Larry King Carrying Soviet Water

Last week was a truly extraordinary one at the borders of the Putin dictatorship.  Passing through the outward-bound turnstiles on a one-way trip into neo-Soviet exile were a trio of dissidents named Sergei Guriev (an economist), Masha Gessen (an author), and Oleg Kashin (a reporter).  And passing them on the way in, to join international pariah Julian Assange on Kremlin-controlled propaganda TV network Russia Today, was the doddering Larry King.

The background for all this immigration activity was a trial taking place in the city of Kirov.  There, Russia's dissident #1, Alexei Navalny, was facing charges that could send him to prison in Siberia for ten years.  Navalny, who now has over 350,000 followers on Twitter, irked the Kremlin by leading a street protest movement that at its height saw over 100,000 Russians flood the streets of Moscow chanting anti-Putin slogans and calling for his ouster.  The Kremlin responded to Navalny just as it did to Mikhail Khodorkovsky when the latter announced his intention, as Navalny has done, to seek Putin's job.  It lobbed a barrage of embezzlement charges and followed up with a classic neo-Soviet show trial.

Rather than follow in Navalny's footsteps, Guriev, Gessen, and Kashin are heading for the exits.  Imagine that Paul Krugman was calling for Barack Obama's ouster instead of his sainthood, and you'll have an American version of Guriev, one of Russia's most high-profile and respected economists.  Leading Western expert Russia economist Anders Aslund calls the MIT- and Princeton-trained Guriev "a truly outstanding individual" as well as "one of the greatest Russian networkers and public performers," and Guriev was the central figure at the New Economic School, Russia's leading center of economic learning.

But Guriev was also a tough critic of Putin, which was unsurprising, given the dismal economic performance of the Putin government in recent years.  Following a massive recession in 2009, Russia's economic growth has fallen precipitously while inflation has soared.  Unable to tolerate criticism on the key bulwark of his power, Putin forced Guriev out of the NES and made it clear that the next step would be incarceration.  Guriev was forced to flee.

On economics, Putin is the man behind the curtain, and he knows it.  He must liquidate any Toto he spots, and quick.  He has circulated the propaganda that his vicious crackdown on civil liberty was necessary to save the country from economic collapse due to the failed policies of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, but that's simply false.  In Yeltsin's last year in office, the Russian economy was roaring, with over 6% growth, and the next year it was 10%.  When Putin's policies took effect the year after that, growth fell by half.  Now mired again in recession, Putin's public support is shattering, and he is doing all he can to silence critics and hang on to power.

Gessen, author of a brutal biography about Putin called The Man without a Face, blogs tough criticism of Putin's politics for the New York Times.  Kashin, one of Russia's most prominent reporters, has also published in the Times and was brutally assaulted in November 2010 -- just one of a whole series of violent attacks on anti-Putin journalists which never result in serious investigations or convictions.  Russian pundit Leonid Bershidsky says their leaving shows that the political climate in Russia is now even worse than Russia's horrific weather.

Gessen has kids.  Bershidsky writes:

Children are the ultimate argument in any debate. It's not great when they go to school where they find out that Stalin was good and Christ was crucified by Jews. It's also not too great when their mom or dad could be subjected to any kind of persecution at any time. The idiocy and dogmatism that flourishes in this land makes it extremely difficult to raise children in a proper way: children might think that something is wrong with their parents, that they are not like other people.

Larry King, however, just wants to give Putin a big kiss.  He announced he'd join Putin's Russia Today propaganda campaign even as his most prominent colleague there, Assange, was being totally discredited by two major motion pictures and the release of embarrassing stalker e-mails.  Though both of his parents were Orthodox Jews, King apparently is unconcerned by the wave of anti-Semitism sweeping Putin's Russia, nor does he care about the neo-Soviet crackdown on his fellow journalists, like Kashin.  Awash in oil revenues, the Kremlin can lavish big bucks on the has-been King, returning him at least in his own mind to his glory days on CNN.

King was identified by the Kremlin long ago as the biggest sap in American media, which is why it was King whom Putin agreed to sit down with and be interviewed by in 2010.  King hurled so many softballs at Putin during that chat that Putin probably thought he was in the NCAAs.  King has now agreed to work for a company whose prime directive is to undermine the American nation with lies and propaganda similar to what was churned out by the Politburo in Soviet times -- a company that is wholly owned and operated by the Kremlin itself.

In a bizarre twist, after King was deluged with criticism for joining RT, he turned to Facebook to deny that RT would have any editorial control over his content.  A torrent of commenters mocked his claims, and then RT's editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, fired back on Twitter (Russian-language link), insisting that she owned King lock, stock, and neo-Soviet barrel.

Putin's one-two punch is devastating.  On one hand he exiles, jails, or simply kills reporters who tell stories he doesn't like.  On the other, he buys journalists who will play ball and fills the airwaves with their pro-Kremlin ravings.  To those who boldly claimed that Russia could "never go back" the dark days of the USSR, Putin boldly proclaims:  "No? Just watch us!"

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