The February story: a psychotropic cannon loaded with salt

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The “salt panic” was triggered by television news reports about Ukraine responding to rising gas prices by cutting salt deliveries drastically. Within days, panic-buying of salt had spread to almost all regions in the Western part of Russia, reaching Moscow.

In vain did the Moscow municipal government insist that the city’s existing supplies of packaged salt would last at least a month, and that these supplies would be increased several-fold within days due to scheduled (!) salt deliveries.

As the Novye Izvestia newspaper says, most Muscovites, who buy their groceries “in small stores or at wholesale markets,” responded to the vague rumors of salt supply problems with “a genetic fear of shortages, left over from the Soviet era.”

Enterprising retailers “couldn’t believe their luck,” as Rossiiskaya Gazeta puts it: they immediately raised salt prices several-fold. This confirmed ordinary citizens’ worst fears: as one reader informed Novye Izvestia, the people fear that “Ukrainian salt will soon vanish from the stores entirely. Then we’ll only be able to buy salt imported from outside the former Soviet Union, and the price will be an order of magnitude higher.”

Quoting its sources in the Moscow city government, Rossiskaya Gazeta attempted to enlighten its readers: 80% of salt sold in Moscow comes from Belarus, 10% comes from Russia, and only the last 10% comes from Ukraine. What’s more, Ukraine hasn’t actually halted deliveries – just delayed them slightly “for technical reasons.” Besides, Russia itself produced 3 million tons of salt per year (while Ukraine produces only 2.5 million tons), and Russia’s salt deposits are sure to last a century or more.

All in vain: residents of Moscow followed the regions, where “salt passions” continued to rage,” persistently buying up salt – as well as sugar, and even matches.

Novye Izvestia reports that regional parliaments blamed the media, as usual, for stirring up alarm.

The International Confederation of Consumer Rights Protection Societies offered the authoritative explanation that “there are no economic grounds for a salt shortage”; the situation in Russian regions should return to normal within two or three weeks.

And Ukraine, the cause of the whole kerfuffle, doubled its salt deliveries to Russia.

All the same, analysts, salt producers, and state officials responsible for the food market situation are unanimous in saying that only an all-out salt glut in the stores can stop the panic-buying (or, as Rossiiskaya Gazeta puts it, “extinguish consumer neurosis”).

So what has actually happened?

“What needs to happen to make people in today’s Russia start stocking up on salt and matches?” asks sociologist Ella Paneyakh in the Vedomosti newspaper. “A world war? A flood? A new round of wartime communism? All this is just crazy.”

According to Paneyakh, people seem to be demonstrating an extreme degree of idiocy – but only at first glance.

“It’s an unwritten rule of sociology that if it seems like people are losing their common sense en masse, you’ve simply failed to understand something important about them.” That’s because what looks like collective insanity is actually made up of entirely rational behavior by each individual.

As an example, Panyakh recalls the “Kafkaesque hour-long standing ovations for the Leader at Party assemblies in the Stalin era,” based on “each participant’s entirely rational fear of being labeled a wrecker for stopping the general applause.” As everyone knows, such “wrekers” were indeed identified, frequently.

In short, observers have found it appropriate to conclude that the mood of the public is extremely anxious; there’s the impression that people are expecting imminent disaster.

In the meantime, as Vedomosti notes, all the latest poll results indicate that optimism is on the rise. What’s more, according to the Levada Center polling agency, moods and expectations have been improving at a rapid rate recently, compared to evaluations of the current situation.

Does that mean respondents are deceiving pollsters when they say they have become calmer and more optimistic compared to the 1990s, yet are still prepared to queue up for salt and matches?

It’s a well-known fact, notes Vedomosti, that by no means all respondents in political opinion polls tell the truth. For example, in polls done three years after Vladimir Putin’s first election win, 61% of respondents claimed to have voted for Putin – though his actual result in 2000 was only 36%.

Paneyakh says that if citizens “have decided it’s necessary to not only demonstrate formal loyalty to the authorities, but also simulate non-existent optimism,” the situation is very bad indeed: “That indicates an entirely different level of fear and tension in society.”

Rodnaya Gazeta makes its weighty contribution to explaining the causes of “salt fever” by reporting that all this probably results from the large-scale use of mind-altering weapons.

The salt panic started in the Tula region, where there are many “secret military units, one of which was testing a new psychotropic cannon,” says Rodnaya Gazeta. This concerns Project Equilibrist, on hold since the 1990s, “about which there was so much talk.”

The project was run by the KGB, of course: “The special services planned to manipulate the collective consciousness by bombarding citizens with microwave radiation, in order to prevent the democratic forces from coming to power and avert the collapse of the Soviet Union.” According to an “informed source,” 20 experimental cannon were distributed across the Soviet Union – but at the critical moment, only five of them worked. Moreover, “in St. Petersburg and Moscow, this little-known weapon proved to have quite the opposite effect.”

After that failure, the weapons were dismantled – and not rebuilt until last year’s protests by pensioners against the monetization of social benefits.

Tests were resumed, according to Rodnaya Gazeta, on February 8 – the date of the first reports about salt deliveries from Ukraine being stopped. The mind-altering radiation was used for “only three hours,” but “this proved sufficient to start a chain reaction: panic swept the country.”

Thus, it must be acknowledged that the legend of the omnipotent Big Brother still lives on in our country. The special services, although they’re facing difficult times and inconsistencies like the notorious “spy-stone scandal” (as Novoe Vremya magazine puts it), still remain a source of “sensational stories” for certain kinds of newspapers.

Then again, says Novoe Vremya, the topic of how Russian counter-intelligence has successfully foiled the plans of foreign spies and all their gadgets has gradually receded into the background. Even such “promising directions for the FSB” as “working on non-governmental organizations” in connection with the story of the stone in a Moscow square have been postponed.

Novoe Vremya says: “Perhaps this is what the head of state had in mind all along: an abbreviated form of saber-rattling, designed to give the NGOs a bit of a fright by showing how the state will deal with them.”

At his January 31 press conference, President Putin answered a BBC correspondent’s question “almost peaceably,” as follows: “Society needs NGOs to provide oversight for the activities of the state itself and government bodies. They are an important component of the body politic. And the state in Russia will support NGOs.”

In an interview with the Argumenty i Fakty weekly newspaper, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev elaborated on Putin’s statement as follows: “However, we also maintain that NGOs ought to value their reputations, and have an obligation to know who is providing the funding which national legislation does not forbid them to accept.” If they have the slightest doubts about the funding sources, NGOs ought to report this to “the relevant law enforcement agencies.”

Novoe Vremya comments: “How can ordinary civic organizations, with no intelligence or counter-intelligence capabilities, determine the real funding sources?!” Not even the powerful special services can always succeed in doing so: “The FSB itself still hasn’t been able to cut off, or even identify, funding sources for guerrillas in Chechnya and their cohorts in Dagestan!”

And yet, as Patrushev’s interview makes clear, the special services have a great deal of other information – some of it most surprising.

With natural pride, Patrushev told Argumenty i Fakty that “some time ago,” the FSB and the Defense Ministry managed to prevent the forces of “the late Aslan Maskhadov” from hijacking a nuclear-powered submarine.

According to Patrushev, the “additional security measures” taken then enabled the FSB “to rule out any possibility of the terrorists carrying out their plans.”

This incredible success, mentioned so usefully by Patrushev in an interview published just before Defender of the Fatherland Day, couldn’t fail to impress the Kremlin.

Then again, as Novoe Vremya points out, President Putin attended the FSB annual collegium on February 7 (for the first time in two years) and gave a public assessment of the special services’ performance: “On the whole, objectives were achieved; FSB subdivisions operated efficiently and skillfully. The quality of coordination with other security and law enforcement agencies also improved.”

A few days later, Putin confirmed this coordination practice by issuing a decree to establish a National Anti-Terrorist Committee (NAC), chaired by Nikolai Patrushev. Its members will include the most senior officials from all security and law enforcement agencies, special services, key ministries, and both houses of parliament.

The Kommersant newspaper says: “The presidential decree establishes a hierarchy of governance headed by the FSB Director. What’s more, the FSB’s leading role is emphasized in almost all of the decree’s eleven articles.”

These include an article authorizing 300 extra staff for the FSB’s head office – as Kommersant points out, this is “equivalent to establishing another subdivision within the FSB, with as many staff as a department and unlimited abilities.”

The NAC’s decisions will be binding for all federal government bodies represented by its members. Kommersant emphasizes that in the regions, directives from anti-terrorist commissions and operations headquarters (part of the NAC structure) will be binding even for local government bodies.

The opposition responded immediately to the formation of this new body. Viktor Ilyukhin (Communist Party), deputy chairman of the Duma’s security committee, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that the NAC decree certainly makes the FSB stronger: “That agency is becoming a state within a state, mixing up all kinds of state functions and powers.” In effect, says Ilyukhin, this amounts to replacing the Cabinet: “Because the NAC is empowered to intervene in the activities of any and all government bodies – federal, regional, or local. And it’s by no means certain that it will confine itself to fighting terrorism.”

Vremya Novostei observer Semyon Novoprudsky maintains that the new body will be ineffective.

“First of all, it’s completely unclear how anyone can imagine the defense minister or interior minister taking orders from the FSB chief in the event of a really major terrorist attack like the Beslan school siege.”

Novoprudsky also wants to know whether the FSB Director “would actually be able to issue orders to the Armed Forces or Interior Ministry special forces if those are involved in a counter-terrorist operation.” If so, “wouldn’t it be better to simply merge the Interior Ministry and the FSB, forming a unified special service”? And what about including the Defense Ministry as well?

It’s completely unclear, says Novoprudsky, “what’s stopping the security and law enforcement agencies from fighting terrorism effectively in their present form, or why a new government body would make them more effective. After all, they won’t gain any new powers in practice.”

Vladimir Rimsky, polling manager for the InDem Foundation, told Kommersant that in his opinion, it’s quite impossible to defeat terrorism by means of “hierarchical structures like this committee.” Bureaucratic logic dictates that “the NAC has to choose between two courses of action: either making all citizens spy on each other and report to the authorities, or simulating intense activity while actually holding meaningless meetings.” Both alternatives are completely ineffective in fighting terrorism: “The NAC will only attempt to respond to the consequences of terrorist attacks.”

“No need to guess what all these respected gentlement will be doing, other than receiving increases to their modest salaries,” says leading human rights activist Alexander Podrabinek in Novaya Gazeta. “Traditional government institutions are in place to fight terrorism, both real and illusory – and many new institutions have been added to them in recent years. Zero effect, of course.”

There’s nothing surprising about this, says Podrabinek: “None of them would kill this goose that lays golden eggs for bureaucrats, politicians, and the top brass in the form of new jobs, salary bonuses, promotions, and additional pretexts to restrict the civil liberties that annoy them so greatly.”

“It’s not enough for them to see the gendarme service become the chief state agency again,” says Novoe Vremya. “It’s not even enough that people are fearing them again (though not as much as in the Andropov era).”

In reporting a competition for “the best works of literature and art concerning FSB activities” – a contest organized by the FSB itself – Novye Vremya concludes: “Once again, they want to be loved – by everyone, totally!”

It’s a wish that’s almost been forgotten since the Soviet era: “The contest will select the best works, demonstrating a high level of creative skill in portraying a positive image of FSB personnel and objectively depicting FSB activities.” The contest includes the following categories: television and radio programs, fiction and journalism, music, cinema and television movies, acting, and art.

Novoe Vremya comments: “As in the past, the people’s love for the Service and its Master is supposed to justify everything – special salaries, special awards, and (most importantly) SPECIAL POWER over the vast population of a vast country.”

Then again, the Russian people have certainly remembered and learned a great deal in the course of their lengthy and complicated history. For example, they have learned that they can’t believe anything – whether “television and radio programs,” or “fiction and journalism,” or dramatic announcements by state officials.

According to the Vedomosti newspaper, citizens are convinced that it’s impossible to obtain timely and accurate information about potential problems or threats. “Therefore, people over-react to any practical sign of unfavorable developments – just in case.”

So the “psychotropic cannon” attributed to the FSB by Rodnaya Gazeta would seem to have nothing to do with the case.

But the Rodnaya Gazeta article might well enter the FSB contest – in the “fantasy” category.

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