Moscow liberals are discovering that the ground has shifted beneath their feet since Putin came back to power in 2012. Photo: Getty
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While the west watches Crimea, Putin is cracking down in Moscow

There’s suddenly not much left of the independent media in Russia, even of what little of it there was left after Putin’s first two terms at the wheel.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

While the world awaits Sunday’s referendum in Crimea and nervously watches the Russian troops massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, the world is missing that, in Moscow, Vladimir Putin is busily cleaning house.

Yesterday, Russian journalist Leonid Ragozin wrote here about Putin’s renewed crackdown on the media: what began just days before the Olympics with a Kremlin attack on Dozhd, the last independent television station in Russia, has now extended to Lenta.ru, arguably the best news site in Russia. On Wednesday, the site’s editor-in-chief was fired and replaced with a Kremlin loyalist, and the whole staff quit in protest. Yesterday, the Kremlin went full-China on the internet, the holy of holies of the Russian opposition. Using some flimsy legal pretexts, it banned access to various oppositional news sites, to the website of Moscow’s biggest radio station, and to the blog of Alexey Navalny, who is currently under house arrest. Last week, the owner of Dozhd announced that, due to the clampdown, the channel is going to close in a couple months.

Within the span of a couple months, the Kremlin, by hook and by crook, has cleared all the media underbrush. There’s suddenly not much left of the independent media, even of what little of it there was left after Putin’s first two terms at the wheel. 

But that’s not all. In fact, terrifyingly, it’s not nearly all. Yesterday, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the pseudo-nationalist pseudo-parliamentarian, proposed banning the letter Ы (usually transliterated as “y” into English, as in NavalnY or, say, blinY) from the Russian alphabet because it was too “Asiatic”. The day before that, Vladimir Yakunin, head of Russian Railways, the biggest company in the country, proposed spending “trillions of rubles” on a “Trans-Eurasian Development Belt” that would taken certain non-Western, non-Anglo-Saxon values into account. Yakunin added that the West had foisted onto Russia a form of economics – in which, judging by the number of Russian billionaires, it’s been quite successful – that was all growth for the sake of growth, and which annihilated Russia’s intrinsic spirituality. (It’s also a strange statement for a man whose children live in the very heart of the Anglo-Saxon West: London.) And that’s all happening with the backdrop of thousands of mysterious men, armed with state-of-the-art weaponry and dressed in uniforms that look very Russian but that Putin insisted they had “bought in a store”.

Westerners rightly know Russia as a font of absurdity, but lately, it’s been hard to keep up: I’ve been trying to write this post for a solid week now, and have been constantly derailed by the increasingly bizarre and worrying developments coming from the Trans-Eurasian Development Belt.

Actually, I wanted to start last week, the day a professor at Moscow’s elite diplomatic academy was fired for writing an article that slammed the occupation of Crimea, and comparing it to Germany of the 1930s. Or did I want to start with the zealously Bolshevik response of Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief, to the foolish on-air, anti-war of Abby Martin? “The American propaganda machine, which Abby herself denounces every time she is on the air,” Simonyan wrote, “is so strong that it is capable of brainwashing even the brightest and most ardent people. The more fiercely we will continue to resist it.”

But then came the day a Moscow acquaintance announced on Facebook that her daughter, a first-grader, came home from school in a panic because the teacher had told the class that America was about to invade Russia. But then television host and attack dog Dmitry Kiselev went after the “radicals” in Kiev in a special broadcast dedicated to Ukraine, saying that the transfer of Crime to the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1954 was “a historical crime” and blaming the dissolution of Yugoslavia on the West. “What is Yugoslavia now? A pimple on the body of Europe.” (He’s the same man who on his show recently ran a photo of liberal magazine editor Evgenia Albats, who is Jewish, with the backwards Hebrew lettering asking: “What kind of a Jew are you?”)

I was going to write about that, but then came the letters. First, an open letter to Putin from the Russian Writers’ Union, which is as Soviet as it sounds, declared that, “in these worrying times, when the fate not only of Russia and Ukraine, but of all European civilization, is being decided, we want to express our support of your firm and responsible position.” They also blamed “the destructive forces of the West.”

No sooner had I looped that into my narrative, that another letter in support of Putin’s Crimea strategy emerged, this one signed by hundreds of the country’s artistic and intellectual elite, many of them dependent on the Kremlin for grants to their theaters and opera houses. Not that they had never signed such brassily Soviet letters before, but still, the sheer density of the zestily stale statist language was a little much.

And, while we were reading about the Washington visit of acting Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, one state-friendly tabloid in Moscow—Moskovsky Komsomolets, whose revolutionary name has not changed since its founding in 1919 – was reporting that Yatsenyuk had smuggled out Ukraine’s gold reserves to hand over to the Americans. Not to be outdone, Putin, who has denied the legitimacy of the provisional government in Kiev, went even further while Yatsenyuk was in DC: Ukraine, he said, had left the Soviet fold in 1991 illegally.

That was Wednesday. Also on Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry went apeshit on hearing that the House passed some kind of version of sanctions against the Russians. On its Facebook page, the Ministry posted a screed reminding the US of the Declaration of Independence, the core principles of which, it felt, should apply to the residents of the Crimea, but not, for some reason, those of Chechnya, against whom Putin fought the war that cemented his hold on power.

Yesterday, Ekho Moskvy, the biggest Moscow radio station who had its website blocked yesterday, invited on the air the editor of “Den”, a strange Moscow paper, said the crackdown on the press was necessary because the West had waged “an information war” against Russia, to which Russia had to present a united front.  A family friend wrote from Moscow in shock: his television was telling him the internet is for radicals and perverts, which, to him, was a clear foreshadowing of a great firewall with the west.

I could go on, but that’s all the appetite I have for this grotesquery. Some of it proudly Soviet, some of it is so outrageous and loony and crypto-fascist that it makes me wish for the hardy good sense of Leonid Brezhnev. These days, I’m afraid to look at the news and my almost entirely Russian Facebook feed in the morning. Who knows what the loosed hounds have done while I was sleeping? And, more importantly, who can stomach it?  

My cup completely overfloweth.

Here’s what’s scary about this: this is all being done, according to various reports, without any consultation with anyone outside Putin’s shrinking inner circle of old KGB spooks. The economic elites most likely to suffer from a plummeting ruble and sanctions have been shut out of the decision-making process. This is all about intangibles, the things that reason can't hook, the things impervious to logic and reasoning and even the cynical algebra of geopolitical interests. This is about pride and values and the Trans-Eurasian Development Belt.

And, yes, all of this is familiar and increasingly terrifying, but to whom? To you and me and an increasingly besieged island of Moscow liberals? Because, terrifyingly, familiarly, all of this works. The method has been tried many times, and it is true: Putin’s rating has grown to its highest level in three years. Nearly two-thirds of Russians think there is no legitimate government in Kiev and that there is anarchy on the streets of Ukraine. Over half said that moving Russian troops into Crimea was legal; of those, two-thirds that this is basically Russian land. Nearly half of those polled said that Russian presence in the area brings stability, and that Crimea should be brought into the fold of the Russian Federation.

What Moscow liberals are discovering is how quickly the ground has shifted beneath their feet since Putin came back to power in 2012, how futile and pathetic their resistance, and how easily wartime mobilization can steamroll them into nonexistence, in a way it couldn’t when Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008. This time, even their tiny Internet ghetto isn’t safe anymore. And its not clear that, once all this over and Crimea is safely part of Russia, that the regime will roll back these measures. In fact, it's highly likely that it won't. Maybe the Soviet rhetoric will dissipate, but the Internet ghetto will still stand pillaged and smoldering. And, most terrifying of all, why resist at all? Moscow liberals have looked on with envy at what their Kievan brothers accomplished on the Maidan, but their protest had a different end: all of this is happening in Moscow precisely because they went out to the streets to protest Putin two years ago. Dare they protest again, and lose even more? Or have they lost it all already?

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism