The New Yorker on Ukraine: Instead of Sy Hersh, Keith Gessen
As the world anxiously awaits the next chapter in the tug of war between Russia and the West over Ukraine, I deconstruct a lengthy article in the May 12th New Yorker that shows how investigative reporting has been replaced by sugar-coated bias.
The print media can be divided into roughly three categories: corporate local dailies that cover major US cities, the so-called liberal press such as the NY Times, the Washington Post, and journals such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and the progressive press, that includes The Nation, Mother Jones, Yes! and many smaller titles. Alas, the difference between the mainstream media and the liberal media appears to grow smaller by the day, while the so-called progressive media increasingly resembles what used to be the liberal media.
This alarming trend is illustrated by the fact that, after contributing regularly to The New Yorker since 1993, America’s foremost investigative journalist, Seymour Hersh no longer writes for that magazine. A lengthy article on Ukraine by Keith Gessen indirectly explains Hersh’s disappearance, and The New Yorker’s abandonment of any progressive pretense.
Keith Gessen is the brother of Masha Gessen, who recently published “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin”, a much publicized take-down of the Russian president. Although she resides in the U.S., she is listed on Wikipedia as a member of the Russian democratic opposition, and is an ideal US talk show guest in these days of rising tensions with Russia. Keith is her younger brother, the editor of a magazine with literary pretensions and author, at 38, of one novel. Keith went to Ukraine last winter and the style of his New Yorker piece perfectly illustrates a comment about him by Jonathan Franzen: “it’s so delicious the way he writes.” Gessen’s is an ideal style for delivering a sugar-coated nasty message.
The piece begins ominously: “The Russian border is a two-hour tank drive from Kiev” – where the writer is sipping tea in a cafe. “‘Little green men’ is how people described Russian soldiers when they first showed up, unmarked and unannounced, in Crimea.” Aside from the fact that most people would not describe Russians as ‘little’, under a 1997 Treaty between Russia and Ukraine
“The two countries established two independent national fleets, and divided armaments and bases between them. Under the treaty Russia maintained the right to use the Port of Sevastopol in Ukraine for 20 years until 2017. …The treaty also allowed Russia to maintain up to 25,000 troops, 24 artillery systems, 132 armored vehicles, and 22 military planes on the Crimean peninsula.”
President Putin has repeatedly referred to this treaty with reference to the popular vote that returned Crimea to Russia in March of this year, finally admitting that Russian troops normally confined to barracks had been sent out onto the streets, where as videos on the MSM show, they merely stood around. Hardly an invasion, and impossible to consider on the same level as the weeks of violence precipitated and orchestrated by trained fighters of the Neo-fascist organization Right Sektor in Kiev’s Maidan square, as boasted in Time magazine interview and that resulted in the flight of an elected Ukrainian president.
Gessen says Kiev’s anti-government protesters were armed with bats and sticks and Molotov cocktails. Apparently, he has never seen pictures of Right Sektor fighters in uniforms with swastika-like insignia (known as Wolf angels) carrying long metal clubs and shields. Describing the protesters’ tents on the Maidan he does mention ‘an exhibit of helmets, home-made cannons, shields, Molotov cocktails’. When it’s just an exhibit, it seems harmless….
Surprised to find the encampment still occupied weeks after the end of fighting, Gessen muses: “It was clear that some of the men had nowhere to go, or certainly, no place better than this. Here they were heroes, back home they were not.” Touching human interest note about Neo-Nazi thugs. Gessen also admits that the revolution merely brought another set of standard politicians to power “Men in black suits emerged from gleaming black Mercedeses to attend sessions of parliament.” Meanwhile, the activists were preparing for war, signing up men for the National Guard, Gessen muses, like students do for credit cards on US campuses. “The idea of the Guard was to get aggressive young people off the Maidan, but it was also an attempt to raise some fighting forces, in the event of a Russian invasion….The Ministry of Defense was asking people to text it money.” (Another touching note about a regime backed by the most powerful nation on earth.)
Gessen obviously identified with the young people in the Maidan where “there was an openness to the political life of the country, a willingness to experiment, a desire to communicate that was rare anywhere, but especially rare in the cynical, impoverished post-Soviet space.”… Alas, he fails to mention – or perhaps doesn’t realize – that these people did not win the revolution – and those that did are not interested in ‘openness’ or ‘experiments’, but are muscular men who love violence. Continuing: “The new Minister of the Interior wrote long updates on his Facebook page. Everyone was equal and anything was possible.” Gessen obviously hasn’t a clue as to who this man, Arsen Arkov is. According to Voice of Russia.com:
“Russia’s Investigative Committee has issued a resolution to indict the governor of Ukraine’s Dnepropetrovsk Region, Igor Kolomoysky and parliament-appointed Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on charges of using prohibited means and methods of warfare,” IC spokesman Vladimir Markin told Itar-Tass.
“Under the criminal case… of first degree murder, interfering with the professional activity of journalists and kidnapping, a notice has been given of charges against Igor Kolomoyskyi and Arsen Avakov,” he said in a statement.
The charges refer to the kidnapping of Zvezda television channel journalists and the preceding illegal detention of journalists from the same channel, as well as several other Russian journalists. The release went on to say that the government sought to identity the commanders and rank-and-file of the Ukrainian Armed forces, the National Guard of Ukraine and Right Sector militants who have participated in the military operation against civilians in the southeast of Ukraine. Markin said that nearly fifteen hundred people have been recognized as victims of prohibited acts of war in Ukraine.
For example in Odessa: In the final paragraph of his article, Gessen tosses off a reference to the events of May 2 which left over a hundred dead. Major press outlets reported that pro-Russian demonstrators had erected a tent in front of the Odessa Trade Union headquarters, and that when Right Sektor thugs came and set the tent on fire, protesters took refuge in the building. The Right Sektor then threw Molotov cocktails through the windows, setting the building on fire, and beating to death protesters who jumped from windows. Gessen’s version of events:
“After a relatively quiet May Day, a huge brawl (a word normally used to describe a street or bar fight) in Odessa between pro-Russian protesters and pro-Ukrainian protesters led to several deaths. (several!) The pro-Ukraine protesters, who included fans of the Odessa soccer team, then set fire to the pro-Russian tent city near the train station and to the building where the pro-Russian protesters had retreated; there were dozens more deaths.” According to the report on Wikipedia, forty-three people died and another 25 were in critical condition. Nowhere have I seen references to ‘fans of the Odessa soccer team’, a phrase obviously intended to make what was a violent political confrontation look like just another soccer brawl.
Gessen devotes a lot of space to a Ukrainian journalist friend who told him that another journalist had been killed while filming ‘pro-Russian thugs’: “The thugs noticed, pulled him out of the car, beat him and and shot him in the chest. He died in the hospital.” It’s strange, but this story sounds exactly like many I’ve read about the behavior of the Right Sektor, however Gessen never refers to them as thugs.
In Gessen’ version of history, after President Yanukovich fled, “the revolution was triumphant. And then little green men – Russians – appeared in Crimea.” This distortion of well-documented events is so blatant that it calls into question the integrity of The New Yorker editorial board. Gessen’s friend describes the events thus: “It was a very emotional moment. we were burying our dead…..and then Putin shows up…..like someone showing up at a funeral and demanding everyone’s jewelry.” (The Crimea is sometimes referred to as the crown-jewel of Ukraine…)
Channeling typical New Yorker readers who whine about not being able to keep up three vacations homes, Gessen indulges his friend’s pathos: “‘And on top of that it was spring! We’d got through this terrible winter, we’d got through the Maidan, and after all that, we thought, finally, we’re going to live. Instead, we’re preparing to die again.’” Gessen continues: “The day before Shvet and I met up, Putin had made a speech on the annexation of Crimea. It was a remarkably cynical speech, full of passionately uttered half-truths and lies.” ‘Cynical’ and ‘passionately’ are not usually used together, but I shall not quarrel here with poetic license.
“The thing that kills me isn’t the speech,” Gessen goes on to say. “It’s that so many Russians believe him…… people with university degrees…and they believe every word…….these new Russians – they’re imperialists – and they’re nasty.”
Not even the fact that people with degrees think Putin is a better leader than Obama gives Gessen pause. As for his friend, he seems extraordinarily naive for a journalist. Seeking to get across the idea that Ukrainians are fighting for democracy, he complains: “You in the West, you get your democracy just like you get your coffee and your morning paper. It’s like water coming out of the tap. You don’t have to think about it. It’s going to come every day.”
It’s obvious he thinks all Americans start the day reading the New York Times with their morning coffee, confident that all is well on the Beltway. This starry-eyed picture of American democracy brings Gessen back to the subject he has been trying to avoid during the entire article: the Neo-Nazi thugs without whom Yanukovich would still be in office. Still determined to pass the Banderites off as harmless, he sidles up to the truth, again quoting Shvets:
“‘It’s interesting how the meaning of chants changed. For example, ‘Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!’ – that used to be the UPA chant.” He was referring to the paramilitary Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which operated in Western Ukraine during the Second World War as the military wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. ‘People were chanting it, and it changed its meaning. Because when they said ‘Glory to heroes, they didn’t mean Bandera anymore, or Shukhevich – the leaders of the OUN and the UPA who cooperated with the brutal German occupation of Ukraine, they meant the people in the square. These were the heroes. If you said that in the forest in 1944, it was an anti-Communist chant. Here it was different. It had changed.’”
Changed? Really? Gessen has not read/watched/heard the anti-Russian, anti-Communist, anti-Jewish invectives proffered by Julia Timoshenko, Dimity Yarosh, Oleksandr Muzychko, (the fat guy who irrupted into elected officials’ offices fully armed, threatening them if they didn’t resign – and who was mysteriously killed, probably on orders from the men in the black Mercedeses, for whom he was just too much of an embarrassment?)
Gessen does refer briefly to the endless videos on YouTube, yet he can’t do without his pacifier. Again according to Shvets: “‘Some other UPA chants didn’t work – ‘Glory to the nation! Death to its enemies!’ That didn’t work, because what ‘nation’? We’re all half Russian!’” True, however the UPA and OUN have been kept alive by whose who are not half Russian: the descendants of Ukrainians who fought with Bandera against the Soviet Union. And it is they who turned the progressive demonstrations in the Maidan into a right-wing coup, just as Dmitry Yaros explained in his Time interview.
Here Gessen goes into a long discussion of the language problem, saying that although Ukrainian and Russian are close, it takes work for Russians to learn Ukrainian: “If you are not willing to do that work, then you will think of Ukraine as a wayward cousin, or even brother, who just needs to be brought back into the fold.” (Read, reunited with Russia.)
Gessen does admit that: “Urkrainianization has involved the proliferation of Ukrainian language schools and a particular narrative of Ukrainian history. (sic) Then, like a dog worrying a bone, he comes back yet again to what he knows is the crucial issue of the Ukrainian crisis, its uncomfortably brutal history:
“Perhaps the most painful node of this Urkrainianization, for Russian-identified people in Ukraine, has been the historical argument over the activities of the Organization of Ukrainian nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in the western part of the country during the Second World War. To many Russians these were Nazi collaborators who in their eagerness to establish ‘facts on the ground’ in Ukraine engaged in ethnic cleansing of Russians, Poles and Jews. (What else could they be called, other than Nazi collaborators?) As in Soviet times, they are referred to contemptuously as banderovtsy, after their wartime leader Stepan Bandera. But to many Ukrainians, especially the young, the UPA is an inspiration, because in the struggle for independence it fought off two of the most dictatorial regimes in history. (The UPA turned on the Germans after realizing that they were not actually interested in an independent Ukraine.) Arguments about the UPA become very emotional very quickly” because they are about peoples’ grandfathers, who either were with the insurgents or were killed by them.
The worst thing about this article appearing in a publication such as The New Yorker, with its history of impeccable journalism is that the author appears not to know that many former Ukrainian Nazis were welcomed in the U.S., where they were instrumental in the birth of the Neo-Conservative movement. (Mark Crispin Miller was interviewed this week by Abby Martin on RT’s Breaking the Set as well as by her colleague Thom Hartmann on The Big Picture about the e-book publication of five important books that have been scuttled by a paranoid publishing industry, under the title The Forbidden Bookshelf. These include Christopher Simpson’s “Blowback”, about Operation Paperclip, that brought high level Nazis to the U.S. to be used as assets in the incipient Cold War against the Soviet Union. (The only thing the public became aware of was the indignation that prevented the government from appointing John Yoo to help assess its own efforts at declassifying information about these programs.)
I am not going to dissect Gessen’s entire 10,000 word article, but will end with his condemnation of Russia’s increasing ability to stand up to the West, under Putin, whom he accuses of encouraging separatism through television newscasts and “documentaries” beamed into Ukraine.
If the documentaries Gessen is referring to are anything like the ones Americans can see on RT, Russia’s twenty-four hour English language news channel, they document the historical background of the men who enabled the coup in Kiev: although Dimitry Yaros only got 1% of the vote in the presidential election, supporting assertions that his organization does not have broad support, the fact that any government would rely on openly Neo-Nazi fighters to take – and keep power – should trouble any journalist. At one point Gessen quotes Shvets saying ‘Our army is nothing’, and indeed it has been seen melting away. But that does not justify calling on Hitler-worshipping militias who curse Russians, Communists and Jews – or any other group – to take and keep power.
Picture from Sara licensed under Creative Commons