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

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear