After five years of writing about corruption, human rights abuses, the murder of journalists and electoral fraud, I have finally learned the Kremlin’s true weak spot: dry-cleaning.
On Tuesday, I wrote a column about the horrors of getting dry-cleaning done in Moscow. It was a cathartic expression of the frustration that comes from living in a city where the most menial tasks are often infused with the paper-pushing, stamp-stamping and time-wasting so loved byRussia‘s bureaucracy.
Many people were not amused, it turns out. Among them was Dmitry Peskov, longtime aide and spokesman to Vladimir Putin.
“I am sorry to hear about Miriam Elder’s experience at the dry cleaners, in which she lost her receipt and so had an hour of her time ‘stolen’ in providing the necessary personal details to retrieve her woollies,” Peskov wrote in a letter to this newspaper. “But I am also amazed that this anecdote can be passed off as any sort of insight into the state of Russia today.”
Peskov went on to write that cutting red tape was a high priority for the government. And then the kicker: “Let me remind British readers of the thousands of hours that are ‘stolen’ from Russian citizens when they complete the UK’s visa application forms, which are a whopping 10 pages. The time, money, effort and inconvenience that Russians face in obtaining UK visas put Ms Elder’s ordeal into perspective.”
Those wishing to understand the link between handing in dry-cleaning and applying for a UK visa would do well to look up “whataboutism“. The term emerged at the height of the Cold War, used to describe a favourite tactic of Soviet propagandists. An article in a US or UK paper calls out the Soviet government for locking up dissidents? Well then, a Soviet paper responds: “What about the US campaign against the Black Panthers?” The practice is alive and well in modern Russia. Western papers upping their coverage of the protest movement against Putin’s regime? Russia Today starts in with “What about the Occupy movement?”
It’s a way of shutting down discussion, and is a key feature of the comments that flood a large number of western articles dealing with Russia these days. It’s unclear what the commenters, or Putin’s spokesman, would prefer. That western papers avoid writing about Russia until their countries solve their own problems? Or that each article about Russia includes the caveat that western countries have issues too.
I tried to reach Peskov several times today to ask him why of all the stories I have written, this is the one to which he decided to respond. Articles about widespread allegations of electoral fraud, which Putin’s critics say helped propel him and his party to power in recent elections, have been met with silence. Reports on human rights abuses by government forces in the troubled Caucasian republics of Chechnya and Dagestan: silence. Articles on the inconclusive investigations into the murders of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, human rights campaigner Natalia Estemirova, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky: nothing.
Maybe it’s just personal taste. Tony Halpin, Moscow correspondent for the Times, notes that in his five years in this post, the Times has received just one response from Peskov. The subject? The Swedish pop band Abba.
In early 2009, Tony wrote a light story about allegations that Putin had flown in an Abba cover band to play a private concert, doling out some £20,000 for the event.
“I don’t know who their audience consisted of, but Vladimir Putin was not one of them,” Peskov wrote in response. “He was actually working in his office that Thursday evening, meeting members of the cabinet.
“By the way,” he added, “Mr Putin is more of a Beatles fan than an Abba one.”
So maybe it’s a matter of taste. Or maybe it’s easier to engage in “whataboutism” regarding bureaucracy than it is regarding electoral fraud and the murder of journalists.
Miriam Elder, The Guardian