The Problem with Johnson’s Russia List


One of the oldest English-language online sources of information about Russia has a problem.  For reasons that I cannot fathom, it continually amplifies the voices of racists and antisemites.

Johnson’s Russia List (JRL), founded by David Johnson in 1996, is a service that many of us subscribe to, though I suspect our attention to it waxes and wanes.  In the age of social media, it is about as Luddite as an Internet resource can possibly be without moving pixels back and forth by hand. Email listservs were one of the first vehicles for broadly sharing information to a public with minimal technical knowledge. Listservs are like landlines; they’re going to stick around until the last Boomer logs off for good.

JRL, clearly a labor of love, aggregates information from a wide array of English-language sources,  from established Western newspapers and wire services to translations of articles from the Russian media, and, increasingly blogs and Facebook posts.  Each issue contains around 20 or so entries, with a table of contents to ease navigation.  Getting reprinted in JRL is a small badge of honor, and I’ve certainly been happy over the years every time I’ve seen something from All the Russias make it in.

One of the most valuable services provided by JRL is the insistence on including contrarian views.  If you never want to have your views challenged on Putin, Russiagate, or Ukraine (just to name a few hot-button issues), JRL is not for you.  And yet…

For years now, JRL has repeatedly included posts by Paul Craig Roberts and The Saker.  Roberts is a 9/11 truther (I believe he prefers the term “skeptic”) whose site includes guest columns such as “Was 9/11 an Israeli Job?” and “Jews DO Control the Media.”  He is preoccupied with the fate of Western (read: “white”) civilization, and argues that the KKK “was a resistance movement during the punitive period of Reconstruction when northerners stole property from southerners, imposed black governments and denied whites self-rule, and encouraged blacks to rape southern women as a way of humiliating southern men and women.”  Russia is not his main area of concern, but he has dedicated a great deal of time to trying to debunk allegations of Russian interference in American politics; hence his appearances in JRL.

The Saker is another matter.  Russia is his primary intellectual and political concern. On January 28, JRL 2021-#20 concluded with an excerpt from a piece entitled “With “Biden” in the White House, the Kremlin Now Needs to Change Gear.”  The excerpt include a casual reference to one of the Saker’s hobbyhorses, the “AngloZionists.”  Who are the AngloZionists? This is not an antisemitic dogwhistle, it’s an antisemitic cowbell.

I am not arguing that criticizing Zionism is tantamount to antisemitism. To be clear: I have no interest in defending Zionism or the policies of the Israeli government nor do I feel that BDS is a trojan horse for antisemitism. But the Saker’s constant invocation of Zionism to characterize the sinister forces of Western liberalism and globalization is nothing new, and it has nothing to do with Zionism as such.

In several of his posts (which are easy to find, but to which I will refrain from providing links), the Saker is at great pains to explain that he is not an antisemite.  And it is true that he appears to have no patience with Holocaust denial, and is perfectly happy to differentiate between individual Jews and the structures he identifies. But he insists on the term “AngloZionist” because: “So far from being only focused on Israel, Zionism is really a global, planetary, ideology which unequivocally splits up all of mankind into two groups (Jews and Gentiles). “  Zionism also “instrumentalizes the values, ideas, myths and ethos of rabbinical Judaism (aka “Talmudism” or “Phariseeism”) and both are racist in their core value and assumptions.”

If this sounds at all familiar, it might be because of the Saker’s view that the best work on the subject of Jews and Russia is Solzhenitsyn’s Two Hundred Years Together.   All of this is a very old, paranoid view of Judaism that has been intermittently popular among some Russian intellectuals and betrays a lack of engagement with anything other than very narrow readings of the Torah, the Talmud and a few early Zionist writings.

But that’s not really the point.  Once we get to Zionist conspiracy or attacks on the white race, we have (at least I hope) jumped so far out of the Overton Window that we need an epistemological trampoline.  These are not views that need to be engaged with; they deserve only to be ignored.

I realize that even bringing this up puts me in a familiar, awkward position.  I have had years of dealing with a certain type of troll who simply delights in my last name, which they see as making their argument for them.  They seize upon it with a speed that no Jewish space laser could match.

While it is possible that some people who have these views might have interesting and valid things to say about Russia, or about France, or the latest Marvel movie, their xenophobia renders them inherently suspect.  Are there really so few people out there with something of value to say that we need to hear from xenophobes?  The fundamental premises of their worldview are so odious that nothing else they say matters.

Let’s return to the Saker’s post on Biden.  At one point, he writes: “the Biden Admin is a “who’s who” of Jewish and Ukrainian extremists (some combo!).” This is a typical move by the Saker, to point out the presence of Jews as a sign of something sinister going on. Moreover, this article is published on the Unz Review, a website that has a whole section devoted to defending the white race from Black people and exposing the evil plots of Jews. In this particular article’s comments section, the main argument is about whether or not the Saker is going too easy on the Jews who are ruining the world. Of course, the Saker is not responsible for the comments section, but this is the ecosystem in which he thrives. Removing the reference to the Jews in this particular post makes his article less offensive, which is actually misleading, and a disservice to the readers.

So why are the Saker and Roberts included in JRL?  JRL is not an open media platform, and choosing not to repost something is not censorship.  It is editorial policy. Obviously, JRL cannot and does not publish every Russian-related piece that finds its way to Johnson’s screen. It would be too long to be useful.

There is value in publishing translations of the writings of extremists and xenophobes in the Russian media and blogosphere, since this helps get a better picture of what is actually going on. But why provide another platform for English-language xenophobes who write about Russia?   I’m sure The Daily Stormer has posts about Russia, too—why not include them?

I am not about to unsubscribe to JRL, or call on anyone else to do so.  But I would like to understand why, out of all the people in the world who write about Russia, we are invited to read Roberts and the Saker.

 

Note

 

I sent an email about this issue to David Johnson on January 28. He did not reply, but he did post my message in the subsequent Johnson’s Russia LIst.