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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry X-mas and a Happy New Year!

С Рождеством Христовым и
С новым годом!
Merry Christmas and
a Happy New Year!

La Russophobe will be on hiatus of respect as the world celebrates its most solemn and joyful week of the year, hoping for renewal and peace on Earth, from December 25 through January 1. The next post will appear on Tuesday, January 2, 2007, which is La Russophobe's nine-month anniversary. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Peace on Earth, Good will towards men! What La Russophobe wants for Christmas, and her New Year's resolution, should be no secret to anyone. She thanks all her readers and contributors for their fellowship in 2006, and hopes we can all redouble our efforts in 2007 to struggle against the rise of the neo-Soviet Union.

La Russophobe's Christmas Card to Readers and Contributors

"There were in the same country shepherds, abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, an angel of the Lord appeared before them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid! But the angel said unto them: 'Fear not! For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, tis Christ, the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger!' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the Heavenly Host praising God, and singing: 'Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men.'"

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." - Linus Van Pelt

Twas the Night before Christmas

Twas the night before X-mas, and all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.
And ma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter!
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash:

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer!

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name!

"Now Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! on, on Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!"

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot.
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler, just opening his pack.

His eyes - how they twinkled! His dimples - how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings, then turned with a jerk.
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose!

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ‘ere he drove out of sight,
"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good-night!"

Monday, December 25, 2006


La Russophobe invites any reader with a BLOGGER ID to use the comments section of this post to update readers on developments of importance in Russia during her week of hiatus. Particularly significant items may be transferred to blog posts upon her return. For a week you will have your own little sub-blog on La Russophobe, the most trafficked content-rich English-language Russia politics blog in the world. If you haven't got a blogger account, it's free and easy, so why not do it. Readers can also take this chance to root around in LR's archives and discovery some gems they may have missed, and to build up a passionate longing for LR's return.

Also, be sure to cast your vote for Russia's person of the year.

While you're waiting for her to return, Why not FAVORITE La Russophobe for Christmas?

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Have you created a free Technorati account and used it to favorite this blog yet? If not, what are you waiting for? Now's your chance! Stand up for freedom in Russia! Click Add to Technorati Favorites and give La Russophobe a Christmas present! After all, she doesn't ask you for much, does she?

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Loco Peter Lavelle: There he goes again

Is that one goofy looking fellow, or what?

Charter readers of La Russophobe will remember that back on June 9th, when the blog was just over three months old, we published a post about Russophile wacko Peter Lavelle (pictured, left) exposing his grossly inaccurate comments about freedom of the press in Russia on his blog "Untimely Thoughts." Since then, Lavelle hasn't posted to his blog. Lavelle had made a previous foray into the blogosphere, also a dismal failure. Small wonder, since it seems Lavelle has a persistent problem simply telling the truth.

He's also desperately tried to achieve voice on Russia by sending out a ridiculous email letter and creating a Google discussion forum, none of which have the slightest bit of traction in the blogosphere except among the wacko Russophile contingent. Recently therein, he spewed out a ridiculous lie, this time about this blog. Here's what he wrote:

I know this site very well. I am one of her/his/its favorite targets. At least that site could spelll [sic] my surname correctly!!!!
My, what a lot of exclamation points we inspire! It is, of course, an outrageous falsehood that Lavelle is is "one of [La Russophobe's] favorite targets." In fact, this blog has published more than 1,100 posts since it was created and until today only one of them, linked above has been directed at (or even mentioned) the cartoonish Mr. Lavelle (now two). Mr. Lavelle is, you can see dear reader, a laughable egomaniac whose gross misrepresentations are deeply harmful to Russia's interests. We couldn't care less about him, but we did want to go on record pointing out his gross factual lapses and propaganda. It's important to remind Russians that, with "friends" like him, they need no enemies. It's also rather ironic that Mr. Lavelle complains about La Russophobe failing to spell his name correctly since (a) he incorrectly spells "spell" and La Russophobe is incorrectly referred to as "russophone" in the e-mail exchange in question, yet he makes no correction and (b) although LR's email address is posted at the top of the sidebar of the blog, he has never communicated with us to advise of any error. What's more, the statement about his name is not even any longer accurate since a reader advised us some time ago of the misspelling and it was corrected (even though we couldn't care less whether we correctly spell the name of someone, like Lavelle, who is helping to bury Russia).

Of course, that's to say nothing of the subhuman mendacity it takes for Lavelle to refer to the publisher of this blog as "it." One can simply feel the supercilious delusions of grandeur seeping right out of this reptile's pores. Oh yeah, and the jealousy too. If you Google "peter lavelle" you get 31,000 hits. If you Google "La Russophobe" you get the same number. The only difference is that we've only been in business for eight months, while Lavelle has been spewing out his garbage for nearly a decade.

And the inaccuracy and smears didn't end there, or stop with La Russophobe. A participant in the exchange, one Scott W. Spires, stated:
Yeah, that was exactly my thought too. And perhaps not coincidentally, she has been contributing comments at Lucas' own blog. She (he?) is also about the only person commenting at David McDuff's blog. McDuff is an interesting case. He is a distinguished and voluminous translator of Russian literature (chances are, if you're an Anglophone with an interest in Russian lit, you've got a McDuff translation somewhere on your shelf). However, he has conceived an intense hatred for Putin & all his works, and his blog is almostentirely taken up with accounts of outrages committed by the Russian government. La Russophobe, as practically the only commenter there, has been flattering him a bit. It makes me wonder if she's not some kind of provocateur, trying to make these guys look gullible.By the way, it's "La Russophobe", not "Russophone." In fact, I see no evidence that the former is also the latter....
Mr. Spires' comments are also laughably inaccurate, perhaps dishonest, though at least he manages to rise above Lavelle and notice the inaccuracy in referring to the name this blog (though not the hypocrisy). This is the natural result of a tiny bunch of russophile nutjobs blabbering to each other in a closed circle, devoid of outside input. They end up sounding just like the old Politburo, which functioned under similar circumstances, and will surely meet the same end. Several basic points illustrate Mr. Spires' idiocy: (a) David McDuff screens all of his comments and only publishes those he feels are of interest, so Mr. Spires has no idea how many people comment on that blog; (b) David's reader Jeremy Putley is by far the most prolific and significant commenter on David's blog; (c) many blogs do not want comment, it's not their goal, and some do not even allow it (for example, Michelle Malkin, who operates one of the most powerful blogs on the planet). In the mind of a wacko Russophile like Mr. Spires, though, if a publication isn't begging for his personal feedback, it's immediately suspicious. If it dares to disagree with him, then it's a target for his ridiculous smears. If you want to see whose policy is better just compare David's blog to Mr. Spires' blog . . . oh yeah, you can't, because Mr. Spires doesn't HAVE a blog.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

The Sunday Photos: YouTube Litvinenko Special Edition

Alexander Litvinenko on Dutch Television in 2004

Marina Litvinenko, widow of Alexander Litvinenko, Speaks

Alexander Litvinenko speaking on Anna Politkovskaya

Ben Stein Rips Russia (hat tip: Robert Amsterdam)

Former KGB Spy Oleg Kalugin Blasts Putin

Vote for Russia's "Person of the Year"

Time Magazine yearly announces its "Person of the Year" so La Russophobe thought it might be a good idea to initiate this tradition for Russia. Who do you think was the most important force in Russian current events in the year 2006? Remember, this is not an award for doing good things, Hitler got Time's award one year, it's about who influenced Russia the most, for good or ill, during the past year. Feel free to use the comments section to write in a candidate if your favorite is not represented, but also try choosing among those listed.

Who is Russia's "Person of the Year"?
Free polls from

First Khodorkovsky, then Shell, now BP (and next Khodorkovsky all over again?)

First the Kremlin stole the assets of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (it is now being reportd that it isn't done persecuting him and will bring new trumped-up charges against him next week), then Royal Dutch Shell, and now it is moving on to British Petroleum. First Politkovskaya, then Litvinenko, then Gaidar. Who's next? The Financial Times reports on the BP assault:

TNK-BP, the Anglo-Russian oil joint venture, is bracing itself for a full investigation within weeks into its licence agreement for a giant Siberian gasfield as the Kremlin tightens its grip on the country's energy resources. Russia has used environmental audits and regulatory threats to restore state dominance over oil and gas supplies. This week saw Gazprom take a controlling stake in Royal Dutch Shell's Sakhalin-2 project after months of pressure. People familiar with the situation said Gazprom's negotiations with TNK-BP were likely to follow a similar pattern to Shell's prolonged battle with state officials and the Russian gas monopoly. TNK-BP has already offered Gazprom majority control over the Kovykta gasfield, but has insisted that Gazprom should pay for its stake with cash or assets. Russian authorities have already stepped up pressure on TNK-BP, accusing it of breaking a licence agreement on production levels. The prospect of losing the licence for Kovykta is likely to soften TNK-BP's negotiating position. Gazprom and TNK-BP have been talking about the joint development of the project for years but have not reached an agreement. Although TNK-BP has a licence to develop the field, expected to supply gas to Asian countries, it cannot do so without Gazprom agreeing to build an export pipeline for the field. Gazprom, which has a mono-poly over the pipeline network and gas exports, has been stalling negotiations for months. It says it has other priorities. The authorities have decided to investigate the Kovykta licence because of TNK-BP's alleged failure to meet its conditions. Under the licensing agreement, TNK-BP was obliged to produce 9bn cubic metres of gas by the end of this year. TNK-BP has said it cannot produce anything near this amount of gas because it has nowhere to sell it. "We could not burn this gas," TNK-BP said. The talks between Gazprom and TNK-BP have intensified in the past few months and it is understood TNK-BP has made Gazprom a more lucrative offer that includes participation in other gas projects. Once Gazprom reaches a deal with TNK-BP, the threat to the licence is likely to disappear. Alexander Medvedev, deputy chief executive of Gazprom, on Friday said Sakhalin-2 would not have encountered problems if Gazprom had been part of the project from the start.

These outrages are already having an effect, as a major shareholder group in Britain has issued a warning to avoid Russian investments. The Telegraph reports:

One of the City's leading shareholder groups has warned about the "inhospitable" and "difficult" climate facing investors and companies wanting to do business in Russia. F&C Asset Management also questioned the wisdom of allowing so many Russian companies to list in London when their standards of corporate governance were below those in the UK.

Peter Hambro
Peter Hambro: Risky market

The comments, by Karina Litvack, F&C's head of governance and sustainable investment, come after Royal Dutch Shell's bruising encounter with the Kremlin over the company's huge Sakhalin-2 oilfield. Ms Litvack said: "We take into account the extent to which a government creates an inhospitable climate for investors and is prepared to enforce the rule of law. What's happened makes it a very dodgy place [for investors]." F&C, which has £100bn under management, is an investor in Russia's Lukoil, but is wary about many other businesses in the country. "We look on Lukoil positively because it is not tight with the government and has no politicians on the board," Ms Litvack said. But doing business with a company such as Gazprom, the energy giant that on Wednesday took control of Shell's Sakhalin project, was a different matter, she said. Gazprom is a "perfect example" of a company in league with the government. "It's OK until the government changes, and then the uncertainty induces people to behave in ways that are not in the interests of shareholders," Ms Litvack said. She continued: "The irony is, some Russian companies are reasonably well run, but they are caught in the cross-fire between the government and a judicial system that is not independent." She was also wary about the future for many smaller western exploration companies operating in Russia. Many of these Aim-listed firms think they are below the Kremlin's radar screen and will continue to do business unfettered. But Ms Litvack was not sure. " Shell has other businesses around the world to cushion itself against something like Sakhalin. Other companies might not be so robust," she said. She also thinks that UK financial regulators should review rules that allow Russian companies "to come to London in their droves". The firms seek access to foreign capital by listing their depository receipts in London. "They come here rather than New York because of the tougher listing rules in America under Sarbanes-Oxley," she said. The eponymous chief executive of Peter Hambro Mining (PHM), Russia's third-largest gold producer, said its own brush with Moscow's authorities had damaged investor confidence. Reports that PHM's licences could be revoked caused the company's shares to plummet. PHM was cleared of breaching licences, but Mr Hambro said it has "raised the risk premium" for investors.

More analysis from the Telegraph can be found here.

Kremlin Accepts No Serious Blame On Beslan

The New York Times reports that, in yet another conclusive bit of evidence that Russia is now the neo-Soviet Union, the Kremlin had decided it played no significant role in murdering hundreds in the Belsan disaster, and chosen to cover itself with a sham parliamentary report. David McDuff translates Marina Litvinovich's reactions to the sham report from Ezhedevny Zhurnal on A Day at a Time.

A parliamentary commission Friday issued its final report on the worst terrorist act in modern Russian history — the seizure of a public school in Beslan in 2004 — briefly highlighting law enforcement mistakes but placing blame for the hundreds of deaths on the Chechan-led militants alone.

The long-awaited conclusion, read aloud by the commission's chairman during a session of the parliament's upper house, ended more than two years of investigation into the incident that shocked Russia and the world. The death toll of 334 included 186 children.

The report suggested a hardening of the Kremlin's position on one of the most painful public episodes of President Vladimir V. Putin's administration, brushing aside lingering questions about the events and insisting that authorities, in spite of many well-documented problems, had done an adequate job.

The Kremlin had pledged that the special commission, stacked with politicians loyal to Putin and working almost entirely out of public view, would establish the facts and report the truth.

But the delivery of the report's summary in a speech did little to satisfy embittered survivors and bereaved families, some of whom labeled it a whitewash meant to shield the Kremlin from responsibility for government negligence and disregard for hostages' lives.

Copies of the full report were given to the Kremlin and parliamentary leaders, but not released to the public or the news media, making it nearly impossible to evaluate the evidence upon which the commission's conclusions were based.

More than 1,100 people were taken hostage at Middle School No.1 on Sept. 1, 2004, the first day of the academic year in Beslan, a town in North Ossetia, in southwestern Russia. The terrorists had been sent by Shamil Basayev, the fugitive leader of a group that sought the independence of Chechnya, a small Muslim republic in the Caucasus.

The captors demanded that Russian forces withdraw from Chechen soil, where they have fought two wars against the separatists since 1994.

In his remarks to parliament, the chairman of the special commission, Aleksandr P. Torshin, called some of the terrorists' requests "in-executable demands."

In the three-day siege at the school, 333 died, almost all of them after two explosions in the gymnasium, where the hostages were held, led to a chaotic battle. Another hostage, among hundreds injured and hospitalized, died later.

Torshin said the terrorists intentionally detonated bombs among the hostages, starting the last battle to the surprise of Russian negotiators and commanders.

"It has been established that one of the gang members, acting according to the previously developed plan, actuated a homemade explosive device in the gym," he said.

That statement went beyond previous government descriptions of the blasts, which have typically said that the bombs exploded in an unexplained mishap, perhaps by accident, as many hostages said immediately after the siege.

The evidence for this new claim was not clear. Torshin had said last year that his commission was waiting for forensic evidence and expert examinations of the blast sites. He made no mention of such materials Friday.

Torshin also dismissed as politically motivated the theory, presented last year by a dissenting commission member, that the explosions began when Russian forces fired rockets into the gymnasium.

The evidence for that theory is incomplete and unclear. Torshin suggested it had been circulated by those who "try to blame the federal authorities with attempting an assault, and shift the responsibility on them for the explosion."

His summary speech, read from a several-page text, offered the only publicly available insights into the report and the commission's work.

After giving his speech, Torshin said the commission was disbanded, a quiet and unceremonious end to a project once presented as a way to answer the long list of questions about the siege.

Many of those questions remain matters of vigorous dispute, including how many terrorists were involved; whether they had stashed weapons and ammunition in the school before the siege; and whether some of them escaped or were captured and not acknowledged by the Russian government.

Doubts about the government's management have also persisted. These include troubling questions about the nature and content of negotiations with the terrorists; why firefighters were not prepared to battle a blaze that consumed the gymnasium; and why so few ambulances were available to transport the hundreds of injured victims.

Ella Kesayeva, who leads the Voice of Beslan support group, suggested the report was meant as a signal that Putin and his circle were no longer interested in having a discussion about the details.

"We personally didn't expect anything different from Torshin," she said. Kesayeva lost a teenaged son in the siege.

"If he thinks, despite all the evidence and the testimony of hundreds of hostages," she added, "that the power structures acted correctly, it is his personal opinion and we, the victims, are not interested in it.

"Who stands behind such a report? The ones who are guilty in this tragedy," Kesayeva said.

On certain points, Torshin's report did not seem to square with witness accounts.

He said, for example, that the commission concluded that tanks from Russia's 58th Army did not fire into the school while hostages were in the building, as witnesses and survivors have said. Two journalists for The New York Times also witnessed two T-72 tanks advance on the school that afternoon; at least one of them fired several times.

In a brief series of points near the end of his speech, Torshin did criticize the authorities.

The command post, he said, was not properly trained. He noted that intelligence agencies had not adequately penetrated or gathered timely information about Chechen terrorist groups, which made preventing the attack difficult.

He also criticized the local police, saying they ignored warnings of imminent terrorist attacks and did not have adequate presence on the roads or near the school that day.

And Torshin noted that some of the terrorists had been arrested and charged with other crimes before the school was seized, but had inexplicably been set free.

Each of these findings, while critical on the surface, were in many ways self-evident and already well known. They offered little new insight into the public understanding of the event.

And in a final sign that the commission would tolerate clear mistakes, Torshin made a coldly understated reference to the repeated official insistence during the siege that only 354 hostages were in the school when, in fact, the government knew there were more than 1,100.

"The work on informing the population was not properly organized," he said, describing statements that the victims have called outright lies.

Isn't Backroom Control Worse than Frontroom Control?

President Vladimir Putin will retain a leadership role in Russia even if he steps down in 2008, as required by the constitution, a senior politician has said. "He will not leave," Sergei Stepashin, head of Russia's accounting chamber, was quoted as saying in the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily Saturday. "I think he will find the kind of formula in which he would step down, but stay on." Stepashin, a former prime minister, secret services chief and KGB veteran, suggested that Putin's post-Kremlin future could be modelled loosely on that of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who in the 1990s was widely considered to retain backroom power despite his retirement. Asked what sort of options Putin might consider, Stepashin answered: "Lots. Party leader, head of parliament, government, a new state council."

Score One for Mighty Georgia

The Associated Press reports that Georgia has successfully driven Russia's military out of its capital:

TBILISI, Georgia: Russia handed over its military base in Tbilisi to Georgia on Saturday, a key step toward the full withdrawal of Russian forces from Moscow's small southern neighbor.

Russian military officials and their Georgian counterparts signed an official protocol transferring the garrison to Georgian control.

"This is a historic moment as we will no longer have a Russian military headquarters in the capital," said Georgia's deputy defense minister Levan Nikoleishvili.

"This is a victory which our people have all worked toward," he told The Associated Press.

The last of 340 Russian military personnel vacated the garrison Saturday, leaving the Georgian capital free of Russia's regional military headquarters for the first time in more than 200 years.

Fifteen officers from the Tbilisi garrison will remain in Georgia until the closure of two Russian bases, one in the southern town of Akhalkalaki and the other in the Black Sea port of Batumi. They will be stationed in Batumi.

Georgia and Russia agreed last year, after months of contentious negotiations, that Russian forces would pull out of the two bases, which are scheduled to be closed by October 2008.

Relations between the two countries have plummeted in recent months as Georgia has accused Russia of supporting separatists while Russia fears Georgia is moving closer to the West.

Georgian authorities briefly detained four Russian military officers on spying charges in September, and Moscow retaliated with a transport and postal blockade and a crackdown on Georgian migrants in Russia.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has said that the decision to speed up the withdrawal of the Tbilisi base was made because of tensions with Georgia.

Post Series on Russian History

The Washington Post offers a spate of articles in Saturday's isse on Russian history capped by an editorial on Russian present tense:

Annals of Cold War II: Russian Bans the British Accent

The Times of London reports the latest skirmish in Cold War II, where Britain now seems to be the front line. The Neo-Soviet Kremlin has shut down the British Embassy's ability to each Russians English (apparently afraid that a bit of democracy might slip in with the charming accent):

Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth movement, have held rallies and picketed the British embassy
The Kremlin has opened a new front in its increasingly bitter diplomatic row with London by disrupting the activities of the British Council in Moscow. More than 1,500 students have been offered refunds after the British Council was forced to close a language centre this week. The 21 teachers have been offered posts at council offices in other countries. The closure was the result of the Foreign Ministry’s decision to impose a licence requirement on the council. Relations between London and Moscow are already strained, and the crackdown on the council will serve only to increase tensions. Russian pressure on Shell to sell a controlling share of the giant Sakhalin-2 oil and gas project to the state monopoly Gazprom alarmed the British Government this week, and Russian security services have been accused of involvement in murdering Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy, with polonium-210 in London last month. The Kremlin angrily denies the charge. Anthony Brenton, the British Ambassador in Moscow, has also complained of a four-month campaign of harassment by a Kremlin-backed youth movement, Nashi (Ours). Members of the group have trailed and heckled Mr Brenton, picketed the embassy and triggered a violent incident outside his residence in September, prompting fears for the safety of the envoy and his family. The British Council, which is the cultural arm of the British Government, had operated the centre for eight years without a licence. It had previously been told by the authorities that a licence was not required. There was no apparent explanation for the change of policy. Natalia Minchenko, head of communications at the British Council in Moscow, said: “We were informed in the autumn by the Russian Foreign Ministry that our teaching centre needed a licence.” He said that “getting such a licence is a time- consuming process” and involved requirements that the British Council would have difficulty meeting. The incident is the latest example of attempts by the Kremlin to restrict and discourage foreign organisations by tying them in red tape. Dozens of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were forced to suspend activities in October after failing to meet a deadline for complying with complex new registration procedures. The Government has also introduced new powers that compel NGOs to submit work plans for the year ahead and to drop any programmes that have not received official approval. The British Council was exempt from the requirement to register because it operates under a cultural agreement between Britain and Russia that was signed in 1994. It received the demand to register for a teaching licence in September. The council has come under repeated attack from Russian authorities. Police visited its 15 centres across the country in 2004 and demanded that officials hand over financial records. The Interior Ministry then opened a criminal investigation into alleged illegal business activities, which was closed last year because of lack of evidence. The FSB, the Russian security service, announced in January that it had reopened an inquiry into the St Petersburg office of the council. Broadcasts of FM, the BBC’s Russian service, in Moscow and St Petersburg suffered disruption at the height of coverage of the Litvinenko poisoning. The Russians blamed the interruptions on “technical difficulties”. Ms Minchenko said that students who were enrolled on courses at the Moscow language centre were told about the closure this week and offered refunds on their fees. The 21 teachers at the centre were being offered posts at council offices in other countries. The council announced the closure of its “valued English language centre” on its website, saying that it had benefited thousands of people. It said that it would seek to compensate for the loss by expanding exchange programmes to Britain and encouraging Russian students to enrol on courses in Britain.

Bringing Britain to the world

The British Council is the UK's cultural arm abroad It works in 109 countries, in arts, education, governance and science Lord Kinnock is the council’s head but it is ultimately controlled by the Foreign Office As well as teaching English in foreign schools, the Council works with the World Service to provide English teaching material worldwide. The Kremlin investigated the Council’s operations in 2004 but backed off after Tony Blair intervened personally The investigation restarted immediately after four British Embassy workers were caught spying this year. They hid a bugging device in a fake rock. Authorities insisted the spy row was coincidental

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Once Again, the Heroic Moscow Times Exposes the Neo-Soviet Union

Writing in the Moscow Times Vladislav Inozemtsev, a professor of economics, director of the Moscow-based Center for Post-Industrial Studies and editor of the Russian edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, lays waste to the neo-Soviet Union that La Russophobe has been warning about and identifying since April. A really brilliant column. One has to wonder how long the Kremlin is going to allow the valiant little MT to go on churning out this stuff. When the history of this era is written, the paper's name will loom large among the list of those who struggled for something better for the people of Russia.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was much talk about the "peace dividend" the end of the Cold War would bring. It was all about turning swords into ploughshares. But 15 years later, the new Russia brings to mind more than ever the communist empire of the past.

True, there is a new ruling elite, the old ideology is gone, and the country has adopted a market economy that is open to the world. Under closer scrutiny, however, it turns out the foundation of the Soviet-era economic system remains: Just as it did before, Russia lives off of the income from its natural resources, which have been redistributed for the benefit of its "strong-arm oligarchy."

Russia lost the ruinous arms race with the United States at the end of the 1980s. According to estimates, the country expended about 17 percent of its GNP sustaining the armed forces and military parity with the United States. In a country with a population of 270 million, four million adult men were under arms. This was partially justified by the standoff between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and the presence of U.S. military bases near Russia's borders, as well as the unsettled situation in Eastern Europe. But whatever logic the leadership used, the results we see now speak for themselves.

Today, those in power focus their concern more on domestic than international issues. And although the Russian economy has yet to regain the size it had attained in 1990, it is nevertheless burdened with a crushing weight of managers and "controllers." The number of state employees has reached 1.45 million people, topping the number of bureaucrats who served during the Soviet era.

And even though reductions have been made, there were still 1.2 million soldiers serving in the armed forces in 2005, with an additional 900,000 civilians in support roles. There are 820,000 people serving in the Interior Ministry, with another140,000 employed as support personnel. We don't even have a ballpark figure for the numbers in the Federal Security Service, but it is probably no less than 200,000. Including the Prosecutor General's Office, the Federal Guard Service and the Federal Migration Service adds another 200,000 people to the rolls.

This means that a civil service of almost 5 million people has been created, in which more than 15 percent of the male adult workforce is directly engaged in serving the government in one manner or another.

You would think that with this massive apparatus at the state's disposal it would be possible to ensure strict observance of the law and provide people with effective protection of their lives and property. But statistics indicate that this is not the case at all. Crime rates are actually increasing: For the first five years of this decade, the murder rate was 10.6 percent higher than the average for 1992 to 1999. Robberies, meanwhile, were up by 38.2 percent and drug-related crimes by 71.7 percent.

As a result, people who can afford to pay for their own protection are doing so in greater numbers than ever: There are more than 3,000 security firms currently registered in Russia, and almost 10,000 companies maintain private security staffs. The real cost of the 380,000 people working for the private security firms and the 300,000 security personnel at the corporations isn't immediately apparent.

Russia has now become something of a security economy that is only able to extract raw materials from the earth and guard the system created for their distribution. It's hard, actually, to see how it could be otherwise, given that, according to one study, 78 percent of the country's senior officials have worked at one time or another in the KGB, FSB or Interior Ministries of the Soviet Union or Russia.

And yet, this "strong-arm oligarchy" does not contribute to the economy in any significant way, as it is unable to protect people's lives or property effectively, cannot improve the efficiency of the judicial system and has been unable to eradicate corruption and arbitrary rule. Maintaining this apparatus has, meanwhile, become increasingly costly: The funding for all of these services and personnel are growing at a rate of 20 percent to 25 percent per year, and now account for 40 percent of the federal budget and 7.9 percent of gross domestic product.

Can the Russian economy bear such a burden over the long term? This question is difficult to answer, but one thing is clear: The general economic structure that has been created and which is being developed further is abnormal, especially in the absence of the kind of threats to the country's internal stability and external security that the Soviet Union faced.

LR: And despite all these issues, like lemmings the people of Russia favor this regime with 70% approval ratings.

Putin and Litvinenko

"Putin today is at a crossroads. The day Putin vowed he would waste Chechen rebels in the outhouse, the course was set for people to be dealt with through arbitrary reprisals, to neutralize and kill opponents. He can step back from this course and find the killers, wherever they are -- abroad, here or in the secret services of a third country. If he doesn't, then this stain will remain with him. He will run the serious risk of persecution wherever he goes. He will become an international pariah. Such a president could bring so much harm to his country because he will either take his country on a path of confrontation or will make too many compromises and become weak. This poisoning is very serious. It looks like the world's first example of nuclear terrorism. If you need just one-billionth of a gram to poison one person, then it does not take very much more to poison an entire country. A very dangerous precedent has been set."

-- Alexei Kondaurov, a Communist State Duma deputy and former KGB general who worked as an adviser to now-jailed Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in the Moscow Times.

"The people who carried this out this are seeking revenge from those who helped cause the collapse of the Soviet Union."
-- Oleg Kalugin, a former head of KGB foreign counterintelligence whose defection to the United States in the early 1990s led Putin to brand him a traitor, in the same Moscow Times article.

Annals of the Blogosphere: The Svetlichnaya Saga Continues

On December 12th, La Russophobe reported on a story from the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten exposing information indicating that one of the people attacking Alexander Litvinenko in Britain in the wake of his killing -- namely one Julia Svetlichnaya (together with her colleague James Heartfield) and specifically in a story in the Observer -- had been discovered to have surreptitious, undisclosed links to the Kremlin (namely having held a significant position at a state-owned firm), thus discrediting her negative comments about Litvinenko and giving rise to suspicion that she was working as Kremlin shill, helping to deflect blame.

Now, Svetlichnaya has attempted to answer her critics with a post on, of all places, the obscure ZheZhe blog. Far from re-establishing her credibility, Svetlichnaya's statement appears to confirm that Aftenposten's report was largely correct in raising suspicions about her and raises new questions about just who she is and what's she's up to; either that, or it confirms that she's utterly clueless and created an opportunity to justify Kremlin dictatorship out of sheer incompetence. Either way, she's hardly any basis at all for a defense of the Kremlin in the Litvinenko matter, that's quite clear. Here's her statement:

Still, the Kremlin’s expatriate critics were enraged that their cause célèbre had been questioned. Allegations that we were Kremlin agents were first floated in far-off Norway, in an article by Hilde Harbo in the daily Aftenposten (a paper whose claim to fame is that it published Knut Hamsen’s eulogy to Hitler on his death in 1945). Harbo cited a ‘British professor of Russian, who insisted on remaining nameless’ saying that he had information that Julia had been instructed by the Russian Security Services to go to London to spy on Akhmed Zakhayev - which is not true: Julia came to London five years before Zakhayev, in 1994. Julia’s eleven months’ employment with the company Diamond Bridge Advisory Services was somehow twisted to mean that she was in the pay of the Kremlin, though actually it was just agency work. The nameless professor is the veteran Cold War propagandist Martin Dewhirst.
This statement is entirely without substance, and reads like it was written by a Kremlin spin doctor. Svetlichnaya doesn't actually deny that she was given instructions to spy on Zakhayev, she just says she didn't go to Britain for the first time for that purpose. She doesn't say one single word about the links between her previous employer "Diamond Bridge Advisory Services" and the Kremlin, but instead attempts to raise a smokescreen by claiming her she was only doing "agency work" (apparently this means she was a temp) without giving any explanation of what her duties were or which agency placed her (this kind of murky trail is exactly the type the KGB would like to have her leave). She doesn't indicate whether she told the Observer about her work for the Kremlin-connected company in the course of being interviewed for their story. She makes no attempt to clarify what other Kremlin-connected entities she may have been employed by, if any, or to flesh out her resume in any way. Instead of establishing the facts of her own case, she launches a personal attack on both Aftenposten and its source, an unmistakeable sign of propaganda especially in the context of such a vacuous discussion of the actual allegations.

And then it gets much worse. Svetlichnaya is next permitted by ZheZhe (which did not disclose its own connections to Svetlichnaya, if any, or explain why she chose to publish her views on their obscure forum) to engage in what amounts to propaganda of a recognizably Soviet character. She closes her statement, for example, by writing:
Talking about the Litvinenko case on Question Time, author Martin Amis glumly intoned that here we were seeing the ‘Asiatic side of Russia’. (Who is that more rude to - Asians who are made into a by-word for cruelty, or Russians, who are racially stereotyped?).
In other words, she feebly tries to change the subject from the Kremlin's complicity in the murder of Litvinenko and her own connections to that Kremlin to Western racism against Russians. La Russophobe thinks she doth protest too much; this is not something a person who was simply interested in getting out the truth about herself would stoop to. She refers to "Cold War hysteria in Britain" and launches an ad hominem attack on exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, stating:
Berezovsky is just one of many expatriate Russians who enriched themselvesin the privatisation of ’s state-owned businesses. Today he presents himself as a political exile, seeking to overthrow Putin. But do not be deceived. Only six years ago Berezovsky financed Putin’s campaign in the presidential elections as he did Boris Yeltsin’s before him. Berezovsky and Putin are fruit from the same tree. Any differences they have are just a turf war, not over principle.
None of this has anything to do with whether her comments in the observer about Litvinenk were (a) accuate or (b) made to assist the Kremlin. Notice the subtle attack on Putin, perhaps designed to throw the unwary reader of her scent like a prisoner running through creek when pursued by bloodhounds. Where were these attacks in the Observer piece, or at any time previously? Is she implying that Aftenposten is a Berezovsky shill, that he planted the story about her there? If not, why even bring up the subject? We have no idea, and she certainly offer no evidence of any kind to that effect. What we do know is that she has no hesitation in making accusations against Berezovsky and Aftenposten which are essentially the same as those she complains about being made concerning herself.

Most bizarre of all, though, is Svetlichnaya's statement that
Unfortunately for us many Russians leapt upon our interview as evidence that Litvinenko’s deathbed accusation that he had been killed on the orders of president Vladimir Putin could be discounted. Our accounts of our interviews with Litvinenko were widely reproduced in patriotic Russian websites, newspapers and on television. Neither of us, though, would ever vote for, nor support Vladimir Putin, whose government is illiberal and autocratic.
This language is so opaque that it gives the unmistakeable flavor of the intelligence services. First of all, plenty of non-Russian Russophiles also "leapt on the evidence." Would it constitute "support" for Vladmir Putin to discredit those who attack his regime in the West? Well, Svetlichnaya's statements to the Observer sure did that all right, so if that's what it means then she's lying. Is it "supporting" Putin to take any job connected to the Russian government? It seems not, since apparently Svetlichnaya has done that at least once too. She makes no attempt to clarify what she would and would not do on behalf of the Russian government (would she assist the security services in getting information about those who, they believe, threaten Russians security? would she help get the story out concerning such enemies of the state and struggle to improve Russia' s image in the West? she won't say). The first sentence almost seems to imply that Putin's involvement in killing Litvinenko cannot be discounted, yet she doesn't clearly say so, nor does she comment on the Observer article, which was taken up not only by "Russians" but by non-Russian Russophiles as evidence of an anti-Russian conspiracy. One could perhaps pass off all this ambiguity as merely incompetent writing if it were not for the naked Russophile propaganda that the post also contains.

Another question which remains unanswered, and indeed perhaps the most important one, is what business Svetlichnaya had talking to Litvinenko in the first place. The abstract for her dissertation does not indicate a subject that has anything to do with Litvinenko and she has not explained why she was speaking to him, what she hoped to accomplish and why, or how she got access to him -- a major cause of the suspicion regarding her, and her post on ZheZhe does nothing to dispel it. One also must ask how she hooked up with her collaborator James Heartfield, an avowed Marxist who uses a pseudonym (he was born James Hughes), and why he was necessary for the Litvinenko interview. But she doesn't care to explain that either.

It's also quite disturbing that Svetlichnaya's comments are totally devoid of links to source material documenting her claims.

La Russophobe feels that ZheZhe owed it to readers to disclose its connections to Svetlichnaya, if any, and to explain why she chose their blog to tell her story (was she rejected at more prominent outlets?) and to explain why it didn't feel it was necessary to require her to make a clear statement answering the specific charges concerning her Kremlin connections before agreeing to print what amounts to propaganda. Aftenposten says that Svetlichnaya refused to speak to them in connection with the preparation of their story. Svetlichnaya ignores this claim. Svetlichnaya states that a columnist for the Sunday Times wrote about the Aftenposten allegations knowing they were false, but she totally fails to provide the slightest shred of evidence to support this libelous claim. In fact, she doesn't even give a link to the allegedly offending Times article, and the only link provided by ZheZhe itself, as ZheZhe itself states, contains no reference to Svetlichnaya.

Without this information, there is an unfortunate appearance of impropriety and/or complicity on the part of ZheZhe which may not even be warranted, since ZheZhe has reported fairly on the Litvinenko matter up to now, correctly predicting that the Kremlin might use the incident as leverage to extradite Berezovsky and Zakhayev (as La Russophobe has previously reported). At the very least, however, ZheZhe has been unacceptably reckless in the manner they presented this story, betraying their readers and the blogosphere (indeed, they may well have been played for fools by Svetlichnaya). Its actions tend to confirm stereotypes about the blogosphere in the mainstream media, that we will go to print with material they would properly spurn. The blogosphere's power rests in our willingness to print what the mainstream media would improperly reject, and we are undermined by giving the converse impression. La Russophobe is disturbed by the nature of ZheZhe's post, however, and will be watching the blog closely to decide whether she needs to reconsider the wisdom of linking to its material.

These concerns may have no meaning to ZheZhe's editors, however, since it may well be the case that they (like the editors of the eXile) have no wish to be taken seriously: The blog proclaims at the top of its sidebar, as if they're proud of it: "Because we strive for impartial objectivity we make no claim to the validity of information provided on this site or in the content that we provide links for." In other words, they print stuff and random, couldn't care less whether its reliable or not, and say right at the beginning that their content is unreliable and they don't stand behind it. Well, you've got to give them points for honesty on one point, anyway. La Russophobe had originally blogrolled ZheZhe because they represented that they would focus on opening an English-language window to the Russian blogosphere, and this is necessary work. However, it seems she was misled not only by ZheZhe's intentions in this regard but as to their committment to accuracy. Hence, she's delisted them and apologizes to any reader she may have misled. In the future, she will avoid recommending blogs with so little track record.

Her advice now regarding ZheZhe is: steer clear or caveat emptor.

Oh, You Glorious Russian Spies!

Reuters reports: To the clink of champagne glasses and strains of classical music Wednesday, Russia's President Vladimir Putin saluted Russia's resurgent secret services for their role in guarding national interests.

"The personnel of the security services firmly stand guard for Russia's national interests," Putin said in a statement released as he threw a lavish party to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Soviet secret police.

Putin, who served as a KGB spy in East Germany, has promoted former security officers to high posts in the Kremlin, where they have formed one of the most powerful clans under the leadership of deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin, analysts say.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin split up the KGB to sap the power of the secret services. But Putin has brought spying back into fashion at the very highest levels in the Kremlin.

Spy chiefs, top politicians and former agents were shown on state television sitting in a packed hall in the Kremlin as Putin sang their praises.

State television showed a lavish party with an orchestra playing classical music and large buffet with champagne and vodka, said to be Russian spies' favorite tipple.

"Their best workers have always shown patriotism, competency, a high degree of personal and professional decency, and an understanding of the importance of their work for the good of their Fatherland," Putin said.

Spy scares are back in vogue in Moscow with Kremlin-controlled television showing romantic serials about the exploits of Russia's domestic and foreign security agents.

The poisoning death of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko in London last month raised accusations among his supporters in the West of Russian secret service involvement. But Moscow has denied any role.

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, both tipped as possible Putin successors, attended the Kremlin reception.

Putin, who has tried to restore prestige to the secret services, saluted the "glorious pages" in the history of Russia's secret services.

"There are many glorious pages, bright examples of true heroism and courage in the history of national state security organizations," Putin said in the statement, which was posted on the Kremlin's Web page,

Historians still argue about how many tens of millions of people died at the hands of the Soviet secret service under the rule of Josef Stalin.

Millions were executed or sent to perish in labor camps run by Stalin's secret police.

Stalin's death in 1953 ended massive purges but left intact a system of blanket control over the population exercised by the secret services. Political dissidents were imprisoned on criminal charges or locked up in mental hospitals.

On December 20, Russian agents traditionally celebrate Chekist day, the date in 1917 that the Soviet secret police, the Cheka, was founded.

It underwent a chain of purges and transformations and was known variously under the initials NKVD, GPU, OGPU, MGB and KGB.

Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) chief Sergei Lebedev, Federal Security Service (FSB) head Nikolai Patrushev and Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov attended the Kremlin banquet.

Oh, You Glorious Russian Mothers!

Medals for giving birth? How neo-Soviet can Russia get (see left for a picture of the medal the USSR used to award to patriotic child bearers)? How neo-Soviet is there? Kommersant reports:

Mothers to Get Decorated

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, discussing chaired a session of the Council of Legislators on demographic issues.

The session upheld an idea to encourage families to have more children not only by material benefits but also by moral incentives, such as awarding women with medals and orders for giving birth to a few children.

Russia's leader said he was concerned about the country’s rapidly ageing population and the problem of alcoholism, which are responsible for some alarming demographic trends. Putin cited statistics:

“In the past 13 years, the death rate has exceeded the birth rate by 11.2 million,” he said. “People under 65 make up 13.7 percent of the population at the moment, which means our rate is twice as high as the international standard for an aged society.”

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev promised that the government would submit the concept for Russia’s demographic development before the end of the year and draw up a program until 2025 by next spring.

Sergey Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council, suggested restoring the Soviet tradition of decorating mothers of several children with medals and orders. Speaker of the Lipetsk regional legislature went on to propose introducing decorations for fathers of several children. Vladimir Putin upheld Mironov’s idea but said medals would be given to mothers only.

LR on PP

Check out La Russophobe's latest installment on Publius Pundit, where she reviews the Kremlin's brazen assault on Western investment in the Sakhalin oil fields. Feel free to offer your own thoughts on whether the Kremlin is actively trying to exclude Western investment in Russia as a way of bolstering its own powerbase at the expense of the people of Russia.

Even Putin Admits that Siberia is Doomed

The Associated Press reports:

President Vladimir Putin warned Wednesday that Russia's Far East was increasingly isolated from the rest of the country, and failure to exploit the region's vast natural resources threatened national security. Speaking at a Kremlin meeting of the Security Council, Putin said development of the vast region -- stretching east to west from eastern Siberia to the Pacific Coast, and south to north from the Chinese border to the Arctic Sea -- was hampered by poor infrastructure and endemic corruption. He said the region's dwindling population was being replaced by a growing influx of Chinese immigrants." The Far East is poorly linked to the economic, information and transportation network of the rest of Russia," Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript. "The region is using its natural competitive advantages, including transit corridors, very ineffectively. All of these things pose a serious threat to our political and economic positions in the Asia-Pacific region, and to Russia's national security, without exaggeration," he said. The Russian Far East covers a territory of 6.2 million square kilometers but has a population of just over 7 million people, according to federal data. The region has vast timber, oil and mineral resources, which are increasingly coveted by foreign investors.

Crybaby Russia is Taking its Ball of Gas and Going Home

The Associated Press reports that if Georgia won't allow Russia to win the imperialsm game, then crybaby Russia will take its ball of gas and go home:

Russia's state-controlled natural gas monopoly threatened to cut off supplies to Georgia if it does not agree to a 125 percent increase in the price of gas imports, a company official said Wednesday.

OAO Gazprom asked Georgian authorities to finalize the amount of Russian gas imports they want for next year at a price of $235 per 1,000 cubic meters, or risk receiving no gas at all, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said in a statement.

Georgia, which now pays $110, has accused Russia of using its energy resources as "political blackmail" and as a means of punishing the small, ex-Soviet republic for its efforts to join NATO and shake off the Kremlin's influence.

Russia denies the accusations, saying the price is similar to what it charges other European consumers.

Relations between the two countries hit a new low this fall when Georgia briefly detained four Russian military officers on spying charges in September. Moscow retaliated with an economic and transport blockade and a crackdown on Georgian migrants.

In a related development, officials in Armenia, which borders Georgia to the south, said Georgian authorities have pledged by Thursday to restore gas supplies after an avalanche damaged a pipeline that transports Russia gas to Armenia.

Gazprom officials warned that the disruption, which occurred on Sunday, created dangerous gas import shortage for Armenia and suggested Georgia would be unable to repair the pipeline promptly.

Shushan Sardarian, a spokesman for ZAO ArmRosGazprom, said no customers had suffered gas shortages as a result of the avalanche.

Friday, December 22, 2006

And Now a Bubble Burst . . . and now a Pencil

Scientific American explodes a Soviet myth:

During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in space. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper without gravity. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed their cosmonauts pencils.

This tale with its message of simplicity and thrift--not to mention a failure of common sense in a bureaucracy--floats around the Internet, hopping from in-box to in-box, and even surfaced during a 2002 episode of the West Wing. But, alas, it is just a myth.

Originally, NASA astronauts, like the Soviet cosmonauts, used pencils, according to NASA historians. In fact, NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston's Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in 1965. They paid $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil. When these prices became public, there was an outcry and NASA scrambled to find something cheaper for the astronauts to use.

Pencils may not have been the best choice anyway. The tips flaked and broke off, drifting in microgravity where they could potentially harm an astronaut or equipment. And pencils are flammable--a quality NASA wanted to avoid in onboard objects after the Apollo 1 fire.

Paul C. Fisher and his company, the Fisher Pen Company, reportedly invested $1 million to create what is now commonly known as the space pen. None of this investment money came from NASA's coffers--the agency only became involved after the pen was dreamed into existence. In 1965 Fisher patented a pen that could write upside-down, in frigid or roasting conditions (down to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit or up to 400 degrees F), and even underwater or in other liquids. If too hot, though, the ink turned green instead of its normal blue.

That same year, Fisher offered the AG-7 "Anti-Gravity" Space Pen to NASA. Because of the earlier mechanical pencil fiasco, NASA was hesitant. But, after testing the space pen intensively, the agency decided to use it on spaceflights beginning in 1967. Unlike most ballpoint pens, Fisher's pen does not rely on gravity to get the ink flowing. The cartridge is instead pressurized with nitrogen at 35 pounds per square inch. This pressure pushes the ink toward the tungsten carbide ball at the pen's tip.The ink, too, differs from that of other pens. Fisher used ink that stays a gellike solid until the movement of the ballpoint turns it into a fluid. The pressurized nitrogen also prevents air from mixing with the ink so it cannot evaporate or oxidize.

According to an Associated Press report from February 1968, NASA ordered 400 of Fisher's antigravity ballpoint pens for the Apollo program. A year later, the Soviet Union ordered 100 pens and 1,000 ink cartridges to use on their Soyuz space missions, said the United Press International. The AP later noted that both NASA and the Soviet space agency received the same 40 percent discount for buying their pens in bulk. They both paid $2.39 per pen instead of $3.98.

The space pen's mark on the Apollo program was not limited to facilitating writing in microgravity. According to the Fisher Space Pen Company, the Apollo 11 astronauts also used the pen to fix a broken arming switch, enabling their return to Earth.

Since the late 1960s American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have used Fisher's pens. In fact, Fisher has created a whole line of space pens. A newer pen, called the Shuttle Pen, was used on NASA's space shuttles and on the Russian space station, Mir. Of course, you don't have to go to space to get your hands on a space pen--earthbound folks can own one for the low, low price of $50.00.

The Russian Tea Room is Back, and Guess What?

It still sucks.

Some time ago, La Russophobe pointed out that Russian cuisine is a microcosm of Russia itself -- that is, it's a spectacular failure. Now, the New York Times reports that the defunct Russian Tea Room, most famous "Russian" restaurant in the world (and, dollar for dollar, one of the worst gustatory atrocities in world history) has returned, and it's as bad as ever. Perhaps aware of our criticism, it seems that the Tea Room's new strategy includes the theory that the less Russian it is, the better. But apparently, it's still too much. The reviewer sums up his impressions as follows: "In terms of food and all else, the Russian Tea Room doesn’t add up neatly or quite make sense. Maybe that’s its way of paying homage to the motherland."

It’s a safe bet that many visitors to the reborn Russian Tea Room won’t realize that it still serves chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, or at least interpretations thereof.

These dishes aren’t mentioned in the clear print on the dinner menu’s first three pages, which cover appetizers and entrees and seem to exhaust the restaurant’s savory offerings. They aren’t mentioned on any kind of specials card.

No, they’re relegated to a typographical Siberia: an italicized blur on the mostly blank fourth page of the menu, where diners are also told of holidays on which the restaurant will be open.

“We are delighted to prepare historical Tea Room favorites, including chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff, on request,” reads the blur, which of course conveys the opposite message. If the Tea Room czars are so chirpily delighted, why not put the Kiev where people can find it?

That’s easy: because a torpedo of breaded chicken with a butter-filled cavity isn’t really what Gary Robins, a seriously gifted chef, wants to cook. Mr. Robins, whose new American cuisine at the Biltmore Room won him widespread praise, has a deservedly grander and less fry-happy sense of self.

His surprising recruitment to revive this wheezing institution has produced an engrossing tug-of-war: his culinary internationalism and contemporary sophistication versus the institution’s stodgy traditions and geographically constrained name; tataki of seared hamachi, which he sneaks onto the appetizer list, versus borscht, which he also dutifully includes there.

Some dishes seem not to have any firmer tether to Russia than the restaurant’s ersatz Chagall and Kandinsky paintings and golden firebirds have to conventional elegance. Other dishes blur the boundaries between Russia, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and even the Far East.

By Mr. Robins’s reckoning, poaching Maine lobster in sour cream tugs it as close to Red Square as it needs to be, permitting him to round out the plate with pickled papaya and cauliflower flan. Putting dumplings made with tvorog, a Russian farmer’s cheese, next to slices of seared venison loin allows him to dust the meat with cocoa, a fate it doesn’t routinely meet in Moscow.

Make a concession, take a liberty — that’s how he handles his ethnic compass. It’s a smart approach, accommodating an impulse simply to do what feels right and yielding some very appealing dishes.

As best I can tell, goose breast carpaccio isn’t all the rage in St. Petersburg, but maybe it should be. Silky leaves of meat were sprinkled with toasted pistachio and crowned with baby arugula, tiny cubes of sour-cherry jelly and like-sized cubes of creamy foie gras.

If beef and noodles are all that’s necessary to claim a stroganoff, Mr. Robins satisfied the criteria while otherwise doing as he pleased. The beef was braised short rib, while the noodles were festooned with chanterelle and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. For the rich, zingy sauce that completed this terrific dish, he mixed whipped cream, sour cream, horseradish and whole grain mustard.

Adding sour cream or cabbage is one of his recurring strategies, as is pickling an ingredient. Slices of pork tenderloin were complemented by a version of stuffed cabbage — steamed and filled with ground pork shoulder and foie gras — that was out of this world. And the pickled cabbage beside a beautifully roasted fillet of turbot was a kraut to end all krauts, studded with pastrami and suffused with butter and olive oil.

Sumptuous appetizer crepes already had a Russian name — blinchiki — and thus a Russian pedigree, so Mr. Robins was free to stuff them with goat cheese, duck confit and yet more chanterelles. He didn’t toy around too much with the borscht, which had a brilliant ruby color and brimmed with fresh dill. And the potato pancakes with a fluffy lunchtime omelet were faithfully rendered and wholly on target, hitting that crunchy-oily bull’s-eye.

More than a few dishes weren’t so successful. Tea-smoked sturgeon had an acrid aftertaste. The chicken Kiev, unexpectedly straightforward, did a rubbery impersonation of airline food, and I mean coach. There are nearly a dozen kinds of caviar — foreign, domestic, wild, farmed — and several of the ones I tried had an excessively pasty texture, lacking any bouncy pop.

The kitchen was also bedeviled by inconsistency. Buckwheat blini that were golden and fluffy one visit were charred and leaden the next.

But this restaurant’s real shortcoming is its service, unforgivably poor in the context of dinner entrees that frequently exceed $40, appetizers that infrequently fall below $18 and 30-gram servings of caviar that cost as much as $300.

Outdated menus with erroneous information were put on the table. Drinks and food were ludicrously slow to arrive. Servers responded dismissively to complaints, one of them telling us that we shouldn’t bother him with questions about a fugitive bottle of wine. It was, he shrugged, the sommelier’s problem.

And what a problem. Although we had ordered a 1998 French Burgundy for $84, we got a 2001. We flagged the discrepancy, and for the next 15 minutes, as we ate our appetizers and thirsted for pinot noir, both the wine and sommelier were on the lam. When he showed up, he presented us with a similar 1998 — the listed one was unavailable — for $20 more. He paused, seemingly waiting for us to agree to spend that.

Then, in the manner of a car salesman, he said: “I’ll make you a deal. We’ll call it an even $90.”

Could he throw in cruise control? A leather interior?

He later dropped the price to $84, the right end to a wrong situation that typified the restaurant’s clumsiness.

Around since 1926, the Russian Tea Room has been teetering like an outmoded regime for more than a decade, its ownership repeatedly changing, its doors closing for years on end. Its last incarnation, which shut down in 2002, was rated satisfactory by William Grimes in The New York Times in 1999.

This incarnation, owned by Gerald Lieblich, opened nearly two months ago, and it looks like a vivid memory made real. Velvet ropes point you to a revolving glass door, which in turn leads you to the Santa-red booths and spruce-green walls of the ground-floor dining room, where every day is Christmas. (An upstairs dining room — the one with the translucent bear — remains under wraps.)

And at times the experience indeed feels like a gift. The desserts fulfill their sweet obligations, though apart from a pair of blintzes, they’re geographically unbound. That was truest of the best of them, a buttermilk panna cotta with lingonberries and hazelnuts.

To another chef’s stroganoff, it might be an eccentric coda. To Mr. Robins’s, it’s as logical a next course as any other. In terms of food and all else, the Russian Tea Room doesn’t add up neatly or quite make sense. Maybe that’s its way of paying homage to the motherland.