The way Russia is portrayed in the mainstream media, it sometimes feels as if the old Soviet Union has been reincarnated, where any dissent from the party line invited harsh repercussions. While Russia certainly has its faults, a recent editorial in The Moscow Times provides a valuable window on the true situation. Writing about Russia’s attempts to silence Western critics by pointing its finger at related abuses in the West, Michael Bohm, the Opinion Page Editor pulled no punches in saying how ridiculous he thought this was. Here’s an excerpt:
Since the 1920s, the Kremlin has been fond of these “answers to Chamberlain” [roughly the same as saying, “Go fly a kite!”] in a clumsy, infantile attempt to divert attention away from its own abuse of power. For example, recall the U.S. campaign to free Soviet dissidents in the early 1970s. The Soviet Union’s answer was a massive propaganda campaign to free the United States’ own “most-persecuted dissident” — U.S. Communist and social activist Angela Davis.
Soviets, poking fun at this ridiculous habit, used to joke that in response to every criticism voiced by a U.S. government official, the Kremlin would repeat the stock answer: “Look who’s talking! You still lynch blacks in the United States!” [Note: Having recently watched a PBS documentary on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders, that criticism was unfortunately, still valid into the 1960’s.]
These “answers to Chamberlain” didn’t stop after the Soviet collapse. In 2005, for example, then-President Vladimir Putin, in response to a French journalist’s question about the Yukos affair, answered that Russia’s criminal case against Yukos doesn’t differ from the U.S. case against Enron.
Another example was when Putin was asked during his call-in show in December about the fairness of the long prison sentence handed to former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Putin … compared Khodorkovsky’s “liberal sentence” to the 150-year sentence that Bernard Madoff, the U.S. mastermind of the largest Ponzi scheme in history, received for what Putin called “similar crimes.”
But far worse than these absurd attempts to turn the tables on the West is the false patriotism and simulated deep concern for “abused Russians” that cut to the core of the blacklist bill. … While Russia has developed its latest “answer to Chamberlain” in the form of a blacklist for foreigners, clearly a better answer would be to blacklist and prosecute its own criminals. If Russia’s lawmakers showed as much concern for all of the Sergei Magnitskys languishing in Russia’s own prisons today as they did for Viktor Bout, there wouldn’t have been a need for U.S. lawmakers to propose the Magnitsky bill in the first place.
I visited the Soviet Union a number of times and, until Gorbachev lifted censorship late in 1986, I never could have imagined such a self-critical article in a Russian newspaper. So, while Russia has far to go, it is important to remember that the situation is very different from the mainstream media’s portrayal.
Just as Bohm argues that Russia should stop criticizing the West and focus on its own internal problems, I believe we should stop trying to punish Russia for its perceived misdeeds (as the Magnitsky bill attempts to do) and focus instead on areas where we fall short of our high ideals. In addition to bringing us closer to our own ideals, such actions would reduce the risk of a Russian-American crisis that could escalate to global destruction. They also would do more to improve conditions in Russia than high-handed, arrogant lectures.
For further reading: I was alerted to this article in The Moscow Times by an extremely valuable resource that you may want to consider. Johnson’s Russia List (JRL) is a daily digest of articles from Russian media or about Russia. There is no charge, but a $50 donation is suggested for individuals. To subscribe, just send an email to email@example.com. His reply will indicate how you can donate to the list’s sponsor, The World Security Institute, indicating that it is to support JRL. If you subscribe and find there is too much to read, I have found the section on Foreign Affairs to be the most relevant. WSI has a number of other important projects including the Center for Defense Information and Global Zero. If you subscribe to JRL, you will see that such internal criticism of the Russian government is not uncommon. You will also get a much better feeling for why Russia feels threatened by certain of our actions.
Please share this with others: If you found this post of interest, I hope you will share it with friends who might be interested and encourage them to subscribe to our RSS feed. If more Americans understood how some of our behavior increases the risk of a nuclear disaster, we could start taking actions to reduce — and ultimately eliminate — that threat to our existence.