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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Kremlin Could Have Done Worse

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The most striking news story last week was the widely televised funeral of the Mir space station. I was surprised at how dignified and, ironically, even life affirming the whole episode turned out to be. It is a rare case indeed when coverage of the loss of something important does not turn into an excuse for another round of self-abasement. Even NTV didn't say or show anything to hint that, say, it is all President Vladimir Putin's fault that Mir held out for just 15 years.

Click here to read our special report on Russia's New Space Age.There was also the inevitable wave of commentary regarding the first anniversary of Putin's presidency. The most interesting of these, it seems to me, was Dmitry Furman's piece called, "Putin Is Returning From a Place Gorbachev Never Reached" (Obshchaya Gazeta, March 22-28). This article was the first that I have seen to draw attention to the seemingly obvious point that there really are many similarities between Gorbachev and Putin.

They share a political genealogy in that both are the flesh of the flesh of the previous regime. Both share a common mission in the liquidation of an inherited stagnation. And they both share a common approach to achieving this mission: namely, the lack of a defined strategy and a general indecisiveness. Personally, I always esteemed Gorbachev's indecision highly since it was precisely this quality that allowed the country to move toward democracy with minimal violence and bloodshed. The same quality is what draws me toward Putin as well in the transition to a market economy. Unfortunately, Russia has always rejected its "good tsars," and they are always succeeded by Yeltsins.

Last Monday, the Presidential Information Department was officially created and Sergei Yastrzhembsky was appointed to head it. The department's mission is to perfect the executive branch's interaction with the media. Russian journalists know Yastrzhembsky well and harbor no particular ill will toward him. This is less true of journalists who have been covering Chechnya, since Yastrzhembsky served as spokesman for that operation, and of the present generation of foreign correspondents working in Russia. However, even in these groups, Yastrzhembsky has his defenders.

Among those defenders is Patrick Cockburn, the Moscow correspondent for The Independent. Several months ago, Cockburn commented on Yastrzhembsky in my magazine, Sreda.

"I can personally contradict fellow journalists who say that Yastrzhembsky is the worst spokesman in recent history. This title is still held by a former Iraqi information minister whom I interviewed in Baghdad just after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. At that moment, the Iraqis were trying to convince the world that they were moderate folk. Somehow this message had not reached the information minister. We asked him how Iraq would treat any U.S. or British pilots who were shot down and captured. 'We will cut off their legs,' shouted the minister. One of his aides rushed forward to claim that 'to cut off the legs of someone' in colloquial Iraqi Arabic did not mean the severing of the lower limbs from the rest of the body. A better translation, the aide suggested, was that 'Iraq will be very angry.'"

"It was a lost cause. 'We will cut of their legs,' the minister shouted again and made a scything motion with his hand towards his leg, just above the knee, in case we had missed the point."

So, you see, the Kremlin could have made a worse choice.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Sreda, a magazine for media professionals ( He contributed this column to Vedomosti.