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Press Review August 23, 2001
Time Didn't Tell
By Matt Taibbi Browse author
Hacks agree: The Coup Happened

Nothing brings out the pseudo-intellectual in a mainstream journalist like a retrospective. A giant commemorative news story like the recent passing of the 10th anniversary of the August coup offers the average hack a rare chance to put on his tweed elbow patches and, pipe in hand, wax poetic about the Great Meaning of Things. It is an amazing thing to watch.

You can always tell an inexperienced pipe smoker at first glance. A man who smokes a pipe regularly goes through a thousand elegant rituals before he brings his pipe to his lips, and he never chokes on his smoke. A teenager who sneaks into his Dad's study to raid his Borkum Riff stash, on the other hand, will hurriedly gag on the first puff, his eyes will water, and he will be seized with the uncontrollable cough of an emphysema patient. Sometimes, he will even throw up.

It's the same with these journalists. They are not really essayists or thinkers in any real sense. Their jobs most crucially involve the mere recording of facts. So when they sit down to put their thinking caps on, they almost always forget the first rule of analysis, which is this: TELL US SOMETHING WE DON'T ALREADY KNOW.

I've spent an enormous amount of time in the last few days reading the waves of coup retrospectives put out in the major Western papers. I've been able to discern three major themes present in almost all of these articles. They are:

1) Ten years after the coup, Russians take a lot of vacations;

2) Defying the expectation that the entire country would be of one monolithic opinion about its past, Russians, in fact, have mixed feelings about the many changes that have occurred here in the last ten years;

3) Mikhail Gorbachev must be offering free mochaccino and complimentary Ikea napkin-holders at his press conferences.

The latter conclusion I drew after observing, with surprise, the vast number of "Ten Years Later, Mikhail Gorbachev Experiences a Revival" stories that came out in Western papers. This phenomenon confirmed a longstanding suspicion that there are more than just three dimensions, and that an alternate universe must exist all around us at all times. That universe must be where all of the "Ten Years Later, No One Gives a Shit About Gorbachev" stories are being published, because I sure haven't seen them on this planet.

Since the 1998 crisis, it has been more or less impossible for foreign journalists to argue that Russia's experiment with democracy has been an unqualified success. There was simply too much material out there passionately arguing the contrary point of view. In some cases the arguments even came from Westerners, from academics like Janine Wedel and Stephen Cohen and Murray Feschback, among others, and also from us here at the eXile and assorted other malcontents. After 1998 it became acceptable-and fashionable-for mainstream Western reporters to focus on themes like Russian corruption (symbolized by the Bank of New York scandal, which was fairly heavily covered, and by the FIMACO business), the growing demographic disaster, and the rise of "dangerous nationalism" in the country, both at the grass-roots level and in government, expressed most dishearteningly in Russia's absolutely logical opposition to the Kosovo bombing.

In other words, when Russia's problems suddenly became our problems -- when instability led to a default on Western loans, when corruption smeared the name of a major American bank, when political defiance led to a fractured coalition that spoiled the mood of one of our insane military adventures -- Russia's problems suddenly became fair game for public discussion.

The result was a Moscow-based press corps whose mission was increasingly schizophrenic. On the one hand, it remained boosterish and bullish about Russia's developing market economy, and continued to hammer home the encouraging themes of a "nascent middle class", the hope for political and economic "reform", and the benefits to Russia of cooperation with the U.S. and the international lending institutions.

On the other hand, the press corps was now also engaged in the examination of bad news, and for an acceptable source of blame for the "bad" results that had sullied Russia's democratic experiment. Outgoing oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky were pilloried in the press as having been the root of all gangland evil during the Yeltsin years, and the ones who remained -- like Roman Abramovich, Vladi-mir Potanin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- were recast as lucky survivors who were being forced to change their ways under the new take-no-shit Pinochet-style government of Vladimir Putin.

It became acceptable to talk about the vast material difference between life in Moscow and life in the regions, but the subject was never treated either thoughtfully or with any sense of outrage -- the tone of the reports was always a wistful, "What a shame!" kind of approach. The demographic problems also became a popular theme, but while the facts were laid out openly enough, many of the underlying causes, like the collapse of the state health care system, the erosion of social guarantees, and the general existential despair brought on by life in a country devoid of meaningful national ideology, were never really explored.

In other words, the reporters went after what little good news there was like junkyard dogs. The bad news they went after on tiptoe, blind and with their arms extended in front of them, like kids playing pin the tail on the page 5 donkey.

All of which resulted in the insanity of these Coup retrospectives, in which the popularity of the Moscow Ikea store and the rise in the number of charter flights to Cyprus was balanced, with equal attention, against the abject misery and violence of life almost anywhere outside the Moscow ring road.

In some cases, the reporters went beyond insanity. The worst of the worst was Andrew Jack of the Financial Times. His August 20 piece about the state of the nation was entitled, "Fast cars, fancy food: Muscovites let good times roll." In it, he argues quite seriously that increased spending in luxury items is evidence that Russia, unlike the rest of the world, is "booming":

The unexpected appetite for the luxury cars -- which have a minimum price-tag of $70,000 in Moscow -- is only one sign among many that while much of the world goes into a downturn, Russia's economy is still booming.

Jack, whose name is a cheese, then goes on to bolster his argument with one of the most ridiculous passages I've ever seen in a major newspaper -- citing the presence of an overpriced restaurant whose interior is decorated to look like a piece of cheese as further evidence of the boom:

After sitting empty and half-renovated for three years on the city's inner ring-road, Cheese opened at the start of the summer. Its Italian chef offers pizzas for a minimum of Rbs400 ($13.60), but its parking lots are filled with the latest Mercedes models.

Russia must really be doing well if a place that sells pizzas for a minimum of $13.60 can exist in the very center of the capital. For what it's worth, the cheapest pizza at Jack's -- the pizza delivery service that's been in town since the beginning of the decade -- goes for $17.95.

A great many reporters, in their coup retrospectives, opted for the "Africa at a crossroads, facing tough choices" approach. In this type of article, the reporter interviews two Russians who have had opposite experiences since the coup and whose opinions about the democratic experiment vary accordingly. Chief among these were the Washington Post's Susan Glasser, who wrote the Aug. 19 "10 Years On, Gulf Within a Family Reflects Nation's Divide", and Maura Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times, who actually used the word "Crossroads" in the headline for her Aug. 19 piece, "Two Sentries at a Crossroads for Russia Military: The men recall how, as young soldiers during the abortive coup, one stuck by the old guard and the other stood up for the new."

Then there was old friend Kathy Lally of the Baltimore Sun, whose own Aug. 19 piece read like the trailer for a buddy movie starring Angelina Jolie and Mario Van Peebles: "Decade of hardship steals Russians' joy. Anniversary: He saved lives; she created one. An officer and a worker reflect on a failed coup, and how the result failed them."

The problem with most of these pieces, and Glasser's most of all, was the curious mathematics that, again, presented Russia's pros and cons in the 1:1 ratio of "On the one hand...on the other hand." Glasser, like Jack (who noted with glee that "Sheremetyevo 2, Moscow's main international airport, was this month forced to impose restrictions on the number of charter flights of Russian holiday makers, because its terminal was reaching capacity"), was one of about six or seven reporters to belabor the vacation theme. She actually brings it up twice in the course of her article, as she describes the "pro" experiences of her Moscow success story, Tatiana. The first passage reads as follows:

Ten years ago, she had never been outside the country. Now she is fluent in world capitals -- most recently Paris and London -- and a connoisseur of beaches from Spain to Egypt.

The second passage is more rapturous:

Foreign travel remains the one big-ticket item. She and her friends are eager jet-setters, their passport stamps freedom's most visible trophy.

Tatyana first left the country in 1995 for a vacation in Spain. The moment she landed, she was "overwhelmed. I wish I had that feeling again -- that feeling happens only once in your life. After that, you get used to it." Since then, she has fallen in love in Tunisia and in Egypt, and gone skiing in Slovakia and scuba diving in the Mediterranean.

If you are beginning to notice a theme-between Jack's Italian chef, the Mercedes parked outside Cheese, the "overwhelming" trip to Spain, the visits to Paris and London, and the travel to Western bourgeois vacation destinations on "beaches" in Egypt and the Mediterranean -- you might be on to something. A crucial thread in all of the "good news" sections of these retrospectives seems to be exposure to the West and the opportunity to spend money. CNN online went even further in its retrospective piece, the Aug. 21 offering by Maria Antonenko, "After a decade of adventures abroad, young generation choosing to stay home."

Antonenko, obviously a re-pat herself, appears not to see the irony in her celebration of the new Russia as the home of choice for the young Russians of her generation. In the piece, her interview subjects talk endlessly about how Russia is actually a cheaper and freer place to live -- if you happen to speak English and work for a Western company:

Leonova is now a Nestle's sales manager for the Moscow region and Belarus, but in 1991, she was an engineering student at the Moscow-based Institute of Steel and Alloys. With a knowledge of English and little formal business training, Leonova has become one of the leading young businesswomen in Russia.

In other words, Leonova is living better as a totally unqualified, Western-imported parasite off the consumer economy than she would have as a trained home-grown specialist in the kind of hard industry that has completely collapsed in the country in the last ten years. This Antonenko seems to see as good news.

Antonenko's piece recalled another passage from the Jack article, which laid out good macroeconomic news alongside an incidental mention of a shortage of skilled labor:

Alexei Zabotkine, chief economist at United Financial Group, a Moscow-based brokerage, and traditionally a bear on the Russian economy, has recently more than doubled his projections of GDP growth for this year to 4.6 per cent. Other analysts give higher figures still.

"One of the principal challenges for the economy in the coming months is a growing shortage of skilled labor," he argues, stressing the decline of the education system over the past decade and the trend for a growing number of companies in the Moscow region to hire employees from neighboring countries.

The high number of skilled, educated workers used to be an asset in Russia. Now the lack of the same has become a liability. And yet the economic prognosis is good. But good for whom?

All of the people who appear as "success stories" in these Western articles about the "nascent middle class" are almost always salespeople, internationally-funded aid workers (Glasser's Tatiana earns her salary "from a U.S. government-funded project to assist reform of Russia's judiciary"), accountants, restauranteurs, car salesmen, and other creatures of the service sector.

They are never teachers, doctors, artists, scientists, or any of the other products of the higher educational system whose existence is critically necessary for a healthy society. Glasser compared her Tatiana to a relative in the impoverished provinces who earned $70 a month; she might as well have compared her to a public school teacher living just down the street.

Two years ago I wrote a story about a high school in southern Moscow. I spent a week following around four ordinary high school kids. They were all good kids, much less cynical, self-important, and world-weary than the typical American high school student -- they were bright, positive, funny, even respectful of their teachers.

One of them, Kostiya Pankratov, was voted most likely to succeed in his class. He was a quiet type who took karate, did not drink, and was a straight A student, mainly because he worked hard to finish his homework on time. After he graduated, he tried to enter an automotive engineering school, and that was the last anyone heard from him, until a few weeks ago.

It turns out Kostiya's in jail, in Butirka. He couldn't get into school because he didn't have the money, and ended up hanging around, unemployed, and drinking a lot. One night he and some friends were stopped by the police. They beat up the cop and threw him in the trunk of their car. They were caught on their way out of the city with the cop still in the trunk. He got five years.

Another one of the four, a girl, was forced out of her home by her alcoholic stepfather shortly after graduation. She went to live with her boyfriend, a Chechen war vet in his early twenties, who claimed to have killed 19 people on his tour and was intermittently violent; he developed a heroin problem and was thrown out of his house by his parents, and tried to take the girl to live in a communal apartment in which they would have had to share a room with five other male junkies. She ended up sleeping on a bench on the Manezhnaya ploschad, right outside all those fancy stores, for days. Eventually she got a job as a stripper at a club which, I'm embarrassed to say, advertises in the eXile. But that didn't work out either. Now she works at an all-night store as a sales girl, selling vodka to drunks in a slum near Tekstillshiki. She's been robbed three times and was nearly forced into a car by three men once. Her boyfriend keeps sending messages to her through friends that he intends to kill her and himself the next time he sees her.

Another of the four, also a girl, had a problem with fighting in high school and ended up in the hospital recently when three girls locked her in a bathroom stall at a club and beat her within an inch of her life. Her old boyfriend, the fourth subject in the article, joined the navy and is still there, but doesn't talk about what his life is like.

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like there could be a hundred IKEAs in this country, and they wouldn't outweigh even a few stories like this. And there are a hell of a lot more than a few. Ten years after the coup, Russia is an indescribably savage country that eats its own young. It takes more than the simple recital of a $70 monthly salary figure to convey what this means. You have to have seen it for all ten years to get it right on the last day.

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