Ignoring the Beam in Its Eye, the NYT Obsesses Over Putin’s Mote (And does a careless job of research)


The New York Times amuses itself by going after something Putin said in his big press conference. He said “We have heard it even from high-level officials that it is unfair that the whole of Siberia with its immense resources belongs to Russia in its entirety.” Suggesting that the source was Madeleine Albright, the intrepid researchers at the NYT say there is no evidence that she ever said any such thing. (There is, however, a better candidate that the NYT never bothered to consider; see below).

Well, perhaps they’re right – although personally I long ago assumed that the NYT was only reliable when you assumed the opposite of what it was saying (bearded Spetsnaz in Crimea, “brutal interrogation”, no starvation in the USSR, toilets in Sochi, ). But maybe I’m wrong and the NYT has got it right this time. At any event, its take has become widely quoted.

Let us consider another Putin quotation: the breakup of the USSR was the “greatest geopolitical disaster of the Twentieth Century”. This one is all over the place and seems to be a driver of US policy:

The reality, however, is that Putin is not concerned with international law or historical justice. His sole focus is on correcting what he considers to be the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’ by reassembling the Soviet Union. (Sen Ted Cruz)

He sees the fall of the Soviet Union as the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.’ He does not accept that Russia’s neighbors, least of all Ukraine, are independent countries. (Sen John McCain)

His grip on the Russian presidency is central to his designs to restore Russian dominance. After all, Putin once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe’ of the last century’. (Sen Roger Wicker)

And it’s in the White House too:

‘He’s been willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union,’ Obama said of Putin in that interview.

And, the NYT likes it too. One, two, three, four. It’s a pillar of the anti-Putin point of view.

He didn’t say it, it’s a misquotation of what he said, I’m not going to argue the point again: I did here and part two here and won a very public argument on JRL in the summer.

Isn’t there something about motes and beams in the Bible? The NYT would perform a greater service (but would it be news that fitted?) if it devoted the same research to the much more influential misquotation than a throw-away line that didn’t much affect the meaning of what he said.

Oh, by the way, intrepid researchers of the NYT, maybe Putin was thinking of Zbigniew Brzezinski and not Albright. You might want to check that possibility out before you decide Putin is hallucinating. But, again, probably news that wouldn’t fit.

In these circumstances, Russia’s first priority should be to modernize itself rather than to engage in a futile effort to regain its status as a global power. Given the country’s size and diversity, a decentralized political system and free-market economics would be most likely to unleash the creative potential of the Russian people and Russia’s vast natural resources. A loosely confederated Russia — composed of a European Russia, a Siberian Republic, and a Far Eastern Republic — would also find it easier to cultivate closer economic relations with its neighbors. Each of the confederated entitles would be able to tap its local creative potential, stifled for centuries by Moscow’s heavy bureaucratic hand. In turn, a decentralized Russia would be less susceptible to imperial mobilization.