Vladimir Putin is Re-Thinking the Unthinkable

On July 25, 1945, acting U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Thomas T. Handy wrote orders to Gen. Carl Spaatz then commanding U.S. Army Strategic Air Forces in the Pacific.  The orders numbered one page and were remarkably succinct: upon receipt of the “special bomb” by the 509th Composite Group on Tinian Island, Spaatz would order its delivery after Aug. 3 on “one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Hiigata and Nagasaki.”

“Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by project staff,” the orders continued. “Further instructions will be issued concerning targets other than those listed above.”

In other words, the order to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan was operational, not political—a decision to be made not by the President but by the theater commander. At that moment, two bombs were ready for use in warfare. A third could be delivered to Tinian by Aug. 15, 1945. With two demonstrated designs, the Manhattan Project had reached industrial production of the atomic bomb. On Aug. 13, four days after the destruction of Nagasaki and only two days before the Japanese surrender, Col. Lyle Seeman, an aide to Manhattan Project director Gen. Leslie Groves, told Gen. John Hull that they could expect new bombs to be available at the rate of nearly three a month. Hull himself counted the weapons in total: seven available through September and October 1945.

Hull recognized the effect the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had on Japanese morale.  That was their intention.  But if this and further bombings did not force the Japanese to capitulate, Hull was already thinking ahead to Operation Downfall, the planned Allied amphibious landings on the Japanese home islands.  He grasped the new weapon’s use on the battlefield to destroy division-strength formations of Japanese troops or to tear up lines of communication deep in the enemy’s rear.  If the atomic bomb failed as a strategic weapon, perhaps it could succeed as a tactical weapon.

The atomic bombs did not preclude conventional air attack.  Two days after Hiroshima, American aircraft firebombed Yawata and Fukuyama.  On Aug. 14, 1,000 American aircraft attacked Iwakuni, Osaka, Tokoyama, Kumagaya, and Isesaki.  The U.S. and its Allies had already firebombed Cologne, Hamburg, Dresden, Kessel, Darmstadt, and Pforzheim in Germany, Kobe and Tokyo, and Japanese-occupied Wuhan, China.  The Tokyo incendiary attack killed at least as many people as Hiroshima.  By the end of the war, Gen. Curtis LeMay had attacked 68 of 70 industrial targets across Japan.  “If you kill enough of them,” he once said, “they stop fighting.”

Today’s historical narrative summarizes the end of World War II as immediately following the two atomic bombings that saved a million Americans from having to invade Japan.  This is true but not complete.  At the time, the United States was prepared to fight a prolonged nuclear war to hasten surrender or completely destroy Japan’s warfighting capability.  The atomic bomb was a political weapon but very nearly became a common one.

Vladimir Putin reads history as only a cynic can.  He views Western rhetoric about humanitarian intervention, international law, and human rights, as simple cover for what is, to him, base national interest.  If the price for what he wants requires a little window-dressing, he can perform the necessary public gestures.  So Putin’s naked aggression in Georgia, Syria, Chechnya, West Africa, and Ukraine is legitimated by political referendum or legal argument.  There is no difference in his mind between shelling Grozny flat and the Second Battle of Fallujah.  There is no difference between poisoning dissidents in London and American drone strikes in Kabul. There is no difference between his intervention in Syria and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, no difference between Russian protection of the self-declared independent Donbas republics and NATO-protected Kosovo, no difference between Ukraine and Yugoslavia.

Putin’s rhetoric extends well beyond cynicism into real danger.  His window-dressing is cover for his personal and national ambition: great power status, the new Russian empire, and an anti-modern political ideology.  He believes in the exigencies of state.  There is no Russia without a strong Russia.

If Putin has studied American war projections in mid-1945, he would see something very familiar from recent years: the United States using overwhelming force against a rapidly dwindling threat.  American leadership was already prepared to destroy Japanese cities one by one or annihilate whole armies in a stroke to end the war and avert mass American casualties.  The United States has never modified its nuclear first-use policy.  There is no doubt in Putin’s mind that if Warsaw Pact armored columns had poured through the Fulda Gap in 1983 that the U.S. and NATO would have started firing tactical nuclear weapons, the size of the first atomic bombs, into eastern Europe.

So what would keep Putin from doing the same?

This war of choice, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, is now existential—to him.  It is true he has been buoyed politically by the “special military operation” and he is genuinely supported by most Russians, propaganda victory or no.  The only real opposition comes from his right.  He is in a much stronger position than he was a year ago.  He has compromised all of his lieutenants so that, like Cortés scuttling his ships at Veracruz, their own survival is at stake.  So, in a sense, he has already won if what he risked was his own position and power.

But things could go badly for him very quickly.  He has managed to hide battlefield failures and the incompetent and hollowed-out Russian military so far.  It will be difficult to hide his defeat if Ukraine mounts a successful counter-offensive or if Russian forces capitulate, desert, or mutiny.  More importantly, the destruction of his armies will mean he has one less security backstop protecting him from a putsch.

This brings us to Putin’s scenario of the unthinkable:

With his armies fighting a rear-guard while trying to withdraw across the Donets River, Putin activates Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems prepositioned in Crimea. Russia has already deployed to the Black Sea land-attack submarines equipped with nuclear-tipped Kalibr cruise missiles.  As he did earlier in the invasion, Putin issues a vague threat to Ukraine and the international community—but the ultimatum would be clear.

Iskander (SS-26 Stone) tactical ballistic missile launcher. Wikipedia

Unheeded, he orders a strike on Odessa, population one million.  A missile launched from Crimea flying barely 400 kilometers reaches its target in seconds.  The 500-kiloton (estimated—yields on modern Russian nuclear weapons are not known) nuclear warhead explodes, destroying half the city instantly and setting fire to the rest.  A toxic plume of radionuclides pours out of the city.  Depending on the direction of the wind, fallout either settles into the Black Sea or spreads north over Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States, and Scandinavia, largely missing Russia. Ukraine’s only major seaport is now a razed, radioactive no-man’s-land.

Simulated 500kt airburst over Odesa. Center yellow circle is fireball radius. Outer yellow circle includes fatal thermal radiation. Simulation via NUKEMAP By Alex Wellerstein.

The international community is shocked and horrified.  But Putin has attacked his neighbor, not an ally.  He has drawn the nuclear saber and his ultimatum stands.  As a port, Odessa was a legitimate strategic target.  Putin orders Kyiv to capitulate.  There is no difference in his mind between the Western exigencies demanded to end World War II and his own survival.

Nuclear-capable improved Kilo-class Russian submarine Rostov-on-Don. Russian government official photo.

After a day without a response from Kyiv or the international community Putin orders another strike. The Russian Kilo-class submarine B-237 Rostov-on-Don, which transited the Dardenelles to enter the Black Sea in February, receives its order and fires a Kalibr cruise missile, aiming its thermonuclear warhead at Mykolaiv, a city of nearly 400,000 on the Buh River with access to the Black Sea. Mykolaiv is closer to Crimea, but it is also another strategic target with its shipbuilders and refit yards. In a moment, the city is devastated and the Buh boils.

Simulated 500kt airburst over Mykolaiv. Center yellow circle is fireball radius. Outer yellow circle includes fatal thermal radiation. Simulation via NUKEMAP By Alex Wellerstein

Two cities are destroyed, tens of thousands of Ukrainians killed, thousands of square kilometers laid waste and irradiated. This is no loss to Putin, who still claims innocently that he wants only the Donbas. The cost of clean-up and reconstruction will fall on Ukraine and its Western supporters. NATO will never extend its security guarantees to a defeated neighbor. The European Union will slow-track Ukrainian membership while it pours billions of euros into rebuilding and decontaminating the second-largest country in Europe. The mess, in other words, is in others’ hands, while the Donbas is in Putin’s. Mission accomplished.

Deterring or responding to a nuclear attack on a third country do not figure in current U.S. or NATO nuclear weapons planning.  We extend the protection of our nuclear umbrella to countries with whom we have written security agreements.  That does not include Ukraine.  For what we know at this point, deterrence has worked as intended: Russia has not resorted to chemical or nuclear weapons, it has not attacked countries outside Ukraine, and it has not explicitly threatened NATO member nations.

But with his back to the wall, his political survival suddenly at stake, Putin is all in and ready to call a bluff.  He bets the West will not respond in kind.  He bets NATO will not risk global thermonuclear war over two peripheral eastern European cities.  He bets European capitals will pressure Kyiv to cough up Donbas for everyone’s sake.  In which case, Putin will win.  Maybe not the full pot he expected when he tried to seize Kyiv, but enough that he can claim victory at home and further consolidate his power.  He could claim to have killed tens of thousands of fascists threatening Russia while he was at it and burdening the West with Ukraine’s clean-up and recovery.  Putin wins again.

If we can’t deter Putin, what options are available to prevent or respond to a nuclear strike?  Modern anti-aircraft weapons with anti-ballistic missile capabilities such as the U.S. Patriot, Israeli Iron Dome, or similar C-RAM systems can provide point defense against missile attacks and strike aircraft.  These should be sent to Ukraine with training immediately.  U.S. Aegis seaborne systems in the Black Sea and NATO AWACS surveillance aircraft deployed from Romania could warn of launch.  Western nations should also prepare equipment and training for Ukrainians to respond to a nuclear incident.

Putin’s willingness to play with this kind of risk is found not just in his cynical rhetoric but also in current practice.  Garrisoning the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station is only the latest example—Russian forces effectively bulldozed parts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in their initial push to sack Kyiv.  With the stakes so much higher now, not just for military success and Russian glory but his own individual survival, Putin could very easily justify a rapid climb up the escalation ladder.

After all, he would say, it’s what the Americans did first.

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Epilogue (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

I hate the corpses of empires, they stink as nothing else. They stink so badly that I cannot believe that even in life they were healthy.

AS I WRITE this the first diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine to resolve the armed conflict between the two countries have ended.  The world has witnessed the most grotesque violation of the international order since the end of World War II.  The consequences of Russia’s attack on its neighbor will run far.  So it is as I finish reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon that I feel a temporal kinship with Rebecca West.  She wrote her book during the five years following the Anschluss, Munich, the bisection of Poland, and the invasion of France, the Low Countries, and Norway to the moment that Britain stood alone against Germany.  She published this book in 1941, not long after the Battle of Britain and the German invasion of Yugoslavia.

(Wikipedia)

If anyone was paying attention, and West was paying attention, the expected and inevitable conclusion to her narrative was clear to see for many years.  It is the same for this moment.  Vladimir Putin’s behavior over the last 20 years has clearly led us here.  A fetid campaign of assassinations, false flags, cynical disinformation, wanton destruction, harassment and suppression, assault and annexation – with hardly any response from the civilized world – made him feel invincible.  Until this moment.

It is the spirit of the Ukrainian resistance that feels so familiar to this book.  “Often, when I have thought of invasion, or when a bomb has dropped nearby, I have prayed, ‘Let me behave like a Serb,’” West writes in her epilogue.  The history of Yugoslavia coincides with the legitimate national aspirations of the post-Soviet states in their insistence: We exist.  We don’t have to justify who we are.  We have value.  We have a right and duty to defend who we are against imperial, denuding, conforming power.  That threat is as clear today as it was in 1941.  This time, the diminutive corporal cosplaying Charlemagne is a diminutive ex-KGB apparatchik styling himself after Peter the Great as he attempts to reestablish the Russian Empire by force.

It is easy to apply prescience and order to a narrative that is written in retrospect.  Europe was a very different place in 1937 compared to 1941, obviously, and nobody could have predicted the future even from West’s original vantage point in Yugoslavia.  In 1980 West admitted in a letter to her lawyer that the UK’s Ministry of Information suggested that she write the Epilogue.  This led to criticism late in her life that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon was written as a vehicle for wartime propaganda.  I hope I have argued convincingly that cannot be the case.  The book’s elephantine volume and complexity should be evidence enough.  In any event, West viewed the Epilogue as the book’s “best part,” which, given all that preceded it, is a significant evaluation.  The book is a sprawling argument against war and empire.  She specifically links the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 to the threat to Europe in 1939.  To her Ottoman Turkey and Nazi Germany are avatars of the same human bent toward violence and subjugation.  That reincarnation in Russian aggression today is just as clear.  

The contemporary relevance of West’s argument doesn’t need to rest on current events.  Her point is eternal.  Reaching back to her experience on Kosovo Field, where the Ottomans didn’t so much Turkify Serbia but simply ruin it, she imagines somebody visiting a deracinated, once-German-occupied England 500 years in the future:

Defeat, moreover, must mean to England the same squalor that it had meant to Serbia.  Five centuries hence gentleness would be forgotten by our people; loutish men would bind ploughshares to their women’s backs and walk beside them unashamed, we would grow careless of our dung, ornament, and the use of foreign tongues and the discoveries made by the past genius of our race would be phantoms that sometimes troubled the memory; and over the land would lie the foul jetsam left by the receding tide of a conquering race.  In a Denkmal erected to a German aviator the descendant of his sergeant in the sixteenth generation, a wasted man called Hans with folds of skin instead of rolls of fat at the back of his neck, would show a coffin under a rotting swastika flag, and would praise the dead in a set, half-comprehended speech, and point at faded photographs on the peeling wall, naming the thin one Göring and the fat one Goebbels; and about the tomb of a murdered Gauleiter women wearing lank blonde plaits, listless with the lack of possessions, would picnic among the long grasses in some last recollection of the Strength Through Joy movement, and their men would raise flimsy arms in the Hitler salute, should a tourist come by, otherwise saving the effort.

West has been changed by her journey.  She catalogues the melancholy and nostalgia of ending a holiday only to return to a grim, lived-in reality.  She and her husband travel from Kotor to Dubrovnik by boat and then Zagreb by train, stopping for a few days in the Plivitse Lakes.  On the way they meet friends who are astonished by their eccentric travel in Yugoslavia.  These same people profess support for Naziism as a viable alternative to Communism, if they hold political opinions at all; they inhabit a state of pure ignorance about what will soon come.

West and her husband encounter a demonstration by Croat students protesting the death of their comrades at the hands of Serb gendarmes.  Twice this situation is described to them, in “the same complaining and exultant whine,” the strange timbre of the publicly aggrieved.  That could easily describe Hitler’s mode of public speech.  This “peculiar whining tone” echoes loudly in Vladimir Putin’s louche desk harangues during which he eructs his bizarre and paranoid casus belli for invading Ukraine.

At home in London West meets a young graduate student writing her thesis about West’s work.  This “golden-haired girl” from Vienna irritates West all the more because she is defiantly unread in English and French literature.  This turns to bafflement when West learns the girl is Slav; the girl explains she was raised in Austria and proudly speaks no Serbo-Croatian.  Austria has warped the girl’s ignorance into contempt.  West is appalled.  “Such is the influence that Central Europe exerts on its surroundings,” she writes.  “It cut off this girl from pride in her own race….”

It’s important to note that West frames her entire narrative by the death of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia.  What appeared at the beginning of this book to be a miniature of the Balkans in 1934 takes on much, much larger implications for Europe in 1941 and well beyond.  In that sense the reader is changed by the journey from beginning, which recounts the murder of a forgotten European noble, to the end where Alexander’s assassination takes on much larger and coherent geopolitical import.  It is a destabilizing act with historical consequences that are only obvious in hindsight, that is, during the London Blitz. 

West’s very last words in the book reflect the hope that she felt seeing the stiff partisan resistance to the German assault of Yugoslavia.  It rings in the ears like an echo of the future:

For the news that Hitler had been defied by Yugoslavia travelled like sunshine over the countries which he had devoured and humiliated, promising spring. In Marseille some people picked flowers from tehri gardens and others ordered wreaths from the florists, and they carried them down to the Cannebière.  The police guessed what they meant to do, and would not let them go along the street.  But there were trams passing by, and they boarded them.  The tram-drivers drove very slowly, and the people were able to throw down their flowers on the spot where King Alexander of Yugoslavia had been killed.

The symbol of Ukrainian resistance today is the sunflower.  It represents spring and renewal, an affirmation of life and its pleasures free from compulsion and oppression.  It is the free choice of our earthly kingdom for the living relegating the kingdom of heaven for the dead.  Rebecca West would have recognized this immediately.  “That is what roses are like, that is how they smell,” she writes in the Epilogue. 

We must remember that, down in the darkness.

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Russia and the Information Purification Directives

What we are witnessing in Russia and parts of Ukraine has been unprecedented since the consolidation of control after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 , (I hesitate with this historical analogy) the collapse of the Weimar Republic, and the occupation of Eastern Europe after World War II: the systematic centralization of the means of communication and the destruction of independent news media and civil society.

This has been long in coming as the Kremlin and its allies have steadily co-opted the press, attacked independent journalists, consolidated control of the Internetunified all organized “political” parties, brought petty prosecution against non-governmental organizations, harassed independent political actors, and persecuted those few remaining who dare raise their voice against the now-raging retrograde, unilithic nationalism sweeping over the country.

Taking all these actions together is a kind of inverted information warfare — a war on information, a purging of all wrongthink, of anything that doesn’t resolutely advance the official ideology of the Center. It’s important to remember the point to this war on information, which is to reinforce political control in the Kremlin. While the state has the means to do this, it is not an expression or exercise of genuine political power — it is a substitute, in the form of brute control, for it.

Observing these actions and watching their culmination, it was impossible, strangely, not to remember the brilliant advertisement for Macintosh broadcast in 1984 (see above). It’s worth quoting the ad’s copy in full (which can be found here, penned by Steve Hayden) which is chilling both in its pitch-perfect mimicry of totalitarian language and for its weird anticipation of the course of current events. We can almost imagine some crude translation of a transcript from a bug on Kremlin walls recording a recent conversation taking place therein:

“My friends, each of you is a single cell in the great body of the State. And today, that great body has purged itself of parasites. We have triumphed over the unprincipled dissemination of facts. The thugs and wreckers have been cast out. And the poisonous weeds of disinformation have been consigned to the dustbin of history. Let each and every cell rejoice! For today we celebrate the first, glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directive! We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology, where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thought is a more powerful weapon than any fleet or army on Earth! We are one people. With one will. One resolve. One cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion! We shall prevail!”

Of course, for the advertisement this was meant as an allegorical assault on the great IBM/Microsoft monopoly, but the “Information Purification Directive” could easily be a real mandate from the Duma — the assault on any source of information that does not conform to the Center’s dictation of Truth. “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death. And we will bury them with their own confusion.” This sounds like the pablum that authoritarian and totalitarian governments feed their people: don’t think, we’ll do that for you; the people of so-called free countries are enslaved and overwhelmed by the chaos and disorder of “freedom”. Forfeit the freedom of thought and moral action to us, the state, and in exchange we will take care of you.

While no doubt not all Russians are falling for this line again — let us remember, as even those who live and work in these countries have forgotten, that part of information monopoly is the absence of opposition and alternative narratives — it is amazing (though according to Czeslaw Milosz it should hardly be surprising) how many are signing up for it. See this video posted by Radio Free Europe where a Russian “journalist” — in fact, a paid stooge of the Kremlin, given that virtually all communications in the country are now controlled by state — equates all journalism to propaganda. It is an appalling prostitution of the human mind.

Many observers continue to insist that Vladmir Putin is concerned with international opinion, the position of Russia as a global actor, and the greater glory of his country. This is exactly inverted. His only concern is with Russian domestic opinion, which is the tiger he must ride lest it devour him. Consequently, the only way to change the course of events in Russia and Ukraine is to alter domestic Russian public opinion. (It is no coincidence that the Ukrainian separatists attacked TV stations to broadcast Russian state channels.) This is the challenge facing both the local opposition and anyone trying to help them — the ability to develop alternative narratives, communicate and organize — because all the available means to do so have been coopted and corrupted.

I’m not so naive to suggest this quarter-century-old advertisement provides a realistic model for political development in repressive states. But in its own strange way it goes some of the way to understand the challenge.

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“What Forever Stirs in the Human Heart”

I have been critical of President Barack Obama’s rhetoric on matters of war and peace, here and in my recent book. I respect and admire his ease, eloquence, and ability to communicate on virtually all other issues (“Between Two Ferns” was risky and unintuitive, but it is now clearly a contemporary masterstroke of political communications), but when it comes to matters of warfare, force and power he clearly struggles to articulate himself.

Not so in Belgium. Speaking first in Flanders, he captured the tragedy of the First World War while affirming European unity and transatlantic fidelity. Then, in this speech in Brussels, he rallied our allies again in the “battle of ideas” against the aggression of Russia in Crimea by taking on directly the sophistic arguments Moscow has made during recent weeks: that Crimea is no different from Iraq, or Kosovo, or Libya. No, he said, they are different, and here’s why: We actually stand for something. Russia is acting out of naked political interest. It was important not just for somebody to say that out loud, but for the President of the United States to say it. We used to say with more conviction that the office was the leader of the free world. It means something again given the sharp cynical shift in the Kremlin.

It is easy to overlook the symbolic importance of the speech’s location. Belgium is a small, bilingual country historically coveted and overrun by its neighbors. Its own domestic situation has been scrambled by the inability of the language communities (three if you count the German minority in the south) to get along. And yet Brussels hosts both NATO and the European Union, two of the most successful experiments in international comity ever attempted. The President’s themes, heightened in this capital, are subtly broadcast to Europe’s most recent bilingual hot-spot, now pawed by a covetous larger neighbor that once possessed it.

Given this context, we cannot deny the political nature of this speech. It was not simply a statement of abstract principles. It was designed to rally NATO Allies and partner countries to the United States in order to isolate and weaken the current leadership in Russia. In that, the speech uses the power of dozens of states in lieu of force as a bulwark against the violence, real or implied, threatened and applied, by Russia. Given the situation Russia is in — no longer the Soviet Union or leader of the Warsaw Pact, and surrounded by the cowed and abject neighbors of its near abroad — the country faces perhaps its most serious political and economic situation since the end of the Cold War.

It has been argued better by others that NATO’s military position remains strong against Russia. The flip side of the other coin of that argument is that NATO’s expansion has provoked Russia’s reaction. But that ignores how the West has included Russia in the G8, NATO, the OSCE, the WTO and other international organizations, accorded Russia the respect as an equal, all the while preserving peace, security and prosperity among a growing community of democratic nations.

Moreover, we must understand the choice that Russia — or any other country inside or outside the membership of NATO and the European Union — must make about war and peace.  The United States has fought many of its former Allies, with Russia, and yet the idea of fighting our friends today and war in Europe is considered an absurdity. The expansion of NATO and the European Union is an unmitigated good. It constantly pushes out the boundary of peace, security and prosperity. That community is for Russia’s taking if only its leadership made the choice to accept it.

Matters of war and peace are inherently political decisions like these. As the president made plain, they are not inevitable, driven by historical exigency, immutable racial hatred, or power dynamics.  As I have argued before, political decisions are moral choices, which means we are in control, always.

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Punk Is Not Dead

Today my review essay of Masha Gessen’s latest book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The book is a testament to the courage of the members of the group who used creative means to attack the regime and status quo of Vladimir Putin’s Russia — currently enjoying the world’s attention in Sochi during the winter Olympics.

I send my sincere thanks to the editors at the L.A. Review of Books for publishing my review.

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The Interpreter of Comedies

The extended appearance of Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina on The Colbert Report Feb. 7 is worth watching for any number of reasons, top among them are hearing two victims of Vladimir Putin’s regime speaking in their own language. Undeterred from their ordeal, they are in the United States to try to make Russia a better place.

But it is also amazing to watch how well this interview works considering that it is consecutively interpreted in Russian and English between the interview subjects and Stephen Colbert’s weird ultraconservative alter ego. Colbert maintains his usual quick and sympathetic wit, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina more than keep up with him. Given their experience, their humor and barbs against the man responsible for their imprisonment and amnesty are all the more extraordinary and biting.

And keeping stride between the two sides — the Russians on one, Colbert and his unpredictable character on the other — is Anna Kadysheva, the interpreter. A professional interpreter and photographer living in New York, she deserves extraordinary praise for her deft linguistic abilities. This interview could have easily gone flat, but she brought the same smarts in two languages to the table as her subjects displayed to convey the bite and humor in both directions.

This is no mean achievement. Translation usually kills humor first. The situational aspect of the interview, and the obvious good will and intelligence arrayed at the table, helped the comedy vault the language barrier. But it was easy to miss how fluidly Anna kept the laughs flowing back and forth between subjects and interrogator. Listening to her, I recalled a professional’s admiring comment that it was Ginger Rogers who danced with Fred Astaire “backwards, and in heels”. The studio audience loved every second.

It’s not clear that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s visit to the United States has done them much good politically back home — the anonymous collective known as Pussy Riot back in Russia has apparently broken off with them as they pursue their cause of prison reform. And going under the glare of the American media surely won’t help them with Putin’s propaganda machine, which can easily hijack Colbert’s hijinks to show how much the anti-Russian American media megalith, already tweeting furiously about their unfinished rooms in Sochi (as if that were not mere coincidence), loves these women and is conspiring to oppress the greatness of Russia.

But they have to talk to those who will listen. There is no other way to communicate what they have to say, and communication is part and parcel of real change. It is clear that they are sincere about that, and we can only hope their celebrity will protect them — and their friends — from the harm that has come to so many others back home.

This post was updated on March 5, 2014.

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“A Theory of Deeds” Threatens the Russian State

The web site of Togeza (Together), a Russian civil society organization.

Could helping your neighbor deem you an enemy of the state? The Duma, Russia’s legislature, is leaning that way by trying to regulate what de Tocqueville admired in early America: the “innumerable multitude of small undertakings” that constitute community, what we today call civil society.

Today’s Washington Post front page carries a story about a handful of Russians trying to do for their communities what their government and others have manifestly failed to do: caring for the sick in a remote, rural village; donating delivery services to those who can’t afford them; searching for the missing whom the police have given up on.

“This is our theory of small deeds,” said Yevgeny Grekov, the philosophically minded assistant to the delivery group. “It’s pure human energy.”

Unfortunately, these organizations and individuals have attracted the attention of the Duma as well as Vladimir Putin, who has personally harassed democratically minded non-profit organizations who monitored the last elections that made him President again. In Putin’s Russia, more control has been centralized in the Kremlin over wider aspects of human affairs.

The Washington Post places blame for this concentration and expansion of political dominion on a lack of individual trust among Russians and the reassertion of powers familiar from the Communist era. I’m more inclined to argue again that in repressive regimes the concept of civil society, civic action, and even individual initiative does not really exist — that in such a context, everything has political value as defined by the Center, and that all aspects of civic action are a means for state control over society. Therefore, anything or anyone acting independently of the state is a threat to the state, an independent and autonomous power base separate from — and necessarily opposed to –the Center.

This illuminates both Masha Gessen’s comments about the lack of “real politics” in Russia and Hannah Arendt’s definition of true and healthy politics as space, the commons.  The Duma is trying to subsume all civil society by dominating collective moral action in the same tiny, claustrophobic political box. After taking control of the Kremlin, the intelligence apparatus, the military, the parliament, the media and the church, that leaves just ordinary people working together for some common purpose.  After that, Russia will look very much like Eastern and Central Europe after World War II.

It may seem counterintuitive, despite all this I remain optimistic for Russians, mostly because in a country so large and with so many people, that noble “multitude of small undertakings” will always outstrip the ability and comprehension of the state.  Call it the power of the powerless or the weakness of strong states, but the Duma’s action against these individuals only demonstrates the fear of a sclerotic state against an increasingly confident society that has abandoned the government to take care of itself. And that, in the end, that may be the greatest threat the Kremlin faces.

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Riot Girls

Pussy Riot band members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (left), Maria Alyokhina (right) and Yekaterina Samutsevich (center), during their trial July 23. Photo Credit: Andrey Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images via Foreign Policy magazine.

Almost everything that needs to be said about the case of Pussy Riot, the Russian all-female punk rock band now awaiting a verdict in a “hooliganism” trial in Moscow, has been said.  Nobody seriously doubts this is a political show trial in the old Soviet sense and that the Putin regime isn’t punishing this punk band as a warning to other would-be opponents of the state.

But some points can still be made.  First, the prosecutors insist this is not a “political” prosecution.  This is progress, sort of.  I think they protest too much. (I’ll sidestep my usual baliwick of trying to parse what they mean by political or the political aesthetic because I don’t know the Russian etymology.) It assumes the legitimacy of political expression in Russia despite the state propaganda barrage against the band. With tens of thousands of Russians still on the streets protesting the regime, it assumes there is still a political space to occupy that hasn’t been completely co-opted by the regime.  That space can still be enlarged and separated from the thugocratic “government” running the country from the Kremlin.

For a taste of what the band members (three of the five are on trial:  Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich. The band name is in English, not Russian.) — have faced (in English) enjoy the bluntly sophisticated attacks of RT.com.  Their story is buried on the site, even though when you search the site you’ll find highly misleading text stories (“‘Let Pussy Riot Go!’ Veteran Russian HR group speaks out”) pegged to the actual broadcast segments that have nothing to do with the headlines (in this case, a story about how the trial would be broadcast live over the Internet — which is probably not true).  The lead article on the Pussy Riot when I visited RT — an “op-ed,” incidentally — essentially questioned the hype after all the broadcast segments had touted the worldwide focus on the trial.

Second, the band has been favorably compared to protest acts of the past, including Fela Kuti of Nigeria and the Plastic People of the Universe, both personal favorites.  (Not incidentally, the Plastics have given a benefit concert for Pussy Riot.) I am particularly inclined to find parallels with the Plastics but it is not because the Plastics were a political act because they were avowedly apolitical, which is what made them such a transformative act. Their stories also share the show trial aspect, with Pussy Riot facing the absurd charges of “hooliganism” and “religious hatred” and the Plastics charged under “organized disturbance of the peace”.

But perhaps most importantly, they share in common something very special and important at this moment, which is a certain vulnerability. Unlike the megalithic oligarchs whom Putin targeted during the last decade — the Khodorkovskys, Berezovskys and Gusinskys, who were so rich and powerful as to evoke very little sympathy when they were prosecuted — the Pussy Riot unmasked of their provocative balaclavas turn out to be very young women.  Indeed, two of them are recent mothers and not one of them is over 30. To see them is to see not your mother but your daughter, wife or sister.

This is what their trial shared with the Plastics: the unmistakable recognition that in prosecuting these women the state had at last overreached, that in its paranoia and pursuit of control it finally achieved an essential injustice.  What was historically important about the Plastics’ arrest, of course, was that the trial united the disparate strands of the disunited opposition. Perhaps the same will happen — is happening — in Russia today.

Of course it’s impossible to know if this is the Russian public’s understanding of the trial, in a state that dominates virtually all media. Only the Internet is partially free in Russia, and I am inclined to be pessimistic about the triumphant and righteous tone the Western media has taken regarding the rights of Pussy Riot.

Because the issue is not about the freedoms we take for granted here.  It is about three women who are about to go to prison for the freedoms they don’t have. It is very easy to talk about these freedoms from behind the protection of an American passport to those who don’t have them.  Of course all those who support these women do it to give them heart, to let them know we know what is at stake and that what they are doing is important beyond their own personal ordeal.

But let us understand how much, much harder it is to demand those freedoms — to perform for them, to go to jail for them, to risk your life for them — before an armed state hostile to you and willing to imprison or kill you for your beliefs.

Thank the Mother of God that punk is not dead.  May she watch and protect her daughters on earth.

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