The Guardian and the demonisation of Russia

Writing about a theory that the recent tragic collapse of a block of flats in Magnitogorsk in Southern Russia was actually a terrorist attack one of the Guardian’s pseudo-journalists has felt compelled to regurgitate the stories about how Putin organised the 1999 apartment bombings in Russia.

I wonder if Marc Bennetts has any idea how revolting this is?

The claim that these bombings [1] were the work of the FSB carried out in order to generate an excuse for the second Chechen war and thus to propel Putin into power was promoted by Russian traitors such as the spy Litvinenko. It is simply unlikely that the Russian security services would kill 300 of their own people in order to achieve a political aim. They are as likely to do this as MI5 would be in the UK.  The causal bandying about of these claims as if they are as good as true reflects a preconception of what the Russian state is capable of which owes a great deal to an ever-ready willingness to demonize Russia. For many Western journalists Russia occupies the role of the “evil other” – and this conditions their journalism to the detriment of the quality of that journalism.

Bennetts’s source for the story  that the collapse of the apartment building in Magnitogorsk was terroristic is a Russian website. Bennetts describes this site as “respected”. The site (which appears to be aligned with the opposition) is described thus: “ is a respected news website”. Respected? By whom? “Respected” by credible journalists? Probably by a coterie of anti-Russian liberal Western reporters. Either way, a journalist should state the basis for relying on a source not just escape into the passive voice.

As to the actual claim that the collapse of a part of a block of flats in Magnitogorsk was the result of a bomb explosion. This is always possible. But to be a story it needs more than a reference to a website, however “respected”, which itself, (according to Bennetts), cites an anonymous source.

Update 4/1/19

Mr Bennett’s use of the passive is getting out of hand. This is an article about the detention of a joint US-British national in Russia on spying charges:

It has already been suggested that Whelan is being held as leverage to negotiate the release of Maria Butina, a Russian who recently pleaded guilty in the US to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent for Moscow.


Whelan is being given legal assistance by a Russian lawyer, including a request for bail, but there is concern about the some of the advice being provided.

“There is concern”, “it has been suggested”. Who by? Perhaps the implicit agent in all of Mr Bennetts’s uses of the passive voice should be “the British establishment” (aka the State Department). At best this is a lazy journalistic trick. At worst Mr Bennetts is deliberately occluding what he is doing – putting out a specific point of view but trying to pretend it is objective journalism.

The detained individual is quite interesting. He appears to have US and UK citizenship. And, according, to this article he also holds an Irish passport. According to other press reports he, Paul Whelan, was discharged from the US military on larceny charges.

(The Independent’s Russia correspondent refers to Mr Whelan’s “quirky” biography in an article which almost outdoes the Guardian in its Russiaphobia – for example Ollie Carroll makes a great deal out of the apparent fact that due to refurbishment in the prison in which Mr Whelan is being held some cells do not have plumbing and detainees have to use buckets. Is Ollie Carroll aware that it was as recently as 1996 (or 2010 according to some reports) [2] that many prisoners in UK jails had to face such a “grim and unhygienic reality” – not because of refurbishment but as a matter of institutional policy? Ollie Carroll ponders that it is strange that Mr Whelan has not been wheeled out on TV: “This would appear to be an unexpected oversight given that ‘spies’ captured in Russia usually become overnight state TV stars.” This may be a reference to a very short and formal clip that the Russian security services released when they captured a CIA agent in 2013. Ollie Carroll is said on his Independent biography to have “lived and worked on [sic] the post Soviet space for over 10 years”. How daring of him. But in any event he must know that the FSB routinely releases videos of arrests – not just of spies, but of terrorists and organised criminals as well. It is misleading to suggest that this is something special, reserved for spies or that they are being “turned into TV stars”. – A similar piece of misreporting occurred during the trial of the Ukrainian pilot Savchenko in 2014. Western reporters reported in dramatic tones how Savchenko was kept in a cage in the courtroom. But they must have known perfectly well that this is normal practice in Russian courts. In this case the fact that Mr Whelan has not been produced on TV is cited as evidence that the case is “barely plausible” -these anti-Russian journalists seem to get a particular satisfaction from using Russia’s practices against them).

Mr Whelan may be completely innocent and may be being setup. On the other hand he may have been  up to no good in Russia. Let’s wait and see what comes out. Either way we (predictably enough) see both Western politicians and media engaging in this propaganda – which amounts to a kind of racism – that suggests (use of passive voice, suggestion etc.) that there is no valid basis to the charges and Mr Whelan is being used as a “pawn”. (UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt). The racism lies in the automatic assumption (ok, suggestion – they are skillful enough to only moot the idea) that someone detained in Russia is being detained nefariously. Whereas, of course, every Russian (or Chinese) detained in the West is being detained on the basis of the highest legal and moral principles. Today the Guardian  is running another article (by a lobbyist) which claims that the detention of Canadian citizens recently held in China is an abuse of some kind.

This automatic assumption that everything that Russia or China does is nefarious and everything the West does is pure and pristine is something we might expect from politicians. (Perhaps). But it is disappointing that the media just follows suit. In reality the situation is likely to be more nuanced and complex than this simplistic, aboriginal, “they bad we good” narrative we seem to have to reverted to. (Not only might it be the case that Russia is not “guilty” in all cases but, also, there are philosophical value questions here which are rarely discussed. Put bluntly: maybe Russian intelligence did try to poison Skirpal but then the UK killed thousands in an illegal war in Iraq in 2003, and undeterred, tried to do another regime change op. in Libya in 2011, again with disastrous consequences. Different styles; it is philosophically naive to judge another civilisation with our own value system. This assumption that Russia can be judged according to our value system (the one we pretend to perhaps not the one our actions reveal) is a kind of monoculture. It is the culture of Empire. The Russians understand at the level of their Foreign Policy that different nations have different “paths to development”; that is, different values at different points in their (different) history. This is a much more philosophically aware position).



nb. this Wikipedia entry shows signs of having been doctored. Treat with caution:

In this archived 2012 version of the article there is an extensive quote from the Duma Deputy Sergei Kovalev, who headed an independent parliamentary commission into the affair, in which he states that in his view the key bombing, that in Ryazan, (which is the basis for the claims that all the attacks were an FSB plot) was some kind of FSB propaganda exercise and he also stated: “Truly to say, I am very reluctant to believe, that any sort of security services, obeying our supreme authorities were capable of exploding sleeping citizens of their country.”. Ths quote is referenced as being from an interview on a Moscow radio station which took place in 2002.

This important statement is missing from the current article and a new quote from a 2017 interview with the US State Department funded Radio Free Europe is included in which Kovalev gives an account which is more consistent with the “the FSB did it” claims.

It looks like the article has been edited to develop the story that the bombings were the work of the FSB carried out in order to manipulate the political situation in the country.




Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer