Interview: La Russophobe
La Russophobe exploded onto the Russian blogging scene in April last year and, since then has been offending Russiophiles left, right and centre with her opinions on Russia. Her views are strong, and she doesn’t hold back in expressing them.
Possibly the subject of more hate mail and invective than even Putin himself on his best days, a fevered, not to mention demented, race is now on to discover the true identity of La Russophobe.
Well, I can’t give you a name, but I can give you a bit more of an insight as to what motivates La Russophobe. In a Siberian Light exclusive, I present her first interview, which is as combative as you would expect.
1. Why did you start blogging?
Before answering, let me extend a warm welcome back to the blogosphere to Siberian Light. A little while ago a new blog called ZheZhe appeared on the scene purporting to be neither Russophobe nor Russophile but in search of a golden mean. It turned out to be a lie. The publisher was a member of Peter Lavelle’s Russophile cabal and would go on to assist the venal Julia Svetlichnaya in her smear campaign against the heroic Alexander Litvinenko. But I think that SL actually is what ZheZhe only claimed to be, and that’s a welcome addition to the effort to understand Russia. That’s also by way of background for your Question #16, lest my fans be disappointed.As for Question #1, you could say that when Victor Yushchenko was poisoned while running for the presidency of the Ukraine as an anti-Russia candidate, this was the straw that broke La Russophobe�s back. I was so horrified by this blatant act of aggression obviously perpetrated by the Kremlin against a perceived obstacle to Russian dominance in Urkaine, and even more by the West�s failure to react with appropriate vigor, that I realized new sources of information were needed and that I could not just sit by and hope they would appear. La Russophobe was created to try to establish one such source of information. If we look at the period from the poisoning of Yushchenko to the poisoning of Litvinenko, it’s a period of pure horror. And I fear it’s only the beginning.
2. What are your goals for La Russophobe?
To be put out of business. I�m not blogging because I want to but because I have to. Nothing would please me more than for Russians to cut the legs from under me by depriving me of the basis for my criticism and making the blog obsolete. I don�t even want any credit. I just want them to knock it off.
3. What have been your best and worst blogging experiences so far?
The best experience has been the willingness of readers to contribute content to the blog and to thereby develop its reach, as well as watching the explosive growth of the readership. I particularly commend our translator, who has already opened a number of windows for non-Russian speakers, most importantly with his brilliant translation of the lengthy “Spare Organs” piece from Novaya Gazeta. Frankly, the blog wasn�t created to attract large numbers of readers but merely to establish a database that could be used by those who need it. But it�s very comforting to find out how many people seriously oppose the end of democracy in Russia and want to do what they can to help. The worst experience, crude hate mail from Russophile maniacs aside, was the original Blogger engine, which was ridiculously laborious and cumbersome to use. They�ve made major improvements, but the system still needs to add quite a number of features. Granted it’s free, but it’s very un-Google-like. I�m tempted to relocate, but I figure there must be something useful in being part of Google�s umbrella and besides I�m too busy to make the effort right now. I�ve gone out of my way to try to support Blogger by requiring commenters to be members, but I�m not sure they�ve met me half way.
4. Which blogs about Russia and the former Soviet Union do you most enjoy reading?
Two I consider indispensable, David McDuff�s �A Day at a Time� and Robert Amsterdam�s eponymous blog. He�s Mikhail Khodorkovsky�s lawyer. And Siberian Light of course, where I�m frequently a commenter (much more frequently than at either of the other two, they have fairly restrictive polices and don�t seem to have commenting as their goal). And I�m a contributor at Publius Pundit, which I feel offers by far the best comprehensive review of challenges to democracy in the blogosphere, not limited to Russia. It seems to me that there�s a niche to be filled for someone who would create a blog whose sole purpose would be to serve as a conversation forum for Russia bloggers. Maybe one of your readers will seize the initiative. Also, I think there�s a need for a blog to coordinate the expansion of Wikipedia to include more information about Russia�s dissidents. I�m loathe to do this myself, because I�d be accused of bias, but somebody really should.
5. What first sparked your interest in Russia?
The fall of the Berlin Wall. Like many people, I guess, I�d been told that Russia was a nation of democrats just waiting for a chance to show themselves, so I expected great things when the Wall fell and I tried to do what I could to be of assistance in the transition. This included spending a good bit of time in Russia working on such projects. But it turns out that Russians have far less interest in something new and different than we were lead to believe. The errors in assessing the Russia question in the wake of the USSR�s collapse are clear evidence of the need for the blogosphere, as a way of introducing new ideas and calling the conventional wisdom to account for its errors.
6. What do you love about Russia? What do you hate?
I love the minority of Russian people who, against all odds and heedless of the cost, like Anna Politkovskaya, struggle almost quixotically for something better in Russia. I hate the ones who, like Vladimir Putin, are betraying Russia�s past and destroying its future, and even more I hate the ones who sit on the sidelines watching him do so. Martin Luther King had the same attitude towards the KKK and what he called �white moderates,� and I never really understood his feelings until I started blogging. The moderates are really quite infuriating and harmful, more so than the rabid nationalists. Beyond that, as you know, the list of things I hate about Russia is quite voluminous. There’s a top 10 list at the top of my sidebar for those who are interested, and it’s by now grown to almost two dozen items. In essence, La Russophobe is trying to save the minority from the majority in Russia, and we think that’s a fight worth waging.
7. If you could recommend one book about Russia, what would it be?
I�d say the �Gulag Archipelago� by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, because if that won�t warn you off a return to the Soviet way of doing things, nothing will. For a light version, �One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.� Let me also mention some movies for the American crowd disinclined to reading about Russia: Nikita Mikhailkov’s “Burned by the Sun”, Andrei Konchalovsky’s “Inner Circle” and Lukas Moodysson’s “Lilya 4-ever.”
8. What is your favourite place in Russia? Is there anywhere you haven’t been yet, but would love to visit?
For favorite, a truly remote country dacha in the middle of the summer filled with a large group of lightly intoxicated Russians, preferably as far removed from a nuclear station as possible, preferably in the area where Turgenev and Tolstoy lived. For future visit: Lake Baikal. The place I’d least like to visit, but probably ought to, is the radioactive wasteland known as Chelyabinsk.
9. If you could invite three Russians, past or present, to a dinner party, who would they be?
Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko and Vladimir Putin.
10. On balance, do you think Vladimir Putin’s Presidency has been good or bad for Russia?
Putin is by far the worst ruler Russia has ever had, because he cloaks his harmful actions in a sham democracy and thereby poisons the well of Russian attitudes towards democracy. I think anyone who sees a proud KGB spy as a transitional figure on a journey to democracy is quite mad. Yuri Andropov, the other KGB spy to rule Russia, held power for less than two years. Who would have dreamed that elections would be the means of setting a new KGB record? Putin will hold it for at least eight, and will in all probability, in some form, retain power until his demise (just like Stalin and Brezhnev). Russia is a shadow of its former self, not strong enough to live through Putin if he rules to old age. If he does, he will leave Russia as, in the words of Atlantic magazine, �Zaire with permafrost.� When he first came to power, it was possible to believe Stalin represented the future for Russia. From day one, it was clear Putin represented only the failed past.
11. Do you think Russia will ever embrace the style of representative democracy now favoured in (most of) the rest of Europe?
Not unless it is led to the well by a revolutionary equal to Lenin and as steeped in the West as Lenin was and ten times more courageous. I’d be happy if Russia would just adopt the physician’s maxim for its government: “Do no harm.”
12. Do you think the average Russian’s life today is better, or worse than it was in 1989? Why?
Russians are far worse off now than they were in 1989, because now they lack the �thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.� Russia was suffering in 1989, but it had hope for something different from its failed past. Now, Russia is a hopeless wreck on the verge of returning to the days of Soviet automatons and without even the vibrant dissident class it had then. In other words, “Zaire with permafrost.” What can you say about the election and reelection of a proud KGB spy only a few years after that organization’s brutal and barbaric reign ended in the USSR�s total collapse. There has never been a darker moment in Russian history than right now, and that�s really saying something. The worst problem by far is the oil, which provides the Kremlin with enough money to rule and denies the impetus to reform.
13. If you could advise the Russian government to do one thing, what would it be?
Have Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Putin switch places.
14. Russia has developed a much more assertive and confrontational approach to foreign policy over the past couple of years, particularly in its near abroad. From Russia’s perspective, what do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of this approach?
Russia gains nothing. But the Kremlin gains the ability to polarize and terrorize the population, and to whip up nationalist frenzy. These things take the public�s eyes off the Kremlin�s multitude of quantitative failures (I thank Siberian Light for linking to my attempt to document these in my recent �report card� post) and in particular its biggest one, provoking a new cold war with the United States. The USSR, with a much bigger population and economy and with many alliances, didn�t survive the first one. What will happen to lonely diminished Russia? It�s not hard to guess. The five most important words for understanding Russia are: �Pride goeth before a fall.� I think there is an analogy to the American Civil War, with Russia in the role of the South and the U.S. in the role of the North. No matter how clever Russia is or how hard it fights, if it chooses confrontation it will be crushed. But Russia has always had a problem accepting reality, as did the South. The consequences are devastating.
15. What changes in policy (if any) do you think the European Union should implement to deal with Russia’s increasing dominance over energy supplies?
Obviously, the EU should diversify and wean itself from the Russian sources of energy as Russia tries to do in this century with oil and gas what it tried in the last century with ICBM�s and tanks. It should view Russia�s clumsy recent actions as a godsend, a wakeup call that a better regime that Putin�s might not have delivered. If the EU moves away from fossil fuels entirely, that would be a big boon to the environment as well. But the EU should also realize that the Kremlin�s power is based on selling fossil fuels to Europe, and this gives the EU considerable power. It should galvanize behind NATO and use that power, especially to tell the Kremlin that places like Ukraine and Georgia are off limits. Russia’s “sphere of influence” stops at Chechnya.
16. You are known for being forthright in your views, and for not holding back in your criticism of other bloggers – indeed, you were once memorably described as the ‘enfant-terrible’ of Russia blogging. What do you feel are the benefits of this direct approach to blogging, and to commenting on others blogs. Are there any drawbacks?
There are lots of benefits and very few drawbacks. I’d focus on four key benefits. First, there is exposing hypocrisy. You’d be amazed at how many people attack La Russophobe for judging Russia too harshly while they themselves judge La Russophobe in exactly the same way. They call for tolerance on Russia, yet show none for La Russophobe. Second, one of the things I might have mentioned as a goal of the blog is to make it very clear to the Russia-watching world, especially the academic and establishment types, that there now is a stiff price to pay for issuing pro-Kremlin propaganda and for playing fast and loose with facts while doing so. It�s true I�m faulted for being so acerbic, but what the critics don�t mention is that the accuracy of my reporting is almost never faulted or even questioned because it�s quite solid. This leaves the Kremlin�s apologists no choice but to try to focus on my style, and I take that as a huge compliment. And what they also don�t recognize is that there is a method to my madness. The harshness of my rhetoric means that these folks (for instance, the ones who said that given a fair chance, Russians would build democracy) know they�d better be careful about what they say or else a certain kind of web page is going to appear and follow them for the rest of their careers. I scare the bejesus out of those folks, and I think it�s a useful service. They’re watching their Ps and Qs now, in a way they’ve never done before. Third, I�d also point out that adherents of the acerbic style like Don Imus, Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern have enjoyed rather large audiences, and having an audience is useful. A great deal of commentary on Russia is profoundly boring. Say what you like about LR, it’s far from boring. Fourth, if anyone can demonstrate that being soft-spoken and respectful has produced any positive results in Russia in terms of reform, I�d be glad to consider a change. As far as I can tell, the KGB loves it when we mince words and delay action. When the KGB is happy, I�m not. Drawbacks? Sure. Malcolm X suffered lots of drawbacks, including the ultimate one. There are probably some people who are reluctant to join forces with LR because of its confrontational attitude, and we make enemies. But into every life a little rain must fall, and I’m not sure how many of those lost friends would be essentially useless fair-weather allies. I reject the idea that harsh words can turn a friend into an enemy. I think the very notion that Russia would stop moving down the path to dicatorship if we just spoke more nicely is silly. It’s Chamberlain talking.
17. You focus a heavily on the negative side of Russia. Do you think there is anything that Putin’s government has done right?
That�s like asking if there were things Hitler did right. Sure. He made the trains run on time. He gave Germans a renewed nationalistic pride following the humiliation of World War I. Probably the slave owners in the American south did things �right� too. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t right to offer both groups only battle. Anna Politkovskaya said of Putin: �I have wondered a great deal about why I am so intolerant of Putin. Quite simply, I am a 45-year-old Muscovite who observed the Soviet Union at its most disgraceful in the 1970s and 1980s. Putin has, by chance, gotten his hands on enormous power and has used it to catastrophic effect. I dislike him because he does not like people. He despises us. He sees us a means to his ends, a means for the achievement and retention fo personal power, no more than that. Accordingly, he believes he can do anything he likes with us, play with us as he sees fit, destroy us as he sees fit. We are nobody, while he whom chance has enabled to clamber to the top of the pile is today Tsar and God. In Russia we have had leaders with this outlook before. It led to tragedy, to bloodshed on a vast scale, to civil wars. I want no more of that.� I would turn your question around and ask: What could Putin possibly do that could even begin to make up for that? Yevgenia Albats has written that if Putin really loved Russia, he would have refused power and condemned his own resume. I think one of the most bizarre facts of modern Russian life is how Russians, saying they despised Boris Yeltsin, still anointed Yeltsin�s hand-picked successor, Putin, and favor him with 70%+ approval ratings every though the average wage is $2.50 per hour and the population falls by 1 million every year. That�s the Russian onion for you! Like Anna, I want no more of that. One thing that should be made very clear is that Putin has had nothing to do with Russia’s economic upsurge, which is solely due to the accident of rising oil prices and means virtually nothing in real terms to Russia’s vast population. In my view, his policy failures would vastly outnumber and outweigh his successes even without the democracy issue, and when that’s brought into play you have the worst ruler Russia has ever seen, the squanderer of Russia’s biggest opportunity. But I should also be clear in saying that the primary blame for Putin does not lie with Putin, it lies with the people who elected and re-elected him.
18. What would turn you into a Russophile?
See answer to #13 above.