Archive for the ‘blog’ Category

Russia’s Black Swan

Monday, February 21st, 2011

Whatever happens at the Oscars next Sunday, it is likely to bring on yet another wave of “Black Swan” mania. Meanwhile, in Russia, all eyes are on another ballerina horror show. This one involves a real Black Swan—the prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, who is famous for her long-limbed renditions of Odette and Odile in “Swan Lake.” She is also a notorious Moscow socialite—appearing frequently in the Russian tabloids for things like allegedly stealing a friend’s lover and starring in a Snickers commercial, in which she tells a group of basketball players to “kiss my tutu.” She didn’t help matters when, last month, she published naked photos of herself on her blog.
Earlier this month, Volochkova cut her ties with the country’s ruling party, United Russia, which had enlisted her as a celebrity spokesperson. She announced her decision in a radio interview—seemingly on a whim—and referred to the party of Vladimir Putin as “that fucking party” and “that shit into which I was careless enough to step.” United Russia posted a short statement on its Web site: “Women, like children, are inclined to changes in mood. In this sense, Anastasia Volochkova is a real woman.” Then, on February 11th, when Volochkova was on tour with her new show, “Applause,” in the southern city of Togliatti—Russia’s Detroit—a television segment celebrating her thirty-fifth birthday was scheduled to air during a popular talk show. She wrote on her blog: “At the very end of the show [in Togliatti], right before I entered the stage for the final number, my director told me that the show ‘Let Them Talk,’ dedicated to my birthday, had been taken off the air.” Volochkova blamed a man named Vladislav Surkov.
The channel on which the television program was scheduled to run, Channel 1, is the country’s main station, and is majority-owned by the Kremlin, and overseen by Vladislav Surkov. Officially, Surkov is the Russian President’s first deputy chief of staff. Unofficially, he is United Russia’s chief ideologist, its Karl Rove, its Grey Cardinal. Volochkova had been looking forward to watching the program—she had asked friends to tape it because she would be on stage in Togliatti when it aired. She found out backstage that the special had only aired in the Russian Far East and Kazakhstan before the switch was made.
“Of course, I was extremely upset,” Volochkova recalled on a recent wintry afternoon, in her office up the street from the Kremlin. Heavily made up, with tattooed eyebrows, she was sipping a cup of rum-spiked tea. Her bedazzled gold phone kept interrupting her with the chorus from Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” Swans adorned her bejeweled velvet backpack, as they do nearly every accessory she has. The last number of her performance in Togliatti was a song, “Applause,” written for her by one of her show-business friends. “I performed this song in one breath, trying not to show my audience that something was not right,” she recounted. “But at the end I started weeping, because I was extremely upset with what had occurred.” She went on, now angrily, “I don’t know what will become of me later. Because if this is the first step of this vengeance, then I don’t know what form the future steps will take.”
Volochkova, the daughter of a Leningrad table-tennis champion, became a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi Theatre at the age of twenty-two, in 1998. She excelled at her Swan Lake roles, but then, in 2003, the theatre fired her. Volochkova’s version is that it was because of the influence of a former boyfriend of hers, a powerful billionaire. The Bolshoi’s version is that Volochkova had simply gotten fat. The resulting public squabble—which included a New York Times reporter showing up at a Moscow restaurant to weigh and measure her, as well as a lawsuit, which she won—still brings her to tears. “Over the course of seven years, wherever I went, people would say, ‘Well you know, Anastasia, we thought you were so big and fat,’” she said in a recent interview. (The lesson learned? “I will fuck the shit out of the entire world. In a good way.”)
Volochkova joined United Russia in 2003, shortly before her problems with the Bolshoi began, but the party did not come to her rescue. Then, two years later, according to Volochkova, they set her up. She has two versions of how this happened, but the basic facts are the same: she joined other Russian artists in signing a public letter supporting the conviction, for tax evasion, of the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky—a charge most of the world saw as politically motivated. (Volochkova’s defense of this act sounds a bit like that of a teenager caught smoking pot: she didn’t know the letter referred to Khodorkovsky; the letter was brought to her by a cool and important person; all of her artist friends were doing it.) In 2009, Volochkova ran for mayor of the Russian town Sochi, which is scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The United Russia party kicked her off the ballot on a technicality. Since then, she says, she has had trouble getting bookings in the region.
In Volochkova’s account, the last straw in her troubled relationship with the Party came in January, when she published the naked photos. They showed her lollygagging on a beach in the Maldives, with what looks like an arrow of strategically placed pebbles running down to her nether regions. During her birthday show, Elena Drapeko, a Soviet actress and parliament member, lay into Volochkova for the photos, and advised that, at her age, it was better to be “wise, rather than luxurious.” The fact that Drapeko was from a different party didn’t tame Volochkova’s wrath. Why, Volochkova wondered, were people focussing on this instead of building art schools? “But when I put up my beach shots on my own blog—not the Party Web site—they suddenly remember that Volochkova is a United Russia member,” she told an interviewer at the time. After all, she added, “I showed them my breasts, not my member!”
To Volochkova and her fans, the cancellation of her birthday broadcast was reminiscent of the days of the Soviet Union when official Party artists were showered with privilege while the blacklisted foundered, were arrested, or, like Joseph Brodsky, were forced into exile. “I was convinced that I live in a free country, and I thought that the leaders of the party were sane people, that they wouldn’t start battling me, a woman,” Volochkova said. “And for what? Just because I decided to stay out of politics?”
The day after her tearful performance in Togliatti, Volochkova went hunting with the locals of the nearby city of Samara. They hunted groundhogs, the plural accusative for which, in Russian, is “surkov.” “It turns out the groundhog is a cowardly animal,” Volochkova wrote on her blog. “It spends all its time hiding in its den and won’t go more than five yards from it.” As a result, Volochkova wrote, “during my hunting trip, not one groundhog was hurt.”

Russia’s Black Swan [TNY]

A Bombing at the Airport

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

When Robert Shlegel, a twenty-six-year-old member of the Russian Duma, the parliament, saw the news of an explosion at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, he heard some other reports as well. “Tomorrow, I am going to introduce legislation cracking down on illegal taxis,” he told me, standing in the middle of the airport in a trim tweed overcoat, an iPad under his arm. “There were rumors going around on Twitter that taxis were charging twenty thousand rubles”—six hundred and sixty-nine dollars—“to take people from the airport.” (It’s about an hour to the center of town.) This kind of profiteering was especially galling to Shlegel because the same kind of racket goes down every time there’s a tragedy in Moscow, and no one seems to learn from it: “It happened in December”—when an apocalyptic layer of ice covered the capital and halted air travel at peak holiday time—“it happened in March”—when two young women detonated themselves in the Moscow metro, killing forty people—“it happens all the time, and no one does anything about it. In every civilized country, there are official airport taxis and they have official rates,” Shlegel said.

It soon became clear, however, that gypsy cabs were the least of Shlegel’s, or anyone’s, worries. Thirty-five bodies still lay in the greeting area outside the international arrivals gate, now festooned with hanging debris and police tape. The injured, a hundred and eighty of them, were on their way to various Moscow hospitals, some with shrapnel wounds, others with traumatic amputations. Worried parents stood waiting to meet their children, returning—they hoped—from trips abroad, as bands of camera crews and journalists roved the scene. One illegal taxi driver, a stunned thirty-year-old named Artem Zhilenkov, became their main catch. Dressed in a Russian Olympic-team track suit flecked with blood, hair, and unidentifiable bits of human flesh, he recounted to a pushy press scrum how he saw a man walk into the center of the crowd and explode.

And yet the airport was kept open and operating, even though the acrid smoke had barely dissipated. (Not to mention that terrorist attacks in Moscow tend to happen in pairs.) Planes kept landing, planes kept taking off, and people kept arriving to get on those planes. By 8:30 that evening—just four hours after the blast—the police decided to screen every single person entering the airport, and that’s when all those people discovered that Domodedovo really is Russia’s biggest and busiest airport: there was only one revolving door, and one metal detector for all of them.

Shlegel, the young Duma deputy, watched the resultant bottleneck, as it swayed and pushed and spilled back out onto the curb, his face registering utter disbelief. People shoved in twos and threes through the metal detector as the narrow plastic rectangle flashed an error message and beeped in uninterrupted desperation. A cop tried to send one man back through, but there was already a throng behind him, pushing him into the departure hall. A plaid suitcase crowdsurfed toward the baggage scanner. A large lady in a large fur coat exploded through the clog, wondering aloud if there was really a god. The metal detector, which was not attached to the floor, began to wobble and dance. A fistfight broke out.

Shlegel took some videos with his iPhone:
Domodedovo security line

Then Shlegel grabbed a policeman—an officer of decent rank —and asked him to set up a new entrance. The policeman escorted Shlegel to Entrance No. 1 to show him that it was already working. There was only a thin stream of people here, so Shlegel asked the cop to go and tell all those people cramming themselves through Entrance No. 2 to come to Entrance No. 1 instead. The cop ducked away, slipping his arm out of Shlegel’s grasp.

Shelgel spun around, his fair face reddening. “This horrible,” he said. “I mean, this is just fucking—Oh, sorry! I mean, this is outrageous! Why isn’t there anyone handling this? Where are the police? Where is the airport administration? Why isn’t there any announcement about the other door?” An idea came to him: maybe he could have someone make an announcement. But how? “I don’t even know whom to call,” he wondered out loud, striding quickly, somewhere, all the while. (It was then he reconsidered his legislative project: “The airport’s entire staff should be fired,” he said. “Maybe I should propose that instead.”)

“Where is Information?” he asked two cops who seemed to just be standing around. They smirked and pointed past Shlegel: it was right behind him.

Shlegel nearly ran up to the Information booth, and pleaded with a heavyset woman behind the counter to make an announcement that there was another entrance open.

“That entrance is open,” she said, peering at him skeptically over her glasses and pointing to Entrance No. 1.

“Yes, I know, I used it myself,” Shlegel said, attempting to explain that he wanted an announcement that Entrance No. 1 was open in order to alleviate the congestion at Entrance No. 2.

“I can’t make an announcement!” the woman said. “The announcer has to make the announcement. See, she’s making an announcement now and I can’t interrupt her.”

Shlegel would run into this problem again when he encountered the only megaphone in the airport. The megaphone was attached to a cop, and the cop told Shlegel he could not leave his post, which was in a deserted wing of the airport. Behind him, in the corner, stood a metal detector, complete with an operator, lonely and useless.

“Look! That’s a working metal detector! Why is it just standing there? It’s on wheels—why can’t they move it over to the other entrance?” Shlegel asked. The cop shrugged.

Shlegel speed walked back to Entrance No. 2, where things were not looking any better. The metal detector was still wobbling under the weight of the crowd. Now desperate, he tried to tell people himself. “There’s another entrance,” he said approaching the crush of passengers, laughing uncomfortably. “It’s open.”
Shlegel

“This is useless, I think,” he said after a minute of blank stares.

Nearby, a group of young men and women held up pieces of printer paper with the words “I’ll give you a free ride to the Metro” scrawled on them in ballpoint pen. They were activists from Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group, whom Shlegel had mobilized—along with the group’s “Gazelle” vans. (Shlegel is himself a Nashi commissar, and it was his activism in the group that catapulted him into the Duma.) No one seemed to be taking them up on their offer.

Shlegel called a few people to complain, but he seemed defeated and frustrated in his unexpressive way. “I’ll tell you a funny story,” he said. To get to Domodedovo that evening, Shlegel decided to take the Aeroexpress, the express train running from the city center. Aeroexpress had announced that it would be running for free for the rest of the evening. And yet people stood there buying tickets. The command had simply not trickled down. “So I went up to the cashier, and told her what had been announced and showed her my Duma card,” Shlegel said. “She took my card, went with it somewhere, and all of a sudden I hear an announcement that the train is free.”

Shlegel laughed, and I laughed, too, but he quickly cut me off. “It’s not funny,” he said, suddenly self-conscious. For him, an official from the ruling party, a very visible member of the Nashi movement and the Russian blogosphere, to be suddenly useless in a moment of chaos and national need—I could see why the moment would lack the tragicomic luster of so many things in Russia. Trained as an activist, a doer, Shlegel stood face to face with a stupid, inefficient, dangerous situation: the airport was still running when it should have been shut down; the one metal detector to screen the incoming crowd was clearly useless and was rarely used in normal circumstances; the authorities, now highly competent at clearing and cordoning off scenes of a terrorist attack, were still bad at directing the rest and worse at prevention. Shlegel, like all other Russians—officials or civilians—operate in a vertical in an easily paralyzed system where everyone is waiting for a command from the next level up. But, as WikiLeaks showed, a good half of even the all-powerful Vladmir Putin’s commands went unimplemented. If that was the case, what could a twenty-six-year-old member of a rubber-stamp parliament do but let the situation spin itself out?

A Bombing at the Airport [TNY]

Race Riots in Russia

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Wednesday was shaping up to be a day of excitement in Moscow. But the verdict expected in the second trial of the jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky (whom David Remnick writes about in the current issue) was postponed; an unceremonious note taped to the courthouse door announced the delay. Meanwhile, across the ice-clogged Moscow River, a gathering army of police was bracing for a race riot, the second in four days.

Tensions have been running high here ever since the night of December 6th, when a soccer fan named Egor Sviridov was killed, allegedly by a group of eight men from the Caucasus, a region between the Black and Caspian Seas whose residents are stereotyped much like Italian-Americans once were in the United States: as dark-haired, swarthy, passionate southerners with a taste for organized crime. Their complexions are why Russians call them “black,” or, worse, “blackasses.” When the Soviet Union collapsed, many Caucasians—but also ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and others—began migrating to Moscow, increasingly the center of commerce and opportunity. The day after the killing, rumors began to circulate that other Caucasians had bribed officials to release the presumptive perpetrators from jail. Sviridov’s fellow soccer fans, enraged at the corrupt police and the alleged Caucasian killers, rioted and closed off one of Moscow’s biggest thoroughfares. The police arrested no one.

Then, on Saturday, seven thousand “real guys”—a combination of soccer hooligans, nationalists, and run-of-the-mill hoodlums—gathered, ostensibly to protest the murder of Sviridov. (Spartak, the team that Sviridov rooted for, announced its refusal to participate, whereas nationalist groups eagerly stepped in to help organize.) The mob screamed, “Russia for Russians!,” spray-painted swastikas and phrases like “Yids, get out of Russia!” and threw flares, bottles, and metal guardrails. Anyone on the streets who didn’t look Slavic got attacked. Then some of the thugs descended into the Metro, and, screaming “white car!” dragged Caucasians and Central Asians from the trains and beat them unconscious as policemen looked on helplessly. (Trains eventually started passing through the overtaken stations without opening their doors. Watch the horrifying footage.) One person was killed, and dozens were wounded.

Saturday’s pogrom was such a jaw-slackening display that the Russian President appeared on national TV and declare that “such actions threaten the stability of the state.” For the next few days, the number of hate crimes spiked, there was talk that migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia would stage a retaliatory riot Wednesday night on Kievskaya Square—right by my apartment, as it happens. Special forces and armored personnel carriers started gathering in the fifteen-degree cold on Tuesday.

On Wednesday evening, there were already three thousand special forces, Interior Ministry soldiers in green camouflage, and plainclothes officers. Generals in lamb-wool hats directed troops armed with helmets, clubs, and riot shields. Buses idled, waiting to transport would-be marauders. Kiosks and flower shops around the square shut down; most of their shopkeepers are “blacks.”

About a thousand Russian teenagers turned out to face off against a handful of Caucasian kids. Many of the Russians who gathered were girls decked out in their cutest pink pants and Uggs. If it weren’t for the special forces and the teens’ shouts of “Russia for Russians!” it could have been a Justin Bieber concert.

It was hard to take the protest seriously, especially when the kids shouting “Moscow for Muscovites!” turned out to be from outside the city. But this, the festive farce that followed Saturday’s tragedy, had unsettling moments. Like Saturday’s rioters, some of the Russian youths wore ski masks or surgical masks and, when asked, said they were here to “kill khachi,” or some other Russian equivalent of the N-word. One especially youthful-looking boy named Nikita (who said he was seventeen) said he was here to get the “blacks” because “they cut our guys and fuck our women.” A fourteen-year-old named Lesha, who also came to do his part in driving non-Russians from Russia, explained that he heard similar sentiments at home. “My dad supports me in everything,” he said.

The disturbances were not limited to Kievskaya; more than thirteen hundred people were detained in clashes around the city. Police also seized a nice stash of pistols, crowbars, hammers, and even an axe. Moscow went to bed with nary a word from its officials. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin was silent, and President Dmitry Medvedev said on Twitter: “The police behaved professionally. They deserve a rest. And you should rest, too. Good night.”

As for why this happened, there is, as always, the shadow of the Soviet Union. The vast multi-ethnic empire both emphasized and glossed over ethnic differences, without much discussion. Surveys indicate that about half of Moscow’s population is sympathetic with the calls for “Moscow for Muscovites.” “Moscow’s never been very hospitable to newcomers,” says Alexandr Verkhovsky, who runs the Sova Center, which tracks xenophobia in Russia.

A million young Russian men have rotated through the Caucasus during their compulsory military service, either in the wars in Chechnya or in the current counterinsurgency. When they return home, they often enter law enforcement and are expected to protect people who look like the ones they had just fought. “These were not citizens of your country but your enemy on the battlefield,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Which may explain why much of Russia’s law enforcement sympathizes with the rioters. And, as Charles Clover of the Financial Times explained, Russia has the largest and most violent population of skinheads in Europe, and law enforcement, for fear of their strength, has taken to co-opting these extremists, protecting them, even giving them financial support.

Oleg Kashin, a journalist who covered youth movements for the Russian daily Kommersant, told me, “These nationalistic organizations are shot through with police and are well-controlled by the FSB,” the successor to the KGB. Kashin spoke from his hospital bed where he was recovering from a savage beating for which some have—implausibly—blamed soccer hooligans. “When something of this size is planned, the Interior Ministry knows in advance exactly when and where it will happen. There are enough rats in these organizations.”

They didn’t even need that: in the leadup to the recent violence, all the information they needed was widely available on the Internet. “The police reacted improperly on Saturday,” says Verkhovsky, the xenophobia expert. Had they blocked off the square where the riots took place, had they sent out enough people and rounded up instigators, the situation, Verkhovsky says, would have been like Wednesday night: a few sporadic fights and a lot of teenagers looking for a rush of adrenaline.

After a week of silence, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin finally addressed the issue this afternoon in a televised question-and-answer marathon with the Russian public. He said that Russia has always been a multi-ethnic state and this kind of violence was out of line. “We are all children of one motherland,” he said sternly. But he did quibble with those who blamed law enforcement. If they criticize the hard work of the police—whom a full sixty per cent of the Russian population don’t trust—he suggested that “liberals shave their little beards, put on helmets and get out into the square to fight the radicals.” In other words, if you don’t understand the seriousness of the task before us, keep your mouth shut.

Race Riots in Russia [TNY]

Putin and the King

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Last night, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin put in his second appearance on “Larry King Live,” via satellite link from Moscow. Going back and watching the first one, shot in the New York studio in September 2000, is a bit like beholding the youthfulness of an early episode of “Seinfeld” or “The Sopranos.” It had only been a few months—one summer—since Putin had been inaugurated as Russia’s second president, and few people knew who he was or what to expect from him. It seemed he didn’t, either. The presidency was not something he had wanted back then, and, like everything at Larry’s table, it showed. Putin was quiet, slim, hesitant. He had not mastered the politician’s art of eye contact; he looked down and sideways, like the skittish K.G.B. guy he was. “Are you enjoying it?” Larry King asked, speaking of his new role. Putin took a breath, raised his eyebrows and said, “Somewhat.”
More than ten years later, Putin is a different man (and the show is a different show; this would be King’s final softball interview with a world leader before ending his run this month). Power, it turned out, suits Putin. His face may be wider and his hairline that much closer to the horizon, but he relishes the camera’s attention. Gone are the clipped phrases (like the infamous “It sank,” his comment, on his first King appearance, on the Kursk nuclear submarine disaster, in which a hundred and eighteen people had been killed), gone is the floridly boring bureaucratese; gone is the shyness, the evasiveness, even the aggression of the middle years of his presidency. He has learned how to answer only his own questions while pretending that he is giving it to you—or Larry—straight.
This is the Putin Moscow has seen in public appearances lately. Now that he’s created a legend of stability, order, and a country brought to heel (legend because, in addition to pervasive corruption and criminality, the WikiLeaks cables observed that many of his edicts are lost in the bureaucratic wilderness), now that state TV trumpets his triumphs, he is a man who feels totally at ease in a medium he has mastered (in part by muzzling it). He banters and jokes, he fires off some viciously funny barbs. Speaking of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s assertion, in an American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, that democracy in Russia had disappeared, Putin laughed and said: “I know Mr. Gates. I met him several times. I believe he’s a very nice person and he is not a bad expert, too.” Then he noted that Gates was once the head of the C.I.A. “Now, if he’s the best expert in democracy in the United States of America, then I congratulate you with that.” Putin seems to like being thought of as Batman.
That brings us to the man described, in the WikiLeaks cables, as Putin’s “Robin.” For the last two years, Russia’s putative president, and the man Obama has to deal with, has been Dmitry Medvedev, while Putin has been in the supposedly lesser role of prime minister. Medvedev, the young tech geek, has been trotted out as an investor-friendly dressing for Russia’s West-facing window. Everyone at home—and, as it turns out, in diplomatic circles—knows that Putin is the man in charge. When Larry King asked him if he would, as widely speculated, retake de jure control of the country in 2012, Putin gave a suitably non-committal answer. Sources in Moscow say that Putin has yet to decide himself, but by recording the Larry King interview on the same day that Medvedev gave a bland and ineffective state of the union to a sleepy room of graying bureaucrats, by addressing himself to “the American people,” and suggesting that they could expect a tougher, less reset-happy Russia, Putin seemed to signal something, not least to himself.
One of the diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks show a Putin who “resents or resists” his workload as prime minister. “Putin did not like coming to the Russian White House [where the prime minister’s office is located], where he was confronted with stacks of papers on issues of minuscule importance, on which he did not want to expend his energy,” the cable said. In a top-down system, this has created a bottleneck as people wait for a signal from above. But Putin, who often works from home, is not interested. He is, it seems, in early retirement, and bored. He gets all the actual work of running the country – a nasty by-product of paranoia and centralization – without the pomp and circumstance, and eagerly awaited appearances on foreign TV, of the presidency.
Perhaps to alleviate the boredom, Putin has been waging a P.R. campaign all summer. He piloted a waterbombing plane to put out raging forest fires, then installed Web cameras to monitor the rebuilding effort; he drove along a new stretch of highway in the Russian Far East in a Russian-made automobile (which promptly broke down) and in a Formula 1 car at a hundred and fifty miles per hour; he rode with a pack of Ukrainian bikers. “He has acquired a fine sense of what works,” his former chief of staff Alexander Voloshin told me. The Larry King appearance was another way for Putin to stay in the public eye, but on an international level.
And, despite a literal synchronous translation that sounded like a Google Translate filter superimposed on the Prime Minister’s mouth (“one gender marriages will not give you offsprings”), Putin spoke firmly and directly about NATO, Iran, and Afghanistan; Obama and Bush; his daughters’ privacy (“to put them through the public lighter is not what I think is right”); Russia’s controversial bid to host the World Cup in 2018 (which Russia just won); and, strangely, about Larry himself.
PUTIN: Can I ask you one question?
KING: Sure.
PUTIN: I don’t know why, but the king leaves the scene the U.S. stage.
KING: I sometimes don’t know why myself.
PUTIN: In the U.S. mass media there are many talented and interesting people, but still there is just one king there. I don’t ask why he is leaving, but still what do you think? When shall we have a right to cry out, “Long live the king”? When will there be another man who is as popular in the whole world as you happen to be?
KING: Thank you, thank you, I have no answer. Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia. Tomorrow night, the former heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson.
It was an awkward bit of projection, a strange way of saying that he, Putin, misses his throne.

Putin and the King [TNY]

The Future of Chatroulette

Wednesday, October 27th, 2010

The first obituary for Chatroulette, a Web site that randomly pairs strangers for video chats, came in June, when Salon proclaimed, “you can’t build an empire on dicks.” Chatroulette’s combination of randomness, anonymity, and video was irresistible to men who were dying to shed their pants—and they were driving other people away. At one point, one in ten Chatroulette encounters was not safe for work. Andrey Ternovskiy, the site’s eighteen-year-old founder, was reported to be doing battle with this relentless horde of flashers; there was even talk of his having developed penis-detection algorithms to thwart them. Which is why, last week, Gawker used the headline “R.I.P. Chatroulette”: “The defections have been fairly steady since last winter, as you can see from the rough traffic statistics from Quantcast and Compete,” two Web analytics companies. Quantcast estimates that U.S. traffic to Chatroulette is only a quarter of what it was at the height of its faddish popularity.

Ternovskiy, who keeps a low profile online and in the press, insists that his site’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. “Gawker is like an annoying fly,” he told me on Tuesday evening, in the same Moscow café where we first met, on a similarly chilly, drizzly night in March, while I was reporting on Ternovskiy and Chatroulette for The New Yorker. He had spent several months in the United States—he was wearing the tech-geek uniform of T-shirt, jeans, and a waterproof fleece jacket—and was back in Russia temporarily to file his application for an O1 “special persons” visa. Sure, users left Chatroulette with the fading hype, but Ternovskiy says his site still has five hundred thousand daily users, according to Google Analytics, down from a high of two million—the same rate of decline as estimated by Quantcast. Still, he said, “How can you be dead when your revenue has doubled?”

The answer was lazy, simple, and ingenious—in other words, pure Ternovskiy. He started redirecting pantless visitors to an adult Web site owned by Penthouse*, and their computers would forever be blocked from Chatroulette. At first, Ternovskiy and his colleagues were banning a hundred thousand users a day, but now, he says, the flasher rate is down to one in two hundred—and the adult Web site pays for the referrals, giving Ternovskiy’s company, at least for the time being, a healthy revenue stream.

Ternovskiy’s crusade against lewd behavior on Chatroulette began in early September, shortly before he had to return to Moscow,. He had frittered away the summer, riding his bike around San Francisco, travelling to New York, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C., and alienating everyone he knew in the technology business, including potential investors. “I threw them out right away,” he said. It’s not something he regrets, he says, since he did not expect Chatroulette would grow and was afraid he’d get squeezed out of his own company. In Silicon Valley, Ternovskiy said, “They look at any new thing and say, ‘This is the new Facebook!’ or, ‘This is the new Google!’ That, or, ‘It’s dead.’ ” His only regret is his tactics. “I told a lot of people exactly what I thought of them right to their face,” which Ternovskiy called a Russian trait. “I’ve definitely become more Americanized since then.”

Instead of improving Chatroulette, Ternovskiy tinkered with some new ideas—a site using crowdsourcing “so that lots of people all build one thing” and another one called Pagedice that uses similar principles as Chatroulette to randomly display the most popular pages on the Web. He got Kirill Gura, an eighteen-year-old Russian immigrant whom Ternovskiy had befriended online, to join him in Palo Alto. When Ternovskiy realized he had a lot to get done before returning to Moscow, they worked round the clock, sleeping in shifts in the one bed in Ternovskiy’s apartment. “I had to sleep a lot to keep Kirill motivated,” Ternovskiy says, barely able to suppress a laugh.

“I’m lazy,” he told me. “But I am not worried about my future. I know what it will look like. It will be disorganized, things won’t always work. I will always radically change my direction, which will give me momentum to do something until I get bored of it. I’ll never build the perfect company, like Apple. Whatever I build will be this half-broken thing, Russian-style.”

On September 6th, Ternovskiy took off for Moscow with only his iPad, his laptop, and some underwear in a backpack, leaving important passwords and financial data necessary for his visa application back in his California apartment. As a result his stay in Russia—and the visa process—have dragged on. “I’m in exile here,” he said as we walked out into the rainy night. “But if people insist that I live in America”—something that he says he wants to do, but that his parents sometimes push too hard for—“I’ll come back and live here just to spite them.”

Andrey Ternovskiy on the Future of Chatroulette [TNY]

Russia on Fire

Thursday, August 5th, 2010

The smoke is gone for now, but the peat bogs are still boiling, and the forests are burning. As of Thursday morning, 484,000 acres of forest were burning, 17,000 more than the day before. Fifty people have reportedly died in the fires—this on top of the unknown number of deaths from temperatures higher than anything ever recorded in Western Russia. More than two thousand homes have been destroyed. All around the capital, twelve thousand peat bogs are slowly simmering, sending toxic clouds of carbon-rich smoke into the city. Alexander Chuchalin, the chief pulmonologist of Russia (who knew they had such a thing?), said that the air in the capital has gotten so bad that it was like all Muscovites had become chain smokers overnight. Current levels of carbon monoxide, he said, “damage 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,” he told a news conference.

Dr. Chuchalin made this statement last Wednesday, a day that smelled vaguely of barbecue. This week, just after midnight Tuesday, the mesquite smell returned. By 4 A.M., Moscow was enveloped in a heavy fog, one that didn’t lift. By Wednesday afternoon, visibility had dropped to a hundred yards. The smoke had penetrated the city’s deepest Metro stations, which had been used as bomb shelters during the Second World War. A fine grit coated parked cars. Chests rasped, eyes watered. But Muscovites who ventured out into the thick pewter cloud soldiered on without masks. “No, we are Russians,” a nurse told my friend Miriam Elder, reporting for GlobalPost. “We believe in luck.”

Elder travelled to one of the worst-hit areas, eighty-some miles southeast of Moscow, near Ryazan. “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.” (Elder could have used help herself; she sank into a boiling sandpit, getting second-degree burns on the soles of her feet.)

This scene is playing out all over the Russian countryside, which, as always, is suffering far more than Moscow. Villagers received no fire warnings. When the fires started approaching, some had trouble reaching the local authorities. Others begged for buses to help evacuate their villages, were told to fend for themselves. Fire trucks didn’t come, either, and then their homes, made of wood, were gone in minutes. The forestry minister, meanwhile, is on his August vacation, and has no plans to cut it short.

The government’s response has been a disaster, and the people are blaming their local officials—but not the very top. When a mob of irate women descended on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they weren’t mad at him; they were demanding that he, as one woman put it, “string [local officials] up by the balls.”

A strong argument could be made for calling this disaster Putin’s Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, then-President Putin, in consultation with the Russian timber industry, “reformed” forestry regulations, eliminating positions for rangers, making each of the remaining ones responsible for more territory, increasing paperwork so they spent hardly any time outdoors monitoring the forests—and, on the off chance that they did spot a small fire while on patrol, making it a punishable offense (a misuse of state funds) to put it out. The organization charged with extinguishing fires was the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which responded speedily and capably to the Moscow Metro bombings in March, but a 2005 reform instituted by Putin left regional emergency outfits severely underfunded.

Except for the minority who read news in papers or online, Russians would never know that shoddy, nonsensical, industry-friendly deregulation was responsible for this natural disaster as much as the weather. Instead, the vast majority get their news from television, which has been broadcasting pictures of Putin, sleeves rolled up, touring the destruction. In a particularly fine touch, the main Russian television channel broadcast a “phone call” from Putin, ostensibly on his cell phone in the middle of a pristine birch grove, to President Dmitry Medvedev, back in his ornate Kremlin office. The message was clear: Putin was in charge, and this reassured the people who had lost homes to the fires he helped cause. “Putin said they’ll build us all new houses, so it will probably happen,” one villager told the Independent.

Putin, of course, is invoking the old archetype of the Tsar-Batyushka: the benevolent King and Father, who can magically help his subjects. It is the same role Putin plays once a year on a carefully scripted call-in television show, when supplicants call in and ask for apartments or better pensions. It is also a moment in which the Janus-faced tsar’s cruelty and greed, his indifference to his subjects, are forgotten, mostly because there is no other option. There were no other emergency valves en route to this fiery disaster—no forest rangers, fire trucks, and, of course, no insurance—and a tidy, if tiny, cash payout from Putin ex machina must still come with a huge surge of relief, gratitude, and, worse, fealty.

When the debate about places like Russia touches on democracy and the free press, one side of the conversation tends to stress a culture’s own rules: Who are we to tell them how to live? That is a fair point, and maybe democracy is not the answer here. But the unaccountable, reckless, and deeply rooted political system in Russia today—a system that can trace itself back past the days of the tsars, to the tatars, to the Mongols—is not a good one, especially not for subjects who console themselves with conspiracy theories, or the hope of a benevolent whim, or, as the nurse said, luck.

In the meantime, the fires continue to burn and, as I write this, the smell of burning wood drifts slowly back into the city.

Russia on Fire [The New Yorker]

To Lubyanka Station

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

At 8 P.M. on Monday, twelve hours after the first of two suicide bombs ripped through a crowded subway car at Moscow’s Lubyanka metro station, Russia’s President, Dmitry Medvedev, materialized on the platform. He appeared just as a train—this one mostly empty—sped by. The site of the attack had been cleaned up, and the red line, which runs through Lubyanka, was reopened in time for the evening rush hour. Seven million people take the Moscow metro every day—it is one of the biggest and busiest subway systems in the world—but few Muscovites were braving the commute now. Most people on the platform were photographers or curious civilians fingering evidence of the blast: holes drilled into the columns and the ceiling by the screws and nails the suicide bomber had packed into an explosive belt. Shattered glass still sparkled on the rails. Someone spotted what looked like blood.

Suddenly, Medvedev stepped into our midst, with Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, by his side and surrounded by a scrum of security people and cameras. The President looked around, stony-faced, though it was unclear how much he could see.

That’s when a bearded man named Timofei Bogomiloff began to scream. “Dmitry Anatolyevich,” he said, addressing the President by his patronymic. “Dmitry Antaolyevich! This is your Golgotha! This is your Golgotha! And after that comes the Resurrection!”

Medvedev mumbled a quick “Da” and ducked back into the station’s main hall, where a weeping, boozy crowd had gathered with red carnations and candles to honor the twenty-four victims killed there that morning. (Twelve more died when a second bomb went off forty minutes later, at Park Kultury, four stations away on the red line.)

Back on the platform, Bogomiloff, who identified himself only as a “public philosopher,” told me, with mystical suspicion, “I am here to find out who is responsible.”

It was already evening, and no one had taken responsibility. There was talk of conspiracies as more questions bubbled up in the minds of the curious. Within four hours of the blasts, the authorities announced that they had established several things: Both suicide bombers were women. Their explosive belts had severed their torsos, and, according to a report from inside Russia’s security apparatus, the head of the Park Kultury bomber was in good enough condition to determine that she was from the North Caucasus—how, it wasn’t clear. The word was that the women had started their journey at the southernmost stop on the red line, accompanied by two Slavic-looking women and a man in a black baseball cap. The bombers had never ridden the metro before, and one had got lost on her way to Oktyabrskaya, the station nearest the Interior Ministry and, perhaps, her original target. By mid-afternoon, the signs seemed to point to the North Caucasus, and the volatile triad of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan.

But the people milling about the newly reopened metro at Lubyanka, the square where Russia’s security forces—once known as the K.G.B., now the F.S.B.—are headquartered, were left with plenty of questions and theories. How did the government know the Chechens were involved? Why was the response to the crisis unusually swift and orderly—did they know an attack was coming? And if the response was so swift and orderly, why wasn’t the metro shut down after the first explosion? How did they know the second bomber had gotten lost? As news trickled out that the government had received a call on Sunday at 5:36 P.M. warning that Chechen women were planning to attack the subway, people asked why the police hadn’t prevented it? And why scrub down the stations so quickly? How, in the first hours of the attack, did the prosecutor general, Yuri Chaika, know whom to charge with terrorism?

To Bogomiloff, the public philospher, the answers were obvious. “The government is to blame,” he said. “This is what happens when an empire falls apart: it’s unstable, there’s no control, and there’s a struggle for power.” The subway bombings, he explained, were “a sign of a serious battle of bulldogs under the rug. Did you see Medvedev’s face? He looked lost. Because there’s a big battle of political forces, and the ones who did this are the same forces that built the Gulag.” Bogomiloff was suggesting, in other words, that Medvedev’s faction had been one-upped by the siloviki, Putin and other graduates of the security forces, who, during Putin’s Presidency, had taken control of much of Russian politics and business.

“This doesn’t smell of the Caucasus,” added Bogomiloff’s friend, who wore a pristine white windbreaker and pristine white beard, and only gave his first name, Neil. “This an F.S.B. job.”
A young banker with alcohol on his breath approached me. He identified himself as Denis, and asked if I knew what the man in the white jacket—meaning Neil—did for a living. Neil, he said, must be in the F.S.B. himself, given his “intelligent” way of asking questions. Denis also thought the subway attack was an inside job, as did Ivan, a trembling seventeen-year-old who had been in Lubyanka station immediately after the blast and returned to the scene. Trembling, and averting his eyes, Ivan told me, “The government did all this.”

In 1999, a string of bombings brought down four Russian apartment buildings and killed nearly three hundred people. Those attacks were blamed on Chechens, but afterward a theory began to circulate that the F.S.B. had bombed the buildings in order to give Putin, then the President, an excuse to go hard in Chechnya and crack down at home. This theory gained new momentum after Alexander Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. agent who had espoused that view, was mysteriously poisoned in London in 2006.

Following Monday’s suicide bombings, many in the metro—and in the Russian blogosphere—speculated about whether the same forces were at work. Russia has seen an unprecedented wave of protests in the last three months; now, in the wake of the metro blasts, Medvedev told the F.S.B. to take control of the situation, to keep the country from becoming “destabilized.” But there are other conspiracy theories, too. There has long been talk that Medvedev is a placeholder for Putin, who is now Prime Minister but is mulling a Presidential run in 2012. What if Putin ordered this attack to make Russia seem unstable under Medvedev, as a pretext for taking back control?

It’s tempting to laugh at these theories, to dismiss them as Russia’s version of the 9/11 “Truthers,” but if you live in Moscow long enough the conspiracy bug is easy to catch. The Kremlin is a black box—Kremlin insiders notoriously do not talk to foreign journalists—and there’s not an independent press strong enough to serve as a corrective. (Under Putin’s stewardship, the press was brought under the firm control of the Kremlin, as Michael Specter wrote in 2007.) This produces the distinct—and quite accurate—impression that the state’s words and its actions exist on parallel planes, which do not intersect. And this makes Russians perpetually eager to find the false bottom in a situation—and the false bottom under that one, too. Conversations with Russians can spiral into an epistemological abyss, where nothing is provable except that everything is not what it seems. The bounteous archives documenting Stalin’s crimes? Forged. The Western media? A tool of the American government, meant to denigrate Russia. What’s interesting is that conspiratorial logic is not the domain of any one political camp or socioeconomic layer. It can strike any Russian at any time, and always with one, pointed question, usually asked with and eyebrow arched in understanding: Komu eto vygodno?—Who profits from this?

It was a question I heard on the metro platform. “Yeltsin did a good thing in letting the Soviet Union dissolve peacefully,” Bogomiloff said, his friend Neil nodding beside him. “Why won’t they let these regions out? It’s profitable to hold on to them.”

Hours after the blast, a cell phone scam emerged as thousands of text messages arrived saying the sender was stuck in the metro where everything was horrible—and would be lost unless the recipient added money to the sender’s account. With scams like that, at a moment like that, how was one to trust any information at all?

To Lubyanka Station [newyorker.com]

Moving to Moscow

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Come Friday, the brief bio on this site will be incorrect. Come Friday, I will be moving to Moscow for almost a year on a Fulbright grant to do some journalisming, maybe even gather some string for a book. If you’re so inclined, you can follow me on Twitter under the name “ioffeinmoscow.” I don’t promise salient insights on the bulldogs under the Kremlin rug, but I do promise to update it — and this blog — with the abounding absurdity of that wonderful city.

(And yes, that’s me in the picture. It was taken when I was a first-grader — and Octoberist — shortly before my family moved to the US. Incidentally, I will celebrate the 20th anniversary of that event in the place they abandoned, a fact which never ceases to, understandably, distress them.)

The McKinsey Summing

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Though this appeared yesterday on my new favorite blog, The Awl, I cannot get it out of my mind and so I am posting on it now. Alex Balk, one of the two wit mavens running the thing, came up with a brilliant parody of the death throes of luxurious media company CondeNast as it prepares to be pared down by a swarm of McKinsey consultants. Oh, and he did it in the form of “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. A bit insidery, perhaps, but it works.

Here is the original:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

And here’s Balk’s version, “The McKinsey Summing“:

Kerning and kerning in the widening spire
The editor cannot spurn the consultant;
Things fall apart; Balthazar is on hold;
Mere sandwiches are loosed upon the world,
The Orangina-dimmed tide is lost, and everywhere
The ceremony of heated basalt stone massage is disallowed;
The best lack all subscriptions, while the worst
Are full of fashionate intensity.

Surely some termination is at hand;
Surely the McKinsey Summing is at hand.
The McKinsey Summing! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Edwin Coaster
Troubles my sight: a cramped and crowded Gehry-land;
A shape with doughy body and a coif beyond grand,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sunglasses of Anna Wintour,
Is buying its stir-fry, while all about it
Unmanicured nails of the indignant Glamour girls.
The darkness drops again but now I know
The fault was not just with Portfolio
No, fifty years of charging it to Si
Have ended gift bags and the car service guy,
And what daily beast, its Nobu dinners in the past,
Slouches towards 1166 Sixth Avenue to be born?

(1166 is where CondeNet is housed, according to a media reporter friend.)

What the Bottleneck Drinks

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

Best detail from the Times story on Obama’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering to push through healthcare reform before the next millennium: Max Baucus, the senator many believe to be the pernicious bottleneck of this whole ordeal, has a fridge stocked with Coke Zeros. I don’t know why, but I find this amusing.

Hail to the Ch-Ch-Ch-Chief

Monday, July 20th, 2009

Over the weekend, I saw a commercial for this, erm, delightful souvenir: Chia Obama. It’s a clay bust of the President and it happens to look nothing like him, though it does grow fluffy green hair. Just like the President. (“Can you grow one?” asks the website. “YES YOU CAN!”) It also comes with its very own drip tray.

Back in April, it was decried as racist and pulled from drugstore shelves in Chicago and Tampa, but you can still find it on hard-to-believe infomercials as well as Drugstore.com and Amazon, which, oddly offers used models. I wish I had known about this before the start of the wedding season.

The Dessert – Cocktail Summit is Something Everyone Can Agree On

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Like a gracious host who somehow anticipates your every need before you even think to have it, the Ritz-Carlton, Moscow has gone out of its way to make its guest, Barack Obama, feel loved and welcome during his first visit to Russia as President of the United States. Over the weekend, the hotel issued a lyrical press release detailing the Martha Stewart-esque details of its so-called “The Dessert-Cocktail Summit.”

“Desserts and cocktails are possessed of a unique quality,” it crooned philosophically. “They elevate your mood, bring people closer together, which means that they facilitate mutual understanding between different peoples and entire nations.” And so, the Ritz, known for occasion-specific insanity, has trotted out a pastry assortment for “sweets aficionados” that includes Russian classics like honey cake and the famous “chocolate potato” as well as American brownies and New York-style cheesecake, both of which have no Russian translation and so have to be awkwardly transliterated. For aficionados of libations–the real geopolitical love-glue–the Ritz has developed a series of cocktails like “4th of July” (“reminiscent of the stars and stripes,” the red, white and blue cocktail is topped by an apple star, “as if, just one second ago, it still hung suspended on the American flag”); “Yes we can!” (Bailey’s, blue Curaçao, red Campari for the red, white and blue effect, served on a custom tray resembling, yes, an American flag); “Obama Chai” (“a real American ‘iced-tea’” of cold Darjeeling and cinnamon); and “Winds of Change.” This last concoction–“perhaps the most elegant”–consists of Piper Heidsieck champagne and, obviously, passion-fruit sorbet.

And, in the spirit of mutual understanding among nations, the special menu will disappear as soon as Obama does.

The Dessert-Cocktail Summit [RUSSIA!]

LeBron James Not Dennis Ross

Friday, June 19th, 2009

An over-earnest doozy from the Times today. Describing the move of veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross from the State Department to the White House, the Times writes, helpfully:

David Makovsky, Mr. Ross’s co-author in the just-published book Myths, Illusions & Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East (Viking), offered a different possible reason: “Dennis Ross is the Lebron James of Middle East diplomacy,” Mr. Makovsky said.

While the comparison is somewhat strained, the larger point is as valid as any of the other theories meant to explain Mr. Ross’s move from Foggy Bottom to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Confusion averted.

How to Steal a Million

Thursday, June 11th, 2009

New blog post, in RUSSIA!:

Today, a Moscow court issued an arrest warrant for Igor Popov, the deputy to the artistic director of the venerable, historical, mythical Moscow Art Theater, founded by Constantin Stanislavski in 1898 and home, once upon a time, to Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov.

Popov was apparently on the verge of embezzling 36 million rubles (a hair over $1 million USD now that the ruble’s been on fire sale) earmarked for the renovation of the historic building in the center of Moscow. He had been in charge of overseeing the contracts and the funds, which he demanded be transferred to a shell account whence he could remove them for pocketing purposes.

Reactions at the Theater have been varied. Artistic Director Oleg Tabakov, a People’s Artist and the voice of the famous cartoon cat Matroskin, is apparently cooperating vigorously with the authorities.

A spokesman for the theater told the press, however, that all this arrest stuff seems to be a bit much. The money hasn’t been stolen, the renovations continue apace — what’s a little attempted embezzlement between friends? “It doesn’t strike me as beneficial to the theater’s health,” he said.

Illegal, schmilegal.

How To Steal A Million [RUSSIA!]

Phone of Justice

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Today, I received an odd emailing from The Nation, with the following subject line: “Dick Cheney called…he wants his empire back.” I thought it would be a rant about, well, Dick Cheney. Instead it was an odd call to arms — to switch phone companies:

Dear Nation Reader,

Did you know that AT&T contributed the legal maximum to the Bush-Cheney campaign, twice? I didn’t. But I do know that there’s a cell phone company that shares your progressive values, and I’m hoping if you’re not already a Credo Mobile customer that you’ll quickly become one by following the links below.

All best,
Peter Rothberg
The Nation

Now, we all know traditional media outlets like The Nation, founded in 1865, are struggling to stay afloat. I also know that, in America, we like to think we vote with our credit cards. (On its site, Credo Mobile advertises its donations to Planned Parenthood and Greenpeace, and ticks off political stances — “stop global warming,” “reform political campaign financing” — as if they’re features of a cellular plan.) But this, for such a progressive, left-leaning magazine, seemed, well, an odd choice.

More on this later.

The Missing R

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Yesterday, the New York Times had an interesting story about the vigorous bounce-back of so-called developing markets, focusing exclusively on the BRIC countries. Industrial production has picked back up in China, car sales are on the rise in India, and Brazil’s stock market shot up by 41% in the last three months.

The notable blank in the piece was, of course, the R. Russia slipped past almost without mention.

So to fill in the gap, I’ll draw on a recent investors’ note sent out by the Eurasia Group, whose Russia analyst has just returned from a research trip. As has been widely reported, the economic situation in Russia has calmed significantly since the calamity that was fall and winter. This, however, is due largely to the rally of commodity prices — namely oil — in the last few months. Given that, Russia could have made it into the Times. But there are significant risks of further destabilization. Apparently, Russian banks are sitting on a huge pile of non-performing loans, and no one knows just how many of them they have:

Current official statistics of 3-5% understate real conditions, and while state banks forecast 10% by the end of the year, private bank analysts in Moscow say the real level could reach 30%, forcing the state to undertake a massive recapitalization.

Then there’s the fact that there is a struggle brewing between liberals and the “strong men” over now in-play assets, consumer prices have sky-rocketed, unemployment is still high, and that the Kremlin’s economic team, even with some very competent technocrats in charge, seems content to simply bob back up on rising oil prices without undertaking real, structural reforms.

Perhaps this is why the Times didn’t mention Russia in its things-are-looking-up panorama, though including one slightly more shaky example would have made for a more believable, well-calibrated piece.

I’d Like to Buy a Vowel

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

Last night, I went to a cocktail party on the humid terrace of the Maritime Hotel, in Chelsea. Nouriel Roubini, the host and the subject of a profile I wrote for The New Republic, floated around what he called “a smart, finance-oriented crowd,” explaining his latest prediction: a W-shaped recovery, like what we saw in the 1930s. This latest bounce in the stock market, he says, is nothing but a sucker’s rally. Sometime at the end of 2010, we may see a second dip — thus the W shape.

Interesting, this. Roubini originally went against the optimists, who said it would be a short, V-shaped recession; it would, he said, look more like a U. Then things got really, really bad and he changed his mind: a prolonged L-shaped recession. Then things improved a bit, and he went back to U. Now he’s toying with a W.

Clearly, this is a fluid, evolving situation, but this pin-balling around the alphabet is, to me, only the latest, most funny explanatory crutch in a field chock-full of helpful, meaning-killing clichés. In any case, SmartMoney offers a good explanation for the different shapes, though they leave out the hypotheticals I’d most like to see: a Q, say, or a B.

It Was Only a Small Yacht Anyway

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

A new blog post on the RUSSIA! Mag website:

Roman Abramovich has a problem, a gambling problem. His girlfriend, 26 year-old socialite Dasha Zhukova, gave him hell for it so he simply moved his habit online, to the “Everest Room.” And then, last week, he lost a yacht in a poker game. Reportedly.

Abramovich, decimated by the crisis (he’s lost $8.5 billion) but still filthy rich, was in Barcelona to see his team, Chelsea, play in the UEFA Champions League semi-finals and, apparently, got bored enough to lose $500,000 in an evening. He reportedly squelched the debt by unloading one of the lesser yachts in his five-yacht armada – dubbed the “Roman Navy” in the British press. Probably, it was the tiny 163-foot tag-along named Sussurro. His other yachts all have superlative, record-smashing features of one sort or another – as well as helipads, submarines, something called zero-speed stabilizers, and military-grade missile defense systems – and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, so he probably kept those.

Tossing off a yacht would not be out of character for Abramovich who, in 2006, gave a $150 million one to his business lieutenant, Eugene Shvidler, to thank him for his hard work. Nevertheless, Abramovich was pissed when news of his night in Barcelona got around.

Italian newspaper La Repubblica first reported the event – as well as some invented dialogue between Abramovich and a fictionally angry Miss Zhukova – on Monday, a couple Russian news outlets picked it up, and now La Repubblica is facing a world of pain.

“The story is absolutely, completely, entirely false,” Abramovich spokesman John Mann told AFP.

Which means, of course, Abramovich is suing and that the story is, quite possibly, true.