Feet on the Ground in St. Petersburg: The Public Mood

One of the first questions put to me by a reader via the Comments function with respect to Monday’s report of my initial impressions after arriving in St Petersburg was: and what is the general mood of people? I begged off answering, saying that I would have to speak to a lot more people before I could confidently answer that question.

And in all truth, what I am about to say is still based on a very small sampling, combined with observations of what is being said on public television. But I think the overall contours of the ‘public mood’ are emerging to my satisfaction and can be shared.

In a nutshell: ‘life goes on.’ The fear of economic upheaval, fear of losing one’s job or small business, fear of price inflation and volatile exchange rates which I saw at the beginning of the Special Military Operation – all of that has dissipated. In my own immediate surroundings nothing could confirm that better than what occurred yesterday in our dealings with the first prospective Buyer of our little farm property south of Petersburg. In mid-September, she had placed a deposit on the purchase with the broker but then backed out of the deal over fears for the future when the partial mobilization was announced. Yesterday she sat down with us in the notary’s office and then at the bank which was opening escrow accounts for execution of the sale-purchase. She signed all the papers and the deal proceeded to the stage of re-registration of the title deeds. That was an unspoken but dramatic confirmation that someone from the ranks of the Russian middle class, someone working for a living, has enough confidence in the future to make a personal investment in a fixed asset that you cannot put in the back of your car and take across the border.

Continue reading “Feet on the Ground in St. Petersburg: The Public Mood”

Freedom of Expression and Genuine Intellectual Debate on Russian Television

On these pages, I have frequently made reference to the country’s premier political talk show, Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, and to its premier news and analysis show Sixty Minutes for their indicating the thinking of Russia’s political and social elites and thereby demarcating the limits within which the Kremlin can exercise its power domestically and in foreign policy. I have also at times suggested that the hosts of these shows were acting on behalf of the Kremlin to send unofficial but authoritative messages to the West.

All the while, I have been well aware that major U.S. and British media regularly denounce the hosts of these programs as pernicious propagandists.  Solovyov has been declared persona non grata in Italy for reportedly being a close confidant of Vladimir Putin, an allegation that is quite exaggerated, with the consequence that his villa there was confiscated by agents of the Italian government. Meanwhile, it also is to be noted that a little more than a month ago Solovyov was re-elected as president of the Russian Union of Journalists, which is a better indicator of why he is under sanctions.

I disagree entirely with the designation of Solovyov or Olga Skabeyeva and Yevgeny Popov as ‘propagandists’ and will in this essay introduce several pieces of evidence to substantiate my position. What I will concede is that these television hosts are decidedly ‘hard liners’ with respect to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Their most recent programs harshly condemn the notion of negotiating peace terms with Kiev until a complete victory has been achieved on the field of battle.  They highlight the atrocities committed by the Zelensky regime, including in the past week the cold-blooded murder of Russian prisoners of war as filmed, distributed in social media and recognized to be authentic by The New York Times. They argue that the ongoing destruction of the electricity infrastructure in Ukraine finally is giving Kiev, Lviv and other Ukrainian cities pay-back for the nine years that they have used artillery bombardment to attack all civil infrastructure of their own citizens in the Donbas who happen to be ethnically Russian so that, for example, the city of Donetsk has long ago regularly experienced blackouts and even today has no running water, while the civilian population was living for years in basements for safety. Their expert panelists from the Donbas remind us that the Ukrainians’ indiscriminate bombardments of cities and villages in the Donbas even today are resulting in more deaths and injuries to civilians than are the massive Russian missile strikes on the Ukrainian power infrastructure that have so captured the attention of Western media.

Propaganda is a word that is bandied about a lot these days, and generally is being used to characterize any information source that contradicts the press releases issued in Washington that are uniformly disseminated by U.S. and European media as God’s honest truth about the state of the war in Ukraine. I have a rather different approach to the concept of propaganda:  that it is by definition one-sided and excludes entirely other points of view. In this sense, virtually all programming on the BBC, for example, virtually all news on the war in The Financial Times is pure propaganda and must not be confused with journalism.

By this measure, Sixty Minutes is true journalism, not propaganda. Although there are expert panelists in the studio and the hosts have their own script to guide the show, a large part of the time, often measuring half or more, is given over to extensive video segments taken from Western media and setting out U.S., British and other unfriendly coverage of the news. I emphasize that these are not ‘sound bites’ but sufficiently long segments for the enemy’s views to be made perfectly clear.  In this sense, I see today on these programs the same kind of editorial direction that I experienced as a panelist on all the major Russian talk shows in 2016. Only back then, in the time before Covid lockdowns and before the travel restrictions on Russia imposed in February of this year, there were U.S. and other Western guests who were given the microphone long enough to set out the CIA view of things so that it might be shown up by the superior logic of Russian positions. That is to say that today, just as in the past, the producers of Russian television have little doubt that viewers will draw the proper conclusions in a reasonably fair clash of views.

Now for Mr. Solovyov, I can present a more detailed justification for calling the show good journalism and not propaganda by pointing to some details of the proceedings in last evening’s edition.

Once again, I will focus attention on the little speech delivered by the panelist Karen Shakhnazarov, director of Mosfilm, whom I have characterized in my previous reports on the Solovyov show as someone drawn from the creative intelligentsia, as opposed to the political scientists and Duma deputies who otherwise are the talking heads on these shows.

There were several remarkable points in Shakhnazarov’s remarks.  They were partly prepared in advance, but also partly directly in response to what others were saying before his turn to speak came.

In that last category was his comment on Russia’s relations with the former Soviet republics in the CIS, which political scientist Sergei Mikheev had just criticized for their being parasitical and ungrateful for Russian assistance.  Said Shakhnazarov, the idea of cutting the satellites off from Russia was broadly accepted in Moscow society in 1991 when Yeltsin made it a key part of his political agenda. They were resented for siphoning off Russia’s wealth and for having a higher standard of living than Russia itself. However, Shakhnazarov said that little countries behave this way most everywhere; it is the way of the world. And if you don’t pay them off, someone else will. Moreover, these republics speak of Russia as the former colonial power and expect these forms of compensation. Yes, as we know, when Russia wants some favor in return, they respond that now they are independent and are looking at ‘other vectors.’ The last term was used a couple of days ago by the president of Kazakhstan Tokaev in his press briefing following re-election.

Shakhnazarov’s overriding point is that Russians must be realistic.  The war has not been not going well. At the outset, they had listened even to Western military experts who predicted it would be over in a week. Instead, Russians learned that their army was not what they expected and needs restructuring. They learned that this will be a long and tough fight.  And foreigners also learned from what has happened and this has shaken somewhat the views about Russia among its friends. There is nothing to do about this at the moment but to face up to the facts.  America and the West may be run by rabid feminists and queers, but they are doing well: they have money and armed forces in abundance to keep their allies in line.  This is the way the world works. In the meantime we must fight on to victory, because there is no alternative.

Then Shakhnazarov touched on some still more unexpected and tantalizing themes organized around the question of ideology: we don’t think we have an ideology, but indeed we do – it is the ideology of the liberal bourgeoisie. In that sense we are much closer to our enemies, and especially to America’s Republican Party, than we are to those countries who are now our friends: socialist India, Communist China and Vietnam and North Korea.  Our friends are all on the Left, while our enemies are conservatives like ourselves. He went on to say that our friends are sticking by us though all of them remember how we betrayed them in 1991 when Yeltsin completely severed ties with Cuba, for example. And even today we continue to observe sanctions on North Korea though doing so looks foolish.

I will stop there. My point is very simple: everything Shakhnazarov was saying on air on Russian state television, was as free and critical of his own society and its government as one could hope for in a state respecting freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Is the Russia-Ukraine War at a Crossroads?

In a new 25-minute live broadcast devoted to the war, Iran’s Press TV showcases key issues from this week’s developments on the front lines, including the latest bombardments of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station and the missiles which fell on Polish territory, threatening to bring in NATO as full co-belligerents. The panelists were asked to comment on likely ‘end game’ scenarios for this war.

As we know, mainstream Western media is rock-solid in its predictions of ultimate Ukrainian victory, with the Russian evacuations of Kharkiv and Kherson as their leading arguments.  In the alternative media, opinion is divided over whether there will indeed be a new Russian offensive in coming weeks when the 220,000 recently mobilized reservists still in training are ready for action or whether the U.S. administration will push Zelensky into negotiations with the Russians that temporarily or even permanently put an end to the fighting.

A lot of attention is directed in world media to the resistance of Zelensky to entering into negotiations. That is explored as well on this Iran TV program. However, an issue which is not addressed there is the willingness and even the ability of the Russian President to enter into negotiations. 

Ever since the October mobilization of reservists, the military operation in Ukraine has de facto become the war of a nation in arms about which everyone in Russia now has an opinion. The fact is that Russian society from top to bottom is very unhappy with the present state of the war – but their discontent is with what they see as the pusillanimity of their own government in not responding more resolutely to Ukrainian provocations in the form of continuing artillery strikes on the Kursk and Belgorod regions from the Kharkiv oblast just across the border or through atrocities such as the just released video of the cold-blooded murder of Russian prisoners of war by gleeful Ukrainian soldiers. The withdrawal from the city of Kherson inflamed the passions of the Russian public who demand better explanations in their parliament and on their television than they have received so far.

The pressure on Mr. Putin is from his own patriotic supporters, and an untimely truce for negotiations right now could lead to civil disorder in Russia.  This is not idle speculation: it was perfectly clear from the latest edition of yesterday’s talk show Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov in which a deputy speaker of the Duma from the ruling party United Russia and a Duma committee chairman from the Communists took an active part, meaning that the nation’s elites are moving with the popular current against Defense Minister Shoigu if not against those still higher in the Kremlin. Meanwhile, discredited Russian Liberalism is taking down with it the commitment to free markets for the sake of more effective war production. There is serious talk of reintroducing Five Year Plans. And the recent official approval of plans to proceed with traditional celebrations of Christmas and New Year’s in Russian cities was denounced as inappropriate for a country at war in an existential struggle with NATO.

We may conclude that the Special Military Operation is indeed a watershed in Russian domestic politics.

https://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2022/11/20/693093/Ukraine-War-and-Nuclear-Escalation

Has Iran Been Delivering Drones to Russia and, if So, to What Effect?

‘Spotlight,’ a leading news analysis program of the English-language service of Iran’s state television opens with a discussion of the latest remarks by their Foreign Minister on what exactly Iran has supplied to Russia by way of drones and..when. It proceeds to examine other highly topical questions with respect to EU-US relations in support of Kiev and with respect to Russian military capabilities.

I use this opportunity to add one further consideration which was not brought up in the on air discussion: all restrictions on sale of military hardware by Iran in export markets, including drones and missiles, which may have figured in UN resolutions of the past expired more than two years ago, so that the country is entirely free to supply such arms to Russia if it so desired. Therefore, all of the current insinuations by the United States and NATO that there is some illicit trading between Russia and Iran is empty rhetoric.

Translation into German (Andreas Mylaeus):

‘Spotlight,’ ein führendes Nachrichten-Analyse Programm des englischsprachigen staatlichen iranischen Fernsehens macht auf mit einer Diskussion zu den kürzlichen Bemerkungen ihres Außenministers dazu, was der Iran Russland genau im Hinblick auf Drohnen zur Verfügung gestellt hat und wann. Dann fährt es damit fort andere wichtige zentrale Fragen bezüglich des Verhältnisses der EU und der USA hinsichtlich der Unterstützung für Kiew und des russischen militärischen Potentials zu untersuchen.

Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book is Does Russia Have a Future? Reprinted with permission from his blog.

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2022

Cost of Living in Europe and Further Aid to Ukraine

The single largest contingent of readers of my essays is in the United States, and it is for their particular benefit that I open today’s piece with some concrete facts on how Europe’s self-imposed energy crisis resulting from the ban on import of Russian hydrocarbons is making it impossible for your average citizen of France, Belgium and many other countries in the EU to make ends meet. I hasten to add that the unworkable arithmetic of monthly household finance is day by day, week by week bringing us to the social unrest and political instability that I and others have been predicting ever since the trend lines on cost of living became clear some months ago.

I will not introduce official statistics, because when the going gets tough they tend to be presented in a very selective manner by the authorities. My ‘anecdotal’ evidence comes from the energy bills I am now receiving at my home in Brussels and from what friends and acquaintances in this country and in France tell me about their personal situations.

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‘Partial Mobilization’ and Democracy

Has ‘partial mobilization’ breathed full-blooded democracy into Russia’s parliamentary government structure and broader society?

It is normal to think of wartime as a period of tightened censorship and imposition of ever greater controls on society at large.  Indeed, Western journalists have in the past half year focused attention on the closure of several notorious anti-Putin broadcasting companies and print media in Russia, including Rain (Dozhd’) and Novaya Gazeta. They have covered the flight of editors and staff abroad after they were labeled as ‘foreign agents’ and could expect invitations to appear before the courts.

However, in the days since the announcement by the Kremlin of ‘partial mobilization’ of the reserves, it is increasingly clear to any outside objective observer that a full blast of social activism is underway, and that the dikes of state controls on free speech are being swept away. A week ago, following reversals on the battlefield and loss of territory to the enemy that could not be ignored, members of the State Duma openly denounced the Ministry of Defense for dispensing ‘fairy tales’ about the progress of the campaign in Ukraine and demanded transparency in communications to the public. Speaker of the Duma Volodin, who is a leader of the ruling United Russia party, must have been in shock.

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