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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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Understanding the Holodomor and why Russia says nothing

A descendant of Holodomor victims takes the rest of us to school as to whether or not Russia needs to shoulder the blame.

Seraphim Hanisch

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One of the charges that nationalist Ukrainians often lodge against their Russian neighbors is that the Russian government has never acknowledged or formally apologized to Ukraine for the “Holodomor” that took place in Ukraine in 1932-1933. This was a man-made famine that killed an estimated seven to 10 million Ukrainians , though higher estimates claim 12.5 million and lower ones now claim 3.3 million.

No matter what the total was, it amounts to a lot of people that starved to death. The charge that modern-day Russia ought to apologize for this event is usually met with silence, which further enrages those Ukrainians that believe that this issue must be resolved by the Russian acknowledgement of responsibility for it. Indeed, the prime charge of these Ukrainians is that the Russians committed a genocide against the Ukrainian people. This is a claim Russia denies.

To the outside observer who does not know this history of Russia and Ukraine’s relationship, and who does not know or understand the characteristics of the Soviet Union, this charge seems as simple and laid out as that of the Native Americans or the blacks demanding some sort of recompense or restitution for the damages inflicted on these societies through conquest and / or slavery. But we discovered someone who had family connections involved in the Holodomor, and who offers her own perspective, which is instructive in why perhaps the Russian Federation does not say anything about this situation.

Scene in Kharkiv with dead from the famine 1932-33 lying along the street.

The speaker is Anna Vinogradova, a Russian Israeli-American, who answered the question through Quora of “Why doesn’t Russia recognize the Holodomor as a genocide?” She openly admits that she speaks only for herself, but her answer is still instructive. We offer it here, with some corrections for the sake of smooth and understandable English:

I can’t speak for Russia and what it does and doesn’t recognize. I can speak for myself.

I am a great-granddaughter of a “Kulak” (кулак), or well-to-do peasant, who lived close to the Russia/Ukraine border.

The word “кулак” means “fist” in Russian, and it wasn’t a good thing for a person to be called by this label. A кулак was an exploiter of peasants and a class enemy of the new state of workers and poor peasants. In other words, while under Communism, to be called a кулак was to bring a death sentence upon yourself.

At some point, every rural class enemy, every peasant who wasn’t a member of a collective farm was eliminated one way or another.

Because Ukraine has very fertile land and the Ukrainian style of agriculture often favors individual farms as opposed to villages, there is no question that many, many Ukrainian peasants were considered class enemies like my great grandfather, and eliminated in class warfare.

I have no doubt that class warfare included starvation, among other things.

The catch? My great grandfather was an ethnic Russian living in Russia. What nationality were the communists who persecuted and eventually shot him? They were of every nationality there was (in the Soviet Union), and they were led by a Ukrainian, who was taking orders from a Georgian.

Now, tell me, why I, a descendant of an unjustly killed Russian peasant, need to apologize to the descendants of the Ukrainians who killed him on the orders of a Georgian?

What about the Russian, Kazakh golodomor (Russian rendering of the same famine)? What about the butchers, who came from all ethnicities? Can someone explain why it’s only okay to talk about Ukrainian victims and Russian persecutors? Why do we need to rewrite history decades later to convert that brutal class war into an ethnic war that it wasn’t?

Ethnic warfare did not start in Russia until after WWII, when some ethnicities were accused of collaboration with the Nazis and brutal group punishments were implemented. It was all based on class up to that time.

The communists of those years were fanatically internationalist. “Working people of all countries, unite!” was their slogan and they were fanatical about it.

As for the crimes of Communism, Russia has been healing this wound for decades, and Russia’s government has made its anticommunist position very clear.

This testimony is most instructive. First, it points out information that the charge of the Holodomor as “genocide!” neatly leaves out. In identifying the internationalist aspects of the Soviet Union, Ukraine further was not a country identified as somehow worthy of genocidal actions. Such a thought makes no sense, especially given the great importance of Ukraine as the “breadbasket” of the Soviet Union, which it was.

Secondly, it shows a very western-style of “divide to conquer” with a conveniently incendiary single-word propaganda tool that is no doubt able to excite any Ukrainian who may be neutral to slightly disaffected about Russia, and then after that, all Ukrainians are now victims of the mighty evil overlords in Moscow.

How convenient is this when the evil overlords in Kyiv don’t want their citizens to know what they are doing?

We saw this on Saturday – taken to a very high peak when President Petro Poroshenko announced the new leading “Hierarch” of the “Ukrainian National Church” and said not one single word about Christ, but only:

“This day will go down in history as the day of the creation of an autocephalous Orthodox church in Ukraine… This is the day of the creation of the church as an independent structure… What is this church? It is a church without Putin. It is a church without Kirill, without prayer for the Russian authorities and the Russian army.”

But as long as Russia is made the “problem”, millions of scandalized Ukrainians will not care what this new Church actually does or teaches, which means it is likely to teach just about anything.

Russia had its own Holodomor. The history of the event shows that this was a result of several factors – imposed socialist economics on a deeply individualized form of agrarian capitalism (bad for morale and worse for food production), really inane centralized planning of cropland use, and a governmental structure that really did not exist to serve the governed, but to impose an ideology on people who really were not all that interested in it.

Personal blame might well lay with Stalin, a Georgian, but the biggest source of the famine lay in the structures imposed under communism as a way of economic strategy. This is not Russia’s fault. It is the economic model that failed.

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Mueller Finally Releases Heavily Redacted Key Flynn Memo On Eve Of Sentencing

Alex Christoforou

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Via Zerohedge


Having initially snubbed Judge Emmet Sullivan’s order to release the original 302 report from the Michael Flynn interrogation in January 2017, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has finally produced the heavily redacted document, just hours before sentencing is due to be handed down.

The memo  – in full below – details then-national security adviser Michael Flynn’s interview with FBI agents Peter Strzok and Joe Pientka, and shows Flynn was repeatedly asked about his contacts with former Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and in each instance, Flynn denied (or did not recall) any such conversations.

The agents had transcripts of Flynn’s phone calls to Russian Ambassador Kislyak, thus showing Flynn to be lying.

Flynn pleaded guilty guilty last December to lying to the FBI agents about those conversations with Kislyak.

The redactions in the document seem oddly placed but otherwise, there is nothing remarkable about the content…

Aside from perhaps Flynn’s incredulity at the media attention…

Flynn is set to be sentenced in that federal court on Tuesday.

Of course, as Christina Laila notes, the real crime is that Flynn was unmasked during his phone calls to Kislyak and his calls were illegally leaked by a senior Obama official to the Washington Post.

*  *  *

Full document below…

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Don’t Laugh : It’s Giving Putin What He Wants

The fact of the matter is that humorous lampooning of western establishment Russia narratives writes itself.

Caitlin Johnstone

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Authored by Caitlin Johnstone:


The BBC has published an article titled “How Putin’s Russia turned humour into a weapon” about the Kremlin’s latest addition to its horrifying deadly hybrid warfare arsenal: comedy.

The article is authored by Olga Robinson, whom the BBC, unhindered by any trace of self-awareness, has titled “Senior Journalist (Disinformation)”. Robinson demonstrates the qualifications and acumen which earned her that title by warning the BBC’s audience that the Kremlin has been using humor to dismiss and ridicule accusations that have been leveled against it by western governments, a “form of trolling” that she reports is designed to “deliberately lower the level of discussion”.

“Russia’s move towards using humour to influence its campaigns is a relatively recent phenomenon,” Robinson explains, without speculating as to why Russians might have suddenly begun laughing at their western accusers. She gives no consideration to the possibility that the tightly knit alliance of western nations who suddenly began hysterically shrieking about Russia two years ago have simply gotten much more ridiculous and easier to make fun of during that time.

Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the emergence of a demented media environment wherein everything around the world from French protests to American culture wars to British discontent with the European Union gets blamed on Russia without any facts or evidence. Wherein BBC reporters now correct guests and caution them against voicing skepticism of anti-Russia narratives because the UK is in “an information war” with that nation. Wherein the same cable news Russiagate pundit can claim that both Rex Tillerson’s hiring and his later firing were the result of a Russian conspiracy to benefit the Kremlin. Wherein mainstream outlets can circulate blatantly false information about Julian Assange and unnamed “Russians” and then blame the falseness of that reporting on Russian disinformation. Wherein Pokemon Go, cutesy Facebook memes and $4,700 in Google ads are sincerely cited as methods by which Hillary Clinton’s $1.2 billion presidential campaign was outdone. Wherein conspiracy theories that Putin has infiltrated the highest levels of the US government have been blaring on mainstream headline news for two years with absolutely nothing to show for it to this day.

Nope, the only possibility is that the Kremlin suddenly figured out that humor is a thing.

The fact of the matter is that humorous lampooning of western establishment Russia narratives writes itself. The hypocrisy is so cartoonish, the emotions are so breathlessly over-the-top, the stories so riddled with plot holes and the agendas underlying them so glaringly obvious that they translate very easily into laughs. I myself recently authored a satire piece that a lot of people loved and which got picked up by numerous alternative media outlets, and all I did was write down all the various escalations this administration has made against Russia as though they were commands being given to Trump by Putin. It was extremely easy to write, and it was pretty damn funny if I do say so myself. And it didn’t take any Kremlin rubles or dezinformatsiya from St Petersburg to figure out how to write it.

“Ben Nimmo, an Atlantic Council researcher on Russian disinformation, told the BBC that attempts to create funny memes were part of the strategy as ‘disinformation for the information age’,” the article warns. Nimmo, ironically, is himself intimately involved with the British domestic disinformation firm Integrity Initiative, whose shady government-sponsored psyops against the Labour Party have sparked a national scandal that is likely far from reaching peak intensity.

“Most comedy programmes on Russian state television these days are anodyne affairs which either do not touch on political topics, or direct humour at the Kremlin’s perceived enemies abroad,” Robinson writes, which I found funny since I’d just recently read an excellent essay by Michael Tracey titled “Why has late night swapped laughs for lusting after Mueller?”

“If the late night ‘comedy’ of the Trump era has something resembling a ‘message,’ it’s that large segments of the nation’s liberal TV viewership are nervously tracking every Russia development with a passion that cannot be conducive to mental health – or for that matter, political efficacy,” Tracey writes, documenting numerous examples of the ways late night comedy now has audiences cheering for a US intelligence insider and Bush appointee instead of challenging power-serving media orthodoxies as programs like The Daily Show once did.

If you wanted the opposite of “anodyne affairs”, it would be comedians ridiculing the way all the establishment talking heads are manipulating their audiences into supporting the US intelligence community and FBI insiders. It would be excoriating the media environment in which unfathomably powerful world-dominating government agencies are subject to less scrutiny and criticism than a man trapped in an embassy who published inconvenient facts about those agencies. It certainly wouldn’t be the cast of Saturday Night Live singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You” to a framed portrait if Robert Mueller wearing a Santa hat. It doesn’t get much more anodyne than that.

Russia makes fun of western establishment narratives about it because those narratives are so incredibly easy to make fun of that they are essentially asking for it, and the nerdy way empire loyalists are suddenly crying victim about it is itself more comedy. When Guardian writer Carole Cadwalladr began insinuating that RT covering standard newsworthy people like Julian Assange and Nigel Farage was a conspiracy to “boost” those people for the advancement of Russian agendas instead of a news outlet doing the thing that news reporting is, RT rightly made fun of her for it. Cadwalladr reacted to RT’s mockery with a claim that she was a victim of “attacks”, instead of the recipient of perfectly justified ridicule for circulating an intensely moronic conspiracy theory.

Ah well. People are nuts and we’re hurtling toward a direct confrontation with a nuclear superpower. Sometimes there’s nothing else to do but laugh. As Wavy Gravy said, “Keep your sense of humor, my friend; if you don’t have a sense of humor it just isn’t funny anymore.”

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