Shaun Walker in the Guardian – fiction about Russia

I’m quite sure that Shaun Walker is a nice guy. Perhaps he doesn’t really mean to tell lies about the political situation in Russia – but when you consistently sell a story as reportage and analysis which is based more or less verbatim on the strategic narrative created by one party to a political struggle – then, inadvertently or not, you are lying. In the main though Walker is probably more the victim of lazy self-deception than conscious lying. So perhaps we can most accurately call his work “fiction”.

This is Walker’s latest creation. It is about the “novichok attack” on Navalny. Let’s do our usual service of separating Walker’s fiction from fact.

Essentially the problem with all these tales about Russia by Shaun Walker (which all belong in the creative fiction class) is that he has in his head a template. In this template Aleksei Navalny is “the leading opposition politician” in Russia. He is a Western-leaning democrat who is fighting a valiant fight against the oppressive and human-rights abusing dictatorship of Putin. Walker adjusts the story to fit the template. It is a classic of how journalism is so often conducted and the way, of course, it should not be – if, that is, journalism is to have a function of informing the people of reality. The political reality in Russia is far, far, more complex than this simplistic template. The political landscape in Russia is a kaleidoscope of many viewpoints and Navalny is just one. There is a vast amount of information, viewpoint, and, ultimately, people, who have to be elided for Walker to tell his make-believe story. Let’s note some examples in this article:

Now in recovery after a novichok attack

This assumes there was an “attack”. There is no particular evidence for this. Navalny has a track record of getting himself arrested and creating the image of himself as a martyr. It is a priori completely possible that this event was staged by Navalny. Western journalists are following the story put out by Navalany’s PR operation in assuming that this was an “attack”.

German doctors say he was poisoned with a novichok nerve agent, apparently in his Tomsk hotel room.

This is actually rather inexcusable. All the doctors can say is that there was this substance in his body. They can’t in fact say that Navalny “was poisoned” by someone. And they certainly can’t say that whatever happened happened “in his hotel room”. The hotel room is the (new) story put out by the Navalny operation – not some kind of medical fact. Walker has merged the two strands and he must know this is dishonest. On the question of the “hotel room”; readers may recall that the first version of the story put out by Navalny’s team revolved around a cup of tea in the airport. There was even a handy photograph to release to journalists of Navalny drinking the supposedly poisoned tea. The story has been edited and is now about a water bottle in the hotel room. This water bottle was allegedly taken by one of Navalny’s team to Germany. Why has the story changed? We can speculate that it could be because the cup from the airport canteen might have been found and examined. But the bottle which “has been taken to Germany” obviously cannot be. It is noteworthy how Walker just accepts the new version without questioning it.

Navalny explained how officials from United Russia, the ruling party that backs president Vladimir Putin, skimmed money from the utility payments that all Tomsk residents pay. Navalny’s team flew drones over their vast mansions outside town to illustrate the corruption for the video.

This concerns allegations by Navalny of corruption by officials and/or elected representatives in Tomsk. I’m not in a position to assess the strength of the allegations. They may well have validity; it would certainly not be unknown for elected officials in Russia to use their position for personal gain. (Of course; Western politicians do just this too – but the one-sidedness of the ‘corrupt politicians’ narrative is another story). However; we can note that simply showing that someone has a swimming pool does not prove corruption. Elected officials can also run legitimate businesses. Walker seems content to accept that showing a video of a “vast mansion” “illustrates” corruption. As so often, Walker’s journalism looks like simply a copy and paste of the Navalny press release – which is taken at face-value.

On the surface, Putin’s position seems more commanding than ever: in July, Russians approved a constitutional amendment that allows him to rule until 2036,

This is a hopeless misrepresentation of the recent constitutional amendments. The main thrust of the amendments was a series of carefully worked changes to how the top bodies of the Russian Federation (the government, Presidency, Supreme Court etc.) interact. The amendments introduced a new system of checks and balances which seem to have the aim of tying these institutions closer together. Along with the constitutional changes came the fact that Putin’s previous Presidential terms were wiped, thus allowing him to stand again. Walker is free to argue, or course, (and many do), that this was the main aim of the amendments all along. But as it stands what he has written is misleading to the extent of being not true.

Additionally, protesters in Khabarovsk, a city in Russia’s far east, have taken to the streets all though the summer, angry at the arrest of the popular local governor, Sergei Furgal, who defeated the Kremlin’s candidate.

The governor was arrested on charges of (historic) murder. It is quite possible that the reason the charges appeared now is indeed because the governor is not a United Russia candidate. But not to mention the charges may give people the impression that this was a straightforward political arrest.

Some people see the brazen attack on Navalny as a reaction to these events, noting the almost overnight transformation of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Belarus from a political nobody to figurehead of a revolution.

More from Walker’s MA in Creative Fiction. Of course NATO and Lithuanian intelligence (no doubt) are working hard to promote Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the new “opposition” candidate. Mr Walker himself has been contributing to this propaganda effort. But ‘revolution’ is what they want. Not necessarily what is happening. (Again we can note that “brazen attack” is a tale – not a fact).

During Putin’s two decades in charge, there has been a tradition of these “systemic” opposition parties, which engage in politics within certain agreed boundaries, and on the whole refrain from criticism of the president. They can even get into real battles with United Russia, to give the impression of political skirmishes, but Putin should remain above the fray.

Actually, as often, Mr Walker does report accurately on certain aspects of the Russian political scene (of course, only those aspects which suit the overall narrative trend). This is one of them. There really is a culture of a permitted opposition – which can openly and freely criticise the government. And which does, ultimately, coalesse around the centre and existing power. This is somewhat authoritarian and a different style to that which takes place in the West where one can say more or less anything, however critical, about the leadership. (Again; whether this represents real democracy or is not itself a sophisticated technique of manipulating mass opinion is out of scope here). This idea – that all political parties in Russia are part of the same system is a common refrain in liberal journalism – and indeed there are some Russians who share this criticism of their system. (And, again; there are people who feel that the same applies to the Western political system as well). On the other hand; it is possible that many Russians are more naturally conservative; a power vertical is a reality with which they feel comfortable. A more authoritarian style may be proper to Russia. Walker’s journalism, like that of Western liberal journalism on Russia in general, never allows this possibility. They see a system different to theirs and assume it is bad. This is imperialism.

A charismatic and dogged anti-corruption activist who repositioned himself from unsavoury nationalist to liberal darling

Liberal journalists are grappling with Navalny’s nationalism. They even occasionally admit that he once called Georgians “cockroaches” in a radio interview. The general tactic is to portray his nationalism as something about his past. However; Navalany wishes to bring in more control on immigration from Central Asian countries. (Under the current system visa-free entry is possible from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for example and to work in Russia Uzbeks only need to obtain a work permit; a relatively simple procedure. As part of the Eurasian Union Kazaks do not need a work permit). Navalny probably isn’t the “liberal darling” that Walker et al. have made of him; certainly he doesn’t support the Western liberal embrace of unfettered immigration. They just need a “Russian opposition politician” and Navalny is the best they can do.

Through well-produced videos, he explains how corruption in the regions leads directly to the Kremlin and is an integral part of Putin’s system

“Explains”? or “claims”. There is a difference and one suspects that Walker hasn’t really checked this point. One of my interlocutors on Russia (who is a strong critic of Putin and who is quite well connected) tells me that in the Far East at least there is very little official corruption and that in general it has been stamped out. His point of view is that it has been stamped out at the regional level but still exists at the very top. But; this is not what Navalny/Walker are claiming here. The OECD in a 2013 report acknowledged that the government was tackling corruption. The picture, as always, is far more complex that the one presented by Navalny and Walker. Navalany is a campaigner; it is natural for him to tell a one-sided story. But Walker is a journalist and good journalism requires going beyond just parroting what one source tells you.

He still has relatively low political ratings, though approval of his activities has risen from 9% to 20% over the past year, according to a poll last week, though he is seen as enough of a threat to be kept off the ballot by authorities, and even subjected to a poison attack, despite them simultaneously denigrating him as irrelevant.

The reason Navalny was not allowed to stand in the 2018 Presidential Elections was because he has a conviction for fraud. This point can be argued; one can argue that the conviction was cooked up. But the conviction took place in open court and journalists were able to report on the trial. Walker collapses his material and just reports his summation. As for “subjected to a poison attack” Walker has zero evidence that the Russian state poisoned Navalny. It is absurd journalism to simply write things which you cannot establish. (In reality it is highly unlikely that the Russian state poisoned Navalny. Not least because he is not a major threat and is indeed being contained by a policy of denying him the publicity and martyrdom which he craves. Walker could perhaps consider why he has written “despite” in the above sentence; he knows himself that the claim that the Kremlin poisoned Navalny is contrary to what might be expected given that they are successfully containing him).

New People’s candidate against Fadeyeva was Yulia Mustafina, a 34-year-old businesswoman who ran on a platform of improved services for pregnant women and mothers. She described herself as opposition-minded, and against Putin, but didn’t like Navalny’s radicalism and was against public protest. “We are not revolutionaries, we’re peaceful, we are not even really politicians. We just want to make things better through dialogue,” she said.

Walker gives this information in the context of a claim about fake opposition parties. Again this is itself a narrative which owes more to Navalny’s Press Releases then a real analysis of Russia. The reality is that there are people who would like to see change, people who are not happy with Putin – but who, at the same time, feel that Navalny is too negative and disruptive. Such people exist. (I spoke to one last week – a senior engineer in a state industry who expressed just this point of view to me). Walker’s fake analysis just disposes of these real people. In claiming to be democratic he is stifling democracy.

We can see that Walker’s picture of Russia is one-dimensional; it appears to be based entirely on a single source, a campaigner with his own agenda.

A final point. I often meet Russians who express dissatisfaction with their politics, even along the broad lines so familiar to Western liberal journalists. But there is another factor here. Is it just Russian politicians who are on the make? Is it just the Russian media which (generally) aligns with the centre? Or can these criticisms be made of the UK too? It is interesting how much happier Western liberal journalists are fanning the flames of “popular revolution” in Russia than they are doing their job and asking these questions about their own system.

Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer