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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My Shoe Award

posted by on March 21 at 12:36 PM

Yesterday, I got a package in the mail from the Discovery Institute, the deep-pocketed downtown think tank best known for pushing intelligent design and other intellectually dishonest propaganda.

It contained this certificate:


And an actual gently used black shoe, which unfortunately does not look much like the crusty specimen pictured on the award. What did I do to deserve being compared to Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet premier who famously banged his shoe on a UN table to interrupt a speech by the British PM?

Well, in addition to their more notorious dealings, the Discovery Institute apparently houses a Real Russia Project, whose purpose is not elucidated on the DI’s homepage. Turning to the Real Russia Project’s blog, it seems they like to promote privatization and foreign investment in the Russian economy, toss homophobic insults at liberal political groups for using pop music in their campaigns (“Perhaps the liberal parties in Russia and their highly-paid Western advisors need someone to explain to them why babushkas are not easily rallied to their banner by underage lesbians cavorting across their television screens”), and spread weird conspiracy theories about Alexander Litvenenko’s fatal brush with polonium 210. I’m not well versed in Russian politics, but I gather that they’re basically pro-free-market Putin apologists.

But this still doesn’t explain what I’d done to offend them. A few weeks ago, I received an email from a non-Discovery Institute email address asking about the “parameters” for film reviews. After blinking a couple of times, I realized the writer, Nick Slepko, was offering to provide a pre-written review for a film his own “Russia-focused organization” was sponsoring. Well, obviously, that arrangement would be unethical. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt and wrote back to tell him that if he could get us a screener, we would watch the film ourselves and review it. Then things got even weirder. First of all, Slepko had claimed the film was “Oscar-nominated,” but I realized there was no Russian film among the 2006 Oscar nominees (The 9th Company was, however, Russia’s submission to the Academy—it was never a serious contender). Secondly, the details of the screening clued me into the fact that this “Russia-focused organization” was actually a branch of the Discovery Institute. Then Slepko told me there were no English subtitles on the screener, but that his organization would provide a translator. Um, what? By this time, the deadline for assigning reviews had passed, and I let it go.

In place of a review (I made it clear I had not been able to see the film), I explained the slightly shady dealings that had transpired in the “Film Shorts” section of the paper:

The 9th Company

OK, I have no idea what’s going on here. A guy with a Yahoo email address wrote me to say he worked with “a Russia-focused organization” and asked whether I could list a screening of an Oscar-nominated film. Uh, no problem. But then he wanted me to run his review of the film. What?! Oh, and then he told me the film was nominated for a 2007 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film; even operating under the charitable assumption that he meant the 79th Academy Awards (the 2007 nominations won’t come out until next year), 9th Company was not in fact nominated, in that or any other category. (It was, however, Russia’s submission to the Academy.) The “Russia-focused organization” that this liar works for is an arm of the Discovery Institute (best known for pushing intelligent design and bus rapid transit). The movie, which Variety called “finely made propaganda,” is about the Soviet Union’s “victorious” war with Afghanistan. I don’t have a clue what the Discovery Institute dude means to accomplish by dissembling so blatantly, but I will say that this screening (of an apparently entertaining movie) is a sweet opportunity to get a peek inside the DI’s downtown HQ.

You’d think the guy would be grateful for the publicity—I even provided the email address for reservations. Here’s what he wrote me immediately following publication:

From: “Nick Slepko” To: “Annie Wagner” Subject: Re: film review parameters? Date: Thu, 22 Feb 2007 10:45:20 -0800

Thank you for the column inches. It was a good use of the interrobang.

But publicly, Slepko claims I have behaved badly. You can read his bizarre version of events here.

Pursuant to that blog post, anti-Putin blogger Kim Zigfeld emailed me her take on the DI’s interest in Russia: “My theory is that, perhaps, DI is attempting to ingratiate itself with the Putin regime so that, in exchange, it will allow DI to promulgate intelligent design in Russian schools. It certainly seems possible that they could have had a hand in financing this suit, though they’ve denied it.” I don’t know about all that (the DI’s Cascadia Institute doesn’t have anything to do with intelligent design), but it’s an interesting question.

Why the hell is the Discovery Institute meddling with ex-pat Russian politics?

RSS icon Comments


at least they are encouraging alternative forms of transportation.

Posted by infrequent | March 21, 2007 12:52 PM

Haven't I been reading in the Stranger's pages about the growing Russian evangelical movement? Maybe the Discovery Institute has detected a vast new market for its patented snake-oil.

Posted by flamingbanjo | March 21, 2007 1:07 PM

He must not understand the difference between a review and a press release.

"Hi,my name is Eddie Murphy. Can I write a review for this movie called Norbit? I hear good things about it"

Posted by elswinger | March 21, 2007 1:08 PM

Why the paw print on the certificate? What's that suposed to represent?

Posted by matt | March 21, 2007 1:11 PM

i read his version (which seems to match yours but provides the actual messages), and i can understand why both of you feel the other was inappropriate. are those the actual messages, and if so what is "bizarre" about his version?

anyway, you think they have something to do with the discovery institute and held that againt them. it appears, however, that was just the venue (like mars hill playing crash -- the movie sucking had nothing to do with that church's screening of it). that, and you feel they lied about the oscar nod...

but sightly in their defense, they were upfront about it being their written review, and why. they probably have no problems with the discovery institute, but they gave a shoe to them as well... both you and the branch of the DI were each given a shoe. they explain why on their site.

but you really seem to be holding their "association" with the DI against the film (and/or its promoters)... when the connection appears weak at best.

Posted by infrequent | March 21, 2007 1:15 PM

That's the weirdest thing I've ever read in the Slog. It sounds like some kind of Scientology kookiness, from before the Scientologists got wise to the concept of PR.

Comparing you to Khrushchev, "Russia's [sic] most out of touch figure", is bizarre as well. How was Khrushchev any more out of touch than, say, Brezhnev? They got mercurial right, though; but some might nominate Yeltsin for that honor.

But what that has to do with you not reviewing a film that you haven't seen and CAN'T SEE I don't know.

If the film is in fact good I can't think of a better way to damage its reputation than this.

I'm astonished that the Discovery Institute, as nutty as they are on the subject of creationism, would be diving into the Russian murk like this. It just HAS to be the Putin propaganda machine going to work. Figuring out what kind of bullshit game Putin is playing these days is almost impossible, but it's pretty obvious that his agents are executing hits around the globe, and he's shutting down every glimmer of dissent at home. The Russian bear isn't dead yet. And Putin is the world's most dangerous figure.

Yet another unqualified genius foreign policy success by "I looked into his soul" GW Bush.

Posted by Fnarf | March 21, 2007 1:19 PM

the paw print is a bear print... the russian bear probably...

Posted by infrequent | March 21, 2007 1:31 PM


What are you on about? The Real Russia Project is part of the Discovery Institute--that's clearly stated on the banner on the top of their blog, and they're listed on the DI website. I am thus far the only recipient of the Shoe Award.

Yes, those are the actual messages. What's "bizarre" about Slepko's account is that he draws the conclusion that I "exemplify either an irrational love of Mother Russia or a fanatical fear of the Bear or just an irrational fanaticism on a Russian scale" when I merely a) rejected his proposal that he provide a review of the movie he was promoting; and b) pointed out that his organization was providing false information and engaging in unethical practices.

Posted by annie | March 21, 2007 1:33 PM

annie, you appear to be holding the fact that this screened at DI against the film. that is what i am saying, and that appears to be what they are saying. and of course those the real russia project is linked to DI. (otherwise why would i say the DI got the other shoe?)


For the second recipient of the Shoe Award (after all, they come in pairs), we are awarding the right one to the Real Russia Project for the same self-serving reasons.

false information i agreed that you are correct. it could have been a misunderstanding, but who knows. unethical? if you mean the review, i'd rather suppose they just misunderstood as elswinger pointed out so humorously above...

Posted by infrequent | March 21, 2007 1:41 PM

Oh, I see. The blog is the Real Russia Project--they're awarding the second shoe to themselves. (No, I don't understand why.)

Anyway, I don't hold the fact that the RRP is part of the DI against RRP. It's the opposite: I count the fact that these lying, unethical RRP wackos are part of the DI as one more strike against the DI itself.

Posted by annie | March 21, 2007 1:58 PM

Nice interrobang shout out though. The Discovery Institute, if nothing else, has good taste in punctuation.

Posted by kasa | March 21, 2007 1:59 PM

okay -- i've re-read their blog, and at first at thought they were admonishing themselves for being self-serving with this film (ie, using the film to promote the "real russia project" when the film has nothing do to with the "real russia project").

i thought they were being honest, because they appear to be taking issue with your use of the film to talk about issues they feel are not associated with the film.

but then there's the whole "right one", and that self-serving could mean the award itself is self-serving praise...

and so i don't know anymore. but it sure seems to indicated they gave themselves a shoe, so you can understand why i said that they did.

and, apparently, i should not be call infrequent today.

Posted by somewhatlessinfrequent | March 21, 2007 2:00 PM

Why the hell is the Discovery Institute meddling with ex-pat Russian politics?

Maybe for the same reason Ken Hutcherson travels to Latvia to hook up with a charismatic Pentacostal church in that country? Because it demonstrates to members of those churches/political movements here that Hutcherson and Discovery wish to make common cause with them?

Like on ballot initiatives n stuff.

Posted by stilwell | March 21, 2007 2:04 PM

Somewhatlessinfrequent, I can't make heads or tails of your last post.

Annie has it right: we have here a fellow who's pissed off because she won't run a film review written by someone promoting the film. That's the ethical response. This guy is not only wrong, he's wrong in an unusually kooky cloak-and-dagger way that is bizarrely reminiscent of the Soviet era, as most things about Putin are bizarrely reminiscent of the Soviet era. It's not as creepy as getting poisoned with Polonium, but it's pretty creepy nonetheless.

My question is, why is it happening? Is the DI's interest in Russian politics legitimate? Did they just happen to hire a kook for the job? Is there something about contemporary Russian politics that attracts kooks? (Yes). Does the DI know they're kooky, or are they being played by this weirdo? If they're being played, is it because they haven't thought their program through enough to worry about details like that? Or are they being paid a fee to promote Putin's Russia? Or are they just stupid?

In short, is this sort of like the White House Office of Faith and Community Based Initiatives -- a blow-off organization that's just supposed to placate the nutjobs?

Posted by Fnarf | March 21, 2007 2:13 PM

Why? Because the Reds at the D.I. want to help out their comrades in Russia.

Posted by Will in Seattle | March 21, 2007 2:13 PM

Well, if nothing else, at least now we know how to spell Annie's name in cryllic...

Posted by COMTE | March 21, 2007 2:22 PM

interrobang? you kids & your crazy slang!

Posted by Max Solomon | March 21, 2007 2:26 PM

I'd still screen everything for polonium, just to be on the safe side, Annie.

Posted by MvB | March 21, 2007 3:21 PM


i'm not surprised my last post was confusing. i, like annie, am confused myself why they gave themselves a shoe award.

just the fact that we are talking about the DI and russian politics illustrates the frustration of the potentially unethical film promoter: none of that has anthing to do with the film that was not seen or reviewed but still got a write up in the stranger.

okay, here's the reason i'm all posty about this thing: the DI (and the prayer warrior for that matter) are on such good terms with the russian community because they actually try; they put a great deal of effort into their relationships with the russian community. the DI used this film as a way to strenghten those ties. (and your discussions about why are significant even if they have nothing to do with the film itself.)

this guy could be a russian propagandizing gay bashing intelligent design tool who is willing to lie in order to get his review published to promote his financial enterprise. if that is the case, he deserves to be called out for it.

or this guy could have simply misunderstood the oscar nom vs submission as well as the concept of review vs press release -- which would not be an uncommon thing for an immigrant or foreigner to do. to discern this (which you are under no obligation to do), all you had to do was ask for clarification.

but instead of helping him, or ignoring him, or providing a listing without a review, you instead did what eventually amounted to embarrassing him. so tell me, to a russian, which group seems more welcoming? the "real russia project" folks at the DI, or the stranger?

and, just for the record, the only things i disagreed with annie about was that two shoes were awarded, and that i thought she was holding the DI's politics against the film promoter in her review. she, rather humorously, flipped that to say that it was another to dislike the DI (not this film).

you and annie have made it clear that you believe this guy is dishonest, unethical, and perhaps kooky. i think maybe. probably. but isn't it better to find out first? maybe i'm too naive?! i should go back to being cynical.

Posted by infrequent | March 21, 2007 3:26 PM

You think this guy is himself Russian? I don't.

And if he is, I don't think calling him out on his weirdness is wrong. The Stranger is not a therapeutic organization. And if this kookiness came from the local Scientologists, would making fun of them be hostile to religion? I don't think so.

I think he's a nut who has successfully gotten his organization (screw the film, I'm talking about "The Real Russia Project") some press.

Posted by Fnarf | March 21, 2007 5:35 PM

no, you are probably right. and despite having a russian name, he knows what a interrobang is... so he should be savvy enough to figure out basics of PR.

the stranger is not a therapeutic organization. i just cringe when i see the failing communications between those who speak english as a first language and those who don't. to me, this just looks like a case of the latter -- whether the guy is kooky or not. we should champion going out of our way to overcome such communication difficulties if we want to encourage a tolerant society.

offering to have a translator help with the viewing... that might be helpful or kooky. or both.

so i'll ask the guy a couple of questions via his blog and post here what i find out...

Posted by infrequent | March 21, 2007 5:49 PM

There's just one thing I don't understand about this award. Why would a bear wear shoes?

Posted by David | March 21, 2007 6:21 PM

So here's some inside gossip on DI and the Russia connection... The original name of the Real Russia Project was the Russia Blog, and that's just what it was - a blog. Yuri Mamchur (who really is from Russia) has a background I don't quite understand - composer, lawyer, PhD candidate, former director of a charitable foundation, business owner and blogger - all at the ripe old age of 25. In any case I think he originally came to the U.S. and was hosted in the Seattle/Tacoma area by someone connected to his family; his father was a Soviet apparatchik. I'm not sure how he landed the DI gig; perhaps it was personal connections and he pitched the project to the right person. His blog articles were generally pro-Putin and pro-capitalism, and promoted the image of a new, shiny, happy Russia. He's been made an associate program director or something, in charge of this new Real Russia Project, which at this point still seems to be just a blog, though with additional commentators. I've met Yuri before; while he has good intentions and is quite tenacious, I don't think his analysis of policy and contemporary affairs is anything to write home about.

This link will take you to another Russia blog, written by someone who is not a fan of Yuri Mamchur:

And if you want to buy one of Yuri's cd's :) go here:

Posted by RS | March 21, 2007 8:33 PM

So, what did you do with the shoe?

Posted by Ed | March 21, 2007 11:36 PM

Discovery's John Niles promotes "Intelligent Transportation" (gadgetbahn), not "alternative transportation".

Posted by Avidor | March 22, 2007 8:25 AM

i still think of a worn shoe as alternative transportation, not intelligent. to encourage "intelligent" transportation they would have needed to provide both shoes to the same party.

unless this is their idea of ride sharing.

Posted by infrequent | March 22, 2007 10:48 AM

First of all, as the reigning film editrix at the greatest weekly Seattle has ever known, I want you to know that you didn’t offend me…What I am trying to say Ms. Wagner is that: I hear your truth and that’s okay in a Free Hugs kind of way.

To see my full response, A Ramble by Nick Slepko in Response to Annie Wagner and the Sloggers:

Posted by Nick Slepko | March 22, 2007 12:29 PM

annie, fnarf, you were basically right.

i'm sorry.

Posted by infrequent | March 23, 2007 9:48 AM

Here are more reviews of Russian films, including some movies that sucked (Volkodav in particular combined pointless violence with the campiness of Conan the Barbarian and He-Man: Masters of the Universe):

you can also see my favorite example of anonymous blog collective sock puppetry here:

Posted by Charles Ganske | March 24, 2007 9:22 PM

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