A significant political interview of amazing revelations in “Secret World of the US Election: Julian Assange Talks to John Pilger”

John Pilger, “Secret World of the US Election: Julian Assange Talks to John Pilger” (RT.com, October 2016)

One famous Australian journalist talking to another famous Australian journalist should be a major media event covered by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation or the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) but unsurprisingly neither of these networks was interested in promoting, let alone broadcasting, excerpts of John Pilger’s astonishing interview of Assange in which nearly every reply Assange gives to Pilger is a jaw-dropping revelation of the depths of the corruption of one of the two major candidates in the 2016 US Presidential elections – I’m referring of course to Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party candidate – as revealed in Wikileaks’ releases of emails hacked from the Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s email server and leaked to Assange’s organisation. The really amazing thing about this interview is that both Assange and Pilger manage to keep their nerve talking about Clinton’s connections to Saudi Arabia and Qatar among others through her and her husband Bill’s humanitarian charity Clinton Foundation and those nations’ funding of ISIS; her obsessive pursuit of regime change in Libya that resulted in Muammar Ghaddafi’s death and mutilation; and the US political establishment’s attempts to derail the other US Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign, among other matters discussed.

Those who can’t or won’t bring themselves to believe that Hillary Clinton is steeped in corruption and has broken numerous US laws, from laws on government record-keeping to laws on the conduct of private charities, the law on perjury and laws regarding conflicts of interest during her time as US Secretary of State (2009 – 2013), are advised to refer to various blogs and websites (not all of which are politically partisan) detailing her many blunders and crimes: 21st Century Wire is one good website as are also Club Orlov and Off-Guardian.org among others.

The excerpts from Pilger and Assange’s conversation are gathered up into two main subject groups: the Podesta emails detailing the scope of Hillary Clinton’s numerous conflicts of interest, and Assange’s own predicament, holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, awaiting possible extradition by the UK to Sweden on trumped-up charges of rape.

Without a doubt, this interview must be one of the most significant political interviews of 2016 and it is a great pity and tragedy that it isn’t more widely known and broadcast in Australia at least, if not in the United States. The interview and its transcript can be viewed at this link.

Channel 24 (Russia) Interview with First Lady of Syria Asma al Assad: a riveting conversation with a classy lady

Channel 24 (Russia) Interview with First Lady of Syria Asma al Assad (18 October 2016)

In contrast to so many female politicians and spouses of world leaders, the wife of Syrian President Bashar al Assad comes across as a natural and genuine person, well-spoken, intelligent and perceptive, in her first interview with a foreign interviewer in 8 years. Asma al Assad talks about her experiences in carrying out charitable works and projects of social and economic advancement in Syria, and in holding the country together under continuous assault from jihadi groups and those Western and Middle Eastern countries that finance and supply them with arms, advice and new fighters. As of the time of interview, her projects to improve Syrian people’s lives, particularly the lives of young people, are still ongoing though her focus is now on helping the families of soldiers and others who have died or are injured as a result of war. Asma al Assad speaks warmly of her husband, describing him as calm, approachable and easy to talk to, and explains why so far she has refused all offers (all non-Syrian) of sanctuary for herself and her children away from Syria. She expresses confidence in the country’s future and ability to rebuild its society and infrastructure.

Mrs Assad is a thoughtful interviewee, very articulate, and highly critical of Western duplicity and hypocrisy in portraying the situation in Syria to the public outside Syria. Having worked as an analyst in a major investment bank in the UK (where she was born and attended school and university) and in Europe, Mrs Assad was well prepared for the role of First Lady, tackling social problems in Syrian society, and easily sees through the apparent generosity of those Western countries that offered her asylum and financial security during the current war. She presents a very calm demeanour and her voice tends to be rather monotone. A contemporary young Western audience might find Mrs Assad rather boring to watch and listen to, and not at all glamorous or dramatic. Yet whatever glamour she emanates – and she does look like someone of class – comes from her inner being. The result is an interview that, while it does not touch on anything different from the narrative of war, suffering, Western hypocrisy and having to battle propaganda that we have come to expect, is nevertheless riveting.

Battleship Potemkin: a classic of drama, passion and the power of people to overturn injustice and oppression

Sergei Eisenstein, “Battleship Potemkin” (1925)

Although this film was made over 90 years ago and is a silent black-and-white work, it still stands up well against current films thanks to its crisp action and a plot that will still resonate with many people, especially those living in countries experiencing political repression in their daily lives. The film’s emphasis on the people as the grassroots foundation for political and social movements that can overthrow governments and implement new and better ways of living is a refreshing contrast and rebuttal to Hollywood stereotypes about the power of individuals to drive and achieve change.

The action takes place over five episodes that form a narrative arc set during the 1905 Russian Revolution. Sailors on the warship Potemkin sympathise with workers rebelling in St Petersburg over their inhumane treatment by bourgeois employers and an autocratic government. The seamen get a taste (literally) of that treatment themselves when their officers try to force them to eat meat tainted with maggots. The captain forces the sailors to assemble on deck, separates those who refused to eat the borscht made with the meat and orders a firing squad to shoot the rebels. Ordinary seaman Grigory Vakulinchuk appeals to the firing squad not to shoot. The shooters put down their weapons and a brawl between the officers and the crew breaks out. In the melee, which the sailors win, Vakulinchuk is shot dead by two officers.

The grieving sailors lay Vakulinchuk ashore at the port of Odessa. Local citizens view his body, see the message attached to it that explains his actions and death, and are moved to rebel against the local government and military authorities. The tsarist government cracks down hard on the citizenry in memorable scenes that take place on the boulevard steps: a boy and then his mother are shot dead in a horrific sequence that underlines the inhuman, machine nature of the advancing troops upon the panicked crowds; a young woman is killed and the pram with her baby runs down the steps, the baby’s ultimate fate remaining unknown; and a woman doctor, appealing to the troops’ humanity and brotherhood with their fellow Russians and Slavs, is mown down along with other innocents.

The Potemkin gets a call for help from the Odessans and the sailors rally by firing on the headquarters of the military authorities, destroying the building. A fleet of warships is soon on the Potemkin’s trail. The sailors know their firepower is as nothing against the might of the Russian navy: how will they and their cause, and the Odessans as well, fare when the battleships catch up with them?

Although the film has probably been over-analysed, not necessarily for the right reasons, and its use of montage, clever and imaginative though it is, has also been over-emphasised, Eisenstein’s work remains compelling in its brisk, no-nonsense way of putting together otherwise unrelated shots so as to suggest not just a story, but a story with a message about revolution, and how revolution and mass movement can only succeed if the people believe in equality and brotherhood, and are not simply out for personal liberty. (And clever montage cannot work without good camera-work that has a feel for drama, emotion and visual artistry, framing each and every scene like a diorama in itself, and equally clever and brisk editing that brings pacing to suggest increasing tension leading towards a climax.) In this film, personal sacrifice is a significant part of achieving a freer and more equal society. Vakulinchuk acts as a catalyst but his role as leader cannot be over-stressed as it would be in a Hollywood film.

Also significant to the film’s enduring success is its cinematography which stresses crowd scenes, often shot in panorama and in imaginative ways to boot, and the clever use of black-and-white imagery that approaches German Expressionism’s use of black and white and all the shades of grey in-between. Violence in the film is not explicit yet the discreet ways in which it is filmed make a deeper impression on viewers than all the cartoon hyper-violence of much current film-making which tends to numb the senses and prevent a proper and appropriate emotional reaction to visual brutality.

The actual plot might be thin and heavy-handed, the acting (all by non-professionals) overdone and the characters very stereotyped, but what Eisenstein brings out of his material is a film of great drama, power and passion.

Ironically, at this time of writing, the people of Odessa (in Ukraine) continue to struggle for freedom, equality, brotherhood and justice for their fellow citizens who were tortured and butchered by neo-Nazis in the trade union building in early May 2014, and whose suffering continues to be denied in the West.

Deduction and reason versus propaganda in pursuit of the truth in “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Case of Alexander Litvinenko”

Alexander Korobko, “Through Sherlock’s Eyes: The Case of Alexander Litvinenko” (2015)

Not only does this 23-minute documentary present an intriguing scenario of the death of the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko from polonium contamination – a scenario that, among other things, not only exonerates his supposed murderer Andre Lugovoi ( a former KGB guard later turned businessman and Russian State Duma representative) but also possibly explains why the British inquests into Litvinenko’s death go nowhere – but it does so in a calm, laid-back way that eschews Hollywood-style hugger-mugger razzle. Taking us into the matter is Vasily Livanov, posing as the Russian Sherlock Holmes, sitting at ease in his armchair and reading out aloud the work done by amateur Russian and British sleuths who shared their information online.

The documentary presents its case that Litvinenko contaminated himself with polonium and carelessly left traces wherever he went, which explains how not only Lugovoi himself ended up contaminated but also other places in London that Litvinenko frequented (but which Lugovoi never visited) also were found to have traces of the element on their premises. Firstly Lugovoi is subjected to a polygraph lie-detector test administered by expert Blake C Burgess and is found to be innocent. The documentary then turns its attention to the US writer Masha Gessen’s scribbling about Litvinenko’s case in her book on Russian President Vladimir Putin (“Putin: the Man without a Face”) and, using information obtained from an interview conducted with an American nuclear physicist, demolishes Gessen’s weird claim that the isotope of polonium that killed Litvinenko was made only in Russia by government workers in 2006 and that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the hit on Litvinenko. The US scientist adds that polonium can be ordered online in tiny amounts. (Plus polonium is used in textile factories throughout the world, including the Indian subcontinent where the bulk of the global textile manufacturing industry is located.) Finally a British citizen journalist visits the Abracadabra Club in London, where polonium traces were found, and speaks to the manager there. The manager recognises photos of Litvinenko’s employer Boris Berezovsky and an associate, Mario Scaramella; but on seeing Lugovoi’s photo, says he does not know the man.

The documentary is easy to follow though its case is not entirely persuasive. The polygraph lie-detector test is not infallible as Burgess himself admits. The Yes / No questions asked of Lugovoi might have been phrased and framed in such a way that a bystander could easily predict the answers he gave. Only one employee at the Abracadabra nightclub is interviewed. Viewers may need more convincing that Gessen is not simply a jealous Putinophobe and that other people have criticised her writing and research. Other possibilities as to how Litvinenko might have died – he might have died from some other toxin and the polonium story is simply a cover to hide the real cause of death – are not considered.

How Litvinenko originally came in contact with the polonium and why is not part of the documentary’s scope so some viewers may be disappointed that the sleuthing done by citizen journalists only exonerates Lugovoi of murder but goes no further. The aim of the program is basically to strip the politics away from the circumstances of Litvinenko’s death and by doing so, demonstrate how the man and the way he died are being used to demonise Russia and its government by the British and other Anglophone news media. Implied here is the notion that the British news media is acting as the propaganda arm of the British government in pushing an agenda that wilfully separates the peoples of Russia and Britain from pursuing common interests and values by fanning the flames of conflict between them.

The documentary treats its viewers intelligently and does not condescend to them with blaring lights, a hasty pace, jagged editing and flashy special effects. Not for the first time do I find myself wishing all documentaries could treat its viewers with respect.

How I Ended This Summer: a meandering character study of two individuals coping with extreme isolation and one another

Alexei Popogrebsky, “How I Ended This Summer / Kak ya provel etim letom” (2010)

Out of a very threadbare and unbelievable plot, Alexei Popogrebsky manages to craft a fairly interesting character study about human frailty, the need that people have for connections with one another, isolation in an extreme environment, modern humans’ relationship with nature (and how they have damaged and poisoned it) and forgiveness. A young university student, Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin), is sent to a meteorological station in the Russian Arctic to work with Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis), an old-timer set in his ways who takes pride in the work he does there. Pavel finds the work of making daily periodic reports on the Arctic weather and tidal conditions monotonous and boring. Sergei sees Pavel as lazy and immature because the younger man is easily distracted by boredom and plays video games when he should be learning about the environment around him so he can write his essay. The two men do not get on at all and can barely tolerate each other; Sergei even cuffs Pavel on a couple of occasions when the latter makes minor errors in his work. Pavel is easily intimidated and becomes quite paranoiac.

One day Pavel gets an urgent message from their superiors at the State Meteorological Service while Sergei goes out on an unauthorised 2-day fishing trip: Sergei’s wife and only child have died in a car accident. Pavel is supposed to tell Sergei straight away of the news and to get him to contact their employer who is sending a ship to collect Sergei. Because of his fear of Sergei, Pavel neglects to tell him. This failure to pass on important news sets in train a series of events that escalate in seriousness and results in life-threatening danger for both men in very different ways: Pavel through his paranoia and stupidity has several brushes with death and exposes himself and Sergei to radiation poisoning from an abandoned isotope beacon.

Filmed on location in Chukotka, close to Alaska, the movie features stunning scenes of wild subarctic landscapes and vast skies changing colour as the season passes through mid and late summer into early autumn. Long immersive shots of nature reinforce the sense of extreme isolation in this harsh environment where to make one mistake – as Pavel does, and he makes more than one mistake – could mean the difference between life and death. This of course means the film is quite slow in pace and stretches the thin plot almost to breaking point. There is very minimal dialogue which puts great demands on the two actors, particularly Dobrygin, to express emotions and motivations through their characters’ inexplicable behaviours. Both actors do excellent work in portraying two generational types: Sergei representing the stoic older man who puts duty, self-sufficiency and responsibility before personal feeling and comfort (and who sometimes bends the rules whenever he wants to spend time fishing), and expects Pavel more or less to do the same; and Pavel as the young, impulsive and immature fellow who wants to have a good time but is dependent on a disapproving older man who maybe has spent too much time away from other people and is lacking in current social graces.

The cat-and-mouse chase that occurs in the latter half of the film is ludicrous as Pavel is convinced that Sergei is unhinged and is out to kill him, and he plots to outwit Sergei. (The irony here is who is really unhinged, Pavel or Sergei.) The result is a climax that is grim and devastating in its stark and minimal delivery as Pavel confesses what he has done to the fish Sergei has been drying outside their hut and which the older man has been eating. At this point, one expects Sergei to really go ballistic and take his rage out on Pavel but the denouement that follows is just as jaw-droppingly unexpected as Pavel’s confession.

Perhaps the one major weakness of the film is that, having revealed Pavel’s weakness of character, it does not show his redemption, if indeed any has taken place with or without Sergei’s participation. Sergei’s acceptance of his family’s deaths and possibly his own impending death appears unbelievable, at least to Western audiences. Obviously Sergei has forgiven Pavel for his immense moral baseness in poisoning him but how this forgiveness has taken place and under what circumstances is never shown. We cannot tell if Pavel has grown in maturity as a result but we have to assume that he has.

With the themes it has, the film might have been expected to be heavy-going but with minimal dialogue and long scenes of nature and silence, it carries its message lightly. Yes, humans have done great harm to nature and to one another, but when faced with extreme dangers, they must band together for survival no matter what they have done to one another in the past, and forgiveness and acceptance of one another’s faults and crimes must at times override such insults, no matter how awful, horrific and even life-threatening they are. Unfortunately by the time the film reaches this point, it has meandered on and on for so long that this message has the feeling of being tacked on just to round off the narrative and give it a raison d’être.

Russian Media interview President Bashar al Assad of Syria: a view of how Syria is fighting terrorism and advancing political change

Russian Media Interview with President Bashar al Assad (16 September 2015)

Syrian President Bashar al Assad granted a rare interview to representatives from various Russian media outlets including RT, Rossiskaya Gazeta, Channel 1, Russia 24, RIA Novosti and NTV Channel. Given that for the past four years Syria has been under siege from various rebel groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS, the interview inevitably centred on Syria’s fight against these terrorist groups, how this fight is progressing and what the process to achieve and maintain lasting peace will be, and the huge wave of refugees leaving Syria for Europe. The interview was conducted in Arabic, English and Russian, and can be viewed at this RT link. The English-language transcript is also at the link.

The interview starts at the deep end with a multi-loaded question on the political process to peace, the President’s view on sharing power with Syrian opposition groups that originally wanted him gone and how he plans to carry out political reforms in the current difficult circumstances. The President replies that from the outset his government used dialogue to bring together different groups of Syrians in Damascus, Moscow and Geneva, to discuss political change and how to fight terrorism, and that this dialogue is still ongoing. However for political change to occur, terrorism must be defeated first, and to defeat terrorism and stop the exodus of refugees, the West must stop supporting terrorists. Most Syrians who are refugees are fleeing Syria because of the terrorist threat, and most remaining Syrians want security and safety first before political reforms can take place.

On the question of international co-operation to solve the terrorism problem, Assad acknowledges the support from Iran, Egypt and Russia at varying levels. There has been some co-operation with Iraq as well. On the other hand, the coalition of countries led by the US has had no success in combating terrorism and has only allowed ISIS to expand its forces. Some Middle Eastern countries are assisting ISIS by providing fighters and weapons.

On the question of the type of enemy Syria faces in ISIS, whether ISIS is a large organisation or an actual state, Assad asserts that the state ISIS claims to have created is artificial and bears no resemblance to a normal society. ISIS is an extremist Islamist creation of the West and serves as a de facto army to bring down Assad’s government and create chaos and instability in the Middle East.

Asked if he was prepared to work with those Western politicians who had wanted his overthrow once peace is restored to Syria, Assad indicates that he would if such co-operation brings benefits to Syria and the Syrian people and that his personal feelings were irrelevant. Assad expresses sorrow that there are so many Syrian refugees who have fled to Europe, as every person gone is a loss to Syria but he also emphasised that the deaths of people in Syria from terrorism are no less tragic than the deaths of refugees on the high seas in the Mediterranean.

The interview concluded with a question as to whether the war in Syria against ISIS and other terror groups began and who Assad thinks is responsible for it. He lays the blame squarely on the US and the oil kingdoms in the Arabian Peninsula and refers to the general historical background stretching back to the 1980s when the West adopted the murderous mujahideen in Afghanistan as “freedom fighters”.

Watching and listening to the interview, I was impressed with Assad’s soft-spoken demeanour and his fortitude in the most difficult circumstances. He may not have willingly taken on the role of Syrian President – he was originally an eye doctor working in London until the death of his older brother who had been groomed by their father Hafez Assad as his successor forced him to return to Syria – but he has shown tremendous moral fibre in staying with his people and defending them.

 

Rejuvenation of British politics and student activism on “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)”

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 86)” (RT.com, August 2015)

Perhaps the best thing that former UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband ever did for his party was to resign after the general elections in May 2015, which saw the Conservative Party returned to power and able to govern in its own right. In the current scramble for the vacant UK Labour Party leadership, MP Jeremy Corbyn has emerged as a popular successor with his platform calling for renationalising public utilities and railway transport, tackling corporate tax evasion and avoidance, restoring university student grants and abolishing tuition fees, unilateral nuclear disarmament, urging the Bank of England to create money by funding infrastructure projects, stopping cuts in the public sector, and calling for dialogue with groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and with Russia. Corbyn’s sudden popularity has unsettled the British political establishment and the mainstream British media across the political spectrum – and this includes supposedly progressive media outlets – has leapt to its masters’ defence and is pouring savage opprobrium upon his head. In this episode of “Sputnik …”, Geroge Galloway and guest Seamus Milne of The Guardian (one so-called progressive news outlet that scorns Corbyn and rubbishes his platform) discuss Corbyn’s huge popularity among young people and what it represents in British life: a deep revulsion against the Cameron government and its neoliberal policies, and a desire for political and economic change and social justice.

Milne contrasts the rejuvenation of the UK Labour Party that Corbyn has brought with his platform with the general torpor that has existed in British politics since Tony Blair’s time as Prime Minister. He and Galloway briefly touch on the slander, including accusations of anti-Semitism, that has been hurled at Corbyn. Whether Corbyn may have much effect outside Britain is yet to be seen but Milne and Galloway speak of the possibility that the Corbyn phenomenon may resound with Europeans tired of neoliberal politics and economic austerity. Having known Corbyn for a long time and having followed his career in politics, Milne and Galloway agree that he is essentially a decent and honest man. Whether though Corbyn can translate that decency and goodness into effective political leadership, neither Milne nor Galloway can say.

Unfortunately at no point in the discussion does Galloway challenge Milne on his newspaper’s general hostility towards Corbyn and his policies, and why The Guardian vilifies him in the way it does. Strangely, both Milne and Galloway admit to being as surprised as the rest of the country at Corbyn’s apparently phenomenal rise in popularity though with their respective backgrounds, I would have thought they were in a position to predict his Messiah-like coming as they would have (or should have) been aware that many Britons, especially young Britons, were thirsting after real political, social and economic change.

The theme of rejuvenation continues in the second half of the episode with second guest Shadia Edwards-Dashti (hereafter referred to as SED merely for convenience), student anti-war activist and a leader of Stop the War Coalition. She and Galloway discuss the radicalisation of university students angered by past government policies of reducing public funding of tertiary education and increasing tuition fees, with the consequent exploitation of students by banks offering student loans at exorbitant interest rates, combined with the lack of suitable part-time jobs to help pay off student debt and the dismal job prospects faced by many graduates; and various factors such as racism that may or may be influencing this new-found political activism. SED also mentions a growing and insidious culture of policing and snitching at universities, and refers to Jeremy Corbyn as a great representative and advocate for young people.

For my money, SED was the better of the two guests and I wish the Galloways had interviewed her for the whole 25-minute episode. As a student activist, SED is in a better position to analyse and offer an opinion as to why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular with young people, and what his popularity says about the Britain of today and the Britain that might come.

MH17: A Year Without the Truth – uncovering the secrecy surrounding the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 shootdown

Yana Erlashova, Vitaly Biryukov, “MH17: A Year Without the Truth” (RT Documentary, 2014)

On 17 July 2014, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17, carrying nearly 300 people, was shot down in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Over a year later, debris from the shootdown is still being uncovered, the investigation into the incident is still shrouded in secrecy and the narrative accepted (without much questioning) by the mainstream Western news media that the passenger jet was hit by a BUK missile fired by Donbass rebels, supposedly backed by Russia, is not backed by the evidence so far recovered. What is also very odd is that one of the parties likely to be culpable, Ukraine, has signed a non-disclosure agreement with Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands  which allows any of the signatories to veto any attempt by other signatories to release results of the investigation into the shootdown to the general public. In this context, a documentary about Flight MH-17, the secrecy around its fate and what actually lies behind that secrecy by Russia Today (RT) is not only welcome but necessary.

The documentary takes the form of various interviews with people in Malaysia, parts of Europe and the Donbass area where the plane went down, all of whom have some interest in the shootdown: among others, the families of Captain Wan Amran and a co-pilot who were part of the flight crew are interviewed as are also close relatives of a couple of passengers on the jet. The RT team also talk to some of the people who are still recovering debris from the fallen jet in fields around their homes. Dutch blogger Max van der Werff, Malaysian engineer Mohammad Azahar Zanuddin and German freelance journalist Billy Six (who visited the crash site and spoke to witnesses) are among those who doubt the official Western narrative of a BUK missile having brought down the jet. For different reaons, everyone interviewed expresses a desire to see the secrecy surrounding the plane’s shootdown lifted and the facts about how it came down made public: the grieving families of the two crew members need to know how their loved ones died so they can get on with their lives; others such as the Berlin lawyer representing German families who lost relatives in the crash believe that Ukraine must bear responsibility at least for allowing Flight MH17 to fly over an area where civil war was raging and the Donbass rebels had brought down a military jet.

The interview with the relatives of Captain Wan Amran is quite revealing in sections where the women say they were not allowed by the Malaysian government to view the dead pilot’s body directly, let alone touch it to prepare it for proper Muslim burial. The Dutch blogger says that he learned more about the case by visiting the crash site than on what he saw on his laptop; he also questions the Netherlands’ role in leading the investigation into the shootdown, given that the country is a member of NATO and therefore cannot be an impartial party. The German freelancer admits that initially he believed Western reports about who shot down the plane but after visiting the crash site and talking to people in the area, his opinion changed. Local people tell the RT reporter that they saw military jets approach the jet and shoot at it. The Berlin lawyer says that he received death threats by phone from someone claiming to be a Ukrainian Nazi. Most tragic of all is the story of the co-pilot who left behind a young wife pregnant with their first child.

Astonishingly in one scene, the RT journalist and a local Donbass resident in Petropavlivka find fragments of the Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777; the resident points to a round hole in one piece of the wreckage. They take the fragments to a local government building where a woman tells them that the fragments are set aside for the Dutch Safety Board to collect.

Later in the documentary the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammad bemoans his country’s lack of spine in insisting on obtaining the truth about the crash and in following the Western news reporting in spite of the lack of evidence. He did not think that the investigation into the crash is being carried out objectively.

Although the RT documentary does not claim to have discovered who is responsible for the shootdown, what evidence is presented defies the official Western account and suggests very strongly that the Ukrainian government and military may be complicit in bringing down the plane. Why the Western narrative puts the blame on the Donbass rebels (and by association, Russia) is never explained – the aim of the documentary is mainly to penetrate the secrecy surrounding the crash – and so the shootdown is not placed in the context of the civil war in Ukraine and the parties behind that war that wish to see it continue and drag Russia into the fighting, so as to drain and ruin its economy and possibly destabilise that country and make it ripe for a colour revolution masterminded by Washington.

A more detailed exposition of what happened to Flight MH17 that would put it into a wider context that includes the ongoing war in Ukraine, what is at stake behind it and the media propaganda surrounding its reporting would have been welcome; this documentary does not do nearly enough but given the paucity of information so far about the crash, it is the best there is. Curiously, after this documentary was broadcast, its makers were contacted by the Dutch Safety Board for help in obtaining the fragments of MH17 shown in the film.

Direct Line with Vladimir Putin (April 2015): concentrating on domestic issues, Crimea and the Ukrainian crisis

Kirill Kleymenov and Maria Sittel, “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin” (RT.com, 16 April 2015)

Every year since he has been President of Russia, and also when he served as Prime Minister under Dmitri Medvedev’s term as President from 2009 to 2013, Vladimir Putin has willingly fielded questions about the Russian economy, politics, social issues, foreign policy and just about any other topic raised by Russian citizens live on this 4-hour Q&A marathon broadcast by four Russian TV channels and three radio stations from Moscow. The questions come to Putin through many channels: studio audience, phone-in or phone messages, live video links and electronic mail. The 2015 edition ran for five hours and over three million questions and messages were received by the show. Over the years, the show’s hosts have changed but Kirill Kleymenov and Maria Sittel have been the main stalwarts and this year was no different. Kleymenov and Sittel receive able assistance from people monitoring the questions coming into the studio through various media.

Due to the length of the Q&A session and to the variety of questions and issues raised ,  this essay attempts to group the questions and responses into rough groups relating to the Russian economy, social and political issues, foreign policy and particular issues that arose during 2014 and early 2015. I make no claim to being impartial in looking at and emphasising particular parts of the marathon session. My essay is based on the English-language transcript provided by The Vineyard of the Saker website.

Economic Issues

Maria Sittel was the first to lead off with a question to Putin and this question dealt with the complicated economic situation that faced Russia for most of 2014. Western economic sanctions were applied against Russia as a result of the political crisis that erupted in Ukraine after February 2014, the ensuing restrictions on non-Ukrainians and their use of their own languages in public life, Crimea’s independence referendum and the peninsula’s subsequent return to Russia, the outbreak of civil war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, and the West’s perception of Russia ‘s response to that war; and the deliberate crashing of global oil prices by the United States and Saudi Arabia by flooding world markets with oil with the aim of wrecking the Russian economy, perceived to be wholly dependent on oil and natural gas exports. Russia responded by imposing its own economic sanctions on EU and other Western products entering Russia, thus stimulating its own industries to replace those products, and by entering into trade deals with other countries. The Russian rouble was allowed to fall in value and the Russian Central Bank hiked up interest rates to stem the decline. (Though The Saker disapproved of this move, in retrospect it may have been a brilliant master-stroke: Russian oil is bought and sold in US dollars, so Russia would be hoarding US dollars until such time as the value of the rouble is low enough that US dollars can be exchanged for roubles, and then Russia would flood world markets with US dollars, depressing the US dollar’s value.) Putin’s response to Sittel’s question was to highlight positive developments in Russia’s economy over 2014 / early 2015. In response to Kleymenov’s question as to whether Russia could have acted differently, Putin replied that Moscow took the best approach possible at the time.

Still Kleymenov and Sittel pressed Putin more by bringing out a big gun: former government finance minister Alexei Kudrin who criticised Moscow’s application of the “Strategy 2020” programme he (Kudrin) helped develop, saying that Russia has not gone far enough in pushing structural economic reform. He urged that under the present economic conditions, Russia needs to adopt Strategy 2020 and pursue it fully, rather than use it as a guide or handy source of individual policies to be picked at. Putin replied that Strategy 2020 was in effect as a guide but its full practical implementation is difficult as it would squeeze incomes that are already too low in crucial areas of economy and society such as primary and secondary school education. One can sense here a clash between Kudrin’s preferred neoliberal reforms which among other things might have imposed austerity measures on the bulk of the working population and Putin’s liking for a mixed economy in which capitalist and socialist policies and programmes co-exist and complement one another in different proportions depending on the particular socioeconomic spheres in which they are applied.

Agricultural Issues and Issues affecting Small Business

Whether by accident or deliberate choice, several questions targeted at Putin focused on Moscow’s support for agriculture and small farmers in particular. A number of farmers, especially dairy farmers, called attention to the difficulties small farmers have in obtaining bank credit to develop their herds and increase milking capacity and yields. One farmer in particular complained that his dairy farm had yielded no profit over the 15 years it has operated and that he distrusted the official statistics given by the dairying industry as they did not reflect the reality he was experiencing. Another dairy farmer complained that government funding was going to large farms while small farmers were “left with crumbs”. To these people, Putin replied that Moscow had allocated an extra 50 billion roubles to support agriculture and another 4 billion roubles to subsidise the leasing of equipment. In addition, Moscow had also increased subsidies for farmers on bank loans taken out to increase working capital.

A third farmer complained that small farmers had to compete against larger agricultural enterprises to supply milk to customers and that small farmers who wanted to supply milk and other products directly to customers through farmers’ markets needed help to do so from local municipal authorities. Putin sympathised with this farmer, added that council authorities had had problems in the past with outdoor markets selling expired goods and that Moscow would take up this issue with regional governors and they in turn would contact council authorities about it.

The issues raised by small farmers point to the need for the Russian government to assist small and medium-sized farming enterprises financially and in marketing their products. Support could be given to small farmers to form private co-operatives that would market and distribute their produce directly to customers. The relevant government ministries could consider offering business advice to small farmers, establish a system of banks specifically to offer loans to small farmers and set up a unit to offer financial advice. Such systems could also be part of broader systems to offer advice and funding to small businesses and entrepreneurs generally.

Indeed there was a brief discussion about raised interest rates for small business loans that annoyed two questioners from Sverdlovsk and Irkutsk. Putin said he would look into the situation of Sberbank’s raising of the interest rates for small business loans and refer it to the head of the Central Bank of the Russian Federation. There were support programmes already in place for small to medium-sized businesses including a two-year tax holiday for new businesses.

Politicial and Foreign Policy Issues

Kleymenov brought out liberal politician Irina Khakamada who spoke of the recent gunshot death of the liberal political activist Boris Nemtsov and queried how the investigation into his shooting was going and whether other opposition politicians such as Alexei Navalny are able to run for parliament on an equal footing with politicians allied with Putin. Putin pointed out that suspects in Nemtsov’s murder had already been arrested and charged a few days after the killing but those ultimately responsible for hiring the hitmen and who stood to benefit from Nemtsov’s death were unknown. Putin also said that opposition politicians should be able to campaign on an equal basis with other politicians provided that they have popular support and that their activities are within the law.

The issue of Boris Nemtsov’s death was taken up again later in the show by Ekho Moskvy radio station chief editor Alexei Venediktov who queried why investigators were unable to question eyewitnesses hiding in Russian territory, and insinuated that this demonstrated a weakness in Russia’s internal security. Putin replied that investigations were still ongoing and that among other things they would lead to the real killers in due course.

A number of people raised concerns about Russia’s place in the world, whether Russia would be attacked and who Russia’s friends were in the revived fight against a resurgent Nazism in Ukraine. Putin tended to skirt around these questions, more out of the need perhaps to be diplomatic and not reveal state secrets. To one military historian who asked if Russia should respond to those countries that refused to send leaders to attend the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in Moscow on 9 May 2015, Putin replied such countries were free to do what they liked; the Victory Parade was Russia’s celebration after all and Russia could celebrate without others.

A newspaper editor, Konstantin Remchukov, challenged Putin in suggesting that his (Putin) popularity ratings were based on people’s perceptions of the West as bullying Russia and their feelings of patriotism and nationalism rising as a result. Remchukov wanted to know what Putin would do to counter radical nationalism (and by implication risk seeing his popularity plummet). Putin replied that he did not agree with Remchukov’s perception of his popularity and that Russian people knew and understood what was really happening. (In other words, Russian people have more intelligence than what Remchukov credits them with.) From Putin’s point of view, nationalism, patriotism and xenophobia are not to be confused and that nationalism has no place in Russia which historically developed as a multinational / multicultural society dominated by no one religion.

Social Issues

As one of the assistants to Kleymenov and Sittel remarked while monitoring the phone calls and SMS text messages, many questions put to the President concern housing, utilities, the ability of Russia’s healthcare system to cope with particular conditions affecting many people and the cost of medicines. Particular questions on Russian healthcare focused on the system’s ability to deliver prompt treatment at the level needed by people with life-threatening or chronic diseases and conditions. The show received complaints from people registered in special categories to receive free prescriptions for certain drugs but who were unable to obtain such prescriptions because the medicines were not available in the areas where they lived. One woman expressed a fear that the Ministry for Health was planning to stop importing foreign medicines. The questions asked suggest that Russia needs to develop a pharmaceutical industry, ideally spread over a number of cities in its European and Asian territories, to make drugs either under licence from Western pharmaceutical firms or to develop its own drugs. Other questions indicate that the healthcare system needs to do more to provide proper treatment and care for the country’s most vulnerable groups: pensioners, cancer patients and children with chronic conditions who live far from the major cities. There may be a huge discrepancy in people’s access to quality healthcare between the larger cities and towns on the one hand and on the other small provincial towns and villages in isolated areas where transport links need development.

Interestingly with respect to housing, the main issue that arose was the plight of people who had taken out mortgage loans in foreign currencies some time before the rouble began falling in value, and who were now having problems in paying off their loans. Putin said his government could investigate ways of helping such people but no more than it would help people who had taken out mortgages in roubles. He pledged that the government would subsidise mortgage loans to help support the growth of residential construction and to help people buy affordable housing. The country has been experiencing a housing construction boom in recent years and subsidising mortgage loans will help maintain and increasing available housing stock.

A man complained that his rural town’s regular train service had been cancelled a year ago and that as a result people were unable to move around. The cancellation of the service particularly affected young people’s ability to attend colleges and universities. Putin promised to look into the town’s situation and to find a solution that was both economical and helpful to the town’s population.

Crimea and Ukraine

2015 is the second year that people in Crimea would have been able to participate in the Direct Line with Vladimir Putin show. The main questions focused on the peninsula’s transport links with Russia, in particular the ferry links between Crimea and SE Russia at Kerch Strait and the poor state of the air terminal and runway at what I presume is Sevastopol. Putin mentioned that Aeroflot was cutting the price of tickets to Crimea from several cities and that ferry services between Crimea and Russia would be increased.

The elephant in the room that is Ukraine was present in many questions and at times the situation in that country and the ramifications for Russia were discussed at some length. Direct Line received a report that a prominent journalist in Ukraine, Oles Buzina, had just been shot dead and that a former politician Oleg Kalashnikov, associated with former Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, had also been killed previously. The hosts and Putin expressed condolences to Buzina’s family. Irina Khakamada asked Putin if Russia had troops in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine and Putin emphatically said no. An online question asked why Russia’s support for Ukraine had failed given that Russia had invested the equivalent of US$32-33 billion in Ukraine; Putin’s reply was that the Ukrainian government itself had wasted the money with the greed and corruption of its politicians.

At this point Putin delved into a brief and interesting lecture into why Russia had allowed Ukraine to develop the way it had since 1991 when Ukraine became independent: Ukraine is a sovereign state and must be allowed to make its own way in the world. As a fellow sovereign state, Russia must respect Ukraine’s decisions even if they incur bad or injurious results. There is no desire on Russia’s part to revive an empire or force other countries into an imagined sphere of influence in spite of Western propaganda that says the contrary. At the same time, Putin recognised that a considerable number of Russians and Russian-speaking people live outside the borders of Russia in neighbouring countries like Ukraine and that their interests had to be considered. The way to do this, according to Putin, is through interaction, cooperation and mutual respect.

On the question of the future status of Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts, Putin took a minimalist position in stating that he hoped for the recent Minsk II agreements, brokered with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and the leaders of Germany and France, would be implemented and adhered to by the Ukrainian government. In the long run, whether Donetsk and Lugansk would stay within Ukraine or not would depend on the people living in those oblasts and their decision would in turn depend on the Ukrainian leadership’s attitude towards these two regions.

Some Observations

Firstly the very notion that Vladimir Putin would participate in a marathon 5-hour session answering questions, not all of which might be spontaneous and unscripted, seems quite astounding to most Western audiences used to seeing their leaders participate in carefully orchestrated 1-hour “debates” in which all replies have been scripted and vetted in advance. Certainly some questioners appear to have been pre-selected which might explain why Alexei Kudrin and Irina Khakamada, both prominent opposition politicians, got the gong to ask their questions at the expense of other, perhaps more pressing requests. The fact that people in Crimea and Donbass refugees were favoured by Direct Line might suggest pre-selection at work as well in addition to Crimea and the Donbass being issues of considerable importance and urgency in Russia at this time.

Why prominent opposition politicians like Kudrin and Khakamada were given air-time when they could have raised their respective questions in parliament seems a puzzle. It could be that the issues they have raised are in the public interest, given that among other things Boris Nemtsov’s murder attracted worldwide attention. However Putin was able to turn a potential source of criticism into his advantage: the police investigation into Nemtsov’s death netted suspects within a week of the killing. The propaganda value that the West could have mined from Nemtsov’s death ended up being very limited. Also by giving time to Kudrin and Khakamada, Putin gave them the opportunity to hang themselves by their own opinions of what was important and what was not. Khakamada by her own admission and assumptions placed more importance on Western impressions that Russian military units were present in eastern Ukraine than on actual facts: she could have travelled to the area or areas close by and seen for herself that no Russian troops were stationed in positions to invade.

I note that this year’s Q&A session was the longest so far in the programme’s history and I expect that next year’s session will be just as long if not longer. There surely will come a point when the producers realise “Direct Line …” is becoming unwieldy. I can see it running to about six or seven hours but no more. There is a need perhaps to set certain guidelines about what people can ask or petition of the President so as to preserve the programme’s reputation for serious journalism as well as not to waste time with frivolous requests.

The very fact that people pepper their President with questions, requests and petitions which he says he will take up with the relevant regional governors who in turn would be expected to refer to and discuss with the local municipal authorities in charge of the issues raised suggests that democracy from the ground up might still be weak in parts of Russia. There may be regional and local government authorities that still have an authoritarian outlook and culture and which only jump to pressure applied from above. (Much the same can be said about the relationship between and among the different levels of government and their respective relationship with their voters in many supposedly more democratic Western countries; in many governments at regional and even local council levels, ideology and politicking have usurped priorities such as delivering services required by communities.) No doubt a situation in which regional and local government authorities in Russia are more attentive and responsive to their constituents’ needs would be much better than what may currently exist. Citizens should be able to appeal directly to their relevant authorities (through citizen-initiated referendums, online petitions or mini-Q&A sessions with regional governors for example) to get certain things done that benefit their families and communities. Perhaps Moscow itself is working towards this goal. A criticism that could be made about shows like Direct Line … is that they are simply a 21st-century version of rulers holding court and receiving petitions and requests from subjects which are then delegated to the appropriate advisors and ministries.

The impression of Vladimir Putin that I come away with is that he is an intelligent and pragmatic politician and leader who, while he may keep his cards close to his chest, seems dedicated at the very least to leave his country in a much more developed, more prosperous and freer position than it was when he returned to the Soviet Union in 1991 from Germany. This work requires the revival and strengthening of social and cultural institutions and values that were weakened or repressed during the Soviet period and which would serve as a basis for a new Russian society. Putin recognises that Russia is in a period of transition, in the process of becoming, and that he has responsibility for leading the country through that transition – though what the result will be may not necessarily be what he imagines – but still, he is determined to progress to his preferred goal of a Russia strong and secure in its place in the world. This goal is very much in agreement with what he said in his Valdai 2014 speech, in which Russia would not aim at being the world’s enforcer but rather concentrate on its own development and defend its own interests and territory.

The episode can be seen at this Youtube link.

Leviathan: a hollow and dishonest film insulting to ordinary people ground down by corruption

Andrey Zvyagintsev, “Leviathan” (2014)

Often taken as reflective of the current socio-political situation in Russia, this film about an ordinary man, living in a remote part of northwest Russia, who loses everything due to local political corruption, other people’s betrayals, the hypocrisy of social institutions and just the fickle hand of fate was actually inspired by a series of events in the US town of Granby, in Colorado state. In the early 1990s, Marvin Heemeyer bought some land and built a muffler shop. He later agreed to sell the land to a concrete company. He then changed his mind and demanded a higher price for his land. In 2001, the local council rezoned the land and gave approval for the concrete company to build a factory there. Heemeyer fought the council’s decision (because the factory would interfere with his own business) over several years and got support from family and friends to resist it, all to no avail. In 2004, with a bulldozer that he customised himself into a virtual tank, Heemeyer demolished Granby’s town hall, the mayor’s house, several other buildings and a number of vehicles including a police SUV. Ending up stuck in the basement of a store he had razed, and surrounded by a SWAT team, Heemeyer committed suicide with his handgun.

In Zvyagintsev’s story, Granby becomes Pribrezhny, an Arctic town that has seen better days as a Soviet factory city and Heemeyer becomes Kolya (Alexei Serebriakov), the local mechanic who is fighting a crooked mayor who wants Kolya’s land to build a new development. The mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), repossesses Kolya’s property at a price less than the property’s value and begins moves to evict him. Kolya enlists the help of his old army buddy, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who works as a wily lawyer in Moscow. All their appeals come to nought in court, h0wever. Dima manages to find some dirt on Vadim and threatens to expose him. Encouraged by an Orthodox priest, Vadim issues his own threat against Dima and Dima is forced to back off. In the meantime, Kolya has to deal with a delinquent teenage son Roman (Sergey Pokhdaev) who has fallen in with a local gang and his wife Lilia (Elena Lyadova) who works in the local fish plant and who secretly yearns to leave the town and the rural isolation. Bit by bit, Kolya is undone not only by Vadim’s scheming but also by Lilia and Dima when they start an affair together, and his own anger when he and some friends discover the couple’s indiscretion. A chain of events is set in motion that plunges Kolya into further hell and which reveals the corruption of Russian social and cultural institutions, the hollowness of love and friendship, and the failings of human nature. End of story.

For all the fine acting and the beautiful cinematography which makes Pribrezhny and its natural surroundings significant characters in their own right, I found the film itself hollow and dishonest. Several major characters, most of all Dima and Elena, are simply not believable in both their intelligence and stupidity: why would Dima and Elena commence an affair, knowing that by doing so they are betraying Kolya in the hour of his greatest need? It’s as if Zvyagintsev enjoys playing a pitiless God just to see how much he can make Kolya suffer. The film is meant to be about how ordinary people with all their strengths and weaknesses cope in a world where Fate always holds the upper hand, and good fortune can suddenly be swept away by bad, and yet Zvyagintsev seems to think that Kolya must be made to suffer more by ridiculously contrived situations such as Elena and Dima’s sudden love affair and his later arraignment for murder based on circumstantial evidence. Zvyagintsev’s treatment of Kolya, the simple car mechanic whose main failing seems to be drinking too much vodka, is unsympathetic, even scathing: Kolya’s reaction to every problem is either to fall into a blind rage or blind drunkenness, and the character, for all his street smarts (to the extent that he calls on a clever Moscow lawyer to help) and skill with fixing cars, seems incapable of helping himself as he is led away to jail.

The scenes that involve hypocritical or unconcerned priests add very little to the plot and serve mainly to bash the Russian Orthodox Church in a pointless and tedious way. There may be much to criticise the Church for – it did co-operate with the Soviet government in the past, and it may very well be corrupt for all I know – but Zvyagintsev’s harsh treatment of its representatives as one-dimensional idiots suggests an agenda against the Church per se and not a true criticism of its practices or program.

Oddly enough, the one character who seems true to type and who might actually invite audience sympathy is the crooked mayor who revels in stealing Kolya’s property and using thugs to kick city-slicker Dima back into his place, yet needs the bishop Vasily and the priest Lyosha to help him when Dima threatens to expose his crimes to Moscow police. Although Vadim resorts to violence to get his way, his reason for doing so is understandable. His own hypocrisy is open to the audience but he is incapable of seeing it himself; Zvyagintsev intends that the church scene in which Vadim appears be a condemnation of both Vadim and the Russian Orthodox Church, yet the audience is likely to think that Dima and Elena have committed the greater sin of betraying Kolya.

Supposedly a film about how the little people are made to suffer by the corrupt workings of government and greedy individuals together with implacable Fate, “Leviathan” ends up looking more like an insult against ordinary people like Kolya, who does what he can with the resources he has to survive.