Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

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

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List

Monday, April 15th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Murky Morality of the Magnitsky List [TNR]

The All-Night King of the Capital

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The All-Night King of the Capital [TNR]

Ezra Klein: The Wise Boy

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed shyly.

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

Ezra Klein: The Wise Boy [TNR]

Russia’s Past Is Ever Present

Friday, February 8th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia’s Past Is Ever Present [TNR]

John Kerry’s Quiet Campaign Pays Off

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Kerry’s Quiet Campaign Pays Off [TNR]

Susan Rice Isn’t Going Quietly

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

President Barack Obama is expected to appoint Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, on Wednesday as his national security adviser. She spoke with The New Republic late last year about the secretary of state debacle, her future, and why she’s not tortured by Rwanda.

BY THE TIME Susan Rice withdrew her name from the running for secretary of state earlier this month, she had emerged in the media as one of Washington’s most nefarious personalities. After Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham denounced the American ambassador to the United Nations for “misleading” the American people over the September 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, she was accused of, among other things, having a “personality ‘disorder,’” of harboring a “breathless” confidence in African strongmen, of being a “headmistress,” of having “sharp elbows,” of having a voice “always right on the edge of a screech,” of being an interventionist, of not intervening when it mattered.

“Was she also responsible for the drop in temperature between Tuesday and today?” snapped Gayle Smith, a senior director on the National Security Council (NSC). Smith belongs to an army of Rice loyalists who sprang to her defense, in lieu of a nominee’s war room. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton privately made supportive sojourns to Capitol Hill; Special Assistant to the President Samantha Power became such a fervent advocate that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof asked a mutual friend to tell her to tone it down. “It’s having the opposite effect,” he reportedly complained. (Kristof denies he gave Power “private advice on how to do her job.”) Although President Barack Obama initially defended Rice, by the time she decided to withdraw, he did not attempt to change her mind. “I’m not saying it was a nudge,” says one Rice ally. “I’m also not saying anyone begged her to stay.”

Still, there’s no reason to think that Rice’s career is over. Administration sources are not ruling out the possibility that she could be tapped to serve as national security advisor, a post that does not require Senate confirmation. And regardless of her title, Rice will remain one of Obama’s most trusted advisers. She was instrumental in the formation of his foreign policy before he came to the White House—an experience she describes as “a meeting of the minds”—and her family and his are now friends.

In her quick ascent through the foreign policy establishment—Rhodes scholar, Oxford Ph.D., one of the youngest assistant secretaries of state at age 33, veteran of many a Democratic presidential campaign—Rice has a public persona that is somehow both forceful and elusive. The many critiques leveled at her tend to distill into a contradictory assessment—that she is too political and not political enough.

According to one person who has worked with both Rice and Clinton, the latter is a more skilled politician. Rice, he says, works with a tight inner circle, and politics do not come naturally to her. Power implied that Rice’s chances were hurt because she is “not a leaker. She doesn’t cultivate relationships with journalists by spilling her guts about what goes on in the Situation Room.” It also doesn’t help that Rice, who has two school-age children, socializes sparingly. “She’s not a regular on the cocktail-party circuit,” says Brooke Anderson, Rice’s former deputy at the U.N. According to Rice’s brother, John, “Her style is not to proactively try to shape how people view her.”

At the United Nations, Rice has accomplished a lot—new sanctions against Iran and North Korea, a broad mandate for intervention in Libya—and has largely repaired the damage wreaked by her most colorful predecessor, John Bolton. When Obama delivered his Cairo address, she invited the U.N. ambassadors from Muslim countries to her residence at the Waldorf Astoria to watch the speech. Her appeal to the Security Council to intervene in Libya was so powerful that “you could hear a pin drop,” according to someone in the closed-door meeting.

But Rice’s get-it-done approach can sometimes resemble yukking it up with the guys in the locker room. “She doesn’t like diplomatic niceties, which is a nice way to put it,” says one human rights activist at the United Nations. Rice once reportedly mocked the French U.N. ambassador, Gérard Araud, for being reluctant to venture outside his comfort zone on Security Council trips to places like Haiti and South Sudan—by calling Araud “a virgin.” “You don’t do that in that world,” one stunned source says. “It’s not a pub.” (Rice told me she likes Araud “a great deal” and adds that they are often irreverent with each other.) Rice’s teachers, though, insist that her bluntness is appropriate. “There’s this myth out there that diplomacy has to involve communication that is saccharine,” says Richard Clarke, a former boss. In private, he says, “it’s all bare knuckles.”

Lost in all of this is Rice herself. I met with her a few days before her candidacy for secretary of state collapsed, in her office at the U.S. Mission in New York. She has deceptively soft eyes underlined with her signature electric blue eyeliner; her expression fluctuates constantly between laughter and a formidable game face. Watching the furor over Benghazi, a city that she helped save, had been “an out-of-body experience,” she told me. “I turn on the television and I think, ‘Well, that person they’re showing looks like me.’ But then the person they’re talking about, that’s not me. That’s not me at all.”

THE NARRATIVE of Rice’s foreign policy evolution has been that of a haunted realist reborn as an impassioned interventionist. One leading nongovernmental proponent of intervention in Libya said that, when he was urging the Obama administration to take action, Power and Rice were more responsive than most. Why was Rice amenable? “Rwanda.”

Rice grappled with the Rwandan nightmare during her very first job in government—as director for international organizations and peacekeeping at the NSC during Bill Clinton’s first term. When the genocide broke out, Madeleine Albright, then the U.N. ambassador, was instructed to advocate for the withdrawal of U.N. peacekeepers, but pushed to maintain some international presence. “I didn’t like my instructions,” Albright recalls. “I thought I could get a better answer out of the NSC, and I didn’t.” Clarke, the coordinator of the NSC’s counterterrorism group, and his staffer, Rice, were two of the people who wouldn’t provide a better answer, and observers recall blowout fights. (This put Rice in an awkward position, since Albright had helped her to get the job.)

Power’s book, A Problem from Hell, quotes Rice arguing against labeling the Rwandan carnage as genocide during an inter-agency discussion in 1994: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] elections?” Rice told Power she didn’t recall the comment, which she deemed “inappropriate.” Since then, she and Power have become close, and Power says she sees a gulf between what her sources told her and the colleague she has come to know. “What I can say is that, on the issues that are documented in the book, I can’t imagine someone that is better at these issues than the person that I now work with,” she says. Rice calls Power’s account of her role “an albatross around our collective necks.”

After the genocide, Rice traveled to Rwanda several times, and she has spoken about her experience repeatedly. She recalls walking through a churchyard littered with bodies—“think mummies,” she says. But when I ask if Rwanda had singularly shaped her foreign policy worldview, she snorts dismissively. “This is hugely overblown,” she says.

According to an old friend and Clinton administration colleague, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, Rice performed her own Ricean exorcism, known as COE, or “correction of errors,” in business-school speak. “She was very moved by what she saw but also looked at where we, as an administration, could have been better,” says Burwell. “She is a very warm person, but she is also a pragmatic person.” Rice told me that the chief lesson she derived was that all options should be extensively explored. “What we did most wrong in the U.S. government was that we never even actively considered or debated whether we should do anything to stop the genocide,” she says. “By anything, I mean anything involving intervention. Now, maybe the answer to that would’ve been, should’ve been no. But we never debated it, discussed it. It wasn’t on anybody’s mind, and it wasn’t editorialized about, and it wasn’t debated on the floor of Congress.”

She added, “To suggest that I’m repenting for [Rwanda] or that I’m haunted by that or that I don’t sleep because of that or that every policy I’ve ever implemented subsequently is driven by that is garbage.” In her line of work, Rice notes, she has visited many a war zone. “I’m a little too experienced. I’ve seen enough other things such that what’s shaped me is much, much, much, much, much broader than any single event or experience.”

BORN IN WASHINGTON in November 1964, Rice once told The Washington Post that she is “a D.C. girl through and through.” She grew up in Shepherd Park, a black and Jewish area in the city’s Northwest. Her father, Emmett, had a Ph.D. in economics from Berkeley and would go on to be a governor of the Federal Reserve; her mother, Lois, worked in education policy and was a midwife of the Pell Grant. Rice and her younger brother, John, would take the bus through some of Washington’s rougher neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park to two of its most prestigious schools. When they arrived at their destinations—National Cathedral School for Susan, St. Albans for John—most of the faces around them were white. Susan worked on the Hill every summer in high school. Albright was a family friend; her then-husband was Emmett’s tennis partner.

Yet Rice bristles at the suggestion that she comes from the Washington elite. The parents in Shepherd Park were first-generation college-educated blacks; the parents at National Cathedral School belonged to still-segregated country clubs. Emmett grew up in South Carolina in the 1920s; Lois’s parents were Jamaican immigrants. Lois’s mother, a maid, and her father, a janitor, sent her to Radcliffe by mortgaging and remortgaging the house. “The family mindset, experience, and history,” Rice says, “was one of striving.” Race doesn’t dominate her worldview, but she can be sensitive to being seen as the token African American. In a 1998 interview with the Post, Rice seethes when she feels she’s being labeled an affirmative-action baby: “You don’t get to use me to feel better about your own failure to perform,” she said. “I’m not going to give you that.”

Rice also quibbles with the notion that she grew up in politics. “My parents were into policy and my father government, but not politics,” she says. “A lot of my classmates were from families that were into politics.” Still, until she finished college, she was sure that she wanted to be a senator. “And then somewhere in my early twenties, I decided that I did not have the—” she pauses for a long time and shifts in her armchair. “I guess the patience to be a politician.”

IF RICE DID penance for Rwanda, she did it at the State Department, where she was an assistant secretary for African affairs from 1997 to 2001, a job into which Albright—by then secretary of state—ushered her. In that position, Rice became “one of the key architects in American reengagement in Africa,” says a colleague who served with her.

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

Her most famous enemy was Richard Holbrooke. Rice saw Holbrooke as meddling on her turf; Holbrooke viewed Rice as an incompetent “pipsqueak,” as one Holbrookian put it. At one meeting, when Holbrooke, then U.N. ambassador, addressed Rice in a way she found belittling, she silently flipped him the bird. Holbrooke reportedly didn’t flinch. (John Prendergast, an Africa policy staffer who was in the room, says, “a lot of people thought it was pretty funny.”) Holbrooke, for his part, couldn’t understand why Rice wouldn’t want his unsolicited tutelage. “She had such a chip on her shoulder,” says a Holbrooke ally.

After Rice’s comments on Benghazi turned into a scandal, other aspects of her record on African affairs came under scrutiny. In a New York Times op-ed, an Eritrean-American activist criticized Rice for being too close to various African “strongmen”—including Paul Kagame in Rwanda, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia. Zenawi, for instance, presided over Ethiopia’s economic revival and was a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism, but he also massacred protesters and oppressed minorities. When he died in August, Rice delivered a glowing tribute at his funeral, calling him a “true friend” with a “world-class mind.” She was roundly criticized. “I know I’m vilified for having said anything other than, ‘He was a tyrant,’ … which would’ve been a little awkward, on behalf of the U.S. government and in front of all the mourning Ethiopians,” she says. Prendergast points out that, when Rice arrived at State, many of these leaders had just come to power; it was only later that they became increasingly authoritarian. “It’s strange to politicize something that was so bipartisan,” he says. “There was praise heaped on these people as reformers into the mid-2000s.”

Rice was also lambasted in this magazine for brokering a deal, in 2000, between the democratically elected president of Sierra Leone and vicious Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels backed by Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. The deal, which collapsed, granted amnesty to the RUF. (Rice claims the United States opposed the amnesty provision.) Gayle Smith defends this record. “The question was: Do we bring the violence to an end and get some breathing space to structure a peaceful transition?” she says. “Look at where Sierra Leone is today. The war is over. Sierra Leone is moving steadily forward.” For her part, Rice sees this sort of deal-making as essential. “It’s complicated!” she exclaims. “You have to deal with these countries as you find them. We don’t get, in every instance, to have the government of our choosing.”

A similar flexibility can be seen in her approach to the major foreign policy questions of the Obama administration. Rice advocated energetically for U.S. involvement in Libya—because there was a clear path to intervention—but has been reluctant to step into the messier Syrian conflict, where it is unclear what an intervention would achieve or even look like. (The lore of the “three amigas”—Rice, Clinton, and Power as a trio of like-minded idealists—prevailing on Obama to intervene in Libya, says one administration official, is “bullshit” and “offensive to women.”)

Rice is avowedly not an interventionist, but she is not a noninterventionist, either. In this, she is, like many of her generation, and like Obama, a new and not always predictable blend of pragmatist and idealist. She and Obama see a world beset by broad, borderless problems—Terrorism, climate change—that require multilateral cooperation to fix. They are wary of sweeping doctrines and partial to data-driven wonkery.

And yet, despite her bond with Obama, this isn’t the first time Rice has been disappointed by him. She was one of his first high-profile foreign policy staffers during his 2008 campaign—a move that at the time seemed near suicidal, given that most of her peers had signed on with Hillary Clinton. (After serving as a surrogate for John Kerry in 2004, she didn’t want to repeat the experience of working for a candidate who had voted for the Iraq War.) Obama’s foreign policy team assumed they would be running the shop in his administration if he won. But when the election was over, Obama nominated Clinton for secretary of state and appointed James L. Jones as national security advisor, the position Rice had coveted. Like others, Rice was bitter and disappointed, but, ever the loyal soldier, she observed that the only people to get their first choice jobs were Attorney General Eric Holder and Obama himself. (Rice disputed this account, saying, “My preference was what the president wanted me to do.”)

This time, she has been more assertive. In a TV appearance the day she withdrew from consideration, Brian Williams asked her if she had wanted to be secretary of state. “Yes, sure,” she replied, looking deflated. “How can you not want, in my field, to serve at the highest possible level?”

When I spoke to Rice again a few days later, she told me she and Obama had had “a warm conversation,” which made her feel better. It’s not clear when she will ever come so close to “the highest possible level” of foreign policy-making again—although she has not ruled out the prospect. “Who knows? It’s not the only job I’ve ever wanted, including the one I have,” she says. I asked her if, in all of this, there were any takeaways, any lessons learned. “You know, I’m sure the answer to that is yes,” she says cheerfully. “But before I share them with you, I have to process them further for myself. This only happened a few days ago, and I’ve got to thoroughly digest it.”

Susan Rice Isn’t Going Quietly [TNR]

Kremlin Tightens Screws, Unwittingly Loosens Bolts

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kremlin Tightens Screws, Unwittingly Loosens Bolts [TNR]

Is Pussy Riot Breaking Up?

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Pussy Riot Breaking Up? [TNR]

Russia Tries to Kill U.S. Democracy Promotion Once and For All

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012

MOSCOW—When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived for the APEC summit in Vladivostok on September 8, there was one item on the agenda she was not expecting. Sitting down with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the two discussed missile defense and Syria, talked about Iran’s quest to get a nuclear weapon. And then Lavrov dropped the bomb: USAID was to cease all operations inside the Russian Federation starting October 1. Four days later, the Russian Foreign Ministry delivered the news in writing.

USAID, the government development agency started by John F. Kennedy in 1961, first opened its operations in Russia right after the end of the Cold War. The goal was to help Russia transition from a command economy to a market one. Since then, the agency has helped Russians draft land and tax reform, has tried to jump-start the small business sector through micro loans and has addressed public health issues like Russia’s mammoth AIDS and tuberculosis problems.

Mostly, of course, it finances civil society and democracy initiatives. Today’s USAID office is a shadow of its former self, with a budget of under $50 million, a drop fom $207 million in 1995, but it still finances large chunks of the operating budgets of a number of prominent Russian organizations like the storied human rights and historical “memory” group Memorial, the Russian branch of Transparency International, and the election monitoring NGO “Golos”. These organizations, not coincidentally, are an irritant for the Kremlin, which is often the target of their criticism.

There has long been talk in Moscow of shutting down USAID, but it’s impossible to appreciate today’s news without first considering the backdrop of continuing anti-government protests and the Kremlin’s increasingly harsh way of dealing with them. The foundation for this move was laid back in May when the Russian parliament passed a law that required such groups—which participate in the political life of the country and get foreign financing—to register as “foreign agents.” The new measure goes one step further and threatens to shut the spigot off altogether.

Lilia Shibanova, head of Golos, sees something even more sinister in this. Golos and its army of fastidious election monitors are a favorite of the American government and of the U.S. ambassador to Russia. But to Putin, they are spoilers; the Kremlin likes its elections engineered just so. Last fall, a week before the December parliamentary elections, Putin took a shot across the bow at Golos, saying: “The representatives of certain foreign governments gather people to whom they give money—so called ‘grantees’—whom they instruct…in order to influence the result of the election in our country.” He added, “Judas is not the most respected biblical character among our people.” Shortly thereafter, Golos offices were raided.

Shibanova sees today’s news as the next act of the crackdown. “If what I’m hearing is true, that the deadline is October 1, then it seems that the government is in a rush to close us down in time for the regional elections, which are October 14,” she said. “The timing seems very suspicious to me.”

The U.S. government, for its part, insists that this doesn’t spell the end of their support for civil rights in Russia. “We haven’t changed our policy,” said one senior government official, and echoed State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland’s statement that State “remains committed to supporting, democracy human rights, and the development of a more robust civil society in Russia.” In December of last year, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas O. Melia testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and floated the administration’s idea of creating a $50 million fund to sponsor democracy development in Russia. This could take on new urgency given today’s news and the State Department’s defiant pledge to continue in this line of work, be it through USAID or some other vehicle.

“This is not anything new,” says Elena Panfilova, director of Transparency International Russia. “In 2005, when they found the rock”—a British spy camera that looked like a rock—“they went after foreign funding. A lot of our donors left us then, but we made it out alive.” Panfilova says she and her employees simply found other work and contributed parts of their salaries to the project. And while finding domestic sponsors becomes increasingly unlikely in a context such as this, Panfilova remains hopeful. “We’ll figure it out,” she said. “We’re not stupid.”

Russia Tries to Kill U.S. Democracy Promotion Once and For All [TNR]

The Blunt Weapon of Russian Law is Turned Against One of its Makers

Friday, September 14th, 2012

Today, the Russian parliament voted 291 to 150 to strip one Gennady Gudkov of his seat. Gudkov, a former KGB man and businessman, has served in the Duma, the Russian parliament, for eleven years, most of them in the leftist Just Russia party. (The biography on his website notes, oddly, that he was “the first deputy elected in the third millennium.”) The ostensible cause was that Gudkov “combined a deputy’s role with an entrepreneur’s”—that is to say, he continued to run his private security business while voting on laws and otherwise involving himself in the strange workings of the Duma.

Some sort of punishment would undoubtedly have been deserved—if only Gudkov’s “combining” had been proven in court, or if every other parliamentarian weren’t doing the exact same thing. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the evergreen clown of the pseudo-nationalist LDPR faction, for example, has a vodka factory that makes Zhirinovsky Vodka. Another deputy, a young man from the United Russia faction, is the CEO of a company called “Konsalting Menedzhment Strategia.” According to a list compiled by Gudkov’s son Dmitry (also a deputy from the same party), his colleagues in the Duma own scores of business, hundreds of shares in companies, acres of posh real estate, and drive quite incredible cars. (One drives a Bentley, for example; the husband of another drives a Lamborghini Diablo. Indeed, the parking lot in front of the Duma building is a thicket of luxury vehicles, all this despite the parliamentarians’ officially low salaries.)

None of this is anything new. Russian bureaucrats are the country’s new elite. A study done by a Moscow real estate company found that most of the apartments on the “elite” market (apartments for $1.5 to 2 million) sell to bureaucrats. Their wives and children are usually the heads of large and lucrative businesses, and their automotive choices rarely jive with the incomes listed on their official declarations. Everyone in Russia knows that in Russia politics is almost explicitly about proximity to cash flows and the size of the bucket you get. This is why, when the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times recently reported on potential insider trading by which Putin ally Igor Shuvalov (then deputy prime minister) shuffled about a billion dollars to himself and his friends, no one so much as batted an eye, not even Shuvalov. A case that, in the West, would have churned up a media sensation and a drawn out legal battle here didn’t even ripple the water.

And this is the problem with the Gudkov case. Yes, Gudkov had a nice business—I would know: I’ve been to the well-appointed 18th century mansion that serves as its central office—but the fact that his business was first shut down (the Interior Ministry revoked its license that had allowed it to operate) and that he was shorn of his status clearly has nothing to do with the business. It has everything to do with the fact that Gudkov, a good old boy, went over to the wrong side: When mass political protests began after December’s disputed parliamentary elections, Gudkov became a very visible and very vocal leader of the opposition, both in parliament and on the streets. The issue is not that he is a businessman, but that he is a traitor. This is why, when Gudkov finished his farewell speech to his colleagues shortly before the vote, one United Russia deputy shouted “Judas!” (His fellow traitor, television celebrity and daughter of Putin’s mentor Ksenia Sobchak, was subjected to a humiliating nine-hour search of her home in June after joining the opposition. The investigators took nearly $2 million from her safe—and if she ever sees the money again, I will quit this profession.)

When I asked high-ranking United Russia deputy Andrey Isaev about the Gudkov case, he told me it was done with the Duma’s prestige in mind. “I think it was absolutely the right decision and if we hadn’t made it, millions of citizens would have decided that being in the Duma is a lucky break,” Isaev told me. “They’ll think that deputies can do whatever, violate whatever laws. Today’s decision showed that that’s not the case.”

Actually, Duma deputies enjoy legal immunity—the criminal investigation against Gudkov that the government’s Investigative Committee is now considering would never have been possible had he not been forced to relinquish his seat in parliament. But that’s not even the point. The point is that, if the Duma has little legitimacy after the widely and loudly falsified December parliamentary elections and the mass protests it sparked, it has even less legitimacy now. (After the vote, Russian-language Twitter buzzed with the anger of those who had voted for Gudkov and his party and December, and now felt cheated and silenced.) The case becomes yet another reason for Russians to come to the very reasonable conclusion that the law and the Russian judicial system are its enemies. As Alexander Kliment of the Eurasia Group once wisely pointed out to me, the law in Russia does not exist as a neutral framework of guarantees and protections designed to level the playing field. In Russia, the law doesn’t exist until it is needed to take out an opponent, or a traitor. In Russia, the law is a weapon.

Gudkov and anyone watching the fast unraveling of his career—first the business, then the Duma seat—knew that once the system aims itself at you, there is no chance you’ll escape whole. The outcome of this case was obvious months ago, when government inquiries into Gudkov’s business first appeared this summer. Perhaps this is why Gudkov’s speech in parliament focused on an unspecified future in which he could claim vindication—and why he answered the heckle “Judas!” with a full-throated “Go fuck yourself!”

The Blunt Weapon of Russian Law is Turned Against One of its Makers [TNR]

How to Tell If You’re an American Spy in Russia: Ask Hillary Clinton

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

On July 26, the heads of two of the most famous human rights groups in Russia sent President Barack Obama an open letter with a pressing issue: were they, or were they not his spies?

It was a strange move, but also quite a clever one. In May, in the last week of its session, the Russian parliament kicked into overdrive and passed a raft of measures widely seen as trying to pull the rug out from under the increasingly vocal and increasingly numerous opposition. One of the new laws required that Russian NGOs that received money from abroad and did political work inside Russia register as “foreign agents.” It would also require them to add this label to all their publications, and to subject themselves to strict government oversight. Because it’s hard for Russian human rights groups to get money at home, they often turn to Europe and the U.S.; now the money would come with a tag that would make them even more alien and suspect at a time when the government has stepped up its anti-Western rhetoric. It would also make money even harder to get. This left the human rights community—as well as those groups that monitor elections, corruption, and police brutality—in a bind: Take the money and face domestic harassment and public hostility, or tighten their belts even further.

But then Lev Ponomarev, of “For Human Rights,” had an idea. “The law was sloppily written,” he explained. “It uses the word ‘agent,’ but doesn’t define it.” But the civil code already has a definition, and for someone to be classified an agent, there has to be a contract with the principal on behalf of whom the agent is working. Because Ponomarev’s organization takes money from three American funds—MacArthur, Soros, and the National Endowment for Democracy—he decided to ask his supposed principal whether or not they had this contract.

Today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded. “I would like to thank you for your letter. President Obama asked me to answer you,” she wrote in a letter that was posted, in Russian, on the website of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the oldest human rights organization in Russia, and a co-signer on the July letter. “Every American administration has always supported the important work of your organization in defending human rights in Russia,” Clinton went on:

In response to your specific question as to whether non-governmental organizations receiving American grants are ‘agents’ of the American government, allow me to categorically state that not only do we not impose goals on your organizations and do not control their activities, but we have no desire to do so. The priorities and activities of non-governmental organizations that receive support from the United States, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and For Human Rights, are determined by their leadership, by their staff and activists, not by their donors.

The fairly quick and positive response was likely the doing of the American ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, who has known Ponomarev and Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, for over twenty years. He was an Oxford graduate student in Moscow when the Soviet Union started to crumble, and befriended a lot of the players on both sides of the barricades. He is also extremely close with the president, on whom he prevailed, early in his term, to give Russian-American relations far more ram space than most anyone expected, or thought they deserved. Though Alexeyeva and Ponomarev both deny that they asked McFaul to lobby Clinton and Obama, and McFaul wouldn’t comment, it’s telling that, right after the NGO law was passed, McFaul hosted a dinner for Alexeyeva’s eighty-fifth birthday at his residence in Moscow, and then released the pictures online. It was clearly an act of defiance by a diplomat for whom democracy promotion and human rights have been his life’s work.

The other issue, of course, is whether Clinton’s answer will be of any use in convincing the Russians. When I spoke to Alexeyeva, she recalled how, in the spring of 1977, a Jewish human rights activist named Anatoly Sharansky (he would later become Israeli politician Natan Sharansky) was accused by Soviet authorities of spying for the U.S. and tossed in jail. In June, Jimmy Carter, who had come under pressure from Jewish organizations, went on television to announce that Sharanasky was not a spy for the United States. “It didn’t help Sharansky, but it swayed international opinion that the accusation was false,” Alexeyeva explained.

“It’s not very convincing for our enemies, but I don’t care, because if they wrote this law like this, show me the evidence that I’m an agent,” Ponomarev told me. (In fact, a parliamentarian from the ruling United Russia party called Clinton’s “a love letter.”) “And if I’m a secret agent, then let the FSB do its work and unveil me as a secret agent.”

There was another aspect that particularly tickled Ponomarev: the international scandal aspect. Come fall, the law will go into effect and Ponomarev’s “For Human Rights” will have to register as a foreign agent. “They’ll say, ‘Where do you get your money from? Whose agent are you?’ and I’ll say, ‘America,’” Ponomarev says. “I register as an agent, and Obama says, ‘Hey, that’s not my agent!’ That’s a little awkward, don’t you think?”

How to Tell If You’re an American Spy in Russia: Ask Hillary Clinton [TNR]

How Three Young Punks Made Putin Blink

Friday, August 17th, 2012

MOSCOW—When the sentence came, it was after three hours of Judge Marina Syrova monotonously reading aloud the entire tale of Pussy Riot’s encounter with the law. Three hours from the time she pronounced the three young women guilty of “grossly violating the public order” and of being “motivated by religious hatred,” the judge announced that only a “real sentence”—rather than probation—would be fitting and instructive enough. She quickly handed down a two-year sentence in minimum security prison to each of the defendants, and that was that.

In those three hours, however, with the entire courtroom standing the whole time, we got to hear the entire case all over again. We heard about how the three young defendants—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Ekaterina Samutsevich, and Maria Alyokhina, handcuffed inside a bulletproof “aquarium”—as well as “two other unidentified people” entered Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior on the morning of February 21, at which point they mounted the steps to the altar, shed their winter clothing, donned colorful balaclavas and began to “raise their legs” and to “hit the air, as if it were an opponent.” We heard about how their clothing was in violation of Church rules, how Samutsevich, “in clear collusion” with the others, took out a guitar and how Tolokonnikova plugged it into an amp “without delay,” about how the place where they stood—the ambon—was not for women, how the Cathedral’s employees tried to stop them, how the Pussy Riot “demonstratively and cynically” defied “the Orthodox world” and tried to “devalue centuries of revered and protected dogmas” and “encroaching on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.” We heard about the materials seized in the searches of the defendants’ apartments, materials that, apparently, had “offended God.” We heard about the testimony of the victims, the Orthodox believers so deeply wounded by the thirty-second performance, though we learned that that testimony of one witness—he had seen the resultant music video on YouTube and read an interview with Pussy Riot —was struck, which was a shame because he had been the only one to explain to the court the etiology of the group’s name. (“Do you even know what ‘pussy’ means?” he asked the court two weeks ago. “I do. I brought a dictionary.” The word, it turned out, derived from “pus.”)

Through those three hot, tiresome hours, the three young women listened to the litany of absurdist, pseudo-legalistic, theocratic woe, by turns laughing and rolling their eyes. Alyokhina, the brain, watched attentively, her pale face calm under a poof of dirty blonde frizz. Tolokonnikova, the opposition’s sultry new sex symbol (Ukrainian Playboy has just invited her onto its cover), wearing a blue “No pasarán!” t-shirt, smirked and curled her lips in disdain. Even the shy and awkward Samutsevich laughed when the judge, a prissy older woman, read the full text of the punk prayer “Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!”, uttering the phrase “the priest blows the prosecutor.” At one point, the unmistakable strains of punk wafted into the courtroom. The members of Pussy Riot who are still anonymous and free had emerged on a balcony across the street from the courthouse and began to rage through their new single “Putin Lights the Fires of Revolution.” Then they made it rain CDs. At the sound of the music, Tolokonnikova’s face lit up and, clasping her chained hands like a victorious boxer, shook them above her head.

When the two-year sentence came in, the girls laughed. When they were first detained and charged in March, all the signs had pointed to seven years behind bars. Putin had apologized to the Orthodox faithful, and the patriarch and Church made a point of staying out of the case, though it was quite clear that they weren’t.

But the Kremlin’s grasp on the story soon slipped. First, the story became a domestic PR-headache. Then, starting in July, Western musicians started glomming onto the case one by one: the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting, Franz Ferdinand, Bjork, Paul McCartney. Madonna came to Moscow to give a concert, and ended up delivering an ode to the girls, donned a balaclava, and wrote the words “Free Pussy Riot” on her back. Unlike the highly politicized case of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a man with a shadowy past who had the assets Putin wanted, the case of Pussy Riot had become an easily consumable image of good and evil: Three young women against an Evil Empire. The heretofore little-known punkettes received such unanimously positive international publicity that one began even to pity the Kremlin and the Church a little: They had clearly and severely miscalculated.

As is so often the case with the Russian government, it was Putin himself who dramatized the pathos. Just before Putin’s departed for the London Olympics—halfway through the trial—London mayor Boris Johnson spoke up for Pussy Riot; upon his arrival, Prime Minister David Cameron broached the issue with Putin in their private meeting. Putin took notice of these slights; as swaggering and rude as he is (he’s been late to meet just about every foreign leader, including the Queen), he very much cares about his image in the West. It is where, after all, all his friends and subjects have their money. It is also important to Putin to be the leader of a world superpower, which is what he thinks Russia still is. He cannot be an Assad or a Qaddafi; it is very important for him to be what the Russians call “handshakeable” abroad. And so, while his instinct is often to hit first and think later, Putin knows it’s in his interest to cultivate the image of a centrist. It is not unheard of for him to bow to public pressure, though he will try his damndest to make it seem like public pressure has nothing to do with it.

Thus, when the case reached a fever pitch, Putin, speaking from London, said the girls “shouldn’t be punished too harshly.” Let them think about what they’ve done, he chided, and, as always, left it up to the court. The court immediately picked up on the signal, and soon the prosecutor was asking not for seven years, but for three. Some of the victims stopped calling for any punishment. The liberals who had gotten so fired up about the case became even more fired up: Here it was, the taste of victory! Ebullient rumors of probation soon began to circulate around Moscow.

There was some truth in this euphoria, but not enough. Twitter had helped Russian liberals back the Russian regime into a corner in unprecedented fashion. But the system that does not have a reverse gear, a system that admits no mistakes, and shows no weakness (ninety-nine percent of criminal cases in Russia result in a guilty verdict) cannot get a new transmission in one week, or in one case. As soon as the trial began, it was clear that the government did not intend on absolving Pussy Riot.

Still, the two-year sentence was a surprise because it was less than the three many expected, and far less than the seven everyone feared. “In our system, two years is not a real sentence,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who advised Putin’s successful 2000 presidential campaign. “They probably think they’re being very merciful,” especially considering that the girls have already served nearly six months of it in pre-trial detention. This was, in other words, as much give as the system could give.

Afterwards, supporters of Pussy Riot made their arguments for why it was still not enough. “Putin’s statements that the court could deliver a not-too-harsh verdict were expressed in a verdict that deprived innocent people of their freedom for two years,” defense lawyer Mark Feygin told a scrum of journalists outside the courthouse. “Who in their right mind could say this was a not-too-harsh verdict?” Alexey Navalny, the unspoken leader of the opposition, announced that he was “too angry to comment.” Nearby, a couple hundred very angry people had gathered nearby to protest, and a couple dozen of them were arrested. (One climbed the fence of the nearby Turkish embassy, and the police chased her onto its grounds.) The parents of the Samutsevitch and Alyokhina, who had originally disapproved of their daughters’ performance, now were fully behind them. “They did the right thing, absolutely,” Samutsevich’s soft-spoken, somewhat religious father said afterwards. “They really hit a nerve and showed the Church for what it is.”

And so the conclusion of the Pussy Riot trial served the same function as the performance that was its instigation: a demonstration of the deep contradictions plaguing Russian politics. From the perspective of the government, a sentence of two years is merciful; in the view of the country’s nascent, if disorganized and clumsy, but increasingly conscious, forward-looking middle-class opposition, it is beyond the pale. The original prupose of the trial may have been to cow Russia’s liberals, but the result was the opposite: Those paying attention to the trial—the journalists, the European parliamentarians, the activists, the chattering classes—were outraged, not intimidated, at the thought that three young women would be locked up for two years for singing a silly song.

When Tolokonnikova’s husband and Pussy Riot spinmeister Peter Verzilov emerged from the courthouse after the verdict, he was mobbed by journalists asking him for comment.

“What will happen to your wife and daughter?” one journalist asked. “Who will take care of them?”

“My daughter, wife, and everyone else will be saved by the revolution,” he said blithely. “Only the revolution. And we’re going to make it happen.”

How Three Young Punks Made Putin Blink [TNR]

Pussy Riot v. Putin: A Front Row Seat at a Russian Dark Comedy

Monday, August 6th, 2012

On the morning of February 21, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina, and Ekaterina Samutsevich walked up the steps leading to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, shed their winter clothing, pulled colorful winter hats down over their faces, and jumped around punching and kicking for about thirty seconds. By evening, the three young women had turned it into a music video called “Punk Prayer: Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!” which mocked the patriarch and Putin. (“The head of the KGB is their patron saint,” they sang, by turns shrieking and imitating a church choir.)

The video went viral: it was two weeks before the presidential election and Putin, facing a wave of unprecedented protests, was feeling shaky. Three days later, a warrant was issued for the girls’ arrest. According to their indictment, their trial promised to be a decisive moment in the history of Christianity; officially, they were being tried for hooliganism, but the mumbling prosecutor clarified that they stood accused of “insulting the entire Christian world.”

Last week, on the day before the trial began, Petr Verzilov, Tolokonnikova’s husband, and I met for coffee. We talked about Derrida and post-modernism, the construction of gender and about performance art, but also about international press coverage of the Pussy Riot case and the growing list of Western musicians—Franz Ferdinand, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sting—who had spoken up for the young women. “The state is doing everything to heat up attention for the case,” Verzilov said. “Someone’s putting on a show, as if, God forbid the New York Times doesn’t write about it.”

Verzilov and Tolokonnikova had met as students in the philosophy department of Moscow State University, and had been doing shocking performance art for years, first with a group called Voina, after which they founded Pussy Riot. (One of their first performance pieces, for Voina, involved having sex, together with a large group, in Moscow’s Biological Museum on the eve of Medvedev’s inauguration. Tolokonnikova was heavily pregnant at the time.) “Punk Prayer” was part of a series of performances that took aim at symbols of the regime, past and present: the Place of the Skulls, the execution spot on Red Square; luxury shopping malls, the Moscow metro. The Catherdal was chosen because it had, in Pussy Riot’s view, become a commercial center and because the patriarch had just told believers to vote for Putin in the upcoming presidential election.

Though Pussy Riot’s goal was to challenge Russian society through performance art, they were soon to discover that Putin’s state insisted on imposing its own distinct political aesthetic. “Of course, the indictment came down on Forgiveness Sunday,” Petr Verzilov said, referring to the fact that the criminal charge coincided with the day that Russian Orthodox believers ask each other’s forgiveness before the beginning of Lent. “The people in the Kremlin are obviously given to small acts of theatricality.”

THIS WAS PERFECTLY clear on the first day of the trial, which kicked off with statements from the defendants, read out by their lawyers. The young women, who sat in a cage of bulletproof glass (known colloquially as “the aquarium”) apologized to the Orthodox believers they had offended; Tolokonnikova called it “an ethical mistake.” Alyokhina, herself an Orthodox believer, apologized but also expressed her dismay at the lack of Christian forgiveness. “I thought the Church loved all its children,” she said in her written statement. “But it turns out it only loves those children who love Putin.”

And that’s where the loftiness ended and reality began to disintegrate. The judge overruled the defense’s motion to call any of its thirty five witnesses at the trial: the reason given was that it was too early, but she ended up rejecting the motion again and again throughout the proceedings. The prosecutor began to mutter his way through the indictment, using phrases like “imitating the Gates of Heaven” and “songs of an insulting, blasphemous nature.” The girls, drifting off in their aquarium, stood accused by the Russian state of being motivated by “religious hatred,” of “demonstratively and cynically putting themselves in opposition to the Orthodox world” and of “trying to devalue centuries of revered and protected dogmas” and “encroaching on the rights and sovereignty of the Russian Orthodox Church.” Somewhere else in there was a statement about how the young women of Pussy Riot had shaken “the spiritual foundations” of the Russian Federation, which, until that point, had given the distinct impression of being a secular state.

The defense counsel, for its part, seemed at this point to have already stopped listening; they were buried in their iPads and phones, live-tweeting the proceedings, as was Verzilov, who sat on a bench closest to the aquarium, as if they had decided that broadcasting the surrealism to the world was a better alternative than trying to make sense of it.

When the judge asked the girls how they plead, Alyokhina, a small, mousy girl with a poof of dirty blonde hair, said she wouldn’t plead at all as she didn’t understand what the indictment even meant. When this devolved into a shouting match with the judge—the first of many—Alyokhina demanded, “Why doesn’t the court take my words into account?” She was ordered to sit down.

The prosecution called its first witness, Lyubov Sokologorskaya, who is caretaker of the cathedral’s candles, and who can be seen in the Pussy Riot video, her head covered with a white kerchief, trying to wave off the group’s video camera. She was testifying as one of the nine victims in the case, the Orthodox faithful who had witnessed the 30 seconds of blasphemy and had been suffering ever since. I had run into Sokologorskaya, a tall woman with a vague face, in the bathroom during a break and I asked her why she turned to a secular court to address her religious hurt. She flashed me a sudden, angry look. “Go ahead,” she snapped. “Go ahead. Why don’t you just say the word you’re dancing around?” Before I could understand what it was I was dancing around, her lawyer, Larissa Pavlova, a big woman with a malicious face, led her away.

On the stand, Sokologorskaya was all quiet pathos. One could barely hear her responses to the questions posed by the prosecutor. Was she an Orthodox believer? Did she celebrate all the holidays and keep all the fasts of the Russian Orthodox Church? What is god? What were the girls wearing? Was their clothing tight?

Yes, Sokologorskaya said, their clothing was mostly tight and bright and generally inappropriate for a holy place. She spotted a bra strap; one dress had bright stripes. The worst, though, was that they had fooled her: two of them, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, she said, had approached her and asked her which icons to pray to for various blessings. In the meantime, she realized, their co-conspirators were climbing the railing blocking off the steps leading to the altar, steps on which no woman is allowed to stand. Then they shed their coats and began to jump around, movements she described as “devilish jerking.”

“Have you ever seen any devils?” defense attorney Violetta Volkova asked.

The judge interceded and struck down the question, as she would for most of the defense’s questions.

“I just wanted to clarify, how does she know how devils jerk themselves around?” Volkova yelled, as she would for most of the trial.

The question was struck.

“They raised their legs so high that everything past their waists, you could see,” Sokologorskaya almost moaned. “They were egging each other on, to see who could raise her leg the highest.”

The prosecution went on. Was the behavior of Pussy Riot acceptable behavior according to Church rules? Did it offend the feelings of Orthodox believers? Was it a crime?


“In your view,” Pavlova asked her client, “what should the punishment be?”

“They need to be punished adequately,” Sokologorskaya said. (This elicited no objection from the defense about a witness testifying to something that was for the court to decide.) “They need to be punished so that they never want to do this again, under any circumstances. So that they’re scared.”

Because Sokologorskaya was claiming “moral damage,” one of the defense lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, asked her if she had turned to a doctor or a psychologist to address her suffering.

“I’m an Orthodox believer,” Sokologorskaya said. “The gracious power of the Holy Spirit is a million times stronger than any psychologist!”

“Then why didn’t the gracious power of the Holy Spirit assuage your moral suffering?”

“The question is struck!” snapped the judge.

“Have you seen the video of the punk prayer?” Polozov asked.


“If the performance caused you such moral suffering, why did you decide to poison your soul again?”

The judge struck the question.

Did she hear the name Putin? Anything about the patriarch?

There was a long pause.

“I’m trying to remember, I’m afraid to get it wrong,” Sokologorskaya said, voice quavering. “It was just that I was intensively praying. It was enough for me to hear ‘patriarch.’”

“When you are in a state of intensive prayer, are you aware of what is going on around you?” asked Polozov.

The question was struck.

“Rephrase,” said the judge.

“When you are in a state of intensive prayer,” began Polozov, “can you hear what people are saying to you?

The question was struck.

“Irrelevant,” said the judge.

“What did my client Tolokonnikova say on the dias on Februrary 21?” asked Mark Feygin, another of the defense lawyers.

The question was struck.

“Irrelevant,” said the judge.

“Who told you the girls in the video are the same girls as the ones on trial today?” Feygin asked. “They were wearing balaclavas, as you recall.”


The defendants were given the chance to ask questions through a small window in the aquarium. When it was Tolokonnikova’s turn, she asked how Sokologorskaya could determine the girls motivating hatred for Orthodoxy, to which she had just testified?

“Because you disturbed the peace in the cathedral,” Sokologorskaya said. “You used curse words.”

“Do you remember what I personally said on February 21?”

“I don’t want to repeat these words.”

“Do you remember what I said?”


“She already answered your question,” said the judge.

“Is ‘feminist’ a bad word?” Tolokonnikova asked, referring to the part of the punk prayer in which they implored the Virgin to become a feminist.

“In a church, yes.”

“What dress was I wearing?”

“You know what your dress was like,” Sokologorskaya snapped. “It’s probably why you wanted to raise your legs.”

SOKOLOGORSKAYA WAS FOLLOWED on the stand by Denis Istomin, a young man with sun-bleached blonde hair and a taut, angular face. He rolled up to the witness stand wearing a pair of tight pants and an electric blue shirt.

“Is it fair to say you are an Orthodox believer?” asked the prosecutor. It was the first question he would ask every witness. “Do you celebrate Church holidays and keep all the fasts?”

When it came to the events of February 21, Istomin said he happened to be in the Cathedral on a Tuesday morning by sheer accident. “My parents gave some money to help build it and I feel it is our church, too,” Istomin said. It was his first time in the Cathedral. When he knelt down to pray, he heard women’s voices; when he looked up, he saw girls in colorful balaclavas dancing around on the steps to the altar.

“Did you hear what they were saying?” asked Pavlova.

“Yes,” said Istomin. “They were shouting insults at our god Jesus Christ. It was blasphemy. People in the cathedral were crying, some people were sick. There was no precedent for this.” Their clothes, he said, “did not conform to Christian tradition.” Their dancing was “dancing on the graves of our ancestors.” Sadly, this was to be expected. “Our country went twenty years without an ideology,” he said flatly. “A whole generation grew up without Orthodox values.”

“What did you do when you saw this disorder?” asked Pavlova.

“I tried to stop them,” Istomin said. One of the girls, Alyokhina, was held up by a church security guard who removed her mask. “Someone took her mask off. She looked at me, and I looked at her,” Istomin went on. “I recognize her today. I have a photographic memory.”

After Istomin, the accidental witness, has been asked to weigh in on the extent to which Pussy Riot had criminally offended all of Orthodox Christendom, Pavlova—or “Lawyer Pavlova,” as she preferred to refer to herself in the courtroom—tried a different line.

“Would you say that this was art?”

“What is art anyway?” smirked Istomin. “I don’t think this is art, but if some people consider it art, then it should be displayed exclusively in closed spaces and not be made available for wider public consumption.”

“You’re here as a victim,” Lawyer Pavlova went on. “Are you claiming any monetary compensation here today?”

“No,” said Istomin, lifting his hawkish nose. “I don’t need their money.”

“You heard the girls apologize this morning,” Lawyer Pavlova said with gravitas. “Do you think they were sincere?”

“I don’t see any repentance in their actions,” Istomin said.

“I have no further questions,” said Lawyer Pavlova.

The occupants of the “aquarium” were again permitted to ask questions. (All three had been taking furious notes throughout the testimony. A tattered paperback Bible lay on the bench where the girls were sitting.)

“When you held me up and led me to the door of the Cathedral, did I resist?” asked Alyokhina.

“I can’t say definitively, I’m not a person who holds grudges,” said Istomin. And, with a smile added, “Actually, all Orthodox people are like this.”

“What did you do after you led me out?”

“I went back to restoring order.”

“Tell me, were you here in this courtroom three hours ago?” Alyokhina went on.


“Did you hear me when I apologized for offending the Orthodox faithful?”

“You know, a spoon is useful at lunchtime,” he scoffed. “We waited for this apology from you in the first days after your blasphemy. And, as Stanislavsky once said, ‘I don’t believe in your repentance.’”

“Tell me, please, what form does my repentance have to take for you to believe me?”

“I don’t know, use the Internet, like you did last time,” Istomin said, referring to the YouTube sensation. “Or go to church.”

“I can’t go to church,” Alyokhina said. “I’m in jail.”

Volkova, the defense attorney, began asking questions again. “What words did the accused say?”

“They were saying bad words,” Istomin said.

“Which words?”

“The question is struck,” said the judge.

“Is holy shit an offensive phrase?” Volkova shouted.

“We already established that these words offend God!” the prosecutor shouted.

“The question is struck.”

Feygin, whose massive frame reminds one of an antique wardrobe, took his turn. “Is it true that you are part of the group Narodny Sabor?”

“Yes,” said Istomin.

“What does the group do?”

“It provides military-patriotic training for youth,” Istomin said. “It’s a good organization.”

“Did you know my clients before February 21?”


“Were you also a victim in the court case against Erofeev,” Feygin asked, referring to another scandalous case, from 2006, when the Orthodox faithful filed suit against the curators of an art show in which contemporary Russian artists took on the theme of religion. The Orthodox faithful won.

“The question is struck,” said the judge.

“We’re trying to establish that Istomin has participated in similar court cases,” Feygin pleaded.

“He’s a professional victim!” yelled Volkova. “Like a professional beggar!”

“The question is struck!”

BY DAY TWO of the trial, the trial had become an acknowledged embarrassment. Even the Putin loyalists were already cracking. After the first day, a member of the ruling United Russia party wrote in his blog that, even though he was offended by the Pussy Riot performance, “an indictment based on citations from sixteenth century Church cannon makes the country the laughingstock of the entire world.”

It was soon clear that the authorities were eager to wrap things up as quickly as possible, and shift the public’s attention to something that wasn’t quite so unexpectedly humiliating. And so the judge decided not only to prevent the defense from calling any witnesses or asking any questions; she also had no intention of keeping Russian courthouse hours. Rather than end each session at six, when the courthouse closed, she kept going. “We’ll be here till morning if we have to,” she said when the defense suggested adjourning for the day.

The main effect of the grueling twelve-hour sessions was the deterioration of the defendants’ health. On the third day, an ambulance had to be called twice for the girls (and for Volkova, who had worked herself up into a tizzy), but the paramedics determined they were fit to stand trial. Volkova started a shouting match with the judge: Her clients were not given time to sleep, and were not being fed. “When I asked the bailiff whether they’d eaten, he told me they’d been fed tea!” she shouted. The judge said it was not the court’s prerogative to deal with such things. When the defense team attempted to pass a bottle of water into the aquarium, every cop in the room lunged to intercept it. Afterwards, an attorney for the plaintiff, Lev Lyalin, himself a religious man who was representing three of the victims, told me, “You know, I’ve been an attorney for a long time, and I can tell you’ve never seen a court work at this clip before. Even I don’t feel well, and I’m not in prison.”

On top of this, the court was doing everything in its power to make the trial a black box. First, they shut down the live stream of the proceedings (ostensibly to protect the victims). On day two, they moved the trial to a tiny courtroom where not more than ten journalists could fit. When the journalists left on the stairwell mutinied, the trial was moved back to a bigger courtroom. The next day brought a ban on Twitter, which the press inside the courtroom to broadcast the insanity they were witnessing. When a higher court overruled them the same morning, they tried to introduce a ban on audio recordings.

The one thing that the authorities had determined was not negotiable was the verdict. That had been determined months ago: Shortly after the punk prayer became a viral hit, Putin spoke at a Church event, apologizing to the faithful for the harm done to them by the Pussy Riot performance. The court had received its signal from the Kremlin; now the only question was whether the girls would get the full seven-year sentence.

In that way, the trial became an inadvertent continuation of their performance piece, one that grew far past the boundaries they had envisioned for it and ended up becoming a monumental, historical work. The kangaroo court, the prison sentence, the martyr status—Pussy Riot didn’t expect any of it, but they had clearly hit a nerve and the state’s overblown, medieval response had became part of the show. And if Act I (the punk prayer) turned off some liberals with its edginess, Act II (the witch trial) was clearly a nation-wide hit and a liberal cause célèbre.

It was a prime example of a classic Russian genre: a bitter dark comedy depicting the absurdity of oppression. Tolokonnikova, Alyokhina, and Samutsevich have audibly laughed their way through the proceedings, as have the defense lawyers, the journalists, even Alyokhina’s mother, forcing the judge to periodically scream at the courtroom. “Is this funny to you!” the judge cried at one point. “No, it’s quite sad,” Alyokhina said, barely stifling her laughter. By Thursday of last week, the burly enforcers stalking about the courtroom were threatening to toss out anyone who even smiled.

But how could one not laugh? How else could one react to a tall, greasy man who was called as an expert witness for the prosecution because he had seen the YouTube video and read an interview with PussyRiot? Sweating through his testimony, he described for the court how the girls had “pushed themselves into hell,” and that “to the Christian faithful, Orthodox or not, hell is as real as the Moscow metro.”

How else could one interpret a witness, a church treasurer, who walked into the courtroom with a frilly parasol, which she then lovingly hung off the edge of the witness stand before giving her testimony? “Excuse me,” she said when it clattered to the floor as she discussed how much offense she had taken at Pussy Riot’s performance.

How else could one react to a victim weeping through her testimony and, describing how one of the girls prostrated herself on the altar on February 21, uttered the nearly Biblical phrase, “and her butt was raised high and this butt was facing the altar”? To an altar boy who looked like he spent more time at the gym than in church? (“Do you think they could have been possessed?” Feygin asked the altar boy. “The question is struck!” said the judge. “He is not a medical expert!”) To the candle woman, the first victim, watching the proceedings from the gallery, angrily muttering her bewilderment, and repeatedly crossing herself?

How else to respond to the fact that the nine victims, all security guards and attendants of the Cathedral, felt confident in opining on theological, psychological, and jurisprudential matters, and in delivering their verdict on when the punk prayer crossed over from art to blasphemy? To the fact that all of them described in soaring words the depth of the Christian faith but that all but one could not find it in their hearts to accept the girls’ apologies?

To call this a show trial would be to understate its grotesque aesthetic. This was not a show trial, but it was a show—a sumptuous, tragicomic show, in which three twenty-something girls have unintentionally check-mated the regime.

On Thursday, as the girls were marched out of the courtroom in handcuffs, Verzilov called to his wife.

“Nadia!” he shouted. “Björk says hello!”

Pussy Riot v. Putin: A Front Row Seat at a Russian Dark Comedy [TNR]

The Price of Opposition in Russia

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

At around 7 A.M. on Monday morning, someone rang the door at the Moscow flat of opposition politician Alexey Navalny. Navalny and his wife were sound asleep: it was a long holiday weekend celebrating the day, in 1990, when Russia declared its independence from the Soviet Union. So Navalny and his wife kept sleeping, but the doorbell kept ringing. Finally, Julia (his wife) got up to check who was there. She looked through the peephole and saw seven men in uniform. “I thought it was either an arrest or a search, so I turned off the lights—as one does in such situations—and called my lawyer,” Navalny told me later. Then he went to shave, “because you never know when your next shave will be if they arrest you.”

Julia intercepted him in the bathroom with a game-changer: the people outside the door had started an electric saw. “She said, ‘You should probably open the door,’” Navalny recalled.

Seven officers from the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation piled into the apartment while two of their colleagues, armed with machine guns, blocked the door to the building outside. (It would take Navalny’s lawyer two hours—and going on Moscow’s most prominent radio station to say he was being blocked from seeing his client—to get into the apartment, something the Investigative Committee quickly denied.)

Upstairs, the investigators read out a search warrant: Navalny was being investigated as a witness in the case that had been opened after the violent clashes between police on protesters on May 6th. He was not a suspect in the case, nor was he charged with anything, which made the aggressive thoroughness of the ensuing search seem rather disproportionate. The investigators took anything electronic or telephonic: every laptop, desktop, iPhone, iPad, e-book, flash drive, D.V.D. player, D.V.D., disk, camera, memory card, and hard drive in the house. They checked the kids’ room and confiscated their laptop and camera. “I said, ‘Why don’t you look at the pictures on the camera? You’ll see they were just taking pictures of each other,’” Navalny said. It didn’t help. They took the kids’ camera, too. And the ten thousand rubles (three hundred dollars) they found.

Investigators also visited the apartment of Julia’s parents, who were not at home and were not even witnesses in the case. Her eighty-five-year-old grandmother was at home, however, but was physically unable to get to the door when the saw started up. “It was a very tense situation,” said Navalny (his wife was on the phone with her grandmother). “We were afraid she would die of the stress.”

After a thirteen-hour search, the apartment looked like a hurricane had hit.

Meanwhile, investigators had also arrived at the apartments of other opposition leaders, including leftist Sergei Udaltsov (scion of a long line of Soviet statesmen), veteran opposition politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, and Kseniya Sobchak. Sobchak is a television celebrity who was once Russia’s scandalous “it” girl (its Paris Hilton, if you will), and she went over to the side of the opposition when a wave of protests broke out following the contested December parliamentary election. Since then, she’s dropped one boyfriend—a well-liked functionary in the mayor of Moscow’s culture office—for a more fashionable one: a young, but seasoned, opposition activist named Ilya Yashin … whom they found in Sobchak’s bed. Sobchak, still half-asleep and thinking she was opening the door for her cleaning lady, didn’t even think to check the peephole and so found herself, in only her négligée, facing ten investigators from the committee. (The flat of Yashin’s parents, where Yashin still technically lives, was searched that morning, too. Among the confiscated items: Mrs. Yashin’s recipe book.)

Sobchak fared worse than the Navalnys. Her lawyer was unable to get inside for four hours, and only knew of the proceedings because Sobchak had managed to squirrel a phone away somewhere and send a desperate text to her assistant. “It was ridiculous,” she told me later. “I felt like a spy.” The search went on for nine hours, and, at first, the investigators wouldn’t let Sobchak get dressed. They also wouldn’t let her go to the bathroom alone. “They didn’t have a woman to go with me to the bathroom,” she told the Echo Moskvy radio station. “I had to do it in front of a man in a mask and with a machine gun.”

It’s worth noting here that Sobchak isn’t just your average opposition activist, or even your average Russian starlet. Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, the first mayor of post-Soviet St. Petersburg, was Vladimir Putin’s close friend and mentor. Sobchak is even rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter. (Sobchak says that the rumors are false.) Her going over to the opposition, though she carefully avoided direct criticism of her family’s friend, was the ultimate betrayal, and the search—pointless and humiliating—was a clear reprisal. Sobchak told me that she tried to go see Putin in early December in order to explain her reasons, but he wouldn’t see her. Most recently, when the independent television channel Dozhd TV—where Sobchak has a popular interview show—tried to accredit her for the massive St. Petersburg Economic Forum, in June, she was the only member of the Dozhd crew who was turned down. When pressed, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s press secretary, is said to have replied that the name “Sobchak” is never to be uttered to him again. (Sobchak wouldn’t comment on this, and Peskov didn’t answer his phone.)

This is also probably why the investigative officer in charge of the group explained to Sobchak that none of this would have happened had she not gotten tangled up with the wrong people; she should have, he said, married “a dependable Chekist”—that is, agent of the secret police—and stayed home and had his babies.

Investigators took not only all of Sobchak’s electronics, but they also opened her safe where they found over a million euros, four hundred and eighty thousand dollars, and about that many rubles. (Sobchak explained the stash on Twitter: “My annual income is over 2 million. If I don’t trust the banks, I don’t have the right to keep money at home?”) The tax bureau has now opened an audit and the Investigative Committee is working out why the money was split up in several different envelopes—the preferred method of handing out cash in Russia. “Some people keep their money in envelopes, some people rubber band it, some people keep it jars, some people make little airplanes out of it,” Sobchak says. “I personally think envelopes are the most convenient way of storing money at home. Why am I obligated to explain this to the whole country?” (Photos of the money, neatly fanned out and next to a ruler for scale—that is, official photographs from the investigation—made it onto the tabloid just hours after investigators left Sobchak’s apartment.)

Investigators also seized her passport, effectively banning her from leaving the country for any reason. So far, both of her petitions—to get back her money and her passport—have been rebuffed. Once a glamorous socialite, now Sobchak says she is broke and has had to borrow money from her mother. “At least they didn’t plant drugs on me,” she says. “I guess I should be thankful for that.”

Like Sobchak, Yashin, Navalny, and the others whose homes were searched on Monday morning were all handed a summons to appear at the offices of the Investigative Committee at 11 A.M. on Tuesday, which was conveniently just an hour before the start of that days’ anti-Putin rally where all of them were supposed to speak. They all showed up, and dutifully answered the same fifty-six questions about who organized the May 6th violence, how it was planned, and who financed it. Sobchak’s interrogators made her read aloud the statement she had prepared with her lawyer—she’d hoped to save time and make it to the rally—frequently asking her to slow down, rewind, and repeat.

“The whole point was to just keep me there the whole day, to keep me from going to the protest,” Navalny said of his time with his interrogators. He had very little to tell them since he’s now been jailed twice for his protest activity, and questioned extensively both times. “They asked, ‘Tell me about your work history since 2005,’” he said. “It was just a million pointless questions. Four hours of them, then a break, then more pointless questions. When they found out that the rally was over, they suddenly lost interest.” Then they took him along while they searched the office of his anti-corruption organization, RosPil. (Navalny was asked to come back again on Wednesday. When he did, he was asked for a handwriting sample, which he refused, citing the fact that he is just a witness in the case.)

The Investigative Committee has thrown over a hundred investigators on the highly-publicized case—twelve comparatively nameless people have already been arrested. According to Navalny, not many of the investigators seem to understand what exactly it is that they’re doing. “I can’t recall criminal investigations like this in Moscow, except for Nord-Ost,” he said, referring to the time, in 2002, when terrorists took hundreds of people hostage inside a Moscow theatre. “And all because one police officer got a black eye on May 6th, for which he was rewarded with an apartment.” (Actually, over a dozen policemen were wounded that day; several have in fact been given apartments for their troubles.)

Why is the state doing this? Yashin has said that he thinks they are ginning up a criminal case against opposition leaders like him. More likely, it is a case of an overzealous machine seeking to please its master. If one reads the tea leaves—and that’s often all one can do in Russia—it is clear that Putin has had enough of the protests. Go out and protest for fair elections, but the elections are now over, and he won. Now it’s time to go home. But people don’t seem interested in that, and both protests, on May 6th and on June 12th, drew tens of thousands of people. (In fact, many of those I spoke to at the protest on Tuesday said that they had planned on skipping the rally but changed their minds when they heard about the searches.)

How to deal with them? Putin is no Assad, and at least so far he has shied away from a real crackdown. But he’s clearly unhappy with the situation and wants it to go away. In a country where the law is not a framework of protections and guarantees but rather an instrument used selectively for taking someone out, it helps when your friends or loyal minions are behind the controls of the legal system. Putin’s friend and classmate Alexander Bastrykin, for example, happens to be the head of the Investigative Committee, the same ostensibly independent government organization that harassed Navalny’s grandmother-in-law and chaperoned Sobchak to the bathroom. (A few hours ago, Bastrykin apologized to the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta for the harsh tone he took with Sergei Sokolov, one of the paper’s reporters. Sokolov had said that Bastrykin invited him on a drive, and then drove him out to the forest, where he proceeded to yell at and threaten him, which Bastrykin denied.) United Russia, the ruling party created to support Putin a decade ago, is doing its part in the Russian parliament: last week, they rammed through a law drastically upping fines and ordering restrictions on protesters and those found violating the peace. The Federation Council—the Russian equivalent of the Senate—was in such a rush to please that it passed the law all of twenty minutes after receiving it from the lower house.

And yet, thankfully, none of these zealous cogs seem ready to go all the way; they seem to pause at the critical moment. Protesters arrested over the weekend in St. Petersburg, for instance, were not charged under the new law. And so far, Monday’s searches yielded little more than rattled nerves. Which is not to say that psychological warfare waged by a state against its own citizens is something to discount.

Navalny called me on Wednesday, just after he finished observing the Investigative Committee turn his office inside-out. He was his standard cheery, sarcastic self: the image he cultivates is of a fighter for truth who fears nothing. And yet even he was unsettled by Monday’s experience—despite having fought state abuses for a decade and having dealt with various reprisals, including a flimsy criminal case and two jail terms. “It’s very unpleasant,” he said, hinting obliquely that his wife’s nerves didn’t fare as well as his own. “Even if you’re ready for it, even if you know it’s coming, you can never be one hundred percent ready. It’s very stupid and infuriating because you know it’s stupid and yet you can’t do anything to stop it.”

Sobchak, on the other hand, is new to the game. She has been involved in Russian politics for only six months, and even if she saw it from backstage as the daughter of Putin’s mentor, she has yet to develop Navalny’s thick skin, the kind you need if you are going to become an enemy of the state. On Tuesday, the day after a humiliating and financially ruinous nine-hour search—and after six hours of questioning—she gave an interview to Echo Moskvy. “You know, it’s a nasty feeling when a strong person like me—and I’m a fighter—when you suddenly sit down and realize that your hands are shaking,” she said. “Yesterday, my hands were shaking because it’s the feeling that you can’t do anything, that these people who are walking around your apartment, that they can do whatever they want.”

The Price of Opposition in Russia [TNY]

Powder Keg

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

MOSCOW — Making predictions in Russia is a notoriously ridiculous activity, but it is especially tricky when it comes to guessing the direction of the anti-government protests that have captured Moscow’s imagination for the last six months. Feb. 4, for instance, was a holiday weekend and the weather forecast called for -8 degrees Fahrenheit. After three protests and a long Christmas vacation, who would go out in such cold? And yet, some 100,000 people came out to demand fair elections. Last month, just before the march and rally scheduled for May 6, I wondered whether it was worth going at all. It was the middle of a week-long holiday, Moscow was largely empty, and Putin had won by a landslide months ago; why waste an afternoon on a couple thousand hippies? Imagine my surprise when I saw some 70,000 people strolling down the city’s Yakimanka Street, and when the peaceful march devolved into violence and a days-long street war between protestors and the police.

And so, on the eve of Tuesday’s anti-Kremlin protest, I asked a colleague for her prognosis, mostly because everyone I knew was asking for mine and I wasn’t sure what to tell them. “This time I expect to be bad,” she said. “So I’m sure it will be like Hair!”

Which it was. A largely festive crowd of tens of thousands marched down Moscow’s boulevards, braving rain and thunder and a steamy, greenhouse-like heat that felt strange in the balmy northern capital. Nationalists, liberals, anarchists, and gays cheered and chanted and moved peacefully down the route approved by authorities; they filled out forms indicating what issues they’d like to see addressed through a referendum; they listened calmly to speeches from a stage on a street named after Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. It seemed more summer festival than anti-government protest.

Who could have predicted that this would be the sequel to the rocks and the tear gas and the billy clubs of May 6? Who would have thought that this would be the protest after the Russian parliament, dominated by the for-Putin, by-Putin United Russia Party, rushed through a draconian anti-protest law just in time for today’s rally? And, a day after state investigators broke into the apartments of various opposition leaders, handed them summons that would keep them from today’s march, and turned their apartments upside down (a reason many protesters cited for coming out today), after six months of demonstrations with little to show for it, after all this, who could have predicted such a merry, energetic gathering?

Six months and nine major rallies after a disputed parliamentary election set this movement off, very little is clear about where, exactly, this is all going. (Nor have the two sides figured out how to reliably count the crowds they gather: Tuesday’s estimates, for example, range from 15,000 to 200,000.) On Tuesday afternoon, the rally accepted a vague manifesto that calls for more peaceful protests and getting “like minds” into government positions. There is also an especially dreamy section called “After Putin.”

But so far, Putin shows no sign of ushering in an “after” era. This week’s Gestapo-like searches — which, according to his press secretary, Putin had full knowledge of — showed just how little time the man is spending on finding an exit strategy. And if the opposition is still a vague and motley crew, Putin also doesn’t seem to have found a good strategy for dealing with them. According to people who have seen him in recent weeks, the president is rattled but mostly contemptuous. These people, in his mind, are an infinitesimal minority, and do not have to be reckoned with. (“The government is a little confused. What are they against?” United Russia functionary Yuri Kotler told me shortly after the May 6 crackdown, feigning the same wonderment about the protesters. “During the day, they sit in their cafés, and then they get bored?”) The arrests and the searches all seem to be screw-tightening measures, but they have been half-hearted.

“They’re trial runs,” said Duma opposition deputy Gennady Gudkov, who has been active in the protests — and is losing his private security business as a result. “Let’s see what happens if we do this, or if we do that, or if we go there. They’re looking to see what the reaction will be.” (Gudkov, a former colonel in Soviet counterintelligence, seems to recognize these tactics from his KGB days.)

So what next? Last month, after the peaceful May 6 rally descended into violence — for which arrests continue — I wrote that we were about to see a radicalization of the protests. Yet even after a month of events that should have moved the protests in this direction — the arrests of people for wearing protest symbols, the rushing through of the anti-protest law, the quiet scrubbing down of media outlets of some of its more independent voices, the searches — Tuesday’s events did not bear me out. Does that mean that the protest movement won’t become radicalized in the future? I can’t say for sure, but all the factors for it are still there: an opposition with no access to a system that shows no sign of letting them, or of giving an inch. Historically, such set-ups have not ended well in Russia, whether for the system, the opposition, or the population at large. Moreover, if Gudkov is right and these are merely half-hearted trial balloons, what happens if the Kremlin really puts its all into something that looks like the Iranian response to the pro-democracy “green” movement of 2009? Will the opposition radicalize then?

There is also the economic factor to consider. The Russian economy is currently growing at a relatively healthy 3.5 percent, but it’s useful to recall the whopping growth rates Russia was posting just a few years ago. In 2007, the year before the world financial crisis hit Russia, Russia’s GDP growth topped 8 percent. It had been growing at that pace, buoyed by soaring commodity prices, for almost a decade, and it was not accidental that this was the decade in which Putin made his pact with the people: You get financial and consumer comforts, and we get political power. It’s hard to maintain such a pact when the goodies stop flowing.

Which brings us to the looming issue of the Russian budget deficit. To keep the people happy and out of politics, the Russian government has promised a lot of things to a lot of people. (Putin’s campaign promises alone are estimated by the Russian Central Bank to cost at least $170 billion.) To balance its budget with such magnanimity, Russia needs high oil prices, to the point where last month, the Ministry of Economic Development announced that an $80 barrel of oil would be a “crisis.” Keeping in mind that oil is now about $98 a barrel, and that Russia used to be able to balance its budgets just fine with oil at a fraction of the price, this doesn’t look too good for Putin. Factor in the worsening European crisis — Europe is still Russia’s biggest energy customer — and the fact that the state has put off unpopular but increasingly necessary reforms, like raising utility prices, and you find yourself looking at a powder keg.

“It’s not too late to save the situation, but I fear that by the fall, it will be too late,” Gudkov told me Tuesday afternoon as we moved with the throng. “Because by the fall, people will join who are not just concerned with politics, but people who have economic concerns. And it will be a rougher, tougher protest because the people who will join the protest are people who are less educated, less well-off, less informed. And they are people who don’t have a good understanding of the law and why it’s important to obey it.” That is, should an economic and budgetary crisis hit and have a tangible and extended impact on Russians outside the Moscow middle class, the resulting populist protests could swallow up this liberal, bourgeois festival of the past six months. And, though predicting things in Russia is a fool’s game, it never hurts to be a pessimist.

Powder Keg [FP]

The Last Waltz

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

MOSCOW – On a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon, thousands of Muscovites came out to protest the March 4 presidential elections in which Vladimir Putin swept to his third presidential term with more than 63 percent of the vote. It was not the huge, euphoric, smiling crowd that thronged the city’s squares in December and February. But it was also not the angry, sullen crowd that had come out to Pushkin Square the day after the election.

Many hadn’t come at all, either because they were tired of coming out — this was the sixth large protest in three months — or because they were out of town for a long weekend. Those who did show up seemed deflated. Gone was the electricity in the air, the witty posters. Many had come not because of a new, giddy sense of empowerment that fueled the initial protests, or even out of anger over a crooked electoral system, but because they felt they simply had to.

“If I didn’t come today, it would mean that I deserve this government,” Elena, a professor at Moscow State University, told me, adding that she was coming to the inexorable conclusion that she wanted to emigrate.

“Without steps to change and enforce the law, I don’t see a point in these protests,” said another Elena, a young lawyer who was there with her boss. He did not have much faith in the political reforms proposed by outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev — gubernatorial elections and an easing of party registration rules.

“I think that it’s important not to lose what we’ve gained in these months,” a white-collar worker in his thirties named Petr said. And yet, he felt the momentum dissipating. “Of course, we’re going to keep coming to these protests,” he said of himself and his friends, who both work in state-owned television. “But I think this format is starting to feel a little old. I think the protest organizers need to think of something else.”

The rally’s organizers, for their part, seem to have heard their constituency. “I think that, with this, the three-month cycle [of protests] has ended,” journalist and ring leader of the rallies’ organizing committee Serguei Parkhomenko told the press. “There will be new events, without a doubt, but only when there is a need for them. We’re not going to organize them automatically.” Members of the organizing committee have spoken of flash mobs, like last month’s Big White Circle, a smiling human chain around the 10-mile circumference of Moscow’s Garden Ring road, and events with a more aggressive bent.

And indeed, after a week of soul-searching and post-mortems of “the revolution,” the rally felt like the closing chord of a long and ebullient improvisation. Earlier this week, at a press conference held by the Voters’ League, organized by several public intellectuals to help train election monitors, writer Boris Akunin — another central figure in this winter’s movement — declared the “romantic” period of the protests over. A couple of days earlier, the police violently broke up a protest by a few hundred people who tried to stay on Pushkin Square after a permitted mass rally, and Putin congratulated the police on their “professional” behavior. “I think people have understood that they can’t charge the OMON with white balloons and ribbons,” Akunin said at the press conference, referring to the special police that enforce order at such events, and to the ubiquitous symbols of the protests. “Civil society will begin to develop along a different trajectory, along a trajectory of self-organization, and fighting for victory in local elections,” Akunin added.

If past protests were organized around the vague demand of fair elections — or new parliamentary elections — and to chant the charged but useless slogan “Russia without Putin,” Saturday’s rally was centered on thanking election monitors. Tens of thousands of previously politically inactive people, riding the wave of the winter’s giddiness, had signed up to monitor elections. More than 80,000 people in Moscow, and more than 130,000 nationwide volunteered for the tedious work of breathing down the necks of members of local election committees — the cogs in the great machine that would keep falsifying the vote, even when Putin’s press secretary declared that it was Putin, first and foremost, who was interested in a clean election. (When I traveled to Irkutsk in the weeks before the election, local party leaders told me the puzzling command from Moscow was victory for Putin in the first round — that is, over 51 percent — but no violations.)

Tens of thousands of these people, young and old, and, as one observer pointed out, used to comfort, stayed up till dawn on a Sunday night to make sure the votes were counted properly. Most of my Russian friends had signed up to be observers, many of them later bragged how many votes they had “saved” for one candidate or another. This winter, in other words, tedious but necessary political work has become not only a trend, but a necessity for a lot of these people.

At Saturday’s rally, the microphone also went to the young hipster candidates who had run and won in the city’s municipal elections (concurrent with the presidential vote). Vera Kichanova, a 20-year-old journalism student who won one such race, challenged the Kremlin’s campaign to paint this movement as an Orange Revolution. “Did you see bodies in the street in Tbilisi?” she asked, referring to Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. “I think that local citizens understand their own needs far better than some bureaucrats,” she went on, as the crowd began to chant spontaneously: “Good job! Good job!” When Parkhomenko spoke after her, he spoke not of the Duma vote or the evils of Putin’s corrupt regime, but of the elections for Moscow city parliament (it is still unclear when those will take place). Putin’s United Russia now has 32 out of 35 seats.

“We’re at the beginning of a long and arduous journey,” said Petr Shkumatov, of the Blue Buckets movement against abuse of VIP sirens, from the stage. “We have many kilometers and many years ahead of us, and we will trip a lot. But, one way or another, we have to complete this journey. We’ve already started, and no one, I don’t think, can take a step back.”

No one expected Putin to relinquish power or to lose the presidential election; no one even expected new Duma elections. From where I sit, the fact that the opposition was not handed an easy victory is a good thing: things that are easily won are easily squandered. Broadening participation in the kind of grassroots, civic, local organization that people like anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny or Blue Buckets have been doing for the last couple of years — rather than quick and sweeping political change — may be just what Russia needs.

The scary unknown, of course, is Putin’s reaction to all this. He worked to largely eliminate civil society during his first two terms as president. Will he also work to make the lives of a new generation of civic activists difficult in his third term? Or will he simply dig in his heels and ignore them? This may be just as bad: it’s hard to continue to give yourself over to tedious civic work when you’re working full time as, say, a lawyer, and your political extracurricular activities reap little to no reward.

The fact that Putin is unlikely to not sabotage this movement and the fact that his is the last rally — miting, in Russian — for a while, means the obituaries of the winter’s movement are premature. On December 5, a day after the disputed parliamentary elections, some 6,000 people had come out to protest — 20 times more than most opposition protests ever gathered in Putin’s era. That night, Navalny was arrested. By the time he came out, fifteen days later, protests were gathering ten times that. “I went to jail in one country and came out in another,” Navalny told supporters when he left prison.

On March 5, Moscow’s protesting middle class bemoaned the fact that, after all they had experienced this winter, Putin was still their president for the foreseeable future, that they didn’t, as many put it, “wake up in a different country.” Estimates of Saturday’s rally attendance put the crowd somewhere between 25,000 (the rally’s organizers) and 10,000 (the police). And yet, many bemoaned the fact that this was a small crowd, a sign in and of itself of how much times had changed.

The question now is not only whether Putin ignores them, but whether this crowd and their sympathizers in Moscow and, to a smaller extent, around the country, go back to sleep or or stay woken up in that different country.

The Last Waltz [FP]

‘This Is How You Elect a F*cking President?’

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

MOSCOW — When Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov left Pushkin Square Monday night, the crowd — estimated by the police at 14,000 — was just starting to disperse. They had stood for two hours in sub-zero temperatures, not 24 hours after Vladimir Putin wept after sweeping to victory in Sunday’s presidential race with 63.6 percent of the vote. They had listened to speeches from the whole gamut of the opposition — the leftists, the nationalists, Alexey Navalny, Mikhail Prokhorov, all had their turn at the microphone. They chanted “Putin is a thief!” and “We are the power!” They weren’t as cheerful as they’d been in past protests, but they were peaceful, despite the crowd of Putin supporters that had arrived from central casting.

Gudkov, who represents the Just Russia party and has been a central figure in this winter’s opposition protests, made sure to talk to the police officer overseeing the whole operation before he left for his appearance on opposition channel RainTV. Ilya Ponomarev, another Just Russia Duma deputy who has been a key figure in the movement, had announced from the stage that he would meet with anyone who wanted to talk to him at the fountain in the center of the square, a sort-of impromptu town hall. Navalny, the anti-corruption activist who’s become the opposition’s most natural leader, and leftist activist Sergei Udaltsov had announced that they weren’t leaving the square, period — an unlikely prospect given the temperature. “He told me, fine, let them stay and shout for a few hours,” Gudkov said, of the police supervisor.

It didn’t quite go down like that. Gudkov and his son Dmitry, also a Duma deputy from the same party, left Pushkin Square with a clear conscience. Ponomarev climbed up on the granite fountain in the center of the square, where Navalny, Udaltsov and a few others joined them. A small crowd of supporters — almost all male — stuck around, too. When the police started shouting at them to clear out, Navalny’s bodyguard commanded the crowd to form a tightly packed chain around him, and the young men at the bottom of that snow-filled empty fountain joined up. Riot police started to sweep the square and drag people into armored vans: holding pens on wheels. Then the police descended into the fountain, snatching links out of the human chain, one by one, and dragging them to the side of the fountain, and hurling them, like sacks of potatoes, over the red granite border. “Hey! Toss the next one!” one of the cops waiting up there giggled in delight.

They got Udaltsov, Navalny, opposition figure Ilya Yashin, a Western journalist, and Ponomarev, who stood shouting into a loudspeaker: “Police! Stop breaking the law! This is a peaceful meeting!” (They quickly released him.) All in all, they got 250 people, including Alena Popova, a glamorous young media consultant and e-government evangelist who has linked up to Ponomarev and the opposition movement. She wasn’t so lucky, though: the police broke her arm.

Hearing about this, the Gudkovs raced back to Pushkin Square from the television studio. By the time they arrived, the riot police and the OMON special police had formed a chain and started to push everyone out of the square. There was plenty of room and not many people, but they managed to get into such a formation — a reverse cowherd — that people, many of them journalists with press badges in full view, started falling and getting trampled underfoot.

Gudkov tried to stop them in their tracks. “I’m a deputy of the Federal Duma!” he said. “I’m a Duma deputy!”

The police kept pushing.

“What the fuck?” Gudkov exclaimed, as the police nearly bowled him over. “Do you hear me? I’m a Duma deputy!”

Dmitry wasn’t having any more luck, even when he flashed his Duma ID.

“Motherfuckers,” he grunted as the police shoved him forward. “This is how you elect a fucking president?”

“Where is Gennady Yurievich?” the elder Gudkov growled when the pushing abated for a minute, demanding to see the police supervisor who had upended the contract. “Who is the commanding officer here? Who?”

The police were mute.

When Dmitry Gudkov tried to get through the line to find this commanding officer, he was immediately detained, but released when the officers waiting for him in the police van saw who he was.

Why did the police show such disregard for a government official, ostensibly a reprentative of the people, even when he showed them proof of his identity — and stature?

“Because we haven’t abided by the law here in ages,” Dmitry Gudkov told me afterwards, angrily adjusting his shearling. “I was just in Astrakhan, monitoring the vote. They wouldn’t let me into the polling stations. I was climbing over fences to get in, even though, as a Duma deputy, I have the right to walk into any government office without impediment.”

It was all a strange echo of the night of Dec. 5, when thousands of people came out to Chistye Prudy in central Moscow to protest the fraudulent parliamentary vote the day before. That night’s protest was peaceful and the cops stood respectfully by until a small faction tried to march down to Lubyanka, the headquarters of the FSB. That’s when the batons rained down and bodies were dragged kicking to the arrest vans, and the police made the colossal mistake of arresting Navalny, instantly turning a blogger into a leader of the movement. And instead of turning people away, the violence seemed to galvanize people: Five days later, a crowd of 50,000 showed up to Bolotnaya Square to demand free elections and the respect of their government.

On the eve of the presidential election, I wrote that, when faced with two options in a tense political atmosphere, Putin tends to pick the absolute worst option. The days since — from his paranoiacally armored, tear-filled victory speech when only a third of the votes were counted, to Monday’s crackdown– seem to continue to bear that theory out. Instead of letting the stragglers shout in Pushkin Square until they could no longer stand in ankle-deep snow, to let the protest fizzle away into the very insignificance that Putin claims they represent, the command come down to arrest the sons of bitches — and mint some new martyrs. (One lesson they did seem to learn from Dec. 5, when they jailed Navalny for 15 days: This time, they released him after charging him with a petty offense — organizing a protest, maximum fine $70.)

“It’s not clear what to do with the protests,” Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, told me a couple days before the election. “On one hand, they’re probably thinking, ‘enough leniency, let’s crack down.’ But if they do crack down, then the press is filled with images of contorted faces and police batons, and it’s a very unpleasant picture of Putin’s first day after the election.”

And Putin, it should be noted, cares about his image in the West. At an investor conference this fall, he courted Western capital and went on at length about what a European country Russia was. One of the last things he did before the election was to invite the editors of some of the most important European newspapers to his dacha for an interview, partly to talk to them about how Russian foreign policy would continue to be friendly — and business friendly — toward the West during a third Putin term. In May, three weeks after his inauguration, Putin will go to Chicago for the G-8 summit. How good can an alpha dog feel if his victory — which he clearly saw as an emotional, historical milestone — is marred by some roughed-up hipsters?

Already, the chidings are pouring in. Prokhorov, who had just met with a very welcoming, encouraging Putin Monday morning, issued a statement condemning the violence. “I’m outraged by the use of force against people who had gathered to express their civic position,” he said. “I am positive that the use of force and arrest of opposition politicians could have been avoided.” “Troubling to watch arrests of peaceful demonstrators at Pushkin square,” tweeted Michael McFaul, the new U.S. ambassador to Russia and close advisor to President Barack Obama, with whom Putin is to have a tête-a-tête in Chicago.

By 11 p.m., four hours after the protest on Pushkin Square had started, there were few people left. Dmitry Gudkov was trying to find out the whereabouts of Ponomarev, Navalny, and the others who had been arrested. A shocked Gennady Gudkov stood talking to a scrum of journalists — who had themselves been roughed up — when a cop with a megaphone walked by.

“Go to the metro,” the cop droned. “Stop your illegal actions.”

Gudkov did a double take.

“What illegal actions?” he said. “I’m standing in the square, talking to people. I’m not even shouting political slogans!”

I asked him how tonight’s crackdown looked for Putin, so jubilant and generous in his victory.

“Party’s over,” Gudkov sighed. “Party’s ruined.”

‘This Is How You Elect a F*cking President?’ [FP]