Applebaum vs Corbyn – Spinning History

Dancing for the Russian Bear
Dancing for the Russian Bear

Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn has been accused by award-winning historian, Anne Applebaum of being a ‘useful idiot’ and swallowing the information (or mis or disinformation) put into play by the heavily Kremlin influenced Russia Today broadcaster. Applebaum has produced some truly excellent history with books such as Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps(1) but in this case, her politics are smothering her objectivity and producing Spin.

Applebaum created an opinion piece for The Sunday Times titled, While Russia bans books, the useful idiot Corbyn swallows its lies whole(2). Despite the headline, which I assume was constructed by a sub-editor, the bulk of the piece is a lengthy prologue that doubles as a obituary and trebles as a eulogy for the eminent and recently expired historian of the Soviet Union – and Stalin era atrocities – Robert Conquest. His undoubtedly important book, The Great Terror is front and centre here. But finally we reach Corbyn and specifically a point regarding Corbyn, his action as a ‘useful idiot’01; his apparent sop to neo-Sovietism aka Russian Exceptionalism.

Applebaum claims that following for Corbyn.

Anne Applebaum in The Sunday Times  August 9th 2015
Anne Applebaum in The Sunday Times August 9th 2015

Jeremy Corbyn, would-be leader of the Labour party, is the latest in a long line of useful idiots. Corbyn has recommended that his Twitter followers watch the Russian propaganda channel, Russia Today, which he has described as “more objective” than other channels. Never mind that Russia Today interviews actors who claim to be “witnesses” and invents stories – for example, that a Russian-speaking child was crucified by a Ukrainian.

Corbyn is also one of many on the European far left as well as the far right who appears to have swallowed wholesale Russia’s lie that war in Ukraine has been created by Nato, rather than by the “separatists” who have invaded eastern Ukraine and are paid, trained and organised by Russia itself. Or maybe they have pretended to swallow the lie because it suits their own anti-American or anti-democratic agendas.

That is terrible. The consensus is, of course, that Russia Today has a very different world view than, for example, CNN, NBC, ITN, BBC, Fox News, ABC Australia or a host of other news outlets in the non-Russian dominated parts of the world.

So, why on earth would Corbyn, a democratic MP of thirty years and more, who hopes to lead the British Labour Party back to power or at least relevance, recommend “…his Twitter followers watch the Russian propaganda channel”? Why would he state that RT is generally, ” as “more objective” than other channels”?

It’s at best a misguided thing to do in the lead-up to a highly democratic election to the leadership of a democratic party in a democratic country. So, just what – and indeed when – did Corbyn make these outlandish claims?

What was that again? And when? Well, when was April 26th 2011, a point not even alluded to by Applebaum. A date where you could not get away from coverage of the UK’s latest Royal Wedding, nor less than objective ITN, BBC, NBC, CBS, ABC (etc and so on) coverage of the Libyan war of liberation that has, since 2011, seen the Western allies largely turning their backs on the consequences. For many millions of people the Royal Wedding is news for gossip magazines, and the situation in Libya required more nuanced reporting than it was receiving at the time.

“Try Russia Today. Free of Royal Wedding and more objective on Libya than most”

“Try”? Not exactly a full-blown, anti-democratic, recommendation. “More objective on Libya than most”?

The Pulitzer committee does not (I hope) hand out awards like Beria handed out perverted, sadistic torture sessions so Applebaum, is surely aware of the importance of context, and how you really should not extrapolate generalities from specifics. Also, of course, that people do not always think nor communicate in straight lines nor in the same way year-in and year-out. All of this context requires more detailed, intelligent and honest analysis than provided by Applebaum in this one Sunday Times article.

As she is well aware, context gives meaning to words; and context is a complex area of study. In fact, the study of history is, to a large extent, the study of contexts over time.

The Kremlin preferred to remember him as the intellectual champion of Vladimir Putin rather than as the author of the most damning indictment of totalitarianism ever penned.
The Kremlin preferred to remember him as the intellectual champion of Vladimir Putin rather than as the author of the most damning indictment of totalitarianism ever penned.

I am aware that Applebaum is more than capable of nuanced analysis even of her heroes. Take one of her great heroes, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose works did as much as Conquest’s to throw the camp doors open and shine harsh light into the dark heart of the failed Soviet social and political experiment. How does Applebaum square her distaste for Vladimir Putin’s funded and lead Russia Today and its useful idiots with this sort of comment:

The Kremlin preferred to remember him as the intellectual champion of Vladimir Putin rather than as the author of the most damning indictment of totalitarianism ever penned.

That comes from the UK’s right-of-centre Telegraph newspaper5. In 2008, Applebaum wrote her own obituary for Solzhenitsyn6. It was a fine obituary and dealt with the complex life or a complex man who was used by both Left and Right during his long life. It is worth reading for all the right reasons.

So, what of her contention that Corbyn, “has described RT as “more objective” than other channels”? The actual quote would suggest that he recommended RT for that day, and stated it was more objective than many other media on one topic. I like to think that I had framed a quote in the way that Applebaum has done here, my assessors in the history department would thrown my work back in disgust; maybe even suggest that I re-read the University’s ethics guidelines.

In closing, I am not saying that Russia Today is much more than worryingly badly lead by its editorial staff as well as being funded by the Russian government. I watch it’s Youtube videos occasionally (in the same way as I do other news channels) in order to get a rounded view of what is being said about the world I live in. That view cannot be objective because no media outlet is, or ever has been, objective. And I would recommend that anybody who wants to experience a wide range of views – some official, some propagandists, some idealist, some madly conspiratorial, some wisely thoughtful, in order to form your educated and informed view.

By the wayI have actually attempted to discover if there is any other source for Applebaum’s claims to Corbyn’s anti-democratic, pro-Russian, anti-American useful idiocy. So far, so blank space.

Asking the obvious question.
Asking the obvious question.

Finally then, I hope that at least the title of Applebaum’s piece was constructed by an overly click-eager sub-editor because: “While Russia bans books, the useful idiot Corbyn swallows its lies whole” is simply wrong – and while we’re on the subject of banning books… we’re closing entire libraries in the UK.


(1)The problem of the Useful Idiot phrase via The New York Times,/em> On Language.
(1)Applebaum’s Gulag.
(2)££Paywall – While Russia bans books, the useful idiot Corbyn swallows its lies whole
(3)Scholarly articles on Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror.
(4)BBC: Putin meets Solzhenitsyn
(5)The Telegraph: ‘Alexander Solzhenitsyn draws mixed tributes from Russian leaders’
(6)Stronger Than the Gulag By Anne Applebaum – Tuesday, August 5, 2008

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