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Putin’s Chekhovian Sang-froid on WikiLeaks

Why should he be afraid of Julian Assange? (We might well assume he is not afraid of anyone.) But Mr. Putin’s classically Slavic cool when addressing what he termed “not a catastrophe” was important. One might even say it represents a tipping point in the WikiLeaks story. Increasingly, the wisest minds on the story (a story at once separable and inseparable from the story of Assange) are saying that not only are the leaks non-catastrophic—which is not to say that the mission and the mind behind them are not morally questionable—but that perhaps the organization itself is simply a pawn in a much larger game. And Russians know their chess.

Time will tell. Today, the site called itself “the first global Samizdat movement,” begging us to point out the origins of Samizdat, and those origins are Russian. This fact makes Putin’s drop-punt of Assange on Larry King even cooler. The Times Lede blog has followed the Assange story closely, in a way which only these new mediums of threads, posts and counter-posts allows, and with one long scroll we can read about the Amazon choice, and the King interview. The Times sets up the latter like this:

In a brief video clip from the interview posted online by CNN, Mr. Putin also invoked the conspiracy theorists, like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who have suggested that the leaks might have been part of an American plot, before adding that the release of the cables was “not a catastrophe.” He said:

Some experts believe that someone is deceiving WikiLeaks – their reputation is being undermined, to use them for their political purposes…. If it is not so, then it tells us that it is necessary for the diplomatic services to be more attentive to their cables. Such leaks occurred before, in previous times, so this is no catastrophe, I don’t see this as being a catastrophe.

Professors of Russian literature, or theatre directors, might say that when Chekhov’s characters discuss the weather there is usually something else going on. Chekhov understood the value of economy when it came to language; he understood the benefits of having characters say less at times. Assange is the opposite: he loves to talk. He wants words exposed. Yet this may be the crux of his Achilles heel. He seems to think “secrecy,” “confidential,” and “abrogation of first amendment rights” are interchangeable affronts. And so invoking samizdat is an error of vocabulary, for Samizdat was a movement to subvert true censorship, not a movement to shock diplomats, put lives at risk, or state things anyone with Internet access knows: we are at war; war is Hell; power corrupts. Yet to crib and reduce another Russian author, not all secrets are corrupt in their own way. Let’s not miss the nuance.


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