Criticism and Critique are often confused. This might be partly because their adjectival forms are usually written the same way. Is a critical report critical in the sense of important? I think that definition is the least confusing from context. But what about other meanings? Is the report critical because it judges the merits of something? Or is it part of a larger discourse? I definitely prefer the latter to the former. This introduction is my equivalent of putting my toe in the water before committing to a swim…
Mark Ames, of the eXile, now of the eXiled, recently published a piece regarding Janaozen titled The Massacre Everyone Ignored: Up To 70 Striking Oil Workers Killed In Kazakhstan By US-Supported Dictator. Mark Ames has a very complicated past of writing hard-hitting, but often morally questionable, hardball journalism. Following that, Registan’s Joshua Foust questioned the death toll that Mark Ames provided, which in turn (together with other motives of which I remain blissfully ignorant) lead to Ames writing another piece, ostensibly on how Joshua Foust is both actually and symbolically terrible. Since then, Joshua has been listed at eXiled as one of a group of corrupt bloggers:
The outpouring from readers in light of our recent exposes of people like Glenn Greenwald, Ezra Klein, Joshua Foust, Adam Serwer, Megan McArdle, David Weigel, Jane Hamsher, Malcolm Gladwell and many others has been fantastic — we know you’ve got our back. We’ll need it.
A side note in this exchange between Joshua and Mark Ames is the matter of the numbers and anecdotes contained in Elena Kostiuchenko’s interesting news story written after visiting Janaozen after the riots, which are linked below and whose translation is the motive for this post.
Ames’ piece about Joshua mentions that his ignorance of Russian is evidence enough to call into question his claim to expertise in the region. As someone not wholly ignorant of Russian, I would like to provide some context to the argument. Mr. Ames’ own claims to authority on Russia have never, to my knowledge, derived solely from his linguistic abilities, so I’d rather not get into who knows what languages how well, or which languages Joshua needs to share opinions about Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are much more his ‘area’ than Kazakhstan. As someone who has labored for several years in learning the languages of the region, I personally do not think knowledge of the languages is a prerequisite to asking questions and expressing opinions.
I’d also like to say that this is not going to evolve into a point-by-point refutation of Ames’ article – though there’s a lot to question in his version of events, particularly regarding the relationships between Chevron, KazMunaiGaz, and various other oil/gas businesses in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. Suffice it to say that it is much more complicated than Ames has characterized. The existence of good guys and bad guys is much less clear than that of violence, wrongfully killed, and misinformation.
I will, however, offer a critique that may offer support for Joshua’s criticism of Ames. I’d rather not have this construed as an attack on anyone – this is a part of discourse. Mr. Ames did everyone a real service by translating his source, the first of two articles in Novaia Gazeta on the events in Janaozen, written by a female correspondent, Elena Kostiuchenko. To be clear, I’m not intending to defend or attack the actions of the government of Kazakhstan,KazMunaiGaz, or anyone else. I will admit to having been very upset when I read Ames’ piece on Joshua. The level of vitriol made no sense because I feel like I know Joshua – and the person described in Ames’ piece was ostensibly about the same person. And so, the worst of my motives for writing this piece is the desire to defend a friend with my own limited knowledge of Kazakhstan.
To Begin: “ОБС” или Одна Баба Сказала
In Russian there is an expression, perhaps not so common but one I’ve heard before – ОБС standing for Одна Баба Сказала, or “
A grandmother said some woman said.”* This is used to describe the spreading of rumors, whether on the street or in newspapers. Rumor is important – it tells us a lot. But rumor is no more or less dependable than other sources of information – it comes with its own biases, its own spin, its own problems. The reporter that Ames is quoting saw none of the events herself. That’s a key element of this story – she is a foreign reporter asking, in many cases, incriminating and uncomfortable questions. Reading between the lines, one can see that she is having mixed results and causing more than a little discomfort. The people to whom she is speaking are unsure of her motives and nervous about the intrusion – because they rightly doubt whether this journalist actually cares about what happens to them. Journalists are not aid workers or doctors, and while it’s important to know what’s happening in the world, sending in a journalist to “find the story” will often produce more of a story than originally existed. At the risk of repeating myself, I again say: I do not doubt that horrible things happened to good people in Janaozen on December 16th. But I also know that Elena Kostiuchenko is not the best, or only, source of information for what happened that day. In fact, there are many odd omissions from her story, which I’ll get to in the analysis after the translations.
Instead of dropping the quotes into this post, I’ll link to .pdf files. Interested readers are invited to be as nit-picky as possible – I am by no means fluent in Russian. In addition, every translation is in reality a new work. Translating between Russian and English involves: selection of appropriate synonyms, management of word order for comprehension by an audience with no Russian experience, and the nuances of style.
Mark Ames’ abridged translation is here. I have used italics + underlining to highlight the areas that I take exception to in my own translation. He introduced that translation in his post about Joshua’s career. I am including it here as a guide – I will bold those statements I’m about to critique.
Let’s start with the death count I reported in my article, which upset Foust more than anything else. When I wrote my article about the massacre in Zhanaozen, I went on the assumption that the least credible account would naturally come from the murderers themselves—the regime in Kazakhstan. Which happens to be Joshua Foust’s only source. Unlike Foust, I relied primarily on independent sources, including the only independent report I know of to come out of Zhanaozen: An article published in Novaya Gazeta, Mikhail Gorbachev’s famous muckraking newspaper (where Anna Politkovskaya published until she was assassinated in 2006). Novaya Gazeta sent a correspondent into Zhanaozen, Elena Kostyuchenko, who reported counting a total of 64 dead bodies in the main hospital morgue in Zhanaozen, all victims of the massacre, as of 9am on December 17th; the correspondent added to that another 23 dead who, according to surgeons, died on the operating tables, bringing her total to 87 dead; and she reported at least 400 wounded from her reports. Novaya Gazeta also reported bodies seen piled up in the main police station—where scores of locals were savagely tortured, some released to the intensive care ward in the main hospital, others either buried out of site or unaccounted for. More victims of the massacre were reported to have died while being transported by ambulance from Zhanaozen to the regional capital, Aktau (the local hospital was overflowing with dead and wounded, and the ambulances were stuffed with three or four patients at a time).
Because I’m dealing with a paid liar like Foust who people still take seriously, I urge everyone, even Joshua Foust, to read Elena Kostyuchenko’s harrowing dispatch. I know that Foust doesn’t read Russian, despite calling himself an “expert” on the region–so I’m providing my own rough, abridged translation at the end of this article.
This is the only part of the Ames piece that I will deal with directly and I will only comment on those things about which I have some personal knowledge. To start with, I think Ames makes an excellent point regarding considering the source of information. Indeed, we should collect as much information as possible. However, I think Ames would be willing to admit that everyone has their own motives for sharing their version of events and that these motives rarely stop at a desire to share the truth. In other words, when political opponents to a particular regime use their own resources to propagate and spread certain numbers and versions of events, whether with regard to the events in Janaozen, or in Andijon as Ames later brings up in his article, the concerned reader should be just as critical. One should not expect to see the whole truth in any report, whether it’s from the murderer, the victim, or St. Peter himself holding the Book of Life. Our justice system has both defending and prosecuting lawyers for a reason and I do not think Ames is ignorant of this fact. I do not know why he is so critical of Joshua Foust, or if this was the original annoyance that inspired his article.
I take issue with the following in Ames’ characterization of the events and Joshua’s reaction to them:
- He claims to know exactly which sources Joshua used in his own coverage of Janaozen
- He is willing to entirely dismiss the official version of events from Kazakhstan’s government
- He is willing to entirely accept the version reported via hearsay to Novaia Gazeta
- He claims that Novaia Gazeta is an independent source
- He claims that the footage of the event, provided by news agencies vocally and publicly acknowledged to be in opposition to Kazakhstan’s government, is an independent source
- He misinforms his readers as to the nature of the Novaia Gazeta story – accidentally or willfully. The reporter does not claim to have seen anything herself and merely relates the anecdotes she collected after the fact. Elena Kostiuchenko, as far as I can tell, wrote a typical piece of social journalism, the kind for which the eXile itself used to be famous. She goes in, describes what she sees – she is very clearly separating personal experience from hearsay. She tries to define each source in turn. She acknowledges the lack of evidence for the claims of her informants. I do not hold Elena Kostiuchenko responsible for Ames’ characterization of her article.
- Sections which Ames left out of his abridged translation are in italics
- Sections where Ames’ translation significantly differs from my own are in bold
- I added footnotes to explain some references to those unfamiliar with Kazakhstan – which may have also been unfamiliar to Ames
This is merely the first article of two. If readers without Russian would like me to translate the second article, please say so in the comments. Unless I missed it, which I could have, I don’t believe Ames read the second Kostiuchenko article or referred to it in his own coverage of the events in Janaozen.
Some Analysis of the
There are few things which Elena Kostiuchenko seemed to omit or misconstrue in her article. I do not think it is a bad article, but these omissions were compounded by Ames’ own reading.
First, there is no mention of the fact that December 16th is Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. Elena Kostiuchenko does mention that it is a holiday – perhaps her readers would be aware already that it was Independence Day. In any event, I am not assuming that is true. If one is ignorant of the importance of that specific day, it seems strange that children are being asked to meet at school early on a cold December morning, to march in columns, to hold placards and banners, to attend a large celebration in the square. My understanding is that none of this was strange or impromptu, but exactly what I would expect in any good-sized town or city throughout Kazakhstan. The strange variable in the equation is the persistence of the oil-worker strikers – who apparently did not want to be in the center of the square, or the focus of the amount of attention they received. This apparently was partly due to decisions made by the mayor’s office, according to Kostiuchenko:
Especially worth mentioning are all the yurts that were erected to house snacks and holiday gifts. The locals said that the yurts are usually placed on the other side of the square, in a vacant lot behind the main stage, but this time the mayor of the city decided to put them right where the protesters were holding their meetings.
Ames seems to have misunderstood, accidentally or willfully, the nature of “the youth” in the Kostiuchenko piece. It is my belief, as a reader familiar with Russian and Kazakhstani opinions on the problems facing the largely unemployed and violent young men, that the ‘children’ in Ames’ translation are not all children. They are not all young children, though some of them are. Ames omits from his translation the fact that young men were a concern for the oil-worker strikers, and possibly a tool, unwitting or otherwise, of the local government. And why not? There are many stories of listless youth being coerced into actions by local elites, as much out of boredom as the threat of punishment.
Part of this is the problem of vague Russian vocabulary. But, I believe that Ames is mistaken in his translation, and that not all of the blame need be on the Russian language. Which brings me to a final point:
Riots and Pogroms
Ames decided not to translate the Russian term pogrom (погром), writing it instead in English (“pogrom”) on two occasions. This, I believe, is not an accident. Whatever its heavy history and connotation in the English language, it does not have an identical history in Russian, particularly because it is a Russian word that predates anti-Semitic violence. Its use does not jump out of the text like it does in Ames’ translation. It is one clear of example of Ames’ tone and selectivity of translation when presenting this story to a Russian-ignorant English-speaking audience, one that is likely more familiar with the history of Jews in Russia than the etymology of the term pogrom. Did Kostiuchenko use the term specifically for its cachet of ethnic violence? I don’t know. Is it possible? Yes. But I do not believe that Ames knows either way for certain, though I’m willing to be corrected. The use of the term pogrom in Russian texts is very interesting and itself worthy of a lot of study.
Some Analysis of
Ames’ Use of the Article
The point that I believe most irks Ames is Joshua’s denial of Chevron’s involvement in the Jazaozen strikers, riots, and deaths. Here’s what I know and can say about Chevron – it is a big player in Kazakhstan. It’s involved, as partner to varying degrees, in the development of two of the largest petroleum fields in Kazakhstan: Tengiz and Karachaganak. It is likewise involved in pipeline development projects. KazMunaiGaz, on the other hand, is more or less involved with every single element because it is the national oil company in a socialist, formerly communist republic. Not at all unexpected or shocking, nor would it be to Ames. However, it’s a bit much for me to accept that Chevron has blood on its hands in Janaozen because, simply put, KazMunaiGaz does not need Chevron’s help to control its assets, fields, and workers. This is mischaracterizing Ames, but it reminds me of the typical trope in Western movie and novel plots – the big bad guy leading the anti-Western terrorist world-destruction plot always ends up being the renegade old white guy, because they are the only types capable of such acts.
Finally, the Tengiz oil field and the Karachaganak oil fields are quite distant from both Aktau and Janaozen. I’ll be honest – I don’t know for sure that Chevron has nothing to do with the oil fields around Aktau and Zhanaozen, but I welcome evidence from Mark Ames. This would not be private information hidden in a black cabinet behind the Chevron CEO’s desk. From the public materials on the internet (available via Google) I can see that there are many subsidiaries of KazMunaiGaz operating in the area, and they follow the typical naming scheme of taking a region or town’s name. UzenMunaiGaz, MangistauMunaiGaz, KarazhanbasMunaiGaz, KazpolMunai, TolkynNefteGaz, etc. Now, let’s be perfectly, 100% clear on one thing. I have no knowledge or information stating that Chevron Owns, Controls, or otherwise Dictates the Policies of KazMunaiGaz. I welcome evidence more than conspiracy theories, but I’m not even familiar with conspiracy theories that claim Chevron owns KazMunaiGaz. It has some subsidiaries that are joint ventures with Chevron, but also with Chevron competitors Exxon-Mobil, Rompetrol (Romanian Oil), Lukoil (Russia’s #2 Oil Company), CITIC Group (China’s state-owned investment company), etc. Saying that all these actors are partially or totally in cahoots is a bridge too far for me, and most readers, to cross – and I’m not convinced Ames is sure of anything beyond Chevron’s supposed culpability.
This allows me to raise another question: What direct evidence do we have that the oil strike and the riots were even connected? If he really wants to dig into Elena’s article, he’ll see that the strikers don’t believe they’re connected. Dauren, an oil-worker on strike whose name Elena changed to protect his identity, explained his suspicion about the rowdy young men, most likely unemployed, who showed up in the square directly before the riots to join the strikers in solidarity.
Dauren and others on strike say that not once during those seven months of striking did the ”youth,” the young men of Zhanaozen, come to them. It was particularly after the managers of ’UzenMunaiGas,’ together with the mayor’s office, decided to put a grocery stand right where the the strikers were sitting. “These young guys said, It hurts us just to look at you. C’mon, let’s show them our strength.’ So we said, ‘This is our fight, you’re not a part of the oil companies, just go home.’ “
The wives of the strikers, according to Kostiuchenko, went to the mayor of Janaozen prior to the riot and complained that the situation was likely to drive the young men into a rage.
The wives of oil workers went to the mayor. “We told [the mayor] that we’re not responsible for those young guys. And then the mayor said, ‘the youth will be angry when they see that.’ He just brushed us aside.”
I’m harping on this point because this is the independent source of which Ames made so much. It’s pretty clear that there is a lot more here. I think, and again this my opinion, that Joshua’s dismissal of Ames’ take on the Janaozen affair is justified by Ames’ own sloppiness with this particular story.
In closing, I’d just like to disclose some information about myself. I’m much less of a known entity than either Joshua Foust or Mark Ames. I plan to be a professor of Russian and Central Asian history. I am a PhD student at Indiana University with a Master’s Degree in Central Eurasian Studies. I have no plans, nor desire, to transfer my limited blogging abilities into a career. My wife is a PhD student in Spanish Literature. We are boring academics that will most likely become lame theater-goers in some small college town in rural Michigan or Kansas. And hopeful to do just that.
My thesis was written on the historiography of 18th century Kazakhstan. I am no threat to Mark Ames’ career, so I hope to avoid serious consequences with this article. I think that what I wanted to show the readers of Registan was that, while Joshua Foust is as flawed and fallible as the rest of us, I don’t think his treatment of the Janaozen affairs demonstrates that he is more flawed, nor more corrupt, than the rest of us. I don’t believe he works, publicly or privately, for any oil-company’s PR firm. As someone that appreciates Josh’s work, I’d go so far as to say he would not be the ideal candidate for such a job. If anything, he’s shown he’s able to change his mind after receiving new information – and toeing a party line must needs be a priority for a PR employee.
So, I welcome a response from Mark Ames, but I also am apprehensive. I do not expect it to be pleasant, if it comes.
*Thanks, Mark Ames, for the correction.