Johnson’s Russia List #8123, 17 March 2004
Please let me share with JRL readers the joy and happiness I feel today. Gideon Lichfield, Moscow correspondent for The Economist, responded to my comment (JRL #8113) to The Economist’s editorial (JRL #8112)! It is the very first time that my name was actually mentioned in print by someone associated with a major western publication. My prospects are bright, and I am kissing my wife!
I used to be invisible. I came to Russia in 1992 having been invited by a Yeltsin economic advisor, but I did not get any funding from HIID or USAID. Survived as best I could on $26 per month Russian Ministry of Economics salary. In 1995, I wrote Understanding Russia for USAID. The book was published, but then immediately shredded because it actually said that Yeltsin’s government was “corrupt”. I republished the book without a USAID logo, and it got me quite a fan club of US officials who whispered that they loved the book. In 1996, I started to work for Defense Enterprise Fund (”DEF”), a US-financed venture capital fund that was supposed to convert former Soviet producers of WMD. In 1999, I wrote a letter to the US Department of State complaining that the fund was being grossly mismanaged. From the day the letter was received, I have not been able, in 200 plus attempts, to get another US-funded position. But the letter was true, as was clearly shown by the Department of Defense Audit of DEF dated December 31, 2001. It took me two and a half years of full-time (unpaid) effort to get this Audit done. And what? Nothing! A person directly responsible for gross violations detailed by the Audit served as DEF’s President for further two years, until the very day that DEF was closed down, its entire $67M grant lost, its mission not accomplished at all. Over these four and a half years, I wrote more than a thousand (more than a thousand!) letters trying to save the DEF and bring some justice to those who blatantly misused WMD conversion funds. I got no responses, and certainly no results. In April 2001, The Moscow Times published the longest Special Report in its history, 10,000 words, detailing, and largely supporting, my allegations against DEF’s top managers. The Report correctly described me as “homeless” and “penniless” and photographed me in front of all my belongings stored in cardboard boxes (and they are still stored in the same cardboard boxes today). The Report was greeted with silence.
My book, How to Make Russia a Normal Country, a civic education textbook for people with Soviet background, was published in 2000. I gave 600 copies of it away to Russian democrats and western NGOs because, quite frankly, I felt a sense of urgency. In return, I got only one review, in Izvestia, and it actually said that “Solzhenitsyn and Maly were idiots”. I got not a cent of funding. My English book, Russia As It Is: Transformation of a Lose/Lose Society, was repeatedly rejected and was self-published in 2003. For the life of me, I can’t get it reviewed or simply noticed. David Johnson has published several pretty controversial pieces of mine, to no response from the JRL community, as if I were a court jester.
And now, Gideon Lichfield responded to my piece and called me by name! He called me a monkey! Mr Lichfield, or Gideon, if I may, I just love you, brother, you are great, OK? No hard feelings? I’ve just been invisible for far too long, especially for a monkey since monkeys’ lifetimes are short:
In that spirit of friendship, let me respond to your piece. I am sorry I caused you to write it in anger.
You start by saying “Maly: completely misses the point.” In the next sentence, you describe the argument I made. And then you comment, “He has a point”. Now, in quantum physics, it is necessary to have a point in order to completely miss it, but some people and most monkeys are not that smart. They may feel that you contradicted yourself.
Then you come to my second point. You say, “What [The Economist] suggested is that if the Russian people want [opposition political parties and independent media outlets], he [Putin] should not trample on their legal and constitutional rights [to have them].”
Two issues here. First, I wrote, “I think that it is the people who should value democracy, demand it, defend it, promote it, and be an active part of it.” In other words, since Russian people, unfortunately, do not greatly value and loudly demand democracy, it is childish of us to demand that Putin impose democracy anyway. He is not a British correspondent or a US ambassador: he has got a country to run.
Secondly, I want to discuss your phrase “opposition political parties and independent media outlets” that Russian people supposedly want. But which one of the two? When you have one egg, you cannot scramble it and then have it hatch a chicken. There was one truly independent and democratic TV channel in Russia, NTV. And then Chubais and Kokh, main sponsors and leaders of SPS, a supposedly democratic party, came and took the channel over, dispossessed, blackmailed, jailed, and exiled its owner, intimidated and bribed journalists to break their solidarity, defeated their valiant an unprecedented strike, and banned them from the airwaves. Who do you want, SPS or NTV? And how come you mention them together?
You say “the West should be doing something more than mouthing limp platitudes to get [Putin] to respect those rights”. When did you arrive to Russia if you are saying that? Don’t you recall that the General Director of the new, pliant, and raped NTV, was a US citizen (and a prominent “loans for shares” personality) Boris Jordan? And did you hear the US Ambassador or the Department of State ever voice any displeasure about this US citizen’s prominent and very public role in that modern-day Kristallnacht?
You remind me of pundits who say that since Chubais privatized everything, while Yavlinsky was yelling that that was a theft of the century, these two “democrats” should “unite”.
And then, you say the following:
“Thirdly, Maly accuses us of naivety (and, worse, imperalism) for believing that Western funding for pro-democracy programmes will make a difference. It was Western funding for pro-democracy programmes, most notably for parallel vote counts and exit polls, that allowed the Georgian people to see that their parliamentary elections were fraudulent and launch the protests that toppled Shevardnadze.”
I quoted this wonderful passage of yours in full because the first sentence alerts a reader to look for “naivety (and, worse, imperialism)”, and the next sentence serves both of them on the plate.
First, you claim that Georgians launched their protests because some westerners alerted them to election fraud. This is naive. They launched protests because they could not take it any longer and launched them at that time because they realized they were about to get four more years of the same. The revolution was launched by an active and angry minority that rose irrespective of whether they were winning or losing at the polls. They just had enough of Shevardnadze, legitimate or not. Another naive assertion is to say that western observers are a credible source for Georgians. Everyone knows that they fail to see, fail to grasp the reality, and make pronouncements to suit their own purposes without any regard for the truth at all. If you disagree, just tell me why did the West support Chubais. And I alluded to that in my piece: it is because US citizen Shvidler was able to amass a fortune of $1.9B in a few years and because Khodorkovsky transferred his holdings “for safekeeping” to Lord Rothschild. If Bill Gates were to give Microsoft to the Japanese, it would have been a big story, but if Russian oil ends up in foreign hands, it’s fine.
And then you say that it was the exit polls conducted by westerners that precipitated the violent regime change in a sovereign state. If this is not imperialism, what is?
In your next sentence, you continue to show your amazing naivete and no less amazing imperialism. You say “I very much hope that the coming elections in Ukraine will be as carefully watched, and I expect that Maly, who lives there, hopes so too.” Don’t you understand that there is no freedom of the press in Ukraine, and that therefore Ukrainians have nothing on which to base an informed judgment? Don’t you understand that to make a determination between competing programs a person must know what the issues are, and must be sober just for these five minutes? Yes, people hate a certain Ukrainian politician because he is a thief; but these very people adore another Ukrainian politician because she is such an attractive, young looking thief. Yet, once the papers start to write that she had given birth to goats, the people would not vote for her, and would find the old thief rather grandfatherly looking. What is there “to observe”? Publish my book in Ukrainian: at least it teaches people to recognize manipulation.
Then you advance the following argument:
“Finally, the idea that American pro-democracy programmes taught Russians “to firmly associate democracy with Chubais and his “loans-for-shares” scheme” is just plain silly. It wasn’t America who sold Russians the idea that the Yeltsin years were democracy: it was Yeltsin.”
I do not need to comment on that. We were all here. But let me tell you what this passage illustrates. We need to know what the issues really are, and sometimes not all of us do. But even if we understand the issues, we have to be intellectually honest, and moral, God-fearing, if I may say so. Because we should be here not to draw western salaries and act defensive (to say nothing of outright pillage that also occasionally took place): we should be trying to help the people of the former Soviet Union build a more prosperous and peaceful life, and that could be accomplished only when these people realize that they deserve, require, and are able to put to productive use their individual and democratic rights.
Gideon, I would love to present you with my book. If you want it, just tell me where to send it, and I will. And thank you very much for responding to my comment.