Welcome!

Dear Readers:

Welcome to Awful Avalanche, here is my blog concept and what I do:

I scan online newspapers from Russian-language press, in search of interesting stories and political topics.  These are stories which Russians themselves are reading and commenting upon.

I translate or at least summarize into English the content therein.

My target audience:  Russophiles, or anybody else who is interested.

I pick stories and analysis which interest me, generally from the following categories (this might evolve):

  • Breaking News,
  • Celebrity Gossip
  • True Crime,
  • Cat Fighting,
  • Human Interest Stories,
  • maybe even some Cute Animal Stories too!

Sincerely yours,

yalensis

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Naryshkin Appointed Russia’s Top Spy – Part IV

Dear Readers:

Today continuing our story about Sergei Naryshkin’s appointment, while also meandering along a few other uncharted paths.  The main theme of this post is something like “Whither Russia’s Next Generation of Chekists?”

Where we left off, writer Evgeny Krutikov was weaving a sort of “Fathers and Sons” analysis of at least three generations of Soviet/Russian spies; and the generational differences therein.

There was the late-Soviet generation of Chekists, characterized by routinism and even mediocrity, agents unable to think outside the box, yet at the same time masters of their craft.  Espionage as an “applied science”, and agents possessing cultural and linguistic fluency within their specializations.

One generation down, and we have the sad sacks of the 90’s, operatives who no longer studied any languages or cultures, and many of whom were transformed into simple agents of corporate espionage.

Another generation down — and the situation starting to improve, things starting to get fixed.  Krutikov is upbeat about the progression, but there are still some unsavory stains.  For example, the story of the so-called Geländewagen spies.  This story happened a couple of months ago, back in July.  Krutikov links this piece by fellow-VZGLIAD reporter Petr Akopov.  Here is the gist of the story, which illustrates a bratty elitist element of the Russian education system — like they’re starting to turn out Eton boys — gasp!

The Mercedes-Benz Spies

So, at the end of July the Russian FSB (successor to the Soviet KGB, as all Russophobes know) graduated their senior class at the Moscow FSB Academy.  Some of the spy school graduates decided to rent a fleet of Mercedes-Benz Geländewagens and drive through Moscow honking their horns and going “Woooo” in celebration.  Here is the youtube video of their escapade:

In the scheme of things, this was not overly egregious; however, Moscow citizens and the Russian public in general were highly disapproving of this show of Bertie Wooster style aristocratic japerie.  Worse, some of the graduates were said to have posted even more stuff on social media, photos and videos, and even including family names.  These students broke the first rule of spying:  Stay unnoticed.  Remain incognito.

The scandal grew and acquired legs.  A criminal investigation was launched.  A few leading figures in the FSB Academy were either sacked or demoted.  Participants in the convoy were disciplined and some may not receive the choice assignments they were hoping for.

What The Future Holds

Juvenile japery aside, Krutikov is optimistic about the changes in the Russian spy service.  Languages and culture have been reintroduced.  Entire regions of the world are back in play now.  Entire university faculties have sprung up to study, and specialize in, the nations of the former Soviet Union, and other areas such as Afghanistan, Africa, and the Middle East.  Rare languages are once again being taught.  Textbooks are being written all over the place — for example, a textbook on technical military translation from Serbian!

This is all good, but there is still the issue of cadres, and of leadership.  Krutikov says he is not going to throw any stones; and he then proceeds to throw stones at an unnamed man who, he says, was appointed to a very high position, back in 2012, in Yasenevo, despite a huge cloud over this man’s head.

The mysterious Mr. X

Let’s call this man Mr. X, shall we?  X was born in 1959 and from the moment he left his mother’s womb, he worked his way up through the ranks of the bureaucracy.  In 2004, X was appointed Assistant to Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov himself.   In 2007, X continued to serve under the new Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov.  In July of 2008, X was appointed Head of the President’s Commission on Inter-regional and Cultural Relations — this was basically a euphemism for curating the unrecognized post-Soviet republics such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria.  In this latter post, X did something stupid, something which harmed Russia’s interests and resulted in a geo-political failure of tectonic proportions.  Krutikov only hints at what occurred — I will discuss it in more detail in tomorrow’s post.  Suffice it to say, for now, that X was relieved of his position due to this blunder.  And as icing on this tort, X was also involved in a more personal scandal as well, possibly involving alcohol; his misdeeds were caught on video.  X’s wingman was sent away in disgrace to become a sort of “mall cop” at the Norilsk Nickel company; and recall that Norilsk is inside the Arctic Circle and happens to be the northernmost populated city in the entire world.

Four years later, and X himself, suddenly rejuvenated and rehabilitated, receives a juicy appointment at the Yasenevo spy agency, once again working under his old mentor Fradkov.

All of this highly interesting story in the purpose of Krutikov tossing stones at Fradkov’s departing spine.  His point being that, under Fradkov, the Russian Foreign Intelligence agency was turned into a haven of sinecurists, lifers, and dissolute dinosaurs.

[Stayed tuned for the next installment:  In which I reveal the identity of the secretive Mr. X!]

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Naryshkin Appointed Russia’s Top Spy – Part III

Dear Readers:

Today, continuing our story about Sergei Naryshkin and his new gig as Head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service.

Where we left off yesterday, Russian Banker Evgeny Buryakov had been arrested in New York City, January 26, 2015, on charges of espionage.  A fact which analyst Evgeny Krutikov blames at least partially on the incompetence of his handlers, Igor Sporyshev and Viktor Podobny.  Both of whom are (allegedly) Russian intelligence agents operating under diplomatic cover.  According to wiki:

Prior to working in New York City, Buryakov allegedly worked in South Africa under non-official cover from approximately 2004 to 2009.  In America, Sporyshev and Podobnyy tasked Buryakov with attempting to recruit New York City residents as intelligence sources, as well as gathering information about American sanctions on Russia and American efforts to develop alternative energy resources.  Buryakov worked for Directorate ER of the SVR, which is focused on economic intelligence.  Buryakov also came up with questions for the Russian News Agency TASS to ask at the New York Stock Exchange regarding high-frequency trading , exchange-traded funds (ETFs) and automatic trading robots.

Mikhail Fradkov, former director of the SVR

Beginning in 2013, an undercover agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), posing as an analyst for an energy firm, began providing Sporyshev with binders containing industry analyses and bugged with hidden microphones, allowing the FBI to record Sporyshev, Podobnyy, and other Russian intelligence personnel.  The undercover agent met Buryakov at a Manhattan office, as well as at casinos in Atlantic City.

As Krutikov points out, most intelligence work is precisely of this nature, collecting and collating boring economic data.  Young eager spies sometimes chafe at this routine work, imagining themselves as super-spies:  Finding the Magic Key, saving the world while bringing glory to the Fatherland.

Sporyshev was Buryakov’s direct handler, or “curator”, as the Russians say.  Sporyshev gave Buryakov technical assignments to complete; then the two of them worked over the collation and analysis together, before forwarding their results to Yasenevo.  Buryakov was fine with all of this and behaved himself impeccably.  Sporyshev was the problem, according to Krutikov.  In private conversations Sporyshev groused about his excessive work load.  By day he had to work his cover job, at the Russian Trade Mission.  By night he worked his second job — as a spy.  In tapped conversations recorded by the FBI, Sporyshev is heard to complain, this is not what he signed up for, when he enlisted in the intelligence service.  And the more seasoned spy Viktor Podobny (40 years old) is overheard to counsel his younger colleague (27 years old) that “this is not a James Bond film, and you’re not going to fly away in a helicopter.”

Reform of the SVR

Back in 2010 Director of the SVR  [I’ll borrow from wiki and start using that acronym in my translations] Mikhail Fradkov  announced that the Russian Federation no longer engages in “total espionage” as did, for example, the Soviet Union.  Well, that was before Ukraine; before Crimea; before all the economic sanctions and before all this s*** hit the fan.  And Fradkov is no longer the Director, now it’s Naryshkin.  Not that Fradkov was driven out in disgrace, or anything like that.  He’s still in tight with the ruling circles, apparently, and he still has a career.  It’s just that the Russian government decided that the SVR needed some changes and reforms, and they believe that Naryshkin is the man to do that.

Nobody is saying that the “electives” are going away either, namely using intelligence assets to service the needs of corporations, both private and state-owned.  Just that more objective control is to be placed over these activities.  There was a time, for example, when pretty much all Russian intelligence work in the Balkans was done in the service of the Gazprom Company.  This is obviously an incorrect use of such an asset!  Priorities need to be set in a more rational manner.

According to Krutikov, the SVR faces a world in which the need for its services grows at an exponential rate.  It’s not a question of “electives” any more, but of a whole series of “general political” problems and tasks.  Historically, economic and scientific-technological espionage was considered of the highest importance.  And still is.  But nowadays, accurate political prognostications are even more important, and their value cannot be overestimated.  The informational security of the President and the government, are of the highest priority.  As is the struggle for “influence” in the world.

Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka

In the past few years, the intelligence “cadre” of the Russian Federation have undergone a regeneration, with the infusion of a younger generation of Chekists.  However, the old, Soviet-style “corporate mentality” has not yet been completely extinguished.

In the later Soviet era, the perfect Chekist was the corporate man.  Mediocrity was a better quality than talent, because talent can lead to unpredictability.  Contrary to popular belief, the work of a spy consists mainly in following instructions.  Even normal daily life has to be strictly regulated and lived according to a set of rules.  Routine is the norm for the vast majority of time spent on the planet.  But every now and then, as an exception, during some exceptional or stressful situation, the spy must suddenly spring into action with creative thinking outside of the box.  And this is something that cannot be taught, but only experienced.  Successful political espionage requires a non-conformist personality that can think in non-standard ways; not to mention a whole set of other skills, such as knowledge of languages and cultures.

[to be continued]

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Naryshkin Appointed Russia’s Top Spy – Part II

Dear Readers:

Continuing with yesterday’s story about Sergei Naryshkin’s appointment as Head of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, as we work our way through this long analytical piece by Evgeny Krutikov.

Where we left off yesterday, Evgeny was about to explain to us how the Optimism/Pessimism thing was handled back in the day, by Soviet spy agencies.

“In Soviet times,” Krutikov writes, “there existed this entity called the State Committee For Science and Technology [Государственный комитет по науке и технике – ГКНТ] – which was a monster, accumulating within its bowels requsts [for analysis] flowing in from all the ministeries and agencies, then digesting them with the help of councils of experts.  Into these councils were recruited academic scholars and former spies.  The resulting product was squeezed out for the use of the KGB and sometimes the GRU.  This was also phrased  as a formulaic technical assignment:  Go out there and bring us back, by such-and-such a deadline, the key to the twelve such-and-such specifications and/or measurements for the submarine named Washington.  And people went out there, and they did what they had to do — deceived, bribed, lied, stole — and they brought back what they had been assigned to do.  For which they received acclaim, respect, and rewards.  At times the assignments were more vague, sometimes more detailed (up to and including exact formulas which had to be memorized), but the essence remains.”

Tverskaya Street, Moscow Ministry of Education building

Nowadays, Krutikov continues, the planned economy is no more.  And the ГКНТ is no more.  Its old building on Tverskaya Street is now occupied by the Ministry of Education and Science.  Nowadays there are a multitude of State-owned corporations and also private companies whose interests are aligned with the state-owned ones.  Intelligence gatherers have to service the needs of these clients too, in addition to those of the President and the government.  These clients, which the Russian spies call “electives” use up the time, resources, and emotions of the intelligence agents.  In this profession, emotions are extremely important.   And the worthiness of these “electives” is not always understood, especially to those men and women who entered this (Intelligence) profession during the “patriotic wave” of the last 10-15 years and who are motivated by a desire to be of use to their country.

Who And What Are These “Electives”?

This point about the so-called “electives” is important in Krutikov’s analysis, so I shall spend some time working through this part of the story.  The word itself, translated into English as “electives” (факультативы) is the same as the word used by university students picking non-required or optional courses, to fill out their semester plan.  Krutikov links this other piece which he wrote back in March; it was a case of a Russian spy named Evgeny Buryakov who was nabbed in New York by the American FBI.  Krutikov’s earlier piece was critical of the training and professional level of certain foreign intelligence agents; but is also used to illustrate his point about endemic problems plaguing the Russian secret service.   In which patriotic spies who thirst for military glory, are forced to waste their time on “electives” such as petty industrial espionage.

Here is the story how the FBI managed to nick Buryakov.  An amusing sidebar is how the FBI determined that the sinister name “Zhenya” was an aka or alias of the accused Evgeny Buryakov!  [Smart people know that “Zhenya” is actually the usual Russian nickname for Evgeny, like “Jimmy” is for “James”, and the illiterate FBI could have found that out easily enough if they had made google their friend.]

Evgeny Buryakov (center) on trial in Manhattan courtroom

Buryakov was a banker, not a diplomat.  He had no diplomatic immunity.  By day he worked in the Russian-owned  VneshEkonomBank , or “Development Bank”  in lower Manhattan.  By night, he led a double life, but without the benefit of a cover story.

So, in the summer of 2014 a man walks into the bank.  He pretends to be a big gangster-investor wanting to open a series of casinos in Russia.  In reality this is an FBI agent (of course), posing as a Mafioso.  Buryakov asks him some leading questions.  Each thinks he is playing the other.  The “Mafioso” suddenly whips some papers out of his briefcase, says they are top-secret government documents regarding the economic sanctions against Russia.  Buryakov takes the bait.  Krutikov mentions in passing that his own (Krutikov’s) father, who was a spy, was played exactly the same in an incident in Geneva in 1954. 

Sporyshev and Podobny (approximate visualizations)

The FBI surveilles Buryakov, along with two Russian diplomats named Igor Sporyshev (Trade Representative of the Russian Federation to New York), and Victor Podobny (Attaché to the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the UN).  Surveillance notes that a single telephone call precedes every meeting between Buryakov and the other two.  The phone calls are recorded, but the men speak in code.  For example, they buy baseball tickets.  Or they say, like, “Do you have something to trade?”  or words like “books” or “key”.   Sometimes “umbrella”, or “hat”.  Which is ludicrous, because nobody in Manhattan in the summertime carries an umbrella or wears a hat.

Buryakov himself never actually fumbled, and never gave the FBI enough ammunition to get himself arrested.  The fault lay with the two other spies, Sporyshev and Podobny.  It was they, in fact, who had first led the FBI dogs on the scent of Buryakov.

[to be continued]

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Naryshkin Appointed Russia’s Top Spy – Part I

I saw this long analytical piece in VZGLIAD, and I knew right away, from its meatiness, that it had to be a Evgeny Krutikov piece.  And sure enough…!

The lede is that a man named Sergei Naryshkin just got the job as Chief of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service – Служба внешней разведки  or СВР, for short.  The American equivalent would be the CIA.  The British equivalent would be MI-6.  The Russian Foreign Intelligence Service is headquartered in a neighborhood of Moscow called Yasenevo District.  Due to this, Krutikov and other people will write about “intelligence coming out of Yasenevo”, and this is the equivalent, in America, of, say, “intelligence coming out of Langley, Virginia…”

Natalia Naryshkina

According to his English-language wiki page, Naryshkin was born on October 27, 1954.  Doing the math, he is just a month shy of his 62nd birthday.  Wiki also mentions that Naryshkin hails from one of the oldest aristocratic families in Russia.  The Naryshkin boyars were tight with the Romanov dynasty – in fact, Natalia Naryshkina was the mother of Peter the Great!  Another Naryshkina lady, Maria (1779-1854) was the mistress of Tsar Alexander I.  And Dmitry Lvovich Naryshkin (1764-1838) was the Royal Chamberlain.  Not exactly sure what a chamberlain’s duties are – aren’t they, like, a glorified butler? — nonetheless, given this noble pedigree, it must have been an awful comedown for the Naryshkin clan when the Commies came to power, and our boy Sergei was forced to toil away at the Leningrad Institute of Mechanics.  Well, it’s not near as glamorous as being a Royal Chamberlain, but Sergei did obtain degrees in both Mechanical Engineering and Economics.  Still, the evil-tongued gossips who wrote his English-language wiki page, and who clearly do not care for the man one iota, claim that Sergei plagiarized more than half of the text of his dissertation!  And that was back in the days before wiki, and possibly even before copy machines, when it was much harder to plagiarize stuff, so give him some points for Sitzfleisch, at least.

Despite his modest education and lifestyle, soon enough, Naryshkin’s noble blood and bearing shone through, like they always do, in a sea of proletarian mediocrity.  Narsyhkin’s career took off with a series of important government posts, first in Soviet times, where he was rumored to be a glamorous KGB spy in Belgium; and then in more recent decades, as a trusted man in the Putin government.  Naryshkin is clearly a versatile guy, occupying many posts and successful in many areas, both in politics and economics;  and now reaching the pinnacle of his career as Russia’s chief spy.

But enough of wiki, let’s turn from plagiarizing that particular lode, and back to plagiarizing Krutikov.

What Is Behind Naryshkin’s Appointment?

Krutikov sees behind this appointment, a whole series of cadre reorganizations and a possible shift in Russia’s foreign policy priorities.

Sergei Naryshkin

Krutikov points out, and it goes without saying, that the СВР is a very secretive agency, by necessity.  Its operations, its successes, its failures, are rarely made transparent to the curious public.  However, in recent times, some of the more blatant failures made a reorganization necessary.  The more egregious of the failures have to do with the American vector of Russian Foreign Policy.  Namely, Russia’s intelligence gatherers being wrong, time and again, with their prognostications about American intentions and future actions.   But we’ll get to that later.

First I need to translate, in full, the next paragraph, because this is very important:

Debates about what type of man should be the Head of Intelligence are as old as spying itself:  Should it be a genius-type professional spy who turns double-agents on a dime and keeps atomic and space secrets in his pocket; or, on the other hand, should it be a literate administrator type?  Neither side to this debate can ever be convinced of the other point of view, and the choice of one or the other is also a conjunctural matter.  Sergei Naryshkin, just like his predecessor, Mikhail Fradkov, are administrators.  However, the new head of the СВР all the same has professional knowledge and experience.  And the first thing that an experienced leader does upon assuming office — is clean house.  And there is a lot here that needs to be reformed.

Yasenevo District of Moscow

Krutikov goes on to say, that quite a few departments of the spy agency had become infected with a very dangerous disease:  Optimism.  In several important areas of intelligence, for example, the economics surrounding Western sanctions, it was very important for the Russian government to obtain accurate and detailed information about  the technical methods by which Westies intended to implement this economic war against Russia.  Specific information involving the banking sphere and the various alliances and partnerships patched together by the U.S.  But a pattern emerged:  Wherever a piece of information could be interpreted in two different ways — one optimistic (for Russia), and one pessimistic — the analysts almost invariably chose to stress the optimistic over the pessimistic.  In this manner, the information flowing out of Yasenevo into the Kremlin, tended to be heartening rather than realistic.  For example, analysts claimed that the America-EU negotiations around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) were a failure.  But this was clearly not true.  Westies were landing solid punches against Russia, while the Yasenevo analysts were turning into a crew of Baghdad Bobs.  Every bad thing that happened to Russia:  they were seeing a silver lining and convincing the leadership that Russia’s enemies were just about on the ropes.

Eventually, it seems, the Russian government had it up to here with these pollyannas, and decided they needed to know what was really going on out there in the big world.  Optimism is the enemy of True Intelligence.  And this disease is by no means specific to Russia:  All intelligence agencies in the world can fall prey to wishful thinking; or trying to give the bosses what they want to hear rather than what they need to know.  I mean, nobody wants to be a Gregers Werle, right?  The man who destroys the tender fantasies of a 14-year-old girl?  Except that Russian President Vladimir Putin is not exactly a sweet idealistic 14-year-old girl; and furthermore, as the leader of a besieged nation, Putin needs to know what is actually going on out there.  “Objectivity,” according to Krutikov, “is a God to which all Foreign Intelligence Services must bow low.”  And he goes on to describe how this challenge was handled in Soviet times.

[to be continued]

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Movie Review: The Free State Of Jones – Part III

Finishing up my review of the movie “The Free State of Jones”.

I found this very interesting piece from the Smithsonian Magazine, which gives some clues to the real story of the historical figure Newton Knight.

A key plot point in the film (as in real life) is that Jones County Mississippi is a very swampy place.  It was the swamp which allowed “Newt’s boys” to hide out for years and keep Confederate troops at bay.  The Confederates knew exactly where the runaways were — they just couldn’t get to them.  The Confederates (thankfully) did not have an air force.  Their horses could not enter the swamp.  Newt’s hide-out was accessible only on foot.  And not every foot.  Only the locals, both blacks and whites, who knew this swamp intimately, knew where it was safe to step.  On his first trip to the hide-out, Newton Knight is led by the beautiful slave girl, Rachel.  “Step only where I step,” she warns him.  One wrong step — and you’ll be sucked under the mud and gone forever.

Quoting a local expert from the Smithsonian story:  Newton “had a number of different hide-outs. The old folks call this one Sal Batree. Sal was the name of Newt’s shotgun, and originally it was Sal’s Battery, but it got corrupted over the years.”  He chuckles:   “The Confederates kept sending in troops to wipe out old Newt and his boys, but they’d just melt into the swamps.”

Sal Batree, infested by beavers and snakes, is the place where, in the movie, Newton starts to fall in love with Rachel.  Rachel, the house-servant from the neighboring plantation, who leads a double life and is the hardest working woman in the movie.  Rachel is an African-American version of Wagner’s heroine Kundry, from Parsifal.  If you recall, Kundry efficiently divides her time between Grail Castle and Klingsor’s Castle.  Similarly:  By day Rachel works her regular job inside the mansion while being subject to sexual harrassment by the plantation owner’s son.  By night, she walks the swamps, bringing guns and supplies to Newt and his boys.

Workaholic Kundry

And speaking of Rachel, that aspect of the movie is clearly fiction.  Again, according to the Smithsonian piece, the real Rachel was the former slave of Newton’s own grandfather.  Again, that doesn’t jibe with the movie story, in which the Knight family are poor white trash who don’t own any slaves.

Be that as it may, the movie does hint at Newton’s ability to keep two women happy at the same time:  Newton and Rachel (post-war) have already settled down to raise their family in a remote place called Soso.  Newton’s white wife, Serena arrives — in the movie she is played by actress Keri Russell.  In real life, as in the film, Newton and Serena were officially separated, but never actually got divorced.  There is a gentle scene in the movie where the two women, Newton’s white wife and his black wife, are sitting together on porch operating the spinning wheel while both tending to Rachel’s new baby, Jason.  This hints at the real story, in which Newton was actually a bigamist, and scarily like the leader of a rural cult. Again, per the Smithsonian:

After the Civil War, Knight took up with his grandfather’s former slave Rachel; they had five children together. Knight also fathered nine children with his white wife, Serena, and the two families lived in different houses on the same 160-acre farm. After he and Serena separated—they never divorced—Newt Knight caused a scandal that still reverberates by entering a common-law marriage with Rachel and proudly claiming their mixed-race children.

The Knight Negroes, as these children were known, were shunned by whites and blacks alike. Unable to find marriage partners in the community, they started marrying their white cousins instead, with Newt’s encouragement. (Newt’s son Mat, for instance, married one of Rachel’s daughters by another man, and Newt’s daughter Molly married one of Rachel’s sons by another man.) An interracial community began to form near the small town of Soso, and continued to marry within itself.

“They keep to themselves over there,” says Gavin, striding back toward his house, where supplies of canned food and muscadine wine are stored up for the onset of Armageddon. “A lot of people find it easier to forgive Newt for fighting Confederates than mixing blood.”

This part of the story sounds fairly unsavory; almost like something out of Faulkner.  But with overtones of a charismatic leader, and even subconscious reverberations of, say Jim Jones and his inter-racial community, and we all know how that ended.

A Revolution Betrayed

Again, the movie only hints at much of this development in Newton’s private life, and his role as something of a polygamist cult leader in post-war times.  There is one scene where Newton walks into a general store to buy some baling wire.  The store owner asks him where he is setting up his farm, and Newton replies:  “Soso.”

“Ah hear tell they’s only a bunch of niggers up there,” the store guy drawls.

Newton glares at him, but lets it slide:  “Nope.  They ain’t no niggers up there.”

Again, I want to stress that none of that unsavory incestuous cult stuff forms the core story of the movie.  It is only hinted at.  The subplot involving Newton’s descendant’s arrest in 1940’s Mississippi, guided by its “one-drop” racialist law, only brings to the fore the fact that the Civil War and Reconstruction did not resolve the racial issue in the American South.

Rape you later, babe. Got a Klan meeting tonight.

Why did the racial issue not get resolved?  The movie makes it clear what happened:

The Union abandoned people like Newton and Rachel.  Instead of forcibly dividing up the plantations and giving every farmer “20 acres and a mule” as promised, the post-war authorities allowed the old plantation owners to return and reclaim their “property”.    Voting rights were abridged once more.  Slavery was re-introduced, in the form of “apprenticeships”.   The Klan was allowed to run wild and free, lynching anybody who stood in the way of the Restoration of the old order.  Federal authorities backed out, leaving Southern blacks (and poor whites) at the mercy of the oligarchs.  The movie shows all of this, which is what puts it in the category (in my opinion) of a “Marxist movie”.  Nay, more than Marxist, even Trotskyite.  In its depiction of a revolution betrayed.  A revolution which was set to resolve both the land question and the racial issue all at once.  But which back-slided, leaving an open wound and an endless spiral of violence in American life.

100 years later….

The most horrendous scene in the film is the one where Newton’s best friend and second-in-command, the freed slave Moses, is castrated and lynched by the Klan.  Moses is just out and about gathering signatures for the Republican Party for the next county elections.  Out of nowhere men gallop up and grab him.  Next thing, he is hanging from a tree with his pants down around his ankles.  While Moses might be a fictional character, nobody can dispute that this type of violence actually happened; and happened quite a lot.  As late as the year 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was castrated and lynched in Mississippi by a white mob.  Thus helping to spark the Civil Rights Movement.  But Till was only the latest victim in a process of systematic terrorism which had been going on for many many generations.  A process designed to keep property owners in close communion with their property.  Also a process designed to unite people across class lines.  Namely uniting propertied white people with unpropertied white people.  Uniting them in racial solidarity against black people.  Again, eliding the class differences and recreating the conflict as one purely of race.

Whereas, what Newton Knight was attempting to do — well, the Newton of the movie, at least, even if real reality was more complicated — was exactly the opposite:  To unite people across racial lines while drawing the mark of division along class lines.  To further mutual class interests, such as getting a slice of land or a better paycheck.  The Newton of the film is consistent in his hatred and contempt of the plantation owners, with their private army called the Confederacy; with their predations and taxations of regular folks, the requisitions of grain and hogs; their arbitrary rules about exemptions; for example, a farm owning at least 20 Negroes may exempt the older son from service; etc. etc.  The Newton Knight of the film knows exactly what is going on here, and has a very clear plan what to do about it, and how to clean out these oligarchic parasites.

Unfortunately, the Newton Knight of the film, as in real life, eventually loses his war.   He is defeated, not by guns; but by something even more insidious:  By the  hatred, the thirst for violence, and the evil which brew within the human soul.

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Movie Review: The Free State Of Jones – Part II

Continuing with my movie review:  The 2016 American film The Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey as the historical figure Newton Knight.

The slaver Secession

The movie tells the amazing story of Knight, and his evolution from a Captain in the Confederate Army – to the leader of a ragtag band of white farmers, runaway slaves, freed slaves, and Army deserters who set up their own state within a state.

I mentioned before that their situation reminds me, in a crazy way, of the Donetsk People’s Republic.  Here are the analogies right at hand:

 

  1. The secession from the Union of the slave states forced various disgruntled elements from within to secede from the Secession = The coup which overthrew the legitimate Ukrainian government forced various disgruntled elements from within to secede from the Secession.
  2. The slave-state secessionists were a group of powerful oligarchs whose wealth came from land-ownership and their trade in slaves, cotton and other products = The motivators of the Ukrainian coup were a group of powerful oligarchs whose wealth came from looting the carcass of Soviet state assets.
  3. The slave-state secessionists looked for powerful international forces for support, mainly Great Britain = The Ukrainian coup looked to powerful international forces, mainly the United States.
  4. The secessionists within the slave Secession looked to a single force in the hope of support, namely the Union goverment and army, received a certain amount of support thereof and yet were continuously disappointed and betrayed by their supposed saviors = The Donbass secessionists look to Russia for support and frequently experience disappointment also from their hoped-for saviors.

Ironically, the DPR flag looks sort of like the Confederate flag!

As to Point #4:  there is a poignant moment in the movie, when Newton appeals to Union General (William Tecumseh) Sherman, to recognize and aid their little breakaway Free State of Jones, and send troops to help them fight off the Confederate army.  Sherman sends a negative response, basically a “no way Jose” will he recognize their rump state, probably because even Union Generals felt uncomfortable at the notion of so many Negroes carrying so many guns.  After which a glum Captain Newton has to address his followers with the bad news.  “We’re on our own,” he tells them glumly.  I am betting that Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk Separatists, can totally relate to that bleak situation.

White Savior vs The Magical Negro

It has been said (broadly and facetiously) that all Hollywood movies about race fall into one of two camps:  White Savior (sometimes confused with “Mighty Whitey” which is a slightly different genre, more like Tarzan films) or The Magical Negro.  If such is the case, then “The Free State of Jones” is obviously a member of the White Savior genre.  And there is absolutely no magical negro in it at all, all the negroes in this film are just ordinary people.  Well, extraordinary in their bravery and determination, but not having any particular magical powers nor even surpassing folk wisdom other than a firm opinion (elucidated by Newton’s sidekick Moses) that “Ain’t nobody can hold a free man”, and these negroes and poor whites actually quite dependent on the military prowess of Newton Knight, to keep them all alive out there in the swamp.

According to the rules of the White Savior genre, the white hero (or possibly heroine) puts him/herself out on a limb to rescue or at least help disadvantaged minorities.  One can see this genre emerging in America as early as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  In which the prototype White Savior is a sweet little white child, Eva.

Ooops! Wrong Little Eva!

According to the somewhat sneering assessment by sociologist Matthew Hughey, a Columbia University scholar who writes on American race relations; this quote is from the wiki piece I linked above:

A White Savior film is often based on some supposedly true story. Second, it features a nonwhite group or person who experiences conflict and struggle with others that is particularly dangerous or threatening to their life and livelihood. Third, a White person (the savior) enters the milieu and through his or her sacrifices as a teacher, mentor, lawyer, military hero, aspiring writer, or wannabe Native American warrior, is able to physically save—or at least morally redeem—the person or community of folks of color by the film’s end. Examples of this genre include films like Glory (1989), Dangerous Minds (1996), Amistad (1997), Finding Forrester (2000), The Last Samurai (2003), Half-Nelson (2006), Freedom Writers (2007), Gran Torino (2008), Avatar (2009), The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011), and the list goes on.

In “Union Bound”, Joseph Hoover is rescued by non-magical Negroes.

To which I suppose one should grudgingly add “The Free State of Jones”; and yet I personally reject Hughey’s negative assessment of these films, with its implied criticism of overweening white narcissism.  Maybe it’s just ’cause I’m white myself, I dunno.  Hey, isn’t it better to fantasize oneself as a Rescuer rather than a Bully?  And, besides, not all the listed films were bad.  I do believe that Amistad was a really good film, and coincidentally that one also starred Matthew McConaughey, but in a very different role.  His character managed to rescue the Africans therein not at gunpoint, but by arguing a fine point of property law.  And furthermore, despite Hughey’s sneering, both Amistad and Jones truly are based on historical events and actual white-skinned heroes; and does their story not deserve to be told?

Perhaps Hughey is just upset that the equivalent stories of black heroes don’t get told, or don’t get told enough; for example, people like Nat Turner or Harriet Tubman; and many others, whom we have never even heard of.  And that’s a fair point, these stories should be told, and they should be taught in the schools and regular university curriculum, not just siphoned off to “Black Studies” Departments.  And by the way, the other recent pro-North movie which I mentioned, Union Bound, based on the true story of Union Sargent Joseph Hoover, is not a White Savior genre film; quite the opposite — Hoover and his companion are rescued by ordinary African-Americans who help them escape back to the North by plugging them into the Underground Railroad network.  Hence, one could call this a “Black Savior” movie.  And these particular Negroes also do not possess magical powers, just good organizing skills and a flair for logistics.

Arggg ye hearties, Belay that Captain!

But to return to the movie we are discussing now:  This is the true story of Newton Knight, and is he, or is he not, a hero who saved the lives of other people, due to his military and other skills?

In the third and final installment of this review, I will discuss Knight’s personality and how his character doesn’t actually change from the beginning to the end of the film.  Knight is a consistent character, whose views remain consistent and do not evolve much at all.  His is not the story of, say, a John Newton, with an “Amazing Grace” moment of change and/or redemption.  There is no “Damascus” moment.  It would have made for better Hollywood drama, had Knight started out as an Archie Bunker type racist and then “got to know” some black folks and realized that they are okay people after all.  But that isn’t what happened.  Knight didn’t seem even at the beginning to have much of a beef, or even much of an opinion, about the slaves, or about blacks in general.  His actual beef, consistently, is against rich white plantation owners, and against the army which these parasites command; namely the Confederate Army.  And that is also realistic, because most people don’t actually change their political views or their prejudices much over time.

[to be continued]

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Movie Review: The Free State Of Jones – Part I

Dear Readers:

I do opera reviews from time to time, but this is my first movie review, so please bear with me.  I was very excited to watch this movie, entitled “The Free State Of Jones”, starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, an actual historical figure in American history.

Newton Knight was a dead ringer for Matthew McConaughey in a beard.

To get the wiki metadata out of the way, before delving into the plot:  The movie came out just this year (2016), had a $50 million dollar budget, was a box-office bomb (of course), and went straight to DVD.  The movie is produced by a company called STX Entertainment, founded in 2014.  STX has set itself a worthy goal of producing a broad variety of film genres in the $20-60 million range, which is considered a medium-sized budget these days.  The American hunger for variety remains unquenched.  Unfortunately a film like “Jones” doesn’t always hit the spot, due to the seriousness of its subject matter, and the fact that most Americans want escapism and fantasy, not historical realism.  Americans will sit still in their seats for an inter-racial romance, but only if it is titillating and/or sensationalistic.  None of which “Jones” is.  Nonetheless, I reckon that this particular film will continue to garner returns on the ancillary markets such as DVD and pay-per-view.  I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in real history, especially Civil War buffs.  Yes, you will see some battle scenes probably populated by professional Civil War re-enactors.  But please be aware you will not see Scarlett O’Hara in her fine dress, nor her beau Rhett Butler.  No, I take that back:  You might see Rhett in one of the later scenes depicting Klan mobs riding their wild horses through the countryside.  But with his head covered by a hood, of course.

And aside from “Jones”, the only decent Civil War movie I have seen recently is a little gem called “Union Bound“, which is produced by a Christian/family outfit, but I don’t have time right now to go into that plot.  Just suffice it to say, that it is a pleasure to see a small but increasing market for Civil War movies with a pro-Union ideological slant.

Not A Romantic Comedy

But let’s get started on the “Jones” film, already.  For starters, Matthew McConaughey is amazing in the lead role of Newton Knight.  Well, we always knew that Matthew is a great actor.  Personally I was never fond of him myself, until I saw him in The Lincoln Laywer, a completely different type of role, for which he was also perfect.  In the latter role, he played a sleazy, borderline sociopath defense lawyer.  Whereas in “Jones” he portrays an ideological fanatic.  On the level of a John Brown type fanatic.  (Just look at those burning eyes in the photograph of the real Newton Knight.)  A fanatic who also happens to be a natural leader of men, who managed to put together a ragtag band of Confederate deserters and freed slaves; and to hold off the armies of the plantation owners, the landed gentry, and the Confederate troops, for over a decade.

An older Newton, with his quadroon grandson.

“Jones” is a very well-written movie.  (Written and directed by a man named Gary Ross.)  According to his wiki, Ross is a typical Los Angeles, Hollywood screenwriter, from a screenwriting family.  He is Jewish.  (Of course he is.)  He is a Jewish liberal who worked for Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign, and who wrote typical blockbusters like “Big” and “Sea Biscuit”.  He has major contracts with studios such as Disney.  From such a stock type one could well expect a feel-good liberal film about race relations or narrow “identity politics”.  But not something like this.  There is actually nothing in Gary’s bio which could have predicted that he would sit down and write a completely Marxist screenplay such as “The Free State of Jones”.  Having said that, I hope I have not said anything that could get Ross in trouble with the neo-McCarthyites; and yet I have to point it out:  This is a communist film.  Why?  Because it’s all about communist issues such as land ownership and the right of a man to enjoy the fruits of his own labor.  It portrays the Confederacy as exactly what that criminal enterprise actually was:  a rump-state oligarchy designed to serve the narrow interests of the slave-owning class.  And, like all oligarchic forms of government, did not shrink from employing the most extreme and medieval methods of violence against the underclass, up to and including castrations and lychings, while covering behind a sweet-voiced facade of aristocratic polish and “honor”.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Rachel

In his expertly crafted script, Ross manages to tell two parallel stories, but in a straightforward manner, without the usual Hollywood tricks, and using a minimum of jumping back and forth in time.  Each story is given its due weight.  The smaller story is the romance between Newton Knight and the house-slave girl Rachel.  If this were a typical Hollywood movie, then their inter-racial romance would be the main storyline.  Instead, it is played down so as not to overshadow the larger story, which is about the war itself, and the fight for the land; a conflict which pitches a ragtag army of freed Negroes and poor whites against the plantation owners.  The romance angle is treated delicately, and partially by flash-forwards in time (again, not done intrusively) which reveal the eventual outcome:  Newton and Rachel had a son together named Jason.  85 years later, Jason’s great-great grandson, deemed an “octaroon” by the arcane laws of Jim-Crow era Mississippi, is convicted and imprisoned for the crime of trying to marry a white woman.  According to Mississippi miscenegation laws of the 1940’s era, any person with 1/8 or over Negro blood was considered legally to be a Negro and therefore may not marry a white person.  Point being, that the North won the big war, but lost the peace, due to its own gutlessness.  But more of that disappointing outcome in the continuation of my review.

Who Or What Was Jones?

With that interesting but less important side-plot out of the way, let us return to the main storyline, involving the war and the fight for the land.

freedmen

Negro Freedmen voting in the election in New Orleans, 1867

The most amazing thing about this plot is that it is based on a true story.  I am guessing it is not the kind of story that American schoolchildren typically learn in their textbooks.  (I could be wrong, and I hope I am.)  More likely, American children read about the Civil War and Reconstruction, but I doubt if they are taught such details about land ownership, about property rights, or about the class struggle in the countryside.

“Jones” refers to Jones County, Missisippi.  A swampy land where, remarkably, in the very underbelly of the Confederacy, a “Free State” was established.  A state which raised the Union flag.  A state which espoused, in its ragtag constitution, the principles of racial equality and “He who sows the land has a right to the fruits of the land.”  Principles elucidated by the military and ideological leader of “The Free State of Jones”, a former Confederate Captain named Newton Knight.

When watching this movie, I was struck by certain similarities to the current situation of the Donbass, Ukraine.  “Jones County” reminded me of the Donetsk Peoples Republic, and I will explain some of the similarities (and differences) in the next installment of this review

[to be continued]

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