This article was first published in The eXile on September 7, 2007.
Here’s a real-life superhero dilemma: What do you do when you’re the world’s most powerful news and opinion magazine, carrying the English-language torch of freedom on behalf of your million-plus high-net-worth readers across the globe, and suddenly you spot injustice on the Eurasian horizon: Sham elections in an oil-rich Eurasian country, resulting in a one-party parliament; its autocratic leader just pushed through constitutional amendments allowing him to remain in power for life; and it’s waging a campaign to bully Western oil companies out of their lucrative oil fields, in spite of contracts and investments made.
If the country in question is Kazakhstan, and you’re The Economist, then you know exactly what to do: Put Vladimir Putin on the cover and scare the shit out of your readers by sounding the “Hitler Alarm!” threat he poses to mankind. It doesn’t matter that you run a version of this story almost every week. Or that the story you decide to run in the wake of Kazakhstan’s sham elections happens to have been run in almost the exact same form by all of your colleagues FOUR FUCKING YEARS AGO.
For The Economist, the Putin-as-Fascist story isn’t bound by traditional Newtonian concepts of time or space, let alone the basic principles of Western journalism. It’s a story that can be played like a deck of trump cards. No matter what else happens in the world – for example, the mega-clusterfuck in Iraq, a war that The Economist screamed for in a campaign capped by its infamous“The Case For War” editorial — when a story threatens to confuse or upset their agenda, the weekly can just drop the Putin-Hitler trump card. It works like a dream, every time.
Thanks to the English magazine’s clever rhetorical strategy, a cocktail of quasi-aristocratic contempt, two-Thesauruses-smarter-than-Newsweek diction, and occasional contrarian-populism to pander to its majority-American readership, readers trust The Economist. They — particularly the Economist‘s American readers — trust it because they think it knows more than they do; this is its entire appeal. They even get a sick thrill being talked down to by a dirty old aristocratic prig. For Americans in particular, accustomed to the lifeless, dumbed-down, lowest-common-denominator prose in their own media, reading The Economist is its own reward, giving the American subscriber the sense not only that they’re smarter than the average Time subscriber, but that it even makes them vaguely decadent, in a literary-port-sipping sort of way. They become smarter by osmosis simply by being in the imagined drawing room of The Economist‘s wit-slinging editorial offices.
In reality, The Economist is one of the most appallingly wrong and evil — as in responsible-for-millions-of-dead-people evil — media organs in the English world today. As far as “wit” goes, The Economist ranks up there with Benson, the snappy TV sitcom butler, though it’s nowhere near as delightfully entertaining as the British butler in the godawful Dudley Moore comedy Arthur.
Or as Michael Lewis, the author of Liar’s Poker, observed after moving to England,
“The magazine is written by young people pretending to be old people. If American readers got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions in droves.”
If only it was a question of overrated wit. But it’s much worse. It’s a sinister and sophisticated English snowjob. Considering their influence and their influential readership, not to mention where they’re leading us with their anti-Russia campaign, it’s time to set the record straight, to put the “s” back in “limey” and call The Economist for the slimey fucks that they are, before they drag us all down into another disastrous war, just as they did with Iraq.
Last month’s Kazakhstan/Russia coverage is a perfect example of what’s so wrong with the magazine.
Just before Kazakhstan’s sham elections, The Economist warned that an “ugly trade” might soon happen: Every country in the West, save two, had already agreed to overlook President Nazarbayev’s out-of-the-closet authoritarianism, and give him the chair to the OSCE in 2009 no matter how disgraceful the elections turned out. The two holdouts were the U.S. (whose ambassador praised Nazarbayev’s constitutional changes allowing him to be president-for-life as “a good step forward”) and Great Britain, which was a bit more circumspect.
These two countries still haven’t made up their minds about whether or not to allow Kazakhstan to take over the OSCE chair. Coincidentally, The Economist hasn’t made its mind up either, a position manifested by its decision to allot a meager column-sized article tepidly condemning the elections. This was completely overshadowed by the multi-page lead article: Russia is “now” run by the KGB.
As mentioned above, this story is four fucking years old. There’s no “now” to it. The Economist article relies on a report issued in 2003 by sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya. Back in 2003, The Economist‘s colleagues in the Western media covered the report as the news story it then was. The Christian Science Monitor, for example, ran a story called “KGB influence still felt in Russia” in its December 30, 2003 edition. It stated:
Olga Kryshtanovskaya is a sociologist who dances with wolves. For more than a decade she’s been Russia’s premier expert on the political, business, and security elites.
But even Ms. Kryshtanovskaya says she’s alarmed by her own recent findings. Since Vladimir Putin came to power four years ago, she’s been tracking a dramatic influx into government of siloviki – people from the military, the former Soviet KGB, and other security services – bringing with them statist ideology, authoritarian methods, and a drill-sergeant’s contempt for civilian sensibilities.
For The Economist‘s brand of quantum journalism, time is relative, depending on the observer – or rather, the observer’s agenda. A story like this is like a fine wine, meant to be stored in a cool place, to be popped open for their readers to help them forget all that other depressing, confusing news coming out of Kazakhstan or Iraq. Thus, four years after the Monitor‘s story, The Economist arrives to sound the alarm.
What’s strange is how sloppy The Economist is about this, to the point where it reads like a classic case of four-years-late plagiarism.
But most readers would never know how dated the peg to the recent cover story really is. “Political power in Russia now lies with the FSB, the KGB’s successor,” declared the magazine. Note The Economist‘s sly insertion of the word “now” – giving the reader the impression that news about the siloviki’s rise is hot out of the box. “Now” in the weekly news world literally means “now.” It doesn’t mean four years ago, or even four months ago. It means last week, or perhaps sometime in the last four weeks.
The Economist betrays even more nervousness about running a story this belatedly with another strange insertion in the opening sentence:
On the evening of August 22nd, 1992 — 16 years ago this week [note the ludicrous time-peg, “16 years ago this week”—M. Ames.] — Alexei Kondaurov, a KGB general, stood by the darkened window of his Moscow office and watched a jubilant crowd moving towards the KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Square…
Let’s leave aside for now the very strange decision to anchor an anti-silovik story to Kondaurov — a former KGB general who was a top Yukos executive (respect to the PR firm that helped arrange that). A couple of paragraphs later, we are introduced to Kryshtanovskaya and her four-year-old study. Here, The Economist pulls a classic example of censorship-by-omission:
According to research by Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, a quarter of the country’s senior bureaucrats are siloviki — a Russian word meaning, roughly, ‘power guys’, which includes members of the armed forces and other security services, not just the FSB. The proportion rises to three-quarters if people simply affiliated to the security services are included. These people represent a psychologically homogeneous group, loyal to roots that go back to the Bolsheviks’ first political police, the Cheka.
They never mention when the report was published, because if they did — “According to a report four years ago…” — it would kind of contradict the “now” in the sub-header. So you just don’t mention it. Instead, you crudely manipulate her findings: “the proportion [of siloviki] rises to three-quarters if people simply affiliated to the security services are included.”
Is that really what Kryshtankovskaya reported? In an interview with Radio Free Europe last year, she explained “The 78 percent figure…is not a precise figure.” But precision, a quantum journalist might argue, is itself a relative concept.
* * *
For the last few years, The Economist has been waging a relentless, obsessive-compulsive campaign to rebrand Russia and Vladimir Putin as a Fascist state and a Fascist regime. Consider last year’s “The Hardest Word”:
It is an over-used word, and a controversial one, especially in Russia. It is not there yet, but Russia sometimes seems to be heading towards fascism.
That’s as serious a charge as can possibly be levied: Nazi Germany with thousands of nuclear weapons. Fascism in the popular consciousness has a pretty simple, straightforward definition: a country that will invade and enslave the world by force, and gas its Jews. Is that Russia? Because if Russia really is Fascist, then what the fuck are we doing here? Every foreigner should run screaming for the border! The West should demand the immediate and unconditional surrender of the Kremlin or else…or else we’ll blow the whole fucking world to smithereens by midnight tomorrow. I’m serious: If Russia is Fascist, what are we waiting for? Isn’t this the lesson of the 30s: Attack now! Don’t wait! Drop the fuckin’ Bomb before it’s too late, launch the entire arsenal and say hello to Jesus!!!
The Economist gets around this death-of-mankind problem by liberalizing its definition of Fascism, curiously making it fit contemporary Russia, while at the same time gutting some of its seriousness:
History also offers a term to describe the direction in which Russia sometimes seems to be heading: a word that captures the paranoia and self-confidence, lawlessness and authoritarianism, populism and intolerance, and economic and political nationalism that now characterise Mr Putin’s administration.
Yep, that’s right, Fascism doesn’t mean violently aggressive militarism, invasions, and the industrial slaughter of millions. Nope, you had it all wrong. In these multicultural times, we need to expand Fascism’s meaning, to make it accessible to other cultures, particularly those we dislike. So now the new mix’n’match Fascism includes “self-confidence,” “lawlessness,” “intolerance”… Let’s see, what else is happening in Russia that we can put in there? Why not add to that Economist definition, “a word that captures the Dima-bilan mullets and gopniki, face control and purse dogs, people who say ‘da’ and people who also say ‘nyet.'” There, that ensures that Russia is now Fascist!
This sleazy redefinition of the word Fascism allows The Economist to effectively rebrand Russia by working backwards from Russia to Fascism. The implication is obvious. The Putin regime must be destroyed before it destroys us. Maybe not right away — but soon. That’s what our leaders have always promised to do should Fascism ever rear its ugly head in Europe again.
* * *
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, if you hopped aboard The Economist‘s own DeLorean time machine, you’d find that there was a time when they downright loved their li’l Fascist spy in the Kremlin. Sometimes they loved him, that is. And sometimes they didn’t. Kinda depended on the day of the week – and to what degree he served Anglo-American geopolitical/corporate ambitions.
Keep in mind that in this relationship, Putin is the only one who’s been consistent. When he came to power in 2000, he promoted the siloviki, shut down opposition media, and brought all other sources of power – the Duma, Federation Council, and regional governors, under the Kremlin’s control in what was called the “vertikalnaya vlast’” or “vertical power structure.” It was all out in the open. Everyone knew it.
In the beginning of his reign, The Economist was skeptical — about everything, ranging from Putin’s credentials as a liberal to an even more serious concern for Western investors, whether or not he could really get the chaos under control, which in his first year or two was really the main concern of Western investors—and The Economist:
“Though Mr Putin has said he will ‘eliminate’ the oligarchs ‘as a class’, the early signs are not encouraging.” (May 13, 2000)
“It is not just that reform has bogged down, that economic growth is fizzling out, and that the Chechen war is dragging on unwinnably; the Kremlin’s own authority also seems to be fraying.” (March 16, 2001)
Regarding the media crackdown, in a rare moment of truth-telling The Economist explained,
“Independent media in the provinces of Russia have been shriveling for years, under the combined assault of powerful regional bosses and their business friends. Now the same is happening at the centre. But, for the time being at least, information is still available to anyone with an Internet connection or a decent radio.” (April 21, 2001)
That provided some solace then, but is never mentioned today, even though any Russian with a radio or Internet connection is still in the same position they were in on April 17, 2001. Read that quote again, and again…it’s so incredible in its complete contradiction to everything The Economist says now that I can almost feel my hair falling out of my scalp…
But for those few hairs remaining, there’s this Economist shocker, coming just a few months later:
“At home and abroad, things have never looked brighter for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin….At home, the economy is still growing and reforms continue.” (Nov 3, 2001. “Hope Gleams Anew”)
Wait…”Hope gleams anew”? Are you shitting us? Didn’t the Economist just insist that …but…you can’t do that, can you?
Let’s pull up another 2001 quote:
“Russia’s opinion polls still show Mr Putin as very popular. But they are not completely trustworthy — and in any case his standing is artificially bolstered by a servile state-run television.” (March 17, 2001)
Ah, that’s what I likes to hear. Yeah, feed me more of that anti-Putin moral crusading, baby. Come on, daddy-o, feed me:
“Mr Putin’s huge popularity means that his new foreign policy faces no direct threat. Most Russians are delighted to see their country more popular and respected, and glad to avoid a direct entanglement in Afghanistan. Even slow and patchy economic reforms are better than none.” (November 3, 2001)
Wait — you can’t flip-flop like that. Or can you?
Yup indeed, if you’re The Economist, you can go a-flippin’ and a-floppin’ all you want, on any issue you please, because your credibility isn’t built on being right or consistent or telling the truth—it’s all about the snotty British tone, and never admitting you’re a fraud.
Even on the most sacred moral issue of all for Economist liberals, Putin’s human rights record, they’ve proven to be flexible:
“Other western allies, such as Turkey, have plenty of blots on their human-rights record too.” (May 18, 2002, “What Russia Wants”)
Wow. So first it was unsettling and foreboding, and these days it’s Hitlerian, but way back in 2002, it’s just… a “blot.” And blots like these are par for the course for the West’s friends, so therefore it’s not really an issue.
By now, it’s pretty obvious why The Economist decided to switch to pillow-talk mode with Putin: In the months after 9/11, it looked like he was going to be America’s best, most submissive friend in the whole authoritarian world.
To put it in their own words,
“On acute issues, such as American involvement in the former Soviet empire, Mr Putin is shunting Russia’s policy in the right direction, towards accepting the inevitable.” (May 18, 2002)
Inevitable indeed. They really called that one. But at the time, they were gloating like a clique of condescending English villains, proud of their genius at deception: “That’s a good Pootie-Poot! Good boy! Now go run along and play with, Blair. Go on, be a good doggie!”
The Economist‘s flip-flopping over Putin is so over-the-top absurd and shameless, that it reads like a scene out of a bad Mel Brooks skit, with Harvey Korman playing Edward Lucas, by turns grotesquely sweet-talking or contemptuously dismissing the character of Putin, played by Cloris Leachman. One minute Putin’s popularity is “not trustworthy” and “artificially bolstered by a servile state-run television”; a few months later, “Most Russians are delighted” and “Mr Putin’s huge popularity means that his new foreign policy faces no direct threat.” Truth is a very flexible commodity in the pages of the Economist.
In the sleaziest of all of their many flip-flops, the Economist even managed, in the above-quoted November 2001 article, to brush off a future martyr’s threat to her safety, balancing it positively against a grotesquely obvious PR exercise:
Change is least visible in politics…The squeeze on the independent press continues: Anna Politovskaya, the most intrepid Russian reporter dealing with Chechnya, has fled to Vienna after receiving threats. But the competent and well-publicised salvaging of the Kursk did strike a good note, in sharp contrast to the lies and confusion that surrounded the tragedy of its sinking as it unfolded in August last year.
I-bee-bee-bee-bee-whuhhh? So what you’re saying is, Politkovskaya had to flee for her life, but hey, didja see the way they pulled up those Kursk corpses? Pretty impressive, wasn’t it? If I was a drowned corpse, that’s how I’d want to be dredged…Yeah, so, how ’bout them Red Sox, eh? Dang, lost my train-a thought here… I forgot what we were talking about. Oh yeah, Putin… Right, what a guy! (Incidentally, speaking of flip-flops, they supported John Kerry in 2004…after endorsing Bush in 2000, and the Iraq invasion in 2002-3.)
So what changed? Why did Putin’s crackdown on the media go from being a problem, then to a blot not unlike other blots, then to something you contrast to a successful corpse-salvage mission in Murmansk, to… a clear sign of Fascism?
What changed is Yukos. The arrest of oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky in October, 2003. The darling of everyone from Exxon and Chevron to Dick Cheney and Richard Perle. The man who argued that Russia should have supported the war in Iraq, and should orient its oil towards the West, rather than China. The man who, in the end, tried and failed to change the power structure in Russia.
The Economist has admitted as much:
“If the emergence of Yukos epitomised Russia’s transition from a planned economy to the wild capitalism of the 1990s, which for all its excesses thrived on private initiative, its destruction was a turning-point towards an authoritarian, corporatist state.” (May 10, 2007)
What “excesses” might Yukos have committed? Murder, if you believe ex-Wall Street Journal writer David Satter, whose study of the rapacious oligarchs was once was cited favorably in The Economist. Mass theft, if you believe even Khodorkovsky’s candid account of how Yukos’ assets were acquired. Not that that’s a big secret. But you see, admitting that into the record would sorta muddy up the picture. So that all gets passed off as “excesses,” which could really mean anything, like “excess of free-market zeal.” It’s a whitewash, just like when Putin seemed pliable, The Economist downplayed his dismal human rights record to mere “blot” status.
This is how The Economist has always worked in Russia, its hand constantly on two dials: a “sunny side” dial, and a “bleakness” dial, the latter ending in Fascism.
Take this example from the Yeltsin years, a period where The Economist‘s record is so appallingly deceitful that it would require a separate article, and scores of beta-blockers just to read through to avoid suffering a 10-valve thrombo. In late 1997, when it still looked like Western financial institutions were reaping huge profits and stood to earn more, The Economist said of Yeltsin and his notoriously hated “privatization” lieutenant, Anatoly Chubais:
Market forces have grown stronger with each year, but may not yet be strong enough to propagate themselves unaided. Their chances would be much better if there were a hundred more people in government of Mr. Chubais’s calibre, or even a score. Mr. Yeltsin, at least, appears to believe that there isn’t one. Un-Marxist as it might be to argue as much, great men are needed to do great things. Mr. Yeltsin, in his way, is one such. And Mr. Chubais, in his way, is another.
Exactly four months later, as the IMF-backed pyramid scheme was unraveling and Westerners started getting burned, The Economist changed its mind, but in smarmy tone suggesting it had known this all along and weren’t fooled the way non-Economist editors were:
Russia’s institutions being worryingly weak and the powers of its president frighteningly strong, it is vital that the man in charge is beholden to neither demagogues nor billionaires…Unfortunately, as age, vodka and the wooziness of barely diluted power get the better of him, Mr Yeltsin is utterly failing to do this part of his job….Once a Titan, rightly lauded for helping to pull down one of the world’s most evil regimes, he now seems to lurch, disaster-prone, from one fit of bad temper to the next. Poor Russia.
Yes, it was so long ago that he was “rightly lauded” — I mean, how could anyone possibly have guessed he’d turn out to have been so terrible four long months later? It’s like when Austin Powers discovered that Liberace was gay: “Wow baby, who would’ve guessed? I never saw that one coming!”
“Dear David, attached is part of my book on Chechnya…The relevance of the argument is demonstrated by the latest article in The Economist: ‘Could Russia Go Fascist? — which translates as – ‘Shoudn’t we give billions of dollars to support Yeltsin and our darling Young Reformer Chubais because Russians are intrinsically given to imperialism and aggression and Chubais assures us that he and Yeltsin are all that is standing between Russia and Fascism.’ Some of the people you can indeed fool all the time. Yours, Anatol Lieven”
In 1998, The Economist invented a nonexistent Russian Fascist threat in order to prop up a wildly unpopular, corrupt regime, which had overseen the total collapse of its economy, devastated the health of its citizens, and forever ruined the concepts of “liberalism,” “free markets” and “democracy” in the minds of those who survived it…all because Yeltsin seemed to benefit The Economist‘s readers. Today, they’re lying again about the nonexistent Russian Fascist threat, only this time in order to bring down a highly popular (albeit corrupt) regime that has overseen the unexpected revival of its economy and power, and seen the health and longevity of its citizens improve enormously. All because Putin isn’t our bitch. So the Russian Fascist Threat can be used in any situation, any decade, any era—either to demonize the Kremlin, or to demonize the Kremlin’s opponents, depending on which side is good for western interests. Truth is in the eyes of the Economist beholder.
So how did The Economist sink to such a pitiable state?
The horrible answer is, it’s always been this vile. If you go back to The Economist‘s beginnings in Victorian England, you’ll find, for example, the magazine’s brave stand on the Great Irish Famine, the English-led genocide that left up to two million Irish dead. When a cry went up to stop the famine, The Economist countered,
“It is no man’s business to provide for another. If left to the natural law of distribution, those who deserve more would obtain it.”
And speaking of Hitlers, in the mid-1930s, The Economist even found time to praise you-know-who:
“Herr Hitler is showing encouraging signs of statesmanship.”
Yes, they really did write that.
The first and last example of genuine wit that The Economist ever produced.
This article was first published in The eXile on September 7, 2007.
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