WHAT WAS PUTICON?
The website for the event said that this was the first event to offer a true 360 on Putin, his KGB, his nature, his past, his accomplices, his policies and his unraveling. I went because for years now I have been writing articles and holding events to stop the Russian mafia state taking over the world. I am a writer, not a journalist or politician, but I grew up in the USSR, in then-Leningrad, Putin’s hometown, crossed paths with people close to him during the beginning of my career and understand the risk.
The impressive lineup of political analysts, journalists, cyberwar experts and activists inspired me to fly to NYC amidst snowstorms hitting the East Coast.
The conference was held at an off-Broadway theater with a name New World Stages — the name you couldn’t make if you wanted to, considering the geopolitical ambitions and propensity of the subject of the gathering for all things theatrical, adding a dark humor touch to the happening. Other shows at the venue included Gazillion Bubble Show (a mind-blowing and jaw-dropping interactive bubble show) and Puffs, “a play for anyone who has never been destined to save the world.” I like a twist added to politics: from neo-Nazis rallying at Martin Luther King Park in Berkeley to Trump’s journey from hanging out with the Russian gangsters to chilling in the White House, the last year and a half was a never-ending farce and my articles were labeled satire. Fine, I thought, let’s see this off-Broadway show.
Because of Putin’s penchant for poisoning and persecuting his critics, a significant portion of the event’s budget has been dedicated to security, writes CQ. The exact location for the conference was kept in secret and emailed to participants a day before the conference, with a request to keep the information private. This added a touch of conspiracy to the event called PutinCon — in San Francisco, “con” brings to mind hordes of drunk Santa Clauses.
All guests went through high security checks by NYPD counterterrorism and K-9 division, including airport-style patting, bag search and ID checks and were asked to wear ID badges at all times. Security guards with dogs were seen in the lobby at the opening.
At lunch, as I served myself arugula salad, someone said, “Well, it is a good thing they have high security here.” “I wouldn’t assume anything,” answered Bill Bowder, who was looking for a missing plastic fork.
As I went through security, I was thrown back by Americans in Russian fur hats (ushankas), an ID badge with Putin’s face on it next to my name — it reminded me of little Oktyabronok badge I had to wear to my elementary school, Putin’s giant eyes staring at me from the stage to either Brahms or Beethoven, bringing to my caffeinated mind a weird mix of Clock Work Orange, Great Gatsby and mass brainwashing seances.
Then, an announcer asked us to switch off the phone with Ivan the Terrible Is Killing His Son painting by Ilya Repin in the background. I started to fear that I am in for some sort of joke…
…then, the world chess champion Garry Kasparov stepped on stage, followed by a furious succession of fiercely brilliant people and, in all honesty, it was one of the most mind-blowing and jaw-dropping shows I’ve seen in my life.
“We hope it will be the last conference dedicated to him,” said Kasparov.
He went on to say that the organizers thought about opening the conference with a moment of silence to commemorate Putin’s victims. They decided against it: those murdered spoke up.
Putin arrived at the international scene as a democratic leader, said Kasparov. All his first moves were symbolic — like restoring the anthem of the USSR. He was showing what he would do if given a chance. And, sadly, he was given a chance. People who warned the West now can say, “We warned you.” The world (as it happens) wasn’t ready to hear them.
Putin plays geopolitical poker, said Kasparov, and he needs to raise stakes. You don’t play honest games with dictators. (It is like playing chess with a bear, I think. If the bear doesn’t like the outcome, it will eat you up.) Like all dictators, he needs an external enemy so he built a state media empire and promoted the image of Russia as a besieged fortress. He used it to fight the Russian and world opposition. They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. Putin had the picture AND 1,000 words.
Being anti-Putin is not to be anti-Russian, noted Kasparov. To be anti-Putin is pro-Russian.
David Satter, an American journalist, contributor to WSJ and National Review, and an author of four books on Russia, opened the conference.
In 2013, Satter was expelled from Russia, the first U.S. journalist to be expelled from the country since the Cold War. He was among the first to accuse Vladimir Putin and the FSB of carrying out the 1999 apartment bombings, and he made a presentation about this horrific crime. He explained how the terrorist action similar to Reichstag fire, planned and executed in cold blood, brought Putin to power. His presentation spoke to me as I only left Russia in 1998 and still had family there at the time of the bombings. It was a scary, dark time; we all knew that the FSB was behind the bombings. The Russian people were desensitized to the crimes of the government against its own country.
What was jarring is that at the time, the West accepted the Russian government explanation to the apartment bombing and left it without consequences. As Satter noted, for most people it is inconceivable to consider that such action is possible. Thus, the bloody reign of Putin commenced.
Arkady Babchenko, a renowned Russian journalist who fought in the first Chechen war for two years at the age of 18, and volunteered for six months during the second Chechen war, delivered one of the most powerful messages of the conference.
“Chechen was one big crime. They have started pumping mass hatred then.”
Propaganda of hatred is the foundation of Putin’s regime.
‘‘All Chechen men aged anywhere from ten to sixty are enemies, they told us in the army,” said Babchenko. “‘Kill, kill, kill,’ they read their orders to me when I served as a soldier in the Chechen war. They used the same hatred campaign during the war in Georgia. The country started to go crazy, lose its mind. Then, they moved it to Ukraine and it went completely insane.”
“The most powerful and terrible weapon Putin has is propaganda. Goebbels must be applauding from the grave. Pumping of hatred through propaganda is the foundation of Putin’s reign. First, the enemies were the Chechens, then Georgians, then Ukrainians, then, for some odd reasons, LGBT people, and now — not sure if you are aware of it — it’s you. The US…. Putin’s power is based on dehumanization of the population; this is the most important thing to understand. People are told that values and morals are obsolete. Killing is allowed.”
Putin brought about the dehumanization of the whole country. Russia is now ready to go to war with the whole world.
To say that Babchenko’s message resonated with me is an understatement. Forced to study how to incite hatred and fear during the compulsory course of combat propaganda in college (I had to take it in order to get my degree in Literature), I have recently started a series of seminars to educate the Americans on how it’s done.
The next speaker reinforced Babchenko’s statement.
Yevgeni Kiselev, a legend of Russian journalism, much loved and respected for his integrity (and a man whose face I remember vividly, my mom enthusiastically watching his shows on the NTV channel, a breeze of fresh air, a symbol of democratic changes in 90s). His shows were critical of the Yeltsin administration and widespread government corruption. Kiselev was CEO of NTV at the time of a government crackdown on the channel in 2001, during which the editorial team was split up and control of station handed over to the state-owned oil company Gazprom. In 2008, Kiselev fled Russian to live in Kiev, where he leads news on the largest Ukrainian television channel, Inter. He flew to PutinCon from Kiev.
“Complete control of mass media and TV is the most characteristic feature of Putin’s regime. Putin saw the dissolution of the USSR as the biggest tragedy… He knew that he owed to media his rise to power as a popular personality and for making his persona. “Guy like us,” a street kid becoming a presidential candidate story.”
Putin’s image was created by the TV. So early on, Putin realized that TV should not be allowed to criticize him or his government, said Kiselev. As a result, he destroyed all independent channels.
Kiselev told an infamous anecdote about the NTV sketch based on Hoffman’s fairy tale of an ugly deformed evil creature that is perceived as a beautiful youth by the people of the town because a fairy puts a spell on them. Little Tsakhes was depicted by a puppet with a strong resemblance to Putin. Putin could not stand the caricature and swore to send the owner of the channel, Boris Gusinsky, to rot in prison. Then, he took a decision that there should be no TV stations belonging to private businessmen unless they are loyal to Putin…
I was impressed when Kiselev suggested practical measures to confront Putin’s war on the press. Coming up with solutions is rare and challenging. He suggested:
- Sanctions should be imposed on the officials, managers and producers of the state-owned Russian media. Propaganda is not journalism and the First Amendment does not apply to them.
- The West should monitor and cover the repression of journalists in Russia. Sanctions should be imposed on officials/managers of state-owned media.
The next speaker, Anders Åslund, a senior fellow at the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, went even further. He came up with the financial measures the West can take to fight Putin’s regime.
He estimated that Putin’s circle owns about 250 billion dollars and that Putin’s kleptocracy pumps out $40–50 billion per year from Russia. Also, the US is the biggest money-laundering hub in the world. Sanctions do not work because we can not identify the money that came from Russia. However, this is good news because here we have a possibility to act. He suggested the following measures:
- No accepting anonymous money from anonymous corporations.
- Prohibiting law firms acting as banks.
- Prohibiting real estate working as banks.
Toomas Ilves, former president of Estonia (2006–2016), a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, spoke about the Russian cyberwar attacks on the Western democracies.
To my excitement, the trend of offering practical solutions continued. Ilves offered the following measures based on the experience of Estonia (the country located so close to Russia, that it used to take me a few hours to hitch-hike from St. Petersburg to Tallinn.)
- Ban anonymous shell corporations from buying property.
- Control entry visas to the Western countries for the Russian citizens.
- Veto the Russian officials’ children from studying at the Western educational institutions (example: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s daughter graduated from Columbia).
- Organize a cyber league of democracies to address asymmetric threat models.
“We need to veto them. Throw them out. They need us. Don’t allow them to buy property. It should be illegal for a shell company to buy property. One needs to physically show up to buy property…”
During the networking break, I met and asked to interview Arkady Babchenko, Evgeny Kiselev, and David Satter. My mind was on fire and I went into the new session, hopeful. Preet Bharara, Bill Browder, Luke Harding and others were to speak.
Read Part 2 here.
As of yesterday, the Youtube videos were down. There was no coverage of this outstanding effort in the press. Currently, the video is back on and you can watch and share the seminar here:
Read, share, click on the little green hands in the left field so this article gets more visibility on Medium. It is up to us, people in the West, where we still have the freedom to speak up to stop these forces from shutting us here.