The Media & the Messages

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 IdeasThe rest of the essay is here.


All Against All

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.

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In The Bud

People trying to sound smart about Russian strategy like to use funny words, like zugzwang (what happens in chess when you’re obliged to make a move that will inevitably hasten your own defeat) or kuzushi (the knack in judo of getting your opponent off-balance). Mostly, of course, this is shorthand for “I don’t really know what’s going on, but here’s something that sounds good.”

Funny, then, that people who usually go in for this kind of analysis are so easily kuzushied. (Or zugzwanged? I forget.) Case in point:

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America’s Russia Blind Spot

In a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) asked the witnesses whether she should be worried about an anti-Hillary Clinton robocall she once received, which featured a woman speaking with what sounded to her like a Slavic accent.

There is no serious dispute about whether Russia tried to influence the American election: It did. And the British ‘Brexit’ referendum. And the French election. And the upcoming German vote. There is also no doubt about the role Russia is playing in eastern Ukraine, or in the world more broadly. Russia is a challenge, and we are right to worry about the fact that we don’t have an answer.

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Glass Half Empty

In case you were wondering what a stolen election looks like, this is it.

Russians went to the polls yesterday for what will be the last major round of voting before the presidential election next spring. Both the Kremlin and the opposition, of course, had points to prove. And both sides, it would seem, achieved something closely resembling their goals. United Russia handily won 16 out of the 16 gubernatorial elections held Sunday, including in Ekaterinburg, where the main opposition candidate wasn’t allowed on the ballot. The opposition, meanwhile, fielded a united front in the municipal council elections in Moscow and fared better than anyone could have expected, grabbing majorities in 10 districts.

The story of the grassroots movement that allowed the opposition to pull off that result is quite something, but that’s not what’s on my mind at the moment. The real question is, why didn’t the opposition win more?

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All In

The cells in Russia’s jails reserved for political prisoners, like nature, apparently abhor a vacuum.

No sooner had Russia’s prisons and labor colonies begun to discharge the last of the ‘Bolotnoe’ prisoners — jailed in the aftermath of the May 6, 2012, protests — than they began to fill up again with the participants in the March 26 and June 12, 2017, rallies.

Just today, a court in Moscow sentenced Rasim Iskakov to 2.5 years in a prison camp for throwing a petard at a police officer on June 12, a crime to which he admitted. His was the first jail sentence handed down for that rally (following a handful of fines, community service obligations and suspended sentences around the country), but it will likely not be the last. And that’s on top of the sentences issued for the March 26 protest: 4 years for Andrey Kosykh; 2.5 years for Stanislav Zimovets; 8 months for Yury Kuliy; 1.5 years for Aleksandr Shpakov; and numerous other defendants still awaiting trial or under investigation.

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