Sunday, March 26, 2017

A New View into the Protests in Russia

I don’t know how many of you have experimented with the new Google Translate, but if you haven’t paid much attention to it, the way it works is fascinating, and the results are beyond belief. I was one of the people who confidently said of AI translation schemes, “Oh, come on, they’ll never work.” I was so wrong. Google Machine Neural Translation is an astonishing and historic achievement.
One of its consequences: I can now read Russian. So can you. Without learning so much as a letter of Cyrillic. A whole world that was once only visible to Americans who invested years of study is now transparent to us all. Russia is still a riddle inside in an enigma, but it’s no longer wrapped in a mystery.
You’ve heard by now, I’m sure, that there were massive protests yesterday all across Russia, and that opposition leader Aleksey Navalny was detained. So were between 500 and “at least 1,000” other protesters, depending on the source. An American journalist, Alec Luhn, was detained, but later released.
The biggest protests Russia has seen in five years were, in the phrasing Russia Today used repeatedly, “unsanctioned.” Nominally, people were protesting corruption, but to paraphrase Garry Kasparov, Putin is the system, which is corruption, so these were anti-Putin protests.

Navalny, a gadfly crusader whose fight against graft has resonated with many Russians, was detained as he emerged with supporters from a subway station March 26 in central Moscow.
On Twitter, Roman Rubanov, the director of Navalny’s nongovernmental foundation, posted videos of a crowd of supporters trying to prevent the van carrying Navalny from moving amid a heavy riot police presence. …
Navalny, who challenged Moscow’s mayor in 2013 elections and has announced his intention to run for the presidency in 2018, called on supporters to continue their protest without him.
More than 800 people were believed to be detained in Moscow alone, according to the the nongovernmental organization OVD-Info. City police did not immediately release any figures, but the state news agency TASS, citing an unnamed Moscow police source, said more than 500 people were arrested.
Navalny encouraged the protesters to continue after his arrest: “Guys, I’m fine. No need to fight to get me out. Walk along Tverskaya [Moscow main street]. Our topic of the day is the fight against corruption,” he tweeted.
What’s fascinating is that this is the first time in my life I can not only read the Russian-language media almost as if it were in English (albeit written with a thick Russian accent), but what Russians themselves say about it, in real time, on Twitter. I’ve been to Russia, both before and after the Soviet Union collapsed, but I was only there for a few weeks, and always under the supervision of wary official monitors. So I’ve always had to accept a version of the country mediated through the English-language media.
Here, for example, is the NGO OVD-info’s website. Western journalists seem to agree it’s “usually reliable.” It describes itself (as translated by Google),
[as an] independent human rights media project dedicated to political persecution in Russia. We are engaged in daily monitoring of persecution for political reasons and publish information about them in the form of express news and stories told by the victims. We believe that information releases, and protects, and collected data analysis will make a difference in the future.
The project was started in December 2011 in response to the mass arrests of protesters in Moscow. Fairly quickly we realized that it is impossible to cover only “political detention”, not paying attention to political persecution as a whole and the state institutions that implement them.
Today, information activity ATS-Info [OVD-info] develops in three areas – freedom of assembly , freedom of speech and Politpressing . In addition, we write about how to act in these three areas system .
Often, we also coordinate the primary legal aid to people who have been subjected to political persecution.
ATS-info is committed to fairness in gathering and submitting information, as well as to the neutral style of presentation. The project is not engaged in settling of someone’s political interests and does not seek to achieve any narrow political purposes.
The ATS-info is no censorship, but we try not to publish information that could have a negative impact on the fate of people who are being persecuted.
Until recently, their site would have been inaccessible to me, and I would have had to content myself with that single sentence in the RFE/RL report: “More than 800 people were believed to be detained in Moscow alone, according to the the nongovernmental organization OVD-Info.” Now I can easily read everything OVD-Info said, and put it in the context they intended. I can figure out who funds them. I can read their Twitter feed, too. (By the way, don’t use Twitter’s Bing translation. It’s worthless. Just put the URL of the feed into Google Translate. You can also set Google to translate Russian automatically without asking.)
So this is what OVD-Info is now saying on Twitter:
  1. More than 1,000 people were detained in Moscow: the latest data | ATS-Info
  2. In Volgograd, possibly, there will be a case about an attack on a policeman during the dispersal of a rally | ATS-Info:
  3. Detentions on “AntiDimon” in Moscow: ATS list | ATS-Info:
  4. The applicants of the anti-corruption action in Saratov were detained in a cafe
  5. A detained teenager suffering from asthma is transported to another ATS. Previously, not allowed to parents with a  
  6. Employees of the UK are already conducting [under?] interrogation in the Mischansky police station, Gagarin ATS and Strogino police department, detained as witnesses
  7. Gormost cleared the memorial at the site of the murder of Boris Nemtsov. Employees tore Nemtsov’s portraits from the hands of activist
  8. Dear friends! As far as we know, in all the ATS, where it was possible, food and water were taken or taken. Thank you all very much!
  9. Nikolay Lyaskin is hospitalized from the Luzhniki OP | ATS-Info:
  10. A number of police department of Moscow expect employees of the Investigative Committee | ATS-Info:
  11. Detainees in Makhachkala still remain in ROVD | ATS-Info
  12. SC opened a criminal case on the attack on a policeman during a rally in Moscow | ATS-Info
  13. FBK office in Moscow is not allowed a lawyer | ATS-Info: 
  14.  At least 700 people were detained in Moscow. The Moscow City Hall declared: “The police showed themselves to be impeccable.” 
  15. In St. Petersburg, about 34 detainees, the area of ​​the uprising was empty. In Gatchina, about 20 people came to the rally, seven were detained by the police 
  16. Retweeted   14 hrs14 hours ago All employees of the Anti-Corruption Fund were detained. This is the best estimate of their work. FBK does not give a quiet life to thieves.
I find it just astonishing to be able to see into Russia like this. It’s not perfect, obviously, but all of these details would have before been completely inscrutable to me before: It’s a language I don’t know, written in an alphabet I can’t read.
An oddity of being American is that the rest of the world knows us so much better than we know them. Because the British and then Americans created so much of the modern world, English is the world’s most common second-language. It’s spoken by the elite everywhere (a bit, usually, at least); and in pretty much every country where people have televisions, which is now close to everywhere, people will be at least slightly familiar with America and American culture. We’re an open society that noisily pumps out information about ourselves, non-stop. We blare to every corner of the world our entertainment, our punditry, our Internet sites, our video games, our technology, our criticism of ourselves, our news media. So we’re far better understood by most of the world than vice-versa, even if a good part of the world is a bit confused by what they see.
One lesson of the first Cold War, we thought, was that open societies (ours, in particular) were inherently stronger than closed societies (Russia’s, in particular). Many of us are now wondering if this is still true. Neil Barnett has an excellent piece in The American Interest this week about the way Russia’s KGB-trained security organs have learned to exploit the vulnerabilities of open societies far more effectively than they were able to do in the Soviet era:
[O]ne of the central doctrines of the Comintern [was] that rotten and decadent democracies like Yugoslavia would inevitably fall because they were so weak that they lacked the resolve to deal with their enemies efficiently. Their openness was an obvious weapon to use against them—a gift to their adversaries.
The irony is that in the century since the Russian Revolution, the “soft” democracies have endured, and it is the communist system that has collapsed. But the inheritors of the NKVD mantle—the KGB-trained Kremlin elite—believe that the game is not yet over. Their method once again is to use what they believe to be the West’s weakness—decadence and above all, openness—as a weapon against it. With smirking denials, the Russian state is waging a war of hacking, disinformation, subversion and espionage throughout Europe and North America.
So far, so obvious. But the world has changed since the 1930s in ways that exponentially increase the potency of these long-established tools. The Comintern objective of spreading distrust of elites in democracies was an uphill task using rumours and unreadable radical newspapers. With force multipliers such as the internet, viral “fake news”, and legitimate-seeming outlets like RT and Sputnik, it is less so today.
And some, like Timothy Snyder, believe we’ve already lost.
… what if the enemy’s will can be altered without the blood and treasure of military engagement? If that were true, then a country with a smaller military budget, like Russia, might beat one with a better army, like America.
That just happened, and we are still wiping our eyes in foggy denial.
In 2011, a Russian information war manual concluded that operations in what Russians like to call the “psychosphere” were more important than conventional military engagements. The chief of staff of the Russian armed forces concurred in 2013. The basic aim of war, he averred, was to get inside the national mind of the enemy, reconfiguring habits of mind and frames of discourse so that Americans would do what the Russian leadership wanted. …
What’s notable to me is that Timothy Snyder is not a crackpot. He has good reason to believe he has more insight into Russian behavior than most Americans would. And this is a pattern: The more familiar people are with Russia’s history and language, the more they worry that this time, Russia is winning. And it’s succeeding, in part, because they know us so much better than we know them.
With AI translation, though, it’s possible for any of us to get to know Russia better than we could have before. Here are links to some of the highest-circulation newspapers in Russia. For the first time in history, Russian newspapers are, to the average, non-specialist American citizen, an open book:
What do you conclude from reading them? Does anything surprise you? Does anything seem to be missing? What’s missing, do you think — if anything — from English-language news accounts and interpretations yesterday’s events?

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