Russiagate: A coming of age moment for Soviet immigrants

We never knew what it was like to have the country’s media and political class brand people like us a possible threat. Until now.

Rep. Tim Ryan wants to “Make America Russisch-Frei Again!”

I was talking recently to a Russian acquaintance of mine who lives in the New York area. Years ago, he had studied engineering in Moscow and later transferred to a university here in the states. He told me that not long after moved, he got an unexpected visit from a couple of FBI agents who tried to recruit him. 

They came right to his apartment and seemed to know everything about him. They had a detailed file which, among other things, included every application he had submitted to American universities. They also had a dossier on his old academic advisor back in Moscow containing intel about the research the professor was doing and the contracts he had with the Russian military. They wanted to know what he knew about this military work and then asked him to identify photographs of various equipment and instruments.

He was stunned by their sudden appearance and spooked by their efficiency and competence. He was also smitten with the female agent. “She was gorgeous. I would have told her anything,” he told me. But he didn’t have anything to tell. Back in Moscow he had been a nerdy kid studying engineering. He had no idea about any of the stuff they were asking.

After a while, the FBI agents left. They never contacted him again. But the message was clear: they were watching, and they could pop in at any time again.

His story is not unique. The FBI does this kind of stuff on a regular basis. By some estimates, at least a third of all international students get a similar visit from a friendly pair of agents. And given the national security panic about China and Russia being whipped up right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if that number is a helluva lot higher. Just the other week, the New York Times reported that the FBI has ramped up its surveillance, intimidation and deportation of Chinese academics in America. As FBI director Christopher Wray explained, America’s security apparatus isn’t just worried about the Chinese government. To them, all Chinese are suspect — they pose a “whole-of-society threat.” Even progressive political strategists believe China is an existential threat to America and are helping fan a bipartisan sinophobic campaign that’s ensnared people I know.

With Russia and China convulsing our body politic, my buddy’s “unremarkable” story got me thinking about how easily and naturally xenophobic panics fit into American political culture — and how, until fairly recently, Russian and Soviet immigrants like me had never really felt the brunt of these campaigns.

From my earliest days as Soviet immigrant kid in America, I’ve been primed to see this country as a unique beacon of tolerance — a place where bigotry and racism, if they exist at all, are banished to the far dark edges of society. It was a truism to us that unlike the Soviet Union — which was “closed,” “bigoted,” “paranoid,” and “repressive” — America was “open,” “tolerant” and “accepting.” Later as an adult, I came to understand just much how bigotry and systemic racism and exclusion are engrained in the politics and culture of modern America. Working as a journalist and reporting on the darkest recesses of America, it was impossible not to. But growing up in an insular, fresh-off-the-boat immigrant community in sleepy San Francisco, it was easy to believe in an idealized, whitewashed vision of the country that took us in.

Immigrant life was tough — especially for the adults. People struggled to make ends meet and to fit into a totally new society. There was the usual petty crime and a bit of violence. People hustled to make money — some succeeded, others failed and suffered. Life was hard and integration was difficult. But compared to other immigrant and minority groups, we were a relatively privileged bunch.

We were mostly Jewish and mostly seen as white. And we had a special, glorified place in American political culture: We were victims of Soviet repression and antisemitism, saved by an altruistic America. We were paraded around as a living example of American superiority and a symbol a Soviet barbarism. For most the 20th century, American lawmakers had crafted laws to specifically keep Jews out. We were “rats,” according to Wisconsin Senator Alexander Wiley, who helped craft a 1948 law to prevent victims of the Holocaust from immigrating to America. But with us it was different. Americans protested outside Soviet embassies on our behalf. Lobbyists and lawmakers from Washington DC championed our cause and put together sanctions to secure our release. We were a bipartisan project — supported by the might of the American empire.

Yasha Levine, Judeo-Bolshevik infiltrator. San Francisco, 1999

My immigrant community was privileged in that way. And because of that, we never really worried about mass immigration raids. We weren’t punitively targeted by cops just because of the color of our skin. We weren’t seen as a terrorist threat and targeted for infiltration and entrapment by the FBI. We never turned on the TV to see ourselves dehumanized or branded as a threat from within — as enemies of the American way of life. Looking back on all the petty — and not so petty — crime we got into as kids, I’m amazed by how leniently the cops dealt with us.

We occupied a special spot in the immigrant pyramid. And because of it, we had never been in the crosshairs of a good ol’ traditional American xenophobic panic. The anti-Russian hysteria of the early 20th century and the Red Scare of the Cold War was a distant past that few us even were even aware existed. We never knew what it was like to have the country’s media and political class brand people like you a possible threat. In fact, watching other minority and immigrant groups get demonized only reinforced my community’s feeling of superiority. My fellow Soviet immigrants have never been known for their progressive racial politics — well, when you get down to it, quite a few are generic, down-the-line bigots. And so the general sense was, “We’re not like them. We’re different. And anyway, if some ethnic groups are being targeted, there must a good reason for it. America is a nation of laws, after all. People here aren’t hounded for bigoted political reasons like they are in repressive authoritarian countries.”

But this belief in the infallibility of American institutions started taking a big nose dive right around Donald Trump won the election.

For nearly four years now, Soviet and Russian immigrants have watched America’s liberal political elite shift the blame for their country’s domestic political problems away from themselves and onto a fictitious, inscrutable foreign enemy: a xenophobic campaign that put people like us — “the Russians” — at the center of everything that’s gone wrong in America. We’ve watched as this panic grew from a fear of the Russian government to an all-encompassing, irrational racist conspiracy theory that put a cloud over not just Russian nationals or Russian government officials, but anyone from the lands of the former Soviet union.

Immigrants turned on the TV to see top American security officials, politicians, respected journalists, analysts, and pundits tell national viewers that they were right to be afraid of us: Russians are devious, untrustworthy, wired to hate democracy, and genetically driven to lie and cheat. People like us pose a threat. We are a possible fifth column — whether we know it it or not, and that includes Russian pensioners and infants. In the words of Keith Olbermann, we were “Russian scum.”

In all of this, “Russian” has been a mutable category, flexible enough rope in Russian-Jews, Ukrainian-Jews, ethnic Russians, Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians and all sorts of other ethnicities. Any one of those could fit, depending on the need of the constantly evolving conspiracy theory. In America, this added up to something like three million people.

Putin’s anchor babies, a ticking demographic time bomb that will blow up American democracy.

This bigoted campaign has gone on non-stop for nearly four years — and it’s come from the very top: primed by American security services and pumped out by respectable liberal media institutions. To Soviet immigrants, it’s been disorienting and confusing. It’s the first time since coming to America that we have found ourselves targeted this way.

At first it seemed like a joke. People laughed at it and mocked it. We were sure that this weird bigoted panic would pass. But when it didn’t, when it continued to grow and seep into ever corner of our liberal media, we stopped being sure of what to do. We cycled through various modes: from dismissive to angry to depressed, to repressing it altogether. But talking to people about this, I get the sense that for many of us one feeling has stayed pretty much constant: a growing contempt for America’s hallowed institutions: its press, its politicians, its national security elite.

And that’s the funny thing about this Russia panic. For years, a huge chunk of America’s political class has been screeching that “the Russians” are undermining trust in American institutions. But to many Soviet immigrants here in America, it’s precisely this xenophobic panic that’s been doing the undermining.

Soviet immigrants have always had an implicit belief in the superiority of American institutions. It’s been a religious thing for them. But seeing themselves get swept up and demonized in this way has bred disillusionment and revulsion with American politics on a level I have never seen. In that sense, Russiagate has been a coming of age moment: it has undermined their naive fresh-off-the-boat faith and gave them a personal glimpse into an America that’s paranoid, venal, and unapologetically xenophobic.

Is this coming of age a good thing? Well, I guess it had to happen at some point. But the way this disenchantment has unfolded — driven by America’s liberal ruling class — has pretty much ensured that most Soviet immigrants will come out the other end even more reactionary than they were before. And who knew that was even possible?

Take care,

—Yasha Levine

Yasha Levine is the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet

Read previous: 

  • Respectable Racism: “Today’s anti-Russian xenophobia isn’t coming from the “lower-classes” that liberals love to mock so much, but from very top — the crème de la crème of our media and political class.”

  • RussiaGate wasn’t a media “failure,” it was a success: “If you look at it dispassionately — as if you were analyzing the politics of someplace far away like, say, late Romanov Russia — it’s easy to see how RussiaGate has been a success.”

  • Court Russians and Soviet Emigres: “They escaped state-backed antisemitism and bigotry, yet they now pump out stories that reproduce the same kind of deadly xenophobic fairytales that have long been leveled at Jews.”

The Racist Origins of Computer Technology

A century ago, America loved eugenics and was obsessed with protecting its "superior" Anglo-American stock from the threat of immigration. Out of this nativist vortex, the first computer was born.

Medium’s One Zero magazine just published my big historical-investigative article about the US census and the racist origins of modern computer technology.

It’s a forgotten history that starts in the 1880s, when the first commercial computer was invented by an American engineer named Herman Hollerith (that’s him up there on business trip in St. Petersburg). It takes you on journey through the racial politics of early 20th century America and ends up in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, while making a brief stop at Steven Bannon and Donald Trump’s nativist palace.

A century ago, America was in love with eugenics. It was consumed by fears of “race suicide” and obsessed with the need to safe-guard its “superior” Anglo-American stock from the millions of immigrants arriving on its shores. Out of this vortex of nativist fears, the world’s first rudimentary punch card computer was born — built on order from the U.S. government for the 1890 census.

The quote in the picture above comes from a letter Herman Hollerith wrote explaining why he ended up going with a “punch card” design over a continuous ticker tape for his newfangled computation device: it would make analyzing the racial attributes of the population much easier. “The trouble was that if, for example, you wanted any statistics regarding Chinamen, you would have to run miles of paper to count a few Chinamen,” he explained. Racial data was front and center in his mind as he perfected his invention.

Ultimately, Hollerith’s technology would form the backbone of IBM, the oldest computer company in the world — a company that is still ubiquitous in business and government, and is embedded in America’s state security apparatus.

IBM’s origin story, which goes back over 130 years, offers a glimpse into how computers, surveillance, and racist government policies have been linked from the very beginning.

I stumbled on this story while researching the origins of computers for my book, Surveillance Valley. Now, delving deeper into it, I was myself surprised by how dark and nuanced that history is.

People forget what a totally openly fascist country America was before World War II. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis ruined it for everyone. Because until they came along and took their racist theories a little too far, everyone loved eugenics. Americans cheered human selective breeding programs, and the most respected members of society advocated for forced sterilization and the banning of immigrants deemed to be genetically unfit. It was seen as scientific progress — the wave of the future! Over thirty states passed legislation that regulated forced sterilization on genetic and social grounds. These laws were affirmed by the Supreme Court and are still on the books today.

America in the early 20th century was like a steampunk version of Gattaca. You know people were into it when men voluntarily enrolled their wives and children in “Fitter Families” and “Better Babies” contests organized in county fairs around the country, showcasing their families in front of crowds alongside their hogs and cows, and bragging about their human superior breeding. No joke. Just look at this 1926 article from the Milwaukee Sentinel:

Eugenics and computers? It’s not as strange as it seems. It’s all about data, you see.

Read the story here:

The Racist—and High Tech—Origins of America’s Modern Census: “How the tools built to conduct the U.S. Census fueled Nazi genocide, internment, and state-sanctioned racism—and helped usher in the digital age.”

Yasha Levine is the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet

"They got a Jewish President? See, there's no Nazi problem in Ukraine!"

Ukraine's fascist and far-right groups aren't going anywhere. They're too useful to the country’s oligarchic clans. Who else can mobilize swarms of men willing to die for a billionaire's cause?

Just over a week ago, Ukraine elected its first-ever Jewish president: Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedic actor who played a populist president on a TV series called “Servant of the People.”

I recommend watching the first few episodes, which are actually really good. It’s like a mix of Gogol and VEEP — a cynical look at Ukraine’s oligarchic sovok society. It gives you insight into why people voted for him. He basically ran as the persona he played on the show: a regular guy who accidentally becomes president after his rant against Ukraine’s corrupt, oligarchic political system gets videotaped, posted online and goes viral. Once in power, his character tries to push a kind of neoliberal populism and meets violent resistance from just about every corner of Ukrainian politics, including the country’s powerful nationalist and fascist movements.

Watching the show you get the sense that Ukrainians basically voted for the fictional president that Zelensky plays. And they picked him with the biggest margin in Ukrainian history — with nearly 75 percent of the vote.

This fact is already being trotted out by journalists, historians and political types as proof that Ukrainian society doesn’t have a very serious fascism problem. To them, the election of a Jew is proof that concerns (now voiced even by the Trump State Department) about the increasing political and cultural power of far-right and straight-up fascist groups in Ukraine is nothing but Russian government propaganda.

Here’s how Anne Appelbaum, the neocon historian who for years has been pumping for “total war” against Russia, sees it:

Look: a real Jew! It’s proof that it was all Kremlin active measures! If only it were true.

As I briefly told Doug Henwood on Behind the News last week, it is amazing that so many Ukrainian people voted for a Jewish president. It shows that antisemitism is not huge issue with the majority of the population, and that Zelensky’s Jewish identity was not enough to stop them from voting for him against an extremely unpopular president. But the fact that Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for a president who is Jewish does not negate the growing power and influence of Ukrainian far-right nationalist groups — nor will it stop the increasing injection of their WWII-era fascist ideology into Ukrainian cultural and national identity.

The reason for this is simple: these movements represent the most organized, dedicated, well-financed, and effective political force in Ukrainian society — a force that has been extremely useful to the country’s oligarchic clans. Nothing else even comes close.

Although the funding of fascist and far-right groups like Azov, Right Sector, C14, and their various spinoffs are opaque and not so easy to trace, it’s not a secret that they’re financed by and aligned with Ukraine’s constantly warring oligarch groups.

There’s extremely useful to this tiny, utterly cynical elite. They offer Ukrainians — and especially Ukrainian youth — political identity and sense of belonging and cohesion in a crumbling, privatized country, all while channeling their political urges into a rightwing ideology that does not threaten private, oligarchic power. They can mobilize masses of people for campaigns and elections, and provide battle-hardened young men as muscle for political fights and business disputes — which in Ukraine are pretty much the same thing. And, as a couple of people told me last time I was in Ukraine, these groups have also been transformed into a kind of privatized repressive police force, beating up protesters, leftwing activists, and members of the LGBT community. Essentially, far-right paramilitary groups have take over the dirty business that used to be handled by cops — who, under Poroshenko, have been supposedly been “reformed” along supposedly western lines to please Ukraine’s backers in America.

“These days the official police is very PR friendly. They protect people at gay pride events, don’t beat up protesters or journalists. They don’t take bribes that much and are very photogenic, showing the world that Ukraine is undergoing western-style democratic reforms,” an activist told me. “But the state still needs a repressive apparatus to do all those things that police used to do. That’s the role that far right outfits play. They are in essence privatized and outsourced.”

How useful are these groups? Well, let’s take a look at Maidan and Andriy Parubiy, the Speaker of the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament).

He’s an extremely powerful politician and is first in line to the presidency. If something happens to Zelensky after he takes office, Parubiy would serve as interim president. He’s also an out-and-out fascist, who helped set up and lead some of the most influential Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi-inspired political parties and paramilitary organizations, including the Social-National Party of Ukraine — which has been rebranded “Svoboda,” or “Freedom.” He was one of the main leaders of Maidan’s paramilitary squads who violently overthrew Ukraine’s previous president, Viktor Yankukovich.

Here’s a younger, fresher Parubiy goose-stepping under a Nazi symbol on the cover of his own book, “View from the Right.”

Maidan offered a clear example of just how effective these groups can be. There would have been no Maidan — no “Revolution of Dignity” — without them. They were extremely well-organized and kept the camp running, providing manpower and leadership, as well as huge infusions of cash and resources from their oligarchic backers. They were used as muscle. They stormed government buildings, clashed with cops, and chased a sitting president out of the country — while taking heavy casualties (sometimes with the shooting done by their their own side).

Parubiy, along with leaders of other fascist groups like Dmytro Yarosh’s Right Sector, sent men to die on the barricades — and the men followed his orders. Who else can mobilize swarms of bodies willing to die for the cause of an oligarchic clan? No one, and that’s why these groups are not going anywhere. They’re too useful.

Hell, they’re so useful that that even Jews support them.

For a sense of just how weird and dark Ukrainian politics are — without the clear lines and solid shades that people in Europe and America look for so desperately — it’s important to remember that Zelensky’s main oligarchic backer is widely believed to be Ihor Kolomoisky, a Ukrainian-Jewish billionaire who rules over his empire in Ukraine from Israel and Switzerland. Aside from keeping a giant shark tank set in his office like a crude bond villain, Kolomoisky has also been a major backer of various far-right and fascist groups and paramilitaries, including the Azov Battalion and its affiliated political groups. And as it so happened, Azov backed Zelensky against Poroshenko — in line with Kolomoisky’s interests.

Yeah, that’s right: A Jewish oligarch backed Ukraine’s first Jewish president while also backing a fascist group that also backed Ukraine’s first Jewish president. And why not? It was good for business: a way for Kolomoisky to get back on top after getting his business squeezed by Poroshenko’s clan.

Over the past five years, the state apparatus has merged with these fascist groups on a level never before seen. They’re in the parliament and in the government’s security and military branches, as well all sorts of regulatory bodies. Hell, officials in Ukraine’s Ministry of Youth and Sport have been caught handing out state grants to an openly neo-Nazi group that had carried out pogroms against Roma communities — with backup from the police.

I wrote all this to say that Ukraine’s far-right groups aren’t going anywhere — regardless of whether the president is Jewish or not. If anything, these fascist and far-right groups are only going to be energized by Zelensky’s presidency and they’re gonna use his Jewishness against him.

If Ukraine keeps sliding economically or if Zelensky tries to make a deal with Russia to end the war in the east, they’ll come swarming into Maidan once again. This time there’ll have an obvious answer to why everything is going wrong: a Russian-speaking Jewish president backed by a diabolical Jewish oligarch sucking the blood of Ukrainian patriots. A plot straight out of the Judeo-Muscovite playbook!

Members of the influential Ukrainian nationalist diaspora are already threatening Zelensky openly on this point — as “political consultant” Taras Kuzio, who used to work for the CIA and NATO, does here:

I don’t want to be a pessimist here, but it’s hard to see an outcome where things don’t go badly for Zelensky very quickly — and where his Jewish identity isn’t going to be brutally weaponized against him.

Yasha Levine is the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet

Screengrab credit: “Servant of the People” / Netflix.

Read previous: 

  • Respectable Racism: “Today’s anti-Russian xenophobia isn’t coming from the “lower-classes” that liberals love to mock so much, but from very top — the crème de la crème of our media and political class.”

  • RussiaGate wasn’t a media “failure,” it was a success: “If you look at it dispassionately — as if you were analyzing the politics of someplace far away like, say, late Romanov Russia — it’s easy to see how RussiaGate has been a success.”

  • Court Russians and Soviet Emigres: “They escaped state-backed antisemitism and bigotry, yet they now pump out stories that reproduce the same kind of deadly xenophobic fairytales that have long been leveled at Jews.”

Court Russians and Soviet Emigres

They escaped state-backed antisemitism and bigotry, yet they now pump out stories that reproduce the same kind of deadly xenophobic fairytales that have long been leveled at Jews.

Last week I wrote about the xenophobia that underpins so much of today’s freakout about “Russia” and “the Russians” — a panic that isn’t coming from the bottom, but from the very top of America’s liberal media class. And one thing that’s really bothered me is the role that Soviet-Jewish emigre journalists have played in feeding and normalizing this xenophobic hysteria. Instead of calling attention to it, challenging their colleagues’ bigoted assumptions, or at least refusing to participate, most of them have gone all in on the racket. 

For years, these journalists used their credibility as “natives” — as people who are from “there” and know “the Russians” better than anyone — to spin frightening tales about this “threat from the east,” hyping Russia and the Russians as a danger to everything that liberal westerners hold dear. Looking back on the last decade, it’s clear that they have helped seed the ground with crude Russian tropes and stereotypes and prep American culture for the bigoted media-driven hysteria that dominates it today. And they keep doing it — all to the benefit of their careers.

Take this recent Time magazine cover story.

It ran just a few weeks after Special Counsel Robert Mueller took the air out of the Putin-Trump conspiracy bubble. And with its blood-drenched “Judeo-Bolshevik Lite” aesthetic and hints about other diabolical Russian conspiracies to control the world, Time sure wasn’t going for subtlety: Sure, that plot was a dud, but the liberal global order shouldn’t let its guard down just yet. There are other plans afoot, ones more expansive and possibly even more evil!

The particular other plot it references isn’t actually a plot at all, but a dramatic, hyped up description of Russia’s rather bland foreign policy, which aims at making and maintaining alliances wherever possible — from Venezuela to Syria to Sudan. It’s the kind of boilerplate threat-inflated reporting you’d find in a Reuters or AP wire dispatch. The article is unremarkable. What stands out, though, is Time magazine’s unapologetically xenophobic imagery. 

The man on the cover might be Vladimir Putin, but if you squint at him just right (and, really, you don’t have to squint very hard at all) you can see the outlines of the Demonic Jew — aka the Judeo-Bolshevik, aka the Elder of Zion, aka the Red Beast, aka the Asiatic Commie — surveying his global conquest.

It’s a classically antisemitic image. You can find propaganda posters in just every European language from the last 100 years depicting Jews (especially from the territories of Russia and the former Soviet Union) in exactly this manner: menacing, evil, degenerate, disfigured, non-human — greedily straddling and clawing at the world.

Putin of Zion fits right in.

Antisemitic imagery grafted onto modern Russia? Yep, that is what’s going on, and there’s actually whole racist history and logic behind it.

As Paul Hanebrink shows in his recent book, A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism, the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy theory (which postulated that Jews created and then forced global communism on the world as part of their eternal plot to subjugate humanity — an idea that Nazis and most European fascists and anticommunist reactionaries promoted and took as gospel) began to lose its overtly antisemitic imagery and language after the end of World War II. As former fascists and Nazi collaborators refashioned themselves into anti-communist democrats, Judeo-Bolshevism morphed into a more “respectable,” but still virulently xenophobic theory that that took out “the Jew” but still equated communism with a barbaric, asiatic, godless threat from the east. In other words: the overt antisemitism disappeared, but the bigotry remained.

As Hanebrink explains:

“the idea of Judeo-Bolshevism was transformed by Nazi defeat, its constitutive parts rearranged by the dramatically changed by political circumstances. In the process, the overt link between Jews and Asiatic Bolshevism, so tightly coiled in Nazi propaganda, began to loosen. … While changed political circumstances imposed serious professional consequences on those who openly called the Soviet enemy a Jewish power, the U.S.-led ‘crusade’ to defend Western civilization aligned easily with other aspects of Nazi anti-Soviet ideology. The idea of Judeo-Bolshevism had become taboo, but ‘Asiatic Bolshevism’ most certainly had not.”

Over the last fifteen years or so, as Russian-American relations degraded, this “more acceptable” anticommunist xenophobic theory was resuscitated and grafted onto a capitalist, oligarchic Russia. These days the Soviet Union (and the threat of communism) has disappeared, but the racist tropes about its people and culture have not. Without communism what’s remained is pure imperial xenophobia: a manufactured fear of a diabolical “other” from a mythical barbaric east.

After Trump’s victory, this reheated and repurposed antisemitic conspiracy theory took center stage in elite liberal circles, shifting blame for America’s domestic problems away from our degenerate ruling elite onto a fictitious, inscrutable foreign enemy that was infecting “our” society. This fear went way beyond just Russian government and has been expanded to include “the Russians” and anyone thought to be connected to “them.” That of course ensnares and puts under suspicion all kinds of Soviet and Russian immigrants and Russians — people like me, everyone from my family, and tens of thousands of others like us. We’re all possible traitors — even Soviet pensioners living in America are suspect — very likely taking orders directly from Putin, Russia’s Queen Brain Bug, himself. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to deal with this.

The Daily Best exposes Russia’s “Collusion Babies”

And that’s what makes this Time cover so depressing. It was written by a Soviet-Jewish emigre: Simon Shuster.

He came to the United States as a kid, like me. Chances are that, like me, his family faced extermination during World War II and then left the Soviet Union to escape state-backed antisemitism and bigotry. Yet here he is working for a prestigious American magazine and signing his name to a story that reproduces the same kind of xenophobic tropes and conspiracies that Jews have long had to endure, and that his family tried so hard to get away from.

I don’t know Simon personally, although people tell me we went to the same high school in San Francisco — him a few years behind. We grew up in similar circles and know the same people and probably lived not far from one-another. But I honestly have no idea how he signs his name to this racist garbage.

Well, actually, I think I do know how he does it.

One thing I know about American journalism is that, despite all of its platitudes about free speech, it’s a highly regimented, corporate culture that allows for little dissension. For Simon to push against this bigotry would have been deadly for his career. He would have been branded a Putinist, a traitor, an authoritarian-lover — all of which are things that I have had to deal with. He certainly wouldn’t have climbed as high as he did: in his mid-30s, heading Time Magazine’s Berlin Bureau. That’s what you do as a foreign correspondent for mainstream American publications: you faithfully reproduce the State Department line. You do what’s expected, and you don’t question things — at least not publicly. If you’re covering Russia, you help push xenophobia and ratchet up the fear. If you’re covering an recent ally like Ukraine, you whitewash and downplay the dirt, even if it means engaging in Holocaust revisionism — like he does in this grotesque profile of one of the scariest fascist leaders behind Ukraine’s Maidan putsch, Dmitro Yarosh. It’s gross, but that’s what it takes to succeeed.

But protecting your job, pleasing your editors, making sure your career moves forward — these aren’t excuses for promoting bigotry, especially when you’re a Soviet Jewish refugee.

American reporters love to mock journalists who work for Russian state news outlets because they’re seen as cynical and subservient — they faithfully report the Kremlin party line, even if they know better. But how is this any different — especially when the bigoted conspiratorial “reporting” you get from magazines like Time has become almost indistinguishable from the the xenophobic fear mongering you frequently see pushed by Russian state news media? My wife Evgenia, who was born and grew up in Moscow, is constantly shocked by how similar they’ve become.

Of course, Simon is not alone. He seems like a nice guy, and he’s a decent reporter. But he’s not very remarkable. As far as Soviet Jewish emigre journalists go, there are other, much worse offenders. People like Masha Gessen, Julia Ioffe, Peter Pomerantsev — just to name a few of the ones who’ve done the most damage. Like Simon, they left the Soviet Union with their parents to get away from antisemitism and repressive state control. But in the free West, they‘ve built their careers on pumping out xenophobic stereotypes and crude propagandistic reporting for the benefit of the American Empire. It’s not surprising. That’s the kind of work that gets rewarded here. That’s what it takes.

A Russian acquaintance of mine called people like them “Court Russians” because they so faithfully serve America’s imperial interests. And he’s right.

One of these days, I’ll write about them. But not right now…

Yasha Levine is the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet

Top image copyright: Yasha Levine.

Read previous:

  • Respectable Racism: “Today’s anti-Russian xenophobia isn’t coming from the “lower-classes” that liberals love to mock so much, but from very top — the crème de la crème of our media and political class.”

  • RussiaGate wasn’t a media “failure,” it was a success: “If you look at it dispassionately — as if you were analyzing the politics of someplace far away like, say, late Romanov Russia — it’s easy to see how RussiaGate has been a success.”

RussiaGate wasn’t a media “failure,” it was a success

If you look at it dispassionately — as if you were analyzing the politics of someplace far away like, say, late Romanov Russia — it’s easy to see how RussiaGate has been a success.

For two long years, our news media has obsessively driven a xenophobic Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theory.

Day after day, we’ve heard almost nothing but “collusion.” Didn’t matter if it was the New York Times, the Washington Post, Mother “Alex” Jones, the Atlantic, NPR, MSNBC, or CNN — our news media presented a unified conspiracy front. The Democratic Party fundraised off of it. Everyone was dead certain that “the Russians” were behind Donald Trump’s presidency. Everyone was sure that Robert Mueller’s team was going to deliver indictments showing what every spy and serious person already seemed to know was true: top Trump cronies, and probably even Trump himself, had conspired with a hostile power and engaged in all sorts of treasonous quid pro quo deals to steal the most powerful office in the world. How else could Trump have won, if not with the help of a shadowy foreign threat from the east?

And then it all came crashing down…

Now, following the meltdown of RussiaGate, some of the journalists who had critically covered RussiaGate (and there were only a handful) have been hoping that that this epic journalistic failure will serve as a teachable moment for our media establishment. Maybe mainstream journalists will finally abandon their spy-fed screeching about the “Russian threat” and focus on important issues that are impacting the lives of real Americans?

Well, I’m not that optimistic.

As I told Katie Halper, who wrote a story for FAIR about the future of RussiaGate and journalism in a post-Mueller world, I don’t see our media’s xenophobic, conspiratorial focus on Russia as a “failure” of the profession — or at least, not how most people would define the word “failure.”

Check out the FAIR story here (they even used my eugenicist James Clapper cartoon!), but here’s what I said:

The thing is that America’s media obsession with the Russian menace — this idea that Russia is the greatest threat to liberal civilization — predates the Mueller investigation. It predates the 2016 election, and it predates Trump. So this wasn’t a sudden mistake about a single investigation, but something that America’s been moving towards for over a decade. The Russian Menace has been a lucrative racket — paying the mortgages, car loans, kids’ college tuitions, for thousands of think-tankers, military contractors, academics and journalists.

After Trump, the Russia hysteria hit a new level of paranoia and bigotry. There was a need to blame America’s domestic political turmoil, and the failure of its political establishment, on someone or something — to deflect responsibility for what happened. So suddenly liberal media began to see “the Russians” everywhere — part of a shadowy foreign conspiracy to undermine America from within.

They weren’t just threatening Europe and NATO. They were in the White House, in American voting machines, in American electrical grids, in American children’s cartoons. They were hacking people’s minds. They were controlling both the international left and the international right—against the respectable political center. That’s how sneaky and devious and cynical they are. That’s how much they want to destroy America’s liberal democracy.

The Mueller report may provide us some much-needed respite from this insanity for a few weeks or months, but this focus on the Russian menace isn’t going away any time soon. You can already see Joe Biden’s creepy behavior with women being blamed on a devious Russian plot to help elect Bernie. So as we get closer to the election, this kind of stuff is gonna fire up again big time.

To treat this issue as a media problem that we “can solve” and “get right” in the future is a bit too optimistic, in my opinion. It assumes that our political and media establishment wants to actually “get it right.” What does getting it “right” mean, when they are the problem that needs to be corrected?  To “get it right,” they’d have to admit that they’ve been wrong — not just about Mueller, but about the decades of bankrupt neoliberal politics they’ve been complicit in pushing on America and around the world. To get it right, our political and media elite would have to voluntarily deplatform itself. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

If you zoom all the way out and look at it dispassionately — as if you were analyzing the politics of someplace far away like, say, the late Romanov Dynasty — it’s easy to see how RussiaGate has been a success. It shifted blame for Trump away from a degenerate ruling elite that has presided over stunning levels of national decline and degradation onto a totally made-up, inscrutable foreign enemy.

RussiaGate’s worked, at least in the short term. It’s not going to help get Trump out of office, but that was never really the point of blaming the Russians.

PS: Right after I wrote this, as if on cue, Tim Ryan, Democratic Congressman from Ohio, launched his presidential campaign with a rallying cry to “Keep America Russisch-Frei!” The doubling down on this xenophobic conspiracy has only just begun!

Yasha Levine is the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet

Header image: “Eugenicist Resistance Hero James Clapper,” Yasha Levine

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