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Perm: Why a Western Journalist Criticises a Russian City

Mark McKinnon at Toronto Globe & Mail gives a profoundly distorted portrait of a Russian city because its politics are not liberal.

Alexander Mercouris

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In September 2015 through the generosity of the Oxford Russia Project I visited the Urals city of Perm.

On 15th August 2015 – just a few weeks before – an article about Perm by Mark McKinnon appeared in The Toronto Globe & Mail.

I will straight away say that I do not recognise the Perm I visited from the description of the city in Mark McKinnon’s article. 

Where McKinnon saw a city of “mired in stagnation” with “brutal Soviet architecture” part of the “rusting industrial heart of Russia”.

I saw an orderly, prosperous and thriving city, with a dynamic university, fascinating and well-attended regional museums, and a brilliant and massively popular ballet and opera company.

My fundamental problem with McKinnon’s article however is not with his description of the city, false though I find it, but with his approach to Perm’s local politics and the approach he takes to its art and to its view of history.

Perm is the nearest city to Perm-36, a former Gulag camp, which subsequently became the USSR’s leading political prison and which is now a well-maintained museum. 

The fence at Perm-36

As I learnt whilst I was in Perm a conflict arose some time ago over the management of the museum, which has resulted in it being taken over by the state authorities. 

Some people who were previously involved with the museum were concerned that this would lead to an attempt by the museum’s new management to sugarcoat the Gulag and the whole Gulag experience.

I have to say that I saw no evidence of that when I visited Perm-36, and the impression I got was that some of the critics of the authorities’ takeover of the museum have been somewhat placated by the way the new management is actually running it.

More to the point however is that McKinnon also found little to complain of.  Here is what he said:

“To a first-time visitor, the tour given today at Perm-36 seems thorough enough. The violence and repression of the Stalin era are grimly illustrated with statistics and maps. Nothing is glossed over about the backbreaking work done here, or the claustrophobic isolation cells. For inmates who broke the camp’s often-inane regulations, “outdoor time” simply meant being escorted to another small room, this one with barbed wire for a roof.”

McKinnon does claim that there have been some attempts to present a more favourable image of Perm-36 since the takeover.  However he contradicts himself later in the article by saying his recent tour of the camp was all but identical to a tour he made 12 years earlier. 

It turns out that his real objection is over an ongoing controversy over how the museum represents – or fails to represent – certain Ukrainian nationalists who were detained in the camp.  For the record during my tour of the camp – conducted by a local historian from the university and not by an official of the new management – the story of the Ukrainian nationalists held in the camp – one of whom was apparently a poet – did receive due mention.  I was shown the poet’s cell and told of the circumstances of his death.

The rest of McKinnon’s article consists of a lengthy denunciation of Russia’s recent Soviet past and of the supposed attempts of some in Russia to whitewash it, and the alleged stifling by the Russian authorities of a supposed “democratic spring” in Perm which  supposedly happened under its previous liberal governor Oleg Chirkunov.

Entrance into the Gulag Museum at Perm-36.

Entrance into the Gulag Museum at Perm-36.

The main expression of this “democratic spring” was the White Nights Festival which McKinnon says attracted hundreds of thousands of people from across Russia and abroad.  McKinnon is rhapsodic about it:

“Some years, as many as a million visitors were drawn to its mix of street art, theatre and live music. Each June, musicians and graffiti artists, some from as far away Western Europe and Latin America, descended on the city.“

It is clear that this festival had a very strong political character:

“Among the provocative works the museum displayed was a blood-red wall, spattered with black paint to look like clouds of smoke, entitled simply Maidan – a reference to the central square in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where the pro-Western protest that was to overthrow a Russian-backed government had just begun.

The Perm-36 gulag museum – already the only place in Vladimir Putin’s Russia where visitors could experience the mix of monotony and terror that was life inside a Soviet labour camp – launched Pilorama (the name means “sawing bench,” a reference to the woodworking done by inmates), an annual festival featuring opposition politics* and folk music.”

(*emphasis added)

Elsewhere we learn of

“….an exhibit mocking the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The show included a poster showing five nooses hanging in the shape of the Olympic rings, and another depicting a snarling Stalin wearing the suit of Misha the Bear, the Sochi mascot. Mr. Gelman’s gallery displayed the exhibit during the White Nights festival in the summer of 2013, ensuring the maximum number of people would see the critique of a project deeply personal to Mr. Putin.”

McKinnon complains that this festival featuring opposition politics and partly held on the grounds of Perm-36, has been “suppressed” (actually funding for it was stopped). 

He laments that it has been replaced by a new festival

“Instead of the White Nights festival that briefly drew crowds of tourists*, Perm this year held Kaleidoscope, a much smaller offering focused on an amusement park stuffed with roller coasters and shoot-’em-up games in the city’s central Gorky Park.

At the park’s entrance, there is a canvas military tent where visitors can listen to a soundtrack of falling bombs mixed with martial music – and cries of “Glory to Stalin” – as they peruse 70 black-and-white photos from the war (which in the Russian telling began with Nazis invading the Soviet Union in 1941).”

(*emphasis added)

The first thing to say about all this is that from what McKinnon says there was nothing “democratic” about the White Nights festival.  On the contrary McKinnon admits it was brought to Perm from outside and reports criticisms that the local people were at best unenthusiastic about it:

“Critics say Mr. Chirkunov and Mr. Gelman, neither of whom had lived in Perm, failed to grasp the region’s essentially conservative and working-class nature. Locals wanted culture that was connected to their lives, not high-brow installations that mocked institutions they respected, such as the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.”

Elsewhere McKinnon admits 63% of the people of Perm voted for Putin in the 2012 Presidential election, and that

“….many of those who visit the tent wear the orange-and-black ribbon that has – in its most recent resurrection – come to imply support for Mr. Putin and his policies in Ukraine. On the average street in Perm (or Moscow), half the cars and buses that pass will have an orange-and-black ribbon hanging from their rearview mirror”.

Pope Francis wearing the ribbon of St. George.

Pope Francis wearing the ribbon of St. George.

The “orange-and-black” ribbon McKinnon refers to is the St. George’s Ribbon – Russia’s equivalent to the British Red Poppy – which long predates the USSR and Stalin, and which it would have been natural for Russians to wear in 2015 – the year of the 70th anniversary of their country’s victory in the Second World War.

In view of McKinnon’s admission of the patriotism of the people of Perm and of their support for Putin, it is hardly surprising if a festival that supported Russia’s liberal opposition and which included praise of Ukraine’s anti-Russian Maidan “revolution of dignity”, mockery of the Russian state, ridicule of the Sochi Olympics and crude attacks on Putin, might not be popular and if many people might have felt that it was not “culture that was connected to their lives”.  McKinnon says many of the people who attended the festival were “tourists”, which suggests the festival was anyway not really intended for the people of Perm, who were nonetheless required to host it.

Similarly it is hardly surprising if many people in Russia – not just in Perm – might feel that an opposition oriented political festival held on the grounds of a former Soviet era prison camp was overstepping the limit, especially given the propensity of Putin’s Russian liberal and Western critics to make false comparisons between his government and the totalitarian past.  (Marat Gelman, the organiser of the White Nights Festival, was at it again – quoted by McKinnon making absurd comparisons between the situation in Russia today and that in Germany in 1936).

It is also completely understandable why many people in Perm might in place of the White Nights festival welcome celebrations of the 70th anniversary of their country’s great victory in the Second World War, and might wear St. George’s ribbons to proclaim the fact.

McKinnon’s response to these perfectly understandable reactions is to descend into scorn and cliches in a way that I find grating. 

Thus we learn that the “stoically suffering” “conservative working class people of Perm” (“the Putin Majority”) are incapable of appreciating “high-brow installations” and “avant-garde art” and prefer “an amusement park stuffed with roller coasters and shoot-’em-up games”.  If Perm is incapable of appreciating the effort to make it the “Edinburgh of the Urals” it is because it is the provincial backwater once described by Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago and by Chekhov in The Three Sisters.

This is to stand reality on its head. 

If Perm has a cultural centre it is its opera house, one of the best in Russia, renowned for its cutting edge productions of Mozart operas and its outstanding ballet company.   As I witnessed for myself, the local people take immense pride and interest in it and on the one occasion I visited it the performance was sold out with a good half of the audience being young people.

I saw several examples of contemporary avant-garde art in the city’s main art gallery, whilst the students of the city’s university were in the process of holding a major arts festival whilst I was there.  The university was also hosting a major literary conference as well as lectures from a top US neuroscientist.

I also met in Perm individuals of various political views including a postgraduate student interested in ecological questions and two local politicians, both members of the opposition Communist Party, with different views of local and national politics.

Lastly I also met a political scientist who had straightforwardly liberal views.

To imply in the light of all this that Perm is some sort of reactionary “stagnant” cultural backwater where freedom of expression has been crushed is a travesty. 

McKinnon says nothing about any of the artistic activity going on in Perm unconnected to the White Nights Festival though it would be difficult to think of a more “high-brow installation” than an opera house. (The only reference to the opera house in his whole article – supposedly about culture and free expression in Perm – is in a photograph).

The reason McKinnon is so uninterested in all this artistic activity is because it is not focused around liberal anti-Putin and anti-Communist opposition politics as the White Nights festival apparently was. 

In other words it is not the quality of artistic activity that matters for McKinnon.  It is its political message.

Similarly what angers McKinnon about Perm-36 is not that the facts of what happened there are being suppressed (he admits they are not) but that the history behind those facts – whether the subject is Ukrainian nationalists or any other issue – is not being interpreted in the only way he wants it to be.

As for “democracy” in Perm, for McKinnon the measure of democracy in Perm is not in respecting what its people want.  It is in having what the West and Russia’s liberal opposition want imposed on them.  That is “democracy” and not acceding to it is its “suppression”.

If this all sounds like inverted Stalinism – judging art by its political message, imposing a single view of historical truth, and imposing on people what an elite thinks is best for them – it is because it is.

As everyone who visits Russia today can see, the country is in the process of a deep re-examination of its past.  Outsiders are obviously entitled to their views, but ultimately this is a Russian debate and Russians’ right to conduct it should be respected. 

In the meantime words like “democracy” and “freedom of speech” should be used properly, not manipulated to further a particular agenda. 

As for Perm and its people, they should not be mocked and criticised and accused of acting to suppress free speech and the truth, simply because most of them happen to hold opinions about their country that are different from the ones McKinnon wants to impose on them.

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BARR: No collusion by any Americans

Trump never used his powers to interfere with Mueller, and thus had no “corrupt intent” in the matter.

Alex Christoforou

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Attorney General Barr found no one in the Trump campaign colluded with “Russia” to meddle in the 2016 US election.

A devastating blow to Democrats and their mainstream media stenographers.

Trump reacted immediately…

Via RT…

With the full report on special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into claims President Donald Trump colluded with Russia about to be released, Attorney General William Barr is giving a press conference about its findings.

Barr maintains the allegation that the Russian government made efforts to interfere in the election through the Internet Research Agency, an alleged Kremlin-control “troll farm”, as well as “hacking efforts” by the Russian intelligence agency GRU.

The bottom line, Barr says, is that Mueller has found Russia tried to interfere in the election, but “no American” helped it.

Barr explained the White House’s interaction with the Mueller report, whether Trump used executive privilege to block any of its contents from release, as well as on how the Justice Department chose which bits of the 400-page paper to redact.

On the matter of obstruction of justice, Barr said he and his deputy Rod Rosenstein have reviewed Mueller’s evidence and “legal theories”, and found that there is no evidence to show Trump tried to disrupt the investigation.

He said Trump never used his powers to interfere with Mueller, and thus had no “corrupt intent” in the matter.

Most of the redactions in the report were made to protect ongoing investigations and personal information of “peripheral third parties”.

Barr said that no-one outside the Justice Department took part in the redacting process or saw the unredacted version, except for the intelligence community, which was given access to parts of it to protect sources.

Trump did not ask to make any changes to Mueller’s report, Barr said.

Trump’s personal counsel was given access to the redacted report before its release.

A number of Trump-affiliated people, as well as Russian nationals, have been indicted, charged or put on trial by Mueller over the course of the past two years, but none for election-related conspiracy. Still, Democrats in Congress as well as numerous establishment media personalities have been insisting that Barr, a Trump pick for AG office, is somehow “spinning” its findings in order to protect and exonerate Trump, and are calling to see the full report as soon as possible.

They have equally condemned Barr’s decision to hold a news conference before the report is release, claiming he is trying to shape the public perception in Trump’s favor.

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Moscow’s Strategy: To Win Everywhere, Every Time

The main feature of Moscow’s approach is to find areas of common interest with its interlocutor and to favor the creation of trade or knowledge exchange.

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Authored by Federico Pieraccini via The Strategic Culture Foundation:


Important events have occurred in the Middle East and North Africa in recent weeks that underline how the overall political reconfiguration of the region is in full swing. The Shia axis continues its diplomatic relations and, following Rouhani’s meeting in Baghdad, it was the turn of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to be received in Tehran by the highest government and religious authorities. Among the many statements released, two in particular reveal the high level of cooperation between the two countries, as well as demonstrating how the Shia axis is in full bloom, carrying significant prospects for the region. Abdul-Mahdi also reiterated that Iraq will not allow itself to be used as a platform from which to attack Iran: “Iraqi soil will not be allowed to be used by foreign troops to launch any attacks against Iran. The plan is to export electricity and gas for other countries in the region.”

Considering that these two countries were mortal enemies during Saddam Hussein’s time, their rapprochement is quite a (geo)political miracle, owing much of its success to Russia’s involvement in the region. The 4+1 coalition (Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria plus Hezbollah) and the anti-terrorism center in Baghdad came about as a result of Russia’s desire to coordinate all the allied parties in a single front. Russia’s military support of Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah (together with China’s economic support) has allowed Iran to begin to transform the region such that the Shia axis can effectively counteract the destabilizing chaos unleashed by the trio of the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel.

One of the gaps to be filled in the Shia axis lies in Lebanon, which has long experienced an internal conflict between the many religious and political currents in the country. The decision by Washington to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel pushed the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, to make an important symbolic visit to Moscow to meet with President Putin.

Once again, the destabilizing efforts of the Saudis, Israelis and Americans are having the unintended effect of strengthening the Shia axis. It seems that this trio fails to understood how such acts as murdering Khashoggi, using civilian planes to hide behind in order to conduct bombing runs in Syria, recognizing the occupied territories like the Golan Heights – how these produce the opposite effects to the ones desired.

The supply of S-300 systems to Syria after the downing of the Russian reconnaissance plane took place as a result of Tel Aviv failing to think ahead and anticipate how Russia may respond.

What is surprising in Moscow’s actions is the versatility of its diplomacy, from the deployment of the S-300s in Syria, or the bombers in Iran, to the prompt meetings with Netanyahu in Moscow and Mohammad bin Salman at the G20. The ability of the Russian Federation to mediate and be present in almost every conflict on the globe restores to the country the international stature that is indispensable in counterbalancing the belligerence of the United States.

The main feature of Moscow’s approach is to find areas of common interest with its interlocutor and to favor the creation of trade or knowledge exchange. Another military and economic example can be found in a third axis; not the Shia or Saudi-Israeli-US one but the Turkish-Qatari one. In Syria, Erdogan started from positions that were exactly opposite to those of Putin and Assad. But with decisive military action and skilled diplomacy, the creation of the Astana format between Iran, Turkey and Russia made Turkey and Qatar publicly take the defense of Islamist takfiris and criminals in Idlib. Qatar for its part has a two-way connection with Turkey, but it is also in open conflict with the Saudi-Israeli axis, with the prospect of abandoning OPEC within a few weeks. This situation has allowed Moscow to open a series of negotiations with Doha on the topic of LNG, with these two players controlling most of the LNG on the planet. It is evident that also the Turkish-Qatari axis is strongly conditioned by Moscow and by the potential military agreements between Turkey and Russia (sale of S-400) and economic and energy agreements between Moscow and Doha.

America’s actions in the region risks combining the Qatari-Turkish front with the Shia axis, again thanks to Moscow’s skilful diplomatic work. The recent sale of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, together with the withdrawal from the JCPOA (the Iranian nuclear agreement), has created concern and bewilderment in the region and among Washington’s allies. The act of recognizing the occupied Golan Heights as belonging to Israel has brought together the Arab world as few events have done in recent times. Added to this, Trump’s open complaints about OPEC’s high pricing of oil has forced Riyadh to start wondering out aloud whether to start selling oil in a currency other than the dollar. This rumination was quickly denied, but it had already been aired. Such a decision would have grave implications for the petrodollar and most of the financial and economic power of the United States.

If the Shia axis, with Russian protection, is strengthened throughout the Middle East, the Saudi-Israel-American triad loses momentum and falls apart, as seen in Libya, with Haftar now one step closer in unifying the country thanks to the support of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia, with Fayez al-Sarraj now abandoned by the Italians and Americans awaiting his final defeat.

While the globe continues its multipolar transformation, the delicate balancing role played by Russia in the Middle East and North Africa is emphasized. The Venezuelan foreign minister’s recent visit to Syria shows how the front opposed to US imperialist bullying is not confined to the Middle East, with countries in direct or indirect conflict with Washington gathering together under the same protective Sino-Russian umbrella.

Trump’s “America First” policy, coupled with the conviction of American exceptionalism, is driving international relations towards two poles rather than multipolar ones, pushing China, Russia and all other countries opposed to the US to unite in order to collectively resist US diktats.

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Nigel Farage stuns political elite, as Brexit Party and UKIP surge in polls (Video)

The Duran Quick Take: Episode 144.

Alex Christoforou

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The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris take a look at Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party’s stunning rise in the latest UK polls, which show Tory support splintering and collapsing to new lows. Theresa May’s Brexit debacle has all but destroyed the Conservative party, which is now seeing voters turn to UKIP and The Brexit Party.

Corbyn’s Labour Party is not finding much favor from UK voters either, as anger over how Britain’s two main parties conspired to sell out the country to EU globalists, is now being voiced in various polling data ahead of EU Parliament elections.

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Authored by Mike Shedlock via MishTalk:


The Guardian reports Tories Hit by New Defections and Slump in Opinion Polls as Party Divide Widens.

The bitter fallout from Brexit is threatening to break the Tory party apart, as a Europhile former cabinet minister Stephen Dorrell on Sunday announces he is defecting to the independent MPs’ group Change UK, and a new opinion poll shows Conservative support plummeting to a five-year low as anti-EU parties surge.

The latest defections come as a new Opinium poll for the Observer shows a dramatic fall in Tory support in the past two weeks and a surge for anti-EU parties. The Conservatives have fallen by six percentage points to 29% compared to a fortnight ago. It is their worst position since December 2014. Labour is up one point on 36% while Ukip is up two points on 11%.

Even more alarmingly for the Tories, their prospects for the European elections appear dire. Only 17% of those certain to vote said they would choose the Conservatives in the European poll, while 29% would back Labour, and 25% either Ukip (13%) or Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party (12%).

YouGov Poll

A more recent YouGov Poll looks even worse for the Tories

In the YouGov poll, UKIP and BREX total 29%.

Polls Volatile

Eurointellingence has these thoughts on the polls.

We have noted before that classic opinion polls at a time like this are next to useless. But we found an interesting constituency-level poll, by Electoral Calculus, showing for the first time that Labour would get enough constituency MPs to form a minority government with the support of the SNP. This is a shift from previous such exercises, which predicted a continuation of the status quo with the Tories still in command.

This latest poll, too, is subject to our observation of massively intruding volatility. It says that some of the Tory’s most prominent MPs would be at risk, including Amber Rudd and Iain Duncan-Smith. And we agree with the bottom-line analysis of John Curtice, the pollster, who said the abrupt fall in support for Tories is due entirely to their failure to have delivered Brexit on time.

The Tories are facing two electoral tests in May – local elections on May 2 and European elections on May 23. Early polls are show Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party shooting up, taking votes away from the Tories. If European elections were held, we would expect the Brexit party to come ahead of the Tories. Labour is rock-solid in the polls, but Labour unity is at risk as the pro-referendum supporters want Jeremy Corbyn to put the second referendum on the party’s manifesto.

Tory Labour Talks

The Tory/Labour talks on a compromise have stalled, but are set to continue next week with three working groups: on security, on environmental protection, and on workers’ rights. A separate meeting is scheduled between Philip Hammond and John McDonnell, the chancellor and shadow chancellor. The big outstanding issue is the customs union. Theresa May has not yet moved on this one. We noted David Liddington, the effective deputy prime minister, saying that the minimum outcome of the talks would be an agreed and binding decision-making procedure to flush out all options but one in a series of parliamentary votes.

May’s task is to get at least half of her party on board for a compromise. What makes a deal attractive to the Tories is that May would resign soon afterwards, giving enough time for the Tory conference in October to select a successor before possible elections in early 2020.

This relative alignment of interests is why we would not rule out a deal – either on an agreed joint future relationship, or at least on a method to deliver an outcome.

Customs Union

A customs union, depending on how it is structured, would likely be worse than remaining. The UK would have to abide by all the EU rules and regulations without having any say.

Effectively, it will not be delivering Brexit.

Perhaps May’s deal has a resurrection.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock

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