INDIGNITY VOL. 3, NO. 104 What did the press learn from the big Russian mutiny?


INDIGNITY VOL. 3, NO. 104 What did the press learn from the big Russian mutiny?
President of Russia Vladimir Putin. (Photo by Artem Priakhin/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A Conversation with Maria Bustillos About the Limits of Expert Analysis

Things got very chaotic in Russia, and in the news cycles about Russia, over the weekend. So Popula publisher Maria Bustillos joined me for a messaging chat about what it all might have meant, or how meaning could even be extracted from it.

MARIA BUSTILLOS: The day after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s pseudo-coup this past weekend, you said, “I'm absolutely boggled by the people who felt compelled to write takes, including [New Yorker editor David] Remnick… Just, like relax and see what actually happens???”

But people want to talk about insane events RIGHT AWAY, like while they're still happening. But it really struck me … it's not responsible journalism, to sort of cater to that. So how is chaotic news like this best handled?

Maybe Twitter made it even more irresistible, to just start blabbing?

TOM SCOCCA: Twitter really just made it possible for everyone to become their own little cable news program.

The outlines of the news-discourse situation were extremely familiar. The coup or mutiny or whatever it was obviously demanded attention, as an important event. But nobody really knew what the event was!

MB: But so… what might the event be? People like Michael Kofman and Kevin Rothrock began speculating, and I was completely riveted by that.

TS: This is a legitimately tough situation. Everyone wants to know about the thing. Journalists want to deliver that knowledge. All of this is valid motivation.

But the knowledge isn't there.

MB: Maybe the knowledge isn’t there, but the shared fear is. No matter what, though, people want to kind of meet up at Rick's Café Américain, if only to share at least the fear.

The death of Twitter makes newsgathering much more difficult. Unless you were already following informed people, you'd just be overwhelmed with garbage and nonsense.

TS: What did you learn from them?

MB: Kevin Rothrock is an editor at the English language Meduza, which I have been reading for about forever, and he is just comfortingly sane, funny, like it's a real relief to know people like that are on top of events. Like tonight there is a link with English-language subtitles to Putin’s address to the nation.

To some extent, learning what is going on from him I feel as if, that is what I would think myself, if I knew all he does. That’s how trust in journalism works, right? He draws conclusions in a similar way to the way I do, he's earned my trust over a long time. Kofman too, but Kofman is a serious sort of like military analyst, and his is a world about which I know nothing. Over time both of them (and there are many others, I’ve just chosen two I trust a lot as a journalist) have proved themselves astute analysts—prudent, sensitive, judicious minds.

They can all be wrong, like all of us can, but I still like to be in the same room with people like that, when things seem to be going south, somewhere in this sick world.

TS: I dunno, stuff like:

I had long wondered whether Prigozhin understood something intuitively about the system, if the regime was fundamentally hollow, prominent members like Shoigu were weak, and Putin could be pressed into deals, etc. or if he was grossly miscalculating. 3/

My sense is he was proven half right.

I don't really get what it's like to be proven half right about a belief about the fundamentals of the regime.

MB: That's a vague, weird remark for sure. However it's not "Putin triumphs" or "Prigozhin wins!"

I saw every kind of score given for this floor exercise, one of the weirdest geopolitical scenes I've ever seen in my whole life.

TS: This is informative but it feels like a set of questions presented as a set of answers.

I have no doubt that all of Prigozhin’s activities are coordinated with the man at the top.

MB: That was wrong!! Maybe!! Two psychopaths and we're all forced to be wondering what they're up to, in case we’re all about to be blown up.

What I'm saying is: how should journalists really treat this question: I think we should conjecture and also be made to eat crow when we're wrong!!!! Ideally.

TS: Consider this line from David Remnick's piece, delivered via the New Yorker Daily email on Saturday at 4:59 p.m.

Even though Prigozhin has backed off, Russian, Western, and Ukrainian analysts will now struggle to understand the meaning of the conflict with Putin, what it has revealed about the rivalries of power in Moscow, and what it might mean for the war.

It's certainly accurate. But what's the point of disturbing one's weekend to type up that particular piece of accuracy?

MB: Maybe better to say: This freakish episode is scary and confusing to us all.

TS: Next lines:

There is every possibility that Putin will, at least in the short term, muster the loyalties he needs to eliminate Prigozhin from the picture. However, that does not mean that Putin can be serene about his position in the long term.

I'm not a Russia expert, but Putin never struck me as someone who was serene about his long-term position. It just seems like invading other countries and slinging around polonium and Novichok are not the things you do if you are at ease with your situation.

MB: Ha! I feel the opposite way… there are huge risks to your economic might, to be doing such things. You’ve gotta feel pretty secure that you're going to get away with it, to poison the soup.

TS: Well is he ignoring the risks out of complacency or out of desperation?

MB: Takes a lot of dough to maintain a giant secret estate w/vineyard!! Did you watch the Navalny doc about this?

TS: I did not.

MB: Oh BOY well you are in for a treat. It’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen in my whole life, about Putin’s massive estate, including a DDR machine!!! And a casino!!!)

TS: Why would you put a casino in your own house?



TS: That's like when people have gumball machines.

In their club basements.


Anyhow, Navalny was leaked a set of blueprints of the house, and the furniture piece by piece in hundreds of rooms all in detail appears on these blueprints, and they were able to determine thereby the Italian makers of this furniture!!!

They got catalogues from these guys and identified all the stuff in his house.

TS: Was it any good?

MB: Super Versailles… fancies himself an emperor for reals. It's incredibly revealing.

TS: But what did we learn about the emperor over the weekend?

MB: Fewer clothes than formerly supposed. Maybe just a g-string… but maybe that means more danger?

TS: That's the sort of thing I'm not really getting from all the instant takes.

The New York Times has a front-page News Analysis today: "How Revolt Undermines Putin's Grip"

MB: The things I'd like to know are: What do the people in Rostov really think about the mess this weekend? Is there any kind of consensus, or is there strife?

There are competing narratives now regarding the pseudo-coup, seemingly:

1. Prigozhin is a populist and Putin isn't, and all these residents of Rostov were all congratulating Prigozhin and regular soldiers joining him and blah

2. What an embarrassment! This former hot-dog vendor!! Bye!

TS: That was what Remnick and the expert he talked to, Mikhail Zygar, were saying:

Putin was not afraid to make cutting jokes or use profanity in public appearances. He promised to kill enemies in their “outhouses.” This distinguished him, back then, as a man close to ground, close to the narod, the people. But, as Putin has grown more distant and preposterously wealthy, Prigozhin, often dressed in full battle gear and strutting before the cameras next to his troops in front-line Ukrainian cities like Bakhmut, has taken on the populist mantle.

I'm a little confused about this divide, since Putin has been the one creating the opportunities for Prigozhin to perform this bloodthirsty "populism.” It's not like Putin is some effete figure who is denying the Wagner Group the opportunity to show off how they kill people with sledgehammers.

Even this weekend Prigozhin wasn't saying that he and Putin wanted different things, right? He was mutinying against the military authorities under Putin.

MB: Supposedly, going after mainly Sergei Shoigu, the defense minister, who still hasn't said a peep publicly.

There was a lot of shocking stuff about Prigozhin’s “populism” with respect to prison culture and status, and “roosters” and whatnot. Really shocking how these psychopaths command the fates of a kazillion people.

TS: Well it's certainly upsetting to see a nuclear superpower in the hands of someone who encourages unaccountability for war crimes, especially by mercenary troops.

It's very frightening when a hard-right populism makes an end run around lawful military command and control in the name of some greater patriotism.

MB: Exactly these are the connections that journalists should be making right now. I don't think a single journalist has drawn attention to the parallels between Oath Keepers and Wagner Group.

TS: Imagine a bunch of paramilitaries menacing the capital itself, what an incredible and unrecoverable blow to the power structure that would be.

MB: Do you think Trump was selling secrets?

TS: I don't think he was selling secrets. He may have showed the Saudis secrets and the Saudis then gave him money.

MB: What were he and Putin talking about when nobody but the translator was allowed to be there, do you think?

TS: Who knows? Nubile teens? Hillary gossip?

Imagine if Prigozhin's sister was secretary of education, and deeply embedded in a political funding-and-influence organization.

MB: asd;lfkhaskdjfhsakf

(Conjecture is useful, that's the main point I wanted to make, because friendly, sociable, a way of making things a little less unbearable.)

TS: It's fascinating how the National Policy Council is basically cloaked by how boring its name is. I had to Google to remember what it was even called

MB: They for sure do it on purpose. Family values! Frank Luntz!

TS: Just sitting there convening Betsy DeVos and Steve Bannon to make plans for our country years before Donald Trump was even moving toward electoral politics. Wait its name is so generic I got it wrong, it’s the Council for National Policy, not the National Policy Council. It morphed and cloaked itself in my short-term memory in the time it took to move from one tab to another.

MB: We should start a rival org, National Council for Policy and just be total freak-like Trotskyists.

TS: From the Washington Post:

CNP may be the most unusual, least understood conservative organization in the nation’s capital. A registered charity, it has served for 40 years as a social, planning and communications hub for conservative activists in Washington and nationwide. One of its defining features is its confidentiality. In a town where people and groups constantly angle for publicity, CNP bars the press and uninvited outsiders from its events. All members — even such luminaries as former vice president Mike Pence, Ralph Reed and Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — agree to remain silent about its activities.

Other bastions of conservative influence — from policy groups like the Heritage Foundation to media outlets like Breitbart News — generally have clear missions. By contrast, CNP’s executive director, Bob McEwen, told me that the organization itself does not “do anything.” He and other CNP leaders will tell you it is merely an educational venue aimed at uniting its conservative members.

MB: Are they the ones who fund the student “conservative” papers for like Thiel and whatnot?? I think it might be a different one…

TS: That's something else. They sit around and scheme.

MB: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

[…] including Pulitzer-winner Joseph Rago (Dartmouth Review), ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl (Vassar Spectator), New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (Harvard Salient), commentator Ann Coulter (Cornell Review), National Review editor Rich Lowry (Virginia Advocate), blogger Michelle Malkin (Oberlin Forum), author and Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel (Stanford Review), author Dinesh D’Souza and radio host Laura Ingraham (both Dartmouth Review), and many others.

TS: Another totally opaque name.

MB: HARVARD SALIENT. Damn we should get hold of a few of those.

TS: It's extremely funny to me that Ann Coulter was on the "Cornell Review" to Laura Ingraham's Dartmouth Review.

MB: And Thiel on the Stanford Review. SALIENT, by golly. Tone-deafness established right out of the box.

TS: Again, thank goodness our system isn't being menaced by uncontrollable oligarchs! But so what did we learn this weekend, really?

MB: Trust No One

Let's talk about it all, freely, but not conclude stuff we can’t verify or say dumb obvious nonsense, when something really perplexing and crazy and bad happens?

TS: The difficulty of having experts weigh in on the news, especially on instant deadline, is that news is fundamentally inimical to expertise.

The expert has devoted great effort to constructing a model of how the world works.

MB: I love even reading the phrase "a model of how the world works." It really lights up how dumb punditry is like a Times Square billboard. Nobody knows how the world works! But we need to talk with each other, and hear what informed people think, all the same.

TS: The most interesting news consists of things that don't fit the model.

No experts on Russian affairs, as of Thursday of last week, had the Wagner Group marching on Moscow.

And then, no sooner has everyone tried to assimilate the fact of the Wagner Group marching on—or toward, which is not quite the same—Moscow into their assessment of how power and possibility are arranged in Russia than Yevgeny Prigozhin is in Belarus.

MB: And then hearing 24 hours ago that the investigation against him is closed, but now today is maybe open.

TS: It may be that Putin is weakened more than ever, but also it seems to be the case that the Wagner Group reached a high-water mark of defiance on Saturday that it will have a hard time reaching again. Unless someone else in Russia has a mercenary army of thousands of troops, I'm not convinced that a template for future challenges to Putin was established here.

Remember when Turkey had a coup attempt? How's Erdogan doing now?

MB: Again, J6 is such a valuable comparison to make. What happened to the perception of U.S. power and stability, when a bunch of lunatics smashed their way into the Capitol building? The inconceivable thing, happening right on television. Even now nobody can say what it meant.

TS: Also just: here I am saying Prigozhin is in Belarus and we don't even know that.

He's supposed to be in Belarus, or on his way to Belarus.

All I know is what I read in the newspapers!



New York City, June 25, 2023

★★★ A sharp blue sky and unimpeded sun confirmed that the hopeless sogginess of yesterday had abated a little, enough anyway to risk washing and hanging up a load of laundry. By the time the clothes were on the rack, the sky was overcast. Small but violently colored storm-blobs were crawling up the radar map in a way that made it hard to tell when it would be wise to venture out. After a wait of an hour or two, with no noticeable showers, the sun came back. Columbus Avenue was sour-smelling and hot; a fly landed on a crushed rat in a cross street. A live band played under a canopy protected by street-closure barriers, with a flautist stepping up for a featured solo. Down on the Morningside Park ballfields, a batter lifted a fly ball to right and the fielder came in and caught it and kept on going, right into the postgame handshakes. Cigar smoke and beer fumes drifted from the spectators. Two tiny baby turtles clung to a rock in the pond, halfway in the shade. Little orange-winged dragonflies darted over the green-streaked water. Over on Broadway, near the subway steps, people were wearing Pride flags for capes.


Indignity Morning Podcast No. 95: Texas heat wave.

Tom Scocca • Jun 26, 2023

Listen now (3 min) | The Indignity Morning Podcast is also available via the Apple and Spotify platforms.

Read full story →


Thanks for reading INDIGNITY, a general-interest publication for a discerning and self-selected audience. We depend on your support!