Posts Tagged ‘Media’

Activists Get Connected

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Two years ago, Dmitry Ternovskiy, a Russian small business owner, blogger, and hobby photographer, had a dream: he is skiing, and he runs into Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The two men make each other’s acquaintance, at which point Ternovskiy asks the president for his autograph on the side of his camera lens. A week later, Ternovskiy found himself on the slopes above Sochi, where, he was told, the president also happened to be skiing. Intrigued by the coincidence, Ternovskiy made his way over to where Medvedev was passing and took a few pictures. To his even greater surprise, the president approached him, and Ternovskiy asked him to sign his camera lens. And, because things were already unfolding so bizarrely, Ternovskiy decided to take the opportunity to ask the president about something that had been bothering him for years: the pointless Soviet-era ban on photography in the Kremlin and Red Square. “Dmitry Anatolyevich [Medvedev] said this was stupid and within an hour, the news agencies were reporting that he had given the order to the head of the Federal Security Service [the Russian Secret Service] to lift this ban, which had been in place for 20 years,” Ternovskiy recalls, still marvelling at the cosmic strangeness of that day.

The run-in was not only broadcast on national television, it also provided the catalyst for a project Ternovskiy called A Country Without Stupidity. Chief among the inanities in his sights is something most tourists in Russia have encountered: the screaming security guard or elderly woman telling you that you cannot take pictures here, as if your photograph of that supermarket compromises Russian national security. Ternovskiy has used his blog to mobilise Russians to inform these guards and grannies that they are the ones in the wrong: by Russian law, photography is allowed almost everywhere. “Despite the fact that there is no legal basis to ban photography in all the places it’s banned, people will still tell you it’s forbidden,” Ternovskiy says, pouring himself a cup of thyme tea as we sit in a Moscow café. “It’s like a Soviet phantom limb. Back then, every person felt himself to be in the thick of a nest of spies, there were enemies all around, everything was banned. Unfortunately, we still see this alive and well in the minds of many people today.”

Using his blog and Twitter, Ternovskiy has declared war on this archaic mentality. In the year since he launched A Country Without Stupidity, he has taught a growing number of sympathisers what to do if a guard in a train station tells you to delete that picture you just took: call the police, have them write a report, then write an official complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office. Thanks to Medvedev’s modernisation initiative, he points out, you can now file that complaint online. “It’s very simple and it uses legal methods,” Ternovskiy explains. “You don’t have to fight anyone, you don’t have to pitch a fit and yell at the guards. Just go home, and calmly register a complaint.” To everyone’s surprise, the prosecutor’s office stopped ignoring these complaints and began answering them – and finding in the complainants’ favour.

This may seem like a strange fight, but in a country where abuse of authority and brazen shirking of the law has become an accepted part of the daily routine even in the smallest things, Ternovskiy’s battle is a novel attempt not to fall into the sort of complacency that makes this kind of grim reality possible in the first place. “It’s a small thing, yes, but Russians are so indifferent and so convinced that you can’t change anything here, that what we’re trying to show people is that sometimes you just need a little effort to change something,” Ternovskiy explains. “And then maybe the next time, when this person encounters a bigger problem, not just something stupid, he’ll know that he can act, and he’ll know how to.”

With more than 50 million users, the Russian internet has this year become Europe’s biggest internet audience and Ternovskiy’s initiative is one of several that has used the explosion of the web in Russia to do something unheard of in its history: the mobilisation of civil society. “For many years, there was no means for people living here to do anything that relates to the organisation of society in any way,” says Anton Nossik, a pioneer of the Russian web and now the media director of SUP, the company that owns LiveJournal, Russia’s most popular blogging platform. “In Russia, it was always the state that was in charge of dealing with social issues, never the people. It’s a situation that, on the whole, has lasted here for about a thousand years.”

The change came only recently, and only with the introduction of high-speed internet, first in the big cities, then in the countryside. Then came LiveJournal, which gave Russians a platform to discuss the things no longer being discussed in the state-controlled media. After that, the social networks – VKontakte, or Facebook for the urban elite – which Russians use more than any other people on the planet, connected like-minded citizens of a country spread across nine time zones. In the past year this trifecta – low-cost, hi-speed internet access, LiveJournal, and social networks – has given rise to a cluster of novel civic movements. One of the first was anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny’s RosPil, which used crowd sourcing to spot corrupt government tenders. Then, using Yandex.Money, the Russian analogue of PayPal, he launched an online collection of funds to hire young lawyers to help him fight corrupt state corporations in court. His goal had been to raise Rbs3m (£61,000). As of May this year he had raised Rbs6.5m. The next frontier in this movement is apps. Ternovskiy is currently working with developers to create an app that allows users to document and send a complaint to the Prosecutor General’s office right from their phones. “We want people to act,” Ternovskiy says, explaining that, in the time it takes someone to come home and get in front of a computer, the desire to register an official complaint may easily pass. Another potential hit, given the talk of fraud in Russia’s recent parliamentary elections, is RUGolos, an application that allows voters to register how and where they voted. The idea is that, given the penetration of smartphones in Russia, the app can collect enough data to serve as an independent counterweight to official election results.

Blue Buckets, another online movement, uses a different currency to achieve its aims: public shame. Loosely affiliated clusters of people have united in fighting the blue migalki, or sirens, which allow any car to which they are attached to circumvent all traffic laws. Predictably, they cause countless, often deadly, accidents, and given the sanctity of the car in Russia, they have become a major social irritant. Blue Buckets – named for the blue buckets activists tape to their car roofs as a spoof of these VIP sirens – gives people the means to fight back against the abuse of privilege. Drivers who capture this abuse – the VIP vehicle of a film director speeding in the oncoming lane, a bureaucrat turning on his siren to get to the dry cleaners – on camera, can submit the picture or video to Blue Buckets, which then disseminates it to its nearly 40,000 members and hundreds of thousands of monthly visitors to its LiveJournal page. Inevitably, this makes it into the news cycle, fuelling more rage. This summer saw a spate of such small but loud scandals over migalki, and Blue Buckets was behind most of them.

“It’s the broken windows theory,” says Petr Shkumatov, one of the Blue Buckets co-ordinators, and a marketing specialist by day. “Since we’ve started the group, people have stopped being as brazen. A year ago, you saw these migalki everywhere but now they are more hesitant to turn on their discotheques,” he says, referring to the whoop of the sirens. “Of course, they’re allowed to by law, but the fact that society has become so angry at them, and they see the anger, has clearly been giving them pause.”

The point of Blue Buckets is to disincentivise ostentatious prestige, which is still so comically common in contemporary Russia. “The problem of migalki is not solved through laws because the sirens play to a very natural desire to be above other people,” says Shkumatov. He sees the legacy of the Soviet Union at play here, too, and he and his co-conspirators at Blue Buckets have tried hard to keep the group as decentralised and organic as possible, in order to prevent it from becoming “an instrument for realising someone’s ambitions”.

“The Soviet Union still exists in Russia because people are still repeating old patterns,” Shkumatov explains. “As soon as someone joins an organisation, he wants to become the general secretary of the Communist party.”

In the past few days, the Russian blogosphere has proved to be a powerful tool in organising such sentiments. A day after disputed election results delivered both a victory and a defeat to the ruling, vaguely Soviet, United Russia party – it won a majority of seats in the Russian parliament, but lost 15 per cent compared with the 2007 electio7 – some 6,000 young people took to Moscow’s streets. As in the case of protests seen around the world, from Cairo to Zucotti Park, they had been brought there by Facebook and Twitter. And they were angry about what they had read on the internet, information that rarely makes it into the “official” Russian press. In absolute terms, it was not a large number – Moscow is a city of at least 11 million – but it flew in the face of the conventional wisdom. Young Russians are thought to be apathetic and, even if they are not, rarely come out to protest, which they see as the realm of the shrill and the elderly.

The anonymous KermlinRussia duo, who write a wildly popular parody of Medvedev’s Twitter account, recently teamed up with Zhgun, a graphic designer, to create a campaign ad on YouTube for a fictional party called “F****** Amazing Russia”. The premise of the party was to leave behind the bad guys – Putin, Medvedev, and their cronies – and to mobilise what one of the KermlinRussia writers called “the party of the internet.” Hundreds of thousands of people watched the YouTube video, but nothing seemed to happen – until it suddenly did. “The internet is the new politics,” one of the duo told me. “It was able to organise the first serious protest in many years.”

Whether or not these protests continue as temperatures in Moscow drop is not clear, but they have already accomplished something very important: they have brought down the barrier between the online and offline worlds. When Navalny was arrested at the December 5 protest, thousands of his followers watched a live feed of the protest staged outside the police station where he was being held. At 4am on a weeknight, there were nearly four thousand viewers. When Navalny’s trace temporarily vanished, and when Navalny was brought into court and sentenced to 15 days in prison, it was Shkumatov who tweeted the proceedings to everyone who had not been allowed inside the courtroom: Shkumatov, too, had been arrested.

On December 10, around 50,000 of the young urban elite came out in Moscow for the biggest anti-government protest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands protested in dozens of cities around Russia. Addressing the crowd, Shkumatov thanked them for coming out, “for showing them” – the Kremlin – “that you’re not cattle”. “You guys are so wonderful!” he said, while recording a video of the crowd with his phone.

Activists Get Connected [FT]

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]

Oleg Kashin’s Horrible Truth

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

The paramedics reached 30-year-old journalist Oleg Kashin Saturday morning at 12:40 a.m. He was lying outside the door to his apartment building in central Moscow, his face bloodied, his legs mangled, the ground covered in blood. “He showed his hand to the doctor so he could see it was all broken,” a neighbor told TV reporters. The toll, tallied by various news sources, was chilling: two broken jaws, one broken leg, a fractured skull at the temple and a heavy concussion, blood in the lungs, fingers partially torn off at the joints, one of them later amputated. By the time Moscow woke up to the news on Saturday, Kashin was already in an artificially induced coma.

At Kommersant, the newspaper where Kashin works, no one doubted that the attack was related to his journalism. “The thing that bothers me is that at the moment of the beating, they broke his fingers,” the editor in chief said in a radio interview. “It is completely obvious that the people who did this did not like what he was saying and what he was writing.” Kashin’s iPhone, wallet, and other personal belongings remained on his person, untouched.

There was no shortage of theories about why Kashin was targeted. Many pointed instantly at United Russia’s youth wing, Molodaya Gvardia, which openly threatened Kashin in an August article on its website. It was titled, in the hyperbolic, hyphenated language of early Soviet propaganda, “Journalist-traitors need to be punished!” “They have betrayed their homeland, they have spit on their civic duty!” it blared, adding Kashin to a list of others needing to be punished. Kashin’s sin was daring to interview one of the radical anti-fascist protestors who attacked a local government building while protesting the cutting down of the Khimki forest this summer. That interview was not particularly inflammatory — in fact, Kashin took a stern line with the young hoodlum — but it brought the police to Kommersant’s offices, asking the paper to turn over Kashin’s email.

Russian journalists are usually killed or attacked because they threaten powerful financial or economic interests. The chopping down of the Khimki forest to make room for a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg has exactly those interests behind it: It was being financed by Arkady Rotenberg, Vladimir Putin’s judo buddy, and Putin proclaimed this summer, amid growing protests, that “all decisions have been made.” That is, the road would be built as planned. (This remains the silent consensus in Moscow, despite Medvedev’s August moratorium.)

Moreover the attack on Kashin seems to fit a disturbing pattern. Only a few days ago, Khimki activist Konstantin Fetisov was attacked with a baseball bat when he got out of his car in front of his Moscow home. The left side of his head was bashed in. His wife later found a fragment of the bat that had splintered off from the force of the blow. Like Kashin, Fetisov remains in an artificially induced coma and in serious condition.

Kashin’s case most resembles a far earlier one, however. In the spring of 2008, Mikhail Beketov, a local journalist in Khimki who sought to expose the corruption behind the road, was beaten and left unconscious and bleeding in front of his house. He too slipped into a coma. There are eerie similarities between this attack and Kashin’s: Beketov’s legs were so brutally beaten that one had to be amputated, and he suffered such severe brain damage that he can now barely speak. But his hands were the most symbolic, chilling target. Three of Beketov’s mangled fingers had to be amputated. Whoever got Beketov, and whoever got Kashin, wanted to make sure they never wrote again.

But that’s as far as the theory goes. Kashin covered the subject of Khimki thoroughly and in his characteristically beautiful, at times acidic prose. But nothing he wrote was all that seditious; he didn’t really expose anything that threatened anyone’s financial interests. And, unlike the journalists who have been killed, attacked, or harrassed in Russia during the last decade, Kashin is not a fringe or opposition figure. When I first met him, in the winter of 2006, to interview him about the politics of young Russians — his specialty — he struck me as a Kremlin apologist. Kommersant is Russia’s most prominent daily, a mainstream paper owned by Medvedev buddy and mining mogul Alisher Usmanov.

I was, of course, wrong about Kashin. He is not an apologist but is, in the best traditions of his generation, simply hard to categorize. He covers youth movements for his paper, and he is equally unsparing in his coverage of both the pro-Kremlin organizations, like Nashi and Molodaya Gvadia, and the opposition ones, like the Yabloko and Antifa movements.

He is also a loud, profane, and well-loved member of the Russian web community, which is why most of the fallout has occurred in a parallel Twitter universe. Kashin’s handle, KSHN, was soon trending as hundreds of updates and hang-in-theres flooded the Russian-language part of the service. Most surprisingly, the pro-Kremlin wing of the Twittersphere, aside from the occasional outburst of “he had it coming,” was as horrified by the attack as everyone else. “This filth was harsh with Kashin,” tweeted Konstantin Rykov, a blogger who often writes of the “liberasts” — that is, liberals plus pederasts. “Broke his fingers so he can’t write. Damn.” Rykov spent the rest of the day tweeting frequent, distraught updates on Kashin’s condition and trying to remember what Kashin could have possibly said to have this happen. Kashin, however wrong in their view, was still a member of their community, and a physical attack, especially one of such savageness, was simply beyond the pale.

“Oleg never wrote flatteringly about Nashi,” said Robert Shlegel, a federal commissar of the movement and a tech-savvy young Duma deputy. “He spoke rather harshly about us. We’ve known Oleg for many years, and he criticized us a lot, but no one ever spoke of attacking him ever, in any way.” Kashin did sometimes defend Nashi, and the group, Shlegel said, plans on asking the prosecutor general to solve this case quickly. Shlegel also agreed that this was not a random attack, that Kashin was singled out because he was a journalist. “Hooligans don’t deliberately break fingers,” he said. Sounding unusually morose and rattled, Shlegel sighed and added, “To be honest, I’m in total shock.”

It wasn’t just bloggers who responded with alarm and empathy. Vesti, the leading news program on Russian state TV, led with a report about Kashin. Nashi and Molodaya Gvardia issued statements condemning the attack, though the latter chose to post it on its website with photographs of Kashin hugging two skimpily clad girls. Medvedev, whose press secretary had been woken in the middle of the night with the news, announced — on his Twitter feed, of course — that he had asked the Interior Ministry and prosecutor’s office to take control of the case. “The criminals must be found and punished,” He wrote. (Medvedev has also called Usmanov, the paper’s owner, to offer help. Usmanov is said to be paying Kashin’s medical bills, including his eventual transfer out of the country for further treatment.) Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika was reported to be personally overseeing the case, and Kashin’s friends said that the entire police force seemed to be on the case, calling them in for questioning. (“I am now being interrogated by a woman in a gold Rolex,” Kashin’s ex-wife and fellow Kommersant reporter wrote on her Facebook wall.)

It is all a striking contrast to when journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in 2006. Then-President Vladimir Putin took days to respond. When he did, he said that “her influence over political life in Russia was minimal.” Today’s emphatic response was, perhaps, due to the fact that Kashin was not a fringe figure, like Politkovskaya. Or it could have been because Kashin works for Usmanov. But it was also a tacit acknowledgment of how bad the attack looks abroad — and at home, too, during a period of relative openness. The question now is whether or not the Kremlin will follow through with an arrest and a conviction to send a strong signal to a culture used to a breathtaking impunity in such matters.

“The question isn’t whether they’ll find who did it — in fact, they probably already have their pictures over at the precinct,” says Oleg Mitvol, who, until a few weeks ago, was a local prefect opposed to the Khimki road and spoke often to Kashin on the subject. “The question is who ordered the attack, and whether, once they’re found — given how high up they probably are — the government can tell society about them.” Mitvol recalled that, when one of his deputies was attacked, the main hit man was found dead. “That’s what will probably happen here, too,” he said. “Considering the massive public resonance of this case, the people who ordered it will try to get rid of the people who carried it out.”

The explanation for the attack on Kashin, however, is probably far more banal than all the conspiratorial chatter would suggest. Kashin was attacked during a holiday weekend that was once intended to celebrate the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, but is now called, inexplicably, National Unity Day. Every year, it is marked by the Russian March, a parade — easily granted by the authorities — of ultra-nationalists, skinheads, white supremacists, and other terrifying dregs. They’re generally not a peaceful, or a sober, group. Fetisov was beaten right after this year’s parade, Kashin a day later. Molodaya Gvardia may not have directly ordered the attack on Kashin, but its incendiary language, coupled with enough booze and nationalist celebratory spirit, may easily have pushed someone past the boundaries of mere talk.

Tellingly, toward Saturday evening, Moladaya Gvardia scrubbed the incendiary article about “journalist-traitors,” removing the pictures of journalists it had stamped with “WILL BE PUNISHED.” Atop the story, the movement added this statement: “Molodaya Gvardia is extremely outraged by the barbaric attack on journalist Kashin. There is civilized political struggle, and there is cold-blooded criminality. There are artistic images, and there is real life. We call on everyone to understand that.” It’s unclear what this hail-Mary addendum revealed: a craven need for self-protection, or, worse, an admission that the organization cannot control the nationalistic fires it ignites.

It’s common, when violence or death cleaves into the mundane, to remember the ordinary things that preceded the rupture. In retrospect, they can seem almost paranormal. Yesterday evening, before the thugs got to him, Kashin went to a dinner party at the home of his friend Max Avdeev, a photographer. He arrived around nine. “He certainly wasn’t expecting anything,” Avdeev told me. “He was in a cheerful mood.” On the way over, Kashin tripped on an exposed wire and scraped his knee. (“Fucking shit I busted my knee!” he tweeted.) Upstairs, in Avdeev’s apartment, just a few metro stops from Kashin’s, he complained that he was always unlucky.

Kashin left Avdeev’s around 11, apparently to meet a woman named Nastia, for whom the police are now searching. On the way there, he snapped a picture with his iPhone of a kiosk being demolished on the orders of the city’s new mayor. It was his last tweet before he lost consciousness a couple hours later.

The attack itself unfolded almost cinematically, something Kashin wouldn’t have failed to note, were he to write about it. He came home shortly after midnight to find two men waiting for him by the fence with a bouquet of flowers. Then they beat him with their fists and also with some metal objects. It was the yardman, witnessing this from the darkness, who called the ambulance.

Writing three days after journalist Anna Politkovskaya, laden with groceries, was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building, Kashin was skeptical of her role as a journalist — she was, he said, “a newsmaker” rather than a reporter. “‘But how can that be!’ the reader-romantic will exclaim,” Kashin opined. “‘She wrote the horrible truth about Chechnya, about Ramzan Kadyrov, about the feds [the federal forces in Chechnya]. One can be killed for the truth, and so they killed her for the truth.’ I am going to disappoint the reader-romantic: There is no horrible truth for which a journalist can be killed.”

Oleg Kashin’s Horrible Truth [FP]

What is Russia Today?

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

On Election Day 2008, two African-American men in black fatigues and berets stood outside a polling station in a predominantly black neighborhood of Philadelphia. They were members of the New Black Panther Party, which the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have labeled a hate group. One of the men wielded a police-style nightstick, and there were complaints about voter intimidation. Police eventually escorted the armed man away without incident, but the outgoing Bush administration filed a civil suit against the party alleging violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In May 2009, against the advice of prosecutors who had worked on the case, President Obama’s Justice Department dropped the suit, a move that caused barely a ripple in the press at the time. The case came back to life in July, though, when a former Justice Department lawyer testified before the Commission on Civil Rights that the case was dropped because the Justice Department did not want to protect the civil rights of white people.

Fox News began to air allegations of an anti-white bias at the Obama Justice Department. But almost no one else reported on the case—it was old, tenuous, and even a prominent conservative commenter called it “small potatoes.” One outlet that did pick up the story, however, was Russia Today, a fairly new and still mostly obscure English-language cable news channel funded by the Russian government.

Russia Today was conceived as a soft-power tool to improve Russia’s image abroad, to counter the anti-Russian bias the Kremlin saw in the Western media. Since its founding in 2005, however, the broadcast outlet has become better known as an extension of former President Vladimir Putin’s confrontational foreign policy. Too often the channel was provocative just for the sake of being provocative. It featured fringe-dwelling “experts,” like the Russian historian who predicted the imminent dissolution of the United States; broadcast bombastic speeches by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez; aired ads conflating Barack Obama with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and ran out-of-nowhere reports on the homeless in America. Often, it seemed that Russia Today was just a way to stick it to the U.S. from behind the façade of legitimate newsgathering.

So it was fairly unremarkable when Russia Today, in a July 8 segment called “Fox News stirring up racial fears in America,” interviewed the chairman of the New Black Panther Party, Dr. Malik Zulu Shabazz, who lambasted Republicans for playing on people’s fears in an effort to dominate the fall midterm elections.

But then Russia Today did something out of character. When Fox’s Glenn Beck attacked the segment, asking why Russian state-run TV was suddenly “in lock-step” with the Obama administration, Russia Today fired back in a way that was puzzling to anyone familiar with the channel. On July 9, Alyona Minkovski, who hosts a daily program called The Alyona Show, laid into Beck—“the doughboy nut job from Fox News”—with patriotic American fervor: “I get to ask all the questions that the American people want answered about their own country because I care about this country and I don’t work for a corporate-owned media organization,” she said, her voice rising.

Fox …you hate Americans. Glenn Beck, you hate Americans. Because you lie to them, you scare them, you try to warp their minds. You tell them that we’re becoming some socialist country…. You’re not on the side of America. And the fact that my channel is more honest with the American people is something you should be ashamed of.
Huh? Forget the Obama administration, since when does Russia Today defend the policies of any American president? Or the informational needs of the American public, for that matter? Like many of RT’s journalists, Minkovksi is a Russian immigrant, born in Moscow, raised and educated in the West, and hired by the network for her fluency in both English and Russian—she is someone who could be both Russia’s ambassador to the West as well as its Sherpa into the Western mind. But her tirade against Fox offers a glimpse into the mind of a changing Russia Today.

On April 25, 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin went on national television and told his nation that the destruction of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” He meant that the union’s dissolution had ushered in years of sinusoidal financial crises, but also that he mourned the passing glory of a great empire he had once served as a lieutenant colonel in the KGB. In the speech, Putin also expressed his hope that Russia would become a “free and democratic country,” but at its own pace. “Russia will decide for itself the pace, terms, and conditions of moving towards democracy,” he said, laying the foundation for a political creed that would become known as “sovereign democracy.” It is a phrase that became shorthand for what the West called Russia’s “resurgence,” and what Russia called its independence of an externally imposed Western morality.

Putin could do this because in 2005 things were going well. Oil prices were rising—they had more than doubled since he became president in 2000—and the Russian people were increasingly behind him and his brand of paternalistic nationalism. But with the return of Russia’s pride, so wounded during the first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Kremlin’s reputation suffered as Western and domestic critics attacked Putin for the steady degradation of democracy on his watch. Gubernatorial elections were eliminated, potential rivals—oligarchs like media king Vladimir Gusinsky and oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky—were either driven from the country or unceremoniously locked up. Unsympathetic journalists were turning up dead.

Just over a month after the speech, the Kremlin announced the solution to its image problem. It would not change its defiant rhetoric of exceptionalism. Instead, it would launch a new international television channel that explained its actions—and its terms—to the rest of the world. It would be in English and would broadcast twenty-four hours a day.

Though the project had roots in the cold war-era “Radio Moscow,” which beamed news from the Soviet Union around the world, it is better explained by Putin’s obsession with television. As a child of the post-World War II generation, Putin, like his Western counterparts, was raised on it. As president, he took tapes of the day’s news broadcasts home to watch and analyze how he was covered. To Putin, television was the only way to get his message across while retaining full control of that message. One of his first moves as president was to force out the oligarchs running the independent television stations and bring their channels under state ownership—and censorship. Soon, the heads of television stations were meeting every Friday with Vladislav Surkov, Putin’s chief political strategist, to set the agenda for the coming week. The instincts of self-censorship took care of the rest.

But even with internal critics effectively marginalized, the external enemies remained. Moreover, they were the same ones who sat in their air-conditioned Washington think tanks and applauded the series of revolutions that replaced Russia-friendly rulers in the former Soviet territories with pro-Western leaders who wanted to do things like join NATO, which Russia considers its biggest military threat to this day.

On June 7, 2005, Margarita Simonyan held a press conference in which she announced the creation of Russia Today. “It will be a perspective on the world from Russia,” she told reporters. “Many foreigners are surprised to see that Russia is different from what they see in media reports. We will try to present a more balanced picture.”

The new channel would be nonprofit and run out of the headquarters of RIA Novosti, the state news agency. Despite having a large degree of autonomy, it would ultimately answer directly to its funder, the Kremlin. Simonyan, who was hired to run the news outlet, had just turned twenty-five. “Of course, I was nervous,” she wrote in response to questions from cjr. “It’s a tremendous responsibility.”

Simonyan’s story is in many ways typical of a young person in Moscow today. An ethnic Armenian born in Krasnodar, the southern Russian region abutting the breakaway Georgian region of Abkhazia, Simonyan comes from a blue-collar family. Her father was a refrigerator repairman, her mother stayed at home. “My parents have nothing to do with television,” Simonyan says. “Yet, even before I went to school, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I didn’t even understand fully what the word meant.”

Like many of her generation, Simonyan started her career at a young age. After doing stories for the local newspaper, she was hired at eighteen to work at a local television station while studying journalism full-time at nearby Kuban University. This arrangement, repeated by students across the country who have any amount of ambition, is especially common in fields that did not exist in the Soviet era, like advertising, finance, and media, in which there is still a huge personnel vacuum. Moreover, these are fields for which Russian universities, still not fully up to speed, cannot adequately prepare them. Many of these ambitious “provincials” eventually come to Moscow, where as hungry outsiders they quickly outpace their less-driven Muscovite peers.

By 2004, then, twenty-four-year-old Simonyan was already in Moscow and working as a correspondent in the Kremlin press pool for Rossiya, the number two state television network with an audience of 50 million. To be picked for the Kremlin press pool is an honor but also a sign of trustworthiness. The pool is a place for the most loyal of the loyalists. To be assigned to cover the Russian president, especially for television, a reporter has to be absolutely reliable in his docility, and in his ability to ask softball questions. A year later, RIA Novosti tapped Simonyan to head Russia Today.

After three months of around-the-clock rehearsal, Russia Today went live on December 10, 2005. The format, which has changed little in five years, began with a half-hour news block at the top of the hour, followed by features—culture, sports, business—in the bottom half. Three satellites beamed stories to Europe and the United States. Mostly, it was news about Russia, but there also were frequent reports about how badly the war in Iraq was going for George W. Bush, or how deeply Ukrainians and Georgians regretted their revolutions. There also were the more extreme features that would come to define Russia Today in the West, such as the prophesies of fringe authors who predicted a 55 percent chance of civil war and the dissolution of the United States into six distinct territories by July 2010.

From the start, Simonyan presided over a staff that wasn’t much older than she was, and today the network still has the feel of a high school newspaper with more money and considerably higher stakes. “We look for young people and educate them on the job,” says twenty-nine-year-old Irakly Gachechiladze, Russia Today’s news director. Native-level English is a must for presenters (in high school, Simonyan spent a year on an exchange program in Bristol, New Hampshire), and early on the network had a predilection for posh British accents. Brits made up the vast majority of the initial seventy-two foreigners RT recruited, through advertisements in The Guardian and other British papers.

Most of the foreigners were quite green. They were typically just out of one-year journalism graduate programs and had little practical experience. They were aggressively wooed, with a package that included health insurance, free housing, and hands-on experience that would have been impossible with the entry-level jobs available to them at home. And the money was good; foreign hires with little to no experience were paid in the low six figures for working five days out of every fourteen.

For many, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “They put me in a correspondent shift right away,” says one former Russia Today presenter whose contract did not allow her to speak on the record. “Within the first week, I was sent to several locations in Russia. I had just graduated with a master’s in journalism and I was super eager to get my feet wet.” It was an exciting place to work. “There were lots of young people,” the former staffer says. “The mood was very eager, very fun. It had a real start-up feel to it.”

But despite the network’s favored status at home, Russia Today attracted little attention abroad, where it had to compete with behemoths like BBC and Al Jazeera, whose budgets dwarfed RT’s. (The channel’s budget was just $30 million the first year, but it grew in subsequent years before taking a hit during the global economic crisis that began in 2008. RT officials won’t provide specifics on the current budget, but the Kremlin has announced that it intends to spend $1.4 billion this year on international propaganda.) Beyond its budgetary limitations, there are the strictures of loosely defined Kremlin dogma. “On one hand, Russia Today is supposed to compete with Xinhua and Al Jazeera,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. “On the other hand, it has to show a positive image of Russia, and, if you’re competing with Al Jazeera, this second function gets in the way.” In other words, to compete in the global news arena, even against outlets with a clear point of view, you need to be taken seriously.

“We got it right. We are the only ones who got it right,” says Peter Lavelle, the host of CrossTalk, RT’s version of Crossfire. “For months, we had been covering the border, and the day Saakashvili started the war the world woke up.”

Lavelle is sitting on a shaded bench in the courtyard of the RIA headquarters, smoking a Camel as some colleagues play ping-pong and bounce on a trampoline behind him. Hired by Russia Today in 2005, Lavelle spent over a decade living in Poland before moving to Russia in 1997. “I didn’t like it at first, it was a mess,” he says. But he stayed, becoming a vocal defender of Russia against critics around the world. He hasn’t been to the U.S. since 2001 because, he says, “I have had no reason.”

In the courtyard, Lavelle is talking about the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. When the fighting started, the Russian military and foreign ministry closed ranks and, drawing on lessons from the second Chechen war, barred foreign reporters from entering the war zone. Commentary from Russian government sources was sparse. Meanwhile, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was ubiquitous, finding time to speak to every Western press outlet (his personal mobile number was widely circulated among journalists) and even to hold a joint press conference with then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The result was Western coverage that portrayed the Russians as autocratic aggressors against a weak, democratic Georgia. For the Russians, who insist that the Georgians fired the opening salvo, it was precisely the kind of anti-Russian reporting by the world’s press that Russia Today was created to counteract. A European Union report, issued more than a year after the war ended, lent some credence to the Russian complaint, stating that, while the Russians went too far in their response, the Georgians had “started an unjustified war.” By that point, though, the world’s attention had shifted elsewhere and the Russians’ sense of injustice remained.

The Ossetian War, as it’s known here, was Russia Today’s crucible. Especially in the first days of the conflict, when information was patchy and unreliable. RT became exactly what it set out to be: a source of information for the West about what the Russian position actually was. Moreover, it was the only press outlet available to a Western audience that had access to the Russian side of the fighting. The numbers reflected this advantage. According to RT, viewership reached almost 15 million and views of RT broadcasts on YouTube quickly clicked past the one million mark. To this day, RT sees the war as the event that best showcased its abilities as a news organization, and that made it a recognizable brand in the West.

But RT’s war coverage was at least as shrill and one-sided as anything the Western press produced. And this, according to people who worked for RT at the time, was a conscious choice. “RT sees it as a triumph, but RT went into a war. It was a P.R. war,” says another former RT correspondent who spoke on condition of anonymity. (Staff members were recently compelled to sign papers that barred them from speaking to the press.) “We were told, ‘Look at CNN, look at BBC. They’ve already taken a bias and we have the right to do the same.’ There was no room for questioning, for doubt.”

Russia Today correspondents in Ossetia found that much of their information was being fed to them from Moscow, whether it corresponded to what they saw on the ground or not. Reporters who tried to broadcast anything outside the boundaries that Moscow had carefully delineated were punished. William Dunbar, a young RT correspondent in Georgia, did a phone interview with the Moscow studio in which he mentioned that he was hearing unconfirmed reports that Russia had bombed undisputed Georgian territory. After the interview, he “rushed to the studio to do a live update via satellite,” he says. “I had been told I would be doing live updates every hour that day. I got a call from the newsroom telling me the live updates had been cancelled. They said, ‘We don’t need you, go home.’ ” Another correspondent, whose reporting departed from the Kremlin line that Georgians were slaughtering unarmed Ossetians, was summoned to the office of the deputy editor in chief in Moscow, where they went over the segment’s script line by line. “He had a gun on his desk,” the correspondent says. Even those who were not reprimanded—and were otherwise believers in RT’s mission—were uncomfortable with the heavy-handed message control. Irakly Gachechiladze, an ethnic Georgian born in Moscow, had recently been appointed news director when the war began. Despite his staunch loyalty to the channel’s official line, he says he was uneasy. “It was not a happy time, obviously,” he told me when we met in his office. It was the biggest story anyone there had ever covered, but Gachechiladze politely bowed out. “I packed for the vacation that I had planned a long time in advance, and I left. When I came back, the war was over.”

Sophie Shevardnadze, the daughter of Georgia’s second president who has a political interview show on RT, took a leave of absence rather than report negatively about her fellow Georgians. “I didn’t go to work for three and a half months,” she says. “I took unpaid leave and I wasn’t even sure if I was going back.” The leave was, she says, her editors’ proposal. “I had to be on air on the ninth”—the third day of the fighting—“and they called me and they were like, you don’t have to do that.”

This kind of message control, though rare and targeted to highly sensitive issues, is not exclusive to coverage of the war. The trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon and Putin rival, is another example. When an RT reporter took a more balanced approach to covering the trial than RT’s previous dispatches, Gachechiladze told the reporter that he was “not playing for the team.” “He asked me, ‘Why are you still working for this channel?’ ” the reporter told me. (RT officials deny that this exchange took place.) Another correspondent who pitched a story about the aids epidemic in Russia—a taboo topic here—was told it was not a “nice” story and was sent to cover a flower show instead.

Usually, though, the Kremlin line is enforced the way it is everywhere else in Russian television: by the reporters and editors themselves. “There is no censorship per se,” says another RT reporter. “But there are a lot of young people at the channel, a lot of self-starters who are eager to please the management. You can easily guess what the Kremlin wants the world to know, so you change your coverage.”

Another criticism often leveled at RT is that in striving to bring the West an alternate point of view, it is forced to talk to marginal, offensive, and often irrelevant figures who can take positions bordering on the absurd. In March, for instance, RT dedicated a twelve-minute interview to Hank Albarelli, a self-described American “historian” who claims that the CIA is testing dangerous drugs on unwitting civilians. After an earthquake ravaged Haiti earlier this year, RT turned for commentary to Carl Dix, a representative of the American Revolutionary Communist Party, who appeared on air wearing a Mao cap. On a recent episode of Peter Lavelle’s CrossTalk, the guests themselves berated Lavelle for saying that the 9/11 terrorists were not fundamentalists. (The “Truther” claim that 9/11 was an inside job makes a frequent appearance on the channel, though Putin was the first to phone in his condolences to President Bush in 2001.) “I like being counterintuitive,” Lavelle told me. “Being mainstream has been very dangerous for the West.”

This oppositional point of view was especially clear when RT rolled out a series of ads in the U.K. that featured images of Obama and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asked, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?” or conflated pictures of a polar bear and an alien next to the text: “Climate Change: Science fact or science fiction?” (U.S. airports banned the ads until RT devised more politically correct versions; the original ads, meanwhile, won awards in the U.S. and the U.K.)

Coverage and stunts like these have given RT a bad reputation, especially among other Western journalists working in Russia who see RT not as journalism from the other side’s trenches, but as nothing more than Kremlin propaganda. Lavelle sneers at what he sees as supreme naiveté. “The paymaster determines a lot,” he says. “Are you telling me Murdoch doesn’t control the editorial line of his publications? No one can escape who pays for what.” He says he avoids contact with his Western colleagues in Moscow, who are, in turn, supremely contemptuous of most anyone who works for RT. “I am proud of my work,” Lavelle told me defiantly.

The younger members of the RT staff, however, are more pragmatic about the potential conflict—whether internal, ideological, or, down the line, professional—of working for RT. The ones who felt it compromised their careers have left; the rest choose to remove lofty ideals like objectivity from the equation. “Maybe people watch us like a freak show,” Shevardnadze told me, “but I’ve never been even slightly embarrassed. This point of view has a right to exist. We don’t have the pretension of being like CNN, or being as good as bbc, because we’re not. You may totally disagree with what we’re doing, and it’s meant to be that way.” She adds, with a touch of exasperation, “It’s a job. They pay you for it.”

In planning an elaborate and expensive image campaign, the Kremlin did not count on a global economic meltdown. A month after the war in Georgia, after a summer of dizzying oil prices, everything fell apart. Russia was among the worst hit of the G20 nations, and its GDP went from an 8.1 percent annual growth rate in 2007 to negative 7.9 percent in 2009. The price of oil plummeted, as did the prices of other commodities, such as nickel, aluminum, and steel—segments that funded two-thirds of the Russian federal budget. The crisis came as a massive shock to the Kremlin, and a group of liberals inside the administration of Putin’s successor Dmitry Medvedev began to push for economic diversification away from dependence on volatile natural resources. But this meant deep budget cuts—including for RT—and, simultaneously, heavy investment in infrastructure, education, and start-ups, all at a time when the Kremlin was suddenly strapped for cash, its reserves significantly depleted after providing industry with a massive bailout.

To fill those gaps, Russia had to woo back international investors who ran for the hills when the fighting broke out in Ossetia. They had to be shown not a resurgent Russia with Soviet overtones, as RT portrayed it, but a reasonable, modern country that behaves rationally. It was, above all, a sales pitch, and a recognition that Russia’s conversation with the world was a dialogue, not a monologue.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, bearing an olive branch from the new administration in the form of a large, red “reset” button, could not have shown up at a better time (even if the Americans used the wrong Russian word for “reset,” touching off a gleeful round of mockery in the local press). It was March 2009, less than two months after Barack Obama had been sworn into office, promising a different approach toward Russia, one based not on lectures but dialogue. This was an ideal opportunity for the Kremlin: the United States had come to it before it had to go begging. Which is why, after some obligatory chest pounding and naysaying, Moscow began to respond to Washington’s overtures, cooperating on initiatives like renewing the start treaty and backing the U.S. on new sanctions against Iran.

Russia Today’s coverage has closely mirrored this shift. It has become more international and less anti-American (there are fewer stories about America’s social ills, for instance). It even abruptly changed its logo from Russia Today to the less binding “RT,” and built a state-of-the-art studio and newsroom in Washington, D.C. From there it beams original content about American politics and society under its new, more journalistic “Question More” banner. Most significantly, coverage of big Russian-American issues hews closely to the Kremlin’s new tone. This was evident in the treatment of the recent spy scandal. “We focused on why it is such a big media campaign, we brought on experts to talk about why and how spying happens,” says Gachechiladze, the news director. “We talked about the invisible ink. There are a lot of very colorful details. It was a classic spy story.” No outrage at the arrest and deportation of Russian citizens, no incredulity at the accusations that Russia was spying on the U.S., just the colorful details, as if the biggest spy swap since the cold war was nothing more than a Hollywood blockbuster. Which, of course, is exactly how Moscow and Washington wanted it.

Simonyan, however, insists that nothing’s changed: “Our goal is still to provide unbiased information about Russia to the rest of the world, to report about our country.”

But something has changed, and it is explained not only by the Russo-American détente, but also by the fact that RT’s ambitions have grown. It now boasts a staff of 2,000, wider distribution than ever, and channels in Arabic and Spanish. It has learned to pitch the Kremlin’s line in a more subtle way. RT is also evincing a certain confidence these days. It has shed much of its foreign staff, and newsroom meetings are now conducted in Russian. There are hints of a broader, if uneven, move toward seriousness and professionalism.

Clearly, the Russia-U.S. “reset” is a game-changer for Russia Today, a fact that was aptly expressed in Alyona Minkovski’s diatribe against Glenn Beck. The mission of broadcasting Russia’s line to the world was always reminiscent of the old Brezhnev-era foreign policy, when the Soviet Union projected influence either in places America had overlooked, or where America was hated. In other words, it often wasn’t about the Soviet Union at all, just as this new effort to project influence isn’t necessarily about Russia. Both were about using a common enemy to deflect attention from Russia’s own problems, and to gain leverage abroad. This can be effective, until you talk your way into a corner. Now that America is no longer necessarily the enemy, this is exactly what has happened.

For Russia Today—for RT—it raises a pressing question: is there even a point anymore? Increasingly, it is hard to watch RT and not get the sense that the people making the decisions are wrestling with that very question. Even though Russia’s relationship with the U.S. will surely have its ups and downs in the coming years, it’s unlikely there will be a need for the kind of shrill propaganda outlet that RT has been. So, then, who is RT’s target audience? Unlike the Chinese international networks that are tapping into the burgeoning business interest in China, as well as into a large Chinese diaspora, or Al Jazeera, which broadcasts to a broader Islamic universe, Russia can claim neither of these footholds. On the contrary, Russia is still desperately trying to fend off stereotypes of itself—the endemic corruption, the whimsical autocracy of the state—that have kept much foreign capital, and many Russian émigrés, from returning.

But here is the most fundamental problem with Russia’s clever attempt to flex its soft power: the Soviet period excepted, Russia has traditionally been a country that has made itself a player on the world stage by insisting on its own importance. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was no ideology to propagate. There is no Islam, no Chinese Communism, no beacon of democracy, no Coca-Cola or MTV to smooth the way for political influence. And in terms of cultural influence, Russia has a mixed bag. Despite its rich and broad cultural contribution (Nabokov, the Bolshoi, Stanislavsky), Russia balks at, and actively fights, other key aspects of its culture: the vodka, the winter, the women. When there’s nothing for the propaganda channel to propagate, RT’s message becomes a slightly schizophrenic, ad hoc effort to push back against what comes out of the West. And if there’s nothing to push back against, other than the ghosts of a bygone era, then what, really, is left to say that others aren’t already saying, and saying better? 

What is Russia Today? [CJR]

Laughter at the Kremlin

Tuesday, June 29th, 2010

Boris Reznik, a parliamentarian from Russia’s ruling party, has a take on the spy saga now unfolding in the U.S.: “Why are you causing this scandal?” he says, chuckling. “Watch out, or we’ll arrest all your spies here in Moscow! You guys have more of them here.”

Aside from the unfortunate timing of the event—coming just on the heels of Dmitry Medvedev’s honeymoon in the U.S. and at the G-8 summit—the roundup of the supposed Russian spy ring, known as The Illegals, has become some kind of strange American joke in Moscow. “It’s kind of unclear, and kind of stupid, and looks a bit like what we had here with that rock,” says Putin’s former chief of staff, the longtime Kremlin player Alexander Voloshin. He, too, laughs at the mention of the alleged spies. The rock he refers to is the 2006 incident when the Russian security services accused the British of using a rock to spy on them in Moscow. “It has about the same flavor,” Voloshin says, still trying to shake the giggles.

Sure, Russian officials have expressed hurt at the timing: Couldn’t they have waited a few months, you know, for the afterglow to pass after the high-level burger summit? And, behaving not unlike a woman scorned, Russians wonder: Who is trying to break America and us up?

But mostly the tale of The Illegals is seen as some kind of joke. The foreign ministry has issued just one statement; the Duma has asked for clarification, but that’s it, as far as seriousness goes. The president is mum. And the prime minister, a man who in his days as president would surely have lashed out with salty words—and, perhaps, a snot metaphor—is mute, as are his loyal security services. No one is making a move to kick out American representatives or arrest any American spies—or, indeed, the foreign journalists working in Moscow, who, in trying to discover policy outlines on the START treaty by talking to think tank experts, are doing pretty much what these supposed Russian spies did.

At a meeting with former President Bill Clinton on Tuesday, Vladimir V. Putin, the prime minister and a former spy himself, said, “Your police have gotten carried away, putting people in jail.” But he played down the episode: “I really expect that the positive achievements that have been made in our intergovernmental relations lately will not be damaged by the latest events.”

And no one is assailing the Obama administration or America as a whole, accusing it, as they would have during the Bush days, of trying to humiliate or vilify Russia. “The reaction has been minimal,” says Sergey Markov, a Duma deputy who chairs parliament’s council on global politics. “We’re trying not to spoil the relationship, to minimize the damage.”

Instead, the Russians, as is their wont, see a conspiracy. “America is a well-thought-out country,” one political aide told me. “It doesn’t do anything ‘just because.’ So if there is a huge uproar, why do they need it? And I think that you need to look not outside, but inside.”

In other words, Russia has nothing to do with this. The supposed spies, apparently, are an American domestic matter.

“The White House has lost control,” military analyst Evgeny Khrushchev told Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed news channel. “Beltway bandits have regained the initiative. Conservatives are hijacking the agenda. They are actively against resetting relations with Russia.”

Another theory is that this is an American military insurrection. “This is a protest of sorts,” Markov theorized. “It’s the military establishment’s démarche against Obama. If McChrystal, who is a serious general, accused him of unprofessionalism, it’s probably not only McChrystal who thinks this—that he is unprofessional and a pacifist.”

Or, some speculate, the unlikely tale is a product of overzealous U.S. intelligence. “Our intelligence services love distractions, your intelligence services love distractions,” Reznik told me, preferring, like many Russians, to see America as similar to Russia only with a better haircut. “If they don’t have work, they make work.” (Given the timeline of the FBI surveillance of The Illegals, this could be a byproduct of the snooping boom brought about by the War on Terror.)

Of course, no one is denying that there are Russian spies operating in America. “How do you not spy on Bush if he’s the most powerful man on the planet, and he periodically consults with God?” scoffed Markov, the Duma deputy.

So if spies in America and spies in Russia are a given, say the Russians, this whole mess is not about Russia in the slightest.

The utterly bizarre complaint filed in a Manhattan federal court doesn’t dispel that notion, and might offer hints why Russians wouldn’t rush to claim these particular spies.

First of all, there is a spy ring that is tasked with gleaning “information on the U.S. position with respect to a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty”… from New Jersey. Federal agents describe two operatives who can barely use their computers, and talk with awe of a super high-tech, state-of-the-art communication device known as the WiFi. Invisible ink makes an appearance in the complaint as does Morse Code, which, of course, is pretty uncrackable. And then there are the spies who bury cash in an open field and pass sensitive (think tank?) data to each other publicly… in bright orange bags. Not to mention the awkward Mata Hari, Anna Chapman, who buys a temporary Verizon phone using a fake name and the fake address at “99 Fake Street.”

Russians note that this motley crew hasn’t even been charged with spying. Instead, they stand accused of failing to register as foreign agents (maximum sentence five years) and money laundering (which could carry 20). And reading this complaint, it seems much more likely that a rogue element in the Russian secret service needed to launder some stolen cash and stumbled on some starry-eyed American suburban yokels and asked: “Hey, wanna be a spy?”

The American press is loudly invoking the late Le Carré. But to the Russians, it feels a lot more like Pink Panther. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that these spies are as real as Saddam’s atomic bomb,” Markov says, once again laughing.

Laughter at the Kremlin [The Daily Beast]

Roulette Russian

Monday, May 17th, 2010

Andrey Ternovskiy, an eighteen-year-old high-school dropout from Moscow, has a variety of explanations for why he created the Web site Chatroulette.com. According to one story, he got bored talking to people he already knew on Skype; according to another, it was a fund-raising ploy for a bike trip from Moscow to Amsterdam. The most reliable version, however, centers on a shop called Russian Souvenirs. It is an upscale outfit owned by Ternovskiy’s uncle Sasha, who hired his nephew to work there as a salesman during the summer of 2008, five days a week, eleven hours a day. Ternovskiy was supposed to show foreign tourists around the shop, pulling various nesting dolls, lacquered boxes, and kitschy Soviet paraphernalia from the bright vitrines. The job was easy but exhilarating.

“I was really excited to work there, because I met, like, hundreds of different nations in a day,” Ternovskiy said recently at a coffee shop near his mother’s apartment, in the far reaches of northwestern Moscow. He is thin and nervous, with light sprays of acne on his cheeks and a fuzz of dark-blond hair. He has a hard time making eye contact and learned English by spending thousands of hours chatting online, but he says that his passion is talking with people and “exploring other cultures.”

Selling souvenirs to foreign tourists was an ideal job for Ternovskiy. He worked tirelessly, and began to learn German, Spanish, Italian, French, and even some Turkish. He memorized the numbers and some key phrases. By the second week, he could size up a customer’s nationality and address him in his own tongue. He didn’t, however, take quite as well to the business side of things. He would talk and joke with the tourists, but he didn’t push them to buy anything. If someone asked for a discount, he happily obliged. This rankled his uncle, but Ternovskiy didn’t see the problem. “I couldn’t just make people pay the money,” he says, laughing. “I just couldn’t feel the value of the money.” He was fired within a month.

The following summer, Ternovskiy holed up at home and began to toy with the code for a new site that would re-create the atmosphere of the store. It took him three days to construct a basic version. A few months later, it was one of the most talked-about social-networking sites in the world.
The idea is simple. When you log on to Chatroulette.com, you see a sparse white window with two boxes. One box shows your own image, courtesy of your Webcam; the other is for the face of what the site calls, somewhat ambiguously, a “partner.” When Partner appears, you can stay and talk using your voice or your keyboard, or you can click “Next,” which whips you on to someone new. The point is to introduce you to people you’d never otherwise meet and will never see again—the dancing Korean girls, the leopard-printed Catman, the naked man in Gdansk.

More than a million people, most of them from the United States, clog Chatroulette’s servers daily. To “next” someone has become a common transitive verb. Catman is an Internet celebrity, as is Merton the improvising pianist. Brooklyn bars throw Chatroulette parties, an indie band has used the site to début an album, and the Texas attorney general has warned parents to keep their children far, far away. Hundreds of articles and blog posts have asked whether Chatroulette is a fad or a good investment, and if it will change Internet culture forever. “The Daily Show” ’s Jon Stewart attempted to take his pants off for the NBC anchor Brian Williams while Chatrouletting on the air.
visit to Chatroulette usually begins with a few rushed clicks of the “Next” button, either out of a sense of danger—do you really want to engage with that empty-eyed guy lounging in bed?—or out of curiosity about what’s around the corner. The site can be especially hard on men. The majority of Chatroulette users are male and under thirty-five, and many of them are trolling for girls, so they “next” each other at barbaric rates. When you do decide to stop and engage, things can get a little awkward. On one of my first Chatrouletting attempts, I found myself talking to a man from Lyons, who had muted the sound. We watched each other typing and reacting to the words that scrolled next to our images, co-stars in a postmodern silent film.

There are some unsavory things on Chatroulette: copulating couples, masturbators, a man who has hanged himself (it’s fake). When the actor Ashton Kutcher was in Moscow in February, as part of a U.S. State Department technology delegation, he berated Ternovskiy for what his stepdaughter had seen on the site. “You’ve got to clean this up!” he said. (Within twenty-four hours, Ternovskiy made it vastly easier for the site to cut off offensive users.) But the YouTube videos that people have recorded of their trips through the Chatroulette vortex also show a lot of joy. There is, for example, the video of the dancing banana, crudely drawn on lined paper, exhorting people to “Dance or gtfo!” (Dance or get the fuck out.) The banana’s partners usually respond with wiggling delight. There’s also something liberating in the protection that the “Next” button provides. Striking up a conversation with the person next to you on the subway is risky, and potentially time-consuming. On Chatroulette you can always just disappear.

“People are, from a gut, instinctual level, so interested in finding each other. You see the lonely in people,” says Scott Heiferman, the founder of Meetup, a site that facilitates in-person meetings for people with common interests. His site is the antithesis of Chatroulette, yet he finds something deeply compelling in the idea of a blank screen, behind which lies a crowd of strangers waiting to talk to you. “It’s really strange,” Heiferman says. “I have employees I’ve never had a conversation with, but there I am sitting in my office, dicking around with Chatroulette.”

The technology behind Chatroulette is fairly basic and not particularly new. But by combining video-chatting technology and randomization Ternovskiy has bucked a decade-long trend that has made the Internet feel progressively more organized, pleasant, and safe. Google (founded in 1998) makes sure you pull up less flotsam when you search. Social networks like Friendster (2002), MySpace (2003), and Facebook (2004) let you stay in touch with a network of people you already know. Privacy settings keep out the ones you don’t. Twitter (2006) feeds you information from sources you choose to follow. Now Chatroulette has come along and showed us that we want chaos, too.

The best way to talk to Ternovskiy is through some kind of digital intermediary. Shy and evasive in person, he fills with a wry swagger when he is just a stream of text. “They have no business no money blablablabla,” he typed to me one afternoon, feigning phlegmatic unconcern with the financial woes of an advertiser he’d been negotiating with—his only one. Like much of his generation, Ternovskiy has an online persona far more developed than his real one.

He was born on April 22, 1992, less than four months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and grew up in a tidy apartment in a typically dingy Moscow high-rise. His mother, Elena, is a talented mathematician who works on differential equations at the élite Moscow State University. His father, Vladimir, is an associate professor of mathematics at the same university, and dabbles in cybernetics. Their household was loving but turbulent. The couple fought and frequently separated, and Vladimir started a parallel family, an issue that was never openly discussed. (“It’s a little game we play,” Elena said of the arrangement.) Andrey retreated to his room, where, thanks to Vladimir’s belief that “the future would have something to do with computers,” there was always a machine, as up to date as the family could afford. Vladimir invested great effort in Andrey’s upbringing, engaging a Chinese tutor, a weight-lifting coach, and a chess teacher. But most of Andrey’s learning occurred alone, with his computer. He started with games, usually of the reality-simulating variety. By fourth grade, he was writing code.

Like many young Russians with programming skills, Ternovskiy turned to hacking. When he was eleven, he came upon zloy.org (which translates as angry.org), a hacker forum led by a young man named Sergey (a.k.a. Terminator), who trained his followers in cyber warfare. Using the handle Flashboy, Ternovskiy soon mastered the art of the denial-of-service attack, wherein a target system is paralyzed by a mass of incoming communication requests. Next came Web-site and e-mail hacking, a service he gladly performed for girls who asked nicely. By 2007, at the age of fifteen, Ternovskiy had learned about what hackers call “social engineering”—getting what one wants through deceit or manipulation. Posing as a teacher, Ternovskiy got access to some practice tests before they were delivered to his school.

As Ternovskiy spent more and more time on the computer, his grades tumbled. Vladimir, concerned by his son’s academic languor, hired a graduate student as a math tutor. But Ternovskiy was often late to the sessions, and, worse, he seemed either unable or unwilling to solve the most basic problems. “I just don’t understand how someone can code and have such big blank spots in math,” the tutor, Fedor Puchkov, said. He soon realized, however, that, despite Ternovskiy’s inability to crack simple problems, the more unusual and visual the problem the more elegant Ternovskiy’s answer. Two robots parachute onto an infinite checkered strip; how do you make them track each other down? “Andrey found the optimal solution,” Puchkov said. How do you cut a square into convex pentagons? “Here’s how Andrey solved it,” Puchkov said, and sketched a square with two abutting pentagons in the center and lines radiating out cleanly to the perimeter. It was the simplest solution—and Ternovskiy had come to it far more quickly than Puchkov had.

“I don’t know,” Ternovskiy says of the way he thinks. “I quickly get the scheme of how it should work in my head. I just write out the remaining details, and that’s all the work. It’s probably weird.” Puchkov’s explanation is “He’s not stupid—he’s lazy.”

The math sessions with Puchkov had no impact on Ternovskiy’s classroom performance. The deputy chief of security at his school has a thick file on Ternovskiy’s delinquencies, including chronic truancy and correcting the English of his English teacher. His mother recently tried to make peace with the school authorities, but they waved her off, dismissing Ternovskiy as an unwelcome “millionaire.” Ternovskiy, meanwhile, sees school—and college—as a waste of time. “The last three years at school, I haven’t done anything,” he says. “I just can’t make myself. There’s so much interesting stuff in the world, and I have to sit there with textbooks?”

By “the world,” of course, Ternovskiy means the Internet, which is also where most of his friends are. His closest confidant is a Russian immigrant named Kirill Gura, who lives in Charleston, West Virginia. Every night for the past five years, Ternovskiy has turned on his computer, found Kirill on MSN Messenger, and talked to him until one of them fell asleep. “He’s a real friend,” Ternovskiy says.
Sitting in his carefully engineered workspace—a comfortable chair and two giant monitors placed at the precise distance that Wikipedia says prevents eyestrain and a humped posture—Ternovskiy says that he sees the computer as “one hundred per cent my window into the world.” He doesn’t seek much else. “I always believed that computer might be that thing that I only need, that I only need that thing to survive,” he says. “It might replace everything.”

hatroulette.com was originally called Head-to-Head.org, and it came online on August 2, 2009. Ternovskiy’s friends didn’t like it, so he advertised on Web forums. Users trickled in, but the site had glitches, and the name seemed off. So on November 16th, having recently watched the Russian-roulette scene in “The Deer Hunter,” Ternovskiy bought the domain name Chatroulette.com, for seven dollars, and revamped the code. The site took off when a Brazilian soccer fan posted a notice inviting kindred spirits to mill around and talk about the sport. Hundreds of them showed up—at their peak, they constituted half of Chatroulette users—but they didn’t talk about soccer; instead, they took off their clothes.

During the next few months, Ternovskiy introduced an array of features, most of which missed the mark: one-on-one chats in “rooms” organized by subject (this was done away with because users kept encountering the same people) and a short-lived bulletin board called Lost & Found, which quickly filled up with men whose hearts had been crushed by the “Next” button and the people who mocked them. There was talk of having a reverse button (for those who regretted a decision to “next”) and of allowing three-way conversations, but the ideas were quickly scrapped for fear of upsetting the already fragile dynamics. After each mistake, Ternovskiy would move on, and traffic would increase. In the past three months, Chatroulette had nearly forty-eight million unique visitors.
When I talked to Ternovskiy in Moscow, he was content to see his success as sheer luck. He had got about ten thousand dollars in investments, mostly from his father, and he was now making fifteen hundred dollars a day in advertising from a Russian dating service called Mamba. He had to use part of that money to pay for fourteen servers in Germany and five programmers in Belarus. He seemed to maintain the same indifferent attitude toward finances that he had demonstrated in his uncle’s store. “I don’t know. I haven’t counted,” he said, once he figured out that I had asked him a question about profit rather than revenue. “It’s not important,” he added, saying that his costs were covered by the advertising. At one point, he seemed to sense that he was making the wrong impression on a Western journalist who he reckoned might be keen to find the next Facebook. So he quickly began to talk of future secret projects and an umbrella company that would encompass all such future secret projects.

Ternovskiy sucked down a glass of fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice and pattered on about happiness and the intersection between virtual reality and real reality. But he was clearly distracted. Earlier that day, he had been approved for an American tourist visa, which had been fast-tracked by a letter from Fred Wilson, who runs Union Square Ventures, one of the largest venture-capital firms in New York.

“I felt like a kid getting a present,” Ternovskiy told me. “I screamed in the street.”

Ternovskiy was already being courted by Yuri Milner, the C.E.O. of Digital Sky Technologies, a Moscow-based Internet investment company that has reportedly acquired a stake of nearly ten per cent in Facebook. But Ternovskiy was not interested. “I am not planning anything with him,” he said, flapping his fingers against his thumb to imitate Milner talking. “I want to meet with American investors.” He was going to the States for three weeks, first to New York, to meet investors, and then to “San Francisco, then maybe California.”

The Ternovskiys are proud of their Russian ethnic background, but they have a complicated relationship with the motherland. Andrey’s great-great-grandfather was a teacher of ancient languages and a representative in the local parliament of Tobolsk, a small city in Siberia. During the Civil War, the advancing Bolsheviks drowned him in an ice hole in a river. Ternovskiy’s grandfather was an engineer who learned to be neutral and obliging toward the state. For his devotion, he ended up in the secret city of Sarov—the Soviet Los Alamos—where he worked on developing nuclear weapons with the physicist (and later dissident) Andrei Sakharov. “We never had much good will toward the Soviet state, I can bear witness to that,” Vladimir Ternovskiy says. But he adds that he also saw no reason to emigrate “just because I don’t like the government.”

Like his grandfather, Andrey Ternovskiy knows when to toe the pro-Russian line; for example, when reporters from state television call. In private, however, he gripes, albeit cautiously, about his country and his countrymen. He doesn’t like his peers’ increasingly anti-Western attitudes, which he says make him “uncomfortable” because most of his virtual friends happen to be in the U.S. He is puzzled by Russia’s hypersensitive self-absorption. He has also been worried about getting drafted into the Russian Army, which has become infamous for hazing so brutal that it kills dozens of draftees every year. As a self-described happy nerd—a word he loves to drop in English—he cringes at the anger and frustration that he sees in his compatriots. When I asked him where he got his optimism, he said, simply, “Dad is happy, Mom is Russian.”

One might think that this would be an ideal time for the Ternovskiy family. “Modernization” has been the buzzword of Dmitry Medvedev’s Presidency, and he has begun a major initiative to turn the Russian economy away from the extraction of natural resources (which now funds nearly two-thirds of the federal budget) and toward one based on innovation and technology. The Kremlin has poured more than five billion dollars into Rusnano, a state corporation meant to modernize Russia through nanotechnology. And, in February, Medvedev, in typically top-down Russian governmental fashion, announced plans to build a high-tech zone inspired by Silicon Valley. Ternovskiy, however, cares little about all these plans. When the Russian media finally caught on to his rise, Ternovskiy found their attention and patriotic questions distasteful. “I don’t want to make it a Russian thing,” he told me. “The whole point is to have no borders.”

Ternovskiy also has reason to be skeptical of the Kremlin’s recent interest in grooming intellectual talent, given the exodus of scientists from the country—by 2002, more than half a million had left—and the pitiful state of Russia’s intelligentsia since the fall of Communism. Andrey’s parents are exactly the kind of people Russia might be cultivating in its modernization drive, yet Vladimir makes only five hundred dollars a month and Elena three hundred. Official talk of modernization and innovation rankles Vladimir, who supplements his income with work for Russian Souvenirs. “It’s demagoguery,” he says. Recently, he sent a project proposal to Rusnano: no response. “These projects don’t interest them. The Internet doesn’t interest them. If I proposed something else, like cutting down some forest in the Far East, that would instantly interest them. There’s no support from the government. It’s completely absent. And Andrey knows that if he stays here no one will support him. The country doesn’t need people like him.”

Andrey, in turn, feels that he doesn’t need the country, and declares that he does not want to run a Russian company, which might be forced to pay “dirty,” under-the-table salaries to avoid a crushing tax burden, or to deal with extortion from corrupt tax and fire-code inspectors. “My perfect plan is that I don’t ever return to Moscow,” he told me. He would figure out the permanent-visa thing once he got to New York; for now, he was just eager to get out. “I don’t want to come back,” he said. “I want to live in America.”

Ternovskiy had been planning to leave in mid-March, but he accelerated his plans in a moment of adolescent rage. VestiFM, a state-owned radio station, had invited him into its studios for an interview; he asked to do it over the phone, and never heard from them again. Then, the day after we met at the café, Ternovskiy’s mother heard VestiFM moderators mocking her son as she streamed the program on her computer. “Do you hear that, Andrey Ternovskiy?” one of them said, laughing, and wished him a speedy failure. Ternovskiy had just got his U.S. visa, and the taunts, with ill-timed clarity, seemed to confirm his father’s point about Russian hostility toward the successful. Ternovskiy ripped out the speakers’ power cord and booked the first flight west.

Ternovskiy spent the evening before his departure at his Uncle Sasha’s, where his relatives had assembled, and it was tense. Ternovskiy broke the news that he was not coming back. He had already told Elena, who loudly blamed Vladimir for instilling the migratory spirit in her son and stayed away from the gathering. At Sasha’s, Andrey mumbled something sarcastic about being fired from Russian Souvenirs. Sasha, who had hitherto been happy for Andrey, asking me if I could get Andrey American citizenship, now exploded, wondering if his nephew could really be so ungrateful. Andrey’s grandmother, in the best tradition of Russian optimism, warned him that his success was surely fleeting. And earlier that evening his talks with Mamba, his lone advertiser, had gone awry; the company was pulling its ads. On the eve of his meeting with Fred Wilson, Chatroulette had virtually no revenue.

The next morning, Sunday, March 7th, the Ternovskiys were catastrophically late leaving for the airport. Andrey had been glued to his monitor until the last minute, and once the family had set out he realized that he’d forgotten all his passwords and they had to go back. Then they got stuck in one of Moscow’s famous traffic jams. In desperation, Ternovskiy and his mother jumped out of Vladimir’s car, climbed over guardrails to a neighboring highway, and caught a gypsy cab, only to realize that they didn’t know which terminal they were going to. They arrived with less than half an hour to check in.

At the airport, Ternovskiy was a wreck. Dressed in a tan corduroy jacket—Elena was convinced that it was warm in New York—he struggled to fill out the customs forms for the nine thousand dollars in cash he was bringing with him. “How many unaccompanied minors are accompanying me?” he asked. Elena tried to help but was rebuffed by growls from her son. She settled instead on trying to thrust a bag of rolls and fruit into his hands, and reminded him several times not to leave his backpack sitting on the ground or on a subway seat in New York. Ternovskiy ignored her. When Vladimir eventually arrived, he began to bark at Elena to “leave the person alone.” Amid his parents’ squabbling, Ternovskiy messed up his customs form, and the customs officer, looking it over suspiciously, sent him back, twice. “No extraneous marks,” he said. “And two copies.”

When Ternovskiy was finally allowed to proceed, he almost forgot his luggage—two backpacks that were sitting on the conveyor belt of the X-ray machine. With two minutes to spare, vibrating with nerves, he made it through check-in. He went through passport control, turned around, and flashed his parents a giant grin, his first that morning. He lurched left, was directed to the right, waved once more, and was gone.

Ternovskiy had told no one he was taking the Sunday-afternoon flight out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. But when he arrived in New York he found a car from Digital Sky Technologies, the Russian company, waiting for him at the airport. From the driver, he learned that an associate of Yuri Milner was already on his way to New York to talk to him. Back in Moscow, Milner repeatedly called Vladimir, a contemporary of his in college, and urged him to get his son to coöperate.

Andrey, ensconced in a New York hotel, was scornful. “Is that even appropriate for an investor?” he asked me. “Harassing and hounding are the only words which come to mind.” He talked about his first impressions of the United States. The hotel, with its complex shower and light fixtures, made him feel like Borat. He didn’t like New York—too much like Moscow—and his excitement was turning into anxiety that Chatroulette would fail and he would be sent back into the waiting arms of the Russian Army.

When he travelled to San Francisco, the following week, he found the America he had imagined for himself. The sunshine was “heaven,” and he was able to work poolside at his hotel. He soon moved into his own apartment in downtown Palo Alto. He missed his mother’s “sailor’s spaghetti,” a Russian classic, subsisting as he was on a diet of Banana Nut Cheerios. But he was happy, and busy. Shervin Pishevar, the founder of Social Gaming Network and an informal investor in Chatroulette, had taken Andrey under his wing. He helped him navigate meetings with investors, took him to visit Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, and set him up with lawyers to get him an O-1 visa, for exceptional persons, which might allow him to stay in the U.S. Ternovskiy planned a trip to Las Vegas and bought a bike, a nice one, for twenty-four hundred dollars. It was stolen the next day.
He also travelled to West Virginia to meet Kirill Gura, the friend he had chatted with on MSN Messenger every night for years, but whom he’d never actually met. The transition was bumpy. “It was a little weird, you know,” Ternovskiy told me later. “We was just looking at each other without having much to say.” ♦

Roulette Russian [The New Yorker]

Bears in a Honey Trap

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

The phone call came in the middle of the night. The tape, the caller said, was already online. It was past two, but Viktor Shenderovich, Russia’s pre-eminent political satirist, knew he had to move, to get his side of the story out before Moscow awoke to watch video of him, naked, hairy, and vulnerable, having sex with a young woman named Katya, already infamous for luring a who’s-who of the Russian opposition to her bugged apartment for kinky sex and drugs. Shenderovich had been anticipating this moment and now it had arrived, two days before his daughter’s wedding day.

Shenderovich, who says he is happily married, fessed up.

Yes, he wrote on his blog, “I fucked Katya.”

In any other country, the confession would have hit like a thunderclap. Sure, the first wave of the kompromat had already broken in March, when Mikhail Fishman, the editor-in-chief of the liberal Russian Newsweek, was caught on a clumsy Internet video cutting lines with a half-naked Katya, who apparently also went by Moomoo. The revelation prompted Ilya Yashin, an up-and-coming young opposition politician, and other opposition members to preemptively post their stories of being seduced by the same woman. Yashin, Fishman, and Dmitry Oreshkin, a liberal commentator, were also shown attempting to bribe traffic cops. But the resultant scandal — if one can call collective eye-rolling a scandal — focused entirely on the sloppy, dirty tactics used to entrap the young men, not on their behavior.

With Shenderovich, however, it might have been a different story. Shenderovich is, after all, nothing short of a Russian household name. For well over a decade, he has been speaking truth to power in the best traditions of political comedy. His political TV show Kukly (or “puppets,” for the dolls representing the country’s elite), running from 1994 to 2002, first needled Boris Yeltsin, then Vladimir Putin. It earned Shenderovich two indictments and the show’s cancellation, and contributed to the state’s takeover of the show’s host channel, NTV. Shenderovich is Russia’s Jon Stewart, if Jon Stewart had been on the air longer — and if the Bush era had never ended.

And here was Shenderovich, on tape and in the lewdest, most embarrassing way possible — “Well, I guess I’m not hopeless if I’m still a little bit appealing to girls,” he says in the tape, as he undresses for the waiting Moomoo — cheating on his wife with a girl his daughter’s age. In a fedora.

Yet nothing much happened that Thursday morning: For the most part, the story sank like a stone. In fact, the main thing people wondered about was why Russia’s opposition — a splintered, leaderless scrum already so effectively neutered by the Kremlin that they don’t have a single seat in the Duma — would be the focus of such an elaborate hit job. There are no elections coming up, and none of those targeted have made a bid for power recently — because they know they’re hopeless. Even Shenderovich is no longer the star he used to be. He lost his television platform when NTV was wrested away by the government, and he has been effectively blacklisted ever since.

Moreover, Russians have always loved womanizers. It is central to the concept of muzhik, the manly salt-of-the-earth man. Whenever a rumor of another Yeltsin woman surfaced, his ratings spiked instantly. When Alina Kabaeva, the rhythmic gymnast with R-rated flexibility, was said to be the new Mrs. Putin — and mother of his only son — it did not hurt the prime minister one bit. Even the most recent sex tape scandal — in 1999, prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, who antagonized both Yeltsin and Putin, was filmed in bed with two young women — had no serious ramifications. Skuratov was already in trouble for exposing government graft, but the sex tape, promoted by Putin on national TV, just made the Kremlin look bad, and the person deemed responsible for making it was quickly fired.

In typical muzhik fashion, Shenderovich and the two other opposition figures caught on the tape blew the whole thing off with a bravado that seemed to hold only a bit of defensiveness. “I possessed Katya without any particular enjoyment,” Shenderovich wrote on his blog. “In the process, my colleague was boring, like all you vile Gestapovites.” (“I would have been better off had I gone to the gym,” he told me later. “I would have burnt more calories. It would have been better for my health in every sense.”)

When we met for coffee the day after the tape hit the Internet, however, Shenderovich admitted that the exposure stung. “I have a reputation, and I treasure it,” he said. “Imagine knowing that all those people, everyone you know, have seen this tape.” But for the most part he played the unrepentant swinger: “I have never written anywhere that I am a saint. I have never announced anywhere that I am monogamous. If I had and then got tangled up in this, then they could say, like with Clinton, ‘Guys, turns out he’s lying!'” Moreover, the brainy, stocky Shenderovich joked, the tape in no way discredits him. “If anything, I’d say I dispatched my male duties satisfactorily.”

The cultural difference between Shenderovich and his American counterparts is striking. Caught in embarrassing moments, American public figures prostrate themselves before the public, and before their families — in public. Russians, however, lack what they see as this deeply Puritanical impulse, so they swagger and mock, or yawn.

“People who expect this response” — that the opposition should wither in contrition — “are not getting the particularities of the Russian mentality,” Yashin, who also shook off his tryst with Moomoo, saying he’d weathered far worse political storms, told me. “It’s a reason for impeachment in America. Here it’s ‘big props.’ Even when they see Shenderovich in this tape, they say, ‘Not bad! The guy’s already 70 and he’s so energetic!'” (Shenderovich is 51, but much of the Russian blogosphere was similarly congratulatory.)

Echoing pretty much everyone else I spoke to, Yashin added that Shenderovich may be a public figure, but his private life is inviolate. “What does this have to do with anything? You can also install a camera in the bathroom and catch him pooping, if you want! The only people who can ask him about this are his wife and his daughter. Everyone else — it’s not your fucking business, okay?” (Yashin also noted that getting caught with Moomoo wasn’t as bad as the alternative. “What would be political murder is if they published someone with boys,” he said. “And they didn’t find any gays among the opposition in two years [of trolling for dirt].”)

When I asked Shenderovich if, as a prominent critic of the government, he should be held to a rigorous standard of behavior, his response echoed Yashin’s. “I do behave myself,” Shenderovich told me. “I behave myself in the sense that I pay for myself in any group, with any millionaires and billionaires. I try to at least cover my half. I never take money for my publications, except for honorariums. I am completely transparent in my taxes. And I behave myself. In everything that allows me to walk down the street and look my fellow citizens in the eye. Because I really am a public figure.”

As for the rest? Irrelevant and forgivable — even by his wife, at least according to Shenderovich. “My wife reacted completely wonderfully,” he said. “I have this habit when traveling of taking the shampoo from the hotel as a memento of the trip. It always really irritated my wife. Yesterday, she said, ‘See, I told you: You should never take free shampoo.'” Not only did she forgive him, she calmed down Shenderovich’s 80-year-old mother. His daughter laughed it off and went on with her wedding planning. Fishman’s wife got a T-shirt saying, “Smile! You’re on camera!”

Tracing the goopy trail of the honey trap, the victims and their sympathizers saw all the overeager, sycophantic clumsiness of the Kremlin youth group, Nashi. On Monday, Yashin filed a complaint with the State Prosecutor’s office for invasion of privacy and distribution of pornography, citing Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s Karl Rove, and Vasily Yakimenko, a federal official who curates all things youth-related and who was once in charge of Nashi. Oreshkin, who was also targeted by Katya but managed to decline her invitation to see her new apartment, wrote that his sources inside the government said Yakimenko was behind the campaign, with the Kremlin’s approval and financing.

It’s not a far-fetched conclusion, given that real police cars were used in the traffic cop-bribing video. The Interior Ministry denies it was their policemen or their car; but, as Shenderovich quipped, “What service can rent a police car, stuff it with electronics and surveillance equipment? Who can do this? I don’t think these are students of the Conservatory.”

Robert Schlegel, a 25 year-old Duma deputy and federal commissar of the Nashi movement, maintained to me that his organization was not involved, although he seemed to know a disconcerting amount of detail about the smear campaign and had extremely well-thought-out opinions on the matter. “It’s because this group of journalists has turned into a gang that doesn’t betray its own,” he said, his voice rising angrily. “They really have a strong sense of complete righteousness, that’s one. Two, they are not ready to live according to the law — that is 100 percent true. That the law isn’t written for them. They see themselves as a separate political force. That’s crazy.”

And he, too, explained why Russians didn’t find anything shocking in the tapes. “Russia has a significantly freer culture,” he claimed. “For us, cheating on your wife, for the majority, is not something unusual. Moreover, for us, snorting cocaine — what’s unusual about that? Everyone snorts it.” Especially, he said, “all journalists. And if they don’t snort, they drink. Or huff.”

Schlegel could not reconcile to me the apparent pointlessness of smearing someone with a charge that in Russia, usually works to build your reputation — nor explain the use of smearing the feeble Russian opposition in the first place. The week since Shenderovich was awakened by the call has brought some clarity, however. For the most part, not much has changed. Shenderovich’s daughter got married. His mother has calmed down. As expected, the authorities have yet to launch a real investigation, although the tenacious Yashin has gone on the offensive: With the help of some local journalists, he discovered Katya’s now empty apartment (you can rent it for $1,200 a month) and her ex-boyfriend.

But then, on Tuesday, Nashi filed a court complaint against Yashin. It claimed “insult” and “false accusations,” but also called for legal consequences for the crime caught on tape: bribing police officers. The tactic is a strange double-feint: Nashi is insisting it had nothing to do with the videos, while also drawing more attention to them and carrying out what now appears to have been the video’s grand purpose all along, proving that opposition members are just common, petty criminals.

Shenderovich, meanwhile, is taking the apparent Kremlin attention as a “badge of honor.” In the best traditions of Russian martyrdom he recounted to me all the ways he’s needled the government over the years and the ways he’d been singled out before: break-ins, round-the-clock surveillance, blackmail. Last week, he said, they torched the St. Petersburg apartment of the man who organized his latest play. “I deserve a lot from them,” he told me. “And I understand that I’m alive only because I am fairly famous and they understand that will be too costly for them, PR-wise.”

When we had wrapped up our interview, a man came up to Shenderovich and fervently shook both his hands. He thanked him again and again for his work, and Shenderovich began to beam from behind his beard. “It’s impossible to live in this country,” the man said. Then he leaned in and whispered something: He worked for the state prosecutor.

Bears in a Honey Trap [Foreign Policy]

The Revolution Will Definitely Not Be Televised

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

Because the 31st article of the Russian constitution guarantees the freedom of assembly, the Russian opposition has taken to gathering by the statue of the revolutionary poet Mayakovsky on Triumphalnaya Ploshchad in the center of Moscow every time a month has a 31st day. A routine has developed: Every 31st, the Moscow city government withholds permission for the assembly, claiming they’ve already scheduled something for that time. (On Jan. 31, it was “Winter Delights.”) Every time, the opposition — about a hundred aged liberals still clinging to the hopes of the early Yeltsin era — gather anyway. And every time, the police and, occasionally, the special forces show up and arrest people, some of whom happen to be famous opposition figures who know how to get in touch with the press and make the mayorality look rather foolish. (On Dec. 31, for instance, the police made a splash of international proportions by arresting 82 year-old human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeeva. In January, they ran the second she screamed. “I guess there was an order not to let the old lady die, lest there be an international scandal,” she said.)

Apart from provoking the cops into arresting old ladies, however, the protesters don’t have much to show for their 31st-article gatherings, which are replicated in a few other places across the country. Partly, this is the opposition’s fault. To say that they don’t have a coherent or realistic platform or a leader would severely understate the matter. They have been so marginalized by the state that, in the best traditions of Russian political opposition, they have taken to utopian squabbling — the Communists with the nationalists, the liberals with the Kremlin drop-outs — while United Russia keeps consolidating power through hard-headed yet sophisticated pragmatism.

But it’s also due to the fact that, marginalized and tiny as the protests are, most Russians don’t even know they exist.

Take this weekend. On Saturday, the day before January’s 31st-article protests, more than 10,000 people gathered for a demonstration in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, a little island of Russia wedged on the Baltic Sea coast between Poland and Lithuania. In a country where 50 to 100 people count as a major opposition protest, this is not only huge, it’s unprecedented. By contrast, the biggest protest in contiguous Russia in recent memory, those in Vladivostok at the height of the financial crisis in December 2008, drew only 1,000 people. The event organizers claim up to 12,000 protesters, but even with 10,000 people and cars spread across a parking lot spanning three hectares, the protests were unusual.

This was true not just because of the scale but because of the content. Originally, the smattering of opposition groups gathered to protest a hike in the transportation tax and import duties on cars. Cars and pensions remain perhaps the only reason Russians will take to the streets — when the Kaliningrad government raised transport taxes last year, thousands protested — so it was a surprise to many when the target became the government itself. People showed up with banners demanding the return of the direct election of governors, something the Kremlin shelved in 2004, ostensibly to fight terrorism. Some banners expressed the wish to see United Russia either tossed in the garbage or flushed down the toilet. Another banner read, “You’ve gotten fat, stolen a lot, now how about doing some time?” According to the organizers, over 5,000 people signed a petition demanding not only the cancellation of the transport tax, but the abdication of the local governor, his entire government, and even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Nor was this an isolated provincial event. Members of officially sanctioned parties came, with many Moscow politicians flying in just to make a showing: the Communist Party of the Russian Federation was there, as was the liberal Yabloko, the Patriots of Russia, and the right-wing nationalist LDPR. “How much do you have to torture the people of Kaliningrad for me to see all these parties gathered at one meeting?” asked liberal Solidarity leader Boris Nemtsov from the grandstand as the crowed cheered. (The protests, an apparent shock to the Kremlin, seemed to have been coordinated with the Moscow opposition.)

It was the biggest Russian protest since the chaos of the early 1990s — but if, like most Russians, you got most of your news from television, you wouldn’t have even known about it.

“Russian television didn’t cover this at all,” said a very offended Ilya Yashin, a young and up-and-coming Solidarity politician who flew to Kaliningrad with Nemtsov. “At all.”

Relatively few Russians read newspapers anymore, and, according to one estimate, only 2 million people — less than 1.5 percent — listen to the opposition Ekho Moskvy radio station or read the essentially free press online, where the Kaliningrad protests were thoroughly covered. The figures are even more dire the farther you get from Moscow.

Television is the media that matters and, for that reason, as has been widely reported, it is owned by the state outright or through government-friendly companies. And not only do the heads of the various TV channels meet regularly with Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin ideologist, the rank and file of the TV stations are already well-trained in the art of self-censorship.

“If it’s about the transportation tax, that’s one thing,” said a reporter for NTV, a state-owned channel, who had not even heard that anything had happened in Kaliningrad before he received a phone call from Foreign Policy. “If it’s against the government, that’s material for the dust bin. Even softer themes don’t go through.”

Only two television channels, REN-TV and its subsidiary, St. Petersburg’s Channel 5, made mention of the event, the latter as a 30-second read-through about a protest by “thousands of car owners.” REN-TV, which portrayed the protest as one focused more on living conditions, still managed to show a lot, including a man saying the government was lying. With an audience four-to-five times smaller than those of the main federal channels, REN-TV is allowed to be more critical of the state, thereby doing double-duty as steam valve and window dressing.

Everywhere else there was silence, which to some observers seemed like unnecessary caution. When car owners in Valdivostok protested against the import duties on Japanese cars at the end of 2008, Russian television was also silent. But that was at the beginning of the economic crisis, which, many speculated at the time, could have toppled the Putin government. “Now that the crisis has more or less stabilized,” says political analyst Masha Lipman, “the government feels much more confident; it can act much more rationally.” Moreover, the opposition is still in disarray and without any real chance of bringing down the Kremlin, or even nipping at its heels. “If you look at the polls, you see a full readiness to adjust” to life under the current system, Lipman says. “You can’t say that the people are ripening and the movement will grow and grow. In this situation, you don’t need to lie — it’s just how you shape the story.”

But inside the media the habit to filter and self-censor is so strong that any such story is instinctively suppressed. “This wasn’t just a few people gathering on Triumphalnaya,” says Arina Borodino, who writes about television for Kommersant, the most widely-read Russian daily. “They sent in the regional governor, the United Russia representative, the state prosecutor. The government takes this very seriously, and you want them to show it on TV?”

And so the Kaliningrad protests, with its thousands of discontented activists, its football fields of parked cars, will pass by unnoticed.

“There was no way for society to find out about this,” Yashin, the Solidarity politician, says. “And society has gotten used to this. They see TV as entertainment, as educational; as anything other than a source of information.”

He’s right. However small the revolution, if it’s not televised, it doesn’t even exist.

The Revolution Will Definitely Not Be Televised [Foreign Policy]

Sheesh Kabob!

Thursday, October 1st, 2009

It started off as an article about a cleverly named kabob house in Moscow and quickly became yet another a story of political coercion and muzzling of the press. Less than a week after the article came out, Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group, is demanding that the journalist who wrote it, Aleksandr Podrabinek, be kicked out of the country and stripped of his Russian citizenship. After death threats and an attempted break-in at his apartment, Podrabinek is now in hiding, announcing on his blog that “in the interests of security, I am limiting my contacts.”

Partly, this is the same, tired story of the Kremlin intimidating the last remnants of a once-free press. But it’s also a story about a country still fighting over the meaning (and ownership) of patriotism, over the return of Soviet symbolism, over where the Soviet Union ends and Russia begins, and over how to talk about the martyrdom and the crimes of World War II.

Here’s how it happened: the restaurant in question opened in July, calling itself the Anti-Soviet Kabob House because of its location across the street from the Soviet Hotel. Har har. But to an association of elderly veterans, it wasn’t just a bad pun, and they complained to the local authorities. The name, they said, mocked their sacrifices in World War II—which, with casualties over 20 million, has become the most sacred of cows in Russia. It is known there, officially, as the Great Patriotic War. (Putin recently showed just how sacred it is when he refused to acknowledge, for the sake of Russian pride, Soviet crimes in Poland in 1939.) Not only that, the veterans’ group said, but the name also besmirched the homeland for which they fought, and they demanded that it be changed.

News of this uproar leaked on September 17. By the 18th, the owner of the café announced that the authorities had interceded and he had been forced to change the name to Soviet Kabob House. As workmen prepared to take down the “Anti-“, the café’s owner remarked wryly that now “the debate is about saving the kabob house even without the name,” he said. “We’d be happy just to be able to stay open at this point.”

This kind of pandering to hypervocal and hypersensitive veterans—and harping on a mythically clean and valorous Soviet past—caught Podrabinek’s eye. No fan of Soviet power (he had been sentenced to a Siberian labor camp twice, once in 1978 and again in 1980, for criticizing the Soviet Union), Podrabinek penned a takedown of the veterans group in ej.ru, a liberal opposition online publication.

He bemoaned the fact that the owners of the kabob house gave in to the veterans’ demands and excoriated the veterans for their false patriotism. “Your homeland isn’t Russia,” he wrote. “Your homeland is the Soviet Union…. And the Soviet Union is not the place you imagine in your schoolbooks or your lying newspapers,” he said referring to the robustly nostalgic Communist press. “It’s not just a place of astronauts and overfulfilled agricultural quotas,” Podrabinek continued, “it’s also a place of peasant uprisings, the victims of collectivization and Holodomor; it’s hundreds of thousands shot in Cheka basements and millions tortured in the Gulag to the sounds of the rotten [Soviet] anthem.” But Podrabinek was careful to make a distinction: “Yes, we should respect those who fought Nazism, but not those who defend Soviet power.”

Evidently that was not caveat enough: two days after the piece came out, the same local authorities who had forced the kabob-house name change went to the offices of Novaya Gazeta (Anna Politkovskaya’s liberal newspaper) to complain about Podrabinek—who didn’t work there. Then came the protests from veterans. Finally, the president of Nashi, a patriotic youth group often likened to the Hitler Youth, said “we will demand [Podrabinek’s] departure from the country.” Not for writing anything anti-Russian, mind you, but for writing something anti-Soviet—for being tough on a country that no longer exists.

Podrabinek’s address and phone number appeared online, and now Nashi members are picketing his house around the clock. On Tuesday, the youth group filed a lawsuit demanding that he apologize to the veterans (an idea that resonates in the Russian blogosphere) or be deported.

For its part, the Kremlin has allowed the crackdown to thunder on without comment. It has a long, close association with Nashi and has encouraged these neo-Soviet displays before. (A renovated subway station recently opened with a Stalin quote restored in giant, prominent letters, and, last week, Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov praised Nashi for the group’s supposedly pivotal role in forcing the Obama administration to back down from its missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.)

Podrabinek says on his blog that he has received information from “trustworthy sources” that people “at the highest levels have made the decision to deal with me in any way necessary.” In a country ranked third most lethal for journalists, this is no empty threat. Nor is Podrabinek a stranger to Kremlin strong-arming. In 2004, after he helped with the publication and distribution of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko’s book, security services seized the copies he imported into Russia and called him in for questioning. (He reportedly refused to answer questions.) In 2006, he was arrested in Minsk for protesting the dubious reelection of Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko.

And so, just as Russia tells the Committee to Protect Journalists that it will act on what is now an embarrassing number of attacks on the press, Nashi continues its harassment and Podrabinek remains in hiding, not answering requests for an interview. Only here can a man risk losing his life over a café name.

Sheesh Kabob! A Restaurant Snafu Reveals Lingering Nostalgia for the Soviet Union [Newsweek]

Chivers Me Timbers

Friday, March 27th, 2009

EARLY THIS MORNING, Moscow-based New York Times correspondent C.J. Chivers was detained by the South Ossetian KGB as he tried to cross into Mogabruni, an Ossetian village on the border with Georgia, which claims its territory.

Told that he did not have the proper accreditation in South Ossetia, now technically an independent nation, Chivers was sent back to Georgia whence he came.

At least that’s what’s being reported in Russia.

“In truth, the whole thing amounted to nothing,” said Moscow bureau chief Clifford J. Levy in an email.

Chivers, it turns out, was not detained at all. He and his fixer, who had a Georgian passport, were stopped at a Russian-Ossetian checkpoint. They had been headed to nearby Akhalgori/Leningor to visit a local resident who had invited them over. The Ossetian guards called the resident, who confirmed the invitation, but Chivers and his fixer, Olesya Vartanyan, were told they had to wait: The supervisor, apparently, was in the shower.

Chivers waited for two hours, during which time he and Vartanyan were treated with utmost hospitality. “During this time, the men at the checkpoint gave us pears to eat, and offered seeds, and chatted amiably with us about a range of subjects,” Chivers wrote in a late-night email from Georgia. “Our passports/documents were returned to us midway through this time,” he added, “We never were told, and we never had the impression, that we were detained or under any sort of restriction or arrest.” His request to enter South Ossetia was denied this time around, and Chivers was told that, next time, he would have to enter South Ossetia through Vladikavkaz, a ridiculous and roundabout request since the village was visible from the checkpoint. Vladikavkaz is 30 miles away.

Contrary to alarmist reports in the Russian press, courtesy abounded. The Russians and Ossetians gave the two Times journalists a lift back to the Georgian checkpoint, but not before inviting Chivers on a trip to the countryside, “or perhaps for some trout fishing in the mountains.”

Within the hour, Chivers and Vartanyan were receiving frantic phone calls checking in on their welfare. A standard bureaucratic encounter had made it into the echo chamber, where it had morphed accordingly.

“I am quite surprised that this is a story, because it was numbingly normal interaction with a border checkpoint, and nothing else,” says Chivers. “The men at the checkpoint were rule- and security-conscious, but they also exhibited the hospitality and politeness I have long experienced on many trips to many places on both sides of the Caucasus.”

The Obama Telenovela

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

It was on our first morning in Havana that my friend and I discovered how obsessively Cubans have been following recent developments in American politics. Our hostess, a middle-aged bleached blonde with a hardened good cheer, served us our eggs and proceeded to engage us on the subject of the Sasha and Malia Obama dolls. It was only a few days after the inauguration and the world was still tipsy on Obamamania, but it felt odd that someone would know something so infinitesimally peculiar on a blockaded island with a handful of state newspapers and four Party-approved TV channels, all repeating the same agit-prop ad nauseam. Norma went on. “It’s great that Michelle’s mother is going to be living with them,” she said. “It’ll be good for the girls, and it shows what kind of man Obama is.”

Later that day, while walking around Vedado, in Central Havana, we were invited to join three generations dancing to reggae in their living room. One of the neighbors was there and, on hearing we were American, quickly buttonholed us, eager to share his thoughts on Obama’s ban on lobbyists. If we had been surprised by Norma’s mastery of Obama trivia or this man’s wonkishness, we would find still more of it a few blocks away. At the Café Pekin, three rehearsing musicians befriended us gringas over some cans of Bucanero beer; between their soul-straining renditions of the son classics, one of the crooners asked my friend about the Bank of America bailout. She barely had a chance to answer when, one arm cradling his guitar and one arm marking his points, he began to explain why nationalizing banks would make sense for America. (His information, my friend admitted later, was quite accurate.)

We weren’t expecting to find this kind of parrying in Revolutionary Havana. Plenty of countries are well-informed about our political process, though we may know next to nothing about theirs. Cuba, however, is still very much a police state that puts a premium on controlling the information its citizens consume. And yet that was three people unfurling their up-to-date Americana within the span of a few short hours. How, we wondered, were Cubans getting these contraband factoids? And, more importantly, why were they so intent on getting them?

With the aging of its leaders and the growing staleness of the Revolution, the state has gotten a little gummy in its enforcement of the information lockdown and its subjects have grown bored with the fare the state feeds them. Every type of media—from television to women’s magazines—is state-controlled and produced by ideologically vetted cadres, which means little variety and even less nuance. News from America tends to concern American aggression, foolishness or greed. When Obama signed the order to close the detainee prison at Guantánamo, for example, Granma, the Cuban version of Pravda, reported that “Barack Obama fulfilled one of his main election promises by closing the prison located on the illegal base at Guantánamo, Cuba.” When the papers reported on our presidential election, it was to point out the the amounts of money wasted on the process and how the election was actually indirect and therefore unfair.

Most Cubans, however, seem to have developed an immunity to this kind of jingoism. When a revolution has been waged for decades, you tend to stop paying attention—especially when your daily life is spent in the chasm between Revolutionary rhetoric and reality: It’s hard for Cubans to believe that more revolution (the state’s answer to the embargo) will put more food on the table. Or to stomach the fact that, despite the Revolution’s promises of dignity and sovereignty from the Empire, tourists will see more of their homeland than they could ever afford to. Or that the country is scarcely free of the humiliating tourism-related vices of the pre-Castro era. Or that despite promises of egalitarianism, ministers and generals live not in crumbling Havana but in the posh suburb of Miramar where their well-fed, well-coiffed daughters can buy all the groceries they want with currency only available to foreigners.

As the government’s narrative of reality inches more and more toward the absurd, it breeds a palpable sense of boredom and hunger in a population far too educated for the island’s scant opportunities. (Billboards exhorting people to work and work harder—when there are no jobs to be had—look more than a little insulting in a city where thousands of unemployed Habaneros hang out on their stoops on weekday afternoons.) The sense of enclosure on the blockaded island only heightens the appetite for information.

Revolutionary media has proved unwilling to indulge this curiosity. The state shares no real news about itself. Nearly three years after Fidel first disappeared from public view, his subjects still don’t know whether he’s dead or alive, let alone what he’s up to. (His periodic and increasingly nonsensical screeds in Granma offer precious few hints. Not many people watch the state’s version of the news. “Mesa Redonda,” the official nightly news round table, is roundly ridiculed; Granma features real reporting from allies Venezuela and Bolivia, but that too has an ideological point. There are sports and educational programs on TV, but no entertainment news. Telenovelas, a genre Cubans love, have low production values and are also flavored with the blandness of political orthodoxy. It’s all dull, didactic stuff and it does nothing to sate Cubans’ appetite.

“The Cuban press is so narrow,” Rafael, a journalism student at the University of Havana, told me. “We have to get our information somehow. We’re hungry for it.” And this, mind you, is coming from someone with political credentials good enough to study journalism in Cuba.

That hunger is fed “por la izquierda,” to the left of the law. Some listen to Radio Martí, the Cuban version of Voice of America, though its impact is debatable. For the most part, however, people get their non-Granma news, their entertainment, and their beloved Brazilian telenovelas from illegal satellite TV, much of it beamed through Rupert Murdoch’s DirectTV.

This is how it works: One guy (and it’s usually a guy) rigs up a contraband satellite with parts smuggled in by visiting émigrés, or even with a receptor attached to a trashcan lid. A tangle of wires then channels the signal to anywhere from several residents to several apartment buildings. Each recipient pays a one-time installation and a monthly subscription fee of about two hundred national pesos, about half a professional’s monthly salary. Because everyone is hooked up to one central dish, subscribers have to watch the same thing as the dish owner, who will usually create a program based on a survey of his customers.

Cops and members of community vigilance organizations often get their subscriptions for free to disincentivize ratting and promote information sharing when, say, the police are about to sweep the town for illegal dishes. (The last major raid was two years ago, after Granma published a story about several men prosecuted for making dishes. It was, the paper claimed, “destabilizing and interventionist and forms part of the Bush administration plan aimed at destroying the revolution and with it the Cuban nation.”) Pirating techniques adapt quickly in response to official intercession. In order to fight the newly trained cable-cutting police that prowl the roofs, smugglers have now taken to hiding the cables underground. Masquerading as official work crews repairing leaks, they tear up the streets and lay the cables under the concrete.

All told, there are up to 30,000 of these illegal satellite dishes hidden in water tanks and air-conditioning units on rooftops all over Cuba, with the majority clustered in Havana. They bring in news, music videos, and, worse, commercials—and then Radio Bemba, the Cuban grapevine, takes over. The news is passed by word of mouth, on video cassettes, or, from the few Cubans who have Web access, on memory sticks. Together, DirectTV and Radio Bemba have become the de facto media empire here, swiftly and efficiently giving Cubans the information the Revolution refuses to provide.

Circumventing the state, however, is not without its dangers. Getting caught could get you or your family members kicked out of work or university, effectively blacklisting you for ideological impurity. Incurring economic punishment in the poverty-stricken country, though, could be far worse: An illegal dish might mean a catastrophic fine of a thousand pesos, more than most people earn in two months. And, though the enforcement is spotty and lurching, the official line has only grown harsher: With the ascent of Raúl, the world hoped for a loosening of the noose, but Cubans knew better. Soon, he proved them right, appointing an old Revolutionary comrade and former head of the secret police to head up the Information Ministry. He, in turn, introduced a law that forbids receiving foreign media from tourists. An infraction carries a three-year jail sentence. The point is clear: no outside media. Period.

But days after a sweep, the satellite dishes sprout right back up. The hunger and the boredom are still there and, now that we’ve elected a young black president, Cubans, half of whom are of mixed race and ruled by a cadre of feckless septuagenarians, want to know even more what we’re up to. Every conversation, we soon realized, followed a template: Once it was established that we were “yanquis,” all talk turned to Obama. How great he was, how he was going to fix Cuba’s problems by lifting the embargo, how noble of him to close down Guantánamo. An old man at one of Havana’s last synagogues proudly showed us a Xeroxed news clipping from a Mexican newspaper that showed Obama’s two Jewish wing men: Axelrod and Emanuel. “Jewish!” he exclaimed happily. Even the official press has taken a cautious, even optimistic tone when describing the new president. It is unclear, however, if this signals a softening of the confrontational Castro line or—less likely—is in response to Cubans’ hunger for change and faith in Obama.

“There is an absence of narrative here,” blogger Yoani Sánchez told me one afternoon in Havana. Few people in Cuba read her blog, Generation Y, but she is famous because she was once shown on TV in Miami and, thanks to Radio Bemba, the entire island now knows who she is. “We don’t know anything about our government—who their wives are, where they live. The Obamas have become our narrative. They are our telenovela.”

Legend of The Fall

Monday, January 12th, 2009

Last month, far from his old D.C. stomping grounds, a very old W. Mark Felt, Sr., died quietly in Santa Rosa, California. The press, who had known him as the dashing, silver-haired spook dubbed Deep Throat, portrayed this as a major event, the passing of one of the late 20th century’s most influential figures. The New York Times remembered him as the man who “helped bring down President Richard M. Nixon by resisting the Watergate cover-up and becoming Deep Throat, the most famous anonymous source in American history.” Across the Pond, the Guardian’s obituary only heightened the legend. “Long after memories of Linda Lovelace’s pornographic film have vanished,” it wrote, “Felt will live on in American political history as Deep Throat, the mysterious insider whose leaks to journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought well-deserved ruin to the Nixon presidency.”

In no small part because of Hal Holbrook’s goggle-eyed, cotton-mouthed portrayal of him in All the President’s Men, we’ve come to think of Deep Throat in these romantic terms: as the mystery man feeding rounds into Woodward and Bernstein’s gumshoe guns. That was in 1976. Nixon had resigned, the bad guys had gone to jail or had been publicly shamed, the movie won four Oscars, and still no one knew who Deep Throat was. So a large and devoted gaggle of politicians, journalists, and scholars began to guess at Deep Throat’s identity. Then they began to obsess over it, doubling back on every possible hypothesis, and Deep Throat’s legend ballooned. “A lot of awfully intelligent people made awful fools of themselves,” says Slate’s Timothy Noah, who, until Deep Throat’s outing, was an active participant in the guessing game. A bemused Woodward told me that, over the years, he’s received scores of PhD and masters dissertations trying to uncloak Deep Throat once and for all. It took three decades for Felt to come out and put an end to (most of) the speculation.

But this most anonymous of sources was not nearly as important to Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting–or to Nixon’s demise–as we have come to believe. He was useful, yes, but the Washington Post staffers who midwifed the Watergate story readily admit that he was just one of many, many sources, some of whom are still anonymous. In fact, the entire editorial team did not know about Deep Throat’s identity until after Nixon resigned. To them, Deep Throat was not the man who helped two reporters fell a crooked president, but just one piece of a huge and dynamic puzzle.

“Don’t think for a second that if Deep Throat was so important, Ben Bradlee wouldn’t have asked who he was,” Barry Sussman, Woodward and Bernstein’s direct editor on the Watergate articles, told me recently. (Today, Bradlee, the Post’s former executive editor, says he didn’t ask because Deep Throat was usually right. “Being right is what you care about in a source,” he explained. “If he was caught way off base telling a lie, then I would’ve asked. I would’ve throttled Woodward.”)

The Post had a two-source rule for the investigation–that is, every bit of information had to be corroborated–but Deep Throat was never one of them. He was rarely the one to approach Woodward; he didn’t offer documents or leads or even many details; he spoke in code and disappeared for long stretches of time. For the most part, he was a check on information Woodward and Bernstein had already cobbled together. “He was important, but the story could’ve been done without him,” says former metro editor (and Sussman’s boss) Harry Rosenfeld. “It wasn’t like any story stood or fell by what he told us.”

“I think his nickname elevated him into history more than his actual contribution,” Bradlee says. Thirty-odd years later, he is still baffled and delighted by the naughtiness of the moniker. “It’s extraordinary that it caught on. I mean, the average person had not seen the movie, I guess, and did not know that we were talking about oral intercourse here!”

On the two Woodward and Bernstein stories that made the biggest difference in the Watergate investigation, Deep Throat was of little help. The first was an August 1, 1972, piece about how Nixon reelection funds had been deposited to the account of one of the Watergate burglars. This was Woodward and Bernstein’s big break on Watergate, the first to link the burglary to the White House, and it launched an investigation by the GAO (which was largely ignored). The tip, however, had come not from Deep Throat, but a story in The New York Times. After reading the story, Bernstein flew down to Miami and plied the local investigator into showing him the burglar’s phone and bank records. The FBI had looked into this weeks earlier, but Deep Throat had kept mum.

The second was an October 10 article on Donald Segretti, a foot soldier in Nixon’s army of dirty tricksters. Before the story ran, Woodward met with Deep Throat to see if the story’s allegations were true. Deep Throat confirmed that the Post was right about Segretti, but hinted that there were more like him and that the rot reached wide and high, up to the very top of the administration. A pretty vague and useless hint for the reporters on deadline, but such were Deep Throat’s ways.

Even Felt, back when he was still denying that he was Deep Throat, told the Hartford Courant that, had he actually been Deep Throat, he would’ve “done it better. I would have been more effective. Deep Throat didn’t exactly bring the White House crashing down, did he?”

A good question. If Deep Throat didn’t bring the president down, what did he do?

Deep Throat, it turns out, was more of a vague guide than a fount of contraband information. “He didn’t just say, ‘Go into the office, open the third door on the left, and under the desk you’ll find something,'” says Bradlee. “But he pointed them in the right direction and gave guidance. He saved them all sorts of time and energy.” Deep Throat’s biggest impact was in the beginning of the beginning of the Watergate saga, before the machinery of an FBI investigation and Congressional inquiry took over the job of putting pressure on the White House. When news of the break-in first surfaced in June 1972, it was thought to have been a rogue operation and most news outlets quickly dropped the story. Woodward cajoled a very reluctant Mark Felt into hinting that the break-in was not an isolated incident, so Woodward and Bernstein, two relatively inexperienced city reporters, figured they should keep going. And so, as Nixon was actively trying to stuff the matter under the rug, the Post was able to keep the public spotlight trained on the administration long enough for Senator Sam Ervin to take notice and set up a Congressional inquiry. (The FBI had been investigating the break-in since the beginning, but the extent was largely unknown to the public.) “The information they got from Deep Throat gave Woodward and Bernstein the confidence and credibility to keep going and to create a climate that would allow for a Senate Watergate investigation and special prosecutor,” says Timothy Naftali, the director of the Nixon Presidential Library.

But Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting was not what ultimately brought down Nixon; it was the famous “smoking gun” tape in which the president voiced his intent to snuff out the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in–and that didn’t come out until August 1974, after months of bruising hearings and a Supreme Court decision. On August 9 of that year, two years since the initial burglary, Nixon finally resigned–the result of all the little hatchets of the government’s investigative and judicial agencies slowly chipping away at the hydra’s many necks. And Deep Throat had little to do with that.

“I think that the press minimized the role of the government and the power of subpoenas and the threat of prison and all the things the Justice Department can do to people to say, ‘Unless you testify, you’re going to wind up in prison,'” says Edward Jay Epstein, a writer who was one of the first to investigate the role of the press in exposing Watergate.

Woodward, too, admits that Deep Throat’s role in taking down Nixon has been exaggerated, but he doesn’t think it was negligible. “The accurate answer is, we played a role in a certain period, very early on, in finding out what happened,” Woodward says in his soft, serious voice. On the line from his Post office where he is most days of the week, he is frustrated that his source, protected by the sacrosanct code of confidentiality, became the subject of a glib parlor game. “Deep Throat was invaluable, but, you know, he wasn’t Daniel Ellsberg coming in with a grocery cart full of documents and Pentagon Papers.”

On The Trail And Off Their Rockers

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley has taken to running through a checklist before bed. Every night she travels with the Obama campaign, she orders a wake-up call, sets one regular alarm and one back-up on her cell phone, which she places strategically out of slapping distance across the room. Then she writes down her vitals: What city is she in? What time zone? What time does she have to be out of the hotel room the next morning? What day is it? With that, she can drift off before the next day’s campaign coverage. Most of the time, though, Crowley is so scared to oversleep that she’s awake and waiting, long before the alarm–any one of them–ever rings.

“After the previous campaign, it took me a good month to stop waking up in the middle of the night in a panic that I’ve missed something,” Crowley says.

On most days, adrenaline is enough to get her through the “The Situation Room” and “Anderson Cooper 360,” but it’s all she can do not to zonk out in the car between events. At campaign rallies, Crowley, a self-described loner, is mobbed by “CNN junkies,” all of them clamoring for a picture or an autograph. (“That’s why I love my iPod,” she says.) Crowley was with Barack Obama when he declared his candidacy in February 2007, and has been going nearly non-stop ever since. She has heard all the speeches, covered all the campaign ads. She can’t remember her last furlough and her “strategic nice reserve” ran out two months ago. Now in the final lap, Crowley just wants to go home.

“After a while, you just miss your house, you know?” she said from Chicago on Monday. “I miss my back yard. I miss going to the grocery store.”

She’s not the only one pining for a more mundane life. “I haven’t seen a movie in about a year,” said New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny, also in Chicago with the Obama campaign. “I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with civilians.”

Matt Bai, his colleague at the Times and himself a seasoned political reporter (who, with two young children at home, has mostly recused himself from intensive travel this year), speaks as if he’s watched his countrymen go off to battle. “There are guys who went out to the primaries in November, December, and thought they’d be done in February or March, and they just never came home,” he says with grave admiration. “They never came home.”

After the longest, most sustained campaign on record, political reporters are running on little more than the scant sustenance of yet another slice of pizza. Some are running out of energy; others are running out of ideas. “The one conversation I keep having with reporters is, ‘What the hell do we write about? What are the interesting stories left to cover in this election?'” says The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza (who used to be a senior editor for TNR). “There are a lot of people scratching their heads trying to find a new angle at the end.”

Others, like soldiers who have served one tour too many, are slowly losing touch with the world outside the candidate’s orbit. Bai, who is married to a Fox producer, has seen the strains of life on the road. “You lose contact with the outside world,” says Bai. “You call your spouse at home and talk about the trail and the person at home just doesn’t get it or care, because it’s the same story over and over again. It’s murder on relationships.” Every four years, Bai says, there’s at least one divorce or break-up. “It’s just not a normal human experience.”

And even if your relationship survives, your personality might not. Last week, Lizza, who was banned from the Obama plane in July, found his way back on and thought he had stumbled on a lost colony. “It felt like the Lord of the Flies in there,” he says. “The people who have been there for a long time have all of their little decorations and knickknacks all over the back of the plane. Everyone’s a little grumpy and territorial, and there’s this sense of people thrown together who have been with each other way too long. I got the sense that I was dropping in on a hostage-captor situation.”

“There is definitely a captives’ mentality on the plane,” Zeleny agrees. “These people eat together, drink together, work together, sleep together–in the same place, that is–every day for 18 months. Now that the campaign is winding down, they’re all taking pictures of one another, and you get the sense of summer camp coming to an end.”

Veterans point out that despite the length of this race, the reporters’ relationships to the candidates and to each other aren’t nearly as toxic as they had been in previous years. There’s been little of the high school cliquishness that plagued the Kerry press corps, and reporters don’t seem to loathe McCain or Obama the way they loathed Gore–who refused to hold a press conference for upwards of 60 days–in 2000.

Call it summer camp or Stockholm Syndrome, but some don’t want the madness to end.

“It’s so built into my system, that it’s going to be hard to stop,” says Politico’s Ben Smith. Smith, who started blogging about New York politics in 2005, is now seriously addicted to the pace and metabolism–a word many invoked to describe the election’s rhythms–of the blogger’s life. He finds himself especially energized by the intensity of his readers who, by 4 a.m. have posted dozens of comments to a 3 a.m. post and who are now some of Smith’s best sources, sending him scoops and stories and snapshots of a far-roaming campaign. His family, however, is eagerly looking forward to November 5th. Smith’s wife repeatedly threatens to flush his Blackberry down the toilet; his kids, jealous of his “running conversation” with his readers, regularly squirrel away the device in the off chance they find it unattended. But Smith can’t bring himself to stop. Recently, he returned at 2 a.m. from a fishing trip and “couldn’t not plug in after being off the grid for an entire day.” He stayed up blogging and answering emails until 6 a.m.

“It’s really pathological,” he conceded.

Like the lost souls in All Quiet on the Western Front who, home on leave, jump at the sound of a backfiring exhaust, campaign reporters eye the post-election lull with trepidation. “There is an inevitable come-down just in terms of the energy of the thing,” says Adam Nagourney, of The New York Times. “I mean, you’re going along at 100 mph and then all of a sudden it just stops. The transition to the White House is a whole different story than covering a campaign. It’s slower, more institutionalized. It’s going to be a big adjustment.”

Hendrik Hertzberg, who covered the Dukakis vs. Bush campaign for TNR and has spent 2008 anxiously cheering for Obama in The New Yorker, isn’t too excited about the transition either. He has, after all, only started enjoying the game a couple of weeks ago, when Obama pulled ahead decisively in the polls. “I don’t want it to end, but I always want it to be about to end,” he says. “If the election were always a week away and I was feeling fairly good about it, that would be nice–sort of like Groundhog Day. Because after the election, things will start to get really serious. Then it won’t be the game anymore. Governance is serious business.”

Younger journalists who came of age in this election are anxious for more personal reasons. Andrew Romano came to Newsweek to do long feature pieces but was conscripted as a blogger. “I’m not one of these crazy political junkies,” he told me after another long blogging shift, in which he struggled not to say, “Obama is winning today, too.” “It’s not my life. It’s just a story I was interested in. For a long time I was feeling like I’m looking forward to this being over and going back to writing long-form journalism as opposed to writing multiple stories every day.” But then a funny thing happened. His blog, long buried on Newsweek’s website, started drawing nearly four million hits a month, making Romano the site’s most-read author. “It’s kind of like, this is who I am now, so the idea of the campaign being over and not doing a politics blog is a little bit like, who am I after this election?”

Candy Crowley, on the other hand, can’t think of a single thing she’ll miss about the campaign. She’s long ago sent in her Maryland absentee ballot, and November beckons with lush vistas of sleep and TiVO.

“Look, I’m a political reporter. I love politics,” she said. “But after the election, there’s going to be a lull where everyone’s talking about governance and who’s going to be the Secretary of State, and can the President do all the things he promised to do now that he doesn’t have any money. It’s all governance. But honestly, how long do you think it’ll be before politics kick in in Washington? A day and a half?”

My Friend(s)

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

My friends, in discussing the verbal tics of certain aspiring presidents, I would be remiss to pass over the punishing repetitions of that other aspirant to the throne, our friend Arizona Senator John McCain. Recently, the Times reported that McCain’s campaign minions have been struggling to massage his style and make it fit into the tight corset of general election speaking engagements. Before he learns to read the teleprompter, however, something’s got to give, and that something is McCain’s favorite phrase: “my friends.”

Though McCain’s doesn’t friend his listeners with quite the same range that Senator Obama asks them to look, he cakes it on just as thick. To wit: in a twenty-two minute victory lap after the Michigan and Arizona primaries (mostly applause and hooting), McCain globbed on the icing seven times. (“Well, my friends—well, my friends, here’s a little straight talk for you: What a difference a couple of days makes.”)

There are, to be sure, distinctions. There are the friends who endorse him, as when, early on, former presidential hopeful Kansas Senator Sam Brownback announced he was backing “my friend and true American hero, John McCain,” a platitude that solicited a reciprocal “my friend” from said American hero. This, however, seems to be a deviation from a pattern The Washington Post delineated in recalling McCain’s fist-pumping attack on Iowa Senator Charles Grassley in a 1992 meeting over the fate of American soldiers still MIA in Vietnam: “While the plural ‘my friends’ was usually a warm salutation from McCain, ‘my friend’ was often a prelude to his most caustic attacks.” (McCain apparently addressed Grassley as “my friend” before launching into such a friendly disquisition that Grassley stood up and demanded an apology.)

McCain has many friends and frenemies in Congress, yes, but his best and oldest friends are his voters, especially his Hispanic not-yet-voters. In a recent ad, McCain beckoned his Latino holdouts with his now familiar siren song: “My friends, I want you, the next time you’re down in Washington, D.C., to go to the Vietnam War memorial and look at the names engraved in black granite. You’ll find a whole lot of Hispanic names.” The Senator is also especially kind to his more tightly-wound voters, who worry that, should he win the presidency, he’ll keep the United States military in Iraq for a century. “My friends, the war will be over soon, for all intents and purposes, although the insurgency will go on for years and years and years,” he crooned. “But it will be handled by the Iraqis, not by us.” There. Feels better already, doesn’t it, friends?

And then there are the friends who secretly don’t want to be friends. Take Todd Haupt, a Minnesota Republican who just lost his real-estate business and makes a living selling health drinks. “I hate when he says, ‘My friends,’” Haupt told a reporter. “McCain is not my friend.”

Right. Then there are the friends who never were friends, like those who presumed McCain’s guilt in the Keating Five Scandal almost twenty years ago. “If you don’t believe that a 354-page document, my friend, is sufficient after a nine-month investigation… then you are different than most Americans.”

Those so-called friends, however, should never be confused with the friends who know McCain had a point when he called the Supreme Court’s recent habeas corpus ruling “one of the worst decisions in the history of this country.” “We made it very clear that these are enemy combatants, these are people who are not citizens, they do not and never have been given the rights that citizens of this country have,” McCain explained. “And my friends, there are some bad people down there. There are some bad people.” And, to clarify, these “people” are not friends who, obviously, do have such rights.

This speechifier seems to be a recent acquisition, however. McCain rarely used the phrase before his failed 2000 presidential bid and, back when he was a first-term Congressman, he was quite spartan in his use, referring to “my friends who didn’t return” in a 1985 Vietnam War special with Walter Cronkite called “Honor, Duty, and a War Called Vietnam.”

But I won’t leave you on such a dour note, my friends. Instead, please enjoy the following montage, courtesy of the Internet, which John McCain has yet to befriend.

Why, Looky Here

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

Tired of justifying his slalom toward the center, fed up with endless charges of betrayal, Barack Obama finally rolled his sleeves up and put his foot down. “Look, let me talk about the broader issue, this whole notion that I am shifting to the center,” he told a town-hall-ish gathering in Georgia last week. “The people who say this apparently haven’t been listening to me…the notion that this is me trying to look” — he paused, flummoxed, waving his hands about his head — “centrist is not true.”

Look, he seemed to be saying, it’s obvious. I’m the same old beacon of hope, and if you can’t see that, well, you’re just not listening.

That’s the dismissive, frustrated “look.” During Obama’s jet-packed ascent to the Democratic nomination, there have been many others—small cues that word-happy journalists would do well to pay attention to. There’s the concerned and caring “look,” as when he pledged to defend American workers from outsourcing and NAFTA in a February Democratic Debate (“Look, you know, when I go to these plants, I meet people who are proud of their jobs.”); the let’s-everybody-just-calm-down “look,” as when another round of bloodying primary nights came to an end (“Well, look, you know, we just completed a very hard fought contest… I think all our supporters need to just sit back and let things sink in.”); the combative “look,” as when he challenged HRC’s resume back in November (“Well, look, you know, if this a resume contest, then she certainly doesn’t have the strongest resume of the people on the stage.”); the exasperated “look,” on display when he was asked to apologize for a donor’s attack on Hillary (“Look, you know, I can’t be responsible for the statements of every single individual who contributes to our campaign.”); the devil-may-care “look” (“Look, I can’t spend my time worrying about that.”); the self-assured “look” (“Look. You know, what we’ve done has been successful throughout.”); the rhetorical straw-man “look” (“Whoever is the nominee, I think the Democratic Party will say, ‘Look, we’ve got a big fight ahead of us in November, and we are going to be unified to take the country in a different direction.’”); and, of course, there’s the conspiratorial, cool-cat “look” (“Oh, look, you know, when I was a kid, I inhaled. Frequently. That was the point.”).

This one magic word offers such range, such depth, it’s no wonder become Obama’s rhetorical flourish of choice. While promoting Dreams from My Father way back in 2004, the juniorest senator from Illinois was already wielding it with confidence: eight times in one sitting. But perhaps no flavor can top my personal favorite, the getting-real “look,” as when he explained to NPR’s Michele Norris how he can truly “get” the plight of the hurting average American: “Well, look, you know, just listen.”