Archive for October, 2012

In Soviet Russia, Storm Weathers You

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

As I sat stranded in a friend’s Manhattan apartment, watching nature make a mockery of my plans, I had a hard time tearing myself away from local Channel 4’s coverage of what New York’s Governor has called “Sandy’s fury.” Sopping beachfronts were swarming with reporters barely able to stand in the wind; governors, mayors, and officials of all sorts were giving press conferences, detailing what was closed where, whom they’ve talked to and when, and what they’d done to manage the fallout of a historic storm. When they weren’t giving pressers, they (or their minions) were tweeting about the latest developments: a gust here, a flood there. ConEd, provider of the city’s power, robocalled my friend and just about everyone on Monday morning, to warn them that, at some point in the near future, the lights might go out. The city government sent SMS alerts to warn people to get inside–that is, it had not evacuated from the lowest lying areas.

To everyone around me, this seemed absolutely normal—to be expected, even—but to me, it was—well, it made me want to weep through an off-key rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

Two years and two months ago, you see, I was stranded in an apartment in a different city and watched nature wreak havoc around me. It was the Moscow of early August, 2010, and, after a hot, dry summer, much of Western Russia caught on fire. By morning on August 6, the smoke from the peat bog fires around Moscow reached the capital. It was toxic smoke, full of harmful particles, with levels of carbon monoxide reaching nearly seven times the allowable limit. According to the country’s chief pulmonologist, breathing such air does “damage to an average of 20 percent of red blood cells in a human body, which equals to the effect of two packs of cigarettes smoked within three or four hours.” The smoke was visible from space, and scientists said they had spotted pyrocumulus clouds, which appear during volcanic eruptions and nuclear tests. As the toxic cloud hovered over the city for days, morgues overflowed with old people who weren’t up for the pulmonary challenge and healthier people reported headaches, the first sign of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Through it all, the Russian authorities and the official Russian press were largely silent. Russia has never been a transparent place where information flows freely, but when it was most needed, information became hardest to find. Should we leave the city? If so, where were the areas clear of smoke? How could we get there, and what was happening with the airports and train stations and roads? If we stayed, what precautions should we take to minimize inhalation and death? And, if you’re out in the regions and there’s fire approaching, what do you do? Russians (and I) were left to figure this stuff out on our own.

But, unlike the efficient, rational things that are theoretically supposed to happen when government gets out of the way, things just spiraled into dog-eat-dog chaos. There was a run on the pharmacies for facemasks, a run on the train stations and airports for a way out. Imported air conditioning units that could filter out the harmful smoke were hoarded by the corrupt border authorities until their price skyrocketed, making them far out of reach for those who needed them most: the elderly barely getting by on their pensions. And instead of trying to find ways to save the rapidly dying elderly, Moscow authorities merely pretending there was nothing amiss. Or worse: there were reports of doctors being sacked for talking to the press about the overcrowded morgues and a death rate that had suddenly quadrupled.

And, worst of all, Moscow’s mayor, the proletarian cap-sporting Yury Luzhkov refused to come back from his vacation. When pressed on why the mayor was absent during this surreal cataclysm, his spokesman responded as follows:

What is the problem? What, do we have an emergency situation in Moscow, a crisis? What is the problem in Moscow? Is it Moscow’s problem? Is the crisis in Moscow? What can we do in Moscow in this situation? If it’s necessary to come back and just show yourself, that’s one thing. But everything that should’ve been done in Moscow has been done. A system has been worked out. When he was asked where the mayor was vacationing, the spokesman said,

“If we want to tell you, we’ll tell you.”

Eventually, the city opened four air-conditioned shelters. It seemed like a joke in a city of over twelve million, especially when the A/C immediately cut out at two of them. It was a little less funny when news leaked that the mayor, who saw no crisis in Moscow, had taken care to evacuate his beloved honeybees from the region, the only citizens to be evacuated. (Luzhkov was well known–and well-mocked–as keen hobby apiarist.) Only when the toxic cloud began to drift out of town, did the mayor come back. As if in admonition, he explained that because of us wheezing, weeping wimps, he had to break his physical therapy for a sports injury short.

And this was just one disaster. There was the time, in March, 2010, when two female suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Moscow metro at rush hour, taking some forty people with them. State television was silent for four hours. When asked by a journalist from the Times why Channel 1, the biggest channel, was not broadcasting news of the attacks, or of whether there might be more, or of which subway lines were open, and which closed, a spokesman explained that “The majority of people who are not journalists leave the house before 9 in the morning. After that, the majority of people who watch TV are housewives.” This summer, the southern Russian town of Krymsk was destroyed in a Katrina-like levee implosion that killed nearly 200 people (a number authorities tried to, er, soften). When it became clear that the local authorities had known the levee break was coming, the region’s governor couldn’t quite understand what people wanted from him. “What,” he said to angry hecklers, “are you saying we should’ve gone around and warned everyone? That’s impossible. First of all, with what resources? Secondly, what would you have done—just stood up and left your houses?”

If you disregard the staggering contempt for those killed in the flood, the man had a point. He likely had few resources because his comrades had stolen most of them, but with the disastrous forest fires of 2010, it was a direct result of an earlier reform when Putin slashed the number of forest rangers. As a result, they had greater areas to cover and more paperwork to do, giving them less time to actually patrol their territories. (The reform also made it a crime to put out small fires, classifying it as a misuse of state funds.) When the fires hit, the firefighting was left to the volunteers—a libertarian wet dream. The problem is they didn’t do that good a job, lacking professional equipment as they did. Most didn’t even get a fire warning—Putin sent a bell to one critic who wrote him an open letter—and when they asked for help in evacuating, they were told to do it themselves. My friend and colleague, Guardian correspondent Miriam Elder went to see the fires in the regions, and wrote this of what she saw: “With three colleagues, I left Moscow at 7 a.m. and got to the hospital in Moscow at 7 p.m. Twelve hours and not one moving fire truck, army truck, official emergencies ministry vehicle.” The resulting devastation—hundreds of thousands of scorched acres, lost crops, hundreds of fire-gutted homes, and a completely unclear number of deaths—was a result of this hands-off approach by the authorities.

This is not to say that America is the paragon of earthly perfection. Lord knows it has its massive issues, and Lord knows FEMA does, too. But watching the city, state, and federal authorities respond to Sandy, I couldn’t help but recall that panicky, sucking feeling I had two summers ago as I scrambled to figure out whether and how to get my grandmother, who has heart failure, out of the city, and had nothing but guesswork to go on. There were no tweets or press conferences about relief and preparedness efforts; hell, there were no relief and preparedness efforts, period. I couldn’t help thinking of this when my Twitter feed lit up with reminders about Romeny’s plans for FEMA. I couldn’t help but reach back to a conclusion I reached about a year into my Russian stint: let Republicans rule a place unchallenged for a decade or two, let them institutionalize their strange ideas of self-reliance, and you’ll get a place that looks a lot like Russia. And then I heard another sms alarm come in from the city and I couldn’t help thinking, just a month after moving back to the States from the Randian paradise that is Russia, “You people. You don’t know how good you have it.” And also: “Please, don’t fuck it up.”

In Soviet Russia, Storm Weathers You [TNR]

Kremlin Tightens Screws, Unwittingly Loosens Bolts

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

In the run-up to Russia’s March presidential election, Vladimir Putin didn’t even bother showing up to the debates with his nominal rivals. (Instead, he sent surrogates: a movie director to one, and a nameless graduate student to another; Obama may have slept through the first debate, but at least he showed up.) In recent weeks, however, Russians have had a vigorous debate season to match America’s own. And though Russia’s televised debates aren’t intended to select the next president, they’ve evidently managed to make the current occupant of the Kremlin very uncomfortable.

The debaters belong to the fractious, motley cloud that is the Russian opposition, and the idea was, in part, an answer to the Kremlin’s standard line in pooh-poohing the protest movement: you guys are so disorganized, who do we even talk to? This past summer, an activist from Yekaterinburg named Leonid Volkov teamed up with opposition leader Alexey Navalny to give shape and momentum to the previously disorganized movement, settling on a plan to form what they called the Opposition Coordination Council, an umbrella opposition organization which would have 45 seats with reserved blocs for the various opposition political factions: the leftists, the liberals, the nationalists, and the apolitical cultural figures. The candidates, who had to pay a $300 fee to register, would then duke it out in a March-madness style debate tournament on the opposition television station Dozhd (“Rain”). Then, on October 20, voters would go to the polls and elect the council.

The debates began about three weeks ago, as the two hundred candidates introduced themselves to the public and squared off against one another on late-night TV. This was an entirely new phenomenon for Russians, who hadn’t seen debates like this ever since Putin came to power. But it wasn’t like Russians were really watching; the debates were shown after midnight on a channel that has relatively little reach. And when, on October 14, the opposition was blown out in various nation-wide elections for real-life mayorships and other municipal posts – Putin’s United Russia, though weakened, trounced all such challengers – these doubts weighed even heavier. Was this all just an onanistic pageant for the insular Moscow chattering class?

But then the Kremlin weighed in. On Wednesday, it arrested leftist leader and Council candidate Sergei Udaltsov after a lengthy search of his apartment. Udaltsov had been caught on camera meeting with some Georgians and for that he is now, strangely, being charged with “organizing mass disorder.” Then the State Prosecutor’s office opened a criminal investigation into the planning committee of the Coordination Council for alleged fraud. The issue was that not all those who had tried to register as candidates were allowed to participate in the debates: an imprisoned neo–Nazi was turned away, as were some provocateurs from a famous pyramid scheme (called MMM), which has been around since the 1990s and which the government seems unable or unwilling to shut down. Ironically, it was the latter who cried fraud. Their registration fees ($300 x 53 rejected registrants) were not returned, though Volkov had published a plea on the Council’s site, asking for information on where to return the money. (They had been traceless deposits, rather than bank transfers.)

By cracking down three days before these elections, the Kremlin has displayed its usual cruelty; but, in trying to crush the opposition movement, it has also stupidly managed to grant it wider legitimacy. Yesterday’s actions have become a rallying cry to get people to an opposition protest planned for Saturday, a loud reminder to those who once came to this winter’s protests and have since been lulled into boredom and complacency: this is what we’re up against. Udaltsov, despite his widely mocked aviators and pompous airs, despite his tactical bone-headedness and general irrelevance among the opposition, is being transformed into a martyr. And suddenly, the Council elections this weekend seem very important. The Kremlin will no doubt continue to publicly claim that the casting of some 120,000 votes in an unofficial election is meaningless in a country of 140 million, but its actions show that they are not. If they were truly meaningless, they wouldn’t have bothered. “Now everyone who has a different opinion of the country’s situation is targeted,” said Communist leader (and Udaltsov ally) Gennady Zyuganov. “And there is only one goal: to suffocate completely any seeds of protest.” But instead of suffocating protests, the Kremlin has stoked them.

And the larger problem, of course, is that the Kremlin’s crackdown perpetuates the notion that politics in Russia is inevitably a zero-sum game. The more the Kremlin shows that it is not interested in dialogue or even the slightest compromise, the less the opposition will want only to topple, rather than change, the current order. And, given enough time, the reformers will fall away and the real, start-over revolutionaries will take their place. This is Russia, after all, a fact the Kremlin constantly forgets.

Kremlin Tightens Screws, Unwittingly Loosens Bolts [TNR]

Is Pussy Riot Breaking Up?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Something’s rotten in the state of Pussy Riot. Yes, there was some good news today: Ekaterina Samutsevich, the oldest and quietest member of the jailed trio, was released from jail today after her sentence was reduced to probation. When the appellate judge read out the changed verdict, Samutsevich whooped and her two bandmates, who will now depart to do two years of hard time in a distant penal colony, hugged her. They were all smiles and cheers. But don’t let that fool you. Pussy Riot isn’t well.

For one thing, the appeal was only heard today because it was postponed last week when Samutsevich suddenly asked for a new lawyer for herself. Before, during and after their August trial, the three young women were being represented by three lawyers who were more political activists than classic attorneys: they seemed to have given up before the trial had even begun. Instead of lawyering, they tweeted. Instead of trying to force the court, which wouldn’t allow a single defense witness, back into the strictures of legal procedure, they went for theatrics. At one point, for example, lawyer Violetta Volkova—Samutsevich’s original lawyer—had worked herself into such a tizzy that she stormed out of the courtroom without asking the judge’s permission, forcing the court to call her an ambulance.

But it’s hard to really blame Volkova and her colleagues: It’s not like the court was letting the lawyers do much of anything anyway. The verdict was known before it was read, and before the trial started.

Moreover, Samutsevich’s sudden change of heart was not so sudden: It was the result of a slow drip of pressure from the state. One evening after yet another marathon trial day, Samutsevich’s father, a soft-spoken, unhappy-looking man with gray hair and old glasses, told me that before the trial started, his daughter was being visited by a man from the civic committee that oversees the prison system. The man, thought by the other committee members to be a government mole, would visit Samutsevich and tell her that Volkova did not have her interests at heart, and that she should consider getting another lawyer.

Samutsevich resisted, and stayed with the Pussy Riot team. But the Samutsevich family has long been a weak link in Pussy Riot’s effort to maintain solidarity. Samutsevich’s father actually testified for the plaintiffs in the original trial. When he was first questioned in the case, an investigator apparently hinted that he could help his daughter, and, as a result of his affidavit, the plaintiff decided to call him as a witness—which came as a shock to Mr. Samutsevich. Taking the stand, he hinted that one of the other defendants, Nadia Tolokonnikova, was responsible for corrupting his daughter. He said that after his daughter started hanging out with Tolokonnikova she became “zombified” and that she stopped sharing her inner world with him; he no longer recognized his grown child.

In the two months since the Pussy Riot conviction, other cracks have started to show. Tolokonnikova lashed out at Peter Verzilov, her (now platonic) husband and co-founder of Pussy Riot, for trying to cash in on the group’s (now international) fame. (A heart-rending episode of the documentary “Srok” showed Verzilov touring the United States with the couple’s young daughter, Hera. As Verzilov sails through the media appearances and awards ceremonies, Hera is left largely unattended. In one scene, she looks out the hotel room window and searches for an explanation for why “Petya” is still not home.)

And, now that Samutsevich is out, Pussy Riot’s supporters–including the many opposition journalists they expended energy courting– have turned against the group’s original lawyers. Samustevich’s new lawyer, a pretty, middle-aged corporate blonde who cuts a striking comparison with the obese and histrionic Volkova, is praised as a hero. If only Pussy Riot had employed her all along, the thinking goes, this never would have happened.

This is, at best, a collective delusion, a desperate and groundless gasp of retrospective regret. The fact is that legal redemption has never really been possible for Pussy Riot. Consider this: at the appellate hearing, Samutsevich’s lawyer made the case that her client had not actually participated in the “hooliganism” of which the three Pussy Riot members were convicted in August. She had been pounced on by security guards and thus prevented from getting to the altar to kick and punch in a manner provocative to God. The implication, therefore, is that there was a crime committed—something that the original defense team never conceded—and that Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were guilty of it. Samutsevich’s new lawyer did a good job, narrowly defined: she got her client off. But she also broke up the group’s unity and blocked off the one path to redemption that the group actually had: ignoring the court’s proceedings and denying its legitimacy. As prominent Russian journalist (and close friend) Tikhon Dzyadko noted in a Facebook post after Samutsevich walked out of the courtroom and into a throng of cameras, “There is no independent judicial system in Russia, especially in such cases. Therefore, today’s court decision can be said to be about anything except about the actual issue before the court. And that means that it doesn’t matter which lawyer did the defending.”

Samustevich’s release, in other words, was a simple application of a classic technique: divide and conquer. The state has not had a change of heart—over the weekend, Putin told a reporter for state-owned television that the girls “got what they wanted”—and Samutsevich is no more innocent or guilty than Tolokonnikova or Maria Alekhina, the third and most vocal defendant. They were all wearing balaclavas when they performed in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, and the plaintiffs in no way proved—or really tried to—that the identity of the women in the balaclavas was the same as that of those sitting in the courtroom “fish tank.” Nor did they try to link those specific women in the “fish tank” to any of the unrepeatable things said on that altar that had so offended God and “the entire Christian world.” If the state has made it look like Pussy Riot is breaking apart, it’s not because the judicial system has revealed any nuances in how the group functioned. It merely found the group’s weakest link, loosened it, and popped it right out, breaking the chain and trying to catalyze its collapse and decline.

In a surprise twist, and perhaps reacting to the outside pressure to splinter, the group seems to be pulling back together and at least temporarily putting aside their differences. There were the hugs in the fish tank, then, for the rest of the evening, Verzilov drove Samutsevich around to various television appearances. (Her first, tellingly, was on CNN.) One can peer into the near future and see a Samutsevich media and legal blitz–she’s planning on taking her case to the European Court of Human Rights – in part on behalf of her jailed bandmates.

Or not. The Kremlin tried to accomplish something clever today, and, at least temporarily, achieved the opposite. But perhaps it’s just a hiccup: what fame started, fame will finish.

Is Pussy Riot Breaking Up? [TNR]