Thursday, June 10, 2010

Value Meal or Last Meal: Jay Leno and the Death Penalty

BROOKLYN, New York -- I never thought that this blog would get dragged into the insipid mire of America's Late Night Wars, but Jay Leno has forced my hand.

While the various programs may jockey for ratings, in terms of quality, the winner is so obvious that it pains me that this is even a conversation i
n America. Jay Leno is a mean-spirited hack. All the hosts, from Grand Master Letterman, to my beloved Ferguson, to oft-forgotten Kimmel, go after the low-hanging fruit of celebrity scandal, but Leno poaches exclusively in this preserve. Watch his monologue, and you will find that almost without exception, every single so-called joke is a vicious personal attack.

Now, this blog was not created to rush to the defense of the likes of Lindsay Lohan (she does cocaine! Ha!) and Jon Gosselin (he's sort of fat and balding! Double Ha, Jay!), but a recent segment on The Tonight Show did go after some defenseless people in a misguided stab at humor: America's death row inmates.

Jay unveiled a bit this season (he calls it "one of my new favorites"), "Value Meal or Last Meal," in which he offers up a menu of items, and then invites the audience to guess whether this is a prisoner's last request or a combo dinner option from a chain restaurant. The two times I have seen the bit, the offerings have indeed been revolting concoctions from Applebee's and Chili's, not death row fare. To me, this indicates that Leno is happy make light of the desperate situations of men and women who are facing certain death at the hands of the state, but he is too cowardly to openly mock them, instead turning his sights at the last moment onto fast food restaurants. The meals are usually enormous and enormously unhealthy, and the crowd seems to believe that the big reveal will be that this is a last meal, not a value meal. This whole segment plays on the notion that death row inmates are overweight simpletons who choose to spend their last moments stuffing their faces with fried food. It degrades their deaths and trivializes a monstrous practice. As for the innocent victims of the executed, all I will say is that you do not need to demean one life to celebrate another, and Jay Leno is not championing victims' rights with this bit.

Now, if Leno wants some really funny material, one of the most hilarious last meals of all time must have been that of Rickey Ray Rector. Rector, executed in 1992 by the state of Arkansas, asked for steak, fried chicken with gravy, cherry Kool-Aid and a slice of pecan pie. Nothing about that meal seems outwardly funny – he didn't order grotesque amounts of fried foods, as Leno finds so hilarious, nor did he order anything bizarre or exotic. No, the gut-busting part is his dessert – you see, Rector was so severely mentally handicapped that he set aside his piece of pie to save for later, believing that as soon as this whole ordeal was over, he would be back in cell where he could enjoy his dessert in peace. That right there is comedy gold, Jay.

There are other options that would fit Jay's sensibilities nicely. He could make a joke about the fact that inmates in the federal death row in Terre Haute, Indiana have to place their orders for their last meal at least seven days prior to their execution date – "That federal bureaucracy is such a nightmare!" Or how about the fact that many states mandate in their execution protocols that prisoners eat their last meal at least several hours before the death penalty is administered. This is largely to maintain the atmosphere that a pseudo-medical procedure is being carried out, much like you are not supposed to eat the day before major surgery. Jay could riff on this with a zinger like, "Hey, I'm going to die anyway, I don't care if I throw up a little bit on my shirt!"

Finally, Leno has got to do this segment about Edward Earl Johnson, a 26-year-old man executed by Mississippi in 1987 for the murder of a sheriff, a crime of which many believe he was innocent. His final two weeks of life, including his last meal, were documented in the film 14 Days in May. He ate his last meal surrounded by friends and family in the Parchman Prison Farm. Leno could use this moment to really run with his family restaurant/death chamber dichotomy – "Is this guy in prison or at a Bennigan's?!"

If you can't stomach a second more than is absolutely necessary of Jay Leno, fast forward the clip below to the 6:00 mark to see the segment from the May 28 episode of The Tonight Show.

Should Jay Leno decide to use any of this Grade-A material I have written for him, I would expect an invitation to The Tonight Show, where I plan to behave like this when he ruins it with his horrid delivery.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Russia Today Thinks British Bobbies Are Violent Stormtroopers

BROOKLYN, New York -- A few people have recently pointed out to me that Kremlin-owned cable channel and propaganda mouthpiece Russia Today (full disclosure: I briefly worked at Russia Today) has released a series of controversial advertisements promoting it's supposedly contrarian coverage.

These ads have appeared in airports in the UK, but airport operators in the United States rejected them. A compromise was struck, and Russia Today was allowed to use ads the simply bore the phrase "Politically Incorrect" – I'm not sure if this is some sort of pun, or if it's in reference to the censored ads, which the American audience have never seen. Either way, the revised ad somehow makes less sense than original. The ads superimpose seemingly opposite images over one another – the most controversial of these ads depicted US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and asks, "Who poses the greater nuclear threat?" The rest of the ads can be seen here.

The Ahmadinejad/Obama advertisement is ridiculous (especially considering that Obama has articulated a sincere desire to rid the world of nuclear weapons); the AK-47/camera is interesting, if trite; and the insurgent/soldier is compelling, if wholly biased and politically opportunistic.

Perhaps the most interesting of this series of ads is the last one (above), depicting a policeman and some sort of tattooed hooligan or activist; it asks, "Who is more dangerous?" It is a valid question – protesters, both peaceful and not-so-peaceful, are routinely suppressed with overwhelming and disproportionate force all over the world. Russian law enforcement is one of the worst offenders in this regard, as the government frequently resorts to violence and arrests to silence critics of the regime. However, this advertisement clearly depicts a British police officer. British policing is not without its problems, but for the Russian government to depict a British officer as a baton-wielding skull-cracker is the height of absurdity. Who's more dangerous? Neither – the answer is these guys:

Unfortunately, censoring these ads may have been the best thing for Russia Today. These propaganda images lay bear the obvious biases of the network; the scrubbed ad just positions it as an "alternative" new source. The network is part of Russia's soft power offensive. The Kremlin has tried to sell the network as similar to news outlets like the BBC or Deutsche-Welle, which are at least nominally government-owned but remain editorially independent. In addition to providing news about Russia to an English-speaking audience, the network was also founded with the mission of countering negative views of Russia in the foreign media (this mandate also extends to news outlets for the domestic market). Of course, the hand of the Kremlin could not be more obvious in its editorial positions or its news coverage. No matter what advertising campaign RT runs in the US, it is unlikely that anyone but the most uninformed contrarian (like their own employees) will turn to it for news. This may be, as my compatriot said, "largely due to prejudice, but that doesn't mean it's wrong."

Of all the bad things that the Russian government does, running a poorly-produced propaganda cable channel is probably one of the most benign, and probably short-lived. To spread its gospel of a "multi-polar world," Russia Today offers its feed to satellite providers and public broadcasters for free, and it has no advertisements, meaning all of the channel's costs are paid straight from government coffers. With the country's finances in poor shape, the regime may see rapidly diminishing returns on its propaganda investment when budgets for public services are squeezed.

But then again, I'm wasting my breath. This is all just propaganda.

Thanks to my friends for their many insightful comments on this issue, some of which have been lifted for this post. Check out more commentary on this story on Sean's Russia Blog.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Medvedev Promises Police Reform, But Proposals Are Off the Mark

BROOKLYN, New York -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is talking tough about police reform.

On Thursday, Medvedev dismissed two high-ranking officials in the Interior Ministry, as well as 16 regional ministry officers, 15 of whom are generals. According to the Russian daily Kommersant, half of these dismissals were tied high-profile incidents of police criminality and corruption, while the rest were the result of scheduled position rotations within the ministry.

The changes were announced in a speech before senior officials of the Interior Ministry, in which Medvedev said the country needed to "cleanse this evil from the state and municipal structures."

(Agence France-Press translated that phrase as "cleanse the state structures of evil," which could be interpreted to mean that Russia's security agencies are "state structures of evil." The original Russian phrase was, "очистить государственные и муниципальные структуры от этого зла." Either way, I think the misinterpreted phrase is closer to the truth.)

Among other reforms announced by the president was a plan to cut the Interior Ministry's bloated general staff in Moscow by half from its current size of 20,000. He also called on Prime Minister Vladmir Putin to draft a sweeping reform proposal for the country's law enforcement agencies, which is to be submitted to parliament by December 1. Medvedev stated that he would maintain personal control over the reform project, but giving Prime Minister Putin a central role is like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.

While the housecleaning and tough talk about corruption are somewhat heartening, I remain skeptical (an opinion I've expressed before here and here). In the past several months, the country has been rocked by shocking criminal acts by police officers, including well-publicized beatings, mysterious deaths, and a not-so-mysterious video-taped mass killing. Some commanding officers have lost their posts as a result of these incidents (though not their jobs or their pensions), but almost none of the guilty officers have seen the inside of a courtroom, and jail time seems like a remote possibility.

One thing that Medvedev said betrays a fundamental misunderstanding (or, more likely, an intentional misinterpretation) of how democratic policing works and how the country's law enforcement structures should be reformed. While his principal target of reform should be dismantling the police's culture of corruption and bringing dirty cops to justice, he has taken elsewhere: clearance rates.

"Only one in every two crimes is cleared annually. There are over 1.3 million unsolved crimes in Russia each year, and a quarter of these are serious or very serious crimes," he said Thursday.

The clearance rate is the proportion of reported crimes that lead to an arrest –they are "cleared" when the case is turned over to the courts for prosecution. The political reasoning behind Medvedev's statement is clear – people want the police to solve more crimes, because they think it will put more criminals in jail and will make them safer. It is true that solving more crimes is a good thing, but setting your sights on clearance rates is highly problematic.

Clearance rates are easily manipulated. Especially within an embedded culture of corruption, there is a powerful temptation to doctor figures. This can be done in two basic ways – by not filing reported crimes, thus reducing the overall crime figures, or by making knowingly erroneous arrests, which moves the case off the police department's ledger and into the hands of prosecutors. Medvedev said about these supposedly paltry numbers, "Most importantly, behind [these figures] lie the fate of real people – of victims, their loved ones, their family members." He should remember that there are also countless victims of bad police work and police corruption who get caught up in this chase for ratings.

Law enforcement agencies in the Soviet Union were obsessed with clearance rates, and every department was mandated to keep theirs at 95% or above until that target was scrapped in the 1980's. This is an impossible figure, but like so many other statistics in the USSR, it was doctored and fudged, often by ignoring crime reports, planting evidence, throwing innocent people in jail, and coercing confessions through torture. None of these things are acceptable from police in a democratic society, yet they were and remain commonplace in Russia.

No up-to-date statistics are available on Russia's clearance rate nationwide (if you can find them, please let me know), but the regional figures fluctuate wildly and are highly unreliable. For certain crimes, like murder, many jurisdictions report preposterous rates of 90 to 100%. Regardless, Medvedev's ballpark figure of 50% is absurdly high – if he believes that it is too low, then it suggests that he is not aiming for accurate, accountable figures, but the phantom rates of the Soviet days that will dupe citizens into thinking that the police keep them safe.

By comparison, in the United States, 45.1% of violent crimes were cleared in 2008, and 17.1% of property crimes (theft, burglary, etc.), according to the FBI. America's law enforcement system is by no means perfect, nor is it fundamentally broken like Russia's – so why are the figures so low? Because the clearance rate only tells a small part of the story. It does not tell you how officers go about solving crimes, and whether they do it legally.

Boosting clearance rates can be part of a successful crime control strategy, but only part, and not when corruption is so widespread. Cities like New York used clearance rate targets to reduce crime, but the NYPD also meticulously maintains its databases and they are subject to regular audits. Even then, the system is prone to manipulation, and many have criticized the department for being too focused on clearance and crime rate numbers. Statistics are only worthwhile if they are accurate and reliable, and even then, they are only part of the answer.

Medvedev's focus on police reform is admirable, and it is certainly more genuine than the promises of his predecessor, who remains irretrievably entrenched in the rottenness of the Soviet security apparatus. But this endeavor looks doomed to repeat the mistakes of past reform efforts by focusing on top-down, statistically-driven initiatives that pay no attention to the institutional problems of Russian law enforcement.

UPDATE: For more on the topic of policing statistics and fudging the numbers, check out this post from Peter Moskos on his blog, Cop in the Hood - "Juking the Stats."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Sergei Magnitsky Murder: Siloviki Circle the Wagons

BROOKLYN, New York -- It has been more than two months since the death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in police custody after being refused medical attention. Magnitsky represented British investor Bill Browder, founder of Hermitage Capital Management, in a case involving a huge tax fraud allegedly perpetrated by Russian police officials and uncovered by Mr. Magnitsky. He had spent nearly a year in pre-trial detention, imprisoned without charge by the very people he accused of perpetrating the fraud against his clients and the Russian government.

Were it not for his British citizenship, Mr. Browder himself could have wound up in similar circumstances. He has been refused entry to Russia since 2005, despite the fact that he runs one of the largest investment firms in the country and has been a tireless booster of investing in Russia. He is not a political activist or human rights campaigner; instead, he champions investors' rights, which are also severely trampled in Russia. He refused to play by the crooked rules of the coterie of Kremlin insiders and current and former members of the security services, the so-called siloviki, who control business in Russia. Magnitsky was a tireless advocate of his client's interests, and he was murdered because he refused to flee the country or commit perjury by implicating himself or his client for the crimes of his captors.

Since this case became an international sensation (though only after Magnitsky's captors had succeeded in killing him), President Dmitry Medvedev has done some house cleaning, firing top prison officials who oversaw Magnitsky's detention and non-existent medical treatment (he died of untreated pancreatitis and gall stones, not a heart attack and toxic shock as the government claims). As for the men who orchestrated the fraud and arrest, Viktor Markelov, a sawmill foreman and likely a bit player in the $230 million tax fraud, was convicted in April 2009 of stealing government funds (his conviction was in fact based on the investigative work of Magnitsky himself). The two police officers who orchestrated the whole affair, Lt. Col. Atryom Kuznetsov and Maj. Pavel Karpov, have been reassigned to desk jobs at the Interior Ministry, and no charges are pending against either one. Not a penny of the $230 million has been recovered.

This is how things usually work in Russia when a scandal like this breaks. The government offers up a few sacrificial lambs – this time in the form of Moscow prison director Vladimir Davydov and 19 other prison officials and the fall guy Markelov – but it always protects its own in the police.

For more details on the Magnitsky case, read Bill Browder's letter published in Foreign Policy in December. You can also listen to an interview with Browder from The Economist, which I highly recommend.

Hermitage has set up a website, Law and Order in Russia, which chronicles this entire ordeal and contains a wealth of documents related to the tax case and Mr. Magnitsky's detention, all of which have been translated into English.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

More Hockey: Playing and Watching the Game Outdoors

BROOKLYN, New York -- Hockey was meant to be played – and watched – outdoors. On New Year's Day, the National Hockey League pulled off another spectacular Winter Classic, an outdoor game between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers at historic Fenway Park. I was not able to make it to Boston for those festivities, but this past weekend I did make the trip to Beantown to see college hockey rivals Boston University and Boston College face off at Frozen Fenway.

It seemed a bit sacrilegious that my first visit to Fenway would be to see a hockey game – a lifelong Red Sox fan, I've never seen them in their home ballpark – but you could not ask for a better atmosphere for a hockey game. As my brother and I shivered through three periods, and temperatures dropped to 15F, we did not complain that we had to watch the game through binoculars from the bleachers, or that the public address announcer kept talking during play. That's acceptable in baseball, but not okay in hockey – once the puck drops, the PA, organ, and infernal jock jams must all cease so that the crowd can hear the swish of the skates and the crack of the puck off of stick blades and boards. Our sightlines were not great, but they did a great job micing the ice; and I'm fine with an obstructed view seat, if that view is partially blocked by the Pesky Pole.

The trip to Fenway brought back memories of places both very near to and very far from my home. Playing shinny on local ponds was a big part of growing up, and quite a few of the rinks I played on in youth hockey in Connecticut were outdoors. But this was the first time I had been to an outdoor hockey game since I lived in Russia. While in Irkutsk, I was a rabid follower of our local bandy club (not exactly hockey, but close), Baikal-Energia. 15,000 fans braved temperatures that dipped well below freezing – at their most recent home game, against Stroitel Syktyvkar, the official game time temperature was -13F – on a regular basis. I guess I have grown soft and used to the warmth and comfort of an NHL arena; so had most of my fellow spectators in Boston, as the crowd had thinned out significantly by the third period. What we all needed was a few belts of honey pepper vodka and some slices of salo, a type of Ukrainian salted pork fat. Neither was on offer at the concession stands, however; just beer, which promptly froze in the plastic cups.

Unlike previous Winter Classic events, the NHL decided to leave the ice down in Fenway for a full month, making it accessible for public skating and youth, high school, and college hockey. That is, for those who could afford it – two hours of ice time cost high schools upwards of $20,000, meaning only wealthy private schools could have the privilege of staging a game there. Nonetheless, the rink's extended stay was a big success, and the league hopes the next host of the event will make similar accommodations. Connecticut hockey fans had a lot to cheer about; not only did Avon Old Farms and Taft square off on the Fenway ice on December 21, but the honorary captains for the BC-BU game included two of the state's greatest players: former Eagles standouts and NHL stars Craig Janney (of Enfield) and Brian Leetch (Cheshire).

Outdoor hockey used to be ubiquitous, and even though leagues are staging more and more outdoor games, fewer and fewer kids are growing up playing on natural ice. I was lucky to play a few games last year at an outdoor rink in Nederland, Colorado, located at 8,500 feet amidst beautiful mountain scenery, but few have such a privilege. Interestingly, no Stanley Cup final has ever been held outdoors. Even in the early days of the trophy, when the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada battled for the title, all the deciding games were held inside. When the Montreal Hockey Club won it for the first time in 1894, they played at Victoria Rink, which opened in 1862. Even when the cup was contested in far-off Winnipeg in 1896, the city hosted the games in the recently-constructed, 2,000-seat Granite Rink. The Vancouver Olympics are fast approaching, where the hockey tournament will be staged at the Canucks' home, GM Place. When the Games were held in Cortina d'Amprezzo in 1956, all the on-ice events were held at the open-air Stadio Olympica (which has since been covered), including the Soviets' gold medal game victory over the United States (Canada finished with the bronze, though their goaltender was Denis Brodeur, father of the team's current backstop, Martin).

As for the game we watched outside, the Terriers dominated most of the way. A late rally drew the Eagles within a goal, but they came up short, and BU earned some bragging rights with a 3-2 victory. Let's hope this great tradition continues, and more fans and players get to experience the game out in the open.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hockey and Nationalism Should Be Kept Apart

BROOKLYN, New York -- Tuesday was an historic day for American hockey. The United States defeated Canada in the final of the World Junior Hockey Championship, winning just the second gold medal in the country's history. Canada had been aiming for history themselves; having won the tournament five years in a row, a sixth consecutive gold would have set a new record of dominance. Instead, the US came out on top in an end-to-end overtime thriller that was without a doubt one of the most exciting hockey games I have seen in years.

Meanwhile, my friend Gene sent me this blog post from The New Republic by Adie Tomer, which relates an idea by everyone's favorite pop psychology maven, Malcolm Gladwell, about how to fix the National Hockey League. Apparently, I have not been experiencing enough diarrhea of the mouth, so I subjected myself to reading his interview with serial ego-blogger and self-referential nincompoop, ESPN's Bill Simmons. Simmons and Gladwell think it would be totally radical if the NHL were realigned into two 12-team conferences divided equally between the US and Canada. Not only would this endow hockey-mad Canada with the six more franchises it richly deserves, but it would also set up an awesome "border war" in each Stanely Cup final, stoking national pride and making everyone from sea to shining sea (in both countries) totally excited about hockey, regardless of which cities are represented in the final.

So, how are these two things related? Well, if this national showdown would be so awesome for hockey, why does nobody in the US care that we just had a cross-border battle for the ages? Not only does Tomer make no mention of it (his commentary was posted the day of the final), but it was totally ignored by the national media (ESPN only mentions it on their NHL page, not their main page). The reason is that the appeal of teams isn't just limited to their respective cities; the appeal of hockey in the US is limited, period.

While there are lots of deserving cities in Canada without NHL teams, and lots of undeserving American ones with them, this hare-brained idea will do little to help hockey. Fewer teams in the US might be better for the overall health of the league, but it won't do much to grow the game in the US. Gladwell and Simmons' idea of creating national buzz about the Stanley Cup final is already true in Canada, as it's non-stop national news whenever there is a Canadian team in the final or even the conference final.

Gladwell keeps harping on the mismanagement of the NHL, but the fact that the Phoenix Coyotes are a mess does not give his ideas any more credence. Here is one of his nonsense analogies about how to improve hockey:
I was once in Brazil when Brazil was playing Argentina in soccer, and the entire country was in a state of advanced hysteria. I was at a conference and they stopped the proceedings, in the middle of the day, so everyone could go watch the game. Unbelievable. That's what happens when you combine sports and national loyalties. Can you imagine this happening every spring?
Perhaps this would be a better idea if Canada shared a border with Sweden or Russia, but even these countries cannot match Canada's obsession with hockey or its sheer output of talent. The Coyotes should definitely move back to Canada, and Gary Bettman should have been fired many, many years ago, but drawing analogies between the hockey rivalry of the US and Canada and soccer matches between Brazil and Argentina is ridiculous (see my point above re: diarrhea of the mouth). And we really need this in hockey:

I think this realignment is an idea dreamed up by an American (Simmons) who likes the example of Green Bay – a small town with a big professional franchise – and thinks it would be quaint to have NHL teams in places like Saskatoon and Winnipeg. Practically speaking, not only is it tough to decide which 12 of the 24 US franchises should be cut (once you get past the usual Sunbelt suspects, it gets much harder to decide), but it's hard to find six more Canadian cities that could support a $200 million+ hockey franchise, especially considering that Toronto won't let anyone into their southern Ontario fiefdom, which contains most of Canada's larger cities (my picks were Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Quebec City, Halifax, Hamilton and Victoria, hypothetically speaking).

Gladwell's other idea is that Canadians "secede" from the NHL and run their own league. Many Canadians have in effect done this. Instead of trekking to the league's six Canadian outposts, they watch junior hockey in their hometowns, where 17- to 20-year-olds ply their trade in the Western, Ontario and Quebec Major Junior Hockey Leagues, and in the various junior A and B circuits across the country. Canadians may be happy to spend their ticket dollars on their local youngsters, but they still tune in every Saturday night to watch Hockey Night in Canada. If the NHL is to remain the world's pre-eminent hockey league, it needs the revenues that large US markets and American TV networks and advertisers provide.

Lastly, I would like to take aim at a larger point made by Gladwell and expounded upon by Tomer, and that is that melding sport and national pride is a good thing. Why do we need to inject nationalism into the NHL? It is a cosmopolitan league with players from around the world who are embraced by their adopted cities across North America. The Washington Capitals are captained by a Russian, the Ottawa Senators by a Swede. The Montreal Canadiens are without a captain, but their three alternates are two Americans and a Russian; Toronto is in a similar situation with a Czech, an American and a Canadian wearing the "A" on their sweaters. There are plenty of opportunities for players to wear their national colors, such as the annual IIHF World Championships (another non-event in North America), the WJC and the Olympics.

Sport may on occasion be a peaceful proxy for actual confrontation between nations, but nationalism and sport often make for a dangerous combination that can boil over into real violence. Just watch the soccer hooligans at this summer's World Cup in South Africa. Hockey has been largely free of fan violence on this continent, but there were a pair of ugly nationalism- inspired incidents during the 2002-03 NHL season, when Montreal Canadiens fans booed "The Star-Spangled Banner" in response to the invasion of Iraq; Florida Panthers fans responded by booing "O Canada" at their own arena. We don't need to encourage that nonsense every year at the Stanley Cup final. The World Junior Championship has also experienced that nationalist boobirds, when Canadian fans in Vancouver in 2006 jeered the American squad while cheering on their traditional rival, Russia. Booing teenagers is always a classy move. I have made my opinions about the Olympics well known here and elsewhere – they just provide another tool for xenophobes and bigots to manipulate national sentiment, and international events are no less sullied by corporate advertising and fraud than the professional athletic circuits. But the vocal fans in Vancouver should add a little flavor to the usually tame Winter Olympics, especially during the hockey tournament.

I will admit to feeling a great deal of pride in my country when John Carlson netted the game winner in Saskatoon last night, but I would be far happier to see the Boston Bruins Slovak captain Zdeno Chara hoist the Stanley Cup. Let's keep nationalism out of the NHL, and let's keep people who don't know what they're talking about out of hockey.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Man-Dog Case: The Life of a Stray in Russia

BROOKLYN, New York -- I was a member of the debate team in college, competing in an extemporaneous style known as American Parliamentary debate. We competed in tournaments around the northeast, and we had rather limited success (limited, really, to a single moment, when we bested one of the top teams in North America by successfully defending the right of professional basketball players to use performance-enhancing drugs). When we entered the final round of a weekend tournament, and it was clear that we had no chance of making the playoff rounds (know as the "break" in debater parlance), we would often debate topics that were absurd or funny because the outcome didn't really matter. One such joke case was a particular favorite, and it was known as "The Man-Dog Case." In the scenario of this debate, you find yourself transformed overnight into a dog, and the question up for debate is this: do you stay at home and become a docile, domesticated dog, or do you choose to roam the streets as a stray?

Inevitably, the debate regresses into a discussion about the pleasures of dog sex, whether trash is tastier than kibble, and how hard it really is to evade dog catchers. This was certainly not the highest level of discourse possible, but during my time living and traveling in Russia, this debate stuck with me. The country is crawling with stray dogs nearly everywhere you go, from the center of Moscow to remote Siberian villages. When I saw these dogs huddled in great masses at my local subway station, or chasing children on dirt roads outside Irkutsk, I thought to myself, is it good to be a stray in Russia? Russian strays have been in the news a lot lately, so I decided to have a debate based on these stories as well as my own work as an amateur canine biologist. So let's do some debate!

In support of the resolution, it is better to live as a stray in Russia than live in a home.

Contention #1: You might get sent into space.

This is the dream of all stray dogs. All the dogs of the early Soviet space missions were female strays picked up off the streets of Moscow. Of the 11 sent into space, six returned to earth safely, including Strelka, who would later give birth to Pushinka, a puppy that was given as a gift by Nikita Khrushchev to the Kennedy family. From the streets of Moscow to the space program to the White House in one generation – now that's what I call the American Dream. You will also get your portrait hung in an obscure museum in Los Angeles, as a bonus.

Contention #2: You will have free reign of the Moscow subway.

Back in April, Moscow's subway-riding canines became a bit of an Internet sensation, as blogs and news sites latched on to this latest meme. These dogs are not news, and I had I been diligent with my blog posting, I could have "scooped" all these sites with my personal knowledge of Russian strays. Regardless, dogs freely ride the subway in Moscow, often sacking out on benches or taking over whole sections of cars. They cannot read Russian or understand the announcements (much like your average tourist), nor can they count or read a map, so to find their desired stop, they quickly hop off the train, look around to see if they recognize the station, and then either get off or jump back on the train before the doors close. Perhaps their most amazing feat is their ability to coolly ride the gargantuan escalators, which would easily spook your average American house pet. Riding the subway has also given Moscow strays an evolutionary advantage, as they have become smarter and developed advanced behaviors never before seen in other dogs ( is no longer actively updated, but it is a great archive of these canine behaviors).

Contention #3: There are career opportunities in advertising.

Advertisers abhor blank space, and stray dogs are really just underutilized billboards. So, in 2002 in the city of Penza, a local business began employing the beasts for advertising. After being snared by means of an enticing meatball, the dogs then had stencil advertisements spray-painted across their bodies and were then released unharmed back into the streets to unknowingly flog the wares of a number of different brands, including the country's largest oil producer, Lukoil.

And opposing the resolution.

Contention #1: You might get sent into space.

While some space dogs went onto lives of fame and fortune, Laika and four other less fortunate hounds never got the chance to enjoy their notoriety, as they ran out of oxygen and their capsules burned up in the atmosphere.

Contention #2: You might get poisoned and turn green.

Stray dogs have become masters at tracking down the most delicious detritus of human civilization, and they will travel across the city, and even make several subway transfers, to feast on discarded shawarma. But even for a dog, there is no such thing as a free lunch. In Yekaterinburg, a pack of about 20 dogs has reportedly turned green after scavenging in a local dump. Officials believe that the color change is due to the dogs consuming chemicals that were illegally dumped at the site. It was probably no worse than being spray-painted by an advertising company, but eating trash, poisoned or otherwise, probably sucks pretty bad.

Contention #3: People will try to castrate and kill you.

Last year the Moscow city government announced plans to spay and neuter nearly half of the city's estimated 100,000 strays. This program was coupled with a plan to erect several shelters around the city to house homeless dogs, but these facilities are horribly mismanaged. Rather than sterilize the dogs and house them during their recovery, as the city program intended, most shelters just kill the animals, keeping them in appalling conditions before putting them down while pocketing the cash from the city. At least dogs do not have to worry about the police so much anymore – until 2002, police officers were authorized to shoot any stray dogs on the street, a policy which likely endangered far more people with wild gunfire than it saved from marauding strays. Now Russian dog catchers use tranquilizers to subdue animals.

So, would you choose the life of a tramp, endlessly riding the underground rails in search of your next meal, or would you choose a cozy life in a Moscow high-rise? I'm still undecided, but I think all that we have learned from this debate is that while Russian strays are some of the most resilient, resourceful, and adorable creatures on earth, being pretty much anything in Russia, man or beast, is quite a terrible proposition.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Whistleblowers in Russian Police Turn to Youtube, But Real Reform Still Unlikely

BROOKLYN, New York -- Several days ago, Alexei Dymovsky, a police major in the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, released a series of Youtube videos that have caused a stir across the country. In the three videos, Dymovsky launches an assault on the country's law enforcement agencies, accusing them of corruption, incompetence, and abuse of junior officers. Throughout his monologue, he appeals to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to tackle these problems.

These videos have become an Internet sensation, drawing more than one million hits and sparking some measure of debate about the state of law enforcement in Russia. In very uncharacteristic fashion, Russia's Interior Ministry, which controls the country's police forces, has launched an investigation into police corruption, though the Interior Minister, Rashid Nurgaliyev, denied that it has any connection to Dymovsky's allegations. Nurgaliyev claimed that it was part of a normal review process, yet he ordered that Dymovsky be suspended until the review is completed. Nonetheless, the major's employers in Novorossiysk were less impressed; despite the order from the minister to merely suspend him, he has been fired from the police force for slander. The local police chief, Valery Medvedev, has also asked prosecutors to file criminal charges against him for libel. Following the release of the videos, Dymovsky traveled to Moscow to address the news media - he claims that law enforcement officials attempted to prevent him from leaving Novorossiysk, forcing him to make the journey by car.

Here is the first of the videos, with English subtitles (here are the second and third, without translations):

Dymovsky’s videos have caused other police officers to come forward with stories of corruption and misconduct. One such whistleblower is Mikhail Yevseyev, who worked for the police department in the northern city of Ukhta, where in 2005 a firebombing of a shopping center killed 25 people. Yevseyev claims that the case against the two young men who were convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison in 2008 was entirely fabricated, and following the verdict, he resigned from the department in protest. Soon after Yevseyev’s video was released, Grigory Chekalin, who formerly worked in the Ukhta procurator’s office, posted a video describing how his office fabricated the evidence in the bombing case. Dymovsky has spawned a whole new genre of Youtube videos in Russia, and even a Moscow traffic cop has gotten in on the action.

This story has been picked up by news outlets all over the world, but what does the case of Maj. Dymovsky really tell us about Russian law enforcement? Frankly, not very much that we did not know already.

The fact that the public has embraced Dymovsky simply underlines the high levels of distrust of the police and other public institutions in Russia. According to a survey conducted by the Levada Center in 2005, only 12% of Russians expressed trust the police. Sadly, this ranked higher than many democratic institutions - the federal legislative bodies, the State Duma and the Federation Council, garnered only 10% trust, while political parties managed only 5%. According to a 2007 poll, 65% of respondents believed that efforts of police are "mainly devoted to their own interests," while only 21% believed they were "devoted to the security of the population of the country." Researchers Theodore Gerber and Sarah Mendelson concluded that policing in Russia was fundamentally “predatory”; that is, rather than serving a useful societal function, the police use their coercive power to extract wealth from the “prey” population.

For some, the quick reaction of Kremlin authorities was suspicious - one political analyst hypothesized that the entire affair was fabricated by the Interior Ministry, perhaps to draw attention away from other public scandals - principally, the murderous rampage of police officer Denis Yevsyukov, who killed three people in a Moscow supermarket in April. He, like many other officers guilty of heinous crimes, has somehow avoided prosecution. I think that this public relations conspiracy is unlikely, but what makes these whistleblowers somewhat convenient for the Kremlin is that they attack some degree of systemic corruption, but they do not challenge the foundation of Russia’s security apparatus. Dymovsky appeals directly to Vladimir Putin, as if he can sweep away his corrupt underlings with his purity and sobriety; what the major fails to understand is that this former KGB stooge is at the very center of the country’s systemic police corruption. He derives his power from the predatory state.

One of Dymovsky’s most important criticisms is of the quota system. This was one of the superficial policing reforms that Russia has undertaken in recent years. These quotas are so rigidly enforced that officers are in effect encouraged to make bogus arrests and fabricate cases to meet their absurd targets. Rather than improving professionalism and accountability, this system has had the perverse effect of retrenching the predatory policing model. Rather than tackle this substantive issue, it is more likely that the government will find scapegoats. This is a tried and true method of giving the appearance of making reforms while avoiding real change. During perestroika and the early years of the Yeltsin administration, some people were brought to justice for the excesses of Soviet oppression, but these were usually low-ranking officials. One would expect that the current investigation will result in some very public firings of regional officials but no concrete changes in policy or practice. Dymovsky actually gave the Kremlin the perfect scapegoats, blaming his superior officers in the local police force - the least-connected brass will make perfect sacrificial lambs.

Corruption has always been a popular target of reform because it is an issue that impacts many ordinary citizens’ daily lives, but focusing on the corruption and misconduct of individual officers distracts attention from the philosophical foundations of the Russian police state. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, reforms to the Russian security services have been superficial and ineffective. The Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB - formerly the KGB) remain largely unchanged in structure and function from the Soviet period. “Law enforcement” is a misnomer in Russia - you must have the rule of law in order for it to be enforced, which Russia lacks. The police forces (called the militsia in Russian, sometimes referred to as “militia” in English) may resemble those you would encounter in a Western democracy, but they differ in fundamental ways. Louise Shelley, an expert on policing in Russia and the Soviet Union, described the difference like this in her book Policing Soviet Society:
A superficial glance at the militia’s patrols, safe houses and covert techniques might suggest that the Soviet militia differed little from the police of western societies. Such superficial similarities, however, masked fundamental differences. Without procedural guarantees of the rights of citizens, the law remained on the side of the Soviet militia, which readily imposed its will on both criminals and law-abiding citizens.
This fact remains largely unchanged in Russia today. In the US and other democracies, most people (I will grant that there are those who disagree, and most justifiably) believe the job of the police is to protect the public against crime and disorder. In Russia, their job is protect the state from the public. As long as that fact remains true, and believers in this philosophy continue to hold power, not amount of Youtube videos will change the practice of policing there.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

20 Years After the Fall: Progress for Some, Repression for Others

BROOKLYN, New York -- As we approach the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, commemorations of those momentous events of 1989 are all around us. I'm marking the occasion by reading The State Within a State: The KGB and Its Hold on Russia, Past, Present and Future.

The book was published soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and author Yevgenia Albats, an investigative reporter who currently hosts a radio program on the independent station Echo Moskva, recounts the rise of the KGB and its terrifying hold on Russian society from the early days of the Revolution to the nascent Russian democracy of the early 1990's. She began her work as a journalist in the 1980's during perestroika, when a small degree of openness allowed her to investigate the depravities of the KGB.

Russia has changed a great deal in the 15 years since this book was written, but what Albats wrote in 1994 - that the state was still in effect run by the KGB, as it always had been since the state security apparatus was erected soon after the October Revolution - is even truer today. During the 1990's, Yeltsin made half-hearted attempts to curb the influence of the security services, but they were in vain. There is no more KGB, but its successor, the FSB, remains largely unreformed, with the same institutional structure and personnel in place as in the Soviet Union. A KGB agent rose to the presidency, and he remains entrenched in power, surrounded by a coterie of stooges who are all veterans of the secret police. These torturers and assassins have traded epaulets for business suits, yet they still wield the power of a violently repressive state.

The problem is that Russia, unlike most of its neighbors in Eastern Europe, has never come to terms with its past. There were no Nuremberg trials for the tens of millions butchered by the Soviet state. Almost no one has ever been held to task for the crimes of the KGB; the few that have were merely the pawns of power struggles within the organization (for example, Beria was executed not for ordering extrajudicial killings, as his indictment stated, but for opposing Khrushchev). Even today, chekists, as agents of the secret police are known, are protected from prosecution (and not just protected - Andrei Lugovoi, the alleged murderer of dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London, is currently a member of the Russian parliament.)

Who wants to come to terms with anything? Putin's rule has reinscribed Soviet-era thinking among the people - democracy and free markets are a trick by the West to impoverish Russia, and the state must remain strong, even if that means resorting to violent repression. According to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, 58% of Russians view the collapse of the Soviet Union as a "great misfortune." Since 1991, support for nationalist views and imperial expansion has increased, while support for multiparty democracy and free market capitalism has declined. History is written by the winners, and contrary to what the events of 20 years ago may have indicated, in Russia at least, the winners were not the democrats; they were the communist stooges who have always run the country, and they are writing a history that glorifies Stalin, demeans the victims of Soviet atrocities, and legitimizes state repression.

Things are not so grim everywhere in Eastern Europe. Nearly all the Soviet satellites have become democracies and joined the European Union. Even as we are disheartened by the lack of progress in Russia, we can celebrate the liberation of millions of people elsewhere on the continent. So, if you are looking for a more uplifting way to celebrate the fall of communism than reading about torture in Moscow's Lubyanka Prison, over the next four months, New York will be host to Performing Revolution in Eastern Europe, a festival of music, theater, film and art.

To kick off the festival, this weekend (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village is hosting the Rebel Waltz music festival. The two-night event features bands from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Poland, all of whom found themselves at some point on the wrong side of the communist censors. In The State Within a State, Albats writes about the efforts of Soviet authorities to curb the deleterious effects of rock 'n' roll music. She quotes Oleg Kalugin, a retired KGB general who became a strong critic of the Russian security services. He was convicted in absentia in Russia for espionage in 2002, though his real crime was airing too much of the KGB's dirty laundry; he currently lives in exile in the United States:
"When Leningrad's stages began to fill up with rock-oriented musicians, a rock club was formed at the KGB's initiative to keep the rock movement manageable and under control."
Unfortunately, the censorship in Russia continues. DDT, a Russian rock band formed in the early 1980's that remains one of the country's most popular groups, has been unable to perform or record in Russia a song critical of Vladimir Putin, "When the Oil Runs Out." We now offer a recording from a concert in Lithuania, and with it a sincere hope that more tyrants will fall and criminals will be brought to justice twenty years on from the "fall" of communism:

And how would any celebration of the Berlin Wall coming down be complete without David Hasselhoff?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Canada Shores Up Arctic Claims With Olympic Flame

BROOKLYN, New York -- The torch relay for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver began on Friday. The Olympic flame started its Canadian journey in Victoria, British Columbia, and over the course of 106 days, it will travel 28,000 miles to hundreds of Canadian towns and cities, arriving back in Vancouver for the opening ceremonies on February 12.

One of the communities the torch will visit is Alert, which sits on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in the province of Nunavut. Alert is the northernmost permanently inhabited place on earth, located just 507 miles from the North Pole. The torch will be flown more than 1,700 miles from Churchill, Manitoba just so it can briefly touch down and greet the five permanent inhabitants of Alert, all members of the Canadian military who man the signals and weather stations there. Alert will not be the only stop north of the Arctic Circle - on its way back south, the torch will stop in Ausuittuq (also known as Grise Fiord) and Qausuittuq (Resolute) in Nunavut. It will also make stops in Kugluktuk (Coppermine), Nunavut, Inuvit, Northwest Territories and Old Crow, Yukon Territory.

This arctic leg of the relay is particularly interesting because it has obvious geopolitical overtones. In recent years, Canada has increased its military presence in the north in an attempt to shore up sovereignty that it sees as increasingly under threat. The region is gaining geostrategic importance. As ocean temperatures rise and sea ice retreats, the Northwest Passage through Canada’s vast northern archipelago may become a viable year-round shipping lane. The arctic also holds vast untapped supplies of natural resources, especially oil and gas, that may become accessible in the near future.

The main competitors for these arctic treasures are the United States and Russia. The US refuses to recognize Canada’s claim that the Northwest Passage is an internal waterway, asserting that it is international waters that foreign ships can ply without Canada’s approval. Russia, meanwhile, has claimed that its own territorial waters - and therefore its claims to undersea resources - extended to the North Pole and beyond, setting its maritime boundaries uncomfortably close to Canada. In 2007, in an apparent attempt to legitimize this claim, Russia sent a submarine to the bottom of the ocean at the Pole to plant a small Russian flag on the sea floor (they appear to be unaware that flag-planting ceased to be a legitimate way to make territorial claims sometime in the 17th century).

Now Canada is using the Olympics to further shore up its claims to the arctic, and the torch can be used to enhance sovereignty both externally and internally. Externally, the torch’s arrival in Alert signals to the world that Canada considers these far-flung regions as integral parts of their national territory. Internally, it binds these remote communities to the national center - Canadians who live in the arctic, or who are members of the First Nations minority, are just as much a part of the national celebration as the metropolitan south or Anglo-, French- or any other type of Canadian (the weekly television show Hockey Night in Canada plays a similar role).

Canada is not unique in doing this. Most host countries carry the torch through every one of their constituent regions. At the last Olympics, the Chinese government used the torch relay to reaffirm its territorial integrity, carrying it across the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang and even to the top of Mt. Everest (the Himalayan region has long been at the center of territorial disputes between China, India and Pakistan). Much of the torch relay in 2008 was besieged by protesters in foreign countries who spoke out against the Chinese government’s oppressive policies in Tibet and elsewhere, but once the flame reached China proper, it was met mostly with celebration of the Olympics as a symbol of Chinese global power and national unity.

During this march to Beijing, the American news media rediscovered the origins of the torch relay in the 1936 Berlin Games and spoke breathlessly about “Hitler’s Olympics” and the parallels with Red China and their nationalist spectacle. Chinese nationalism can be a terrifying and dangerous thing, and the government has shown a great deal of recklessness and a great lack of control whenever it unleashes nationalist anger. Nonetheless, the point here is that no one is above using sport, especially the Olympics, for promoting nationalism. The 1936 Olympics created many iconic images that linked sport to fascism, militarism, and racial prejudice. We like to think that instead we have inherited the mantle of Jesse Owens, who embarrassed the Master Race, but Berlin lives on at every Olympics. China was chided for its global torch tour, but no other country has shied away from the practice because of its Nazi origins. The International Olympic Committee has long been run by fascists, from Nazi sympathizer Avery Brundage to Francoist Juan Antonio Samaranch. The current body is filled by corrupt sycophants and apologists who hand the Olympics to the highest bidder, even if it is an oppressive dictatorship like China or Russia. We would all be better off if we just did away with the Olympics entirely - the institution is too corrupt and too compromised to even approach any of the lofty goals it aspires to.

Canada is using the Olympics, albeit in a tiny, insignificant way, to further its geopolitical agenda, but so does every other country that hosts the Olympics. When Russia inherits the Olympic flame in 2014 for the Winter Games in Sochi, it will undoubtedly be used for far more aggressive and chauvinistic nationalist purposes. It will likely make stops in Georgia's breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but I bet that it will also be taken to the North Pole, either undersea or over ice.