Not Much to Gawk About

Scott Anderson’s article “Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power” is a throwback to the 1990s when ex-KGBmen turned mafioso, private security, or hired hands to execute nefarious plots.  It is also a showcase of bygone figures.  Once powerful, influential, or at least in the public eye who have since drifted into memory only to be periodically conjured up as partisan weaponry of high politics.  You know the names: Boris Berezovsky, Alex Goldfarb, Aleksandr Litvinenko, and Mikhail Trepashkin.  The latter serves as the hero of Anderson’s tale.  The gatekeeper of a longstanding conspiracy that many Russians know well:  The FSB carried out the apartment bombings on Guryanova St. in Moscow that brought down eight floors and killed ninety-four residents in their beds.

It’s been a while since Trepashkin’s name graced an English language publication.  He’s spent the last several years serving two stints in the clank.  In 2003, he was arrested for illegal arms possession and divulging state secrets (the former charge was eventually dropped, the latter stuck).  And then just as he was freed in September 2005, he was scooped up again.  He was released in 2007.  Four years for likely trumped up charges.  Such is what happens when you piss off the wrong people in Russia.

But now Trepashkin has come out of the woodwork to tell his story to Scott Anderson.  But the details of the story aren’t really the issue. Anyone who’s familiar with the apartment bombings already knows the in-outs of the incident and the conspiracy theories behind them.  Anderson didn’t even have to go to Russia. He could have just watched that horrible Rebellion: The Litvinenko Case documentary and got the story there.

The real story, however, is really the story itself.  Indeed, as many Russia watchers discovered last week, Conde Nast, the company that owns GQ in Russia, made an executive decision to not run the story there.  According to the NPR report on the matter:

“Conde Nast management has decided that the September issue of U.S. GQ magazine containing Scott Anderson’s article ‘Vladimir Putin’s Dark Rise to Power’ should not be distributed in Russia,” Birenz wrote.

He ordered that the article could not be posted to the magazine’s Web site. No copies of the American edition of the magazine could be sent to Russia or shown in any country to Russian government officials, journalists or advertisers. Additionally, the piece could not be published in other Conde Nast magazines abroad, nor publicized in any way.

The story doesn’t even exist on GQ’s English site.  The only place you can read the story is on Gawker and a site called Ratafia Currant. So what made Conde Nast pull the plug?  Self-censorship?  Commercial interests?  Or was it a plain PR stunt to bring attention to an article that would most likely be ignored?  Who knows.  I am more inclined to think the latter.

But the thing I find funny about all of this is Gawker‘s self-appointed mission to translate the article into Russian “as a public service” because “Condé Nast has gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent Russians from reading a GQ article criticizing Vladimir Putin.”  I mean, really what planet are they from?  Um, the Iron Curtain, like, fell eighteen years ago.  There isn’t a cloak of darkness over Russia that filers out anything anti-Putin.  Take it from me, the Russians don’t need Americans to save them from themselves.  The last time that happened, it didn’t work out to well for the Russians.

The truth is that this conspiracy isn’t new by any means. Nor does Anderson shed any new light on it.  An internet search will turn up all sorts of versions of it.  Hell, even the Russian wikipedia entry on the bombings chronicles the “unofficial versions” of the story. Yet Gawker is all ecstatic that a few Russian sites have picked up their Russian translation.  One is a blog on LJ.  The other is one of those creepy Russian nationalist forums.  Now Russian news outlets have picked up on the story and adding their own conspiracies to explain the conspiracy.  But the thing is there might not even be one.  According to a statement from Nikolai Uskov, the editor-in-chief of GQ Russia, published in Nezavisimaya gazeta:

It is hard for me to comprehend how this company can prevent the distribution of its own magazine anywhere.  What has reverberated on Ekho Moskvy and then repeatedly said on the Internet, is not completely correct:  a Russian publisher, like any other media company, is an independent product.  We’re not obligated to reprint American material, and moreover receive recommendations not to do so.  I have personally not received any prohibitions or directions whatsoever from management about not translating or reprinting this article. But it would also not enter my head to do it. . . . Similar material in the Russian media would appear quite strange today.  There is nothing in this article that is sensational.

Basically, the story is old news.  And if there is an order to not translate and publish the story, Uskov hasn’t heard of it.  That’s rather strange isn’t it?

So is Conde Nast’s act of “self-censorship” merely a back handed way to stir up criticism of Putin and the strangling of the press in Russia?  Perhaps.  But perhaps as Evgeny Morozov notes, it just might be pure incompetence on Conde Nast’s part and now they are suffering the whiplash of the Streisand Effect.  After all, Conde Nast isn’t really getting anything from this but a bunch of negative press.  But as they say even bad press is good press.

But the article and the whole stunt surrounding it might just be another opportunity to piss on Putin. Though the piss will come more in a trickle than a hot steady stream.  His image among Americans is already so soiled that not even the toughest Tide Stain Release could wash it clean. One more story about a shadowy Putinist plot can’t make things any worse.  Nevertheless, the timing is interesting.  This week is tenth anniversary of the bombings and a month shy of ten years since Putin became Prime Minister. Digging up the conspiracy is just another reminder that the strongman of Russia might have gotten his power by exploiting a tragedy that was really carried out by his buds in the FSB.

Remember children, conspiracies happen over there in the dark shadowy world of Russia. It’s that whole “‘riddle wrapped up in an enigma” thang.  Here in America, we rightfully dismiss our crackpot conspiracy theorists–from the 9/11 Truthers to the tin-foil wearing Trilateral Commission believers and Lyndon La Rouchites–for what they are: nutjobs.  But their Slavic equivalents?  Nah.  Somehow they are bearers of the truth.