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Johnson's Russia List
1 September 2000
from Brunswick, Maine
[Note from David Johnson:
1. Boris Kagarlitsky: Russia: Submarine Tragedy Breaches the Curtain
2. AP: Putin Lashes Out At Tycoons, Media.
3. Reuters: Putin keeps up pressure on regional bosses.
4. Christian Science Monitor: Fred Weir, Russia's schools struggle to
find a fresh slate. Too few teachers, outdated courses face students on opening day.
5. Business Week: Paul Starobin and Catherine Belton, The Crumbling
of Russia. The country is scrambling to find funds for infrastructure.
6. The Guardian (UK): Real Lives. Beyond the box. Four days ago, a
dramatic blaze in Europe's tallest tower left Moscow in TV darkness. So how have the city's 11m residents been coping without their
favourite shows? Not that well, says Ian Traynor.
7. the eXile: Matt Taibbi, Press Review: Down Periscope.(Foreign media coverage of the Kursk disaster)]
From: "Renfrey Clarke" <email@example.com>
Subject: Kagarlitsky on submarine sinking
Date: Thu, 31 Aug 2000
#Russia: Submarine Tragedy Breaches the Curtain of Lies
#By Boris Kagarlitsky
#MOSCOW - According to the Russian press, the reputation of President
Vladimir Putin sank along with the submarine Kursk. This is not true. All
that sank was the propaganda myth surrounding Putin. Russia's president has
never had a reputation.
#A reputation is built up over a period of years. It is something you
create through your own actions and achievements. A reputation, to put it
simply, is something you earn.
#Until now, all we have had has been bogus ratings and propaganda. People
used to believe in both precisely because Yeltsin's successor did not have
a reputation. Neither a good reputation, nor a bad one. This was Putin's
only advantage. At least people didn't know him, while they knew all the
others only too well. Putin was able to exploit what British jurists call
the benefit of the doubt; it is better to have doubts about someone's
honesty, than to know for a fact that he or she is a crook.
#In a certain sense, Putin's refusal to travel to the site of the Kursk
tragedy, his open unwillingness to interrupt his holiday on the Black Sea,
was his first completely independent act as president. He hid from us. He
decided not to act. This was his own choice. Everything else had been
prepared and calculated in advance - by Yeltsin and the Kremlin "family"
when they named Putin as the heir-apparent; by the image-makers, when they
sat their client in a fighter-plane or a submarine, or put him on skis; by
the state functionaries, when they devised all sorts of scenarios for
bureaucratic reshufflings; or by the General Staff, when at the beginning
of autumn last year they presented Yeltsin with their half-baked plan for a
Chechnya campaign. But when an "irregular situation" arose with a
submarine, Putin for the first time was forced to take a decision
independently. He did the only thing he was capable of, trying to avoid
participating in events, to dodge his responsibility before the people.
#At first, the president did not show himself at all. Then, when the
bewilderment among the population and even the bureaucrats themselves began
turning into open outrage, Putin interrupted his holiday and made a public
appearance - half-screened behind a whole crowd of orthodox hierarchs, in a
hall thick with gold leaf. Gazing into the television camera with his dry
bureaucrat's eyes, the president recounted impassively how he had shed
tears as he observed the events from his Kremlin chambers.
#The deed was done, and its consequences are now evident. Putin finally has
a reputation. The hard thing when you have a reputation like this is not to
govern a huge country, but to run a small office. That is to say, running
an office would be impossible, but Putin can still govern Russia.
#The point, however, does not have to do with Putin so much as with the
authorities in general. The press, the television, and people in the
streets are outraged: we have been openly lied to! So were we being told
the truth before? The regime is clearly not being forgiven for the
catastrophe with the submarine or for the "rescue operation", which was
more like an exercise by the authorities in covering their tracks. In
recent times, however, the same authorities have been forgiven the deaths
of thousands of non-combatants in Chechnya, the bungling of the military
operations there, and the rigging of elections. What happened to the Kursk
should arouse horror and indignation, but it cannot arouse surprise. The
regime behaved in the same way it always does. It employed its usual
methods. Everything happened just as it was destined to.
#Accidents happen with submarines; this is true not only of our vessels,
but of American ones as well. But however terrible the fate of the Kursk,
its sinking is only one of a long list of catastrophes in the overall
series of events that in our country is termed triumphantly "the history of
the new Russia". Once again, we have seen the struggle of a corrupt elite
to hold onto power, along with senseless efforts by the military chiefs to
save the dignity of their uniform. The struggle has been swathed in
patriotic rhetoric, but this rhetoric has suffered the same collapse as
"democratic" rhetoric suffered in 1993, and "communist" rhetoric in 1991.
#For the people who have been playing political games, a moment of truth
has arrived. These people are shell-shocked, no doubt cursing an
unfortunate turn of events. Everything would have been so wonderful, if it
hadn't been for that submarine! They were unluckly. They are even convinced
that people should sympathise with them. With them, and not with the "human
material" that has perished in the mud of the Chechnya war or in the icy
waters of the Barents Sea.
#Until recently, the Kremlin bosses thought they could carry on lying
indefinitely. That the country would endure anything and reconcile itself
to anything. They failed to notice that a sort of "critical mass" of lies
had been reached. Our astounding tolerance of lying and other foul
behaviour has its limits too. This might have been sensed earlier, but our
country accepted each new step by the authorities so meekly and amiably
that it seemed no limit existed.
#Even so, the actions of the political and military chiefs in the case of
the Kursk were monstrous even against the background of what has gone on in
modern Russia. If only it were just a question of the usual combination of
lying and incompetence! The longer the rescue operation continued, the
greater became the feeling that no-one would be saved, and that the
authorities had no intention of saving them. It was not just that British
and Norwegian help was at first refused. Even when Norwegian teams arrived
on the spot, what followed was consultations instead of real action. More
than seven hours went by before the foreign rescuers were allowed to get to
work. Then, when the hope appeared that it would be possible after all to
reach the Kursk and connect the British submarine to it, and when the call
had already gone out among the Norwegian divers for volunteers ready to
risk their lives by entering the damaged craft, our military officers
continued to argue that the hatch was irremediably damaged. Norwegian
experts had to disprove this through the Reuters news agency! Everything
that happened was like open sabotage.
#On the Monday morning, after the Norwegians had opened the hatch, our
official spokespeople, barely concealing their satisfaction, announced that
it would not be possible to use the British rescue equipment. Although the
scandal over official lying had by now taken on an international character,
an attempt was made to remove journalists from the scene of the accident.
There is only one way to explain this behaviour: the military chiefs did
not want witnesses to the disaster to remain alive. They did not need
rescued sailors, prepared to speak the truth. They needed dead heroes.
#After each successive catastrophe, the top authorities usually promise to
hold an investigation and to punish the guilty. Then, of course, they slam
on the brakes. This time, the authorities did not promise to punish anyone,
either for form's sake or to calm the public. On the contrary, it was
stressed that guilty parties would not be sought, that they simply did not
exist. Only a government certain that neither the "electorate" nor the
"population" could exert any influence on politics could show such total
contempt for the feelings of fellow citizens. Though here, perhaps, the
authorities had it wrong. As always in such situations, the truth could not
be hidden. People's deep conviction that it was the authorities who were to
blame for the tragedy was now shown to be correct.
#The Kursk proved to be the new moral burden which our mass consciousness
was unable to bear. A turning-point had been reached. Now, the regime no
longer evokes discontent, or even protest, but simply revulsion. Everyone
has sensed the change, though not everyone yet understands what it means.
In the depths of their souls, the Kremlin bosses hope that everything will
somehow turn out all right. People will curse them for a while, but then
forget. When all is said and done, what can the population actually do,
these millions of submissive creatures whom the Soviet regime taught
obedience, and whom the new Russian elite have been able to manipulate so
#The Kremlin bosses, however, are mistaken, just as the tsarist government
in 1905 was mistaken when it thought nothing would follow the destruction
of the Russian fleet in the Strait of Tsushima. We do not know what awaits
us tomorrow. There are times when it is hard, through the smoke-screen of
lies, to make out events taking place only a few steps away. Nevertheless,
something has happened. We cannot go on like this. Our patience has come to
#The sinking of the Kursk will not be recorded in our history as just
another disaster. It is clear that this particular catastrophe has awakened
civic consciousness in millions of people.
Putin Lashes Out At Tycoons, Media
August 31, 2000
By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV
MOSCOW (AP) - In a rare public display of anger, President Vladimir Putin
accused business tycoons and independent media of ruining the country's
military and sought to distance himself from the legacy of his predecessors.
Putin's remarks, made at last week's closed meeting with relatives of 118
seamen who died when the nuclear submarine Kursk sank, were his strongest
criticism yet of the so-called oligarchs - the magnates who acquired their
fortunes thanks in part to close links with the Kremlin during Boris
``They have embezzled enough, bought up the media, and are now manipulating
public opinion,'' Putin said, according to a transcript of an audio tape
published by the Vlast weekly. The magazine belongs to the most politically
aggressive of all Russia's tycoons: Boris Berezovsky.
Putin's government has been harshly criticized in Russia and abroad for its
initial reluctance to accept foreign aid, which was offered immediately after
the Kursk exploded and sank in the Barents Sea on Aug. 12. Russia's own
rescue efforts were bungled by the lack of deep-sea divers, but the
authorities agreed to invite British and Norwegian rescue teams only after a
Facing tears and angry shouts at the Aug. 22 meeting at the Vidyayevo
submarine base, Putin defended himself and the military, saying the
authorities had done all they could. He quickly blamed the failure of the
salvage efforts on the economic turmoil that resulted from the chaotic
reforms of his predecessors - Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
``I'm ready to account for the 100 days that I have been president. As for
the previous 15 years, I'm ready to sit on the same bench with you and pose
these questions to others.''
The president's statements appeared aimed at deflecting criticism rather than
signaling a new attack on the oligarchs or an attempt to sever his links with
``Putin owes his election victory to Yeltsin's team,'' said Yevgeny Volk, the
director of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. ``His statement is no
more than a public relations effort, an attempt to shift the blame.''
Pressed with questions about the Russian Navy's bungled rescue effort, Putin
said the answer lies in the pitiful state of the military, which is
struggling to survive a drastic funding shortage.
``As for rescue equipment, it has been ruined and there isn't a fig left,''
he said. ``There isn't a fig left in the country.''
He said that the nation could no longer afford a huge army and should
drastically cut the number of men and weapons in order to increase military
wages and the army's combat effectiveness.
Putin pointed at the tycoons as the culprits for Russia's economic and
military decay, saying they had their media ``lie'' about the disaster in
order to blackmail the government.
``The people on television, ... who for 10 years were destroying the army and
the navy where people are now dying, are the first among the army's
defenders,'' Putin said. ``Their goal is to discredit and completely ruin the
army and navy.''
He wouldn't name names, but he was clearly referring to both Berezovsky and
Vladimir Gusinsky - the owners of Russia's largest media empires.
``They want to influence the mass audience in order to show the military and
political leadership that we need them (the media), that we are on their hook
and must fear and obey them and let them further rob the country, the army
and the navy,'' Putin said.
Putin has previously sought to distance himself from the oligarchs, and the
authorities earlier this year took action against some of the nation's
largest companies, accusing them of tax evasion or illegal privatization.
Gusinsky, whose media outlets have repeatedly criticized the Kremlin, spent
several days in jail in June on charges of defrauding the state. The charges
were later dropped - but the case had already provoked international concern
about media freedom in Russia.
Putin keeps up pressure on regional bosses
By Gareth Jones
MOSCOW, Aug 31 (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin went back onto the
offensive on Thursday against independent-minded regional leaders, saying
Russia faced disintegration if he failed to reimpose Moscow's authority.
He also made clear a planned new State Council, widely viewed as a sop to
regional leaders still smarting from their impending ejection from Russia's
upper house of parliament, would be a purely consultative body.
``The vast majority of our people do not know which country they are living
in,'' said Putin, referring to frequent contradictions between regional and
``This is a ticking time-bomb which must be removed, eliminated from the
territory of the Russian Federation,'' said Putin in televised remarks made
after talks with local leaders in the Volga region of Samara in central
``In the statutes of the regions and the constitutions of the autonomous
republics you can find whatever you want...from nails to diamonds, but no
mention of the fact that they are subjects of the Russian Federation,'' he
Some powerful republics like Tatarstan, also in the Volga region, consider
themselves subjects of international law able to treat with foreign states
over Moscow's head -- a situation which Putin is determined to end.
Putin has launched a shakeup of the way Russia is governed, stripping the
regional governors of their right to sit in the upper chamber of parliament,
the Federation Council, and gaining the right to sack those found guilty of
breaking federal laws.
In compensation, the governors -- who will be replaced in the Federation
Council by representatives appointed by them -- gain a seat in the new State
NEW BODY IS PURELY CONSULTATIVE
Putin said he would sign the decree formally setting up this body on Friday,
adding it would sit once every three months.
``Of course, as of today, its powers will be only consultative,'' he said,
making clear it would not assume any of the legislative responsibilities
currently shared between the Federation Council and the more powerful State
Duma (lower house).
Putin said he himself would head the new body. But on a more conciliatory
note, he added that it would be known as the State Council of the Russian
Federation, not of the President.
Tatarstan's veteran president, Mintimir Shaimiyev, who has managed to wrest
considerable powers from Moscow since the fall of the Soviet Union, welcomed
``The new name will give the State Council added weight. When it is working
out new proposals, that name will make itself felt,'' he said, apparently
referring to the scope for future disagreements between Putin and the
PLEASED WITH GOVERNMENT
Putin, a former KGB spy elected president in March on a platform of restoring
order in the vast, impoverished country, has made clear he will not brook the
kind of regional insubordination tolerated by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.
Putin said the State Council would have a presidium made up of
representatives from each of the seven new super-regions which he set up
shortly after his election to boost his personal control over the whole
country, which spans 11 time zones.
The presidium will help smooth the working of the council.
Putin's trip to the Volga region follows a tough month in which he has had to
grapple with a series of disasters including, most damagingly for his
reputation, the sinking of a nuclear submarine with the loss of all 118 men
Putin had to apologise to the nation for his tardy response to the loss of
the Kursk in the icy Barents Sea.
But on Thursday, he gave a more cheerful assessment of his government's
record during its first 100 days in office.
``Objective economic indicators provide the most important assessment of the
government's actions...All the tasks set before the government by the
president have been fulfilled,'' Interfax news agency quoted Putin as saying.
Christian Science Monitor
1 September 2000
Russia's schools struggle to find a fresh slate
Too few teachers, outdated courses face students on opening day.
By Fred Weir, Special to The Christian Science Monitor
There will be the usual laughter, speeches, and parents snapping pictures
when School No. 119 opens for the new year today in Moscow. And in accordance
with Russian tradition, students will form into ranks and troop through the
bare, dimly lit corridors to their new classrooms, each one bearing a bunch
of flowers for the teacher.
It is a very Russian irony that the pile of bouquets may well be worth the
teacher's annual salary. "We don't think about money, that's how we get by,"
says principal Svetlana Churakova.
While struggling with meager state funding, Russian educators also are
wrestling with how to stem a drop in once-enviable standards and debating
their fundamental goals. "The Soviet military-industrial complex needed a lot
of engineers and scientists, and the school system was geared up to produce
them," says Yuri Gromyko, president of the Moscow Academy for Culture and
Education. "Now we need people who are free thinkers and responsible citizens
first of all, but our existing schools have no idea how to teach these
Experts say the teachers who keep the system going are mostly well-trained
and dedicated, but they are increasingly unable to cope. "Tests show that
educational standards are falling dangerously," says Sergei Bebchuk, director
of the School League, a professional association of teachers. "Students today
cannot pass science, math, and literature tests that were routine for
Soviet-era children, though the curriculum in these subjects hasn't changed.
Problems of drugs, alcohol, and street violence are creeping into our
schools, and there are no provisions for handling any of this."
Changing social conditions have yet to be matched by deep educational reform,
and this may be the most essential problem.
The US school system has been putting more emphasis on teaching math and
science in recent years, while Russian schools have been moving erratically
toward greater stress on liberal arts. "We do not have a clear approach,
students are just presented with a variety of viewpoints and told to decide
for themselves," says Tatiana Makarevich, a history teacher at School 119.
"No one wants to take responsibility. This may be better than teaching
Communist dogma, but without at least some guidelines, it does not seem a
very useful way to teach."
Bureaucratic resistance and misplaced national pride conspire to block
reforms, says Mr. Bebchuk, himself a public-school principal. "Everything is
still dictated from above, by officials who are pursuing their own
departmental interests and have their own conception of what education should
be," he says. "We need innovations based on what future citizens need in a
changing world, yet we work with a curriculum that's 20 years old."
While the Education Ministry keeps no formal records, anecdotal evidence
suggests that for those who can afford it, private schools are becoming an
increasingly popular option.
But the current system has its defenders. "Even now, in extremely unfavorable
circumstances, Russian schools are much better than American ones in such
subjects as physics, chemistry, and math," says Gennady Yagodin, the Soviet
Union's education minister from 1985 to '91, and currently rector of the
International University in Moscow. "Much of what the Russian system could do
before, it can still do surprisingly well."
School 119, a crumbling eight-story prefab concrete box surrounded by the
high-rise housing estates of southwest Moscow, is typical of the schools that
some 20 million Russian pupils will be returning to today. Its worn interior
has been painted and scrubbed by volunteer groups of parents, the teachers'
committee has been preparing the curriculum for weeks, and all seems ready.
But the accumulated underfunding of at least a decade shows in the overgrown
grounds, sputtering light fixtures, groaning plumbing, and Ms. Churakova's
grim smile when she talks about the school's problems.
The average teacher here earns less than $50 a month; even Churakova, the
highest-paid, makes the equivalent of just $70 a month. "It's very hard to
survive on such wages, and a lot of people have left the profession," she
says. "But most of us stay because someone has to do this work. Someone has
to think about the children."
"The watchword is to make do," Churakova says. Teachers are reminded that
pencils can be used right down to their stubs, a piece of paper has two
sides, and lessons written on a blackboard can be left for the next class to
save chalk. Better-off parents are asked for donations.
"Sometimes I just take them and show them our conditions, or mention
something we need," says Churakova. "Usually the parents find a way to fix
the problem for us. If we had to rely on the local Board of Education, our
situation would be hopeless." Most parents, unable to contribute financially,
give their labor as occasional cleaners, repairmen, or groundskeepers.
Still, there is no avoiding the impression that School 119 is gradually being
dragged under by the strains. "In these days, everyone is riveted on Russia's
technological catastrophes [last month's sinking of the Kursk submarine and a
fire that devastated the Ostankino television tower Aug. 28, knocking out
service to the Russian capital], but a human one is unfolding slowly but
surely in our education system," says Mr. Gromyko. "The best-qualified
teachers have been streaming out of the public system, there is almost no
investment in new schools and equipment, and, worst of all, we do not have an
educational doctrine suitable for modern times."
Russia's Ministry of Education says there is a shortfall of 50,000 teachers
in the country this year. Even relatively prosperous Moscow has 1,000
openings, mostly in subjects like literature, math, and English.
One solution may be to revive the Soviet-era practice of compelling teacher
trainees to work for a certain period after graduation. "I've heard there are
serious plans to bring this system back, and it may be a useful stopgap
solution," says Beb-chuk.
But without better funding, little can be expected to change. "Education is
fundamental," he says. "Our society will die unless we begin to seriously
invest in our schools."
September 11, 2000
The Crumbling of Russia
The country is scrambling to find funds for infrastructure
By Paul Starobin and Catherine Belton in Moscow
The Kursk, a 15,000-ton Russian nuclear submarine, explodes and plunges to
the bottom of the Barents Sea, killing 118 seamen. Two weeks later, on Aug.
27, a 1,771-ft.-high Moscow television tower catches fire, killing three
people and leaving millions of TV screens blank. Isolated incidents? Hardly.
Beyond those headline-making disasters runs a long series of less spectacular
miseries attesting to Russia's decrepit condition.
The country's infrastructure is falling apart. Gas pipelines spring leaks
daily, electricity is regularly cut off across Russia's far-flung regions,
most of the nation's roads are pitted with potholes, trains stop running,
industrial accidents are rampant, and toxic waste seeps from industrial
plants into drinking-water supplies. This chronic malady is not simply about
bad Soviet-era technology. It also stems from an 80% decline in investment
during the post-Soviet era. Making matters worse, the stewardship of key
facilities and funds is in the hands of corrupt and inefficient managers.
There are no hard figures on what it would cost to rebuild the
infrastructure. But by one estimate, it could cost $100 billion--four times
Russia's current annual budget.
President Vladimir V. Putin, elected in March, is determined to turn
things around. He has approved an ambitious plan of reforms to spur growth by
improving conditions for investment and by deregulating Soviet-era behemoths
such as electricity giant United Energy Systems (UES) and the Railways
Ministry. He also wants to open the way for some competition to Gazprom, the
natural gas monopoly. The day after the Ostankino TV-tower fire, Putin
declared that ``only economic development will allow us to avoid such
OPPOSING FORCES. But infrastructure reform is a political minefield, not just
a technological and economic challenge. At UES, chief executive Anatoly B.
Chubais has floated an ambitious plan to break up the monopoly into hundreds
of smaller companies and sell stakes in them to raise $30 billion in badly
needed investment capital over 10 years. Electricity prices, now set at
artificially low levels by the government, would also be gradually raised.
Sounds good, except that certain well-connected foreign shareholders in
UES are fiercely opposed, saying the scheme would depress the value of their
stock. Since consumers can't afford higher electricity prices, they fear the
companies will have meager profits and be sold at bargain prices. They've
taken their complaints directly to top Kremlin officials, who dislike the
ambitious Chubais. So now the plan is stalled, and UES, billions of dollars
in debt, has pulled the plug on 7,500 nonpaying customers, including schools,
hotels, and even defense installations.
While politicians dither, shoddy Soviet-made equipment will continue to
break down. One reason the Ostankino tower caught fire was that Soviet
planners refused to buy nonflammable cable cladding from the West. ``The
designers knew the tower was dangerous even when it was being built'' in the
mid-1960s, says Moscow electrical engineer Mikhail Ryzhok, who had helped
install cabling when the tower was constructed. The repairs could cost as
much as $1 billion.
The cadre of specialists trained to maintain complicated equipment is also
dwindling. The most worrisome spot is the atomic energy sector. In the wake
of the Kursk disaster, Putin has offered higher pay for workers involved in
the design, construction, and maintenance of nuclear warheads. This step was
long overdue: Two years ago, scientists at the nuclear research center of
Sarov went on a brief strike to protest their paltry monthly wage of $144.
But huge problems remain, as Russia struggles with the monumental task of
deactivating large chunks of its once-grand nuclear arsenal.
There is one glimmer of hope. Boosted by optimism in Putin's reform plans
and high commodity prices, investment in the Russian economy grew 17%, to $17
billion, in the first seven months of the year. If the new government can
keep up that momentum, Russia may be able to draw the curtains on its
disaster movie: More growth means a higher tax take, which means more money
for repairs. If not, Russia is doomed to be ``a country of chaos, of cold and
dark,'' says economist Ben Slay at the PlanEcon think tank in Washington.
That's a drama nobody wants to see.
The Guardian (UK)
31 August 2000
Beyond the box
Four days ago, a dramatic blaze in Europe's tallest tower left Moscow in TV
darkness. So how have the city's 11m residents been coping without their
favourite shows? Not that well, says Ian Traynor
It was a lazy Sunday afternoon in Moscow and in a tower block in the north of
the city, Sasha Nikitin, his wife, and two kids were doing what they usually
do - watching telly. Winnie the Pooh, on Russia's main state channel, ORT.
Suddenly the show was interrupted and the screen filled with alarming
pictures of smoke billowing from Moscow's proudest landmark, the Ostankino
television tower. "We'd no idea what was going on," says Nikitin, 48, a lorry
driver. "Another catastrophe. The neighbours came running in. They thought it
was a putsch."
Over at NTV, Russia's biggest private channel and ORT's great rival, they had
no idea either. "We found out from viewers who phoned up to tell us you
couldn't get NTV in Moscow," says an NTV technician.
The 26-hour blaze at the tallest structure in Europe generated riveting
pictures for TV viewers across Europe. But Moscow was switched off. By and
large, it still is. For the first time in the modern multimedia world, this
vast metropolis of 11m people has been cut off from television for several
Limited state broadcasting resumed last night via an emergency transmitter
erected on the gutted Ostankino tower, but it will be weeks before full
services are restored across the city. The utter dependence of the channels
on the 1967 tower has shocked the public and the elite. The lack of reserve
broadcasting capacity and the vulnerability of the media to a simple short
circuit have hurt.
"From a world superpower, Russia is fast turning into a threat to the rest of
humanity," says Alexei Koshmarov, a political consultant.
"The challenge to the public and to the people taking decisions in this state
is extremely serious."
The Kremlin and President Putin can barely get their message across to the
public. The advertisers can't hawk their wares. The poor majority of the
city, who soak up hours of imported soaps every day, are at a loose end. The
police are warning of a crimewave in the absence of TV balm. And the TV
executives and the government are red-faced at the latest evidence of
Russia's rapid descent into a hi-tech scrapyard.
The poor and the elderly are the hardest hit. "We usually watch the
television all day. Now we just don't know what's going on. It's very
insulting, very painful," says Aleftina Rogova, 72, whose husband is infirm
and who rarely goes out.
Ninel Loginova, a media analyst who studies the impact of popular programming
on the poor and the elderly, says the feelings of insecurity and isolation
caused by the absence of TV news, most people's sole source of information,
have triggered a mass-phone-calls phenomenon where the first question of the
call is a worried: "What's happened now?"
"Most people don't buy newspapers. They can't afford to," she says. "They
don't go out. In the past 15 years, old leisure patterns and habits have
atrophied. Television is all these people have got. Now they're in the dark."
Others are more sanguine. "It's not a national tragedy. It's a bit of an
adventure," says Yekaterina Karsanova, another media analyst.
Cheap Latin American soap operas and distressingly graphic scenes of real,
not fictional, violence are the staples of Russian prime time television.
When a bomb killed 11 people in central Moscow earlier this month - "Black
August" as it has been dubbed - state TV news cameras lingered on the charred
corpses and the anchor woman told viewers gloatingly that the footage was
exclusive. When the authorities sought to fan up hostility towards Chechen
guerrillas, state TV news showed a Chechen warlord forcing a captive to kneel
down and then taking out a revolver and shooting the victim point-blank in
But it is the soaps that have the couch potatoes hooked. RTR, the second
state channel, which is fast becoming a mouthpiece for the Putin
administration, screens eight straight hours of soap opera on some weekdays.
When RTR came back on air last night via the emergency transmitter, its first
broadcast was a brief news bulletin, followed by the Brazilian soap Tower of
Babylon. "You get 80-year-olds writing in pleading to be told what's going to
happen in their favourite serial because they think they'll be dead before it
ends," says Loginova.
At a time of cut-throat competition and intensifying TV wars between the
channels and the Kremlin, television is dominated by ORT, NTV, and RTR. These
three are the big losers, the worst affected by the blackout which is
simultaneously generating a throwback to the days of radio, with families
hunched around the wireless, and a leap into the future. The use of computers
and the internet is soaring, along with sales of satellite dishes and
subscriptions. Video stores are in clover and video rentals and sales are
believed to have quintupled since Monday morning. "It's all very good timing
for us," grins Boris Koklov, who opened his third Video Boutique a few weeks
ago in the city centre.
The recourse to alternative forms of televisual entertainment shows how
fragmented the modern multimedia city is becoming. The Muscovite elite has
satellite and can watch a broad range of programmes; but the elite accounts
for only 70,000 homes. Almost half the city is cabled, but the cable services
do not include the big three channels.
Politically, it is the big three that count. Since becoming president in
March, Putin has made control of television a central strategy. NTV, his
biggest critic, was singled out for rough treatment.
The headquarters of its parent company were raided by machine-gun toting
paramilitaries in balaclavas. Its owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, was jailed for
four days and later left the country when the charges against him were
dropped. Putin has since extended his offensive to ORT, controlled by Boris
Last week Putin accused both moguls of exploiting the Kursk submarine tragedy
for commercial gain. By contrast, RTR was favoured with exclusive access to
the Russian navy's Kursk rescue effort and granted an interview with Putin,
during which he attacked the two bigger channels.
When state television returned hesitantly to the air last night, RTR's
appearance was followed by that of ORT. There was no room for NTV, whose
director, Yevgeniy Kiselyev, said yesterday that Putin would try to use the
Ostankino inferno to reshape the television landscape to his advantage. His
counterpart at ORT, Sergei Dorenko, agreed.
Putin is the first Russian leader who owes his rise to power in large part to
television. But monopoly television was central to the Soviet dictatorship
and Berezovsky and Gusinsky combined their media clout in 1996 to win Boris
Yeltsin his second term against the odds.
If Putin is a control freak, he has found in the past couple of weeks how
disastrously things have spun out of his control. But, by the time normal
services are resumed, he may be thankful that the towering inferno offered
him the chance to establish the kind of TV he wants.
"So many cataclysms," sighed Mrs Rogova, 72. "The submarine, the tower, the
terrorism in Chechnya, the Taliban in Afghanistan. But we'll survive, we'll
get together with families and friends and pull through. And Putin's our
president. He's young and energetic. He's our new democrat."
Date: Thu, 31 Aug 2000
Subject: exile press review
From: "Matt Taibbi" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The most striking thing about foreign media coverage of the Kursk disaster
was, of course, the volume of it. For two straight weeks the sunken
submarine was front-page news all over the world, allowing it to easily
surpass Boris Yeltsin's resignation and the 1998 financial crisis as the
most intensely-followed Russian news story in recent memory. The Mir space
station crisis got more total ink space, but since it deteriorated less
spectacularly and over a longer period of time, its media slugging
percentage was a lot lower than the Kursk's.
When it comes to attracting press attention in the CNN age, you can't do
much better than a disabled nuclear submarine with a slowly suffocating
crew. It contains all the elements that make the modern news media weak in
the knees: a Hollywood plotline where innocent lives "hang in the balance",
an exotic locale suitable for showing off the your network's dazzling
ability to instantly produce pictures from anywhere, and a story that is at
once simple enough for the average yo-yo to understand (crew trapped
underwater; no air underwater; try for yourself, you can't hold your breath
forever; crew therefore in sensational danger) while simulataneously
requiring the input of whole legions of experts, from divers to marine
engineers to intelligence commentators to survivors of other sub accidents.
Furthermore, the accident forced the media to fully mobilize the soldiers of
another of its favorite sub-industries, i.e. the makers of charts, diagrams,
maps and video simulations. The latter aspect of the Kursk coverage was so
out of control among the broadcast media that at times one expected the
networks to spill over into the realm of macabre parody: "Thanks, Bernard.
No, there is no means currently available of getting oxygen to the Kursk
crew, but if there was, the reaction of the sailors would look something
like this." And then a cut to a slick animated video sequence of gasping
sailors hugging, shouting for joy, etc.
When you add in the fact that the submarine was not American, making a happy
ending to the story not necessary to prevent a lot of ratings-killing
finger-pointing, then the Kursk tragedy, media-wise, turns into a grand slam
into the upper deck. It would be hard to imagine an event more perfectly
suited to the design parameters of the modern news machine. Blizzards of
communications technology, lots of grandiloquent hand-wringing, and whole
seas of canned grief-today's media is designed to produce precisely this
stuff (to the exclusion of almost everything else), and for a few weeks the
Kursk gave reporters all the work they could handle.
Two things were clear once the Russians released details of the accident two
Mondays ago. One was that the old playbook for the Mir Space station
coverage would be revived, and the entire journalism community would agree
to refer to the Kursk exclusively as the "crippled Kursk submarine" (see
box) throughout the duration of the story. The second was that the disaster
would prompt a flood of snide, superior-sounding editorials of the
"Intervention Needed to Protect Russians From Themselves" type from the
major newspapers of the West.
These latter editorials were, uniformly, remarkable displays of political
opportunism. The Kursk sailors had not even been pronounced dead before
virtually every major newspaper in Britain and the United States had used
the accident as an excuse to argue for some West-friendly geopolitical
The New York Times was the most shameless of the bunch. Never a particularly
enthusiastic champion of environmental issues in America, the Times in the
wake of the Kursk sinking became, all of the sudden, inexplicably lachrymose
("Russia's Unsafe Nuclear Submarines", Aug. 18) over the fate of the Barents
Sea and the Norwegian fishing waters. That its concern was accompanied by
advocacy of an expensive corporate welfare program (in the guise of a
U.S.-funded cleanup plan) was, of course, a coincidence:
"Some of the submarines are no longer watertight and are in danger of
sinking. Radioactive waste is slowly seeping into the surrounding water and
air. Neighboring Norway is worried about a possible explosion from one of
the reactors, which could contaminate local waters, kill fish and marine
mammals and harm both nations' fishing industries.
"The United States and Norway are helping Russia to design and build
prototype facilities for storing the spent fuel. But Russia does not have
the money to continue the efforts. One way to get it would be to expand a
program championed by Senator Richard Lugar and former Senator Sam Nunn that
pays to dismantle Russia's nuclear arsenal but does not cover most of the
When the New York Times (which blasted the American Green Party this year
for muddying the playing field by sponsoring a serious presidential
candidate) starts worrying about the fate of Norwegian marine mammals, you
know something funny is going on. The same holds true for the exaggerated
concern for the lives of the Kursk sailors shown by the Washington Post,
which predictably used the crisis to blame all of Russia's problems on its
communist legacy. Amazingly, it did so while at the same time also arguing
somewhat irrationally the Clintonian line that Russia is a developing
democracy that has left communism behind. In a paper of record, you can have
your cake and eat it, too.
This schizophrenic Post editorial ("Candor and the Kursk", Aug. 19) first
argues that the Putin presidency has been marked by a tightening of control
over the press:
"Under President Vladimir Putin, the trend has been toward more official
suffocation of independent media and less governmental candor, especially in
Armed with a Thesaurus, the editorial writer-almost certainly former Moscow
bureau chief Fred Hiatt, incidentally-moves on to label the disastrous
handling of the accident as part of a hangover from the Soviet days:
"Still, Russia's handling of the accident seems of a piece with the broader
recrudescence of old Soviet standards of candor and competence."
Ever mindful of its duty to support the White House, the Post then slips in
an overall apology for U.S. policies toward Russia:
"Worst of all, offers of help from the United States, Britain and Norway
were initially refused. British and Norwegian help has now been
accepted--almost a week after the sub sank. U.S. assistance, however, is
apparently still more than the Russian military can countenance. In light of
the Clinton administration's effort to engage and reassure Moscow, this is
frustrating and, as a measure of Russian officialdom's basic capacity for
trusting the former Cold War adversary, sobering."
By now, the Post editorial is no longer about the Kursk at all, but about
Clinton's policies over the last eight years. "The Kursk Disaster: America
Tried Hard, But Russia Blew It" is what this one came down to.
That Clinton's efforts to "engage" Russia have included advocacy of
privatization policies that allowed companies like Boeing, Pratt and
Whitney, and Siemens to buy into Russian military factories
(http://www.exile.ru/feature/feature31.html) -policies which would naturally
make Russia reluctant to allow American divers to have free reign of a
relatively recently-built nuclear sub-were obviously not mentioned here.
The Post editorial ended in a spasm of self-love and auto-apology,
simultaneously calling attention to how great NATO is compared to the
Russian navy, and reminding readers that press freedom in Russia didn't fare
so badly in the Clinton years:
"Russia's electronic and print media have covered the plight of the crew's
families and voiced skepticism about the government's performance. 'If this
were a NATO submarine, the crew would already have been rescued,' one
Russian newspaper declaimed. Given Mr. Putin's recent hostility toward press
critics, this coverage suggests that all is not lost for press freedom in
This is a remarkable passage. It lauds Russia for clinging to speech
freedoms, and uses as an example of "healthy speech" a passage from a
newspaper which talks about how great NATO is. This is the kind of thing one
might have expected to see in the "foreign news" section, next to the chess
column, on the back page of Pravda about fifteen years ago: "America's
imperialist newspapers remained as unfree as ever, as evidenced by their
refusal to admit the benefits of the generous and peace-loving arms-control
proposal put forward by General Secretary of the Soviet Union M.S.
The Financial Times ("Kursk Crisis", Aug. 17) was refreshingly unabashed
about its jingoism in its editorial. The headline of this piece, as it could
have been for most Western Kursk pieces, might have read "Russia Still Not
Enough Like the West." One of the more appalling passages came in the second
"Far from living up to the western image of "hands on" leadership that he
has cultivated, [Putin] is sitting out the crisis thousands of miles away
holidaying on the Black Sea."
Let's get this straight. The difference between a Western leader and a
non-Western leader is that the Western leader rushes to the scene of a
crisis even if it means ending his vacation, while the non-Western one...
doesn't? You might have thought that was just the difference between a good
leader and a bad leader. Oh, wait-according to the FT, the two things are
one and the same!
The FT then goes on to villainously intimate that Putin deliberately let the
sailors die agonizing deaths in order to justify greater defense spending:
"It is easy to guess at Mr Putin's motives for a certain immobility in this
crisis. He says he wants stronger armed forces, and may use the Kursk
accident to put more money into the navy."
Admittedly this passage is less obscenely offensive than it sounds at first,
given that Putin is widely suspected to have participated in the planning of
the Moscow apartment buildings to garner support for the Chechen war. But
there was at least some evidence that the Russian government committed those
bombings, whereas here, there isn't.
Beyond that, the apartment building theory at least makes a sort of
Machiavellian sense. But this idea-that Putin, in order to push through
increased funding for the navy, would first wait for a nuclear submarine to
sink to the ocean floor with its crew still alive, then deliberately stall
the rescue process, kill everyone aboard, incur a massive international p.r.
disaster, and then give the go-ahead for Western divers to go snooping
around his top-secret hardware-this doesn't make any sense at all.
What does make sense, on the other hand, is that Western observers like the
FT would seize upon the Kursk disaster as a chance to call for the further
dismantling of the Russian military. This was a persistent theme of all the
major Western editorials about the story. The New York Times warned of "the
dangers of running a nuclear navy on the cheap" and, as noted above, called
for a U.S.-funded dismantling of the bulk of Russia's nuclear sub fleet.
The Post made a similar argument at the close of its editorial. Like the
Financial Times, which argued that Putin's irrational desire to beef up his
navy cost the sailors their lives, the Post sounded the familiar "Russia
can't come to grips with its humiliating loss of status" theme. "What does
this incident reveal," the paper writes, "about whether Russia truly
possesses the money and trained personnel to operate safely the large fleet
of nuclear-powered ships--not to mention the vast arsenal of nuclear
weapons-- that the great-power ambitions of its current leaders seem to
All three papers, it should be noted, supported the war effort in Kosovo.
This makes it hard to sympathize with their point of view on the Kursk
disaster. You can't bully around Russia's allies against her objections,
then cry foul-whining about a lack of "trust", and a failure to respond to
being "engaged"-- when she refuses to abandon her nuclear fleet. That is,
you can, but... it's asking an awful lot, isn't it?
When Western newspapers weren't using the Kursk to argue against the perils
of Russian sovereignty, they were usually busy pinning medals on each
others' chests for beneficience and good behavior during the tragedy.
In general the Kursk story narrative read a little like the Nietszchean
fantasy of a moderate/neo-liberal "Boho in Paradise": a Russian attack
submarine, gloomy symbol of the pre-Fukiyama Cold War period of the Bohos'
parents, gets rescued by Scandanavia, the cheerily pragmatic home of their
Volvos and Ikea furniture. Western commentary about the accident was
dominated by unsolicited criticism from the morally perfect Boho peanut
gallery, which blasted Putin for his refusal to "accept Western help" and
spare no expense to save those poor sailors' lives.
This righteous, humanistic take on the tragedy gives rise to an interesting
philosophical question, if one takes into account the announcement on August
21 that Russia's population had already declined by some 425,000 people this
year. At what point do human lives become worth saving at any cost? Would
the same commentators who blasted Putin for not funding adequate safety
programs be in favor of restoring Russia's universal health care program,
which was dismantled partly in order to comply with Western structural
adjustment policies? Surely more than 118 people die every hour in Russia
for want of access to emergency health care. Not to say Putin shouldn't have
done everything in his power to save those sailors-he should have-but
outrage over his failure to do so seems a little disingenuous, coming from
the same people who've been insisting for the last ten years that Russia end
all social guarantees to its citizens in the name of "austerity".
The orgy of moral self-congratulation reached its highest pitch in the
Moscow Times, which under the leadership of old friend Matt Bivens has
lately adopted a sort of "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" image of itself
in relation to its host country. In the past two weeks the Times-in yet
another in a string of elaborate and unnervingly intense efforts (beginning
with its election-eve "We mean you no harm" Russian-language editorial
depicting a happy multicultural MT newsroom) to convince Russians of the
essential decency of its Western readership-- has repeatedly called
attention to the flood of letters it has received from Americans expressing
their sympathy for the accident victims. While the world's leading marine
engineers and naval rescue experts debated on how best to save the Kursk
crew, the Times printed letters from zipperheads in places like Dallas
suggesting that oxygen be fueled in through the torpedo tubes. One must
assume the Russian navy took this under serious consideration.
Apparently sensing that the the ostentatious display of reader support
wasn't enough to keep Russia focused on American benevolence, the Times
twice unleashed on the Kursk debate its secret weapon-columnist Suzanne
Thompson. If the Times's Russian readers hadn't yet caught the implication
that Americans had showed themselves at their best in response to the Kursk,
Thompson was there to make the case for them explicitly. Here's how she led
off her Aug. 26 column, "Russians, Americans, and those Evening Bells":
"Over a period of nearly two weeks, The Moscow Times has received dozens of
letters from readers around the world, an unprecedented outpouring of grief
for the men trapped at the bottom of the sea. But as an American, I find it
interesting that most of those letters have come from my compatriots.
"One of my colleagues suggested that we have received so many letters about
the Kursk from the United States because Americans comprise the majority of
our online readers. Still, I argued, that doesn't mean they had to write in
with their thoughts. No, I contend that there is a special tie between
Russians and Americans, a link that, when divorced from all the official
propaganda that both nations' governments have crafted over the years, leads
them to a deep understanding of each other on a human level."
Yikes! This is a passage that calls for one of those Gogolesque narrative
interjections: What humility! What delicacy of language! Thompson isn't
proud that most of the letters came from America, she just-aw, shucks-finds
it "interesting". Ugh.
Unfortunately, there isn't time to list the other peculiar features of the
West's Kursk coverage-like, for instance, the sudden invocation of prayer
and Christian feeling by a suspiciously high number of previously secular
columnists. In general, it's hard really to know what to say about the press
frenzy surrounding the Kursk. After what seems like decades of Elians and
O.J.'s one feels powerless to oppose these onslaughts. One thing is certain:
when it wants to, today's media can focus the attention of the entire world
on a single spot on the earth, no matter how remote, for an indefinite
length of time. That this power is almost never used to make us examine our
own problems is becoming a given. That it is frequently used to reaffirm the
status quo and apologize for the actions of our leaders is becoming almost
equally axiomatic. That we expect to see it used regularly to humiliate and
demonize foreigners and dissenters is just plain sad. But it's a fact, and
the Kursk proved it again.
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