Monday, June 30, 2014

Heists and Revolution: Sales of Stolen Artifacts and Gold in Bolshevik Russia and ISIS-controlled Syria/Iraq


In December, 2008, the Russian government announced the creation of a state commission to study the legality of the sale of artwork, jewels and artifacts by the Soviet government in the 1920s. In so doing, Russia turned its attention to a frequently overlooked and almost forgotten chapter in its early, post-revolutionary history. That episode, with its dark consequences for Russian culture, provides a remarkably vivid illustration of how political revolutions grounded in radical, populist ideology, tend to hypocritically rely on base theft to feed the engine of continued conflict. As this analysis examines with the Bolsheviks and ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the source of the ideology does not make much difference.

Failure of "War Communism" – Fire Sale of Russian Antiquities

The confiscation of icons, gold objects, jewels and artifacts from museums, private homes and collections by the Bolsheviks, and their subsequent fire sale at bargain prices to speculators and collectors in the West, represented one of the saddest and most hypocritical episodes of the farcical workers and peasants revolution that supposedly occurred in October, 1917.  The farce was not so much the "revolution" itself, but the fact that in the elections for the Constituent Assembly which followed it in January, 1918, the revolutionaries received less than 25% support from the very soviets in whose name they supposedly took power. The workers and peasants were apparently not impressed with how swiftly the Bolsheviks, led by radicalized sailors and army deserters, took over a few strategic positions in Petrograd. The reaction of Lenin and Trotsky to the popular vote of no confidence? Shut down the Assembly and train loaded rifles on the deputies with a declaration that if they did not abandon the legislative building within twenty-four hours, their safety would not be guaranteed. This presaged not just the demolition of any hope of democratic governance in post-revolutionary Russia, but a series of policy zigzags which brought the country to near total economic ruin.  

The Bolsheviks succeeded in turning a country with a pre-WWI annual economic growth of 8.8%, industrial output just behind the U.S., Britain and Germany, a population of 175 million and rising and Europe's largest gold reserves to one with recurring famines (over 6 million died in the Volga famine of 1921), urban dwellers tearing down the walls of their homes to provide heating material, peasants' and sailors' revolts and nearly exhausted hard currency reserves.  Placing the blame on WWI was a popular meme of Bolshevik apologists for decades, until new historical evidence emerged of an economic boom during that period with a huge convergence effect for Russian industry. As Sean McMeekin wrote in his landmark bookHistory's Greatest Heist: the Looting of Russia by the Bolsheviks, Russia in 1917 (the year of revolution) was less an economic backwater than a casino of speculative investment which fell apart at just the wrong moment.

Following the October seizure of power, the Bolsheviks set about implementing a program of so-called "War Communism" (some of the consequences of which are mentioned above), among whose policies included the confiscation and nationalization of Tsarist treasure, private collections and museum holdings. In the Fall of 1918, the regime issued a decree - "on the registration, accounting and storage of monuments, artwork and antiquities" - which required every Soviet citizen to publicly register all valuables within one month, from artwork and carpets to ornaments and gold jewelry, on pain of forced confiscation and imprisonment (and likely execution). As chronicled by Russian historian Nikolai Svanidze, the decree imposed a prison term for anyone who failed to "properly store" their artwork. The loot, along with confiscated goods from Tsarist palaces and museums, was brought to Petrograd for inspection by a special commission. 

In 1920, Lenin personally undertook to empower the commission and accelerate the sale of Russian artwork overseas. When the so-called People's Commissar of Culture appealed for clarification regarding what was intended to be left for national museums, Lenin promised only the "required minimum" of art and artifacts, with the rest to be sold for hard currency. These shocking measures not only underscore the utter contempt the Bolshevik regime had for the country it found itself governing, but also the degree to which their desire to achieve and retain power trumped any pretense of ideological devotion. While peasants starved and workers rioted, the Bolshevik political class was busy making side deals with European and American capitalists over Russia's historical treasures to fuel its war machine. 

Worse than the deed itself was the price at which a nation's priceless cultural heritage was carted away. Lenin and Trotsky, as part of the operation to accelerate the sale of confiscated items, created a government collection and special diamond fund.  The diamond fund put the Tsar's family jewels on display in round the clock auction exhibits for foreign buyers, who acquired sumptuous crowns and rings, over 145 other ornate objects and 7 FabergĂ© eggs at discount prices ranging from 500 to 5,000 gold rubles which, according to Svanidze's research, was about the cost of feeding 10 Gulag prison guards for one month in 1930. The Hermitage Museum in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg), lost most of its Rembrandt collection to the fire sale and at least one curator killed himself for failing to protect several pieces from export. Perhaps a full accounting, even by the Russian government's investigators, will never be done of the artifacts from churches, private homes and royal residences which were simply melted down and sold as bullion on foreign metal exchanges - Trotsky was particularly aggressive in this area.

Thieves at Allah's Service - ISIS and Iraqi Gold

report from Bloomberg dated March 25, 2014 revealed that the Iraqi government had purchased $1.56 billion worth of gold (36 tons) during that month - the largest purchase in three years. This huge intake followed a steady increase in private gold purchases throughout the country - a rise in demand for bullion coupled with an outflow of foreign currency from the country's banks. The autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq became a major gold import artery, with an estimated 50 metric tons of the metal coming through during the Summer of 2013 alone. Faced with unsophisticated securities markets and a weak banking sector, citizens turned to gold as the only viable means to store wealth and hoarding became commonplace.

Beyond gold, the fate of Iraq's antiquities has been a sore subject since the U.S. invasion of 2003 and the infamous spate of looting which accompanied the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. Over 15,000 artifacts were lost in the mayhem of Baghdad's capture and the U.S. army created a special cultural unit to recover collections and pieces for the National Museum of Iraq. The efforts of U.S. forces, coupled with targeted amnesties for the civilian population, led to several thousand artifacts being restored to the Museum, including 613 pieces of Assyrian gold jewelry. Now, with ISIS (renamed the "Islamic State") having secured Jordanian and Saudi border crossings and encircled Baghdad, the fate of Iraq's gold and cultural heritage located within the Islamist zone of influence or direct control should emerge as a matter of top priority. Naturally, western media and policymakers have chosen to more or less bury this aspect of the ISIS campaign in favor of purely military assessments. 

The relationship between ISIS and Iraq's treasures is almost identical to that of the Bolsheviks in Russia. A group which seeks to purify the souls of its subjects and impose strict Sharia law over the areas it controls - destroying graves and shrines, keeping women out of public view unless absolutely necessary and banning alcohol, drugs and cigarettes - is financing its war machine with a highly efficient smuggling operation. How ironic that the same people who cut the hands off thieves in the public square shamelessly engage in naked bank robbery and black market fire sales of stolen goods.  And yet, beyond the estimated $500 million in loot from Mosul banks, ISIS has netted tens of millions from illicit sales of artifacts from across Syria and Iraq - $36 million in one region of Syria alone according to one report. Sam Hardy, a research associate at the UCL Institute of Archaeology in London, has written extensively on ISIS activities in the international artifacts market - particularly in Syria and Mosul where the city's museum, shrines and churches have been looted. This comes on top of the jizya tax which the group has imposed on Christians and other non-Muslims in its areas of control. That tax, levied on religious grounds, parallels the Bolshevik confiscation directive in its execution. 

If ISIS succeeds in taking Baghdad (a prospect considered increasingly unlikely with each passing day) or consolidates control over more outlying territory in Shia or Kurdish-controlled Iraq, there appears little doubt that the looting of museums and banks will shift to confiscation of private gold holdings; this makes the protection of Iraq's gold as important as safeguarding its territorial integrity (to the extent this is still possible) for any foreign powers determined enough to intervene against the ISIS-Sunni alliance. In 1936, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin engineered the theft of Spain's gold reserves in a top secret operation (codenamed "X") in which 500 tons of bullion, coins and jewels were spirited away by barge to Odessa, transported to Moscow and stored in a Kremlin vault. Stalin allegedly exclaimed that the Spaniards, who foolishly agreed to hand over the gold for safekeeping in return for continued Soviet support against Franco's Nationalists, would not see their gold again "just as they do not see their ears". Perhaps this type of extortion is being carried out by ISIS and Shia militants at a micro level across Iraq now. In any case, it is incumbent upon Iraq's neighbors to take steps to preserve the country's cultural heritage and intercede between ISIS and the treasures presently within its grasp.





Tuesday, June 17, 2014

ISIS - the Gulf States' Unruly Instrument: or Why the United States Should Not Reengage in Iraq

Hitler - Stalin's instrument run amok

"Icebreaker" was Adolf Hitler's designation by Soviet intelligence. The fall of the Soviet Union gave historians access to documentary material sealed for decades behind layers of obfuscation, lies and half-truths. Papers which Moscow consistently denied as ever having existed reporting on meetings which ostensibly never took place suddenly became public knowledge. It is not surprising, then, that a primary area of new research focused on the seemingly beaten down topic of the Second World War. It would appear that almost everything which could be written or said about that conflict has been and the narrative is as unassailable as a mathematical proof: Adolf Hitler's Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Two days later, Britain and France declared war in line with their guarantees of Polish independence. The Soviet Union intervened, officially to "protect" eastern Slavs from "fascist" oppression (in reality in accordance with the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Protocols to partition Poland), on September 17. One German victory led to another until a setback over the skies of Britain, the invasion of Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, America's entry into the war after Pearl Harbor and Germany's eventual defeat.

There could be no question as to whose hands were dirtiest regarding the start of the conflict and that World War II was Germany's war. Stalin's arrangement with Hitler was rooted in survival and when that expired with the latter's invasion, the Soviet Union quickly joined with its ideological foes to defeat their more vicious, common enemy. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham referred to this telling over the past couple of days when he urged the U.S. to tacitly align with Iran in order to prevent the Sunni Islamist ISIS militia from seizing Baghdad and toppling the Iraqi Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki. We dealt with Stalin because Hitler was worse, exhorted Graham. Iran could provide assets, along with Turkey, to stop ISIS (presumably with American air power) and keep the Iraqi government afloat. 

Unfortunately for Graham and the U.S. national security establishment, the consensus tale of the Second World War's origins has been savaged by a series of sensational revisionist accounts. Most prominent and convincing of these comes from former Soviet intelligence officer and historian Vladimir Rezun (aka Viktor Suvorov), whose research was published for mass distribution in English five years ago  under the title: The Chief Culprit: Stalin's Grand Design to Start World War II

Suvorov's work effectively links Hitler's rise to power to a grand design by Stalin, his Politburo and the Comintern based in Moscow to spark a world revolution through Germany. Far from being a fool who struggled, in vain, to stave off war with Germany, Suvorov contends that there would never have been a war, or a Nazi Germany for that matter, but for Stalin's efforts. From Stalin's intervention to prevent the German Communists from uniting with the Social Democrats to form a political block against Hitler in the 1932 German Reichstag Elections to coordinated violence between the Nazis and the Communists against the Social Democrats in East Prussia to the active military assistance provided to Hitler's rearmament efforts in the early 1930s, Suvorov dots the "i's" and crosses the "t's" with Stalin's own dispatches and meeting transcripts to show that the Soviet dictator paved Hitler's road to power. 

Stalin considered Hitler a valuable (almost indispensable) asset to instigate a European conflict and give the Soviet Union the opportunity to finish the unfinished business of 1918. The Soviet leader gave orders to the German Communists that they were to consider the Social Democrats, rather than the Nazis, their primary foes as early as 1927. Moreover, it was Stalin's financial support for the Nazi election campaign in 1932 that is partly credited with saving Hitler's movement from bankruptcy. Such support continued until hours before the German invasion in 1941 when trainloads of iron ore and grain were being sent across a border lined with millions of German troops and tanks. In this context, what happened in August 1939 and the invasion of Poland was no mere gamble by Stalin to buy his country time from a hostile Germany, but a tactical move to make Germany the aggressor in a European conflict that would draw in the West European power who, Moscow hoped, would keep Hitler occupied for at least 2-3 years. Unfortunately for the Soviet leader, the protracted war in the west ended in seven weeks and Hitler headed east well ahead of schedule. While this resulted in Germany's defeat, Stalin's grand design for a takeover of continental Europe was thwarted.

Thus, Hitler became Stalin's instrument run amok. Unleashed by the Soviet dictator upon Europe to bring the continent to its knees, he deviated from script and nearly destroyed the sponsor.

ISIS - the Hitler to the Gulf States' Stalin

The relationship between Stalin and Hitler during the prelude to the Second World War provides an almost perfect analogue to the current crisis in Iraq with the Sunni ISIS militia army. Although a basic knowledge of ethnic and tribal loyalties in the Arab Middle East would make it a common sense assumption, there is now considerable evidence that the "seed" funding for ISIS, when it was just an Al-Qaeda splinter outfit in Syria fighting alongside the al-Nusra Front and other Sunni Jihadist groups against the Assad regime, came overwhelmingly from the Gulf Sunni states - chiefly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar. These countries have played the double-game of funding extremists in peripheral conflicts whilst keeping them suppressed at home for many years. 

In the case of ISIS, the money came from wealthy backers through a variety of channels ranging from personal donations to money laundering schemes to sham bank accounts backed by Gulf governments. To think that private individuals in repressive and tightly regulated Arab states could funnel millions of dollars to Syrian Islamists without at least the tacit backing of their host governments is naive at best. Although these countries have publicly denied any direct involvement with ISIS and its allies during the opening stages of the Syrian Civil War, they were not especially cooperative in response to pressure from Washington for a comprehensive crackdown on the group's financing networks. In short, ISIS would have never gotten off the ground (as Al-Qaeda before it) without substantial assistance (in men, money and material) from the very Gulf States which are now supposed allies of the U.S. in its War Against Terrorism. In other words, the ISIS is the Gulf States' instrument to achieve specific regional objectives - chiefly against arch-rival Iran and its affiliates, allies and satellites.

ISIS deviates from script in Syria and Iraq

Unfortunately for its Gulf backers, the ISIS appears to have radically deviated from its predetermined role. Having consolidated a foothold in northern Syria in the wake of successful counteroffensives by Assad's forces (mostly equipped by and through Iran), it has swarmed over the border to take advantage of Sunni agitation with the Shia government in Iraq. To make a long story short, there is no way that 800 militia on flat-back pickup trucks could route 30,000 trained and equipped Iraqi troops without substantial popular support. That support came from Sunni tribal leaders in the major cities of Mosul and Tikrit as well as neighboring villages, as corroborated by those on the ground such as Sheikh Abdel-Qaderal-Nayel and experts such as Ben Connable of the RAND Corporation. Some Sunni leaders have even tried to blackmail the U.S. into staging a military response by threatening to join the ISIS if support were not forthcoming. Like the welcome German forces initially received in Ukraine and the Baltic States in 1941, it appears that fear of Jihadists prone to mass shooting and beheading is counterbalanced with hatred for Baghdad's Shia government. 

Yet the scale and speed of ISIS' advance might well sow the seeds for not only the group's ultimate demise, but a new regional order from what is left of Iraq. Having begun as a paramilitary unit conveniently positioned against the Gulf States' regional rivals, ISIS has grown into its own organism, unhindered by past constraints. It now controls a quarter of one country and almost half of another, significant oil reserves and over $2 billion in hard assets (not including taxes extracted from small businesses and merchants in areas it controls). With a mind and objectives of its own, there is no reason to believe its thirst will be quenched in Baghdad. More likely, as shown by stepped up recruitment and propaganda efforts inside the Kingdom itself over the past week, ISIS may put itself in a position to directly threaten the borders and power structure of Saudi Arabia and its allies (a brief look at where its forces currently stand in Iraq makes this appear all but obvious). It appears that, just like Stalin with Hitler a century ago, Saudi Arabia and its neighbors have let a genie out of a bottle which is poised to overtake them.

Saudi/Gulf intervention and stalemate with Iran

It is precisely because the ISIS has gained the capability to threaten Saudi Arabia's borders and slice away most of Sunni-populated Iraq that the U.S. should not intervene (directly or indirectly) to resolve the present crisis in favor of either the Sunni or Shia factions in the region. There is no need to speculate about what Riyadh will do when, if events should reach such a juncture, ISIS decides to turn its attention south and ignite efforts to undermine the Saudi royal family (tagged as traitors and American lackeys by Al-Qaeda). When faced with a choice of ideology or survival, Saudi King Abdullah has repeatedly gone with the latter. The same regime which sponsors Islamists in Syria has cracked down on Al-Qaeda at home and sent millions in financial support to Egypt's military government against the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, just as the Saudis sent tanks into Bahrain to quell riots tied to the Arab Spring a year ago, they will swing into Iraq the minute they feel their personal survival threatened. 

With Saudi tanks in Iraq to reign in the ISIS and Maliki's government effectively controlled by Iran (more so in the aftermath of the current Sunni uprising), something resembling a Cold War stalemate will develop. Modern Iraq, carved out of whole cloth in the aftermath of the First World War, will be divided de jure as it has been de facto - the Kurds consolidate in the north (to the detriment of Turkey and the benefit of everyone else), Iran turns the Shia areas east of Baghdad into its greater prosperity sphere and the Saudis (assisted chiefly by Kuwait) hold sway over a Sunni autonomous zone in the center and west. I would not be surprised if, behind closed doors in a neutral area somewhere in central Iraq, Saudi and Iranian representatives meet quietly (as Hitler and Stalin before them) to delegate spheres of influence. 

Nowhere in this design is American intervention wanted or needed. Strengthening the hand of one regional faction at the expense of another is not, and never has been, in Washington's interest. We have a unique chance, now, to let the region ossify into a lasting stalemate anchored by the stable power centers. Europe had its Thirty Years War. Persia and the Ottomans had theirs for over a century. Washington should not make today's Middle East ours.   








Thursday, June 5, 2014

Obama's speech in Warsaw - Russia as Europe's antagonizing "other"

Obama's speech - Russia is not a European state

U.S. President Barack Obama gave a speech in Warsaw, Poland yesterday and painted a portrait of contemporary Europe which holds profound significance. In effect, Obama proclaimed that Russia and Europe are two different things (i.e., Russia is not a European country or a nation which can be countenanced as belonging to the same family). Putting aside the false characterization of the European Union institutions headquartered in Brussels and Strasbourg as "Europe", which some would say was really what Obama meant, the wall of separation between Moscow and Europe (and more generally the West) per se was made explicit in the President's remarks.  Obama described Ukraine as a buffer between "Europe and Russia and the United States and the rest of the world". He then contended that "[O]ur free nations will stand united so that further Russian provocations will only mean more isolation and costs for Russia.  Because after investing so much blood and treasure to bring Europe together, how can we allow the dark tactics of the 20th century to define this new century?".

In the President's view, therefore, "free nations" and Russia are separate concepts. Russia is a "bully" and "provocateur" whose "dark tactics" are causing instability and fissures throughout Europe. Obama went on to proclaim that today's Ukrainians (including I assume the ones in Lvov honoring Waffen SS divisions and demanding that symbols honoring the defeat of Nazi Germany in WWII be placed on a list of extreme paraphernalia) are the "heirs of Solidarity". Either Obama's speechwriters (or Obama himself) are utterly oblivious to historically based rhetorical signals or they purposefully meant to insert this language. What this tells the average Russian, and most certainly an established member of Moscow's educated class or intelligentsia, is that the West still regards him/her as not one of it. They may study German or French, stand in line to see Rembrandt at the Hermitage, learn about Russia's pivotal role in maintaining European peace in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars or that their greatest empress was a Prussian princess, but as far as Obama and the attendees in Warsaw are concerned, they are permanent outsider in need of containment rather than engagement - a remnant of the Soviet Union pursuing unremitting expansionism.  
Obama's speech read like one Fmr. President Harry Truman may have given in 1946 or Fmr. President Ronald Reagan in 1982. Truman needed to initiate containment after the diplomatic route which his predecessor suffered at the hands of Stalin, both because of Fmr. President Franklin Roosevelt's own naivete regarding the Soviet dictator's intentions and the fact that many within the President's inner circle were NKVD (Soviet secret police) assets.  Reagan, operating from a position of strength (i.e., a Soviet economy completely dependent on artificially priced energy exports and loans from Washington-supported financial institutions) could afford to tighten the screws on Moscow and open a channel to the Soviet public in an effort to further discredit a regime which had lost its basic legitimacy decades earlier. 

Obama is facing a different Russia and a different Russian public.  Sure, Putin may have neo-imperialist aims, if only to strengthen his domestic support, prevent a feckless opposition from reorganizing and cling to power at all costs (contrast Putin's supposed obsession with saving Russian life in Donetsk with his merciless "anti-terror" operations in Beslan and Moscow's Nord-Ost, where hundreds of men and women (and many children in the case of Beslan) were cut down so as to maintain the mirage of the state's invincibility in the face of its enemies. Similarly, compare Putin's fear of "fascist" violence and harassment of Russians in Ukraine with his indifference to similar violence occurring against Russians in Turkmenistan, whom one could argue Putin abandoned for energy concessions. But a regime is not necessarily its people and to merge the two is to block avenues through which to drive important wedges and advance your own interests.

For all of the new restrictions imposed by Putin on NGOs, independent websites and political parties, there is no question that Russian society is many times more open and engaged with the West today than at any time in its modern history. Russian commercial engagement extends beyond the energy sector. Russian students flood German, Swedish, British and French universities on exchange programs. Russians travel to all corners of the globe and relax in the Spanish Riviera. Nobody is preventing yours truly from calling his friends or family in Moscow to take the country's pulse. In other words, the people who matter in Russian society (literate, engaged and economically middle to upper middle class) know and appreciate what is happening around them. So what Obama has done is to take this group, many of whose members consider themselves to be European or western, and cut them off.  To add insult to injury, he spoke about the "blood and treasure" that "we" spent to "bring Europe together". Who exactly is "we" and which Europe has been brought together? Or perhaps the question should be rephrased to ask when was Europe brought together? If Obama referred here to the Cold War, NATO expansion or the EU, I do not understand the reference to mass bloodshed. If he instead meant the Second World War, then his statement is incredibly offensive to millions of Soviet soldiers and civilians who lost their lives liberating, from their perspective, Europe from Nazi tyranny.  To say that their sacrifices did not count or, worse, were driven to extend or preserve the very barbarism they struggled against, is beyond the pale. One has to distinguish what the soldier in the field generally believed and what his government desired. The Wehrmacht which invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, from its Chief of Staff to the frontline infantryman, was under no illusions that the invasion was one of conquest. The same cannot honestly be said about individual Soviet troops who entered Sofia, Warsaw and Budapest in 1944/45.

Playing into Putin's Hands

Not only has Obama unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly) reoriented American foreign policy in Europe by painting Russia as a permanent outsider, he has also played right into the narrative which Russian President Vladimir Putin has meticulously constructed over the past year with a renewed public relations campaign to promote orthodox and some would consider reactionary "Russian" values. Dr. Leon Aron, a premier Russia expert based in Washington for whom this author has previously worked, wrote about this in the Wall Street Journal

As Fmr. Russian President Boris Yelstin and others before him, Putin has taken on the mantle of a gatherer of supposedly lost or abandoned Russian lands as a means to distract from profound domestic problems. The Russian economy is slated to grow by barely 1% in real terms this quarter, Moscow's involvement in Ukraine has produced targeted sanctions and capital flight and the Kremlin is stuck providing for pensioners in annexed Crimea. Then there are the country's outer regions. While separatists were shooting down helicopters outside Donetsk, thousands in the city of Yaroslavl were dying from treatable illnesses due to collapsed infrastructure, ignored healthcare facilities and paltry incomes. This was the fiery report of Yaroslavl local legislator, former Governor of Nizhny Novgorod and Vice Premier under former Yelstin, Boris Nemtsov to a Ukrainian TV audience a few weeks ago.

Nemtsov's statements appear to corroborate distressing trends. Moscow's renowned Marshak Clinic, among the first private addiction treatment centers to open in post-Soviet Russia, released a study a month ago regarding the average age of alcoholics and drug users admitted to its facility for treatment. The results showed a decline in the average age of alcoholic of 7-10 years with a corresponding figure of 2-3 years for drug users. Russia's addicts are becoming younger and using more potent substances to reach their high. This has in no small part contributed to an explosion of HIV/AIDS within the country. Russia has gone backward in AIDS prevention and rates of infection, with the Kremlin refusing the consider or publicly mention radical solutions to stop the spread. Instead of allowing needle sharing programs (as even Margaret Thatcher did in the UK at the start of the AIDS crisis) and drug substitution treatments (as popularized in Holland), the official line appears to be a promotion of healthy living, sports and cultural awareness. While over one million Russians are estimated to be infected with the disease and drug users inventing horrific new concoctions (e.g., krokodil) to find relief, the Kremlin glorified its $50 billion Olympic spectacular and passed bills which prohibited "propaganda" of nontraditional sexual relationships directed at children.

Not all is lost, however, as there appears to be belated, limited improvement in Russia's demographic projections. City dwellers are wealthier and more established. Nemtsov himself admitted, as did other members of Russia's so-called liberal opposition (about whom I will write in a separate post) that incomes have on average doubled since the mid-1990s. Then we have this analysis of who actually constitutes the Russian middle class, courtesy of the opposition-oriented Moscow Times. With 79% of the self-identified middle class saying the Kremlin should be supported despite its flaws and 49% stating that Russia needed a firm hand, is it any wonder that Putin's calculated standoff in Ukraine has yielded the highest approval ratings he has seen in over two years?  As anecdotal evidence of the swell in support for the Kremlin, family friends we spoke with in Moscow in the immediate aftermath of Crimea's referendum (cultured and well-traveled scientists and mathematicians) were uniformly overjoyed that historic Russian territory had rejoined the homeland and thankful to Putin for achieving what his predecessor had not. 

Postscript

Winston Churchill led an international expeditionary force into Russia during its civil war to prevent a consolidation of Bolshevik power and to restore Russia to the family of European nations. Charles De Gaulle believed Russia was a European country and that China's economic rise would serve to bind it and the rest of Europe closer together.  Even the German political establishment believes that Russia must have a place at the European, if the not necessarily the EU, table. Obama's speech in Warsaw in response to the situation in Ukraine appears to have upended this long-held thinking. To the Moscow layman, the view from Washington is that it is still 1981, Russia is the Soviet Union with a new flag and the thoughts, aspirations and fears of the Russian president and the Russian public are one and the same.  Putin's PR machine would not want it depicted any other way.