How not to write history

Timothy Snyder is at it again. In a long article published this week in The New York Review of Books, Snyder expands on the thesis he propagated in a much shorter piece for the New York Times a while ago, namely that the way to understand the policies of the Russian state is through the works of the philosopher Ivan Ilyin, and that this is super scary because Ilyin was a fascist. Some of Snyder’s ideas are decidedly odd (e.g. that Ilyin’s influence explains the war in Ukraine!), but I don’t want to get into a huge argument with him on the details of his essay, because I’m sure that interpretations of what exactly Ilyin did or didn’t write, or did or didn’t mean, aren’t of vast interest to the general public. Suffice it to say that Snyder and I seem to be reading a completely different Ilyin, and my previous complaints on this subject (made here and here) still stand.

Instead, what I want to address is a broader issue – how should one write history? And to answer this question, I’ll use the example of Russian conservatism, both because Ilyin was a Russian conservative and because I’ve just finished writing a book on the subject.

It seems to me that when writing about a subject like Russian conservatism (as with just about anything), there are two approaches one can take. The first seeks the approval of a large audience, for which it requires a simple overarching and almost certainly exaggerated thesis. For this reason, it seeks to avoid contradictions and paradoxes, and tries to fit the past into the straightjacket of some pre-conceived narrative or ideological precept. It sees the past not as something to be studied in its own right for its own sake but as a tool for contemporary political, economic, or social struggles, and therefore imposes interpretations designed to further a specific contemporary agenda. The second approach, which as a professional historian I consider the correct way, isn’t particularly interested in attracting a mass audience. Instead, it seeks accuracy, balance, nuance; it accepts that things are complicated and that there’s no simple narrative one can transplant onto the past; it seeks truth and tries to understand the past on its own terms; while it can never achieve absolute objectivity, it tries to avoid using the past as a tool for the present.

One might consider these approaches, broadly speaking, as being ‘popular history’ and ‘academic history’. These are, of course, extremely simplified models, but as long as one takes them as types rather than as rigid descriptions of reality, they serve a useful analytical purpose. So, let us see how they might work in a given case – the history of Russian conservatism.

Imagine that you want to write a book on Russian conservatism which is going to attract attention, hopefully sell rather more copies than the average history of political philosophy, and if you’re lucky perhaps make your name by getting you space in popular, but highbrow, journals such as The New York Review of Books. How would you go about it?

First, develop a clear overall thesis which fits with the current zeitgeist. In the case of Russian conservatism, that’s easy. Tell everybody how scary it is and shape your whole book accordingly. And let’s be frank, a subject like Russian conservatism gives you lots of good material. In the first place, you have a cast of characters who can easily be manipulated to look decidedly odd. So cherry-pick the eccentricities and play them up. It will enable you to make the book entertaining as well as informative, with readers agasp at these crazy people you describe. The likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Konstantin Leontyev will give you plenty to play with. Next, focus on their more extreme and reactionary ideas – throw in some anti-Semitic comments, for instance. Play up all the really kooky stuff – there’s lots there (Lev Gumilev’s weird beliefs about cosmic rays as the source of passionarnost’, for instance). And skip over everything which complicates the simple story you are spinning. Make Russian conservatives out to be foaming in the mouth nationalists and haters of the West. Ignore all their statements about their admiration of the West. Make them out to be authoritarian and anti-liberal. Ignore all they say about the limits of authority and their repeated stress of the dignity of the person and the need for freedom. Talk about Russian messianism and imperialism. Ignore the isolationist strand in Russian conservatism entirely. You’ll be able to find lots of juicy quotes to justify your thesis. Then link it all to modern Russia and Vladimir Putin; argue that the latter has inherited all the worst attributes of Russia’s conservative heritage. And bam! You’ve got a best seller. People will love it. It will be lively, contentious, hard hitting, and allow readers to feel that they’ve found the key to understanding Russia.

It will also be total rubbish. The past isn’t that simple. This approach cherry picks the past to suit a personal and political purpose. The second approach is different. Imagine that you want to write a history of Russian conservatism which is as accurate as possible. What do you do? You look at all sides of conservative thought. You study its nuances and complexities, its contradictions and paradoxes. And in the process, you discover that there isn’t a simple narrative which encompasses it all. If there are two things in Timothy Snyder’s article with which I agree they are when he says that in Ilyin’s work, “it is easy to find tensions and contradictions,” and that, “Ilyin’s vast body of work admits multiple interpretations.” That’s true of Russian conservatism as a whole. So, a thorough study of the subject would require one to examine all the tensions and contradictions, all the multiple interpretations. That’s going to make the result somewhat complex, and perhaps rather hard to follow. It’s also going to require the historian to ditch most of the salacious material which makes the first kind of history so fun to read. The result is going to be something which is perhaps rather dry. Many might even find it boring. Academics might pick it up, but it’s unlikely to inspire a mass audience and certainly won’t get you published in The New York Review of Books.

I’m not at all averse to political polemics. Nor am I averse to writing in an entertaining way. I’ve done my fair bit of both. But there’s a difference between writing an article for the Spectator, which must be both polemical and entertaining, and writing a piece of serious academic research, which must be accurate and sober. Approach one is fine for an op-ed; it’s not for a work of scholarship. And this is why I object to Snyder. He admits that Ilyin’s work is full of tensions and contradictions and subject to multiple interpretations, but he then just ignores all of those, and instead takes a single interpretation and runs with it. Moreover, it’s a very extreme interpretation. To make it work, he picks only those bits of evidence which suit his purpose and fills out his analysis with salacious allegations (Ilyin was a fan of psychoanalysis, had peculiar ideas about sexual perversion, was rabidly anti-Semitic, etc.) Balance and complexity are entirely absent. He has a thesis, and he’s going to fit everything into it regardless. Moreover, this thesis has an overtly political purpose. Snyder isn’t writing in order to understand the past; he’s writing about the past in order to shape people’s understanding of the present (specifically, to accentuate readers’ fears and dislike of Russia). To do that he has to distort the past to make it fit his purpose. This is an abuse of history. Or more accurately, it isn’t history; it’s propaganda.


Three doses of drivel

[Trigger warning: Clicking on the links below and reading the articles revealed thereby is likely to induce severe nausea. Readers are advised to have a dose of Gravol nearby to suppress any unwanted symptoms.]


Maclean’s is Canada’s equivalent of Time or Newsweek, that’s to say it’s a glossy magazine with lots of photographs mingled together with analysis of domestic and international events. In recent times, it’s been a reliable source of foaming-in-the mouth Russophobic commentary, but this week’s it’s outdone even itself by printing no fewer than three articles involving Russia, each one every bit as bad as the other.

The first comes from columnist Terry Glavin, who’s one of those strange left-wing human rights activists who give the impression that they truly believe that the world can be divided up into simple categories of good and evil and that the problem is that the good people aren’t doing enough to physically exterminate the evil ones by every means possible. The fact that the actual consequences of toppling dictators wherever you think you find them often end up being tragic doesn’t seem to register in their thought processes. Glavin’s latest piece in Maclean’s is a case in point. Its content is pretty clear from its headline: ‘Putin is the new Stalin. Here’s why his poisonous gangland oligarchy will prevail,’ Coming across a title like that generally induces something approaching a state of nausea. You know that it’s going to be really hard to read what follows, and your natural tendency is to turn away and have nothing more to do with it. It takes a strong stomach to digest stuff like this, but sadly it’s my job, so I do. It’s not pleasant.

The article is essentially one Putin cliché after another. Glavin tells us that the reason that Putin will win Sunday’s presidential election is that his ‘primary challenger was conveniently disqualified from running for office’; that ‘Journalists are frequently found among Putin’s domestic critics who end up dead’; and that, ‘Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008.’ The facts that the ‘challenger’ in question (Alexei Navalny) has yet to register above 2 percent in any opinion poll; that there’s little to no evidence linking Putin to murders of journalists and that the rate of such murders is far below what it was under Boris Yeltsin; and that Dmitri Medvedev was President of Russia at the time of the Georgian war and that in any case Georgia started it, are ignored. Glavin says also that in Syria ‘6,600 civilians have been killed by Russian bombers.’ I can’t say whether that is true or not; maybe it is. Urban warfare is bloody. But I wonder how many civilians have been killed in Syria and Iraq by NATO countries (particular the USA, UK, and Turkey). Why does Glavin pick out Russia as particularly guilty in this regard? He doesn’t say, but rounds off his article with the following gem:

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the new Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.

Stalin, as I’m sure you all know, led a revolutionary movement which completely transformed Soviet society, including massive industrialization and forced collectivization. The latter so disrupted agriculture as to cause a famine in which perhaps 6 million people died. Meanwhile, Stalin oversaw the Great Terror in which some 700,000 people were executed. And somehow Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the same. What utter drivel! Why on earth is this stuff published?

More clichés come in the second article, written by Scott Gilmore and entitled ‘Russia is a mess but it’s still playing the West.’ Gilmore tells us that, ‘Russia is a mess … It has one of the worst incidences of alcoholism in the world and one of the highest suicide rates. … the fertility rate has crashed. … The population size peaked in the early 1990s and has been declining ever since.’ What Gilmore fails to mention is that the rates of alcoholism and suicide have declined dramatically in Russia in the past 20 years. The fertility rate did indeed ‘crash’ in the 1990s, but it has since somewhat recovered, and currently stands at about 1.75 children per couple. That’s not sufficient to maintain the current population, and Russia faces some definite demographic issues, but its fertility rate is actually considerably higher than that of most other European countries (the European average is about 1.6). Moreover, because of immigration and rising life expectancy (currently the highest ever in Russian history) the Russian population has actually increased slightly in recent years. Gilmore’s claims are simply untrue.

Oddly, Gilmore thinks that although Russia is in terminal decline, it is beating the West hands down in the international arena. He writes:

The Russian state is falling apart. Putin, in an effort to regain some control over his country’s failing fortunes, is attempting to destabilize the West. And he is beginning to succeed, by ignoring the new rules of internationalism. … We need to step up our game. … We need a more determined and aggressive strategy.

Again, what utter drivel! The Russian state is not ‘falling apart’, not in the slightest. Moreover, the idea that Putin is trying to ‘destabilize the West’ is a fiction (Russians, including Putin, generally stress stability and believe that it’s the West which is doing the destabilizing). So too is the concept that Putin is doing so in order to prop up his failing country (which isn’t, after all, ‘failing’ in quite the way imagined). As for the ‘new rules of internationalism’, I admit that I don’t know what Gimore is talking about. What I do understand is the call for a more ‘aggressive strategy’. It sends a chill through my bones. Have we not been aggressive enough already?

The drivel continues in the third Maclean’s article, this one written by Stephen Maher and entitled ‘Donald Trump failed a simple test on his Russian ties.’ Maher begins by saying:

Donald Trump’s sudden Twitter firing of Rex Tillerson on Tuesday is the moment that it became impossible to maintain the fiction that Trump is not in some way in league with Vladimir Putin … if there was any real doubt about the relationship, Tillerson’s firing removed it.

Why is this? According to Maher, it’s because ‘Tillerson … was fired the day after he denounced Russia for the attempted assassination of a former double agent in Britain.’

One wonders where Maclean’s finds such authors capable of writing such extraordinary nonsense. I realize memories are short, so I remind readers that just a few months ago Tillerson’s appointment as Secretary of State was being touted as proof that Trump was in the pay of Putin – Tillerson, after all, had business connections with Russia and had even been granted a medal by Putin. But now the fact that he’s been fired is proof that Trump is a Russian agent. It’s Putin Derangement Syndrome taken to a whole new level of insanity.

Maher is clearly not up to date with the latest developments in studies of Russian military strategy, for he entertains his readers with an explanation of the ‘Gerasimov Doctrine.’ Had he been on the ball, he would have known that Mark Galeotti, the inventor of the term ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’, has recently admitted that there is in fact no such thing. But, as in all the other articles, mere facts are not important. We are fighting Russian ‘disinformation’ after all.

Like Gilmore, Maher thinks that the West is losing its struggle against Russia. ‘The EU, NATO, and the United States have all been dramatically weakened,’ he says. Really? I can’t say that I see it. Where’s the evidence for this fantastic claim? If there’s a sunny side for NATO, continues Maher, it’s Canada. As he explains, ‘In Canada, likely because of the political clout of our Ukrainian diaspora, there has been no opening for the Russians.’ Thank goodness for the members of the Ukrainian diaspora, bravely fighting to protect the world from the terror of Putin, just as their grandfathers bravely fought to protect the world from the evils of Putin’s hero, Joseph Stalin, 70 years ago.

Slava Ukraini!!

Young Russians for Putin

Remember all the articles a few months back, following one of Aleksei Navalny’s rallies, about how young Russians were turning against Vladimir Putin? At the time I pointed out how wrong this is – numerous surveys have shown that Russian youth are the most pro-Putin element of the Russian population, as well as the most patriotic and the most optimistic about their country’s future. It seems that the English-speaking media have finally woken up to this reality. This week, we have not just one , not just two , and not just three, but four articles pointing this out.  Let’s take a look.

First, the Washington Post’s Anton Troianovski notes that, ‘81 percent of adults approve of Putin as president – including 86 percent of Russians 18 to 24 years old. Among the age group, 67 percent told Levada they believed the country was going in the right direction, compared to 56 percent of the general public.’ Troianovski speaks to three young Russians in the city of Kurgan near the border with Kazakhstan. The prevailing mood is that their lives are better than those of their parents. They profess awareness of restrictions on their freedoms, but at the same time consider themselves freer than any previous generation. As one says, ‘There are jobs. You can do whatever you want. You can travel wherever you want. The borders are all open before you – and this truly makes me happy.’ They credit Putin for the improvements in the quality of life and fear that any attempt to overturn the existing system would result in a return to the chaos of the 1990s.

Similar themes come up in the second article, in which Wall Street Journal writers James Marson and Thomas Grove interview young Russians in the towns of Chelyabinsk and Tyumen. The tone is set by the introductory paragraph which says,

Nikita Ivlev doesn’t really follow politics. But the high-school student says he is sure that only President Vladimir Putin can manage a country as big as Russia. Anastasia Kuklina, who is studying law, values the “peace and stability” of Mr. Putin’s rule and is thrilled with new shopping malls in her hometown. Darya Yershova says Russian life is better and freer than in the past. “When we talk with our parents, they are sometimes shocked by the numerous opportunities we have today,” she says.

Marson and Grove note that, ‘Many say their lives are better than their parents.’ Material conditions have improved:

Chelyabinsk’s supermarkets and shopping malls are packed. … The young generation has broader horizons: They can travel abroad on cheap package tours to Turkey or Egypt and around one-third speak a foreign language. … A coffee-lover who wears a Vincent van Gogh pin, Ms. Yershova says her generation has much more freedom to develop and express itself than her forebears, who had more run-of-the-mill concerns amid the hardship of the 1990s.

In the third article, the Associated Press takes a slightly different line, with the headline ‘Breaking mold, some Russian youth speak out against Putin’. Author Francesca Ebel quotes a Moscow student as saying that, ‘I don’t think I have a single friend who thinks that Putin is good.’ But as Ebel then admits, ‘polls show Moscow’s metropolitan, middle-class youth are far from representative of Russia as a whole.’ Like the other authors she cites polling data showing Putin’s high level of support among youth, and adds, ‘Many young Putin supporters feel they have more opportunities in Putin’s Russia compared with their parents. “Our generation is really lucky because we can do absolutely everything that we want,” said Anna Lichaeva, 19.’

Finally, the Economist publishes a series of interviews with young Russians which provide a revealing insight into the way they think.

The first interviewee is aspiring actress Valeria Zinchenko from Moscow, who thinks that life is easier in the West, but declares that, ‘I wouldn’t want to move away from here. I’m used to the mentality. I’m proud because we have a glorious history—we have so many great people, great writers, politicians and artists. If you look at world history, we’ve had so many victories. We’re a great power.’ She notes also: ‘I wouldn’t want to see two men kissing on the street. I think it’s a violation of physics or nature. I understand that such people exist, but it’s not natural.’

Next in the Economist article is army conscript Vyacheslav Volkov, who declares his desire to become a priest once his army service ends. Volkov says:

We have a lot of people in the country these days who criticise instead of doing something. They like to shout loudly about how bad everything is here. I don’t agree. I like living here. I have everything I need. Some people say that we live poorly. I say: guys, every second person, even in villages, has an iPhone. Every other family has three cars. And you say that our lives suck?

I’m going to vote this year. I’ll lose my electoral virginity. I believe that Vladimir Putin is a great leader. Knowing the history of this country, he really pulled us out of the shitter.

‘From a biblical point of view, a wife exists for her husband,’ claims Volkov, ‘The husband is the one the whole family hangs on, and the wife is there to help him.’

Third in the Economist is Abubakr Azaev, a Muslim from Dagestan. Azaev comments that ‘Religion plays the central role in my life.’ ‘Having multiple wives is permitted in Islam–to some extent it’s Sunnah, so it’s even a desirable thing,’ he continues.

Thereafter, the article provides us with a variety of different perspectives. There’s a trainee veterinarian from Barnaul in Siberia, who’s a Navalny supporter, but rejects revolution; a student chef from Novosibirsk, who has a much positive attitude towards same-sex relationships than previous interviewees and who says he isn’t religious, but is rather at a loss when it comes to Russian history. ‘I’m not sure who Lenin was and what he did,’ he says, ‘And Stalin, was he president? I don’t know, I heard he was a really harsh guy.’ There’s a gay chemistry student from Moscow who dislikes Putin; an economics student from Murmansk who favours greater sexual equality; a girl from Dagestan who wants to leave Russia and live abroad; a student from Khimki who is thinking of voting Communist but declares that, ‘Our generation already has more opportunities than our parents. It’s obvious.’; and a law student from Murmansk who thinks that domestically things are getting worse in Russia but that ‘Putin is a strong leader. As long as he’s in power, there won’t be any attacks on us.’

The Economist article ends with Mikhail, a telecoms student in Novosibirsk, who says ‘I hope to serve in the army as a signals operator, to make a contribution to the Fatherland.’ ‘Putin is a good president,’ says Mikhail, ‘There’s nothing I don’t like about him.’

But not quite as bad as I feared

It could have been worse. The Skripal affair will continue to undermine Russian-Western relations for years to come, accentuating the already deep distrust of Russia in Western states. In terms of the long term effect on attitudes, it’s decidedly bad. In the short term, though, it’s not quite as bad as I feared, as the British government has so far refrained from taking really serious action against the Russian Federation. British Prime Minister Theresa May today announced the UK’s response to the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, and it consists of the following measures:

  • The expulsion of 23 diplomats – who have one week to leave
  • Increased checks on private flights, customs and freight
  • The freezing of Russian state assets where there is evidence they may be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals or residents
  • Ministers and Royal Family to boycott the Fifa World Cup in Russia later this year
  • The suspension of all planned high level bi-lateral contacts between the UK and Russia

Diplomatically, this is tough stuff, but in practical terms it’s more or less meaningless. Russia will simply replace its diplomats with other ones, as will the UK when Russia expels British diplomats in response. Increased checks on freight etc falls far short of new economic sanctions and certainly short of the demands some people were making to force Russian oligarchs to take their money out of Britain. I very much doubt Russia will be too bothered if Prince William doesn’t turn up to the World Cup, and this is a very minor step compared with withdrawing England from the competition. And the suspension of high-level bilateral contacts will be damaging, but something Russia can live with and not feel that it has suffered.

Certainly, the British government has avoided taken drastic action which would adversely affect British interests and prompt a severe Russian reaction – so, no sweeping sanctions, no World Cup boycott, no banning of RT, etc. In short, it all adds up to a slap on the wrist but nothing much more. There’s not much to be happy about, but let’s at least take some consolation in that.

It’s bad

I had been putting off writing anything about the poisoning of former GRU colonel Sergei Skripal in England until such time as more evidence became available, and because, to be quite honest, the whole affair is deeply depressing. The announcement that the substance used to poison Skripal was the nerve agent Novichok points the finger of blame firmly at the Russian state. After all, where else would those responsible have gotten such a substance? It isn’t unreasonable to consider agents of the Russian state to be prime suspects in this case, although clearly a lot more research needs to be done to identify who exactly poisoned Skripal and then trace their movements. Regardless, the United Kingdom will no doubt respond in a fairly forceful manner, while what little remains of Russia’s international reputation has been torn to shreds.

If indeed the attack on Skripal was ordered by somebody in authority in Russia, then it’s indicative of quite stunning stupidity on that person’s behalf, which has done enormous harm to Russian interests. It’s also indicative of gross incompetence, given not only that the attack failed to kill Skripal and was delivered in such a manner as to endanger innocent bystanders, but also that the chosen weapon was one which so clearly points to Russian guilt (and also, not unimportantly, constitutes a serious breach of the Chemical Weapons Convention). If those responsible wanted to be found out and wanted to do maximum harm to their country, they couldn’t have done a better job.

All this will, of course, provide lots of grounds for doubters to claim that the Russians couldn’t possibly be so stupid, and that the affair must therefore be some sort of false flag operation. I doubt it. Given a choice between the cock-up and the conspiracy theory, I nearly always go for the former. Alas, experience shows that people in government sometimes really are that stupid, and I don’t see why Russians should be any exception.

Whatever the truth, this isn’t going to end well. For those of us who have been trying to persuade people to work to improve Russian-Western relations, this is like a kick in the teeth. We can point out all the distortions in reporting about Russia till we’re blue in the face, but in the aftermath of something like this nobody is going to pay the slightest bit of attention. It’s bad.

Putin takes Italy

I’m frankly a little surprised that nobody has yet accused Vladimir Putin of being behind the rise to power of the newly elected head of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, Doug Ford.  Ford is perhaps the closest thing Canada can produce to Donald Trump – i.e. somebody generally dismissed by the media as a populist, blowhard, know-nothing. The fact that such people somehow manage to win elections baffles much of our commentariat (and with Ontario’s governing Liberal Party well behind in the polls, it seems likely that Ford will soon be our new Premier). After the shambolic, drug-filled performance of Doug’s brother Rob as Mayor of Toronto, it defies the normal liberal observer’s sense of reason that anybody would vote for yet another member of the Ford dynasty, let alone that he could become leader of Canada’s largest province. In the same way, it defied reason that Britons could vote for Brexit, Americans for Trump, Germans for the AfD, and the like. It follows that there must be some external force which is to blame.

In the current climate, that means Russia. And so it is that the successful performance of the Five Stars Movement in this week’s Italian general election is being put down to the malign influence of Russia, and being debated more in terms of what it means for the allegedly relentless rise of Russian power than in terms of Italian domestic politics.

Hot off the mark was former American ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who tweeted on Monday that, ‘In the past 2 years, Putin has won elections in the United States, Austria, Czechia & now Italy. He’s also delivered Brexit & performed well in France & Germany.’ And today, the Sunday edition of the New York Times contains an op-ed by regular columnist Frank Bruni entitled ‘Italy has dumped America. For Russia’.  Five Stars’ performance,  writes Bruni,

was characterized as the triumph of populism. But it was a triumph for Putin, too: proof that many Italians have jilted and replaced us — with Russia.

When they cast their votes, Italians were, of course, not thinking of their country’s own internal problems, issues relating to large-scale immigration from North Africa, or anything like that; they were thinking of the United States and Russia, and casting a vote for or against Vladimir Putin. Or so it seems in the strange world of Bruni-land. Mr Bruni quotes the editor of the Italian newspaper La Stampa as telling him, ‘Nobody ever took this poll but I believe that if you were asking all Italians today who is the most popular foreign leader in all of Italy, Putin would win.’ I have often complained in this blog of the lack of evidence being produced for claims about Russia, and here we have it in spades – a poll which nobody has ever taken! Obviously true, then.

Bruni, to be fair, is aware that he’s on weak ground. He admits:

To be clear, neither the Five Star Movement’s nor the League’s appeal to Italian voters hinged on its stance toward Russia. “How many Italians are really positive about Russia?” asked Roberto D’Alimonte, a prominent Italian political scientist. “I haven’t seen any data, and I have my doubts.” What’s more, there’s a strictly practical reason for Italian politicians to take a gentle, friendly tone toward Russia: The sanctions have cut off the Russian market from Italian manufacturers and farmers who could profit mightily from it.

So here we have it – Italians don’t care too much about Russia, and Russia didn’t actually have anything to do with how they voted. How then does this translate into ‘Italians have abandoned America for Russia’? Well, this is the New York Times, so you can probably guess the answer – it’s Trump’s fault. The problem is that, ‘Trump has certainly sent the message that he cares a whole lot less than his predecessors did about what longtime European allies like Italy want.’ As a result, Italians dislike him. Bruni continues:

And when they look toward Trump, what do they see? An American president who praises and sometimes seems intent on emulating the autocrats of the world, starting with Putin. Trump isn’t promoting the values — free markets, open borders, humanitarian aid — that bound the United States and Western Europe. He’s playing Putin’s chest-thumping, nativist game, albeit with less practice, less polish and his shirt on.

Faced with this, Italians are looking for an alternative, Bruni claims. And who is that? Putin, obviously.

This makes no sense. In the first place, Bruni has already admitted that Russia wasn’t on Italian voters’ minds. And in the second place, if what Italians don’t like about Trump is that ‘he’s playing Putin’s chest-thumping, nativist game’, why would they consider Putin to be an ‘alternative’ to Trump? Either Trump is the same as Putin, or he’s different – he can’t be both.

I’m sure that there’s some technical term for intellectual constructs of this sort, in which two unrelated items are placed side by side in order to create a false impression in readers’ minds that the two are connected. If so, I don’t know what the term is, but it’s clearly what’s going on here. Add in a short caveat to make it clear like you’re a reasonable person, and then say ‘Italy, Putin’, ‘Italy, Putin’, ‘Italy, Putin’ enough times, and people will think they’re somehow connected.

In reality, they’re not. Americans, Canadians, Brits, Italians, and others, who vote for unexpected people or causes, do so for their own reasons which have nothing to do with Russia. Meanwhile, once the dust settles and Italy gets a new government, it will still be a member of NATO, still be a member of the EU, and still sanctioning Russia. It will no more be a Russian client, and no less an American ally, than it was a week ago. Has Italy ‘dumped America for Russia’? No. Of course not.

Evidence be damned!

Amy Knight missed a trick. In her book Orders to Kill, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, she recounts the stories of a whole series of people in whose deaths Vladimir Putin was allegedly involved. But she missed one – the former mayor of St Petersburg, and Putin’s one-time mentor, Anatoly Sobchak. It’s a strange error, for if the BBC is to be believed, Putin may have had a hand in Sobchak’s death too. It explains why he’s allowing Sobchak’s daughter, Ksenia, to run for president this March – he feels guilty.

‘What?’ I hear you ask. ‘Sobchak was murdered?’ If you’re old enough to remember such things, you probably thought that his death in 2000 was of natural causes. BBC reporter Gabriel Gatehouse has his doubts about this. He writes:

Some have suggested Putin may have had a hand in his death. Did Sobchak have something on him? [Sobchak’s widow Lyudmila] Narusova dismissed that idea out of hand.

I went back and looked at the footage of the funeral.

Putin really is distraught. His eyes are red, he seems to struggle to swallow as he embraces Lyudmila Narusova. Putin is not an actor. Nor is he prone to public displays of emotion. So it’s reasonable to assume that he is struggling with some genuine grief. Or is it something else. Guilt?

“There were people who were manoeuvring Putin into power,” Narusova told me.

She’s right. Back then, Putin was a vehicle to power for various factions inside the Kremlin. To some extent he still is.

If Sobchak was murdered, was it by one of those factions who feared his mentor’s hold over him? Maybe. And if so, did the old KGB officer realise his old friend died in the furtherance of Project Putin. It’s only a suspicion, but I’m beginning to think so.

Gatehouse doesn’t actually produce any facts linking Putin to Sobchak’s death. In fact, he points out that Putin was truly distraught, and elsewhere in his piece Gatehouse remarks that this is about the only time that Putin has been seen to cry in public. So, why does he think that Putin in some way felt guilty about Sobchak’s death? He doesn’t explain.

As in so many of these cases, what we have here is pure speculation and argument by means of insinuation, devoid of any actual evidence. Gatehouse admits that, ‘It’s only a suspicion’. Why then does the BBC publish it? All sorts of people suspect all sorts of things for no good reason. That doesn’t mean that premier media agencies give them space to print their crazy theories. If this was the Daily Beast, one might excuse that sort of thing. But this is the BBC. It’s meant to uphold certain standards of journalism, and as such not make wild accusations on the basis of absolutely nothing.

At least, one might imagine that that was the case. But what this piece indicates is that when it comes to Russia and Putin all the normal rules seem to go out the window and any sort of unwarranted ‘suspicion’ is permitted to be aired. What on earth is the point of this article? There can be only one – to taint Putin with some sort of responsibility for Sobchak’s death and so blacken his name further. It seems that that is reason enough to publish it. Evidence be damned!

Russia, the West, and the world

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