“What, aren’t you Russian?”
The man, in his late 80s or older, was clearly irritated by something the woman – by the looks of it, somewhere in her mid-50s – had said. The conversation, in the presence of their respective spouses, took place over tea and cake not far from Moscow. (Some would call it eavesdropping. I call it ad hoc sociology.)
“Of course I’m Russian,” the woman replied, using the ethnic русская, as had her interrogator, rather than the civic adjective российская. “That’s why I’m not voting.”
“Then you don’t respect yourself or your country,” the older man retorted.
“No,” she said. “It’s exactly because I respect myself and my country that I don’t want to participate in this farce.”
It was less than 24 hours before polls would open for Russia’s presidential election. The TV in the corner of the room began airing a retrospective on Oleg Tabakov, the legendary actor and theater director who passed away recently, and thus the conversation shifted to something on which the four people around the table could agree.
On deadlines, lines in the sand (snow?), lines of inquiry and dividing lines, for BBC World Service Radio, just now.
So, not knowing much about Porton Down — the British military-linked science facility helping to investigate the Salisbury attack and that identified the nerve agent used on Sergei Skripal as the Russian/Soviet “Novichok” compound — I went to the font of all knowledge: Wikipedia.
Here’s the first line of Porton Down’s Wikipedia entry as it currently stands:
“Porton Down is a United Kingdom science park, situated just northeast of the village of Porton near Salisbury, in Wiltshire, England.”
Maybe I’ve missed something, but as best I can tell most Americans – indeed, most in the West in general – aren’t aware of the fact that, two weeks ago, US troops repelled a Russian attack in Syria, killing maybe as many as several hundred people (and losing none of their own).
Here’s the contemporaneous report from CNN. If you read Russian, though, you’ll learn a lot more from Pavel Felgengauer’s article today in Novaya Gazeta. In a nutshell: On 7 Feb., a unit of pro-Assad troops including some number of Russians – most likely from the ‘Vagner’ private military co (Russia’s version of Blackwater) – moved on an oil facility near Deir ez-Zor, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.
There’s a phrase in Russian – which I’m sure I’ve written about before – that warns against paying too much attention to “the average temperature in the hospital” (средняя температура по больнице, an indicator of patients’ aggregate health that is easily measured but generally meaningless). It’s a phrase that comes increasingly to mind every time I read or hear that Russia’s economy is set to grow by 2% of GDP this year: that figure might make Economy Minister Maksim Oreshkin feel good about his stewardship, but it masks quite a range of ailments.
In today’s Russia, in a context of institutional breakdown and politically enforced atomization, it is not, as Marshall McLuhan has famously suggested, the medium that allows for the extension of human beings across space and time. It is the messages those media carry that matter. Put more succinctly: The messages make the media.
That, in a nutshell, is the argument of a brief essay I was invited to contribute to a symposium on ‘The Press Under Attack’ for Mobilizing Ideas. The rest of the essay is here.
It’s official: Ksenia Sobchak is running for president of Russia.
Her words, not mine:
I know I’m a controversial figure. I’m a journalist, a blonde in chocolate, the daughter of a reformer, a member of the coordinating council of the Russian opposition. I might not be your candidate, but my participation in these elections on the terms I’ve described is good for voters and healthy for Russia’s political system.
In her announcement-cum-manifesto published in Vedomosti, Sobchak declared that she’s not for the annexation of Crimea – and not against it. “I’m outside the rigid frameworks of politics,” she wrote. Russia, she says, should be a European country, a democratic country, a federation, an open economy with a strong welfare state, free of propaganda, secular, and rid of the corruption that currently besets it.