This is a continuation of yesterday’s story about the Gergiev concert in Palmyra, Syria.
I know that I promised to leave aside the propaganda war for the time being and move on to the meat of the Palmyra story, which is all about the antiquities and about plans to restore this world heritage site, partially destroyed by ISIS barbarians. And I promise I will get to all that, probably tomorrow. But I decided to make this one detour back into the world of propaganda and the never-ending hybrid war against Russia.
One of my themes for this series of posts is the “Beau Geste“, the action of just doing something that is good or right, with no expectation of reward, and no ulterior motive. In French literature, Jean Valjean is the classic suffering Christ-figure of this mode. He does everything for other people, and nothing for himself. He helps other people even when it goes against his own personal interests. Another example is Beau Geste himself, who runs away to join the Foreign Legion, expecting only death as his reward, but he has to do this to help cover up the fact that his dear old auntie is a jewel thief…
Then there is the semi-Beau Geste. That’s when you do something right, but you do get rewarded for your action. Like, you play a great game of football, and you win the Heisman Trophy. Or you help to catch a jewel thief, and the police give you a cash reward. Or you organize a concert of classical music in the middle of a war zone, helping to buck the people up and showing the world what it means to clear terrorist rats out of a public treasure. You do all this because it’s the right thing, but you still get rewarded for it. Let’s call it a “PR” (Public Relations) reward. And there can be no doubt that Russia reaped a PR reward for Gergiev’s concert. Which is precisely the thing that chafes Westies bums to the point where they almost got diaper rash.
Then there is the anti-Beau Geste. That’s when you do something with bad intentions, but the result turns out great.
Bringing Western Propaganda to the Masses
Which brings me to inoSMI. Most Western readers are probably not even aware of this Russian online news outlet. inoSMI is a fantastic source of news and opinions, and it is accessible to anybody anywhere in the world who has a computer and access to the internet. There was a time when I read this site religiously every day (not so much any more, only because I don’t have much time to spare, what with writing my own blog), there was always something interesting there; the comment forums are lively and often hilarious.
The mission of inoSMI is to translate news and opinions pieces from all over the world, from their original languages (for example, English, French, German, Italian, whatever) into Russian. inoSMI is prolific, and I have to assume that they employ a small army of translators. Thanks to this gem, Russians who don’t necessarily read all these other languages, can get access to material that would otherwise be linguistically inaccesible to them. Within the translation, the original piece is always linked, so that readers have access to the original, if they can read it. My personal practice was always to just pick one piece each day to read. If the original was written in one of the small set of languages which I can actually read, then I would link to the original (why read the translation if you can read the original?) – otherwise I would read the Russian translation.
And I loved this site dearly, and I always just assumed that the purpose of it was to innoculate Russians against foreign propaganda. Not that all of the pieces are propaganda – far from it. Many are legitimate news and opinion stories. However, the inoSMI editors always seem to take great delight in translating some of the most egregious anti-Russian agitprop from the foreign press. For example, anti-Russian editorials by Zbigniew Brzezinski, and that sort of thing. And the comment section and the forums are lively debating rooms where Russian readers mock and debunk anything they perceive as bullshit.
What I didn’t even know at first, and only learned relatively recently, when somebody pointed it out to me on a comment forum, is that inoSMI is a neo-liberal enterprise. It was put together by Russian liberals whose goal was to bring the Westie point of view to ordinary Russians. Who, they felt, were mired in sovok and Putinite ways of thinking. The wiki piece quotes inoSMI founder, Yaroslav Ognev, as saying:
InoSMI broadens one’s conscience. It occurred so, that it’s read by those who aren’t satisfied with the Russian press. By those, who are touched with the intelligence of Western journalists and experts, their professionalism and analytical capabilities. By those, who understand a deal of the free media, democracy and Russian bears that they love so much … The activity of InoSmi led yet to the one sensible result — foreign media now can be considered actually worldwide. They are not only being avidly read, but also loved in Russia. Without that “avid” love of the Russian people the audience of the foreign media would be incomplete and their influence won’t be worldwide.
In other words, Ognev feels that Western media is The Source of Truth, and that this beacon of light should be brought to the suffering masses of Russia, thirsting for Knowledge and Truth.
New York Times Covers Gergiev Concert
Which brings us back, in a slowly-grinding loop, to this piece which I saw yesterday in inoSMI. It is the translation, from English into Russian, of this original piece from the New York Times. The piece was written by Andrew E. Kramer and Andrew Higgins, and is a classic of the “kitchen-sink propaganda” genre. It combines a wealth of facts and legitimate reporting with a generous share of propaganda barbs. Everything is thrown in, including the kitchen sink. While absorbing all the facts and the legitimate reporting, readers are left with an overall negative impression and sense that Russia did something bad here, or is just generally a bad person all-round.
So let’s break this down, shall we?
No fault can be found with the positive-sounding headline: “In Syria, Russia Plays Bach Where ISIS Executed 25”. That headline pretty much tells the story. As Frankenstein’s monster might grunt: “Bach – good. ISIS – bad.” The delineation between the forces of goodness and the forces are badness, is rather obvious. And the NYT writers continue to suck you in further, with honeyed tongue and lulling images: “Russia has made its mark on Syria with the crash of bombs and the thud of artillery. On Thursday the Russians added gentler sounds: live classical music echoing through an ancient stone theater and into the eerie, empty desert.”
So far so good. But then the “gentler” twist of the knife: “Extending its soft power into the Syrian conflict, Russia deployed a symphony orchestra led by one of its best-known conductors, Valery Gergiev, and the cellist Sergei P. Roldugin, an old and — according to the Panama Papers documents leaked last month — very wealthy friend of President Vladimir V. Putin.”
This one paragraph introduces 2 negatives: (1) The concert is not just a concert, it is an act of “soft power”, hence it is sinister ; (2) The lead cellist Sergei Roldugin, is a corrupt crook and a crony of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Westies say is Mr. Evil, ’nuff said.
The NYT writers then take a few steps back, conceding some positive points and throwing a few critical barbs in the direction of ISIS. This propaganda technique is called “trapping the flies with honey”. Employing the passive voice, the writers impart: “The contrast was intended to underscore what Russia sees as its underappreciated role in helping Syrian forces liberate Palmyra from zealots and fighting on the side of civilization against barbarism.” – the key phrase is what Russia sees as — in other words, what Russians see as the truth cannot really BE the truth. There is also a not-so-subtle insinuation that Russians feel underappreciated. Just like your crazy Aunt Agatha feels underappreciated, because nobody wants to eat her Christmas cookies.
The next paragraph hints at the “fact” that the whole thing was just a PR-gig, and that the only attendees were members of the elite: “The Russians were so eager to make that point that they flew a group of reporters from Moscow to Syria and then bused them to Palmyra to see the performance. The production, attended by a heavily guarded V.I.P. guest list, was broadcast live on Russian state television.”
The following paragraph then simply drops the subtle approach and just lays on the anti-Russian propaganda with a giant trowel: “Viewers in Russia saw the concert spliced with videos of Islamic State atrocities, part of a domestic political operation intended to mobilize pride in Russia’s military role abroad, at a time when the economy at home is mired in the second year of a deep recession.”
In other words, the Russian economy is going down the toilet and the plebes are getting restless, but VVP lulls ’em with bread and circuses. Suitably enough, transmitted from an ancient Roman amphitheater! [That last bit was my own propaganda meme, I offer that freely to the NYT writers – be sure to use it next time.]
The following short paragraph includes another subtle propaganda barb, I won’t tell you what it is, your homework assignment is to Spot the Barb:
“Mr. Putin thanked the musicians by video link from his vacation home on the Black Sea.”
And it would not be proper anti-Russian propaganda if the NYT writers did not mention Mr. Gergiev’s past rap sheet, while tying together several other anti-Russian themes, such as Russia’s supposed predations in South Ossetia and Donetsk.
“The deployment of classical musicians in territory reconquered, with Russian help, by Syrian forces just two months ago reprised a performance conducted by Mr. Gergiev in August 2008 to celebrate Russia’s victory in a brief war with the former Soviet republic of Georgia over South Ossetia. That Georgian region, also with Moscow’s help, has declared itself an independent state, like the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine.”
The next paragraph goes on to point out, helpfully, that Gergiev is a Putin supporter, and not just any supporter for an “eager supporter“, in fact, “He joined other prominent cultural figures in signing an open letter in 2014 in support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine.” Well, the majority of Crimeans might beg to differ, from their POV, they weren’t so much “annexed” as “rescued” from neo-Nazi crazies, but that fact obviously will not deter the great minds at the New York Times. After all, they know the real truth of what happened. Everywhere.
The next paragraph starts with the words: “Also taking part in the Palmyra spectacle…” – ah, so this is not a concert, but a spectacle…! Again, “bread and circuses”, and again I reprimand them for not employing the Roman Amphitheater meme. Or was that just too obvious?
And finally, with barely suppressed glee, Kramer and Higgins plunge in the fatal knife, into the back of the lead cellist:
“Also taking part in the Palmyra spectacle, before an audience of Russian and Syrian soldiers, officials and dignitaries, was Mr. Putin’s friend, Mr. Roldugin, the cellist whose name surfaced last month in leaked papers from a Panama law firm that indicated he had $2 billion in offshore accounts.”
In other words, this guy is a crook as well as a political insider. He deserves no applause for his music, just a hail of raspberries for his alleged corruption.
The NYT writers then retreat one step back, returning to the “honeyed-tongue” mode as they present a couple of positive quotes about the concert and even manage to bring up the siege of Leningrad and the Shostakovich concert of 1942 without blaming Stalin/Zhdanov for the “starving musicians”. You just know that they wanted to, and it was on the tip of their tongue; but they exerted self-control, restrained themselves, and they deserve some credit for doing so.
And then this paragraph lays out that the concert was a component of a larger, military operation, and even though this paragraph is ripe with propaganda, it is actually a legitimate point to make, and would belong in the coverage of such a story, to give a more complete picture of what happened:
“The concert on Thursday, like Mr. Gergiev’s 2008 concert in Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, involved much more than just music. While showcasing Russia’s musical richness, it was also a military mission, with guests bused in a heavily guarded convoy escorted by helicopter gunships. The route from Latakia, the site of Russia’s main military base on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, led past Syrian military outposts, destroyed villages, clusters of burned vehicles and other reminders of the fierce fighting that had raged in an area held by the Islamic State from May 2015 until March this year.”
Again, this is legitimate information in a news story, it rankles only because one knows the intent of the writers is cast aspersions on Russia’s motives.
Next the political payload, and keep in mind that the NYT follows the Obama Administration line on Syria and the Middle East in general:
“Western governments have been reluctant to endorse Russia’s military role in Syria, which they have repeatedly portrayed as an effort to not merely uproot terrorism but to help Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, crush all opposition, including rebel groups supported by the West. Russia has also been accused of bombing hospitals, something Moscow denies, and propping up a brutal dictator.”
So: Western governments assert (and New York Times agrees) that Assad is a brutal dictator. “Russia has been accused” – note the use of the passive voice, this is the weasel way, if they were honest, NYT should thump their chest and bellow: “WE accuse you of bombing hospitals, you dastardly Russians! And here is our factual proof….”
NYT then goes on to whine that the Russians did not fulfill their word when they said they were pulling out of Syria: “Yet at Russia’s base in Latakia this week there was no sign of any pullout at an airfield clogged with warplanes and helicopters. Su-24 fighter-bombers were taking off and landing regularly.” NYT is clearly disappointed, they really wanted the Russians to leave. Instead, Russians linger on in Syria, like unwanted house guests who fly SU-24’s and hold concerts in your living room.
And as further evidence that the Russians are settling in like termites (or book-worms): “A library established in a shipping container offered a growing collection of Russian-language novels and other books. Sgt. Alexander Korenyev, the librarian, said it had 1,476 titles when he arrived three months ago and about 2,000 today. Many have military themes, like a tome titled “The Winged Heroes of Moscow.” Again, I am just quibbling here, because this bit about the library and the books being shipped in, is legitimate news and should be covered.
The next segment introduces a new exquisitely subtle propaganda meme. The word “quagmire” is not mentioned, but there is the oh-so-piquant comparison of the Russian effort in Syria with the American invasion of Iraq (which the New York Times vociferously supported, by the way — just sayin’…):
“The Russians, like the American military in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, are diving into tangled local politics.”
First of all – No. What Russia is doing in Syria is nothing like Iraq. Apples and oranges. But that won’t stop the NYT writers from making such a false projection.
And, as the final coup de grâce, the NYT piece circles back and ends with another gratuitous shot at Mr. Roldugin:
As shadows lengthened in Palmyra after Thursday’s concert and dusk cooled the heat of the day, Mr. Roldugin, the cello maestro, said he had left his Stradivarius home.
I wouldn’t bring such a cello to this climate, with the heat and the dust,” Mr. Roldugin said, portraying himself as a musician of modest means that seemingly belied his vast — at least on paper — offshore wealth. “It’s a rare instrument,” he said. “It costs a lot.”
These Westies, they do hates them some Roldugin, wouldn’t you say?
And by the way, it is an open secret, that these Westie reporters are told, by their editors, to insert certain pre-appointed memes and themes into every piece that they write about Russia. The writers are to use their talent and creativity to decide where to toss these cow-paddies into the cookie dough. Which is why the result reads like a conglomeration of legitimate news and reporting with clanging chunks of propaganda.
It’s like listening to a concert in which everything is moving along harmoniously and then suddenly a cacophonous cymbal goes off at the wrong moment!
Immune System Reaction
And finally, I end this piece by returning to inoSMI and quoting/translating some of the more typical comments from Russian readers who evaluated this New York Times piece.
There are 63 comments to the piece. I scanned them all and attempted to divide the comments into 4 groups: (1) people who liked the NYT piece and agree with it; (2) people who disliked the NYT piece and defend Russia; (3) unclear from the comment what their POV; and (4) Neutral – like just adding another link of information.
My survey is not scientific, and I also don’t take into account that a couple of the commenters posted more than one comment. Anyone who likes can look at the comments and do a better survey. The bottom line, though: I counted 3 “unclears” and 3 “neutrals”, aside from that every single comment on the forum was hostile to the NYT piece. There was not one single commenter who praised the piece, or appreciated the talent of the writers. Russian readers were overwhelmingly disgusted by the perceived propaganda attack against their country. This disgust prevented them from seeing any merit in the piece or being able to appreciate any of the real reporting/research work which went into putting it together.
Here is a handful of typical comments which I selected:
Sterliad, May 6 13:30:
Well, lads, what can you expect from the Ameri… Gergiev’s concert was a requiem to American Presidents, this has become a tradition for him. Thus it was also in 2008, in Tskhinval, after that Gruzian madness, to the departing Bush Jr. And so also now in Palmyra – to Obama. And by the way it is not necessary to mix art with politics, these two genres are completely incompatible.
Bobapiter2012, May 6 13:50:
For comparison’s sake, I remember how the U.S. displayed with such pride the videos showing the tortured Hussein and Gaddafi; in Gaddafi’s case they showed on Western channels how he was tortured before his death. Russia (on the other hand) shows a concert of classical music performed in an amphitheater. What would Russia have to do to make them write something nice about her? Perhaps give up Assad and the (Syrian) government to the rebels, then sit back and watch as ISIS and al-Nusrah swallow up Damascus?
Vo1000RRonin, May 6 14:03:
“The concert shows Russia’s musical wealth and also fulfills a military task” ? Did I read that correctly? Nobody ever got killed accidentally by a violin. (…) I understand that this piece is aimed at American readers. But do they really consider their own citizens to be that stupid? (…)
Oimiakon, May 6 14:21:
And what exactly has the West done, in its War Against Terrorism? Did they bomb the columns of ISIS terrorists as they advanced on Palmyra? Did they deprive ISIS of funding by putting a stop to their export of oil? No? In that case, let them sit and shut up. What kind of culture is the West bringing to Iraq? (They won’t get their paws on Syria.) A half-naked aging Madonna, or the “Bearded Lady” [Conchita] ? Maybe Pussy Riot or Femen? I think Muslims are able to properly evaluate such “artists”. (….) Russia, Onward and Upward!
Baraban, May 6 14:29:
I could care less what these “Andrews” think. But I understood the gist of their piece. If somebody rescued a victim from a fire, and the rescuer turned out to be a Russian, then it means he rescued the other person, not for the purpose of rescuing him, but for the purpose of obtaining fame, or with some other ulterior motive, most likely an evil motive. To curse all that is good – this for sure is the apogee of Democracy.
Chetoslyshal, May 6 14:48:
The West is so predictable!
DonPedro, May 6 15:05:
Americans: Besides sneakily spitting into other peoples coffee cups, what else are you capable of doing?
n123polly, May 6 15:36:
The through-and-through lying and mentor-like tone of the article only underscores how mendacious and unsustainable are its arguments. Yes, there was a concert. Yes, it happened in Palmyra, but it is ridiculous to dub this a “feast in plague times”. This concert was a symbol of the fact that peaceful life is returning to a country. Where there is music, there the cannons are silent.
Forcefulnous, May 6 15:41:
Those American artists known as ISIS held their concert – executions. Russian soldiers and musicians held a different concert, which was in part an homage to the innocent people who died. Let the Western liars say what they like, the residents of Palmyra along with other Syrians, will draw the correct conclusions.
aist99, May 6 15:53:
Crusty old grant-eaters. Roldugin was twice shoved under our noses as a “friend of Putin’s”; thanks to this, the article reads as excessively artificial (….)
as99, May 6 16:10:
The hissing of snakes….
pofigisst74, May 6 16:15:
About “Putin’s friends” – name me one president whose friends are homeless bums? P.S. I want a tee-shirt saying “a friend of Putin’s” – do they sell those?
1992SDD1992, May 6 16:25:
I didn’t find anything that surprised me in this organ of American governmental propaganda. I seem to recall how Comrade Obama once said that he does not control the writing of journalists, in distinction to Putin. Well-well. That is evident. He just dictates to them in advance!
bodrovfedor90, May 6 16:40:
If Lady Gaga had sung there, then the entire world would have rejoiced. And yet they spit on the soldiers, on the prisoners who had been executed, and on Bach. (…)
Starukha Izergil, May 6 16:43:
“Viewers in Russia were shown the concert along with edited-in images of ISIS atrocities.” That’s not true. They showed us views of Palmyra. Showing ISIS atrocities – that’s more in the American spirit. I stopped reading at that point, the Anglo-Saxons defile everything they touch.
Selinium, May 6 17:19:
“The officers like to read historical books(…).” Why did they bring this theme of the library into the article? Do they marvel that Russians know how to read? One can shiver when one recalls what American soldiers do during their leisure time.
2m, May 6 21:58:
Valery Gergiev is a great guy. He aroused the desperate howling of the jackals, that means that what he did was right! (…)
mancho, May 7 10:27:
The concert was marvelous. Nobody is prevented from spitting, go ahead and spit, Envious Ones. When it comes to this side of human activity (culture), Russia has no equals on the planet. We should take pride in this, and in our turn spit on those who throb with impotent rage. Russia- Onward and Upward!