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.
Not one of these so-called “journalists” stopped for a minute to ask whether their self-serving, emotional statements might be the product of bias and self-interest rather than objective analysis of the facts.
In case anyone thinks I’m being unfair: I gave a glowing review to Mackinnon’s book about Russia here on PJ Media, and my blog La Russophobe once rated Ioffe one of the top Russia bloggers in the world.
Miriam Elder of the Guardian reported on December 10 that “up to 50,000” Russians had joined the street protests that day. Four days later, she dropped the “up to” and stated the 50,000 number as a fact. But three days after that, her own co-worker Tom Parfitt put the number at 40,000. The organizers themselves had claimed up to 150,000, yet neither Elder nor Parfitt called them on the carpet for their misrepresentation.
Elder also told lies in the service of the movement’s propaganda. She claimed that protesters in Moscow ignored the speakers at the rally because they were too busy talking democracy amongst themselves, most for the first time. False: what actually happened was that the protest organizers failed to make adequate preparation for sound projection, and the vast majority of those on the protest square could not hear the speakers.
She also claimed there were 4,000 Moscow-like middle-class protesters on the streets in Novosibirsk. This overstated the number by 100% — and failed to mention that they were all Communists.
Ellen Barry of the New York Times stated that a gathering of 30,000 in Moscow would prove conclusively that a “generation of young Russians” had been permanently mobilized through social media. But she didn’t say a word when a protest on the same square a week later drew just 1,500 participants at most, a disastrous failure. Nor did any of the other cheerleading “journalists” who cover Russia, because the failure was not consistent with their narrative.
The worst example I found: it was repeated over and over again that the protesters were to be praised because they stood in -5 degrees Celsius temperatures rather than sitting at home. This is totally, utterly asinine. Russians are used to being outside in the cold, Russia is a cold place. If Russians were even slightly put off by -5 degrees Celsius, their society would unravel.
There are points to be made in the movement’s favor, but they are equivocal. Sure, Putin’s approval rating has fallen significantly in polls, but that’s not because of protest activity, it’s due to his inability to grapple with key economic and social issues (Russia’s population, stock market, and the ruble continue to drop precipitously). The protesters have done virtually nothing to specifically highlight Putin’s policy failures and score points against him with them.
Sure, 50 million or so people now have Internet access in Russia, and the Russian version of Facebook told the Kremlin to drop dead when it demanded the pages of opposition leaders be shut down. But the profound majority of Russians have no Internet access, and only a tenth of one percent of Russian Internet users participated in the protests.
The stench of failure was undeniable as the protests unfolded on December 10, but in the aftermath there was virtually no reasonable reporting about it in Western media. They missed the central story about the protests: in the best-case scenario, they meant nothing. The protesters were asking for a recount in an election where none of the parties on the ballot represented change. If United Russia’s share of seats in the new Duma was too large, this meant the share taken by the Communist Party and the radical nationalists led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky should have been much larger. The protesters laughed about it, proclaiming:
I didn’t vote for these bastards! I voted for different bastards! Recount!
On Christmas Eve, the protesters tried again. This time, Western media simply chose to ignore the fact that not one other major city in Russia had significant numbers of people in the streets. In St. Petersburg, supposedly Russia’s bastion of liberalism and openness to the West, fewer than 5,000 people turned out to demonstrate against Putin. Across the nation, the vast unwashed masses shut their doors, drew their blinds, and polls showed support for Putin actually rising. None of this made it into the MSM reporting — which focused instead exclusively on the fact that the Moscow protesters had managed to sustain their momentum.
This kind of reporting is not just unethical, it’s deeply harmful to the cause of reform in Russia. Coddling the opposition rather than confronting it only helps to engender a false sense of security. It is also deeply insulting to Russians, a patronizing attitude implying they cannot be expected to do any better.