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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
January 13, 2016

Publication: Windows on Eurasia
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The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
12 More Lithuanians to Be Remembered
Staunton, VA, January 13, 2016 -  Many are remembering today the 13 Lithuanians Soviet forces shot and killed at the television tower in Vilnius. They made the ultimate sacrifice, and they thus deserve to be recalled whenever people speak of the defense of freedom in the world. But there are other Lithuanians who displayed courage, and many of them are far less well known.

One of the most remarkable if least-commented-upon of these groups were 12 Lithuanian ham radio operators who, at a time when Moscow sought to destroy all communications between Lithuania and the outside world, established a tele-bridge with the West that broke through the Soviet blockade.

When Soviet officials seized Lithuanian radio stations and blocked international telephone lines, these twelve people worked to get alternative radio stations up and running and equally important they began broadcasting via their ham radios to the West, providing real time news and information to Lithuanians abroad and thus to others as well.

In those dark days, I was one of the beneficiaries of their work. I was the desk officer for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at the US Department of State; and three times a day, Lithuanian Americans telephoned me with information they had received from this unique tele-bridge from besieged Lithuania.

There were a dozen brave Lithuanians involved in this effort. They included Jonas Baniūnas, Arvydas Bilinkevičius, Rita Dapkus, Gintautas Gaidamavičius, Remigijus Lašinis, Valentinas Mackevičius, Viktoras Peteraitis, Alfredas Turauskas, Vilius Vašeikis, Tadas Vyšniauskas, Virgis Zalensas and Rytis Žumbakis.

These 12 not only deserve to be remembered but to be honored for what they did and who they are. I had very much hoped to be in Vilnius on this round anniversary to do what I could in that regard. Unfortunately, because of illness, I was not able to go. But I will in the future. For now, I want to honor them by calling the attention of all those who read these lines to their work.

They are true heroes.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Vilnius at 25 – What the West and the Russians Have Forgotten
Staunton, VA, January 13, 2016 -- Today, Lithuanians and all those who love freedom around the world are remembering what happened in Vilnius a quarter of a century ago – the brutal killing by Soviet forces of 13 peaceful Lithuanians at the TV tower, an act that accelerated the drive to the recovery of Baltic independence and to the destruction of what was truly an evil empire.

It is important to recall what happened then and especially the courage of Vytautas Landsbergis and thousands of ordinary Lithuanians in standing up to a brutal system and claiming their right to freedom and independence. But it may be equally important for the future to remember what both the West and many Russians appear to have forgotten.

Not the details of those now long-ago events – those will always slip from memory with time – but rather two underlying realities that most Western leaders and populations and most Russians now seem committed to forgetting, realities that the deaths at the television tower should compel both to remember – and even more, to act upon.

What the West has forgotten is precisely what the Vilnius events underscored: the Cold War, which the Western powers had been engaged in for more than 40 years, was not simply about overthrowing the communist dictatorship. It was also about the liberation of peoples who had been occupied and oppressed by Moscow.

Those two goals reinforced one another, but many in the West prefer to forget the second goal because it is all too obvious that that it has not been fully achieved. The Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin remains an evil empire at home, suppressing dozens of non-Russian nations, and currently is seeking to expand abroad as in Georgia and Ukraine.

For its own convenience, the West has preferred not to recognize that reality, choosing instead to accept Stalin’s hierarchy of nations – only those he gave union republic status do somehow are somehow deserving of independence – and to ignore Putin’s ever harsher repression of the non-Russians at home and abroad.

In a commentary on, Yevgeny Ikhlov calls attention to this forgotten or at least ignored reality. He argues that the new cold war which has emerged won’t end as quickly and easily as the old one didn’t because of what has changed since 1991 and equally what has not.

The West’s doctrine during the first Cold War, the Moscow commentator points out, was not just the rolling back of communism but also the liberation of the nations it had enslaved. The new Cold War, he argues, is different not only because of who its participants are but because of how they are approaching the conflict.

“The Second Cold War,” he writes, “was begun by a country [the Russian Federation] which was freed from communism and which had obtained democracy but which voluntarily returned to the path of the tsars and general secretaries in their imperial opposition to the West.”

According to Ikhlov, there aren’t any more peoples to be “saved.” Instead, “there is a revanchist empire that must be destroyed … For the end of the First Cold War, it was sufficient for the West to assure itself that the USSR had rejected the chimera of communism, world revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Now, however, the West will have to demand that Russia undergo “a political and geopolitical transformation that will “forever deprive it of the possibility of threatening the West or its neighbors.” And consequently, he suggests, the West is obviously preparing for Russia “not a Marshall Plan but a Versailles.”

That somewhat overblown language, likely offered to suggest why Russians should resist rather than to indicate how the West really will act, nonetheless points to something many in the West don’t want to recognize: Although the Russian empire has been dying for over a century, it still exists and represents a threat to all precisely because it is an empire.

If the West has forgotten that, many Russians have forgotten something else – and on this anniversary, it is extraordinarily important that they remember it. When Gorbachev’s siloviki [riot police] killed Lithuanians, tens of thousands of Russians went into the streets of Moscow and other Russian cities in support of the Lithuanians and in opposition to the Kremlin.

What a difference 25 years makes, Grigory Amnuel points out in commentary today. Now, polls suggest, large majorities of Russians back Putin’s imperial project, and his aggression there and elsewhere instead of unifying Russians against him as Gorbachev’s moves did against him is having the opposite effect.

What made Vilnius so important was precisely the shockwaves it sent through the Soviet empire and first and foremost through the first although often unrecognized victims of that empire, the ethnic Russians. Once they broke with the Kremlin, there was no one left to defend it but a few aging CPSU and KGB thugs as the August 1991 coup showed.

At that time, he writes, “the simple residents of Lithuania” stood up for freedom, and “tens and hundreds of thousands of their then-fellow citizens” across the USSR supported them. “Above all, Moscow supported them … and this support was no less important than the courage of those who went to defend the television tower with their bodies.”

What was important, Amnuel says, is that “people found in themselves the courage and desire to hear the truth and not ‘Pravda’ [the Russian word for “truth”], to bring it to other people and declare it to the authorities. At that time, people still remembered about the repressions of the GULAG and the struggle with dissidents, but they came out into the streets” anyway.

“Vilnius unified us then,” no everyone of course but at least “those in whom humanity had remained alive despite all the many years of repression in the kingdom of unfreedom” that was the Soviet system. Now, “alas, Crimea and the events in Ukraine have not unified us but divided us,” Amnuel notes.

In 1968, eight brave people demonstrated against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1991, tens of thousands came out to support Lithuania. Now, “in the best case,” something under five percent of the population of this “still enormous country” have the courage to do the same. A sad, even tragic evolution in the wrong direction.

“It is possible,” Amnuel says, “that the anniversary of those events, 25 years now (a whole new generation has grown up!) will force someone to remember and someone to learn about those times … and change something … For this, memory exists,” despite all the efforts of the current regime like its predecessors to falsify the past.

“While we are alive, while we recall the victims and what we then were, there is hope,” he concludes, and “that means we must preserve the truth about those days for the sake of the future.” That is true for Russia; it is also true for the West as well.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Are Russians Really ‘Becoming Accustomed to Poverty’?

Staunton, VA, January 13, 2016 -- Some Russian experts say that new polls suggesting that Russians expect their own economic situation to deteriorate further suggest that they are “becoming accustomed to poverty,” a development that if true would constitute in their words, “the most serious consequence of the [current] crisis.”

It is certainly true as Dostoyevsky famously observed that mankind can get used to anything, and Russians have displayed remarkable resilience in the face of adversity both in the past and at present. But the evidence does not all point to the same conclusion, however much the Kremlin might welcome such a development.

Instead, the worsening of the economic situation is leading to an increase in the number of crimes of the type associated with deteriorating standards of living, and the rising unemployment rate, both reported and real, means that there are Russians with more time on their hands who may be more likely to support and work for opposition parties in the future.

But even if those trends are overcome, Russian acceptance of increasing impoverishment as a fact of life will have a profoundly negative impact over time by undermining their willingness to engage in the kind of actions like taking risks and sacrificing current well-being for future benefits on which the growth of any country’s economy depends.

In brief, what might be a welcome short-term outcome as far as Vladimir Putin is concerned would almost certainly have the most negative consequences for Russia as a whole in the future.

Writing in today’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta, journalist Nina Zabelina says that “more than half of Russians except a new deterioration of the economic situation,” with real incomes continuing to fall, and “about 52 percent of them now say the worst is still ahead. In 2009, only 30 percent said that.

But on the basis of her conversations with several Russian experts on the economic situation, the Moscow journalist draws the conclusion that “the most serious consequence of the crisis may be that citizens are getting used to life in poverty” rather than seeing it as something from which they can and must escape.

Natalya Zubarevich, a regional specialist at Moscow’s Independent Institute for Social Policy, says that is exactly what appears to be happening. People are increasingly relying on what they can do for themselves – for example, by planting potatoes. “People simply are trying to survive.”

Their situation, she says, has been made worse by the fact that the current crisis has hit the shadow economy on which most had been relying at least in part about the same as it has hit the public one. That means that Russians have one fewer set of reserves than they did before.

Andrey Kolesnikov of the Moscow Carnegie Center agrees.  “What has been taking place,” he says, “could be called negative stabilization.” Workers will see their pay and hours cut, but this will “hardly push citizens toward an active search for work abroad.”  Instead, it is simply leading many to tighten their belts rather than engage in black market activities.

And Georgy Vashenko of Moscow’s Freedom Finance says that the authorities have the capacity to keep things from getting out of hand even in the marketplace. Up to now, they have made sure that domestic production of alcohol, tobacco, and medicines hasn’t fallen and that prices for these have grown “more slowly than inflation.”

But two other reports today suggest that Russians may be less accustomed to their new impoverishment. On the one hand, RBC reports that the kind of property crimes that were typical in Russia at the time of the 1998 default – stealing windows from cars and alcohol from stores – are way up.

And on the other, experts with whom journalists spoke said that analysts should be focusing on the level of poverty and unemployment rather than the price of oil per se to understand what is likely to happen. That is because if people are thrown out of work, they will be more likely to support the opposition in upcoming elections.

The Interpreter
Russian-to-English translation journal, with original analysis and commentary on Russia's foreign & domestic policy.
Moscow’s Plans for Three New Divisions Will Degrade Russia’s Defense Capacity, Golts Says
Staunton, VA, January 13, 2016 - Russian defense minister Sergey Shoigu has announced plans to form three new divisions in the western part of the country, an announcement clearly intended as Moscow’s response to NATO’s new forward basing in the Baltic countries, Poland and Romania, Aleksandr Golts says.

Their deployment, the Moscow military analyst writes in today’s Yezhednevny Zhurnal is a clear additional indication that “Russia is rapidly moving toward a new ‘cold war’ with the West.” But what this plan does not do, he argues, is to increase Moscow’s defense capabilities. In fact, it may contribute to their degradation.

At present, there are only three divisions in the Russian land forces: the Taman, the Kantemir, and the field artillery one based in the Far East. The remaining units are brigades, the result of the so-called “Serdyukov military reform” of 2009 on the basis of the assumption that in local or hybrid wars, brigades are more effective than divisions.

That was “demonstrated in the course of the hybrid war in the Donbass,” he continues. “But if one is preparing for a major war with the West, then full-scale divisions, which represent in fact small armies, is a more suitable instrument. And, alas, it is not excluded that the decision about creating three new divisions is only the beginning of a painful new reorganization.”

That will inevitably create problems in the short term, “but this is not the worst thing.” The worst thing, Golts says, is that the new announcement reverses the cuts in the number of units in the armed forces and boosts their numbers, a shift that means that once again the units will have to rely on reservists to come up to full strength.

That is because “the stormy growth in the number of army units hardly is going to be accompanied by a growth in the number of personnel in uniform.” In 2016, the Russian military is supposed to grow by 10,000 officers and soldiers, but for three new divisions, it would need “no less than 30,000.” If they are taken from elsewhere, those units will suffer.

There can be “only one result” from that: “an increase in personnel shortages in Russian units. The generals will boldly report that they will quickly bring the number up to requirements of war time by drawing on reservists.” But, Golts says, “the possibility of recalling these people and restoring their army habits in a short period of time is purely theoretical.”

Even if that worked, he continues, “this would mean a return to the long-ago-discredited concept of mass mobilization,” given that “in order to fight with NATO, [Russia] will need more battalions.” But “the forces which have appeared as a result of the successful military reform do not satisfy the ambitions of the Russian bosses” – and so military readiness will be sacrificed.