Friday, August 16, 2013

The uses of terror

For anyone not paying attention -- and how many in the United States have been paying attention during our own last decade of inept imperial blundering? -- Russian journalist Masha Gessen's The Man without a Face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin is eye opening. Unhappily, the book also triggers comparisons with some of our country's gyrations. Faltering empires apparently trod well worn paths.

The President (and sometime Prime Minister) Putin about whom Gessen writes is a rather limited apparatchik who seized on the opportunity created by the collapse of the Soviet Union to grasp power and wealth for himself. He's not a man of ideas or beliefs.

Like most Soviet citizens of his generation, Putin was never a political idealist. His parents may or may not have believed in a Communist future for all the world, in the ultimate triumph of justice for the proletariat, or any of the other ideological cliches that had been worn thin by the time Putin was growing up; he never even considered his relationship to any of these ideals. … Like other members of his generation, Putin replaced belief in communism, which no longer seemed plausible or even possible, with faith in institutions. His loyalty was to the KGB and to the empire it served and protected: the USSR.

Insofar as this thuggish character has objectives beyond collecting the most toys in good capitalist fashion, they apparently consist of restoring the Russian empire's lost glories.

Gessen believes -- and adds to -- the evidence that shows that the Russian secret police were responsible for a series of awful bombings of apartment blocks in 1999. These bombings scared Russians into supporting Putin in his first election. The terror unleashed by the explosions

… could have been used to elect anyone: if enough blood was shed, any previously unknown, faceless, and unqualified candidate could become president.

The bombings created support for reinvigorating the project that Gorbachev and Yeltsin had wound down of suppressing Russia's restive Chechen Muslim minority, a task Putin has brutally pursued. Gessen is not willing to say Putin's secret service carried out the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis or the 2004 Beslan school occupation and massacre. Much as I never thought Dick Cheney had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, she thinks Putin merely used Chechen attacks for his own ends. That is, she's not a "truther," she's a "delighter." Terror served these rulers' purposes of social control.

One thing is certain: once the hostage taking [at the Moscow theater and the Beslan school] occurred, the government task forces acting under Putin’s direct supervision did everything to ensure that the crises ended as horrifyingly as possible -- to justify continuing warfare in Chechnya and further crackdowns on the media and opposition in Russia, and, finally, to quell any possible criticism from the West, which, after 9/11, was obligated to recognize in Putin a fellow fighter against Islamic terrorism. There is a reason that Russian troops in both Moscow and Beslan acted in ways that maximized bloodshed; they actually aimed to maximize the fear and the horror. This is the classic modus operandi of terrorists and in this sense it certainly can be said that Putin and the terrorists were acting in concert.

The terror threat has legitimized the ongoing rule of the “Party of Crooks and Thieves” as some Russians call Putin's ruling group.

Gessen has lived the painful trajectory of the Russian state for the last 25 years and her book contains fascinating glimpses of the feelings those changes unleashed. During the brief democratic "spring" in the early '90s, those who had once been dissident outsiders experienced an ecstasy of new liberty. She quotes Yelena Zelinskaya, a purveyor of samizdat under Gorbachev and later the vice-president of the Media Union, on the changes.

"We could no longer breathe among the lies, the hypocrisy, and the stupidity. There was no fear. And as soon as the first rays of light seemed to break through -- as soon as people whose hands had been tied were allowed to move a few fingers -- people started to move. People weren’t thinking about money or about improving their standing in life; all anyone thought about was freedom. Freedom to conduct your private life as you wish, freedom to travel and see the world. Freedom from hypocrisy and freedom not to listen to hypocrisy; freedom from libel, freedom from feeling ashamed for one’s parents, freedom from the vicious lies we were all of us submerged in as in in molasses."

With Putin's ascent to power, the sparks were gradually extinguished:

Something shifted, instantly and perceptibly, as though the sounds of the new/old Soviet/Russian national anthem had signaled the dawn of a new era for everyone. Soviet instincts, it seemed, had kicked in all over the country, and the Soviet Union was instantly restored in spirit.

Nonetheless, popular protest against the sense of stifled life of civil society keeps breaking out. She describes a demonstration of thousands in 2011:

If you have spent years feeling as if your views are shared by only a few of your closest friends, being surrounded by tens of thousands of like-minded people really does feel like hearing a million funny jokes at once.

Any of us who've struggled to drag our own countries in a more just and peaceful direction know that feeling.

The Man without a Face is a fascinating, both inspiriting and depressing, window on contemporary Russia -- perhaps not a total picture, but a necessary glimpse.
As I read Gessen's book, I kept thinking, the woman writing this is a lesbian. There are hints in the text, references to the partner with whom Gessen is raising children, but mostly this was my "gaydar" working. I was correct according to Wikipedia. Since this book came out, Gessen has had difficulties with her employment. She writes occasional reportage for Western media. Given the anti-gay panic currently being used by the Russian regime to rally nationalist excitement, I can only hope Gessen and other Russian gays weather this new storm that follows on so many others. Many of us in the West are more likely to pay attention to these abuses than we have to Putin's increasingly deadening polity.


Rain Trueax said...

The 'ordered' assassinations of anyone getting in Putin's way (murders that they can't prove he ordered but the fingerprints are all over them given his past) and now the persecution of the LGBT community makes you know he's not only ruthless but has ulterior motives that we can only guess at-- but that can't be good. What amazes me is Condolezza Rice was supposed to be this Russian expert and yet it all was glossed over as insignificant during the Bush years. Now Obama tries to show displeasure but with what real teeth?

amspirnational said...

Russia has played a positive role in the Mideast in the past 12 years, meant to stabilize whereas the American Empire has wreaked havoc with wars based on lies, funding jihadists against Assad, leaving Iraq in shambles and Libya
restive, placing a terroristic embargo on Iran, similar to that placed on Iraq prior to the war.

Russia protects Snowden the hero against the NSA police state and Obama calls Snowden a traitor, yet Rain believes here Obama the potential but ineffectual hero and buys the anti-Putin propaganda, which is exactly what the neocons here want her to do.

Rain Trueax said...

actually I don't see obama as the hero. I also feel that Snowden is proving to be more and more someone who tried to do something for Americans. Russia though is not protecting him (temporarily) for that reason. Don't judge me for what I think as you don't know me. Russia is certainly not a nation to admire right now with what they are doing to the LGBT community and if you look at Putin's history, you should have a few doubts...

Kay Dennison said...

Having grown up with the cold war, I tend to be a skeptic.

amspirnational said...

Rain your phraselogy suggests you wished Obama would adopt a more anti-Russian policy, which is exactly what people like Charles Krauthammer want. When the neocons start to go easier on Putin, that will be a tipoff he doesn't deserve
the benefit of any current doubt.

And I'm sorry if I prioritize the liberation of Palestine more than
other so-called liberations.

Rain Trueax said...

I think that what Putin is doing to the LGBT community should worry all humans,shouldn't it? You have to ask why-- what is his motivation? what else is he heading toward? And then with the various assassinations of those who were Putin's enemies and mysterious poisoned deaths, doesn't that make you wonder at all that he is behind it given his history?

As for what is going on with the Palestinians, I do not think for a second that Russia who supports Syria is on the side of anybody in the Middle East except themselves. There are those who don't want an independent nation of Palestine but I am not one of them. I can see how Israel has often done wrong regarding the situation by taking the lands after agreeing they would be Palestinian, and then in a reaction to terrorist attacks fencing the Palestinians into virtual concentration camps-- but you are defending Putin here and there is no way I see him as a humanitarian.

Incidentally I get most of my news from newspapers, online and MSNBC which means no krauthammer or fox. I did not favor the Iraq war, think we should get out of Afghanistan yesterday, and although I do see Obama as better than any Republican alternative, he hasn't done a lot of what I would have wanted. Some though is because I doubt he could if he wanted-- and I'm not sure he wants.

The issue here though is Putin and how much he should be trusted...

Anonymous said...

The de-Zionization of Palestine would benefit Russia, as the US is completely owned by the Zionist Lobby and the entire Arab-Islamic world understands it.

A one man one vote democracy can never coexist with Zionism and rabbinical law.

Rain Trueax said...

The issue of the US and Israel goes back to a biblical interpretation of the end times and their belief that they must or God will zap them. It's more about religion than government. It also goes back to the wrong done during the Holocaust and a desire by many to make up for it. It's not a universal view in the US as neither are Christians the only people living in this country. There are atheists who are more concerned about human rights-- on either side-- than a religious philosophy. The religious view though has been used by the neocons who aren't even christians for the most part but christianists who use the religion to gain power.