As former Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov looked out over a crowd of between 30,000 and 100,000 Russians (depending upon who was counting) on Christmas Eve in Moscow — just before calling for the ouster of Vladimir Putin — he saw a sea of tricolor black, white, and yellow flags before him, and a second sea of red flags.
The tricolor is the flag of the Russian Nazis, the skinheads who want to liquidate anyone who is not “Rooski” — the Russian word for “Russian” meaning white, Slavic, and Orthodox. Their poster boy is Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The red flag represents the Communist Party, led by Gennady Zyuganov. Both men have sizeable contingents in the Russian parliament. Nemtsov doesn’t have a single seat, nor has he ever been allowed to place his name on the presidential ballot.
Nemtsov must have wondered why these two groups have played such a leading role in opposing Putin’s neo-Soviet dictatorship, rather than democratic-minded folks like himself. But he should know the answer, having probably recognized that his “organization” was incapable of accurately counting the members of the crowd, or of reporting with one voice in English why they were assembled or what they planned to achieve.
The crowd started booing Nemtsov.
Just days before the protest, tape recordings undoubtedly collected by operatives of the successor to the KGB — the FSB — had been played on a Kremlin-friendly TV network. The tapes revealed Nemtsov brutally criticized other members of the hodgepodge group that organized the protest, hurling all manner of personal abuse at them. The tapes were an obvious attempt to discredit Nemtsov among his peers.
Nemtsov’s comments about his peers were perfectly justified, even somewhat measured — I was thrilled to read them. Due to its pernicious infighting, the opposition to Putin has been unable to agree on an achievable agenda, a leader, or even a name for their group. Yet: the fact that Nemtsov needed to make them — and didn’t realize he was being recorded — tells you pretty much all you need to know about the prospects of this so-called movement.
Which is just as well, because if you relied on the reporting of the mainstream media for this information, you’d be out of luck. The mainstream reports on the demonstrations against electoral fraud in Putin’s Russia have been nauseatingly wrong.
Granted, it’s hard being a Russia correspondent. You spend most of your time frozen, worried about getting brutalized or murdered, hated by the local denizens (who are famous for xenophobia), and writing about a country most people couldn’t care less about. So when you get a whiff of a story that might thrust you onto the front pages, you’re pretty desperate to tell it.
Even if there isn’t really any story at all.
On December 14, 2011, former Russia correspondent Mark Mackinnon — scribe for the Globe & Mail – tweeted the following while watching Putin conduct a live televised interview:
Q: Why doesn’t Russia have any allies? Putin: “I think Russia has lots of allies.” Names the International Olympic Committee.
It was witty, seeking to use Putin’s own words to destroy his credibility, but it was dead wrong. Putin simply didn’t say that that IOC was among Russia’s leading allies.
Putin said that when Russia asked to host the 2014 Olympic Games, a host of IOC members states voted in Russia’s favor, and Russia got the games. Putin then said that they wouldn’t have supported the bid if they weren’t Russia’s allies. In other words — Putin was fully prepared, ready for the question, and handled it with aplomb.
And he handled dozens and dozens more questions the same way, tirelessly, for over four hours. On live TV. He dominated his questioners, as has been his wont. He showed he is not the least bit afraid of elections or public interrogations, not even on live TV. He radiated the confidence of a man about to be anointed president for life with no serious opposition of any kind (because he has repeatedly shown himself ready to kill any such person).
But that’s not what Mackinnon reported. Instead, he reported that Putin made a fool of himself, seeking to imply that his grasp on power was tenuous and his overthrow imminent. Like so many current and former Russia journalists in the mainstream media, it was Mackinnnon, not Putin, who embarrassed himself. Mackinnon wants the anti-Putin crowd to succeed, and reported accordingly.
Another example: note this shamelessly cheerleading tweet from Julia Ioffe, who writes for the New Yorker and Foreign Policy:
Thousands protesting in cities all over Russia. Police don’t crack down. If Kremlin doesn’t hear this, they sign own death cert.
That’s pretty strong stuff, and it’s total nonsense. With a reply tweet, I asked Ioffe when she’d start discussing flying unicorns.
Was Ioffe attempting to suggest that the police had defied Kremlin orders to crack down and let the protesters march? If so, that would have been a lie.
As New York Times Russia correspondent Michael Schwirtz tweeted:
Police spox, said no arrests yet “and don’t expect any.” He laughed and seemed to be enjoying #10dec.
In other words, there were no arrests because the Kremlin didn’t want any, and they didn’t want them because they didn’t need them. The protests were hardly anything to be afraid of. But this quote somehow never made it into the Gray Lady’s pages.
Did Ioffe mean the protest movement was dangerously potent? The facts belie that, too. In hilarious fashion, two leading figures from the protest event were Ksenia Sobchak and Tina Kandelaki — imagine if Occupy Wall Street had been led by Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. When asked who they’d most like to hear speak, the protesters named celebrities rather than political leaders. The key comment of a participant:
It all felt much more like a national holiday, a festivity. What’s more, not even a “festivity of disobedience, but simply a festivity.”
When Ioffe referred to “thousands protesting,” she meant a national total — perhaps 75,000 people spread across dozens of cities in a country of 140 million people. In the huge city of Vladivostok, famous as a hotbed of anti-Putin agitation in the past, no more than 200 appeared on the street.
But none of this was reported properly by the mainstream media’s Russia contingent, who seemed hell-bent on breathlessly declaring revolution in Russia.
Shaun Walker, Russia correspondent for the Independent, tweeted:
Amazing day. Great to see people not afraid to shout, satirise. Really don’t think exaggeration to say Russia will be changed permanently.