This (courtesy Brad DeLong) is really interesting. The conclusion:
American radicals cannot afford to become their own worst enemies. In unity lies their only hope.
Tea Partiers take note!
Of course people write all kinds of things when they’re undergraduates that are not reliable guides to what they think when they, you know, grow up. I wrote 100-something pages on Russian religious apocalypticism. As I recall I found it all very vulgar. My thesis advisor could never understand what I meant by that word. Come to think of it, I still find it pretty vulgar, so maybe some undergraduate theses are reliable guides to what you think later on.
Lots of amusement going around over the Waterloo metaphor and whose it turned out to be (Yglesias, Frum, Benen). In the latest twist, the Sunny Idiot is proclaiming that actually health-care reform isn’t Obama’s Waterloo, it’s his Borodino; he won, but with significant casualties, and presumably he will find his victory over health-care to be empty and pointless, like Napoleon’s occupation of the burnt-out Moscow, and soon see his shrunken armies retreating across the landscape, harried by Russian partisans and diphtheria. (Who’s fond of czars now? Eh?)
I’ve had enough of this. It seems to me that in the context of a year-long campaign punctuated by striking victories where the invading forces were in sight of their ultimate goal and confident of gaining a crushing symbolic victory, only to fall just short, be unexpectedly held off, and finally driven back in a disastrous rout, a different battle metaphor may be more apt. I think Godwin’s Law considerations prevent me from getting any deeper into this issue though.
Matthew Yglesias is insufficiently pessimistic about Russia, capitalism and democracy, not to mention the Olympics:
One would like the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Communism to be seen not as something in which America “won” and Russia “lost.” Russian people are, after all, much better off in 2010 than they were in 1980. But people have national pride, and Russians were once the core ethnic group of a mighty power and now simply have a nation-state that, while large, is clearly slipping behind other contenders in a whole variety of ways. The Olympics is a basically harmless venue for nationalistic passions, but these sentiments generally get played out in ways that are very much not harmless.
It’s really not at all clear that the median Russian is much better off in 2010 than he or she (especially he) was in 1980. For one thing, male life expectancy was 62.7 in 1980 and 61.8 in 2008. Though to a large extent this stems from the fact that it’s now much easier and cheaper to purchase alcohol, cigarettes, and heroin, which I guess you could think of as being “better off” in some ways.
More important, it is even less clear that Russian people are better off now than they would have been if the Communist Party were still running a unified Soviet Union with a reformed, semi-privatized market economy. The examples of China and Vietnam suggest that they are not. And the incredible rise of China to Olympic superpowerdom has followed the country’s economic rise to prosperity under an authoritarian single-party political system. Which serves as evidence for a lot of Russians that trying to move towards a Euro-American model of governance by driving the CPSU from power in 1991 might have been a mistake.
Filed under: Russia
It’s hard to imagine a more terrible encapsulation of what’s happened to Russia over the past 18 years than the sad news today of Yegor Gaidar’s death. Gaidar was among the architects of the shock-therapy transition to a free-market economy that brought capitalism to Russia at the price of immense hardship for average people. He was an honest man who genuinely believed the structural reforms he was engaged in would bring a better, freer, more prosperous Russia. Today, Russia has a more or less normal-ish micro economy and responsible macrofinance institutions, and lots of rich people and entrepreneurs. On the other hand, the large corporate world is distorted by corruption and government intervention, crime is rampant, the state is bloated and dysfunctional, and Russian men now have a life expectancy of 59 due largely to alcoholism and stress-related cardiac illnesses. Gaidar, like so many men in the Russia he helped create, died of a blood clot in his heart. He was 53.
Whilst recently leafing through the back issues of the now sadly defunct the eXile, I stumbled across this opinion piece by Eduard Limonov, leader of the banned Russian National Bolshevik party and all-round odd-ball, and was particularly struck by this passage:
What should I say? They have forgotten what mighty force are the people. They think they can manipulate our political system and our lives. A small group of comrades from St. Petersburg, untalented and unconvincing small men, following the luck of one of their own. They think they are our masters. But they have been picked up by the most hated figure in Russian history, by Boris Yeltsin. It was no miracle whatsoever. They were just picked up, not arriving at the top of Russian society by the force of mind and talent, no.
Is this true? To what degree does Russia’s current generation of leaders owe their positions to Boris Yeltsin, “the most hated figure in Russian history”? Has the Putin era been a continuation of the Yeltsin era but with higher-priced oil? Is the narrative offered by writers like Michael McFaul of a “democratic rollback” under Putin as compared to Yeltsin simply wrong?
Boris Yeltsin came to power in the wake of the failed August coup of 1991. Whilst Russia’s economic performance during the nineties was lamentable, the degree to which Yeltsin could have done anything to prevent this considering the inevitable turmoil of the post-Soviet space is debatable, although the general consensus is that what was done in the way of economic policy was an utter failure. What we may be much more sure of is Yeltsin’s record as a democrat, and what we see is that it was dubious in the extreme. From the secret dealings involved in the break-up of the Soviet Union, to the assumption of unconstitutional powers to push through economic reform, to the use of military force to destroy both his opponents in the Russian White House and in Chechnya, to his alleged rigging of the 1996 election, to his final act of anointing his successor, there was little sign of any deep commitment to democracy. For each of Putin’s acts of autocracy there appears to have been an equivalent, if less effective or decisive act by Yeltsin. The main difference between Yeltsin and Putin seems to have been the relative efficiency and effectiveness of the latter, who also benefited from ruling over a country where expectations had become very low indeed. Far from ‘rollback’ of democracy, what we have seen is entrenchment of autocracy.
A lot of people are giggling that the new GazProm-Nigerian joint venture company has selected the name “NiGaz”. This seems to me to say more about American hangups than about anything else. The word for “black person” in Russian is негр (“nyegr”), from the French nègre; it uses the letter combination n-e-g rather than n-i-g. As for Nigerians, obviously, if n-i-g tripped any insulting connotations for them, they would have selected a different name for their country. “Nigeria” comes from the name of the River Niger, whose etymology is unclear but likely stems from the Tuareg phrase gher n gheren, “river of rivers”, shortened to ngher. It almost certainly has no relation to the Latin root “niger”. The fact that southern American whites took the French word nègre, pronounced it with their own accent, then transcribed that as nigger, that this word acquired the derogatory connotations one might expect in racist American society, that American blacks then reappropriated the word and creatively misspelled it as part of a pop-music subculture — this is something neither Nigerians nor Russians should really be expected to keep track of.
More generally, it’s really not possible to keep track of which words in your language might be offensive in other people’s languages. In modern English, we identify people as “Jews”, from the root j-u-d (from the Hebrew yehuda, Judah or Judea); if someone called me “a Hebrew” I’d think they were either archaic or aristocratically anti-semitic or joking, and indeed “hebe” is an out-of-date anti-semitic slur that’s now been reappropriated as the American Jewish version of “nigga”. In Russian, the opposite is true: the neutral word is еврей (yevrei), from “Hebrew”, while the word жид (zhid), from the j-u-d yehuda/Judea root, is an anti-semitic slur.
Leon Aron has a great article in Foreign Policy on rising Russian discontent with the Putin model of governance.
Looking around Russia now, Putin’s new critics see only the ruins of unfulfilled promises and wasted wealth. Like Nemtsov and Milov, they rue the missed opportunity for a modern and transparent state and for a diversified, entrepreneur-driven economy, the foundation for which could have been laid under the more favorable market conditions of the early 2000s. “In all the years of the fantastic, unearned money, which gushed from the oil pipe as if from a broken bathroom spigot, we did not move a finger to diversify our economy,” Nikolai Svanidze, professor of the Moscow University for the Humanities and a member of the Public Chamber, the Kremlin’s top advisory body, wrote in March in the key opposition Web journal, Ezhednevnyi zhurnal. Simply put, Svanidze added, Russia has not learned how to make anything that would enjoy demand in the global market: “As in the 10th century, we still cannot offer the world anything that is not gifted to us by Mother Nature: no electronics, no clothes, no food, or cars, or medications, not even children’s toys.” Instead of emerging as a world economic power, Svanidze concluded, Russia appears to be headed in the direction of becoming “a cheap Chinese gas station.”
This anxiety and sense of failure does seem widespread among the Russian intelligentsia. If you look up “stability of autocracy” on Google Scholar, for instance, you’ll find a lot of great papers by Russian political scientists, like this one on how the resource curse enables dictators to remain in power by using corruption to buy off potential opposition. But, Aron says, the collapse of oil revenues and the economic crisis it provoked in Russia last year showed that a system of total corruption and impunity mitigated by buy-offs of potential opposition is unsustainable. There are two options for the regime: “abandon the current, softer authoritarianism, which generally favors bribery and intimidation over jailing and killing, and replace it with a full-bore, hard dictatorship; or radically expand its political base by opening a dialogue with the opposition, liberalizing politics, and reducing the state’s control of the economy.”
Here’s the thing: from the outside, it appears extremely unlikely that the latter option could happen. As Aron notes, “The allure of a reactionary stabilization is strengthened by the fact that many key components of such a regime have been introduced in the past eight years and are by now well-entrenched.” In contrast, it’s hard to imagine what significant, powerful, wealthy players would fight for a re-liberalization of Russia’s political and economic systems.
The Soviet system collapsed in 1991 in large measure because the Communist economy meant that economic failures redounded upon the political leadership and the political system. That was the extreme weakness of the pure Communist economy, and it generated the support for liberalization (perhaps never a popular majority support, even then) that drove the halting, often botched reforms of the Yeltsin era. The Russian economy today is once again effectively controlled by people who are inside the state structure, but it’s officially capitalist and not doctrinally invested in a theory of total state economic control. That makes it hard to identify economic failure with political failure in the tight way it was under Communism. The message that drove the liberalization of the ’90s was simple and clear: end state ownership of the means of production. Sell the SOE’s off; create a private business class. It was, as it turned out, a flawed formula, but it was a clear one that led to clear political action. The message today, a message of ending corruption, instituting the rule of law, creating transparency, etc., is much harder to encapsulate and has a much vaguer constituency. It’s hard to see how it can win a struggle against entrenched powers whose interest in continuing corruption and Kremlin centralization is clear and strong.
The fact that Pravda and RIA-Novosti these days are not as tightly censored as they once were makes them paradoxically less valuable, in some cases, as sources of information: you still can’t entirely trust their information, but you can’t take what they print as revealing the underlying stances of the Russian government either. Still, it’s interesting to watch the Russian press’s Iran reporting to try and glean some information on Russian attitudes. Here’s how RIA-Novosti reported the news today that Ahmadinejad is traveling to Yekaterinburg for the Shanghai Cooperation summit:
Russia is completing the construction of Iran’s first nuclear power plant and has supplied nuclear fuel for it. The international community suspects Iran of seeking to build a nuclear bomb under the guise of the civilian program, something that Tehran denies.
Tehran and other Iranian cities were swept by mass protests at the weekend over alleged vote fraud in the landslide reelection of the hardline president.
Thousands of supporters for Ahmadinejad’s reformist challenger Mir Hossein Mousavi gathered on the streets of Tehran on Saturday. The demonstrations turned violent later, with rioters burning police motorcycles and smashing shop windows.
Mousavi has challenged the results and his accusations of vote rigging will be examined by the Guardian Council, a top clerical body with wide responsibility for electoral issues.
That’s pretty straight-up. No slant on which side is correct in the election dispute, and a pretty concerned treatment of the Iranian nuclear program. If Ahmadinejad is counting on turning to the world’s coalition of autocracies for support — China, Russia, etc. — he’s probably in trouble. One thing about autocratic regimes: they’ll wink at the abuses of their autocratic-regime friends as long as those regimes are firmly in power. But once you start to slip, they’ll pretend they never knew you.
Add.: On second read, the Russian story entirely blames the violence on the demonstrators, not the police or Basij militia. So in that sense it’s pretty slanted pro-Ahmadinejad. But that may just indicate a general authoritarian reluctance ever to accuse police of violence against citizens, rather than a specific preference in the Iran conflict.
With at least a few of the Uighur detainees finally enjoying their well-earned freedom in the very civilized country of Bermuda, reflecting on Guantanamo is feeling at least slightly less morbid than it did for a long time. But during my visit to Finland I got back into Russian literature a little — basically, I dropped by a bookstore and picked up a couple of recent Russian novels for the first time in years — and that has prompted me to reflect once again that the relevant literary referent for the US’s merry adventures in torture and gulags comes from the land of the ice and snow. We’ve already covered Dostoevsky. Today let’s talk Victor Pelevin.
In Helsinki, I picked up Pelevin’s latest, entitled “П5: Прощальные песни политических пигмеев пиндостана,” or “P5: Farewell songs of the political pygmies of Pindostan”. (The words for “farewell” and “song” begin with the letter P in Russian, so it’s five P-words in a row, hence the “P5″. The word for “five” also begins with P, extending the alliteration.) The book’s cover is fantastic — on the front, two kitschy fat-faced Chinese manga fairies in Disneyfied Central Asian outfits are embossed in red plastic and gold glitter; on the back is an image of a dead Teletubby with a bullet hole in his forehead, surrounded by a Hallmark wreath (again embossed with gold glitter) and the English legend “Forever Young”. The back cover boasts a banner line (in Russian) “The truth of life in every word!†”, while the cross — a cross, one notes, not an asterisk, with reference to the oleaginous ubiquity of Orthodox Christianity in contemporary Russia — sends us to a footnote at the bottom of the back cover: “This guarantee extends to each word, but does not apply to combinations of words in quantities of two or more, irrespective of parts of speech, components of sentences…” etc.
So far I’m still on Chapter 1, “The Hall of the Singing Karyatids,” which concerns a girl named Lena who is recruited with 11 others to stand for days at a time completely naked, stock-still, and covered with a green paste that makes them appear to be made of malachite, posing as a “karyatid” (the Greek female figures who hold up roofs in the neo-classical eclectic architecture that proliferated in Russia in the late 1800s) in a bunker 300 meters beneath Moscow, waiting for participants in orgies to ask them to sing or otherwise put them to use. Lena and the other girls are aided in this endeavor by doses of a muscle-freezing formula created by Soviet scientists in the 1980s to help snipers remain absolutely still. They are initially recruited by a fat cigar-smoking sleazeball named “Uncle Petya”, who then presents them for an inspirational speech by the real boss, a smooth and clean-cut athletic man in a dark grey suit, a “grey cardinal” (apparently in the KGB or FSB), who explains to them that their mission involves the national defense, and that “despite the superficial…ambiguity, shall we say, of your work, it is every bit as important as that of the sailors of the submarines that carry our country’s nuclear shield. Perhaps even more important — because war today is not what it was half a century ago, and is carried out with completely different means.”
I probably should have written the above paragraph the other way around, because what’s spectacular in Pelevin’s work here, as in his early novel “Omon-Ra”, is the bitter and hilarious contrast between patriotic ideological rhetoric and high technological jargon, and the humiliating and disgusting everyday reality of the human service activities undertaken in the service of these high goals and supposedly sophisticated machinery. In “Omon-Ra”, the hero is recruited into the Soviet unmanned space program only to find that it is not in fact unmanned, and that human volunteers are required to carry out the functions supposedly performed by robots before dying in the vacuum of space. In P5, the reader is equally gob-smacked and horrified both by the atavistic language of patriotic militarism employed by the “grey cardinal” and by the alternating tedium and exuberant sexual degradation of Lena’s actual work. Lena herself, seemingly, couldn’t care less about either one; she is utterly devoid of illusions about the nature of society and is happy to accept any legitimation for work that will earn her good money. The power of the writing comes from the contrast of the “grey cardinal’s” language — “it is a tremendous responsibility, but also a great honor” — and the comic treatment of Lena’s absurd work regimen, standing naked in an underground room, waiting for perversion.
So: Guantanamo. What was the language that echoed in those soldiers’ and interrogators’ heads, when they enlisted? What did they think they would be doing? Defending the nation from nihilistic murderers? Saving innocents? Fighting for democracy? Did they imagine they’d end up doing this by inserting a spider into a cardboard box in which a naked man was confined? By smearing ketchup on someone and pretending it was menstrual blood? By placing their underwear on his head? How did the rhetoric of justice spin itself down to these acts of petty, tedious, absurd cruelty?
It’s always been the Russians’ peculiar fortune to be able more quickly to perceive the gaps between the ideology we create to justify Western society, and the actual activities that constitute that society. In part that’s because in Russia, Western ideology has never fit well, and has tended to quickly collapse or be spun into a caricature of itself. In Russia, the “Washington consensus” rhetoric of privatization and the free market was warped into the absurdities of the oligarchs, just as the Marxist rhetoric of an earlier generation had been warped into the absurdities of Stalin’s show trials. The width of the gap between ideology and reality in Russia fueled the genius of Dostoevsky and, now, Pelevin. Unfortunately, the Russians seem to be so quick to perceive the absurdities of such ideologies that they are unable to take political principles seriously, and they repeatedly end up with societies in which a thin overlay of cynical ideology masks a politics and economy of pure unprincipled force.
That said, Victor Pelevin is fantastic, and everyone should read him.
Filed under: Russia
Probably the most tense panel discussion of this International Press Institute conference came this afternoon, with former Soviet and Russian ambassador to the UK Anatoly Adamishin, Economist Russia and Eastern Europe correspondent Edward Lucas, and Indian international affairs scholar Brahma Chellaney discussing the question of whether a “new cold war” was in the cards between Russia and the West. It’s a ridiculous question; obviously there’s not going to be a new cold war in any meaningful sense of the term. But the panel opened up much of the same vicious tension between Russia and the Euro-American bloc that one recognizes from Cold War days.
My takeaway is going to be hard to explain. Here’s the deal: at Western-oriented international forums these days, the Russians tend to be isolated on foreign policy questions. They’re attacked over their actions in Georgia. They’re attacked over Putin’s threats to dismember Ukraine if it joins NATO. They’re attacked over the murders of journalists and over the re-sanctification of Stalin in history books. And all of these things are, indeed, bad. But I think we in the West ought, if we want to encourage Russians to join the Western consensus, to find better language for talking about these issues and to respect the degree to which one’s viewpoint on international issues is determined by where you were born. The way we talk to Russians we encounter at international events is almost guaranteed to provoke a defensive, dismissive reaction.
One saw this at the panel discussion, the result of which was to leave one of the more progressive Russian voices around feeling angry and defensive. Adamishin is a very progressive guy who strongly desires a return to more genuine democratic freedoms in Russia, and wants the country to become more Western-oriented. The tensions opened up when the question of NATO expansion was raised. Adamishin said the expansion of NATO to Russia’s neighbors was provocative, and was interfering with Russia’s ability to pursue better relations with the West, to “reset” the relationship. Lucas disagreed: “A lot of people said back in the 90s, whatever we do, don’t bring Baltics into NATO. Well thank goodness we did, because it pushed the zone of security East.” Without NATO, the Baltic countries’ disagreements with Russia would be the source of potential military conflict in Eastern Europe.
That pushed Adamishin into a corner. A young woman from Russia Today, the government-backed English-language TV channel, asked him a supporting question: “Do you think the negative image of Russia and fear of return of Cold War is a kind of a tool of politicians outside? Maybe having Russia as a potential enemy is easier than as a friend?”
Adamishin’s reply was a bit confusing: “I don’t like NATO, to tell the truth, and I will never like NATO. With all good objectives, it is a military alliance where the US plays the main role. If you’re inside Russia, have to think twice when a military alliance comes to your borders…It is a military alliance who made war like in 1999 over Yugoslavia, and makes war like now in Afghanistan. I would be for Russia entering NATO, then let’s speak of a joint effort…We disagree just beause we don’t want to be out. …I may assure you that our neighbors shouldn’t be afraid we will drive them into our courtyard. The imperial project is too big and people in our government are too practical. But we don’t like to see our neighbors in a military alliance where there is no place for Russia.”
This sounded like a strange mix of wallflower resentment and historical mendacity. (What Westerner could be expected to share the implicit assumption that the interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan were wrong?) A Danish questioner then said the reply showed that NATO expansion had been exactly right, because Adamishin didn’t accept the right of Russia’s small neighbors to make their own decisions about which alliances to join. Lucas became vehement about Adamishin’s contention in passing that the Baltic states had not fought for their freedom, that they had been “given” their freedom by Russia; he restated the obvious, that they had been conquered and subjected by the USSR and that they belonged as independent nations.
Adamishin’s replies became increasingly long-winded as he sought to excuse his country’s positions, even though he’s a Putin opponent. I decided to ask Lucas, rather than Adamishin, a question: “Why do the Russians see it as being in their interests to have all these breakaway republics, in Georgia or Moldova or wherever? Regardless of who’s at fault, why is it in Russian interests?” Lukas referred me to a YouTube video from December 2007 of Putin saying some strange things about Estonian independence, essentially saying that Estonia and other small Baltic states were just pocket change that was traded back and forth between Germany and Russia and that while their independence now was a settled issue, it was also a matter of historical chance. By the time Adamishin left he seemed to be fuming.
At dinner, I walked up to the Russia Today woman and asked about how she’d felt at the conference earlier. She didn’t want to talk about it. “To be honest I felt somewhat uncomfortable,” she said. “I try to avoid this kind of question in these settings. Of course I defend my country, I’m sure you would too in the same situation.”
We spoke for a while longer, somewhat uncomfortably; I wound up getting along more easily with her colleague, a South African woman who reports from Israel for them. But they gave me the opportunity to bring the question back to that issue of being the only one in the room coming from one’s country’s perspective, while everyone else is ganging up against you. It’s not a good feeling. And speaking as a Jew with a small amount of insight into the Israeli perspective, I can say something else: even if your country is wrong, encountering criticism of this sort from self-righteous Americans and Europeans doesn’t make you more critical of your own country. It makes you defensive and resistant. I think Russia has been wrong on a number of international issues over the past decade, and that the country’s misguided foreign policies are to a large extent determined by its authoritarian internal policies. But I also think that for the purposes of encounters with Russian intelligentsia and analytical elites who might be persuaded to embrace their European heritage rather than trend the opposite way, we Westerners need to discover a language and an attitude that is less arrogant and less self-righteous, more open and persuasive. It’s not doing anybody any good to make a 27-year-old editor at Russia Today feel like Americans and Europeans look down on her. It’s just cementing her into the same kinds of resentments one can hear in Adamishin’s statement: “We disagree just because we don’t want to be out.”