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“Being a spin doctor erodes your spirit.” Marat Gelman on temniks, Putin, Kiriyenko and “Repentance”

The Marat Gelman Gallery has recently opened in Berlin, featuring its inaugural exhibition titled “Repentance.” The artworks showcased in this exhibition were generated by a neural network using prompts by Ukrainian artist Andrei Bazuta. It is worth noting that Gelman, the gallery owner, is recognized in Russia not only for his gallery work but also for his involvement as a political technologist during the early 1990s, working for the Kremlin. In an interview with The Insider, conducted by Ilya Zhegulev, Gelman discussed his role in creating the first Kremlin “temniks” (government-issued sets of instructions on what can be covered by the media and how) in 2005, his assistance to Russian and Ukrainian politicians during elections, and his sentiments regarding feelings of guilt about the outcomes.

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2023: The Repentance exhibition

Why is your exhibition called “Repentance”? And why should a neural network be involved in repentance?

There are prevalent biases regarding technical aspects among people. Many believe that artwork generated by a machine is inherently devoid of warmth and emotion, solely driven by cold calculations. However, those familiar with AI understand that a neural network resembles the mind of a child, capable of developing empathy and emotion through nurturing. For my upcoming exhibition, I have decided to name it “AI Has A Soul.” I aim to challenge the public's preconceived notions by presenting an exhibition that contradicts their expectations. Instead, it will evoke emotions and steer away from being a purely calculated and mathematical form of art.

The Repentance exhibition at the Marat Gelman Gallery in Berlin
The Repentance exhibition at the Marat Gelman Gallery in Berlin

Repentance holds significant emotional weight, and I believe it was a commendable concept. It felt akin to a church, a space where our inner objective was accomplished—presenting an emotionally uplifting project. It is crucial to acknowledge that we exist within two distinct realities: the relentless aggression of Russia against Ukraine, constantly looming over us, and the ongoing revolution in art.

Is all this interrelated?

It's interconnected within me, and I aspire to manifest that interconnectedness within the gallery space as well. The revolution in art extends across a vast timeline. Consider Leonardo da Vinci, who possessed two notebooks—one dedicated to his artistic drawings, showcasing his skills as an artist, and the other filled with mechanical drawings, showcasing his engineering prowess. Since then, individuals have often pondered whether they are inclined towards the realm of poetry or physics. Leonardo's uniqueness aside, most people tend to lean towards one domain or the other. However, the contemporary artist is experiencing a shift in identity, becoming both a technician and a humanist. The ability to write algorithms, comprehend software intricacies, and possess technical proficiency has become essential for effectively expressing artistic ideas. This transformative process is one of the crucial and evolving aspects occurring in the realm of art today—the very essence of the artist is undergoing a profound change.

The inauguration of the gallery focused on artificial intelligence aligns with the physics realm. I aspire to be an active participant in these transformative processes rather than a mere observer. Hailing from Russia, I find it impossible to set aside the ongoing war from my thoughts, even momentarily. Hence, I deemed it fitting to dedicate the initial exhibition to allude to the prevailing aggression we are witnessing.

Is repentance about all of us needing to repent?

Psalm 50 serves as a compilation of transgressions and a plea for the grace of recognizing those sins, seeking forgiveness. In the case of the artificial intelligence, we provided it with the text of Psalm 50. The interaction with the AI involves issuing commands that contain certain content arranged in blocks, and the foundation of these commands was derived directly from the psalm itself.

1994: Supporting Yeltsin at any cost

What does this have to do with you and your personality?

I bear a certain degree of responsibility, implying a collective guilt and the consequent punishment. However, there exists a personal responsibility that goes beyond this shared culpability. I am accountable to myself individually. The gallery serves as a reflection of the simultaneous coexistence of two processes: the aggression against Ukraine and the ongoing art revolution. I strive to address my guilt and responsibility in a distinct manner. This involves engaging with Ukrainian channels, aiding refugees, and donating 25% of our income to various Ukrainian funds. It would be incorrect to label this exhibition as my act of penance. Instead, it accurately portrays a specific situation—the year 2023 marked by both aggression and an artistic revolution—and my existence within it. The gallery serves as a link to the realm of art while my other endeavors remain deeply intertwined with the ongoing war, as evidenced by my swift membership in the Russian Anti-War Committee.

What do you think you are personally responsible for? If you look at what was going on 23 years ago when you worked with the administration. Was 1999 the cutoff year? What are you ashamed of now?

Probably for the things that started in 1994. In 1994 and 1996, we feared a communist comeback and supported Yeltsin at all costs.

What do you mean, “at any cost”?

The initial error was the rejection of lustration for Central Committee members and government officials. In 1993, we held reservations about the parliament, but we did like Yeltsin. We found ourselves sympathizing with the events that unfolded, particularly the siege of the Parliament. It was crucial for us to have definitively moved away from communism. By 1996, prior to the presidential election, Yeltsin's approval rating stood at 2 percent, Yavlinsky's at 11 percent, and Zyuganov's at 28 percent. At that critical juncture, we had to take any necessary measures to prevent Zyuganov from assuming the presidency. Unfortunately, this decision proved to be immensely detrimental to the country. Subsequently, the presidential administration gained control over all media outlets, exacerbating the situation further.

We had to take any necessary measures to prevent Zyuganov from assuming the presidency

Was that the cost?

It's not just the media. We turned a blind eye to how the governors were counting the votes.

There must have been some red governors there, too, who might have been pulling votes in the opposite direction?

Our primary objective was to ensure a harmonious alignment between the central and regional authorities. It would have been prudent to have representatives from the central election committee present in regions that were inclined towards the Communist party, overseeing the vote. Once the election concluded and the Communists were unsuccessful, Yeltsin was reluctant to relinquish control over the independent media. He appreciated having a unified media front in his favor. It was then that we comprehended the essence of democracy—not solely a triumph for democrats, but rather the preservation of institutional integrity. Presently, I am a citizen of Moldova, my country of birth. In Moldova, the Communists emerged victorious, yet the institutions upholding fair elections remained intact. Four years later, the socialists won, and subsequently, the democratic party emerged victorious. We made a grave error, and as a co-founder of the Foundation for Effective Politics (FEP), I was directly involved in these events.

1999: Supporting Putin

What is your second mistake?

Although my level of involvement was much smaller, I must acknowledge my fault in the events of 1999. While I had no direct involvement with the elections or the candidates, I do bear responsibility for the decisions made. In 1999, when I was the head of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) headquarters, the Duma elections concluded on December 11th. Prior to the 24th, presidential nominations were underway, and the Union of Right Forces opted to support Vladimir Putin. At that time, Nemtsov told me, “Well, Marat, someone has to get into the headquarters.” From a pragmatic standpoint, this decision seemed reasonable. Subsequently, Yegor Gaidar contacted me and requested a meeting with his associates from St. Petersburg. While Gaidar himself did not express significant concern, he urged us to engage with these individuals. This delegation endeavored to convey that we were making a grave mistake. Gaidar held great respect for these people, while we, regrettably, adopted a snobbish attitude towards them. I will refrain from mentioning their names presently. They were associated with the Democratic Party of Russia at that time, people who had been with Gaidar during his tenure as Prime Minister.

They were from St. Petersburg and knew who Putin was in St. Petersburg?

Indeed, we displayed a sense of arrogance in disregarding their advice. The prevailing sentiment at the time was that Putin would inevitably assume the presidency, but it was widely believed that democrats should distance themselves from the process. At that stage, the objective was to marginalize and ridicule all other contenders, ensuring that they were perceived as mere clowns. As December drew to a close, everyone else had faded into the background, leaving Putin as the sole remaining candidate.

Sergei Dorenko skillfully manipulated the public perception of Yevgeny Primakov and Yuri Luzhkov. In the case of Zyuganov, a mechanism had been established since 1996 that effectively portrayed him as a clown, a tried and true approach.

The entire Duma setting was depicted as a circus, with the media portraying all participants in the parliamentary elections as part of this spectacle. Meanwhile, Putin, who served as the prime minister at the time, was presented as separate from this circus-like atmosphere, emphasizing his image as a “doer of things”.

The media portrayed all participants in the parliamentary elections as part of the spectacle while emphasizing Putin's image as a “doer of things”

What about the Unity bloc? Were they also portrayed as circus people?

The entire venue was depicted as a circus. While there may have been a strategic game at play where the Unity bloc held an advantage, it is important to note that the presidential election remained completely separate from this context.

Was this your idea?

I'm unaware of whose idea it was, but it encapsulated the core of the upcoming presidential campaign. My involvement in the campaign began only in December, where my role primarily entailed carrying out formalities. The groundwork had already been laid. By August 1999, when Putin assumed the position of prime minister, only 2% of the population knew him, but by December, 60% already held a favorable opinion of him. During this period, I served as the head of the Union of Right Forces' headquarters.

Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, 1999
Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, 1999

You launched a massive campaign and, if I remember correctly, you played an active role in supporting Sergei Kiriyenko during the Moscow elections, where he was contending against Yuri Luzhkov for the position of mayor?

Yes, I provided assistance to Kiriyenko, which is a matter of concern for me personally. For a considerable period, I held onto the hope that the current developments were a result of his diminished influence, as he had been sidelined. However, I was presented with evidence indicating that his involvement was directly tied to the firm stance taken against the opposition.

I've heard that Kiriyenko personally played a significant, if not crucial, role in the arrest of Yashin.

Indeed, if one delves into the mindset of their past self in 1994 and 1996, it becomes possible to find explanations for various circumstances. Additionally, it is worth noting that Putin's statements during that time were quite different from what they are now. Some individuals accuse me, stating, “You are now against the government, but in the past, you were aligned with them.” However, it was the government itself that underwent a complete 180-degree change, while I remained steadfast in my position. Nevertheless, even back then, reality provided me with indications that something was amiss.

It was the government itself that underwent a complete 180-degree change, while I remained steadfast in my position

2001: Channel One, temniks and Ukraine

Besides the people from St. Petersburg, were there any other moments?

Putin's election was only the beginning, as there were numerous subsequent events of significance. In 2001, I left the Foundation for Effective Politics (FEP), and by 2004, I had completely disengaged from the political realm. Following 2004, I made deliberate efforts to create as much distance as possible, and by 2012, I found myself in conflict with them.

Before 2004, you were in charge of the media and were building Channel One with Ernst?

At Channel One, I held the position of overseeing the analytical directorate, responsible for preparing what eventually became known as temniks. In this role, I crafted comprehensive briefing materials, offering detailed explanations and insights into the upcoming week's events, as journalists often had to cover topics they had limited understanding of. Additionally, I was involved with the emerging Internet Directorate, which was in its early stages of development at that time.

I remember that in 2005 you confessed to being the inventor of temniks. Did they first appear in Ukraine?

Initially they appeared at Channel One. In Ukraine they were practically copied for the Inter channel. I had an associate there, Igor Pluzhnikov, the owner of the Inter channel.

Your direct quote: “It [the temnik technology] is Russian, if you consider that the person who developed it, Marat Gelman, is a Russian citizen, but it first appeared in Ukraine and then in Russia.

Let's see, in 2001 I was involved in a social-democrat campaign in Ukraine, and then I joined Channel One. Well, maybe I'm wrong. I don't remember everything.

You went to Ukraine and helped the social democrats with their campaign. Was it a commercial campaign or were you helping the Kremlin?

This is a crucial aspect to consider. In Ukraine, there was a prevailing need for every politician to have a Russian political technologist, and the rationale behind this is evident. With the frequent occurrence of elections in Russia, taking place at various times, a market for political technologists began to emerge as a profession. It was no longer feasible to work solely once every four years. Given the presence of 80 regions in Russia, each with its own elections occurring at different times, a market environment took shape, allowing these professionals to actively engage in their work. Such people existed in Russia, equipped with the necessary occupational profile and skills suitable for handling elections. They encompassed backgrounds in sociology, journalism, law, and economics. On the other hand, Ukraine lacked a comparable pool of professionals with the same specialized expertise.

My initial visit to Ukraine took place upon Viktor Yushchenko's invitation, shortly after my involvement with the Union of Right Forces. It was during the 1999 elections that democrats achieved a favorable outcome for the first time. Yushchenko, who served as Prime Minister under Leonid Kuchma at the time, was on the verge of stepping down. One of his deputies, Yuri Yekhanurov, became our point of collaboration. Subsequently, Yekhanurov went on to become Prime Minister under Yushchenko's presidency. During our initial meeting, we delved into various topics, and they expressed their desire for a party similar to the Union of Right Forces, but tailored for Ukraine—a democratic party. However, I explained to them why this approach might not yield the desired results, as Yushchenko had the capability to form any party he wished, which could potentially impede rather than assist him. Towards the end of our conversation, Yekhanurov said: “I've heard you are also a gallery owner.” I replied: “On the contrary, I'm primarily a gallerist.” To which he said: “You know, Viktor Andreyevich [Yushchenko] is a painter. Could you look at his paintings?” Yushchenko turned out to be a talented artist engaged in cultural painting. It transpired that during his time as Director of the National Bank, people would await his presence in the waiting room while he painted in his office.

Yuri Yekhanurov was the first person we collaborated with. However, when things didn't go as planned, one of our contacts introduced me to the Surkis brothers [Grigori and Igor Surkis], who were involved in the formation of the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine. While they were not genuine social democrats, the project itself was intriguing. It revolved around the “Kyiv Group,” centered on [the soccer club] Dynamo Kyiv, who had decided to align themselves with social democracy.

And did it work?

Yes, I succeeded in getting them into parliament, which was their only presence in that form. I conducted a campaign for the Social Democrats, but just two months before the elections, they internally decided that Viktor Medvedchuk would lead the party. I was opposed to this decision because I felt he lacked charisma and dynamism.

An important aspect to consider about Russian political technologists is that Ukrainians had personal connections within their political landscape, while the Russians approached elections as business projects, focusing on financial gain and achieving desired outcomes before moving on. Therefore, during that time, I did not pay attention to other aspects beyond the electoral process in Ukraine.

Including the influence of uniformed agencies?

When discussing criticism of political technologists, it is worth noting that every political technologist who came to Ukraine did so upon the invitation of Ukrainian politicians. For example, Sitnikov worked with Yushchenko, Belkovsky with both Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. Each Ukrainian politician had their own set of Russian advisers who were specifically called, invited, and generously compensated, often more than their domestic counterparts. This issue sparked separate conflicts, but it is important to understand that it was the Ukrainian politicians themselves who initiated and facilitated these arrangements. At that time, there was no direct influence from the Kremlin, as the Kremlin had no significant interest or involvement in Ukrainian affairs.

This entire profession is rotten. I tried to console myself by comparing it to the job of a lawyer, who takes on various cases without personal attachment to the client, emphasizing the obligatory nature of the process, and so on. However, there is a fundamental difference between deciding the fate of a criminal and having numerous outcomes depend on your actions. While the profession will likely continue to exist, I believe we have been irresponsible in failing to fully grasp the consequences. It's akin to playing chess. Engaging in this profession can make you a cynical individual, but it also breeds cynicism in others. For instance, Yanukovych had an American political technologist working with him.

Did your profession teach you cynicism?

Indeed, it feels like everything is unfolding on a chessboard, where you remain somewhat detached from the actual situation. However, the nature of the position itself gradually erodes your spirit.

You went to Ukraine as a political technologist, but you did influence a Ukrainian TV channel, didn't you? And not just one?

My client was Igor Pluzhnikov, who provided funding for the Social Democratic Party while also being the owner of the TV channel Inter. During that time, Mustafin was editor-in-chief < Alexei Mustafin held various editorial positions, including deputy editor-in-chief and subsequently serving as the editor-in-chief of the news service at the TV channel Inter from 2001 to 2005>. The use of temniks aimed to shape the channel's policies and enhance its quality of reporting. In 1996, it appeared to Yeltsin that if a tool is effective, it should be trickled down to every other media outlet. When temniks are issued internally (such as with The Insider, where a bulletin is distributed after meetings with additional information), it provides genuine assistance to journalists.

Are there any restrictions or guidelines regarding which experts to engage with, such as preferring certain experts over others?

There is an expert column available on the topic, but it serves more as a suggestion. For instance, if the topic is China and the journalist doesn't personally know any Chinese experts.

And when it was not merely a suggestion but rather a blacklist of experts who should not be involved?

I once established a structure that can be applied to any situation. It allows for categorizing experts as desirable or undesirable. The key is that it offers an effective method of management. The entire system is based on announcements. Pluzhnikov informed me that after the news roundup program, Kuchma would call him and express his disapproval. Previous attempts to exert external influence existed, but they were less effective as they relied on emotional and personal communication.

So, you assisted Pluzhnikov in his communication with the president and worked towards resolving conflicts?

Yes, it helped to keep the business going.

And then you decided to take it to Moscow?

I was invited to join the Analytical Directorate at Channel One.

Did you borrow that from somewhere else or was that your idea?

I came across documents from CNN, the BBC, and various other media organizations. When there are more than 10-15 people in an editorial meeting, it becomes inefficient. That's why large media companies rely on technology. It's not accurate to say that we simply copied them. I was always skeptical about journalists and their education. Compared to CNN, our informational guidelines were more extensive because we needed to provide more information.

Are you proud or ashamed of this technology?

I want to make an important disclaimer. Just because I'm explaining it now doesn't mean I'm trying to justify it. It can't change my biography. But if I had the chance, I'd rather not have these storylines in my life at all.

Just because I'm explaining it now doesn't mean I'm trying to justify it

Were you just curious or did you want to make money?

If there was no need for money, my focus would solely be on pursuing art and engaging in gallery activities. During the years 1993 to 1996, when my gallery faced challenges, it helped me a lot.

So you just turned a blind eye for the sake of serious income?

Right now it looks like it's true, and I guess that's the right perspective. You do something for the money, and you do other stuff because that's what you want. I never called myself a spin doctor. I'm a gallerist, and I didn't participate in conferences of political technologists, I wasn't a member of their association, I didn't consider it my profession. I was able to do something and I did it, but in principle I am a gallerist.

If you evaluate it now, does it seem wrong to you?

Yes, definitely. It's not even that I was doing something wrong, although that was also true in 1996, but that the profession itself is badly damaging to karma.

Have you stated that the profession of journalism is diminishing in importance due to the influence of temniks?

Considering that both editorial policies and temniks exist, it may generally appear that the significance of journalism is not diminishing. However, we presumed journalists were unprofessional and required external aids or supports.

Did you encounter any resistance from those who had to act based on those temniks?

I have no recollection of that. It so happened that the shift of temniks from internal editorial work to media management took place without my involvement. Kuchma directed the temniks that were intended for Inter to other TV channels. Although being a political technologist is an unpleasant profession, it is not inherently malevolent. The politician is the client, expressing their will, and the political technologist merely carried out their instructions with excessive zeal. The politician desires control over the media and negotiates with owners to treat these temniks as directives. Presently, there is an attempt to place blame on Russian political technologists, but addressing this matter is not currently appropriate.

Is this not the time to say it's not your fault?

It is a complex matter in which politicians, rather than their subordinates, play a significant role.

It's the technologist's choice whether to accept the job or not, isn't it?

It's the right thing to say, because we also had discussions about whether or not to work with the Communists, especially in the regions. I'd like to remind you that we didn't elect all those guys.

Did you vote for Putin in 2000?

No, I didn't go to the polls.

You didn't like Putin?

That's not the point. My father, Alexander Gelman, hasn't been writing his famous plays lately, but rather poems. One of his remarkable poems revolves around the theme of laziness and how it shielded him from numerous short-sighted endeavors. During the waning years of the Soviet era, he was highly sought after and constantly called upon. However, many years later, he expresses gratitude to his own laziness for sparing him from actions that would have caused him shame. I found this poem, which serves as an apology for laziness, quite captivating. As a result, I have embraced laziness whenever and wherever possible.

Were you too lazy to go to the polls?

Yes. There was even a study that if it rains on election day, democrats always lose. That's because a lot of their supporters don't go to the polls, while communists go regardless of the weather.

You mentioned a directorate responsible for Internet analytics. Did you like working for Channel One?

Those were the years between 2002 and 2004. I decided to resign in 2004 because it became evident that instead of conducting analytical work, I was receiving specific directives. Admittedly, I did attempt to resist this shift for a certain period, but it was a time of ongoing changes that had not yet reached their ultimate form. Therefore, it is incorrect to assume that everything had already become clear at that point.

The channel was taken away from Boris Berezovsky for a reason. It was taken away in order to change its editorial policy. And you came to Channel One after it had been taken away from him.

During that time, Putin himself appeared different. It is crucial to include a significant disclaimer regarding my current perspective on these matters. Today, there are people who, like me, hold a correct understanding of the situation, but each of them arrived at this viewpoint at different times. Those people who met with me in 1999 from St. Petersburg already possessed such awareness. Then came Boris Abramovich, and then Nemtsov. In general, there is no one who possessed complete knowledge from the very beginning and saw everything as it unfolded. Some grasped the reality earlier, while others did so later. My colleagues from the Anti-War Committee often criticize me for maintaining a calm demeanor during conversations with people holding differing views. In response, I emphasize that the time will come when all 140 million or at least a majority of them will share the same perspective regarding Putin. It is important to treat them as we once treated ourselves.

Following my departure from the TV channel, I went through a phase of conformity from 2004 to 2012. During that period, I had already recognized the negative aspects of the situation. However, I believed it was necessary to fulfill my duties. As the museum director and a member of the Public Chamber, I consistently maintained my position within the system and advocated for my own perspective.

2004: “The Period of Conformity”

Were you part of the system publicly?

In 2005, I curated an exhibition titled “Russia-2,” which faced opposition from the State Duma, who sought to ban it. Concurrently, Sorokin's opera “Rosenthal's Children” was being staged at the Bolshoi Theater <293 Duma deputies voted for the Duma Committee on Culture to “investigate the production of the opera Rosenthal's Children at the New Stage of the Bolshoi Theater” - The Insider>. I did express myself, but the artistic expressions seemed to be regarded as non-threatening by the authorities at that time.

Luckily, the Pussy Riot caught my attention. Feeling a sense of duty, I stepped forward to support the artists, and that's when the conflict began. Upon defending Pussy Riot, I encountered criticism from those who labeled it as a “political” move, questioning: “Why haven't you defended numerous people who were unjustly facing trials before?” In response, I explained that it was an act of solidarity within the art community, as notable figures like Paul McCartney and Madonna also rallied in support of Pussy Riot. It was then, in 2012, when Putin commenced his third term as President.

Marat Gelman at the press screening of the Russia-2 exhibition, 2005
Marat Gelman at the press screening of the Russia-2 exhibition, 2005
Alexei Kudenko/Kommersant

During my involvement in our project in Perm <from 2009 to 2013, Marat Gelman was the director of the PERMM Museum of Contemporary Art – The Insider>, I was deeply engaged and filled with great enthusiasm. There was never a specific moment that prompted me to leave. Undoubtedly, the war was a significant turning point, but there were numerous other moments before that as well. For some, it was the murder of Nemtsov, while for others, it was the arrest of Khodorkovsky. These events served as the final straw for many individuals. Our current objective is to ensure that such people become the majority.

Do you think you have contributed to strengthening Putin as a politician?

I do not overstate my own contribution, I do not seek credit for what I haven't done. There is a lengthy list of people involved, and I did not make any direct decisions. My level of involvement in 1996 was much more significant. I actively participated in the anti-communist campaign and held a leadership role within it. Then there was Medvedchuk, whom the party chose, but I maintained close contact with him and provided assistance. That was the moment where, as you mentioned, the main focus was on financial gain.

But the general sense of your words is that you didn't do anything wrong, it's just that the circumstances were different at that time. Or am I imagining it?

This point is of utmost significance, so it should not be misconstrued. I am simply providing an insider's perspective from that particular time, but it does not necessarily reflect my current assessment. Similar to how a frog is slowly cooked, spoilage does not manifest immediately either. The crucial element here is irresponsibility. Actions are taken without considering their far-reaching consequences. The focus lies on achieving immediate results rather than considering the implications for the future. It's a game being played. The war has shifted the perspective, not only mine but also that of others. What may have appeared harmless before now appears as astounding irresponsibility.

In a future Russia, I would willingly exclude myself. I am prepared to offer assistance through advice and comments. When confronted with statements like, “You will return and take the lead,” my response is that if I were part of the new Russian people, I would express that we do not require any Gelmans… and the baggage they carry.

Perspectives and opinions may evolve over time, but one's biography remains unchanged. Indeed, you may now view Putin in a different light and strive to offset past actions with future positive contributions. However, your biography cannot be altered. If there are certain aspects in your biography, they will persist, even if you have become the foremost advocate against them.

Consequently, it is preferable that not only Gelman but also others from the past refrain from assuming positions of power in the future. It would be better to exclude all those who were involved in the past and prevent them from holding authority in the future.

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