What Would the Jenningses Think

The FX spy drama The Americans’ final season has a Reagan-Gorbachev summit as a backdrop. The one where the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was signed in 1987. According to the series plot, there were two factions within the Soviet high powers: Gorbachev and his aides were ready to free the world from nuclear weapons even at a cost of some concessions, while the old KGB core was preparing a coup against Gorbachev so that the nukes would continue to protect the communist values. The main characters, a couple of Russian illegals living and acting in the D.C. area, are split – Elizabeth although without knowing is on a killing spree on the KGB side, while Philip is forced to go back to his past vocation, from which he has retired, in order to stop his wife and the conspiracy.

They manage everything — apparently stop the plot from its fruition, leave almost unscathed, and stay together. After all, they have been fighting for the supposedly better cause of stopping the real Americans from destroying their Motherland (as we know, in reality, Motherlands are usually happy to destroy themselves). They believed in it almost to the end, though with a varying degree of conviction, even though they had to kill people, some innocent, along the way. Elizabeth is hardcore and cold-blooded, but even she realizes that it is not always worth it, that no Motherland is worthy of killing everyone in their way. Sometimes, as they learn, you might have to kill your own people. Philip is sort of disillusioned almost from the beginning but stays loyal both to his country and his family, keeping it together and ultimately saving it from the unhappy ending.

The American television series about the Soviet undercover spies is surprisingly good at picturing both sides almost equally human. The Americans are not always innocent and righteous, the Russians are not simply the bad ones. Despite the fact that the vast majority of deaths are on the Soviet hands, you do feel how the creators are sympathizing with them, explaining the rational reasons. There are greater causes behind both sides and that nearly justifies the cruelty, or at least that is how it is all shown. After all, it was the FBI agent who let the Jenningses go in the end.

Back to the INF Treaty. It is rather dreadful that just a few months after the series ended and a few days before I finished watching it, our two countries mutually withdrew from the treaty. What those spies were fighting for on some level, what our country sacrificed back in the 1980s, what all those lives were lost for even if just in an action-driven television series — all those things were for nothing, or so it seems from 2019. Thirty-one years have passed, and we are practically back to square one or even worse.

So, I wonder what would the Jenningses think of us hypothetically? They put everything, their lives and happiness, their marriage, and trust at stake on the great cause of peace. They left their kids behind and barely escaped. Now it turns out that all that risk was for nothing. Yes, they stayed alive. No, the great cause of peace is cast away. Then the two leaders came to the understanding that mutual disagreements should be set aside for the peaceful future that modern leaders see no more. Would Elizabeth be happy to see the quasi-return of the Soviet Union and the old guard? Would Philip be disgusted with it?

We will never know what the Jenningses would think of us. But although they are fictional characters we should still be asking ourselves these questions. If we don’t, we might just pave the way to the times from which even the real-life Jenningses would not be able to pull us out.


Russia Did Not Invent California and Texas Secession

The BBC reported last week that the Twitter campaigns for the so-called #Calexit and #Texit were orchestrated from Russia. Mashable joined in the coverage.

The claim is that a Russian troll-factory either initiated or supported and boosted Twitter campaigns for California and Texas secession from the United States in the wake of the 2016 presidential elections. The case is based on analysis of who drove the corresponding hashtags to the top, and on the story behind some pro-independence leaders. It is revealed that most Twitter accounts that used the hashtags, liked certain tweets, or republished them no longer exist, and, therefore, must be automated bots and fake accounts. At the same time, it is known that Louis Marinelli, who was the leader of the California independence movement, attended a conference in Russia and currently resides there.

The use of bots, fake accounts, and whole organizations that support someone’s agenda on social networks is no news. The Russian troll-factory just happens to be the most well-known one, while others may still remain undiscovered. There is absolutely no guarantee that some other governments do not use such tactics either domestically or internationally. Popular opinion is a very powerful weapon, and controlling the people’s mindset becomes unavoidable in the era of information wars.

But the reports that are published now cannot be taken independently of two key factors. One, Russia was not the founder of the secession movements around the world. Two, Russia does not care about secession as long as it does not happen on its own soil, and foreign secessions are used merely as a propaganda tool for domestic policing. Consequently, it is a bit far-fetched to assume that Russia is the real perpetrator of breaking other countries apart, as long as these countries are not former Soviet republics.

Besides, when media like The Atlantic write that “following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the organization [Yes California] has gone from an unknown fringe group to one discussed seriously in mainstream media”, they forget to add that this mainstream American media help transform fringe movements into anything bigger by pushing them towards the front pages and using those fringe groups in the same pile of the alleged Russian involvement in any shit that happens in the USA. Honestly, it looks the same as when the Russians joked about Obama peeing in their apartment buildings, mocking the popular Russian TV picture of America held responsible for all sorts of troubles. But when the Russians are joking, the Americans are serious — and that is somewhat awkward.

Yet, even those who are most loud in voicing their concerns about the Russian support for the US separatists have to admit that “these scattered American movements are not necessarily proactive agents working on behalf of Moscow’s direct interests”. After all, Moscow may have created secession-backing accounts on social networks, but secession movements were created in the USA and by American citizens.

Secession movements are homegrown

Louis Marinelli did spend a lot of time teaching English and studying in Russia, he does currently reside in Russia, he did attend the Dialogue of Nations conference in Russia. But Louis Marinelli is neither a Russian, nor did he start the whole Yes California campaign alone and from Russia — he did it while being in the United States, and he did it with many other supporters. Moreover, they were not the first in history to suggest California should either be confederated or independent, just like there had been several proposals for alternatively splitting the state into several states.

The California National Party was established in 2015, a year before the 2016 presidential elections. It is not alone, with the Alaskan Independence Party (founded in 1984), and the Hawaii Independence Party (founded in 2015) to name just a few. Even Puerto Rico has its own independence movement, which you would easily understand with Trump’s inability to take Puerto Rico and its post-hurricane state seriously.

The Russian troll-factory might have been the force behind driving the #Texit into the hearts of at least some people and the Twitter tops. But #Texit was born in Texas by a Texan and entered the hearts of some Texans, not just anonymous Russian bots. Moreover, it was the Western media that first covered this whole idea — first, The Guardian, and then The New York Times. Plus, Texas was always known for its favorable stance on independence, long before Russia and Twitter — modern secession organizations in Texas appeared in the 1990s.

Therefore, when the secession story in the USA is pictured in the Russian terms, it falls well within the whole Russian hacking narrative but falls short of in-depth objective journalism.

Foreign secession as propaganda pill against domestic protest

When it comes to secession and the right of nations for independence, one must clearly understand that any or most government’s position would be that of “kind of OK as long as it is not on our soil”. One thing is to voice any sentiments about the breaking of a far-away country, another — to see your own country break up. Russia is still licking the wounds left from the collapse of the USSR and is desperately trying to forget the Yeltsin’s policy of giving autonomous republics as much independence as they asked for to keep them within some control and national borders. So, the Russian government position is that of criminalizing even the open discussion of any sort of territorial independence — people can go to prison for just speaking about Siberian or Far Eastern republics.

At the same time, there’s the Ukraine where Russia has been the catalyst of separatism as a way to undermine any potential success of people’s overthrowing the pro-Russian regime in 2014. Putin not only stole the Crimea but did nothing to stop Russian oligarchs and militant groups from keeping Donbas and Lugansk regions in their quasi-independent state. This could be explained by the Russian elite’s and general public’s sentiments towards the loss of the Soviet land. Ukraine was unfortunate enough to pay a dear price for its push away from Russia, but regimes in Kazakhstan or some other former Soviet republics do not feel immune from the rise of imperial aspirations no matter how hard they try to pretend they are pro-Putin (they don’t try hard enough, though).

As for secession movements elsewhere — Spain, the UK, the USA — Russia does not really care. Well, maybe just a little — hoping that break-ups might undermine the stability and prosperity of those countries allowing Russia to act more freely in the international arena. After all, one of the key principles of politics is to divide and conquer. Surely, Russia does not have any plans to physically conquer the United States (Russian politicians and oligarchs are not mad enough to even think of losing their safe haven). But dividing the American public alongside any political rifts might serve some purpose. It would be hard not to agree with POLITICO Magazine here: “people who know the Russian political playbook say winking at these fringe movements — and even giving them a boost — is a part of a very real strategy. Not only is this a way of puffing Russia’s domestic claims at the turmoil in the U.S., but it fits firmly within the Kremlin’s modus operandi of cultivating fringe groups in the West”.

However, all these secessionists in other countries serve as a good instrument in domestic Russian propaganda. Russian TV can always point to foreign examples saying things that range from “the USA have their own troubles to meddle with our affairs” to “look, California and Texas are fed up with the USA” to “Calexit and Texit prove that the USA is a failed state, not Russia”.

This brings us back to showcasing the downsides of territorial independence to the domestic population. Some might be jailed but this may lead to tensions with international civil rights organizations and bad publicity. Making people believe that secession is a nasty business not worthy of even remotely considering is a good way to avoid that.

Plus, you should never underestimate the Russian (media) policy of screaming about other countries’ woes to silence a public discussion of domestic issues. And that might be the ultimate current goal of supporting all those #exits on Twitter.

Let me be absolutely clear here. Russia is proven to have government-supported organizations that are engaged in spreading the Kremlin agenda both internally and internationally via popular social networks and blogging platforms. Russia has backed up conferences and provided financing to numerous alt-right, conservative, and secessionist movements in Europe and the Americas, while simultaneously criminalizing any secessionist discussion on its own territory.

Secessionist movements, parties, and sentiments are homegrown no matter how small or big their fanbase is. They originate as either some fringe groups (as in California) or rather universally supported at least on the level of public sentiments and discourse (as in Texas, or, say, Catalonia). They can grow thanks to foreign investment but only to a certain point, as they would still have to secure voters’ backup in any elections or even proper registration as political players.

Russia may have played a big role in the secessionist resurrection or mainstreaming their agenda, but it did so via the Western media too, and largely to use it for domestic Russian propaganda. Wreaking havoc on American soil, and dividing people along some internal political rifts is just the added bonus that would also be used to advantage in (mostly) domestic Russian propaganda.

Overestimating the Russian role in internal American politics means looking for an easy scapegoat in the US’s own political turmoil, and shifting the focus of attention from local players to outside ones.


Remember, Remember the 7th of November

I was born in the Soviet Union with the Seventh of November in my blood as one of the brightest dates in the calendar. Not even Victory Day was so widely observed back then. We had New Year’s for the kids in us, Women’s Day for the ceremonial bow towards women, First of May for the spring holiday, and Victory Day for the battle memories. But Seventh of November reigned above them all with its military parade (same as Victory Day), demonstrations (same as First of May) and something extra that other holidays lacked.

I am not feeling nostalgic now, or am I? In some sense I am, I guess. We were young and naïve, we believed that our forefathers overturned tsarism and exploitation by the landlords, we knew that the Soviet rule gave us all equal access to education, healthcare, and social welfare. We were kids after all and kids are fascinated with flags, tanks, crowds, and parades. I even once took part in a demonstration, but in a small town where participant passes were not required.

Soviet flags on the 7th of November

Then, we saw The Cold Summer of 1953 and learnt more about millions killed in the 1930s-1940s. Not that it wasn’t known before, just not highlighted. Then, everything tumbled down and the Soviet Union was no more. I was still a child to notice acutely and sympathize or celebrate. What followed were the years when we somewhat struggled with poverty (comparatively and relatively speaking), lived through tumultuous times and found ourselves in the 2000s. Years of relative stability and prosperity. Now, we are back to the brink of struggling with poverty, just on a somewhat different level.

It is the Cold Autumn of 2017 and the Soviet Union is back in some sense. We are made to believe that our forefathers overturned tsarism and exploitation by the landlords with a new (maybe not so righteous) twist, we recall that the Soviet rule gave us all equal access to education, health care and social welfare (with the new realisation — this was not always equal access to the best we could have had). We are no longer kids but we all get fascinated with flags, tanks, crowds, and parades (or, shall I say, their reenactments). There is even a slightly wider access to those reenactments provided you have a participant pass.

We are living through the times of reenactment of something from our past but on a slightly different level and with many new twists. The market economy is what makes those with participant passes become rich and feel part of the world. Nostalgic reminiscing about the planned economy is what makes the majority feel deceived but on the way to improvement (by way of going back). No need to be part of the world for this majority, as the world is hostile again.

The feeling is that by alienating ourselves from the rest of the planet (since they alienate themselves from us) and going back to our righteous Soviet rules we might just survive and prosper, albeit through some initial hardships. These sentiments are freely planted through the media into the television-led collective consciousness and find fertile ground there.

The problem is that these sentiments are good for the masses but not intended for the few who have participant passes. Hence, all those propaganda warriors who preach death and hardships here but for themselves choose life abroad. Hence, this ambiguity and doublethinking about the events that exploded and spread with the gunpowder, treason, and plot of the seventh of November. Hence, the fact that we are given back parades, tanks, and flags but not the holiday. That is unless you count those reenactments that serve as the Victory Day repeat to fill the Seventh of November void.

Sailor, soldier and red flags

I come from the generation of kids who were fortunate enough to be born too late for the Soviet sentiments to cement inside our brains. We find bits and pieces but have other experiences from later periods. Not all of us — some are lost to the preaching. We are also from the generation of kids who were too fascinated with flags, tanks, and parades, and those who are disillusioned with the present might gladly embrace the past. I can treat the whole thing as a children’s rhyme now and look into the future (or at least hope for it), while many others only think that they are looking into the future and in fact are facing the past all over again.

Yet there is something obviously different about the attitude towards this date now that we mark its 100th anniversary. The propaganda is such a tricky thing that it makes the people nostalgic about the Soviet past but at the same time denounces the roots of the Soviet rule. Revolution is bad they say. You should not think of repeating the experience as it will bring all sorts of damage to yourself and the country. The Great October Socialist Revolution (as it was called in the past) was more like a coup d’état in the modern interpretation — one political party overthrew another with the help of foreign money. The revolution then provoked years of civil war and destitution.

At the same time, you should be proud of all those things that came into our lives thanks to that revolution back in 1917 — declaratively classless system, universal education, nuclear weapons, space exploration, Soviet ballet, superpower status, and declaratively free healthcare and housing. To somehow reconcile the two the propaganda tells us that industrial growth, space exploration, and nuclear weapons would have come into our lives even without the revolution, just like the Russian Empire already had its internationally acclaimed ballet, as well as kind of a superpower status, or at least that on par with other great empires of that time.

The current internal Russian policy is that of the cautious negation of those history pages that are strongly rebellious, like autumn of 1917. When the modern population may feel the same sentiments of tiredness, betrayal, stagnation, and injustice as crowds of Russians 100 years ago even the slightest verbal nod towards unsanctioned criticism is treated like the call to unconstitutional overthrowing of the government. Any remotely rebellious actions are destined to be nipped in the bud unlike those in 1917. The authorities have learned the history lesson. Putin can claim the supremacy of the Soviet Union but will curse its beginnings because otherwise, he would have to admit that 1) his beloved former country appeared as a result of an illegal act, and 2) his own position can be overthrown with substantial justification and historical parallels. After all, it is rather inconsistent to consider a revolution a good thing for others but bad for you.


Let Tits Win Over Dumbwits

It was rather bizarre. I was lying on my sofa chilling out with some YouTube videos. But I could very well hear what my mom was listening to on TV. Today it was rather quieter than usual, probably because the topic was not Ukraine for a change but the possibility of a nuclear war. Surely, the one that America has always planned and is ready to wage against Russia any minute.

Ecstatic TV presenters and their schizophrenic or paranoid (I am not very good at differentiating between forms of dementia) guests and so-called experts (i.e. experts in making up theories of how the whole world is wrong, and we are always right) gathered to talk about (not discuss) whether nuclear war is a distant or rather not so distant future for us unless Russia stops its enemies (mostly by virtue of its righteousness, I guess).

The synopsis is typical. America would have surely tried one of its A-bombs on the Soviet Union if there had been one more to spare at the time. Stalin should have used an A-bomb in Germany (if by any chance we had it at the time). America has only pretended to curb its nuclear potential while making sure the Russian one is curbed. That is just a typical sly American way of tricking us into oblivion, but we won’t let them. Yet just look at how those Americans have infiltrated Europe and even our former republics (i.e. those states that should belong to us) with nuclear warheads and other missiles.

As an additional backdrop to all that rhetoric came the news that Russian internal forces (i.e. paramilitary police) have placed additional orders for grenade guns (presumably for dealing with any protest) and that the Russian TV complex in Moscow has just been fenced with barbed wire.

I couldn’t help but overheard some bullshit (like I always do) and then I tried to concentrate on those YouTube videos. They were ones from the latest Victoria’s Secret Show.

The first video (above) was fantastically bright and cheerful. It might have the same bright colors as the ones of a nuclear explosion, but I hope to never be able to actually compare those for myself. It (the video) was full of life, joy, and love.

Another video was reminiscent of Russia a lot, namely of Russian winter – thankfully not the nuclear winter, but a good old frosty one. It was even more beautiful as this is just the season (though there isn’t any snow in my area now). But this visual of warm furry hats and mittens coupled with snowflakes and smiley faces, and mixed with dynamic music was again in stark contrast with what I couldn’t help but overhear from the TV across the room.

I was lying on my sofa watching those YouTube videos and overhearing that TV talk-show and couldn’t help but think that it must be so much better to be among nice tits than among wannabe intellectuals (i.e. dumbwits).

Models are believed to be generally dumb (not that I agree). However, I suppose that it is better to be believed dumb and not be than be dumb and showcase it on national television. It is better to be modeling underwear and make people happy than sitting fully clothed radiating hatred. Such hatred is often more dangerous than those grenade guns that Russian police are getting ready to fire at its own people.

I hope that dumbwits stay inside that TV box inside that TV complex behind a barbed wire fence and that the world around will gleefully enjoy the explosion of color, the dynamics of music, and the feast of love.

After all, even Liberty that led people in Eugène Delacroix’s famous painting was not ashamed to show her bare chest. Because tits are better than dumbwits. Let them win!


Stop With The Kids

We’ve had quite a discussion with my English students today. They read this article on suggestions to legalize drugs in America to make drug use less criminal and more open to non-repressive methods of dealing with it. I asked them about their opinion and quite naturally received a negative answer – drugs cannot and should not be legalized in Russia. The reason? Kids will then try drugs for sure and become addicts. This kids-argument and save-our-children stance has become ridiculously predictable and even destructive to the point of harming those whom it is supposed to protect.

I asked my students why they thought that the legalization of drugs would lead to more children becoming drug addicts. The replies were also predictable – legal drugs mean easy access, besides, children don’t listen to parents and teachers who would say that drugs are bad for them.

Though I agree that kids tend to sometimes act opposite to what their parents tell them, I cannot simply let this argument fly. If we did then most of the parental education turned essentially useless. What is the point of telling kids what is bad and what is good if we believe that they will always and definitely do it their own way? What is the point of wasting time and effort if parents knew that this is all really wasted?

The thing is, it isn’t wasted and there is a good point in telling children right from wrong. They won’t always do it your way, they might disagree with certain things, be stubborn and require extra time and words, but talking and setting example works, or we’d all be addicts and criminals of some sort by now.

Good parents will set a good example. Even better parents will talk to their children and listen to them too. If a child knows that they can always come to their parents and discuss things if a child sees a positive image in their day-to-day life I see no reason why this child should definitely go the wrong way. Well, things happen and nobody guarantees anything, but it is better to try and talk, then try again and again.

Instead, adults prefer to spend their time in a more pleasant way than dealing with their kids’ millions of questions and those millions of options – some good, some bad – that children face in their early life. Unsurprisingly, many children stumble, listen to their friends, and even follow their parents’ bad example. Who else could they listen to if their parents are always busy or unfriendly? Why not try things that their parents do themselves?

My students reasoned that if drugs were legalized then it would be easier to get them. Is finding drugs impossible for people who want to get them now, I fired back as if I were one of the Democratic candidates we’ve read about. I was told that a few years ago chemical salts were sold freely everywhere in Russia. My answer, those salts were mostly bought by adults (otherwise we’d have known as this is such a TV topic). Adults are not children and can make their own decisions. So why stop adults who know well about the disastrous effects of such salts and still go buy them? Should we protect idiots in their right minds? And where does your save-our-children argument fit in now?

Yet it fits pretty well in all kinds of situations in Russian public and political discourse. The tricky thing is that in most of these cases nobody is really trying to protect children but rather use children as a soft spot in the public mind.

Another example was with the ban on the so-called gay propaganda. Obviously, only Russian politicians know what that is and are afraid that they might fall victim. But they are adults and still feel that it would be awkward to use grown-ups in fighting sexual diversity. Here comes the protect-kids-case and it becomes illegal to draw homosexuality (let alone transgenderism) in any bright colors just because some even hypothetical children might hear it and apparently (in politicians’ view) become gay. The fact that some of these children can actually be gay is not an acceptable reason as this would be used against you in terms of “you’ve just turned them gay with your words”.

One of the extreme cases of counter-productive policy (or, should I say, politics) of literally killing children under the umbrella of the so-called protection is when Russian authorities stopped sanctioning foreign adoptions of Russian children (specifically those with rare medical conditions) in the midst of rhetorical hostilities with the West. Television was used to prepare the public by showing reports about several former Russian children mistreated, murdered, or accidentally killed in American families.

So now orphans and children whose parents left them after birth because they couldn’t support those kids or because such kids had medical conditions or disabilities stay in Russian asylums without any hope of being adopted by willing foreign families. Some children die, some don’t get enough qualified medical help, some grow up as orphans. At the same time, many more kids who grow up with both or at least one parent suffer from child abuse, mistreatment, beating, negligence and, you’ve guessed it, bad example of parents who smoke, chain drink, and possibly use drugs. The number of children who die in Russian families because of mistreatment of some sort is surely much higher than the number of such deaths among Russians adopted by foreign families. Yet the save-our-children argument worked well and only in one direction.

So, when you hear this argument next time try and think who’s trying to protect whom? It might turn out that when somebody speaks about the urgent need to protect our children from some evil, what they really want is to either ban something or protect themselves (i.e., adults) from being adults and making sensible choices for themselves. It just so happens that cowards prefer to use children as a way to hide their own weaknesses or some evil political agenda. And no, I am against legalizing drugs in Russia but I can try not using children as a reason.