#15 | August 28 - September 10, 1997  smlogo.gif


In This Issue
Feature Story


A Gang-Bang of Cosmic Proportions

by Abram Kalashnikov

"There has never been in a single case, in all the gang rapes we've seen, where one man tried to stop it." Gail Arbanel, Director of Santa Monica (CA) Rape Treatment Center, in a report on gang rapes.

Crowd psychology is a funny thing. I had an American friend once tell me-as a means, I think, of demonstrating how many tall buildings there were in his home city-that he once happened upon a crowd of people in New York yelling "Jump!" to a man who was standing on a ledge on the fifteenth floor of a building in Greenwich Village. He jumped. And died. And then everyone went home.

Journalists, in crowd situations, are a pretty lame bunch. They don't go to Anatoly Chubais press conferences and yell, "Confess!" They don't put on armbands and start rightist political movements. And they certainly don't attack women on pool tables in public bars. They probably would if they could. It's just that most journalists are pretty lousy pool players. They write about pool, rather than play it.

Journalists do, however, occasionally demonstrate one peculiar form of antisocial crowd behavior. It's a thing I like to call the gangbang story. Once one or two of them get on a certain topic, the rest of them often start to worry that they'll look weak if they don't pile on, too. And pretty soon, you've got a full-fledged gangbang. An innocent story suddenly finds itself savaged by every hack in town, with each man lining up to unzip his briefcase, whip out the same cliches as the previous man in line, and fall on his helpless subject.

Russia is witnessing a Western journalist gangbang. It's called the Mir Space Station story. The Mir story fits all the requirements of the gangbang genre. For one thing, it is totally irrelevant, of virtually no interest to anyone but journalists, boasting a storyline and the appearance of drama, and unfolding concurrently with other stories that are both more important and more likely to offend and confuse readers. In this respect it is similar to other classic gangbang topics, like plane crashes, little-girl-trapped-in-a-well stories, and Mikhail Gorbachev's presidential campaign. We Russians know Mir doesn't matter. There are other things to worry about, like the theft of every last square centimeter of state property. Even sensationalist Moskovsky Komsomolets knows that. As its deputy editor, Andrei Lapik, said: "What is interesting for America is not interesting for Russia, and vice versa. It's an ordinary event."

Gang rape victims often talk of blacking out, and failing after a while to distinguish one attacker from the other. That's because the attackers are all pretty much doing the same thing. One has a difficult time after a while sorting out the difference between the crippled space station of the Financial Times's Chrystia Freeland and the crippled space station of AP's Barry Renfrew. "Troubled," "Decrepit," "Unfortunate," "Clunky" and "Falling Apart" are other required elements of just about every Mir story. Some agencies get a little fancy with the headlines and captions: "Mission Control Central Chief Vladimir Solovyev Covers His Eyes During a Communications Session."

When I lived in the States I made the mistake once of buying a 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. In 1991 I was driving it in New Jersey and it broke down. I waited for help and eventually saw it fixed again. I did not write home about this incident. I certainly did not write home four times a day, a la Reuters and AP, attaching the word "decrepit" to my Oldsmobile in each letter and attaching pictures of myself covering my eyes as state troopers attached the jumper cables. And I was not nearly successful enough in my attempts around campus to find hallucinogenic drugs to suggest in public that my crippled Oldsmobile was a symbol of America in decay.

Legend has it that when Mongol invaders sacked Russia, they would often stab their rape victims to create new holes to violate if the others were already taken by busy comrades. AP has been trying something similar with the Mir story. In its desperate attempts to find new angles on this cosmic auto-repair saga, the AP on August 13 ran an un-bylined story which suggested that Russian cosmonauts were making procedural decisions in order to earn more money in bonuses:

"Moscow (AP)-Cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev switched his Soyuz capsule to manual control as he approached the Mir Space Station, then guided the ships into a gentle embrace-and earned himself a hefty cash bonus."

"Russian and U.S. space officials," the mystery AP writer went on, "agreed that Solovyev's decision to go manual last week was the best way to get the job done. But [note the 'But,' suggesting dissatisfaction with the U.S.-Russian dismissal of the bonus issue-A.K.] the episode highlights the unusual reward system which Russian news media say also pays $1,000 for each spacewalk."

No wonder the AP writer left his byline off. If I were a cosmonaut and came back to earth after a long ordeal to find out that some American reporter had been nosing around Star City, asking my superiors if maybe I was doing spacewalks in order to pad my pocket, I'd be wanting to pay that writer a little visit-and make sure that he was hereafter referred to as "crippled AP correspondent."

The AP hack goes on to write: "Russian media report all the figures in U.S. dollars, suggesting that astronauts will be paid in U.S. currency, which is much preferred to rubles."

Those darned cosmonauts-always want dollars. They're just like those fellows in Red Square who were trying to sell us rabbit hats. No wonder they're out there doing space walks.

Even the much-heralded Washington Post got in on the gangbang, suggesting in a July 24 piece by Daniel Williams that controversy had erupted when the press reported that news of cosmonaut Vasily Tsibilev's relative's death had been withheld from him by Mission Control. "Russian officials only stopped denying the story after the Reuter news agency reported from Tsibilev's home town that the family had kept the death secret."

Here, now, is the height of irrelevant nitpicking. The press learns that Mission Control has judged that a cosmonaut will be less likely to freak out, suffocate, and destroy their multi-billion dollar machine if he does not hear of unpleasantness at home, so in its infinite wisdom, the press decides to go public with the story, fully aware, incidentally, that cosmonauts have access to ham radio and therefore hear the news. That Reuters was hanging around Tsibilev's home sniffing around for corpses to publicize while Tsibilev himself was in the middle of a dangerous mission seems grounds enough for summary execution to me. But for the Washington Post to come in and mop up on this story and pronounce Mission Control in the wrong is absolutely comic. Don't these reporters have anything better to do?

The AP certainly doesn't. In its efforts to keep the orgy of mediocre prose flowing, the AP was thrilled to stumble upon the news that a milk commercial had been filmed on Mir. Before you knew it, a story with the following lead appeared:

"One small drop of milk; one giant leap for TV commercials."

Ugh. When will it all end? Answer: not until Mir crashes. Like the OJ trial, this gangbang will not end until the victim is exhausted. We can only hope the American shuttle scientists will fix Mir. Then maybe the damn thing will explode and we can all read something interesting for a change.

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