- The Atlantic: Putin Likes to Pretend 1917 Never Happened
- Vice: Decapitating Lenin Statues is the Hottest New Trend in Ukraine
- Al-Jazeera: Russia: A resurgent superpower?
- Al-Jazeera: 100 Years Without a Revolution
- NYT: What Was Lenin Thinking?
- Washington Post: Russia has its czar a century after the October Revolution
By David Michael Newstead.
In a developing news story, American born Putin critic and human rights campaigner Bill Browder has had his U.S. visa revoked by the Trump Administration. You might recall that Browder testified before Congress in July about corruption in the Russian government. Also, the human rights law that Browder campaigned for was the subject of the now infamous meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyers during the 2016 presidential election. Here’s an excerpt from my 2015 interview with Bill Browder.
David Newstead: In the book, you’ve said that you have to take elaborate counter-measures based on death threats and harassment from Russian authorities or their proxies. Without commenting on the specifics of your counter-measures, can you say more about how they go after you?
Bill Browder: Well, the objective is to destroy me either physically, legally, or reputationally. So in their perfect world, if they could just get away with it, they would kill me. But so far they haven’t, probably because they haven’t figured out a way they could get away with it. And so, the next step is to try to destroy me legally. In other words, to try to get me arrested and extradited back to Russia. Through Interpol red notices or bilateral extradition requests. So far, that hasn’t succeeded. Then, the third thing they try to do is to destroy me reputationally by putting shows about me on their television, accusing me of crimes of murder and massive fraud in Russia. They provide dossiers of fake information to foreign governments and parliamentarians. So far, none of this has worked, but it’s a constant fight with the Russians to make sure they don’t succeed.
By David Michael Newstead.
Dictators often build a cult of personality around themselves to emphasize how “great” they are through government propaganda. Notable examples of this include Stalin, Mao, and Hitler along with people like Francisco Franco, the Kim family in North Korea, Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan, and others. In practice, this might consist of songs glorifying the leader or statues and art in their likeness. But typically, the one thing these personality cults have in common is unending praise heaped onto the leader’s supposed exploits no matter how ridiculous. For instance, North Korean dictator Kim Jung Il once claimed to have shot 11 hole-in-ones in a single round of golf.
The most modern incarnation of a cult of personality though has to be the cult of masculinity. This is when propaganda highlights the leader’s “manliness” at every available opportunity, while simultaneously trying to disparage and emasculate his opponents. For some time now, this trend has been epitomized by Russian President Vladimir Putin who plays at being a shirtless action hero and pseudo-father figure to the nation. Over the years, however, cults of masculinity have arguably popped up in Egypt, the Philippines, and maybe even the United States. This then creates a disturbing social dynamic where the leader’s masculinity equals national strength and national strength equals their masculinity often at the expense of anyone else: women, political opposition groups, LGBTQ citizens.
At best, this represents the last gasp of traditional gender norms in a world that is no longer that traditional. The risk, however, is that some men’s resentment will cause this to intensify precisely because things have changed.
By David Michael Newstead.
Mikhail Gorbachev’s book, The New Russia, offers a glimpse at history from a decidedly rare point of view. Few Russian leaders have lived for so long after their time in office. So then, few others could ever provide the kind of perspective that Gorbachev gives as he reflects on the end of Communism and his last day in the Kremlin to the tumultuous years that followed and events right up to the present. Of those first years after Communism, he lists off a string of crises that plagued the nation as it transitioned to a new form of government.
- The collapse of the Soviet Union; the rolling back of democracy in almost all the republics; chaos in the economy, exploited by the greediest and most unscrupulous, who succeeded in plunging almost everyone else into poverty; ethnic conflicts and bloodshed in Russia and other republics; and, finally, the shelling of the Supreme Soviet of Russia in October 1993.
The book is filled with letters, speeches, photographs, and interview excerpts from throughout these years. But in all, it shows a man trying to defend the decisions he made and watching from the sidelines at the people who came to power after him, for better or worse. He explores the war in Chechnya, the economic turmoil throughout the 1990s, the eventual rise of Vladimir Putin, NATO expansion, the rollback of democratic reforms, the war with Georgia, Ukraine, and more. As Gorbachev thought about the past as well as the present, two passages stuck out at me.
- Already I was aware of just how deeply rooted the legacy of totalitarianism was, in our traditions, in people’s mindset and morality. It had seeped into almost every pore of the social organism. That deeply troubled me in those days and, more than 20 years later, still does.
- We are living in the twenty-first century, a century of new technologies and new challenges. Conservative ideology has no answer to these. Traditional, conservative values do, along with others, have their place in society. But where have conservative policies taken us in the history of Russia? They have led, as a rule, to stagnation followed by upheaval. Sometimes the years of stagnation have been relatively prosperous, living off reforms carried through earlier and favorable external factors. Sooner or later, however, that energy runs out, the external factors change.
By David Michael Newstead.
War crimes investigator David Crane returns to discuss the conflict in Syria, proposed human rights laws in the United States, and the impact of populist elections around the world.
David Newstead: How do you think this wave of populist elections around the world will impact international law and human rights?
David Crane: The honest answer is, I don’t know. One could certainly seem to think that it is not going to augur well for the future. However, that just remains to be seen. I would hope that we could at least keep where we are as opposed to taking steps back. But frankly, I am not confident. This is a clarion call for all of us to work harder, particularly in the public relations realm, to keep the concept of seeking justice for people who are oppressed in some kind of light so that it just doesn’t disappear back into the shadows as it was before the early 1990s.
David Newstead: Human rights laws like the original Magnitsky Act were bipartisan pieces of legislation and had strong Republican support. Do you see any hope for the expanded version of the Magnitsky Act or the Caesar Act in either the Republican controlled Congress or the Trump administration?
David Crane: I helped draft the Magnitsky Act and had testified on the Caesar Act before the House Foreign Affairs Committee earlier in the summer. You know, it’s interesting. It’s kind of a bellwether as to what the sense of Congress is at least right now. The other week, the Caesar Act passed on a voice vote in the House, which was a positive sign.
I’m not so sure about the Senate. I don’t have as good a read on it as I do in the House. I’m very good friends with Congressmen Ed Royce and Chris Smith, two champions of human rights who have worked with me since 2002 when I was doing my work in West Africa. I just don’t think it has the sense of urgency in the Senate that it does in the House. I’m not confident, though I could be surprised, that this is going to move forward. It has to move forward now obviously or it will not see the light of day. And I can’t see within the next year anything like a Caesar Act working its way through a Trump Administration.
I could be wrong, but I’m just not sure. I don’t think the new President-elect has any interest in this area at this point. Sees no need in it. Sees no political benefit in spending his time and energy on these types of issues. I’m not even sure who his main contact is in this area. If it’s Michael Flynn, then that doesn’t augur well.
To answer your question, it’s really up to the likes of Senators Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell. I’m just not getting a sense that they’re going to spend a lot of time of this. I could be wrong, but we just don’t have that momentum in the Senate that we used to have even when it was bipartisan. People like Senators Pat Leahy and Judd Gregg worked the hallways for these laws and worked together for decades. I’ve worked with them myself on getting international criminal law and human rights legislation through and they’ve been pretty good on it. But you know, I’m just not seeing a lot of momentum in the Senate on this.
David Newstead: If Trump’s recent endorsement of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war is any indication, what kind of human rights policies do you think we can expect?
David Crane: I’ve thought this through a lot. We either have a great moment or a moment of tragedy. For some bizarre reason, we have this moment with Russia that is something that is not comfortable for those of us who are old Cold Warriors, but also just individuals who look at Russia very skeptically for a lot of reasons. What an interesting thing if Trump and Putin actually formed a kind of grand alliance to handle some of the challenges internationally. The method may not be palatable, but the end product may be a solution for Syria, for example.
But I don’t know. This is the first time in a long, long time when everything is new and everything is on the table. No one really has a sense, because it’s a complete paradigm shift. Even all the key players in that crazy town that I lived in and worked in for so many years, all the key contacts and the people that make things happen… They’re no longer in power or even in anybody’s inner circle. We can’t shape, mold, or effect current and future policy, because they’re just not listening. Either the new administration is eventually going to come around, because they’re going to have to or they’re not going to get anything done. Or we’re going to see an amazing series of policy shifts internationally the likes of which we haven’t seen since Harry Truman and the Truman Doctrine.
David Newstead: But a modern rendition of that?
David Crane: Yeah. Whether we like it or not, we’re at a very fascinating and interesting time and both of us in different disciplines are a part of this. And it’s going to be fascinating to see how this evolves. I don’t have a cornerstone by which I can rely on and take my answers to you based on that, because there’s no cornerstones anymore. Everything is being questioned and challenged.
David Newstead: In your view, what’s behind this rise of populism internationally and the “Strong Man” figure common to many of these movements?
David Crane: Yeah, it’s a fascinating thing. This isn’t just a U.S. thing. I mean, it’s happening across all of Western democracies. And it’s that we have just been complacent in our democratic processes. We were just almost prefunctionally moving democracy forward in these countries, which had begun to drift from the general populace from which they are elected. What caused the spark, which started this low-burning bush fire, is the Great Recession. People were directly affected personally: job loss, concern about the future, loss of houses, etc. They began to become angry and lashed out particularly as democracies failed them.
Remember back in 2008 how excited we were around this time? Barack Obama had been elected and it just seemed like the world was brighter. Truly, there was hope. Boy, that has faded and I think everybody is just disappointed. Even some of us who are more establishment oriented, even we began to go “Are these really the best candidates that we can offer out of all the talent that’s in this country?” And so we see the same kind of thinking in Great Britain, in France, and even in Germany now. And of course, last month in Italy. In the Philippines, etc. The “Common Man” is just pissed off and he’s getting even. He’s shaking things up. I think this is a trend that will go on for years.
And in some ways, it’s a backlash to the rapid global development of the world. When the Berlin Wall came down, everybody was thrilled with the idea of a global village. Remember that term? We embraced it. At the end of the day, we’ll all go back to this more global approach to life, because our entire information and financial systems are now global. We can’t go back. Tariffs and those kind of things would be too disruptive. It used to be that tariffs were cyclical and affected goods and services from one country to another. But now, raising tariffs and increasing the costs of trade on a nationalistic basis is just bad for business. It affects everybody. So, we’re going to have these spikes that we’re seeing and this nationalistic trend is going to fly in the face of it. But at the end of the day, it’s just a practical reality that we are now global anyway. The United States or France or Great Britain can’t turn back internally to an industrial age mentality of nationalism. It just doesn’t work anymore. We’ve already drunk the Kool-Aid and we’re all a part of it now. We’re not going to see things like World War 3, because anybody who does something stupid in a cyber war or a nuclear attack their economy fails as well. Their destroying their own country regardless of their intent. In the information age, conflict is bad for business. In the industrial age, conflict was good for business, but those are days past.
It’s a fascinating thing. Russia is really kind of the beginning of that. For political reasons, Putin is doing these 1950s-style nationalistic policies that make him very popular at home. But at the end of the day, Putin realizes he really can’t do what he would really like to do, because we are all global now. His entire country is tied to the global financial and information systems. And his country would fail if he broke off from that.
David Newstead: Since you mention Russia, I wanted to ask about your current work. How do you think Russia’s recent decision to leave the International Criminal Court will impact the investigation and future prosecution of Syrian war crimes?
David Crane: We’re still continuing to investigate. Nothing changed in that respect. I think the Syrian conflict will continue until Russia allows Assad to win the war or at least militarily bring it to a point where it doesn’t make sense anymore. Now, they’ll be ruling over a completely devastated piece of Earth, but Russia isn’t leaving. Russia will not pull out of Syria until Assad wins. So, that could be next week. That could be five years from now. There’s nothing the U.S. can do to stop it other than this strange bromance that’s going on between Putin and Trump. If for some strange reason, Trump says “Let’s go get drunk somewhere and hash this out,” and everybody sits down at the table and stops the war. And we throw the rebels off the boat. I don’t see this ending well. It’s just a matter of when.
I’ve coined this term called Kaleidoscopic Conflict where we have a new kind of paradigm and Syria is one of these situations. For the first time, we cannot use our old planning processes to predict outcomes. We don’t know anything. No one can advise the President of the United States as to what we should do or what’s going to happen in Syria, because no one knows. Because if one thing changes, everything changes. We’re starting to enter into a geopolitical circumstance where we can no longer restore international peace and security as we’ve tried in the past under the UN paradigm. We’re reaching a point on various parts of the planet where we can only manage international peace and security. To use an analogy, the situation in Syria is like a cancer. If managed, the person can live a generally normal life. So we can manage the disease, but we can’t get rid of it. Same thing with Syria. We can’t solve Syria, but we can try to manage Syria to the point that it doesn’t spread to other parts of the world. And keeping Israel out of this, which is the ignored and unknown part of the conflict. As we all know, Israel has bright red lines in the sand and if you step over them, they don’t ask anymore. They just launch.
We have to manage Syria now, we’ll never solve Syria. In a world where we try to solve everything, particularly in Type-A Washington D.C., that’s anathema to anybody’s thinking. I’ve mentioned this in public and given speeches on it. I’ve said “Gosh, I’d love to solve Syria. But tell me how do we solve Syria?” And of course, they can’t answer, because there is no solution at this point. To show you how absurd this is, we are allied with Syria and Russia to fight ISIS. But yet we’re also sending money and personnel to fight Syria by supporting the rebels. We’re actually working with and working against the same person. That’s absurd.
David Newstead: I just feel like, you know, the Syrian conflict led to the migrant crisis, which influenced all these elections. And it all interrelates and it’s very complicated and really dark.
David Crane: Oh, it is. You’ve got the middle class and the lower class who have been affected by a Great Recession, who are trying to just get basic services. And all of a sudden, the country is letting in a million refugees and giving them more than they are getting. And all of a sudden, they’re choking on it. You know, European liberalism and progressivism went out the window when this wave of human beings with a great deal of hope showed up at their doors.
David Newstead: As we wrap things up, I’m curious. For people who work in human rights and for people who support human rights, where do we go from here and what do you think people should do in the interim?
David Crane: Well, continue what we’re doing. But also in the business that we’re in, there are a lot of altruists. They’re always out there trying to buy the world a coke and make them live in harmony. I’m the complete opposite. I’m a practical, hard-nosed person who has a goal in mind, but realizes that I have to do it from a practical point of view. We just have to look for places and spaces where we can affect policy in the new administration and make them see that this is good for America. But just coming in with your hair on fire, screaming “This isn’t right! These people have a right to do XYZ!” As we say in North Carolina, that dog isn’t going to hunt. You’ve got to come in and show them practically why this makes sense, why this is good for America, and why we should continue to do this. Speak their language. Don’t sit there and be arrogant or think that these people are cretins and that they’re just a flash in the pan. So, I’ve been advising others. I’m on a couple of boards of some big human rights organizations. And I’ve been telling them to stop running around with their hair on fire and sit down and think about what we can do to start developing contacts and have a voice in appropriate places to continue our work.
Now I think people are starting to calm down a little bit more. And I think more reasonable voices are starting to echo that it is what it is. Let’s figure out strategies and policies by which we can have a voice where that makes sense. But not stop what we’re doing! This is a political event, not a world changing paradigm. You know, we have a politician who has now been elected for four years. They come and go, but our work never ends.
By David Michael Newstead.
In Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Peter Pomerantsev discusses his nine years working in reality TV in Moscow. It’s a place where beautiful gold diggers who never knew their fathers dream of meeting a rich husband, ex-gangsters become local heroes who direct action movies, and religious cults try to warp the minds of their followers to an absurd degree. But as he looked deeper, the British producer finds the scripted reality of television merging with the scripted reality of authoritarian politics into something new and frightening.
The book opens with Pomerantsev reflecting on his time in Moscow.
“Performance” was the city’s buzzword, a world where gangsters become artists, gold diggers quote Pushkin, Hells Angels hallucinate themselves as saints. Russia had seen so many worlds flick through in such blistering progression – from communism to perestroika to shock therapy to penury to oligarchy to mafia state to mega-rich – that its new heroes were left with the sense that life is just on glittering masquerade, where every role and any position or belief is mutable. “I want to try on every persona the world has ever known,” Vladik Mamyshev-Monroe would tell me. He was a performance artist and the city’s mascot, the inevitable guest at parties attended by the inevitable tycoons and supermodels, arriving dressed as Gorbachev, a fakir, Tutankhamen, the Russian President. When I first landed in Moscow I thought these infinite transformations the expression of a country liberated, pulling on different costumes in a frenzy of freedom, pushing the limits of personality as far as it could possibly go to what the President’s vizier would call “the heights of creation.” It was only years later that I came to see these endless mutations not as freedom but as forms of delirium, in which scare-puppets and nightmare mystics become convinced they’re almost real and march toward what the President’s vizier would go on to call the “the fifth world war, the first non-linear war of all against all.”
The author discovers how control of the media, particularly of television, allows for Orwellian levels of manipulation over the truth, creating phantom threats to the country and phantom supermen to defend it. And on TV channels like RT, journalism and propaganda go hand in hand, while every political voice seems to just be playing a part in some stage production mimicking a democracy. In particular, Pomerantsev focuses on key Kremlin spin doctor, Vladislav Surkov, as he churns out post-apocalyptic novels and discusses art ad nauseam, while simultaneously orchestrating the elaborate political theatre in Russia as well as the wave of propaganda that engulfed neighboring Ukraine. Of other politicians like Surkov, Pomerantsev writes:
Glance through the careers of these new religious patriots, and you find they were recently committed democrats and liberals, pro-Western, preaching modernization, innovation, and commitment to Russia’s European course, before which they were all good Communists. And though on the one hand their latest incarnations are just new acts in the Moscow political cabaret, something about their delivery is different from the common Russian political performer who gives his rants with a knowing wink and nod. Now the delivery is somewhat deadpan. Flat and hollowed-eyed, as if they have been turned and twisted in so many ways they’ve spun right off the whirligig into something clinical.
The Kremlin switches messages at will to its advantage, climbing inside everything: European right-wing nationalists are seduced with an anti-EU message; the Far Left is co-opted with tales of fighting US hegemony; US religious conservatives are convinced by the Kremlin’s fight against homosexuality. And the result is an array of voices, working away at global audiences from different angles, producing a cumulative echo chamber of Kremlin support, all broadcast on RT.
But behind that curtain of misinformation, Pomerantsev details a system that robs owners of their businesses, proliferates corruption at all levels, and embezzles massive wealth right out of the country into the welcoming arms of Swiss and British banks. Eventually, the author returns to London only to find it inhabited by many of the Russian oligarchs and supermodels he thought he left behind in Moscow. Dismayed, Pomerantsev learns of a young tax attorney named Sergei Magnitsky who died horribly in a Russian prison for exposing a corruption scheme: money that eventually made its way to safe havens in the West. And in an excruciatingly relevant interview, he quotes Magnitsky’s former boss, Jamison Firestone, on the changes already in progress.
London shocked me. The whole system is built around wanting that money to come here. We want their money. We want their trade. And now you’ve got former German chancellor Schroeder and Lord Mandelson and Lord So-and-So working for these Russian state companies, and you know I think they should just be honest and say ‘some Kremlin company offered me 500,000 to sit on their board and I don’t do anything and I don’t know anything about how the company is run but sometimes they ask me to open some doors.’ And the argument I hear from everyone is ‘well if the money doesn’t go here it will go somewhere else’: well here ain’t going to be here if you take that attitude, here is going to be there. We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end point of evolution, and we’re dealing from a position of strength, and people are becoming like us. It’s not that way. Because if you think this thing we have here isn’t fragile you are kidding yourself. This,” and here Jamison takes a breath and waves his hand around to denote Maida Vale, London, the whole of Western civilization, “this is fragile.”
Timely and ominous, the book is a must-read and perhaps a warning of things to come.