “I’m not going to shit on your work. I just won’t review it. This is a rule James Fallows has that I’ve adopted. Whom I really respect, by the way.” (For the record, the one negative book review Klein still stands by is of Mark Penn’s book, Microtrends, which, Klein maintains, “is a really horrible book.” “The statistics in it were all wrong for a pollster?” Klein says. “It was, like, one big tangle of correlation-causation errors.” Then he added: “I mean, you asked, so please don’t make it seem like I’m sitting in this car being like, ‘And another fucking thing about Mark Penn.’ ”)

Klein explains the nice policy this way: Unkind writing is unthoughtful writing. “I used to be meaner,” he says, because “you don’t think of people as people when you don’t think they’re reading you.” These days, he says the scale of his audience and his platform have given him the luxury not to write “like that” anymore.

His disavowal of party is particularly conspicuous. Klein, who came up through the progressive media and is, according to public records, a registered Democrat, insists on portraying himself as someone driven purely by powerful, un-ideological currents of data. “I’m not afraid to tell people where I come down,” he told me that October night in the town car. “But it’s entirely possible for me to imagine a Republican president who is not irresponsible on policy. It could even be Mitt Romney, who governed more in the realm of a George H. W. Bush. And all of a sudden, a lot of people who think they agree with me on everything would find that they don’t.”

The columnist who he feels achieves this platonic evenhandedness best is The New York Times’s David Brooks. “In the course of a pretty short column, he is able to convey the other side’s positions back to them in a way they would recognize,” Klein says. The fact that Klein feels he has largely achieved this state is a major point of pride, and he says it makes his criticism of policy more weighty. What he didn’t mention was that, four years earlier, he wrote a blog post titled “The Pitfalls of Making David Brooks Your Guy.”

Curiously, the nice, adult Ezra is closer to his nature than his occasionally spiky self of yore. “He’s never been a firebrand,” says Beutler. He was simply emulating the accepted groin-targeting ethos of his cohort. Now that he doesn’t have to act like that, he can navigate the D.C. social scene in a way that comes more naturally to him.

“Ezra is an incredible operator,” says one prominent Washington editor. “He is always looking upward at things. You only have to watch him work a party. He moves right to the most important people there.” One friend saw Klein and his wife, New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey, at an event for last year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, and noted that they spent most of the night talking to Gene Sperling, Obama’s economic adviser.

All of this has allowed Klein to slip easily into the Washington establishment, leaving the rest of his old blogging crew merely doing well, though they are still close. “I had no conception of, or ambition of, trying to run a multimedia empire,” says Matthew Yglesias, a good friend of Klein’s who was also the closest thing he had to a rival. “He obviously wanted much, much more.”

When I asked Yglesias, who now works at Slate, if he had any funny stories about Klein, he stopped to think. After a while, he said, “You know, Ezra’s not really a funny guy. He’s super-controlled.” Weigel was similarly stumped, recalling adult-like dinner parties at Ezra and Annie’s for about as long as he’s known him. “I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen him drunk,” Weigel said. “No. No, I haven’t.”

When Klein talks about Wonkblog, he sounds like an earnest business school student selling his start-up. It is a service, a product, a brand. He thinks about market share. (“A couple years ago, policy was an underserved market.”) He thinks about his client base. (He speaks often of “my readers,” about what they want, what they need, and how he can best serve them.) He thinks about productivity. (He reads far less media and blogs these days, he says, because “I just don’t find the margin in that so great?”) He is wary of growing too big, too fast, because “I actually think overly quick expansion can kill the product.” When I asked Klein if he considers himself an entrepreneur, he demurred. “If I can say that without sounding self-congratulatory, because ‘entrepreneurial’ is sort of a word we’ve imbued with a kind of a pathos,” he hesitated. “But yes, I mean, fair enough.”

That he thinks assiduously about Brand Ezra is hardly surprising. What’s made him so successful so fast aren’t just his analytical chops—plenty of others have those, too—it is also the idea of Klein himself, the nice, rational, incongruously handsome nerd, the kid you want explaining your budget policy and marrying your daughter. His predecessors, the Brookses and Russerts he mocked on the way up, were talented but mostly anonymous youngsters at the beginning of their careers. They didn’t have Twitter to disseminate their work to a broader audience. They weren’t treated like celebrities with pictures of their faces plastered atop their blogs, as was once the case with Klein. Washington has always fetishized wunderkinds—Andrew Sullivan became editor of this magazine at age 28—but, mostly because the technology didn’t exist, it was impossible to package them as effectively as Klein has been packaged. He is a product, the kind an old organization like the Post can use to revive its flagging legacy.

But now that he is part of the establishment, Klein seems all too aware that the gaffe-driven media has set its sights on him. The guests at his wedding, for example, recall the instruction, oft repeated, not to tweet from the event. “He’s grown so quickly, he probably feels vulnerable,” says Johnson, his editor.

Before agreeing to an interview, Klein wanted to meet and discuss what this story would look like. I was not to speak to his family or to his wife. Before I arrived at the Wonkpod, he sent me an e-mail warning me that the Post bigwigs prohibited me from talking to anyone in the newsroom. At one point, he turned around and said, “Can you see my screen?” “My e-mails,” he added sternly, “are off the record.” So were his phone conversations and the names of the people he spoke to throughout the day. He was also worried about revealing the name of an economist at a conservative think tank he considers to be “an intense thinker,” his habit of watching “Battlestar Galactica” in the evenings, as well as his love of Christmas. Every time I stepped away from the Wonkpod, Klein would needle me about how I’d missed the best, most “humanizing” moment for my story.

I noted that the process of being profiled seemed to make him nervous. “Of course, it makes me nervous!” Klein exclaimed. “You know what we do, right?” (By “we,” he meant journalists.) “We take people and we take their stories away from them and refashion them into the format that will make the best article.” The New Republic, he noted, was especially guilty of making their profile subjects look bad, which he was worried would happen to him. “You seem great, but there’s no reason not to be careful,” he said, his frustration herniating through the professorial polish, his voice going tense. “I think journalists are completely irresponsible about how they use people and how they use quotes. All the time.”

“You’re a journalist, right?” I asked him.

“I am,” he agreed. “And I try to be responsible about it.” But by taking the things people told us and spinning them out of context, Klein said, we journalists undermined our own arguments for why people should go on the record with us.

“Do your colleagues here do this?” I asked him, gesturing to the newsroom around him.

“I think everybody that does campaign reporting does this,” he said curtly. “All the time.”

I pointed out that, in spite of his loathing of being subjected to the journalistic gaze, he had agreed to be profiled not only by me, but also by New York magazine—simultaneously. The “people above me” he said, “seem to think it’s a good idea.” It would bring in readership, and Klein felt it would be “hypocritical” not to cooperate with the press when he, the press, was constantly asking people to cooperate with him. It was almost too meta to bear. “You’re sitting there taking notes and recording while I’m sitting here taking notes and recording,” he said. “It’s a peculiar situation!”

Klein’s “underbloggers” quietly clacked away on their keyboards, pretending that this exchange wasn’t happening. The eye of one economics reporter nearby periodically peeked out from behind his cubicle wall. It was obvious that his colleagues were listening.

Klein later told me that he found our exchange “slightly threatening.”

“Don’t take it personally,” one of Klein’s friends explained. “He didn’t get this far being casual about his image management.”

Klein and I met one last time, for dinner. After our tense conversation in the Wonkpod, he invited me to his favorite Washington restaurant, Great Wall Szechuan House, on 14th Street. He seemed to have taken what I said seriously—that if he acted nervous and controlling, he would look nervous and controlling on the page—and I was met with a full charm offensive. The person across the table from me was nice, easy-going Ezra. It was not the good Jewish grandson, or the wonk, or the uptight brand manager; it was my peer, shooting the shit and dropping F-bombs, like any other journalist would, over Chinese and beer. He was still critical of the mainstream media and of the process of being profiled, but he was also suddenly willing to discuss his cooking and his relationship—in the Klein-Lowrey household, he said, he followed recipes religiously, while Annie’s method was “free jazz in the kitchen.”

“We’ve talked a lot, you and I,” Klein told me, reaching for more ma la bean sprouts. He pointed out that, even in a long article, only twelve or so quotes from him will have made it in. Moreover, “there will be some kind of theory in the article, and it won’t be my theory of my life,” he said. “It makes you vulnerable.”

So what was his theory of his life? How did he see his success, and what did he plan to do with it? “When I was working at the Prospect, I never thought—I mean, literally, until they called me, it didn’t occur to me that I would work at The Washington Post,” he said.“I thought that, if my career went really well, maybe, maybe I could top out with a newspaper column. Things came faster. So I spend all my time—I worry that this will sound like humble-bragging, and I don’t want it to—I spend a lot of my time obsessively trying to figure out how I can work hard enough or figure out the right work to do to basically be worthy of all of it. Because if I’m not worthy of all of it, then it’s kind of a sin.”

He laughed shyly.

For now, though, he was thinking about improving Wonkblog. “I’m not doing enough Q&A’s lately,” he said. “This is a problem.”

Ezra Klein: The Wise Boy [TNR]

Russia’s Past Is Ever Present

February 8th, 2013

The ban on “homosexual propaganda among minors” has yet to become law in Russia—only its first draft has passed the lower chamber of the Russian parliament—but it has already become the most discussed subject in the Russian press and has claimed its first victims. A loyalist Russian television host was fired from the channel he co-founded after coming out on the air in protest, and beatings of gay men have spiked, including a chilling and well-planned attack on a gay club in Moscow. The European Union’s foreign policy chief has spoken out against the ban, and at least two European cities have taken action, with Venice and Milan canceling their sister-city status with St. Petersburg. Russia has retaliated by saying that same-sex European couples will be banned from adopting Russian orphans. Even Madonna was a victim: This fall she was sued for propagating the gay gospel during her August concert in St. Petersburg.

It is not totally clear what the term “homosexual propaganda” even means, but when the law passes the upper chamber and is signed by Vladimir Putin—and it is only a question of when—it will allow authorities to fine any such propagators. Much has been written, correctly, about the law’s violation of human rights—”I am a human being, just like Putin,” said the fired TV host, Anton Krasovsky—as well as its shocking backwardness.

But the proposed ban is troubling for other reasons. The law would be yet another signpost on Russia’s descent into a harsher, more authoritarian version of Putinism; one more turn of the screws in response last year’s pro-democracy—and anti-Putin—protests. The president is showing that he is not only not going anywhere, but that he will impose his vision of Russia on all Russians, whether they like it or not. That vision is not, as many think, the neo-Soviet one—though there are elements of it in Putin’s foreign policy—but the imperial one. Putin’s favorite character from Russian history is not Stalin, but Pyotr Stolypin, a brute reformer who served under Nicholas II. Putin is also said to see his greatest achievement as the reuniting of the Russian Orthodox Church, which split shortly after the Russian Revolution into a domestic and Western one. He has overseen a renaissance of orthodoxy and has ushered the church into the halls of power, to the point where it is now widely seen as a Kremlin affiliate. These days, hardly a policy move happens without the church stating its position on it.

A certain yearning for the rosy, simpler, but likely fictional past has crept into Russian life in the last few years. Yesterday’s kitsch—samovars, Cossaks—is today’s holy relic. This pattern was aptly spied and satired by Vladimir Sorokin in his 2006 novel, The Day of the Oprichnik. (The oprichnik was a member of Ivan the Terrible’s secret police.) It imagined a dystopia in which Russia had built a great wall separating itself from the heathen West and turned inward, ruled with an iron fist by a nameless tsar. His rule ushered in an era of Disneyland Russia, with people dressing and eating and speaking like they would have in the 16th century, while driving futuristic cars and doing futuristic drugs. Alas, Sorokin was not far off the mark, and the warped Russian traditionalism he imagined is, in many ways, becoming a reality.

All of this smacks of the Russian Empire’s “God, Tsar, and Country.” That motto was the expression, in many ways, of a wish for homogeneity in a sprawling empire encompassing hundreds of ethnic groups and languages, and coincided with a push for the Russification of non-Russian minorities, most notably the Jews. It would happen again in Soviet times with Central Asian Muslims.

The imposition of Russian traditionalism, in other words, is not a coincidence, nor is the attendant rise in violent Russian nationalism. (Some of the first to rally for the gay propaganda law were the Russian nationalists, who came out with ludicrous signs, like “the place of a rooster”—a highly derogatory prison slang for a “bottom”—”is in the hen house.”) These crypto-fascist yearnings for a simpler, more noble past seems to coincide with a preoccupation with pedophilia, to which the new law equates homosexuality. I can’t help but recall an evening I spent several years ago in Santiago de Chile with affluent Catholics from prominent local families. I was in town to do a story on the hunt for Paul Schaefer, a Nazi medic who escaped to Chile and set up a sprawling farm on which he tortured Chilean dissidents—he was a sort of subcontractor for Pinochet—and systematically abused children. The Chileans at the table couldn’t stop talking about the children, while pooh-poohing the scores of “disappeared” dissidents.

The perception of homosexuality in Russia is that it’s both a perversion of nature and a fashion import from the corrupt West: something into which a man can slip if he’s had a bit too much vodka—by all accounts a common occurrence in Russia—and as a posture one adopts to be cool. Thus, the “propaganda” ban. Homosexuality is seen as an aggressive ad campaign that, traditionalists fear, will persuade impressionable young minds that being gay not only isn’t abnormal and abhorrent, but stylish and hip. The idea that homosexuality is a natural and innate phenomenon, needless to say, has not gained traction here outside of small circles among the educated. Even there, it’s rare.

Ironically, the very propaganda that the Russian law would seek to root is all over state television, in weekend variety shows featuring local pop stars. The men who perform fall into two categories: manly brute and the sensitive, sensuous lover. Both are ideals of manhood in Russia, but the problem is that the men in the latter category are almost uniformly—and very quietly—gay. That Philipp Kirkorov, Russia’s pop king, is gay is an open secret, and, for all the church’s apparent stodginess, he rented out a church to baptize the daughter he had with a surrogate mom. The child’s godfather was Andrey Malakhov, Russia’s most popular talk show host, who is also known to be gay. As is Valentin Yudashkin, Russia’s premier clothing designer, who, well, is incongruously married. Millions of women across the country watch these men, and countless others like them, every day on their televisions and sigh, wishing their men were more like them. This is the less educated, less affluent part of Russian society most vehemently opposed to homosexuality—”the light blue ones,” as they call them, or the “homosexualists”—but the ones whose hearts race the fastest when they watch ballroom dancing and ballet (both, of course, are very popular).

It’s one thing to have these contradictory forces tugging at the nation’s subconscious, and another to make them law. Putin is not just imposing a traditionalist view of Russia onto the country. He is sending signals to the police and the army and everyone else, that crimes aren’t crimes if they’re committed against gay people. He had sent this signal earlier by loosing the security forces on the opposition, jailing and harassing anyone who participated in the violent protests on the eve of Putin’s May inauguration. One of these activists recently committed suicide in Holland when the Dutch refused him amnesty. Another was abducted from the front stoop of the U.N. office in Kiev, where he was seeking refugee status, and brought back, blindfolded and bound, to Moscow. Many more are in jail or, like Maria Baronova, are awaiting trial. It is in this context that the law must be viewed: In practice, Russia, true to its traditional desire to homogenize and its obsession with unity, is signaling which of its minorities are no longer welcome—ostensibly for the good of the majority.

When the law was introduced in the Russian Parliament, the country’s cultural leaders debated its significance. One Russian journal, echoing the “It Gets Better” project, asked them what advice they had for young gay Russians. “Guys, get out of Russia as fast as you can,” wrote Kirill Serebrennikov, a prominent theater director. “You are not destined to be happy here.” But fellow director Vladimir Mirzoev disagreed, pointing out that for a country in which traditional homogeneity is but a dream, this is not a viable strategy. “This is not a solution for our society,” he said. “Not every ‘inconvenient’ minority can leave Russia, because it is of these minorities that it is made.”

Russia’s Past Is Ever Present [TNR]

Disinaugural Blues

January 23rd, 2013

“Holy fucking shit,” said Adam Kokesh from the stage at the Clarendon Grill, in Arlington, Virginia. “For those of you who weren’t there, it’s hard to understand the courage, the literal courage it took to hand out those flyers today.” Kokesh was the doyen of the Disinauguration Ball, a gathering of “liberty activists” – or, if you want to get technical, “anarco-capitalists” ­– who had gathered to anti-celebrate Barack Obama’s re-inauguration. They were all former Ron Paul supporters, and since their candidate was forced out of the race by what they saw as dirty maneuvering in the interests-beholden GOP, they have dropped back outside the political system. Almost nobody here voted, and they say they would’ve protested any inauguration, regardless of who won.

Alas, it wasn’t much of a protest. Kokesh and his supporters had spent the morning handing out flyers advertising the Disinauguration Ball to people streaming onto the National Mall to see the inauguration. “Not my President!” the flyer read. “Out of 315 million Americans, 65 million (21%) voted for Obama, 61 million voted for Romney (19%), and 60% of all Americans did not try to impose their choice on the rest of you!” Apparently, these flyers had enraged the “Obama zombies.” “Someone shoved them down the back of my jacket!” Kokesh said, bemused by the rage of the lobotomized. “No, it’s not hope-drunk. It’s an unfortunate, deep denial that a critical mass of people in the society we live in today live in this self-deception.”

“Play some music!” a woman screamed from the darkness.

So much for sticking it to the establishment. During the two George W. Bush inaugurations, activists and pranksters of the far left managed to get fairly consistent attention. At the inaugural that followed the disputed 2000 election, protesters were penned into a small stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue, but represented enough of a presence that the new president’s limo sped up, lest the radicals pelt it with eggs. Four years later, after an actual Bush election victory, the lefty presence on inauguration day was still strong enough to get dissident groups like Billionaires for Bush some nice media mentions.

But at Obama’s second inaugural, after a first term during which right-wing grass-roots actually shaped the mainstream political conversation—and won adherents among actual elected officials—Kokesh’s band of libertarians could barely assemble twenty people at a bar across the river. And the amplifiers weren’t even on.

“We’re waiting for a battery!” Kokesh shot back to the heckler. “I’ll shut up as soon as the guitar is working.”

Kokesh went on. “Does everybody know what smoking DMT is like?” he asked. (He was referring to dimethyltryptamine, a psychedelic.) He turned to his buddy who was up on stage with him, setting up his set. “You’re saying this inauguration was the reverse of that?”

His buddy leaned into the mike, and said, “Well, if the real version of that is like God sat on your face and queafed a quasar? It’s, like, the opposite of that.”

Kokesh is a former marine who served in Fallujah in 2004. When he got back from Iraq, he says he woke up to the deception around him and to the true, tyrannical nature of government. “I don’t think the President is a puppet, I think he’s more of a power broker,” Kokesh explained to me as the first band, Corrected Axiom, took the stage. “I think they believe they decide which strings they’re going to attach themselves to get to the very top, but the most powerful strings generally stay the same. What people expected from Obama, they didn’t get it.” Americans who supported Obama, Kokesh asserted, were experiencing a “cognitive dissonance” and “political Stockholm syndrome.” “Race,” he argued, “is a really big part of it.” Kokesh says that he is “really chickenshit when it comes to race,” but he conquered his fear long enough to talk to people about it on Monday. “I actually talked to some younger black people who were basically racist in their evaluation of Obama, and were favoring and giving him a pass” because he was black. He said he had shown them the truth. It was unclear if this is when the flyer went down the back of his jacket.

The theme of the evening was waking up from a government-induced stupor, a task Kokesh has made into a life’s calling: he runs a daily, three-hour, late night talk radio-style show broadcast through his YouTube channel. (“I like to think it’s the new model” of talk radio, he says.) The show features Kokesh lecturing his listeners in a muscle tee and longish goatee, as well as man-on-the-street interviews with people who, we are made to see, are blindly holding onto the illogical mind-pellets they’ve been fed by the government and the mainstream media. (Kokesh’s show was once hosted by RT, a channel funded entirely by the Kremlin, which, he says, does not faze him in the slightest. “I’m glad they’re out there providing an alternative narrative,” he says.)

The Disinaugural Ball drew a strange, mostly male, crew. Once the guitar started working, the aggressive music on the stage was, to borrow Kokesh’s phrase, cognitively dissonant to the non-violent ideology he and his friends were preaching. “It’s morally wrong to initiate force against any human being,” said Matt McKibbin, one of the evening’s organizers. McKibbin, who works as an industrial hygienist at George Washington University, was, like many that evening, wearing a shirt that said “Peace, Love, and Liberty.” Anarchists have given liberty activists a bad name, mostly by going out and raging. “We want to see more voluntary interactions and less interactions that involve force, fraud, and coercion, which all interactions with government involve,” he explained. “Voluntarists” and “anarco-capitalists,” he said, “adhere to the non-aggression principle,” McKibbin explained. “We’re pro economic freedom. We’re completely against the drug war. We’re completely pro gay marriage, we’re pro keeping money in my checkbook. We’re against drones, we’re against killing people, we’re against Social Security.” He stopped to think. “Okay, I think Social Security should be phased out. I don’t want people to end up starving on the streets.”

McKibbin and his friends were also completely pro guns. I asked him if he owned any. He paused, and said, “Yes. I have three or four guns.”

“What kind?” I asked.

“Why?” he looked at me suspiciously. “Is this all going in the article?”

McKibbin had never had to use his three shotguns and one handgun. “I’ve been lucky,” he explains. This, naturally, was not because the state-funded police kept things quiet. The roads, the public transport, all could be done better by the private sector, agreed his friend Joel. There was pretty much nothing the government could do well, he added – other than “point a gun to my head and force me to pay taxes.”

Kokesh seemed happy with the Disinauguration, despite the objectively pitiful turnout: a couple dozen angry young men in big pants and strange facial hair. There were, by my count, four women there: McKibbin’s girlfriend, the heckler, and two women named Sierra and Jam. (Jam works for Corrected Axiom.) They too talked about “becoming awake politically,” but had a harder time explaining why there weren’t more women at this event.

“I guess politics, men tend to be more interested in political change or, I guess, anything like that, so I think within political organizations or people who follow it, it tends to not be that big,” Sierra explained. I argued that the other, more mainstream events surrounding the inauguration were more gender-neutral.

“That’s more mainstream,” Sierra said. “When it come to liberty, it, like, takes more digging out?”

“Right,” Jam scoffed, “because liberty is still underground.”

It could also have had something to do with the angry a capella rapping about society putting people in cages.

Disinaugural Blues [TNR]

Gerard Depardieu’s Russian Citizenship Is a Passport to a Westerner’s Playground

January 8th, 2013

After hugging it out with his new—and, by comparison, petite and fragile-looking—president, Vladimir Putin, in Sochi on Saturday night, French actor Gérard Depardieu flew, inexplicably, to the Russian republic of Mordovia. He was greeted by local officials and feted by residents with bliny, a traditional song-and-dance show, where Depardieu, clad in an embroidered peasant’s tunic, grinned and held up his new, Bordeaux-colored Russian passport. Later, at a midnight Christmas service—Russian Orthodox Christmas is on January 7—he was handed a religious icon, keys to a new condo, and two kittens.

Days earlier, Putin, by presidential fiat, had extended Russian citizenship to Depardieu, who recently declared that he would abandon his native France, allegedly because of high taxes: Russia’s flat 13 percent tax rate looked a lot better than Francois Hollande’s now defunct proposal to raise taxes to 75 percent for those making over 1 million euros. (Depardieu has since denied this, saying that if he “had wanted to escape the tax man… I would’ve done it a long time ago.”)

The inaugural trip to Mordovia, observers noted, was a strange choice given what the republic is generally known for: penal colonies. The Mordovian economy subsists almost entirely on these alone; roads are merely strings connecting the colonies, some of which date back to Stalin. Most visitors to Mordovia are likely to see not yodeling singers in colorful frocks, but a depressed region where the free population seems split into two camps: the prison guards, and the day drinkers.

I have no doubt that Depardieu didn’t see and will not see this side of Mordovia, nor will he have met with the region’s most famous inmate, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, of the band Pussy Riot. (“It’s very beautiful here,” Depardieu said during his visit. “The people who live here are beautiful and spiritual.”) Nor will Depardieu see Russia as it exists for 99.9 percent of his now fellow countrymen. As Putin’s pet, he will be shielded from the collapsing infrastructure and a ramshackle poverty inexplicable for a country that pumps more oil than Saudi Arabia. He will never have to go to a poorly trained, overworked, and underpaid Russian doctor who would likely misdiagnose him anyway. He will never get caught in the teeth of the corrupt justice system; he won’t be extorted for bribes, whether or not he runs afoul of the law. Depardieu, who announced that he wants to move to a Russian village and learn Russian, will live a charmed life that will have very little to do with Russia itself.

Of course, this can be said of any wealthy Russian, or any celebrity anywhere in the world. The difference here is the orientalism of such Western men—and they are always, always men—who decamp to Russia and praise the place for its freedom and simplicity. The women, they say, are more beautiful and better (read: more sparsely) dressed, more deferential to men (especially men with money), and always aim to please, sexually. Without examining why Russian women might be like this, Western expats use these qualities as evidence for a quietly long-held view that feminism is the crude weapon of the ugly Western woman. The whirl-a-gig unpredictability of the place rarely stops being fun because it’s never entirely real. In these men’s eyes, it is not lawlessness; it is freedom from annoying rules.

In my years living in Moscow, I have come across many such Western men. In Moscow, their wealth gives them the kind of reality-bending leverage that it couldn’t in New York, London, or Paris. In Moscow, their wealth—and, in Depardieu’s case, fame—made them brilliant and sexually attractive, especially to the leggy, barely legal girls from the provinces; in those Western cities, their money merely made them rich. In Moscow, these men live above reality and above the law, above even the informal gang codes of the Russian elite: A Russian businessman who crosses the authorities risks his freedom or his life, but a Western businessman? He could get his visa revoked, and lose a bit of money. A flesh wound, really.

And yet, Russians encourage this. Despite a rise of anti-American, anti-Western sentiment in the last year, Russians still revere the Westerner. They solicit his expertise and even grovel in front of him, while periodically stopping to beat their chests with a thin and tinny pride; they want, in some dark, self-annihilating way, to be the Westerner, to dismiss the part of themselves that is not European as somehow shameful and backwards, while still insisting on Russia’s spiritual superiority. Goods and foods are labeled “European”—that is, elite. But Russia also claims some responsibility for elite European culture. At one investment forum I attended, Putin went on a long tirade about how Russia was an inherently and quintessentially European country, that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were European writers—without whom, paradoxically, Europe would lack all culture.

It is a strange psychological dance—with roots in the holy foolery of Byzantine culture—and it is at play here: Russia welcomes and pampers the Westerner, it shields him from its cruder realities and lavishes on him its choicest sweetmeats and maidens. And, all the while, it mocks him as inferior in spirit, and holds up his rare defection as an example of all that is wrong with the craven, godless West.

Gerard Depardieu’s Russian Citizenship Is a Passport to a Westerner’s Playground [TNR]

John Kerry’s Quiet Campaign Pays Off

December 22nd, 2012

Just like Susan Rice, Senator John Kerry was one of candidate Barack Obama’s earliest supporters, back when it was risky. The conventional wisdom was that Hillary Clinton was going to win and the people who had failed to join her would be left with tombstones for careers. (“A Clinton never forgets,” the terrified saying went.) Just like Rice, Kerry hoped for a certain, specific prize. For Rice it was national security advisor; for Kerry, secretary of state. And, just like Susan Rice, Kerry saw his dreams dashed when, four Decembers ago, president-elect Barack Obama nominated Clinton to be his secretary of state. Kerry was left in the Senate, where he consoled himself as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rice, too saw her dreams dashed, and the ineffectual James L. Jones got to take a very short stab at national security advisor, while she began serving as U.N. ambassador.

But unlike Rice, who saw her dream job plucked from her yet again this month, Kerry was nominated on Friday by Obama to serve him as secretary of state. What Obama said about him – that Kerry’s “entire life has prepared him for this role” – is also presumably what Obama would have said about Susan Rice, had he ever gotten around to nominating her.

But unlike Kerry and Clinton, Rice is not, and never has been a politician. It is something she has never really been interested in. Though she once harbored the ambition of becoming a senator, by the time college was over the dream was too. Being an elected official – being in politics, rather than policy – was not her thing. She didn’t want to glad hand and beg for money when she could be doing real, concrete things, she recently told me. “I did not have the patience to be a politician,” she said.

The secretary of state’s office, it turns out, is now just another elected office. And Kerry, though he ran the Democratic version of the limp and fumbling Romney campaign in 2004 (when Rice was a policy surrogate for him) is a better politician. He is friends with Senator John McCain, the man who sank Rice. Unlike Rice, who, as Obama’s foreign policy surrogate, slammed McCain in the 2008 race, Kerry has avoided pissing him off. Though McCain campaigned against Kerry, the two became pals through the bond of a shared war. In 1991, when Kerry was asked to chair a committee to investigate the possibility of American servicemen still languishing in Vietnam, the panel faced resistance from nutters. “I’d see the way some of these guys were exploiting the families of those missing in action, and I’d begin to get angry,” McCain told The New Yorker a decade ago, “and John would sense it and put his hand on my arm to calm me down before I’d lose my effectiveness.”

And if, unlike Kerry, Rice is known to her friends as a warm and loyal, genuine to the point of bluntness – a person who, as her high school basketball teammate told me, doesn’t hog the ball or crave the limelight – Kerry has been, almost since birth, a political animal, however clumsily. In that same New Yorker profile of Kerry, he is described as “risible” in his attempts to emulate the man who shared his initials, JFK:

Serious as all this was – he was, for a moment…the most compelling leader of the antiwar movement – there was something uneasy, and perhaps even faintly risible, about it, too, particularly the ill-disguised Kennedy playacting. Even as Kerry delivered his Senate testimony [about his opposition to the Vietnam War], he distorted his natural speech to sound more like that earlier J.F.K.; for example, he occasionally “ahsked” questions. (Kerry had befriended Robert F. Kennedy’s speechwriter Adam Walinsky and consulted him about the speech, bouncing phrases and ideas off the old master.) This sort of thing had been a source of merriment for his classmates ever since prep school, where the joke was that his initials really stood for “Just For Kerry.” He had volunteered to work on Edward Kennedy’s 1962 Senate campaign, had dated Janet Auchincloss, who was Jacqueline Kennedy’s half sister, had hung out at Hammersmith Farm, the Auchincloss family’s estate in Newport, and had gone sailing with the President. A practical joke-one of many, apparently-was played on him in the 1966 Yale yearbook: he was listed as a member of the Young Republicans.

Kerry’s selection is a reminder that the country’s top diplomat is, first and foremost, a politician. He may not be the best politician, but to get the post, it seems, you have to play the game.

John Kerry’s Quiet Campaign Pays Off [TNR]