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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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”