Elizaveta Gaufman is Assistant Professor of Russian Discourse and Politics at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. She is the author of "Security Threats and Public Perception: Digital Russia and the Ukraine Crisis"
Aletta Jacobs. Raise your hand if you have never heard her name! In our neck of the tulip fields, however, she is a celebrated professional: she was the first woman to be officially enrolled and graduate with a doctorate at the university in the Netherlands (shoutout to my employer – Rijksuniversiteit Groningen!) and the first woman to receive a medical degree. On top of those accomplishments, she was a women’s suffrage and peace activist, and helped establish Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a Novel prize winning anti-war organization. To celebrate international women’s day, let me tell you her story.
If you are allergic to, let’s say peanuts, you would always carefully check the packaging of the food you buy: does the factory use them? Can there be traces in the sauce? After an unpleasant experience that might have involved a trip to the hospital or an EpiPen, you would want to avoid a repeat performance.
This is almost the exact attitude of the Russian intellectual elite towards even a whiff of critical theory. Imagine growing up with endless rows of Lenin’s works in the book cabinets of your history teacher and being forced through Marxist and Leninist dialectics at university, not to mention scientific atheism or the mantra “religion is the opium of the people”. After Glasnost’ and the abolition of article 6 from the Soviet Constitution on the “guiding and leading” role of the Communist Party, the intellectual pendulum swung right, and it swung hard. All the “bourgeois” and forbidden intellectual currents came back, including some unsavoury kinds: the likes of Dugin brandish their Evola and Guénon, not to mention a Haushofer or Mackinder.
This is a guest post by Emily Holland, an Assistant Professor in the Russia Maritime Studies Institute at the US Naval War College & Hadas Aron, a Faculty Fellow at the Center for European and Mediterranean Studies at NYU.
This week’s violent takeover of the Capitol Building has fueled the ongoing debate on the future of American democracy. For several years analysts have argued that the United States is undergoing the same process of de-democratization as countries like Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. However, the comparison to European populist de-democratization is misleading. The difference between Trump and European counterparts is that the latter do not rely on post-election violence to hold onto power, instead they rig the system long before the election. This week’s events demonstrate what is at stake for American democracy. Unlike in European countries, the elimination of checks and balances is not the main concern. The real danger for the United States is out of control anti-system political violence that brings to a boiling point polarization and racial tensions.
Democratic breakdown or decline in places like Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Israel, and Poland, has inspired theories on how democracies die, comparing the United States to failing democracies around the world. But in these countries, populist insurrection is far more subtle [and effective] than the attempted insurrection on Capitol Hill. Populist leaders have successfully transformed political institutions, concentrated political power, broke down opposition, and dismantled democracy, with little overt violence and often without large-scale election fraud. Trump also attempted these strategies, but mostly failed because of the dispersed power structure of the United States, and his own incompetence.
In the spirit of holiday cheer and Paul Musgrave’s great Foreign Policy piece “The True Meaning of Christmas Movies Is a Cozy American Worldview” as well as our common poli sci curse of “being unable to enjoy anything without analysing it to death”, here is my take on that red and green scourge that clogs your Netflix queue as well as your cable. I have watched a fair amount of those in my day (for research purposes, obvs), but might be missing something, so correct me if I am wrong. I can’t refresh my memory right away, as those movies lack dinosaur subplots and that’s the only type of videos my toddler would let me watch. Jurassic Prince: the Royal Baby, anyone?
You might guess what kind of plots a lot of those holidays movies feature: a hard-working (white) American woman gets swept away by the lukewarm charms of a vaguely European royal from an invariably Romanian castle. He teaches her about cucumber sandwiches, she shows him how to bake Christmas cookies, sticks it to the local stuffy female suitors and they live happily ever after. In other words, as Paul observed, the true meaning of Christmas can be found with the help of “cute but not hot” foreign dude with a received pronunciation accent in a quaint Ruritanian setting. The cuteness but not hotness trope seems to be a deliberate choice, just look what Hallmark did to Sam Heughan, yes, this Sam Heughan:
If you squint your eye, you would probably be unable to distinguish between all those bland, combed over to the left dirty blonds with blue eyes and personalities that usually don’t go beyond the ability to procure a Christmas tree for the hallway. They are hardly prime examples of the real American heroes that protect the country at Christmas in the Nakatomi Plaza.
After all, it is still a cozy fantasy of an American dream, so one should be extra careful with the kind of baubles you decorate your imaginary Christmas tree. You should especially make sure that your foreign Nutcracker is not going to be too threatening to the homegrown ornaments, that you might still want to get back to if those pesky royals don’t let you blog. Yes, you read that right, I argue that those vanilla foreign princes should not be too imposing of a masculinity construct to diminish the appeal of the domestic commoner beaus.
As Paul rightly points out, the key demographic for those Christmas movies are women. Women who just need a reasonably forgettable dude with whom they can take care of the chores around the house. While there is a history of orientalizing, exoticising, and eroticising women for the male gaze, also in the spirit of the (not so cozy) American dream, the female gaze around Christmas seems to need a little fairy-tale respite that would not create unreasonable expectations and upset the balance in the household. That’s why those foreign princes are just cute, but not sizzling hot dishes that would tarnish the image of the cozy American worldview.
And if they do, John McClane will welcome them to the party. Pal.
Sing it with me: It’s the most Putinist time of the year! For the 16th time the Dear Leader addressed the nation and the world from through their TV screens during a carefully choreographed almost 5-hour long annual press conference that could count as a State of the Union Q&A. there were some adjustments to the usual format: the lidded cup was still there, but almost no journalists in the actual room with Putin, his answers were televised from his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo. It’s almost impossible to go through all the press conference and not bore the readers to tears by the ritualised legitimation theatre, so I will concentrate on some of the IR-y stuff.
One of the most anticipated questions were about the bombshell investigation about Navalny’s poisoning that seems to point to a group of FSB operatives who had been tracking him for three years. Never fear: Putin successfully dodged every attempt to even get him to say Navalny’s name on TV and accused him of working for the CIA. Putin did, however, admit that He-who-must-not-be-named was under surveillance, but, apparently, if “we wanted to [poison him], we would have succeeded”, but instead he “let him be treated in a Berlin clinic on the wife request” instead. Interestingly enough, it didn’t even occur to Putin to deny the fact that Navalny was under surveillance or the fact that his security services are allowed to commit extrajudicial killings.
What about Putin’s old friend Trump? I am not sure that any American Late Show missed the opportunity to report Putin’s telegram to President-Elect Biden where Putin is looking forward to “interactions and contacts”, but Trump, in fact, was barely mentioned during the press conference. Putin did assure that Trump has become an integral part of American political life and given that “50% of the population support him” there was no reason for him to seek asylum in Russia like Edward Snowden. The usual anti-Westernism, however, was on full display: Putin berated the NATO for expanding eastwards despite their promise not to, accused the UK for flying spy planes and, of course, accused the American State Department for vengefully leaking financial documents that alleged that his (ex?) son-in-law bought some company shares for a hundred bucks, instead of paying the market 380 million. Or, as Putin phrased it, “we are white and fluffy compared to you”, “prickly and aggressive types”.
Putin also did not miss the chance to scold the “failure of the multiculturalism project” in Europe in relation to Samuel Paty’s murder in Paris. After implicitly praising the law that “protects religious feelings” in Russia (yes, the one that got Pussy Riot a 2-year sentence for asking the Mother of God to chase Putin away), he condemned murder as a response to those wounded feelings. He praised the multi confessional legacy that Russia inherited, because “there was no religious repression. In the Soviet Union, [all] priests were persecuted, but not selectively”. Yes, absolutely, all religious leaders were indiscriminately persecuted, especially the current Patriarch, who was posted to Geneva in 1971 as the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the World Council of Churches. smh.
In any case, to quote an Icelandic (!) journalist, it’s just some mass media that don’t like Russia and there is a war against Putin. Other countries are in a much worse shape because of the pandemic compared to Russia. An obligatory reminder from Putin about the real bad 90s so you would see how good you have it these days, here’s some extra cash ($60) for your children and happy holidays.
This is guest post from Philipp Schulz, a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen. His work focuses on the gender dynamics of political violence, armed conflict and post-conflict transitions, with a focus on wartime sexual violence.
On the one hand, these difficulties certainly have to do with what is going on around us. As I try to write these reflections in mid-December, we are recording over 500,000 new Covid-19 infections as well as over 10,000 new Corona-related deaths per day around the world. As much as I try, it is almost impossible to get the pictures from April of military trucks transporting hundreds of dead bodies from the hospitals in Italy out of my head. Being constantly confronted with these realities – which are also becoming increasingly real and personal – and the violences, insecurities and vulnerabilities that accompany all of this makes it incredibly difficult to engage with stories of violence as part of the research I conduct. In many ways, our lives become consumed by pretty much anything else but violence, death, and insecurities. This, I think, will certainly have impacts on our mental well-being, much more than doing this type of work already does.
A couple of years ago, I conducted a Gary Steyngart-esque experiment and watched Russian TV for a day, to find out in what kind of information bubble a regular Russian person lives. This year, I can’t use the remote because I bit all my nails during the American election week, but also the borders are closed, so both Russia and a Russian TV are beyond my reach. Never fear, I fired up Ye olde Tube to see what’s happening with the American elections in the Russian media.
Let’s flip to one of the most odious guys on Channel Two – Dimitry Kiselyov, aka “let’s burn gays’ hearts”. His Sunday evening program’s segment on the American elections was called ominously “Pulp Fiction” (like the Tarantino movie). Kiselyov accused the American elections right off the bat to have a criminal feel to them, where “the majority of mail-in ballots are miraculously for Biden”. According to Kiselyov, Trump was winning in 48 states on election day, but then suddenly was missing just a couple of thousands of votes to win. Mail-in voting can “allow fraud”: “dead souls” registered to vote and over 100% voting registration. Kiselyov continued to lie that it’s possible to come and vote without an ID and vote twice, and some precincts use “voting machines where you just press a button and it’s impossible to tally the votes at all”. Kiselyov’s main evidence (apart from the right-wing “judicial watch”) is Trump’s own statements and the fact that social media started marking his tweets and posts as potential misinformation. Kiselyov was particularly incensed that major news networks “shut his mouth” when Trump tried to claim victory during his address in the briefing room.
Black Lives Matter has spearheaded a massive reckoning of race relations in the US and around the world, but not so much in Russia. The discipline of IR may have started a bit earlier than this year’s protests: there have been a number of interventions that have brought the issue of race to the forefront of teaching and research – even though it should have always been there at least since DuBois. Not everyone is happy though: right-wing media cry “cancel culture” and debates on the merits of critical approaches somehow make national news.
Russian mainstream IR community has been slow in embracing this problematique – even though Russian IR itself has been often considered as one of the examples of non-Western IR. A recent piece in “Russia in Global Affairs” by Dr. Alexander Lukin seems to make a point similar to a lot of critical scholars and scholars from the Global South: “It is necessary to correct the West-centric bias … by gradually introducing more information about the non-Western world into the teaching of history and international relations”. Fair point? Yes, absolutely. Alexander Lukin argues further that “a new all-encompassing totalitarian theory is approaching us, according to which all social and historical phenomena will need to be analyzed from a “racial” point of view, just as the Marxists analyzed them from the point of view of the “class struggle.””. How do you like them apples?
This past weekend, two European capitals witnessed large-scale protests. Both of them protested against the government, both carried the flags that once symbolized their state, in both cases the police was involved, and during one of them the crowd was chanting “Putin! Putin!”. If you think the latter happened in Minsk you are sadly mistaken: the crowd in Belarus is much more creative than the Neo-Nazi conspiracy theorists in Berlin.
While Putin is not going to save the Berlin protesters from wearing a mask on the train, he can still play a role in the Belarus protests, at least Lukashenka thinks so: they already spoke 5 times on the phone and right now the de facto president of Belarus seems to be on the way to Moscow. Why does Putin care? For the same reason that he cared about the Orange Revolution and Maidan in Ukraine. For once, he is afraid that might happen to him. And secondly, as Alexander Baunov notes, Russian politics suffers from geopolitization of any domestic political action. That means that elections are not about an internal transfer of power, not about feedback between the population and the government, but an act of foreign policy defense, and their results should be treated accordingly. The same applies to freedom of assembly, press, doping investigations, Eurovision, movies, monuments, you name it.
On top of it, 20 years of Putin have significantly eroded public faith in organic protest. For the past four Putins and 1 Medvedev all Russians heard on TV was the same conspiratorial regime change narrative. Orange Revolution – it’s the West! Georgian revolution – it’s the West! Arab spring – it’s the West! Maidan – it’s the West! According to Levada, 39% of Russians are sure that the mass protests were provoked by “foreign forces” and almost 50% believe the elections in Belarus were mostly fair. Yes, those elections where you had polling workers climbing out the windows with the protocols so the observers don’t catch them falsifying.
The protesters in Belarus, unlike those in Berlin, hope that Russia does not interfere, because by the looks of it, Putin can only be on the one side, and it is not the side that is being tortured in Okrestina police station. Really, the Berlin protestors could really learn a thing or two about governmental oppression from the brave people in Belarus. Russians have also been protesting electoral fraud for years now, but it seems that Putin and his cronies either sincerely believe that every single precinct in a city can have exactly the same numbers or they don’t care that the results are cooked. Luckily, citizens of Belarus care and hopefully, they manage to send their dictator into a long overdue retirement.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times indeed.
In an attempt to distract myself from the thought that today my small university town will be overrun by 900 frat boys who went to Northern Italy on a skiing vacation despite the Dutch government’s warning, let’s discuss something that might have gone under the radar – future changes to the Russian Constitution.
Amid a global pandemic what could be better than voting in a Referendum? Only voting for a President, amirite? But let’s start from the beginning. Mid-January Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly announced that the Russian Constitution might need some freshening up. Needless to say, the announcement came as unexpected as Putin’s previous hints that he will leave his post after his current term.
This is a guest post by Philipp Schulz, who is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen. Philipp’s research focuses on the gender dynamics of armed conflicts, with a particular focus on masculinities and wartime sexual violence. His book ‘Male Survivors of Wartime Sexual Violence – Perspectives from northern Uganda’ is forthcoming with University of California Press.
Academic competitiveness and pettiness is alive and real. From expediting demands of the competitive academic job market, disrespectful peer review comments, to micro-aggressions and open hostilities at conferences – in particular to early career, women and/or people of colour scholars – there seem to be countless examples for an acute absence of kindness and empathy in the academy. Probably most of us, although to varying degrees, have been confronted with the unkind aspects of academic environments. In many ways, of course, these problems are embedded in wider structural problems of racism and sexism within the academy at large.
Fortunately, there seems to be increasing (albeit slow) recognition of the toxic practices of academic work cultures. As an early career researcher, I am particularly excited about some of the kindness that many of my peers are extending and the horizontal generosity that is beginning to spread across conferences, workshops and social media. Yet, I do believe that the (sub-)field of feminist international relations is particularly unique in that way, perhaps not unrelated to some of the disciplinary sanctioning and marginalizing that the field still experiences in the discipline more widely.
On an ice-cold winter evening I arrived in Moscow to untangle the riddle that is Russia. After reading two op-eds by Anne Applebaum and Bill Browder I knew what this country was about but I just wanted to see it for myself. The eyes of the border control guards reflected the thousand years of Russia’s repressive regime. I was half-expecting the KGB to arrest me there and then because four years ago I posted on Facebook that I didn’t like Vlad, but they let me through. My Moscow adventure had begun.
The shadow of Stalin still looms large over this sprawling city. As soon as you approach the Kremlin you can see his doppelgängers entertaining tourists that shows the profound admiration Russians have for this tyrant. The beautiful Christmas lights mask the darkness that lurks in the hearts of the people that have no hope for the future or French cheese. While checking into my Ritz-Carlton room I couldn’t help but wonder, is the master of the Kremlin checking in on me too?
I didn’t find a Pizza Hut on the Red Square and realized that capitalism has failed here. Russian economy has not really become free after all. Gorbachev brought opportunity to this country, but instead they settled for Lenin’s mausoleum where you can still smell the rotting corpse of Bolshevism. After a decadent dinner in Doktor Zhivago restaurant, I could see that Russians are still trapped in the past, longing to resurrect their Soviet legacy, unable to open themselves up to new experiences (they do accept Apple Pay though).
On my way to the Bolshoi theatre I got lost and a young lady directed me in English. Her surprisingly not blue eyes and not blond hair, as well as passable language skills will stay in my memory forever as a glimmer of hope that still flickers in this country of slaves. Pogrom, kompromat, troika, kalinka, babushka, gulag, vodka. If you know these words, you will see right through the mysterious Russian soul as did I, after a day and a half stay in a five star hotel in Moscow city center.
On my ride back to the airport, I realized that the East will never understand the West. Our values of the Enlightenment, human rights, liberty and democracy are lost on these people who don’t speak much English. They will never comprehend what it’s like to live in a free country and speak a language that doesn’t have 6 cases and 7 declensions.
Russia is no longer an enigma for me. I riddled me this.
What kind of questions do you usually expect from a Town Hall meeting in the US? Healthcare? Climate change? Pensions? Schools? Roads? You would be surprised, but these are also the kind of questions journalists asked President Putin last Thursday at his annual presser (his 15th one, no less). Apart from the recurrent theme of the Great Patriotic War, it was your run of the mill, banal Q & A session; just instead of concerned citizens you have a room full of 1895 journalists from Russia and abroad with varying level of sanity and servility.
The range was big to say the least: from icon-waving crackpots and terrified young reporters reading out encomiums about Putin’s involvement into youth programs to BBC correspondents asking about his daughters’ business ventures or about Boris Johnson’s comparing Putin to Dobbie the Elf from Harry Potter. The ones playing annual Putin bingo probably got everything down during the over 4-hour exercise in democracy and transparency: a bunch of mostly correct statistics, a traditional jab at the US, a signature lidded cup with (allegedly) tea, record numbers in agriculture, a snarky exchange with a Ukrainian journalist, as well as a couple of lessons in history.
This is a guest post from Dr. Sybille Reinke de Buitrago, who is a Researcher and Project Manager of “VIDEOSTAR – Video-based Strategies Against Radicalization” at PolAk Nds, the Academy of Police Science and Criminology, Germany. Her research focuses on processes of identity, perception, emotions and discourse in security policy and international relations.
With the multitude of ‘stuff’ anyone can say online, why does it matter what someone says? It depends. When it comes to extremists posting content, we should be concerned, because spreading hatred online can incite actual violence. Radicalization narratives online then do matter. In the face of enormous challenges regarding digital communication, societal cohesion and political stability, we need to understand such narratives, and we need effective ways of countering them.
Radicalization is a multidimensional process involving actors, ideas, political aims, means, and an audience. For extremists, social media has become a key tool to convey their ideas and ideologies, but also to recruit followers and to mobilize. Of course, offline contact remains important, but initial contact often comes online, and can be deepened there. Extremists want to create interest and attention; they offer strategic narratives that exploit tensions in society. Picking at those issues that are problematic, they target people who feel disillusioned or alienated from society. They also aim at emotions. They heavily color their claims and demands emotionally, utilizing emotional and identity needs we all have. The emotional framing does not only create interest, it also matters because the emotionalization of Self and Other – of ingroup and outgroup – is a tool to create dichotomy and antagonism between groups.
How do extremists talk in social media?
An analysis of current radicalization narratives in YouTube focusing on Germany and Europe (Project VIDEOSTAR – Video-based Strategies against Radicalization) sheds some light on this question. The insights point to how extremists attempt to create division, antagonism, and feelings of threat. Islamist narratives tend to portray Europe and the West at large as negative and threatening places for Muslims. They frame the West as bad place to live in for ‘true’ Muslims and as threat to the Muslim community as a whole. The claim is that Muslims cannot be ‘true’ Muslims in the West.
Islamist narratives heavily criticize Western media, and they portray state institutions as working to weaken a Muslim way of life. Narratives purposefully exploit discrimination experiences of Muslims, aiming to polarize and create antagonism. Such narratives reject any Western identity, and offer and appeal instead to a separate Muslim identity. Even topics of daily concern of young people are exploited, such as difficulties in school or with parents. For complex problems and for any issue of contention in society, Islamists offer as solution a simplified version of what they call the ‘true’ way of life for any Muslim. Linked is the call on all Muslims to defend their Muslim ‘rights’, community, and religion – according to the particular Islamist group’s narrative.
Right-wing extremist/populist narratives, on the other side, focus on the claimed threat coming from refugees and migrants, and migration overall. Narratives portray refugees and migrants as threat to Europe, its culture, democracy and the Western way of life. An ‘Islamization’ of Europe is said to occur, with the Orient endangering the Occident. The framing is that this ‘Islamization’ threatens the European home and their populations, as well as liberal societies and values. ‘Native’ populations in Europe will supposedly soon feel as strangers in their own land. Narratives claim, for example, that in the case of Germany the German state is already catering to the needs of Muslims and other migrants more than to those of the native population.
Another key theme of right-wing extremists/populists is the claimed threat for European women coming from Muslim men. By exaggerating instances of sexual violence by Muslim men in number and intensity, they aim to create fear and outrage, as well as mobilization for their ideas. Narratives also strongly criticize media and the state. All critical voices are subsumed under the so-called mainstream media that collude with state institutions. The state is blamed for the ‘chaos’ during the refugee crisis, for ‘out of control’-migration, and for not protecting Europeans. For example, due to its migration policy the German government is held responsible for the claimed new threat to German women. Narratives then call on German women to defend themselves. Not only migrants but also the state ‘become’ the enemy.
Thus, both Islamist and right-wing extremist/populist narratives heavily rely on the creation and use of dichotomies, and on manipulation to create fear. The focus on dichotomies is problematic. The absolute rejection of an identity that is more diverse or open, and the appeal to a more closed and homogeneous identity serve polarization and division. Whereas Islamist narratives call upon all Muslims to join an expanding Muslim community apart from mainstream society, right-wing narratives offer both nostalgic and modern versions of a homogeneous home closed to other influences. When narratives utilize dichotomies to spread fear and hatred, they can foster actual violence – as observable in recent events across Europe.
How can we counter extremist narratives?
We are still learning about how we may effectively counter extremist narratives. Furthermore, the actual effectiveness of counternarratives is hard to measure. The insights above, however, point to some ways forward. There is clearly a need to deconstruct extremists’ interpretations. We need to deconstruct their claims, conclusions, and calls for action. Since extremists try to sow division in societies, policymakers and society must answer with a transparent and sober discussion of existing problems, and authentic solutions. False truth claims must be uncovered, interpretations of an issue from apparently logical responses disentangled, and the misuse of emotional and identity appeals illustrated.
Furthermore, it is significant that counternarratives address audiences on an emotional level. Whereas extremists try to build fear, counternarratives can work with positive emotions and offer an empowering reading of existing challenges. Research also shows that positive messages that are for rather than against something get a better reception among young people. We then need counternarratives within a liberal, democratic frame that speak to young people and that strengthen their sense of capacity and passion about issues.
Strengthening social media competence is a related area for action, as it would strengthen resilience against manipulation attempts. Social media users should be aware of how algorithms work, of the impact of their viewing behavior, and what an echo chamber is. User should be able to reflect when a discussion becomes limited and extreme, and how content is made to evoke emotions. Efforts to foster reflection and debate are also significant for pluralism and diversity. When discussing issues on social media, users should also check with how their friends in the offline space see those issues. Greater social media competence is not only significant vis-à-vis online extremism, but also for how we can address the challenges of social media and the transformations in public and political communication.
Thus, in countering extremists’ messages and objectives, we can and should work with positive messages in order to foster engagement and participation in the solving of problems. Such efforts, when including all of society, can go some way against extremism. Efforts should also include active engagement of and discussions with young people themselves about what is important for them; this may be done in schools, for example. Mixed approaches of online and offline efforts that include all areas of society would seem to best foster tolerance and cohesion.
Warning! According to the law that the Russian parliament passed yesterday, this post might need to be prefaced with a disclaimer that the following text has been compiled by a foreign agent. An individual can be labeled as a “foreign agent” in Russia if they (1) distribute information, and (2) receive funds from sources outside Russia. I am ticking both boxes here, even as an academic working at a university, and the law intentionally left the “information spreading” extremely broad: you can literally post something on social media. It would be up for the Justice Ministry and the Foreign Ministry to decide who receives a “foreign agent” label. A specific procedure is yet to be established, but if an individual is deemed a foreign agent, they will have to create their own legally registered organization within a month in order to interact as a foreign agent with the Russian government.
This iteration of the law comes as a sequel to the ‘amendments to the law on non-commercial organizations’ of 2012 that obliged Russian organizations to register as ‘foreign agents’ in case they were involved in ‘political activity’ (even through funding) and received funding from abroad. It has affected by now a large number of my colleagues, including the Sova Center for the Monitoring of Xenophobia that was forced to pay a large fine. As one of the defenders of the law stated on prime-time television and in line with the usual liberal anti-American narrative and a conspiracy theme:
The purpose of the law is to reduce the influence of foreign countries on the policy. Thus, our law is much softer than the one in the US […]. And at the same time if you engage in politics, that means fighting for power, you must inform the Russian citizens. Those who oppose this law, do this for two reasons: the first – or they want to seize power in Russia in the interests of foreign states and against the interests of Russia, and the second – they get Western money and want to steal it.
Duma Member Sergey Markov
The law on foreign agents was passed in the same session with more restrictive legislation on public rallies undoubtedly taking the cue from Vladimir Putin who remarked during his Direct Line in December 2011 that he was sure that some of the people went to the protest ‘in a foreign country’s interest and for a foreign country’s money’. The notorious usage of the singular as opposed to the plural was telling – the country in question was not named, but it was clear for the audience that he was talking about the only country that could afford financing a protest in Russia, the USA.
Pervyi Kanal, Russian state TV, responded to the Direct Line with lightning speed and three days later on Sunday prime time news there was a segment on ‘the history and spread of coloured revolutions’, where it was stated that there is a special American think tank that is active in countries where the US ‘is interested in changing the regime’. One of the Pervyi Kanal’s experts emphasized that ‘there are many symbols and concepts, but the aim and the sponsor is the same – the USA’ (Pervyi Kanal, 18 December 2011). Thus, the Soviet frame about American dollars buying instability and wars was time and again re-articulated both by state officials and TV personalities.
Why pass this new foreign agent law now, one might ask? After all, who doesn’t like that goofball Donald and who is afraid of that barely competent State Department that can’t even fact check a TIME magazine cover? According to a Russian MP, it’s because of Maria Butina’s case:
Very recently, Maria Butina returned to Russia. She was sentenced to a year and a half under a similar law that’s in place within the United States of America because she failed to register as an individual ‘foreign agent.’ […] We’re talking about protection from direct foreign influence on the media market […]. Unfortunately, political forces in our country use tactics like these quite often in order to bring often unreliable and compromised facts forward for discussion.
Duma’s Vice Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy (United Russia party)
For starters, of course the American law is not that similar. Individual foreign agents in the US are supposed to be taking action in the interest of a foreign government or lobbying politicians. You know, like the convicted Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort. But lobbying effort is completely absent from the Russian law. While Butina was portrayed as another victim of “deep state” elite battles that ravage the American establishment, with the impeachment hearings kicking into high gear, who knows who will be the next President in the US and what kind of cookies the next State Department is going to distribute in Russia? In the meantime, “sovereign internet” is coming along and the laws are ready.
You never know when IR is going to bite you in the ass. One minute you are reading a children’s nursery rhyme and the other you realize that the spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry Ms. Zakharova read it too, but decided to use it in foreign policy discourse. The rhyme in question is by a Soviet children’s writer Samuel Marshak, a Soviet Dr. Seuss, if you will:
stand too close to me
tiger, not a pussy
Yes, pussy has the same Russian translation and it has both meanings, the one that Marshak used back in the day denoted just a cat, but Ms. Zakharova built a whole Facebook post around the double entendre. The photograph above featured Ms. Zakharova in boxing gloves and the headline read “Don’t you stand too close to me, I’m a boxer, not only pussy”. The comments to the post ranged between “yes, show those stupid Americans what we are made out of” to pearl-clutching about the use of the word “pussy” to questions whether Ms. Zakharova would attend the protests in Moscow “with the people”. Just so you know, she was planning to stay at home “with the people”.
It’s not the first time that Ms. Zakharova posted something controversial. As a woman in a very male dominated profession (at least, in Russia), her posts and statements often feature metaphors that are not always deemed becoming of a diplomatic protocol – at least not something that I was taught to be appropriate at the same university Ms. Zakharova attended. Back in the day, professors at Moscow State Institute for International Relations (happy birthday, alma mater!), the Soviet and Russian diplomatic talent hotbed, would praise the eloquence and adherence to etiquette of the Russian civil servant upper class. Boys would be sent back home if they were not clean-shaven or didn’t wear a tie and a suit for some classes. And girls… well, we were told at the chair for diplomacy that future ambassadors need educated wives so why the hell not let women study here.
Enter Ms. Zakharova, one of the most high-ranking female diplomats in the Russian Foreign Ministry. She is obviously good at her job of “showing the Americans what we are made out of” and she can dance a fire “Kalinka” away. She is quick on her feet rebutting foreign press at Foreign Ministry Press briefings and has a killer emoji game on social media. Her whataboutist rhetoric is perfection and she can offer it in multiple languages, including Chinese. So, what if Ms. Zakharova talks about meetings that never happened and dabbles in anti-Semitism? In this day and age, who doesn’t?
Between the burning Amazon and burning Siberia, Brexit clustercoitus and Hurricane Dorian, there is still some space in the tired news cycle for the tear gas in Hong Kong and broken limbs in Moscow protests. Elections to the local parliament in Moscow have proved unexpectedly difficult for the ruling vertical: by refusing to register oppositional candidates for made-up reasons, the election committee and the Mayor’s office drastically underestimated mobilisation capabilities of the opposition. Result: over a month and a half of “unsanctioned” protests in the city center, police brutality, several high-profile arrests and mass prosecution of random bystanders who happened to be in the melee.
The protests in Moscow are a very local thing, but they are also indicative of a growing dissatisfaction among the Russian population that has manifested in region-specific unsanctioned protests that usually start with seemingly unpolitical issues: landfills in Arkhangelsk and Moscow region, a mall fire in Kemerovo, church construction in Yekaterinburg. Unlike the 2011-2012 protest wave that spread all over Russia, or the more recent pension reform outcry or anti-corruption rally against Prime-Minister Medvedev in 2017, these protests are about several oppositional candidates to the local Moscow parliament – a body with relatively little clout. Moscow electoral committee consistently refused to register oppositional candidates citing allegedly falsified citizen signatures, while the ensued brutal crackdown of the protests only added fuel to the fire.
Live footage of violent arrests, an absolute insane number of police forces and National Guard that most likely outnumbered the protesters in spades, repressive measures by the universities (!) whose students were arrested for the rally organization, did not make Moscow or Russia look good. Moreover, there is an important difference between Hong Kong and Moscow: Russian protesters are consciously trying not to block public transportation routes and the work of governmental buildings or shops, so the accusation of “mass riots” and property damage that is supposed to justify the “yellow vest” level of police brutality is especially galling.
What do Russian media cry? They cry wolf. I mean, West. For starters, the American Embassy allegedly published the protesters’ route and thus was involved in the organization of the rally. The provocateurs obviously strived for a “brutal and striking image” for domestic audience and for the politicians in the West. And most protesters are “not registered in Moscow” anyway, “were educated in the American young leader program” and were “controlled by their curators in social media”, “many from Ukraine” in order to organize a “Maidan” in Russia. Also, didn’t you know that you have similar protest legislation in Sweden and the UK?!
The problem with this narrative is that it is quickly falling apart. Some arrested protesters were let go. Some independent candidates got registered. Even some of Putin’s allies are saying that not letting real opposition run in the Moscow election is dangerous, which probably means that the cliques in Putin’s circle haven’t agreed on one course of action in the face of growing popular discontent. There are no burnt cars or smashed shop windows, but there are distraught parents of arrested students standing in one-person pickets in front of the Mayor’s Office. And that’s one brutal and striking image.
Ah, the sweet time your baby becomes a toddler and maybe lets you sleep for more than 5 hours a night. Your teaching is sort of kind of on track, your scant article submissions get a steady number of rejections so why not try to venture back into the world of academic conferencing? Something not too far away and not too expensive, because as a parent you are too responsible to spend your hard-earned money on conference fees and hotel “discount rates”. So, you dust off your formal clothing (all carefully selected in accordance with the misogynist ideals of appropriate female academic attire) and click with a trembling finger on the “submit” button for your abstract. Lo and behold, the program chair deemed the submission passable, so you double check with partner, in-laws and daycare and soon fly towards your first time away from the baby for more than 9 hours.
When you have babies no one really tells you that you might have separation anxiety as well. So, you are grateful to the technological progress that allows you to obsessively watch your baby sleep on a monitor or even get him to smile to you on FaceTime for a second because their attention span hasn’t evolved beyond half a minute. You revel in discussions on post-structuralism and post-positivism, delight in the opportunity to discuss that latest methodological article that you managed to read at 3 am, and enjoy not carrying a single wet wipe in your bag. In a whirlwind of presentations and round tables you see your friends whom you haven’t seen since your last conference two years ago (because that’s how you see people), but no late-night cocktails – you cherish your opportunity to actually sleep through the night for the first time in a year and a half too much.
After abysmal (not the Joey kind) anxiety over your child you start to choose the conferencing opportunities careful:
Do I need a visa? Because an extra trip to the consulate can make it or break the desire to enjoy “more of a comment than a question”.
How far away is it? I bet Honolulu is nice, but travelling for almost 24 hours adds extra away days that your partner may not be able to do without you.
Can you or your department afford it? These days you can’t shamefully justify the out of pocket expenses for a conference as “investments into your career”. Nope, your mommy brain does not buy it anymore and would rather put it away into the baby college fund.
How helpful is this conference for your career and how much of a guilt trip on top of the conference trip the escapade will involve? I don’t know whether it’s the same for all moms, but pretty much every activity is weighed against “I could be spending this time with my child and instead I am doing this” scale.
Another option is, of course, taking the baby with you. But as I learned the hard way, most toddlers can’t sit still for more than 10 min and most academic presentations last longer than that. Usually only the bigger conferences offer on-site daycare (thanks, ISA!), but given (1) they require a visa and (2) that they are far away and most often (3) very expensive, there is no way I would go there in the foreseeable future. Thus, it’s really hard to get back to jet-setting times of pre-baby.
But let’s finish on a brighter note. Thank you, people who live-tweet the panels and snap photos of the slides! I love you all very much and I will see you back in 2 to 3 years!
This is a guest post by Linda Monsees who works as a Post-Doctoral Researcher at Goethe University Frankfurt and is the author of Crypto-Politics.
After wars on drugs, Christmas and everything in between, it seems that we people tend to call everything a war – everything despite a real war. But really, we are now in a ‘war on truth’? Politicians, companies, and countries start disinformation campaigns and lots of stories are shared that do not qualify as journalism. And this spread of fake news got us in a ‘war’? I get it, we are still in the process of overcoming the shocks of certain elections that did not end the way many of us would have liked. Combine this shock with a natural technology-angst and this thing called fake news becomes a real threat.
But isn’t the task of a social scientist to take some distance, anaylse, explain and – dare I say? – even give guidance? So what about the ancient wisdom of ‘Don’t Panic’? I get the feeling that much of the academic debate reproduces assumptions about the impact on fake news rather than investigating them. A closer look at empirical research shows that the impact of fake news isn’t that big – fake news do not really seem to change people’s voting behaviour. And well, do I need to tell you that spreading false information for political or economic gains isn’t such a new phenomenon either? If you think about it, fake news are a form of propaganda. Of course, networked technology makes it possible that these news items spread faster than ever before. I am not denying that fake news are a thing, the public discourse might just overrate its impact. So, fake news are widely shared and it certainly shapes current political debates – but maybe not in the way most people think?
Research on fake news has shown that people really do not seem to care too much about the veracity of the stories that they share. In the UK, more than a third of people sharing news admit sharing inaccurate or false news, an insight corobroated by other sociological research. While it surely is a problem when people (and I include myself here) cannot distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news, people seem also be fine with sharing non-true stories. Acknowledging these insights then also means that ‘media literacy’ is not really a solution to the problem. danah boyd actually made this argument in a much nicer way, so check out her article over here. Focusing on media literacy does not acknowledge the underlying political and social problems that might be the source for the spread of fake news. Media literacy is considered to be the right tool to educate people about which kind of news they need to read. But this focus on education makes the problem of fake news one of young and uneducated people. According to this view, media literacy will help people who cannot distinguish between fake and non-fake news to become more educated. Fake news is thus only a problem of ‘them’ – the young and uneducated. The underlying political economy, the importance of clickbait and legitimate political protest are covered up by such a focus on media literacy.
Fake news, post-truth, disinformation will probably just become part of our political vocabulary. This reflects changes in technology and the media culture and even though we feel uncomfortable about this we should maybe listen more to people who have actually done empirical research on this rather than repeating panicked judgements.
A recent IR Twitter flare-up occurred on a seemingly innocuous topic illustrated by the flow-chart above: what should I call my professor? A PSA from Prof. Megan L. Cook recommended students to address their professors as Professors or Dr., avoiding references to their marital status or first names. Prof. Raul Pacheco-Vega tweeted the following:
I also delete every email that first-persons me on a first email. Them’s the rules. You can decide how you want to be addressed, but I’m the one who decides how *I* want to be addressed.
Dr. Jenny Thatcher and several others disagreed, pointing out that taking offence at an “improper” address is elitist, disrupts collegiality and can potentially push out first-gen scholars or people from backgrounds that do not share the same culture of academic etiquette. For that intervention, Dr. Thatcher endured insults, digs at dyslexia, and threats of getting reported to the police by random Tweeps.