Elena Kagan's undergraduate thesis by mattsteinglass
May 17, 2010, 6:32 am
Filed under: Law, Liberalism, Russia

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.


Wait, not Waterloo…what was that battle called again? by mattsteinglass
March 22, 2010, 3:50 pm
Filed under: Health care reform, Russia, Uncategorized

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.

[youtubevid id=”zIcYsUpgbHM”]

Russians worse off in Olympic medals, male life expectancy by mattsteinglass
March 2, 2010, 1:39 am
Filed under: China, Health, Russia, Sports

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.

Russia: Shock therapy's architect dies of stress by mattsteinglass
December 16, 2009, 4:15 am
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.

Did ‘democratic’ Boris Yeltsin Pave the Way For Putinism? by foarp
July 13, 2009, 4:03 pm
Filed under: democracy, Russia, Uncategorized


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.

When political correctness meets pop slang meets provincialism by mattsteinglass
June 27, 2009, 1:14 pm
Filed under: Africa, Jews, Russia

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.

Кто виноват?: Russia as cheap Chinese gas station by mattsteinglass
June 24, 2009, 12:31 pm
Filed under: democracy, Russia

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.