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The next installment of our Watching the Russia Watchers series at S/O features an interview with Peter Lavelle, the main political analyst at the Russia Today TV network, host of its CrossTalk debate show and Untimely Thoughts blogger. (He also has a Wikipedia page!) Peter is opposed to Western media hegemony, considering it neither fair nor useful, and firmly believes that global media should feature a diversity of voices from all cultural traditions; as such, the rise of alternate forums such as Al Jazeera and Russia Today are a boon for media consumers everywhere. Peter Lavelle actualizes this philosophy in his own CrossTalk program, in which controversial topics from France’s burqa ban to the collapse of Soviet Amerika are discussed: agree with him or not, one can certainly never get bored listening. The serious Russia watcher is recommended to join his “Untimely Thoughts” – Expert Discussion Group on Russia.

Peter Lavelle: In His Own Words…

What first sparked your interest in journalism and Russia, and how did the twain meet?

The reason I started to write about Russia – circa 1999 – came about for two reasons. First, having an education in Eastern European and Russian history gave me a reason to write about where I lived. I didn’t like much of what the commentariat was writing on contemporary Russia. The second reason was to earn some money, which later led to needing to make a living.

I came to Russia to live in late 1997. I was employed as an equity analyst at what was then called Alfa Capital. I was lured to Russia by my former boss (an American) I worked with in Poland. I never wanted to move to Russia – actually I must say I was rather adverse to Russia, having lived in eastern Europe for about 12 years. As a result of the financial crisis of 1998, I was given a generous severance package. This allowed me to stay in Russia for a while without worrying too much about money. In spring of 2000 I started to work for a small Russian bank. The money wasn’t great, but at least the bank organized and paid for my visa. Plus, I had time to write now and then. It was at this time I discovered the JRL – Johnson’s Russia List. I have been hooked on (even an addict to) Russia watching ever since.

So you ask “how did the twain meet?” I was furious with what some journalists passed off as serious analysis and commentary on Russia and I was given opportunities to express myself as a corrective to what I thought was awful journalism. The synthesis is me today (and not just regarding Russia).

My first stop was the Russia Journal. It wasn’t much of a newspaper, but I sure did write a lot for it and really enjoyed it. Then UPI’s former Moscow bureau chief asked me to come on board as a stringer – I was thrilled. That was the first time I called myself a journalist.

Later, I wrote for Asia Times Online and – yes! – for Radio FreeEurope/Radio Liberty. Being published in “Current History” was also a special benchmark for me as a journalist.

This was also the first time I started butting heads with the commentariat. I would like to point out that this is way before I had anything to do with Russian state (funded) media. Please remember my Untimely Thoughts newsletter was going full blast during all of this.

And for all those interested: I started to work at RIAN (2005) becauseI was tired of the “slave wages” UPI was paying and for problems associated with getting a new visa. Thus, I had very practical reasons to make this move.

It is simply not true I went to RIAN (later RT) due to “ideological” motivations. I had already settled in Russia and wanted to stay settled. My journalism in front of a camera today differs little from the journalism I practiced in print years before RT came into existence.

What were your best and worst experiences as a Russia journalist?

The highlight of my career to date in journalism, in which I include television, was covering Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia in August 2008. I was in the news studio hour after hour, day in and day out. I lived on cigarettes and coffee, and with very little sleep. Watching such a story from the start and unfold was exhilarating. I am proud to say RT did an excellent job and that we at RT got the story right from the beginning when other news outlets either got it wrong or played catch-up (following RT’s lead of course!).

Having my own television program (aired three times a week) remains a great highlight. I dreamed (or day dreamed) of having such an opportunity at a very early age watching the Sunday political chat shows in the US. So dreams can come true, I suppose.

What is my worst experience? This will surprise you: not getting paid for my work. I have lost count of the number of articles I wrote without being compensated when I was still in print journalism. Today I can write for media outlets without asking for compensation – a wonderful position to be in.

I would like to also mention that while not directly under the category of “worst experience” I can say an on-going “unpleasant experience” is being called “Putin’s mouth piece” or the “Kremlin’s tool.” I speak my mind, I have always done this. Anyone acquainted with my long lost friend – my Untimely Thoughts newsletter – knows I have changed very little over the years. Television has not changed me; it has only allowed me to amplify my worldview.

Who are the best Russia commentators? Who are the worst?

Who are the best? There are some really great ones – ones that come to mind immediately: Patrick Armstrong, Vlad Sobell, Thomas Graham, Eugene Ivanov, Dale Herspring, Stephen Cohen, Paul Sauders, Dmitry Sims, Anatol Lieven, Mary Dejevsky, and Chris Weafer (and of course you Anatoly!).

Who are the worst? I think it is pointless to answer this question. Among the commentariat there is a small cottage industry that regularly condemns me – everyone reading this interview knows who I am referring to. To this day not one aspersion said or written about me warrants my reply. These are small minded people and most of them are journalists because they lack the ability and talent to do anything else. These are the worst kind of people – they get along by going along. When it comes to writing about Russia, the majority of them don’t have the guts to stand alone and speak up.

What is your favourite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?

I love and hate Moscow! Moscow is my home so I make the best of it. Because of my CrossTalk program, I very rarely travel anymore. In fact, I have seen very little of this vast country. I have visited various cities between Moscow and St Petersburg and down south as far as Chechnya. By my own admission, I should be better travelled after so many years. I am still hoping to make it to Vladivostok.

If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?

Martin Malia’s “Russia under Western Eyes” [AK: Click to buy] – I can’t remember how many times I have read this great tome, but each time I do I learn something new to reflect upon.

Do you think today’s Russian media environment is better than in 1999? The late 1980′s? Are Russian journalists freer or safer than they were before?

Comparing Russian media of the 80’s to the 90s to the 00s is not very constructive. The ending of Soviet era censorship was a great moment for Russians and Russian society. Some embraced honest and professional journalism; others practiced this trade with regrettable irresponsibility.

The way I look at Russia’s media transition – and the journey is long from over – is through the prism of business models. In the 80s the state’s monopoly had to be broken and eventually was. In the 90s the oligarchs divided up among themselves huge media empires – none ofwhich had any interest in real journalism or the social good. These media empires were political tools that terribly damaged journalism as a trade, profession, the political environment and even the world of business.

Since about 2000 (circa Putin), media in Russia is very much a business and a very profitable one at that! Today media caters more to audience interests and tastes – mostly entertainment (particularly when it comes to television). Is this good? Does this make a better society? Are people well enough informed? On the whole I don’t see Russian media being all that different from other media markets in the world. Russians – like their global counterparts – are well enough informed about their environment to make rational decisions about their lives. There is plenty of diversity, though one has to make an effort to satisfy interests beyond Russia’s mainstream.

As for the safety of journalists in Russia: this is a very painful and even shameful state of affairs. The police and judiciary need to do much more for journalists. Their inability to prosecute those behind high profile murders hurts journalism as a profession and public trust in state authorities.

Also, I want to point out that journalists are killed more likely because of “kompromat” being investigated or written about someone else’s money – not politics in its normative sense. In Russia money is everything – politics is a sideshow that amuses Russia’s hopelessly retarded liberal intelligentsia.

On balance, do you think Putinism was good or bad for Russia? (Try not to sit on the fence here).

I don’t like the term “Putinism.” There is no such “ism.” Russia is going through what I call the “post-soviet purgatory” – and doing well at that by my estimation, considering the other post-soviet states.

Vladimir Putin is the best thing to happen to Russia in its modern history – he is a rational person and a true patriot. Because of Putin, Russians are freer and richer now than any time since the Russian state came into existence centuries ago. Putin saved the Russian state from thieving oligarchs and their highly paid western advisors. Putin reconstructed the Russian state, was behind the creation of a middle class, and Russia’s dignified turn to the world stage. And he rightfully fought terrorism in the Caucasus when the West hoped for the slow and painful collapse of the Russian state in the wake of the Soviet collapse.

Putin is also the indirect creation of western hubris and the gross irresponsibility of Russia’s self-hating cappuccino-drinking liberals. Russia doesn’t need to be lectured by an outrageously hypocritical West, especially American posturing. Putin is the antithesis of Western hypocrisy and history will be very kind to him. Russians give him a lot of credit and he deserves it.

How will Russia-West relations be affected by Obama’s “reset” policy and Medvedev’s new emphasis on modernization? Which was the main party responsible for their deterioration in the first place?

The so-called “re-set” is a media strategy and in a sense a fraud – it has nothing to do with reality or political facts on the ground. Washington caved to reality – the American empire is collapsing. To slow the inevitable, Washington needs Moscow’s help. Out of self-interest Russia is willing to engage Obama. Pragmatic Russia today is helping Soviet Amerika out of a mess of its own making.

Most of the world’s problems can’t be resolved without Russia’s involvement – Washington now acknowledges this. Moscow does not give a hoot about Obama or the US. What Moscow does care about is how the world will evolve as the US deals with its own and much needed, but rarely spoken about, perestroika. The US is in decline and Russia (along with the emerging world) is readying itself for the inevitable paradigm shift.

Lastly, Russia and the US are not enemies, but they are competitors at times. Competition is good for both countries – even when dealing with common problems facing the world.

If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing it isn’t already doing, what would it be?

The Russian government claims it is fighting corruption (and there are signs of this), but it is not doing nearly enough. If Russia is to modernize itself to be competitive in the global marketplace, then it must to do more to fight this cancer. If this is not done, then history will pass Russia by.

HARD Talk* with Peter Lavelle

ANATOLY KARLIN: You are a fierce critic of US policy towards the Muslim world, and its enabling of Israeli expansionism and sidelining of dissenters like Robert Fisk and Norman Finkelstein. First, could you please expound on the similarities between Russophobia and Islamophobia? Second, why are Israeli policies towards the Palestinians / Hamas worse than Russia’s towards the Chechens / Caucasus Emirate?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUz14bvK4A8&w=480&h=385]

PETER LAVELLE: First of all, I don’t like the terms Russophobia and Islamophobia – both terms are emotive and lack precision. That said, it is obvious that Russia and Islam today serve as the West’s “other” – meaning both are feared because they are different and will not submit. It is the highest form of hubris on the part of the West to believe (even demand) that everyone in the world should be like the West. The fact is many in the world simply don’t want this. They want good education, health care, prosperity, etc., but not necessarily Western values and certainly not Western (read: American) militarism. This really annoys the West, particularly poorly educated and poorly informed Americans.

Russia sees itself as its own unique civilization. This may or may not be true, but many Russians seem to think so. Islam is obviously a civilization different from the West. Islam is experiencing a resurgence and a great deal of this resurgence is the rejection that Muslims must become more like American, Europeans, etc. I blame Western mainstream media for misleading Western audiences about Islam and the Muslim world. Tragically this is part of the grossly one-sided reporting when it comes to Israel and Greater Middle East politics.

Russia is terribly misinterpreted and misunderstood in the West. Russia is presented as the loser in the Cold War and thus should act as a defeated power. Russia refuses to do this. This infuriates many in the West. The fact is Russia and Russians liberated themselves from communism! According to the Western discourse regarding history, Russia is not repenting for the past, thus it still must be the enemy. The good news is Russia is a political fact on the ground and the West has no choice but to do business with it.

You ask: why are Israeli policies towards the Palestinians / Hamas worse than Russia’s towards the Chechens / Caucasus Emirate? You are asking me to compare apples with cement bricks!

The Israelis threw the Palestinians off their land and deny them their own state. Chechens have their republic within the Russian Federation, which is generously supported by the federal government.

Palestinians are less than second class citizens in Palestine, Chechens have the same rights as any other Russian citizen. Israel is a zionist state; Russia is a secular state protecting the religious rights of all citizens. Hamas was democratically elected; the Caucasus Emirate was not elected by anyone.

I could easily go on. As you can see I don’t see there is much of a comparison.

ANATOLY KARLIN: In my question to you about Russia-US relations, you claim the “American empire is collapsing” and allude to “Soviet Amerika” (that’s even the title of one your Crosstalk programs). Now it’s no secret that the United States has its share of problems: an overstretched military, awning budget deficits, etc. Nonetheless, we need some perspective. The US economy is still much larger than that of its nearest competitor, China (which has lots of bad loans and will be devastated if it were to pull the plug on its prime export market). The Eurozone may already be on the verge of unraveling. As for Russia, its GDP is an order of magnitude smaller than America’s.

So is it then reasonable to speculate about the collapse of Pax Americana, considering its current strength and the problems afflicting potential rivals? If it does collapse, which country or bloc will take its place, if any? Finally, have you heard of Dmitry Orlov’s idea of “the Collapse Gap” between the USSR and America today?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usiu_EefUow&w=480&h=385]

PETER LAVELLE: Yes, I have come across Orlov’s work and remain skeptical – he simply wants to the US to collapse. Everything you point out in your question is correct about the US. But you left out one important issue – the current weakness of America’s democracy. There is no political will in America to live within the country’s means. No one wants to sacrifice – and so many want too much without paying for it. This cannot last much longer – a couple of decades at best. America simply cannot maintain a global empire and prosperity at home. The only card up America’s sleeve is the dollar at the moment, but there is every indication that it will be replaced by a basket of currencies by mid-century.

Who will lead in the wake of America’s inevitable retreat? Hopefully the world will truly become multi-polar. Such a world is better for all of humanity. Multipolarity is better suited to dealing with issues such as climate change, food and energy security, non-proliferation, dealing with HIV/AIDs, etc. Today the world has to wait on all these issues because the US is very often the greatest barrier to positive change in world.

ANATOLY KARLIN: You say that you’re not a paid shill because you are quite sincere in your beliefs: you’re not “the man who $old his homeland”, as alleged by Russia Today’s (RT) former Tbilisi correspondant William Dunbar**. That may be so.

Nonetheless, many observers believe you and RT are hardly free of the same biases that you claim pervade the Western MSM. Though accusing you of being a “latter-day Lord Haw Haw” is surely extreme (as well as a reductio ad hitlerum), the perception definitely exists that what you call “challenging the Western media hegemony” is really just a euphemism for pushing Kremlin spin on unwitting Westerners.

First, do you think this is a valid argument? (If you use the “whataboutism” response, e.g. but the Western media is controlled too!, explain why you think that justifies Russia doing the same.) Second, if you still insist that you’re not beholden to the Kremlin, could you make three criticisms of the Medvedev-Putin tandem?

PETER LAVELLE: I knew William Dunbar and know a few of the details connected to his departure from RT. He is entitled to his opinion, though they are not opinions I agree with. Indeed, he does claim I am “the man who $old his homeland.” This only informs me that he knows little about me and my opinions.

So I will answer my critics on the compensation issue. Yes, I live a comfortable life in Moscow as far as a journalist is concerned, but that is not saying much these days! I am compensated because my work is hard, presenting truly alternative viewpoints, and promoting the station – no different from other television professionals around the world.

What does it mean to sell out one’s homeland? I am American and proud of it. Being American allows me to dissent – and I dissent all the time! RT allows me to do this when most western media outlets could never dream of giving a journalist so much free space. My program CrossTalk is my creation and I am very thankful RT management supports me. I decide the program’s topics and approve guests. I inform my boss what I am doing; I don’t ask for permission.

I don’t care what some disgruntled RT employee has to say about me. The same applies to others in the commentariat because their lack of talent or success. How often these days do I openly attack my critics? The answer is that I don’t. I am attacked and vilified because of my employer, but not my message. That is cheap.

I do not speak for RT – I can only speak for myself and my work at the television station. And let me make it clear – I don’t alway like every story RT broadcasts. At the same time I will defend the station’s commitment to being different. Again being honest – some RT reports are a bit over the top. But this is a good thing in the end – we ask our audience one basic thing: Question More. We may not always get it right, but our intention is spot on.

As far as Kremlin spin-doctoring is concerned, all I can say that this assumption is laughable. I come across this accusation all the time, but after working at RT for almost 5 years I still don’t see the evidence. Does RT present the government’s point of view? Yes, of course it does (and many other viewpoints as well). But is this “Kremlin spin-doctoring”? Obviously Russia’s political elite views the world differently from let’s say the US. Why should anyone be surprised by this? Also, anyone who has watched RT will tell you that the station is not only about politics. How can non-political stories be “Kremlin spin-doctoring”? RT wants to be and is competitive. This is because it is consciously different from its competitors.

RT doesn’t do the same. It is part of my job to watch the competition. I watch CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera. CNN and BBC are wildly one-sided on most global issues compared to RT. Where I work you can come across opinions never heard by RT’s competitors. I give Al Jazeera very high points for its coverage of the Greater Middle East (though not its Russia coverage). Thus, I have no need to use the “whataboutism” argument.

You want me to prove that I am not the Kremlin’s slave and live to talk about it! I welcome this opportunity. You asked for 3 examples, well I will give you 10. Over the past 10 years Russia’s leading politicians haven’t done enough regarding:

  1. Corruption at all levels.
  2. Support of the older generation (pensions).
  3. Repair of and construction of new infrastructure.
  4. Support of small and medium size businesses.
  5. Development of political parties.
  6. Promotion of civil society’s role in solving social problems.
  7. Over reliance on the oil and natural gas sectors.
  8. Introduction of a volunteer-only military and military reform in general.
  9. Finding justice in so-called high-profile murders.
  10. The lack of competition in the marketplace.

I could easily go on. Russia has a lot of problems, no different from ALL OTHER countries in the world.

ANATOLY KARLIN: Global warming [deniers / skeptics] (delete as needed) like Alex Jones, Piers Corbyn and Chris Monckton – all with fairly minimal scientific credentials – get prominent coverage at RT. The entire topic of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is treated as a debate in which either side has yet to prove its case.

However, in the real world, there is a consensus: in a 2004 study, Naomi Oreskes concluded that 75% of papers backed the AGW view, while none directly dissented from it. (And the latest studies are almost always more pessimistic about the magnitude of future warming than “previously expected”.) Given the sheer amount of evidence in favor of AGW, it seems strange to put a hereditary aristocrat who calls his opponents “Hitler Youth” and organizes witch hunts on the same pedestal as climate scientists. Even though more Americans believe in creationism than in evolution, news channels don’t normally give equal weight to both sides in that “debate”, do they?

So I’m at a loss how to explain this. Does RT want to get the scoop on the Western media, even at the cost of its own credibility? Or were you guys told to spin up Climategate because global warming is expected to benefit Russia? Or do you really believe that the AGW “debate” is still far from “settled”?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAvpH-dOP5A&w=480&h=385]

PETER LAVELLE: Again you are asking me to speak for RT – I am not RT’s spokesperson. And to be frank, I find your “Or were you guys told to spin up Climategate…” insulting. The fact is many of our viewers are interested in climate change. RT follows its viewers.

Nonetheless, I am glad you ask about AGW. I have done two programs on the subject – a topic I want to learn more about. I have no problem having Piers Corbryn and Chris Monckton on my program. Could you debate them? My other guests were actually quite keen to debate them. Let me be clear about something: RT gets credibility because it gives air time to different voices. And you are right, there really is no debate on American television. That can’t be said about my CrossTalk program and RT. Speaking about different voices: I may be one of the most prominent backers of dissent in the world of television today! I am proud of that.

ANATOLY KARLIN: Thank you for answering four very HARD questions. I’ll go easy on the last one. As you told us earlier in the interview, you dreamed of having your own TV program from an early age. Your wish came true. There are many who share your dream. Some of them might even be reading this interview! What advice would you give them on becoming a made man or woman in journalism? (The mafia reference isn’t entirely whimsical: from a distance, the profession does appear distinctly cliquish.)

PETER LAVELLE: This is the hardest question of all. All I can say is if you really want to be a journalist (including a TV journalist) you have to make a huge commitment. The competition is enormous and at times talented. Be different because you really are – not because being different might sell. Start blogging and pitching your material. Be prepared for rejection – many times over before things start to happen. Stay away from attacking individuals – staying with your convictions will be enough. Don’t try to become famous, that will come with hard work and honest and fair beliefs. Be willing to learn from others. And lastly stay away from journalists – a caste of people who, for the most part, aren’t worth even having a cup of coffee with.

Back to the Future

Many Russia watchers don’t like to put their money where they mouth is. Though I’m sure you’re not the type, feel free to confirm it by making a few falsifiable predictions about Russia’s future. After a few years, we’ll see if you were worth listening to.

Ok, Peter Lavelle’s predictions:

  • The current tandem will rule for the foreseable future – which is a good thing.
  • The next election cycle will go smoothly – parliamentary and presidential. Fingers crossed Russia’s political parties will mature some.
  • Russia will continue to recover and grow during the on-going global slump. If the US and Europe experience another turn-down, Russia will be spared.
  • Over the next few years, Russia and its eastern European neighbors will continue a robust process of reconciliation.
  • Russia will have to step in to play a greater role in the Greater Middle East as Washington is anything but a fair broker.
  • Russia will not continue down the path of pressuring Iran regarding Tehran’s nuclear program – Russia-US relations again will be strained (though nothing like during the Bush years).
  • Russia will continue to expand its influence in the Western Hemisphere, though not as a direct competitor to the US.
  • NATO will start to seriously listen to Russia (as most European capitals will pretend they have never heard of Saak!).
  • Mainstream western media will continue to get Russia wrong — that is an easy preduction!
  • Eventually, Putin will be blamed for the oil spill in the Gulf and creating the HIV/AIDS virus.

Do you plan to revive your Untimely Thoughts blog? Could you throw us a bone about any other projects you may have in the works?

What about the future? I am having a new website created to mirror my CrossTalk program. There, I intend to return to blogging in a big way in September.

Anatoly, thanks for the interview!

And thank you too, Peter, for a brilliant interview that gives fans and critics alike a lot to chew on!

If you wish me to interview you or another Russia watcher, feel free to contact me.

* A note on HARD Talk: My job as an interviewer is be a contrarian and even a “devil’s advocate” of sorts; to air common, common-sense or germane criticisms of the interviewee’s arguments and worldview, REGARDLESS of what my opinions might or might not be. (For instance, though I criticized Peter Lavelle’s views on the collapse of “Soviet Amerika”, I’ve made the same arguments on this very site: e.g. see here, here). I hope this clarifies things for the angry person who wrote me the email accusing me of Russophobia (LOL) in my HARD Talk with A Good Treaty.

** UPDATE August 14, 2010: William Dunbar has since deleted his only comment at that Facebook Group, which is reproduced below:

William Dunbar: hi, i just resigned from RT because i was being censored about georgia, i was the tbilisi correspondent. i have to say this is among the best groups i have ever seen on facebook. peter used to have a profile, i guess he left because it was another example of the double standards of the biased western media… or maybe putin prefers myspace

After I contacted him, Dunbar said that 1) he never alleged that Peter Lavelle is ““the man who $old his homeland” and that he left the Facebook group after reading this interview, 2) the last sentence is an inside joke between Dunbar and Lavelle that is “light hearted and not had absolutely nothing to do with how much Peter may or may not be paid”, and 3) he thinks that Peter Lavelle “is a true believer”, albeit his “commentary is objectionable, prejudiced and misleading.”

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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paul-goble Mark Adomanis, who recently burst into the Russia-watching blogosphere like a fluffy pink grenade, has a series on “Who is the world’s worst Russia analyst”? (So far Stephen Blank and Leon Aron are in the running). Personally, I think that Ed Lucas would “win” hands down. However, since he’s already been exposed and discredited on this blog, – and I don’t have the time or will to flog dead horses – let’s instead take a closer look at Paul Goble, the oft-cited “Eurasia expert” whose output seems to consist entirely of recycling stories from marginal Russian commentators about the country’s imminent demographic apocalypse, breakup along ethnic lines, and takeover by Muslims. If one fine day some random Tatar blogger on LiveJournal decides to restore the Qasim Khanate, we’ll certainly hear about it on his blog… and guess what, we do!

Sure, he might be a fact-challenged Russophobe propagandist who worked for the CIA, Radio Liberty, and “democracy-promoting” NGO’s. Yes, he has extensive professional links to the Baltic nations and Azerbaijan. True, he is essentially an agent of a latter-day Promethean Project, the interwar Polish strategy to preempt the reemergence of a Eurasian empire by stirring up ethnic separatism in the Soviet space, a project now pursued by Washington and its proxies. That is all understandable and commendable – he serves US geopolitical aims, and geopolitics is profoundly amoral, so what’s the problem? Why am I writing a hit piece on Paul Goble? Simple. The utter hypocrisy and double standards I encountered in his Jan 2010 ‘No Ordinary Year’ for Azerbaijan article, in which the guy who incessantly condemns Russia’s human rights, takes to advising Western countries to refrain from reprimanding authoritarian Azerbaijan because the “level of anger about such criticism is so great” that it could lead to a “rebalancing of Azerbaijan’s foreign policy away from the West”. Or translated from quackademic neocon-speak into English, “They might be bastards – though nowhere near as bastardly as the Russians, I mean they even pay me my salary!, – but they are our bastards!”

Ali Novruzov, an Azeri human rights blogger, condemns this duplicity, characterizing Goble’s viewpoint as: “Don’t criticize Azerbaijan, no matter how many Emins and Adnans are beaten and jailed, how many grams of heroin are found in shoes of Eynulla Fatullayev, how many villages like Benaniyar is ransacked by government militia and its residents detained en mass, shut up you, Amnesty International and State Department, otherwise Azerbaijan will get angry, turn away from you and befriend Russia”.

He certainly has reason to be concerned. Even Freedom House, a “democracy measuring” organization that gives freedom cookies for being friendly with the US (bonus points if you have oil) and takes them away for being “anti-Western”, rates Azerbaijan as “unfree”, on the same level as despised Russia. Given that Azerbaijan hits the Full House in that it is 1) relatively pro-Western, 2) oil-rich, and 3) nestled in a crucial geopolitical region, there is cause to suspect that it would perform a lot worse on any objective analysis of political freedoms. We don’t even have to suspect this, we can just head over to Polity IV, – a vast research project that attempts to quantify levels of democratization in different countries since World War 2 – and observe that Azerbaijan scored -7 in 2008, on a scale from -10 to 10. This makes it a formal “autocracy”, the same as China (-6) or Iran (-7), – and far worse than its neighbors Russia (5), Armenia (5) or Georgia (6). No wonder, since unlike in Russia there is not even the simulacrum of political competition, and the Presidency is passed down along hereditary lines.

However, as alluded to at the beginning, hypocrisy, double standards, and Western chauvinism aren’t Goble’s only talents – they’re just the ones that roused my ire enough to write this piece. The fact of the matter is that article after article, Goble demonstrates the most fact-challenged, non-sequiturial, inane claptrap – and manages to get himself cited and listened to by major institutions which determine Western policy towards the region. Debunking his drivel is thus in any case long overdue.

1. Let’s start with this article (October 2008) on how the financial crisis was supposed to “compound” Russia’s demographic decline. It conveniently illustrates Goble’s OM – seek out the most sensational (and wrong) opinions in the Russian language media and reproduce them in his articles. By adding his label/name to them, they become citable to the rest of the Cold Warrior clique and even some respectable institutions that are ignorant of Goble’s incompetence and bias.

The financial crisis in the Russian Federation has pushed up the already high rates of mortality from heart and circulatory diseases there to third world levels, according to medical experts.

This sentence is wrong on so many levels. First, in Third World countries, mortality from heart/circulatory diseases is typically LOWER than in industrialized nations (since there are few older people and the population continues dying from infectious diseases, particularly amongst younger ages). Second, Russia has had one of the world’s highest levels of mortality from heart/circulatory diseases SINCE AT LEAST the 1980’s – it is NOT a recent development, as implied by Goble! Third, how the financial crisis figured into this I have absolutely no idea, since it only began to affect most Russians in October (the same month Goble’s article was written), and at which time the latest Russian demographic statistics only covered AUGUST 2008!

Yevgeny Chazov, one of Russia’s senior specialists on heart disease, told a Duma hearing that as a result of the difficult psycho-social circumstances and stresses from instability in the country, 1.3 million people – 56 percent of the total number of deaths there – now die from heart disease.

As has been the case FOR THE PAST 60 YEARS – i.e., a pattern of mortality heavily tilted towards heart disease – ever since the epidemiological revolution from 1930-50. And instability has been a feature of Russian life for the PAST 20 YEARS. Chazov was misquoted, or is a dummy; Goble, in any case, is certainly a dummy.

But if many speakers blamed the financial crisis or personal behavioral choices like smoking or alcohol consumption, one, Aleksandr Baranov, the vice president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, was prepared to blame the Russian government. Medical science knows how to lower mortality, he said, but we haven received an order from the powers that be.

There is a lot of investment in newly-equipped hospitals and clinics since 2007, and positive results are already showing. The current situation is far better than under Yeltsin or the early Putin years, when healthcare and social spending in general were cut and neglected, back when Russia’s robber barons wallowed in their ill-begotten billions with Western connivance. Baranov either lives under a rock, or wants to score rhetorical points. The financial crisis is irrelevant. Excessive alcohol consumption is what causes 1/3 of all Russia’s deaths. Reducing it is should be by far the #1 priority of any harm reduction strategy for Russia, and the “powers that be” have indeed recognized this and launched an anti-alcohol campaign. Nor surprisingly, Goble fails to mention any of this.

Finally, and most importantly, REAL LIFE HAS PROVED GOBLE TOTALLY, 200% WRONG. Contrary to the vision of demographic doom he peddled, deaths from cardio-vascular disease fell by 4.6% in 2009. Furthermore, RUSSIA SAW ITS FIRST POPULATION INCREASE IN 15 YEARS! And Goble’s predictable response to his utter failure at prediction?… “Russia’s Population Stabilization Only Temporary“.

2. Now let’s move on to the more general theme of Goble’s thesis on Russia – as an imperialistic country in rapid decline (demographic, cultural, etc), afflicted by an imminent, sub-Saharan scale AIDS epidemic, it will break up along its ethnic faultlines (Tatars, Bashkirs, Finno-Ugric peoples, Caucasians) and become majority Muslim by 2050. For instance, see a 2006 briefing he gave to Radio Liberty, which they summarized thus:

But Russia’s Muslims are bucking that trend. The fertility rate for Tatars living in Moscow, for example, is six children per woman, Goble said, while the Chechen and Ingush communities are averaging 10 children per woman. And hundreds of thousands of Muslims from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have been flocking to Russia in search of work. Since 1989, Russia’s Muslim population has increased by 40 percent to about 25 million. By 2015, Muslims will make up a majority of Russia’s conscript army, and by 2020 a fifth of the population. “If nothing changes, in 30 years people of Muslim descent will definitely outnumber ethnic Russians,” Goble said.

Goble’s comments to RFERL made their way into the wider commentariat in 2006-07, such as this article in SFGate, Daniel Pipes, and certain plain demented Russophobe bloggers.

Unfortunately for Russophobes, Islamophobes, and Islamists alike (quite an adorable grouping, isn’t it?!), Goble’s projections are complete twaddle. In 2005, the year before Goble started spouting off about Russia’s Islamification, the homeland of Russia’s Tatars, Tatarstan (1.26), had a LOWER total fertility rate than the Russian average (1.29)! Where did Goble get the figure of 6 women per children amongst Tatar women in Moscow? Stormfront Russia?!

Likewise, the figure of 10 children per women amongst Muscovite Ingush and Chechen women is risible and should be laughed off by anyone with the smallest knowledge of demographic history. Not only did Ingushetia (1.56) and Chechnya (2.91) themselves have far lower figures in 2005, a total fertility rate of 10 children per woman HASN’T BEEN OBSERVED IN PRACTICALLY ANY COMMUNITY, EVER!! (Even in PRE-INDUSTRIAL times, the fertility rate typically flunctuated between 4-8 children per woman, depending on factors like urbanization and food affordability. The idea that it could be 10, or anyone near that number, in a modern metropolis, is ludicrous in the extreme).

As for the Muslim-takeover-by-2050ish claim, this is the usual bogus fallacy of linear extrapolation of the worst-case trends with total, cavalier disregard for positive trends (e.g., the convergence of ethnic Russian and Muslim fertility rates) and current day facts (e.g., that ethnic Russians still make up nearly 80% of the population, WHEREAS ONLY 4-6% OF THE POPULATION CONSIDER THEMSELVES TO BE MUSLIMS in opinion polls; that the fertility rates of the biggest Muslim ethnicities, Tatars and Bashkirs, is little different from the national average; and that Russia’s Muslims are far less religious than their counterparts in the Middle East and Western Europe alike).

In fact, sometimes I wonder if Goble really works for the CIA/Azerbaijan, or Russian Slavophile nationalists. He is certainly willing to cite the propaganda of the latter when it suits his purposes.

3. Now what about the imminent AIDS apocalypse, that will further decimate the ranks of Russia’s vodka-swilling, impotent hordes, making them too sick and too few to prevent Russia from disintegrating “into as many as 30 pieces by the middle of this century” (March 2009)? In his ominous-sounding article February 2009 article Russia’s HIV/AIDS Epidemic Enters New and More Dangerous Phase, Goble wrote:

In his briefing yesterday, Onishchenko did not provide much context for the numbers he reported. But in an interview with “Nauka i zhizn’,” Boris Denisov, a demographer at Moscow State University, suggested that figures like those Onishchenko provides are more disturbing than the public health chief in fact suggested (www.nkj.ru/archive/articles/15097/). …

The Moscow State researcher pointed to three aspects of the situation which suggest Russia has reached the tipping point regarding HIV/AIDS and that the epidemic is likely to result in an increasingly large number of deaths, something that will have a serious impact on the over-all demographic picture of that country.

First and foremost, 63 percent of the new cases in the Russian Federation last year were the result of sexual contact rather than intravenous drug use, a pattern that means the disease has now passed into the general population where it may spread more slowly but could potentially touch far more people and where an increasing share of its victims will be women.

This Eurasia “expert” can’t even copy from his Russian sources correctly. If you look at the source Goble cites, what Denisov actually said was that 63% of new FEMALE infections came from sexual contact in 2007, whereas 34% of OVERALL new infections came from heterosexual contact. If he’s so wrong on such basic facts, why should we have to listen to anything he says on Russia’s AIDS problem?

4. And it goes on and on. One of his most amusing/ridiculous articles was about how Putin was starving his miserable subjects (December 2009):

After seeing an improvement in caloric consumption since the 1990s, Russians are again consuming an average of only 2550 calories a day, an amount comparable to the amount provided by the diet given German POWs in Soviet camps at the end of 1941 and one that casts a shadow on that country’s demographic future. …

“According to the estimates of international experts,” the Russian leader said in striking language, “if the population goes hungry for two or more generations, a situation that in fact is quite characteristic for a large group of countries, then processes of physiological and intellectual degradation at the genetic level arise.”

What a load of claptrap even by Goble’s dismal standards. First, the recommended caloric intake for not very active adult men is around 2500 and around 2000 for adult women. Averaging it and taking into account children and the elderly, and the optimal for a nation where most people do office jobs is around 2100-2200 calories. In this respect Russia is far better off at its quoted 2550 calories, than the US is at 3700.

This is not to deny that there are problems. During crisis-wracked 2009, some 10% of Russians had difficulty buying food – slightly up from 9% in 2008, but massively down from the glorious prosperity of 1998-99, when some 36% of Russians could barely afford this privilege. (Incidentally, in the “free” Ukraine of 2009, the hungry indigent made up 35% of the population – i.e., the same as Russia ten years ago!).

But it gets worse. I simply have no words to describe the sheer inanity of the comparison between 2009 Russia and 1941 German POW’s. Really – how the fuck can he even take himself seriously after writing shit like this? Unless he means to say that during the 1990′s, when Russia’s economic policies were directed by a neoliberal cabal from Washington and many people really did go hungry, Yeltsin’s government treated Russians worse than Stalin treated soldiers who were fighting a war of extermination against Russians. So is Goble also a crypto-Stalinist, or just an asinine idiot?

(Not that Medvedev is the sharpest tool in the box either, if he actually spewed that insane drivel about genetic degradation. Since most of humanity has spent 99.9%+ of its entire history at near-subsistence levels of food consumption, why the hell isn’t everyone intellectually degraded like Goble or Medvedev?)

And the same shit goes on and on, Goble’s never-ending Groundhog Den’. All of Russia’s negatives are made apocalyptic, all its positives made into negatives.

Two examples of the latter. Take his befuddling assertion that the “Russian Federation will be more profoundly and negatively affected by global warming over the next 40 years than will any other country”. Come again? Sure the melting of Siberian permafrost might collapse a few buildings and fuck up some gas pipelines, but ALL serious analyses of global warming suggest that Russia will suffer FAR LESS than almost all other nations in a warmer world, and may even make big bank under moderate warming as its agriculture expands into Siberia, new energy and mineral deposits become accessible, and the Arctic becomes the world’s major trade region.

Second example. Medvedev declared a need for modernization and more accountability, and guess what – Russia is therefore a failing, decrepit state about to embark on perestroika 2.0! Ok, if you want (superficial) historical comparisons for Putvedev’s Russia, you could justify making it with Stolypin’s reforms, with Peter the Great’s “revolution from above”, even with the “Great Break” of 1929 if you’re feeling really bold and unafraid of being accused of reducing everything in Russian politics to Stalin. But the late 1980′s = today = WTF? Back then, the Soviet state truly was in a profound state of “imperial overstretch”, its citizens were disillusioned, and its mounting fiscal obligations were outrunning the resources and foreign currency at its disposal. Today’s Russia is a confident, rising Power, its elites are united, and a firm and consistent majority of Russians uphold the Putin system of illiberal statism (and if anything the main complaint you will hear from them is not that there is too much illiberality and statism, but too little!). Given such a tectonic shift in the very foundations of the Russian state during the past two decades, such vapid analogizing is superficial in the extreme, and indicative of an ideological decrepitude amongst the neocons that is every bit as profound as the one which afflicted the late Soviet Union.

So what is Goble’s game? He seems to be genuine in his bizarre beliefs – for instance, in an interview shortly after the 2008 South Ossetia War, he stated that Russia’s “illegal” violation of Georgia’s borders is “not in the interest of continued existence of the Russian Federation”, which will lead to “a more authoritarian and hence a more unstable and poor Russia in the future”. (Of course, how letting regional upstarts like Saakashvili rip off chunks from Russia’s southern underbelly would HELP the continued existence of the Russian Federation is not at all clear). Nonetheless, this kind of analysis seems highly favored by the lowest common denominator in the Russia-watching world – Paul Goble is, at least according to the number of tags assigned to him (“43 topics” at the time of this article’s writing), is the most popular outside authority at the infamous hate blog La Russophobe. He is also highly regarded at his former place of employment, the corrupt Radio Liberty.

Why? All these institutions are, in some way, and whether they realize it or not, pursuing a script first written in 1918 Poland – the Promethean Project to break up Russia and forever forestall its reemergence. What few of them realize is that 1) they are utterly ineffectual in this endeavor, and 2) their overt Russophobia, and close association with Russia’s “liberal” West-worshiping ass-lickers, ACTUALLY REINFORCES THE VERY SIEGE MENTALITY that the Kremlin shares with ordinary Russians. In other words, the lies and double standards espoused by people like Goble strengthen the very same “retrogressive” tendencies in Russia that they profess to loathe.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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One of my readers, Fedia Kriukov, kindly pointed me to a LiveJournal blog post by Ksenia Larina from August 13th, 2009. She’s been working with the liberal “Echo of Moscow” radio station since 1991 and her husband, Rinat Valiulin, had accepted a position with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty in February 2009. In uncompromising language, she reveals her husband’s unpleasant experiences with RFERL in Радио Свобода – свобода подлости (Radio Liberty – The Freedom of Mendacity). Her impression is that a once-respectable institution has degenerated into a nest of self-serving nepotism, neo-Soviet bureaucracy and US managerial fecklessness. Coming hard on the heels of Mario Corti’s revelations about its plummeting popularity, corruption and retreat from journalistic independence, RFERL will have an increasingly difficult time justifying the tens of millions of dollars of American taxpayer money going into supporting it.

TRANSLATION: Ksenia Larina on “Radio Liberty – The Liberty of Mendacity” (LJ post)

(http://xlarina.livejournal.com/117110.html; accessed August 15, 2009)

My husband Rinat Valiulin, who was invited to the position of Director of the Russian service this February, abandoned the “hospitable” walls of this human rights-defending radio station Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty on August 10th. His contract had been terminated. The presenter began the traditional midday briefing of the Moscow and Prague editorial offices with congratulations: “Colleagues! Congratulations! We did it!” What did they do? They arranged a civil execution for my husband. A ritual killing. They destroyed him.

In the last half-year, I learned many interesting things about the customs and life philosophy of the world’s freest radio station. Behind the humanistic facade of this pantheon of freedom, democracy and defense of human rights, just like the painted fireplace in Papa Carlo’s home, there lies hidden a wondrous country. In this country, around the clock these partisans for liberty write denunciations against each other of the meanest substance, go through personal affairs in general meetings, indefatigably cook up intrigues and plots against each other, try their absolute best to make a good impression on the observers, whom the American administration sprinkled everywhere, like red flags. The person who denounces his neighbor first, is the one who has it made. Making conversation in the editorial offices about work is impossible with them – they put a finger to the lips, roll their eyes in horror, and say in an icy whisper – “I’ll tell you everything later”.

They think of themselves not only as pillars, but as the authentic gurus of Russian journalism, openly and passionately detest “Echo of Moscow” and consider anyone entering their “unique journalistic collective” as the lowest form of carrion, which they make well known to them without refraining from the most indecent methods – from open rudeness to inexcusable slander. The innocent, respectfully politically-correct post of Olga Galitskaya (http://olgalitskaya.livejournal.com/13980.html) unleashed a storm of furious indignation, as these offended pillars from Prague demanded the immediate convocation of a general meeting on the theme of “shameless violation of corporate ethics”.

My husband’s faultless biography gave them quite a bother – you can’t find any kompromat on him: he just isn’t, didn’t do it, didn’t participate, etc. Every time he came to Prague, he was given a pile of denunciations from Moscow, each funnier than the last. It came to such a state, that the suggestion to create a position of “producer” (an editor with respect to guests) was interpreted as an attempt to introduce censorship. A Portuguese journalist, who had worked with Radio Liberty for many years, was denounced to the very President of the radio station, just because his request to travel to Grozny was approved by the new Director. In clumsy American language the former star of the Odessa gutter press squealed: “What, you mean to say, a former member of the Portuguese Communist Party can represent the interests of our liberal human rights-defending radio?”.

Any undertaking of the new Director was met not with just hostility, but outright sabotage. Hard on the heels of any suggestion he voiced, a flurry of hysterical denunciations made their way to Prague. And as for the people in Prague – they are lovely, intelligent folks who live in full contentment, arrange jobs with the radio station for their relatives and lovers, live in paid-for accomodation, and once a week scrape together something about human rights on air. Permanent contracts for these great journalists are their pass into the eternal, happy life. They don’t need to prove their professional qualities on air – in fact, no-one even hears them.

I say this without any irony – the fact of the matter is, not one of the American managers of Radio Liberty is interested in it, EVER listens to it, or even knows any Russian. The supervisor of the Russian service doesn’t know Russian. Neither does the chief editor of RFERL. They prefer to listen to music on the radio and to get their news from the Internet. When we spoke to an American manager over a friendly supper about the essence of radio, he replied to this simple thought of mine, what the most important things for radio are: he intoned, appeared to think deeply, and uttered: “Yes, you’re right. Intonation. Igor Pomerantsev has a wonderful intonation!”. “You heard him on air?”, I asked, excited. “No, whatever for?” he exclaimed in surprise.

The presenters, it seems, have already long held their managers for idiots, for they never tire of burying them in letters – odes to their own honorable selves, to convince them of their own greatness. You call a name. “O!” exclaims the poor American, “That’s an outstanding presenter! He’s listened to in the Kremlin!”. “How do you know?” – “He told me so himself”.

Another surname. “O! – she’s an outstanding presenter! Everyone comes to talk with her!” – “Everyone!, how come?” – “She told me so herself”.

At this point I should note that conversations with guests on air are exceptional in the servility of the presenters. In reply to the straightforward question – “Why, dear, do you not ask the guests hard questions?”, these pillars ingenuously answer – “But otherwise they wouldn’t come to us!”

But the most disgusting thing – it’s the atmosphere of total, all-embracing lies and denunciations, built into a cult. They lie to each other, lie on each other, they communicate amongst themselves exclusively by writing – so that every word is recorded, for otherwise they can easily absolve themselves of anything they say without witnesses or microphones. On screwing outsiders, they try their utmost to put on a pained face, as one of the supervisors in the Moscow bureau said – “We don’t need any conflictual situations”. This is exactly why they deal with the inconvenient folks silently, in a Soviet way, KGB-style: decisions on dismissal are taken during the holidays. On your return from vacation, they greet you with a happy smile, throw you a big thumbs up – “Hello? How were your holidays?”, and then they quietly take you to the staff department. Hiding their eyes and clutching a manual containing prepared answers to every possible question, in arms trembling from their own baseness, they suggest you clear off. You refuse to sign – they begin a sophisticated blackmail. With a lovely smile. Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to get rid of you. And don’t think you’ll ever get an answer to the question – why? “It is not our policy to explain the decisions of the management”.

Radio Liberty had the chance to become a bright, clever, modern and dynamic radio station. To expand their circle of guests and experts, to reduce the quantity of repeats, to rework their broadcasting format, to construct an original broadcasting program for the weekend, to open up new places of discussion, to increase the numbers of listeners, to attract a young, active audience, to become a full player on the information space, instead of recycling news stories from the headlines of the information agencies…

Actually, this is the very reason a new Director was invited, one who did not intend to interfere with editorial policies, but one who wanted to just do RADIO. Few could have expected such an awful experience with absolutely reasonless hatred, rudeness, hysterical sabotage, on the part of these envious, self-worshiping gentlemen, who call themselves journalists. And from the other side, from the American management – total control over and blockage of any and all decisions. Without a written agreement with the supervisor of the Russian service in Prague, you couldn’t move a chair in the Moscow office. Judging by everything that happened, Radio Liberty faces no danger of change any time soon, and the American leadership’s search for an “effective manager” is in vain. Free radio for free peoples, turned out to be as much a myth as the “heroic” careers of its employees. The sole freedom which they’ve realized to its full potential, is the freedom of mendacity.

PS. Mario Corti, former Director of the Russian service of Radio Liberty, fired in 2005:

I would like to tell you, for the first time, what really happened at RFERL. Furthermore, I take full responsibility for everything I say. I can document it all. I did not leave the radio station – first I was removed from the post of Director of the Russian service, then I was fired. After my demotion I could have gone with a bang, slamming the door behind me, especially because at my dismissal I refused the compensation which was offered to me upon my agreement to certain conditions that were improper and demeaning both to me, and to the radio station itself. But I always, and still do, greatly respect this venerable institution. It’s far higher and worthier than some of the folks who, unfortunately, sometimes end up there. And I also dreamed there would be changes for the better. It was all in vain. Eventually, they managed to dismiss me under the pretext of the “restructuring” of the Russian service.”

Everything in full here: http://www.newswe.com/index.php?go=Pages&in=view&id=1297
Version for foreigners: http://freemediaonline.org/freemediaonlineblog/2009/05/19/radio-free-europeradio-liberty-has-lost-its-uniqueness-warns-former-director-of-radio-libertys-russian-service/

Usually shortened to “Radio Liberty” or RFERL.

This is a reference to the Russian fairy-tale Buratino.

“Кто первый встал – того и тапки” – Russian slang meaning that it’s best to be first, otherwise you lose out.

“столпы” – pillars, i.e. pillars / hotshots of journalism on Russia; reused several times.

“УЖК” – уникальный журналисткий колектив, “unique journalistic collective”.

Propaganda stories inserted into mass media outlets for money in order to smear another person’s reputation.

“атмосфера тотального всепроникающего вранья и стукачества, возведенного в культ”.

“Поедая чужаков, они изо всех сил стараются соблюсти перекошенное лицо”.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.